WA Spooktober 2023.3: "Helpless"

A muddy road leading through a swamp of leafless trees with moss on the ground. Green hue.

Today's World Anvil Spooktober prompt word: "Helpless"

Today required quite a bit of work. I spent all morning on campus teaching, which slowed me up. I had no idea what to do with the word "Helpless". It's a great word—it conveys the core of horror, after all. So, because I was scratching my head and nervous I'd be very tired when I got home, I didn't just dig out the Deck of Worlds horror expansion, but the original Story Engine deck.

I haven't really used this deck yet, but it has presented me with some immediately exciting ideas. This is why I'm so obsessed with the Story Engine and the various decks. For me, at least, it's instantly inspiring. I go from blank brain to finding that my head tries to find links between randomly drawn cards in a kind of free association activity that's been very helpful so far.

However, this will be the first time I've ever used the Story Engine original deck to create a prompt. This deck isn't about a setting, but the basics of the story, from the character (agent), conflict, and how they will be pushed to change.

The Deck of Worlds horror expansion gave me this rather surprising set, and I managed to take a picture of it this time.

Card text is described directly in the following paragraph.

We have the Swamp (region) of the Returned (namesake), which is the origin of a dead religion (origin) where going out at night is banned (attribute). In the swamp, there is the River (landmark) of Hunger (namesake), which is the site of a now-forgotten form of worship (origin) and is known for inducing visions (attribute).

The advent for all of this is "A cult is about to wake something from an ancient slumber".

I'd started to get a sense of what I could do with this in the context of a wider Amnari story, but wanted additional help to come up with a protagonist. This is where I picked up the Story Engine deck and drew these cards at random:

Card texts are described in the following paragraph.

An archivist who is "shattered" (a definition I'm working on here) wants to control an instrument (again, this could be defined in a few different ways here beyond the obvious), but they must leave behind the familiar and face the unknown to achieve their goal.

The result—in scrappy first draft form—is below.

Title: "We are not helpless"

From the Amnapedia: Fragments of a diary, date uncertain. Amnapedia editor's note: This diary was first uploaded from source around 4635 AA, although the specifics of the time period are not known. It appears to have been written outside of any Amnari territory, then transferred immediately upon the device's return within our borders.

Some caution is required here: the material is written in the first person, with an ID tag and tracker name of Senior Duty Watcher Kora attached. However, certain facts relating to this individual are unclear. It has proved impossible to identify precisely when SDW Kora left Am Rune's Central Territories, which should not be possible given our technology.

After some consultation with other editors, the current investigator believes that it is not possible for SDW Kora to have written the diary below on the date claimed. If the date is accurate, then the diary was, in fact, written some time after SDW Kora's death.

Ashmuta 20, 4635 AA (Date as found).

I should never have come here. I don't think I can find my way back. Every time I think I know which direction to turn, I lose my way again.

I think it started at the river. No, let me backtrack because I haven't explained myself properly and all I'm doing now is writing out all my thoughts to try to clear my head. I'm pretty sure these are all my thoughts, but I've started to doubt. Sometimes they don't seem like mine.

I'm not sure whose they are, if they're not.

I followed the river as far as I could to get to where I am now, because that's the advice they gave me. Not the thoughts, you understand, I don't want to confuse you. Back then, it was people I spoke to, and I was sure they were them and not me, and we were not the same.

If you leave the Am Rune Central Territories and the "Bubble", as we like to call it, you reach thick swamp pretty quick. This is not my idea of a fun adventure, by the way, nothing of the sort. I'm proud of training and working as a Watcher, but the surgery and the blood never appealed, so I made a nest for myself in the archives, working on histories of obscure medical instruments.

That's what brought me out here. My idea of a fun adventure, if you must know, is a trip from Am Rune's main historical library to one of the specialist archives on the outskirts. I say outskirts, but they're hardly very far out.

I'm rambling. It's the thoughts. Pretty sure it's thoughts. They warned me about this—people, again, not the thoughts themselves, although maybe it's been them all along—and I really wish I'd listened.

Oh, I know what you're going to say. We do this on our Bala, when we leave the cosy comfort of our Bubbles and go out and survive in the wild. They tell us if we encounter locals to an area we should heed their advice. And I would, I really would but you've got to understand me, I needed...

I needed this thing. I can't describe it, but it's why I'm here. Since my Bala, sweating it out in the jungle somewhere south of Am Rune, I've never once even thought of leaving the Bubble. I love it in there. Books and archives don't go running about with teeth—or they didn't used to—and I was fine. They don't bleed anything but ink. I can inhale dust all day and the warriors can keep their abysses and Gaps and all the rest.

Not everybody has to be a fighter is all I'm saying.

Oh, I'm losing the thread of this and writing it down was supposed to make it easier. But this is what happens, whenever I think about It, the instrument, the thing I'm here for, all my thoughts separate and then scramble together in a different order and I have to start again from scratch.

I've been reading about it for a while, and I'm not sure where it is but everything I've read says it might be out here, somewhere. The cause of all our collective and private trauma, all that pain and suffering.

No, no. Kora, concentrate. You really must concentrate if you're going to tell your last story properly and get it down so the nice editors at the Amnapedia upload it to the Amnet so everybody can heed the warning.

Don't come here.

There. Not only have I said it, but I may have also triggered the same fate for you as for me. I'm miles away, I'm sure. Just reading about it, without it even being named, is enough to become obsessed. No, I agree, that's totally irrational and not at all the conclusion a well-trained Watcher should reach.

Reading about an object might make you obsessed with that object, even if you don't know what it is?

Not even reading. I think if I were to stand near you, not even within a few feet, and were to think of it, somehow it would get into you.

You have to know right now that I'm not sitting here in the middle of the night up to my knees in swamp sludge as the moon rises I didn't come out here to find it. I came here to stop it. To control it. I think this has been the curse of our civilisation since the start.

If I can stop it spreading, then I can stop it all.

Megalomania much, from an archivist with a specialism in the history of the plunge syringe? Ha!

Where was I? Oh yes. The people, the ones outside the Am Rune Bubble. Not the ones we generally trade with, but some other people. I'm pretty sure they're real.

No, no, let me tell them. They need to know. Stop whispering.

Oh god. I should've listened.

Not to you, no... I'm getting confused. Who am I talking to again?

Right. Concentrate. I told you about how I first read about this thing. It was meant to be useful, but there's something about reading about it, just knowing about it, that drives you mad with desire. It grabs hold of your heart. This is where I made my mistake.

I thought I could control it. If I just came out here, to where it was calling from, I'd be able to stop it. Stop all of it. Everything going on.

I figured the jungle won't've changed much since my Bala. It's all the same jungle, and these trees have been here since before there were people to whisper, I reckon.

Maybe it's the trees I can hear.

Concentrate, Kora, there's not much more time left. The moon is pretty high now, and they did say not to be out here after dark, let alone in the very middle of it. The night, I mean. The night. I think that's why it's dark.

I didn't want to, though. I didn't want to come out here. This is everything I don't like to do. I want to go to bed at dusk with a nice book and read and maybe make notes and maybe, if I'm feeling really adventurous, some chocolate. We have such a nice place, too. Close to the archive. You'd love it. It'd be just your thing, I'm sure.

But as I've told you several times now, I had to come here to make it stop. I didn't think I could hear them, not in the Bubble. But what if those weren't my thoughts after all? I'd never thought of that.

Yes, well. It doesn't matter now. What matters is that when you get to the river, and you find the people there, you listen to them. Listen.

Listen when they tell you—and they will—that you must never be out here at night. They don't. They're smart. Smarter than me, and I was top of my class. Tells you a lot about what matters when you're on the banks of a big flat muddy wide and the trees scrape the top of the sky and its so hot you can feel your lungs dripping wet.

They call them the Returned. They being the people I think I met and them being the ones who were there before. The ones who do the whispering, if it's not the trees.

They called it the River of Hunger, because of the obsession, I suppose. Because they must've seen me coming a mile off. I thought it was pretty cliché at the time, but if they could see me now they'd probably think I was pretty cliché. A silly idiot who barely sees the sky and doesn't mind literally breathing dust every day for a living sitting out in a swamp in the middle of the night talking to the trees.

Or the... you know. No. Please, let me finish. Just let me explain a little and then we'll go. I'll come, I promise.

They'll tell you, if you're foolish enough to follow me, that there were other people here once, and that they're ones who do the whispering. At night, of course. Which is why you mustn't go out at night.

It seemed so daft, like a bad horror story I heard in my student days. All I cared about was the thing, the instrument. Some religion so old and lost that it doesn't have a name, its gods all long dead, has nothing to do with this. After all, nothing like that would be in our archive.

Would it.

Look, stop it. I can't write this if you're going to pull on my arm like that. I can see what you're trying to do and I'm not going to let you. Not yet, anyway. I have a little strength left.

I'm not helpless, not even now, not even this late. I'm fine. I can do this. All I have to do is get to the instrument and I'm pretty sure it's around here somewhere. Once I have it, I'll be fine. I mean, I'm fine now, but I'll be... finer?

All right. That's enough. Really enough. Stop pulling! I can see you, I know what you want, and yes, yes. You're not trees. I'm sorry about that. You're not trees. You're... you. I know we have to go. We can't stay here. These nice people here say I can't stay.

I was going to stay, because the moon is so pretty, shining through the trees. All right. I'll look. Over there, I can see it. It's right there. It doesn't look anything like I was expecting.

I'll describe what I'm seeing. It's a house, or a loose approximation of a house. Or maybe a few houses, stuck together. I don't know where the swamp went, but now the moon's risen, I can see so much better.

I'm going to investigate. That might be where the instrument is. Oh, I can't wait to write this up, to show you all. Can you see with eyes like that?

You will help, won't you, when we get there. All the descriptions I've read suggest it's pretty big. I'm going to need you to help me carry it. You have so many arms. And we will bring it back. They all need to know about this. We need to take it back so they can all share it.

I've just looked over my notes for the last few paragraphs and none of it makes any sense. It's gibberish! What's wrong with me! You've been here this whole time, do I look all right to you? All right, all right, I'll come. Wait. Wait!

Waking? What d'you mean waking? What—