Part 7

The Corrupted Hollow

The glade was worse than Daiza imagined. Muck squelched loudly under her slippers. A strange blue mold grew inside the trees, only peeking out from holes and knots and, on occasion, injured boughs. When she looked closer at one such branch, she could see that the whole interior of the tree was filled with rot--that the gray bark was only skin over a tree-shaped mold.
Shivering, she fell back into step with the others.
"What happened here?" Gillion asked, holding the lantern aloft as he went.
A silvery mist settled over him, leaving droplets on his eyelashes and on the panes of the lantern, warping the light that came out of it.
"I'm guessing there's an aquifer above us." Daiza motioned upwards. "Because this island is stuck here, tethered to the one above it, the water doesn't move around. It all falls in the same place, over and over again."
"Well, it's disgusting. And by the Green Jack, the smell..." He shuddered, causing their illumination to vibrate wildly around them.
"Sort of reminds me of that time I had to share a tent with you on that long wet march through Rel-Vidar," mused Syll. "And you took your boots off, even after I asked you not to..."
"Listen--it wasn't exactly potpourri under that leather corset of yours."
Syll glared at his cowl.
Sensing this, Gillion looked back and returned the glare with interest.
Daiza was so busy studying her surroundings that she ran into Syll's back again. "Could we reminisce about camping later?"
"Next time," Gillion said, turning forward. "You share a tent with her. I'll bunk with big sis."
"Kalaena can get pretty ripe sometimes," Daiza whispered absently. "With all that armor and padding she wears."
"Well, at least she takes it off and bathes once in a while. Ruadd doesn't even do that," Syll observed, her anger gone. "When I first, um, volunteered to work with him, he didn't quite trust me and insisted we sleep in the same room--"
Daiza stopped and pointed. "What was that?"
Gillion spun around and held the lantern high, making long shadows in the gloom.
The ground was sloped here. Rings of putrescent white fungus grew thick between the ruinous trees. They strained their eyes at the shadows yet saw nothing but mud and corruption.
"You're too jumpy," Syll told her, waving them on.
Gillion didn't move. His face looked small and pale in the cowl. "What exactly did you see, Daiza?"
"I don't know--something white. Behind that tree there." She pointed again.
Gillion bobbed the lantern around, trying to get a better look.
"It was just those pale mushrooms waving in the breeze," Syll assured them. "Let's keep going."
"What breeze?" the little man demanded. "I didn't feel any breeze."
Syll crossed her arms over her breasts and tapped her foot, producing an unpleasant squelching sound in the muck.
"Maybe it was nothing," Daiza conceded.
They started away again, the sorceress and the little man huddled together, Syll taking up the rear with an impatient look on her face.
The ground rose steeply around them. The path led down into a ravine with a sluggish black stream running through it. The walls of the hollow had a carpet of glistening blue mold dotted here and there with fleshy white caps.
The air was thick with moisture and contamination. Feeling as if her lungs were coated in greasy spores, Daiza covered her face, suddenly glad for the shawl. Gillion breathed loudly through his mouth and Syll wrinkled her nose, announcing she'd smelled worse.
The other two ignored her, moving cautiously together along the muddy path.
Above them, the walls leaned in to create a ceiling. The ravine was very nearly a cave now, with the putrid river cutting through it. It was clear to Daiza that this area got even less light than the rest of the benighted island.
Their trail followed the stream around a bend then branched off along a shallow tributary. The source of the tributary was a little waterfall, its sound dulled by a gray moss coating its steps. The path zigzagged upwards beside the sickly cascade, to an opening. Through that opening, she could make out the forest which before had filled Daiza with so much loathing but now seemed pleasant in comparison.
Gillion started towards the first jack-knife but stopped, looking up at a cleft in the moldy rocks beside the falls. "Syll," he whispered. "It's time to get tarty."
Daiza covered her mouth with her hand and felt fingers of ice run up her vertebrae. The fine hairs over her smooth skin all stood up at once.
She saw something--something lank and rubbery, with pulsing white boils ease sluggishly out of the cleft.

©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.
It looked remarkably like the arm of a long-dead plague victim.
Gillion had seen it too.
"Show me some leg!" he cried, putting the lantern down.
Syll flashed her thigh at him.
Daiza, meanwhile, watched the clefts and felt her horror grow. By the warped light of the lantern, she saw another plague-limb, joined shortly after by a grinning death's-head. The death's-head lingered in the light and gazed on her with sheer white eyes. Wearing a crooked, broken tooth-grin, it began to make it's way down the slick stones.
It vaguely resembled a human being, but it did not walk as one. This creature--this mockery betwixt life and death--crawled instead. It crawled and slobbered and gibbered incoherently, revealing a long black tongue behind its ghastly teeth.
Daiza prayed it would slip on the grimy boulders, slip and crack its revolting skull.
But it did not. It just kept coming. This was its home, its favored terrain...
Gillion drew a single-edged shortsword from Syll's garter and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Daiza.
"We'll make it through this," he whispered. "When I say run--you run."
Behind them, Syll was whispering to herself: "Eenie-meenie, miney, moe..."
Daiza watched numbly as the creature bunched together its limbs underneath its pale, wrinkly torso. With glittering eyes, it pounced.
Using a two-handed grip, Gillion slashed. The blade connected but no blood came. The white flesh opened like rotten fabric instead.
The force of his blow knocked the creature off course. It landed to the side of Daiza, missing her by inches.
Gillion kicked its face and bolted up the jack-knife trail.
"Run!" he called down as he went.
The girl didn't move. She could only stare in horror as the slavering creature began to reach for her...

©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.

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