Night hung over Darwyn like a dripping mollusk. It slumped heavy and damp on his shoulders, and there was something prehensile about it–its murk like tentacles wrapping about him, worming their way into his brain, constricting.
There was a rustle in the underbrush ahead of him and he paused, his hand quickly finding the hilt of his sword. The growth quivered again, and in the umber, it looked almost as if the brush was something else entirely. Something alive. Able to breathe.
He inhaled and froze.
Nothing–could be anything.
He exhaled and moved forward, deeper into the tangle. The moon’s already wan light was choked by the labyrinth of canopy overhead. It crept above him like a pregnant storm cloud. In the dark, shapes were not shapes but suggestions. Everything was indecipherable. It was all reduced to a dusty, dark aether that swirled in one’s imagination, manifesting here as a thing, and there as another. All of a sudden, in primordial dark, what was behind, or just at the edges, developed a thicker gravity than what lay ahead. And yet, in primordial dark, who could tell the difference between ahead or behind, between what lingered at the edges and what lumbered dead before you. It was all the same formless haunting.
Darwyn felt a chill and he knew it wasn’t from the cool air, but instead was taking hold in his core–these were cursed lands. A howl rang out, and though the sound was clear and bright and piercing, there was something surreal about it. It wreathed itself about the air, hanging like a cobweb.
He halted, searching for any sign of the sound’s origin, but all he could hear was the beating of his own heart.
Everything was still, and still there was nothing.
He took another very slow step forward and the sensation of being watched suddenly overcame him. He spun quickly–left, then right–a full sweep. He half expected a teeming mass of fiendish eyes to be peering out of the black, searing into him. But there was nothing.
And yet, he was being watched. A pair of eyes deep in the wood, remote, hidden from him, watched his every move through the iridescent mist of a divination sphere.
“I think,” Beatrice said to Ophelia, “that it needs a touch of vesperwing. Would muffle sounds.”
Ophelia nodded, but was mostly interested in her book.
“Did you even hear me?”
“Touch of vesperwing,” she said, licking her finger and gently turning the page.
“What are you reading?”
“Rolfe’s newest. The Toiled Fields.”
“Ladies,” Lilith said, waving them over to her sphere. “Come have a look. I think we have a visitor.”
Ophelia plucked the reading glasses from the perch of her nose and a crease of skepticism cut across her brow. “In the dead of night?”
Lilith waved more emphatically. “See for yourself.”
Beatrice took her potion with her, stirring the whole time. She gazed into the green and blue swirl and the form of a knight emerged from the vapor. “Hm. Seems it. Peculiar.” She returned to her apothecary table and began quickly checking the drawers for vesperwing.
Ophelia made her way over. “An elf,” she observed.
“Someone from Deepvale all the way out here?” A scheme drew together in Lilith’s head and her eyes gleamed. “He’s so far out. We have to offer him shelter,” she said in a put-on pout.
“Not from Deepvale. Nearby. Ebontarn.”
“How can you tell?” Lilith asked.
“Don’t you know your heraldry?”
Lilith shrugged. “I’m normally just trying to get them out of their armor.”
Ophelia pointed to an insignia on his surcoat. “The hippocampus. He’s definitely Draclaudian.”
“An errand boy for Edmund, then?”
Beatrice looked as though a foul stench had just wafted in. “I’ve no desire to deal with boorish kings. One of you two can handle this.”
“Poor thing seems so on edge,” Lilith laughed.
“You know the stories they tell about these woods,” Ophelia said. “That even the plants want to eat you.”
Beatrice smiled. “Glad my work is recognized.”
“Can’t we help him?” Lilith pleaded.
“Why?” Ophelia put her glasses back on and sat, legs crossed, in her reading chair. She opened to her spot and tried to settle back into the swaying cadence of Rolfe’s summery prose. “Let him stumble through the dark on his own. Maybe we’ll get lucky and he won’t find us.”
“You two are a drag,” Lilith said, looking back into the glimmering sphere and into the elf’s alert eyes.
Darwyn continued his determined plunge into the thicket, slowly adapting to the phantom gaze that gripped him. At first, it burned like nettles on his skin. But after a while, it smoothed into a strange, buzzing piquancy. And after that, he became immune; it quieted into a hum that became more and more diffuse until he could no longer feel the witch’s eyes vibrating on him.
So comfortable had he become that he began to think the Coven was a hoax, that he’d been sent on an impossible task. That all of the whispers of these woods’ nocturnal horrors–werewolves and man-eating plants and gloom so viscous it must be poison–were paranoid nonsense. There was nothing out here but soggy vegetation and the trill of crickets. Whatever chill gripped him earlier began to thaw, and now he only worried what he would say to His Majesty when he returned with nothing.