Corvus took a step back and opened his eyes wide with realization. “The Elders were right," he thought. he raised his hand to his lips and whistled as loud as he could. From Thomas’s perspective it was hard to determine which was more terrifying – the half-man half-creature who would murder them both, or the murder of crows which had suddenly descended into the dim darkness of the forest. Corvus raised his ax over his head and yelled at the top of his lungs while his flock of crows flew over his shoulders, their talons trained on the monstrous creature.

This is the third chapter of The Dreamer’s Lotus. Corvus has just been allowed to begin preparations for this year’s Cut, under the condition that the Elders will keep a close eye on him and follow the advice of the signs. The Festival of the Ax is a yearly ritual – men travel into the forest to cut down the tallest trees to bring in light to the forest of darkness. It is also an initiation for boys transitioning into manhood.

The sun was approaching its zenith as Corvus ran down the street to meet the others. When he got to the plaza he could see Elder Mallory standing beneath the Tree of Truth. Nine boys were circled around him. Not wanting to look too eager, Corvus slowed his pace to a steady walk. He took a few quick breaths to calm his nerves – his fingers were so tightly wrapped around his new ax that his hands were beginning to ache.

“OK,” he said to himself. “Everyone knows you’re coming. Just be yourself and they’ll see there’s nothing to be afraid of. ” He slackened his grip on the ax and looked nonchalantly up at the empty sky, pleased to see that for now, his crows were absent. His shoes moved softly over the white stones and he approached the group so quietly that a boy named Thomas gasped when Corvus brushed against his shoulder. An adjacent boy shied out of the way and Corvus joined the circle.

“Thank you for joining us, Corvus,” Elder Mallory said with a tone of impatience. He looked at the other boys and nodded his head as if answering their question. “Now that we all are here we can leave for the forest. But before we do so, it is important to understand why we are going in the first place, for after all, it is not an outing to take lightly.”

Mallory gazed up at the Tree of Truth and smiled as speckles of shade and sunlight washed over his face. He rested his hands on the bark of the old olive tree and mumbled a few indistinguishable words. The boys were watching him closely.

“This tree is the truth of our village. It knows more than your young minds could possibly comprehend. This very tree,” he said slowly, “holds the wisdom of our past. When The White village was nearly annihilated, long before any of you were born, all of our history was lost. Besides a few buildings, it was only this tree that remained.”

“What happened?” a boy asked.

Mallory looked off into the distance, remembering the events that had taken place during that fateful night. He remembered the storm that had washed over the village like a thundering omen. Everyone had been so afraid, certain the end of the world had come at last. So much had been lost that night, but some things were best buried in the past.

His gaze, which contained both a mixture of wonder and nostalgia, fell upon the old twisted tree. “The old-timers will tell you it was the Storm of the Century. It destroyed our homes, our crops, everything,” he said with widening eyes. “A storm, you see, is a symbol of violent change, a sign of the times to come. When the wind begins to blow we will either bend like the willow or snap like a branch. A keen reader of the signs, I was able to convince the people that it was time to bend to the ways of the Creator – it was time to purify our village. Following the storm, we decided that a church must be built, for only when a village has a church does it have a moral compass to steer society. Once the church had been completed, we tried those responsible for the storm…and we banished them.”

“But how can someone be responsible for a natural event?” someone asked.

“Nothing comes from nothing,” Mallory said. “Everything is connected. The destruction of the village came from the impure thoughts and actions of the villagers. Remember, this happened during the days when people freely shared their dreams, and let me tell you, back then peoples’ dreams were anything but pure. I heard them myself,” he said with a look of alarm. “People discussed their desires like drunkards looking for a fight. It is a truth that our thoughts and our dreams create our reality, children. A beautiful thought shared with the collective will build a beautiful village. But a nightmare…to share a dream of mayhem is a terrible thing indeed.”

Mallory glanced at Corvus out of the corner of his eye. He dreamt often about the darkness of the boy, a darkness that had revealed itself during the boy’s birth. A barrage of symbols had come to the village that night and had woven their meaning into a powerful prophecy, though Mallory had been the only one to read it as such. Corvus, of course, along with the rest of the villagers, knew nothing of it. It was imperative, Mallory believed, that the prophecy be kept hidden from others. If the villagers knew what was coming it would manifest all the sooner. Mallory had to protect his flock, but for now all he could do was keep a close eye on Corvus and follow the wisdom of the signs.

“We will not be using our axes today, though it is important that we carry them with us. It is important because they are symbols of our external power. Human beings are inherently powerless. We are insignificant,” he said with emphasis, “in comparison to the vastness of the universe. It is the signs within the universe that gives us power, and if we know the meanings of the signs then we can use them to our advantage. In the forest, a place where meaning is mere illusion, our axes are the only power we have.”

Mallory picked up his ax, and signaling for the group to do the same, led the way to the edge of the forest. After a thirty-minute walk they had arrived. A small trail protruded out of the woods indicating the entrance into the forest. Many of the boys were visibly afraid. Corvus, on the other hand, could barely contain his excitement. Beyond these trees another world awaited. He, like the rest of the boys, had never entered the forest before. It was forbidden. No one went into the forest unless they had to, or unless they were banished. Corvus had never really given the banished much thought, but standing at the threshold of the forest, he couldn’t help but wonder if once inside he would spot one of their skeletons. The Elders said the forest was so dense with illusion that no one could survive inside for long…yet that’s where they were going! His palms were caked with sweat.

Corvus looked over his shoulder. In the distance, he could see the old tree at the top of the hill. The crows were most likely watching him from its upper branches. He knew better than to call them in, though part of him wished they would join him. He felt more confident when they were around, even if no one else did. He wanted desperately to change their meaning. Though he would never admit it, a part of him was growing tired of being an outcast.

Mallory leaned on his ax as he addressed the small group. “This will be your first entrance into the forest. That which lies before us is full of illusion and deception. The signs of the universe still exist within these woods, but they are permeated in a language difficult to understand. The purpose of today’s journey is to acquaint ourselves with the illusion. It is not something to take lightly. There is much that exists within that even I do not fully comprehend.” Mallory looked at the boys. At least two of them were visibly shaking. “It is OK to be afraid,” he said with affection. “Fear reminds us that we are alive. The purpose of The Cut, however, is not to prove to ourselves that we can go into the darkness, but rather to know that we can cut out the darkness if we need to.”

Jeremy rolled his eyes. This was all a bit too dramatic for him. “Can we just go already?”

Mallory faced him. “Let me assure you. There is a madness waiting to be unleashed in there. Woe to the person who it is unleashed upon.” With that, Mallory picked up his ax and stepped across the boundary. Jeremy rolled his eyes again and nudged one of the smaller boys. “Geez, Thomas. Get a grip, would you?”

Corvus followed at the end of the line. Stepping across the threshold he began to understand what Mallory was talking about. The forest severed the sunlight almost immediately and though Corvus was not afraid, he was most certainly on edge. The boys were silent as they walked along the thin dirt path, the denseness of the forest only increasing as they continued onward. Corvus was amazed by the variety of trees and plants that he saw along the way. Everything about this place was incredible and far more interesting than anything in The White Village. In the village, the symbols had all been decided, but here, life took on new meaning.

Up ahead, someone was complaining. “Hey, you stepped on my shoe. Watch where you’re going.” It was Jeremy.

“I can’t help it. It’s dark,” Corvus heard Thomas say.

Mallory stopped walking. “Be quiet. I hear something.”

Even from the back of the line Corvus could hear it too. An unsettling sound was approaching them. Whatever it was, it was big.

“I want to go back,” Thomas said.

“Oh, come off it,” Jeremy remarked. “It’s probably a squirrel.”

Elder Mallory hushed them again and motioned for everyone to duck down. The group didn’t have to be told twice because the sound was coming at them like a rolling boulder. Even Mallory looked concerned. He put his finger to his lips, demanding silence from the group. He observed every detail of the forest in hopes of discerning the event’s outcome. The noise was all around them now. Bushes and branches shook violently and among it all, Corvus thought he could hear voices. He wondered if it could be one of the banished trying to scare them, though he remembered Mallory once saying that the forest killed all lone travelers. So what could it be? His fingers tightened around his ax.

All at once the sound stopped. The group waited in suspenseful silence. At last, Mallory stood, and after a moment, signaled for the group to keep moving.

They walked quickly and quietly through the forest without encountering any more strange noises. Several of the boys kept looking nervously over their shoulders, but all they saw was Corvus at the end of the line looking back at them.

Finally, the group arrived at a small clearing. Large tree stumps sat in an open glade and sunlight poured into the grassy meadow. Mallory told everyone to sit down and they happily did so.

“This is as far as we will go today. This is the sight of last year’s Cut. I know this clearing doesn’t seem that large, but it took us three days to clear it. Perhaps now you can appreciate the depth and necessity of our work. In a land so dark and so dangerous, even the smallest amount of light can make all the difference.” Mallory looked around at the boys. Many of them were still shaken. Others looked proud that they had made it to the clearing.

Corvus on the other hand, barely seemed affected. Mallory took notice that the frightening event in the forest had hardly fazed him. Corvus was more like his father than Mallory gave him credit for. He was calm and observant. Even now, Corvus looked like he was waiting for something else to happen. Mallory had interpreted the sign in the forest and knew that something hidden was coming, but he wondered if Corvus knew the same.

While Mallory lectured the boys about the madness of the forest, Corvus brushed his hands along the wood of his ax. In three days he would use this ax to cut away the darkness with the rest of the boys. Still, something lingered in his mind. He thought about the noise they had heard. Corvus couldn’t help but acknowledge the sign for what it was – the collective fear of something harmless.

Elder Mallory lectured the group for over an hour and then told the boys it was time to return. The boys collected their axes and Mallory led the group back single file. This time the pace was much faster. The forest was now noticeably darker than when they had entered. Corvus figured they only had an hour or two until the sun dipped behind the horizon. He stayed in the back of the line as usual, though his spirits were high as he thought about the upcoming Cut. Thomas walked in front of him and kept looking over his shoulder, the slightest sound practically sending him into a panic.

“There is nothing to be afraid of,” Corvus said softly. “It is just the breeze moving the trees.” But either Thomas didn’t hear him or didn’t want to believe him. His pace had slowed considerably, and now the rest of the boys were around the corner and out of sight. Now Corvus was a bit nervous. The last thing he wanted to do was get lost in the forest with Thomas. Corvus was not afraid of the forest but he knew that Thomas’s fears could easily manifest something very unpleasant.

The forest darkened and Corvus pleaded with Thomas to get going. Thomas obeyed and went slightly faster until fear took over, slowing him back down again. The trail was becoming harder to distinguish. Corvus was now worried that they would lose their way back to The White Village.

A sharp caw cut through the darkness and Thomas nearly leapt into Corvus’s arms. Corvus looked up into the branches and saw a crow. It was Korbin. “Don’t worry, Thomas. It is one of my crows. I think it is trying to guide us home.”

“But it is a bad omen,” Thomas said.

Corvus shook his head, a bit annoyed. “Stop it. That is nonsense,” Corvus said. “Come on.” He stepped lightly around Thomas and trotted down the trail. He whistled happily up at the crow as he jogged past it. He was certain he was on the right path.

He had gone only a hundred meters down the trail when he heard a scream. Thomas was nowhere in sight. Nervous, he darted back in the boy’s direction. When Corvus found him, Thomas was standing against a tree and his ax was at his feet. Corvus couldn’t believe his eyes. Standing in front of Thomas was a large creature over eight feet tall. Its legs were gray and hairy. Instead of feet it had hooves and at the waist its body transformed into a man’s. From behind, Corvus could see the long horns of a goat protruding out of the man’s shaggy hair. Sensing someone else, the creature turned around and faced Corvus. Its eyes were large and yellow and its expression conveyed an ancient anger. Corvus gripped his ax tightly and raised it. “Leave him alone!” he shouted.

The creature stepped toward Corvus. “You attack with your ax when your mind is at stake. This forest will swallow you along with the illusions you make. Ignorant boy, facing a shadow you think you can see, but one day when you know, you will be unable to lay two eyes onto me. Too blind to care of the truth within. Your kind no longer belongs. Go now and I will spare you, before your destruction begins.”

Corvus lowered the ax halfway. “We mean you no harm. It is our custom to come into the forest and cut out the darkness.”

“Your custom is to destroy what you do not understand. I demand that you leave. This nature is no longer your nature. Your kind has become blinded, your mind but a mirror of the land far away – that sea of endless disease.” The creature stepped aggressively toward Corvus.

Corvus took a step back but then opened his eyes wide with realization. “The Elders were right. You are nothing but illusion!” Without thinking, he raised his hand to his lips and whistled as loud as he could. From Thomas’s perspective it was hard to determine which was more terrifying – the half-man half-creature who would murder them both, or the murder of crows which had suddenly descended into the dim darkness of the forest. Corvus raised his ax over his head and yelled at the top of his lungs while his flock of crows flew over his shoulders, their talons trained on the monstrous creature.

“You can only fight what you understand,” the creature said, and then vanished before Corvus’s eyes.

Thomas screamed. He stood up and ran through the flock of crows that had landed on the ground in front of him. He ran past Corvus who still held the ax over his head, and into the arms of Elder Mallory. Mallory and the rest of the group had returned. Having heard the screams, they rushed back. But when they arrived all they saw was Corvus with an ax over his head and thirteen crows at his feet. The signs were not in Corvus’s favor.