Her gaze flicked to the stars, each one twinkling against the pitch-black blanket of the sky.
She had the type of gaze that tends to make people uncomfortable. Too sharp, with eyes that could strip you down in a moment. Too critical, evaluating and assessing more than she should. She had the type of eyes that suggested she knew all of your secrets, that she had already laid you bare in her mind. It was the type of gaze that makes people flinch away, trying to cover the barren truth from her inquisition.
Above, a raven cawed its warning. Her attention shifted to its darkened form, perched on a branch overhead. Its inky feathers glittered in the starlight.
It was the same race every night. Always racing for something—although she was never sure what. The raven had never told her.
It shifted its weight, talons kissing the bark. Her lithe frame vibrated with the energy coursing through her veins. The stars looked on in apparent interest.
There was an inaudible signal. No one knows what, precisely, cued them. But in tandem, both girl and bird shot forward through the jungle maze.
It was the same race every night, a race she could never quite finish. Her strides were short, sharp, devouring the ground below her as she hopped, skipped, and dove through the mass of roots and branches. Overhead, the raven spiralled into oblivion, singing its alarms. If you saw her, you may have thought she was a deer, bolting through the shadows. Her long limbs curled and unfurled, moving impossibly fast as she wove through the brambles. Frequent glances were shot towards her black-feathered partner, whose golden eyes trailed her figure as she disappeared and reappeared from under a canopy of trees.
If she paused to think about it, she could hear the ghosts pursuing her; if you were there, you’d hear them, too. Memories and wishes and daydreams, reluctant farewells and buried regrets, whispering after her.
It was the same race every night. The ghosts always caught her. They always turned her into one of them. She didn't want to lose. Not again.
If she caught you unawares in her flight, you may assume she was a sprite, a forest spirit, a fairy. As her moonlit form launched over a large rock barring her path, her slim waist and hip barely brushing the rock as she slid across it;
As her legs carried her across a bounding river;
As her hair whipped her face and back;
You may have assumed that she was some elf of the forest, a creature of the night.
The raven screamed its signal. Faster, faster. The ghosts clawed at her back, hissing in the turning of the rapids and snapping at her legs.
She was not a prey creature, except to herself. The ghosts that hunted were her own thoughts, threatening to morph her into something unrecognizable.
It was the same race every night, but she had yet to win it.
Her blood drummed in her head, echoing the shrieks of the raven and the howls of the ghosts. Her lungs tightened as they grew tired, tired of drowning in open air. She choked on her own breath, expelling it in a coughing rasp. Ice crept up her back, as the ghosts’ breaths chilled her flesh. Fire exploded in her chest, as panic poured through her. Faster, faster!
The raven vanished in a cloud cover, obscured by both mist and trees. Her desperate eyes, accustomed to always seeing, lost the raven’s trail. She could not locate the stars. Somehow, they had vanished too.
Oblivion threatened to overwhelm her. This was always the worst part. The ghosts were louder when the raven was gone. Their grotesque faces were crueller without the light of the stars. It was as though the stars frightened them into hiding—but when the stars were gone, they rediscovered their courage. When the raven wasn’t there, they took their shots.
Again, her eyes cast their frantic net to the sky, and once again, they came back empty. No stars, no raven.
Her steps faltered, her feet catching on a root. She tumbled, leaves and sticks grabbing at her hair, skin, and cloths. She fumbled to her feet, spurring herself onward. The forest seemed to close in on her, the trees—once her allies—curling into claws tearing at her body. The ghosts had gotten to them, and they were now coming for her…
She raised her arms in a futile attempt to deflect the blows, but it did little to deter the attacks that struck her cheeks, neck, and stomach. The ghosts were getting bolder; they closed the distance, circling her, grabbing her now. Their touches left burning marks on her spirit, on her mind, on her body.
She abandoned the useless efforts to protect herself, embracing the slapping punishments of the trees as she devoted everything in her to the race. She would not be caught again!
The ghosts howled. The trees raked their talons across her unprotected body. She paid them no heed. Faster, faster. The air dug its nails into the back of her throat. The trees ahead began to close the noose. Faster, faster—
Blood, air, sweat, and tears danced over her—
And she broke through the threads of the noose, the reaching branches of the trees, with a powerful surge. She tumbled into a messy roll, collecting herself on the rocks past the gnarled forest gates. Glancing back confirmed the ghosts were still in hot pursuit, unfettered by the sharpened branches. Overhead, the stars tentatively peered from the shadow of the clouds. The raven burst from the silhouettes of the trees, proud black wings glowing in the ethereal white light of the moon. It swerved down to her as she pulled herself upright, struggling into a halting run. The ghosts followed.
The raven called out its warnings.
She had yet to finish this race. The easiest—and yet hardest—task stared her down.
She swallowed the fear, she banished the hesitation. She drowned out the ghosts, she forced herself to breath through the watery air forcing its way down her throat. She captured the ice on her flesh and the fire in her blood, and turned them into the explosive power she needed.
Her sharp, pointed strides, calculated and controlled til now, became long and slightly uncoordinated. Frantic energy blazed through her. Her heart hammered in chorus with the wing beats of the raven and the blinks of the stars. The cliff face winked into existence ahead.
It was the simplest task: jump.
It was the hardest task: don’t fall.
Her eyes narrowed. She always saw more than she should. The stars watched from their celestial throne. The raven shot over her shoulder. Her legs propelled her into the air.
The ghosts screeched, refusing to cross the canyon, writhing in fury at the edge. The raven bellowed, the stars caught their breath, the rivers fell momentarily quiet.
If you’d seen her, you may have thought she was a swan, an eagle, a dove discovering her wings.
Her feet pounded the slick surface of a mossy root protruding from the opposite cliff face. Her balance gave way as she fought for purchase; her arms shot forward, as though to catch the hand of an unseen ally. The jaws of the canyon gaped open, its breath hot and tepid.
She dropped to a crouch, both hands digging into the bark of the root. For a breathless moment, the world fell silent.
Then the raven alighted on her shoulder, chest puffed with pride. It crooned a new song, the one only she could hear.
Breathing heavily, she turned her gaze to the stars. She had won the race.
And now, the stars could whisper their secrets to her.