This story is by Zorah Green and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Dark coils of hair tickled her coffee brown skin. A small gash sat on the bridge of her nose. Her chestnut brown eyes did little to warn her away from the rocks in her path. The walking stick snapped in half, sending her stomach first into the dirt. Ahead of her, the forest stretched on for miles. Bundles of trees intertwined their branches to form an overpass of darkness.
The Forest of Apparition was a place of deathly illusions that appeared only to the lost. Few had ever escaped and lived to tell about it, but Qitara was unsure if she would be one of them.
With all the grace of an injured animal, she persisted. The burns on her exposed skin served as a painful reminder of the last time she’d been too ambitious. The darkness crept behind her at an even pace; a sudden breeze swept over her skin, raising goosebumps.
The hoarse call of a crow defiled the silence. Qitara jumped nearly dropping her stick. Pain shot up her right leg, vibrating through her bones. Blood pulsed in her ears as more crow calls joined the first in a chorus of throaty screaming.
“Lost!” One seemed to say.
Qitara thought, taking a quick look around the forest. The trees seemed farther apart than they’d been before, the eerie light revealing hundreds of similar paths.
“Lost!” The crows chanted louder; hundreds of voices coming from endless directions. Cool drops of sweat slid behind her ears and over her forehead, her body shivered.
Qitara chose the nearest path and hobbled towards it. A crow flew down from the trees, bringing several leaves down with it. His feathers were darker than the night itself and its eyes glowed an unnatural shade of silver.
“Wrong!” It shrieked, flaring its wings. “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”
Qitara stumbled and turned, but it was no use. Blocking every path was an army of screeching crows.
“Get back you stupid birds!” Qitara snapped. Swinging her stick around her she retreated, but noticed the other birds closing in.
“Wrong! Lost! Wrong!”
Leaves rained down from the trees above as swarms of crows swooped and began attacking her. The sharp beats cut her flesh and pulled her hair.
“Weak!” the crows cried. She yelped and curled into a tight ball, hoping to protect her face from the crows.
Well, this is it, she thought. I barely made it inside and I’m already dying.
“Is that what kind of adventurer you are now? You can do better than that.”
The indignant, feminine voice whispered from the forest and echoed throughout Qitara’s mind. Indignation rose up from the woman’s stomach. The strange voice was right. She was better than this.
She had been a hero for decades- a flock of birds should be nothing to her. As the thoughts passed through Qitara’s mind, the crows’ attacks brought less and less pain.
Her fingers retracted, dirt caking up her fingernails. Fast as lightning, she grabbed her stick and swung it at the birds overhead. Frightened by the sudden movement, they scattered, and their screaming devolved into incoherent squawks.
Battered and bleeding, Qitara stood up with newfound strength.
“You’re nothing but a bunch of little birds,” She laughed, picking up a stone and flinging it where a few of them had begun to cower. The birds screamed and retreated to the trees.
Blood trickled down from multiple cuts on her body, mixing with dirt and sweat. She leaned on a tree for support and scanned her surroundings. Her eyes landed on a cloaked figure peering from behind the trees. He beckoned her into the forest and disappeared from view.
Qitara tensed, with no doubt in her mind that this was another illusion out to murder her. Her skin crawled with anxiety. The treetops shook.
She glanced back and made eye contact with a crow. She turned and headed into the thick woods. The stranger hadn’t gone far. He stood there, waiting.
“Who are you?” Qitara asked, hands on her hips. “Don’t tell me you’re some illusion out to kill me.”
The cloaked figure simply shook his head. In darkness and wearing his blood-red cloak, he reminded her a little too much of the grim reaper.
“That’s reassuring,” Qitara snorted, “Why don’t you say something?”
No sooner had the words left her tongue, the cloaked figure pulled down his hood. A skinless face with large amounts of skull visible, and one green eye stared back at her. Lifting his chin, he revealed a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his neck. His skeletal hands made a snatching motion to mimic a throat being ripped out.
Qitara’s felt her own throat go dry. Her first instinct was to scream, but her body froze. “How…”
The stranger squatted, and etched a single word into the dirt:
On reflex, Qitara’s hands shot up to her face, and was met with an abundance of flesh. Albeit scraped up and bloody. It was a moment before she noticed the stranger watching her. Her hand dropped to her side, face hot with shame as the stranger scribbled in the dirt.
DON’T WORRY. BEEN HERE LONG TIME.
“Oh…” Qitara’s shoulder slumped and her fists clenched at her sides. “That’s some crappy luck. Were you…running away too?”
STORY NOT IMPORTANT. YOU HEAR VOICE?
“Yeah, actually. That wasn’t you was it?” Qitara asked, the meanness of the comment hitting her moments after she’d said it.
The stranger shrugged continued writing.
IF HEAR VOICE, FOLLOW WHILE YOU CAN STILL HEAR IT. FIND SOURCE. THEN YOU CAN LEAVE.
Qitara’s mind filled with thousands of questions that would’ve been far too complicated to answer by writing in the ground. “Alright, follow the voice; that is the clearest direction I’ve had all day…you’re coming too, right?”
TOO LATE FOR ME.
“Don’t be silly,” Qitara protested, “There’s no reason you can’t-”
The stranger pulled up the hood and covered his face. Without another word, he turned his back to her.
“Alright…” Qitara sighed, “Just don’t give up forever, alright? This is a pretty crappy place to die.”
* * *
The voices spoke up now and again, leading Qitara alongside a brook that grew wider every so often. Almost every hour, she ran into some new horrific monster that attacked her, sank their teeth into her skin, and shouted horrible things.
Even with the voices offering encouragement Qitara found herself getting jumpy, waiting for the return of the crows.
She was met with something much different.
Beautiful women with enchanting voices drew her into the brook, inviting her to come wade into the cool water. Eyes narrow and sleepy, Qitara obeyed, taking no notice that each step took her deeper and deeper.
“You need to leave!” A different voice hissed.
An image of people screaming as they ran from houses on fire exploded into her mind. An army of dragons stomped the houses to dust, showering the fleeing village with hot ash. The stench of smoke and burning flesh assailed Qitara’s delicate nostrils, snapping her sleepy eyes open.
“They still need you.” The new voice repeated firmly.
Qitara sobbed and swam away from the sirens, not daring to stop until she was back to solid ground. The incident was far from being the last. Every so often, the voices offered her encouragement, but it was weak. Days later, she stumbled into a clearing and passed out, wondering if she’d come so far just to die.
* * *
Qitara’s eyes snapped open and she sat up, taking in a gasp of fresh air. She found herself in a clearing, face to face with a unicorn.
“You’ve awoken,” she said in a haughty tone.
Qitara recognized the voice as the one who constantly pushed her to do better. After one look, it was obvious why something as proud as the unicorn would insist on her bettering herself. She represented a pride that Qitara hadn’t felt since she’d failed to protect her people from the dragon hoard.
“You haven’t much time,” a second voice chimed in.
The voice that spoke belonged to an owl covered in rich feathers, browner than Qitara’s own skin and eyes. Surrounding the owl were the crows in larger numbers than before. Their yellow eyes focused on her.
“How do I get out of here?” Qitara demanded, looking around the oasis. A brook leading to a cliff and a waterfall were all she could see. The rest of the area was the smooth side of the cliff and the forest she had come from.
“You climb of course,” the owl said. “Past the waterfall and into the field, then you’re out of the woods forever.” With another hoot, she fluttered down from the tree and landed on the unicorn’s back. “One more thing.”
Qitara’s mind swarmed with thousands of questions and complaints, but before she could voice any of them, a small glowing figure emerged from the unicorn’s mane.
“This is Pip,” she said, “She’s far too innocent to last in a place like this, take her with you.”
The pixie floated to her and rested in the pocket of her tattered coat.
“I don’t know if I-”
“You are able,” the unicorn said.
“You must,” said the owl.
The two then disappeared into the forest, leaving Qitara and Pip alone with the crows.
Memories of Qitara’s tiniest victories filled her mind. No doubt Pip’s attempt to boost her confidence. But it wasn’t enough. Qitara took one look at the crows on top of the trees and dashed for the cliff. The squawking started immediately. A cacophony of rebukes surrounded her. Instead of attacking, they swarmed around the cliff, completely blocking it off.
Their cries brought up memories of failures. Images that haunted her, eating away her confidence. She knew they were illusions and that somehow, they were connected to her negative emotions, in particular…
Her doubts and fears.
The realization hit her like a wave. She’d tried to fight and hide from fear for too long.
“I failed my people,” she admitted walking in a straight line, hand over her chest. The squawking grew louder as the birds flew at her, parting like the Red Sea. Several bit her and pulled her hair, screaming, but she continued to walk.
“When I realized I had failed, I ran away. I got stuck in this stupid death trap and I’m terrified.” Her hand gripped the cliff and the bird squawks became lower. “So yeah, I messed up. I probably will again. Deal with it.”
As quickly as they came, the crows disappeared. A rush of air that she’d been holding for gods knew how long escaped from her lungs.
I can’t believe that actually worked.
Qitara gripped the top of the cliff and hoisted herself up. The brook that led to the waterfall was so murky and normal looking, that there was no doubt about it: she’d escaped.
“Never thought I’d be happy to see dirty water…or be escaping a magical mind trap with a pix-”
Qitara’s hand flew to her pocket, but it was empty.
Before the panic could set in, a faint glow in the water caught her eye. Not quite yet relieved, she looked closer,and was met with the eyes of every creature she’d seen in the Forest of Apparition.
The pixie’s glowing eyes faintly rested over her heart. The owl seemed to be perched on her head. Then there was the unicorn, the crows, and the Sirens- all a faded part of her reflection.
The forest itself had disappeared from view, leaving behind a scorched plane stretched out for miles. In the other other direction, a familiar village sat in the farthest part of her gaze. A group of flying creatures too large and menacing to be birds approached the city in a cloud of smoke. Understanding dawned on her.
Qitara’s eyes roamed back to the city with a new feeling of determination. She had already begun to conquer so much more than a horde of dragons.