The Wrathbreakers have settled matters in the marsh town of Yula, and now must head north to find the healer, Aragan, who can repair Itzel’s wrecked arm and Bao Tap’s ruined hand. It is 10 days’ travel in the marshes to reach the town of Kei where the healer lives, so they set out as soon as they can after their business in Yula is done.

They took a gondola along the shifting waterways of the marshlands, heading north to Kei. Every two days they stopped at a small swamp village, where they slept comfortably in simple beds behind mosquito nets, on dry decking raised above the mire and murk of the swamp; but every other day their gondolier had to lead them away from the main channels of the journey to find dry land to place a camp. On these nights they learnt quickly that the landscape of the marshlands is treacherous, the channels always moving and the position of individual safe camping areas always difficult to find in the morphing, shifting landscape of small streams, mud patches and pools of the swamps. Once a mound of dry land had been found they needed to string out crocodile- and insect-repellent marshstones, set up nets for fish, and lay out reed mats to protect their camp from the soft, damp earth. The following day these dampened mats would be exchanged for dry ones at the next village, and so the journey would continue.

Despite the threatening gloom, constant mists and strange sounds of the swamp, they reached Kei unmolested. Kei was built on a long island rising from a sluggish river, its southern side a kind of ox-bow lake and its northern side the main river, moving from a lake in the west to the sea in the east. The northern side of the island was festooned with water wheels, and the town’s piers and working structures were set up on its more placid southern side. Anti-crocodile nets three layers thick protected the town on its southern side from the ever-present beasts, while on the northern side fences picketed between water wheels ensured the island was safe from incursion. The group’s gondolier arrived at one of the piers on the south bank and they headed inland to a small and comfortable hostel called the Hungry Frog. That evening they met with Aragan, and set about negotiations for their arm.

Aragan was a tall, severe-looking man with dark skin and red hair, a little past middle age but still thin and lean. One of his eyes was milky from some past damage or uncured illness, and he often fidgeted with an enchanted monocle that enabled him to see through it. He spoke in short, terse sentences, but had a warm manner regardless. He inspected Itzel and Bao Tap’s injuries and told them that not only could he repair them, he would be able to offer them some magical enhancements for the right price. However, before they finalized their agreement, he told them that he might be able to offer them a discount if they did him a favour. A delegation of swamp folk had come to Kei, and he suspected they would need help of the kind the Wrathbreakers could provide; if so, then he would give them a discount. They agreed, and retired to wait for the meeting with the swamp folk.

The Swamp Folk

The next morning the Wrathbreakers were woken at dawn and taken to a meeting area on the southern side of town. This was a large, open platform, surrounded by mosquito nets, that protruded over the water. As the sun broke over the mists to the east the swamp folk returned from their nightly wanderings, pulling up in small coracles that they tied expertly to the legs of the building and springing into the light. They were short – no more than perhaps a metre tall – with strangely scaly, lizard-like grey skin and inhuman, lizard-like orange eyes. Their bodies were hairless and thickly muscled, so that they must be much stronger than a human of the same weight. They wore simple clothes of a kind of poorly-woven flax, and each of them had at their waist a small, ceremonial curved dagger. They spoke to each other in a language of hisses and whistles. They greeted Aragan with obvious warmth and respect, and he spoke to them a little in a rough approximation of their language, though they had obvious difficulty interpreting his weak human accent. Then one of them spoke in the language of humans, similarly heavily accented, using few and simple words. The essence of it was:

“The beast of the Bones is back. Your kind helped us with it generations ago. The time has come to help again. We will refresh our bonds, if you help.”

The beast of the bones was a creature of unknown form that had marauded the swamp folk homes in this area many years ago. No one knew exactly when, because the swamp folk simply said it was “generations ago” and the humans had not bothered to keep records. When the swamp folk came for help the humans had sent some marines, who had all been destroyed by the beast, but had somehow killed it in the process, leaving no survivors to report on its form. The swamps had quickly reclaimed the beast’s body, leaving only bones, and so by the time the humans had negotiated with the swamp folk to return to the scene they could not say exactly what the beast had looked like. Thus it was called “the beast of the bones.” In return for the humans’ help the swamp folk had begun trading in marshstone, and so this region’s wealth had been assured. This had all happened outside of living memory, and whether it was 100 or 400 years ago was hard to say. Part of Aragan’s mission here in Kei had been to try and uncover more of the truth about the past relationship of humans and swamp folk, their origins, and who the swamp folk were; but the facts of this event had eluded him for some years.

In any case, another beast of the bones had returned, the swamp folk needed the humans’ help, and the Wrathbreakers were nominated to give it. They left at dawn.

The beast of the bones

They left the town of Kei that night. Swamp folk were nocturnal folk, so they traveled through the mists and murk of the swamp under the light of the stars, with only Itzel’s mild werelight to guide them. It was hard, muddy work moving along secret, narrow ways that were ideally sized for swamp folk and badly designed for humans. At times they used coracles that they could barely sit in, and at other times they walked or slogged through mud. After three days of this they arrived at a swamp folk settlement, an amazing place built out of the trees themselves, which had been warped and twisted to grow around comfortable nests of reeds and dry flax where the Wrathbreakers could sleep and relax. They ate raw snake meat, boiled eggs and fish grilled on open fires, and a strange liqueur made from some flowers from the swamp. During this travel and day of rest Itzel realized that the entire swamp folk way of life – the way they found their way through the swamps, the tools they used, the twisted and modified trees – was based on a faint, subtle fey magic. The swamp folk were, or had been, fey. Once again, they were helping the fey.

That night they set out for the area where the beast of the bones had been marauding. They passed into increasingly quiet, bad-smelling boggy land until they reached an expanse of mangrove where no animal stirred. Here the beast ambushed them, emerging from the mud right next to them in a wave of stinking mud, broken roots and swinging tentacles. It was a massive beast, easily the size of a house, with multiple long, thick tentacles that it used to attack and grab all around it. Some of those tentacles were thronged with spines the size of swords, while others were covered in suckers like an octopus. One such tentacle hit Bao Tap and began dragging him towards its mouth, but Xu rushed in and stabbed at it until it released him; but moments later another tentacle grabbed Xu, and Bao Tap had to work to free him. Bao Tap summoned a nature’s champion, this time an enormous crocodile that waddled out of the shadows of the mangrove trees to join the fray, and Itzel granted everyone a magical shield of acid that would damage the beast’s thick hide every time it struck them. Soon they had hacked, stabbed, burnt and bitten the thing so much that it could not move, and so then they staggered backwards in the mud, firing on it with bows, crossbows and magic strikes until it died in the mud.

As it lay dying Itzel approached it, sensing something was wrong. The thing had been too crazed, and the area around it was too despoilt, for its actions to be entirely natural. She and Bao Tap investigated it, and she soon discovered the cause of its aggressive predatory behavior: the beast was subtly corrupted with the same strange, unknown magic that she had identified in the scrolls they stole from the deep cult in the Valley of Gon. The beast had been somehow affected by this unknown magic, and driven by the evil of that magic had come to this area to attack the swamp folk.

Their next steps were obvious. They would need to head deeper into the swamp, and find the cause of this beast’s corruption – before it found them.