“Wait until you are within the borders of the forest before you open the box, else you have failed before you have begun.”
With those words, the schoolmaster turned away and left Naji alone before the borders of the forest.
Naji entered the forest with no other possessions but that box, as the test required. He carried no water, no food, no clothing but what he already wore, no bedroll, nothing to trade or barter with.
But that is what he had chosen. A box.
Naji was studying to become an enchanter. Or rather, he was studying for the chance to study to become an enchanter. He had learned nothing of enchantment during his first year of studies, so he was surprised when his final test involved enchantment.
His only task was to make it through the forest to the other side. He could take as long as he wanted. He would not be allowed to take the test more than once.
He had heard many rumors about the test. That it changed for each person who entered the forest. That some students did not come out of the forest for decades. That the forest was not a real place, but an elaborate illusion, crafted by the schoolmasters, who watched each student. So if a student wished to give up and forfeit their chance, or if a student grew seriously ill or was seriously injured, they would be removed from the forest.
The schoolmaster who was administering Naji’s test had told him nothing of what he should do if he became stuck or sick or scared, or if he wished to end the test for any reason.
The schoolmaster had only told him that he must make it to the other side of the forest, he could take as long as he wanted, and he could choose one of three gifts to help him through. One gift was the power to grow invisible at will. Another was the power to fly. The third gift was a mystery…and a gamble. It might be another ability, a tool, or perhaps, nothing at all.
When Naji chose the third gift, the schoolmaster did not seem surprised. He handed Naji a plain wooden box sealed with wax. The box was only the size of Naji’s palm going across, and was only as thick as the length of Naji’s smallest finger. He was able to put it in one of the pockets of his coat.
Naji entered the forest and walked a ways before he pulled the box from his pocket and opened it to find nothing inside.
He sighed and shook his head at himself. He had chosen the box because the other two abilities seemed too easy. If he had chosen flight, he could fly through the forest, or even over it. If he had chosen invisibility, he would be able to hide from any creatures or brigands. But there must have been some trick to the abilities. If nothing else, he might not have been able to use the abilities anyway, having learned nothing of how to master them. He only knew one thing for certain, such abilities required much energy. He wasn’t certain he would be able to find enough food to sustain the energy those abilities would require. He chose the box in the hopes that there would be some tool inside, a scroll or an enchanted compass, or something that would help him.
But the box had nothing in it. He had been warned it might be so. He comforted himself by envisioning filling it up with water, or perhaps berries. The box was sealed with wax all around. It would contain some small amount of water.
The weather was mild in the forest. And aside from a few insect bites, Naji suffered no harm on his first night. He slept in the hollow of a tree and woke with only a slight stiffness that he was able to walk away.
He noticed that the sky was clouding over as he continued on. By afternoon, the sky was gray and he smelled rain in the air.
He came upon a cottage that was just visible from the road. He had not been forbidden from asking for aid. He thought he might stop by and ask for the best course through the forest. If the inhabitants offered him a warm place to sleep for the night, he would accept. If they did not, he would thank them for their kindness and find a covered spot for the night.
In the front yard of the cottage, Naji spotted the tools of woodworking. A bench, smoothened planks, some of them held by a vise and carved into curving shapes.
He saw an old man kneeling in the yard and sweeping his hands back and forth over the dirt.
Before Naji could speak to announce himself, the man spoke to him.
“Will you help me, traveler?” the man asked.
Naji watched the man and realized that he was blind. The man said he had gotten locked out of his house and had dropped his keys all over the yard. He couldn’t find them. He had a ring, he said, of about a dozen keys. He’d been tugging at the ring and all the keys went flying.
Naji helped the old man search, and they managed to find nine of the keys, including the key to the cottage’s front door. He also threw a tarp over the woodwork in the yard and nailed the tarp down.
“I was not expecting rain,” the man, who was a carpenter, said.
He commented that he would find the rest of the keys after the rain stopped. But the rain was already thickening. It might churn the earth into mud and bury the keys. If it rained hard and long enough, it might even carry the keys off. There were only a few left. Naji said he would find them, and the carpenter in return invited Naji to stay in his cottage for the night.
It rained through the night, and Naji left in the morning, hoping the carpenter would offer a bit of food by way of breakfast.
The carpenter instead handed him one of the keys that Naji had helped to find.
“A gift,” the carpenter said.
And Naji was struck with a notion that the carpenter might be part of his test. Maybe it was a test of his kindness to others. He was supposed to help the carpenter in exchange for some gift that would help him on his way. Naji asked the carpenter outright if this was so. But the carpenter seemed not to know what he was talking about.
“Do you know the best way out of the forest?” Naji asked.
“Ah, that I can help you with,” the carpenter said. “The best way out is the way you came in.”
Naji drew in his brows. “How do you know which way I came into the forest, sir?”
“Because there’s only one way in. That’s why I live here. There aren’t so many travelers passing to and fro. Just the occasional wayfarer like yourself.”
Naji explained about his test and how he had to make it through the forest to the other side.
“This forest is dangerous, traveler. You should leave it.”
Naji did not think that his schoolmaster would send him into a forest that was truly dangerous to him. But he did not say so to the carpenter. The old man had lived in the forest a long while and he would know its character better than any who merely passed through.
Naji bid farewell to the carpenter and continued on his way.
It may have been his imagination, primed by the warnings of the old carpenter, but Naji thought he spotted shadows from the corner of his vision as he walked the path deeper into the forest. He took more frequent rests that day, not to rest, but to peer into the forest and try to spot if any creature was stalking him, or any person.
After a lunch of raw mushrooms that he was almost certain were not poisonous, he was walking along the path when he heard a rustling to his left. He stopped and listened. The rustling started anew. It was loud, and at first, he thought some creature must be moving toward him, so he climbed the closest tree to get to safety and to get a clearer look.
And he saw a sight he did not expect.
The rustling was being made by some kind of lizard tangled in a knot of vines. The lizard flicked its tongue, and one of its eyes rolled back and up as if to look at Naji.
Naji descended from the tree and approached the lizard. It was the size of his arm and the color of a lime. Naji did not know much about lizards, but he did know that they would bite. If he tried to free this one, it might bite him out of instinct.
He turned to leave the creature, but as he stepped away, he pictured the vines entangling the creature. It would never escape that tangle without help. It would starve to death, slowly.
Naji walked back to the lizard. He told the lizard not to bite him, and to his surprise, the lizard spoke.
“I promise not to harm you,” the lizard said.
Naji had no knife, so had to loosen the vines by slowly pulling at the right ones. When he had loosened them enough, the lizard crawled out, whipped around, said “thank you,” and bit Naji on the left wrist.
As Naji exclaimed in pain, the lizard scurried off.
Naji washed the wound in a nearby stream, hoping that it did not become infected or inflamed with venom. And he wondered if that too was part of the test. Perhaps if he’d picked flying as his ability, he never would have seen the lizard. Or if he did, he’d have been able to fly away before the lizard attacked him.
He continued on his way, still glimpsing shadows. But when he wrapped his arms about him and felt the throbbing of the wound on his wrist, a sudden feeling of comfort descended upon him, like a dark and heavy cloak had wrapped around him, hiding him from the eyes of the shadows that stalked him.
Naji encountered no other travelers on the road, but after a while, he did see something lying on the path before him.
It was a butterfly, or what appeared to be half a butterfly. One side of her wings was missing.
After his experience with the lizard, he was only mildly surprised when she spoke. She asked him if he’d seen the other side of her wings, claiming it was stolen, though she didn’t know how or whom.
And after his experience with the lizard, Naji hesitated to offer any help, even to what appeared to be a harmless butterfly.
But the wind was beginning to pick up. Another storm was coming and the butterfly’s remaining wings fluttered as a breeze snapped by them.
The butterfly began crawling toward the side of the road. “You should find shelter, friend,” she said, “before the rain starts.”
Drops were already falling, and she was crawling so slowly that Naji shook his head and crouched over her, blocking the rain from falling on her.
He pulled the box from his pocket, scooped up the butterfly, and put her inside.
“This will shelter you from the storm,” he said. “Then if you like, you can come with me to the other side of the forest. That is where I am headed to pass a test that has been put before me. Once I pass this test, I will be able to ask a favor, and I will ask my schoolmasters to restore your wings. I’m certain it will be no challenge for them.”
The butterfly was so grateful, she accepted his offer, and she gave him her name.
“I am Vlinder,” she said.
“I am Naji.”
Naji found a shielded spot, but this storm was milder than the last, and when the rain stopped, he let Vlinder out of the box. She perched on his shoulder, and they continued on their way.
Before too long, Naji saw a cottage just visible from the road. In the front yard of the cottage, there were the tools of woodworking. Naji frowned at the familiar sight.
“Do not go inside there,” Vlinder said.
“Do you know who lives here?”
“I will not go in there.”
“I have to see who lives here. I’m afraid it’s the same cottage I came upon when I first entered the forest. I hope it’s not so, but I may have somehow ended up walking in a circle. Do you know if that’s so?”
“I…I can’t remember.”
“Like you can’t remember what happened to your wings?”
Vlinder was so agitated that Naji offered to let her climb back into his box and stay there until he was done with his visit to the cottage-dweller. She agreed.
Hoping it would be a different person with an eerily similar home, Naji knocked on the door and was greeted by a very unsurprised carpenter.
“So I have walked in a circle,” Naji said as he entered the cottage.
“You can’t trust this forest,” the carpenter said. “It doesn’t follow the sun.”
The carpenter gave a heavy sigh. “I did not tell you. I hoped you would take my advice and leave the way you came.” He shook his head. “I should have known you would insist on finishing that test of yours.”
The carpenter told him that the forest was turning around him, changing and shifting even as he moved through it. That was why the carpenter said that the way Naji had come was the only way in or out.
Naji realized that if he’d chosen the gift of flight, he would have been able to fly over the forest, see it turn and veer in the proper direction, so he ended up on the opposite side from where he’d entered.
Naji pressed the carpenter. “There must be some way to get to the other side of the forest.”
“If you sit in one place long enough,” the carpenter said, “the other side of the forest will get to you.”
Naji sighed. “How does the forest move?” he asked, hoping that he could discern some pattern.
“Have you…seen anyone in the forest?”
“No, I’ve seen no other travelers, but…” Naji thought of the shadows that he kept seeing on the edge of his sight.
“Shadows,” the carpenter said. “You’ve seen them, haven’t you?”
Naji’s eyes widened. He thought he felt the box in his pocket shift, as if Vlinder was moving.
“The forest is cursed,” the carpenter said. “Those shadows. They are the ones who are moving the forest. They are compelled to. They move the trees. They shift the direction of the streams, and roll the boulders into different positions. They are always stalking about the forest, day and night. They are so quiet that it would be easy for someone to come upon one suddenly. And that would be bad, because if one were to look into the eyes of one of these shadows, one would be turned into a tree.”
Naji’s brows rose. “Is that why you are able to live into the forest without fear? You can’t see the shadows?”
The carpenter nodded. “You haven’t come upon many animals either, have you?”
“I haven’t.” Naji frowned. “Why did you not tell me all of this in the first place? I could have been turned into a tree.”
The carpenter shook his head. “That’s why I gave you that key. It’s…special. It should protect you, keep them from getting close to you.”
The carpenter said nothing.
Naji’s eyes widened. “Are you an enchanter?”
The carpenter still was silent.
“Maybe you can help my friend,” Naji said. “She’s a butterfly. And she lost half her wings, but she can’t remember how.”
Naji pulled the box from his pocket and opened it. The carpenter’s shoulders rose slightly. Vlinder said nothing. But she did not draw back from the carpenter’s hand when he reached toward her.
“I believe I can help your friend,” the carpenter said. “Give me a moment.” He left and went outside the cottage.
“Do not give him my name,” Vlinder said.
Naji frowned in confusion. “He’s going to help you.”
“We shall see.”
The two remained silent and Naji wondered if he should search the kitchen for food, but resisted the urge to be a bad guest. He nibbled on some berries he had collected earlier that day.
Before long, the carpenter returned.
He held up in his hands, a wooden carving, the most delicate that Naji had ever seen. Wooden butterfly wings. The markings did not match Vlinder’s natural wings, but the carpenter explained why that was so.
“As you insist that you must make it through the forest and not leave the way I advise, I have given your friend a way to guide you through. Follow her as she flies.” With that, the carpenter brought the wooden wings close to Vlinder and they sealed themselves to her body.
Vlinder fluttered her wings, awkwardly at first, for the wooden wings were a bit heavier. But then she launched into the air and flew out of the cottage window.
Naji looked back at the carpenter.
“You’d best follow,” the carpenter said.
Naji threw back a hasty thanks as he too flew out of the cottage door. He followed after the restored butterfly and continued on his way.
Vlinder continued to fly erratically, sometimes making loops as if she wanted to fly back in the direction from which they’d come, before veering back to the forward course. Her wooden wing gleamed in the bright afternoon sun.
Now that she did not need to be carried in the box, Naji filled the box with water from a stream and carried it in his hand. The water did not leak because of the wax, but if he placed it in his pocket, it would leak from the unsealed opening between the lid and the bottom.
He tried to talk to Vlinder, but she would not answer. She just flew ahead. He asked if she was angry that he had revealed her to the carpenter. She had a right to be. He had not asked her beforehand.
Yet she was still helping him through the forest. She seemed to be trying to fly out of his sight, but just when she was almost too far ahead, she would slow down or loop back.
Naji still planned on asking his schoolmasters if they could restore her natural wings.
He glanced about for any sign of those forest-moving shadows, and he called head to warn Vlinder about them.
When she did not answer, he called out to her to stop.
“Vlinder, I’m sorry!” he called. He was afraid of calling the attention of the shadows to himself. But he was more afraid that Vlinder would chance upon them. “I betrayed you by revealing you to the carpenter. I thought he could help you. It was not my place to ask on your behalf.”
Suddenly, Vlinder looped back around and fluttered before him as he stopped.
“I must tell you!” she said. “But…”
Her wooden wings began to gleam and spark.
“I remember,” she said. And her wooden wings burst into flame. She dropped to the ground.
He opened the latch to the wooden box and poured water over her.
The water extinguished the fire. Naji dropped to his knees, now fearing he had accidentally drowned her. He watched as the charred wooden wings turned to ash and blew away, and a strange webbing formed around Vlinder, like a second cocoon. Almost as soon as it finished forming, something moved within it, and a head broke through the top. Naji reached out, but stopped. She was breaking out of the cocoon herself. Her wings unfolded and expanded, bigger than before, and brilliantly colored in the shimmering shades of the rainbow.
She flitted up into the air. Naji gaped at her magnificence. He cupped both hands side by side and she landed in them, her wings covering both palms entirely.
“You are in danger, my friend,” she said. “I remember all and I must tell you. But first, you must throw away that key the stranger gave you.”
“The cottage-dweller. He said he gave you a key that would keep you safe from the shadows that haunted the forest. He lied. The key is drawing the shadows to you. And I was taking you to their lair.”
“What?” Naji rose to his feet.
“I was under his spell. It was compelling me.”
“The wooden wings,” Naji said, rubbing his chin.
“He wants me out of the forest.”
“Why doesn’t he just let me through?”
“Because if he lets anyone through and word spreads that the forest can be crossed, others would come. And he wants the forest to himself. And because many trees die early from the strain of being twisted and uprooted again and again. He needs to replace those trees, and would do so with the odd wayward traveler.”
Naji peered at the butterfly and nodded. “Tell me.”
Vlinder told him all that she remembered, for all spells upon her were now broken. The shadows that were changing and moving the forest were indeed cursed as the carpenter said, but they were cursed by the carpenter himself.
“They are called the Dasollagi,” Vlinder said. “They were a people who lived in the forest before the stranger moved here and cursed them. And I was a guardian spirit of the forest. That was why he cut off my wings and enchanted my memory. When he placed those wooden wings upon me, the spell in the pattern on those wings compelled me to lead you straight toward the lair of the Dasollagi. I tried to fly far enough away that you would lose sight of me, but that did not work. The spell slowed me down. And I tried to fly a different away, but that did not work. The spell compelled me onward. And it compelled me not to speak. If I did, I would die. That is why I burst into flame when I tried to speak to you.”
“But when the wooden wings were destroyed, when the pattern burned away, the spell broke.”
“And I was able to restore myself.”
“Do you know the way out of the forest?”
“No, only the Dasollagi know that. They are the ones who change the forest.”
“Then, would they help me if I asked them?”
“They would have gladly helped you when they were people. But I failed to protect them, and now they are shadows, dangerous shadows. They will not hesitate to turn you into a tree once they see you. I don’t suppose you can turn invisible.”
Naji felt a sinking in his gut as he remembered that he could have chosen the gift of invisibility.
He felt a throbbing in his wrist, where that lizard had bitten him only two days past. It seemed longer than that. Despite the pain, that comforting feeling came upon him again, as if a heavy cloak lay on his shoulders.
Vlinder fluttered back and forth before him.
“So you can turn invisible,” she said. “No wonder you have avoided being caught by the Dasollagi.”
Naji looked down at himself. He could still see himself.
“Ah, wait, I see a shimmer. You are not invisible. You are cloaked. In the colors of the forest.”
As she spoke, Naji felt that cloak slip from his shoulders and Vlinder told him that she could see him again.
Naji placed the key that carpenter had given him in his box, hoping that the box would block the key’s enchantment. And with Vlinder’s help, he puzzled out that the lizard that bit him was a chameleon, probably another forest guardian. And it had transferred its powers to Naji, perhaps knowingly so, to protect him from the Dasollagi. Naji could invoke the ability by squeezing at his wound and feeling its pain. As the pain faded, so too did his cloak.
The Dasollagi had to be looking a person in the eye to transform him into a tree. Naji would be safe from them so long as he could maintain his chameleon cloak.
He insisted that Vlinder bring him to the lair where the spell had compelled her to take him. He wanted to speak with the Dasollagi and ask them to help him. He hoped that a promise to help them in return would suffice. He considered giving them his enchanted box, but thought better of it. The forest was a tricky place. He believed there was some feud between the carpenter and the Dasollagi. Vlinder was on the side of the Dasollagi. She believed that the carpenter had tried to kill her and to kill Naji.
Naji believed that she had told him the truth. And he believed that the carpenter had deceived him. But he had not yet heard from the Dasollagi. Even if they would not help him, he wanted to speak with them, and to learn the whole truth about the forest.
When they were close to the lair, Naji pulled the key out of his box.
“You must fly away when they come,” he said to Vlinder.
“No, I will be as faithful a friend to you as you have been to me. I will stay.”
“Even if they turn you into a tree?”
“Then we will stand side by side as trees.”
Naji felt a hitch in his throat. Whatever happened, and whatever story he ultimately believed, Naji vowed to himself to protect his only friend in the forest.
Only moments after he revealed the key, he heard noises of rustling all around him. They were approached by a dozen or so Dasollagi. They looked like tall thin shadows wearing ragged sackcloth. Naji actually saw a few trees draw their branches aside in response to the shadows’ presence. He told Vlinder to close her eyes as he pinched the wound on his wrist and felt the cloak descend on his shoulders.
Vlinder confirmed that she couldn’t see him just before she closed her eyes.
Naji announced himself and said that he meant no harm and only wanted passage through the forest to the other side. He asked if the Dasollagi would help him if he could provide some service to them.
“You are surrounded,” a reedy voice said. “So invisible or not, you will not escape us.”
“The butterfly is free to go,” another voice said, this one raspy, “for we are loathe to transform creatures that can fly, even though her beauty is magnificent and the flowers on the tree she would become would be equally magnificent.”
Naji felt the butterfly’s legs touch his neck, ensuring him that she was still there with him.
“I am a forest guardian,” Vlinder said. “I failed you, but my friend here has restored me. And I pledge to you that I will find a way to restore you. I implore you to give my friend passage.”
“You did not fail us, guardian,” that first reedy voice said. “We failed you. We let him injure you.”
All fell silent for a moment.
“Why?” Naji asked. “Why did he do these things?”
“He does not approve of our ways…”
The Dasollagi had always lived in that forest and tended it. They were good neighbors with the people living in the towns and villages surrounding the forest. Many people passed through the forest in those days. They passage was safe, peaceful, and beautiful. When the carpenter first moved in, he abided by the ways of the Dasollagi, but he soon grew tired of the visits and wanderings of people from other places. He didn’t want to share the forest with anyone but the Dasollagi, whom he acknowledged as being the rightful inhabitants. When they resisted his insistence on closing the borders of the forest, at least in part, he cast a spell on the parts of the forest where he lived and wandered to hide them. The Dasollagi had no quarrel with this practice. They allowed it until people began getting lost in the parts of the forest that the carpenter had hidden. They entreated him to unhide the forest, but he would not.
A young man named Tarak declared he would go into the hidden parts of the forest and rescue those who were lost. He gathered and trained volunteers, who would make the rescuing their trade, for the rest of their days if need be. The Dasollagi knew the forest so well that even though parts of it were hidden by enchantment, they could find those places. Tarak and his rescuers saved many. But one day, he found a group of people who had been lost and wandering for many days. They had died of thirst in a forest filled with streams and waters.
After that Tarak demanded that the carpenter remove the enchantment. He led an uprising of Dasollagi, mostly young, to march to the carpenter’s cottage. Before they could confront the carpenter, Tarak was captured and chained. The carpenter granted Tarak’s wish and removed the enchantment that hid parts of the forest, but to replace it, he cast another enchantment, a curse upon all the Dasollagi. He turned them into shadows that needed no food or drink, and were ever compelled to tend to the forest, and twist and turn it so that no one who entered could ever find their way through, and would only be led back out.
He placed Tarak in the middle of the forest, where he would always see his people marching by.
Naji asked to see Tarak, hoping he could learn enough of the hero’s story to figure out a way to convince the carpenter to lift the curse. He knew of a great forest outside of the school he attended that might suffice as a new home for the carpenter, one whose borders could be closed.
He expected that they would resist, but they did not.
The Dasollagi led him to Tarak. And when Naji saw the hero, shackled at every joint, the ends of the chains trailing out into the forest, he thought he recognized the man somehow.
“Hello, friend,” Tarak said, though he could not see Naji. “Thank you for trying to help me.”
And the hero explained. The carpenter had not transformed Tarak into a shadow. The carpenter had given Tarak the ability to transform into any creature that would walk on land. And Tarak had tried to transform into many different kinds of animals, so he could flee the forest and get help for his people. But the chains always found him, for they too were enchanted, and in the eyes of a common traveler, they appeared to be vines.
That lizard Naji had freed from the vines was Tarak. Naji had indeed managed to free him, but he was caught again. The forest itself was enchanted to trap him. Only the carpenter could free him.
Naji saw that all the chains converged on a lock that fastened to Tarak’s chest. A notion came upon him.
He took the box out of his pocket, the box that was the only possession he’d taken into the forest. He opened it and lifted the key lying within.
He approached Tarak with the key.
“This likely will not work,” Naji said. “It was given to me by the carpenter and has been sitting in my enchanted box. It may bring you harm.”
Tarak took a deep breath, and the chains tightened over his chest. “Try it, my friend.”
Naji reached out with the key.
“That’s enough, apprentice!” a voice called. “You have passed.”
Naji turned to see the carpenter walk into the clearing. The Dasollagi held their hands out to shield their eyes as if from a bright light. But Naji saw no light coming from the carpenter.
He did note that the carpenter appeared to have regained his sight.
Two voices spoke the same words to Naji, in low voices, Vlinder and Tarak. “Do not drop your cloak,” they said.
“Congratulations,” the carpenter said, beaming. “You will commence.”
Naji frowned. He had told the carpenter of his test. Perhaps that was the only reason he knew of it. “But I haven’t reached the other side of the forest,” Naji said.
“That was never the true test, my boy. This was. Helping the native peoples of the forest.”
“Well, then I should finish doing that.”
“No need!” the carpenter said, holding his hand out. “If you do, then I will have to reset the test. It will delay the next apprentice. You remember how anxious you were while you waited, don’t you? You can spare your fellow apprentice from that worry.”
And while the carpenter spoke, Naji placed the key in the lock, certain now that it would work, for why else would the carpenter be trying to stop him. He turned the key.
“I’m sure my fellow apprentice will understand,” he said.
The lock on Tarak’s chest sprung open. Naji heard a crack and he felt something slip from his shoulders and his skin.
“Naji! I can see you!” Vlinder cried.
Naji turned toward the carpenter, and the sight he saw shocked him, for no more did an old carpenter stand in the clearing with them. Standing in the clearing with them was a creature nearly twice as tall, and broad in shoulder. His reddish-gray skin, bare save for a ragged gray belted tunic, was cracked and peeling. His eyes were all white save for a sliver of red that sliced across them. From behind each ear there protruded a knotty horn.
The creature roared.
A great shadow moved over the clearing and Naji felt something grip his shoulder and lift him into the air. He glanced up and saw tremendous glittering wings above him, butterfly wings.
He looked down. He was rising into the air as the wings above him flapped again and again, forcing gusts of air into the clearing.
Tarak glared at the creature in the clearing. But the creature was looking up at Naji. It bent its legs as if it were about to spring up.
“The box!” Tarak yelled up at him. The hero had his arm outstretched.
Naji pulled the box from his pocket and dropped it just as he was jerked up and forward into the air. He lost sight of the clearing.
“I can’t leave them!” he cried up to Vlinder. “I must help!”
But the giant butterfly pumped her wings.
“You have done your part,” she said. “You matched the demon’s wit and broke his enchantings. Now Tarak must do his part and match the demon’s strength.”
“But what if he needs help?”
“His people will help him. You see?”
And Naji looked down and saw them. Streaming through the forest with ease. Not shadows. With the demon’s spell broken, they were now people. Lithe and strong, filled with anger and hope. They all converged upon their hero.
Vlinder gently dropped Naji just outside the forest before she rose back up into the air and flew back over the forest.
“Congratulations, apprentice,” a familiar voice said.
Naji turned. The schoolmaster who was administering his test stood before him. Naji turned back to gaze at the sky where Vlinder had just been a moment ago. She was gone now. But she had been there. She could not have been an illusion.
“It was real,” the schoolmaster said as if knowing Naji’s thoughts. “Not illusion.”
“Then I must go back. I haven’t finished my task.”
Naji took a few steps toward the forest.
“Do you not understand what you carried into the forest in that box?”
“I am sorry, schoolmaster, but I do not.” Naji turned around to face the schoolmaster. He took a breath. “I have failed as you feared. I had hoped that I could commence and earn a spell so that I could return to the heart of the forest and help—“
“You fail to understand your task, apprentice,” the schoolmaster said, frowning. Then his frown softened a touch. “As you often do. But despite that you have never failed to complete a task.”
“With or without a spell, I must go back and help Tarak.”
“You have already helped him.”
Naji thought for a moment. “The box.”
The schoolmaster inclined his head. “The other two choices would have brought you safely through the forest. Invisibility would have hidden you from the Dasollagi and the demon, long enough for you to discover what you did, that the forest was changing. You could have safely watched the Dasollagi at their work and found a way out to the other side. Flight would have allowed you to see the changes from above, and if the Dasollagi caught you when you landed, they would have spared you from transformation as they spare all creatures who can fly. But you took a reckless risk, and chose the box.” He shook his head slightly. “And do you know what you carried into the forest in that box?”
“I fear I still do not, schoolmaster.”
“The demon’s doom.”
Naji’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. He turned to look at the forest, though he could see nothing of the battle that must have been raging at its heart, between the Dasollagi and the demon.
“When you first opened that box within the borders of the forest, you released that doom,” the schoolmaster said. “You did not know what you carried, and that was why the spells of protection that the demon had cast were not triggered by your passing into the forest. Only the occasional traveler had dared to enter this forest in many years, for it has been marked as cursed. The demon allows that occasional traveler to enter, for his amusement, and to enrich the forest with more trees to replace the ones that die early from the constant twisting and turning they endure. The demon’s doom was well protected by the box and by your ignorance of what was in that box.”
“Then…this was more than just a test,” Naji said.
“They are all more than just tests,” the schoolmaster said.
“It was real. All of it.”
“We have been trying to help the Dasollagi uproot that demon for many years. We have not succeeded till now.”
“We don’t know if we have succeeded,” Naji said. “I must go back and make sure.”
“As you wish, but take your commencement gift with you.”
Naji turned and accepted the gift that the schoolmaster handed him, a rather fine pair of shiny black boots. Naji immediately kicked off his worn boots and put on the new ones. They felt comfortable, as if they were already broken in.
“I will be waiting at the school when you return. It will be a much longer journey than you expect. Are you certain you don’t wish to come with me now?”
Naji nodded. “Thank you, schoolmaster, but I must see my task through.”
His schoolmaster nodded, and Naji ran back into the forest. When he was halfway back to the heart of the forest, he felt a shadow above him. It was Vlinder. She called down to him. She flew down and picked him up with her legs.
“You were running quite fast,” she remarked.
“Don’t carry me back out. I must go and help Tarak.”
“You are too late,” Vlinder said. “The battle is done.”
“How many were hurt? Was the demon defeated?”
“You will see soon enough.”
Before he could see, Naji heard.
He heard cheering.
Vlinder dropped him in the clearing where Tarak had been imprisoned. She shrunk back to the size of common butterflies and landed on his shoulder.
In the clearing lay the demon, wrapped in his own chains, and surrounded by several Dasollagi warriors, each pointing a spear at the demon.
Tarak saw Naji and clapped a hand to his shoulder, then drew him in for an embrace, lifting him off his feet. The Dasollagi in their true forms were not as tall as their shadow forms, but they were still quite tall.
Runners had been sent to the nearby towns to spread the news of the demon’s defeat and request aid to keep the demon contained until he could be taken to a prison. Naji had broken the demon’s enchantments using the demon’s own key, but the chains were still strong chains, strong enough to hold the demon.
Naji asked if he could stay until the demon was taken from the forest. The Dasollagi leaders agreed.
“Do you still have that box I dropped to you?” Naji asked Tarak.
Tarak frowned. “I am sorry. I do not. It was destroyed during the battle. Was this box special to you?”
Naji explained what he had learned from the schoolmaster. When he was done, he heard a strange sound that he had never heard before, the laughter of a butterfly.
“There was nothing enchanted about that box, my friend,” she said. “It was just a box.”
“But…remember how the water contained in the box broke the spell on you?”
“The water put out the fire, but the fire had burned away the markings of the spell on my wing. That is what broke the spell. And then you dried me off, so I could heal myself.” She landed on Naji’s upturned palm. “I was not freed by some enchanted box. It was you, my dear friend, who saved me.”
“But what about the key?” Naji turned to Tarak. “The key the carpen—the demon gave to me. It must have been transformed after I placed it in the box. Why would he give me the very key that could free Tarak?”
“Because that is what the Dasollagi wanted most of all,” Vlinder said. “The key drew them to you, and it tormented them to see it. They would not have been able to touch the key themselves, being only shadows. The demon was arrogant. He believed the Dasollagi would kill you. He could not imagine that you would help them. He would merely come and find the key once you were turned into a tree. It wasn’t transformed into the key that unlocked Tarak’s chains. It was always that key. The demon did not think that you were survive long enough to use it.”
“Then once again, it was Naji himself who triumphed,” Tarak said, smiling.
Naji frowned. “Alright then, what about how I encountered you both? That could not have happened by chance. The box must have led me to you.”
“That was not the box. But you are right. You did not happen upon us by chance,” Tarak said. He raised his head and gazed about at his people. “They guided you to us. Just as Vlinder resisted the compelling spell upon her, my people resisted as long as they could, resisted taking you and turning you into a tree. That’s why I bit you. My apologies for that. But by biting you, I granted you the gift of illusion, and lost my ability to transform.”
Naji’s eyes widened. “Why? How did you know I could be trusted, or that I could help you?”
“I did not. But you were kind to me, and I took a chance. Anyway, my ability to transform had not helped me to escape, and the demon knew it was so. But I thought if perhaps I trusted another to help me…”
Naji shook his head. “But you cried out for me to drop the box to you. Why do that if you didn’t believe it was enchanted?”
Tarak laughed. “Thank you for trusting me, Naji, for that one deed of yours was the end of the demon. You see, I saw him looking at you as the great butterfly flew you off. I realized that it was not you he was looking at with such a greedy, hungry look. It was your box. When you dropped it, he reached out to catch it. And when he did, I whipped the chains that were still wrapped around me, and I caught him in those chains. As I held him, my people came to my aid, unwrapping the chains from me, and wrapping them around him. Before long, we had all the chains upon him and he lay on the ground defeated.”
“But the schoolmaster told me it was the box…”
“Do you not understand?” Tarak said. “That box was not the demon’s doom.”
Vlinder fluttered before Naji’s face. “You were the demon’s doom.”
That evening as they took turns standing guard over the demon, Naji felt a comfort and happiness he had not felt since he was a child. A few of the Dasollagi bowed to him, which made him drop his gaze and give an awkward nod of acknowledgement. But most simply smiled at him, shook his shoulders or mussed his hair, and said, “thank you, friend.”
On the day that the demon left the forest, a great feast was held. Vlinder fluttered about teasing the Dasollagi children. Tarak sat perched in a tree, watching the festivities and watching over his people. Naji stood upon a bench and told a gathered crowd the tale of his travels through the forest. A ceremony was held to honor those who had freed the forest from the demon.
Tarak was named the hero of the Dasollagi. Vlinder was named the spirit of the Dasollagi.
And Naji was named the greatest friend of the Dasollagi.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel