Something terrible had come into the world. Something evil. Invisible, intangible. Some corruption that could not be perceived. And therefore could not be fought. By the time it had a grip on someone, it was too late. The corruption seeped into every part of that person, defiling their heart, twisting their thoughts, draining the very life out of their body.
No land was spared. No person was spared, no matter how pure, how honorable, how fit of body, how courageous of heart. No place was hidden from this corruption.
So at last, a gathering was held of the world’s most formidable folk—scholars, sorcerers, healers, leaders, artisans, those who excelled at thinking, those who excelled at doing, and those who excelled at building. They deemed that the only way to fight and ultimately defeat this vile corruption would be to give it form, make it manifest in ways that they could perceive. If they could see it, touch it, then they could fight it, maybe even destroy it. And if they could not destroy it, at least they could contain or imprison it, or send it back from whence it came and lock the way so it could not return.
The task was a difficult one—some said it was impossible—for to study the corruption, they had to first perceive it. But they could not perceive it without making it manifest. And they could not make it manifest without studying it.
The only choice was to study those whom the corruption already had in its grip. After many agonizing years, the alliance of the world’s great thinkers, builders, and leaders found a way to make the corruption manifest.
Not knowing what dangers awaited those who would face the congealed corruption, they found a place, a clearing bordered by mountains and an empty wood. No peoples lived in this place or anywhere near it for leagues.
The alliance began its work. The corruption that had invaded their world began to take form, to take shape, to become visible to the eye, audible to the ear, and tangible to the touch. But it did not take a single form. It shifted and changed. The alliance fought it, with sword and spell, with magic and machine, with rage and fear and desperate hope in their hearts.
A great battle raged.
In the end, the alliance managed to destroy the corruption. But as it took its dying breath, it cursed all those who’d fought it and still lived, a legion of warriors, scholars, artisans, and leaders.
The corruption did not have the strength left to kill them all, but it could not bear to spare any, so it struck out with all its remaining power.
The people who had once been allied against a great evil that invaded their world, became creatures trapped halfway between life and death. They could only abide at night. They vanished in sunlight. Not just their mortal forms, but even their souls would vanish forever. They tried to seek aid, hiding from sunlight in the woods. They soon discovered that living people could no longer understand their speech. They soon discovered that they were the ones who were deemed horrors, who were deemed evil.
The living feared these strange creatures who haunted the woods, only came out at night, chased after the living, and uttered fearsome whispers that made no sense and sounded like evil spells.
Sunlight was the only force that could destroy these night phantoms.
But the living soon found a way that the phantoms could be contained. There existed a stone suffused with veins of a certain alloy, and this stone could drive back a night phantom. The sovereign of the land commissioned the building of a wall made of this special stone around the border that the wood shared with open lands. The wall would keep the phantoms contained. And it would keep people from traveling through the wood and aiding in the spread of the phantoms to other places.
An age passed, and the wall began to crumble. The lands around it, once empty and barren, began to fill, with towns and villages. A road was built through the wood, so that travelers might pass between two bordering baronies. The night phantoms had become nothing but rumor by then. But they would soon become truth again.
For again the living encountered the night phantoms along the new road.
The people living in those lands did not flee. They remembered the lore about the night phantoms. They fortified the stone wall. They placed cords hung with small pebbles made from the special stone around the necks of newborn babies, and larger talismans around the necks of those who traveled the road.
Sometimes a traveler went missing. Sometimes a night phantom was trapped out in the sun and flickered away never to trouble another living soul. But most times the living traveled the road by day. And the phantoms emerged at night.
A fragile balance arose.
Then, late one morning, a man happened to be approaching the door to his brother’s house, when his little niece ran up to him and told him that she had just seen a night phantom.
The man’s name was Kairos and he gripped his niece by her shoulders.
“Are you hurt? Did it harm you?” he asked.
The girl shook her head. “He asked for water. That’s all.”
Kairos released his niece. He placed a gentle hand on her head. “Did it frighten you?”
She nodded once. But then she twisted her mouth.
“What is it?” Kairos said.
“He asked for water, uncle. I thought night…I thought they didn’t speak. Maybe it was just a man.”
Kairos asked her to describe the man or the phantom. She said that it looked like a person, like a man with pale gray skin, pale gray clothing, and empty eyes. This man’s form flickered, as if he were half made of air. He was standing under a tree, but wherever the sunlight struck him, he seemed to have vanished altogether. He had tried to take a step toward her, but had suddenly stopped. And that was when she ran away.
It certainly sounded as if she had stumbled upon a night phantom during the day. Her mother had sent her to market early that morning, and the girl had thought to steal some extra moments of sleep by taking a shortcut that partly passed through the wood.
Kairos told his niece to go inside and tell her mother and father what she had told him, and to tell them that her uncle would handle the matter from there on, so that she need not ever worry about seeing or even speaking of that phantom again.
Then he went to go report the girl’s phantom sighting to the local guard. He expected that they would dispatch a guard to go check on the phantom and watch to ensure that it vanished in the sunlight.
From the stories Kairos had heard, he had thought that phantoms vanished in an instant when struck by sunlight. But he wasn’t surprised to learn that the details were different in truth. And if that one detail was different, others might be too.
The local guard, however, found the girl’s story to be dubious. He suggested that she’d probably run into a vagrant who’d been sleeping under a tree, and he’d frightened her. No night phantom would willingly be caught out in the sunlight. And even if it was a phantom, it had surely either gone into hiding, or been destroyed by the sunlight, never to trouble the world again.
“But what if it is a phantom?” Kairos asked. “What if it’s still there? Shouldn’t you see for yourself?”
The guard pointed to him. “I have real work to do. If you’re so convinced, why don’t you go see for yourself?”
Kairos could think of only one reason that a night phantom would be found out in the open during the day. It was trapped somehow.
If that were so, part of him hoped that the phantom had worked itself out of the trap by the time he reached the spot where his niece said she had encountered it. But another part of him hoped that the phantom would still be there, so that he could watch it perish, and know that the path that his niece and others traveled would be safe once again.
When he saw the figure, sitting on the ground, not under a tree, but some distance from one, Kairos felt his heart begin to thump faster and faster. He gulped when he drew close enough to see that the figure did indeed look just like a man with pale gray skin wearing pale gray attire.
Every now and then, parts of the man’s form flickered out of view, but he didn’t move. He was sitting on the ground, but when he saw Kairos approach, the phantom stood. Kairos stopped. The phantom tried to take a step, but could not, and Kairos saw why. There was a single stone the size of a fist, lying on, or rather in the phantom’s left foot. It looked like an ordinary stone, but unless the phantom was feigning being trapped, it must have been one of the special stones that made up the boundary wall. As the wall had crumbled and been rebuilt, smaller bits of stone had fallen and been moved through the wood, rolled by the wind and kicked by the feet of travelers. Maybe that stone had been lying there, and the phantom had not seen it as it made its way through the wood, seeking to escape and spread its corruption throughout the world.
“Water,” the phantom whispered, its pale gray eyes shifting down toward the water skin that hung from Kairos’s belt.
Kairos gulped and realized that his own mouth had gone completely dry. All the moisture seemed to have been drawn to his brow and his temple, which grew damp. He dared himself to step toward the phantom. As he did, he noted that the sun shone all the way through the phantom’s right shoulder. He took another step, and the shoulder was visible again. There was no doubt. This was no living man.
The phantom raised an arm and pointed to the water skin. “Water…please.”
Kairos gaped, and before he realized what he was doing, he spoke.
“Why do you need water?”
“I am thirsty.”
Kairos was again startled that he could understand the phantom. And he was startled that the phantom had understood him. He began to wonder if the creature before him was something else. He did not doubt that there were many creatures and beings unknown to him that abided in the world right alongside him. This…couldn’t be a phantom. Maybe he was the victim of a phantom. Maybe he had been attacked, bitten, infected with corruption somehow. Kairos had not heard if such a thing was possible. But there was much he did not know. He would have to take care in what he said to and asked of the man.
“How can you feel thirst?” Kairos asked. “You’re a phantom.”
The phantom blinked his thin gray lids and tilted his head down. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I only remember thirst. Only remember water.”
Kairos dabbed his temple with the back of his hand. “And if I give you water, will you be satisfied?”
“My thirst will be satisfied.”
Kairos crossed his arms. “So…what else will you ask for, I wonder?”
The phantom did not answer at first, only gazing in the direction of the water skin that Kairos had now hidden beneath his arms.
“Only some company in my last hours,” the phantom said at last. “And only if you will it that you should be that company.”
“Is there nothing else you require? Nothing else you desire?” Kairos tried not to look at the sparkling stone that lay within the phantom’s flickering foot.
“Nothing that you would be likely grant,” the phantom said.
They both fell silent, while Kairos tried to decide what he might ask next. He could aim for riddles and trickery, but he turned to simple curiosity instead.
“Do you have a name?”
The phantom flickered in the sunlight. “I don’t remember my name,” he said. “Call me Xenos.”
“It is…strange to meet you, Xenos.”
“Strange it may be for you. For me, it is a pleasure.” The phantom bowed his head slightly and at an odd angle, as if he were offering a courtesy he had not practiced in a long while. “And I would know the name of the one who has granted me the kindness of his company.”
Kairos bit his lip to stop himself from responding. The old habits of politeness, so firmly acquired in youth, were difficult to break.
“You are hesitant,” the phantom said. “Of course. Keep your name to yourself. I’ll call you my neighbor.”
As they spoke, the phantom seemed to be growing more substantive. His gray skin blushed with signs of a living hue. His eyes darkened from an almost-white to a clear gray, and his whispering voice was gaining a natural resonance.
Kairos remained on his guard. He suspected some kind of illusion meant to draw him closer so that the phantom could convince him to remove that stone. Then he would either escape or rush at Kairos.
Without turning his back on the phantom, Kairos stepped toward a nearby stream. He filled his half-empty water skin and stood at what he deemed a safe distance. He threw the skin at the phantom’s feet. He prayed he hadn’t just doomed himself as the phantom bent down and picked up the water skin. His hand flickered and vanished, and the water skin dropped to the ground. Kairos watched as the phantom lifted it again and quickly drank while his form still held substance.
The phantom tossed the water skin back to Kairos, who caught it by instinct, and then set it on the ground. He quickly washed his hands in the stream.
“Forgive me,” the phantom said. “I had forgotten for the moment what I am to you.”
Though he meant no offense, Kairos did not apologize. He was only doing what he deemed he must to protect himself. If all he had done to the phantom was offer insult, it was far less than what night phantoms were said to do to their victims. But perhaps as living folk were not all the same, night phantoms were not all same. None of the stories spoke of night phantoms being charming and polite to trick their victims. But then…there may be stories he had not yet heard, stories with more truth in them than the ones he had heard.
In the afternoon sunlight, the phantom began to take on the hue of the soft pink blossoms that grew nearby in scattered patches.
He sat back down. Kairos remained standing at a distance, having decided he would remain so for as long as he could manage while the sun still shone in the sky.
Sure enough, Kairos was right about the phantom having further complaints. Now that his thirst was quenched, he began to complain of feeling hunger.
“I did not recognize it at first,” the phantom who named himself Xenos said. “But there is a murmuring in my gut that I am certain is not caused by the flickering of my form.” He seemed sincerely surprised. He claimed he didn’t remember the last time he felt hunger.
Kairos did not speak. Again the instinct of hospitality needled him to at least offer the phantom whatever stale bit of bread he might still have wrapped up in some pocket of his vest. But the more he gave, the more the phantom would ask, and Kairos would soon find himself removing that special stone, and being devoured by a night phantom. It would be a reckless and foolish way to die.
The phantom drew up his knees and wrapped his arms around them. He tilted his face up to the sky. “It would have been nice to have a last meal, but the water was refreshing, and I even take some pleasure in the feel of the sunlight upon me.”
The sky was still bright with sunlight. But it would not be so in a few hours’ time. Kairos kept his gaze fixed on the phantom.
“When night falls,” Kairos said, “I expect you’ll grow strong enough to break free of that stone that holds you.”
“I will not make it to nightfall, neighbor,” the phantom said. “I will fade as the last rays of sunlight fade. The sun will return tomorrow. I will not.”
Another silence fell between them. The phantom’s chest and shoulders moved slowly up and down, as if he were breathing.
“You will be free of thirst, hunger, and all the troubles of this world,” Kairos said. “Is that not blessed? Will your spirit not pass into the life that comes after this one?”
“Alas, it will not.”
“Then…what will become of you?”
The phantom closed his eyes. “I will cease to be. The sunlight will destroy my form, but that is no great harm. Our mortal forms are not meant to abide forever. The harm is to my spirit. It will be swallowed up by a void, a nameless void that hungers always, and is never sated. Even now I feel its pull upon me. I can resist because I am anchored to this world. But once that anchor vanishes, I will not have the strength to resist. Even the memory of me has died, it died when all those who held that memory died, many generations ago, I expect. And so, I will truly cease to be.”
Kairos said nothing then, for he knew not what to say. Xenos spoke instead.
“You feel pity for me, even though I am a night phantom.”
“I do,” Kairos said. “Perhaps I’m a fool to think so, but you do not seem to be an evil creature bent on tormenting and killing me, or anyone else.”
“What do you know of our story?” the phantom asked.
Kairos shared what he knew from the stories he had heard, stories from his youth, rumors from travelers of the wood, songs sung by bards. He knew of the corruption, of the heroes gathered to fight it, of the tragic battle in which the corruption was thought to be destroyed. But the corruption found a way to live on by infecting the very heroes who thought they had defeated it, and turning them into creatures who lingered between life and death, and whose minds and senses had been burned away, leaving behind only the evil instinct to hunt for the flesh and the souls of the living.
Xenos listened without interruption. And when Kairos finished speaking, the phantom was silent still for many more moments.
Finally, he rose slowly, and said, “Let me tell you the tale as I lived it.”
Xenos told of the gathering of thinkers and builders, of the forging of an alliance, of the plan to manifest what could not be perceived, so that it could be destroyed or at least trapped. He told of the final desperate battle in which the corruption was indeed destroyed, and of the curse that gave rise to the night phantoms.
“We were indeed touched by the corruption,” Xenos said. “But it is not as you think. We do not commit horrors. But you are not wrong to flee when you see us, for we are cursed to be the harbingers of horrors. Our minds are filled with dire prophecy. And we are compelled to warn. Alas, because we ourselves are horrific, none have ever listened to our warnings. None can listen. For their fear makes our voices sound like the screams of mindless monsters.”
Kairos too listened as the phantom spoke. He too was compelled. “I will return,” he said. And he left the phantom standing in the midst of grass and flowers and sunlight, soon to fade and never to be again.
The sky was still full of sunlight when Kairos returned. But the light was beginning to dim.
Xenos had been sitting, and he had grown pale again, the pink fading from his form as he sat still and alone in the wood.
But a blush of pink passed over his coat as he watched Kairos approach, bearing a platter with a bowl and a glass. Steam rose from the bowl, beside which sat a fresh red apple.
“I am pleased and honored that you have returned,” Xenos said. “And it seems you will stay awhile longer.” He pointed to the platter.
Kairos smiled. “This is not for me,” he said. He stepped closer to the phantom than he had before, but still hesitated.
Xenos held up his hand. “You need not come closer. The offering is enough.”
Kairos raised a brow. “You said you were hungry. That was a while ago.”
Kairos extended his hand as far as he could, holding the platter toward the phantom, who likewise extended his hand, and quickly grasped the platter, so that Kairos could step back. The apple rolled off, and Kairos caught it.
“Quick hands, neighbor!” Xenos said, turning and placing the platter on the ground, before his flickering form dropped it.
He spun back around as Kairos laughed and tossed him the apple.
But then Kairos gasped and brought his hand to his mouth.
The phantom’s flickering ceased. His form turned solid. His coat, trousers, and boots darkened, though his complexion remained pale.
Xenos bowed as he caught the apple. A glowing cloak of light appeared around him, flowing out and back from his shoulders. The colors of his clothing began to bleed into the cloak.
The phantom straightened. His complexion too darkened now. In that moment, it seemed he was a phantom no longer. He grinned at Kairos. “A mighty anchor you have made for me, my friend.”
“But…you are still vanishing.” Kairos glanced down at the stone that had just rolled off Xenos’s foot when it grew solid.
“Yes, it is a shame I won’t be enjoying the meal your brought. It smells wonderful.” Xenos took a bite of the apple, chewed it, and swallowed. “Wonderful.”
Kairos shook his head. “What can I do?”
“You have fed me with your food and with your company,” Xenos said. “Whatever becomes of me now, if I vanish forever, or if my spirit is saved and granted passage into the lives that come after this, I must have you know that you have restored me to life with your kindness. Perhaps that knowledge is the only kindness that you will accept from me. But if you will listen and heed, I see a danger coming. I will tell you of it now, so that you may avoid it. I hope that you will.”
Xenos delivered his warning, as he had tried to do so many times with so many others. This time, his warning was understood. This time, his warning was heeded.
Kairos held up a hand as a farewell. “Who knows, perhaps we will see each other again on another road in another realm.”
“I hope it will be so.”
“I should give you my name, then. So that you will know me.”
Xenos held up his hand now, as the rest of him flowed away. “You’ve given me enough, friend. I don’t need your name. If I am fortunate enough to meet you again, I will know you. I will remember your spirit.”
Sunlight faded from the sky. And Xenos faded from the world.
But not entirely.
“And I will remember your spirit,” Kairos said.
He stayed a while in silence to honor the passing of a life.
As night fell, he returned home. New thoughts began to stir in his mind, even as the wood began to stir with phantoms.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel