By Alexandria Hodson ’21
Hooooo. Hooooo. A great-horned owl surveys the area, rotating its head to the left and right. As moonbeams fall from the sky, a turquoise brook weaves its way through the glade, the light radiating off of it. The clearing is surrounded by willow trees of various sizes. Some are stout, others lanky, but the most magnificent one stretches its branches a quarter of the way into the circle, almost covering the stream.
The once emerald grass that spread across the land for miles is muffled by fallen leaves whose shades were now those of chocolate, amber, and rubies — few remain clinging to the wood that once nourished them to a dark seaweed color. Water splashes, the current winding itself past rocks so weathered they’re as smooth as butter. A faint hum of life echoes as the final party guests from Lysoria, the nearby city, travel back to their estates.
Swish. Some of the leaves are pushed to the side as a mouse scuttles through the growth. The owl has found its prey. In a single leap, it falls from its branch and dives towards the creature. Within another moment, the vermin dangles in the bird’s talons as it gets dragged back to the nest. A stag carefully pads into the clearing. Its doe brown eyes feverishly glance from side to side as if it would be the next one eaten that night. Before it can take more than one lap from the crystal-like stream, it catches sight of something and bounds off, back into the woods.
The place becomes quiet as a new figure makes its way into the glade. A girl with pointed ears peeks out from a willow she’s hidden behind. In the moonlight, her silver tunic reflects the beams in every direction, bringing a glow to the lifelike shadows dancing across the tree trunks. She stares at them for a minute, as if debating whether or not they would lunge out at her. When it seems safe, the girl shuffles over to the brook, gazing around once more before plopping down on its banks. Her onyx pants and charcoal hair fade into the darkness, but her eyes, bright and alert, stare into the depths of the water.
She pulls her hands out from her pockets, the Orlinde family crest above her chest gleaming. They hover above the creek, stretched out until she curves them inwards and the water rises with them. For a couple of moments, she plays with the string of liquid suspended in the air, twisting it into a knot, then a pretzel, a heart, a crescent — her concentration the only thing keeping the droplets from falling back into the tide below.
Snap! A twig breaks, causing her focus to falter and the water to plunge into the brook. The girl gets to her feet, prepared to flee as the stag did before her, but she senses no movement in the trees, no familiar shape coming towards her.
A voice breaks through the silence, a mere whisper through the clearing. “Darya. . .”
“Who’s there?” It is unsettling to have her name called by a spirit. If that’s what the voice was.
“He, he, he.” A child’s giggle. “What pretty flowers.”
Darya’s brows crease, confusion filling her face. What is the kid talking about? Her eyes scan her surroundings and spot a trail of dead, withered petals leading away from the stream and into the forest. Should she follow them? The young elf steps across the rock to the other side of the brook. Another round of giggles ring in her head.
She continues to follow the trail laid before her, failing to notice the way the flowers crinkle into a speck of dust as she passes them, leaving her clueless on the way back. The laugh of the spirit, child, whatever it is, resounds after each couple of strides she makes. Deeper in the woods, the moon barely shows through, even though the branches are clear of leaves. Shadows leap out from every corner, grabbing at Darya, but she doesn’t notice. All she can think of is how badly she needs to reach the end of the path, how necessary it is to find the source of the voice antagonizing her.
The laughter stops, and the trail ends. There doesn’t appear to be anything special here. With one more step, Darya plummets through the forest floor.
Until all she can see is total, complete darkness.