The Marshes of Awakening
Razoff stared intently down the barrel of his rifle from amongst the roots of a Vastfall tree, taking careful aim at his prey. It was a dark purple marsh-serpent, grazing on one of the enormous lily-pads that populated this area of the swamps. Only the large head and front portion of its particularly long body were visible above the opaque waters as it munched on a piece of green plant matter.
Marsh-serpents, or Serpentis velox, were a slippery species, acutely velocious at cutting through the visually impenetrable waters of their home, and notoriously difficult to track. They were smart, too, and although generally solitary were able to communicate with each other through a range of subsonic vocalisations. One or two had even learnt to speak the common tongue. He was lucky to have found one so easily, and one so distracted. A marsh-serpent head would make a fine trophy.
He centred his crosshairs on the back of the reptile's neck, just above the curious red scarf it was wearing. A rifle bolt to the spine would paralyse it without ruining a well-earned trophy, and allow Razoff to get close enough to finish the job.
His finger tightened on the trigger.
A sudden crash emanated from the canopy above, and the serpent instantly dived beneath the murk. Razoff let the projectile loose, but it whizzed uselessly across the marsh surface. "Son of a Livingstone!" he cursed quietly, punching a root in frustration, and already standing up to move after it. He didn't have time to dwell on his irritation, however, before a flying behemoth of wood and metal descended through the trees. Its bowsprit cut slowly through the air as it turned towards where the serpent had disappeared. Its twin spotlights scanned the surface below its menacing shape. Adorning its canvas sail, limp in the dead swamp air, was a skull-like head crossed with two spanners.
One of the most feared emblems in the galaxy.
Razoff froze, doing as little as possible to attract the attention of the hovering. Its yellow-glowing engines flared as, for some unfathomable reason, it set of in pursuit of the marsh-serpent, low to the water. Behind it dropped a trail of helicopter bombs, left to hover just above the swamp. To Razoff, intimately familiar with all tactics used to hunt prey, it seemed oddly like the ship was herding the creature.
He stood up, deciding it was definitely time to leave before more of the machines arrived, previous to one doing just that. The ship broke through the canopy in the same place as the former, and this time, its spotlights fell squarely on him.
Razoff summarily span and ran into the undergrowth, pursued by a salvo of energy bolts. The warship attempted to follow, but found his path far too thickly grown. Instead, it unleashed a stream of heli-bombs, then broke away to find another route.
Razoff dodged and weaved, and several of the skull-marked bombs blew themselves against interwoven branches. Two of them appeared seized by a higher plane of intellect, however, and swerved as he did. He could feel the breath from their gyrating blades against his neck, could hear them slicing the fetid swamp air with terrifying keenness.
As he ran – at a remarkable pace for one with such truncated legs – Razoff grabbed a supple passing branch with one hand, gambling his coordination against theirs, and released it swiftly. It sprang back and caught one bomb at its centre, detonating it instantly, while the second ducked under the fireball. The heat warmed his back as he went to leap a tree root, and in a display of abject inagility, misjudged the height and fell flat on his face in a splatter of mud. Without pause he rolled, seized his rifle by the barrel, and swung it at the black sphere with a hunter's strength. It sliced across the bomb's front and the bomb span out, rotor glancing off a tree trunk. Chips of bark sprayed into the air, but the bomb righted itself and, guided by some internal mechanism, whirred again toward Razoff. But by now he had the appropriate end of the weapon in hand, and fired a single, precise shot into the device's core. It blasted into fragments, a piece of shrapnel passing inches from Razoff's nose.
It was at this point that the warship smashed into the clearing Razoff had found himself in, and unfettered a volley of cannonballs in his direction. He pushed off the ground in a funny sort of stumbling dive, followed up by a roll, and the metal balls struck the muddy terrain just short of his feet. The ship fired a net of red energy from its crow's nest, apparently changing its tactics to contain rather than kill, and, ominously, a hatch near the bottom of its hull slid open.
Not waiting to see what emerged, Razoff turned and ran again, a flurry of shots following his feet. A chain of cannonballs shot past him and splintered a tall tree trunk in an attempt to halt him, but he slid to a stop and jumped over. Seemingly recognising its ability to slow him down, the warship released a whirlwind of munitions at the trees surrounding Razoff, and the entire grove began to collapse around him. Luckily, these were not Vastfall trees or it would have devastated the swamp for nearly a kilometre. He slid under a trunk before it hit the ground, dived over another, and rolled into a sprint. Amid the chaos he unhooked a metal vial from his belt, popped the lid and splashed its contents across his body. Lost in the wooden wind, he plunged into the swamp.
Almost any other land creature that attempted the same thing would have lasted a grand total of half a second before being chewed to the bone, and the other half before the bones were reduced to grit for a piranha's gut. But Razoff's family had been hunting this swamp for longer than anyone less than several centuries old could remember, and they had uncovered its secrets. They knew intimately the simple desires that drove every creature of the slimy waters, every motivating impulse haunting the minds of the basest of beasts. And, after generations of accrued knowledge, they knew what they feared.
Razoff lay two feet beneath the surface as the haze of wood settled, digging into the mud with his hands and feet to stop himself from rising, and prayed to Polokus that the sprayed pheromones would mask his own scent. He had heard stories about his great-uncle Woden, who had kept his vial past its best before. They only ever recovered the buckle from his left boot, and that had to be won in a tug-of-war with a Thorn Root cluster.
Looking to the surface, he saw a spotlight pass over him, outlining a curiously blocky shadow walking along the bank. Although his race was not amphibious and did need to breathe oxygen, they could last several minutes without a breath and could see sharply both underwater and in air. His eyes could penetrate a lot further than that spotlight. He hoped.
After a minute or so, the ellipse of light moved on, and the shadow followed with an electrical grumble. As it did, he noticed a tiny, black fish swim close to his head, its disturbingly intelligent white eye looking over this foul-smelling new addition to its environment, until another, larger specimen swallowed it whole. The pheromones must have been wearing off, or else the piranhas wouldn't have been able to bear being within fifty metres of him. He counted to thirty, then burst dripping from the putrid water and climbed out, plucking a particularly brave fish from his cuff and flicking it back into the swamp, where it was repaid for its courage by falling into the mouth of one five times as large.
Strange. Time was, the mating pheromones of a mire-kraken would clear the waters for miles around. They clearly still inspired a certain amount of caution in the marsh's finned and fanged residents, but not nearly enough. Perhaps that was because of their decline in numbers... a decline Razoff's family was in no small part responsible for. The piranhas didn't fear them as much because they hadn't encountered them for generations (short as the generations of such fish were). He would have to use his remaining vials sparingly.
Whatever that ship was, it had gone. Razoff shook the moisture from his rifle (waterproof, of course, through a delightfully clever selectively-permeable mechanism located in the barrel) and moved away, full of questions but hoping to get back to his mansion before he found the answers.
He was covered, head-to-toe, in mud, gunk, woodchips, and other substances he didn't care to think about. Luckily he was not wearing his best clothes. The red of the (frankly incredibly stylish) outfit he preferred at home would have stuck out like a Teensie's nose in the environment of the swamps, something most deconstructive to one whose most-loved pastime involved sneaking up on things. Instead, he wore brown, green and grey fatigues, specifically designed to render him close to unseeable. When he didn't move. Well... if he was under something. True invisibility was a luxury he could do without, especially if it meant he could avoid consorting with the witch of the Bog. He shuddered at the thought.
Finding a suitable spot, Razoff lay low into the mud bordering a stretch of flat marsh, drawing the dense reeds over himself to camouflage from above. Consulting a compass and a detailed map from a pouch in his belt, he determined his exact location.
He knew of two Hall of Doors portals not far from where he was, but that option was closed to him. If he made his way south, he reckoned, he could exit the Marshes fairly close to his estate, but then he would still have to cross about four kilometres of the near-treeless and near cover-less Bog of Murk, an unattractive prospect with flying pirate ships patrolling overhead. If he went south-west, however, he could use the immense cover of the Bayou to shield from prying optical sensors, and employ the series of tunnels from there to reach his manor.
Razoff checked that the coast was clear, then stood, got his bearings, and continued on his way.
As he moved covertly through the boggy terrain of the Marshes, he examined his rifle carefully to make sure it had suffered no damage. Luckily, it hadn't endured anything more than a few superficial scratches, nothing a little polish couldn't straighten out.
Razoff's rifle was his pride and joy. He had built it himself, as was the custom in his family, selecting every part with the utmost care and soldering, shaping and binding until the weapon resembled his own vision of perfection. The butt was polished wood carved from the perfect material found at the highest stretches of a Vastfall tree, and one of the mightiest of those at the Top of the World, rather than of its stunted fellows that populated the Bayou and Marshes. The barrel was long and slender, forged from an alloy of the namesake metal mined from the Iron Mountains and the famously pure carbon of the Cave of Skops, was shaped flawlessly to convey his custom ammunition straight and true towards its intended target, with a flash of gunpowder imported directly from the Echoing Caves. The sight, mounted atop this lethal cylinder, was perfectly adjusted for his keen reptilian eye, containing lenses obtained from the greatest Fairy glass craftswomen (for a not inconsiderable sum), and capable of varying degrees of magnification. The rifle's internal mechanisms, based loosely on blueprints acquired from a Ray arms dealer, had been assembled painstakingly in his workshop over the course of a week as he slaved with magnifying glasses and soldering irons.
What this all added up to was a perfectly deadly tool of the hunt, ideally complimenting the skill of the hunter who wielded it. It was more than a weapon: it was a work of art.
Razoff knelt beside a peculiar bootprint in the mud, examining its contours. It was identical to several dozen like it in the surrounding area, curiously angled and unlike any tracks he was familiar with, even in his impressive internal almanac of hunter's knowledge, built up over the course of decades on the hunt. These were brand new. All sets were exactly the same distance apart, all headed in exactly the same direction. They had to be related to the strange wooden aircraft, and the blocky shadow he had seen.
Making sure to stay alert for any hazard-heralding sounds, he followed the footprints along the ground for several metres, then froze. Freshly imprinted in the mud, above the tracks he was reading, was an enormous, three-toed paw-print. No, less a paw-print than a foot-print. It was almost a metre across. Razoff's eyes tracked left, to see another one, exactly the same. Further ahead were two even larger prints, at least a metre and a half across, like two titanic fists had pressed into the ground.
These were rare and ominous prints to find, especially here. He had to get out of here. The owners of such marks were well-known and well-feared for their territoriality. Razoff bent down for one more close look, plucking a coarse, auburn hair from between the toes, when he heard one of the most terrifying sounds of his life: a deep-throated, ground-vibrating, simian grunt, emanating from in front of him.
In the instant between his hearing the sound, and looking up, everything he remembered about the rare species of great ape known as the Xowar, Insolitus ingens, flashed through his mind, like extracts of words jumping from a handbook.
Intelligent, known to be able to solve puzzles. Able to move incredibly silently for its often multi-tonne bulk. Very strong, has been known to effortlessly rip trees out by the roots. Highly territorial, and highly aggressive.
He looked up, and there, watching him from between two trees, a glint of anger in its tiny eyes, was an immense, red-brown haired, bulk-armed, highly territorial, highly aggressive Xowar.
Hoping to Polokus that this creature's vision was movement-based, Razoff stayed stock still. It wasn't. With an echoing roar, the ape stood up on two feet, extending to his full 12-foot height, and pounded its chest with fists the size of large cauldrons, then brought them back down with a squelch that threw mud high in the air. Running on its knuckles, the immense primate launched itself forwards in twenty-metre bounds. Razoff managed to fire a shot, hitting its shoulder and having about as much effect as an axe on a kilometre-tall tree. The hunter dove to the side, splatting once again into the muck, as the Xowar skidded past. But the ape, with grace born of a life spent swinging a multi-tonne body from branches at hundreds, sometimes thousands, of metres in altitude, controlled its muddy slide to spin and pinch Razoff's waist between a thumb and forefinger both wider than it. Still travelling at high speed, the beast swung Razoff effortlessly into the air and released him to fly in a tumbling arc against a tree trunk. He slumped to the ground, counting himself lucky the Xowar had used only a fraction of its fantastic strength. Had it thrown with its entire brute potency, there would be perhaps two bones left intact in Razoff's body, and those two would likely be in the wrong places.
Winded and dazed, the Swamplander struggled to draw breath as the Xowar knuckled over at its own leisure. Luckily, such primates were curious creatures or he would already be dead. Lowering its head to the panting reptile, it drew a great intake of air through its nostrils, analysing the mixture of scents it bore to his senses. It grunted softly, a bone-shaking noise, as Razoff struggled to crawl away. It picked him up in the manner a person would a pet rabbit, pinching the back of his jacket between its thumb and finger, and lifted him to its face level with a shocking gingerness. Even as he faced death, squirming as he did, Razoff couldn't help but admire the great beast. Only one of his family had ever successfully hunted a Xowar, and they had been forced to abandon the body as another of the apes approached to inherit the newly unguarded territory. They truly were spectacular animals, and yet despite their massive strength they were in danger of going extinct.
Too bad this one isn't, thought the Count as he was dropped back to the ground. He closed his eyes as the Xowar lifted a sheep-sized fist to pulverize the invader.
"Do not attempt to harm other slaves."
The cold, machine-like voice rang clear across Razoff's ears, punctuated by a scream of simian pain. He opened his eyes to see the Xowar, fist blackened, turning to face a new intruder. If it had been angry before, now it was off the chart.
A hail of red, glowing projectiles flew at the creature from all directions, singing fur and flesh. Roaring, the Xowar charged at one of the offenders. Razoff turned onto his side just in time to see a metallic figure smashed to atoms by the beast. Others quickly closed in, spreading into a ring around the enraged animal and firing inwards at it. Using immense fists to great effect, it smashed more of the machines to pieces, but apparently devoid of fear they continued to hound it, minimising the effectiveness of its primitive strategy by spreading apart so that it could destroy no more than one of them at once. Finally, the Xowar gave a great howl of defeat and loped away, battered and blackened.
One of the machines stepped toward Razoff, standing over him. It looked absolutely fearsome, with glowing eyes staring from a skull-like head that matched the insignia flown by the flying ships, complete, bizarrely, with gold earring. Its arms terminated not in hands, but in a hook and what looked like an energy weapon, the barrel of which was pointed at Razoff's face. "Identify."
Razoff attempted to climb to his feet, but slipped over and ended up face down, staring at the thing's gold-buckled, mud-coated boots.
The robot kicked him in the shoulder, eliciting a gasp of pain and a roll. "Repeat: Identify."
"Count Razoff Shoedsackovskaïa of the Bog of Murk!" he gasped. The robot nodded. "Identity confirmed: Swamplander. Viable slave specimen, capable of hard labour. Prepare to throw him in the brig."
Two more of the robots hauled him to his feet, slipping hooks under his arms. Razoff could feel cold steel beneath their torn jackets as they held him in place.
The leader was pressing buttons on its gun-barrel. "Prisoner acquired. Requesting transportation."
"Hostile wildlife in vicinity, potentially dangerous Class 4 mammalian. Suppression weaponry recommended."
"Request approved. Prepare for arrival of warship."
Razoff struggled, twisting against his captors' hooks. The purple-jacketed leader turned and struck him across the face with the smooth side of its hook. "Struggling will only weaken your working ability. And believe me; you're going to need your strength where you're going."
The machines released a burst of peculiar mechanical laughter, leaving Razoff bewildered. "What are you?"
The leader considered for a moment. "Information request approved, slave. We are the Robo-Pirates. And we are here to plunder your filthy planet until there's nothing left to care." This brought about a new round of laughter, which Razoff was unsure was justified.
The leader was suddenly silenced as a metal bolt buried itself in its forehead with a grating shriek. It reached up with a hook, only to have another bolt appear in its chest. The hole it created smoked and sparked as the machine collapsed. The two robots grasping Razoff released him and raised their weapons, suddenly alert to a new threat. Another bolt flew from the trees, taking down one of the soldiers, and was answered by a red bolt of energy, only for that to be answered in turn by a shot from the opposite direction. The sources of the bolts seemed to be constantly moving, coming from somewhere in the trees. The machines were thrown into disarray as several lost limbs to the high-velocity projectiles. Razoff took advantage of the confusion to scoop up his rifle, shooting accurately at the nearest robots. The Xowar-reduced force was rapidly depleted, leaving piles of scrap metal dotted across the clearing.
The attackers revealed themselves as three lithe, reptilian figures armed with crossbows swung down from their hiding places in the trees. They were Swamplanders just like Razoff, dressed in simple tunics. One, a light blue-skinned female, addressed Razoff as they approached him. "Hello, friend!" she called. "I'm Tahlis, and these are Thet and Vade," she said by way of greeting. The two males nodded briefly, keeping their crossbows ready and their eyes trained on the surrounding swamp. "You can thank us later. In the meantime there's bound to be one of those ships heading right this way, so we have to get out of here."
Razoff nodded, following them into the depths of the swamps.