David woke with a start. The bedside clock, directly in his eye-line, read 17:15. The room lay in darkness.
He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and looked across toward the window. Rainfall sprayed across the glass, driven by an angry wind. He could just make out the trees in the garden: their branches were thrashing about.
David climbed off the bed and drew the curtains. He was amazed how fast the weather had changed. When he lay down at three o’clock it had been a fine clear autumn day. He switched on the light and jumped as the sound that had awoken him came again – a dull, ominous thump from somewhere over his head. Somewhere in the attic.
His heart beat a little faster as he opened the bedroom door and stepped on to the landing. Rain crashed against the big stained-glass window above the stairs. The wind moaned around the big old house. David switched on more lights and hurried around upstairs, closing curtains against the storm and the night.
Another thud came from above as David stood on the landing, about to descend the stairs. He looked up and saw the entrance to the attic right above his head: a dusty old trapdoor set in the ceiling. A piece of rope dangled from the handle, well out of his reach.
Unnerved, David ran downstairs, turned on every light he could find and switched on the gas fire in the living room. The house felt safer for light and heat. He closed the curtains on the ground floor too. Ordinarily home felt safe and cosy when the weather turned bad, and it was nice to be inside listening to the elements try to do their worst. Nothing could get past the robust old house, fully two centuries old. But tonight the increasingly frequent thuds from the draughty old attic prevented that happy feeling.
What is that noise? he wondered. It sounded very much like a door slamming – but there were no doors up there, and no windows either. He shivered suddenly, despite the warmth of the fire. Why did the storm have to come when both his parents were out?
SLAM! It seemed to be getting louder – as if demanding his attention, David thought unhappily. He considered turning on the TV to block out the noise. But he knew that was no way to solve the problem. What if rain was getting in? It could do all sorts of damage…
“Hello, you’ve reached Peter Henderson. I’m not available to take your call right now, but if you leave a message I’ll get back to you.”
“Dad, there’s a loud banging noise coming from the attic! I don’t know what it is, but I think something is wrong up there! Uh – okay, ‘bye!”
He hung up the phone, deliberated for a few moments and rang his Mum’s mobile. David stood in the hall, close to the bottom of the stairs, listening to it ring. His Mum’s phone rang for almost a minute before he gave up.
David sat by the fire for about twenty minutes, hoping one of his parents would call him back. He started timing the slamming noises. They came at a rate of one a minute.
At six o’clock, he decided that sitting around wasn’t the answer and that since he had been left in charge of the house, it was up to him to take action. He went back upstairs and studied the piece of rope hanging from the attic door. It was about a metre above his head and if he jumped high enough, he could just touch it but not grasp it.
SLAM! David’s heart beat quickly as he carried a stool from the spare bedroom and set it down beneath the trapdoor. He stood on it, reached up and gripped the rope easily. Taking a deep breath, he tugged it and the trapdoor fell open, narrowly missing striking his head! A gust of sour air blew down, smelling of damp and dust. David promptly sneezed.
An aluminium ladder, attached to the door by a spring, had swung down also. David extended it all the way to the ground. He climbed up and poked his head through the entrance. It was much colder in the attic and pitch black. He felt around for the lightswitch and a single bulb came on nearby. It cast a little pool of light close to the entrance, and threw long, deep shadows across the floorboards. David climbed into the attic and stood beside the opening, peering into the darkness. The attic was full of old furniture, discarded toys, yellowing books – piles of them, mostly his Mum’s – and general junk. His Dad often referred to the attic as ‘the junkyard’ – with good reason.
The wind whistled around the eaves; the rain hammered on the roof. David walked cautiously across the boards, trying to see further ahead. Dustsheets covered various items and loomed up, eerie and ghostlike. Beyond the pool of light it was difficult to see anything at all. The confines of the attic stretched out in front for a considerable distance, all high pointed roof, overhead beams, dusty artefacts and deep, deep shadows.
David reckoned he was about halfway through the attic, the little bright entrance receding behind him, when a further SLAM! made him jump violently and cry out in shock. It came from close by, behind a huge jumbled pile of broken chairs. His breathing ragged and shaky, David took a series of nervous steps around the obstruction. Although the solitary light bulb was by now far behind him, there seemed to be a new source of light just ahead…
On the far side of the pile of furniture, David discovered a door that he knew did not exist. He had played in the attic and explored its mysteries enough to know that there was only one way in and out, and that was via the ladder that his Dad usually let down for him. This new door was fully two metres high, set in a section of brick wall beside one of the chimneys. It was made of solid wood and it was swinging open and slamming shut in the wind. It flung itself open again as David approached and he stared through in astonishment. Beyond, he saw swirling rain cloud and drenching water, and in the middle of that an exceptionally bright light, as if there was a lighthouse shining and pointing the way to safety through the storm.
David stood in the doorway, the dark dusty attic behind him and the storm and the light ahead. His thoughts raced as fast as his heart and he felt dizzy and disorientated. He gripped the doorframe and tried to understand what he was seeing, as rain sluiced down his face. Suddenly a particularly strong gust of wind sneaked behind him and pushed him through the door. He lost his footing entirely and fell headlong into the storm, and the door slammed shut.
Instead of tumbling to the ground or on to the roof, David found himself literally floating in space, surrounded by the grey clouds. Although the wind continued to swirl about, it no longer touched him and although the rain still fell from above, David was completely dry. Suddenly he felt quite calm as he drifted toward the light. As he came closer, he felt warmth and heat pouring from the bright centre, comforting and soothing. What a strange storm this is, he thought, that has light at its heart! And indeed his own heart felt strangely light too. The brilliant illumination came closer and closer, until it was all he could see or experience, and the clouds were blotted out. He reached out a hand to touch it, and in the instant that he did so, everything changed again. Now the whole world went white and there was nothing except a vast bright emptiness and himself at the heart of it. But he was not alone, for a woman stood close by in a beautiful white dress. Her hair was blonde and her eyes blue and sparkling.
She smiled and said:
“If you would dwell in the radiant light
You must surrender mortal fight!
You must abandon thoughts of night!
Suffer your Soul to wing and flight!”
“I – I don’t understand,” David stammered.
The woman laughed. It was a gentle and graceful sound. “Do not fear, for not understanding is as good a place as any to start.” she said. “Admit you know nothing and if you are fortunate you may swiftly learn everything.” She paused. “And we are all of us fortunate in the end, dearest David.”
David looked around at the strange white nothingness.
“You and I stand between worlds,” his companion continued. “Behind you, through the impossible door, is all you hold familiar, safe and dear. But ahead, should you find yourself worthy, lies all that is hidden, secret, wild and arcane. There, too, is ardour, beauty and Love.” She held her hand. “Will you travel with me, child, on the wings of knowledge to the fantastic place?”
David swallowed hard. “What is it called, this place?” he asked. “And if you are my guide, what is your name?”
The woman closed her eyes for a moment. “There are many worlds beyond the world,” she said softly. “But if you must take security from a name, let us call our destination the Lighted Lands.” She paused. “My own name is not the least important in the grand scheme, but you may call me Angelyne.”
David hesitated. Part of him wished only to return to the attic, close the door, scurry back down the ladder and wait beside the fire for his parents’ return. But he knew also that he was being offered a unique and special opportunity, one that might not come again.
“I will go,” he said.
The moment he spoke, everything went black as surely as previously all had been white. The temperature dropped and a low wind blew. For a second David thought that he had, after all, returned to the storm. But as his eyes adjusted he realised that he was in truth far from home. He stood on a blackened hillside on a narrow, winding road. There seemed to be ash everywhere, as if a very great fire had swept through this land and consumed it. Fields and meadows of soot and ash extended as far as he could see. Beyond, he glimpsed a range of towering, craggy mountains rising like giant savage teeth into the heavy grey clouds that loomed oppressively above. Closer by, he observed a forest of dead trees. The air smelled of burning.
“This is Abhoria,” Angelyne said. “The Nighted Place, the Burning Land.” She raised her right hand and a sphere of light materialised above it. It threw a bright yet ghostlike illumination all about them. “For ours is a journey from darkness to light, David, from lower to higher, from ignorance to knowledge, from fear to joy. We travel in due course from night unto light.”
David looked down the narrow road and realised that it led into the trees not far ahead.
“That is the Dead Forest,” Angelyne said. “Our destination lies within. Are you with me?”
David nodded reluctantly.
“Then accompany me,” the guide instructed. David stayed by her side and together they started walking along the stone road between the fields of ash. The Dead Forest loomed steadily nearer. David looked to his right and saw, in shock, a number of strange bent figures, clad in rags, working in one of the fields. They used shovels and hoes like farmers. He glanced questioningly at Angelyne. Her face filled with mercy and compassion.
“They are the Nighted Ones,” she said quietly. “Fated to work with naught but grime and dirt, until they recognise the futility.”
David shuddered, looking back as they moved on along the road. A low cloud of blackened mist blew across the field and covered the toiling figures.
They came in time to a low bridge that spanned a narrow river. David peered down and gasped as he realised that the water was jet black!
“The Black River,” Angelyne said. “Not water, but a current of darkness. It flows from an evil spring in the mountains all the way to the Sea of Night. None may swim in there – yet still there are those who have tried, and perished.”
“Why would anyone want to try?” David asked.
“All who come here must eventually learn that there is no value in darkness,” the guide said. “Alas, some never see the light.”
She and David crossed the bridge and soon the trees were very near. David realised that the Dead Forest was much bigger than it had first appeared. It looked very dark inside.
“Have no fear,” Angelyne said, “for my light will guide us true. But stay on the road, David, and within the circumference of the light. For the darkness in the forest hides many secrets – and secrets are dangerous things.”
They soon entered the trees and walked slowly along the path. There seemed to be nothing but dead trees amid a sea of ash.
“What is this place?” David said, finally.
“I told you – its name is Abhoria,” Angelyne said. Her voice seemed loud in the empty silence. She paused. “Always are we seeking balance, and there could be no beautiful realms beyond, were there not also the dark and dismal places. Yet that does not mean we should be grateful they exist, nor linger here any longer than necessary.”
Shortly afterwards, the road bent to the left and passed by a large, crooked gate made of metal. Angelyne halted beside it and David stopped also. She lifted her hand and the sphere of light grew brighter. David stared through the gate and his heart sank as he beheld a vast cemetery rising from the perpetual ash, and clouds of fume drifting amid countless headstones.
“Listen to me now child,” Angelyne said. “We have come this far, guided and protected by this light I possess. But you cannot always rely on the sanctuary of others. Somewhere in there, in the Cemetery of the Nighted Land, is your light, beautiful one, and now you must go and discover it.”
“In there?” David recoiled in dismay. “Why in such a horrible place?”
“Sometimes,” his companion answered, “the brightest of lights are to be found in the lowest and darkest of places. That is the way of things.”
As she spoke, the gate swung open.
“You can do it, David,” Angelyne smiled. “I have faith in you.”
David advanced warily into the cemetery, his heart thumping. In just a few short paces, he was already among the headstones. The inscriptions upon them were written in a strange language that he could not understand. He wandered a little further and glanced back over his shoulder. But already Angelyne and her guiding light were lost to sight. And as he realised this, a covering of a deeper darkness seemed to descend upon the world, until he could see barely two metres ahead.
“Who is that?” a croaking voice spoke up. “Who is that, trespassing in my graveyard?”
“M-my name is David,” David stammered.
A tall but rather crooked figure loomed up from the darkness. David tried to make it out clearly but the gloom prevented it.
“Another seeker, I presume,” the voice grated, “chasing after light.” It laughed harshly and humourlessly. “There is no light in the Cemetery of the Nighted Land, foolish boy!”
It reached out a long, talon-like hand, and David turned and ran in the opposite direction. He dodged amid numerous headstones until he found a small stone building that he imagined to be a crypt and ducked behind it, trying to catch his breath. The silence was intense and claustrophobic. David realised as he did so that he had lost all sense of direction.
He leaned back against the wall of the crypt and suddenly the wall disappeared behind him and he fell down a flight of steps, landed awkwardly and heavily and cried out in pain. Now he lay in utter darkness. David managed to sit up, clutching a sprained wrist, and groped around for the bottom step. But he could not find it. He seemed to be trapped in a small, confined space with a floor of ash and walls of stone.
David began to panic at the prospect of remaining trapped deep underground. But a wiser part of him knew that this would prove disastrous. He remembered Angelyne’s words: the brightest of lights are to be found in the lowest and darkest of places…As he thought this, a strange feeling of heat built up in his wrist, moved into his hand and quickly increased until it was almost searing. It passed, and a moment later a ball of light no less bright than Angelyne’s hovered just above his palm.
David gasped in relief. He looked round the tiny space and discovered the bottom of the stairs nearby. He hurried up them. As soon as he reached the surface, the ball of light left his hand and floated ahead of him and David chased after it through the cemetery. Its cheerful glow led him swiftly back to the gate where Angelyne waited.
“There,” she said. “You have made your discovery! It is time for us to move on! Take my hand, wondrous one.”
As the gate swung shut, David grasped her hand and together they began to rise up from the ground of ash, out of the Dead Forest and up toward the glowering clouds. David stared down, taking a last look at the Nighted Land.
“As one world ends,” Angelyne declared, “so another begins.”
… continued in Part Two