Flowlight: Sun - Echoes of Pride - Part One
This is the sequel to 'Flowlight: Moon – Eternal Stranger'.
The following is the second part of a prophecy laid down by the Eyrie Great Sage of Shenkuu, Four Left Feet, as recited by his scribe, the text itself having been destroyed in an unfortunate arson.
He comes a-knocking, and goes away
'Fore greetings can be said,
'Cause there's no man can greet a knock
When he's already dead.
~Neovian children's rhyme
In those days, as now, the ghostly fingers of faint light reached dispersedly down through the clouds, brushing gently against the brightly painted ridges of the corrugated roofs. It would have been called dim; but the light here was the only light that the children of the land had ever seen. Despite the dimness that was all that passed for day even at high noon, they laughed and played, free of cares and worry as only children could be. Those of them who had the chance would grow up to be sober and wary, sometimes merely unfriendly, sometimes expressive of outright hostility, robbed almost completely of the ability to trust; but for now, they were happy, and their laughter was the laughter of the blissfully ignorant.
Perhaps, the philosopher might dwell, they would have been happier in the end if they had been attentive enough to see the crawling chaos of the Woods, its roots spreading over days and weeks, wilting the grass, covering the shining fay-lanterns gifted to them in ages past, planting thorny wood into the ground and thrusting spiny growths into the air. Perhaps, if they had observed the deathly shadow that encroached upon their doorsteps, the hideous, malformed appendages that reached out for them time and time again, and then withdrew quickly again from the thin curtain of sun that would burn their flesh to ashes; perhaps, if they had seen the darkening of the blackened cloud, like a blanket of ash, they would have gotten wind of the terror that longed to possess them, to steal their bodies, their identities, their souls – their names. Perhaps they could even have fled in time, ere the lost and nameless ones came shuffling, loping, skittering over the dying ground and took hold of them, and dragged them away, away, as they screamed soundless screams and kicked feebly, as if they had the slightest chance to escape the undead hordes that, in the deep and the dark of the twisted hollows beneath the barren branches, devoured their souls in hunger and desperation...
The grey light of dawn crept sluggishly through the windows and the cracks in the weather-beaten door. The occupants of the establishment were in no condition to notice its unwilling passage. They were asleep, for a start, and none of the occupants of this particular inn were going to bother getting up because of something as petty as daytime. Day meant very little in the Haunted Woods, least of all a time to awaken. Sleep was better. In this town especially, there was nothing much to do in the first place. It was a rotting, run-down old skeleton of a settlement, with the frameworks of decayed buildings showing white as bone in the dimness. There were few people here, in this dreary wasteland which had given up its fight against the emptiness that surrounded it.
One of those few people was not from the Woods. Most of the tourists in the Woods went to Neovia, a site of history by all means – and seldom decided to investigate the dead, overgrown paths which led between towns. It was a common belief that Neovia was the Woods' only settlement; and the shadow Gelert's presence would have been out of place, had he been a mere tourist.
He was a freelance reporter, having built himself a solid reputation for not shrinking from potential danger. Inevitably, that reputation had brought him sauntering here. He hadn't had much luck so far, needless to say. The few townsfolk he had accosted had proven reticent beyond all reason. When he asked their names, their reactions had ranged from staring at him in horror and backing away, to attacking him with a remarkably sharp cleaver. It didn't matter. He was very skilled at avoiding angry interviewees, and it was his oft-cited motto to 'never give up'.
The locals' tendency not to speak had made it quite difficult for him to find out the location of the next town, but he had managed to determine a vague symmetry between this and the traditional home-structures of certain towns in Meridell. A correlation, perhaps? In any case, he'd require something more substantial than that if his client was to be satisfied, and he always satisfied his client.
With that in mind, he'd been just about to move on to the next location, and he – in his inconspicuous (or so he thought) brown coat and dashing wide-brim hat – was now sitting in a threadbare sofa that seemed to be leaking its stuffing, sipping a cold, bitter cup of greyish sludge which the innkeeper claimed was coffee. There were few things he could have expected less than for two unusual strangers to walk in through the door.
The first was a tall, graceful white Xweetok attired in pristine robes; her carriage suggested a magician of some sort, as did the discreet silver ring on her finger. Probably a gypsy; but a rich one, if so. The second was a green Shoyru in nothing short of embarrassing dress – Daniel had the brief impression he was looking at one of the more flamboyant sorts of lawn ornament.
His attention was not so much on the child as on the elder, who immediately upon entry affixed him with a piercing gaze completely uncharacteristic of the citizens of the town, and approached with an air of more than nonchalant curiosity. He was not perturbed in the least – it was a refreshing change, and he stood quickly, to the detriment of the sofa, which sagged into a yet more shapeless mass than before. “Good morning,” he said cheerfully. “Daniel Harrier, reporter-for-hire. Do you happen to have any business with me?”
“It's certainly unusual to see someone awake this morning,” the Xweetok replied, her cold gaze crushing all his hopes of an impressive introduction. “I trust you don't intend to stay very long?”
“Not at all.” He was aware that he was beginning to stammer.
“Well, perhaps you will permit me to detain you awhile. It is, after all, a good morning to-day.” Her voice was slightly mocking. “You are a journalist; I suspect you now find yourself in an unfortunate situation. I cannot imagine anyone in this town offering anything of a story, after all, especially considering your rather unnerving habit of demanding names.”
“Unnerving?” Daniel seldom found himself echoing someone else's speech, but his usual repertoire seemed to have dried up in the presence of this singular subject.
“You don't ask names around here,” said the Shoyru. His tone was peculiarly adult-like, as if he were not as young as he looked – though that would not be difficult to imagine. “It's dangerous.”
Before he could elaborate, the Xweetok said, “Consider it thus for now: the tradition here is not to ask for someone's name, but what they are called. It is a subtle nuance, but if you are not cautious – and caution is something you are lacking to a disturbing degree – you will soon find out why.”
“That's the wrong question,” said the Xweetok with a faint smile.
Daniel sighed; he felt as if he was losing the upper hand. “Alright,” he said, whipping out a notebook, “what shall I call you?”
“To you? The child is Alexander; and I, Fox.”
“Fox...” It was the first time Daniel had heard a name that was completely unfamiliar to him. “What does it mean?”
“It is not a name you would quite understand, but it means many things.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“A traitor; a trickster; a homeless wanderer of paths and player of games, entangler of fate, teller of endless tales.”
Daniel's pen was briefly busy. Then, “I see. And... do you know of any unusual or interesting occurrences around the Woods? Mysterious disappearances, for example?”
There was a long silence. Then the Shoyru said, “Which ones?”
“Well... you know? Stories. People who disappear on their way to work, and never turn up again. People who are found dead and who everyone knows can't have had an accident.”
He pressed: “It even helps if there's a little suggestion of the... you know... supernatural in it.”
The Shoyru burst out laughing.
Once he had calmed down, the Xweetok said, “You have been wandering around the Woods for weeks and haven't noticed that people vanish every day?”
“They do?” Daniel made a note of it. “That's shocking.”
“Hardly. What's shocking is you; the fact that you have absolutely no idea of what the Woods is like. Those that live here do not do because they want to, but out of necessity. There is no easy way to escape the Woods once you leave the beaten path, Daniel Harrier.”
Daniel nodded. Clearly these superstitious folk were hard to convince; he decided not to try.
“You are sceptical,” said the Xweetok. “Perhaps a walking tour would better explain, as you aren't as busy as you claim to be.”
Daniel nodded. “As long as there's something to see.”
“It's settled, then,” said the Xweetok. “Alex – we're leaving.”
“Got it,” said the Shoyru. He snapped his fingers – Daniel noticed a small ring on one of them, and the next instant his attention was drawn away, as sudden appearances of grand pianos are wont to override all other input into an observer's mind.
“He'll play a short piece for us, if I'm not mistaken,” said the Xweetok. “He makes a policy of it.”
And he did; leaping up onto the seat, the Shoyru tested the keys, flexing his fingers; then, he began to play.
The notes sang clear through the dense twilight, piercing through to the minds of all who heard. It might have been Daniel's imagination, or there might really have been golden sparks dancing about the child's fingers as he played; but in any case, around the town, heads were raised, eyes were opened, feet sprang out of bed – not necessarily in that order – and the sweet music, infectious and lively, washed away the gloom that had hung over the town for years, and brought the colour back to it. Daniel, on an impulse, hurried towards the window, and yes – the blackness above was peeling back, the clouds folding into themselves and vanishing, and blue sky shone for the first time upon the wearied eyes of the townsfolk.
He turned back towards the Xweetok, who was smiling that knowing smile. “You're magicians,” he exclaimed.
“Magicians? No; I may be called that, but he is only an apprentice.”
“He's an apprentice?”
“I may soon have the chance to start teaching him,” said the Xweetok. “But teaching can wait – it will wait for quite a while.”
The song ended, but seemed to echo around the Gelert's head; he felt he had made his way out of some great valley of depression, but he was unable to imagine what it might have been – for a moment he utterly forgot about his surroundings, and there was magic in the air.
To be continued...