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â€œGrayhyssop?â€ Jhonn Tardson shook his head at the four travellers, rubbing his thick black moustache. â€œYou donâ€™t want to go up there. A haven for dark spirits and the like. Very dangerous. And nothing but bad luck for the rest of us.â€
â€œLuck has a way of changing.â€ Kieran smiled broadly, taking a sip of his drink. The wagon had stopped in the town of Hollowâ€™s Point, only a few hours south of the swamp, and stopped at the inn to stable their horses and gather what they could find about the situation to the north. â€œIs there a town on the edge of the swamp?â€
â€œWell, sure, but theyâ€™re real strange. Anyway, they were. Bog-dwellers, ya know. Frogmen. Creepy, green fellas.â€ Tardson shrugged again. â€œAnyway, no one goes north anymore, havenâ€™t for a few months at least. The road donâ€™t go straight anymore, and you canâ€™t get up the river â€“ which is twice the size it used to be.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€ Khory raised an eyebrow. â€œWas there some sort of flood?â€
â€œNope, it was all gradual-like. Just sort ofâ€¦ rose. Now, you go north, you come out back here. Donâ€™t matter how you do it; road, forest, river.â€ Jhonn leaned in, conspiratorially. â€œSome folk have seen something, though. Stories say itâ€™s got the body of a strix and the head of a lion, with a manâ€™s face on it. Sits on trees whose branches couldnâ€™t support its weight, and watches you.â€ He drew a line from his eyes to Kieranâ€™s. â€œJust staring, waiting for you to make a mistake, and when you look away and back again, itâ€™s gone, like it were never there. Black as night it is, and the wind starts to whisper in the trees whenever itâ€™s around.â€
Kieran considered that. â€œHmmâ€¦ sounds like a Yanis.â€ When the others looked at him askance, he elaborated. â€œA minor wind god. Theyâ€™re keepers of secrets; each secret they know increases their power, and they have the ability to keep things and places secret; theyâ€™re used by sorcerers to hide things. Must be a strong one to hide the whole swamp, though. Weâ€™ll have to try and negotiate with it.â€
â€œYouâ€™d better be careful. They say that, before the road went wrong, the whole swamp was turning into a lake. Even the froggies were scared of that. And they say that thereâ€™s some sort of crystal, out in the middle of the lake, glows red under the moonlight.â€ Jhonn shook his head. â€œLet me tell you, you wonâ€™t catch Jhonn Tardson going up northwards, strangers.â€
â€œI think we have to.â€ Kieran rubbed his chin. â€œRed crystal, eh? Weâ€™ll have to take a look. Thanks for the help, Jhonn.â€
â€œDonâ€™t mention it, lad. Just be careful, huh? Donâ€™t want to see a nice boy like you floating back down the river, you know?â€ Kieran nodded, and the four left the tavern. Outside, Kieran turned to the others.
â€œWell, we have a destination, now. Iâ€™ve charged up the thaumaturgy crystal, so if things get bad, Elena, use it.â€ Elena nodded, patting the device where it sat beneath her cloak. â€œBut wait until they do. It only has one charge, and I donâ€™t want to give whateverâ€™s up there two chances.â€
â€œWhyâ€¦ why are you doing this?â€ Nia spoke softly. â€œIt sounds very dangerousâ€¦ and no oneâ€™s been hurt.â€
â€œNot directly, maybe. Maybe they have. Thereâ€™re the frogmen, after all. Who knows whatâ€™s happened to them.â€ Kieran looked northwards, and then back to the group. â€œMore importantly, rogue spirits are bad. Theyâ€™re dangerous to Creation, especially when they start pulling stunts like this. We know that the spirit here is responsible for what happened at Gemmelâ€™s Reach, indirectly at least. Thatâ€™s reason enough to find out what makes it think it can take over the swamp like it did.â€
After a moment, Nia nodded. â€œI think I see.â€ She smiled, faintly. â€œThanks.â€
â€œWell, what are we waiting for?â€ Khory grinned, and started striding forwards. â€œWeâ€™ve got a spirit to talk to.â€
â€œLetâ€™s just hope it goes better than our last trek to find a rogue spiritâ€¦â€ Elena frowned, as the four set off northwards. Jhonn watched them go from his place at the bar, nothing on his face showing that he had heard every word they spoke. After a moment, he came to a decision, and nodded to the barmaid. â€œLusi, watch the bar, Iâ€™ll be right back.â€ He smiled, and strolled back through the kitchens, nodding to his wife, Ethel, who smiled and nodded back as she pulled a steaming tray of buns from the oven. She called out.
â€œAnd where are you going, Jhonn?â€
â€œFor some fresh air. Expect me back soon.â€ He smiled a secret smile as she nodded, pushing open the back door and striding outside.
It was less than two minutes later that he walked back in, his hair dishevelled, and straw on his shirt. â€œEthel?â€
â€œWhat in the blazes happened to you? Fresh air, you say!â€ Ethel gaped at him, and he shrugged dazedly.
â€œI donâ€™t know. I think I fell asleep.â€ He frowned absently. â€œIs it the afternoon already? Where did the morning goâ€¦â€ Ethel frowned, and walked over to him, checking his head for a bruise. He must have fallen in the street; he certainly hadnâ€™t been gone long enough for it to have been anything else.
Outside, and down the street, Jhonn Tardson strolled northwards. In the light of the day, his hair seemed more gray, white hairs mixed in with the black. He chuckled faintly, and looked around. Seeing no one, he broke into a run, and as he did so, his body flowed forwards, arms stretching out even as his centre collapsed. A moment later, a sparrow flapped its way northwards, moving to catch up with a small group of travellers heading towards the heart of a swamp, its feathers dappled with white on the brown.
Because, y'know, there aren't nearly enough NPCs in this story.