After my watch had ended and Phoenix had taken over, I had a sleepless night. At night, the rainforest had come alive with noise from the constant deafening buzz of an army of insects to the hostile screeches of different species of monkey.
I had just been drifting off when I’d heard a crinkle of leaves outside my tent and had gone to investigate to find an enormous snake slithering over the ground. I hadn’t been able to get settled for some reason after that. So, I had laid awake as the rain thrummed on the roof of my tent and then as the water dropped into my tent and onto my sleeping bag.
It was now morning and the area was filled with a variety of different bird calls, singing to greet the day. I pulled my tent flap back and shielded my eyes as the sun bounced off freshly settled dew, making every surface in the camp glitter magnificently. I stood up and sweat slicked my skin almost immediately upon stepping outside.
The dew had added a crystalline shimmer to all the greenery and when the sun-dappled patches of light hit the beads of water they reflected to add a healthy gleam to the natural foliage. I walked over to Alexander, who had been on the last watch and was now fast asleep, and sat down on the fallen limb opposite him. This action brushed against a branch behind me and shook loose all the dew that had settled upon it.
I watched as the glowing embers of the fire died, leaving a scorched area on the ground along with charred pieces of wood. There was still a strong smell of camp-fire smoke in the air, leaving my throat dry. I reached across Alexander’s lap to drink some of his water. Hot air rolled uncomfortably over me as if I were standing in front of an oven in the form of a warm breeze.
The morning was quiet and still, it would have been peaceful if it wasn’t for the distant animal cries and Alexander’s snoring. I was checking over my sunburn when I found the couple of mosquito bites on my shoulder from the day before, they stung slightly but weren’t going to be too much of an issue.
Before the others woke, I thought it would be a good way to save time if I geared up and packed away my tent. I changed from yesterdays grubby tank top and bottoms which stuck like my body odor into a fresh vest and cargo shorts, I could still swing my arms and legs freely without being restricted in these. I picked up and fastened my heavy utility belt, equipped with flash lights and hex bags, around my waist before pulling my hair back from my face into a ponytail.
Avoiding the creepy crawlies and a group of mushrooms, I un-pegged my tent from the mud and rolled it away neatly. I folded my tarpaulin up from the floor, shaking off a bug or two, and placed it into my knapsack along with my sleeping bag.
I ate a couple of the tasteless roots Eztil had found last night and went back over to Alexander. “Alex?” I whispered, shaking him gently, “Alex it’s time to wake up.”
He was up like a shot, hands curled into fists as if ready to fight. He lowered them when he realised it was only me, “Oh,” He sighed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, “Good morning.”
“Morning,” I smiled.
He picked some moss out of his hair, “You sleep ok?”
“I’ve had better nights.” I shrugged, “It wasn’t the comfiest of beds.” I chuckled softly.
Alexander smiled, “I kind of miss the comforts of Verona.”
I looked up to see the sun was already high in the sky, “Come on, let’s get the others up.”
We picked our way through the wild as silently as we could, torches in hand and ready to flick on at a moments notice. Eztil leading the way, Phoenix and Alexander behind him and me bringing up the rear. We followed Eztil, who was finding his way through the jungle using only his reliable memory and navigation skills. We crept through the undergrowth and creaking trees until Eztil held up his hand, indication for us to stop.
He peeled back a branch so we all could see, “There,” He pointed to a cluster of trees casting dark shadows across the rainforest floor. “That is where I saw them.”
“Where are they?” I whispered, scanning the shrubs and entwining vines.
Eztil frowned, “They’re asleep.”
“Where, in fact, do the demons sleep?” I questioned, leaning towards him so close I could smell his sweat.
Eztil took a couple of seconds to answer, “I imagine, in the shadows. So they do not burn.”
I nodded, it seemed reasonable enough. Around the group of tall saplings with leaves hemming the clearing, was a cage of hanging moss, creating a shady area. It looked as if it would stay shady all day, no matter what position the sun was. A perfect place for a Shadow to hide, I gestured to it, “Could that be it?”
Eztil followed my gaze and examined the moss himself, with a snort of approval he said, “Yes, that would hide them effectively throughout the day.”
I suddenly felt as if we were being watched. The hairs on the back of my neck started to tingle, as they used to before I knew of the Shadows, and I shuddered. The air felt heavy as if it were weighing me down causing a feeling of claustrophobia creep into me. I took a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves as my eyes darted all over the place as I attempted to detect another presence.
I heard an ear-piercing screech, followed by another and then another. They rang out eerily through the clearing and they were unmistakable.
“They are here,” Eztil proclaimed, his lip curling up into a snarl with his sword at the ready.
Phoenix and Alexander had their torches held high, readying themselves for the attack. I was overwhelmed with their recognizable stench, growing ever stronger.
They were getting closer.
“Run!” I yelled, dashing away from the high-pitched screams.
I quickly turned to check if my team were following and they were, running faster than I thought possible behind me. I flinched away from a noise to my left, my torchlight illuminating the area but it turned out to be a capybara’s snort as it snapped its way through the undergrowth. I pushed on, my light feet carrying me into a fast sprint.
Sweat poured down my neck and face, washing off the dirt fixed to my skin. I flew over slippery leaves and leaped over fallen trees in my path, the wet ground crumbling slightly underfoot as branches whipped at my exposed skin as I raced through the thicket.
Everything was happening in slow motion, out of the corner of my eye I saw it. I saw a Shadow, standing by a tree wrapped with vines as if to camouflage itself. As my gaze landed on it, it exploded into flame then began dancing jerkily and shrieking. I knew there were a hundred more eyes watching me from the depths of the rainforest, I could sense them just not see them.
My feet became hot and damp from sweat in my boots as I kept going and the air was thick on my tongue causing my breath to become stale. I came to a clearing, the sunlight almost blinding me and turned to face the army of demons chasing us through the trees.
Alexander, Eztil and Phoenix were at my side a split second after I had stopped, panting hard with sweat dripping from their faces. We waited and watched as Shadow after Shadow ran into the light, set fire and crumbled to ashes.
Then they stopped coming all together, they were dead. I bent over and began to gulp down air with gasping breaths, I was so relieved. As the screams of the dying demons faded, my ears noticed another sound. The roar of rushing water. I turned and I gasped in awe at the view that met my eyes.
There was a white, frothy cascade of water falling into a plunge pool, creating a misty spray. The water of the pool was blue-green but clear and its waves were gentle as they lapped at the pebbled rocks along the shoreline. A macaw called out loudly from a tree overhanging the pool and a group of densely built tapirs drank from the water’s edge. The sunshine from the clear sky, now clearly visible overhead, baked surrounding rocks and glittered across the rippling water, interrupted only by a bunch of lily-pads lying lazy on the surface. Beautiful wild flowers grew on the banks among mossy boulders and tall, lush grass.
“What are we waiting for?” Phoenix laughed, stripping down to her underwear, “Come on!” Without another word she jumped into the pool, splashing droplets of cold water over me.
I didn’t need much persuading, I was excited to rid my stinking body of two days’ worth of sweat and dirt. I shrugged off my knapsack hastily then tugged off my boots and icky socks, along with my grimy top and pants.
I refused to wait another second before plunging myself into the cool water before me. I dove in and relished in the freshness of the pond, water filling my ears. The liquid slid over my skin and as I rose to the surface warmed under the sunshine. I slid my hands through my hair to slick it back from my face, paddling to join Phoenix who was washing herself a little way to my right.
I began by washing the mud off my hands and getting the grit out from under my nails, the two boys had stripped off by then and were wading in the shallows towards us. The water was blissfully brisk and made my skin tingle gleefully, it resisted my movement slightly as I trod water to get to a place where I could stand comfortably.
My feet landed on smooth pebbles mixed with soft sand, squeezing itself in between my toes. I was surrounded by multi-coloured fish, weaving themselves through and around my legs as water drizzled down my clean face.
This was a much-needed paradise.
Phoenix and I were sunbathing on a warm rock in the sun and enjoying the silence and beauty of the deserted plunge pool with our feet dangling in the water. We watched on as Eztil and Alexander chased one another around in the water, splashing and giggling like a pair of girls together. I felt snakes of hair clinging to my neck and shoulders so I sat up briefly to squeeze the water from it.
“This is pleasant,” Phoenix said in a daze, “I wish we never had to leave.”
I smiled as water droplets from the men’s splashes landing on my bare stomach and pattering against the dry rock around me, “Me neither, I wish it could be like this all the time.”
“It’s just nice to not have to worry,” She replied, “This job is lovely without the running and the possibility of dying.”
My eyes were closed but I could still sense the laughter in her tone, “Not worrying would be nice anyway, no matter where we were.” I pointed out.
“You have a point.” Phoenix agreed.
“Also, if this were a job, at least we’d be getting paid.” I chuckled.
Phoenix exhaled, “It’s just so good to be able to relax for once.”
I cleared my throat, “Sorry to end that but we still have no idea where the portal is.”
“Well, the Shadows kind of led us here, so it’s got to be around somewhere.”
I sat thinking for a moment, Eztil had Alexander on his shoulders and then leaned backwards so he fell off with a grand impact. “I wonder if there’s anything behind that waterfall.” I mused.
Phoenix sat up straight suddenly, “Ivy, I think you might be onto something there.” She slid off the rock and into the pool, “Come on.”
We headed over to the waterfall, hoping the portal location would be behind it. Dragonflies skirted and danced over the surface as I held out a hand into the beating froth and let the water pummel my palm, its mist kissing my dry skin. I pulled myself up holding onto rough stone handholds and slipping on a wet, algae-covered rock.
The accidental scrape stung my knee but I tried again, this time successful. As I went through the waterfall I felt the hard tattoo beat of the falling water over my head and shoulders briefly before emerging on the other side.
There was a small space behind the waterfall, big enough for Phoenix and I to stand in.
“This is it,” Phoenix said, “Let me get my candles.”
I waited patiently, listening to the rushing roar of the tumbling water, for her to come back, which didn’t take long at all. She had brought Alexander and Eztil with her and we all huddled together, dripping wet, to watch Phoenix. She lit the red candle and her eyes rolled back into her skull before she started chanting rhythmically.
Once finished a droplet of water landed on the flame of the candle and it immediately fizzled out. The familiar but still sinister figure slowly rose out of the wet ground, without skin and hollow eyes just like before. “Who dares to summon me?” Its creepy voice rang out and echoed off the enclosed walls.
“It’s us,” Phoenix said, flicking the wet hair from her eyes.
The Wraith looked us all up and down, it seemed like it was going to laugh before saying flatly, “I really am getting fed up with the sight of you four.”