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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14. Chapter Twelve


As soon as Ansel reaches the first of the monsters, I can tell that this is a fight that won’t last for more than a second. Maybe two, if he’s lucky.

 

“I wouldn’t say it’s much of a challenge,” I say, watching as Porcelain begins to pace frantically. “Lilac is a huge monster, and has an army of monsters. She has powers and can make the forest do whatever she wants. Ansel has… Well, Ansel has nothing. He’s just Ansel.”

 

“I’m aware of that,” she mutters.

 

My eyes scan across the courtyard again. Ansel reaches for the sword, pulls it free, then instantly drops it on the ground. Some of the soldiers are standing at the sidelines, but some take a tentative step forward. They join Ansel’s side. The fight is still unfair.

 

Then I catch a glimpse of a familiar little girl sitting in the lower branches of a tree. She holds out her hand, squeezes it into a fist, and watches as a monster crumbles into a pile of dust. The corner of a piece of cloth covered in charcoal peeks out from the edge of her sleeve. Her hazel eyes catch mine, and she smiles and waves, as if I’m seeing her from across a street rather than what is about to become a battleground.

 

Gracie turns away and returns to crushing monsters from a distance. It feels as if my heart breaks a little when I don’t spot August by her side, but I hope that he’s somewhere safe, somewhere still alive.

 

“What do you want to do?” Porcelain asks me. “You can turn away and keep searching for a cure for your lover, or you can stay here and fight by the side of a boy who left you. It’s your decision.”

 

The tone of her voice makes it sound as if the decision is obvious. Well, it is, I just don’t choose it.

 

“I’m going to fight with Ansel. Gracie adored him, and she’d hate it if he couldn’t come home with us.”

 

Porcelain nods. “If that’s what you wish, then I’ll fight with you.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

With that, Porcelain hands me a sword that was dropped on the ground, removes her bow from her shoulder, and starts running. I sprint after her, but she’s quick, as if she’s been training for this moment. She fires arrows and kills monsters as she runs. I have trouble carrying the sword and I hold it awkwardly, not knowing how to make it feel right in my hand, let alone swing it and hit a target.

 

“What exactly are we doing?” I shout to Porcelain as she takes down three monsters at once.

 

She nods in Lilac’s direction. “We need to wound her and immobilise her. Find a blind spot by her feet. The Achilles tendon is a good place to aim for. Don’t lose your sword. Don’t just stood on.”

           

“I think this would be an appropriate time to tell you that I failed Biology in school,” I say just before she disappears into the fight.

           

She rolls her eyes. “The back of the heel.”

           

“Got it.”

           

She rolls her eyes again, turns on her heel, and is consumed by a crowd of soldiers. There’s nothing else for me to do besides tighten my grip on the sword and start running straight towards Lilac.

           

She’s fully adjusted to her new form by now, gleefully crushing anyone who gets too close beneath her feet, picking up rebel soldiers who can’t move away fast enough in a giant fist and hurling them into the forest. There’s nothing left that reminds me of the young girl I saw sat on the throne, not even the bloodstained crown.

           

That makes me feel slightly better about the fact that I have to hurt her.

           

There’s already a soldier at Lilac’s feet. Her swordplay is flashy, but pretty much a waste of time, even if she does manage to get some vicious slices into Lilac’s skin as she’s busily trying to stomp on her attacker. Lilac isn’t doing too well -  bad eye-foot coordination. Every time she misses, she bellows in frustration, which only makes my eardrums ache and the ground quiver.

           

“You’re big and noisy. We’ve got that,” I mutter.

           

In an equally lunatic exhibition of courage, another soldier races up, jumps, and jams his sword into Lilac’s leg. It has little effect other than raising her bellowing even louder. He barely manages to scurry away when a huge hand tries to grab him.

 

The soldier cries out as Lilac kicks at him, sending him tumbling across the courtyard. My heart races until I see him crawl back to his feet. Still, he’s moving too slowly, and if I don’t do something…

 

While Lilac is distracted by the fallen soldier, I run around the back of her, my sword bumping uncomfortably against my thigh. I weigh it in my right hand, slashing it delicately at the air with an amateur-like apprehension. I’m satisfied with the weapon: it’s too late for me to learn how to use it, but I may not have to use it more than once.

 

I raise the sword, aim between the base of her calf and the top of her heel, and thrust the blade forwards as hard as I can.

 

She roars and lifts her foot in the air, my sword hanging out of her heel. She pulls it out, the blade the size of a toothpick between her fingers, and throws it to the ground. I consider retrieving it, but the blade is bent beyond use. I have to find something else that could hurt her.

 

A flicker of metal in the half-light catches my eye. It’s a watch half-buried beneath a broken tile in the courtyard, not a colourful plastic one made for children, but an expensive one where the gold glints casually in the faded sunlight. It’s broken: the hands don’t turn and the face has been cracked from impact.

 

I may not be able to hurt her physically, but I can wound her emotionally.

           

I don’t have the chance to.

 

There’s a glint of metal as someone hurls their shield towards my head, like throwing a frisbee to a dog in a park. I laugh at the image of a tiny dog racing through grass after a giant gold disc, and I’m still laughing as it hits me in the temple, and everything goes black.

 

***

 

I stand in the middle of a vast darkness. There is a dull spotlight on me, and on my clothes. I glance down at my hands and feet. I find myself wearing a white shirt and jeans that I don’t recognise. I’m barefoot, a slight improvement to my one shoe outfit, but the soles of my feet are burning hot. The hair on the back of my neck stands up.

 

I’m horrified by this empty wasteland. It’s pitch black. My eyes can’t penetrate the darkness no matter which way I turn. It’s the complete absence of light, except for the spotlight around me. The darkness weighs heavily on my shoulders, as if it is brooding and rotating around me. Then, the sheer depth of my aloneness takes my fear to a level I’ve never known.

 

I hear muffled voices spilling out from my left side and from behind me. Mocking laughter ripples from the right. Waves of rejection and hatred sweep through me like the heavy stream from a fireman’s hose. I try to run away, but I slam into an invisible barrier.

 

An unholy voice speaks from below me, “Wait your turn. We will be with you sooner than you want.”

 

The laughter around me becomes loud and presses in. So, I wait.

 

Seconds drag into minutes. Minutes melt into what feels like hours. I begin counting seconds, then minutes, until I reach an hour. I reach my target, then I decide to speak. “Am I dead? Like, properly dead this time.”

 

The laughter stops. The silence is deafening.

 

“You’re not going to die yet.” A disembodied voice speaks, and it’s impossible for me to work out where it’s coming from. “Not yet.”

 

“Are you going to offer me some useful advice, or is this just an interlude before I either die or somehow come even closer to death?”

 

“You’re not going to die yet,” the voice repeats.

 

I want to scream, so I do.

 

In the intense silence, I somehow scream with my whole body. Eeys wide with horror, mouth rigid and open, chalky face gaunt and immobile, fists clenched with blanched knuckles and nails digging deeply into the palms of my hand.

 

Then I go quiet, just panting. The spotlight on me fades into the darkness.

 

Darkness is a strange substance, just like how water has three states of matter, but with a twist. Darkness doesn’t fall under the laws of science as it’s a sort of mystical material, only able to change states by the user. As a solid, it’s almost completely black, aside from a very tiny shade of red at the centre, like a candle in the dark. As a liquid, it’s thick, sticky, and has a pungent smell of ink, and can act like quicksand to suffocate people. As a gas, it’s able to pass through solid material with ease, suffocate, and eat away like acid.

 

And the darkness is suffocating me.

 

As the final breaths of air drain out of my lungs, I wonder what is the point in continuing to breathe.

 

***

 

I wake up just in time to avoid being crushed by the body of a fallen soldier. Porcelain’s sees me rolling across the ground and runs towards me, firing multiple arrows from her bow at once. From the sound of the monster screams, I presume that she hasn’t missed her target yet.

           

The process of pulling myself to my feet is painstaking: my legs are numb, and my left arm is twisted at an unnatural angle. I take a cautious step forwards, and my feet slip against fresh blood on the courtyard. I sigh: I’ve lost my other shoe.

           

“How is she still alive?” I groan. Porcelain shoves me back to the ground, shooting a couple of arrows at a monster that was behind me. The ash sticks to the blood on my feet. I groan again before standing up, double checking for monsters.

 

“She can only die at the hands of a sacrifice.”

 

I sigh, taking a few steps to see if my legs will still hold my weight. My arm throbs, but it won’t have to for much longer. “Well, no one has tried to kill me for a minute or two.”

 

I’m about to run across the courtyard, but a hand grabs hold of my unwounded arm. “Don’t you dare.”

 

There’s a smile on my face before I even turn around, but I’m not prepared for what I see.

 

August’s bruises have returned. It’s difficult to find a patch of skin that is still the original colour. There’s a trail of blood coming out of the corner of his mouth, and another coming from his nose. His body is covered is scratches.

 

“Are you okay?” I ask.

 

He tries to smile, but the effort causes him to wince. The fact that his injuries are starting to cause him pain isn’t reassuring. “I’ll survive, but you won’t if you go out there.”

 

“Didn’t you hear what Porcelain said? Lilac can only die if someone sacrifices themselves.”

 

He nods slowly, almost sadly, as if he’s keeping a secret. “I heard. It’s not you who’s going to be the sacrifice. Not if I can help it.”

 

“If I don’t, who will?”

 

Then I remember who August came here with.

 

“August, where’s Gracie?”

           

He doesn’t have the chance to answer.

 

Something explodes. It’s as if a fist of orange flame has decided to punch it’s way out of the ground. Tiles and slabs shatter, sending tiny pieces of stone showering down in a deadly rainfall. The force of the explosion lifts us into the air and throws us across the courtyard.

 

I lay in agony and semi-blindness amid chaos. All around me, bodies drop to the ground, one by one. I lay there until I begin to recover consciousness, trying to steady my breathing and work out if any of my injuries are serious.

 

At first, I think I’ve gone deaf.

 

The ringing of swords has died away, the shouting of slaughter is hushed. Silence lays on what remains of the red-stained courtyard. Garish scarlet flows over the frosted grey of stone.

 

Then I realise that the battlefield is quiet because it is now a graveyard of the unburied. Corpses lay among discarded weapons rather than flowers. The setting sun still shines and the wind still blows, but in the real world, there are families who will wake up to receive the news that their child has died. These teenagers and children who would’ve once rode bikes in the street and fallen asleep to bedtime stories are now meat for the birds. Their eyes are as immobile as their limbs.

 

Then I hear quiet footsteps, skipping over the rubble.

 

I twist my head around, cheek scraping against broken shards of stone.

 

Gracie is stood in the centre of the courtyard, the bodies of a hundred fallen soldiers surrounding her, covering in the dust from dead monsters. She’s staring straight up at Lilac, her hand stretched out. There’s a small smile on her face.

 

I try to stand up, try to get onto my feet so I can run over and pull her to safety, but August throws an arm over me and drags me back onto the ground.

 

Porcelain kneels beside me. Her bow is drawn, but I don’t think that she’ll aim it at me if I make another move. “Don’t interfere. This is what she has to do.”

 

“Why has it got to be her?” Angry tears form in my eyes, and they burn as they drip down my face. “Why isn’t it anyone else?”

 

Porcelain sighs sadly. “It’s what all children like her have to do.”

 

I don’t want to watch Gracie’s last moments, but I force myself to. There’s nothing more painful than watching the sacrifice of a girl who was never destined to survive.

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