The Ashport Diaries
Note: Like my other stories, Slouching Towards Jianghu, this is set in a friend's fantasy world. These stories take place in the dark fantasy world of my friend's roleplaying podcast, "The Sword of Nerdom." It's a fun dark fantasy and Gothic horror podcast. If you enjoy this, you'll love that. Go check it out at wwwDOTswordofnerdomDOTcom.
Summary: A university student turned vagrant, Randal "Peaches" Ashport, starts drowning in the memories of another's life, that of Professor Andrew Norville. As their memories merge, their combined skills are necessary to survive and escape a cursed forest.
I would start with my life story, but I'm not sure which one to start with. The first one I remembered was my birth into a well-off family in Newkirk, second-born of a family in the Clockfitters Guild. The second was growing up in a country manor, near the hinterlands of Newkirk, away from the university and commerce responsible for the town's prosperity. My second birth was about five decades ago, back when the Holy Knights of Adelos were finishing off the Terminas campaign. My first birthday is a mere two decades ago, back before all the trouble started.
I've half-forgotten my first birth-name, but I don't care to use it again. My parents are nothing but phantoms in my past, and I can't remember their names. What I can remember is one day, my birth mother came back crying, and my aunt explained there was an accident at work, and Dad wouldn't be coming home again. My mother turned to the bottle, and I turned to the streets. I learned things I'm not proud of, but I learned them well enough. I still have a few bloody scars on my chest from that time. The less said about that, the better.
My second birthname, Andrew Norville, was the polar opposite of the first. I was third in my family, grew up with private tutors, affluent friends, and an isolation from the small-folk that bordered on irrationality. My family name and achievements were hammered into my head, as well as those of my parents and most distant relatives. An elderly governess reminded me of Uncle Thomas' accomplishments as a siege engineering during the war, or my Great-Aunt Justine's unparalleled study of Amaranthi folk religion. My father was a respected Professor at the University of Newkirk, having modernized the Newkirk Arsenal's metallurgy and standardization. My mother had only recently completed her doctorate in comparative philosophy, but her family saw fit to approve the union with an upstanding scholar like my father. Nobles don't even take a crap outside, without first considering how they'd look doing it.
The University of Newkirk was where both of my lives intertwined. You might ask how a street urchin found his way into the University. It was honestly one of the few positive things in my younger years, when an apothecary caught me trying to steal ingredients from his shop. As I reached my hand into a jar of dried fruits, his meaty, muscular hand grasped my own. I fought him with all the strength my malnourished ten-year old body could muster, but he loomed over me, his face a mask of stoic calm. I expected to be slapped, beaten, and thrown out.
Instead, he calmly removed the jar from my hands, setting it on a shelf twice my height. He then calmly explained I had grasped a bottle of poisonous purple-berries, which would've given me a painful, agonizing death. I asked why he had them, to which he only smiled. "It is the dose that determines whether it is a poison or medicine."
That was how I came to apprentice in Vladimir Ashport's shop. He was the closest thing I ever had to a parent, and because he had no family, he adopted me as his son. I learned of the different herbalist concoctions, what they were used for, and how they were misused. I still remember how much many of those overlapped. Too much or too little of anything could make or ruin your day, so you always wanted the middle ground. He made sure I learned well, lest I poison a customer by accident.
Andrew Norville's years were the total opposite. My tutors became more demanding. My governess Mrs. Jules became ever more overbearing, even to the point of ensuring I folded napkins properly. My parents became more secretive, even from each other. Servants around the house began gossiping with each other, about extramarital affairs and bastard offspring. My siblings began to move out, as their lives took them far from the house of their childhood. I never saw any of the supposed bastards, but my older siblings made a few snide remarks about the sudden firing of a maid after she rapidly put on weight. My fencing tutor left suddenly as well, for reasons I was barely old enough to comprehend. My older sister Paola was predictably admitted to the University's medical program. My older brother Saul went off to study engineering. Each of my friends moved away in turn, leaving me without the confidantes and compatriots that made that life bearable. Nevertheless, I looked forward to the date of my own admission to university, when I'd finally be able to escape the overbearing lifestyle of my childhood and teenage years.
As Ashport grew older, I managed his shop more closely. I interacted with all sorts of customers, including some of whom became my greatest friends. There was Professor Hypatia Boyle, who limped along on her ornate cane, and made conversation with the latest developments in chemistry and natural philosophy. There was Captain Julia Marston, a Newkirk Arquebusier who'd always be experimenting with new munitions. There was an Amaranthi man with two ornate kukris who I never got the name of, but neither Vlad or I wanted to ask him too many questions. There was an upper-class boy my own age, Froderich Gerhardt, who purchased a specific type of buds that were barely legal in town. My informative conversations with Professor Boyle and my friendship with Frod compelled me to ask Vlad if I could attend the University. We asked Professor Boyle about it, and she told us of a scholarship that a capable student like me should apply for. The day I ripped open the admission letter was the happiest day of my life. Unsurprisingly, it was all downhill from there.
Andrew Norville entered the University, and I immediately isolated himself from the people I knew in my childhood. I wanted to slough off the detritus of my childhood, a task made easier due to the distance I'd always had with my friends and family. While I was very competent in all of my introductory classes, I quickly diverted myself from the path my parents intended. They compelled me to enroll under the school of law as a barrister, where I'd be a potent tool in the family's intrigues and business endeavors. Swerving from the life they'd planned for me was not only a pleasure, but my own necessary rebellion. I found my passion not in the dull histories of noble courts, but in the exploration of the world denied to me in my youth. I studied history and geography with the zeal of a crusading paladin, as I finally realized what my passion in life was. I was a hawk loosed from the falconer's hand, never to return to whence it came.
Randall Ashport began university right after a growth spurt, as though all of puberty caught up with me one year. I was tall, lanky, and gangly, like a crooked fencepost. Despite my attempts to grow a beard, I never managed much more than a bit of peach-fuzz, including a thin goatee beneath my lips. Frod called me "Peaches" one day half-jokingly, referring to my thin facial hair, and the nickname stuck. It was annoying at first, but my friends continued in spite of (or perhaps because of) my protestations. When the lecturers started using that nickname, I embraced it. I did well in all of my classes, and I became a victim of my own success.
Andrew Norville graduated with flying colors, and I immediately began traveling. While I wanted to desperately see the lands beyond the Holy Kingdom of Adelos, planning each expedition took time and money. I visited the lands south of Terminas, right after the last major fighting ended. I traveled on Amaranthi caravans, learning dialects unknown to the wider world. I wanted to see the distant lands of Xianjing to test my mastery of the language, but the sheer peril of the journey caused the patron to pull the funding. When my colleague Stannard, died at sea trying to recreate Marco Trielo's voyage, I shelved those plans of exploring that far-flung continent. It is a real pity, since I still recall Alan Ritter's thesis on the possible foreign origin of recent inventions. It would have been nice to find conclusive evidence proving or disproving his statements. However, my home continent had its own share of unsolved mysteries, and those had to suffice in the meantime.
Peaches maintained his stellar academic performance, even when he began skipping classes. It started off innocently enough, when Frod and me decided to sleep in. We did the same two days later, and my professor asked if I was sick. That was not the first time I technically lied, but it became easier in the weeks that followed. It was only once I decided to flaunt my alchemical knowledge that the real trouble began. I showed him how to enhance the smoking buds with a little mix of mine, getting us relaxed for progressively longer periods. A smart man would've stopped there, but I thought myself too smart for my own good.
Andrew Norville felt the years go on, only to be dragged back into contact with people he did not care for. He nominally stayed in contact with his family, but they demanded he produce an heir. I begrudgingly accepted a political marriage with another family, a well-to-do member of the Newkirk Observatory. She was Shanna Heartily, and she was not an unattractive woman by any means. We were both childless, more intrigued by our work than each other, and interacted with less care than an archeologist handing priceless relics. In that way, we were perhaps soulmates in the purist sense of the term, but we only shared a bed only when relatives or false friends visited. She did come up with the genius idea of donating parts of our respective family fortunes to fund worthy, but poor students lacking the wealth to attend. It was the closest we ever decided to get to heirs. Each scholarship came with a term of service in our family businesses and research, so our relatives could not complain too much. We were providing them with far more worthy employees than mere breeding could provide. Time passed on, and I wore the decades well for a man of my age. I stayed out of politics as best I could, having had my fill of family drama. I even managed an occasional excursion now and then, which turned up delightful surprises like the steaks from Brown's Butchery in Strova. Little did I know that my work would drag me back into it.
It was due to one of the scholarships established by Norville that Peaches managed to attend the Unviersity. It was due to my own carelessness that I lost it. As we tried progressively more potent substances, my grades plummeted. Coming to lectures became a rare thing, and when I came, I was often drunk, high, or worse. Two girls we'd known from class, Tari and Dana, began to accompany us. They were always guarded around us, despite Frod's obnoxious, unceasing attempts to impress them. They cared more for our drugs than our company. Our quartet experimented with new substances each week, the bulk of which I made for them. I put a damper on certain addictive substances, though, like shudder. Vlad's training still gnawing at me, and I found my own depression growing deeper. Each semester, I slipped further into depression, as I felt I betrayed both Vlad and Professor Boyle. Both vouched for me to attend, and here I was, pissing my chance away. In retrospect, I totally deserved what came next. My friends didn't.
Andrew Norvile found students like Peaches before, gave each a chance to attend remedials or drop his classes. My life since I reached tenure was remarkedly easier of my younger years. I regaled students with stories of my travels, but I steadfastly encouraged them to go on their own adventures. Traveling was not without peril, like the loss of a University researcher and his grad students in the dreaded Corpse Wood, but I believed the benefit outweighed the cost. There were some exceptions, like volatile Terminas and corrupt Strova, but overall, seeing more of the world helped put things in perspective. Even those unable to financially or physical travel benefited from reading about the world. Professor Boyle of the chemistry department relocated to Terminas and sent senior University faculty a letter of her journey, I read it expecting a travelogue. I was unprepared for the alarming implications of the research she was involved with, and I set about trying to replicate it to the best of my abilities. I poured through our international books with my polyglot skills, hoping to find some clue of similar phenomena. When I did, I felt an excitement I'd lacked for decades. I set about commissioning a test draught from a local apothecary, eager to test the effects.
When Professor Navid addressed Peaches after class, I was terrified at what would be coming. I kept forgetting his name, but it was something foreign like Nevara or Navara. He always let us call him Professor Navid or just Navid, so it never came up that much. When I came to class after a week of drug-fueled lethargy, he let me he was worried about my performance. Under the terms of the scholarship, I'd be liable to be expelled, or worse. At first, I got angry. Other faculty weren't as tactful as Navid was about handling the issue, and he offered me an alternative. The semester was ending, so it was too late to bump my grade through classwork. He said if I could perform field research, I'd be off the hook. Less formally, he mentioned Tari, Dana, and Frod were under similar circumstances. Therefore, we had one chance to make this right. Predictably, I blew it.
Andrew Norville commissioned a chemical with curious properties. As spurious as the tales of sorcerers were, I'd seen my share of strangeness. When Boyle's letter detailed a supposed method of mental reprogramming using star-moss, my curiosity was the only reason the reprinted letter didn't fly across the room. A colleague gave it to me in close confidence, with a dourness of the grim-faced Holy Knights that slogged through the muddy Terminas swamps. Given the lack of a follow-up letter, I approached the problem my own way. I looked up traditional Amaranthi and international folk remedies in their original language, to see if other cultures knew of similar phenomena, or its treatment. It was a Kharsi text, acquired by a knight and sent to the University Library for archiving, that showed a possible connection. There was a chemical that a shaman sore could help dispel enchantment magic, such as those used by mythic fey, and even enhance reasoning, although causing temporary muscle weakness. I am still somewhat ashamed to say I tried the star-moss myself, so I could have a control to test against. The man I visited, Vlad Ashport, thankfully did not ask too many questions about the rare reagents I specified. Something told me he was well aware of what was truly going on.
Peaches became more desperate as the deadline crept closer. I thought of the class on mythic monsters and magic, and I read that Knights of the White Star were deployed in Strova. Immediately, I thought that the chapter leader was using superstition to cement his own power. A traveler brought a copy of the local Strovan Gazette, containing an article that seemed to confirm much of those rumors going on. Our project involved finding naturalistic explanations of supernatural phenomena. I credit rereading one of Professor Boyle's old books, where she demonstrated a reported ghost was merely a trick by local smugglers. I asked Navid what we would do if we found something truly inexplicable. He answered only with a grin. "Then you will pass the remainder of your studies without incident." That was enough to get us embarking on a course we'd soon regret.
Andrew Norville ordered five batches of the star-moss and the potential antidote, but only three of them where delivered. When I pressed Ashport about them, I saw his mood changed to exceptionally foul. He claimed he'd been robbed, and that completing the original order would take more time. I reluctantly gave him a month, which he deemed more than sufficient. However, from the way he stormed out of the room, I assumed some horrible personal drama was afoot. He'd always been so relaxed, so whatever happened must have hurt him deeply. I know that feeling well, as I'd been their several times in my own life's nadirs. I performed my last self-experiment with the star-moss, and I sent it to him later that day.
Peaches knew Navid would've never approved of such rash, reckless actions. I was a desperate man, and my once-eager brain succumbed to blind panic. The things I did ruined the trust Vlad, my surrogate father, put in me over the years. When I heard about Professor Norville's order, I caught a glimpse of his translations and notes. I didn't understand most of it, but I understood the idea of a cognitive enhancement, a substance able to boost the intellect, although this one had a particular side effect of short-term muscle fatigue. When he came into Ashport Apothecary, I knew exactly what he was making. I didn't know the strange powder he wanted mixed in with the original formula, and I assumed it was something that would negate the side efforts. An impulse caused me to snatch it one night, since I hoped it would give me an edge on completing the assignment. Over the next week, I smuggled out increasing amounts of the stuff. I promised to make it up to Vlad, as I explained in a note I left him. From what I heard, he didn't take it well.
I left home well prepared, or so I thought. I was tall and lean, like a crooked tree. I wore a green tunic with brown leather pants, topped with a light brown leather coat and pack with enough space for my chemistry set, rations, my stolen admixture, and other supplies. I hadn't shaved in a while, and I looked every bit like my nickname. The newest addition to my outfit was something Frod talked us into. As we'd be going in the Corpse Wood on the way to Strova, there were reports of animal attacks, brigands, and stranger sightings. Since we were going through it, Dana suggested we investigate. A local gang, the Wild Dogs, recently suffered some setbacks, so former members grew desperate and left to form bands of highwaymen. Since animal attacks and supernatural sightings would be perfect cover for such a gang, Dana insisted we take weapons.
Tari wasn't a fan of the idea at first, but the hardware Frod recovered for us was enough to make her change her mind. Frod knew someone at the Arsenal, who arranged for some old surplus to go missing. Tari took a repeating crossbow with a well-worn prod, Frod took a well-made composite bow with pulleys like ship's ringing, Dana took a musket that looked like it would explode at any moment, and I took a copper-barreled dragon pistol, the smaller cousin of the blunderbuss. We passed out survival knives, flint and steel, torches, and other supplies, but we didn't know we were getting into. I even was reckless enough to start smoking in a new way: using the emptied flintlock pistol to get high. It's around then I started losing myself in Professor Andrew Norville's memories. Oh, how I'd thought I'd hit rock bottom. It was around this point the thoughts of self-harm started, but the thought of what Vlad would have to deal with kept me from going through with it.
We were desperate, but we weren't dumb enough to wander into the woods. We booked passage on an Amaranthi caravan, which would hug the coast to avoid the major checkpoints. The blockade was still a work in progress, so we hoped to be in and out before it was up. After all, the last thing any of us wanted was to be stranded in Strova. To us, that was a fate worse than being expelled.
The caravan driver, a woman we knew only as Vasi, kept us moving at a brisk pace. Those on foot kept up with a surprising celerity, marching with the cadence of a well-disciplined military regiment. I was amazed at the alacrity of that caravan of the motley colored wagons, and I tried not to think too much. They'd drop us off in the northern portion of the Corpse Wood, then cycle back down the coast. We'd get off before then. With any luck, we'd be able to restock supplies at the local mining town of Harker's Mill, get into Strova for a bit, and then back through the Corpse Wood when the blockade went up. Like other things in my life, that was not to be.
One evening, the comforting routine of caravan marching songs was interrupted by the sighting of another caravan. They'd come along the Bathory Coast, and they relayed that the blockade was going up faster than anticipated. Several orders of Holy Knights were being sent in as reinforcements, and not even the Outriders, the local volunteer force of forest rangers, knew that much. Another Amaranthi caravan, a troupe of circus performances, was unable to leave before the curtain came down. Thus, both caravan leaders decided to turn around and return from whence they came.
That night, the Amaranthi had a brief celebration. I could understand the words in the songs, likely due to Professor Norville's influence, but I hid that fact from my companions. As much as I trusted them, I didn't trust myself. I wondered, if in different circumstances, our band of lay-abouts would have been star students. We could've helped, instead of hindered each other when we needed it. They indulged in drinking that night, while I remembered Vlad's sage advice on moderation. If there ever was a time I'd need it, it was now.
I saw two others with the caravan that were clearly not Amaranthi. A pale-skinned Kendrosi man sat across from a woman whose ethnicity I'd never seen before, but I immediately pegged as that of Xianjing. The man was dressed in green robes, with a plague doctor's mask hanging around his neck. He had a strange, multi-barreled pistol with Xianjing pictographs on the grip, but they were too far away. The woman had a gray hooded cloak, the build of a trained warrior, and a strange foreign longsword by her side. They stared long into each other's eyes, as they warmed their hands by the fire. They didn't know I heard them, much less understood them, thanks to Professor Norville.
"The Wild Dogs are finished here, save a few stray bands," the woman said. "Honestly, I never thought I'd live see the end of this."
"Me neither, but I'm pleasantly surprised," the man said. "I'm hoping your testimony's enough for Professor Halstrom, and maybe this to help."
He pulled out a long bag, containing a peculiar blade. It was an onyx-handled broken blade, of a similar style to the woman's.
"And if not?"
"Then I'll find a new field of study. Newkirk is a university town, after all," he said. "Come, let's head back in. It's getting cold out here."
The two kissed, held hands, and headed back to a distant wagon. As he walked away, I sensed something about him. He was probably Doctor Alan Ritter, whom Norville sat on the thesis committee of. I sensed a respect for him, even if there were a few disagreements. As they vanished inside, so too did the thoughts. I had enough problems on my mind to worry about someone else's life. That night, I made up my mind to solve them.
Strova was clearly out of the picture, as far as I was concerned. Frod was fixated on sticking to our original plan, despite it being ill-conceived to begin with. Tari and Dana immediately saw the merit in my changed idea, since it would be a while before the blockade would completely close off the Corpse Wood. Given the awful nature of the forest, I doubted even all the Holy Knights in the Kingdom could pull it off. Even though we only skirted the edge, I could feel the wrongness of the place making my skin crawl. We'd have to go in, although I feared what we'd find. Even if there were no truly supernatural forces, desperate bandits and wild animals would be more than enough. We'd packed the bare essentials in camping supplies, and the Corpse Wood was far more dangerous than camping near the edge of town. I didn't feel like smoking or drinking that night, but I prepared my mental elixir. I'd need to be at the top of my game tomorrow.
The following day, the Amaranthi offered to give us some supplies we'd forgotten, and Frod was thickheaded enough to refuse them at first. I checked the map they'd provided us, and I decided on a simple itinerary. We'd circle down the north road and write a report on anything we found. I wondered if I couldn't have just asked Dr. Ritter if he knew of any good leads, but I didn't want to drag anyone else in the heap of rubble my life collapsed into.
The others complained as we started walking, but I was adamant about making progress while we had daylight. Even though it was getting close to afternoon, the Corpse Wood was as dark as dusk. Frod started complaining at the back of the line, which the rest of us tried to ignore. We trudged along that muddy path, which was drawn as a proper road on the map. The lack of wagon tracks was disconcerting, showing how little the road was traveled.
I found myself regularly checking the writhing shadows alongside the road, as though we were walking into an ambush like the story of the Abacus Army. I wondered if any brigands tried operating here, but I reasoned the lack of regular traffic would make their existence a hardscrabble one. As much as I would have wanted to turn back, I found something that finally aroused my curiosity.
A set of animal tracks crossed the path, but they weren't like anything the Professor or I had seen before. I looked again, and my borrowed memories helped once more. They looked reptilian, unlike any other creature I'd seen before. During his (or my) childhood in the country, we came to recognize how rain and wind could distort animal tracks. This didn't seem like that at all. Whatever made these was a large reptile, like the dragons of legend. Thinking of my assignment, I began to take notes and measurements. I'm sure Navid would've been interested in whatever I found. Discovering an unknown species would certainly satisfy our field project.
I'd just about concluded when I heard Frod shouting. I saw gray shapes flit through the undergrowth, and I immediately drew my pistol. My aim was easily the worst of the bunch, so I waited until I could get a clear shot. Frod launched an arrow at one of them, grazing it along the shoulder. They charged out of the woods so fast, I barely had the chance to see them.
Our attackers were the mangiest wolves we'd ever seen. They looked like feral, rabid dogs more than the feared, respected predators that adorned noble seals. One sank its jaws into Frod's thigh as he dropped his bow with a shriek. Two other wolves immediately took him down, and dragged him along the ground. Dana fired her musket, only blasting bark off a nearby tree. Tari unleashed a flurry of bolts at one of the wolves, and I shot where I thought the nearest one was. I saw at least one of the wolves go down, and the others scattered.
I reloaded as I approached Frod, whose golden hair was now stained red. His scalp was partially turn off, and his thigh was hemorrhaging blood. His frantic heart was pumping blood through turn arteries, and it would have been enough to send him into shock. However, his eyes were still opened, as though in disbelief of his own mortality. The two girls backed up, covering their eyes. Froddy's neck was torn open, well beyond even the Professor's knowledge to save. He shot his hand out at me, and it went limp a second later.
It was then the three of us took off in terror, sprinting down the road like spooked deer. If the wolves still pursued, we'd be even easier prey. We didn't even have the courage to bury our friend, or even ignobly take his supplies. We'd left perfectly good supplies and gear to rot, and we only had a few days of rations on us. We cowardly ran down that road, hoping we'd never see Froddy's body again. If only we knew was in store for us.
Even we could not run forever, as much as I would have wished otherwise. We set up camp for the night without a word, and the girls asked me if I wanted anything to drink. Instead, I took the drugs and alcohol, and I hurled them into the woods with a vengeance. They both stared at me with shocked looks, but I felt vindicated. The Corpse Wood was a horror hotbed, of which we were now sleeping in. The trees were as thick as an arboreal cathedral, so we could barely see the sky. For some reason, it was comforting instead of scary. All those stars reminded me as bad as we'd messed up, there would always be something to light our path back.
That night, we kept quiet. We half-whispered our few words, as though the forest itself was listening. I cleared my head and starting thinking on how the Professor would handle such a situation. It didn't change the reality of my longtime friend and accomplice being dead. I blamed myself, and I put the pistol into my mouth. I pulled the trigger, but thankfully, it was unloaded. I tasted only the foul, sulfuric tang of black powder, and I immediately spat it out. However, a memory came roaring back, and I smiled. Tomorrow was a new day, and I wasn't dead yet.
I kept watch into the dawn, which was when our next surprise came. An arrow whistled through the air, impaling itself on a nearby tree. If it was just a bit faster, it would've ended up in my spine. I smelled our attackers before I saw them. Two men, each smelling of perspiration and worse, trained bows on us. They had long, hirsute beards, as though they'd not shaven in a long time. From the worn insignias on their clothing, I guessed they were Wild Dogs remnants, desperate enough to steal our own meager supplies from us. The Professor had dealt with such situations before, and I remembered his solution when I'd loaded my pistol.
Given his family association with weapons design, the Professor was familiar with a few exotic black powder loads. I fired at the brigands, eager to observe the effects. If it failed, I'd be dead anyway. A gout of fire erupted from the barrel, spraying flame and buckshot into the two robbers. Both of them were hit, and hurriedly tried to stamp out their burning garments. I struggled to reload, but Tari and Dana were quick to finish them off. Normally, the infected wounds would've killed them in time, but we needed more immediate results. A moment after stillness returned to the air, we all threw up after the adrenaline rush.
The bandits' bodies had provisions to offer, so we left their bodies to rot where they laid. I wanted to keep moving, in case any more unwanted guests were following us. Tari and Dana were eager to extricate themselves from that mess, and I didn't blame them. The two had a background traveling together, which I didn't care to inquire about. I was glad to have some extra eyes and ears in the Corpse Wood, especially ones more sensible than Frod was.
Trudging down that muddle road felt almost routine by the end of the second day. I suppose we underestimated the true amount of danger we were in, but that's how you think of it when you're in a place like that. The Professor grew up sheltered from that sort of thing, but I didn't. My mind wandered as the dusk settled, and I mused over the experiences of two very separate lives. The Professor went hunting and hiking in the woods during his upbringing, so he felt comfortable in the wilderness. I'd rarely gone in, and the recent experiences weren't helping. I kept my thoughts to myself as night fell. The girls did the same, and I was in no mood to force an awkward, needless conversation. I never wanted to think about this excursion again, if I survived.
The sun sank lower, and I felt the tension rise higher. We'd just doused the campfire, so only a few embers were left. Distant branches crashed in the canopy, as though something was coming closer. We reached for our weapon, but we saw nothing in the dim, grim pines surrounding our camp like an encroaching phalanx. We heard the swooping of large wings, and the cracking of branches directly above us. I heard the report of the musket, and the launch of crossbow bolts, but I didn't want to waste rare ammunition on a shadow. I turned to see the shape that crashed through the branches.
I screamed when I saw Frod again, his face staring out from that cooling fire-pit. We all recoiled in terror as we realized it wasn't his entire body. His torso had large chunks missing from it, with ragged wounds where some large, toothy maul had bit into his flesh. Half-devoured, decomposing entrails hung from his torn sides like a den of worms. His head was similarly crushed to a pulp, as if to add insult to injury. His lower left leg was missing, and his arms terminated in stumps of shattered bone. There were marks on his stomach, as if where massive talons had grabbed him. The Professor's intuition suggested this was no accident. Whatever was stalking us knew who we were, where we were camping, and was intelligent enough to drop our friend's corpse on our camp. It was mocking us.
I would've run screaming into the woods if Dana didn't restrain me. Nevertheless, we broke camp and slept farther into the woods than I would've liked. The woods were coming for us, even the Professor. I mercifully passed my watch without incident, but none of us got any sleep. There was something foul, something wrong, about all we'd encountered so far. The Corpse Wood was where nature twisted into an unnatural perversion. Not even the Professor knew the precise cause, but it was not something directly explicable by empiricism. Something else was at work here, and I felt we'd met one of the least of its agents. There we were, toyed with by some man-eating flying beast.
On the plus side, we would've immediately passed in Navid was here. This was an unknown creature, and it cleared desired to stay that way. I checked the map, and I sighed in relief. We were almost out, and it would take us just another day to get out at our current rate. With that newfound vigor, we pressed on faster than we did before. Our rations were almost out, so it was good we left as soon as possible. We were encroaching on something's territory, something that wasn't human. It was best to humble ourselves and leave. I hoped it would not return, praying to Adelos, every patron saint I could think of, and any divinity the Professor knew as well.
That night, my prayers were answered. I thought it was too good to be true, until the bandits returned. This time, they did not ambush us with bows. They came at us like ravenous animals, running on all fours. They smelled of charnel and rot, with canine fangs protruding from their bloody mouths and each limb terminating in clawed digits. Whatever transformation they underwent was not natural by any stretch of the term. Droplets of blood streamed from still-open wounds, and their singed flesh had not healed. Their ghoulish, animalistic appearance was not enough to frighten us, much to my companions' credit. Dana's musket put another hole in one of them, and Tari turned the other one into a pin cushion. If they were still alive, they would've been dead. Given the circumstances, I was not so sure they were.
My own shot burnt them bad, but one kept coming. Like the Wild Dog symbol emblazoned on his ragged, bloody shirt, he bounded like a feral hound. He sank his teeth into Tari's hand, only for Dana to blast it at point blank range. Bits of its skull splattered onto the murky ground, and I shot it once more for good luck. We were too afraid to think too much on what we'd encountered. As we gathered our things, I scanned the trees for any signs of the adversary I was most instinctually afraid of. I wondered if those things were driven or sent at us, since I could not put anything past our airborne adversary. Off in the distance, I thought I heard something that sounded like laughter or the expiration of some great beast, but I fooled myself into thinking it was just the trees.
It was not a concern I hoped to deal with for much longer, the proximity to our goal. The Professor's quick calculations suggested we'd there by late afternoon, hopefully before the sun set once more. The horrors in the Corpse Wood seemed emboldened by the dark, and became especially active at night. I helped bandage Tari's wound as best I could, but she still needed Dana to support her. The wound still festered, but all was not bad. I saw fresh hoof prints cutting across the path, and I hoped it was an Outrider on patrol. I did not wish to linger, but I took it as we were soon to be safe. Oh, how wrong I was.
Tari's wound got worse, faster than my treatment attempts. I find myself uttering medical and physiological terms that the Professor was familiar with, rather than my own informal demeanor. I barely noticed, but my frustration at the lack of healing caused my mind to race to unrelated topics. With two lifetimes and childhoods to reflect upon, there was voluminous material indeed. As I covered Tari's wound in a makeshift bandage of torn cloth, I remembered the governess showing me the proper way to use a napkin. I would've laughed if I wasn't scared out of my mind. We pressed on, eager to get to that accursed forest's exit.
It was just before midday when Tari turned. I remember it like it was yesterday, despite all my attempts to forget it. Dana screamed. I turned around, reaching for my pistol. Flecks of blood sprayed across the ground. Dana's neck ran deep sanguine, and her bottle-lensed glasses flew off her wide, terrified eyes. Where Tari's nails once were, spiked talons sprouted. Tari's mouth ran red with crimson rivulets, and her sunken eyes settled on me. I knew I was next on the menu, and a word crawled out of the Professor's extensive lexicon: ghoul.
For some reason, that realization sent me reeling like I'd been hit with a blacksmith's hammer. The apparent return and cannibalistic urges of the bandits were laid clear to me. The ghoulish condition was brought about by some disease, which Tari contracted from the bandits. Perhaps the bandits were infected, or perhaps that flying beast or other denizens of this perverse wood reanimated them as feral undead. My airborne adversary must've thought I was unworthy of directly finishing off, since he thought the ghouls, and their accursed disease, would be more than sufficient. That realization would've chilled me as an academic, had my street-honed survival instincts not left me.
The pistol discharged into Tari's fanged maul that instant. Her dead, sullen eyes flashed once more in abject terror as hellfire roared from the barrel, into her mouth. I did not wait to see the results, since she was already too close for comfort. I ran as fast as my legs carried me, as thunder rolled in the grim skies above. I ignored the fatigue and ache, as my frail body ached like a man at least twice my age. I felt rain on my face, and I wasn't sure if it was perspiration or precipitation that soaked my coat. If I survived this mess, the first thing I'd do was take a long bath. Behind me, a horde of imagined terrors and fresh memories compelled me onward.
My mad sprint ended when my wrecked, pain-wracked body collapsed onto the roadside. I thought I saw something approaching, so I pulled myself into the bulbous, gnarled roots of a nearby tree. I struggled to reload my pistol, occasionally checking for signs of movement. The branches rustled softly above me. The ground settled gently beneath me. A cool breeze caressed my cheek. My heart began to race once more, but in a fit of curious daring, I peeked at the road.
I saw a convoy of soldiers marching down the road, with large wagons in tow behind oxen and horses. I did not recognize their armor through the foliage, but it was enough to know there were fellow humans alive in the woods. I thought of running out and approaching them with my arms raised, but one of my childhoods protested vehemently against the idea. For once, I wasn't sure which one it was, but both claimed credit for it. Such warriors would undoubtedly be suspicious of anyone emerging from the brush, especially if they were trying to blockade Strova. At best, I'd be a madman, and at worst, an outlaw to be culled.
I waited until they passed, and then I moved back towards the road. I walked in the brush beside the road, in case anyone else stumbled on me. I didn't want to run headfirst into another column of troops, so I moved with a dexterity that astounded both urchin and academic in me. I heard my stomach rumble, and I realized I'd exhausted my rations. However, that did not concern me, because I knew I'd be out of the woods soon. I began to think of those rich Strovan steaks, and I found my mouth watering like a salivating dog.
The woods around me felt like a different world. The canopy no longer strangled the sky. The sky no longer loomed like an executioner's axe. The refreshing rain washed over me, giving me a shower when I needed it the most. I heard birds in the distance, and not the foul carrion birds of my nightmares. I knew I'd made it out of the Corpse Wood, or at least reached its outskirts. With a great sigh of relaxation, I saw the fork in the road before me. There were fresh prints from the marching soldiers and their wagons, turning towards Strova. I took the branch that headed south, towards Westlake, and then, home.
It was towards evening when a traveling merchant found me wandering beside the road, humming to myself. I was eager for any sane, living company, and he was gracious enough to offer me a clean change of clothes. When we camped that night, I ate well, but found myself folding the napkin the way Mrs. Jules instructed me to do all those years ago. I bathed thoroughly, and I wondered what I'd say to my adoptive father and my professors. I still probably failed that class.
As I mused about my potential failing out of school, I realized something. Professor Andrew Norville was still alive, as far as I knew. I would tell him my story, and if Doctor Ritter and his companion truly were heading to Newkirk, they could at least verify part of it. I'd even tested out new types of munitions and concoctions in the process, so I at least could argue on the merits of certain types of experimentation. My mind-boosting drugs took their physical toll, but perhaps future experiments could compensate for the drawbacks. The star-moss effects, in particular, would be of great interest to him. I even considered enrolling in other areas, like becoming a chirurgeon, a pharmacist, an apothecary like Vlad, or a historian like Ashport. After all, I had enough knowledge to compare directly.
When I returned to Newkirk, I did not get the reception I expected. I went to the apothecary shop, and Vlad slapped me, and then embraced me. I carefully explained all that happened, and he updated me on what transpired in our absence. Navid went on leave, having to attend to personal matters in Strova. The thought of him scarfing down Brown's Strovan steaks made me snicker, but Vlad's dour face returned me to reality.
The families of Frod, Tari, Dana, and his own relatives petitioned the authorities and university to search for us. They were about to give up, until Ritter returned and shared his story. They were considering a formal expedition into the Corpse Wood, when I returned. The university agreed to give me a reprieve, so that I could recover and retake my classes the following semester. That was more than enough to relieve me of my worries. There was one peculiar request I gave, which was accepted last.
I met Professor Andrew Norville for dinner. In person, he changed little from the man in my memories. He had a long, hawkish nose, with brown eyebrows perched above. His gray eyes searched me like a laboratory specimen under the microscope, as he undoubtedly was recognizing certain traits. I folded my napkin the way that was drilled into both of us by Mrs. Jules, and I prepared to explain exactly how I knew.