IT HAD TO BE SWAMPS

by R.S. Mason

I heard the dead were coming back in Carden Moss, a village where people had apparently settled the swamp on purpose. Nothing good ever happened in swamps, but the walking dead seemed interesting enough that I decided to investigate. In my experience, the dead did not return, no matter how powerful the magic involved. My brother, who was calling himself Jack those days, insisted on coming, I think because he was worried I was responsible for the village’s problems in the first place.

“You’re still going by Azura these days?” Neither of us used our given names anymore, of course. We’d lost those long ago.

“I thought Azurine had a nice ring to it, actually. I was going to see if I could make that stick.”

“Well, I’m going to call you Azura,” he said. I’m still not sure why I let him come.

It was winter, because of course it was, so the days were short, and the rain hadn’t let up in days. We were soaked and miserable by the time we reached the village, such as it was: a few squat wooden buildings, covered in moss and lichen, clustered around one of the few patches of reliable dry ground in the area. Raised, slimy-looking wooden walkways connected this cluster to a few other houses. Beyond that, all I could see was swamp.

“You should move here,” Jack said. “I always thought of you as a swamp witch.”

“The stars never shine here,” I said. I’d stolen the power and knowledge of the stars many years ago, and though I could summon their power with a song no matter where I was, a land of perpetual clouds always made me uneasy. Anyone who seeks to steal the power of the stars is wise to keep a careful eye on them.

“I still think you should try it,” he said.

“No, thank you.” I frowned. One of the buildings seemed slightly larger than the others. “Do you suppose someone important lives there?”

“I don’t suppose anyone important lives anywhere near here,” he said.

“Fair point. Relatively important?”

“It’s worth a shot.”

I approached the door and knocked on it. “Hello? Is anyone—”

The door opened and a weary-looking old man answered it. “Oh, it’s you. The seer said you’d be about.”

“You have a seer?” I said.

He nodded. “Aye. A slender woman with blue eyes and her surly twin brother, she said.” He peered at us both closely. “You’re shorter than I expected. You’d best come in, set by the fire a spell.”

“Yes, well, you can’t have everything,” I said as I stepped in. He took our cloaks and offered us tea, which, surprisingly enough, was real tea and not some bizarre swamp brew. It didn’t make up for weeks of the cold, but it was a start. “Anyway. I’m Azura, this is Jack. And you are—”

“You’re wasting your time, the seer says,” said the old man. “The dead don’t rest easy here. Your magic won’t help. Nothing can help.”

Jack frowned and shot me a questioning glance, to which I simply shrugged. So instead he asked, “Have you tried burning the dead?”

“We’ve always burned the dead. Not much room to bury them. They come back anyway.” The old man shook his head. “But the seer also said you’d be determined, so I should show you. Come and see.”

He offered us new cloaks and led us along one of the slimy walkways and knocked on the door of a house. “Frances! Cuthbert! It’s Sutton.”

A young woman, no older than her late teens, opened the door. She was wearing mourning black. “Mayor Sutton? Who are these people?”

“They’re here to see your ma, Frances. You can show them around, can’t you?”

“I suppose. Come in, then.”

Mayor Sutton left in a hurry as Frances showed us in. She showed us to a fireplace, where a woman of about thirty sat, as close to the fire as she could. The fire was flickering and weak. A young man a few years older than Frances, also in mourning garb, stood at the opposite side of the room, scowling at the woman. “Ma died last month,” Frances told me, under her breath. “The damp got to her lungs. A few days after we’d burned the body and said our farewells, she’s back, twenty years younger, and doesn’t know anything. All she does is sit by the fire.” She raised her voice. “Ma? Guests for you.”

The woman looked up. She did not look particularly dead. “Guests? Do I know them?”

“No, ma. They’re strangers.”

“Well, welcome, then! Don’t mind my children. They think I’m dead. But what do they know? Damn fools can’t even keep a proper fire lit.”

As I walked forward, she took my hands in hers. Her hands were cold and clammy, and I felt a chill run down my spine. “It’s good to meet you. I’m Azura.”

“You’re so warm, child. Not like these children.” The fire flickered and died. “Frances! I told you to keep that fire burning!”

“Oh, let me,” I said, and knelt before the fire. There were several logs, well-arranged, and I could feel the draft from the chimney. This fire should not have died, but there were no coals, nothing to suggest it had been burning moments before. I put a hand in and felt no heat; I even grabbed one of the logs and found it icy cold. So I hummed a little song to waken the flames again, and the fire roared back to life. Behind me I could hear the strange woman sagging with relief. Meanwhile, the flames already began to flicker and die.

“Fire from a song! Frances, I think this young lady is an angel.”

“I’m just a traveler,” I said. “And my brother and I have to go. It was nice meeting you.”

Frances showed us back to the door. “Do you think that’s really your mother?” Jack asked.

“No. She didn’t remember our names, or anything about us. She acts like an imperfect memory of our mother. We have to prompt her first. And we burned her body. My mother is ash in the swamp.”

Her brother—presumably Cuthbert—stalked out behind us, still scowling. “We need to get rid of her. She’s wasting our firewood and our time, and she’s not letting us mourn.”

“But you can’t get rid of your own mother?” I asked.

“We’ve tried,” said Frances. “She never seems more like her old self than when we’re trying to get rid of her.”

Cuthbert nodded. “If you can help us, please—”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I said. “Tell me about the seer.”

Both of them went silent. “It’s best you see for yourself,” said Frances.

“No, I need to know,” I said. “Has she always been there?”

“The ruin has always been there,” said Frances, “and she says she’s always been there. But it’s forbidden. Ruins are dangerous. We only learned she was there two years ago.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “And how long have the dead been coming back?”

Frances gave him a patronizing look. “You’re not the first to think of that, but it doesn’t make sense. It was a full year after we found her before the first of them came back.” Her expression darkened. “No more questions, please. I’ll take you to see her, but watch your step. The walkways are slippery in winter.”

It was a long walk along poorly maintained walkways, the rain hammering down all around us. Frances walked ahead while Jack and I followed behind. On a few occasions he reached out to steady me just before I lost my footing. Jack, unlike most people claiming it, actually had the gift of seeing—seeing past illusions, and glimpsing a few seconds in the future. Well, I call it a gift. His power was stolen, too. “That was not a dead woman,” he told me. “Or a woman at all. I couldn’t see past the seeming but there was definitely a veil there, and what it was hiding was not human.”

“And she seems to thrive on heat. Interesting.”

Frances called back. “Aye, they like heat. Ma’s one of the harmless kinds. The worst are old lovers. They came back and stole the heat of the living. We’ve learned that they’ll just sit quiet in front of the fire if we put them there, but before that, well. We found too many folk lying dead, cold as a fish with their skin all blue, before we learned the fire trick. Never any trace of their lovers, either.”

“I suppose you’ve tried killing them,” said Jack.

“Aye. They just come back. How do you kill the dead?” We arrived at a massive, half-sunken stone structure. “This is her ruin. The seer is within,” said Frances, clearly uneasy. “I hope you can find your way back.”

“We’re quite resourceful,” I said. “Don’t wait around for us.”

Once she’d gone, I said, “I admit I was expecting something with slightly more thatch on the roof.”

“I suppose you’ll have to tell this seer how to be a proper swamp witch.”

There was no door, so we simply entered. The entry chamber was mostly flooded, so we climbed the staircase. Upstairs, we were greeted by the seer, who was building a small fire under a bubbling cauldron.

She was exactly what I pictured when I heard the phrase “swamp witch.” A wizened old crone in dark robes so tattered and worn it was impossible to tell their original color, her eyes milky white with cataracts, her thin patchy hair white as a ghost. Jack and I exchanged a glance. Something was very wrong here.

“Welcome, children of the stars,” she intoned. “Fickle yet focused, sharp-eyed but unseeing, welcome.”

“The mayor says you told him there is no solution for these so-called dead returning,” I said. “Why is that?”

She cackled. She actually cackled. “I told him that because he needed to believe it. You, however, deserve the truth. There is a way. Come and see.”

She beckoned us forward with a crooked finger and bid us peer into her cauldron. A hazy, shifting image showed Jack and I descending the stairs into the main chamber, then diving into the murky water to retrieve a stone from the room below.

“The stone lies dormant beneath the water, waiting for the warmth of human blood to bring it back to life.”

“Can’t you go and get it?” I asked. “I don’t like swimming.”

“This old crone is far too blind and frail for such a venture,” she said. “It needs someone with a fire in their belly, someone sharp-eyed and agile. I’ve not left this room in years. My fire stays lit by the kindness of the village. They feed me, they protect me.”

“And this stone,” said Jack. “Useful, is it? Will it drive off the impostors?”

“Oh, aye. Just you bring it here and I’ll tell you what needs to be done.”

Jack gave me a look that said he didn’t trust this woman as far as he could throw her; I gave him a reassuring smile and said, “I’ll see what we can do.”

“Then go, children of the stars. Shed your light on the stone and Carden Moss will be forever in your debt.”

As we descended the stairs, Jack said, conversationally, “Are you quite mad?”

“I haven’t been swimming in years,” I said. “Maybe I’ll like it.” He kept staring at me, so I continued. “When have I ever steered you wrong, dear brother? Everything will be fine.”

“Every time you say that, everything isn’t,” he muttered, but he didn’t press the issue further.

I was a little worried about the phrase ‘the warmth of human blood,’ but it probably wouldn’t matter. The seer was, inevitably, going to betray us, so I planned to betray her first. I figured Jack had worked that out by now, but if so, he was clever enough not to mention it. He was less skilled at concealing his thoughts from prying spirits, and I was beginning to suspect that these things, whatever they were, took their shape from the memories of the grieving.

We reached the flooded entry hall in short order. The water was choked with weeds, smelled faintly of decay, and was so thick with mud and the Creator only knew what else that, when I dipped a hand into the water, I couldn’t see my fingers. “I’m beginning to have regrets, brother dear.”

“Really?” he said. “I didn’t think you were capable.”

I scowled. “Just shut up and turn your back.”

He dutifully turned his back as I shrugged out of my cloak and dress and left my pack on the ground. As an afterthought, I rummaged through the pockets of my dress until I found a small meteorite. I held it in my left hand and hummed it an atonal tune, and it began to glow as it remembered when it had fallen from the sky. “Be ready to pull me out and possibly kill something,” I told Jack, and dove into the water.

It was beyond cold, on top of being so murky the glowing stone was just short of useless. But I could make out vague stone shapes, so I felt my way along the slimy stone towards what looked like an open doorway. I pulled myself through, and the light illustrated the dim outline of a stairway, so I followed that down until I came into a room that glowed with a faint yellow light. And there, at the heart of that room, was a stone, gently pulsing yellow light. I had the worrying suspicion it was pulsing in time with my heartbeat, and I almost got the feeling it wanted me to take it.

By now I was shivering, and my fingers were beginning to lose their feeling, so I grabbed the stone and swam as quickly as I could back to the entrance chamber. I could worry about the stone later. A pulse of sharp heat shot up my arm so suddenly I nearly dropped it, but I held on and made it back to the surface.

Jack grabbed my arm and dragged me onto the shore, where I collapsed in a heap, gasping and shivering, while he stood there and laughed at me. “You could give the old seer a run for her money,” he said. “You should see yourself.”

He threw me a blanket, and I attempted to dry myself off. Apart from being covered in mud, the choking weeds had clung to me and were now dripping off of me like some sort of swamp monster. But I had my lucky meteorite and the strange yellow stone, which was pulsing rapidly after my last sprint through the water. I checked my pulse; it was definitely pulsing to the beat of my heart.

Once I was passably dry, I dressed myself again, wrapped the blanket tight around me, and sat as far from the stone as I could, still aware that I looked a pathetic and bedraggled thing. “It makes sense, I suppose,” I said. “A heat stone to lure off heat-obsessed creatures.”

“A creepy heat stone that pulses in time with your pulse,” he said.

“Try not to think about it,” I said. “I’m going to present it to the seer. But first.”

I closed my eyes and concentrated, picturing myself in my mind’s eye. No mud, no weeds. Hair long, dark, straight, elegantly unkempt. Eyes bright and blue, skin clear and pale, dress blue velvet instead of waterlogged cotton. When I opened my eyes, I was presentable again. My brother had stolen the power of seeing; I had taken the power of seeming. He told me once that when I was maintaining an illusion, he could see me twice: my true self and my projected self. “Neither of them quite looks real,” he told me. “That’s because the lies we tell are just as much a part of us as the truth behind them,” I’d said.

Now he was looking at me and shaking his head. “The swamp witch is blind. Do you think she cares what you look like?”

“The seer wants us to think she’s blind,” I corrected. “And I care, even if she can’t see me.” I stood up as tall as I could, clutched the stone in my hand, and strode confidently towards the stairs.

The seer was waiting like a spider when we returned. “So, she succeeds,” she intoned. “Now, is she prepared to do whatever it takes to help Carden Moss?”

“No, not really,” I said cheerfully. “But I’ll hear your offer.”

“Offer?”

“You want the stone. I want this village safe. This is the part where you try to convince me to give you the stone.”

“Oh, star child,” said the seer. “I don’t need the stone.” She stepped away from her fire and touched a clammy hand to my cheek. “I just need you.” As she finished speaking, she dissolved into a slimy orange mass, which immediately wrapped itself around me, covering every inch of my body, then taking on the appearance of my skin and clothes. I could feel it sucking the heat from my body, but with each heartbeat the stone pulsed heat into my veins. “The stone will keep you alive if you keep it close to your heart,” said the creature. “And I will uphold my promise. Walk through the village. The others will come.” I was already shivering from the cold. I closed my eyes and imagined the capital, with its teeming masses of people everywhere. “Yes,” said the creature. “You will guide us to freedom.”

“The stone wouldn’t work for anyone in the village, would it?” said Jack. “It needed someone like us.”

“The spirits always seem to like me,” I said. “I can’t imagine why.”

“Someone has to,” he said.

“So the returned dead are what?” I asked the creature. “Bits that fell off?”

“Fragments. Imperfect reflections. I was scattered here years ago, after the ruin flooded. Without them I am weak.” It sounded almost sad. “I took the form the people expected their seer to look like, but each of my fragments can only feel strong emotions. So the funeral pyres, the emotions of the bereaved—they take on their forms and they try to find more heat.” Its voice took on a triumphant note. “Now they will flock to you, and you will lead us out of this place.”

“Supposing she decides to stay?” said Jack. “You can’t leave here without one of us, can you? You’ll bleed this village dry and then you’ll be trapped.”

“Then she’ll die. We have other ways to kill besides the cold. And I can see her mind. She plans to take us to the city.”

Jack shot me an accusing look, and I winked at him. “I don’t like dying,” I said. “Come along then, creature. Let’s go collect your bits.”

As we walked through the village, many of the dead emerged from the houses and attached themselves to me just as the seers had. They eventually stopped trying to disguise themselves, and soon I was simply covered in orange slime. By the time the last of them had found me, I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes, and I was shivering so hard I could barely speak. But the stone at my breast kept pulsing painful heat through my body, so I was, at least, still alive.

“Onward to the city, then,” said the creature.

I turned to Jack. “Jack. Help.” I handed him the stone and dove from the walkway and into the icy water of the swamp below. Almost immediately I could feel the creature on my back beginning to lose its strength, but it was not enough. It began trying to choke me, to force me under, to suck the last of the heat from my body despite the stone’s presence.

Anyone with enough time and dedication can learn some of the music that makes up the world—music that reminds a meteorite of its days as a shooting star, that kindles wood into flame, that gently alters or reinforces the being of things. The priests call them concordant songs, and say that they are an echo of the song the Creator used to bring the world into being.

Far more difficult to learn are the songs that change the world, that bring the icy void between stars into the world. The priests call them discordant songs, and say that they are used by the forces of chaos to oppose the Creator’s work. Those daring few who study them believe that they are new songs, new creations, as powerful as they are dangerous.

I had learned the song of the stars, years before, and as I struggled to stay afloat, I brought it to my lips, and the strange atonal music filled the air, and filled my thoughts, until the music was all I knew. A cold far beyond anything the creature had known surrounded me, but that seemed a distant reality now. The creature finally stopped struggling, and I relaxed. Jack grabbed me by the shoulders and hauled me ashore. He was shouting something, but the words came from far away, and I finally drifted into unconsciousness.

I awoke in a tub full of hot water, the stone once again at my breast. Frances was watching over me, and looked genuinely surprised when my eyes opened. “I didn’t think you’d wake up,” she said. “You were all covered in ice and some sort of orange goo.”

“I’m hard to kill,” I said. “Is he still here?”

“He’s outside.”

Frances had been kind enough to clean all of the swamp muck off me as well as lay out some clean clothes for me to change into. It almost made up for the way she stared as I was drying off and dressing myself.

“Is it over? Did you drive away the dead?”

“Probably. If you see them again try throwing them in the swamp. They don’t like the cold.”

She nodded. “Jack said the seer was gone?”

“I’m sure she’ll live on anywhere there’s a sufficiently large pile of sinister orange goo. But the seer, if you see her, should be thrown in the swamp as well.” I smiled. “You’ll be fine. You seem like a clever girl.”

“And did you find out? Was it really the dead?”

I hesitated. “It’s possible,” I lied. “I think the seer did some channeling, made it so lost spirits could linger a while and say their goodbyes.”

“Could you do that?”

“No. She meant well, but the dead should stay where they are.”

Frances nodded, and drew me into a hug. “Thank you so much. I know we don’t have much—”

“No thanks necessary,” I said. “But my brother and I need to be on our way.” As I withdrew, I slipped the heat stone into her pocket.

Jack was waiting for me outside, already dressed for the road. “You shouldn’t have lied,” he said.

“No one wants to hear their beloved mother had her shape stolen by swamp goo,” I said. “Sometimes lies are important.”

“You also shouldn’t have slipped her the stone.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine. And if not, it will be a learning experience.”

He shook his head. “This is why nobody likes you,” he said. Then he smirked. “You’re really not going to stay and be their new swamp witch?”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“They could use your help, you know. I was talking to Frances and the seer did a lot for them.”

“Listen to what you’re saying, Jack. You don’t want me helping people.”

He stifled a laugh. “Fair enough. Shall we?”

“By all means.”

We shouldered our packs and headed south, away from the swamp and the wetlands. It never really mattered where we were going, of course. We never traveled together for long, but when we were, when his truth and my seeming were together, I felt like a person again. “So, I’ve heard they found a whole sunken city just off the coast of the capital,” I said. “Sounds like your kind of thing. You want to come?”

“I suppose. I’m heading that way anyway,” he said, and, though he would never have admitted it, the faintest hints of a smile crossed his lips.