a short story by J.M. Duell
The torrent had since dried, and they continued to walk in a Northern direction through the sweltering heat of the late summer day. Ariel had warned the others that Elias really hadn’t any idea where he was leading the group; she warned that maybe Elias had finally lost any rational thought and his mental stability is weakening by the hour.
Visions of billowy sheets of bright neon green flashed before Ariel’s eyes. They motioned through the wind similar to butterflies—droplets of similar dewdrops in glowing neon purple seemed to drip from the bottom of the mysterious semi-transparent thing—its direction seemed to be similar to hers. She reached out in an attempt to catch a drop and each time that she had, it had shifted further away. She wondered if this is what Elias was seeing as well as he strolled ahead of the group of seven towards the forest of profound mystery.
She could see more, and more of them floating and fluttering around. Each one had different colors, and different shapes and they slowly pulsed and billowed around just above their heads. The liquid that came out of them seemed to fall halfway towards the ground; at that point it would transmogrify itself into wholly transparent blips that scattered out in various directions. They almost looked like floating slivers of wind but Ariel thought that as impossible.
Could be the struggles of ghosts passing through she considered while taking several moments to understand their movements. She remembered the time her grandmother had told her about the ghosts she had seen down by coal mines of yesteryear. The experiences seemed primitive, yet magical in ways that could describe these semi-transparent souls that keep up with the group of seven.
“That was no country for a weak man”—her grandmother said—“they slaved those men from 12 to 18 hours and for barely pennies, but they would do it for their families. They would get so tired that accidents would happen and some would die by being crushed to death or worse … Those ghosts that inherit that land are no more free than a man in jail. They’re locked to the land they bled upon and you can sometimes see their ghosts billowing in and out of those old caves if you wait around long enough for them.”
Although the old stories were practically silly to think over, Ariel sought them out in thought in a way to relate to the current realm she was stuck inside of.
“How much further?” the coyly annoying voice of Odessa interrupted the group’s silence. “We’ve been out h-e”
“Nobody asked you to follow Odessa!” Vilmos interrupted; “you can go back now and save us the trouble of having to deal with you.”
“Take it easy Vil, we have been out here a while.” Silas stopped a moment and looked towards Odessa. “You having a hard time or something?” Silas was always the worried peacemaker of the seven. He had believed that common ground in any group partnership was the key to long-lasting success.
“Just tired.” Odessa replied simply.
“Hey Zia do you have any water left in the canteen on your pack?” Silas walked towards Zia who was still closely eying a map he’d brought along. His personal mission differed from the rest of the group, but he followed Elias despite his desire to locate an unidentified ship that he believed to be in the area.
“I have some left she can have.” Ollie spoke up before Zia had a chance to check his canteen.
Odessa looked over to Ollie and smiled flirtatiously, and then cornered his simple face with her gazing stare as he sweetly smiled in return. Ollie was the simple man within the group; he’d never go out of his way for much attention and preferred it that way. He was shy, and typically a push-over type of personality, and Odessa was well aware of that and liked how she could easily take advantage of the middle sized, dopey looking man.
Ariel looked over them all and still observed the semi-transparent creatures and she wondered why nobody else seemed to notice them. Not even Elias (who was known to have an extra gift of sight.) There were now at least 60 of them fluttering around above the group. She wondered if they were actually guardians in half-form, or maybe even souls of the forest that had somehow gained knowledge of the group’s intent to enter.
They’re maybe waiting for us to die her mind escaped her, and then Elias came to join her;
“What are you looking at?” he questioned as he glanced up in the direction she was looking.
“You really can’t see them, can you?” She sunk a little into the grassed area and looked over at him closely. She watched him as he concentrated on the sky struggling to see what had kept her looking in that direction. How could he not see them? She looked back out at them and wondered why she was the only one.
“Maybe you are tired.” Elias insisted.
“I am not tired.” She replied angrily. “You just can’t see them.”
Ariel stood from the grass, and then took off towards the forest without waiting for the rest of the group. She thought about how he had so far led all of them into the driest section of the world in the middle of a damning heatwave that wasn’t lessening anytime soon. The strange things kept pace with her as she neared the edge of the forest’s entrance. They almost seemed to buzz which somehow became louder than the pleas of the others she’d left in the dust. Their noise almost seemed electric, with a pulse in the background that traveled at a constant speed. The sensation of noise had begun to entrance her as she stepped across a barrier of rock and stone that marked the change of the environs from location to the other.
The change was so unique that both sections looked to be of different worlds. The land that Ariel had left was brown, and somewhat dry with clear skies of azure. The realm of the forest on the other hand was gloomy and misty with a persistent heaviness in its air. Ariel’s chest felt slightly tighter, and the struggle of the change caused her to sip for air as she continued into the thick path which leads into the forest.
The trees were as tall as the sky and their leaves were as healthy as ever in the thick evergreens. The temperature was a bit cooler than the other side which was a giant relief for Ariel as she began to slow down in her angry path. The vision of the entrance was so overwhelming to her that it had knocked her out of the temporary trance.
Finally her ears could hear the cries escaping Elias as he and the others weren’t so far behind her. He’d been yelling for her to stop but she wouldn’t bother to listen, even now.
A drizzle of shiny, sparkling raindrops came down from the arched entryway made of vine and other overgrowth. Each drop (like the things that hovered above) pulsed in various brilliant colors that seemed neon in their glow. Am I alive? She held out her arms and embraced the vision in a catatonic awe. Beyond the steady raindrops she could see what appeared to be tiny winged creatures of some sort floating around towards the dark paths that lead deeper in. Their life-force seemed to glow just enough to emanate that darkness.
The others had finally reached her and also found themselves in the same catatonic awe as their eyes reached in beyond those glittering, glowing drops of rain.
“This is where we have to go…” Elias stood aside Ariel as the others kind of hovered in the back. Though the vision before them was humming in beauty, they were afraid to go much further. They didn’t want to think of proceeding but they also knew that Elias had brought them here for a reason and as they recovered from the overwhelming feeling, they prepared to pass through the glowing rain into the forest.
Ariel couldn’t wait much longer; something within her had begun pulling her forward into the forest and without being hesitant, she followed that feeling.
As she passed through the rain, it had felt cool, and yet refreshing as well as healing. The sensation was overwhelming but it had somehow taken away any and all pain she had felt up to that point. She wondered if the others would be brave enough to follow, or if they were even meant to. This journey felt like hers alone.
The forest now lit up as Ariel walked forward into the first path that she’d seen. This is the way she looked back once again, but refused to wait any longer. The further in she got, the wider the path opened up. Everything around her seemed to change and remold itself into something else as the fluttering things began to land within the trees.
They were shape shifters of some sort that now took on forms of semi-transparent phantoms that walked along the path with Ariel. The vision of their transmogrification seemed otherworldly, but she observed them as gifts of another kind that will keep her safe.
“A-r-r-i-i-e-e-l!” Elias bellowed from deep within his gut. “Ariel where are you!”
Vilmos looked down the same path that Ariel had taken, and then looked over to another similar path that seemed to run parallel. “I saw her come this way Elias. I was right behind you. The problem is that I don’t know which one she headed down.”
“I think she took down hat one behind you.” Zia observed while pointing in the correct direction. “I am certain of it, in fact.”
“That look about right Vil?” a very worried Elias asked.
“I… I don’t know.” Vilmos carefully answered.
Elias came to realize that he wouldn’t get a definite answer out of anyone so he made a plan to separate the group into two. He demanded Odessa Silas and Ollie to take the second trail as he asked Vilmos and Zia to follow him down the correct direction.
“Silas lead your group in and please be careful. I really don’t know what is out here. We will reconvene right here after the sun begins its descent. We are getting low on supplies so try to use everything at a minimal. If you do find Ariel have her stay with you and yell for me. Please stick together so nobody else gets lost out here! Understood?”
Everyone accepted Elias’ directions and each group began through the trail they were assigned to.
Silas, Ollie and Odessa kept together rather closely as they slowly traveled their path. Their path seemed dark and extremely somber with a mess of dead trees and withered vines all over the place. The winds felt cold and discomforting and the presence of a dead winter danced around them teasingly.
“Did you hear that?” Odessa startled the others as she stopped a moment.
Ollie looked towards Silas, and then the both of them looked over to Odessa. “What is it that you hear?” Ollie asked.
“It sounds like someone is walking with us! Each time we step, I hear it just before, or after. Like someone stepping on the loose dry branches.”
Silas walked over to Odessa, and quietly listened. He figured that her mind was getting the best of her, but didn’t want to risk the group by explaining to her that she’s possibly imagining things.
“I don’t seem to hear it, Odessa. But I will listen closer.” Silas rested his hand on her shoulder, “We have to try and find Ariel right now she is out here someplace, okay?” He could see the concern written all over her face as she looked around. Soon enough she began to cry and in an attempt to sooth her, Silas gave her a warm hug and tried once more to reassure her.
As Silas worked on keeping Odessa together, Ollie began to hear noises as well. “Silas!” Ollie tried for his attention. “Silas listen; there really is something out there!”
“Okay.” Silas pulled back from Odessa and began to wonder if there was something stalking them. “Let’s keep going in this direction so we can get away from whatever it is.” He said in a remarkably calm tone, though inside he was in a state of panic over the worry of what may be just out of sight.
Meanwhile Elias stomped along the trail on a mission to find the lovely Ariel with Zia and Vilmos just behind him.
Zia still had his nose buried in a map as he carefully walked behind Vilmos who was quite worried about how desolate the forest seemed. He felt like an evil deception had led the group to this point and shivered as the cool winds brushed past him.
“Elias, there’s something wrong with this path, do you sense it?” Vilmos slowed, and then moaned as Zia accidently walked into him. “Watch it!” Vilmos yelled. “Take your goddamn face out of the map already! Whatever you are looking for isn’t in here!”
“How do you know?” Zia replied in a defensive tone.
“Enough you two”—Elias spun around and ripped the map out of Zia’s hands—“we are going to continue to look for Ariel without any qualm; she would do the same for any one of us and you damn well know it!”
“We’re not talking about giving the search up Elias but you got to admit that everything seems different somehow.” Vilmos stared to Elias sternly in hope that he’d recognize what he was talking about.
Deaf to the argument on either end, Zia ripped his map back out of Elias’ hands and then folded it up and placed it safely in his back pocket.
Elias shot Zia a hateful look, and then turned to continue down the path in search of Ariel. “Vil, nothing makes sense but I can’t let that stop me. I have got to keep going for Ariel’s sake because she’d do it for me!”
“What if this is somehow a trap? Don’t you see there’s something very wrong with all of this?” Vilmos joined Elias’ side.
Hesitantly, both groups pressed on through their assigned paths and fought through a sea of fear and doubt as they were driven by the passion to find Ariel before the sun had settled for the night and draped a darkness so dark, and a wind so cold that their missions would be impossible. Harrowing noises rose as blustery winds kicked up that seemed to come out of nowhere.
Tunneled screams and distant voices danced around each group as the fought through everything being thrown at them. Horror began to wrap its chains around each person like an invisible prison. All hope and possibility began to seem impossible and unachievable—the belief that Ariel is still alive was dim—the only option left must be death, they thought.
Within that moment when it felt like time to give in; each group reached a vast opening where the floor appeared like a shiny mirror, and the sky appeared starry. There were no more trees, or cooling winds. There was no sound, or scents. Billowed sheets of fluttering neon appeared to them the same way it had appeared to Ariel. They were semi-transparent and dripped the same neon purple drips that seemed to only fall halfway to the floor before changing into a fully transparent sliver that darted off towards the stars.
Zia somehow overcame the shock that this new location gave the group and he pulled the map back out of his back pocket. “This isn’t on here.” A booming noise interrupted him as he began to unfold the map and as he snapped his head back up, something ripped the map out of his hands.
Elias shoved Zia aside and then walked into the direction of the booming noise and commanded it to return Ariel to them.
A brilliant crack of thunder then shot out as a door shot up in Elias from the glassy floor.
“What is this?!” Elias examined the now solidified door.
Nothing seemed to answer him back as the booming sounds and thunder continued. He turned back towards the group and realized that they seemed to be sinking into the glassy shimmering floor. He could see that they appeared to be reaching towards him, and screaming but he couldn’t hear them.
He went to step in their direction to realize that the floor had a hold on him as well.
“A-r-r-r-i-i-i-e-e-e-l-l-l!” Elias pulled the scream from the pit of his gut. He turned back again and could now only see their heads as the mirror-like surface seemed to fill in their color. They were becoming a part of this surreal realm that they had somehow walked into.
Elias turned back towards the door in an overwhelming fear and began to panic as he struggled to step. The grip of the floor had a hold of him so tight that there seemed to be no way to get free.
With intense fervor he screamed, and screamed for Ariel as he felt himself sink deeper and deeper into the floor. His strength was running out quickly, but he hung on as long as he could until almost passing out. In that moment as it seemed he was about to be pulled into that glass floor he finally considered giving up. His quest and his team of travelers seemed to be destroying and there was nothing left to hold on to. He looked out one last time through a film of tears and lulled his head forward in defeat.
Just then, someone came through the door that shot up before him and grabbed him up from the floor and pulled him into an entirely new universe.
Upon a knoll he looked up at a sky full of thick cirrus clouds and noticed peculiar looking birds circling around. His other senses had now seemed restored as well. He could hear a waterfall, and he could smell the scent of salt water, the gardened environs, and he could feel the little pebbles and sand beneath his fingers.
Elias then sat up and his eyes came back to a focus as he viewed a glorious waterfall just across from where he was.
The color of the water was almost pink, and the rocky surroundings were a flat earthly grey. Everywhere beside the water were areas of sand that didn’t seem quite right. Its color was almost turquoise and glittery.
He tried to gain enough strength to sit up a bit further until he realized that the skin was missing from his feet. A quick punch of terror slammed him in the face as blood trickled out of his nose.
He rolled over to his stomach and struggled to crawl away from the water. As he had, the pain had finally registered as he bellowed out guttural screams of pain. He pulled himself despite the misery and fought with the stinging agony and tugged himself along that sandy bank. The birds cawed and hissed above him in a disturbing manner almost as if they were waiting for him to die. His body shook terribly as he locked up in pain.
“Please”—“he begged as he wiped the blood from his nose—“let me die …”
He reached forward again, and this time his hand brushed up against Ariel’s leg. He looked up at her through his sloppy, emotional state of defeat and attempted to smile at her.
She appeared glassy and statuesque but he was still relieved to have finally located her in the conundrum of environs that he had to fight through.
“Ariel …” His voice was woven with the shaky tears that poured from his drying eyes. “Please.” He let go of her leg just then and struggled to sit up from the sad, and beaten position he’d slithered along in. “I …”
“Shh …” The glassy Ariel squatted down in front of Elias.
He looked up at her innocently, and smiled briefly through his pain and destruction, and asked her. “Where are we?”
The glassy Ariel’s head tilted sideways just slightly, and a half-smile cracked apart the glassy surface around her lips. “Welcome to Aramanu.”
Just then the glass fell off of the dark figure in heaping amounts of shards and it stood from the crouched position and shot up quickly into the sky, and then shot back down at breakneck speed and melted into the beaten body of Elias.
His eyes turned all black as his body convulsed violently. The blackness shot all through his body and drained what was left of Elias and when it was through sucking out his soul; it expanded like gas inside of the carcass until causing it to explode into trillions of microscopic pieces. They transmogrified themselves into the transparent slivers.
Footnote: This short story was inspired by the progressive rock band: Ozric Tentacles and their album Pyramidion. I’d been in a real creative mood lately, and since it is the Christmas season, I felt like sharing this little gem for free without the processes of waiting for publication and printing. I may revise it much more in the future and make it a magazine submission but for now … this is my gift to all of you who love and appreciate my artistic gifts.
© All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations em- bodied in critical articles or reviews.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.