Fen Telum: The Marsh of Broken Souls

Mud splattered up her legs with every trudging step. Her clothes were covered in muck, and not even her scowling face had been spared. The Marsh of Broken Souls was a foul place. Fanning out to either side of her for farther than she could see, and separated by ten handspans each, were Boreant’s Blades—mercenary soldiers with a moderate reputation. Fen had signed on with the band specifically for this mission. Though they didn’t know it, she was also the one who had hired them. She needed them, and if they knew what for, then they wouldn’t have gone; no matter how good the pay.

   After years of research, following leads, and interrogating strangers, Fen had found a way to access the resting place of Ragmor’s titan. The most potent creation of the best animancer that had ever lived, Ragmor’s Titan had been near-deific in scope. It had taken the combined might of three kingdoms to destroy it. Ragmor himself had died long before, one of the Titan's first victims. Both of their corpses were out here, buried in the Marsh of Broken Souls.

   That wasn’t the most important part, though. When that titan went to its grave, it took something with it. Something that Fen was determined to obtain, no matter the cost. These thoughts brought her attention back to the soldiers trekking through the swamp with her. The poor fools didn’t have a clue. They thought they’d been hired to hunt for lost treasure, forgotten and unguarded. In their minds, the putrid environment was the worst of this journey. They were wrong about that, as they’d soon learn.

   “How much farther?” The whisper carried to Fen from her right.

   Fen turned her head, responding at a normal volume.

   “Not much. We should see signs of it within the next hour. Keep your eyes open and remember what I told you to look for.”

   The soldier nodded, and went back to marching through the mud, her eyes peering uncertainly at every wasted tree. Fen had hired on as a guide, professing herself knowledgeable about this area and well acquainted with the use of a sword. The captain had paid her fee eagerly; no sane person went into a swamp blind. Fen had paid off the locals in advance to support her story and to put her forward as their best guide. It had been easy. Expensive, but easy.

   A faint sound whispered through the damp air. Though quiet, it was distinct. A slithering that had buried within it an undertone of wooden thumps happening so fast and smooth that the individual noises blended together into the infamous hiss of a swamp golem. Dangerous constructs that could be created sane and useful by those skilled enough but were more often made by arcane convergences in the world and quite mad. Such as would almost certainly occur around potent objects like the bones of Ragmor’s Titan.

   Fen Tellum grinned and loosened her sword. Her smile turned to a slight frown at the touch of the unfamiliar weapon. She’d left her own sword, the blade of Vi Praevaricatrix, behind. Its presence would have made today’s task impossible. Her own magic posed a similar risk but to a much lesser degree. Coalescents, like the swamp golem, would be the least of her worries if she didn’t maintain the utmost caution. If she failed, it would be another century before the alignment of powers were right, and her task could be achieved. That was a wait she was determined to avoid.

   The mercenaries of Boreant’s Blade had spotted the swamp golem, and though visibly shaken, all had their weapons out and were responding professionally. The soldiers wielding longer melee weapons drew together and formed up into a wedge, stomping through the mud in a determined march towards the coalescent as their bow-wielding comrades started a barrage from behind them, arcing the arrows up and over the marching soldiers’ heads to land with remarkable accuracy.      

   The creature was made of rotted wood and old carcasses tied together by thick vines that moved with a life of their own. Its face was a swarm of insects, feasting upon the golem’s collage of a skull. Fen recognized bones from numerous species in the creature’s construction. Other than its grotesquery, the golem maintained a humanoid form, though of daunting size. Its bizarre appearance may have left the attacking soldiers unprepared for the power of the golem’s response. Fen recalled her own first time underestimating a coalescent.

   Thick vines shot forward, entangling the front row of mercenaries and flinging them into the ones marching behind them. Arrows continued to slam into the golem from above, mostly harmless and wholly ignored.

   One soldier managed to dart out from the grasping vines and fling a brightly colored flagon at the golem’s feet. The mercenary gave out a strange cry, rhythmic yet wordless, before turning and diving face-first into the muck of the swamp. All at once, the other soldiers quit trying to untangle themselves from the vines and each other, focusing entirely on burrowing down into the mud with a mad, desperate vigor.

   The onslaught of arrows changed. The archers each pulled a strange shaft from their quivers. As they set the projectiles, they struck the tips along small metal plates embedded in their bracers. The arrows sputtered putrid smoke as the archers drew their bows and took aim for the brightly colored flagon at the golem’s feet. Fen cursed, turning and diving back towards the safety of the marsh’s embrace. The archers fired.

   There was a shattering blast. Fen could feel the force of it through the protective mud as it quivered around her like jelly. After a moment of ringing silence, Fen pulled herself from the mud. She saw that the other soldiers had already done the same and were gathering around the swamp golem’s smoking remains. It was a disgruntled sorceress that trudged through the mud to join the excited and victorious soldiers of Boreant’s Blade.

   “Well, guide, what do you make of that? Didn’t you say we should avoid these things, and run rather than confront them?” The soldier’s gloating voice and the snickers of his comrades were almost enough to break Fen’s composure. Only focused visualization of her prize kept her from killing them right then. It wasn’t by accident that she usually worked alone.

   Besides, the brat wasn’t wrong. She had said those things and done it knowing full well they wouldn’t heed her advice. They’d attacked precisely as she’d anticipated, except for that last stunt with the fire-bomb. Nothing she knew of them had indicated that they had an alchemist, or employed their devices. Most mercenary companies that could afford such weapons made sure to boast of it to their would-be employers.

   Fen had to wonder why Boreant’s Blades had kept such a powerful piece of marketability so secret. It irked her that she would likely never learn the answer to that mystery. The mercenaries were unlikely to survive long enough for her to learn from them. Of course, she could always hunt Boreant himself down afterward and ask him. The fat merchant technically ran the band but couldn’t be further from a soldier himself. He was just a very wealthy and resourceful criminal.

   Fen turned her eyes upon the jeering mercenaries. “I did say that, and I’ll say this now. You certainly surprised me, but next time give me some warning before blowing us up. Better yet, save your explosives for the digging. That treasure you're looking for has sat in the swamp for a long time. Things here have a way of sinking. Fire-bombs are a lot faster than shovels and have the benefit of hardening the mud.”

   The soldier started to respond with an uncaring dismissal, but stopped himself and thought carefully about Fen’s words, his eyes turning dangerous. “That’s pretty strange knowledge for a swamp guide to have. Especially one that claimed, just yesterday, that she’d never heard of anyone doing something ‘so foolish as digging for treasure in a swamp.’”

   Fen looked at the suspicious soldier contemptuously. “I know alchemy well, sell-sword, and the effects of heat upon mud haven’t been a secret for thousands of years. Your paranoia betrays your insecurity. I told you when you hired me that this was a fool’s hunt. I doubt there’s any treasure, but you’ve paid me well to suspend that disbelief.”

   The soldier snorted. “Fool’s errand or no, we get paid the same. If there’s one treasure, though, there might be more. Anything we don’t have orders about is free for the taking. So, don’t worry lass, even if this treasure hunt is some gimmick you swamp folks have cooked up, we won’t punish you for it. Angry employers sometimes forget to pay, and none of us want that. Better to give it an honest look, get an honest pay, and if we’re lucky, find some dishonest loot.”

   Fen couldn’t fault the mercenary’s logic. It was his knowledge that was lacking. Which, of course, had been her doing. Everything she had told the mercenaries had been specifically tailored to her purposes. They needed a reason to go deeper into the marsh, and Fen had to go with them. She shelved her thoughts and gave the pragmatic mercenary a mild attempt at a smile.

   “Sounds reasonable enough to me. It’s getting dark soon, though, and finding buried treasure in this place is going to be hard enough without trying to do it by torchlight.” Fen nodded at the burnt golem and the seared ground around it. “This spot should serve us well for the night.”

   The mercenary leader eyed the sky, then surveyed the ground they stood upon and nodded slowly. “Alright, guide. That’s advice I’ll take. The ground here was already a bit more stable than the rest, and now that it’s been flash-cooked it should hold even better.” He turned and singled out five soldiers. “You lot, go with the guide and gather wood to shore up the rest of this turf. We need enough to get everyone out of the mud for the night. And be quick about it. The rest of you start breaking out camp. Start with this swamp creature; its corpse should make for a good fire.”

   The appointed soldiers saluted and ambled over to Fen. After a moment’s thought, she gave them a grin and beckoned them to follow her deeper into the marsh. Overhead, the sky darkened as the sun snuck behind the horizon. It took longer than Fen had expected before the soldiers with her grew nervous and bold enough to question her.

   “We’ve passed more than a few twisted little trees that would have served just fine. You looking for something better ahead or is it true that you’re swamp-addled?” The soldier’s voice started slightly squeaky, with more than a little self-doubt, but it quickly strengthened as his frightened mind pursued the security blanket of condescension and arrogance.

   Fen ignored him. For a few minutes more the soldiers followed wordlessly, then the same one broke the silence with a curse.

   “Enough of this. We’re heading back, we’ve passed more than enough plant life to gather what we need. Go on if you want, witch, but we’re not going any farther with you.”

   The outspoken mercenary put action to words with his comrades following suit. Before long all five had faded from view, leaving Fen standing alone with a satisfied smile. She’d led those soldiers in a series of mostly random zigs and zags at the fastest pace she’d been able to keep them moving. The chances of them finding their way back to the campsite were quite low. Their chances of waking up more of the swamp’s predators, however… well, that was almost a certainty. Fen smiled and waited.

   It didn’t take long until the screams reached her. The sound would reach the camp just as easily. What she didn’t know was how the commander would handle it; so far, he’d shown less recklessness than she’d anticipated. Would he send people to inspect the cries and look for his missing guide and soldiers, or would he play it safe? Fen sincerely hoped it was the former. If it came down to it, she’d kill the mercenaries herself, but in doing so, she would cheapen the meal she was offering the marsh’s guardian.

   Proditione, spirit of betrayal, was no easy deity to please. Fen had studied the minor god extensively before concocting her plan. As with all such beings, certain eccentricities existed within their nature that could be exploited. With most, it involved a sacrifice of some specific kind or means. In the case of Proditione, that sacrifice had to be delivered by betrayal. If Fen’s research and conclusions were correct, then her use of Boreant’s Blades would prove an ideal offering. After that, she’d only have the Titan’s remains to deal with. Compared with getting past Proditione, the last part of her task would be simple.

   Fen squashed a mosquito on her arm and considered her options. The scene was set for the people of Boreant’s Blade to meet a gruesome demise in the Marsh of Broken Souls, by means of thorough betrayal. She’d hired them under falsehoods, led them into the marsh, seen them encamped by her word of safety, and misled their minds the whole way. She could, at this point, just sit back and enjoy the show she’d assembled for passage. If not for seeing first-hand just how competently the mercenaries had handled the golem earlier, the prospect would have been appealing.

   It was with no small amount of irritation that Fen Telum concluded that further involvement was required of her if her plan was going to be a success. Her actions were more limited than she was used to. She didn’t have the blade of Vi Praevaricatrix, nor could she use any magic that might linger in the air. Any stray power that wasn’t entirely contained by body or object could stir the long-dead titan that Proditione guarded. The construct might not rise from this distance, but the area would be bombarded with arcane energy and the mass emergence of many more coalescents like the swamp golem. Still, that left her with more options than most.

   After a few minutes of consideration, Fen pulled a small object from her pouch and began walking unerringly in the direction where the mercenaries had made their camp. She glanced at the artifact in her hand.

   It was a small cylinder, scuffed by age and engraved with runes that shone with unfaded vibrancy. Once, long ago, this artifact had powered remarkable contraptions. Now it was broken, the last token of a culture buried beyond the past. The one thing it was good for, in its current condition, was spitting unfocused bursts of magical energy all around itself when activated.

   Fen moved quickly through the marsh and was soon within hearing range of the mercenary camp. She slowed her pace and moved forward at a crouch, counting on debris and her coating of mud for cover. Ahead of her, the encampment was abuzz with activity and torchlight.

   She’d been right; at least five more soldiers were missing from the group. Almost certainly having been sent to find the ones Fen had taken searching for wood. A cruel grin lit the sorceress’ muddy face. Her eyes scanned the people, carefully noting each and moving on until she saw the one who had secured the swamp golem’s destruction. When Fen saw that mercenary, her smile grew broader. She’d made three plans—each a potential contingency—for achieving her goal, and so far none of them had been derailed.

   If the mercenaries proved too tough to kill, which was looking unlikely, then Fen intended for them to aid her in a direct battle with Proditione. If they died as she planned, then Proditione would step aside from his post. Betraying it, as was his nature. And finally, among the mercenaries was an individual who, unbeknownst to nearly all, was a direct descendant of one of the wizards who had sealed the titan away long ago. Killing her in the right way, at the right place, would do more than stir the titan. It would awaken it in full, giving Proditione a fight too dangerous to allow him to bother with Fen.

   Two of her plans were inherently at odds, but only by the success of the other. It was possible that she might get enough of the mercenaries killed by her betrayal to appease Proditione without losing them all, but that was unlikely. Which was why she’d snuck a powerful charm of protection into the gear of the ancient wizard’s descendant. That woman had to die last, and by Fen’s hand. Unless things went awry, of course. Then she would likely need to die much sooner.

   Fen considered the potency of the charm she’d left with the descendant as she eyed the engraved cylinder. After a moment she shrugged. It would have to be enough. Her cruel grin turning playful and mischievous, Fen slashed her thumb and pressed the bloody digit onto the base rune of the cylinder. Then the threw it into the mud next to the mercenary camp.

   A burst of fuzzy red energy lit the air above where the artifact had landed. A gurgling, croaking sound bubbled up from the swamp. The mud shifted, and a glistening, green head emerged. Bulbous eyes, the size of grapefruits. A bulging throat of pearly white. And, once it finished forming, a set of four oddly bent and incredibly muscular legs. With a suppressed chuckle, Fen realized that the energies had manifested within a marsh frog.

   The frog had grown vast in size and distorted in shape, but to a calm mind, it was still recognizable. Somehow, Fen didn’t think that description would fit the mercenaries right now. Not that recognizing the monster made it any less dangerous. As if to punctuate her thoughts, Fen saw sword-like fangs sprout from within the enormous amphibian’s mouth. It let out a deafening croak and leaped towards the startled soldiers.

   The giant frog landed on two of the mercenaries, driving them to the ground with bone-breaking force. Its tongue had lashed out while it was still midair and was even now pulling a screaming soldier into its gaping maw. Spears, swords, and arrows began to pierce the beast, and it let out a thundering shriek. With mad thrashings, the frog slammed into its attackers with fang and body. Its violent attack made it relatively easy to kill, but at high cost for the people of Boreant’s Blade. Fen counted another twelve soldiers dead before the beast was slain.

   Fifteen mercenaries stood in a grim circle around their fallen comrades. Amongst the fallen was their commander. Slowly, they all turned to one face, clearly expecting orders. Fen watched as her intended sacrifice briskly took charge of the remaining soldiers; getting them organized into a tight defensive ring. Half of them stood on guard, encircling the others as they lay down in a close huddle to sleep.

   Fen had lived a mercenary’s life, and she had no doubt that even in the current situation, those soldiers laying down would soon be asleep. Those who couldn’t learn the trick of sleeping under duress didn’t make it long in this line of work.

   The buried artifact still had a few left kicks in it before the blood on it wore off. Fen settled in to watch. Faintly, she could hear the high-pitched scream of someone dying in the marsh far behind her. If the encamped mercenaries heard it too, they gave no sign.

   Half an hour passed uneventfully before the broken artifact spat out another burst of magic. Fen’s eyes narrowed as she watched the arcane energies emerge and mix with the ambient magic of the marsh. It looked like… With a curse, Fen dove backward into the mud. For the second time since coming here, she trusted to the marsh’s murky embrace to protect her from an explosion.

   After a moment, it was over, and Fen pulled herself from the mud, unscathed. The soldiers of Boreant’s Blade were not so fortunate. They’d had no way of knowing what was about to happen, and the blast had been far closer to them than Fen. The explosion had been a surprise to everyone, and if Fen hadn’t noticed the presence of Proditione’s interfering magic, she might not have reacted in time either.

   If his magic was present, then the spirit of betrayal couldn’t be far off. Fen fought the temptation to locate him with a spell. Forcing off years of instinct, she carefully made her way through the muck and into the carnage that was all that remained of the mercenary camp. With relief, she noticed one mercenary still breathing. The woman who, unknowingly, bore a charm of protection. Fen stood over the woman’s unconscious form and turned in slow circles, casting her gaze across the marsh.

   “Proditione! I have offered, and you have received! Through my betrayal, these lives have been given to you! As boon, I ask that you open the way to the titan for me. Betray your post as I have betrayed my hirelings.”

   Fen stood in silence, waiting expectantly. She wasn’t disappointed.

   A thin voice, like a gentle breeze with words, carried to her ears.

   “Proceed, sorceress. Your betrayal was worthy, and shall be returned in kind.”

   Fen grinned triumphantly. Reaching down, she picked up the unconscious mercenary and lifted the woman onto her shoulders. There was a tremendous rending sound ahead of her, slightly deeper within the marsh. The tomb had been unsealed. Without wasting a moment, Fen marched through the mud, away from the encampment of carnage, and towards her goal. The titan awaited her. She needed to get closer before she could perform her next task, and she had to do so before Proditione continued to show his nature.

   The marsh began to change. The ground grew firmer until the squelching sludge was all but gone. The withered, shrub-like trees were replaced by a thick grove of oaks. Even the air was different. The stench of rot and the swarm of insects had all but abated. Fen took in her surroundings and stopped walking. This was close enough.

   With quick motions, she laid her unconscious burden upon the ground and removed the charm she’d planted earlier. A deep breath brought the focus Fen needed to visualize the complexities of energy she was about to summon. The sorcerous released her breath. A gleaming dagger of gold flashed down in her right hand and slid across the sacrifice’s throat, channeling through its runic blade the spell that Fen had wrought. At the same time, Proditione struck.

   Purple bolts of energy flew from the grove’s shadows, flying straight and silent for Fen’s back. As the blood of Fen’s sacrifice pulsed into the earth, and Proditione’s attack soared towards the sorcerous, the ground began to shake. The Titan was awakening.

   Just as the purple bolts were about to strike, a thick slab of earth rushed upwards and absorbed the arcane blast. It also shielded Fen from Proditione’s view. He quickly circled around and readied another attack, but Fen was gone; leaving nothing but the body of her victim behind. The spirit cursed, enraged, but was quickly silenced by the shouting of the earth.

   The trees shook, slowly uprooting themselves as the earth bulged farther and farther upwards. A massive body was emerging from beneath the ground and displacing all above it. Proditione struggled in horror to pour his power into what remained of the tomb’s seal. To stop the Titan from rising any further. When that failed, the spirit of betrayal turned his powers inward and vanished.

   Floating far above the tree line, Fen watched the Titan rise. It was a wondrous sight, unlike anything she’d seen before. And she’d witnessed and performed feats of magic that few would even think possible. She couldn’t help but admire what Ragmor had accomplished with this construct, though she considered his death a good reason not to imitate the feat.

   It took half an hour, but eventually, the Titan was free from the earth. Even from her distant perch in the sky, Fen could tell the massive creature was emaciated. After so long spent dead and buried, it was going to be hungry. With massive, lumbering steps, the Titan began plodding towards the nearest town. Its progress was halted and uncertain at first, but soon grew steady and sure. In less than an hour, the construct would be at the marsh village that Fen had left two days ago. It made her momentarily envious of the Titan’s long legs, but she quickly banished the distracting thought. The field was clear now, and she had a prize to retrieve.

   Dropping like a fiery comet, Fen slammed downwards into the disturbed ground where the Titan had been sealed. It didn’t take her long to find the shriveled corpse of Ragmor, or the small chest his mummified arms were wrapped around.

   Fen jerked the chest free of the cadaver, breaking its arms in the process. Holding her breath, feeling a sudden spike of anxiety, Fen carefully opened the box. Within lay a dusty bottle filled with a murky red liquid. She sighed in relief. After all she’d done in pursuit of it, she’d finally found the lost bottle of Ragmor’s infamous wine.

   The ancient wizard had done more than create a titan, he’d also engineered wine that would kill those who didn’t have the strength and skill of magic to handle it. To those who could survive it, though, the wine offered insights and powers otherwise unattainable. In all her collected lore, and through all her own experiments, Fen had never encountered a more potent elixir of sorcery.

   In her research, Fen had uncovered much about the wine’s creation. She knew what family of grapes Ragmor had used, and that he watered them only with the blood of unicorns. She also knew that a compound made of ground dragon’s teeth had been added during the fermentation process. What she didn’t know, what there’d been no record of, were the spells that Ragmor had added to the process to bring out the elixir’s potential.

   Looking at the bottle with a triumphant smile, Fen wove the sorceries that would show her what spells this wine’s birth had required. Once she had the answer, she carefully placed the bottle back within its box. Then, she tore a hole in the air. The jagged gateway led to her home far away.

   With prize in hand, Fen Telum walked through the portal, leaving the ravenous fury of an unleashed Titan behind her.

 

The End