"Go. Have fun. You've helped me all day."
Ky looked up from the table he was scrubbing, and Mother smiled at him.
"Go," she said again. "Play by one of your brothers."
Ky smiled and hurried over to her, kissing her cheek, before opening the door and vanishing into the night.
It was Harvestend, and the village had been playing games to clean up the fields, and now it was down to the bonfire. They'd started it at twilight, and it was really roaring, now. Ky wanted to see it up close, but remembered Mother had wanted him to stay with one of his brothers.
He saw Gwydion in deep discussion with some Hunters and Leifer, the Smithy. That didn't look promising.
He cast his eyes toward the fire, and spotted Renley with a group of other Woodcutters' sons, throwing things into the bonfire to keep it raging brightly. Ky easily found some children his own age, and for a time, it was spectacular. The stars were bright, the bonfire burned merrily, and he was content.
Slowly, families started to head home, bringing their children with them, and Ky felt fortunate that Renley hadn't sent him home yet. Renley's friends seemed to be enjoying themselves, and would sporadically throw things into the fire. As the last of Ky's friends went home, he found himself curious as to what they were doing, and sidled up beside them. If he called attention to himself when Renley was with his peers, Renley would almost always immediately send him home.
Renley looked right at him, though, and didn't say anything. He was laughing.
Renley's face was open and honest, from his thick eyebrows, to his round nose to the non-definition of his cheekbones or jaw. He looked jolly and pleasant. It was disarming for Ky, who had known mean tricks at his brother's hands. Ky couldn't help thinking, though, that Renley should smile and laugh more. It made a difference.
"It's true! My Grandfather's great-grandfather told the tale, and it were passed down to my Father," one of the boys was saying. He still wore an apron over his tunic, like he'd come from the Smithy's and forgotten to remove it. His hands were black, and several of the other lads had smudges on their clothing from where he'd touched them.
"All right, so that's one theory. The Wood was cursed at least ten generations hence, though, and your grandfather's great-grandfather would mark only six, Jaer," Renley pointed out.
"What of the creatures, though?" another boy put in. He was stocky and muscular. He almost looked like a Dwarf, for he was only a head or so taller than Ky himself. He was beardless, though. So not a Dwarf. Ky had seen a Dwarf, once, who'd come to ask for aid getting back to his caves. He'd had trouble with Wyrms, who were natural enemies to Dwarves.
"Wyrms," Renley piped up, almost like he was reading Ky's mind. "They're like Dragons, only they travel underground, and they spit acid, not fire. They attack when they feel the vibrations of a large party passing over their territory."
"But it'd be suicide to go into the Wood alone."
The conversation steered toward Beasts of the Wood that the boys had either heard of or glimpsed as children. The talking seemed to be very animated, and yet, sometimes laughter would punctuate a story for no discernable reason, or someone would trip over their tongue when telling part of a story. Or the stories just plain didn't make sense.
Also, at seemingly random intervals, a few of the gathered group would duck behind the large woodpile for a spell, and then return a few minutes later. And upon return, there seemed to be a strange, rotten/sweet aroma that Ky couldn't place. He later discovered it was a barrel of celebration punch taken from the adult area, and that these six boys had been busily draining it for hours.
Ky was almost ready to ask Renley if they should just go home, when Renley all but shouted: "Spectres!"
The remaining boys nudged one another in excitement.
Ky was curious in spite of himself. He'd not heard of Spectres. Perhaps Renley was just inventing.
"They're evil spirits of the Wood," Renley said by way of explanation. "They're drawn to fear. The ones who go in and gets too scared is Spectre—is—they're attacked by Spectres!"
Renley laughed for a while, as did the other boys. Ky shifted in his space. What was so funny?
"If they're spirits, they can't hurt you, though," said a boy with a tartan-striped scarf.
"They can bite you," Renley corrected. "Father – Ky's and mine – had a friend came out of the Wood once. 'Truth Spots,' he had. He'd got away from a Spectre."
"I want Truth Spots. Sounds interesting," said another boy – he had his hair shorn the summer previous, and it was shorter than anyone else's in the village, even now. His brother had done it while he slept, wondering if he could card it like sheep's wool.
"We can't," Renley said matter-of-factly, before dissolving into a fit of giggles. "Lads, we—we's so all of us skunk drunk, we won't be afraid of anything. No fear, no Spectres."
"He aren't, Ren. Your brother. Is you, smallish one?" slurred the Smithy's hand – Jaer?
Ky felt uncomfortable under their collective gaze. Renley looked thoughtful. "There's a thought. Ky, do you want to go into the Wood with us?"
It was Clearing Day, and Ky woke up a bundle of dread and apprehension. With no one to mind the cottage, since Mother…since she was gone, now, Ky was expected to go with Father and his older brothers. Which meant Father would go with the other experienced Woodsmen, and Ky would be left to the mercies of Renley and Gwydion.
It might not have been so bad if the three were closer in age. Renley and Gwydion were all right. If they made one another mad, they could sock each other and it was okay. If Ky made either of them mad, and they socked him, it was less okay. He was ten to Gwydion's nineteen, and Renley's sixteen.
Mother said once that Renley was like a tree. He was proud and strong, and immovable. But it also meant he couldn't be reasoned with. If you found a way under Renley's thick skin, he carried the wound a long time.
Gwydion was more or less all right. He was logical and patient. He seldom raised his voice, and had a way of looking at you like he expected a lot from you, and you were falling short. Ky hated to disappoint Gwydion, even though Gwydion was never really the one to get revenge on him if Ky was a nuisance.
Not like Renley. Once, before mother fell ill, a boy went missing from their twin city to the North, two-and-a-half-days' ride away. He'd gone into the cursed Wood without the proper precautions, and no one had yet found him. Father had taken the opportunity to re-warn them all against going into the Wood. They were a long way yet from needing to fell trees within the border of the Wood. And they needn't take unnecessary risks.
It was only a few days after Harvestend, and when Father had asked about if any of his sons had been in the wood, Ky was truthful; he named Renley and some of his friends, and how they'd taken Ky in, as well, and oh, Father'd given Renley such a tongue-lashing; then later an awful lashing-lashing for being so reckless.
Renley had mended, and not complained against the punishment, but it hadn't stopped him from tying Ky to a tree and meting out a cruel lash for lash, later. And not all on his back, either, and there was still a mark on Ky's neck from it.
Gwydion'd fixed him up, then. Apologized for not stopping him sooner. He could do that, sometimes. Make Renley stop. Not always. But sometimes. Gwydion was all angles and sharpness, like he still needed to grow into himself, though he was a head taller than Father. Not at all like Renley, who was starting apprenticeship with Father for Woodcutting this year, and was all bulk, though not fat. He was all muscle. (Gwydion had apprenticed under Awren, the master bowman.)
Ky sat up, deciding there was no reason to sit there and worry himself to death. He'd known this was coming. Watched the snow melt off Mt. Lune in the Northwest, heard the sounds of birds around East Linder. (Not in the Wood. No birds sang in the Wood. Not even crows.) And now, it was the last day of Quickening. Clearing day. Then tomorrow was Mayblossom, and they could start planting.
Ky busied himself getting ready, taking care not to wake Father. Ky used to sleep by his brothers, but had grown an aversion to sleeping next to Renley.
Then, when mother took sick, he'd started making his bed by her. It was the first Clearing without her. She'd not come past Stormfall firstweek. She'd gone to sleep one night after Harvestend, and taken ill, then she'd never recovered.
Ky hadn't made his bed anywhere else but by the bed she'd shared with Father. On the floor by her side. Even after she passed. And no one had said they minded, so he kept doing it. He learned to dress quickly and silently, and have his bed things put away before they were a nuisance.
He pulled a long-sleeved tunic over the one he had already worn to bed, and then, after careful deliberation, his gloves, hat, and scarf. Winter was over, but he would be spending a lot of time out-of-doors today, and it would be cold until the sun came out properly to warm them.
He didn't have another pair of breeches, but he made sure to wear his boots, though he didn't have socks. It was not yet warm enough to go without, and would be dangerous to do so today. But he did have his cloak, hung by the door. It had been a gift from Mother. Though he'd received it after she passed, she had worked on it for a long time, making sure the lining was stitched in neatly, allowing him to wear the cloak in the cold season, without soaking through. It was a dark, spruce green that he thought looked like the trees. He started walking over to it, then tripped, falling flat on his face with a grunt.
"We'd better wake up," Renley grunted. "Ky thinks he'll get a head start on Clearing Day and shirk off early."
"Who's shirking off? I was gonna get some breakfast," Ky grumbled, rubbing his nose and looking hatefully at his feet, where Renley's hand was within casual grabbing distance to trip him.
"Likely story," grumbled Gwydion from under the blankets. "Wait, and I'll come with you. Get your bow. We'll have real breakfast."
Ky couldn't decide how he felt about this. He'd been practicing with his bow, and he was a pretty good shot. He'd love to have hot game over a fire for breakfast instead of cold quail again. It would be a grand beginning to Clearing Day, but he would have to hunt with Gwydion, which was hard – Gwydion was a Master Archer, now, and Ky was just a novice.
In the end Ky nodded, and traded his soft, woolen gloves and scarf for his bow and quiver. He needed more arrows. Clearing Day meant lots of wood to use for shafts, which he hadn't perfected, but he had been working on arrowheads. He had been gathering stones and taking them to the Smithy all winter long. Father had said he could apprentice there in a few years, if he could show that he was able to learn the craft. Ky liked the Smithy all right, but not his current subordinate, much.
Leifer said that if Ky could master shaping stone arrowheads, he'd maybe let him trade for a metal one. Stone arrowheads were good enough for hunting the small game Ky could track, though they dulled quickly, and weren't as durable as the metal ones Gwydion had.
Ky had proven a quick learner. He had an eye for details, and was soon criticizing his own flawed arrowheads without having to show them to Leifer. Renley said what a shame it was Ky couldn't try to learn in Ingram or Kingsbury, but Ky had dismissed the idea entirely. Here was where he needed to be. Here was where Mother's spirit had left the world to go to the Summerlands, here was where his memories were, and here was where he wanted to be. He didn't need to learn letters or numbers to apprentice with Leifer, or Father, for that matter. Or Gwydion. And it was enough for him.
Ky didn't have long to wait. As Renley started putting bed things away, and Father went to the wash basin to splash water on his face, Gwydion was pulling on his boots, ready to greet the world. He tossed Ky his cloak, then pulled his own on, and they were off, stalking to the border of the village, through a thin copse of trees to pick a place quiet enough to wait for some game. It had rained last night, and the ground squelched oddly when they stepped through certain patches of grass.
Ky liked to watch Gwydion concentrate when he hunted. He kept a bow on the string, and Ky hurriedly copied him, on the lookout for something large enough or numerous enough to fill their bellies for the big day.
After a stretch of time, all they'd seen were tiny birds, no bigger than Ky's small fist, not worth shooting at. Gwydion suggested they loop back around the edge of the village and try their luck somewhere else.
Ky could feel it, like a bucket of iced water down his back, when they went from stepping quietly through the trees behind the village to stepping quietly through the trees of the Wood. There weren't the songs of birds, or the chattering of voices. And Ky could feel his heart hammering in his chest, valiantly though he tried to ignore it. Fear was not good to have, in the Wood. It drew the fell creatures to you like a beacon.
"Gwydion," he said in a low voice. "We crossed into the Wood. Let's turn around."
Ky was ignored. Gwydion was hunting. Not speaking. Then: "Fear is a state of mind." And then he turned and looked at him. It was the same way he'd always looked at him. Measured. Even. Like Ky was somehow being tested, but coming up wanting.
Ky frowned, and raised his arms from where he'd lowered them. One arrow on the string. His heart beat a frantic pattern in his throat, and he didn't say what he was thinking. Fear had nothing to do with logic or thinking. Gwydion was wrong. Fear was an emotion. Like Sadness. Like Love. Like Anger. Gwydion could well tell him to stop loving his Mother because she was dead.
Perhaps, though, it would be different. He had nothing to be afraid of. Gwydion was not like Renley. He had nothing to be afraid of.
Ky was herded among the six older boys when he didn't answer. The warmth of the bonfire left him, but the smells lingered – the smoke from the fire, interred into their clothing, and that bitter, rotten, sweet smell was so much stronger, now that he was within such close range of all of them. He didn't think it would come to much; he'd never crossed the barrier into the Wood. Never been tempted. He thought it unnatural that there was never birdsong, never woodpeckers, never game to be found therein.
Nevertheless, he could feel it when the border was transgressed. Like a stone had dropped into his stomach. There was such an utter silence; it wasn't possible. Even now, he should still be able to hear the crackling of the bonfire. The crickets he knew were but a stone's throw away. He was left with the sounds of his own breathing, and that of six wobbly boys, and his heart thudding louder and louder in his ears.
He wanted to go back. This place wasn't right. It was Cursed. It was wrong. It was horrible.
"Oy, Spectres! We gots a lad 'ere. Scared. Loads scared! Come on out to greet 'im!" sang-shouted the voice of one of the six Ky hadn't heard speak, yet. His hair was a dark brown, rather than black, and he'd started growing a fine chin-beard-thing. His voice cracked and strained as he raised its volume.
"He aren't scared enough, Ren-Ren. Lad, what scares you? You needs to be scared, hear?" This from Jaer, the Smithy's keep. He brought both hands to Ky's cheeks, and Ky wondered if he had sooty handprints on his face, now.
"He hates being in trouble," Renley said, honestly considering how to make Ky more scared than he was already. "Hates getting punished."
"Is he licked, lots?" asked the boy with the short hair. "I was mighty scared of lickin's when I was small as him."
"Father doesn't lick us," Ky interrupted. He tried to sound bold. Arrogant. "Not unless we do something dangerous."
"Rest easy he'll lick you bloody for coming in here without permission," said the boy with the scarf.
"And if you decide to tell tales about us, we'll lick you twice as bad," growled the short one Ky had mistaken for a Dwarf.
"Threats don't work," Renley offered. "Annoying, actually."
"How about examples?" Jaer demonstrated his meaning by landing a sucker-punch to Ky's stomach. Ky doubled over, breathless.
And then it began.
There was such a flurry of hands and fists and pushing and pulling and punching, he couldn't guard against any of the blows. He saw and tasted blood, coppery in his mouth, and felt fabric tearing from the force of being pulled in two different directions. He might have tried to fight back. 'Try' being the main word, because he was ineffectual as a grain of sand in the wind. He might have screamed. Cried out. He didn't know.
Everything was in too much of a haze for him to specify where he hurt. Instinct told him to get out. Get away. But escape was not possible. He was helpless. A child, all alone here with these monsters. Anything they wanted to do to him, they could. And Renley was a part of it. There was no intervening on his behalf.
And it hurt. It hurt so terribly.
Then it stopped. Ky was huddled on the ground, at the foot of a tree. He couldn't move.
They were saying something, again. He couldn't understand their words. His heart pounded in his ears, drowning out sound. It was better, even now, than the oppressing silence of the Wood. He wanted desperately to sleep. Sleep and wake up to realize it was all a terrible nightmare.
The idea of closing his eyes in the presence of these Beasts was repellant. He was terrified. More scared than he'd ever been in his life. He struggled to remember; something tried to come into his thoughts. It was there, niggling. Something about fear. Fear being bad.
One of them came closer. Getawaygetawaygetawaygetaway. Ky made a sort of whimpering sound. Warmth overcame his eyes, and tears dripped, unchecked, down his face. Words washed over him, not entering his ears. Not entering his mind. Questions and suggestions, slurring and wobbly. A hand gripped Ky's arm, pulling him to a sitting position. He slumped heavily against the tree.
Gods, that smell. It pervaded his nostrils. Words. Gentle. Coaxing. A hand, brushing his hair out of his face. Pushing up the sleeve of Ky's muddy tunic. Ky tried to force his eyes to focus. He looked blearily at the boy through teary vision. A too-wide smile.
Pain sharpened Ky's concentration, as the boy brought his smiling mouth to Ky's arm and bit down into the skin between his wrist and elbow. Blood immediately bubbled up, dripping lazily onto Ky's knee, and he heard himself scream.
Six wide-eyed Woodcutters' sons looked on in confusion and horror. The Spectre had come, after all. They had not noticed the seventh boy in their number until it had Ky cornered at the tree.
"You were right, Renley, secondson of Lycorus of East Linder." The thing didn't remove its mouth from Ky's arm. It bit harder, if anything, but Ky felt the voice wrenched from his own throat, and with it a clarity that he had lacked, while the beating ensued. "Your liquid courage robs you of fear. You have summoned the Spectre from the heart of the Wood, and it has appeared. Will you not ask your questions?"
Gwydion paid mind to their surroundings again. He disappeared for a moment behind some trees, but circled around the other side. Ky made sure to keep him in sight, then. Gwydion seemed to be tracking something. Maybe a Rabbit? Ky couldn't see it, but Gwydion wound through trees quickly, avoiding the squelching grass for favor of the ground beneath the trees. At this section of wood, the trees were thicker, and the ground was packed hard and dry, offering silence of foot.
And suddenly, Gwydion's shoulders tensed. "Did you hear that?" he growled, spinning to point his arrow toward a sound he'd heard.
And Ky's heart thudded all the harder. Because he did. He heard it. A voice. It was nearby. Calling his name.
Ky brought his string back, pointing his arrow toward the sound. It was a man's voice. Straining. Desperate. He readjusted his grip on the bow with his left hand, trying to accommodate the way he'd started shaking. Spectres could look like men.
"Ky! Answer me! Ky!"
Ky took a step back, his shaking hand fighting to keep from loosing his arrow too soon. Archery was a waiting game. Patience. He could be patient. Like Gwydion.
Gwydion was focused, looking in the direction of the shouting, which was coming closer. It didn't sound like Leifer. Nor Father. Nor Renley.
"Ky! Gods, please! I can't lose you!"
Ky gasped aloud, barely holding onto his arrow as his fingers fumbled. He knew that voice. He stepped back again, and turned his arrow. Pointed it at Gwydion.
Gwydion seemed surprised. Angry. "Ky, he's coming! What are you—"
Gwydion burst through the trees. Relieved. Confused. He quickly drew his own bow taut, pointing it at…Gwydion.
"Ky, that's…that's me…what is this?" panted the newcomer Gwydion, barking the last part of his question to the first Gwydion.
"Spectre," Ky mumbled. He hadn't even meant to speak. He kept his arrow trained on the first Gwydion; the one who'd been beside him when they heard the shouting. He tried to make his hands stop shaking.
"Why do you…why do you look like me?" demanded the first Gwydion. "Ky, why are you – "
"Don't speak to him, Ky," interrupted newcomer Gwydion. Ky took another step back, into grass that squelched, and it surprised him. The first Gwydion responded in kind, taking a step back out of the grass, into the first patch of damp earth that Ky had seen since they'd been in this section of the Wood, where the trees grew close together.
"Don't give orders, phantom, or whatever you are," snarled first Gwydion. "Don't talk to him –"
"Silence, apparition!" interrupted newcomer Gwydion again. He took a step closer to both of them. Ky hesitated, turning his arrow on newcomer Gwydion.
"Shoot him, Ky," first Gwydion said forcefully. His bowstring was taut, his eye focused on newcomer Gwydion.
"Ky, no, it's me!" newcomer Gwydion said desperately. Pleadingly. His arrow was pointed at first Gwydion, but he turned both eyes to look at Ky.
Ky felt his breath hitch. He closed his eyes. If he was going to shoot anyone, he would have to be very certain it was the right one to shoot. He had to think. He had to think.
"Ky. We can't just stand here indefinitely. Shoot him," the first Gwydion insisted.
"No, Ky! Please! I'm Gwydion! Me! We were separated! You have been following an imposter! He's not me!"
"You followed us! You came, shouting his name!"
Ky opened his eyes. He took another step back.
The newcomer Gwydion slowly took a step forward, toward Ky.
The first Gwydion took another step back.
Ky whirled his bow to back to the first Gwydion and let his arrow fly. Newcomer Gwydion did the same. Ky let out a sob he'd been repressing. A few fat tears fell down his cheeks.
The first Gwydion screamed and dropped his bow.
But the scream.
It started out fine. It sounded like Gwydion, and Ky's heart stopped beating, and he was terrified he'd chosen wrong. Then it rose in volume and intensity until it didn't sound human, anymore. Ky could hear the scream in his chest, right alongside his rapidly hammering heart.
The real Gwydion took four strides and stood slightly in front of Ky, another arrow notched and ready. Protecting him from danger. Ky slumped to his knees in relief.
"Well met, Ky of East Linder," the Spectre said. The voice was still part scream, but it was not Gwydion's voice. It wasn't even human. If a rabbit gave a dying scream and that scream was actually someone's talking voice, that was the voice of Spectre Gwydion's. "What gave me away?" Its eyes bored past Gwydion, looking straight at Ky. It smiled, but it was too wide. The teeth were stained red. It asked him a question because it knew.
"Y-you…you d-didn't look…look at me like Gwydion…does," Ky felt the words come out of his mouth as if forced, talking around sobs that hadn't stopped. He didn't want to answer, but felt compelled to. He'd suffered from Truth Spots once before. When had it bitten him? And where? "And…and you d-didn't m-make footprints in the mud," he added. In the spirit of being completely honest.
"Don't talk to it, Ky. It's cursed," Gwydion growled, his arrow steady. Not shaking.
The thing turned to look at Gwydion, and its shape shifted. It…Gods. It was Mother. But she still had Gwydion and Ky's arrows sticking out of her at cock-eyed angles, in the same places they'd shot when it looked like Gwydion; one sticking out between its top two ribs, the other right where the heart would be. "But he must answer the question. He must be truthful." Mother's eyes went hard. "You have earned a question apiece for seeing through me. Ask."
Ky tried to concentrate. The voice was normal, now. Gods. The voice was Mother's, and Ky wanted to close his eyes and drink it in. But then it smiled again. And the smile was too wide. And that thing was not his Mother.
"What are you?" Gwydion's question startled Ky's thoughts. Gwydion's resting arrow, though, had trembled slightly, and he adjusted his grip on his bow, pulling the bowstring back, the arrow-shaft even with his cheek. He was shaking. Afraid. Like Ky. That wasn't good.
The monster pulled the arrow out of its heart and threw it on the ground. "I am a result. I am a monster. I had a name, once, but it was erased long ago." A cheeky grin. "Your kind seems to like calling me a Spectre." The voice was lilting. Pleasant. Mother. And yet cruel. It was hypnotizing, but in a terrible way. Partly because the things she was saying were not things Mother would say. The thing had Mother's voice, but not her cadence. A song meant as a lullaby sung in a scream.
"What a horrid waste of a question," the Spectre criticized. "I shouldn't have even given you one, Gwydion. But I'm feeling particularly giving, today. I do love biting young boys. My turn for a question! What form could I take to be the most terrifying to you, Ky of East Linder?"
It looked down at Ky again, and Ky looked away. He still had tears on his cheeks, and he couldn't stop his hands from shaking. He was trying in vain to swallow his sobs. Calm his fear. But as before, an answer was coaxed from his lips against his will. "R-Renley on b-bonfire night."
Gwydion took his eyes from the Beast. Looked at Ky in surprise. "Don't answer it!"
"I have to," Ky moaned.
"Good choice," the monster's voice changed again, as its appearance shifted, as well. It was Renley…but more so. It was taller than Renley really was. And for the first time, there was a smell. Smoke and dead leaves and a rotten-sweet smell that Ky despised and associated with Twirlleaf endday, when they met as a village for Harvestend. "The power of fear is in the senses," not-Renley said simply. Its dark hair was messy and coming out of the cord that held it back. Its clothes were muddy, and slimy leaves stuck to its boots. "What you see…"
It vanished. A whisper cut through the air. "…and what you do not see."
The whisper pierced Ky to the quick like an arrow. He couldn't breathe. Where was he? Where had he gone? Ky turned and looked around them, feeling uneasy among these trees where there were lots of places he could hide.
"Let the boy alone," came an uncertain, wavering request. It was Jaer.
It wasn't Renley.
He seemed distressed, to see Ky at the mercies of this Beast. An intercession, come at last, albeit too late.
"Why shouldn't I use this boy, Jaer of East Linder? You used his fear to your own ends. I do not belong to this world. I cannot inflict any harm upon him, outside the side-effect of my tasting his essence. Left to your use, this boy would have been shattered, body and soul," Ky's voice was scathing and cruel. The Beast used its tongue well, even if that tongue was Ky's, who had never felt such eloquence pass his lips before. "And he an innocent. He knows not the darker uses you had in mind to encompass him with fear. He would not have coped well. He would not have understood. I understand. I control him now. Do you dare challenge this vessel?"
There was no trace of the wobbliness, nor the giddiness in the six boys, now. Ky wondered at the change in their countenances. He supposed they'd finally found some fear, after all. He wondered, then, what they would have done. If the Spectre hadn't come. How could it have been worse? Like the thing had made him say? Would they have killed him? And then he gave his voice over again.
"Listen well, Beings who would command the Beasts of the Wood. I was lured here by fear, and I depart with a warning. There is powerful magic in this child. I will not consume his essence this day, for I can see his future. His seed will bring many souls into this domain. I can guarantee, however, that no such mercy will be granted to any of you. If ever you have the misfortune of housing fear in your heart when again you venture in the Wood, your lives are forfeit to my kind."
There was a loud CRACK, then, and Ky blinked.
He was in front of the bonfire. The six older boys were standing in a circle, in loud, merry conversation.
"It's true! My Grandfather's great-grandfather told the tale, and it were passed down to my Father," Jaer was saying. He made wide gesticulations, and it seemed to put him off balance.
Ky frowned. This had…this had happened already. He took a laborious step, about to be mindful of his injuries…only to discover he had none. Except…he pulled up the sleeve of his tunic, looking at the place the Spectre had bitten him. Rather than the gaping wound Ky had expected, a round, purpling bruise had formed, and small, dark spots surrounded it. Truth Spots? Was this what having Truth Spots was like?
"All right, so that's one theory," Renley was telling Jaer again. "The Wood was cursed at least ten generations hence, though, and your grandfather's great-grandfather would mark only six, Jaer."
"What of the creatures, though?"
Ky looked up sharply, hiding his bite back under his sleeve. The conversation followed a familiar route. Wyrms, Fire-Beetles, Were-Wolves, Moroi. An argument about the difference between a 'Beast' and a 'Being.' Random intervals where one of the six would go behind that woodpile to drink that foul drink, and come back bearing that Gods-awful smell.
Ky realized it was the drink that the Spectre had talked about. It had…it had taken their fear away. So they'd needed to use Ky's fear. And make sure he stayed afraid. Hadn't it said as much? They'd used him for his fear, just like the Spectre had used him for his voice?
Just like how they would have used him for entertainment, had the Spectre not come.
Ky felt shaky again. Gods. They…they would have killed him, given the chance. Maybe something worse. What had it said? That Ky'd be 'shattered body and soul.'
"Spectres!" Renley crowed. "They're evil spirits of the Wood. They're drawn to fear. The ones who go in and gets too scared is Spectre—is—they're attacked by Spectres!"
They laughed as Renley slurred and stumbled over his words. It was a game to them. He didn't think they were funny at all. They…they had hurt him. Renley…Renley had egged them on. Told them how to make Ky afraid. It was unfolding again, and Ky had no doubt that it would unfold exactly the same way. Renley would sell him out. Help them hurt him.
"If they're spirits, they can't hurt you, though."
It was as though the fire had suddenly gone out for Ky. He felt a sort of clarity, and it was like a physical cold wind, regardless of how close Ky stood to the still-popping bonfire. The Spectre had spoken truth. It was a spirit. It left no marks on his body, except for the side-effect of its bite. The same was not true of these boys.
"They can bite you," Renley said predictably. "Father – Ky's and mine – had a friend came out of the Wood once. 'Truth Spots,' he had. He'd got away from a Spectre."
Spectres could see the future. Ky suddenly doubted very much that Father's friend had 'gotten away' from the Spectre, as much as the Spectre had allowed him to go. Just like Ky.
"I want Truth Spots. Sounds interesting."
Ky watched the effect of the simple sentence. In their cloud of false bravery, boosted by the celebration punch, all of them sincerely thought it would be a fun idea to encounter a Spectre.
He felt eyes on him, and looked up, seeing Jaer considering him. Seeing him, for the first time.
Renley opened his mouth to speak – to tell the others they were all of them much too drunk to feel fear.
Ky beat him to the quick. He wouldn't stand by and let it unfold again. He remembered for a reason. He could stop it happening at all. "I have Truth Spots," he stated, pulling up his sleeve and exposing his arm in the firelight. He felt their eyes on him, and it was uncomfortably familiar.
"Is it real? Or is he joking, Ren?" Jaer asked uncertainly.
"It's real," Ky answered. "The Spectre looked like one of you. Someone from the village."
"What do Truth Spots do? Do they hurt?" this from the boy with the once-shorn head.
Ky remembered him smiling when they'd all started pummeling him.
"They make you tell the truth," Ky's mouth answered. "They don't hurt. When the Spectre bit me it hurt."
"So you're saying Spectres are real? That one bit you?" Renley asked skeptically. He reached his hand out to Ky's arm, as if to touch the bite, or study it closer. Ky stepped backward, pulling the sleeve of his tunic back down. None of them would ever touch him again, if he could help it.
"Yes, Spectres are real. The one that bit me said that if any of you go into the Wood afraid, you would definitely be found by Spectres." The words were chilling to Ky, in their truthfulness. "He promised it."
There was a loaded silence. And before anyone could say anything – before anything else could happen, Ky turned and departed their presence. He ran. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him, until he reached his home, where, without explanation, he sought out his mother's embrace, trying to forget the hands that had done him invisible harm, and the Beast who'd showed him more mercy than six monsters.
"Ky, stay by me. Can you ready an arrow?" Gwydion's command was gentle, but firm.
"Yes," Ky said aloud, reluctantly. He stood, and his fingers felt stiff as he shakily pulled another arrow from his quiver. He brought his shoulder to his face, wiping tears away. He could at least try to act through his fear, like Gwydion was doing.
Gwydion was silent. Thoughtful. "You are scared. I am too," he said. It was a statement, not a question. Then: "Do you have to answer questions? Is that it?"
"Yes," Ky breathed.
"Did you want to go into the Wood with us? Tell the truth, Ky."
The question was in Renley's voice, and sounded like it came from the trees themselves. Another answer was coerced from Ky's mouth. "N-no."
"But you don't even mean it. No wonder they forced you along," Renley's voice turned harder. Cruel.
"Why do you have to answer questions? Can we defeat it?" Gwydion had relaxed his arrow slightly, not knowing where to aim, if the voice was the trees.
"He bit me," Ky answered obediently. "I don't know how. But now I have Truth Spots. I…I don't know if it can be defeated."
"You were very lucky," Renley's voice sang from the trees. "Hardly anyone in this generation has bested a Spectre more than once."
"You met a Spectre when Renley took you. How did you escape it then?"
"It let us go. Said – it said it saw my future. Something about magic. And using me."
"You will grow up in this village, Ky of East Linder. You will never leave it. You will apprentice under a Magician. You will have a son. Your son will be a powerful Vessel. He will travel through my Wood unable to be affected by Magic, dark or otherwise. But he will bring companions. Delicious companions from all wakes of life. Your essence is delicious, Ky, but your son! I cannot resist to taste of such a Being. I will not take you this day."
Renley's voice sounded powerful as it decanted Prophetic visions from the trees, but then like silk as the last words were whispered in Ky's ear. Ky jerked violently as Renley's arms encircled him from behind, trapping his arms by his sides, his bow fallen uselessly to the ground. Ky still held the end of his arrow in his right hand, and he kept a grip on it as he struggled for freedom, and the Spectre squeezed him tighter. Gwydion had pulled his bowstring taut, and Ky closed his eyes, not wanting to wince and discourage his brother from taking a shot if he saw it. He trusted Gwydion's archery.
"You had a cut on your neck. Here," Renley's voice was casual, even as Ky strained against the Spectre's iron grip, and Ky recoiled as notRenley blew on the healed cut in question to point it out. As if Ky didn't know it was there. "Renley whipped you. This was a wound of hatred. He felt you told a lie to get him and his friends in trouble."
"I didn't lie! I had Truth Spots, I couldn't lie!" Ky argued stupidly. As if it mattered to argue the point with the Spectre, who knew the truth. But the words were in Renley's voice.
"I do wish you'd ask your question so I can get on with devouring your brother's essence," the Spectre's voice took on a harsh edge that Ky had never heard in Renley, and it raised the skin on the back of his neck to have that voice in such close proximity to him.
Ky was nearly deafened by another ungodly scream ringing in his ears, and he managed to break free as the Spectre's grip slackened, opening his eyes. Gwydion had found an opening, and shot the Spectre right in the neck.
"It follows rules, Ky," Gwydion said calmly, another arrow already on his string as he moved once more to stand between Ky and the Spectre. Between his brother and danger. An intercession. "It won't attack me until you ask it a question. You earned it, it said."
"What are the rules you are governed by that make it so mortals can defeat you?" Ky asked boldly, not quite daring to retrieve his bow from where he'd dropped it.
The Spectre's form wavered. Its new form was an older man, with grey in his hair and beard, but the hair was red, not black. A Kingsman. He wore a crown.
Ky's mouth dropped open. "Gwydion…I think…I think it's the High King," he murmured.
The king's voice spoke, but echoed. He did not sound happy.
"Listen well, thou fools who seek to outsmart Fate. I do not give away the secrets of my kind lightly. Spectres do not belong to this world, but neither do they belong to the world beyond. They may stay here, speak, be seen, travel, only through a diet of the essence they take from Mortal souls. Partaking of a Mortal's essence gives continued existence to Spectres, and the side-effect on Mortals is a small case of what is known as 'Truth Spots,' at minimum, death at maximum.
"Spectres deal in Fear. A Mortal's essence is more substantial if it is afraid, and so a Spectre can use Fear as a tool. Any Mortal who steps into the Wood afraid can be sensed by any Spectre, even if they are at opposing ends of the Wood.
"Spectres cannot harm Mortals. Dealing in fear, however, can bring Mortals to believe they are being hurt, when in reality, the most a Spectre can do is bite. Enough time with a Spectre will eventually shatter the mind, and a Mortal whose essence is devoured completely by a Spectre will then become one.
"Partaking of a Mortal's essence enables a connection to form between the Spectre and Mortal, which is why, when changing form, a Spectre can take the form of someone from the Mortal's memory.
"Spectres do not have corporeal forms. They do not cast shadows, nor leave footprints. They cannot pass into the ground. Being neither dead nor alive, Spectres are not welcome in Realms of Spirit or Death.
"Identifying a Spectre earns the Mortal the right to a question. Spectres have the ability of Sight and Prophecy, and their Prophesies are always correct.
"A Mortal who gains Prophecy from a Spectre earns passage through the Wood, free of Spectres until the barrier is transgressed. But in return, the Spectre giving the Prophecy can affect the Lands outside the Wood in some disastrous way. In a generation hence, a small village will be completely wiped out by poison. It will be the doing of a Spectre. Four generations ago, a woman lived in the Wood, and brought attacking forces to her very door. It was the doing of a Spectre."
The oration ceased, and Ky was startled by the silence. The King glared at him.
"Thou, Ky of East Linder, hast vexed me. Already the victim of a Spectre's curse, and once the victim of a Spectre's intercession, I have a Prophecy for thee."
A child of the sun and moon
Will for a Starling grant a boon
At Curse's end, new Curse's birth,
And helping hands from Sons of Earth
The Dragonsbane, in the early Spring
Will end the age of the Desert's king.
When brave men fall, and cowards fight,
And heaven shines with all its might,
Will wounds be healed, and wrongs made right.
The Prophecy was spoken as if from the trees, again, and the Spectre wrenched Gwydion's arrow from his neck, changing form once more. It was a man, maybe Gwydion's age, with black hair kept much shorter than either Gwydion or Renley. He wore a long-sleeved tunic under a mail shirt and a sage green cloak, much like Ky's own. He wore a Magician's amulet as a pendant, and black gloves that doubled as bracers on his forearms.
"This form is called Tyrus of East Linder," spoke the Spectre in the borrowed man's voice. "You'll meet him in twenty years, Ky, thirdson of Lycorus of East Linder, though he'll not look like this for a while after. Enjoy my present. I thank you for the chance to affect the world outside the Wood." A deep bow, and one last, angry expression, and the Spectre was gone at last.
Ky looked at Gwydion, who gestured for Ky to retrieve his bow. Ky did, and, hardly believing his luck, he started to walk home with Gwydion, having walked away from his second Spectre-encounter with his sanity intact.
"What do you think he'll do?" Gwydion mused, leading through the maze of trees, following paths and markers Ky didn't see. "To effect the world outside the Wood?"
"Something horrible," Ky answered, frowning. "Maybe we can warn the village. To be prepared for…something."
Gwydion nodded, and they weaved through the trees in silence. Without the apprehension of greeting a Spectre looming over Ky's head, he found the quiet of the Woods much less oppressing.
Eventually, Ky knew they'd come back into the village. A fog had appeared, but Ky could hear voices and birds, and it lifted a burden, knowing he was back on familiar soil.
Please let me know what you think! This informs a great deal of the stories of the world I created! I am more than happy to address questions and criticism, so please review and let me know what I did well and what, in your opinion, can be fixed to be better.
I did write this a few years ago, so I've improved a little, since then.