by Amber E. Scott
The oar cut into the water and pulled back, leaving swirling eddies of silt in its wake. Rhyn rowed with purpose, sliding the skiff around the boles of giant trees lifting out of the muck. The insects were no worse and no better. Frogs sang creaky songs in the darkness.
Within an hour he'd reached the site of the strange fetish. It still hung, awkward and grim, from the tree branch. Rhyn tied the skiff to a stump and tried to climb to reach the thing. The slick trunk coated with moss and slime afforded no purchase to the hard soles of his boots. He pulled them off and tried again, barefoot, toes slipping through the sludge to catch on the rough bark. His outstretched fingers brushed against the fetish. He grabbed and tore it down.
A convulsive shiver seized him, and he almost lost his grip on the tree. The lattice of twigs felt wet and clammy in his hand, like the acid-softened fingerbones of the hands in the gator's stomach. A cold lump formed in his throat and a sudden rush of blood laughed in his ears. Rhyn shrugged off the creeps and slid back down the tree.
Once back in the boat he examined the fetish more closely. The twigs were only twigs. The bundles of herbs were made of milkweed and lobelia.
The eggs were alligator eggs.
Rhyn knew by the texture and the size. The eggs were empty, blown clean, and the runes on the sides were daubed in blood. He turned each egg carefully, examining the runes. Overall they made no sense, but the occasional rune reminded him strongly of the marks swamp-dwellers used to blaze trails and communicate danger or good fishing spots. These ones looked like marks of haven: a safe, protected area.
Rhyn dumped the fetish in the bottom of the skiff and rowed on.
He covered a widening path as he headed deeper into the swamp, into territory unused by the Crossfen fishermen and largely unexplored. Another fetish hung high in the branches and Rhyn felt a surge of adrenaline at the progress. He nosed the skiff in the new direction and picked up speed.
Two more fetishes marked his way. An hour passed and the trees grew so thick and the water so shallow that he had to abandon the skiff. He left it tied to a tree and progressed on foot. The knife hung from his belt, at the ready. In one hand he carried his sword, in the other, the half-shuttered lantern.
Fog rose from the knee-deep water as Rhyn sloshed ahead, his boots sinking into soft muck. The water was chill against his skin and the air colder still. He noticed a smell, rank and putrid, something beyond the natural stink of the swamp. Rhyn slowed, listening. All he heard was his own breathing and an overwhelming drone of bugs. The frogs had stopped singing.
A breeze rose up, rippling the water and blowing the fog aside. Rhyn let out an involuntary cry.
Wooden poles fanned in a half-circle from the base of a tree, fencing in a portion of swamp like a cove. Decayed bodies lay within, bulging with gas, flesh sloughing off to form a vomitous soup. Insects hung in a visible cloud over the morass. Beneath them, a creature feasted on the dead, stripping away handfuls of skin and sticky fat and cramming them into its mouth.
Rhyn had an impression of slick skin, long arms, and yellow eyes before the thing launched itself at him. He lifted his sword reflexively and crouched back, twisting as the creature leaped past him. It landed with a growl in the water and wrenched itself around. A thick tail lashed the muck and it came at Rhyn with black-clawed hands.
Rhyn's conscious mind was still in shock over the horrific scene and the unknown monstrosity, but years of battles with swamp creatures had gifted him with instinctive defenses. He snapped his arm out in a series of quick slashes as he retreated. The creature lunged again and caught itself on the blade. Rhyn took a step back, absorbing the impact of the blow, and then pressed forward with a downward stroke.
The creature lunged just as Rhyn did and they came together with a sick crash. Claws scrabbled against his chest, digging in past the leather breastplate he wore and tearing into skin. Rhyn's blade chopped down through the thing's shoulder and well into its torso. It let out a hoarse growl. The acrid stink from its flesh surrounded them, making Rhyn's eyes water. He smashed the lantern against the creature's face and kicked it in the gut.
It staggered back and fell into the swamp with a splash. Rhyn stood, staring wide-eyed. His breath came painfully. The creature's body floated for a minute and then began to sink. Quickly, Rhyn stepped forward and hauled the carcass onto a hassock.
The lantern's shutters were dented, but it still shone. In the pale light, Rhyn examined the monster. It was thinner and smaller than it had seemed during the battle. Its bones were brittle; Rhyn had broken its cheekbone with the lantern and his sword had carved right through its clavicle. Pale, slimy skin like a frog's belly covered its body. A curving tail, muscled and rigid like an alligator's, hung from its spine. Its hairless head was misshapen, its oval mouth full of curved teeth. This was no lizard. Rhyn had never seen anything like it.
Two of its claws had broken off in the fight. Rhyn looked down and saw one still embedded in his chest. He pulled it free with an oath and flung it into the swamp.
After a moment to prepare himself, Rhyn moved to the fence of stakes. He used his sword's tip to poke into the disgusting mass within, just long enough to confirm what he'd suspected.
None of the corpses in the soup had hands.
∗ ∗ ∗
Now the runes appeared carved into tree trunks, daubed with white clay that reflected the battered lantern's glow. Rhyn followed their trail for an interminable time, breathing hard. His chest ached where the monster had clawed him. The wounds were cold, as if rimed with ice. The splash of water against the mud sounded like hissing laughter, and Rhyn had to fight every instinct to whirl around and challenge the darkness.
His boots were stiff and wet, caked with mud. Lantern light shuddered over the path as he forged onward.
The water grew more shallow. It lapped around his calves and then his ankles. Rhyn pushed through the deepening thicket, out of the water now, onto a mossy hillock. The trees thinned enough for pale moonlight to reflect on the fog and lighten the area. A narrow path trailed up the hill. Human hands lined the edge of the path, five in all, skeletal left hands reaching from the ground like obscene flowers.
Rhyn knelt by the hands. Shreds of muscle and skin, dried and withered, still clung to the bones. These had been stripped, he saw, and knife marks in the bone showed precision and ritual. He stood again and took a better grip on the hilt of his sword. Slowly, carefully, Rhyn followed the path around a copse of thin young trees.
A small hut squatted atop the hillock, draped with vines and caked with white clay. Standing before the hut, waiting for him, was a woman.
Her skirts hung heavy with streaks of mud and moss, dragging on the marshy ground. Over her shoulders she wore a short cape covered with the feathers of a dozen swamp birds, all gray and dreary. She held a staff in one hand. A curtain of knotted hair covered her face.
Rhyn stopped and angled his sword defensively across his body.
"So you're the one. Setting your pet on innocent travelers? Stealing their hands? I suppose you summoned that creature in the fen. What for?"
The witch lifted a hand and pushed her hair back from her face. Rhyn did not move, did not speak. The lantern light, the insect hum, the whisper of wind on the waters behind him—all dimmed, leaving him momentarily in a world of black.
Then his voice returned, hoarse and small, enough to gasp, "Cara?"
"It's good to see you again." Her voice was just as he remembered, low and soft with a hint of the northern drawl common in Nirmathas. "I've been dreaming of you."
"How did you survive?" His voice came out strained, aghast. "After the storm let up we took boats out. We searched for hours. Two more trees came down on us. I kept going back." His throat closed up and he had to force the words out. "I went back every day."
"The swamp witch saved me," Cara said. "She brought the storm and then plucked me out of the water. She was very old, and it took most of her strength to conjure a storm so large." She let one eyelid droop, a grotesque wink on her drawn, mud-streaked face. "She used the rest of it training me. Now I live here, carrying on her work."
"Why didn't you come back?" The claw marks in his chest pulsed with pain.
"My mistress taught me that the swamp is our true home. Others, like you—" She waved a hand and took a step forward, and Rhyn shrank back. "—you preach the Green Faith, but you don't understand the swamp. Life stirs in the dark and you hide from it and shine lights from your windows." Cara lowered her hand. Her face shone with a fevered sweat. "This is the true faith. Reverence for the life born from these waters. It is our duty to embrace it and protect it."
"What did she do to you?" he whispered.
Cara's eyes narrowed. "I sent the alligator out to fetch you. You who have styled yourself protector of the town, that interloper in the wild. The swamp cannot be tamed. It cannot be civilized. Abandon it. My mistress spent her life researching a way to bring a true guardian forth, a new type of creature born of the swamp and dedicated to preserving it."
"I saw it. I killed it."
"What you killed was a failure. It was weak and small compared to the potential of a true guardian. But now—now I know where I went wrong. I can summon it anew, properly."
"You need more hands for that, I guess. That's what they were for, right? This ritual?"
"In a way. They served as a foundation, a base of power from which to conduct my trials. Now the ritual is much simpler. If you helped me..." She gazed into his eyes. "You could join me. Drive the others off. Let the swamp claim their buildings. Live in harmony with all that exists here in the dark."
"If you knew me at all, you'd know better than to ask me that."
She shrugged, a slight motion, but one filled with danger as she lifted her staff just off the ground. "Then you may assist me in death."
Rhyn only got a step forward before the ground erupted with writhing tentacles of vine. They lashed around his calves, almost toppling him. He grunted a curse and tried to wrench his feet free. Cara laughed and chanted strange, sibilant words as Rhyn hacked at the vines with his blade, stumbling sideways as they loosened.
Cara's chant reached a fever pitch. The ground shuddered and then erupted beneath Rhyn in a torrent of crawling insects. They scrambled and undulated as they clawed up his boots. Rhyn gave a repulsed cry and lurched forward, shaking his legs in an effort to dislodge the swarm. As he moved he hurled the lantern, half by instinct, toward Cara. He heard the shutters rattle and Cara cried out, her chant stuttering into silence.
He raced to close the distance between them, sweeping his sword down. The mud streaked on Cara's skin and clothes hardened into bark, and Rhyn's blade sliced down through wood, not flesh. He flinched from the shower of splinters.
The swarm of insects followed, and Cara scrambled back from them. Rhyn tackled her and they slammed into the mud together. He scraped painfully over a root as he slid forward. Cara scrambled for purchase in the mud, trying to rise, and Rhyn grabbed at her ankle as the insects flowed over them. She fell, kicking, and caught him in the jaw with one foot. They rolled apart, crushing bugs into the muck. Their tiny bodies sank back into the ground as the swarm dissipated.
Rhyn slid his hands through the muck, looking for his sword. Nothing but silky mud met his desperate grasp. Cara snatched up her staff and slammed it into Rhyn's side with a triumphant yell. He rolled with the blow and abandoned the hunt for the sword, hauling himself up to his feet instead.
A cold wind rushed across the hillock, bending the trees and whipping Cara's hair against her face. She raised her hands above her head, her fingertips glowing a sickly yellow. Her words were garbled, a shriek of some sibilant language and snatches of prayers to her twisted faith, reverence of scales and swamps and darkness. Rhyn charged, slick fingers finding the hilt of the fillet knife in his belt. Cara brought her hands down on Rhyn's shoulders just as he drove his blade into her gut.
They stood locked together for an instant. The yellow light sank into Rhyn's skin and nausea rolled through him. He broke out in a cold sweat, and that roaring laughter echoed once more in his ears. Then he steadied himself and shook off his fear, though he still felt weak and sickened. Cara hung on his knife like a fish on a hook. She had cupped his chin in her hands, and her sharp nails had torn the skin so that his blood dripped down her fingers.
He let her slide to the ground. She gasped and curled her hands convulsively over her chest.
"I'm sorry I stepped on your feet," he said.
"It's alright." Her eyes closed. "Leave me in the swamp."
Then she died. Rhyn knelt by her body for several minutes, dizzy, shattered. He stood and wiped clumsily at his face.
He kicked down the hut and tossed his lantern atop it. It took time to catch fire and burned slowly, with a green flame from the wet wood and vines. He sheathed his sword and knife and picked up Cara's body.
A few steps past the shore he paused, knee-high in the swamp. His dim reflection twisted in the ripples, shadowed by the distant fire behind him and the moon above. Cara's hair trailed in the water. He bent his knees and eased her into the murk.
A few drops of blood fell from the scratches on his face, mixing with Cara's as her body sank. The wounds in his chest flared with sharp pain. Rhyn doubled over. His gut churned, and the terrible weakness swept through him once more. He tried to stand but his knees gave out, plunging him into the water.
He flailed his arms, struggling to find something solid with which to pull himself up. The pain in his chest spread to his limbs, suffusing his body with unbearable pain. He screamed and choked as swamp water washed into his mouth. His fingers grasped something—Cara's hair. The tangled strands bobbed and twisted away from him as he floundered.
All vision fled. In the blackness of his mind he saw an image, a snake splitting into three parts with a man's head atop each branch. Cara's voice whispered in his ear.
Now—now I know where I went wrong. I can summon it anew, properly. Now the ritual is much simpler.
More water flooded his mouth and he inhaled, sputtering, but did not choke. The water flowed into his lungs like air. The swamp around him was brightening, coming into focus, as if lit from within. He lifted a hand to his face and saw pale, frog-belly skin and long black claws.
When he tried to scream again, all that emerged was a rasping growl, like the roar of an alligator.
∗ ∗ ∗
"I saw it!" A child ran up the pier, stumbling over his own feet in his haste. "It's out there again! I saw it!"
Mart hustled over, one hand on the knife at his belt. He put his other hand on the child's shoulder. "You sure?"
"Sure!" The child pointed into the darkness. "Out there!"
Mart stared for a time, but it was hard to see beyond the lantern-light. The ripples could be a skulking beast—or a leaping frog. The glow of yellow could be a baleful eye or an errant firefly, the hiss a sound of hunger from a gator-toothed maw or the movement of wind through branches.
"What is it?" the child whispered. "What does it want?"
Mart shook his head. "No way to know," he said. "The things out there—they're not like us." He turned them back toward the warm light and safety of town. "Fear the scaled ones."
Coming Next Week: Kevin Andrew Murphy offers some alchemical insight in the nation of Galt in the first chapter of "The Secret of the Rose and Glove."
Amber Scott is the author of several chapters in the Pathfinder's Journal, as well as numerous Paizo RPG products, including recent releases such as Heart of the Jungle and Halflings of Golarion. She writes from her home in Canada, where she lives with her husband, Jason, and her two cats, Dabu and ZugZug.
Art by KyuShik Shin