Chapter XVIII: Chameleon
Ariandel stayed partially above the surface of the water as she and Ariamis led the Hunter deeper into the swamp, the natural sounds of their surroundings growing more and more muted until the Hunter could only hear the sound of their own movement within the water.
The Hunter could see creeping up from the small of her back if not lower, some sort of growth if not a parasite of sorts.
Was it the source of their abilities, their zeal or both the Hunter wondered.
Coming up to a small patch of land, Ariamis emerged from the water, his body metamorphosing to match the mud and bits of greenery present, the same growth on Ariandel present on him for only a moment before blending back in with the water now far more shallow, but still enough of a hindrance to put the Hunter at a disadvantage should the two prove to be hostile.
With the paranoia that came from being stalked by whatever unseen thing came regret as Sasha began to wonder and chastise herself for not staying on the road that would have eventually lead to Swordhaven.
The road less travelled is that way for a reason, she thought. I'm so careless, so stupid.
Sasha froze in her tracks as she felt something brush against her, taunting and playing with her. It wanted her to feel it.
It wanted her to know she was being hunted.
In the distance, she could see a slight elevation protruding from the surface of the water, a small island in what felt like an ocean, but as tempting as it was to rush to it, it would offer no security or safety.
In spite of the inevitable threat, Sasha made her way to the island, the stretch of damp earth serving to heighten her feelings of fear and paranoia.
Standing in the shallows, the Hunter rifled through their pack and retrieved two capsules made of thin paper containing powdered energy dragon scales mixed with resin which they tucked into the breast pocket of their coat.
If there was a battle to come, they'd need all the advantages they can muster as their pistol would be too wet to be usable restricting them to only their sword.
"Is there a problem?" Ariandel asked, looking back at the Hunter, her eyes narrowed.
The tool of choice for the potential encounter operated in a manner similar to the paper used against the wolf-like monster days before in its application. Striking it against their blade would imbue it with lightning for a short while.
If not for the location, the Hunter would resort to fire due to the scarcity of the materials needed for this particular tool and the lack of alchemists capable of making it.
Following deeper into the swamp, Sasha standing amidst the murky waters on a patch of damp earth became visible.
You should've never come here, the Hunter thought.
"This one's different from you," Ariandel said. "She's timid and weak. Unfit to tread these hallowed grounds."
Sasha caught sight of the Hunter, a feeling of relief coming over that struggled with the feeling of fright at the sight of the woman and soon the man who appeared before her from the water.
"You do not belong here," Ariamis said, Sasha's fear reflecting in his reptilian-like eyes. "The Will of the Mire will see that your intrusion is punished soon enough."
"She poses no threat to the swamp," the Hunter said. "Let her through."
"We cannot do that," Ariandel began. "The Will of the Mire must feed and you...you inspire fear in them."
"You prey on the weak to feed the monster..."
"How dare you insult The Will of the Mire?" Ariandel hissed, beginning with a sweep of her staff.
The swing was quick, but she would not be the first staff wielder the Hunter had encountered and was quick to draw their sword and block, Ariandel's staff clashing with the Hunter's sword, the sound of steel clashing with stone ringing in the air.
Ariamis spun around, Sasha attempting to take the opportunity to draw her bow only to be interrupted by being swept off her feet by what felt like a great gale.
Sasha attempted to pick herself up while on the water, a strange reptilian creature materialized.
The creature possessed a long head with jaws like an alligator, bulbous rotating eyes like a chameleon, long almost human-like limbs on a slender body like a snake that seemed to expand and retract similar to some species of toad and a long, powerful tail to compliment its body.
Sasha caught a brief glimpse of Ariamis as he melded into the water before looking back at the monster as it rotated its head one hundred eighty degrees and snapped its jaws at her, fear and adrenaline being the only thing keeping her from being devoured.
Ariandel pulled back with her staff and leaned forward, jabbing at the Hunter with her staff, again and again, forcing them to slog backwards into the emerging Ariamis.
With a strike of his palm into the back of the Hunter, Ariamis propelled them forward into the incoming jabs from Ariandel's staff, the collar of the Hunter's great coat catching the blood and bile forced from their body.
The monster attempted to circle around Sasha who pulled an arrow out of desperation and stabbed into the monster, the tip breaking against its hide as it shifted and blended into its environment.
Sasha notched an arrow and fired at Ariandel who spun around and caught the arrow, moving to hurl it back.
The Hunter seized the opportunity to run Ariandel through, Ariamis striking them with his staff before conjuring a spell using their staff as a catalyst.
Water began to shift and converge around Ariandel, mending and closing her wound.
Taking advantage of the situation, the Hunter produced one of the paper capsules from their breast pocket and smeared its contents across the blade of their sword, electricity surging to life.
While Ariandel picked herself up, Ariamis glided along the surface of the water, knowing the disadvantage the Hunter's weapon put them at.
Steel and lightning bit into Ariandel's flesh, her pained cries echoing through the swamp as her lifeless body sunk into the murky waters and eventually the mud below.
"You...you cur!" Ariamis shouted, his reptilian eyes ablaze with an almost primal fury as he glided across the surface of the water.
Sasha pivoted on the spot, trying to determine where the monster will strike, her bow in one hand, and an arrow in the other as useless as they would be against it.
Materializing, the monster snapped at Sasha with its vertical jaws, tearing her cloak as she rolled.
Picking herself up beside the monster, her fear visible in its bulbous eye like looking into a horrific mirror, she could see herself plunge an arrow into the eye of the monster.
The Hunter waded through the mire, taking swings behind themself to keep Ariamis at bay while they tried to get to Sasha.
Tendrils made of water and mud as well as vines and roots emerged from the water to ensnare the Hunter as Ariamis manipulated the very swamp itself in an attempt to avenge the fallen Ariandel, their concentration broke by the pained roar of the Will of the Mire which he mimicked either out of solidarity with the monster or perhaps something more.
As Sasha fled from the small landmass to avoid the wild flailing of the monster, the Hunter spun around and plunged their sword into the abdomen of Ariamis, the lightning that circled their blade fizzling out.
The Hunter gazed into the eye of Ariamis, his other eye ruptured and destroyed and with a twist of their blade, watched the life fade from the remaining eye of Ariamis as he joined Ariandel at the bottom of the swamp.
Turning their attention back to Sasha and the monster, the two could see it blend into the surroundings once more, but did not make another attack.
"You shouldn't be here," the Hunter said.
"I didn't follow if that's what you're thinking."
"Even if I do give you the benefit of the doubt, you're not equipped for this place," the Hunter began. "Had I not been here, they'd have fed you to that monster."
"Is that why you're here? To stop them."
"It was only by chance I encountered them," the Hunter explained. "And it was only by my abilities that they now reside at the bottom of the swamp. Abilities you lack."
"Despite being human, you still cut them down like you would a monster."
"Opposition be it man or beast must be approached with fire and steel," the Hunter said coldly.
"You're going to kill the monster, aren't you?"
"It cannot be allowed to live any longer," the Hunter said, their tone colder than before, but with a hint of ferocity as thought they craved the hunt.