AWAKENING PART 5A
Day 0; 2100 (Night)
Nights in the Forbidden Forest are bleak.
As harvest season neared its end, warm air from the eastern territories slowed to a snail’s pace. The cold touch of the north crept over the tall mountains, sprinkling the lands below with playful hints of what the future will bring: an inundation of glacial mist.
Throughout the vast boreal forest, a fight for supremacy over the land was underway.
The sun’s light dwindled as the night’s shadows vied for control.
The struggle for dominance between the celestial body and eternal darkness reached its climax as the sun set behind the peaks of the Divine Shield mountain range.
For its final spark, the sun blanketed the land beneath and sky above in marvelous shades of gold and magenta; it was a reminder, telling the night that the war was not over.
On the land below, creatures that ruled the day quickly retreated into their homes, fearing the chill that came with the dark.
Once again, their ruler had abandoned them to the whims of the night's horde, and once again, did they have to suffer the frosty bite of the night’s air.
The forest floor rumbled as beasts of the night woke from their slumber. Howls and screams echoed across the land, signalling the start of the nocturnal hunt. Poor, unfortunate creatures caught unawares by the looming darkness, had their lives cut short; torn and ripped apart by brutish creatures that prowled the shadows.
The smell of death permeated deep within the woodlands, like thick, dawdling miasma, claiming victims from its stench alone. The creepers, the crawlers, the prowlers, the stalkers -- all worked through the night to sate their hunger and quench their thirst.
*GULP* *GULP* *GULP*
Man-sized mushrooms pulsed as they drained fluids from their victims. They soaked the land around them in a tinge of black and purple light -- colors given off by their bioluminescence. Around them, scores of naive animals and beasts alike littered the floor.
The lights they gave off attracted and paralyzed the ignorant. Once immobilized, spores released by the man-size mushrooms buried themselves deep within the bodies of the unfortunate, slowly turning their insides into a slurry of nutrients. Tubular veins -- latched onto the bodies -- extracted the slurry like a straw, leaving empty husks of the once-living creatures to become seed-beds for new carnivorous mushrooms.
Those intelligent enough to avoid these dangers, numbered few. Perceiving the dangers of bright and odd coloration in plants and creatures alike was not a common trait amongst lame beasts. As such, the man-sized mushrooms grew in abundance in areas rife with creatures of low intelligence.
As the night grew darker, a sea of whimpers were drowned out by a wave of triumphant roars -- the night’s cruelty had just begun.
Day 0; 2107 (Night)
Nocturnal flora and fauna continued their cycle of life and death as 513 slept restlessly inside the alcove of his makeshift shelter.
A barely audible moan escaped his lips as he half-heartedly flailed his arms in a semi-wakeful state.
The gradual decrease in temperature had foiled his earlier preparations to keep dry and warm during the night. The dried moss that he had carefully selected to use for bedding and cover had become soaked in moisture, drenching the makeshift shelter in odors of freshly cut grass.
Droplets of cold water formed as condensation collected in low spots of his blanket, weaving their way through the thick moss, slowly trickling onto his bare skin. In his sleep, he tried to shake the cold water off of his body by tossing and shifting positions. But doing so only aggravate his injured leg.
He softly groaned as his body tensed up from the shooting pain.
Throughout the night, 513 had been slipping in-and-out of consciousness, betwixt fits of shivering and piercing agony. The short periods of rest he did manage to sneak in, did very little to ease his mind. The harrowing events of the day haunted him endlessly. The sounds; the smells; the touch; the taste, the sights -- everything replayed in his mind like an incoherent movie scene.
513: “...no good, this is…”
513 mumbled under his moss blanket, admitting the reality of his sorry state.
It wasn’t enough that monstrosities roaming the thickets of the woodlands wanted to snuff-out his life -- the elements did too.
With his mind in disarray and his body, a shoddy mess, he had hoped that a full night’s rest would recuperate his mental and physical ailments; he was, by no means, expecting a panacea from a single night of rest -- he simply wanted a moment to relax from a day's worth of trouble.
As he lay inside his makeshift shelter, half-awake, contemplating how to keep himself from dying of exposure, a numbing, soothing sensation swept over his body.
The veins within his body felt like they were being pumped with warm, nutrient-rich blood. He quivered as the warm liquid rushed between his muscles and organs, like a flash flood. It only took seconds before the loop inside of his body was complete.
Outside, his body felt like it was being submerged into a sensory deprivation tank. From head-to-toe he felt the tranquil grasp of hot, viscous fluid enveloping his body. It was a calming and pacifying experience.
In the air, the faint aroma of medicinal plants wafted around the confines of his shelter. As 513 peacefully breathed-in the bouquet of scents, his lungs felt like they were being plunged into a minty-cool bath.
His entire being felt like it was being purposefully rejuvenated by something beyond himself, prompting him to immediately go on high-alert.
Now fully awake, he looked around the pitch-dark shelter, aiming to identify his assailant; given his short history with the forest, he was convinced that whatever was happening to him was a guise; a ruse to make him feel secure and at-ease.
Though he was forcing himself to stay mindful of his situation, the myriad of sensations he currently experienced had not gone away. His body felt strange, which was enough justification for him to be wary of potential dangers.
While his eyes scanned the area, his mind raced to come up with sound conclusions. [Let’s consider the possibilities. 1: I am going crazy; 2: This is the result of my body acclimating to weather conditions, combating the cold naturally; 3: Something wants to eat me; 4: Something REALLY wants to eat me…] While thinking deeply into the matter, his eyes slowly grew heavy with fatigue; the duration between his blinks increased until he could no longer lift his eyelids. He was gradually falling asleep.
513 tried to jerk himself conscious, but it was an ineffective venture. His thoughts trailed off into unintelligible nothingness, as his limbs and body fell limp from the soothing embrace of an unknown party.
Bordering unconsciousness, he took one final breath of the pleasant aroma that lingered in the air. The scent was vaguely familiar to him, but in his drowsiness, he lost interest in it; his head felt like it was floating precariously in the clouds. It was dizzying, yet oddly relaxing.
Surrendering himself, 513’s senses muted as he was lulled to sleep by the warmth that swaddled his body.
Moving their way passed the thickets of the forest and into the clearing of a large, rocky hill, a pack of ravenous beasts stalked in unison. They were tracking the scent of a male human they had picked up during their night-hunt. Though they had already engorged themselves on the remains of much larger prey, their bottomless hunger had yet to be sated; they were beasts of gluttony.
Their shadows floated silently over the ground, as their horned talons swiftly traversed the terrain. The wet, mossy stones of the clearing had slightly hindered their speed, but they weren’t deterred. Every meal worth hunting was worth the challenge.
As they neared the shelter, their pace slowed to a crawl. Sensing that their next victim was nearby, the two pack leaders stopped advancing, grunting ambush and attack orders to the rest of the pack, which continued their pursuit.
Pack Leader 1: "Krr-krak-KA-KAL."
Pack Leader 2: "Krr-Kuf-KUF-KUU."
The two pack leaders bickered amongst themselves as they occupied the rearguard. To these beasts, humans were a rare delicacy -- prey that their kind seldom came across. So the two leaders quabbled, arguing which meaty parts would be theirs to eat.
Pack Leader 1: "Krruk."
The first pack leader cried out a guttural command. It ordered the rest of the pack to hold position and observe the target before they moved-in for the kill.
Ten meters was all the separated 513’s shoddy construction job and the pack hunters. A few more seconds of stalking was all that was needed before they breached his walls and tore him apart.
Just as the two pack leaders opened their armored beaks to issue out the attack order, a pure, black filament engulfed the land beneath their feet. Thousands of eyes emerged from the thin, pure-black sheet, leering up towards the dumbfounded faces of their victims.
Before the pack hunters could react, barbed needles sprung out from the thousands of eyes staring them down. The needles lodged themselves into the beasts' armored limbs and talons, effectively binding them in place.
As the beasts struggled to get free of their shackles, tiny mouths appeared on the tips of the barbed needles -- each secreting a green liquid that softened the beasts' tough hides and keratin talons, making them easier to devour.
A chorus of screams and howls erupted from the pack as the sheet of pure-black ate away at their bodies.
The two pack leaders grunted in unison, issuing out the order to retreat as they fled towards the safety of the thickets. Though they were the strongest and wisest of the pack, they had been left unharmed, only taking damage to their egos and pride. The bulk of the attack was focused on the pack's vanguard, where to weakest and dumbest members were located.
Once they had reached the thickets, the two pack leaders could only look-on, as their group of over fifty members desperately ripped their way out from the clutches of the pure-black terror.
If they had known that an apex predator had claimed their kill, they would never have bothered stalking the human, let alone follow his scent. The pure-black mass that was eating their brethren alive, was not a living entity, but rather, a specialized skill; a skill wielded by the strongest and lauded by the ambitious: a projected aura.
The pack hunters were very familiar with this power. The large prey they had slaughtered and consumed earlier in the night was an aura wielder, albeit much, much weaker in comparison to the one in control of the malicious aura they now faced.
In principle, projected auras are manifestations of the wielder’s will and true strength. The more devastating the aura, the stronger the will and power of the wielder. Conversely, the opposite is also true, unless the wielder specifically designed their aura to appear weak.
Back where the suffering occurred, the frailest amongst the beasts died slow and painful deaths. As the barbed needle-mouths ate through the beasts’ limbs and lower extremities, the green liquid that had softened the tissues, seeped into the bloodstream through infected parts of the beasts’ bodies. The green liquid was necrotic in nature, causing the internal organs it touched, to rupture and liquify into a toxic soup; bones infected by the liquid snapped like dry twigs, piercing healthy organs and puncturing through tough, pristine hides; infected vocal cords disintegrated before their users had a chance to scream.
Lamentations of agony came from the middle of the pack, where the oppressive aura was less focused.
In a frenzy to stay alive, the trapped pack members purged the green liquid from their bodies by forcing blood out from every imaginable orifice; they were demoralized, but not defeated.
As pools of blood collected over the unnerving eyes of the pure-black aura, more labored screams spewed out from the suffering. Scars and injuries of past battles were reopened by the barbed needle-mouths, almost as if the mouths specifically targeted areas that caused the most anguish in retaliation. Fresh wounds from the needle-mouths caused limbs to shear and shatter from lack of muscle support; viscera and guts spilled out from the bellies of the unfortunate, fluttering capriciously in the air as their victims convulsed and foamed at the mouth.
Beasts that had managed to survive the nightmarish onslaught, languidly hobbled back into the thickets of the forest, bloodied and injured but not dead.
As more of their brethren escaped the hostile aura’s death-grip, the two pack leaders broke away from the group, tracing where the aura had originated. They followed black strips of dirt, covered in eyes, towards the entrance of 513’s makeshift shelter. Though they made sure to keep a safe distance away from the aura, it still noticed their presence.
Wary of the increased dangers of their investigation, they dashed backwards, ready to abandon their curiosity. Scanning the area one last time, they made a surprising discovery -- that the pure-black aura terrorizing their kin came from inside the shelter. The two leaders quivered in fear as they realized their fatal mistake. [Were we lured-in?] the two wondered as they stared at each other in silence.
Rather than test the limits of their luck, the two made a unanimous decision on the spot.
Utterly defeated, the two pack leaders made their way back to the group, grunting out orders for a full-withdrawal from the area.
As they disappeared into the forest, those left behind and still alive, resigned themselves to fate, enduring slow, agonizing deaths as they turned into piles of unrecognizable mass.
It was a lopsided defensive victory for 513, though he knew not of it.
As the last of the bodies stilled their twitching, the pure-black aura accelerated their rate of decomposition, turning the gore piles into slush. Juices and deconstructed entrails seeped into the ground, providing nutrients for the web of roots underneath the forest floor. This boost in nutrient-rich food caused the nearby plant life to undergo a growth boon; saplings turned into full-fledged trees; short-lived grasses and shrubs cycled through their lives in seconds; moss rapidly encapsulated the ever-increasing patches of dead flora.
Once the commotion had settled down, the barbed needle-mouths retracted into the corneas of thousands of eyes filling the surface of the thin aura. The eyes then disappeared, as the pure-black aura returned to its wielder, inside 513’s shelter.
Completely unaware of the happenings outside of his shelter, 513 was knee deep in the world of dreams.
Within his own mental construct, erected to decompress emotions and experiences of the day, 513 found himself huddled next to hundreds of faceless, formless entities. They dimly glowed under the sea of stars that captured the skies above as they stood atop a dull, grey platform that expanded infinitely outward.
As he stood there, frozenly staring at the bizarre scene, the shapeless beings turned their heads towards him, all in unison, as if they were looking at an oddity; an aberration. Those that could not 'see' him directly, climbed over the bodies of others to get a better view; their limbs, elongating like stilts over water.
Just as the remaining few locked their eyeless faces towards his direction, they froze, motionless as they glared at the bewildered man they now surrounded.
Rather than panic or give into fear, 513 was surprisingly calm, which deeply concerned him. [Why am I not panicking?] He thought to himself while vacantly looking at the sea of bodies.
After spending a few moments awkwardly staring at the horde of marbled blobs, he relinquished his plans to wiggle himself free; instead of committing to action, he fell deep into thought. As he meditated, he brainstormed several scenarios which could help explain his current situation.
The first scenario was: that he never escaped the den of spiders. This meant that he was currently wrapped tightly inside a silk cocoon, hallucinating every single event that occurred after the giant spider had released its toxic mist into the air; that the gust of wind that altered the direction of the mist was a mental fabrication; that his mind was currently showing him fragments of his own memories being eroded away, as his brain slowly turned to mush.
He let out a breathy sigh as he considered the possibility of the scenario becoming reality. Luckily, after scrutinizing the logic behind it, that conclusion became unlikely. If his brain was truly being liquified into a toxic smoothee, then he wouldn’t be able to think as freely and as intensely as he did. There is always the possibility that his judgement of this scenario was completely wrong, but even so, he pushed onward to other alternatives.
A light breeze crept through the void space, whistling passed the formless bodies and caressing 513’s skin. [That...that felt too real.] He thought to himself as a small shiver trickled up his arms. [Weird, I can’t smell anything.] He inwardly monologued as he pondered the next scenario: that he was inside a dream.
[Vivid nightmare?] 513 thought to himself as he looked for gaps in the scenario’s logic. [Hmm. If that were true, then I’d be exhibiting primal fear, rather than indifference.] He continued, examining every weak point in his thought process.
After spending a few more moments analyzing the scenario, he concluded that he had too much control over complex thinking to suggest he was inside a normal dreamscape. [Nope. Definitely not like a theme park ride.] He mused to himself, alluding to how he usually experienced lucid dreaming. [Dream within a dream? Pfft.] He continued on, holding in a chuckle after reciting a bad joke.
At this point, he had burned through most of the scenarios that would explain his situation, deeming the majority of them as improbable. The bad jokes that came afterwards, were simply a way for him to cope with the frustration of his failures.
[Premonition? Never had one of those before.] He said in his mind as he imagined himself stroking a non-existent beard. It was a scenario he hadn’t explored yet, so he put it through its paces as he continued to brood.