Despite my convictions, I felt foolish walking away from the only guaranteed light and warmth in this place that I knew of. What if the darkness really does go on forever? Without the black pool to regenerate me, wouldn’t I simply starve to death after a while?
But even that was preferable to business as usual. I didn’t even look back, no sense in inviting temptation. I found myself wishing for a mirror as I walked. The only sense I had of how advanced my mutation had thus far come were the parts of my own body I could see, and the reactions of the others.
I had nothing resembling skin anymore, except on my face. Instead, my limbs were chitinous. An exoskeleton. Not quite insectoid, still flesh colored, but also unmistakably inhuman. The movement of my elbows and knee joints now felt almost mechanical, as did the movement of individual fingers.
Oh, those fingers. They’d grown so long and spindly since I arrived. The tips, now hard and pointed, were coated in countless tiny little bristles that were very sensitive indeed. What would’ve become of me if I stayed by the pool?
No way of knowing, and no intention to ever find out. But based on the changes to my body, I could work it out for myself. This must be how they increase their numbers, by this gradual metamorphosis from human to insect. For what purpose?
With no sense of their intelligence, it was enough to assume they were simply pursuing an instinctual drive to continue their species. When they herded me back into the light, it suggested some rudimentary intellect…but even ants deliberately farm other insects.
I almost wished I’d stuck around to observe their behavior more thoroughly. I couldn’t make myself go back out of curiosity though, I knew enough about them by now to stay the fuck away. I just kept walking until exhaustion forced me to collapse and sleep, then continued when I next awoke.
That is, until I reached the end of the darkness. I can’t really wrap my head around how there could be a physically discrete end to it, but there was. When I passed out of that wispy black fog, I suddenly witnessed something so beautiful to me that I struggle to describe it. A sight I dared not hope for all this time.
Freedom…of a sort. There had never been any cavern walls. I could now see that the cavern floor and ceiling didn’t come together anywhere, standing awestruck at the very edge of what I’d assumed until then was a subterranean cavity.
Where is this? How can all of this be at the bottom of some random hole in a field? A vast expanse of faint white fog spread out in front of me, punctuated by split stone pillars. Natural formations near as I could tell, if improbably regular in their distribution and proportions. It struck me as similar to a forest of petrified tree trunks, shrouded in luminous white mist.
The pillars were clustered closely enough together that I could faintly make out movement in the one nearest me. The two halves of the pillar almost came together but not quite, leaving a thin sliver of open space between them.
By my estimation, about the same distance as there was from the floor of the “cavern” I now stood in and the ceiling. That’s when it dawned on me. I was currently standing within one of those split stone pillars. The space where they don’t quite meet.
It was never anything like a cavern. Am I even underground? What is all of this? What the fuck is it? How can it be here? As if to underscore my confusion, a flock of winged insects lazily passed in the distance, changing direction as a unified swarm in the manner I remembered seeing birds do it.
Those memories already felt like a lifetime ago. Back when I still thought this was only a hole in the middle of a field. Confronted by overwhelming proof to the contrary, all I could do was stand there, dumbstruck by all of it.
If this was all inside of a much larger cavern, I could see no signs of it. No rocky floor or ceiling were discernible on account of the white fog. The visibility was much better than the black fog, such that I could see even relatively distant split pillars. So if there actually are a floor and ceiling, they must be extremely far above and below me respectively.
The pillars must connect to something though, surely? Bit by bit, I pieced together in my mind a rough idea of how this place must be structured. Imagining then that it was possible for me to fully understand it, or that it couldn’t still surprise me.
The flock drew closer. I didn’t realize I was in any danger until it was nearly upon me. I threw myself to the ground just in time to avoid being knocked out as the swarm rushed overhead. They took up roost on the ceiling, clinging to stalactites.
Sensing an opportunity, I picked up a rock and threw it at one of them. Startled, it fell from its perch and I lunged at it. Wrestling something so vile, with so many bristly legs isn’t my idea of a good time. But once I tired it out, it grudgingly accepted its new passenger.
The winged bug proved much more docile than the ones which tended to the “cattle” at the sunlit pool. By tugging at clusters of long bristles behind its eyes I found I could steer it much as you would a horse. I had some doubts as to whether it could still fly with my added weight.
Those doubts were put to rest as it took flight, wings beating deafeningly to either side of me. I panicked as I had no idea how to direct it while airborne, but it seemed to instinctively maintain the appropriate altitude for traveling between the empty spaces which bisect the stone pillars.
Like countless little worlds unto themselves. Or islands in a sea of clouds. No telling what I’d find in the next one, but all I dared hope for was that it would be different from what I left behind. The next split pillar loomed larger and larger as I approached.
But something else also came into view. Just a massive, faint silhouette at first, which grew gradually more solid and clear. Even when I could see it properly, I couldn’t make sense of it. Something like a biological blimp?
The gas bag was covered in huge bioluminescent, transparent bubble-like pustules. Dozens of long, thin tendrils dangled from the creature’s body, like those of a jellyfish. Winged bugs buzzed around it, helplessly attracted to the light emitted by the pustules.
What is it? What could it possibly be? I had to get a closer look. A bulging cluster of what I assumed were vital organs dangled beneath the gas sack. On the tail end was a sail-like fin I assumed it flapped from side to side for thrust.
Without warning, the instant I flew close enough, one of the tendrils whipped towards me. In the split second before it impaled my winged mount, I noticed the tips were sharply pointed. I tumbled off its back…right into the open edge of the split pillar.
I blacked out on impact. Death, finally. But of course, I couldn’t escape so easily. Instead I awoke with a pounding head, coated in both the winged bug’s blood and some of my own. The creature which stood over me, studying my wounds with apparent concern, was at least as mutated as I.
He looked gaunt and white as driven snow, his mouth a ring of sharp little teeth with nothing resembling a lower jaw. Quite like the mouth of a lamprey eel. He was covered all over in weeping sores and his left leg terminated in a stump that apparently wouldn’t regenerate for some reason, but he could prop himself upright nonetheless.
He did this using a fleshy, pulsating trunk of flesh which sprouted from the left side of his head and neck, then extended down to the ground, terminating in something like a betentacled round foot. Despite myself, I recoiled from the sight.
Surely I’m no less disgusting by now. This new creature, formerly as human as I was, continued to study me for a time. I sensed no hostility from it, only curiosity. Then it spoke. It startled me, even though I knew of no reason it shouldn’t be able to.
I live in a world of monsters now, where I can assume nothing about anyone. Even the bugs may be brighter than they seem. It spoke with a man’s voice, asking if I could walk. I found I could stand alright but I’d landed on my arm, which felt as if I must’ve broken it in several places.
Stay Tuned for Part 10!