By Nicole Papa (Sun Valley High School, Aston, PA)
There was a war coming.
Threading through the branches of the forest, lurking in the underbrush of the ground where queer creatures linger, whispers drift. Slithering underneath fingernails and beneath window sills, the raw anticipation seeped deep within her bones. She waited for it.
Each day that passed with no disturbance, each time the sun rose and fell without fault the anticipation grew until she was hungry for it. When dusk fell, glimmering stars and dark skies, Iris Bennet was reminded how each day could be her last. The creatures in the Forest watched her as she went each day, always checking behind as though a cloaked Grim Reaper would be trailing behind her and counting every foot step. The leaves began to descend, rich autumn colors coating the soil and leaving the trees barren. Even as November arrived with a startling cold, a chill lacing through her hair and seeping into the marrow of her bones, she knew.
There was a war coming.
The evil expected to arrive with it tore at the witch’s chest, leaving her with clamped eyes shut and scratches on her arms, harsh tremors that ran down her spine and kept her awake for days. There would be no coming back from this. There would be no surviving. A war was approaching.
A rustle of leaves a few feet ahead of the girl broke her out of her merciless trance, snapping her head up to meet the face of a polychromatic figure.
Her voice was airy, dream-like.“Focus on the present, Iris.”
It was strange for someone to speak to the girl without a hint of fear, but the fairies were hereditarily innocent, kind beings. It was almost refreshing.
Iris’s teeth were clenched so hard she thought they may crack. She released them, an immediate ache in her jaw pulsing. “That’s a bit difficult, Amaris.”
Amaris smiled slightly. “You don’t even attempt.”
Iris swallowed the words that threatened to spill out of her mouth, her bitter retaliation. Though she said nothing. The fairies held a childlike innocence Iris could not bear to tamper with, it was virtually immoral.
Iris’s eyes flitted back to the treehouse the fairy before her lived in, accompanied by the rest who inhabited the branches. Streaks of different colors dashed across the sky as fairies chased one another. Amaris kept her eyes on Iris. “Be careful.”
Despite the persistent fear that resided in Iris’s chest, a ghost of a smile played on her lips. “You as well, Amaris.”
Refusing to fall back into her inevitable spiral, Iris inhaled quickly through her teeth. Even with her wand tucked safely into the sleeve of the girl’s jacket, she felt uncomfortably exposed in the woods. The simple set of winter fabrics couldn’t keep the bitterness from lacing through her hair. Iris wasn’t sure if it was from the eery silence that pounded at her ears or simply from the dewy frost that coated the grass under her boots.
Savorsnake Forest was and had always been forbidden in her world. No witch or wizard was allowed, only the peculiar creatures that inhabited it. Even the occasional troll, as infuriatingly arrogant as they could be, did not dare to enter. It was merely just dangerous. They let her wander freely for one reason: she was a dead man anyway.
“Buvnu Exu,” she muttered quietly once she was at a distance with a simple flick of her wrist intact with the wand.
Instantly, the map began to fill with ink, fading in paths and locations marked with the names of places in Savorsnake. Seeing as she just passed House of All Fairies, Iris decided she was on the right track. Despite the witch making the trek before, Savorsnake was constantly changing: trees were re-rooted, grass was re-planted, colonies of creatures were moved all in an effort to trap anyone who entered. Without the map her father had left behind, she would have been lost in the ever changing nature years ago.
But one thing always stayed where it was.
Iris never gave it a name. On the map, it was simply ‘Door.’ It needed no further explanation; Iris knew exactly what it was. It was where the war would stop before it began.
The dirt beneath her feet was cemented into her skin, years of familiarity wrapping around her skeleton. Her adolescence lived in this forest, days of sneaking in as a child merely a fantasy now. A life before her family turned against her, waging war when she refused to join them in Dark Wizardry. A life before everyone she once knew waited for her to perish at the hands of her own blood. Her childhood was buried into the earth, layer and layer of past years suffocating it until it was nonexistent.
After a few miles of the quiet but otherwise comforting chatter of The Forest, the snapping of twig caused Iris to snap her head up, her wand simultaneously armed in her hand. A broad-chested centaur watched her quizzically, his head tilted with a small smile playing on his lips.
“What a curious thing to have,” he drawled. “A map, for this forest.”
Iris stayed still. “What do you want?”
The beast chuckled, crossing his arms and leaning against the bark of a tree beside him. “Witches aren’t allowed in here.” Though his voice held no sense of threat, the words alone caused Iris’s heart to spike. It was no secret that many mythical Savorsnake creatures felt a hostility towards witches and wizards-this was their territory. She began to wonder if he knew who she was, though it was ludicrous-they all did.
“Are you going to stop me?”
He continued to stare at her, making Iris grip the wand in her hand tighter, raising it at him. Even with a few feet between them, the wand would inflict more damage than any physical weapon could. Her voice sounded stronger than she felt, the weight of the wand in her hand providing much needed confidence. “Are you?”
“Calm down, witch. I was wondering what you were doing. My family-they’ve seen you wandering around the grounds. They’re hoping you aren’t here to kill us.”
Iris let her hand relax only slightly, the wand lowering a few inches. “I was finding my way somewhere.”
The centaur looked behind him when a rustle in the leaves caught the pair’s attention. Iris swallowed roughly, glancing back at Arkin. “I’m to go. A witch isn’t welcome here.”
Arkin took a second to respond, tearing his eyes away from the disturbance. “Clearly. My family is angry.”
Iris kept her eyes on him, flexing her fingers while a faint panic arose in her chest.
Arkin’s ever-present sarcastic smile dropped, his upper lip curling. It was a drastic contrast to before, and Iris involuntarily took a step back. He muttered something under his breath, inaudible to Iris though he seemed to be talking to someone.
“You know what to do!” A voice boomed from behind Arkin. Out of the trees, a larger centaur appeared, his skin as dark as the fur on the bottom of his body.
Arkin shook his head, his lip twitching. “It is not necessary, Cedar.”
“Not necessary?” The other centaur growled, completely ignoring Iris’s presence.
“Has she hurt me? Hurt you?” Arkin spit.
“You’re oblivious. Foolish-”
Iris planted her feet, wetting her lips. “I haven’t done that,” she interrupted, causing Cedar to turn to her. His nostrils flared. “And I won’t. I mean no harm. Truly.”
“You’re lucky you haven’t been killed yet, girl.” Cedar bit. “Not just by us. You know how Savorsnake creatures feel about your kind. How they feel about your family.”
“I do.” she reasoned. “But I’m not them. You know about the war. You all do.”
Cedar’s eyes tightened as a silence filled the air around them, the subdued sound of the forest echoing around them. Recognition glittered in his eyes.
Iris did not glance at either as they trotted away, their hooves kicking up dirt as they went. Arkin glanced back, but said nothing.
Wordlessly, she continued the journey into nightfall, but it all sounded underwater in her head as she fell deeper into the spiral. Finally, when she reached The Door the mist that invariably coated the forest floor twinkled. She blinked quickly while the closer she stepped to the door, a faded, ugly looking thing. A fog hovered around the ground, thicker than before. The illuminance of it was breathtaking, glowing softly and obscuring her feet from view within it’s curls of gas. Iris turned, the glowing mist around her feet reflecting off of her eyes.
She paused just as she reached out to open it, realizing it was already cracked open. A thin stream of light cast out, enlightening a thin slice of her face.
Discreetly hitching her wand closer to her fingers, she nudged the door further open. More light spread on her face, while sending the glimmer of the haze in waves around her. Iris stilled as she watched The Door push backward, a descending staircase fading into darkness. Mist began to pour down the passageway, flowing down freely before blending into the shadows.
It was the trepidation that hummed in her fingertips, igniting a burning hatred in her chest that clawed at her ribs. She knew it then, her eyes unfocused and trained on the gloom before her. Her family was down there.
And there was a war coming.
Lying deep beneath the door she had taken shelter in, exceeding beyond any expectations, something was brewing beneath her toes, embedded into the world. Dusk had fell, and this would be her last.
And with a final terrified, trembling exhale, she entered.
There was a war beneath. And it would end the world.