This is an excerpt from my book "Zikhin" COMING SOON!!! The screams of screech owls cut through the haunting silence, adding their own flavor of terror to the night. Thick mists hung low over the stagnant swamp water crisscrossed by broken down boardwalks of warped wood or crumbling stone that connected the small islands of solid ground rising from the murkiness. Torches lined the commonly traveled paths in the north and south for the foolish, the unwary or the desperate, their weakly crackling light more of a safe haven to reach than a goal to attain. Will o’ wisps floating along the ground served as dangerous traps to the incautious, leading them off to their doom. Their pale illumination revealed where the hard earth ended and the swamp waters began; places where even the malicious pixies wouldn’t travel. Hues of purple gases floated above the deeper waters. Phosphorescent fungi and mosses glowed in the darkness. Navigating a footpath of broken stones sparsely lined with torches, Zorastres was careful to keep clear of the dangers lining it; the waters with their hidden dangers to one side, the black screamar trees creaking threateningly overhead on the other. Protected by the surrounding mountain ranges, there was no wind in the Vile Fen, but the cold bore into the bones. Pulling his worn leather poncho tighter around his shoulders in an effort to stave off the chill, he pressed on without respite. The swamp was no place to take a breather. Especially at night. Especially alone. And he was most certainly alone. Wandering a quagmire filled with evil and undead things. With nothing for protection but a spell book with a grand total of ten spells, two readied spells he could cast on the fly neither of which could do damage in any measure and the small Paanthan dagger the Traveler family had given him. He paused at a fork in the boardwalk, both paths equally dark and ominous, and sighed. “I’m in way over my head. Again. What was I thinking, Gabby-” Remembering the adder had returned to the Thought Plane to rest, he fell silent and turned back. Covering his eyes with one hand, he pointed at the first trail. “Innie, minnie, minie, moe. Catch a khimaira by the toe. If it hollers let him go; innie, minnie, minie, moe.” Taking his hand away Zorastres found himself staring down the left hand path which suddenly looked darker. Things unseen loomed like carnivorous phantoms in the night, crowding nearer with each passing second. Wiping his eyes, he shook his head to clear his vision and when he looked back everything was as it had been before. Shifting his pack on his shoulder, he set one foot on the trail and a massive, flaming axe slammed into the earth an inch in front of him. Frozen where he stood, his dark brown eyes followed the weapon’s blazing shaft to the flame wreathed creature that held it. Nine feet tall it looked like a form of pure fire contained in a suit of charred metal armor. Leaning down to bring its face level with his, it roared spewing heat like a blast furnace. Zorastres fell backward, scrambling in retreat. “I don’t suppose we could discuss this?” The creature swung its fiery axe. Ducking under the blade he felt it singe the hairs on the back of his neck as he clambered to his feet, drawing the Paanthan dagger in defense. The creature stalked toward him, bellowing white heat as it took another swipe. So scared he was shaking, Zorastres jumped back with a yell of fright and the blade slipped from his grip, clattering down between the rocks at his feet. He watched it disappear under the surface of the shallow water, then up to see the flaming axe above his head descending all too fast. “Invoko vires decori Chloris dea quaerens favorem diuini creare casta donum firei Venus fugere insidias!” It was the first invocation that came to mind and the deadliest plant he could think of appeared in his hand - predatory mantraps. A clutch of plants with large black leaves ending in hinged lobes writhed in his leather gloved grasp. Snapping blindly in all directions, the red needle-like teeth lining them sought fleshy matter to sink their poisoned tips into. “Here, hold these.” Zorastres tossed them at the creature and took off running in the other direction. Caught in a hand of pure flame the plants immediately turned to ash, cast aside as the creature charged after him. Sensing weakness in a potential meal, the screamars exploded into action. Branches like clawed hands swiped down on the wizard, forcing him to twist and dodge to keep from getting entangled. Their roots tore upward along the path, snagging his feet. Falling, he slammed into the ground and rolled onto his back in time to see the fire creature stampede toward him. The gaping maws of the rapacious trees snapping in the distance, their limbs reaching out to drag him in. Even if he could’ve gotten to his feet, there was no where to run. Zorastres was grabbing blindly for his satchel and the spell book inside it when the earth suddenly came alive. Four humanoid shapes of mud rose from the mire. Mouth agape, he watched wide eyed as they sloshed over the morass with surprising speed considering their girth and closed in on the fire creature. Grabbed by the arm, he looked up with a scream to find an EarthFolk elementalblade crouched protectively over him. The silver clasps that capped the ends of her sparse braids dangled over his head. Beads and feathers decorated her soft leather armor. Red in bloodlust, her eyes were on the fire creature trapped in the steadily converging mud-men. “The earth elementals won’t hold that ember knight for long.” No sooner did the words leave her mouth than a fiery axe blade sliced through one of the earth elementals. Breaking free of its smothering confinement, the ember knight roared to blazing brilliance and swiftly zeroed in on its intended targets. Tugging Zorastres to his feet the elementalblade pulled him behind her, drawing twin swords from their sheathes crisscrossed on her back. Ready to meet her charging opponent, she didn‘t see the taloned screamar branch reaching out to snag her back. “Look out!” Spinning toward his voice, she severed the limb with a single swipe of one sword. Ducking under the ember knight’s axe, she lashed out at the weak point in its armor over the abdomen. Locked in mortal combat for her life, she crossed her swords at the hilt to catch the incoming blade and force it wide. “Were you planning helping?” “I’m trying!” Scrambling around in the gloom he searched in vain for his satchel. “Don’t you have a sword handy? You’re in the Vile Fen for mercy’s sake!” Taking an unexpected step back to throw her off balance, the ember knight hit the elementalblade in the chest with the flat of a fiery hand. Scorching her leather armor, the impact threw her backward into the gaping maws of a grove of screamars. It was only the result of split second timing that she was able to summon a cradle of soft earth to catch her before she became ensnared by the trees’ grasping claws. “I found it!” Half sunk into the sludge at the water’s edge, Zorastres almost missed the worn leather satchel in the dimness. With shaking hands he pulled his spell book free and flipped it open to scan its pages. “Just hang on!” “Hang on, he says.” Rolling to her feet in a crouch, the EarthFolk warrior dodged to the side to miss another swing of the fiery axe. “To what?!” “I got it!” Coming up inside the ember knight’s reach, she drove her blades up under the armor, straight into the heart - if such creatures had hearts. Or any organs at all for that matter. As it was, the creature brought its weapon down unhindered and the elementalblade was forced to let go of her swords to throw herself out of harm’s way. The flaming edge of the axe grazed her cuirass, knocking her to the ground. “Then use it!” She screamed, snapping her legs open before the blazing weapon struck the earth between them. Holding his tattered spell book in one hand, Zorastres reached the other out toward the ember knight. “Magna dea Pallas Athene, tua invocato aecidium contra inimical meum! In tuo clamabo hastam de manu mea defensio!” Invoking the aid of the Goddess Athene, a spear of gleaming purple and white energy shot from his hand. It sliced through the air and pierced the creature’s chest, burning it with the Goddess’ holy might, smiting it where it stood. Knees knocking, body shaking Zorastres’ mouth went dry as the beast turned from the fallen elementalblade and charged, roaring in a furor even as its steps slowed. The flames of its body began to go out. Its armor began to crack and crumble as the metal cooled. The blaze along the axe extinguished. Its body breaking apart with each step, the ember knight continued to crumble away until it blew apart sending the warrior‘s swords, still stuck in its torso, flying in opposite directions. Crab-crawling in retreat, the EarthFolk warrior ducked the debris. Everything stopped and an eerie quiet prevailed. Even the screamars seemed to have retreated to rethink their approach. Zorastres stood dumbfounded in the explosion‘s wake looking from his spell book to his casting hand to the fragments and back again. “So that’s what it does.” Shoving her hair out of her face, the elementalblade got to her feet and slowly looked around. Her swords were sticking out of a tree trunk on either side of the trail. Snapping his book shut, Zorastres shoved it into his satchel and rushed to her side. “Are you okay? That was some blast-” Turning to face him, to actually look at him for the first time, her eyes went wide in recognition and angry surprise. “You!” Before he could say anything, she swung and the next thing Zorastres knew he was flat on his back staring at the nighttime sky.