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.
Great job Zora!! I LOVE it!! I couldn’t stop reading! Had to know what happen next, very creative!
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed. 🙂
Sherry James says
Man’s greatest enemy is truly often himself. Awesome job
Very true. Thank you for the encouragement! <3
Gwen Boyd-Arnold says
Awesome writing!! Continue this journey!!
Thank you, and I definitely plan to!
Love the title, love the lesson. The greatest barrier to our success is often self. When we begin to confront and conquer inner demons, then we’re almost there. Really enjoyed it.
I’m glad you did! Thank so much for your feedback. 🙂
This is extremely well written. The imagery and choice of words are superb. This is excellent and you should definitely continue to hone your craft.
I will, and thanks so much for taking the time to read and leave a comment!
This should be a series. Captivating – took me through a journey. There’s a Qitara in all of us. Well written.
Agreed, really want to know what happened to Qitara
Haha! Maybe I will write a part 2 someday.
This is well written. I am eager to know what happens to Qitara and the village! Definitely leaves something to the imagination!
Thanks! You’re maybe the third to make a comment like that. I’m really tempted to write a part 2 if inspiration chooses to help me out.
Very gripping,so detailed and beautifully put together. Great job Zorah
I’m glad it held your attention! Thanks for taking the time to leave some encouragement. 🙂
Merle Liburd Browne says
Great Job Zo I told you already you are going to be a great writer
Thanks grandma! It’s really owed in part to you and others for encouraging me to follow my passion!
Rachel Payetta says
I really loved this story. What’s so…weird…is that this is VERY similar to visions I had in my head a few years ago. This vision of my own inner enchanted forest and my helpers (in my case: a bear, a Pegasus, and some dragonflies) actually helped me work through some very difficult times. So, when I ready your story, I felt a very personal attachment to it. The fear and insecurity she felt – I felt it, too. Great job on your descriptions. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your story and hope that you’re writing some longer stories, too. They will be just as epic, I’m sure, and I can see them being turned into movies!
Wow! I guess great minds think alike? Haha. In all seriousness, I’m glad this story was able to touch you. It means a lot that I was able to connect with someone.
Zorah, thanks for sharing your work. It takes bravery to do that, too! The imagery is really vivid thanks to your descriptions – I felt like I could see what you describe. I like all the symbolism, too. You may not need to explicitly identify the symbols as much as you have; they speak for themselves. Great job, and good luck to Qitara and her village!
No problem! I was definitely nervous at first, but your comments and others have made it all worthwhile! I’m sure Qitara appreciates the encouragement as well.
Gavin Hamilton says
In this story, you portray vivid characters in ways that hint at their own dramatic histories. On the surface, Qitara seems to be on some mythological quest. Creatures of Greek myth and other oddities point her in the direction of what must be some hidden Golden Fleece. By the story’s conclusion, though, you’ve managed to create something completely different. Never mind the unicorns and talking owl. Qitara at the end approaches a goal that is more existential than mythological. The creatures of fantasy along the way may have seemed strange and unrecognizable to the protagonist, but that is only because the protagonist’s condition is one of estrangement. She is estranged from herself. Strength, courage, ambition, and confidence have long departed Qitara. She wanders the forest directionless, only to come upon these disembodied parts of her character, from which she is so long divorced that she fails to recognize them as parts of herself. The hooded figure is the protagonist were she to remain in that state, the owl her intuition, the unicorn her bravery, and the crows her seething doubts. I’m left to think that if there were a Golden Fleece, it would be Qitara reunited with all her faculties. A moment of reflection or recognition in each encounter might seal this vision, but that may not have been your vision at all, Zora.
I think you’re at your best when you use words to give movement and animation to things we would normally think to be inert: “darkness crept …”, “bundles of trees intertwined their branches…”. Those illusions turned the Forest of Apparition into a sinister place, where the laws of nature and physics are turned on their head. The atmosphere is one of foreboding. Every step is unsure, and the living would best sleep with one eye open. The genre may be science fiction or fantasy, but when you use words in this way, there’s a pleasant whiff of magical realism, à la Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Great job!
Wow! You hit it right on the nail. I’m definitely glad the meaning was clear and I’m so happy that you enjoyed the story. This comment means more than you know, so thank you! thank you!