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the bug collector

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Orym is exhausted. 

It's a bit of an understatement, but he's good at those. Always has been. Just like: it's been a rough couple of days. Maybe longer. He isn't entirely sure anymore, and knowing the others are in the same boat only helps the littlest bit. 

They're meant to be resting before they head back out, this funny little group he's fallen in with, back to Emon to find and speak to Shaun Gilmore. Keyleth has talked about him before, and Orym can't tell if that's a reassurance or just another source of anxiety. It's been a while since Orym has made any intentions about connecting to other people, he can't tell if he has expectations or not. He's already not doing a great job at it, really, tonight. He can hear the faintest trickle of water right at the edges of his hearing. The others are all around him, caught up in the excitement of a continued conversation started during their meal, and Orym is struggling just to keep up with the simple task of merely existing beside them. 

Usually, Orym does alright at keeping up with what everyone else is doing, what they're all talking about. He's been handling it well enough so far, at least. At least he thinks he has been. He can't tell what, exactly, is making it so difficult to do now.

 

Or, well, no, he knows. None of this is unfamiliar to him, after all. He isn't fortunate enough for that; swept up and tugged along in it like the pull of tides and currents. He can't afford to be like this, though, not when the others have seemingly elected him into some degree of leadership. Real leaders - good ones - do not exist in the world like this.

But Orym can already feel his thoughts, his body, unspooling around him in gradual gentle increments. He should have remembered, before it got this far. Should have felt the settling growth before it had the time to unfurl into something he could no longer control. The food that the Fire Ashari shared with them is sitting unpleasantly in his stomach, the grainy texture of lingering ash in his lungs is grating, the voices of his new friends are starting to feel increasingly overwhelming. A deep-set sense of annoyance and discomfort building inside of a body that's increasingly unable to express it. 

Dependable people are not supposed to be like this. If he's learned anything over the years, it's that. 

Orym is supposed to be more than this, he thinks. More than this loose shape of an almost-person. More than the ghost of a human occupying the decaying husk of its own body. He needs to be paying attention. He's meant to be...

..

He can't actually remember. 

 

He's having a hard time focusing. Has been for a while. Dorian put his hands on the circlet's box and choked up mouthfuls of thick black ichor, and no one acknowledged it for long enough that Orym had already begun to wonder how lost he really was. Then he'd felt the same sort of nausea curling in his own gut at the item's proximity and knew his own stomach was full of the same corruption. He could feel it there, coalescing into something rotten and disgusting. Unnatural to the highest degree. 

He should have gotten himself away from it right then and there, should have known better, but Orym still isn't sure how to talk to most people, much less these people. 

They'd kept the circlet instead. Orym is uncomfortably aware of it and wishes he was as far from it as he possibly could be, wants nothing more than to pass it into the hands of someone more tangible than himself, someone who knows what they're doing and who is able to handle the responsibility. Dariax has it now, but Orym can't stop feeling its presence in his peripherals, can't shake his awareness of its presence. They've spent the night with the thing, right there in the center of camp, and that hadn't helped at all. Neither had sleeping with his hands tucked under his ear, just in case. 

Skittering legs chasing around his organs and up through his skull, picking apart meat and intercepting electric signals, the swirl of grease and oil sloshing through his organs. Bad combination, bad trigger. He woke up blurry, just a little too far from himself, and hasn't been able to find a touchstone in reality yet. 

He can't stop touching his face. The little tickles and scrapes he knows are insect legs and twitching roots. The skin around his nose is getting raw from all the rubbing and scratching. 

It's fine. Probably. The others kept him from talking about the circlet with Lokathar - he doesn't really understand why, but things were getting difficult enough to process that he hadn't wanted to keep arguing. Maybe they would understand, if he explained, but Orym doesn't know how to be around new people, much less explain himself to them, and he doesn't need to give them another reason to not trust him. 

It'll be fine. 

Some of the terror has faded now anyway, leaving behind a more usual sort of thing; the creeping haze of disorientation. It's a loose kind of familiar, comfortable, comforting. There's no need to worry, or be scared, or if there is, he can't feel it anyway. He doesn't have enough of an outline to be filled with emotions like that. It's all sleepy fog instead, a lingering imprint of the ashy air from earlier up on the mountain hazing like an imprint over his eyes, gentle puff mushroom spores filling up his lungs, and nothing else. 

 

The room they've been given isn't particularly large. It would have been easy to move the meager few feet to the bedrolls piled up in the corner, but Orym has missed his window for moving, apparently. Grown stagnant and fused with the earth around him. The others are a loose semi-circle of exhausted forms around him, and Orym is as aware of them as he is of his own body perched loosely in a chair. 

His feet don't touch the ground. 

It's fine.

 

There's probably something he's meant to be doing. Cleaning himself up at the very least - Orym can feel his skin crawling under the paste of sweat and ash - or participating in the conversation happening around him, though he can't think clearly enough to know if it's still the petty debate from earlier or something more relevant to their situation at large.

He should be doing something, but the knowledge is distant, difficult to care about. He wants to sleep.

Isn't completely sure he's not already dreaming. 

 

He likes this group he's fallen in with, but they're... they're a lot. Can get into a lot of trouble, he thinks, if someone isn't there to get them to slow down a little. He's hazily aware that they're already on somewhat thin ice here, with Lorkathar, he should make sure that doesn't get any worse. 

Orym would have to be awake for that, though, and he isn't. Can't pull himself out of the gauzy fog, can't clear the fungi out from slogging down his veins.  

He can feel them inside of him, he thinks. Soft and thick and consuming, mycelium stretching the distance between his thoughts further and further. Better to be full of this, he thinks, than anything else. If the earth is crowding out his veins then there's no room for viscous ichor and skittering legs. He's seen the earth consume a body more than once, more than he would really care to think, and he recognizes the sight in the gentle sludge occupying his organs, has felt it before. It's a lot. He doesn't mind it so much, isn't really so sure if he doesn't or can't, but the fear doesn't solidify either way, so maybe it doesn't matter. 

The chair he's sitting on is covered in moss. His feet can't touch the floor to ground him there. He can feel the filaments crawling up his back instead, under his shirt and over his ribcage.

 

It's okay. That's fine. 

 

"Hey, you feeling alright?"

Orym's too busy watching the slow creep of growth and decay over his own back to pay attention to who is speaking, but a distant part of him recognizes the voice in jokes and exclamations. That's alright. 

It's fine. 

 

His mouth is full of lichen, weighing down his lower jaw, little mites and beetles crawling over his tongue, too heavy for words. People don't usually talk to him on days like these. He nods, instead, chasing light-headedness along the inside of his skull as he struggles with the sluggish movement. Rigor mortis stiffness. He feels a little drunk with it. Has he been drinking? 

He's tired. 

How strange, to be exhausted in a dream. 

Though, Orym has been tired for years, by now. Maybe he's just meant to be used to it. 

 

The others are circling a little closer now, hawks and vultures. That's good. They're less likely to get into trouble if they're close. Some part of him shies back from their attention, but he's... he isn't really able to focus, to keep them out of trouble like he should be, so maybe their closeness can be a compromise, maybe it can be alright, for now.

Ash in his lungs makes it hard to breathe, intermingling with the spores trying to take root there. Is he sure everyone is here? He can't quite get his eyes to focus. He's tired. People are relying on him and they really shouldn't be. He's good in a fight, knows how to maneuver his alien body into the right positions to protect others, but in this? He can't do anything like this. 

He also can't quite care. 

 

The sound of someone pointedly clearing their throat pulls Orym's eyes out of their wandering. "Hey there," Dorian says. Orym blinks heavily at him, waiting, trying to figure out what's happening. He's full of ichor too, isn't he? Oil and pus slick and viscous in his veins, pouring out of his mouth. Someone should do something about that, before it gets any worse, especially if there are no plants in there to filter it all out. "You sure you're good?" 

He sounds worried. That's rough. Orym's alright like this, though, entangled in this dreamy decay. He nods, trying to blink his vision clearer, but he gets distracted instead, by the ash crusting in the corners of his eyes, grinding under the lids. Unpleasant.

He wishes he was back asleep, or wishes that the dirt would grow something to overtake the sockets so he doesn't have to feel the itching anymore. Little careful maggots chewing through the muscles of his eyes. Is that right? Was he ever actually asleep? 

Or maybe he's just been dead again, just like...

 

But Orym doesn't want to think about him. 

 

"Orym," another voice cuts in over the distant rush of creek water, cooler, more collected. Orym's eyes flick over and ache with the movement, taking too long to coalesce from a vague blur of pale green into Fearne's calm expression. "Can I clean your face off for you?" 

Little beetles and ash creeping over his cheeks. Now that he can feel it, he doesn't think he likes it. His hands are lax in his lap, the bones heavy like rocks. He'll never be able to take care of it like this. His nostrils are raw from being rubbed, but he can feel them creeping there again. He can't lift his hands to wipe them away. Then the question Fearne actually asked connects in his head - she'd offered to do it for him, hadn't she? Thoughts carried over on hypha strands. That's kind of her. He nods. 

Distantly, he watches her nod back. She's also made of plants, isn't she; little stems unfurling from her hair and around her horns. A comforting form of solidarity, though she is filled with flowers and he is mostly moss and fungi. A little ecosystem between them, no wonder she could hear his thoughts. Maybe his plants will share nutrients with hers too, once they finish consuming his body entirely.

 

There's a hand under his jaw, the rasp of a damp cloth being dragged over his face in slow, gentle lines. The warmth is nearly unbearable, for a moment his brain fumbles with the sensation of being touched so tangibly - he shouldn't be, should he? It feels nice, still. 

He closes his eyes against the sensation and feels the world tilt around him. His feet don't touch the floor. Fearne's hands are the only things keeping him from floating away entirely. 

Kind of her. 

She tilts his head back. The dizziness nearly swallows him whole, but finds itself forced back by the careful drag of cloth into the corners of his eyes, the rough texture of the rag almost soothing in a way. Like the comfort of an old blanket, pilled up and warm, soft over the press of skin against his own. Those were always his favorite. 

 

More of Orym's outlines blur at the thought, the memory. His body grows a bit more transparent. Distance can't hurt him, but that one thing never seems to grow any further away. Orym is tired, he doesn't have the capacity to hurt anymore than he already has.

 

Muffled noise floats over his head. He thinks about paying attention but can't. That's alright. No one really talks to plants, or ghosts, whichever he is right now. Mostly they leave him alone, only sometimes stepping in to lead his body somewhere safer. 

Here, they jostle at his shoulder. Orym can feel the way the skin and muscle caves in on itself, nothing but fungus and ash crumbling easily underneath, soft and painless from nerves rotted all the way through. 

 

But, no, it doesn't. He forces his eyes back open, but they won't focus right. 

 

It's fine. Ghosts and plants don't need much to see, really. 

 

"Can I pick you up? Just to move you a little, so we can sleep?" 

Oh. It's nice of them to ask. Orym is easy to maneuver around, he knows, but he doesn't much appreciate being manhandled without warning, not even when he's decaying like this. Maybe Dariax knows that, too, in his own way, even though he's denser than Orym will ever be, even when he's not all hollow from overtaking plants. Orym doesn't mind them moving his body, or whatever might be left of it, that's fine. He clearly isn't inside of it enough to take care of it himself, but somehow they noticed. They're helping out too. 

It's been a very long time since he's had someone who's done that. 

 

Don't worry, darling. You'll be fine, just......

 

Orym nods, remembering that he has to, for anyone but Fearne to know the answer. There's distance between their roots, now, maybe she can't pick up the signals right anymore, anyway. He can't really remember how to be around people like this. Are they watching? Paying attention? It occurs to him to worry, just in time for thick hands to settle like brands over his skin, and the feeling of being pulled upwards is suddenly, thoroughly terrifying. His feet hadn't touched the ground, but this is worse; they're uprooting him. Like a leaf on a breeze, he's untethered, and he doesn't know where his body will deign to float off and take him. He doesn't want to be lost.

Doesn't want to be stranded alone. 

Not again.

All the stalks in his lungs contract, yanking in hitching oxygen as Orym's eyes startle open, a terrible noise vibrating out of his dusty vocal chords. He reaches out for something, anything, to pull him back down to earth and out of the endless open void of sky.

The brands on his sides tighten, a reminder, just enough to tide back the terror until he's pulled against a broad chest and anchored there. 

It's okay. That's fine. 

His lungs struggle to catch breath again, uncomfortably aware of the throb of his pulse under his skin for the first time in while, thick and heady, but he's tethered again. His feet still don't quite touch the floor, but he can feel the solid strength of muscle supporting him instead, a compromise - maybe that can be alright, for now. 

 

He's weightless, for a moment, stretched out and thin, his body so transparent and hollow he wonders how the others can see him at all. His stomach twists, just a little, and he makes a clumsy swipe at his face, where he can feel the tiptoeing feet of something crawling over the crease of his nostril. 

Orym swallows. Uncomfortably aware of the muscles, the trail of liquid down his throat. His stomach is full of worms, by now. He can feel them squirm, writhing little bodies, blind and hungry. He wonders if Dorian has a stob, to charm them free. 

He wonders if they'll wake up in the morning, hands damp with black, his body dissolving like coprinoids. 

He thinks of the circlet instead, and shudders. 

There's a moment, while Orym's body is being arranged, laid heavily against someone's side with others falling heavy and curling close around the rest of him, where he feels untethered all over again. Flat against the ground and rooted there, there's no room for him to float away, and yet... Their hushed conversation and careful touches are pulling him back and he isn't sure if he's ready to be there again, the threat of black corruption and the wrong kind of delicate legs inside of his veins and the weight of responsibility he can't handle looming close again. 

The steady drone of Opal's voice as she narrates every movement being made, the even rise and fall of Dariax's chest under his cheek, Fearne's short fur brushing against his skin, Dorian's long fingers combing ash out of his hair. Maybe it would have been better to float away, off on the wind like dandelion seeds, better to let the uncertain slosh of earthen decay inside his gut consume him, instead of whatever unnatural force is laying in wait out there. 

Even though his body feels a little heavier, now, he can still feel the growth in his veins. The steady slow creep of it over and under his skin, unfurling inside of muscles and spreading out filaments in delicate waves. The warm press of bodies against his own is almost hauntingly unfamiliar now, the press of ash threatening to overwhelm them all. Moss blankets over still forms. 

He gathers up the last tenuous ounce of control he has left to pull in his limbs, striking a bargain with the thalloid forms overtaking his muscles, to curl up sluggish and small. It's easier to find his outlines like that, smaller than normal and encased on all sides by the tangible press of bodies helping him define his own. Does he want to? He isn't sure, but there doesn't seem to be much he can do about it. 

It's probably fine. 

 

His skin is still crawling as he resigns himself to whatever might happen, little itching annoyances only slightly drowned out by the gauzy wrappings of ghostly lichen enveloping him too, by the weight of their bodies pressing against his. Whether the earth consumes him completely and leaves him lost, or if he wakes up whole once more - made out of tough meat instead of spongy fungus - with the others at his side, he'll be fine. He's sure of it. 

He usually is, at least. 

Isn't that all he can ask for?