by Empress L.B.
Noah has to escape the village to save his family, which means facing the forests
|Noah paused when he reached the forest. He’d heard the stories, just like everyone else in the village. As he stood on its edge, he had to admit it seemed rather innocent. A wall of thicket and vines kept him from seeing much besides the ancient trees, reaching into the sky, and their lush canopy spread out above him. It didn’t look like the land beyond god, but he’d heard the High Priest call it that many times. Noah grimaced, and adjusted the bag on his back. Lately it seemed like the village was beyond god more than this collection of trees; He had to get Olivia and Willow out.
Enough time wasted, he told himself sternly, and pushed his way between the bushes, feeling stems snap beneath the soles of his old pair of boots, and found himself under the towering trees. Everything was silent, perfectly still, and yet, Noah felt distinctly watched. Not a single animal could be heard rustling in the leaves. No birds called, and not a single insect buzzed in the air. The forest appeared just the same as any other, except that it was strangely devoid of life.
A breath of wind lifted in the forest, rustling the leaves and swaying the saplings, carrying just the slightest whisper to him.
It was imperceptible, almost unnoticeable. But Noah heard the familiar voice. This was what the villagers lived in fear of; the spirits taking the form of loved ones, or embodying some past sadness, to lure their victims away from the living world. He’d expected to hear Faith’s voice. It had been a difficult winter; she’d spent most of it sick, until she finally died in Febuary. A few months later the pain was still raw, and Noah knew the spirits would sense and prey on his fresh misery. He knew it wasn’t really her, she was gone, but it still made the weight of the loss ache in his chest. Truthfully, Noah wasn’t particularly afraid of death, and he’d always harbored a secret curiosity about the forest. He probably would have followed the spirits long ago if it hadn’t been for his daughters.
It’s time you left that village
It was just the simple matter of ignoring them; they couldn’t do him any harm. At least not according to the stories and the High Priest. Nobody had ever come back to say for certain.
You shouldn’t spend your life, sunrise to sunset everyday, working tirelessly on someone else’s land
Noah thought about Olivia and Willow to block out the voice. It had been difficult to leave that morning; they’d both screamed and cried, furiously pounding the floors with their tiny fists.
I know you always suspected the High Priest told lies, only caring about his power. that can be the past
Without his wife to help, Noah knew he couldn’t support his family. Besides, he had to get his daughters away from the High Priest before he took them.
You can be free here
He wouldve taken them out by sea, but not this time of year. Leaving on foot and coming back to get them by boat had been the only option. He didn’t like it, and they certainly hadn’t either. They’d tried to build a boat, but being six and four years old, what they actually made was a heap of pine needles. Noah was always very proud of their creations, and it had broken his heart to tell them that no, this time it wasn’t good enough.
It’s all you’ve wanted, it can be ours.
It was true, he’d always wanted freedom, and possibly some inner peace, but never managed to find it. That was why he protected his daughters so fiercely. They were innocent, especially Willow. Noah knew once that was lost it couldn’t be found again.
You won’t feel pain anymore!
How far had he gone? What if he was going in circles? Noah felt a cold panic start to spread in his stomach, and quickly banished the thought. It was true though, he was disoriented, and couldn’t seem to complete an entire train of thought without the voice interrupting. He heard her outloud, but the sound didn’t come from anywhere, and it started to seem like it was in his head.
That was when he heard the pounding footsteps coming up behind him on the forest floor, then the panting breath rapidly drawing closer.
It doesn’t have to be so hard anymore.
Instinctively, he turned, and yelped in suprise when he saw Olivia grinning behind him, her cheeks flushed. He leapt away in horror. The spirits had taken the physical form of his daughter.
You can bring the girls too, Noah. They’d be better off here than they are in the village.
He cursed himself. He should have known that the spirits would pick up on him fixating on his girls.
I know you will, you’re a good parent.
“Daddy!” she said breathesly, reaching out to him. Noah shook her off violently, then started walking again, determined not to let this vision slow him.
“Stop being so annoying!! I don’t like it!” she pouted testily and stamped her foot.
He refused to look at her. No. It wasn’t her, he knew that.
The High Priest will take them when they turn 10, you know. Possibly before.
But he wanted to look at her. She was the reason he was here, the reason why he did anything, really. How could he ignore his daughter beside him while the thought of her was the only thing keeping him focused?
He’s always taken unfair taxes.
“You’re mean! And I don’t like it here, Daddy. There’s no flowers to pick and there’s no blackberries and no butterflies.” The wine in Olivia’s voice rose, and he knew she was on the verge of bursting into angry tears. He could always tell.
What do you think he’s doing with the children? Have you heard the rumors?
He risked a glance down at her. He had to admit, she looked remarkably real. Exactly like his daughter. The thought formed before he could stop himself: what if it really was her?
Some people have been fooled, and believe when they’re told it’s an honor.
“I was mad when you left this morning! So I didn’t notice you forgot your matches until after you left.”
Noah slowed and allowed her catch up to him. He didn’t mean to let her, but she grasped his hand. His breath caught. She reached into her pocket and pulled out his match box. And she felt very alive.
But people have seen the fresh blood on the temples, and the new graves surrounding them.
Noah squated down to her level, and looked into her eyes, the same shade of stormy blue as his. “Olivia, I need you to answer a question for me.” He kept his tone light, but this was how he would know if it was really her. “Can you tell me what the very best animal is?”
Her brow furrowed. “Daddy, I’ve already told you so many times.” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s the half weasle half blackbear-”
“-Because it has the ferocity of a waesle and the jaw of a bear.” Noah finished the sentence quietly for her.
“Obviously! That’s what animal I would be, if I could choose.”
It was her. He didn’t know what was worse; a spirit impersonating his daughter, or the fact that she’d followed him here.
And everyone’s seen them polishing the stone floors, like slaves.
“Olivia, I want you to stay right next to me.” Noah said sternly, in a tone he rarely used with her.
“I already know that Daddy.”
Exactly like slaves
Noah planted one foot infront of the other, forcing himself onward. He wanted to listen to the voice, not only because he’d missed Faith terribly, but because nobody else in the village would admit what they thought. Everyone was isolated, scared into obedience, pretending they didn’t see what was happening.
Not unlike the rest of us, or the way you’ve lived.
Olivia hummed to herself, seemingly undisturbed. Guiltily, Noah realized he was clinging to her, leaning on her, not the other way around.
The rumors say the High Priest is making deals with the very spirits he claims are the enemy
He loosened his grip, and she wriggled away from him. “Olivia!” She hadn’t gone far, but he shouted anyway. He couldn’t help it.
Why else would he need human sacrifices?
He lunged for her, but she skipped ahead, grinning. He could feel his heart rate elevating, his breath escaping him.
“Daddy, are you scared of the spirits?” she teased
“Yes, and you should be too.” He made another attempt to grab her, and missed again.
It’s better here. There’s quiet, and peace.
Olivia laughed, amused by Noah’s rising agitation. “Well, what if I am one of the spirits? Then I don’t have to be scared, right?”
He blanched, then snapped. “Don’t joke about that!” He went to grab her again, but she jumped away. He immediately felt bad. She always cried when he got upset, and life was difficult for all of them. They didn’t need to make it worse for each other.
It’s true, there’s nothing to fear.
But now she didn’t seem at all distressed. She grinned and snatched at him, dancing just out of reach.
It’s inevitable anyway.
A cold realization dawned on him. What if he’d made a horrible mistake? What if he was right the first time? This little girl taunting him, unbothered by the creepy forest, wasn’t his little girl, but a spirit, preying on his vulnerabilities.
Life is hard, this is easy
But what if it was her? He could never forgive himself if he allowed her to be lured away.
Follow me, Noah
“Olivia! Please! Stop!” his voice was raw.
She giggled gleefully. “Daddy’s scared for no reason! I’m not even scared!”
You’ll never want anything again.
The panic rose in him, choking him when it reached his throat, suffocating him. He couldn’t fail. He had to get across. But he didnt know what to think, and with the voices urging him forward, he could hardly hear his own thoughts anyway.
The forest can be yours, you’ll finally have your own land
Now he couldn’t even trust his eyes, to the point that he wasn’t sure he could recognize his own daughter. Which of the voices was his?
You belong here
“Yeah, we belong here!”
It was defensive. He lashed out, like an animal backed into a corner. Without thinking, his knife was in his hand, and he was slashing. It was aimless, but he still caught Olivia in the throat.
Her eyes widened in shock, and she started to scream, but it was quickly lost in a strangled gurgle as a spout of blood gushed from the wound. Then she dropped.
Immediately, Noah was relieved. The spirit would disintigrate now, unable to hold it’s form.
A moment later he looked down, and realized that she was still there. Her limbs strewn carelessly across the forest floor, the way they happended to fall. Her eyes stared upward, face frozen in that last moment of shock, although already falling slack. She was still now, beside the pool of her blood, slowly seeping into the ground.
Her body was still there. Therefor it wasn’t a spirit. Meaning this was his daughter. This was her dead body.
It took Noah some time to make his way through the thought process, but as soon as he did, the breath was knocked from his body, and his knees collapsed. He caught himself on hands and knees just in time, mostly out of luck. The grief hit him like a wave. His arms trembled. Or course, the spirits conviced her it was funny to play a prank on him. How had he not thought of that earlier? The grief hit him again, and this time his arms collapsed, and with a strangled sob his face landed on the ground
Noah tried to conjure up an image of Willow in one last fleeting attempt at finding strength, but the grief hit him again, washing away his focus. He felt Faith’s presense beside him, and found he didn’t want it to go away. The last few months without her had been the lonliest of his life.
Come with me Noah
He couldn’t block her out this time. He found himself rising to his feet, effortlessly, and drifted along as she lead him away. The shadows deepened and blurred, the edges of reality ran together, until nothing was distinguishable. Some time later he realized he’d left his body behind.
Faith’s voice dissipated. The spirits stirred around him, but there was only silence now. He ached for his daughters, and without his body to contain it, his grief was endless.
Olivia, he called, and her last pitiful scream echoed back to him.
She returned his calls, so eventually he just called for Willow, beaconing her to join them.