I jerked awake to the sound of shrill cries and glanced around the camp, heart racing. Zan was on watch, his focus far behind the forsaken hilltops. Our eyes met, and his conveyed just enough: the Ghasts haven’t found us. Yet. I lay my head back on my bedroll, but only found a fitful sleep until my turn to watch.
The trek through this part of the sump made the tower trip feel almost like a fond memory of what a swamp should be. The deeper we lurched through thick mud and around poisonous yellow fog, the more we realized whatever I had gotten myself into was surrounded by something far more ominous.
At dusk we stopped, up ahead the outline of a broken town tempted us with the false pretense of shelter.
“We have to pass through,” Zan said aloud, though he made no motion forward.
We lingered at the outskirts, catching our breath. I stared upward, considering the twilight horizon. “Is it just me, or has the sun taken longer to set? I’m starting to lose track of time.”
Zan and Maziel both glanced at each other.
Klotonk’s eyes lit up as he whipped out his notebook mumbling something about a contraption for time.
“You’re right, but I’d rather not know why.” Zan responded, at last pushing forward, forcing us to follow.
As we stepped into the circle of broken buildings, jagged stone roads taking the place of muck paths, the silence was overwhelming. Where once chirping insects and howling beasts filled the air, no living creature occupied this area. Only our near noiseless footfalls.
In and out. That was the plan according to Zan. Through the graveyard, to the top of the hill where the tree of Obad Hai’s quest awaited. What it entailed remained to be seen.
As we walked, Cosmo bounced along in perfect silence alongside us. His shadow bouncing in another direction entirely. I stopped short, Feeps slamming into me and forcing the party to a halt.
“Taelim,” Maziel hissed in my direction.
I was too busy watching Cosmo’s shadow run off and jump on Maziel’s shadow. The two silhouettes quarreled for a bit then returned to their owners. I looked down at my own shadow to find it in the form of a dog, chasing its tail. The group eventually caught on.
“Interesting,” Klo kneeled beside his own excitedly waving shadow.
“Not interesting,” Maziel immediately lifted the gnome to his feet, glancing around, hand on their hilt. “Time to move--” a raindrop splashed on her hand. Only the color looked a bit off. Another fell and then another, and it eventually began to build.
I lifted my palm and caught the bizarre droplet the color of crimson.
It began to pour. We didn’t argue or hesitate. Zan bolted toward the closest building, the rest of us bounding after him. We ducked inside the half-standing tavern, as deep as we dare, panting and shaking the blood off our clothes.
Something clinked around the corner and we all drew weapons.
Cosmo’s red head popped up over the splintered bar, emptying a coin box on the surface and sliding gold into his own purse. We sighed, backs pressed to the wall as we waited for the blood shower to stop. It didn’t last long, and at some point, water replaced blood and cleaned the streets. Still, we only stepped forward when the shower stopped entirely.
“Not much farther,” Zan assured us as he glanced around the doorframe and lead the group down the streets.
The town’s gate led up a winding path to the top of a hill, and from its peak we gazed out at an expansive graveyard. Far in the distance, a single tree swayed in the wind amid a maze of tombs.
Not one of us wanted to enter. We didn’t have a choice as we pushed forward, bodies tense with fear and anticipation. Silently we went, listening, watching, moving on. Then Maziel lifted a single fist in the air, and we all froze, eyes turning in all directions.
The drow lifted his head as if trying to hear what we didn’t. She mouthed a question, finger to his ear. None of us responded. We didn’t hear anything. Until the whispers started.
The voices seemed to drift on the air, not loud by any means as they softly reached our ears, forcing the group closer together, wildly looking about. Thump. Went the first tombstone by Feeps’s feet as it fell forward into the ground.
The whispers grew more excited. Another tombstone began to levitate slightly. Thump. As it, too, fell forward. Unspoken, we backed away from the falling tombs. Until Mattias fell backwards into an open grave with a cry. We scrambled to pull him up, just as Feeps slammed to the ground, a withered hand grasping his wooden leg from below. Another arm erupted from the dirt. Then another, and soon we found ourselves surrounded by moaning zombies shambling toward us.
“Taelim,” Maziel called out, eerily calm as she nocked an arrow to her bow. “Some room please.”
“It’s going to be loud,” I warned, drawing my scimitar and stepping closer to the party as the undead moved in.
I called forward a thunderous wave of energy that slammed outward, blasting back our foes with an echoing boom. We wasted no time diving outward to take advantage of the now prone zombies. Fists flew, blades slashed out, and magic furthered the destruction we wrought to the undead that kept rising up after every attack. The battle ended in a mess of severed limbs, and us standing among the zombie parts, partly grinning.
“We need to hurry,” Zan added, catching his breath. “That kind of noise doesn’t go unnoticed.”
Despite our exhaustion, we sprinted toward the tree at the top of the graveyard hill. There hung a body in hides and furs, swaying from a frayed rope. I moved toward it and quickly realized this was my target. This druid had come here in an attempt to purge the blight on this swamp. He failed. Obad Hai asked no more than to grant his follower rest, but now I wanted nothing more than to see this stranger’s task through. The Standing Stones. An image seemed to appear in the back of my mind.
I cut down the body, and my party helped as we found a burning slab. We spoke the rites, and I thanked the druid for his efforts, promising I would try to end this blight on the swamp and find this druidic ritual.
As the ceremony drew to a close, I noticed the Geas tattooed on my arm had vanished, and with it, the weight of the deity's demands. I sighed and glanced about. Then paused, heart starting to race.
“Hey guys. Where’s Klotonk?”
“And Cosmo?” Feeps added, glancing about.
“Kenderrr,” Maziel gritted their teeth.
Zan buried his face in his hands, groaning.
We immediately set off on a search.