Those who had been giggling with the excitement of having thought up such a terrific bet fell silent when the first breath of the marshland swept over them, rank and humid, and the ground gradually started sinking beneath their feet.
'This looks like a nice spot,' one of the Bosmeri youngsters pointed at a gigantic mossy log that loomed in the milky mist like a wreck of a ship with waves lapping against its sides. 'How about you sit here - and we come back to fetch you in the morning?' He was doing his utmost to sound casual, as if it was every day that he and his friends dared someone to spend a night in a supposedly haunted swamp; but his voice was strained, and his eyes darted ceaselessly to and fro, and his hand trembled as he stretched it out to give another member of the small gang, the one who would be staying - a round-faced, red-haired youth with ears too large and pointed even for a Wood Elf - a farewell pat on the shoulder.
'I'll be fine,' the redhead said gruffly, shaking his friend's hand off (a task which proved rather hard, for he was not was much encouraging him as clinging on for support). 'Now run home and count out your gold!'
They didn't have to be asked twice. The redhead perched himself on the log and watched his friends get swallowed up by the impenetrable mist, biting into his lower lip till it began to bleed, in order not to call out after them and say that the bet was off, that he was indeed a yellow-bellied spawn of Imga and that the swamp was too much for him to handle. He held on until the gang was out of earshot - and then burst into quiet, childish sobs of fear, and the swamp brewed and bubbled and croaked rustled all around him, living its secret, obscure and terrifying nocturnal life.
After a while, he fell silent and ordered his numb neck to turn first left, then right, taking in his surroundings with a painful sensation of something icy cold clawing at his heart. The gathering darkness pressed at him from all sides, and it took him all the rather pathetic remnants of his willpower to keep himself from leaping up and rushing off blindly, away from the nameless horrors that his mind kept conjuring up, concealed in the murk, watching, waiting, ready to pounce. His heart almost burst with fear when all the vague, discomforting noises of the swamp were drowned out by a single soft squelch of the damp moss somewhere right behind him. He shifted his eyes to see what had made the sound - and gave a small, shaky laugh of relief. The blurred shape that had suddenly sprung up from the darkness was clearly humanoid. 'Back to check on me, huh?' the redhead asked loudly, his tone deliberately careless. 'See if I ran off? Well, I am here, as I said I would be! Really, guys, what do you think I am?'
The reply did not follow immediately, and when it did, it was one word, spoken by a voice he did not recognize and accompanied by a burst of quiet, malignant laughter, 'Food'.
He did not run two yards. As he sank deeper and deeper into the burning sea of pain, made out of two sensations, like two torrents rushing together - the cold clawed hands gripping tightly at his arms, almost crushing his bones, and the sharp teeth tearing at the flesh of his neck, he thought, dully, listlessly, 'Damn it, so I lost the bet after all...'
'Hasith... Come forth'.
The young initiate - young by vampire standards, at least - stepped out of the shadowy corner of a spacious, overgrown cavern that his clan called home, and made his way falteringly towards the ancient. 'Behold, this night's prey,' the ancient announced pompously, gesturing at the body of a young Wood Elf with flaming red hair and enormous ears that lay at his feet, completely drained of blood, his features forever frozen in a twisted expression of blank terror. 'I had one of your brothers bring it here once he sated his hunger. You know what needs to be done'.
'Yes,' Hasith said weakly, unable to look away from the dead Bosmer's pallid, mask-like face. 'I shall take on his shape, and return to his home village, and gain the trust of his kin, and then,' he licked his lips and breathed out, clenching his fists in an effort to compose himself, 'I shall kill them all'.
'You shall indeed,' the ancient smiled complacently, rubbing his withered, long-nailed hands together. 'And once you do, you shall finally count yourself as one of us, now and forever. Now, do what you must'.
His lips twitching slightly, his eyes still plunged deep into the Bosmer's petrified, tear-filled gaze, Hasith lowered himself slowly onto his knees by the corpse's side and passed his hands over its face. And as he did, his own face began to change, like a wax mask held over a candle; his nose and brow melted away to be sculpted anew; his hollow, gaunt cheeks swelled up, filled with rosy flesh; his almond-shaped eyes rounded, blinking dazedly as their fierce red glow was replaced by deep, sparkling green; his hair, too, changed from black to red like the branches of a dead tree engulfed by wildfire; his fangs retracted, a predatory leer replaced by a good-natured smile; his neatly pointed ears shot up, reaching a ludicrously large size; then, the wave of change rushed down along his body, moulding his limbs. In a few moments, when the transformation was finally complete, he straightened himself up, swayed, regained balance, took a deep breath, and turned to face the ancient - the Bosmer redhead, alive and well, standing over his own bloodless husk.
The Bosmer family, all nine of them, usually quite noisy and boisterous, now sat in silence, staring intently at their food, which no one had as much as touched, or at their fingernails, or down at the tips of their shoes - anywhere but at the empty seat on the father's right hand side, between him and the second eldest child.
'I will go and gather a search party,' the father said at last, pushing back his chair, his broad-cheeked face grim and determined. His wife, a woman of what the Bretons call 'petite' stature, with a torrent of wavy red hair streaming down her shoulders, looked up at him, her green eyes welling up with tears. 'Do you think there still is hope?' she asked falteringly.
He shook his head, 'No one lives through a night in the marshes. But I have a right to claim my son's body back'.
'Will you kill them?' one of the younger boys piped in. 'The big boys who started that stupid bet?'
'I just might,' the father replied darkly.
'Please don't! They didn't mean to hurt anyone!' said an anxious, urgent voice at the doorway.
At the sound of this voice, nine heads all turned as one, and nine jaws dropped in an expression of mute astonishment in disbelief. Then, pandemonium reigned. The little ones, four boys and a girl, leapt up, overturning their chairs and elbowed their way towards their big brother, who stood, blushing sheepishly, on threshold, while the second and third eldest children, two quiet, dignified maidens with their red hair neatly braided behind their somewhat oversized ears, hovered hesitantly in the background - but their progress was hindered by their mother, who swept them all aside with unexpected force and threw herself on the newcomer's neck, weeping, 'Oh, my baby, my poor baby!'
'There now... mom...' the youth made a small pause before uttering that last word, as though unsure of something - but no one took notice of that. 'I've only been gone for a little over twelve hours!'
'Gone to the marshes,' the father said significantly.
His wife tore herself away from her 'poor baby' to give him a look of silent reproach, 'Not now! You will have time to tell him off later! The boy is practically back from the dead!'
'Yeah, right,' the youth's blush grew several degrees more intense, 'Practically back from the dead'.