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Black sand and slate skin trees

The Plains of Lament

By James DurlPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 10 min read
2
Black sand and slate skin trees
Photo by Dikaseva on Unsplash

Rolling hills of black sand and slate-skin trees - you can't picture it until you go there. A forest of immense scale, now so devoid of life, totally arid and deprived. The air is thick and starved of oxygen, but crystal clear. From any given point, you could see a kilometre ahead - all the more troubling. There are no birds, no shrubs or thickets, no mammals or bugs to be seen. You'll find no glade pools filled with little fishies; no rivers running through. Not even a basin with a swampy bog. You'll find no signs that life could be sustained there. Because it can't...not anymore.

I hear what people say around me, and I know they think I can help you. They say I've been across it and that I must have the maps. You'll need a map alright but it wouldn't matter if you had one - no ones made it through those plains. And you can forget about taking those beasts outside by the troughs with you - if they don't spook on your way in, they'll suffocate inside. The air is too heavy to keep straight eyes forward, and while you may fill your lungs on a breath, you won't be able to empty them. Simply walking in would be bringing more life that it will have seen in Deida's years.

Do you think you've experienced fear? You're a liar if you don't, and a fool if you do. Accept your ignorance and listen; true fear comes from pressure. To be lucid in your fear; so terrified you bypass mindlessness and find your conscious fighting your instinct. You feel like you should run, but you know you have to stay - it took every ounce of will I could muster to stay burrowed in my hole and cling to the trees roots. I didn't know I would live, I only knew I would die if I left.

You've caught me in an amicable mood so I'll tell you straight and save you the trouble - you want to reach Prognos? Go around. If you don't, and you somehow survive to make your way back, there's only one outcome for you; you'll become the reluctant doom seer over a dozen poor pints that you see before you, trying to sway young fools from the exact same thing you're attempting now. For Deida's sake sit and have your mind changed.

***

We were there to catch Prognos lacking; searching for back paths around the hulk, and silently dealing with splinter soldiers that that broke off from their branches. The main goal was to map the area. I was somewhat of a cartographer in my youth, so I was dispatched with the scouts to draw up the paths we found around the enemy. Along with me were a small contingent of 40 men, including a scout team of 6. One of the 6 was named Elias - a shrewd, weedy man who had no intention of getting into fights or of not making it home. The others called him a coward - as will I if anyone asks - but he had the right idea. We weren't there for combat.

While the others made notes, kept their watch, and covered & marked our tracks, I was in charge of the map. They kept me in the centre of the formation when we moved, and I was told to avoid a fight where possible. It suited Elias to be jealous, but he had his job and I had mine, and we all understood that. There would have been no purpose to being there if we came back without a damn map, and it wouldn't help to have the margins coloured with my insides.

From the dawn of our fifth day in the woods, and our fourth away from the rest of the men, something seemed wrong. Unusual green clouds were gathering, and there seemed less forest buzz than we'd come to expect. It was making the team uneasy, not the least of which that fool Elias. Not 20 minutes after I'd woken we heard a shout, and an arrow whistle through the thicket, piercing one of the others through both temples. Immediately we turned to flee but for most of us it was too late. The gales of Prognos fell on us by the dozen. Our second in command was lobotomized trying to rise from his seat. Our squad leader ordered us to run, and was quickly felled trying to hold off the enemy to let the rest of us run. The last of us - Ceran I think his name was - turned with Elias and I as we bolted into the thicket. We abandoned all our belongings, and I'd have lost the map itself if I didn't have it stuffed in my clothes while I slept.

We ran for hours, and Prognos never let us feel that we were out of danger. Despite their equipment and the thickness of the woods we struggled to put distance between us. At one point Ceran opened his mouth to speak and caught his foot on a root, halting his momentum and damn near pulling his ankle clean off his leg. I kept running, but as Elias was about to stop and help him, a spear planted him in the soil through the neck. That left just Elias and I, redfaced and choking on our own breath pounding through the forest. Finally, we burst through trees into a glade to find our contingent, only to see that fighting had already erupted, a third of the men already fertilising. We'd hoped to re-join our group but there was no group to join, as all cohesion was lost and the glade became an arena for a free for all. So we kept running instead; Elias spotted the hollow of a tree, space enough for at least the two us to hide from the battle until we saw a chance to escape. I tripped when Elias suddenly grabbed me, looking for support as a throwing knife with our own bindings had been planted in his thigh. His eyes begged for help...but I shrugged him off and stumbled for the hole.

Blood splashed, metal clashed, and anguish stifled all commands. We had been routed in an outstanding fashion. Prognos magics split the air, and incantations warped space. It was a devastating overkill that bent the trees and rumbled the earth. The whole world was being consumed in the cacophony. Yet for all the violent fever there was a kind of calm in the trees crawlspace. I thought I could stay there forever - 'let them kill each other, it no longer concerns me'.

Watching this way made the entire fight seem much less chaotic. Weapons swung with much less speed, and with an observers privilege, it all seemed so trivial and small - soon men would be dead, the fight would end, the blood would soak the ground, and the forest would eat. The trees would grow taller, the animals and the insects would feast, and the memory of this great conflict would be just that - a spirit, a thread tying the trees together and nothing else. I wondered how many battles could have happened here without us ever knowing, slipping into history and the belly of the forest.

But then came a creeping sensation; the longer I observed the slower the battle became. I stopped thinking I was calm and collected in the chaos - the chaos itself became....less chaotic. It was strange - the screams weren't screaming but whispering. The flown arrows were gliding instead of whistling. Some poor sod had his throat slashed, but he never hit the ground, stopping a foot off the soil. There he hung, and the blade that killed him never quite finished its journey through the air. Everything in the glade had slowed to a halt. The sounds became memories of sounds, the movements turned to poses, and the smells of blood, burn and waste crammed in the back of the throat all at once. All motion was pulled out of the affair - followed by a creaking, awful noise above us. Those green auspicious clouds weren't parting, but splitting, a black mass forming between them, and the sky became un-seamed. It revealed a fantastic nothing. A shape descended and rose, formed from the clouds and apart from them, behind them and blanketed in them. The shape produced a head of sorts, poking out to face us below, featureless in the colour of the clouds, save from its beaming golden spotlight eyes.

As this figure emerged, the scene around me began to twist and draw upwards towards the maw. Leaves floated and rose from the ground, and grass was loosened from its soil. The corpses - floating or otherwise - began to rise. The detritus of all discarded matter that littered the ground began to merge and swirl. The bodies of the dead and the still living weren't torn but disconnected, and flowed upwards to join the ascendancy. Hairs from heads weren't ripped out, but pulled strand by strand, easing out as each scalp loosened and broke away. The blood was like rain falling in reverse, depriving the forest of its feast as countless bloodlets flooded the sky. Each individual flake of skin detached from each other. The buds of new leaves separated from their stems, separate further from their twigs, in whirlwinds of matter dancing and sweeping. Altogether each man, beast, bug and produce formed its own cyclone of unblended matter rooted upwards towards the mass.

And each thing was disassembled in unity, effortlessly, and slowly. You have no idea how badly I wished to run, to pull myself out of my hole and sprint for survival. It felt like my own atoms were being coaxed out from my hiding place to join the rest rising in the air. You've no idea what its like to feel your bloods desire to leave your body, and to have to command your legs to stay put. I don't know what happened next - I clutched the roots as hard as I could and jammed my eyes shut. I couldn't bear witness to this any longer.

***

When I opened my eyes again, there was nothing left but the trees, their deep brown trunks now slate grey. The same odd green clouds that formed before the breach were now reforming, like a seam pulling two halves of the sky back together. The pressure had stopped falling from the sky, and had settled in the air, making it thick and hard to breathe. The soil had lost its richness and was now a fine black sand stretching out into the distance. I don't know a soul out there that can explain what I saw that day, or where the forest went. Quite frankly I don't care to know - I know I'll never go back, and we'd all be a lot smarter to leave it well enough alone.

Slowly I unclenched and tried to leave my sanctuary, and was baffled at the expanse before me. To this day I still question my sanity thinking about it. All the life drained from a place, animals missing, humans and their bodies absent - even the bacteria had given up on the place. If the trees themselves had the choice, they'd have up'd from their roots and left; instead they are all that's left, grey & still, no leaves growing, erected as the monuments of the desert forest, their roots packed in sand.

To witness a place so devoted to life, becoming this.... it is difficult to describe the loneliness you feel. There isn't any decay - there's barely anything there for entropy to take. In the years since, the wind - as with Maige Baetha, as in the clouds - is stifled and dispersed before it can penetrate its flimsy perimeter.

I searched for a body, a companion perhaps who managed to survive like I did; but after a while I simply walked. I walked for hours trying to find the exit, a wonder that it was that I did eventually find myself on the edge of that endless waste of black sand. Turning back one last time, I beheld the full absence of the forest and felt its last breaths of breeze, flowing through nothing and no-one. Engulfed in the desert's parched silence, I was nothing but another grain of sand in the wind.

***

Thank you for reading; I really enjoyed trying to take a place typically considered the opposite of Arid, and imagining it becoming so.

If you want to see another story set in the same world, check out my story 'Ch 1 - Maige Beatha about a (fictional) community being burned and a childhood being lost.

My most recent story is a Vocal challenge at a punchy 250 words, called 'Revelaraphobia', check it out if you only have a minute or two.

If you want to read about a life lesson about vaccinations involving me accidentally puking on myself then I've got you covered with 'Trial by Spew and Sputum'.

Cheers,

James

Fable
2

About the Creator

James Durl

A budding academic trying to flex his creative muscles.

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  • JBaz3 months ago

    Now that was a good tale. Full of an action and secrets. I like your take on this on the challenge. Good luck

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