Go in those woods, and you’ll never come out alive.
Since the day they were capable of proper communication, the children of the village of Execrat had those same words mercilessly pounded into their young, impressionable minds. They were told that there were monsters in those woods, monsters with no conscience that would not hesitate to devour young and pure morsels. Monsters that would come into their rooms at night and steal them away if they misbehaved, cut off each of their fingers if they stole, slice off their tongues if they spoke out of turn. There were tales of beasts that plagued them their entire lives, even as they themselves grew into the adults that spun them, weaving a web made of the most formidable thread that ensnared them for all eternity. There was no escaping the legends of the woods, nor the village trapped within the center of them.
It was these very tales of monsters that made the villagers of Execrat too terrified to leave. Many had entered the woods surrounding their village on all sounds, only to never be seen again. It was not as though Execrat was simply impossible to live in- as a matter of fact, it was a wondrous place located on a flat side of the high mountain peaks of Nephilis, the land of ice and snow. Despite its being trapped in an eternal winter, crops still grew once sowed underneath the snow. Animals never perished from freezing to death. Even the residents themselves were rarely ever sick or freezing. Some may think the place as blessed, save for the dreaded woods. But the villagers only saw it as cursed.
Humans can only live so long in a comfortable cage without feeling trapped. The villagers had lived in Execrat for generations upon generations, the years of being trapped within their eternal frozen prizon building a deep, simmering hatred within all of them. They tried to destroy the woods, hunt the monsters lurking within many times. All attempts had been thwarted, either by the monsters or the woods themselves. If a tree was hacked down by an ax, the chopper would become gravely ill the next day. If any animals that wandered out from its depths were killed, the guilty parties had terrible accidents resulting in death befall them only days later. As blessed as Execrat was, it was equally as cursed and tarnished by loathing and torment. All because of those woods that surely must’ve been overseen by demons, or perhaps came from Hell themselves.
The tales of these monsters and beasts were what lured the Beast Slayer Jubal to the village of Execrat. He had been in the profession since he was a young lad, whipped into shape by his retired knight of a father before him. The monster saw Jubal and lived to tell the tale. Once he heard of the village that had been trapped by monsters for centuries, he leaped at the opportunity to achieve more fame and fortune, dreaming of the heaping rewards the villagers would shower him with once he released them from their cage. He scaled the mountain for two days and two nights, nearly freezing to death along the way, the only things keeping him alive his determination and willpower. He gloated to the villagers about his incredible, God-given abilities, preening about how he would save them all from their prison. And he might have been able to achieve his goals, too- if he had not made the mistake of falling in love.
She was a lovely woman, with hair the colour of cocoa beans and eyes of newly sewn wheat. Her name was Frieda, and he loved her terribly. He showered her with promises to save her from her fate of dying within the village, of taking her family to a place where they could live together happily for the rest of their lives. Their wedding day was a grim one, the villagers ever one edge from being surrounded by noting but evil, and the second they sealed their vows with a kiss, they sealed Jubal’s fate to be trapped within the village for all eternity. For since he had made a connection with a villager, that meant he was one as well. And the woods would not allow him to leave.
Their marriage was happy, despite the circumstances, but incredibly short-lived. Frieda bore him one son, whom they named Thierry, then died soon after. Jubal cursed the woods, blaming his beloved wife’s death upon their inescapable malice, and was doomed to look upon the face of his son who so resembled her in every way- save for a few key aspects. The day his wife died was the day he swore vengeance upon the woods and the beasts prowling within, no longer after fame or fortune, but simply closure for his lost love.
He trained Thierry personally in the ways of beast-slaying, telling him the same stories of the woods that had been passed down for generations. But his son was a gentle boy, one who only wished to tend to the fields and give life to the crops and care for the animals. He made fast friends with the only other children his age in the village: the soft-hearted and soft-spoken Kenneth, son of the village’s most revered farmer, and the twin daughters of the village chief, Ayalin and Amalin. They played together every day, when Thierry’s father wasn’t dragging him off to lessons and senselessly pounding his mind with words of hatred and despair. The four were the closest of friends and assumed that was how it would remain forever.
Then Jubal took some villagers with him into the woods, and came back out with a trophy.
Jubal had told his son he was going on a journey, and would be back fairly soon. He was a master beast slayer, after all- whatever beasts plagued the village would be no more than mere flies to him. He’d lived up to his word when their hunting party emerged from the woods, dragging a dead beast behind them with woven ropes and terrible grins plastered on their faces from the delight of killing.
“The beast is slain!” They cried victoriously, hanging it up in the center of the village square for all to see. The drove a large wooden post to the ground, nailed the beast’s leathery wings to the high boards, kept its empty eyes open for all to see. Jubal sawed off its elegant horns and attached them above the door of his and his deceased love’s home for all to see, to know what he had done. Perhaps now the village would finally be free, now that the beast was dead. Thierry looked upon the vicious, winged creature, strung up like a prize won at the annual fair, and could not help the tears that were brought to his eyes. There was something almost gentle about the set of its fanged mouth, a peace that was permanently carved onto its face. Whatever this creature was, Thierry somehow knew it didn’t deserve to die.
All was well within Execrat for some time. The four young friends grew into young men and woman, thirteen of their birthdays having come and gone. Jubal was essentially worshiped as a god himself, he and Thierry given even higher treatment and respect than the village chief himself. The villagers rejoiced and made merry for many nights- even though they could not bring themselves to enter the woods even still.
But then, slowly and surely, things began to go missing.
It was small things at first. Tiny sums of silver coins that wouldn’t be missed. Then pieces of the women’s jewelry. Then tools made of the finest metal. The villagers searched desperately for the thief, wondering what small child might have made a terrible mistake, what adult could have been so foolish as to turn against his own. The wives of the villagers remained at home, continuing to teach their children, Thierry having gone over to Kenneth’s home routinely in his father’s absence. One day, the youngest of the chief’s twins, Amalin, showed up to their usual spot around the back of her wooden cottage in a dress made of fine, sparkling material. It caught the sunlight and winked like stars at the children. Her sister was awed, not envious, though the boys didn’t understand the appeal of such fine things. Clothes should be meant for functionality, not decoration. They played the all the same, nonetheless, though Amalin was careful not to get a speck of dirt on her fine garments.
The night came and went. The mountain chill when the sun had gone down was not nearly as formidable as it normally was because of Execrat’s wonderful magic, though it still nipped at the villager’s toes in the dead of the dark. Throughout the night, a deep moaning resounded all throughout the village, the bare branches of the trees groaning under the weight of the snow adorning them like cotton. The stars were always as clear as winter crystals, the wind soft as whispers. When everyone awoke to a gray dawn, they discovered that Amalin was nowhere to be found. They scoured every last inch of the village to no avail. The only possible explanation was that she’d been spirited away by some beast in the woods.
Jubal’s fury could have shattered the mountains. All of his boating after having caught a beast, when there must have been more than one. He raged from all sides of the village, formulating plans, making bribes and promises if they helped search for the girl and take down another beast. Little did he know that his son and his two companions were making plans of their own.
“Are you insane?” Ayalin demanded once he proposed his scheme. “There’s no way we can go in those woods and come back out alive! You know what all the adults say!”
“What choice do we have?” Thierry murmured numbly, the absence of one of his friends settling a deep chill within his bones. “All the adults know how to do is be cowards. They’ll just kill anything they come across. We’re the only ones who can save Ama.”
“I don’t know,” Kenneth whispered, his gentle voice quaking with fear. “You see the monster they dragged out every day. What if there are worse things in there?”
“All the more reason we should go, and as soon as possible,” Thierry countered. His father’s training may have been unfitting of the kind boy, but it had made him brave and loyal. He was taught to never run from a monster, never abandon a friend in need. To be frank, he never thought he’d have to put his clumsy skills to use. But desperate times called for desperate measures. And his friends could say nothing in argument.
So they rose from their beds late that night, sneaking from their homes to travel into the woods in search of their precious friend. They grabbed sickles and hoes as their weapons, trinkets made of iron for defense. Village men stood guard at all possible entrances, though a quick throw of a rock in a different direction was enough to send them running to investigate and leave the children to scamper into the dark forest. The trees bowed heavily under the weight of the snow, the stars concealed by their wooden claws. Even though they knew they had to move quickly, Kenneth, Ayalin, and Thierry were hesitant. They’d been told terrors of these woods all their lives, after all. If the adults had bagged such a large and terrible creature from within them, who knew what else waited inside?
Even after walking until their feet burned and heels blistered, there was no sign of Amalin. They until the full moon was high in the sky without any clues, but then they saw something shiny fluttering on a stray branch, a hand offering something to them. Thierry snatched it away quickly and recognized the glittering fabric of Amalin’s dress. She had been here, and something had caused her dress to tear. He gripped it hard within his sweaty palm and stuffed it within his trousers pocket, encouraging the others to continue in the direction they were going.
Though the were wary and unmistakably frightened, something began to occur that filled them with wonder. The sparkling white snow began to fade. The trees stopped moaning and instead hummed softly with a strangely warm wind flowing through them. Strange, tiny green blades began protruding from the ground, and Kenneth ran his hands over them only to discover they were soft to the touch, the same as some of the crops’ green leaves he handled every day. Identical foliage began sprouting from the trees in abundance, creating a canopy with only some holes to see the stars through, colourful fungi growing from their trunks. Bright red and blue balls the size of peas clung to clusters of the leaves rooted to the ground, the unusual song of birds swelling overhead. Coruscating sapphire puddles dotted the atmosphere, one from which a violently pale snake darted out from, fangs blazing white fire, and bit Ayalin in the leg.
She became feverish immediately after it had slithered back into the waters it had emerged from. The skin around the bite begin to fade from white into a dangerous purple. She retched on a tree’s trunk, leaving strange scurrying balls to duck within its bark, but refused to go back until they found her sister. Kenneth carried her blazing body on his back with his well-defined farmer’s arms, Thierry leading the rest of the way, his jaw clenched in terror- from the monsters and for Aya. Slowly, the sun began to poke its blazing head up from the horizon, lighting the holes in the foliage up like sparks in a fire. And slowly, the began to reach a clearing in the dense trees and snickering critters, only to discover a small pond glittering like a fine blue jewel, surround by strange, colourful plants erupting from the ground, shy little animals, and the sun shining just overhead.
Sitting on a smooth stone in front of the pond, completely unharmed and smiling at the small critters, was Amalin.
“Ama!” Her twin cried feverishly, shoving off of Kenneth only to stumble to the ground. By that point her leg had gone entirely purple, and the boys each lifted her up by an arm so she could throw them around her sister.
“Aya! Thierry! Ken!” She cried, sparkling tears falling from her eyes. “I’m so glad to see you! What on earth happened, Aya? You feel like you’ve been sitting around the fire for far too long!”
“Bitten by a venomous beast,” Thierry spat, clutching his farmer’s weapon tighter in his hand until it threatened to slip from his sweaty grasp. “What about you? I mean no offense, but how are you still alive?”
Amalin was silent for three thundering heartbeats, her eyes distant and aged well beyond her thirteen years. When she spoke again, her voice was light yet burdened, her eyes sparkling. “We were wrong, all this time. These woods aren’t cursed or evil.”
“How is that possible?” Kenneth demanded softly, his golden brows furrowing. “Then how come they kill people? How come they found a monster in here?”
“Well, you see-” Ama began, but she was cut short by another voice, soft as the wind whispering through the leaves, yet strong as the trunks of the tallest trees.
“Ama?” It called, clearly feminine and tinkling like icicles clashing against each other. “Are you faring well? I thought I heard other voices…” A small girl, no older than the children themselves, emerged from behind some trees, a tray of tea and brightly coloured sweets in her small hands.
She was like no other girl they’d ever seen before, not even in the few books the village kept. Her long hair that dragged on the ground was the colour of a gentle dawn, a blush pink fading into lilac and then forget-me-not blue. Her form was small, pointed like the edges of a knife, same as her finely formed, almost triangular ears poking from underneath her masses of hair with plaits woven in. Her skin was the colour of the milk Kenneth coaxed from the cows, with an unearthly glow to it, identical to the moon’s. And though they knew she was staring directly at them, they could not see, for her eyes were concealed with bandages.
Then she dropped the tray and screamed and screamed and screamed, so much that even the small, delicate horns in the shape of antlers atop her head began to tremble.