The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2022 Winners Anthology, Tales from the Deep Beyond here.
“The Realm of Disunity” by Brandon Morehouse, Marist High School
Third Place, High School Level, 2022
The Realm of Disunity
By Brandon Morehouse
Marist High School
It was dark. It was cold. I found myself in a forest, a vastness of trees I couldn’t comprehend. The willows stood unnaturally tall, hiding everything under their draping branches. What was this place? The environment’s eerie nature was unsettling, and strangely, it was saddening. Everything seemed . . . corrupted, as if set alight by a wildfire of malice. I’d seen no fruit, no flowers, no wildlife; only thorn bushes and shriveled fungi. Occasionally, faint screams echoed through the trees, but from what? I came here as an observer, but I feared the forest would make me something more, something . . . worse.
I began walking through what I thought to be the thinnest of the trees, hoping to see a better environment. Disappointingly, I only found more of the same, but then I heard something.The bushes rustled behind me, and then a soft, gentle whisper called me.
“Are you lost?”
I cautiously turned around, and was slightly taken aback by who I saw: a woman wearing a beautiful black ball gown detailed with purple streaks stood by me, but she wore a mask; it was the mask of Thalia, the mask of comedy, and it covered her whole face, even where her eyes or mouth would have gaps.
“Are you?” She held out her gloved hand. I looked at her again; her mask betrayed no emotion but happiness.
“Come with me.” I took her hand, and she walked me through the forest, with some innate sense of direction leading her. Looking through the trees, I suddenly realized we weren’t alone. We were being followed by others in the same mask as the woman’s, but they carried weapons, and wore armor plating that let no skin show. They leapt through the trees, swiftly and silently, like their plating weighed nothing. A gasp escaped my lips when one of them made eye contact with me, the swivel of his head too smooth, too perfect.
“Pay no attention to them,” the woman whispered. “They’re here for when things go wrong.” She hastened her walk.
If I thought the soldiers were frightening, what threat could they be fighting? At the thought, the soldiers promptly ran ahead of us in the forest, and the woman stopped.
“Stay behind me,” she said, stepping in front of me.
I tensed, the threat not immediately clear to me. The air thickened in front of us, and a crimson colored oval began materializing. Sparks flew from it as it grew, until something stopped it. A boot came through the portal, and then another. A man in regal black robes, with marks of deep red stepped through the portal, and he wore a mask, a mask different from the woman’s. It was Melpomene, the mask of tragedy. From the roof of the forest, five soldiers, identical to the woman’s soldiers except for the masks, fell. The man gave me a single glance.
“Queen Annabelle—” His words ceased when the woman’s soldiers charged straight at the man. His soldiers defended, but the man simply looked at the floor, shook his head, and silently walked back through the portal.
I looked at the woman, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was still facing towards the fight, seemingly focused on where the man was. Their soldiers were equally matched, yet there was something off-putting about hers.
“Let’s go,” she said quickly. With a wave, a purple portal manifested in front of us. She held out her hand for me once more, and I glanced back at the fight. It was at that moment that the little belief I had in the woman was shaken: a soldier of the man took his sword and sliced her soldier in the arm with such force that it cut off. But it wasn’t real. It was a black thickness. The arm he cut, the soldier he fought—it wasn’t human. He lowered his sword, his tragic mask looking up at his opponent’s mask in disbelief. Her soldier instantly struck him in the head, ripping it off his neck, his human neck, to let it tumble to the ground. The being repositioned itself, and slowly turned to face us, the grin of its mask constant in the brutality of its action.
I was yanked into the portal by the woman, still gaping at what I saw.
I opened my eyes. My vision was blurry, but I easily made out the woman, Queen Annabelle, with her mask, and fear filled my mind. She’d sent out those abominations to murder the man’s soldiers. Terrified, I looked for an exit, but the room was dark, lit only by a violet-colored candle.
“Are you all right?” she asked softly, her mask fixed on me. I couldn’t speak. At my silent response, she turned away from me. “Is anything wrong?” My mind immediately turned from fright to anger. I couldn’t believe her words.
“What? Is anything wrong? Everything’s wrong! Did you see what you did?”
“Do you want an explanation?” she mumbled.
“I deserve one.”
The woman sighed. “The man in the mask is King William. Long ago, before you came to this forest, he and I were united; we kept corruption from spreading in the forest. It was always perfect, the forest was always well, until he let the corruption in.” She stamped her foot in anger. “I confronted him, but he denied it; he’s a scandalous liar. And I can’t rule with a scandalous liar. He has to learn he’s wrong before he can keep the corruption from spreading, but until then, he is the corruption spreading.”
My anger turned straight to confusion. The forest was dead because of William?
“So why did he appear to you?” I queried.
“I don’t know. Maybe to call me a liar back.” Her tone was acrid, as if he’d only ever called her a liar.
“But what about your soldiers?”
“What about them?” she said, shifting to the most innocent, most oblivious tone.
“You’re—they—they’re not people! William’s soldiers were human; you didn’t give them a fair fight!”
Annabelle fell silent, keeping still to the point where you wouldn’t have even noticed her.
“No.” She spun around and advanced towards me. “How could you say something like that! My soldiers are genuine, whole, and true.” Her masked face was mere inches from mine, it’s twisted grin never-ceasing. “William’s soldiers aren’t any of those. He made them just to hurt me.” There was sadness in her voice that I didn’t understand.
I stood up. The exit gave off light, but it didn’t brighten the room. “I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true!” Annabelle shouted, and I ran out of the room, desperate to get away from this illogic. When I got out and looked back, I noticed the room we had been in was behind a gray brick wall, as if the bricks had been removed to make the exit.
“Come back! Please!” Her plea pierced my mind with guilt, but I kept running faster. I could hear her coming after me, hopelessly trying to get me to stay. When I looked back at her, I realized we were in a dungeon. There were cages on my left and right, and I nearly stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the prisoners. They were her soldiers, but their armor was broken, revealing their human skin. Not all her soldiers are fake?
Suddenly I fell forward. A red portal manifested in my path, and I tumbled through it. When my vision cleared, I found myself in the outer ward of a gray-bricked castle. There were troops of tragic soldiers marching through the fields, and as I observed them, my eyes met the mask of King William. I didn’t know whether to feel afraid or relieved.
“Did you corrupt the forest?” I asked. He stayed silent, and turned away.
“No. Don’t listen to her.” There was drowsiness in his voice, but he still sounded earnest. “The forest’s always been corrupted. She’s sending her soldiers to attack me, because she thinks I’m directly responsible for the corruption.” He turned to face me. “But it’s not true, and I don’t know why she thinks it is.”
“Why don’t you go talk with her?”
William looked at me, his mask speaking all that needed to be said.
“She’s beyond the point of reasoning. She won’t listen to me, or trust me, or believe what I have to say. We were never united; and it’s because of her that we’ll never be united again.”
I was struggling to understand what he said. Annabelle says William brought the corruption in. William claims the forest was never fully clean, but Annabelle won’t listen. William’s given up on trying to reason with her. She was too far gone for him.
“Why did you appear to us earlier?”
“That was my latest attempt at trying to reason with her. You saw what happened. Her soldiers were attacking before I even got her name out.” He was right; she wouldn’t even give him a chance to speak. Again, I was confused. How did she expect him to ask for forgiveness for something he may not even have done if he can’t even go speak with her? Then I had a solution.
“Send me back to her,” I said. William looked at me with confusion.
I don’t know, I thought. I didn’t know why I felt I could do anything with her, but giving up like William just didn’t feel . . . right. I knew at least she’d listen to me speak.
“Maybe I can reason with her,” I replied.
“No. You can’t. Believe me, I’ve tried.” His sadness was deeply reflected in his voice and words, but unlike him, I couldn’t accept there was nothing I could do.
“I won’t believe you.”
He looked at me, assumably pondering my motives. Then, he looked down and sighed.
“All right. Try your best.” He snapped his fingers, and I heard a crackle as his crimson portal began sparking to life. I gave him one last glance, and I entered the portal, hoping that I could help.
I didn’t recognize where I emerged from the portal, until I saw Annabelle. She’d been peacefully walking through the forest, until I appeared. She stopped walking and looked at me.
“Why are you here?” she asked, a small crack in her voice.
“I’m here to help you,” I said calmly.
“What makes you think I need your help?”
Already, I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“Why won’t you talk with William?” I asked.
“He doesn’t believe me. I told you, he’s a liar.”
“When your soldiers attacked him, it didn’t even give him the chance to speak! How could you expect him to own up to his mistakes if he can’t speak?”
She stayed silent for a moment, hopefully looking at this question reasonably.
“He didn’t have to walk back through the portal! He could’ve waited for the fight to end!”
I sighed; she hadn’t changed. Perhaps William was right, but I had one more question.
“You said William was spreading the corruption?”
“Yes, I did, because it’s true.” Her answer was firm.
“How do you know?” She went silent. Something was growing in her, something she didn’t want to release. Even with the mask, she looked as if emotion she couldn’t control was about to pour out of her soul.
She stormed off without notice, and quickly. She’d given no response.
“Where are you going?” I called her, but she kept running. I dashed after her, and suddenly she stopped near a thin section of the forest. And when I caught up, the sight of hundreds of her soldiers lined up, preparing for battle nearly brought me to my knees.
“You can’t,” I whispered.
The woman said nothing. Instead, she raised her hand, and the soldiers began marching, with terrifying speed, through the forest.
“To William’s castle!” Annabelle shouted. “It’s time he paid for his mistakes!”
I ran. I knew I wouldn’t get to his castle before the soldiers did, but I had to try. Desperately, I searched for William’s fortress, nearly losing all sense of direction. My breath was heavy, and I rested for as little as I needed to keep going. And then I heard the sound, the sound of another battalion preparing for a fight, William at their front.
He knew this battle was to come. I saw Annabelle’s army approaching from afar, the queen herself ahead of them. The trees here were thin, as if a battle of this magnitude had already happened. I saw William stop his army. Annabelle approached William without her army, and I came near to listen.
Anna cried out before them. “You’ve never been right, my troops are genuine, whole and true!”
“No, they aren’t! You’ve been lying, just so your fake troops kill off my real ones.” William shouts back
“No!” she said. “You liar!”
I saw every soldier tense up, and my mind feared the worst. They weren’t more than 100 feet away from each other. I watched as William and Annabelle ran in opposite directions, and both their hands rose, and their soldiers charged. No. I felt myself trembling, trembling at the thought of this destruction, this disunity. They were willing to destroy each other to prove themselves. I couldn’t let that happen. I wouldn’t. I ran straight in between the opposing squadrons, without hesitancy, without thinking twice. The forest floor rumbled as they approached each other, as they approached me. I stood my ground, every ounce of fear gone from my body. The army of lies, and the army of painful truths were at war, but I stood in the way of both of them. And this truth, this reason, was seen by the one who spoke no truth, gave no reason.
“Stop!” Annabelle raised her hands, and each of her soldiers stopped in place. I looked at William’s soldiers in terror as they rushed towards me. But they ran right past me. The soldier’s rushed at Annabelle’s army, and to my amazement, her soldiers continued to stand still. They stood still even through the onslaught William’s army gave them, even through being cut into piles of black limbs. Every one of her soldiers was destroyed, leaving nothing but small piles of the wicked material they were made from, and now William’s soldiers looked at her. They charged, and I watched as she braced herself, my eyes wide in horror. Annabelle gasped, and then . . .
Everything fell silent. Annabelle looked up, and I saw William, one arm raised, all his soldiers still. I saw Annabelle, her legs shaking, and William, his stature weary. I fell on my knees and wept. They would have destroyed each other. I heard both of them approach me, and I looked up, my tears dropping to the ground. They acknowledged each other with a silent nod.
“I’m sorry,” Annabelle whispered to me, “but you couldn’t have stopped this.”
“This isn’t your fault,” William said. “This is our fight, not yours. You shouldn’t feel responsible.” Listening to them, I found the problem, my problem.
I was making them my problem.
“Leave,” Annabelle said. “Leave this corrupted place; we may continue to battle here, but these are our battlegrounds, not yours.”
I looked at them both, their masks betraying no emotion, but their voices betraying everything. I wiped my face and stood up.
“Goodbye,” I said. They said nothing in reply. I walked back into the thicker part of the forest, and I looked back at them. They stood next to one another, facing away from me, their masks on the ground. Annabelle whispered something to William. He nodded softly, and she shed a single tear.
I heard yelling. I walked up to a wall, and peered past it to see what was happening. My parents were in the kitchen, arguing.
“Anna, you can’t just say things about me like that; your words are wrong and cruel!” my father shouted, his face red with anger.
“No, Will, my words are genuine, whole, and true. Everything I accuse you of is right; you can’t deny it!” my mother rebuked his words with passion.
“I can, and I will. You’re horrible. How could I have taken you as my wife?”
“Probably for the same stupid reason I took you as my husband.”
I quietly walked back to my room, listening as their yells grew softer.
Nothing had changed.
I locked my door, dimmed my lights, and lay on my bed.
But at least I wasn’t making it my problem anymore.