Branches creaked and swayed in a cool evening breeze as the purple sun cast beams of light upon the ground. A light autumn mist cowered amidst an aged and scarred forest, recording ancient stories now lost in time.

            Digging its claws into thick bark, a squirrel clambered to the top of the highest tree, jumping from branch to branch. Beneath it, footsteps drew closer until a partly clothed man, painted in tribal markings, passed beneath.

            The man was old, weathered like the forest, with a face ridden with creases and folded skin like the hump of an exotic beast. He dressed in leather skins that matched the complexion of his own thick and twisted body. The old man invited the air in through deep breaths. Despite his appearance, this was no shaman. He was covered head to toe with tattoos and markings that had stretched or faded with age. The markings had been burnt into his skin with red-hot knives and spearheads, the pain afforded by each scar now reduced only by the conditioning of time. A series of black lines upon his brow produced an unchanging expression of fear and only lent to age him more.

He held a simple spear to balance his stride, the blood-stained handle was beautifully carved out of a robust wood; many sharp tools would have been ruined against its hind. The spear gave the old man an appearance of authority. He held his head with pride and the creatures of the forest parted in his presence. His eyes, dark and narrow, peeked at the clearing around him, full of movement from the animals rushing around the bushes, fleeing from where he stood to rest. Breathing caused him to wheeze and he coughed. Tears filled his eyes though the tears were more filled with sadness than pain. Dissatisfied he crouched closer to the ground, leaning on his spear and listened to the distant echoes through the earth.

Standing to reconsider his direction, the tribe leader managed a step towards a series of rocks with green moss growing thickly through the cracks and earth. Tasting the bright green moisture and rubbing his fingers together, a colourful paste formed in his palms. He smeared it across his bare thigh to dry his hand and considered the path forwards.

The light began to dwindle in the forest as dusk set in. The squirrel continued to leap from tree to tree, following the man as he carried on through the old forest, curious and afraid. Thunder struck but neither lightning nor rain followed. Suddenly a herd of wild deer tore through the undergrowth escaping some hidden threat. The squirrel clinging onto the branch trembled as the tree shook from the roots upward.

The tribe leader took refuge behind a stump and watched as the herd ran past him. He scratched his nose, the bone piercing that protruded his nostrils causing him some discomfort as it rattled like a buzzing fly.

The freshness of the air lessened and the painted old man struggled to breathe. The humidity was now so fierce that he appeared to be suffering from some fever as sweat trickled down his face, stinging his eyes. He bent down to grab a weed by the side of a tree. Pinching up a handful, he rubbed the plant beneath his mouth. He inhaled the vapor sending a cascade of relief through his enclosed lungs. The next stride he took through the diminishing landscape brought on a suffering he could not have anticipated. His eyes flickered shut unwillingly and he barely breathed another breath as he stumbled forward, the ground beneath his feet a black and dusty charcoal. The air filled with a thick ash that stretched up into the skies where the great old trees now looked like a vision of lifeless ghost giants. A plague of mist spread through the forest like a shadow of a cloud sweeping across a field beneath a setting sun. The squirrel climbed higher, searching for air to breathe. It sputtered blindly and fell from its branch, disappearing into the foggy abyss.

No life could exist here, no animal could feed off the grass and weeds, no man could hunt for prey. The air would sustain no life as it filled the painted man’s lungs with ash and death.

The last sight he saw before his eyes filled with the searing black dust, was an expanse of desolation. A cadaver of a great old tree stood reaching its limbs towards a dried-up lake where water had once flowed. It was as though the earth itself was a corpse, rotting and hopeless. Dread descended upon him.