In the Lantern’s Light
“You head into the forest with your trusty lantern that’s been enchanted to burn forever. You’re looking for something.”
Laila took a few steps further into the shadowy wood, holding her lantern aloft. Its soft, warm glow didn’t penetrate far into the thick tangle of close-set trees and dense underbrush.
“Tobias?” she hissed, as loudly as she dared in the oppressive gloom. When no answer came, she licked her lips and raised her voice. “Tobias, where are you?”
The only answer was the creak of heavy limbs swaying in the cold wind, and the rustle of dead leaves skittering across the narrow path. The air was heavy with the scent of decaying plants, and an odd muskiness that was hard to place.
Nerving herself, Laila started forward again. She knew that what she was doing was wrong, that it went against the customs of her people, but she refused to abandon her brother. Tobias had been accused of murder, of killing a man he loved like a brother. Protesting his innocence, he had demanded a trial of the Old Way. His wish had been granted.
The path ahead of Laila wove through the forest, splitting and meandering, creating a veritable maze. The light of the lantern she held seemed to create as many dark shadows amid the twisted trees and twining brambles as it banished. Laila felt her heart pounding, and had to wipe her damp palms against her cloak before taking a fresh grip on the lamp.
The lantern was like a lifeline, the only thing keeping back a gibbering terror that threatened to consume her. It was the one item those condemned to the trial were allowed, a light that would burn forever, so long as it was held by a living hand. Stealing one from the gatehouse seemed the least aspect of Laila’s crimes this night. Tobias and she were all each other had now; it had been that way for a long time. She would do anything to help him prove his innocence.
Even if it meant following him into a place from which none had ever returned.
The sharp snap of a twig breaking came from somewhere to her right, causing Laila to jump and whirl to face the noise.
The wall of trees that confronted her gave up nothing, hiding whoever — or whatever — had made that sound.
“Tobias?” She spoke the name as if pleading for mercy. “Is that you?”
Now something did show in the soft light, a hint of motion, a glimpse of a large, dark form, moving close behind the nearest screen of trees. A low, guttural sound came from that barely seen something, a growl that told Laila this was not her brother.
Laila turned and ran, racing down the path, taking turns at random, tripping and stumbling over ferns and creepers that had encroached on the narrow swath of packed dirt. She ran until her breath burned in her lungs and her vision dimmed, but always there was the sound of a massive form crashing through the woods, always just on the other side of a fence of tightly-woven trees.
An opening in the confining wall of greenery appeared, on the side of the path opposite the direction from which the terrifying noises came. Laila turned her steps down this new avenue, desperate to put distance between herself and whatever pursued her.
She had gone no more than a few paces, however, when she crashed into something.
Hands scrabbled at her arms, and Laila screamed, beating at the thing that held her, trying to pry herself free.
“Laila!” a voice she recognized spoke sharply. “Laila, it’s me! Stop struggling!”
Laila let her hands fall to her side, then just as quickly reached out to clutch at her brother. “Tobias, I’ve been looking for you. Did you not hear me, or see the light of my lantern?”
Her brother held her in his strong grip, calming and reassuring her. “No, I heard and saw nothing but the woods about me.” He let go with one hand, and held his lamp aloft. “But there’s something out there, a beast of some sort. It’s been following me all night.”
“It was after me, too. Or another like it was.” Laila glanced over her shoulder, all the terror coming back. “Do you see it?”
She sensed rather than saw her brother shake his head. “No. Perhaps finding us together has scared it off.” He turned his face to look at her. “What are you doing here, Laila? No one is to enter the forest unless to take the trial.”
“I know,” she shook her head, mouth set in a scowl. “But I couldn’t let you face this alone. I loved Raiph as much as you did, and I won’t let them send you to this fate, not without trying to help.”
Tobias sighed. “I should have expected as much, and I can’t say I’m not relieved to see you. Still, you know the laws of the trail. Only one person is to try it at a time. Who can say if the oracle will even reveal himself if two come across him? It might be that you’ve doomed my quest.”
Laila met her brother’s gaze, eyes blazing. “I don’t care. This is a foolish thing to be doing, and you know it. No one has ever passed the trial; no one has ever found the oracle. We should leave this place. We can flee the village, go far away. If we’re together, we’ll make it, no matter what awaits us out in the world.” She clutched at her brother. “They can’t make you do this, Tobias. It isn’t right that you should stand such an ordeal for a crime you didn’t commit. Come away, now, and we’ll never look back.”
Tobias looked away from his sister, brow furrowed and eyes uncertain. He held the look for a long minute, then sighed again. “You’re likely right, Sister. I know my innocence, and so do you. That’s all that matters.” He nodded. “We’ll retrace our steps, and be done with this place.”
Laila’s relief was immeasurable, and left her faint for a moment.
Tobias took her free hand and raised his lantern aloft. Together, they turned back towards the way they had come.
Only to find the path no longer led in that direction.
Before them stood a wall of trees, so thick and intertwined that they could see nothing beyond it.
“What’s this?” Tobias muttered.
“Perhaps…perhaps we’ve gotten turned around,” Laila said. She held her light high. “The path goes off to the left from here. Let’s follow it, and maybe it will head back in the right direction.”
Tobias was scowling now. “I don’t know. This place seems more devious than any forest has a right to be. I think — ”
His words were cut off by a sudden crashing in the underbrush, so near behind them that both brother and sister spun towards it, taking a few steps back. Something was there, just past the trees, growling and snarling, shaking the branches in its eagerness to get through to them.
“Run!” Tobias shouted, taking a firm hold of Laila’s hand and dragging her with him as he took off down the path.
Laila ran with her brother, each of them helping the other to keep moving, even as they stumbled over vines and brambles that crowded close alongside the path.
The way followed a curve around a thick stand of trees. Laila glanced back over her shoulder, certain that she would see the fearsome creature that stalked them.
Instead, she ran into her brother, who had come to an abrupt halt. In the lantern’s light, she saw why.
The path ended, cut off by the encroaching trees.
They had nowhere left to run.
“How can this be?” Tobias said. “Do these woods shift and change at will?” He played his light across the trees, but its soft glow went no farther than the nearest trunks. Setting the lantern down, he stepped up to the trunks before him, pushing against them, trying to find a way through. On the ground, the lantern flickered, guttering and fading.
“Tobias,” Laila breathed his name. “Your lamp — ”
A loud snarl sounded behind them, and as Laila spun to face it, she tripped over a tangle of ferns. Tobias reached out to catch her, but he was caught off balance, and her fall only brought him down with her.
When they struck the ground, the lantern she held flew from her grasp. For an instant, the light flickered, brightening and dimming.
Then darkness fell around them.
In that darkness, Laila heard something, snuffling and growling, growing ever closer.
She scrambled to her feet, one hand clutching her brother, the other groping for her lantern. But wherever it had fallen, it was beyond her reach, and she knew she would never find it in the dark.
“Tobias,” she whispered. “We have to go.”
“What about the light?” She could hear Tobias pawing through the underbrush in search of his own lamp. “We’ll never find the way without it.”
“Perhaps. But it might also make it harder for whatever chases us to find us.” She pushed herself to her feet, dragging her brother up with her, and started forward, one hand outstretched to feel her way in the darkness.
Laila expected to find the wall of trees under hand in seconds, but somehow she encountered no barrier where she was certain one must be. It was baffling, but all she could do was keep moving.
She could not say for how long they stumbled through the gloom, the underbrush catching at their feet, ceaselessly hounded by the sounds of their pursuer, but after a time, Laila noticed a faint light, coming from somewhere ahead.
“Laila?” Tobias had noticed the glow as well. “What is it?”
“There’s only one way to know.” Laila headed for the light.
Within moments, the two staggered into a clearing, roughly circular in shape. The woods pressed close on all side, hemming them in. A glance over her shoulder showed Laila what she had half expected to see: no path lay behind them, only the unbroken fence of tree trunks and brambles.
In the center of the clearing stood a tall post, from which hung another lantern. But this lamp was very different than the ones that they had carried into the forest. Instead of casting a warm, heartening glow, this light was pale and harsh, flickering and faint as the last gasp of breath.
Tobias drew his sister to a halt. “What is this? Have we reached the heart of the forest? Where is the oracle?” He raised his voice to a shout. “Hello! Is anyone there?”
Laila stood rooted in place, fascinated by the lantern that hung before them. Its faded gleam called to her, beckoning her forward. She responded to that call, letting go of her brother’s hand and walking up to the post.
Tobias hung back. “Sister, what are you doing? We don’t know if this place is safe. We shouldn’t touch anything here.”
Laila paid him no mind. Reaching up to the lantern, she drew a finger along its casing. It was clearly very old, its metal rusted and pitted, covered in dust and old cobwebs. Scrawled along its base were faint marks; rubbing them clean, Laila could make out words.
“My light will show what is.”
“Laila!” Tobias hissed. “Come away from there!”
“The oracle…” With a shaking hand, Laila lifted the lantern free of its post.
Suddenly, its light blossomed, growing brighter and brighter, bathing the clearing in stark illumination.
All around them, the woods shifted and changed. The tree thinned out, the trunks straightening and branches unwinding from each other. The thick, tangled underbrush receded, revealing numerous paths wending off into the forest. The entire aspect of the woods altered, the air lightening, the stench of decay fading. In seconds, the darkness and sense of foreboding was gone, and the forest was no longer a threatening place.
Laila felt relief wash over her. They had done it. They had found the oracle, and unraveled the mystery of the forest. They no longer had to fear for Tobias’ life. She turned to her brother, to share her joy with him.
The sight of him brought her up short.
In the lantern’s light, Tobias looked different. His eyes were sunken and red, his skin pale and covered in a sheen of sweat. He flinched away from the light, shoulders hunched. A darkness seemed to cling to him, leaving his features shadowed and unclear. When Laila took a step toward him, he backed away, uttering a low growl.
“Tobias, what’s wrong?” she asked, reaching out a hand.
“Don’t…don’t come near me,” her brother gasped. “That light…I can’t bear it!”
Laila glanced from her brother to the lantern she held. With a shock, she realized what was happening. The lantern’s light showed things as they truly were. The forest was a reflection of those who entered it, turning their confusion, uncertainty, and fear into a maze. The thing that chased them was their own guilt, a manifestation of their culpability, hounding them through the maze. The light they brought with them, their own perception, was not enough to show the truth; instead, they needed to abandon it, and find the light of truth through the darkness.
The forest itself was not a place of evil. There was no darkness here, except that which those who entered it brought with them.
Laila’s crimes, her disregard for the traditions of her people, her theft of the magic lantern, had only been done with the best intentions, leaving her free of any true wrongdoing.
Her brother, however…
“Tobias,” she whispered. “You didn’t…”
“I’m…I’m sorry, Laila,” Tobias moaned. “I loved Raiph…he was a good man. But he wanted you…wanted to take you away from me. You’re all I have in the world. I couldn’t stand that. He wouldn’t listen…wouldn’t understand how he would change things.”
“No.” Laila backed away, tempted to deny what the lantern showed her, but unable to reject the truth. “Oh, Tobias.”
“Please, help me,” her brother pleaded. “Please, take me away from here. We’ll run away, just as you said. We’ll find a place where things can be as they used to be.” He started toward her, hands outstretched in pleading. “Please…”
Laila no longer saw her brother before her. He was changing, become a twisted, tormented creature. Consumed by the evil he had done, pursued by his guilt, he was meant to stay here, to suffer for his crime. Laila couldn’t change that, no matter how she wished she could.
She continued to back away from Tobias, even as his face contorted in fury. “Laila! Put the lantern down! Don’t do this!”
At the edge of the clearing, Laila stopped. Taking a deep breath, she set the lantern down. “I’m sorry, Tobias, but you made this fate for yourself.” She stepped back into the woods.
Shouting in rage, Tobias lunged for her. But as the lantern again flickered and grew faint, the trees closed in once more. In seconds, a wall of twining trunks and branches stood before Laila, sealing her off from her brother. His howling screams grew faint and thin, before choking off into silence.
Behind her, Laila sensed a faint glow, a spreading warmth. Turning, she saw the first light of the rising sun, climbing over the horizon, brightening the woods around her.
Laila felt a terrible pain, like a wound to the heart, at the thought of her brother’s crime, and the fate he now endured. For her, however the ordeal was over. Tired and saddened, she began the long trek out of the forest, past many still forms and dark lanterns.
The forest would always be there, waiting for the next poor soul who thought he could hide the truth.
It would always be there, waiting to show the difference between guilt and innocence, for those who willing to face what was revealed in the lantern’s light.
Ian Gonzales is a writer of fiction works, including short stories and novels. He currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, where he strives to live by the simple maxim of never taking anything so seriously that he can’t love it. To see more of his work, visit his website at ianegonzales.com.
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