The Perilous Realm Online Part 11

The Perilous Realm Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER ELEVEN

They trudged on, and when the tower did not reappear, they felt certain they had escaped, especially when they found themselves in a region of the bog with more trees. Spindly fir and pines stood in greater numbers here, and even some tall birch grew between the pools. Patches of sunlight dappled the earth, and the air smelled fresh and raw.

In the evening they took shelter from the biting wind in a clump of straggly pines. Tattered clouds sped across the sky, hiding and revealing the stars. Shade nosed some fleshy roots from the soil and Finn lit a fire long enough to cook a thin but warming broth.

The moon rose out of a great bank of cloud on the horizon.Pale silver light flooded the bog. Pendrake gazed up at the bright silver orb and made a sound of surprise.

“What is it?” Rowen asked.

“The moon is full,” Pendrake said. “We were trapped in the storyshard for at least two days.”

“That’s not possible,” said Finn. “It was only a few hours, at most.”

“Not even that long,” Rowen added.

“If we hadn’t escaped,” Pendrake said, “for us it would have become eternity, and no time at all. But perhaps we can be thankful. By disappearing for so long we may have thrown off our pursuer.”

 

After a while Will sat down beside Rowen.

 

“I guess I shouldn’t ask you again if you’re all right.”

 

Rowen smirked.

 

“I’m fine now,” she said. “What happened in the shard, I thought I’d never felt anything like that before. Then I remembered how at I’d listen to the stories at the Golden Goose, and sometimes I would know what was going to be told, before the storyteller said a word. In the shard I knew we had stumbled into some kind of story, a story that was wrongsomehow, even before Grandfather knew. I don’t understand how I knew that. He’s the loremaster, not me.”

 

Will remembered the troubled feeling he’d had, when the loremaster had talked to him about the hollows and their master, that there was something the old man has been keeping back. That Pendrake knew more than he was telling about why the Lord of light had sent his servants to find Will. A sudden thought struck him now, so obvious he couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to him before. Pendrake hadn’t been keeping anything back from him, but from Rowen.

 

“Your grandfather’s told you a lot of stories,” he suggested half-heartedly, not wanting to reveal what he’d been thinking. “Maybe you’re learning to see things the way he does.”

 

“I suppose so,” Rowen said doubtfully. “I wondered if some day I would. But I don’t feel as if I learned this. It just … took hold of me.”

 

“That’s what happens to me, with the knot-paths. You and I are both from the Untold. Maybe that’s why things are different for us. You should ask your grandfather about it.”

 

They both looked across the fire at Pendrake, who was sewing a button back onto his coat.

 

“I know I should,” Rowen said. “But I’m afraid to.”

 

Will thought to himself that he knew just how she felt.

 

***

 

The next morning the companions carried on and soon came to an area of the bog that was less flat and featureless. The land rose to bald hummocks and dropped into stony gullies, down which water ran in swift noisy streams. The mist thinned long enough to give them a glimpse of smoke-blue hills to the west, and beyond them the peaks of high jagged mountains tipped with snow. Pendrake announced that they must be near the edge of the bog at last.

 

They kept on all through the day, toiling up and down the rises of the land, glad to leave behind the stench of the bog and to have more solid ground under their feet. Still, they were all dismayed when they struggled to the top of a long, steep ridge late that afternoon and saw a vast lake lying before them, its wind-rippled surface gleaming a dull red in the setting sun. The air was colder here, too, as a wind from the west drove a chill off the water.

 

“There was no lake here when I came this way last,” the toymaker said. “We will have to go around. How far, I cannot say. Let’s go down to the shore. I want to see how deep the water is.”

 

This was not news that anyone wanted to hear, but there was no choice, so they hoisted their packs and headed downhill. At the bottom of the hummock they plunged into a field of tall reeds that swayed in the wind, their stalks brushing softly against one another as if they were whispering about these intruders that had come among them. With Pendrake in the lead Will and the others pushed through the damp grasses that soon rose over their heads.

 

Suddenly they came out into a clearing. A wall of hissing reeds ringed them on all sides except for a narrow gap that led down a kind of tunnel to the water. They could hear the lap of waves on the shore. The wind was stronger here. It stung Will’s eyes to tears.

 

He lowered his head and started forward but was halted by an urgent whisper from Rowen.

 

“Do you feel it?” she asked, then she turned to her grandfather. “We have to get to the lake. That’s where we need to be.”

 

“What do you mean? That’s where we’re going.”

 

Pendrake held up a hand.

 

“Listen,” he breathed.

 

They all went still. There was a rustling from nearby. A flock of birds rose into the air with shrill cries and a clamour of flapping wings.

 

“We didn’t cause that,” Finn said.  

 

Will felt a chill slide down his neck like cold water, a chill that he knew had nothing to do with the wind off the lake. A low, whistling sound, like the call of some lonely nightbird, whispered through the rushes. Before anyone had a chance to speak or move, three figures rose before them as if out of the ground.

 

They were tall, and pale, with long black hair that reminded Will of Moth. Their dark clothing, too, was very much like the archer’s. Two were men, and the third, the one closest to them, was a woman in a pale grey gown.

 

All three of them were smiling.  

 

“Hollows,” Rowen cried. “They found us.”

 

“Keep quiet,” Pendrake whispered. “They’ll be drawn to our voices.”

 

As he spoke they heard another eerie call from behind them. They turned. At the top of the hill they had just come down, stood two more figures with dark hair and clothing. Like the others they made no sound but stood smiling at Will and the others as if this was an unexpected meeting of old friends.

 

The companions moved face outward into a tight ring. Shade began to snarl and pace around them in a circle.

 

“I’ve met these shadowshapes before,” he said. “Teeth and claws are no use against them.”

 

Finn stepped forward with his sword drawn, but Pendrake gripped his shoulder.

 

“Neither are swords,” the old man said. “We stay together. Do not look them in the eye, whatever you do.”

 

The figures on the hill above began to walk slowly down toward them, while the other three stood motionless, blocking the path to the water. Despite the toymaker’s warning, Will could not tear his eyes away from the hollow that had taken a woman’s shape. She was gazing at him, he was startled to see, with what looked like recognition, and even sadness. Her face was shadowy and hard to see, but her eyes glowed faintly with a pale, light that held him spellbound.

 

Do not be afraid, Will, she said, her voice hushed and barely to be heard over the whispering of the wind in the reeds. You had need of us, and we have come.

 

“Who are you?” he answered, and his own voice seemed to come not from his mouth but from his thoughts.

 

Come with us and all will be answered. You don’t need to run anymore.

 

At once a new hope leapt into Will’s heart. These really were Moth’s people. The Hidden Folk. The toymaker had told him they were masters of concealment and illusion. Maybe this was how they eluded their enemies, by taking these ghostly shapes.

 

“Everyone stay together,” Pendrake said, and at the sound of his voice Will felt his mind lurch free, as though he had been drifting toward sleep and had been jolted awake. He turned to the toymaker, who bowed his head briefly and then looked up with a grim face. Pendrakebegan to sweep the staff slowly through the air over his head. As Will watched in amazement, faint streaks of luminescence, like thin streams of fog, began to form in the wake of the toymaker’s sweeping staff. It seemed almost that by stirring the air he had spun light from the gloom itself. The streaks grew larger and brighter, and began slowly to descend, moving in a ring about Will and his friends. They reminded him of the rippling bands of the northern lights he had seen one night with his parents when they had gone for a walk in the snow.

 

The two hollows approaching from the hill came out of the reeds into the clearing and suddenly halted. They seemed confused, or distracted, moving toward the rippling bands of light, then back again. 

 

For a moment Will could see the swaying reeds through the hollows’ wavering forms. But as the lights began to fade they took on shape again, and continued to advance, though more slowly than before.

 

“They’re still closing in,” Finn muttered. “What can we do?”

 

“I will try to draw off the three,” Pendrake said. “That should give you a chance to get Will and Rowen to the lake. If it’s not deep we can wade into it. These creatures find it harder to keep their shapes over water. Shade, go with them.”

 

“I will, Master Pendrake.”

 

“When I give the word,” the toymaker said, “run for the lake and do not look back.”

 

The companions turned again to the three hollows that stood between them and the pathway to the lake. The toymaker clutched his staff with both hands and began to speak in a strange language, his eyes closed and his voice strained as though he were drawing the words up like water from a deep well. Once again Will found himself looking into the eyes of the woman. Her face was so familiar, and yet strange to him.

 

She stepped closer, still smiling, and held out her hand.

 

No more running, she said. No more fear.

 

He was so tired. She understood. He didn’t have to be lost and afraid anymore. 

 

Will lowered his knife and took a step forward. Now he could see her as she really was. There was no longer any doubt. She was standing at the sink in the kitchen at home. As he came toward her she turned and wiped her hands on her apron and smiled at him.

 

Home at last, she said. I was wondering where you had got to.

 

She opened her arms and Will stepped toward her, all his doubts gone. As he moved he heard Rowen cry his name, but her voice seemed to come from very far away. Dimly he was aware that she was warning him of danger, but it no longer mattered. He had found his way to the end of the story.

 

As his hand touched the woman’s, he felt his body go cold, as if he had plunged into icy water. Everything around him grew dark, except for a pale, pulsing light that hovered just beyond his reach.Shehad vanished, and he stumbled forward, desperate to find her again. The light moved further away as he approached it. He felt no fear. He felt nothing at all, only the need to follow the light.

 

He heard a shout then, and felt something pulling him backward, away from where shehad been. Slowly he turned, trying to shrug off whatever was holding him back. A face swam toward him out of the dark. It was Rowen’s, he thought, but she was someone he had known long ago, and only for a little while. Why was she here now, what did she want of him? Will, it’s me,she was shouting, I’m here. Her voice was distant and muffled, as if it was reaching him from underwater.

 

He saw that she had her knife drawn and was holding it out in front of her, warding off something he couldn’t see. Vaguely he knew what she was telling him, he knew he should listen to her, but he couldn’t remember why it mattered.

 

Then Pendrake was there in front of him. He gave a great shout and raised his staff over his head. Dazzling plumes of silver light, like the petals of a great flower, unfolded and bloomed in the air. The woman’s form paled, became translucent again like smoke, and receded into the shadows. She reached out her hands toward him as she faded, and suddenly he was afraid he was losing her all over again.

 

Will cried out in anguish, and a shrill screech from above seemed to answer him. The woman appeared to hear it too. Her eyes widened and the smile vanished, replaced by a look of doubt and confusion. There was a sudden rush of beating wings and through the woman’s wavering form a ragged black shape suddenly burst, as if through a veil of fog. It shot past Will, coming so close to him that he had to duck his head. It was gone in an instant, but he had glimpsed sleek black wings and a bright eye.

 

Morrigan.

 

The woman’s form began to close around the hole that had been torn in it. Then it seemed to coil in on itself, and in the next instant it billowed out again, growing in size and changing shape once more. The slender hands elongated as they clawed for him.

 

Will stumbled back as the hollow rose over him. Then he heard a shout and saw Moth nearby, his bow drawn, an arrow notched and ready. An instant later, just as the hollow lunged at Will, the archer let fly. Like a streak of moonlight the shaft sped from the bow and struck.

 

The hollow thrashed wildly, clutching at the arrow in its breast. It began to shudder and twist, and then lose colour and form. For an instant the arrow hung as if suspended in nothing but a wisp of fog. Then, with a sound halfway between a shriek and a sigh like a dying breath, the hollow vanished. The arrow dropped harmlessly to the ground.

 

Will felt himself come awake with a shock, as if cold water had been thrown over him. His heart seemed to begin beating again. It throbbed in his chest like a wound. He stifled a cry and stared wildly around.

 

Rowen was at his side, with Finn and Shade. Pendrake stood nearby. And there was Moth, with Morrigan circling above him.

 

The other two hollows had already begun to draw back. A second arrow from Moth’s bow transfixed one of them, and with an unearthly cry it vanished like the first. The third hollow halted and then, like a rope that had been held taut and suddenly let go, it collapsed into a coil and slithered away through the reeds.

 

Will staggered forward and toppled helplessly to the ground. Finn helped him to his feet, and he felt the world heave under him and spin. He would have fallen again, but Finn held him. He watched as the two hollows approaching from the hilltop now moved apart from one another, either to flee or to come at their quarry from two sides. As they advanced they began to sink into the ground as if they were wading into deepening water. A moment more and they were gone.

 

“To the lake,” Moth cried. “Follow me.”

 

Will and the others hurried after the archer, down the tunnel of reeds. In a few moments they were at the lake shore, the water lapping at their feet. A little way from the bank floated a raft of woven twigs and branches covered in thick moss, like a tiny island. Moth urged them on and everyone quickly leapt across the gap. The raft held them solidly but there was barely enough room for everyone. When he had joined them, the archer took up one of two long wooden poles lying across the middle of the raft and shoved away from the shore. 

 

Finn helped Will down onto the soft, mossy surface of the raft, then took up the other pole. The raft drifted slowly out into the lake and then seemed to catch a current that moved it more swiftly into open water. Shade stood at the trailing end of the raft and growled at the receding shore. There was no sign of the hollows.

 

Rowen and her grandfather crouched beside Will.

 

“Are you hurt?” Rowen asked anxiously.

 

Will struggled to answer, but no words would come. His body was cold and lifeless, as if icy slush was running in his veins. The only thing he could feel was a throb of agony in his heart. His friends had saved him, but they had taken him from her.

 

Rowen turned to Moth.

 

“Can you do anything?” she asked.

 

Moth turned and looked at Will. For a moment the archer’s dark face, shadowed in the twilight, reminded Will of the woman’s. The archer’s eyes even seemed lit from within by the same pale, unearthly glow.

 

 

Will stirred, struggled to get away but found he could barely move. Moth noticed Will’s fear, and nodded as if he understood.

 

“I am not one of them,” he said gently. “Don’t be afraid.” He knelt at Will’s side and put a hand on his forehead.

 

“The power of the hollow is still working in you,” he said. “It will take some time to fade. Rest now. You are safe from them here.”

 

Shade ceased growling, padded swiftly across the raft to Will and sat beside him. Will reached out a shaking hand and stroked the wolf’s fur.

 

Pendrake stood and turned to Moth.

 

“You saved our lives, old friend,” he said. “Thank you.”

 

“The danger is far from over,” Moth said. “Your pursuer is the one who set the mirrors in the Wood. Morrigan and I picked up his trail there at last and we were following him. We guessed that he was after you.”

 

“The wisp I sent to throw him off ….” Pendrake began.

 

“Found me, and led me to the knot-path.” Moth reached within his cloak and brought out the wisp, which bobbed and danced on his palm. Pendrake searched for his waylight and opened it. Sputter darted inside and its light swiftly dimmed and went out.

 

“You can find the knot-paths?” Rowen asked.

 

“They are usually invisible to me, but Will had just opened the way, and I was able to slip through before it vanished again. I lost your trail in the bog, found it, then lost it again. You were doing a fine job of eluding any pursuers.”

 

“We almost lost ourselves,” Pendrake said drily. “But we’ll save that tale for later.”

 

“Morrigan and I arrived at the lake not long ago. Morrigan had seen that the hollows were near and they were closing in on you. Since we once lived in this bog for a time, we knew of a way we might escape them.”

 

The raft was moving swiftly now, and Moth stopped poling.

 

“I have met others like you,” Shade said to the archer. “Long ago. They had arrows like yours, that could pierce the shadowshapes.”

 

Moth looked closely at the wolf and then spoke a few words in another language. Shade’s ears perked up. He replied in the same tongue and bowed his shaggy head.

 

“One of the Companions,” Moth said, his eyes wide. “There is clearly a tale here. But it will have to wait, too, like Master Pendrake’s. Until we decide what is to be done.”

 

They heard a loud cawing overhead and then Morrigan swooped down. She alighted on the tip of the pole that Moth held at arm’s length, and folded her wings. The raven and the wolf stared fixedly at one another, and for a moment it seemed to Will that they were two ordinary animals, each uneasy about this other creature close at hand. Then Morrigan cocked her head at Will and the others as if to comment on their strange choice in travelling companions. She hopped onto Moth’s arm, leaned toward his ear and spoke in her odd language of croaks and clicks.

 

“The hollows are still at the shore,” Moth said when the raven had finished. “Waiting for the one that leads them.”

 

“I hope you have more of those arrows,” Finn said.

 

“They will not stop him.”

 

“Whoever their master is, he discovered the secret of the snugs,” Pendrake said.

 

“Yes, I found one with blood runes carved into its door,” Moth said. “Ancient spells of great power. There is no doubt any more. It is the Angel that hunts you.”

 

“After all this time … ” Pendrake began.    

 

“He has returned,” Moth continued, and his hand went to the hilt of the strange black sword at his hip. “You escaped him through the knot-path, but he must have sent the hollows on ahead, as if he knew or guessed which way you were going. I did not sense his presence in the bog, but I fear he is not far away.”

 

He whispered a word to Morrigan, and with a flap of her black wings the raven lifted from his shoulder and flew off in the direction they had come.

 

“I’ve heard of this Angel,” Finn said, “but always in the oldest stories. I thought he had been destroyed ages ago.”

 

“So it was thought,” Moth said. “I knew him once as Lotan, a traitor to his people. After the city of my people fell, his own slaves rose against him, returning hate for hate. They feared he might come back even from death, so they cut off his head, burned his body, then chained it and threw it into the sea. They were right to fear.”

 

“I’ve heard about him,” Will said, and everyone looked at him. “He was …”

 

“A prince of the Shee,” Moth finished, his eyes on Morrigan as she dwindled to a blurry black speck in the sky. “Now he is a lord of the Shadow Realm, where stories fall into darkness. His body was destroyed, but through sorcery he was able to mould dead flesh over the nothingness that is his spirit. He can see like a cat in darkness, run day and night without tiring, without sleep. Steel shatters on his spell-guarded flesh, and fire does not harm him.”

 

He turned to Will.

 

“The Angel does not stop until he has found his prey.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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