There was nothing here but the dark and the cold. No singing birds, no scritch of squirrels in the trees, no rustling leaves or trickling creeks. Nothing that would have made Asha feel at ease, like she would back home. Instead, the sound of ferns swishing around her ankles and her feet meeting packed earth was all Asha heard as she ducked between black, gnarled trees. They jutted toward the sky, creating a canopy so thick that everything beneath was swathed in perpetual night. Between them, silence drifted like fog. She drew her coat up tight around her, but couldn't escape the feeling of spindly, frozen fingers tracing the back of her neck.
She only realized how fast she was moving—trying to escape those creeping claws—when a root caught her toe. Screeching, she pitched through a wall of brambles and was instantly overwhelmed by light. When she had blinked the shine out of her eyes, she found herself at the forest's edge, its dark growth fading into a dull grey field. It stretched for a mile or more before ending at a rocky cliff with a great tower perched on its edge.
Wincing at the sting her fall left behind, Asha squinted at the strange sight. She hadn't seen many towers in her life, but this one was still clearly unusual: curling into a spiral like a braided rope of silvery stone, it stretched so high it disappeared into the cloudy grey sky. She was miles from home, but as tall as it was, she was sure she could have seen a tower this size from the village. So why hadn't she?
But she put that out of her mind quickly. She had come here looking for a witch, and that seemed a likely place to find one.
The walk to the tower felt like it took a dog's age—with only hazy light to go by, time felt muddy and unsteady. Yet when she reached the tower, finding an ornate door of pale wood as tall as three men awaiting her, she still hadn't come up with something to say. How did you talk to a witch? Did they speak human tongue? Or was it like the storybooks said, and they could only snarl and coo at children they wanted to eat?
Asha was no child—she was a full year past ten now—but her stomach still rolled as she stood in front of the great door, eyes grazing over black iron flourishes pounded into the shape of thorns. She was choking down her fear like a thick piece of gristle when the door suddenly disappeared. Or, no—everything disappeared, and she was somewhere else.
Her gasp echoed off vaulted ceilings in a massive hall of white stone. Thick pillars, twisted like the tower itself, stretched high overhead, and a marble floor pierced with lightning bolts of black shone beneath her feet. Rows of stern-looking statues lined the walls, ice-white heads rising out of coal-black armor.
Asha looked this way and that, mesmerized, trying to take it all in. Only after several long moments did she realize she wasn't alone.
Before her, the hall's polished tiles bled into a sturdy darkwood table curved in the shape of a horseshoe. It held strong under a strange collection of trinkets: slumping piles of rolled parchment, faded golden scales, vials of strangely pale liquid and dozens of worn books in between. A willowy woman wrapped in a red tunic bowed over the table's far end, white hair pouring down her back and two black ram horns sprouting from her head. She lifted a piece of leather covered with strange etchings, studied it, then turned and walked to another stretch of table. She didn't so much as glance at Asha.
Asha was starting to think the woman—witch, definitely a witch—hadn't noticed her. Then she cleared her elegant throat.
"What is it?" said the witch. Her voice was soft, yet so cold it pierced through Asha like an icicle. Asha stammered, wringing her hands in her breeches, words flitting away from her like birds after a misfired arrow. She felt suddenly small and unimpressive—hunting leathers covered in muck, dusty-brown hair falling in her face, eyes wide over cold-paled cheeks—and it robbed her of her words.
"I'm lookin' for my brother," she managed.
"And what business is that of mine?" the witch said coolly, not looking away from the colorful powder she was measuring.
"He went into the black woods," Asha stammered. "They say there's a witch there—I mean here. Who controls things. I thought you might..."
The witch let out a low hum, sounding almost amused. A shiver ran up Asha's back. "Many souls traipse through my forest. Their fate is no concern of mine. Now leave. You are disturbing my work."
"He-he knows never to come here," Asha pleaded. "They're forbidden—the woods—and he's a hunter, he-he knows his own forest better—"
The witch sighed like she had accidentally spilled some powder or could not decipher a hard-to-read scribble. Lifting a delicate arm, she gracefully traced a finger through the air.
A deafening clack echoed off the ceiling, and Asha whirled to find the statues that lined the hall weren't statues at all—they were people, moving unnaturally slow, staves cracking against the floor as they stepped toward her in unison. Her stomach clenched.
"Please!" she screeched, backing away as the men advanced. "Please—I just want to find Hearne and, and I'm sure you know the forest and—"
The witch had already lifted her hand, and the legion of statues froze at her slightest twitch. She turned her gaze to Asha, and Asha found unnatural, vibrant gold eyes that fixed her to the spot.
"Hearne is your brother," she said. Asha could tell it wasn't a question. "Yes. I called him here."
"How?" Asha gulped, shock overcoming her fear. "Why?"
"That is not your concern," the witch said. "And I will not have you interrupt his work, either."
Asha winced. Slowly, she glanced around the hall. She couldn't imagine the witch needing her brother's help—not when she had a statue army at her command. "I won't," she answered. "I just want to see him. Do—d'you know where he is?"
The witch's eyes narrowed. Asha felt that cold, prying feeling again, like she was a carcass being picked over on the work table.
"Very well," the witch said. She waved indistinctly as she bent over her scroll once more. "You. Attend to her."
Asha couldn't tell who the witch was talking to, but the statue men had no such trouble. One just as straight-backed and stone-faced as the rest stepped forward, modestly bowing his head to the witch before drifting toward Asha.
Asha tensed and reached for the knife at her hip. The statue-man didn't even twitch, stopping wordlessly an arm's length away. Up close she saw he had the same brilliant white hair as the witch, and his black robes were trimmed with glimmering silver. It looked like the witch had an army of dolls.
"Young miss," the doll-man said, gesturing behind her, his sudden wisp of a voice making Asha jump.
When she turned, she found the great grey field outside the tower stretching before her, its chill sweeping through her hair and coat. When she swung back around, the tower door stood before her again. The statue-man, standing straight and tall at her side, stared at her blandly.
They were nearly back across the plain, the forest yawning to fill her view, when the silence became too much. "What's your name?" she asked. "I'm Asha. Of Clan Baar."
The doll-man stared ahead. She swore his head didn't even bob with his steps; he could have balanced a stack of the witch's books on his head. "Pallas," he said slowly, sounding unfamiliar with the word.
"Okay," Asha said suspiciously. She wondered if he made it up. "So... you're going to help me find my brother?"
Elegantly, he reached into the folds of his robes and extracted a glass bauble almost too large to hold with one hand. It was round and clear, covered with ridges and swirls that looked like bird feathers. She could see a dim curl of light reflected in its center, though with such a grey sky above she couldn't tell where it was drawing light from.
"With this," he confirmed, holding the ball out to her. "I will attend to you. It is dangerous to brave the forest alone."
"What's it do?" Asha asked, taking the ball and cradling it delicately in her palms. It didn't feel particularly magical.
Pallas nodded toward the trees, just a few meters ahead of them now, and said nothing else. She glared, lip twitching—back home he'd be left to cart the supplies and defend himself from wolves if he couldn't bother to communicate. But as she stepped into the chilly shade of tangled branches, she realized he was her entire hunting party on uncharted ground. She swallowed thickly.
The bauble came to life as she stepped into the shadows. At first she thought it was the change in the light, but then she felt it pulse against her palms, a whisper of sound escaping its glossy shell. She took another few steps. It got a bit brighter, its beat a half-second faster.
She was entirely in the forest's shade, twigs crunching underfoot, when she noticed Pallas wasn't following her. He stood at the edge of the tree line, peering wordlessly at the branches above.
"What? You comin'?"
"Every time I enter this forest," he said dreamily, "I wonder if I will ever return. I suppose you should wonder the same."
Asha stared. Slowly, Pallas lowered his gaze and gave her a small smile.