All Stories, Fantasy

The Grim Morass by David Samuels

They say you’re a paladin, but all I see is a fool.

Look at you: armored like a crawdad with the brains to match. One wrong move on that poleboat and you’ll sink to the base of the swamp.

Gimme your hand. Let’s get you back on solid ground—if you can call this pier solid. The stilts wobble in the sludge, so watch your step.

Not a talker, clearly. Don’t bother unrolling that scroll. I know all about your oath of silence. Word travels fast among us Marshmen. As the village shaman, I was among the first to learn about your little quest. You seek redemption, yes?

Then go home. Adopt a war orphan and get on with your life. Truth be told, you’d have better luck floating in that platemail than slaying the Bogroth.

You think you’re the first to try? Feh. That honor belongs to my old master.
It was a generation ago when the Bogroth invaded our lives. Some say it clawed its way out of a sunken abyss. Others reckon it’s the unholy spawn of an ogre and a crocodile. But none can deny its capacity for bloodshed.

Every elder in the village remembers the day of the first slaughter. I was tying herbs to dry in my master’s stilthouse when the three surviving fishermen burst inside… three out of twenty.

Blood freckled their faces and dripped down chattering jaws as they stumbled through their words. Oh, the horrors they’d seen. Between breaths they raved about webbed claws and a mawful of fangs that tore their brethren apart.

And yet none of that discouraged my master. Armed with a stave strung with fetishes, he rowed his canoe into the swamp. You better believe I paddled after him. At eighteen cycles, I thought myself invincible. You should’ve outgrown that by now. What are you, thirty?
Anyway, my master forced me to turn back. He also had me promise to protect the village in his absence. So I went back to our stilthouse and tended to the wounded while awaiting his return.

Return he did—one piece at a time. His bloated limbs floated downriver the next morning, tattooed flesh bobbing against a neighboring houseboat. Hardly enough left of him to embalm in his funerary cocoon.

Still think you have what it takes?

Hrmph. The set of your jaw tells me everything.

I was once like you, brimming with hope. The Bogroth put an end to that. It was a lesson I learned firsthand.

That helmet doesn’t hide your brows-aloft, you know.

You’re curious. Who wouldn’t be? I’m one of the few who’s encountered the monstrosity and lived to tell the tale.

If those brows go any higher, they’ll knock off your helmet.

Alright, I’ll humor you… for a price.

Don’t give me that look. We’re desperate, not greedy. Hardly any traders venture here anymore, for obvious reasons. So how about loosening those purse strings by your hip?
Fifteen measly cherubim? Fine. Wipe your feet before you come inside. Last thing I need is mud all over my reeds.

Don’t be startled from the smoke. Sandalwood incense, that’s all. It keeps dark spirits at bay.
Here, drink this.

…What? Never seen a bowl of tea before? Typical Flaurian. If you spent less time crusading against other cultures and more time learning from them, you might look less befuddled. Now, drink.

Ah, nothing like that minty aroma to clear the sinuses.

Where was I…. Right. After my master met his fate, I was heartbroken. How could he be dead when his bed was still unmade from that morning? When his Jakim cards were still strewn across our table, midway through a round?

In my grief, I swore to exact vengeance on the Bogroth. But I couldn’t be reckless about it. If I lost my life, our town would be akriipii: cursed as shamanless. Better to bide my time for my chance at revenge.

That chance coasted into the village five years later. The sleek red oarship belonged to an expedition from the Penny Cantons, led by a perfumist by the name of Kienne. I remember because he referred to himself in the third person—an insufferable habit.

Awfully sure of himself, too. Anyone would be, with a band of Veldtian mercenaries in tow. By that grimace, I’m guessing you don’t care for Veldtians.

Ah, but of course! You must’ve fought them in your crusade against the Penny Cantons. These lands bore the brunt of that particular war, mind you. And you can call the Pencelings heretics all you like, but you must admit they choose their sellswords wisely.

All armored in suits of lacquered chitin, the dozen mercenaries waited aboard the ship while Kienne strutted into my stilthouse without so much as an invitation.

I was whittling away at a fertility glyph at the time. Annoyed by the interruption, I was about to insult his mother for failing to teach him manners when he explained the reason behind his visit. He’d amassed a fortune distilling colognes from crocodile musk, you see, and believed he could reap greater profits with the odor from the Bogroth’s glands. All he needed was someone to navigate the ever-shifting waters, and did I have anyone in mind?
I volunteered my services on the spot. Here was the chance I’d been waiting for so long. With our forces combined, I thought nothing could stop us.

From the foredeck of the vessel, I led us upriver amid the swish of oars and croak of bullfrogs. The ship wasn’t built for these waters, so the curved roof of the cabin sometimes tore away tresses of ivy. More than once we had to disembark and shove the stern across mudbanks and banyan roots. But none of that fazed the Veldtians nearly as much as what they beheld that night.

In all honesty, I was surprised they spotted it by the dim paper lanterns that dangled from our railposts.

A row of stakes jutted from the water, and impaled upon those stakes, well….

Several mercenaries seized their prayer beads in terror. You wouldn’t think it from their bulky frames, but the Veldtians are close cousins to my people. We roamed the savannahs long before the Deluge swept in, so we share a similar language today. Hence why I understood fragments of their speech when they claimed the waters to be cursed.
“What you see is no curse,” I told them, “but desperation.”

In the hopes of appeasing the Bogroth, a few hotheads had raided our funerary cocoons for bodies to impale on the outskirts of the village. As if those fetid  corpses could satisfy what warm flesh could not. Patches of skin had sloughed off their faces, revealing nasal sockets as dark as their pecked-out eyeholes.

It wouldn’t be long until the villagers grew bolder. All the more reason to put an end to this nightmare before it consumed us in both body and soul.

Despite my words, the Veldtians remained shaken. They believed impalement to be the foulest form of mutilation. It chained the deceased to this world, damning them to roam Euvael as vengeful wraiths.

Indeed, it felt as if unquiet spirits haunted us all through the night. Silver eyes glinted from the shadowy riverbanks while unseen beastlings screeched over treetops.
How is that tea, by the way? Good, good.

It wasn’t the discord of the night we had to fear, but the quiet instead. Very soon, an oppressive silence fell upon us; a loaded hush that warned us to turn back, for no prey dared roam these waters except the Veldtians and their foolhardy captain.

…Why, I was the predator.

As were my twenty brethren who burst from the bulrushes. Blowguns in hand, they shot darts into the gaps between the Veldtians’ chitin plates. Not just any darts, but ones dipped in toxins.

Similar to what you drank.

Yours is slower-acting, of course. You should be feeling it about now. Somewhat woozy, yes? Go ahead and reach for that sword if you like.

Hah! See? You can scarcely lift it.

While you’re still conscious, I’ll let you in on a secret. There’s no such thing as the Bogroth. Those impaled bodies were sacrifices, yes, but to a god beyond your ken. There are hundreds of other corpses visible by daylight. Good thing I navigated those imbeciles under the sister moons.

Why, you ask? Because rumor of the Bogroth lures your ilk here. I can think of no better sacrifice than the knights and mercenaries who’ve used these fens as their battleground while my people suffer the consequences. Simply put, you are the Bogroth.
Shush, now.

Master is coming.

David Samuels

Image by Roland Mey from Pixabay 

7 thoughts on “The Grim Morass by David Samuels”

  1. Hi David,
    Normally with these, I am bored straight away and have to force myself to plough through but I was happy to read this.
    When I think on it, it’s a genre that I don’t particularly like, told in a POV that I don’t particularly like and structured in one of those one way conversations that I don’t particularly like. And even with all that going against it, I enjoyed this very much!!!
    The twist was also refreshing for this type. Normally the writers really want to get down to some type of beast description and the hero’s fight being the main plot so it was refreshing to have the reveal that it did.
    I really do love it when a story changes my mind. It shows the skill of the writer who hasn’t just followed a recipe of type.
    Hope you have more for us soon!
    All the very best my friend.


  2. Interesting juxtaposition had when you lay the unsteadiness of the pier at the opening of the story beside entering this newly (to me) built world. I usually have all the love for this “genre” (which ain’t a dirty word, but it seems to require quoties anymore, anyway) as Harlan Ellison had for the TV executives who couldn’t keep their goddam rat mitts off his stuff. But I come away from this one impressed by your skill, and glad to see that originality in this genre has yet to be ashed on the pyre.


  3. A dark tale of crusaders and deceptions. Since ancient times the idealists have gone forth to fight the Bogroth. They usually cause more problems than they solve, in fact, they cause disaster in many cases, but in this story, the narrator is one step ahead. I found it very amusing and well written. Every idealist ends up in the grim morass. The narrator could be one of them, one who survived and who now serves the grim master. Reminds me a bit of the movie “Apocalypse Now” and its themes.


  4. My favorite line: “Return he did—one piece at a time.”

    Once upon a time, I read quite a bit of your writing over at Scribophile, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see something you’d published. It’s a wonderful story, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. As others have said, I love the twist, and I’m impressed at how well you were able to use the second person. You’ve always had a knack for worldbuilding, and it shines here.

    Liked by 1 person

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