The Heirloom in the Swamp

Bekkou rummaged through the papers on his desk, stroked his beard while looking puzzled and finally picked up the letter that had gone unnoticed for several months. He remembered getting it in early winter. It was the middle of summer now. Well, he was a sought-after priest of the order of the Circle of Orange. People would know that he was a busy man. Monks usually travelled around the world so they were hard to get a hold of. Priests like him had the luxury of waiting for jobs to come to them since they were known and respected, but that didn't mean they had it easy. Bekkou shrugged the delay off and opened the envelope. 
Scanning the first lines, he paused and started over. His great-aunt Ambah had died at the ripe old age of 172 and apparently she'd left him something. Ambah had had children of her own and he'd barely spoken to her in the last 30 years but apparently she'd remembered him. Or at least remembered one of his more unusual talents. The item he'd inherited had been lost after all. 
Bekkou grinned. It was a powerful little heirloom and Ambah'd probably loathed having lost it but keeping it in the family was more important than leaving it to her children who wouldn't be able to find it in the first place. 
"The  jewel of abundance." Bekkou whispered and thought about what he knew about the relic.
Nobody knew how it had come into existence. Maybe it had been found, maybe it had been created. However the jewel had it's quirks and seemed to at least be semi-aware of it's surroundings. It was a good example of enhancement magic and supplied an area with whatever it needed to grow and flourish. And it knew who it belonged to. When stolen or begotten with underhanded means it would vanish and relocate. As such the jewel had been lost for most of written history. Somehow Ambah had found it but she'd lost it in a card game. Apparently the other party cheated since the jewel had vanished once more. 
But it wouldn't stay lost for long. Bekkou took out a map and a little scrying crystal. The items were merely for show. You never knew who was watching. Slowly Bekkou let the crystal draw closer to an area of wilderness on the map. The reason the Kuroumi swamps were nearly impenetrable suddenly a lot less of a mystery to The psy magician considered his options but quickly dismissed going after the jewel on his own. He was still in the prime of his life but he'd been staying in the temple for the better part of a decade and he wasn't as fit as he'd once been. He'd need help. Bekkou got up and mentally reviewed the list of people he could use. It was time to call in some favours. 
Giving a little whistle, Bekkou called his Rukel Kikko to him. Though the furry creature seemed to always be sleeping, Bekkou knew that she was a good guard. She'd been a handful when she was younger but at the present she was calm and behaved and very devoted. Kikko roused, yawned, stretched and got up to follow her master. 

Kogane twisted her sword into neat figure eights while her student and opponent tried to catch her of guard. So far his efforts had only made her cackle at how he'd need to do better. The student got impatient and Kogane disarmed him with a flourish of her sword. She gave a quick summary of what the student had done wrong and ended her lesson a bit earlier than anticipated because she'd spied a past companion she hadn't seen in years.
She'd met Bekkou when they were both still young and newly appointed monks who'd been travelling the world. They'd joined forces for a while, with her enhancement magic and Bekkou's telekinesis and barrier magic they made quite a formidable team. They'd hunted for bounties or had offered protection for wealthy travellers. Right now Kogane was a master and she'd been training the younger adepts of the metallic faction. But sometimes her blood still roared for a different kind of action. Seeing Bekkou rekindled those feelings and she was eager to find out what the other mage was here for. If there was one thing she was certain of, it was that he wasn't just here to talk. She knew Bekkou better than that. 
"Good to see you, Kogane." Bekkou smiled.
"What are you here for, old fox? I doubt you missed me."
"Direct as always." Bekkou inclined, "I'm going on a quest. Care to join me?"
"A quest? What are you looking for?" Kogane asked, wondering how someone had managed to get Bekkou to do field work.
"I was left a family heirloom, that is if I could locate it."
Kogane smelled trouble. Bekkou was wealthy enough to pay a crew to fetch an item. And he wouldn't be calling on her if the journey was without danger. But her blood was still singing and urging her to go fight some real adversaries. But she'd be a fool if she let her real feelings out in front of Bekkou. The priest was wealthy and he'd pay dearly for her skills. As was only right. 
"Where is it? What is it?" Kogane asked coolly.
Bekkou hesitated for a bit but then clearly decided to tell her. Or he told her the story he'd cooked up as a decoy. Kogane would have to keep her eyes open to find out which of the two it was.
"It's a pricy necklace that holds power for my family. And it's lost in the Kuroumi swamps. I think I'm the only one that can pinpoint it. If I have to go, I'd rather go prepared. You're still the best and I know your powers." 
"Well, you're right. I am the best. Which is why you know my fees will be steep."
"I wouldn't expect it to be different."
Kogane named her price and was slightly caught by surprise when Bekkou agreed without a fight. Maybe the years had mellowed out the old magician or more likely, he'd gotten even wealthier and the amount she asked wouldn't dent his fortunes. 
"The Kuroumi swamps are tricky though. I've only been there once before and it wasn't a pleasant experience. You know the place smells like a mix between rotted faeces, vomit and congealing blood. You know, standard battlefield smell but without the corpses. Though they must have been there at one time since the place is haunted with the ghosts of dead soldiers. And that's leaving out the treacherous terrain that is prone to quicksand and traps and the vegetation that makes advancing near impossible. And I only went in about a hundred yards."
"I knew it would be bad. I'm calling in another few favours to get some people."
"Which people?"
"I'm visiting the order of the Leafy Green and the Foundation of Brown later today. I once won at gambling and forfeited the winnings in lieu of a favour when I needed it later."
"And you're going to cash in today? Nice. Make sure you get people with decent skills. We'll need the best."
"Don't worry. I know what I need."
"I think we'll need a necromancer as well. Those ghosts tend to play tricks on the mind."
"Wouldn't my barrier protect us?" Bekkou asked, "It is a good mental defence."
"Ghosts are tricky, they ignore most magic. I know a way into the order of the Depth of Night. I'll ask an audience. But I'll need a bit of money to grease the wheels. Those gloomy bats are a crafty bunch."
Bekkou nodded and decided to humour Kogane. Having her call someone crafty nearly made him laugh. The warrior was as sly as they came, but he'd figured she'd ask more for her services so there was room in the budget for what she wanted. 
"We'll meet at my room in the morning." Bekkou said and gave her the address of the inn where he was staying. 

Kogane tapped her feet in an annoying rhythm, pleased by the twitch it got out of the monk in front of her. She didn't have a problem with the monk but she'd expected to be shown to master Karasuba's office immediately in stead of being made to wait. Finally, the door to the office opened and the monk got up to show her through.
Inside, Kogane saw the slender master of the order of the Depth of Night, but also a young woman who wore the telltale black clothes and had the serene look that most people found mysterious but Kogane had always deemed vacant. When the young woman turned to her, she made eye-contact though and she seemed strong.
Sumi inspected the warrior woman in front of her. She was older than she'd expected her to be, but the people of Khleur lived well above 100 years and the mages of the metallic faction had spells and talents that increased their physical power and stats. 
"Kogane, this is Sumi, one of my pupils."
"That's nice Karasuba, but I'm not here for pleasantries."
"You are here to find someone to calm the spirits of the Kuroumi swamps. Sumi is our best."
Sumi watched as Kogane looked first surprised, but then grinned and let out a booming laugh. Sumi shifted uncomfortably under that abundant display of emotion. As a necromancer she'd learned to keep a lock on her feelings to the point where she could think about things logically even in the most stressful of times. 
"Nice to meet you." Sumi said, "I will prove my worth."
"Oh I've no doubt you will." Kogane replied, waving away the young woman's reassurances, "I was just wondering where Karasuba had heard about my quest since I only just decided to come here."
"That is a secret." Karasuba said with a disturbing Mona-Lisa-smile.
"Posh." Kogane shrugged and felt like she could use a drink, "Well I got what I came here for. You can bill Bekkou. Meet us here tomorrow."
Sumi tried to follow and was barely able to grab the piece of paper with the address before Kogane left in a hurry with enough drama to ensure just about every spirit in the order - living or otherwise - knew she'd been here. Lost about what to do next, she turned to the master of the order.
"Don't try to make sense of her. Your only job is to calm the spirits in the swamp. If you want you can help them in other ways but if they don't ask you don't have to offer. That's all you're being paid for after all. You can use the rest of the day for packing. Kogane didn't specify a time but general consensus is to meet after breakfast."
Sumi sighed relieved and nodded as she bowed and took her leave to go pack. How peculiar this all was. Necromancers were usually contacted to calm those spirits who were in anguish, to locate ancestors and ask them about lost items. But their powers were greater than that but closely guarded as most people wouldn't understand them. Most necromancers had some spirits that had gotten attached to them. Sumi didn't know how many the master of the order had but no doubt they were more than a few. One of them must have overheard Kogane and this Bekkou fellow talking. Sumi had been called to Karasuba's office before Kogane had even arrived. Sumi didn't see the need for such low-level theatrics but Kogane had seemed impressed so maybe Sumi should study up on some of these tricks. Maybe some of the spirits of the swamp would want to follow her. She reached her rooms and started packing, carefully and methodically making up a list of things she'd need. 

The next day dawned and Bekkou woke to a knock on the door. Grumbling, he got up, pulled tight his breeches and strode to the door. 
"What?" he groaned and looked out. 
Kassho looked up, his eyes shining with dreams. The young man, at just 17, he was far from being considered adult, but he'd been summoned by an older priest just yesterday and told to go on a quest where his talents were needed. That in itself had been enough to get the youth motivated and excited. So excited that he'd knocked on Bekkou's door at the break of dawn. 
"I was sent to join your group. My name is Kassho, I'm an acolyte from the Foundation of the brown."
"An acolyte? How old are you?"
"17 sir." 
Bekkou grumbled, the boy was just a babe. Wet behind the ears and green to his core. 
"I asked for an experienced terrain specialist."
Kassho rose to his toes, seeming to glow when he answered: "But I am a terrain specialist. I've been helping the masters locate ore deposits. I'm officially too young to venture out by myself, but I've joined my elders a lot. I'm sure they've deemed me ready."
"Quite." Bekkou shrugged, feeling very much played, "Come back in two hours time." and closed the door.

Heki sat quietly in the inn's dining room. She caressed her bagpipes, her fingers itching to play a tune like usual. But she knew better than to play indoors. That had gotten her in trouble more than a few times when she was younger. Across from her sat a boy fidgeting, looking at the clock almost every other minute. Maybe he was another party member. Maybe he was Bekkou in disguise. The priest had told her that Bekkou was a short, squat man from the Order of the Circle. Those magicians worked with mental powers and some could screw with your brain until you saw something that wasn't there. Like appearing as a small half-elf child instead of a portly human man. 
Heki didn't know what that was about. But maybe Bekkou wanted to check out the members of his team before he made a contract. After all Heki knew she was far from the most sought-out magician at the Leaf of Green. If anything, she was just starting out. A master might not like that she'd been the one who had been sent. 
A black-haired woman with a stony expression entered the dining room and sat down with a glass of water. She swiftly looked around the room but hardly even acknowledged the other people there. Maybe she was Bekkou in disguise. Nobody would expect the mage to portray someone of different gender. As hallucinations went it was hard to trick more than one sense. But then the woman hadn't spoken. Andshe had with her an interesting pet called a Rukel. Bekkou was said to have one of those. The rukel was blue and purple with golden-beige butterfly wings. Like it's owner it remained quiet. 
But just a couple of minutes later, a short, wide-shouldered man with a long beard entered the room, followed by an older woman in armour. The man looked like someone's sugar uncle, like someone who'd spoil children but they'd love him for it and the woman looked like a strict teacher, someone who'd get the children back on track. Heki didn't have to wait long to confirm her suspicions.
"Welcome everyone. I'm Bekkou and after we get acquainted I'll tell you about the job I'm offering."
All people in the room introduced themselves and Bekkou told them about what he expected from them. To be honest, even if they weren't what Heki had expected, everyone's powers seemed to fit with one of the known difficulties for the Kuroumi Swamp. But she was still a bit hesitant. Wasn't the warrior a bit too old? The earth mage too young? The necromancer too cold? And shouldn't she tell them that she wasn't a team player? Before Heki could voice her concerns though, Kogane got out a bottle of booze and poured them all a glass.
"A drink to commemorate the occasion." she called.
Bekkou took away the bottle and just said: "Lets just keep that for when we get back, will we? We want to head out right after breakfast."
"Too bad." Kogane shrugged, but she didn't try to get her way at least. 
As they ate breakfast, Heki noticed Kogane sneak a glass of the alcohol but the beverage didn't seem to have much effect on the warrior, unless maybe that she got louder. So Heki kept her distance, sending her right into the path of Sumi the necromancer.
"Nice to meet you. What do I call you?" Sumi said, hesitant but making an effort, because her rukel Shihou hadn't stopped twittering in her ear while the introductions were being made. Misunderstanding the necromancer, Heki felt once more chastised for her manly appearance and deep voice. She had introduced herself so she should know. She angrily stomped away, and left Sumi puzzled.
"She's called Heki." Kassho supplied who'd gone through the same exchange with Sumi before. 
The young mage had taken all the information to heart and was happy to be of help. Sumi bowed her head slightly to thank him and wondered how a person could get so angry from a simple question. But she didn't have long to wonder as Bekkou called for them to assemble and leave. 

Two days into their journey and knee-deep in slimy sewage, had Kassho re-evaluating his love for adventure. Sure, being on the road had been fun. Feeling like he was an actual part of the team was amazing. But wading through swamps, swatting at flies and mosquitoes and listening to the zany stories of two magicians who'd been around long enough to be able to recall 'them good old days" was taking it's toll. The worst part was that they hadn't even come across a single monster. 
"Careful, there's a weak spot here." Kassho called, indicating the spot right in front of him.
The others made their way around him and waited until he got back in front.
"Keep heading that way." Bekkou prompted and Kassho shrugged, keeping a straight line.
He was still making himself useful. He probably was the most useful member of the party at this moment. Which was nice, but he wanted to see the others do their stuff. Like seeing Kogane swing her sword or Sumi talking to ghosts... would he even be able to see that? Kassho had no clue. 
Sensing the young boy's disgruntlement, Bekkou moved closer and started talking.
"I'm really happy with all the hard work you're doing." he said and laced it with a little inspire-magic.
Kassho hastened his stride and forgot all about his discomfort. At least for now. Bekkou had had to use the enchantment quite often and they hadn't even gotten close to the heirloom. He had to admit that he'd underestimated the journey. Dropping back to Kogane he started talking again about their golden years. Time crept by slowly.
"I remember that a bit differently old chap." Kogane said loudly, "It was you who tripped up."
"Why I'm certain you were the one who stumbled over that trap lever."
"Hardly. You were the one who mistakenly leaned against the wall which opened up that trap hatch." Kogane replied.
At which point Kassho coughed to get their attention and said: "We're stuck."
"Stuck? That can't be." Bekkou complained and moved toward the young acolyte. 
"But the waters surrounding this rock are deep and I don't sense a way around them."
"Maybe we can swim..." Bekkou started.
'I wouldn't." Sumi interrupted and muttered something about the ghosts of crocodiles still being able to drag travellers to the bottom.
"Heki, can't you do something?" Kogane asked.
The broad-shouldered woman wrung out her dress and looked around.
"I don't see any plants that could give us the support needed to cross the water." she shrugged and started back.
Bekkou grumbled but had to admit back was the only way to go. His sense of direction only told him where he was in relation to the object he sought and not what obstacles lay in between. It was a dreadful shortcoming to the power. 
"Let's get back to higher ground to camp." Kogane rallied and Bekkou added some encouraging words with the inspire enchantment once again to get the party moving.   

The next day had them in much the same conditions though they'd kept to higher ground. Sumi looked around and noticed a rising fog that gave her the chilled feeling she always associated with a huge number of ghosts. They'd been walking for the better part of the day after an early start, taking the opposite direction and if she'd have to guess by Bekkou's expression they were getting farther away from his heirloom. 
"Please wait." she said as she put her hand on Kassho's shoulder.
The young acolyte froze and looked frightened. Necromancers sometimes had that effect on people even if she hadn't done anything to make him scared of her. 
"What is it?" Kogane asked her.
"We're in the presence of spirits. With so many of them here I'd like to check for traps."
"Good idea." Bekkou commented.
Heki didn't seem to be all that phased about the presence of spirits but Kassho grew a few shades paler and seemed to be having difficulty suppressing his shivers.
"They can't hurt you." she said quietly and then went to look for a spirit that appeared to be in a friendly mood. 
Wading a bit deeper onto the submerged path that led through two straight cliffs, Sumi didn't need to talk to the deceased to know that this was a dangerous place and the perfect place to set a trap. Once they'd enter there'd literally be only one way out. Some of the spirits looked faded, like they were only just holding on to existence, others looked more powerful. Some were angry, acting agitated and repetitive while others gazed into the distance and ignored her. There was however one ghost that made eye contact and looked friendly. Looks could be deceiving though so she approached with care.
"Goodday sir." she started, "This looks like a dangerous place."
"It sure is." the ghost told her with a smirk, "Got me good a while back.
"I figured." Sumi nodded and waited for the spirit to continue. 
There was no way to know how long the ghost had been here. For all she knew he'd died over a century ago. But if he had been alert then he could have seen things that had happened here since he'd died. That was what she was hoping for after all.
"Walked right into the ambush and got a sword through my heart." the ghost said, "Hey what year is it?"
Sumi told him and was rewarded by a timeline: "I've been here for 50 years then."
"Have you seen other people around here recently? Or maybe putting up traps we need to be careful off?"
"I doubt the pirates that ambushed me are still around. They hid something here and I was unlucky enough to see them."
"Would you mind guiding us through safely? What the pirates hid might belong to our mission leader Bekkou."
The ghost wavered a bit but then returned in full force, appearing almost corporeal to Sumi.
"Can I ask for a favour?" he asked.
"Get me out of here."
Sumi nodded, "I'll have to bind you to me. I can set you free afterwards though there's a high chance that you'll pass on at that time."
"As long as it gets me away from this dreary place I'm okay with that."
"What do I call you?" Sumi asked as she needed a name for the bond.
"Well Tyler, lead the way and if you keep us safe I'll take you out of here."
Sumi took the lead, motioning Kassho to stay close behind her and followed Tyler, waiting while he scouted the cliffs for potential rockfalls, traps and pitfalls though she imagine Kassho would also be able to sense those. 
After about a mile the cliffs started to recede and though the road had risen in between, they were now wading yet again through swampy water. This time it was Heki who stepped forward and added her power to the greater good. She had been paid to do this job and though she had a hard time trusting others, she did feel she had to at least contribute. Not like some of the other expedition members, no matter their age.
"I can get us up to the higher ground there." she said and pointed to where vines were hanging from the hillside. 
The hill was still too steep to climb, but if she enhanced the vines they'd be able to use them as a rope bridge. Kassho seemed about ready to climb the wall without her magical interference and Sumi just shrugged. Something about the necromancer just didn't sit right with Heki. She was so dry and analytical. They'd barely exchanged six words to each other since breakfast three days ago and Heki was certain half of those had been an insult. She'd muttered something about theatrics or maybe hysterics and Heki just knew the necromancer looked down on her. So she couldn't be left behind. Who knows, that necromancer might have acted like she talked to ghosts and had just relied on Kassho's pathfinding ability.
"That does seem closer to my heirloom." Bekkou nodded, "not to mention it would be good to have dry feet again."
Heki nodded, touched the vine in front of her and hummed. The plant stirred under her touch and with a knowing look, Heki took out her bagpipes and continued the melody on them. The plant wanted to take over the hill, wanted to grow stronger so it was very open to her magic and would not mind them using it to climb up afterwards. Some plants were prickly like that.
Kassho was the first to climb up like a monkey. Sumi followed quickly, her rukel fluttering behind her and Heki looked at the remaining two. They were both older and had spent a lot of time indoors. But Kogane nimbly took the obstacle, using her enhanced power and Bekkou just floated himself up while his rukel Kikko just rested on his shoulders even though she had wings of her own. It was a bit of a draw on his energy, but it beat the physical exercise it would take in his current form. Heki just shrugged and followed them up, thanking the plant for it's help.

Not much later they'd made camp as night wasn't far away. They settled in their tents and tired from the long walk, soon fell asleep. About half an hour later when night had taken reign of the sky, Kogane quietly snuck out of her tent and scouted ahead. Nobody knew but she'd taken out quite a bit of dangerous animals the previous night of camping. There hadn't been any large predators at the edge of the swamp, but they were venturing in deeper and she'd sensed the presence of large predators. She didn't want to spook the younger monks and acolyte. Nothing froze up a party like seeing the inside of a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth or seeing someone being mauled by a giant claw. 
Kogane turned the corner and stood at the edge of a clearing. Trees and vines kept their distance but bore abundant flowers or fruits. The grass was the greenest she'd ever seen and at it's center was a clump of vines that seemed to almost reverently hold up a necklace with a gaudy big stone. 
"That's what the pirates hid here." Tyler said.
Sumi lost her balance and the little noise of rustling leaves was enough to alert Kogane of her presence.
"Oh it's you." the warrior woman said, "Were you following me?"
"You were sneaking so I was worried."
"You should worry about yourself. I'm old enough to handle these swamps."
Sumi nodded and thought she'd done quite well at hiding before her spirit had broken her concentration. it was something she'd have to get used to. Sumi wanted to go to the jewel but Kogane stopped her.
"Only Bekkouo can touch it. We'll come back in the morning together."
Sumi nodded again and followed Kogane as she sauntered back to the camp. The celebration for a job well done was in sight and this time Bekkou wouldn't deny her the pleasure of a few drinks. 

Bekkou took a step onto the grassy field, strode to the necklace and took it in his hand. It was his by law of inheritance and the magic of it's making should acknowledge it. The other four ventured into the field to take a closer look. Bekkou had warned them not to touch it or it might vanish again. It would be a mere inconvenience but Bekkou would rather not waste any more money setting up another field trip. 
Just as Bekkou was ready to leave, Kassho and Sumi - well Sumi in response to Tyler - yelled, but it was too late, the vines lashed into life, forming a circle. From inside the circle a vortex of wind sucked everyone inside. A few seconds later the clearing returned to normal. The jewel was gone though as it had found it's rightful owner.
Halfway across the galaxy, the vortex spewed out Bekkou, Kogane, Heki, Sumi and Kassho. Dropping them all in front of a few dragons standing guard. Almost instantly, people came and led them away from the sands toward an area where they were questioned and all but probed. Their story seemed to hold however and they were permitted to stay and attend the hatching as candidates in hopes that they could return home afterwards. Bekkou had a good idea of which direction home was in after all...

Stories continued on individual pages:


Lantessama Isle