This cannot be happening. I thought with bitter frustration as I glared into the murky depths of the trees. How on earth am I supposed to get out of here? Even if I knew my way back, I was hardly strong enough to carry an unconscious Ruben.
I cursed the curious part of me that had followed Forest, that had ever even left the damn cart. Sighing angrily, I stroked the backs of my hands where the mysterious symbols had appeared, and with them the powerful bursts of energy. If only I knew how to truly use them, I thought regretfully. It would be nice to know that I had some form of reliable protection.
Shaking my head ruefully, I jogged back along the branch to Ruben's unconscious form. Crouching over him, I placed a hand above his mouth and nose to check his breathing. Yep, still with me, I thought and gave a grim smile as the soft tickle of expelled air on my palm confirmed Rubens state; happily out for the count. At least he's still alive, that's one good thing. I reminded myself, as I shivered in the dank gloom of the ancient forest. Pulling my cloak around me tighter, I thought back to the warm golden air of the clearing, remembering wistfully the dappled light that had painted the interwoven tree limbs gold.
A stark contrast, it seemed, to the part of the forest I was stuck in now. Even with the sun rising in the sky, the weak beams of light hardly penetrated the thick canopy, and I began to understand why the Nightwakes liked it so much here. The cooling dark of night needn't control their prowling here, there was so little light that it was almost dusk before dawn had even got a hold in the sky.
Overhead something squawked sinisterly, and I felt a cold lurch in my stomach. Even the normal bright twittering of the forest birds seemed to conceal a hidden danger.
As my anger faded, I began to realise just how cold and empty the air was. Like the forest has lost its soul, I thought with growing apprehension. Silence dominated the atmosphere, compressing each tiny burst of sound so everything, even the sound of my shaky breathing, sounded loud. And loud was not good. Loud was bad. Only prey was loud, prey unaware of dangers lurking in the shadows. I glanced nervously into the depths of the green leaves, the vegetation both masking us, and trapping us. To wait out whatever fate the timeworn forest brought us.
Something crackled the bushes to my right and I tensed, shifting the sturdy branch a little higher as I glared into the green foliage. My stiff, cold joints creaked in protest as stood up from my crouch. Swinging my make-shift weapon round, I levelled it at the offending sound, straining my ears in the settling silence for something that I knew had probably gone, or wasn't even there.
Nothing stirred, and I lowered the branch with a sigh, I really was getting paranoid. Turning back to the sleeping Ruben, I sat back down on the hard bough of the tree with a wince. Hours of crouching warily had taken a toll on my legs, and my muscles ached in discomfort.
Staring moodily into the under-canopy of the forest, Rubens groan almost made me topple backwards in shock as he sat up with an expression of mild confusion.
I felt my shoulders relax in relief; I had been beginning to wonder if he would actually wake up. I gave him an appraising glance, looks okay, I decided and gave him a wan smile that I knew didn't quite reach my tired eyes.
He returned my smile with a cheery grin, walking over a plonking himself down next to me with a huff.
He stared at me with a calculating look in his green eyes. "I seemed to recall looking for you after you flung yourself, with no warning I might add, into the forest." He chuckled ruefully to himself, "it seems my sense of direction is not as brilliant as I thought. If it….well if it wasn't for you I would have been dead, probably, by now. So um I just wanted to say…er…thank you."
I blushed at the sincerity of his words, "that's okay," I mumbled, "you would have done the same for me."
Ruben stretched his legs out so they dangled over the edge of the branch we sat on. He looked at me again expectantly, and I glanced at him, raising my eyebrow as he continued to stare.
"What?" I asked with annoyance. "Didn't your ma ever tell you its rude to stare?"
"No," Ruben answered with barely concealed amusement, "but she did once tell me never to make a woman angry."
"Well you obviously didn't hear her quite right, as your making me angry and I am one hundred sovereigns sure I am a woman."
"Quite sure?" Ruben said innocently, "because I am pretty positive that your normal bog-standard woman does not shoot bolts of light out of her hands."
I felt a twinge of something cold as he said this. I had not thought of the mystery of my new found majikal abilities. I knew my mother was a Witch and it was common for children to inherit powers but…my mother was a healer, not a…a well whatever I was.
"Are you alright, Aven?" Ruben said gently, concern colouring his question.
I stretched and got to my feet, and tried to muster what I thought was a cheery tone, "Yes, yes I'm fine! Well, shouldn't we be trying to find a way back to the cart?" I said, turning to Ruben as he scrambled to his feet, brushing lichen of his black cloak absentmindedly.
"Yes, I suppose we should," he began absentmindedly, "although I doubt Dignus will miss us as I did put a sleeping cast over h- what?" he said at the sight of my expression.
I threw my arms up in exasperation, "well its not like it would have been useful if Dignus was awake," I said with growing anger, "I mean its not like he could have tracked us down and FLIPPIN' FOUND US OR ANYTHING YOU STUPID HOGFACE!" My shouted insult echoed around us, fading into the forest as the thick foliage absorbed the sound. I felt my temple throbbing, and closed my eyes as I tried to calm down.
"I'm sorry Ruben," I said through gritted teeth.
Hurt silence followed and I looked up guiltily as Ruben regarded me with a quizzical expression.
"It seems that my mother was right, you really should never make a woman angry." He smiled tentatively at me before running a hand through his hair. "I don't suppose you have any ideas about how to get us….ah okay then." He trailed off at the look I shot him then rolled his eyes. "Come on Aven, look I'm sorry about Dignus, on second thoughts I shouldn't of stunned him but-"
"Oh really?" I sneered, "Well I'm glad you see that now. Splendid. Terrific. Absolutely flippin' great."
"Would you just shut up for one…ah be quite for a minute and hear me out?" Ruben said in annoyance, raising his palms in a calming motion, as if he was trying to soothe a wild animal. "Anyway, I put a sleeping cast over Dignus, now don't look at me like that, I have a good…well I have reason, I put a sleeping cast over Dignus because he would have been worried sick if he knew we had run into the forest, and….and I didn't want you to think you were being followed. You could have been cursed or something. Dignus may be a skilled Warrior but he isn't one for creeping."
"Yeah, well…your still an idiot."
"Now, I hardly think that's fair-"
"Yes it is-"
"I protest! If you hadn't waltzed off into the forest-"
"Well tough luck, I did, and it just so happens that you drugged our only ticket out of here!"
Ruben considered me for a moment, then sighed and wiped a hand across his face wearily. "Yes, yes I did, didn't I?"
I turned away sullenly and stepped onto another branch, the huge tree limb holding my weight with ease. A cold wind suddenly whooshed through the trees, the boughs fluttering as the forest howled a mournful song. The forest seemed to grow darker; the leaves whipping around furiously like trapped birds.
"Ruben, does something not feel quite right to you…Ruben?" I asked, turning to him, alarm gnawing at my insides as I watched as the colour seemed to drain from his face. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled with tension as I felt rather then heard something move behind me.
"Little Aven and her frrriend all alone in the foresssst." The voice of a thousand screaming souls whispered, chuckling with glee.
My eyes flicked to Ruben who was staring with horror at the creature behind me. It was back, the grotesque, deadly evil Draknar who had created the Mind Trap and who I had consequently stabbed in its black pit of an eye. But this time, this time it was real.
My hands shook and my stomach clenched with fear as the putrid smell of burning flesh filled the air. The sound of slithering tentacles and clicking bones filled my ears as it moved closer towards me. Hot breath stung my back as a fiery tongue flicked out, tasting the air just right of my head. Smoke caused my eyes to smart as it open its jaws to laugh again.
"W…what….what are you?" I jolted in surprise as Ruben spoke, his voice quavering as the creature turned its gruesome head towards him. I frowned at him, then realised he really didn't know, I hadn't told either him or Dignus about what happened in the Mind Trap. It was only the words from the soul of the forest, Elrindath, who had given me a name to put to the evil. And I really wish I didn't know. Giving it a name just made it all the more terrifying.
As I felt the beasts burning attention shift, I willed my stiff legs to walk me forward. Moving as quietly as possible, I edged along my branch. Claws scraped the wood, and the branch shuddered as it slithered forward. Slowly, I crept further along the branch, my eyes locked on the branch Ruben stood on. Stepping carefully onto the adjacent bough, I carried on walking. As I grew level with Ruben, he glanced at me, fear widening his green eyes.
I turned to face the Draknar, fear and hatred welling in the pit of my stomach. Like a living nightmare, it loped towards us, its form merging and shifting as fire rippled along its back.
"Such youth, such courage," it hissed, "how much better your souls will taste when I devour them."
Beside me, Ruben stood ridged, transfixed as the Draknar loomed above us. Smoke bellowed out from beneath it and rivets of orange flame trickled from its cavernous mouth as it laughed, fire hungrily biting into the thick branch it crouched on. As I watched the flames, something began to register in my fear-drenched mind. Quickly, I stepped backwards, my heels hitting the trunk of the tree. With my eyes still fixed warily on the Draknar, I fumbled behind me until my fingers found what I'd been searching for. Holding the leaf in my clenched fist, I grabbed Rubens arm, my hand finding his as the heat from the burning bough shimmered towards us. This was it, either my plan would work or we'd die.
"YOUR MINE!" the creature roared, the branch beneath it crumbling as the flames ate away at the wood. "LONG HAVE I WAITED FOR THIS MOMENT, COME TO ME MY LITTLE LUNASRA, LET ME DEVOUR YOUR SOUUUULLLL!"
"Whatever you do," I told Ruben, raising my voice as the creature howled with glee, "don't let go."
The branch the beneath the Draknar collapsed in a crack of sparks, the whole trunk juddering and pitching forward as the huge limb fell. The Draknar yowled in anger as its writhing form disappeared beneath the canopy of flaming leaves.
"Come on!" I screamed at Ruben as the tree groaned in protest. Flames licked at the trunk as we leapt onto the adjacent tree.
Sweat dripped from my brow and smoke filled my lungs as we ran clumsily along the branch. Stopping, I watched as the fire consumed the ancient tree. Already, flames had jumped onto the branch we stood on and I knew time was running out.
"WE CANT OUTRUN IT!" Ruben shouted, his face twisting in terror as the bough began to weaken.
With one hand still locked in Rubens, I unfurled my other tightly clenched fist. The leaf lay in my palm, still green and fresh, unharmed from the heat or soot. Holding it by the stem, I clenched my eyes shut, willing my Majik to surface. Nothing happened, and I frowned in desperation as the heat licked at our heels. Concentrate, clear your mind, picture the place you want the forest to take you. Even though the voice inside my head was mine, I knew these weren't my words. Breathing out sharply, I tried again. I pictured the cart, with its worn seats and squeaking wheels. I could almost feel the smooth wood of its sides as a familiar tingling sensation started on the backs of my hands. Power surged through me, and I winced as the Majik sung through my veins. Concentrating on the feel of the leaf in my hand, I directed the power towards it.
Opening my eyes I laughed in relief as, growing swiftly in front of us, was a tunnel. Branches merged together, interweaving and forming the walls of our escape route, its insides glowing a soft green as plants knitted together.
Behind me, a loud popping sound brought with it a wave of intense heat. Then a bloodcurdling roar.
"It's back!" Ruben shouted above the sound of burning. I glanced behind me, blades of fear twisting in my gut something writhed up out of the flames.
"MOVE!" I screamed at Ruben, both of us scrambling into the tunnel as flames enveloped the branch.
With Ruben ahead of me, we sprinted through the passage, our desperately pounding feet only ever a few metres ahead of the crackle and roar of the gathering flames.
My heart felt like it would burst out my chest, and every harsh breath I gasped made my lungs ache. Adrenaline pounded through me as heat seared my back, the fire eating away greedily at the tunnel, the moss-green walls turning black as the soot and flames leapt ever nearer.
Thick soupy smoke swirled round us, choking my lungs and making my eyes water. Queasiness clenched at my stomach and I tongue felt like a piece of wood as I pushed my aching legs to go faster. It's catching up with us, I thought suddenly. Something was niggling at the back of my mind, fire shouldn't be this fast. I knew fire, we used it all the time to ward of sneaking warprats and the occasional Knacker, but this fire, this fire seemed to have a target. And it seemed to be us.
"OF COURSE!" I shouted at Rubens back, "RUBEN, THIS ISNT ORDINARY FIRE! IT'S THE FIRE FROM THE DRAKNAR!"
Ruben glanced back at me quickly, his face slick with sweat and soot. "THAT'S THE DRAKNAR?" he said, "THE BEAST FROM THE LEDGENS?"
"DOES IT MATTER?" I shouted back in annoyance. Who cares if it was a legend, the bloody thing was trying to kill us!
"SO WHAT YOUR SAYING," Ruben began, his voice rasping, "…WHAT YOUR SAYING IS THAT THIS IS A SOMEWHAT PSYCOTIC FIRE? THAT ITS TRYING TO DESTROY US, THAT IT HAS A…A TELEPATHIC LINK WITH THE DRAKNAR?"
Wiping the sweat and tears off my face, I frowned as Rubens words sunk in.
"YEAH…YEAH I GUESS!" I shouted hoarsely back, "MAJIKAL FIRE!" My insides suddenly felt like they had been plunged in ice as I realised what this meant. "RUBEN, IF THIS IS MAJIKAL FIRE," I swallowed as panic caused my throat to contract, "IF THIS IS MAJIKAL FIRE, THEN SURELY IT WON'T GO OUT NATURALLY….IT WILL JUST KEEP ON BURNING!"
"YES….YES YOUR RIGHT!" Ruben yelled back, "AND THAT MEANS WE WILL HAVE TO FIGHT MAJIK WITH MAJIK!"
"Well yes okay-" I agreed, before realising what he just said, "WAIT WHAT?"
Rubens sigh was audible even over the whoosh of the flames. "I AM AN APPRENTICE AVEN, I CAN DO MAJIK."
"Oh, yeah, right. OKAY!" I shouted back, wondering how on earth we were supposed to do that. Glancing hastily behind me, I noticed that flames of the Draknar were falling behind, and the intense heat was fading.
"Ruben, Ruben we're ahead of the flames. If we're gunna do anything, it has to be now." I watched as Ruben slowed down and we both spun round to face the oncoming flames.
We were in the mouth of the ravaged tunnel, the forest before us hidden in the black heat of flame and smoke.
"Right," Ruben said, breathing out as his brow furrowed in concentration. The flames, seeming to sense an opposition, launched forward, crawling hungrily towards us, the smoke billowing around us as the blood-red flickers danced along the tunnel walls.
I felt my skin tingle and something in the air to my right crackled. Blue light encircled Rubens arms and hands, and as he raised his palms, the light formed into swirling bands of water.
"AVEN!" he shouted, staring in confusion at me, "COME ON, ITS GETTING NEARER!"
"I DON'T KNOW HOW TO DO IT!" I bellowed back, shielding my eyes as hot smoke blew in waves towards us.
"CALL UP YOU MAJIK, " Ruben instructed, raising his voice against the roar of the flames, "THEN TRY TO CENTRE THE POWER INTO WATER. YOUR STARTING MAJIK IS LIGHT, AND THAT CAN TRANSFORM INTO ANYTHING. JUST PICTURE IT AS WATER."
Holding out my palms, I focused my gaze at the vicious swirling flames. The tongues of orange and red seethed towards me, spiralling in golden embers. Something shifted inside my mind, and I felt the rush of power that signalled my Majik. Light began to glow around my hands, and the symbols gleamed with a white blaze. But this time, instead of focusing on the light, I imagined water. Cold, refreshing water, blue and green like a lake on a sunny day, black and furious as the white-tipped waves of a storm. The light changed, and water burst from my palms, hitting the flames with the force of an avalanche. Water and fire seethed together in a boiling whirl of elements. I felt Ruben's water smash into the side of the flames, the fire rising higher as the combined forces of mine and Ruben's Majik twisted round the column of fire, the huge waves of water crashing again and again down on the roaring flames. Slowly, the vortex of flame and water dwindled, the bands of swirling water fanning out as the fire spread outwards, the wall of water smashing down on the fire from all directions.
Smoke belched from the dying flames, and steam rose from the plumes of water that extinguished the last flickering flames. Drops trickeld out of the mouth of the tunnel, making paths in the layers of soot.
I turned to Ruben smiling, and he grinned back, his green eyes sparkling in his soot-covered face. We had done it; we had defeated the Draknar's fire. My shoulders slumped forward as the sense of relief washed over me.
"Come on," Ruben said, wringing out a sleeve of his tunic as he wandered further into the tunnel, "lets go."
I stepped warily onto the wooden walkway, and was instantly flattened as Wolf launched himself at me.
"Wolf!" I cried, smiling as his exited barks filled the air. He leapt off me as Ruben climbed onto the walkway, flying over to where Ruben stood, his barking getting higher and higher until he was practically yelping with joy at the return of his two masters.
I giggled and shook my head as I walked over to the little cart. Sleeping soundly on the front seat and smiling peacefully, was Dignus.
"Looks like your sleeping cast was pretty good," I called to Ruben, "he's still out of it."
Ruben appeared beside me, frowning as he gazed down at Dignus's sleeping form. "Hmm, I didn't realize it would have such a lasting effect on him." He murmured, squinting up at the sun; "we must have been in the forest for about…oh…six or seven hours so…it should be about three o'clock."
A grunt came from the cart and we both glanced down in surprise as Dignus yawned hugely, stretched, and sat up. Rubbing his eyes, he shifted in his seat and looked over his shoulder at us.
"I was wondering when you two'd get back," Dignus chuckled, "I got so bored that I'd thought I would take a nap."
We stared at him in shock. My mind went blank as Ruben started to stutter out an explanation.
"Yes, yes I'm quite sure you had quite an adventurous time," Dignus said with a wave of his hand, "but we really must be going."
"B…but Dignus, weren't you worried?" Ruben began; recovering his voice, "I mean we could have died, infact we nearly did die-" he stopped abruptly as I stamped on his foot.
"Now, now children," a voice behind us chided, "no fighting please. You might give Wolf bad ideas."
Both Ruben and I whirled around, my brow furrowing at the sight of the man that stood before us.
"Forest-" I began, before Ruben interrupted me.
"Professor Viridis," he said in surprise, "what are you doing here?"