As Dristan’s dragon hit the ground, the feet of the other dragons thundered behind us as they landed. It echoed through the sleepy forest, causing flocks of birds to scream and flee from the treetops. The eerie silence that followed was unsettling, sending chills across my skin.
I slid off of Dristan’s back, watching over my shoulder as Marrok and Ronan slid off of Andi and Torryn. Warrick would’ve had Sylvie riding on his back, had he not encouraged her not to come with us. She was determined to come, to support us with as much back up as we might need, but he’d refused. He and Dristan had argued about the subject for nearly an hour before we finally left the Aviary.
Warrick’s argument was that too many of us would be seen as more of a threat to the Kadoma. He seemed to believe that a smaller group was the right plan, so that we could stay closely knit and more organized as a unit.
We all knew his real reasoning, though none of us commented on it. It was obvious that he cared for Sylvie and did not want to put her at risk. I suspected that if it were a different opponent that we were up against, one less horrific than the Kadoma, he would not have left her behind.
The three of us stepped away, backing toward the trees, as the four dragon’s began to glow with golden light. When Dristan, Andromeda, Torryn and Warrick emerged from the light in their natural forms, they each removed their camouflage rune necklaces and tossed them to Ronan. He promptly placed them inside of his leather satchel.
I stepped forward. “We walk from here, then?”
“Yes. It is better to approach quietly and without being seen.” Dristan answered, coming to my side.
Warrick stretched his wings behind him, grimacing slightly. It had been a long flight... I hoped he was not in too much pain. “Without being seen? We have the camouflage runes. Why not just fly all the way there?” He asked.
“The sylphs could see past the runes. They did not work on their eyes. Luckily, the Sylphs were not interested in harming us. If we risk the camouflage runes with the Kadoma, I do not think we would be so lucky a second time.” Dristan answered.
“Hmm.” Warrick grunted, cracking his neck from side to side. “I see your point.”
“Let’s get going. Nightfall is only a few hours off.” Torryn said, turning from the group to lead the way. “Keep your wits about you. Stay alert. You never know what could be out in these woods...”
I glanced around, my eyes searching between the twisted trees and vines as I drew my dagger from the sheath strapped to my thigh. I felt more at east having it gripped in my fist as we walked through the tangled underbrush.
“How long is the hike to the Black Forest?” I asked quietly, keeping close to my mate’s side.
“An hour, give or take a few minutes.” Torryn answered from ahead.
“We are already in a forest... So, how will we know when we are in the Black Forest?” I asked again, drawing my brows together.
“Trust me... You will know.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at his back.
He was silent for a long moment. “You’ll see.”
“I don’t see the point in a silent approach. They’re going to know we’re there the moment we arrive within a mile of the border.” Ronan said from behind us with disapproval. “The Kadoma do not reason. They do not discuss. They won’t ask us why we’re there or what we want. They’ll simply attack.”
No one made a move to argue with him. We all knew he was right...
“We are all nervous, Ronan...” I said calmly. “I understand your point. But don’t forget that the rune was left with them for a reason. My parents somehow earned their trust enough to give them the rune and not be killed in the process. That means they can be reasoned with. The sylphs had to see my power to know what I was. They were entrusted with the rune, just as the Kadoma have been. Obviously, there is some way around this. There is a loophole, somewhere... The trick will be showing them what I am before they harm any of us.”
Ronan scoffed. “They try it, and they’ll have silver filled arrows filling their bark.”
Dristan suddenly laughed from beside me.
“Something funny, Dragon Lord?” Ronan sneered.
Dristan did not bother to turn and look at him. He kept his eyes glued ahead as he hiked through the trees beside me. “I just find it amusing that you think the Kadoma are so easily killed. With all your research, and reading, and trips to the library, I would’ve thought that you would be more knowledgeable about what we are up against.”
I sighed heavily, keeping my eyes cast downward. Would these two ever stop bickering like a couple of teenage females?
“I don’t need to read to know how to kill an immortal. We all have the same vulnerabilities.” Ronan said uncertainly.
Dristan chuckled softly. “Of course, of course, you know what’s best, how could I forgot? By all means, do as you wish. I shall watch in awe as you empty your quiver into a possessed tree. Then I shall laugh when it turns you into a bloody pancake.”
A few soft snickers came from Andi, Torryn and Warrick as they walked up ahead.
“Stop being a cryptic jackass and explain.” Ronan growled.
“Dristan, what do you mean? They can’t be killed with silver?” I asked, gripping my blade more tightly.
“They can...” Dristan said smoothly. “But not while they are possessing their hosts.”
“Are you rutting shitting me?!” Ronan snarled. “Did you not think this an important matter to discuss before we embarked on this gods damned suicide mission?!”
“Ronan, enough.” I snapped over my shoulder. “No one is going to die. And we are not going to kill anything. It won’t come to that.”
He rolled his eyes and began staring at the trees to the left as we continued through the forest.
I turned back to Dristan. “So, you’re saying they can be killed, but only when they aren’t possessing the trees?”
He nodded once. “Yes. The Kadoma are forest spirits. They are not literally giant trees. They can animate nature. Vines, roots, underbrush... Though trees are their main hosts. They are the most powerful, and therefore the most advantageous hosts to possess. When they leave a host, they look like small Fae... They they are almost transparent, and very fast... Not at all easy targets to kill.”
“Gods...” I whispered.
“Don’t worry, love. Like you said, once they know who you are, we won’t need to fear them.” He said, taking my hand.
I smiled up at him, giving his calloused hand a gentle squeeze.
His expression was soft and reassuring. Though, I knew him well enough to see past his mask of calm. I could see a small flame behind his piercing, cerulean eyes. A far away storm, brewing over a vast ocean of anxiety.
He was scared, too.
Scared for me.
For all of us.
A long hour of hiking through the thick forest passed like a candle’s wick burning to its end. I thought we would never arrive. But as the trees grew thicker, and the looming shapes surrounding us grew darker, Torryn suddenly ordered us to stop.
I paused, scanning the surrounding woods with attentive eyes.
“We are near the boarder that crosses into the Black Forest.” Torryn said, sending an ominous look at us from over his shoulder.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. Now was the time to voice my opinion. I’d been dreading it the entire walk here. “I think I should go in alone.”
Dristan’s face turned slowly to stare down at me. He was silent for a long while as the others mirrored his action. No one spoke.
I held my ground, raising my chin a bit higher. “It is going to be very difficult for me to protect all of you if it comes to a fight. I can protect myself easily if they choose to attack me. I can control the earth, and that includes the trees. But if I have to use my power to protect several of us at one time, I’m not sure that I can control it, or hold the magic for very long. It is more wise to go in alone. It is safer, for all of us...”
“It will be safer for us, Brenya, but what about you? What if they won’t listen to you? What if you lose control of your power and they crush you?” Warrick whispered urgently, stepping toward my side.
I sent him a stern glare. “I cannot put you all at risk again... I won’t.”
He inhaled deeply though his nose, letting the breath out in a loud huff. His onyx eyes drilled into me as he stared down at me in frustration. “The plan was that we all go in as a unit. We agreed, numbers are our advantage. We need to stick together.”
“The plan is void.” I said boldly, returning his piercing stare.
“Brenya, take a moment to think this through.” Andromeda said with pleading eyes.
“I have taken several days to think this through. I don’t need anymore time to think. I want to go in alone. There is less risk if I do this on my own.” I said, turning toward her and Torryn.
Torryn remained silent, his emotionless eyes glued to Dristan’s face.
I turned around to face Ronan and Marrok, raising my brows, daring them to argue further.
“They will defend the forest, no matter how many enter.” Marrok said, his voice even and low. “But I think you make a good point. You can stop their attacks with your influence over the earth element. You can protect yourself.... But using extra energy to protect the rest of us will drain you quickly. There are risks either way, but I think your plan is the better option.”
“Thank you, Marrok.” I said, bowing my head to him slightly.
Ronan took a small step forward. “You already know that I have every faith in you, princess. I will support your decision if you think it is best.”
I gave him a small nod before shifting my eyes downward. I could not endure the intensity in his eyes for very long.
“This is absurd... Dristan, talk some sense into her!” Warrick growled.
Turning to my mate, I held my breath.
He had not moved a muscle.
He stared down at me in silence. His nostrils were flared widely, his sharp jawline set in a tight line as he clenched his teeth together. I wasn’t sure he was breathing. Eyes of raging waters held me captive in their waves, threatening to drown me with their violent undercurrents.
I held his gaze, my face a mask of calm indifference. “I can do this.” I whispered.
I could feel the anger rolling off of him like heat waves from the sun on a clear summer’s day. I could sense the frustration, could feel it through the bond, as he waged war with the instincts of the dragon inside of his mind.
Slowly, so slowly, his jaw relaxed a fraction. He closed his slitted eyes as a deep sigh left his lips. My brows rose with hope when he reopened his eyes and gently lifted a hand to stroke my cheek.
“Promise you’ll come back to me.” He said softly.
A small breath of relief, mixed with joy and disbelief rushed past my lips. I felt as if I might cry as I lifted my hand and covered his with mine. His eyes alternated between mine as he gazed down at me with worry and uncertainty.
He wasn’t standing in my way. He wasn’t arguing. He wasn’t trying to talk me out of it. He was finally allowing me to make my own decisions, even if it tortured him inside.
In that moment, I saw his love for me shining more clearly inside of his eyes than I had ever seen it shine before. Putting my need for independence before his instinctive protectiveness was probably the most difficult thing he’d ever had to do. But he did it, for me.
Because he loved me.
“I promise.” I whispered, smiling up at his perfect face.
I heard Warrick growl angrily, and from the corner of my eye, watched as he turned and sat down with his back against a thick tree trunk.
“We will be here, waiting for you to return.” Dristan said, brushing his thumb over my lips. He paused, lowering his gaze. When he lifted his eyes again to meet mine, they were filled with pain. “Please... Please, be safe.”
Wrapping my arms around him, I pulled myself against his broad chest. His firm arms circled around me as he buried his face in my hair. “I will, Dristan. It’s going to be okay. I can do this.”
He nodded against my hair. “I know.”
I knew I was in the Black Forest when the sound of chirping birds and singing beetles ceased. Total silence surrounded me as I stood alone in the woods.
Here, the canopy was so thick that hardly any sunlight was able to seep through. It was almost completely dark. I could hardly see the outline of my hand as I held it out in front of me.
So, this is why it's called the Black Forest...
My ears strained for any hint of a sound, but I came up empty. There was nothing. Not the distant snapping of twigs beneath an animals feet, not the gentle trickle of a stream, not even the rustle of wind through the leaves.
The silence was almost loud, somehow.
And despite how alone I was, I did not feel alone at all. I felt like there were a thousand pairs of eyes on me, drilling holes into my back, as I struggled to keep my breathing under control.
I walked a bit further into the forest, my head on a constant swivel. After about ten minutes, I stopped. Shouldn’t I have been attacked by now?
“H-hello?” I said. I’d meant to sound strong and unafraid, but my voice cracked, and I sounded more like a terrified child than a mighty Fae princess.
“I know you’re watching me.” I added, turning this way, and that.
Suddenly, the groaning movement of wood erupted around me. I gasped, twirling to face the nearest noise.
“Who dares venture into the sacred Black Forest?”
It wasn’t one voice. It was several.
The hissing voices whispered through the trees, reminding me of sizzling mutton over a scorching flame. The voiced echoed around me, making it impossible to decipher which direction they were coming from.
My chest heaved as fear prickled my scalp and turned my bowls watery. I felt as if I might vomit, or faint. This was true fear, a dread that I had never known before. But somehow, I stood my ground
“I am Brenya Avery Alemand of the Rune and Elemental Fae bloodlines. I am the lost princess, the last elemental, and rightful heir to the throne!” I gasped, gripping the hilt of my sword, which rested at my hip. "I have come for the rune."
The groaning wood quieted.
“The girl lies.” The hissing voices whispered in unison.
“I do not lie.” I growled, straightening my spine.
My darting eyes were opened as widely as possible as I stared into the darkness, straining to see the black shapes surrounding me.
“Prove it!” The voices snarled, no longer whispering. The voices yelled so loudly that I had to throw my hands over my sensitive ears.
“PROVE IT! PROVE IT! PROVE IT!”
I screamed as a sudden blast hit me from behind, knocking me clean off of my feet. I was back on my feet in less than a second, sword drawn, crouching low to the ground like a wild jungle cat.
I was fast... But I wasn’t fast enough.
Something on the ground suddenly wrapped around my ankles, tightening instantly like hungry snakes. For a moment, I thought they were snakes when I felt the sharp pain of what felt like teeth sinking into the flesh around my calves.
It was only when the snake like things yanked backward, taking my feet with them and causing my back and head to slam onto the forest floor, that I realized they were actually thorny vines.
“PROVE IT! PROVE IT! PROVE IT!” The voices continued to scream in that horrible, shrill, wicked way.
So dark... Everything was so dark...
If only I could see...
Growling with frustration, I curled my knees to my chest, placed my palms on the damp ground beside my head, and then kicked upward. I sent the wave of strength from the kick throughout my entire body, giving myself enough momentum to flip myself up off of the ground. I landed perfectly on the balls of my feet.
As soon as I scooped my sword from the ground and stood up straight, another hard blow slammed into the left side of my body. This time, the impact was so strong that it knocked the wind out of me. I yelped in pain as I was thrown sideways and into a tree trunk.
The sound of my skull cracking against the hard surface made me nauseous. The searing pain that followed confused me, and when I brought my hand to the side of my head, I found wetness there.
I gasped, squeezing my eyes shut at the sharp pain filling the upper left half of my body. I tried to suck in a lungful of air, but only coughed. The taste of blood filled my mouth as I did.
“WEAK. YOU ARE WEAK!” The voices snickered.
I coughed again, and cried out at the throbbing pain it sent through my rib cage. I’d broken something. But it didn’t matter. It would heal within minutes.
Gritting my teeth, I pushed off of the tree and turned to face the Black Forest.
It’s not fair... It’s not fair, I can’t see anything...
An idea suddenly flashed across my mind. I smiled through the darkness, hoping they could see me. Hoping they would fear the knowing expression that was spreading across my face.
“I am not weak.” I hissed.
With wicked determination, I threw my right palm outward, pointing it toward the forest floor directly in front of me.
The bright, roaring flame that sprang to life there nearly blinded me. But I did not flinch. I stared down into the dancing fire as it undulated with shades of red, orange and yellow. In that moment, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
And as I lifted my eyes, the smile still glued to my face...
I could see.
But as the light from the flames lit up the forest around me, my smile fell. My entire face went numb with shock and terror.
Enormous, towering trees loomed over me, their spindly branches reaching toward me like twisted, skeletal fingers. The thick bark covering them formed human-like shapes, giving them faces that glowered down at me with hatred.
“NO! THE FLAMES! THE FLAMES ARE FORBIDDEN HERE!” The voices screamed.
Simultaneously, the animated trees lunged. Their trunks moved through the dirt, and the earth groaned in response to their massive force. Their wooden fingers snapped and clicked as they flew toward me, threatening to crush the life from my body.
Instinct took over, my thoughts frozen with fear and the will to survive. I did not think as my palms rose toward the trees. I did not think as my lips moved, and a powerful voice exploded out of me.
I stared at the strange, carved faces in the trees as they hovered mere inches from my own. The faces that had once held such contempt were now staring down at me in horror and fear as they realized that they could not move.
I felt a strong wave of resistance against my magic as the Kadoma tried to break free of it’s hold, but I clenched my fists and sent a more powerful wave back at them in response.
Suddenly, the sickening sound of hissing laughter sounded from behind me. Keeping my palms raised toward the enemy in front of me, I whipped my head around.
Approaching from behind, several more of the gargantuan trees were slithering through the dirt, directly toward me.
There are too many of them...
"Stupid fool...” The voices taunted. “No one enters our forest and leaves with their life!”
I grunted in frustration as I threw my right palm behind me, freezing the advancing trees in their place. My head alternated from the frozen trees, so close to my front, to the trees that were now immobile a mere ten feet behind me.
More laughter erupted from all sides of the forest.
My head whipped around in every direction as more waves of Kadoma swarmed toward me from every direction. Their whispering laughter turned my stomach, filling my every molecule with the most sickening sense of dread I had yet to feel.
No... No, no...
I was going to die. They were going to beat me into nothing but flesh, blood and broken bones. And if I lived, I would wish for the mercy of death for the rest of my existence.
My eyes screwed shut.
NO... I have not come this far to fail. I will NOT die here. I will NOT fail my people!
As the hoard of murderous trees rushed toward me, the earth and wood groaning and roaring in distress, their mocking laughter hissing through the darkness, I felt a sudden sense of calm overcome me.
I reached inward, delving deeper into the pit of magic inside of me than I had ever delved before. I submerged myself in it, letting it consume every piece of me. It welcomed me with open arms, enveloping me in it’s warmth.
And when I opened my eyes, I felt something within the Kadoma that I hadn’t sensed before.
Baring my teeth, my head snapped toward the immobile trees behind me. I clenched my fist, and exerting a huge amount of magic, I released it again. A massive shock wave of power went flying at the group of trees.
Their mocking laughter turned to horrified screaming as their spirits were instantaneously ripped away from their bark covered hosts. Numerous, ghost like figures flew away from the trees they’d been possessing, all of them crying with despair as their realized what I’d done.
My head snapped forward, facing the group still frozen before me.
“NO!” The voices screeched.
The Kadoma to my left and right were still charging toward me, their branches stretched toward me, desperate to stop me before I repeated the process.
But they were too late.
A blast of all consuming power exploded out of my palm, banishing the spirits from the several trees that were looming over me. They screamed in anguish as their bluish, transparent bodies curled away from the bark, exposing them to me.
Before the approaching hoard could close the last few feet between us, I lunged. I pushed off of the forest floor, twisting my body through the air with ease. Before the closest Kadoma spirit could escape, I tackled it in mid air.
I’d been right in my assumption. They were spirits, but they still had some solidity about them. I could touch them. I could kill them.
It fell to the ground beneath me, its horrible, shrill voice ringing in my ears the whole way.
With hunter’s agility, I snatched the iron, silver filled dagger from my hip and brought it to the tree spirit’s throat.
Everything around us stopped.
Not a single sound could be heard, aside from my panting breath, as I pressed the sharp edge of the dagger against the Kadoma’s most vulnerable area.
I glanced around, surprised that the other’s had stopped their assault. The trees towered over us, their faces set into fearful expressions.
“So, you do value the lives of some... As long as they are your own people.” I said, laughing quietly. I spat over my shoulder, my blood spattering onto the earth.
“Please.” The hissing voices whispered. “Do him no harm.”
I grunted as I stood to my feet, pulling the creature with me as I did. I held the knife to his throat, my arm hooked around his ghostly chest.
The Kadoma watched, silent and still.
I stared them down, my expression void of emotion.
“Unlike you...” I withdrew the knife from the spirits neck.
My hand lowered, coming to rest at my side. Then, I pushed the spirit away from my body. With trembling hands, I lifted the knife toward the trees. They watched with disbelief as I then dropped it. It landed with a soft thud among the leaves and vines on the ground.
“I do not wish to harm anyone.” I finished.
The trees stared at me in stunned silence for a long, long time. I waited, either for death, or for some kind of miracle sent by the gods.
Finally, the spirits spoke. This time, their voices did not hiss. They floated around me like silk, the beauty of it sending chills down my spine.
"You have proven yourself. You are the Elemental Heir.”