by Joshua Wolfe
Out in the Black Annis Swamp of Sindra, a pair of aspiring alchemists go hand-fishing for slugs with a lizard man, and learn how to make good barbeque.
Suddenly, a scaly muscular arm slung open the furry pelt that served as a door to the side, revealing a tall imposing figure. The pair were taken aback, this being the first time they had beheld an Amutari. The long-limbed brown lizard stood at least three heads taller than Lila. His head ducked under the door frame, and he coldly gazed at them, the way a snake watches a mouse.
"Who goes there," he hissed.
Lila raised her frilly cuffed hands. "I am Lilamythria and this is my friend Twinkleboop. We don't mean trouble. Are you Howc'toth? The villagers told us he is a hunter they trade with."
"What if I am," How'toth replied.
"Well, we hoped to trade with you as well."
As Howc stepped out of the shadow of his windowless hut, Lila could see he wore nothing but a leather holdall like some kind of Celari barbarian. "Open your mouth," he said, walking towards her with a wicked-edged spear in his claw. Her hands still raised, Lila complied with fear filling her eyes. He leaned down, his head rocking side to side as he inspected her. His nostrils flared as he sniffed her breath. He then leered at her gelatinous companion and flicked his black forked tongue.
"Eeep," squeeked Twink.
He stepped back, standing at ease as he plunged his spear into the ground. "Sorry, a friend of mine was attacked by a drastaki," he half-hissed as though he were spitting the words out. "You have to be careful about strangers when you live out here. You smell alright." He stared at Lila's conical black hat wrapped with a spiral of white lace. "What are you, minstrels?"
"I am Lilamythria," Lila reintroduced herself, more boldly. "I am a junior alchemist at the Tansillara Academy. This is my laboratory assistant and trusted traveling companion Twinkleboop," she said, gesturing. The pink slime made a mirthful toot noise. "We came to the Black Annis swamp in search of pyre slugs. We require their mucous for new formulas we are working on. The local villagers told us that you have been known to trade pyre slugs from time to time."
"Yes, their slime is good for starting fires even when the wood is damp. I don't have any slugs right now, but they are easy to catch."
"We have coin if you could catch some for us. If you are not interested, perhaps we can trade for potions. I have a number of usefulů"
Howc raised his hand. "There is no need. There is some just a short walk away. If you follow me, I will catch you some for free. It is no trouble."
"Are you certain?" Lila inquired.
"It really is no trouble. I was going to catch some later anyway."
"You are most gracious. Thank you so much, sir."
"Follow me." Howc picked up his spear, and began walking along the shore, his thick tail swaying side to side as he walked. The two alchemists gave each other a look, and started following the lizard man.
It was another cool Sindran afternoon on the swamp. The humid air was filled with the sound of the low chirping of insects and the chattering of birds. As they walked along the shore, they passed bunches of tall bright green water grass. The surface of the still water would occasionally ripple with the movement of frogs, fish, and the occasional salamander. The damp ground of the shoreline was dotted with rocks of varying sizes, covered in a garish array of colored lichens.
"So, you live out here alone?" Lila queried.
"There are others that live out here," Howc answered.
"So, that friend you mentioned lives in the swamp as well?"
"Yes. He was foolish. He refused to trust his instincts and it nearly cost him his life. This is a land for hunters. If you are not a hunter, something will hunt you. You must never forget that if you want to live in a place like this."
"Your friend is alright then?"
"Yes, he is fine."
"So, what happened to the drastaki?" Lila asked curiously.
"It won't be bothering anyone again," the lizard man stated dispassionately.
After a several more paces, Howc stopped in front of a patch of water grass. "Here we are," he said pointing into the water. "See there. See those star blooms. You find them, you find pyre slugs." Lila and Twink moved closer to the shore's edge to look across the water. Amidst the grass were long-stemmed flowers with a wheel of triangular yellow petals.
"Do you have a waterskin?" Howc asked. "Pyre slugs burn up if you let them get dry."
"Better yet, I brought specimen jars to put them in," Lila responded confidently. Reaching into her shoulder bag, she pulled out a large jar with a metal clasp lid. She scooped swamp water into the jar as she knelt down.
"Good," Howc said. "The slugs are slow but very slippery. So, I will grab them and you catch them in you jar. Follow me." He stabbed his spear into the soft earth and waded out to the cluster of star blooms.
Lila set her bag down slowly and stared down at the water with a slight trepidation.
"Well, come on," Howc called, standing crotch deep in the cool water. "The slugs don't bite."
"Um, could you give me a hand?" Lila inquired softly, as she looked to her gooey friend.
Twink began to hum, which came out like a hushed bubbling noise. It soon began to emanate a soft pink glow. Lila tested the water with her boot heel, and then stepped onto the water without sinking in. She walked over to Howc as if she were walking on wet sand.
"What kind of power is this?" Howc asked, his head raised with curiosity.
"Twink made me weightless as a feather. I am like a leaf on the water. She is a gifted slime."
"You need magic tricks to catch bugs?"
"Well, I cannot get in the water without proper swimming attire, especially not water this cold. I am afraid I am not as hotblooded as you. Fortunately, I have an alternative."
"Alright," Howc said. "Let me see." He squatted down, and began to feel around slowly beneath the water. "Pyre slugs like to eat star blooms. If you don't see them on the flowers, you just check the mud around them. They usually lay eggs close to them." After sloshing around in the water for a few minutes, he stopped. "Got one," he said as he raised his hands together. Lila brought her jar over to him. From between his leathery mitts dropped a fat orange slug about the size of an chicken egg. It plopped into the jar, curling itself into a ball of fear.
"Look Twink," Lila said with a bright smile, holding up her specimen. "We caught a big one." As she looked at her assistant, her mouth dropped open with surprise. A hairy, brown, long-legged spider stood on the brim of Twink's hat.
"Pbbt," Twink tooted curiously.
"Ugh, Twink," Lila said.
"Look what you got there little slime," Howc said. "A black spotted fishing spider."
Twink let out a high pitch squeal like a pinched balloon, and started bouncing up & down. Lila plunged straight into the water with a sudden splash, dropping her jar as she threw her arms up. Howc rushed back to the shore in a flash, snatched off the slime's hat, and smacked the spider off.
"Don't be frightened," Howc said, returning Twink's hat. "They only eat fish."
Twink and Howc turned to see Lila standing chest deep in the water, her hair half wet from her impromptu dive. Refocused, Twink lifted her out of the water again.
Lila stood on the surface again, water dripping from her sleeves and her pantaloons deflated. She cocked her head with a look of mild irritation. "And how does this help me now?" she stated.
Twink dropped her again, intentionally this time. "Pfffffft," the bubblegum colored ball tooted sarcastically.
After recovering the specimen jar and collecting a couple more specimens, the group headed back to Howc's hut. By the time they got back, Lila was shivering uncontrollably. Howc removed his wide pot from the fire pit. With a few logs and some pyre slug mucous, it didn't take long to get the fire burning hot.
"It will be night by the time you dry out," Howc told Lila as she warmed herself by the fire. "Why don't you stay, and leave out in the morning. The woods are safer in daylight."
"Alright," Lila replied. "Thank you again."
"Pbbbt pbbt," Twink said.
"Help yourself to the barbecue. It has been slow-cooking all day. It should be just right. I'll go find you a blanket." Howc went into his hut.
As Lila lifted the pot lid, she was struck by an intoxicating sticky smell of meat. She wasn't accustomed to eating without utensils, but she was too cold and hungry to care. She grabbed a hunk of meat out of the pot, and began eating ravenously as she sat down by the fire.
Howc soon returned with a black animal pelt in his arms. He wrapped it around Lila's shoulders then sat down beside the alchemists.
Lila looked at the pelt curiously as she continued to wolf down the barbeque. "Is this the drastaki skin?"
"Yes," Howc calmly replied. "How does it taste?"
Lila forced a grin with mouthful of food, grease glistening on her lips. "Um, it's delicious."