Clay rubbed his aching head as he tried to stand, but the fall down the pit rattled his senses something fierce. His bruised arms and battered legs were unsteady and weak as he struggled to loosen his backpack from his person. It was a great and painful effort to brace himself against the pit’s wall under the late afternoon daylight. He needed to take stock. “How long was I out?” He wondered aloud. The sound hung in the air for a moment. The pit was bigger than he expected.
He recalled leaving the hunter’s path. There was a gleam of silver on the forest floor and the temptation pulled him from his route. It was early in the day yet and he was strapped for cash. He shoved the village elder’s warning into the corner of his thoughts where he kept his teacher’s criticism buried. “The forest is dangerous. Stay on the path.” He reasoned, just before the fall, that the elder was speaking of feral monsters or human bandits. Yet, the ground gave way, and he recalled cursing his own foolishness just before blacking out.
The gleaming silver object fell down with him. It was just out of reach, but in the little light he was afforded he could better make out the bait that ensnared him so. It was a metallic figurehead, like a scepter’s, shaped like a gargoyle at rest. It was gorgeously detailed. Two wings loomed over a female form adorned with the magic etchings that were supposed to animate the monster. She possessed mismatched horns like jagged branches. One extended out as straight as it could while the other curved up and away from the figure head’s face. She wore an expectant face, eyes wide with greed, and a half-cocked smile. It was an expression Clay was familiar with. He passed by several gargoyle statues on his way from his dorm to his classes. The single statues projected a similar hungry and unchanging look. Unmoving as they were, his fellows claimed to know when a gargoyle was watching and they rushed home before dark. He put the statuette in his bag to hide from its accusatory gaze.
The fall was three, maybe four times his height. It was unlikely he could climb the rough, wet rock face before the landing jarred him and impossible after. He flexed his hands. They responded, but the act of stretching them out sent a sharp pain to his neck. He gasped as it lingered. Trying to massage the back of his neck with either hand produced a similar pain and so he carefully worked his ache out on the stone wall behind him.
Stranger still, the floor of what he assumed to be a trap was layered with worked stone. The stones were smooth and cool to the touch. He anticipated being rescued by whatever monster staked this trap, but his worry grew by the minute. “This might be a sinkhole.” He muttered a few choice curses directed at himself. “The old man wasn’t talking about the monsters then.” Clay bit at his thumbnail.
“Is anybody out there?” He shouted above, but only blustering wind answered his call. The old man said there was a low chance a monster would cross paths with him along the hunter’s trail. The young men of the nameless village used hideous smelling Veronus to repel curious or hungry monsters along the path. It reeked like a rotting carcass to Clay, but from what the old man said, the monsters’ keen sense of smell worked doubly against them. Of course, it also frustrated his chances at rescue. It would either be a village hunter or a monster without a sense of smell who would come to his aid, if at all.
Day passed to night. Clay alternated between aiding his ailing body and calling up to the woods every now and again. His focus was on any stray sound that echoed down to him. A creaking branch, a rustling bush, or the faint call of songbirds compelled him to shout at the top of his lungs. By the time it was dark his throat was sore and the forest above fell dead silent.
He slept on his side with his pack as his pillow. He wasn’t terribly cold as he went to sleep, but the air down in the pit was damp. He awoke shivering. The condensation dripped from his person onto the flat, stone ground. He coughed into his hand as he rolled forward. The pain of the fall wasn’t as crippling as it was the previous day, but trying to stand would take a concerted effort. He reached into his bag and sipped at a waterskin. The moisture tickled his cracked throat. The cough clung to the back of his throat like a wet cat grasping at a tree. He would have to save his voice.
He wasn’t starving soon. Paper wrapped sandwiches from the village matron would keep him going for quite some time. He ate his breakfast in silence. A slice of ham tucked between rye bread and a strong smelling, mashed up root the matron insisted on adding. His thoughts were preoccupied with how to escape. Perhaps searching the hallway today would be productive, he wondered.
He snapped his fingers and expended a minimum of magic to cast a light. A wisp of red, heatless light danced in his open palm. It cast a dull light that extended out only a foot, but it was the best Clay could manage. “Now where am I?”
Clay’s brief investigation found no doors or cracks in the length of the hallway. The natural walls were a distended looking limestone that bowed inwards. Clay’s uncle, Eustace, worked in a quarry. He picked up the basics of geology and stone identification easily, unlike the spellcraft of his formal education. The touch of cool limestone and its damp smell reminded him of his visits to Eustace’s home.
Yet, Clay couldn’t shake a suspicious feeling. The opposing walls he assumed were natural, but the floor and the two simple arches matching the design cut along the floor on the far side of the wall were not. The arches stood a little over twice his height and were wider than the hallway allowed. “No door, and it looks like it goes out even wider than the hallway allows.” Clay traced a finger along the corner where the wall and arch met. “Where does this go?”
Clay settled in again. His voice was hoarse from yesterday’s desperate shouting. “Well, time for plan B.” He took his lyre from his bag and began to play. He first strummed its seven strings, each echoing over the other until the whole of the hallway was filled with ill-tuned noise. “Ugh, moisture.” He slowly tightened the pegs as he strummed. The waterlogged wood resisted a gentle hand, so Clay overshot his goal then worked the heads back. “Ha, engorged wood.”
The rebounding acoustics made meaningful practice impossible. The discordant sound carried up and out of the pit’s mouth. At first Clay tried a little diddy, a tune he played for kids, but the noise made it impossible. “Terrible acoustics,” he mumbled. The lyre’s sound swirled all around him.
He spent most of his day like this, strumming aimlessly and staring vacantly up at the clear skies, stopping for a drink or a nibble, or listening for passersby. “Tedious stuff being rescued. How do damsels locked in towers pass the time?” He smiled. He recounted a story from his time in Clemens as he played.
It was early fall, two years ago. Clay was booked from sun up to sun’s set with class and tutoring. To get by, he taught musical lessons to children of the well to do. The job was a mixed bag. He denied any request for his services by monsters after the first succubus he met tried to charm his pants off. Unbeknownst to many first time tutors, the Bard’s College doesn’t verify the intentions of their clients. The monsters paid the same, if not better than humans, but only if the tutor survives the lesson. He recalled the smug look of his Undine liaison after the pants incident. “It’s a lesson on hearsay,” she said. “Hear what others say, and you might make it to graduation.” He didn’t see a coin from that harrowing job.
After that, Clay dealt with humans only. Long standing human family’s were reliable customers, but their standards and expectations were unrealistic. They complained about everything, it seemed. They wanted their daughters prim, proper, and well-rounded and their sons savants within a week. The Bard’s College dealt with the bookings. It was Clay’s job to produce results.
It was one of these students, a boy named Malach Rotherson, heir to the Rotherson estate and the largest sea salt consortium on the Western Shores, whomst crossed Clay’s idle thoughts. Malach was unique student, a gifted boy more at home in his study, alone, than with his tutors. Clay was greeted by a woman with two bullish horns and a foreign garb as they passed in the hall just outside the boy’s room.
“Good afternoon!” Her voice reminded Clay of a pleasing bell being rung before dinner and her smile was a genuine treat. She wore a faint purple lipstick that matched the loose sleeves of her long gown. His greeting stumbled out of Clay’s mouth before a coherent thought passed through his head.
“Afternoon to you too. Another tutor for the young lad, I suppose.” She nodded, but her soft white hair with its violet tips seemingly remained in place around her well polished horns. Her impeccable robe resembled a curtain held fast to her body by silver clips with ornate star markings.
“Malach is a good student. You should have no issue with him.” She bowed with her arms crossed. “My name is Xiuying.” I returned the gesture.
“Clay. I’m a student at the Bard’s College.”
Xiuying offered a curt laugh. “An aspiring bard? I have not the time to see the campus, despite my best efforts. I hear it is quite the sight.”
“The campus is nice. The classrooms… a bit stuffy.” Clay pulled at his collar and awkwardly grinned.
“Ah, and good humored too. Malach will appreciate that. I’m afraid I must depart. It’s a walk to the Dendrich’s and my two hooves can only move so fast.” She hurried past.
“See ya around.”
Malach greeted Clay with a dismissive wave. He was ten, but he surveyed his desk full of documents with an adult’s eye. He was formally dressed in the style of Clemens’ elite: A black vest with green trim on the inside, a set of glasses far on the bridge of his small nose, and a slick pair of glossy, black slacks.
“I will be with you in a moment,” he commanded. “Take a seat or whatever.” Clay looked around. First, he spied a small stool opposite of the boy’s desk. There were two small shelves crammed with dense texts. Silver writing on the spines bored Clay with their titles instantly. Economic texts, social calendars, shipping manifests, and many more attention sapping page-turners filled the shelves almost all the way down. Yet, a single, unlabeled book caught his eye. An off-pink cover with a swooping penmanship he failed to recognize. The boy didn’t seem to mind the bard’s prying, but Clay took care to obscure his interest.
It was a sketchbook. Inside, pencil outlines of fruits in bowls, half-closed curtains, and more all shaded in tones of graphite. Clay waited for the boy to finish whatever business while appreciating the drawings. As a bard, he was given some instruction on all artforms, with what he pursued later in his career left to his own discretion. He struggled with his art classes. He lacked an eye for detail and his portraits were flat and uninteresting. The sketches in this pink book were rough, yes, but he could make out the potential for something greater. Hardly amateurish, Clay took his time admiring the pieces.
Clay slid the book back into place when he heard Malach close his folder with a hefty thud. He met the boy’s intense stare with a practiced ease. “Ready?”
“If we must,” he mused. “My parents are paying you how much again?”
“Don’t know. The college pays me.” I take out my lyre. “What do you want to play?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He dismissed the thought with a shake of his hand. “This is a waste of time anyway.”
“Do you say that to Xiuying too?”
“Xiuying is very intelligent,” Malach snapped back. “Her lessons are far more useful than whatever harp plucking you intend to… teach.”
“A harsh critique,” Clay countered. He was not bothered by the kid’s assertion. Clay heard it all before. “First, if you have to insult me, at least have the courtesy to know the difference between a lyre and harp.” Malach’s glare doubled in intensity. “Second, you’re stuck with me for the next hour and a half so can we at least pretend to get along.”
“I could dismiss you for your attitude.”
“I doubt it. If you were against music lessons from the start, I would’ve never made it past the front door. No, I would wager your folks put you up to it.” The kid had a poor poker face. His frustration was plain to read. “So, I have a proposal.”
“Really?” Malach harumphed.
“Yes, really. I’ll teach you a couple songs, just enough to satisfy your folks, and then you’ll never have to see me again.”
“Depends. I’d say 5 weeks if we met as planned, but 3 if you wanted to practice on the weekends.”
“I can clear my schedule. The sooner this is over…”
The next two weeks passed by in a blink. Clay honored his word. Once a day for one and a half hours Clay arrived at the boy’s study ready to impress the basics of the lyre upon him. Malach picked up the basics of the lyre easily enough. He was able to put chords together and project some confidence by the end of their second week. Despite his prickly first impression, Malach was invested in the lessons. He asked questions about style and form with an earnest sincerity, only to snap back at harmless critique. His fluid demeanor changed on a whim.
Xiuying tutored at the Rotherson estate every other day, and every day she wore a new dress that complimented her violet highlights. Clay’s face lit up in remembrance as he recalled her most memorable outfits. On their second meeting she wore a dark green dress with ornamental cords that hung from her sleeves, then a yellow-gold dress with a billowing, ruffled hem the start of the following week, or Clay’s favorite, an autumnal orange silky top, with precise folds at the bust and sides that complemented her curves. The bottom was a cool blue-purple with careful folds. The sight of her rounding the corner from Malach’s study forever impressed itself in his mind. So dumbstruck by the sight, he blurted out his opinion uninvited. “What a gorgeous dress…”
“Thank you, Clay.” A soft smile crossed her face. “I am happy you approve.”
“I just, er, um,” he masked his fumbling response with a stifled laugh. She waited for him to calm himself. “Not in a rush?”
“Not today, no. I decided to take the day off. Young Rotherson requested my assistance on a small matter, but I absolve myself of all responsibility today.” She moved on Clay. “Perhaps we can take that tour of the college campus you promised.”
“I do not recall such a promise,” he denied weakly. The scent of milk and lavender thrilled his senses and gnawed on his resistance.
She wasn’t the first monster to approach Clay. A harpy in his youth tried to abscond with him, a curious fish woman nearly drowned him on his way to Clemens, and a few more would come to mind if he put some thought into it. Xiuying’s affections were the first he reciprocated though. She was exotic. Clay didn’t know she was a Hakutaku at the time, but the way she carried herself excited him at their every passing. He couldn’t bring himself to commit to those feelings.
“Is that so? How unfortunate.” She waited for just a moment. He wouldn’t budge despite his heart yearning to go with her. “It’s a shame, but I understand.”
“You do?” Of course, she did. The way Her kind learned with a touch. A person was an open book to a Hakutaku. Clay often wondered if she knew his answer before she even asked. If his answer were words written on a page then would it be fair to reason Xiuying could skip ahead. Clay would ask her, if he ever saw her again, if he ever crawled out of this hole.
They parted quietly. Clay did not see Xiuying again.
Malach was in a miserly mood, lording over his pile of coins like a dragon, and spat acid as Clay entered. “Ah, the prodigal bard! I have great news.”
“Lord and Lady Rotherson have spoken to the College about your employ. They commend your efforts, but they no longer see a need for your services.”
“Great, we both got what we wanted,” Clay solemnly responded. He was distracted.
“Your coin,” the ten year old pushed a neat stack of silver pieces to the end of his desk. “Four, and a little extra.”
Clay’s hand hovered over his pay. “Mind if I ask you something, you know, since we’re done?”
“Fine. Make it quick.”
“I don’t know,” he flatly retorted. He gave a sigh. “Xiuying said my folks might though.”
“She believes my parents intend to control me. They fired her. They let you go. It’s always been like this.”
That nonchalant truth stuck with Clay, it followed him from Clemens down this hole, and now haunted him again. He tried to distance himself from his meandering speculations and throw himself into his learning. He looked up at the hole. “I didn’t mean literally,” he sighed. His fingers were getting tired after hours of non stop motion. Might as well sleep, he thought, before turning in.
It was a dreamless sleep, but Clay was startled awake like he just experienced a nightmare. His legs were soaked and his feet submerged in cold water. It was early, too early to see anything in the hole, but he crawled backwards in a desperate scramble to remove himself from the cold grasp of whatever flooded his prison. The heavy splash of water followed as he pulled himself free of what he could imagine was a small lake.
Eyes adjusted, and the faint dawn trickling in illuminated the gathering liquid. It seemed to have pooled just at his feet, dripping down from the rough wall opposite of his bed roll. It carried the smell of long-standing water. It was heady, musty, and clung to the back of his throat like phlegm. Clay calmed down. He wasn’t in immediate danger. The adrenaline passed.
“How unlucky can I get?” It was probably undrinkable, and would probably linger. No, direct sun would evaporate the still expanding puddle. He got up, grabbed his stuff, and moved to the wet wall. “It’s moving… through the stone?”
Perhaps his fall disturbed an underground lake or aquifer. He tested the wall with his hand again. It was a permeable sandstone, sharp in places, with little pinholes conveying the water across a wide area. He did not have enough cloth to dam the flow, nor the talent to shape the rock with magic. He knew parlor tricks like conjuring still images and practical minor pyromancy, but nothing that would suffice in his current predicament. He lamented never learning “Dinner Bell,” a spell most college graduates avoided ever practicing. It was a signal flare spell, yet rumor overtook practical application, and only a handful of his sixty classmates bothered learning the spell, or in his case, the spell’s name.
His stomach turned as he sampled his ration, its rebellious call demanding a bigger bite, and his hands rattled with tremors. Deny. Deny the inevitable. He took up his lyre again and weakly strummed a solemn melody. He hummed muffled words under his breath. It wasn’t a popular song. The bar crowds complained. Monsters said it was too sad. Clay enjoyed it though. It was the first song he taught to himself, after finding it as a loose sheet in the back of a collection of waltzing tunes. It stood out. Yellowed with age, with rough sides, the archaic meter endeared the sad song to his heart.
A few chords to set the scene: In a time long past, ancient Mariners were lost at sea, and a storm threatened to overtake their vessel. Three men were lashed to the mast while waves rocked the boat. The chords digress, as the men lamented what they’ll lose if they fall overboard. The first man missed his family, his wife and two daughters, and his cottage on the hill. The second man bemoaned his failure to act and find his place somewhere safer. The third man, the captain, says he regrets only one thing, then wraps his free arm around the other two. The music tapers off. The bard continues to sing. The story is at an end. The men are taken overboard as the ship’s bow breaks.
Clay took a deep breath as he leaned back. He had plenty of time to despair. His ship was sinking at a glacial pace. Lyre in hand and with heavy eyes, Clay drifted off. Yet, his brief respite was interrupted. A freezing sensation gripped his left leg and jerked him awake. Clay was being grabbed by a tendril of blueish ooze reaching out from the puddle by the solidifying form of a monster. A second arm collapsed on him from above, then he saw a distorted head.
Clay put his instrument over his own head, grabbed his hidden knife behind his back, and attempted to cut himself free. The sharp of the knife pierced the jelly like substance with a plop. The pseudo flesh cut like warm butter and with a single slash he freed his leg. The injured creature’s reaction was slow, as the gelatin reformed. It retreated to its central mass as more of its form emerged from the diminishing pool of fluid beneath it.
“A slime,” Clay determined. The monster’s form was an approximation of human, but the proportions were distended and unsettling. The face lacked features, the body was a rope’s width in diameter, and the arms bulging and undulating in size. As it reformed in the dawn light, he noticed the apple-sized core of the creature floating in the arm he had cut.
Its gaze, or whatever senses the creature used, were probing him. He could feel it sizing him up. The knife probably surprised the monster, but Clay knew the hesitancy wouldn’t last. Slimes were notoriously resilient to harm. Cut them, burn them, pulverize them flat, they would reform, eventually. Reform into a more humanoid form, that is. This slime was very different to others he had met in his travels. Its body was distended and unbalanced. Its mass threatened to topple over with every minor movement.
“Who are you?”
The slime popped and sloshed in response. Bubbles of air escaped the mass, but only produced a soft popping. It leaned forward, only to collapse into a puddle again. Bits of it splashed Clay, and in a panic he tossed the bits back at it. Its core moved in the puddle, drawing up its strength to stand, or so Clay imagined. A pang of guilt stung his heart. A smaller form the slime tried using newer gangly arms to pull free of its body. The head had an imitation of eye sockets.
Clay waited for the rest of the slime to form while piecing together his own knowledge and experience with slimes. Their kind liked to mingle. Social, if a little touchy, they lingered around the Clemens’ Bard’s College in groups of three or four. Clay did not personally know a slime, but they were common enough. The College employed them as cleaning staff, but they also listened in on lessons during the warmer months. They hated the cold, and most clung to the central heating of the buildings when they were not busy.
Carver married a slime. Carver was a peer of Clay’s. They sat next to each other during their sophomore year during classes. Carver was a tall fellow, a head taller than anyone else, but he was known for his voice. When he spoke, people listened. It was magnetic to be near him. It was rumored he was a noble, a prince, but Carver denied it. He always told the same story. “I’m no one special. My family works on the docks moving salt.”
The slime he married was a greenish-blue vegetarian. The color of a slime indicated their diet and disposition. Red slimes were carnivores and aggressive in their wants. Purple slimes liked exotic minerals and dined on carbons. They possessed a haughty, holier than thou attitude. Carver’s wife, So, or Zoe to acquaintances, was a mild character and meek when dealing with others. I knew her to see her. She was a frequent visitor of the performance hall and most often when Carver played. When Carver and Clay were on stage together, Clay played backup to his acquaintance’s lead, and it was on his reflection in the monster’s melted form he realized what awakened this creature, the same thing that attracted Carver’s wife-to-be.
“You must have heard me.”
The smaller form of the slime kept its shape as it shambled toward him. It resembled a marionette with its strings cut. Its limbs hung limply at its side. The child sized body swayed weakly towards him. He regretted his ignorance.
“Wait, wait!” Clay shouted as it approached. The body slumped backward while its faux legs remained attached to the pool. The slime’s head and core snaked around its torso. Clay swallowed his unsettled stomach.
He grabbed his nearby lyre and began to play a winding melody. The slime stood at a standstill as the sound washed over its form. It must have reacted to his playing, he reasoned. It rocked side to side as the lyre sang. Clay did not have anywhere to go, and with nowhere to go, he sat down to entertain his new audience. This stumbling dancer seemed to move with each fresh pluck of the lyre. It’s unsteady form shook as waves of sound passed through. Ripples in its reservoir body bubbled and swirled.
“Do you… understand me?” He asked.
The slime kept rhythm with his playing. Their duet continued. The upbeat tempo peppered with the slime’s sloshing and popping. The creature must be acting on instinct. It heeded his command to wait not because it understood what he said, but in reaction to the sound. Uncertain of what it encountered, the slime paused and reassessed its approach. He would get tired and he did not trust this creature to restrain itself in appreciation of his free service.
An extended yawn escaped Clay as he focused. It didn’t register at first, but the slime slowed its pace and trained its senses on Clay again, the pounding of his own heart quickened and his hands froze. The creature surged forward, the small body followed by a tide of unformed, translucent mass. Its cold arms hit first. They latched around his waist, and lifted him up as it tossed him a ragdoll.
It overwhelmed him completely, drowning him, crushing him, and chilling him all at once. It did not surprise him when the border of his vision faded fast. The stories of men and women dying after jumping into the bay were common. A warm heart, shocked by the sudden shift in temperature, failing. Clay’s sight blinkered. His sensation retreated. It hurt. It hurt. It hurt. Clay didn’t want to die. He’d rather have starved in the pit. He wanted to talk to Xiuying again. A thousand, thousand regrets slipped between the grasp of his fading consciousness until finally…
Darkness. An absolute stillness greeted me as I rouse from a long stasis. My memory fades as I drift out to sea and the past, a far shore, retreats from sight. The long dark robbed me of my memory like a great wave drowning the shore. This awful, all consuming suspension of the self, myself, toils and turns as a well of new feelings bubble to the surface.
It is my awareness of the dark that frightens me. My ability to process that new fear binds to my every passing panicked moment. I pull from my memory a silhouette: a man in shadow, a staff, and a charm of bone and sinew. The staff strikes the floor and I move towards it. Hunger, I realize, compelled my obedience.
No, I bury that word. Obedience. I was not an obedient one. I was hungry. I acted on that alone. The friction in the air drove me toward the man in silhouette. He was food and I was hungry. Yet, I could not find solace in the memory. The man disappears as the gulf between my past and present grows deeper.
That feeling of hunger passes through me, but it is hollow. I no longer need it. The air is enough. The moisture in the air is enough. Fear subsides. I am alone, but I am safe. I am safe for a long time. I test this new consciousness as I mull over words and the concepts I intuit.
I cannot vocalize them. The meaning is there, the understanding of what they are is present, but I lack the ability to reproduce the sensation of the word. If I understood what they sound like, then surely I have heard them before, I reason. I spend a long time cataloging the words and their sounds. I pair them together even though I cannot reproduce them. I have no basis for speaking. I come to this answer quickly, or relatively quickly. The passing of time is impossible to demarcate. I never needed to vocalize the words, therefore my body is unable to intuit how.
Able to sustain myself on the little moisture that the darkness produces, I am able to retreat into myself. I spend a long time at sea, the water, the source of my new self, and my little boat derived of ego. It is a sea I cannot see, nor touch, nor taste. It exists and I exist, both together and separate. I can imagine what I am, a core of stone and pseudo flesh, animated by magic, and pulsing with life. My heart and brain, suspended in a swirling mass. It was also my body. Together, we formed me.
I am still separate. My thoughts move the core and the body, but there is a distinction. I am the one in control. I possess the will to move the pieces. I think, but the thoughts are also products of my new self. I dwell on this. I dwell. Dwell.
An untold time passes, because I cannot say whether time passes at all, and I rouse a second time. My body, my mass, is receiving stimuli. It bubbles up from the well of feelings, from the gulf of memory, and rocks the boat that is my sense of self; there is something close. Close enough to taste on the air, an image of an alien being intrudes upon my thoughts. A man, a staff, and a charm of sinew and bone; he must be nearby.
Vibrations move through the stone upon which some of my mass rests. I press close and feel. It is nearby. The stimulus must be examined, I determine. I make an effort to inspect my surroundings. I am in a cave, no, part of a cave, but also something else. There is something on the shore, obscured but not invisible, telling me this is someplace important. There were once entrances and exits, but I could not locate one. The smooth surfaces to which I was accustomed no longer existed.
My search produces results. The moisture upon which I dined seeps through the stone, and with a little effort I might be able to force my mass through. I inundate the spongy rock with particles of myself. Minuscule amounts advance to the source of my intrigue, each moving like an ant through a colony, all at my command.
I sup upon the idle moisture locked in stone to fuel my efforts. It seems the mass requires more and more energy from my core in order to move farther from me. I can draw upon my reserves as well, but a part of me experiences something akin to fear: worry. An anxiety grasps my core. The unknown stimuli, possibly the man from my memory, could be a threat. A threat to my identity. The darkness of my cave seems so familiar now. I do not wish to encounter harm. I pause. The paralysis jams up my thinking. The stress is painful. I withdraw. Let it pass, I decide.
The stimuli eventually ends. My fears lessen. I try to settle my mass as far from the vibrations as possible, but pieces of me still linger in the wall. Recalling them is much more difficult than forcing them through. I have to rely on a string of my body pulling tiny particles. It is tedious, a first. It takes conscious effort to tug through the pinhole openings and I already knew which way they turn and wind. There was no thrill of discovery.
“Tedious stuff being rescued. How do damsels locked in towers pass the time?” A male voice speaks loudly. The resonance of his speech, the exasperated inflection, and the surprise of another voice outside of my own shocks my core again. The electric feeling spreads throughout my membrane. The fear melts, and a great surge erupts from the gulf between my memory and conscious mind.
The flood of questions consumes me, my focus slips, and soon my body is acting on its own. I am already permeating through the wall at twice the speed I was prior. All the while, my core twirls and twists with curiosity. Alarmingly, the silhouetted figure of my past fades into the fog. I know now that humans have short-lived lives, and the specter of the coast is assuredly dead by now.
The idea of this human being so close triggers new concepts to bubble to the surface. Humans are warm, and they have teeth and solid skin. They have fibers growing from their head and they can be many combinations of colors with their various parts. Arms, legs, a head, and bones, all fascinating and distracting. A human male can trigger fission, a process through which I can procreate and produce offspring.
Oh, I am female, I note, and I can carry offspring. The idea amuses me, a smaller individual like me, but seperate. an existence that would strike out on her own to find her own mate and share in the same elation in anticipation I currently process. We can share the experiences between our cores and increase the rate at which we enjoy this thing called the self. A human is a useful thing indeed. I feel desire for the first time and it is a potent impulse. I am only just aware of my core being squished and pulled through a canal of narrow passages.
The journey exhausts my reserves. I don’t even have the power to gather my mass. The human is asleep. Sleep was like stasis, but more pleasant and necessary. My undirected mass drifts towards the man. The minute I make contact with him my core dances with excitement. Under the fibers this human wore, he produces a soft, pleasant warmth my mass leeches from. I feel new vigor as I sample his body’s heat.
The curvature of this new room allowed me to pool at his feet with no effort. I start to gather new moisture from the stone floor. The human stirs a little in his sleep. I must be disturbing him. I use my new energy to thin my mass where I feel him move to. Not entirely, but enough that he should not notice my presence in his very important sleep. I want to hear him speak again.
A breeze dances along my mass and tickles my exposed core. Another surprise! I turn my senses upward. A large hole in the earth exposes the underground I call home to the greater world. I am awed by the tastes and sensations falling from above. Particulates of plant matter, fragrances of all kinds, and more inundate my virgin ego with a stunning amount of stimulation. The difference in air pressures and temperatures leaves me blind with greed as more time passes.
The human stirs again, but he leaps back as he becomes aware of my presence. I freeze. “How unlucky can I get?” He mutters. He does not react as though threatened, and rises slowly. I observe his inspection of the stone wall adjacent to my former cave. “It’s moving… through the stone?”
His stomach rumbles as he moves his camp, and his body, away from me. I yearn to touch him again, but my mass is sluggish and unresponsive. I instead focus on recovery. The human grabs an object from his possessions, an object composed of petrified wood shaped into an arch, and plucks at the cords of metal looped to the frame.
The stimulus is intoxicating. My membrane, tired as it is, gently moves in delight with the waves of sound. The pit traps the sound and reflects it a dozen fold adding to the effect. My core throbs with a heart’s joy and dizzies my faculties. This descending combination puts me at an ease I have not felt before and just when I think I can climb no higher the human adds his own voice to the ensemble. Unlike his speaking voice, he sings in a lower octave, a word I instantly take a liking to.
Yet, the song is solemn. The words that flow through me bear weight I am unfamiliar with.
“Drowned gentle souls,
cling to the last,
All hands go down,
Clinging to the mast.
The mariners breath deep,
Their final gasps to keep.”
There are words I fail to dredge up, but I piece together what a mariner or a mast might be, and as I listen to more I take in this new knowledge and store it carefully like bottles in my own little sea. They bob at the surface, easily accessed. The man gives a heartfelt sigh as he ends his song with a downward flourish. He weakens, I can tell, as his legs give out and he begins to rest once more. He set his instrument aside. I recognize this as my chance to get closer to him.
I picture my mass contorting to my will, shaping it into an approximation of my human, and changing its density to support my weight. My mass does it’s best to adhere to my image and uses all of itself to create long, spindly legs, and winding arms. The weight is too much. My mass can’t support the body I envisioned. I stumble, and instinctively reach out to catch myself. My mass engulfs the human’s leg, and worse still, I overreact again and pulls the human to me. I try to correct, but the human is awake now and he produces a silver metal with a gleaming edge. He slashes at me, severing my mass from his leg, and darts backwards.
I try to meet his gaze, but his facial expression reads simply: disgust. His whole body is strung like a wire and his increasing heartbeat pumps oxygen to his limbs to beat a quick retreat. Guilt stings my core. I frightened him and he lashed out. I need to be more careful lest he hurt himself.
“Who are you?” He asks.
I can only fizz and bubble in response. I hoped to study how he spoke and vocalized so I too could speak, but my blunder cost me dearly. I shift my mass around and mimicked my human’s outline with greater clarity using less material. My larger, ungainly form intimidated him, so perhaps I would feign weakness. The remainder of myself pools and swirls at where I imagine my feet being. He seems uncertain of my shape, but inches backward. I move to meet him.
“You must have heard me.” I move forward as to confirm, but his eyes go wide and he shields himself with those fleshy limbs again. I am so close to obtaining what I need from him. If I could just analyze how he produced his vocal sounds…
I pause. There is a moment of recognition. He realizes his words reach me. I honor his request. I follow him as he fetches his noise making tool from the ground. My core jumps as he plucks a string, and again and again. He plays gently, carefully, and he eases his guard for a moment. My body sways with the sound, my mass moving in time with the human’s cautious playing, and my core tickles with fresh sensations.
“Do you understand me?”
I am too enraptured with the sensations of his music to counter or reason. It feels as though I am again in that metaphorical sea, but the fog clears and the sky is warm. The waves churn as my body moves each mirroring the other. I am facing inward again, just like in the cave, and it feels good. Nostalgic is the word.
My reverie lasts for a long, short while until a heavy breath, or, the human’s yawning, cools my excitement. Closer now than I was before, my senses train on the human. He is slow to react. His body is weakening. The playing must exhaust him. I could relate to that exhaustion now having traveled through the wall. He must need sleep. No, no, the little portion of my mass that clung to him revealed more. He is dehydrated. His body is consuming itself. Numerous foreign concepts float up from my sea of knowledge. Sickness. Fatigue. Injuries, internal and external. The human is at great risk if I do not intervene.
He is too slow to stop my advance and too weak to resist my grapple. I overwhelm him completely. My mass subsumes most of his body while my core and more focused upper half diagnose his condition. I push the new sensations and my giddiness aside as I examine my human. There are many ticking parts of a human body, I am quick to realize. Flexible, but not impermeable, elastic, but only to a point, and fragile, but resilient, my quick tests of the human form produce many queries to be resolved later.
I press past his cracked lips and find what I was looking for. A collection of vibrating chords that relax during breathing, a strange concept in and of itself, and just when tightened it produced sound. “Perfect,” I test out my new voice box with uninhibited glee. “Perfect! Perfect, perfect!” I pull back and allow the normal flow of air to resume in my human.
“Oh, he fell asleep. How unfortunate for me. I want to speak with him about so many things.” There is a difference in pitch as I test amounts of sound to affect varying amounts of partly congealed slime imitating vocal chords. “This is my voice,” I modulate and repeat the phrase over and over until I find an inflection I particularly like. It is higher than the human’s, but not where I imagine it would be painfully or unpleasantly so.
A groaning from the human sets my core aflutter. “Did you sleep well?” I plainly ask.
He is slow to open his eyes, but he is already tense again. In my examination I determined his body is capable of producing chemicals to push his body’s performance beyond a safe parameter, for a time. Stress, that is the word for it.
Cradled in my mass, he peeks up. He is about to scream before I interject. “I’m very sorry for attacking you. You are the first living being I have ever met.” He seems off put by my static, flat tone. I understand the concepts of speech, but not how they are put into practice. I decided it would be safer to remain as neutral as possible
“H-h-hello,” he stammers. I imitate a smile, but his reaction indicates something other than my desired result.
“Please be at ease. I do not understand how to implement the conventions of speech as of yet.”
“You are, um, very well spoken,” he states. I feel a strange warmth as I process his praise. “What are you going to do with me?”
“Do? With you? I am uncertain what you mean. I believe you are malnourished, however, and are at risk of sickness.” Instinct told her to hold her human close, but her conscious mind fails to find purchase in the intent of the action.
“I am? It’s only been a few days.”
“Yes. The time it takes for the sun to circle the globe is called a day.”
“I see. A demarcation of time. I had no concept of this prior to meeting you.”
“You… didn’t?” My human grimaces as he mulls over a weighty thought. “Then asking how long you have been here might be rude.”
“Asking unpleasant questions, touching stuff that doesn’t belong to you. Rude.” He eyed my arms as he spoke. A layer of terse annoyance crept into his speech.
“I apologize.” I allow my human onto his own feet. He smiles, and I feel aglow again.
“Do you have a name?” He asks. He doesn’t move away or seem to worry as he speaks.
“No. I am me. I have never needed to distinguish myself as such.” I search the fog and the sea for a suitable candidate, but none come to mind. It is only a light from the coast that pulls my focus, and there, I spy an excellent candidate. “You may refer to me as Gallon.”
The human chuckles in amusement. Ah, as a measurement of water or other liquid, a Gallon could also apply to a slime as well. I imitate his laughter, but in my own voice. My human eases his guard further. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Gallon. My name is Clay Lawson, a bard of the Clemens’ Bards College.” He speaks with a smooth, practiced ease and his cultured mind influencing his every subtle action. A perfect bow, a measured step backward, and a nonpresumptous demeanor that even disarmed me for a moment.
Uncertain of what to say, I think it wise to reiterate my original intention. “I believe you are in danger of illness. Allow me to assist you.” He postures defensively, his arms at his hips.
“What do you intend?”
“I propose leaving through the hole in the ceiling and acquiring you proper hydration and sustenance.”
“I’ll take you up on your offer.”
A surging joy permeates throughout my form. Taking care of my human would come first, but then I would ask for a return of my favor. Clay could play more music for me, and see new things with me, and ultimately experience fission with me! The excitement distracts me from Clay’s following statement.
“However, I have a condition.”
“Oh.” I am unsure of what he intends, only that I felt immense conflict between my expectations and the present reality. Stress, perhaps?
“You’ll have saved my life, and I owe you a whole lot. I will go along with whatever you intend, but!” I match his fiery gaze with my own, empty sockets. “I want to travel. There is much to see in the world, and I don’t intend to settle down anytime soon. I-“
I didn’t let him finish. I seize Clay and rapidly climb upward out of the hole. My core burning with joy, we escape into the early morning light, together.
“I would love to!” I repeat over and over as I swing my new companion around the open field of green floor under the blue ceiling. “New things! I want many new things!”
Clay is laughing along as we share our first real embrace, the dangerous tension leaving my human, and the taste of this new world overwhelming and saturating every centimeter of my mass. “Where do we go first, Clay?”
He looks to the large mountain looming over the forest canopy. “The Vale.”