The entrance of the cave is surrounded by worn remnants of the ancient structure. I can see that it is uncommonly undisturbed by modern peoples, because the ruins show no signs of being stripped of their red iron bones. These ruins are overgrown with the great and clinging roots of builder trees. My father says that these huge trees are the reason that the ruins in this area have been preserved. The fast growing builders had built up their roots throughout the ancient city here and grew to encompass it to the point where only the remains of a few of the taller structures can still be seen. The elders say that the builder trees are also a relic from the ancient world. The story goes that the wars of the ancient people had scorched the world, and made it like a desert with no way for plants or people to thrive. But the ancient people had been clever, and they changed themselves to help them survive. Then, and with the same powers, they changed the trees to restore the world. They made the builder trees, and these spread across the land to bring shade to the desert. Many of the ancient ways were lost at that time. But people survived. We learned to form the builder trees in the ways that we want as they grow, and we live safe among them. Still, we strive and explore, seeking boons and glory as people always have. Some boons can be picked from these old ruins, and that is my aim today.
Last week, Meego had brought an amazing relic to town. A box of inexplicable wood, unmouldered by the eons, that had contained bright and shiny gold and jewels. Meego had received much acclaim and a feast was prepared to celebrate his findings. At the feast, I had seen Meego place a golden chain around the neck of Illora and receive a long kiss from her in return. I saw no reason why I can’t accomplish such things. It is only a matter of finding ruins and taking the riches from them, and I set off to do just that the next day.
But finding treasures among the ruins is not so easy, I’ve found. Many people have tried to do the same thing already, and the known ruins are picked over and sometimes become the homes of ignoble vagrants and brigands. I have my hunting bow for protection, but I cannot risk any fight with savage criminals. I lurked around the known ruins for a time, watching them and how people worked them and moved among them, and then I set off to explore this wide, heavily wooded valley.
The builder trees grew darker and stranger, like none I had seen before. The long trunks and stems are twisted and knotty instead of long and straight and strong. These wicked trees are no less tall, but instead of straight and proud trunks, these trees meander and twist their way to sunlight, often interweaving with neighbors in a way that I suspect is critical to the survival of the tall woody structures. The living wood at the forest floor is spongy in places, often darkened, and frequently infested with mushrooms of myriad nefarious colors. It is among these twisted, evil looking giants that I found my new ruin.
I know that the ruins are exceptionally dangerous to enter and explore. The walls and floors of these old buildings are often rotted and treacherous, so I must take measures. I cut off a thick and knotty section of builder root to act as a walking stick and probe. I ignite my borrowed oil lantern and with it and my new stick in hand, I slowly pick my way to the cave entrance. I walk along the strongest and thickest seeming builder roots wherever I can, knowing that if the ancient material below should fall away, I can still rely on the fortitude of the living wood.
Up close, I can see that the cave entrance is formed by a collapsed corner of the top of the structure, and since it was never intended for passage, there is a four foot drop-off to the floor below with no stair or other means provided to descend except perhaps the questing roots of builder trees which installed themselves long after this place was constructed. I jab the end of my stick into the floor below to test its strength, and it seems solid, so I set my lantern on the edge beside me and take hold of roots to steady myself before lowering my legs to the floor below. This floor is of a pocked stone that is covered in dark soil that looks only to have ever been disturbed by beasts seeking shelter from the weather.
To my right, the ancient wall of the structure is collapsed in and a solid mass of wood fills the space and holds up what remains of the roof. Ahead, there is an odd raised lip of the peculiar ancient stone. I make my way over to this feature, methodically pounding my walking stick into the floor ahead me as I go. The raised lip of ancient stone is built around a platform and staircase of the same material, with thick red bands of rotted away iron decorating the walls to either side of the stair. The construction makes little sense to me. It is sensible to have a staircase, of course, but for it to be raised in such a way does not serve any apparent purpose. Perhaps the staircase rose up over the ages or the structure around it subsided.
I search around this decrepit antechamber, but I find only black soil and flaky chips of decomposed metal. The ruin feels hazardous. The ever-present concern of structural collapse and the shifting shadows produced by the variable flames of my lantern conspire to keep my nerves on edge. Finding nothing of interest or value, I resolve to venture deeper. No matter how unnerving this place may be, it may yet make my fortunes.
I climb into the stairwell and I peer into the darkness below, but I can see no further than a switchback at the bottom of the first flight. The incomprehensible ancient stone is mostly smooth but there are many hairline fractures that seem to bleed red stains. I start down, doubly hammering each stair with my stick before placing my weight on it. The sound travels dully down the stairwell and then it echoes back up at me. I imagine unknowable aberrations in the depths below rousing at the sound and rushing up to meet me.
I reach the first switchback and see the next below. There is a rectangular opening on the next flat that leads into darkness. A crumpled form with some edges that look like it could once have matched the dimensions of the opening is all that remains of the ancient door that once sealed the portal. I make my slow, thumping way down, and I’m certain that the echoes of my knocking take on a new depth from the void beyond that dark exit. When I reach that second flat I raise my lantern and peer into the darkness beyond the decaying door and I see a large space. I then check further down the stairwell and it is an eerily precise repetition of the first switchback. Being as I am used to the continuously variable forms of the domiciles grown from builder trees, I find this precise repetition of form to be horribly unnatural and possibly a vile trick. Turning from this ancient mockery, I move to the doorway and I knock the remains of the door away into the dark space beyond.
I hold my lantern out beyond the doorway. The floor below the door is two feet down, and it appears to be fractured and partly bowed down. It looks especially treacherous. Beyond that, I see two lines of rubble that delineate what once may have been a hallway or passage of sorts. Disturbing materials hang from the ceiling. Not spiderwebs, nor moss, nor any natural material that I have ever seen. I poke at some of it with my stick and it sways at first as if flexible but then it breaks and falls and shatters as if it is brittle.
I prod the damaged floor below the door. Chunks of the stone crack off and fall deeper into darkness below. I cannot trust it. I suppose I could explore this space eventually, but only if I build a ramp over the damaged floor section. I am pleased to see that this area seems a shade less decomposed then the top level. It gives me hope that I might discover something deeper in this dreary tomb.
I continue down the stairwell. The sound of my methodical knocking on the stairs is starting to lose sharpness as the end of my stick dulls. When I reach the next switchback, I am again disgusted to find more repetition in the structural form below, but the difference in decay helps to calm my sense of alienation. Where above there are only red lines along stairwell walls, here there are also nubs of red metal spaced evenly along the lines. The door to the next level is in slightly better shape, almost covering half of the doorway, though it still looks as though it’ll be short work for my stick to clear away. There are branches of rotting metal hanging from the ceiling. Where the metal branches are broken away, I can see a very circular cross section. I cannot imagine what purpose these things once served but I realize that I can gather some of this stuff up for the foundryman to sort out into new metal. It’s comforting that there is something of value for me to claim down here, modest though it may be in comparison to gold and jewels.
I apply my stick to knock some of the dangling corroded metal down and I herd it into the corner where the sharp edges won’t pose a danger to me. I check further down the stairwell and curse to myself. The loathsome repetition continues. How could they build the same thing over and over? Perhaps this edifice was some place of punishment. I take my exasperation out on the remains of the door, first driving the end of my stick through its center, then ripping up and down to break it up into pieces that fall into the darkness beyond.
When I raise my lantern to review this new space, I see more esoteric remains of ancient construction. The ceiling above the door is bowed down, which makes sense, and I see chunks of fallen stone from the ragged edge of the ceiling above piled on the more solid floor below. The strange forms hanging from the ceiling are more numerous and there are more of the decaying metal branches hanging down. Instead of ridges of soil indicating dividing walls, there are ridges of soil with periodic ragged forms rising from them. I test the floor below the door with my stick and I find that it seems solid, but I don’t fully trust it yet.
I turn and get a good hold on the sides of the door before I take a tentative step down. I transfer my weight slowly to the foot and then I try to shake up and down a little to see if the floor yields at all. It seems solid. I do a little hop to be sure before I release the doorframe and take up the lantern again. I move carefully down the path formed by the wall remnants. There are shapes beyond the ragged frame posts. Piles of rot and detritus mostly, but occasionally some ghosts of metal forms. There is a long dangling thing hanging from the ceiling in front of me and I yank it down. It has a crumbly feel in my hands at it seems to be filled with a blackish powder. I cannot imagine what it once could have been. I come to the remains of a doorway to the left on the path and I look past to see some lumps of stuff. I figure I should investigate, and I kick the bits of door out of the way and move in, rapping the floor with my stick periodically.
The piles of decaying material are mostly composed of heavy damp dust, but sifting through one, I find little pieces of bright blue material. It reminds of the material of Meego’s jewelry box, but it is more brittle and fragile. In another pile of dust I find a couple of wonders. One of them is a square of glass, perfectly formed, and I see it is clear when I spit on it and wipe off some of the clinging filth. The other wonder is a ceramic mug. As I clean this, I see that it is dark black with bright white symbols on it. They could be ancient letters but I can’t be sure because they are oddly warped. Perhaps a mockery of letters? It is a mystery to worry on later. These pieces are of great value, and I carefully take them back to the stairwell and set them in the door opening while I continue my search.
I have some options now. I can take my finds and cash in back in town, I can sift through this area more thoroughly, or I can explore further and get a better understanding of my private ruins. The notion of further exploration attracts me, although I know that there are risks. I want to know more about this place, so I’ll look around a bit more before I go.
There is much more on this floor that I haven’t yet seen. The pathway extends far into the darkness beyond the reach of my lantern’s light. I move down it, noting more promising piles of dust and rubble in the implied rooms. I reach a part of the structure where it seems to narrow down, and then suddenly the detritus lined pathway terminates in a wide space. To the right, there is no visible wall, instead there is a nest of builder tree roots that thickens to solidity. Beyond this wide space there is a tight passageway that is lined on both sides by solidly packed roots. When I thump on the dusty floor of that passageway, I find that it is covered with fine shards of broken glass. The passageway curves a little and tightens in places and it is too long for me to see the other side. Still, it seems safe enough as long as I continue to test with my stick.
At the far end of the passage, there are a pair of glass doors. Not side-by-side but rather one door, then a small anteroom, and then another door. The first of the doors is framed all around with a corroded but solid seeming metal, and its glass is cracked and the door had fallen loose from its hinges. The second door appears to still be functioning properly as a door, which is impressive, all things considered. It is a thick piece of glass that has been framed with a metal that is rough with a whitish corrosion. This door is worth a fortune. The high quality metal, and the huge piece of fine glass mean that my fortunes are assured. I tug on the door and it wobbles a bit, but resists. I put my back into it and it moves about a finger’s thickness out. Not to be dissuaded, I keep working it until I get a little space between the door and the frame. I insert my stick into the gap at the upper right corner and I use it to lever the door open further. I accidentally pull a little too hard, and the door flexes a little instead of opening and the priceless glass cracks.
I curse, and re-evaluate my actions. It may be that this would have happened no matter what. I certainly couldn’t have removed the door from its hinges until I had opened it and gotten to them. No matter. It’s done. I notice a new smell from the doorway. The root-lined passage and the whole of the rest of the ruin that I’ve explored thus far has been permeated with a musty smell of natural decay, not unlike a forest floor. This new smell is different, more dry and sour. I apply all my strength to prying on the door and I get the opening wide enough for me to slip past.
The room beyond the door is completely different. The floor is made of stone, but unlike any of the other stone in these ruins, this is polished smooth. I reach down and feel it. There is a thick coating of dust, but under that is a very fine and beautiful polished stone tile. This whole chamber seems to be paved with them. It’s incredible luxury. Then I catch sight of one of the walls. It is metal. There is a coating of dust, and a light white stain of corrosion, but it is visibly a sheet of metal. This is a room of untold riches. The ceiling is high and coated in a bright white version of the strange woodish material that the ancients seemed to favor.
I am dumbstruck by this wondrous find. This room seemed to have been preserved in near perfect condition. I think that the extra door at the entrance of the passageway has something to do with it. I circle the room, and I find some metal doors that I cannot open or budge, and next to those is a door that has a small window that reveals that whatever space was once beyond it is now filled solid with builder tree roots. Further on, the room narrows to a passageway. Some ways down this passage, the walls on the left transition to being half glass windows, and there is a glass and metal door that leads into the room that the windows look upon.
I raise my lantern and use my sleeve to wipe some of the ancient dust off of the window. The view does not fully clear up because there is dust on the inside, but I can make out some vague shapes in the center of the room. I move to the door. The metal frame of this one is practically without stain, and as I grasp the handle and pull on it, I’m surprised at how easy it is. The ancient hinges do squeal dryly, but its motion seems better then all but the most masterfully hung doors back home. This room is lined with all manner of cabinets, covered with ancient tools and materials that I cannot identify. In the center of the room, there is a type of metal bed, and on that bed, a desiccated corpse lies. With some curiosity, I realize that the room has no smell of rot or decay. I approach the corpse and in the lantern light I see that the flesh is all darkened and waxy. I reach out a hand to touch the skin of its arm. It is cold and firm, but pliable like leather. Up close I see that there are a pair of tubes connected from the creature’s arms to a box of perplexing design. I think that it is a mechanism of some sort, but I cannot surmise what it could do. I lean my stick against the counter and set the lantern beside it.
Below the perplexing box a clear bag is hanging. The material of this bag, like that of the tubes is clear like glass, but pliable like leather. It is fascinating. Within the clear bag there is some kind of fluid. I try to remove the bag from the machine, but it is connected somehow and I have to tear it away. When I do, I find that I cannot hold the bag in any such way as to keep the fluid from flowing out of the torn hole, as if it were a waterskin with its throat removed. I inevitably get some of the stuff on my hands and I drop the bag in disgust. The fluid is oily and unpleasant. I retrieve one of my rags from a pouch and use it to wipe the stuff away. It seems to come away easily but I can still feel a thin coating everywhere it has been. I moisten a clean spot on the rag with some of my water and I try to remove the film. It feels a little better, but still quite weird.
I tuck the rag away and step back from the disturbing corpse and my little mess on the floor and I turn my attention to the counter that rings the room. I work my way around, wondering at the many metal tools and other fascinating things. I recognize a strange type of cleaver and I pick it up to inspect it. Its metal is bright and when I test the edge with my finger I find it to be unnaturally keen. It draws a line of blood. I curse, and I fumble out my rag. I press it against the wound until the flow of blood slows, then I rip a strip off the rag and use it to bandage the thumb.
I realize that the light is failing and I look over at my lamp. The oil is nearly gone, and the flame is dimming. In my excited explorations I had neglected to monitor it. Foolish. Dangerous. I notice movement in the center of the room and I look that way to find that the desiccated corpse is climbing slowly and awkwardly off of the table, like someone that is very old and stiff. In the last flickers of failing light, I see that its eyelids are open. It does not see me, because its eyes are shriveled and useless. The flame of the lantern disappears and I am alone in the blackest darkness of the type that can only occur in caves and cellars that do not know the sun.
I remember the cleaver, and I quietly feel for the nearby counter and then I cautiously probe my hand around it until one of fingers lands on the side of the wide blade. I probe around a little further until I find the handle and I lift the cleaver. There is a faint clink and a sound of sliding metal as I lift the blade, and I am afraid. I throttle my breath to the point that it burns. I do not know if the ancient corpse thing has the capability of hearing, but I imagine that it does.
I hear the sound of crashing metal, and I crouch down in fear. In this darkness, in this enclosed room, I cannot be sure of the source of a noise that loud. The animated corpse must have thrown something to the ground, but I know not what. How could it live after so many years sealed in this ancient prison? Surely it could not have been awake, waiting for me to come along. No. It must have slept, somehow, until my actions perturbed it to wakefulness. No matter. By whatever evil and villainy it had come about, I am now trapped in darkness with it. I do not know what powers it has. Perhaps none. But I’ve got the cleaver, and I that that cleaver is of fine metal and keen edge. I need not cower. I rise to my feet, and I hold out my left hand to check the space nearby, and I raise the cleaver in my right hand so it is ready to strike with force and speed. The corpse thing is not in my immediate vicinity.
I slowly lift a foot and slide it forward in a small and careful step. Then again. And again. On the fourth step my foot hits against something. I wave my arm around in the space ahead of me but there is nothing. It is disorientating. If I brush my foot against what should be a counter, then I should be able to find that counter with my hand. Something isn’t adding up. I lower myself to the source of the anomaly and I feel around by my foot. There is some cold round metal, and it takes me some time to identify from my memory. It could be the corpse’s bed, now toppled over in that great and terrifying crash of a moment ago.
This complicates things a little, I do not know what paths may be blocked to me now, but my method cannot be improved. I stand again and resume my cleaver-ready fumbling with tiny steps. It takes a long time before I feel anything again, so long that my mind is swimming. In my imaginings, the room has somehow enlarged to a terrible vastness that I could never hope to find the edge of. But I do find something with my left hand. Something cold and hard and waxy, and it grabs my arm with a painful strength. I swing the cleaver in a sweep from the right and I feel it bite deeply into the thing’s body, but it does not release its grip or make any sound of distress. I feel it repositioning itself and I pull the cleaver back for another strike. Before I can strike again, I feel it bite my arm, tearing my flesh with teeth that should have disintegrated ages ago.
I bury the cleaver into the thing again, but it does not care. I strike again and again. With my fourth blow, I imagine I must have damaged the thing’s backbone because it falls to the ground. It does not perish from the damage and it grasps at my legs and sinks its teeth into my right calf. With its head so close to my leg and the cleaver so sharp, I cannot strike it directly in the skull, so I aim for what I hope to be the space containing its upper back and neck. I strike three times in quick succession, and the monster loses its grasp on me. I step away from it, bumping into a counter. I follow the counter around the damaged, if not dead creature and after another epoch of fumbling in the darkness I finally lay a hand upon the door. I search, but I can find no handle on this side of the door, and when I push it, it does not budge.
After all of this hell in darkness, I cannot believe that I am to be defeated by a simple door, and in frustration and rage I throw my body against it. This method succeeds inexplicably, and the door gives way with ease as if the bygone architects of this place demanded a tithe of rage for passage. Out in the pitch black hall I pull the door closed and put my back against it. I imagine the corpse thing somehow knitting itself back together and seeking for me again, but it does not.
After calming myself, I stand and I turn back to the door. I pull it open quietly, and I wedge my bow into the gap to keep it from closing on me again. Then I fumble around on the counter to the right of the door until I touch upon the lantern. I locate the fill port with a finger and fish out my last vial of oil. I fill the lantern carefully and with meticulous application of my flint and steel I manage to catch a spark in some kindling and transfer it to the wick to light. Oh blessed light. I can see again. I button the lantern up again and lift it to examine the room. It is so small with the light on.
The corpse creature is still moving, but only its head and mouth. I am eager to put this place behind me so I quickly move about the room and fill my pack with pieces of priceless metal and mysterious ancient materials. Then I grab up the lantern and my safety stick and make my way out, stooping to retrieve my bow along the way. I hurry back to the passage of glass and shove my way out into it. I feel wrong. There is some fire burning in my flesh from my wounds and it is making my mind swim. I want to get out of here, I need to get out.
Every shadow of the rotted structure is shifting with malice and reaching for me. I do not bother to knock the ground, I just flee. When I come to the stairwell, I at first see it as some great gaping maw, waiting to close in upon me, but by some rational impulse or perhaps driven by a greater fear of the encroaching shadows, I continue to it and through it, brushing past the precious glass and mug as if they are nothing.
I climb the stairs with a vicious fervor. I don’t feel right at all. The red stains on the walls of the stairwell seem to be pulsing and flowing like the blood dripping from my wounds. I reach the top of the stairs and flop over the lip onto the black dirt of that first antechamber. My muscles tense up and my body curls. I cannot regain control of my limbs and my mind is like a wriggling mass of venomous eels.
I know only pain, rage, and fear. I am not unconscious. No. I would have loved to have been unconscious at that time. But I was not granted any such respite. Instead, I burned.
The heat faded eventually. I do not know how long it took. By my reckoning, it was weeks or months, but I think that logic would be more likely to suggest a few hours. However long it was, when I awoke, I found myself to be changed.
I notice it right away. My lantern has gone out again, but this dark room is not black to my eyes, rather it is merely especially gray. I can see that night has fallen outside, so it is not as if the space is somehow being illuminated by stray sunlight. The sounds of my rustling as I look around the room that should be dark are far too loud. I can hear a rhythmic beating sound and I realize it is the sound of my own heart. My wounds are not gone, but they are scabbed over. I no longer feel feverish, but I think perhaps that I am more alert than usual. Perhaps not. Perhaps I am precisely the level of alert that I would normally be if I suddenly had better night vision and hearing. Who can say for sure?
I rise and climb out into the erroneously bright night. This area of the forest had been abnormally dark, but in the day it was never so gray as it is now. The gray makes the disturbing twists and knots of the builder trees here seem malignant rather than just eerie. I can hear all manner of insects, birds, and small crawling beasts. I realize that I haven’t eaten since a small breakfast this morning, and I retrieve some dried meat and hard tack from my pack and I make a small meal of it. It tastes great, but its not very satisfying.
I’m not tired, and I can see just fine, so I decide that I might as well get started back to town. The journey could be several days. As I pick my way through the gray, I find myself fantasizing about the feast to come when I get home and share my new found wealth with the people. Perhaps I should take some time to hunt tomorrow, as well. It wouldn’t do to arrive at the feast with an empty stomach.
The wound on my arm is itchy. I go to scratch at it but I find that the skin feels strange. I look at it closely. I’m not sure what the difference is but it seems different. I pause to give it a more thorough examination, and I figure out the difference. Always before now. I could see raised arteries and veins in my arm and hands, but now, there is only skin. I pinch at it, and it feels very wrong. My skin is… too thick. It reminds me of the that waxy corpse, but I’m not like that. Nothing like that.
I hear a great flapping up among the trees nearby, and I spot the erratic flight of a large bat. Because of the simple practical barrier of the night, I had never hunted bat before. Now, I imagined that bats must have a flavor similar to squirrel. Not the best, certainly, but I’ve little else here to eat. I draw out my bow and string it, knocking an arrow as I begin to slowly and silently move. I see the bat clinging to the trunk of a tree high above me. It is fidgeting at the wood there, though I cannot see for what rodential purpose. I draw my arrow, aim for a second, and let loose.
My arrow sails up through the still night air and strikes through the bat. For a moment, the arrow seems to pin the little beast to the trunk, but its final flailings pull it away and it falls to the ground nearby. I retrieve the creature and separate my arrow to be later cleaned and put back into service. Then I set about gathering wood and I prepare a fire.
The bright glow of the fist kindling that I ignite blinds me for a moment. I takes some long seconds for my eyes to adjust, and when they do, I find that my vision in the firelight is much like it always used to be. The night is black once again, but in exchange, I can see the orange of the flame and other colors like the red stains on my sleeve. I build up the blaze to more quickly generate the hot coals that I would use for cooking.
I prepare the bat in the manner that I had learned as a child to prepare a squirrel, skinning it first, though I would not keep the bat hide. Then I extract the unpalatable organs and place them and the hide in the fire to be burned away. Finally, I find a finger thick stick and I tie the small thing of flesh and bone to it with leather thongs. The whole time I find myself wondering at why I bother with all of this pretense. To my senses, the flesh of the bat seems just fine and palatable while raw. Despite this alien thinking, I adhere to the traditions and cook the flesh thoroughly.
I eat the seared bat flesh with gusto, and when I have picked the small form clean, I find that I am still hungry. I place the remains in the fire and add some more wood to be sure that they are consumed. I consider this behavior, and I realize that it may be unnecessary. I burn the remains to avoid attracting the attention of raccoons, lions, or bears. But I’ve realized that I’m not yet tired and I do not need to remain here for the rest of the night, so it would do me no harm to have a bear snooping around for bat entrails later on. Thinking of bears, I wonder how those great creatures taste. It is not unheard of for people to eat bear, but it has long been a rarity, and I have never shared in it.
It is surreal, to leave the burning fire behind me and walk out into the night woods. At first, the going is hard, but when the shifting and variable fire light is some distance behind me, my night vision begins to improve to its new and unnatural levels. The twisted woods are gray again.
As I go, I find myself fantasizing about coming across a fat boar, or a wide stream rich with trout. I think that those might finally satisfy my hunger. But I do not sense anything other than small bats and birds out feeding on insects in the night. These little hunters are not worth my efforts.
The night slowly transitions to morning, and my gray vision of the night resaturates with the natural colors of things. I still do not tire nor feel any weariness of muscle or soreness of foot. My only want is hunger. I see that the skin of my arms is starting to turn ashy and flaky, and I feel around on other areas of my body to confirm that they are all the same. There is no physical discomfort, but I am deeply troubled of mind. I cannot fathom what further transitions are underway in my flesh. It is strange, to know that when I get home, everyone will look upon me and see that I am sick, but I will feel quite good, if perhaps a bit peckish. This is a pathology of image, perhaps.
I have now put the knurled and knotty trees around my secret ruin far behind me, and the trees of the forest here are straight and proud as they should be. I hear more animals stirring for the morning. Especially birds. It seems to me that all of the songbirds of the world have conspired to fill the forest with a cacophony of chirps and calls. The birds are often noisy in the morning this time of year, but this is ridiculous. I can barely hear myself think.
Some time later, the avian pandemonium tapers away and I begin to hear voices of people. Their talk is clear and it seems close to me. I look around, but I can’t find them, so I call out a hail. There is no response. No change in their speech at all. I move towards the sounds and I do not see them for a shockingly long while. They are not townsfolk, but are among those strange sorts of people that go off into the wilds and make their homes far from others. They are checking their animal traps for the night’s catch. I do not hail them again. After all, what should I say to them? Hello, I just went into a ruin and fought a desiccated corpse and now I have a peculiar disease that changes the skin and takes away the need for sleep. What nonsense. Better to present my abnormal state to my own people and see what they can do. I move away and continue onward.
My mind wanders again to thoughts of food and I apply my senses to finding new prey. I come across a game path and I track it for a while, not finding any deer or elk, but I do come across some puffballs that I know to be edible. The big white puffs of fungus are cool in my mouth and they have a flavor that is akin to sweetness, but not quite. I consume an entire head-sized puff, and it is filling, but I know that I am not satiated.
In the afternoon, I find a large stream and I drink from it. After addressing my thirst I look upon my reflection in the water. The face that I see is scarcely my own. The thickening of my skin has changed it to the point that I do not see myself. If I cannot recognize myself, then surely my own kin will not. I will not be known when I arrive home, and I will have to approach my kin as a stranger. With these worrying realizations, I refill my waterskins, and I wash myself and my clothing. In the cool flowing water, I can see that my ashy skin is hardening in all of the places where it does not need to flex from the motions of my limbs. It seems that I am to become one big callous. A tireless and hungry callous. The thought is both amusing and troubling.
Feeling cleaner, I move further up the stream to a place where I see the lithe forms of trout hanging in the flowing waters and awaiting food to be brought by the water to them. I do not have my proper fishing gear, but I apply my bow to shoot at the largest one. It is tricky to aim an arrow into the water, and I miss. The prey escapes me. I trudge further up the stream. I know that there is a way that I can get a trout with an arrow, but there are special conditions. It takes a while to find the right opportunity.
To shoot a trout, without being foiled by any of the bending of light that happens in the water, you have to shoot from as near as directly above it as possible. But to avoid scaring the trout away, you must attain that position without passing your shadow over the water or dropping anything into it. The opportunity that I seize upon is a thick tree branch that hangs over the stream with trout waiting below it. I carefully climb out on this and fire upon my prey. This time, the arrow spears the trout exactly as I’ve aimed, and the afflicted fish and arrow start to drift downstream. I climb down from the branch and catch up to the fish at a minor natural damming of the stream arising from a confluence of rocks and fallen branches. This trout is not as large as I’d like but I know that it will be good.
I gut the fish and wrap it in bracken. Then I prepare a small cooking fire and place the wrapped fish close by so that the leaves begin to blacken. I roll it to present a greener side to the fire, and let the leaves blacken again. I continue to roll and blacken until scarcely a spot of green is visible. Then I roll the fish back to me and unwrap it to find the fish flesh within cooked and flaky. I gobble it down, and in the process I note that my thickened hands are not troubled by the hot fish, though I know that by all rights they should be.
Feeling no weariness to speak of, I continue on from the stream. As alien as this unnatural vigor is, I do notice that I’m moving many more miles than I should otherwise be able. I travel throughout the night and the next morning, bypassing further opportunities to get food in order to speed my journey. I catch sight of town around noon. The town has the appearance of a pair of nested living palisades of huge proportion. The tree-grown domiciles are arranged in concentric rings lying among fields and gardens that provide some of the vegetative food that we enjoy.
I run into the town and shout, “Hello, hello, I have been out to the ruins, and I bring riches!” People leave their business and start to gather, but I can see that their faces are suspicious and annoyed. Two men approach with bows to speak at me, one is my father.
“Who are you stranger?” My father calls, “Why do you wear the clothes of my kin?”
“I wear them because I am your kin. My flesh is changed by some disease from the ruins, but I have found much of value there.” I begin to reach for my bag to display some of my bounty.
My father looks troubled. “Diseases of the ruins have been known before. If you are my kin, tell me how you came by this illness of form.”
I remove some shiny metal implements from my bag and I hold them up to let them catch the sunlight. There is gasping and sounds of wonder from the crowd. That is a taste of what I had set out to get, though right now I’m mostly looking forward to the celebratory feast. “Deep in an undiscovered ruin, I found a space that is untouched by time. There is much polished stone and metal and wondrous ancient materials. Wealth beyond imagining.” I modulated my voice dramatically, “But in that place, there was a beast. An ancient man, dried up and bloodless, but still able to move and still vicious. It bit at me until I was able to kill it. I think that it was this monster that carried my malady.” I can tell that the crowd is much impressed, but my father looks grief-stricken.
“I know you.” he says, “By your voice and manner of speaking, I see you are my kin. But this brings me no joy. You must go from here, and take your ancient things with you. The ancients played with the nature of things. Some of their creations, like these builder trees, are fine and useful, but most of the things they made were made for war, and those things sometimes arise again to plague to us. If you stay, then what is inside of you will spread to all of us, can you tell me that that is safe and good?”
“I don’t know that this disease is safe.” I say, “I had hoped that you and the elders would know what to do.”
“I do know what to do. But it is terrible. You are banished. You must leave here and take with you all that you have brought. Touch no one. Leave, or I will place an arrow in your heart.” His face is twisted with emotion and anger. “Go!” The crowd starts to pull back as my father and others prepare their arrows.
“I… I don’t…” I begin, but my father looses an arrow that sails past my head, and I start to stumble away. Other arrows hit the ground between the townspeople and me and I start to run.
I don’t stop until I reach the forest again. I am stricken and bereft and my heart is pounding in my chest with emotion. None of my new strength assuages my grief or calms my heart. I trudge on deeper into the forest, aimless other than away from the town. My life is destroyed. As surely as if I had died down in that horrible darkness. I thought that I had beaten that awful thing, but now I know that it ended my old life as surely as if it had torn out my neck and all my blood was left to pool on that cold polished floor. I am something else now, someone else, but I know not who.