It was just before dawn when I spotted him. I hadn't seen another human in months. Or had it been years?
I'd lost track of how long it had actually been since I woke up in this God-forsaken place. My first day, I had marked a notch into a stone. That stone is miles away now, lodged into the skull of the decaying creature that had served as my welcoming committee. After the sun went down that first time, I stopped worrying about counting the days. My worries turned to surviving the nights.
He hadn't seen me yet, this new human. The pile of dirt and wood he was forming into a primitive hut next to the river took his full attention. I crept a little closer, keeping quiet behind the edge of the forest. He used wooden tools. It was probably his first day here. More people would be arriving soon—they always came in batches. He was the first of his batch, just as I had been of mine all those months or years ago.
I've already been here so long that most of the memories of my old life are a haze, but I can still recall that first night vividly. Kissing my wife and kids good night, turning the lamp on my nightstand off, drifting into a dreamless sleep, and then waking up here, in the middle of a sunny field surrounded by trees.
After the initial shock and confusion wore off, and I had sufficiently convinced myself that I was not dreaming, I spent the remainder of the absurdly short day in much the same way as the man I was now watching—foraging for materials, building crude wooden tools, and constructing shelter for the night. I wondered if this new arrival had a family. Did he have the same foolish notions of reunion that I once held?
The first night brought with it the knowledge that I was not alone here, but by the end of it I'd be wishing I was. I had completed my shelter just as the sun dipped below the horizon. The moon was bright enough to see quite clearly, so I decided I would take a walk and investigate my surroundings, as I'd had little chance to do so during my earlier construction work. My primary goal at that time was to find something—anything—that would provide clues about where I was or how I had arrived there.
The landscape, I found, was quite stunning in its beauty. The grassy plain opened to sprawling forests, sporadically interrupted by meandering rivers of crystal clear water, shimmering ponds, shallow valleys, and rolling hills. In the distance I could make out a large mountain range, the top obscured by slow moving clouds. The moonlight bathed everything in a pale blue glow, giving the scene a dream-like quality.
Movement had caught the corner of my eye. I turned and saw, to my immediate delight, a small gathering of people in the distance. There were three of them, walking along the bank of a thin river. I called to them and waved. All three figures stopped in their tracks, paused for a moment, and began moving in my direction. I called out again and started on my way to meet them. As we approached each other, I began to sense that something wasn't quite right, but I shrugged it off as nerves, attributable to the bizarreness of my current circumstances in general.
My mind raced with the questions I wanted to ask them. Where were we? Had the three of them been transported here as inexplicably as I? How long had they been here?
That's when the stench hit me.
It was the smell of death and decay. I nearly retched as I squinted at the three approaching figures, looking for some sign that they too might be experiencing the unbearable smell. As they drew nearer, my sense of panic increased. Something was not right about their shape, their color, the way they moved. The panic turned to horror when it finally dawned on me that these were not humans, but rather putrid, soulless mockeries of the human form.
Their maggot-infested flesh dripped from their bodies as they lumbered toward me. I froze in my tracks. The scene I had only moments before compared to a dream, quickly turned to a nightmare as the three figures were joined by a fourth. This new creature sprung from the ground mere meters before me, shoving fistfuls of earth aside and pulling itself up to the surface. Once upright, the vile monster looked to the moon and released a blood-curdling shriek, reaching its arms to the sky like some hideous, rotting flower spreading its diseased petals.
I gathered my wits and started running back to the hut I had built earlier. I could hear the creatures giving chase behind me, and prayed that the hollowed out mound of dirt and gravel would be sufficient to hold them at bay.
Reaching the hut, I dove inside and quickly turned to erect the wooden planks I had secured into a makeshift door, but it was too late—one of the creatures had already crawled in behind me. It used its slimy, wretched arms to drag itself toward me as it uttered inhuman moans and shrieks. I grabbed the heaviest object I could find—the rock I had intended as a calendar, with a solitary notch representing my first day in this strange, horrifying land—and bashed the creature's head with all my might.
I did not venture outside after dark for a long time after that. From my hut I could see that these vile horrors were not the only creatures that stalked the night in this strange new world. Spiders the size of dogs, animated skeletons, and... something else... I only ever saw their eyes, glowing purple in the depths of the forests.
A week passed before I met the engineer. He had appeared in this place as inexplicably as I had. The next day another person arrived, and two more the day after that. Soon there were dozens of us. Engineers, scientists, politicians, businessmen, artists, poets—the only common thread among us is that we had been plucked from our lives without warning and deposited here.
It would be the same with the man I found myself looking at now. His arrival would be followed by another, and then another, and eventually a new community would form. Perhaps this man would have an experience with the walking corpses and warn the others, as I had. Perhaps his warnings would also go unheeded. Perhaps they would tell him he's overreacting. If he was smart, he'd have abandoned that miserable hut and moved deep underground, and let the fools build their monuments and cities on the surface. In the caves, you have control over your surroundings. Above ground, you are vulnerable. I should know.
The first time I died, it was because the surface dwellers killed me for burning down their village.
I just wanted to show them how dangerous it was to build on the surface, to convince them to join me in the underground stronghold I had constructed. But they wouldn't listen. They convened a kangaroo court and subjected me to their joke of a legal system, finding me guilty of arson, theft, other nonsense. The sentence was death. Little did they know how ineffective that punishment would be.
The cruelest joke that this land had played on all of us was not our inexplicable abduction and arrival here; it was not the isolation from our families and everything we knew and loved; it was not the sleepless nights filled with walking corpses and other, even viler demons; the real joke was much more sinister. This place had stripped us of the one thing that could free us from it—the only viable escape. We had been robbed of death itself.
I suppose it had been their idea of poetic justice to burn me at the stake. They watched me go up in flames as I had done to their village mere hours before. I was terrified at the time, but soon I would get used to it.
The pain was unbearable at first, but subsided as the flames consumed me and my consciousness slowly dimmed and winked out. I woke up in the field where I had first arrived. Once I got my bearings, I saw plumes of smoke rising on the horizon where I had burned the village, and where they had burned me. I retreated underground to my stronghold. I no longer cared about leading the surface dwellers to reason. I would let them rebuild their pathetic village, and waste their valuable resources defending it from the monsters of this world. And then, one day when they least expected it, I would watch them all burn.
After I destroyed their city a second time, they left me. By then they had discovered the impermanence of death and knew that this was a war they could not win. I knew not where they went, nor did I care. In time, others arrived. New cities were constructed upon the ruins of the old, and they burned just the same. I lost count of how many communities I destroyed, and how many times I died in the process.
I watched the new arrival for a while longer. How long would it be before he died for the first time? How long before he forgot the faces and names of his wife and children?
A branch broke under my foot and the man looked up. His eyes briefly scanned the tree line before resting upon me.
I cursed my carelessness and stepped out into the sunlight. I tried to greet the man, but discovered that my voice did not work. Perhaps it had been too long since I last used it. The man held his arms up defensively. I tried to raise my own to reassure him I meant no harm, but was unable. Perhaps the countless deaths had finally taken their toll on my body. When was the last time I had used my arms? I couldn't remember. I took a step closer, still trying to find my voice.
The man trembled and backed away in fear. Fear. We had only just met and already the imbecile feared me. He was just like the countless others who had come and gone before him—a tiny, insignificant fool who would soon be consumed by the horrors of this place. I felt rage rising inside me, filling me up like a steaming kettle on the stove. I moved in closer, cursing my flaccid arms for their inability to strangle.
Then, in the reflection of his quivering eyes, I saw the cause of his terror.
It was not enough for this world to rob me of death. It had also robbed me of my own humanity. I stared into his eyes at the reflection of the deformed creature glaring back at me. Horrific does not even begin to describe the monster I had become. All of the hatred, the rage, the countless murders and deaths, and this cursed otherworld had transformed me into an unrecognizable green monstrosity. The rage had now built to a torrent so powerful that I could feel it inside me, pressing at my seams. I closed my giant, inhuman black eyes, unwilling to suffer the sight of myself any longer. Then, the rage burst forth from my body in an explosion so forceful that the man and his hut were instantly vaporized.
I awoke in the field.
I've lost track again of how long it's been since then. Perhaps this is fate's punishment for the evils I've committed in one of my numerous past lives. I've come to accept it. With each death I suffer, there is the hope that it will be the last. Maybe one day this torment will end. Maybe one day I'll find peace. Maybe one day I'll see the faces of my wife and children again. Maybe one day, I'll see you.