Beautiful Chaos: Part Five
"And then the whole boat sank!" Milo finished one of his many tales with a loud guffaw. "Oh, ya just had to be there. It was hilarious! The look on Chen's face! Aha! And I don't think we've been back to Faerieland since, have we, my dear? Oh, it was a funny weekend."
Leo threw a pained look over his shoulder at Cedrik, who grimaced back. Chen noticed the exchange of expressions between them, and turned her face away slightly to hide her smile.
"You know, it's really sweet that you guys wanted to tag along, but I'm sure we can manage on our own just fine. I mean we've been walking for what... three months? We should be there very soon," Cedrik said, trying not to smirk.
"Oh please. You two wouldn't have made it past the first bend in the road!" Milo replied cheerfully. "Besides, we need to go back to the Citadel anyway, this was a good a nudge as anything."
"Why are you going there?" Leo asked curiously, as they marched along the old worn path. On each side the trees grew tall and dark, and in the moonlight the leaves gleamed silver. There were no stars in the sky and the air was cold and dead.
"Lovely night for a stroll," Milo said briskly, ignoring the Lupe's comment and pulling his cloak more tightly around himself.
There were no noises other than the sounds of their footsteps on the stone path and their exhalations of breath; the night was still.
Cedrik and Leo had lit the tips of their wands and held them next to the old fire lantern they had brought, but the light that was cast was feeble and Leo kept stepping on the Draik's toes.
There was a faint rustling in the trees behind them and the party of four spun around nervously.
"Was probably just a Mortog or something," Milo said confidently. "We get quite a few of those around here."
The tree shook violently, sending leaves to the ground.
"Maybe a really... big Mortog?" Leo pointed his wand at the tree and muttered and incantation under his breath and the rustling stopped. "Milo, after you."
"Oho! Bravery in the face of certain peril and doom, eh? I like you, old chap!" Milo clapped the Lupe heartily on the back before striding forward towards the tree. "Hello? Hello...!"
There was a low growling noise and Milo jumped back in surprise. The tree rustled once more as the leaves parted as though something was standing amongst the thicket. Cedrik strained his eyes in the darkness but saw nothing.
"Can we go now?" Leo hissed in his ear, his wand still pointed at the tree.
Cedrik opened his mouth to answer when the clouds cloaking the moon shifted slightly in the wind and the moonlight shone down on them. It illuminated the tree and fallen leaves on the floor glowed silver, and against the shining flora a lone dark shadow hovered.
"Nobody move... a muscle..." Chen whispered through clenched teeth, her eyes narrowed as she stared at the shadow.
The four stood completely still and deathly still in the middle of the path, watching the dark shape. It did not move, and Leo started to feel stupid.
"It's just a shadow, it's not alive," he said quietly, shuffling his feet slightly.
Chen shifted her gaze slightly to meet his.
"If it's just a shadow, and we're the only ones here," she said as softly as she could, "then what's casting it?"
To this Leo had no answer and looked back at the dark shape in front of the tree. In the moonlight he was sure his mind was playing tricks on him, but he could've sworn that it had moved slightly.
"What does standing still have to do with anything, though?" he couldn't help asking.
Chen and Milo exchanged silent exasperated glances.
"If you don't move," the Meerca said through clenched lips, "it might not realise you're alive."
The trees rustled again and the shadow shifted slightly, and Leo remembered what Chen had first said when she heard they were travelling to the Citadel;
"There have been... rumours. Talk of strange creatures living around the path, in the Forest, preying on the lost. So don't get lost. Stay on the path. Whatever happens, DON'T wander off. And count the shadows. Always remember to count the shadows. Good luck."
"It knows," Chen hissed, backing away slowly and motioning for the others to do the same. "No sudden movements, it knows we're here, it's sensed us. Slowly back away and when I say run, run and don't look back."
Cedrik looked at Leo out of the corner of his eye and saw panic on his face that he assumed looked similar to that on his own. He nodded once at Chen and took a careful step backwards, his eyes never leaving the dark shadow. The wind shifted slightly and with dismay the Draik realised the clouds were slowly rolling over the moon again. As the last beams of moonlight faded and the night darkened once more, a terrible moaning came from the direction of the big tree.
"RUN, NOW!" Chen yelled, and the four turned and ran as fast as their legs could carry them, blindly in no particular direction other than away from the shadow creature. Cedrik felt the awful sensation of something hot and heavy breathing down the back of his neck and he felt the icy cold hand of fear clench his heart. Unaware of anyone else around him, in a wild panic he sent a jet of blue light over his should with his wand before spreading his wings and pushing himself off the ground.
The clouds cleared once more and the moon shone brightly down in the clearing while the Draik hovered in the air, and as he looked around he realised he was alone in the dark woods, his companions were nowhere to be seen, neither was the shadow creature.
"Leo? Chen? Anyone?" He called out into the forest, his voice echoing slightly. No answer. "Great. That's just... great. Leo? Leo!"
He lit the tip of his wand once again and shone it into the thicket of trees. There was no movement and no sound.
"Did you hear something? Cedrik! Ced!" Leo yelled as loud as he could, frantically shoving aside tree branches and leaves to find where the noise was coming from. A thin branch was pulled back and sprung forward, whacking him squarely in the face. He howled with pain and kicked at the tree, his arms flailing around and snagging on random tree parts. He got so frustrated that he grabbed his wand and set the tree on fire, and glared at it as it was consumed by flames and smouldered brightly in the dark night.
"What was the point of that??" Chen asked from behind him, standing with her hands on her hips and looking exasperated.
"I disagreed with it," the Lupe snapped back, watching the blazing fire rage, feeling a sense of victory amongst his panic of losing his best friend in the woods of the Citadel.
"Oho! Fiery one, eh!" Milo chortled, nudging Chen with his elbow. "Get it? Fiery? See what I did there?"
The Kacheek rolled her eyes at him and turned back to Leo.
"You won't find your friend by setting the environment on fire, you know," she said disapprovingly.
"What do you know? You only came along to 'help' us out, and all you've managed to do is get us lost in the woods and now Cedrik is gone! What have you actually done for us, pray tell?" Leo spun on her angrily, his mouth set in a grim line and his wand raised. "For all we know this was your plan all along! Separate us and then you can... do something terrible!"
"Something terrible?" Chen repeated, looking slightly amused and crossing her arms over her chest.
"Yes!" the Lupe replied emphatically. "You Darigans, always got something up your sleeve. You lured us out here! And now you're going to... going to..." he trailed off, looking at the odd couple with a sigh. "You're not going to do anything, are you?"
"Wasn't planning on it, no," Milo replied cheerfully, reaching into his rucksack and pulling out a small compass. "Now do ya want to find your friend or not? Oh, and put out that fire, will ya?"
Cedrik felt as though he'd been wandering through the woods for months. His feet hurt, his head hurt, his eyes hurt, every part of his body hurt, he missed Leo and he was just generally feeling very sorry for himself.
Using his wand to guide the way, he trudged through the trees, stopping every so often when he thought he heard something. He was unnerved and thoroughly spooked, and he found himself wishing desperately for company, so much so that he wouldn't even have minded Milo's constant stream of chatter.
He sighed deeply and carried on walking.
"How is a compass going to help us find him?" Leo asked, frowning at the Meerca as he held up the small device in the moonlight and was peering at it intently.
"You don't just get 'lost' in these woods, Leo. It's a bit more than that," Chen said, and went on to explain as he continued to look grumpy and confused. "These aren't like the woods of Meridell, they're a bit more... alive. They change you. You can enter as someone and exit -if you're lucky- as someone completely different. Wandering around by yourself isn't good for one's sanity. And the shadow creatures, they devour. They're slow and not very smart, but if they latch onto a food source they can stalk them for days. I don't know how we got away, and the only reason I can think of is one you really don't need to contemplate. So, we'll move on and try to get out of here alive."
"I thought you knew the way and that's why you came along in the first place, to see us through?"
"Well, yes, we did. But look around you Leo, we're off the path. What did I tell you? NEVER STRAY OFF THE PATH. And now we're in the middle of the woods, with things all around that you don't even want to think about, and now it's our job to get you safely to the Citadel and hopefully find Cedrik along the way. Now, any questions?"
"Just one. What's the compass for?"
To be continued...