Year : 372
Vines hung low, cluttering the path and creating a sense of precaution with every step. Each pass through the natural curtains began with the tip of a blade and a wary eye. Night was on them, the shadows stretching further and further along the uneven grounds. Sparse patches of weeds and broken limbs of direwood were scattered everywhere and every so often a snake could be heard hissing, though no one knew from where. Off in the distance a bird fluttered through bramble, chirping to its mate, possibly warning of the oncoming trespassers. Aside from the gas pockets erupting occasionally, these were the only sounds in the swamp. The night would only make them seem that much louder.
It had been two weeks since they had first entered the swamps, searching for ghost tales and wild leads. It took the last of the gold that Neirodem had to convince the original twenty men to join him, his family’s wealth but an afterthought. Now, as he looked back, there were four. The Dwarf shook his head in disgust, angry at the events that lead him here, but determined to see his quest through. His return to Nosatral was never an option, but, if these whispers were true, he would be set for life.
“We’ve gone far enough, Neiro.” The mercenary known only as J halted the others, well behind the pace of the Dwarf. “We should camp and try to find something in this accursed place. Our rations are low.”
Neirodem scoffed at the weakness of J and the others, of all Humans in fact. “We press on. I told you, when we find Oltár, everything will be taken care of.” He turned to go, swallowing his words at his unfortunate luck.
“I wouldn’t wager, Dwarf,” and the spite hung with the last word, “that you’d survive long out there. Alone.”
Neirodem turned, unable to suppress his rage, and shouted back, “And, if you hadn’t noticed, you hairless troll, we haven’t fared well when making camp! The night – it kills you here!” He shuddered involuntarily as he remembered the carnage of the first night attack they suffered a week past. Six men had died that night, and two more fell within two days. It seemed, every night since their number lessened, until they decided their only option was to move through the night.
The faces of the men he had hired scowled, though he knew each of them thought the same thing. Better to move with a chance to survive than sit and welcome death. J reluctantly nodded and they rejoined their Dwarven leader. “How much further, Neiro? I should like to see this place before I die.”
Neiro smiled, but beneath the shadows and his beard no one could see. He liked J, if for nothing else than his belief in his journey. Then sadness overtook the Dwarf as he thought about his answer. He was not a liar, something that got him into more trouble than it was worth. But he would never lie. “I’ve no idea how much further. The rumors spoke of the direwood and life from nothingness. I think we’ve found both. All I can imagine is moving on in futile hope.” His words were true but glum.
A yell from behind them boomed across the night. They turned just in time to see one of the other men slide down a sinkhole where the ground had suddenly given way. They rushed back, careful to stay away from the edge and looked down. Now, there were three. The man’s body had been skewered on a shattered direwood trunk, his entrails adorning the wood like the vines they had been passing through for the last two weeks.
But that is where Neirodem stopped caring. Beyond the shattered tree and the corpse, lay a subterranean passage down into the bowels of the swamp. And beyond the passage, peaked in the distance just enough for his Dwarven eyes to spy, was a building. A shrine, hidden within the depths of the murk and vileness of the land, shone to the group as a beacon of hope.
“We found it.” Neirodem’s voice was soft and delicate, cautious not to disturb the image before him, not wanting to make it fade away. “I’ve heard rumors of this place, but I never thought I would actually find it. The powers within – I hear they rival the greatest mages in Delagraad." He turned to J, gripping his arm, his eyes wide with surprise and delirium. "And they’re ours.”