Forest of Visions
Move, Wraith thought to himself, his vision slowly clearing, Just move. Do that first, then worry about what comes next.
The samurai clutched at his side as he walked. In his single-minded motive, he took a heavy step, causing the grass to crunch beneath his feet. He flinched, such a loud step was nearly foreign to him. He couldn’t judge himself too harshly considering how lightheaded he felt.
It was only then that he heard himself breathing harder than he was used to, and he stopped. Reaching with a hand, he moved the top part of his mask upwards, away from his face. Wraith blinked a few times, his eyes adjusting to the dim light within the forest.
Rubbing at his eyes, he gazed at the scenery around him. The trees towered over him, many taller than the buildings he had seen in the great city Meridian, and their trunks thicker than any tree he had ever seen, ‘monolithic’ hardly did them justice. Their equally great branches stretched throughout the skyline, only letting whispers of sunlight through. Yet despite this, the forest scenery was not especially dark. On the contrary, it was as if a dim light emanated from the air itself, softly blanketing everything in an otherworldly glow.
Wraith groaned and leaned against one of the trees, taking a few measured breaths. He grasped at his side, then brought his hand in view. He had expected to see the crimson stain, but was pleasantly surprised to see how small it was. It seemed he had escaped with only a glancing blow. Why then, for such a minor injury, did it feel so much greater at the time?
The memory was so recent and clear, Wraith could easily imagine himself surrounded by the incomprehensible and unknowable architecture of the City of Glass. The reflective surfaces of the buildings, adorned with lights that radiated of their own will, each window and wall perfectly flat and angled. Despite being buried within the surface of the planet, the buildings stretched up, defiantly grasping at the sky. Many theorized that the city had been buried in its tomb for millenia, yet you would never believe it when you see it. Aside from a layer of dust and stray gravel, the city had no signs of age, no crumbling ruins or dysfunctional technology. It was as if everything was simply frozen in time.
Information about this wondrous place might has well have been non-existent, as none of it could be proved. Some said it was formerly a residence for the spirits, but no spirit that could be reached had any memory of it. Besides, what use would the spirits have for a physical city in the human world? Others said the two gods themselves built it, but they were no longer able to answer that question either way, and if they had built it, why did they leave it? Still, others said it was the remains of a civilization that fell to ruin suddenly, with the people living here suffering a similar fate. Although if that were true, where were the residents’ bodies?
The city was littered with corpses, to be sure, but given their state of decay and dress, they were not of this place. Wraith recognized the clothing and features of the people here from cities and settlements he had visited. Some were soldiers or reconnaissance troops equipped with armor and weapons, while others looked to be especially desperate looters seeking new technology or information. It had always been a tempting proposition, to raid the city for its ancient yet unreal technological wonders. A single piece of technology here could drag the technology of the world above by dozens or even hundreds of years. It had done so multiple times already with the Great Leap Forward.
Yet all these current corpses, soldiers and seekers all, had met the same grizzly fate, one that Wraith himself nearly met more than once. In his most recent expedition into the city, Wraith encountered it yet again, and it stole his breath in fright each time: the Shinigami.
Stories of it had spread quickly, told by rattled soldiers and citizens around a campfire or hearth. A figure so monstrous, so the stories told, that it rent the soul itself into pieces, snapping up the unfortunate in four sets of jaws. Other stories told that it claimed entire battalions with dozens of arms, stealing the limbs of others to add to its collection. Yet more stories told that the Shinigami had no form at all, and was instead a wind that cut intruders to pieces.
They were all amusing or terrifying stories depending on your disposition, but Wraith knew the truth of the Shinigami was far simpler. Rather than a monstrous or inconceivable form, the Shinigami more closely resembled a man than people may have realized. It had two arms, two legs, and physically, while it stood a good two or three heads taller than the average man, it looked quite ordinary. It was other factors that made it terrifying.
It was a figure cloaked in shadow that seemed to adhere to its form, like clothes made of smoke that perpetually moved even as the Shinigami stood still. Even though Wraith could make out a figure beneath it, the shadows around it hid many of the creature’s finer details. Among the only things Wraith could see, its fingers seemed sharp as talons, and it peered out through glowing eyes. The first time Wraith had seen them, they had been red, but now they looked green. Was his memory faulty, were his own eyes playing tricks on him, or had they truly changed?
He couldn’t spare a thought for that question now, as Wraith hid behind a corner of a glass building the moment he saw the Shinigami. It was a stone throw away from him, but with the technology he wore, Wraith’s form was rendered invisible, flawlessly blending in with his surroundings. Yet even knowing he was hidden from sight with both terrain and tech, why did this specter stir such terror in his heart? It could not have been the very real threat of death, Wraith had stared that down countless times. The Shinigami did not look especially terrifying, yet it inspired terror all the same, as if it had weaved every nightmare he ever had into a cloth and draped it over itself.
It did not seem to notice his presence as it walked with a slow methodical pace, staring off into the distance. Was it patrolling? Like other times, Wraith had come here to gather information about both the city and the Shinigami itself, but he did not want to stay this close to it for longer than he needed to. Never taking his eyes off it, Wraith took a step away.
Then he heard a crack beneath his foot. Wraith looked down. In his fixation on the Shinigami, he failed to see a pebble scratch underneath the ball of his foot. In the endless silence of the city, it resounded like a charging army. His eyes went wide, and instinctively he ducked down.
Just as he did so, he heard a terrible whistling above, the song of a blade passing over him. Looking ahead of him, he put together that the Shinigami had dashed and sliced where Wraith’s torso was a moment ago. Had he hesitated for even a fraction of a second, Wraith would have been cut in two. The building he had been hiding behind suffered little damage, only one clean cut through the glass, yet it did not shatter. Now the Shinigami stood, elegant blade in hand, barely fifteen feet in front of him.
It looked at its blade, perhaps checking for blood that wasn’t there. Its expression was unreadable, even as it turned around to look at where Wraith crouched. He was still invisible, Wraith was sure of that, but the Shinigami still looked at his position. Could it see him?
Moments passed like days, and Wraith didn’t make a sound, not moving one single muscle even if the Shinigami did. Though it was looking in his direction, the two did not make eye contact, and Wraith came to the conclusion that he was still hidden from sight.
Yet his heart sank a moment later.
Both Wraith and the Shinigami noticed it at the same time: three strands of Wraith’s black hair drifted daintily down inches from his face, severed from his head by the Shinigami’s blade. In the emptiness of the city, they were plain as day.
The samurai and the specter moved simultaneously, the former leaping away to the side while the latter lunged forward with inhuman speed. The Shinigami thrust the blade forward, missing Wraith entirely, but he could not relax. Without missing a beat, the Shinigami effortlessly grasped an ankle of the still-airborne Wraith. Twisting its body, it tossed Wraith like a ragdoll. He slammed into the ground and kept rolling, the impact forcing a grunt from his invisible form.
Using the momentum from his roll, Wraith quickly recovered and leapt to his feet, but the Shinigami was already upon him. Thrusting out its blade once more, it scored a hit, slicing his side. It was a shallow wound, but cut through his armor with unsettling ease. A few drops of blood began to fall from beneath the armor, but Wraith’s adrenaline kept him from noticing.
He continued to retreat and evade attacks in a desperate dance. Even if the Shinigami could not see Wraith, it could certainly discern where he was given the accuracy of its attacks. With grit teeth and wide eyes Wraith nearly lost a limb or his head dozens of times as he kept moving backwards and away from the danger. Each of its attacks flowed into the next without a moment’s hesitation, never affording Wraith an opportunity to counterattack. Not that Wraith would want to, having witnessed the Shinigami nonchalantly butcher scores of trained swordsmen in the blink of an eye. All the while no sound escaped from the Shinigami itself, no voice or cry of effort. Yet Wraith knew that it did make sound, he heard it with his own ears the first day he saw it. Why then, was it so quiet now? He had no time to ponder this.
Suddenly, just as quickly as its attack began, the Shinigami abruptly stopped chasing him. Wraith didn’t cease his retreat quite as quickly, his steps echoing in the city, yet the Shinigami only stared at him as it held its sword at its side.
Wraith could only stare back, dumbfounded and petrified. Neither moved immediately, but he was positive that the Shinigami had not simply forgotten his existence. There was no question now, it met Wraith’s eyes even as it towered over him. He looked down at the space between them, but found no obvious divide or boundary that would have stopped its advance.
He broached the space with a hesitant step, and the Shinigami’s eyes narrowed. The shadows around it flickered like candlelight, growing steadily in intensity. Wraith couldn’t help but gasp as he retreated back three steps further. The Shinigami’s ire didn’t abate, but remained steady, watching the intruder intently. Its gaze was as heavy as a landslide, and Wraith couldn’t move at first.
Finally feeling the blood begin to move in his body again, Wraith departed from the scene without a second glance.
His mind bringing him back to the present, Wraith glanced up at the trees above him. ‘The Forest of Visions,’ they had called this place. Despite the occasional decaying shrine or moss-covered bridge over a river, there were no settlements here, and it was not often people traveled through it. It was entirely possible that Wraith was the only human for miles, which he would prefer given the circumstances.
Finally deciding he had rested enough, Wraith put his mask back on and pressed onward. However he still could not quell his mind. Why had the Shinigami let him go? Why didn’t it follow him? An idea flickered within him.
Is it possible that...that it’s not guarding the whole city, but just a part of it? But why? He sighed, She would know…
A twig snapped behind him, and Wraith spun around, unsheathing a blade from his wrist as he did so. Unlike his confrontation with the Shinigami, his head was clear and focused, his arm steady as a rock. From beneath his mask he studied the area before him, finding nothing.
Just as he believed that it was nothing, he saw something moving. It appeared to be the back half of an animal, large and feline in form, with black fur and an unearthly green glow. It was walking behind a tree and out of sight just as Wraith spotted it, its long elegant tail lingering for just a moment before vanishing.
It was unmistakably familiar, and Wraith’s eyes widened. With barely a thought he chased after it, whirling around the tree the animal disappeared behind. However he found nothing but more of the forest, without a trace of the animal anywhere.
Wraith lifted the top part of his mask again, “Chausi---” he whispered, but was unable to finish the name.
“Dyrus?” a voice inquired behind Wraith, “Are you alright?”
Wraith turned around, finding another individual standing in front of him. He was a young man, barely passing the threshold of a full-grown adult, with shoulder-length black hair. He had an alert light in his eyes, but seem completely approachable despite the knives sheathed along his waist. Around his neck, he wore a scarf of a dark silver which fell to the middle of his back.
“Ren? I…” Wraith brought a hand to his forehead, as though succumbing to a headache. Once he recovered, he looked down at himself. His clothes had changed, his technology-laden armor replaced with gear that was effective but far more rustic. He also had a silver scarf around his neck, tied more tightly than Ren’s to avoid drifting in the wind. Wraith’s face had changed slightly as well, with his features softened slightly as though he were a few years younger.
But despite all of these changes, Wraith didn’t appear to take notice of it, as though he had always looked this way. He simply looked at Ren and smiled a weary smile.
Ren raised an eyebrow, “Are you alright?” he asked, genuinely concerned, “It’s not like you to be staring off into space.”
Wraith looked back the way the animal retreated, “I thought I saw...nevermind. Are we ready to move out?”
“I hope so,” Ren laughed, “Takashi’s getting antsy.”
Wraith sighed, “When that guy’s focused, he’s a force to be reckoned with. But he’s gotta stop getting distracted.”
“I don’t know, I kinda like that about him,” he countered, staring into the distance, “We’re all staring straight ahead all the time, it’s nice to have someone around who just enjoys taking in the scenery.”
“Believe me,” Wraith began, cracking a smile, “There’s one part of the scenery he much prefers.”
Ren looked back, grinning himself, “Shut up.”
No sooner had the two started to chuckle with each other was there a metallic screeching nearby. Just as they stopped laughing to listen, Ren looked at Wraith with widened eyes, and a blade suddenly impaled him in the chest from behind.
Wraith reached out to his friend fruitlessly as the blade lifted him in the air off his feet. Ren could only look at the blade in shock, gasping out a few breaths as blood began to pool beneath him. “R-run,” he choked out, and then was suddenly pulled away into darkness.
Running in the direction Ren was stolen, Wraith’s heart began to drum in his ears, drowning out all sound. He only stopped when a massive flame erupted in front of him, blocking his path.
He looked in every direction, and Wraith’s form once again changed. Now he was no more than a child, lacking armor and weapon, but again he did not seem to notice his changing form. He could only watch powerlessly as the wall of flame began to circle him. Just as his confusion turned to panic, two hands gripped his shoulders sternly.
“Dyrus, You must listen to me!” a woman ordered, kneeling down to get to his eye level, “Grab tightly to her fur and do everything she says!”
“M-mom, what’s happening?” He asked, his voice cracking with fright.
“Say it to me!” she demanded, doing her best to keep composure even as the flames crept closer, “Say what you’re going to do!”
He looked at her, mouth agape in fear. Finally, he spoke, “I’m g-going to hold onto her fur...and do everything she says.”
The woman embraced him, kissing his forehead before scooping him up. She set him on the back of an enormous panther, her black fur contrasting with her green glow that radiated even in the powerful firelight. The woman embraced the panther, speaking in a low whisper as she bowed her head.
“Great spirit, Night Mother and Protector,” she began in reverence, then raised her head to look at the spirit, “Chausiku...please keep my boy safe.”
Chausiku nodded, then solemnly but affectionately pressed her forehead against the woman’s. Without another word the feline took off, the boy on her back nearly losing his grip. “Mom!” he cried as she disappeared from sight.
Barely a moment passed when he began shouting at the spirit, “Chausiku stop!” he pleaded impotently, “Stop, we need to go back! Chausiku, please!”
While Chausiku did not look back, the boy gazed at the flames behind him. Inside the inferno, he could see a figure turn to face him. Even in the dancing red and orange around them, their eyes were clear as day: human in appearance, but with irises of bright yellow. The boy recognized them, clinging to Chausiku once they laid their sight on him. Now more than ever, he wished for Chausiku to turn around so they could face the yellow-eyed individual.
Before he could plead further, cracks began to appear in Chausiku’s back, as if she were made of glass. In another moment, her form shattered completely beneath him, rendered into fragments of black and green stained glass.
The boy fell, the ground replaced with a seemingly endless black abyss. He fell for what felt like hours. At some point, his juvenile appearance gave way to the rustic armor of when he spoke with Ren, and in turn to his modern day appearance, mask and technology with it.
Finally after an eternity, Wraith hit an unseen ground with deafening force. Groaning in pain, he pushed himself to his feet. As he looked around, all he saw was a darkened void, without a speck of detail. He was alone, at least for a moment.
Then in front of him, the impaled form of Ren lay prostrated with a shadowy blade in his back. “Dyrus…” Wraith heard it whisper in pain. Before Wraith could run to his aid, flames licked at his back, turning him around to witness the familiar blaze.
In moments the fire coalesced into a figure, staring at him through yellow eyes. Older now and hardened by battle, Wraith drew his blades, their green glimmer reflecting in his armor. “Dyrus,” the flame-wreathed figure called. It gave Wraith pause, he hadn’t expected it to speak, but he did not drop his guard.
However to his right, a familiar green glow caught his eye. Turning to it, Wraith’s eyes widened as he beheld Chausiku smiling at him. However, she was not how he had last seen her, sporting cracks all over her body. She was so damaged that significant pieces of her were outright missing, as if she were a broken window.
She said nothing, but behind her Wraith could hear his mother’s voice. “Dyrus!” she cried out in fear. A shadow flew over her, landing on the side of Wraith opposite to her. Even before he turned to it, Wraith knew what it was, and his blood ran cold.
He was now surrounded on all sides: the corpse of a friend, slain in front of him; the yellow-eyed person, who stole his life for a purpose he couldn’t comprehend at the time; the shattered form of his protector, a shadow of her former self; and towering over all of them the Shinigami, its terrible presence devouring what little hope still remained. Through them all, the endless cacophony of sounds continued, all speaking his name in every emotion he knew.
Wraith clasped his hands over his ears, shutting his eyes as he tried to drown out the sound. “This…” he whispered to himself.
“This isn’t…” he whispered again. As the sounds beat him down, a force began to emanate from his body. It began to manifest as flames, inky black and deep emerald, which swirled around his form.
He opened his eyes, as if forced open by an epiphany. “This is not REAL!”
With a cry of effort, the flames erupted from him, wiping out the images around him and eventually the scenery of the forest returned. As the multicolored flames began to shrink and fade from his body, Wraith sheathed his blades and took several deep breaths. Eventually he brought a hand to his face and closed his eyes.
‘The Forest of Visions’ was the name they called this place, not oft traveled through and for good reason. So the stories went that many foolhardy travelers would be lost to things the forest would show them, most often people. People they loved, people they hated, people they lost, and people they would meet again.
Some legends are true… Wraith thought. It was not a conclusion he had difficulty digesting. In a world like this, all manner of impossibilities were on the table. If he had to travel through here again, he would have to steel himself twice as much.
When he finally brought his hand away from his face, he found a drop of water on his finger. That did take him by surprise, and he quickly rubbed his eyes. Taking one more deep breath, he brought a hand to his neck, where a silver-colored scarf was tied tightly to him.
Looking ahead of him, he began to walk forward.
Move, Wraith thought to himself, his vision slowly clearing, Just move. Do that first, then worry about what comes next.