Breathless, Analiah stood in the dark clearing, the only light coming from the cold crescent moon. The forest was alive with urgent murmurs, its eerie dance often blocking her path, forcing her to double back in search of an exit. The only sounds punctuating the forest’s forlorn melody were her ragged breathing and short barks from the nearby hunters.
‘Come to me, follow my voice. I can save you,‘ called a woman’s voice through the din of indiscernible murmuring. Analiah’s head snapped in the direction of the nearest bark, ignoring the woman’s words. She needed to find a way out of this living maze. Choosing to follow the path on her left, Analiah ran barefoot through the thick forest of large fleshy trees. Purple and magenta branches danced to the sound of moaning winds, some brushing against her translucent white skin.
After navigating the twisting paths of the dense forest, she slowed as the tentacle-like branches suddenly moved out of her way to reveal a small creek. The air smelled of disturbed soil, copper, and salt. A soft humming surrounded her, demanding her attention. Analiah strained her ears, trying to hear past the hymn of the forest. She noticed the sound of trickling water and low rhythmic drumming that she had not heard before.
Carefully approaching a nearby tree, Analiah reached out with her long thin fingers to touch what looked like large purplish-blue throbbing veins. A viscous liquid gently rolled down the tree’s flesh and merged with the stream. With one touch, the clammy skin of the tree broke. Ichor-like fluid poured from the gash. She snapped her hand back to her mouth, stifling a gasp of horror, her fingers stained with blood-like sap.
‘So, the legend is true,‘ she thought to herself. ‘The Osparama forest is cursed; it is alive and evil.’ Some said that the forest spoke to them, enchanting them, trying to get them to enter. Anyone who set foot in the forest risked losing their lives, and more often than not, those who managed to escape would come out different: quiet, reflective, and careful. In her fifteen years of life, she only knew of one girl, named Larona, who had dared enter the forest, and she had not entered Osparama voluntarily. Analiah had dismissed this as a rumour. Maybe the missing girl had been taken or run away. Undoubtedly, a forest would not kill. However, watching the undulating vein of the tree made her question her assumption.
A short, loud bark on her left shook her from her thoughts. She knew now that the forest was not safe, but what choice did she have? She heard another short bark, but this time behind her. It was time to move. With a cringe of anticipated disgust, Analiah splashed through the sticky sap-like fluid to mask her scent. She could not stay in the creek for long as the skin of her bare feet began to burn.
Back on the ground, she did not pause. Instead, she would limp as fast as she could as the branches cracked under her aching feet. She continued her search for the exit of the living maze. Drooping black and pink needles hung from the highest branches of the trees, swinging in the wind. The lowest branches were decorated by vibrant green leaves that rustled in her wake as she panted.
From the ridge of the hill, the forest had appeared small enough, but it kept moving, making her run in circles. Without the dance of these unnatural trees, she should have reached the exit already. But, instead, the incessant moans of the forest became louder, more urgent, and its movements more frantic. It was as though the forest was trying to tell her something.
It was a stroke of luck that Analiah had left her home after being the first of her family to change skins. The hunters had arrived shortly after Analiah had gone to dispose of the leftover bones and internal tissues. But unfortunately, her parents were not so lucky. They had been mid-change when the wolves came, murdering them in cold blood. Analiah later returned to find the modest cottage spattered with crimson ichor and ripped entrails strewn about the log home. Analiah had witnessed similar scenes many times in the past fifteen years, but she and her family had always been the ones to tear apart the unsuspecting victims.
She stepped closer to the carnage as warm tears streaked down her new flesh. Then, with trembling fingers, she reached out to gently stroke the exposed muscles of her mother’s severed head. A terrible cry of grief and despair echoed through the night. She was the last of her kind.
A howl answered her cry. Analiah could not outrun the wolves, so she had lured them to the Osparama forest even though she knew the risks. Her father had taught her the legend of Osparama. It called to her and her family with only one goal, to trap and kill them. She had always been fascinated by the legend of Osparama. The forest was a living thing and would not allow anyone to leave.
Analiah stopped to catch her breath and get her bearings. The trees trembled, and their whispers became frenzied, vying for her attention, but she ignored the voices. Then, looking up at the sky, she searched for the moon as the vines and limbs swayed, determined to block her view. When finally she caught a glimpse of it, she determined she had been in the forest for over an hour. Searching for the Great Star, instead, she found black clouds and overhanging vines reaching for her from the tree tops. It was as though the spirit of the forest didn’t want her to find her way out.
‘Trapped,’ a voice whispered.
‘No,’ the girl thought. ‘I can do this. The hunters are trapped. I will find my way out.’
She stumbled over an exposed slimy root as she thought of her parents. Long slick appendages danced in the breeze reaching for her. She avoided most, but one tree limb twisted around her right arm and yanked hard.
Analiah stifled a scream of pain as her right shoulder dislocated. Then, using her sharp claws from her left hand, she severed the twisting and slithering tentacle. Finally pulling it off and tossing it into the woods, she staggered blindly through the hostile forest. Purple roots stuck out of the earth, intent on tripping her, but even though she stumbled, she did not fall.
Analiah needed to stabilise her dislocated shoulder. She tore a piece of black fabric from her dress and used it to make a sling for her right arm. Scanning the area, she noted a pair of glowing silvery-blue eyes watching her from a nearby thicket. Locked in a deadly staring contest, Analiah righted herself and stepped slowly back. The hunter was not poised to pounce, but it remained low to the ground, snout sniffing. She wondered if it could smell her fear. Osparama moaned and mumbled loudly around her.
‘Come to me; I will save you,’ came a voice to her left.
‘Come closer; I will absolve you of your sins,’ whispered another deeper in the forest.
‘Choose me. I am the purest.’ She recognised this murmur as being the voice of a child.
Analiah was confused. Which was the greatest threat? Osparama or the hunters? She could not afford to dwell upon it as the wolf watched her and started closing the gap between the two. Analiah crept backwards, eyes locked on the wolf.
‘That’s it, this way,’ encouraged the forest, cooperating and moving out of her way.
Analiah ignored the dance of the forest as it encouraged her to continue on. Still focused on the hunter, she swallowed hard and felt fear threaten to paralyse her for the first time.
‘Yes, well done. This way,’ intoned another voice.
Analiah listened to the whispers, using them as guidance. She dared not glance back, fearing the hunter would pounce if she did. She could have sworn the hunter’s lips slid back for a brief moment, revealing a toothy smile. She glanced up at the sky as the forest became pitch black. The clouds had covered the moon, a deadly omen. She was practically blind and used her good hand to fend off the monstrous tentacles that reached for her. Every time she made contact with a branch, she recoiled at the slick and slimy wetness.
When she looked back at the silver wolf, it was crouched low, keeping pace with her. The beast snarled, causing her to speed up. She stumbled as her black dress caught on a root.
Analiah’s back brushed up against a slick, organic tree. The girl whimpered as the tree pulsated behind her back. She had come to yet another dead end.
‘Choose now! A terrible and painful death by the maws and claws of the hunter wolves, or a chance to be absolved of your sins, so that you can live.’ This time, the voice boomed across the forest.
The clouds had passed, and a silver beam of light pierced through the dense forest. The wolf’s ears pricked up as it moved its head slightly to the right. Then, stealing a glance, Analiah saw a pair of golden eyes peek out from behind a tree, not five meters from where she stood. Then, she heard a nearby branch snap on her left. The hunter pack had surrounded her. She knew that her time had come. She would suffer the same fate as her family if she did not choose quickly.
Ananliah trembled in fear as sweat trickled down her brow. The tree vibrated behind her. She was trapped, stuck between two unbearable fates, one known, one unknown. Osparama was right: she had to choose.
Surrounded by at least six wolves, Analiah despaired. All those intelligent eyes stared at her, waiting for her to choose her fate. The animals snarled as they approached, revelling in their prey’s fear. ‘The forest offered life, but at what cost?’ She wondered. There was no time to ask. She had been judged, and her life was forfeit unless…
‘Yessss,’ a whisper came from the massive tree behind Analiah, ‘say it, and you will not die.’
Analiah’s feet burned, and her shoulder throbbed. She whimpered once again as the adrenaline she had felt before started evaporating. The wolves closed in, growling, saliva dripping from their sharp fangs. Then, in a desperate plea for mercy, Analiah cried, ‘Save me!’
‘As you wish,‘ came a whisper in her ear, causing goosebumps to rise on her arms and the back of her neck. Her dress was soaked by the slimy residue dripping from the tree. The steady stream of salty liquid that had flowed from the tree suddenly stopped. Analiah’s body quaked. The fleshy trunk moved behind her. The rhythm of the pulsating vein that ran along the tree bark became loud and fast. The tree seemed… excited.
For one single moment, Analiah regretted her choice. A terrified shiver passed through her body. The hunters stopped their advance but stood ready to pounce. Unwillingly, her toes dug slowly into the humid soil, causing an earthy smell to fill her nostrils. She tried to scream, but only a low moan escaped her, lost in the symphony of the murmuring forest. Her eyes darted across the waiting pack as her brow furrowed, waiting for them to kill her.
Her eyes grew wide with terror when she felt the tree’s slick roots wrapping around her ankles, making their way up her calves. Her body spasmed in pain and disgust as her toes elongated and rooted themselves in the soil. The roots moved over her dress and around her waist, pulling her into an embrace. Suddenly, a slimy and fleshy branch wrapped itself around her neck, causing her head to snap back, hitting the soft bark of the tree.
In a panic, Analiah shouted, ‘No! No! Stop!’
‘You chose life,’ said the voice as the organic tendrils pulled her in, and the bark moved to accommodate her body. Long golden vines stretched out from the highest branches and fell before her face. They then pierced her upper lip and slipped through the lower one, repeating the process four times until her mouth was stitched shut. Her shrieks of pain became muffled moans that joined the terrible murmurs of the forest.
As Analiah struggled against the tentacles, the tree trunk seemed to melt around her, drawing her deep inside, as though she was drowning in a bath of oily tar until she was one with the tree.
‘Fret not, child. One day, you will be released. Such is the way of the hunter,’ a female voice explained to the struggling girl.
Once the tree closed around her, Analiah sobbed at the cruelty of her fate. Wet salty tears fell from the pores of her tree. She could now understand all the whispers of the forest. Some were warning her, but most had their lips sewn together like Analiah. They moaned and squirmed, trying to free themselves from their meaty prisons. Their struggle made the branches of the trees sway, creating the unnatural dance that she had been forced to join.
The trees, the murmurs she had heard, were sobs of the trapped souls. She wondered how long she would live in this prison. She could see the wolves turn back from her new form. Unbothered by what they witnessed, the hunters strolled away. Suddenly, something moved from inside her tree’s skin. She could feel again. The numbness was gone for a fleeting moment.
A girl pulled herself free of the tree that had absorbed Analiah. She drew a sharp breath as her head finally emerged from the magenta tree trunk. The needles and vines of the tree now became the colour of the night to match Analiah’s ebony hair. The freed soul couldn’t be much older than Analiah herself. The girl wore a dress of green and had leaves in her hair. Her emerald eyes stared through Analiah, whose eyes grew wide in surprise. It was the missing girl. Larona.
As the tears momentarily stopped, so did the wet stream that fell from her pores. The girl rested her hand gently on the tree trunk from whence she had come as if trying to comfort her.
Desperate, Analiah tried to wrap her tentacle branches around the girl, hoping to trade places with her, but the girl shook her head slowly. A lone golden wolf approached her and sat on its haunches. Then, removing her hand from the tree, Larona smiled at the wolf. She reached out to stroke its golden fur gently and slowly. She then made her way out of the forest, ready for her second chance.
About the Author
Geneviève is a 42-year-old mother of three who lives in Canada. She also has a cat named Thor, God of Thunder, protector of Asgard. She started writing short stories at age 12 and French poetry soon after. Fascinated with mythology, psychology, and the supernatural, she likes to blend her favourite subjects to create unique stories.