Tizita All the Way Down

Adrift Entry #2

rating: +4+x

The wind blew wildly around Felder, whipping the edges of his over-jacket in a frenzy. Slowly, he drug his sled through the snow, leaning against the force of the wind. In spite of the freezing cold temperatures, Felder was sweating profusely underneath all of his protective gear. He'd been walking for what felt like a few hours, pulling the sled laden with old world treasures that resisted every step behind him, and it was beginning to wear him down as his legs were turning to jelly. Still, he walked forward, knowing that home wasn't much further away.

Felder didn't know how long he'd been gone for. Wristwatches were a common commodity as the stars were completely unreliable for telling time, but his had broken after he'd misjudged the strength of a floor and fell through into the building's basement. According to the hands lying underneath the now cracked face, he'd been gone for around four and a half hours before he'd fallen, though it was entirely possible that the hands had gotten jumbled in the crash.

In spite of the uselessness of it, Felder gazed up at the dark, starry heavens above. Always in flux. Pinpricks and speckles of purples, reds, blues, yellows, and the like, dotting the endless void that surrounded them, pushing it away to make way for their beautiful luminescence. Astronomy was a long dead science, one Felder had never truly learned anything about, but still he felt an inexplicable draw to the stars and the vacuous space between them, the sight picking at some old memory buried away in the back of his mind.

Pulling himself away from the peaceful heavens, Felder grounded himself on the cruel world under his feet as it tried to kill him with the perpetual tundra. Ever the stubborn bastard, Felder planted one foot in front of the other and focused on the things that would keep him grounded. He found that doing this helped to distract him from the thoughts that drifted in and out of his mind that would seek to derail him, be they fear, worry, paranoia, or even simple daydreaming.

The pace of his breathing as he struggled against the sled.

The tunnel vision the mask he wore created, the lenses giving him an illuminated view of a world that normally would be bathed in pitch through magical means that Felder didn't understand.

The vague sensation around the bottom of his left calf that suggested his sock was coming loose and bunching up at his ankle.

Soon, Felder found himself standing before a massive pair of iron doors set into a cliffside, faded paint above it reading the name of his hometown: "ARAW." Walking closer to the doors, Felder found a small metal circle nestled into a crevice, a small indentation in its center. Unzipping his over-jacket and reaching into his under-jacket, he pulled out a small purple gemstone and placed it into the slot. The gemstone subtly glowed before ejecting itself back into Felder's awaiting palm, the surrounding air becoming saturated with the grating screech of old hinges and the hissing of pneumatic mechanisms. A relic of an age long gone, one where strong protection from raiders was a necessity, the massive doors had begun to open to let him in.

After a brief moment, the doors came to rest and Felder dragged his cache into the entry way, the skate blades scraping roughly against the stone as he crossed the precipice. The entryway led to a massive staircase going downwards, closer to the warmth of the planet's core, where Araw lay. Sitting adjacent to the staircase was a platform he could ride down on with his sled. It was a simple chain-and-rails system where the chain's only job was to keep the platform from succumbing to the wiles of the gravity that so dearly wished to drag it to the bottom at horrifying speeds, then drag the platform back up to the top when needed.

As Felder sat on the descending platform, attaching tires to the sled to allow for ease of travel now that he was no longer treading a frozen wasteland, he couldn't help but listen to the creaks and groans of the old metal, the intrusive image of the chain snapping creeping into his head. He focused himself on his work and tried to ignore the anxiety that sat in his belly. He'd ridden the platform up and down countless time in just the past few weeks alone, but he still could never quell the gruesome notion.

Mercifully, the platform reached the bottom and Felder pulled his cache into the city proper, lit by lamps that dotted the streets and massive light fixtures that hung intermittently from the distant cavern ceiling. Following an oft-tread path of his, winding in and out of alleys, Felder dragged the loot behind a non-descript building on the edge of the market district.

Felder rapped on the large door that sat in the building's back: two knocks, pause, three knocks, pause, then one knock. A few moments later, the door was cracked open and an baggy green eye peered out at him before retreating. The door slowly opened all the way, allowing Felder to roll the sled into the large storage room. Inside, a thin and jittery man beckoned him in, helping to guide the sled, only stopping to run a hand through his thin, tan hair.

"Felder, my man, what have you brought me this time?" the man asked after the cart was brought in and the door was closed.

"Only the best pre-snuff garbage Sarco, as always," Felder answered with a chuckle.

Sarcogyps, or just Sarco, was something between a scrapper, a fence, and a trade runner all at once. Felder himself didn't deal in illegal materials, but Sarcogyps had a reliable trade caravan he worked with and paid good money for old stuff he found appealing and felt could sell well. That was enough incentive for Felder to work with him.

"Gods above, look at ya, did you just get back from the wastes?" Sarcogyps asked as Felder pulled his mask off, snot caking his upper lip, cheeks red. He wore the mask so much these days that it had almost become a second skin to him, consequently he sometimes forgot to take it off once he was safely sheltered.

"Eh, no rest for the weary I suppose. Let me go getcha wet rag or somethin'," Sarcogyps mumbled as Felder inspected himself in the reflection of a piece of chrome scrap. The man looking back at Felder in the reflection was tired, he didn't want to go back out for a while. He bargained with Felder about this, trying to earn a few weeks off. The discussion was cut short when Sarcogyps reentered the storage room, carrying a wet towel in one hand and a kettle that leaked out steam in the other, two mugs hooked through his fingers. Another reason to deal with Sarcogyps: he almost always had some tea brewing and was more than willing to share with guests.

Felder took the rag, thanking Sarcogyps, and began cleaning the mucus off of his face while Sarcogyps poured tea into the mugs. Unsure of what to do with the used rag, Felder threw it into a pile of its grease covered brethren, before sitting down on a box next to Sarcogyps, nursing the warm tea.

"So, where'd you go off to this time?" Sarcogyps asked, sipping from his mug.

"I dunno, it was just a storehouse I'd seen on another trip a while back, decided it was finally time to give it a visit."

"D'ya run into any Frostgnawed?"

Frostgnawed. Crazies who tried to survive out in the wastes by themselves. Most don't survive very long, but those who did were said to be more animal than human. There were all sorts of horror stories about what atrocities they commit, both to each other and anyone they caught.

"Not yet, but I don't think there's much chance of meeting any."

"Heh, fair. But them Jovians? Now those you gotta watch out for, they're the real boogiemen."

Felder snorted. "Jovians? You seriously believe that stuff?"

"You don't?"

"I'm sorry, but I don't think some ice cult exists in the shadows and is waiting for the perfect moment to finish the rest of us off."

"When you put it that way, you make me sound crazy."

"Sarco, you regularly shove all kinds of heinous things into a pipe to smoke. Of course you sound crazy," Felder jeered, giving a smile to say that it was all in jest. It was a stupid joke, but would hopefully lift the mood nonetheless.

Sarcogyps just harrumphed. "Well, long as you keep an eye out I'm sure you'll be fine. Now, let's get down to business." Setting his now empty mug down, he began poking and prodding around Felder's cache, picking individual items up and getting a closer look when he felt it necessary. After about fifteen minutes of this, broken only by the occasional question, Sarcogyps sat back down in his seat in front of Felder.

"Ninety-two clinks."

"Nintey-two? Sarco, I'm not gonna let you screw me over on this just because you gave me some tea and a rag."

"The tea and rag were me bein' a good host, an' I'm insulted that you'd even think that 'bout me after all the business we've done."

"Sarco that isn't even enough to cover half of my rent. I scouted out that place, spent hours actually getting there, hours scrounging through it, and then hours trudging back through the snow. I fell through the floor into the basement while getting all this! Surely this is worth more than ninety-two clinks."

"An' I'm sorry all that happened, but it doesn't change the fact that what you drug here wasn't worth that much."

"Fine. Ninety-two clinks." Felder stuck out his hand which Sarcogyps gladly shook, ending the conversation.


After everything had been said and done, Felder slowly made his way home, his sled empty and purse stuffed with his payment. It would be a long walk as the housing district was almost on the opposite side of the city. Had he been less tired and disappointed, he may have taken a different route home, but he was working on muscle memory and simply retraced the most familiar path.

As he neared the edge of the market district, Felder found himself standing in front of a very familiar little outlet. The sign above the door proclaimed it to be the meeting place of Araw's Adventurer's Guild. The government order nailed to the door proclaimed it to be vacated and available to rent. What had once been a vibrant collective of bold and curious individuals had been reduced to dust and cobwebs.

Felder had been a member of the Adventurer's Guild for nearly a decade and was its last member when it died.

It was hard to tear himself away from the building. He had always walked this route so he could relax in it before going home, but that tradition was over. The feeling of hot tears rolling down his face was what finally took him out of his stupor. Felder felt a needle being pulled through his heart as he pried himself from his old dreams, dragging his limp feet as he walked away.

The twine of that painful needle proved to be far more winding as he continued on, phantoms of the past permeating the walkway. A long faded stain on the walkway paid tribute to a friendly spar which ended with Felder cracking his head open on the carved stone. An old tree that cast shade from the man-made light, under which he had received his Guild emblem after being initiated; it was still pinned to the left breast of his over-jacket, worn and beat, but always showing. A small pile of rocks tucked away behind some bushes marked where a presumed funeral was held for Baji, a dear friend. Presumed funerals were held for members of the Guild who left on a journey and didn't return, who were presumed dead. The little hiding spot had been Baji's favorite place to find some peace and quiet, and read books.

Sitting just off the path, in the middle of a small park, a large rock where Felder and a few others would eat lunch together, spinning exaggerated tales of heroics that had never happened. They were all scavengers, but they didn't know it yet, still clinging to the image of a hero clad in armor with endless tales to weave. Even if they did know, they'd never admit it, neither to others, each other, nor themselves. That same park was where a woman named Linda had kicked his ass after he got cocky one day, betting that he could easily take her in a fight. She quite literally ground him into the dirt and he fell in love with her. Felder tried his best to flirt, but he was a fool in that skillset. Better at picking locks and other dexterous feats than weaving lexiconic silk. Then, eight years ago, she left with a promise to return, but was never seen again. He didn't go to her presumed funeral.

Further down, resting in a nook, hidden away from plain sight, was Kindling Gold. The tavern had become a second home to him as members of the Guild had regularly reclined in its shoddy chairs, sipping mediocre drinks and chewing surprisingly delicious foods. The tavernkeep knew them all by name and welcomed them happily, regularly neglecting her own duties and other patrons to converse with them. Kindling Gold held a special place in Felder's heart, not just because of what it meant to the Guild as a whole, but because it was where he was first thrust into the world of an adventurer.

When he was a child, he would watch groups walking in and out of the city, clad in armor and ambition, their clothing and armor proudly adorned with the Guild's insignia. They'd always filter their way into Kindling Gold, ready to relax, eat, drink, and regale the other patrons with stories. These stories would inevitably slither their way out of the bar, passed from person to person. By the time Felder heard it, it'd have been warped with the passage of time as memories forgot finer details. He'd hear the same story multiple times from different people, where actions and words were never quite the same, and had endings that somehow deviated massively from each other. He desperately wished to hear these stories from the source, to feel the tension and emotion the storyteller themselves conveyed. No one could do a tale justice save the one who experienced it.

Getting into the tavern was easy, simply trailing behind a raucous group and keeping quiet. Distracted by their own merriment, none of them noticed the child walking closely behind. There was no guard who would have barred Felder from entry, but he still tried to remain as stealthy as possible nonetheless, fearing that at any moment some adult would spot him and do the job of a guard and kick him out.

Inside, a man in what seemed like leather armor was already sat at a table, a sizeable crowd surrounding him as he spoke. Doing his best to not draw attention to himself, Felder drew closer, slipping between legs to try to get a better position.

"… and the last two: they're coming in on both sides, swords drawn and leveled, ready to gut me. But I'm not worried. I know these kinds a people. They aren't as graceful as they want you to believe. So when they get real close, I drop as fast as I can to the ground. They don't quite got enough time to stop and end up skewering each other!" He paused for laughter, grinning widely.

"That's how I 'heroically' saved those travelers from some bandits," he continued after a moment, "we got to Mitla after that with no issues. Payment was pretty good already, but they threw in this neat little coin from way-back-when." The adventurer reached into a pocket and produced an old coin. Oxidized and bent, it was an ugly sight, but Felder still found himself enraptured by the relic of a bygone era. He'd tried to move even closer to the adventurer to get a better look when someone finally noticed him. Of course, they called the tavernkeep over to kick him out, but as the burly man approached the adventurer spoke up.

"Hey, hey! C'mon Palli! The kid isn't doing nothing wrong, just trying to hear a story. 'Sides, you let that daughter of yours scamper around too, don't 'cha? Be a bit hypocritical of you to give this kid the boot. No one's gonna get him a beer or anything, rest assured." The tavernkeep grumbled a bit, but ended up letting Felder stay, much to his excitement. After throwing out a few quips and one-liners to loosen up the crowd again, the adventurer flashed Felder a quick grin before flicking the coin to him.

Felder would end up spending many nights at that bar, listening intently to the stories adventurers told. They were seemingly larger than life and all he wanted was to be one of them. To explore the world that he never got to see from Araw, to find out what was left, maybe even put the pieces of history back together and find out why the sun had abandoned them. Save people in distress, aid the weary, protect the innocent.

Times change, unfortunately. By the time Felder was nineteen and eligible to join the Guild, it had already lost much of the luster it had had in the public eye. Still holding the image of the Guild from his childhood close to his heart, Felder joined nonetheless and sought to be an adventurer like the ones he'd grown up watching and listening to. The exterior view of the Guild had seeped into the membership, the same people who had once explored the wasteland of their own volition, to scout out new territories, to combat enemies of the city, now were picking at the bones of the dead simply to make ends meet.

The cities had unified under one flag in an effort to build humanity back up, those who resisted were either killed or banished to the wasteland. As time passed, more and more people grew comfortable with their arrangement, they wanted to stay where it was safe. Expansion to somewhere else would be a waste of resources better spent on improving life where they were now. Furthermore, people lost interest in the wasteland. There was nothing above to find except the ruins of a humanity long past and sorrow. It was dangerous, it was pointless, it was for those hopelessly lost in their own imaginations who couldn't come to terms with reality.

Slowly, membership waned as more and more members moved on, finding new lives to live, but Felder had refused to give it up. Until the end drew nigh and, with his suffering income and no other members who could help, Felder was forced to shut down the organization and meeting hall. He could barely pay his own taxes and bills let alone those that came with being the technical owner of the Guild, and the excess money from years before when salvaging was more lucrative had long since dried up after being used to keep the Guild alive.

Felder reached into his pocket, gently thumbing the bent coin. Once covered in a layer of rust, years of rubbing had worn it off and created almost a new sheen to it. The fanciful stamping was barely visible anymore, the profile of a great king now so faded as to be unrecognizable. A bygone man from a bygone era.


Felder laid out the money Sarcogyps had paid him on his kitchen table, staring at the pile for a moment. The rent in Araw was easy to make for anyone else, simple payments to be made every few months, but Felder's job didn't exactly have a stable market anymore. As the years had passed, salvage paid less and less as people grew more and more disinterested in relics from the past, collectors got their hands on what they wanted, and all of the bigger name locations were picked clean. He'd have to commit to another job much sooner than he'd like if he wanted to meet rent and still be able to feed himself.

Of course, he could always ask his parents for help, but that came with two conditions: a sacrifice of his pride on the altar of humility, and a new career path. His father had told him under no uncertain terms when Felder was nineteen that he believed joining the Adventurer's Guild was a poor decision. He said he could see the cracks forming from miles away, its death was inevitable. In spite of his father's warning and the obvious decline of the Guild, Felder held fast to his rose-tinted glasses and marched forward. His parents were loving and encouraging, and he had no doubt that they'd help him, but he also knew that they would demand that he quit salvaging and find a new source of income; one that was stable and safe. This condition had never been said, but it only made sense to assume that it'd be there. Why pour money into a vacuum? Encourage a detrimental habit? Going to his parents was a nonstarter; Felder would have to take care of the issue himself.

As he walked downstairs to the basement of his home, thinking about his parents, Felder found himself feeling overwhelmed as the weight of everything happening came to a rest on his back. He sat down on a step, leaning against the wall for support as the thoughts raced through his mind, detailing every possible negative outcome. Suddenly, all he wanted was to be back home with his parents. He wanted to be playing cards with the both of them, he wanted to be annoying his mother by giving the answer to puzzles in the newspaper, he wanted to be drinking coffee with his father in the evening as they talked about whatever came to mind. He wanted to hug them, his father squeezing him tight and his mother kissing him on the cheek, all of which would be an affirmation that everything was going to be okay, that the world wasn't truly crumbling around Felder.

He sat in the stairwell for a while, letting the feeling wash over him until it dripped down his form and leaked out through his feet. He felt hollow and tired afterwards, but that didn't matter. Hollow and tired, he could deal with. So he stood up, shook off the drops of pain that lingered still, and continued on, pretending that none of it had happened.

In the basement, Felder stared at the large map on a table situated in the center of the room. He'd found it a few years ago while on the hunt for an old heirloom he'd read about in a journal. It was a perfect resource for a salvager like him, detailing major and some minor locations from a pre-snuff world. Many of the locations had been crossed out, few remained untouched (as far as Felder knew.) All that were left to scrounge through were shanties and smatterings of villages. Felder ran his finger over the map, waiting for something to catch his eye.

His finger stopped over a small windmill icon, which meant the location it represented was a farming town. Underneath the windmill, calligraphic letters spelled out a name: Midland. Felder slumped over onto the table, weariness suddenly overcoming him.

Midland was a farming town that sat outside of a larger city named Veril, nestled into a deep valley; larger than most farming towns, but still not big enough to call a city. Midland had been on Felder's mind for a while now, it had good odds of being untouched by any other scavengers, giving it a distinct possibility to be a veritable gold mine, and its proximity to the former cultural apex that was Veril almost guaranteed interest from collectors. As far as Felder knew, no one had ever bothered to go there because of how far away it was from any post-snuff city and because it sat in a valley that would make hauling the loot out of it in a timely manner an excruciating task.

As his head lay on the map, staring at the windmill icon, Felder tried his best to ignore the survival instinct that was currently shouting at him to not go because it was a death sentence. Based on his experience with salvaging, he estimated that even a middling haul from Midland could possibly keep him financially secure for a year or two. If he found even one piece of metal with an official stamp of some sorts that proved it was truly from Midland, collectors' purses would open wider than ever to own something from such an unknown and whispered-about town.

Felder closed his eyes, steeling himself for the journey to come, praying that it wouldn't happen.


He stood in an open field, the likes of which he had never seen before. Seated on the horizon were mountain ranges, seemingly so far away yet close enough to grab hold of and pull one's self up on.

Felder looked down.

Green grass, soft and luscious. The color was deep and vibrant, contrasting the gray-blues of the overworld and yellow-browns of the underworld. Felder realized he was barefoot as the dense and thriving grass slithered its way between his toes and pressed against his soles; the sensation was utterly alien.

The sky, too, enraptured him. The black smear dotted with colorful sparks was replaced with an acidic haze of deep blue that transitioned into purple, clouds creating smatterings of grays against it.

As he gazed in awe of the sight, the blue and purple began to give way to reds, oranges, and yellows as light began to pour into the valley. A star appeared behind the mountains, closer than any star Felder had seen before. So close that he could swear he count the rays of heat and light that came off of it.

It rose and rose and rose until it was enthroned in white light above the mountains. A harmonious chorus of tones unknowable and unspeakable washed over Felder, rupturing his ear drums.

The blood flowed from his ears, ran down the sides of his face, and dripped from his jaw.

Felder grinned.

The music of the spheres rolled over the lands, guiding Felder's mind to the beautiful and perfect synchronicity of existence.

A shadowy talon eclipsed the burning light, rearing back before it.

Felder felt himself involuntarily take a breath for the first time in eternity, blinking. The whole of everything was still, atoms watching in anticipation of the inevitable.

The muscle in the talon released its tension, letting it simply fall forward onto the star.

There was no great cacophony, no ringing clang, simply the absence of all sound followed as the star cracked.

Yolk began to seep from the crack, dribbling down the side of the star before falling to the earth behind the mountain ranges. The crack grew wider and wider, more and more yolk spilling out, bringing the light with it, the sky darkening.

The sound of cascading fluid rolled through the valley, the yolk splashing out of the mountains and running through the plain. When it reached Felder, it was freezing water, frothing and malicious, sweeping him up and throwing him about as it drug him along helplessly.

As he choked on water so cold it numbed his throat, he struggled to gain some control over the river current, but was victim to the wiles of the rapids, its many hands pulling him back under whenever he managed to breach the surface.

Felder found himself washed up on the shore of a frozen beach, the valley transformed into a cold sea. He retched and retched and retched, coughed and coughed and coughed, yet the water in his stomach and lunges claimed dominion over the acid and air. Felder lay on the sand, weighed down by the burden of the sea.

The sky above him was the endless black he was familiar with, smatterings of stars glimmering in the distance.

One star went out.

Then another.

Two more.

Ten more.

Fifty.

A hundred.

Thousands.

Millions.

The sky was tar, thick and sludgy as it swallowed the last beautiful thing Felder had left.

His head lolled to the side, anchored to the ground by the sea water that now permeated his whole being.

She stepped on the water, freezing it with every step.

A vaguely feminine humanoid, composed of ice and nothingness, lightly stepping on the sea. Her hair was flowing ice crystals and hoarfrost, vapor filling in the gaps. Her face emptied into an endless fractal pattern.

As she stepped closer and closer and closer to Felder, the sea in front of him came to freeze too. He felt the sea in his belly and lungs solidify. He tried to speak, but his tongue was stuck to the bottom of his mouth and his lips were frozen stiff.

He gazed into the infinite space embedded in her visage until it became the sky itself: black, empty, hungry. Slowly, crystals grew over his eyes and little lights dancing between the ridges and creases became the stars. The creaking and groaning of the ice melded into a new melody, one he could swear he knew but couldn't place as he stared wistfully at the crystalline constellations that enveloped his vision.


The horizon melded all details into a single, bumpy line as the snow nearby refused to differentiate itself from it's fraternal twin in the distance. Felder looked down at the compass he'd stitched into his left sleeve; he was still headed North-East so there was no real cause for concern yet.

It had been a miserable two days so far, tiring hours spent walking through the snow only to toss and turn in his tent when he tried to sleep as paranoia rushed through his veins. The strange and esoteric dreams that plagued him when he finally did manage to sleep didn't help either. When landmarks were far and few between, he had always relied on an irrational sense of familiarity to keep him somewhat sane while walking, but this was by far the furthest he'd ever gone for a salvage and that warm blanket of sanity had fallen away. All he could imagine was the thought of some maniac tearing through his tent, extremities rotted black from frostbite, ready to gut him for even a modicum of a source of magical heat that he may not even have. Frostgnawed regularly slaughtered one another, even their closest friends, for any magical source of heat, if the stories were to be believed. They'd have no qualms with prying Felder's clothes and body open.

His body shook, though if it was from the cold or an attempt to rid of the intrusive thoughts, Felder didn't know. One foot in front of the other, Felder recited, one foot in front of the other. Don't think about possibilities, focus on the concrete.

The snow being pushed out of the way as his feet trudged in and out of that white hell.

The rope digging into his shoulder, the sled fighting against the journey, begging to turn around and go home.

The condensation on his upper lip as his mask humidified the air he breathed.

The needle slightly wobbling with his steps as it pointed him towards his destination.

Forward, forward, forward…

Forward, forward, forward…

Forward, forward, forward…

Forward, forward, forward…


Hours into the third day of the expedition, Felder finally found himself standing over the precipice of the valley that housed Midland. Sitting quietly in the middle, an array of buildings called out to him, heralding the moment of truth. A decrepit city that teemed with potential.

Felder scanned the decline of the valley, searching for anything that hinted at an easier experience in getting down. Whatever roads had been there were covered by snow, long hidden away from the likes of people like Felder, as if the valley itself was consciously aware of the vultures that circled its lone inhabitant and was trying to deter them. It had seemingly been successful in keeping the birds off of the rotting corpse, but Felder was desperate and teetered on the edge of bravery, threatening to fall headlong into the frothing waters of foolishness that lay far below.

Felder took a step forward, draped in the robes of a charlatan, plunging into the unknown depths.

The journey down the steep decline of the valley was less of a walk and more of a stumble as Felder attempted to keep his footing on the unknowable terrain hidden beneath the snow and keep hold of his sled that constantly threatened to pull him down with it should he make one misstep. Mercifully, Felder reached the bottom without incident, though he couldn't help but think about the arduous task of pulling the sled, hopefully laden with loot, back up and out of the valley that would inevitably come. Pushing this thought back, Felder set his eyes on Midland and began trudging through the snow once more, sled at his feet.

As Felder broke the border of Midland and found himself in the town proper, his eyes darted around as his brain fired off that something was unusual about the place. Finally, it hit him: the snow around the roads was shallow, far shallower than would be expected. Something about this shallowness shot off impulses in his brain, dug a pit in his stomach, but still he couldn't quite figure out why. No immediate danger presented itself though and Felder needed to establish a building to camp out in, so he shoved this feeling down where he had shoved the future hill climb and continued on his way deeper into the town.

As he passed by building after building, home after home, storehouse after storehouse, Felder took mental notes on what looked promising and what didn't. The buildings were in poorer condition than he'd expected them to be, scratched and splintered wood littered the main pathway. Most likely caused by animals in that short time after the Extinguishing as they attempted to survive.

Felder's eyes were brought to the snow in front of him again. He'd been so focused on the buildings that he'd stopped looking at the ground. Gazing around, he felt his stomach tighten as he saw various winding tracks of footprints thread to and from buildings, one of which led to a door that had been left ajar. Felder began to put the pieces together in his brain as his adrenaline began to spike.

The snow on the outer edges of Midland had been shallow because it'd been tread on and subsequently smoothed over by a new layer of snow; and here Felder was, sitting in the middle of the town, in more danger than he had ever been in.

He didn't know who was here, nor how many there were, but Felder knew that he needed to get out of the street and hide lest he be spotted, as there was little chance that whoever was here was friendly.

Felder broke out into a sudden sprint, abandoning his sled, and slid into the small alley between two large storehouses, ducking into the shadows.

His breathing was deafening. He focused on slowing it down, trying to keep his wits about him.

crunch…
crunch…
crunch…
crunch…

Felder swung his head around, someone was walking nearby.

Where?

A figure lurched by the alleyway, in the direction of Felder's sled.

He could practically hear the blood rushing through his veins, his ears ringing with the flow. Slowly, he crawled forward, quiet as he could, until he could peek around the corner.

The figure was standing over Felder's sled, walking around it, poking it with a metal rod they held in their hand, murmuring incomprehensibly to no one. The patchwork clothes they had draped over their figure hid the finer details from Felder, though it seemed that they could fall away at any moment they were so threadbare and rotten.

Fear coursed through his every sinew, making him weak in the knees. Felder sank to ground, trying to decide what to do next.

He was suddenly aware that he was hyperventilating again, white noise filling every inch of the mask. Once more, he closed his eyes and focused on maintaining a steady rhythm with his breath, assured that he was hidden from the unknown figure.

As he steadied himself, the cacophony dissipating, he heard it.

crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch crunch

Felder's hood was grabbed before he could even turn to see the assailant who had been sprinting towards him, and was lifted up by the unknown attacker. His head was slammed violently into the wooden wall of the storehouse he was hiding behind. The soft leather of his mask, meant to accommodate a wide range of faces, did nothing to protect him from the blow as his nose took the brunt of the impact, breaking it.

The attacker yanked Felder's head back and slammed it again. Blood began to pool in the mask, a tooth falling into the drink.

Felder was pulled back, the grip loosening on his hood and he landed on his back with a dull thud. The figure that now leered over him was similarly dressed to the one who had been inspecting his sled. Their face was naked to the cruel cold, their nose and chin gone, surrounded by rotted black flesh. The hands that now reached down for Felder's collar were missing a few fingers.

As Felder was tugged up from the ground, now face-to-face with the horrid creature, he realized what they were, a manic visage grinning at him: Frostgnawed.

"Whatcha doing all the way out here fella?" the Frostgnawed with no nose asked, still grinning as his breath fogged the lenses on Felder's mask. A faint gurgle from within the mask, an attempt to clear the blood from his mouth, was perceived to be an unintelligible response. "The hell was that?" No-Nose asked. He took one hand off of Felder's collar, hooked two fingers under Felder's chin, and ripped the mask off.

The sudden shock of the cold made Felder involuntarily gasp as the blood that had been sitting in his mask ran over the sides of his face, quickly cooling and beginning to freeze. His eyes rapidly blinked, trying to adjust to the sudden darkness now that the aid of the lenses were gone. From within the darkness, the shadow of the Frostgnawed that held him hissed, "c'mooonn now! Got you outta that muzzle, now speak up little puppy!"

Felder sputtered, trying to catch the breath that had abandoned him, "I- I-ya, I'm just a salvager! Scrapper! Juhg- junkie! What- whatever you wanna call me!"

"Ooohh, a little vulture, huh? Come to pick at some bones, birdie?" His face seemed to tighten in anger, "come to pick at our bones?"

Felder shook his head feverously at the figure whose finer details were returning. "No no no no, I didn't know you were here! I swear-"

"LIAR!" No-Nose yelled at him, a spray of spit misting Felder's face. His vision having further adjusted, Felder could see that the other Frostgnawed, the one who'd been investigating his sled, had arrived on the scene.

"Who's 'is?" the investigator asked No-Nose.

"None'ya damn business you mongrel snow-eater! Back off!" he shot back, putting his hand onto Felder's face, as if to hide him.

"You jhus wa-ed choo keep whaever gooiesh you ge offa eh baeshar for yourhelf!" the investigator accused. It was hard to understand her, she sounded like she was missing a small chunk of the front of her tongue.

No-Nose seemed able to understand the tongue-tied Frostgnawed well enough, snappily replying with, "of course I was gonna keep it all to myself! Like hell I'd share even a single heat crystal with the likes of you!" Heat crystals, small little gems that magically radiated small amounts of heat, barely enough to keep your fingers warm when paired with thin gloves.

"You shlimy rhad! I shwear I'll kiey you!"

"I'd like to see you try!" No-Nose let go of Felder, who felt back to the ground. No-Nose, seemingly having forgotten about Felder, stood up to meet Tongue-Tied. Felder began to slowly crawl away as the two began to yell at each other.

As he slowly shifted away from the two Frostgnawed, trying to make his escape, Felder heard the argument devolve even further, but he didn't dare look back. He simply focused on moving forward, moving away from the quarreling pair.

They began to physically struggle. Felder continued to shimmy through the snow, his face going numb.

One was knocked to the ground. Felder knew that he'd lose some part of his face to frostbite without his mask, but he didn't care. He needed to get back home.

A hollow whack came from behind, one of them, presumably Tongue-Tied, cried out. Felder kept moving, inch my inch.

Another hollow whack, another cry. Felder licked his lips, trying to moisten them, only for them to crack and bleed anyways.

The sounds of violence continued long after the cries went silent. Don't look back don't look back don't look back.

Footsteps creeped up behind Felder who began trying to stand up, but stumbled as the world suddenly swirled around him, and fell prone. Before he could recover, a heel smashed into his spine, causing him to cry out.

"Where do you think you're going?" No-Nose asked him, lightly tapping Felder's head with something. All Felder could see in his periphery was something dribbling off whatever he'd been tapped with, the viscous liquid pooling in the snow next to him.

"You… you made me do that. You made me do it." The anger in No-Nose's voice seemed to begin to mix with sorrow. "It's all because of you."

"I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't made you do anything!"

"You turned her against me!"

Suddenly, the boot came off his back and he was grabbed again. No-Nose spun him around to show him the scene he'd so desperately tried to avoid.

A few feet away, the body of Tongue-Tied lay in the snow, her head turned to a pulped mess. A pink and red smattering of soft tissues mixed with shards of bone. The metal pipe she had been using to poke and prod at his sled earlier now rested in No-Nose's right hand, blood running off of it, a trail leading from the brutalized corpse to Felder.

No-Nose fell to the ground, setting the pipe on the ground, and pulled Felder into his lap, putting him into a headlock that forced his gaze onto the corpse. "Look… look… you did that."

Felder struggled to look away from the carnage, but his head was stuck firmly in place by the Frostgnawed's hold. "You made me do that. You made me kill my very. Best. Friend." Felder tugged at No-Nose's arms with his hands, but couldn't get a grip to try and pull them away. He sputtered, trying to catch his breath. His vision was blurring as black began to paint its edges.

"LOOK." he demanded as Felder continued to struggle, tightening the hold further.

No-Nose began to cry.

Taking advantage of this, Felder reared his elbow back and smashed it into No-Nose's side. The hold loosened enough for him to slip out as No-Nose cried out in pain. Felder tried to stand up, but the world around him swirled and he found himself tipping to the side. He felt disconnected from his body as he fell, a light tingle the only sensation.

As he lay down, breathing deeply, his senses came back to him. The bitter cold of the snow soaked through his hair. Somewhere in the struggle, his hood had come off. He blinked, the starry sky coming back to focus as his vision left the hole it had been trapped in.

The gentle sound of snow being tread brought him back to the present. His body had recovered and he needed to get out of dodge.

His feet slid wildly as he scrambled up from the ground, taking off in a sprint before even standing up completely. His pursuer began moving faster, seeing his prey begin to flee once more.

The cold, dry air cut at Felder's throat, ravaging his tongue as he tried to wet his mouth to no avail. The pulse of his heart beat a violent drum that he sprinted in time with, the sounds of pursuit driving him forward like he was cattle. The screaming grew louder as the villain drew closer. Felder was out of his element, low on blood flow to his brain, and choking on the brutal atmosphere. It didn't take long for the Frostgnawed to catch up to him, diving forward and driving his shoulder into Felder's back, knocking him to the ground.

Felder lifted his face from the snowbank he'd been violently shoved into, leaving a red stain where the blood from his already-broken nose had begun to flow again. Rolling over, he caught sight of his assailant, sending jolts up his spine that demanded he flee. Before he could fully reorient himself, No-Nose slammed his foot into his chest, pinning him once again to the ground. Already weak from the blood loss and chokehold, Felder found that he couldn't shove him off. No-Nose leaned into his chest, putting so much weight on it that Felder thought his sternum would give way at any moment.

"That's been enough running from you, I think," No-Nose spat, as he reared the metal pipe above his head before bringing it down as hard as he could onto Felder's shin. He repeated this multiple times until Felder's screams had turned to whimpers. Still not satisfied, he turned his attention Felder's knee on the same leg and began hammering away at it, Felder clawing at the foot still pinning him down futilely all the while. Well pleased with his work, No-Nose took his foot off of Felder's chest.

Felder began trying to shuffle away again, some base part of him still pushing for any inkling of survival. No-Nose flew into a rage once more, curb stomping Felder's shattered knee.

"Stay still and take your punishment!"

No-Nose stood over him, raising the metal pole once again, before bring it down onto Felder's head.

Felder was only slightly aware of the sharp clang the pole elicited when it hit him, his hearing filling with a muted fuzz as his vision blurred.

Again, the pole came down.

Again.

Again.

Again.

Everything was a dull sensation at the edge of consciousness for Felder. His jaw felt crooked and he wasn't sure he was seeing out of his left eye anymore.

Seemingly satisfied with the carnage he'd inflicted, No-Nose slowly limped away from Felder's mangled form, murmuring unintelligibly under his breath, broken occasionally by him choking on the sobs in this throat.

With the Frostgnawed having moved on, Felder was left only with a distorted view of the dark, starry heavens above. Always in flux. Pinpricks and speckles of purples, reds, blues, yellows, and the like, melding with the pitch void around them to make a kaleidoscope of beautiful bodies, millions of miles away yet all gathered to witness his end.

As he stared at the painting above him, the fresh oil dripping and smearing, Felder remembered a lullaby his mother used to sing him before bed, gently cooing him to sleep.

"Now, dearest, I wish you the best"
"Lay your head down to rest"
"So that tomorrow you may smile"
"One that lasts for a while"

Felder found himself trying to sing along with the memory of his mother, his jaw refusing to move properly, and blood trailing down the sides of his mouth as his tongue writhed and shoved loose teeth aside.

"Now, dearest, I wish you the best"
"I pray you keep warm at my behest"
"For even with out a cover"
"You can be warmed by the love of your mother"

Felder realized that his mother didn't know where he was. Where he had gone. No one did. Would she miss him? Would his father miss him?

"Now, dearest, I wish you the best"
"And I wish that not in jest"
"Tomorrow is a new day"
"And today is where the past will stay"

Yes. Yes, they would. Surely they would.

"Now, dearest, I wish you the best"
"And I make but one request"
"Chase after your dreams, sweet pup"
"Even after you have woken up"

He smiled to no one in particular, blood sputtering from his lips as he tried to stifle a giggle only to cough gently. Serenity had taken hold, squeezing his brain stem to drain it of all the lizard worries and stressors.

"Now, dearest, I wish you the best"
"Sleep well and safe, lest"
"You slip from your bed"
"And doze with the stars instead."

He could swear he felt his mother kiss him on the forehead as he closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep. Hoping to dream about the stars above him, where he would float through the vacuous waters of space, swimming to meet their supposed warmth. He felt the lingering sensations of the world around him fade away as he let himself slip into that soft ether of rest and reenergization, preparing him for the tomorrow that always lingered on the horizon, calling him ever forward to his ambitions and dreams.

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