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A Fairy Tale
by S.T. Ranscht
Rumors slunk down the gentle hillsides of the Deep Woods to spread through the encircling villages. A ravenous monster — beast — creature of some sort had awoken to begin devouring all life within its widening range.
The truth was, no one knew how long the unnamed fear may have been awake or lain dormant before the rumors, or even if it had always been there or had arrived from some foreign land beyond their knowledge. Throughout their history, few from any of the villages were willing to enter the Woods. They were too dark, too suffocating, too terrifying. Children played on the safe side of the tall fences and walls their villages had built between the residents and the dense expanse of trees from whence their water sources flowed. Hunters and woodcutters kept their homes in sight whenever they plied their trades beneath the shadowy boughs at the Woods’ fringy edges. And the rare fools who thought to pass through the Woods’ center to get to the other side were never seen again.
Olaf was not a fool. Everyone he met agreed he was odd but brilliant and quite as far from foolish as it was possible to be. Olaf was an inventor. Villagers from far and wide sought his help from the time he was a young man, not yet old enough to establish his own home away from his parents’. People hired him to solve problems from building better rodent traps to improving their fields’ irrigation systems.
That was how he met Elea. She accompanied her father when he came to Olaf seeking a way to retrieve stricken prey and errant arrows without having to follow them into the Deep Woods. Their meeting turned to courtship, and by the time he fulfilled her father’s commission, they were pledged to one another. During their long — but childless — marriage, his devoted wife was fond of saying, “Olaf is no stranger than you or I, but his brain is unlike any this land has ever seen.”
While Elea was still alive, he created machines that eased her work to keep their household clean and warm. With one, he replaced the wash board she used at the river with a large water tub on legs that stood in the kitchen. Olaf installed a set of paddles in the tub that agitated the laundry when cranked by hand. A pair of hand-cranked rollers attached to the outside of the tub wrung the wash water from the clothing. Another of his inventions ran a grid of clay pipes beneath the plank floor of their little house to connect the kitchen stove to a stove in the bedroom and the fireplace in the main room. Heat that traveled through the pipes warmed the floors, and thence their feet.
When Elea fell ill from a disease that seemed to afflict people in every village surrounding the Deep Woods, doctors determined the illness had come from water tainted at the source. They had no treatment to offer. Village leaders came to Olaf begging for a filtration system that could eliminate the problem. Olaf worked day and night to devise one. It altered the water rather than filtered it, but his success came too late to save his beloved wife.
With Elea’s death, Olaf took his grief into his workshop and locked his attention on the problem in the Deep Woods. Knowing better than to hike into the Woods, he built an airship powered by wind, steam, and hot air to gain an aerial view and at least a chance of evading capture by whatever deadly presence lurked within. Aboard Elea’s Revenge, once he knew the enemy, he was confident he would be victorious.
He wondered if the tainted water could be used against the creature, and tried mixing it with some of the peculiar powders he had collected over the years. Most of those attempts accomplished nothing, but when he mixed the dark gray and yellow powders with a little of the water and struck a flint over it, the mixture sparked and burst into a swirling stream of flame and smoke and ash accelerating toward the ceiling. Curious. He set about making as many barrels of the mixture as the airship would hold.
Gnawing, echoing hunger growled through the nagging hollow in the creature’s gut. It couldn’t hear. It couldn’t see. It had no memories and no dreams. It hungered. It wasn’t starving. It simply expanded and absorbed what it encountered. But no matter how constantly the creature fed, it was never enough. It was as though the life it consumed provided insufficient nourishment. Or worse, an entirely wrong kind of nourishment. But it didn’t question. It just fed.
Olaf steered Elea’s Revenge toward the crown of the Deep Woods, ascending the hillside amidst the humming, ratchety-purr of the ship’s engine. Evening breezes pulled her dozen swollen sails beyond the reach of the Woods’ gnarled branches while the descending sun pushed the airship’s shadow across the glinting canopy.
The shadow crested the hill and vanished into a circle of darkness so deep it might have been a tunnel to the center of the world. Matte black, it had no visible features except its shape and size. Olaf watched in horror as it crept outward, inexorably extracting the ring of ancient trees that leaned into the void.
The airship’s bow dipped steeply toward the ground, shaking Olaf from his disbelief. The inevitable destruction of his world was suddenly clear. Turning the ship hard toward the creature’s edge, he pulled Elea’s Revenge up, gaining speed as it seemed flung from the scene below.
He lashed the tiller to circle the creature far enough away to resist its pull, but near enough to hope to kill it, and lit the first barrel’s fuse. Seconds before it would ignite the mixture, he hefted it overboard. It fell and fell and fell. In the instant before it faded into the gaping maw, it spit a shower of sparks. The creature made no response.
Olaf stood in stunned silence. Choosing the only option with any hope of success, he ran from barrel to barrel throughout the hold and on the deck, lighting all the fuses. Taking control of the tiller, he turned Elea’s Revenge toward the creature and aimed the prow at its heart.
“I owe you this, my love.”
The ground beneath the encircling villages shook. Houses shivered. People ran outside to see what might have happened. All who looked toward the Dark Woods saw the column of flame and smoke and ash racing into the twilit sky. As it separated from the Woods, the darkness at its tail blotted out the emerging stars, and still it accelerated upward.
What they would not live to see happened over eons far, far from their world: A swirl of stars gathered in the creature’s wake, colliding and giving birth and sorting themselves into a vast community around the creature itself. Whether to be eaten or thrive might never be known.