"You'll never know unless you try," the villager wearing tattered clothes shouted through an odd grin. He laughed mockingly, and his movements were deranged before his black eyes locked onto the traveler. The villager went still and became silent; now that his gaze was fixed, he was entranced. The villager's face was distorted and ugly, barely distinguishable from any other resident in the small fishing community. There was a pain to this man that made the traveler uncomfortable. The traveler could feel the villager reading his mind. The sensation of the forced invasion was traumatizing. The progression of the rot in this region of the Crater was revolting and stronger than it had ever been.
The people of the Crater were slowly changing before, but now that rate showed exponential growth. Their minds were trying to find a balance between lost lines blurred long ago. Having merged with the rot, their personalities were no longer capable of fighting back. They had lost the invisible war waged upon their lifeforce. Their bodies reflected this fact, having transformed into a state that could only be described as undeserved torture. Nothing deserves to suffer a slow and agonizing fate—an inevitable losing battle of attrition.
Each villager had become a slowly rotting corpse forced to live well beyond its body's natural means. Consciousness is intertwined with lifeforce, which made succumbing to the rot the definition of living hell. Humans had never witnessed such efficient use of parasitism. It was frightening to witness first-hand. The traveler lifted his hood and pulled it over his head as he pressed on past the watching villager. For the traveler, protocol dictated immediate evacuation.
All the villagers emanated telepathic anguish that pierced the minds of all lifeforms within proximity. Dead animals littered the village, a consequence of violating telepathic thresholds. All surrounding life was in subsequent danger every time a villager got too close to another villager. Humans didn't drop from aneurysms like the smaller animals; they turned violent and numb as flooding rage and endorphins caused them to rip each other apart.
The Crater's rot liked to recycle and repurpose all damaged organic matter—humans were its favorite. Luckily, it would take time before the rot re-emerged with any life created from the flesh of these villagers—the traveler found comfort in this thought as he pressed ahead. His relief was short-lived as he remembered the rot was accelerating; this was the first time it was observed to be so aggressive and invasive to the human mind and body. The traveler paused for a moment to dismiss the extreme sense of unease he was feeling. The attempt failed, and there was nothing he could do. He took a deep breath and continued walking towards the front gates, glad it was finally time to leave.
This might be your last chance. The violating words felt rough as they seeped into the traveler's mind without permission. He knew what direction they were coming from but ignored their origin. He was headed a different way and didn't mind that they were trying to provoke him. He needed the meditation practice for the inevitable shift that was coming. Besides, he knew he didn't stand a chance against the whole village and the hivemind tendencies they were starting to display.
Some villagers were already behaving this way. It wouldn't be very long before they stopped attacking each other and solely focused on outside threats. Their behavior was not what was bothering him. He was more disturbed by the fact that his thoughts were being read and his mind was being invaded. Worse was the violation he felt from deep within, violent damp tendrils grasped at every aspect of his psyche. Knowing there was nothing he could do, the traveler hurried past the remaining villagers and out through the only land exit.
The gates shut with a sharp slam, reaffirming that re-entry was not possible. The traveler smiled and sighed in relief. The fear the rot invoked was horrific and intense in the presence of human groups. He was glad to mark this town as a memory. No longer did he want it to occupy the present moment. He felt good now that he was away from the high levels of rot concentration contained within the village. He felt better knowing his equipment now worked.
The traveler looked down towards the scanner embedded in his left arm and couldn't help but smile again. The crater lands were never kind to the few who chose to travel its paths. This day would be no different, another typical day in an unforgiving land. He initiated his suit and began to walk towards the mangled outcroppings that defined the path ahead. The traveler tapped below his ear, waking up the comms attached to his helmet.
“Base, Maliki reporting.” Nothing.
"Base," he paused, then continued. "Maliki reporting." Silence again.
His heart sank; this was the first time command had ever been non-responsive. Maliki became aware that he would likely be alone for the foreseeable future. His odds for leaving the crater lands soon had just become non-existent. Nonetheless, he was determined because he was on a mission that would be one of his last.
“Base, Maliki reporting.” Silence.
He cursed and disengaged the comms to preserve the battery in his suit. Maliki knew the dangers of becoming a traveler. But these past few days had made them abundantly clear. He felt the device within his left arm vibrate and began to run towards the Crater's edge, still miles away. Maliki needed to hurry. The next geological shift was about to begin, and he wanted to be nowhere near it.
The traveler Maliki was glad downriver had shown impending signs of shifting. He was lucky to escape before getting swallowed by the blur of the shift, a hazy translucent fog that accompanies the instantaneous change of rearranged geography. Those caught by the blur disappear to a place no one knows. Fading screams are all that's left behind—a permanent stamp in the minds of those who've witnessed their companions' demise. In mere seconds, every inch of land occupying Maliki's visual space transformed.
He went from standing in a desert with sparse outcroppings to the middle of a valley filled with lush fields and sweeping forests. The disorientation caused by the shift was always a jarring experience; it made the strongest stomachs wrench. Maliki knew the shift had been coming for hours but could do nothing to prepare his mind or body for its aftereffects. His earlier attempt at meditation did nothing to help. The nausea was terrible, but the voices that each shift left behind were much worse. Voices that were stronger now that the growth of rot was accelerating.
Dark whispers with violent calls invaded his mind, reaching out from the collection of rot roaming the atmosphere, riding the winds. Non-spoken words pervaded every space of the traveler's mind and assaulted every fiber of his being with their piercing tendril-like touch. He muffled his scream as he collapsed to his knees and lost consciousness. He awoke to find the sun rising. Maliki was lying exposed to the elements in the middle of a field. He slowly stood to his feet, feeling cramps throughout his entire body. A shift had never affected him so strongly. The voices had never been so powerful. He was disoriented but knew he was not in the same spot he had lost consciousness. Maliki cursed as he checked his radar and walked towards the forest line that now enveloped him on all sides.
Though it had been decades since Maliki last walked these lands, the memories he retained from that time were still fresh. Few were able to withstand the influence of the Crater and return unharmed. Many of those who ventured forth into its dark mouth came back with chronic ailments like waking nightmares and physical deformities, all caused by the rot's infection. The Crater uses the rot to mark all who interact with its domain. What this mark does other than affect health has yet to be seen. The most educated minds in the outside world believe some aspects of the Crater are sentient or intelligent, thus causing them to be hesitant in exploring its lands further. The only thing preventing them from bombing it is the scientific bounties it brings to society through great leaps in medical and technological advancements.
Some of those same educated minds had warned Maliki against coming here, but he would not be deterred. He was determined to defy the odds given to his survival, choosing to pursue his purpose instead. He would never miss out on one of the last opportunities of his life. Missions to the crater lands were rumored to be ending soon. He wasn't sure if he would get the chance to see the crater lands or their inhabitants again. Maliki instantly vanished all thoughts as he plunged into the canopy of the dark forest. He knew how dangerous his current environment was. Now he needed to be present and alert because his life depended on his ability to focus.
The traveler Maliki unsheathed the short sword attached to his spacesuit and gathered his fortitude. His helmet came to life as it self-deployed flying lights that shot forth, illuminating the path before him. He knew there was always a creature residing at the edge of deep forests, watching silently from the shadows, waiting patiently to make their move. Such creatures stayed ready to defend their enshrouded wooden empire. Maliki knew that his journey out of the Crater would not be an easy one. The odds were wholly against him at this moment. But such is the nature of a traveler's job, getting stuck in impossible situations with low survival rates—not knowing if they'll survive until they try.