There are only a handful of folk who can say they’ve witnessed the mysterious forests of Ephemera with their own eyes — not even Vasco has that to his name, and he’s almost as well-travelled as I am. As far as uncharted territory goes, Ephemera is the most unchartiest. And I don’t even care that that isn’t a real word.
In contrast to sweaty, noisy and crowded worlds like Rhanavar, which seem to just be stacks of people who derive immense pleasure from getting in the bloody way, Ephemera is quite literally a breath of fresh air. There’s only one city (which I didn’t go to), and then just miles and miles of wild greenery. It’s beautiful, and it’s dangerous. Kind of like me.
The main tract of jungle is the Primordial Forest, which sounds dramatic but it’s really just because it’s very, very old. There are trees there that would have been saplings before the start of the Vermillion Empire, and some would even have been around during the celestial migration of ancient Meridia. You don’t get the name primordial without having been around the block a few (thousand) times. The forest is an attractive destination for creative types who want to ‘find themselves’, but fortunately it’s big enough that I didn’t run into any of them.
I’d been deep into the wilderness for three nights when I came upon something interesting: an ancient Meridian temple, abandoned for millennia but still remarkably intact. I have a fascination with architecture from that era since it predates the outlawing of arcane practices in construction, so everything that was built around then is imbued with a sinister majesty that you just don’t get with modern buildings. This particular temple had all the hallmarks of classic Meridian design: the abstract geometry, still levitating under the influence of an otherworldly energy current; the sloped and sliced walls upon which hundreds of sacrifices had no doubt taken place; and of course, the ominous symbol of the cataclysm, the cloaked ellipsis. Just looking at it from a distance was enough to give me the chills. It felt very much like a dormant beast, and to get any closer would be to awaken a force of who knows what kind of chaos. That wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted on my conscience, so naturally I stayed well clear. I can appreciate the occult without having to get my grubby mitts all over it. Don’t tell me you would have done any different.
Even though I hadn’t interfered with anything, as I carried on further into the jungle I felt this powerful sense of disturbance, as if the arcane energies permeating throughout that temple had a different idea than I did about what constituted a disruption. There’s nothing quite so unsettling as moving through a dark and unfamiliar area with the feeling that you’re being followed by an ominous presence of ancient origin. It’s enough to get the old ticker racing let me tell you.
I feel as though I’ve gone through great lengths to emphasise just how unlikely it would be to stumble upon another person in this forest. I’m fairly certain I’ve done a good job in illustrating that point.
Can you imagine the kind of dread I must have felt then when I came upon a door, glowing unnaturally in the middle of an untamed jungle, when it had absolutely no business being there? I don’t know how they do things where you’re from, but typically you only find doors where people be, so the logical conclusion then was that I was not alone. In the context of recent events, this was more assuredly not assuring in the slightest.
If you haven’t spent much time in the rainforests before, you might not know that it’s very hard to make out the shapes of things that may or may not have designs on coming at you. It’s one of the reasons people tend to stay away from them. The mossy log to the left of you could just as easily be a reticulated basilisk poised and ready to strike, or the seemingly harmless tree trunk to the right may in fact be an indigenous alloroc just waiting to snap you up with its powerful jaws.
Such was the case that I didn’t notice immediately that the large rock in front of the door was in fact a cloaked figure, doubled over or dead for all I knew, but I didn’t really fancy sticking around to find out. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but in some situations (such as those imbued with a heavy air of sinister malevolence), survivalism overpowers altruism. I like to think of it as good sense, and it’s gotten me out of more than a few nasty scrapes over the cycles.
Before I could make my departure unnoticed, the figure stirred, raising its head to reveal — and yes I counted correctly — no less than three red eyes beneath that dark hood. I’ve witnessed a whole manner of oddities throughout my travels, but never had I witnessed a ‘higher’ being (the kind capable of donning a cloak) with more than the standard issue two peepers. Of course, there are all sorts of creatures scattered throughout the System with any number of optical arrangements, and the Anakari marauders are famously cycloptic (not always naturally so), but three eyes, three eyes was new. And they weren’t just red either. They were burning red, evil red, the kind of red that your grandparents used to use to describe the abyssal pit. I think it was fair of me to assume that I hadn’t just stumbled upon my new best friend.
The figure fixed me with those evil reds for what felt like millennia, but there was no way I was going anywhere. The first thing you learn when you get out into the worlds is that you don’t turn your back on something like that might like to take a juicy bite out of your neck. If you can’t master this basic survival skill than I’m afraid you won’t be exploring for very long. So instead of anything happening, the two of us just stood staring each other down, neither one of us moving. We stayed that way for so long I started to get a pain in that very same neck I was so keen on preserving, so I was almost relieved when the figure finally broke the silence. At least, I was until I had time to process what exactly it was that it was saying.
Naturally I was confused. ‘They’re coming? Who’s coming?’
‘They. Are coming.’
‘Lucky them.’ We weren’t really getting anywhere.
The figure rose to its feet, unnaturally, like it didn’t really have feet to rise to, and stood there — or maybe it wasn’t standing, so in that case, floated there? — slowly swaying as if it was windy (it wasn’t windy).
‘She’s already passed beyond the window. It can’t be stopped. You can’t help her.’
I had no idea who she was, and enquiring further felt like getting myself involved in something I really didn’t want to have anything to do with, so I did what anyone else would have done in my position and avoided the question entirely.
‘That’s a window? I thought it was a door.’
The figure either didn’t hear me (I don’t know how many ears it had to compensate for the extra eyes do I) or wasn’t listening; its gaze had travelled upwards, in the direction of the temple behind us. In spite of myself, I turned to see what was so interesting.
As it transpired, the whole damn sky was ablaze. I have to say it wasn’t something I was expecting — something was clearly going on at the temple. An incredibly bright beam was punching out into the cosmos, the kind that made me wonder whether we had a second Chaos on our hands, and I found myself selfishly hoping it wasn’t my doing.
I’d momentarily forgotten all about the figure, such was the captivity of the scene unfolding in front of us. I didn’t even ask it exactly what it was time for, since it hadn’t bothered to answer any of my other questions. Whatever it was that it was talking about was clearly set to take place elsewhere though, as the figure fell to one knee — proving that it it did at least have knees — before fragmenting into some kind of ethereal dust that was whipped up and carried away on the wind (it wasn’t windy). It didn’t even have the decency to say goodbye, or farewell, or some kind of mysterious parting remark like all the other nonsense it had been spouting.
Now what they don’t tell you in the guide book (and if you ask me that’s an oversight) is that many of the species of flora here are wildly psychoactive. As in, so much as looking at some of them is enough to trigger a profound psychedelic experience, and that’s without accidentally breathing in their spores or — if you’re truly unhinged — consuming their leaves or seeds. To this day, I try to convince myself that the things I saw in that jungle were merely the result of walking by one too many efflorescent mescapods, but I’m not afraid to admit I’ve done my fair share of… experimentation, and never — never — have I experienced anything like that before.
As much as I’d like to say I stuck around to see where that door or window or whatever it was led to, or that I tried to find the she that the figure had so cryptically alluded to see if perhaps she could be helped, or that I followed the trail back to the temple to try and make sense of what I’d just witnessed, obviously I didn’t do any of those things. I’m an explorer not an idiot, and I wasted no time in getting myself as far from all that supernatural nonsense as fast as I possibly could. In hindsight I wish I hadn’t been so quick to leave — it’s never comfortable being unsure whether or not your experiences are mere psychoenergetic projections — but there’s seldom much to gain from burdening yourself with the weight of things you can’t change.
I’ve contemplated going back on numerous occasions, but as I said before, the forest is a big place, and Gods know what kind of horrors I might encounter in going back for seconds. Destiny has a dark sense of humour, and I don’t fancy being a punchline.
When all’s said and done, some mysteries are probably just better left unsolved.
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