It had been eight years since Miya found herself so close to the edge of the forest, staring into the dark abyss between the trees.
She knew it was a rabbit hole—the kind that led to worlds unknown, where up was down and down was up.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped off the grass and made her way into the labyrinth, wishing she’d brought a sack of beans or a loaf to leave with which to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.
But she was no longer a child, and only children feared the stories. Miya was sixteen, and she had nothing to be afraid of. She knew this was only a dream. She could wake up if she needed to. But there was something she had to do here; there always was. There was always a purpose to her dreams, though it dissipated the moment she returned to the waking world. Not that it mattered; so long as she was in the dream, she knew there is something that needed to be done.
From the corner of her eye, Miya caught a flash of white float past her and zip behind the green foliage. It was the same flicker she saw in every dream—the lily-white of a woman’s skirts careening past her. Determined to follow, Miya flung herself around the slender bole of a paper birch. The woman sprinted barefoot through the woods up ahead, her long, sun-coloured hair sweeping behind her as she glided like an apparition—a warm, ethereal haze emanating from her skin.
Chasing after her, Miya could barely keep up. She fixed her gaze on the tail of the woman’s skirts, floating behind her like a ribbon teasing to be caught. With every corner she turned, she momentarily disappeared before Miya caught sight of her again and resumed her pursuit. Miya’s ability to track the young woman dwindled with every disorienting step until she found herself alone in a crowded grove, the world spinning as she fought to catch her breath.
Startled by a rustle from behind, Miya spun around to find a fox perched on a rotting log, its flaming orange fur stark against the backdrop of the earthy floor of mud and dried leaves. More peculiar than the colour of the animal’s coat was the presence of not one, but two bushy tails swaying gently behind the little scavenger. Turning to face him, Miya crouched, rested her elbows on her knees, and cupped her face with the palms of her hands.
“Did you see where she went?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as the fox mimicked her gesture.
“The witch is coming.”
Miya rose and whirled around, coming face to face with the woman she’d been chasing. Her sunflower hair spilled over her shoulders in long, beautiful waves, and her eyes were still and clear as the summer sky. Although they were similar in age, the young woman was dressed as though she were out of time, her plain cotton dress reminiscent of what Miya would have expected of rural folk from the nineteenth century.
“The witch is coming,” she repeated, her expression lacking any tangible emotion. “You should go home before they catch you.”
“But I don’t want to go home,” Miya replied, the details of who they were or why they would try to catch her eluding her. “I’m afraid to go back.”
The young woman with clear blue eyes regarded her visitor, stepping closer. “What are you afraid of?”
Before Miya could answer, shouts echoed in the distance, the words indiscernible but the tone as clear as the woman’s eyes.
The young woman in the white dress suddenly appeared different, the moonlit glow around her waxing and waning. The stoic lines of her face fractured then, her expression crumbling into one of terror as she recoiled from the shouts, staring at something beyond the tree line.
The scent of burning invaded Miya’s nostrils, and she turned to see smoke rising into the sky somewhere in the distance. Panic vised around Miya’s throat; a forest fire would be deadly. Miya turned to plead with the young woman, to tell her to run, but she was gone, vanished like a ghost. In her place there was another woman—cloaked in ethereal tendrils of violet and black feathers, her face obscured by a raven beak mask that cut over her chin in a sharp vee, its contours swimming with an obsidian and amethyst sheen.
“What are you afraid of?” came the earlier question once more, enunciated by a different voice—this one sharper, more cutting. The gentle woman with sunflower hair was no more.
Locked in this other woman’s gaze—her dark eyes hidden behind the hollows in the bone mask—Miya swore she felt the flames licking at her back. Summoning what remained of her rapidly fading willpower, she squeezed her eyes shut, and chanted the only words she could think of to break the bounds of the dream.
Gasping for air, Miya jerked awake, her breath ragged as her eyes wildly searched the darkness. It was quiet save for the sound of her own heartbeat ringing in her ears. Yet somewhere beneath the scent of crisp autumn air wafting in from the open window, Miya swore she detected the faint odour of burnt wood.
“I’m home.” She exhaled, throwing herself back against the pillows. “I’m home.”
The words should have brought relief, but the more she repeated them, the more they felt like a lie.
You should go home before they catch you.
It was all she could remember from the dream. And yet even as she whispered to the shadows, “I’m home,” she knew that she was more lost than ever.