"It will be fine," said her eldest brother, a little terse. Toby was losing patience with her continued skepticism. "I came here with Leo lots of times."
Anna felt a stab of loss, then. She missed Leo very much indeed. When the news had come back from the west that he had been killed by the orcs, she had wept for two days. Now, tonight, Toby had taken on Leo's role and she had come as his companion. Assistant. Something. Toby said that the rite required two of them, and though she had been skeptical he had reminded her that family tradition was important. Something to be proud of. Papa had taken Leo, and then when he passed away, Leo had brought Toby.
It was dusk, and the narrow path through the woods was treacherous even during broad daylight.
"Wait ... lots of times? I thought we only had to come out here at midsummer?"
Toby favoured her with a sharp look, and didn't answer, but she was intrigued to see that he was blushing. Well, well, well. She stored the information for proper consideration later as they walked along in silence for a few minutes. Then she tried again. "It's just that Mladenovich said ...."
Toby tried to interrupt her with a growled "I don't think you should be talking to that boy" but Anna ignored him and kept going.
"... Mladenovich said that the Semmerlak is dangerous because of the Dho'uala, and that he'd heard that people had gone missing. Are you sure we should be poking around the 'Lak? It's getting dark ..."
Toby launched into a speech about family traditions, which Anna stopped listening to after the first few sentences. She had heard it before. She loved her brother, but sometimes he acted like a tedious blowhard. She spent his speech remembering Mladenovich's quick smile and long dark hair, and let her fingers graze the little charm he had given her after their last "chance meeting" at the market. She had kept it under her pillow but tonight, on a whim, she had slipped it into the pocket of her skirt for no particular reason.
After another half-a-mile or so, the path seemed to peter out in a strand of wild apple trees, old and chaotic, branches woven together to create a wall of wood and white flowers. Toby took a moment to look at the ground, then with a triumphant noise pulled aside a low hanging branch heavy with blossom, and ducked through the gap it created. Anna followed, and they emerged onto the shores of the 'Lak, next to a low, flat rock that extended out a short distance into the shallow waters.
"We're here now," her brother said brightly. "Anyway I told you. We're not having anything to do with Varushkan goblins, we're here to talk to the Golden Kingfisher. We'll give him the gift we've brought, and we'll swear friendship, and he'll give us four balls of golden thread, and then we'll use them on the nets and the sails to get another year of fine catches. We've done it every year since granny's day and nothing has ever gone wrong before."
Anna was still not convinced, but she could not argue with family tradition. Toby set her to gathering apple blossom, while he made his own preparations. As the sun inched over the horizon in the west, a cold wind tugged at their hair and set their cloaks fluttering. Toby ignored it. Anna looked out across the lake and frowned to see the heavy clouds gathering over the dark water. A storm was brewing. She hoped they would be finished and home before the rain hit - they were dressed for a warm midsummer night, after all.
Her basket full, Anna handed the apple blossom over to Toby. He told her to stay quiet until he called for her - then she was to step forward, address the Golden Kingfisher as "my good lord", and give him the six bottles of wine she had in her satchel. She was not to answer any questions, and under no circumstances to allow him to kiss her.
She frowned at Toby and started to explain in clear language him how little she needed to be told to resist the advances of strange aquatic men but he shushed her. "You say that," he said. "But Leo told me the first time he was here he let himself get enchanted and pa had to throw in four sheep to buy him back from the Kingfisher. If Leo fell for the creatures charms ... well we're all in danger. I've got pa's medal, but you're just going to have to rely on your wits."
She bit back a rude word, and let her chilly silence do all the talking for her. Toby ignored her, stepped up onto the rock and began to sing. Her brother was an arse, but she had to admit he had a beautiful voice. She did not recognise the song, but it had a haunting cadence that was almost bewitching. As he sang, he scattered handfuls of blossom onto the waters of the lake until they were all gone. He threw the basket behind him and continued to sing. After a few more minutes, the water where the apple blossoms floated began to churn and boil as Toby raised his arms, and sang the chorus again at the top of his lungs. As the water continued to churn, he leaned forward suddenly, peering over the edge of the rock into the lakewater and his song suddenly faltered.
He barely had time to say "Wait a moment this isn't -" before he was gone.
Anna felt a scream trapped in her throat. She found herself staring at the white blossom in the lake, now dappled red. The water around the rock had turned dark, rising suddenly to swamp the place her brother had just been standing, grabbing the empty blanket and sweeping it down into the water.. She could hear her own voice shouting at her, telling her to move, but she could not make her limbs move.
Something flopped out of the still-churning lake water. Part of it was like a man or an orc perhaps, but with great green eyes and an inhumanly wide mouth full of snaggle teeth. Long, filthy hair matted with pond weed framed its monstrous face and cascaded over its shoulders and down its back. It dragged vicious looking claws over the wet rock as it pulled itself up on its thick muscular arms. Where it should have had legs, its body fused together into something reminiscent of the lower half of a fish, or a seal, or perhaps a squat msucular eel.
It raised it's head to the darkening sky and screamed - a high pitched shriek like the squabbling of gulls, laid over the howl of a wolf. The sound broke her from her stupor and she turned ... to discover a second creature, as monstrous as the first, pulling itself out of the 'Lak to her right.
By instinct rather than skill she stumbled out of the way, slipping on the bank, landing heavily, tears streaming her face, desperately scrabbling to try and get her feet under her and flee back through the apple trees to the (presumed) safety of the woods.As the two Semmerfolk dragged themselves toward her, she drew her shortsword ... and with sudden desperate inspiration pulled the little charm out of her apron pocket. Carved of dragonbone and weirwood, it felt cold against her palm. With a whispered prayer on her lips that she had the courage to survive, she held the charm out towards the beasts of the Semmerlak - now no more than a few feet away - and hoped against hope that it would be enough to save her ...
The Semmerlak is the great freshwater lake - or perhaps from some points of view, the small freshwater sea - that lies between Varushka, Dawn, and the Druj infested marshes of the Mallum. Along the shores, the water is shallow and inviting, but the further out one goes the deeper it becomes until the bottom suddenly drops away entirely. Some say the cold waters of the Semmerlak are bottomless. Certainly nobody has ever provided a clear assessment of its depths - attempts to do so have been oddly contradictory.
Cautious or adventurous ship captains travel east along the wide waterways that run through the Barren Sea to the distant ocean and from there to foreign ports. When the moon is full, curious Dawn folk come here in the hope of catching a glimpse of the magical beings that live in the regio that dot the shores. When the moon is dark, the people of Varushka fasten their shutters and tell dark stories of the unnatural predators that hunt the depths when the sky is at its darkest.
Two days after the Summer Solstice, an unnaturally strong thunderstorm blows up across the Semmerlak just as the sun is setting. It batters fishing vessels that are late returning to port with roaring winds and crashing waves. Many boats are caught unawares. Most fisherfolk are lucky enough just to lose some or all of their catch, but a few are unfortunate enough to see their ships suffer real damage.
The storm seems to blow itself out just as the morning sun is dappling the horizon crimson and gold, leaving the shores scattered with odd flotsam and jetsam. While the sky remains clear and the day is warm enough, it is noted that no wind blows across the Semmerlak for the rest of that entire day. As the sun drops below the horizon, however, the storm returns. A fierce, howling, raging gale that again lasts until sunrise then falls silent again, and a day of utter calm follows.
This pattern continues. By day there is not a breath of wind, nothing to dispel the summer heat - or fill the sails of a ship. By night, a storm. Reports come in of things active in the water at night. The Dawnish yeomen dub them Semmerfolk or kalpie while the Varushkans call them rusalka - but both nations realise fairly quickly that whatever they are called they are no friend to the people of the Empire.
At this stage, the aberrant weather across the Semmerlak is primarily impacting characters who operate fleets based in Semmerholm, Weirwater, Karov, or Karsk. Unless it is dealt with in some fashion, all such resources will suffer a significant penalty to their production in the coming season. Even though they spend most of their time away from home, the unnatural weather and peculiar creatures are a significant obstacle to them when setting off and returning home.
The strange phenomenon on the Semmerlak is also impacting the fisherfolk , which may eventually escalate to the point where it impacts the income of businesses in these territories. For the moment there have been no significant problems for anyone except those yeomen and noble houses who rely directly on fishing the Semmerlak to support themselves.
The weather is clearly supernatural. Coupled with the increasing number of reports of attacks on people on or near the lake by unnatural creatures, it seems likely that there is more going on here than just a simple ritual curse. The Semmerlak is not a territory itself so any magical investigations could in theory target any one of the territories along the shore of the lake (Semmerholm, Weirwater, Karov, or Karsk) and gain the same information.
It is also noted by some of the sailors on the Semmerlak, and by the captains of ships sailing down toward the Barren Sea, that the storms appear to be battering the eastern shores as readily as those in the north, west, and south - so the Druj presumably are suffering similarly from ... whatever is going on here.