Although she had warned them, the swamp Ulua led them into stifled the imagination. It was all consuming muck, grime and despair. It suffocated their senses. Broken branches and tree jams littered the area. They walked along one log to the next, and through pools of murky water filled with insects and snakes larger than any would have liked, except maybe Thrak. His sack and his belly became full, while the rest of them lost their appetites and their calm.
After several hours, the sun was directly overhead, and their clothing, and gear was soaked and caked with gunk. Branches and thorns stabbed at them, and no matter where they stood or walked, it seemed like large monstrous spine tipped leaves were always reaching out for them. This constantly left them with the sense of always being touched, irritating them further. Flying insects added to the misery, and other things that swam around their legs made them move all the faster.
Andril was about to ask if they were there yet; It was his turn he figured, when Ulua stopped.
“We have done well!” Said the Princess. She was standing up to her mid-section, a green layer of tiny plants enveloped her, as well as them all, on the water’s surface. “We are nearly through the muddy waters and the sun is not yet standing tall. Up ahead, you will feel the current of a slowly moving river that travels below the surface of the swamp. Mind your steps, and we will be on dry ground soon.”
Haryk had been in many swamps like this before, clearing land for Celn scouting missions. He knew the dread of spending a full day up to one’s waist in muddy water, and picking off the leeches once out. He stopped and looked around. The canopy was thick with large fronds, and magnificent palms grew from below their feet in the river bottom breaking the water’s surface and rising above them like giant umbrellas. It was a dense and dark funnel of both water and flora, and Haryk felt uneasy. “This is a perfect…” began the soldier.
“Watch out!” yelled Ulua, spinning quickly and climbing up out of the water into a nearby mangrove tree.
“Place for an amb…,” continued Haryk simultaneously, but his word was cut off as his whole torso instantly submerged in the inky dark as if it were pulled from the bottom itself downwards.
“Something has dragged him under!” Yelled Areia. “To arms!” She pulled out her daggers and running up beside Ulua, stared into the foliage in which Haryk was moving below the water’s surface. She could see the water swirl where she figured he was, and knew whatever had him was large. And that’s when she saw IT, moving behind the plants nearest her. It was so big, that it blocked out the sun. It was camouflaged among the plants it grew within and as tall as the canopy and although it twisted and pulsed, it looked like a plant of some kind. Hanging from it’s upper parts were many dark sacs, bulging. Each was like a putrid opaque pitcher of soft green flesh. The sacs, perhaps a dozen of them, looked sickly and atop each bloated sack was a lid like that of a large fleshy shield. One of the bladders drifted downwards, moved closer to where Haryk was under the water, and the lid began to open!
“It’s a tree!” yelled Areia, “We’re fighting a blasted tree of…”
“Doom!” yelled Marcus, who just then felt a gigantic snakelike coil wrap around his legs. It yanked him down so hard though, that he was able to just wedge an arm around the base of a palm, and with his other, slide the tendril off. His blood pooled around him in the water, but surprisingly he just smiled! Who in the night is this guy? thought Areia.
“Kill the TOD,” hollered Thrak, lunging forward with his axes in hand.
Andril moved backwards in the water, pointing his fingers in the direction he figured this thing was. Magical missiles zinged around them, and through palm fronds, leaving finger sized holes. Andril knew that they struck something beyond their field of vision, in the foliage, but there was no sound of it. He peered backward, as if waiting for something to happen that didn’t.
Areia looked at him from her place in the tree, “You’re fighting a plant, mage, what do you expect?”
“That darkened thing is going to make a plant-roast out of Lord Haryk,” said Andril. “Frank, we need you!” But Frank had already begun the divine conjuring of the Flame’s might. His skin was darkening, and his eyes blazed. Blood dribbled down from erupting holes in his forehead, as the skin gave birth to twin horns. They elongated and twisted in spirals towards the back of his head. And yet, from all around him radiated a light that cleared away the shadows. It gave power to each of them, and especially to Lord Haryk!
From under the water, Haryk awoke, dying no more! He brought forth his weapon and blasted it at the coiling vine that had seized him, blowing it apart and setting himself free. He clawed his way to the top of the water and once there, gasped for air!
“This way, Haryk!” Called Areia. “Get away from the TOD!”
“Incoming Celns,” called Andril, who extended forth both of his hands and began to spin them in circles until he was holding a red glowing ball of fire. He hurled the magical sphere at the plant, and watched it blow apart one of it’s branches, sending a pitcher sac downwards. It landed with a splash and burst open. Two wiggling figures drenched in a black goo began to claw their way out of the broken sac. Andril knew they were more of the “soulless”, and instinctively he climbed higher in the tree.
While hacking away at his enemy, Thrak noticed Marcus come forward and stand beside him. He took out a knife and cut his own arm, all the while, ducking and dodging the flailing vines from the tree of doom! His friend then put the knife back in it’s sheath, and set to work attacking the thing with his weapon, a large axe. Together, they hacked, while Zy’an, and the others pelted the undead monsters in the water with darts, and magical spells.
But the tree had many reaching tendrils, snaking their way along the rivers muddy bottom and one of them found Marcus once more. He had just been lifted out of the water, and brought to the very orifice of one of the green containers when Frank roared and cast a spell of intense heat which made the plant’s branches and vines still. The toxic fumes which emanated from the inside of the sack, and the moving figures within it, let Marcus know that the other bladders most likely held the undead as well. He was using his hands and legs to push away from the opening lid, as if he were a cat avoiding falling into water, when Frank’s spell finally brought the branches down, where they splashed into the water.
“This plant should not be like this! It is known among my people but this is an abherration. It must have captured the soulless, and took sick,” moaned Ulua. “They wandered the swamp like this,” she muttered to herself lost in thought. “My people, what has become of them?!”
The others gathered their wits and their gear, knowing they had only minutes before the lids would open spilling their foul undead contents. But before going, the monk, Zy’an saw a shiny object in the swamp, and picked it up. It was still covered in the diseased filth of the sack it had spilled from, but some water quickly washed it off and revealed it be a ring. A ring fashioned in the way of the Ata.
“It is an omen, my friend,” said Ulua, coming to stand next to him. “This ring, belonged to a great and mighty hunter of our village. You have laid him to rest finally, and it is fitting that you should bear it now.”
“Thank you, Princess,” whispered the monk, smiling genuinely.
Andril cast a spell and the ring in the monk’s hand glowed. “Ata’auhn made, master monk, by way of the ancients of Kasille. It is a prize, no doubt.”
“And you, barbarian, nice one Master Thrak. TOD, or Tree of Doom, yes? Your race does not get the recognition perhaps for your innate intelligence that you deserve.” The mage looked genuinely impressed, which did not often happen.
“Tree of Doom?” said Thrak, also looking genuine. Genuinely confused though. “I don’t know about a tree of doom. I had a pet fly trap once though when I was but a pup. I named him TOD too.”
“I’m too young for this shit,” said Areia. “Let’s get on dry land before the sun is gone completely. I’ve had enough swamp for one day.”