Petrick had long ago given up any hope of getting the stink of the stangnant Mistmarch mud out of his robes. The thigh-deep muck was as much a mental trial as a physical one; each step required working up the gumption to willingly put his leg back into the sucking, squelching mess he had just liberated it from a moment before. When the Reverend Father had selected Petrick for the party sent to retrieve the musical score to the Dragonsrise Symphony, he had never imagined that a hike through the swamp could be so... unpleasant. Not that it would have changed anything, Petrick admitted to himself. Music was a love second only to his magic, and the chance to recover, and perhaps help perform, a lost masterwork from one of the earliest great composers was worth any price. Although he would not be surprised to discover that he had grown a pink, curly pig's tail before they got back home.
Amelie shook her head as she heard her clumsy husband stumble over a hidden tree root yet again. "I'll force him to find a spell for flight before I let him come with us again," she muttered to Lucatro, the half-elf paladin leading the Mistmarsh expedition. Lucatro gave a small, sideways smile, "Oh, I doubt the local skull-bashers can hear his splashing over the sound of Ghejhann's bellyaching." Amelie stifled a giggle; she had long since tuned out Ghejann's muttering. The proud Dragonborn warlord was not fond of the mud, to say the least. She turned her ears back to Ghejann's steady stream of words for just a moment: "... reeking filth ... foul air and fouler water ... treacherous tree! My dragonfire is too honorable an end for you! ... pests and pestilence ... my kin should scour this place with a cleansing fire and raise a cloud of steam so great it would rain down in Sharn itself..."
Amelie smiled to herself and turned back to scanning the terrain in front of them for some semblance of dry land to lay camp for the night. It would be good to take her boots off and dry out her feet by the fire. A short while later, she spotted some tufts of grass in the distance - actual grass, not swamp reeds. "There," she nudged Lucatro and pointed out the spot, "it's the first sign I've seen of anything dry since we entered the marsh."
Lucatro would have preferred to press on a little longer, but seeing the hopeful looks from Petrick and Ghejhann was too much for him. There's something subtly unsettling about a Dragonborn attempting to make puppy-dog eyes. He was only giving up an hour of travel. It was worth it to keep morale up. "Looks good to me; let's get the fire going."
Three hours later, the party indeed was in a much better mood. They had cleaned and dried their clothes and armor as best as circumstances would allow, and the everlasting provisions basket provided by the Reverend Father had helped them all regain their full strength. The Mistmarsh at night was a different place. Gone was the incessant buzzing of the insects and the splashes of the water serpents and other reptiles hunting in the light and heat of the day. The mist which gave the Mistmarsh its name never really cleared, but during the day it was thin enough to manage, no worse than a light fog. Now, the mist was pressing in on the small, dry island. The fire held the mist back as much as the cold, leaving nearly solid walls of cloudy gray at the edges of the camp, and giving the impression of being inside a strange house constructed from the essence of ghosts. The light from the fire cast strange lights and shadows in the mist, causing more than one person to glance off to the side, his gaze chasing after some spritely illusion. The air was utterly still; in the surrounding waters, small, nocturnal creatures were beginning to swim, creating a constant background of tinkling waves. Even the stench of the stagnant water seemed less oppressive in the cool night air.
"This is almost peaceful," Petrick mused aloud to the others, "I've never felt so isolated."
"Do not be fooled," Ghejhann growled, "the marsh is home to all manner of things that would do us harm. This very island worries me. It has a tainted feel to it."
Amelie frowned, "I was a spy of the King's Own before I ... well, before. I know how to check for danger."
"I doubt not your skill. I am seeing it with a tactical eye. My life's goal is to wage battles of such beauty that Corellon himself would bless my endeavors, and give me the honor of forging a restored Arkhosia, an Arkhosia dedicated to the perfection of all honorable arts, an Arkhosia that ... "
"Ghejhann," Lucatro raised a single eyebrow at his old friend, "we've heard this speech before. Why don't you just tell us what has you all worked up?"
Ghejhann growled softly in the back of his throat, but decided not to take offense. "This is the only dry land we encountered in our long day of travelling. I expected to sleep standing in water this night, and to break rust from the joints of my armor in the morning."
"You think someone wanted us to stop here?" Patrick asked, looking slightly confused.
"No," Ghejhann let out a small huff of steam that might have been a sigh, "If this is the only dry land we found, then it is likely the only dry land that many others have found. Perhaps it is a well known spot to those who live here, like an oasis in the desert."
"So? Nobody else was here, there's no sign of a recent camp, and if someone else shows up, they can share our fire."
"I did not think a wizard could be so dim!"
"He's not dumb, you cranky lizard!" Amelie jumped to her feet, "He's just very ... focused in his learning. Magic and music are both complicated subjects! And just this week he ..."
"Amelie..." Lucatro cautioned."
"Sorry. But he's not dumb."
"I take no offense, Amelie. I have grown accustomed to the hot tempers of humans, and defending one's mate is honorable."
Petrick interjected quickly, "I don't need defending! Just because I can't guess what you're thinking doesn't mean I won't understand it if you'd just come out and say it!"
"I mean only that it is not just the good and the just that will know of an oasis. When the lion wishes to hunt, he goes to the water. If the sons of chaos wish to hunt here, they will come where they know they will find prey."
"Good point," Lucatro interjected, taking control of the conversation, "we'll stand double watches tonight, two at a time. Amelie, why don't you and Petrick take the first watch. I'll take over with Ghejhann later when the moon sets; I should still be able to see then as much as anyone can see anything in this mist."
[caption id="attachment_1297" align="alignleft" width="297" caption="Amelie gives Petrick an exasperated look."][/caption]
"I still can't believe he called you dim!" Amelie whispered. She sat back to pack with Petrick, each of them staring into the mist, looking for any hint of a solid form.
"You know how he is," Petrick answered, "he expects everyone to know what he knows. It's alright. I'm over it."
"It's still rude. Cranky lizard." Amelie crossed her arms tightly in frustration, "Gah! I can't see anything past the edge of the firelight! This stupid symphony better be magical or something."
"There's nothing stupid about the Dragonsrise Symphony! It was written by Nattanyal, the very Nattanyal who wrote nearly half of the pieces that have survived from the time of the Nerath Empire. Nobody has ever found a musical score to it, but historians note that the Emperor liked it so much, that he declared a national holiday in its honor! Nattanyal wrote a great account of where his inspiration came from in his memoirs. He said he was visited by Corellon in the early morning and told to go down to a narrow beach beneath a tall cliff, and ..."
Amelie sighed. There was no stopping this speech.
Just past the edge of the little dry island, four reptilian eyes glinted in the moonlight. A long, narrow row of teeth showed itself in the darkness in what might have been called a smile. A small, scaly arm reached up and settled a pair of magnifying goggles into place. It was time for some fun.
"... and that's when he knew he needed something really grand for the final movement. He decided to visit the ..."
"What ... Why? It's not like I just babble on all the time about ... "
"Seriously, Petrick. Hush." Amelie pointed to a spot off to her right where the little island came to a point. "I thought I saw something over there on that point, just for a moment."
"Oh. Well, I'll go check it out. You keep watch. You'll spot whatever's in the mist faster than I would, anyway."
Petrick made his way slowly to the far point, keeping his eyes glued to the ground for any sign of recent passage by man or beast. He didn't see anything unusual, but the tightly woven grass was not good for holding prints. He reached the edge of the dry land and leaned out over the border between the springy grass and the soft mud, peering into the mist beyond. He saw a brief, golden glint out of the corner of his eye. He snapped his head toward the spark, but saw only the swirling mist. There it was again. The barest hint of a golden flash from the dim remains of the dancing firelight. Petrick froze and stared intently into the mist. He couldn't discern any motion in the swirling eddies of the heavy fog, and he didn't hear anything except for the soft waves of the small local amphibians swimming about in the night.
The wizard decided it must have been a frog hopping along the edge of his vision and turned to head back toward Amelie. As soon as he turned to leave, a thick, black, scaly tail exploded out of the mist, connecting with his shoulder blades. Petrick was thrown forward, falling hard to the matted grass below.
Amelie turned her head just in time to see a jagged spike thrust up from the ground and impale her husband's throat.
Her training from her time in the King's Own kicked in immediately. Dropping to a crouch, she scanned the edge of the island, scouring the mist beyond for any sign of movement. Petrick's scream was enough to wake the rest of the party, despite quickly being strangled into nothing as the spike shredded his vocal cords. Amelie knew he had to be dead. Even if the spike didn't kill him outright, there was no way he could breathe. The only way to get him back now was to survive, or make sure someone survived, to get his body back to the Reverend Father. She pushed her grief down deep; she had her mission and her purpose.
Lucatro had moved to her right shoulder as Amelie made her survey of the mist. "Looks like Ghejhann was right," he spoke softly, "that trap had to have been placed here long before we set foot on this little plot of land." The paladin's gaze locked on a point in the distance. "There! I can see a solid form there. I would say it's a kobold, but he's way too high off the ground. Be ready for anything. Defensive positions!"
The half-elf stood up to his full height and called to the mist, "You there! Stop skulking in the shadows like a coward and fight! Or perhaps you're too ugly to be seen even by firelight: ugly like the dragons you cling to as parasites!"
An outraged roar pierced the night air as a massive blackscale bruiser charged out of the mist and into the camp, greatclub raised to strike. "Green dragon not ugly! Green dragon pretty!" Amelie tumbled out of the line of the bruiser's charge and took refuge behind the low-hanging branches of the ancient willows which stood in an unbroken line on the far side of the island. She whispered a brief prayer to Sehanine that the shadows would allow her to strike back at their attackers unseen. Amelie drew her Duelist's Shuriken, her last perk from her time with the King's Own. The fact that she wasn't technically supposed to have it didn't bother her too badly.
Ghejann drew his crossbow and fired into the charging creature, only to watch the bolt bounce harmlessly away from the thick scales on the blackscale's shoulder. The lizardfolk was almost on top of Lucatro when he brought his greatclub down in a mighty blow. The paladin raised his shield to ward off the strike, but the heavy club turned it aside and left a sizeable dent in the thick plate armor beyond. "Scrape his scales to make a new set of armor!" Ghejhann shouted, as Lucatro brought his longsword around in a wide arc. Showing no mercy to the creature who had so cruelly killed his companion, Lucatro drove the sword home, biting into the scales beneath the blackscale's shoulder blades and drawing blood. If the brute even noticed, he gave no outward sign.
The lizardfolk's enraged charge took him farther than he intended; he skidded into Ghejhann's reach, and the warlord gave his enemy a furious smash with his shield, knocking him slightly off balance.
As Amelie watched from the shadows, she took note of two oddities about this particular blackscale bruiser. First was the long string of plush children's toys hanging around his neck. The second was the cackling form of a bright green kobold riding him in some kind of clever harness. Something told her that taking out the little kobold would be in everyone's best interests. She siezed the advantage Ghejhann's smash had granted. A deft throw of the shuriken met with success: a high keening scream of surprise and pain as the enchanted shuriken flew back to her hand, taking a chunk of green kobold hide with it.
The little creature held the back of his neck as he turned to stare in the direction the attack had come from. His eyes were invisible behind his strange goggles, but there was no mistaking the malice in his hiss.
Amelie darted up into the willow, finding a strong limb just above the kobold's eye level. She crouched down and steadied herself, ready to leap down and at least knock the kobold from his harness. The little green creature leaned down and whispered some short commands to his mount. The blackscale turned away from Amelie and began to advance on Lucatro, slowly this time. Whatever the little kobold had said seemed to have given renewed focus to the hulking brute. He advanced slowly, swinging his greatclub in short, vicious arcs. "Blob eat good tonight! Pointy ears mean tender meat!" Lucatro moved first, shifting to his left and striking downward in a brutal hack at the lizardfolk's knees, only to watch his sword bounce harmlessly from the thick scales that covered the joints. Ghejhann had moved in behind the enemy pair, trying to help Lucato encircle their foes. He did not move unnoticed. A surprisingly quick pivot by the blackscale sent Ghejhann hurtling backward from the force of the tail strike. He was thrust backward into the ancient willow Amelie had hidden in, cracking the trunk with the impact and sending the upper branches - and Amelie - tumbling downward.
Amelie used her dagger to cut herself free from the entangling branches and crawled out from underneath the fallen treetop. She looked up, only to be met with the smiling visage of the green kobold as he let loose a crossbow bolt. Amelie screamed as the bolt pierced her shoulder. Lucatro rushed forward to assist Amelie, but he had to circle around the great mass of the fallen willow. Amelie plunged her dagger into Blob's foot and rolled sideways in a last-ditch effort to buy time to open up the distance between them. Her blade was deflected by the seemingly impenetrable scales, making her gambit ineffective. The blackscale lifted her from the ground and tossed her expertly against the trunk of the last ancient willow in the line. Amelie hit the ground hard, her breath knocked out of her. Her weight triggered another trap, and a giant boulder fell from a fork in the trunk of the great tree, crushing her abdomen.
Lucatro watched the second member of his party fall with a grimace. He couldn't be sure that Ghejhann was conscious underneath the remains of the giant willow, but at least he was alive. The blackscale turned to face the paladin, but it was the green kobold who met his gaze. Out of the corner of his eye, Lucatro saw a rustling beneath the willow branches. Determined that the kobold would not notice, Lucatro thought quickly. By strapping himself to the dumb bruiser, the clever little kobold had given himself a few weaknesses, too. "Your mother was a gecko!" It wouldn't win any points for style, but the taunt was enough to get the big dimwit back into his blind rage. The brute charged again, picking up speed as Lucatro backed off quickly. The half-elf kept one eye on the toppled willow, willing Ghejhann to break free. The kobold was frantically whispering into the blackscale's ear, almost pleading. So intent was he on keeping the blackscale's attention, Lucatro failed to notice when the charge evolved from a straight bull rush to a wide curve. The paladin kept scrambling backward, interposing his longsword between him and the gnashing jaws of the blackscale. He felt his footing give way underneath him as a large chunk of the matted grass broke away. He fell slowly, so slowly, his fingers scrabbling against the soft dirt, but finding no purchase. The last thing that passed through Lucatro's mind before he was impaled at the bottom of the pit was a vague sense of disappointment. The kobold had already used spikes once this fight; he had been hoping for some variety.
"Him make funny face! Blob happy!" the big lizardfolk clapped with thunderous delight.
"Worthless brute!" Ghejhann, freed from his trappings and standing in the center of camp, waved his battleaxe at Blob. "I shall ensure your happiness is short lived indeed!"
Blob turned toward the Dragonborn with a sneer. The kobold licked his lips in anticipation. Just one last pesky adventurer, and they could collect a very, very handsome purse indeed. Ghejhann set his feet in a wide stance, digging in to face the lizardfolk's charge. Blob did not disappoint, running headlong at the warlord, club held high above his head. Ghejhann reached down deep and connected with his draconic heritage; the power of his great ancestors burst forth as he let loose a mightly flame that engulfed Blob and his master in a raging inferno. The string of plush toys around Blob's neck caught fire. He froze; reaching down, Blob grabbed the smoldering remains of what had been a plush lizardfolk doll and watched the last remnants of it turn to ash. He lifted his snout high in the air and let out one long, mournful howl: "MOOOOKIEEEE!!!!!" For several minutes, the only sound that could be heard was a series of rattling, rasping gasps. Ghejhann had a revelation: he was hearing blackscale tears.
The last he saw of their unusual adversaries, Blob was running headlong back into the mists; the frantic cooing of his kobold master's futile attempts at comfort carried on the air for a long time afterward.
Ghejhann surveyed the broken bodies of his comrades. The Reverend Father would not be pleased.