Welcome to Greyhollow, a small town with a dark past and even darker secrets...
|Chapter Five: Riddles and Ravens
That night he dreamed of a ghost town.
It stretched before him, labyrinthine in design. Archaic buildings from another era, colonial structures that crowded each other, breeding claustrophobia. Tristan was in his pajamas, bare feet sinking into damp earth.
A silky layer of mist wafted over the ground as he wandered past decrepit wooden houses in various states of decomposition. Each decaying home looked like it was collapsing in slow motion beneath the melancholy grey of an overcast sky. Shutters creaked from mildewed windows beneath thatched roofs sagging with blackened reeds, mushrooms sprouted from piles of moldering firewood next to crumbling stone chimneys. Tristan searched for signs of life but only found forgotten remnants, slowly swallowed by time.
Where did everyone go? He wondered, drawing deeper into the abandoned village. "Hello? Anyone out there?" His cries were in vain, not even echoes answered back.
The mist grew thicker, as did the silence. His footsteps sounded muffled in the suffocating stillness. Wisps curled and twisted, insinuating spectral shapes that dissipated under a watchful gaze. Tristan tried to retrace his steps but quickly found himself lost, swallowed by the rotting town. Drifting aimlessly, he scanned the surrounding for a way out.
Above a gloomy storefront, a horseshoe hung from a sign too weathered to decipher. Peering inside revealed a giant hammer rusting atop a great anvil, surrounded by twisted pieces of corroded iron. Silver chain links glinted among the scattered debris. Ashes shivered inside a massive forge, cold embers of a long dead fire. Cobwebs entangled hanging tools, fat spiders skittered between webbed instruments. Wrinkling his nose in disgust, Tristan drew his head back.
A pair of scissors dangled above the entrance to another store, where bundles of tattered cloth hung. Strands of colored thread drifted on an unseen breeze. Moths fluttered around pieces of wool which managed to survive their insatiable hunger. A doll girl lay on a table caked with dust, a hole gaping in the fabric chest. Ravenous larvae squirmed inside, feasting on the yarn body. Needles were driven into its hands and feet, pinning the toy in place. The black button eyes were sewn on with green thread, forming pupils the shape of an 'x'. Her red hair was falling out, as were the threads of her cheery smile. The buttons gleamed faintly. Tristan shuddered. Something about the stitched grin made him very uncomfortable.
A crow cawed behind him, the harsh croak echoing in the air.
Startled, he whirled to find the animal perched on the blacksmith's sign. Cocking its head at the boy, it cawed again and preened its glossy black feathers. "Stupid bird." He muttered and turned away to continue his exploration. There was a flutter of feathers and an angry croak as the crow landed on his head, pecking him sharply before flying off into the mist. Tristan cursed at the retreating bird and rubbed his head.
A tiny stone building caught his eye, mostly intact as opposed to its wooden neighbors. No sign hinted at its purpose, which intrigued him all the more. Instead of reeds or hay, slate shingles held the roof firmly. The door however did not age as gracefully, and splintered into pieces when Tristan pushed it open. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he scratched his head at the scene before him. There was only one room, and it was filled with homemade furniture and papers. Logs were split in half and turned into desks, while short stumpy ones were used as makeshift seats. Dry leaves crunched underfoot as he strode to a bookshelf on the far wall. The titles were strange and very old. Being a History of the Known World, The Pilgrims Progress, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, were a few.
Picking up one of the papers revealed a handwritten line of verse.
'In Adam's Fall, We Sinned All'
Tristan puzzled at this before picking up another sheet. 'The Cat doth play, And after flay.' This made no more sense than the one before it. It was only after he discovered a pamphlet on the floor, that he realized where he was.
"A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue: For the Ufe of the Lower Forms in the Latin School."
The yellowed parchment proclaimed. So this is a school...? Begrudgingly he felt thankful his own education bore little resemblance.
Questioning the lack of students, Tristan examined another sheet of paper.
It was a crude drawing of a smiling man with black hair. The artist had depicted him holding a book in one had and an apple in the other. When he lifted it from the log-desk, he spied something inscribed on the other side. A poem? As he read it, Tristan's eyes widened.
'Burn my body to the bone
Till teeth pop inside my skull
mouth agape in silent scream
As my secret self is shown
Loving flames lick frying skin
With twisted orange scorching tongues
Lips peeling back with each red kiss
To reveal my mirthless grin.
Life is cruel, there is no doubt
Death watches my blazing swan song
I stand alit, a candlestick
Then wind comes and I'm blown out.'
The crow cawed again in the distance. Unsettled, Tristan left the school house. Perhaps it was a good thing that this town was devoid of people. After what he'd seen so far, he wasn't very keen on meeting them.
A black feather floated by, coming to rest by his bare feet. Looking up, he found its owner eyeing him warily. "You again." Tristan growled. Swooping down from the school roof, the bird landed a short distance away. It hopped a few feet and turned back around. "What do you want?" Cawing impatiently, the creature hopped a little further. "Are you taking me somewhere?" It bobbed its head up and down, then flew onto a broken fence post. Against his better judgement, he decided to let the vengeful animal lead him into parts unknown.
Tristan followed the crow down a murky alley, after some encouragement was squawked at him. It was difficult to see anything as he stumbled blindly through the narrow passage. But he emerged unscathed, discovering that his guide was perched on a tree branch. The mazelike town lay behind, but what lay ahead was equally as daunting.
A vast forest loomed before Tristan, threatening to swallow him whole. Skeletal limbs clawed at the dismal sky, boughs groaning mournfully as the breeze hissed past. Gnarled trunks twisted around other trees, spider-web roots covering the earth. Within the dense woods, he heard something rustling in the underbrush. "You can't be serious..." He pleaded with the crow, who was having none of it. Instead the bird pointed him to a winding trail, leading deep into the foreboding forest.
Tristan looked behind at the misty village for a long moment, weighing his options. But curiosity impatiently tugged his feet and so he let the ominous woods consume him. Landing on his shoulder, the winged beast led the wary boy past gloomy alcoves where things crept unseen. Hairs stood on the back of his neck as Tristan felt eyes observing his progress on the narrow path. A shape scurried in front of him, whispers hissed with inhuman voices, shadows deepened as malevolent forces gathered on either side. He was about to turn tail and run when the crow flapped its wings and cawed sharply. The murmurs faded away and the nebulous forms dissipated reluctantly.
His knees threatened to give way but the bird nibbled on his ear gently, as if to say there was nothing to fear. Somehow Tristan doubted that very much. Grimly he continued on, until the thin trail widened into a large clearing with considerably more light. There, a little brown hut sprouted from a field of weeds like a mushroom, smoke billowing from a crooked chimney. Striding through the vegetation, bird and boy stopped before a gnarled door with an old fashioned knocker. He struck twice. "It's open!" A voice within boomed.
Tristan walked out of the prickly grass and onto a thick soft rug, but he scarcely noticed as he gazed around in awe. It was much larger inside than expected, and that space was filled with an eye popping amount of oddities. Sweet smelling herbs hung from the ceiling, along with oil lamps that provided warm illumination. There was a brass globe of the world shining atop a stack of books which teetered precariously. A meticulously crafted ship sailed inside a glass bottle on a bookshelf, which held everything but dusty tomes. Those were scattered around haphazardly in piles, sometimes stacked and occasionally supporting something like the dining table. On that particular piece of furniture was a golden drinking horn and behind it was a bearded old man.
Shaggy grey hair arose as the man heard Tristan approach.
Peering out beneath bushy eyebrows, he regarded the boy with one piercing blue eye. The other was a milky white, half hidden behind a drooping eyelid. His mouth twisted into a wry smile at his guest's confusion. "Pardon the mess, it's been quite some time since we've had company." Extending a finger, he squinted at the crow. With a flutter of wings, the animal perched on the wrinkled digit and cawed softly. "Oh ho, put him in his place, did you?" There was more squawking and Tristan stood there uncomfortably while the old man had a conversation with his pet. This has got to be the weirdest dream yet.
"Ah but we can't neglect our visitor now, can we?" He waved at a leather chair. "Please have a seat, Tristan. I insist!" There was no need for insistence, Tristan sank into the proffered chair with a million questions stumbling on his tongue. "Who... how..?"
The old man grinned roguishly. "How do I know your name? I make it my business to know everything. Knowledge being power and what not. Off you go, Munin." Dismissed, the black bird flew past the bewildered teen and vanished into the house.
As he picked up the horn and drank deep, Tristan found his wits and managed to speak. "Who are you? Did I dream you?" Holding up a finger, the bearded man continued to quaff the drink until he finished at last, wiping his mouth. "Ahhh... Now that my throat is wet we can begin."
"As for who I am, well... I go by many names. Havi, Yggr, Sidgrani... Even Jesus one time. But I've always been rather partial to Wotan."
Fire flashed in his eye at Tristan's indifference. "If you weren't a guest beneath my roof I would rip your jaw off and let my crows feast on your eyes."
Stiffening at the hostility, the teen matched his glare. "Maybe if you talked more and drank less I would actually give a shit."
They glowered at one another.
Wotan barked out a laugh and grinned widely, breaking the tension. "You will make a great warrior one day." Relaxing, Tristan scratched his head. "Thanks...?" The old man took another drink and sighed. "I sent Munin to bring you, for threefold reasons." He counted them off on his fingers. "One. You called out to me, seeking hidden knowledge which I can bestow. Two. You were lost in a place beyond time, which you might not have escaped by your power alone. And three." Here Wotan paused and looked at Tristan gravely. "You called out to me and I listened. But others have heard, and they will surely come."
Leaning back in his chair, he once again drank from the gilded horn as if dying of thirst. Head spinning, Tristan mulled over the words and patiently waited for his host to lower the seemingly bottomless cup. "What do you mean by others?" Wotan said nothing but stroked his grey beard awhile.
"There are things far older than I." He said quietly.
"What things, exactly?" "I dare not name them. Words carry greater distances on this plane." Tristan's head began to ache. "Plane? Where exactly are we?" With a sigh, the old man rolled his eye in frustration. "Which brings us to number one. You know nothing, boy. I can grant the answers you seek but the cost is steep." He held out the horn. "Drink and ye shall know."
"But what's the price?" Wotan shrugged. "It is different for everyone." Picking up the golden cup, Tristan peered inside. Within lay a clear liquid that sparkled like sunlight. It smelled of honey and buttercups, sweet and inviting.
"Do I give up some of my memories or something?" The prospect was very tempting, but the caveat made him cautious. "Only if they are very dear to you." "So it's whatever means the most to me?" "Not always."
Well that's helpful. Tristan stared into the mysterious beverage and wondered what he stood to lose. Munin zoomed past his face, startling him. Landing on Wotan's shoulder, it began squawking in fast bursts. "Slow down, he's what?" The frown on his face changed into horror. "He is coming." "Who is?"
Snatching the horn from Tristan's hand, he tossed it aside. "There's no time, you must go NOW!" Jamming a thumb into the fireplace ashes, he began drawing something on the boy's forehead, muttering all the while. Another crow burst on to the scene and began cawing wildly. "I KNOW HUNIN HOLD ON." He roared.
The hut began to shake violently, books tumbling and glass lamps smashing on the ground. The sweet smelling herbs began to blacken and the scent curdled into something foul. Wotan shouted. "VAKNA!" And slammed his palm into Tristan's forehead.
The world spun and fragmented into a thousand shards of chaos and everything was roaring in his ears as darkness sucked him back into the void.