The Thief’s Wager: Rustle in the Dark

Chapter Four

She travelled through countless backwoods, but none of them compared to Lunar Forest. It was a rumor, a bedtime story, but in reality, it was a nightmare. A forest of perpetual darkness, with creatures she prayed to never meet again. It was a foul place where the trees grew high enough to not only block the sun but the Gods as well. Nothing penetrated their waxy leaves which stretched beyond the springy branches. They overlapped and conquered their neighbor in their fight for the sky. Descending from the leafy heavens was the colossal trunks with creeping vines twisted around the mossy bark. They tangled among shrubs and rocks littering the base.

Time stretched for miles as Moira and her companions trudged the winding trails. She divided the forest into two distinct periods, the time of animals and the time of plants. The creatures, a kind of hairless rodent, scurried between their legs. A breed of screeching bat enjoyed zooming from tree limbs to terrorize them. But it was the insects that put her on edge. They were the first omen, and with their buzzing the plants would awaken. The wasp size mosquitos zoomed; whirring in her ear before vanishing into the void. It was the darkness that made the forest unbearable. Her staff provided a dim light, which lit a foot or so ahead of her. But the use of her magic was taking its toll. Already she felt weak, and the forest offered no end in sight.

The stench of wet decay surrounded, constricted, and smothered every inch of her. Every inhale was warm, thick, and heavy. The soft spongey ground molded to her boots, as if she walked over the chest of a dead man. She kept herself and the child who accompanied them in her staff’s light. It was the only thing that kept the plants at bay. Her only hope was her Guardian, Eclipse, who seemed to understand the woodland’s magic. Lately she heard a growl, low at first, then growing from the belly of some inhuman beast. Heavy leaves would rustle in the distance followed by silence. He wouldn’t say it out loud, but she understood. Something out there was corralling them.

She watched the tip of his tail flick from side to side at the edge of the light. The sheen of his black fur reminded her of sneaking out of her room at night and exploring the Academy grounds. Adventure was a lot less tedious when she was a child. In those days, he was almost three but tried to impress all the world’s knowledge into her ten-year-old head. He dedicated every hour of study to improvement. But it was the midnight escapades that brought her soul to life. Sitting in the cool desert courtyard under the glimmering stars soothed her loneliness. For a moment she forgot the grief of her mother’s death. The hatred her father harbored towards the Mage she was to become. With him, under that sky, the world was tranquil.

Wait… what happened to the mosquitoes?

It began as a quiver, a rustle of leaves, and her heart thumped against her ribs. She squeezed the wooden handle; taking comfort with an old friend. The forest was silent, like a gulp of air before a plunge, she waited for it to make it’s move. Sara whimpered, tightening her sweaty grip in her hand. But Moira prepared for battle.

“Moira,” Eclipse whispered, directing her to the lower left of the path.

“Die!” a curdled scream erupted from the bushes.

A man, blood dripping from his head and covered in vines, screamed from the undergrowth. He tossed his limp body like a seal over the sand, crawling with a broken sword in his right hand. Charred gnarly fingertips reach for her muddy boot. They stroke the toe as the plants entwined; snapping him backward. His sword flew from his hand, stabbing the mud with its broken blade. Smeared with mud is a hilt decorated with a silver bell. A familiar emblem from a new enemy.

“Eclipse, take Sara.” The tiny fingers slipped from her grasp as he yanked the girl beyond the light. She’s safer with him, Moira reasoned, listening to the shuffling of clumsy feet race in the distance.

The soldier’s cry cut through her; his anger, despair and anguish rolled over her body. The lump in her throat swelled as his body flailed, kicking clumps of moss into the air. The more he struggled the deeper their glistening thorns dug into his skin. Her stomach twisted as they glide over his flesh; cutting it like butter. Each excruciating scream beckons her to act, to help, to end it. But she can’t chance even the slightest of movement. The creatures who live in the darkest of places don’t hunt with their eyes.

Thin razor like thorns whir past her, stinging her cheek as they swallow their victim. She fought the urge to run, retreating one careful foot at a time. Until a crack of a dead branch echoed. It took a heartbeat for the roots of a nearest tree to pry themselves from the forest floor. Squeezing the wooden staff in her hand, she slid the fist size opal across the soil. A spark ignited, creating a flickering flame over the gem. Deep breaths, calm mind, strength comes from within. She repeated her mantra as the forest rustled behind her. A quick wave of her hand spun the fire into a ball. Tugging it with her fingers, it spiraled like a ribbon over her limbs before circling her waist. The tangle of vines launched in her direction but the flames licked across the leafy flesh.

The rancid stench stung her nose but when one crumbles to ash two more replace the fallen. The opal glowed crimson against the darkness, searing anything it touched. But a vine latched around her occupied hand. Fighting the force yanking her to the trees, she dug her heels in; refusing to leave the safety of the path. Her muscles burned; each nerve stretched to its limit. Her shoulder ached, ready to pop from its socket. With her free hand she motioned over the flames. They crawled over her exposed forearm, searing her skin, before clamping on to the enemy.

“You’ll die in here with me traitor!”

The feverish crimson reflected in the white of his eyes. A manic laughter escaped from his torn throat; the shrill stabbing her pounding heart. She can’t ignore the shaking hand clawing into the decayed earth as the plants gobble his torso. As more bones snap, he disappeared into a gapping mouth of thorns and slobber. The roots squeezed, pulled, and twisted her, but she couldn’t quit, Sara depended on her.

Ferus, for all is holy, don’t let me die like this.

The vines constricting her sizzle, as the smoke twists upward, they fall limp at her feet. Pulling the fire from the Opal, she stretched it over her body; it spun as the vines slammed against it. Beads of sweat dribbled over her forehead as the sweltering heat radiated. Already her skin began to blister; times like this she wished she were born a Pyro Mage. She darted in the direction Eclipse went, hoping to reach him before the flames, or the enemy, consumed her.

The frenzy of convulsing bushes drowned out the inhuman screech echoing from the trail.  Her chest tightened as the growl followed at her heels. But she fought against the fear gripping her and focused on Eclipse. He had protected, nurtured her, and had never left her side. In the forever changing world he was the one certainty she allowed herself to have. And now, she recalled the warmth steadfastness his presence emulated. His magic pulsed through hers, encasing her body and directed her towards him. The vines grazed her cloak, the forest closed in on her, but in the distance a ruby light shined.


A beacon in the darkness, only a few meters away. She pushed her aching legs forward, trying to close the gap. But her foot hitched on a root, tumbling over the tree, she smacked against the ground. Through blurry vision she watched the red beacon fade. Coarse bark scratched over her limbs as they force her to the mud. They ignored the fire barrier, choosing to set themselves aflame, then allow her to escape. Like a snake nest, they curl and constrict around her. The pain, riding a wave of fear, flooded her senses breaking her concentration and shattering the spell. No longer protected, the Opal laid dormant as the vines embrace her.

They twisted around her torso, squirming until they reached her neck. She tugged, yanked, and fought but their death grip was impossible to break. The forest became a blur of shadow and movement, the back of her head throbbed and it was harder to breathe. Her body collapsed under the weight, giving way to the darkness. They covered her like an uncomfortable blanket; as they lulled into death’s slumber, she heard a roar that rocked the leaves. She took a breath, a gulp of the damp stale air, and relished in it. The branches constricted in protest, cutting the blood flow to her leg. Panic was bubbling to the surface. A soft rose light flashed around her, between the whipping vines was a glistening set of sharp teeth.

They tore the plants to pieces until they slipped from her throat and she gulped the stagnant air. The screeching surrounded her until she felt the vines slither into the darkness. A furry face nudged her arm, motioning her to run. Grabbing her staff, she followed Eclipse and the pulsating rose light. The thunder of cracking trees reverberated as the forest clattered to life. It hunted as one predator, moving when they moved, trying to predict their course. Her chest ached as she fought to breathe, it took everything out of her to stay one step ahead. The ruby birthmark on his head glowed, guiding her through weaving restraints.

Ahead of them beams of dull blue rays radiated from between the ancient trees. Relief flooded over her, a safe place at last. But the plants had a different plan. They laced themselves across the path, weaving like silk embroidery, blocking their escape. Eclipse, sleek and nimble like a shadow leapt through the closing gap, landing on the other side. Her heart raced and her limbs complained, but the gap shrunk by the minute. Leaving her fate to the Gods, she tossed her body through the space. Thorns tugged against her pants, tangled her hair but she slipped through. From the damp ground, she watched the wall close behind her with an eerie finality.

“Get over here!” he shouted from the edge of the azure light, “we are not finished yet.”

Thorny vines sprung from the shadows, but fear pushed her upright, and sent her running. The final leg of the race for her life, led her to the clearing. The thorny branches screamed and twisted as the radiant haze repelled them. At last, her legs gave out and she tumbled over the soft ocean of grass. Face down in the waxy leaves she allowed the coolness to soothe her tired muscles.

“Moira you’re back! Eclipse, you did it!” Sara cheered, waving a wayward stick in celebration.

“Are you okay, did you get hurt?” She asked climbing to her feet.

“No, Eclipse brought me here before the plants attacked.”

“Then I had to venture into that death trap to fetch you and drag you back here.” He wandered toward the fire burning by the bubbling brook.

She sighed, stretched her muscles, and followed Sara to the fireside. Over head was a smear of sky; she smiled relieved to see starlight for the first time in days. A midnight sky littered with shimmering stars and light cloud cover. The mysterious light blanketing the clearing originated from the still water pond at the center. Waxy, lush grass splayed over the flat landscape. From the past encounters, the azure light was a safe place, free from the carnivorous plants. Small forest animals scurried from mushroom patches to the pond to drink. The monstrous trees took on the appearance of sleeping giants as the light washed over them. The serenity of the area calmed her as she took a spot near the crackling fire.

“What is she doing now?” He huffed, watching the Sara position herself near a patch of waxy mushrooms. Ever since they discovered the first clearing, she became obsessed with the vegetation. Preferring the type that didn’t eat them. She opened her book and began to sketch the mushrooms at the edge of the pond.

“Her mother was the village healer, she probably picked up the interest from her.”

“Sara stop touching them, they are poisonous.”

The animals eat them Eclipse. If they’re good enough for them it’s fine for me!”

“Moira, will you do something?”

“Alright,” she sighed. She pulled a handkerchief from the pouch at her waist and tossed it to Sara. “Okay kiddo, how about you humor us with some caution. No skin contact until we get them to an apothecary and figure out what they are.” A smile curled on her elvish face as she used the cloth to stuff the mushrooms in her bag. “Whoa, if the animals need them, take what you need and leave the rest for them.”

“I am forever concerned about your future children.” He muttered, crossing his forepaws.

“I need to get out of here first. Then worry about my unborn children.” Pulling a balm from her pouch she applied the cold aloe cream to her burns.

“I told you a fire barrier is short term use only. You are not impervious to fire, and you can not use your staff if your torso is suffering from third degree burns.”

“Third degree? Eclipse, this won’t even blister, relax, will you?”

“Have you forgotten where we are?”

“Please remind me again for the hundredth time, by the Gods Eclipse I get it.”

“Are you quite finished?” She took a deep breath, pushing the frustration aside and breathing in the tranquility of the moment. “As I was saying, I suspect the carnivorous plants’ agitation is from the soldiers hunting us. It is best that we preserve our strength and find our exit sooner rather than later. “

“If we walk in the dark, they attack us. At least if I use Ceraphim magic it keeps them at bay and we can make some progress. I either use my magic and die slowly or don’t and die quickly. I’m doing my best to get us out.”

“You are not alone Moira, we will— as we have always done— survive. Besides, I may have a solution to our problem.” He motioned to the meandering brook that fed the pond. Her eyes followed the rushing water until it vanished into the trees.

“Do you think we can follow it out?”

“Pray to Ferus for her blessing, we may need it. Although, I must admit, we would not be here if it were not for the twerp.”

“For some reason, the Gods brought her into my path…”

“I have that answer,” he made himself comfortable beside the embers, “her life’s purpose is to annoy me.”

A poke of the charcoal rocks unleased sparks and ash into the air. It reminded her of the night Dragon Haven was set afire. In that moment she was powerless to prevent it. Even now the Gods veiled future in secrets and she was helpless to change it. Her destiny pushed her in a dangerous direction.

“I guess the historians are right,” she whispered to him, “all roads lead to Lollardum. May the Gods save our souls.”

Continue to Chapter Five

Revisit Chapter Three

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