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       Black Wood, p.9

           Jayde Scott
 
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  “The diary will take care of him. I’m more worried about Muriel. Now, she won’t be easy to fool.”

  Sam swallowed and nodded. “I know what to do about her. I’ll be extra mean and make her angry all the time, so she’ll forget about you.”

  Emily smiled. “Just be careful. You know what she’s capable of.”

  Sam lowered his gaze, but she caught the glint of sadness in his eyes.

  “Trust me, I know and I won’t forget. Night after night, I change into this thing.” He shook his head and rose to his feet, suddenly chirpy. “I’ll help you with everything. What do you need done?”

  “The backpack has everything I need. Aurelie will feed Solace while I’m gone. You just make sure no one suspects a thing.” Emily peered out the window into the dense darkness. The moon stretched against the horizon. She stood and gave her brother a quick hug with tears in her eyes. She wouldn’t cry, but a tiny sob escaped her throat nonetheless.

  “Hey, you take care of yourself,” Sam whispered as she left for her grandmother’s bedroom.

  ***

  The magic diary was still wrapped in its black cloth. She pulled it out and began writing, wishing for her father to be so busy at work he’d fail to notice her absence. After she finished, she blew her grandparents’ photo a kiss and snuggled under the covers, trying to sleep, for, once she entered Black Wood, there’d be no proper sleep for her.

  Soon, she drifted off into an uneasy slumber with hundreds of thoughts haunting her troubled mind. When she rose to Solace nibbling on her toes, she felt more tired than before.

  Emily switched on the bedside lamp and looked at the watch. It was a few minutes after midnight. She hurled the covers aside and jumped out. The room was cold as ice. Luckily, she had gone to bed with her clothes on because she didn’t fancy getting dressed in this chilliness.

  She noticed a tray with last night’s dinner on top of the clutter on her grandmother’s desk. The delicious scent of fish and chips hung heavy in the air. Her stomach rumbled, but she didn’t lift the cover. She wouldn’t have any of it, just in case Muriel poisoned it. After throwing the heavy backpack over her shoulder, she climbed up the ladder to the attic.

  The cawing began as soon as she opened the trapdoor. Emily forced her feet to move one step after another, but her heart hammered in her chest and her legs turned into jelly. The attic was pitch-black. Should she use her magic to ignite a flame in the palm of her hands? Wings fluttered and a sudden gust of wind blew to her right. Aurelie had strictly warned her against using magic inside the house until she opened the portal.

  Emily turned on the spot, peering into the darkness around her. The cawing seemed to come from every direction. Nothing fancy like a bonfire, just a tiny flame in the palm of her hands. Aurelie would never know. She drew in her breath and muttered the magic words. “Flamma, appare!”

  The heat rose in her palm almost instantly. And then a faint spark, no bigger than a bud, appeared. Emily smiled as it grew stronger, illuminating the vast space to her left and right.

  A croak to her right. Her heart jumping in her throat, Emily snapped her head toward the sudden noise. The large eyes of a black crow glared back at her. The bird opened its beak and let out a shrill caw. Emily gasped and took a few steps back until she bumped against the mirror. She tried to calm her racing heart. It was just a bird. Nothing to be scared of.

  The mirror looked as black as the room. The flame in her palm flickered toward the shiny surface, illuminating Emily’s reflection, the crow’s beady eyes following her. Should she blow out the flame first and then open the portal? The crows cawed again and Emily flinched. She wished they’d just be quiet for a moment so she could focus. But they kept staring at her, as though they were watching her every move, waiting for something to happen.

  Emily raised her arms above her head and closed her eyes, gathering her thoughts. When she opened her mouth, her voice came clear and strong.

  “Ostium, patefacio!”

  The mirror creaked. The air turned freezing cold. Dense, grey fog gathered around her legs. The glossy surface disappeared, giving way to a narrow, dirty path with thick, high trees to either side. Emily took a tentative step forward when she heard Muriel’s hiss behind her. “What’re you doing here? And don’t say nothing because I know you’re up to something, you little toad.”

  Chapter 19

  Emily knew she should have listened to Aurelie and not do the flame spell. Without so much as a look back, she jumped into the mirror and landed on the hard, dirty ground. She rose to her feet and rubbed her throbbing elbow when the faint laughter of a woman carried through the air. “Good luck, dear. You’ll need it.”

  Scowling, she turned to face Muriel, but all she saw was a black hole where the portal should have been. As it pulled together, dwindling before her eyes, the hole creaked like dry, old firewood in a stove. Emily watched it disappeared, the spot blending in with its surroundings.

  Wow, that happened fast. One step, and she was in another world. No turning back now. With trembling hands she wiped her hair from her face and looked around. It was dead silent. Just trees and bushes as far as the eye could see. The moon hid behind a dark wall of clouds, but it wasn’t completely dark. Thousands of stars littered the dark-grey sky. Which way was the Black Tower? Aurelie never told her. And in all the hurry, she had forgotten to ask.

  Emily tried to remember her dream. The troll had led her toward the hills, away from the main path, through the thicket. She’d walk straight on, follow the damp, jagged path, and see where it led her.

  Half an hour later, she stopped to wipe the sweat off her brows. The backpack was so heavy, it felt as though she was carrying stones. A spell to lighten her burden would come in handy, but, since she didn’t know one, she had no choice than to keep on walking. She sighed and trudged forward, turning her head left and right, straining her ears for any sound. The silence in the wood was unsettling. No humming of bees. No chirping of birds. No rabbit scurrying through the bushes. She stepped on a dead branch and flinched at the sudden snap of wood. Maybe the animals were hiding from her? But surely they’d sense she came with good intentions. Uneasiness settled in her stomach as she realised they could be hiding from something far more dangerous than her.

  The wood grew denser, the trees higher. Emily halted for the umpteenth time to orient herself. Her legs ached like she had walked for hours. What time was it? She looked up at the moon peering through the heavy clouds. No sign of a morning on the horizon. Then she heard the sound of rushing water, faint but audible in the silence of the night. Aurelie had told her not to drink any, but she didn’t say to keep away.

  She sprinted through the bushes toward the sound, twigs snapping under her boots, until she reached a clearing. And there it shimmered like polished silver, a thin, shallow stream, merely a few feet wide, but beautiful nonetheless.

  Emily stopped, staring in awe at the clear water that seemed to reflect the soft, dark-golden light of the moon. Black stones peered from underneath.

  “Step nearer, traveller. Refresh yourself, for the water is cold and sweet like no other you have ever tasted before,” a melodious female voice, smooth as silk, said.

  Emily blinked and turned around. “Who’re you?”

  The same soft voice laughed gingerly. “You wish to see me? Come closer and I shall reveal myself.”

  Somewhere inside her mind, Emily could hear Aurelie’s warning. Trust no one and don’t step near the water. But the woman sounded so nice and she longed to talk with someone. Maybe just ask for the directions to the Black Tower. Her feet moved forward of their own accord. One more step and she’d reach the edge where the water seemed deep, swallowing all light like a black, gaping mouth.

  “Do you know the way to the Black Tower?” Emily asked.

  “I not only know it, I can also take you there.” The voice drew nearer until Emily glimpsed a flowing, silver dress and long, white hair swaying about a round face.

  Emily squi
nted to get a better look when the woman stepped into the soft moonlight. Her skin shimmered like alabaster; her wide eyes were blue as the ocean on a clear day. She was even more beautiful than Muriel.

  In spite of Aurelie’s words, Emily forgot her fear. “Do you live here?” she asked as she took in the woman’s pale skin and long limbs.

  “I do. Just over there.” The woman pointed at a rise in the thicket Emily didn’t notice before. It looked like a hut built out of tree branches and leaves. “Why don’t you come in? You must be tired from your journey. Rest for a while.”

  Emily shook her head. “Thank you, but I must reach the Black Tower as soon as possible. Which way is it?”

  The woman laughed. “It’s impossible to find in the night, but I promise I’ll take you in the morning.” She walked to the other side of the stream with movements so fluent her feet seemed to float a few inches above the ground.

  Emily pondered for a second. Would she be able to find the Tower without this woman’s help? Could she trust her? Her shoulders ached. Her legs felt as heavy as steel. She’d make sure not to fall asleep. Just rest a little before she continued her voyage. No harm done. Besides, she really longed to sit down if only for a second.

  “All right. I’ll pop in but only if you really show me the way in the morning,” Emily said. “What’s your name?

  “My name’s Neesha.” The woman held out her hand as Emily balanced on a large stone over the water.

  “I’m Emily.” She ignored the woman’s hand, lunged forward and jumped, landing on the other side of the stream.

  Neesha opened the door to the hut and motioned her to step in. Inside burned a single candle. Emily walked in and glanced around, taking in the tiny room.

  A narrow bed stood near the window, opposite from a chair made out of branches and held together with what looked like pieces of shoelace. . Green leaves covered the bare earth. There was no kitchen, just a hearth with an old pot dangling from a metal hook

  “I’ll get you a drink.” Neesha grabbed the pot and left, closing the door behind her while Emily sat down on the chair. She noticed the window had no glass pane. The air was laden with the sweet odour of fish and something else, sweet, putrid. Emily took a few careful sniffs and gagged, bile rising in her throat. She forced herself to breathe through the mouth.

  The door burst open and Neesha returned with the pot. She retrieved a chipped cup from under the bed and poured in some water, then handed it to Emily. “This will refresh you, traveller.”

  Emily cradled the offered cup in her hands. The silence of the night relaxed her and she felt her eyelids grow heavy, the scent less overpowering now.

  Neesha looked at her expectantly. “Aren’t you drinking?”

  “Sure.” Emily lifted the cup to her lips but didn’t take a gulp. Neesha walked to the hearth and raised her hands over the candle flame. Only then did Emily notice the woman’s dress was dripping-wet, bones protruding where the material touched her skin. There was something unnatural about the young face with its soft features and white hair. In the light, the cheekbones were too hollow, the skin too translucent.

  Something felt wrong. Emily lowered the cup as she eyed the door, ready to dart for it if need be, but it wasn’t time yet. She’d stay just a little longer. Just to rest a little.

  “You can sleep on the bed. I’ll take the chair,” Neesha said.

  Emily tightened her grip around her backpack, Aurelie’s warnings suddenly echoing in her head. “What’re you and why did you invite me in?”

  Neesha looked surprised. “I’m a water nymph. You’ve surely heard of us. I offered you shelter for the night because I’m lonely and seek your company. No one ever visits this part of Black Wood.”

  Maybe for a reason. Emily frowned in concentration. Did Aurelie say anything about nymphs? Her mind was so muddled she couldn’t remember a thing. “I don’t know if I can’t trust you.” Even though she felt exhausted, she forced herself to march to the door, unsure what to do.

  Why don’t you stay a little longer, said a voice inside her head.

  Emily grabbed the handle, but Neesha pressed a hand against the door, her eyes glinting with something Emily didn’t notice before.

  “Please, don’t leave just yet. You’ve only arrived,” Neesha said.

  “Sorry, I really got to go.” Emily pulled the handle as hard as she could. The door wouldn’t bulge.

  “But look how tired you are.” Neesha’s voice dripped with sweet honey as she nudged Emily toward the chair. “And it’s so dark outside. You could get lost.”

  Why did Neesha insist like that? And why was Emily so tired and sleepy? She hadn’t been before. Her eyes snapped wide open. She had to get out before she fell asleep.

  The sweet scent grew stronger as Neesha lifted the cup to Emily’s lips. “Drink, you must be so thirsty.”

  Emily shoved her hand away and the cup pummelled onto the ground, water spilling over dry leaves and twigs.

  “Now, look what you’ve done.” Neesha dropped to her knees, her head bowed over the cup. “You’ve wasted precious droplets. How dare you!”

  With shaking hands, Emily opened her backpack, pulled out her dagger and pointed it toward the nymph. “Get away from me!”

  Neesha rose slowly to her feet. Emily watched in horror as the beautiful nymph changed into a weather-beaten, leathery, old hag with a crooked nose and toothless mouth. Her voice sounded still young and beautiful as she spoke. “You won’t go anywhere!”

  Emily took a step toward the door, her heart hammering in her chest. “Get out of my way.”

  “No one who enters my home ever leaves.” Neesha stomped forward, her gaze fixed on the sharp blade, her wrinkled face fierce with determination.

  “You’re wrong there.” Emily jumped to the side and kicked Neesha’s leg as hard as she could. The nymph howled and lunged for her, but Emily held out the dagger, its poisoned tip grazing Neesha’s skin.

  The nymph cried out as her skin turned black around the puncture, spreading across her pale skin like a spider web until she was black as coal. Wincing, she toppled over. “You cannot kill me. No poison can.”

  Emily yanked the door open and made a dash for the trees, jumping over stones to reach the other side of the river. Panting, she turned to throw a glance behind her when her foot caught in a loose branch that sent her flying into the freezing water. She landed on her belly with a splash, facedown in the stream. Flapping about like a fish, her hands tried to grasp onto something to heave her up, but the water pulled her under.

  Chapter 20

  The water closed over Emily’s head, dragging her under. Her lungs burned from the effort to hold in her breath. Floating, she opened her eyes wide and looked around. Her foot had caught in something black. Its tight grip felt like a hand clasped around her ankle. She kicked and pulled, but it just wouldn’t let go. Panic rose in her chest. Where was the dagger? She opened her mouth just a tiny bit to form the words. “Flamma, appare!”

  A tiny flame ignited in the palm of her hand. In the soft light, something gleamed on the ground between the blurry shapes of stones and plants. Flailing her arms, she dived deeper and retrieved the dagger, then cut through the floating, slimy algae wrapped around her foot.

  Just as she thought her lungs would burst from the lack of air, she reached the surface and, holding on to a long branch, she crawled to shore.

  Stay away from the water, Aurelie had said. Was it poisoned? Oh, why hadn’t she just listened? Emily coughed and spluttered in the hope to spit out as much of it as possible. But she knew she had swallowed quite a bit.

  Where was the hut? She peered into the darkness but didn’t see the clearing. The current must have carried her downstream. Better get away before the nymph found her.

  Her clothes were dripping-wet as she clambered to her feet, put the dagger back into her wet backpack and strode toward the forest. The trees grew denser here. Their naked branches built a canopy high above the bare ground, filtering
the moonlight.

  Shivering, Emily slumped down near a bush and retrieved a water bottle and a tuna sandwich wrapped in protective foil from her backpack. The piercing sound of the foil as she removed it echoed through the silence and made her flinch. Hopefully, it wouldn’t wake up the forest.

  She bit into her food and chewed as quickly as she could, her eyes darting about, looking out for any approaching danger. It was so quiet, even her chewing sounded like a drum in her ears.

  As soon as she finished her sandwich, she put the wrapping and water bottle away and started marching straight ahead through the thicket. The path was near, she knew it. The night had been stretching on forever. Morning had to break soon, and then she’d be able to see farther ahead than just a few steps.

  Her cold, wet clothes stuck to her skin, her bones felt stiff and tired. Just as she thought she couldn’t go on, the trees to her right parted, giving way to a narrow, stony path.

  Emily jumped up. Yes, she’d found it. Was it the same trail from her dream though?

  “It’s got to lead somewhere,” she muttered to herself, heading toward it.

  When she reached the clearing, she stopped to gather her breath and her gaze fell on a tall shape partly obscured by trees in the distance. Standing on her toes, she craned her neck to get a better glimpse. The shape was too wide to be a tree, and black as the night. Could this be the Black Tower?

  The pain in her legs forgotten, she darted along the path and took a shortcut through the trees toward it. The shape grew wider and taller the nearer she came. And then she stood before the tower from her dream with its smooth stone wall and single window overlooking the forest below.

  Emily dropped to her knees, exhausted. Finally. Her grandmother, Sam and Aurelie would be so proud. Now she only needed to locate the door and get rid of Muriel.

 
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