The wall grew overnight.

The swamp had been, for many years, barely passable and largely avoided. But when the time came to drain it, to replace the pools and bogs with land that was useful, something changed.

Workmen arrived after a day of hard but productive labor to find their tools scattered, their machines batted about as if by a child’s hand. And between they and the swamp to be drained, a wall. It was not a wall of brick, or of steel, but a wall of the swamp itself.

Gnarled and ancient wood, curled in upon itself and dripping with algae. Arachnid dendrils of fresh-grown shoots, still carrying upon them the green of their birth. Even planks from the old corduroy road that had once wound its way through the thinnest and shallowest of the bog were twisted within. Twelve feet or more, it was in places studded with dead birds strangled in the matter as it had emerged and embraced.

Half of the workmen quit the jobsite that day. The other half spent the day sawing a hole large enough for passage; they too gave notice when, the morning after that, their hole had been plugged by fresh regurgitations from the heart of the swamp.

The owners, who had much invested in the property and grand plans for the drained land, persisted. They hired a new crew and set them to work building a ramp over the top of the mysterious swamp wall. It took two weeks, but the ramp was completed and not overgrown the following morn.

A full survey crew went in first, to check for damage to the work that had already been done by what was rationalized away as an earthquake. At shift’s end, none returned. The second crew deserted in droves, aside from a search party assembled by the owners and promised triple pay. Armed and equipped for rescue, they also failed to return.

Seven days later, a single man stumbled out of the swamp and collapsed at the foot of the ramp. He was covered with scratches and bites, and was completely incoherent. A member of the second party, he raved for hours about vengeful red eyes amid the rotting wood, of creatures neither lizard nor amphibian that rose from the muck to savage men with needle-sharp teeth and steel-keen claws.

That sole survivor died one week later. Sedated and restrained after several prior attempts, he killed himself by chewing off his own tongue and drowning in blood. At long last the owners abandoned their plans and surrendered the swamp to the state. The ramp was torn down after it was determined there were no further survivors, and compensation for their next-of-kin bankrupted every investor.

And the wall? The wall remains, overgrown, tangled with hollow bones. It’s said there’s a knothole, in a piece of the old courduroy road, through which the intrepid or the curious can peek to see what lies beyond, sealed off from all that is not pools of peat and rotting vegetable matter.

To this date, no one has.

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The fetid swamps of the Muckmire were home to all sorts of noisome maladies and disgusting diseases. But the constantly shifting morass of hills and pools and fens filled with rotting vegetable matter were forever churned from beneath by rising gasses liberated by volcanic activity, and they were forever bringing valuable minerals and treasures from the Fifth Age to the surface or near it.

So every day, vast and ragged fleets of swamp trawlers would set out from the few outposts of civilization in the Muckmire, from Grant’s Crossing at the edge to New Maun in it heart on the largest and driest of the swamp islands. Floating above the morass on ancient and sputtering hoverdrives, they would use metal detectors and the crew’s keen eyes to find valuables and bring them back for sale on the thriving scrap markets. It was an open secret that trawling the Muckmire markets was the best way to acquire rare minerals on the cheap, or to find spare parts for (or the rare working example of) technology that had since passed beyond the ken of man.

But there was a price.

The swamp trawler crews regularly sickened with all sorts of horrible illnesses. There was swamplung, which caused he afflicted to drown in foul secretions from their own chest, unless they could be drained by a piercetap in a clinic (an operation which still had a frightening rate of death and permanent disability). There was wetboils, where great blisters that wept watery fluid formed on every exposed surface, leading to death by dehydration or choking or disfigurement.

A most dreaded malady, though, was the walksleep.

Crews would fall asleep, one at a time, and exhale spores and gasses which caused their fellows to do the same. Unless they were flung overboard or isolated in the airtight chambers some of the biggest trawlers kept, walksleep could incapacitate an entire crew. The coma was so profound, and so deep, that nothing would wake the sleeper. At a clinic they could be fed through a tube, but in the Muckmire they would die of dehydration in their sleep.

But that wasn’t the thing that the trawler crews dreaded, bad as it was. Dying of the walksleep caused sufferers to rise after a time, animated by strands and filaments of an unknown fungus-like organism. They would then perform a dreamlike parody of the work that they had in life while constantly exhaling the selfsame spore-laced gas. Thus it was possible to find trawlers crewed by walksleepers and even small settlements thereof, and any trawler suspected of bearing the contagion stood the risk of being blown away by the harbor guns of New Maun or any settlement worth its salt.

To the adventurer, though, the stalkers who walked through the fens on foot or the freeloaders who trolled them on small skiffs, the walksleepers were a tempting target. For in their actions after death, the afflicted would often haul in additional treasures, and continue to bear those that they had found (to say nothing of their ships and equipment). It was risky work, and many a stalker or freeloader with a dodgy mask or filter wandered the Muckmire as a walksleeper, but the rewards drew many who were at their wit’s end and had no use for the plodding pace of a swamp trawler.

Saul and Alina Rozchenko were two of the best. But even they could not see the ends that awaited them in the gloom of the Muckmire.

Inspired by this.

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The Company had set Davis up in a hovel, a house on the very edge of Kariton that had been for rent by the day, fully furnished. The town didn’t have a hotel, or even a motel–too small–but the suits weren’t willing to pay for a car and gas to get to Heysley, a half-hour away and the closest polity resembling a city.

From what Davis had been able to tell, Kariton functioned much as it had before becoming a Company test market. People came and went all day using the mass-transit teleporters just like a city bus, resorting to their personal cars only for larger loads. A few luddites refused to use them at all, and kids under 18 were forced to walk thanks to the Company’s legal department–big surprise. As an outsider, Davis found himself treated coolly. People were polite to his face but never seemed to go out of their way to be so when he wasn’t looking. Still, there were plenty who’d cross the street to avoid an encounter, and even a few who furtively followed him about.

But nothing really disconcerting happened until Tuesday morning, when a harsh knock at the door brought Davis running. No one was there, but something had been laid on the welcome mat, wrapped in paper. It was a comic book he remembered from his youth, The Adventures of the Swamp Terror about a horrifying plant-man and a ragtag group of hunters who battled him.

A message was scrawled across the cover: “You are dead, and the Swamp Terror lives.”