An oppressive weight of water hung in the air, shrouding all but the immediate surround in grayish haze. Beads of moisture formed on any exposed surface and ran, forming a slick of revolting slime. A rain of spontaneously coalescing drops fell constantly with an ominous, irregular bubbling sound: the malign chuckle of a pain-crazed wreck, ripe with terror and pregnant with dread.
There was no solid ground to be seen anywhere. Two or three inches of dark, murky water floated on a seemingly bottomless depth of muddy ooze that bulged in gelatinous ripples at the slightest disturbance. Thick snarls of roots rose from the water, supporting trunks that were themselves simply supports for dark curtains of tangled moss. The trees seemed to droop wearily under the weight, aged heaps rotted by despair, nearing collapse.
Jemith perched somewhat uncomfortably on a protruding root and attempted to brush leaves, mold, and bits of bark from his clothing. The branches above shook as Daian descended the tree. A long streamer of moss broke free and landed with a soggy squelch on Jemith’s shoulders. He flung the moss aside with a hiss of disgust.
“My apologies,” Daian offered solemnly.
“What hell is this? I wonder whether I truly did survive that fall. Perhaps this is some grim ever-after and my punishment is simply to be stuck here with you.”
“I think I detect a note of resentment in your voice.”
“Only a note?” Jemith sighed noisily, his expression sour. “At least, before you appeared, my life had the advantage of being dull.”
“How is that an advantage?”
“I had the expectation that it would continue.”
Daian shrugged and began edging her way carefully down the mound of roots until she reached the water level. She shielded her eyes from the water and attempted to peer into the gloom, rewarded only with the sight of vague shadows looming in the mist. She frowned at the unpromising water, tightening her muscles against the ordeal she knew must follow. There was no sense in waiting for her imagination to make the traverse even worse than it already was.
“You cannot honestly be proposing to swim.”
“It’s that, or wait here and die.”
“You’ll be lucky to make half a mile!”
“If you have a better suggestion, I’d love to hear it.”
Jemith looked skyward, in the direction of his home, but he saw only wet clots of leaves. “I don’t think I know how to swim.”
“You do not belong here.”
“You’re certainly correct!”
“Be quiet!” Daian hissed sharply. Jemith turned to snap at her and realized they were not alone in the swamp any longer. A woman was watching them from the mist.
She stepped forward, her bare feet touching the surface of the water without sinking beneath it. Her skin was the color of mud-smeared bark, her hair hung stiff and heavy like a tangle of vines. Her gray, shapeless dress seemed a composition of patches and loose threads. Only her glittering black eyes made her seem alive, not simply a part of the general surroundings.
“You do not belong here,” she muttered vaguely.
“Which way out of this wretched swamp?” Jemith demanded.
“There is only one way out of the swamp. But it is not for you.” She turned, indifferent, and vanished into the mist. Behind her, lazy ripples spread from footprints left on top of the water.
“Unbelievable,” Jemith murmured. Daian was looking at the water. She cautiously extended a booted foot and sighed when her experiment yielded only a splash. Jemith chuckled slightly. “Were you expecting something else to happen?”
“She’s walking on the water somehow. If we can figure out how to do it, we won’t have to swim.”
“I can see why you aren’t a magician.”
Daian considered for a moment and then sat on the roots, pulling her boots off. Then she extended her foot a second time. “That feels really strange.” She took a few experimental steps, leaving wide, smeary footprints in the water.
“No,” Jemith said quietly.
“Magic doesn’t work that way. If there’s something in this water to enable you to walk on it, it should work regardless of whether you’re wearing shoes or not!”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so! Do you have any idea what this means?”
Daian squished her toes in the water thoughtfully. “No, I’m afraid not.”
“It means there is a chimera around here somewhere.”
“A chimera. A . . . changed one. How much do you know about history?” Daian treated him to a peculiar expression, both jaundiced and amused.
“Oh, a fair bit.”
“Well, it used to be that . . .”
She held up her hand, cutting him short. “I can tell you’re concerned, however, does it make any difference one way or the other? We’re still stuck”—she pointed to her feet—“and this is better than swimming.”
“We just need to be careful.”
“I’m always careful.” Jemith stripped off his shoes and tentatively extended one foot towards the water. The liquid gave slightly, and then supported his weight. He followed Daian silently as she wound through the trees, thinking too hard for conversation. He’d never encountered any phenomenon even approaching this scope, and he found himself unable to focus on anything else.
“Jemith!” Daian shouted suddenly, her voice confused and commingled with the deafening sound of an eruption. Jemith skidded sideways over the water, gasping in shock, as a mass of teeth, claws, and tangled waterweeds launched itself in his direction. Daian blurred into motion and the creature’s attenuated body suddenly developed a rent, top and bottom sliding away in opposite directions with a hideous, bubbling shriek. Jemith stared at it in horror. It looked almost human. And it was still moving.
“Jemith, what are you doing?!” Startled again, he looked up to see Daian hacking ruthlessly at a rapidly encroaching mass of monsters. Two more burst from the water as he watched, close enough that the twin plumes of water splashed him. “Cast a spell or something!”
“I don’t have anything useful!”
Daian wrenched herself through most of a circle to lop a reaching arm in half. “Then run!” Jemith took off at a sprint; in a musical jingle of armor, Daian followed him. Reaching hands rose from the water, sending Jemith sheering off in a new direction to leave them behind. His legs began to ache and the air burned in his chest. Then his feet hit something other than water and he stumbled, falling face-first into a patch of semi-solid mud. Daian stood over him, facing into the swamp, waiting for him to rise.
“They . . . they’ve stopped chasing us.”
“I think I see why.”
She glanced over her shoulder. A decaying village rose above them on endless ranks of narrow bamboo stilts.
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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