There is a monster in the cracks and it has many names. The Murmuring Wyrm, the Snake of Ash and, for a few old souls who half recall the words of ancient tales, the æskon drake.
You can hear it sometimes, hissing in the karst crannies, deep down somewhere under the fallen wood that hangs jammed in the ravine. It's faint.
Few have ever seen it and few of those have ever been believed. It comes at sunset, rising out of the dry canyons, a grey-black serpent poised heraldic in the falling light, looming almost to the level of the tallest trees, wrathful, enraged, casting back and forth with its blind eyes, seeking something in oncoming gloom.
It is still when the serpent comes. It is always still inside the zone, strong winds do not survive there long but crawl and die between the boles of the cloudgrave trees and the crackling mazework of branches and debris around their roots. But even in this stillness and this heat, there is a deeper quiet. An almost unnatural pause in the air when even the horrible hook birds seem to be abashed, a quiet so deep you can hear a drop of sweat plink from your chin onto the parched earth, so quiet it seems fearful almost to breathe.
Zone workers know not to move at these times. To remain still, especially if they are within sight of one of the deep karst canyons that network the Zone, especially if the sun is falling from the sky.
First the soft trickling from the karst-cracks rises almost imperceptibly, changing from an indistinguishable white noise to something like a voice whispering in the next room, then sounding like a pile of papers sliding to the floor, then louder and louder and louder.
A flickering, wheeling spattering of black specks moving amidst the shattered cloudgrave branches in the limestone cracks. A silent vortex of blurred shapes collecting and condensing into the figure of a serpent, its head rising far above the earth on a neck like a living cyclone of white noise whose skin is like the whirling leaves flung up into a column by a spiraling wind.
Where its gigantic neck swoops past and through the trunks and branches of the cloudgrave trees, the flesh parts like smoke passing between fingertips, then re-forms. Yet its grey-black coils always dissapear somewhere down inside the darkness of the karst.
As the serpent opens its mouth to scream, the silence deepens. Survivors say their ears pop and noses bleed, that it becomes hard the breathe, that their brain seems to tighten in their skull, forcing them to their knees. Though they cry out, they make no sound. Even someone standing a few hundred yards away, facing the wrong direction, or separated by the cloudgrave maquis, might never know the snake was there at all.
Everyone knows that no-one survives staring directly into the opening maw of the Murmuring Wyrm, and everyone knows that inside can be seen a tornado of birds, coloured like smoke and ash, spiralling to nothing in a tightening gyre, and that the birds are crying out in a language that no-body knows for their lost masters and their dead queen.
How everybody know these things when no-one can have seen them and survived, and even if they did and if they could hear the cries of an ancient unknown language, that no-one could know what it said, is simply a paradox of peasant-lore. It's clear that everybody knows what cannot be known.
When the Serpent passes and is gone, the branches and broken wood piled like smashed dining ware in the vertical shards of the karst that it emerged from are undisturbed, as if nothing was ever there.
Because of this few figures of authority who have not seen the Snake of Ash believe that it is real. Many think that something has taken place, perhaps an illusion of the Maroons, Tree Dreams or a common madness of the zone. Certainly there is damage, and traces of ash, though there has been no fire, and certainly people do go missing and bodies are found.
But people go missing in the zone all the time, and bodies are always being found. So long as they are counted and accounted for, what does it matter?
(This monster, more than usual, based on ideas by and produced through collaboration with Scrap Princess.)