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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7. Chapter Five


The darkness isn’t as empty as I thought. In fact, it is full of movement: dark grey things dispatching themselves from the black before reuniting with the shadows. I step back and try to hide myself more as I count the shapes. Ten? Twenty? More?

           

“What are they?” I murmur, hearing everyone stop talking behind me. August joins me, standing right in the middle of the entrance. I try to pull him back, a natural instinct from looking out for my younger siblings, but he wriggles free of my grasp. I have to remember that he is nothing like my family, even though I can feel the bond between us growing.

           

“Monsters.” He quickly counts them and darts to the back of the cavern. After my quick investigation before opening the book, I knew there were weapons hidden beneath layers of cloth in the trunk. Knives. Swords. Even a bow with a half full quiver of arrows.

           

“What do we do?” I glance briefly up the tunnel before deciding to join August in his hunt for weapons. Ansel has already laid out a selection of blades across the floor. Gracie peers over his shoulder with a tentative gaze.

           

“Fight them.”

           

“What?”

           

“Grab something sharp. Aim. Fire. These monsters look different to the other ones, more human.”

           

“And that helps me because?”

           

“It’s easier to break something when you can use your own weaknesses against it.”

           

The monsters are further away than we originally think, the flickering candlelight giving us the illusion that they were close. After walking through that tunnel, I remember how I thought the light was so close, even though it was far out of our reach.

           

Holding my borrowed sword in one hand, I swing it uncertainly a few times. The closest I have ever come to sword fighting is battling in the kitchen with wooden spoons against my brother. Our sisters were always our spectators, our biggest fans in the imaginary world we created. I shake myself free of the memory and press my back against the wall besides the entrance.

           

I wait.

           

August stands on the opposite side, shooting quick glances up the tunnel. His sword is drawn and I copy his fighting stance. He looks like he has had years of practice to handle the weapon.

           

We wait.

           

From my position, I can hear the monsters move in perfect synchronization, fascinating and terrifying. They could be machines being controlled with one giant mind. August knows this too. His eyes widen with fear and he runs to join me on my side of the entrance.

           

“They’re not monsters,” he gasps. “They’re human.”

           

“What do you mean?”

           

He gulps again and I risk looking into the tunnel. They definitely look more like people than the monsters we encountered in the forest. They’re dressed in black or have lighter coloured clothes stained dark with dirt. Weapons are slung across their shoulders, tucked into their pockets, or held in their gloved hands.

           

“August, what do you mean?”

           

“Isn’t it obvious? They’re teenagers. And they don’t look too happy to see us.”

 

***

 

The teenagers are there, no more than forty feet away from where I hide behind an overturned table, Gracie huddled protectively by my side. August and Ansel stand either side of the entrance with their backs against the wall, one with a sword in hand, the other with the bow and a knife. Five teenagers stand shoulder to shoulder in the tunnel so there is no way to pass them. I only count two rows deep.

           

We don’t care to move any more, watching in silence as they enter the cavern and fan out into the rough shape of a semicircle: six in the front, a few standing behind, blocking the only exit. There could be more further up the tunnel, waiting for us if we manage to escape. Running is no longer an option. We should fight although we’re outnumbered. Even if it was even numbers, we all lack the experience and the anger of being trapped in the forest for so long to win.

           

All of the teenagers share identical expressions. Their faces are emotionless, resembling the stone of the wall behind them. Their eyes are reptilian and empty.

           

A girl steps forward and speaks in a voice as monotone as her expression.

           

“We are sent here in order to collect you on the behalf of our leader,” she states. She doesn’t look any older than thirteen. “The reason is unknown.”

           

I duck down further behind the table, even though they all know that it is the only place for us to hide. It’s too late to run. My grip tightens on the hilt of my sword.

           

“You have been given the option to come willingly or forcefully.”

           

August’s eyes glint at me in the candlelight. He nods slowly. I hope I understand what it means.

           

“I guess you’re going to have to take us forcefully.”

           

Before I can do anything else, August explodes, throwing herself towards the nearest people, his sword slicing viciously through the air. He is aiming right for their necks. That’s deadly enough, but he’s lashing out against one of many other people who look like they’ve preparing for this moment. Their weapons have longer blades with a lot more cutting area than our swords do. One hit, not even a good one, and the fight will be over.

           

Ansel keeps his distance. No one has paid him much attention yet, so he gradually begins to pick them off with his arrows. He is also aiming towards their throats. He winces as he fires each arrow, but I can’t tell if it’s from the fear of running out of arrows or the fear of hurting someone.

             

I will myself to do something, even if it’s just to protect Gracie. These people may be human, but they’re still monsters.

           

I raise my own sword and hear the empty thud as it meets a girl. She looks down to where the blade is pressed against her chest and smiles. Rather than touching flesh, I tried to stab into her metal chest. Shocked from the unexpected barrier, I’m off balance and try to pivot. A mechanical leg swipes out and I trip, the ground rapidly rushing towards me. There is nothing to cushion my fall.

           

The impact if agonising, causing me to lose my grip on the sword, and then I’m lying on my back and gasping for breath. My left hand is on fire, the wrist screeching with a burning pain, my fingers completely numb. Frantically, I pull in a shaking breath. I try to push myself up but my arm buckles beneath my weight and I lose all feeling in the limb. Broken? Fractured? Maybe it’s just the nerves… But where is the girl? Where is Gracie?

           

My head swirls in panic and I ignore the pain that sears through my body. Both feel as if they are going to kill me.

           

Gracie is a few metres away from me. She’s fine besides a single trail of blood dripping down her revealed forearm. Three of the mechanical teenagers are laying at her feet. I don’t give myself the time to think about how she managed to do that.

           

I sense the presence of the girl who knocked me down before I see her and can process what is happening. I roll over just in time before a blade whips past my face and hits the stone ground beneath me. I kick out my leg and manage to hook it around her one, tugging her down. She gasps as she falls onto me. Quickly, I try to catch a blow on her body, but I keep encountering metal plates protecting her. There is nothing left that I can do to save myself.

           

Unless…

           

I position my sword above my head, using the blade to block attacks from the girl, now straddling my waist. She stabs feebly with her weapon as if she’s following a pattern. I wonder how much of her is human, and how much is machine. I wonder if she’s lost all her humanity, or if she still feels the desire for human needs, like warmth and thirst and energy.

           

If she does, she doesn’t for much longer. An arrow fired from the far side of the cave pierces the unprotected skin on the back of her neck. She falls to the side, and August appears from nowhere to slice his blade cleanly through her throat. Her body convulses once, then it becomes still.

 

I roll onto my stomach and lift my head, not wanting to hurt my arm any more than it already is. August stands at my side, hair forming a halo of curls around his face and his light eyes blazing with triumph. He looks relieved to see that I’m still alive.

 

“Are you hurt?”

 

I point to my side. “Arm.”

 

He drops to his knees and furrows his brow as he examines my arm. “It doesn’t look broken. Maybe the forest has magical healing properties.”

 

Suddenly, he leans forward and collapses against my chest, wrapping his arms around my waist. Despite the pain in my arm, I try to hug him back, my heart fluttering at the feeling of his body pressed against mine. His touch makes the cave warmer somehow, and makes me feel hopeful for our survival.

 

“Those people were not people, they were machines,” I whisper into his ear. I feel him nod against my chest and his hair tickles my chin. He looks up slightly and his cheeks are damp with tears, eyes reddening and eyelashes spiky. It reminds me that we’re all just kids.

 

 “I read a book about something like them once. People were kidnapped during the industrial revolution and transformed into part human, part machines. They were supposed to be undefeatable soldiers because they had no heart.” He slips from my embrace and rubs at his face with the back of his hand, casting a glance up the tunnel. I look too but all I can see is darkness. “We can’t stay here for much longer – more might be coming.”

 

With that, we stand up and pick up our weapons, grabbing the map from the table before we head back up the tunnel.

 

***

 

“We’re lost.”

 

“Ansel, we’re in some kind of magical forest that changes every day with no known way of escaping. We didn’t know where we were in the first place.”

 

“But he,” he glares at August, “found the map and decided he knew what it meant. We followed him and now we’re lost.”

 

“We’re not lost. We’re going the right direction but we don’t know the exact scale of the map. We could almost be there or it could be days away. Are we going to keep walking or should we leave you alone to complain?”

 

August and I stop walking. Gracie keeps trotting along ahead, oblivious to the argument that is going on behind her.

 

“I’m going to walk for ten minutes in this direction. Alone. Well, with Gracie. If there’s nothing there…” He drifts off before he can think of a threat worse than being lost in some kind of magical forest that changes every day with no known way of escaping. Then he decides that a threat isn’t worth his time, so he turns on his heel and disappears into the trees.

 

August and I stay put. The brook has been beside us for our entire journey since the ravine so we make the most of our rest stop, taking off our shoes and sitting on the grass so we can dip our toes into the water. The sudden coldness is relaxing.

 

“I believe you, by the way,” I say, turning to face August. He looks physically and mentally exhausted, as if all the missed sleep is catching up to him. “About the map.”

 

“Thanks.” He doesn’t sound bitter, only relieved. At least one person believes in his wild theory.

 

“But,” I say. His eyebrow raises. “I also believe in the fact that the government is being controlled by aliens, so I wouldn’t look too much into it.”

 

August moves his head closer to me. I sit frozen from both fear and excitement. He leans in until his forehead rests against mine. We close our eyes. Both of our breaths are shaking.

 

“Thank you,” he says again, his voice low and husky, nothing more than a whisper.

 

“For what?” I reply. My voice wavers, exhilarated from the tension between us.

 

“For being you.”

 

“You’re welcome. Thanks again for saving my life in the cave.”

 

August smiles, then he leans in and gently kisses me, his lips warm against mine. The world falls away. The kiss is slow and soft, comforting in ways that words will never be. He hesitates for a second before pulling away, taking a few shaky, shallow breaths. I do the same. The moment apart doesn’t last for long.

 

Within seconds, his lips brush mine again. Not innocently, like a tease, but passionate and demanding. I want to pull away again before I lose myself in the moment, but I can’t seem to. My hands find themselves tangled in his hair and I pull him deeper into the kiss. His hands work his way around my body, feeling each crevice, each inch of skin beneath my shirt. His fingers run down my spine, pulling me closer until there is no space between us and I can feel the beating of his heart against my chest.

 

“Oliver,” he whispers, prolonging each letter. I smile, my heart fluttering at his voice as I clasp my hands either side of his face. Never before has my name sounded so beautiful, I think, as I lean in for another…

 

“August? Oliver? We think we’ve found something.”

 

Ansel and Gracie burst into the clearing, their faces streaked with dirt and hair a mess of tangles. August and I leap apart as if someone’s shot electricity through us.

 

“There’s a camp a few minutes away from here. We should get moving pretty quickly before the forest changes again – I think there’s people living there.”

 

With that, they rush off again, desperate to return to this place that they’ve found. August and I remain standing, leaning against each other to catch our breath. His eyes close for a moment. I tilt his head upwards and press my lips against his cheek. My heart is beating so hard that I’m afraid he’ll hear it.

 

“Oh no,” I say suddenly, resting my hand against my chest as if it has the power to control my racing heart.

 

August’s eyes widen, his head snapping towards me. “What is it? What happened? Who died?”

 

“I think I just felt an emotion.”

 

“You have got to be kidding me.”

 

He rolls his eyes and starts to walk away, but he drags me behind him by the hand. I jog a few steps to catch up and lace our fingers together. He tightens his grip.

 

It’s too soon to tell, but I think I might love him.

 

____________________________________________________________

Art by BadassJem

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