Phantammeron book one, p.6
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       Phantammeron Book One, p.6

           Mitchell Stokely
 
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  Far from the Realms of Oblivion, beyond Agapor’s gloomy halls, a nightmarish being created from evil’s own twisted mind had raged on, uncontrolled and with never-ending fury. For upon the fringes of Phantaia the endless savagery of the Yana, the Magra Oversoul, had long endured to terrorize those woods. Its dark storm clouds rolled about in the Heavens with unrelenting winds, rains, and lightning, hurling itself down upon the fringes of Phantaia. For the slaughter of its mighty trees, born of its ravishing and all-consuming hunger, had continued unabated. The unending maze of oaks, which had for ages guarded it, had at last upon its cliffs and boundaries fallen like sheaves before the cutting winds of its furious tempest.

  Yet for all of the carnage that Yana had unleashed, she could not penetrate the heart of Phantaia. For it had hid within its very depths a seductive light, and the wondrous source of its immense power. It alone had chased away the evil which had tried to enter its borders. The great mass of trees within its interior had thus endured, renewed by youthful growth, and fed by its miraculous light.

  No force in that world could now extinguish its mysterious candle, which burned ever more brightly at its center. So was it the source of life and the hope of the world that yet lived on by its seminal flame. Thus had Phantaia and its many hidden wonders remained a mystery to Agapor and his servants.

  Yet had the Shadow seen its lights with his own eyes. And so the knowledge of its true essence was partially revealed to him, though its strange source still remained unknown. But Agapor, like the Shadow, now knew that the Magra would never penetrate Phantaia, nor chase his father from those woods. For something yet remained there that had to perish. This hidden truth even the Nothingness had revealed.

  The Shadow had told Agapor that the last of the children of the Primordial Ones had fled into Phantaia’s depths. And in its heart, their spirits and powers would remain, defiant and united as one to defy him, the new Lord of Destruction and Darkness, until he should find the shining source that now sustained them. And so had the beguiling tongue of the Shadow slowly turned Agapor’s prideful spirit towards the destruction of its secret light.

  Agapor sat in his hidden chambers, deep in the farthest corners of Oblivion, and peered into his magical crystal. Within its inner clouds he had hoped by chance alone to see some glimpse of his father’s mist in that faraway forested realm. But those globes had been forged by the Limitless Void for another purpose. For they were most treacherous, and had been designed to curse his brothers with shattered memories of their troubled past, filling their minds with endless lies, revealing the cold truth of their failed lives, and hiding the uncertain future from their eyes, until they would become a slave to the will of their deceitful spheres, and thus to him.

  Tortured by his own visions, Agapor would look into that glass each night, seeing only the contorted and twisted face of his evil mother, and hearing the tortured cries of his sister’s spirit. And so he turned away from them. Yet slowly he began to see, in the shifting lights, the faint images of the true future that would befall that sad world and all its children. In an epiphany, he began to understand his own destiny, though partially revealed, and embrace the strange fate into which he was thrown.

  In his gloomy chambers, weak with exhaustion, Agapor lay down once more to sleep, drifting back down into nightmares, where he tossed and turned, trapped and tortured by the horrible visions that wracked his mind. But the dutiful Shade heard his cries in the night. And she rose forth from the shadows of her own dark bed. She found Agapor in his chamber, where he long had suffered alone, night after night, crying out from the shadows of his room. Her long dark hair and sensuous form now lay beside him, tempting him to her seductive passions. And so for a time Agapor was comforted by her.

  But each night, as he looked into her blackened eyes, they appeared to him sterile and cold, devoid of the light he once saw in the shining eyes of An. He turned away from her in disgust. But the Shade would not leave him. For she desired to be near him, and would not abandon him in his time of need.

  Agapor then heard the thundering footsteps of the terrible Shadow, echoing forth from deep within his halls. His greatest servant had returned to him from the dark errands he had been sent to fulfill. For he had been told not to return unless he brought news of his father.

  The Shadow now called for his master from the darkness of his hallways. Agapor rose wearily from the secret bed he had shared with the Shade. But the Shadow had watched from the dark corners of an antechamber, and had seen them together many times. And so he had long known of their tryst. He walked forth from the corners of that room and laughed as they rose from their carnal bed.

  Seeing her brother, in terror the Shade fled from the room. But the Shadow caught her by her arm, saying, “You should not be fearful of me, your loving and loyal brother. Nor should you hide in shame. Relish in the desires you have for Agapor, and which you for so long have fought hard in your heart to deny.” The Shade then fled away in shame.

  Agapor looked in fear at the Shadow’s towering dark form as it stood before him. For he had seen a glimpse of some tragic future in the crystal, in which that creature strangely played a central part. And so he distrusted the Shadow, and feared he would soon turn against him in vengeance.

  But the Shadow saw once more the black manacles upon Agapor’s wrists. And he looked away from his master, hiding his own face in fear. For he could no longer feign his own denial of the painful shame of his own cruel enslavement.

  The Shadow then knelt before Agapor in subjugation, saying, “Master, I bear strange news. For many nights I stood upon the crags, looking down upon the seas and the shattered shores of the forest, thinking upon the source of its secretive illumination. It was then I heard the cries of a baby, coming up from the ocean depths. Cast up from the waves of the seas, a strange girl-child appeared before my eyes, floating upon its surface. For many nights she drifted upon the ocean waves, until I saw her flung upon the beach beside the woods.” Agapor stared at the Shadow, unsure of the meaning of this vision.

  “Shadow, what more did you see?” Agapor asked. For Agapor thought her dead. He had sent the Magra Lord to wrap her destructive storms about Phantaia, such that no creature could enter or leave its woods. And he feared that Yana, the Oversoul of the Gray Ones, had by her vast powers drawn the child into her monstrous mouth and consumed her.

  But the Shadow said, “By the hand of some unseen force I saw a doorway made for her, which lead into the forest. A strange white beast then appeared, capturing the girl, and ripping her away from the claws of the Magra.” Agapor stared at the Shadow in wonder.

  “What do you know of this white beast?” Agapor asked.

  The dark servant said, “Master, I know nothing of this monster only that it seemed to be a spirit born of the forest itself. And that the child fled into the woods, riding upon the back of that creature, never to be seen again.”

  Agapor then asked, “Did you see the violet mists of my father?”

  “I saw only the hands of the Twilight Mist, stretching forth across the seas from the fringes of the wood. But it drew itself back into the forest to pursue the girl,” the Shadow said. Agapor then turned away from the Shadow, whispering to himself, “Could the child still be alive?”

  But hearing his words, the Shadow said to Agapor, “The girl has likely perished in the depths of the ancient wood. For it is a wicked place in which many horrors now hide—a decrepit world where even the servants of darkness now fear to dwell. For the dark earth there has swallowed many of my own brethren within its murky hollows, never to be seen again, while in the skies above, the forest’s colossal lights singe and sear away the very air, such that even the storms of the Magra flee before it. Nothing that enters those woods ever returns, Master. Therefore, the child has truly perished within its depths.”

  With these words the Shadow looked upon the troubled face of Agapor. And he smiled with a perverse joy at the pain wrought upon his master’s hear
t. For he sensed that Agapor in private cared for the child.

  Agapor sat down upon his great throne in the darkness, thinking again upon the wonder of this strange new sight. For in his heart he knew this child of the sea to be his daughter. And he felt that she had in truth not perished, but was alive in Phantaia.

  Agapor also knew that his father would not harm her, though he now had hidden her far from him. Yet Agapor knew he could not easily find her in that forest. For he had known that the vast realms of that wilderness would not easily be penetrated or destroyed. He had used the Magra to try and drive his father from those woods, but with no success. His daughter would now remain hidden from him, in a place nearly impenetrable, just as An had been secreted away from him by the Dreaming Seas.

  Agapor rose from his seat enraged, saying to the Shadow that his own father, the Twilight Mist, must have planned this wicked deed. The child of the sea, therefore, had not perished, but had been summoned forth into the twilight forest of Phantaia by his father’s own pernicious powers. For he had vaguely seen within the Limitless Void’s crystal mists that his father would use such a presence against him. And so the Dreaming Seas had sent that child to assist the Mist in a dire plot against him.

  But Agapor looked down with weariness upon his face, telling the Shadow that the girl would likely remain hidden forever from the world’s eyes, dwelling within the impenetrable wilderness of Phantaia, until such time as his father’s evil plans would be revealed. Soon would the powers of sea and land unite against them, and his ancient father’s war against the realms of Night and Void would be resumed.

  The Shadow now stood sternly before Agapor, saying that he himself would go into Phantaia and find the child. If she lived, he would take her and bring her to him. But he required something special to protect him from its light. The Shadow then stood quiet and unmoving, staring into the pale face of Agapor, his plotting mind turning over and over.

  But Agapor did not trust the Shadow. And so he hid his true fears for his daughter’s fate from the prying mind of that vile creature. He knew the Shadow would go forth to find the child and harm her, as the Shadow cared not for the life of any living thing. And Agapor knew through the Shadow’s own evil designs against him, he would seek to slay her.

  Yet Agapor was haunted by another more terrible truth. For unknown to the Shadow, he had made a vow to surrender his first child to the evil twins. By the powers of Yana that had been given to him to wield, was he to give his only child to the Nothingness. And Agapor fell back onto his throne, aghast with the horror of this grim truth.

  But he would not abandon his daughter to the same cruel fate the Limitless Void had inflicted upon his own. He would not condemn her to the same suffering he had endured, nor lead her to her death.

  Yet he had seen that, like a web of doom, this evil world had entangled them all in some foul maze of treacherous traps they and their children could not escape. Tempted by fortune’s honeyed dew, their hallowed lives were now but an empty corpse to be fed upon by the evil horrors that dangled at the end of the strand of time.

  But though Agapor’s feelings for the child remained within the confines of his heart, the Shadow had the powers of the Nightmare Unending, and could see deep into him. The Shadow saw that a new temptation had arisen within his master yet again, to ensnare him in its net. And the Shadow saw that Agapor’s mind and heart were weak, and that he would sacrifice everything to save and protect this child.

  But in his plotting mind the Shadow had felt great apprehension and uncertainty about that child, which he withheld from his master purposefully. Upon seeing the child rise forth from the sea, a new perception had come into him. He felt fear for the first time, not knowing yet what secrets lay within her. For the mysterious forces he had seen within the seas, he now saw hidden within the girl. That enigma troubled him. And the Shadow realized that the strange fate of the world, like the hub of a wheel, would now turn about her.

  Agapor stood before the Shadow, speaking with bold words, saying, “I will go into Phantaia and find the child, and confront the Twilight Mist who yet guards her. By my hand alone will she be taken from him.”

  But the Shadow said to Agapor, “This is a doomed mission. For neither you nor I may enter Phantaia. As long as the enchanted lights of that forest still shine, shall the Children of Night and Void be burned and blinded by the golden beams of its relentless flame, which ever emanates from its heart.”

  “Do you not remember your own defeat at the hands of the savage seas?” the Shadow said, his eyes glowing with contempt. “Like that mother-ocean, within those woods now dwells a preternatural force you cannot face, nor force, nor ever break. This you know now to be true.” Agapor thought upon the truth of the Shadow’s words.

  But the Shadow stared coldly into Agapor’s eyes, saying, “The true destiny of the child lies within the heart of Phantaia itself. For this is where she is now being taken by the white beast of the woods. Therefore must the source of the light of Phantaia be found and destroyed. Should its light fail, then shall the forest fall. With Phantaia withered and dying, then shall those who they hide be yours. For in that light lives not only the fate of the child, but the destiny of the world, master.”

  But the Shade, daughter of the Night, had returned. She saw the secret desire of Agapor to save the girl. And she felt her brother’s hatred for the forest and its magical light. She then said to them, “There is one thing left in this world that yet may guide you both. Only the Wings of Night have the power to shield the lights of Phantaia. Only then might you enter those woods and find the child. Though my father has perished, these last powers of his yet remain with him, hidden within his sepulcher. With those dark wings one could summon the last winged servants of the Lands of Midnight, which still dwell in its deepest catacombs. Then could you clothe Phantaia in unending darkness, dimming its golden glow, and hiding the pale lights of the Twilight Mist, which yet shine there to protect the child. Under the cover of midnight’s mantle might you then enter Phantaia, unharmed and unseen.”

  Hearing his sister’s words, the Shadow’s eyes glowed with a vile and vengeful light. For in secret he had desired the Wings of Night, having sought them beneath his father’s keep for many nights. Yet his father’s crypt had remained a mystery to him. The Shadow then looked upon his sister with great derision, saying, “Our father is now gone. And the Wings of Night are lost for all time.”

  The Shadow gazed upon Agapor with his penetrating eyes, saying, “But Master, if you truly know where the Wings of Night lie hidden, you should not hesitate to take them. With those wings, we could seek out the living source of Phantaia, and not just shield it, but destroy it utterly. With the last light of the wood now extinguished, the twilit forest would perish. And Yana would be free to penetrate its heart, and devour the evil which hides there. She would devour them all. The ruinous remains of that blasted earth would then be yours to rule over for all eternity, Master.” The Shadow laughed at the thought.

  Agapor looked with uncertain eyes at the Shadow. For he now saw the true madness of his plot. But Agapor had concealed from him his own knowledge of the Wings of Night, and the truth of their existence, which he had learned in the bowels of Oblivion’s libraries. And he had seen that with those wings the Shadow could gather the powers he needed to free himself from his long bondage. Then would a new Prince of Darkness rise again, to devour the world in its eternal night.

  Yet Agapor realized that with the last powers of the Endless Night lay his only hope of saving his daughter. For with those wings could he cloak himself from Phantaia’s burning beams. And with the winged armies of darkness he commanded could he enter its forest unseen by his father. He could then escape the fallen world with his beloved daughter, taking flight upon the dark winds that blow beyond the Heavens, carrying his innocent child far away to a distant place, hiding her forever from the doom of that world’s abiding evil, and cloaking his child in the safety of its shadows.

  Agapor no
w looked upon the sad face of the pitiful Shade, whose knowing eyes spoke to him. For she knew what he must do.

  Agapor raised his dark manacles above his head. And they glowed with an eerie light that lit the darkest corners of his chamber. He now commanded the Shade to go forth into the lands beyond the Veils of Night, and find the crypt of her father, the Endless Night. His corpse had lain in a hidden crypt within his own city-tomb, which lay deep within the Corridors of Darkness beneath the Lands of Midnight. This knowledge he alone had gained. And to the Shade, his lover, had it alone been imparted.

  Agapor then told the Shade she must take the wings from his form, and bring them to him. Agapor turned to the Shadow, commanding him to go forth to the dark shores of Phantaia where he had seen the girl and wait for him there. They would then travel together into the forest and find the child.

  Agapor said to the Shade and Shadow that he himself would now go forth to the precipice that hung before the Great Beyond, and speak to the gray powers within its depths. For they were all-knowing. They alone would reveal the secret paths within Phantaia’s vast reaches that would lead them to the child.

  But Agapor looked upon the troubled face of the Shadow. And to him he made a vow most sacred, saying, “Servant, if you will find the child and bring her to me, I shall free you from your bondage. Vengeance against the magical lights of Phantaia will then be yours.” The black manacles upon Agapor’s wrists then began to glow with a faint lavender light.

  Hearing this vow, the Shadow bellowed forth with great laughter, saying to his master, “Thy will shall soon be done.” Agapor now knew his daughter would be found, and safely given unto him. For nothing would stop the Shadow from fulfilling that vow. But Agapor did not surmise the vengeful plans and secret plots of the Shadow. Despite his vow, the Shadow would never allow Agapor, a Child of Mist, to wear the wings of his father. By birthright they were his alone.

  But the mystery of the girl-child still haunted the Shadow. He had vowed to himself he alone would learn of the terrible secrets which lay within the child of the sea. He would find her. And by his hand would she soon perish.

  The Shadow rose up before Agapor, drawing out his wide black wings, and flying forth into the emptiness of Oblivion. He disappeared into the gray fog that hung about the chamber ceiling. And with every beat of his wide wings did the halls of that underground city tremble and shake.

  The Shade drew forth her own lithe wings, the black satin of her oily feathers shining in the somber glow of the chamber. She then walked to Agapor. And they kissed passionately. In her eyes were tears, shed only for him. She said, “Do not go, my love. Do not do this terrible deed. For I fear great harm will come of it. And I see that in that forest a dark and terrible fate awaits you...awaits all of us.”

  Agapor looked down into her dark and tearful eyes, saying only, “You know now what you must do.” For in secret he had shared with her a strange truth about her own father, which the Shadow had not known.

  For the love of Agapor she would now obey, flying forth from his warm embrace out into the cold skies above. Beyond the heights of Oblivion she flew, out beyond the Veils of Night to find the form of her fallen father hither in the darker lands. She would find his Wings of Night, and bring them to her love. For her loyalty to Agapor was unwavering.

  Agapor fled his dusty caverns, travelling through countless lost hallways, and over the lonely bridges that spanned the icy underworld seas. Travelling secret catacombs and winding stairs, he finally arrived at a vast opening in the mountains, which looked out upon a wide precipice of rock. Beside it, the icy rivers of the underworld ocean fell away, past the last of Wendalia’s foggy and bottomless pits, and down into the pitiless gulf that lay beyond.

  He stood once more, trembling, before the vast spaces of the Great Beyond. He then called forth the spirits of the Nothingness and Emptiness. From out of the great gray waste a monstrous form took shape, slowly rising up from the depths. And the full terror of its great face swirled up from the rippling mists, looking down on the tiny form of Agapor as he stood uncertain, yet determined, upon the edge of the cliffs.

  Agapor appeared again before the swirling presence of the Nothingness, saying, “Where lies the hidden path that leads into Phantaia? For I seek to find the heart of that wood, where my father now dwells. Yana has failed to destroy Phantaia, as you promised.” Agapor looked with anger upon the storm, as he spoke. But the billowing storm of the Nothingness did not speak.

  Agapor said to the Nothingness, “Spirit, I go to Phantaia for a greater purpose. For I seek to discover the source of Phantaia’s living lights so I might obliterate them. I sense that the Sacred Light, lost long ago, now dwells there—a secret source of light, whose beams burn forth like the spiritual fires of legend, and which once lay upon the Mountains of Heaven. Toward its willful destruction is my mind now set. With the demise of the living light shall the life of the forest be extinguished. And with the death of the Sacred Lights of Heaven shall you and your brother then be free to consume the dying world as you please. So I come again before you, asking for your help.”

  But as Agapor stood before the Great Beyond, a cold chill came upon him. For the Nothingness turned dark, billowing forth into a mighty boiling cloud of wind and dust. Its blast threw back Agapor. A great face then formed within its cloud, with twisted and horned peaks of anger upon his head. And a terrible voice boomed like the thunder of a thousand tempests.

  The Nothingness then bellowed, “Do not lie to me, Agapor. You know of the child that hides within Phantaia. It is your daughter you now seek, your first, last, and only child.”

  The Nothingness then said to Agapor in anger, “Whether you destroy Phantaia, or slay your father, it matters not to me. You must go to Phantaia and bring your daughter to me, so that her flesh may be consumed by my brother, the Emptiness, and the life force within her devoured by me. Her tiny spirit shall then be obliterated forever from this world. With the child’s death shall the forest fall, the sea’s heart break, and the last of the Primordial Ones perish.”

  But the Nothingness laughed, saying, “With the death of this child, then shall Yana be free to devour Phantaia completely in her jaws, and the last rays of hope that yet had arisen within its wood, be extinguished forever. Utter ruin, death, and darkness shall then be this hopeless world’s fate. Only then shall I grant you freedom from bondage to me, Agapor, and the debt owed to me by the summoning of Yana.”

  But the Nothingness came down upon the head of Agapor, with a terrible blast of winds and gales, saying, “Though you have failed to sunder the seas like the Limitless Void, my servant, you shall not fail to bring the child to me! For should you fail, my brother and I will seek you and your child in the farthest corners of the world, devouring your flesh and obliterating your spirits. You cannot hide, nor shall your vow be broken. To this promise, long ago, were you bound to me.”

  Hearing these terrible words, Agapor looked in horror at the distorted face of the Nothingness, and fell to his knees. He could not speak. And so, he cowered before the evil spirit, saying only, “I shall obey.” But though he was fearful, yet was his heart torn.

  But as he held his hands before his face, the Nothingness saw the strange ring upon his hand. And the Nothingness in a booming voice, shouted, “Where did you find this ring? For it is a thing most foul. And its black purpose is beyond the will of any spirit in this world to control.”

  As Agapor held out his hand the colossal clouds of the Nothingness writhed before him as if in fear. The terrible face of the Nothingness then turned black with rage, saying, “Cast it away, back into the dark waters in which it has slept for all eternity. For it is a curse and a blight upon us, and bends time and space, hearts and minds, and all things to its poisonous will and darker end, which none might fathom.”

  Agapor then saw the strange power the ring had over that being. And he held it before the Nothingness, saying, “I demand to know the way into Phantaia!”

  The Nothingnes
s drew his great cloud back into the depths of space. And there it hung for a moment. He then opened his huge black eyes and saw the hidden spirit of the Limitless Void, shining from within its crystal.

  The Nothingness said to Agapor, “If the spirit of the Limitless Void yet lives inside the ring, then within it hides your answer. For the demonic servants of the Limitless Void, which dwell in the trees of Phantaia, know of her many secrets. The spirit within that ring still controls them, as the spirits of those trees are still bound to him. And so may the spirit of the Limitless Void alone command the demonic armies that yet possess the darker lands of Avaras.”

  The Nothingness then said, “Go to Phantaia and use the ring to speak with the tree-spirits that dwell there. For in their trunks sleep the wicked demon-lords, which yet reign over the darker forests. Only the twelve haunted hazels, which rule the vast wilderness of Avaras, know of the hidden paths into the heart of Phantaia. They shall reveal to you the woods’ many secrets, which they alone now keep. From their knowledge shall you learn of the winding paths into Phantaia’s deepest heartland. For the blinding light of truth, which blazes forth from its middle-realms, hides the knowledge of its secret source even from me.”

  The great cloud of the Nothingness then spoke from within the depths of his hidden cloud, saying, “This knowledge I give to you, so you might fulfill your vow to me. You must bring the child hither, Agapor, and then cast the ring back into the waters from which it was made. Only I can free you from it. For that ring desires to undo all that was, is and shall be.” Agapor then stared at the dark ring, as it glowed eerily upon his boney hand. The Nothingness faded away into the darkness, leaving Agapor alone and confused upon that solemn shore of death.

  But Agapor was in fact not alone. For upon a distant precipice, high above him had hid his deceptive servant, the Shadow. He too had heard the words of the Nothingness, and of the secret vow of Agapor to give his only child to that vile spirit. The Shadow thought upon this new knowledge, and about his own freedom. Soon would he have his justice, be freed of his master, and destroy the hateful lights of Phantaia.

  But first he must seek the child. He would then slay her himself. And by her death would Agapor’s fate be sealed, and the world itself doomed, by the breaking of that vow. For he hated this world even more than the powers that slept in the Great Beyond. But more than this, vengeance upon Agapor would soon be his.

  The Fall of Night

  As Ana and the horse entered the woods, before them a realm of darkness stood. All light and sound seemed to fade away, as sky and sea changed to woods and clay. From the darkened soil grew towering trees, whose bent black boughs bore bountiful leaves. Thick roots underground, hidden deep in the earth, thrust up from their mounds huge trunks of great girth.

  In this dark forest, shifting shadows held sway. For long ago, the pale lights of Heaven had faded away. The phantom trees, twisted and distorted, stood bent, broken, battered, and contorted. Yet from worthy seeds had they been sown, growing defiant and by their pride, survived alone. But the tortured trees revealed a splintered past, the merciless cruelty of the storm’s ruthless and relentless wrath.

  Ana and the strange horse fled into the safety of the woods, leaving the troubled shore of Phantaia behind them. As she looked back, she saw the dark doorway had closed behind them. The scent of the humid air and rotting leaves of the forest had now worked upon her senses. And she could smell the ancient forest’s almost timeless nature.

  As they travelled down a dim path through the woods, the forest’s deepening darkness had enveloped her and the horse in its gloom, strangling her sense of vision. The wide shadows of its towering trees rose up on either side of the trail, until only a faint violet glow from the trees above shined upon their path.

  But that dim light was odd, almost out of place. Ana looked up to find its source. But she saw only a ghostly purple mist writhing about the tops of the trees. She realized it was the same mist she had seen earlier upon the beach. As it descended about them, it seemed to float, ghost-like, just above their heads, twisting and distorting its horrid and phantom-like form above them. The mist was an unnatural thing, born of some alien world, stretching its eerie tendrils into the black woods, drifting down and around them, and then back up again, rising and falling like the waters of a great sea. Oddly, the pale horse did not seem frightened by it, and so pushed on.

  The horse was also unaffected by the ghostly shadows that surrounded them. For it seemed to follow some unseen path through the darkness, winding its way between the dense trunks and black foliage that rose up on all sides to consume them.

  With an almost galloping gait, the horse rode past great mounds of logs and broken stumps, over masses of tangled roots and hollow husks of dead trees that lay around them in large piles of rot and wreckage. On they went, riding through the wooded hills, and then up a rocky ridge. Across bridges of timber and stone they travelled, riding over vast pits from which rose up deep piles of shattered limbs and logs that stood up like sharpened knives in the depths below. These fallen trees seemed to be remnants of the unending and violent struggle between earth and sky, which for ages had devastated this part of the forest.

  They had ridden up many steep hills, and crossed many lonesome valleys, until they had come to a narrow canyon blocking their path. A massive log had fallen over its deep chasm. This dark pit seemed filled with many morbid spirits, which Ana could not see, only sense. As the horse rode over the chasm, it seemed wary of the eerie forms that now drifted about in the shifting and shadowy depths.

  As Ana looked down, she saw blurred glimpses of strange forms, crawling and twisting about in the dimly lit hollows of the pit. They appeared like mounds of writhing bodies, piled together in some perverted embrace, deep in the blackness of the earth. These were the tortured spirits of Avaras, which had long ago come into Phantaia to possess this part of the woods. She shuddered at the sight, closing her eyes, until the white horse had crossed the forbidding canyon. Yet she could still hear their strange erotic moans and groans in the lecherous depths.

  They now climbed a short hill that rose up into the darker parts of the woods before them, until they came to a vast and boundless plain of trees. But the white horse did not stop to rest, weaving his way among the huge black logs and rotting limbs that lay strewn about them in broken and tumbled piles. As they travelled deeper into the haunted wood, she saw around them the rotting remnants of once-monumental trees, which had fallen in some violent age. They were so large and hollow that many had formed great cavernous tunnels and mossy openings through which small streams now flowed.

  Ana could barely hear the howling storm in the distance. Yet the savagery of its rage could still be felt in the distant rumbling of thunder that shook the earth beneath them. But Ana could still hear the shredding of limbs, the ripping away of roots, and the crashing of trunks as they were slung about in the farthest fringes of the forest. Such was the violent struggle of the storm in its futile search to find her.

  As they travelled deeper into the woods, the trees had grown larger and more threatening. Ana felt a strange presence in this part of the forest. For it lay still, as if in fear of something unseen in their midst. The white horse paused for a brief moment, his head turning back and forth, as if looking for something. He then continued on, following a new path through an open corridor formed by a vast colonnade of massive hazel trees. Like a dark blue shadowy sea the misty gloom of Phantaia now seemed, its ghoulish gloom punctuated by the massive trunks of crooked trees, whose bent and black shapes stood partially hidden behind the silent fog that flowed between them.

  As Ana’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, she could see about her the distant and faded incandescent glow of multicolored mushrooms, poisonous toadstools, phosphorescent fungi, and carpets of illuminated spores, whose curling tendrils and bulbous heads poked up through the black mulch. The luminous growth of that enchanted realm stretched away into depths of the foggy forest. And their sickly orange, green,
scarlet, and purple shapes shined like distant stars above a moldy sea of rotting logs and leaves.

  As they rode on, the phantom mist seemed to flee before them, up into the canopy of the forest, until it finally disappeared above the tree tops. Something must have driven it away, thought Ana. A strange, ephemeral night had now descended upon the woods, enveloping them in its grim and lightless shade. Only the dark and distorted figures of the ancient trees remained, their creeping shadows rising up monstrous and mighty before them.

  But in the midst of that eerie landscape, Ana thought she saw the unblinking eyes of beings much more sinister, staring back at her from the hollows of the trees. And she began to tremble with fear, not knowing what lay waiting there in the darker depths of those woods.

  Yet beyond the quiet gloom of the haunted forest, Ana thought she could barely hear the crashing of waves on a faraway shoreline. She longed to return to her mother’s seas and the gentle flow of her tides. They had held and protected her. If she closed her eyes, she could almost picture herself floating upon her mother’s waves. For the motion of the great horse made her feel she was drifting upon the ocean.

  But when she opened her eyes, she saw that she still lay trapped in the suffocating shade of the woods. The pale horse was all that lay between her and that which crept about in the darkness. She clung to its back, closing her eyes again, only opening them when she heard the sound of the wind in the trees or the rustle of branches, which now hung low about them. But it was the icy breath of the shadows as they drifted across her neck, which caused her to grip the horse’s mane even tighter.

  Ana and the horse rode on for what seemed an eternity, weaving along a crooked trail, which carried them beyond the dreamy mire of phosphorescent growth, and deeper into an even ghastlier wood. She sensed she was now passing through a more ancient part of the forest. Like relics of some other world, the haunted trees here had withstood endless eons of ferocity and violence wrought upon them by the storm. Her brutal winds had beaten their great trunks into monstrous and distorted shapes. Their twisted roots bulged up from the rotting corpses of their fallen brethren, while their bloated, black, and knotted limbs bent low to the ground, as if to strike it with their fists.

  All of a sudden, Ana felt a sharp point in her back. She winced, screaming out so that the horse paused to look back at her. But as she looked up, she saw it was just a tree limb that had scraped across her back. She then saw it was part of a vast row of knotted witch-hazels, whose giant stand of trees stretched into the darkness about her. Spaced evenly, with arms outstretched, the crooked limbs of these black giants seemed almost animated. And Ana cringed, as they passed between them.

  Ana saw that the trees appeared to have many strange faces wrapped about their trunks, like that of ancient seers tortured by some unending madness. Bearded and black, with crooked noses and hollow cheeks, the largest trees seemed to bear upon their trunks the grimaced and distorted faces of possessed and hoary wizards, born of some lost arcane and evil world. Wrinkled and worn, their countenances bore the struggles of an endless and apocalyptic war, in which the horrors of some uncontrollable black magic had been unleashed upon them, lashing its full fury back upon their masters.

  With the sound of the horse’s hooves, the faces of the trees now awakened. The glowing orbs of their cold and expressionless eyes poked through their crumbling and ragged bark to stare at the small girl as she passed between them. Their eyes shined forth with a ghoulish glow, their numerous orbs hovering in the hollows of the distant woods as they passed. Some burned from deep down with a devilish fire, like that of red-hot coals, while others shined out with a pale green or aqua glow. Most just simmered with strange and bewitching, smoke-filled globes, hypnotizing her with their enchanting lights.

  For the spirits that dwelt within these demonic trees could use their seductive gaze to tempt the living. The wary traveler so entranced would then fall into a cursed sleep. They would then be dragged to their death in the cold mud beneath their roots, their flesh consumed by the devilish trees that had reached up to grab them and pull them down.

  But the pale horse seemed to know of the tricks of the witch-hazel, and would not tarry long. The spells placed upon Ana were soon broken by his brisk and determined gait.

  But as Ana passed close to their trunks, the vile trees began to whisper into her ear, strange half-heard words of ominous forebodings, mutterings, mumblings, and meaningless babblings of an ancient and forgotten tongue. Some shouted out in rage, unintelligible incantations and lost enchantments left from some cryptic age of dark sorcery. But nothing came of their archaic words. For the demonic spirits of the trees had been sundered from their ancient homeland long ago. And so their black magic could hold no power over the living in Phantaia.

  But the evil trees began to change, bending their great trunks towards the strange travelers passing through their lands. Crooked limbs bent slowly towards their path, their dark boughs oozing an evil sap from their bark, which dripped down like black stalactites. The trees stretched their knotted limbs across their path to block them. But the horse galloped past, going under and around their boughs. For it was swift of foot and determined to avoid their grasp.

  Ana hung on to the horse’s mane. But she could not see the increasing numbers of nightmarish forms that moved about her in the darkness. She held on tight as the white horse galloped even faster, racing past the towering witch-hazels, which lumbered through the woods on their writhing, snakelike roots, as they strove to close off the path in front of them.

  But the horse would not be caught, and galloped on with great haste. As Ana looked back, she saw the sinister trees had continued to pursue them along the shadows of the path, until their dark masses faded from view behind them.

  Ana clung again to the horse’s neck, and closed her eyes at that horror-filled sight. She trusted the white horse more than ever. Warmed by its wide back, and rocked by the gentle rhythm of its four-footed gait, she soon felt sleep return to her. As she did, she could hear in the distance the last sounds of the whistling winds of the storms as they drifted away. For a time it drowned out the endless babbling of the trees that still drifted up from the depths of the demonic woods about them.

  But as she drifted into dreams, she saw that they were once again enveloped in that odd lavender mist. It had descended upon them, wrapping its cool blanket about their bodies. Its faded lights cast back the shadows of the trees, illuminating the dim path that wound its way before them. The strange fog seemed to protect them, hiding them from the eyes of the evil trees that still crept about in the farthest hollows of the woods. Like a cocoon, that lavender cloud surrounded and encased them, so that she and the horse could only see the path lying directly in front of them. And Ana felt protected and embraced by the eerie arms of that fog.

  Yet when it fell, it seemed to signal some strange change from the day to night. For in that twilight forest only half-light could exist, so that neither the faded light of day, cast from above, nor the darkness of the forest’s night below could penetrate its somber glow. As it curled about them, the mist seemed to draw from within her the feeling of relaxation and sleep, so that soon she returned to the land of dreams.

  A strange vision had come bubbling up into Ana’s mind from some hidden place, deep inside her. She saw herself sleeping beneath the waters of a serene sea, whose surface was like a pool’s—cool, calm, and bright. When she looked above the water, she saw a glorious garden around her, bathed in the light of youthful green grass and flowering plants. Their many hues and tints seemed to cast away the shadows that had descended from the gloomier forest about it.

  A blinding light shone down from some living source she could not discern. And she saw the smiling faces of many creatures of wondrous beauty and form gathering about it. Upon a hill, stood two that had been wed together as one. About them a wondrous host of birds and beasts had gathered. And the loving couple’s hopeful and happy eyes, in the flowering of their youth, shined and sp
arkled like jewels in the midst of their joyful union.

  Suddenly a horrible pain filled her body. She looked again and the pool was no more. The creatures were gone. And the lights of the garden had dimmed and turned ashen. The beautiful growth now lay dry and dead at her feet. She looked with sadness upon the wreckage the shadows had wrought upon the woods, and she wept. Yet she shivered with the evil that now clearly possessed it.

  But as she looked at the middle of her body, she saw she was bloody. And she screamed in terror, falling back again beneath the waves, drifting down into the dark pool of her nightmares. As she held onto the warm neck of the horse, its gentle spirit seemed to speak to her, telling her not to fear. And in her half-awake state she could feel, by that beast’s presence alone, her fears drifting away. Holding onto his neck, she then returned to peaceful sleep, as the mist enveloped her in the safety of its arms.
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