Even so, with some gentle massaging, he secreted enough black jelly that I was able to mend all of my injuries. In return, I plucked one of the little floaters from my body and fed it to him. Several more were stuck to me on account of the foul smelling yellow crud which I had yet to scrub off.
After I finished doing that, I set off once again for the rim where my mount awaited, this time paying closer attention to the terrain. When I came across more smooth, bubble like domes, I took great care to be sure of my footing, and to avoid touching them anywhere.
I pressed on despite my exhaustion, neglecting to sleep on the off chance that those uniformed goons might’ve followed me. What a relief it was when I finally found my mount, still tied to the stalagmite where I left it!
As I flew to the next pillar, I caught myself missing the village. The bustle, the commotion, feasting alongside the others as they laughed and sang. Perhaps it’s better to be in the company of monsters than alone.
Once I landed, dismounted and tied the obedient creature to a nearby stalagmite, I set off for the black pool I knew I’d find at the center. This place has a logic all its own. I’ll never really know the “whys” of it, but it’s easy enough to learn the “whats” by simple exploration, trial, and error.
That’s a dangerous way to learn, however. Falling into that spawning pit was an indefensibly stupid mistake, one I resolved never to repeat. From that point on, anything unfamiliar was automatically suspect. Not because it could kill me though. Death is far from the worst possible outcome down here.
Every time my stomach growled, I stopped for a short while to massage some black jelly out of my strange little stowaway, which I then rubbed into the few remaining patches of skin on my body. It hit the spot and kept me going, but I could feel the last of my residual humanity evaporating.
I distracted myself by thinking up a name for my traveling companion. Eel mouth’s warning be damned, I had to call it something. After some deliberation, I settled on Horatio. No real reason, except that it tickled me to give such a distinguished sounding name to this odd little bug.
Following another two day’s travel, I arrived at the black pool only to find it surrounded by naked, frightened captives. I wasted no time informing them that the black fog is but an illusion to prevent them from straying too far from the pool.
To my dismay, they laughed at me. One even threw a stone, which missed me only by a hair. That’s when I remembered how I must look. I tried to convince them that I was human once, and that they’d become like me soon enough if they remained by the pool.
“What’s your name then?” I turned to face the fellow asking. It should’ve rolled off my tongue. But I’d been down here so long by that point that, try as I might, I honestly couldn’t remember. “Listen…I know how this is going to sound, but…I forgot.” He scoffed and turned away.
Most of them ignored me after that. The few who didn’t were nevertheless intractable. However fervently I assured them I’d come from a larger world beyond the black fog, one which they had not yet seen, all I received in return was mockery.
“Eat us already, demon. That’s what you’ve come for” one of them growled. Frustration mounted, twisting my guts into a knot…until I gave up. Just like that, the tension vanished. I don’t actually need to help these people, do I?
They don’t want my help anyway, and you can’t force help on somebody who doesn’t want it. I could spare them weeks, months or years of suffering if they would listen, but they won’t. Some people have to learn things on their own.
I searched for some way in which it was the wrong decision. Wasn’t I absolving myself of an important responsibility? But regardless of which angle I examined it from, I’d already done everything that could be asked of me.
Up the shaft, then. Now that I knew there weren’t more uniformed ghouls or something worse waiting for me around the black pool, I returned to the rim for my mount. It took another two days to reach it, but once I did, the journey back to the center took little more than an hour.
It raised a few eyebrows when I arrived at the black pool riding atop my winged steed. I wondered if I should repeat my offer to lead them past the black fog. But what for? They had their chance. They’d have another when I return from the surface.
If they decide they want my help after all, they’ll ask for it. With that, I determined that I would not allow the matter to trouble me any further. Instead I clung tightly to the winged beast’s carapace and rode it up into the shaft.
The ascent was as tiring as ever, but also unusual. This time rather than grey stone all the way through, or a slow transition to strange flesh, the tunnel instead went from stone to wood. When I emerged from the other end, it answered one question but raised countless more.
I crawled out through a hole gnawed in what looked to be a finely papered wall within an astonishingly luxurious, well furnished home. Not remarkable in itself except that it was about a dozen times too large.
A finely carved, polished oak table towered over me like a highway overpass. The rug lining the hallway was so large that I sunk into it up to my knees. More long, narrow tables lined either side of the handsomely decorated corridor…both above and below.
For where a ceiling should be, there was instead another floor, but upside down. With the very same rug lining it and the very same tables to either side. I mistook it for a mirrored ceiling until I noticed the tables were in slightly different positions.
This is Earth, surely? Those were humans at the bottom of the shaft, like any others I’ve seen. Yet once again I found myself someplace I felt certain could never exist on the Earth I knew. Even the window at the end of the hall yielded no clues, as from this angle I could see only a black expanse on the other side.
I took flight, weaving around the leg of the table and gaining some altitude for a better vantage point. The tables lining either wall turned out to have dollhouses atop them. Though because of my small size relative to this environment, they were in fact full sized houses to me.
Only when I landed to explore one of the dollhouses up close did I discover that it was a replica of the larger house around it. Same wallpaper, same vertically doubled hallways, same polished wooden tables…with smaller dollhouses on them.
These ones were actually an appropriate size for dollhouses, relative to me. I inspected the intricate little details, including a set of even smaller dollhouses, until a commotion from the next room over drew my attention.
When I went to investigate, I found a pair of weary looking men dressed up to the nines, seated at either end of a dinner table. I introduced myself. Neither responded, or even so much as rose from their chairs at the sight of an intruder.
They were alive alright. I could see them breathing and, when I approached, their eyes were following me as I moved about. But their mouths were stitched shut. I circled around them slowly, looking for some explanation for their behavior but finding nothing.
Exasperated, I withdrew a knife fashioned from a bone shard and cut through the stitches so the poor man could speak. The first thing out of his mouth was incoherent blubbering. Sounded like a combination of relief and fear.
“Y-you should be here!” he whimpered. I told him that I came up the shaft, and could bring him down it with me. “You don’t understand!” he seized me by the shoulder. “I can’t go anywhere! I can’t move! Dolls can’t move! They can’t speak either, I shouldn’t even be talking to you!”
I began to entertain the possibility that I was speaking with yet another madman. “Dolls? What dolls? Listen, the fog around the black pool you came from isn’t real, it’s-” he broke in, now so anxious that he was visibly shaking.
Stay Tuned for Part 15!