Deep in the Woods
The fire hardly glimmered. It cast only the faintest illumination now. The evening was late, very late, but Roland and Jethro would stay up into the deepest hours. Neither would be able to sleep if they both lay down, and neither would be able to stay awake if they took it in turns to watch, and so they both remained up: glazy eyed, half conscious, but ready. Around their small clearing, the impermeable forest held its shadows. Roland stretched out an arm, his gauntlet and mail tinkling slightly, and grabbed a handful of twigs. He cast them onto the fire, and it dimly flared in acknowledgement of the offering. Its warmth did not seem to reach him. He felt cold, colder than he had ever felt. This was the darkest place he had been in all his searching. He wouldn’t be surprised if it was the end of him, just as it had been the end of the Edgar.
‘It will be twilight soon,’ Jethro said from the other side of the fire. His voice was hoarse, and dry. He’d swaddled a filthy cloak around his shoulders, but he was still shivering. The futile light made his face almost skull-like, the sockets like basins filled with midnight ichor.
Roland nodded. ‘You should sleep. I’ll keep watch.’
Jethro shook his head. ‘You know I won’t be able to. Besides, what if you fall asleep when it comes?’
The thought made Roland shudder. Yes, it was coming. It was always coming. It had chased him over boundaries and borders and countries and continents. And it never stopped. At first, it had been merely the inkling of a presence at his back, of something dogging his steps, but then it had come closer. It attacked his dreams. In reality, he was sometimes sure he had seen it, not absolutely of course, but indefinitely, slinking through shade as though born of it, and as formlessly terrifying as God. It always had eyes on him.
‘I won’t fall asleep. I am too afraid.’
His eyes stung painfully, but he was so used to the sensation he blinked it away. His aching limbs lay at odd angles as he was slouched by the fire, almost like the splayed contortion of a dead man. But his head was awake. It had to be. To dream was to allow it to come.
Roland looked up to see that Jethro was looking at him intently. The grey hairs of his beard caught the dim light. He had not been grey when they had embarked on this journey.
‘Have you ever wondered where this thing came from?’
Roland looked at him. ‘It comes from hell.’
‘Then how did it get out? And why is it following you?’
Roland was silent. Jethro shrugged and stared into the fire. There was a drawn quiet between them.
‘It started just after Belinda died,’ Roland said, suddenly. He wondered why he had never told Jethro this before. His friend nodded, as if he had already known the answer.
‘Have you ever wondered whether it was just, well, a dream?’
Roland sat up, sharply, a snarl coming to his lips. Jethro regarded him calmly: his brown eyes each capturing a glimmer of the flame.
‘And Edgar? That was just my imagination was it?’
Jethro considered. ‘Things that we dream can become reality sometimes.’
‘So I’m responsible for this? For his death?’
‘It is your demon, Roland.’
He sat back, and turned away from him and the flame to look out into the folds of darkness. Somewhere, out there, he knew the creature was hunting for him. ‘I don’t think the demon is mine. I think it is a guardian.’
‘We seek something that no one is permitted to possess. Perhaps the creature was sent to stop us?’
Jethro pursed his lips as he was wont to do when thinking. He scratched the grey stubble and frowned. ‘You are the only one that dreams of it.’
Roland sighed. ‘Get some sleep, Jethro. I shall keep the light,’ he said.
Jethro nodded and lay himself down on his side, his ramshackle armour creaking and groaning. He placed his head on a sordid wrapped cloth, and closed his eyes. Roland could tell by the shallowness of his breath that he was not asleep. The fear was too vivid and too deep for that. He watched him for a few moments: the colours of the flame, the dun silver of his armour, and the surrounding shades of tenebrous foliage all melting into one dizzying haze of strange colour. Things started to fall away. The crackle of the flame grew eerily quiet. He felt his head loll back. As it did so: briefly – just briefly – amidst the blur, a part of the shadow of the forest seemed to move.
Roland blinked rapidly and pulled himself upright. He reached into his pouch and drew out a knife. He lay it across his palm with the sharp edge pressed to his skin and positioned his elbow on it. If he started to slip, the pain would wake him.
When Roland roused Jethro in the twilight hours, his hand left a mark of blood on his pauldrons.
They had learned to travel in the twilight after Edgar. It was in the liminal place between day and night and night and day when the demon came. If they were on the move during these times, then they could stay ahead of it.
The two set off wearily in the pale half-light, its glow only feebly reaching them through the canopies of intertwined boughs. The dark lustre of the forest seemed an obstacle to all that shone. Tired, aching, stretched, they walked for what felt like hours, the light never increasing, only appearing to change colour until it grew from purple into a red so deep it looked like unnatural blood.
Then they saw it.
‘What is that?’ Jethro said, squinting.
‘The end,’ Roland replied. He looked hard through the tangles and nets of blackened branches, and saw its walls beyond. Through the shroud of the canopy, he could see it reaching into the sky.
They pushed through, their bodies drenched and clammy, and their armour dirtied from the clinging tendrils of vine and branch, finally breaching into a clearing. Now they could see it clearly.
It was a tower. Surprisingly small, and wide, but impressing upon them both in a way that no mountainous structure ever could have. It was onyx, blacker than anything they had seen, and devoid of windows or of any mark or design across its surface, save for a single door.
‘Is this it?’ Jethro breathed: eyes wide.
‘It must be,’ Roland said.
The door swung open silently, as if the tower itself was holding a gargantuan breath, bated with expectation. Inside, a staircase curled upwards. Roland drew his great-sword from his back, as did Jethro. The sound of their metal boots against the hard rock seemed deafening. Roland felt as though he was defiling something, his filthy armour noisome in a holy place.
The door closed stealthily behind them, sealing out what little light there had been so that they were cast in an absolute blackness. Roland felt his leg trembling beneath him as he placed a first, tentative foot on the stair. He let out a long exhalation. For a moment, he could not summon the courage to ascend. He remained with one foot on the stair, daunted, staring up into impossible shadow above, like a starless sky only amplified.
‘What is it?’
‘Nothing,’ Roland said, swallowing a lump in his throat. He began to climb. The clanking of his plate-mail rebounded irritatingly, adding to his feeling of intrusion. He clutched his sword tighter than he had ever grasped it, and yet the calloused flesh on his fingers meant he hardly felt it. So many years, so many hardships, so much suffering: all for this one end. His mouth was dry.
He reached the top and came out into a circular chamber. In its centre lay a basin filled with an oily liquid across which a small, tiny flicker of fire danced. Despite how small it was, the flame was jubilant, writhing, twisting and contorting faster and more violently than any fire he had ever seen, and yet no wind penetrated into the room.
Jethro came and stood beside him. ‘This is it?’
‘This is it,’ Roland repeated, softly, eyes transfixed on the small, vibrant glimmer in the midst of the blackness. ‘Life itself.’
Roland took a step forward, and pulled a small, glass vial out of his backpack. Without letting his skin touch the oily liquid, or the flame, he scooped up a quantity into the vial and placed a cork in it. The glass grew warm, but it didn’t melt or shatter. The flame licked at the inside harmlessly. He stood for a moment, looking at his prize. In the glow of the fire and the reflection of the glass he saw his own, haggard, worn face. How many years had it been since Belinda passed away? Ten? Twenty? But now he had finally achieved his goal. Suddenly a thought filled him that perhaps she would reject him; he would raise her in her youth, and she would see his old, beaten body and loathe him. He remained, holding up the vial, staring into its potent contents until a deep, low murmur shattered his dream. He looked up sharply.
‘What was that?’
Jethro’s face changed from one of wonderment to wide eyed panic. ‘It has found us.’
Roland wheeled around. The demon?’
Jethro nodded solemnly.
‘How can you be sure?’
‘It was only a matter of time.’
The low murmur sounded again, only this time it was more of a dark, primordial roar. The tower seemed to quake slightly, as if a massive creature was wrapping its body around its base.
‘It cannot come in here while there is light,’ Roland said, holding up the flame.
‘We do not know that. The light has held it at bay before, but we are trapped here. Sooner or later it will close the noose. We cannot wait in here forever.’
‘I have not come this far to fail!’ Roland growled.
‘You’ve given everything on this quest, Roland, everything. You’re a shadow of the man that set out on it and all because you couldn’t let go of Belinda! Christ, I must be the greatest of all fools for following you: but now I have gone far enough. Give up the flame and it may allow us to leave.’
‘You were not a fool for following, Jethro, but you are a fool now. Give up what we have spent all these years, have traveled all these miles to find, at the very moment we find it? That is the real folly. No one would have believed that we could have found the dark tower, but we did, and inside it, we have found life –’
A third, deep, knell-like roar broke Roland’s speech, and made both of them rush to the stairwell. They could see nothing but ecliptic darkness at the bottom, but Roland sensed the presence of the creature: the monster of shadow. It was coming. It was inside the tower.
‘I’m not going to sit here and wait for death!’ Jethro spat. Clasping his sword in two hands, he let out a howl so violent and piercing that Roland felt a tremor pass through his whole body at hearing it. His friend leapt down the stairs into the blackness and was swallowed by it, his screaming proclamation still reverberating around the tower as if a hundred thousand soldiers were holding in a broken stand.
Roland darted back into the chamber. It seemed to him like every injury he had ever had had been reopened, or else made sore again. His entire body ached, his finger joints clicked with arthritis, his knees clacked as he moved towards the basin, and his skin around his stomach felt red as old scars glowed.
He turned. There was a darkness at the door that even the light of the eternal fire could not penetrate or alleviate. It was solid blackness, not the absence of something, but a full, glorious destructive energy. In desperation he hurled the vial of flame towards it. It shattered and the fire burst over an invisible surface. Unearthly clamour sounded as the flame licked around a form that had previously been hidden. Roland looked on the shape of his stalker, of the demon that had followed him ever since Belinda had been taken. It licked along a weird frame that was both human and inhuman, a silhouette of seething black framed in ecstatic fire.
The shadow lurched forward. Roland sensed its triumph. It too had waited for this moment, had hungered after him for years on end: frustrated at his evasions and escapes.
In the fractional instance as it surged toward him, he knew he had a choice, and that was to die for the secret or live.
He grabbed the basin behind him and flung it headlong at the dim shape. For a moment the incandescent flame cascaded over it like an opulent shower of manna, and then a shriek split through the air, so loud that he heard the onyx tower crack down to its foundations. A spear of dazzling light fell into the chamber as a cut in the stone opened like a mouth. He ran for the stairs, the tower fracturing and rending apart.
Flinging open the door he came out just as the whole squat turret crumbled and sank into the earth, accompanied by the unholy scream of the demon within. Flames licked around the stones and then finally dissipated, leaving nothing. When the noise died, only a pile of rubble remained. The shadow had abated.
There was no sign of Jethro.
‘I have lost the secret,’ he said, to a still and eerie space. ‘I’m sorry Belinda. I’m sorry.’ He thought of Edgar, Jethro, and all those that had perished before them. Was it all for nothing? The tower lay dismantled, like a shattered tombstone. It was finished.
But the sun was shining. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt like its warmth was actually touching his skin. He pulled off his pauldrons and greaves and helmet, and flung them onto the rubble of the tower along with his sword. He turned. Blank walls of forestry lay all around.
‘How can I find my way back, if I don’t know where I am?’
He looked back at the shattered remains of the tower. In the hunks of black, scarred rock, he had buried the answer to life’s greatest riddle, along with the shadow of death. Perhaps that was the answer? Bury it all.
Smiling weakly, he adjusted his backpack and set off once more. He would find his way out from under the canopies and back. He was sure.
Roland looked up at the sun. The light coming from it seemed stronger than it had ever been.