Eastwood was a long line across the map all the way from the North Mountains down to the South Border. It was a dangerous forest, filled with unexplainable fogs, angry beasts, and ghosts cursed to be trapped within the trees forevermore.
In the southern area of Eastwood, the forest was calm enough to be hunted in by the common folk, some bringing along their children to teach them how to remain safe inside of it, and though it was still dangerous, the odd homes of mages and witches confined themselves within.
The further north you went along that angry slash of ink on the map, however, the deadlier it became. Some say this was due to the dragons in the North Mountains, using it as a deadly barrier around the entrance of their caves. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but it seemed to be working in their favor as more feared traveling to the cave entrance then they did the black dragons themselves.
All the past kings of the land had attempted in some way to destroy this forest, for every terrible thing that still lived inside Nahdiera was an extension of this forest as it spread, or something that escaped it. Unfortunately, no matter how many trees were cut, they always grew back impossibly within the year. Roads were overgrown in weeks, armies sent to clear it of all the beasts return later confused on where they had been – or did not return at all.
Most shockingly, the magical barriers created by the strongest mages disintegrated as if the powerful magic were nothing more than a thin shield of ice on a hot, summers day.
Walking through Eastwood was not a death sentence – people walked through it every day – but those who passed through were guarded heavily and those who weren’t became one of the several dozen a winter that walked into the forest and was never seen again.
Walking through with four Shadows made approaching the heavy trees a bit less frightening, but when we were suddenly surrounded by darkness as the trees abruptly closed out the light behind us, I was suddenly very grateful for Arion at my side. I was also quickly reminded that we were not far in the south.
“Shh.” Arion put his fingers to his lips, then reached out and took my arm in his grasp, moving me closer. “They are watching.”
I didn’t know who or what was watching, but I didn’t want to find out – just because Jovian taught me how to kill every creature living inside the borders of Nahdiera, didn’t mean that I wanted to test my skills.
As we walked deeper and deeper, the forest became darker and darker until I wasn’t sure how Rian and Aitch (who led the group) were not walking into trees. I had heard that Shadows could see as well in the dark as they could in the day but had never believed it. Now I began wondering if that was true after all.
I myself kept feeling branches brush against me and catch my hood even though I was sure I was ducking far enough down to avoid them. Were they moving? Reaching out to me?
When we came to a stop, I was not pleased. I’d known we would need to spend the night in the forest of course but had somehow forgotten it as we’d walked. There was no clearing so far as I could tell, we simply stopped where we were all of a sudden and Arion handed me over to Rian like an object while he bent to the ground. He rubbed a twig between his hands and dropped it, but nothing happened.
He cursed. “The trees are blocking me.”
My eyes widened at that; Shadows had their own kind of magic, ones to build fire, see better, become stronger and even hide better. For him to not be able to build a fire meant something stronger than even a mage was stopping him. The trees, he’d said. But how could that be? Trees surely couldn’t stop a Shadow’s magic.
“I’ll try.” Jaz said, crouching. “It may just be the ghosts.” This was not any more comforting than if it had been the trees, I thought, but she too was incapable. They frowned at their surroundings as if they could see more than shadow, then looked to Aitch.
Aitch sighed and snapped his fingers, a puff of fire flickered on his thumb and he jammed it down into the ground like a hammer. Immediately, a fired built out, but then it died just as quickly.
Everyone was still a moment, then Arion sighed. “Aitch, Jaz, you take first watch.”
And so, it was.
I wrapped the cloak tightly around myself and lay on the frozen ground, huddled up to Rian while Arion guarded my back. I listened to the moaning sounds of wind and groaning of trees when there was not a drop of movement in the air. I listened to the lack of sounds that indicated storms coming when there wasn’t a drop of rain or snow. I felt the cool chill brushing through my bones on random occasions when the air itself was not getting colder. I heard branches snap as beasts I could not see moved outside our circle in the blackness.
I did not sleep well in the slightest.
Though I could feel it was day, it looked like night in such darkness. Looking around where we had slept, I was sure that the trees had somehow moved. Jazera’s horse was gone without a trace, no hoof prints or tethered rope remaining. Nothing was said of this, it only made it easier for Arion to walk close to me as he handed Jaz the reins of his own.
We walked for some time, eating along the way instead of stopping. Each tree looked the same as the one before it until I was sure we were walking in circles. Every once in a while, I thought I saw something move in the corner of my eye and I would look quickly but see nothing.
Until suddenly, I did see something.
We were finally nearing the edge of the forest, we could tell because there were circular pools of deep, black waters, some seemingly bottomless while others looked almost shallow enough to walk through. Or perhaps it was just an illusion – none of us went close enough to find out.
We were walking between two of these pools when I once again saw movement and I looked. It was a reflexive response this time and not one I expected to leave me with a reward of sight. But I did see something, and it was a woman.
She had long blond hair just like mine with a thousand ringlets except hers seemed neat and tidy compared to my own. Her eyes, too, were grey-green and pale. Her nose was smaller, her lips fuller and curved into a small smile. Other than a few faded wrinkles, it was like looking in the mirror.
Her clothing though, was nothing like mine – a white gown and blue, silk slippers. A robe sat across her shoulder and hung down her back, as golden in colour as the delicate crown that sat upon her head. I knew who she was, and I called out to her, saying a word I have never spoken in my life.
When I was young enough to wonder about my parents, I asked myself many questions. One of the questions were what I would have called them had they lived. Would I have called them Ma and Pa? Mama and Papa? Mum and Da? Or would I have gone with the more formal and called them Mother and Father? I had tucked that question away, considering it yet another unanswerable one, but I was wrong. Because I called out her name as naturally as one who had said it her entire lifetime.
I said it again.
Her smile widened as she nodded. I noticed the marks on her neck, ones nearly identical to my own but fuller and more pronounced. They were beautiful. Would mine look like hers one day?
I suddenly realized that I was being shaken. Arion was grabbing my shoulder and shaking me, trying to catch my attention.
“Mir! She’s not real! Whatever you’re seeing is not real!”
Meira, my daughter.
I looked back to my mother. She was frowning now, looking worried. “Mama?”
“She’s not real!”
They’re not safe. She told me, her eyes tearing up just the slightest bit. They’re leading you into a trap.
She held out her hand to me and I saw the same marking on her palm as was on my own. Come with me. Quickly. I will lead you out safely. She turned away.
“Wait! Mama! What are you – let me go!”
Arion shook me again, his fingers digging painfully into my shoulders. “She’s not real, shenz! She’s not-”
I used a move Jovian taught me and twisted my wrists to loosen Arion’s grip, then pushed out both heals into his stomach, making him keel over. I jammed my knee up into his face for good measure, then turned and ran. “Mama, wait!”
I knew she wasn’t real, of course – my mother was long dead, there was no doubt of this – but how had she become a ghost? How did she get here? Did she die here? Where was Papa?
Desperate for my mother in a way I hadn’t felt since I was a little girl, I ran after her flickering form. She stopped when she saw me coming and smiled in relief, reaching out her hand for me to take. I was so close now that I reached my hand out too, one step, two-
I was plunged into water
Ice cold and black, it was. So sudden that I hadn’t even been able to take a breath. Though it was barely over my head, my cloak weighed me down and I tried desperately to swim up for air.
Something grabbed onto my hand, sharp and painful. It was not my mothers’ hand and I shied away from it, but it gripped me tighter, shell-like claws piercing my fur mitt as well as the thin, leather glove I always wore beneath it, digging painfully into my flesh. I screamed out a yelp of sound that went away with my struggling in the form of tiny bubbles and opened my eyes.
For the briefest moment of a moment, it was my mother I saw there, gripping my hand beneath the water, her hair flaring out flat now that the water weighed it down, her eyes wide with fear as she held me tightly and pulled me toward her, trying desperately to save me.
But then her form flickered again, and in her place was a creature I had never seen before, nor ever wished to see again.
A dozen black tentacles ending in pale, shelled claws were its arms and legs, a great gaping mouth with a thousand thin, grey teeth and two beady eyes peeping out atop it was the body and head all in one.
I screamed, forgetting for the moment that I was beneath the water and needed that precious air. Forgetting until I sucked in a breath and got water instead that tasted foul with rot and mold and of ancient, dying blood.
It pulled me toward it, and I kicked out, fighting for the surface, fighting to escape this terrifying creature of the water.
Then there was another form in the water and a flash of silver. In the next moment, an arm was around my waist and I was being pulled up to surface.
I gasped and gagged as I was pushed and yanked out of the pool and onto the icy lip. The claw was still in my hand, I saw, black and shiny with pale, sandy flecks blending into a black tentacle where it abruptly cut off. Arion, dripping and grumbling, pulled himself from the pool with obvious frustration and when a claw came out to grasp his leg, he turned and sliced down at it irritably, then swirled back without another thought and pointed down at where I lay shivering.
“You idiot of a girl!” He shouted, jamming his blade into a sopping sheath.
Rian came up and tossed his own cloak over me, then pulled out the claw in the same move.
I barely noticed.
“What was that?” I gasped out between gags.
“It was a bloody siren!” Arion shouted, still pointing at me with a dripping finger.
“I didn’t know there were any sirens in Nahdiera.”
He ran his hand roughly through his hair – even soaked as it was, it still curled. “I didn’t either,” he admitted, “but that’s not the bloody point!” He bent down and grabbed ahold of both my arms, yanking me away from Rian and onto my feet. “When your mother calls you from the forests of Eastwood, she’s not your bloody mother!” He shouted in my face and shook me. “You stupid, stupid girl!”
I could have argued with him, told him that I thought she’d been a ghost, that I thought she was trapped, that I only wanted to know more, to see the face of the woman I had never met.
I could have yelled at him for speaking to me the way he was. Or scolded him on the way he was gripping onto my arms in a way that was almost violent.
I could have made a joke to irritate him further, perhaps on how often he said the word bloody when he was truly angry. Or laugh at how if he were trying to scare me, he would need to comb his hair out of those cheeky little curls first.
But his words had me frozen on the spot, my heartbeat hammering painfully.
“You saw my mother?” I whispered, horror creeping into my thoughts; if he had seen her, then surely he knew who she was, and that meant he would have thought her name which meant that Marqis would be coming and I was as good as–
He threw up his hands. “No! We didn’t see your mother, because she wasn’t bloody real! Have you been listening to me at all?”
Again, I would have argued, but then there was a howling sound that sent shivers up my already freezing body. It was a sound I knew, though I had never heard it before.
It was the ghosts of wolves. Always hungry, always angry, always hunting.
Aitch grinned at Arion widely, revealing a dimple in each massive cheek. “Race you out of Eastwood?”
Jaz gripped my arm and Rian the other while Arion pulled out his sword and Aitch his axes. “We got her.” Jazera said when Arion hesitated, looking at me. “Go!”
So, we ran. Arion and Aitch ahead of us – though definitely not racing – and Rian and Jazera at my sides, we ran as fast as we could through the trees, leaving everything behind as the wolves howled. And just as I was sure the wolves were about to leap from the trees and rip us apart, we burst out of Eastwood.
The road we landed on was such a dramatic change with its bright and sunny skies and the croaking sound of a raven that it was as if we had literally fallen out of another world entirely.
We’d landed in front of a cart and as it came to a stop, an old man looked down at us, taking in our soaked and exhausted attire as well as our sprawled state with one look-over.
After doing this a moment, he spat the chewing reed out of his mouth and raised a scratchy eyebrow. “You kids need a lift to Luqas?” He asked.
I could have kissed him.