This story is by Devin Farmer and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
One by one, we ventured into the canopy forest. We were given a stainless-steel canteen that predated the Cold War, a flintstone, and a worn pocket knife. Some considered this cruel, spending a week in the Black Forest. Others thought this a rite of passage once you turned eighteen. Not I. It was a bleak reminder that we would be disregarded, our immaterial hold on our families severed indefinitely.
On the eve of my eleventh birthday, I was dragged from my bed before the sun kissed the horizon and given a glimpse of what lay beyond our stone walls—an eerie quiet followed by immense darkness. After that, my life changed, and my training began. Each lesson was engrained into my steel mind until it became second nature. And yet, each year, I watched as fewer children crossed through the threshold of our stone walls on the seventh day. Why do so few return? Each succeeding year until I turned eighteen, my fear built as I thought about those who didn’t return.
“One cannot live nestled in a meadow ripe with bloom without venturing into the Black Forest. Your time in the Black Forest is where you shed your naivete. Your dependence. Once you’ve done that, then you will be truly welcomed.” The village patriarch told each of us the same thing, one by one. Now, it was my turn to be guided by those words.
As I ventured deeper into the forest, bloodcurdling screams could be heard in the distance. It was hard to pinpoint the exact source, but what terrified me more came next. Silence. A veil of silence clung in the air like a relentless fog.
Where are the woodland creatures? Birds squawking as they soar above. Squirrels skittering up trees. The rustling of leaves and moss-soaked branches from the critters below.
Every legend carries a bit of truth—follow the breadcrumbs, my father whispered in the recesses of my mind. This forest—destroys from within. Don’t let your mind be the chink in your armor.
“I’m stronger than that,” I said just above a whisper.
Until nightfall, my subconscious echoed back. Night welcomes a rampant mind.
I shook my head and trudged forward.
The deeper I went into the Black Forest, the more the salvation of light receded. My eyes perked from their tired slumber, only to be met with darkness. “Relax, Aife. The only thing to fear—” The trees swayed and creaked a hollow tune in response. An unsettling feeling washed over me. Stay calm… It’s only the wind.
And possibly an evoker— my subconscious retorted.
My heartbeat began to race like a thread twisting on a spindle. Fast and steady. I positioned my legs shoulder-width apart and held, with trembling hands, the opened pocketknife out in front of me as my head jerked in every direction, trying to pinpoint the cause of my fear. Something. Anything.
That was when I noticed soft arcs of brilliant gold through a thicket of trees. A fire… Thank the heavens, I’m saved. Like a moth drawn to a flame, I was mesmerized by its whirling motion and found myself trailing toward it. With only one thought—with light, blooms hope.
As I grew nearer, the air turned cold. Biting. Its threads, if ignored, begin to snare its prey until it expelled its last breath, phrases of the legend of the Evoker whispered in the recesses of my mind.
As I pressed forward, my skin mounted into silent screams, as did my legs. Almost there. Just a few more steps. I was nearly upon the faint glow when an unforgiving odor halted my stride. What is that horrible stench? It smelled of pine tar from a deserted wood production camp.
I tried to rein in my abrupt cough, but the smell intensified. Tenfold. I shielded my nose and mouth with my arm in response. That was when I felt an unnatural cold nipping at my exposed skin.
I remembered the soft arcs of brilliant gold. It was close now. Dangerously close. That’s when my body went rigid.
The soft arcs of brilliant gold were not a glow of embers but a single flame perched on a wick tucked inside an unpolished lantern. A lantern? But how? The only thing that carries a lantern is—my eyes trailed upward towards its keeper. Its hand was greyish, withered, and scabbed. Its body was draped in tattered, long robes while its face was obscured. Evoker. It exuded this immense hunger as it whirled the flame in a frenzied dance—the art of mimicry.
I stepped backward slowly while my eyes were fixated on the evoker. I thought back on my training, for any memory, any clue as to how to evade an evoker. But my mind repeatedly recited a phrase—darkness ends where light begins.
Darkness ends… where… light begins. My mind mauled over those words. Just when an idea popped into my head, a gentle breeze swept through the forest, untethering several pinecones from their slumber. Soft thuds echoed around me. At first, nothing happened; all was quiet. But then another pinecone kissed my head, and I groaned in response. The creature was fully aware of my presence and began its pursuit.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I turned and hurried in the opposite direction of the evoker. Don’t stop. Every bristle bush left its mark in my wake while the cold assaulted my lungs with every breath I took. But I didn’t care. I kept running.
“Run, evade,” my subconscious kept screaming. Each stride was more forced than the last. As I made my way through the forest, I searched for anything useful, for my body couldn’t withstand much more.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a crook in a nearby tree and squeezed myself inside. I waited there with closed eyes as I listened to the forest. Branches creaked a hollow tune. Think, Aife. You have a knife and a flint. She thought back to her training. Most things flee when faced with fire. I peeked my head out slowly so as not to be heard. A soft glow whirled aimlessly in the sea of darkness. Ravenous in its search to locate me.
“You can’t stay here,” my subconscious replied naturally.
A thunderous bellow broke the silence, followed by a sharp pain. I clenched my stomach in response. Not now. But my hunger continued its assault upon me and brought me to my knees. I laid my head upon the cold earth with closed eyes.
I could hear rustling in the distance as I lay there, frozen in place. Here it comes. I clenched my teeth, feeling helpless. I thought of the ones that came before me, those that met the same fate I face now.
What were their last thoughts? Did they accept defeat?
I turned my head slightly and watched the evoker slow its stride. It hunts not by sight but by sound. Its movements were minuscule as it combed the forest.
“Here.” I groaned. “If you want me, come and get me.” I moved to rest on my knees. I will not go without a fight. I took out my pocket knife and pointed the blade at the evoker. “Let’s dance.”
Without hesitation, the evoker hurled itself towards me with precision. I tightened my grip on the pocket knife and let out a scream before I, too, lunged at the evoker.
Before I could get the first strike, a piercing light permeated nearby. In that instant, the evoker was gone and vanished without a trace.
Where is it? Where is the evoker? And what was that strange light?
“Are you okay, child?” An unfamiliar voice asked. I was brought out of my thoughts. A weather-beaten man whose face was as strange as his voice was standing before me. He was draped in leather from top to bottom.
“The evoker, where did it run off to?” I glanced around anxiously.
“Evoker? Well, that’s a term I haven’t heard since I was a kid.”
I stared at him for a long moment before adding, “Are you from Old Dalry?”
The man eyed her suspiciously. “The legend of Old Dalry is an old tale told to unruly kids.” I just stared at him as he continued. “From what I recall, Old Dalry was a small village on the outskirts of the Black Forest. Each year, the people from Old Dalry celebrated a sabbath in the Black Forest where they offered their children to the evokers as sacrifices, and any children who returned to the village on the seventh day were rejected.”
I collapsed to the ground. I didn’t know whether it was from shock or exhaustion, but my gut told me he spoke the truth. My entire existence was based on a lie.
“What if I told you Old Dalry is a real place, and children still participate in the annual sabbath based on pretense?”
“I’d say I packed light.” The man grinned.