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       Black Wood, p.10

           Jayde Scott
 
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Her breath turned into fog as she sighed. Circling the tower, she rubbed her hands together to keep warm. No sign of an entrance. She searched once more, the heavy backpack slowing her down. Maybe she could just hide it under a bush and retrieve it once she found a way in.

  The thicket to her left looked just right. Emily crawled on all four and pushed her backpack underneath as far as she could reach. Satisfied no one would see it, she hurried around the tower, her hand gliding up and down the smooth surface until she felt a small ridge. She peered closer, her nose almost touching the cold stone. There, almost level with the wall, was a tiny metal hook. Pressing her lips tight, she squeezed her fingers through and pulled as hard as she could, but the wall didn’t bulge.

  Emily scowled. This had to be the lock because there was no other sign of a door. But why wouldn’t it just open? And then she remembered the spell. Maybe the door was concealed with magic. The spell to open locks was worth a try.

  She stepped back and closed her eyes. The words flowed easily from her lips. “Porta, manifeste et fac quod vis!”

  The wall creaked. Emily repeated the words, this time with more fervour, her pulse quickening. The stone cracked. Emily jumped back as the gap widened until it was as wide as a door.

  She peered into the darkness stretching beyond, when she remembered her backpack. The dagger was in there. But would the cleft in the wall stay open long enough for her to retrieve it? Emily shook her head, unsure what to do. No, she needed the dagger. With a last glance at the entrance, she dashed back around the Black Tower toward the bush under which it lay hidden.

  Crawling around, she reached the spot, but the backpack wasn’t there.

  Emily blinked as her arms searched the ground. Where was it? She had chosen this bush, the largest and densest of them all. Beads of sweat ran down her spine as she looked underneath neighbouring bushes—just in case. The backpack wasn’t there either.

  With tears in her eyes, she rose to her feet and turned back toward the thicket when she caught movement from the corner of her eye. Something sparkled in the moonlight and feet shuffled across the ground. Someone was there. And this someone probably stole her backpack.

  Emily spun and bolted after the footsteps, around the tower and through the opening in the wall.

  “Give me my stuff back, you thief.” Her voice echoed from the naked walls.

  “Give me stuff back, ye thief,” mocked a thin voice, followed by shrill laughter.

  Emily frowned. “I’m a powerful witch. Come out, or I’ll make you.”

  More shrill laughter. “If ye’re so mighty, then solve a riddle.”

  “What riddle?” She stomped her foot as her gaze scanned the darkness stretching to all sides. This wasn’t the time for games. Everyone counted on her. Yellow eyes peered from behind the wall. She took a step forward, then stopped.

  “Ye tell me where I live, and I’ll give yer ugly bag back,” the voice said.

  Her bag wasn’t ugly. “Why don’t you just give it back if you don’t like it?” Emily said.

  “Solve the riddle, solve the riddle, solve the riddle.”

  Emily sighed. “Okay.” She chewed on her nails as she thought. It was walking on earth, so it most certainly couldn’t fly. “You don’t live in the air.”

  “Aye.”

  There was no stream nearby, so it probably didn’t live in the water either. “You don’t live in the water.”

  “Aye.”

  It could only be the woods or the hills then. She opened her mouth to speak when an idea popped into her mind. Of course, it could’ve watched from the shadows when she hid her backpack under the bush. But how had it managed to scurry past to grab it without twigs snapping under its feet?

  Unless it had come underground. Emily gasped and covered her mouth with her hand, goosebumps spreading across her arms.

  “Do ye know the answer?” the voice asked. “I shan’t wait forever.”

  “Underground?” She swallowed and forced herself to speak up. “You live underground.”

  “How did ye guess?” The voice didn’t sound happy.

  “It’s the right answer, isn’t it? Now, give me back my backpack,” Emily said, hoping she sounded menacing enough.

  “You cheated. I’m not giving ye anything.”

  Emily slapped her forehead. Of course, it’d be lying. Hadn’t Aurelie taught her not to trust anyone in Black Wood? Well, if it wasn’t coming out, she was going to chase after it. She muttered the magic words under her breath until a tiny flame sprang from the palm of her hand.

  As she peered ahead, she froze on the spot. There, right in front of her, stood the most hideous creature she had ever seen.

  Emily opened her mouth and screamed on the top of her lungs.

  Chapter 21

  The creature with its pig nose, yellow eyes and red skin jumped up and screeched, revealing long, yellow fangs and a pink, forked tongue. “Shut yer mouth! I can’t stand the noise.”

  With hoof-like hands it covered its ears, dropping the backpack onto the floor.

  Emily’s cry died in her throat. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem as dangerous as the water nymph. But, boy was it ugly. She grabbed her bag from the floor and swung it over her shoulder.

  “Ye’re a mighty witch.” The creature bowed deeply. “But not as mighty as me mistress.” And with that it scuttled past her and out into the night.

  Speechless, Emily stared after it until she was sure it wouldn’t sneak back and try to steal her backpack again. Then she turned her attention toward what looked like the great hall of Black Tower.

  The delicate flame still burning in her palm threw moving shadows across the stony wall. Emily scuffled forward across the dusty ground toward a wide, wounding staircase. She took one tentative step at a time, holding on to a shaky railing as she climbed up. Eventually, she reached the top and spun around in a circle, puzzled.

  There were four openings that looked like tunnels, two to the right and two to the left. They couldn’t be too long because the Tower didn’t look that big from the outside. But which one would lead to the Black Heart? She decided to try the first. Holding out her palm, she passed through the low entryway and entered pitch-blackness. Surely the tunnels wouldn’t go very deep. She counted fifty steps, then halted, frowning.

  How could a mere tower, barely wider than the house in London, seem so huge from the inside? And then it dawned on her. It was magic. Like Black Wood, the tower was built around magic. Emily returned to the staircase to try the second opening.

  The archway was narrower but big enough to squeeze in. After twenty paces, Emily noticed something sparkle in the distance. She lifted the flame in her hand, but its light didn’t carry that far. As she advanced, the sparkling grew in intensity and width, until she stood several feet away from a large, golden tree with green leaves and ripe, red apples.

  The juicy apples made her mouth water and her tummy rumbled. Could she have one? Or were they poisoned like the apples in fairy tales? Emily kneed down and picked one up. It smelled just scrumptious, but she had no time to waste. Opening her backpack, she dropped it in and went about examining the tree. The trunk was made of gold. She let her fingers glide over the smooth surface.

  Something glittered from a branch above her head. She glanced up and gasped. Hanging from a thin twig, surrounded by beautiful dark green leaves, was a golden apple. Could this be the Black Heart? Aurelie had never said what it looked like because she didn’t know herself.

  Jumping, Emily grabbed hold of a thick branch and pulled herself up, but her foot kept slipping on the slick tree bark. On the third attempt, she heaved herself up high enough to drape one leg over the branch.

  She took a deep breath and stretched out one arm as far as she could. Her fingers connected with the apple and she tugged. As the apple loosened from the branch, the tree shook. Before she knew it, she lost her balance and landed on the ground with a thud, the apple squeezed in between her belly and the dusty ground. She rolled onto her back,
hoping she hadn’t squashed the apple into apple juice.

  It was still whole, but her arm throbbed as she stirred. Huffing, she just lay there as she waited for the pain to die down when the ground shook again. Emily sat up, her heart racing. Why kept the tree shaking? And then she realised it wasn’t the tree at all, but the ground. Something was happening. Better get out of there.

  Ignoring the pain in her arm, she bolted the way she had come, toward the staircase, her hand still holding on to the apple. The ground trembled again; a screech like that of a voracious eagle shook the air.

  Emily slowed down, paralyzed, her eyes scanning the gloomy room. The earth underneath her feet shook, and with it came another screech, this time nearer, but still not near enough to place where it came from. Hundreds of thoughts raced through her mind. Maybe the water nymph had found her. Or it could be killer birds, dragons, snakes. Her tummy tensed into a knot and she shuddered as she forced her thoughts to the back of her mind. Whatever it was, she sure didn’t want to meet it.

  Her hand wandered inside her backpack, pushing the golden apple in and pulling out the dagger. When the third screech echoed, she reached the archway and stopped, considering her options. The sound seemed to come from the staircase. Maybe it was climbing up the stairs. Should she take a chance, or hide inside one of the tunnels until morning?

  When the ground quaked again, she darted for the nearest tunnel. She didn’t see the net until she ran right into it. Her hands and feet caught into something smooth and she was dragged up. The dagger clattered to the floor. Her pulse quickened as she fought to free her arms, but the more she wriggled, the more the threads tautened.

  A gust of air blew in, dousing the flame in Emily’s hand and bathing her in darkness. Her mind tried to find a way to escape although she knew there was none. And then all went silent. She whimpered. When she heard the faintest breathing, her heart skipped a beat.

  Whatever it was, it stood to her left, only a few feet away.

  Chapter 22

  “Let me go.” Emily’s voice rang shaky, barely more than a whisper in her own ears.

  The creature hissed and inched closer, the sound of a dozen suction cups attaching to a window. Emily opened her mouth to scream and yanked her arms as hard as she could. The sticky threads didn’t give in.

  “Dinner.”

  Did it just say dinner? She strained her ears to understand the words.

  “You’re lucky I’m no longer hungry after that troll I had for dinner,” the creature hissed.

  Emily’s heart hammered against her ribs. It was going to eat her. She shook her head. No, this couldn’t be. The golden apple, the heart of the tree, lay hidden in her backpack. She was too close to defeat Muriel. No way would she give up now.

  “Dinner. Tonight.” The creature hissed again as the sound of suction cups moved away from her, and Emily breathed in, relieved.

  There was still time, because it wasn’t going to eat her now. She’d only entered Black Wood hours ago, but it felt as though she’d been here for ages. Morning would break soon. She had less than twelve hours to come up with an escape plan. Or be eaten.

  In spite of her mind’s frantic attempts to come up with a solution, Emily felt her eyelids grew heavy. Before she knew it, she fell in a restless slumber, dreaming of water and something dark and faceless chasing her through the woods.

  ***

  Emily had no idea how much time had passed. As she stirred, she remembered she was still dangling high up in the air. Trying to wriggle into a more comfortable position, she sighed. Why hadn’t she just taken the stairs?

  The vast space was still bathed in total darkness. Her heart started hammering again. Maybe she could light a tiny flame. Just a tiny one so she would see a little to her left and right.

  The fire flared up within her palm on the first attempt, and Emily peered around. She was hanging from thin, grey cords several feet off the ground. The threads looked like a tightly-woven maze. She twisted her hand to get a better glimpse of where she was, but the yarn around her wrist was too tight. At least she could move her head.

  In the light of the flame, the thread around her looked as fine as silver. It was too strong to rip, but maybe it would burn?

  Emily drew in her breath, and then, ever so gently, blew it out toward the flame. It flickered in her palm, but didn’t go out. Spreading her fingers as much as she could, she inhaled another mouthful of air, and exhaled with a little more fervour. As the flame flickered to the left and right, a thin yarn around her wrist caught fire. The tiny spark gnawed at the silvery filament until it turned into fine dust.

  The flame grew bigger, eating through the ties around Emily’s wrist, its heat warming the air and scorching her skin. Crying out, she pulled her hand and the remaining thread gave in.

  The fire spread toward the rest of the maze. It was now or never. She touched the ties around the other wrist, and like before, the flames etched away. With all her might she pulled until the singed thread tore and she plummeted forward, dangling facedown a few feet above the ground.

  With both hands free, the ties around her legs were easy to remove. She landed on her side, the impact knocking the breath out of her, but even the pain couldn’t dampen Emily’s excitement. She wasn’t going to be turned into dinner after all. Not if she managed to escape before that thing returned.

  Emily scrambled to her feet and didn’t stop running until she reached the staircase, her heart beating faster and faster. She had what she came for, now she’d get out of there. She was two steps down the stairs when she heard the creature’s screech from below. She froze on the spot. There was no way she could squeeze in between this thing and the stairs, but the staircase was the only escape route.

  Something shoved her hard and she fell to her knees.

  “Dinner,” the creature hissed behind her.

  Emily spun, her palm outstretched, the flame casting a golden glow on the creature’s long, hairy legs. She opened her mouth, but her cry didn’t find its way out. For a long moment, she could only stare at the biggest spider she had ever seen. Her biggest nightmare just came true.

  Chapter 23

  Like long tentacles, the spider’s black legs moved forward, making that sucking noise from before. Ever so slowly, Emily’s hand moved to the backpack and she pulled out the dagger. Did spiders bite or sting? Should she dare a quick look at its head? Or concentrate on the legs? Swallowing down the lump in her throat, Emily lifted her trembling hand so the flame fell a little higher and she gasped.

  This wasn’t just a spider. Perched on top of countless legs was the body of a man with skin black like coal, long blond hair and bulbous, shimmery eyes. His ribcage stood open, and there, in between thin, white threads, pulsed something black and the size of her fist.

  His mouth opened, revealing sharp, pointed teeth. “No one escapes Spyros’s net. Not even a little witch like you.”

  Emily blinked, her grip tightened around the dagger. Maybe she could bluff her way out. “My magic is stronger than yours. Move or I’ll turn you into a toad.”

  Spyros laughed. The sound turned into a hiss. “I’m the keeper of the Queen’s magic. No one could ever turn me into a toad.”

  With his iridescent eyes fixed on her, the spider’s legs moved forward and Emily jumped back, her mind searching frantically for a way out. Bolting for the stairs was out of the question. She’d never measure up to a spider’s speed.

  Maybe she could blind it with her flame. She chewed on her lip when her eyes fixed on the black thing beating in between Spyros’s chest, and she felt a sudden chill run down her spine. It was black and it beat like a heart. Don’t think, just act.

  Breathing in, she gripped the dagger tight, minding its deadly tip, and darted for one of the creature’s legs. She climbed up as fast as her tired muscles would allow, her hands hanging on to Spyros’s long limbs as jagged hairs cut into her skin. She bit down on the sudden pain running through her arms as she scrambled higher.

&n
bsp; Spyros screeched and kicked his long legs to shake her off, but Emily wasn’t going to let go. As she reached the spider’s ribcage, she struck hard. The dagger’s sharp edge cut through white thread, entering deeper. Black, foul-smelling liquid oozed out. Emily’s stomach turned.

  The creature’s screech grew shriller as it lifted several legs off the ground. She pulled out the dagger for another blow when she lost her grip and fell to the floor, the dagger clattering next to her. With another screech, the spider fled toward the tunnels. Spyros’s hiss echoed through the silence long after he was gone.

  She had to get out now before that thing came back. Emily forced herself to her feet and down the stairs. Her joints ached and her left arm throbbed, but she didn’t care. She stumbled forward until she reached the hall below and then stopped to kindle a flame.

  Where was the door now? Taking small steps, she scanned the high walls when her gaze fell on several bookcases on the far end of the room. She pulled out a black, leather-bound book with golden letters on the spine, blew the dust off the cover and scanned its content.

  How to find lost objects. How to make a pig fly. How to start a fire without matches.

  One spell after another, a souvenir she could certainly use. There were so many books, surely one wouldn’t be missed. Emily pushed the book inside her backpack and continued searching for the door. When she found the hook, she spoke the magic words and the wall opened.

  Outside, it was still dark. A fresh breeze carried the smell of damp wood and winter. How much time had passed? A day or maybe two? Emily stepped out into the forest and hurried toward the path in the direction from where she had come. She kept on walking until she reached a clearing where she stopped for a sandwich and some rest.

  The sky was still littered with stars when she continued her journey even though her body was sore and blisters had formed on her feet. The trees grew sparser, but there was still no sign of birds or other animals.

 
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