The heavens an upturned bowl overhead...
Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead, hang stars like seeds of light / In vain, though not since they were sown was bred, anything more bright. / And evermore mighty multitudes ride, about, nor enter in; / Of the other multitudes that dwell inside, never yet was one seen. / The forest foxglove is purple, the marguerite, outside is gold and white, / Nor can those that pluck either blossom greet, the others, day or night.– The Dark Forest, Edward ThomasThe few stars in the night sky winked and glowed fitfully over a snow-laden forest near the mountain. They watched a small figure as it made a slow, winding track across the glittering winter landscape. A little lantern swung beside it, making a tiny pool of light in the darkness. The moon shone off its silvery hair...and the stars glanced off the silver and gold sparkles of the feathers on the being's wings.
The figure was an angel, of course. She was a slim girl who looked like she might be in her prime years, but then, who knew with heaven's messengers? This one looked young, but all the age and wisdom of the cosmos shone from her violet eyes.
As she walked, it became clear where she was heading. A small stone arch stood on the mountainside. It was collapsing to the ground in small increments, but its intricately carved lintel stood unchanged, as if it hadn't quite given up yet. It was surrounded by a faint glow, almost imagined, and if a mortal had looked through it, just out of the corner of his eye, he would have seen a slight haze, like rising heat.
One obstacle still stood between the angel and her goal.
It was the dark forest of storybook tales and horrid imaginings. Tall pines reached for the sky, desperately trying to dethrone the moon. A chill wind blew between their trunks, pushing the heavy burdens of snow off their branches and dumping them unceremoniously to the ground. Pine needles coated the ground thickly wherever the snow had not fallen.
Deep in those dark spaces, shades twisted in unending agony.
They writhed through the trees, keeping to the blackest shadows and silently crying out to the night, helpless souls of every distant corner of the earth. Every waxing and waning of the moon they gathered in the darkest holes and crevices of this forest, and many like it, forgotten and lonely, their bodies stolen, lost, or simply left unburied in the thickets and alleys and fathomless pools. Now they came forward, drawn to the light.
The angel stepped forward too, into the forest. Her voice was at once the clamorous baying of the hunt and the gentle hush of renewing spring rains, beautiful and terrible, and entirely irresistible. With it she called out to all the hopeless wraiths.
“I am the angel of the deep forests and tangled thickets, the endless wood and the green coppice. Follow me.” And with that one short sentence, she began to tread a path through the forest, making for the arch on the mountain.
The spirits continued to silently twist and howl. Why should we go?, they cried among themselves. We are better forgotten and hidden in this deep gloom. It is suited to us. But her voice was overwhelming powerful, beckoning to them. They yearned for the small, lively flame of the gold lantern that the angel was carrying...it held promises. She might take them to a better place than this cold uncaring wood. With a few more silently screeching grumbles, they began to follow.
It was a sight to rival the most amazing and terrifying spectacle. The angel walked in front, encased in her yellow cocoon of light, while behind her it seemed that nothingness itself was following in her footsteps. The trees shivered in their wake, and any animals brave enough to make their home in the forest ran away, gibbering in terror.
After a while they made it through the forest and broke out onto the snow at the foot of the mountain. The arch stood before them, inviting them forward, and the as the angel walked through there was a tangible change in the air. It was...warmer, somehow. The spirits dithered fearfully at the foot of the slope.
"Come," said the angel, "through the arch."
They had come this far, hadn't they?
The spirits started forward, walking slowly through the arch. And then an amazing thing happened.
As each spirit walked through the arch, they were no longer twisting shadows. They took on form and shape, becoming as they had been in life. Peasants, farmers, priests, kings. Slaves, doctors, courtesans, merchants. Male and female. The young and the old. Death did not distinguish between class, age, race or creed.
Their faces were gaunt and hollow-eyed. For most, life had not been kind. And for all, neither had death. They were all faintly transparent; corporeal, but not really alive.
The angel and her retinue continued up the mountain, no longer a column of writhing darkness. A chill wind blew across the side of the rocky slope, but in their half-ghost state they did not feel it. Their torment was spiritual, not material. The angel herself was divine, and divine beings do not succumb to earthly discomforts.
It seemed like years before they reached the summit, and maybe it had been. Time had long since dropped away, for it was only a part of the tangible world, which they were now leaving. The angel stood on the peak, and the lost spirits gathered around her. She reached her arms to the sky, beseeching the Heavens.
"Take these wayward souls," she intoned. "Take them into your divine care and set them on the Path to eternal rest."
For a heartbeat, nothing happened. Then a pure light began to shine, bathing the angel in its ethereal glow. A loud boom rolled across the mountain-top, and the spirits huddled in terror. Then the phosphorescence began to spread, illuminating the summit, and in its now-brilliant radiance the spirits began to fragment, each reverting back to the fundamental particles of which they were made, becoming...as dust.
This celestial dust began to move, blowing around the angel as if caught in a cyclone. It rose above her in a great pillar, rising up to the heavens that called it irrevocably home. As it ascended ever higher it seemed that the sky was suddenly overloaded, glutted on starlight, each particle shining like a sun.
Then it was gone. The angel stood alone on the mountain, staring towards the sky, waiting. Slowly, new stars began to blaze in its dark void, overflowing, each a fresh, newborn flame. She lowered her arms.
The task was done.
All over the world she and her sisters and brothers had gathered the forgotten dead, absolving them of whatever sin had caused them to be lost in the sands of time, leading them, and finally, passing them on into divine care. They had refilled the heavens, bringing new souls to glow brightly over the earth, bringing hope, painting the sky with stars.