I knew the moment I let myself fall, I would never return.
It was a feeling one would have on the brink of death-when they look at their loved ones and try their best to say something, anything. They realize that if they close their eyes for one moment, it will all be gone forever, and they will be alone in darkness, never knowing their purpose.
But I had no loved ones to wish me goodbye, no words left to speak. I was alone, staring up at the dusty roof of my small cottage. A lonely teen girl who knew it wasn't her time. She knew she had a purpose, and she shed tears knowing she would never fulfill it. That was me.
So when my eyelids started to droop, I fought, even though my chest ached and my heart began to slow. I gasped, my dry lips parting for one moment as the world grew fuzzy around the edges. It was getting darker.
I had nothing left except the forest, which I had pledged my soul to. My mother was at a bar, losing her memories and forgetting I was still here. My father was somewhere, but I did not know where. I had not known for the past seventeen years. All I had left was the woods outside and the musty smell of the old cottage. It was my purpose to protect the world I had come to love, and yet all of it was slipping away slowly. Painfully.
The darkness began to close in, shadows coming to claim my soul. My breath hitched, my hands relaxed, and my eyes closed.
I took my last breath then. Alone in that cottage. Scared. Angry.
But they say that when one story ends, another begins, and my story was going to continue, even after death.
My name was Alyvia, but I don't know who I am now.
I sit up, gasping, my hands clammy and heart racing. My eyes dart back and forth, and for a second I forget where I am. But then I realize I'm back in the woods. My shoulders slump in relief, and I yawn, stretching my arms and reaching towards the tree canopy.
Birds chirp from above, the sound of rustling leaves in the slight breeze adding onto their song. The trees are mostly elms, twisted and resilient as always, but nonetheless beautiful. Below me is healthy green grass, soft enough to make a bed for any animal, even a human. Even though my chest twinges with sadness and loss at my past life, I can’t get over the feeling that this is better. I am free of my mother’s cold stares and the brutality of the past. Here in the afterlife I can start something new.
I start to stand, which is easier than it's ever been, and I continue to stretch. It feels so good. It's like I was stiff before, holding in all the potential I have now. I bet I could run a thousand miles and not get tired. I turn my gaze to the sky above, a clear blue sea dotted with fluffy white clouds, and I forget every worry I've ever had, every fear from before evaporates. All that is left is me, the woods, and paradise.
At least, at the moment.
A shadow lunges out of the foliage, raising a fist and punching me across my face. Jarred, I stumble backwards and stiffen as the shadow reaches for me.
I claw out with my hand and wince as strange rough skin gathers under my nails. The shadow recoils, backing away and holding it's shadowy hand to it's chest.
Gasping, I scramble back up and peer at the shadow. It is flickering from darkness to shape, as if both a mix of human and shadow. But when the sunlight pierces the meadow and drives the darkness away, I scream.
Because this isn't a human or a shadow-it's a scaled creature from nightmares.
"D-De-Demon!" I shriek, then wonder if this is some cruel form of afterlife—living in a beautiful woods while being hunted by some monstrosity.
The demon creature's head snaps up, and it's red eyes narrow. "Took you long enough," it sneers, brushing a twig off of one of the horns protruding from it's head . "Now what is a human doing here?"
I gape at it's light, very human voice. When I don't say anything, the demon bares it’s fangs and shakes it's head. "You must be newly dead." It pauses. "I won't hurt you, okay? I thought...I thought you were someone else." It's gaze drops away from me. "Just explain to me how you died." When I'm silent, it adds, "please."
It takes me a while to force myself to speak. "Is this...the right afterlife? What are you doing here? And you...could you look a little less terrifying? Are you going to...eat me?" My voice grows small.
Now it laughs, brushing real tears away. "Oh, I would if I could." When my eyes grow wide, it waves it's claws. "No, no, calm down. That was a joke. And," it says, "I'll strike you a deal. You tell me how you died, and I'll change my form, tell you where you are. Got it?"
Disbelievingly, I nod and swallow hoarsely. "O...okay then," I whisper, backing up into a tree. The more distance, the better, I assume, but really, I’m just trying to think of how to tell this creature how I died. “I think I got really sick. My Ma didn't get me help, so the sickness got the best of me, I guess." I stare down at the forest floor, feeling sick to my stomach. Why would I tell a creature like this my darkest moment?
But the demon narrows it's eyes and nods. "And did you pledge yourself before you died?"
I blink. "What?"
"Pledge yourself to the earth." It tilts it's head. "A human cannot move onto the afterlife if they pledge themselves to something and have not fulfilled their pledge. It could be another human, or a different cause. Ghosts are creatures that pledged themselves and haven't fulfilled their pledge. Humans usually move on, but in rare circumstances, like yours, they end up being stuck in places like these."
I narrow my eyes. "And what place is this?"
"This is just a massive forest, somewhere on Earth," the demon explains. "But it's filled with non-human creatures who would kill any human they get their claws on.”
"Like you, but, less negotiable ," I say, then wince. "So this isn't...this isn't paradise?"
"No," the demon says. "It's the complete opposite. This place is called the BorderWoods.”
My palms become clammy at the demon’s words. "What's going on? I don't remember pledging myself. I...I..." I trail off. I don't want to go home. I don't want to stay here.
I don't know where I will go, or how I will get to my real paradise.
"There's a person called the Hunter," the demon ignores me and keeps explaining. "And every being in this forest who wants to live should stay in hiding. We're not safe out here." The demon glances about. "I'm not safe in here. Come," it motions to me, red scales flickering in the sunlight. "If you want to move onto paradise, you better come with me. I'll tell you more later."
A cloud passes over the sun, casting the demon in shadows once more. But I can still make out it's almost human eyes, glittering with strange, otherworldly emotions.
I don't know why a demon is hiding in the woods. I don't know why I haven't moved on. But I'll do what it takes to keep my soul alive, because looking out for others will get you no where. I know that pretty well.
"What's your name, demon?" I ask, walking forward and dodging it's bat-like wings.
The demon's snout wrinkles. "Brennan," he says it almost as though he forgot it. I'm surprised at the humanness of it. "Yours, human?"
"Alyvia," I say, summoning my courage and holding out my hand. The demon Brennan eyes it warily and shakes my hand, his claws glinting black in the now bright sun.
"Now tell me more about this Hunter," I say as we leave the meadow. "And why we should be afraid of him."