The treetop bridges are extensive. Perfectly blending into the surrounding trees and foliage, the pathways lead in all directions. Occasionally, separate platforms higher in the trees provide safe places for the scouts traversing the maze to rest.
Hours pass as the group of travelers follows the guides leading them. They reach a dead end of pathways and Lyrrel signals to two of the other men from Eraunel. They grab ladders, hidden beneath the platforms and journey down to the forest floor.
“We wait for Dounal and Harin before heading down,” Lyrrel says. “They’ll make sure we haven’t been followed.”
“Wouldn’t sitting here allow anyone who may be following us to catch up?” Kylii asks.
“It won’t take them long.” Whistles from below bring a smug smile to Lyrrel’s lips. “See. Down we go.”
The rest of the men of Eraunel set up a platform to be lowered. Tanith reluctantly hops on as bags of supplies are placed on with her. The descent to the forest floor begins. Many are relieved to have solid ground beneath them.
Once the platform has been fully lowered, the group grabs their bags and Tanith leaps off, rolling on the ground, appreciatively. The men who lowered the platform pull it back up as well as the ladders. Then they climb down the thick bark of the tree.
“Let’s continue on. The sun will be setting soon,” Lyrrel says.
The fear of nightfall and the possibility of Teron’s men catching up to them push the group forward. The trees grow closer together, cutting most of the light from the lowering sun. But it still takes several hours before the group needs to stop to light torches.
Once darkness falls the forest takes on a new life. The calm felt back in Eraunel is replaced with discomfort. The animals sound larger, hungrier.
The small circle of light created by the torches provides little comfort against the unknown shadows just beyond the reach of the light. Eyes watch the group from the safety of the darkness, light reflecting in their eyes for a moment before disappearing. The cry of a night bird sends chills through the group and presses everyone closer together.
Lyrrel and the other men from Eraunel don’t seem as affected by the change in the forest. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less tense.
Fog rolls along the ground like water. The air is cooler and strange shapes among the trees give illusions of large beasts watching the group. Meah also notices the bark of the surrounding trees have been darkening to an odd scarlet color. It reminds her of blood and she shivers. Ime nudges her with his arm.
Meah shakes her head. “I’m fine. A little tired, that’s all.”
“Stay together,” Lyrrel says, his voice only loud enough for everyone in the group to hear. “We’ll continue for a couple more hours then rest.”
“Don’t wander off or drag behind. Strange things happen in this part of the forest,” the youngest of the men from Eraunel, Neall, says.
“What kinds of things?” Rava asks, huddling close to Mava.
Meridon moves his torch to his other hand so he can meet the sisters’ eyes. “This part of the forest is settled upon ancient graveyards. Thousands are buried beneath this earth. These trees grow from the dead.”
Neall nods his head and sweeps his torch towards the nearest tree, showing the dark scarlet of the bark. “They say the red of the bark comes from the trees feeding on the blood of men.”
“Stop that, talk,” Lyrrel says angrily. “They’re only stories.”
Even with Lyrrel’s words, the group finds itself moving at a faster pace. New trees fade into view among the taller trees. They are much smaller and twisted into painful shapes. The branches reach for the group like skeletal fingers, catching on loose clothing.
Insects scatter from the light of the torches. A small black furred beast hisses as the group passes too close to its nest and a member of the group shrieks as a skull comes into view. A hole in the top of the head allows a different small brown animal to peek its head out and watch the group.
The further into the darkened forest they travel, bones appear regularly hiding among the grass and under the fog. Most are of larger animals, but every now and then a human skull is spotted, half-buried in the dirt.
Another shiver runs up Meah’s spine as they pass another animal skeleton. Daniil and Kylii walk up on either side of her, each holding a torch. Tanith’s ears spin around at each sound. Her head jerks to the left or right and she hesitates before returning to Daniil’s side.
“This part of the forest is full of dark magic,” Jaxon says suddenly, behind Meah, Daniil, and Kylii.
Nodding, Daniil’s eyes search the darkness. “There were stories in our homeland about forests that took root on graveyards. The trees would take not only from the bodies, but any magic once belonging to the dead.”
“They say the magic would leech into the soil and bring the dead back to life,” Kylii adds.
“Others say the forest would use the magic as a defense. When unwary travelers entered, the trees would fill the bones with magic. Skeleton hands would emerge from the earth to grab any unlucky traveler and pull them beneath the earth to feed the trees.”
Ime turns, angrily. “Stop telling ghost stories. We’ve enough trouble worrying about the men chasing us. We don’t need you scaring the group.” He looks at Jaxon. “And you, don’t encourage them.”
Jaxon shrugs. “I was simply stating a fact.”
“You should still know better than to say anything around these two. They could make a worm part of their stories of horrors from their homeland.”
A flying animal shrieks as it flies directly in front of Ime, almost crashing into him. Ime screams and uses his wind magic to send the beast back into the surrounding forest.
Daniil and Kylii explode into laughter at his fright.
His face turning red, Ime glares at the brothers. “Stop that! Your stories are making me paranoid.”
Trying to stifle her laughter, Meah can’t contain herself with the brothers laughing on either side of her. Jaxon joins in the laughter.
Lyrrel suddenly stops walking. “Everyone, quiet!”
The serious tone of his voice silences the laughter and all eyes turn to him. His head moves from side to side as his eyes search the darkness. The silence hits the group. The shriek from the flying creature distracted them, but they now realize they hadn’t heard the sounds of the night creatures for several minutes.
From the silence a new sound echoes through the darkness. It moves towards the group from the front. Once it reaches the edge of the light created by the torches it splits into multiple sounds, surrounding the group.
“What is that?” Meah asks, softly.
Leaning down, Ime places his hand on the cool earth. He waits until he’s certain before, “It’s the earth. It’s shifting.”
“With earth magic?” Jaxon asks.
“I’m not sure. It doesn’t sound or feel right.”
The sound moves into the circle of light and the group moves closer together. The sound grows louder and closer, creating small screams of terror even though nothing can be seen.
Silence. The sound stops. Fear is palpable in the air as eyes search the darkness for movement.
Meah’s heart pounds in her chest. The silence is almost unbearable and she places a hand on Ime’s shoulder. He places his hand on hers, but keeps his eyes forward. He stands, unable to feel the earth shifting.
A hand explodes from the ground beneath Meah and grabs her leg. She screams, falling to the ground as she tries to escape. Ime grabs her, pulling her free with a swift kick at the disembodied hand. The hand retreats back into the earth and the sound of shifting soil returns.
“They’re under the ground,” Ime yells.
Shock and misunderstanding freezes the group until the earth beneath their feet shifts and bodies emerge. Dozens of bodies, outnumbering the group, emerge from the ground and the darkness of the forest. They hold spears and nets, whooping triumphantly. The group, in a panic, scatters. They try to escape the ambush, but everywhere they turn more bodies appear to herd them back to the center.
Torches fall to the ground, going out, and screams fill the darkness. Nets fall on them in the dark and flames from Ime and Jaxon are the only light. Until they, too are captured. They fight against the ropes and try to burn their way free.
A new sound precedes both falling to the ground. Small shots of air zoom through the night air. People scream as small darts stab into their flesh.
A dart stabs into Meah’s arm and she shrieks. She pulls it out, but drowsiness overpowers her. She falls to the ground, fighting to stay awake. She feels a hand on hers and sees Ime trapped in a net. His eyes droop, but she can see the fight behind the sleep.
The net holding Ime and Jaxon is pulled away, tearing Ime’s hand from Meah and she moans. He disappears into the surrounding forest, leaving her alone.
A pair of feet appears in front of her. She forces her head to look up. The face staring down at her is covered in mud. The man raises a tube to his mouth and shoots another dart into Meah’s neck.
The group succumbs to the sleep as they’re dragged into the darkness. Tanith, having escaped once the torches extinguished, watches from her hiding spot in a bush of thorns.