Hope as he might, Blake did not wake up. Hours passed as he laid on the soft ground, staring at the alien world before him and desperately wishing it wasn’t there. But eventually, as the sun rose to start a brand-new day, he had to face the facts: this was no dream. The moons, the sparse grass, the weird installation built into the mountainside behind him – everything was real. Unfortunately, Blake didn't know much else. He knew he could breathe here. Given the circumstances, he felt lucky that even for that. He could have ended up on some world with a methane atmosphere and just keeled over on the spot. He also didn’t seem to have to worry about any fast-acting pathogens, given that he hadn’t coughed up his spleen. Yet.
Blake needed answers, but everything else remained a mystery. Where was he, both locally and cosmically? Were there any dangerous plants and animals out there that he should be wary of? Given the ancient and unused appearance of the facility he appeared in, did intelligent life still exist? If so, would they even welcome him, or would they just kill him on sight? How would he get home? Could he get home? All those mysteries and more floated through his mind throughout the night, coalescing into a pit of worry and anxiety in his gut.
Yet, somehow, there were two even bigger issues that rendered his other concerns trivial. The first was the buzzing. Blake didn't know what else to call it, but he did know that it was starting to drive him insane. It would be a challenge to explain the feeling, like trying to explain colors to a blind person. It was as if it was a sixth sense, a weird combination of sound and touch that only buzzed in his head. Only texture and intensity could be discerned from the sensation, and nothing like a direction. The strength waxed and waned slightly for reasons that remained unclear, but it never once did it go away.
The second and far more pressing concern was his body, or, to be more specific, the sudden disappearance of half of it. He had noticed something after calming down a bit under the pale shine of the triple moons: he no longer felt the soft, familiar padding of ample cellulose. Somehow, someway, his body had transformed into something closer to that of an Olympic wrestler than an exercise-averse desk jockey, and all his fat had just... vanished. In its place, lean muscle lined his frame, solid and powerful but not overly-bulky or obtrusive. His face had thinned as well. He felt strong. He felt light. He felt healthy. He felt... wrong.
He had considered the possibility that this wasn't even his original body and thought of a way to test it. One day, back when Blake had been a young and stupid child eager to demonstrate what he had learned in school that day, he had decided to show his friend that the electric element on his family's just-used stove, while not glowing, was still quite scorching. Using the infinite wisdom of a seven-year-old, he had determined that the best way to demonstrate this was to say "Watch this!" and slap his entire hand, palm down, on the still-hot metal. One hospital trip and lots of crying later, Blake possessed a permanent monument to his stupidity in the form of a large, spiral-shaped burn that covered most of the palm and fingers of his left hand. Looking at his left palm, he could still trace the scar as it orbited the center of his palm. This body was legit.
Blake struggled to accept everything that he had been through in the past half a day. He had faced torture more agonizing than he had thought possible and had been thrust away from everything he had ever known. But even in this strange wilderness filled with unknown dangers, there was one thing he would normally be able to rely on: himself. He knew who he was, what he was, and what he could do, and this gave him a confidence in himself and his abilities that no unexpected extra-planar field trip should have been able to destroy. But now? He didn't feel that he could trust even himself. His body was barely recognizable, his mind buzzed with unknown purpose... Who knew what other suspect alterations were still hidden within him? Could he even call himself Blake Myers anymore?
A gurgle from his stomach broke Blake from his reverie. He could be gloomy and introspective any time. Right now, exploring and finding food and water took top priority. Unfortunately, he couldn't see anything promising nearby. Large hills and low mountains shaped the land in front of him, the rocky ground covered by clusters of short bushes no more than a few feet tall and patches of long, hardy grasses. He couldn't spot any fruits or berries on the bushes. He needed to start walking now in the early morning before it got too hot. Blake thanked the stars that he at least still had his shoes and headed out into the great unknown.
* * *
Blake managed to make his way out of the hills and reach flatter ground by the late afternoon. The journey took longer due to his decision to tread carefully so that he could keep watch for any critters that fell into the "oh shit that's a lot of teeth" or "how the hell do they grow that big?" categories. Strangely, he didn't see any creatures at all. Nor did he hear peeps, squawks, howls, or any noise whatsoever from anything larger than a bug.
Compared to that, Blake found the valley to be refreshingly alive. Grasses grew in abundance, while trees dotted the landscape off in the distance. The chirps of insects emanated from the vegetation all around him. Off to the right, Blake could see a flock of birds running off somewhere. The birds looked similar to emus, except little more than two feet tall and with a peacock-esque tail.
The level at which life here mimicked Earth's intrigued Blake. Nothing directly matched, but the plants and animals all seemed to fill similar niches to his home planet and did so in similar ways. Grasses were still green, trees still sported branches, leaves, and bark, and small little chitinous insects crawled and flew everywhere... but the stalks on the grass bent oddly, the shapes of the leaves were different and the textures of the bark he couldn't recognize, and the insects chirped in songs that he'd never before heard. This wasn't so bad. It felt less like he stood on some hostile alien world and more like he had moved to Australia. For the first time since his arrival, he began to consider not how he could die but instead what he might discover, should he live. With a shrug and a smile, he began the next leg of his journey.
He almost didn't see it at first, instead being too caught up watching two "hamster squirrels", as he thought of them, chase each other across the nearby treetops. In fact, if not for a tree root that almost made him trip, he might have walked right by it. Either way, there it was: a path. It appeared to be nothing more than a dirt trail—small, narrow, and poorly maintained—but he could see how it followed the most efficient route across the terrain before him. This was no random path created by animals or chance. This was a deliberate construction, one which screamed "intelligent life" and left little room for argument.
Minutes upon minutes passed as he struggled to decide if it would be better to seek out this life or try to investigate without being noticed first. There were so many questions. Would they be humanoid or something with seventeen tentacles and no skeleton? Would they even have mouths with which to speak? Maybe they all communicated with pheromones or hand movements instead! Screw it! Nothing ventured, nothing gained! Blake marched off down the path, eager to make first contact with the denizens of this world, no matter how strange they might be.
* * *
Blake let out a disappointed sigh as he crested a ridge and suddenly got his answers. It was humans. Just regular ol’ humans. No wings, tentacles, extra limbs, third eye, pointy ears... nothing. Well, that wasn't entirely true; there was one obvious difference: hair color. Blake could spot heads with colors from every part of the rainbow, from the standard shades of brown, blond, etcetera to more strange colors like blue, green... he even spotted a magenta. But that was it. Maybe the hair was a sign of some internal difference between them and himself, but for now, it seemed that his hopes had amounted to little more than normal people with access to hair dye.
In the crimson glow of the setting sun, Blake could see these humans working farmland, which surrounded a pathetic little village. Huts built from clay, mud, and wood stood atop a small hill, with a larger, more ornate building in the center. The discrepancy between the quality of the building and its surroundings befuddled him. The ramshackle huts seemed to be cobbled together from logs from the nearby forest and whatever other materials the villagers could find at the time. They offered little to no protection from the wind, and he doubted they would do much for rain either. The other building, however, seemed to be a single solid piece of stone, as if it had been chiseled from some even larger boulder. Large, ornate columns each as wide as Blake’s torso decorated the front. It reminded him of some sort of strange Roman structure, pulled from his world's past and dumped into the middle of the most depressing set of houses he could imagine.
The farmland itself looked on par with the huts. The rocky land didn’t look like ideal farming material (not that any other land he'd traversed the last day seemed much better). The fields were an absolute mess. Dirt and stones littered the ground, and what crops he could see looked mostly ruined, their stems broken and leaves crushed. Destroyed fences and their remains littered the landscape. The scene reminded him of the pictures found on news sites after tornadoes and hurricanes.
The villagers noticed him as he cleared the last line of trees and entered the fields. He continued to stride towards the village in as relaxed and nonchalant of a manner as he could manage while the nearest farmer stood up and headed his way. As the man drew closer, Blake couldn’t help but notice just how emaciated the man looked. He seemed to be somewhere between the ages of forty and sixty, but his gaunt visage made it hard to tell if the wrinkles Blake could see were the result of age or simply a hard life. Judging from nothing more than the man’s thin form and simple, crude clothes, it seemed that life here was no picnic. A quick glance at the other farmers nearby confirmed the conclusion; not a single person looked even remotely healthy.
A fountain of guilt erupted in Blake’s heart. How could he ask starving people for food? No, perhaps he could just get some water and information... if they could even converse with each other.
"Hoer, ksromsar. Is'k rora su kaa o mav koca oruimd rara. Wrae roqa aeui cuka su uir qerrosa?"
Blake rocked backward as if physically struck, and nearly fell flat on his rear in surprise. If he couldn't count the buzzing as enough proof that his mind had been tampered with, this most definitely qualified. The man spoke in a language that Blake had never before heard, but Blake understood what was said. He didn't suddenly know the language; no, it remained absolutely foreign and unintelligible to him. It was more like a third party had translated its meaning in his mind, as if a perfect, omniscient Google Translate existed in his head. While his ears heard gibberish, his mind understood the man to be saying "Hail, stranger. It's rare to see a new face around here. Why have you come to our village?"
An awkward silence descended upon the surroundings as Blake struggled to come up with an answer that seemed both safe and believable. He fought the urge to withdraw from the sudden spotlight now shining on him. Every villager that he could see had stopped whatever they were doing so they could just stare at him. So many pairs of eyes...
Shit, he had nothing. He just didn't know enough to construct a feasible falsehood, so he decided to go with the truth. Some version of the truth, that is.
"I... got lost," Blake confessed, scratching his head in embarrassment. He didn’t dare say more. How would these people he didn’t know react to an admission that he was from another world? It was too big a risk; he’d have to wait until he found somebody he believed he could trust. "I was hoping I could get directions to a town, and perhaps a drink of water?"
Wait, he belatedly realized... he could understand the villager, but how would the villager understand his English? Blake braced himself for the man's reaction to his language, but instead the farmer acted as if this was perfectly normal.
"You got lost?" he replied in mild amusement, still using his strange language. "What were you doing out here without a map? Where were you?"
"I was... over that way," Blake answered as he gestured towards the mountain range in the distance. "Up in the hills there. Long story."
The man's eyes suddenly shot open in surprise, his demeanor transforming in an instant from helpful curiosity to one of intense focus and urgency.
"How long were you there?" he demanded, grabbing Blake by the shoulders with a startling strength given the condition of his body. "Were you there yesterday?"
"Uh... I guess," Blake responded sheepishly. "Is something wrong?"
"Follow me. The Voice needs to speak with you immediately."
With that said, the man turned towards the village and began striding towards down the path with an urgency that concerned Blake, who, with no better options, followed close behind. The man didn't seem to be in much of a talking mood so Blake took the opportunity to reconsider his assumptions he had made over the last day. He seemed to have jumped to conclusions prematurely with his whole "mental tampering" idea. Even though Blake knew the language coming out of his mouth was English, the farmer completely understood him. Was this perhaps something that everybody here took for granted? Perhaps something that hadn't been given to him in particular, but simply how the world itself worked?
Blake found the idea of a world where everyone could understand each other incredibly enticing. Surely it would decrease hatred, since it is harder to hate people that you can talk to. He wondered about the power of the system. Could he just grunt at people and have them understand him? He smirked at the image of an entire civilization conversing in nothing but guttural utterances like cavemen.
But still, this development meant tremendous potential for Blake. Blake viewed life as a series of problems to be solved and challenges to conquer. Looking at the men, women, and children, each more skeletal than the last, hacking at the dirt with crude tools and a quiet desperation in their eyes, Blake saw more than just a world in the technological dark ages — he saw the opportunity of a lifetime.
Here was an entire civilization that needed him, more than they could ever know. There were so many areas of their lives he could help improve, and he was itching to start, the back of his mind already working on a design for a horse-powered thresher based on an old drawing of one from the nineteenth century he’d come across online. Blake’s excitement rose as his mind swam through a sea of ideas. Finding a way home could wait.
As they passed by the rickety homes and neared the central building, Blake could not take his eyes off of the huge stone structure. At this point he expected to see obvious seams where pieces were connected, but there were none. Everything from the columns in the front to the walls and even the roof looked to be part of one continuous piece. The significance of this could not be understated. Something within this world or society possessed significantly more advanced technology than the farmers. Why weren't they sharing?
The two men entered the building through the front doorway into something that reminded Blake of a combination of a church and a medieval monk's study. Several rows of benches lined one side of the chamber, each oriented towards a central pulpit. A desk stood on the other side, with a small bookshelf placed nearby it against the wall. Papers and inkwells covered the top of the desk. Splotches of ink stained the wood in the gaps between papers.
Behind the desk sat a woman, her head down in concentration as she wrote. The lady appeared to be in her fifties or early sixties by Blake's layman estimation. Her long orange hair, tied in a ponytail most likely so it wouldn't obscure her view, struck a sharp contrast draped over the dark blue robe she wore. But what Blake found most remarkable about this woman that he found her, specifically in the "not starving to death" department. In fact, from what he could tell looking at her face and what he could make out under her robes, she actually looked a bit overweight!
Blake tried his best not to make any undue rash judgments, telling himself that he didn't understand their society, but his rationalizations failed to quell the outrage spawned by the sight of the two juxtaposed. Still, he bottled it up for now; the farmer's extreme reverence made clear that the Voice was the boss around here. If Blake wanted to begin Operation Uplift, he had to start by finding some sort of accord with this lady. The idea of Blake fixing problems on a societal scale all by himself was a laughable one. He needed the support of those in power if he wanted to be a force for positive change in a world he didn't know.
The woman continued to write, not bothering to look at the two as they walked across the room. The farmer stopped several feet from the desk and stood there as if he required her recognition before he could speak. After a few more moments of nothing but the sound of a quill's scratching, the Voice spoke.
"Bertramar, I hope you have a good reason for interrupting my work," she warned in irritation as she continued to write.
"I am sorry to disturb you, Voice," the farmer, apparently named Bertramar, stammered, "but this man arrived from the eastern woods just now. He claims to be lost without a map and that he was in the mountains yesterday during the wave of beasts."
Blake's attention zipped from the Voice to Bertramar. Hold up, the wave of what now? He didn't know what a "wave of beasts" was, but it sure sounded like bad news. His suspicions were confirmed by the woman, as the words halted her quill and she looked up for the first time, her irritation replaced by stern attention.
"Is that so?" she stated. "Very well. You may return to your duties."
Bertramar placed both hands over his heart, one hand on top of the other, and bowed in respect before turning and leaving the two of them alone.
After placing her quill into a container, the lady observed Blake from head to toe, as if evaluating his worth. "I am the Voice of this village," she said. "You are?"
"Uh... Blake," he replied. "He said something about a... beast wave?"
"Yes. Yesterday hundreds of animals trampled through our fields and damaged most of them. My people now have to work even harder and longer than before if we are to recover in time for the harvest season. It is truly a calamity, and I want to know why it happened."
"Some sort of mass migration?"
"No, Mister Blake. This was not some flocks of numara or herds of sharpat moving with the seasons. This was a flood of animals of every kind, as if every that could leave the area decided to do so as quickly as possible. They were not just running, they were fleeing. From what, I cannot say... but it was in the same Blivala Mountains you claim you were in at the time."
Blake shook his head. "I wish I could help you, but I didn't see anything," he confessed. "The whole area felt dead. I couldn't see or hear any animals until I left the mountains."
"Hmmm..." The Voice mumbled. She pulled out a half-filled piece of paper and began writing something on it in a script that Blake could not understand. After a moment, the woman looked back up, a hint of annoyance on her countenance. "That is all. You may leave," she said as she dismissively shooed him away with her hand.
Her attitude irked Blake's ego, but he stuffed his retorts back down before they could escape his throat and ruin his chances. "Actually, I have something else I wanted to discuss with you."
The Voice paused her writing for a second time. "What is it? Speak."
"Are you the person who has top authority here?"
The woman visibly bristled at Blake's question. "An Apostle will arrive soon to investigate the cause of the beast wave," she confided as she eyed him with suspicion, "but I am the highest stationed authority for this village. If you have something to say to him, you must first say it to me. I will not have you wasting an Apostle's time."
"Well, I can't help but notice that the lives of the people living here pretty much suck."
"Come on, don't tell me you're okay with this. Everyone's starving out there, your houses would fall over from a stiff breeze, there's no power, no sewer system... You can't be satisfied with that, right? I wouldn't be. And here's the thing... it doesn't have to be like that. I know ways to make the lives of everybody here better. Here's all you'd have to do: just hook me up with the Apostle when he arrives. You help me convince him to lend his support to me, and fairly soon this village and every other one like it will be unrecognizable."
"Get out," the woman demanded, her face crimson with fury.
"I do not have time for your insults. You are not the first bored child from some rich city family to pass by this village while hunting for sport. We've seen how you all stop to laugh at us poor farmers from your fancy carriages. But never before has somebody had the gall to walk right into our home and insult the very dignity of our lives. You think you know better than we, just because you've gotten your way your entire life? What could you know about farming? About life here?"
"I know a lot that could make your lives better, yes. I'm not what you think I am, I-"
"Don't insult my intelligence. It's blatantly apparent that you have never before set foot outside the cities. Nobody who isn't from a wealthy city family could afford to wear clothes as finely woven as yours, and you even paid to have your pants dyed."
Blake glanced down as his blue denim jeans as she continued her rant. Did they really seem that fancy to her?
"You are alone. You have little to no supplies, not even a map. And you think yourself fit to tell us what to do?"
"You're misunderstanding this. I don't want to run the show, I just want to help the people here."
"No, I understand perfectly. We do not require your 'help', you blithering simpleton. We have the wisdom of Othar to guide us, and the providence of Othar's Will to protect us. We need nothing else, especially not your false pity. Now leave."
"You're making a big mistake here."
"Do not threaten me. You may have influence in the mercantile realm, but I am backed by the Church itself. Make no mistake about who would emerge the victor."
Blake retreated from the woman's tirade and turned to leave. This was obviously a lost cause. Oh well, he'd tried, at least. Perhaps he could have been a little more tactful, but Blake was never good at such things. Blunt honesty was his tool of choice. He'd just have to keep moving and try somewhere else until he found somebody smart enough to listen. Somebody less sensitive and not blinded by obvious feelings of inferiority.
He made it about twenty feet when a panicked cry from outside froze him in his tracks. The Voice jumped to her feet and rushed past him, their confrontation seconds before no longer important. Blake followed her outside to find a female villager in her thirties dragging a teenage male villager in from the fields. The teenager's limp body looked little different from the others – withered and frail.
"Voice, please help!" the woman exclaimed as she shook with worry. "He just collapsed! Please, he is all I have left!"
To the Voice's credit, she immediately leapt into action.
"Bertramar!" she yelled, to the nearby farmer who apparently had been waiting nearby the whole time. "Fetch me a bucket, now!"
The man nodded and ran off towards one of the sad nearby huts. People from the fields were beginning to gather, attracted by the ruckus caused by the two ladies. Many of them were still carrying their hoes and pitchforks. Blake thought about leaving, but his conscience persuaded him to stick around at least for a little bit. He wanted to see what would happen and hopefully leave with the knowledge that the child would be okay.
Soon Bertramar returned with a large metal bucket that had seen better days. He laid it down near the boy, whom the Voice leaned against a pillar. She placed the boy's left arm over the bucket and then, to Blake's shock and alarm, reached into her robes and pulled out a large dagger. Had that always been there? Had he been flirting with danger that whole time and never known it? He shivered at the thought.
"And Othar moved amongst the sickly," the Voice intoned as she brought the knife up to the child's wrist, her words echoing with unnatural presence, "and with his divine blade, he bled them of their evils. Their bodies purified of sin, they became whole once more." Without another word, she sliced a large gash down the boy's arm. Large amounts of blood began dripping into the bucket below. The boy twisted and moaned, obviously uncomfortable even while unconscious, but the Voice and the other woman held him still.
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!?!?!"
The words left Blake's mouth before he even realized he had spoken them. Bloodletting? Did they not realize what they were doing to the kid?
"Do you want this boy to die?" he exclaimed as he marched over to the stunned woman.
"Fool! It is the Will of Othar," she retorted. "Remedies, Chapter Four, Verse Three. Do not think to interfere with my treatment. I must follow the book precisely."
"You call me a fool when you're literally killing him and claiming you're trying to save him?" Blake furiously bellowed. "You think you can judge me with your high-and-mighty attitude when you're fucking bleeding people to death to try to cure them? Fuck that shit! I don't care what your stupid book says. The book is wrong!"
Gasps emanated from the crowd around him and everybody took several steps back. Fearful whispers of "blasphemer" crept into his ears from all about him. He looked around and saw eyes filled with hatred and fear encircling him and gulped. It seemed he had stepped on a landmine. He turned back to the Voice to see her rise, the boy forgotten and a righteous loathing overflowing from her eyes.
"And the Dragonslayer spoke unto the people," she roared as she pulled a second matching dagger from her outfit, her voice crashing down upon him like thunder as if her words had a physical presence of their own, "and he said 'Suffer not the words of the Blasphemer, for he will poison your soul with doubt. Rend his body and desolate his spirit, for he is the greatest of your enemies.'"
Shouts of agreement resounded through the crowd as Blake began to back away from the murderous woman in front of him. In the back of his mind, he congratulated himself on managing to create a homicidal mob while standing in the middle of it. It took real skill to bungle something that poorly.
Suddenly Blake heard a shout from his left and a large man, spurred on by the Voice's powerful renditions of local scripture, charged towards him with his hoe raised high up over his head. Blake dodged to the side as the farming implement slammed down where he stood just a moment before. The man and his tool flew past him, the villager's momentum too strong to stop. These people were not trained in combat, but a lucky hit would still be enough. Though no fighter himself, he knew that he could take pretty much any of these villagers, except perhaps the Voice. He probably had a strength and speed advantage on all of them. His physical superiority mattered little, however, because there were at least twenty people against him and they had him surrounded. Even a single glancing blow could knock him to the ground, and then he would be swarmed.
A second cry, this time from behind him, as a woman attacked with a rusty pitchfork. Blake bobbed and weaved around the deadly tines. This woman did not charge but instead thrust repeatedly from several feet away. Blake retreated a few steps back until she couldn't reach him anymore, and the woman finally charged in. Expecting this, he rolled underneath the woman's strike, kicking a leg out to trip her as she passed.
As he stood back up, a chilling thought popped into his mind – it was too quiet. He no longer heard shouted verses exhorting the crowd to eradicate his existence. Blake had no problem with that except he could clearly remember the Voice's pair of long, sharp-looking knives, and her silence only meant she would be sticking them in his body any time now. In fact, she could even be... right behind him! He whirled back towards the stone church just in time to see the village's Voice standing before him with her arms raised to strike, the daggers' deadly tips gleaming in the twilight.
"May Othar's Will be done!" she cried, her face flush with victory.
Once again, Blake Myers was not a fighter. That didn't mean he hadn't been in a tussle or two; with his attitude, it was actually surprising that he hadn't been punched more in his life. But when the going got tough, his instincts were to create space and get away from the source of danger. Surrounded on all sides and confronted with a bloodthirsty knife-wielding maniac, Blake did not have time to think and instead reverted to his typical instincts. He simply wanted this woman to be as far away from him as possible as soon as possible, so, acting without thought, he put both of his hands up against her torso and shoved her back as hard as he possibly could.
The woman grunted as if struck as she shot through the air at impossible speed, before slamming headfirst into a stone column thirty feet away with a soul-chilling crack. Her body fell to the ground, its strings all suddenly cut, blood and bits of pink matter smeared down the pillar. Everybody present froze as the implications of what just occurred sank in. Then a cry of terror broke the stillness and bedlam ensued. The villagers all scrambled to get as far away from Blake and the Voice's corpse as they could, creating a chaotic mess that Blake took as his cue to get as far out of Dodge as he possibly could.
Thirst and hunger completely forgotten, Blake rocketed down the path away from the village at inhuman speeds, his legs churning with a power his mind was far too lost to even notice. The reality of his actions and their many implications was largely lost on the man at the moment, his head too overwhelmed by horror and adrenaline to work on anything more than the most primitive level. He just knew that he needed to run, and keep running, as long as he could.
As the town faded into the distance behind him, Blake saw a man walking in the opposite direction, wearing ornate chest armor and carrying a sword strapped to his side. The man regarded Blake's swiftly approaching form with what looked to be a hint of curiosity, but Blake had much more important things to worry about than some guy on a path in the middle of nowhere... until a rock suddenly grew right in front of him. What had been just a stone in the ground, its top sticking perhaps an inch or so out of the path, suddenly shifted just before Blake ran over it. The rock grew a good six inches taller in just a second, catching Blake's foot as he tried to step over it. Caught off-guard by reality changing without warning, Blake stumbled, tumbled, and spilled face-first into a tree trunk. The world went black.