A Force Unknown
The branching stream of the Ouroboros River is far narrower than the river it branches from. Albey leaps it and still soaks his feet, but he hardly notices. He almost leaves the hatchet sticking out of the tree – “Thank the divine ones it’s still here, mayhap they’ve not found me yet,” – but forces himself to go back and fetch it, lest it fall into the wrong hands.
Wait just a moment, Mad Poet. Stop and compose yourself.
He does, glad the idea came to him. The ‘man said it himself just the other day: if he keeps jumping to conclusions like this he will drive himself truly Mad, he will ensure his own doom. His heart is beating out of his chest, the bloodflow pounds his burning ears, cold sweat slithers down his body, soaking his undergarments. Catching his breath does not seem a possibility, but still Albey tries. Still Albey tries.
“I do not know what killed that poor wolf,” he admits to himself, feeling foolish for doing so, “nor do I know that they… if there was a they…” He sighs, utterly exhausted. The interior of his mouth tastes dry and stale, he should have taken a drink at the river when he got his feet wet. “For all I know, there may be another ‘man in this wood. It may not be…”
But he cannot bear to say it, he refuses to make it real. Not until it makes itself real, although… although if and when that does occur, it may be far too late…
In this moment Albey the Mad Poet is certain he will die in this wood, certain that nobody shall bury his body. Off he walks towards the cabin, the sun nearing ever closer to the horizon, and he gets back long before the moon begins to rise.
Using the remaining daylight the best way he can, Albey collects all the firewood strewn about the clearing and brings it inside the cabin. There’s a small lot of space in there between the fireplace and the front wall, and his pile, though more than enough to last a night, is not nearly enough to ease his worry. Nothing is enough to ease this worry, he simply needs to distract himself until the worry wears off, and so with his hatchet in one hand and his dagger in the other – and ample throwing stones stuffed into his pockets – Albey ventures shallowly into the wood and takes up every twig, branch, and rotting log he can find (so long as the log comes off the ground in one piece) and brings it all into the safety of his burnwood cabin. By the time the waning moon (what little of it remains, as there are but two days left until the night of the Calla, and almost all the light has been called back inside the hollow lunar shell) flaunts its partial form over the horizon, the pile is stacked to the ceiling.
Still it’s not enough. Albey locked the door and blocked it with the steamer trunk full of jarred water, but still his panic persists. So Albey starts a fire, and it is a roaring fire, slower to burn than those sparked in the pit outside due to the shorter supply of airflow, but plenty hot nonetheless… and yet still it’s not enough. He strikes the floor with his hand and bites his lip to cover the pain, but still it’s not enough. It will never be eno–
“Damn you, Poet!” he curses himself. “Damn you! You’re a bloody fool! There’s no reason to be so worked up, the gray wolf was dead! It cannot do you harm!”
But it’s not the dire hound he worries will do him harm. It’s that which maimed the beast.
“I need something to calm me,” Albey finally admits after the rage begins to make him shake. The pipe is still sitting on the table in the middle of the room, its bowl still lined with half-burnt herbs. He recalls the vision he had on the waterfall before he was pushed off the rock by a force unknown, the two forms who spoke–
–of a lab he must keep safe, of the herb he musn’t consume… but did they mean this herb?
Without standing Albey reaches behind him and grabs the pipe. It’s surprisingly lightweight and very smooth to the touch. Whoever crafted it did a fine job indeed, though Albey is by no means a smoker; he simply appreciates work when it’s done well. There is more of the herb – at least he assumes it’s the same herb – stored in the jar which was next to the pipe before Albey took it off the table. He would not have to smoke the charred greens – if he decides to smoke at all, that is, which still he has not.
“At this point,” he sighs, reaching back for the herb jar, “I may as well. I will not be able to sleep tonight, not with my head spinning as it is.”
Yet still in the vision, as muddled as it was, Albey was warned not to… what? The herb… musn’t… said one of the voices, the same which spoke of the lab, the same which said Mage. Gah! What is he to make of all this? He’s a Poet for the divine’s sake, a grief-stricken Mad Poet who followed a demented (if not daemonic) ‘man in white down a narrow path into a terrible lair within the trees, and then… and then what?!
“I do not know,” Albey says, his voice shaken. “I do not remember, so I cannot know.”
Albey looks at the pipe in his hand, at the jar. There’s a label on it, one he’s been avoidant about reading up until now as the orange flames burning beneath the hearth dance across it. It says:
smoke with caution in little pulls
only when a fire is burning
“Canna’stralis…” he struggles to pronounce, “sah… satidica? Bah, surely a most repulsive thing to have such a queer moniker.”
Albey takes the thin mouthpiece of the pipe between his teeth and blows, expelling the half-burnt remains of the previous filling on a puff of hot air. It lands in the fireplace and burns immediately, but he does not smell a change in the air.
“I suppose I shouldn’t,” he says, worried. He reads the label again, as though trying to make sense of it. “‘Twas mostly burned already. I suppose it’s a stinking weed before it is torched. I can fathom no other reason for the need to light a fire before smoking it.”
Albey throws another couple logs on the fire, one of them rotting and one of them dry. They blacken considerably as he opens the jar and recoils back at the stench.
“Gah!” Albey sneers. “It reeks of skunk and… skunk and lemons? What queerness is this plant?”
Yet there is a certain familiarity to it, isn’t there? He takes up a bundle of the stuff. It’s sticky to the touch, with a stubby stem sticking out the bottom end. He sniffs it directly. Not that bad the second time around.
“It is… flowers?”
He sniffs it again, then holds it close to his eyes. There appear to be tiny five-pronged leaves wrapped around the sticky lumps, like little hands holding on tight.
“It must be valuable,” Albey chuckles. “Like gold, these are floral nuggets!”
Albey breaks off a small piece then, one without a leafy hand clutched tightly on, and drops it into the bowl. But that doesn’t look right, what he blew out was broken into tiny pieces, so he dumps the nugg’ into his hand and breaks it apart with his fingernails. When he has a nice little pile of chunks and flakes, Albey dumps them into the bowl and packs them down lightly with his finger. The bowl’s just as full as it was before he ejected the burnt mass, but now a solid green.
“All right,” he hazards, taking a twig from the pile of firewood and lighting the tip of it. He hovers the flickering flame above the bowl and asks himself if he really wants to risk smoking this strange herb in this strange cabin on this strange rivered isle in the middle of this strange cluster of strange needly burnwood trees.
“It’s all very strange, but… well, the wheel of ka spins on an axle all its own.”
And so Albey the Mad Poet lights the bowl with caution and takes little pulls. The smoke is smooth, not harsh like he expected it to be, and he exhales his toke directly into the fireplace. The smoke of the herb rises with that of the burnwood, through the chimney and into the night sky above. He takes a second hit, blows it out, and then a third which he holds in while he flicks the burning twig into the fire. A peculiar wooziness overtakes Albey as he releases this third hit – third time’s the charm, as many often love to say – and he sets the jar and pipe down on the floor next to him.
“Is it me…” the Mad Poet asks himself, the sound of his own voice strange to his ears, “or… is the room spinning right now?”
The cabin is utterly still, yet Albey is sure if he were to stand he would lose his Balance immediately. Albey stands then, wobbles, and comes to Balance. He walks to the bed, falls into a lay, and closes his suddenly heavy eyes.
The cannastralis herb – The Flower, as She prefers to be called – then takes Albey by the hand and guides him on a voyage to Planes unknown, though nowhere he’s not been before.
This has been the seventh subchapter of the third 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:
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