Kellan Woodwyse moved carefully through the stand of bog reeds, disturbing them no more than a gentle breeze. He stepped carefully so that he did not splash, never bringing his boot entirely out of the ankle-deep brackish groundwater of Blackwater Bog. Behind him Elar Stravan crashed through the reeds, attacking them with his sword like a farmer threshing corn. Kellan gritted his teeth, wondering why he bothered to be stealthy with an ox in tow.
Something was moving in the shadows of the cypress trees that surrounded them. A shape a shade darker than the shadows. Kellan pointed to his eyes and then out into the shadows. Elar stared at him blankly. Kellan frowned and repeated the gesture with emphasis, wondering how anyone could not know what he meant.
“Look where I’m pointing,” Kellan hissed through gritted teeth. “And be quiet, you dumb ox!”
“There’s nothing there,” Elar said. Loudly, as if to spite Kellan.
Kellan shook his head, pressing a finger to his lips.
“There’s. Nothing. There,” Elar whispered, and yet somehow he was still the loudest thing in the bog. “I think those guys at the bar were just messing with us.”
“Look again,” Kellan said as he turned his attention back to the shadows ahead of them. “Deep in the shadows. There’s something there.”
“Its just shadows, Kellan. I don’t have elven eyes.”
Kellan had to grant Elar that much. Kellan’s elven mother hadn’t given him much, but she had given him keen senses, far sharper than Elar’s human eyes.
“Oh, I think I see it. Is that it?”
Elar pointed off about a hundred paces from the moving shadow. Kellan blinked in surprise. A glowing disc with a half dozen shimmering streamers attached to its underside floated in the darkness of the bog.
“No, I was pointing at that, over there,” Kellan said, pointing back towards the moving shadow. It had disappeared.
“Well, I don’t see anything but that light.”
Kellan nodded. “It might be the beast. One of those barflies said it was glowing disc, didn’t he?”
“They said a lot of things, I wasn’t paying attention.” Elar drew his sword. “You think I can cut light?”
Kellan nocked an arrow and took aim. “Probably not.”
He let loose with the arrow and it hit true, or would have if the light hadn’t burst into shimmering cloud, only to reform a moment later. From the darkness came a weird howl, a sound neither wind nor beast, yet somehow both. Kellan anxiously bit his lip. His father had taught him how to survive the untamed wilds of the River Kingdom, and the first rule was simple: If you didn’t know what it was, you ran. Kellan very much wanted to run.
“Hey, I know what that is,” Elar said matter-of-factly. He pointed at the light. “That’s an illusion.”
“The old wizard who lives in my village, he does this trick on Dwimmer’s Night. He makes a man out of light and scary sounds. Frightens all the little ones.” Elar sheathed his sword and yelled into the darkness. “Your tricks don’t scare me! You better come out of there!”
Kellan crouched low, keeping his head below the reeds. “Elar, knock it off. If it’s a wizard, he could be dangerous.”
“Oh, don’t be such a baby. I’ll bet you a flagon it’s just some old hermit. I’ll bet that’s all the Beast of Blackwater Bog has ever been.” Elar shouted into the swamp again. “Don’t make me come find you.”
Something in the darkness moved, coming closer. Kellan could make out its outline, and it was all wrong for a hermit.
“You know it’s probably just those guys from the bar,” Elar said.
“Elar, I think we should go.”
“‘We’ll buy your beers for the night if you can slay the Beast of Blackwater Bog,’” Elar mimicked. “I can’t believe we fell for that. They’re probably out there right now, laughing at us.”
The shape moved into a patch of pale light filtering through the trees. It was a fleshy white disc about three feet across, with several eyestalks sprouting from the top, and dozen tentacles hanging from its spiky underside. It waved its tentacles menacingly as it approached. Kellan gulped loudly.
“Still think its a hermit?” Kellan asked.
“Oh, hells.” Elar drew his sword. “How many people did they say this thing killed?”
“I don’t think they said anything about it killing anyone.”
“I think I can take it,” Elar said confidently.
As the creature approached they could hear it breathing, a weird undulating sound. Flumph. Flumph. Flumph. It raised a rubbery appendage and a beam of verdant light sprang forth, narrowly missing Elar and reducing nearby cattails to steaming goo.
“Feeling less confident now,” Elar admitted. “Still think I can take it.”
Kellan nocked another arrow and let it fly. The creature dropped suddenly, simply falling out of the air and under the arrow’s deadly path. Just as quickly it rose again, still making that strange sound. Flumph. Flumph. Flumph. It tentacles flailed madly and it howled in a strange language, suddenly swelling to twice its original size.
“Oh, hells,” Elar said, though his voice was barely a whisper. “We should’ve run.”
The creature was far too quick however and by the time Elar had his revelation it was already above them. The strange sound it had made was now a deafening roar, like ocean waves smashing dully against a rocky shore. Kellan could smell the creature, its scent soapy with a bitter note, like the acid his father used to tan hides.
Elar turned to face the creature, his sword ready to attack, but it was too clever to come within reach. It howled in its strange tongue again, its tentacles thrashing about, and Kellan realized it was weaving a spell. He fired another arrow, hoping to disrupt its casting, but to no avail. A cloud of shimmering motes fell from the creature’s writhing tentacles and enveloped the two warriors.
“Oh, hells,” Elar muttered as he fell forward, face down in the muck.
Kellan felt a wave of exhaustion pass through him. He tried to shout for help, but only managed a yawn as he slumped to one knee. He shook his head, and the feeling passed.
“Thank your elven blood again, mother,” he hissed as he nocked another arrow and fired up at the creature’s exposed underbelly. It hit true, and the whole creature writhed in pain, temporarily retreating.
Elar lay face down in the fetid swamp water, and if he wasn’t woken soon would drown for sure. Kellan nocked another arrow and tried to flip Elar over with a swift kick, but the dumb ox was too heavy to move. Kellan kicked him again, this time hard in the ribs, and Elar jerked to wakefulness, his head coming up out of water with a cry as he spit and coughed up water.
The creature fell on Kellan, its tentacles wrapping around his arms and legs and pulling him up towards its underbelly, where a half dozen hollow spikes dripped a vile green substance. Kellan cried out for help, but Elar was still struggling to regain his breath, and his sword was lost in the muck anyways. One of the creatures tentacles wrapped around Kellan’s quiver and yanked it free, casually tossing it off into swamp. Immediately the beast dropped Kellan into the muck, floating up into the trees. As it rose it shrank, dwindling in size till it was only a few feet across once more and could more easily hide amongst the branches.
A sharp cry announced that Elar had found his sword, and a moment later he held it in one hand, with the other to his mouth, sucking the stagnant waters from his fresh wound.
“Let’s go, Elar,” Kellan said, grabbing his comrade by the arm.
“Go? No way. I think its out of spells. And you hurt it. We just have to figure out how to get it back down here.”
“No, let’s just leave it alone.”
“What? It attacked us!”
“No, I think it just tried to scare us off. I’m telling you, that thing could have choked the life out of me, and it didn’t. I don’t think it wants to hurt us. It just wants to be left alone.”
“But what about what the guys in the bar said?”
“The guys you thought were messing with us? Maybe that’s the joke, they send us out here to chase this harmless thing around the swamp like a pair of fools, while they sit back and laugh at us. Let’s just go.”
Elar started to protest, but gave up on it, tossing his hands up and stomping off back towards the nameless little village, with its warm beer and warmer beds. Kellan hazarded one last glance at the strange beast of Blackwater Bog. He could just barely make it out, hovering in the high branches of the cypress trees.
He swore it was waving good-bye.