"How is this possible?” The Phantom shook his antlers in dismay.
“Walk with me, my friend,” Yorres asked. “I’m afraid the clock is still ticking for me.”
The companions strode forward in lock-step. The Phantom was a recluse, a near legend to many deer, but Yorres’ wandering and solitary lifestyle had led him to cross paths with him many times. After a few seasons, the two spoke and at length discovered in the other the kindred spirit found amongst solitary nomads and hermits.
“It was you then who followed us from the Mushroom Circle?” Yorres asked.
The Phantom nodded. “Yes, it was I. In truth, I was not far from you when you first returned, but you ran before I could approach you safely.” He turned his empty eyes to the mage again. “She was not there? Lemon was not among those who have passed?”
The Phantom had loved Lemontwist, an elegant and beautiful young doe. Known to her friends as Lemon, her joy and effervescence perfectly counterbalanced the Phantom's sorrow and isolation. The Phantom had been jealous of Lemon’s other friends and acquaintances, particularly during the last rutting season. Then, one fine November day, Lemon had suddenly and inexplicably vanished. The Phantom secretly blamed himself for driving her away with his envy. The cold and intense loner who had been brought out of his shell by Lemon’s sweetness regressed completely into isolation when she disappeared.
In truth, no one really knew why Lemon had vanished.
“She was not there, Phantom,” Yorres whispered in the darkness. “By necessity that means she is still alive. She must be wandering in some realm outside of the Endless Forest.”
The Phantom hung his head. “Then I did drive her away,” he moaned wearily.
Yorres shook his flowered antlers and clicked his tongue. “It does seem that she left, but I am less hesitant to guess what may have caused her to leave as she did.” He thought briefly of Rowan, standing on the old road near the edge of the woods as snow fell about her. His eyes lit briefly. “Take heart, my friend,” he said, suddenly turning to face the Phantom. “Part of Lemon will always be connected to the Endless Forest. She may one day yet return here.”
The Phantom looked back at the magician solemnly, then stared upwards into the night sky. “You are quite right, Yorres,” he said. “I must have patience. Surely she cannot stay away forever. Why, it has been nearly a year already!”
Hearing the reproach in the Phantom’s voice, Yorres softly replied “I am sorry to have been away for so long, my friend. It could not have been easy for you.” Yorres knew that his long absence must have been a bitter pill to the Phantom. Other than Yorres, he spoke to scarcely any other deer of the Forest. “However, I am back now and have no intention of leaving the Forest again any time in the near future.”
The Phantom smiled his eerie smile. “That is good to hear. If you ever do intend to take another excursion into the outer realms, next time do me a favor and take me along with you. The slow life here without your conversation is dull indeed.”
Yorres smiled and laughed. “If I had possessed the ability to bring you along, brother, believe me when I say I would have."
The two were walking somewhat faster now, and so engaged were they in their conversation that they very nearly collided with the silver-grey deer who suddenly emerged from a dense patch of honeysuckle vine. The Phantom reared in empty panic, his eyes glowing like malevolent lanterns. The grey deer recoiled, trotting sideways as Yorres placed himself neatly between the two stags.
“Hold, both of you!” he cried. “Phantom, be still. It is but my good and faithful student, Mar Sart.”
Mart Sart’s eyes were as big as saucers. “I am sorry, Yorres, I had not intended to upset…” his eyes watered and he swallowed as his gaze fell on the black, skulled stag and lost whatever end there may have been to his thought.
“Apologies, lightbringer,” said the Phantom. “I had no intention of hurting you.” He then bowed abruptly to the two, saying “Yorres, I thank you for your words. I will see you again soon.” With that he turned sharply and dashed into the forest.
“Wait!” shouted Yorres, but the Phantom was suddenly out of sight. “Damn. I had more to say to him.”
“That was… that was…” Mar Sart began again, not quite believing what he had just seen.
“Yes, it was he,” Yorres answered. “And you would do well to keep any little you may have heard to yourself for now, Mar Sart.” Yorres sniffed the air briefly, but there was no trace of the Phantom’s subtle musk. “Tell me, have you done as I have asked?”
“Of course!” replied the breathless Mar Sart. “I only told a very few of your return – Mystress, Seed, Sluggs… a handful of others, but I’d dare say most of the Forest must have heard the news by now, through the grapevine as it were.”
“Naturally. Word travels fast in the forest.” Yorres considered this briefly, then nodded to Mar Sart. “You have done well, my pupil. You have my thanks.”
“Certainly, “ Mar Sart replied, bowing briefly. “Yorres?”
“Unless I miss my guess, you’re somewhat pressed for time.”
Yorres raised an eyebrow at this, replying “You are correct in your assumption.”
Mar Sart smirked mischievously, whispering “I believe I can help you buy some of the time you need by means of this.” Mar Sart backed slowly away from the magician and looked steadily into his old master’s eyes, and with a very deep breath declared all at once “Speculum Statua!
” There was a mad gust of wind, and several poufs of hazy smoke surrounded Mar Sart.
When the smoke cleared, Yorres found himself face to face with his doppelganger. The two deer appeared to be identical in every way.
“Astounding, Mar Sart!” Yorres exclaimed in genuine admiration. “Formidable! The Mirror Image spell is one of the hardest transformations to master.”
Mar Sart swelled with pride. “It took some practice, but I’ve gotten quite good at this one. If I don’t stop to talk to anyone, no one will be the wiser this evening. And now the elders will have two of us to track down.” He looked over both of his shoulders then, as if feeling the weight of the pursuit. “I figure I’ll go make myself noticed in a couple of conspicuous spots to get the rumor mill going again. If you can stay out of sight, I shall lead them on a merry chase for some time before our ruse is discovered.”
Yorres smiled and bowed “Thank you again, my friend. This is far more than I could have expected or asked of anyone. You have my gratitude.” Yorres could not conceal the pride he felt for his student. “I must leave now. I’m headed to the first forest, near the old oak, so try not to linger on that side of the Forest for a while.”
“Done.” Replied Mar Sart. “Oh! And wait! One more thing…” He walked to a nearby tree, pulled a largish mushroom from its bark, and ate it at once. He swallowed, then facing Yorres, whispered “Os.
” There was a high pitched noise and a flash of light. When it faded, Yorres' standard masquerade mask had been replaced by one resembling the face, eyes and beak of the magpie. “It’s not much of a disguise, but it will keep most people from taking a second glance at you.”
Yorres shook his head and bowed. “It seems I must thank you a third time, Mar Sart. You are a clever and resourceful stag, and a credit to the Lightbringers.”
“Farewell, teacher,” replied Mar Sart. “Good Luck!”
With that, two identical deer turned and left the small glen heading in opposite directions. Mar Sart made his way to the clutch of large standing stones known as the Playground, as Yorres plunged deep into the old forest in search of his daughter and apprentice, Kaoori.
to be Continued