Read Chapter 1 of
Fear was fickle because it was misunderstood.
It hid in the dark place next to the tragedy that made beauty shine, and the worry that anchored excitement, steeping it in trepidation.
A necessary evil.
Or maybe not evil at all.
Maybe happiness wouldn't taste as sweet without the feeling of impending doom that crawled after it. And maybe fear, like all the other seemingly unbidden emotions, was simply a warning; a warning that historically, caused raised hackles and sharpened blades clenched in trembling and unsure hands.
Aheia was no different.
Because fear had always drawn out the contempt for herself. She’d viewed the emotion as a weakness that had her balancing across frail eggshells on her tiptoes. But for the first time since she could remember, fear didn’t matter.
“They nourish you,” a soft voice said, an echo across the impossibly large span of nothing that surrounded her.
The dulcet tone conjured colors that weren’t there before, strips of reality that fluttered on little wings, tethering themselves together in front of Aheia’s eyes, and plastering across the aching darkness until the expanse of a landscape filled her vision.
She’d been but a smattering of consciousness for longer than she could remember, floating in nothing but black ink, but now that her eyes filled with color, a new awareness weighed Aheia down—the feel of her body. Her back pressed into something pillowy and her fingertips explored the new surface below her carefully with each deliberate inhale. The air was soft, filled with moisture, and it carried the smell of a forest with it—the pools of stagnant water, the earthy underbrush, the flowering night plants, and the fog around her. She let the petrichor expand her lungs as her gaze traveled over the underside of thick, domed mushrooms with wide, brown gills that stretched from the stalks and shot up toward the dark blue sky above. Heavy vines were strung between the different fungi, symmetrical, green leaves as big as her hand sprouting off of them and catching water in their bowl-like centers.
When she looked down, Aheia realized she was lying on her very own mushroom. A huge, silky mushroom wider than the tree trunks she’d seen within the Callay Forest of Keloseros.
Her chest was calm and peaceful, until her eyes snagged on another body laying next to her. A female that looked a lot like Aheia; white, long hair bunched at her neck, and navy-blue leathers underneath a long, burnt-orange tunic wrapping around her torso. It curved along her breasts and stopped just above her belly, where Aheia spotted dark ink that crept down the side of her hip.
Fear was fickle, and it had evaded Aheia until now.
Until she saw the female’s face—or lack thereof.
“But you need to be careful.” The words came from the mouthless body—the same sweet voice that had pulled her into existence. The frayed edges of her chin and her forehead danced like smoke, as if the light rays had bent and the female’s likeness was just out of reach. “The ones that nourish you and the ones that poison you can look the same. That’s why we are careful in the forest, right? You need to pay attention to the things you can’t see. Do you remember what I taught you?”
“Yes.” The answer came from Aheia’s lips, from her heart, before her mind could even dissect the question asked. It gave her pause, and it wasn't the intrinsic knowledge and the speed at which she knew for certain, but it was the sound of her own voice. It sounded young, much too young to be hers. “The roots.”
The faceless female shifted, and it looked like she readjusted to stare up at the sky.
Can she see without eyes?
Aheia followed her action and traced the outline of the impossibly tall fungi, considering how odd it was that they themselves had cream shelves growing off the sides of their stalks. She held out her hand and reached for the little spores that rained down around them, while white specks danced across the air.
“Can you feel them?” the faceless female asked next to her, spreading her long, tapered fingers across the red spotted cap they were lying on.
Aheia mimicked the movement, fanning out her limbs and feeling a low thrum beating against her palm. She inhaled sharply, eyes wide, letting this new sensation creep up her arm, warm and sticky. Syrup in her veins.
“Yes,” Aheia said breathlessly.
The pulsing inside of her grew, heavy air filling her lungs as thin strings started emerging on the plants surrounding her like blood vessels. The vines that had been so dark before sprouted with color, thick, corded veins running through them, a bright rainbow that danced and shifted in front of Aheia’s eyes. They fed into every leaf and jumped to the small insects and moths that were flying around the glow of iridescent nightshades. It was an energy that seemed to connect it all, and it reverberated in her chest, like an ancient heartbeat that echoed across each life form.
Everything around her was alive.
Everything was connected—strung together.
“One day you’ll be a part of it.”
“When?” she asked.
“When the Gods will it.” There was a smile in the discombobulated voice. It was wistful, hopeful even.
“I’m hungry,” Aheia exhaled the words, feeling her stomach compress, a pull tugging at her from somewhere behind her navel.
“I know, but too much might kill you. Too much might kill me just as well, dearling,” the female said. “Because fate is just as hungry as you are.”
Aheia looked over at her in question, but she was already up, moving to the edge of the giant mushroom, and in the process of lowering herself to the ground. She scrambled after her, peering over the side.
“Jump,” the female said, flexing her fingers, and Aheia complied, even though the height scared her. When she was on the ground, she realized it wasn’t just her hands that were small and her voice that sounded young, but her eyeline barely reached halfway up the mushroom’s stalk. She dug her naked feet into the soft, warm earth and her eyes closed instinctively, as she let herself feel the cold water that hung in the air, too small to see.
“You don’t want to miss the snakes, do you?”
Aheia’s gaze snapped up towards the female, something itching at her mind, a recognition that wouldn’t quite bare itself to her. She brushed the odd feeling aside as the warm breeze tousled her white hair, tangling it around her face and arms, a slow smile on her lips. Her heart was happy here. It ached at the hiraeth she felt for this place.
A place that felt like home.
A place long forgotten.
Bright citrus, verbena, and bergamot tinged the leathers against Aheia’s cheek as she nestled into the female’s side and the scent brought tears to her eyes. Her chest tightened, her little fingers squeezing, worried that if she didn’t hold on, this moment would slip through her fingers like sand. They held each other like any measure of space might tear them apart as they fell into a steady pace, and Aheia watched the horizon above change to a deep orange—the color painted in one clean brushstroke behind dark purple mountains.
It echoed inside of her just as the heartbeat of nature had, and she knew it was true.
If she just held on, she could stay.
“Look.” The female reached out her hand, and let her fingers brush against Aheia’s shoulder, bringing back a small luna moth perched on top of her knuckles. Velvety, white wings gleamed in the soft fireflies that lit around them and the insect’s proximity would have been unnerving if the female wasn’t treating it as such a treasure—with such reverence.
“Blessed day, sacred night. We thank you for the life around us, for our survival,” the female said, reaching her hand down to Aheia, who turned her gaze up in question.
“Go on, kiss its wings.”
Her stomach roiled at the thought, but it was accompanied by guilt. Because deep down, she knew being disgusted was some sort of sin.
So, she leaned towards the moth, loosening a breath and when her lips touched the velvet, the ground shook. She jumped, the small stones under her feet digging into her soles as the dirt and moss covered earth cracked apart. The gashes ran deep, splitting from below her body like she’d been the reason for the disruption. The faceless female’s limbs were still outstretched, her hair curling up into the air as if the wind had stopped mid-gust and pinned the thick strands to the sky. Aheia watched in horror as black sludge bled from the cracked earth, curling up her legs in a tight coil that covered her skin in its entirety. It was oozing and shiny, and everything around her was frozen, save for her. She screamed, and when she did, the blackness forced itself into her mouth. The taste was iron, was warm, and sick against her tongue, clawing its way down her throat until she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t hear anything but her own heart. The sludgy arms devoured her, yanking her down through the world. The weightless feeling turned her stomach, and she opened her mouth again, only for silence to burst from it while her chest weighed heavy with a scream that she couldn’t let go. The wind whipped through her hair, and landscapes she’d never seen before rushed past her. She was falling, and fast, breaking through layers of iridescence. Cities and far-off skylines rushed past her, wolves with snarling mouths eating their dead prey, and waterfalls that cascaded from the edges of floating islands. Her tears bubbled up and away from her as her limbs flailed, and she careened toward a bright, shimmering border of light. Her body crested the retina-burning light, and the air exploded from her lungs as she slammed into a hard surface.
Aheia gasped, cold air filling her lungs. It bit and tore at her body, and swept the black ooze from her like a storm cloud. She blinked, bright light blinding her now as she spit out the taste in her mouth. Red blood splattered the icy ground under her fingers. Her complexion blended with her surroundings and her hands were bigger than they’d been a moment ago.
White trees stood tall around her in a perfect pattern, spanning so far she couldn’t see where they ended.
A lancing pain speared her back, forcing her onto her knees in hopes of finding relief, but the movement only made it worse. It intensified, and blood started to pool, dripping from her chest.
White spots bordered her vision as she gripped the drenched, black fabric over her heart, feeling the burning of a probed wound. A ragged sob worked its way up her throat, the noise bouncing off the unnervingly perfect trunks over and over again.
"Watch the shadows." They’re lying to you. A tattered voice scraped against the back of her mind.
“There aren’t any.” Aheia choked just as her world changed—rearranged while she bled out on its ground, staring at the dark spaces that bared themselves behind her reality. Like all of it had been a facade in a play. But now the curtain was rising and she could see between—the place where the sinister things lived.
As her surroundings fractured, so did the air, split by a careening object that whizzed past Aheia’s head and landed in the snow with a deafening thud. She yelped, staring at the pearly handle of a dagger sticking from frozen ground. Another fell to her left and yet another just in front of her, fast, fast, faster, until it was raining weapons. She screamed, trying to press herself against the trunk of a tree, the pain in her back growing until she couldn’t move. It felt like she’d been impaled against the bark behind her, and all she could do was sob silently while the knives kept falling and hitting closer and closer. Tears rolled down her cheeks, her fingers twitching with defeat as familiar beady eyes invaded her field of vision.
Nausea burned Aheia’s stomach as the insect’s wings fluttered, fluffy antennas twitching slightly, jutting out from a furry body as it stared at her with that uncomfortable gaze. It held her attention until the pain in her hand tore it away, and she screamed, eyes forced down to the knife that that had impaled her. The agony of it burned and her blood welled quickly, pooling on the snow and ice below.
Gods, please, she begged as another knife razed the air in front of her like an answer, slashing through the side of her calf. Aheia convulsed in pain, finding the moth again with pleading eyes. It had brought her here, hadn’t it?
Please help me. She couldn’t speak it, not when her voice died the moment she parted her lips. Please.
But it only watched as a third blade sheared through the air and buried itself in her shoulder, slicing into her flesh.
Aheia’s lips were wrenched apart in a silent scream, her vision obstructed by her tears when the moth jutted forward, and vaulted towards her, forcing its body into her mouth.
© by Mariel Pomeroy 2023