...Hungry. I was so desperately hungry. My stomach had long since given up on its audible complaints, and all that remained was the ceaseless, hollow, gnawing ache that seemed to be eating me alive from the inside out.
I was close to my destination—a small village outpost on the outskirts of what used to be the Ranhil marquessate. I just had to make it there, and I’d be able to eat. I just had to deliver the letter, and they’d give me some food.
Distant thunder rumbled. The noise was distorted by the haze hanging in the air, vibrations resounding in my skull and leaving me with a fierce ringing in my ears that would take a minute or so to slowly fade. As I shakily, but carefully climbed down a small ridge, I took a moment to glance up at the sky. The mana clouds hanging in a thick blanket high above me were currently a murky shade of orange, their edges tinged a rusty crimson, and occasional flashes of coloured light could faintly be seen within.
Reaching the ground, I had to pause to catch my breath. Panting for air that tasted as sickly sweet as rotting fruit, I leaned against the face of the small cliff I’d just descended and fought to stay on my feet, continuing to observe the sparks of light in the clouds as I gathered my strength.
...Blue, now, as well. I ground my teeth in frustration.
It’s getting really unstable.
I peered in the direction I was headed. Countless large hills dominated the landscape, the blades of once-green grass that covered them having now turned black as charcoal and as sharp as knives. The trees—the few that were still standing—stretched their unnaturally twisted, barren branches impossibly high into the air, as though desperately competing to be the next of their number to be struck down by a stray bolt of rampaging mana.
With practised eyes, I studied the path ahead, searching for any signs of movement... but no, there was nothing yet.
Odd. I would usually expect more activity this close to a shielded settlement. Ideally, I’d have preferred to wait for the incoming storm to pass so I could safely stake out the area for an hour or two and get a better idea of what was going on... but the ravenous void gnawing at my stomach would not tolerate any further delay. I would just have to stay on high alert as I moved forward.
Over the first low hill. Around the side of a particularly steep slope. When treading on the grass, each step had to be taken slowly, with great care—my boots were made of a thick, tough leather that wouldn’t be easily sliced through, but I still opted to travel over rocky terrain whenever possible.
The mana clouds on the distant horizon began to light up with a fierce orange glow—it was sunset. I anxiously scanned the landscape again, praying for a column of smoke or a building’s roof or a barrier stone or some indication of my destination to show itself amidst the eerily quiet hills.
Thunder roared again, closer this time. I glanced upwards, my ears ringing. The frequency of the sparks in the clouds was getting faster, and although it was difficult to tell through the overpowering orange of the sunset, I suspected I’d seen a flash of turquoise out of the corner of my eye.
Too many colours, fluctuating too quickly. I cursed inwardly. The storm would be here soon, and there was no way I’d make into the outpost’s barrier in time if I still hadn’t caught sight of it. I’d have to find shelter out here somewhere.
Moving quickly, I pulled my hood over my head and started to run. The slight resistance I felt against my feet with each step told me that the sharp blades of grass were beginning to bite into my boots, but I’d have to defer that concern to tomorrow’s hopefully-not-dead me. The air was thick and humid, each gasp for breath more sickening than the last, as my gaze darted hurriedly across my surroundings, searching.
Cresting another hill, I jerked to a startled halt as the heavy, pungent stench of decaying meat slammed into me like a punch to the face. I gagged out of reflex, but I already knew painfully well that I had nothing in me to throw up, so I ignored it and quickly turned my attention to the small valley in front of me—at which point the source of the smell became overwhelmingly obvious.
Carcasses. A huge pile of rotting animal carcasses.
I couldn’t make out what sort of animals, exactly—the surrounding air was swimming with a dense, muddy mana haze that distorted and obscured too many identifying details to tell. The sheer volume of the haze they were emanating, though, told me that at the very least, they were far too contaminated to have come from the village.
I wanted to run. To put as much distance as possible between myself and that pile of death. Just being close enough to smell it already had me worried.
...But right next to it was the entrance to a cave.
A humid wind was beginning to pick up. The build-up to this mana storm was probably the most rapid I’d ever seen, and I didn’t like what that suggested about how strong it might be once it hit. Certain, but mild mana poisoning from running through that haze to get inside the cave? Or keep looking for another place to take shelter and risk getting caught in the storm?
I had a thick, durable cloak, and I’d weathered mana storms before, but... if I was right about this one, my cloak would do very little to protect me. Even if I was fortunate enough to find shelter quickly, there was every chance I’d end up with severe mana poisoning before I could even reach it... which meant it was a question of how much I trusted my intuition, after all these months spent nervously watching the skies.
I grabbed the fabric of my cloak and pressed it tightly over my nose and mouth just as, a few hills over, a small bolt of reddish-violet mana escaped its cloud and shattered the several highest branches of a tall tree, accompanied by a violent crack and the deafening roar of thunder.
I bolted into motion as though the noise was some sort of start signal, half sprinting, half sliding down the hill. Sharp pain pierced through my tattered boots and cut several shallow slices into my feet, and I could feel warm, sticky blood welling up from the skin. As soon as I was on relatively level ground, I took a deep breath of hot, revolting air and held it, then squeezed one eye totally shut, leaving the other open just enough to see where I was going as I continued on at full speed.
I didn’t get a close look at the pile of animals. I didn’t want to. Even if it weren’t liable to make me retch, part of me was simply afraid of finding out whether or not all of them really were, in fact, animals.
One moment, it felt like my entire body was being pricked by thousands of needles, my head seeming like it might burst from a sudden, agonizing pressure in my skull. The next, I was stumbling unsteadily into the cave—the pain quickly faded in intensity now that I was through the thick of the mana haze, but it wouldn’t disappear entirely for some time.
Another crash of thunder outside. I leaned heavily against a rock wall and tried to catch my breath, but failed to account for the fact that the stench of those carcasses was still in the air, here—my vision swam, bile rising in my throat, and at last my legs collapsed under me as I gave up on maintaining my balance. Instinctively, I brought my arms up to shield my head from the fall, and the left side of my body took the brunt of the fall instead.
...I would doubtlessly have a fine collection of bruises later.
I couldn’t move. I could barely think. I wished I could check to see if rain had started to fall, but there was a deafening ringing in my ears and I was stuck facing away from the entrance.
My consciousness began to drift, and I didn’t bother fighting it. As awareness gradually faded, blessedly taking the pain and nausea and ringing with it, my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. There was a glint of something metal, a little ways away. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it was worn, battered, and heavily rusted.
Exhausted, I let my eyes close.
I’ll take a look tomorrow, if I’m still alive.
...And everything went dark.
As it turned out, though, the day I’d called ‘tomorrow’ wouldn’t be coming.
When the world was falling apart around him, it was all Silt could do just to deal with his own problems and stay alive. When the archmage began developing time manipulation magic as a last-ditch effort to save humanity, Silt was an unrelated nobody being forced out of the safety of the overcrowded capital and made to work as a messenger all across the apocalyptic countryside for months on end, his efforts repaid only in meager scraps of stale food.
Then one day, he woke up... in his quiet, peaceful hometown, seven years in the past. Before it had all started. With enough time left that humankind might just have a chance of averting the worst-case scenario. They might... if only Silt, a powerless orphan with no credibility, the incompetent apprentice to a wanted assassin, of all people, wasn’t the only one who remembered.