child_m.gif (3208 bytes)ale of Light

CHAPTER 2: INTO THE MARSHES

 

Grendel tried to work it out in his head. If the projector invokes proto-elemental material via his mind, using himself as a conduit to the appropriate proto-elemental plane of existence, then the element in question, say for example, fire, would have its strength increased to a degree exponential to the projector's power. That would suggest that the projector himself is immune to the arcane destruction that PEM causes to all matter on the physical plane. He blinked, and smiled and began to read the page again. This kind of thing made him content. He wished Mep would hurry back with the firewood- the light from the moon was hardly sufficient to read Malin's Guide to the Plasma Plane, and he didn't want to use magic to light the book any more than he had to. Morandor had warned against excessive use of magic in Rhutalath. And Grendel, who was no stranger to the country himself, knew exactly what he meant. How could anyone hate magic? He didn't understand. It was amazing. The feeling you got when you cast a spell, the things you could do. And magic was helpful- the amount of people you could help was staggering. He was ever the eternal optimist, he'd readily agree, but he didn't really see how magic could harm anybody.

Grendel hummed to himself, and turned the page. He read the first line, happy to be learning something new. 'Plasma itself is the amalgamation of the other elements, which number twelve.....' he read to himself. His reading was interrupted as something prodded him in the side.

He turned to see Maree, awake and sat up, prodding him with Mep's staff. She smiled sweetly at him. "What're you reading," she asked.

"A book," he said simply, returning the smile. He didn't want to be harsh with her, but he was reading. He'd talk to her later, when he'd finished the chapter. Or maybe after the next one. He returned to the line: 'Plasma itself is the amalgamation of the other elements, which numb....' He stopped as the staff poked him again.

"What's it about," she asked, that sweet smile again.

Grendel smiled, happy that someone was interested. He looked briefly at Morandor, who seemed enthralled in his own book, and was idly scratching the lice in his beard. "You see, its all about the absorption rates of proto-elemental plasma when brought into a denser medium, such as this particular plane of reality." He stopped as a fake snore came from Maree, who was pretending she had fallen asleep. "Fine, if you're not interested," he said, a little sulkily. He returned to his book. 'Plasma itself is the amalgamation.....'

Grendel glared at Maree as she prodded him again. "What?" he asked, impatiently.

"Is it good," she asked, fluttering her eye-lashes.

Grendel simply nodded. 'Plasma itself is....' he read, returning yet again to his book.

"Mep and Bremmy are a long time," Maree said, after prodding him again.

Grendel nodded again. "They're probably looking for food."

Maree smiled. "Playing with animals again, no doubt," she said.

Grendel paused and frowned. He hadn't really been paying attention, but the snide tone in her voice made him look up. "What?" he asked, fearing the answer.

"Well, Bremmy's not happy unless he's butchering animals. And Mep....well, animals make him happy in other ways," she said innocently.

Grendel grinned at that last comment, but stopped when he saw Morandor look up from his book.

"By the gods, Maree," Morandor scoulded. "At least try to pretend you're a lady!!!" Maree pulled her tongue out at the old wizard. Grendel grinned again, before returning to his book. 'Plasma it....'

He scowled as Maree prodded him again. "Stop that!! Why do you keep doing that?!" he said.

"Its fun. Besides, I'm sure Mep's glad that his staff is being used for something other than herding sheep into his bedroom," she said.

"Well I'm not. Stop it. If you're bored, I'll lend you a book!"

Maree seemed to pale at the last comment. "No thanks." she said simply. Grendel shrugged, sighed, and returned to his reading. 'Plasm....'

"Stop that," he said again. "Morandor!! Maree keeps prodding me!"

Morandor looked over, his eye-brows raised. "Good god, Grendel," he said. "You're a wizard! If she's annoying you, do something about it," he said.

Grendel frowned. That wasn't like Morandor- he was normally telling Grendel to be careful with magic, and not use it in an act of anger, and especially not on his friends. "You mean, turn her into a frog, or something?"

Morandor laughed. "Nothing so complimentary," he smiled, as Maree stuck her tongue out again. "I mean you're a wizard. You have a staff of your own. Prod her back!"

Grendel smiled and turned to Maree. "See, if you don't stop, I'll poke you with my staff," he said.

Maree grinned. "If you think its necessary," she said, pouting seductively. "I'm all yours."

Grendel felt his cheeks burning, and knew he was blushing. He guessed he'd walked into that. Morandor seemed to be choking on something. The old wizard mumbled something like 'vile girl,' but he had a slight smile on his face.

Grendel brought the book in front of his face to hide his embarrassment. Maree always seemed to make him blush. He didn't understand girls at all. Bremmy did, and Grendel had once asked him to explain them to him. What he'd said shocked him to his core. Most of it wasn't relevant to his current problems, and he was sure some of it should be illegal. He certainly knew that a lot of what was said was damn right embarrassing. And he wasn't sure where a Morrim would learn so many rude words. Mep wasn't much more help, using many of the same words that Bremmy had, only with obscene gestures to match. Morandor had just told him to steer well clear.

He glanced over at the swamp, which seemed to reach the edge of the forest. A thick mist was gathering over it, and the buzzing of the insects was distracting. Worse was the smell- a combination of dirty mud, sulphur and rotting plants. Maree had wrinkled her nose, and protested profusely when Morandor had announced they'd be crossing the swamp the next day. The old wizard wanted to avoid the roads, which was sage advice in Grendel's opinion. But Maree had claimed she hated swamps. Grendel shared that opinion.

He returned to the book, determined to get to the next paragraph. It was, he decided, his own personal quest for tonight. A whole paragraph without interruptions. For some reason, he felt it was an impossible quest. He read the first line hurriedly. 'Plasma itself is the amalgama..." He sighed as he was prodded again!

"What?!?" he screamed at Maree, before realizing the prod had come from his other side. He turned, where Morandor was holding his staff horizontal to prod him again. Morandor was grinning. "They're back," he said in answer to Grendel's unspoken question, gesturing to the forest. Grendel turned to see Bremmy and Mep marching back, grins on their faces.

"Miss us?" Mep asked. Grendel sighed, and closed his book, marking his page with a piece of swamp grass. He wouldn't achieve his quest tonight.

"What took you so long," Maree asked. "I was so bored I've been forced to talk to bookworm here," she said, pouting slightly at Grendel. Grendel sighed, and idly started carving a symbol in the dirt with a stick. He didn't know why she was so nasty to him. Maybe if he just ignored her.....

"We've been hunting," Bremmy said.

"Really?" Grendel asked, looking between them both. He could see no animal corpse. Unless it was a small rabbit. He tried to peer behind Bremmy to see if he had a rabbit strapped to his back.

"No success?" Morandor asked.

"On the contrary," Bremmy grinned. He opened his belt pack, and pulled out something wrapped in a white blanket. "Quite a catch," he said, throwing it on the floor to them. Morandor opened it, and eyed the contents curiously. "Bread and Cheese," Bremmy exclaimed triumphantly.

Maree stifled a laugh. "I suppose you just happened upon a nice herd of cheese grazing merrily in the forest," she said. Grendel grinned. Cheese!

The two newcomers sat down, across the fire from Grendel. Bremmy immediately began building another fire, whilst Mep, after being prodded repeatedly by Maree, snatched his staff back.

Mep looked over to Morandor. "We've found out where the nearest town is," he said. "Stonegate, about ten miles south of here," he continued, remembering the Storm-crow's words.

Morandor eyed them suspiciously. "And you obtained this information how?" he said. Grendel leaned forward, intrigued. He had just noticed the red sheen on Bremmy's axe.

Bremmy shrugged. "We met a few guards in the forest," he said. He noticed Grendel's gaze, and began to wipe the blade of his axe with the end of his kilt.

"Stormcrows," Mep added.

Grendel felt himself tense. Stormcrows. They were the elite warriors of the Rhutalathian church- feared almost as much as the Inquisition. They were only ever sent where there was believed to be Magic. Or Elves. Their presence was definitely a bad sign. Grendel had had encounters with them many times before- and they were never pleasant. Once he had barely escaped with his life.

Grendel glanced towards Morandor, and noticed his face had become sullen and pale. He looked worried.

"Where are they now?" Grendel asked, fearful of the answer. He touched the daggers at his belt subconciously. If they'd followed Mep and Bremmy........

Bremmy simply shrugged. "Hell?" he said, more of a question. The word was strange to him, as were most Rhutalathian concepts. "We killed them."

"Green-Eyed Goats!" Morandor cursed. "You killed Stormcrows?!" His voice was heated, and his face incredulous. Grendel cringed at Morandor's temper. "We were meant to be inconspicuous!" Morandor stood up, brushing his robe down. "Stupid Morrim! You'll bring the entire army down on us! Why didn't you just send up a flare, tell them we're here?!?"

Bremmy's face was reddening, more from anger than embarrassment Grendel suspected. The Morrim tugged his moustache violently. "What were supposed to do?" he asked, his tone calm and respectful. "Let them find you? They already knew where you were- they were heading in your direction." Bremmy's voice was strained. "Or were we supposed to chase them away, so they could come back with an army?" he said. "Them dead is better than us dead, by my reckoning!"

Morandor paced, away from the fire, then back, his feet crunching on the dry leaves. He seemed to have calmed a bit, but he was still mumbling to himself. Grendel understood his concern- killing a Stormcrow was tantamount to Treason in Rhutalath. Still, so was wielding Magic. He frowned at Bremmy- he'd had little choice but to kill the Stormcrows, yet that one good turn could end up stringing up their nooses! And he certainly had no right to treat Morandor with such little respect.

"How many were there?" Grendel asked, looking between Mep and Bremmy.

"Three," Mep said, holding up three fingers, as if Grendel wasn't familiar with the number. Bremmy was huddled by the fire, gripping his cloak, and mumbling to himself like Morandor. "We killed them all."

"Are you sure?" Grendel asked intensely. He didn't doubt Mep, but he had to be sure they weren't going to be set upon in the night.

Mep frowned. "Sure? If you mean am I sure they were dead, then pretty much. Unless their Faith gives them the ability to walk around with no head." He smiled at his own joke, ignoring Maree's indignant protests of the description. "As for how many? I only saw three, and I only sensed three." Grendel nodded slowly, knowing what he meant. When Mep was in a forest, he was aware of everyone who came and went beneath the eaves.

Morandor sat down again, apparently at terms with his misgivings. He adjusted his robe as he sat down, and pulled out a pipe filled with tobacco. Grendel obligingly pulled out a small splint of wood from the fire, and lit it for him. Tobacco was always good for the old wizard's temper. Morandor nodded his thanks and blew a smoke ring.

"So what do we do now?" Maree asked. It had been the longest Grendel had known her to be quiet. "Do the Stormcrows know we're here, or was it just bad luck?"

Morandor blew another smoke ring, and waited for it to dissipate before he responded. "Who knows?" he said simply. "It is possible they were sent here to investigate. If magic was detected here, they could be simply finding out what it was. For all they know it could have been just a simple Essence breeze, or the outburst of an Earthnode." He sucked again on his pipe, closing his eyes as he enjoyed the fumes. "Or they could know exactly who we are, where we are, and what we're doing here. The Inquisition is not to be taken lightly. They've got more eyes than a Yubble."

Grendel's ears perked up at the last statement. A Yubble? He wasn't sure what one of them was, but he'd certainly like to find out. He stored the name at the back of his mind, and decided to look it up the first chance he got. "So, you think the Inquisition is on to us?" Grendel asked.

Morandor scowled. "Goats! Were you not listening, Grendel? I don't know," he said, though his words were harsher than his tone. "Whether they were or not, its not safe to stay here now. Whoever sent the Crows will be sure to come looking for them if they don't return."

Maree sighed. "So, into the swamp then?" she asked, crestfallen.

Morandor smiled at her, his missing teeth making him look wicked. "I'm afraid so." Morandor reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small and faded map. He opened it, wrestling against the wind, and lay it on the floor. "We're here," he said pointing to the map, though talking mainly to himself. "The Loeg Cabor swamp." he said.

Grendel leaned over, trying to get a better view. There was a small brown smudge which he assumed was meant to represent the swamp. The writing was old, and he didn't understand most of it. And from what he had seen of Rhutalath, the map looked to be extremely out of date.

"I picked this up a few years ago," Morandor said, as if he was reading Grendel's mind. "From an old merchant in Urlocia." Urlocia? Another new word. Grendel filed it away with the Yubble. "Now, according to Mep....." Morandor cut off as the map was picked up by the wind, and viciously attacked him. He muttered an oath, wrestled with it, and managed to flatten it out. "According to Mep," he continued, "the nearest town is Stonegate."

Mep nodded his affirmation, and leaned over to look at the map, along with Bremmy. Maree sat still, sulkily avoiding any conversations about the swamp. Grendel smiled at her, then returned to the map. "Ten miles south of here," Mep added, hoping to regain Morandor's respect.

Morandor took a suck on his pipe, and fixed Mep with his 'I remember, you stupid tree-boy, I'm not senile.' stare. Morandor seemed to have a stare for every occasion. "Ten miles south," Morandor repeated. "That should make the town about here," he said, pointing to a spot on the south side of the swamp.

Everyone looked closely. Grendel couldn't see a town where he had pointed. "There's nothing there," Grendel said, instantly knowing he sounded stupid, stating the obvious.

Maree laughed. "Morandor's so old, his maps predate towns! His maps predate geography."

Grendel laughed, along with Mep and Bremmy, despite the oxymoron. Morandor glared at her. "Foolish girl," he said, a little too sulkily for such a powerful and wise mage. "Its an Urlocian map. It shows earthnodes and other such interesting sites. Not towns." Grendel leaned closer at that, desperate to get a look at a map of such arcane interest. He was stopped as the wind picked up again, and the map threatened to envelop Morandor's face. Morandor let loose a stream of expletives, before finally smoothing the map out. This time he weighted the far ends with stones from the fire, and the other two ends with his feet.

"The good news is," Morandor said, grinning at Maree. "Is that it's a straight line, all the way through the swamp." Maree gave him a stare that could have frozen a salamander. "Which means we can avoid the roads completely."

Grendel tried again to look at the map. If he wasn't mistaken, there was an Earthnode less than thirty leagues from here. He wondered if they could make a diversion to see it. Surely Zardock couldn't be too far away. Morandor looked at him and shook his head, as if he could tell what Grendel was thinking. It was very disturbing sometimes, the way Morandor could read him.

"So, a ten mile trek through a dirty and vile-smelling swamp?" Maree asked.

Morandor nodded. Mep grinned at her.

"And I suppose we've got to go now. No waiting until after a goodnight's sleep?"

Morandor nodded again. Mep's grin widened.

"Sounds pleasant," she said, all smiles and eye-lashes.

Maree, resigned to her fate, accepted she wasn't going to get any sleep tonight. Maree, resigned to her fate, accepted she was going to get wet, dirty and probably smell worse than Mep. Maree, resigned to her fate, picked up Mep's staff and hit the grinning shepherd violently over the head with it.

Grendel smiled at Mep's screams of pain and protest, then began to pack his books into his back-pack. It was going to be a long night.

 

 

The buzzing had become louder, as the sun began to rise in the east, and more constant; the frantic noise of a thousand bugs, mosquitoes and dragon-flies awaking from their sleep. Maree desperately tried to shut the noise out, hoping it would take away her thoughts from the countless stings and mandibles hovering near her head. The noise, even late in the night when it was merely a quiet drone, had grated on her. But even worse was the smell- a thick and almost tangible air which made her dizzy every time she breathed. It smelled of bad eggs, and rotting flesh. It reminded her of the kitchen at the Wizard's Rest Inn where she'd worked, though she'd never tell Master Grumm that. And the heat- that was almost suffocating! It had shocked her, when she first entered the vile place. Midnight, and as hot as the warmest summer day in Doromir. She didn't like this swamp- it was unnatural.

With infinite care, she navigated the various vines and roots which lay half-submerged in the shallow, brown water. She yelped as something brushed her leg in the water, imagining it to be some vile kind of serpent, or vicious fishman! She was sure nothing normal would choose to live here. To her relief, a small black frog swam past her, almost camouflaged against the filthy bog-water. She yelped again as she tripped on the root of a stunted and upturned tree, and just managed to stop herself falling headfirst into the mire. She hated this swamp- it was evil!

Panting hard and holding herself up against the tree, she stared at the backs of her companions, who seemed unaware of her distress. Uncivilized, the lot of them! Here she was, a damsel in distress, and not one of them even seemed to notice. Not even Grendel. She glared at his back, saving most of her rage for the young apprentice. It was a momentary relief, directing all her scorn at Grendel's back. It didn't last long though- she went icy still as another unseen and obviously ferocious frog swept past her, yelped as the water finally seeped up her dress, and sulked as she realized that she now smelled nearly as bad as the swamp.

She screamed. Not a scream of fear, or of shock, or even despair. It was a scream of frustration. It echoed round the swamp, rebounding of small trees and distant rocks, and temporarily drowned out the buzzing of the insects. She smiled- that had been more productive than she had hoped for. She screamed again, just for good measure.

"Goats, girl!" Morandor said, turning around. "What in Dral's name is the matter with you?"

Maree just stared at him, a belligerent look on her face. Grendel looked towards Morandor, and the two of them shrugged. Maree stared even harder.

"Well, try to keep the noise down!" Morandor scoulded. "We're not the only ones in this swamp, you know! And believe me, you don't want to disturb some of the things that live here!"

Maree really wanted to scream again, but instead took out her frustration on a passing gnat. She slapped at it, and it crunched with a satisfying noise against her hand. She wondered what Morandor was talking about- what else would live here? And what could be worse than these bugs? She hated these bugs- they had no right to be the size they were; she was sure some of them were bigger than cats.

"Won't be long now," Grendel said, waiting for her to catch up. "Another mile or so. We should reach Stonegate for breakfast." He smiled warmly at her, trying to cheer her up. She didn't feel much like smiling back, but to show her gratitude she reduced her scowl a little.

"I hope Morandor's going to pay for an expensive inn tonight," Maree said. "I deserve to be spoiled, after all this. I want a soft bed, a warm fire, and a good meal. And a bath.....a long and hot bath!" Maree smiled as she allowed herself to get lost in her dream. "And some clean and dry clothes," she added. She lifted her dress up to her knees, watching sullenly as water cascade from its hem. "Look- its meant to be blue! Not brown! And its certainly not meant to be as heavy as it......" She stopped as she noticed Grendel had turned away, a blush in his cheeks.

"Yes. Yes. Its blue," Grendel said distractedly, making a special effort not to look at her. She frowned for a while, until she realized she'd embarrassed him. She wondered if he'd ever seen a girl's legs before. Men! Still, she smiled despite herself.

"Look at me when I'm talking to you, Grendel! Have you no manners?" she teased. He turned around reluctantly, and she mischievously hoisted her dress a little higher. "Look.....its soaked! The water's seeping all the way to my thighs......"

There was a crack as Grendel walked headfirst into a gnarled pine, then tripped over with a splash. He sat in the water, rubbing his head, a distant look on his face.

Maree giggled and let the dress fall again, before walking over and helping him up. Grendel stammered something, blinked, then seemed to get his bearings. "Ow," he said simply.

Maree smiled again. "Careless, young Darkmoon," she said, mimicking Morandor. "Now you're as wet as me!"

Grendel grinned at her, then waved his hand in a casual way. Maree looked in shock as water began to flow out of her dress and back into the swamp. Within moments, her clothes were completely dry again. Even better, they seemed to smell of flowers. Grendel too seemed to be dry. Maree laughed in delight. "Now, if only you could do something about the bugs," she said. Grendel just shrugged, and walked on. Maree had no doubt that Grendel had the magical ability to chase every bug in the swamp away. She wouldn't be surprised if he could dry out the entire swamp. But Morandor had given strict instructions not to use too much magic. She smiled gleefully, then hurried to catch up with the others.

 

Grendel surveyed the swamp, distractedly cataloguing interesting features in his mind; the way the mud sucked at his feet, the way the bugs seemed to gather around Maree's perfume, the strange fish with no eyes. Normally, he'd be fascinated by this place, and eager to learn as much as he could about this new experience, but he had other things on his mind. Zardock. He frowned as he remembered Morandor's other apprentice- his smug, knowing smile, his dark and narrow eyes, his strange hair. He was evil. Grendel had said as much to Morandor, and Maree, but they'd both dismissed his claims, and shrugged off his opinions. Even Mep seemed to have befriended him. Well, now they knew the truth. Zardock had captured two unicorns' horns, and was on his way to the Unicorn vale to capture the rest. If they didn't stop him in time, the power Zardock could accumulate would be nigh on unstoppable. Grendel quickened his pace, as if he alone could overtake Zardock. He stopped alongside Morandor, who was leading the group. The old wizard was prodding and exploring the murky depths with his staff, wary of deep pits and hidden monsters. Morandor cursed occasionally, generally a sign that he was still alive.

"So, what's the plan, Morandor?" Grendel asked.

Morandor looked sidelong at Grendel, and swatted a mosquito from his face. "We get out of this wretched swamp, and then stop your troublesome friend, Zardock," Morandor said simply.

Grendel nodded, expecting such a vague reply. He ignored the 'friend' comment. "How far are we from the Vale?" he asked, referring to the valley in which the majority of unicorns made their home.

Morandor sighed. "I wish I knew. The location of the Vale is a well-kept secret. So well-kept, that nobody knows where it is. Well, not many people anyway."

"So how are we going to find it?"

Morandor opened his mouth to make a sarcastic comment, then decided against it. He smiled at Grendel, then shook his head. "I'm not sure. We're in the right area, that much I know. Someone around here should know." Morandor handed his staff to Grendel, whilst he fumbled in his pockets for the map. He pulled it out, and indicated a mark on the map. "This is where I believe it to be," he said, pointing to an area just north of the swamp. "My brother, Kran, lives in Rhutalath, many leagues to the east of here. He knows where the vale is."

Grendel frowned- Morandor had a brother? That was new information. "Then why don't we ask him?"

"He's too far away. It'll take days to get there. Maybe even a week. If we have to, I'll make the journey, but we can't afford to waste time."

Grendel nodded. Zardock already had a lead of at least two days on them. With the horns to guide him, he could already be at the Vale. He pushed that thought aside quickly; if Zardock gained all the horns, there'd be no way to stop him.

"There's another who may know, though," Morandor continued, seeing the worried frown on Grendel's face. "A wizard, who lives not too far from these parts. Valaxus, if I remember right."

Grendel brightened. "And you think this Valaxus knows where the Vale is?" he asked hopefully.

"So I've heard tell." Morandor replied. "He knows where it is, and he's been there himself. One rumour I heard was that most of his power was given to him by the Spirit of the Vale, and that if he leaves the area surrounding the Vale, his power would vanish. Its probably not true; I can't see the Spirit granting her power to those who would abuse it. But its one explanation as to why a wizard would live in Rhutalath."

Grendel agreed; he didn't understand why anyone who used magic would live in a place such as Rhutalath. But the thought of the Spirit of the Vale granting power intrigued him. "And is Valaxus the type to abuse the power?" he asked, a little excitedly.

"Most definitely," Morandor said, folding the map again, and returning it to one of his many pockets. "He's not to be trusted," he said enigmatically.

"So how do you know he'll help us?" Grendel asked, handing the staff back to the old wizard.

"Goats, Grendel! Do you never stop asking questions?" Morandor scoulded. "I don't know whether he'll help us. I guess we'll have to make him, if it comes to it." Grendel opened his mouth to ask another question, but Morandor interrupted him. "Let me guess- where does he live? I don't know for sure, but someone at Stonegate likely will. How do we make him help us? Haven't got a clue- Maybe I'll set you on him, and you can talk him to death. Is he married? I really don't care."

Grendel blinked. Why would he care if the wizard was married? He sighed to himself- obviously Morandor was in a vile mood. He began to slow his pace, so he could drop back and talk to someone else.

Morandor's face softened as Grendel began to leave. "We'll be in Stonegate within an hour. It has a large library, I hear," he said, simply but kindly.

Grendel grinned, anticipating all the books. He began to feel a little more optimistic, despite what Morandor had said about Valaxus being uncooperative. At least they had a plan, now. He whistled to himself, enjoying the warmth of the swamp, and the feel of the water around his ankles. He wasn't sure what Maree was so bothered about- he quite liked the place; it was isolated, and quite pleasant. Bremmy and Mep seemed to feel the same. They were chatting quietly together, now bringing up the rear behind Maree. Mep would occasionally laugh as Bremmy told him a joke in his deep voice.

Maree seemed to be a little more relaxed too, ever since Grendel had dried her clothes. Of course, they were slowly gathering water again, but at least she smiled now- a sweet smile every time she noticed Grendel looking at her. He smiled back, turning away hurriedly as she hefted her dress up to her knees again, to shake off the swamp water. Didn't she realize he was watching? He felt his cheeks burning and turned back, both relieved and disappointed that she'd covered her legs again. Still, she seemed a lot happier, anyway......

Maree's smiled disappeared, to be replaced by a look of shock, as a yellow and scaly arm reached out of the water and grabbed her ankle. The shock was replaced by fear as the arm grabbed her down, plunging her head-first into the water. Her scream was cut short as her head was pulled under the water, and her arms and legs thrashed violently.

Grendel ran towards the spot where Maree had disappeared. "Morandor," he shouted as he ran. Where was she? He probed the water quickly, reaching down with his hands to see if he could grasp her dress, or an arm. The water was murky, and swirling, and he could see nothing. Mep and Bremmy arrived, also probing, shouting her name.

Grendel felt sick- where could she have gone? He should have stayed with her- he knew how much she hated the swamp. Mep was on his knees now, the water up to his hips. Grendel didn't understand- the water was shallow; where could she be?

Another scream was unleashed as Maree erupted briefly from the water a few feet away, her hair sticking to her face, and covered in mud. "Grendel!" she screamed, before being dragged under once again.

Grendel ran to where she had appeared, his face an image of rage and worry. This time Morandor was there too, his visage mirroring Grendel's. "Gratars," the old wizard cursed. "Where's a bloody Mirehawk when you need one?" Grendel didn't understand any of the words, and nor did he care. Without thinking he plunged head-first into the swamp, after Maree.

It was disorienting- the sudden coldness numbed his bones, and the murky water made it difficult to see. He held his breath, the smell of the water repulsing him, and swam forwards. A minute ago this swamp had been shallow, and now here he was swimming in it! He ignored the mystery, wanting only to save Maree. He swam forwards, his vision marred, hoping beyond hope that he was going the right way. Something brushed his leg as he swam- a vine, or maybe a snake- but he ignored it. Suddenly he sighted Maree, a dim shape in front of him, her dress floating outwards like a giant jelly-fish. Something had her leg and was dragging her.

Grendel swam onwards, but the shape, whatever it was, was faster than him. His limbs ached, and the effort of holding his breath was making his head ache. In desperation, he flung out his arms, unleashing magic towards the dark figure. To hell with the rules! Maree was in trouble!

The ground rumbled as a wall of earth suddenly plunged upwards from the swamp bed, rising out of the water and blocking the creature's path. The water moved violently with the effort, and Grendel had to use all his strength to swim forwards. His vision was blurring, and he felt his lungs burning. He needed air. But he was advancing on the creature- he could see Maree now, her green eyes bright with fear, and hope.

The creature, sensing the danger, swam towards Grendel, Maree in tow, a vicious trident in its hands. The undulating mire made it difficult for Grendel to make it out, but it appeared to be humanoid. Its head resembled that of a giant toad, with large bulbous eyes and slimy skin. It bared its teeth at Grendel, a ferocious array of jagged spears.

Grendel pulled one of his daggers from his belt, and sidled sideways as the toad-man lunged at him with its trident. He felt a searing pain as a point of the trident slashed his side and, in shock and pain, he nearly released his breath. He felt dizzy and light-headed. The frog-man turned quickly and dived at Grendel again, Maree trailing behind, her legs kicking frantically. She was pounding on the creature's arm, her hand reaching for her dagger.

Grendel waited until the trident was only inches away from him, before swimming upwards and stabbing down with his dagger. He felt weak, from lack of air and exhaustion, and he feared he'd miss. He felt its point sink into the slimy skin of the frog-man's neck. Black blood floated out of the creature, quickly becoming diluted in the dark water. The creature, on instinct, grabbed its neck, releasing both Maree and its trident. Maree, her knife in hand, stabbed the creature in the small of the back. more blood erupted from it, and it flailed violently at the water.

Grendel grabbed Marees wrist, and swam quickly upwards, dragging her towards the surface. The bright light and sudden warmth shocked him as the two of them broke the surface. Grendel took a deep breath, gasping for air. His limbs ached, and a stab of pain was shooting through his side. He looked at Maree, who was breathing loudly, to see if she was okay. She nodded, her hair sticking to her face. Pushing himself forward, the two of them swam back in the direction they had come from, until the swamp became shallow again.

Grendel scrambled out of the deep water, until only his ankles were covered, then reached in and dragged Maree out. She clambered up, water flowing from her, then stood in the shallows, her eyes closed, struggling for breath. Her clothes were clinging to her, emphasizing the body underneath. Grendel closed his eyes, turned quickly away, and scoulded himself for thinking such things at a time like this. The sound of fighting, of screams and swords clashing, brought him out of his thoughts.

He ran towards the sound, Maree close behind.

His other companions were still where he'd left them, fighting with more of the strange creatures. Gratar was what Morandor had called them. Five or six Gratar lay dead around them, one decapitated, another with its arm missing. Unlike the one that Grendel had fought, these were green, rather than yellow. Bremmy was on top of a prone Gratar, his axe chopping down repeatedly on it head, showering him with black blood. Mep was whacking one soundly over the head with his staff. Another, hoping to sneak up on the unsuspecting shepherd, was incinerated by a ball of fire from Morandor. Its scream echoed around the swamp.

The remaining Gratar, seeing so many of their kind dead, as well as the ball of fire and the new arrivals, fled in fear. Many dived back into the swamp, whilst others ran through the shallows, the water splashing at their feet. Within a few moments they were gone.

Mep, breathing heavily, yet grinning, held himself up on his staff. "What were those?" he asked, as if they were a mere curiosity rather than something which had been trying to kill him.

"Gratar," Morandor answered. "Frogmen, who feed on humans. They aren't normally so bold though."

"Well its nice they made such an exception for us," Bremmy said sarcastically, wiping the blood off his axe and onto an amphibious corpse. His chest was cut, though the wound did not look serious. The black blood covering his face and clothing made him look like some kind of black wraith.

Grendel, tired of seeing new things for today, just nodded numbly. "Can we please go to Stonegate now," he said. His clothes, like Maree's, were soaking and covered in mud. He sneezed involuntarily. Great! On top of all that had happened, he'd caught a cold as well. Maybe this swamp wasn't so pleasant after all.

"I hate swamps!" Maree complained, as if voicing Grendel's thoughts. Without waiting to see if anyone was following, she stormed off towards the edge of the swamp, determined to leave it behind for ever. Grendel watched her, the clothes sticking to her, her bottom nearly visible under the soggy dress. He blushed.