Paper Forests

“While your children and grandchildren are away, I like to think that they’re visiting a fantastic place, somewhere where they aren’t restrained by an illness or held back by their own emotions. I like to believe that they’re in a place called the Paper Forest, where there is nothing but health and happiness to greet them.” // this blurb and cover is a work in progress.

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13. Chapter Eleven

Porcelain is waiting for me outside of the room.

           

“What was in there?” she asks eagerly, the silver flecks in her eyes glinting with childlike curiosity. The colours match the circlet that she wears on her head, half covered by her dark hair.

           

“You sent me into a room without knowing what was in there?”

           

Her eyes are still flickering like candlelight. “Lilac goes in there whenever she need answers. I hear her talking. Tell me, what was in there?”

           

I describe the Toyman to her, every detail from what he said to the colours of yarn I could see in his hair. She falls silence as I mimic the sound of the whirring cog that replaces his heartbeat. Her brow crinkles when I tell her the clue for finding the keys.

           

“One key is stolen from who holds the crown… That must mean Lilac has a key.” I state the obvious but Porcelain nods along, hair bouncing on her shoulders.

 

She picks up the skirt of her dress and begins walking down the stairs, quickly disappearing from my sight. She talks as she walks. “It could be hidden on her. But a key that is held when the crown has been stolen? I don’t know what that could mean.”

           

“It doesn’t matter. We can work out where to find the first key.”

 

***

 

The first place we decide to search is Lilac’s bedroom.

           

The room is sparsely furnished but it is full of more warmth than I’ve seen since I arrived in the forest. On the back wall is a mural, a tree with every colour of autumn leaf imaginable, and a few more. From every wall smiles black and white photographs of herself and people who I presume to be her mother, her father, and a sister. There’s a small single bed with white sheets and large windows curtained by squares of starched white cotton.

           

“Search wherever you can, but leave no trace.”

           

I can already guess that we won’t find the key here, but I look anyway, even laying on the floor to slide under the bed to search the underside of the mattress. It’s dark under here, but it’s a nice darkness, one that reminds of my childhood when I would build blankets forts with my siblings and turn off all the lights in the apartment so we could pretend we were camping outside. Emily would help me build the fort, so she’d drag around the furniture and push it together so I could drape all of it in blankets and old bedsheets.

           

A lump appears in my throat and my mind lingers on the memory. I’m glad that the darkness obscures the tears in my eyes, but it makes me long for the home that I’ve lost. It makes me more determined to find the keys, find a cure for August, then get everyone home.

 

“It’s not here,” Porcelain concludes after a few minutes of searching. She looks over at me and I pretend that I’m busy, not just laying on the floor. “We’ll have to search somewhere else. Come with me.”

           

I continue to follow her through the castle, down a set of stairs, up another, round a few corners, ducking into darkened doorways and empty rooms whenever someone in coming.

 

This room is blue with beautiful murals on the wall, hand painted by someone who knew what they were doing. The scene shows a night sky filled with swirling clouds, stars ablaze with their own luminescence, and a bright crescent moon. Below the rolling hills of the horizon lies a small town with a tall steeple of the church, reigning largely over the smaller buildings. To the left of the painting, there is a massive dark structure, magnificent when compared to the scale of other objects.

 

Porcelain catches me staring and hurriedly tugs a heavy velvet drape across to cover the wall. This must be her room, and that painting must be something too personal to her for anyone else to lay eyes on.

 

“We’re going to go down to the dungeons as soon as I find the key,” she informs me, busy with searching through a drawer. “I hope that you’re not afraid of the dark.”

 

***

 

It turns out that Porcelain was searching for a key in her bedroom drawer, just not the one we’re looking for. To get to the dungeons, we go down a series of never ending staircases, the light fading as we descend each level. Porcelain brings a candle with her to light, but it doesn’t make much of a difference.

           

I don’t notice when we arrive: the darkness doesn’t differ between the staircases and the dungeons. Porcelain drags me towards a specific room and unlocks the door.

 

Cramped, dim and cave like, a spindly pine framed bed is cut shorter to fit into the room with a narrow strip of carpet greying with decades of filth placed to its left. To the right of the bed is an inch-wide window layered in aging mould and dust, shielded by a net curtain swaying in the shadows. Drawers are overflowing with moth eaten clothes and bedding thriving with maggots and grime.

 

“This is pleasant,” I say, coughing at the amount of dust in the air. “I’ve never been in a dungeon with curtains and carpet before. Look, there’s even clothes here.”

 

Porcelain’s glare is enough to shut me up. “Just look for the key.”

 

I step towards the drawers, although I’m not very tempted to rummage through the dirt and bugs that live within them. “What do the keys even look like?”

 

She sees my hesitation and strides over, tugging out a drawer entirely and dumping the contents on the ground. There isn’t a key hidden inside. “It’s about the length of your hand. I think they’re skeleton keys made out of a dark coloured metal. By now, they will be very rusty. I think-”

 

A loud crash from somewhere above us cuts her off. Her eyes widen in shock.

 

“Something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong.”

 

“I guess that I should follow you?”

 

She glares at me again. I don’t blame her. “Yes. You should.”

 

***

 

Everyone in the castle is gathered outside in the courtyard. I see a few familiar faces, but none of them are Ansel. A dozen teenagers in simple white clothes stand in the centre of the courtyard. Lilac stands in front of them, her crown reflecting the half-light, but nothing she says is changing their blank expressions. With each second, she becomes angrier. The ground around her shakes.

           

“What’s going on?” Porcelain demands, grabbing the nearest person’s collar and pulling him so they’re face to face. Her eyes are less like metal and more like stone.

           

“Lilac called everyone together. Something’s wrong.”

           

She sighs in frustration. “I already know somethings wrong. What is the problem?”

           

“There’s a large group of newcomers in the forest. They met up with some other people that we haven’t found yet. All of them have found the gate, but they can’t use it yet. They’re working on… alternate methods to leave. Some of our own soldiers have left the castle to join them.”

           

“They can’t do that! That would be suici-”

 

A column of dirt surges upwards from where Lilac is standing. Her powers transform her into a figure with thick arms and chubby legs. The limbs continue to elongate as she rises in height, first ten, then some twenty feet above the field. Its round, pudgy face sits above a massive chest and neck. It’s female and completely nude.

 

I wince. “I think I’m now scarred for life. What is that thing?”

 

Porcelain shakes her head in disgust, but it doesn’t quite mask the look of amazement in her eyes. She’s impressed by the thing that Lilac has become. “That’s what Lilac was working on in her free time over the past week or two, since the last time you were here. I wasn’t expecting her to succeed so quickly.”

 

“I’ve been gone for weeks? Wait, that doesn’t matter. How is becoming a giant monster a success?”

 

Lilac bellows and stomps at the ground, sending some soldiers in her army flying. One is flails through the air and is thrown against a tree. I hear his neck snap, then he stops moving. Blood begins to pool beneath his body. With another bellow, the bloodstained crown falls from Lilac’s head and crashes onto the ground.

 

Porcelain stares at it as it rolls in circles. Then she looks up at Lilac, still stomping around as she adjusts to her new form. “She couldn’t find a warrior, so she became one.”

 

“So, what do we do now?” I ask. The ground begins to shake more violently, and it’s a struggle to stay on my feet. “Do we kill her?”

 

“No, of course not! She’s just a child. We’ll have to restrain her and reason with her until she changes back, if she still can.”

 

Lilac stops stomping. She reaches out a hand and wiggles her fingers until the ground bursts open. Some familiar monsters crawl out of the ground.

 

The first few move slowly, slime dripping from their skin, oozing puddles of a sickly white substance onto the ground. The stone slabs of the courtyard instantly dissolve, and the substance burns holes into the dirt beneath.

 

The next few monsters are a mass of tangled limbs plated with paralyzing goo seeping from black pores. They click their teeth together and look around with their one eye. They’re as tall as a bus, but still nowhere near as tall as Lilac. They emit a series of squeaks and clicks as she keeps wiggling her fingers to summon more monsters.

 

The final few appear as clusters of jelly-like eggs at first, vibrating as they assess the situation and change their shape. They turn metallic green and let out sparks of colour as they crush themselves together and form mightier monsters, as tall and as wide as a truck.

           

“Do we kill these?” I ask Porcelain, gesturing to the swarm of monsters that continues to grow. “Or should we let them kill us?”

           

“We don’t do anything yet,” Porcelain whispers. She grabs my wrist and pulls me closer to the castle walls so we can hide in the shadows. “She wouldn’t do all of this just to find some people who are trying to leave the forest. She would send soldiers after them first. This has to be about something else, something bigger.”

 

That’s when I spot someone step onto the courtyard, covered in a purple cloak. Tufts of blonde hair stick out from the edges of the hood.

 

“Oh, God. This is worse than I thought,” Porcelain mutters. “Much, much worse.”

 

“What’s going on?” I ask. The members of the court are now walking away from Lilac, but the cloaked figure remains. They reach up to their throat, fumble at the cloak clasp, and let it drop to the floor. It’s a skinny teenage boy, round cheeks covered in dirt. One of his arms has a giant handprint burned into the skin. At his waist, a sword swings that used to belong to me.

 

“That is Ansel,” Porcelain informs me. “He must have challenged Lilac for the crown.”

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