The failure rekindled an ember of lost hope in his heart. Wherever he walked, his eyes looked for smoke, footprints, anything. His ears listened as if every rustle in the leaves or creaking branch could be his salvation. It never was.
He traveled north until he reached the perpetual winter. Years were wasted in his restless journey as he followed the snow line eastward. He crossed the river that ran through the land of giants and traveled the misty forest where no light could reach. And beyond the trees were the mires that never ended. There were expanses of bog more vast than any biome he had encountered. An ocean of peat that quaked under his every step. Many bird species brooded on the tussocks. Their hollow bones let them move freely where no terrestrial animal could follow. There he was the apex predator. He was king over the realm of water and dirt.
And in the air reigned the most wondrous beasts he had ever seen. Like levitating mountains, their bulbous gas-filled bodies blocked out the sky above the mires. Their tentacles hung into the water, and their thin skin fluttered in the wind. At first, he had thought they were dark clouds afar and their rumbling calls thunder. But they were living beings. It took him half a moon before he dared to approach. He found they did not see him. Or they did not care.
They had clung to the ground during a thunderstorm when one was struck by lightning and exploded into a giant ball of fire. Burnt fragments of membrane rained down over a large area. He tried to eat them but they were too tough. Day and night, the beings sucked water through their tentacles and released it as a fine mist. In early spring, they pumped thousands of eggs covered in viscous slime onto the tussocks. On a sunny day he could see through the thin membranous shell how the snakelike spawn writhed in the liquid.
Under the peat, there was another world. A world where he did not belong. Where he was not the eater but the eaten. Sometimes he saw shadows move in the dark water through holes in the ground. He had felt something massive bump the peat from beneath.
He sat on a tussock fishing when he saw a horned animal with long slender legs. Not unlike a deer. It walked the unstable ground with great care. Every step was a deliberate decision. Then, its hind legs went through the peat. It thrashed, splashed, and screamed as it tried to get out of the water. He got up and began walking in its direction. Then, there was if a void opened up beneath the animal that went quiet and vanished in the same instant. When he reached the site, there was no animal. Only water dark with dirt and blood.
At dusk, he listened to the birds singing. He listened as if they had something to tell him. When night suffocated the light, and the birds went silent, the bats emerged from their hiding places, somewhere he did not know. Their shrieks turned into a cacophony accompanied by the buzzing of mosquitos big enough to fill his palm. His gaze fell upon a cloud of fireflies congregating around a bush. The bats went through the air as small black shadows. Too fast for the eye to follow.
But all that hunted did not fly. There was movement in the grass covering the floes of peat. When the sun was gone, the mires burst with creeping, crawling, slithering things. Snakes hunted the millions of frogs waiting for insects to come within range of their sticky tongues. He used to hunt them too, the frogs. But the taste became stale after a couple of thousands. Even though they were not as abundant he preferenser the toads that were fatter with more meat on their bones.
In the starlight, he snuck around the mires on light feet. Too much vibrations in the ground and the toads took to the dark waters where he could not follow. He skewered them on a split and sharpened stick. When his basket was filled, he made his way home to one of the few islands of solid ground. They were a rare in these lands. The island was covered in a small grove of trees that kept the autumn storms at bay. Around them, there was a fence. And between them, there was a hut. Both of which had taken him years to collect the materials to build.
Many fireless nights were spent between the trees. There had been more of them, but his need for shelter urged him to fell most. Their trunks had not been thick but he spent many days chipping away at them with his stone ax. In the end, there was not much left of it but a worn handle bound to a dull stone.
He put down the basket in front of the fireplace. Some toads still stirred. He arranged sticks and logs around a pile of tinder and rained sparks over them with a couple of firestones. When the fire was going, he took a sharpened stick and looked into the basket. He skewered a still living toad through the head, skinned it with a shard of flint and threw the skin into the fire. The flesh was pink and glistening and oozed a clear fluid as he held it over the crackling flames.
There was no sound of animals anymore. The rain had silenced them all. He kept the roasted toad on the stick and bit into its fat body. Hot juices ran down his chin and he wiped them away with his forearm. When he had eaten, he added a log to the smoldering fire and blew at until flames burst from its surface. A warm light fell upon the walls and ceiling. He rose and removed his heavy coat and hung it on the wall. Then he lay down on the bedding of furs bolstered with moss and pulled another over himself. The sound of the rain drizzling outside the hut soothed him. Soon he fell asleep.