By the time I realized I was not on the seventh floor of the Weston and Sons offices, as I'd expected, the elevator doors had already closed firmly behind me... and there were definitely no call buttons in the bark next to them. Yes, bark. I looked around in total stupefaction; somehow, the elevator had dropped me off in the middle of a freaking forest. I had been so distracted that I hadn't noticed this... sheesh.
"Um... hello?" I called out at last, and got absolute silence in reply. Not an echo, not even a twittering of birds... just a faint sigh of wind through the trees. This was starting to seriously creep me out, the silence was far from natural. No forest I'd ever been in had lacked the sounds of wildlife so totally.
I didn't wander off into the woods. That would have been stupid. I tried to pry the elevator doors back open, pounded on them with my fists, and finally shattered a large rock against them. I scraped the paint up pretty good, dented the metal, but they gave no sign of budging. I spent a full hour at it until I started to get too tired, my hands worn and my psyche frayed.
Just where the hell was I? Some sort of weird Twilight Zone parallel dimension? The afterlife? Hell, perhaps? It seemed too nice for Hell, at first glance; the air smelled great, the plant life was lush and abundant... but where were the animals? I hadn't seen so much as a single insect or worm.
Seriously creepy, indeed. I had to find some way to get those doors open, to get out of this place, and I just didn't have the tools for it; I needed a prying rod with a sharp enough point to get between the door's edges. The branches I'd broken from the trees are weren't strong enough or thin enough, not by a long shot.
I hated the idea of venturing even ten or twenty meters away from the door that was the only way out I knew of, but I wasn't accomplishing much here. I could camp out and wait for it to open on its own, perhaps to deliver another arrival, but who knew how long that would take? If it would ever happen? It would get dark soon, and animals or no the idea was quite frightening. Being trapped out here in the dark...
Okay, I'm a city slicker. I haven't spent more than a full day in 'real' wilderness in my life, and I wasn't really good at adapting to new situations. Sue me. I picked up the largest and most club-like stick, made sure I hadn't left any personal possessions behind that I might need later, and began walking down what seemed most likely to be a path through the tress.
Even with my inexperience, it soon started to become apparent to me that this wasn't 'real' wilderness, either. The lack of creepy-crawlies and other animals aside, the trees were all of very similar size and species, and there were no obvious saplings anywhere; the underbrush seemed almost as uniform at first glance too. Oh, there were patches of flowers and irregular bushes and vines scattered around, and it all looked pretty chaotic and untended at first glance, but there was a subtle sense about it that seemed to suggest all this had been planted intentionally. Like I was in some sort of park, meant to look wild but somewhat tame underneath.
I walked for quite a while, hunting in vain for some sort of change in the environment to suggest I was actually getting somewhere. But other than the irregularly spaced meadows and streams I passed once in a while, everything was the gently rolling hills and comfortably spacious forest seeming to stretch off to infinity. I hadn't got a clear look at any horizons, not even on the low hilltops; the canopy was too dense. I only saw the sky once and a while, in small patches or over the grassy meadows, filled with boring white puffball clouds that were just as uniform in their random distribution as the trees were.
I eventually gave up, sitting by the edge of a small pond to rest my aching feet and think for a bit. My shoes weren't designed with hiking in mind, naturally; I'd expected to be in an office building all day, just like every other day. My suit was totally dishevelled by this point, too, of course. I'd taken off the tie a while back and unbuttoned my shirt halfway down. The climate was mild, but the activity of hiking was unaccustomed and I was quite sweaty at this point.
So, what to do now? The sun was obviously going to set within the hour, and I didn't think I'd make it back to the elevator door by then even if I ran all the way back. And I certainly didn't want to try to follow the trail of broken branches I'd left for myself as I'd travelled in the dark, if I missed just one waypoint I could wind up hopelessly lost. It all looked so the same.
Sighing, I decided the best thing I could do was try to set up some sort of camp with what I had. I didn't have a clue how to make a fire without matches or a lighter, so the only thing I could think of to protect myself from the monsters of the dark was to climb a tree and see if I could manage to sleep in it. That'd stop wolves and grizzlies, I hoped, but I hoped even more that I wouldn't have to deal with mountain lions or anything similar. They could climb too.
It was a scary thing to contemplate, being eaten by some wild predator in the wilderness, nobody even knowing where to find my bones... I didn't fall asleep easily. The gentle wind kept stirring rustles in the foliage, and when there wasn't that the silence was so deep that it almost brought forth auditory hallucinations to fill the void. I was just glad that there was a nearly-full moon, and the stars were bright; the night was not nearly as dark as I'd feared. Eventually the fatigue began to overcome the fear, and the rustling of wind in the trees gradually changed from fearful to soothing; I slowly drifted off into a light slumber. It all seemed so relaxing now, once I had forgotten to be afraid...
The next morning, I woke up hungry and terribly sore from sleeping wedged between tree branches like that. I groaned and carefully managed to climb back down to the ground, stretching each muscle to try to work the innumerable kinks out. I felt terrible. But at least I also felt rested; I'd somehow managed to pull off a full night's sleep. Amazing.
Time to head back to the elevator, I thought to myself, hoping that perhaps by some miracle it would have sprouted a call button or even a nice technical services person to explain this strange malfunction. I looked around for the broken tree branch I had rammed into the ground as a signpost last night, indicating the direction I had come from. I could not find it. Puzzled, I circled around the immediate vicinity of the tree; there were several paths that were broad and grassy enough to match the one I remember following to get here, but none of them had any sign of passage down it. I began to get nervous.
"East," I muttered to myself, as much to break the silence as to organize my thoughts. "I was walking pretty much towards the sunset, so I need to go east. That's where the sun should have risen, now." Carefully getting my bearings, the canopy's leafy green filter making the simple job of finding the sun somewhat more tricky than would be expected, I headed off down the path I figured I'd come from. I soon began to recognize some of the shapes and patterns as I went, glancing behind myself regularly to check what things would have looked like to me on the way out; I seemed to have chosen correctly. But where were my signposts? I couldn't remember every detail of the route I'd taken, if I didn't find one soon I would no doubt begin to drift off course. I was starting to get scared again. And my feet still ached from yesterday, and my muscles were still sore, I was thirsty, and I was hungry...
Orders of priorities, I thought to myself. "Have to deal with the most important things first." The soundlessness of the world worked to my advantage, now; stopping to listen carefully, holding myself as motionless as possible and stilling even my breathing, I pricked my ears and listened... ah. There was the sound of one of the innumerable tiny babbling brooks that I'd passed; I'd drank some of the water on the day before, and it was perfectly pure and mountain-cold despite the seeming lack of any nearby mountains. Making another signpost for myself, being extra-careful to bury the end of a broken tree limb deep in the soil this time so it couldn't just fall over or otherwise be obscured, I followed the sound and came to the brook.
Wanting to get back to my return hike as soon as I could, before I forgot anything more about the route, I knelt by the edge of the stream and leaned forward to drink directly from it on all fours. I was quite thirsty indeed, pulling up great swallows of water and drinking until I felt swollen. Perhaps I over-drank; it was refreshing, and I knew I had a long hike ahead of me again today...
I blinked, frowned, and slowly lifted my mouth away from the water as I finally noticed something I had been too distracted by thirst to see before. Something odd, in my reflection... reaching up, I touched my right ear tentatively with my fingertips. It flicked reflexively away, and I let out a strangled yelp of surprise. My ears had changed, somehow! Sitting bolt upright by the side of the stream, I grabbed them firmly in my hands and winced at the pain as I tugged at them. Long, with flexible roots that flicked them back and forth seemingly with a mind of their own, and covered in short but dense hair, they were plainly no longer human ears; some sort of animal's perhaps. But how? And why?
I shakily got to my feet, my heart beginning to beat faster and faster as terror once again rose in my throat. "I have to get out of here!" I screamed, trying to drive away the silence, and hurried back towards the trail at a near-run. It was all I could do to keep myself from panicking totally, now; the setting had been bad enough already, but now that incomprehensible things were happening to my body itself I didn't know how long I could stay sane under these conditions.
I nearly passed the spot, just barely managing to notice the familiarity before I missed it. This was the trail, where I had taken the detour to get a drink. But... I turned and searched frantically, feeling sanity slipping away even farther. The signpost I had put up mere minutes ago was gone, the grass undisturbed... the branch itself, back on the tree I had ripped it from! I screamed again, inarticulately this time. It was too much for me, the pounding of my heart threatening to overwhelm my awareness and thought. I had to run, it was the only escape. I couldn't fight the urge, any more than I could fight the urge to breathe.
So I ran. I can't really tell how long or how far I ran, my mind was fleeing as much as my body was, but it must have been a long time; when I finally regained some modicum of rational thought the morning had progressed nearly on to noon. I had exhausted myself again, my muscles burning with fatigue and my lungs panting for as the cooling air as fast as they could heave, but despite it all I realized that I was laughing. I felt good. I forced myself to stop it, and to just sit quietly under the tree I had collapsed next to while my racing heart caught up with me and slowed back down to a more normal rhythm.
As I sat, slowly allowing thoughts to resurface again, I let my fingers tentatively return to my ears to further explore their new shape and texture, to reassure me that the cause of my mental breakdown had been real. They were larger than my normal ears, erect and mobile, and stuck out from the sides of my head like a pair of radar dishes. They were hairy inside and out, the inner surface's hair being finer and softer than the coarser outer surface. I could feel my own fingers touching them, confirming that they were in fact my real ears and not some elaborate prosthesis, and even more strangely I found that I could control their twitching consciously to some degree. It was a most unusual sensation, having appendages that I'd never had before, and now that I was aware of them it was impossible to ignore. I twitched my ears this way and that with every sound, flicking them as if exploring a missing tooth with one's tongue.
I didn't have somewhere to even start considering the possible explanations for this, so I decided not to try to think about that for now; better to focus solely on the at least partially-comprehensible problem of finding my way back to the elevator doors that had brought me here. If it was hard before, I realized with a sinking sensation, it was going to be nearly impossible now; there was no way I was going to be able to remember the details of the path I had taken in my wild dash. I was just going to have to continue onward, heading vaguely west for lack of a better direction to try, and hope that some sort of landmark or other interesting feature would show up. There was no time to lose; if nothing else, I was even hungrier than before. I'd have to find food soon.
Bracing myself against the tree I had come to rest against, I wearily pushed myself back up to my feet. The soreness was rapidly fading from my muscles, faster than I had feared, but I was still pretty shaky and uncertain on my feet. I had lost my shoes at some point, too, I realized abruptly as I felt the grass on my feet, and I groaned at the thought of how sore my feet were going to be after this was all over. I reached down to rub one of them in anticipation.
I stopped, frozen with one hand on my raised foot, and stared. Then I sighed. "I thought the ground felt odd," I muttered as I let go and slowly lowered the cloven hoof that had replaced my toes back to the grass. The skin above it was covered in a fine coat of short hair, of a texture similar to that on my new ears, but from the ankle up my legs seemed otherwise unchanged. I shifted my weight gingerly back and forth from foot to foot, or rather from hoof to hoof; my achilles tendons kept wanting to tighten, raising me up to stand on my toes. I could force my heels back to the ground again, but it felt oddly uncomfortable to do so; the naturally tendency seemed to be to stand like some sort of ballerina. Sighing again, I let go of the tree and took a couple of tentative steps to check my balance. It seemed to have adapted automatically to my new gait.
I could only shrug and proceed, tip-toeing resolutely off through the woods in an easterly direction. There wasn't much more I could do, and I had burned the panic out of me already.
I continued onward for several hours, the streamers of light filtering through the foliage slowly steepening their angle through vertical and then slanting back into afternoon. I didn't bother with signposts any more, even if I could count on them to remain standing I was already lost; there was no place for me to find my way back to. Instead, I developed a new ritual to mark off time as I walked; self-examination. There wasn't anything I could do to change what was happening to my body, at least nothing I could think of, but at least I could try to keep track of it. However, just like the forest, nothing seemed to change when I was looking at it; I had an animal's ears and feet, but nothing else. I was almost frustrated, in some strange way, wanting some visible sign of change to indicate whether I was going to get better or worse as time passed. "At least no news is good news," I whispered to myself. And these hooves were pretty comfortable to walk on, I reflected after due consideration; my feet were no longer sore or sweaty at all, like they had been in my shoes.
My hearing had been done a world of good too, it seemed. The forest still seemed unnaturally silent without the sounds of birds or insects in the background, but I had found that the sounds of wind and water came through to me much more clearly. What's more, I could locate with unerring precision exactly where it came from; brooks were child's play to find now, and with their frequent spacing it looked as if I was unlikely to go thirsty again any time soon. Now if only I could find some food...
My stomach growled quietly to itself, and I sighed. I'd been on the lookout for recognizable fruit, but as I've mentioned I'm a city slicker; all I had seen were some unidentifiable red berries on the low-lying bushes, and I wasn't quite hungry enough to risk poisoning myself on them. Instead, I had to satisfy myself with water; I drank less to fill my thirst now, and more to fill my empty stomach.
I also took the opportunity, as I knelt by the water to drink, to check my reflection. With the sun so near to zenith only the dark outline of my head was discernable in the water's surface, but that was more than enough; I thought that perhaps my ears had grown even more since they had first changed, though perhaps that was just my imagination looking too hard for change. Sighing, as I seemed to be doing so often of late, I leaned down and swallowed a few half-hearted mouthfuls of water. Then I leaned back, squatting with weary alertness on my raised heels, and idly licked away the droplets of water clinging to the tip of my nose.
I froze, ears perked in an expression of almost comical surprise, and then I carefully leaned back over the water to examine my face again. Shadowing myself from the reflected sky with my hands, I could see that there was indeed something else different about me now; my nose had changed, becoming broad and black with a lighter marking across its flattened bridge. I slowly extended my tongue and licked it again, snorting at the shock and the tickle. my tongue isn't normally that long either, is it? I asked myself silently as I ran a fingertip over the leathery pad of skin covering the blunt end of my nose, tracing the edges of my large animalistic nostrils. The bridge of my nose was now covered with the same short hair that was present on my other new features, too, and when I crossed my eyes I could plainly see how my lower face projected outward from my head farther than it used to.
I rose back up, standing as tall by the stream side as I could. "Why?" I demanded, my voice vanishing into the forest. "What's happening to me, and why? Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this to me?!" My voice cracked as it nearly rose to a scream, and I coughed slightly to clear it. "You're intelligent, right?" I continued more quietly, almost whispering. "There's some point to all this? I'm not just going mad, or caught in some bizarre trap of physics?" There was no reply, save for the continued silence of the wood dragging on longer and longer as I stood there. I licked my lips nervously -- or rather, licked my nose, as the reflex seemed to insist upon now -- and looked around, straining my ears to their utmost; there just had to be someone listening to me, some entity lurking out there, or I might as well be mad.
I waited. The tension was building to such levels I was sure that if I did hear anything, the slightest sound out of the ordinary background, I would instantly bolt and run for miles through the woods again before I could even think of controlling myself. But finally I began to allow myself to wind back down. There was nothing out there, of course. I was now almost certain that I was alone in this world.
I eventually started walking again, unable to think of anything better to do with my time. If nothing else, there was still the elevator door out there somewhere to find; it was the one unique landmark I could think of having encountered, and it was also my best bet for potentially getting home. What effect going home would have on my physical alterations I also didn't know, but I would just have to get to that when it came up.
Home. I hadn't actually thought about it all that much since arriving here, other things had been pressing on my mind since then, but now that I was in a particularly melancholy mood I started reminiscing about it; I wondered if the people I'd left behind had any idea where I'd got to all of a sudden, perhaps wondering if I was still alive. It had only been two days since I'd got here, of course, assuming that time was flowing at the same rate here as it was in the 'real world', but I was not well known for spontaneously taking time off like this...
I staggered slightly, catching myself from falling with the help of one of the massive trees. Two whole days without a bite to eat, plus several bursts of panic flight and other emotional stresses, were obviously starting to take their toll; I was getting a bit dizzy now, and the emptiness in my gut was filling more and more of my attention. Leaning against the tree for a minute to regain my balance, I decided to push the less immediate concerns out of my mind and focus more directly on my immediate survival now. I wanted to live, that was certain, and to do that I needed to eat. Soon. There weren't any of those berry bushes visible in the immediate vicinity, if there had been I would have finally worked up the nerve to sample some. I would have to search for other potential forage.
The vegetation around here was lush, but not much of it looked particularly edible; there were flowers aplenty, but no obvious fruit or nuts on these tress. Nonetheless, I knew that survivalist-types would probably be able to find a meal out here; I would have to figure out which of the seemingly inedible things around me weren't actually so. I knelt and examined some of the moss and herbs that grew underfoot, then finding nothing that leapt to my attention, I looked again at the trees. "Maybe bark," I muttered to myself. "I've heard of people living on bark and berries." I reached up and snapped off a young twig, still covered in fresh bark and new leaves, and sniffed it dubiously.
My ears twitched and my eyes blinked in surprise. It smelt wonderful, the tangy scent of sap and bruised leaf eliciting an instant snarl from my impatient stomach and a flood of saliva in my mouth. I frowned at the twig; it looked just like any other, but no tree had ever smelled tasty to me before. Dubiously, I sniffed at it again to confirm the sensation. My nostrils flared as I drank in the wonderful scent. My sense of smell's changed, I realized, wondering why I hadn't thought to check it before. No matter. It was trying to tell me something now, something that I desperately needed to know. This was apparently acceptable to eat. Nibbling delicately, I stripped off a bit of bark with my incisors and chewed.
I'd expected it to taste bitter, but either this was some sort of tree that I'd never encountered before or my altered tongue had likewise changed my senses; it tasted just as good as it smelled. I swallowed the bark half-chewed and eagerly peeled off another piece with my teeth. don't overdo it, I warned myself mentally even as I quickly chewed and swallowed that piece too; I knew it wasn't good to overwhelm a starving man with too much food at once, and if I was going to be throwing this up again later when it turned out to be poisonous I didn't want to have too much work ahead of me. But it was hard to restrain myself from finishing the entire branch, at least; I already had it in my hands, after all. I quickly discovered that the bark wasn't the only tasty thing on it either; as I drew the twigs through my mouth to peel off bark, leaves came with it and tasted just as delectable. I even wound up eating the tenderest new shoots whole, unable to nip the bark delicately enough to peel it off of the young wood just starting to develop under it.
After finishing the branch in record time, I licked my nose and looked around at the foliage hungrily. There had been a lot of stuff on that branch, but I wasn't anywhere near full yet; I felt like I'd just barely begun to eat. But I forced myself to just drop the barren branch and move on; I needed to see if the leaves would sit well in my stomach once my stomach realized what was in it before I'd let myself pig out on the stuff, and experimenting with other plants before then would contaminate the results of my experiment. I sat down under the tree instead, to rest and let the meal digest in peace. I didn't have the strength to walk much farther, in any case.
It was then, as I sat there licking my lips and cleaning stray splinters from my teeth with the tip of my tongue, that I was confronted with another shocking change. I had somehow missed it while I was eating, but at some point my molars had changed their shape significantly and my upper incisors had vanished altogether. They hadn't fallen out, I was sure I would have noticed that and there were no empty sockets left behind in my gum; they had just melted away without a trace, replaced by hard pallet. With a calmness that surprised me, I reached up and explored my mouth and face with my hands.
The growing stubble of my whiskers had sprouted into a full covering of short hair over my entire lower face, textured just like the hair that covered my ears and feet. My jaw itself had extended, pushing my face even farther out in front of me; I had an almost fully animalistic muzzle sprouting from me now. An herbivore's muzzle, I soon realized; in addition to my upper incisors, all four of my canines were missing. There was a gap on my lower jaw as a result.
This was a change which quite literally was like exploring a missing tooth with my tongue; now that I'd noticed it, it was impossible to put it out of mind. I didn't have anywhere else to keep my tongue, after all, and it was naturally quite sensitive to its changed environs. As I sat there, obsessively stroking my chinless jaw and running my tongue back and forth over my teeth, I again tried to make some sort of sense out of these changes. I was starting to develop a suspicion of a theory; a new body part seemed to have changed whenever I somehow needed it to change. Was I perhaps doing this to myself, subconsciously? Given that I seemed to be the only one here, I couldn't force myself to reject the idea out of hand...
I shook my head, ears flapping from the abrupt motion. I just couldn't see how, it had to be some other outside agency. Humans just didn't possess the ability to do something like this. And I certainly didn't think that I wanted this, even subconsciously. Which left me back at square one again... though at least, this time, at square one with a bit of food in my stomach. I hoped that these 'helpful' changes to my nose and mouth had not led me astray, and the food would stay there. I tried to relax and clear my mind, focusing again on my general feelings of wellbeing.
After only about 20 minutes of cloud watching through the filter of the canopy, I surprised myself again with the level of relaxed calm that I had managed to achieve. Though my ears remained ever- alert to the slightest hint of movement, and I had quickly developed the habit of sniffing the breeze for foreign scents, the quietness of the forest was for a change working on my side and reducing my jumpiness. It really was quite beautiful, I thought to myself as I chewed idly and drank in my surroundings with enhanced senses. A little creepy, inherently, but becoming more comfortable...
I blinked, halting in mid-thought and backtracking in my mind. Idly chewing? What was I chewing? I spat out the mass I'd been grinding with my molars, and wrinkled my nose a bit at it. It was half-digested bark and leaves; I could remember now bringing it up with a burp-like reflex and automatically chewing on it without giving it thought or even notice. In fact, I now realized, I had re-chewed and swallowed several mouthfuls prior to this one! The thought made me nauseous... or it should have, at least. But as much as I wanted to, I found it hard to feel sick. The stuff had tasted good, even better the second time around than it had the first.
Cud. I shivered slightly as the answer occurred to me, finally managing a gut reaction to it analogous to my intellectual one. My nose had led me astray after all, but my stomach had chosen to accommodate it instead of rebelling; this time, my guts had altered their form and function. I was a cud-chewer now. I knew very little about the process, something about multiple stomach chambers and cellulose-digesting bacteria that I didn't like to think about further, but I knew that it allowed animals to eat vegetation that no human could draw nourishment from.
Erp. There was some more, in the back of my throat; the action of bringing it up was like swallowing in reverse, under conscious control only in the most general sense. I wanted to spit it out too, but... I was still very hungry, I knew, and it seemed that this was how I was going to eat. So be it; under the circumstances, I would grudgingly let this change go as well. Starving myself wouldn't change me back, I was sure, any more than stopping up my ears would revert them to their former weaker state. I chewed, dubious despite the fact that it tasted great, and re-swallowed. I wasn't sure, but it did feel like I was swallowing to a different stomach than I had before...
I finished my experimental meal for the second time that afternoon, and after a while reluctantly rose from my resting place under the tree to move on. I was still very hungry, but at least now my nose seemed to be telling me that there was food all around me; as I walked, I picked and nibbled foliage to sample as many as I could. My lack of upper front teeth didn't hinder me, didn't even feel uncomfortable; my upper pallet was tough to the point of horniness, and I didn't need to snip stalks with my teeth. Just a tug to pull it off the branch or stalk and then swallow, I'd chew it more thoroughly later when it came back up as cud.
It took the rest of the afternoon, but by the time evening came I was no longer hungry. Everything I'd sampled based on scent was staying down of its own accord, and I didn't even feel much need to regurgitate any of it on purpose; presumably food was meant to stay in the first stomach longer than it had after my first experiment, perhaps it had been driven more by my extreme hunger the first time than it had by proper instinct. No matter. I felt full enough, whichever stomach the food happened to be in, and I was more than ready to stop walking for the day. My feet weren't sore but I was still spiritually and physically exhausted. I didn't seem to have made any real progress in all my hours of travel, either, so a few more hours of walking seemed likely to be pointless. As the sun set, I settled in for my second night in this strange forest.
I didn't climb a tree this time, instead finding a comfortable hollow between some tree roots lined with a soft layer of moss; I didn't think my hooves were well suited to clambering around in branches, and this would be far more comfortable. Besides, I was definitely alone here. Even my enhanced senses had not once picked up the slightest hint of any other animal life in this place; not a snap of a twig, or a scuffle of grass, or a hint of scent other than mine and the trees.
Even so, it took at least an hour for my twitching ears to at last calm themselves enough for me to sleep soundly.
I woke up just as slowly the next morning. Nestled in that comfortable mossy hollow with the rustle of the breeze in the leaves, and the scent of an approaching spring rain shower making the air heavy and moist was all very relaxing. It kept me in a sort of half-awake trance, really; just lying there with my senses alert but without much in the way of conscious thought in my mind.
But eventually that changed, as the wind began to pick up and the humidity in the air grew tangier; I finally realized intellectually that a rainstorm was about to break, and sat up to check my cover. The canopy over me was dense, but the wind was really starting to pick up; the rustling had grown into great rushes of sound blowing through the forest, and when the first drops of rain began falling I realized that this tree would provide little shelter. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes, clearing the last muzziness of sleep from my mind, and set out to hurriedly find a better place to take shelter. The hills were never very steep, but I was sure there had to be a slope somewhere that would be better protected than this.
The rain caught me out in the open seconds later, descending suddenly in all its fury. Well, in all its annoyance, at any rate; despite the strong gusts of wind, this was not a fearsome storm; just a heavy one. I was very rapidly soaked to the bone. Holding my shirt ineffectually shut with one hand, I hunched over and ran for the nearest patch of big bushy trees that I could find for at least a small modicum of protection. There I huddled, still being doused with a fine drizzle through the leaves and flinching involuntarily at the sounds of distant thunderclaps, for what must have been a full hour. But then, just as suddenly has it had broken, the storm dissipated; the grey ceiling of clouds fragmented back into innocuous white puffs again, and the morning sun streamed down between them.
I emerged from my inadequate shelter, blinking in the sudden light and inhaling deeply through my nose. The rain had made this world seem even more fresh and vibrant than ever, the scents and colors renewed without even having been faded to begin with. I couldn't help but smile slightly, or at least try to curve my altered lips in the approximation of one. "Ith good tho be aliff," I sighed.
My vocal cords had been left intact by the changes to my face yesterday but my diction had certainly suffered; I sighed, slightly deflated again, realizing that it hadn't got any better after a night's rest. But I didn't let that keep me down for long. The soaking I'd got, while not exactly pleasant, had refreshed me a fair amount as well; I'd been hiking through the woods for two days in the same set of clothing, after all, and I'd begun to get rather filthy. Now that I was already soaked, I took the opportunity to strip to my underwear and rinse myself off in a nearby stream slightly swollen from the rain. It also gave me the opportunity to do my most thorough self-examination yet, and I was relieved to note that other than my face and feet there was still nothing different from what I remembered.
Taking my sodden clothing with me, too damp to do much good right now against the cold, I walked naked through the empty forest to a nearby meadow that I'd passed through yesterday. The ground was thankfully not too soft in this area, or my hooves would have sunk and stuck quite easily; as it was, the mossy peat squished wetly between my cloven toes with every step. It would be a while before I felt like doing much travelling today. Indeed, when I finally got out to the direct sunlight and grassy soil of the meadow, I decided to wait right there until everything was dry again.
I spread my clothing out on a large, flat boulder that rested half-buried in the middle of the meadow, and then after gingerly testing the comfort of the perch reclined on my back next to them to dry myself out as well. The stone was slightly damp and cold, but the gloriously warm sun more than made up for it; I sighed and began to relax again like I had when I first woke up. "Thith ithn't tho bad," I lisped quietly to myself. I was warming up again quite rapidly, but I decided I was in no hurry to get moving again just yet; instead, I decided to take this time to thoroughly think my plans through.
One day's walk one way, one day's walk back, I thought to myself as I watched the fluffy clouds drift overhead and idly chewed yesterday's cud. Not counting my panicked detour, I should be very roughly back where I started... very roughly. I still felt that finding the elevator was my best bet; there wasn't really much else I could think of to do, at any rate. But how would I proceed from here? Spiral search pattern, I decided at last. I just hoped I wouldn't miss it in the process. If only the markers I'd tried to set up hadn't been mysteriously erased like that... flicking my ears in annoyance at that additional puzzle, I thoughtlessly scratched a small itch on my arm.
I sat bolt upright with a startled bellow and stared down at my arm, and the rest of my naked body. My skin was entirely covered with short, dense brown hair. All of it! I pawed at my chest, frantically searching for any underlying alterations of structure that it might signify; previously, only my new feet and facial features had had a pelt like this. But I couldn't see or feel any this time, I seemed to have remained human underneath it all. Small compensation. What had caused the change this time?
Glancing at the drying clothing spread out beside me on the stone, I groaned and shook my head as the realization sunk in. Just as I had 'needed' hooves when I lost my shoes, whatever was doing this to me must have decided I 'needed' fur when I'd 'lost' my clothes. It took every opening it could find to make me more and more like an animal. Surging angrily to my feet, I yelped in surprise at an unexpected sharp tug at the base of my spine. I peered over my shoulder as best as far as I could, I was surprised all over again to see a somewhat stubby tail growing out of it. It flicked reflexively erect at that emotion, flashing the pure white patch of fur on my rump that had been concealed under it. "Gah!" What did I 'need' that for? A place to put leftover fur that hadn't fit elsewhere?
Attempting to steady my emotions enough to force my tail back down, I glared at the silent forest around me. "No more!" I shouted, venting some of my fear and frustration. "I don't need any more! I don't want any more! Thtop it, I'm fine the way I am!" I clenched my fists helplessly. Just who was I yelling at, anyways? I still hadn't seen, heard, or scented a single animal here besides myself in all the time I'd been hunting. An animal, I thought bitterly to myself. No way. I can't. I won't become an...
I blinked, and twisted my back to peer over my shoulder at the tail again. I flicked it back and forth experimentally, the motion even more unfamiliar than turning my ears had been but the new reflexes apparently hardwired just as firmly into my psyche now. I recognized that tail. "Deer," I muttered in disbelief. "I won't become a deer."
That didn't change the fact that I was, of course...
I considered putting my clothes back on, an act of defiance if nothing else, but in the end I abandoned them there. My new fur was probably just as good or better at protecting me from the elements anyway, and now that I'd had the opportunity to get out of my clothing I realized just how rank they'd become from two solid days of my sweat and dirt. One situation where enhanced senses were a definite liability... I didn't even need them to protect my remaining sense of modesty in this uninhabited wilderness; I hadn't noticed it at first between all the other changes, but a furry pouch of skin had grown up to cover my manhood and hold it securely against my abdomen. I was relieved to find, upon carefully pulling the sheath open with my fingers, that the organ itself was unaltered. But still, what a thing to overlook...
And so, I left my last remaining human clothing behind. It was pointless, and indeed downright stupid, to deny the changes that had happened to me; I would accept and adapt to them, instead. But I also resolved with all my heart to yield no farther, to give no further opportunities to take away what humanity I had left. This far, no farther.
It was a strong and resolute statement. It didn't seem likely to impress anyone, though. Instead, I focused my energy on more tangible, constructive efforts; finding the elevator doors again. I had no idea if returning 'home' would help change my body back, or even stop the alterations from progressing, but it was at least something I knew I could work on.
Choosing a particularly large and memorable tree to serve as the starting point and center of my search, I began a slow and cautious spiral walk outward. I could remember a fair bit about what the elevator door and its immediate surroundings looked like, but nonetheless I'd have to be very alert; it would be very easy to overlook and pass it by.
Perhaps it was purely psychological, at least at first, but as the hours passed I began to become increasingly nervous and jumpy. My ears were constantly scanning the forest, although I didn't expect to hear the elevator, and I froze in my tracks every few minutes to look around and sniff the air. For the first time since my arrival here I began to get the distinct sensation that perhaps there was something else out there watching me. I had no idea whether I should take this as a good thing, a bad thing, or merely as a sign of paranoia. But I could almost swear that I occasionally saw movement, fleeting and only out of the corner of my eye, that didn't entirely match the stirring of the breeze. It made the fur all along my spine stand on end.
Had these things always been around me, and I was just now gaining the acuity to sense them? Were they only now coming close enough, now that I no longer looked or smelled human? I tried to keep from jumping to any conclusions, not even sure whatever they were were real.
Naturally, with all the visual scanning I was doing, my eyes were very soon 'helpfully' changed into those of a deer. It was extremely disorienting when I first noticed it; a deer's eyes are spaced more widely than a human's, on either side of their muzzle, so suddenly my field of vision was wider and the distracting fuzzy mass of my muzzle much more apparent in front of me. But even so, I somehow managed to miss the exact moment of transition. That, and the fact that my face probably lacked any sort of recognizable human feature at all any more, didn't help my mental state much.
Only minutes later, those considerations suddenly took a back seat. I saw movement again, but this time thanks to those very enhancements I was certain of it! I froze, not even twitching my ears or flaring my nostrils to test the air, and a moment later saw it again. Something was moving in the depths of the wood, behind and to my left. Something being just as furtive and silent as I was.
It took an act of will, but I broke my tense paralysis and spun to face it. A sudden dart behind a tree as it realized it had been spotted, and it was out of sight before I could make anything out. I sprinted through the woods attempting to give chase, running faster and lighter on my hooves than any full human could ever manage. I stopped where I'd last seen it, breathing heavily through my nose in an attempt to at least catch its scent. The only animal I smelled was myself, however; I'd walked past here on the previous circuit of my search pattern. I remained there, frozen again in the hopes of out-waiting whatever might be hiding nearby, for several long minutes...
There, again! To my right this time, another hint of motion in the trees. I bolted instantly, on a hair-trigger, and ran furiously after it; this time I was determined to keep on its trail. But I'd already lost sight of it even before making enough of a visual contact to see what it was, and as light as my deer's hooves were on the mossy ground they still made far more noise than it did.
I chased after the fleeting ghosts five more times before my patience and my endurance finally wore down, leaving me panting with frustration and exhaustion. The sense of being observed had finally faded away too, once I'd stopped seeing them out of the corner of my eyes, and once again I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not; After nearly three days and all these unexplained happenings I was desperate for someone to talk to. At least they can't be too dangerous, if I scared them off like that... I assured myself. But even a tangible threat might have been preferable to nothing.
Once I'd caught my breath enough to reduce my panting to less- distracting levels, I stepped away from the tree I'd been resting against and tried to think of what to do next. I had run amazingly far, but unlike the last time I'd rushed headlong into unknown territory this time I had a path I could follow; my own scent trail. I licked my nose and breathed a heavy sigh. If only I'd had this nose, and those scent glands located between my cloven hooves that left the chemical mark wherever I walked, when I'd wandered away from the door in the first place...
I realized how disturbing that wish was a moment later and shivered, shaking my head to clear it away. I didn't want any of this. Every change had been without my consent... without my informed consent. I sighed again, this time thinking back to all the ways I might have possibly avoided this if I had just known what would happen. More pointless might-have-beens. I forced myself to focus on more immediate issues.
I really needed a drink. Fortunately a pond was quite near, nestled among larger-than-average trees that arched out to roof most of it over with their branches. I approached it cautiously, tip-toeing lightly and noiselessly on my hooves with my nose and ears twitching. Only when I'd assured myself it was safe did I leave the cover of the trees, and I remained ready to bolt back into them with a moment's notice. Is this how a deer feels? I wondered, the thought making me uneasy on a whole additional level. As I knelt to drink, I saw my reflection in the glassy-smooth surface of the water and discovered that my head now looked indistinguishable from a real deer's. Everything about me was changing, and I had no idea where it might ever stop.
I leaned over and lowered the tip of my muzzle to the water's surface and began lapping up a soothingly cool drink, my lips no longer able to purse right to suck directly. The ripples thankfully obliterated the image of the deer looking back at me, and I allowed myself to stop thinking about it for a minute or two while I drank. I began to feel relaxed again, almost comfortable.
Too comfortable. I froze, the ripples dissipating, and stared into the reflections of my deep, brown, inhuman eyes as the realization slowly dawned. I wasn't on my hands and knees any more, at some point I had straightened my arms and legs without noticing it. But my rump wasn't sticking up in the air, my spine felt straight and parallel to the ground, and the tip of my muzzle was somehow still down at water level despite the height of my shoulders...
I lifted my head, now mounted on the end of a much longer and more flexible neck than before, and looked back at myself with rising horror. I was standing on all fours... on all four legs. Looking down again, I saw that my fingers had been replaced with cloven hooves much like the ones that tipped my toes. Attempting to clench my fists caused them to flex slightly, almost making me stumble forward into the pond but nothing more.
"Naaahhhh!" I bellowed, trying to scream with words but only managing a sort of harsh bleating noise. I turned and stumbled away from the pond, the need to flee overriding any rational thoughts I might have had at the moment, but only managed a few steps before tripping over my forelegs and collapsing in a heap. I struggled back to my feet, got a little farther, and then fell down again. Walking on four hooves was a lot harder to adapt to, a lot harder to accept, than walking on two...
It took me several more tries before new reflexes finally began to fall into place and I was able to walk with shaky confidence. By then I'd managed to push the urge to run down, as it would only trip me up again if I tried it in this state, but I can't say I was up to thinking rationally yet. The only thing that was running through my head was a stream of frantic denial.
What in god's name was left of me now?
That question was what finally brought me back from the edge of total panic, helped me to calm the pounding of my heart and frantic twitching of my ears. My mind is intact. I can still think. I'm still me. I repeated that silently until I was certain. That's the most important thing, I assured myself. Eventually, I was able to take full stock of the latest change.
Latest, and probably last. My elongated neck let me examine almost every part of myself, and although I was no expert I couldn't see a single human feature anywhere on my body. The shift from bipedal to quadrupedal stance must cause enough structural changes to 'require' a total makeover, and getting down on my hands and knees to drink had apparently been all I'd needed to do to 'require' four legs in the first place.
I was furious, but I had no idea where to direct the anger. Who did this? WHY? I screamed in my mind, my vocal chords and mouth no longer able to form the words.
<We did.> The response also came in my mind, in a faint and ethereal 'voice' that didn't 'sound' all that human. I snapped my head up and reflexively prepared to bolt, looking around wildly for the source of the words. Still unused to the length of my neck, it almost made me fall over again.
I didn't see her at first, standing half-concealed behind a tree a dozen meters away, but then she moved slightly and the image leapt out in my deer's vision. A humanlike figure, female in overall form, completely nude and with skin the same rich shade of brown as the bark of the tree she stood by. <It was practice, a test,> a mental voice slightly different from the first chimed in, and I spotted the second figure concealed behind bushes a short distance from the first. <You are our first,> A third said.
I nervously backed a few steps from them, although somehow they didn't seem as threatening as I thought they should... I can't smell them, I suddenly realized. I'm downwind, but they've got no scent!
<We are of the forest,> the first figure responded to my thoughts. <We are not of the same flesh you are. We are the spirits of trees.>
I snorted, not sure how to respond to that statement. I felt completely out of my league, unable to catch up with these events and revelations. What do you want from me?
<Only that you exist,> one of the spirits replied. I was having a hard time keeping track of which was talking, as their lips didn't move and they gave no other tangible indication. <That you live and think and act as your nature desires.>
I don't want to act like an animal for you! I responded, my anger returning. I want to be human again!
<It cannot be,> the spirit replied with an almost apologetic tone in her 'voice'. <hundreds of seasons ago, we realized that the ways of man and forest must part, for the benefit of both. We gathered all of our strength and skill to come to this place, to create our garden without humanity. We left the Earth to man, for his own needs and aspirations. To undo this separation would not benefit either.>
Then why did you bring me here?
<It has been good for us here,> a spirit said wistfully. <no trees have fallen, the air and soil and water are sweet and pure, and we have tended the garden well. But a garden inhabited only by its gardeners is hollow. We begin to feel hollow too.>
<You are the first, but there will be many more,> another spirit chimed in eagerly. <Now that we know you can adapt harmoniously, with our help, we shall tap into human transportation magic again. There will be deer and squirrels and birds and fish and even, perhaps, bees! No beavers, though.>
<Or wolves,> another added soothingly, perhaps sensing my rising panic. <We do not wish death to intrude on our garden. We shall ensure that you never grow sick, or crippled, or old. It is our responsib->
But you can't! I cut her off, grunting vocally in my urgency. You have to stop bringing people here, you have to send me back! The spirits began to withdraw at my outburst, fading back into the forest, and I staggered after them. Wait! Change me back, I don't want to be stuck like this!
<The choice has been made, there is no way to undo what has been done or stop what has been started. We must go now and prepare for the next, as do you. Please, enjoy our garden...> the spirit's voice faded out, and I was left chasing emptiness through the woods. I kept moving, though, learning to coordinate my four legs better and better until I was bounding smoothly through the woods like a pro. Like a real deer...
Finally I slowed to a walk, and then a standstill, as I at last realized I had no idea where I was going or why. Those tree spirits were invisible to all my senses when they wanted to be, I doubted I could catch up to one unless she wanted to be caught. So, what to do now? My ears drooped miserably as I realized I had no idea. If the spirits were to be believed, and I might as well under the circumstances, there was no way for me to become human again; each step down this path had been irreversible. The elevator was pretty irrelevant in that case, there didn't seem much point in going back home stuck like this. That left... what?
Other people. The spirits had said they were bringing more through the elevator, I had to find them. Perhaps I could prevent them from getting off here, but even if I couldn't the mere thought of seeing other people right now was more than enough motivation. Blinking back an all-too-human tear, I once again began walking through the trees in search of anything human. Continuing onward in the direction I'd pursued the spirits, my senses alert and stronger than ever, I hunted.
After all I'd been through, the distance I'd travelled and the emotional turmoil I was in, I was caught by surprise when only ten minutes later I caught whiff of faint but familiar scents. Oil, presumably lubricant in the workings of the elevator, and a human scent. Not my own. I froze there for a minute, ears and nose twitching, trying to figure out what to do; I hadn't really thought this far ahead. I wanted to bound forward as fast as I could, see and hear the people directly, but at the same time my heart was hammering with fear and apprehension. What would I do? What would they do?
I finally managed to uproot my hooves and slowly, cautiously, walk furtively towards the source of the scent. I was downwind, which was reassuring to the animal side of my mind, and I told myself that even with my relative unfamiliarity and clumsiness with this body I was surely stealthy enough to see without being seen. I could decide what to do when I saw what was going on. Staying in the shadows and limited shrubbery as much as possible, I advanced to within visual range of the elevator doors.
At last. They looked just as I'd left them, complete with scratches and dents from my battering. But what drew my attention were the people; there were three this time, huddled in a small group only a few steps away. All three were women, dressed in business attire as I had been, and I thought I had seen at least one of them before in my building... it was a little hard to tell, since they had all begun transforming already. Noses, ears, hooves, and fur on most visible patches of bare skin; the local spirits weren't taking it slowly this time. One already had forehooves instead of hands, and from the way she leaned on her companions was obviously having trouble standing upright. Naturally, they were terrified.
Watched them from behind a screen of leaves and branches for a few minutes, listening in as they tried frantically to figure out what was happening to them. I realized that I had to figure out some way to tell them the truth, to spare them what I'd gone through. If only I could still talk... with nothing better coming to mind I tried thinking at them instead, as I had done to communicate with the tree spirits.
I know what's going on, I tried to project. Can you hear me? The three women froze, falling silent, and looked around nervously. My heart leapt; the response alone was more than enough to confirm to me that they had. Still, I restrained myself from bounding full-tilt out of hiding and into the clearing. Please stay calm, I'm coming out of the woods to your left... I am so glad to see someone!
I took a step forward through the bushes, letting them see me safely from a distance. I also let lose a startled grunt, a tug on my head unexpectedly yanking my head back slightly as if it had become caught in the branches as I pushed past them. It only took me a moment to figure it out, though; it was my antlers that had become tangled.
Antlers. Oh god, I muttered to myself. The one last deer part I hadn't developed until now. Of course, now that there were female deer to impress, I "needed" them... and, I had to admit, they looked pretty impressive to me too from what I could see of them. I would have to find another pond later, to get a better view and count the points. It was odd how calmly I was accepting this, now...
"A deer," one of the women whispered to the others. "Is that what I just heard?"
Yeah, I thought at her, eliciting another startled flinch. And I've got some things to tell you. You'd better sit down... but don't worry. Whatever happens, you're not alone here. And neither was I.