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Published by Inkshares Genres: Fantasy
THE PHANTOM FOREST / Liz Kerin
The day the mortals discovered the afterlife, the sky opened up—and it never closed again.
That day, a black fissure appeared across the Underworld’s pale violet sky, like someone
had torn a hole in the very fabric of the universe. There was nothing beyond the tear but
darkness—a black veil, dividing one world from the other. The rupture in the sky remained, like
a scar—reminding any immortal creature who glimpsed it that their home would never be a
Haben hadn’t been there when it happened. He had not yet arrived in the Underworld, nor
had he received his eternal sentence. But he knew what it meant, the first time he saw it.
Enlightenment had come at a price for the mortal world. That he’d seen: decades of violent
infighting. Ruin beyond redemption. For all their intellect and technological prowess, the
humans fell on their own sword. Sometimes, Haben thought they deserved it. They’d reached for
something they were never meant to grasp. Underworld dwellers had always been able to cross
to the other side and observe the mortal world, but the opposite was forbidden. There was a
reason the humans were left in the dark. They were greedy. Selfish. Their simple minds couldn’t
absorb the truth.
Haben was glad to be rid of the mortal world at first. But that was before he understood
the meaning of his new life, before he understood what it meant to be a demon. Before the
He glanced up at the rising sun and the jagged black rock face that loomed before him.
He only had a few more minutes to reach his destination. The dark fissure in the sky, the mortals’
window to their world, would soon align with the cliff above him. He knew sending a message to
the other side was hopeless; the mortals didn’t watch the veil anymore. All the demons knew
that. But it didn’t stop them from trying.
Haben grasped a craggy foothold, hoisting himself up onto the cliff. The sleeve of his
tattered robe shifted, revealing two identical black tattoos snaking up the length of both his arms.
He was always startled, even after so many hundreds of years, to catch sight of them: diagonal
lines, originating at his elbow crease, crisscrossing down the pale flesh of his forearm toward his
wrist, creating the appearance of a cage on his skin. He couldn’t help but think, as he always did,
of their resemblance to shackles.
Dohv marked all his servants this way once he claimed them.
As he climbed, Haben remembered the first time he had observed his immortal body in
the sunlight, how horrified he had been when he realized he could see straight through the flesh
on his arms if he looked hard enough. Dohv, Lord of the Underworld and Keeper of Life, had
given him a new encasement for his soul, different from the body he’d had in life. His ashen skin
housed organs, organs that circulated blood—blood that would never run dry, so long as the
universe endured. He had been made this way for a reason, so he could still experience whatever
physical pain Dohv wished to visit upon him.
Haben had only seen his reflection once, in the dark, mirror-like floor of Dohv’s palace.
He was struck by the face of the man staring back at him. He had not aged, but he was gaunt.
Sallow. A husk of his former self. His eyes, lively and green, that had suited his face so perfectly
in life, bulged disproportionately above his protruding cheekbones. His hair had thinned to
wisps. He dared to hope he could still glimpse the man he used to be, underneath it all. But he
hadn’t looked at himself even once since then.
With an exhausted grunt, Haben pulled himself up over the edge of the obsidian cliff. As
dawn crested the horizon, the rupture in the sky inched toward the spot where he stood. Haben
caught his breath, gazing across the enormous stone slab before him, at the hundreds of
thousands of crude etchings that had been carved into it. He plucked a shard of rock from the
ground and clutched it in his shaky fist. Even though he knew it was useless, even though he’d
tried it so many times to no avail, he found a small, blank space and began to write:
I . . . Am . . .
Haben wasn’t sure what lay on the other side of that fissure in the sky, but he knew the
humans weren’t watching anymore. Not since the war. But still, he longed to tell them . . .
I . . . Am . . . Sorr . . .
At that moment, he dropped the stone and doubled over with an agonized growl. He felt
as though he’d swallowed a knife that was stabbing him from the inside out. He collapsed onto
his side, bracing himself. Here it comes. Here was his punishment from Dohv. Here was the
Whenever Dohv’s curse reared its ugly head, it took Haben by surprise, even though it
had been happening for centuries. He would languish, starving, until he finally accepted his fate:
to cross to the other side and consume his sacrifice. He would eat his fill, destroying, bit by
anguished bit, whatever was left of his mortal soul.
The second hunger pang hit Haben like a tidal wave and forced him to draw his legs to
his chest. He gnawed on the top of his knee to keep himself from screeching like a tortured
animal. This was the breaking point for a living being, the moment a starving person would
succumb to death. But for Haben, there would be no release. There would be no death.
As he writhed on the ground, he mouthed the words he was unable to finish writing.
“S-sorry. I am . . . S—”
But he knew he’d soon give in. He always did. And even as he howled and cursed
Dohv’s name for such a gruesome sentence, he knew he deserved every moment of it for the
crimes he had committed. He had earned this terrible, endless fate.
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