Do you love dark, witchy fantasy novels? Does the idea of hybriding with The Hazel Wood appeal to you? Then you need to pre-order a copy of Alyssa Wees’s The Waking Forest, a 2019 debut novel about a girl with terrifying visions and a wish-granting witch whose lives collide in the most unexpected of ways.
The waking forest has secrets. To Rhea, it appears like a mirage, dark and dense, at the very edge of her backyard. But when she reaches out to touch it, the forest vanishes. She’s desperate to know more—until she finds a peculiar boy who offers to reveal its secrets. If she plays a game.
To the Witch, the forest is her home, where she sits on her throne of carved bone, waiting for dreaming children to beg her to grant their wishes. One night, a mysterious visitor arrives and asks her what she wishes for, but the Witch sends him away. And then the uninvited guest returns.
The strangers are just the beginning. Something is stirring in the forest, and when Rhea’s and the Witch’s paths collide, a truth more treacherous and deadly than either could ever imagine surfaces. But how much are they willing to risk to survive?
The Waking Forest releases on May 12, 2019. Keep scrolling to read the first two chapters + enter a giveaway to win an advanced reading copy!
IN THE WOODS
Let’s start with the Witch in the Woods.
Only children could find her, the Witch, led by foxes faintly glowing in the darkness between sleeping and waking. Together they traveled through dreamland until they came to an archway like an eye half open, big enough only to crawl through.
Beneath the stars, the moon a bouquet of blue-violet bruises, the Witch lived in a castle with turrets of unnaturally thick tree trunks and broad walls of entwined branches and leaves, the battlements formed by the oversize molars of some unfathomable animal. The crisscrossed bones of the portcullis gleamed in the milky midnight light as the drawbridge of melded cloven hooves lowered over a rushing red river.
At the end of a winding hallway illuminated by row upon row of skeleton-hand sconces, each holding a steady flame that burned without the aid of wick or wax or wood, the Witch sat in a seat carved from a canine tooth nearly twice her height, situated at the very center of the castle in a wide, round room with no ceiling, the walls stretching up, up, up and curving inward, just slightly. The foxes could see her, every facet and feature, all at once, a full picture. They grinned and curled up beside her bare feet, licking their paws and waiting and watching.
A single fox with orange fur so dark it was almost red perched on the arm of her throne, watching now as a troop of bright-eyed foxes, trailed by a girl and a boy with their arms intertwined, eagerly approached the inimitable Witch.
The children could focus only on one small piece of her at a time: lips glossed in silver starlight, onyx eyes lined with gold glitter, curling black hair threaded with pearls. Kneecaps hard as diamonds, just visible beneath the hem of her scarlet dress; thin hands and long fingers, nails short and bitten. Smooth skin stretched taut over the sticks and bulbs of her bones, slick and shining with an eternal, unbreakable fever.
As the pair came closer, the Witch saw that these were not quite her usual visitors. The girl was not a child. She had seen sixteen summers, or perhaps seventeen, nearly the same number as the Witch herself. The girl had long, light hair, and blue eyes with lashes so fair, they could hardly be seen. She was a spill of sunshine in the shape of a girl, golden and firm, and she walked as if afraid she might fall right through the floor, every step delicate, tentative.
The boy was even older than the girl and was surely her brother, for though they looked nothing alike, there seemed to be a kind of magnetic trust that kept them tethered side by side. He had an angular face with lips red as wine, hair black as soot, flesh paler than a ghost moon at high noon. There were gashes on the backs of his hands, old ones and new ones, crossing in all directions, shallow ones over deep gouges, scabbed over and reopened.
The Witch curled her fingers against the arms of her throne, not quite fists—but almost. She scratched the slick ivory surface, the skirl of nail against tooth echoing around the chamber. The red-furred fox at her side lifted its head and growled. She had never growled at any of the children before.
When the Witch spoke, her voice was cream burnt at the edges, unspooling from her long dark throat like twisted obsidian silk.
“I am the Witch of Wishes,” she said. “What would you ask of me?”
The children knew exactly what to ask for, always, and that was why only they could find her. But these two were much older than those little ones, and so not content to merely receive their wish and be on their way.
“What are you?” breathed the girl, staring squarely at the Witch while her brother beside her smiled, lips pressed together as if he already knew the answer. But the longer he stood there gazing at the Witch’s castle, the more his smile hardened into a grimace. He looked at the snapping foxes and the lopsided stars and the brambly walls, and finally back at the Witch.
“What is this place?” he asked. “Where are we?”
The Witch smiled, her maw growing wider, so no one would ever guess how her atoms were held together by an unheard howl. Her world, her castle—it had not wanted to be created. It had been pulled out of her sleeping heart, and it had hurt. The pain had never faded, a perpetual poison with no known antidote. But she could not, would not collapse; her world must go on.
And even as she grinned, she did not stop scraping her throne, peeling enamel instead of her own skin, the itch in- flaming her backward-beating heart.
“What would you ask of me?” she said again.
The girl grabbed her wrinkled skirt and curtsied, a movement quick and clean, her cream-curls bouncing around her shoulders.
“I wish to stay here with you,” said the girl in a rush. “I want to grant wishes to those who need them most. I want always to live in a dream.”
The Witch hesitated; no visitor had ever asked something like this of her before. It was the one wish she knew she should not grant—this world was her own, and she must live here alone. For the girl this was only a resting place, a sighing place, its gate open to her once and then never again. To stay would be to sleep, neither dead nor alive, on and on until the end of time.
No, the Witch decided, she would not grant the girl’s wish. But the girl did not have to know that.
Nestled in the crimson soil of the Witch’s heart bloomed an amaranthine rose with petals of velvety blood and a stem of sturdy bone spotted with thorns of pointed incisors, shivering in time with her pulse. Knowing another would burgeon in its place, she reached inside, tearing through skin and muscle and bone, and plucked a pointed petal, the same as she did for every child who came and told her their wishes. For each petal was the same in size and shape, but their flavors were unique, endless essences for endless wishes: bubble gum for a baby brother, lavender and honey to never go hungry, a cinnamon stick to make a new friend, spiced apple for a pet dragon invisible to all but the wisher, a sour smear of bile for revenge on the schoolyard bully, mint chocolate chip for a sick grandmother to get better.
But the Witch knew that this particular petal would only dissolve into periwinkle dust that tasted of salt and blood and rust—an empty promise, a placeholder. With callused finger- tips, the Witch brushed the girl’s soft palm as she presented the petal. She and the boy both watched as the girl placed it on her tongue and swallowed.
“Now, come closer, wishful one,” said the Witch when the petal was gone. “What do you offer me in return?”
The girl checked her pockets, but they were empty. For a moment she looked up at the Witch, panicked, but it was not in coins that the Witch traded favors. What use had she for money? No, the Witch dealt in a different kind of currency: footprints and freckles and blisters about to burst; contusions and scrapes, scratches and slashes and faded bronze scars; warts and welts and wisdom teeth still submerged in pliant pink gums; spider bites and sheets of gooseflesh and drops of hot blood pricked fresh from quivering fingertips; loose eyelashes and curled toenails and even entire shadows. The children gave what they could. And the Witch accepted all of it, dispossessing them of the things they thought they would not miss. She heaped their pain upon her altar in the courtyard of her tooth-and-tree castle, a clean stone slab in a shaded glade. Someday, surely, their amassed agonies would outmatch her own.
“A lock of your hair will do just fine,” said the Witch, before uttering a short spell and producing a knife out of the air. She gave it to the girl, who paused only a second before taking the glimmering blade and shearing a long strand from the back of her head. The dagger melted away to nothing in the girl’s hand as she passed the curl to the Witch.
Without moving her head, the Witch turned her eyes sideways to the boy. Above the chamber, clouds like broken bones jutting through flesh scraped their way across the sky. She waited.
“What do you wish?” he said at last.
The Witch frowned. That was the third question the boy had asked. No child had ever asked a question. “I am the Witch of Wishes and have everything,” she replied. “I want for nothing.”
“Do you?” he said, stepping closer to her. “Do you truly have everything?”
The red-furred fox at her side grumbled again.
The Witch placed her hands on her knees and said, “I will not ask a third time.”
“There must be something you want,” the boy insisted. “There must be something missing.”
But no, but no, the boy was wrong. The castle, the foxes, the altar, the gifts—this was her wish. Everything, all hers. Even the cool diamond rain that now began to fall through the open roof of the castle belonged to her and only her, the clench-jawed, wet-haired Witch of Wishes in the Woods.
“You have wasted your wish,” she said, stamping her foot and sending a tremor through the ground.
With a withering look at her brother, the girl reached a hand out to steady herself on his shoulder. The Witch’s fingernails sparkled like cut crystal in a sudden lunge of lightning anointing the sky as she leaned forward and tapped each child on the temple. Once. Twice. “Wake up.”
And they were gone.
Left alone on her throne, the Witch stitched her sternum back together with a needle fashioned from a long, sharp fang, each loop pricking her skin. When she was finished, she bent her bare knees to her chin, pressing her thighs to the red ribbon threaded through the stale skin of her chest. The foxes snorted and shuffled, but the Witch ignored them, closing her eyes and trying to force the boy’s voice, his question, out of her heart and out of her mind.
But it was stuck fast, sinuous and deep, repeating like a song, like a prayer, like a plea.
What do you wish? What do you wish? What do you wish?