Chapter Thirty-Four: Equine Masquerade
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
The land across the desert was only more pleasant than the dry waste they'd crossed in that it was shady. Not even the added moisture in the air was pleasant, because the marsh turned out to be more of a swamp: a gooey, stinking, rather dead-looking swamp. The trees were easily five times as tall as any human, but hardly large or healthy, compared to what they could have been. Some bent over, as though hunching down to reach with claws in the forms of branches, and their roots could be seen wriggling through the muck like petrified snakes. Steady actually balked at the first transition between sand and mud before Shoel managed to convince him to leave the relative stability of the sand for the squishing and splashing of the swampy ground.
It was dark, even in the afternoon sun, and far off lights could be seen dancing among the shadows, like distant fireflies. Other than that, though, and the dreary plant-life, there was no sign of life at all, anywhere. Where there should have been croaking frogs and the flitting of birds there only seemed to be silence, reinforcing the sense that everything was just dead. Or Dead. The sense of Death that she'd felt vaguely before had only grown worse, like a constant buzzing in the back of her thoughts. It was distant, more distant than she thought she could perceive, but so strong, and she feared she was actually feeling the presence of the creature she was here hunting, and his many, many, many minions. No matter what it was, it only added to the strange unreality of the place, and it made her feel anxious and jumpy.
Hemlock wrinkled his nose, after a long few minutes of no sounds but the snorting and squelching of the horses, glaring about with distaste. "Well, at least it's moist."
"It's horrible," Shoel shuddered. "I almost wish we were back in the desert."
"We need to find a dry spot to camp," Hemlock noted, still looking around him. "So I can go hunt, if there's anything here to hunt."
"Maybe there's some kind of fish," she answered vaguely, trying to remember her singular trip into a swamp on her own homeworld. It wasn't much like this. "Or snakes."
Hemlock snickered at that. "You want to eat a snake?"
Taking heart from his amusement, or trying to, she gave him a half-grin. "Anything is better than that dried stuff. I'm so sick of it I could scream."
The necromancer smiled at her, shaking his head a little in amusement. "Come on, let's find a campsite, and I'll go hunt." In complete agreement, she started paying attention to the depth of the slush around them, trying to pick out something dry in the midst of all the wet. She supposed she could just make them something, there would surely be Charter marks that she could apply, but it would be pointless, and probably attract far too much attention with the power it would take.
They did, eventually find something at least relatively dry, and it didn't really take them all that long, either. Hemlock had actually spotted it: a small island, surrounded by the roots of trees that kept the soil in place. "I think this is as good as we'll find," he said, and she nodded agreement. They both dismounted, Hemlock stripping off Vesper's tack while the stallion tried to lick the caked mud off his legs, and Shoel fishing out the thicker of the two grooming brushes she'd brought with them. They'd need it, though the dismal thought that the poor animals would only get muddy again the minute they started moving again almost made it not seem worth the effort of cleaning them off now. Steady's puppy-dog eyes convinced her to at least try, in the end, though, once she'd gotten his saddle off and hung over one of those gnarled roots.
Hemlock shifted to his dragon form and moved to the edge of the island, standing with his forepaws on the roots as though considering. "No idea when I'll be back, hopefully I can find something," he told her, looking back over his shoulder.
"Take your time, I'm not going anywhere for a while," she promised.
Then he plunged into the muck-- and found he'd misjudged the depth. With an irritated squawk the little dragon thrashed his wings and all four legs, sending mud and murky water every which way-- Shoel ducked behind Steady, who snorted and stamped, shaking the wing that had just gotten dirtied-- before he pulled himself into steadier footing. He snorted and shook, attempting to dislodge the mud that now caked his legs, wings, sides, and belly. With another snort when it wouldn't come off he sloshed off to hopefully be able to hunt. Shoel had to hide a smile as he disappeared into the murk.
While he was gone, Shoel managed to get both Steady and Vesper relatively clean of mud-- though she had to keep stopping Vesper from licking the stinking stuff in the process-- and set up camp. Still nervous at the sense of Death, even so far away, she decided it wouldn't hurt to set up a diamond of protection, just in case. She managed to fit the whole island between the marks, and even the cleanest part of the water, in which she washed off the disgusting equine brush and her boots. After that, she settled down with her book on Charter marks, and waited.
Not too long after she'd started studying, a shrieking cry split the air from the direction the little dragon had left, and she jumped so badly that she very nearly dropped her book in the mud. Only a quick catch saved the book from ruin, and she hugged it to her chest, breathing hard and looking around anxiously for the source of the sound. The cry came again, and that time she recognized it: the scream of a terrified horse, this time followed by the sounds of splashing and something thrashing in the muck. Both Steady and Vesper were looking that way, alert and shifting anxiously. It sounded close.
Horrible swamp or not, she couldn't just let an innocent horse suffer like that. Swinging her bandolier over her shoulder and quickly clipping on her sword-- no way she was going unarmed-- Shoel climbed onto Steady's bare back, ignoring his nervous champing, and took down the Eastmark of her diamond, the side closest to the sounds. Clicking the avicorn through the space it left, she closed it hastily behind her, and trotted him out into the slush.
Hemlock, dragon or otherwise, was nowhere in sight when she found what was making the ruckus: a lovely white mare, struggling in water and mud up to her neck, nostrils flared and sides heaving. Eyes of a mellow brown were wide and rolled back, showing mostly the whites, and her ears were flat back to her skull. She was covered in muck that, in contrast, only seemed to make her fur more bright, and she was evidently quite unhappy about her predicament. "By the Charter," she swore softly, startled for a moment at the unlikely sight. Steady snorted and tried to back her away, but she was already sliding off and onto the muddy ground with a little splash, dirtying her boots once more. Thankfully, the mud held rather than giving way into a sinkhole or deeper muck.
"Shh, shh, easy," she soothed, trying to figure out a way to get to the poor thing without sinking into that quagmire, herself. At the sound of her voice, the mare turned her head to look at her, going still. Her ears were still back, but she looked like she was waiting for something-- expecting help? "You're one clever little lady, aren't you," Shoel continued, trying to keep her quiet and still before she started sinking deeper. "Must know people, hmm? --though where you'd know people from in this Charter-forsaken place, I don't know."
Just what an obviously domesticated animal was doing in a swamp was another quandary, but not one she needed to tackle just yet. Getting her free was first order, finding where she came from a problem for later. She wished she'd kept Steady's saddle on, so she'd have some rope or something to use for an anchor. The avicorn was still shifting nervously behind her, but she ignored him. "Don't suppose you know enough to come when you're called," Shoel sighed.
The mare snorted, attempting to move towards the woman but not making much headway with all the muck sticking to her. At her failure she tossed her head and gave a loud whinny. Steady stamped, splashing, behind her, and snorted as angrily as she'd ever heard him sound. "Oh, hush," Shoel scolded, swatting him lightly on the nose; he turned his ears back and looked at her with an entirely too shocked expression, and she hurriedly rubbed the spot to make it up to him. "This won't take long, don't worry."
Turning back to the mare, she decided she really only had one option: actually going in after her. "Right," she grumbled, eying the mud. Well, one had to do distasteful things in life, she supposed this was just one more. "I'm going to look as bad as Hemlock, after this," she told no one in particular, earning another snort from Steady, took a breath, and started wading out.
The mare took more interest as Shoel started wading in towards her. Her head came up and ears perked forward, now seeming somewhat calmer-- or expectant. "That's it," Shoel soothed, holding out her hands, palm up and fingers down just in case she decided to turn nasty and try to bite, "easy, girl. We're gonna get you out of here, don't worry."
Splashing erupted off to Shoel's left as the mare extended her neck towards her, presumably to sniff at her hands. Suddenly, though, in that instant before she touched it, Shoel was struck with an image that was not a sweet, white mare: instead, it was a creature of a sickly greenish color, skeletal build, and extending open, toothy jaws right for her outstretched hand. It looking like something years Dead, but even now, she still couldn't sense it-- she did, however, recoil in horror and disgust, right as something black and muddy came charging in from her left, crashing into the monstrosity's neck. The horse-thing screamed something terrible, still sounding vaguely like a challenging horse, rearing and lashing out with forehooves. Shoel fell back with a splash, out of range of the dangerous hooves-- demonic or Dead or whatever, a rearing, kicking horse was dangerous-- her hand already on her bells and pulling Saraneth free.
The creature fell back to all fours in the muddy water, swinging its head around to take a bite out of the black dragon who, in turn, had latched onto its neck with fangs and claws. The dragon-- Hemlock; muddy, fierce, dreadfully lightweight Hemlock-- just lashed his now bleeding tail away and scrabbled to hold on tighter. The false horse just swung its head again with a little buck and sent the much smaller dragon sprawling into the mud and aiming its vicious hooves. One connected with a loud 'thunk', leaving a bloody indentation and getting a pained screech from the dragon. Even as Shoel was finally managing to give Saraneth a heavy peal to take the fight out of the false horse, he was already up again, at its neck this time with jaws on its throat.
The creature stilled, nameless, though now she had a name for its species: a Kelpie, lesser demon of the bog, tempter and tricker of the unwary. Like Shoel. Hemlock slid free as the Kelpie ceased its struggling, fighting her silently with a vicious, animalistic strength. Infuriated by something that had the audacity to warp something beautiful into something dreadful, trick her into wanting to help it, and then stomp on Hemlock, she threw her will at it. "You are banished," she growled at it, "never to trick another traveler again. Into Death, and never return!"
Screaming and fighting all the way, it did as commanded.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.