It didn’t start out as a plan. The swamp couldn’t plan because it no longer understood anything but now. It knew what more meant though, and it always hungered for more.
It was those sentiments that filled the murderer’s dreams. If there were more men like you to dig, then you would find it. If you hadn’t killed your partner the two of you could look in twice as many places and you’d already be rich by now. They were the regrets of a damaged mind infected by a hunger that could no longer be sated by a single victim. They were echoes of a person that no longer existed, but every night it found a thousand subtle ways to make the victim long for more hands to help him dig up the swamp. All he needed were a few slaves or even a small gang to help him tear the fen apart and find his ill-gotten gains.
The murderer didn’t notice how sick he was getting, or how the island he’d built his hovel on had started to grow with the waste earth he brought back daily. All he could think about was his worn-out shovels and the strong backs he needed to dig more of this accursed soil.
So, one day he left, and the swamp didn’t even try to stop him. It knew that he would be back - no matter how long it took.
The wraith followed him to the edge of its domain, surprised that it could see a small village from there, just across the lagoon. It had known it was out there somewhere, because sometimes they ate its fish or brought down its fowl, but the place itself had been an afterthought.
Looking at it now, all the shade could make of it, was that it only had a few dozen souls at best. The swamp would have loved to devour them, but they were just out of reach and under the protection of a vague curtain of light that had to be the work of the divine. It could feel the sanctified land of their temple, even from this distance. So, for now the wraith would have to let it be, unless a fisherman was foolish enough to cast his nets too deep into its mire.
The days blurred in the absence of a human mind to toy with, and so it drifted among the fog. For a time, all that the wraith cared about was that its treasure continued to slowly sink downwards. It had started out five feet under where the hovel now stood but was closer to twenty feet now.
It had left the layers of mud and slime behind and was now buried firmly in the thick band of red clay that hid beneath the swamp for at least a league in every direction. No one would ever find its treasure now - the swamp was certain of that. After drinking deeply of intoxicating emotions like fear and madness though, the swamp had developed a taste for humans, and desperately wanted more.
Then one day, there was a boat. No - there were several boats, paddling from the river that marked the edge of the swamp towards the lands of mist and darkness that the wraith alone held sway over. The murderer had returned, and with him came a large group of strangers. Many of them looked even less savory than the man that had brought them here.
The murderer had certainly seen better days. He’d left a frail and starving hermit looking for help to find the treasure he’d sought alone for almost two years. He returned bound hand and foot - the victim of someone stronger who’d smelled opportunity.
The big man wasted no time and began barking orders before they’d even arrived. Once they made landfall on the murderer’s island, a handful of henchmen quickly stirred the slaves from their oars to start unloading everything they’d brought with them.
Within minutes there was more activity in the heart of the fen than there had the entire rest of the time the wraith had been aware combined. Boards. Tools. Food. Sandbags. It didn’t know the words, but as the men communicated with each other it learned them. None of them had eaten or drank of the swamp yet - so they were mostly beyond its vaporous reach.
That was fine. The wraith merely watched as they turned its very heart from a small and empty island with only a hovel, into a true campsite. That was when they strung up the murderer from a strong tree, lashing him to make sure that he hadn’t forgotten anything before they were done with the lunatic.
The swamp watched, and it feasted, enjoying the pain and despair as the light behind the eyes of the man that had murdered it so long ago finally went out. After he’d hung there for a few hours someone finally cut him down, letting him splash into the water where the swamp could finally taste his flesh.
It had waited years for this moment and would have waited years more if it had to. Now that the day had finally come though, there was a feeding frenzy as water rushed to fill the corpse’s chest, dragging him below so that the catfish could nibble, and leeches could drain to their heart's content. A pulse of power flowed through the wraith that it had never known before as the soul of another living human was dragged screaming from whatever its true destination was meant to be, into the dark heart of the bog.
Its obsessions added to its own, and its need for gold only amplified the needs that were already there. The sensitive among the slaves could feel it, and made a sign against the evil eye, even as most of the rest of that motley crew let out a ragged cheer while the animals ripped the corpse to pieces and made the dark water bubble and froth.
When that grim business was done, and the waters were finally still, the newcomers turned to the business of keeping away the darkness. Dry wood was hard to find this deep, and what they’d brought with them would only last so long, but for now they had enough to keep the shadows at bay.
The swamp was in no hurry as it circled them. They would falter… they would drink its water and eat its creatures, and then the wraith would worm its way inside their heads the same way it had with the murderer it had haunted for so long.
Now there was a small part of it that wanted these betrayers to die as badly as it had wanted to feast on the murderer - but it would have to wait, because if the wraith ate at this group too quickly the rest would merely flee. They needed to be cultivated and allowed to dig until they caught the deadliest fever of all. The one that would keep them chained here for as long as it took to feast on them: gold fever.
Their camp formed over days. The original hovel was leveled except for the posts and cross members that had held it up, then the floor was replaced by planks, and walls made of cloth were put up to keep the bugs out. It was in that room, almost out of its reach, they schemed while sandbars were dug up by the slaves and used to expand and flatten the main island.
Shacks for the men and supplies, and canvas tents for the slaves quickly became the pattern. Two men kept watch every night and tended the fires, keeping the darkness at bay and weakening the swamp when it was at its strongest during the darkest hours of the night. It had enjoyed feasting on the murderer, but he was sloppy and careless. The shadows had found a thousand ways to worm into his soul, but now the swamp worried that these men and their precautions might be too much for it to devour.
For a time, they were. The newcomers were cautious and methodical, eating the salt pork and ship's biscuits they’d brought with them while they kept up the fires and set about their methodical search plan, eliminating one island at a time in a slowly expanding spiral that turned up very little. Then one day the slaves got it in their head to supplement their meager rations with skewers of freshwater drum and carp.
It started with a couple of them surreptitiously using a bit of line and a watch fire to feed the grumbling in their stomachs, but soon spread to most of the men. They devoured the flesh and spit out the bones, but worms and parasites that they contained, along with a touch of darkness - those persisted long after the meat was digested and passed. Those men didn’t belong to it yet, but in time, they would.
Soon it was feeding off their dreams, taunting them with visions of gold, or even better - escape. Days of hard work and nights of treasures they would never have soon wore down even the strongest of them, and the whole time the darkness of the swamp gorged on it all.
After almost a month of fruitless searching came the first escape attempt, followed by the first mutiny. Those led to the first whippings and executions, and every drop of blood that ended up in the water made the wraith that hounded them ache for more. Being able to drink deep of so much essence so often was a luxury it had never imagined before, and its reach and power only grew by the day.
The sickness started with their leader. The swamp knew that if it started to pick off the weakest, the strongest would just flee while they still could, denying it the revenge and vitality that it craved. So, it watched and waited for his habits to slacken - for his men to fail to boil the water long enough or for him to leave his windows open on sweltering nights.
Then in the peak of summer, when the water levels were at the lowest, and the ruins of so many of the smaller islands were visible above the much-reduced water line, the task master came down with a bad case of gray fever. His sweating became more profuse even as the sun set, and then his skin turned ashen.
“What you need is to take a trip into Aiden. I’ll row you myself. They’ve got a real healer, and gods know you need one,” his second in command argued.
“Bah,” said the taskmaster, weakly. “We both know that if I leave half of the superstitious mutts we have here will run for the hills. I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.”
“That might be true,” his second agreed, “But isn’t that reason enough to think about packing all this in. Maybe that lunatic had no idea what he was talking about.”
“We’re close Mick. I can feel it in my bones we're close,” the leader answered, before ending the conversation.
They were close of course - practically on top of it. The swamp knew that, but it also sent dreams telling him that almost every night lately. That they were so close. That any day now they’d find the object of his desires.
The man in charge was certain they’d find the gold before the fever broke, but while he lay in bed, other disasters abounded. Without careful inspections, rats had gotten to two casks of food and spoiled them completely, and a crew returning with firewood had capsized on the way back to camp after hitting a snag that hadn’t been there the day before. A good man lost his leg to a gator, and two slaves drowned in a panic to escape, in water they should have been able to stand in.
While the wraith drank deep of all this human suffering with one hand, it had used tremendous amounts of its energy to cause them, and so it was a net loss. It was getting impatient though. It knew that this group lacked the monomaniacal dedication to seeking the treasure that the murderer had unless they found something, and it was loath to give up a single coin - even to keep them here forever. A few days later the taskmaster was well enough to leave his sick bed, and he started to issue orders - they were leaving.
That’s when the real madness started. One of their pole boats sank, three slaves escaped, and several more fell sick with a bad case of goblin guts. If things had been going bad before they decided to leave, then they got much worse once they began making preparations.
Four months earlier they had arrived with 23 living souls including the murderer toward the end of spring rains, and now that summer heat was finally dying off 14 people were making plans to leave in the next day or two. They’d been humbled by nature and feasted on by powers they couldn’t see, let alone understand.
Then the mage came.