“Paladin?” Katima exclaimed. “By the Light!”
Ghing was silent for a moment then said, “You’re living proof that legends are true.”
“That’s because the Inquisitors tried to wipe us from history,” Camon explained. “Paladins only became legends because of that. My order was formed as part of the First Reformation. What we are looking for predates the formation of the Church by centuries.”
“But it does show that legends can have truth to them,” Ghing rebutted.
“Indeed, they do,” Camon agreed.
“That also explains how you were able to slay an amphiptere,” Ghing said. “Your sword is no ordinary blade.”
“Correct,” Camon said. “But I also got lucky. And Achara pulled me out of that mess, quite literally. Legends seem to overinflate what I am. But now, I think it is time to get some sleep. Dream of Paladins if it helps.”
With that, Camon lay back next to the fire, and all the others soon did the same except Katima, who took the first watch. They all slept soundly and woke the next morning to a heavy fog that had settled into the swamp.
“This is going to make navigation fun,” Jorn said.
“Relax,” Katima said. “It’ll burn off soon.”
They ate from their provisions again for breakfast and then used the rope they had tied off the day before to load the rafts with gear. Once they were loaded, everyone boarded their respective crafts and then pushed off from the city ruins and into the bayou. Katima’s raft led the way with Achara and Camon close behind. The bayou’s surface was covered in thick, green slime that the rafts cut a trail through as they passed. They poled for most of the morning with the bayou winding back and forth through the swamp. It widened in some places, but it was barely wide enough for the rafts to fit through in others. They had to navigate fallen logs, and in some places, the overhanging vegetation was so thick that Katima had to hack their way through it. Progress was slow but steady. By mid-morning, the fog had cleared. This did little to improve visibility in the swamp because the vegetation was so heavy.
Around noon, Camon ordered a stop, and he probed with magic again from the raft. Around his raft, air bubbles came up from the water below him as he did, and the water rippled. He didn’t do it long nor as intensely as he did it the day before. “We’re getting close, I think. Rest a minute.”
They all sat down on the rafts and rested for a moment and ate something before getting back up and poling again. They poled for another hour, and Camon told them to stop again. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what? I don’t hear a thing.” Jorn commented.
“Exactly,” Camon said.
“He’s right,” Katima said. “I reckon I got used to not a thing. No birds, no insects, nothin’.”
“Keep your guard up,” Camon commanded. They started poling again, and the bayou turned north. Camon scanned the swamp around them, looking for anything. He fixated on something to the south of the bayou, and as they proceeded, he observed a landmass rising out of the swamp to the south. “There,” he said, breaking the silence and pointing to the landmass. “That island over there…”
“There’s somethin’ over there,” Katima said.
Camon reoriented the raft in the bayou and gauged the spacing between the myriad of trees. He untied some of the lashings and shed a few of the logs to make the raft narrower, but less stable and less buoyant. Katima did the same, and from the extra logs, they lashed together a third raft. Katima hopped onto Achara’s raft, and Camon took the new raft himself. He then poled out of the bayou into the swamp between the trees, using them as support to keep the raft from capsizing. The other rafts followed closely behind.
They managed to navigate the tight spaces between the trees sticking up out of the swamp, and when they got closer to the landmass, they saw what Camon had seen through the trees. The island rose out of the surrounding swampland for as far as they could see to the south through the trees. It was not unlike the surrounding swamp, though, covered in thick vegetation. Camon maneuvered his craft parallel with the bank of the island and probed the bank with his pole. When he thought it was stable enough, he leaped from the craft to the bank, then reached down and pulled his raft into the bank. He then helped the others do likewise.
They then climbed up the bank on the land and looked around. The ground was covered in plant debris, and trees grew close together as ever in the swamp. Camon knelt and placed his hand on the ground and probed the land gently, and he withdrew his hand quickly as he did. “This is definitely what I’ve been sensing.”
He removed his sword from its scabbard on his waist, and he walked forward wordlessly. The others followed behind him, each readying their weapons as Camon had. Camon used the sword to whack away vegetation as they moved away from the swamp inland. Nothing of note revealed itself immediately. After about an hour of walking, Camon stopped dead in his tracks and then raised his sword, pointing upwards to something in the trees.
“What is it?” Achara asked.
“Do you see those trees up there? Notice how they don’t grow straight. They are twisted and curved.”
“What does that mean?” Jorn asked.
“That’s one way magic distorts reality. The tree’s sense of ‘up’ in those places is off, so they grow sideways and in twisted patterns like that.”
Camon proceeded more cautiously towards the trees. As they approached, the undergrowth thinned, and there was nothing on the ground except dirt where the twisted trees were growing.
“What would clear this?” Achara asked.
“Wind,” Camon said. “Probably not unlike a whirlwind or whirling dervish in the desert.”
“It’s still as a tomb here,” Katima remarked.
“I know,” Camon said. “That’s what bothers me.”
They proceeded onto the dirt and walked amidst the trees, everyone looking over their shoulders left and right. A few hundred yards in, they came to a ravine that was flanked on either side by rows of twisted and gnarled trees. They all got down in the ravine, and Camon knelt again and placed his hand on the ground and whispered. The ground tremored in response.
“What was that?” Achara said.
“This is the place where she slew the demon. The magic here is in tension, like a spring waiting to be unleashed. It’s what is twisting the reality here.”
He went over to a tree and placed his hand on it, noticing some claw marks on the bark. “Something has been here recently.”
“A demon?” Achara asked.
“No, there’s no corruption here that I can tell. Everything looks healthy, even though the patterns here are dark.”
“How can that be?” Achara asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Camon inspected the tree closer, putting his hands in the claw marks. He probed it ever so slightly with magic, and the tree tremored, sending a shower of leaves down on top of them. He picked up one of the leaves and examined it. The leaf was green, but it was not symmetrical with jagged veins. It felt rough like a stone in his hand. “I’ve never seen a tree like this before.”
“More magical distortions?” Achara queried.
“It would have to be. It’s like a whole new species of tree that grew as a result of it.”
“Or just a distorted version of an existing tree,” Achara suggested.
“Possibly, but the magic in this place has fused itself with the tree.”
“How can magic do that?” Achara asked.
“Magic is as much a part of this world as we are. It’s not external. When we use it, we’re doing nothing more than channeling it to our ends. But that’s when it goes against its natural condition to an artificial one. We must refine it. Otherwise, it is just chaos. Think of it as trying to build a road from natural materials. Until you cut the stones and arrange them, they are just stones. But if you randomly throw the stones, you disrupt their natural state. But eventually, wherever the stones lay, they will return to a new natural state. That’s essentially what happened here. The girl threw the proverbial stones at the demon. The magic was explosive, creating a chaotic state here. But the life and magic adapted, forming a new natural state.”
“Not to be rude,” Katima said, pointing her machete down to the ravine’s north end, “What the hell is that?”
Everyone turned and looked and saw what she saw. It was a creature that had a person’s form, but instead of a nose and mouth, it had a beak like a bird. Instead of hands and feet, it had talons like an eagle. And instead of hair, its body was covered with dark brown feathers. It let out a screech that sounded like a hawk but was so loud that the travelers covered their ears. It came at them, then was joined by several other creatures of similar size and make up.
“Quick, form a line,” Camon screamed. “Jorn, Katima, on me. Achara and Ghing, get behind us.” Camon and the crew dropped their packs and pouches and scrambled.
Jorn readied his blade and growled, “Let them come!”
Katima took out her long knife and readied her machete, and Camon readied his sword. Achara loosed a bolt and struck the first beast in its leg, but it did not phase it. The hoard kept coming towards them, and more of the creatures poured into the ravine. Camon, Katima, and Jorn started backing away slowly. “Aim for the head!” Camon yelled. Achara reloaded and loosed another bolt aiming for one of them in the head. The bolt found its target, and the creature shuddered and fell to the ground. The other creatures shrieked again, but this time the five companions didn’t lower their guard, still backing up. The creatures then began to charge.
Jorn wasted no time once they were close enough and charged to meet them. He brought his sword down on one, splitting it in two like he was chopping firewood. He then whirled the big blade around, catching two more in one stroke. Camon slammed his blade into another at the neck, then kicked it back with his foot into the other creatures. Katima whacked furiously at one, taking off its claws, before slamming her knife into its neck, sending it to the ground. Jorn was on his fifth kill now, tearing through the beasts like they were grass before a scythe. Camon was at his side, and Katima was catching up. More of the beast came to the ravine as they slashed and hacked their way through the attackers.
“We can’t do this forever!” Jorn yelled. “There’s too many of them!”
“Fall back!” Camon roared. They began to give ground back, getting closer to Achara and Ghing. Ghing looked on with horror sticking as close as he could to Achara, who was busy reloading her crossbow and dropping the beast as quickly as she fired bolts. She had emptied her quiver by the time that Camon, Jorn, and Katima got to them.
“Out of the ravine,” Camon yelled. The ravine now was full of the beasts trying to get to the five, stumbling over each other to do so. Camon, Jorn, and Katima continued to fight them off as they came while Achara and Ghing climbed out of the ravine. “Katima, go!” Camon yelled at her. She fell back, and Achara and Ghing helped her out of the ravine.
“Good thing these beasts aren’t smart, or they would flank us!” Jorn yelled.
“They’re guarding something at the other side of the ravine!” Camon yelled back. “It’s your turn! Go!”
Jorn kept his guard up as they went backward. Katima, Achara, and Ghing then grabbed him and dragged him up out of the ravine. Camon was alone, fighting wickedly with his back to the wall of the ravine. Beast fell as his blade went back and forth like a great pendulum. The creatures were now climbing over the dead to get to Camon. Camon managed to climb the ravine side with one hand and fight off the creature with his sword and boots, kicking and striking. The creatures jumped at him, snapping at his feet and legs, only to meet their demise at Camon’s blade.
The creatures then started to climb out of the ravine too. Jorn grabbed Camon’s hand and started pulling him up. “We’re never going to get out of this alive! There’s just too many! Don’t you think it’s about time for some of that Paladin stuff you do?” he screamed.
“No,” Camon scowled, “I think it’s time for you to show us what you can do!” He then reached up, grabbed Jorn’s wrist, and squeezed it. He pulled him down and threw him back down into the ravine into the midst of the creatures.
“What the hell are you doing!?” Achara shrieked at Camon. Katima and Ghing looked on flabbergasted. The creatures descended on Jorn like a pack of ravenous wolves tearing and snapping at him. They could hardly see Jorn from the pile of creatures.
Just then, Jorn began to scream. They saw his blade come through the body of one of the beasts, and it glowed blue. The creatures began to shriek and scatter every which way. They then saw Jorn, whose face was alive with fury and glowing like his sword. His eyes glowed like fire. His hair was standing straight up with static. Lightning arced across his body, from his head to his feet. He then leaped at the creatures nearby with fury. Lightning erupted from his blade as he thrust it into the creatures. It struck nearby creatures and trees all the way down the ravine causing the beasts to writhe in pain. Jorn removed the sword and struck another, having the same effect as before. He rampaged down the ravine, striking one beast after another, hitting everything that moved. The creatures fell by the dozen. When he reached the end of the ravine, nothing there was left alive.
He spun around, looking at the wake of destruction, panting, and sneering. He arched his shoulders, and his expression when from a scowl to a sinister grin. He then pointed the sword at Camon and thrust it in the air towards him. Lightning erupted from Jorn’s blade at Camon, but Camon threw up his sword. Camon’s blade deflected the lightning into the trees above. Camon leaped back down into the ravine away from Ghing, Katina, and Achara. Jorn thrust his sword towards Camon again, but Camon deflected the lightning back at Jorn, who reeled when it struck him. Camon rushed towards Jorn now. Jorn again attempted to attack him with lightning and was met with it himself when Camon deflected it. Camon stopped fifteen feet short of Jorn, who looked at him and hissed, then screamed in a fury. He ran at Camon with his blade over his head. He then let the lightning loose, and he swung it wildly at Camon, who did not attempt to meet it, but instead dodged it and let the big sword go to the ground. Camon then pivoted around to Jorn’s back, who was trying to figure out where Camon was. Camon then took the hilt of his blade and whacked Jorn across the head. Jorn then dropped his sword and fell face forward to the ground. He lay motionless like the rest of the creatures that they had slain in the ravine.