It made some sense of why they fight. To heal, or to grow. But where did they come from? Are they native to this place? I crept among the monuments until I came upon where the smaller giant’s head had fallen.
Still alive somehow. Can they even die? Crawlers approached on all sides like vultures circling their prey. I expected them to swarm it, picking the skull clean before moving on. Instead, the eyes opened. Dazzling red beams shone out of them, sweeping across the gathered mob of crawlers like a spotlight.
Every crawler that the light touched collapsed in convulsions, as if they were having a seizure. Then after a moment of stillness, they got up. No longer furtive or wary in their movements, instead calmly approaching the giant’s head as though mesmerized.
The head opened its mouth as far as it could. After what I saw in the church, I had a good idea of what to expect. The crawlers approached with chilling calmness, feeding themselves into the gaping maw. As they did so, new flesh began to regenerate below the head, bubbling out of the stump. Taking the form, even as I stared, of a tiny but proportionally correct body.
They kept coming, faster and faster, now crawling over each other on their way into the giant’s mouth. Whenever a pocket of crawlers emerged from hiding, the giant’s eyes came to bear on them. The red light struck their bodies, they collapsed in quivering heaps, then got up and joined the rest.
The larger giant turned slowly in the distance until facing me. For a moment I worried it might’ve spotted me somehow, but of course it was instead the regenerating head of its fallen opponent which captured its interest.
Though it was now growing at an astonishing pace, it wasn’t fast enough. The larger giant, who I followed out here in the first place, brought his foot down on the disembodied head. It burst spectacularly, showering me with sticky black blood and jiggling chunks of brain.
I was immersed in the black sludge until clawing my way out, desperately sucking in fresh air, or as close as it gets down here. Is this…? It was. There’s no mistaking the smell, or the texture. The black slime now coating my body, which had been inside the lesser giant’s body a moment earlier, was the same substance from the sunlit pool.
The two must be connected, but I couldn’t imagine how. Instead, before the giant could lift its foot, I scrambled down to ground level and climbed onto it. Even having seen what it could do. The red light. The gorging.
I was just too tired to carry on otherwise. The coating of black slime which I now figured for giant’s blood made for effective camouflage, as the giant’s foot was also drenched with it. I expect if not for that, I could never have evaded notice for as long as I did.
The giant lifted its foot. I didn’t anticipate how fast it would be. Though the giant appeared from a distance to move slowly for its size, the motion of its individual limbs was still harrowing for someone stuck directly to its skin. I held on as tightly as I could without compromising my hold on the satchel.
Whenever it put its foot down, I had a brief period of relative stillness during which to climb. Hand over hand, pulling myself up the muck stained flesh with much less pain than expected. Wind howled by, threatening to deafen me as I carefully made my way up the giant’s leg.
My ascent was made much easier than it might’ve been by the thick, coarse black bristles protruding from the giant’s flesh. During the climb, I noticed my shoulder and thigh no longer hurt. I thought it might just be adrenaline until I wiped some of the black crud away. I was shocked to find the bullet wounds fully healed! Damn it all, now the bullets are stuck in there.
At least the pain no longer hobbled me. I doubt I could’ve continued to climb otherwise. Even so, it took me what felt like a full day just to reach the giant’s hip. From that vantage point I could just barely make out a few swarms of crawlers following at a distance, having not yet given up, perhaps hoping I’d fall.
I took the opportunity to check on Horatio. He lay curled up in the satchel, breathing shallow. I tried massaging some black stuff out of him in the hope that his own secretions could be used to heal him, but he recoiled when touched. I also cautiously rubbed some of the giant’s blood on him, but it made no difference that I could see.
The giant was now so tall, since absorbing the other one, that his upper body was fully enveloped by the cloud layer. I could find no place to sleep that I didn’t feel certain I’d fall from. So I made my own. Cutting a long, curved slit in the giant’s skin, I pulled it back far enough to climb inside. It was every bit as foul as expected, but it was also warm and secure.
Easily the strangest place I’ve ever spent the night. The giant, so vastly larger than I, didn’t even notice the incision. Just a tiny nick, nothing to fuss over. The rubbery flap of skin, roughly four inches thick, healed around me somewhat during the night.
I cut away the healed over portions with my knife when I awoke, wiped the accumulated black crud from my eyes, then resumed climbing. It’s impossible to express my exhilaration upon penetrating the cloud layer and glimpsing, for what felt like the first time in years, the familiar forest of split stone pillars.
It evoked nostalgia of all things. What a perverse feeling, given the circumstances. I wasn’t home yet. I’d only managed to return to a more familiar nightmare. Although when I tried to recall what “home” looked like, to my surprise many of the details eluded me.
I lived…in an apartment. I think. There was a girl who lived in the next one over. I had a cat, didn’t I? It’s just been so long. Having been through so much since then, brain formed and reformed hundreds of times, my memories of the world I once knew were now faded. I began to wonder if that place ever really existed.
Maybe just a pleasant dream I had. Something I held onto so I wouldn’t give up and die so easily. No…it can’t be. Can it? What a cruel trick to play on myself, if so. It didn’t make much of a difference though. I had other goals now. To find the village. To save Horatio.
That’s the best I could hope for, realistically. Someplace safe to live. Something small to hold onto, and take care of. Given enough time, I might even forget that cruel, beautiful dream. Then I recalled the little television in the cathedral.
Green grass. Blue sky. That’s where I came from! Even if I could recall nothing else with clarity, that tape had to have come from somewhere. The television had to come from somewhere. I remember television! I remember…
Images, sounds and smells trickled back into my brain. It was real, all of it! How could I almost let it slip away? Oh, what I wouldn’t give for something green. Just a leaf, even, so that I could feel it on my skin. So that I could smell it.
That’s not too much to ask, is it? A single leaf? Or a blade of grass. Even a single blade of grass would satisfy me. Yet not even the lumbering gods of this realm can grow so much as a blade of grass down here. Not with all their power.
Step by belabored step, the giant made its way towards one of the pillars. Why that one in particular, I couldn’t fathom. But when it arrived, I at once understood why it fought the lesser giant. Why these creatures strive to absorb one another.
The giant raised its arms, now able to just barely touch the rim of the lower pillar with its fingers. It must know that’s the way out. But it’s futile, surely? An escape tunnel isn’t much use if you’re too big to fit through it.
When I figured out it meant to stand there for some time, fingers on the rim of the pillar, I got it in my head to climb its arm. The trouble was how to make such a journey without being spotted. I tried climbing up the underside, but it proved too dangerous. More than once I lost my grip and nearly fell.
So I threw caution to the wind and ran for it. Dodging bristles as I went, heart pounding, legs pumping on ascent. The giant didn’t even notice until I had the misfortune of bringing my foot down on one of those ubiquitous, beady black eyes coating its skin.
Stay Tuned for Part 22!