My reviewers and I need another week to get ready to start posting the rewritten serial story, so I’ve got something else for you today! The following is an introductory story I wrote for a small Dungeons and Dragons campaign I’m running for a few friends, based on a bunch of very different ideas I had. I was actually creating this world and campaign when I was writing my posts about creating interesting tabletop RPG worlds, so you can see how I put a lot of that stuff into practice. I told all of the players that their character was the “you” referenced and even though they all sat this watch together, their recollection of this experience was exactly as this short story is written. I won’t add too many disclaimers to the start of this since it’s just a fun “get a feel for the world” sort of thing, but I felt like some context would help. Now, without further ado, welcome to The Leeching Wastes!
The crackle of flames in front of you, the rustle of reeds and leaves in the rising and falling wind, the calls and cries of invisible bugs in the darkness, and the ever-present, constant rhythm of the world thumping away are the only sounds you hear. A cacophony of sounds individually, but together they tell you that this night will be a quiet one.
Across the fire, the slumped figure stirs. Movement beneath a heavy garment, too tightly wrapped around the figure to tell if it is a cloak, poncho, or blanket, lets you know they have awoken. They say nothing and quickly fall still again, seeming to lapse back into whatever sleep or reverie they just roused from.
A few minutes after you turned away, attention back on the darkness in case something was hiding beneath the quiet of this night, you feel a sudden weight fall on you. You turn back to the fire to discover a face has emerged from the cocoon of cloth. Two eyes fixed on you, dark except for the shine of the firelight reflected in them. You try to ignore them, to return your attention to the task you were given, but the weight keeps drawing you back to those dark, shining eyes.
“Heeagh” the figure says. A moment later, as if sensing your confusion, the figure clears their throat and speaks again. “Hey.”
Silence hangs in the air, the distant rhythmic thumping marking time as it stretches from comfortable to almost painfully empty.
The figure shifts again, writhing movement beneath the cloth rocking the figure back and forth until they almost look like they’re sitting up. Still, only their eyes are visible from within whatever they’ve wrapped themselves. “Sorry.” They clear their throat again. “Been a while since I spoke.”
Before you can respond the figure carries on. “The name’s Eamon. Black-Belly Eamon, according to the wanted posters plastered on the gates of every Haven. But Eamon’s just fine.”
You open your mouth, maybe to ask a question or maybe to steer the conversation away from whatever the most dangerous killer in the Leeching Wastes wants to talk about, but you don’t get the chance to speak. They cut in.
“Never liked the name. It’s not terribly clever, doesn’t seem connected to anything I’ve ever done, and it’s just straight-up wrong. I never once committed any crime relating to my belly. Never stole food, never ate something I shouldn’t, haven’t drunken anyone under the table, and certainly never marked my body with any paint or coloring that could inspire the name. All the name has going for it is a certain, limited poeticism because you got two words together that start with the same sound. That’s it.”
The figure shifts a bit, from reclined to sitting up straight as they look at you directly across the fire. You can’t see any of the details of their face, but their eyes shift in the light and you know without a doubt they’re smirking.
In one smooth movement, they rip off what you can now tell is a blanket, revealing their form to you as they call out, shouting into the night, “I don’t even have a belly, either.”
Black-Belly Eamon, once-hero of the Havens, slayer of the Nighwalker of Telbroch, carrier of The Rot, destroyer of the last Haven of the Brenmullen Hills, leans back in their seat once again, exposing the spine, ribs, and pelvis that are all that remain of their core. Their face is remarkably intact, though, and they smirk again as you take in their form.
“Bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?” Eamon lifts their hands up and folds them behind their head in a lazy display of the living unlife caused by The Rot. “Don’t worry. You won’t catch it. It’s not contagious like any sickness. It’s what life in the LeechingWastes will do to you, if you live long enough. It’s what a Nightwalker will do to you if you survive long enough to slay it and unlucky to boot.”
Eamon closes their eyes and their chest rises and falls in a deep sigh. “It’s not that bad. Doesn’t hurt. Only need to eat and sleep when you feel like it. Don’t need to breathe, either, though it’s hard talk if you don’t.” They chuckle at their joke before taking another deep breath.
After a few moments of silence, they break from whatever thoughts kept them silent and lean forward. “Sorry about that. I was feeling a bit dramatic after my nap. I actually wanted to ask you something, if you don’t mind.”
What you might mind does not seem to concern them, since they plow forward immediately, drowning out your answer. “I came from a Sylum out east, day’s walk from here. Or two, I spose, if you need to rest.” Black-Belly Eamon shrugs and carries on. “Whole thing seemed abandoned from far out, but getting closer showed signs of life. Weird life, but life. Lotsa loud animals. People stopping to stare at each other and me. No one much interested in talking. Kinda insular, but not in the usual way some Sylums get. They just seemed kinda bored of it all.”
Eamon pauses, considering their story. You take the moment to cut in with a question, something seeking acknowledgement or information that Eamon just ignores as they rub their smooth, grey chin. As if they didn’t hear you, they carry on.
“I wouldn’t be bringing it up, except while I slept there for the night, I got woken up to a bunch of claws tearing into me. When I came up swinging, I know I hit something, but I couldn’t catch sight of it anywhere. Lost a whole chunk of my shirt to whatever it was, as you can see by my exposed midriff, but otherwise I was mostly just annoyed, so I let whatever it was slink off into the night.
“No one in the town seemed to know much, but said they’d had some problems with travelers bringing in some kind of angry spirit that always seemed to leave with them. I decided to leave and take whatever it was with me since I was only passing through. I haven’t heard nor seen anything since I hit the road again, but I figured I oughta warn you before things truly settled down for the night. Way I see it, you’re in as much danger from some odd spirit thing following me into your Sylum as you’re in from me.”
Black-Belly Eamon’s chuckles do nothing to answer any of the questions you now have, nor do they reassure you as you try to focus past their noise for signs of anything moving in the darkness beyond the firelight. When their chuckles stop, they lapse into silence again, ignoring all attempts to question them.
When they finally respond, they act as if they hadn’t heard you speak. “I think I’ve got another few months before The Rot takes me. So you’re safe from me. I’m a danger to nothing living or unliving except what would prey on me and any of those The Rot has already taken.” Eamon pauses, head cocked to the side before smiling ruefully. “I’d like to think I’m still a danger to the Nightwalkers, but somehow I doubt it. I think they’ve grown past what I coulda once handled.”
You wonder if it’s worth asking Eamon anything, once they lapse into silence again. The answer is no, of course, as they fall still again, though this time it stretches on for hours. Your shift is almost over when they finally speak again, the first faint tendrils of smokey yellow light appearing on the horizon behind them.
“You start to forget stuff. Lose track of time. The Rot starts to take you from yourself before it finally succeeds. Makes it difficult for folks who don’t know it to deal with it. I’m long past the time when any priest or sage could help me, so I’m just trying to leave on a good note. If I can’t remember myself, then I’ll make sure other folks do it for me.”
Black Belly Eamon, butcher of Blackwater Haven, the murderer of the very people they saved from the Nightwalker that nearly killed them, that left them on the verge of madness, leans forward. One arm lifts from their side, grey skin dull in the firelight, and tosses a wrapped package at your feet. “Payment” they say, responding to your questions for the first time. “To figure out what’s plaguing that Sylum to the east. Or a gift from the wastes since I’m not sticking around to see if you actually do the job. Get it done and maybe you’ll make this hellhole a better place for once.”
“Only way it won’t get worse is if we all work together” they say after a moment of silence. “Maybe, if folks work hard enough, we might actually make it better. And” they grin again, their mood suddenly light as they surge to their feet, “there’s always tons to find for those willing to risk themselves in the Leeching Wastes. Power enough to change the world for the better and riches enough to buy every Haven twice over. Yours for the taking. Or mine, if I live long enough.”
Laughing without pause, Black-Belly Eamon leaves your Sylum, walking away from the fire without looking back, heading northwest towards the source of the distant thumping that marks the pacing of the nearest Nightwalker.
Days later, the thumping stops. The entire Sylum freezes in place as they all listen, counting breaths and heartbeats in the sudden silence. Ten seconds. Thirty seconds. Two Minutes. Nothing. Three minutes pass without the thumping and people begin to cheer. Several break into joyous tears. Five minutes and the whole Sylum is celebrating. The constant, heavy silence broken as the people here finally have something to celebrate.
“Black Belly Eamon finally did some good” they say. Your story is being told across the Sylum now, everyone repeating the parts they’ve heard and many more other people made up along the way. Someone calls for a feast, someone else backs them up on it, and families begin to break out what little they have stockpiled as they enjoy the silence they’ve found themselves in for the first time in their memories.
It ends suddenly, though. One of the lookouts screams for silence and suddenly, everyone can hear the thumping again. Cheers turn to curses and joyous tears turn to mournful ones. Eamon failed. The Nightwalker still lives. Worse still, if Eamon failed, there might be a new Nightwalker to wander the Leeching Wastes in their place. No one but you can say how bad The Rot was when they passed by, and you didn’t see all of them. Maybe they were further along than they thought.
Eventually, even this idle speculation fades as watches are tripled and everyone sleeps with weapons at hand. There is more in the Leeching Wastes than just Nightwalkers and there may yet be hell to pay for the Sylum’s lapse in silence. Only a day later, when you are on watch again, do you realize that the rhythm has changed. The beat is somehow deeper, more resonant. When you ask one of your elders about it, their face pales in the firelight and you know, without them needing to answer, that the Sylum is lost.
A Nightwalker approaches and all here must take what they can carry and move on. Find a new home. You recall Eamon’s story of the strange village to the east. “Maybe there,” you tell your elder. “A new Sylum. Or at least a place to stop and rest before we carry on.”
The decision is swift. All such decisions must be, in order to survive, and you find yourself preparing to set out on the road with an advance party, sent to scout the path forward and to discover what was happening to your neighbors. If you can help them, make things safe for your people, you will do what you can. If your neighbor isn’t safe, you will find a different path and a new place for your people to build a Sylum. After all, this is what you’ve prepared for this whole time, this is what you’ve wanted. Finally, you’re being sent on your first mission.
As you hold the leather-bound package Eamon tossed at your feet, feeling the now familiar shape of what it contains, you go to gather your things so you can set out at once. Finally, an adventure. Finally, a chance to prove yourself. Finally, you can see what remains of the world you’ve heard of so often in stories. Now, your new life outside the small Sylum can begin.