The Starhunters surround poor Eugenia, the miller’s daughter, using their mystic bond to draw out the alien power that she holds. In so doing, the power manifests as a burning, smokey brume that spills out of ’Zhenya’s’ nose, eyes, and mouth, to be inhaled by A’Kelah instead. The swamp itself becomes awakened by the discharge of aether radiating from this transference of power. A large mound of clay and moss, vines and branches arises. It is attended by grapefruit-sized motes of light that shock it with sparks while they orbit the thing.
Leonidas and Fendrys bravely move to drag the unconscious bodies of Andre and Zhenya away before they can be folded up inside the shambling mound of swamp-matter. The ‘creature’ is slow, but so are its opponents—held in check by knee-deep water. Leonidas and A’Kelah both are attacked but luckily escape a suffocating death as it attempts to engulf them and join them into its own matrix. A’Kelah is in fact tossed toward this danger by the haunting jolt of her key-bound companion.
The Starhunters, though, are veterans now of the elemental dangers posed by their contact with the Meridian’s wild conjury. The awakened pile of swamp matter and the sparks hovering around it are put down, Aelish is able to mend her wounded companions, however Andre’s life is lost in the chaos of spells, missiles, and stomping mud. It is A’Kelah who delivers the final blow—able to channel the power held within her to summon an exhalation of flame.
In the aftermath, it appears Eugenia’s voice has also been stolen by this event. Everyone recovers and Andre is lain to rest. While discussing how to proceed next, it is learned that A’Kelah and Eugenia both have grown dragon scales about the sides of their necks. Zhenya’s tongue even looks as though it has begun to fork. Unable to speak, the frightened miller’s daughter communicates back and forth with Aelish in the written word. The girl gives Aelish her Steel Protection ring in thanks for saving her. Aelish learns of how the ‘smoke’ came to the children as they were gathering reeds. At first, they all thought it was harmless fun (perhaps the work of fae mischief?)—but when some began dying, Zhenya took the smoke upon herself and fled into the swamp to keep others safe. In writing back and forth, Aelish also learns that she has a new note from Agrafena, stating that “Inquisitors are taking my blood”.
Next the Starhunters have a long discussion about their plans. They need to resupply before hurrying off into the wilds of the far Pallengothe and Eugenia needs an escort home. A’Kelah has ‘the orb’ for now, and its elemental competition with her Lurker-bond seems to aid her in the carrying the burden in steam-filled lungs. They will split up, going to the Willowbroom Inn and the miller’s—both along the River Graybrand—for these errands. Gage and Fendrys lead everyone south to river and out of the mist-ridden marsh. On the way, a giant hollowed out turtle shell is discovered, draped in the moss and vines of the swamp. Gage bravely approaches, parenthetical braziers alight as a welcome—or warning. Gage and Aodh both are eager to investigate, but Fendrys urges caution. Could this be an abode of Huyaba’s old witches from Leonidas’ tale? The Starhunters do not enter and Gage abides their prudent wish.
Fendrys and Aelish chaperone young Eugenia home, watchful near the roads for the Baroness’ agents. The girl’s parents are overjoyed to have their daughter back, understanding of the strange things afoot—and promise not to tell the Baroness about the presence of the Starhunters. They give a princely sum of money in thanks. At the inn, Aodh and Leonidas collect rumors, gossip, ale, bacon, clean laundry, and more supplies. Aodh’s unassuming stature and the illusions of Leonidas also keep them hidden from watchful eyes.
With the others away on their errands, Gage and A’Kelah step back into the Mossthorne Swamp to investigate the turtle shell. They find a large basin, an idol of the demoness ‘HANEZAL’, and pots of pickled frogs within. Whether because they are too wary, too incurious, or just unlucky, the pair does not uncover any greater secrets to be found here.
Reconvening by the riverbank, Gage and the Starhunters disappear from the barony of Vorhon, leaving no trace for Małgorzata and her pawns to follow. They head northwest, crossing over the clear path of a dwarven caravan of which they pay no mind. Miles later into lonely woods at the edge of Rynas, both Leonidas and Aelish are assailed by the scrying magic of some distant observer. Aelish’s abjurations are enough to stifle this scrying for a time, though it returns. Deep in the night, goblins arrive outside Leonidas’ shelter—their red eyes glowering like embers. A lit fuse in the dark means the goblins have with them a canon (and an accomplice large enough to move it about)! And they fire it! Twice! Two pieces of shot crack like thunder against the dome of the hut and ricochet into the sky through snapping tree limbs. The goblins hurl insults and curses and then disappear into the night.