Scott felt like he was rising and falling, screaming and silent, both unable to draw breath and gasping in great, irregular heaves. His eyes snapped open. Above him swirled a bustling, relentless canopy of leaves. Some of them tumbled down towards him from a seemingly impossible height. He could hear running water, like glass shattering without end.
There was another noise—the sound of branches snapping underfoot as somebody approached. He tried to speak, but could only croak.
“Here,” she said. “Drink this.”
Water touched his tongue and his vision sharpened. He found himself staring up into pair of eyes blue enough to make rivals of both the skies and the oceans. She narrowed those too-blue eyes and pursed her lips in consideration. A strand of long, dark hair uncoiled across her face.
Questions floated to the surface of Scott’s mind like dead fish. Where am I? And another, more troubling…
“Who are you?” the girl asked.
Scott could not answer. He closed his eyes and was assailed by the sensation of wind and rain, a maelstrom of wetness and a sudden bolt of pain—there was unbearable sadness buried deep within him. He turned away from it.
The girl watched as he was violently ill. His entire body shook. She placed a hand upon his shoulder and waited a while before she asked: “Are you okay?”
Scott turned away from her and wiped his face with the sleeve of his jacket. He blinked back tears and the forest became clearer. Beside him, a creek bubbled and foamed across a cascade of pebbles worn smooth. Trees rose on both sides of the creek to blot out the sky. Broad beams of sunlight pierced the forest canopy like lances into the belly of a dragon. Wildflowers—pink and orange and purple and blue—clustered together between the roots and amongst the branches of the trees, draping the forest with colourful curtains and heady, intoxicating smells.
Scott shifted so that he was sitting within a beam of sunlight and the warmth made his skin tingle. “I’m okay,” he said and then repeated himself with at least twice as much certainty.
The girl looked doubtful. Her dress was made of crushed red velvet and resembled an evening gown that had been repeatedly dissassembled and put back together; torn and repaired. Patches and pockets covered the dress, and each fold seemed to contain a different object—flasks and flint and other things which Scott assumed to be similarly useful, even if he could not immediately deduce their purpose.
“Can you walk?” she asked and Scott nodded. But when he tried to stand he fell back to the ground and was sick again.
“Everything is… sideways,” he spluttered between gasps. He dug his fingers into the damp floor of the forest, raking them through dead leaves and squirming things and tried to reorient himself.
The girl tugged at the hem of his jeans and revealed his swollen right ankle. She lightly touched her fingertips to the swelling and Scott screamed. Deep in the forest the birds heard the sound as a warning and took flight.
“What are you doing?” Scott said through gritted teeth.
“It’s sprained,” the girl said, then stood and walked away. As she disappeared behind a dense copse of trees Scott suddenly felt very alone in the strange forest and called after her:
“Hey!” he shouted. “Come back!”
With no small effort Scott struggled to his feet and took a few shuffling steps before his ankle gave way and he crumpled to his knees. There he remained, groaning amongst the fallen leaves.
The girl returned a few moments later holding a gnarled—but sturdy—tree branch. She tested the height against him by eye and tossed the branch down onto the leaves. Then she crouched down beside him and removed a bunch of waxy green leaves from one of her many pockets.
She ground the leaves down between two stones. When the leaves began to cling together she added a sprinkle of water from the stream.
“This will help,” she told him as she began applying the green goop to Scott’s ankle. From another pocket she removed a strip of red fabric that had, no doubt, once been part of her dress. She bound Scott’s ankle with it. The salve was already dulling the pain. “At least until we make it back to camp.”
“Thank you,” said Scott. Leaning on the stick he cautiously used it as an aid to rise to his feet. Then, once standing, he said: “Camp? Isn’t there… somewhere else you could take me?”
The girl was staring at him intently now. Curiously. “Somewhere… else?” she said.
Scott felt a multitude of words dance on the tip of his tongue, but each sounded nonsensical. He could not form the explanation that he was looking for. For a few moments he stared into the distance and listened to the birds. “I don’t know,” he admitted at last.
“If you can walk: follow me,” she said. “Tell me if I am going too fast.”
At every step the forest contrived to send Scott to his knees. In some places the trees grew so closely together that their branches entwined to form impenetrable walls. There were also stones and rabbit burrows and exposed tree roots that protruded in devilish shapes that could only have been intended to snag the feet of unwary travellers.
Despite its apparent hostility, Scott could not help but marvel at the way in which the forest unfurled around them as they walked. There were no paths or signs of human habitation. In places the ground was sodden and squelched as they stepped through the thick blanket of leaves. The forest spread out in every direction, plants twisting around and through each other such that none remained untouched by another—all were inexorably locked together by the soil and the vines and the branches.
It formed a symphony composed of unlikely notes of shape and scent: a maddening, overgrown masterpiece. And although he had no memory of how he had come to be here, Scott felt that he had never seen anything so grand.
Orange and red flowers clung to a curtain of hanging vines. Mushrooms clustered between the grooves of the bark on thick-trunked, ancient trees. Small living shadows darted away before they could be seen, seeking refuge amongst the tree hollows. High above, unseen birds shrieked and sang as they flew between the branches.
Scott did not know how long he followed the girl through the forest. It might have been centuries—it felt like two decades at least. And then a voice assailed them, speaking a word at once familiar and yet seemingly out of place:
Scott cowered. The girl glanced back at him and said: “That’s my name.”
The voice emerged from the bushes. A man: tall, pale skinned, impossibly handsome. Black hair grew to his shoulders. His heavy, angular jaw was dark with perpetual stubble. There was an impression of severity about his features and an effortless air of heroism in the way that he stood, wrapped in a burgundy trenchcoat, slightly stooped as though trying to not seem as tall as he was. He was beautiful: except for his eyes, which were blank, vacant things. His name was Kuluck.
“Tell me,” Kuluck said to Blasphemy. “What have you dragged in this time?”
“The creek was overflowing after last night’s rain,” said Blasphemy. “I found him there. He’s injured and… confused.”
Kuluck smiled and Scott discerned something threatening in the sharpness of his teeth. Or maybe it was those eyes that nevertheless gave the impression that Kuluck was watching, even if he could not see.
“He came down in the last shower then,” Kuluck said. “Does the Interloper have a name?” And with that simple question, gave him one.
“If he does, he doesn’t know it,” said Blasphemy.
Kuluck nodded. Then, to the Interloper, he said: “You are in pain.”
“You can tell?” Scott winced. He was stooped now, barely able to maintain his grip on the walking stick. His ankle throbbed and that pain had been joined by a dozen other complaints. The forest had taken its toll on him with numerous nicks and scratches. His muscles ached.
“I heard you scream,” said Kuluck and there was that vaguely threatening smile again, barely a twitch of the lip. “Come. Rest. We can talk while Blasphemy… works her magic.”
Blasphemy scowled at Kuluck as she helped Scott between the trees and into the camp, which was little more than a campfire burning low within a circle of stones.
Kuluck stood away from the fire while Blasphemy added some logs to it. The Interloper sagged to the ground, exhausted. The pain in his ankle was a steady pulse that travelled up his leg and settled in his hips. He groaned.
From one of her many pockets, Blasphemy took out another bundle of leaves. Once again she began to work them into a salve. Scott leaned on one elbow and asked her what the plant was called.
“Chara,” she said. “Or sometimes… hero leaf. It has many useful properties.”
“Unfortunately it cannot restore my eyesight,” said Kuluck.
Blasphemy smiled at some joke the Interloper did not understand. “Don’t be fooled, Interloper: Kuluck might be blind but he can see just as well as we can,” she said. “Although, perhaps, not in the same way.”
A chill cut through Scott, but he could not say why.
“Don’t be scared, Interloper,” said Kuluck, his nostrils were twitching.
“I’m not scared, I…” the Interloper realised that he was lying. “How do you know?”
“Humans emit a variety of odours. Fear is one of the more obvious.”
“Humans…” Scott turned the word over in his mouth. Blasphemy was stoking the fire now and placing some of the crushed leaves into a tin, along with some water. She rested the cup alongside the flames and the heady, comforting smell of chara began to fill the clearing. The smell was somehow both calming and somehow served to sharpen Scott’s senses.
“I am Upir,” said Kuluck. Something in the way that he said the words made them sound like an admission of guilt. He did not seem proud of what he was. The Interloper still felt afraid, though he did not recognise the word.
“Here,” Blasphemy handed Scott a small cup—made from the shell of a tree nut—into which she had decanted a small amount of the warm liquid. “Sip it. Slowly.”
Distracted, Scott blew on the liquid. Steam wafted from the surface of the cup. He took a sip and found that it helped with the pain in his ankle much more quickly than he expected, though the bitterness of the tea made him grimace.
“There is another word,” said Blasphemy. “An old word… vampire.”
That word sent images flashing through Scott’s mind like a rapidly spinning film reel—stone and fangs and blood. So much blood, pouring from above and striking the ground like raindrops. It was her blood, but Scott could not remember who she was; or why to think of her caused him so much pain.
The musty emptiness of death overwhelmed him. Unconsciously he sought out the stick. Loss and loneliness struck him like a fist in his gut. And yet, impossibly, he also felt certain that this was exactly where he was supposed to be.
“You are right to fear upir, Interloper,” said Kuluck. “But you have nothing to fear from me.”
Blasphemy rested her hand on the walking stick and Scott allowed her to take it from him. She gave him a small, rough blanket to wrap himself in and told him to rest. He chuckled to himself and drained the rest of the chara. He didn’t know what was funny.
Despite Blasphemy’s insistence that it was safe for him to go to sleep, Scott resolved to stay awake. He stared deep into the dancing flames of the campfire and the diminishing circle of light that closed in around it. The forest made even stranger noises in the night and the trees seemed to rearrange their positions each time the Interloper closed his eyes until the fire was no longer bright enough to illuminate them. And then, at last, with the fire dwindling to little more than embers, Scott Dyson—at last, the Interloper—fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.