The Perilous Realm Online

Book One: The Endless Road

The Gardener, by Mary Wharton

Chapter One

It was dark here, darker than it should have been, the boy thought. The trees were so thick he could no longer see the sky. The rain that had been falling earlier, while he’d walked along the side of the road, had drawn off. He could hear the wind in the leaves, the distant chirping of birds. He had no idea how long he’d been walking through these woods, or whether his steps were taking him back out of it or further in. 

He couldn’t say for sure how he had ended up here. He’d been on the motorcycle, getting as far as he could from home, when it started to rain. As he was coming around a curve the bike slid under him on the wet pavement and he’d lost control and flown into the ditch. He was unhurt, but as he was hauling the bike out of the tall grass a police car appeared on the road ahead, coming his way. Dropping the bike, he dashed into the woods and ran a short distance, then crouched in the bushes and waited, listening. He hadn’t run very far, but when he decided he’d hidden long enough and crept back in the direction he thought he’d come, the woods didn’t end. The highway never reappeared. He walked and walked, and the woods went on and on. 

The boy stood now, turning in a circle, aware of a faint, far-off sound, a delicate musical ringing like that made by bells or wind chimes. The wind rose and stirred the leaves, drowning out the sound, and he waited, straining to hear. As the wind fell the sound returned. It was louder now, and it had a tune, he realized. A slow, enticing melody that seemed to drift softly on the breeze. A song he thought he might have heard once a long time ago.

It wasn’t a natural sound. Which meant it had to be something brought here. By someone. 

He started off in what he felt certain had to be the direction the sound was coming from, brushing tall stems and twining branches out of his path. The trees and bushes seemed to cluster more thickly around him the further he went. He was scratched and clawed at by thorns and branches. 

Then in front of his reaching hands there was nothing but empty air. He stumbled forward, nearly falling.

A wide clearing sloped away before him under a low, clouded sky. The grassy space was dotted with little white flowers that seemed almost to glow with their own light in the later afternoon shadows that fell across the clearing. The boy caught their faintly sweet scent. As with the ringing sounds, he felt knew this scent from somewhere just out of reach of his memory. 

In the middle of the clearing stood a huge tree.

The tree was cloven almost in two down the middle, as if it had once been struck by lightning. One half was dead, its bare black limbs tangled and twined together like a withered nest. The other half was topped by a huge spreading canopy of bright green leaves reaching up into the day’s last golden light and stirred by a faint breeze. Only the lower trunk was whole, its bark thickly gnarled and cloaked in moss. 

The boy approached the great tree and stood beneath it. He had found the source of the mysterious chimes. Small shards of glass or metal hung by silver threads from the branches, like shining fruit. As they stirred in the evening wind they jostled one another and were set ringing.

The world seemed half-asleep, as dazed and lost as he felt.

“I’m dead,” the boy said out loud. He wasn’t sure why he said it, or even if he believed it, but the thought gave him a strange feeling of calm.

As the shards bobbed and turned he saw his own reflection flit brokenly across their surfaces.

Mirrors, he realized. There were dozens of them, hanging high and low all over the tree. Some of the pieces of mirror were large and jagged, some slender and delicate, others dark and smoky like volcanic glass.

He reached out and nudged the three nearest mirror shards in front of him, setting them softly ringing again. The sound they made was beautiful, even more so than he had thought before, but still he felt an uneasy prickling along the back of his neck. He felt the urge to turn around, search for the road again, get out of this strange place. But then he would be leaving the mirrors and their music behind. All at once the temptation came to slip one of the shards off the branch and take it with him.  

He stepped closer and peered at the mirror shards as they turned upon their threads, catching glimpses of his own face. In each what he saw was blurred or distorted, like the images in funhouse mirrors. In one his face was long and thin, as if he’d been stretched like a rubber band. Another turned his face blurry and indistinct, like something seen through moving water. The third mirror made him recoil and then laugh: in it his face had been squashed and warped almost beyond recognition as a face. He looked like some sort of hideous goblin out of one of his mother’s old storybooks.

His mother. He wondered where she was now, and if he would ever see her again. 

The boy moved away from the first group of mirrors toward the others. He went from shard to shard with the same result, always hazy or bizarre or ridiculous, until he came to the largest one yet, revolving slowly by itself on its string, untouched by any of the others. He reached up and took this fragement of mirror in his hand. 

The face in this shard was his own, but it had changed in a way unlike the others. The hair was longer and wilder than his, the skin deeply tanned, the mouth set and determined. It was him, but not him. It was a boy who had seen and knew more than he had. A boy who had braved fearful things. 

Will had the odd thought that he would like to know this other Will.

Just then the mirror caught a beam of sunlight slanting through the leaves. For an instant the boy was blinded by the flash. When he could see again, the face in the mirror froze him in horror.

The eyes in his reflected face were someone else’s eyes. Lightless, unwavering eyes that peered at him through the mask that his own face had become. Someone else was watching him, through his own reflection. 

He struggled to look away, but found himself unable to move, or even shut his eyes. Some other will was holding him here, for its own purpose. And even as he fought with it, he was aware of other things happening around him in the clearing. Dusk had somehow already fallen, during the few moments he had spent looking into the shards. The trees were a dark wall at the clearing’s edge, and the noise of the wind had risen in the trees. The boy knew that something was coming. Something that had been summoned by whoever or whatever had looked at him through his own eyes. 

Desperately he tore his gaze away. He had to get out of here before it was too late, but the world around him was dark. 

Then he saw the lights. Cold white beams were bobbing and weaving through the trees. 

It had to be the police, searching for him in the woods with flashlights. He had no thought of running from them now.

“I’m here!” he shouted, and started toward them, but halted when he noticed that the lights were acting strangely. They were changing, growing larger and stretching so that they became dimly glowing human shapes.

The boy stood transfixed. The lights had become three pale figures moving among the trees, slowly approaching the clearing. He stared harder, unsure of what he was seeing. They were people, as far as he could tell, but there was something strange about the way they moved, as if their feet were not touching the earth but flowing over it, like water or smoke. As they approached they became clearer to him, their outlines sharper. Like the music of the mirror shards, the figures coming toward him looked familiar. He was sure he had seen them before, and in a moment he would recognize them and know who they were. All he knew was that they had come to find him, and he did not want to be found. Not by them.

A hand touched his shoulder. He spun around.

A girl stood there, about his age, in a long, dark red cloak. Under the shade of her hood her eyes glittered like pale grey stones. Her hand gripped the handle of a knife that hung in a leather sheath from her belt.

“Come with me,” she whispered urgently. “Now.”

“Who are you?” 

The girl began to speak and then broke off. She looked at the glowing figures moving through the trees, then at the boy. She seemed to be deciding whether she could trust him.

“They haven’t seen us yet,” she said. “But they will, soon. If you want to live, follow me.”

With that she turned and started off at a near-run through the trees. The boy hesitated, his thoughts whirling madly, then he followed. 

***

The girl ran so swiftly through the shadows that the boy began to wonder if she could see like a cat in the dark. It was all he could do just to keep her in sight. 

The wind strengthened and the air grew sharper. When the clouds parted, a bright half moon appeared and cast a pale cold light among the trees. After a time the boy felt cooler air on his face, and looked up to see that they had come out of the woods into a wide glade of tall reeds that bowed and whispered in the wind. He could hear the sound of water nearby. Soon they came to the bank of a narrow stream that shimmered like a vein of silver in the moonlight. The girl found a track alongside the water, and they followed it to a narrow stone bridge. Once on the other side they plunged again into deep woods. Here the ground was bare, but rockier, so that the boy stumbled several times on protruding stones.

 

Finally he could go no further and leaned against a mossy boulder. The girl stopped and came back to him.

“I just need to catch my breath,” he said.

The girl tossed back her hood and peered into the shadows. She stood motionless for a long moment and Will noticed that the clothing under her red cloak—a belted jacket and knee-length trousers—looked like the sort of thing people wore in the old olden days.

She took a bulging leather bag from inside her cloak and handed it to him. He examined it, then glanced questioningly at her.

“It’s water,” she said. “That’s all.”

The boy pulled out the cork plug, tilted the bag, and drank. The water was ice cold and wonderfully refreshing. He took a longer, gulping swig and then handed the bag back. The girl took a brief sip and wiped her mouth. 

“I’m Rowen,” she said.

“Will Lightfoot,” the boy said, thinking too late that it might have been wise to give himself a false name. 

From a pack slung over her shoulder the girl brought out what looked to the boy like a small lantern with diamond-shaped glass panes. She held the lantern up, unlit, and started off again. Will waited a moment and then followed.

“That might be more useful,” he said, “if you actually lit it.”

“It will light on its own,” the girl answered, “when we find the place I’m looking for.”

“What were those things?” Will asked. “They looked like people.”

“They’re not people,” the girl said. “Can you go on now?”

He nodded.

“Where am I?” Will said as they hurried on, more to himself than the girl.

“This is the Wood,” the girl said, “in a land called the Bourne. I think you’ve come from … somewhere else. Somewhere very far away.”

He had no idea what was she talking about. They couldn’t be more than a few miles from where he had left the bike.

“So who are you,” he shot back. “Red Riding Hood?”

The girl shook her head.

“She doesn’t live here,” she said.

It was a ridiculous answer. She was either crazy, or making fun of him. He laughed to show her he didn’t care.

“I was on my way home and I heard the music of the mirrors,” the girl said, ignoring

his response. “I stopped to find out what it was. It’s just luck I was nearby.” 

“This isn’t happening,” Will said, shaking his head.              

“It is,” the girl said. “So we’d better keep moving. We don’t want themfinding us.”

As much as he wanted to, Will could not argue with that.     

***

In the dark of the Wood, the keeper of the mirror shards came to collect his trinkets. He plucked them one by one off the branches of the cloven tree and slipped them into his cloak. Near him stood three pale shapes, bereft of purpose, like fading dreams. With a thought he sent them on their way. They had failed him, but the prey still had to be found. There would be time later for their punishment. A hollow had no solid form, but it possessed enough awareness of itself that it could be threatened with destruction. With nothingness. How desperately these shades still clung to the dying echo of what had once been their lives. 

When there was time he would remind them, with pain, who it was they served. But that would have to wait. There was a trail to follow, and it was already going cold.

Somewhere in the dark an owl hooted. The keeper of the shards paused and looked about the clearing. For the briefest instant there was the sense of a presence nearby, a shiver of recognition, and then it was gone. 

He had been in this borrowed shape for many long years, and his memory of the life he once knew was cold and insubstantial, like the creatures that served him. But it returned to him now, that other life. A memory that flared brightly and swiftly faded. The faint tang of sea air. The gleam of sunrise on the highest turret of a white tower. The carefree laughter of a girl.

The heart of the keeper of the shards had burned to ash in another age. But the body he wore now was still capable of faint shadows of feeling. Enough that his flesh could still crawl with foreboding when his memories were stirred. That long-abandoned story was not over. His master had not yet devoured it. And with that troubling thought, as always, came rage, and hatred, and beneath them, never truly forgotten, the emptiness like a gaping mouth. 

The disturbing new thread in the weave of the world had eluded him, for now. But he would find it again. There were other paths open to him than those of the daylight realm. Other ways to lure his prey. He could walk in the dreams of those who had looked into the shards. He could search for them within their own desires and fears.

In moments the cloven tree was free of the mirror shards and stood alone in the clearing, gazed at only by the moon.