Kothardarastrix's Sandbox (WL)
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The survivor awoke in a good mood – as good a mood as a castaway on a deserted island can have – but it quickly soured. The rising sun was sending red stains up and across the sky. Bad news: red skies in morning, sailors take warning, as they say. Nothing else about the cloudless sky seemed to indicate approaching foul weather, but the water had a different story to tell. Still looking almost black in the dawn light, the waters of the Pacific were surging hungrily against the rocky shore. The swells were almost as tall as the survivor himself. Yep, there was a storm coming alright.

The survivor’s mouth was dry, so he headed a short distance north, towards the island’s only geographic feature. The cave opened from a low cliff on the side of the island’s high point, an otherwise bare stone hill. Its entrance was scarcely taller than half his height, so he had to crawl to get in. The single chamber was oblong; the ends were cramped and narrow, but in the middle there was plenty room to stand and just enough to lay down with his feet and head towards the opposite walls. The wind and waves echoed strangely in the cave, rolling constantly like the sound in a conch shell. A shallow pool of fresh water had collected in the center of the chamber, fed by the steady drip of condensation from the cool stone surfaces. He didn’t go any further back than the pool, where he scooped up some of the water with his hands to drink. The cave was his only source of fresh water, but he never went in there more often than he had to. As soon as his thirst was quenched, the survivor hurriedly crawled back out.

Before eating breakfast, the survivor seated himself on a protruding ledge to the south of his little campsite. He pondered the approaching storm as he ate. It might not hit me, he thought, taking a bite from his muscular right forearm. He had to gnaw at it for a while, using his canine teeth to tear the raw meat. Blood spritzed onto his face, red droplets getting caught in his overgrown beard, but the survivor didn’t seem to care.

Yes, it was true that the storm might miss. It might just crawl along the horizon from one side to the other or break up into a mild rainstorm before it reached him. It would be nice if he could gather up some rainwater to drink and save himself some trips to the cave. But if a powerful storm did strike the island, even glancingly, he’d be in deep trouble. A storm would wreak havoc on the survivor’s shelter. If the sheet of skin he used for shade blew away, it would take weeks or months before he grew enough hair to sew a new one. If he lost the large driftwood branch that served as its only support, he might never be able to replace it. He might lose his bone finger-and-toe chess set, too, but that was easy to replace.

For the second serving, the survivor used a bone knife to carve off a chunk of his thigh. That was easier than biting from the arm, and (in his professional opinion) the legs had a better texture anyway. His knives were the most valuable, and most irreplaceable, of his possessions. He’d had a metal one when he first arrived on the island, however many years ago that had been, but, like his clothes, it had been too damaged by wind and water to serve as anything but a keepsake at this point. When it had still been sharp and rust-free, he’d used it to make a few more cutting implements from his leg bones. They weren’t as sharp, but they were enough. He always made sure to carve some new ones before the old ones got too worn out, but if these got lost there’d be no way to make a new set.

His thigh had healed by the time he finished eating, so he got back to his feet and headed down to the water to rinse. Despite the blood in the water, no sharks appeared. None ever had. Like the seabirds that never landed on the island, they must have had the good sense to stay away from that accursed rock. As he washed, the survivor realized that the biggest danger would not be the wind, but the surf in which he stood. At high tide, the island was only a few meters wide. A big enough storm surge might put the whole thing underwater, in which case the driftwood wasn’t the only thing that might get swept away.

If there was one thing about his situation that he feared, it was the ocean itself. That may have seemed strange, coming from a sailor, especially one who was a proficient swimmer. But where a normal man had only drowning and hungry sharks to fear, the survivor had a much worse fate in store if he were swept out to sea. That’s why, as he waded in the increasing surf, he never strayed past the point where his feet touched the sandy bottom.

At that dreadful thought, the survivor turned his head to look back at the cave where he’d spent his first night on the island – his last night as a normal man. He hadn’t planned to ever do it again, but if the waters rose high enough, he might not have a choice. The top of the hill was higher, of course, but offered little in the way of handholds. If waves started breaking over the top of the island, it would be impossible to hold on. The cave, on the other hand, offered the perfect place to secure himself. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that.

The survivor passed his day in much the same way as always. He played chess with himself, snacked when he felt like it, and made occasional brief trips to the cave for water. Around noon, he saw the gray top of a storm cloud crest the southern horizon. The wind began to blow consistently from that direction, steadily increasing in velocity all the while. If it kept up, the storm would be on top of him by nightfall.

Now forced to confront this possibility, the survivor decided he’d stalled long enough and went to investigate the cave more closely. The milder temperature of the dark interior should have been a welcome relief from the heat outside, but it only made the survivor shiver. Setting aside his trepidation, the survivor felt his way to the back, keeping one arm on the wall to his right and the other on the ceiling so he wouldn’t bump his head. That wouldn’t have really hurt him, of course, but that didn’t mean he would have enjoyed it. As the walls narrowed and the ceiling dropped, he crouched down on his knees and felt for the rear wall. After shuffling forward a few centimeters, he found what he was looking for. Here, at the very back of the cave, was a place to secure himself. Eons ago, when the water had been higher or the island lower, the insistent lapping of waves had worn a narrow channel into the stone. The survivor’s fingers carefully probed the gap, following its generally horizontal course from its beginning close to the left wall to its ending close to the right. The crevice was less than a meter long and no wider than his splayed hand. He’d tried to determine its depth once, but it went further back than he could insert his arm without running the risk of getting stuck. Unfortunately, getting stuck might be his only option if the island got swamped.

Having had enough of the cave, the survivor carefully made his way back outside. The survivor wasted no time in making preparations. He disassembled his shelter and secured the components inside the cave by weighing them down with rocks. That probably wouldn’t be enough to keep the driftwood in place if the water reached it, but it was the best he could do.

The weather continued to worsen as afternoon turned to evening. The clouds kept advancing from the south, piling up into a tall cumulonimbus. Gray streaks of rain fell from the cloud’s flat bottom, but he doubted the storm would exhaust itself before it reached him. The waves grew larger and rougher, the wind continued to strengthen, and the pressure continued to drop. As the sun sank low toward the western horizon, he saw bolts of lightning flashing among the thunderheads and knew it was time to take shelter. Before he entered the cave, however, he’d have to store his knives somewhere safe. Carefully, the survivor wedged one of his two blades beneath the skin of his outer thigh, then watched as the wound closed around it. The handle of the knife still protruded, so he could draw it if necessary, but it would not come out accidentally. He did the same with his other knife and other thigh, then finished by embedding his hand-carved bone sewing needle in his left arm. Walking felt weird with the knives in his legs, but he’d carefully placed them in a way that wouldn’t cut any important muscles. Then, just as the winds died and reversed, blowing towards the storm instead of away from it, the survivor ducked into the cave.

The cave moaned as the heavy winds drew across its mouth, but the air on the inside was still. The survivor seated himself against the wall to the right of the pool, hoping he wouldn’t have to go any deeper. The pounding of storm-tossed waves and driving rain overwhelmed the dripping of the cave water, letting the survivor know he was in for a long night. If only the storm had come during the day. At night, only lighting strikes could show him how close the water was getting.

He did not like what he saw. The storm was powerful, and the tidal surge from its ferocious wind and rain was rapidly engulfing the island. One strike showed it to be five feet past the normal high tide line. The next showed it seven feet above. Dreading what might come next, the survivor moved to the back and felt for the crevice, as if it might have somehow vanished in the last few hours. It hadn’t, of course, but that was only mildly reassuring.

Lightning flashed again, and he saw that the waves had overtaken his usual campsite. Another time, and they were lapping at the mouth of the cave. Seawater began to spill through, running in wide rivulets to contaminate the fresh pool at the center. The survivor twisted to the side and placed his arm in the crevice, but he didn’t wedge himself in place just yet. Not until an entire wave broke into the cave, flooding the floor entirely. Brine licked his feet, and the survivor silently cursed at his predicament. Another wave struck him on the flank, submerging him up to his waist, so he forced his arm into the crevice as far as it could go. His fingers scrabbled for purchase on the slick stone as another wave broke and pulled forcefully at him as it retreated. The next one came up to his shoulders, knocking the air from his lungs. Another went over his head, and he knew he would have to get himself stuck or face a fate worse than drowning. Twisting furiously, the survivor wedged his left arm tightly in the narrow part of the crack, forcing it deeper until he could no longer move. He snatched what breaths he could as the waves broke over him, but they became fewer and fewer as the water rose.

Then, finally, there came a time when, even between waves, he could not catch his breath. The survivor held it for as long as he could, but that only bought him a few minutes. He inevitably exhaled, and blackness rushed over him as the water rushed into his lungs.

But he did not drown, for he was the survivor. Deprived of oxygen, brain tissue died and reformed and died again. His body twisted as starved muscles convulsed in fatal cramps. The survivor danced painfully on the near edge of death, never fully awake but never mercifully unconscious. He coughed and hacked constantly, inflamed lungs straining in vain to eject the intruding brine. This was the horrible fate that the survivor had always feared when he went swimming and could no longer feel the seabed beneath his feet. Always drowning, but never drowned.

An eternal instant later, the water receded. The survivor’s tortured lungs finally expelled the invading brine, and he gasped in a precious, glorious breath of air. His chest tingled as abraded lung tissue became healthy and whole again and his spasming heart settled back into a normal rhythm. Neurons regenerated, gradually reassembling the survivor’s fragmented memories and disordered senses. A throat worn rough and dry by salt smoothed over but did not moisten. Rough, desiccated corneas became clear of scratches once more, but his vision did not clear. The survivor blinked furiously, but no tears came. Brine had filled his lungs, throat, and sinuses for hours, stripping away every hint of moisture from his battered body. His cells could regenerate over and over, but they could not make water from thin air.

The survivor groaned. His throat was as dry as desert sand, but the ragged breaths did not hurt. The same thing – something in this cave, perhaps – that had made him able to heal from any injury had taken away his sense of pain. Somehow, that made severe dehydration even worse. Without a horrible pounding headache or burning lungs, he had nothing to distract from the dizziness and delirium. The survivor felt like a storm-tossed ship at sea, spinning and rocking and yawing in every direction all at once. He hurled, and all that came up was a viscous strand of green, acidic bile. He spat the foul taste from his parched mouth, tongue moving like a slab of sandpaper. The spitting motion split his lips in several places, and he tasted blood for a few seconds before they healed. He licked desperately at the moisture, but even his blood seemed thick and salty.

He turned his swimming, swollen head to the right, blurry gaze searching for any source of relief. The pool at the center of the cave was full, and he used his free hand to scoop up some, less than a mouthful. He tried to drink it, but the water, tainted with salt by the flood, burned his dried-out mouth. Stinging eyes saw the thin, gray light outside. Ringing ears heard the patter of light rain, gently falling as the storm passed by. The survivor strained toward the cave’s mouth, but his arm was still stuck.

Grunting, the survivor heaved his weight away from the wall, but his entangled arm would not budge. Bereft of blood flow, it had gone numb below the elbow. He cried out pitifully in mixed frustration and desperation, pushing on the unforgiving stone with his free hand and kicking out at it with both feet. He writhed and twisted frantically, growling and screaming like a trapped animal as he fought without avail to work himself free. He was well and truly stuck.

Desperately, the survivor fumbled for his knife, still embedded in the side of his right thigh. He seized the bone handle and tore it free of his flesh, only to be overtaken by a new wave of dizziness as the blood streamed out. His superhuman liver churned out more blood cells immediately, but it could not replace the moisture that had been lost. The survivor wailed as he began to saw at his trapped arm, bone on bone, and was swamped with horrible nausea. Skin and flesh parted beneath the bloody blade, but the bone refused to give. If he cut an inch, an inch grew back. When he carved these knives, he made them from dead bones, ulnas and tibias pulled gruesomely from long wounds, not a living humerus. He just couldn’t cut fast or deep enough to overcome his healing.

When he realized it was pointless, the survivor decided to stop losing blood and dropped his knife. As the wound healed, oozing viscous blood into his beard, he cried. There were no tears, of course, but he cried nonetheless. Would this be his fate? Eternally trapped in a rock, dying but never dead of dehydration? He’d thought an eternity of drowning was the worst fate imaginable, but this was far worse, if only from the constant tempting mockery of the rain outside

Perhaps it was just the nebulous confusion and delirium that comes with a dried-out body and brain, but in that moment, the sense of some presence in the cave was stronger than it had ever been, except for on that first night. That first night, when he’d laid down, bruised and terrified, in this very spot, as the sole survivor of a sunken ship, stranded unknown and alone on a nameless, desolate rock no one would ever find. As he’d lain there on the edge of sleep, swamped by a whirlwind of exhaustion and despair, he’d felt a horrible certainty that he was not alone. There had been no comfort in that thought, and there was none in it now.

He wailed, addressing the presence, or perhaps the cave itself. He was beyond the point of coherence, but his meaning was no less clear. Why had it saved him? Why did it give him this ability, the endless healing, the endless food, only to let this happen? To let him hang here, lifeless and motionless, eternally trapped in a personal prison of thirst and hunger?

When his breath was exhausted, the survivor paused to let his swirling head return to his body. The rain and the waves sounded a thousand miles away. The cave was growing dark, darker than it had ever been. Then, as if in answer to his inarticulate question, there came a sound. It was very soft, but no less clear despite the cacophony of wind and water outside.

Drip, drip, drip.

Desperately, dry and cracked fingers probed for the dripping moisture. It was not falling into the brine-tainted pool, but onto the slick stone just within the survivor’s reach. With one cupped, outstretched palm, he gathered as many drops as he could. Then, carefully, he raised his trembling hand to his bleeding lips and took a sip.

Right away, he knew something was wrong. Maybe it was the growing numbness of his dried-out lips and tongue, but the water felt…off. It was strangely warm, and somehow thick, almost slimy. And the taste…it almost tasted like…

Spurred on now by sheer panic and animal instinct, the survivor raged against the rock. The surge of adrenaline brought his painless, ever-healing muscles even greater strength. With an animal scream, he finally tore himself free. His arm bent in many places and broke in several more, leaving scraped-off chunks of skin and flesh behind on the jagged stone. He fell to the floor and did not waste time standing up. Mangled fingers scrabbled for purchase on the rock while furiously pumping legs drove him away from the wall. The rough stone scraped wide swathes of skin from his knees and belly, but he didn’t feel it or care. The water of the central pool burned in the abraded places, and he feared it had become tainted by more than just salt. The mouth of the cave seemed to creep further and further away. The walls were breathing, heaving in and out like the chambers of a massive heart. It was suddenly hot in the cave, sickeningly hot. Thick ropes of drool fell from the ceiling, covering his body and slicking the floor. Then the survivor’s disorganized brain caught up with his panicking body, and he finally understood why the cave made him immortal.

Like him, it had nothing else to eat.

Then he was outside. Cool rain washed over him, cleansing the disgusting drool from his back. The survivor rolled over, scarcely able to believe that he was now below the gray-lit cloudy sky and not the heaving, dripping ceiling of a cave that is not a cave. His mouth fall open, and the pure, fresh rain was sweeter than any wine or nectar could ever be. He drank it hungrily, letting it soak into his skin, his eyes, and his bleeding lips. That must have been how it felt to arrive it Heaven.

As the water returned to the survivor’s body, lucidity returned to his mind. Cautiously raising his head, the survivor looked back at the cave. He half expected it to be gone, empty mouth slammed shut in frustration, but nothing had changed. It loomed there, narrow but menacing, just as it always had. Squinting, he strained to see any hint of convulsing walls slick with foul saliva, and trace of unnatural, malevolent motion. But he saw nothing.

The cave was dark.

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