Chapter 0:

Once Upon a Time, There Was a Girl

City of Flowers

“Once upon a time, there was a girl who fell in love with the forest.”

The line is simple; the notion is romantic. Qiū Lín’s story falls from her lips like a string of poetry, or a gentle sheet of hail in the thick of a smoggy winter. Around her, a world of metal soars into the skyline. Jagged iron pipes snake around the precinct, and neon signage flickers like lightning in the distance.

She continues her story, her fingers fumbling around her pockets. “The girl, who had lived amongst the concrete for as long as she could remember, had quickly fallen victim to the forest’s illustrious birdsongs, its cushion-soft flooring and its sky-high pine towers. She wanted to live within its halls forever, and so she stole from the forest to show to her people: a bottle of corked soil.”

Qiū Lín manages to retrieve the item from her pockets at last; she raises the bloom towards the neon signs. It twitches and writhes in her palm, its stalk and bud crumpled by the hot air. One last mention of the old world.

And yet it is still beautiful. As deadly and imperfect things often are.

The woman’s shadow stretches across the street. The baby in her arms sobs softly, and the lights spill into her chestnut eyes. “But everyone else had other ideas. When she came back to her family to impart upon them the wonders of the forest, they warned her of the mould, the sickness that infested nature like a creeping vein. Of the way honey-sweet berries could kill within one taste. They told her to stay away.”

The lights turn to the colour of an open wound. A shuddering breath wrenches free of Qiū Lín’s lips. “The girl decided to escape her concrete confines. She packed all that she thought she would need; a bag, an old compass, an analog lighter to start fires in barrels of trash. But when she came back, the forest had been burned away.”

Figures—each clad in black and blue—pass by her alleyway, their hands hovering over Cirsium steel firearms. The woman buries her fingers into the swaddle of her baby’s blankets. They have not seen her. Not yet.

“The girl, not knowing what to do, cried and cried. Who would do such a thing? She threw down the bottle of soil in a rage, crushed it under her heel into the pine needles, and then she left and finished her education and wed a wealthy businessman and died in her sleep during the dew of dawn. She grew old and forgot about the forest, but she never forgave the people who had burned it down. She never forgot.”

Gunshots scatter through the streets. Something topples over, then ceases to move.

“The soil contained a bit of nature’s magic—a seed. And though the ground was charred black, and though the trees still smouldered, the seed rooted. It is still rooted to this day.”

The gunshots grow louder. Steel-tipped boots clack against the pavement, and suddenly, the figures are standing in front of her. They aim their barrels at Qiū Lín’s forehead. The steel glitters in the dark.

She strokes her baby one last time, and the baby sobs once more. “The seed yet flourishes. The story does not end with one girl's death. It never does.”