The Forgotten Hollow
Qihirri’s paws trembled. Her heart beat rapidly in her chest as she fumbled through her closet, pulling out a couple of skirts, a few blouses, and a dress she thought would work well for traveling. The bundle of frilly lace and silk fell on her bed in a crumpled mess, but Qihirri ignored it, moving along to the dresser. Her petpet whined at her feet, pacing and twisting around her ankles as if he were a Kadoatie rather than the Doglefox he… once was.
She couldn’t take much in the way of trinkets, but she knew she would regret it forever if she didn’t take her doll with her. It was a tiny porcelain Gelert with long curved ears, wearing a bow on the top of its head. Her grandmother had given it to her before she passed away, just before all of this chaos started.
The Aisha held it tightly to her chest for a moment before she gently placed it next to the clothes.
There wasn’t much else to grab. Some stockings, an extra pair of boots… a hat. She folded everything as quickly as she could—the maid would’ve been aghast had she seen the results—and shoved it in an old, battered suitcase. She rushed down to the kitchen where she grabbed a sack and filled it with everything she could put her paws on. Apples, pears, a small ham that lay forgotten in the ice box. She grabbed the bag of petpet food and stuffed it inside as well, though she wasn’t sure Topaz even needed it anymore.
The former Doglefox waited back at the door to her room. He yipped softly as he waited for her to stuff the food in amongst the clothing, and trailed her so closely that when she dragged the suitcase back into the hallway, she nearly stepped on him. She stopped, forcing herself to pause. Breathe. She glanced down the hallway. She would probably never walk across these floors again. She would never pass by the portraits of her family, her ancestors… she’d never slide down the railing again to see if she could do it faster than her brother.
She would never again huddle in her room and wonder why everyone had gone mad all of a sudden. Just after that mysterious figure with the Hissi Oil potions…
Qihirri’s eyes burned, and she rubbed at them with her free paw. When she drew it away, she looked at it. Once, before the Krawk came, her fur was brown and shiny and beautiful. But her parents heard all about him and his potions, and the wonderful miracles they produced. They encouraged her to drink some, saying it could make her the most beautiful Aisha in all the world.
She never wanted to be more beautiful. She was lovely enough, and she had plenty of friends for company. She even thought maybe she’d cause the eye of a particularly handsome Wocky who had recently started working for her father.
But all that changed. She gave in to her parents. The potion made her brown fur even more shiny and beautiful, and har hair all the more thick and lustrous. She gained even more friends than the most popular girl in Neovia. But she didn’t think it was quite the triumph her mother and father imagined it was. None of them ever did anything but stare at her the whole time. No conversations, no laughter, just… staring. And the handsome Wocky stopped smiling at her.
She wasn’t terribly surprised when it started to go downhill after that.
Her appearance started to change again. Around the same time everyone in town began to notice the nastier side effects of the potions. Her fur began to get shinier and shinier, until she could see right through it. She screamed one night when she woke up to see a skeleton in the mirror, one with shiny silver hair and transparent skin.
Her mother—who had already been a spectacular embroiderer—became obsessed with her work, neglecting to put it down even when she had to eat. The only way she showed her displeasure at Qihirri’s new appearance was the way she jabbed her needle through the fabric, in quick, angry motions. Her father, however, had drunk the brew in order to become the best swordsman. When he saw the reason for her screaming, he tore out of the house, blade in hand, to hunt down the Krawk.
But he didn’t find him.
No one could.
Qihirri couldn’t do anything at all when the mayor’s words began to take over the town. Spiteful, smooth and poisonous, they’d leeched through everyone’s minds except her own, spurring the townspets to direct their unhappiness at the family who first discovered the potions. Bruno, Sophie… the family had to barricade themselves in their home to hide from Neovia’s displeasure, but tonight…
The Aisha closed her eyes.
She had to leave before the mob came back, in case they turned their wrath on her. Since she was no doubt the only person who didn’t join them in their hunt for the family. She wasn’t quite sure how things got this bad, or why she wasn’t a mindless beast like the rest of the town. Like her mother and father. She couldn’t figure out why her thoughts remained so clear when nobody else’s were.
Somewhere something broke with a loud snap. Qihirri jumped, twisting around, but she couldn’t see anyone. Not even a shadow, or hint of movement through the dusty windows. But she wasn’t going to take any chances.
She grabbed the handle of her suitcase and whistled at Topaz. When she turned into a walking skeleton, he had as well, though she wasn’t sure how exactly a Doglefox managed to get some potion as well. Now he was something entirely different. He looked more like one of those other petpets… a Sklyde. His thin, bony claws scratched the hardwood floor as he followed her back through the kitchen to the rear of the house. It was only a few yards from there to the woods. If she were lucky, and she seriously doubted it, she’d have more than enough time to get lost amongst the trees before the town lost interest in chasing poor Bruno around.
The door slammed shut behind her, and Qihirri dropped a large key in her coat pocket. She turned to the shadowed forest before her. She could see the distant glow of the torches off to her right, and hear the faint shouts of the townsfolk.
Topaz darted before her, and the Aisha followed him across the lawn and past the family graveyard. The skeleton trees hemmed them in as she strode into it, faces in the bark gaping and howling at her in silent screams. It rather felt as if she were walking straight into one of her nightmares.
The branches all around her clattered and shook as the night air rushed through them, and the harsh breeze caused her to wrap her coat even tighter around her. Topaz ducked in and out of the scraggly bushes all around her, and once or twice she stumbled over a root that rose up in the dirt path.
Would her family miss her at all?
She bit her lip and pushed on. As she walked, the fear of being seen slowly lifted away. Her steps lightened, and she stopped jumping and staring in abject fear every time she heard a strange noise. Her ears stopped twisting to pick up the faintest whisper of pursuit, and she had the oddest sense of freedom.
And the more it faded, the more fog seemed to fill the forest. It built up until she could barely make out a skinny branch or withered leaf just a few feet in front of her. She brushed a lock of her silver hair away, and stood up on her toes to try and see something.
Nothing. Nothing except the dark gray of the night and an odd sense of foreboding.
A loud rattle shattered the silence, and Qihirri shreaked. Something was about to eat her! Should she run? Where was Topaz? Was he alright?
A little white blur shot in front of her. She dropped her suitcase and clenched her fists. The creature stopped. It was Topaz. The little Sklyde sat perched at her feet, his whole body wiggling, and a tiny stick in his mouth. A hysterical giggle burst from her mouth, and she failed to keep a smile from spreading across her mouth. The situation was so ridiculous. She was on the run from her home, her only belongings in a small trunk, and here was her petpet, grinning and sitting and waggling his whole body without a care.
The Aisha crouched down, holding her skeletal hand out to the Sklyde. He promptly dropped the twig into her palm, and as Qihirri stood, she looked at it.
“What is this…?”
It was like no branch she’d ever seen. Nothing in the Haunted Woods was ever purely white, but this little branch came really close. It was like snow, with just a dark grey veins running up and down the sides. On one end—the end Topaz hadn’t chewed on—there was a shiny clear drop of rainwater.
“Topaz?” she asked, reaching backward and grabbing the handle of her trunk. “Where did you get this?”
Her petpet, of course, didn’t say anything. He just waited for her to throw the stick. He almost looked disappointed when she tucked it into her pocket.
“Where’d you get the stick, sweetie?” she asked in the sweetest voice she could possibly manage. “Come on boy, where’d you get it?”
The Sklyde merely yipped at her, and took off. Qihirri bit her lip and gathered up her skirt with her free hand, and ran after him, moving as quickly as she could. It was difficult to be speedy when the suitcase found every root and branch it could possibly crash into.
“Topaz!” she hissed when her skirt caught on a bramble. She winced as the fabric tore. Her petpet didn’t come running back to her. She could hear him crashing through the undergrowth and giving cheerful little yips, but it took all she had to keep up with him.
She broke free of the thorny bushes and scraggly trees and found herself standing in a clearing. A small circle of blue-ish gray grass spread out before her, dotted with a few bushes laden with edible berries common to the Haunted Woods. Several trees grew up among them, and the more she looked at them, the more certain she was that someone planted them there on purpose. Each one was spaced evenly from the next.
Qihirri took a step forward. Her mouth parted slightly and her eyes felt as if they took up her entire head. It looked like a sanctuary. The Aisha had forgotten to pack a blanket, or even a tent, but the way this place felt, she knew she could rest out in the open without fear of a Werelup attack, or a visit from Count Von Roo—not that she was positive she was in danger from him anyway. As transparent as she was, you could tell she didn’t have any blood to take in the first place.
She turned her head to the left and she dropped the suitcase. Over in a small nook, almost entirely hidden between the roots of a gigantic, gnarled white tree, was a small cottage. A couple of the windows had cracked, broken panes, and one of the shutters was falling off it’s hinges, perched to the side by one of the roots. The door hung ajar, and Qihirri could hear it squeaking with the gentle breeze. The structure was made out of the same wood as the tree, and it looked as if someone planted as many pebeanjay flowers and daffodils as they could manage.
Did someone live here? Could they help her?
Qihirri bit her lip.
Then she saw a small pale Sklyde making its way toward the door.
“Topaz!” she called out. She ran at the cottage. At the sound of her pursuit he raised his head. With his tongue lolling, he took of running, away from her and toward the door. “Topaz! Come here!”
He disappeared into the small structure, and a minute later Qihirri got up to the door. Her heart pounded from the slight exertion, and her limbs shook with nerves. She drew in a quick breath, hoping to settle her nerves, but it only made them rattle even harder in her ribcage. She raised her hand, and was just about to knock against the door when a thought occurred to her.
If somebody lived there, wouldn’t she have heard them by now? Surely they would’ve noticed Topaz.
She frowned. Then she pressed her paw against the door and pushed. A small room greeted her. A fireplace sat in the wall opposite of her, with a large black cauldron filling most of the little alcove it rested in, and below it burned a merry blue fire. Above the mantle perched three wooden shelves with porcelain dishes piled haphazardly on them, and a few clear bottles that looked like they once held faeries. A thin mattress rested on a brass bed frame to her left, and on the right there was a curtain that hid what she could only assume was the restroom. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. Her petpet circled around on the pillow like a Kadoatie, and each step the Sklyde made released a small puff into the air.
The owner had to have been gone for a long time.
In the middle sat a round table that was only large enough to seat one person. On it was another clear bottle, a candle sitting in a puddle of cooled wax… and a letter.
As Topaz climbed on top of the bed, the transparent Aisha strode toward the table. The paper crinkled in her paw as she picked it up. She took one last look around the room. Perhaps the letter could explain something?
Dear Stranger, it read.
If you found this note, it must mean that you are the new caretaker of this place. It was read by the last pet to reside here, and by the pet before that.
Welcome to the Forgotten Hollow. It is a magical place, meant to be a sanctuary for those who get lost here in the Haunted Woods. You cannot find it on purpose. If you look for it, the magic only directs you to another part of the forest, one that you already know very well.
If you decide to stay here, and the very presence of this letter suggests that you will, this cottage is yours. When there are visitors it will expand to allow these lost travelers a place to lay their heads for the night. The fire will not go out, nor will it affect anything you do not place in the cauldron. The orchard is also for you to use, and as long as you stay here you will not want for food.
Take care of this place and its lost souls, and it will take care of you.
Qihirri’s paws shook as she placed the paper back down on the little table. Her mind scrambled, and refused to settle even when she strode back outside. This place was magic? The letter?
She rubbed her arms and shivered. It wasn’t particularly cold, and she wasn’t sure if it was the night in general, or this… magic of the Forgotten Hollow. She wasn’t sure she could deal with this. This place, it was such a blessing, but… stay here? Help people? She didn’t even know if she could take care of herself!
She walked over to the suitcase, lying forgotten on the grass. She did need a place to stay for the night, though. As she picked it up off the ground, she looked back at the white tree. The bed did sound an awful lot nicer than the ground outside.
She took a step back toward the cottage. Something went thud, and her gaze shot toward the ground. Her grandmother’s doll lie on the grass, it’s limbs in a jumbled mess all over the ground. She knelt down, and slipped her fingers underneath the porcelain toy.
One night couldn’t hurt, right?
She’d make her decision in the morning.