A Debt to Pay Excerpt: The Haunted Swamp
The Great Swamp began intermittently, patches of dry land spotted with pines and palmettos appearing among stretches of tea-colored water and towering cypress trees. Samaat, Vel and Drusilla entered the wetland in silence, each consumed in thought. Samaat wondered why the soothsayer offered protection to Vel but refused him. Did it have something to do with his abilities? Vel played with the large emerald in his pouch, trying to determine why the old man gave up such a precious gem so easily. Drusilla shivered, afraid for her life despite the protection pearls draped around her neck. The soothsayer warned her not to go with Vel and Samaat but she did, confident in the abilities of her virile companions. The deeper they went into the Swamp, the less assured she was in her decision.
Rest stops were easy to find along the road, some offering thick vines heavy with ripe muscadines. The pine islands diminished as the day waned, disappearing completely by nightfall. The three pushed hard to reach the man-made rest stop to avoid camping in the middle of the narrow road. The tension eased as the sun descended; Drusilla and Vel teasing each other before the fire as Samaat brooded over the scrolls, scribbling notes and translations as always. They slept peacefully, each believing the words of the soothsayer were less threatening as the night wore on.
The next day seemed more ominous. They were in the heart the swamp, the dense trees screening out the sun to create a perpetual dusk. Thick waist live oaks stood close to the road, their gnarled canopies dripping with Spanish moss sagging over the road. The ever present cypress trees lurked in the darkness behind the oaks. The eerie quiet was broken occasionally by the shrill calls of the large crested woodpeckers that thrived off the insect infested carcasses of dead wetland trees. Samaat felt as if he was being watched. Something lurked in the darkness, following them while managing to stay just out of their vision. Drusilla seemed to sense it as well, her head constantly jerking from side to side as she fingered the soothsayer’s necklace. Vel seemed oblivious, singing a song in time with his horse’s gait, occasionally giving Drusilla a lustful glance. Samaat thought back to the soothsayer’s cabin. Why wouldn’t the man help him? The tone of the man’s voice was contemptuous at the least. Why would a stranger have such hard feelings against another? It was as if Samaat had slighted the old man in some way.
He reined his horse and peered into the dark. He was sure if it now; something moved in the shadows, following their every move. Drusilla looked at him and he knew she detected it, too. If they could ride all night until they were out of the swamp he would do so. They had at least another three days ride to Savahn; no man or beast could survive a hard ride through such dismal landscape.
They reached the next rest stop well before dusk. Vel tried to cheer them with a song but the surrounding gloom sucked the joy from his words. Darkness crept into camp from the swamp, riding in with the thick fog. Drusilla and Vel slept close; Samaat sat before the fire without the scrolls as was his habit. His tomafango lay across his knees, his large hands nervously working the crafted hilt. Samaat was not a woodsman but he was familiar enough with the outdoors to know that complete silence was not normal for nature. Every moment of the day stirred the voice of some creature; the songs of birds, the calling and squabbling of squirrels and the croaks and chirps of frogs during the night. But here unnatural silence surrounded them as if the darkness placed a firm hand over the mouth of the bog.
Splashing water reverberated beyond Samaat ’s sight. Something was approaching them, moving steadily from all sides. Wetness touched his cheek and he touched it in reflex. The liquid felt too thick to be water; he pulled his finger away and saw blood.
“Vel!” he shouted. His brother jumped to his feet, tomafango in hand.
“What is it? What?” he growled as he shook his head.
Drops of blood splattered his head. Vel ran his hand across his scalp.
“What the hell is this?” he shouted.
Samaat couldn’t answer. The sloshing sound of people walking through water pervaded everything else.
The source emerged from the blackness. A thing resembling a person constructed of the remnants of the swamp depths trudged toward them. Others came into view, a decayed horde marching toward the camp. Vel reached down and shook Drusilla.
“Drusilla, wake up!” Her eyes snapped open to the grotesque vision of the lumbering creatures. She screamed and ran to the brothers.
The creatures approached the road then stopped. Their mouths opened, releasing a grating piercing sound from their ragged throats. The deafening screech pained the trio’s ears, but Vel and Samaat refused to drop their weapons. Instead they banged them together, sparking the deadly spirit fire within them.
The creatures fell silent, their misshapen eyes locked on the glowing swords. They opened their mouths again but this time a sound emerged resembling more song than anger.
“What are they doing?” Vel asked.
The creatures climbed onto the road and surged towards them. Samaat brought down a creature with one stroke. It sighed and collapsed, a peaceful countenance shaping its grim face. Another creature quickly replaced it. Vel repeated his brother’s actions, slicing the swamp denizen one by one as they made their laconic attack. Drusilla cowered between them, her muffled cries seeping through her trembling hands. The creatures came and the brothers cut, the gruesome carnage lasting until the sun casted its light over the top of the swamp trees.
Samaat cut down the last monstrosity before him, the weight of his sword dragging him to his knees.
“Vel,” he gasped. “Are you okay?”
Vel leaned on his sword, speaking between breaths.
“No, but I’m not dead, either.”
Drusilla lifted her head and saw the carnage surrounding them for the first time.
“I told the soothsayer you would protect me,” she whispered. She passed out.
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