the haunted ruins of night
Wirt trudges through the rain without feeling it. His pale eyes are dim, barely glowing at all, staring at nothing. He wouldn't notice if an angry mob started chasing him with torches and pitchforks, so lost in his own despair is he.
All he can think of is the moment it all went so horribly wrong: the fear in Whispers's voice as she told them what he had done. Beatrice and Greg turning towards him in desperate disbelieving horror. Losing control of his form and hearing Lorna scream as she realized what exactly she and her guardian had let into their home. Whispers trying to protect them, driving the Beast away.
The worst part is, he completely deserves it. He turned a man to edelwood; he is a murderer, a monster, a Beast. He's more than earned their disgust and distrust, because he's dangerous and awful and they were scared of him, they were all scared of him. Even Greg flinched away.
Greg is scared of him. The mere thought makes him ache. Greg, his fearless baby brother, is scared of him.
And he deserves it.
He can never see them again.
It takes him far too long to realize where he's going. The sky is clear and the moon high when he finds himself at the base of a huge ancient tree whose limbs stretch halfway across the river. (It might be another day entirely. He hasn't been paying attention, hasn't cared enough to pay attention.) He pauses, staring across the dark water with a slightly furrowed brow.
Oh, he finally thinks, because of course he'd turn to the only thing he has left. And it's past time, too. Maybe if he'd done this in the first place, he'd never have lost control and killed that witch.
He doesn't want to kill again. He doesn't want to be more of a monster than he already is. If this is what he needs to do to prevent that, he'll do it.
So he climbs the tree, his Lantern in his satchel, and walks along the thickest branch that stretches over the river. He is barefoot again, his shoes at the bottom of his pack, and the bark feels good against his soles. He leaps when the branch can no longer carry his weight, a feat he would never have dared (or accomplished) as a human. Then he resumes his journey towards the grave-grove and the knowledge he needs to heal the forest.
He was a fool to think that he might find a place among decent people, for who wouldn't fear a murdering Beast that had turned someone into edelwood? He belongs to the forest, in the forest. His task is the only thing he has left.
The journey to the other Beast's grave is quick and quiet. On an ordinary journey, at least through territory so isolated, he would sing to pass the time—as quietly as he could, for his voice carries more than it had any right to and he doesn't like scaring people. Now, though, he is quiet as a shadow. He doesn't want to sing.
He makes good time. Beasts don't need to eat or sleep, and he only has to refill the Dark Lantern once. (Its flame isn't quite as bright as usual, he notices dully. He doesn't know how to feel about that.) However, as Wirt comes closer to his destination, he finds that his feet are slowing almost of their own accord. Even hurt and grieving and hopeless as he is now, he's still afraid, and that fear grows stronger as he approaches its source. The Beast had nearly killed him and his brother both (my fault, all my fault, I'm so sorry Greg), and now he needs to consult the older monster for advice and help. One Beast to another.
Fittingly, Wirt arrives at the corpse-copse as the sun sinks beneath the horizon. Most of his forest is humming with insects, but this place is almost silent, the sounds somehow muted. Tree-shadows are darker here, and their leaves do not even stir in the faint breeze.
The old Beast's tree rises before him, tall and hideous, screaming face stacked upon screaming face. His legs have fused together into a narrow trunk, and his outstretched arms are pocked with holes. It is high summer, but no leaves grow from him.
Wirt swallows hard, the dullness washed away by the immediacy of his predicament. Shaking hands place the Dark Lantern on the ground. Moonbeams pool in the Beast's hollow eye sockets.
Wirt takes a step forward, then another, then a third. The Beast-tree is half again his height, and his antler-span is nearly twice as wide. He feels small for the first time since he relit the Dark Lantern. It's an odd sensation, not at all pleasant.
He has no idea if this will work. Yes, trees speak to him now. Yes, the Beast has become a tree. But the Beast's soul had once been contained in the Dark Lantern, and Wirt had blown out his flame. For all he knows, nothing of the Beast's consciousness remains in this or any world.
But shadows shift all throughout the clearing, and the gathered moonglow makes it seem like a pair of great white eyes are staring at him.
Wirt squares his shoulders, reaches out, and takes the Beast's outstretched hand.
Conversing with trees is easy. He just has to… not listen, exactly, for it doesn't involve his ears, but listening is the only comparison he can make. Sometimes, to help himself focus, he grabs ahold of a branch or presses his hand against the trunk. He sends out a thought, a silent question or statement, and waits for a reply. The conversations are slow and languid, for trees have a different sense of time than him, but he doesn't mind.
Talking to the tree that the Beast had become, though… that is different.
Darkness all around. He cannot see. Why can't he see? Why have his eyes gone dim, and where is the Dark Lantern? Where is his soul?
Not here. Not in the numbing freezing darkness, the darkness that fills his lungs and slows his blood. It is drowning him.
A song, lullaby-like, the voice deep and soft and low. "Come, wayward souls, who wander through the darkness…."
Wirt tries to speak, to call out—for what, he doesn't know—but no sound comes from his mouth.
"There is a light for the lost and the meek…."
It's inside him now. Not just his shadowed body, but his heart and mind as well, and he realizes that it's killing him. He should be afraid, Wirt knows that, but he's numb everywhere.
"Sorrow and fear are easily forgotten…."
His eyelids slide shut, not that it makes any difference. He's dimly aware that something is approaching him—he knows full well what's happening—but it's so hard to care.
(He'd heard, once, that freezing was an easy way to go. It's certainly easier than drowning—but he's drowning too, drowning in the cold and despair.)
"…when you s̪̫͓͔̱̱u͕̟ͅb̩̮̹̝̕m̮̲͉i͕͇t to the soil of the earth."
"Goodbye, Greg," Wirt thinks.
Greg Beatrice Jason-the-frog even the Woodsman—
What will happen to them if the Beast comes back? They know about the Dark Lantern. They know how to kill him. And the Beast knows that they know.
The Beast will go after them. He'll go after Greg.
(Snowfall, and shadow, and a frozen boy trapped in a tree, his consciousness slipping away.)
A pair of eyes snap open. They glow.
Wirt's finger's tighten around nothing, and suddenly the Dark Lantern is in his hand. It's incandescent, and he lifts it high.
He is no longer standing in the grave-grove. Instead, he is surrounded by a perfect circle of edelwood trees. Beyond the trees, the entire world fades into darkness too thick for even his eyes to penetrate. But it's his darkness now, just like it's his Lantern, his fire, his forest.
The Beast is standing before him. The Dark Lantern's light strips away his customary cloak of shadows, leaving him a twisted creature of wood and wails.
"That's twice you've bested me now," the Beast says. His head tilts to the side; his gaze is considering. "Perhaps you are not quite as worthless as I had thought."
Wirt wants to say something sarcastic, but fear dries his mouth and stills his tongue. He has to pause a moment before reclaiming his voice, and by then it's too late for a retort. He decides to get straight to the point.
"How do I cleanse the forest?"
Now that he is here, wherever 'here' may be, it occurs to Wirt that maybe the Beast can't answer his questions. Maybe he, too, had been a usurper, killing the forest's original guardian, learning to use his new powers without any guidance. Maybe he has no idea how to heal the forest or to make faceless edelwoods; maybe those secrets have been lost forever.
And that isn't even taking into consideration the fact that the Beast just tried to kill him again, to take his place back in the world of the living. They weren't friends; far from it. Why would the Beast answer Wirt's questions when Wirt is the one who killed him?
The Beast is silent for a long, long moment, so long that Wirt fears his new suspicions are correct and begins to worry about another attempt on his life. (But he will win, for he has more to lose.) Finally, his old enemy replies. "You must complete the cycle of death and life… assuming that my own mistakes have not already poisoned you."
For the first time, he does not look like a terrifying monster. He looks old, almost, and tired. Regretful. A little bit guilty, even, and Wirt realizes something for the first time.
It was his forest, too, once.
The Beast closes his eyes for a brief moment before fixing his glowing gaze on Wirt. "I thought to become more powerful by making my trees from corrupted mortals. Instead, it weakened me to the point that I could no longer carry out my duties."
A chill creeps down Wirt's spine. "But," he protests, "the trees I've tapped don't come from corrupt people. They come from the lost and hopeless and even the wounded or sick."
The Beast shakes his head. "The ones too weak to resist my power, even when those who were meant to be turned were safe."
Wirt imagines a magical immune system, one that can be destroyed by despair or physical injury. That makes sense, he supposes, or at least as much sense as anything else in this world. Still, there's one thing that catches his attention. "'Those who were meant to be turned'?" he echoes.
"Yes. I am—was—the guardian of the forest. Guardians require methods of defense, protection, even execution. We were meant to only occasionally transform the evil without using them for oil, as you did with the witch."
Wirt's heart stutters. "How do you know about him?"
(He knows the answer already.)
"I know because a part of me lives on in you," the Beast replies. Wirt shudders away from the confirmation, but his enemy is ruthless. "You know I speak the truth. How else would you have learned my songs or been so familiar with my forest? Most of my being is trapped slumbering in this prison, but a small portion will remain with you forever." His eyes gleam. "Unless we were to trade places, of course."
"Um, no," Wirt says. He does not want to think about this. "So you got weaker because you made edelwoods out of people, instead of, what, exac—" The puzzle pieces slot into place. "Corruption."
"Yes," the Beast confirms. "You must draw the tainted power to one place and shape it into an edelwood tree. Hopefully you still possess the ability to do so."
"Death to life," Wirt murmurs. How poetic. "I… I think I know how."
"Then do it," the Beast tells him.
It's the dead of night. A thick layer of clouds has rolled in during Wirt's conversation with the Beast. It veils the sky, blocking out the moon and stars entirely. Everything around him is black and still. No leaves rustle in the motionless air, no night-birds or insects chitter or sing. The only light comes from the Dark Lantern and the blue-yellow-pink glow of the Caretaker's eyes.
That is light enough.
Wirt kneels on the ground, his Lantern set before him, his back to the corpse-tree. The firelight casts his shadow against the arboreal obelisk, engulfing it almost entirely.
He kneels, hands brushing the dirt, and sings. The melody belongs to the Beast who sang before him, for there is magic in his predecessor's tunes… but the words are his own, have always been his own, will always be his own.
"Come, wayward souls!
Though fearsome be the darkness,
there is a light 'midst the shadows of the trees.
Faint as it is,
each moment it grows stronger,
dancing on the backs of all the leaves…."
His grief is faded, his mind content. For the first time in what feels like ages, he feels hope.
For the first time, he knows that he can do this.
Wirt can feel the threads of foul magic that have seeped into the soil, the trees, the mulch and moss and groundwater. He stretches out his mind and pulls, condensing darkness into oil and heartwood and root and bark and leaves.
"Go, wayward souls,
through the woods in the dark.
Let the birds hear your voice.
Let your song fill the air in the night.
Lift your lantern high
and go forth
toward the dawn."
How is it that he never realized this is the way? It's as right and as natural as the paths raindrops take through the air.
There is a tree rising before him now, an edelwood. It is graceful and slender and faceless, completely faceless, for there's no lost soul trapped inside.
Hope buds, blossoms, that maybe he is not quite as much of a monster as he thinks he is.
A shy smile twitches across his face, then fades as another thought enters his mind. He turns, faces the direction whence he came, and begins to walk.
Time to face his other fears.