The soldier was going to die, and he knew it. We made him as comfortable as we could, piling blankets for him next to our fire. I tried to help ease him to the ground.
“Don’t touch me,” he warned. “And burn my body in these blankets when I’m dead.”
We would. Even without his orders, we would. The growths on his face and arms made sure of that. He had stumbled into our outpost on the border between Death’s Cradle and the Forest of Caldavar, exhausted and repeating the same phrase: “Jin Chan is here.”
After a quarter hour near the fire, his breath seemed more labored than when he’d arrived.
“Wine,” he said. “Throw it, don’t come close.”
We tossed him a skin.
After he drained half of it he pulled a gutting knife and began lopping the heads off the bright red mushrooms that grew on his arms and shoulders. As we watched, more domes sprouted next to the stumps and began to swell. He cut those off too, then gave up as they too were replaced. His face was a mass of colored mushrooms and blade-shaped shelf fungus, all of it crowded so close we could not see a patch of flesh, if he had any remaining. All he could offer to prove his humanity were two burning blue eyes and a full set of decent teeth.
“You must tell them,” he said. “I made it this far, out of the Rulian Marsh and across Death’s Cradle, but I won’t be taking another step. You must tell them: Jin Chan is here.”
“Who is Jin Chan?” I said.
He didn’t seem to hear me. Just stared into the fire and told his tale:
We found the golden engraving after the battle at Torchfield. I was part of the Red Saviors, tasked with burning the human and beast corpses—deny the Hellbourne their precious meat and souls. We came across a dead Gladiator, his body filling a crater made by some unholy explosion.
It took three of us to drag him out, and underneath we caught a flash of gold in the bloody soil. It was a tablet, engraved in strokes and shapes I’d never seen before. But one of the Saviors, he’d come from the Seradati and traded with the folk of the Sang-Las, and he could read most of it.
It told of a great immortal warrior named Jin Chan, who lives deep in the Rulian Marsh and carries an ancient magic that brings luck and wealth to those around him. Find Jin Chan, the tablet said, and tell him what you fight for. If he finds it worthy, he and his magic will fight for you. And on the back side of the tablet was something we all could decipher: a map.
We were exhilarated with the discovery. Here we thought we’d found a secret weapon against the daemons, all we had to do was find this Jin fellow. Then we looked up from the crater and saw one of the Soul Reaper’s foul minions staring at us, listening to every word. It shot back to enemy lines before we could snatch it, damned thing, and we assumed it would report word of Jin Chan to the enemy. We were right.
We showed the tablet to our commander, who sent word to Ophelia. She issued orders to find Jin Chan at any cost and dispatched a creature to guide us through the forsaken land of the Rulian Marsh: Spike the Bonetrap. We had heard of Spike and how he came to be—the only life form that could grow amid a charred, blood-soaked landscape, sown in earth named barren due to the amount of death from man, beast, and daemon that had soaked into the soil. He grew in darkness beneath the spiked shield of a dead Legionnaire, his body conforming to the steel. When he emerged into daylight and felt the surge of life through Sol’s rays, Spike knew he had been grown for one purpose: rid Newerth of the Hellbourne.
Truth be told, when we heard Spike was our escort, we weren’t sure which to fear more—him or the Marsh. But he was likeable enough. Quiet. The Marsh, on the other hand, should be burned, salted, walled off and forgotten before it does to all of Newerth what it did to us. And, Sol forgive me, what it did to the Hellbourne.
We made a rubbing of the map and left the gold tablet under armed guard. Spike led us south through Death’s Cradle with little trouble. His kind are from there, and the mantraps we came across let us pass without harm. The other lethal plants—some I’m sure no man has seen before—had to be convinced to leave us uneaten, and Spike was up to that task as well. But the moment, and I mean the very step, we crossed into the Rulian Marsh, everything changed.
We hacked our way through the dense brush, the heat clinging to our necks, and initially thought nothing of the clouds of spores that our boots and Spike’s claws kicked up. Then we began to itch. And cough. Within a hundred paces, Spike had drawn blood on his own hide from scratching the burning lesions caused by the toxic spores. We realized too late this was just the initial stage, the first kiss from the horrid tumor that grows within the Rulian Marsh.
Soon we all had open wounds from digging at the itch. That’s when the larger spores began to fall upon us, and I’ll swear to the Blind Prophet himself the damned things had a consciousness. We swatted them away, slapped them down, and watched them fight against gravity and the foul swamp wind to land in our wounds and take root. They nestled there and began to grow, tiny bumps we mistook for rashes at first, but soon realized they were mushrooms. I retched upon this revelation. Fungus, growing right there on my arm—inside my arm—and spreading faster than muddy water across a clean floor. They did not hurt, which somehow made it worse, as if something in the spores wanted to soothe us, show us that it wasn’t so bad to host this foreign growth.
Spike had the worst of it by far. The spores took root in his elemental body and grew rampantly, changing his structure and shape until he was unrecognizable. Every man among us wanted to turn back, but Spike pressed us forward. “Turn around and die,” he told us. “Find Jin Chan and live.”
I don’t know if he learned this through some primal communication with the Marsh, or if he simply knew either choice was death and we may as well die with honor. But we believed him, even as we slogged through the bogs with mushrooms and vines sprouting on our flesh like pimples on a peasant.
Then we found a trail. Until that point we had not crossed a single animal track nor seen one bird in the sky. Nothing walks or flies in the Rulian Marsh—everything slithers. But this trail was as wide as an ox cart and fresh, and it was not just churned-up muck with giant footprints; all the plant life along its borders was wilted, dead. It would not be so for long. Green shoots were already peering from the muck, and the dead leaves dropped onto new stalks rising from the earth like snakes. We followed the path before it could disappear, moving quickly along a twisting route that seemed random, as if its maker was lost.
I asked Spike, “Jin Chan?”
He shook his head, bristling now with fresh mushrooms and two waving vines that seemed to have mouths forming at their ends. Before I could ask another question we heard a crashing ahead. It grew louder, closer. The ground trembled and the tops of gnarled trees and whipgrass were tossed as if in a violent storm.
The the maker of the path crashed across it, perpendicular to our course. He stopped and looked down at his own footprints, his backtrail, then loosed a howl of rage at the sky. The flora behind him wilted toward the ground, its color and life drained. Then he turned to us, and my spirit wilted as well.
“Deadwood,” Spike said.
The giant, undead tree charged toward us. We raised our spears and blades as best we could with the growths hindering our hands and arms. Spike must have had some small power over the Marsh’s foliage, for vines wrapped around Deadwood, ensnaring him to a grinding halt. The vines died quickly from his touch, but even in death they remained strong enough to hold him. Deadwood roared again and began to rip the vines from the trees.
“Stop!” Spike hissed. Then he spoke in a series of growls, clicks and whispers, a tongue of the elementals. Deadwood responded in the same language and continued to tug at his bonds, though not as fiercely. I did not understand a word of it, but what Spike did not explain to us men, we were able to glean from what happened next.
Deadwood had been dispatched by Maliken to find Jin Chan before we could recruit him to our Legion cause. He’d brought a squad of imps with him, and their undead flesh had been candy to the fungal spores. Their bodies had decomposed to heaps of moss and mushrooms before they’d traveled a league into the Rulian Marsh.
Deadwood himself was untouched by the spores, which died upon contact with his ragged bark. But the Marsh wasn’t about to let him go—it was sending him in circles, regrowing in his wake and erasing his path. He could force no communion or obedience from the Rulian plants, and even though it would take years of wandering, the swamp would eventually claim him.
Then Spike returned to our language: “I offer you a deal.”
He stepped closer to Deadwood, close enough that the tree could have stepped on him. We held our breath.
Spike said, “Stay near us, and do no harm to these humans, and I will guide you to Jin Chan. When we find him, we will let him choose who to fight for.”
I looked at my fellow soldiers, their faces stunned behind the growing nodules. Why in the name of Sol would Spike seek a treaty with this monster?
Then Spike took another step forward, and the fungi on his nose shriveled, collapsed, and fell off. Of course—Deadwood’s vile presence would save us from the spores. There was a good chance he would eventually kill us himself, but we were willing to take the risk.
We crowded around him, the stench of rotten wood overpowering, and tried not to stare into his empty black eyes. The mushrooms and vines and thorns wilted immediately and dropped from our skin like plucked feathers. The relief was tremendous; like instantly being cured of leprosy, I imagine. Deadwood seemed torn between ignoring us and smashing us to pieces. Before he could choose the latter we continued on, taking four careful steps for every one of his as we followed Spike deeper into the Rulian Marsh to find Jin Chan.
We traveled for three days and nights without rest. I doubt any of us humans could have slept with Deadwood in our camp—the cursed tree did not need sleep, and whenever we lagged behind the mushrooms and vines began to sprout. He and Spike exchanged no words until we came to a wall of petrified foliage, a mass of long-dead mangrove roots and trunks that did not yield to Deadwood’s blight. We waded forward in the knee-high water and hacked at the iron-like plants. Our axes and swords left no mark upon them, and the gaps were too small to allow any of us to slip through.
“We climb over,” Deadwood said. The top of the foliage wall was beyond the canopy of the Marsh, invisible from our position.
Before we could grip the lowest branches, something red and glistening shot from the mass of roots and stuck to the chest of the man next to me. He gave a yelp as it yanked him off his feet and into the mangrove, where he disappeared completely.
Spike said, “What—”
The red lash smacked into his face and pulled him through the wall. I barely had time to blink before Deadwood went next, branches snapping as he was dragged into the mangrove. The rest of us turned to run, ignoring the mushrooms that were already growing, and within three steps we were all pulled in. It was a very short, terrifying trip through the maze of foliage, and whatever pulled me knew the exact path, which had been hidden from our eyes.
I landed on my back in a large grassy clearing, in the middle of what had once been a massive stone structure. The remnants of walls, stairs, fountains, and walkways were strewn in piles, covered in thick moss. The occasional bare patch of stone showed carved glyphs and symbols. Throughout the clearing were at least a hundred grassy mounds. Our group lay sprawled and confused among these.
“Stand up. All of you. You will rise before Jin Chan.”
We stood. I marveled at the red beast before us, standing on two feet with webbed and cupped toes. He appeared to be a giant toad adorned in gold and jade, with a heavy blade in one hand and a large squirming frog in the other. He gave the frog a squeeze and its tongue popped out—the same red lash that had nabbed all of us. My eyes widened further when I realized that, even though I stood apart from Deadwood, the spores and vines were not growing on my flesh.
The toad chuckled. “You are guests in Jin Chan’s temple now. My Rulian Marsh will not harm you unless I command it.”
“Temple?” Deadwood growled. “What do they praise here, rubble?”
“They praise me!” Jin Chan said. He gazed around himself at the neglected structures, and his shoulders dropped a fraction. “But they have not come for many years. The last worshippers spoke of a great war in the far forests, between man and beast and daemon. Tell me: has this war been won?”
Deadwood grinned. “By us. The Legion fools just don’t know it yet.”
Spike snarled at him and said to Jin Chan, “The war continues. We of the Legion welcome an alliance with you, to help us push the Hellbourne back to the depths of the underworld, where they belong.”
“Legion,” Jin Chan said. “Hellbourne. These mean nothing to me. What do you offer in return for my loyalty?”
Deadwood cut in: “We offer gold.”
“I have gold,” Jin Chan said.
“Then we offer souls,” Deadwood said. “Dead or alive, as many as you could want. We will harvest them from the battlefield, and when the war has been won we will bring them here, to your great temple, and imprison them. They will worship you for eternity.”
Jin Chan considered this. He squeezed the frog a few times, just enough to make its tongue poke out, then looked at Spike. “And your offer?”
Spike’s head turned as he took in the ruins, the overgrown walls and stairs, the shattered fountains half-hidden in grass. “We will free you from your prison.”
Jin Chan cocked an eyebrow. He stopped squeezing the frog.
Spike said, “I can feel the bonds that hold you here. You are not the master of the Rulian Marsh—it is the master of you. You cannot step foot outside these walls.”
Spike kicked one of the grassy mounds. Beneath the veil of green was a pile of armor and bones, the decomposed remains of a warrior. Spike kicked a second and third pile and uncovered more remains, of a human and what looked to be Behemoth bones.
“These men and beasts were lured here by false hope. A ruse by the Marsh itself, to pull fresh meat onto its soil.”
Jin Chan’s head bowed. His voice was a whisper. “This used to be a place of peace. My temple was sacred, and those who lived here enjoyed great prosperity. Then something began to grow in the Marsh, and spread. It was upon us before we could flee, shutting us off from the rest of Newerth. It killed all of my people, my followers. Tell me—what brought you here?”
“A golden tablet,” Spike said.
“Yes, so you found one. I created them to bring my Newerth brothers and sisters here, to have them tell me of their lives and dreams. I would send them home with great luck and wealth to make our world a brighter place. But this Marsh, this Rulian curse, has twisted my golden messages into bait. Each of these mounds, these graves, are from those who hoped to find me and draw me to their cause. All of them met the same fate—devoured by the Marsh. But now you come, and are the first to recognize what has happened. It is a shame I cannot save you, for your offer means nothing. Not to the Marsh.”
“Perhaps that offer,” Spike said. He began to speak in the elemental tongue again, a series of whispers and rumbles that shook the ground beneath our feet. Deadwood listened for a moment then joined in, his voice thundering as he tried to speak louder and faster than Spike.
Then the first mushroom appeared on Spike’s forehead. It was joined by a half dozen more, then the vines sprouted, their mouths snapping at the insects buzzing past. Within seconds Spike was deformed again, unrecognizable under the rampant growth of Marsh life.
“What have you done?” Jin Chan asked.
“I made a deal with the Rulian Marsh,” Spike said. “It has agreed to set you free, and I have agreed to spread its spores beyond the borders, into Death’s Cradle and the Forest of Caldavar.”
The men and I exchanged horrified looks. The war with the Hellbourne would be over soon enough; both sides would be dead and the land would be ruled by fungus and decay. And we realized the temple was not protected after all—the mushrooms and tumors could return any time the Marsh liked.
“You cannot carry this curse to the world,” Jin Chan said.
Spike’s voice was filled with pain. “These growths are part of me now—I can contain them until we return to the Legion. After that, we shall see what happens. If it’s helpless, I know a solution.”
The men understood his message: Hopefully someone would find a way to kill the damned spores. If not, we would have to kill Spike.
“Your plan has a flaw,” Deadwood rumbled.
We turned, and the shock of his transformation left us speechless. He had quelled whatever magic killed the spores that tried to grow on him. Now he was mottled with mushrooms and pustules, twisted with vines and Marsh roots that squirmed through his bark. His head was capped with a single giant growth.
Deadwood tried to smile among the blistering fungus. “The spreading Rulian Marsh will leave nothing but Legion bones behind. Then, once it has become the Newerth Marsh, our reign will begin.”
He stomped toward the wall of mangrove vines and trees, which parted before him like a curtain; the Marsh was eager to send its carrier forth. Spores fell from him with each step as he disappeared into the swamp.
“We must hurry,” Spike said.
Jin Chan led the way into the mangrove, which let us pass as well. I soon saw why. With Deadwood gone and the Marsh done with us, our wounds and skin were once again crowded with buds and shoots.
Spike asked Jin Chan, “You used to bring wealth and luck to those who found you. Can you manage that again?”
Jin Chan bowed his head. “I swear I will do all I can to set this right. At the very least, I am now one of you, the Legion, and I will fight these daemons who would destroy Newerth wherever they have taken root.”
“We’ll just ask for the luck for now,” Spike said. Then he split us up, sending us in various northerly directions with the hope that someone would find a camp, an outpost, a scout, and warn them of what Deadwood brings to Newerth, and to tell them that Jin Chan is coming.
The soldier died moments after his tale was done, and we burned his body and everything he’d touched. Before he passed he made us swear to carry the message on until the words reached King Jeraziah and Queen Ophelia.
So now we hurry, for the fresh wounds we have scratched are already filling with mushrooms.