The Demonologues - Prologue - Part 5
When I awoke on my third day of life, I was too hungover to think about why I was staring at the underside of my bed or spooning a shovel like it was my lover. The nest of sheets and blankets I had constructed would have been rather comfortable under most conditions, but did nothing to improve how I felt.
This was good, because it prevented me from worrying about who or where I was, but it was also bad because hangovers suck. At some point in the night, I had apparently gone back downstairs, because a second empty wine bottle was lying on the floor next to the first.
I could remember watching from the window as the stream of undead wandered past the house, but everything after that was a blur. I still didn’t know how they hadn’t noticed me. Maybe they couldn’t leave the forest, or maybe there was a protective enchantment on the house, but while the second option seemed most likely, I had no way of knowing for sure.
The logic of being under the bed seemed sound enough, if slightly childish, but I couldn’t recall actually making the decision to do any of this. The building’s doors were still locked, so there wasn’t any real difference between sleeping on the bed and sleeping beneath it.
Like the morning before, I desperately needed to pee, and it was the only force capable of making me leave my room.
I stumbled downstairs, avoiding any windows, but unable to pull me eyes away from them. This time, I knew that the shapes and movement I saw in the mist at the forest’s edge were only a figment of my imagination, but I couldn’t help seeing them as more than they were. Every subtle twist and curling of the fog was now a threat. A potential thing that would come and attack me.
Even after hardly eating, the strenuous activity, and all the drinking I had done the day before, I wasn’t hungry. My body told me that it needed food, but my hangover said otherwise. Food was the last thing I wanted, but I made myself a small breakfast and forced it down my throat anyway.
I had no idea what I wanted to do at that point. The house had been fully explored, but anything outside was now officially a danger zone. I could go back to digging through the storage room, try to read the witch’s notebook, or take a look at the few other books she had in her room, but these were all temporary distractions at best.
Originally, my plan had been to spend a few days figuring myself out, and then go to find a town to buy food before coming back here. My long term goal had essentially been to survive while using this place as a home base, but last night’s events had quickly eliminated that possibility. Whatever it was that had prevented the first zombie from attacking me, I didn’t know what it was or how it worked, and that meant that this place couldn’t be depended on as a refuge. And even if the house was safe, I didn’t want to risk running into a horde of undead every time I came or went from the nearest town.
Finding people would require that I go outside though, and that just led back to the current issue. My choices were to either stay here and starve, or go outside and hope that the zombies didn’t eat me. And if I did find people, who knew if they would even be willing to help me? I didn’t know who I was likely to find, but chances were that I would be far from normal by their standards.
Still groggy, I finally got around to doing the dishes while contemplating my options and lack thereof. The plate on the front porch was left waiting. Even if the view through the windows said that the yard was clear of danger, I wasn’t about to risk exposing myself for a single dirty dish.
My dislike for the witch had returned to what it had been before the burial.
“With as many times as she was able to write, “I’m sorry,” in her letter, you’d think that she would have been able to mention the damn zombies wandering around outside.”
I didn’t resent my own creation, but her lack of forethought pissed me off.
“How do you spend so much time creating such a complex spell and not know that casting it would get you killed? If you had time to buy me clothes, how were you so unprepared for this? You’re like someone who jumps into a river to save a drowning person, and forgets to grab the life preserver that’s right in front of them.”
I still probably had about a week’s worth of food, maybe more if I stretched it, but I didn’t want to wait that long, and I was still concerned with my own lack of weight. I needed to eat, I needed to survive, and I needed to eat to survive. I also didn’t know how far I was from civilization, and had to make sure there was some left for a few days’ worth of walking.
When the dishes were done, I took another bath. I was still filthy from running around in the storeroom and digging a grave for the witch. Beyond the most basic tasks, my desire to do anything productive was rather low. The large tub filled slowly, but the hot water rising around my legs helped to relax me, physically if not mentally.
I could still feel my mind sorting itself out, and even though I thought I was thinking clearly, I knew I wasn’t. Two days! Two days of life, and the entire thing had been a giant mix of, “think about this as much as possible,” or, “as much as possible, don’t think about that,” and, “no matter how much you think about it, you won’t understand it.”
On the first day, most of my questions had been existential and frightening. Now, they were simply confusing and frustrating, but twice as aggravating.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but no matter how advanced the technology is, if it is considered normal, no one will question it. I was in a building that was both magical and abnormal, and I was using all of it without even needing to try.
I cupped my hands and lifted them upwards, watching as the water spilled back into the tub.
“At least physics doesn’t seem to be having any major issues. Not that I’m in any position to check.”
This world had zombies and magic. How was I supposed to identify what was normal or not?
“Last night, a horde of zombies came to visit, now here I am taking a bath.”
On my first day, the little bits of normality had helped me to focus and keep moving forward. Now, I was just as lost physically as I was mentally, and the short moments of peace and quiet felt strange and incongruous with everything else.
It had only been two days, and I knew that I couldn’t adjust to everything overnight, but I wished that I could. Compared to when I first woke up as a skeleton, I was doing a lot better. A lot better. But I was still far from where I wanted to be, and every step forward seemed to push my destination two steps farther ahead.
* * * * *
The rest of the day was a mixture of eating and resting, interspersed with making small preparations for my inevitable departure.
The notebook was left in my room, and I didn’t touch it. The morning’s hangover had ended, but I was still too mentally drained to spend any amount of time looking at it. I was also hoping that I’d be able to make it through the day without any more nasty surprises. My only real goal at the moment was to establish some sense of normality.
I hadn’t seen anything like a suitcase or backpack so far, so I took the last sheet from the witch’s bed and laid it out on the living room floor. Whenever I found something that might be useful in the coming days, I put it on the sheet so it wouldn’t be forgotten. My change of clothes and other things the witch had bought me had been moved out of my room, and a bit of the food had been brought up from the cellar. I didn’t expect to have to flee the house, but I wanted to be able to run at a moment’s notice. The shovel, the closest thing I had to a weapon, was carried with me at all times.
I explored the storage room again, this time using the inside door. Everything was still covered in dust, but it had aired out fairly well, so as long as I moved carefully, I didn’t have to worry about the sneezing. Again, most of what I found was either junk or unidentifiable, but finally I found what I was looking for in the shape of a small jewelry box. It had been in a fairly easy to reach location, but had managed to go unnoticed for so long due to its unassuming boxy shape and a thick camouflage of dust.
It was by no means a treasure chest, but it was exactly what I needed. A few rings, earrings, bracelets and necklaces sat inside. They were fairly plain and only a few even had jewels, but they gleamed none the less, and would be more than enough to get me started. This was likely for the best too, as anything fancier would probably be more difficult to sell if I wanted to avoid having to answer any difficult questions.
Another hour of searching didn’t provide anything of monetary value, but still gave me a few things that would be useful for the road. A small folding knife, a thermos, and best of all, matches. Magical matches.
Like the matches I was familiar with, they were thin thumb length sticks. Where normal matches had a colored tip however, these had a small series of engravings. Like the spells from the witch’s notebook, I could understand what the different parts meant, but unlike the witch’s spells, I could understand the entire thing.
I would have shouted in triumph is I wasn’t still wary of how much noise I was making. This was the first spell I could understand. They would probably take some practice to use, but these little sticks could be the key to me figuring out how magic works. With a little bit more practice, I might even be able to make copies.
I held one up, waiting for the small flicker of flame that I knew would come from it. Nothing happened, but I wasn’t fazed. I had time, and for this, I could be patient. I danced with joy, happy with my discovery until my motions raised a dust cloud that forced me back out into the hall.
Refusing to give up my pride, I confidently walked into the living room and placed the matches on the sheet next to the jewelry box. After a second thought, I went back to the storage room, grabbed a bottle of wine from the rack, and added it to the pile.
In the witch’s room, I gathered up the few books from her shelf. Two of them gave me painful but thankfully short lived headaches when I looked at their covers. After comparing them, I came to the conclusion that they were most likely in different languages, and the headache I received happened whenever I looked at one for the first time. The titles of the books translated just enough to let me know that they were about more magical subjects that I lacked the words to understand. I added them to the sheet next to her notebook. Any magic books the witch thought were worth reading were probably good to have.
When the sun finally set and my dinner was finished, I felt a measure of contentment. I had skipped wine that night in favor of tea, but had managed to restore a bit of my good mood. I had walked a fine line between procrastination and productivity, and it had worked out fairly well.
The sheet was far from full, but if I included the rest of the food I knew it would be about as much as I could reasonably carry without it being too cumbersome. It was all I could think to take with me, plus a little more. There were only a few more things I’d have to pack and carry separately. It wasn’t the best of preparations and I could think of several things I would have liked to have had. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. I’d be in rough shape if it took more than a few days to get anywhere, but for only a few days it would be enough to get by.
What helped me the most though, was that I had managed to go the entire day without any attacks on my body or my sanity. I had only slept a few times in my life, but that night, I’d say I slept pretty well.
* * * * *
On the morning of my fourth day, my confidence waned.
I was essentially packed and ready to go. There was no real reason for me to stay in the house any longer, but I was second guessing myself.
I knew that the longer I stayed, the less food I would have for the trip. I knew that there was nothing useful I could do in here that I couldn’t do out there. I knew that spending another day doing nothing would only be delaying the inevitable.
But I knew that the outside was dangerous. I knew that I might be walking for days before I found another place of safety. I knew that every step I took could be leading me towards my death.
My breakfast that day was the same fried eggs and toast as the days before. It was the best I had made yet, and I savored it while I could. Aside from a small pot, I wasn’t bringing much in the way of cooking utensils, so my meals for the next few days would have to be much simpler.
When the meal was done, I washed the dishes and took another quick bath, trying to draw out my moment of peace for as long as I reasonably could.
Unable to put it off any longer, I gathered up the blanket and pillow from my bed, double checked the contents of the sheet, and hefted my shovel. I looked out the windows for any immediate signs of danger, and upon deciding that everything was clear, walked out the front door.
The mist in the trees was more ominous than ever, and I felt like a fool for thinking that it had only been a spooky artistic touch to the witch’s house. It was a menacing wall at the edge of all I knew, and I was about to walk into it.
I followed the path from the door towards the forest, listening for the smallest of sounds, and my head swiveled back and forth looking for anything that might be coming my way.
I reached the forest’s edge and continued on. The mist wrapped around me almost invitingly, leading me into its depths.
I could still see a few dozen paces in any direction, but beyond that was a blur. I had to rely on my ears as much as my eyes now. Anything I could see would be able to see me, and at that point it would be too late.
The path didn’t take long to fade away into nothing, but I continued on in that direction as best I could. The ground was fairly flat, and aside from the occasional fallen tree or bush, there wasn’t much to get in my way.
I wasn’t particularly worried about getting lost. I couldn’t get thrown off course if I didn’t have one to begin with, and as long as I ended up somewhere, that would be good enough. My best strategy would be to find a stream and follow it. Everyone needs water, so if I follow it long enough, I’d find someone eventually.
I tried to keep a steady pace, and frequently had to remind myself not to go too fast or too slow. Through the leaves and mist, I had trouble telling where the sun was, but I tried to take a short break every hour. I needed to make sure that I always had enough energy for a long sprint in case of emergency.
The day passed without any real excitement. The only things I saw were trees and fog, and the only thing I heard were my own footsteps. Even the usual bird calls one would expect hear were absent. I vaguely remembered that I hadn’t heard any at the witch’s house either.
When the light began to dim, I started looking for a place to make camp. That was when I realized how much of an idiot I had been.
“Shit! I can’t just sleep on the ground! I’d be a perfect target. Something could walk right up to me and bite my face off before I even noticed.”
I had brought a blanket and pillow, as if I had expected to just curl up at the base of a tree and go to sleep without worry. I could probably sleep in a tree, but it could take a while to find one that I could both climb and not fall out of.
“And I can’t make a fire either. That would just be announcing my presence to everything around me.”
The fact that I hadn’t even started figuring out how to use the matches was irrelevant. Once I found a stream, I’d probably have to start one if I wanted to make sure the water was safe to drink, but hot dinners were off the table.
I got lucky in my search for a tree to sleep in. Its bottom branches were low enough that I could reach if I jumped, and the branches higher up were still strong enough to support my weight. I couldn’t properly lie down, but I could sit and lean into them well enough to sleep. Getting up on my own was easy enough, but doing it without dropping my stuff was a bit more challenging.
The nights were warm enough that I could use my blanket more for padding than cover. I was sore from all of the walking I had done, and already knew that my boney butt would be protesting the sleeping conditions in the morning.
After finishing a quick and carefully juggled meal, I began to feel confined in my roost among the branches. I didn’t want to go back down to the ground, but it was still too early to sleep and I had nothing to do.
I reached over to my pack and after a bit of rummaging, found what I was looking for. It wasn’t the witch’s notebook, though it was similar. It was my own notebook and pen that she had bought for me. It was still empty, and I was relieved to find that there was no dedication in the front cover.
With the last of the light I began to write about the past four days. It was mostly me screaming, panicking, swearing, and being miserable, but it felt good putting it all out onto paper. The words flowed smoothly, and although I couldn’t remember the name of the language, I knew it was the one I thought and spoke in. My handwriting was blocky and I had trouble keeping it all neat, but the letters were comfortable to look at, and didn’t fill my head with the tension I got whenever I tried to read this world’s words. Before I knew it I had filled several pages, and finished just before it became too dark to continue.
* * * * *
I was awoken in the night by a noise below me. It was too dark to see anything, but I could tell from the sound of the footsteps that it wasn’t a zombie. This was something bigger.
The sound of a zombie’s footsteps are long and drawn out as it slowly drags its feet across the ground. The sound I heard was the heavy plodding stomps of a large beast with multiple legs.
It approached the base of the tree, stopped, and a snuffling growl filled the air. I clutched at the branches with one hand, and held the shovel in the other. I was afraid that it would start climbing, but instead the entire tree shook as something heavy slammed against the trunk.
The growl continued, but this time it was accompanied by a grinding sound, and the branches practically vibrated from whatever it was doing. I held the shovel tighter. I knew I wasn’t ready for a fight, but I would at least go down swinging.
I strained my eyes, trying to look through the mist and shadows through sheer force of will. If I could just see what was down there, maybe I could come up with a plan. Maybe I could find some way to escape. I focused all of my senses on the thing below me. I put my everything into it.
And then I felt it.
A presence. The beast from below. It was big enough to make most bears seem small, and it felt wrong. It felt like a monster. I may have been artificial, but below me was something that simply should not have existed.
I still couldn’t truly see the thing, but I didn’t question whatever this new sense was telling me. There was something terrible down there, something terrible, and… Something else?
In the distance, probably even beyond what I would have been able to see in the daytime, was another presence. While monster below me felt twisted and abominable, the one farther away just felt different. It felt alien, but also like it was exactly where it belonged. It kept its distance, not coming any closer, or getting any farther away.
The growling and grinding from the monster beast, and the entire tree shook again as the vibrations picked up. Then I heard a wet thunk and the grinding stopped. The monstrous creature’s growls turned to a squeal for a single instant before going silent, and its presence disappeared in a heartbeat.
The second one started approach. If zombies shuffle, and the monster that tore at my tree stomped, this one strode. It was slightly taller than a person, and moved with the clear sense of purpose. It came straight to the base of the tree and halted where the creature had been. Seconds later I could hear the gruesome sound of flesh and skin being torn.
For several minutes I watched. My eyes saw nothing, but I stared at it anyway. The sounds made me feel sick, but I couldn’t cover my ears.
When it had finished whatever it was doing, the presence walked around the tree. Then it stopped again and looked up at me. I couldn’t see it, but in the same way I could sense it, I knew that it could sense me.
I called out to it, whispering as loud as I dared. It had killed the thing that had attacked me without even getting close. It knew I was here, and I didn’t doubt that if it wanted me dead, I wouldn’t even know what hit me.
It didn’t respond, and instead turned away and walked off into the darkness.
I didn’t dare come down and try to follow it. It might not have been hostile. It had even saved my life. But that didn’t automatically mean it was my friend. One wrong move on my part could have been my last, and if was content to let me stay in the tree, I was more than willing to remain.
For an unknown time I remained awake, to shaken and scared to close my eyes, but eventually, somehow, my tiredness overcame my fear, and I fell back to sleep.
* * * * *
When the dim light of morning woke me, I immediately looked to the ground to see what was there.
Most of the forest floor was covered in leaves, but in a large area at the base of the tree they were scattered around exposing the dirt beneath. The body was gone, and blood was everywhere. It had mostly soaked into the ground, turning it to mud, but small puddles remained here and there. The sight made me aware of the smell, and I gagged on the scent of metal and rotten eggs.
I reached for whatever I had done last night, and tried to sense the world around me, but it either didn’t work, or there was nothing for me to sense. As far as I could tell, I was the only one around.
The tree creaked with every one of my movements as I climbed down. I jumped from the last branch, carefully avoiding the side of the tree with the blood splatter, and noticed two more things.
The first was just how close I had come to dying last night. Half of the trunk had been torn away, and large tooth marks covered the exposed wood. The monster’s mouth had cut more efficiently than any woodsman’s axe, and if it had continued for much longer, the tree would have collapsed, taking me with it.
The second, and more immediately gruesome, was a braid of woven intestines wrapped around the bottom of the trunk. What it meant, I couldn’t tell, but I was now very glad that I hadn’t tried to climb down earlier. Anything that marks its territory with the organs of its prey is probably best avoided.
Aside from the blood and the markings on the tree, there were no signs of either the monster, or the thing that killed it. The disturbed leaves where the first had approached from were clear, but as for the coming and going of the second, there was nothing.
Eager to be gone, I picked a direction that seemed to vaguely be mostly downhill and left at a run. I could rest and eat breakfast soon, but I wanted to be far away before I did.
I was hoping to find water that day. I had made use of the thermos and filled it with tea but it was mostly empty. I still had two refilled wine bottles left, but if I didn’t find a stream soon, I’d have to start cutting back on my rations.
Aside from that first sprint, my pace was generally slower than it had been before. I was sore from yesterday’s walking, and spending the night in a tree had only made things worse. I decided to have breakfast on the move, and focused on the apples. They were still juicy and I hoped they would help me cut back on my water intake. Still I ended up taking longer breaks more often.
Even with my newfound sense of whatever-it-was, I didn’t stop listening or looking at my surroundings. I still couldn’t tell if it wasn’t working, or if there just wasn’t anything around for me to sense. Now that I knew there were more than just zombies in this forest, I wasn’t exactly hoping to bump into something just to try it out. No news was good news, and I was very willing to remain ignorant.
During one of my breaks, I decided to pull out the matches and see if I could get them to work. I wasn’t planning on starting a fire, but I would need to once I found water, and I wanted to be ready when I did.
I looked at the match again, checking the markings carved into the tip for some sort of clue, but the whole spell seemed fairly direct. Much like how my sense started working the night before, I attempted to extend myself out into the stick, and willed it to light. Surprisingly I got it on my first try. I took quite a bit of pride in my success, until I remembered that all I had done was light a match, and that it probably wasn’t as great an accomplishment as I had expected.
“It’s not like you need to read the spell just to use it. It’s just a match. Even a child could probably use these things. Hell, a child could probably make these things.”
I put the match out between my fingertips, and drove the charred remains into the ground. Making one myself would have to wait. Maybe I could try once I found water and was waiting for it to finish boiling, but I still had plenty for now, and couldn’t afford to sit around.
Again evening came without me finding water or the other side of the forest. Finding a new tree to sleep in took longer than before, but I was still able to get off the ground with time enough to add a few pages to my journal.
The night was thankfully quiet.
* * * * *
The third day in the forest passed uneventfully, without discovery of water, or any run-ins with monsters. I was out of apples, nearly out of water, and growing more and more exhausted.
On the fourth day, I was scared. Instead of listening for signs of danger, I listened for the gurgling of a stream. Instead of looking at what was around me, I scanned the ground for any ditch or dip in the land that might have what I needed.
I was constantly thinking of the bottle of wine I had in my pack, but the knowledge that it would probably only dry me out faster kept me away from it. It would be a last resort.
I was taking a small sip of the last of my water when I finally noticed what was right in front of me. The mist didn’t fully clear, but it thinned a bit, and just over the tops of the trees, I could see a city. I was so shocked that I ended up drinking the last of the water all at once and almost choked.
A city. A city! A real actual city, with real actual skyscrapers was right there waiting for me. People food, water, safety!
I dropped the bottle to the ground and forced my aching legs to run forward.
Just past the trees I could see cars and even a few people. I had made it!
I nearly crashed right into a woman as I burst out of the trees and onto the sidewalk.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I apologized, too excited to care if she could understand my words.
The zombie turned towards me and groaned.