They said that once you make it this far into the forest, your fate was in the lap of the gods. Merrie had given up a lot to get here, though, and she wasn’t about to let anyone decide how much further she was going to go. She pressed on against the oppressive silence, determined to find the grove at the center of the forest and drink from the spring that bubbled up from the ground there. That was the other thing they said about the forest. Anyone who drank from that spring gained their heart’s desire. Merrie had spent a lifetime dreaming of those waters, and she was too close to stop now.

She had expected something more dramatic, some vast and terrible giant blocking her path or fierce and terrible winds and torrential rains battering at her body. But this was somehow much worse. There was a thick blanket of stillness that hung over everything, and even her footsteps made no noise as she padded along the forest trail. It felt stiflingly warm, the stultifying half-light and the strange tropical heat dizzying her and making her eyelids flicker with a desire to sleep. She didn’t dare rest, though, not this deep in the domains of the Fey. She had to press onward.

She lost track of how long she walked. She knew that the forest was larger than it seemed to the outside world, and she knew that its pathways tricked the careless or drowsy eye. The light never waxed or waned, the sun never rose nor set. She found herself reduced to putting one foot after the other like a clockwork toy, her thoughts winding down as her strength slowly ebbed away and her gait became a drunken sway. She could feel the sweat from her exertions and the cloying heat causing her clothes to stick to her body, and the thought of the spring’s cool water became maddening.

She still pressed on, though, even when her legs gave out and she was reduced to a crawl. Even when the heat drove her half out of her mind, until she kicked and thrashed herself free of her clothes and crawled naked through the forest in a state of near-mindless exhaustion. Even then, she kept moving, desperate to find the spring. Every fiber of her being wanted to give up, wanted to rest her body and her mind on the beds of soft moss and never wake again, but she kept pushing herself one more step. One more inch. On to her heart’s desire.

She finally made it. She didn’t really remember the last stretch of the journey; one moment, she was crawling forward with her eyes closed, her mind aching to simply give up the burden of thought and collapse into slumber, and the next she felt cool water under her hands and knees and she knew she had found it. She opened her eyes, knelt down, and drank greedily before she even noticed that she was not alone.

“Areyousureyouwantto… do… that?” the Fey Queen asked, as she watched Merrie slurp down the water in one desperate, helpless gulp after another. “It’s just that… well, I try to make sure people know what they’re getting into before they drink. The spring gives you your heart’s desire, after all. So many people drink and find that what they thought was their heart’s desire was simply their mind’s fancy. Did you know what your heart wanted, pretty naked human girl?”

Merrie smiled, rivulets of water cascading down her naked body as she splashed in the bubbling spring. “Oh, yes,” she said. “My heart wants… my heart wants… my… my…” Too late, she recalled the exhaustion that claimed her so thoroughly during the endless trek through the forest, the desire to do nothing more than rest her mind forever and never have to think again. She thought that was mere frustration, bitterness over the seemingly endless quest. She knew better now.

And then, as her eyes glazed over into perfect stillness and she knelt at the Fey Queen’s feet, she knew nothing at all.

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