It doesn't matter. There's no point to any of this. I couldn't save them then. No one can save me now.
Desolation is a mystical disease that begins with darkness and ends with the destruction of the self. Something like a cross between madness and possession, Desolation strikes those who find themselves lost in the underground and alone, then turn them against themselves. The self the unfortunates afflicted begin to dissolve and things in the darkness seep in to fill the void.
Parents scare their children not to go alone in the dark and explorers dread to find themselves alone and lost, doomed to lose not only their lives but their very identity.
The exact mechanics of how Desolation takes root is poorly understood. Isolation, gloom and despair seem to play part as gateways that let the disease into the mind. It infects those who spend a prolonged time alone in the darkness of the caves and the deeper one goes, the more likely infection becomes.
Infection is unpredictable. Some spend years in isolation without contracting the disease, while others succumb quickly. On average, it takes many months for the sickness to take root.
As the cities grow in size and machines replace men and women, afflictions of Desolation have begun to creep into even the heart of civilization. Those lost and alone with no one to turn to and nowhere to go succumb to Desolation.
These cases are still rare but those so infected are truly unfortunate, alone even when surrounded by teeming masses of humanity.
Desolation is not infectious, though that does little to protect the afflicted from ostracization, imprisonment and further isolation from their peers through fear and superstition.
At the first stages of infection, the afflicted will begin to hear wordless whispers in the darkness or see things move just out of the corner of their eye. As the disease progresses, the afflicted's perception warps and they begin to see the shadows between worlds. Spirits, phantoms and living shadows all begin to form in front of the afflicted's eyes and they see her in turn.
Alien and immortal, the spirits of Araea are primordial things. While not all are hostile, almost all are simply too strange for humanity to effectively communicate with, not even sharing even basic concepts like time or space. Ethereal and bound to their own domain, Spirits are only rarely seen manifest in physical form and it is always an ill omen.
Read more about Spirits
Eventually, the afflicted will begin to feel their sense of self slipping away. The whispers become harder to distinguish from the afflicted's own thoughts and as such, they begin to act on impulses they cannot judge as having been their own. The deeper into the dark they slip, they begin to lose memories and their personality begins to change. As parts of the afflicted's self begin to dissolve, spirits and stranger things ooze into the void left behind.
The physical changes begin at the same time, though they vary in nature. Black eyes or blood are common symptoms, as are unnatural scarring, branding or disfigurement. While it is possible to stop the sickness at this step and survive, those so altered are forever scarred and changed. Past this point, the afflicted's physical and mental state deteriorates.
In the final stages of the disease, the afflicted has been hollowed out. They are no longer able to tell where they begin and the alien minds that scream in their heads end. The body begins to waste away or mutate until the sufferer becomes unable to sustain their own existence. The person that was is gone and what is left is a tainted mass of flesh and bone.
As the disease warps the body and mind, the afflicted are frequently plagued with other ailments. Warped flesh is susceptible to other infections and illness, while the mind can become plagued by paranoia, phobias or compulsion.
The exact time between infection and total degeneration varies on the afflicted but is typically measured in months if not years. Death by suicide or by superstitious mobs often claims the infected before the void becomes large enough to swallow them.
There is no cure for the Desolation, though its progress can be stalled. By avoiding isolation and darkness, the sufferer can avoid the final fate, though the symptoms of the disease can make this difficult. Not only do the symptoms make interaction with society difficult but once the disease is plainly visible, the afflicted are frequently shunned.
The further the disease progresses, the more difficult (and unlikely) halting it becomes. Through no fault of their own, those who suffer the disease are pushed away and left to stand on their own with only the whispers as company.
An advanced stage of Desolation.
Alone in the World
Most who become infected are doomed to rot away in quarantine or killed by fearful mobs. Others face a slow, inexorable decline. It is possible to survive the disease to a remarkable degree as long as it does not reach its final stage. But the Desolation is ever-present, the voices and press of dark always there. Even the strongest wills are eventually be worn down, with no escape, no cure.
Shrouded in superstition and fear, Desolation is poorly understood and its suffered shunned. In more enlightened city-states, they may be sequestered away from the public in monasteries and asylums. More commonly, and particularly if the sufferer is poor or of low social status, they are quarantined in squalor. Friends and family form the most basic and common unit of support for the afflicted. Sometimes, a tight-knit community will rally to support their sickened kin.
Such support is never sure, as fears about the disease spreading rise or manic episodes from the sufferer erode goodwill. Ignorance damn as many who suffer the illness as malice does.
This lack of understanding extends to those who suffer from the disease. While Desolation is known and feared, in the early stages can be damnable difficult for the infected to correctly identify their malady. Only when their blood turn black or visions become too nightmarish to ignore do most realize the true nature of their affliction.
For this reason, many who suffer hide their affliction from the world for as long as possible. At the early stages and before any physical change, this is relatively easy, as the afflicted seem more unhinged or odd than seriously ill. Some manage to hide their suffering even after their bodies begin to warp, wearing thick goggles to hide blackened eyes or heavy clothing to obscure mutating flesh.
Unfortunately, this adds a gnawing fear of discovery and a sense of suffering alone against something unknown that no one understands, adding another voice to an already terrible chorus to strain the afflicted's will.
Cult of the Singing Dark
Not everyone fears the deep darkness. Some see salvation in its gloomy depths or hear the voice of gods as wing screams through honeycomb tunnels.
The Cult of the Singing Dark is centered around the presence of two suffering at the advanced stages of Desolation. At this point, they do little more than wail, and the cults wail with them. They consider it a hymn to the gods of the dark caverns, a hymn that must never end and so cult-members take turns to sit at the feet of the afflicted and wail with them. Others sit nearby and listen intently, hoping to record any words of wisdom or prophecy. Every scribble is revered as gospel and believed to hold significant meaning. In the few moments of lucidity, when the two afflicted speak clearly, the entire cult gathers to listen with bated breath.
Recently, one of the afflicted has lost his voice, his throat and lower face beginning to swell and mutate grotesquely. The cult is split; will their prophet ascend to become something great, or has his time come? Will they have to seek out another that has been so blessed, or drown one of their numbera in darkness alone to seek it out? Time will tell.