The Wraith of Despair

 

Two young children sat on a log in the middle of the forest, weaving thin reeds through and over each other, their fingers moving as delicately as they possibly could. At length, the boy, the elder one, threw an alarmed glance at the sky to see that it had already picked up an orange color.

“Alice, we must go home now!” he gasped, jumping to her feet.

“But I haven’t finished my basket!” Alice complained in exasperation; she had been fighting a frustrating task against a knot that appeared on one of the reeds.

“Nevermind that! It’s almost soon!”

“Soon for what?”

“There’s a wraith that apparently lives in this forest. The adults were talking about it, thinking about driving it out, but no one’s dared to disturb her yet. We’re not supposed to stay out too long either. Let’s go! We can return tomorrow!”

“Unfair, Zeke! You’ve finished your basket, and tomorrow, I would not have time to make it!” Alice scowled. “We need them for our gifts to Father! Mother would not be happy. Even if you tell me that she might excuse me because we were cutting close to the time this ‘wraith’ appears, I would still be put into my room with no dessert because I was too slow.” She gathered her reeds and what was of her basket. “I shall take them home, then.”

Zeke sighed, but he could at least do that much for his precocious younger sister. Still, dessert! Of all things, she worried the most about dessert! Though he supposed that their mother’s baked pears and cream were still the most delicious of all foods. “Alright. Let’s go.”

As they half-ran, half-walked through the thick bushes of the forest, Alice asked after a moment, “What do you know of this wraith, anyway? The adults sometimes make up scary stories to keep us from doing anything. Just like they did with Old Louie’s well. They told us that a devil lives in the well beside his house and that it eats naughty kids that go near it. But those naughty kids who got eaten were just idiots who fell down it and it was an hour before Old Louie found out what happened and called for help-”

“Alice, you think too much,” Zeke sighed. “But I think that this wraith is real. They weren’t telling any child a story, after all. The adults were whispering among themselves, and Mother told us to come home before sunset…did you actually listen to her? You were there, after all.”

Alice pulled a face. “No.”

“…but the wraith seemed to be real,” Zeke continued with another sigh. “I even asked, so this is what I know: this ghost wanders at a certain hour at sunset, as if it is looking for something. It takes the form of a young woman with long hair that looks like a gold river. Her eyes are empty and gray, and they seem to suck you in. She attacks anything and anyone without seemingly thinking, or perhaps for no reason. Just last week, Mr. and Mrs. Belmont were attacked when they came here for a picnic. Two days before that, Henry and Margaret two houses away from us hurried back after a night walk from the forest.”

“Is it not that the ghost only attacks a man and woman together?” Alice prodded her brother cheekily. “You listen to too much gossip as well, don’t you?”

“At least gossip is fun to collect!”

“For us ladies, Zeke.” Alice giggled at the rising shade of red on Zeke’s face.

A light cloud billowed their way, and Zeke stopped in surprise before he could retort back to his sister. It was then that he realized that a fog was beginning to thicken around them.

“Oh, no, we have to hurry!” he groaned. “We were too slow.”

“We can still tell the direction of the road back home, thanks to this path,” Alice frowned, but Zeke noted that her hands were beginning to tremble as she clutched her reeds. He extended his hand, which his sister immediately took and held tightly.

“Listen,” Zeke muttered, “I will lead the way, you look out for the Wraith. If you see one that looks like that, run. Pull me along, because I’m only going to have my eyes on the ground so we can get home.”

Alice nodded.

As they started back on their quick pace, Zeke constantly looked behind him to make sure that it was his sister that he held onto. Wraiths and ghosts are tricky and dishonest creatures. They love to mess around with humans, despite having once been human before. Must be because they were built only on petty thoughts. Maybe that’s why the Wraith attacked a “pair of lovers”, as it seemed to be with the stories of Mr. and Mrs. Belmont and Henry and Margaret. Now that he remembered, the gossip referring to this Wraith of Despair certainly had victims who were lovebirds.

His thoughts on the Wraith did not help his own anxiety, and it was worsened when he finally stopped in the middle of the path. Though he could see a shadow of his own shoes, the path in front of him had blurred out of sight. Even Alice seemed to be fading into the fog despite being close.

“Zeke?” Alice whispered, sounding young. She was already crushing her half-finished basket and reeds without noticing. “Why did you stop?”

“Sorry, I can’t see far ahead of me. We have to slow down for a bit.”

“But what about going home?”

“Calm down, we’ll get there.” Zeke tightened his hold on his sister’s hand. He started a half-hearted step forward when the fog suddenly shifted and split apart in front of him, clearing a space that indicated that he and Alice were in a glade, halfway through the forest back to the road they were trying to reach, as if someone brushed the fog aside.

“My, my, children? I did not expect there to be such young adventurers here,” laughed a tinkling voice, and the two whirled about to it, their hearts nearly jumping out their throats.

The person they saw instead was a young woman with a bonnet and a white dress made of heavy lace. She carried a brightly burning lantern and a handful of candles. She smiled. “Good evening. Gathered reeds to make baskets, I see?”

“You better not be staying here too long, or else the Wraith will chase you!” Zeke gasped.

“You are talking about that ghost that wanders around attacking lovers? Oh, I am alone, the Wraith will not disturb me in that case. The same shall go with you children. You need no longer fear it.”

“Why are you in this forest?” asked Alice in a small voice. “It will be night soon…”

“My house is in this direction. I’ve passed through here at night at night before and I have yet to be attacked.” The woman laughed. “Oh, but this fog is surprisingly thick. Although I prepared for it, I wasn’t expecting this.” She handed Zeke her lantern. “Young man, take this lantern and bring yourselves back home.”

“R-really? But what about you?” Zeke gawked at the woman.

“I have candles. Just allow me to light one, then I shall be on my way. Winning a fight against a fog is nice, but it is cold, and I must continue now.”

She touched one of her candles to the lantern, then turned and started off through the forest. “Goodbye! It is just a short way to the town road, so just walk on!”

With that, she disappeared into the fog, save for the light of her candle that shone even in the cloud. All in a moment that startled Zeke before he could ask if that candle would be able to stay lit in air filled with water droplets.

Finally, giving in to the favor, he turned and held up the lantern. “Alright, Alice, let’s try that again!”

They hurried through the forest again. To their surprise, the time they walked quickly passed as they soon arrived onto the town road. The sky had turned a pretty pinkish-purple color by now, and Zeke sighed before checking on his sister.

Alice was even more out of breath than he was.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

She shook her head wildly, and now that he looked at her properly, she looked more frightened than she did when they realized that a fog had begun. “Z-Zeke, what – what did you think of that woman we passed in the forest?”

“A help? Our savior!”

“Her hair was gold and long, it looked like a river. I would not say it, but they might have exaggerated that her eyes looked dead, but though they seem like she’s in a good mood, the eyes definitely give me the feeling of them being empty.” Alice scowled. “Zeke, that must have been the Wraith herself! Why did you accept her lantern? No, why would you talk to a stranger who walks through the fog without worrying that she might get lost?”

For a moment, Zeke paused in surprise, then the lantern slipped from his fingers and fell towards the ground. It didn’t land and shatter like a normal lantern would have if it dropped; instead, it vanished in a tiny cloud, as if it was also made of fog.

“It’s gone!” Alice shrieked. “D-does it mean that…w-we’re cursed?”

Zeke looked back at the forest, then turned away from it. “W-well, we got our baskets, and I suppose that we do owe the Wraith, then…alright, let’s go home! Let’s tell every married man and woman to keep away from the forest for a while and pretend that we saw no one. The adults won’t believe us if we tell them what happened, anyway. Then again, maybe this might be the last time we see her, too, because she walked into a fog with an unprotected candle! Maybe the candle died because there’s a lot of water in the air!” He spoke quickly in one breath and now, he inhaled a deep gulp of air. “Now, we go home. Quickly.”

Clutching onto their salvaged reeds and baskets, the two children fell into another sprint on the road, half-gasping for air as they hurried back home.

 

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Wind & Passing: A Short Story

Eh, I wrote a short story that I thought of after recently heading to the beach on New Years. It’ll delay The Castle of Gears chapter posting, but I’ll eventually get that done in a while. So here’s a little distraction.


The sound of the sea was surprisingly loud as it rolled over the sand, the silence, except for the hot wind, putting Akira’s blackened heart in tranquil.

She walked quickly, almost jogging, but still at a pace considered walking. A light trail of footprints followed her from the crowded area of the resort’s beach to a desolate part of the shore. It had been a long time since she had time alone for herself. Having held back enough anger before it exploded at her unreasonable father and pathetic brother, she’d taken control of her body language and left their hotel room until she was only a tiny dot in the eyes of the holiday goers.

But she couldn’t deny that she almost snapped that time. She could have probably tried to attack her father. In return, he might counter-attack, and the next moment, she would end up with the bruises she would have to hide again. Her father wasn’t the nicest guy; the only reason she accompanied him was as luggage, to blend in with his fellow colleagues who were also on the vacation with their own families. To show that their father was also a caring type, not a family tyrant.

There was a reason Hayato, her brother, recently had a mental breakdown after the police suspected that he might have purposely – in their own words – given their grandfather a heart attack that killed him. Hayato wasn’t right in his head anymore these days; he had been the topic of her disagreement with her father earlier before she left.

She didn’t notice that the anger had blinded her sight except for her intention to appear like a dot from the holiday goers that when she slowed herself to a stop, she stumbled over an unnoticed half-buried rock, sending her plummeting to the ground. Instinctively, she lunged out her other foot and stopped herself from planting her face into the sand.

She gasped; she’d been carrying an ancient Polaroid camera, a gift from her grandmother before her death. Like a charm, she feverishly cared for it and took it wherever she went. Had she hit the sand, she could have damaged it.

The Polaroid. Grandma it to her after retiring from her photographer job, the last of all the cameras she used to own. Neither her father nor brother knew it because it was her and Grandma’s secret, carried everywhere in a lunch bag that also carried muffins to cover it because she claimed her appetite was large.

Presently, she noticed her distance from the resort and sat down on the rock. Angling the camera, she aimed it for the horizon of the sea, which connected to the sky. She contemplated taking a photograph but changed her mind; the film she had was a precious amount; she should just continue searching for the things she really wanted photographs of.

Not that it would be easy to find that “something”. People were out of the question.

A figure had begun to follow the shoreline towards where Akira sat, and she eyed it warily, thinking it was either her father or one of his acquaintances. She was wrong; a youth in shorts and a plain black t-shirt, and what looked like a book in one hand, walking at a relaxed pace. A stranger, ignorant of the world – and her troubles.

Relieved, Akira turned away and plopped herself down onto the rock, stretching her legs and kicking off her sandals. She hadn’t put on any sunscreen so her skin was beginning to turn red. She’d rather keep her skin fair, but at the moment, could not get in the mood to get back to her feet to find a shade or go back to fetch the darned sunscreen.

Her brother. If he didn’t back down from their father just now about staying hidden and pretending the weather got to him just so none of the accompanying colleagues learned of his face and name, if he was still the strong-headed, admirable brother she always saw him as, her mood won’t have been this way. Sure, their father had some good sides, she supposed, but most of the time, he was cold to them, and her brother always kowtowed to him. Akira could consider herself less pathetic than Hayato was at this point. That anger in her, seething beyond her teeth, clawing at her chest, up her throat, had no doubt meant she could no longer trust Hayato to be the same strong person she saw him as.

Maybe the incident in which he’d been falsely accused of their grandfather, Grandma’s husband’s death had been the reason Hayato cracked.

“Say, take a portrait picture of me,” said a voice, and Akira looked up to see the youth who had been walking along the shoreline standing in front of her.

Alarmed, she sat up, stunned to realize she didn’t notice him when she’d been high on alert for anyone she knew who might find her. “What?”

“Take a photograph with that camera. You wanted to use it, didn’t you?”

Akira blinked, looked at the Polaroid, then back at him, turning wary. Men were dangerous, and especially to girls like her who are alone.

“You don’t need to give me a scary face,” the stranger chuckled, and he sat down on the sand at an acceptable distance from her. “I’ll give you my name, too: Rin.”

“What do you want the photograph for?”

“It’s just a request. Like I said, you looked like you wanted to use it. Why don’t you, with me as a model. Only, I’d like to request that I have the picture, too. And – a Polaroid, the black and white type of camera? Isn’t that rare these days? We use digital ones these days, don’t we? It’s interesting.”

Akira frowned at him.

“It’ll just be for one piece of film, right?” Rin, the stranger, chuckled.

She noticed that it really was a book that he carried, a book in a foreign language that she couldn’t discern. The sight of the book made her remember how much her brother, too, loved books. He might know the title of the book, maybe even the plot. Rin, as if waiting, flipped open the novel and began to read.

With a sigh, she said, “Fine, I’ll take the photograph. Let me tell you, though, the pictures in the film come out in sepia, not black and white.”

“Oh? I didn’t know that. I assumed that all old pictures would be black and white.”

“No, not all.” Akira got up with the Polaroid, then knelt on the sand in at an angle in front of Rin, who watched her with interest. “Okay, a portrait photograph, right?”

“Yep.”

She held the camera up and peered through the lens, shifted the angle of the camera with a frown. In the lens, Rin was still watching her, wearing a faint smile; it felt like their eyes met through the camera, the intensity in their look despite his statue-like stillness. Fingers trembling with excitement, she pushed the shutter. And a second time, this one by accident. Rin didn’t miss it, and his smile widened.

When she finished, she waited impatiently for the photograph and the second one to come out. She hastily handed them to Rin when it was done.

His scrutinizing eyes studying the photograph briefly then he cracked a smile of amusement. “Hey, not bad! We could imagine that I came from the past. Although…why did you take two?”

“An accident?” Akira retorted with a chuckle. “Also, you would look like you came from the past if it wasn’t for your clothing style.”

Rin laughed. “That’s right.” He returned one to her. “Keep that. So we could remember the day that you took the photo of a stranger on a beach.”

“Okay,” Akira looked at the photograph again, then watched as Rin continued on his way, returning to the shoreline and going on after the point she stopped at.

When she studied the photograph, she noted the grayish-brown colors and lines that traced out Rin, whose glance and knowing smile seemed to be looking beyond the rectangle of the photograph. If anyone could look so alive on a sheet of film, it was that guy, she supposed.

She glanced at the holiday goers and noticed a familiar figure among them starting this way. Hayato, her brother. Her anger at him and their father, his weakness and her father’s coldness dissipated. She looked in the direction Rin had gone; he was already really far, a dot himself among flat sand and rocks, book and photograph in either hand, his pace as lax as the wind blew around her.

She’d thought he was at unawares of her thoughts; she must have been wrong. He’d clearly approached her as if he knew she was in a bad mood.

Akira stuffed the Polaroid and Rin’s photograph into her lunch bag, slung it over her shoulder, then walked with a brisk pace back towards those holiday goers where Hayato waited patiently for her.