You Are Lost
You are lost.
It is the deepest part of winter, and a chill fog clings to the trees of the Haunted Woods. The branches hang with sparkling icicles and frozen leaves, which makes everything glitter eerily in the dull night air. A troupe of Psimice skitters to and fro, nibbling on nuts and seeking out bright berries that glint from the low bushes, while Lightmites drift to and fro among the trees. Normally, this would be a wonderful, heart-warming sight, but your bones are chilled with fear that you might never find your way through this deep wood, and all you can think of is a warm bed in your comfortable Neohome.
"WHO ARE YOU?!"
A voice close to your left ear screeches harshly, and you jump several inches into the air and try to stumble away from it. Turning, you see a gangling Zombie Draik scowling at you. He has misted, shrouded eyes, an oversized top hat perched precariously on his head, and incredibly lined, scarred skin. There is a Halloween Angelpuss on its shoulder, peering at you with shining eyes.
"Come to steal my secrets, have you?! Nosy, nasty thing... you won't find much in there without me!"
You realise that he has emerged from a cave entrance that opens into the earth. He is staring at you, unblinking, his claws clenched around a dirty sack.
"What are you doing here then, if not thieving my things? Eh?" He pauses to consider. "Or are you lost?"
He nods, apparently to himself, his eyes unfocused. Then, his expression changes entirely, and he gives you a wide smile, showing far too many teeth.
"Lost, is it? Lost, eh! Come, come then... come inside... give you some tea... give you shelter... then... then we'll see!"
He stretches out his claw to you, his face eager and bright. You hesitate, but the creature seems so earnest that you reluctantly nod and move to take his claw. At the last second, he withdraws it, and turns to the cave.
"My name is Tryste, and this" - he strokes the Angelpuss with one claw - "is Bitey. I am... well... and you are very privileged - no one has been able to tell of my dwelling in years..."
He beckons to you. You take a deep breath, and follow him into the darkness.
Inside, it is warm, and the atmosphere seems to press closely around you. Despite the heat, Tryste shivers.
"Don't mind the dark!" he barks at you suddenly. "I keep it this way all the time. Helps me think. Nothing to worry about in here... well... there wasn't last time I looked..."
You follow his pallid form forward through the cavern. Now and again he twists his head around to look at you, and his eyes are like pale green lamps in the inky blackness.
After what seems like an age, Tryste stops, and turns fully to regard you carefully.
"We must be careful, now. We are getting very deep. I am going to make a light."
You hear a click, and a soft hiss, and then the harsh stink of sulphur is burning in your nose. A spark has caught - at first, it seems to float in mid-air, then Tryste's face is thrown into relief behind the flame. He has lit a glowing lantern filled with yellow-blue flame, held in a bracket set into the rock.
For the first time, you can take a good look around you. In this strange place, Tryste looks at once at home, and even more odd. His eyes seem huger, and his mottled skin seems to give off a ghostly phosphorescence.
He tilts his head, a smile - a little more like a sneer, if truth be told - playing across his face, then turns back to the path.
"There are many things in the deep places of the world. Unknowable things. Stay close."
The walls of the tunnel are flecked with bright colour, with veins of silver, blue and turquoise spiralling through the carved rock. The lantern's flame is reflected on all sides, and makes the stone seem to shimmer and ripple like water.
You realise, as you progress deeper into the tunnel, that the air seems to be becoming warmer, not colder as you might expect. You reach out a hand to touch the stone, and find it warm beneath your fingers, like a living thing...
"Don't dawdle!" snaps Tryste's voice, cracking like a whip. You jump, and see Tryste's narrowed eyes not far from your own, gleaming. He is still clutching the dirty sack, and you can hear its contents clinking. He looks down at it almost lovingly stroking his claws over the fabric, then looks back at you.
"Come then... much more to see..."
Grinning widely, Tryste leads you through the dark once more, into a shadowy chamber lit with flickering candles. There is a handsome desk against one wall, littered with papers, and he moves towards it. Rather than sitting at the chair, he curls up beneath the desk and tips the contents of his sack out onto the rocky floor.
Bitey the Angelpuss springs inside the chamber and up to sit on top of the desk, hanging its little head over the edge and regarding its master with wide, yellowish eyes. It is mewling softly, as if trying to get Tryste's attention. The Draik stubbornly ignores it. After a few long moments, the little creature leaps from the desk with an indignant snorting sound and stalks off.
Meanwhile, Tryste has found what he was searching for among the tattered rags and broken stone that had been contained in the sack. He hooks with his teeth a slim chain and pulls it out slowly. It is a carved amulet set with a glittering crimson stone. He holds the pendant close to his misted eye, and a gleam of desperate longing reflects back at him. The red surface of the jewel seems to pulse, the colours rippling within it.
For several long minutes, it seems as if Tryste has forgotten you are there. Then, with a shake of the head, Tryste seems to clear his mind. He returns the jewel gently to the sack and pushes it safe beneath the desk, and rises once more. There is a slight frown on his lined face, and he is moving more slowly now, as if drained.
"What more is there to show you? You can wander, if you wish. I keep many things down here. Watch your step, and be careful of Bitey. It has... quite an appetite for such a little Angelpuss."
His manner seems quite different now - it is like you are talking to an entirely different creature. He seems attentive - almost friendly - and his eyes are glowing warmly.
He turns away to light a few more candles. As he does so, he hums softly to himself, swaying from side to side in apparent good spirits. For the first time, you notice a heavy-looking chain attached to the Draik's ankle. It is not tethered to anything, but ends with a solid weight. You can see where the cuff has scraped against the Draik's scales, leaving painful-looking gouges. Before you can ask about it, Tryste has turned back to you with a grin on his face.
"Thirsty, I expect? So sorry. So silly of me. Just a minute."
He bustles off, and returns mere moments later holding a smoking cup. He hands it to you, and the heat from it almost burns your fingers. You catch the faint smell of something savoury and pleasant. Rosemary.
You sip the tea tentatively, under the watchful, staring eyes of the Draik. He is still smiling his slightly manic smile.
"Do explore. I will be here. And I can lead you out, once you are finished."
There are various tunnels leading away from the study, and Tryste waves a claw at them airily, before turning away from you to sit at his desk, taking up a quill and bending close over a stack of parchment.
The first tunnel you take seems well-lit at first, but quickly narrows and darkens so you are squeezing through passageways in the pitch darkness, groping blindly forward. It twists and turns several times and you completely lose your bearings, before you stumble out into an open space. You stand stock still, unable to tell what is in this room – if anything at all.
A sudden noise behind you makes you jump. A match strikes and Tryste hisses at you, hurrying forward and carelessly pushing you aside, holding a lantern he has just lit.
"Be careful! Lots of precious things here... but... but... well, if you like, you can look..."
There is a deep frown on his face and his eyes are narrow, as he stands aside to let you see. You have no idea if he was following you all the time, or if he knows a short cut, but this does not dwell on your mind for long. Your attention is caught by the tall shelf which takes up most of the wall of the room you are in. Upon it lie innumerable tiny glass bottles, each illuminated from within, causing the light in the room to shift and swim.
"Just watch yourself," he mutters sullenly, leaving the lantern for you and retreating down the corridor, "and don't touch anything! I don't want your fingermarks all over my things."
As you move closer, you realise with a jolt of horror that each of the bottles contains a shrunken creature trapped within, submerged in translucent fluid, and staring wide eyes out through the glass. You see Noils and Pawkeets, Babaas and Kadoaties, even something that looks suspiciously like an Usul... no, it can't be. Surely not?
Unable to stand it, you turn and head quickly back the way you came.
The second path you take is smooth and much more pleasant than the first. It is lit with shifting colours that seem to ripple along the stone on either side. There is also a subtle mix of smells emanating from the depths of the mass of caves, and you follow it with increasing eagerness – it seems to be a mixture of jasmine, hot fresh coffee, cool sea air and all manner of other delicious, calming things.
The passage widens steadily before opening out into a round chamber lit by an eerie, flickering green light. As you move towards the source of the glow, you see a bench heaving under the weight of a great mass of glass tubing and vials filled with variously coloured bubbling substances. You realise now that you can still detect that delectable scent you followed down the tunnel, but it is overpowered by an acrid, salty bitterness, mingled with overpowering sweetness.
On a low shelf there are rows and rows of curious looking bottles. Stepping a little closer, you see that each one is filled with a potion, elixir or sludgy-looking substance. Whether they are of his own invention or he has simply discovered and catalogued them, you are not sure, but Tryste has labelled each one in immaculate handwriting.
You pick up the first – a tightly corked jar filled with a khaki green mixture, and read the label.
'SWAMP SLIME: Causes nausea, hair loss and a chance of melting into sludge. Do not ingest.'
You hastily put down the jar and pick up the next. This one is a bright blue liquid which bubbles merrily, and the bottle feels very cool to your touch.
'ELIXIR OF THE PIRATE: May induce delusions of grandeur, blindness in one eye and a funny way of talking. Use with caution.'
The next is a tiny little bottle beautifully engraved, filled entirely with what seems to be cerise smoke.
'POTION OF VAPOURS: Deliciously scented, when inhaled will produce euphoria and strong fits of the giggles. Dilute before drinking.'
You peruse the shelf closely, finding poisons, antidotes, elixirs and medicines of all kinds, carefully bottled and labelled. As you lean over to examine one of the vials further back, you realise that one of your feet has gotten wet, and look down to find you have stepped right into a puddle of a mysteriously goopy substance on the floor. Disgusted, you leap around the room shaking your entire body frantically to get the stuff off. After all that you just read, you are quite sure you do not want to have some unidentified whatever it is seeping into your skin.
When you have calmed down, you turn and return the way you came. This is starting to get a bit too weird. You would rather like to get out of here, back to your warm, comfortable bed and a nice cup of Borovan to settle your nerves.
On the way back, the tunnels seem narrower and the light more menacing. You stumble a few times, once or twice actually falling to your knees on the rough stone. The dark and the humidity must be getting to you – you are feeling a little light-headed. It's definitely time to leave.
Eventually, you manage to find your way back to the study. Tryste is still fully focused on the parchment in front of him, and does not notice that you have returned until you give a small cough. He looks around at you, and you rather feel that his eyes have lost their former friendliness. He has pulled on a thick cloak, the hood raised so that his face is shadowed and dark. He is staring at you now with an unreadable expression.
"Finished, yes? Find anything interesting? Learn anything to your benefit?"
He rises without waiting for an answer, and you notice suddenly that the amulet he had been examining earlier is now hung around his neck. It is glowing with an otherworldly light. Your eyes are drawn to the creepy red light, and you can hear Tryste's hissing whisper floating as if from a great distance.
"I found it in the ruins of Faerieland, after it fell... it was calling to me, speaking to me in the night, begging me to find it. Weeks and weeks I searched, and now, it is mine..."
He is coming closer. You find yourself staring into his deep, fathomless eyes now. They are gleaming hungrily.
"It still whispers to me, and I have formed my little lair to trick and trap... to lure unsuspecting creatures here so the amulet might be appeased..."
He clutches the chain and raises it so you can see it close. Deep within the jewel, you see with a terrible jolt of revulsion that there are figures trapped inside, dim and ghostly, their eyes shining with fear and loneliness.
Your head spins, and you feel yourself sinking to the floor, suddenly dizzy.
"The tea..." you murmur, and the Draik chuckles blackly.
"Yes, foolish creature. You drank so deep, and now... and now..."
Lying flat on your back, you hear the clanking, scraping sound of the chain attached to Tryste's ankle. The Draik sees your glance flicker towards it, and he shudders.
"To remind me... of my imprisonment, my servitude. I wear it willingly, gladly!"
The chamber rings with his crazed laughter. The scene seems to flicker oddly, and your vision is blurring, going dark...
The last thing you see is the swirling red of the jewel, hanging above you, and your eyes close of their own accord. Tryste's giggles echo through your brain, and you can do nothing but resign yourself to your final fate, whatever it may be.