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       Paper, p.3

           Kell Inkston
 
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fortress. They find the great door with great beasts and burst into the large room.

  In the middle of the extravagantly–carved room is a long table with the overlord sitting in the middle sipping its tea, and ten rather imposing paper figures on both sides of it.

  The dark lord takes a stand and applauds the men armed with swords, bows, tools, and torches.

  “Well! I must say this has been an eventful day. No one’s figured it out in roughly one hundred years. Oh, but of course you will all kill me easily, why, how could I beat twenty men? Oh! And look, you thought to make and bring torches! The last time they didn’t even think to do that. I suppose only during a festival you’re allowed to make those, aren’t you? As per command of your Mayor. How very lucky–and what’s better, once you all kill me and free the prisoners, you’ll return to town, victorious, heroes in your own rights; stronger, smarter, kinder, more handsome–” as the overlord goes down the list, it begins moving its right hand through the air, causing each of the twenty paper figures to take a slow, defiant stand, and take on features identical to the armed men, but slightly better in every way.

  The men exchange glances and gasps of disbelief as the doppelgängers take to their feet.

  “Why, my chances are so low it brings me to ask myself: ‘whatever shall I do?’” the Overlord says in a tone of mock concern, taunting the men as it sends the paper soldiers forward.

  Below, a sharp–browed Tenay finally reaches the steps to the keep, the burden of her child to arrive in five months slowing her progress considerably. She enters the keep with a charcoal ember–match, capable of striking a flame in but a second. She rises the steps to the great door, hears the battle inside, and passes by. She searches long halls and lavish rooms until she notes the sound of weeping down a long spiral staircase. Tenay follows the sound into the dungeon, dimly lit by a skylight above. She finds the sword, and two miserable, chained up men.

  “T–…No, you’re not her, don’t lie to me, Overlord!”

  “It’s me, Ralic,” she says, picking up the broadsword and tucking it under her right arm.

  Ralic the Twelfth shakes his head wildly. “No, I’ll never see her again. The fake me’s probably back at the town…and the two…no, I beg of you, it isn’t fair!”

  Tenay nods sarcastically. “Life’s hard, hero brat. It’s me, your wife. I spotted you get cut on that rock, so I figured the Ralic that returned wasn’t the real you.”

  Ralic’s eyes flash with hope just as the older Ralic’s brow furrows.

  “You…You saw th–”

  “Truly, if you are her, then surely you can withstand a flame, and prove you are not of paper,” the older Ralic cuts in.

  Tenay pauses, and then from its protective jar, she presses the red ember into her hand for several seconds. She doesn’t so much as flinch as the ember does nothing to her hand and the older Ralic nods.

  “Boy, this is your wife, she has come to save us,” he says with a certain nod. She grasps the ember and by pressing it against the bars they light into fire long enough for its papery illusion to blaze away allowing her to open the cells; she then uses the ember to ignite their chains, showing away their illusion as well.

  “Alright, let’s get out of here!” Ralic shouts, turning to the stairway.

  “Can’t yet, we gotta kill the Overlord.”

  Ralic draws back. “Wh–what?”

  “I talked with the fake mayor’s wife.”

  “Mom?”

  “Yeah, she told me to melt the Sword of Destiny.”

  “Are you serious? We can’t melt our only defense against the Overlord!”

  Tenay squints. “We don’t have time. Please, Brat, trust me.”

  “No!” Ralic stands resolute.

  Tenay shakes her head, her brows raised and her expression bland with disappointment, “Then I’m going myself, see ya, hero,” she says, turning away to the stairs but going further down the hall to find the forge. The younger Ralic grits his teeth watching her leave, and takes a deep breath.

  “Okay, I’m coming with you!” He catches up, and Tenay smiles the moment they are shoulder to shoulder. The older Ralic shows more hesitance at first but is elated to walk out from the dungeon on his own accord, the first time in roughly twenty years–he follows them.

  They start down the halls, and Ralic the Eleventh speaks. “So, what do we do?”

  Tenay peeks into doorway after doorway. “She told me to find the forge that made the sword. She said it was here,” she says over the sounds of men fighting and steel clashing rooms away.

  “The Overlord made the sword? That doesn’t make any sense,” Ralic the Twelfth says, just as the three spot a large, black furnace in a long room.

  “This must be it,” Tenay says just as footsteps rage down the hall. Ralic steps back to the door.

  “Smith’s girl.”

  “Brat.”

  “I’m off to be the hero. See ya,” he says, ready to defend her and the sword.

  “Don’t get killed, dork,” Tenay says before the two Ralics turn to meet precise paper copies of the three of them. The Ralics slam the door to the forge shut behind them, leaving Tenay to her work.

  The matter is simple enough. As outlandish a character the Overlord is, its forge is still intuitive to a smith’s daughter like Tenay. She uses the charcoal and ignites the forge, billowing it to a hellish heat as the sword leans near, awaiting its destruction. Just as the two Ralics meet hands with their paper superiors, Tenay plunges the blade into the heat of the forge, her skin and hair singeing from the bellowing heat, but the temperature doesn’t hurt her, just as it doesn’t hurt anyone from the village–they can feel fire, but not be hurt by it.

  Elsewhere, she can hear a deep, powerful voice screaming in agony as if burning to death. With a vindictive, pleased smile, she tosses the blade into the forge entirely. The sword, composed of a magic paper, blazes away with the dying screams of the Overlord, its tricks finally put to naught centuries since their conception. The Overlord had bonded its soul to an eternal object, something prized and treasured by everyone who saw it–something that not a soul would dare meltdown in a forge. Tenay nods stoically; the Overlord was pretty smart, but she knows all tricks have their end eventually. Gradually, she hears the Overlord’s screams turn into laughs.

  “YOU FOOLS HAVE SEALED YOUR OWN FATE!” are his last words amidst his dark, ear–splitting laughter.

  She hears a banging on the locked doors, and her husband calls out.

  “Tenay! Something’s wrong!” Ralic says.

  She reaches for the knob and then stops. “Oh? What’s that?”

  “Open the door, Tenay! The castle’s burning!”

  “…Really? I don’t hear any fire. What if this is some trick?”

  “Of all the times for you to be stubborn. I swear!”

  Tenay smirks. “Just have to be sure. What’s my favorite frui–”

  “Bananas, can we go now?”

  She scoffs, pleased with the answer, and opens the door. There’s a fire creeping along the castle rock, an impossible sight for stone, but this is not stone, it’s paper–everything that was fake is being undone by the sword’s destruction. The three rush to the main entrance, meet up with the group of men, most of them unconscious and piled out of the burning keep or severely beaten, and they all get a safe distance away from the castle.

  Turning to the castle, they can still hear the laughing of the Overlord as its body melts away with the sword. Tenay takes a moment to catch her breath, but before she speaks, she sees the singing fire burn away not just the castle, but the ground around it, and then the grass, and then the trees, and then right to them–revealing nothing but the deep, dark ocean beneath. Her father points the way to town.

  “This way!” he shouts, carrying two men in his great arms.

  They run all the way to town, a great toll on everyone carrying people, and get to the gates.

  “Open up!” Ralic shouts to the guards. They get through
to the town square in the early morning, everyone’s faces of joy tarnished to fear the moment they see the returning group’s expressions.

  “What’s the matter?” a prominent farmer asks.

  “The Overlord’s dead, but its magic is destroying the island!” Ralic sputters, “It’s going to sink!”

  Everyone roars into a panic. The thought of the mysterious Overlord, a nasty troublemaker that is said to trick young children into the forest and make them work on its paper crafts forever, has had one last trick up its sleeve. Some of the townspeople begin to tear down the village to make boats, but realize that the fire would burn this away as well as it was fake trees that made these fake houses–all that is fake will be burnt away. The boats thrown into water immediately go limp and take on water like paper– they’re trapped. Time counts down as they try one failed idea after another; each time the looming flames of the Overlord’s fury burning closer and closer. The blacksmith is the only one not running about in a panic, as he reflects on all that he’s seen and heard over his years from the fake mayor and his miserable wife. It is then that the blacksmith comes to a conclusion.

  “Tenay!” he shouts across the chaos of people rushing from the town to get to the island’s edge with their crude makeshift vessels. She doesn’t hear him. He draws more into his old lungs. “Tenay!” She hears him this time, and he meets her across the square as the two Ralics flail about leading the people to evacuate.

  “Han?” Tenay says, her eyes wide with fear.

  “Come with me. I
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