Flowlight: Sun - Echoes of Pride: Part Four
Sophie undid the latch and flung open the door. It opened outwards, not for her own convenience but for the satisfying feeling of solid old wood making contact with unsuspecting faces. Unfortunately, in this case the knockers had stepped back just in time.
The Witch of the Swamp glared at the world outside in general. “Who are you? Never mind that, why are you here? This had better be something urgent.”
The pets at the door were noticeably cowed. Two of them were very young children, an Usul and a Kacheek, clearly from a nearby town. Between them, and with difficulty, they were carrying a Nimmo a little older than they were, though still a young child. More importantly than that detail, there was a frightening unhealthy paleness to his skin, as if he were about to fade away, and he was not moving. Not at all.
The Usul plucked up the courage to speak. “Um, my brother and we was playing only just now, like... a couple of minutes ago, and then he... we heard you could...”
Her companion interrupted, blurting, “Will you help him? Please?”
Sophie looked mildly irritated. Still, there was no doubt as to what she would do. This was a defining part of her job, insofar as it was counted as one. “Fine, bring him inside. Lay him down on the bed; remove his shoes for now.”
Shouting their earnest thanks, they lay the child down on the rather rough mattress; Sophie at once went to the wall of cupboards, searching through them frantically for the herbs she required. “It's too late for just a healing, his soul's nearly away from his body. But I can do a resurrection, that's how it's going to be. Lupesbane, willock, a little whiteheart, that brownish bitter sludgy stuff that always makes people worry – can't remember what it is – yes, here we are...”
Eventually she had all the bottles in a neat little row on the table, with the Meowclops sniffing at them inquisitively. “All right,” she said. “Wait – you! Get off the table.” In a huff, the petpet jumped down and slunk under the bed, while Sophie began mashing the herbs together and mixing them into the oily liquid.
“Get me that hammer and those nails,” she directed the pets when she was finished. Once she had them both, she went around quickly boarding up the windows. “This is going to be rough," she said with vagueness that was more worrying in her mouth than in that of any prophesier of doom. "Now, that sledgehammer.”
After only a momentary pause, the Kacheek picked up the heavy wooden bludgeoning implement and brought it to her. She took hold of it and hefted it, closing her eyes, feeling the balance.
Then she swung it in a smooth overhead arc and, with remarkable accuracy and force, down onto the Nimmo's long, slender toes.
He shot upright and screamed. The Meowclops raced screeching from the bed and jumped onto the Kacheek's face in a ball of terrified fur and claws. “Get it off me!” yelled the Kacheek, though he hardly needed to – finding no safety in scratching his face, the Meowclops leapt off and began frantically attacking the windows, leaving deep claw marks in them, while the Usul ran up to her brother and tried to explain what had happened, desperately trying to be heard over the others.
“Everyone, shut up!” ordered Sophie.
The Meowclops froze in midair and dropped to the ground. In the wake of its ferocious screeching, the relative quiet was so sudden that there was immediate, embarrassed silence.
Sophie took the bowl of herbs and, scooping a handful, stuffed it unceremoniously into the Nimmo's mouth, an action which would have stopped him even if it were not a potent analgesic. “Judging by the way you screamed, you're in perfect health,” she snapped. “Now, get out. All of you!”
(There was later a period during which the fact of Sophie's actual existence disappeared into obscurity; legends sprang up around the name of the Witch of the Swamp, saying that she carried a great iron hammer which could not only strike down her victims, but could raise them as undead minions to serve her; and that she kept a familiar in the form of the Meowclops, which the screams of the dying drove into such a fearsome frenzy that it could run faster than the wind and strike down mighty warriors with its talons. This is a grave insult to both the authenticity of her healing arts and the sheer augmenting capability of adrenaline on small frightened mammals – the Meowclops can run far faster than that.)
Once they had left, she focused on the bludgeon. The concentration made it to glow pure white for a moment, before resolving into a thick wooden wand with runes glowing faintly green. As they faded, she set about unboarding the windows; but she was barely finished when she felt the rip, the split-second opening, the terrible emptiness.
Somewhere in the Haunted Woods, someone had gone to the other side. Were matters really that bad?
On the other side was a barren wasteland.
No, a wasteland in the normal sense would have been an improvement. A wasteland of Neopia would not be left in perpetual eerie twilight, as if unable to decide whether to be night or day. Darkness would be almost preferable, considering what there was to see here.
There was smooth sand beneath, of a dull colour that seemed the barest expression of dirt, and loose to the point where he felt he was slowly sinking into it. Above, there was only a swallowing, agoraphobic emptiness. Of the landscape, that was all there was. A pity, I must say, that the landscape was not all there was.
Surrounding them were creatures – no, grotesquely parodical imitations of the living, except no word I can print in this text could fully impart to a listener the extent of the nauseating repulsion that their vile forms created in the observer. Many come to mind, I assure you; and I shall discard all of them.
The things were everything that is hideous, loathsome, and terrifying, the sum total of the worst nightmares of any race one could care to mention, a half-alive, parasitic, despicable seething mass of distended hate, radiating with all their half-formed beings their want to take all that is good and alive in every world and devour it, for demented reasons that cannot and should not be fathomed, lest one go mad. They manifested the terror that lay mercifully sleeping in the deepest depths and forgotten, shadowed alleyways of the dark behind the eyes. Yet here they were, awake and hungering and slavering, embodying an inexpressible fear, magnified by the knowledge that every single malevolent, slitted, bulging, repulsive eye visible in the half-light was affixed on Alex himself.
He was screaming, screaming as loud as he could, but no sound was coming out; he could not breathe, there was no air, there was no ground beneath his feet. A hand came out of nowhere and covered his mouth, and he panicked, thrashing and scrabbling. It took him a long time to realise that it was Solana.
As soon as he calmed down, she let go, and he wheezed, “What are those? Where are we?” as he slowly convinced himself not to draw breath.
Solana spoke quickly and in a low whisper. “This is the timeless land. This is a secret darker than the Woods. It is the vastest of universes, and it brushes many worlds like your own. They have broken through many times in ages past, where the wrong summoning was used in the wrong way, or where magic accumulates to the point where the universe becomes thin, but they were always destroyed in the end, or otherwise trapped. They have been called demons, but they are far worse. They are nothing more than... things, now. Once, before there was life, they were. These are the old ones, the dark deities, whose coming heralds madness, chaos, apocalypse, and this is where they were banished to.”
The darkness closed slowly in, lurching and shambling lopsidedly.
“Where's the... the other one?” Alex hissed.
“Either he'll be fine or he won't. Worry about yourself. Magic won't work here – their presence distorts spells. Now, run! Don't look behind you!" she added, reiterating her earlier warning.
Alex didn't need to be told twice. He followed her in a crazed dash over the featureless landscape. Flapping his wings had no effect, and time seemed to warp, so that it felt like he was trying to run through water; the sand gave way underfoot so that he felt he was proceeding at no more than a crawl. There was no clear path, and he had to scramble and dodge past the things that shuffled into his way. When he collided with one – not a pleasant experience no matter how one tries to think of it – it folded and collapsed like a marionette, and he felt a burst of hope despite the circumstances: maybe they weren't as frightening as they looked –
As he thought this, he heard a huge fleshy behemoth rise up behind him, shapeless feet smashing down indiscriminately and shaking the infirm sand. In three ponderous strides it was above them, and Solana was only just in time to tackle Alex out of the way of a great clawed hand, which smote the ground, sending a ripple like a tidal wave through the strange dirt.
Alex rose with more difficulty than speed and struggled to keep up as Solana bounded gracefully ahead, stretching her full stride as far as it would go. Even as the monstrous thing contorted itself, twisting its whole malformed body to take a single step, Alex heard her chanting softly. Not magic, certainly, but though he couldn't make out the words over the blood pounding in his ears, let alone tell what language they were in, they echoed oddly through his mind.
Solana's ring gave off a flash of intense light, so brief that it was hardly noticeable, yet powerful, carrying with it a glimpse of unspeakable vastness and might. The behemoth reared and stumbled in the face of it, screaming like a legion of tortured souls, and eventually collapsing, losing all semblance of form. Alex stopped and nearly turned, a disproportionate amazement washing over him.
“Don't look, you fool,” said Solana again, calmly as an icicle, from far ahead of him, just as a shadow stole over him, bringing with it a foetid odour which leached the feeling from his limbs, dragging him to the edge of the black pit of unconsciousness.
“For goodness' sake!” hissed the Xweetok, darting between the looming things and scooping him up, a split second before they would have closed in and begun to feed. Alex opened his eyes blearily, just in time to see a dazzling light open up before him, and vanish both of them before he could blink.
Sophie was standing there when the two of them materialised in the middle of the recently vacated floor. She did not look happy, and the fact that her wand's markings were glowing steadily and menacingly green did not help.
“Pleased to see you again,” Solana said, rising and dusting herself off.
“Two complete strangers,” she snapped, the words clipped and short as if escaping from a steel trap. “One of you would be a handful enough. And don't think I don't know who you are,” she added to Solana, "better than you do yourself."
“We'll be sure not to take up much of your time,” Solana said. “Shall we go outside?”
It was noticeably more humid outside the shack than within, the swamp air clingy and suffocating, saturated with the smell of something you wouldn't want to land face-down in, and more importantly some things which you wouldn't want to have landing on you either. The swamp was not a pleasant place, but it was pointedly distinguishable from the creeping chill of the shadows of the trees, almost seeming to reject the place around it. Alex had heard stories of Sophie's magic, but most of them had revolved more strongly around her temper, and only now did he appreciate the extents to which she went to keep her privacy, the vastness of the powers of earth that she must have employed to raise such a barrier against her unsavoury neighbours.
The swamp stretched for many miles in all directions, and the ground was practically bare, with only a stunted mangrove jutting up here and there to break the black, bleak ceiling of cloud above with its sharp silhouette. The grey-green muck that passed for water here caught and distorted what ghostly light leaked through that low roof, lending the whole place the likeness of an ethereal morgue, and doubtless impressing on any visitors the credibility of the many stories that were told about the Swamp Witch.
In Alex's eyes, Sophie was a sight to behold; it was impossible now to see just the tangled hair or the fragile temper. In a very real way, she was the swamp itself, and to Alex, who had always been sensitive enough to notice what others might not, it was as if there was a powerful force both pushing and pulling on him at the same time.
Then she had donned a brownish travelling cloak, which to all appearances was quite normal, and the sense had abruptly diminished to a faint tingling, less than what he realised he had been feeling from Solana all the time.
He glanced surreptitiously at the Xweetok. Those robes, beautiful and flowing but not decorated or ostentatious; that ring, a discreet silver metal with a tiny gem set in it. If he really tried, he could feel a field of determined absolute nothingness coming from her. It never struck him how sensitive one would have to be to feel such a well-disguised magic; instead, he merely wondered who she was – where had she come from, and where was she really going? He felt suddenly surrounded by strange giants, dwelling in their own world.
“So, what is it?” demanded the swamp witch.
“I was hoping you could answer that,” replied Solana. “You cannot possibly be completely ignorant of the fact that –”
“I'm not,” snapped Sophie. “What do a few break-ins have to do with me?”
“To call them break-ins would be putting it lightly; they threaten the existence of the settlements themselves. If this goes on, then the Woods will be deserted, and while I know you'd like the sound of that, what's more important is the cause behind it.”
Sophie sighed. “If there was something that big going on in the Woods, I would know.”
“You only remember the things of this world. Fate is changing. Things that were meant to be, are not. Something that shouldn't live, does. This is the work of the grey outer ones.”
Without skipping a beat, the witch retorted, “I don't believe in children's stories.”
“For someone as entangled in them as you are, you're uncharacteristically quick to pass judgement. People fear the swamp witch – ” Solana stepped slowly towards her – “but what does the swamp witch fear?”
“That's a question you can keep on asking,” Sophie said stiffly.
“And yet, I have the feeling you already know what I want.” The Xweetok circled the witch slowly, examining her. “And that's all I want. Show me where it is.”
Sophie turned to face Solana. “Fine. You can try going there. But for your own sakes, I hope you turn back, and unlike the old Hag, I mean it.”
Solana nodded. “Unlike the old Hag.”
The witch of the swamp-lands raised her staff and began to chant, slow monosyllables heavy with power rolling out of her mouth and crystallising in the air. She raised the wand, and Alex watched, half-comprehending, as a magic circle thick with patterns of tiny runes formed on the ground around her, impressed in the soft earth and beginning to shine. The chanting grew faster, the lights stronger, the circle wider, spreading rapidly to encompass first the small area of solid ground they stood on, then spreading rapidly outwards, covering the swamp, and going beyond.
As Sophie's rapid stream of incantation died down, images began to flicker through the air. Most of them were flashes of the characteristic darkness of the Woods, but there was the occasional town here and an abandoned house there; and it was on one of the latter that she eventually settled, focusing closely on a huge mansion with dark green ivy creeping up the cracked, faded walls, and broken windowpanes emitting a faint light of indescribable hue – something like yellow and purple and green curiously mixed, if such a thing were possible. The vision grew larger, as if they were rushing towards it, while standing on solid ground –
They were not standing on solid ground. Through some curious dislocation of the world, Alex saw the world more than flying past around him, while Sophie said, “It's not too far away; I can send you there myself.” He could hear her as if she was standing right beside him –
And she was, there and not there, as if she were only visible through one eye. She turned to him and commented, “If you're around, it might just work out.”
Then there was a sharp jerk, and they were in the air, directly above the decrepit building, and falling; regardless of one's species, it is impossible for this to be a pleasant experience.
“Whoops,” said Sophie mildly. “A few hundred metres off the mark, I should think. Perhaps it'll be longer before she comes to bother me again.”
To be continued...