Come to. Pain incredible. Pass out.
Some time later. Blurred images. Scent of incense. Back into the void.
Blurred faces. A dull roaring like words spoken by a sea. Darkness.
Again. One face - two eyes, one nose, one mouth. Words.
‘I think he’s awake.’ Accent of the locals. Memory begins to flow like a dried stream in autumn. Travel West. Strange trees, scared locals. A crevasse, the ground rent asunder. The stream sputters, dies. Now, try to speak - choke on the words. Try again.
‘Where am I?’ Other faces join the first. All locals, no doubt about it.
‘We found you in road. You remember?’ I shake my head, and pain screams throughout neck, back, head, arms. Sweat from that exertion alone. After a moment -
‘Only one?’ The speaker nods gravely. I let the dark swallow me again.
The locals looking after me were doing it for pay, of course - they’d already taken my generous donation from my various purses. They were shamans of a sort, I’d learnt. Spirit-talkers and mushroom eaters. They spoke passable trade-speak thanks to travelling missionaries. Their poultices and medicines were nothing for a physic from home, but they sufficed. As easy as it would be to hang around their collection of huts, I would get no closer to the truth. I’d questioned them on holes, caves, crevasses. Nothing that helped me. They provided me with a crude map, marked where they had found me. My equipment, my books and my charts were untouched by whatever had separated me from my companions. And so I set out into these woods, still limping slightly.
I was three days travel from where I had been discovered, and I was in no condition to push on through the night. The forests were deep and bountiful, although I had to consult my guides more than once to avoid an ignoble death. My fire crackled joyously, chewing away at it’s fuel happily. I had been unbothered by animals during my journey, and had both read and been told that most creatures here would flee rather than fight. I settled down, and turned once again to the inexplicable page amongst my records. Wedged between my verses-in-progress was a sigil, seemingly in charcoal. The hooks and barbs sprouting from the rough circle gave the impression of some sadistic hunter laying lure for strange prey. Not for the first time, I tried sketching out smaller sections to examine them more closely, but found myself staring at it in transfixed dread. I snapped the journal shut, and concerned myself with survival manuals until sleep took me.
A rock approaches. I know it is moving, although it is not animated. The slab of stone is gargantuan, palm-sized and wreathed in mists. It stares at me eyelessly, regarding intensely. I fall to my knees beneath it’s relentless judgement and cry mercy to my mineral inspector, protesting the silent sentence. I fall into a void, and strike nothing.
I found the road without issue, although I was a little less well rested than I ought to be. Despite the open setting, I could not shake the feeling of intense scrutiny - although, I suppose, it is not impossible that I am indeed being watched by the locals. The forestmen are notorious for disappearances in their wooded domains. Of course, nothing is ever found to prove such suspicions. Such is the nature of their forests, thick and menacing. I met no other travellers that day, and I camped by the side of the road. Sleep came quick.
I find the place where I had been discovered, bloody and broken yet missing nothing. A plain track, nothing unusual, the canopy filtering the otherwise bright sunlight. I walked the path several times over. The shattered-mirror memory flickered in my mind - a crack, yawning, open, hungry. There was nothing of the sort here. As the sun fell, I could not bring myself to camp near the road, and went into the deeper woods. The air was hostile that night, and I slept only fitfully.
The sun found me. The ground about my person was disturbed from my troubled stirrings. A large, furred caterpillar crawled along the top of my pack, and I stared at it undulate for a good five minutes before I noticed them. Three figures with masks of stone sat across the dead fire. The were all dressed in an amalgamation of regional styles. The masks depicted nothing - they were blank, lacking even eye slits. The left-hand figure produced a knife, plunged it into the ground. All three stood up, and departed into the forest, lost amongst the trees almost instantly. I picked myself up, and realised my mistake - no knife, but a long shard of jagged stone. As I bent to examine it closer, the crevasse sprung to my mind, a wound in the earth. The fragment of stone was of the same material revealed by that opening, and that rock was not local. Despite the pleasant coolness of the morning, sweat began to run. I pulled the fragment free, carefully to not cut myself on the edge. Fragments of some mineral glinted darkly in the dull grey rock. Stashing it amongst my books, I resolved to find some locals to question on the occurrence.
Seven crows the size of dogs and without wings regard me from a ruined palace. The next night, a huge maw consumes a herd of cattle. After that, the burning of eleven noblewomen. A Mistward poppy-den, peopled with goat headed men wearing turbans, bearing axes. A hanged priest healing the sick. My dreams, which have always been vivid, have intensified since my companions disappearance, and my own bludgeoning. Memories occasionally bubble to the surface. Stumbling through stone passages in the pitch-blackness. The chill of long undisturbed pools, and through it all, a maddening whistle, echoing and warping. It had been six days since I was visited by the stone figures, and I had yet to encounter another living soul. The whistling continues through the waking hours and the sleeping. I can feel the sliver of stone in my pack, guiding me softly. I cannot abandon it without abandoning my companions. I mutter and grind my teeth relentlessly. Animals avoid me, and I am out of food. Berries turn to shit in my mouth. Fruit is bitter poison.
Seven days. I find an abandoned hut. It speaks to me of the occupants, guides me to find their remains buried beneath the dust. I carry their jawbones.
Eight days. I woke up holding the stone. It taught me hunger, ageless and boundless.
Nine days. I vomited stinking black rot.
Ten days. It opens. No noise. No shaking. It just opens.
I can hear my companions. They sing.
I step into the void, and plummet.