"You and your stupid contracts are going to get us killed one day, Daniel," Midas groaned. He waved his swollen hands in the air. "What am I supposed to do about this?"
"Suck it up and be a man," the wizard suggested. "Everyone else has the same problem."
Raven and Leopold nodded in agreement as they looked over their swollen bodies. No matter how much care they had given, the thorns of the stedillion always seemed to find and pierce their skin. They had taken on so much of the poison that their hands and arms were swollen almost beyond use. One side of Leopold's face was also swollen due to an unfortunate accident with one plant.
The biggest problem with the plants was their stems. Though they were tough enough to require a knife to cut them, they were also extremely flexible. Trying to slash through their stems simply resulted in them bending over and not breaking. It was necessary to hold the plant with one hand while cutting through it with a knife. In other words, there was no good way to do it.
"I don't get it," Raven said suddenly. The Group had stopped gathering a half hour ago and were now waiting on their dinner to cook.
"What don't you get?" Leopold asked. He was using his knife, as well as he could given his swollen hands, to sharpen a stick.
"I get that it sucks to gather this stuff, but why are we out here gathering it?" Raven asked. "I mean, I'm not complaining, but we're not your typical peasant. We don't work unless it's for a lot of money; I guarantee you that whoever we're getting this for could find someone a lot cheaper to do this for him."
"That would probably be true if it weren't in this swamp," Daniel said. "No one ever comes out here. People avoid it like the plague, and the stedillion is only one of the reasons."
"Oooo, scary!" Midas said. "What, is the stench going to kill us?"
"No, but there is a fair number of people who have disappeared here in the past," Daniel said. "Suffice it to say that we need to be extremely careful. Right now we're always in sight of camp and dry land, but already we're clearing the area of the stedilliom. We're going to have to expand our search eventually. When that happens, stay on the lookout. Some strange things are reported to have happened here."
"What, like ghosts or something?" Raven asked. She was the skeptic when it came to supernatural things.
"No one's really sure since nobody has ever survived an attack," Daniel said. "We don't even know if there are attacks at all. Perhaps the people just got lost and died in this infernal place."
"Well, that's comforting," Midas said. "I think that I would have preferred ghosts to getting lost and dying of exposure."
"Except that it's a moot point," Leopold countered. "We're going to keep our wits about us, gather these stupid plants, and leave, all together, all in one piece."
"Agreed," Midas said. He spoke the next words with a sidelong glance at Daniel. "I'd rather die together with you guys than survive by myself."
"I'm still voting for leaving together," Raven said.
"I second that," Leopold said. Then, to change the subject, "Daniel, how much of the stedillion did we gather today? Actually, answer this instead; how long do you think that we'll be here?"
"That's hard to say," Daniel answered. "We made a lot of progress today, good job all around on the hard work, but eventually we'll have to start moving out into the swamp. We're going to slow down at that point. All things considered, if we don't have any major complications, I believe that we can finish in another eight to ten days."
Eight to ten more days of swamp air, poor accommodations, and too many bugs was not Leopold's idea of a vacation, but they weren't on vacation. It was contracts that paid the bills, kept them in food and clothing, and kept their arms in good condition. If this was what it took, he was willing to suck it up and do it.
No one said much for the next half hour while dinner was cooking. Everyone was thinking of ways to make the next week and a half go faster. Occasionally Daniel would stir the food over the coals and Leopold continued to whittle, but otherwise there was little movement. The day's exertions had tired The Group, and they were ready to east and to go to sleep. Midas was trying to get a jump start on his sleep, but every time that he tried to get comfortable, his swollen extremities would get in the way and he would give a muffled yelp before trying to reposition himself. Raven lay down on her blankets and closed her eyes. It was hard to tell if she was asleep or just pretending to be.
Leopold tossed his stick toward a tree and sheathed his knife. He looked out over the swamp. The stedillion was still visible, but their gatherings of the day had caused it to retreat further into the swamp. Another day like this, and they would have to move out of the sight of the camp to camp to gather it. Leopold sighed and looked at his hands. Some of the swelling had worn off, but they were still at least twice as big as normal. It was going to be a very long ten days. If it turned out to be more than that, he didn't know what he would do but figured that it would involve going insane and dying in this blasted marsh. Maybe that was why people disappeared here; it was a theory anyway.
"Food's done," Daniel called, pulling Leopold out of his thoughts and Raven and Midas out of their slumber. After eating, they went straight to bed. They needed as much rest as they could get, drained as they were from the day's work.
Leopold unstrapped his knife and crawled between his blankets. He closed his eyes though the difference from the darkness that had fallen over the swamp was negligible. He emptied his mind as tried to go to sleep, but found that he couldn't. Thoughts kept traipsing unbidden through his mind. First there was the Castle Rajikline, the job that he had completed only two weeks ago. It had been dangerous but extremely exciting; more exciting by far than The Group's current contract. Then there was the day that he had met Midas and the two of them had become like brothers. The day that Daniel found them was close behind as well as a hundred other memories. Then, suddenly, the mad whirlwind of thoughts stopped replaced by one, solitary person: Raven.
In his mind, Leopold could see her face as it had been today with her hair pulled back. Scars traced back and forth across her cheeks and the largest most prominent of them stretched across her face. Again he wondered where they had come from, remembering that she had promised to tell him someday. He'd have to ask her again in the near future; though he had forgotten about it recently, he was still interested. A hundred times Leopold had seen her face but this time, reflecting on it, recreating it in his mind, he noticed something that he never had before: her eyes were green. It wasn't a wonder that he'd never noticed it before since he had no reason to care. Eyes were just eyes, after all. But for some reason that he couldn't put his finger on, he did care.
Then there was Raven herself. Something had changed in his mind when he had seen her today. What it was exactly, he couldn't put his finger on; he had never felt something like this before. It was all quite frustrating to him, having something bother him and not knowing for the life of him why it did or even what it was. He eventually fell asleep that way, arguing with himself, looking for answers and finding none.