There are consequences to every choice.
There is sacrifice in every promise.
There are toasters in the cat.
The mind remembers what it will; all memories are fabricated on the spot regardless. This story, too, is only as true as the memories that hold it.
0: Forward and on
Coraline awoke face-down in the dirt. Not sure where she was, what was real, or even, for that matter, what had happened, she rolled over and peered into the early-dawn light.
It looked like winter probably looked in a much more moderate climate - namely in pretty much anywhere on her world further south than where she was from. But this wasn't her world, was it? If it were, why would she be further south?
Even so, the dreary light looked dreadfully normal, and the pain in her head and general whingeing of her sore muscles seemed pretty insistent that there was absolutely nothing supernatural going on here - probably just a particularly bad hangover or something? Not that she drank, but a bad bowl of noodles could do much the same. Or so she imagined. She didn't drink, after all.
And the whole conversation, the whole night and day before that she remembered, why, that was probably just a dream...
Probably? So where the hell was she, then?
She sat up and looked around more carefully. She was sitting by a small creek, almost frozen over, with leafless trees lining the banks, and brown grass and curled leaves all around. A light frost glittered on the edges. Her staff - the staff Sherandris had given her - was a couple metres away in some dead-looking shrubs, so clearly that much wasn't a dream. And dead-looking... the proliferation of twiggage suggested that it was definitely not actually dead, just waiting. So yes. Winter. Probably.
So it was real. This wasn't her world. She didn't know what it was, or if it even had winters, but supposing it did, this would probably be it. Right? Maybe. Sure. Why not.
She got up, despite the protestations of her stiff limbs, and picked up the staff. Here she was, then, wherever here was.
There didn't appear to be any signs of civilisation in any direction, though the trees made it somewhat more ambiguous. She pushed through the shrubbery to get a better look away from the creek - it appeared to be only grassland beyond, not even cultivated fields, just hills and grass and the bones of trees, and some low mountains in the far distance. Same in the other direction? Seemed to be.
But there was, of course, a very good chance she was missing something obvious. Where was a ranger when she needed one? Or a sandwich?
She checked her bag, but all it had for food was half a box of crackers she'd grabbed for breakfast the previous morning. She pulled out a handful anyway and stuffed the box back into the abyss of her bag. Breakfast of lunatics.
The sun was higher. The frost was gone. Twiggage rustled in the breeze. There was nothing here but loneliness, and it seemed there would continue to be nothing so long as she remained.
"You're out of your mind, girl," she said to herself. She had wound up on this world, alone in the wilderness with nothing but her wits, a staff, and a bag full of random stuff, no idea where this was, how it was, or really anything at all about it, simply... because of a promise? She shook her head bemusedly.
Lost it or not, however, it was time to move. So she followed the creek, because as much as the videogames she had grown up on tended not to adhere to this, in real life water always leads somewhere.
River and road
Days passed and turned into weeks.
She encountered the usual problems, of course - what to eat, where to sleep, how to boil the water so it was actually safe to drink, but she used what she had and it worked. She tested the staff and it blasted a hole in a nearby tree, smoldering on the edges. She tested it again and achieved far more precise results - good for hunting, it seemed, but also good for starting fires. Her metal water bottle worked as a makeshift pot. Her coat was thick, probably more than needed here, and though she heard murmurs from time to time, it seemed she was indeed alone. Just the birds and the gophers. Some deer on the prairie. A huge winged creature soaring overhead, neither dinosaur nor bird.
She was out of crackers. It would be all gopher meat from there; though she realised the danger in that, she also realised she knew nothing of the local plantlife, and thus nothing of what would be safe to eat or otherwise.
She considered a deer, but had no idea what she would have done with it all.
The landscape changed. Hills gave way to valleys, plains gave way to forests. The days were long and the nights were cold, and though she sometimes heard shrieks in the distance, they could have been anything. Valley cats. Mountain cats. Not cats. Who knows. Doesn't matter. Snow fell. Winds blew. At night she stirred the fire. Sparks rose and joined the stars when they came out, but she recognised none, so she gave the constellations names of her own. The Blob. Mr. Scruffy. Thing That Looks Almost Like The Pleiades But Isn't. She wished she were home, but at the same time she was glad she wasn't.
Come day, she walked. Down, down, down, out of the highlands, out to the sea. Or that was the direction, at least. There was always a sea if you went down far enough.
The creek became a river. Tributaries flowed in, little and big, and the crossings took time, slowing her progress between nowhere and nowhere in particular. The hills around had risen into sheer cliffs; the valley was a gorge. Birds sang like voices in her head. Shielded from the wind, it was much warmer down here, and the plants much lusher, though many were still without leaves, merely mossed twiggage reaching for the clouds. Some of it almost looked familiar. Almost.
And then she found the road, a high bridge crossing her river like a figure out of legend, an elegant contraption of stone and more stone rising out of and over the trees.
She climbed to its start, up the hill and through the shrubbery, pulling on vines like guide ropes. It was a road, and it seemed maintained, but not like any she had seen in years. Cobbled, brick foundation with stones on a layer of sand, she found, and put the cobble back. Like the roads in ancient Rome, perhaps? And narrow. Road and bridge might suffer a single vehicle, but poorly. A bug perhaps would have managed, but with nothing on either side. But this wasn't a world of vehicles. Even now, she knew it. This road was made for walking - and possibly for riding. But riding what? And what...
And then she realised. This was another planet in another universe - he had been very clear on this. Roads, of course, were probably a fairly universal concept, but what of the builders? What would they be? Would there even be a way to communicate, any common ground at all? And what would they make of her, in her jeans and t-shirt and big fluffy coat?
But as ever, there was nothing for it but to walk. Pick a direction and move forward. Follow the road and find out, see where her story went. There was always a story, even if it was just pictures.
So she headed north, across the bridge, away from the path of the sun, not because north seemed like the best direction to go, but simply because of the bridge. A bridge like that clamoured to be crossed.
The road cut around hills, up and out of the gorge, back to the plains, though these were different from before. Rockier. Hills and ridges. Smoke in the distance, but it could have been anything. Stay on the road. The road was safer. She had what she needed right there; in the cold, water lasts, and saved meat lasts longer.
Stone piles marked offshoots, smaller paths heading away into the grass. They didn't look recently travelled, but finally she followed one for the hell of it, breaking through patches of old snow untouched but for rabbits and game.
It led to a husk of a village, years gone, or perhaps weeks, burned out and empty. Stone walls jostled with charred logs, crumbling into rubble. She touched one of the more intact buildings and it toppled around her.
Old bones poked from the snow. In the centre of the village, in the square, or perhaps what they would have called the green, dessicated bodies were piled around a stone obelisk. There were no scorch marks here, and no scavengers had touched them, but the elements had worn the bodies down to bone, skeletons mummified in their clothes.
They looked human, the dead.
It was unclear why or how, but the air felt strange. It was wrong, here, in this place, and she knew it. Where buildings once shielded the green from the wind, it should now tear through their ruins, but everything was still and silent, simply her and the dead and the obelisk, unmarked. There was nothing to be done. She turned back to the road. Even if she should find something left to scavenge, she would not have trusted it, not from this place.
At the outskirts the wind hit her suddenly, tearing with abandon and screaming in her ears, screaming, screaming. She turned her head against it and it almost stole her beanie, but at least the screaming stopped.
What had happened? What was wrong with the place? Was it wrong with the world? But there were no answers.
She strayed no more from the road.
The road led on. Up again, towards mountains and trees, ever rockier. There was nobody else around, nobody else travelling the path but ghosts. They drifted out of long shadows and dissipated in the light as she passed, uncertain in their very presence. Carrion birds circled above, cutting crisply through the icy air. Day and night. On and on. The cold bit in the night. Water ran low, but dirty snow boiled and separated same as river water.
Shapes flickered and danced in the fire, babbling to themselves, as she watched and drifted into sleep, into Nightmare.
In the foothills, the trees closed around like an enveloping cloak, roaring whispers in the pines, and it felt like home, recalling winters in the mountains, skiing, sleighing, laughing in the twilight. Always surrounded by the roaring whisper. It was the sound of the forest, the life in the cold.
But there was another sound, too, further on. Voices? She walked faster, rounded the bend, and yes, others, other people, the first in... she didn't even know. Weeks? Months? How long had it been? But it didn't matter; in the now these figures were here. Wrapped in thick cloaks, two huddled around a third lying against a rock. Something had gone amiss, and the worry in their voices and movements was obvious, though she couldn't make out the words over the whispers of the trees.
Then one noticed her and stood.
"Can you help?" he said. "Adaerivyn has fallen." His features were pointed, his eyes precise. There was no age to the face, but there was fear. The situation stank of it, and she didn't know why.
"What's wrong? What happened?" Coraline asked as she approached and got a better look at the fallen man, Adaerivyn. He was pale, sweating, even in the cold. The other, a woman, looked up with concern.
"He was hit by an arrow when we tried to escape. Neaya managed to close the wound, but without a healer to tend to him properly, it's gone bad and just gotten worse."
"Where was this?" she asked as the woman pulled back layers of clothing to show Coraline the wound, even without waiting for any indication if she could help. It was a small, stitched hole under the collarbone, clearly infected, with strange colours and pus oozing from the stitches, but though Coraline knew nothing of medicine, the despair in the air pushed her to at least try something. She looked through her bag. Perhaps... yes. A tube of antiseptic ointment? Probably a terrible idea at this point, but what had he got to lose?
Behind her, the man sighed hopelessly. "Kalona. Eight days back. Utter madness up there. The scourge has come, and it is as though the world has fallen. Survivors ratted down, and those who try to escape shot, but it's all for nothing. The taken are taken. The rest can only flee."
Coraline looked back as she unscrewed the cap. "Taken?" she asked, trying to keep them talking. She fumbled in the process and dropped the cap on the cobbles.
He just shook his head.
She rubbed a small amount of ointment onto her fingers in the vague hope that maybe it would serve as a substitute for washing, then pulled out the stitches with a few choice tugs. The hole came open surprisingly easily and a rush of foul liquid oozed down the man's chest, and a foul stench quickly followed. The woman turned away. The other knelt again beside them.
She gave the reddened skin next to the hole a quick jab. The man moaned as a smaller amount of pus came out.
"Just for the record," she said, stuffing a glob of ointment into the hole, "I have no idea if this will actually help. But it... might?" The one that had greeted her gave her a worried look, but she wiped her hands and went back into her bag. Did she have needles? Yes, and even curved ones, at that. Perfect. She threaded one with some floss, and reclosed the wound.
The woman was kneading his other shoulder with worry. "We will pray," she said.
"Thank you," the other said, handing Coraline the cap. "Not many would stop and help elves."
Coraline half-shrugged. She hadn't even realised they were elves, though that wouldn't have affected much regardless. "I hope it works out," she said. "So about Kalona, what, exactly...?"
The elf looked away, unable to meet her eyes. "You're headed that way, then?"
"You'll only find death. The madness we fled will have died, for the scourge leaves nothing but ashes in its wake, but whatever brought you this way will leave you wanting in the days to get there."
She wanted to ask what it was, this 'scourge', but despite all the questions brimming on her mind, somehow it felt like a bad idea to voice any. These were things she should just know, things everyone knew, something that would immediately mark her as an outsider if she didn't, and... that would be bad. She didn't know why, just that it would be. "Maybe," she said instead.
"Don't go," the woman said. "A kind heart does not bear to witness."
"I've got to," Coraline said, moving away. She'd come this far, and when the only other direction was back the way she had come, the idea of turning back just didn't sit right. And something about elves. "Good luck to you," she said over her shoulder.
Eight days to Kalona. A name. A destination. Something. Finally. The whispers of the pines ushered her on, long and low, rising and falling. Despite the obvious alarm and poor state of the elves and the apparent horrors ahead, Coraline felt her excitement rising. It was starting.
What was, though?
Kalona was a cliché. The size of shopping centre, perhaps, or an apartment complex, but it was the entire town, walled about in stone and eerily silent, an oasis of silence cradled amidst the trees. Not even cawing disturbed the whispers.
And there should have been cawing. The heavy gate was ajar, but before it were bodies: three of them, collapsed in the road, discoloured corpses chilled but not quite frozen, arrows protruding from their backs. No sign of the shooters on the walls. No sign why the gate would still be open, if it were so imperative that nobody get out. But that would had been almost two weeks ago now. Now there was only silence.
As she approached, Coraline gripped her staff. She felt strangely vulnerable. This wasn't like the games, where one hit never kills and the player character could always be sure of a quick way out in case of danger - be it a powerful spell or simply running away. She had been good at running away.
This was much more interesting, she realised, skirting around the nearest body.
She ducked through the partially open gate and tried to take in everything at once, staff at the ready. It didn't work; instead she nearly hit herself on the head with the staff and got her foot stuck in an upturned wicker basket she'd failed to spot on the ground. She stopped and tried again.
There wasn't anyone about. No movement amidst the houses and workshops, though something creaked somewhere. Within the walls, the streets widened considerably, but they were strewn with objects that didn't make much sense, out of context and unrecognisable. A pile of sheets? Half a cart? A kitchen chair, a shovel, some rocks, a doll. A foot.
She heard a creak again, but nothing of the view had changed. Above her a flag flapped half-heartedly. She pulled the basket off her own foot.
The buildings were empty, at least of people. Not knowing what to look for, she searched for books, but found none. No people, no books, not even any bodies within the walls. Nothing besides the foot that had been lying so lonesomely in the street, in that graveyard of misplaced objects and empty houses. In some, it appeared as though the occupants had tried to pack up and leave, with shelves bare and tables cleared quickly, while others... in others, it was as though the occupants had simply vanished without warning. Fires burned down to ash, tables set, food out, tools in their places, houses only of ghosts.
There was little of use, but she pocketed a few things nonetheless - a bar of soap, some clean clothes (apparently just made; very little else was entirely clean here), a spoon, a bristle comb, a strip of what might have been aluminium but probably wasn't, a set of small pots, some dried food - and stared longingly at some of the other commodities that had once been employed by the people who had lived here not so long ago. How she missed pillows, and beds, and blankets. And heating! And a roof. And proper food. And people. Cats. Books. Comfy chairs. Moomin. Home.
All these homes, but nobody here would ever come back.
Leaving one of the last ones, she was startled by a creak again behind her, much louder, and then realised it was the door closing behind her, simply reminding the world that it was still there. It was still a door. It still functioned.
Again she looked around. Still nothing. Detritus and nothing. Dead objects littering the cobblestones, buildings gaping at the wind. Shutters hanging open, but doors shut tight, guarding the possessions of the dead. Because they were all dead. That much was clear, even if the bodies themselves were simply... missing.
Then movement caught her eye. Something around the corner over there. She moved towards it and a sheet billowed into view, carried by the wind. It caught on the ground.
And then, rounding the corner proper, she saw him. He had been an elf, but now he was simply mad, crazed, a hunched figure not aware of his surroundings, scrabbling at the ground as though chasing something that was not there, all the while jerking to the voices that existed only in his own head.
She could almost hear them as she watched. She had an idea or two exactly what that might be like, to completely lose it, but she also knew there was more to this. He hadn't just 'lost it'; he was no simple schizophrenic. Those often managed to function just fine even without medication, at least until they stabbed the neighbour's kid, screaming about the alien infestation and how he was an agent and had to be purged. Or at least that was what had happened down the road. But this was... different. This was a madness so complete it devoured everything, and yet he was still alive.
Surely normally they just died at that point?
She wished he would speak. She wished she could hear the Mad Words, to really hear them for what they were, but instead the elf said nothing, simply jerked and darted around, picking up objects and tossing them aside, moving from place to place as though oblivious of what were real and what were not.
He hadn't noticed her. She moved closer, but pointed the staff at him all the same.
"Hello?" she called to him. "Can you hear me?"
And he just stopped. It was as though the world had stopped with him, until he turned, slowly, oh so slowly, and stared at her with gleaming, hungry black eyes. He said nothing, simply stared, and she knew there was nothing left for him. He was dead. Whoever he was or had been was gone, replaced only by the hunger.
She took a step backwards, but somehow kept the staff level.
Coraline panicked and ducked, firing blindly and hoping, hoping, hoping a shot would actually hit, before finally just covering her head and rolling aside in the sudden silence.
The silence persisted. Finally she looked up, then around, and found the elf-creature dead less than a metre away, claw-like hands still reaching toward where she'd been standing. One of her shots had clipped the side of its head, enough to kill it outright.
She let out a long breath and got up shakily. Was this it, then? Or were there others, too? Ruined survivors bereft of all self, scrounging in the rubble? Was this what the 'scourge' was?
She checked the body and found nothing but rags and dirt. No indication of who he had been. No real indication of anything at all, just questions without answers. She felt a shiver go down her body, and looked back to the rest of the town. This wasn't happening.
This was happening.
She had already checked most of the buildings. There was nothing here. Nothing at all. Just death, and a solitary building remaining, higher than the others, with another one of those obelisks behind it. Whatever it was, it had been important - governance, a centre of commerce, perhaps a temple - but now it just looked empty same as everything else.
For whatever reason, it made her nervous - more than she already was.
She pulled the door open quickly, propping it with a foot and shining staff and torch into the gloom in one decisive motion.