The skypris, enormous trees serving as constant reminders of the majesty of the Dreadmire’s influence, cast dark shadows over the wetlands below. Their canopies, intertwined tree branches and dark fronds reaching heights over a hundred feet, were on the verge of blocking out the sun.
Each step took us deeper into the Dreadmire; its muck seeped into everything. Boots, packs, and even waterskins had been tainted. I stopped and inspected the mud and vegetation around me, searching for tracks. Behind me, I recognized the boots slogging through the muck.
“Tegrota, you see anything?” asked Rolmindrin.
“No,” I replied, not taking my eyes off of the ground.
Keeping his voice low, Rolmindrin remarked, “Neither have the other two I hired.” He shifted uncomfortably and scratched uncontrollably at his beard.
I felt sorry for him. Dwarves were not made for the Dreadmire, or swamps in general, with their long, thick beards and short legs. Rolmindrin had his beard stuffed into a beardsack hanging like a necklace from his chin, cinched tight, keeping most of the local insects from nesting in his facial hair.
Rolmindrin said, “As of a month ago, Toriq, my older brother, was promoted to Captain in the Watch. I took the contract; I figured who better than me to rescue my own brother and the other four members of the Watch?”
I reached into my satchel, pulled out some swamp celery and handed him a stalk.
Rolmindrin beamed and quickly broke the stalk into several pieces and stuffed it into his beardsack. “I can feel the cooling sensation, thank you.” He trailed off, a look of bliss crossing his face as the juice worked to purify the water in his beardsack, if only for a few hours. “We’re starting to lose the trail of both the brigands and the Watch. I wonder if they didn’t double back at some point to hide their tracks. Why did the shaman of Nahaut hire the Watch in the first place?”
“Trilboc hired the Watch because they’re famed monster hunters. He wanted them to hunt the Legends of the Dreadmire—all of them,” I answered, looking back towards the ground for any sign of tracks.
“Don’t mention them to me again,” Rolmindrin said tersely.
“You asked,” I replied flatly.
“Toriq is always hunting down ancient fribblery. Legends, bah! I don’t want to hear about it. Besides, you might scare away the others,” he added.
“I doubt it,” I said. “Our companions don't look like they are the type who are easily spooked. I’m glad you hired them.”
Ignoring my comment, he said, “The elders of your village, Nahaut, set the Watch off to hunt a few brigands. So they couldn’t have been too worried about the legends either.”
“Gaseal said the three legends-”
Rolmindrin interrupted me sternly, “I said, no more.” He peeked over his shoulder at the shadowy outlines of the two bounty hunters on our left flank. “Seriously, Gaseal is your source? Come now, Tegrota, he’s a drunk.”
Continuing to find no tracks, I straightened and lifted my chin in defiance. “He hunts legends.”
“Legends?” he responded in continued disbelief.
“Yes. Gaseal hunts the Legends of Dreadmire alone. He told you that.” I confirmed.
“At a bar, sarcastically, when he was at the bottom of his cups,” he said sullenly.
“So were you, as I recall,” I said.
Rolmindrin sniffed in annoyance and returned to the topic at hand. “You know the Watch as well as I,” he asked, “what do you think?”
“What do I think likely happened to the Watch?” I asked. “They're a blunt instrument. It would have to be a lot or something big. It's unlikely the Watch would even consider covering their tracks. I mean, they’ve nothing to hide from and it would only slow them down.”
I heard our companions approaching from our left flank, directly behind the master bounty hunter.
“Rolmindrin,” rang out a deep, primal kizaru voice, so low it felt like stones being rubbed against my chest. “Tracks,” Talbot growled, pointing at the ground with a tawny clawed finger, just ahead of where I had been scanning.
The imprints were set deep in the washed out mud below a grassy tuft. They were definitely tracks, boots, all the same shape, and presumably the same heel. We had found the Watch’s trail once more.
Talbot Irontooth was a ranger from the woods north of the Dreadmire. He and his gear looked well-worn, from his green-dyed leather armor to the greataxe slung across his back. Shocks of gray were starting to appear at his feline temples, and his long, thin, braided beard had succumbed to white years before.
Jaxin bounded towards us from behind Talbot. The two of them were a study in opposites. Talbot was as grizzled as a tanner’s stone and had probably seen more kills than one to boot. Whereas Jaxin, a young warrel, or as they were vulgarly referred to, “rabbitfolk,” seemed to always be in motion. From time to time he would twitch and do a second take, re-scanning an area to make certain no one was there. It made him a great bodyguard, but a horrible scout. Worst of all was his outfit; he didn’t even try to camouflage himself in the wilderness. He proudly wore a fine burgundy and lavender coat, the capital’s current trend, complete with an enchantment that cleaned itself constantly. It was odd to see him bounce from puddle to puddle coming out of the swamp each time completely dry.
Talbot began to walk a short circuit, shortbow well in hand. Once he found what he sought, he knelt. “Looks like a giant toad or giant frog, but the feet aren’t quite right.”
“What do you mean?'' asked Rolmindrin, tightening the strings on his beardsack.
“Well, frogs and toads, even giant ones, have a long middle toe on their back feet. Helps them grip. This creature, whatever it is, doesn’t have a toe like that. Its toes are webbed, yes, but it is something…else.”
“Grim broodspawn.” It just spilled out of my mouth.
Rolmindrin shook his head dismissively, “Just another type of giant frog.”
I said, “Except to those of my people who hunt legends, like Gaseal.”
“Like Gaseal. He told me all about them. Even he agrees that they are merely beasts; some of them staggeringly large, no doubt, but abandoned gods? No.” Rolmindrin shook his head, disdain creeping into his voice. “He doesn’t lay his discarded clam shells facing down, afraid that ‘legends’ will smell them and come to eat him. He doesn’t bury fish heads facing south, or anything like that. Can you be serious? Rubbish heaps and storm peaks! I have seen magic. Spells and items fueled by the arcane, primal, and divine energies. But I’ll not have your superstition prevent us from finding the Watch. You know them, Tegrota, their families deserve closure.” He looked up into the gloom overhead and said, “we keep moving.”
A few hours later Jaxin reported to Rolmindrin, who pointed at Talbot and me, “I want the two of you to search the brigwood-tree hut ahead. A hermitage. I’ll hold Jaxin in reserve.” I glanced over to see Jaxin’s reaction.
Jaxin’s left eye and both ears were twitching; he was doing better than I thought he might.
Talbot nodded, “I’m unfamiliar with the trees of Dreadmire Swamp; my hunting grounds are north of here.” He gave a sidelong glance at our dwarvish leader, “I’m only here because a friend called in a favor.”
“Brigwoods are similar to swamp cypress,” I explained, “except bigger and more squat. They have a root system which looks like a jail cell where the trunk of a typical tree would touch the water. The brig itself tends to be eight to ten feet tall and functional as a storage place for canoes or other small watercraft.”
A few minutes later, I saw the hut. The brigwood sat in open water, its twisted, gnarled roots threading around one another, resembling massive strands of yarn stretching up from the water’s surface into the sky, eventually extending outward into long branches.
We circled the hut from a safe distance, on alert, watching for hidden sentries. When we closed in on the south side of the tree the smell hit us like a warhammer. It reeked of spoiled meat; the pungent smell of a scavenger's lair, or a battlefield where the fallen had not been removed.
Talbot holstered his zap pistol and pulled out his greataxe, a magnificent blade almost as tall as he was, gripping it with both hands. Unflinching, he waded into the waist-deep, dark waters surrounding the hermitage. His passing created a small wake behind him as he made straight for the brigwood. I followed.
Taking the lead, I slid as silently as I could onto the walkway and slunk nearer the door. It was open and I could see bloody tracks on the floor, feeding insatiable swarms of flies. The smell here had an acrid quality to it; bile rose up the back of my throat.
I pushed open the door cautiously with my foot. I came around the corner, blades out in an aggressive stance. There, on the floor, were two members of the Watch and the pale form of a wizened, male axolian laying on the floor; his gills had a soot-like discoloration to them, peppered by all the flies swarming in the hut. I quickly retreated to the boardwalk and found Talbot alert, poised to charge in after me.
“All clear,” I whispered hoarsely. “Three dead.” I swallowed hard and held back the nausea. “There are bloody tracks all over. They only ate their quarries’ bellies. We’re dealing with more than one creature,” I said diplomatically.
“Are the dead all members of the Watch?” he asked.
“Two of them, yes,” I said, “the third was the owner, I think.”
Rolmindrin and Jaxin came into view and waded out across the deepest portion of the flood to join us at the brigwood, the water up to their necks.
Rolmindrin found a root or something submerged below and stood on it. He lifted up his beardsack to pour out the water that had flooded inside, the pieces of swamp celery spilling out and floating towards the dead.
One look at me and he asked, “Any of the dead dwarves?”
“No. Two of the Watch are among the dead, though,” I answered. I could hear him exhale in what I could only assume was relief at not finding Toriq.
“That leaves two members of the Watch unaccounted for. The bounty is still incomplete.” Rolmindrin looked worn, and far more weary than I had seen him before.
“Do me a favor and grab the Watch’s helmets. The Watch will give them a helm burial after we present them to the Commander. And it will make it easy for them to give us the full bounty. Oh, and cut off their heads, would you? You can never be too safe in the Dreadmire; the last thing we need to do is fight their restless corpses on the way back.”
I nodded in agreement. Headless bodies were less useful to the undead and their dark masters.
“Lets keep heading northeast,” I said. “It looks like whatever these creatures are, they’re herding the Watch in that direction.”
“Herding? How can you tell?” asked Rolmindrin.
“The paths they took. I think they were all being herded together from behind. Those that didn’t keep running took up defensive positions and were killed, like those at this hermitage. These creatures aren't dragging their prey anywhere, they’re just eating their entrails and moving on. The bodies in the hermitage have little nips here and there, like they were being played with or harassed.”
Rolmindrin took in this new information and squared his shoulders. “There are two members of the Watch still unaccounted for. We keep going. If we don’t find them in the next day, two maximum, then we head back to town.”
Each of us nodded, except for Jaxin, who wrinkled his nose and twitched an ear which I interpreted as the same thing.
Jaxin moved ahead of us, glancing back briefly. Rolmindrin stopped him with a motion of his hand. He pursed his lips and looked to me, “Tegrota, go with him.”
Jaxin wriggled his nose bitterly, and the two of us took the lead.
Jaxin set a fast pace and once we were out of earshot of the others, he turned to me, “Keeps up then, barbarian,” before leaping straight up into the canopy above where we were standing.
He leapt deftly from one tree limb to the next or one bit of dry land to the next. I shadowed his position on the right flank, keeping up.
“Clearing up ahead, ga,” Jaxin said, touching down next to me.
“What’s in it?” I asked.
“In the clearing? I dunno. I figured I’d let you know it was there before I gots closer. Snells awful though. Not like death, more like latrine, ga. Lookings before I leaps and all tha’. Perhaps you nigh’ wan’ to too.” He said with a smile.
“I’ll circle right-” I said, but before I could finish he’d left me to follow.
I could hear the familiar sounds of a pool before it came into view. The insect species and their tones changed with the size and depth of the water they resided in. It had been used recently; many of the cattails, reeds, and rushes were trampled around the pool’s edges, but I didn’t see many tracks from our vantage point a short distance away. It didn’t smell like swamp rot or bodies here, but rather like an outhouse.
Jaxin blinked multiple times in succession. He wrinkled his nose and leapt away into the canopy, no longer finding anything of interest in the rancid pool, “you take the lef’ flank.”
Just ahead, the shadows of the Dreadmire parted, exposing the blue sky above, the trees here only standing fifteen or twenty feet tall. We paused at the shadow’s edge. Directly in front of us was a deep sinkhole. I peered down and saw a slight wind blowing through the drapes of moss far below indicating tunnel crosswinds. A burrow complex or a cave network perhaps?
The “short trees” were actually the tops of the skypris, but only those which were taller than the rim of the sinkhole’s uppermost ledge. The tree's height indicated the floor of the sinkhole must be some one hundred feet below. The width of the sinkhole at its widest appeared about three hundred feet across.
Jaxin surprised me by doing the most unlikely thing he could ever do. He waited. His eyes fixated on the floor of the sinkhole, twitching from feature to feature and taking in the details. Swamp water trickled over the edges of the sinkhole and then dripped into the shallow water below, and there was the outline of an island covered in divots surrounded by the runoff.
“What do you see?” I asked.
“Hopefully bodies. I thinks we will finds nore out when we explores, ga?”
The tips of several great trees leaned against the wall of the sinkhole near where we stood, their thick branches forming angles reminiscent of steep bridges.
Jaxin stared in thought at the tree nearest us and said, “I can doos.”
Rolmindrin, who had caught up, asked, “Do what?”
“Gets to the botton and ge’ back up, ga? All I need doos is collects two helnets and heads back up again, ga. No troubles.”
“Listens, I doos this and we can be headings out of the Dreadnire in ten, naybe twenty ninutes. So how about you ginne a chance. You’ve been watchings ne leaps all the way here. I’ll be righ’ back, ga?”
“Fine,” conceded Rolmindrin. “But every bone in me says it is a killing ground, and you’ve no chance.”
“Welly, I’ll proves you wrong then,” said Jaxin confidently.
Talbot snorted, “I’m not going down there to retrieve you.”
“No’ askings you to, ga.”
And with that he stepped out onto a branch. We watched Jaxin descend into the shadows. He paused every three to four leaps to adjust course based on the distance to surface below and the trees around him.
Talbot cocked his head over the lip of the sinkhole and listened for a long moment. Concern flooded his features: “That’s not wind, that’s something breathing!”
Rolmindrin and I both listened closely to the sound of the “wind” below. And there it was… a deep, labored sound going out… and then in. Breathing. It, whatever “it” was, was taking long, drawn-out breaths, so long they could be measured in minutes.
“It's not a sinkhole.” I spoke my realization out loud. “It's a grim.”
“A grim?” hissed Talbot, “what’s the difference between a sinkhole and a grim?”
“A sinkhole,” I explained, “is where something gets washed out or dissolves over time just below the surface, leaving an unstable void. A grim is much the same, but it’s made when beasts dig huge cavern-like burrows that collapse leaving a depression behind.”
“What caused this one then?” Talbot’s asked
I looked back at him then to Rolmindrin. “Legends. Evisc the Quagclaw, Cla-kaw the Deathsnapper, and Bruuth the Grim Broodspawner. They walk amongst the towering skypris and below the surface of the Dreadmire punishing those that have forsaken them.”
Something around us changed. I could feel it though. The sudden change. I froze and began to scan the trees again in our immediate vicinity.
Talbot broke the silence, “The noise of the swamp—”
“—is missing” Rolmindrin finished.
“We are in grave, grave danger.” I replied.
“What do you mean?” growled Talbot.
I peered back down to the bottom of the grim and pointed. “There,” I said, directing their gazes to the dark outline below. “That’s got to be it.”
Talbot squinted at the outline below, “The island IS the creature?”
“Not the whole island,” I said, “just the top third. The portion with the indentations covering it—”
A moment later a dozen pairs of eyes lit up from the divots on the “island.” The smooth, slick, and emaciated toad-like broodspawn nestled upon the creature’s back sensed the change in their progenitor’s temperament and a legion of hungry mouths eager to feed stirred from their slumber.
Rolmindrin’s jaw tensed. “It’s them, the ones on its back. They killed the hermit in the hut and the Watch patrol. They are what we’ve been tracking.”
I peered over the edge between the branches of the trees. Jaxin had a huge smile on his face. He held the helms of the last two missing watch members, one in each hand. He raised them to us, like a gladiator celebrating his most recent victory.
It was at that moment the “island” opened its eyes. The massive orbs were orange and black with specks of gold and turquoise.
My companions quietly cursed; the grim broodspawner wasn’t looking at us though. Rather, it looked directly at Jaxin. Poor Jaxin who stood with his back to the beast; exceptionally clean and brightly clad Jaxin.
The grim broodspawner shook violently like a tavern mutt coming in from the rain and its grim broodspawn were thrown to the left and right, dispersed like slimy clods—each the size of an adult human—over the floor of the grim. Then they began to move, slowly at first, all of them focused on Jaxin.
Glancing over his shoulder he jumped towards the skypris trees in one motion. He scrambled as fast as he could, leaping from branch to branch, up and up towards us, towards the safety of the ledge of the grim.
The great grim broodspawner landed within twenty feet of Jaxin, shaking the walls of the grim.
Talbot gestured to the top of the island where it had just been. The mud had kept its shape, a large basin roughly the shape of the creature’s belly.
“The pool!” exclaimed Talbot, pointing at the empty basin. “It’s the same hole. The same shape as the cavity it just left. The grim broodspawner’s body, it’s the same size as the pool we passed. By beasts’ blood… that’s why it smelled so putrid! Its body made the basin up here as well. It's a waste pool, which means…it has been up here, above the ledge before. Nowhere is safe.”
I could tell by the way Rolmindrin’s posture changed, he saw the situation for what it was. He turned and faced Talbot. “Then make a choice. Where shall we make our stand? The edge of the grim, climb up into the canopy, or wait by the pool’s edge back the way we came in hopes of throwing them off our scent?”
We could hear the branches below shaking and crashing as the creatures clamored over one another chasing Jaxin up the tree.
“Here,” Talbot growled.
Jaxin yelled up to us as he continued his acrobatic climb, “They hungers! They conings!”
“Tegrota, go. Let the village of Nahaut know what happened. The beast is not going to stop.” He removed his beardsack, shaking a few pieces of swamp celery loose in the process. “Looks like Bruuth the Grim Broodspawner will have to face both Toriq and I.” Rolmindrin looked at me wistfully as he issued the order.
I cocked my head, appraising my friend. “But you said—”
“—I listen, even to those who speak of legends,” he said. “Now you should too. Get out of here.”
Talbot looked enviously at me, then down at the approaching legend and its brood. He exhaled in resignation and nodded. He let loose a deep growl directed at the rising crescendo below. The creatures continued to ascend, their movements violently shaking the leaves of the skypris treetops. Leaves larger than bed sheets let loose and fell out of sight into the grim below.
Rolmindrin shooed me away with one hand then reached into his pack to pull out a flask of alchemist’s fire. He began pouring it on the branches that were within reach closest to the edge of the grim. With his free hand, he fished another out quickly and handed it to Talbot who joined in splashing alchemist’s fire on the upper branches of another nearby skypris.
As I backed away, I spotted Jaxin leaping up, just clearing the edge of the grim. He was miraculously still holding a helmet in each hand. He took one more leap towards the deadfall, but was stopped in midair by a flat, pink, meaty appendage with webbed corners from which jutted four groups of horns.
The webbed corners of the appendage collapsed around him. With horror, I realized they were not horns. They were teeth, each the length of a longsword. More than thirty teeth protruded wickedly from the tongue of the grim broodspawner.
Jaxin’s scream pierced the air and traveled down my spine as Bruuth’s tongue pulled him down, below the ledge of the grim and out of sight.
The scream faded just as Rolmindrin lit his torch. The spark of light spurred my survival instincts back into action and I ran. The alchemist’s fire ignited and the screeches of the legend and its brood shredded the air behind me as I fled. My skin winced from the searing heat so close to my tail and back.
I kept running. My heart ached for the screams I couldn’t hear, cries of those I’d left behind engulfed by flames as broodspawn leapt forth from the inferno. The fire would certainly slow the creatures, but they would keep coming.
The legends have awakened. Enraged, and hungrier than before.