The heat of the tropics was a stark contrast to the cool, melancholy feel that one would assume such a dreary place would have. It was dark, here; only a fragment of sunlight shimmering through the thick foliage of the forest. Vapors rose from the inky blackness of the dirt below, steam still rising and calling out from a long-dead volcano at the island's heart. The only thing more oppressive than the sweltering humidity here was the ear-splitting silence.
Among the shadows traipsed a young woman, bare heels sinking into the earth as she darted between the trees. Her eyes were keen and focused as she searched the forest floor for the inky-capped mushrooms he had sent her to fetch. She was glad to be trusted with this task; she couldn't remember a time that he had let her go out unsupervised. After all, the forest was full of Outsiders. Begrudgingly, he had let her go; so long as she remembered the rules:
1) Keep your eyes on the shadows. If they move or waver, say nothing, and calmly walk home.
2) Do not follow the fireflies.
3) If you hear songs of the old ones, cover your ears and run.
and, most importantly,
4) If you encounter an Outsider, never, ever look them in the eye. If they can steal your gaze, they will steal your humanity.
She lightly hummed a tune from the old world as she plucked the spores from the sodden earth, delicately placing them in a basket woven from vines and scraps of fabric torn from clothing she had found in the desiccated village on their last supply run. It had pained her to strip away the ornate silk from fineries left behind- she had clutched a crimson gown to her body, imagining what it might feel like to dance beneath the moonlight as it flowed around her, singing songs of reverence to the forest gods - alas, those times were long behind her. She'd settled for turning that particular fabric into a bow to adorn her basket; a reminder, every time she saw it, that there was still beauty to be found in this barren land.
Idly thumbing the scarlet bow, she smiled at her haul. This was more than enough to last them a fortnight; he would be pleased. Carefully surveilling her surroundings, she traversed the woodland, stamping out her footprints as she made her way back to the ancient stone cabin that had been their base for the last 7 moons. The cabin was as small as it was decrepit, but together, they had done their best to make it a home. Of course, it had to remain desolate enough so as to not elicit any unwanted attention from passers-by, but what little comfort they had was a luxury in such an unforgiving place. She approached the rotted wooden door, tentatively reaching out a delicate fist to knock, but hesitated at the faint sound of song. Though she knew she mustn't listen, his voice was one she cherished. She afforded herself the pleasure of the melody's beauty for a moment longer, allowing the memory to take root in her mind, a forbidden treat that she would relish over and over again, until, like so many pleasures before, she could no longer bring it forward with clarity. For now, though; it was her dearest treasure. Smiling, she shook her head before planting four sharp knocks on the door. She waited a beat, and then entered, careful to keep her eyes cast down at the cracked terracotta floor. Dust billowed out as the door shut behind her, and she cursed herself internally for forgetting to sweep.
"I'm back!" she called out. Silence greeted her.
She shifted her weight, clenching her small, slender fingers tightly around the basket of woodland treats. "I got a whole bunch, just like you asked" she started, listening for any sign of life. "I...wasn't followed, I checked!" more silence. "It would be a shame if someone were to, I don't know...eat all of these without you..." she trailed off, giggling mischievously.
"You wouldn't dare, Izabel." His voice was rich and smoky, its deep pitch reverberating off the cabin walls. With thundering steps, he appeared, his gargantuan silhouette dwarfing the archway as he stepped through it. His limbs were impossibly long and sinewy, warped and gnarled as if created from ancient trees; his body was the color of the darkest soot, banishing all light from reflecting his presence. He was an anomaly so strange, that the sun itself refused to acknowledge his form, leaving only a twisted void where the naked eye could see. Over his eyes, he wore a thick band of torn fabric, pulled taught and tied meticulously. He was an Outsider, but to her, he was just a man.
Izabel stepped forward, gently turning his misshapen palm upwards. He flinched. "Here" she said, placing a mushroom into his hand before pressing his fingers around it. "Let's try them together." She beamed up at him, hoping that he could sense the smile that he could not see. "I'll count it off. 3...2...1!" She popped the fungus into her mouth, first smiling, then contorting her face into disgust.
"They need to be cooked, Iz. You know this." He sighed. She continued chewing. "I don't know what you mean, they're delicious this way!" She stifled a gag.
"Here. Spit." He said, placing a palm out. She pondered her pride for a moment before obliging.
He laughed, a sound that only Izabel could recognize. It was a rumbling thing, something more of a distorted wheeze than the makings of delight, but she knew it well. "Has the sun set? I'll get a fire started."
Together, they roasted a hearty portion of mushrooms, carefully wrapping them in betel leaves before indulging in their meal. Its flavor was bizarre, but with so few joys to be found, experimenting like this was the only tie to normalcy they could scavenge. Izabel warmed her hands against the flames, the flickering light dancing across her delicate features. "Hey, are you ever going to tell me your name?" she probed. No answer. She turned herself to face him, placing her fist under her chin. "You may not be able to see me, but you can sure as hell hear me" she joked, prodding a finger into his side.
"You're right. I can't see you. But I know that you are the most beautiful creature this island will ever come to know."
Her heart nearly stopped in her chest, her lips parting and closing as she searched for words that would make a suitable response. She blushed a deep scarlet, clearing her throat before speaking. "You didn't answer my question."
He paused, turning over his answer in his mind. "We lose our names when we turn. For all intents and purposes, I'm nothing more than an it."
"Well," Izabel began, not missing a beat; "What's lost can always be found." With that, she leaned her head on his chest, curling herself into him. He wrapped her tightly in his embrace, and as the embers of the fire cooled, they drifted off to sleep; to a world where the pain of their differences couldn't follow.
It was long before the Sun had peeked over the horizon when Izabel awoke, the darkness still clasping the island in its grasp. Something was wrong. Through the silence around her came a terrible sense of dread; they were not alone. Carefully, she extracted herself from under his arm and lifted herself to her feet. Through the fog of sleep, she strained to listen; there were voices. Almost imperceptible to the untrained ear, but she knew. There was no time to run. They had been found. The Insiders were here to wipe out their so-called plague. She looked at him as he slept; they would kill him without a second thought; but maybe, just maybe, she stood a chance of saving them both.
As the voices grew closer, Izabel furiously brushed the dust from her one remaining dress- it had been a frivolous thing to keep, not at all useful for a life on the outside, but in this moment she was relieved that she had it. Now, all that was left was to play the part. Stepping outside of the cabin, she was faced with three armor-clad men, their clean, gilded appearance betraying them as officers of The Inside. The stalemate began.
"Oh, thank the Gods, officers!" she started. She hoped she was convincing. "It's been so long since I've seen a friendly human face!" This was half true, at the very least. Her family had long since passed on, leaving her to fend for herself in these woods. At least until he had found her.
She was met with silence. She could have laughed at how common that theme fit into her life.
"I'm so glad you found me, I'd worried I'd be alone out here forever!" She continued. "Though, there's nothing to fear, I've gotten quite used to being on my own- perhaps we can create a line of communication? I might be able to relay sightings of Outsiders from my post." she tried.
Stiffly, one of the officers leaned towards his superior- she could tell his status from the golden ouroboros on his helm. They whispered, but she could make out what they were saying.
"What do you think, boss? She don't look cursed to me" murmured the subordinate. Izabel held her breath.
"Kill her." came the response; "We can't risk it."
Izabel froze. She prayed that death would come quickly, that he would be able to escape. He had saved her, once; it was her turn to do the same. She just needed to create distance. Steeling herself, she stepped towards her untimely fate. She was certain this was right, she only wished she'd had a name to utter with love in her final moments.
"Perhaps you boys can take me to the colony? I'm hoping to find my family" she lied.
In a flash, the officers lunged for her, brandishing their knives. She tried her hardest not to scream, but a faint cry escaped her lips as the head officer plunged his knife between her ribs. She fell to the forest floor, grasping dried leaves within her palms in a last attempt to orient herself. This was it. It was all over. She was satisfied that, even if it was her last gift to him, the beast - no, man - that she loved, would be free.
"Goodnight, little lady" the officer snickered, raising his blade high to strike her again. Isabel's eyes closed, and a serene smile painted her face. Everything would be okay, she thought. Until she heard him.
A vicious growl erupted as he leapt from the cabin, throwing her assailant to the ground. "What have you done?!"
The world began to blur around her as screams filled her ears; her vision coming in flashes as the scene played in what felt like slow motion before her. "Do not look, Izabel." He spoke with a gentle vengeance, removing his blindfold. As her sight began to fade, she watched as he lifted the head officer and stared deeply into his eyes. His gaze did not falter as he addressed the other men present. "See how they will betray you now that you are cursed." He seethed, tossing the man at his comrades. Like moths to a flame, the men leapt upon their leader, directing their blades towards his body with fearful precision before retreating into the thick of the woods.
Quickly wrapping his blindfold around his eyes, he bounded to Izabel's side, cradling her fading body in his powerful arms. He brushed a lock of sweaty, mahogany colored hair from her pallid face, and he wailed. "Izabel. Stay with me." He pleaded.
She smiled, using her wavering strength to reach for the fabric adorning his eyes and pulled it free from his misshapen face. He shut his eyes tightly. "Izabel, no, I can fix this, I can..." he began, but she cut him off with a finger pressed to his lips. "Open your eyes. Let me see you, all of you, at least this once" she urged.
As their eyes met for the first time, she gasped in relief, a bright smile washing over her tear stained face.
"I can see you; and you are the most beautiful creature this island will ever come to know" she uttered, her breath catching in her chest as she exhaled for the last time.
Walking alone, he carried her body; and for one last time, neglecting the tenets, he followed the fireflies into a grave of light.
About the Creator
Science fiction, horror, and dark comedy enthusiast. I have been a GM for D&D for 10 years, playing for nearly 20. Like all aspiring authors, I have hundreds of stories, and almost none have been finished.
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