"Oh, sorry there." the Centaur said, stopping in his tracks.
He reached back, brushing the leaves from Midnight's hair and face.
They had been traveling for so long, the girl hardly knew whether it was day or night anymore. Her arm was still quite painful and riding on the Centaur's back - or rather struggling not to fall - only made it worse. Sometimes, a ray of light would penetrate through the thick green branches, casting enormous shadows on the ground, but save for that, the air was dark and still. Midnight's eyes had not yet adjusted to the darkness, but she could still see the large distorted shapes of the trees, their roots sticking out of the ground like tentacles.
Moving through the dark big tree trunks had proven to be extremely difficult, even for the massive Centaur, and holding onto him had been just as hard for her.
"It's alright." she replied, and shook her head vigorously. More leaves fell out. Now that they'd stopped, the forest seemed unusually quiet. Almost too still, the branches hovered above them, all green from the moss that covered them and their stillness made Midnight uneasy. She could feel the danger in it, like an unspoken warning. There were other things in that forest, things Midnight knew -or felt- were powerful and dangerous, things she couldn't even think of. There was a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach and the girl tried to repress a shudder.
The Centaur, however, caught it.
"You're cold, aren't you? I forgot Fairlings were so sensitive. Here,"he said, pulling Midnight onto the ground, "walking will do you good. I would offer you Valrya's cloak, but you didn't seem to like it very much..."
There was a loud crack behind him. Someone had landed very suddenly on a branch, splitting it in two. Glancing coldly at her two companions, the silver-shaded woman leaned against a tall tree covered in moss.
The Centaur smiled.
"Don't mind her. She's very easily offended. She'll get over it."
He winked, and there was a playful spark in his milky blue eyes. Midnight bit back a smile.
"Thank you" she said slowly. She hadn't spoken in quite some time and her voice sounded rough. The girl cleared her throat and the noise seemed to bounce off of the trees around them.
"Can you walk, then?" the Centaur asked.
Midnight moved her legs carefully, taking a few short steps. She was still in some amount of pain from all her bruises, but she could carry herself well enough and they had to get going. The Centaur, whose name Midnight remembered to be Arragus, held her by the shoulders while their other companion ran ahead through the trees, only briefly coming back to let them know the trail was safe. The ground was trickier than Midnight had originally thought and she was soon struggling to stay on her feet, as the rocks constantly rolled from under them.
After a while, they had to stop and let her catch her breath again.
The Centaur opened his mouth but a sharp female voice cut him short:
"It's a word from the Old Writings, used to name people of your world." the woman said, pacing impatiently around them in a circle.
"This is not the place to talk about this. We have to get you to safety first." the Centaur interceded quickly, catching Valrya's train of thought.
"Safety? I thought I was already safe."
"Not in these parts of the forest, no. They're too close to the Midlands for any Fairling to be safe here. There's a reason why your lot can't go into the woods, you know."
His words reminded Midnight of the stories she'd heard when she was younger, stories of people who had come too close to the tall, dark trees. The local legends of her village spoke of the horrors and curses and tremendous danger hidden behind the old oaks of the forest. She blinked as the pieces fell together and suddenly a thousand questions popped into her mind.
Watching her closely, the Centaur smiled.
"It's the land of the banished. Only the worst of the Lost Ones are sent here."
"And...what happens to them?"
The Centaur shrugged. "Well, the first ones were banished to these lands in the Ancient times. They survived alright, but solitary life, especially one of this sort...it would turn everyone a little wild. After a while, though, they learned to hunt Fairlings. That's how your stories appeared, see. They also hunted down other banished Ones. If the newcomers survived the hunt, they joined the hunting party and learned their ways. Well, they turned more and more into dangerous savages as time went by. Everyone stopped traveling through these parts altogether, so they kept hunting Fairlings food. In the end, we managed to stop them from doing that, but now they're angry and hungry, so you can imagine they're not very pleasant beings to deal with."
"So then..why aren't they hunting us?"
The woman laughed loudly. Her sharp laughter bounced off the trees, echoing into the distance.
"I would like to see them try. But they won't. I think they still remember the last time they tried to attack a Patron!"
Midnight's head shot up, turning to look at the woman behind her.
There was a strange sound behind them, like leaves being turned over by someone's quick steps. They all turned their heads to find the source of the noise. Midnight's eyes couldn't penetrate through the darkness, but the other two seemed to see something lurking around, because the next thing she knew the Centaur grabbed her by the hands and, pulling her onto his back, began running through the trees again.
"W-why a-a-are we run-n-n-ning?" Midnight stuttered as they avoided several large rocks.
"I'm not sure, but Valrya seems to think there was something--someone back there. It could be a banished One, but even if it wasn't, it's best to be safe. Now be quiet, there's no need to make more noise and let whatever it was know where we are."
It didn't seem like he was going to say anything else so the girl pressed her lips together, still trying desperately to hold on.
Not long after, though, the ground appeared to become steadier and more reliable. There were no more holes and, after a while, Midnight noticed that the rocks were gone, too. They still had trouble going around the fallen trees, but the journey had definitely become more pleasant. For her, at least.
The strange voice made Midnight jump up in surprise, nearly knocking her off the Centaur's back. Even he seemed a little startled, as he backed away a few steps.
There was no one else there with them, she knew that for sure, so who had spoken so suddenly? As she looked around nervously, her gaze fell on a particularly odd-looking tree. This one was odd in that it wasn't covered in the thick layer of moss that grew on all the other trees, and it had no leaves. Its branches were long and thin and it looked very dry, like it was about to fall onto the ground and turn into dust.
"In the name of the Order of the Dragon, stop! Go back, or else..." the bodiless voice continued, but the Arragus, recovering from his surprise, hit the ground hard with his hooves.
"We're going forward and if you don't step aside, I'll be having your tail for dinner! Now let us through!"
For a moment, nothing happened. Midnight almost thought she had imagined the whole thing. But then, right in front of her eyes, the tree she'd been looking at began changing shape. It kept shrinking until it would have barely reached her elbow, the surface of the bark melting into something indefinite in shape and color. Then, ever so slowly, the mass began to reform. It grew a head, arms and legs and, at last, a long purple tail with three sharp, black thorns at the end. It looked like a very small man, standing in front of them. Except for the tail.
"Arragus. I didn't mean to frighten you. I just didn't recognize you," the tiny little creature said in a surprisingly strong voice. He gave the Centaur a little smile, but Arragus did not return it.
"There are very few things that scare me, Salazan, but you are not one of them. No matter what size you are. Especially not this size," he said with an irritated voice.
It was clear, however, that he had been frightened, and that was the real reason for his irritation. Salazan smiled impishly but his good mood changed as a harsh voice came from between the trees.
"We're already late, lizard, even without your little jokes."
"Valrya," the little man said in a mock voice, "I see coming this close to a Fairling hasn't changed you. It's a pity. One would think that revisiting your homeland would have put you in a better mood..."
The woman snarled and reached for her sword, but the tiny creature was already gone, leaving a big, dark empty space between the two trees on either side of where he had stood. The Centaur put his hand on Midnight's shoulder, nudging her gently.
"Well, go on. Time's precious, you know."
It was too dark ahead to see anything, but, as the girl got closer, shapes began to form before her eyes. The closer they got, the more she could see and the more it amazed her. Wild grass grew everywhere, as tall as her and even taller. The ground wasn't solid and edgy anymore, but soft and warm and pleasant. The trees were smaller, but their trunks were thicker and they had short branches that bent under the weight of the leaves, forming a sort of archway above the path.
"I don't see it."
Valrya's sharp voice interrupted Midnight's train of thought and the girl turned toward the woman. Both her and the Centaur seemed to be looking for something.
"Ever since the damned incident they keep changing the signs. We've been gone for a day they've probably moved them somewhere else by now..."
"And how are we supposed to get in?"
The Centaur mumbled something that Midnight couldn't understand. Valrya laughed then turned her back on him, still looking intently at every tree trunk and every rock on the ground. Then, something caught Midnight's attention.
"Hey, I think you'd better stay here until.." the Centaur said as she stepped away from him.
"I'm not going anywhere, I just want to see something." Midnight replied absently.
As she turned around, Arragus grabbed the fairy-woman by the arm, drawing her attention to the girl. The woman looked at him and at once understood what he was thinking.
"Don't be ridiculous! The Entrance can't be found by someone who's never seen it before! It's part of the Charm!"
But no one was listening to her anymore. Instead, he watched as the girl stopped in front of the last two trees on the path.
As she did so, Midnight turned around. There was a gleam of curiosity in her eyes when she spoke:
"These trees. Are they supposed to be like this?"
"I don't know exactly. They just seem...thinner than the others. And younger, somehow. And they don't have bent branches, either."
There was a long pause. Then, the Centaur let out a long appreciative whistle.
"Well, I'll be damned. I guess that Charm of yours isn't as strong as you thought, huh?" he said jokingly. Valrya let out a low growl and jumped to where the girl was standing in one swift move. The Centaur joined them shortly. The trees were, indeed thinner than the others and definitely not as old. Their branches bent only on one side, forming a curtain of long, hanging vines between them.
"Well, it's getting pretty cold out here. I say we step right in." the Centaur said.
"Step right into what?" Midnight asked, baffled.
Arragus looked at the girl's confused faced and laughed. He reached out and touched the vines gently. Almost instantly, the leaves began to dry and fall, and then the vines, and then the branches, until there was nothing left of the two tall trees they had seen.
Midnight let out a gasp as a massive wooden door revealed itself from behind the dead vines. It was wider than all three of them together and, as she got closer, the girl realized what she had mistaken for wood was actually some form of hard, black metal. Words were encrusted everywhere on its surface and there were six larger symbols right in the center, linked to each other through a series of rings.
What drew her attention, however, was the handle. It was made out of some kind of golden metal, but it shined brighter than anything Midnight had seen. It, too, had the six symbols engraved on it, as well as words in a language that the girl couldn't understand.
"You should try opening it. I think that's the way it works." joked the Centaur.
"Opening it? But it's too big for me to open it!"
Nobody said anything. Midnight looked at them. The woman looked angry and pierced her with her eyes. The Centaur, however, smiled encouragingly.
The girl turned around to face the door again. With a shaking hand, she grabbed the handle but let go of it at once as it started turning rapidly. There was a loud cracking sound as the door began to move quickly and then they could hear noise coming from the other side. It sounded like people talking, shouting, laughing.
"Here, put this on!" the Centaur urged as he pulled Valrya's long cape over the tiny girl's shoulders. "And put the hood on! Quickly! Now walk with us and don't say a word, do you understand?"
His voice was grave. Midnight nodded, then pulled the hood over her face.
"Oh, sorry there." the Centaur said, stopping in his tracks.