He scrambled across the sand for the music box. His fingers were red and cut and broken but he held it tightly and felt the sting of his nerves. It was one of those moments where a man stops listening to his senses. The tide rolled in and out in slow, woeful strokes and he could see nothing past the stagnant thick fog that obscured his surroundings. He had no semblance of his environment. He was lost.
A terrible sadness gripped him but he could not remember the source. He stood from the sands and looked down at himself; black riding boots and a red jacket. At his hip a heavy burnished cavalry sword and a pistol.
A dragoon, he said aloud.
I am a dragoon.
For some time he held the music box in the crook of his arm and searched the beach for his rifle. There was nothing, no shells or the caress of a ship. No plank from which he could have ridden in upon. His uniform not even moist save what sea water touched the soles of his boots. All his memories were scrambled and faceless and any utterance of his name was replaced by the stab of knives into his skull. But he knew for certain that he was no coward. He progressed into the fog and abandoned the lonely shores.
The geography of the place was strange and alien. Rocks pointed upward placed there in an order of lunacy or a ritualistic pattern. Natural stairs led him from the shore to a forest. He was helpless against the fog and every step became cautious. It snaked through the trees like a cold breath. The trees themselves were black and skeletal and looming with phalange branches that teased the top of his coiffed hair as though they moved with the wind; but there was no wind. He knew how to move silently and with his sword cut lines in the trunks of the trees to mark his progress and warn him if he found himself moving in circles. The music box was held close and the tip of the sword downward and ready. There were no birds in the forest, which seemed to go on forever, and no cries from other beasts. He felt the sudden sorrow of loneliness, he felt like the only soul in the world.
A barren, lifeless forest. The ground itself a frozen dead plain of withered grass and the sparkling dew which had become frost. There were no leaves, he noticed, but the mere shadowy limbs of branches which had by some means broken from their trunks and littered the space between the endless droves of trees. They were tall but not true oaks only in the texture of the bark. He saw no insects on the face of them or webs between the branches themselves. No vision of nests. The air felt shallow as though the trees were absorbing it for themselves and giving nothing back to the world. Or perhaps the faint tinge of claustrophobia hindered his lungs. It was impossible to tell and any eldritch mechanism that fueled them was unknown to the dragoon. He continued on, a lone traveler through the spines of a dark earth.
The dragoon must have walked for miles before weariness gripped him. He lied beneath one of the trees with the sword beside him and examined first his wounded hand. There were multiple lacerations along his fingers and one on his palm. He tore from the hem of his red jacket strips of cloth to wrap around it. From what he could tell they were defensive injuries as though he were attacked unprepared. His skull compressed as he tried to recall clues or something and, discouraged by the agony, he ceased and merely rested beneath the black tree.
He tried not to close his eyes and looked at the tree across from him. Something hung from one of the branches. It was small and round and as black as the tree itself a kind of black he only saw in the night sky. Could it be some form of fruit, he wondered. The dragoon stood and with the heavy sword hacked down the branch with a few hefty blows. It landed with a thud and he assumed it had a hard shell. As he bent down to pick it up, he found its surface strangely smooth. This reminded him of obsidian.
Turned in his hand, he made out a thin line and put down his weapon and the music box to open the shell. There was no way to get a firm grip so he had to rest it in the crook of his arm like a babe and pull down with his usable hand. It stung for a moment and he felt it start to give way when suddenly it split wide and hissed. Rows of long, jagged fangs revealed inside a fleshy interior like the mouth of a horrible shark. The dragoon yelled and dropped the strange thing. It rolled around on the earth in meek attempts to bite and gnaw at anything nearby. He quickly gathered up the music box and sword.
Fear and disbelief made his spine rigid and his knuckles grew white on the handle of the blade. Defensively the steel of the heavy sword acted as a shield and followed the movements of that abominable shell. The sides of it were peeling back like charred flesh and from puckered, fleshy holes emerged two pairs of arachnid legs. It bared those grinder teeth and advanced on the dragoon quickly. The target was small but it made for his ankles in a straight line. He stabbed the sword forward and pierced its horrible maw. Feebly, the shelled arachnid gnawed at the steel of the blade before finally it gave in and went limp.
He used his boot to dislodge it and cautiously stepped away further into the forest and the fog until the thing was nothing but a black speck upon the ground. His back touched another trunk and he turned to look out into the distance. How far much he go, the dragoon wondered, before he reached the end of this blighted place. As far as he could see nothing existed beyond the dried earth and the multitude of blackened oaks, but something else as well; a miserable realization. Branch after branch ordained with black shells and stirred by his alarm, pointed legs jetted from their sides. A hundred monstrous limbs swiped at no ground as they hung from the trees. The hiss of hundreds whispered through the forest as they yearned to devour everything in their path. The dragoon ran.
His flight through the forest was marred by panic in his heart. He heard it beating loud against his ribcage and he feared that it would crack beneath the terror. As he ran he heard them like a scurrying wave behind him and more were caught in the sight of his peripheral. Those that quit the chase infected the very trees that birthed them with bite marks and devoured them whole in swarms. The sound of those ancient, dark oaks crashed through the fog and any moment he expected to be first consumed by the shadow of the swarm and then the swarm itself. But the dragoon ran. He ran until his muscles were sore and numb and prayed they were sated by the forest itself before they could reach him.
Over shattered logs he leapt like a deer and beneath the hanging claws of vicious trees he dunked. Nimble and frightened. Adrenaline shot through him while behind the flood of nightmares congealing into a mass of devastation for all in its path. All his senses were at their height and every figure was clear as day and every sound so vibrant and alive in his ears. He felt every branch beneath his boot crunch and smelled the moisture in the fog and the sulfurous breath of the swarm.
As soon as his hope was rising that he could outrun them, another obstacle much larger came into view; the face of a cliff like a great stone wall in the forest. He panicked. He searched for another avenue of escape but nothing revealed itself. A choice had to be made. In moments like these weak men crumble and the tide devours but a brave man fights. The dragoon secreted the music box into his jacket and readied to take action. He wedged his foot in a crack between the stones and lifted himself up. The wounded hand screamed with pain down his arm, but he fought through it and with the good hand stabbed the blade of the sword into another crack. He ascended up the face of the cliff. The swarm arrived almost as soon as he began his climb. A black, insect wave crashed into the base of the rocks and he felt them nip at his heels. The dragoon held on and continued to move upward. Every tendon in his body like a yawning rope about to snap. But below awaited hungry mouths and death and he would not die the food of those alien creatures.
At his vantage point he could see them. Apart they were clumsy and aimless like newborns learning how to walk but as a whole they were a plague. What trees remained were half devoured and the rest a ruined landscape of shattered oak bones. They did not give up and he had to keep advances to escape. The dragoon had to let out a bellowing cry for every step sent waves of unending pain into his skull. If he was not careful or did not find an end to this cliff face he would surely pass out from the pain. On he went like a desperate animal until at last sprouted roots from a much larger tree at the top of the cliff. He gripped it with his wounded hand and stabbed the blade of the sword into the ground, hoisting himself up with the last of his strength.
He crawled onto the ground and his labored breaths were almost gasps. The dragoon lied there in silence, the great hiss of the swarm vanished below, obscured by the persistent fog. The music box was removed from the bosom of his jacket and he held it against his chest. Pain dispensed through him. The dragoon blacked out.
When he awoke nothing had changed. He thought perhaps in a brief stint of human weakness that he would wake in a tent or a bedroom or a cell. Anything that would remind him of civilization. Anything that was not this accursed land. He held the music box still and as he rested his tired limbs he examined it and opened it with his thumb. The lid creaked and inside clockwork turned and there was a figure of a sparrow, wings spread, that rose made of crystal and spun on a pedestal. The music that played was haunting; a melodic hymnal that cast from it the images of a widow or the black figures of a funeral. His eyes stung with tears at the very sound and it made his heart weak. His breathing felt futile. He wanted it to stop.
The sparrow danced and reflected his distorted face in its crystal frame. He could see his eyes which were the color of the newborn spring. They were shining from the tears. The song in the box wrapped its notes around his heart and squeezed. His blood turned cold. His skull compressed again. Curtains. He saw curtains that fluttered near a shattered window. Rain poured in and he smelled lilacs.
The sky was black in his mind and loomed with an army of clouds which were bursting with thunder and lightning. The curtains were red but everything else appeared gray like ash.
So long as I get my caravan. Let the world burn.
All be tasting the ground sweat too, we will.
He tried to stop the memories but they weren’t his doing. Searing rods dug between the lines of his brain. The box fell on the earth and he grabbed handfuls of his hair as though to pull the lid off his skull and let air in or the fire out. The curtains, the rain, the storm. He heard glass breaking again and again and again.
A pretty abigail with skin between her fingers. She was our nightingale. The songs she sang grew willows over graves. They would swallow their tongues when the songs ended. The dance upon nothing. They would dance upon the nothing and then they would stop dancing.
The dragoon took the pistol from his belt and as he wept began to load it with gunpowder and an iron ball from a pouch on his belt. He had enough ammunition for three shots. He only needed one. He only wanted it to stop. He only wanted the steel ring of the barrel against his temple. The flint went into the hammer and it was pulled back. Its clockwork sounds rang through the forest. His finger gently brushed over the trigger so tender and unsure so sorrowful and burdened.
Yes, he told himself. To hell with this place.
To hell with everything.
All he could hear was the song in the box. The song in the box, he thought. The song in the box which guided the crystal swan in its dance slow and coaxing. He tasted absinthe on his lips. It’s the song in the box.
Desperately the dragon reached out and slammed his hand on the box to shut the lid and silence the song. He breathed and silence came back to the forest, the pistol unloaded shakily and put into the holster. During the agony of the song he had not noticed that the tree at the edge of the cliff had withered and all the trees around it as well. They dissolved into piles of ash. The ground beneath him became dusty as the frosted grass eroded. The dragoon moved quickly from the spot and put the music box away inside his jacket. Despite what power it held, he could not part with it. Some significance kept it at his side like the bonds between scorned lovers, hateful hearts joined by fate. Once he stepped out of the withering circle he found himself in a similar forest but the trees were much higher, high enough that their tops were concealed by the fog.
He dried his tearful eyes and drew his sword. The wounded hand was brought inward while the other hung low with the blade. He watched the earth and the high parts of the trees for more of the abominable arachnids but none were seen or heard. Thankful and weary of what might replace the horrors, the dragoon continued onward. The sorrow that near drove him to end his life a vanished doubt and his drive to live strengthened. Instinct overcoming all.
It would take more than black magic and fiendish critters to stop him.
Stop him? He thought.
Survival. He had to survive. He had to keep going forward. For every way in there must exist a way out, he hoped. The dragoon thought nothing more of the memories that flashed in his mind. There was only the matter at hand; escaping this black forest as soon as possible. Several hours had pasted but he saw no movement in the gray light that illuminated the place. He wondered how long before night was upon him and he feared what the darkness might bring.