Creston wouldn’t be able to tell you which was more familiar to him; the stench of death and rot, or the sight of fallen tears and unanswered prayers. Whichever it was, neither could compare to just how much he hated this job. Creston had not been blessed with good looks; his mop of shaggy brown hair and freckles weren’t the problems either. Instead, he was unlucky enough to be born with a curse on his face formed between his mouth and his nostril; a cleft lip, exposing the inside of his mouth whether he wanted to or not. Childhood had been hard for him, especially in a superstitious land like Jaegar. People saw him as a bad omen, something of ill luck, something that The Mist had once swallowed yet crawled out of its abyss through some darker sorcery. His mother’s death during his birth only made the rumours around him worse. The only good he had ever known, came from a father, who although was more oft drunk than not, tried to keep a roof over their heads. For a time, anyway.
“H-how is it? Is it bad? W-will he...” the youth in front of him asked. The boy’s attention was fixed on the trail of mud he had dragged in, daring not to look up. Not many could look Creston in the face, he knew that. His line of work didn’t help either; people never thought well of those who worked with the dead. Sooner or later, however, everyone has need of a gravedigger. Whether it be through the church or his own doors, people needed their dead bury. He had already become used to their treatment from childhood and work but that did not mean he felt no anger whenever it happened. This boy was no different.
“Well, if he wasn’t dead, we wouldn’t be here now, would we!” he said with a fire in his voice.
The boy’s eyes darted up to meet his face, but then just as quickly swept past it to look at the old rotting roof of the funeral home. “It’s... I’m just... I’ve never done this before.” he managed to finally get out.
“Well I’d think not, not at your age. By the looks of you, you couldn’t hold a spoon or fork without your mommy to help you” he barked with annoyance. Jarred, the boy’s eyes found their way back down to the ground, his fingers fidgeting with each other behind his back. Creston sighed.
“Look. Do you even have the coin for this, boy? I doubt it. I can’t just bury your friend out back for free. This is a business, not a charity. So unless you can pay for this – “
“I can! I can pay for it!” The outburst startled Creston. At that moment, the boy’s eyes had met his own and showed no hint of fear like before; only resolve. Why was this brat so desperate about this? These lands are mostly swampland; it was no simple thing to bury the dead here. That is unless you didn’t mind them being washed up when it rained. That’s why burying the dead within these parts of Arincar was so promising; those who wanted a proper burial for their loved ones had to pay for a proper tomb to be built. It made for great business if you can get used to the stench and constant boo-hooing. Well, you become dull to it all after a while anyway; much like Creston had. Although, that’s more likely because of his character. Still, this youth has only seen eight springs – if even that much. He had no business being in a place like this, requesting services like these. Not even for family or a loved one, but a complete stranger no less! That made it beyond queer.
“Alright. Let me see your coin, boy. I won’t have you playing me for a fool” Creston said. Truly, he didn’t believe the boy to have the coin for this. He charged fifteen muriems for his services; coin which is not easy to come by, certainly not for some brat.
The boy began rummaging through his clothes hurriedly, searching for something. After a while, a gasp of joy came from the boy as he pulled out a small black leather pouch from beneath some part of his muddy clothing. It must’ve been raining heavily somewhere from the looks of the boy; mud covered him from shoulders to boots. Smudges could also be seen on his face from where he might have cleaned it.
“Here”, he said in a voice filled with pride for some accomplishment lost to Creston. He shoved a hand into the pouch and pulled out a fistful of something before thrusting it towards Creston.
“That should be more than enough” he announced. Creston gingerly took the items from inside of the boy’s hands and immediately, the blood rushed to his face. What he was now holding, were stones and marbles in different shades of red and yellow; a currency of a different land; a currency which had no place here. The boy was a foreigner.
“Get out!” he spat, throwing the odd trinkets into the boy’s face. “I don’t want nothing to do with you nor your kind! Now get out of my place ‘fore I call the guards!”
Without missing a beat, the boy spun on his heels and sped out through the door, not even bothering to pick up his foreign money on the ground... or the body in the back. Shit. Creston had completely forgotten about the damn thing in his fit of rage. But then, that made it all the more baffling – Why would someone from a foreign land be so adamant about having some dead nobody buried?
Tossing aside the thought, he went to the back of the building and the familiar stench of death and rot. He looked towards the body on the table counter, covered in even more mud than the boy who had dragged it in. The face showed bruises and scars under cakes of mud but the corpse itself had yet to smell. To bury it in a proper tomb would be too costly; he didn’t have stone and mortar lying around that he could use without worry and any he had would be better used on a job he was being paid for. After some time, he decided he’d drag the body onto his wagon and dump it off the cliff-edge to the east at nightfall. No one ever goes that far east anyway; there’s nothing out there except for the swamps, the fog, and the sudden drop of the cliffs if you’re not careful. The entire day had been clear too and the usual fog seemed thin enough. He reckoned he should be fine.
A quick glimpse through the window showed sunset was near, so he readied Morrison’s hitch and open-wagon. The dark brown gelding was getting on in his years and had been with him now for near two decades; since the day his father threw him out. He had found the animal, limping and lost that very same day. Thinking he saw himself in the creature; a young broken thing thrown aside, he nursed it back to health. It still had a small limp but the horse was trustworthy and sure-footed within these lands from experience and was the only companion Creston had. After all, unlike others, the horse never had a problem with his face.
By sundown, the wagon was hitched to Morrison and readied. A quick search on his person and he realized he had best arm himself with some steel or blade at the least. Jaegar wasn’t in any war with neighbouring kingdoms, nor was it suffering from any internal conflicts but that didn’t mean it was without outlaws, thieves, and murderers. Superstitious and dark lands often carried all sorts of trouble and that went doubly so after nightfall. He ran back inside and searched around for something he could use but could only settle on the carving knife he used in his spare time. He was more a mason than a carpenter or artist, but he didn’t want to risk having to use and damage his hammer and chisel in a fight. It’d be difficult to find the coin to repair them when they were how he earned coin in the first place.
Hurrying out of the building again, he got on his wagon and began his journey. Creston dared not ride Morrison too hard. Sure enough, the gelding was strong, but he was aged and he’d rather not be the nail in his coffin. Besides, dusk was upon him now and only a fool would hurry on horseback through the dark; especially when travelling to a cliff in lands with fog and swamp all about.
The ride was long and made Creston irritable, more so than usual. Jaegar wasn’t a gorgeous place, not unless you had a love for the dark and gloomy. The reason for his trip didn’t help either. Worst yet, the fog was a lot thicker than he was expecting; a lot thicker than usual even. He could barely see past Morrison’s ass and had to rely on the animal to guide them both. This made his already long and slow journey all the longer as he had lost the track three times already and had to circle back twice to find it again. The fog also carried a strange odour in the night air, something queer and unfamiliar. Creston didn’t like this at all. He wasn’t superstitious and was quite familiar with the swamplands of his home, but the night was unsettling and he was already regretting his choice. Still, he was nothing if not stubborn; so he pressed on.
The hour of the dead was well passed and the morning sun would be rising soon, blinding him in his face from the east. And yet, the fog remained thick and unending. The smell it carried was stronger now as well; the bile in the back of his mouth he could taste was proof of that. It threatened to make him retch the further east he travelled. Even though his nose had already become used to such foul and rotting odours, he had never experienced any quite like this. This stench smelled like the burning of some animal or creature; like the infection of some fatal wound; it smelled of burning rock and poison; it smelled of mud, and piss, and shit; it smelled of all things vile, dying, and dangerous. It took all he could to just not wretch on the rump of Morrison.
“Damn that boy. Damn him, damn this body, and damn these cursed swamps!”
Almost as if the land responded in answer, one of the wheels of his wagon broke against a rut hidden in the fog. Creston gave another curse as he leaped off the wagon to inspect the wheel and cursed yet again. One of the inner spokes was broken where the wheel cracked. He knew he’d have to change the wheel if he wanted to leave here with his wagon, and yet, he had no spare to change it with; let alone, the tools or knowledge. He kicked the wheel in anger, shifting the wagon unbalanced and stirring Morrison. In a strange twist of luck however, it was thanks to this that he even noticed he had reached his destination at all. When he looked ahead, and squinted through the thick fog, even daring to walk some ways forward, he only then noticed the cliff-edge just a few more steps in front of the gelding. The fog was so thick, that he might have stepped right off had he not noticed how strange it looked then.
With a shudder, he turned around and made his way back towards his wagon blindly. When he emerged a mere foot in front of Morrison, the beast gave such a whelp that it nearly hoofed him right in the face, had he not dodged at the last moment. He calmed his friend with a few words and a touch as an apology before looking back towards the wagon. It only then occurred to him just how uneasy the gelding must have been feeling. Not being able to see much at all in front of him must have him scared and confused, Creston figured.
After taking a deep long breath, Creston decided he’d have to leave his wagon behind and return for it once he got a spare and someone who could replace it. That is, if there’ll even be a wagon to return to. He cursed again as he unhitched Morrison and threw the hitch onto the back of the wagon. He used the reigns to tie the gelding to the front of the wagon as he went to the back to rid himself of his dead burden.
Only to realize that he was already rid of it.
The situation left him confused for a moment and quite terrified. He had dealt with many of the dead before but they always remained dead those times. And he was sure that this guy was without a doubt, dead. He couldn’t have lost the body during the travel either – he wasn’t travelling near fast enough for a fully-grown man to be tossed from a wagon, so where did his corpse go? It couldn’t have just got up and walked away, surely.
The thought made the night seem all the more dark to him and fright seeped into his bones. He was certain that the corpse was indeed a corpse; it’s a part of his trade after all. There’s no way he could’ve made such a blunder with all his years of experience. He backed away slowly from the wagon, half expecting the missing body to appear from beneath it. Now, every shadow was suspect. He ought to get away from here, he knew at once. He didn’t exactly believe the dead could be walking around the place at night, but he wasn’t exactly keen on looking around trying to find it. Forget about the body – it was gone now, and that was what he wanted. He had no business to stay here any longer now.
He rushed to the front of the wagon to untie Morrison and be done with this business, only to see that Morrison, like his corpse, was also missing. Without even a sound, a four-hundred stone horse had vanished! Madness! Morrison refused to believe such a thing and yet, there was no sign of his gelding; only hoof prints from where they came. How could he have even lost his only companion? He was sure to have tied the reigns tightly to the wagon, so just how was it that Morrison had vanished? Even with the fog blowing in his face, he -
Just since when had the fog started going in his direction? He was facing the cliff-edge, and he recalled it blowing off and over it. So since when had it been –
A shudder swept through him as he felt a pair of eyes watching him. He glanced to his side but saw only the fog. The feeling was unsettling. It was a moment; the briefest of moments, but for just that moment, it felt as if someone was watching him. And very closely.
He caught a movement in the corner of his eye, or at least, he thought he did. But when he looked, there was nothing to find. He was utterly alone. Or he was not. He wasn’t certain which thought terrified him more. Taking a deep swallow to be rid of his fear, Creston drew his carving knife. Not much, but he was beyond thankful for having brought it right this moment. He steeled his nerves from the touch of the handle.
“Who’s there! Show yourself, you damn coward!”
Silence was the only response. He spat a curse and spun around, deciding to leave this place before anything else could happen. It was then that he heard the response, if it could be called one. Some inhumane growl came from behind him; deep, old, and crude. Creston chanced a slow glance over his shoulder, scared at what he may see. Again, nothing. Save for the cliff-edge.
Enough. He was through with this. Looking straight ahead of him, he started walking in the opposite direction of the cliff, following the tracks of the wagon. Hopefully, he’d chance upon Morrison who had just sprinted away because of something.
There was only one set of hoof prints, you dolt, a voice said in his head. He ignored it and continued walking; his knife at the ready in his hand. At first, he kept a normal pace, but without even noticing, his walk had become a strut, each step having a longer stride than the last. He wanted no more than to be in his old funeral home which he called his home and regretted this decision all the more.
Some period of time had passed since he began his return home. How much, he could not say, but it was enough to make him feel tired and thirsty. The sun should be rising soon, he thought. And yet, the sky remained as black as before. Even the fog remained unchanged. Holding over on his knees, he took a moment’s rest and realized that he was not walking the right way. The wagon’s tracks which he had been following for a while now were not going directly in front of him, but were instead coming from his left and going past him to his right. Just when had I gotten turned around? He was no longer even sure which way would lead back to civilization. With what was not for the last time, Creston spat a curse and made for the track to his left, believing the other way was back towards the cliff and whatever made that - No. I will not think on that.
After some more time had passed, Creston’s exhaustion was becoming serious. Any more than this and my life could be serious in trouble here. He had not eaten or drank anything for hours. So weak, he stumbled on a rut in the ground and smashed his head onto something only a foot in front of him, hidden by the fog. Using it, he clung on and hoisted himself up, only to fall back onto the floor, this time in shock. The wagon. Again, He spat a curse. Impossible. He was certain he had left it behind him, unless... Had I really gotten myself turned around back there? He peered in front of the wagon and saw the endless white fog that was still flowing towards him, from where the cliff laid beyond and the thing he was not supposed to think of.
The thought gave him dread and the dread birthed renewed energy for him to find his feet, and his knife he had dropped. He turned around again and vowed this time to keep his head down and follow only the wagon’s tracks.
But it did not matter. After what felt like another journey of walking, he yet again found himself in front of the wagon for the second time. This time, he was sure he didn’t stray off of the tracks! He felt like he had walked close to half a day’s worth of travel, and yet he was only ever going back towards his wagon. Was this one of the tricks that people said The Mist played on wandering people? No. Such things are just horror stories parents told their children to keep them from being naughty. But what if... what if they were true? What if such stories really did happen in these lands? If so, he would certainly die of exhaustion before he got out of this place. So he did the only thing a sane man would do - he denied it and refused to believe such things could be possible.
Again he tried to leave the cliff-edge, walking away from his wagon, but the only thing he achieved was wearing himself out further with each journey. Was it the sixth time now? He could no longer keep count. His mind was starting to become unhinged. He began seeing things that shouldn’t be there; basic things at first, things that he desired. The first as a table lain with food that he wolfed down, almost choking himself on a drumstick. Within moments of eating it however, he retched up his stomach to see mud and shrubbery mixed in his vomit covering his clothing. In another case, he was certain he was looking at a stranger on horseback and ran towards them, trying to get his attention. That time, had he been a second later in realizing it was a phantom, he would’ve ran right off of the cliff. It was always the cliff that he returned back to; as if the fog beyond it was calling towards him. But he refused to give in to it and pressed on.
He was certain a full day must’ve passed based on how much time he spent within the fog. No, maybe more than a day. And yet, night remained night and the fog remained with it. He wanted to rest in his flea-ridden straw bed; he wanted to eat his bland onion lamb broth; he even wanted to see the dead corpses in the back of his home. But his waking dreams would not let him and instead, he continued to trudge through mud and swamp.
The fog started showing him more complex and random dreams. At one point, he was looking down at a little girl mere steps in front of him with strange blue hair and golden eyes. The girl’s only action was to stare back at Creston without a word, her amber eyes piercing him. He felt as if he may have seen the child before, but wasn’t certain. At another point, the fog showed him an unfamiliar woman in a white gown smeared with blood from the bodice down, riding away on Morrison. He cursed at her for leaving him behind in such a horrible place on his horse and only friend.
Choosing to keep his eyes shut, he trudged onward through the marsh. He thankfully saw no more tricks on his eyes but felt as if he was being lulled to sleep with each step. Every stride threatened to throw him onto his face and with his stubbornness now seeped completely out of him, he was certain he would not get up this time. On one occasion, he stumbled forward and began to smile; I can just take a break, he thought. He could just take a nap right then and there and continue later. And he almost did too; his senses dulled by exhaustion. But he didn’t. At the very last moment, his eyes opened against the cold night air and he fought for his balance. With his upper body relying solely on his feet, he leaned dangerously over the cliff-edge. After what felt like an eternity, fighting to maintain his footing, he fell backward onto the ground, completely out of breath. Propping himself up on an elbow for support, Creston looked over the cliff-edge into the night sky and not for the last time, gave a curse towards the seemingly endless expanse of fog that laid beneath him.
And the fog gave an answer. The growl came again, from deep within the fog. It frightened him beyond anything he had ever heard. He swore he had soiled himself. It was then that he saw it; the red eyes in the mist. Not clearly at first, but they were so red they easily stood out in the fog. No, it was more as if the eyes themselves belonged to the fog. This time, he definitely did soil himself.
He turned in a panicked frenzy, even throwing away his carving knife, in a desperate struggle to run from the cliff’s edge. The fog now turned against him, pushing into his face back towards the cliff-edge with such ferocity, it felt as if it was trying to take him with it. Creston fought it, but he could not win. His body was far too exhausted and he easily got dragged down to his knees, struggling to grab onto the marshland as he was dragged through the mud towards the edge.
Right when he thought it was over, he came to an abrupt stop, his feet dangling over the drop. Tears were on his cheeks that he did not recall shedding. His breathing was laboured and his body weakened, bruises and scratches covering his fingers, hands, and forearms, but still, he began to find his footing. It didn’t matter. The moment he got on his knees was when the ground beneath him shook, jarring him and sending him back down onto his stomach. It was as if something massive had fallen out of the sky right next to him. He had the feeling yet again that something was watching him. And this time, he felt its warmth right above him; heard its breathing. But he was too scared to look; too terrified to sneak a glance. And yet, he willed his body to, thinking that it was just his nerves failing him; that he’d look around and would see only the fog.
And for the last time, Creston spat a curse that echoed through the fog like a scream of a dying animal, as he was dragged down the cliff-edge.