Not as close as they seem
33 kilometers past from the walls.
He never quite understood why it was so difficult to explore this far. He wasn't even a seeker, yet traveled this far with ease. The most senior seekers hadn't gotten even gotten past 62 kilometers. A wave of pride and anger overcame him, maybe anger towards the system that stopped so many in their tracks, made them contempt to never reach beyond and "honorable" 45 kilometers, after which they could advance to a senior rank in the guild.
Anger subsided as he heard the soft glow of the jellies, the mysterious yet motherly light that he had discovered on this most recent trip, one of many things to tell the others about.
The way back was always his favorite part, when going forward you needed to focus, making sure not to damage the trail-string, momentum to get past the ever-growing mushroom bushes, sneaking past the joking lions. But now he knew exactly how to get back, how long it would take him, what supplies he had. His consciousness was free to be in awe at the forest. Man-like shadowy shapes hopping through the canvas of ancient trees, many-colored birds twirling through falling pods, those large-eared rainbow-colored creatures engaging in their mating dance.
That's what he loved about the forest, always a new trail to find, always new things to see. There was some pattern, aye, but always unclear and hard to pinpoint. Every time one ventured in, even 15 or 20 kilometers away, they'd almost certainly come back with a tale that was hard to believe, even by those that had journeyed into the depths themselves.
He always wished he could bring back a piece of the forest with him, alas that was usually not possible. Most things you tried to carry faded away as you got back, lost their luster and animation, shrank, stopped, died.
The next morning he was idly twiddling his mind, while his eardrums were being swayed by air ripples correlated with his mentor's repetitive complaints. Danger, too inexperienced, plenty of time, need to learn more, bigger groups... etc, etc, it had gotten to be a routine at this point.
- Arkios, what's the point?
- The point is that I'm responsible for your safety. You're decent at scouting, excellent even, but you're venturing too far too quickly and for no good reason. Did you find any scrolls? Gathered any reagents? Escorted any alchemists or engineers? Found any ruins? Updated any maps?
- Not really, no.
- If that's not what you're doing, then why go? Why take the risk just to see how far you can get? Once, I get it, I did it too, but not once every few months. You're wasting time and risking your life for naught.
- Risking what!? that's the thing I don't understand. I can't even comprehend how one could get lost in the forest, it's so... intuitive. If it wasn't for the fear your guild instilled in me, I bet you I would have gone much further. You seem afraid of ghosts.
- I'm telling you, the further you venture the more it starts to affect you. Until one day you go too far and that's it, you're done for. Do you know what the longest distance someone ever ventured in?
- 62 kilometers?
- No, that's not it. That's the record distance someone ventured in and returned. The record distance, I'd wager, is over 133 kilometers. We found out by pulling back the trail-string, after 2 years we were pretty sure she would have never returned anyway. What we found hanging from its end was not pretty, and I'll leave it at that.
- Ok, I get it, people that venture far don't return, danger, unknown, darkness, death... yada yada. I'm asking why? Can't you explain? Give a personal anecdote when something nearly happened to you? At least one that nearly happened to your mentor?
Arkios walked him through town, he has expecting they'd go to the guildhall, maybe to hear a story from one of the elders, instead they reached the gates of the hospital. After a bit of chatting with the doctors, Arkios was escorted by a short-armed man past a locked door into a dark wing of the clinic.
- Here we are, the asylum wing. Here the doctors send those affected by forms of dementia that can't be cured. Look around you.
They were indeed surrounded by insane people, some locked away, most simply waddling about, or sitting motionless in odd positions with empty-yet-focused faces.
People screaming at walls, people speaking with God, people scratching at imaginary insects, wrestling with chains that did not exist, and whining about events that weren't happening.
- So, let me guess, some of these people used to be seekers?
- No, not at all, these are just insane people. Some were a bit odd since birth, others grew into it, yet for others, the change was sudden and unexpected.
- Then what does this have to do with what happens to seekers?
- Look at that man over there.
A middle-aged man, bald and clean-shaven, was holding a sermon with what seemed to be an old and empty vase as his only audience. He was going on about the words of gods flowing through his mind, about the beauty of paradise, about the laments of Tartarus, about the hidden codes written on the wall.
- Why is he insane?
- I mean... look at him.
- No, don't just use your intuition, for once in your life, articulate your thoughts. What would it take for that man, doing those same actions, at this very moment, not to be insane?
- Well... for once, it would help if he was speaking to an actual audience, even if they were just other crazy people. Or at least if he would act in such a way as to acknowledge the fact that nobody is listening.
- Go on...
- And then, I guess, it would help if his "gods" chose to side with him a bit. If they gave him a glowing aura. If harp music filled the air when he was talking about paradise if darkness covered the room and everything smelled like brimstone when he mentioned the pit.
- I see...
- Maybe if the sign he was talking about actually existed on the wall.
- And what about his prophecies? The ones he says he receives in his dreams. What would make you believe those?
- In his current state, nothing.
- What if you had the exact same dreams?
- Well, maybe, could be a coincidence I guess.
- What if you and all of your friends had the same dream?
- Hmm, I guess I'd start taking him more seriously.
- So then, really, why is this man mad?
- Because he's... ahem, delusional.
- You could say so. He's seeing things nobody else is seeing, giving great importance to things nobody else ever experienced. He seems to be part of the same world as you and I and the nurse, but if he had to describe this very room to us, we'd be confused. He's decoupled from the sensory reality.
- That sounds plausibel.
- But imagine if he had 100 other people, feeling and seeing and dreaming those same things. People that, on the balance, agreed with what he said. Would he still be insane?
- Are the people praying in the church insane? People like your mother? People that execute the rites and sing the songs when birth or death crosses their path?
- They're a bit naive in their conception of reality, maybe, but not insane I guess, no.
- Why? Because other people believe in those same things. If the spirits talk to you, you're insane. If the spirits talk to you and your close friends, you're a cult. If the spirits talk to you and half your town, you're just religious.
- Get to your points already.
- My point is, you spend one-third of your waking life exploring that forest. You see things, they enter your brain, you want to talk about them, you want to associate them with other things, you want to ask other people their opinions on them... you can't help it, that's what brains do when they see things, especially when they see things that are unsettling or awe-inspiring.
- So I talk with my friends about it.
- Which friends?
- Well, it used to be my school buddies, now I guess it's other pupils from the guildhall.
- Pupils, that happen to be a few years older than you?
- Usually, yes.
- And what happens on the odd occasions when they seem confused by something you tell them, they don't understand how you could have seen or felt something or another?
- Then I tell you, I guess, or one of the other seekers.
- I see, and what if one day I were also confused about one of your stories?
- Then I'd keep it to myself, presumably.
Arkios made a pause as if to think, but he rolled his eye, he well knew Arkios was just doing it for effect. Finally, Arkios thanked the nurse and started leading him away from the asylum, then he spoke again.
- Are you more likely to be moved by things you see closer to the town or deeper in the forest?
- Deeper in the forest, usually.
- Are other people more likely to be confused by stories about things deep in the forest? Things that they never saw, or that they never even saw a close equivalent to?
- Ok, ok, I see where you're going with this. You're saying that if I explore too deep in the forest I'll go insane, I'll be decoupled from day to day reality. That the things which will seem interesting and important to me will be mine and mine alone, unable to speak about them with anyone, to have an experience of empathy around them, I will boil inside my own head.
- More or less, yes, that's what it boils down to, but it goes further than that. You see, if we venture out, say, 20 kilometers, we'll see things that everybody knows about, the whole area is more or less mapped, it's only about 1200 km^2, and we've had over a thousand years to explore it.
- But if you venture out twice that amount, suddenly you're talking about 5000 km^2, even though seekers often venture 40 kilometers away unless we pick the same direction every time, we're bound to encounter unknown lands, it'll take a few thousand years more to map all that. And what about 62? That's already 12000 km^2, 133 is roughly 55,000... we'll likely never be able to map that big an area, not without a complete paradigm shift, or without the grueling work of reclaiming some of the forest as farmland, to support more people, more seekers.
- Then why not venture in one single direction?
- What's the point? It's more difficult to turn back, and if there's so much unknown land just 30 kilometers away from the guildhall, why make twice that journey only to find more unknown?
- Because deeper inside the forest things get more interesting.
- And the likelihood of those things losing all their "interesting" properties by the time we bring them back becomes greater. You know that as well as I do?
He was rather annoyed, Arkios was starting to insinuate that seeing the forest for your own sake was pointless. That unless you could bring something back, or at least share the stories with others, there was no point in exploring. He tried saying as much, but Arikos interrupted midway through his point:
- Do you know what we found at the end of that string, the one I told you about, the one someone used to go in 130 kilometers deep?
- The remains of a massacred body? An eldritch artifact?
- No, much worst. We found a note?
- A suicide note?
- No, but I do wish it were that. It was gibberish, letters we did not know, syntax that made no sense, words that seemed misused and jumbled together.
- Why is that so bad? You think the seeker that wrote it went mad? Or worst?
- That's the point, I don't know what to think, I don't know. She was our friend, she had a family, and kids, and lovers, and acquaintances throughout town... but she went in so deep that by the end of it, she couldn't even write final goodbye, explain why she left us, if she was happy or sad, or if such things even meant something that deep in the forest.
- Well, at least she got to see whatever was there... maybe it's not so bad, maybe it's worth it?
- Maybe, and believe me, many other seekers think the same, usually in their old age, they venture into the forest without a string, never to return.
- So why shouldn't I venture just a bit further, say 50 or 60 kilometers, if I plan on returning.
- You're forgetting what you just learned. Because the further you venture, the more distant you grow from people, whatever seems interesting and important to you, you can't relate to anyone else. The leap from 30 to 40 is much easier than that from 20 to 30, and that from 60 to hundreds, I'd wager, is the easiest of all... because by that point, you've got nothing left here in town. Maybe one or two other insane seekers with a similar urge to venture as deep as they can.
- And is that so bad?
- Is it bad? I don't know, but I'm your teacher and your friend, and so are many people in the guild and many people in this town. As far as we are concerned, yes, yes it is.
He looked down and was mad at himself for not being able to hide away the mix of remorse and shame from his face.
- There's probably some that will tell you that what you yearn for is the correct thing. But guess what? They're not there, they are deep in the forest, where you will probably never find them. And if you find them, who knows if you'll be able to speak to them, or if you will even recognize each other as humans?
A month had passed, a month in which he worked tirelessly to scrounge up as much coin as possible. He had bought a mule, supplies of dried food, and waterskins to last for 150 kilometers.
It was enough to venture deeper than anyone who could have ever returned and the conversation with Arkios had only reinforced the idea that this was indeed possible for him, not a matter of skill, but of will.
It was enough, together with a bit of coaxing, for him together with his more adventurous friends, to go as deep as he'd ever been. To show them the soft-singing jellies, the shades, the giant fluorescent flowers, and the crystal lake.
Published on: 2020-12-10