Upwards, or, the Great Fall
The pain in the man's broken body was almost forgotten, whisked away in this strange, nonsensical sensation. In the dark, dry red stone lined cave he had stumbled— and his shelter had swallowed him whole as he fell into some unseen crevasse. The odd sensation of falling upwards enveloped him. It wasn't as if he had never felt the unseen force pulling him towards the ground— certainly, as any citizen of Lliaq ought to, he was very familiar with it. Whatever it was, it felt as if it had released its unseen grip on him. As if he was plummeting towards the sky, covered by the darkened body of rock above him. At any moment he was certain that he would find himself dashed against that rough cave ceiling. Yet its image never moved closer, neither did it move farther. He closed his eyes and waited for his death to come.
Perhaps this was for the best, what good would a man with a broken leg be to his community? In his complacency, he had made a fatal mistake along the seemingly endless, glistening white expanse of the Tchoul Salt Flats while harvesting. Foolish was he, thinking a single step on the brittle crystalline sea without the proper weight-distributing footwear— which kept the wise from breaking its surface and falling into the mud beneath— would be harmless. If his comrades had attempted to save him, they too would endanger their lives as their footwear could not support the weight of two men. No, like proper Lliaqeu men, they left him to his fate. He had long been taught that this was the right way to live— yet it pained him, somewhere deep inside. A deep, stabbing pain— the pain of betrayal. He crushed the thought as best he could, steeling himself. He must pull his own weight now. That's why he had crawled for what felt like an eternity across the rough, salted surface, towards the orange-red mesa in the distance.
He opened his eyes, finding himself in a deeper cavern. The brown-red stone beneath him dimly lit by the vestiges of light from above. He had, in fact, fallen down— yet he couldn't shake the thought of the odd feeling from his descent. Stranger still— he found himself without further injury. Placing a hand on the rough stone beside him in order to bring himself back up, he found it somewhat spongy. The ground gave slightly as he placed his weight on it, as though the trickling rays of sunlight from above had somehow weakened its structure. He winced as some remaining salt particles found their way into the scraped surface of his palm. He paused for a moment, then placed his other bloodied palm on the ground below him, finally, managing to sit upright with much effort. He took a deep breath and waited a moment more, wondering to himself just how he would attempt standing.
As he moved his good leg, he felt something move with it. Squinting in the dim light— as if trying to channel as much of it that remained into his field of vision— he could just barely make out the dim outline of a worn wooden beam. Luck was with him, it would seem. In the flats he had torn the beam from the wooden sled used to collect salt crystals, using it to carry his weight in place of his broken leg. He kicked the beam towards him with his heel a number of times, eventually getting it close enough to grasp. Inspecting the beam, he found it to be in fair shape; same as himself, it had somehow avoided damage in the fall. As he grasped it in his right hand, a sliver of fractured wood splintered off its worn, salty surface and fell to the ground. As he lifted himself up, he accidentally placed weight on his injured leg— just about crying out in pain. Yet, remembering the tenets of any strong Lliaqeu, he attempted to suppress the cry— sharply exhaling in its place. He managed finally to get up, with a final push— placing weight yet again on his broken right leg. Just this once... he thought. He shifted his weight, and let out a guttural scream.
As he began to move, he noticed that the soft qualities of the ground beneath him were no more. Each step landed on solid stone, nothing gave way. Had he imagined it? Certainly, after such a trial that couldn't be out of the question. He didn't have long to ponder this, however, as his investigation into the matter was interrupted by a loud, reverberating cracking and crashing of stone followed by a sharp animalistic cry somewhere nearby.
He moved his head to the right, trying to follow the sound. The dim light surrounding him didn't reach whatever was emanating the sound. More grunts and what sounded like a struggle soon followed— if he had had any bearings on his surroundings he might have tried to escape. He glanced behind him, only to be met with a precipitous wall of red stone. A few steps towards the wall for some semblance of safety couldn't hurt, he thought to himself. Instead, he let out a surprised gasp as he tried to move backwards, pain shooting up his broken leg once more. In the distance he could hear scuttling, and a grinding of stone— as if whatever was lurking in the distance had been scared off by the sudden, unplanned sound. Still unable to see, the man remained motionless, listening for any more movement. He thought he could hear heavy, laboured breathing, but there was no more audible struggling or movement. Just how long he stood there, he did not know, but eventually the just barely perceivable breathing, too, finally ceased.
The man would need fire to be able to see whatever was there in the distance, and if he was going to find any way out of the caverns whose hungering maw he had stumbled into. Yet, he did not have a torch with him. Slowly, he turned about and looked at all he was able to see in the dim light. A particularly smooth, beige colored stone along the edges of the light caught his eye. Slowly, quietly, he limped towards it. As he got closer he could see that it was not, in fact, a stone at all— it was a sack. A sack, it seemed, containing something that may be of use. As far as the man could remember, he did not have such a bag with him when he fell, nor even before as he crawled through the flats. He attempted to lean over and grab it, but stopped realizing his broken leg was about to touch the ground once again. He stood there for a moment, lightly acting out different methods of leaning over before settling on throwing the bad leg backwards as he leaned onto the beam— this enabled him to just barely grasp at the edges of the sack and pick up. As he hesitantly lifted up the concealing flap, he found it full of exactly what he required— torches. The strange fall, the ground seemingly padding his descent and protecting him from injury, and now this strange sack full of exactly what he needed; he felt as if he was playing directly into some unseen force's hands, and he very much did not like this thought.
Regardless of whether it was luck, or an outside force— he needed the aid desperately. The man pulled the torch from the sack, then slung the bag over his shoulder. He pondered just how he might be able to set the torch alight, and held it up before him to inspect its make. In a sudden flash, a pale green light emanated from the top of the torch— a soft, verdant flame which oddly seemed to spiral and curve downwards, rather than move as a flame should were it to operate under the natural laws of the world. Now bathed in this green light, he could see that the torch, too, was abnormal in make. The core of the object was made from a light material, with many holes throughout, seemingly like something had eaten away at all but very strongest structure of it. He would say it was a light green, but given the color of the light around him, he could not be sure. Rather than a fabric wrapped around the top, there seemed to be another material hollowed out and placed over the core. The bulbous material was of a lighter color, and was full of somewhat hexagonal holes, leaving a light frame around the core of the torch. The flame illogically seemed to emanate from these hexagonal holes rather than the material of the frame itself. Just how exactly this operated— the man feared to guess. In this new light, he could see that the sack over his shoulder was also of a strange make— somehow it appeared to be woven of stone. The fibers themselves did not twist and bend as textiles should, instead staying stiff as they moved— yet there was enough space between them to allow the whole of the object to move as if it truly were made of some textile.
The hand that held the torch trembled, the man's instinct was to throw the strange object as far as he could— yet as he raised his arm to do just that, he was able to pull back the reins on his bewildered fear. I need their aid— if they can do something as strange and terrible as change the very properties of the ground, what would happen if I were to decline their gifts? He shuddered at the thought. There was no doubt in his mind now, something was pulling the strings, something was leading him somewhere— and he had no choice but to follow. His Lliaqeu pride stung with this acceptance of aid, but this— being forced to accept aid— felt somehow freeing. The man closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then began to move in the direction of the sounds he had heard earlier. As he encroached upon the location of the sound, he began to find himself more used to walking with the aid of the beam.
The unusual green glow of the torch illuminated stalagmites along the ground floor as he walked, eventually closing their tendrils of light over the smooth body of a deceased creature pierced through the heart by what appeared to be a fallen stalactite. Pale, oily skin covered a bipedal form with a short, stiff neck, and a short, flat tail. There were no arms to speak of on the creature, and its rounded head possessed no eyes— but in the center of its bulbous form was a strange twisted horn. Along the bottom of this bulbous head was a wide mouth containing an array of serrated teeth— if he had to guess, this must have been a predator. He would have attributed this to another case of strange, uncanny luck— were it not for the strange scratches and injuries along the pale skin of the creature. It looked almost as if something had scraped a collection of nails across its surface, creating rough, bloody trails marked by many small holes along their widths. At the end of these bloody trails were holes where flesh had been torn out— as though something had fed on the beast. Inspecting the stalactite that pierced the creature's body, he thought he noticed similar markings along its edges.
Seeing no immediate danger, now he felt was the time to take advantage of his luck. Eventually, he would need food, and he had no idea just how large this cavern may be— for all he knew, there may not even be another exit. He tried not to think of this, however. He produced a small knife which had been tucked under his belt, placed the beam on the other side of the corpse, leaned over as best he could— and began to separate a leg from the beast's body. The skin of the creature was surprisingly resilient, whatever had trailed injuries across its body had to have been fairly sharp, like the head of a pick— he tried not to think further about it, lest fear well up within him once again. Finally, after some time— and a painful slip once again onto his injured leg— he freed the leg from the beast's torso. Taking note of its significant weight as opposed to the sack over his shoulder, he elected to fasten it to himself by strapping his belt over it. He did not trust the spiraling verdant flames he carried, while they certainly provided light, he was unsure whether or not food touched by its strange, curved arms could be safe for human consumption. In fact, he didn't even know if they even were flames. He thought for a moment about setting the rest of the corpse alight to see, but ultimately thought better of it— not knowing the size of these caverns, filling them with smoke could easily kill him. Perhaps he may have to settle for raw meat.
He just about fell over as he repositioned the beam in front of him, balancing on a single leg. He thought back, how had injuries such as his been treated in the past? Alchemists, typically, would offer some strange concoction to "promote faster healing"— not that it really helped. One would still find themselves bedridden or nigh useless for quite some time. He had heard before of—and even seen— the more extreme measures taken by desperate parties, and willing alchemists. It was frowned upon by his people, seen as admitting weakness in one's own body by supplementing it with another— mutation.
He once knew a woman named Cipa, back during his military training as a young man of seventeen. Cipa, like many other young Lliaqeu, was quite competitive— and held lofty goals, aiming to one day become a great general. This competitive personality led her to take risks, cut corners, and often end up with injuries. As she was young these often healed quickly, or were luckily of little to no consequence. Her luck, however, eventually ran out. While attempting to scale a cliff for a mock ambush exercise rather than take any one of the clearly defined paths, she found herself gripping a weak stone— and on the ground shortly thereafter. Something in her back had snapped, dislocated, or warped from the fall. She had to cease her training, but she was confident that she would be back in a mere few months— those months turned to years.
Her family grew tired of aiding her weakness, her inability to pull her own weight— they had decided to throw her to the streets if she could not heal. She did not want to become one of the many broken beggars along the city's streets— they were weak and she was strong! Surely, she was strong? There must have been a way! Cipa had once been an alchemist's apprentice— and had experimented in private with mutation on small animals. She thought— perhaps— infusing herself with the spine of another creature could heal her? No one would notice, and she could still say it was her own strength that overcame the injury. She made the unfortunate choice of a fish as her subject— repurposing the spine from a finished meal. Upon imbibing the concoction, her once orange-brown skin took on a slight bluish tint, and her spine twisted painfully sideways. Her back was healed— of this there was no doubt— but she was permanently marked, and while she could now lean side to side at inhuman angles— she could no longer bend forwards. Her family cast her out for giving in to her own weakness, and she resumed her military training— becoming a feared warrior who would die a heroic death.
The man chuckled to himself, it was a childish thought— alchemy requires skill, and specialized tools with which to brew. Neither of which was in his possession. No, he'd have to make it through this himself. Though, he wasn't exactly alone, he felt. In just what direction should he head? The strange, downwards-spiraling flame in his hand did not appear to flicker with any movement of the air around him, which to his own limited senses felt as still as the stone encapsulating it. He felt he could spend forever trying to come up with a reason to head any which direction— he decided to cut this short by simply beginning to walk forward.
The flame was beginning to fade, oddly not shrinking in size— only decreasing in opacity. Its reach lessened with this, and the man decided to finally replace it. Not knowing the effects of the torch, he elected to leave it on the ground rather than place the weakened flame in the sack. He tossed it somewhere ahead of him, and heard the unexpected sound of what seemed to him to be the torch hitting water. As quickly as he could in his injured state, he produced another torch from the sack, and began to move in the direction in which he had thrown the first. He hadn't thought of it until now— no, in truth it had been on his mind the entire time, he had simply been ignoring it— he was incredibly thirsty. Just how long had he wandered through the salt flats? How long had he been trapped in this vault of stone? As he approached the thrown torch, there appeared to be a small stream, and he was thankful to find that it was— at least in appearance— water.
His immediate impulse was to throw himself to the ground and begin drinking— but he stopped himself after beginning to outstretch his arms and feeling the beam in his right hand. In his excitement— he had almost forgotten his broken leg. Instead, he would have to drink from the stream on his back. Before doing this he dropped the sack of torches onto the ground. Leaning back as best he could without falling over, he bent his good knee in order to get closer to the ground before releasing his grip on the beam and falling onto his back. This way, he suffered no further injuries. He miscalculated his height, and his face ended up directly in the cool water— though this was something he did not mind. Like a dehydrated dog, he thirstily lapped up all that he could.
After his thirst was sated, he stayed still, the cool water gently running against his face. Hobbling as he had been was incredibly exhausting, if something such as a stream could exist in these caverns, they may very well be deeper than he can traverse in his condition. Exhaustion may be his greatest enemy, not light, water, nor food. He did not know how long he stayed there, but eventually he found the strength within himself to grab the beam once more and prop himself back to his feet, or foot. As he began to hobble forward once more, towards the bag of torches, he heard a strange cracking sound somewhere above him. He looked up, noticing the light faintly illuminating a stalactite— a faintness which slowly crawled up the stone's length— as if it was growing rapidly from the cave ceiling above. It was falling. In this same brief moment, the man instinctively threw himself forward— dropping his torch in the process. Incredible pain shot through his leg as it collided with the hard stone ground. He looked behind him, and could see what appeared almost to be a stone moving towards him— but the coloration was slightly different than the stone around it, and the thing moved by dragging itself along the cave floor with short, pointed appendages lined with sharp claws on their undersides. He could hear a terrible grinding and cracking of stone as the creature's claws dug in to it— slowly but surely making its way towards the bewildered man.
Surely, he thought, this must have been what killed that other creature before— and he did not wish to let the same happen to him. Painfully, he used both feet to stand again, in the interest of speed— though the pain made him take pause for a brief moment. His grip on the beam tightened, and he fearfully began to hobble as quickly as he could in the opposite direction of the strange creature. It may appear slow now, but for all he knew, it could have means with which to leap great distances, or simply be moving slowly to conserve energy when it could truly move faster than he could hobble. Into the darkness he descended, until soon the torch's dim light left his vision, and some time after that the grinding and cracking sounds faded away, too. He continued onward for another few moments, to ensure that he had lost the creature's pursuit.
He stopped for a moment to rest, carefully sitting down on the cold cave floor. It didn't take long, as the adrenaline wore off, for him to realize he was without light. A tightness gripped his chest as the reality settled into his addled mind. His breathing became more erratic even than as he fled, his head throbbed, and his ears rang in the vast quiet of the subterranean hell he found himself in— fear was taking hold. He tried to calm down, but it wasn't long until he could hear faint whispers— was he imagining it, in his fear? These whisperings were too quiet for him to make out any clear words, but as he sat still and silent, fear begin to tighten its grip on his mind— and the volume of these whispers began to increase. Their language was none that he had known, it was harsh, and seemed as if it required a biology entirely unlike his own to produce. Despite this, he felt just as though he could understand their words."Shigal, n'oum shigal."
"Adapt, you must adapt."
"Nahggyz y'or nolghom, cu'ughm iyl t'kogg!"
"Become more than you are!"
He clasped his hands over his ears, like closing great doors, trying his best to drown out the words. The voices were almost alien, something about their qualities caused his very soul to vibrate within him. He looked up, and instead of being met with the endless black void he expected— he could actually make out the shape and form of the cavern around him. Yet it seemed incorrect, the way he had come was blocked by a wall of stone— and the more he looked the more it seemed as if the stone around him was warping and changing somehow. Almost like it was undulating water. Small holes begin to show uniformly across the stone, in strange geometric patterns that could not be created naturally. Slowly but surely these holes begin to expand, then contract again, repeating this cycle— as though the cavern around him was breathing through these orifices.
The man shut his eyes, warding off the strange sight. Not wanting to bear it any longer. Yet, again, instead of the darkness he expected— he appeared to see through the eyes of another. An older man, someone he did not know. His dark skin similar to his own, the older man's calloused hands were delicately operating an alchemy kit. Lighting the fire beneath the lyez clay retort— a special spouted container made of a special, distilled clay— meant to distill the properties of what lay inside its belly. Yet he did not possess this knowledge— he had never learned of this, the older man had. Despite this, he felt as if he had known it all along, and he understood the process as the older man's hands moved through the entire operation. Mixing the resulting distilled liquid with a dry wood dust, and placing it back into the retort to produce yet another, more pure, liquid— which he then brought to his lips. The older man's hands enlarged in size, and possessed a newfound inhuman strength which he tested by bending an old dagger into a circular shape."Ne'alizrog."
"Power." The older man whispered to himself.
He opened his eyes, and could see Cipa— her body bent to the side at an impossible angle— smiling. He shut his eyes and shook his head, attempting to dispel the vision, opening them to find the undulating cavern was falling apart. Great cracks formed along the ceiling, walls, and floor— separating the whole into great pieces that began to drift from one another. In the spaces between was a polychromatic field of stars. Yellows, blues, greens, purples— every color imaginable, and even those unseen— speckled this void as they mixed and melted into one another. A crack began to form from the floor opposite him, snaking its way closer and closer, its thin head trailed by an ever widening canyon. The man tried to stand and run— but fell back to the ground screaming as incredible pain shot up his leg. The crack trailed beneath him, and he tried to crawl as best he could from the widening hole— but he could not outrun it, and he fell into the varicolored sea of stars beneath.
Colored whispers flew past his ears, he could not understand this language as anything but formless audible colors. Blood reds around him faded from vision and became sound, changing to orange, yellow, and back to red— creating a strange smacking sound as they collided with the sounds of other colors and mixed into something new. He tried to scream but all that escaped his lips was purple. He could feel that strange, terribly unnerving sensation once again— that sensation of falling upwards. He tried to force his eyes shut but could only manage to blink— leaving him unable to look away as he fell towards some distant bubbling form of black.
As he came closer to this form, he could see that its surface rippled in many small expanding rings— as if assailed by cosmic raindrops. Its prodigious size became apparent as it soon dwarfed him, its massive dark bulk blotting out the polychromatic space behind it. Terrified, the man wondered if he was facing a deity he had disregarded as mere myth long ago. Its surface, save for the ripples, was uniform in color— and as such, he was unable to make out its true shape. From the ripples he could only guess that it was made of a collection of ridged round shapes, broken by jutting sharp, angular forms placed periodically along their surface. He couldn't discern his distance from the form, and he fear he'd be dashed against it— dying without a chance to move away. This thought frightened him deeply.
He did not know how long he had been falling, and soon enough, the great black form blotted out all else from his vision. This must be the end! The panicked thought repeated over and over within his head. After some time, he felt something beyond his experience as a creature of flesh and blood— something he felt no living being ought to be subject to— the feeling that he himself had been transposed into a being of pure audio. He felt himself vibrating, floating through nothingness. He could see nor hear anything beyond himself— not even time was perceptible. He had no idea whether or not he had been in this state for minutes or years, but he mercifully found himself solid once more. He fell onto a blackened stone floor on all fours, throwing up an unsavory lack of anything visual accompanied by a terrible grating sound that told him he was retching the sound of yellow onto the ground beneath him.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand, despite there being nothing to wipe, and shuddered. He heard the sound of black fading to a dark grey and back. Something about its cadence seemed oddly intelligent to him, and he rose his head to look for its source. He was in an open, circular clearing in what appeared to be a great city. Tall, sharp twisted spires of what can only be described as metallic obsidian-like stone carved by giant hands— leaving uneven, jagged surfaces along the walls of the structures— rose around him to dizzying heights. These structures took on a slow gradient, with the grand majority being a deep black like that of the form he had fallen towards, and which he now assumed he was within. Towards their precipices, they faded in opacity, like clouded glass, with deep bands of solid black throughout. This glass would appear as either a pale grey, blue, or red— changing from structure to structure.
Lower towards the ground were many smaller black structures, appearing to be made of spheres made of many loops— leaving ridges periodically along their surfaces. In neither of these were there any windows, doors, or openings— how exactly the beings occupying the area were able to come and go he hadn't the slightest idea. These structures were sprinkled around a a vast sea of terraces connected to each other not by roads— but by a tangled web of thin silver wires which were faintly visible as they floated between structures and attached short strands to their lower walls. He could see strange statues of forms he had never once imagined, and a number of what he could only assume were silvery plants were placed in what appeared to him random shapeless clumps of various sizes throughout the city. Their bulbous ends gently swayed back and forth in an unseen breeze.
Somewhere in the distance a great structure of prodigious magnitude loomed over the rest of the city. It appeared to be of a similar obsidian material as the rest, but it bore bright bands of fantastical colors, curving along its edges, and expelling any hints of darkness in its make. Thick bands of pink were bordered by blues which gave rise to yellows, darker reds, and oranges also showed throughout. There were no sharp edges to be seen along its surface, which appeared to have been painstakingly smoothed. Ridges rose and broke the surface throughout— but they, too, were smoothed. Upon the very top of the structure appeared to sit a great black orb on a thinned spire of the colorful obsidian material. Whatever light hung over the city caused the colorful surface of this great structure to scintillate— nearly blinding the man. Despite this, he could not stop himself from staring at its smoothed surface, which acted as a reprise for the eyes from the harsh jagged edges of the spires that would dominate the skyline were it not for this grandiose building. Do I still reside in reality? Have I fallen between the cracks and arrived in a twisted realm not meant for creatures of normalcy? He wondered as he stared across the alien city's skyline in bewildered awe.
As he stared, he heard the strange shades of black once again. He looked for their source— and found a strange being standing nearby, near the edge of the clearing. He tried to stand but found himself without the aid of the beam— and thus unable to get up. As he fell onto his side, he saw another being, and that strange audible blackness emanated from somewhere within it. Their bodies were both composed of what appeared to be a mix of many different parts atop a similar core. Each was made of a thick, luminous white cord which started from the ground and after a short while of shooting straight upwards— coiled into a loose spiral consisting of 3 loops each, before straightening out towards the sky once more. Within these coils floated a series of even brighter grey spheres of varied diameters, which each had the appearance of containing a greater depth within than their sizes would logically allow. At the top of the straightened cord rested a human-like head without the features any man should possess. Instead, wildly placed along their surfaces, were numerous small black gashes which opened and closed independent of one another periodically.
He could tell, at least, that was how they should appear— now seeing their altered forms beside the statues of their original shapes. Instead, these two each appeared differently— the first had seemingly replaced what the man could only describe as a leg with that of another being— some dark brown mottled shard of stone or metal was in place of a white cord. Several of their inner spheres were instead green, transparent glass pyramids, and another was a large orange shape he could not recognize. The second being possessed what appeared to the man as a goat's leg, along the side of its uppermost coil. In fact— it seemed as though the being had adorned the majority of this upper coil's length with an entire array of goat's legs. Their furs were all of different colors and patterns, and one in particular was oddly luminous. The being's face held a massive black void that appeared as if a great cylinder had been pressed and twisted into its skull— yet the void was of seemingly infinite blackness, and thus he assumed these beings were without skeletal structures. He shuddered, knowing not whether he did so in fear— or if he was still vibrating.
The first being, with the stone leg, made another series of black sounds— creating a sequence of differing shades. The man's shuddering stopped as he realized these beings must speak in color... and with this realization he could just barely understand what they were trying to communicate to him. In this great city— something grander than even the great city of Lliaq from which he hailed, something grander, he thought, than mankind could ever dream of creating— here were its creators, and they stood on their own, even as amalgams. They stood strong, and he thought he could just barely understand a tone of pride as they spoke in brighter shades, nigh white. They were trying to tell him that there was no shame in mutation. He had been weakened, wounded, left to die by his brethren— and he believed that he should accept this fate. It was tradition, after all. He closed his eyes and bowed his head to thank the two beings, and when he rose and opened his eyes— he found himself lying in a subterranean stream lit by a green flame.
He quickly rose, as best he could. He searched for the beam with his right hand along the cave floor and after a few silent moments of groping, his fingers brushed upon something odd. His fingers had felt what seemed to be a leather strap. If his memory still functioned properly, he did not possess such a thing— and yet here it was. He grabbed the strap, and pulled it closer towards him. There was an odd weight to it, and as it came closer, and he looked— he immediately recognized it as an alchemist's kit. He quickly opened it to find the ever essential lyez retort— a round, pear-shaped lidded pot with a spout pointed downwards sprouting from the side made from a special distilled clay— kindling, a mortar and pestle, flasks, a stirring rod— everything he needed was there. Had I been carrying this all along? He wondered. He could hear a strange sound from somewhere nearby— something that could only be described by him as the sound of black fading to grey.
As vague memories came to him, he almost immediately claimed an idea. He pulled away from the stream, onto drier stone. He found the beast's leg still attached to his belt, and quickly detached it. Alchemy is the answer! His hands moved almost on their own as he recalled the process for distilling a body part's essence, as if he had somehow had years of training and practice— yet he had never so much as visited an alchemist. He lit a fire beneath the lyez retort, leaving it to gain strength as he cut a sizable horizontal slice from the leg, breaking the bone with his hands when his serrated knife could not cut through. He took the lid off the retort, and dropped the slice inside. He quickly recalled that he needed a base— and turned to collect water from the stream within a clay flask, quickly lifting the retort's lid and pouring it inside. The water hissed and wisps of steam nearly burned his hand as it came into contact with the heated lyez clay.
With the flask placed under the retort's spout, he watched patiently as the first wave of distilled liquid dripped inside. After around an hour, a quarter of the flask was filled with a deep purple liquid, which he then poured back into the retort with the remaining chunks of flesh and bone within, and added more kindling to the fire. Over the next several hours the man repeated this process until the remains of the leg dissipated completely, and distilled the resulting liquid once more for good measure. Finally, the flask was filled with a deep purple liquid in which shimmering silver flecks floated throughout. The man looked at the purpled, swollen skin around the break on his shin. He would suffer it no longer, and smiled as he gleefully threw back his head and emptied the flask into himself. The taste was of strong iron, and some odd, sweet flavor he could not place.
What followed was pain beyond what he had felt within his short lifespan, something that could not keep him from howling like an animal and rolling along the cold stone floor. He pulled in his leg to his stomach and cradled it as he did so, able to feel the hairs on his legs falling off, the bones lengthening, twisting, and bending. Terrible, wet, grating sounds seemed to echo in his ears as his body changed. This wasn't what he wanted! He wanted to heal the leg of a man, and keep it as such. Yet he knew that he'd likely be left scarred and warped. Still, he couldn't help but hold on to some deep seated pride in his humanity— which he now believed to be forever tainted. He screamed yet again as he felt his foot, too, rapidly changing.
Finally, mercifully, after some time— the changes stopped. Shivering, the man couldn't tell if he was covered in sweat, or water from the stream. He was afraid to look down at himself, to see what he had become. Yet he couldn't help but notice— the pain was gone. Not just the pain of the rapid mutation— but the pain brought by his broken leg. As he lay on the ground, he lifted and put down the leg, placing weight on it, testing. No pain. In fact— it felt stronger than ever. Cautiously, he attempted to stand up. To his surprise, there was no more pain there, either. He walked in a small circle for a few moments, making sure it wasn't just a brief lapse in pain. Nothing. Finally, he rose the leg and inspected it. In the dimming green light, he could see that his orange-brown skin had paled significantly in the leg— akin to the skin of the creature the leg had come from. His leg was now bent backwards, again, much like that of the creature he had procured the leg from— and his knee now operated in the opposite direction. His foot, it seemed, had also been warped— splitting halfway into two diagonal segments. Despite such drastic changes, he still stood at his normal height, and the newly formed leg did not give him a lopsided gait. However, hints of his original, human, form were still visible. His toes, for example, had only shrunk in length— they did not completely fade away to mimic the creature's exact form. The leg's mutated skin was not the same pale white as that of the creature, and it still was tinted with its original coloration— even fading into that familiar orange-brown tint as it met with his torso.
He placed the leg back on the ground, and let out a hearty laugh. This is absolutely amazing! He thought to himself. What power! How had I gone so long being callously ignorant of alchemy? He ran around in circles, getting used to his newfound leg, until he grew tired. It was then, in his joy, when his distress had been temporarily lifted— that he finally recalled his hunger. In the distance, he could hear a familiar scraping and grating along the stone ground. He smiled, this time, he would be the one to hunt. He elected to leave the alchemy kit sprawled out on the ground. This, he decided, would serve as his camp for now. In one hand he grabbed his knife, in the other, he wielded a newly lit torch— it's pulsating green flames no longer bothering him. They were almost reassuring, now, and he swore he could pick up the nigh imperceptible hint of a strange sound emanating from within their spirals.
As he approached the sound, the green light once again showed the mottled gray stone-colored skin of that creature dragging itself along the ground. It had already noticed the man— and was already pulling itself towards him. He hesitated and took a half-step back, as if already deciding to retreat. Yet he remained still afterwards, watching the creature dragging itself towards him at a pitiful speed. It was not as he had believed in his panic before, the creature seemed incapable of increased speed. This hunt would be easy. Slowly, cautiously, he approached the creature, moving to its left side as he got closer. It attempted to face him once more, but was slow in doing so, enabling him to simply walk behind it.
As he stared down at the creature's feeble attempts at reaching him, he almost pitied it. It was only the size of a small pot, its four pointed appendages slowly but surely turning it around and dragging it along. He only stared for a brief moment before quickly running his knife through the center of its body. It gave a low screeching sound as its appendages lifted and curled upwards in an attempt to pry the foreign object from its most vital organs— but it was only a brief period of time before all four appendages fell lifelessly to the ground. He grabbed the knife and freed it from the back of the creature, not bothering to wipe the blood off its surface. He attempted to pick up the body from the stone floor— but found it surprisingly difficult. After pulling for a few more moments with increasing strength— he stopped. Pulling himself to the ground, he tilted his head to see what exactly kept the body stuck to the stone.
Claws. Rows and rows of pale tooth-like claws. The entire underside of this creature appeared to house numerous claws which pierced the stone beneath. How exactly, they were able to possess this power, he did not know. A smile formed across his lips as an idea came to him. Why stop with just one leg? He may not understand how exactly its claws were able to operate, but he would certainly be able to take advantage. Delicately, he used his knife to pry the creature's claws out of the stone, gently pulling their curved shapes out and upwards with light repeated taps— eventually allowing him to take hold of the appendage and pull it free. With enough time, he was eventually able to pull all four free and flip the body over to inspect the whole underside.
The underside of the creature, too, was of a mottled grey that mimicked the stone around it. Each appendage was lined with five rows of pale white claws, with the central row of each housing larger claws than the rest. In the very center of the creature's mass, lay a pale white beak that ended in a sharp point. This beak appeared to open into four separate pieces, which the man theorized would allow it to more easily rend flesh from its prey. Satisfied, he held it by the center, and walked back to camp. He didn't take time to rest, immediately beginning the task of prying free as many claws as he could from the creature's appendages. He found that each seemed to attach to a small muscle, which he need only sever to free the claw. However many hours this task took, he did not know. A torch dimmed as he pushed through the monotony, bloody fingers mindlessly made the motions as time lost meaning.
After he had finished wresting each and every claw from its seat within the creature's body, he collected them into the alchemy kit's mortar, and began grinding them down to dust with the aid of the pestle. Before he was through, he needed the use of yet another torch as the previous began to fade. As he finished, he placed the resulting powder into the retort— alongside a few of the severed muscles which gave them part of their strength. Water, too, for a base was always needed. The fire beneath was lit, and the distillation began. He repeated this process about three times before finding himself satisfied, and he threw back the resulting liquid without hesitation. It had the taste of dry grain, cooked meat, and again— that odd sweet flavor from the leg's brew.
A numbness encroached upon his arms and legs, he could still maneuver the appendages— but they felt dull and lifeless. A tingling could be felt along their lengths, which was shortly followed by a sharp, shooting pain. He watched as he grimaced, turning the inside of his arm towards himself. Rows of bone-colored claws were sprouting from beneath his skin— piercing it, yet not producing blood. This created a simultaneously mesmerizing and horrifying visual of great lumps expanding in size, before being cut as if with knives, and the claws peering out from underneath before rising to their full heights. This continued for some time, moving in horizontal rows down the length of each appendage, before finally stopping. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the backside of his hand before rising and approaching a nearby wall of stone. He quietly placed the inside of his arm against it— and willed it to stick. The new muscles within listened to their master, and the claws sunk into the stone with a satisfying cracking sound. The man smiled.
He released himself from the wall and sat back at camp, grabbing a torch and testing it against the creature's body. Oddly— it seemed to not light on fire— yet it seemed to heat up as though it had been. Perhaps there was no danger in it after all? He could not wait any longer— his energies had been spent. He had to eat. He held the torch still as the smell of cooked meat slowly began to emanate from the corpse. He soon lost patience and began to devour as much as he could. It had the strangest taste of a grilled fish, and stone. It was the best thing he'd eaten in years.
He had no dreams as he finally slept afterwards, or only dreamed of a great form of black— he could not tell. Regardless, he felt refreshed, renewed— and reborn. He thought of how he should attempt to return home, now that he was healed. To his own surprise, he laughed at the thought, and said out loud."They'd call me weak! Yet I crawled my own way to survival— the cowards would never see me as an equal." He chuckled to himself once more before continuing.
"No, indeed, there is no reason to return." He said quietly, smiling softly as the realization dawned on him. Lit by that dancing verdant flame, he grabbed his knife and set out into the depths before him with renewed purpose.