The Deep Woods: Part Three
Also by j_harkness
Morning – which few have deemed a time for grief – illuminated the woods through which Phil continued to trek. Yet now he wished for the return of night, for at least in blindness the imagination reigns supreme, whereas presently a reality, narrow in life, did. There were a few symptoms of intelligence here, however - petpets, as to whose species he dared not to speculate, scurried, on two feet or four or none, among the infrequent and fruitless trees.
His pace persisted for a few hours more, until such a time as he felt that the soil on which he trod turned into fresh mud. Phil could not understand why the substance that, beyond all other, marred opaqueness should make its presence known here, for he had not detected any recent rain. There he, pondering the origin of the mud, stood, until he felt himself descending into the fragile earth beneath, for which reason he began to thrash against its pull. Such resistance was of little benefit for Phil, however, as the force simply intensified as he did so. Eventually, the Meepit ceased utterly and allowed himself to plunge so far down that his head alone remained aboveground. Then all stood still.
From nothingness (as far as Phil could tell; his eyes were forced the other way) emerged a red Ixi, clad with dark garb which veiled all but a few thin slivers of her face. She first bent, then knelt, then lay down so as to meet the half-submerged Meepit's eyes. Once there, she began to speak in hoarse tones. "Why have you come here?"
"Why have I- No, why aren't you helping me out? I don't even know where I am, but till a second ago my life was in great danger, and-" He sank an inch, after which his chin was invisible too.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
"I honestly have no clue where 'here' is."
She laughed, and the hood of her cloak fell, revealing a face that would have made any other being Phil had met retreat back into the night. The surface was devoid of pockmarks, blemishes, and wrinkles to such an extent that it may have been taken from a magazine; however, her ears were sharply peaked horns, her eyes unblinking spheres of immitigable darkness, and her mouth toothless but nevertheless fixed into a wide, formulated grin. "You think you are here by accident? Not in the least. You may not know why you're here, but your mind does. Not a soul can reach the Deep Woods without meaning to, even if they are convinced that they have done precisely that."
"That's garbage. I know what I know."
"'The pet who is confident about their knowledge knows the least of all' – so said the Brain Tree. Given that you speak so defiantly to your sole route to safety, I wager that you don't know much at all. Now tell me – how did you come to find yourself in the Deep Woods?"
"Well... um, I was trying to run away from a cursed ghost Hissi, but I didn't know what direction to go in."
"If you were seeing ghosts, you wer- Well, that's not the important part. You ran without any destination in mind and expected to get somewhere better? That is garbage. You will inevitably end up in a worse position with every step, until you finally find yourself in-"
"-the Deep Woods."
"You've finally got it. If you want to have even a remote chance of leaving, you'll first have to figure out a specific destination." With a scarcely perceptible flick of the hand, she levitated Phil out of the mud, which did not seem to have clung to him, for his pink coat still glistened in the sunlight. Phil asked her where he should go, but such a question was countered by an unrestrained scoff and an inquiry as to whether he had heard a word she had said. Into another section of the woods he trekked, for, he reasoned, unless he had missed something, any direction would prove worthwhile. After all, if every aimless road led to the Deep Woods, by elementary symmetry, each, when started from the opposite end, had to lead out of it. Phil was practically skipping among the wilting weeds and dying grasses.
A few hours of walking straight but to find the surroundings repeating themselves forced Phil to adapt his methods. He resorted to walking a shaky circle and prepared to embrace the cyclical surroundings; yet now each lap brought with it an unfamiliar sight – every anticipation fell abruptly flat until even the most mundane incident wrought on the Meepit a panicked disposition. Indeed, even the muffled squawking of a Crokabek brought Phil's pace to a halt and reduced his eyes to darting left, right, and forward (but with a bit less order), for he could not aptly recall whether the species was native here, or whether Crokabeks squawked or not, or whether what he had heard could be attributed to one, or whether the sound had made its presence known in reality or just in his head.
Sometime during the course of Phil's wandering, a snap of lightning struck a far-off tree, which promptly caught fire and disappeared, as apparently was custom. This much, perhaps, Phil could have tolerated, but the bolt marked the start of a tyrannical storm, which rent the flimsy boughs from the trees and, by means of its gales, fixed them into a discordant ritual dance. The Meepit was effectively paralyzed in a small ditch – not more than a meter deep – until nature abstained from anarchy once more. Yet as time passed, the rain grew faster, denser, and perhaps colder – though admittedly this may have been a trick of the mind – until Phil, at every instant, believed that he had just missed his best opportunity of charging through the storm. Eventually he napped and awoke to the sun again and an utterly dry woods.
Then a few more hours passed without event, until evening again sprawled across the barely visible horizon. Thereafter Phil happened upon a scarred wooden sign whose message nature had rendered illegible. Beyond it wound a path of dark pebbles. Certainly, Phil reasoned, some wanderer of the woods had thrown them there for some yet inscrutable motive; he was equally sure that they had been cast there by some natural force. He opted to embrace the trail, for surely it was at least a direction, albeit one leading to an unknown destination. Here came again some less worrisome symptoms of reality: the scuttling of large Spyders who chased Vernax through the tarn and a horde or two of ghost petpets paraded about the place. This much had become comforting. Next to the solitude with which Phil had grown dearly acquainted, almost anything was preferable.
By the time he reached the end of the path (mercifully, it had an end) the sun had begun to set. Phil stood before a mansion whose paint still shimmered, whose windows and walls were, at a glance, indistinguishable, whose roof condemned all precipitation to its crumbling gutter, a garden awash with the greens of life, a backyard (visible by a stretch of the neck) consisting only of tarn and swamp fauna.
But this was normal, Phil thought. Not even that, but rather what the normal strove for. Indeed, it was the epitome of class, and whatever revelry it presently housed gave rise to a distinct sonority, a hoopla or serenade which spread warmth into Phil's form. Simultaneously, any moment that he devoted to scrutinizing the mansion elicited from him matchless repulsion, a shattering of any rose-tinted glasses that he had chosen or been forced to wear. It has been said that any victim of deception is complicit in his own undoing; yet this is sheer nonsense, and precisely why this thought had infringed upon the sanctity of Phil's imagination was an unanswerable quandary.
Perhaps to enter the mansion would deprive him of any and all burdens, he reasoned, but by exactly what vehicle this miracle could occur he did not know. Furthermore, he knew not what treasure or horror or pleasure awaited him within its confines. Yet... its allure lay in the fact that it was different, and it was not horrifying on its surface, certainly. He withdrew this thought – he was already too far off track: he had either to find a Lenny witch or escape the Deep Woods. It was admittedly unlikely that such matters would resolve themselves within the mansion. If only it were that simple! He teetered again. If he left the place behind, he would sentence himself to illimitable curiosity for the remaining eternity. If he entered the mansion, on the other hand, the option to exit would never desert him. From within came rousing laughter. Phil sighed. He knew that the doubts were marked by indefatigable endurance, that Neopia itself would hardly wait for him, that his situation was dire to such an extent that decline seemed unimaginable, that his head throbbed, that he had been walking for some forgotten number of hours or days. Phil approached the door, which opened for him, and went inside.
To be continued...