There are three things Makame knows:
First, the earth inside Basedt is sure of itself. Men can live and die and find a little peace there, for the walls are blessed by Her grace Herself. Inside them, time is normal, life is good.
Second, the city is surrounded horizon to horizon by black wood. Outside the walls of Basedt, men lose themselves. Clergies consecrate pieces of land, and then disappear. Time is not so kind, and one must take care to know where they are, lest the woods swallow them whole.
Last, there lives a beast out there that will kill him if it finds him.
Everything else is white noise; distractions and uncertainties. It is only under constant vigilance that he has lived long enough to get where he is. There is, after all, no room for human failings in the woods.
The Woods is a standalone short story (~2k words) logging the expeditions of a wayward monk into a predatory woods.
I might compare The Woods to a pilot episode for Basedt. It is not accurate of its current iteration, and isn’t really a part of Moribund, but at its core the characters and themes are the same. Much like RANSOM I began work on it back in 2017, and although it’s quite rough, it remains a fond little yarn for me. It is my hope that you enjoy it, too.
“Asanttu,” says a little acolyte,
“Respectfully. Where, exactly, are we going?”
Makame is fond of her. She is as short as he, tawny, thickly built, and not so intimidated by him that she does what he says without knowing why. He pauses underneath a low-hanging conifer bough and lets her catch up.
“West, a little North, there is an old shrine out in a clearing, there. It would be a valuable outpost if we could reclaim it.”
Her eyes are bright. “What was it for?”
He shrugs. It's much older than he is. As old as the city itself, perhaps.
The trek is easy, even safe. Makame has learned that most of the woods are remarkably mundane. Proximity to the city helps, but there are yet certain areas that are simply wild and immutable.
The shrine is nothing to look at. The thick trunk of a dead pine is wrapped loosely with rope, and a tiny stone lamp sits at its base. He lights it. It's a worn thing, and can only carry magic nowadays.
The acolyte covers her mouth while she sizes it up. “Creepy.”
Makame wipes off the lantern. “What is your name?”
Makame nods once, lays down his staff, and gets to work. He throws Quyon a length of rope and directs her to three other pines, equally massive, circling the shrine. She catches it and applies herself to them in silence.
The priest's stomach twists itself in knots. All consecration is a risk. The woods are loathe to bow easily, and large gains are always riddled with accidents.
He looks over his shoulder at Quyon. She is alert, deliberating with a fussy branch. A small gain in a silent neck of the woods is the safest way to teach consecration.
Makame finishes his prayers at the base of the shrine and blesses the roped-off trees in turn. He opens his eyes. It is much the same.
Quyon does a fine job of keeping her enthusiasm under wraps. Makame picks up his staff, takes in the shrine one last time, and turns to her.
He hesitates. Encouragement has never come easy to him. “Let's go home,” He says, instead.
“Yeah,” Quyon says, a little breathlessly.
They return safely. Makame rubs his neck, that night, wracked with more soreness than a short walk through the woods deserves. It is only in the morning, with the aches of stress abating, that he looks back out over the horizon from the city's black walls.
He chokes. He can feel feel the forest's eyes on him.
Makame does not leave the city for some time. In part not to incur the wrath of the woods, but also because he is needed back home, and is too valuable to wander recklessly.
He does not think much of the 'numbers' rule. The more people that leave the city, the more attention they attract, and the fewer that come back. Two and three are the safest numbers, in his experience. This time, he has come into the woods alone.
Makame is at the shrine again. Consecration is a messy process, and one that must be heavily surveillanced. It has been weeks since the site was last checked on.
He had expected the three pines to be alive and well. They are. The breath stills in his throat. Their ropes have been torn up and thrown off, while the pine in the center, long dead, is sending up black shoots from its roots. The lamp is dark.
His lips part. His better sense writhes in his stomach, but he circles the dormant pine in morbid wonder. In time, the black wood takes back what is taken from it, but it has always worn a placid mask. Never has he seen it so openly defy him.
He does not come out to the woods for another few days. There is something startling and worrisome about that, he lies awake thinking one night. He's measuring time by how long it has been since he last left Basedt.
He is not at the shrine, this time. A small length away, surveying a tract of land that has been successfully maintained for many years. His colleagues had called on his expertise to size up their little experiment.
“Asanttu,” says one priest, off-hand, between the laughter and banter of the survey team “Do you think we could live in the woods, some day?”
He is back at the shrine.
To be fair, it was not his idea. His fellow priests suggested they drop in on Quyon's little pet project, as they called it. Alarmed, Makame volunteered to check it himself. The fewer people in that place, the better.
So he is back. It is the same-- the shoots a little taller, the trees a little wider-- but the same. He is thankful for that, but not very.
He circles the sleeping tree again, just to make sure. It's an ancient path, he's walking, around and around.
He stops mid-heel. His eyes trace the grooves in the earth. It circles, yes, but here is another, older path, opposite the one to the city. Had he not noticed that before? It is subtle, overgrown with young saplings and carpeted with pine needles. He watches it for some time.
He follows it.
His body aches for him to go home. His skull is pounding much the same. Home. Home. Home.
His breath shakes. I have come back from the woods more than any man. He has never been this far before. The beast takes and takes but I yet live. Despite himself, the rhythm of his steps draws him deeper, deeper still.
He can feel the eyes of the forest on every inch of him. It must know him very well, by now. He wonders, briefly, what it thinks of him, before he remembers that those are the stray thoughts of heretics. Had it always been this way? His head is fogging over with pain.
The air is thicker, this far out. The earth has become steep, and he is beginning to climb the ribs of the westernmost mountains, he thinks. His dry mouth tastes water on the wind, and he follows the path deeper still.
It breaks at another clearing, the pines parted by bare rock. The grass between them is dry and bone-white. At the center of the heath and stone lies a small spring.
Any doubt that he is being watched evaporates completely. Makame is hyper-aware of the minutiae of his movements. His breath is still as death in his lungs, and his footfalls delicate, reverent. His eyes fix on the spring water, black as the sky above, as he draws closer, closer still.
He kneels at the edge of the pool. He can not see his reflection in it; the water is very hard to look at, like a blot on his vision. Without thinking, he reaches out and breaches the surface.
Makame's breath hitches. The water is black. Not a reflection of the sky, but black as pitch. He recoils, and scrubs his hands furiously. They do not stain.
He struggles to right himself and backs away, completely sobered. Whatever delusion had brought him here has now been banished by the debase waters.
He flees the spring.
He does not leave Basedt for months.
His fellow faithful are beside themselves with anxiety on his behalf. It is Asanttu, alone, that has nothing to fear from the outside world. In their eyes, he has all but conquered it.
Makame doesn't know how to feel about that. He says to them seasons change, and that seems to stay their fears.
Quyon tells him, one night, that she traveled back to visit the shrine again on her own. He does not scold her. She never mentions the shrine again.
Just before fall, he has his resolve back.
He is at the shrine. It is consecrated-- not his doing, but that of a few of his colleagues, once they had learned it had fallen into such disrepair.
He and Quyon are there, and although they do not speak much, they are both at ease. She smiles a lot more readily, nowadays, and is quite popular among her peer acolytes. Makame watches her and the other priests chatter noisily, and lets the sound fill out the woods' silence.
Between the dead trees, Makame's eyes catch the old spring path.
The autumn air is thick as he stands at the mouth of the path. Many weeks he has spent agonizing at the foot of his bed, exhaustively examining his motives through prayer and meditation. It is time he made his peace with the woods.
He adjusts the rope spooled around his arm. He will consecrate the spring.
The woods are heavy, this time of year, bowing both to the threat of winter and the campaigns of men. The path is easier the second time around. His head is clear, now, and even the air lets up.
At dusk, the water is no less dark. Makame breathes deep and circles the spring, around and around, weaving the rope between the boughs of the pines as he partitions it from the rest of the woods.
It is not physically hard work, but it is taxing over the long term, and Makame knows the metaphysical cost will leave him nearly helpless. He lets the rope slack in his calloused hands as he takes a break. He has all night.
“What are you doing?”
Makame freezes. He becomes very conscious of the distance between his fists and the athame at his hip-- his staff lies a few feet away, on a stone beside the spring. He swallows and turns.
There is a stranger before him. They are obscured by the night, but Makame can make out their silhouette. They are much taller than he, and much taller than most men, he thinks. He does not like it. His hand trembles slightly on the grip of his knife.
“Who,” Makame maintains a level voice, “Are you?”
The stranger says nothing, and strides closer, gliding with ease over grasses knee-high on Makame.
The moon sheds only delicate strands of light through the trees, but it is enough. Makame first picks out the stranger's eyes-- black, soft-- set high on a long and gentle face. It is framed by the veil over their mouth, and a veritable hood of hair even longer than his own. There's a sylvan beauty about them that Makame is sure is a sick mockery of man.
He wavers. “You are not from Basedt.”
Makame's eyes sting. The beast has come for him at last.
It watches apathetically as he balks, backing into the trunk of a pine and struggling to form words. “The beast,” He mouths. “The beast.”
It cranes its neck at him. “Is that what you call me?”
Makame says nothing. He makes himself very small against the tree, struggling not to weep. He thought, often, that his death would be nothing sacrosanct, and that it would come quietly and without fanfare. He made little of the grave beast, and was certain that his life spent outside of Basedt meant it thought nothing of him in return. Is this what he is supposed to think about before he dies? Makame shuts his eyes.
He keeps them shut as the beast's talons trace his shoulder, and as it says “Oh...” and nothing else. He keeps them shut as he feels its hands on him and his weight shifts from the earth to its arms. He keeps them shut as he scarcely dares to breathe, pressed against the beast's skin, smelling sweetly of rain.
He opens them blearily in a medical bay cot at Basedt. It is warm, and he is alive.
“Hey,” Quyon says, at his left, somewhere. “Hey, hey. Don't you know you're not supposed to fall asleep in the woods?”