The closer we got, the harder my heart hammered in my ears. The cobblestone pathway was peeking out between two towering, knotted trees embellished with golden carvings. The sight made me hold onto Levi tighter as well as squeeze my thighs against the horse’s sides as I glanced around. Bronte and Niven rode on ahead, talking with Blaze and Mal. Yuki was deep in conversation with Kit regarding safety and training.
“Harper, any tighter and I won’t be able to breathe,” Levi muttered, flattening his hand over mine, pressing my hand over the outline of his abs.
“S-sorry.” Loosening my grip around his waist, I placed my cheek between his shoulder blades and tried to relax. “It does not help that I have never been around horses. Who taught you?”
“Falyn. Whenever we weren’t at the beach, we were at the stables and I was on the back of a horse. Funny how all the owners knew him and embraced him like they were old school buddies,” Levi explained, emotion coating his words. His heartbeat was loud under my ear, intimate and calming.
“Lucky you, some of us got forced onto one,” Blaze chipped in, letting his horse fall back to sidle up next to ours. “I got the short end of the stick when it came to my first horse. Bloody thing had caved in a man’s skull and broken a woman’s leg, and they never even tried to get up on his back. I was being thrown around like a sack as soon as I sat in the saddle.”
“Thanks, now I’m not keen on learning anymore,” I said, huffing and hugging Levi tightly again. He and Blaze chuckled but stopped just as the shadows of the trees enveloped us from the dying sun.
“Single file!” Bronte ordered. Mal picked up the leash leading to the cow and brought it in, the poor animal mooing as she plodded into place.
As soon as we entered the forest, the hairs on the back of my neck rose and cold instantly snuck into my bones. Levi shivered as the horses knickered, ours flattening his ears against his head. The trees themselves seemed to be watching over us, moving in their rooted positions to stare at our backs, roots turning up the mossed-over cobbles at the edges of the path. The eeriness sapped away any humour we had gathered before entry.
“We’ll be fine, keep breathing calmly,” Levi whispered, interlacing our fingers as he guided our horse steadily behind Blaze’s. Nodding, I squeezed his warm hand and glanced back at Yuki, giving her a small smile.
Bronte and Niven spoke to each other in the rough language of their people, breaking the silence the Dark Forest had thrown over us. From the outside and within the castle, the forest seemed to be a peaceful and sombre place, but now venturing the inside made me question how the first human settlers were able to see the image of home when staring into this treacherous forest or even have the idea of befriending the beasts lurking within it. Who thought of making them the backbone of our army, a reason for nightmares and fear? Was it human or Lizard Folk?
Time seemed to pass unknowingly, only the movement of the moons through the tight gaps in the branches above gave some clue that time was indeed passing while we travelled. Besides the occasional snippet of conversation between the Mirk brothers, no one spoke. My dimming adrenaline was sapping my energy to the point I was leaning heavily against Levi with my eyelids slipping closed, sleep calling to me. When a slithering sensation entered my ear I sat bolt upright, almost causing me to fall out of the saddle as a familiar hissing laugh entered my head.
“Hey, you good?” Levi turned in the saddle, holding tightly on my arm that was still wrapped around his waist.
“W-we are close to the altar, aren’t we?” Glancing ahead, I waited for Bronte’s answer. He nodded, eyes glimmering with suspicion. “The Goddess is waiting for us.”
The trees in front of us began to thin out, their knotted and gnarled bark slowly changing to black as if it had been burned by fire. Aged beads decorated their trunks while woven markers hung from branches and golden splashed stones were stacked at their bases. In the middle of the clearing was a giant carved statue. The closer we got; the more details revealed themselves. It had been carved out of wood; the stump still knitted to the ground with its roots. Ebony was melded into cracks and gaps while precious moonstones acted as her glimmering eyes. A clawed hand stretched out towards us, a necklace of golden beads hanging from it. Behind Ebus was another Lizard Folk, its face masked off and facing in another direction. Both tails were overlapping as a beast snarled on the other side of the statue.
“Where is the goblet?” Kit noted as they dismounted. Something felt off when those words were said. As if a trigger had been pulled and the bullet was slowly lodging itself between my ribs, the tip spinning close to my heart.
“Maybe Fendrick was mistaken?” Levi eased himself out of the saddle before turning to help me down. Everyone else hurriedly did so, the brothers and Blaze took to doing a perimeter check as Mal and Yuki searched around Ebus’s adorned feet.
“Is the cave close by? The goblet may have been taken there,” I suggested, crossing my arms over my chest and glancing around. The cow, like the horses, was moving restlessly, her doe brown eyes locking with mine.
“No. Traditionally the goblet is here with the statue and must stay here,” Kit explained, coming to stand next to me with their hands on their hips. “The cave entrance is in front of the Shadow, she’s pointing to it.”
Glancing to where Kit nodded to, I noticed that the masked figure also held her arm out and extended an index finger towards a black void peeking out behind vines in the mountainside. A shiver ran up my spine, gut instinct causing me to take a step closer to Kit just as an arrow thudded into the tree in front of us. Time seemed to slow.
Nine cloaked figures peeled out from the forest lining around us, swords and axes brazenly held at their sides. From there, Kit had hurriedly shoved me in the direction of the cave and Levi had grabbed my hand. There was a clash of metal on metal, a scream ripping through the air. The thumping of boots behind us urged me to run faster. Arrows flew past us, thudding in trees and ground just in front of us until one finally found its mark.
Levi gasped, dragging both of us down as he stumbled forward, an arrow sticking out from between his shoulders while another punctured his side. Immediately I placed my hands against the wound on his side before watching in horror as three cloaked figures strode towards us. One was laughing, the sound hysteric and evil as another pointed their sword towards me. The third was at the back, two long-bladed daggers hanging at their thighs.
“G-go, Harper,” Levi breathed out, pushing my hands away from him as he stood. Glancing up at him, I watched as he ripped the arrow out from his back and snapped the head off the one in his side. He pulled it out with a monstrous growl as his bloody hands reached for his rapier and dagger. “Go!”
Scrambling to my feet, I gave him one more glance before sprinting to the cave. I knew one of the figures was on my trail as the other two battled with Levi. Knew that if I tripped or made any wrong move in total, I was dead. The only thing that I could do was run, get into the cave and hope to Ebus that the Dark Army would happily take on a live, human sacrifice in the form of a cloaked menace.
Cold and darkness enveloped me as I entered the cave. Its walls pushed close, nicking my shoulders with jagged spikes at points. My assailant’s boot-falls were heavy and loud behind me, urging me to throw myself further into the black, hoping that the passage would open soon and none of the beasts were close by for me to trip over.
“When I find you, Precious, you’re dead.” The echo of the threat made my breath hitch in my throat and my pace quicken as I searched for my hidden dagger. “I can hear you, more damage more gold.”
My fingers wrapped around the dagger’s grip as the cave walls opened to a dimly lit cavern. Outlines of dark shadows lying on the floor represented the beasts of my army. A large hole in the ceiling was the source of light funnelling through and where the dripping of water started before landing on top of a giant, snarling beast statue. It must have been the sacrifice area as the beast was carved standing on a raised platform. However, if I could make out that much, that meant my attacker would be able to see me running... Gulping, I dropped to my knees and shuffled behind the sides of sleeping beasts, holding my breath as I crossed gaps and breathing again when I was hidden.
“I’ll make it quick and easy if you show yourself!” The man barked as he entered the cavern. A horrible grinding sound came straight after. “Hiding will only make this more enjoyable for me.”
Flattening myself on the floor, I tried to steady my breathing when I noticed that the beast I was using as a shield seemed to shift in its sleep, chest heaving slightly faster and claws extending into the fine dust under its paws. Maybe the cow would not be needed or the combined blood of royals, this man would be enough to wake the army.
Shaking my head, I pushed myself to crawl further, trembling as the snarling statue began to tower over me. The man was moving in the darker corners of the cavern, disappearing and reappearing when he lunged forward. Every time he did so, I could feel the slashing of his blades cutting the empty air.
“Come on, Precious, I’m getting impatient now.” By his voice, he was close. Risking it, I pushed myself up to glance over the beast, the man was nowhere to be seen. Had he slipped back into the shadows? He could not have dropped to the ground; his ego of a hunter would not have allowed it.
As I slipped back down, something cold pressed against my cheek and neck.
“Found you,” He growled. My body froze. “What should we play now?”
“Who sent you?” I felt weak, but my voice thankfully held strong. The blade on my neck turned so its edge rubbed up against my skin while the other dropped away.
“More damage, more gold. Maybe I should take your head?” The blade cut down. Blood ran down my neck and began to soak Levi’s shirt.
“You really want to risk doing that while surrounded by my army? One drop of blood on the ground and you’re dead.”
“Nice try. These things are dead, turned to stone due to your absence. They will stay that way forever.”
Bringing my dagger down across my wrist, I pushed forward and pressed my arm against the beast’s muzzle. The change was instant. A low growl resonated from its throat, claws digging into the cave floor, cracking the stone as it stood up. Scrambling away, I held my wound as the man swore and lunged towards me. The beast pounced in between us, its hide breaking the sword's blade as it connected. Taking the gap, I ran towards the giant statue. At its front paws, amongst pieces of dust-covered gold, was the jewelled goblet, awaiting my blood. The cut was not dripping as much blood and would not fill it quickly, but one beast of the Dark Army would cause so much chaos on its own.
Placing the goblet under the wound, I spun around when a guttural scream came from the man. The beast had his arm in its mouth while the man was on the ground gripping at the bleeding stump of his left arm. Repressing a gag at the ripped flesh, I hoped the beast would be satisfied to continue.
“H-help me.” The hood of his cloak fell away from his face. It was paling quickly, his blue eyes glassy and sweat beaded his forehead. He was young.
“Die,” I spat.
As if the beast heard that as an order, it dropped the limb and pounced onto the man. The scream lasted only a few seconds before spluttering to silence, the limbs of the corpse stilling as the life was snuffed out.
Sighing, I fell back against the statue as red light poured into the cavern. The sleeping beasts were moving.
“Well done, Little Queen.” Ebus’s amused words echoed off the walls as my vision began to blur. “Sleep now, claim the army when you wake.”
My knees buckled underneath me, vision turning black as a distant figure came rushing towards me.