Long ago, in a time when humanity had not yet seen all of the world, when men rarely left the villages they were born in and knew little of what was around them, when kings and princes ruled the land in name but farmers ruled the land in truth, there was a town by the forest. This in itself was not a most unusual thing. In fact it was one of a myriad of towns by forests, towns that a person not from any of them would have a difficult time telling apart. Each town was comprised of small houses of dirt and wood, each town had many acres of farmland to call its own, each town was quite small and could only be reached by way of one or more narrow packed roads. Truly they were all quite similar in shape and size, and a hapless traveler wandering the earth could be forgiven if he stumbled upon a second village and thought that he had become turned around upon leaving the first.
But if one were to look closer, look beyond the dirt-and-wood houses, look beyond the appearances of these towns, one would see that they were all as different as could be. One would notice the subtle architectural touches in one village, conspicuously absent in the rest. The distinctive woven patterns across the dresses of the women in one, the bright solid colors of another. How all of the people of a certain village would gather together in the town square on a certain day every year to sing the praises of a god long since forgotten in the rest of the world. These villages were not all the same. Each had its own touches, its own culture, something to set it apart from the rest. Some might even argue the differences far outweighed the similarities, and this would be a fair argument.
Similarities they did have, though.
Of course there were the simple ones, such as the basic structure of the homes and layout of the villages, and the fact that the main source of income was their farming and agriculture enterprises. But there was one that ran far deeper. One that was ingrained into the culture of all of these forest-side villages, one that perhaps could have been surprising to an outsider.
It was their fear of the woods.
Perhaps “fear” is not the choicest of words. Perhaps “aversion” would be more appropriate. Nevertheless, the people of these villages had been wary of the woods they lived near for generations upon generations, electing only to enter them when it was deemed necessary, to collect wood or berries, or hunt, and even then they would not venture further than a half-day’s journey inside of them. Children were taught from a very young age never to enter the woods, and severe punishments awaited those who did. The woods were dangerous, unknown, strange to the villagers. Stories abounded about what lay within them, within the dark depths of the thick trees. Tales of monsters, of evil faeries, of sorceresses, that had all been passed down through countless decades and centuries. These tales, as tales often are, were mostly designed to frighten children, though of course the more superstitious of adults believed them too. But even the adults who thought childrens’ stories as just that – childrens’ stories – averted their eyes from the woods. It was an ancient fear deeply rooted in the beliefs of their ancestors, and if the ancestors had good reason to be frightened of the woods then so did their descendants. And so this fear persisted, across every village bordering the forest. Children would stand at the edge, daring each other to enter, none following through. Hunters would wave a farewell to their nervous wives and set out into the outskirts of the forest, all determined to be back before sunset. Old women by the fireside would weave cautionary tales to all who would listen as the day faded into night.
One might ask, if these people felt this way towards the woods so strongly, why would they not simply move away from them? Surely this would serve to alleviate their stress and surely they would not have a difficult time beginning a new life somewhere else. If this question were asked to a citizen of one of these towns, the response would be a confused expression. How could these people think to leave? Their fathers, their fathers’ fathers, their fathers’ fathers’ fathers, on and on for centuries upon centuries, had all settled there before them. Not only was it their land, but it was the land of their people and had been forever. The villages could not bring themselves to leave that behind. Was this a foolish mindset? The villagers would not say so, and it is not a question that should be asked by outsiders. So they stayed. Through centuries, they stayed.
It was also not as though the villagers commonly bore firsthand witness to what was spoken of in the legends and stories. Their fear was almost entirely borne of superstition and belief, and though some people, mostly children, declared that they had seen an elf patrolling the trees near the deep woods, or a faerie flitting through the leaves, it was rare that these claims were believed.
But every once in a while, during times where the villagers had grown content, complacent, and altogether very happy with their lives, when tales of the forest’s dangers became less common, when hunters began to venture just a little deeper than before in their search for prey, something would change. It would always be something small, but it would be just enough for the woods to let the people know that it was still there. The howl of a wolf at the darkest hour of the night, lasting far too long and piercing through the ears of the people like an arrow of wind. A magnificent buck brought home from the hunt, cut open to reveal rotting, diseased insides. Crops whose leaves and fruit became brittle overnight, disintegrating into the wind at a single touch. The people would be jolted from their complacent cocoon, which many times they had not even realized they had fallen into, and would once more be as wary as they ever were.
But even during these times of relative ease, nobody went far into the deep woods.
On one particular day, in a particular village, the sun was out. Its piercing rays burnt away the clouds, leaving naught but a beautiful deep-blue sky over the heads of the villagers. Birds sang from every treetop, and everywhere people went about their daily routines in happiness, for the day was warm and long. The old women of the village saw this as a sign of a prosperous season ahead, and the younger generations were happy to believe them. The woods had seemed calm as of late, but as this was a particularly superstitious village, nobody dared to become fully content. Still, it was a time of smiles – especially for the children.
All around the village ran laughing boys and girls, darting around the legs of startled adults and whinnying horses, getting up to all sorts of mischief. The day was bright and could not be wasted! Farmers had to keep watch for tiny hands sneaking fruit from their baskets, and shopkeepers frequently scanned their storefronts for giggling children hiding among the shelves. When one was caught, and they often were, they were given only light chastisement and an order to go someplace else. After all, they were children, and it was a wonderful day. It would simply not do to punish them, if they were deserving or not.
As the day went on, so did the children range further and further. They went from the village center to the smaller houses on the edges, then out into the fields of the farmers, and everywhere in between. The sun watched as they chased each other between bushes and stalks, around farmhands and oxen, all the way out to the very, very outermost stretches of farmland. And here is where they stopped and did not go further, for the only thing beyond them was the forest.
The children had heard all of the stories. They told them to each other in whispered, enthusiastic tones, each trying to scare the next. They knew all about the dangers and horrors of the forest, and yet were still too young to truly comprehend what could happen to them inside of it. Nevertheless, they stayed away, stopped by both fear and obedience to their parents, mixed with something of a feeling they were unfamiliar with.
Upon reaching the very edge of the farmland, the less courageous of the children immediately turned and raced back the way they had come. These had no desire to remain near what their parents had warned them about so many times. Those that perhaps had somewhat more stomach, or were attempting to prove themselves in the eyes of their peers, remained for longer, looking out at the densely packed trees while nervously shifting from foot to foot. But only the bravest of the brave stayed there, looking out at the forest, for a time long enough for them to begin thinking about their desire to enter it. These lion-hearted children were known among the others for their valor. Not only would they stay by the side of the forest for long periods of time (or, at least, what these other children would consider long), but they would as well frequently talk amongst themselves about what they would do once they entered the forest.
“I shall find a spriggan,” declared one boy, “and I shall capture it inside of a jar and place it on my windowsill for all to see, and I shall command it to hex any who disobey me.” The other children murmured to each other. Was he saying that he would become their leader? Some scoffed at this.
“Me, I will track down the Hidden Night-Shade plant,” another said, “that secret plant whose berries transform whoever eats them into an invisible shadow, and I shall be able to commit whatever crimes I wish and none would be able to stop me.” A troublemaker! Though of course all of these children were troublemakers. This one was just a little more so.
“Well, I will meet a sorceress,” put in a girl, “a beautiful, ancient sorceress who commands the powers of nature and the world, and she shall teach me the ways of magic and to become a sorceress myself, and I shall return to the village and put evil spells on you all!” This comment brought quite a stir into the discussion. Become a sorceress? What a fantastic idea! Soon, other girls were begging the first to teach them the ways of sorcery and witchcraft, too. But, brought up one of the boys, could only a woman use magic? Of course, said the first girl with a haughty smile, after all who had heard of a sorceress who was a man? Nobody! And so, a minor fight broke out in the form of empty threats, loud shouts, and insults primarily directed at their subject’s mother’s hypothetical unfaithfulness, and soon all of the children were running home to tell their parents of the abuse that they had suffered at the hands of others.
All but one of the children, that wasis.
Even after all of the other children had left, their laughs and shouts echoing across the landscape, even when the sun had begun its descent below the hills, one girl remained at the edge of the fields, looking out onto the woods. Her name was Reisette, and she was perhaps the most curious out of all the curious children who stayed by the woods. But, unlike them, she did not stay out of a desire to prove her bravery. In fact, she was not a particularly brave young girl. She stayed almost completely silent during the sometimes very energetic discussions and arguments held by the others, and could easily go totally unnoticed.
But of all of the children, Reisette had the most interest in the forest. She was not scared of it, merely intrigued. The stories she had heard, rather than frighten her, piqued her interest even further. Where the other children talked frequently of what they would do in the forest but deep down would not for a moment consider actually entering it, Reisette dreamed of one day going on an adventure there, and had full intention of making those dreams a reality. When she grew up, she swore to herself, when she grew into a tall, strong woman, she would gather equipment and bid farewell to her village before setting out into the darkest depths of the forest, where none had ever traveled before. She would be prepared, of course. She knew full well of the dangers that awaited her, and would bring along swords and knives, with blades of cold iron for fending off malevolent faeries and elves, and numerous potions and elixirs which she could use in case she suffered a wound or fell ill. Yes, she would go in prepared, and she could not wait for the day to come when she could begin her adventure.
Reisette would have loved to remain near to the woods for longer, thinking about that exciting day and looking at the place where she would spend it, but the sun was sinking lower and lower into the horizon, and the parents of the village did not want their children out past dark. Sighing, she began to turn and start the long walk back when something caught her eye.
On the winding dirt path leading into the outskirts of the forest, which hunters and gatherers used when it was necessary, there was movement. Reisette quickly turned her attention to this path in time to see a hunting party emerge from the trees. Of course they had not gone far, only enough to capture suitable prey before leaving as quickly as they could, but nevertheless Reisette looked excitedly at them. One by one, burly men swathed in furs and laden with weapons emerged, carrying between them a number of deer and wild hogs. It had been a good hunt, and the village would feast in the coming days. But Reisette’s eyes were drawn to something else.
At the very rear of the hunting party walked another village man. But he did not hold a deer or wild hog. His hands tightly and fervently held a small leather bag out in front of him, as though it were rotting meat. His face was contorted into an expression that mingled fear and curiosity, looking intently at the bag, as if it would try to escape.
And perhaps it would try to escape. From within, it glowed with a pulsating, ethereal blue light, visible even from the distance that Reisette stood away from the party. As she followed them from afar, she would every so often see it jump in the man’s hands, causing him to yelp. The others, rather than laugh, warily kept their distance. It was clear that the man who held the bag did not do so voluntarily.
Reisette continued to watch as they approached the village, growing more and more excited. The hunters had brought back something from the forest, something that held power. Her mind raced with speculation as to what it could possibly be. A fairy? A magical stone? Maybe it was simply a piece of magical essence that could be tapped into and utilized to unleash wonders. It was at that moment that she decided – she needed to see it firsthand, needed to witness the power that she was so sure it held.
But to her dismay, the hunters did not reveal what they had found to the entire village in a grand ceremony, as she had been both hoping for and expecting. Rather, they quickly made their way to the village headman’s house, and when they emerged the bag was no longer in their possession. It was known that the headman was something of a scholar of the various tales and legends of the woods, and Reisette supposed it was a good idea on the part of the hunters to allow him to make the decision on whether or not to tell the town of it. And indeed, the villagers had no knowledge of this discovery, winding down their day as they always did. Perhaps the hunters were slightly on edge tonight, and perhaps the headman did not make his usual rounds through the streets, but nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. So, the village went to sleep in peace that night, dreaming of a similarly beautiful day to come.
Reisette, however, did not sleep. She still recalled the fascinating glow of that leather bag, and still held that same desire to know what it was. She would not be stopped.
Late that night, she lay in her bed, waiting impatiently for her parents to go to sleep. They tended to stay up deep into the later hours, performing various chores, or simply enjoying some time to themselves. Normally Reisette did not mind this, but now it was nigh on infuriating. Could they not have chosen a different night to do these things? Her foot tapped impatiently against her bed, and she shivered with anticipation and excitement.
Finally, after nearly a year (in the mind of Reisette) spent waiting, she heard the door to her parents’ bedroom click shut. Soon, she told herself, very, very soon my parents shall fall asleep and I shall leave and I shall find that bag. After a period of time she deemed long enough for her parents to go to sleep, she threw off her bedcovers and changed as quickly and silently as she possibly could from her nightgown into her regular clothes. Sending furtive glances in all directions, and pointedly placing her feet where she knew the old wooden floor would not creak, she slipped out the door and into the night.
No others were about that night, and Reisette padded through the village with no companions save the full moon and its silver light. All who would have seen her darting down the streets like a freed shadow were happily in bed, asleep. Reisette knew this, and used it to her advantage as she moved purposefully toward the hill upon which the village headman’s house was.
It was a large house in comparison to the other houses of the village, but when compared to a house of the sort found in larger, more prosperous towns, it would be below average. Nevertheless, it was the most luxurious house in the village and as such, attracted mischievous children. Children who prowled around it during the day, searching for some way inside, despite beration from their parents. And they had succeeded, for Reisette knew of several ways she could gain entry into the headman’s house without needing use of the front door. The adults of the village knew of the children’s exploits in this regard, and had brought it up with the headman multiple times, but the headman had seen no harm. Reisette was glad that he did.
Now, Reisette entered the house by way of a rear window, low to the ground, that could not be closed because of some minor damage it had suffered some months ago. Carefully, quietly, and with practiced ease she slid into the dark interior of the headman’s house. She had been there before, but always accompanied by one or more other children, and always during the day. Now, it was dark, and she was alone.
Reisette felt scared. Then, she remembered what she had come for, and the fear was replaced with excitement. Slowly and carefully, she crept through the shadowed hallways to the door that she knew led to the headman’s study. It was in this room that he kept his many bookshelves, all of which were packed with notebooks containing stories of the forest and the headman’s own thoughts and ramblings of its nature. Reisette thought it likely that he would have placed the bag somewhere within this room.
Upon reaching the door, she stopped and listened closely. She did not want to enter the room if the headman himself was in there as well, examining the very thing she had come to take. She heard no sounds, and saw no light emerging from below, and so she breathed deeply and reached up to the doorknob, pushing the door open with a slight creak. As always, he had left it unlocked.
Within, the study was dark, darker than the rest of the house as it lacked windows. She could just barely make out the shapes of bookcases and a desk looming out of the darkness. Reisette moved closer to the desk, which seemed to be obscured more than it should have been, by a large shape. As she approached it she flinched and froze with the realization that it was the headman, sound asleep with his head on the desk! The girl swallowed. Perhaps she should not risk waking him, and return home while she was still unnoticed.
But as this was forming within her mind, she caught a glimpse of what was on his desk. A light blue glow emerged from a spot in front of the headman, blocked by his body slightly, but nevertheless unmistakable. Instantly the nascent thought vanished back into Reisette’s mind, and she slowly but confidently edged forward until she was directly beside the sleeping headman. From here, she could see that he had been closely examining whatever was inside of the bag. Pages covered in hand-drawn notes and diagrams were scattered across the desk, and so were various scientific tools that Reisette could not identify the nature of. And even if she could, she would not care to, as there was a far more important thing to capture her attention.
The bag itself lay crumpled beside a wooden box with no lid, from which emanated the glow. With one final look at the headman, who did not seem as if he would awake without severe provocation, the girl picked up the box and peered inside.
For a brief moment the light blazed as brightly as the sun, and Reisette had to avert her gaze to avoid being blinded. When she returned it, the blue glow had vanished from inside of the box. Now it hovered several inches above it, in the form of an orb the size of an acorn.
Reisette was instantly captivated. For the first time in her life, she was bearing witness to a true part of the forest. She had witnessed strange occurrencesoccurances before, but merely considered those to be byproducts of a larger, mystic power. Now, she looked upon that power itself. And it was beautiful. She had never before seen anything so wondrous.
As she watched it, bobbing slightly in the air like a fishing float on the waves, tiny motes of light spinning off of it and vanishing like embers from a fire, it began to move. Reisette followed the orb with her eyes as it traced a path across the study and out of the door. It took her a moment to realize that it was inviting her to follow it.
Quickly returning the box to the desk of the headman (who continued to sleep, oblivious to the events that were unfolding in his very house), Reisette exited the study and, catching a glimpse of a blue glow leaving through it, slipped out of the window that she had entered through. Once she had returned into the cool night air, she quickly saw the orb floating its way down to the village and proceeded to follow it eagerly.
It did not move at a particularly fast speed, and so the girl was easily able to catch up to it even with its considerable head start. Even so, she deigned to remain a certain distance behind it. Why she did this she could not say. It could have been a remnant of that wariness, or maybe she felt as though she could offend it if she attempted to move in front of it. Whatever the explanation was, Reisette was content to follow behind the orb as it moved through the dark, deserted streets of the village.
She did not know to where it would take her, but it did not come as a surprise when it left the village and proceeded across the now-empty fields. At this point, it increased in speed and Reisette was forced to begin a light run in order to keep up with it. Her excitement continued to grow as they traveled, sprouting into a bright smile across her face. Soon she was running, jumping, laughing, as carefree as could be, across the empty fields.
After some time, the orb began to slow down. Reisette slowed with it, panting from the exertion of running, yet still grinning widely. Eventually it stopped completely, and Reisette came to a halt to its side, her hands on her knees as she breathed heavily. As her breath returned to her, she straightened her posture to see where her guide had led her.
Reisette looked out from the fields, seeing nothing but thick, dark trees, nearly menacing in the dim light of the stars and the moon, out in front of her. She was standing at the very edge of the forest, in fact at nearly the exact location from which she had witnessed the hunting party emerging from it. Her breath caught, whether out of fear or awe it was impossible to tell.
The orb floated forward one tiny distance, then another. It continued doing so until it was nearly among the trees. Reisette’s eyes widened. It meant to lead her into the forest!
She had an important decision to make. On one hand, she had always longed to see what the forest was truly like, and this could be the perfect opportunity for her to experience it. But she also knew that there were dangers within. And she was not prepared to confront these dangers. She had always thought that when she finally would enter the forest she would be a grown woman, equipped with the necessary tools and weapons to survive. Now she stood before the forest as a young girl, dressed in simple everyday clothes, with no equipment to speak of. Reisette knew she should not enter the forest. Aside from putting her own life and safety at risk, her parents would be horrified to see that their daughter was not in her bed in the morning, and Reisette knew deep within her that if she did go in, she would be there long past sunrise. For a few moments, she stood uncertainly where she had stopped as the orb drifted away from her.
When it had almost reached the first trees of the forest, it stopped. Reisette watched as it pulsed slowly, sending off tiny motes of light in all directions. It seemed to her like it was inviting her to come closer, beckoning her, welcoming her into the forest. The girl smiled. How could the forest be as evil as the tales warned if it seemed so welcoming? Her legs almost seemed to move on their own as she hurried towards where the orb hovered. It was not the path that the hunters took, but a small opening between the trees. As she approached, the orb flitted inside. After the tiniest hesitation, Reisette followed.
The forest at first glance did not appear to be different from any other forest – in fact, Reisette thought it was quite nice. Where other forests may have been scary and full of evil shadows in the dark of night, this one in contrast was comforting in the moonlight. Rather than loom out of the darkness as though they were reaching out to claim her, the trees, just like the orb, instead appeared to beckon her forward as their branches swayed in the night breeze. And these were trees of a kind that Reisette had not seen before. Their leaves were of strange, wondrous shapes, and if she looked closely she could see that they, and the trees’ trunks, were shot through with streaks of bright color, striking yellows and pinks and purples and reds. These colors were also present in the flowers and berries that were scattered across the forest floor, and Reisette looked at them in wonder. These were so much brighter, so much larger than the ones that could be seen in the village, so much so that they almost gave off their own light. She bent down and placed her hand next to a particularly beautiful purple flower, and almost giggled with joy when she saw that the two were nearly the same size. She had never seen one this large before!
The orb, which she had continued to follow, blinked brightly to attract her attention. Hurriedly, she stood up from the flower and returned to her guide, continuing to cast wide-eyed looks at the unusual flora around her. Deeper and deeper they went into the forest. Soon, Reisette’s initial worry had vanished completely. She was on an adventure and had no time for silly things like that!
As she walked, things began to change. The flowers grew larger and brighter, until it was difficult to tell that it was night for all the light they were giving off. Reisette would commonly walk past flowers whose blooms neared her size. The trees’ streaks of color grew in brightness as well, and were joined by a myriad of other plants. These, unlike the flowers or trees, were completely unrecognizable to Reisette. She had never seen anything like them. Their stalks twisted into bizarre yet still beautiful shapes, with leaves and fruit and other growths which did not seem to be either of those sprouting all up and down them. Each was unique, even those which appeared to be the same variety of plant. The twisting, turning patterns of the stalks and the strange forms of the leaves, no two were alike.
The fruit was of especial interest to the young girl. The previous night, she had not eaten much, as her appetite had been completely taken by her excitement. All of the fruit growing on these plants was large, rich in color, and made her mouth water just by looking at them. She did not know what kinds of fruit they were, and like all good parents, hers had told her never to eat unusual fruit. But her hunger and curiosity overtook her wisdom, and with the orb flashing impatiently a ways ahead of her, she reached out to the nearest plant and plucked a heavy red fruit of a shape that had no name. She held it in her hand for a moment, enjoying its weight and the feel of its cool skin on hers. Then, opening her mouth, she took a bite.
Her mouth was instantly filled with juicy, delicious flavor. It flowed down her throat and into her stomach as though she had drunk rather than eaten something. The flesh of the fruit was soft and tender, coming apart easily as she chewed. Quickly, she finished the rest of it, and was quite nearly surprised when she saw that it was gone.
But despite how large and hearty it had been, it seemed to her like her hunger was barely sated. She almost felt as though she had grown more hungry after eating the fruit. This, and the delicious, otherworldly flavor of it, caused her to reach out to the next fruit on the plant and consume it just as quickly. This too did not fill her up, and her stomach seemed even emptier than before. So Reisette took another fruit, and then another, until her mouth and hands and even the front of her shirt were sticky with juice, but her hunger still remained as strong as ever. She reached out again for another of the plant’s fruit, but realized that she had eaten all of them. What was she to do now? Reisette could not bear to go on in hunger, and the fruit had been so amazing in flavor. So the girl looked to the next plant, which was heavy with bulbous green growths. Another plant full of fruit! There were many, she realized with glee, all across the forest floor, each laden with a different kind. She would feast, if she so chose. And she did. Quick as lightning she grabbed one of the green fruits and dug in.
Reisette lost track of time as she devoured fruit after fruit after fruit, none of which did anything to sate her now-raging hunger. When she had picked clean all of the plants in the area around her, she moved towards the next plant, and the next plant after that, and so on and so forth until she had moved so far and in so many directions that she had become completely lost. Of course, her attention was too consumed by the fruit to notice this. For a long time, she happily wandered from plant to plant, devouring as much food as she could find, growing hungrier and hungrier.
Eventually it occurred to her that the orb had been waiting for her all this time. While she had been feasting upon the delicious fruit of the forest, it had patiently watched, hovering beside her, or so she imagined. With some effort, as her hunger still was the driving force of her body at the moment, she swallowed the last bite of the fruit she had been holding and tore her attention away from the others, looking around her in an attempt to find the orb.
She could not find it. All she could see were the plants and trees, which continued to glow, illuminating the forest. Reisette looked around and around, swivelling her body to make sure nothing went unseen, but the orb was nowhere to be found.
She began to grow frightened, a feeling only amplified by the hunger that remained inside of her. Surely, she thought, the orb was merely playing a trick on her, or perhaps attempting to teach her a lesson in losing sight of your goal. Surely it was just hiding a small distance away. She would be able to find it quickly and issue an apology, and they would continue on their adventure together. Right, of course. Reisette began to walk, casting looks this way and that, peering behind trees and between bushes in search of the orb. She even called out for it, though she did not know what to refer to it with. None of these yielded any success, and after a short while the girl was left standing in the middle of the forest, clutching her eternally empty stomach, looking around worriedly for any sign of the entity that had brought her here.
Reisette was frightened. She did not know where she was, and did not know which direction her village lay in. She did not want to begin walking in a direction selected at random, as this would put her at risk of travelling deeper into the forest. And this was not something she wanted to do, as it was all of a sudden no longer so welcoming. The trees that had seemed to beckon to her now seemed to shy away from her, as though they were disgusted by her. The flowers and plants curled up within themselves, hiding their blooms and fruits from Reisette. The colors of the flora, which had previously shone brightly enough to provide light for her to see by, now were darkened and dulled until they were no longer the pinks and purples and yellows and reds they had been, replaced by drab greys and blacks.
Reisette felt alone. There was nothing she could do. Her hunger persisted, and so did her fear. All around, the forest darkened and receded away from her. It was leaving her behind, just as the orb had done. She would never return to the village. Tears welled up in her eyes and dripped down her face. Reisette sat down on the ground and pulled her knees to her chest, watching the grass curl up and away from her for a moment before burying her face in her knees.
As the forest moved further away, something else began to move closer. Something older, larger, darker. It had always been present watching Reisette, even when the forest had been bright and colorful. As she had bounded through the trees following the orb, it had lurked in the very corners of the world, watching her. It had tracked her every movement, every sound she made, but had not made itself known to her. Not until now.
Reisette heard a sound, a slight rustling, coming from all around her. It sounded as though a moderate breeze was blowing and shaking the leaves of the trees and plants, but she did not feel anything of the sort. Slowly, she raised her head from her knees.
A tar-black mist swirled around her in a wide circle, low to the ground. Smoky tendrils curled and reached out, unfurling themselves towards the sky and writhing in the air. The mist looked to her almost like a fence or a wall, surrounding her, trapping her inside. As she watched, fear growing in her eyes, the tendrils of mist reached higher and higher, dwarfing her, casting her into an abyssal darkness below them as they blocked off light from the stars and moon. Soon she was completely encircled by tall, dancing shadows that whirled and twisted, as though mocking her for her inability to act against them. Reisette pulled her knees even closer, tears now streaming inexorably down her face. But she did not make a sound. She had tried, tried to scream, yell for help, but nothing had come out. Her voice had not worked.
The tendrils of night-black mist began to shift once more. Faces appeared within them, long, angular faces with ragged holes for eyes and mouths, and pupils formed of an even darker blackness. They moved in unnatural ways, staring down at the girl with hungry gazes. The mouths moved and sound came out, but it was not like any Reisette had heard. It did not sound like human speech, or the sounds animals made, or even anyeven the any of the sounds of nature. It was a terrifying, indescribably alien sound that caused her to clamp her hands down hard over her ears and squeeze her eyes shut. Her mouth opened in a silent scream. But still she could hear the ceaseless howl of the mist. It pierced through her like a spear, paining her just as much.
Though her eyes still were shut, Reisette could tell that the mist was beginning to creep closer. She did not know how she could tell this, but she felt it, knew it. And creep closer it did. The tendrils inched towards her, closer and closer, ever so slightly closing the distance. She squeezed herself tighter, trying to make herself as small as possible, thinking that perhaps the mist would not see her if she did so. This was a childish thought, of hope against hope.
Curls of mist now very nearly brushed her body. The leering faces extended long, ropy tongues of black, which they brought just before Reisette’s face, then pulled back abruptly as if mocking her again. Any moment now, she would be trapped completely. Any moment now, she would be fully at the mercy of the darkness. She knew not what would happen to her, but it was not something she would have liked to know. Unfortunately, it seemed that she had no choice. Ever closer swirled the mist, ever closer rolled the tongues, ever-present was the sound made by the cackling shadows. Reisette thought back to her life in the village. It scared her to an extent that not even the mist did that she would never be able to go back there again. She would never be able to be with her parents, or the other children, ever again. For eternity she would be locked inside of this forest, this evil, malicious forest, trapped by the fog’s tendrils.
Reisette shivered. It was cold. A tendril brushed her leg, leaving behind a sensation not unlike frostbite. This was the end of everything. She regretted, bitterly regretted, ever having followed the orb into the forest. She had allowed her curiosity to get the better of her, and she had paid the price. It was over. Everything was over.
Then, suddenly, abruptly, the sound stopped. For a brief moment it was blissfully silent, and Reisette thought that she was dead. This thought brought her some relief – there was no further suffering after death, as far as she knew. But just as quickly as it had stopped, it started again. This time, however, something was different. It no longer pierced through her, instead somehow seeming as though it were directed towards someone else. The sound curved around her, swirling like the mist itself, and congregated at a specific point in front of her. Though fear still filled her body, she no longer felt as though she were in immediate danger, and so opened her eyes.
The mist had in fact turned its attention away from her. It no longer encircled her, and its tendrils now formed a wall directly in front of her. They did not seem to take any notice of her, and their faces had been turned away from her. They were focusing on something – or maybe someone – other than her. She watched, enraptured. Black tendrils lashed out at something in front of them, erratically. No longer did they dance in that rhythmic, hideous manner that they had before. Now they moved in no pattern, randomly striking out in front of them in a way that could only be described as angrily. The mist was angry at something. And that something was fighting back.
Reisette raised her gaze, lowering her hands. The ever-present howling was interrupted at irregular intervals by high-pitched shrieks that were strangely pleasing to her ears. Each of these shrieks was accompanied by a recoiling of one of the tendrils, which would proceed to discharge a large quantity of its mist into the air, where it would dissipate completely. The tendril would then shrink significantly in size, or – if it had already been sufficiently reduced – vanish entirely. It was in this manner that the wall of black mist shrunk lower and lower, growing smaller and smaller in size, until, with one last wonderful shriek and one last burst of shadowy fog, it was gone. Reisette blinked as she took a deep breath and the fear seemed to melt away. She looked with an open mouth at the sight that had been revealed by the vanishing mist.
In front of her stood a humanoid figure. Reisette could not say that it was in fact human, as it clearly was not. Its body appeared human, wearing an immaculate uniform of the sort Reisette had seen officers of armies wear, outlining a body which seemed to transcend gender. Its hands, covered in pristine white gloves, gripped the hilt of a long silversliver sword, which presently it sheathed in a golden scabbard by its belt. But its face was not a human face. In fact it was difficult to call a face at all. Where features such as eyes, a nose, a mouth, would have been, instead was a white cloud, floating gently in front of a head with long, flowing silver hair. It was unsettling, and yet comforting to Reisette, though anything would have comforted her at the moment.
The cloud-faced person reached a white-gloved hand out to the girl. Their other hand rested on the hilt of the sword. In a voice that sounded like the wind blowing through the trees on a cool night, they said to her, “You should not be here.”
Breathlessly and without thought, Reisette took their hand. It felt ethereal, as though it were not really there. With surprising strength, they pulled her to her feet. For a moment, she looked into the cloud of their face, trying to find some form of humanity. She did not succeed.
Without another word, the cloud-faced person turned in a certain direction and began to walk, pulling Reisette along with them. Their grip was strong, and Reisette found she could not break free. They moved at a swift pace, and the girl soon became tired. She opened her mouth to tell the uniformed figure to slow, but once more no sound came out. So she swallowed, and resigned herself to walking. And walking. And walking. They walked for what could have been centuries, through the darkened forest. Reisette’s hunger returned to her, amplified by her growing exhaustion, but she did not, could not stop. All she could do was persevere as she and her savior continued their journey.
It seemed like she had only closed her eyes for a second, had only briefly decided to rest them. One moment she had been walking, pulled along with the strange cloud-faced, uniformed, person, and the next…
The next, she was outside of the forest, at the exact place she had entered. She looked around, in all directions, but there was no sign of the person who had brought her forth from the forest. She was alone, once more, under the night sky. Without looking again at the trees, she ran back to the village as fast as she could, entered her house, and fell asleep on top of her bedcovers.
The next morning, nothing had changed. It seemed as though Reisette had returned from the forest no later than she had entered it. This fact confused Reisette, though she was unable to voice these concerns, for her voice had not returned. Her parents were quite perplexed when they found their daughter fully dressed and completely unable to speak, and they did not waste time in taking her to the village physicians, who after a prolonged examination determined that there was nothing wrong with her other than the fact that she was no longer capable of speech. Of course the forest was immediately suspected of having done this to her, and so Reisette was given a wide berth by the villagers for a significant length of time. Only the headman, who had noticed that the orb had vanished from the office, had any claim to truly know a potential cause for her sudden muteness, but out of respect for the villagers and so as not to instill a sense of panic, he did not make its disappearance known. In time, the villagers realized that Reisette was not going to bring chaos and damnation upon the village, and things returned to normal, aside from the fact that she still had not regained speech, and at this point it was doubtful that she ever would.
Along with being mute, Reisette changed in her mannerisms. She stopped joining the other children on their romps about town, electing instead to remain inside and read the few books the village had collected over the years. Her curiosity about the forest was gone. She became somewhat forgotten among the villagers as she grew up into a woman. Reisette was eventually known as the town hermit and scholar, who never left her home. She collected as many books as she could find, from wherever she could find them, and her intellect grew beyond what many of the villagers could dream of. Her voice never returned, but she was frequently approached with questions, which she answered happily through pen-and-paper, or through an intermediary if the questioner could not read and write, which was common. Reisette would answer, or at least attempt to answer, any question. There was but one subject she would not discuss.
When asked a question of the forest, she would turn her back and close her door, and would not be seen for the rest of the day. She had an aversion to it that was on a level not commonly shared by others. People learned this over time, and eventually she was never again asked a question of the nature of the forest.
And so did life continue in the village.