I leaned my head back against the seat. “We are so screwed.”
The car started to slow down, and I looked out the window, hoping to see a palace or some sign that we were getting closer. But it was only cypress trees and dark water.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“We’ve run out of road.” Konstantin put the car in park and turned it off. “Now we get to finish the journey on foot.”
The heat was oppressive. It’s hard to explain exactly what it felt like to come from twenty-degree temperatures and snowstorms to more than eighty degrees and humid. The air seemed to condense on my skin, and bugs buzzed wildly around me.
As we waded through the bayou, with the murky water coming up to our knees, I hoped against hope that Konstantin knew where we were going.
“Watch for alligators¸” Konstantin warned.
I looked around the water, which was getting harder to see in the fading light, but even in bright afternoon it would be hard to tell a log from a large reptile. “There are alligators here?”
“I have no idea.” He glanced back at me, smirking. “I don’t know anything about what lives down here.”
“I guess we’ll find out, then, won’t we?” I muttered.
A mosquito buzzed loudly around my ear, and I tried to swat it away to no avail. It finally landed on the back of my neck, and I slapped it hard to be sure I got it.
“You should be careful about making loud noises, though,” Konstantin said as I followed a few steps behind him.
“Why? Will it attract alligators?” I asked sarcastically.
“No, but the Omte startle easily, and we definitely don’t want them startled.”
Beneath the water, the thick mud threatened to rip off my boots with every step I took, making it very slow going. I told Konstantin that there had to be an easier way to get to Fulaträsk, but he reminded me that the Omte didn’t want to be found. They made it as difficult as possible for anyone to stumble upon them.
It had gotten dark enough that we needed to pull out our cell phones and use them as flashlights to help guide our path. But there was still so much around us we couldn’t see, and the wetlands were alive with noise—frogs, insects, and birds were loudly chirping their nighttime songs.
Somewhere high above us, I heard the flapping of wings, but I couldn’t move my light fast enough to spot them. I’d also heard the high-pitched squeaks of bats, so I figured that they were zooming around to feast on the plethora of bugs.
Occasionally I felt something swim up against my leg, but since nothing had bitten me yet, I tried not to worry about it.
Lightning bugs flashed around us, their tiny bodies twinkling through the trees and reflecting on the water. In the twilight, surrounded by the music of the animals and the still waters underneath the thick canopy of branches, there was something beautiful about the marsh, something almost enchanting.
“Bryn,” Konstantin hissed, pulling me from my thoughts.
I’d fallen a few steps behind him because I’d paused to look around, but now I hurried ahead. He held out his arm, blocking me, when I reached him.
“Shh!” he commanded, and then he pointed toward where his light had picked up two glowing dots on a log, just barely above the surface of the water. It was an alligator, not even a meter away from us, and it looked massive.
“What do we do?” I whispered.
“I don’t know. Back away slowly, I guess.”
He kept the light on the alligator, and we started to move away when I heard the sound of flapping wings again. It sounded much too large to be a bat, and it was followed by more flapping. Whatever it was, it was very close by, and there were more than one.
I turned my flashlight toward the sky, and it caught on a huge brown bird flying above us. The bird circled us for a moment before settling down on a long branch, and I finally got a good look at it.
With its large wingspan, pointed beak, and thick feathers down its long neck, it was unmistakably a bearded vulture. Bearded vultures weren’t native to this area—they were something that had been brought in with trolls from the old world, like Gotland rabbits and Tralla horses.
We were in Omte territory.
The cypress and willow trees around us towered several stories into the air, and from the corner of my eye I saw a flash near the top of one. I shone my light up toward it, and with the weak power of my TracFone, I could just make out the outline of a large tree house.
It wasn’t exactly a luxury tree house, but it was much more than the average one you might find in a child’s backyard. The wood seemed warped and worn, with moss growing over it, and a sagging porch was attached to the front. But it was easily large enough to house a family, and it even had a second story attached to the right side that climbed up along the trunk of the tree.
A large head poked out of the window, looking down at me. It was slightly lopsided, the way Bent Stum’s head had been, with one eye appearing larger than the other.
“Konstantin,” I said quietly. “I think we’re here.”
“What?” he asked.
No sooner had the words escaped his mouth than a massive ogre jumped out of a tree and came crashing down into the water in front of us, sending muddy water splashing over us. As soon as the water settled, the ogre let out a long, low growl, and I knew we were in trouble.
“I told you that we shouldn’t startle them,” Konstantin said.