It was the smell, half rotted matter pooled and festering into congealed muck. It was the effort, gagging to heave dense air in vain to soothe burning muscles. It was the heat, the damp heat, it clung to the skin like film. The path twisted through gnarled roots which tripped the foot and hanging vines that slapped the face.
Stopping, the wanderer squinted along the trail – nothing but endless muck, stagnant waters that watched with predatory patience, and trees so silent in the still air it was as if time crept to a halt.
At least he had travelled for a while now, at least he had come far.
He looked back and sagged. Trees enclosed the trail, obscuring its sight as it twisted around bogs and ditches. He saw no further back than a few feet. Had he really come far, had he really gone anywhere at all?
The clinging heat weighed ever more and he slumped to his arse with a squelch in the quagmire.
“There’s no point,” he sighed, “By the time I get where I’m going, it will be too late. I will be dejected by my trials and my friends, family, and love will be beyond reach.” A toad croaked a drawl and horrid note. “No point.”
He pushed himself up – with difficulty as his hands sagged into damp earth – and stood on the edge of the trail. The urge pulled at him, to wade into the stagnant waters and let the growth take him. Some dread, some half forgotten warning, rung in his throbbing mind, but the urge was too strong.
He stepped off and plunged into lukewarm waters as vines, roots and weeds shuddered into motion, snapped out and ensnared him greedily. They pulled at his hands, his legs and his neck, forcing into his mouth as he screamed and thrashed in regret.
The warning rang through his mind, given to him by a guardian long ago. She did say not to stray from the path, not even for a second, to be vigilant of despair and woe.
And now look, his own weakness had driven him to strangulation and drowning in a swamp of miseries. He would be still and rot like the other matter in this place, decay into congealed muck as other wanderers hope not to share the same fate.
The waters pressed down on him, roots and weeds constricted, happy to have more prey, the world grew dark.
A ripple of light on the surface, a streak of bright through the dark and that same voice that had guided him spoke, like the glow of dawn after a long, cold, night.
“You have faced the swamp thus far, you can face the swamp thenceforth.”
A gasp, the wanderer broke free and struggled to the surface, spluttering as he dragged himself onto the semi solid trail.
“I’m not dead yet,” he wheezed, “My life waits for me still.”
The shame of his attempt watched from the waters, but he did not let it drag him back down. He pushed up and made down the endless, winding trail.
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