I knew I shouldn't have wondered this far into the forest. The mothers warned us, my father begged me never to enter the forest. ‘It's too risky,’ he would always say. The forest was no place for us. We were destined to dwell on the flat, farming on the toxic marshes and snatching any small critter that escaped the grip of larger beasts living amongst the trees.
I couldn’t wait any longer. Each heave of my baby sister dug into my soul. Her screeching coughs barked the village awake every night. The gargling in her chest bubbled away when she slept keeping me held in tears, her pain ricocheting and echoing inside of me until I fell asleep from exhaustion.
I ignored the warnings for the sake of hope and dreams of help and food somewhere camouflaged in the forest. Only the warnings came true. The witch had me. The dirty smears across the witch’s face covered any revealing feature. I couldn't see through the lumpy blanket swung over the witch’s body. I was captivated in its bizarre gaze. The witch’s eyes faded between colours. A blue would swirl away before a green struck out and consumed the witch’s sight before fading into a red.
‘Let me go,’ I wanted to scream. ‘I need to get help for my sister. She's dying.’
‘I know. We're all dying. It's the curse of this world.’ The witch said without moving its mouth. I try to widen my eyes in the deepening fear but failed to break the gaze. ‘I can hear without you saying words,’ it adds as if delving further into my thoughts. ‘This world has been dying for years. You shouldn’t still be here but now you can't leave the plains of your home. There is nowhere else.’
‘What about your lands?’ I force into my thoughts, determined to snatch up any humanity this creature possesses.
‘We don't have lands. Our plain fell from this world centuries ago.’
‘That's not my fault. Let me go. I need to get help and go home.’
Its stare intensified. I felt my thoughts burn in agony. The eyes grew dark. I felt my surrender from the witch’s command as she searched through my mind, tracing my thoughts and memories.
‘You're below two dozen now.’ A croaking voice said. ‘I will help you.’
I twitched on the spot in shock. My legs urged me to run fiercely into the darkness of the forest yet I held steady while the witch stepped closer to me.
‘You'll what?’ I said.
‘I'll help you. I can save your sister. Don’t be afraid. We are not here to harm you.’
‘Then why did you put a spell on me?’ I took one step away from the witch. The earth squelches below my feet.
‘It’s a protection spell. Your kind has always tried to kill ours when you’ve been scared.’
The witch walked straight past me, its shawl dragging along the moss behind it. It disappeared behind a tree nearby whilst heading in the direction of the village.
‘Wait up,’ I shouted after the witch. I dashed toward it, suddenly void of fear. I ducked behind the first tree and see the shawl whipping out of sight into another patch of shadows. I chased after the witch, panting as I came to the edge of the forest and to the steaming plain where the village sits. The witch waited next to the final tree before the clearing as if held their by an invisible barrier.
‘You must invite me in. I’ll wait here until you have discussed my presence with your elders,’ the witch stood calmly.
I ran off between the huts, calling for my father and uncle. They stepped out of the huts at the sound of my voice. My father stood sharply upright, staring darkly down at me. The glare quickly faded at the sight of my breathless desperation.
‘The witch came to help,’ I declared, gasping to catch my breath.
‘That what?’ my uncle fired back. ‘You lead a witch to us? You’ve doomed us all.’ He snapped his head around, spotting the black shape of the witch standing at the start of the plain.
‘No, it said it wants to help,’ I said. Self-doubt began rising within me. The pit of my stomach swirled, the hunger in my inside evaporated to leave a stark urge to vomit bile. The thought of the witch’s spell penetrating my mind washed away my confidence.
‘Grab the spears!’ my dad shouted. The mothers peered out of the huts and upon seeing the men charge toward the forest huddled the children into the ignorant safety of the huts.
My uncle and cousin cheered in a fury I didn’t recognise. They sprinted at the witch armed with their hunting spears.
The witch remained motionless, its sight locked on the men bearing down on it. A ripple in the air flourished from the still witch and belted across the three men. They were soundlessly knocked to the ground. The men’s shouting was dismissed as they smacked into the earth. Mud slid up their backs and sides. The witch moved its arm, its mental grip snatched up the spears and shot them across the plain, back at the huts. The men pled for the witch to show mercy for their families. The witch ignored them, continuing the disarming spell. I watched on as the witch motioned the spears back onto the ground in the huts and surrendered them to the families inside.
The men stayed on the ground, afraid to move. The shock of the witch sparing them held them naturally still, untouched by the witch’s power.
‘I told your child I will help you,’ the witch said. ‘But you must invite me in. I cannot enter your territory without permission.’
‘We’ll never give you permission,’ my dad spat back. ‘You’re a witch. You’ll curse us all the first chance you get.’
‘I have already had many chances. I do not wish to cause you harm. I have come to help.’
‘How?’ I yelled from across the plain. I marched up next to the men who attacked the witch. ‘How can you help us?’
‘Invite me in and I will show you.’
‘Never,’ my dad insisted. ‘Your kind is an abomination!’
‘Of course you would think that,’ the witch said, a smirk curled in the corner of its partially exposed lips. ‘Yet, it is your kind that was never supposed to last on this plain. You’re the ones who shouldn’t be here.’
‘This is our home. Isn’t it?’ I asked.
‘It was intended as your species start. You were supposed to leave this world with the rest of your kind. Until you have left this plain we cannot either,’ the witch explains.
‘You seek to kill us,’ my uncle jumped to his feet. He clenched his fists and charged at the witch in raw energy. The witch held still, unfazed by the attack. My uncle’s courage faltered as he neared the witch. His sprint dropped to a meager walk, the desire in his body seemed to leech out of his system.
‘I can kill you if you please,’ the witch muttered. ‘Or I can help you leave this place for good, without death.’
‘How?’ I jumped at the mere passing of hope. ‘How can we leave? Is there a way out?’
‘There used to be. When you were in the billions you had machines that lifted you to a new world. Your kind knew this plain will end and departed accordingly.’
‘Billions?’ My mouth dropped. I had never known beyond the families in the village.
‘I’ll give you health and knowledge but you must promise to leave. Until you do, I cannot.’
The sun approached our world. I could feel the heat press against our world, tearing at the once swampy plain. Glass filled the air blasting in with the sun’s fury across the desert world.
‘It’s time,’ the witch croaked behind me. It’s shawl hanged over its shoulder revealing its petit, hairless form. Its eyes sat at a light blue. I recognised the colour of sadness in the creature. It had been centuries together. My health and strength sustained only by its power.
Ahead of me the last ship waited. It’s rough brown shape and small propulsion units hovered as the signal of my time to leave.
‘I’ll miss our conversations,’ I said, a tear forming in the corner of my eyes. I don’t dare look back. That world was done with us and my friend finally needed to return to its kind. It’s test was over. It successfully created a life on its world that can transport all of its kin onto the higher plain.
‘I’ll be waiting up there,’ the witch whispered. ‘Until our next test together, farewell.’
As I stepped onto the craft I feel a ripple of power shiver out behind me. A flash of silver radiated out from the departing witch as the craft of our thousands drifts out of the domain that has held us as mice to the grand games.