In the Muck

Hunting Darkness: Henry awaiting his Novices Abigail and Fred in the peat bog of Ditmus, as described in From the Bay of Fangs episode In the Muck.

Join Brother Henry as he follows his Master into the peat bog of Ditmus to find the elusive Muck Toads, all with two young Novices in tow. Written in 12 A.S.




Venom is a horrid thing. A claw, a maw of teeth; that’s simple. They slash your body, pierce it, tear off a piece, and then you either die or learn to work with what’s left. But venom… It gets in you, making your body betray you. Your muscles clench, your head swims, your breathing falters…


It was a clear afternoon, early in spring, when I found myself and ten other Hunters overlooking the peat works of Ditmus. I’d visited the town when training on varied terrain, of course, but I hadn’t seen the extraction sites up close. It was a peculiar site: pits from which tireless workers cut and lifted neat blocks of fuel, their measured shapes incongruous with the patterned flow of the landscape. The entire peat bog was a string of raised parts with woody plants kept apart by murky waters. Truthfully, it was a beautiful sight: land, open and clear, stretching away from us. Sadly, for all their apparent openness, these environs were no less tainted by the Dark Ones than any other stretch of land.


Our quarry, I should explain, was what the inhabitants of Ditmus had named the Muck Toad. There had been several sightings of massive, bloated toads – over a foot across – further into the bog. A perimeter had been drawn up around the peat works, but local Defenders had been hesitant to venture out towards the Beasts.


I don’t blame them. After all: that’s what the Hunters are for. Still, it meant we had little to go on as to the Beasts’ numbers, their speed, or any unexpected abilities. Thus, we had come in numbers, and well-armed. There were two squads of Hunters: one led by Brother Erol, the other – mine – by Sister Georgina, both overseen by Master Walter. The plan was for us to venture into the bog in a line, each of us some ten yards apart, to flush the Muck Toads out. Normally, this would have been enough; few Beasts could stand against ten Hunters of Fenblith with ready muskets and sabres. However, as we didn’t know whether the Muck Toads would attack in packs, ambush us, or anything of the sort, it had been decided that we should mitigate our time spent reloading. As such, all ten of us had been assigned two Novices each.


Mine were Abigail and Fred, both aged ten. They spoke in hushed, excitable tones about the terrain, having never seen land other than the Bay of Fangs. Abigail carried a second musket, while Fred carried a blunderbuss. Both had satchels of powder and Starsteel shot so that they could reload for me, and I found myself wondering at the riches these children were carrying. Such thoughts were swiftly replaced, however, when Master Walter whistled the signal to advance and I began wondering instead at how cold and wet someone’s feet can get when lumbering through a bog.


We were the tenth and final trio, forming the right flank of the line of Hunters. The going was slow, which was to be expected. Picking your way through a bog isn’t a fast means of travel at the best of times, but for the Novices, who sometimes sank into the muck well past their knees, it was a gruelling process of testing the ground, backtracking, and testing the ground again, all while desperately preventing the firearms or the powder and shot from getting wet. I must say, Abigail and Fred’s efforts were commendable, and I felt a flush of pride watching them diligently pick out their path as I waited for them on the much drier patches of raised earth.


After some time plodding through the bog like this, Master Walter’s whistle sounded again. Using the Hunter’s flute signals, he communicated that he had spotted movement and assigned Erol to investigate while the rest of us waited. I had Abigail and Fred follow me toward the high ground some yards away from where we were. Erol and his Novices were the third trio in our formation, meaning we were as far away from the action as any other Hunter, and I saw no reason to stand idling in the muck. We had barely reached the “summit” when we saw a burst of fire and smoke followed by the crack of gunpowder. Erol gave a hand signal as one of his Novices exchanged muskets with him and Master Walter signalled for us to continue.


As we set off again, Abigail stated she wished the Muck Toad had been closer, as she was curious to see if it looked anything like what she imagined. Fred said he was willing to bet it was like an oversized ball, all lumpy and blotchy. Abigail said she’d bet him half her dinner that it was actually a smooth and limber creature, bouncing from raised ground to raised ground so it never had to get wet when it didn’t want to. The boy laughed that he’d be willing to bet his entire dinner against that. She scoffed that he would be hungry tonight then, because what sane creature would want to live in the wet dirt? Fred responded that these were no sane creatures but Beasts, and prompted me to agree with him. I refused to answer, as the entire exchange had left me stifling chuckles and I did not want to dissuade them from continuing their debate.


Our march went on, though, and soon after Erol’s disposal of the first Muck Toad we were halted for the slaughter of a second and third, performed by simultaneous fire from Sisters Ida and Clara, the fifth and sixth Hunters in the formation. Even sooner after that, we were stopped suddenly as Georgina and Brother Joseph, Hunters eight and nine, stumbled on a group of five of the Beasts, dispatching them with furious fire from their blunderbusses.


Abigail and Fred raised themselves up as much as they could, Fred triumphant to find the Muck Toads were indeed lumpy, blotchy balls. I myself was more preoccupied with the emerging pattern, however, as the Muck Toads seemed to appear closer and closer to us, and in increasing numbers. It was, of course, entirely possible that Georgina and Joseph had just dispatched the final Beasts, but I still instructed Fred to swap arms with me, taking up my blunderbuss as a precaution.


I lead on, taking extra care to watch for movement. Step by step, we struggled through the peat bog, the sun slowly turning through the sky. It was tense, every unexpected splash made by Abigail and Fred working on my nerves because I thought it might be a Muck Toad surfacing. I was deeply focused, making sure I didn’t lead my Novices into a danger I could not manage.


Yet I never even saw the Beast that attacked Abigail.


There was no splash, no roar of defiance, no chattering of mandibles or scraping of claws. There was only the yelp of a young girl, shocked and in pain. I whirled around, gun raised, but there was nothing. Nothing but Abigail sinking through her knees, clutching at her thigh with one hand while desperately trying to hold up the musket with the other. I signalled Master Walter, who immediately called a halt. I swung my blunderbuss over my back and hoisted Abigail out of the muck, setting her down on one of the islands of raised earth. She was sobbing, a mewling mess of pain. Her pant leg was torn, and I tore it open to see the wound underneath.


It was horrid: swelling flesh oozing clear liquid from a thin cut. Abigail gasped and began to twitch. I told Fred to watch for threats while I unclasped my medicine pouch and dug up the bandages and Hale Bark ointment. As swiftly as I could, I tied off Abigail’s leg above the wound and rubbed the ointment into the cut, telling her not to move. She gasped as I touched the injury, but she held herself impressively still.


I screamed for Master Walter, telling him the Muck Toads were venomous, that Abigail needed care. Fred gasped next to me. I assumed he was looking at his suffering friend. Then the musket in his hands cracked, sending me spinning.


I did see the Muck Toads that attacked Fred.


There was a swarm of them, clambering up from some watery hole, all grouped together: bloated balls of lumps and blotches over a foot across, heaving themselves through the filth, paws flapping in the water. Maybe, if Fred had still had the blunderbuss, he could have protected himself. But he didn’t, and though his shot flew true and he claimed his very first kill, a tangle of tongues shot out from the other Beasts, slicing his arms, his legs, his body. He stumbled at the onslaught, falling face first into the water as I roared in rage, bringing my blunderbuss up and sending a hail of Starsteel into the clutch of horrors. The carnage was total, a mist of ichor flying into the air as my shot crashed into the Muck Toads. I grabbed Fred and pulled him out of the water. He began to twitch, then convulse. I ripped away his clothing and slathered his wounds in Hale Bark, tying off what I could.


Then I heard a splashing next to me.


One of the Muck Toads had crawled onto the raised earth. I snatched up the musket Abigail had been carrying, the only loaded firearm I had left. I took aim as the Beast opened its mouth, but before I could fire it burst apart.


Joseph stepped next to me, exchanging his musket for the blunderbuss one of his Novices was carrying. He asked after Fred and Abigail. I told him they needed help, and fast. He nodded, signalling Georgina – who was close behind him – for aid. She climbed out of the water and knelt next to Fred, beginning to apply additional ointment and bandages while ordering me to take her blunderbuss and support Joseph.


It took an effort to leave my Novices like that, but I knew Georgina was right and snatched up the blunderbuss and stepped next to Joseph, aiming into the bog where the Muck Toads had emerged. New shapes bulged underneath the surface and we took aim, but a whistled signal from Master Walter kept us from firing.


The Master Hunter moved through the bog with enough grace to overtake the final two members of my squad, stepping onto the platform of earth and beginning to give orders without so much as taking a breath. He explained that we had no doubt reached the Muck Toads’ lair and that we should strike at them with overwhelming force so as to prevent any of them from escaping. As the other Hunters and Novices reached us, Master Walter moved us into position. We formed a wide circle around the Beasts’ den, each of the Hunters carrying a blunderbuss. The Novices went with us, bringing the muskets to bear. Georgina stayed behind, giving Abigail and Fred what aid she could, her Novices accompanying me instead. When our circle was complete, Master Walter, still on the raised earth, gave the signal to tighten it.


With slow, measured steps, we approached the Muck Toads’ lair. Soon enough, the water began to stir, and the first shapes appeared. Master Walter had us stand firm while more and more Beasts clambered from their den, milling about restlessly, clearly wanting to escape or defend themselves but not daring to approach us. Finally, when the patch of Muck Toads had ceased to grow, we were given the order to fire.


It was a splashing, grimy, filthy mess. The Muck Toads tried to scatter, but their limbs were shot to rags. I reloaded, cursing the Beasts for what they had done, and fired again, my Siblings and our Novices doing likewise. Thus we continued, the spring air filling with the acrid smoke of gunpowder, the peat bog eddying with ichor and lumpy flesh. Finally, all movement ceased.


The Beasts were dead.

Hunting Darkness: Muck Toads, as described in From the Bay of Fangs episode In the Muck.