A Sage's Mosswart Encounter
by Dave Javier
|| Somewhere in the lowlands near the River Prosper sat an old man of certain age and even more certain dignity, hunched over next to the light of a campfire, updating and annotating his journal. A younger man staggered into the ring of firelight, carrying a pile of firewood under his left arm and a bloodied axe in his right hand. As quietly as he could manage, so as not to disturb his aged companion, he began to stoke the fire with fresh wood.|
The old man finally took notice and looked up. "Excellent, Ardry. The augmented illumination is most welcome. But you left to find firewood over an hour ago! What kept you for such a long time?"
"Mosswarts, Uncle Aliester. A party of Mosswarts ambushed me near the river. This stretch of the river is thick with them." The fire blazed with fresh fuel, lighting up Ardry's features. Aliester the Loquacious, great and learned sage of the Aluvian nation, looked up and finally noticed his nephew's torn clothes, singed hair, and the bloodstains on his hands and weapon.
Weak to Dangerous (leaders: Deadly)
"Mosswarts you say? Would that I were more knowledgeable of the fauna of this island . . . I think our cousin Ulgrim shared some of his observations with me, however. The Mosswarts are the ones that ride Aurochs, correct? With purple eyes and pointed ears?"
"Uncle, you should stop listening to cousin Ulgrim's stories. You know how he gets after he's had a pint or two." Ardry shook his head and began to wipe his hands off with a damp cloth. "By Pwyll, their blood is sticky . . ."
Aliester set down his journal and reached for a much larger, more elaborately crafted leather-bound book, a massive and impressive tome that bore his name on the cover in gold leaf lettering. An eager gleam in his eye, he opened the book to a fresh, blank page, ran his fingers lightly down the richly textured parchment, and picked up a fresh quill.
"I know you have adventured up and down the course of this river, Ardry. Do you know these Mosswarts well?"
Ardry sat by the fire, axe across his knees, and began to clean the sticky blood off the blade. He sighed, familiar with his uncle's probing and exhaustive questions when his curiosity was up. "I've had quite a few run-ins with the little green monsters, yes. What do you want to know?"
"Start from the beginning. How might I recognize a Mosswart if I were to encounter one?"
Ardry wrinkled his nose. "The first thing you'd notice would probably be the smell. They live in swamps and underground holes, for the most part, and it definitely shows. They smell like rot. They look like rot too, with bumpy, warty green skin. Ugly, bulbous yellow eyes. Crooked teeth, fetid breath that reeks like a sewer." The young man shuddered in revulsion.
"Distasteful beasts, I see."
"The worst. And their coloring makes it easy for them to hide among the plants and sneak up on you. Of course, you almost never find one by itself . . . They always travel in groups."
"If they travel in groups, are they civilized? We must catalogue all the civilized races of Dereth you know."
"Civilized? No. I think they're intelligent, after a fashion. They have a language. It's total gibberish to me, of course, but they do seem to communicate with each other. Mostly through grunting and gesturing."
"Grouping and language . . . Does this mean they have organization, some kind of social structure?"
"Well, from what I've seen, they do have authority figures, at least. Chieftains."
"And how do you distinguish a chieftain?"
"Well, most Mosswarts are about four feet tall. Chieftains are almost man-sized, with skin more of a foul yellow than a rotting green. They're about twice as tough and strong as the lesser warriors. And they occasionally cast spells."
"They know magic! I find that a little disheartening . . . One would like to feel singular and learned for having mastered the arcane arts, but if these crude little creatures are also able to cast spells . . ." Aliester sighed, noting this down in his huge book. "Well. So these chieftains -- they sound quite fearsome."
"They're pretty tough, but I'd rather fight a half dozen chiefs than one shaman, I'll tell you that."
"Shamans? That means they have a religion! Tell me about their modes of worship! Have you deduced anything about their cosmology?"
Ardry shot his uncle an incredulous look. "Uncle, I'm a hunter and a trapper. Modes of worship? Cosmology?"
"Ah, my apologies, Ardry. Sometimes I become so intrigued with an idea that I forget myself. Please go on, tell me about these shamans . . . Why are they so much stronger than the chieftains?"
"The chiefs cast magic from time to time, but seem to prefer attacking with weapons or their fists. The shamans rely on magic and they cast like there's no tomorrow. They seem to favor elemental war spells. The party that attacked me near the river had a shaman with them. I barely managed to duck out of the way when he cast a fire spell at me." Ardry self-consciously ran his fingers through his charred hair, over his seared scalp.
Aliester abruptly ceased the questioning session. He began to write furiously in his book, brows beetled together in concentration. Ardry was used to these sudden attention shifts. Without his uncle prompting him for more information, the younger man fell into an apprehensive silence, sitting with his back to the fire so that its light would not spoil his night vision.
The old man scribbled a few more notes in his book, then suddenly slammed it shut decisively. Startled, Ardry looked up.
"Ardry, I want to see one of these shamans. Take me to these Mosswarts by the river. You didn't kill them all, did you?"
"No, it was all I could do to get away. I cut down a couple as they tried to stop me, but I just dodged the shaman's spells as best I could, and outran the ones that tried to pursue me." He absentmindedly wiped more blood off his axe blade.
"So take me to see them! Zarea has repeatedly admonished me for my extensive theoretical work without any investigation into practical matters. Ardry, I want to do . . . field research." He spoke the last two words proudly and precipitously, as though relating a revelation. "And on the way, we can talk more about the creatures' background!"
"Uncle, I'd rather not have to . . ." Ardry's protest died on his lips. He could see that his uncle would not be dissuaded from his quest to see a Mosswart. He watched with no small amount of amusement as the great sage Aliester strapped a dagger onto his belt and gingerly placed a leather cap over his balding pate. The young man groaned, hefting his axe with a resigned smile. "Very well . . . I'll take you to their camp. But we must move silently! And we're not coming anywhere near them. We're just going to look at them for a little while."
Aliester opened his mouth to speak, but Ardry cut him off with an imperious gesture and a stern glare. "We definitely will not be trying to steal any of their artifacts, Uncle."
The old man sighed, seemingly hurt, but he brushed it off, recognizing that his nephew was probably correct to err on the side of caution. Without further word, he stuffed his great book into his pack, slung the pack over his shoulder, and brandished his magic wand authoritatively.
Satisfied, Ardry nodded and started on the way. Aliester followed on his heels. "Actually, Uncle, the last time I delivered a letter to Gondo Kanezo for you, we had time to talk about some of the species of Dereth. I assume you know the Mosswarts are as strange to this world as we are?"
"I had deduced that, yes . . . As far as I know the only significant creatures native to Dereth are the Gromnies."
"Kanezo says that the Mosswarts are related to a few other creatures, though -- Drudges, Banderlings, and Tumeroks. He says they come from the same world. I gather he's done a fair bit of creature research himself."
"The same world, eh? And how did he reach this conclusion?"
"Obviously not through interrogation. What he said was--" Ardry stopped and help up his hand for silence. His body subtly shifted to a more alert position, a lower, more well-balanced stance. His axe came off his shoulder, held at the ready. Aliester, used to trusting his nephew's wilderness instincts, obediently stopped short and kept still.
Ardry pointed to a distant campfire. "We have to be very quiet . . . Their senses are very keen. One gets wind of us, and we'll have the whole pack at our throats." Aliester nodded gravely. Satisfied that his uncle took his warning seriously, Ardry pressed on. Walking quickly and silently, he led the way down the river. Aliester tried gamely to keep up, jouncing the heavy pack on his back and occasionally losing a shoe in the sucking mud along the river's edge.
Without much more difficulty, they closed in on the other fire. Aliester saw dark shapes moving around in the firelight. So fascinated was he with his first sighting of Mosswarts that he pressed on blindly, forgetting to keep track of Ardry. He didn't realize how perilously close he'd come to their camp until a strong hand grabbed him by the back of his robe, pulling him into the bushes.
"You almost got caught!" Ardry hissed.
"My apologies, Ardry." Aliester was properly chastened, but his fascination with the subject of his investigation got the better of him. His expression grew glassy as he watched the Mosswarts move and grunt at each other.
"Ardry... What is that one doing?" He pointed at one Mosswart at the edge of the fire that was, as far as he could tell, performing a strangely endearing little dance. Its lumpy head waggled with a bizarre rhythm as its limbs moved to an unheard beat.
"I think . . . he's dancing. I have no idea what purpose it serves. Maybe some kind of communication technique? Or a ritual?"
"Fascinating. I can't take my eyes off of that odd little creature . . ." Aliester noticed more movement and pointed at another Mosswart, one more vividly green than the dull muddled color of its companions. It was shouting crude imprecations at the sky and gesturing wildly. "What is that one doing? It's shaking quite vigorously . . ."
"Pwyll's bones, it's casting! Run!"
Ardry grabbed his elderly uncle by the back of his robe again and hauled him up. The two men scrambled for cover as the Shaman's lightning bolt blazed over their heads. A second later, they were off and racing into the night as the enraged cries of Mosswarts echoed after them.
Mosswarts are humanoids from the same world as Drudges, Tumeroks and Banderlings. In Dereth, they live in various swamps and marshes, particularly in the Blackmire Swamp between the Sho and Aluvian lands. They have also infested many ruins and damp catacombs. They are small (four to five feet tall), fight with claws, spears, swords and javelins, and are fearless when cornered. Some colonies also have magic-using shamans.