Flowlight: Sun - Echoes of Pride: Part Three
“How quickly and completely you have changed!” Solana said drily – “but no amount of change has ever excused you of your memory before.”
A voice emerged from the creature's throat, oddly inflected, yet recognisable. “Who are you to know my name? You are nothing to us. You are food.”
“Have you really forgotten? I have come concerning the continued safety of the colonies. The treaty is being violated.”
Daniel felt an icy chill down his spine. They shouldn't have come here. This wasn't mortal territory. It was madness to enter this place, this evil, benighted grove in the deep of the Woods. There, around them, the eyes were watching. The branches seemed to be forming a wall, and between them there were eyes, huge eyes, hungry eyes. The shadows, it seemed, were coming alive.
“That may be, but it is not your business. Nor is any other part of the Woods; and even if it were, you are not protected by it.” The thing before them lunged.
The Xweetok held up a hand, as if gesturing to stop. The wraith halted abruptly in midair, and hung suspended there, twisting and slobbering. “You must not understand what I mean,” she said coldly. “I am called the Traveller of Light, she who first bound you to this treaty. I visit in peace, but if I must enforce the old law then I shall.” She released it then, and it dropped ungracefully, stumbling. “I ask for nothing more than for you to hold council. It is your role, Lord Wraith. Not this.”
It hissed, angrily. “Very well. You will be heard, and that is all.” At this the Xweetok nodded. Daniel might normally have said something, but for the first time in his life he was dumbstruck, and not pleasantly so.
The king raised its head and gave a strange bubbling howl, and his subjects came. Not quickly, not slowly; there were some who could have seen them, hopping ungainly or loping gracefully or drifting like mist, but completely silent, their forms far too numerous and hideous to be described. It was obvious for most of them that they had once been Neopets, but having lost their names, their forms had become malleable by what they were in the minds of those around them – and not very many pleasant things are said or thought about the nameless ones. They were no longer properly alive, feeding on the names of those whom they could find in the hope of finally regaining a solid form; but rarely is a name that can be worn found.
Daniel could sense their approach, and his fur began to stand up on end. The mist began to drift in, dense as cloud, playing games with the senses, shrouding what was real and showing only the most terrifying of sights. Alone, it might have driven a lost pet insane within minutes. Finally it receded a little, gathering here and shifting there. It was then that Daniel saw truly whose court he was in.
The many ghosts had formed in a circle so tight that they seemed to overlap, their shapes constantly dissolving and reforming like a mirage. Once or twice faces could be made out; but even those hideously distorted, whether with oversized yellow fangs or having one huge eye, or skin like melted wax, or some other irredeemably disfiguring feature. All of them were bowing, heads or whatever passed for them pressed to the ground. They were paying homage to a great throne of marble wreathed in ethereal white, upon which sat a form which was not reminiscent of a pet at all. His was a black cloak, shrouding him like tattered wings, and a hood which covered his head from view; but out of its shadow there shone the flaring blue gaze of something that could look at you and see everything you were, everything you had been and would ever be, from beginning to end, every secret laid bare. Here was something more solid than any mortal or any single entity could ever be, and those piercing, hidden eyes held in them not one soul, but every one that had ever sat upon this throne. Skeletal hands raised a circlet of mist to his head, as he intoned in a voice like a funeral bell, “I am the King of all the Haunted Wood,” and so it was. A small part of Daniel's being knew that this was an aspect, however mean, of what had been called the Seventh True King; and in resonance with that part, he trembled, for that implied an entity completely aloof from the cares and wishes of petkind, regal and alien, ancient as the monsters that lurked in the impenetrable primeval shadows that must have lain behind the first eyes that saw.
“Kneel,” whispered the Xweetok.
“But Solana –” the Shoyru began.
Solana? Daniel wondered.
“Now!” the Xweetok muttered. She and Daniel knelt, an action which permitted the Shoyru to dismount and hastily follow suit.
“Walker on the Path of Light,” said the wraith king. “What have you come for?”
“So you do recall! I have come to fulfil my duty, Lord Wraith, to save those who dwell in this forest from destruction. Why has the treaty been broken?”
“We have rescinded it. It is no longer beneficial to us.” The words were a chill wind in Daniel's ears.
Solana sounded almost angry. “A king is bound to obey the law, and the law forbids such an action without the agreement of all parties, particularly those whom it threatens.”
The king showed no reaction to this, but the circle of ghosts seemed to ripple, as the surface of the sea ripples at the coming of a storm. He said, “Then your laws and ours differ. The well-being of my people is of greater importance to me than anything set down in times gone past.”
“What you have done may bring war. The other denizens of this world will not stand by while their kin are threatened. I fail to see how that would be for the good of your subjects. You know that they may suffer death.”
“Let there be war if you will not accept my deeds. I am exercising my right to rule the Woods – and all of it.” Daniel felt the cold power of this ancient being, as the mist thickened and strengthened; and he felt, somehow, as if a war against it could have only one outcome.
The Xweetok shone in answer, the mist disappearing into a brilliantly glowing nimbus around her. She raised her head, slowly, to look directly at the wraith king. In her light, he seemed transparent, as if he were not really there. “I forbid that. If there were a war, I would see to it that you lose. I would raise up another champion, another hero, as I did Jeran the knight and Lisha the sorceress, Garin the pirate lord, and Fyora the Fair. And they would subdue you, as I did before.” Her voice softened slightly, along with her light. “You are no fool; you must know this. Your kind do not forget as willingly as the living. What is it you fear more than death?”
Without waiting for an answer, her gaze focused sharply on the king. “I can see it, the source of the trouble. You saw it once, yet you fear it so that you seek names, names to make bodies that the sun will not destroy, so that you can flee. A deeper darkness than the woods themselves, something both knowing and not knowing.” A look of intense concentration formed. “I have seen this before...”
The wraith king was silent; he seemed to be fading even further.
“Something threatens your place in this world,” said the Xweetok finally. “And you are trying to escape from it by taking back the land that was once yours. This have I seen.”
“I do not appreciate your attempts to pry into matters that do not concern you,” answered the wraith king, suddenly there and more solid than ever. “Nor do I ask for your assistance in any such matter; I will not accept it, lest I be indebted.”
“Then perhaps we can strike a bargain.” The Xweetok stood, and Daniel knew she had been waiting for this. “I will destroy the source of your fear. You will at once remove your presence from the towns of the woods. Will you accept?”
The king's strange eyes seemed to brighten with intrigue. After only a moment, he said, “Very well,” and the High King of the Haunted Woods, Dread Rider of the Endarkened Wastes, the Wraith of the Misted Throne, rose, his cloak billowing around him in a sudden wind, as black wings. A sword with a blade as dark as night appeared in his skeletal hand, electric-blue light flickering along its edges and around the glistening silver hilt. “My part in this is to consider the places in which the living dwell hallowed ground. It is a difficult deed, and I shall require more than what you have offered. What I require, I shall take.”
Daniel's eyes widened, as the wraith king turned and fixed those terrible eyes, burning in the shadow, upon him. He could not move, as the sword was raised, slowly, to point at him, as the blue dancing around the edges flared.
“What is your name?” demanded the voice of despair.
He spoke it; his mouth did, rather, without his own direction. A series of strangely familiar syllables tumbled from it, though he could not make out its entirety.
The sword flew, as swift as an arrow; he saw it collapse, as it came, into some other, unfathomable dimension. If it had been moving less swiftly than inexorable Time, it would have made no difference; he could not dodge an intention, no matter how slowly it had been thought. There came with it a sense of ghostly pain, and with the remainder of his breath he whispered faint curses; curses to petkind and others alike, filled with a dying maelstrom of hate that was all that was left of his soul; hate of everything, of the world, of the air he breathed and the ground that supported his feet, hate of her. And then...
The form of the wraith king vanished. Daniel did not move.
Then, with agonising slowness, the Gelert grasped the ethereal sword, letting it take its form. It came free easily from whatever recess it had been plunged into, with the whisper of a vanishing soul; his attire changed – though that was the least significant, truly, of the alterations – from the simple brown ensemble to the coat of a Neovian gentleman, adorned in silver. The crown was now the ornament of a sleek black top hat, and an elegant cane with a silver handle tapped the ground, the tip spitting blue sparks.
He exhaled, a cloud of frosty air billowing from his mouth, and stood, cold, proud, the King of the Haunted Woods. Blue-white infernos blazed in his eyes. “Freedom and a new name,” he said, a cold wind accompanying his words. “The bargain is struck. I have a solid form, and the light shall no longer blind me. It is a fair trade. I have accepted, and I will accompany you in your task.”
“The Lord Wraith,” Solana explained when they were walking again, “is not one being. He is a legion, composed of every soul that has been, as it were, appointed to become joined with him, and because of that nature he is more solid than the rest of the nameless, having a stability of identity that they all long for and which was only priorly achieved by the Spirit of Slumber, who through multiple appearances to people managed to establish their belief in his identity – and it was not too long ago that he became part of the Lord Wraith himself. The King signifies the entirety of the ghosts' existence, their attempts to establish something solid about their identities, as they had when they were truly alive. Other kings have privilege; all he has is duty, and power. It is good for him indeed that he has gained a name; but unlike his subjects, he knows that even if a ghost has regained a name, they can never leave the Woods, the source of their existence.”
“Did you bring that man along just so he would get killed?” was Alex's first question, and one he had wanted to ask for some time. What discomfited him the most was that the answer 'yes' might actually make sense.
“Killed? Hardly. Like the other kings, he has been absorbed. However, because he had a name when he was taken, I believe his personality will have a great deal of impact. You could say that he has become the King of the Haunted Woods, in truth. It is a great coincidence that he, the only name truly compatible with the Wraith, was there to be met when we did.”
“So you're saying you actually did him a favour?”
“No. To many people, the responsibility of his position – and the endless mind-struggle that must come with it – would be a fate worse than death. Fortunately for him, he is not alone. I hope he will lead his people well in what time there is to come.”
“He hasn't answered your question,” said Alex. “But you said you knew what he was talking about.”
“He will not answer if he can help it. Even for those of the darkness of the cursed land – no, even for me, to say that name is... difficult.”
Alex was taken aback, yet in the manner of all children, he pressed, “What is this then, that he won't tell you, and you won't tell me?”
“It is something I remember, that is all; and you need only face it once. No words can describe it properly, and no person who has seen it shall ever forget. My memory of it is mercifully brief, and I hope yours will be shorter.” Solana's eyes were fixed on the road ahead. “The memory is from far, far back.”
“How far back? A hundred years? A thousand?” Though he was as confused as anyone could be, Alex's voice carried more curiosity than discontent.
“Many times longer than that. The knowledge and terror of it is older than you can imagine, but you will feel it clearly enough.” Solana paused, searching for words that she could speak without fear. “For me, there are two sorts of evils, ones from this world, which are terrible enough, and ones which are not. I bear a duty to bring about the salvation of all that is good in Neopia to the best of my ability, but while the laws of the path of narrative dictate that I cannot intervene for the side of Good alone, lest I suffer defeat, if true oblivion threatens then I can and must defend. If this enemy is what I believe it to be, then I must do so soon.”
“You're talking more cryptically than usual.”
“I am speaking plainly. It is you who do not comprehend the meaning.”
“Can you at least say, then, where we're going?”
“Of course. There is something I must ask a woman who calls herself the swamp witch; her age, and hence her knowledge, are too great to be fathomed.”
Alex nearly choked on his tongue. “Some of the people who remember when she was young are still alive!”
“I know of the stories that are told. Sophie is supposed to be no older than those who are called her siblings, to have received what magic she has through the aid of the earth-fay Ilere, and that is true, inasmuch as you could understand. I shall say that birth is something that she cannot remember, and the first sensation that she felt was death; and while it is convenient for people to know as little about her as they do about me – she is very careful not to let too much on – she is not a being that travels through time in the same way other mortals do. Very little can be hidden from one who knows the end of time, the dusk of this universe, the uniting doom; life's last breath. She is the keeper of all unfathomable knowledge, but she refuses to tell us what she remembers of the future – I do not know whether by design or impossibility.”
Alex had long ago decided that nothing was impossible until proven so, and that world-view served him well now in not dismissing the matter. “But – isn't she, well, not exactly nice?”
“That is most certain. It could be truthfully said that she once turned a person who attacked her into a Meowclops; it's still around, and she treats it quite well. She cannot, as is claimed, petrify a person by looking at them, but her glare has had considerably worse effects on the mind. She is formidable, and prone to loss of temper, but wise of judgement. I can promise that you will come to no more harm than you willingly bring upon yourself.”
Alex glanced to his left. The wraith king walked in utter silence, and his eyes were focused on the road ahead. He showed no sign of having heard them at all, but Alex felt that he had. He no longer looked unused to reality, either more or less solid than the things around him, but moved fluidly and naturally. Still, there was something about his bearing, and the way that the Woods made way for his passing, that distinguished him greatly from any mortal. He was, in a way, the reporter that they had met in the bar of a nameless, isolated town, but clearly far more than that – not only a pet, but a ghost, a wraith, and not only that, but the Lord Wraith.
On his other side, Solana stopped short. “This is the time. This is the place.”
“You have called it many things; a spiriting away, a vanishment, a fell wind and an evil eye. It will take us where we wish, at the time we wish it; but only if we are swift.” She looked askance at her companions, as if wishing them elsewhere. “It is called a danger of the Woods, but the difference is this: you know of the Woods and of the dangers it poses, inasmuch as a pet ever could.
“I have this to say: nothing you have seen or heard or heard tell of here will prepare you. I can ensure your safety – only do not look back.”
At that instant, the earth dissolved and seemed to swallow them whole, briefly releasing a stench that drove a troop of Bartami away, howling madly.
To be continued...