He steps into a quiet forest beneath a hidden sky. His feet press against the soft undergrowth; birdsong fades and the breeze stills. Behind him the portal pulses, flickering towards closure, and for a moment he tenses. The light under the trees is thick, smoke-like, darkening the boughs and concealing the meandering paths of exposed roots. It feels different, wrong. As he hesitates, the portal collapses in on itself, snapping shut with a finality that blows a freezing wind across his mind.
He calls out her name, listening to it fall into the flat nothingness, the sound swallowed, consumed. He casts his thoughts out, seeking connection with the voice that pulled him across the void, but the skein feels viscous, dense with dull outrage and suppressed violence.
The harsh rasp of his breathing fills his ears as he turns to the curved intricacy of the wraithbone gate. The portal is as it always was, pale against surrounding jade, vines and thin branches forming a living patina across its surface. Yet the forest is not as it once was. The shadows lying between the boles have a depth he doesn’t remember being there before, a lurking malevolence that makes him wary. He reaches out to touch a tree trunk and recoils; more than rough, the bark is sharp, as if it wants to injure.
‘How long has it been?’
He heads into the forest, the portal falling away behind him, absorbed into green and black foliage. A swollen river soon blocks his path, its slowly receding waters thick with silt and the remains of grotesque machines. His pistol comes to his hand when he sees the first armoured arm poking from beneath the water, its flat barrel seeking targets that don’t exist. More then, broken limbs and the mangled, unidentifiable remains of bodies. He recognises the iconography etched into their plate and a soft moan escapes his lips.
He moves onwards, the clarion urgency of the call in his mind sending him back beneath the debauched branches of the woods. The land rises beneath him, and as he runs along a ridge, he glimpses the distant sight of a broken starship, its spine shattered against the mountains.
Once, the light of the forest was a fey thing, dappling branches and leaves and the creatures that moved below the canopy. Now darkling streamers struggle through a twisted shroud of waxy vegetation, shadowing the forest floor. Of his people, there is no sign. No encampments, no evidence of their nomadic wanderings. It is as if they never existed. Perhaps the Farseer was right when he said not to return.
Night is falling when he finds the glade, his path guided by compulsion, the gravity of supplication drawing him towards the source. The trees here are monstrous, their branches a dark and twisted version of what they had been. At their centre, a figure caught fast in their embrace, contorted vines constricting her outstretched limbs while tendrils bury themselves beneath the pale fragility of her skin.
He falls to his knees as she speaks, the summoning song distilling down to the hiss of her voice.
‘Galrendil. My lost love…’
‘Peisinere.’ Her name is tinder dry on his lips. ‘What… happened?’
Her eyes flicker, sightless. She turns, her neck creaking like old branches in the wind. ‘You were gone so long.’
He reaches behind his head, his movements no longer his own, and releases the seals on his helmet to lift it free. The smells he remembers, damp moss and wildflowers and the sweet tang of bark are there still, but they are faint and fading, supplanted by an acrid miasma of putrescence, of soil gone bad, rising into the trees through corrupted roots. The helmet falls to earth, the soil shifting, grains running over its edges to take it below.
‘They came,’ she whispers, and the canopy shakes with agitation. ‘They came, and you were not here.’
‘How strange they were. So full of hate. Consumed by lust and the release of desecration. They killed us, trampled all that was good and pure. They butchered the Worldsinger on the steps of her shrine…’ Her voice breaks a little, and Galrendil’s eyes fill with tears.
‘The world raged, heart of mine. Our ancestors demanded vengeance for our loss, and I could not deny them. There was no-one else left to direct their wrath.’
The soil shifts again, roots seeking his legs, rising to clasp at his arms, to make him one with the world he had left. He can’t rise, can’t move. The loss in her voice is an ache in his chest holding him fast.
‘We found all those who came here. Together, we hunted them down, seeking them with branch and river and shifting sand, pursuing them through forest, across hill, chasing them into the depths of the desert. They couldn’t escape the ground they walked. Even the ones that remained beyond our reach fell to earth eventually, turning on each other in their frustration. Their bones feed the soil now. Their souls we cast out.’
A chill rises along his spine. ‘You must let me go.’
‘Stay with me a little while, my love. I am so alone, now. There are so few of us left. Stay, watch the night with me.’
‘I knew you would come back. I knew you would not leave me to endure alone, not a second time.’
His eyes brim, tears tracing thin paths down his cheeks. As he struggles, the vines squeeze tighter around his armour, holding him in place. He begins to reason, then to plead, but he might as well be speaking to the earth itself for all the good it does. He looks at the figure in the branches, and as the probing foliage coils beneath the mesh of his armour and draws blood from his skin, Peisinere’s smile is a cold reflection of what it had once been.
‘Stay with me,’ she whispers.
About the Author
Darren Davies is a professional engineer living in Ireland with his family, and far too many animals. A long-time admirer of all things science fiction, he fills his spare time by looking for a quiet place to write about the strange things that come into his head.