On that day, the morning was still and lifeless, as only those in deep December can be. Snow lay heavily upon the ground, pristine white in the fields and meadows surrounding the forest, and the farmlands were silent in their slumber. Where in the summer bright corn and maize grew, or dark patches of rich, green alfalfa blossomed, there was only a severe, monochromatic landscape with a few scraggly, grey remnants of the foliage it once boasted. The sky was still dark, an impassive leaden grey, the stars still visible, though they too were colourless, cold.
The path that the small, wooden cart followed was nearly invisible in the snow and slush that had accumulated over the months, its borders only recognizable by the small piles of snow that marked where the wheels of previous passers-by had gone. In the summer, it would have been a bit uncomfortable, as the trail was little used and the stones were shifted, but in the winter, it was a mess of frozen meltwater and strange lumps under the snow. Twisting along the darkened meadows, it seemed to stretch on forever, moving towards the forest with a languidness that transcended time.
The frosty breath of the uni pulling the cart hung in the air behind him and deposited in sparkling beads on his whiskers and beard, leaving them a heavy, frosted white. Despite this, he didn't slow, nor did he say anything until a small child shifted in the cart, her hooves clattering dully against the aged wood. Dark eyes, still half-closed from recent sleep peered blearily over the front of the cart, framed in a pale, triangular face. Are we nearly there, father?
The old stallion pulling the cart smiled, shaking his head, No, darling, we've a long way left to go.
But I'm tired, she pleaded, a sharp edge appearing briefly in her voice, threatening proximity to tears. I've been in the cart all day. Her face was a warning, eyes narrowed underneath the mess of heavy locks and her little mouth turned downwards with the lower lip out in a childish pout. As she paused, she sniffled slightly, and a shine appeared briefly in her eyes before she blinked it away.
An air of tension appeared in the older uni's face, a slight tightening around the eyes and a twitch of the ears. It had been a long day for him as well, and he was tired, inexperienced. Tears were for her mother to dry, not him, but her mother was not with them now. You can come down once we reach the forest, he soothed, his pace slowing slightly. Now, try to go back to sleep. I'll wake you once we get there.
With a small whimper, the child conceded and turned, her head down and her face set in a sleepy and cross frown. A pile of blankets nearly as large as she was shifted in the corner of the cart as she nosed her way under them, then gradually stilled as she drifted off into sleep. Looking back, her father smiled wearily, then sighed and resumed his previous brisk pace. And the thorny silhouette of the forest drew ever nearer.
It was nearly an hour later when the cart finally crossed beneath the first branches of the woods, their spiny, leafless branches twisting overhead like a tangle of wire. Blocked by the trees, the wind died down and the blowing snow of the meadows and fields faded to a slight pattering against the distant leaves. Branches creaked and groaned overhead and far off in the distance, a bird called once, its small voice like a bell in the dark. He walked slowly now, shivering beneath his shaggy winter coat, the hairs a dark sable made ever darker by the snow melting with the heat of his back. His breath came in low, deep gasps, each one stinging his throat and lungs until they burned with a deep ache from the cold. Exhaling, they felt like fire.
On either side of the path, the bare trees loomed, growing thicker at first, the slowly thinning from crowded saplings to tall, dark forest giants. Here, the stars were not visible and the snow no longer reached the floor, which was coated with moss and fallen leaves. The air, while still cold, was no longer biting, and instead, it was soothing to the poor stallion's lungs, those which had endured such use in the chilling hours of the morning. And it was quiet, ever so quiet, without so much as the sound of the wind or a shifting branch, the air still and the birds silent. Around them, the forest lived and breathed and waited, but it did it without a sound.
A clearing appeared near the trail, the grass and moss of the forest bare where snow hadn't reached the ground in years. There were few fallen leaves, dry and rotted to a flexible softness, so even his great steps made no noise as the cart trundled its way off of the rapidly vanishing path. Here there were few who dared to go far, and the weeds and vines of the forest had found this and crept their way up and over the once smooth stones. Now cracks riddled the surface, pits filled with water, and grass grew where once they would never have been able to find soil on the clean-swept roads. Entropy had prevailed here, and the forest, slowly but surely, was reclaiming the narrow swatch that it had been robbed of.
Wearily sighing, the uni was freed of his burden with a shrug of his shoulders. Where the bars had rested, creases in the fur remained, dark with the sweat of his labors. And yet, after a luxurious stretch, he began to move again, quietly moving around the back of the wagon and extracting canvas and tarping to drape from lower-hanging branches. Within minutes, a rudimentary tent had been formed, fluttering in the slight breeze that had made its way after them in the trees.
When she awoke, she was alone, lying prone in the back of the wagon beneath a pile of heavy linens and fleece. And there was no noise, no creaking of the wheels, there was no motion, no rocking of the wagon as it moved over the uneven roads. Everything was still.
Sitting up and roughly pushing the blankets off of herself, the child stood and moved slowly towards the front of the cart, her eyes still half closed in sleep. Father? Are we in the forest yet?
Her voice was harsh from sleep, cracked and broken like an old woman's, and her face grew as cross as an elderly person's might be prone to do when he did not answer. Father?
To answer, there was only more silence.
With an indignant shake, the child clambered down from the cart. There was no grace to her movements, for she was so small that she simply tumbled over the side when she tried to lower herself, landing in a pitiful heap on the forest floor with a bruised side and smarting ribs. Biting her lip in response to the pain, she stood, staring about her at the dark forest with trepidation.
All around her was a forest, tall and dark and whispering with movement at all times. Nothing was still, from the leaves above to the small things fluttering about the canopy in wide, dizzy circles. Though there was no undergrowth, she could feel the place pressing in on her and there seemed to be no space to move, no space to breathe. Everywhere there was darkness. And so, she ran, calling out again and again to her father, her voice begging him to respond. And still there was silence in the forest, near perfect silence with only the whispering of the leaves above to break it.
What felt like hours passed, though it must only have been minutes, when she encountered the pool of water, and she leaned back, sliding across the wet grass surrounding it in an attempt to stop before she landed in it. And stop she did, mere inches from the edge, her own frightened eyes gazing waveringly up at her from the dark water. Above her, she could see the sky, and though it was snowing when they had entered the forest, no snow fell here. As she puzzled this through, it slowly dawned upon her that here the air was warm, calm, and leaves moved lazily as the wind caused the heavy branches to bow their heads. Summer lived in this glade, keeping the ice from the pools and the grass green. It lived where their wagon was too, though not so strongly there, for the grass had not been withered and the cold and snow had not penetrated there.
So lost in thought was she that she nearly did not see him, standing so still as to be scarcely breathing. Beneath one of the great trees, her father, he with the creased coat, stood watching the night with a focused gaze, his eyes set on a distant point in the darkness. Father!
the little one called, her voice quiet in the hush of the clearing. With a panicked look, she scrambled towards him through the mud, as though she feared that he would once again desert her. Reaching him, she thrust her face into his side, hiding her eyes and waiting for a reassuring nuzzle, the feel of warm breath and whiskers on her face. Yet, it didn't come, nor did the old stallion seem to notice her, for he did not acknowledge her presence at all. Looking up, she followed his gaze, her face bearing a look of hurt and once again threatening tears. And she froze, cowering back, when she saw where he was looking, her ears lying flat to her neck and her pelt bristling.
It was large, towering in the distance and strangely distorted against the giant trees that made their home in the heart of the woods. Yet, as tall as they were, its spiny antlers nearly brushed the lower branches of the very smallest ones, which she measured to be at over ten feet from the ground. And it blended with the shadows as it slowly approached, melding with them and then reappearing, mist trailing behind it and its silver face gleaming. Those eyes, the eyes that were too near, too piercing, too knowing, too blue for it to be natural, shining and gleaming above a mouth full of teeth that twisted dementedly to smile at her. And it smiled and smiled and smiled, this twisted creature with the grace of a deer.
As it drew nearer, she huddled closer to her father, begging him silently to run and take her far away, but he didn't move or speak. She looked up, one eye squinting and saw him staring at her, saw the stars in his warm brown eyes and then through them as he slowly faded away, leaving her crouching as the creature loomed ever nearer.
When she looked up again, its face was mere centimeters from her own and she saw once again its eyes, staring at her with a strange intensity. Its pointed teeth, as long as her hoof, shone in its mouth as it smiled again at her before speaking in a peculiar voice. Soft, gentle, breathy, and unmistakably that of a young woman. You're a long way from home, deary, and you're all alone.
It blinked and smiled, tilting its head until its antlers brushed the ground. Its voice came again, this time that of an old man, quiet and weary. You shouldn't stay here for long. Go home to your mother. There are strange things here, my pet.
Struggling to speak, she called out to it as it turned, her eyes wide and her face pale. Wait! Where is my father? Who are you?
And the blood in her veins seemed to turn to ice as it turned and smiled at her once again. In a slow voice as deep as the waves at sea - the voice of her father - it spoke one last time.Oh, darling, don't worry... I'll come for you later.
To those who have seen him, he seems always to be Later, presumably due to their fears of him 'coming for them later.' Because he finds this to be amusing, he has adopted Later to be his primary name.Gender:
Possibly the most unsettling thing about Later is that he does not seem to have his own voice. Like a mockingbird, he mimics the sounds that he's heard before, but shows his intelligence by 'stealing' the voice of the last person he heard and speaking as they would until he decides to adopt another voice.Personality:
Though frightening at times, Later does not seem to be openly malicious, nor does he seem to have a real motivation for his actions other than his own entertainment. He deals specifically with the relatives of travellers who have passed on in the woods - such as the father unicorn, who died of exhaustion and cold soon after entering the forest - frightening them so that they do not stay. Despite his unsettling parting words, however, there is no evidence that he ever seeks out those who have seen him or harms them. On the contrary, there have been reports of a mysterious deer that serves as a protector to those who pass through the woods at night. Whether this is Later or an unnamed counterpart is unclear, however.
In truth, Later is actually quite gentle and benevolent, given that he is one of Them, and fills his role in the world with little to no disruption. He cares for no one other than Honorah and Fleet, considering the others of his kind to be barbaric and mortal creatures to be too silly and destructive to bother with.Relationship clarification:
Later does not harbor nor confess romantic feelings towards anyone at this point. He finds Honorah interesting and Fleet is his best friend, nothing more.