It’s been weeks since that night Avi spent on the side of the road with other travellers. It feels as though it was much longer ago than weeks and to make matters worse the dwarf still cannot understand how it is that he imagined Ferris. Yet, he is now sure that such a thing must have been what occurred. He didn’t think he’d poured that much ale down his throat but there is the possibility that each subsequent drink had morphed into the next until he simply could not accurately recall.
At least he can take some solace in the fact that as a dwarf he will never be afflicted when overindulging in ale like humans are. They suffer these things called hangovers which by all accounts seem to render humans almost useless for several hours at the least and often appear to involve an inability to keep food down or conduct any meaningful type of thinking.
Still, that small victory does nothing to change the fact that the redheaded dwarf has barely stopped, other than to sleep, fitfully, since his departure from the travellers. He misses them, the company, the chatter, the warmth of a roaring fire and to add to his misery it seems as though he is no closer to his goal. At least as far as he can tell he is no closer to his goal. After all, he is sure that by now he should have arrived at The Poisoned Swamp of Relvelin, even if he can’t confidently say that he has navigated along a pathway that runs under or between, he isn’t sure which, the jagged rock formation he’d spied from Harringall and the ruins of Harding’s Pilaster. If the tree canopy was not so all encompassing and tightly knit he might know for sure, but he’s too exhausted to attempt scaling one of the massive trees, of which there are millions, all around him. That is why he is beginning to think that he has either somehow managed to miss The Poisoned Swamp or it simply does not exist. His mind is fixating on it being the latter, much to his chagrin, because if that is the case then he is on a path to nowhere. Where that path to nowhere might take him he can only wonder, fearfully, as there seems to be a growing possibility that at this rate he might manage to walk right off the edge of the world.
In many ways if Avi did walk off the edge of the world, though it is impossible, he wouldn’t care much seeing as he has been out on the road so long without having found any form of civilization that his food supplies are spent. That means even if he admitted defeat and turned about this very second he would not make it back before starvation claims him. So he has to push on desperate to find something edible before the gnawing hunger saps so much of his ailing energy that he drops down to wait to die.
His fate, whatever it might turn out to be, as he is utterly unaware like all other beings in this world, will be entirely of his own making. After all, no one forced him to go on this journey, this quest. It was a decision all of his own. That is why he is starting to believe that perhaps his kin were right and that there is no Eris Hammer. He can just imagine his father, Barasun, roaring with laughter as an I told you so passes his lips to further crush his weary spirit.
Unfortunately for Avi, his mind continues to spin in circles for quite a time as he further descends down the spiral of madness and misery believing that he will die out here in this forest. He will never be found if that happens, especially as the pathway he treads is largely overgrown and crowded. That alone proves this route is seldom used but maybe by a few and that those few have not wandered this way in a decent period of time. The dwarf doubts fortune would favour him and he be found before death takes him. More likely he would be discovered once he has succumbed, but his body would never return to his home of Marathankar. Of that much he is sure. After all, there is no surety that those who might find him, and it would only be a might, would be respectable folk willing or able to deliver the body of a dwarf, or any other species for that matter, back to the place from which it originated.
All of a sudden Avi notes that the air is wrong, not poisoned as the name of the place he seeks would suggest, but missing something. His mind shifts out of the darkness it has bathed itself in to analyse what it is that is missing. It takes him a while to reach a conclusion but once he does he wonders how it took him so long to notice the absence of bird song.
The dwarf raises his head aiming to gaze up toward the thick dark canopy above and the rays of light permeating between gaps in the leaves, but instead he finds he never achieves such a goal. Instead, he stops short as he finds that he is now, he had not been moments ago, surrounded by a thick dense fog. He cannot see through it, at least in any sort of meaningful way. It is at that moment that panic sets in and the dwarf feels his pulse rocket. To coincide with his panic Avi comes to an abrupt and immediate halt before spinning around on the spot to check if this fog is as all encompassing as it seems. It is, and the dwarf has to admit that because of it and his inability to be sure as to when exactly this change occurred, though he still thinks it was moments even if he can’t say for sure, that he is lost. But not just lost, as there are levels of lost. No, the dwarf is utterly lost and with this manner of dense grey hanging all around he has no hope of retreading his steps seeing as he not only cannot tell which direction he came from, but also cannot see the ground beneath his feet. Such a development only adds to the mounting panic and tightness the dwarf feels in his chest. To make matters worse his mind suggesting that this fog is unnatural does nothing to ease his emotions as they rage unchecked.
I cannot stay here, he tells himself not quite agreeing with the words as wholeheartedly as he wishes he could. Though, truth-be-told he is correct, he cannot stay here. If he does he will die of starvation, so he must return to plodding along. That is what he had been doing previously after all. But we could be walking in circles, a voice that he hopes is in his mind says. Avi knows but sees little other choice and so that is what he does, forge a path forward, or at least what the dwarf thinks is forward. He has no way of knowing for sure. He could be walking in any direction and he would, at this time, have not a clue.
Sadly, Avi is not favoured by this place, which he is starting to swear must be cursed, as the already thick fog somehow manages to become even denser than it already seemed to be. Was he not experiencing it firsthand he would exclaim that such things are impossible, but he is so he can’t.
The dwarf continues, on the path he is now calling forward, attempting to ignore the thickening fog. Visibility so poor now that Avi cannot see his hand as he raises it up right in front of his face. He gulps at the discovery and wonders whether he would be better off walking blindfolded in any other place than having to deal with this grey murk around him.
The only consolation the dwarf has is that his thundering rapid heartbeats seem to have slowed, if only a little, affording him the opportunity to be able to hear the world around him. The only problem is that the world around him is silent, which is why Avi walks, for the second time on his quest, headfirst into something.
He bounces off whatever it is that he has crashed into, then unwillingly spins around as a result of the pain in his skull. It’s immeasurable and he cradles it with his hand as he continues to half stagger about in the thick fog. His staggering does not continue for long however as he takes a step that has no ground beneath it.
Avi drops, his body tumbling forward headfirst into a trio of forward rolls that once over see the dwarf continue to plummet downward at a steep angle that has him sliding on his stomach. The dwarf roars in fear. It’s all he can hear. Nothing else seems able or willing to make a noise. Perhaps the lack of sound is the result of the density of the fog. Or perhaps it’s the result of something else, unexplainable and possibly sinister. Whatever it is it doesn’t change the fact that the plummet seems to last for miles, or what the dwarf feels is miles without being privy to an actual view of his surroundings.
His heart thundering monstrously again as the possibilities of what fate might await him race through his head. The worst of his thoughts being that he might very well be sliding helplessly into some sort of abyss. The sort of abyss that is easily capable of swallowing foolish souls up if they dare to wander through places where they do not belong. He has heard tell of such things but never thought that he might be the victim of one of them.
Then without warning the ground beneath Avi levels out and in a manner that is far smoother than he would have ever imagined. It is why he comes to a fairly graceful, for sliding headfirst on your front, stop not long after. Not that the end of his descent has done anything to ease his breathing, which is ragged after the screaming he threw out into the otherwise silent air. And on top of that he is caked in mud. He can feel it clinging to his doublet and trousers, in turn making them cloy to his skin because they have been made damp. It’s uncomfortable but bearable, at least for now, the dwarf decides as he dares to attempt moving.
His body is stiff at first, but that is nothing compared to the pain in his head and neck. One from the sudden blow to his cranium, the other a result of craning his neck back to keep it out of the slope he has just navigated unwillingly. Somehow, and much to the dwarfs surprise, his chest is not as pain riddled as he expected it would be, especially as it doesn’t hurt to breathe, which is a bonus he had not been expecting. Still, it takes a number of attempts and minutes for Avi to struggle back to his feet, so that he can attempt to dust off some of the filth that clings to his body. If he could see through the fog his attempts might be more fruitful, but he cannot. The fog here is still too thick to hope to get any glimpse of a shape through, but there is something, a sound, breathing. The dwarf gulps while his heart leaps into his mouth. The sudden feeling of the major organ being at the back of his throat makes it difficult to breathe.
“I assure you I mean you no harm.” An old creaking voice, possibly female, says from somewhere in the fog.
“Show yourself!” Avi demands as his hand rests upon the hilt of his short sword ready to draw the weapon and smite whoever might be out there. In truth the owner of the voice could be right next to him and Avi is convinced that he might never know, at least not until it is too late. Still, he isn’t willing to discard the notion that this could very well be a figment of his imagination conjured as a result of his prolonged bout of panic.
“If you turn then all will be revealed.” The voice promises without adhering to his demand that they show themselves. It’s why Avi’s brow furrows. Plus, the dwarf cannot comprehend how him doing something as simple as turning will reveal anything more than another section of thick grey.
“Trust.” The voice then adds as if having somehow read the dwarfs hesitation. Avi knows that cannot be possible if they are indeed real as nothing, no matter what race they are, would be able to peer through this shroud. Yet, for a reason Avi cannot give he feels compelled now to comply and so turns, slowly, about on the spot.
As he does the view before him changes, drastically. It isn’t a blanket of impenetrable grey but a more normal thick fog that softens the edges of a small collection of moss covered and water saturated wooden huts. Avi doesn’t understand. He blinks repeatedly convinced that the sight will simply evaporate right before him, but it doesn’t. Instead, the figure of an old wrinkled human woman with grey hair roughly down to the shoulders appears through the fog to one side of his vision.
Avi recoils at the sight of the heavily emaciated form before him but manages to stutter, “W-Who are…you?” His voice is much shakier than he would like, but he’s committed now and will have to wait for a reply, if one will be forthcoming. Yet, he realises that what he should have done, but had not considered to, is first clear his throat and then utter his question.
“I am Matilda, elder of Kerenseean, the village you now stand in.” The bone thin woman answers casually as she stands, arms bent at the elbows, fingers dancing slowly.
“I cannot say I know the name Kerenseean.” Avi admits.
“Few have and for good reason.” Matilda replies.
Avi gets the feeling he isn’t welcome here, but cannot stop himself from asking, “Why for good reason?” His tone is cautious as the words leave his lips.
Matilda does not answer, instead she purses her lips, turns and then without a word beckons Avi to follow with a curling of one of her bone thin index fingers.
It’s not at all the reaction the dwarf had been anticipating and though he feels like he should ask where he is following Maltilda to and why, he does not. Rather, Avi follows the village elder, in silence, as they snake through the middle of Kerenseean passing village folk, clad in simple furs, who cast wary glances in his direction all the way to a decidedly more dilapidated looking hut than all the others before it.
Matilda drifts through the ajar wooden door, swollen as a result of the damp air, and disappears inside. Avi pauses, hesitating for a moment as he casts a glance over his shoulder to find the villagers still watching him out the corners of their eyes, not unlike the people of Harringall had. He shakes his head, casting the thoughts of the cursed town aside, and then enters the hut.
To his surprise the interior of the hut is more welcoming than he would have expected. In fact, he would go so far as to say that the interior is not only warm but cozy. A roaring fire placed in the centre of the otherwise pentagonal shaped room which is furnished with a simple single bed, cupboard and chest of drawers. Each item of furniture pushed up against a different wall.
Matilda gestures silently again for Avi to take a seat beside the fire on a thick fur mat. The dwarf accepts with a single nod and then lowers himself so that he may rest his aching bones. He manages to get comfortable fairly swiftly and just in time for Matilda to present him with a bowl of still hot vegetable soup.
The dwarf smiles and nods in thanks as he accepts the bowl, carefully. After all, he does not wish to add a burnt hand to his list of aches and pains.
Matilda, no longer needing to play hostess, takes her place on a simple wooden armchair. It has clearly seen much better days and is used to accommodating a much bulkier form, but it suits the woman in more ways than it does not.
With the village elder having settled into her seat she offers, “I know you have a great many questions, so you might wish to start asking them. I am ready.”
“How can you know that?” Avi queries reflexively.
Matilda chuckles humoured that the redheaded dwarf before her chose that as his first question, even if it was unintentionally. Following her brief outburst she assures, “I have my ways, but right now my purpose is to inform you the best I can with the knowledge I possess.”
Avi, having just swallowed the latest spoonful of delicious soup, queries, “Have you heard of The Poisoned Swamp of Relvelin?”
The dwarf expects the response will be in the negative but he has to know. He feels compelled. After all, it is the goal for which he is aiming. Whether there is another after it he does not know. That is where the clues he cobbled together from various sources ended. Though, he is fully aware that that does not mean that Relvelin is where his journey will end. There could be half a dozen more stops before he’s done, and he knows it.
“I have.” Matilda confirms much to Avi’s surprise. It’s why he smiles. Especially as this has been the first glimmer of hope he has at making progress since he fled Harringall after the inhabitants tried to kill him.
“Where is it?” The dwarf blurts unable to contain himself for a moment longer.
“Relvelin is long gone.” Matilda advises.
Hearing those words Avi’s heart sinks. Defeat quickly begins to flow into him, worming its way in to declare a resounding victory over what now very much seems to have been a failed journey that amounted to nothing.
“It dried up centuries ago…and became the fog-riddled locale that you find yourself in today.” Matilda adds with a casual flick of her wrist as her white eyes gaze in a direction Avi cannot guess.
The dwarf wonders how it is that the old woman can know so confidently where she is going without sight. But he is in no way inclined to ask such a question. Doing so would be distasteful and rude, especially as she is providing him with answers that he otherwise would likely be unable to ascertain.
So instead, having heard that where he now sits is what used to be the swamp he sought, he raises his head, defeat banished as his eyes blaze with hope and asks, “So Kerenseean sits where the swamp once was?” The dwarf felt the need to confirm and when Matilda nods a wide smile breaks across his round face.
Then Avi questions “Have you heard of the Eris Hammer?”
The elder of Kerenseean does not answer immediately; instead, she considers the question for a time.
When she is done considering she queries, “Is that what you are in search of?”
“It is.” Avi confirms following a short pause during which he wonders why Matilda has not simply given him an answer but instead issued him with a question of her own.
“And what do you hope to use this item to achieve?” Matilda asks shortly after and while stroking her pointed chin.
Avi replies honestly, “Use it. I don’t hope to use it. I simply seek it. I grew up, like all dwarves, hearing tales of the legendary Eris Hammer. I’m the last of my kind that believes it exists and if the tales of its beauty are true then it should have the chance to be gazed upon by the eyes of the descendants who helped forge it.”
Matilda’s response is swift as she utters that, “That is a good answer, but the Eris Hammer is lost.”
“It no longer exists?” Avi exclaims with disappointment, his shoulders slumped.
“No. It exists. But it rests within the grip of…others.” The elder explains cryptically.
“Who are these others and where do you lie?” The dwarf questions without pause.
Matilda shakes her head and offers that, “This quest is not worth your life and it will cost you your life Avi.”
“I do not care. I must find the Eris Hammer otherwise my quest will have been for nought. I won’t let that be the case.” The redheaded dwarf replies without thought or consideration for the danger that Matilda has alerted him to. Why he does not consider it he cannot say, but he doesn’t.
Matilda raises an eyebrow as she gazes, white eyed, at Avi for a while in silence. Once she is done staring she unexpectedly rises from her seat and then utters, “Follow me Avi and I will show you to the path that you seek. Before you tread it however you may want to rest.”
“Thank you Matilda.” Are the words that pass Avi’s lips before they depart from the elders’ cabin, still under the watchful eyes of the villagers.
They wander out of Kerenseean via a pathway that is cut between the trees. It’s barely discernible but leads them through the fog and ultimately to a pile of mighty rocks. It is here that they stop. Neither of them speaks but Matilda does raise her arm and point toward a narrow passage between haphazardly resting boulders many times the size of Avi or the taller elder beside him.
Avi stares at the mighty rocks but cannot make out just how high they are stacked or how wide an area they cover because of the fog.
“This is the way to what you seek, but do not forget my warning about what it’ll cost you.” Matilda reminds after a while.
“I intend to leave at first light, if you will accommodate me that is.” Avi utters without making any assumptions as to what Matilda’s response may be.
“We, the people of Kerenseean, would be humbled to do so.” Is the confirmation that the elder delivers after a very brief moment of consideration.