In my journey through the crags
Through snow-filled bowls of earth,
Through cloud-slicing spires of rock,
Through dead-frozen leafless bracken,
The Tall Lodge arrived softly through fog,
Bound beautifully by brick; by log after log.
In my journey through the crags
Through snow-filled bowls of earth,
Through cloud-slicing spires of rock,
Through dead-frozen leafless bracken,
The Tall Lodge arrived softly through fog,
Bound beautifully by brick; by log after log.
On the precipice of the crag, they stood; buried in the shadow of the rocks and staring into a sinking sun. The hour long climb to this point had whittled them down to exhausted wrecks – it had been years since they had last been there, and it was not the same as before. No.
“What are you thinking about?”
The dark curtain drew over the stage as dusk came about again. The time had come.
We came out in droves from all directions – some from the city, some from the closest suburb – men and women of the working and middle classes reverting to a primordial congregation. The more experienced – those bearded, sagging-nude and mad – poured from the tangled trunk archways of the forest, all arriving to meet upon the beaten-down sallow grass of the field that was nowhere.
The red tags on the hat hung low over my eyes when I tried to make my getaway – I didn’t even have time to tear them off when I helped myself to it at the bazaar. But I just had to have it; it was a fine piece of headwear, woven into a wide dish-shape from sun bleached wicker. Of course, I didn’t pay for it. I was in too much of a hurry, and, well, I don’t usually pay for things anyway. I was already on the run from Big Dorad’s boys and I couldn’t look back. But even though I was in such a hurry, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hat, and I made time to grab it. What a rush! It looked great with the rest of my mismatched ill-gotten outfit, some of which I’d only just picked up along the way scrambling through the colossal crowds of Azultown’s marketplace – but their tags didn’t bother me, they were tucked tight beneath my clothes. The ones clinging to the brim of this hat, on the other hand, covered my hairy face like a jagged veil.
If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m an admirer of expensive items that are out of my price range, things I have to own but can’t afford. Hell, I can’t help it. Leave me alone with a market stand and I’ll pick it dry. I take what I can, and more. I’d admired the ivory serpent statuette from Big Dorad’s villa for quite some time, and only today had I decided to snatch it from its stand and stuff it into my bag.
And it was going so well, until my excitement got the better of me and I whooped like a mad gibbon the second my fingers clasped round its white throat.
Unsurprisingly, his boys heard my hysterical hollering and soon poured out of every door like a tidal wave of goons. I stole away through the window I’d entered through, escaped onto the street and through the bazaar where I found this nice hat, and now onto the half-desert plains past the paved limits of Azultown.
Thought for sure at this point I’d lose them. Thought I’d skip town, like the countless times I had done before in countless places, and then make quick my escape once again after upsetting the next settlement’s resident crime lord. But as I turned to watch the shrinking sandstone ziggurats with a grin full of smugness, I saw a jeep choking up streaming clouds of dust and heading straight for me, crucifying all relief I had.
I can’t outrun a jeep!I screamed in my head, and my legs cycled furiously, pounding the dry dunes and patches of grass underfoot. Sweat poured behind me like a panicked vapor trail, and I almost hoped that it would float back far enough to hit the jeep’s windscreen to distract them long enough for me to run away further.
Well, it was wishful thinking.
They were still far enough behind to allow me another half mile or so until I was run down, strung up, stripped nude and skinned alive, and my skin tanned and turned into an attractive wallet.
But there was nowhere to run, as I looked at the horizon and saw only the warped ripples created by the hot sun. And I couldn’t drop to the dirt and play dead either; they’d already seen me. The best I could do was keep going. What else was I going to do, turn around and say “Okay guys, you caught me! Here’s your statue, give Dorad my regards”? No, even though the heat slowly roasted me alive inside my purloined clothing, I had to keep going.
And who knows, maybe they’ll give up.
I took a step on a grassy crack and the ground swallowed me up. I thought for sure I’d been picked off by one of the thugs and shot straight to hell, but I’d never imagined hell to be green and thick with branches. Naturally in shock, I struggled and flailed about, sinking deeper and deeper into the subterranean thicket. I remember saying to myself “Jesus! God! The floor is eating me!”, and the jeep and the goons were nowhere in sight. For minutes, the wooden fingers groped my clothes until it finally spat me out at the bottom. Some kind of cave, or it looked like one. But not like any other cave I’d ever seen before. For starters, instead of the average stone walls and stalactites you’d expect to find in some natural cavern, it was covered in green vegetation, and the walls grew thick with trees and vines – like an entire forest condensed into a room with a low ceiling. And even though it wasn’t too deep, it was pretty wide, and seemed to stretch on for a good few miles beneath the dry hard ground of the plains. I mean, it was strange for things to grow at all down here when so little grew above. I wanted to ask someone what the hell was going on down here, and decided on that broad over in the clearing.
Wait, what broad?
She was standing by some tall pedestal made of roots, pretty as a picture. At first I thought she was some sort of tree, on the ‘count of her green hair and brownish skin, and the fact she stood completely still and hunched over the pedestal.
“Hey there, ma’am” I drawled, removing my hat with one hand and tussling my hair with the other. “Don’t suppose you can tell me where I am? I fell down here to get away from some friends of mine and-“
I cut myself off when I spied what the pedestal held. A huge green gem, like the mother of all emeralds, shining with brilliant value and glory – set deep into the roots around it on its platform.
My jaw dropped and I changed my path from the wooden broad to her shiny friend. “Oh Lord, what a rock.” I gasped, and wringed the hat with both of my hands. “What is that thing?”
I looked up at her, but her face didn’t move. In fact, it was barely even a face – it was like the strange formations you see in the sides of old trees that look sorta like faces. I’d been trying to flirt with a plant.
I looked around the plant-lined cave, hoping madly that nobody had just seen my folly, before I turned my attention back from my pride to the rock. Just as beautiful now as when I’d first seen it – I had to have it. Something like that could make me for life so long as I could shake those goons in the jeep outside, and seeing as there was nobody else around…
I wriggled my fingers and sunk them into the sides of the jewel, but the roots around it were too tight. I tried to pry it open with what little gaps there were and damn near broke my fingers off.
I finally decided to kick the pedestal open – the rock looked hard enough to take it. After the one thrust of my boot, the roots splintered. After a few more, the whole structure shattered, throwing the green rock onto the ground with a mighty thump. I’d imagined it to be more of a perfect sphere when it was freed, but it was more like an upside-down egg attached to some kind of glowing umbilical cord running into the ground. For some reason, that didn’t strike me as completely strange. All I wanted was this… thing, and I wasn’t going to let some vine-wire get in my way, so I yanked it out and dropped it to the floor, where it gave up its glowing and turned grey. The rock was mine! What malachite luminescence it held it its ovaliform carapace. Without knowing it, I whooped again as I stuffed it into my bag with the ivory statuette, excitement in my heart and dollar signs in my eyes, drunk on my score. I heard Dorad’s statuette crack under the weight of the bag’s new addition, but I didn’t care; this looked much more valuable.
As I turned my back and advanced towards the mass of bushes I fell through, I heard another crack. I thought it was the statue in my bag cracking some more as I moved, but this one was behind me. I looked over a shoulder.
The tree gal was there, no longer frozen in position over where the pedestal used to be – she stood facing me, tangled branch arms by her sides.
I stopped and looked at her. Unsure what to make of it and having never seen a tree move by itself before, I called out “Oh, hey, uh, did you want that rock?”
Without reply, her wooden limbs snapped as she walked towards me. She clearly wanted that rock, but so did I, and I ran. I jumped for the overhanging branches above and heaved myself up, and saw the tree woman break into a sprint below me. Oh Jesus, she’s going to kill me! I breached the leaves and shoved my way through vertically, trying like crazy to remember which way was up. I couldn’t even tell if a branch was actually a branch or one of the woman’s hands grabbing at my ankle, and I scrambled upwards in blind panic, kicking and yelling at inanimate plants, and every so often I saw her warped face amongst the leaves.
I climbed faster than I’d fallen – must’ve sank slow. As soon as my flailing arms hit the hard, flat ground of the plains above, I grabbed tight and pulled up.
I’m out of your forest now, you crazy dame. Now I can get away.
My head emerged from the buried brush back into the beating sun I’d missed so much. Free. And I managed to get something nice while I was down there. Eager to escape the tree lady, I began to pull my body out of that verdant fissure, but then I saw what I was running from in the first place.
Over in the not-so-distance, throwing up that big old cloud of dust was the jeep, doing donuts in the dirt while they waited for me to rear my head again, and that’s what they got. They saw me come back out.
I tried to duck and hide myself from what was coming for me above, but then I realized what was coming for me below, encroaching on my ankles with her long tendril finger-branches.
Oh God! Oh God! They’re all coming for me!I couldn’t decide who to get killed by; I was truly spoilt for choice. I didn’t even know what this wooden gal was capable of; could she give me a skinning just as good as Dorad’s boys? She obviously wanted her rock back, but that was out of the question. I’d risk it. I’d take my chances with the jeep.
I launched myself onto the side and scrabbled to my feet, watching through the corner of my eye as the vehicle accelerated right at me once again.
I’ve got outta of worse situations!I told myself as I sprinted after the dull horizon. Then my original thought returned; How am I going to outrun a jeep? Jesus!
I probably shouldn’t have looked back, but I did anyway – I wanted to see how long it’d take until the bumper merged with my spine, and I saw them drive by the crevasse I came out of.
The wooden arms soon came out, and so did the body attached. She was still coming, but now she was behind the jeep. At least that’s one less thing to worry about running from.
She turned, looked at me, and grew. Her whole body swelled to the size of a tower, some of her roots and shoots coiling themselves around her limbs and adding to her arboreal volume, and she finished in two seconds.
I nearly fell down beneath the jeep’s wheels when I saw it happen. I thought the heat was making me trip, but this gal was huge. And when she walked, she covered ten feet in a single stride, behind me and the jeep. They hadn’t seen her, but the jeep was catching up, and so was she.
Catching up on the jeep.
Striding over it, and crushing it into the dirt with the huge masses of roots coming from her feet. Dorad’s boys were flat in a mass of twisted metal and smoke, and now something faster was after me.
That was the point I screamed. I don’t usually scream when running from things, I usually scream when I get over excited. But, obviously, this wasn’t usual. And, as I threw my head back in panic, the hat I’d taken slipped straight off of my scalp and straight behind me. Things got worse. In the short amount of time I’d known that hat, I’d grown attached to it, and now I had to leave it behind as this thing came after me and crushed the hat into the ground.
There was nowhere to hide. The landscape was flat, and the thing was right behind me. I didn’t see anything. Nowhere to go, nowhere to run. Then I remembered what it was I took.
I fished the rock from by bag while running, held it above my head and skidded in the dirt. The huge mass of tangled roots marking the end of its big knotted leg lifted above it, ready to stomp me underground.
But it didn’t. It didn’t want to crush the thing it was protecting. The foot just hovered over me, a loose root dangling over my head.
Me and the monster were at an impasse. I had nowhere to run while it was about to crush me, and it couldn’t crush me so long as I had its rock. It was like we were frozen in time in a single pose in the middle of the plains. My eyes darted about, trying to find a way I could get out of the situation with my prize in tow, but there was nothing I could do. I gave a sigh.
Well, it was fun taking it, and I got a good taste of excitement looting it from the tree cave. But, however much it was worth, it had to go. It was the only way I could get out of this alive.
I quickly hurled the rock directly into a nearby crater where it sank down, hopefully into another cave system below. The monster, noticing it had gone, squealed and dived in after it, contorting its body into a narrow arch of vines and twisted twigs as it disappeared in after it. Then, nothing.
I lost the rock. I never found out what it even was, but I knew it was the one that got away. I opened my bag and looked at Big Dorad’s serpent statuette. Crushed into tiny pieces.
I guess it’s time to start again.
With nothing to my name, I heaved the bag over my shoulder and followed the rippling horizon, hoping it’d guide me somewhere new, like it’d done time and time before.
I don’t remember how I lost my skin. All I remembered was that I had to get as far away as possible.
The leafy road winds twisting and turning into the far horizon until it becomes concealed by a veil of crimson autumntime trees, casting a growing shadow over other parts of the trail under the setting sun.
A breath of air enters the area of my ribs where my lungs would be, whistling as it swiftly exits past a vertebrae. Another gust carried a brittle brown leaf into my right eye socket where it sits stubbornly. I inhale, expecting to breathe the sweet air of the woods, only to remember that I lack a nose. A fat, dusty pink earthworm coils itself around my sharp chalky toes before burrowing back into the loamy soil after reaching the end of my sparse foot.
I feel naked and vulnerable, but strangely optimistic about the journey. I feebly clutch my bindle, whose stick is thicker than my humerus, and hoist it over my right shoulder as the bulging blue polka-dotted cloth sack on the end nearly yanks me to the ground. I don’t even remember what I packed. My memories were in my brain. I wish I remembered where I’d left it.
Something sends some sort of electrical signal hurtling towards my lower body and I put one alabaster foot sloppily in front of the other, nearly collapsing under the weight of the bindle. The other foot follows suit, landing in front of the other at a ninety-degree angle as I lurch onwards, kicking up a tiny dust cloud in my wake. I continue this routine, feet landing at the same awkward angles as I look downward with my gaping black sockets to focus on their uncertain trajectory. The leafy trim of the dirt road remains in my vision and constantly reminds me which way I’m going.
I carry on stumbling after the road, losing count of the amount of times I fall completely to the ground and spend what seems like hours pulling myself back up, until the brown-green leafy trim suddenly overpowers the dry mud underneath an inconsistent veil of shadow. This doesn’t feel right. I pull my skinless face from my formerly red scarf and observe. I’m under some sort of dark forest canopy. Beams of light stab through the thick layer of leaves and branches overhead, revealing patches of dead leaves and grey stone brickwork. A larger area of light highlighted a large, hollow mossy log that lurked from some tall grass.
I swivel around on my right heel to consider the different, more open-air road that had lead me into this unsettling and unfamiliar copse.
No. This can’t be right,
The area that I’ve turned to see is just as dark and unfamiliar as the opposite direction, as if hundreds of large trees had suddenly sprouted up as my back was turned. As if my tracks had been covered completely. As if I’d been flung directly into this very spot, in this very forest.
I spin again and the weight of the bindle finally succeeds in it’s vicious attempt to yank me towards the Earth, where my body hits with a dull clatter and kicks up a few leaves that cover some of my dusty bones. I lie for a minute or so. There’s no hope for me anymore, and no point in trying to get back up.
My bindle lies a few feet away, semi-concealed by both the unrelenting darkness of the forest and the leaves on the ground, right in front of a patchy looking bush that towered above my pathetic bones sinking into the dirt. I stare at the traitorous blue weight and suddenly realise it’s in the same undignified position as I am. A tiny feeling of smug victory crawls across me and I chuckle.
Or, at least. I try to.
I tip myself over onto my front and start dragging myself in the general direction of the bindle, leaving a trail of separated and broken leaves in my wake. The friction from the hard dirt layer below also pulls off my scarf and I leave it behind.
After what seems like forever, I finally get close enough to the stick of the bindle to swing my skeletal arm over and grab onto it, and I do just that. My fingers slowly clasp around the end of the stick. Then I look into the bush above me.
And big, round, red eyes stare back at me.
I launch myself backwards and I fly head over heels, pulling the bindle behind me. I land in a heap a few yards away. The eyes still stare, and another pair of eyes open next to it. Then another pair and another pair. And it’s not only in the bush. Red eyes open all over the clearing around me; appearing in tops of trees and behind their trunks, every other ill-lit copse to every single opening in the branches. I sit up and shuffle backwards until my vertebrae hit a tree trunk. Then they emerge. They have the bodies of dogs, only bigger, and their blood-red grapefruit sized eyes are still a prominent feature even when their bodies are visible. The silence of the clearing is broken by the harmonious snarl of the dogs, and they close in from every angle. The closing circle passes my scarf. Unable to close my eyes, I turn my gaze to the ground. The snarling gets louder as the circle closes. And then they set upon me.
Ripping and tearing and biting and pulling and scratching and snapping and breaking. I try to struggle and push them away but they’re too strong and there’s too many. I curl into a ball to protect my belongings wrapped in the polka-dotted cloth even though I don’t remember what It is exactly that I’m protecting. A sharp-toothed muzzle lunges in and forcibly tears at the cloth. The contents of the bindle fly into the air and time seems to go by slowly as I discern what the objects are. A spool. A pen. A handkerchief. A book. A small box and a grey torn photo. Time goes back to it’s normal speed and the attack from the dogs returns to full force.
My right arm is bitten and pulled from me. It separates from my shoulder and disappears into the wall of fur and teeth. A wide maw clamps around my skull and tries to shake it loose. Then a sound comes from behind the pack and echoes through the clearing. Not the sound of snarling or growling, of even the scrape of teeth against bone. This sound was a very loud, low pitched drone. The dogs stopped, for even they were confused. They turned their heads to the direction from which the drone came and dispersed slightly. Their separation gave me somewhat of a view of where the drone came from. The mossy log I had seen earlier sitting in the long grass was creating the sound. One dog whined.
As the droning continued, a pair of thin green arms snaps and cracks from the mossy side of the log. They push against the rest of the log’s dead body and a skeletal green figure emerges, covered in the moss. It crawls off the log and stands upright, continuing to drone.
The pack of dogs simultaneously take a step backwards as the mossy skeleton turns around. It’s front side is black and withered, and it’s face considerably broken in places.
It takes a step further towards the dogs, and the dogs once again take a step back.
The droning stops and everything stands still. The skeleton stands in the centre of the clearing, arms hanging by his sides, silent. The circle of dogs that had been attacking me had dispersed into a shapeless mass to avoid the loud unknown monster. I lay at the base of the tree, broken, missing an arm and covered in deep set bite marks. A leaf blows past.
Then the skeleton begins droning again, this time even louder and at a shrill pitch. It lunges at the dogs with it’s incredibly long blackened arms and the dogs turn and sprint into the bushes, barking and yelping. The skeleton becomes silent again, and it’s arms droop down by it’s sides. Now that the action has ceased, I get a better look at it.
The creature standing before me appears otherworldly and loathsome. The structure of what seems to be the skull is incredibly deformed, such as how the left side of the cranium is somehow wider than the right, as well as it having an extremely short chin. The fragment of bone separating it’s right eye socket from the nose is missing completely and it’s counterpart on the left eye is significantly chipped, giving it a nearly cyclopean appearance. Most of the dingy teeth in it’s maw are broken, revealing the abyssal oily blackness behind them.
I turn my gaze to the haggard beast’s torso. Nothing but broken ribs, save for one or two that have withering branches coiled around them. The creature stands at overall, probably, a foot taller than myself. It’s elongated obsidian arms stretch all the way to it’s knees.
I take a step forward to examine it closer. It’s blank gaze falls on me and turns into a pained glare. It’s jaw falls open, then the screaming begins again, shriller than before.
Oh God, the screaming.
It’s sickening banshee-like yell rattles and rebounds through my head and dazes me. It doesn’t stop. It screams. It’s arms flail violently. The noise is maddening. It gets louder and louder.
And then, silence, as the beast crumbles into dust.
Hairy black caterpillars writhe around in the murky sludge where the skeleton once stood as I stumble around it and find my way through an opening between two trees. I’ve got to escape the forest. I swipe away with my one arm at gangly wooden limbs that try to block me and keep me contained, but there’s no way I’m staying in the clearing where that… thing… was. Anywhere’s better than there. One of the many hindering branches slips past my flailing arm and pierces my ribcage, gripping onto me and refusing to let go. I tear it out with such fury that the force throws me onto my spine. I sink into the leaves below as the earth consumes me.
A hedgerow spits me out onto a gravel road without a horizon. A short road up a hill leads to a moss-cloaked stone brick well emitting a dull column of azure light. I land gracelessly on the side of my face and my skull cracks. I slowly drag myself from the ground once again and readjust my skull with my one hand. I realise I left both my scarf and my bindle in the forest clearing. Air whistles through my bones once more, and a single crisp leaf gently lodges itself into my dirty and cracked eye socket. My memories were in my brain. I wish I remembered where I’d left it.
Transfixed by the perfect beauty of the blue light, I limp up the hill. It doesn’t take long until I am a foot away from the structure. Then I stop. I tilt my head back and observe how the beam climbs towards the solemn grey sky and loses it’s radiance at higher altitudes. Then I hesitate before looking straight back down. My one arm grips the ancient, crumbling stone rim of the well as I look into it.
I look inside the well and I see it.
It’s as magnificent as the light that escapes it. Wonderful and regal as anything that can be described, bursting with cosmic excellence and impossible enlightenment. So pure and breathtaking, tears stream down my cheekbones and wash away the layer of sepia coating my broken face (despite the fact that it should be impossible that I should expel tears).
The things I see, memories; faces that I recognise Places that I recognise. All that I have loved and lost floods back to me in an overwhelming torrent of lifelong experience.
And then, despite it all, it’s all gone.
I have lost all of this. I may have regained my memories, but I have not regained my life. I fall to my knees as the stunning sense of awe morphs itself into a devastating sense of melancholy. I turn and rest my spine against the well; I won’t get back up this time.
A blanket of moss grows over my damaged bones. Hairy black caterpillars writhe around in the murk.
Onmas the wise,
Onmas the fair,
Wearing the skin of the king of the Bears.
His subjects would think he could do no wrong.
But he had a secret he could not escape
Of how he acquired his grand ursine cape
That hung to his knees from his right royal nape.
The story so went, as told to his scribe,
(Who was no stranger to taking a bribe)
That politickal strife gripped the Bears’ land
And King Bear, with power, turned rocks to sand,
A warmonger at heart, vicious tyrant
(Although, by all accounts, strangely fragrant).
Onmas travelled to the Kingdom of Bears
To battle the King, who took what was theirs.
The struggle ended, with Onmas on top
Of the skinned corpse of the King-Who-Was-Not
Though there are those who thought different,
That Onmas had told it with heroick slant.
Truth of the matter, the two Kings were friends
Working together to achieve their ends
Though Onmas was jealous of his friend’s fur
That glistered in sunlight like fine silver.
One fateful eve, in each other’s comp’ny
In a tower overlooking the sea,
Onmas got his friend drunk on honeyed mead.
When his back was turned, he then did the deed;
A knife to the head, a blade in the back
And King Bear’s view of the sea all went black.
In minutes, Onmas was wearing his friend
Who, by betrayal, had soon met his end.
Foul murder born from the foulest of greed,
Although most felt he was still fit to lead.
Try to speak out, and you will surely lose
For those who’d object, Onmas got a new pair of shoes.