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CH 1 | The Ruined Tower (Part 1)

It started with a village girl sneaking away into the Great Forest during the first month of summer.

Asha had escaped her mother's watchful gaze, having wanted to spend today the way she wanted to. This usually involved finding an adventure in the vast forest her small village bordered, as she found it better than remaining in the village where there was not much to do besides helping her mother. Her mother, Sirona, was the Herb Witch in the village and so the best healer, and while Asha loved her mother very much and was often eager to help, it was just as often boring to mix the same potions and herbal remedies seemingly for hours on end. Asha knew her mother would be cross when she returned, but for now, she could enjoy the calm and peace the forest could provide her with.

The forest that bordered her village was home to great oak trees that had been here long before her home ever existed and bore the largest leaves Asha doubted she would ever see anywhere else. Their roots broke through the surface of the earth as often as they dug deeper into it, making Asha do small jumps over them or go as far as the climb over the exposed roots. The sounds of the forest heightened steadily the longer she traveled, everything from chirping birds to the scurrying of small animals. At one point Asha paused in her walking, closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. The breeze carried the scent of poppies, which made her smile and tousled some of the strands of her strawberry-blond hair from her long braid.

She had no real destination as she walked between the trees, only the desire for the simple peace. So she wandered through the forest, not paying much mind to her path until the forest changed in a strange and sudden way. The oaks still looked the same, but now the forest noises were dull and instead of peace Asha felt... lonely. Asha felt alone like she never had before and quickly it was like she was surrounded by an almost oppressive atmosphere. She was both confused and curious as to why the feel of the forest changed, but quickly her curiosity won out.

Asha walked deeper into the forest, following the growing sense of loneliness. However, the longer she followed the feeling the more oppressive it became. When she spotted a break in the trees, she was nearly running for it in order to escape the almost crushing loneliness. Asha stumbled over a root but caught herself on a low-hanging branch so she didn't fall. Shocked out of her brief panicked state, Asha looked up to observe her new surroundings and the strange loneliness was banished by the awe she now felt.

She was standing at the edge of what was likely a grand courtyard at one time but was, with incredible and slow persistence, being pulled apart and broken by roots and grass. Taking a few steps into the courtyard, she was further drawn into the wonder of her surroundings as she noted how nothing like this existed in her village. From where Asha was now, she could see what seemed to be random walls of weathered stone and they stood barely to her knees. She followed one of the walls for a while, caught up in her own excitement at this discovery until the wall ended and she noticed something far more interesting.

A tower stood at one end of the courtyard, and unlike the walls, it was mostly intact though nature was trying to reclaim the tower as it was with everything else in this place.

Roots were digging into the base of the tower as moss and vines tackled the remaining stonework. Asha made her way for the tower with a second wind of curiosity, and upon getting closer to it, she realized it was larger than she initially thought. She stopped at the entryway, however, and inspected the archway and the detailing that was almost completely faded away. Looking inside, it was not full of darkened shadows as her imagination would have led her to believe. Missing pieces of more weathered grey stone high in the walls and from the floor above allowed some sunlight to enter the tower. It was enough to see fairly well, and when Asha entered the tower itself there were fine particles of dust that hung in the air and swirled at her movements. Over time it seemed that dirt and plants from outside made its way inside, the dirt covering most of the stone floor and several patches of grass and weeds springing up between slabs. On the far side, Asha spotted stairs that spiraled upwards, and her curiosity encouraged her to explore further.

Asha had only taken one step towards the stairs before she was stopped by an intense whirlwind of darkness that surrounded her. Asha reflexively raised her arms to shield herself, as if to somewhat protect her from this sudden fright. Fear began to build in her heart and her breathing quickened, but as quickly as it had started, everything stopped. The still air unnerved her and sound itself seemed it would have vanished as well if it were not for the fact of her own lungs taking in life. Slowly, she lowered her arms and when she looked down at them her eyes widened. There were a multitude of small cuts on her arms, some deeper than others, and she felt something trickle down the side of her cheek. Asha put two fingers to it and when held in front of her she saw the red blood. It wasn’t much, she knew it would stop on its own, but there were many things shining on the floor around her and she had to look at what now surrounded her.

They were feathers - dozens upon dozens of sleek black feathers.

They were scattered all around the floor, the light of the sun glinting off of them as though they were ebony jewels. Asha found them to be very beautiful and leaned down to pick one up so she could better appreciate their shine and wonder at how they had come to be there.

“How did you find this place?”

The voice that now spoke in the near silence was deep, a man’s voice, but possessed a croon that no human could ever recreate. This startled Asha and she scrambled back a few feet, which caused the feathers around her to shift and some even lifted to fly again for a moment. She looked to the staircase and her gaze was met by a tall figure all in black. Inspecting him as best she could, she saw that he wore a cloak completely made of black feathers, the same as on the ground. However, they did not shine as the ones on the floor did, for he was deeper in shadow. Not a single thing could be seen beyond the feathered mantle, no sight of hair nor skin, and the majority of his, what Asha could only assume, pallid features were hidden in the deeper shadows of his equally feathered hood. But his eyes she could see with surprising clarity, and Asha had never seen anything like them before.

They were two different colors, his right a pale-blue and his left a dark shade of amber. The mismatch was incredibly odd and caused disconcertment, but one thing struck her more than the strangeness of their colors. His eyes were sad, as though only filled with that singular emotion. As the silence stretched between them, Asha could feel the loneliness radiating from his presence as he stood there. She was certain that this man was the source of the sheer loneliness that had brought her here in the first place. When Asha gathered enough courage to answer his question, however, he interrupted her.

"You’re from the village."

His tone did not question her origins.

"I-I am," she confirmed, startled. "I'm Asha, the Herb Witch's daughter."

More uncomfortable silence, and then, "Leave."

“No, please wait! I’m sorry if I-” Asha didn't know what compelled her to say that, but before she could finish, the man with the strange eyes alighted with some inner fire and the whirlwind returned. It blinded Asha’s sight of him, but the feathers did not touch this time. Again, it was over as it had begun, and the man had vanished with it. Asha was left stunned as she stared at the spot where he had been only seconds before. She then shook her head, trying to regain some sense and composure, and decided that it was likely for the best to leave this place.

Once outside, Asha saw that it was already late afternoon. It pressed on her that she should return home, no matter her unwillingness to face what punishment her mother would have come up with during her absence. With a sigh, Asha started to backtrack the way she came but paused once she reached the treeline. When she looked down at her hand, her eyes widened as she realized that she was still holding onto the feather she had picked up. The blue sheen of the feather reflected better outside, and as she tilted it side to side Asha wondered about the man cloaked in black feathers and his sad eyes. Perhaps her mother might know about him and this tower. She smiled as she resumed walking, as going home to face her mother's certain punishment didn't seem so bad with these questions in mind.

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Samantha England
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