Ana stands in front of the town’s well waiting patiently as her bucket fills up with water. Summer has arrived and with every summer, the sweltering heat plaques the town leaving the townsfolk more dependent on the well than ever. Ana is no exception. Every day, she walks down to the center square with a bucket as big as her, lower it into the well, and carry the full bucket back home, only to pour it into the house’s water supply.
A moment has passed before she begins to crank the lever bringing up the now full bucket to the surface. Lifting the bucket onto the edge has always been the trickiest part, but Ana knows it’s the most crucial and most difficult part. She knows that asking for help isn’t encouraged, at least for her; most of the townsfolk want almost nothing to do with her. Ana never understood that; she cannot seem to put her finger on it, but it’s something about her that makes the town uneasy. She decides she’ll figure that out later since the water bucket is almost at the top. Carefully, Ana maneuvers it to the well’s edge and lifts it away from the well. She wipes her brow with her forearm, the sunlight caressing her face, and unhooks it from the rope carrying it away from the well and towards home.
The walk to home from the well is a respectable distance if one is not carrying a heavy object, but Ana puts up with it nonetheless. The bucket hangs awkwardly from both her hands as she tries to make it home without spilling anything. The townsfolk spot Ana in the middle of the road and move toward the edges as quickly as they can, hoping that Ana won’t cross paths with them. The whispers and snide comments about a “boy who wants to be a girl” start up as she hobbles down the road. Ana pays them no mind; she has a job to do and reacting to every single comment would waste precious time. She needs to get back home before sunset, otherwise it’ll be extremely difficult to navigate in the dark.
Ana is at the town’s border, a simple post that stands between the town and the path leading to the forest, when she is confronted by a small group of children: three boys, each nine years old, and the same age as Ana. They stand in between the border and Ana, blocking her from exiting the town.
“Hey” they shout along with a word that Ana dares not repeat.
“Whatcha doin’ at the edg’ u’ town?” The tallest in the group struts up closer to Ana and repeats the question, spitting the syllables into her face.
“Oi ‘aid, whatcha doin’ at the edg’ ‘u town?”
She keeps calm as the taller boy circles her, as if he’s sizing her up.
“Can I pass?” Ana politely asks. Getting worked up over a simple question, irritating as it was, is pointless. Another boy walks up and gives her a disapproving look. “Oi, who does he think he is? Askin’ if he ‘ould pass.” The other two snicker in approval. He? Ana looks around to see if someone else has approached the border. Other than Ana and the group of boys, there is no one else here. That’s weird. Certainly they have been mistaken. Still bothered by the comment, Ana looks around for a possible escape route. The boys notice what she is doing and try blocking her path even more.
“Nuh uh. You’re not getting away. Not until you answer our question.” The third boy chimes in. Well, I guess I have no choice. The sun is about to set. Ana raises the bucket and swings it towards one of the boys. The bucket hits him and he falls to the ground, holding onto his side and writhing in pain. The other two stare at her in shock and by the time they can think properly, Ana is already half down the path that leads to the forest, on towards home.
Her home in the forest isn’t really any special. An area that was once a cave has been turned into a small living space, complete with a kitchen, bedroom, and a bathroom. Ana wobbles her way down to the water box and fills it with the morning’s well drawing,
“Ana! You’re back!” Leia, a small tree spirit, sprints up to her and hugs her legs. Leia looks up to face Ana and asks, “How was the town? Same as always?”
“Same as always.” Ana answers. The melancholy tone hangs in the air for a few moments until Leia perks up. “I know what will cheer you up!” and run off into the forest. A couple of minutes later, Leia returns with some more of Ana’s friends. A small cloud-like spirit floats up to Ana just enough to make eye contact. “Greetings, Ana. Glad you made it home safely.”
“Greetings to you too, Elgin.” Ana cups her hands around the cloud spirit. “I am happy to be home.”
“Aaaaaaannnnnaaaaa!” Ana has little time to react as something-or rather someone-comes racing down the forest and knocks her down. A trail of flames dance along the offender’s path; the other spirits give a disapproving look. “Ana! I’m so happy you’re home! There’s so much I wanna tell you! Okay, sooooo Sloan and I were-“A fiery creature kneels on Ana’s stomach babbling at a million words a minute as aforementioned girl tries to gather her bearings. “Iona.” The fiery creature—a fire nymph to be more exact—stops talking and looks at Ana. “Yes, Ana?”
“Can you please get off of me? I’m having trouble breathing.”
Iona takes note of Ana’s distress and jumps up to their feet. Iona stretches their hand out and helps her up.
“Sorry about that Ana!” Iona apologizes and continues, “I just got super excited to see you! It’s been so long!”
“It’s okay Iona, but it’s only been a couple of hours.”
“Whoops. I forgot.” Iona looks around and makes a peculiar expression, as if one has lost something. “What is it, Iona?” Ana asks, concern written on her face.
“It seems like Sloan isn’t here yet.” Iona pouts. They always hated the fact that Sloan is so slow.
“I’m sure he’s on his way.” Ana reassures them. As if on cue, a water nymph about the same height as Iona, stumbles through the same path Iona breezed through moments before. “Oh dear. Iona, look at what you’ve done! The forest is in flames!”
“Oh, hehe, sorry Sloan, but when I saw Ana, I couldn’t help myself.” Iona gives Sloan a sheepish expression hoping it’ll calm him down. Sloan gives a deep sigh and says, “Yes, I know, but that doesn’t excuse almost burning down the forest.”
Iona gives him a blank look. “What do you mean?”
He points to the path behind him. Small fires are spread across the forest keeping alive by the surrounding debris. “Oh no!” Iona runs over and tries fanning them out but it only makes it worse. Sloan sighs again, and feeling sorry for Iona’s pitiful attempt at playing fire extinguisher, walks over and puts the fires out with ease. “Really, Iona. You should know by now that as a fire nymph, you can only start fires, not end them.”
Iona rolls their eyes at that remark. “Yeah, yeah. Stop patronizing me, Sloan.”
Leia notices the tension between the two and comes in between them. “Now, now you two. There’s no need to fight.” Leia tries to calm Sloan and Iona down, but they ignore Leia and continue to bicker. Leia stomps back to Ana in a huff, frustrated at the recent development.
Ana walks over to the two of them and tries to calm them down. “Iona. Sloan. Please stop fighting. It’ll get you both nowhere.” Iona and Sloan stop bickering long enough to listen to Ana’s words. Iona takes a second to think it over and nods in agreement. “She’s right, Sloan. We’re not really getting anywhere by fighting all the time. Truce?” They extend their hand out to Sloan.
“Truce.” They both shake hands, signaling the start of the truce.
“Okay, now that’s settled, let’s—“Ana is cut off midsentence as a high-pitched screech echoes from deep within the forest.
“What was that—“
Ana races towards the screech’s source weaving around trees. She trips over a root and falls flat on her face. The screeching continues, louder than the first time. Ana quickly gets up and runs toward them; this time taking extra care not to trip again. She makes it in time to see some herb spirits being taken by a large man. “Let them go,” Ana cries out. The man ignores her and continues picking herbs, not knowing the consequences of his actions. Ana looks on the drop for something to thrown at him, hoping to get his attention. A small piles of rocks lie dormant near her; she picks up a few and chuck them one by one at the thief. The man looks up from his task at hand befuddled by this little girl’s actions.
“Oi, kid, what are you—“He doesn’t finish his sentence, because a young boy, roughly the same age as Ana, jump sidekicks him in the face knocking him over. The herb spirit previously held captive escape from the thief’s grasp and rush to safety. Ana makes sure the spirits get away without any problems before turning her attention to the boy; said boy is inspecting the unconscious man, probably making sure he’s okay. “Excuse me!” Ana calls out to the boy. He looks up and faces Ana waiting patiently for her to continue. “What did you do to that man? I-I mean, not that he didn’t deserve it, but is he going to be okay?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. He’s fine. He’s going to be out for a while plus a nasty headache when he wakes up.”
Satisfied with his answer, Ana walks up closer and extends her hand out. “That’s good. By the way, my name’s Ana. What’s yours?”
The boy shakes her hand. “Cian.”
Noting the slight variation in his name, Ana asks, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Yes. My village happens to be quite a ways from here.”
Now Ana is curious. “Really? How far?”
“Oh, it’s, um,” Cian points behind in a general direction. “That way.”
Cian nods. “That way.”
“So, you came from a village That way and decided to venture to This way for a walk in The forest and knocked A thief unconscious?”
“Well,” He scratches the back of his head, “Not exactly. The unconscious thief wasn’t on my to-do list.”
“So, why are you here?” Ana asks bluntly. Best to get answers now rather than later. Visitors don’t often come to the forest, and with every visitor, there is always something to be sought: food, medicine, peace, to only name a few. Along with each desire, there’s a price to be paid. Loss of friends, family, a sense of nothingness and chaos as greedy men tear down parts of the forest mercilessly for their own gains and needs and with every exploit, it is up to Ana, the spirits, nymphs, and gods that dwell in the center of the forest to pick up the pieces and put them back together.
Cian looks downs at the ground sheepishly. “N-No particular reason. Just felt like taking a walk, that’s all.”
“Far from home? Won’t your parents and fellow villagers be worried?”
“T-T-They know I’m here. I always spend time here. It’s almost like a second home to me.”
Still suspicious of his motives, Ana cautiously approaches the next topic. “Have you really? I’ve never seen you before today.”
Cian seemed to have taken offense to that for his next response was “I have too! I just keep away from that cave because of the spirits.”
“Okay, now. Prove it.”
“Well, since you’ve been in the forest countless times, I’m sure you know a lot of nooks and crannies that most people look over. So, name a few.”
Cian starts listing the various wonders of the forest. “Okay, if you go west from here, there’s a small pond and every day after the sun goes down, the water nymphs come up to the surface to celebrate the coming of a new day. There’s the path north of that that leads to a small clearing where the elk reside and feed on the plants. Also, there’s the—“
Ana cuts him off before he starts the next one. “That’s enough. You’ve proven yourself.”
“But, I have even gotten to the best one!”
“We can save that one for later.” Ana decides a change in topic is needed. She’d rather not dwell too much on the fact that someone else knows just as much about the forest as she does. Although, it doesn’t seem all that bad. Having a human friend might just what she needs.
“Now that’s settled, might I ask how old you are?” Ana guesses they are the same age, but she could be wrong.
“I just turned nine not too long ago.” Cian happily answers.
“I’m nine, too.”
“Really?! Wow. There are not really any kids my age back home. Everyone’s either a baby or an adult. The ones around my age act like adults but they really aren’t.” Cian explains. “It’s nice to meet someone I can at least relate to.”
Ana glances up to the sky and notices that the sun is starting to go down.
“Oh my gosh! Is it that late already?” She starts to panic. “I’m sorry, Cian. I need to go home now. If I don’t, well, it’ll be very difficult to navigate the forest.”
Ana turns back to where she came from, but stops for a moment. She turns back and faces Cian. “Since its getting dark, it’s too late for you to go home.”
Cian glances up at the sky as if he’s looking at it for the first time. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Want to spend the night at my house? I have an extra cot I can set out?”
“Sure. It’s better than walking in a dark forest.”
The two of them set off back to Ana’s home, hoping that the Sun will stay out just a little bit longer.
“Wheeeeeereeeee weeeereeeeee youuuuuuuuuuu?” Leia runs and jumps up to give Ana a hug. “I was so worried! Are you okay? Are you hurt? Who is this strange boy? Is he an enemy?” Reciprocating the hug, Ana reassures Leia that yes she is fine, no she isn’t hurt, and no Cian is a friend, not foe.
“So, Cian, was it?” Elgin asks.
“Yes.” Cian taps Ana on her shoulder; Leia is still attached to her so it was hard to do. “Ana, who are they?”
“Oh, let’s see…the cloud spirit over there is Elgin. The fiery nymph is Iona. The water nymph Sloan, and this tree spirit over her,” She points to her chest, “is Leia.”
“Everyone, this is Cian. We managed to meet while rescuing some herb spirits.” The spirits and nymphs nod in acceptance of their new companion. “So is he staying?” Leia ask. By this point, Leia is already back to standing on the ground.
“Just for the night. Tomorrow morning, I set out on my quest.” Cian answers.
“Quest?” Ana asks, curiously.
“Yes! I probably should have mentioned this earlier but the reason I am in the forest today is because I’ve set out to find out the ultimate secret that plagues this forest.”
This is new, Ana thinks. The ultimate secret; not even herself knew what that was. In fact, this is the first time in the time she’s spent here that she’s heard of it.
“Ultimate secret?” Ana, the spirits and nymphs exclaim in unison.
“I will explain more, but it is getting late.” Cian yawns at the end of his sentence. Ana yawns in response. “You’re right. We can talk more in the morning.”
Leia and Sloan help Ana set up the spare cot for Cian and after everything settled, Ana and Cian tuck themselves away and settle into the night’s embrace.
Ana. Aaaaana. Ana, my dear child. It is time for you to wake up. You have a long journey ahead of you.
Ana is lying peacefully in bed trying to decipher the mysterious person calling to her. A crash derails her thoughts and wakes her up. She bolts out of bed, and careful to not trip over Cian, speeds to the source of the crash. Ana enters the kitchen only to find Iona and Elgin trying to make breakfast. Eggs are splatter along the walls. A broken bowl lies in a pool of batter on the floor. Iona and Elgin are in the middle of cleaning up the mess when Elgin spots Ana. “Ana! I didn’t expect for you to be up so early. Is something wrong?”
“The loud crash woke me up.” Ana says sleepily as she wipes her eyes.
“Oh, we apologize for that. Iona got the silliest idea into her and roped me into it.” Elgin explains.
“I figured. You normally don’t do anything extravagant, Elgin, so Iona was my next best guess.”
Iona finished cleaning the batter off the floor when she eyes Ana talking to Elgin. “O-Oh, Ana. Good morning. What a pleasant surprise!”
“Good morning, Iona. Any reason why you decided to mess up the kitchen so early in the morning?”
“W-Well, you see…” Iona makes eye contact with the floor. “I was trying to make breakfast for you and our guest and so I asked Elgin to help me, but I underestimated just how to get everything done, and, well…” They gesture to the messy sections of the kitchen. Ana sighs tiredly and only says, “Please clean it up”, before heading back to bed.
A few hours later, Ana wakes up to the sweet smell of butter and syrup. Iona must have gotten Leia to help them, Ana muses to herself. She gets up from her bed and finds Cian’s cot empty. She heads to the kitchen, and after breakfast is eaten, walks outside with Cian to plan the quest. “What is the ultimate secret to the forest?” Ana asks. The two of them are sitting on rocks a few meters away from Ana’s home. Cian wastes no time diving into the details and background about it.
“Long ago, humans and the gods lived in peace and coexisted with one another. For a very long time, they were happy and got along well. However, the humans, one day, decided they were tired of being mortals and wanted immortality. The gods, unable to grant that request, tried to make peace, but the humans would not listen. So, one day the humans planned an ambush. They planned on taking The Box, a sacred artifact of the gods. The humans tread through the forest, hoping to find it deep within, but in the end, they failed. In retaliation for their failure, the humans decided that the gods, spirits, nymphs, and all did not deserve to live in the villages and towns anymore, so they imposed a barrier around the forest. Only humans can enter and exit; everyone is trapped in the forest until someone can break the barrier.”
“How do you break the barrier?”
Cian shrugs his shoulders. “No one really knows. That part of the story was never passed down.”
Ana gets up from her rock and exclaims, “Then we cannot waste any more time. Let’s go!”
“No, tomorrow.” Sarcasm drips from Ana’s voice. “Yes, now!”
“Okay, then, but we should pack some supplies first.”
The two of them send the rest of the morning packing and by lunchtime, they were ready to go. Leia made lunch and once everyone had eaten, Ana and Cian set off deep into the forest, hoping to solve the mystery behind the Ultimate secret.
For the past few weeks, Ana and Cian have searched high and low, but so far, they have turned up empty. All of their leads ended being dead ends and the mystery all the more further away from being solved. Ana has talked to every spirit, nymph, and even god, but it was either they did not know what she was talking about, or refused to give information for free. She tried bribing early in the journey, but the information provided was very little and did no good without any sustenance. In the evening of the eighth day, Ana and Cian talked over dinner about their plan from hence forth.
“It seems this is a lot harder than I thought it’d be” Cian admits. Ana shrugs, “What’d you expect? With a name like ‘Ultimate Secret’, of course it’s going to be difficult.”
“I know, but still. I was hoping it would be at least a little bit easier than this. Also we need a plan.”
Ana stifles an incoming yawn. “Well, we’ll think of one in the morning. I’m tired.”
“All right. Goodnight.”
Ana. Ana, my dear precious child. You must be so worn out from your journey. On the eve of the new moon, head to the center of the forest. There you will find a small pond. You and your friend must swim across the pond to the other side, otherwise it’ll be immensely difficult to enter the Sanctum. Once you both get to the other side, the both of you must open the doors of the Sanctum together. That way, it recognizes the both of you as visitors. It is there where you will find the answers you are seeking.
Ana wakes up from what seemed like a very long slumber. The dream from the previous night still fresh in her mind, and if it is correct, then that makes the next new moon that evening. She hastily wakes Cian up and informs him of her dream. “If what you are saying is true, then we must make haste over there immediately.” After a quick breakfast, Ana and Cian hike over to the center of forest, and glad that their journey is close to an end.
Twilight settles onto the land as Ana and Cian enter the clearing where the pond is located. “This is it.” Ana states. “This is where it all ends.” Cian nods in agreement as Ana makes one last check of the time. “Evening. Time to swim.” Ana races down the plain and dives into the water. She remains underwater for a few seconds before returning to the surface. She waves at Cian to get in the water and starts swimming towards the other side. Cian approaches the water carefully and checks it before he submerses himself into the water. He swims towards Ana and catches up to her in no time. They reach dry land and walks towards the Sanctum, the same one as told in Ana’s dream. Following the instructions, Ana grabs one door handle while Cian grabs the other. “On the count of three, we’ll pull, got it?” Cian instructs Ana. Ana nods and Cian begins to count. “One. Two. Three.” On cue, the two of them open the Sanctum’s doors with ease. The inside of the Sanctum is hard to describe. The single room interior’s ceilings are on par with that of a cathedral. All around the room are spacious columns supporting the ceilings magnificent height. Walls painted a blueish green with red and purple geometric designs etched into the upper parts of the walls. The stain glass windows depict horrific battles and significant events through history. However, it is at the end of the room of which is of most importance. Towards the back lies an altar decorated in marble painted in the same shade of green as the walls. On the altar holds the Box, the very same Box in Cian’s story.
Ana spots the Box in the back. “There it is!” She grabs Cian’s hand in excitement and runs over to it. She stops in front of the altar and lets go of Cian’s hand. Ana approaches the altar carefully and just as she was about to open the box, a shiny light emits itself into the Sanctum. A young goddess dressed in a white gown appears before Ana and Cian. Her long, black hair waves gently in the draft provided by the goddess’s appearance.
“Ana, my dear precious child. It seems you have made it.” The goddess addresses Ana in a similar manner from her dream.
“Who are you?” Ana asks. Something in the pit of her stomach tells her that she knows the goddess.
“I am Abnoba, goddess of forests and rivers.”
“Lady Abnoba, if you don’t mind me asking, how do you know my name?”
“Why, my child, everyone in the forest knows your name, even the ones that refuse to acknowledge it.” Abnoba answers.
“I have one more question, my lady.” Ana takes a deep breath. “Why did you lead Cian and I to this Sanctum?”
“I am sure you have heard the story?” Both of them nod. “Then, what I am attempting to do is in relation to that. For you see, the humans and gods have lived separate from each other for a long time; it was never supposed to be this way. Humans and gods were never made to be separate; they were made to coexist as one.” Abnoba pauses for a moment before continuing. “Ana, what humans seem to lack is acceptance. Acceptance of the gods, of their fate, of themselves, and each other. I am sure you know what I am talking about.” Ana gives a small nod. She knows all too well how the townsfolk treat her: cold, reserve, and without mercy. They insist that she’s “a boy who want to be a girl” and call her a forbidden word, but she knows they are wrong. Ana would give anything for the townsfolk to accept her, just to remind her that she is not alone in this world.
“What is it that you need me to do?” Ana questions.
Abnoba points to the Box on the altar. “See this Box? This Box contains what the humans are lacking. The only way to open it is for someone with the soul of a girl and heart of gold to remove the lid.”
Ana turns to Cian, wanting to see his reaction to all of this. He only says one thing: “Go for it.” She walks to the Box and very carefully, removes the lid freeing what humankind has been lacking for a very long time. A white light escapes the Box before blinding everyone in the room. The force of the white light pushes Ana back, having her land on her side. Cian helps her up, wincing as she stands up. The white light dies down, leaving nothing but an empty box. “Is it over?” Cian asks, hoping it is.
“Yes, it is over. The barrier is broken and
with it comes acceptance” Abnoba states. “Now, Ana, I must ask that you return
to the town. There is another task that only you can complete.” With Abnoba’s
final instructions in hand, Ana and Cian exist the Sanctum and start heading
back to the cave where the adventure started and now where it ends.
“What?! You’re leaving?!” Leia, Elgin, Iona, and Sloan shout in unison as Ana bears them the news. She had just finished explaining the three week long adventure with Cian and when she told them her final instructions, chaos broke out. Leia and Iona starting crying and begged her not to leave, Elgin floated away stating something along the lines of “I need some time alone”, and Sloan, well, let’s just say prying him away from Ana will be a challenge. Once she manages to calm them down, she tells them, “I know you do not want me to leave, and I do too. I don’t want to leave either. This has been my home for a long time, but it is time for me to go live in the town for a while. The townsfolk need me to help them understand who I am and who other people like me are.” She wipes the tears from both Leia’s and Iona’s cheeks. “Besides, who said you’re not coming with me?” The excitement in their eyes does little to contain the upmost joy they all feel at hearing that. “So pack what you need and let’s get going.” As the spirits and nymphs start packing away all their lives’ possessions, Ana turns to one departure she did not want to make. Cian stands by the edge of the clearing that leads towards the cave waiting for Ana. “Well, it looks our adventure has come to an end.”
“Yes, yes it has.” Ana swallows the lump in her throat, but the tears come anyways. “Hey, Cian, be careful on your way home, okay?”
“I will.” He says. Cian walks over to Ana and
“See you soon, Ana.”
“See you soon, Cian.”
They separate and go in opposite directions; Cian towards home, and Ana towards the future.