The swamp west of the Moor was a vast and dismal place... or at least, it was so to most Men. In truth, it hid a vast array of wildlife. During the day, it was mostly quiet, with only the occasional croak of a frog or call of some bird or another. The trees were mostly weeping willows, tall and gnarly, but with long, thin branches and matching, green leaves that draped all the way down to the forest floor, billowing gently in the breeze and brushing over the swamp water and puddles of mud.
The land was treacherous and difficult to navigate, with only a few paths safe from having to pass through some pond or puddle or another. Mud was everywhere, and the ground itself was so soft and moist that it was difficult to call anything firm ground. The wooden planks to form roads and pathways didn't exist here, as they did around the Moor. This was pure wilderness... And the smell was even worse here than in the Moor. The stench of the bog was inescapable.
However, day was far preferable to night. During the day, one could even imagine it to be a pleasant, almost peaceful place, somehow serene and so removed and untamed that it could potentially feel like some nice bastion of nature...
During the night, however, all of that changed. Occasionally, one might see the faint glow of a strange light flickering in the distance like a lantern, though this was rare. The swamp came alive with the sound of its denizens: choruses of frogs, croaking toads, chirping crickets, and occasionally stranger sounds, like the wail of some unknown beast - or was it a beast at all?
Movement could be heard throughout the entire swamp at night at intervals, as if things wanted to stir about just enough to disturb wary travelers, particularly as the creatures went unseen. The flicker of wings and the flash of eyes frequented the shadows. Everywhere a traveler went, they felt as if they were being watched...
And it was night when the Inquisitors, Templars, and Venatori chose to delve into the mire.
The Imperial officials searching for the witch, meanwhile, still followed the trail of candy. It didn't let up - they could no longer see the Moor behind them for all the fog and swamp mist, coupled with the darkness of night. Yet still the candy trail went on in a perfect little path, one couldn't wander off of or mistake for something else.
It was apparent someone or something had made this trail with the distinct purpose of leading someone somewhere - and leading them there safely, avoiding swamp muck, strange pits, the darker shadows, hollows under logs, and every other peril lurking in the darkness around them. Whatever creature had lain this trail, it knew the swamps very well, and it knew how to navigate them safely... Something no one in this group could say for themselves. Were it not for this trail, they would've surely fallen into some sort of danger, or at least ended up in waist-high swamp muck stumbling off the more solid ground, or slogging through some kind of mud that might hide any kind of creatures.
Following this trail, however, they were - remarkably - perfectly safe.
As they walked, however, everyone noticed that Ben Blackburn had been collecting the candy and stuffing it into a pack. Yaroslava tuned and glared daggers at him.
"What in Hades are you doing?" she hissed.
Ben rolled his eyes. "I'm getting rid of it so we won't turn around and see a bunch of kids eating it like they're supposed to."
Yaroslava didn't respond. Apparently she hadn't wanted his actions to have been a good idea, so she simply nodded and turned around again to keep walking. Ben just snorted in slight amusement and kept taking the candy so that no child would follow the trail.
They kept moving until, at long last, they came upon a strange sight: a hut nestled in some weeping willows, their branches hanging down around parts of the home like stringing curtains. The hut itself was made solely of mud, but it was extremely fine craftsmanship in its own way. Although roughly-hewn and stylistically hideous to Men, it was exceptional work nonetheless.
The twisted little hut had a long, tall chimney, and from it rose a thin ribbon of winding grey smoke. Even from here, they could smell something cooking. It smelled delicious. Ben sniffed the air and furrowed his brow slightly in apparent concern with just how much it seemed appealing, and Stevan's stomach growled loudly enough that they could all hear it. He cleared his throat to seem innocent of the fact.
As they neared the hut, Stevan held up a fist. "Wait," he warned. "Let the Inquisitors go first. If it is a witch, they're the only ones who'll stand a chance."
Kristina, Lucy, Evan, and Ben led the way toward the building. Cautiously, Ben opened the door. One by one, the knights, soldiers, and hunters slipped inside.
The hut was empty - at least, empty of any immediate signs of life. A few beasts rested here and there in corners: some snakes watching them and flicking out their tongues as if in suspicion, several of which retreated down into the assorted furniture and possessions arranged in the home, and there were several frogs living here and there, along with a rat or two. The animals disappeared when they entered, squeaking or croaking or hissing in alarm to have been so disturbed.
As for the hut itself, it was a remarkably nice place. It was indeed strangely furnished, but the furnishings were all hand-crafted with gentle care and an eye for artistry, if unusual. They were predominantly made of dried mud and stone, or else thatched together using reeds and such, though the chairs were also cushioned with finely made pillows that looked remarkably comfortable. There were endless signs of a homely resident: pots and pans, a fireplace...
And a giant cauldron in the center of the room. It was boiling, emitting the scent that made their mouths water. It looked to be some kind of stew.
The walls were lined in more than just herbs both fresh and dried, however. Their immediate impression upon entering the building was not anything to do with the furnishings, the cauldron, or even the animals that hid.
Their attention was drawn wholly to the paintings covering the walls: images of twisted trees, trees like the weeping willows of the swamp, and faceless armored figures, some with swords in their hands.
Shade whined and laid his ears flat as they looked around the building. Without warning, the hound suddenly turned and bolted back toward the door, whining. Yaroslava turned in alarm, but Stevan held up a hand to keep her from going anywhere.
"It's alright," he said. "I'll take care of him."
With that, the Captain followed the hound back outside. Silently, Ben slipped out after him, adding only, "I'll keep watch outside, in case the witch isn't even in here. You guys have a look around."
Looking around as told, everyone observed a few other details about the room: there were two doors, both shut tight, to one side of the room. Barring the paintings, everything had initially seemed quaint... Until they suddenly realized the terrified air that hung over the otherwise oddly pleasant home. Not only the walls depicting their strange, twisted images of nightmare, but the walls were boarded and warded with strange runes, and odd patterns of powders lined the floor, like some magic ritual performed to ward off evil. In fact, just a few paces after one entered the doorway was a long line of some strange, blackish powder. However, no one present seemed bothered by it.
Then, before anyone could so much as speak, the witch appeared.
She emerged from one of the closed doors and strode out into the same room as all her intruders. She was quite large, almost alarmingly so, and yet hunched and wearing tattered, old, brown rags and a long hood that partially shadowed her face. It did nothing, however, to shadow the large, hooked, gnarly nose poking from the front of her face, and her inhuman eyes almost seemed to glow a venomous, bright, yellow-green under her hood. The strands of stringy hair hanging down around her head were very slightly greenish-silver, and her limbs were long and gangly, her back hunched severely.
Instead of cackling or speaking or roaring or any other action they might've expected such a creature to take, however, the witch's eyes instead went wide. She didn't make a sound, but she shook her head rapidly and held her hands, palms forward, toward them to show that she was unarmed and wouldn't cause trouble. Even more, she sank to her knees and backed against the wall, lowering her head and silently pleading for mercy.
Finally lifting her head again after several seconds of this, she stared at them with begging eyes, gesturing out toward the swamp to the west and shaking her head again, still showing her hands.