The Black Swamp Huntsman (Prologue)
Bulmar was a small town in the northeastern corner of Ossteros. It was the last vestige of civilization in Ossteros’ vast lands before the murky swamps of Ryjikar claimed the continent and devoured the full north-east section of the great land mass. The area beyond Bulmar as it expanded east was nothing but drowned wetlands until sharp mountain peaks jutted up like the fangs of a giant beast, and much of Ryjikar was a place that not many called home. Bulmar hugged the corner of the untamed wilds and offered a bastion for those who wanted to enjoy the plentiful game the wetlands brought or the nutrient-rich black soils of the swamps. Hunters and farmers did well in the area and there was even money to be made for carting the black soil away to sell.
Quinn Palen was a well-known hunter in the small town. He was so well-liked and his reputation was such that people often came to him with reports of trouble in hopes of gaining his aid and services. Usually the worst Quinn ever had to deal with were wild boars or the occasional lone wolf or bear giving homesteads trouble. This was certainly the flavor of report Quinn was expecting when he arrived at the Marcher ranch a small ways outside of Bulmar proper.
“I didn’t get a look at it since it came ’round at night,” Mr. Marcher told him. “But whatever the beast was it broke my fence and spooked out all the horses. The entire herd of them, just gone.” The rancher gave his head a shake of dismay. “I’ve been searching for the better part of this week and still haven’t found hide nor hair of any of them.”
“And you’re sure these aren’t horse thieves?” Quinn asked. The rancher shrugged helplessly.
“I found no footprints in the area, just mine. Did see some big sets of tracks, broader than any my horses left.”
“Like a bear?”
“Didn’t look like no bear tracks I’ve ever seen,” Marcher answered hopelessly. “Tracks all took off toward the swamp as well, and that includes my horses. Not sure about bears bothering to live there when they’ve got perfectly good woods to the south.”
On top of the vanished horses, Quinn himself and several other local hunters all noted a decline in the abundance of game. The once plentiful elk and deer in the southern forests had grown scarce. Small traps and snares were catching less and less, and not for change of season or lack of food in the area. They were just vanishing. Soon others began to report oddities of large tracks seen around homes and steads, especially those further from the town’s busier center, and always there was a connection with the swamp.
Finally Darson’s Soil, the main business to shovel up and cart away the local fertile muck, found all their carts destroyed one morning and the wooden road into the swamp the business had been constructing was completely demolished beyond use or repair. Reports of indistinguishable tracks were seen in the mud all around the area, each of them larger than several hands. Quinn finally decided to head into the uncharted wetlands in hopes of finding an answer to the problems that were plaguing the good folk of Bulmar.
He brought with him a lantern, his crossbow, and his red tracking dog, and headed cautiously into the unexplored black swamp. The muddy land quickly gave way to waist-deep water and Quinn searched in vain for alternate ways to continue. Eventually he gave in, holding his lantern high as he trudged through the murky liquid, his trusty hound paddling alongside him.
Travel into the swamps was slow and tedious as Quinn had to move carefully. Thick muck beneath the water gripped at his boots and either held him in place or threatened to drag him down by tripping his steps. He worked hard to keep his lantern dry, hoisting the flame above his head as he held his crossbow ready in his other hand.
More than once a motion just beneath the surface of the water managed to send his dog into a frenzy as the canine angrily threatening the unseen away, though Quinn always failed to catch sight of the culprit. The hunter was stressed and overly alert, ready to jump at anything but stuck in a place that limited his mobility. He was grateful when, after what felt like hours, he managed into an area where the water rose only to his knees and he could move along with some gained ease. Both Quinn and his hound were dark with mud and drenched, and he searched for some fallen log or large rock to rest on and collect his nerves.
The swamps themselves did not appear too out of the ordinary. They buzzed with gnats and mosquitoes and croaked with frogs. Quinn heard the sound of crows cawing overhead and other birds calling out to each other in the tall, thin white trees that jutted up all through the area.
The hunter let out a sigh, uncertain how he would manage to track much of anything in this place that was drowned under feet of dark water. Still, he knew he must try. Bulmar was relying on him to assist with their safety, and he always rose to the occasion. He couldn’t back out now, especially as things were only growing more difficult in town with the oddities that kept cropping up. The destruction of the Darson’s business was no random animal attack but a very deliberate sabotage by something unknown. Quinn feared what might come after if no one worked to get to the bottom of these disruptive occurrences.
Quinn stood, breaking his moment of rest to continue moving. Though he’d started early in the day, it would only grow later the longer he took, and he wanted enough time to be able to head back to town before night swallowed the area. By his calculations, he could spend another hour or so searching before he needed to head back.
Darkness fell through the swamp quickly even though the slight trees provided little to no canopy overhead. Their branches, though tangled, were thin and bare, with no leaves to block out light. Perhaps, Quinn reasoned to himself, he’d misjudged the amount of time spent out here already. Moving through the swamp could play tricks on one’s sense of time, especially when it felt like it took so much longer to cover so much less ground.
With as dark as it was getting he knew he had no choice but to spend a night in the wet and muck. He hated the decision being forced upon him but he was certain that he would not have enough time to make it out before nightfall completely overtook the already treacherous lands. Out of spite and hoping to make the most of his unfortunate ordeal, he continued on, speaking a silent prayer to Omed’ra that he might manage to find a place of refuge to rest before too long, unable to spend the night in water.
His red hound let out an excited bark and barreled forward, sloshing with each bound through the murky liquid. Quinn watched as it drudged several yards, then clambered up onto a patch of muddy ground, shaking off before turning and looking back toward its master as it wagged its tail triumphantly.
“Good boy, Dover,” Quinn softly praised the hound as he trudged through the water after it. He was beyond relieved at the feeling of muddy but firm land beneath his feet as he climbed up after his pet. “Good boy.”
Their walk continued until Quinn finally found a place where he felt he could stop for the night. It was far from ideal, the ground an endless mud pit and everything cold and wet, but it was the best he was going to manage this deep in the wetlands and he was not about to turn his nose up at it. He set up what he could of a small camp, lining the ground with packed furs and a bedroll to keep himself warm, and settled down to rest. His lantern, still burning, sat near him.
Sleep did not come easy and both Quinn and his hound stirred constantly throughout the night, awakening to the slightest sounds of trees creaking or the smallest movement of shadows. More than once Dover let out a low, steady growl of warning as the dog peered out into the darkness.
“See anything there, boy?” Quill asked, working hard not to shiver in the cold and damp as he held his lantern out. The dog settled its head back down on its forepaws, grew silent, and Quinn relaxed as much as his nerves would allow.
It was a quiet morning as the sun rose beyond layers of gray and white clouds. Quinn had a meager breakfast of dried fruit and meat before he packed up his things, scattered the remains of the campsite, and continued on. Free of the standing water, the hunter was able to focus on searching for signs of tracks as they traveled. For a while he found all sorts in the muddy ground; the tiny splays of bird prints and the small pads of rabbit and weasel feet were fairly common. Nothing too large or predatory that might cause worry, and certainly nothing to account for the trouble that had been brought upon the Darson’s place.
“What do you think, Dover?” He muttered to his hound. “Looks like a whole lot of nothing, huh? Should we call it a loss and get out of this grubby place?”
Dover wagged his tail silently up at his master, red fur caked with mud.
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Quinn agreed. “This is a lost cause. Busted carts and disappeared horses be damned, I’m not finding much of anything out here ’sides a miserable time.” The hunter turned and the two began to pick their way back.
Quinn worked to stay in the drier parts of the swamp, avoiding as much of the dark water as he could. He checked his surroundings and the sky often and mentally mapped out his trails, estimating his current route would take him farther north than where he’d first entered the wetlands. He tried not to focus too much on the thought of a warm bath and comfortable bed at home as he walked, needing to remain alert for tracks or signs of anything else that might seem out of the ordinary as they moved.
He’d have to figure out something else to get to the root of the trouble that was going on around the town and its nearby farms and homesteads. Perhaps Bulmar could set up a night watch to try and spot any foul play in the dark. He could probably manage together a small guild of hunters or watchful persons to help keep track of reports as they popped up instead of handling everything himself. Maybe he could even-
A deep growl from Dover broke through his thoughts and Quinn halted immediately. Cautiously he sat his lantern down at his feet, eyes scanning for what had his dog’s attention, and drew his crossbow up to the ready. Dover was bristling and hunched, the hound’s eyes alert and nostrils flaring with every breath as it let out a steady, threatening growl.
“What is it, boy?” Quinn asked softly, brow furrowing as he strained to catch sight or sound of anything at all. He saw nothing, heard nothing. In fact, the entire swamp had grown unnatural still and quiet. No noises of birds or insects, no frogs in the distance. Only Dover’s low menace, broken every so often with a snuff of a breath or a low huff. When had it all stopped? It had been a quiet morning, Quinn recalled. Had it been silent like this for the whole day?
The hunter felt a chill run up his spine that was not brought on by the wet and cold. Even his breathing seemed too loud now, as if anything could hear it clearly over the pure silence of the wetlands. Dover’s deep growl continued on, low and steady.
“We need to keep moving,” Quinn whispered softly as he slowly crouched to retrieve his lantern, eyes still fixed to the tall, skeletal trees for signs of anything at all. It wasn’t until he was standing back up, lantern in hand, that he happened to glance down and notice the bones that lay on the ground at his feet.
Quinn frowned. It looked like a set of ribs, possibly from a fox or other small creature. Something else caught his eye and he noticed more scattered nearby, small but long. Then he saw others, and others still, their sizes increasing as his darting eyes fell upon larger and larger remains strewn around him.
“What the...” Quinn muttered to himself, wondering how he’d managed to be so lost in thought as to not even notice the unsettling graveyard he’d stumbled straight into.
“Come on,” he insisted again to his hound and began forward in a hurry, weaving through the thin white trees that protruded around them, bare of leaves and stock still in the windless wetland. More bones covered the ground. Ribs and antlers of elk and deer. The partially crushed skull of a horse. “Come on,” Quinn urged again, his voice pitched a notch higher as his nerves grew worse. He rushed faster through the muddy forest, moving at a near jog as his dog kept pace beside him.
The hunter came to an abrupt halt, slipping in mud as he barely managed to keep his balance, lantern and weapon wobbling in his laden hands. Before him stretched another expanse of water-choked swamp, bone-white trees jutting up like thin barbs through the liquid, curiously clean of branches as they protruded from the murk among fallen logs. Quinn felt his stomach sink. He was not looking forward to ending up in the water again, especially not so close to what was clearly the grounds of some unknown predator.
“C’mon, Dover. No need to dally here, let’s find another wa-” Quinn’s words were cut off as Dover let out an aggressive snarl and bared his teeth at the murky water. The hunter backed away quickly, eyes wide as he scanned the dark liquid, searching for sign of what his hound was reacting to. The red dog let out a loud, challenging bark.
The barb-like trees in the water shifted.
Quinn staggered back with a start. This time when his feet slipped the hunter was unable to stop himself and he landed hard in the mud as the water before him churned and roiled. The bone-white branchless trees rocked and swayed, tilting and turning. A great black form rose from the water, its body long and sinewy. Its scales were obsidian and smooth, its head stretched and narrow, and an imposing set of thin tusks protruded forward from the tip of its upper jaw.
It raised itself up on four powerful legs, lithe and toned, and a long tail that tapered out like a whip lashed behind it. A crest of horns jutted from the back of its head, and Quinn could now see that what he had thought of as trees in the water were thin, bone-white spikes that protruded along the beast’s spine. Similar spurs grew from its elbows and knees, each extending in a slender curve, like an impaling lance as opposed to a thick horn. The creature craned its long neck toward Quinn and regarded the small human with pale yellow eyes.
Dover snarled and barked angrily at the monster well over ten times its size, but Quinn was paralyzed on the ground, mouth agape in horror and awe. He knew what this thing was, knew that it was far from the ordinary wild beasts of Lendral. It had many names: Nedran. Dragon. It was one of the few things that could effortlessly exude such a level of power as to paralyze a man completely with only its gaze and the sheer might of its presence.
This was an Aylon. One of the God-Children. A direct descendant of Omed’ra Himself.
You should not be here, the Nedran boomed without opening its mouth to speak, the words less of a voice and more of an essence that bellowed in the air around Quinn. Leave this place. NOW!
The dragon moved toward the paralyzed hunter, cutting through the deep water as though it were no hindrance at all. Quinn struggled to will motion back into his limbs, fumbling for his dropped lantern and crossbow. As the beast neared the muddy bank Dover hopped back and forth at the edge of the slippery ground, the red hound furious in its warnings, but the Nedran cared not for the insignificant canine. It reared its great head and opened its mouth, drawing in a deep hiss of air.
Quinn felt the temperature around him plummet and his breath steamed in the suddenly chilled air. Finally finding his strength, the hunter grabbed the crossbow up into his hands and fired at the beast. The heavy bolt glanced harmlessly off the Nedran’s scales, leaving no mark. Then the dragon roared.
A flash of frost coated the mud around him and Quinn’s blood ran cold as the water before the great dragon froze solid. Quinn struggled quickly to his feet but he could not stop his hound as it lunged forward across the black ice, snapping at the obsidian monster.
“Dover!” Quinn cried out in dismay but his dog ignored his call. The faithful beast was too focused on defending its master. The Aylon’s attention dropped to the red pest and the dragon pulled in another deep breath, raising a hand-like forefoot from the water.
Quinn did not try to call his hound back again. He grabbed up his lantern, turned, and ran, racing back through the graveyard of strewn bones and remains and off into the swamp. He heard Dover howl loudly behind him and felt another roar from the terrible creature. Then the sound of fighting fell away under the noises of his own gasps for breath, pounding pulse, and thudding footsteps.
Quinn returned to Bulmar much faster than he left it, though it was not due to finding an easier path home. He refused to speak to anyone about what he encountered for days, finally relenting to the inquiries and pleas of the townsfolk after several nights of shutting himself in his house.
“There’s a monster of an Aylon out in those swamps,” he told them all in a town meeting as they listened in horror and concern. “I saw signs of everything its been killing. Would have gotten me, too, if I hadn’t been for my poor Dover,” Quinn admitted, tears stinging at his eyes.
Since his return he’d suffered a heavy limp, a wound from the fall he’d taken and the strain he’d put himself under trying to make it back home. The hunter was never quite up to his old strength and mobility again, even after several days of rest and recovery.
Several weeks later the first of the attacks began. Awful sounds heard in the night. A child went missing. Then one of the local hunters. Then another townsfolk. Then another. Quinn listened helplessly as the people came to him, as they always had before, in hopes of gaining his help. But the hunter was simply unable. He was weak now, too shook from his experience.
“I’m sorry,” he told them all. They thought he simply meant “I’m sorry that I cannot help you.”
What he actually meant each time was “I’m sorry I’ve brought us this curse...”
Pale yellow eyes haunted his dreams at night as Quinn struggled to sleep. Once or twice he awoke with a start, thinking that he heard the familiar bark or howl of his beloved red dog.
Bulmar and its surrounding lands soon forgot what peace was like as months went on and the curse of the Nedran spread.