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Chapter Five – Plunge

Trem fell into a place of nothing but a grey and white haze of translucent mist. Trem spun and spun, the velocity of his fall feeling like he was dropped from the sky. He yelled and cried out, flailing at his surroundings for something or anything to grasp onto, to stop him from this very sudden opening to death.

“What’s going on!? What just happened!” he cried into the hazy void. There wasn’t even wind whistling by his ears, forcing back his messy crimson auburn hair. Trem would not know he was falling if not for the severe sensation of it, as unfamiliar as he was with this degree of it, he was absolutely certain he was falling. He could barely wrap his mind around what was going on and how this happened before he struck into the cold of the ground, sending a jarring shock through his body. He hit the ground with the force of a decent fall, and not that of the deathly velocity he had been propelling in a tumble at. It still smarted a hefty degree, which was hardly a concern at that moment.

Breathing at a hysterical pace, his body partly plunged into the grey and white mist – which was once again translucent enough to see through, as one of his eyes was beneath the mist, and the other was above it with Trem lying crumpled on his side – he casted his vision about the place he was not at. The sight of the familiar, clean and empty hearth met him against the roughly hewn wall of stone. It settled the loud hammering in his chest that had reverberated accompanying shakes through his body. He focused on it, staring, trying to ground himself to where he was. His vision was blurry, like he was having difficulty waking up from severe grogginess in the morning or his eyes were trying to roll back in his head. He resisted, plying his will power in focusing on the plain and empty hearth. It did not help that there was so very little of note in the hearth. There should be a fire, there should be stacked logs fashioned circular, all pointing towards their collective center where the fire would first catch, with bits of dry kindling of dried tufts of grass. It was empty. It was maddening.

“H-hello..?” he asked uncertainly, confused, and disoriented. “Mother…? Where, what happened…?”

Trem felt helpless and lost asking that into the quiet, into the room he was surely alone in. The blurriness of his vision was shaking off, with Trem finding it less difficult to focus on whatever he was looking at. He dared not to turn onto his back, to possibly be plunged fully into the mist again; the prospect of then being partly submerged into the mist as he was then became severely alarming. With fear fueling him, he got onto his knee as fast as he could and rose, his body not much compliant or willing in this matter, feeling weak and stiff.

Trem then saw what he did not in all his dreams expect to, not even with his imagination running away from him like it so jubilantly did, and what he saw was precisely, at least just about, what he poignantly did not want to. Trem felt like his stomach plunged out of him, like it had felt when he had been plummeting through that unexplainable and hazy void. It was not the sick room of the basement he was in anymore. It was a place like it, much like it with the same roughly hewn stone of unadorned walls, but it wasn’t a room. It was a long, broad and empty hall that stretched off into darkness. It had the same soft glow of light from the same square shaped blocks attached to the ceiling, there was one attached to the ceiling every few feet, if his perception of feet was correct. The grey and white mist was there, at a depth of several inches at the ground, except now tendrils clawed their ways up the walls, reaching like long bony fingers.

Trem spun around, looking behind himself. The hall strangely expanded here, like the large side of a wedge or a broad leather knife, to give the illusion of that side of the wall of the sick room he had been in of his mother’s alchemy basement. Innocuously the empty fireplace stared back at him, its trickery like laughter mocking him, bouncing around him, stirring him into a seething rage.

His quickened breathing was no longer from panic - which had calmed for a split of a moment - now his quickened breathing was from frustrated rage, like he was being toyed with for some cruel amusement, and as well from the adrenaline and fear from before. Now that fear and adrenaline had taken on a new form, with the frustrated rage at the spearhead, like the front of a seafaring vessel he only had the privilege of reading about in tales. Trem shoved his hands against the wall, above the deep eggish cut of the hearth, his palms flat against the roughly hewn stone. His glare bore holes into the unremarkable wall, the subtle pits and the light grain indifferent to his aggression. He pushed as hard as his scrawny, small arms could manage, his slight muscles bulging with the force and effort, making him look as strong as Keld was when he was not exerting himself. His teeth grit with his rage that he channeled through the force of his arms, and the push of his calves and heels. His muscles burned, but the pain was distant, as distant as the Ruby Orchard felt to him.

This is a dream. This is nothing more a fever fueled dream. This is not real. I will be alright. I will be perfectly alright, and when I wake, no one else will know anything strange happened. They’ll go on as normal, where as I will feel different. But I won’t say anything; I won’t say a single thing, because this is just a dream. Nothing more than a dream. This dream will not crush me. This illness won’t crush me. It is just the earth’s attempt at reaching out at us, to find another way to kill us other than the quakes, rifts, and fissures. This won’t get me, just like those fissures don’t. I will be fine, I will be! he fiercely thought to himself with the wreathing power of a mantra. He repeated the words, on and on, and by the time he stopped, past when the words spilled out from his mind and into his lips, uttering them into the quiet amongst the stone walls and the tendril clawing mist, and past when his arms had fallen from the wall, to hang motionless from his side, twitching intermittently from his elbows to his wrists.

His jaw set with the rigid might of iron, Trem about faced towards the stretching hall, the tendrils coalesced of mist clawing further up the walls now, some streaky tendrils higher than others, as if they had more audacity and might than their brethren. He no longer feared what was before him, while his heart beat a stern rhythm borne of determination. Trem marched forward, his leather soled boots stomping and whisking through the grey mist hanging about the floor, stirring it with little care for what his presence wrought. The mist roiled with shivering, wavering ripples and moiled with twisting and spiraling formations like cyclones pressed flat onto the surface of this mist. The grey and white mist thickened and deepened into the dark shade of grey like that of storm clouds, nearly into the hues of blacks even when not mired in night, and this darkening color was like those storm clouds of night, angry and hateful in the sky. The tendrils writhed disturbingly on the walls, like laughter that did not carry to Trem’s ears, mimicking infesting, thin and lengthy worms.

Trem turned towards the wall, his rage like a suit of armor to protect him from this chimerical place, that despite all its dream-like qualities, it felt and seemed as real as when he was waking, treading through the thicket, or sitting at the table of the kitchen to eat that sandwich of rye bread and ham. The suit of armor of rage made him feel safe to a degree he dared not question, for if he did, he might realize that it was only his perception of the matter and of this circumstance, that that mantling rage might be the only form of safety he really had, and that then meant it was all an illusion; but it could be all he needed, that self affirmed sense of safety, in this place in his dreams. It had to be in his dreams, it just had to be. He could not bear to think what it might be instead if it wasn’t, he just could not.

Trem smashed his fist into a writhing tendril, which had grown barbed and fuzzy like a furry and fat caterpillar, usually so brightly green with stripes of yellow and black, and not like this blackened grey. As harmless as an actual vapor really would be, the writhing tendril dispersed at his touch, splaying across the surface of the stone, fading away into all but transparent droplets and motes that drifted in a descent down into the hovering and collected mist at the ground, gathering into the whole once more. Trem marched on, dragging his opened hand flat onto the wall across a multitude more of tendrils, dispersing them all like they couldn’t stand to his might, not to the might of the dreamer.

Trem found himself grinning darkly, just daring this place to intimidate or scare him. The hall stretched on and he marched on, it seemed to curve so subtly to the right, which might be the west from his own wild guess, that Trem could not be sure it was actually curving all. What did he really have to fear of this place, of the ceiling just barely lower than six feet and with the breadth of a few feet at best, that had little other than an endless hall and moiling and tossing mist. He was the mist’s god, stirring it about in his wake. He gave it motion, galvanized it to life. What reason would it have to threaten him, to harm him, when he was the only thing that gave it life?

Trem then paused, thinking about that line of thought, and reluctantly – and a little bit horrifyingly realizing how strange those thoughts were. His mad grin faltered, and he slowly looked about the hall, like there might be something else there that he hadn’t already been seeing for over two hundred and another half of a hundred steps. There were things to fear indeed – what might be happening to his own mind. No matter his armor of rage, his imperviousness to fear, the illness had crept inside him, sleeping and growing. Did this happen to each individual the Gnarl Rot slipped inside of? Did they dream, and then wake up, no longer the person they were their whole life, and therefor whomever they were now was someone that was a strange to themselves and to anyone else they ever knew; the person then whom they once were was forever erased from the enduring chronicles of the world.

There was nothing at all there that he had not already seen. He called out to the emptiness of the hall, not sure what might answer back if anything did, not sure if he would want it to answer back either. He waited for a response. He waited longer. There was not a response. He frowned to himself, the mist as dark as storm clouds moiling in a swirl around his feet, the waves of ripples colliding with one another already, bursting into lesser and lesser ones in the disarray of variegated reaction. He proceeded forward again, at a more earnest pace. He ignored the clawing tendrils of the walls, little more than decorations to him at this point. They danced for their own amusement only.

Two hundred more steps, the same length of ever stretching hall, the same seeping spot of darkness at the end where he could not see into, despite that those squareish blocks of light were at the celling every few feet always, and so he should be able to see into that distance ahead because those blocks of softly glowing light would be there too. He paused once more, rethinking his approach to this. Maybe the solution isn’t in walking forward; maybe it’s in something else – if there’s a solution at all to this. I could be in a deep sleeping, unable to wake until the medicine works its way. I’m sure my body did not actually disappear from the room, there’s just no way. The most magical thing in the world is alchemy, nothing beats that, and alchemy isn’t that magical anyway, so that makes….that makes anything else being magical that much less likely. Yeah, that’s right. Right… Anyway, what else could it be? Think, think… Well, how about the mist? I fell into here from it, or maybe the hearth…

A chill washed over him, much like earlier, but not from such a disturbing and sudden force that he tried not to think about – unfortunately the image reared upon him. It was his hand thrust into the grey and opaque mist, sinking in too far than the floor should allow for with the unmistakable presence of a bony hand comprised of pure, malicious ice grasping his closed fist as inexorable as a wrought iron shackles, the key never hammered and shaped by the blacksmith to one day unlock the shackles and chains. A shudder rolled through Trem, so uncontrollable it stifled his breath, leaving him without needed air. His throat felt closed as his eyes stung with tears.

He stared down; eyes as wide as they possibly could be at what he saw, shocked as he was silently suffocating. There were shackles upon his thin wrists, heavier than old iron, made of stronger and purer ore than the blacksmith’s could get their work gloves on at this present day of the Rivenlands. His arms were strained with the weight of them, the muscles bulging similarly to how they had earlier, except rather than bulking up, they thickened and stretched. The shackles didn’t extend past his wrist bones, but were broad enough to cover a whole half of his forearm. Easily the metal was one third of the width of a hand span of an adult’s hand. He groaned with pain and effort, his breath finally returning to him in a rush. The shackles were of a rusted metal, the rough and flakey rust the color of dark cerulean and the black of charcoal, while the metal itself appeared to be some sort of cobalt, its blue faded like it sat in the shining, beating sun for ages, but as far as Trem knew, the hue and surface of metal did not alter, at least to not such a degree, from being under the sun for a prolonged period.

He could barely believe his eyes. He was – had been so sure it was all a dream, but seeing these shackles shook him to the core, his vision grew fuzzy for a moment, like he submerged into water and was trying to peer through the murk. His blood roared in his ears as he stared at the shackles, as he gripped them on opposing wrists and forearms, tugging and yanking on him, desperately seeking purchase to wrestle them free. He howled into the quiet of the stretching, unending hall, the blood rushing in his ears moving to the tune of his frantic panic.

“These aren’t real; these aren’t really on my wrists! None of this real! NONE OF THIS IS REAL!” he yelled to himself, repeating ‘None of this is Real’ endlessly as he fought to get the shackles off. He was no one’s prisoner, and most of all, he was not the Gnarl Rot’s prisoner. Why did these shackles scare him so much? Since when he did have such an irrational and roaring fear of being chained? He should not be scared, this was a nightmare. He could resist this, he could overcome this, but he felt like he was drowning. The mist had started to crawl up him, climbing with clawing tendrils.

He yelled as he tried to break free, moving and jumping. The tendrils would momentarily break free, dispersing, and then would lunge out from the dark stormy mist at the ground to crawl up him all over again, the further up him he got, the more they danced and shivered with barbs and spikes, clinging to his clothes. His clothes, he now saw, were ragged and threadbare, torn and frayed at the edges, the color of recently dead straw. The weight of the shackles made this much more difficult, making each step so straining in its hefty weight his legs shook with the effort. His breath was labored from exertion, sweat beading on his brow and the back of his neck while his hands were growing numb, like the shackles were compressing onto his skin so tight and so closely at the wrist the blood couldn’t get through. “No, nooo! I’m not going to lose my hands to these blasted things!” He turned swiftly, like there might be a door or a place to turn to, even though he knew there wasn’t, and yet there was. The roughly hewn stone of the wall parted before him, stretching with the groans of tumbling boulders, with the echoing rumbles of the earth splitting like he had heard so many times, but so rarely right before him. The edges of the parted walls were rounded and smooth, so much like the curl of blown glass, or the round of a bannister. The place within this entrance was as dark as shadows at night, with no pervasive or encroaching mist, but neither the hovering squareish blocks that would give off that soft glow of light, like the halos belonging to embracing angels.

He took a step forward to that gape of darkness, desperate to escape, or at least to find anywhere but here, but he faltered and paused. He saw now there were chains trailing from his shackles, the woven links angular and large, extending at a slant from his wrists into the gape of darkness. What in the rings of hells does that mean? How can they be going into there? Why aren’t the chains just attached to each other, or also attached to an iron ball? Does…does each one have an iron ball at the end? What…what is at the end of them? Do…Do I really want to know? he asked himself, his heart racing. He did not know how much more he could handle before he…he didn’t know, maybe he’d just snap and go as raving mad as that man on the side of the road. Maybe that was what the Gnarl Rot did – it just broke you. It killed you in your own mind, turned you into a pawn of the earth, to reap and sow so many more broken minds, to make the earth rejoice in the merry, exulting madness.

Laughing hysterically, Trem teetered backwards and pulled away from the gape of darkness, completely willing to contend with the tendrils of stormy mist and the endless, maybe or maybe not curving hall, than the darkness that held his chains. As it turned out, he had no choice. Nearly the precise thing he feared to occur, something at the other end of the chains tugged, washing Trem over with another chill, this one was overwhelming in its intensity; it made him feel as cold as the dead. His mouth opened in a wordless scream as it tugged again, teetering him forward. But determined to not be pulled in, to not go somewhere more horrible than the plunge he was pulled into earlier took him, he grounded his feet, his now bare foot just at the rim of where the wall parted into the heinous unknown. He pulled back, and pulled back hard. Better to face whatever it was holding his chains where he could see, than somewhere he was as blind as a newborn animal.

Whatever was in the darkness tugged back, and kept tugging back with spaces of time in between. The force behind the tugs wasn’t much, it slid his feet a little, but he was able to sidle back and tug much harder than it. Trem was incurring lengths more the chains, coiling them into many piles in rungs. He had begun to grip onto the chain links themselves, and pull, then grip further on, and pull. It was a lot like being on the side that was winning by such a severe degree it was hilariously unfair in tug o’ war amongst the village kids, dirtied by the mud. The losing side would then fall face first into the mug, while the winners cheered, the secret of their victory likely lying in the hands of those stronger than them, taking others whom happened to be with them in their wake. Trem was never one of those whom had been the strength of the group. He sure wanted to be, and even made an effort to become stronger through training when he could manage – and the reasons weren’t purely so that he could become one of the strong ones for tug o’ war; but he tended to tucker out when it turned to be of no use, busying and distracting himself with other thing so that he wouldn’t think so much about how he was going to be the scrawny and weak boy forever.

It was reveling to be the sole source of strength, with more might than the nightmarish torments the Gnarl Rot thrust upon him. Grinning with victory, he gave a tremendous tug, the weight at the other end seeming to break off. He waited, poised for another tug from the other side. He arched a brow at the absence of anything. He looked down to the coils of chain, the links that were held in his hands, and the length of chain that reached into the gap of darkness. The chain slanted towards the ground from his hands. The small bit he could see was lying loosely on the ground, rather than being taut from the other end. This unnerved him. Had whatever it was given up? He stared back up to the dark, and a figure of slight stature emerged. A child of Trem’s age, scrawny and thin just like Trem too. He had a messy mop of hair that had grown out so long it was lanky down to his chest. It was an auburn saturated with putrid moss greens. His face was scaled over with tessellated calcified growths, the edges of the tessellations upraised, flakey and rigid like bone that was sheading its layered, malformed sheaths. His eyes were as beady black as an animal’s with no pupil or whites of the eyes. His ears were gnarled and twisted, the extended tips coiling like rope past his shoulders. Trem felt the color drain from his face at recognition of this boy, even with how mutated he was.

“Hello Trem Imbernoc,” it said in a voice all too familiar, unmistakably so as his own, and grinned like a wicked imp with stumpy, uneven teeth, the rigid grains of the teeth saturated with green and the flats of the teeth overgrown with a paste of green that smeared down a little of the rest of the teeth. “How about we talk. Let’s talk. Let’s do that. And let’s do that in the Dark you are just so silly to refuse.”

With claws like a gargoyle the Gnarl Rotted double of Trem lashed out, raking at his chest. But Trem was quick enough to step back out of reach. Perhaps it was a feint, as the double of Trem gripped his forearm past the shackle, its skin just as tessellated with upraised ridges as his face, and the hand felt icy and bony, just like what had pulled him first into this endless hall. The double of Trem sunk back surreally into the gape parted from the wall, pulling Trem with him.

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