The Unwinding of Hannah
The night closed in around her, but she delighted in it, for the night was just as well. The darkness and the inky pools of blackness threading through her hair and twirling round her ankles were more familiar to her than the sunny brightness that blinded and scalded. Who would love a punishing mistress like the sun? Who would glory in the noonday, skin raw and red the only reward for serving her whims? No, the darkness was tender. It wrapped itself around her, cocooning her in its concealing embrace. Stars peppered the night to show her the way; a veritable trail of diamonds.
As she entered the Haunted Woods, a kind of hushed fog whispered through the trees. It snaked through branches and whispered dark nothings into the tree’s ears. A rush of air seemed to roar in her ears, tricking her, mocking her. Her heart pounded in response, beating against her chest, seeking freedom and fresh air. Twigs and dry brush snapped and murmured under her booted feet as she shifted through, watching the skeletal shapes of the sentinel trees around her. Could feel them reaching out to brush her dark hair as she walked by. Silky threads snapped and stuck, snared in their wooden fingers. Crunch, skitter-thump, as she stepped and her heart beat. The deeper into the forest she walked, the more stifling and heavy the air seemed to become. Oppression weighed down on her, eyes unseen but seeing. The wind began to taste different, shifting around her form, not wanting to settle upon her shoulders. She was disrupting the landscape.
A furious hooting could be heard, and a constant scritch, scratch, scritch, scratch as something slithered uncomfortably close to her boots. A smell permeated the air that was humid and frizzy round the edges. It was not quite definable yet it left her distinctly unsettled. In this moment she longed for rain; a downpour to wash Neopia clean, to bathe it and rinse it and let the world tilt sideways while the runoff sloughed down the Haunted Woods and drizzled sleepily down to the Lost Desert. A thrumming rumbled through her boots, a buzzing of the earth itself. The ravenous earth longed to suck her down into its depths, but she plunged ahead, and ahead, and ahead. Waiting for the stars to collapse onto her head and the moon to split up and pour a fiery rain of silver to drown her. But the humming ground served only to make her step more lightly, more fervently, fear causing her to look over her shoulder and then right and then left.
A fallen log covered in moss, fungus, fruiting bodies, spores floating floating floating towards her, don’t breathe it in. She clamped a hand over her mouth, stepping over the blackened log with care. A dark song could be heard in snatches coming from the hollows of trees, the mouths fuzzy with moss and something else. Something she didn’t want to identify. A small shadow flitted through her vision but she couldn’t decide where. Quickly she stepped now, so quickly, watching nothing but her feet and the steps they chose.
She didn’t see the branches reaching down, grasping, clutching, longing for a feel of her. And then suddenly she came to the clearing where a pond stood. Still as stone despite the breeze gentling through. It lifted the hairs on the nape of her neck, but did not skim the water. It did not breathe a single gasp across that still, still water. She was filled suddenly with a longing to drink. To drink unendingly and never quench the thirst that sat lodged, like a raw lump in her throat.
Please…..she willed the word into existence, but no sound passed her lips.
“I see you have finally discovered me,” a silky voice nestled in her ear.
She whipped round wildly, a sudden fierceness forcing her to find the speaker. It was almost as though she’d said the words herself.
“No, I am real enough child, real enough.” A Poogle stepped from the shadowed forest on her right. He came to a stop right at the water’s edge. Sharp planes in his face, eyes that cut like quicksilver, and a voice slick and sticky like caramel.
“Who are you?” she managed to say.
“The one whom you seek.”
She fingered the long silver blade strapped to her back, could taste the bite of its metal. Felt its weight as a reassurance against her spine.
“You don’t even exist anymore,” she said softly, so softly she wasn’t sure if perhaps the forest had sighed the words for her.
“You are a long way from home Hannah,” he replied.
She quirked a brow, and unsheathed the sword on her back.
The Poogle before her smiled but did not laugh. His eyes remained soft and sharp, melting and freezing. Yet she remained unafraid.
She tore the blade through the air, reveling in the song it sang as it bit the still night around it. An arc of silver, a flash of light.
“Your blade shall fall like brass and shatter like glass,” his smile widened to reveal sharpened teeth.
“No, I shall not belong to your legions. I shall be always the hunter and never the hunted.”
“That’s what you’ve always failed to understand. You already are the hunted.”
He lunged toward her faster than she could bring the blade down to strike him. So fast she thought perhaps her brain had whispered it to her, giving her images to hold onto. Then her back met the earth as he thudded atop her, pinning her to the ground. Her sword forgotten, broken by the water’s edge.
“You shall become like us!” She expected to gasp, to cry out in pain, but instead she sighed softly, feeling the music rush through her veins, feeling the incredible lightness pouring out of her, suffusing the dark around her with deeper colors. Blacks became navy, and gray become silver. Everything that was soft and gauzy became sharp and crisp. And she was falling, falling, as though from a great height, when he let go and sat up. Blearily, sleepily she blinked and fluttered her eyes, regaining her senses, herself.
She sat up. “What have you done? No,” she said the word as a gasp.
“You will begin the true hunt tonight.”
A mad cackle seemed to fill the air, reminiscent of Edna, shaking the leaves, making them flutter frantically to the ground; seeking purchase, seeking purchase.
Her dark hair whipped around her as the wind blew faster and gusted harder, stinging her cheeks, burning her.
“You will hunt with us now. We seek to destroy Fyora’s kingdom. Not since Ancient Neopia have we wandered freely. Many thought us to be extinct, but you knew better. And now you will lead us to others who would join our cause,” he said with a delicious chuckle. She stood and let the moon wash over her, birthing her once more into the world of night.
“You are as still as this water, and as deep as its depths. As dark as this forest, and as soft as its nests. You’re as mysterious as the moonlight, as untouchable as the fire. You’re as quick as a flash of lightning, helping the Poogle vampires.”