“What happened to my leeches?”
Before leaving Magnimar, Milacent had decided that if she was going to be traipsing through a swamp, she would at least profit from it. She was collecting the plentiful leeches in a jar with an eye toward selling them to bloodletters when they got back to civilization, but now she noticed there were decidedly fewer than she had had at the start of the day.
“I have no idea,” answered Scratchy, licking his lips.
“Dammit Scratchy! These are for selling!”
Tempers were high, but the swamp did that to you. The party had brought a mule to carry things, and the smaller members of the party had mounts to increase their rate of travel: Scratchy was on his wolf and Zelcor was on a riding dog he had owned before he had met Sheila, but hadn’t felt the need to use until now. Considering they were in a trackless swamp, they were making good progress through the Mushfens.
Nevertheless, it was still time spent in a swamp. First of all, nothing stayed dry. Wading through filthy water soaked everyone from the waist down, and you were guaranteed to slip and fall into it at least once an hour. If you could keep your head out of the water, it was still soaked in sweat from the exertion, and when you could get out onto a patch of semi-dry land, nothing dried out thanks to the oppressive humidity.
Worse yet was the fauna. Insects buzzed everywhere, and there was always something lurking behind the next tree, or over the next rise, or shuffling swiftly through a nearby thicket of swamp grass. Most of the creatures were harmless, or at least too scared of the party to attack it, but their presence made it difficult to discern the truly dangerous creatures until they were preparing to strike. Several days into their trek, the heroes had been attacked by strange froglike creatures, by a gray ooze that had tried to creep into their campsite, and a manticore that had tried to ambush them while they were maneuvering around some quicksand. They had defeated all of their attackers, but the trek was still wearing on them.
“Are we there yet?” asked Milacent.
“Maybe one more day,” said Theodore, more hoping than certain.
Suddenly they heard a thrashing in the tall grass ahead of them, moving toward them quickly. Everyone prepared their weapons, but the figure that emerged before them was more pathetic than threatening. It was a human, filthy and dressed in torn rags, moving as fast as he could despite an obviously injured leg. When he saw them he fell to the ground. “Please! You have to help me! The witch! The witch is after me!”
“What witch?” inquired Theodore, but before he could answer another figure stepped out of the grass. This person was healthier, a tall human dressed in medium armor and carrying a bow. Upon seeing him, the other man screamed and began begging pitifully.
“Kill her! Kill her!” he pleaded, “She’s a witch! You have to kill her!”
“Stand aside,” the man with the bow commanded, “this person’s a wanted criminal. Stay back and let me take him.”
It was a tense situation, to say the least. But one thing was working very heavily against the injured man: the party was looking for a witch. Scratchy decided to take a chance, “Witch?” he began, “The witch Maroux? Oh great and mighty Maroux, we have come to seek your favor!”
The man with the bow paused, and then was suddenly not a man anymore, but a sickly-looking, green-skinned old woman, though still holding a bow. The man on the ground screamed again, and tried to get to his feet and run, but his leg was hurt too badly for him to move with any speed. He managed to make it only a few feet before an arrow hit him in the back and he collapsed, never to get up again.
The hag put down her bow and turned her attention back to the party. “The witch you seek? Yes, I am her. What do you want?”
Theodore wasn’t thrilled about seeing the other man killed, but what was done was done, and they did need the witch Maroux. “We heard you know the secrets of the Lady’s Light,” he told her.
There was a pause before she answered, “Yes, I know. Come with me.”
The hag picked up the dead man’s body and led them back through the grass, into a particularly dark and dismal area of the swamp. There, dug into a low hill, she had her lair. It was surprisingly roomy inside, and would have been reasonably pleasant, if not for the hunks of unidentifiable flesh hanging from the ceiling. The hag hung the new body from a hook as the party grew more and more uncomfortable. “Now, the Lady’s Light. Tell me what it is you want. And what you will do for me,” she told to them.
“Jasper Kandamerus sent us,” Theodore began, “he said that you …”
“Jasper. Kandamerus. He said you’d know him.”
“Oh yes. Jasper. Of course I know him.”
Theodore looked her over, and then looked at Scratchy. “Granted, sometimes Jasper can be difficult. Like when he’s trying to pretend he’s someone he’s not.”
“What?” asked Scratchy, “When does he do that?”
“You know, when there’s certain … innuendo.”
“In-you-what? What are you talking about? Don’t we have better things to … discuss?” He tilted his head toward the hag and then awkwardly winked in Theodore’s direction.
“Are you flirting with me? I’m trying to tell you about our old friend’s … sneaky deception!”
“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!?” the hag demanded, much to Milacent’s relief.
“Um, nothing,” Scratchy answered, “Say, what was your name again?”
The hag looked him in the eye and said, “Marot.”
“That’s what I thought,” Scratchy said, but as he prepared to draw his weapon Milacent was already moving. She jabbed at the hag with her ranseur, and the witch responded by lashing out with her claws at Scratchy. The goblin took a scratch, then struck back, drawing blood of his own. Zelcor and Theodore joined in, and soon the witch was badly hurt and backed into a corner. Then she disappeared.
Milacent listened again, and watched the floor for footprints and dirt being moved. She had found invisible creatures before, and she could do so again. An instant later she stabbed at the wall where she figured the hag was standing.
Milacent’s strike was true. The hag became visible again, thrashing violently as the ranseur impaled her against the wall. It shifted form, becoming the man with the bow, then a comely young woman, then a strange frog-creature, and then a snake, but every form it took was still pinned to the wall with Milacent’s blade. Finally it resumed its original appearance and collapsed in a bloody heap.
With the occupant defeated, the party searched her home. They found a few coins, a sextant, and the partially consumed remains of several humans. Searching further, Theodore found a ship’s log. Apparently the most recent of the witch’s victims had been crewmen of a ship that had run ashore on the reefs around the Lady’s Light. Several of the crew members had decided to try and return to Magnimar by taking the overland route through the Mushfens. The last entry read: “Met a ranger today. He’s friendly and is offering to let us rest for the night at his home before helping us get out of the swamp. It appears our luck has finally turned.” Theodore put the log in his backpack.
The four adventurers disposed of the bodies as respectfully as they could, then continued on their journey. That night they camped on solid ground as the swamp gave way to low hills, and as they crested a hill the next morning they saw, off in the distance, a giant statue of a woman holding aloft a shining beacon of some sort.
“Ah, the Lady’s Light,” Milacent said. And while she was distracted, a hungry Scratchy took another leech.