Swamp of Phantoms (Part Twelve)

(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)

As Elder Swansow finally returned to his body it was all he could do to stop himself screaming out in agony. His body lay on the floor in the same position in which he had fallen whilst possessing Hansel, but the pain he felt now was far more real than that had ever been. Bruises lined his arms and legs, which ached greatly as he tried to stand. In a moment of terror he wondered if he had spent too long outside of his body, and if it was now rejecting his spirit’s control, as though fighting a disease. The increasing pain seemed to indicate otherwise, but still he cursed the stars for his predicament. They could not hear him, hidden as they were behind a thick veil of darkness.

Panicking slightly he realised he was alone, hidden away in the prayer tent without his apprentice to watch over him. Anything might have happened while he had been gone and he would have been incapable of reacting. The thought chilled him to the core. In any case the lordling Drovalak had insisted that he meet them in person next time and as much as it begrudged his old bones to think about giving up the freedoms of youth he had agreed.

Outside the tent a pair of horses grazed happily on the grassy mounds of the swamp. They seemed oblivious to the Elder’s pain. As he struggled to his feet he could feel tears streaming down his wrinkled face, cold against the night’s chill. He wiped them away, sniffing loudly. He was glad that his nephew was not there to see him in his moment of weakness. He needed to be strong for him, to only ever show the man that he could one day be, if only he dedicated himself to it.

But what of the man you wanted to be, Elder Swansow?

The sage scowled as the words invaded his thoughts. He spat on the ground, saliva mixed with phlegm and blood. He was far from his prime, but service to the sage order demanded nothing short of a lifetime of dedication. For Swansow, and those like him, magic came naturally. They were special and important. He wanted his nephew to share in that importance and be someone his father could be proud of.

Whose father? The boy’s or yours?

‘My… no the boy’s!’ said Swansow realising as his words echoed back to him that he was talking to himself. The world around him was quiet, there was no wind or rain, no chattering crowds, not even the sound of pages turning in the great libraries of the Grand Solitaire… This was true isolation. Old and weak, baying in pain and fear to an audience of none.

Swansow made his way to the tent, legs only occasionally tripping on his robes as they recovered from the detachment of his mind. He grabbed onto the tent cloth, almost dragging it down with him as he stumbled inside. Catching his breath he looked at the stone altar and gasped.

Though little more than a slab of rock, the ancient monument to some prehistoric deity had stood in place for thousands of years, drinking deep of the magic of those that passed it by like a drain filling with water. Altars like this were not uncommon, many had been left by those that walked the lands before man, for reasons even the sages did not fully comprehend. All Swansow knew with certainty was that it amplified his abilities tenfold and that was all he needed to know.

But now as he gazed upon the altar in abject horror he felt nothing at all. He rested his hands on the smooth stone, concentrating as hard as he could but there was nothing there. The well was dry, all the power of the altar had disappeared. Thousands of years of collected power gone in the space of time it had taken to speak to Lord Drovalak and return.

‘Impossible,’ muttered Swansow to himself, looking around for some form of explanation.

Possible.

The words were not even in his mind anymore. They seemed to come from right behind him, spoken straight into his ear by someone who could not possibly be there.

All things are possible.

The words were reacting to his thoughts, returning as quickly as his mind could race. Could it be the gas? That had to be it. A cloud of gas must have blown by the tent while he was gone, breathed in by his body as it awaited his return. But there was no breeze, how could it have reached him? He shook his head, refusing to doubt. He was hallucinating. He had to be.

Swansow allowed his breathing to slow as he tried to remember the incantation for expelling toxins from the body. Normally he would not even need to speak the words, but he could taste his own fear trying to distract him from the task. He knew the dangers inherent to breaking concentration. As he had told Hansel on so many occasions, “a distracted sage is like a dam burst, a torrent of power that cannot be stopped”. He closed his tightly. He had to focus. He had to stay in control.

Without even realising he had opened his eyes he found himself looking down at the altar, tracing his fingers over the crude scrapes cut into its form. They were old runes, belonging no doubt to a language of a people forgotten to time. There was no logic in them, no baseline from which to begin translation. Still, the familiarity of the carvings gave him some comfort. This was real, of that he was sure.

Certainty breeds complacency.

He remembered the phrase; it was one his old master had used to teach him never to take anything for granted, no matter how sure of it he might be. The voice, whatever it was, was tapping into his memories, drawing on old feelings and trying to force them to the surface. It was the effect of the gas cloud, he was sure of it. What else could be so potent?

‘Go away,’ said Swansow. ‘I know myself, I know this place. I am real and you are not.’

‘No, I am real and you are not,’ the voice was tangible now. He could trace its source in his mind, though he dared not turn to face it. It was Hansel’s voice, he recognised his croaky broken tones and yet at the same time it was not him. It was something else, something horrible. He knew that if he turned to face it he would see the boy mutilated or as a walking corpse or some other form of monstrosity.

‘I said go away,’ cried the Elder, a sickening curiosity rising within him, urging him to turn and look. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck prickling against his robes.

He began to crawl forward, facing the gap in the tent where the moon light only just leaked through the suffocating clouds, keeping his back firmly against the altar, the one solid reminder of reality. His breathing intensified and he heard the sound of boots as the speaker drew closer and closer towards him. ‘Please, go away,’ he said, feeling tears pouring down his face.

Then he felt something else, another trickling liquid behind his head, trickling down his neck and over the collar of his robes. It was warm and sticky, and as he looked upon it, he wanted to scream. He leant forward, hoping the trickle would stop but it didn’t. In anguish he turned and looked at the back of the altar.

Bright letters covered its surface, written in something that was exactly the combination of phlegm and blood that he had spat outside not moments ago. The words themselves, written in perfect arcantic script turned his body to ice. It was the same two words repeated again and again: NOT DEAD.

‘Not dead?’ whispered Swansow under his breath. ‘What does that mean?’

‘What do you think it means?’ asked the voice.

In a moment of fear-driven bravado Swansow pulled himself up, backing away from the altar until he could feel the cloth of the tent against his spine. Finally he looked at the figure as it stood completely motionless, like a phantom gazing at him from the darkness that could move only when his back was to it.

‘Who are you?’ asked the Elder, his voice breaking in terror.

‘Who are you?’ repeated the figure, though its head did not move.

The figure stepped forward, its movement so sudden that Swansow could not repress his terror. He screamed, and then looked down as he felt a trickling mess of urine and excretion creeping down his legs. He was shaking now, and his old eyes were wet as much from shame as fright.

‘What do you want from me?’ he asked, his voice feeble.

‘I want your fear,’ said the figure. ‘I want your certainty. I want your power. I want your life. I want not to die and never live. I want not to be dead.’

‘Please,’ pleaded Swansow, ‘I’m just an old man.’

‘So am I,’ said Hansel’s voice. ‘You like to taste other people’s fear, but you forget that yours is as much a delicacy also. So refined, a rare and exotic treat. Tell me son, brother, uncle, apprentice, elder, Swansow, what is it that you fear the most? Is it your father’s fists? Your brother’s disappointment? Do you fear the death that awaits your nephew, or the fact that you have wasted your youth and will die alone, uncared for and mourned by nobody?’

Swansow didn’t answer. Instead he shut his eyes tightly, trying desperately to regain his concentration and shut the toxins out of his system. His eyelids throbbed as he fought to deny the compulsion to look at the nightmare that was fast approaching. It’s not real, he told himself. It’s not real. It’s not reading your mind because it is your mind, you have to fight this.

‘Don’t let me break your concentration, master,’ mocked the figure. It was standing so close he could smell it, a rotten stench that enflamed his nostrils and made his throat fill with vomit. There  was an odd sound that followed it, seemingly out of place. It sounded like the chattering legs of a thousand million insects. ‘Just tell me what it is you fear.’

The Elder bit his jaw, trembling as he did so. His mind was racing, trying to ignore the obvious, trying to avoid thinking about it. Trying to think of anything else than the time when he had been separated from his body, worrying that he might not be able to return to it. That dreadful feeling of separation came back to him, stuck in the void for all eternity with no one to talk to, no one to care for him, no one to even acknowledge he ever existed. Like a bodiless wraith or a phantom.

‘That wasn’t so hard was it?’ said the voice.

Unable to deny it any longer Swansow let his eyes open. His forehead was burning up as his attempt to concentrate on anything solid began to slip away from him, leaving only madness in its wake.

His eyes were beginning to adjust to the half-light and he could now see the figure closely. It was male, and about the same height as the Elder, wearing a cloak concealing all but the figure’s face. A long grey beard trailed from its chin with the hints of silver hairs snaking down across the side of his face. The man was frail, familiar looking, too familiar. He felt his jaw drop, and saw the man mirror it perfectly. He was staring at himself.

‘Good job, master,’ said Hansel’s voice through Swansow’s body.

The Elder shrieked as his head began to burn, the effort of trying to contain his power disrupted entirely by the horror that stood before him. Smoke began to rise from his scalp as his synapses pulsed and seared. His aged brain was on flame, its fragile substance melting away. Suddenly fire burst out from the Elder’s eyes, mouth and nostrils. He screamed and the flame burst outwards, consuming the tent in its blaze. Only the figure, the mirror Swansow, remained unaffected, watching with uncaring eyes.

‘Not dead,’ it said. ‘Now I will live. The Night Locust has come.’

Then Elder Swansow exploded in a ball of furious, uncontrolled energy, red and purple flames scouring the land in a single burst of heat and power that caught everything in its blast. In less than a second the entire area was reduced to ash. Nothing was left but rubble, dust and a circle of ash with a broken stone altar at its centre.

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About A. R. Whitehead

I'm an aspiring author, with a degree in English and Creative Writing. I love books, comics, games and film. My favourite genres are Science Fiction and Fantasy.
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