Eleven thousand, three hundred and fifteen.
The prisoner has a good memory. Good for keeping count. This is not the darkest dungeon he has ever seen, but it is the deepest. It is not his longest sentence, but it is the strangest. There are no walls, no bars nor obstacles for him here. Only trees, and time.
He pats the immense trunk beside him, leans against it and looks around. Smells and tastes the air, and takes in all of the sounds, the quiet tremors that inform his feet. Nothing. There are trees everywhere, but they do not all count. Only the great masts truly are where he finds them.
He will have to climb to find the next one.
The prisoner has collected many gifts over the years, though most of them are useless to him here. He will have to find new ones if he wants to leave. His progress has been slow, but that does not worry him. He has time.
Smooth, slippery bark. It is always raining in this place, and the water mixes with the dirt and moss to deny him purchase. He has made many changes to account for this, but it is getting more difficult to adjust. Food is scarce, despite the verdancy of his surroundings. While he has changed his metabolism to feed on the brush, the fungi and the fallen leaves, they are all poor substitutes for flesh.
His fingers have grown long and sharp, so twisted he can scarcely recognize them. The warden rarely sets her creatures upon him anymore. Next time, he will eat the bones as well. Calcium is much harder than keratin. Teeth are far tougher than claws.
He wraps his fingers around the mast before him; as far as they will go, all the way to the other side. They secure enough of a grip that he can pull himself up, and he digs the claws on his feet into the bark to secure his new height. Over and over he repeats this, until the smaller woods disappear below him, and he is clinging to a slab of timber suspended in a green void.
Still he is trapped beneath the canopy above, and it refuses to tell him anything of the outside. Light filters through, bright and abundant, enough for all the trees. Yet to tell the location of the sun is impossible. He has tried it before, and knows it will lead him nowhere.
This climb has no summit. He has tried that before, too. It is not what he is looking for. Eventually he finds a protrusion, a growth that was once a branch. It will do. He wraps one hand around it, and then the other, and flips himself over so he is perched atop it. Then he begins to survey.
The warden does not like him doing this. She hides herself in the mist, and tries to make him lose focus. Tries to distract him, so she can turn him around. But he is older than she is, and he is patient. He opens his eyes as wide as they will go, and dilates his pupils. They eat up every ray of light that strikes them hungrily, giving nothing in return. He needs enough information to compensate for the fog.
As he tries to calculate all the variables needed to see the way forward, he turns his body toward gathering substance from the air. He resents the trees. They use up all the carbon, bind it up so he cannot use it himself. They are hers, and she never lets him have what he wants. He must concede that she is more clever than he first gave her credit for.
The forest never turns dark, the light never moves at all, but he needs no such things to tell the time. It takes five days before he knows the mist well enough to see through it. Five days, and then he finds it, a silhouette in the distance. Another great tree, one he has not seen before.
Eleven thousand, three hundred and sixt-
A sound draws his attention, and he is forced to take in his surroundings anew. If he can hear it, it is coming for him. She likes to make it clear who is the hunter, and who is the prey. This does not scare him. He enjoys her creativity. She never tries the same thing twice, learning from him at every encounter. Searching for a way to kill him. He is learning too.
His claws dig deep into the wood again, and his hands move around to grip the trunk of his perch so he can slide down. Before he has a chance to do so, a violent tremor moves it beneath his grasp, and it falters. He nearly has it back when something strikes the tree again, and shakes him loose. The prisoner does not struggle. He turns smoothly in the air and dives. Waits for his enemy to become visible.
There is no need to squint, even as the air howls past at speed. This is not his first fall, and he has already adapted his eyes to the wind. When the ground comes into view, he swings his legs beneath him like a cat.
Where is it? He searches every sense, but finds nothing. Less than nothing.
Oh, she is clever.
He strikes a large root with a crunch, and he can feel the bones in his legs break and shatter. Safe landings are more a question of mass than of construction, and he has acquired too much to make them feasible. It takes him a moment to repair the fractures. He stands to his feet as soon as he is finished.
There is no creature waiting for him. He will not be fed today. Worse, she has fooled him. Stolen his attention away for long enough to move the forest. He has not landed where he fell, but he knows the tree now beside him.
The prisoner has been here many times before.
No matter. He has time.