In the far corner of the bar was a woman. You couldn't tell how old she was, well out of her youth that was for sure, but not at all old yet. She was dressed quite humbly, and she was scrubbing the tables and chairs, and sweeping the floors. She was completely focused on her work and she was really doing a nice job too. The way she did so though, if you watched her for a couple of minutes, would make you think there was something different about her. Odd. Like perhaps she was mentally challenged in some way. No one concentrated that much on cleaning a bar; she did though.
It was a quiet late afternoon. In another hour or so the evening crowd would begin to show up and things would get quite lively. For now though it was that quiet, slow lull between lunch and evening where only the stragglers and hard-core drinkers were around.
It was at this point when he walked in. He stepped inside the door and stood to one side to let his eyes adjust to the light. He was a bit on the tall side, lean and seemed to be in good shape. He had the look of one who thought he knew where he was going. There was a quiet air of confidence about him and it was clear from his clothing that he was on a journey. He surveyed the room looking for a place to light. He naturally shied away from the noise at the bar and was focusing on a table towards the back. He walked past the talkative alcoholic who smiled and offered a greeting. All eyes from the crowd turned on him for a brief moment. He smiled and nodded but said nothing and just kept walking. He went and sat in the back, setting his pack on the floor next to his chair.
The waitress hadn't noticed him yet and he seemed to be in no hurry either. He was sitting back, stretching like he had been on his feet for some time and was enjoying the novel feeling of sitting. The cleaning woman was by now on the table next to him scrubbing stains someone from the lunch crowd had left. She stopped her scrubbing as she noticed him for the first time. She spoke in a voice so soft you wouldn't be able to hear it if you weren't standing right next to her. He heard a sound, and looked over in her direction. He saw her looking at him and so he smiled and spoke, "I'm sorry did you say something?"
"You are undertaking the journey aren't you?" she said.
He studied her for a long minute or two as his mind went back to the moment the oracle had called him to this quest. "You have been chosen ..." she had said. His family was so proud and he assured them all he would complete the journey and be victorious. The cleaning woman had begun to wilt under his gaze and was getting ready to leave. He saw this and so spoke in what he hoped was a kind voice. "Yes I am," he said, "And I was wondering how you knew that. I am dressed for traveling but why would you think I am on 'The journey'?"
She smiled a sweet shy smile and spoke, "Oh I can tell when someone is traveling on the journey," she said, "But you're going to need some help."
It was at this point that the waitress finally showed up, "Get lost, Laurie," she said with more than a touch of impatience and turning to the man said, "I'm sorry if that retard was bothering you, what can I get for you?"
The woman was starting to leave, clearly crushed at being treated so coldly when the man said, "Wait don't go." The woman stopped and he turned to the waitress and said, "Get me a Guinness and leave us alone." The waitress shrugged her shoulders and left. He turned to the woman and spoke, "What do you mean, I'm going to need some help."
"Well," she said, "You're going to have to cross the swamp of no hope, and trust me that can't be done unless you have help."
He smiled, nodding as he understood where she was going, "You're very kind, but I've been studying and training for this journey for a long time. I know where the swamp is narrowest, I can cross it at that point in less than a day."
"You are so confident," she said shaking her head sadly, "and I admire your courage, but you are wrong. The swamp is uncrossable unless you have help." It was at this point she reached into her pocket and pulled out a shiny gold medallion. It fit neatly in the palm of her small hand and she was offering it to him. It sparkled even in the shadows of the bar. "This amulet will protect you and guide you across the swamp."
He almost reached out to take it; there was something different about her in this moment. In this conversation she didn't sound at all mentally deficient. She was strangely compelling. Still, reason told him he could complete this journey; he had trained and planned well. "No thanks, really, I am quite confident I can complete this journey on my own."
She shook her head as she slid her hand back in her pocket. Her last words to him were, "Your journey will be most difficult, and I do not envy you."
A wave of despair came over him and he was beginning to have a twinge of regret about his decision. He wondered if he shouldn't try to talk to her again, but she was walking away, and just then his Guinness was set in front of him. He took a sip. It did taste good, and the cleaning woman was soon forgotten.
He stood at the top of the little hill and surveyed the view in front of him as far as he could see. The trail he was following wound down, veering generally off to the left, and disappeared out of sight. Far ahead, perhaps a mile or two he saw a lake. No, not a lake; it was the swamp. He could see the clumps of grass and bits of land sticking up. Occasional trees dotted the swamp though most of them looked like they were dead or dying.
He shook his head back and forth saying nothing. This was not good. This was going to be much worse than he had imagined. He knew he had no choice though. He knew that when he took his first step. He knew it when he first contemplated the journey. Well, it was no matter because there was certainly no turning back now. He laughed breaking the silence that engulfed him. It was a short mirth-filled laugh. He was remembering how excited he was when he accepted the call from the oracle to undertake this journey. He had known the journey would be hard, and indeed it had been thus far, but he had to admit to himself he was not looking forward to this next part. He suppressed the nagging memory about the interaction with the cleaning woman at the bar. It was nothing, after all, wasn't it, or was it? Should he go back and try and talk to the cleaning woman again? Nah, Fuck it, he thought to himself.
Before he started walking down the hill he peered into the distance to see if he could make out the other side. This was the narrowest part and he should be able to see the hills on the other side. One thing for sure was that the swamp stretched out a long, long ways. He shook his head again; no, this was not at all good. He thought he saw on the far horizon mountains but then again he could be imagining it or it could be a dark bank of clouds. He shrugged his shoulders and spoke softly, "Well pal, we aren't going to get across standing here and staring at it, are we?" As he spoke those words he realized for the first time that he was all alone. The words hung thick in the air. There was no other sound. The sound of the birds, and other animals of the forest were all gone. He had never felt quite this alone.
He was coming up on the hill where the trail had disappeared when he started to try and console himself with how good he would feel when the journey was over. This thought carried with him as he descended that last hill. The trail was plainly marked, clearly worn and he took some comfort that it was the footsteps of travelers like him that had made it so. Even if he was in fact all alone now, others had stood where was now standing and had walked this same path. He walked through a stand of trees. Even though it was springtime he saw no signs of life in them.
Off to the right he heard a noise, or thought he did, and stopped. The noise stopped too. With a nervous laugh he thought it a coincidence. He started walking and the hair on the back of his neck rose, spooking him, when he heard the noise start up again. Another nervous laugh as he thought to himself it sounded like a snake. If it was a snake it was a big one, a damned big one. He continued walking, taking soft steps to create no sound. It was easy to do, as the path was packed dirt. The sound seemed to be getting fainter, like it was moving farther away.
He rounded the bend in the trail and the stand of trees ended and there he was at the swamp. There was nothing to prepare him for it. He just rounded the bend and there it was. The trail wound its way tentatively in and for the most part was on a raised mound of land. Thank god for that at least, he thought to himself. For the most part it went straight out in front of him. Again, thank god for that, it would be much easier to try and follow a straight line than to be curving all over the swamp.
A wave of sadness came over him completely covering him as he took his first step into the swamp. He tried to shrug it off and could not. The path ahead seemed dark and he had a growing sense of dread. Again, he tried to shake it off and couldn't. He began to hum a tune, a happy one to lift his spirits. It usually worked but in this case it didn't seem to go any place. The very air surrounding him sucked all the happiness from him. Fine, fuck it, he thought to himself. He continued humming the tune and looked one final time back at the path behind him and realizing he wasn't at all sure if he could see the path ahead.
The path at first was easy. The first hundred yards or so were all along the raised path that lead into the swamp. He continued on for perhaps a half hour or more and stopped when he noticed the tops of his shoes were submerged in the water. He turned and looked back and saw the path disappearing into the distance. The hill he had descended into the swamp was completely erased from his view. All he saw was the swamp. He turned around in a complete circle and saw the same uninterrupted view of water, and slime, and decay, and trees. If the path were not there he would be completely lost. A twinge of fright came across him, which he easily suppressed. He pondered turning back, and realized again it was not an option.
Thank God for the path at least, he thought to himself. He could still see it, though not as easily, going generally straight ahead. He did hope though that the water would recede and the path would surface. Having a path to follow was a comfort, a small one, but a comfort nonetheless. He continued on sloshing through the water.
He continued on for some time. He looked at his wrist and realized that he no longer had his watch. Now when in the Hell did that happen, he wondered to himself. He had no recollection of ever losing it. He glanced up at the dull gray overcast sky and realized it gave no indication of what time it was. All he could glean from looking at it was that it was still daytime. He was tired, but not overly so. He kept sloshing through the swamp realizing that at some point he would have to locate some dry ground to spend the night on.
He felt a chill down deep to his bones when the water came over his boots, and ran down into his socks. God it was cold. It went through him and sent a wave of shock up his spine. He looked back, knowing he would see nothing, and did not. The path was starting to fade, or was the light of day fading? He wasn't sure which. It really didn't matter though. Either way he was having a hard time seeing the way ahead. He stopped, knowing he had to make a decision. He remembered a trick from when he was in boy scouts. Pick an object as far ahead in the horizon as you could and walk directly towards it. He looked down at the path and started taking small steps until it faded into the murk of the swamp. He looked ahead and saw a large tree some ways off in the distance. He began walking directly towards it. By the time he reached it the water was up to mid calf. He wished to God he hadn't lost his watch because he was beginning to get tired. If it were late enough he would stop for the night. I'm tired, it he thought to himself, and I'm stopping. Again, memories of the girl in the bar and her offer for help came into his mind. He had been so confident he could cross the swamp himself and now he was beginning to have serious regrets about not listening to her. He looked completely around him for a spot of ground he could sit on and found none. Fine. He turned back the way he had come and marked, in his mind a tree that was directly, more or less, the way he had come. This would help him remember the way he was headed. Then he proceeded to climb the tree he was next to so he could lodge himself in a branch and relax.
He climbed up, lodging himself in the crotch of the tree and leaned back to relax. God did it feel good. He hadn't realized how tired he was. He was precariously balanced but if he didn't move, he stayed balanced and could relax. That was fine with him. He had no plans to move for a while. He closed his eyes and started breathing slowly, forcing himself to relax.
He woke with a start as he felt himself falling towards the swamp. It was completely disorienting. He hit the water with a smack, having no time to react. The water completely covered him before he could gain footing and stand. He was wide awake now, and recollecting how he had climbed in the tree and must have fallen asleep. The sky was the same dull gray that it was when he climbed the tree and he had no indication if he had dozed for only five minutes or the entire night. He felt sore still, but that seemed to be from the position he had put himself in up in the tree.
He shook his head and said, "Whatever," enjoying the sound of his own voice breaking the silence. He got his bearings and started trudging through the swamp again. As he continued on the water slowly started to rise. When it got to his knees he began to get concerned. How far would the water rise? Would he ever reach the other side? Why did he think he could cross this in just a day? When he had started this journey he had been lead to believe that while the journey through the swamp would be difficult it would not take a significantly long time. He tried to think about how long he had been walking through this swamp. Was it five hours, perhaps six? Again he remembered the girl at the bar and started to wish that he had taken the gift she offered. He decided he would soon be at the halfway point and must be starting on the way out.
The thought should have given him hope, but it did not. The footing was getting precarious. This made his progress slower. He had to choose each step before putting his weight down. He couldn't see past the surface of the water any more either. It had grown quite murky. The floor of the swamp seemed to now be littered with rocks and sticks, some of them sharp. He continued to put one foot in front of the other. His only thought was to continue to make progress.
He reached the tree he had been walking towards and was looking to find another to take a bearing on and could not. There was none. He knew they had been thinning out for some time now, and now they were gone entirely. All he could see ahead of him were indistinguishable clumps of swamp grass surfacing everywhere. It should have made him panic, or at the very least make him nervous. He just stood there and looked at the view. After a few minutes he realized he wasn't making any progress by standing here so he started walking again, slowly, and carefully.
The water was approaching mid thigh when he felt something brush against his left leg. It gave him a start because it was obviously something living, swimming in the waters that had brushed against him. It felt long, like a snake or eel of some sort. It had sent a chill down his spine. He felt the edge of terror creeping against his consciousness as he realized there was nothing he could do about it. There was no defense. He started taking low deep breaths to calm himself. Just because whatever it was had brushed up against him didn't mean it was attacking him. Chances are the two of them could coexist together. Couldn't they? Just to be sure though, the next time he felt a stick that was large in the water he would try and grab it. Perhaps he could use it for a weapon. He bumped up against what felt like a largish stick and reached down to pick it up. He was just able to keep his head above the filthy water as he grabbed on to the stick. It didn't come easily so he yanked at it. Giving way reluctantly, he struggled to keep his balance as the stick came free.
He raised it up out of the water and stood looking at it. He shook his head back and forth. A growing sense of dread was beginning to engulf him. What he was holding was not a stick but a bone, a leg bone by the look of it. He realized that what he had been bumping up against and treading over all this time was most likely not sticks, but bones. The stories about this place were probably true, all of them. He looked around three hundred and sixty degrees. He was in the middle of this place. He had no idea how much further it was across. It could be a couple of hundred yards, or a couple of hundred miles. Turning back seemed equally as fraught with danger as moving ahead. What had he gotten himself into?
He let the bone fall down into the water while not letting go of it. Realizing he had no choice, or more likely only bad choices, he began walking ahead, or what he thought was ahead. His choices were to either keep walking or to stay here and wait; wait for what? Wait for whatever it was that was in this place to get him, just like all the others, like the miserable fuck whose leg bone he was now holding in his hand.
He trudged on for what seemed like hours with the landscape never changing. He circumvented the bones, and thankfully felt nothing more brushing up against his legs. This fact did not give him hope though. He knew they were out there, waiting for him. The advantage was all theirs too. This was their back yard and they most likely knew it very well.
He came to a large expanse of open water. The swamp was giving way. He looked to see how far it extended and could not. Again fog had permanently settled in and he could get no bearing from the sun. He at least had the semblance of maintaining a general direction but with nothing but open water and fog he had absolutely no hope of having any kind of certainty that he was maintaining a course. It was at this point that the thought first occurred to him that he was never going to get out of this swamp. He had already begun to deeply regret the outcome of the interchange in the bar with the cleaning woman. The really strange thing here was even though, at some level he knew he was not going to ever get out of this God-forsaken swamp, he did not, indeed could not give up. Rather than let it fill him with despair he just gathered up what little resolve he had and kept on walking. If he thought about it, which he didn't, there really was no other alternative.
He looked to the right and the left of him and saw the edge of the swamp extending off in both directions. Yes, he was beginning to see, to feel deep down in his bones the utter hopelessness of his current situation, but what choice did he have? The maps he had studied so carefully made no mention of a lake along the path he was taking. Were the maps wrong, or was he that far off course?
He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head back and forth and said, "What the fuck." His voice sounded small and didn't seem to carry well at all in the thick air that surrounded him. He started trudging through the water and found that almost immediately the water came up to his chest. He contemplated swimming until he realized he didn't know how anyways. If the water went much higher, he would have to start searching for another path. At least the water wasn't cold. No it was strangely warm in fact. He had gone a couple of hundred yards, far enough to get out of sight of the swamp when he felt something brush up his leg again.
This time he knew it was long because he could feel it sliding against him for a long time. It sent another chill down his spine and he had to force himself not to panic. He continued on at the same pace. One, two, three, and there it was again, only this time it had either folded back on itself or there were two of them. Panic started to seize him and he heard himself mutter, "Oh good God no." He tried to calm himself by focusing on his breathing and was almost successful. He had quickened his pace in spite of himself, and as soon as he noticed it slowed himself down again. He had started counting his paces to focus his mind and keep panic at bay.
Six, seven, eight and oh shit here they were again. This time he knew there were two of them. One came along the inside of his thigh and one along the outside of his calf. They both hit at the same time. He briefly contemplated grabbing one but realized that would be hopeless. They were long and even if he grabbed one there would still be the other. He noticed the bone in his hand and thought it completely worthless, though something in him could not let go of it, not yet.
The two terrors, that's what he had started to call them, left their caressing of his legs and he was again painfully alone. He began his trudging through the water again. Seven, eight, nine, and what the hell was that. It sounded ahead and slightly off to the right, perhaps a hundred yards maybe less. It was the sound of something breaking the water and hitting it. It sounded big, really big. It made him freeze in place and listen intently, but nothing more was heard. Panic again was making inroads and he beat it back by counting his breaths. His feet were frozen in place and he willed them to move. Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen and the terrors again caressed his legs. This time, rather than stop, he kept on walking. The movement helped him keep his sanity. He waited, forcing himself to breathe all the while, for the terrors to pass. They never did. The slithering, the movement, in around and through his legs never quit. They had become his constant companion. He tried to count how many of them he felt. Two, no wait three. Always in and around his legs, low enough so he could never get a look at them.
Off in the distance, enshrouded in mist he thought he saw shadows -- were they trees, or even perhaps land? He dared not quicken his pace to find out, lest he panic, but he worked to keep it consistent. He stared intently as he moved forward and this time caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of a large object rising up out of the water, and moving back down. It was too brief to tell anything about its size or shape, other than it was large, much bigger than he was.
Ahead, the shadows were all too slowly starting to form and by God it did look like land, if he could only make it, perhaps he could stand a chance. He still had the bone in his hand and he sure as Hell planned on using it. Let those fuckers try and take him on land, we'll see what happens then. Just as he was finishing that thought in his mind he felt one of the terrors slithering through his legs take a nip at his pants. The tugging was light and brief which made him think it must have been very light, or the thing had very sharp teeth. He knew if he started to panic and run he would fall and all would be lost.
It was land ahead he could see that now. It was still too far ahead though to tell if it was just a rise in the marsh or the other side of the swamp. He allowed himself the extreme joy at imagining he would reach it. It was hollow though because the terrors had now begun a constant nipping at his clothing. The hits were coming one after the other and he realized there must be a dozen of them, if not more.
There was a mere twenty yards between him and the land when the first of the terrors broke flesh and took a chunk out of him. He screamed in spite of himself, even though it seemed a small bite. Panic surged through him and he began to run. The water level was receding with each step. He was getting small chunks of flesh taken out of him with each step. The sound of his screaming was echoing in his ears. When the water got below his knees the terrors left and he stumbled the last few steps onto the land and collapsed. His legs were bleeding and he knew he had to stop it or he would expire right here. With great effort he removed his shirt and ripped it into several pieces and tied them around his legs as best he could. Then he laid back and closed his eyes to rest for just a minute.
He woke with a start. His legs were completely stiff and hurt like hell when he tried to move them. The sky was that same damnable dingy gray that gave him no clue to what time of day it was, or any reference to the sun so he could get a general bearing on what direction he had been heading. He closed his eyes again and must have fallen asleep again because when he woke again everything was dark. Well, at least he knew there was a night in this damnable place. He tried to move and could with great difficulty. It still hurt like hell but not quite as much. He reached into his pack and took out a small portion of food. At least the food was lasting. He figured he had enough for another week if he rationed it out.
The next morning he was able to get up and walk around. He started doing a loop around the small bog he was on. Working the stiffness out of his muscles. He looked at the bites on his legs and judged them severe but at least he was walking right. He was just contemplating setting out again when he felt something different. It was a slight breeze on his face. It sent a thrill of joy through him. It took a mere five or ten minutes and he saw the fog start to move out. It cleared first from the direction he had been coming from. He saw swamp stretching as far as he could see. Damn right he thought to himself. He had come a long way, and couldn't even see the hills he had come down in the distance. He turned to look and see where he was heading. As the fog slowly lifted he screamed for joy. Off in the distance, a damn long ways to be sure, but there it was, the unmistakable silhouette of hills.
He was almost there, by God he was almost there. He continued pacing thinking furiously. He knew the terrors had almost gotten him. Were they still waiting for him? Had they left by now? Would they return when he stepped in the water again? What about the big creature he had seen glimpses of? He decided that his staying here, what, almost two days would make them loose their interest. Yes, that was absolutely true wasn't it? While this thought was going through his head, another thought was playing in a different key. It was the repeating theme that he would not make it out of the swamp ever. He was beginning to understand that he would most probably die in this place. He decided on a plan even as he saw the thick fog settling in again. He would stay here on this little bog for two more days, eating well and building his strength back up. Then, two days from now, he would make a dash for the hills. There was risk to be sure, but there was also something to base the smallest bit of hope on.
He walked for the next hour or so till he was close to exhaustion. He sat down and afforded himself a sumptuous meal, or at least as much as he could with his rations. He rested for several hours and then got up and walked again. He repeated this routine throughout the day. The next two days passed slowly and he was completely alone with his thoughts. There was no further breeze, or any sound to break the solitude with himself. His confidence was beginning to wane a bit. He figured the distance he had to cover was at least a half mile, perhaps as much as a mile. It all, or most of it, was open water too and that meant wonderful hunting grounds for the terrors and whatever the hell that other thing was. He kept hope alive though and resolved to leave as he had planned on the morning of the second day. He was feeling good, not a hundred percent by any means, but good enough to cover the distance remaining.
The morning came and he completed the few preparations he had. He put his pack together, put it on his back, and began walking the few steps to the other side of the bog and into the water.
With each step he allow himself to feel a bit more hope. If the distance to the hills were a half-mile he must have covered half of it by now. The water wasn't even up to his waist either, perhaps only mid thigh. This too he took as a good sign. He began to try and move quicker and that was the moment they hit. The terrors, perhaps two or three slithered through his legs, at what seemed an impossible speed. He screamed out loud, "No by God not when I'm this close. He began an all out sprint, as much as he could anyways with the water for the hills. They swarmed around him and began their nipping at his legs. All he wanted to do was make it to the hills. He should be able to see them by now, where were they? All he could see was the fucking dense fog. It was thicker than ever. The pain from the constant nipping was becoming intense, but finally he saw the hills, a mere hundred yards ahead. He quickened his pace and then began to cry as he slowed down to a crawl. What he thought were hills ahead were not hills at all, they were not even a bog to escape from these damnable terrors. It was just a new bank of fog, darker in color from the water becoming deeper from the lake. He hadn't been going in a straight line at all. He had been curving to his left the whole time moving towards the lake, "The Lake of Despair," to be exact.
Almost on cue, when this thought came to him, not fifty yards ahead a large shape began to emerge from the surface of the lake. It was a Swamp Dragon and it was coming for him. He grabbed the bone in his hand tightly. He was determined to go down with a fight. Terrors were swarming around his legs with their constant nipping. He began to crumble with the intense pain they were dealing out. He straightened himself up reading a swing just as the Swamp Dragon took its first swipe at him. It knocked him off his feet and he struggled to get up, momentarily free from the terrors. He felt himself being grabbed by the huge creature and he started to scream again, this time in terror.
His last thoughts, as he felt his spine snapping and his life slowly draining from him, was of the woman in the bar and the amulet she had so freely offered him, and of how badly he had fucked everything up.
-- Joel Millican