2021 Annual Literary Contest
It’s just one step after another.
I have to keep reminding myself that a single step will guide me towards the answers I’m seeking, as if I need to convince myself that this will be worth it one day. Even if that day is several years from now. Regardless of how things unfold, I think I am prepared for it. I have to be.
Because I need to know what happened to my family and my home town. I need the truth. Over a week ago, I woke up several kilometres away from home, surrounded by three officials from the nearest city who’d been transporting supplies and spotted me along the side of the road. The last thing I could remember was a blue light, some incoherent hollering, and a strange tearing sensation.
When I inquired about my family, the officials explained that the entire town just vanished and that the safest place for me was in the city. Of course, I don’t believe them. The officials running the cities have a reputation of being untrustworthy and cruel towards outsiders such as myself. They only want power. After spending some time in a city, I have come to realize how willing they are to lie to regular citizens whenever there is something to gain.
Needless to say, they were hiding things from me and shut down all of my attempts at continuing the discussion. My community did have a basic understanding of magic, but towns don’t simply disappear into thin air at random.
Since nobody here will help me, I have to return home and investigate everything for myself.
That is why I’m slinking around in the middle of the night, even though I would rather be sleeping — preferably back in my own bedroom. No one else is roaming the neighbourhood at this hour and the sound of traffic is rather distant.
When I arrive at my destination, a quaint apartment building, I slip inside as if I belong there. My bursting backpack full of food and water and extra clothing might suggest otherwise and raise some suspicions. Thankfully though, the entrance is empty. I climb the nearby stairs to the second floor, wincing at how squeaky every single step is no matter where I place my foot down.
When I reach the second story, the building falls into a blissful silence once again. Sort of. Soft snoring drifts into the narrow hallway before me.
At the end of the hall is a large window overlooking the stone wall that surrounds the city. I scouted this place out last week and came to the conclusion that I could probably make the jump from here. Of all the buildings along the perimeter, this one was the closest to the wall and had the best access.
I quickly figure out how to remove the fancy mesh-like thing from the window and prop it up beside someone’s door. Then, with clammy palms, I crank the window open as wide as it’ll go before returning to the stairs.
This is the moment of truth. Two things could happen here. I could succeed in escaping through this window or I could fall short and smash my face on the stone wall. However, if the latter wasn’t a risk I was willing to take, I would not be here in the first place.
I sprint down the hall at full speed and throw myself through the open window. After a split second of weightlessness, my stomach collides with the top of the wall. The impact knocks my breath out, though I don’t have time to stay and recover. I clamber up onto the rough surface of the stones, gripping the edges tightly despite my trembling arms.
A door suddenly opens in hallway and light spills out of the apartment.
My heart leaps into my throat.
I can’t get caught now.
With jerky movements, I swing my legs out over the other side and lower myself down without letting go of the edge. My head disappears below the wall before I catch a glimpse of whoever I disturbed.
“Anyone who goes outside those walls are no longer under our protection,” the stern official with the tiny nose had said to me when I was brought to the city. I assume that most people are grateful for their help and their protection, but I won’t give up on the people I care about.
I release my hold on the wall, to the relief of my fingers, and drop down on the other side. The outside.
The outline of a forest protrudes from the darkness several paces away, leaves rustling like laughter, as if teasing me for the quest I have given myself. I’ve been in forests at night many times before, so the premise of this situation is familiar to me — yet something sends a shiver down my spine. And it’s not just the uncertainty that lies before me. Am I being watched? Or did something terrible happen out there?
No, don’t be ridiculous. My mind must be creating monsters where there are none. Nature is my friend. It always has been. The only thing I need to be concerned about is navigating back to my town and the landscape can help me with that.
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” I whisper for encouragement. “Find the town, find my family.”
I gently touch my wrist, searching for the bracelet concealed under my jacket. The fabric is thin enough that I can feel the warmth of the four stones embedded into the bracelet — one for each of my family members. They’d be cold if they were gone. As long as the bracelet is warm, I will still have hope.
This is what real magic can do. Tying someone’s life force to a stone is possible, but making an entire town vanish is not. The officials didn’t understand that.
So I take one step towards the forest. And then another.