Shadows swarmed Dryden from every direction. Leaves and branches formed daunting shapes against the glare of his lantern’s flame. They seemed to reach for him from the depths of the night, like the hands of a demon ready to drag him and his father into the underworld. He quivered, then cursed himself for such cowardice. It was only a forest.
Lantern raised, Flint stared into the darkness with a grim expression. “If I remember correctly, the path winds in a circle around the outside, and a ravine leads to the centre.”
Dryden squinted. “I don’t see a path.”
“It’s further in. Watch where you walk. This is a dangerous forest. I don’t know what Sargan was thinking when he decided to set traps here.”
The two pushed through the jumble of branches acting as a flimsy barricade to the heart of the forest. Chirping crickets welcomed them as they foraged deeper. An odd smell permeated from within, the taste of the air reminding Dryden of the butcher’s shop. It wasn’t quite as staunch, but a lingering hint of animal—or blood—clung to the leaves around him. Or perhaps he was imagining it.
“What do you think happened to Sargan?” he asked, his voice jarring against the thick silence.
Flint grunted as he climbed over a fallen tree. “I’d like to say he just fell and injured himself—maybe cracked his head against a rock or something.” He paused, and a gloom settled over his eyes. “I hope he’s not facedown in a bed of water.”
Images of an untimely fate spiralled through Dryden’s mind. “It would have to be quite a fall to kill him, wouldn’t it?”
“You never know in here.” Flint’s voice sounded both hopeful and fearful. “If there’s one thing that scares me senseless, it’s the thought of wandering through a dark forest the same time as Ghathil.”
Ghathil, the lord of death. A chill ran down Dryden’s spine. “That’s just a myth, isn’t it?”
Flint shuddered. “I wish it was. If a body isn’t properly buried, Ghathil will come to claim it himself. They say if you interrupt him, he’ll take your soul as well. He’s an ill-humoured fellow, and you better believe if I see him, I’m running out of this forest as fast as my legs can carry me.”
Dryden breathed slowly, eyeing the dark corners of the forest. “Well, make sure it’s not Sargan before you start screaming and running about.”
“Ghathil is hard to mistake,” said Flint. “He’s about seven feet tall, and white anachlems bloom beneath his feet as he walks.”
A spider web caught Dryden in the face. He brushed the threads away, then a tree branch knocked his hat off his head. He stooped to pick it up and noticed a lone white flower at the base of a thick oak tree. “Is this an anachlem?” he asked.
Flint kneeled beside the flower and ran his finger along the tear-shaped petals. “No, but it looks similar, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, they gather in the shape of Ghathil’s feet. You’d know it if you saw it.”
A wave of relief settled Dryden’s nerves. “That’s good to know. How about we leave the grim tales behind? It’s eerie enough walking through this forest at night.”
Flint nodded. They marched through the thickets until they came to a path—a stretch of trampled grass with trees lining one edge. A precipice ran along the other side, with rocks jutting out like crooked pikes.
Dryden peered over the edge. “Is it even possible to get further into the forest?”
“The ground levels by the ravine,” said Flint. He ran his lantern along the ground and pointed to a footprint stamped in the grass. “Look here. Seems we’re on Sargan’s trail. I had a hunch he’d go this way.”
Dryden’s spirits lifted. He followed behind his father, nursing a timid hope that they might find Sargan alive and well. Using the overhanging branches for balance, he crept along the slanted ground, toes jammed into the grass to steady himself. The path teetered towards the crevasse, as if it were designed to push travellers over the edge. One ill-fated step would be enough to toss him into the darkness below.
A break in the path halted their progress. Their lanterns revealed a manmade bridge crossing over a deep gully. Missing boards checkered the structure, and trampled moss peppered the remaining planks. Groans sounded as Flint set his foot on the first board and pressed against it.
“We better go one at a time,” he said. “We should be alright if Sargan managed to cross.”
Dryden stepped forward. “I’ll go first. I won’t be able to find my way out of here if it collapses on you.”
He expected his father to argue, but he nodded instead, a stony grimace set about his jaw. Dryden reached out and grabbed the bridge’s handrail. His fingers dug into the rotten wood. The boards sagged beneath his feet, but somehow managed to hold his weight. He tiptoed around the missing planks, and tested each piece before shifting his balance.
A breeze blew through the forest. The wood creaked, or perhaps it came from a nearby tree bending in the wind. Leaves trickled down from above; some rested on the bridge, others sunk to the bottom of the gully. Dryden adjusted his posture and took another step forward. His foot sank halfway through the next plank, as if he were walking on sponge.
He retreated a step, shirked to the other side of the bridge, then grabbed the opposite rail for balance. The wood crumpled the moment he put pressure on it. A curse escaped his lips as he flailed his arms in an attempt to stay upright. The broken rail splintered against the ground below. He tipped towards the edge, wavered, then fell to his knees and thrust his arm around a hole in the bridge.
His upper half dangled over the edge. Slivers of wood jabbed his arm. Ignoring the pain, he leveraged himself backwards, and seated himself on the bridge. Riled breath reverberated through his lungs. He set down his lantern, which he had somehow kept firmly in his free hand, and looked over at Flint. His father stared with wide eyes. “Are you okay?”
Dryden nodded. He couldn’t find any words at the moment.
A scowl creased Flint’s lips. He rested a thumb and finger against the bridge of his nose. “This is ridiculous. What was Sargan thinking? We’ll end up dead if we wander much deeper.”
Dryden didn’t reply. He took his lantern and crawled along the rest of the bridge, half-expecting the entire structure to give out, yet he reached the end with no more than a few sagging planks and a thrumming heartbeat. Something within him wanted to laugh as he rose to his feet. Father’s right. This is ridiculous.
With Dryden on the opposite side, Flint dropped to his knees and mimicked the route he had taken. He made it across without a single hiccup, and with no words exchanged, they continued along the path. The precipice followed beside them while the ground to their right rose in the form of a cliff, until it had propelled the trees beyond their reach. Dryden held on to whatever grip he could find, though the wall of stone offered little for his fingers to cling to. As he struggled to keep upright, leaves rustled from above, their collective chitter like mockery.
Everything seems alive. No wonder people stay away from Bonial Woods. Sargan must’ve been crazy to come in here alone.
Something brushed against his neck. He whirled around and had to claw at a chunk of stone to steady himself. The noise drew a startled grunt from Flint. “What is it?”
Dryden took a long breath to settle himself, then raised his lantern. A rope dangled from the rock-face, swaying gently like a pendulum. The frayed end looked as if it had been torn or gnawed apart. He gave it a light tug. “Something’s attached on the other end. It feels pretty heavy.”
He pulled again, and the rope went slack. Something made of steel fell from above. It struck the path in front of him with a clang, then tumbled off the ledge, echoing through the forest as it cartwheeled to the unseen depths.
It crashed into something at the bottom, and an animal cried out in annoyance. Flint stood peering over the edge, a look of curiosity on his face. “What was that?”
“I didn’t really see it,” said Dryden, “but it looked like it might’ve been a snare. Would Sargan have been able to get up there to set a trap?”
Flint eyed the rock-face behind him. “I think there’s a way up further ahead. The path splits, from what I remember.”
“How do you know so much about this forest?” asked Dryden.
Flint shrugged. “Chrizodo and I were avid hunters when we were young. Bonial Woods is notorious for its dangerous terrain, but also for its prime game. And we were hot-headed, arrogant teenagers. We thought exploring this forest would prove we were the best hunters in Byromar.”
Flint seemed to ponder a moment before shaking his head and moving on. Dryden followed, trying to imagine his father as an arrogant, hot-headed teenager. It seemed too contradictory to his composed and upright demeanor. But then again, he had been told his father was a wild character, and only calmed after he had found him abandoned on his front step as an infant. Byromar had never seen a thruin before, and Flint and Liliana shocked the townspeople by choosing to keep him. At least that’s what the rumour was. Neither of them talked about it that much.
Silence lingered in company with Dryden’s thoughts for a stretch of time, interrupted only after the fork in the path finally appeared. The left spiralled downwards, beneath the path they stood on, while the right turned upwards and retreated to the rock-face.
“This way,” said Flint. They took the ascending route. The ground evened at the top and brought them to a near-impassable mess of bushes and branches.
Dryden pushed against the wall. He moved at a languid pace, hampered by the shrubbery that coiled around his arms and legs like shackles. A branch caught him in the forehead and tore off a thin line of skin. A warm bead of blood dripped down the side of his face, slowly fading from red to white. He wiped it with his sleeve and carried on.
Another strand of rope, strewn among the trees like a spider’s web, appeared under the light of the lantern. Flint joined him as they tugged on it until it broke free from the branches. His father examined the shredded end. “This looks like where it was cut.” He cupped his mouth and hollered. “Sargan! Sargan? Hello?”
His voiced bounced through the trees. The crickets paused, as if waiting to see whether Sargan would reply. Dryden stood with his breath held, praying to hear a response. The leaves rustled, but no other noise arose.
“This isn’t looking good,” sighed Flint. “I sure don’t feel like stumbling into a dead body tonight.”
“He could be unconscious,” said Dryden, though he doubted the optimism of his own words.
Flint murmured. They pressed on, away from the rock-face and deeper into the tangle of forest. The dim glow of the lanterns made practically anything capable of looking like a corpse. Every leaf looked like a hand, every stump a body. As Dryden parted a cluster of saplings, Flint shot out a hand and pointed straight ahead. “There! What’s that?”
Something lay trampled in the dirt, indecipherable from where they stood. Dryden pushed forwards and shone his lantern on a hat, torn and bloodied. It had two messy tears running along the top, accompanied by splotches of dark crimson.
Flint’s expression dropped. “This isn’t good. Looks like something attacked him.”
“But we haven’t seen any anachlems yet,” said Dryden. “Maybe he got away.”
Flint pinched his eyes and rubbed at his temples. “Even so, whatever attacked him might be lurking around here.” He fingered the cover of a small hunting knife. Its tiny, meek blade offered little solace. “Did you bring anything to protect yourself?”
Dryden shook his head. He had been so flustered by the commotion Bevera caused, he had raced for Bonial woods without any preparation.
“Stick close to me,” Flint said with a frown. “I don’t need anything to happen to you.”
Dryden had no desire to argue. He kept within arm’s reach of his father, perusing the ground for any more signs of Sargan. His stomach churned as the buzzing of flies began to drizzle through the air. He caught several boles speckled with drops of blood. Tiny scraps of fabric littered the forest floor.
He stepped over a fallen log then sprang back with a cry. A severed hand lay on the ground, basked in its own pool of blood. One finger bent backwards, another hung on by the skin. Strands of shredded muscle dangled from the wrist.
A clammy sweat formed at the base of Dryden’s neck. A lump constricted his throat, and the forest became suddenly hot. Flint rested his hand on his shoulder, as if he were trying to console him, though he looked just as upset, if not more.
Dryden forced down a wave of nausea. “He’s dead. We were at home, laughing and merrymaking, and all the while Sargan was being devoured by a wild animal.”
“There’s nothing we could’ve done,” said Flint. “None of us knew he had come here. If I had known, I would’ve stopped him.”
Dryden clutched at his stomach. “Poor Bevera…”
He knelt to look at the hand. The skin had begun to grey, and purple bruises dotted the flesh. Why’d this have to happen? Nobody’s been killed in Byromar before. How are we going to tell Bevera?
A rustling in the distance cut his thoughts short. A branch snapped. Chills fluttered through his veins. Something paced nearby, and it sounded like it weighed far more than an average human.
Flint motioned for Dryden to cover his lantern. He did so, then stared into the depths of darkness, breath held. I wish I’d brought a sword.
Something moved—about a stone’s throw away, its silhouette shrouded in a shade of black even darker than the unlit forest. It looked like a giant wrapped in a heavy cloak. The smell of the butcher’s grew stronger. The thing kept walking in slow, deliberate steps.
What the hell is that? Dryden squinted. Is it a person or animal?
It didn’t grunt like a wild beast, but it seemed too colossal to be human. Could it be Ghathil?
The silhouette turned towards Dryden. It began to force its way through the bushes. The shadow grew larger and larger as it neared. Flint snatched Dryden by the wrist and pulled him away. With their lanterns covered, they barged blindly through the darkness as tree branches slapped Dryden in the face and tugged at his feet.
The thing took chase. Its stride trampled anything blocking its path. It sounded as if it were catching up, but Dryden didn’t dare look back. He ran as fast as he could, wrestling with the strain of the foliage until the trees disappeared. Flint yanked him to a halt then uncovered his lantern. They stood half a step from the edge of the rock-face.
“We have to jump!” said Flint, his voice hoarse. “Just make sure you don’t slide off the path.”
The sound of the thing approaching provided more than enough motivation. Dryden leapt. He landed awkwardly, and his feet slipped from underneath him. His head cracked against a rock. Dizziness imbibed his mind as he slid down the path. His feet dangled over the edge. He flailed for something to hold onto.
Flint seized his arm and hoisted him back onto the path. He smothered the lantern and they shrank against the base of the rock-face. Dryden covered his mouth and listened, afraid to move an inch, lest he loose any dirt and give themselves away.
Above them, the thing breathed—deep willowing breaths like that of an approaching storm. Pebbles trickled from the top and pattered against them before tumbling into the precipice.
Flint whispered in Dryden’s ear, his voice so quiet, Dryden could barely understand the words. “We have to run. I’ll uncover my lantern, and you follow me back to where we entered the forest. Watch your step.”
Flint crawled onto his knees, and Dryden did the same. He opened the lantern’s cover and took off. Dryden leapt to his feet and trailed a half-step behind, only realizing now how hard he had hit his head. His hat felt as if it were made of lead, his neck like a hinge that hadn’t been oiled in years.
Though it was hazardous to look away from the path for more than a second, he glanced over his shoulder at the thing. It stood motionless at the top of the rock-face—an impenetrable shade of black. Man or beast, it remained motionless, staring at the two as they scampered away like cowardly prey.