The Dark Forest, by Adam Casalino
She ran through the forest without looking back. Her heart was beating against her chest and she could barely breath. It was too dark to see and she frequently stumbled over rocks and brambles. Stray branches scratched at her face. She didn’t care. She had to get away.
Somewhere in the distance a column of smoke curled up into the sky. In a broad clearing a quaint, little cottage crumbled into rubble. Slow, heavy footsteps walked away from the ruin, towards the wall of trees. Even deep within the forest she could hear him coming.
Her lungs were burning; she could run no longer. She collapsed beside a great oak tree, struggling for breath. Branches cracked and underbrush was trampled somewhere behind her. She hugged the tree, whispering a tiny prayer and began to climb. She summoned what little strength she had left and reached the top. Above her was the naked sky. The moon was pale and all the stars were alive. She cried out to the heavenly bodies, another prayer for deliverance.
Like a hound catching a scent he found her. He stood beneath the tree, a shadow among the shadows. A sinewy mitt grasped an ax.
“I know you’re up there, Yliandrai,” came a hard voice.
She was silent, paralyzed. She clung to the swaying branches.
“This wood cannot save you.” he said.
She pressed her lips to the leaves, muttering as many prayers as she could remember.
“If you refuse to come down,” he said, “I’ll have no choice.” He raised the ax and brought it down against the tree. It cut deep into the bark. She cried out as if in pain. She let go of the branches and fell to the forest floor.
“There you are.” The dark figure stood over her.
“Please don’t kill me,” she said, her voice quivering.
“What am I to do?” he said. ”You destroyed my home. My wife and I took you in, raised you as our own—and this is how your repay us?”
“I am sorry,” she said. ”I thought I could change my nature, but I cannot. It is the way of all forest folk.”
“Then I must do what I must do.” He raised his ax. She pressed her eyes shut and uttered one last prayer. There was the sound of branches snapping. The ground shifted. The trees moved. When she opened her eyes, the man was gone. His ax left on the ground.
Yliandrai touched her lips and touched the ax. She stood to her full height, finally shedding her human form. She thanked the trees. They took her up in their arms and she disappeared. She had returned to the forest. She was home.