The Trail of Ashes

A horror retelling of the Grimm's fairytales, starring Gul, a POC Muslim protagonist. Her story begins with a beautiful but twisted town...

Image from Unsplash

By : Nayab Ahmar

Content Creator (Fiction & Poetry), The Continuist


It was the jolt of the car that woke Gul from her dreamless sleep.


Rubbing her eyes clear, she looked out the window, unsure how much time had passed during her impromptu nap.


Her eyes widened as she took in the dense forest of shocking red, yellow and orange hues that appeared endless on all sides.


It was winter. It was snowing.


But it’s as if the trees are stuck in fall.


But it wasn’t just the over-saturated fall trees that made her sleep flee faster than being doused with cold water. It was the iridescent sheen of the leaves, an effect perhaps created by the soft sprinkling of snow as it fell from the sky, before it covered the ground entirely. If one didn’t look closely, they’d think the very leaves were glowing from within, fluorescing as the trees swayed to the hidden melody of the wind.


Never in my nineteen years would I have thought I would see leaves that could… sparkle, she thought in wonder, watching as the leaves danced around the car before landing gracefully on the snowy road.


Before they’re crushed mercilessly by the screeching tires of the car


Shaking off the intrusive thought, Gul turned to ask her parents,


“Mama, Baba, aren’t you seeing the forest?! How are there fall trees here when it’s the peak of winter-”


“I know, that was our reaction when we saw them for the first time too,” Her Mama laughed, “But isn’t it so beautiful? The tour guide we met last week said they were some special native species to Ashbourne.


“You should’ve come with us, Gul. If you think this is amazing wait ‘til you see the town square.” Baba told her, smiling at her through the rear-view mirror, “And since you’re awake, why don’t you record the little journey we have left?”


“My hands are hurting since I had to record practically the whole way since you were sleeping!” Mama chided, joining in with Baba’s teasing as usual.


“We’re moving here, not going on some vacation, so why do we have to record it? We can explore it anytime…” Gul muttered, but took out her phone, nonetheless.

She recorded the beautiful scenery in silence for a few minutes, before she realized her phone was at 2% battery.

“My phone’s almost dead,” She declared, with a little too much satisfaction.


“Hey, you’re just saying that because you don’t want to make the video!”


“It’s for real, Mama! You can check, see?”


“Okay fine, here have my phone.” Mama replied, handing her the phone.


Sighing in defeat, Gul took the phone and started recording again.


The forest really does seem endless… where in the world is Ashbourne in here?


As she entertained her thoughts silently, a dark flash amongst the bright canopy of the trees caught her eye.


A bird?


The dark figure appeared again for a moment, but this time closer to the ground.


huh… it looks too big to be a bird


It was so fast she couldn’t for the life of her see what it really was.


“Did you see something in the forest? Like on my side?” She asked her parents, keeping her hand steady. At least she could replay the video later to see what it was otherwise it would bug her forever.


“I didn’t see anything, maybe it was an animal?”


“Maybe,” Gul replied, unable to help the unease that crept into her voice.


“What did it look like?”


She was about to reply to Baba when it appeared again.


This time on the ground, right at edge of the forest.


Is it… facing us?


“It’s there!! Look, there-”


“Where? I can’t see anything-”


“I can’t look, I’m driving you know-”


In the midst of their chaos, the dark figure had long disappeared.


But Gul was sure of one thing.


It was no bird or animal.


“It looked like a person,” She revealed, shivering as chills suddenly invaded her body “And whoever it was, waved at us.”


“Maybe it was someone from the town? The houses are scattered throughout the forest.”


“But it looked like it flew from the canopy and landed on the ground…” Gul whispered, gulping.


Something isn’t right.


“Maybe you saw two different things, Gul. First the bird, then the person!”


“Maybe…”


I hope so.


Guess they’d find out when she replayed the video.


Not wanting to concern her parents with how shaken she really was, Gul quietly put the phone down and started reciting all the prayers she remembered for protection.

Just in case.

----------

The beauty that was the town square almost made her forget about the encounter with the dark figure.


She wished they would’ve had time to step out and explore the town square for a bit, but they couldn’t because the movers had apparently reached the house already. Also, her parents had to go pick up her grandparents right after, who had just flown into the closest city because they were planning to stay for a month to help them settle in.


I’ll explore the town with Nano ― she does love to window shop. Maybe we can find some cool antiques.


Even from inside the car, the beauty of the town square was astounding. A heavy layer of snow lay on the ground, but it was covered with so many of those stunning iridescent leaves that footprints were barely visible. A startlingly black fountain in the shape of a juniper tree stood proudly at the center of the square, sparkling water pouring out its branches. Parents sat on ornate benches that lined the sidewalks, as children ran around throwing snow at anyone who dared come their way. Petite shops covered with vines and vendors selling everything from meat buns to jewelry lined the streets. Gul was sure she saw a cozy looking café, was it called something like Sweet Garden Tearoom? And what looked like a shop selling dresses called Seam Daydreams. People stared as their care drove by, and it was then Gul realized she hadn’t seen a single car, or even a streetlight.


But Mama and Baba both work from home and they know I’ll be taking virtual classes, so they’d never move somewhere where there was no internet, much less electricity.


It was as if Ashbourne was frozen in time.


Maybe the people just want to preserve the past in the town square, and everyone still has all the necessities in their homes, she thought, searching for electrical lines but not finding any obvious ones in the sight.


Gul was so lost in her mind, that it was only when they reached the edge of the square that she noticed it.


Although there were plenty yellow, orange and even a spattering of brown leaves, it was the screaming red ones that had overwhelmingly covered the snow.


It looks like the ground is bleeding.


Suddenly, the town square didn’t seem as beautiful.


“Gul? You’re not going to throw up, are you?” She heard her Mama ask, concern lacing her voice.


“She just looks tired to me. Since when does Gul get carsick?”


“I don’t feel carsick,” Gul said, voice cracking as she prepared to say it next. “But something doesn’t feel right.”


“And what is this something?”


“Just this place. Ever since that figure on the road, I’ve just been getting a weird feeling.”


“Hmmm… that can happen, with new places. It’ll take time to adjust.”

Making a noncommittal sound in agreement, Gul just thought, I don’t think that’s it. But hopefully that’s all it is.

----------

The house was not exactly what Gul had imagined it to be. She had expected a cozy cottage, not the sprawling cabin that greeted her as they drove through a rickety wooden gate. The garden, if one could even call it that, was overridden with shrubs and weeds, and vines so thorny they pierced through the snow as it fell from the sky. Leaves littered the ground from the surrounding forest, an occurrence Gul was already getting used to seeing. Also, flowers of every shade from pinks to purples to reds peeked out from under the snow. They were brimming with life despite the constant downpour of snow.


It’s like the snow doesn’t affect the growth of any of the plant life here… it makes no sense.


“Gul, why are you still in the car? Come take this inside.” Mama yelled from outside the car, which apparently had stopped a while ago considering her mother had already half emptied out the trunk, while her father was speaking to the movers parked ahead, closer to the cabin.


Wow, I really am out of it today. How did I completely miss the movers?


“Sorry, I’m coming!!”


Thankful for the tinted windows, Gul quickly wrapped her well-worn red hijab around her head before stepping out to help take the suitcases inside.

----------

The past few hours had been a flurry of movement as the movers rushed to get all the furniture inside. After helping a bit, Gul had retreated into the garden where she had discovered a wooden swing. She had wanted to watch the video from the car, but that phone had died too. And the socket hadn’t worked when she’d tried to charge all their phones. Instead, she had been mindlessly swinging on the wooden plank attached to the tree, trying to bask in the serene quiet despite shivering almost violently from the cold that assaulted her cardigan. Her cardigan wasn’t thin by any means, but apparently the cold here would need a full-on winter jacket, which was currently somewhere in one of her boxes.


I should probably find my jacket if I want to stay out longer.


Sighing, she made to get up when suddenly she felt someone push the swing so hard, she almost flew off. Gripping onto the rope, she frantically looked around to see who exactly had thought it would be a fun prank to scare the life out of her.


But there was no one.


Panicking, she jumped off the swing, tripping and scraping her knees in the process before she ran back to the safety of the cabin.


Too shaken to care that her parents were speaking with someone, she rushed to them, yelling


“Mama, Baba therewassomethingoutsideanditpushedmeofftheswingandIthinkitwasajinn-”


“Woah, slow down Gul, I can’t understand a word you’re saying!” Mama chided but pulled her closer into a hug anyway, sensing that something was very wrong.


“Something pushed me off the swing,” Gul gasped out, still desperately trying to catch her breath.


“Oh, I apologize for that young lady. It was most likely a kid from the town, they’re little menaces, they are!”


She turned to the elderly man standing next to Baba, who was probably the person her parents were speaking to before she had run in yelling like the world was ending.


“But I didn’t see anyone.”


“Ah, those kids know the forest like the back of their hands, they do. Must’ve run off when your back was turned.”


That makes sense but… never mind. I better just stay away from those kids, then.


Embarrassed, she apologized, “I’m sorry if I worried you, I think I’m just paranoid by nature or something…”


“No, no, it’s quite alright. I’ll be giving those kids a good ol’ chiding, I will!” He promised, but his eyes twinkled with warmth.


He reminded Gul a bit of her grandfather, so she smiled with as much warmth as she could muster given that she still felt shaken.


“Gul, this is Mr. Walsh, he’s the resident tour guide of Ashbourne! Mr. Walsh, this is our daughter, Gulab, who couldn’t make it to the tour last week because of an exam,” She smiled politely as Baba introduced them.


“What an exotic name it is! What’s it mean, young lady?”


“It means rose,” she said, teeth gritting as she realized how out of place her family would be here. When they had driven through the town square, she had barely seen any diversity, much less a hijabi like herself and her Mama. That was the one thing she’d miss about the city at least there she hadn’t felt too out of place.


Well, better get used to being exotic.


“Well, how beautiful is that!! We’ll call you Rose then, no?”


“I prefer Gul, thank you.” She said, stopping the urge to roll her eyes.


It’s not the first time someone’s tried westernizing my name, but it sure doesn’t get any less annoying.


Noticing her growing annoyance, her mother pulled her aside, “Gul, why don’t you go explore the house? You didn’t even pick a room, so we put your furniture in a random one. Go see if you like it, otherwise we can tell the movers to switch it for you.”


She nodded gratefully before turning around to make her way up the stairs first. But as she turned around, something at the entrance of the door caught her eye.


As she approached the door, she realized it was a package of some sort.


No, not a package. A food basket.


It was rather pretty, with ribbons attached and everything. A glittering scarlet letter even peeked out from between the wrapped sandwiches and a jar of honey. Gul hesitantly ripped it open, reading what was written:


Welcome to Ashbourne.

We are elated to have you here,

In this humble town we hold so dear.

Please accept this as a token of our appreciation

And please do come by to visit us at our location

Follow the trail of ashes

Until you reach the place

Where nature and man clashes

You must find the way

To come today

Yours truly, The Ash Family


Gul stared at the poem until the words blurred, questions bombarding her mind too fast for her to keep up.


The poem style for a letter is cool, but the letter is just so… off.


A trail of ashes? Who leaves a literal trail of ashes for someone to follow?


The Ash Family apparently, she replied to herself, scoffing at how ridiculous it sounded.


Where nature and man clashes? Who describes their house like that?


But those weren’t the oddest, and perhaps even concerning parts of the letter.


I must find a way to go visit them today? Why today?


Turning back around with the basket and letter in hand, she walked over to her parents, who were still talking to Mr. Walsh.


“When do you think the electricity will be back up?”


“I’m not sure, the tree did fall on our main power line. It might be down for a few more days.” Mr. Walsh replied apologetically.


So, I was right, they do have electricity here. But of course, it’s down the week we move in.


“Sorry to interrupt again, but I found this at the doorstep,” Gul said, lifting the food basket and the scarlet letter.


At the sight of them, Mr. Walsh turned alarmingly pale, and Gul was sure she heard him mutter something like they usually don’t send it so early…


Baba took the letter from her hand, reading it out loud for them. By the time he finished, Mama and Baba both had troubled frowns on their faces, while Mr. Walsh was desperately trying to seem nonchalant.


“The basket is wonderful, but the letter’s kind of strange. Is this another one of the children’s pranks?”


“No, no!!” Mr. Walsh rushed out, “It’s actually an Ashbourne tradition. Whenever a new family moves in, the Ash family always sends housewarming gifts and an invitation to come visit their home. The trail of ashes is a family tradition that has spanned generations, and as the Ash family were the founders of our wonderful town, we value these traditions very highly up to this day. It’s a rite of passage of sorts, to officially welcome a family into Ashbourne.” Mr. Walsh explained, eyes nervously flitting around the room.


He can’t even make eye contact… is he lying?


“May we ask why we must visit today? You see, we have to go pick up my mother and father and by the time we return it will be too late in the night.”


“The ashes will be swept away by the wind and snow by tomorrow, and if you haven’t visited before then, it is considered to be a very bad omen. Your family would most likely be seen as unlucky for the town,” He said, with a strained smile “And that wouldn’t be very good, now, would it? Not all of you must go, your daughter can go as a representative of sorts. She’s not going with you, is she?”


“No, she isn’t,” Mama admitted, “I suppose she can go to say hi, right? She doesn’t have to stay for dinner there or anything else?”


“No, no, it’s merely a visit at the doorstep,” He assured.


“Alright, then. Gul,” Mama turned to face her, “You can go and visit the Ash family while we go to pick up Nano and Abu. I’ll fill this basket with some of the snacks we have, so you can take it with you. But remember, you better go now so you can come back home before sundown. And no going under trees, especially close to sundown. Got it?”


“Get home before sundown. Don’t go under trees.” She repeated, now with more sincerity than ever before.


After everything that’s happened so far, I need to be more careful. But should we even be doing this? I feel like he was lying about something…


“Why the warnings?” Mr. Walsh asked, curiously.


“It’s because the Jinn are out during that time. Best not to catch their attention. And as for the trees, well some live there, so it’s best not to stand under them.” Baba explained briefly.

She’d expected Mr. Walsh to ask more questions, considering he probably wasn’t familiar with their beliefs, but he just nodded in understanding. He looked at them with what appeared to be a hint of… respect?


“You’ll find the trail in the forest. You can go directly through the garden here. The only warning I’d have for you, young lady, would be to not stray from the trail. Best not to draw their attention, right?” He said, pointing at the garden outside.


What? He believes in Jinn too then?


Before they could ask any questions, Mr. Walsh bid his goodbyes and left. The movers left shortly after, leaving her parents to gather some things before they too headed out. Leaving Gul alone in the cabin and with a task that seemed more daunting by the second.

----------

THUD


Gul gasped awake from the loud thud that echoed through the entire cabin.


Did I fall asleep? No, no this can’t be happening-


The ground tilted as she frantically got up from the sofa and looked at the grandfather clock in the corner of the living room that proudly displayed the time.


It was almost sundown.


In her frantic state, she hadn’t even realized it was no longer the bright afternoon light that she remembered before her eyes had unintentionally slipped close.


No no no no I just wanted to rest my head for a minute, not fall asleep-


This was bad. Very bad.


Now what do I do? If I don’t go, then the bad omen or whatever will happen, and our family won’t be welcome in the town. No, I have to go. It’s my own fault I fell asleep. If I go quickly and I can still make it back before it gets too late.


Determined to get it over with, Gul wrapped her red hijab a bit more firmly around her head so it wouldn’t fly off with the wind.


But there was a problem.


It would take too much time to look for her winter jacket and shoes in the many boxes scattered around her room upstairs.


Now what?


Just as she was about to give up and go look through the boxes, suddenly a loud thud sounded from above.


Right from where her room was supposed to be.


This can’t be happening. I’m alone here. I’m alone… am I?


Shaking, she quickly started to recite the prayers for protection, bracing herself as she walked up the stairs to her room. When she got there, she all but kicked the door open, a scream unintentionally ripping out her throat.


There was no one there.


But two boxes had fallen on their sides, her clothes and shoes scattered across the room like a hurricane had hit it.


She was trembling as she looked through her belongings for the very winter jacket and shoes she had been planning to look for.


But they were nowhere to be found. Instead, two things stacked neatly side by side amongst the mess called out to her. A pair of white winter boots, and a beautiful red fur cloak.


These aren’t mine.


But her own jacket and shoes weren’t anywhere in the room, and she desperately needed something to withstand the weather outside.


Desperate times call for desperate measures.


Grabbing the shoes and cloak before she changed her mind, Gul ran out the room and hurriedly put them on.


Okay, follow the trail and give them the basket and say hi, and come back. Easy.


Suddenly, a thought occurred to her.


What if the ashes get swept away even before I have a chance to follow them back? Ugh, why’re there so many problems?


She put her hands in the warm pockets of the cloak with a sigh, as the cabin felt quite cold with the electricity down.


Something smooth grazed her hand. She pulled whatever it was out to find a bunch of red ribbons.


Everywhere I go, everything I see is red. Red, red, red. And to think my favourite hijab was red too.


Not anymore.


But at least I can tie these ribbons to the trees to mark the path.


Finally ready, she grabbed the basket and made her way out the cabin with a heavy heart.

----------

The ashes had been easy to spot as Gul had made her way through the garden into the forest. They were a harsh contrast to snow, making her think it would be easy to follow the trail.


But then the snow had started to mercilessly rain down, making it difficult for Gul to see much of anything, and the wind began to pierce her skin relentlessly, so much so that she felt like her face would start to bleed.


This was a bad idea. We should’ve never listened to Mr. Walsh.


She hesitantly made her way to tie a ribbon to the nearest tree when she was him.


A man, standing under a tree with a top hat pulled low on his head. He was tall and lean, wearing a two-piece black suit. The cold didn’t seem to affect him at all.


Move. Gul, move. MOVE.


But she couldn’t. Her body was frozen as he turned to face her, and asked,


“Where are you off to, pretty lady?”


She couldn’t see his face well, it seemed to be a blur even if she tried hard to focus on it.


“N-none of y-your business,” She stuttered out, fighting desperately to move.


“Dear Red, may I call you that? I only would like to escort you to your destination. It can be quite… dangerous out here, in the woods.” He whispered, but she heard it even through the whistling of the wind.


“NO! LEAVE ME ALONE!” She screamed, red alarms blaring in her mind hard enough to snap her out of whatever had kept her frozen.


Amused, the man, no most definitely a Jinn, an evil one at that, made his way to her before he suddenly stopped. She felt him glance behind her, as though looking at someone there.


“I’ll find you again,” She heard him snarl quietly before he abruptly turned and disappeared further into the forest, away from the trail.


The protection prayers. I prayed before I left the cabin. He can’t come close; he can’t hurt me. He’s just trying to scare me.


Almost sobbing with relief, Gul decided to keep moving forward. She couldn’t just give up because of one little scare and prove herself to be a coward.


I’m safe, she repeated, again and again, as she continued to pray for protection.


She methodically tied the ribbons as she made her way along the trail, still on edge from her encounter.


Just as she was beginning to relax, she heard the faint sound of someone crying from further down the trail.


No, no, no what is it now-


Maybe I should just turn back…


But then she heard more crying. This time, it came from behind her. And from her left. And from her right.


It’s everywhere.


I just have to ignore it and keep moving forward. I’m safe, I’m praying, I’m safe…


She repeated firmly and forced her feet to keep moving forward. She shifted her focus to tying the ribbons on the trees and moving through what had become a full-fledged snowstorm.


Or so she thought.


She had barely taken a few steps when the snow simply… stopped. Stopped falling from the sky, and the wind quieted down until everything came to a standstill. She would’ve thought she’d stepped into the eye of the storm if she hadn’t seen that it was the same as far as she could see down the trail.


Then she heard the crying again.


Up ahead, right beside the trail, was an enormous juniper tree. Like the fountain in the town square, Gul noted, trying desperately to ignore the crying. It stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the various colourful fall trees she’d first found weird.


The trees are the least weird thing here, she decided grimly, eyeing the figure of a young girl hunched over at the base of the tree, sobbing her lungs out. She could be another Jinn in disguise, but Gul had a sinking feeling she was a real child. If she really was a real child, then Gul would be cruel to ignore her.


After all, she’s wearing a winter jacket and shoes and still looking cold, unlike the guy standing around in a suit.


Praying that it really was just a crying child, even though that didn’t make it any less creepy, Gul made her way to quietly walk past.


I’m sorry but I can’t take the risk of offering help… I can’t trust anyone or anything I see here. Kid, I’m sorry but I hope your parents find you.


Gul was almost past the tree and the sobbing girl, when she heard her whimper “P-please… help me… please…”


Don’t turn back. Don’t do it.


But the girl sounded so pitiful, so helpless it tugged on Gul’s heart too much for her to ignore.

I can’t just leave her like this. I can’t.


Sighing in resignation, Gul turned around slowly to meet the very teary and red eyes of the girl, her lips trembling and small body shaking from the cold.


“My b-brother…” She whispered, so softly Gul had to walk a bit closer to hear her, “My mother murdered him…”


Flinching as she took in the words, Gul took a step back.


“My father ate him…”


Another.


“And I found his bones…”


And another.


“And I laid them under the Juniper tree…”


Two more.


Leave now leave now leave NOW-


“You must help me…” She sobbed, dragging out the last word so it sounded like a hiss. “I didn’t get to eat a bite and I’m so hungry…”


That’s when Gul saw the bones scattered around the base of the tree, with the ribbon that might’ve held them ripped to shreds. Unable to help the scream that clawed its way out, Gul skidded back in the snow frantically to escape when the girl suddenly jumped towards her from where she stood.


And landed right on top of her, Gul falling flat on her back as the loud crack from her head jarred her entire body. But she didn’t have time to recover as the girl furiously started snapping her teeth right in Gul’s face, forcing her to bring up her hands to shield her nose from being bitten off. The girl shouldn’t have weighed much but right now it felt like a block of bricks was on her chest and as much as Gul tried to shove the child off, she wasn’t budging. Suddenly, a sharp pain in her left forearm made her shriek in pain, as she looked in horror to see the girl’s teeth latched on there. Maybe it was an adrenaline rush, but with renewed energy Gul swung the arm the girl was biting until she felt her jaw loosen enough to shove her off completely.


As soon as Gul got free, she sprinted away so fast her lungs burned for air and a stitch immediately pricked her side, but it was easy to ignore compared to the pulsating pain that radiated from her forearm. Glancing at her arm, she saw that the bite was deep enough to let blood flow freely out, staining the snow below. Gul heard the girl screech in happiness as she glanced to see her literally licking blood off the ground.


What the actual hell.


Not stopping, she grasped the edge of her hijab, thankful it was not too strong a material of cotton and ripped it off to create a quick tourniquet around the wound. It would bleed through eventually, but at least it’d slow the flow of blood that was leaving a trail. She kept running until her legs became frozen logs, her head a rock on her shoulders as the ground titled beneath her feet. She all but collapsed on the snow, gasping for air.


It was her turn to sob as she prayed and prayed that she would survive this so she could reach her house safely and tell her family they needed to get out of here.


As her breath finally returned to her, she thought she’d be faced with the terrifying girl again, but there was no maniacal screeching to be heard.


It could’ve been much worse, I’m alive and I’m safe, she repeated, rubbing off her tears, grateful that the prayers had kept her from a worse outcome.


Like dying, her mind supplied unhelpfully.


She got up very carefully, checking herself for any injuries she had missed in her rush to escape. But only her head throbbed where she had hit it on the ground, and her forearm still bled but only in drips with the tourniquet. Gul was already starting to feel lightheaded, so she pushed one foot in front of the other until she began to walk at a reasonable pace.


There’s no way I’m going back that way, especially in this condition. I need help, so I have to reach the Ash family’s home fast. I just hope they’re good people, oh please let them be good people.


Lost in her thoughts, she almost missed the faint melodic humming that became louder the more she walked.


Oh no.


Dread gripped her in its vicious claws and Gul was debating if making another run for it was the best option, when her feet began to move on their own accord.


All of a sudden, she had gone from standing still to foxtrotting off the ash trail.


No, no, no what the hell is happening now-


She began to panic when she realized she longer had control of her feet, which had switched to a waltz with the melodic humming. It was as if the melody had possessed her very feet.


I can’t lose the trail, it’s the only way I know where to go and I already didn’t put the ribbons while I was running for my life.


Calm down. Take a deep breath. Focus. How do I get out of this?


She could still see the path, but whoever or whatever was humming was bringing her closer to themselves and away from the path.


Wait.


What if it’s the shoes?


Realization dawned on Gul as she urgently grabbed the nearest trunk of a tree, fighting off her own feet as they danced and danced until she felt like she’d dance the shoes to pieces.


If they didn’t have a stupid zip, I would’ve already shaken them off, but what do I do now?


But then the humming stopped. And so did her dancing feet.


Not bothering to waste time in questioning it, Gul desperately ripped open the zips and took off the cursed winter shoes. No sooner had she taken off the shoes, the humming started again.


Whatever it is, it’s playing with me.


All it took was a dark flash in her peripheral vision to make her sprint back to the trail of ashes that had become her only beacon of hope in this wretched forest.


Should’ve joined track, she thought grimly as the stitch appeared in her side again, And I shouldn’t have worn these shoes and the cloak that appeared out of nowhere. I shouldn’t have rushed. I shouldn’t have come here at all.


Her feet were burning from the cold, and she was sure she’d get frostbite by the time she’d reach the Ash family’s home. At least the humming seemed to be distant now.


It’s like whatever these things are only stay in a specific area of the forest…


Out of nowhere, she felt an agonizing stab through her right foot. Stumbling, she fell to the ground, unintentionally twisting her wrist as she tried to break the fall.


Is this even real, she mused, hysterically laughing as she saw the rock protruding from her foot. It had gone clean through, with blood dripping down her foot and off its elongated body. Her foot was a mess, all red and purple and swollen.


I should probably take it out, but I’m already losing too much blood. No, I won’t do anything for now and just try and make it to the end. It can’t get any worse than this, right?


Still giggling, she pushed herself back up and started hopping on one foot. She could barely feel her toes, and she was sure they were almost at first degree frostbite.


Hopping, hopping, hopping, she snickered, unsure what was so funny when pain radiated across her entire body in waves.


Just as she was about to collapse from utter exhaustion, she glimpsed an opening in the trail with what appeared to be a wrought iron gate.


I actually did it… I’m here…


“Turn back, Aapi,”


Gul should’ve felt scared by the little voice, but as she took in the small boy that had appeared right in her path, she felt calm. He looked at her pleadingly, eyes shining with innocence. What surprised her more was his use of the familiar and affectionate honorific.


Only my little cousins call me that, since I have no younger siblings.


He may be a good Jinn in disguise, she concluded, trusting her instincts.


“You must not go inside,” He pleaded, “For only evil things do betide.”


“Well, I don’t exactly have a choice, now do I?” She glared, pointing at her throbbing foot and her forearm, both of which were dripping blood steadily. And those were only the obvious wounds.


The boy just stared back with sad eyes, and then as if in resignation said, “Then you must find the woman who weaves, but cannot see. I wish you well, dear Aapi,”


The woman who weaves, but cannot see?


Before Gul could ask any questions, the little boy walked off and disappeared somewhere behind a tree. She almost wanted to call him back. He was the only one who hadn’t tried to hurt her so far.


The shrill grating noise of the wrought iron gate opening drew her attention back to the task at hand. With a newfound determination, she hopped painfully through and into the stunning property that held the enormous Ash family residence.


It’s more a castle than a mansion, Gul thought, momentarily stunned by its beauty. There were even two twin towers gracing the building, vines elegantly draping them with flowers. A flash of yellow caught her eye in the tallest tower, which snapped Gul out of her trance and made her hop across the lush grass and towards the entrance of the castle.


It took her a long time, what felt like an eternity, to reach the entrance. Hesitantly, she made to knock on the door when it swung open leaving her hands suspended in midair.


There was no one there, but the warm air rushed out, enveloping her in a comforting wave. Gul couldn’t help the few tears that escaped her eyes.


A door that opens by itself is the least of my worries, she thought, but whispered prayers regardless. She had forgotten to recite them for a moment out there, but she knew she’d been kept safe from worse situations because she had been reciting them consistently before that.


“It can be worse than it is,” She firmly said out loud, forcing her negative thoughts from before out of her head.


And I need to be strong to survive. I am strong, I can do this.


She hopped in, and immediately noticed the elegant cane that was propped against the rustic wallpaper of the entryway.


Taking it gratefully, she started to walk down the hall as quietly as she could. It was still difficult to walk even with the cane, so she couldn’t help being a bit noisy.


It’s strange that no one’s around. How am I supposed to find that woman?


The hallway would’ve been completely dark if it weren’t for the warm light peeking out an open door on the left. All the other doors were closed, and Gul was sure she couldn’t climb up the huge staircase in her condition. She already felt dizzy enough to throw up, so hoping for the best she slowly went to that one open door and walked inside.


It was a kitchen. High ceilings and a crackling open oven greeted her, the smell of bread making her mouth water.


“So, you’ve finally arrived. Come closer, dear child,”


Startled, Gul faced the old lady that sat at a table which she had missed as it was in the corner of the room. The lady was expertly weaving what looked to be half a tapestry, all the while staring blankly at a wall ahead.


The woman who weaves but cannot see.

Not moving, Gul said, “Hello, I’m Gulab, and my family just moved to Ashbourne. I’ve come here today because of the letter, but I’m badly hurt because the forest was a literal nightmare and-”


“Listen child,” The woman looked away from the wall, blank white eyes meeting Gul’s own, “We have not much time. They’ll be returning soon, the Ashes, and once they do, they’ll cut you into pieces and ask me to cook you up for them to eat.”


She gracefully lifted one finger to point at the bubbling pot the size of a small bath across the room, as if she hadn’t just dropped a bomb on Gul’s head.


Cut me… cook? what?


It must’ve shown on her face that her mind had stopped working, and even though the woman couldn’t see she said, “Do not worry, I will not cook you. I have waited and waited for a chance to escape, dear child. But they only cook those who come from outside. See, Ashbourne is only for those born here, and they must pass the trail of ashes to be granted their life in the town. The Ash family, cannibals they are, eat anyone who dares move here. But no one has moved here in the past decade, and I have been locked without a way out. We shall escape together, dear child. I will hide you, and when they arrive, I shall put a sleeping draught in their dinner. Then, we will take the chance and escape.”


I’m going to pass out, was all Gul thought, before darkness claimed her.

----------

She gasped awake from the pungent smell that invaded her nose, and frantically sat up to see what it was.


The woman stood in front of her, carrying some sort of burning herb in her hand.


“Ah good, you are awake. I healed your wounds while you were unconscious, child. It was good you were because I’m sure the pain would’ve been unbearable otherwise.”


Gul looked down to see bandages wrapping both her foot and hand, no sign of blood at least despite the swelling and terrible bruising of the skin. Her hijab was still on, but she did feel a bandage underneath it on her head.


“Thank you,” She whispered, grateful to this strange but kind woman.


“Now hide behind that urn, child. I can hear them coming.”


No sooner had she said those words that loud laughter came from the hallway as the entrance door slammed open.


Gul quickly hid behind the huge urn in the opposite corner of the room, stopping the urge to peak from behind it.


“Have the outsiders come here yet, Agatha?” A booming voice asked, “We went for a hunt, but did not catch any strays today. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to find a lost outsider in the forest, but not today.”


“No sire, they have not arrived yet. But I have already cooked up a dinner from yesterday’s hunt. Perhaps you can keep them for tomorrow?” Gul heard the old woman, Agatha, ask the man.


“Very well. Let’s hope they don’t arrive during dinner then,” More peals of laughter followed, as if they shared some sort of inside joke.


Gul clasped her hand around her mouth to prevent from throwing up right there, as she tried not to think about the horrors that could’ve happened to her and her family. She didn’t know how much more of this she could take, so she desperately hoped the sleeping draught would work fast.


Time moved slowly, and Gul had to fight to keep completely still. She was still aching all over and sitting all cramped behind the urn was painful to say the least. Her toes were still tinged an odd red as they tingled randomly, and she wasn’t sure where she was hurting anymore because the pain had returned everywhere with a vengeance.


The disturbing thud thud thud of the heads hitting the table drew her out of misery, as she waited in anticipation for Agatha to tell her that the sleeping draught had finally worked.

She heard more shuffling footsteps before Agatha whispered, “Child, you can come out now. They’re out cold.”


Jumping up from behind the urn, Gul took in the disgusting cannibalistic family that were now unconscious with no little satisfaction. She was relieved to see no children, especially after her encounter in the forest.


I really hope cannibalism isn’t a running theme in the town.


“Child, we must leave.”


But if we just leave, will they ever stop this insanity?


“We need to find evidence for their crimes, we can’t just leave. They need to be jailed,” Gul said furiously, hoping Agatha would have some incriminating evidence against the family. After all, she’d been working for them and planning to escape for a long time, right?

“You are right, child. There is something, perhaps we can take with us. The master,” She pointed to the burly man collapsed at the head of the table, “has a set of keys that lead to two rooms: one with a rose, one with a sunflower. I know not what is in those rooms, for only he can enter them. Anyone who has tried to enter them has not lived to tell the tale. Perhaps there is something in those rooms that is this evidence you seek, child.”


They have to contain something, otherwise why would he guard them so much, to the point of murder?


Eyeing the keys poking out of the man’s pocket, Gul quietly walked up to him and carefully plucked them out. One key had a rose on it, and the other a sunflower just like the doors Agatha had described.


“Where are the rooms?” She asked, determined to get to the end of this horror story she’d found herself in.


“Upstairs, child. Be careful. I’ll wait here, so make haste slowly.”


I really wanted to avoid the stairs.


Gul rushed out the kitchen as fast as her injured foot would allow her and hopped up the stairs one step at a time. The second floor was as dark as the first, but she could make out a hallway to her right and another staircase to her left. But the door with a rose on it was straight ahead, proudly visible instead of the hidden entrance she had imagined.


It’s there to mock you, to tempt you to try and enter.


Not leaving time for second doubts, Gul went and inserted the key, hearing the lock click open. Bracing herself, she threw open the door.


A pungent, horrible stench wafted out, causing Gul to gag as she pinched her nose to stop the smell. She allowed herself barely a glimpse of the room before she slammed it back shut, locking it with shaky hands.


The key will be evidence enough. The entire room is full of corpses and chopped up…

Heaving, Gul turned to leave when she heard a yell from the third floor.


But isn’t the whole family unconscious downstairs… unless.


She looked at the sunflower key.


There’s one more room, but it’s not here so it must be upstairs. What if he has someone locked up there?


Dragging herself up another set of stairs, Gul came face to face with the obnoxious sunflower door.


“Help me!! I saw you come in, outsider!! I’m in here, HELP ME!!” The woman was yelling, as she pounded at the door repeatedly.


“I’m here and I can open the door, so please step back for a moment!!”


The woman quieted at those words, and Gul heard her shuffle away from the door. She went and cautiously opened the lock, hoping she wasn’t falling into another trap.


The door swung open to reveal a beautiful woman with blonde hair so long, her braid curled on the ground around her like a snake.


The yellow flash I saw in the tower… it was her!!


“He locked me in here!! My father was forcing me to marry him because we’re poor, but I didn’t want to. Then he kidnapped me and locked me in this tower! You must believe me, outsider!!” She yelled, and Gul held up her hands to calm her down.


“Listen, he was planning to literally eat me and my family because we’re outsiders, so I assure you I believe every word you’ve said,” Gul promised her, “Agatha and I, the woman who works in the kitchen I think, are escaping right now and you need to come with us. I have the keys as evidence, and I plan on making sure this messed up family ends up rotting in jail for the rest of their miserable lives.” She held up the keys as proof.