Unknown Date 2479 A.R.T
I had awoken early, roused by the knowledge that the day of our mission to the eastern forest was upon us and I had looked up through the skylight to see dull, overcast skies, threatening snow. The fire which had been blazing at the centre of the chamber for the last two days had dwindled to a mound of glowing charcoal and Smoke had fallen asleep beside it, his head and shoulders nestled amidst the smouldering remnants of the priceless artefacts at its edge. Fearing that his brain would be quite cooked I had tentatively put my injured foot to the floor. My stubbed toe hadn’t protested too much but as I had not used them for well over a week my legs had wobbled terribly. I had ambled over to Smoke and had shook his shoulder to rouse him. He’d awoken in a state of alarm and had sat bolt upright, showering me with embers and ash. In his panic he had grabbed the charred remnants of some ancient treasure and had wielded it like a club. The smoking club had been tentatively lowered and Smoke had returned it to the dying fire, climbing to his feet. I’m sorry Sunrise, he’d written on his slate. I thought you were someone from the before. The morning man with the ice water.
It’s quite alright, I’d written back, still a little shocked. I shouldn’t have woken you so violently but I was afraid that you were becoming roasted. I had not questioned Smoke further on the crux of his panic but I had found the mention of ’the morning man with the ice water’ most disconcerting as the reference had tickled something in the dark recesses that contained the remains of my previous mind. I had decided then that I did not want to know.
I’m fine thank you, Smoke had written. He’d looked down mournfully at his fire. It’s dying, he’d written. I’ve run out of food for it. It ate the ladders, the gilded boxes, the carvings, the statues, the masks and Pulida said that the other two mummies are off the menu.
I had placed my hand on Smoke’s shoulder. I’m sorry, I’d written. It was a good fire.
It wasn’t good, Smoke had replied, his goggles beginning to mist. It was perfect. Such a loyal and well-behaved blaze. Anyone would have been blessed to have it grace their hearth or consume their property. It had been at this point that Smoke had begun to silently sob on my shoulder.
At around this time Oats had entered the chamber but, seeing Smoke’s grief he had paused near the threshold, not wanting to intrude.
You want to help people? Smoke had written, pulling away from me. Care for those in need?
Yes, I written back. I want that very much.
Then help Ablazelea Smoke had written. She may not be alive like those bunnies but she still has life. She needs food and just like those bunnies she’ll die without it. Again, Smoke had broken down into tears on my shoulder, dropping his sheet of slate in his anguish. I had staggered sideways, my weak legs struggling to support his weight.
Oats had caught my attention with a wave of his five-fingered hand and he’d held his slate above his head for me to see. It had read, Who’s Ablazelea?
I think it’s the name of the fire, I’d written, struggling to form my words under Smoke’s jolting sobs.
Oats had cocked his head to the side quizzically. He named the fire?
Seems so, I’d replied. I had gently pushed Smoke away and had reassured him that I would make it my priority to bring some dry wood back from the forest which he could use to feed Ablazelea. I had also suggested that it might be a good idea if Ablazelea was reduced in size (maybe to the size of a sandcastle that had partially collapsed in the surf,) so that she was easier to maintain and her ravenous appetite was lessened.
Smoke had thanked me and had nodded his agreement, telling me that he would do everything in his power to keep Ablazelea alive until we returned with food for her. He had then begun to tend Ablazelea, raking the dead ash away from the red-hot fragments of life that had remained.
Sensing that the drama was over, Oats had approached me. He had pointed at the clouds through the skylight with his extra digit and had written, A round-topped cloud with a flattened base, carries rainfall in its face. I think we should expect a downpour during our journey to the forest. Possibly even snow. How’s the foot?
Its surprisingly functional thank you, I had replied, eying the clouds with foreboding.
What time do you want to set off? Oats had asked.
As soon as we’re all ready, I’d looked down at the critically ill fire. The remaining chunks of red-hot wood had dulled unhealthily, and I’d thought of the plight of the bunnies and how a full week had passed since my vow to help them. The sooner we leave the better.
Well Omen is up, Butter’s up in a manner of speaking, Skull got up to pick Butter up off the floor, Bubbles has been up all night, Pulida got me up, Blancmange is up, Cloud got up early to visit his butterfly’s grave before we left, Horizon is up and has already surveyed the landscape to the east, I’ve seen Taboo around and now you’re up too so I think we’re all ready to go. As he’d accounted for everyone Oats had checked them off on his fingers, utilising all ten of them.
When he’d finished, I’d nodded towards his hands and had written, Show-off, a comment which had caused him to self-consciously hide his hands behind his back.
Script had payed me a visit around this time and he had kindly loaned me his expansive satchel, telling me that he hoped it would assist me in bearing the bulk of my scavenging. I had also met with Yarn who had more or less begged me to acquire him some wool, a provision which I was unsure the forest would be able to provide. Still, I had told him that I would try my best, a promise which had prompted him to procure his knitting needles in readiness.
Okay, I’d written, feeling equal measures of excitement and trepidation. Let’s get going. I just hope the forest will be there to meet us when we get to where we’re going.
Before we’d left, I had scratched out a list of what we needed to collect from the forest on the reverse of my slate, hoping that it would all fit into Script’s satchel:
·Seeds of medical herbs
·Seeds of magical herbs
·Seeds of edible crops
·Dry wood for Ablazelea
·Long lengths of wood for Sawdust to construct new ladders
·Wool for Yarn
As Oats had predicted, the heavens had opened during our descent of the mountainside, depositing a dreadful mixture of perspiration upon us which had yet to decide if it was rain or snow. This abhorrent sleet had coated the already treacherous stairway in a slippery rime and by the time we had reached the base of the mountain we were all quite sodden.
Taboo had shared his hatred of the weather in quite a vulgar way and had made many obscene gestures at the perspiring clouds. His obscenities had remained on his slate for some time and had been noticed by Cloud who, in his innocence, had asked me what it meant to, Pleg the plegging weather! It had been at this point that I had asked Taboo to wipe his slate clean and I had advised him to use the words fudge, dinglebuff and narf in place of pleg, shatang and the other offensive words which took preference in his vocabulary. He had dutifully agreed and had told me he would do his dinglebuffing best to curb all his fudging as he really didn’t want to narf anyone off.
The slick, wet rocks had aggravated Butter’s inherent instability and her frequent trips to the ground were beginning to take their toll on her suit which was now covered in scuffs and grazes. Her knees and elbows were especially worn and the beak of her mask was now permanently bent to the left, deformed by its numerous run-ins with the floor. Skull had kept a tight grip on her arm and during the most treacherous sections of our decent, Blancmanche had also helped to support her.
We had headed east toward the spot where the forest was due to materialise and I had watched our mountain shrink behind us with a sense of anxiety. I’d felt vulnerable out in the open wasteland and after spending so long in the company of sixty-five others, our little expedition party had made me feel very lonely indeed.
Sensing my distress and probably seeking comfort of his own, Cloud had taken my hand.
The path ahead of us had grown increasingly difficult and as we’d left the floodplain, the thick, drying mud had given way to a barren and unforgiving landscape of potholes and rocks. Still traumatised by my recent stubbing accident I had given the rocks a wide birth until Skull had begun to toss them aside, partly to ease my anxiety and partly to stop them tripping Butter. Skull had admitted to me that he was also checking the rocks to make sure that the one he’d marked as malevolent, wasn’t present, spreading discourse and inciting toe-based violence amongst the rock community. He had promised me that if the offending rock ever dared show its stony face around him again then he would grind it into dust.
The most time-consuming obstacle we’d encountered during our journey to the forest had been a wide, four-foot-deep ravine with an ancient, narrow rope bridge stretched across it. Horizon had crossed it first and had been followed closely by Butter and Skull. Omen had followed after them but when he had reached the halfway point he had once again become frozen with fear and had gripped the rope handrails, apparently dizzied by the height. A disorderly queue had formed behind him, the weight of which had caused the rope bridge sag to the very bottom of the ravine. Despite the bridge now being on ground level Omen had still been unable to move and no amount of impatient foot tapping had been enough to spur him on. Even Taboo’s message of FOR FUDGE SAKE OMEN! GET YOUR DINGLEBUFFING NARF ACROSS THE BRIDGE! hadn’t had any effect on him.
Eventually Horizon had ventured back out onto the bridge and had physically dragged Omen across it, allowing the rest of our party to cross. Upon reaching the other side Omen had seemed quite pleased with himself and had written I did it! It was touch-and-go there for a minute but I made it in one piece.
At around noon when the sun had been at its highest we had all looked towards the eastern horizon with anticipation, awaiting the forest’s reappearance and exactly on cue it had materialised before us, shimmering into existence amidst great whorls of dark vapour as if it had journeyed to us upon a vast chariot of smoke. The sight of the forest had spurred us onwards but as the sun had begun to dip toward the western horizon to stretch our shadows before us the fringe of trees had seemed no closer to us than they’d been when they’d first appeared. I had begun to feel that the forest was running away from us, taking two steps to the east for every step we took towards it. Horizon had consulted his compass and had stated that if we did not reach the trees before nightfall then we would be forced camp out in the wastelands for the night, an inconvenience which he hadn’t planned for.
Many worried exclamation marks had been scrawled in response to the news and Omen had begun to quake with nerves. Things come out in the dark, he’d written. Things with claws and peculiar bodily piercings.
Several hundred weary footsteps later we had descended into a steep valley. Darkness had just begun to gather around us and a cool breeze had swept the land and sky, bringing more snow laden clouds and chilling us enough to cause brrr! to be scrawled upon several slates. The valley had boasted a stream and a waterfall and had neat stone steps chiselled into its sides making it much more serviceable than the treacherous slopes of our mountain. I recall pondering if the steps been carved out by the Coomobra and I had wondered if the mummy we’d inadvertently cremated had ever used them during its life. At its base the valley had been thick with vegetation and Oats had stopped on several occasions to examine the flora, breaking off seed heads and scrutinising leaves. Fireflies and odd luminous frogs had flitted and swam all around the base of the waterfall, illuminating it with scintillating hues of green and gold and an odd wispy mist had clung to the ground, rising in tiny clouds when disturbed. A neat trail of steppingstones had led the way across the stream and Butter had pulled Skull to a halt at the base of the waterfall before they had ventured across. She had pointed to the gentle radiance of the waterfall and had rested her head on Skull’s shoulder. Pretty, she’d written. Romantic.
Skull had become very flustered by the attention and he had inadvertently knocked Butter sideways, sending her sprawling into the stream. To this day I am still not sure if he had been trying to hug her or push her away but either way the moment had been ruined. Skull had quickly fished Butter from the water and had retrieved her hat which had been flowing downstream, words of apology plastering their shared slate. Dutifully he had then helped her to negotiate the stepping stones, holding her arm tightly.
Upon emerging from the other side of the valley we had suddenly found ourselves standing at the very edge of the forest. It had seemed that the trees had become bored with running from us and had instead decided to sneak up on us whilst we had traversed the valley, hoping to surprise us. We had been most excited by our success and there had been much back slapping and hand shaking amongst us.
The edge of the forest had been fringed with what had appeared to be masses of pure white brambles which had skirted the forest to the north and south. They’d had long, curled, hook-like thorns and had seemed to twist and meander into the sky in a most extraordinarily gravity defying way, as if they had somehow used their hooks to gain purchase on thin air. The band of white brambles had been thick and roughly as wide as a large cow which had lay down due to coming rain but had then found itself with a stomach-ache and so had curled itself into a foetal position. Some of the brambles’ most adventurous shoots had stretched up higher than Butter’s head and Skull had pulled her backwards when she’d approached them, mindful of their cruel-looking thorns.
What is it? I had asked Oats. It looks dangerous.
Oats had nodded and he had approached the brambles with caution. One tendril had boasted a large puffy seed head which resembled the kind you might pluck from a ripe dandelion. He had reached out to touch the seed head but his green finger had simply slipped straight through it as if it wasn’t really there at all. Several seconds after doing so the seed head had seemingly reacted to his touch and its cash of seeds had floated into the air, caught in some undetectable breeze. Oats had attempted to catch one of the floating seeds, closing his fist around it but the seed had floated straight through his hand. They’re incorporeal, he’d written. I’ve never seen anything like them. They’re not native to the Known Expanse I’m sure of that.
You think they’re dangerous? Skull had asked, watching the approaching cloud of seeds with caution. As they’d neared him, the seeds had begun to distort and fade away until they were little more that indistinct smudges in the air.
Oats had waved his hand through the ghostly foliage and I had been relieved to see that he wasn’t snared by any of the thorns. No, it’s harmless I think, he had written. We can’t touch it and it can’t touch us. It’s like its rooted in another plain of existence or something?
As we had stood mesmerised by the bank of bramble, a sudden thud had sounded behind us and we had turned to see that Butter had once again fallen to the floor. At the time I had surmised that she had simply become so overwhelmed by the botanical phantasmagoria that she had simply fainted, a theory which I would later find to be erroneous. There had at that moment also been a strange dip in light levels as if the sun had temporarily been blocked by some passing body but, upon scanning the sky, I had found it to be quite barren. Oddly, on this occasion Skull had not rushed to Butter’s aid in his usual fashion. Instead he had stood to her side, fumbling with one of the many large pouches his suit had to offer. He had seemed to be in a state of alarm and he had held his left hand behind his back as if he were concealing something from view.
Are you okay there Skull? I had written, concerned by his odd behaviour. You seem alarmed.
Yes, I’m fine!! Skull had written with his free hand. I am not alarmed!!! There’s nothing strange going on at all!!
Though I had found his over abundant use of exclamation marks to be quite counterintuitive I had taken him at his word and, as he had continued to fumble with his pouch, I had helped Butter back to her feet.
Something hit me on the head! Butter had written, rubbing her brow. It knocked my hat off!
No, no, nothing unexpectedly fell from the sky and hit you on the head, Skull had written. You just fell over in your usual graceful fashion.
Despite Skull’s dismissal of her claim, Butter had been delighted by him referring to her as graceful and in her excitement, she had once again tumbled, falling heavily onto her derriere.
A worried squeak of stone on slate had drawn our attention to Omen who had been looking out over the fringe of ghostly bramble. The bramble had appeared to have been caught in a sudden, undetectable wind and was being violently tousled, movement which had caused a miasma of the fluffy, incorporeal seed heads to mount to the sky.
This is a warning! Omen had written, backing away from the expanding spectral cloud. He had held the talisman of the Humusist Faith out toward the approaching seeds, apparently believing it would protect him. We should turn back!
You great crested bellow jelly! Taboo had written, shaking his head. If you were any yellower, I’d have to call you Custard!
In hindsight if Omen had truly been any yellower that day, he would likely have been blue, a comment which, (should you survive the reading of this diary,) you may one day look back upon and through hindsight, understand. Hindsight as they say is a wonderful thing and through it, I often wish that I had headed Omen’s warning that day and had led us back to the safety of our mountain. I had instead however offered him my hand and a short but effective motivational speech.
Don’t be afraid, I had written. You can do this. We’ll walk through it together. Just like the lava flow.
As it had neared us the cloud of seeds, like those which had taken flight before them, had steadily faded away, vanishing into the aether.
Okay, Omen had finally written, fingering his many talismans. Together.
Tooth gether, Cloud had agreed, taking my other hand. Along with the others the three of us had put our best feet forwards and we had stepped into the brambles.
I recall that Skull and Butter had lagged behind us, surreptitiously conversating on their shared slate. Knowing what I know now and what they knew then I am filled with nothing but respect for the bravery they showed that day by following me into that forest.
(Ink acknowledges that due to my near fatal toe stubbing I had indeed most likely put my best foot forwards. He is unsure however how to ascertain which of Cloud and Omen’s feet were superior at the time of these events and has therefore questioned them at length on the subject, taking into account factors such as verrucas, athletes’ foot, sprained ankles and threadbare socks, (none of which are really applicable.) Ink therefore admits that, due to the absence of evidence and a lack of interest and understanding from those questioned he has been unable to come up with a satisfactory answer as to whether Cloud and Omen utilised their right or left foot for the undertaking of this endeavour and he apologises for the historical grey area which this poses.)
As Oats had already proved, the thorns had been no threat to us and we had not so much as bent a twig as we’d tramped through them. I do however recall having a strange cold, heavy feeling in my legs not dissimilar to the sensation I imagine you might experience if you were to walk through freezing treacle. I had been quite relieved when we had all reached the other side of the ghostly briar patch and I had rubbed furiously at my shins and ankles, trying to banish the cold numbness that had settled in them. Something about the brambles had made me feel very uneasy and I had been eager to enter the forest away from them.
Oats had placed his hand on the trunk of the nearest tree. To my knowledge this isn’t native to the Known Expanse either, he’d written. I’ve never seen these trees before.
I thought you were meant to know all about fudging plants? Taboo had written. So far, you’ve scored a big flabby zero.
I do know about plants, Oats had replied, but most of these are foreign. Some are familiar. Most are not.
Well I think we’d better press on, Horizon had written. It’s becoming late.
We had entered the trees as a complete and absolute darkness had descended over the Expanse, bringing a cold wind and an air of foreboding with it. I recall wishing that Smoke had accompanied us on our expedition, bringing Ablazelea and her warmth along with him.
The trees had been closely packed together and it had been hard to traverse them in the darkness. I had knocked my goggles askew upon several occasions after walking into lurking tree trunks and I had begun to fear for the safety of my little toes which had become quite lost in the darkness of the forest floor, swinging unprotected past all manner of low-lying obstacles. Besides putting my toes in peril, the darkness had also prevented us from communicating effectively as we could no longer see each other let alone read what was written upon our slates. In order to keep together each of us had each placed a hand on the shoulder of the individual in front to form what I can only describe as cautious conga line.
Horizon had led our conga line onwards until we had entered what we’d supposed to be a clearing. All of the creatures of the night had awoken in the darkness and their cries, barks and screams had filled us with fear. The jangling of Omen’s talismans had been quite deafening as he’d nervously sorted through them in the gloom, hoping that the power of the faiths they represented would guard us. Twigs had snapped and leaves had rustled all around and all at once a strange powdery substance had started to drift down from above, covering us and the clearing like a false blanket of snow. Though the powder had produced no light of its own it had enhanced a few stray moonbeams which had snuck into the clearing and had offered us just enough illumination to make out one another’s silhouettes. It had grown colder and we’d huddled together for warmth and security as the cries of the animals had intensified. I recall being in close proximity to Omen in our huddle and I remember that he had been shaking from fear and cold. In an attempt to calm him I had reached down and had placed my hand on his shoulder which, due to his small stature, had drawn level with my waist.
An undiscernible amount of time later, a tiny light had materialised beyond the veil of the darkness, flaring to life amongst the trees. It had been a light not unlike those produced by the fireflies we’d seen in the waterfall valley, except it was much larger and moving much faster. The light had sporadically vanished and reappeared as it had moved in and out of the distant tree trunks, curling its way through the forest towards us. An odd rhythmic rumble had preceded the light and it had grown in size and intensity as it had neared us. At the time I had mistaken the tremors as another quake, similar to those we’d experienced during our mountains battle with the sky. The true cause of the shuddering ground however had been the pounding of colossal paws, the owner of which had soon charged into our clearing, skidding to a halt amongst the falling powder. The owner of the paws had worn an iron mask which had been bolted across its face just below its unruly mane. The weight of the mask had bowed the creatures head, forcing it to look out through tinted eyeholes which offered only views of the ground directly before it. A rider had been seated upon a broad saddle slung across the masked creatures back and a whip-like tail had trailed listlessly behind it, a large stinger at its tip. The tail and the creature itself didn’t seem to match as if two separate creatures had been grafted together at the hips. The tail had reminded me of that of scorpion while the build of the upper body had resembled that of a lion of a griffin. I had taken this as another example of The Architect’s poorly thought-out designs, filing it in my mind alongside little toes and appendixes. I believe that at points during the creation of the Expanse and its creatures the Architect must have suffered the deity equivalent of writers’ block. Unable to come up with anything new I believe He had simply taken apart some of his old designs and had put them back together in a different order, creating strange and grotesque patchwork creatures.
The rider who had sat atop the lion-scorpion creature had been tall and lithe-looking and it had worn a long kimono along with a gilded breastplate. Its feet had been bound and like its steed it too had worn a mask though I imagine unlike the lion-scorpion, it had done so voluntarily. The mask of the rider had appeared to have been crafted from porcelain and it had given the rider an angelic visage, sporting large eyes, rosy cheeks and a button nose making it resemble an enormous living doll. A knot of dreadlocks had sprouted from the top of its head to fall over its right shoulder, tiny glass bells and shells woven amongst them. The only part of the rider’s body that had not been covered had been its hands, each of which had sported five digits clad in black, reptilian skin. The rider had held a curious wooden box in its lap, its hinged lid open to reveal a warm shimmering light within. The box was in a poor state of repair, the planks which had formed it worn and eroded, giving me the impression that it had been washed around in the sea. Eerily, the radiance which had spilled from within the box had tainted the angelic innocence of the rider’s mask, casting sinister shadows over its cheekbones and brow, tinting it with an air of malice. A quarterstaff and a short sword had been stowed in a pack upon the riders back and I had eyed them cautiously as the masked steed had approached us. As the rider had drawn nearer, I had noticed that a small reptilian, monkey-like creature had sat upon its left shoulder. A collar and chain had tethered the creature to the rider’s wrist and it had clutched a small, chipped teacup to its chest. Its tail had not been dissimilar to that of a snake and I had noticed in the strange light of the rider’s box that the creature had webbed toes and fingers as well as what appeared to be gills just below its jaw, hinting at an aquatic origin.
Skull and Taboo had stepped forwards as the rider had halted to loom above us. Skull had stretched his arms wide to form a protective barrier and Taboo had written a simple message which he had held above his head for the rider to read. Go shatang yourself and get the pleg out of our clearing!
I had hastily stepped forwards and had lowered Taboo’s slate. Though I’d agreed with the crux of his message I had been concerned that the rider would take offence at the manner in which he’d presented it. To this day I am still not sure what it means to shatang yourself but I feel sure that it is not a practice which you should recommend to an armed stranger.
Luckily, I do not believe the rider could comprehend Taboo’s words. It had muttered something in a foreign tongue and, apparently finding us unworthy of its attention, it had kicked its steed in the flanks and had sent it leaping back into the trees.
We had watched the light from the rider’s box grow smaller as it had moved away from us, dancing and weaving back through the trees. The light had shrunk to the size of the pupil in the eye of an inebriated cockatrice before it had abruptly vanished from sight altogether, leaving us once again with only stray moonbeams to light our world.
Not long after the rider’s departure a bloodcurdling scream of pain had rang out through the night, sounding in the sky above us as if an entire flock of birds had simultaneously stubbed their toes. It had been so shrill and piercing that every creature in the forest had fallen silent. The scream had been closely followed by a crash of breaking branches as something large had tumbled through the forest’s canopy. The hush caused by this calamity had thankfully endured until daybreak.
Following the Doll-Faced Rider’s departure we had huddled closely together beneath a large tree, seeking warmth and security. To my knowledge, not one of us had managed any sleep and as the night had stretched on it had steadily grown colder and the strange precipitation of white powder had stopped, the dusty coating it had deposited on our clearing mysteriously melting away to leave the previously wet leaflitter dry and crisp underfoot.