Saskia should have been an innocent, but twilight found her making sacrifices in the heart of the black forest that bordered her grandfather’s land.
The offering was an errand that Saskia thought best done in silence, but on that evening she had learned a new word and so she repeated it to herself as she danced through the ancient monster oaks that bordered the depths of the wood. Pivoting on the heel of one bare foot, she hesitated to admire dusk’s soft pink light and how it illuminated the trees without ever reaching the ground.
“Eviscerate,” she said, tipping her face to the darkening sky.
Her newest favorite was a borrowed word. Owed to her grandfather, who, with his trembling arthritic fingers, catalogued history and fantasy on the same pages within a series of leather-bound books. To the rest of the village, he was a lunatic with delusions of frightening old days that still existed only inside of his imagination, but to Saskia, he was the greatest wisdom she had ever known. She was privileged to share his knowledge; it was with great reserve that he had entrusted any of those ancient secrets to her. In her grandfather’s mind, Saskia knew, she shared his bloodline and little else. But when his body had weakened with age and he could no longer make his way into the middle of the wood, he had no alternative but to make an heir of her. There was no one else to do his sacred work.
“You will go the forest,” he had said, “and do what I instruct you to do and no more. Then you will come home. You will not ask questions of them. You will not treat them as you would a child’s plaything. They are powerful beings, ancient beings, beings whose wrath could end our world.”
Saskia didn’t have to be told twice. Even at twelve years old, she knew already what it meant to let the rites of the vilai go undone. It had been centuries since Granwiês had failed to appease the vilai that lived in the heart of the forest, hundreds of years in which everyone else had gone to great lengths to forget the delicate, bat-winged creatures that might have been taken for moths in the soft twilight that was their high noon.
“In exchange for the offering,” her grandfather had said, “the vilai perform their ritual and keep the monsters from the other side apart from our world. But do not mistake them for our saviors. They are fickle beings and not, mind you, much interested in the survival of we who have settled here at the edge of the world. It is a most disagreeable arrangement, trusting them as we do, but we need their power. This world was not always what you know it to be. The natural order dictates that we should never have survived those ancient days.”
Having found the audacity to intrude upon the natural order, she had said she would go. It was how she found herself surrounded by the darkness now, on her fourth night of the offering, the folds of her white dress stained with the offering and her heart leaping to reach the back of her throat. It was drowsy September, full and calm, but she could feel the electric awakening of the creatures that lay dormant in this deep wood.
“Hello, vilai,” Saskia whispered with the backside of a tremor in her frail voice.
At least, she thought, on this night, she could not see the threats that the vilai made for her. One night it had been a cornhusk doll in her likeness, with dark leaves for hair and wide black eyes, hanging from a tree branch on a noose made of shimmering waxen string that Saskia recognized as vilai-made. Another night, it had been a primitive carving in the trunk of a willow tree, one which bore a crude illustration of Saskia’s face with empty sockets for eyes.
She had seen no such threats tonight. That did not mean the vilai would not be waiting for her when she reached the favored nursing tree. Already, the heart of the forest was close. In the sprawling mess of branches, heavy with nightshade flowers and thick necklaces of moss, Saskia liked to imagine that she could hide herself and never be found. But as she caught herself on an outstretched tree branch and picked her way over an overturned log, emitting a hollow series of cracks that resonated dully through the forest, she knew that she could not hide from them.
The heart of the forest was blanketed by a wispy mist that made it both ethereal and difficult to navigate. With the battle-scarred familiarity of one who has been prey to the treacherous assaults of trees too many times before, Saskia stumbled into the middle, knelt before the decaying nurse tree that held inside of it the fate of her world, and emptied the folds of her dress. The vilai asked for fresh organs. Saskia and her grandfather scavenged their offering from the bodies of the newly dead.
Cringing at the heavy scent of her sacrifice, Saskia shut her eyes and tried to remember the words in their perfect order. No less would do.
“I am come to do as you ask, vilai,” she said, then stopped short as she felt the prick of some insect at her neck. It was strange that she would be stung now, in this labyrinth of a world where nothing that was not stricken with nature’s enchantment could make its home.
“I am come –” at this, she felt another small bolt of pain bury itself in her cheek, then her thigh. Saskia cried out and struck blindly with outstretched hands, whimpering pleas as the very creatures she had come to appease forced her back further and further into their tangled abyss. She ran as fast as she could, but the vilai could fly and she could only stumble; they caught her at every turn, whispering their threats and curses in her ears with a strange, dark timbre.
When she came to a cliff settled over a sea, Saskia wondered if they meant to force her off its edge and into the turbulent waters that churned below. She had heard of the cruelty of vilai in the old stories that her grandfather wrote in his leather-bound books: when angered, the creatures were said to drive men mad and drown them in the shimmering chasm of an enchanted ocean, leaving them alone with their own battered imaginations for eternity.
“I will not harm you. I ask only to carry on the rites of my village,” she said, thinking with fearful awe of what would happen if the rites and the ritual were not done. The wall that separated their sweet, humble reality from the nightmarish one that existed on the other side of possibility would be torn down. The impossible beasts whose brutality colored bedtime stories and fables would rise from the depths of the earth and the ocean. Saskia knew their names, but little else of them; they were balauri, vodinai, marei. These legends were not for slight girls with disheveled hair to wrestle, but for warriors: men who had not made an appearance in Granwiês for hundreds of years.
The vilai, protectors though they were, might as well have been harbingers of that despair; they whispered their songs in her ears, circling her once more, marking her skin with tiny afflictions that smeared blood over Saskia’s gooseflesh-ridden skin. Vilai bites afforded near immortality to those who survived whatever had wrought them, but they were more often found on corpses. Saskia would not be one of those bodies, casualties of a war that vilai found idle delight in waging. Even at twelve years old, a mess of anxious inhalations and pounding heartbeats, Saskia felt an inexplicable determination that she must be more than that. Surely, she thought, her grandfather had not sent her into the forest to make an alter-bound lamb of her.
“Why will you not accept my offering?” she said with the insistent self-importance of a child who suspects they have been elevated to profundity and will not be turned away from its door. She was disappointed when, at first, they made no reply.
Then they spoke, but not to her. “It is she of the tear,” they hummed to themselves. “She has come to make us free.”
Saskia did not know the meaning of this phrase, but she had seen it in her grandfather’s books before and recognized it as a threat that far outweighed that of any creature alone. Her grandfather had not said much of the tear. He had said only that it was impossible in his lifetime.
He had said nothing of hers.
“I have meant no harm in coming to you,” Saskia said. “I ask only for your protection against the darkness. Is that not why you ask for our sacrifice? Are you not our guardians?”
There was no answer. In the darkness, she could feel only the hot weight of their triumphant silence. They had stilled to hover before her, unmoving and unspeaking, pieces of magic suspended in the heady air.
“What have I done?” she said at last, desperate and frightened, burdened with the weight of a fledgling culpability that she was sure she did not deserve.
The stirring of their wings resumed, and out of some dark crevice of ancient wisdom came the words, “You form the tear in the fabric of infinity.”
That was when the first crack of thunder rumbled softly up from the bottom of the sea.
In her spare time, Kayla Chronister writes science fiction and fantasy, reads too many Russian novels, and works to achieve the perfect fairy hair.