Chapter Seven The Bog
Morning came early, but they all emerged, despite their weariness, to see the land they had come to, except for Cindie. The village was mostly sunken and had been abandoned for a long time. The huts that hadn’t begun to be lost in the mud were repaired with old leathers and scraps of canvas. A wall of fog rose up thick, gray, foul and unclean, obscuring all that was beyond about a hundred yards. The fog itself was what was reeking so badly. It left the skin feeling dirty and the lungs heavy. There was more to it than a mere stink and they all felt it.
They wandered the village, realizing it wasn’t as deserted as they had thought. A few skinny-legged children crept close, but were scared and stayed mostly hidden. Riven nodded to Oirion about them and the two men wandered off together to find out what else was in the village.
On the far end, they found a little old woman. She looked not quite human: too thin and too small, with large ears that jutted out the sides of her head through her lanky white hair. She squinted up at them through deep wrinkles.
Before her, she kept a small smoky fire and was warming a stone to cook her meal on. She ground some root up in a stone bowl.
“A dwarf!” she said, raising her heavy eyebrows in surprise. She chuckled. Her language, the old trade tongue, made her hard to understand, not only because of her thick accent, but also her lack of teeth. “You lost?”
“Not quite lost, just misplaced, my dear,” Riven said back pleasantly, going into priest mode. “Your village has seen better days, I see. What has happened here?”
She grunted. “Much… much,” she said. “And you, handsome one. You smell like a Purtan, but you don’t look like one.”
“We travel with a Purtan,” Oirion said. “By chance, you smell him.”
“No… no,” she considered, but was sure. “Come and sit at the fire with me. I am old and miss the company of fine men like you two. Have you eaten?”
“We have a camp,” Riven said as they sat. She nodded.
“We have seen children. Are there any other adults around?” Oirion asked, hoping for trade and maybe a better map.
“Oh, they are just lost souls; nothing to matter over. Are you sure I cannot make you a bite.” She looked up as Shannon emerged out of the mist.
As he came closer, the old woman hissed at him and shrank back.
“Leave them alone… old woman,” he said.
“I did no harm,” she said in her defense. “No harm to the priests, just a few words. I’m just a lonely old woman looking out for my children. You know as well as I that the Gold is blood-stained these days. Only a fool crosses a priest.” She looked him over and sneered. “You know very well, don’t you, my lord? Tell me, how does it feel to be on the other side?”
Riven felt the magic laid on him slip in her fix on Shannon and quickly raised the shields he had been taught to use; shields that he never thought he would need. He had heard of the Grim, but had never seen one in the world, only in study. He jumped to his feet the moment his body was his to command. She was very good; he hadn’t even realized that it was not his will that made him sit. He whipped out the sword and lunged forward, attempting to stab her. The sword pierced through nothing but air, causing him to stagger forward and lose his balance. Shannon was quick enough to grab him and save him from falling into her. She screamed and howled with laughter as her gray wrinkled image began to blur and swirl into the mist. The fire roared up fiercely and then instantly snuffed out, leaving only a small wisp of smoke. She was gone, but her howls of laughter lingered a bit, fading as she retreated out into the mist.
Shannon looked at the two men with a hard silence. Both of the priests felt very foolish and small, like schoolboys just reprimanded for their failure to pass a test. He turned without saying a word and walked back up the village to the others.
Riven grunted as he saw that his sword had rust spots on it already. With disgust, he tossed it aside. It would rust to nothing in a few hours and if he still had it, the corrosion would spread to him.
“We need to be more careful,” Riven said, “but let’s check her cottage.” He was careful to take as much of the blame. He was as ignorant in it as Oirion had been.
Oirion now knew that she was a Grim, but he had never seen one and was a little surprised that they still existed.
They went in and found the clothes, weapons, and packs of the unfortunates that had come to the village and had the misfortune of meeting the old woman. Riven kicked through it. It was mostly garbage heaped on the floor, but he did find a small pack and into that he put an assortment of coins, rings, and other bits worth keeping. He found, as well, a sword to replace his and a staff that he tossed to Oirion.
“You want that?” he asked. “I’ve been told you’re a staff fighter.” He let on that he knew exactly who Oirion was, for the first time.
“Have you?” Oirion asked, as he weighed it and checked it for spells. It was old and powerful, but the magic was locked and beyond his skill. “And you? What weapon do you prefer?”
“An ax, actually, but in public that isn’t allowed,” he grinned. “Although, where I spend most of my time, there is no public.”
They walked back, feeling a little better for the upgrade in weapons, but embarrassed for having had to be rescued by Shannon over something so elementary.
Tavia had set to cooking porridge with a handful of berries. They were few, but strong and spicy – another addition from Shannon, no doubt. They had a hot meal that day and Shannon let them rest a little longer than they seemed to have time for. Riven set the small pack down while they waited and discreetly took one thing out at a time to look it over, making sure there were no harmful spells on it. Once sure, he added it to his larger pack and took another out to repeat the process.
“What’s out there?” Theo asked, looking out at the fog that had begun to swirl and creep up toward them as the sun began to rise higher.
“The Bog,” Shannon said. Dave looked out with his Sight and then shuddered.
“We’re going into that?” Theo asked unhappily.
“Will we live?” Dave asked.
“We’ll be fine,” Riven said. “It’s probably best that we stay in a line though. That way we won’t be stepping into anything that might swallow one of us. Shannon, you can avoid such things, can’t you?” he tested just a little.
Shannon gave the dwarf a hard look, but didn’t reply. He didn’t need to.
Once the ponies were all repacked, Shannon put Travis on the top of the pack of the pony that he was going to be leading. He decided to work with the boy, teaching him how to talk a little better. He headed out, not waiting for the others. Everyone fell into step and entered the Bog.
At first, it was just like any other wetland, but as the day wore on, the bugs got bigger and meaner, the mud got deeper, and the water began to teem with life. Shannon kept them out of the water as much as he could and made huge detours to do it. It was disgusting and foul; by mid-afternoon the humidity was draining the last of their strength. With every step they sank into the mud, releasing buzzing little bugs that made a constant cloud around their legs.
Cindie fell, her hands going into the mud up to her elbows. She started to cry and shriek about the injustice of life, flinging mud off her hands. Theo watched her a moment, then turned his back and started to walk again. Ivan took a hold of her, helped her up with one strong hand and didn’t let go.
They stopped on a hillock to eat a midday meal. It was the first time under Shannon’s lead that they had ever stopped and the first time that they had felt it was alright to do so. Theo was looking forward, trying to see into the fog, but there was no way to do it. Giving up, he went over to the man who was wiping down the legs of the ponies and who had taken over leadership. It was odd; out here in this hell of mud and insects, Shannon still looked clean. His hair still had the silky quality of one who is pampered in court.
“Why’s your hair like that?” Theo asked as he looked at the lower length of Shannon’s braid “I didn’t think that there was a dye strong enough to get such a true blond over Purtan black.”
Shannon stood up from his work. Theo almost apologized and turned to walk back to the others.
“It is a result of the power reflecting off the inside of my shield. I do not do it on purpose.”
“Are you that powerful?”
Shannon smiled ever so slightly. That was the most reassuring thing that had been said or done since they had reached this hell. Theo smiled back, just a little.
Shannon moved over to the other pony. With a sigh, Theo went back to searching the fog. He didn’t want to sit with the others. Cindie was talking happily to Ivan, who had given her a knee to sit on, keeping her out of the mud. But standing there like an idiot was worse than walking back to where his wife was flirting with the big Ivan. He took a deep breath and walked back to the group, wishing he knew what to say to Shannon.
“What’d you ask?” Oirion asked as Theo sat down beside him.
“About his hair.”
“I’ll never understand human fashions,” Riven said, glad to not have to listen to Ivan and Cindie. Any conversation was better than that.
“He’s not human, he’s a Purtan. There’s a difference,” Kelly said, actually turning her back on the big man and the giggling butterfly.
“That’s not the point,” Riven said.
“What is?” Kelly asked, cringing as Cindie giggled shrilly, while Ivan laughed as he tickled her.
“Fashion… it’s all human-driven these days and I don’t understand it. What reason would a man have for dying his hair… or shaving it off?” He shot a look back over his shoulder.
“It’s not dyed,” Theo said. “It’s from the reflection of his shield. At least… that is what he said to me.
“It’s not new,” Kelly said. “It’s said that the Purtan masters of old were so powerful that the exposure to their own power made them turn white-haired…. a white that shone gold in the sun. The very greatest of masters were the Red Purtans, hair the color of blood.”
The others looked at Kelly, a little surprised that she would know that sort of thing. She shrugged and hunkered down.
After they had eaten and Shannon was satisfied with the ponies, they headed west again. They picked up the pace as best they could and took a little less care. The less trained didn’t notice, but Oirion and Riven certainly did.
Shannon motioned Dave to come up near him in the lead and handed Travis and his pony to Tavia. He then veered due north across a chest-deep pool. They all waded out after him, one at a time, chilled to the bone, but uneaten as they staggered out of the pool.
Cindie was still complaining about the water and how cold it had been when, without warning, Oirion staggered. A search spell had slammed into his back. Tavia caught him before he hit the mud. The breath was driven from him; he stood, trying to suck in air, his eyes watering and his hands shaky. The hunters were closer than any of the company had thought they would be. That was not a good thing. The search was way over-extended and by the force of the scan, they were right behind them.
“Dave,” Shannon ordered. “Take the lead and keep moving.” He pointed westward twice, telling Dave where and how far to look to see their goal.
“Riven.” Shannon and the dwarf fell back at once.
Running as fast as they could through the deep mud, back the way they had just come, they disappeared into the fog. Dave moved up to the front and took the lead pony’s reins, leading the way forward. He shifted his vision to Sight so that he could avoid all the unpleasant things in the mud and water. It was a challenge. He had no idea how much work it was going to be.
There were the energies of life everywhere; all of them hungry, hateful, or malevolent. He hoped that Shannon would get back soon; he wasn’t sure how long he could do this.
Shannon led Riven back through the mud and slop, cutting south to avoid the pool and a portion of their trail. They took a lot less care than they had getting through it the first time. Once back far enough, he stopped and dropped to a knee. He took the bow from the quiver and loaded it. Riven took his larger bow off his back and knelt down, just out of sight of Shannon. Riven had been on enough trips into warped lands and been hunted enough times that he knew the only way to escape a scan like that was to backtrack and kill the source of it.
They waited, hidden in the fog, both silent and alert. It wasn’t a long wait until they heard the noise of the horses and the riders led them. Thoughts of who they were and if they knew the truth of what the Pontiff was crept into Riven’s mind. The thoughts made him almost let the bow waver. He wondered if he himself knew the truth. Riven glanced toward Shannon, wondering what the man knew, how he fit in, and just what sort of powers he possessed that enticed the Pontiff into this game. He pushed the line of thoughts down as the answers dared to come.
Riven waited as he got the first glimpse of their pursuer. Still, he waited. Their actions had to be well-timed. With just the two of them, there was no room for mistakes.
“Now,” he heard Shannon whisper in his head. Riven stood and shot an arrow at the nearest man. He unleashed another and saw three others collapse. “Run… Now!” Shannon told him. Riven bolted from the area, even as he felt the creatures within the bog begin to move in, attracted to the smell of blood. He and Shannon met up ahead of the melee behind them. They could hear the men and horses screaming and the thrashing of water and creatures.
Riven was panting, but not from the run. The touch of Shannon’s mind on his, the telepathy, had left him breathless. He was a dwarf and Shannon wasn’t. The power level to Touch across races demanded no less than a true Master; even then, only with practice. Still, there was more to it. A shield had protected him, but he had no doubt that Shannon could tear into him and burn him up from the inside out. He’d felt power like that before, but not from a man. They slowed.
“Is that it, then? Or will he send more after you?” Riven asked before he realized what he had said. He wished he could suck his words back in, but he couldn’t, and Shannon had heard them well enough.
Shannon looked from the dwarf to the fog behind them. “Who can guess what a madman will do next? Let us just get back to the others.” Shannon sounded oddly tired and pained.
They had just gotten back to the place where they had parted company when Riven swore.
“I’ve been bit,” he said, reaching down. As he did, he began to shiver. Shannon grabbed him as he started to topple.
“Purge, Riven. Get the poison out of you.” Shannon felt the dwarf start to raise the power, but it was shaky. Riven began to shudder and his teeth ground together.
“Purge!” Shannon yelled at him. The dwarf struggled to hold the power and direct it, but it scattered. The culprit brushed up against Shannon in the mud. It jerked away from his icy shield. He debated a moment and then pulled off his glove. He slid his bare hand down the dwarf’s ankle to the bite that had gone through his boots. The blood immediately began to burn Shannon.
The blood of a wizard priest has no rival. There is no elixir with greater power or drug with a sweeter addiction. Shannon gritted his teeth, forcing himself to take nothing, but instead, to send icy power into the priest in his care. He needed Riven alive if he hoped to keep the company alive, and if there were any demons sent after them, the cleric was his best hope to stay free.
He would freeze out the poison. It was faster than fire and left less damage; it just hurt more. Riven cried out, but Shannon hardly noticed. He sent out ice and reinforced his shield to a point that he wasn’t even sure how much power he was sending out. Still, the blood of the dwarf burned his bare skin. He heard nothing over that screaming buzz in the back of his head which would only be silenced with satisfying the need. But he didn’t need it; it was just the overwhelming response of the priest’s blood on his hand. When Riven went limp in his arms and there was no more poison, Shannon snatched his hand away. He wiped the blood onto Riven’s shirt, almost frantically.
He used the mucky water to wash the blood off the dwarf’s shin and washed his hand free of the last of it. He wiped the filth off his hand onto his surrcoat and pulled his glove back on. Shannon was so tired from the exchange that his breath was ragged. He almost felt like crying, but he had done his share lately and simply denied it.
“Riven?” he asked, weary from the struggle he had just gone through and the continuing fight with the buzzing hunger.
Riven’s eyes fluttered and he groaned. That was enough. The dwarf was conscious; he would live. Shannon stood. Once on his feet, he situated Riven to carry him like a child, and then headed after the others.
Camp was set under a dead tree on a hill surrounded by water. They decided against a fire as it might be seen, even through the perpetual fog, by things they would rather not know about. It was cold after the heat of the day. Oirion took the first watch and the others all dropped to sleep. Travis cried softly most of the night.
“What’s wrong with him?” Ivan demanded, impatient with the child’s tears.
“He wants Shannon,” Tavia said, her nerves shortened by the long days and the dangers all around them.
“We all do,” Kelly said, leaning over to touch the boy’s head gently with her great hand.
Oirion watched as something moved in the dark, sniffing closer and closer, until he had no choice but to step up and attack. It didn’t expect the attack and Oirion easily stabbed the big flat animal in the top of the head.
That, he quickly decided, was a mistake as other things moved in on the smell of blood. He had no choice but to move out further and chop at others, driving them back as they fought over the dead thing that ventured too close to camp. This process was repeated several times.
After what seemed like half the night, Ivan stepped up.
“I can watch for awhile,” he said. “Why don’t you go lay down with the others and try to get some rest.”
Oirion nodded and let the warrior take over the patrol of vigilance of the small mound of earth they were camped on. Oirion circled the camp and looked for a place that was dry enough to sit down on. He settled, put out a trigger magic and dozed off, his back to a stump of some long rotten tree.
He woke to a soft touch to his face. Cindie sat on his lap, her hands on his face. She didn’t say anything, just leaned forward and kissed him. She laid her head on his shoulder and rested on him. Her move surprised him. If she had kissed him more or made any other move, he would have pushed her off, but she just hid there. Maybe she was just scared and this was the only way she knew to not think about it. Oirion wondered how old she was and what sort of life she had before this trip, but he sank back to sleep with her there. He was tired and just wanted to rest.
No one slept well that night and they woke early, plagued by fears of having lost both Shannon and Riven.
Dead creatures littered the water. Others were feeding on them, with even more feeding on those. Cindie started to cry again; Ivan comforted her at once.
Theo watched, but didn’t say anything or make any move to help his weepy wife. They were stuck on the island for the most of the day. They continued to guard in turns to let each other rest in what safety that could be gained, and giving Shannon and Riven time to catch up
Dave had hoped Shannon would show up to take over the lead again, but they could wait no longer. The island had become surrounded by a frenzy of bloodthirsty marsh creatures. He had no choice but to lead the way off the little island.
They began tossing the dead creatures that they could easily reach to one side of the island to clear a way off. As soon as most the aggravated creatures moved around to the one side and the way was open, Dave led the group off the island and into the interior of the Bog, as much to break up Cindie and Ivan as anything.
The water was waist deep by now and full of hunger, with hidden pit holes and other dangers. Dave had to look at the shape of the land as well as the creatures that lived here. It was, by far, the hardest thing he had ever been asked to do. His head was throbbing with backlash from yesterday’s extended working and today promised to be even worse. On top of all that, the small amount of sleep and the aching body from fighting and chopping at creatures during his watches left Dave exhausted and distressed about the fact that this had only begun. Shannon had been helping all along, just at a lower level than Dave thought Shannon would waste his energy on. No one had even realized what Shannon was doing for them. Everyone was feeling Shannon’s absence now, however. They were tripping and falling, too tired to even argue, and the bugs were now attacking them in full force.
The pony’s scream alerted Dave to the fact that they were being visited from behind. Ivan yelled, and he and Kelly ran to cut the pack from the pony’s back. Dave swore under his breath as he led the way onward as fast as he could. The blood of an attack would bring more things to the area. Sloshing through the water and mud, he couldn’t help in any way but to get them farther away from it.
Kelly pulled at the pack as Ivan cut the strap. She was thrown back as it came loose, sending her into the water. She held it up over her head, though, saving the food inside. Tavia grabbed her, pulling her back, allowing her to get her footing.
A massive snake wrapped around the struggling pony and pulled it under. The legs of the pony and the pulsing green and gray coils of the serpent thrashed in the water, stirring up mud and debris from the bottom, creating a thick mess of boiling motion. Other snakes were already on the way to join the frenzied feast.
The group struggled on at a faster pace, certain that the things would come after them looking for more food. After a tense hour, it seemed that they weren’t going to be eaten by the snakes, but the fear remained with them the rest of the day.
Oirion made them stop as the darkness began to creep in around them. He had spotted a muddy place where they would at least be out of the water. More than ever, he missed Jamie. Jamie was much better at setting up camp magic and would have loved this place for all the unknowns and things to be discovered about it. However, he did know enough from Jamie’s studies and the years they had used them that he was able to fashion what Jamie called a Tent. It was a sort of “bubble of power” that would keep them dry and hold in their body heat, to some extent. Oirion couldn’t hope to hold them all in it at the level that he was used to having with Jamie, but by deflating it and folding it over to make a sort of magic tarp, they all had a dry place to lay down and get some sleep. He could have tried for more, but magic shields were even more important than being dry and he didn’t have the energy to do both. The use of the power would draw in other things and he wanted this exhausted group to be able to sleep.
When he lay down, Dave passed out immediately and the others weren’t far behind. Kelly nodded to Oirion. “Sleep. I can watch a bit.”
He wasn’t so sure she could, but he was too tired to argue. The shield should hold and sleep should be safe, at least for awhile. He wished he had used this magic the night before. They would all be far better off tonight if he had. He realized that he was going to have to stop holding things in check and just use his magic, or they were all going to suffer for it.
Oirion awoke sometime after moon up. His whole body hurt; he was suffering from the attacks on his shields that had been going on as he slept. He was tied into the magic and was becoming exhausted. He lay there awake, too tired to get up, but unable to sleep. He was momentarily concerned for Kelly. He sat up and looked around for her. She was standing on the very edge of his tarp, looking eastward, likely watching for Shannon and Riven. Motion pulled his eyes back to the others.
His tired mind took awhile to calculate what he was seeing and not until after he had lain back down did he comprehend it. Cindie had crawled over to Ivan and the motion was the two of them under Ivan’s blanket. Oirion just laid there, thinking about challenging the adultery, but he fell back to sleep before he had the strength to decide if it was real or just his tired mind playing tricks.
Everyone in camp was tired and slow in the morning. They were all hurting far worse than they had before. Travis left his mother as she tried to prepare them a meal. He came to Theo and crawled up in his lap, snuggling into the man’s slender arms. Theo held the boy a little awkwardly, but he was not about to ask him to get up. Theo looked like a wet beaten dog, ready to just fall over and die. Poor kid… Oirion was surprised that he felt any sort of sympathy at all for a man who so reminded him of his brother. He got up and walked over to Tavia to help her find food and rework the packs for the ponies. The ponies were no less tired than the company and stood with their heads hung low.
They woke Dave last and he ate as he awakened. Once he swallowed the last morsel, he was up and guiding them off the tarp, back into the swampy bog. Oirion left the tarp and just cut himself off from it. As the magic in it broke down, it would call the dangerous things to it and they would be busy with that while the group got farther and farther from them.
They traveled through the muck all day. There was nowhere to stop and nowhere to rest. Even as the sun went down, they had to keep going. The moons rose, giving Tavia enough light to stop and dig into the pack that Kelly carried. She pulled out a loaf of bread and a block of cheese. Tearing them apart with her hands, she delivered pieces to everyone as they walked. They were all grateful and devoured the meal quickly without any talking. It had been all day since they had eaten, the fear of another attack overriding hunger and weariness.
Even if they had found a dry place, it wasn’t likely that they would have stopped. Finally, Dave made them stop, as they were so worn out that the pace they were walking was hardly more than a crawling snail pace. They used an old stump of a dead tree as a back rest and sat around it, their shoulders holding each other up as they fell asleep.
Shannon had to stop. Fighting with the vampire in him was not easy; it would have driven a lesser man insane, pushing him into The Madness. He sat down on a small hill of dirt. He was tired and Riven was still too weak to even sit up. The sun had gone down already and the larger bugs were gathering, sensing the poor state of both men. Shannon drew up a shield of power around the two of them and dropped away. He woke early, as refreshed as he was going to get. Gathering Riven up, he headed out again after the others. It was late evening when they came to an area teeming with massive snakes.
“Who died?” Riven asked weakly. He rode on Shannon’s back, conscious, but too weak to walk on his own. Shannon scanned the water and the energies.
“One of the ponies.”
Shannon circled around the area and then moved back onto the path that the others had left. As he went, he absorbed the energy. This would hide the trail from their pursuers and it helped keep Shannon from getting tired or losing the battle with the powers within. The group was both scared and powerful. They didn’t have the sort of shields to hide that, let alone block Shannon’s use of it.
He had to do something, as well, to keep his mind off the priest on his back. It was like asking a man dying of thirst to carry water across the desert to a horse. Only self-will could make any man even try.
Riven was struggling to shield himself, but the power just wasn’t holding. However, the effort he put forth did help. The fact that the priest was trying to protect himself had a great cooling effect. If Riven hadn’t been trying so hard, Shannon wasn’t so sure how well he himself would fare. Riven wasn’t shielding against Shannon as much as the bog creatures, but at that point, there wasn’t much difference.
Shortly after sunrise, he was forced to stop again. He had to put Riven down and get away from him. He walked away and stood, shaky and sick. It was tempting to just go, to play dead and run, to escape this place and all its problems. He even took a step to do so, but fell to his knees. He couldn’t leave Dave; Oirion flicked into his mind as well. Shannon looked up to the heavens, the light burned his eyes and he covered them with his hand, choking on a sob.
“Please, God, help me,” he whispered in Purtan. “Not so much for me; I ask nothing for myself anymore, but for them. For those who do not realize what I am. Help me, and in doing so, save them. ”