Girl of Nightmares


Page 70


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The phrase hits home for Thomas and Carmel, and their eyes flicker to the ground and trees around them. I'm going to be the deciding vote. If I want to try to find a way around, Jestine will come with us. Maybe I should. But I won't. Because that ghost back at the inn wasn't the test that the Order had planned. This is. And we've come this far.

"Just stay together," I say, and the hope on Carmel's face vanishes. "It probably won't be anything worse than a few dead bodies. Just keep on your toes."

We switch formation to me in the front and Jestine in the back, with Thomas and Carmel in the middle. As we pass by the second sign, I can't help but feel like we're walking into a black hole. But that's a feeling I should probably get used to.

* * *

Ten tense minutes pass before we catch our first glimpse. Carmel gasps, but it's just a pile of scattered bones, a rib cage and most of an arm, taken over by moss.

"It's okay," Thomas whispers while I keep an eye on it to make sure it isn't going to reassemble.

"It's not," Carmel whispers back. "It's worse. I don't know why it's worse, but it is."

She's right. The beauty of the forest has been stripped. There's nothing here but misery and silence. It seems impossible that anyone would want to spend their last moments here, and I wonder whether the woods lure them in with false breezes and sunlight, wearing a mask of peace, the whole damned system of roots and hanging branches preying on people like a spider.

"We'll be through before long," Jestine says. "It can't be much more than a mile now. Just keep heading northeast."

"She's right," I say, stepping over a fallen log. "A half hour more and we'll be out." Another body pops up in my peripheral vision, something fresher, still clothed and in one piece. It's hanging against the trunk of the tree. I can just see the side of it, and I keep my eyes trained forward even while I watch for movement, for the broken neck to jerk suddenly in our direction. Nothing. We pass by and it's just another body. Just a lost soul.

The march goes on, and we try to keep our footsteps quiet while at the same time wanting to run. There are bodies upon bodies in these woods, some in piles and some scattered in separate pieces. Someone in a suit and tie lay down against a fallen log and lies there still, his jaw yawning open and his eye sockets black . I want to reach back and take Carmel's hand. We should find a way to anchor to each other.

"Tell me again why you're going through all this," Jestine says from the back. "Gideon has told me some, and then Thomas told me more. But tell me again. Why all this trouble, for a dead girl?"

"That dead girl saved our lives," I reply.

"So I hear. But that just means you light a candle and give her a nod every now and then. It doesn't mean you cross an ocean and walk through the forest of the dead just to find a way to the other side to pull her back out again. She did it on purpose, didn't she?"

I glance around. There are no bodies visible, for the moment. "Not like these," I say. "She did what she had to. And she wound up someplace she doesn't belong."

"Wherever she is, it is what she has made it," Jestine says. "You know that, don't you? You know that where she is, it's not what most people think of as Heaven or Hell. Just outside. Outside of everything. Outside of rules, and logic, and laws. It has no value, good or bad. Right or wrong."

I walk faster, even though my legs feel reliable as cooked noodles. "How do you know?" I ask, and she laughs breathlessly.

"I don't. It's just what I've been taught; what I've been told."

I glance over my shoulder at Thomas, who shrugs.

"Every doctrine has its own theory," he says. "Maybe they're all right. Maybe none are. Whatever, I'm no philosopher."

"Well, what would Morfran say?"

"He'd say we're all idiots for walking through the Suicide Forest. Are we still going the right way?"

"Yeah," I say, but as soon as he asks, I'm no longer sure. The light is funny here, and I can't track the sun. It feels like we've been walking a straight line, but a line can curve all the way back on itself if you walk it far enough. And we've been walking for a long time.

"So," Jestine says after a few minutes of tense silence. "You were all friends with this dead girl?"

"Yes," Carmel says. Her tone is clipped. She'd like Jestine to shut up. Not because she's offended, but because she'd rather all our attention be on the trees and corpses. But so far, they're just corpses. Acre after acre of decomposing bodies. It's unsettling, but not dangerous.

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