Every ten paces he walked Albey carved a small notch into the trunks of the strange needled trees. They seemed to actively grow taller as he walked deeper into the wood; when he first crossed the treeline the lowest branches were at his ankles. They now brushed against his shoulders. He had yet to come across a denizen though, not even a squirrel had dared to scurry across his path, but he had seen plenty of insects. Biters, more than likely, carrying diseases uncatalogued even by the divine ones themselves. Still they refused to land on him and sample his blood, likely due to the ashes dirtying his clothing. At first he was put off by the gray tones taken by his once brown leather tunic and trousers, but he eventually came to see it for what it was: a blessing.
‘Everything is as it should be, just like it always is.’
The sound of running water grew louder with every step he took, and though his tongue felt as though it was swabbed by great balls of cotton until the tastebuds began to crack, saliva pooled in his mouth. As if the stench of sweat and ashes filling his nose wasn’t enough, he also had the taste of the ashes in his mouth, like he landed face-first in the pit last night before rolling over to face the starry sky. A single drink of water would alleviate this torture in an instant, it wouldn’t even need to be clean water. He would be grateful just to come upon a muddy puddle so he could gargle and spit. The taste of dirty water is nothing spectacular, but compared to ashes? Anything would be preferable to the taste of ashes.
He marked a tree, carving a shallow gouge into the dark bark. It wasn’t very thick, the bark of these trees, nor were these trees the same as the ones growing along the treeline at the cabin. Those had needles both fat and stout, where the needles of these trees were fine and long like the stroke of a pen. These were the trees which provided the forest floor with its browning carpet, Albey saw; the others acted as a curtain of sorts, blocking the forest from the clearing’s sight. Or perhaps the other way around.
Tree after tree after tree Albey marked away on his slow shamble through the needly wood. The babbling of the brook grew only louder and louder yet, but still he saw no water. He began to fear that his mind was playing tricks on him, that his alleged stream was nothing more than a terrible mirage gifted to him by Gobon, who was surely watching him struggle even now.
“I may still be in his lair,” Albey reminded himself, slashing the tree to his right. “He’s hardly a runt compared to the might of Iuqon, but the same is true of most of us. For all I know, I may’ve perished already; that clearing with the cabin and firepit may very well be the clearing, though it sits at the end of no path.”
Wandering alone through this strange wood certainly felt like a certain kind of damnation, one despicably purgatorial in nature. How many treks had Albey traveled thus far? Had he even traveled one yet? If he turned and peered back over his shoulder, would he see the shorter trees standing densely behind him still, mocking him with their waving branches? The Mad Poet did not find out – through the trees in front of him was a glimmering streak of light, as if the sun’s rays were reflected by an unstable surface in the distance.
‘Water,’ he thought to himself, and began to dash, cutting weak marks into the trees as he flew between them. He could always turn back and make the cuts deeper, and surely he would, but first he would drink. Before Albey did anything more, first he would drink.
The water, clear as a pane of glass, was cold and refreshing like the first winds of autumn. He cupped it in his hands for the first few drinks, not bothering to rinse his mouth, but such meager helpings were simply not enough. The Mad Poet shoved his head beneath the surface of the river – for it was a river; too deep to be a brook, too wide to be a stream – and sucked the water into his mouth with all his might. He felt his Balance teetering but he did not care, it would only do him well to have a bath, for he only dislodged so many ashes from his shirt when he whipped it back in the clearing. Albey would not let himself fall in though, his lungs could only hold so much air with the ashes clogging their pores, and so he ripped his head from the flow and gasped for air like a baby taking it first breath.
Then he drank again, submerging only his face.
His belly full of water to the point of a painful bulge, Albey sat up and then fell back upon the bank of the river and simply stared up at the sky, breathing heavily as he watched the clouds slowly float by. His beard, peach fuzz compared to the afro which once sprouted from the chin of Ram’rl, was molded to his neck like a sort of scarf, and he knew he’d be picking brittle orange needles from his hair for days on end, but none of this bothered him. It hardly registered at all; he found water, a real river strong enough to drink from indefinitely, and his strength was already returning to him. Not by much, just enough for him to be able to sit up without the need to prop himself there with his arms, but his strength was returning to him.
There was a choice to make then, one of two ways to go: the Mad Poet could go back from whence he came and attempt to get into the cabin, or he could follow the river to wherever it may lead him. The cabin was locked and he was not yet strong enough to break the door down – he might never be that strong, even with a quelled appetite – but the river may take him to a camp, or better yet to a settlement, perhaps a small logging community where he could rest until he was strong enough to work in the mills.
“Of course,” he said between wispy breaths, “it may also lead me to my doom. I might never come back from this walk down the river.”
The thoughts swirled and twirled through Albey’s mind for a few moments until he shook them away. A decision had been made; he could only hope it was the right one.
Lining the bottom of the river was a great many riverstones, their surfaces as smooth as fine silk, and Albey pulled a number of these from the water to make a small tower on the bank, one not at all resembling Jericho Tower for that tower had fallen with the Rotting Ents, never to rise again. He then backtracked through the wood just far enough to deepen the cuts he made in the trees as he sprinted to the river; when he returned to the bank, a clear trail stretched into the needled wood before him, a pathway back to the mysterious cabin he so desperately wished to enter. Then, with a nod, he set off with the river to his right, its current flowing against him, the rockstack to his back. Clutched tightly in his hand was the fragment of metal, ready to be swiped at any given moment.
This has been the fourth subchapter of the first chapter of The Face of Fear, a novel about bigfoot written by the writer in Untitled Bigfoot Project. Here is everything you need to know about it:
I’ve written a few other books, too. Click here to see the list.
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If you’re there, hypothetical reader, thank you for being there. From this day on, we move forever forward~