My name is Narine Faolan, and I am a field researcher for the Alchemical Department of the Yellow Guild in Ulthar. I’ve always had a fascination with the mysteries that lie beneath the city of Ulthar. I refer, of course to the Underworld. It’s intricate network of caves and surprisingly diverse subterranean ecosystem have yielded many mysteries for the The Guild. And yet, we know so little. I’ve dedicated my life to uncovering these mysteries to make what I one day hope to be a field guide of sorts to be used by any who dare to explore these treacherous depths.
There are many reports from those who venture too far of the numerous forms of fauna that live in the Underworld. Gugs, Ghouls, Night-Gaunts, Imps and numerous other monstrosities that feed on flesh are a large factor in the notoriety of the Underworld as place to be avoided by man. However, I would like to talk about some other forms of life found at these depths. There are dangers in the Underworld capable of more elaborate means of feeding on man-flesh. Today I will talk about my recent discovery of what I have named “The Bone Apple Tree”.
If you venture toward the mouth of any cave leading into the Underworld, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself passing through a mining village. Records indicate that since Ulthar began mining Underglass as a power source that the life-forms in the Underworld have grown more blood-thirsty and efficient. Bioalchemists of the Yellow Guild theorize that the Presence of Underglass speeds up the evolutionary processes of these creatures. It is my opinion that no Underworld life form confirms this hypothesis quite like the Bone Apple Tree.
I began my journey of discovery in a humble mining village simply named Rottinton. For security measures I brought with me my Grimalkin bodyguard Lyndis and an ex-Red Warmage named Jakobi Quinn who had recently turned mercenary. This being my first personal trip into the Underworld, Jakobi thought it best to gather information, buy a room for the night and perhaps have a few ales on the Guilds budget at the local tavern. The people of Rottinton were a humble, filthy lot. Miners made a decent living outside Ulthar yet their trade seemed to keep them perpetually dirty. There was little to be seen of Underglass powered technology, odd given their trade. The town favored candlelight and human militia over lumaspheres and Grimalkin.
As we drank and conversed with the salt-of-the-earth, a particularly destitute man approached our table. His teeth were dark as pitch and he was dressed all in rags. A beggar for sure. He looked to me and asked if I’d like to try his “Bone Apple” as he reached into his cloak. Thinking this to be some crude sexual advance, I hastily had Lyndis upon him, who sent the man to the floor with a single punch. She managed to knock one of those darkened teeth from his maw, exposing our first thread of discovery. Where a normal tooth would end in a bloody root, this mans ended in an odd writhing black tendril that seemed to slowly drag it’s way back toward the man now on the floor.
I used my Guild authority to apprehend and study the beggar, who would not give his name, nor give any verbal response outside of offering us his odd fruit. Which he now produced from under his cloak of rags. It looked like a regular Apple in every way save for it’s odd coloring and pattern. It was a yellowish off-white color similar to bone, with three dark spots grouped together on one side. The whole effect made the fruit look vaguely like a human skull, hence the name.
I noticed with alarm that this man had no pulse, and he offered no resistance when I began to give him a rather heavy-handed physical. I took him to an alley outside of the tavern and began disrobing him. With An intermingling sensation of revulsion and alchemical curiosity I quickly discovered that this mans chest was completely devoid of any human organs. Where one would usually hold a respiratory and digestive system was all rotted and black much like the mans teeth, and in their place under his exposed ribcage a bushel of those strange pale fruits grew from his esophagus almost like a vine of overgrown grapes.
I had Jakobi ask people around town if they knew anything about these apples. The information he returned with had my hair on end. Men like our beggar friend apparently frequent mining villages like Rottinton quite regularly. They often look like people that have gone missing in the Underworld, but are never the same as they were before. The person will stumble their way throughout town, mostly at night, and repeatedly offer people Bone Apples. Locals of the village know better than to accept this gift, but they say an occasional outsider is seen eating the fruit and then following the beggars into the caves of the Underworld, either to never be seen again or to return as black toothed fruit salesmen themselves the next night.
As I had come to this town to make my way into the underworld, I decided to try and use this information to discover the source of this phenominon. It was obvious that the purpose of these hollowed out men was to infect them and lure them toward something. To find out what that thing was, our team decided to stake out in town and follow the beggar once we had released him. To our luck, the man actually had a young man take the fruit from him that evening. Jakobi had a hard time sitting and watching the boy eat the cursed fruit, but sacrifices must be made in the name of discovery.
After eating his Bone Apple, the boy meandered his way around town holding his stomach in pain. Around midnight he began to look sickly and pale. I approached him some time later claiming to be a Healer. He believed my lie in desperation and allowed me to study his symptoms. His teeth had started to turn grayish, and small black and off-white bits of the Apple rind were caught in his gums. With gloved hands I removed one of these pieces of rind. What I discovered confirmed my theory on the nature of these apples. The small bits of rind were already growing tiny black tendrils, slowly reaching toward the nearest body heat.
Bone Apples are not actually fruit at all, but a parasitic fungus of sorts. The human mouth is a perfectly warm and damp environment for it to grow and thrive. The bits of rind that catch between the hosts teeth slowly grow tendrils that work their way up to the brain to seize motor functions. Meanwhile, the Apple meat in the stomach slowly consumes the organs to make room for what I call a “Bone Apple Incubator” in the hosts ribcage. This keeps the fungi warm and damp as well as protecting them from sunlight, which is deadly to many Underworld organisms.
I speculated that the purpose of these hosts was to infect as many humans as possible before their inevitable return to the Underworld at dawn. They do this by offering free fresh fruit to destitute villagers, or by leaving them around town to be eaten by accident. What these creatures returned to however, was still a mystery to us. And so, we resigned to allow the infection to take it’s course with the young man. The people infected with these apples were always seen returning to the caves before sunrise, usually never to be seen again.
Jakobi, Lyndis and I stalked the boy all night. Jakobi grumbled at the lack of sleep but I was far too fascinated to close my eyes. At around four in the morning the boy and the beggar from before slowly trudged their way back toward the Underworld, leaving a trail of Bone Apples in their wake. After grabbing our belongings from the inn, we began to track them, thus beginning our descent into the mysterious depths. Tracking them was rather easy at first , as they left the fungal fruits behind everywhere they went. Lyndis still used her enhanced senses to follow their scent however. It is easy to get lost in a place like the Underworld, and in spite of how confining the cave walkways could be at times, one could always feel predatory eyes watching, waiting, for an opportunity.
I had never been to the Underworld before, and tried to make a record of as many things as I could take note of without slowing us down. At first we saw mostly simple, passive creatures, more common toward the surface. A feral Imp ventured out in front of us to grab a pale lizard for it’s breakfast, it regarded us with three wide glassy eyes before baring its needle-like teeth and retreating into a small cave. The cave walls nearby were covered in crude drawing and a form of writing I had never seen before.
At one point, we were attacked by a tribe of Chamelocks, who used their camouflaged flesh to ambush us. Naturally, the problem was resolved once they were in Jakobi and Lyndis’ sights. Jakobi unleashed the wrath of the Red Mages, burning the lizard-men to ash instantly with arcane fires. Lyndis moved among those remaining with the liquid grace and speed only attainable by the Grimalkin, cutting them down before they had time to react. It was comforting to know my safety was in good hands.
As we continued to follow our path, the ways began to grow wider, to the point where it felt less like being in a network of caves and more like a subterranean world. Enormous glowing fungi of varying shapes and sizes filled the area, and unseen creatures rustled among them. Pale, wide eyed insects scattered with our passing, filling the steamy air with their bioilluminecence like embers from a fire. At one point we caught a glimpse of a Gug, doing our best not the catch the large creatures attention. With it’s sharp-toothed vertical mouth and hairy, six-armed frame, facing a Gug in its territory would mean certain death.
We continued our journey downward through the underground jungles. We had followed The trail for several hours. The air had grown hot and thick. A fine mist made seeing difficult at long distances. Jakobi cut a path through the thick fungal growth with his longknife as Lyndis scanned the area for threats with her glowing predatory eyes. I kept hearing Jakobi muttering under his breath from the front of the group, presumably speaking to nobody but himself.
The ground had become unsettlingly soft, and the fungal growth increasingly thick. Lyndis smelled the air and told the party that we were getting close to our targets. We put out our torches in favor of slightly dimmer lanterns. Lyndis took lead of the party, as Grimalkin eyes can see well in the dark. I let myself fall to the very back behind Jakobi, ready to take notes. Jakobi seemed nervous, yet still ready to attack if needed.
Lyndis moved forward cautiously with her hand on the longsword strapped to her back. We all jumped when we heard a loud cracking noise followed by a wet slurp. We all knew in the back of our minds what made that noise. I suppressed my fear in favor of curiosity. Whatever we were approaching was something nobody in Ulthar had discovered yet. I had to take this risk. After only a few more minutes of trudging, we were finally upon it. It resided in a clearing among the fungal forest. If Lyndis hadn’t identified the thing for me I would have assumed the clearing to be a safe haven to set up camp in. In the center of the clearing was what appeared to be a normal Apple tree complete with a knotted hole in the center of its trunk, the fruit on its branches had the Bone Apple coloration I had come to recognize. In the dim light they looks like pale faces wailing in agony.
The only sign of the beggar and the boy was the tattered cloak of the older man lying several feet from tree on the ground. Jakobi nervously approached the cloak to grab it. He turned it over in his hands to reveal a dark red spot. Blood. For a short moment he locked eyes with me, there was terror in that old soldiers eyes. Then, only moment’s later, the thing had him.
One of the things branches had slowly made it’s way near his arm, moving like a clumsy tentacle. It suddenly yanking itself around his wrist like a snare. The tree lifted Jakobi up several feet into the air toward what I had falsely assumed to be it’s trunk. Lyndis quickly sprinted forward and used her sword to cut the limb to free him, only to receive a nasty spray of acid to the face from the severed stump. She fell and screamed in pain, holding the ruined half of her face.
Jakobi received the worst of it however. Other branches quickly replaced the severed one and resumed their pull toward the trunk. Pulling him into it’s maw like an octopus would a shellfish. In minutes they began submerging him legs-first in the hollow of its trunk. There was a faint hissing noise that was quickly damped by his hysterical screaming. The thing was eating him alive, using a pool of digestive juices to melt away his flesh. Lyndis had recovered enough to get back into the fray. With the other branches focused on subduing Jakobi she had the freedom to get close enough to try and pull him out of the hollow trunk. It would have been kinder to let him perish.
Lyndis successfully yanked Jakobi free, leaving the submerged half behind. Jakobi convulsed in shock as his innards hit the ground with a loud splash. I suppressed my human urges to vomit and continued to take my notes on the creature. Lyndis looked down mournfully at the twitching remains of Jakobi before swiftly delivering the mercy kill. There were loud rustles among the fungi in the distance. The screaming and the scent of fresh blood had attracted Underworld predators. Lyndis grabbed me from my note-taking and broke into a run in the direction we had come.
The journey back was taxing. Loud snarls and hooting remained on our heels the entire way back and we had no opportunities to stop for rest as we had descending. At one point I had twisted my ankle between two rocks and had to be carried by Lyndis. It was only then that I noticed the extent of her injuries from the acid. Her left eye would likely never recover, even with Yellow Healing magic. The burn went all the way down to her collar bone. And seemed to still be actively burning her.
It was early in the afternoon when we finally made it out, and no Underworld creatures dared follow us into the daylight. Lyndis dropped me rather abruptly and slumped over from exhaustion. I slowly made my way to Rottinton and paid a local healer from the mining town to see to her. Meanwhile I made my way back to our room at the inn to review the notes I had taken.
I do wish I had had more time to study the tree-immitating predator, but with the loss of Jakobi and the grave injury to my Grimalkin the risk is considered too great for the Guild to consider funding another excursion. However, with the information I managed to gather I have formed a rather consice hypothesis.
It is difficult at times to apply alchemical study to life in the Underworld. At times, the creatures there defy the very laws of nature. However, it is clear to me that The Bone Apple Tree has quickly evolved to take advantage of the social nature of mankind by using infected surrogates to share their means of contagion. If you consider the fact that the human eye is drawn to objects with which they share physical features, one could surmise that the faces on the apples also take advantage of human curiosity. Unfortunately for Jakobi Quinn and Lyndis, my curiosity led me to the Tree as well.
The loss of Jakobi Quinn is unfortunate, and I will send a small portion of the reward I receive from the Guild to his remaining family. The man died with honor, for the greater good. The information I have gathered will undoubtedly save thousands of lives and ultimately aid mankind in the taming this this treacherous landscape and allow Ulthar to mine Underglass as we all desire.
Long live Ulthar, and long live the Guild.