The Carrion Grove

Excerpt: “Stories from the End of the World”, 2018

As you know, just west of the edge of the Furrows there lies a massive forest that stretches out to the far horizon. Even if you were able to to somehow climb to the very tallest peak of that eviscerating range of crags and look out to where THE SUN would once have set, you’d see nothing but an orderly sea of red and yellow treetops, shimmering and rippling like water against a westerly wind. Brave that position long enough, stare too deeply at those entrancing movements, and one will soon notice a scent in the air – it doesn’t matter how far away you are from the forest, you’ll smell it – something sweet, something floral, but not quite. Whatever it is, that something on the wind is said to arouse a primordial yearning. You’re compelled to seek it out – it feels like hunger, almost.

To actually reach the forest, one would be forced to navigate through the labyrinthine depths of the Puddle Caves. Upon resurfacing, a traveler always, inevitably, deeply inhales the aboveground air with a sense of relief. And of course, that it when it strikes at your senses once more – that faint, urging scent. Here now, so close to the edge of the forest itself, one might not be all that surprised that the faint aroma that seems to emanate from the forest is a touch stronger now. It’s sweeter, somehow, nearly mouthwatering, but with an underlying element that reminds one of… no, you can’t quite place it, and without thinking, you step forward.

Both the ground and air are heavy with damp and the leaves that have blown away from the forest proper to form its most extreme borders are simply the freshest layer upon innumerable rotten strata of their fallen brethren, forming the thick mounds of dark soil here at the end of the western world. But it’s clear that the forest did not simply grow naturally here – ostensibly the youngest trees at the edge of the wood grow from the mounds of piled soil, are at least as tall as an average traveler, and are arranged in elegant rows. Indeed, not far from the western mouth of the Puddle Caves is a standing stone of a dark, gold-veined rock that clearly is a stranger in these lands – a sign made by the hands of those who came here before and which form a hard border – from this point westward, the remnants of a civilized world relinquishes its claim, and the forest’s domain begins.  And yet, you are drawn forward, and you enter the forest proper.

Above, the pale limbs of the crooked branches creak with the wind, their forms heavily laden with glistening leaves. Within the span of a dozen paces, the canopy overhead replaces the bloodstained sky with a deeper hue of crimson and gold. But still, the smell doesn’t come from the leaves, above or beneath – it lingers on the breeze that cuts through the natural smell of what woodland should smell like, as though from a foreign source only just missed, only just out of reach, yet always just ahead. Distantly, the ruins of a hamlet might be gleaned, rotted away and overtaken by the growth of densely-packed yet neatly organized white-wooded trees; there, a pile of overturned, shattered stone, barely visible beneath an era of fallen leaves and entangling roots. But those are the only hints of a life apart from the pale, twisting flora, and they do not draw the attention of those who enter the forest.

There are no natural directions to aid you in your progress through this forest, but the scent leads you forward. How long have you been walking? Eventually, always, there is a large glade where it seems as though the scent emanates the strongest – and the trees that dot the meadow here seem slightly different. The pale color of the slightly molting bark seems softer, almost velvety to the touch, and the branching limbs of the tree are weighed down heavily by leaves and fruit of such deeply red color that it almost looks black. Here, inhaling deeply, the sweet aroma overwhelms the senses and the metallic sweetness of the fruit triggers an ancient response. One of the trees seems to sigh as it places a fruit into your outstretched hands, sending another wave of animal desire into your wracked nervous system. When you bring the warm fruit  to your mouth, you bite deeply and hungrily, teeth raking against the hard pit. Thick juice dribbles down your chin and throat, but it doesn’t slake the aching thirst you suddenly realize has been driving you. Without knowing why, you pop the remains of the mangled pit into your mouth, sucking it clean before finally, inevitably, swallowing it. The tree sighs again, relieving itself of more fruit as you continue to repeat the process, fingers and mouth deeply stained black with the fruit of the juice until, finally…

An old story goes that a member of the Order of the Gray was said to have erected a series of stone barriers around a strange outcropping of trees long, long ago. Perhaps something tainted was banished there, but whose power continues to flow into the land. Or perhaps the Order simply were forced to put up a defense against something even they failed to destroy. Regardless, it is said that you could observe the forest’s edge safely if you stayed behind the stone barrier and smeared the blood of a Saint under your nose. If you waited long enough, you’d see the forest move – the ground would churn, and thick, black mud, dark as pitch, would ooze from the depths of that orderly grove, eventually slowing its crawl and drying to form yet another mound of dark soil, neatly arranged in a neat row.

Word has it from the Fomorian Librarium that you could approach the mound armed with a spade made of silver to dig through the thickly-packed mud in order to find a bundle of bone-like pits the size of a babe’s fist. When dried, they give off a sickly sweet smell of rotted meat that attracts carrion and scavengers of many a variety – as well as the reason why the forest is called the Carrion Grove.


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