Chapter 24: Into the Swamp
“And what’s our excuse for staying so long?” Shale asked quietly, looking around at her friends in the courtyard of the roadhouse.
Fillip shrugged, “I’ll stay up late drinking, and sleep late. I told Balgluk you’re my guard, and I’m mourning a beloved grandmother, so I think it’s believable enough for me to want to get drunk.”
“A couple extra days should give us enough time to take a look at the roadhouse’s ledger and figure out where the cult is going next,” Oszaren said.
“And what about the tunnel?” Shale asked.
“We don’t know where it leads,” Oszaren scratched his chin, “but if we can explore the area around the swamp, we might be able to find some clues. I don’t want us crawling down there without knowing anything.”
Shale nodded, though she was anxious to act. Waiting around for another couple of days would definitely arouse suspicion. Whisper wandered away as they spoke, and they let him go.
Whisper rapped on Balgluk’s door and waited a moment for the half-orc to open it. “What?” He was only a few inches shorter than Whisper, and the tabaxi looked down at him with an awkward smile and withdrew a badge from inside his cloak, flashing it to the half-orc. Balgluk’s eyes bulged when he saw the symbol of Tiamat. “Come in,” he said quickly, looking around as he opened the door for Whisper. “What can I do for you?”
“You have wealthy friends come by roadhouse lately?” Whisper asked. His common had much improved from their months on the road.
“Aye, I can say that we have.” He gestured for Whisper to sit in a chair by a full bookshelf, and he sat across from him on the bed.
“When will cult come next?” Whisper scanned the book titles quickly.
“We were expecting a caravan in a couple days, but we haven’t heard word from them in a while.” Balgluk was anxiously rubbing his hands on his thighs as if to dry them of sweat.
Whisper nodded. “Leader Hama and caravan were confiscated in Waterdeep. Found out and imprisoned.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Managed to escape,” Whisper said, “was away when attack happened. Came to find out where go next.”
“Rezmir won’t be happy to hear this,” he shook his head, looking worried.
Whisper reached into his pack and withdrew the spellbook with the black leather binding and showed the symbol to Balgluk. “One of Red Wizards has fallen. I recovered this.”
The half-orc didn’t reach for it, but he searched the symbol for some hidden message. Finally, he sighed. “I will tell the others, they’ll be anxious to bring the message to Rezmir. What about the people you’re travelling with?”
“They with me,” Whisper said quickly.
“Very well. Feel free to go through the swamp when you’re ready. You’ll find the marked trees about a hundred feet out. You can follow those to reach the castle.” He sighed again. “I don’t envy you. I wouldn’t want to be the one going to Rezmir with that story.”
“It be okay,” Whisper said, tucking the book away and standing.
“May Tiamat triumph,” Balgluk said.
“Long may she reign,” Whisper replied in draconic.
A few hours later, they gathered again, and Whisper told them what he’d learned from the half-orc. They needed to decide if they should split up, some going through the tunnel and others going out to the swamp to follow the marked trees, or if they should stay together in case they ran into danger. “We shouldn’t split up,” Oszaren said. “It’s not wise.” He looked at Whisper. “I say we look for the marked trees and see where they lead, maybe try to find an exit to the tunnel Shale found.”
Keelan said, “I spoke to the cook—Gristle Pete—”
“Great name,” Fillip chimed in.
“He said he’s noticed a lot of scratching at night in the roadhouse,” Keelan continued, “could be rats, so I’d be careful with the food. And, when I asked, he did say he’s noticed several reclusive or strange people visiting from the road. Could be the cult.”
“Balgluk say follow tree markers to find Rezmir,” Whisper reminded them.
“We should find that ledger,” Oszaren said, not for the first time.
“Well, let me try and talk to Balgluk,” Fillip offered. “Whisper said he has a bookshelf full of books, which means he’s probably well read. If I can distract him with that for a while, perhaps find out where it’s hidden…”
“Then Whisper and I can look for those first few marked trees,” Oszaren said.
“I’m coming too,” Keelan said. “Like you said, it’s not wise to split up. You may need your paladin.”
Oszaren nodded in assent.
“And what—pray tell—should I do?” Reverence asked casually.
“Stay out of trouble, and don’t talk to people?” Fillip suggested.
Reverence rolled his eyes. “It was—one time.”
“Let’s meet back in the common room at dinner,” Fillip said.
They all agreed and went their separate ways. Shale took Trigger to the stables to train, feeling she desperately needed time alone to sort things out.
The swamp was filled with large pools of stagnant water overrun with moss and tight brambles. In areas, large clusters of trees grew, thick and tangled with vines. The swamp was alive with vegetation fighting for its place.
Oszaren closed his eyes and, when he reopened them, everything had a greenish hue to it. His eldritch sight would tell him of any magic nearby. Whisper and Keelan trailed behind him, slogging through the thick mud. They were still near the walls of the roadhouse when he spotted markers on the trees. “Here,” he said quietly, and they followed him to the first tree.
The fog was thick, and they had easily left the roadhouse without disruption. The roadworkers had already left for the day, and anyone else seemed not to care where they went or what they did.
They found a rune carved into a tree and Whisper touched it with his paw. “Draconic,” he said.
“It looks like it could be a protection spell. I can sense the trees around the area have the same symbol,” Oszaren told them.
“Maybe it’s meant to keep the bog from expanding and destroying the roadhouse,” Keelan said.
“I think you’re right,” Oszaren agreed, “which means these aren’t the runes we’re looking for. These are placed as a border.”
“Go further in,” Whisper said, and they trudged on through the fog.
They were at least a hundred feet from the roadhouse heading west when they found another marked tree, this one carrying a carved rune tied around it with a delicate chain. Oszaren quickly sketched the pattern into his notes alongside the others. Near the tree was a large hole that had been carefully dug, the entrance fortified with support beams made of gnarled trees that had been stripped bare. It was haphazard but effective. Oszaren gestured to Whisper and Keelan. “The exit to the tunnel, it would seem.”
“No need to use tunnel, then,” Whisper said.
“What if something’s hidden down there? Like the treasure?” Keelan speculated.
“I don’t know,” Oszaren said, “let’s go tell the others.”
They trudged back through the swamp and fog toward the roadhouse.
They spent the evening in the common room with the roadworkers. Shale played her viol with Trigger sitting at her feet happily licking his paws, and Reverence soon joined in with his dulcimer. Keelan made friendly with a group of workers and was sharing drinks with them, subtly healing himself back to sobriety whenever they weren’t watching, and thoroughly impressing them with his drinking abilities. Fillip sat with Balgluk as they discussed a book he’d borrowed on something historical that Shale found not very interesting. Whisper disappeared into their shared rooms to study Azbarra’s spellbook, and Oszaren kept to himself in the corner, reading a book by firelight. Their plan was to go out into the swamp early the next morning before the workers rose.
Shale only stopped playing her viol when Fillip put a hand on her shoulder and whispered in her ear. “Balgluk just went outside. He’s been acting strange all night, and he just went off. Do you think you can follow him?”
She nodded and quickly put away the viol, and Reverence filled the space with his music. “Trigger, stay.”
Fillip gestured to Oszaren and when they stepped into the cold, he turned her invisible and she crept off, but not before he told her to meet them back in the rooms with her findings. Keelan came out after them and rushed upstairs to don his armour.
Balgluk was pushing into the store room and there were voices. They hissed and snarled and spoke in strange accents, and as she moved closer to peek through the cracked door, she saw the figures next to Balgluk’s illuminated in lamplight. Inside stood four massive, lizard-like people with short snouts, thick tails and flicking tongues. They wore cracked leather and bark armour and carried spears glinting with fine metal. One also wore a twisted braid of reeds that looked to be a crown. They were speaking draconic. Shale silently swore and saw that the crates had been tipped over and the tunnel opening was exposed. So, that’s who used the tunnel. She listened for a while, hoping to catch any phrases in common. A few minutes into the conversation she saw Whisper’s owl soar down and perch near the opening to the door. It cocked its head at her even though she was invisible. Finally, Balgluk bid the snake people farewell and moved the crate back over the tunnel as they slid down and disappeared through it.
Shale went upstairs and entered their room. Everyone was sitting inside, Keelan buckling the last of his armour. He looked up as she came in and Oszaren dropped the invisibility spell. “Nothing to fight,” she announced as Whisper blinked and came out of his owl’s sight, “though there were four lizard people and they were speaking to Balgluk in draconic. I didn’t understand any of it.”
Keelan dropped his arms and grumbled, then gestured to Fillip to help him start removing his armour.
“Heard last bit,” Whisper said. “They say Rezmir not going to be happy about caravan lost. Looks like weapons come from cult.”
Shale nodded. “I noticed their weapons were much finer than their armour. They must be gifts from working with the cult.”
Oszaren said, “We can follow those tree markers and pretend to be cultists to get close to Rezmir.”
“Will Rezmir recognize any of us besides Whisper?” Keelan asked, pulling off his gauntlet and placing it carefully on the bed.
Shale shook her head. “I don’t think she would recognize us,” she told Keelan. “You, Oszaren and I were at the top of the cliffs when we,” she looked over at Reverence awkwardly, “tried to free Whisper from the army camp.”
“She might recognize you, though,” Oszaren told Reverence.
“Well, I was a wolf,” Fillip said happily.
“Not when you climbed the ladder,” Keelan pointed out. “Rezmir almost killed you with that ball of acid, remember?”
“Oh, right,” Fillip sighed.
“Well, we have no other choice. We can disguise the two of you as best we can and hope she doesn’t recognize you. They already trust Whisper. He can get us into the cult.” Oszaren looked at the tabaxi. “Right, Whisper?”
Whisper hesitated, then nodded.
“We leave in the morning,” Oszaren announced.
Shale was thankful to have the warlock on their team. She wasn’t sure she had the strength to make any more decisions.
The trek was long and the air humid and growing hotter as the day progressed. The party pushed through the mud and cut through trees, avoiding areas of quicksand, which nearly caught Keelan once and Reverence had to grab his armour, grumbling about the paladin’s heavy plate mail. The quicksand was obviously magical, because any quicksand Shale had seen in her days as a ranger were far from dangerous to the average, full-grown adult. The croaking of toads and cawing of crows accompanied them through the marsh as Shale picked ahead their path, pointing out a few thick webs stretched across the brambles. They were not remnants from regular spiders, but warned of massive ones creeping in hidden places.
Trigger leapt easily through the drier areas until they reached a spot where he needed to be carried. Whisper happily draped the fox over his neck and Trigger licked his face as they held their belongings out of the knee-deep sludge. They continued slowly and cautiously, the dim glow of marked trees directing their path westwards. The fog dissipated somewhat as evening drew close and Keelan whispered, “Look out!”
They all stopped and turned to where he was pointing. Through the crooked trees they could make out a faint light. Shale couldn’t sense anything undead nearby. They waited, watching for movement, and heard a rustle in the branches. Shale turned and drew her bow as she heard another sound behind them, and suddenly, they were surrounded by creatures.
Lizard men pushed toward them with spears out, and one of them hissed. A couple more appeared, mounted on larger lizard creatures. Oszaren threw up his hands to show they were free of weapons and shouted something in draconic. Whisper followed him and said something else. The creatures paused and looked over to one Shale recognized from the night before, crowned in twisted reeds. The leader tilted his head and stood to full height, planting the butt of his spear in the ground and diminishing the threat. The others mirrored.
“It’s all right,” Oszaren said. “I told them we’re with the cult. They’re going to take us to Rezmir.”
Shale lowered her bow and un-notched the arrow, standing to her full height and appraising the lizard people. They all had the cult-made weapons, but their armour was worn and overused.
The leader gestured for them to follow and they began to pick their way through the marsh. Those atop lizard mounts disappeared into the grasses and were gone. Night had fully descended as Whisper and Oszaren walked up front with the leader and spoke with him in draconic. The leader’s voice was low and hissing, but it seemed the conversation was amiable. Shale and the others followed, feeling uncomfortable as the other lizard people walked near them. They had joined the fold of lizard folk, it seemed. Shale felt wholly uncomfortable as they passed another marked tree with a glowing blue rune. Soon, they would be in front of Rezmir.
“Their leader’s name is Snapjaw,” Oszaren told them seriously as they huddled around one of at least a dozen campfires.
They had walked with the lizard people for over an hour before coming to a camp with more of them tending fires and keeping guard. The camp was set up near a slow-moving river, and as they watched, they saw a few of the large lizard mounts swimming upstream past them. They were all allowed to sit together and discuss what was said in draconic but kept cautious eyes out for any lizard people understanding common.
Oszaren continued. “Their original leader, who was later killed, was a shaman appointed as the Suncaller. That’s usually how they determine a leader, when they’re chosen as a Suncaller by the gods.”
“So, this Snapjaw fellow isn’t a Suncaller?” Fillip asked.
“No. The last one was killed by the bullywogs, a race of frog people who live in the swamp and were their sworn enemies up until a few months ago, when the cult took their place in the swamp and hired both races to join their side.”
“So, now they work with their enemies,” Fillip mused, looking around to ensure no one else was listening in. “That’s something we can use. Sew discontent, maybe spur a dispute once we reach the castle.”
“Why wouldn’t the gods have chosen them a new Suncaller after the last one died?” Shale wondered.
“Snapjaw thinks it may be because they now serve the cult.”
“Why work with them, then?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Keelan asked. “Food, weapons, who knows what else they get.”
The warlock shrugged. “Fillip is right, though. We can use their hatred for the bullywogs. It sounds like there’s a lot of tension, and the leader of the bollywogs—what was the name again, Whisper?”
“Barblecks Splattergoo,” Whisper said quickly.
“Another great name,” Fillip smiled.
Oszaren ignored him. “Well, supposedly he grovels to the cult leaders and that’s how he keeps their favour.”
“If we play this right,” Keelan summarized, “we could start a war.”
“Is that what we want?” Shale asked seriously. “Remember, Remalia just told us to capture or kill the wyrm speakers. Rezmir is who we want.”
“Why not destroy it all?” Keelan asked. “Wipe out the evil.”
Shale nodded, though she wasn’t confident. “We should keep someone on watch. I still don’t trust them.”
Fillip straightened and grabbed his scimitar, buckling it on. “I’ll go first.”
Whisper stood and went to talk to Snapjaw, and everyone else unrolled their beds and tried to sleep.
“I sense something,” Shale said, sitting up and shaking Oszaren awake. “Undead.”
“Where?” The warlock asked, standing out of his bedroll and looking around.
Shale stood next to him and said, “I was just scanning the area and felt something.” She bent and shook Keelan and Reverence awake next.
“Where’s Fillip?” Keelan asked as she told them what she’d sensed.
The fires were burned down to their coals and the lizard people were asleep except for a few guards out on patrol. The night sky was obscured by the gathered fog, and the faint sound of frogs was a constant. They all got up and began searching the camp for Fillip.
They saw him standing fifty feet away, his back to them. In front of him bobbed several glowing white lights. They all stared for a moment, then Shale hissed, “will-o’-the-wisps.”
“Foolish fire,” Keelan translated, his voice strained.
“Don’t let them draw you in,” Oszaren warned. They were known to take over a person’s mind and lead them to do strange things.
“Can we—kill them?” Reverence asked.
“I don’t know,” Shale whispered as they slowly floated nearer to Fillip, “I’ve never tried.” She wanted to call the druid back, but she didn’t want to provoke the wisps.
Keelan began to walk toward them suddenly, his eyes glazed and his expression slack. “Hey!” Oszaren shouted and Shale grabbed him around the shoulders to pull their paladin back, her elbow banging painfully against his armour. Oszaren flicked him in the ear, hard, and Keelan broke out of his trance and looked around.
“Good call,” Shale said, releasing him.
“I wake Snapjaw. Warn to keep guard on wisps,” Whisper said, and ran off.
Oszaren called Fillip to them and the druid looked back and trotted to them, seemingly unaffected. “Weird things, those,” he said, shaking his head, “I swear they were trying to get in my head.”
“Let’s double the watch in case they attack,” Oszaren said, and he and Keelan agreed to stay up while the rest went back to sleep. Snapjaw heeded Whisper’s advice and added a few more of his own guards around the camp.
Shale was just starting to drift back to sleep when she heard a hissing screech and woke abruptly. She saw a flash of green and drew both swords. “Trigger, to me!” She shouted.
Oszaren was shooting eldritch blasts at a tangling mess of weeds that had risen out of the waters and were strangling one of the lizard folk.
Keelan woke and pulled out the glowing necklace Whisper had given to him, and Shale was able to better see the consuming weeds. There were three moving bunches coming toward the camp. Keelan blew his warhorn, given to him by Oszaren and crafted from Langdedrosa’s own horn, and woke the camp. Lizard people scrabbled for their spears and ran to attack the weeds.
Shale heard a sickening crunch as the one inside the weeds was crushed.
Suddenly, two massive crocodiles appeared next to the weeds and began snapping at them. Shale saw Fillip stepping up, controlling the creatures as he transformed into a direwolf and attacked. She ran next to him and began hacking at the wet branches, warning Trigger to be careful as the branches lashed out. A bolt of fire shot past her and into the weeds from Whisper and the flames fizzled out over the wet vegetation as it moved. Another of the weed creatures pulled a second lizard man into it and there was another gargled scream. A moment later, Reverence was next to Shale, beating the branches away with his spear. Whenever they hit the branches and broke apart vines, more grew up around it, and just as she started to think the fight was futile against them, Whisper threw a writhing mass of black thunderous energy, which exploded against the vines and sent them scattering into a hundred pieces. Shale wiped her brow and saw the other two creatures were still lashing out, one nearly hitting Keelan as he blocked it with a shield and took a great swing with his longsword. Oszaren summoned his blade from the air and carved a huge gash into the weeds, and this time, the vines struggled to grow back.
Shale saw as she slashed that the lizard men had taken down the other weed monster. With one remaining, she heard Reverence shout, “the wisps—are back!”
There were three of them bobbing in the distance. No, zooming toward them. They weren’t slowing. Oszaren turned and shot something at them and Shale ducked out of the weed’s grasp and launched herself at one of the wisps, leaving the weeds to Fillip’s crocodiles. Trigger snarled at the wisp as Shale tried to batter it away. There was a crackle and suddenly she was thrown back off her feet and awoke a moment later, the breath knocked from her and her chest burning. She looked down and saw smoke curling from her chest where she’d been struck with lightning. The wisp hovered over her and began crackling with more energy when Keelan swung his blade, which was bright with radiant light, and carved through the wisp, sending it dispersing into the air. Dead, if that were possible.
Shale got to her feet and Trigger yipped at her. She was thankful he hadn’t been hit by it. He might not have survived. “For Kossuth!” Keelan shouted as he cut through another wisp.
One wisp remained and they all moved cautiously toward it as it zipped back and forth as though looking for its next target. It started to crackle and as Keelan leapt to strike it down, it simultaneously threw a bolt at Fillip, hitting the direwolf and sending him yelping to transform back into half-elf form. At the same moment, they all converged on the wisp and it was destroyed.
They saw the crocodiles finishing off the last of the weeds as the lizard folk watched and prodded at the wriggling mass with their spears. Exhausted but all mostly unharmed, they gathered around the two bodies of the fallen lizard men. Their leader, Snapjaw, began to speak in his hissing form of draconic, and Oszaren softly translated. “He’s sending them to their graves.” As he said this, the others lifted the bodies and placed them in the slow-moving river, and they began to drift gracefully away. Snapjaw then turned to them and said something, and Oszaren relayed the message. “He says, thank you for helping us. You are great fighters.”
They all dipped their heads humbly and the lizard folk dispersed, the guards moving back around the camp to check for further threat. Keelan went through the fighters, companions and lizards alike, and healed those who needed it. Mourning their lost sleep, they again found their beds and Shale drifted off almost immediately, not waking again until the diffused morning light pierced her eyelids. There was a red haze through the morning fog as Whisper came through the camp and called for his companions to wake.
“Someone come from North,” the tabaxi said.
Snapjaw seemed to smile as Oszaren again relayed his speech. “You may want to stay down for this part. Not many outsiders get to see this.”
They all watched as kobold figures came, hunching and hissing, from the trees and hopped over the wet group toward the camp. They greeted Snapjaw and began chattering, and the lizard leader held up a scaly hand and said in slow, hissing common, “thissss heraldsss the arrival of ssssomething outssssidersss don’t often sssssee. I hope he likesssss you…”
They all turned as the kobolds began to bow, pressing their ugly, dragon-snout faces into the mud. Snapjaw faced the river and threw up his arms, bowing low, and the other lizard folk bowed quickly.
“What’s happening?” Keelan whispered. “Who’s coming?”
Whisper shrugged and Oszaren shook his head. Shale wasn’t sure if they should bow, so they all remained standing, looking at the waters as they began to ripple and bubble. She clenched her fists anxiously and called Trigger to her side.
Steam rose from the waters as they shifted and turned. Silence fell on all of them as the massive head of a black dragon pushed through the surface of the murky river, its golden eyes looking down on all of them as water spilled from its scaly hide. It turned and exhaled and bathed them in its hot, reeking breath. There was a low rumble as the ancient black dragon began to speak.
“Adventurers,” it said slowly, dragging out every syllable into a low growl. “I haven’t smelled this smell in a loooong time.”