Autumn’s Fall

Flutter shivered as the cold north wind blew a handful of red leaves past her and whipped them out of sight. The Heart Tree had already lost so many of its leaves. It couldn’t have many left. Would she reach it before the last one fell?

The gonging of a bell, deep and resonate, announced another leaf had gone. She quickened her pace, curling her useless wings around her to ward off the chill. She had to get to the red oak at the center of the city.

The corn stalks that circled the city, dead and barren from the early frost, were bent at awkward angles from the wind. She wasn’t sure if it was a trick of the light or if a figure stood among them, watching her. She glanced nervously over her shoulder and jumped as stalks cracked behind her.

She broke into a run, dry laughter—or was it only the wind?—at her heels.

Once she was past the city wall, she put her hands on her knees and panted, trying to catch her breath. Not that she was safe. Far from it. Everything in this city would try to stop her on her quest.

The dead city closed in around her. As she walked, she saw what was left of the red leaves, sucked of color, leaving grey crumbling dust that coated her feet. The bell gonged again, and Flutter pressed her eyes shut. Please, let me make it in time.

Some days the bells had been deafening, especially when the cold north wind howled through the trees and roughly shook the branches.

Tears stung her eyes as she thought of the years before. Their crew had been better organized back in those days. There had been more of them to prepare. This year, most of her brethren had already succumbed to the cold, falling into hibernation, or, for some, an endless, unwakeable sleep. Each year it had been harder. Fewer of them awoke as the summers dawned cooler and cooler, and the winters were more and more frigid.

She came upon a small courtyard with a dry fountain and stopped to rest. In the dull half-light, she caught sight of a smooth, orange rind. A friendly gourd. Still alive in such a place?

As she neared it, she realized the pumpkin had been smashed and mutilated, it’s white guts strewn across the path in front of her. She put her hand to her mouth, trying not to be sick. Without warning, another splattered behind her, and seeds and flesh hit her back. An unseen creature cackled when she flinched.

She ran again.

She turned a corner, heading ever inward, and caught sight of a single butterfly wing stuck on the branch of a bush. She crept forward and reached for it. Colors flashed above her. Tilting her head back, she saw corpses of dozens upon dozes of butterflies and moths, needles stuck through their middles, securing them to the wall. They fluttered, dead, in the cold breeze. One of the corpses was missing a wing. The wing she had reached for.

She clapped her hands over her mouth to hold in her scream.

“Hurry and hide!” said the tiny voice of a passing monarch. Flutter fell behind the bush, stuffing her hands into her mouth to keep the moan inside, as skeletal fingers plucked the monarch from the sky. The butterfly screamed, but the scream was cut short as the monstrous collector pinned it to the wall.

Making herself as small as she could, she waited until the collector had moved on, its dead eyes sweeping past her, and then she slinked along the wall until she could run, ever further into the city.

Another reverberating gong sounded, louder than before, and a red leaf floated down to land on her nose.

There it was. The Heart Tree. She clutched the leaf to her own heart, offering up a silent prayer.

One single leaf quivered on the otherwise bare, grey branches above her. Carved into the ancient trunk was a door surrounded by deep grooves, forming the shape of even more ancient runes.

She had to keep the door from opening.

Flutter whispered to her shoulder, and Orbit, her pet garden orb weaver, crept from his hiding place under the loose hem of her sleeve.

“Go on, little friend. Don’t let that leaf come loose.” She sent him up to tie his web around the stem of the last leaf in an attempt to keep attached. She shifted nervously from one foot to the other, glancing at the rune-rimmed door uneasily.

Orbit began to let out his web and delicately began to weave.

“Oh, please hurry,” she whispered, wringing her hands.

Finally, Orbit secured the leaf, and she let out the breath she had been holding.

She only had a moment of relief, though, before the bell tolled again, vibrating her to her core. Her heart lurched as the last red leaf detached from its tree and dangled from the spider’s web.

The runes flared to life, and she watched in paralyzed horror as the door opened.

Flutter braced for the end as Winter stepped through the door.

Sparkling snow swirled around her, and pale blue eyes gazed out into the dead city beyond the Heart Tree. Winter barely spared Flutter a glance, muttering callously about the grubby, pathetic champions Autumn kept sending to stop her, and with a flick of her finger, sent an icicle in Flutter’s direction.

Flutter felt the icicle pierce her heart, and she sighed as her last thought came unbidden: Winter was so beautiful.

Sara is a Kansas-grown author of the fantasy and horror persuasions. She is convinced that fantastical things are waiting for her just around the corner, and until she finds the right corner, she writes about those things instead.

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