Cautiously, you approach the stranger. You make no noise, but he somehow senses your presence and turns to face you. He jolts fearfully when he sees you, though he does not meet your eyes, and you hold up your hands in a placating way.
"Oh," he says, shifting slightly and wiping his eyes. "Hello. I haven't seen you before. You're new."
You nod, then point at him, miming concern and curiosity as best you can.
"You want to know why I'm crying?" he says, still looking more to the side of you than at you. "It's my children. My family. I can't-- I can't--" his voice breaks into open sobbing. The marks in his flesh ooze dark fluid that might be blood. You hope is blood, because you cannot think of any alternatives that would be better.
Despite your disgust, you move closer to the man. There's got to be a way to get him taken care of. Maybe if you lead him out of here, back to the Bookwyrm, the dragon could--
The thought is interrupted when you get a closer look at his skin. There are indeed strange wounds and track marks there, but now that you're nearer, you see what's caused them.
Insects. Black, beetle-like insects with visible flesh-tearing jaws. Hundreds of them. You watch in horror as they burrow through the man's skin, leaving deep holes and tunnels inside his flesh.
"I can't take care of them on my own," he says through the tears. An insect pops out of the exposed meat on his shoulder, and he lets it crawl on his hand. "I used to be able to take care of us," he says. "But there's too many now. I tried to get others, but they couldn't handle it. Being a parent is so hard!" he wails suddenly. "None of them could-- could handle the responsibility! They didn't love our children. They didn't--"
He stops abruptly and looks at you directly for the first time.
"You came right to us," he says.
Your stomach sinks, and you begin to back away.
The ragged man struggles to his feet. "The others-- I had to catch and chase and hold them. They didn't want to help us. They didn't want to be parents. But you came to us! I wasn't even looking for you!" He beams at you, tears of joy streaming down his face. "You love us! You love my children as much as I do!"
You back away. He follows you.
"They're my children," he says, his voice high and strained. "Th-they need me." The insects writhe around him, and he laughs.
"They need you too!" He says. He raises his gnarled hand and points a long, crooked finger at you.
As one entity, a torrent of black beetles emerge from his skin like water spitting from a fountain, and consume you.
You turn to run and feel yourself get hit by a wave of crawling insects. When you try to scream, the moment your mouth is open, they're crawling down your throat. You feel them skitter down your esophagus, feel them burrow into your eyes, into your ears and nose and every other exposed opening. You flail and kick and try to swat them away, but unseen hands wrap themselves around your wrists and hold you in place.
"Hold on, love!" says the ragged man's voice. "Hold on, sweet! They love you, they love you! Don't let go, babies. Don't let this one get away!"
You continue to struggle against him, shocked by how strong he is and blinded by the pain of thousands of biting insects.
Then, as suddenly as it had began, it's over. The bugs are gone, and you and the ragged man are alone.
You roll on the ground, coughing and retching. He scrambles backwards, laughing.
"You're perfect! You're perfect! They love you!" he says over and over.
Nauseous, you rise shakily to your feet, looking around drunkenly for the exit. It's nowhere in sight. The walls are solid, with no visible way in or out.
"No, no don't go," says the ragged man from his place on the floor. "They need us, love," he says softly, gently rubbing the burrow tracks on his arms. "They need places to breed. They need hosts to feed on. They need us!" He breaks off into giggles and rises to his feet.
You look down at your arms and see lumps moving beneath your skin, like rats beneath a carpet, and you feel bile rise in your throat.
The ragged man grabs you by the shoulders and brings his face close to yours. His grin is wide, open, and entirely free of guile. A few black beetles scurry through the gaps in his teeth and run down his neck.
"Aren't you happy?" he says, his voice hysterical. "We're going to be a family!"
* * * * *
You're going to be a parent! Congratulations!