Jagged slate crunched beneath my iron-shod boots, each step sending stone chattering down the precarious incline I descended. A rope held most of my weight, tied to a leviathan boulder at the edge of the drop. I knew too well it would be my only means of escape.
Stopping for a moment, I scanned the ashen horizon. A crater of shattered rock enveloped me, several kilometres wide and hundreds of feet deep. Fangs of stone pushed forth from the scattered shale, dislodged from the earth by a great upheaval.
And below, a dark, vile world awaited me. Festering at the centre of the crater was a blighted forest, a putrefied collection of sickly trees, bladed ferns and toxic fungus. Knotted vines, shaded in hues of decay wormed their way from the wretched mat of foul vegetation, growing up the crater as though they wished to escape.
A crash drew me from my survey, a half a kilometre to my right. I turned, spotting a shape tumbling down the crater. It was a beast, some horned canid that stalked the surrounding wastes. Terrified howling echoed around me as it rolled and bounced, each impact shattering bones and rupturing organs. Now and again it would right itself for a moment, scrambling to gain footing upon the precarious slope, only to be sent sprawling as slate gave way.
Limply, the wolf rolled the last few feet before disappearing into the diseased forest. Pathetic howling was muted by layers of choking moss and rotted branches.
I waited for a moment, disheartened by the mournful wails of the beast. To my surprise, it was cut off mid cry, as though it’s life had been suddenly taken. After the wolf was silenced, the grinding of shale reached me. Something was being dragged.
It was then my resolve was truly tested. Suspended above that cursed grave, I wished to turn back, to scarper up the slope as fast as my legs would take me. To saddle my horse and gallop across the wastes, back to through the Sealed Gate and to my home of Dalwik.
But a deeper fear pushed me forward. The lord of Dalwik himself dispatched me on this unenviable errand, and he was not a man known for mercy. The possibility of a swift end was far more desirable than months of gruesome torture, my death drawn out by unnatural alchemy and occult sorcery.
Tightening my grip, I resumed my precarious descent into the blighted pit, my heart pounding like mad. It was a short trip to the bottom, and as soon as my foot touched solid earth I dropped to a crouch.
I scanned the tree-line for any foes, earthly or otherwise. The dense blankets of moss made it near impossible to see, but the lack of motion put me somewhat at ease. Satisfied I was in no immediate danger I unclipped myself from the rope.
Reaching for my pack, I pulled forth my only form of defence; a vicious sabre of solid brass. Briefly I inspected the blade, ensuring it’s sharpness. Though it held an edge well, I doubted it would preform as a sword of steel, although I was assured the golden alloy would slay an otherworldly foe where as a traditional blade would fail.
Rising, I stepped towards the dense pack of sickly trees, making for a patch less wreathed with crawling flora. Each step intensified the stink of putrified wood and corpse-flowers, and I was forced to pull my scarf over my nose. Rose water I had soaked into the cloth provided some relief, but the vile aroma lingered.
Stepping past the tree-line, I entered a world of venomous greens and putrid browns. Narrow paths diverged in all directions, winding madly before disappearing into thick mats of lichen. Stones coated in slime made breaks in the endless blanket of trees, and the buzzing of bloated flies droned on maddeningly.
With great care I stalked through the wood, eyes wide. Every twisted branch or gnarled stump looked like some ethereal horror, silently waiting for my approach. My blade was held high, ready to slash at the first thing that moved.
My heart stopped as I glanced to my side. Suspended near twelve feet above the foetid forest floor where two pinpricks of pale light, partially hidden behind moss and vines. For a moment I thought them to be breaks in the vast canopy of the wood.
That was until they blinked.
Without a second thought I dropped my blade of brass, turning and sprinting towards the edge of the pit. Like a beast I scrambled on all fours, my boots unable to find traction upon the vile mud.
From behind me came the soft sound of parting sheets of vegetation, although no footfalls could be heard. I glanced over my shoulder as I scrambled, catching a glimpse of my pursuer. An ovoid head, black as charcoal, peered over a tilted tree. Iridescent clouds of flies obscured much of its form, only long, spindly fingers visible, wrapped around the tree’s trunk.
I didn’t need a second look. The animalistic part of my brain took complete control, and despite my mad flailing I was nearing the tree-line. Like an arrow I breached the forest, and in an instant I was at the edge of the pit. I lunged for the rope I had left behind, pulling myself up without even considering the safety latch. Like mad I climbed, sending waves of loose stone crashing behind me. I did not stop until I reached the top.
Throwing myself over the lip, I flopped onto my back. My breathing was fast and ragged, and for a moment I blacked out. When my vision returned, I pushed myself up, and as fast as I could pulled in my climbing rope.
Grasping at the last few feet, my hands grew slick. Mucous coated the rope, flecked with streaks of blood. In disgust I discarded it, wiping my hands on the dry grass.
Still huffing, I crawled to the lip of the pit. Below the blanket of foul vegetation stood as though nothing had disturbed it. The only sign of activity was a pile of shale at the bottom of my path, cast down by my own panicked flight. I was safe.
I am safe.
Now I am left with a choice; face the nightmare that infests that pit, disarmed as I am, or return to my home and accept my fate. I shall ride westward till dusk, and set my camp up there. Come the morning I shall make my decision, but for now I dare not linger, lest the shadows of the pit spill over in the dead of night.