With the sun already past noon, but with easier terrain ahead, the party pushes westward in hopes of finding more signs of old roads, buildings, or ruins. As they travel the lynx kits, now well on their way to full-grown, range out and away from the party, restless with the slow pace and lack of food. Prey has been scarce among the pines, and both kits are looking a bit thin. Rawon's view from the hill-top proves optimistic. The ground ahead is lower, but ridges and dips make straight-line travel tough. The next four or five hours are slow going, and more than once the party finds itself drifting off course north or south. As evening comes on the terrain finally softens, in more ways than one. The hills turn to gentle slopes, but the dips become boggy and wet, with pools of dark-stained water forming in the lowest areas.
One such pool serves as the source of a murky stream, which leads the way west. The last slope drops away, and ahead the ground flattens out. Pine forest gives way to patches of reed and cattail, and green moss floats on dark pools.
"Wonderful," groans Durego, slapping at the first of many biting flies.
"Guess we better take a look around before we try to cross that," says Dagmarten. He nudges Rawon. "Maybe take a look from a treetop back on that hill."
The elf mutters something inaudible, but nods and starts back up the last slope to where a lone dead tree stands watch over the marsh. Ingvild and Dagmarten follow. The others relieve the mules of their pack saddles, kindle a small fire beneath the last scraggly pines, and set a hasty watch. Everyone is starved, including the kits, who vanish into the reeds ahead in search of something to eat. It's a miserable spot, but at least it's mostly dry.
The scouts return after half an hour, and everyone eats, Rawon explaining what he saw between mouthfuls of porridge and jerky. "The bog goes on as far as I can see west, but it looks like these hills turn southwest. We can probably skirt the entire mess by bending our course that way."
"Good. I'm not sure why we're this far north anyhow. If Raúguey's theory about the map is right, we need to turn further south. We're getting low on supplies, so we'll need to start thinking about resupply soon," says Durego.
"I don't think we need to panic about supplies yet, but I agree, we should turn more southward and avoid the swamp," says Ohwatoo. "The question is, do we press on for a while tonight, or make camp here and continue in the morning?"
After the morning's early start and predawn trek to check out weird glows, most are in favor of camping here, so the party spends a bit more time organizing things, before settling in for the night. Maro casts an anxious eye toward the swamp. "Wonder where those kits got off to?" He looks over at Mordikarr, who shrugs. "Cats hungry. Maybe find food. Maybe bring back for us too."
Right on cue something unleashes a yowling scream somewhere out in the bog! Maro leaps to his feet. "That was one of the kits!" He grabs ElfSword, "Come on!" He starts for the water as more squalling growls rise from beyond the reeds and rushes. Several others follow, including Saurabh with the sole remaining light stone. As they reach the edge of the bog the growls die down to low, directionless grumbling noises. "Jedit. Mageta. Come kits, come," calls Maro, elf-eyes straining against the gloom. Mordikarr adds a growling purr to the call.
There's silence for a long moment, then a rustling in the reeds. Rawon catches a glimpse of movement, the green glow of a cat's eye caught by the light, and points. First Jedit, then Mageta, both blood-smeared and limping, creep out of the bog. Mageta is dragging the corpse of a huge half-eaten frog, at least three feet long. Both settle down at the edge of the bog and resume their meal, growling when Maro tries to approach.
"Kits say they hungry. Guess they no like jerky either."
"They're wounded though," says Maro. "Saurabh, can you heal them?"
The priest shrugs. "Doesn't look like they'll let me get close. Maybe we should wait until they're done eating, and then give them some kettle broth. They don't look too bad off."
Mordikarr edges closer to the kits, calling to them with calm half-purr half-growl noises. He squats a few yards away and gives them and their prey a once over. "They no look bad. Just scratches. This frog have claws. Good thing camp away from water. They eat, then come back." He rises and shrugs. "Nothing to do now."
Everyone heads back to camp, Maro more reluctantly than the others. He sits beside Mordikarr in camp. "Are we going to lose them?" he asks. "Are they going to go wild?"
The beastmaster shrugs. "They smart. Little one master dead now. They know. Elf masters go into cave place or walk all time. No spend time with cats." He shrugs. "Take much time to train beasts if no can speak with them."
The sun sets, and the night air fills with creaking, croaking cries and calls of frogs, night birds, and... whatever else lives in the nearby bog. An hour later the two kits, looking well-fed and sleek, trot into camp and settle into their usual positions near Rawon and Maro. The elves look them over. Jedit has a few scratches, Mageta has one deeper cut. Maro gets the kettle and offers each kit a bowlful. Both lap up the liquid with broad pink tongues, then curl up and go to sleep.
Raúguey looks over the two creatures. "Cats," he mutters, shaking his head. "I always preferred dogs."
The night passes noisily, but without any major interruption. Sometime after midnight, a breeze starts up, bringing with it warmer air, and building humidity. Dawn is a dim affair, with thick clouds obscuring the entire sky. "Best get moving early, away from this bog. I don't want to be wading a swamp in the rain," says Durego. The others agree. By the time the rain begins they're packed and moving, following the southern edge of the bog to the southwest.
It's slow going, with a few false stops and starts made to avoid standing water and hidden mud pits. It's mid-morning when Rawon calls a halt. "Tired already?" asks Durego.
The elf shakes his head. "Mordikarr, what do you make of this?" The elf points at the ground ahead. Even the untrained can see the trail there, crossing the party's direction of travel north to south. Elf and beastmaster move up and squat near the trail, pointing and muttering between themselves. Finally they nod agreement, rise, and rejoin the others. "Footprints," says Rawon.
"What kind?" asks Ohwatoo.
"People," answers Mordikarr. "Soft boots, maybe two suns old. Rain make it hard to tell."
"But there's an obvious trail," continues Rawon. "So I'd guess someone comes through here regularly. Maybe hunters or trappers."