The forest was dead, rotten and decaying. The annual cycle of death and rebirth was something to be celebrated, but this was not a natural death, rather it was some form of paralysis: an absence of life. No breeze stirred the branches, no birdsong greeted each morning, and even the insects seemed to have abandoned this place. I held a small withered oak leaf in one pale hand, a paltry memento rescued from a pile of the leaves and plants that rotted in heaps around the husks of wretched trees . Our Wild Hunt was no hunt at all now, it was a funeral march; a procession of mourners. Where there should have been a celebration of life there was just this, this tragedy.
“Elai,” I called out. “Sister.” And she turned to answer me. Her face was hidden by a skull mask made from the head of one of the strange creatures we had encountered a few days past, when the forest still held signs of life and the hunt still held some hope and joy. The dancers had been the first to wear the masks, but now many of the others wore them as well and many of those without masks wore hoods or covered their faces with cloth or leather straps. It was a new ritual born of an abstract sense of shame, as without knowing why we hid ourselves away. To think, in the lands of men they say that elves are vain, they would not recognise us if they saw us now.
“Brother!” the dichotomy between her gentle voice and the grotesque mask made me smile as she replied. “What news?”
There was joy in her voice as I knew there would be and it strengthened me just to hear it. Elai was the most vital of us all and though the forest might be dead she brought life here. It seemed alien, out of place, like an infection but I longed to hear it, and I knew she too drew strength from our conversation. I shrugged, a forced smile. “No news sister, nothing changes here, have you not noticed? Each day is the same as the one before.”
“You are too morose little brother – every day is a new surprise! Will there be rain or mists? Will there be swamps or marshland to wade through?” She laughed, the braids and dreadlocks, matted with vines and leaves that hung from the skull mask swung wildly. I laughed too, this was all we had now to remind us of our home in the great forest of Athel Loren, without laughter life would be unbearable.
The truth was that we had been lost in this dead forest for weeks, the frenzy of the Wild Hunt had lead us to an unexplored path and when the Hunt leads and the scent of blood is in the air, it could be fairly said that caution doesn’t always follow. When the fugue of the hunt had lifted we realised something was amiss, the land, the trees – everything was different here. Even the air tasted different; we had travelled further than we had known, along some shadow path, some ghost trail. At some point during the hunt we had lost our way and we had forged our own path, us few, separated from the rest of our kin. Kurnous – the savage leader of the pack – had abandoned us.
Now we marched, and as we travelled through numberless days and stumbled through half-remembered nights we became children of this new forest. We wore the dead leaves and vines in our hair, and daubed the grey mud on our skin like a faded memory of vivid woad war paint, like the ghosts of the warriors we once were. Our songs were dour eulogies, our music a dirge accompanied by the trudging of our bare feet through the mud. The march became like a trance that we could not wake from. A hundred souls with no food save what we caught or foraged in a place where nothing lived that we could see – how we survived I can not understand. Yet we felt no hunger, made no camps. Time peeled away in flakes, disintegrated and left us to pick through its ashes. I could not tell you if we walked for days or years, nor could I recall more than a few scattered memories dredged up from among the torpor: memories of a few snatched conversations with my sister that had imbued me with strength, but there were also memories that I could not place, of foul wet fur and long slow claws drawn irresistibly across slender, pale necks. I shuddered and tried to think no more of it, all elves know never to underestimate the forest, because the line between hunter and prey was often blurred by carelessness.
Then we came upon the lake. A vast, stagnant backwater that had broken its banks and flooded – a slough of tepid, brackish water as far as the eye could see. Bloated fish were tangled lifelessly in the rotting mangroves at the shore and the skeletal fingers of trees groped up at us from beneath the motionless surface of the murky water. Our leader, the spellweaver Alderai called us to a halt and as one we dropped to the ground, exhausted. There was nowhere else to go. We were horrified to discover that on our long march, some of our number had vanished – perhaps they had become lost or collapsed and we had not noticed, but I remembered the smell of wet fur and a predator’s claws in the night.
At the shores of the great lake we felt afraid for the first time. On the endless march we had felt nothing but an indistinct sense of foreboding, or perhaps a sense of melancholy, as if the march was all that there was left in the world. But now, at the lake it was as if the world had come to an end, and we were there: the remainders of some insignificant tribe that had wandered too far and had breached some barrier, behind some veil where no person was meant to go. We knew, instinctively, that there was no way back and that no-one would ever find us here. And we came to believe that far worse than being lost, we were abandoned.
Alderai stood at the shores of the great lake, he had not moved in some time – hours or days perhaps, for in the misty half light of this blighted place it was hard to measure the passage of time.
“There is life here,” he announced, and his voice was soft and sonorous, but also wet and somehow distant as if he was calling out from somewhere far away. “I can feel it. I can almost touch it.”
Although I was no spellsinger I thought I could sense it too, some vast unknowable thing at the edges of my mind, swimming in the dark spots behind my eyelids. But my thoughts skittered away from it like fingers scrabbling against ice.
“In time I will know it.” Alderai murmured, and renewed his silent vigil at the waters edge. So that was our existence now, and we waited with him, silent and alone, at the shores of the dead water.
My sister said: “This is truly the domain of Ereth Khial. She is out there, laughing at us, the old bitch”. There was humour in her voice, only she would mock the gods at a time like this. I awoke from my reverie to look up at her. She had approached me silently as I sat looking back at the forest – I could not bring myself to look upon the lake. I gripped my mask tightly incase it had slipped, I couldn’t bear for her to see me. Her voice renewed me, a bloom of warm blood spreading out through frozen veins. She cocked her skull mask to one side and I felt her silent regard. I sighed and though my words threatened to get stuck in my throat I spoke. “No sister, Ereth Khial is a children’s story. Our gods don’t come here, not even the mad ones. This is not the Underworld, this is something worse.”
I realised as I said it that it was true, the Black Sloth Hell was real and we had found it, where apathy and frailty – anathema to our kind – held languid dominion. We had found it and now we belonged to it. We were lost and abandoned here at the end of everything.
Did I say it aloud? To name it would surely make it true. I glanced up at her in panic, I had not meant to put voice to my thoughts, in truth I was not sure if I was awake or dreaming, dead or alive.
I saw her tense and could not meet the gaze of the black pits of her eyes, I looked down to the pitiful oak leaf that I held on to like a warding talisman. I knew that I had broken our pact, that she depended on me as much as I depended on her. I silently willed her not to speak because I feared that when she did it would break my heart, that the warmth in her voice would be gone and the cold dark water would seep into my veins instead. I held my breath until she left, a lithe form silently stepping between the rotten roots and twisted bones of fallen trees and vanishing into the shadows and mists.
In time Alderai spoke to us again. “It is here, at the bottom of the lake. It is as old as the great forest, maybe older still, but it is new to this place. It was lost and alone. It called to us.”
At these words I felt the chill in my veins intensify. It had called for us, I had felt it. Whatever it was, however it spoke or thought or felt, this alien thing, lost and alone. And it wanted, needed, for us to come to find it, in the middle of the desolation it had wrought. In my mind’s eye I saw a great dark shape at the bottom of the murky water, impossibly large and incomprehensible in form. I saw multitudinous eyes staring blindly into the depths and I recoiled.
“Don’t be afraid!” Alderai’s voice was stranger still and I realised it reminded me of a man I had seen once, with my arrow piercing his lungs, the blood gurgling and spluttering in his throat as he tried to speak. I realised Alderai had changed physically, he was so tall and thin as to be monstrous and I recoiled, shocked that I hadn’t seen this transformation until now. Distended bones and joints distorted his silhouette into a macabre skeletal puppet as he stood by the shore before us, the last light of day fading behind him, illuminating the mists over the water. He too wore a mask and I prayed that it would never slip as mine had, for all I could see of his face was one wild, bestial, yellow eye.
Behind him, deep in the water, something vast stirred as if waking from a deep and troubled slumber, and the earth groaned in horror.
I felt my sister’s hand on my arm and I turned to look at her. I knew my heart was racing and her touch comforted me and gave me strength, I gripped her hand in mine. When she spoke there was laughter there and for a moment I felt the familiar warm flood of hope. “You see? Every day brings change!” Her words were tinged with hysteria, brittle and sharp edged. She laughed and the skull mask turned to me, the wild braids flailing as she gripped my arm tighter, her body shaking as her voice cracked and broke and the laughter fell apart like shards of broken glass. It was the laughter of madness and I recoiled in horror away from her. “Oh, sister…”
The grinning skull mask regarded me with empty eyes. I knew madness had taken her, that I had failed her and I knew there was no way back for her, not from this. There was no way back for any of us, here in the Black Sloth Hell. Life without laughter would be unbearable I knew, and I felt the convulsions wracking my sister’s body as I hugged her to me. The lake began to bubble and stir, mud sloughed from the banks and trees uprooted, toppling soundlessly into the mire as the ground trembled. When faced with a life such as this, perhaps madness was the only sane choice. I held her tight. We would be broken here together.