Sleeping on Lukas' back while he was a dragon was much more comforting than having to walk on foot. In fact, it was almost like your relationship completely changed when he became a dragon: you didn't have to struggle to catch up to him because you were always with him, and he never talked ill of you because there was no need to talk in the middle of the night.
Eventually, after a few more days of travelling, the two of you—plus Emil's soul—reached the edge of the Bone Forest. You could understand why they gave the place such a name: the trees were bare and stuck out of the ground like skeletal hands reaching out to grab unsuspecting victims, no wind howled through the thickets, and the little snow that fell through the bony branches carried a strange black color of dust making the floor around the forest dark and eerie.
"It would have been easier if my brother had chosen someone who knew a thing or two about defending herself," Lukas commented. "It looks like I'm going to have to do all of the protecting while we're passing through this place."
"H-How long will it take to get through here?" you asked through chattering teeth. It wasn't that you were cold, but something about the very air creeping out of the forest made icicles run down your spine.
Upon hearing your question, Lukas looked up at the sky. "Since it's still early in the morning, if we hurry, we can actually pass through here before dark, and it's highly recommended that we do. So until we get out of the forest, you are to do exactly as I tell you to, understand? No complaining."
"I understand," you sighed and wrapped your cloak tightly around your shoulders.
With that, the two of you started trekking into the Bone Forest. You felt nervous within moments of walking through the blackened grounds. There was something off about the silence that made it even colder than when you were walking through the snow. The branches above made a network of intertwining webs that weighed down most of the snow blotching out any possible light from cracking through the sky above.
It was way too quiet. You could hear your own hard breathing, the crunching of the dead twigs and snow beneath your feet, and if you listened closely, you could even feel your blood pumping in your ears.
"It's quiet, isn't it?" Emil suddenly asked making you let out a small yelp.
Just then, Lukas stopped and looked back at you. "What's wrong?"
"I-It's nothing," you breathed feeling your heart hammering in your chest. "Emil just said something, that's all."
The dragon sighed. "It would be wise to make as little noise as possible," he advised. "Not all things are active only at night in the Bone Forest."
"I'll be sure to remember that," you huffed and continued on your way.
One thing that you were grateful for was the fact that because there was such little snow coming down from the trees, it was very easy to keep up with Lukas. You didn't have to worry about getting snow shoved up your boots or sloshing through the energy-consuming cold, and there wasn't any wind or ice crystals blowing into your eyes.
To occupy yourself away from the eerie silence, you began to talk with Emil.
Do you know the story behind the name of the Bone Forest? you asked.
"It's actually not as strange as you'd think," Emil began. "It was so named because a long time ago, this part of the forest was ravaged by a storm of dragon fire. The trees never recovered their leaves, but their branches continued to grow until it became dark and desolate. Dark-residing creatures began to flock to this forest and now live here. There's another part to the name, but…it's not as important."
Huh. So the name's origin isn't as grim as I thought it would be, you mused.
"You could say that. On the contrary, while this forest has many dangerous creatures of the night, there are also many valuable medicines to be found if you know where to look."
Really? Care to enlighten me?
"There are ghost mushrooms that only grow in the darkest of places. I've heard that you can find them under rotting logs or wedged in the hollows of some of these trees. They have the extraordinary ability to enhance dreaming experiences."
What do you mean by that?
"If someone is having ill dreams or problems with their past, they can hang a ghost mushroom over their nose as they sleep, and they will only have pleasant thoughts through the night. It's only named the ghost mushroom because of its incredible elusiveness. Since we're here, I don't suppose you have any problems sleeping at night, do you?"
…Not that I know of, you responded. Are there any other curious things growing here?
"There is a rare tree known as the Lunawood. It's an interesting kind of tree that can bury itself in the ground to hide from creatures that might want to eat its sweet wood, but every time there's a full moon, it rises above the Bone Forest and opens flowers to absorb the moonlight. Ever since Dragonfall has begun, there haven't been too many sightings, but its flowers can be boiled and ground up into a paste that can heal severe burns."
It sounds amazing, you thought.
"It certainly is," Emil agreed. "I've had the fortune of harvesting one myself when one of my previous vessels was suffering from a burn he had received from being too careless with a fire he had set up. I also happened to be the one who guided him to the tree."
Interesting, you commented.
"And what of you, ___________?" Emil asked. "Do you have any interesting experiences before becoming our dragonkeeper?"
Not really, you admitted. I didn't have much growing up, and only spent my time in the outskirts of the castle town. I never knew my father, and Dragonfall got to my mother's health a few years ago. I was fortunate enough to take up residence in the lower levels of the castle as something of an errand girl before the other dragonkeeper left and here I am now.
"I suppose you wouldn't have too many experiences being so young," Emil said. "My brother, however, has his own share of interesting tales. In another situation, he would be eager to tell you about what sorts of adventures he's been on. He has quite a tale to share about the time he was travelling with his first vessel."
The prince, you mean.
"Yes," the dragon's soul replied. "Alas, it's more interesting to hear the tale through his own words." You could feel him laughing inside your heart. "I don't suppose you would know about this, but even though we may have pride, we start out with very little else."
You made a face. I don't understand.
"Dragons lack most human emotions. We begin without sadness, anger, grief, happiness, and among other emotions, love. It is not so much that we exactly lower ourselves to bond with humans, it's because we are incomplete without them. We need to collect the complex feelings along the way, and in time, we are able to shape our own reason. Without humans, we are nothing more than feral beasts—powerful, but without logic and individuality."
Would you say you're complete? you wondered.
"I would hope that I am," Emil laughed. "Of course, that being said, we have the ability to shape how we perceive things. My brother and I may harness several complex human emotions, but that doesn't mean the same ones come out in the same situation. This may come as a surprise to you, but my brother is more level-headed than I am."
I find that hard to believe.
"I don't blame you," Emil replied. "Like I've said, it's your good-natured heart that keeps me in check. Perhaps when I obtain my true body once again, my brother will be surprised at how much I've changed since being with you—for the better, I hope."
I hope so, t—
"Pipe down, human!" Lukas hissed as he withdrew his hand from your stomach.
You groaned softly as you rubbed your stomach where the dragon had struck you to hold you back.
"What was that for?" you whispered.
Lukas pressed his finger to his lips to silence you. Then, you stopped and looked around thinking he may have spotted something.
Darkness. Silence. Nothing.
What's going on? you wondered. Did Lukas see something?
"Keep your ears open, ___________," Emil instructed.
You obeyed and listened for something that may have sounded out of place. Your stomach was still hurting, but now that Lukas and Emil had hinted at there being something else in the forest with you, it was hard not to hear the blood pounding into your ears.
Your head clocked towards the direction of the faint rustling.
Whatever it was, it was getting closer. Your heels were digging into the ground ready to bolt if Lukas or Emil gave you the signal.
Shuff! Ssshhhffff SHHHH…!
You flinched. Something large, dark, and fast darted past your feet. You turned around. It was gone. Your eyes were completely open now.
"Let's go," you heard Lukas say and grab your hand to lead you on.
What was that thing? you wondered.
"I don't know," Emil answered making you even more nervous than before. If the dragon didn't know, then how were you supposed to be protected from it?
"Whatever it was, it wasn't a bloodsnare, and it couldn't have been a nightcrawler," Emil continued to speak. "The Bone Forest must've taken up some new creatures since the last time I was here."
You tried to swallow, but you throat was completely parched from fear. You noticed Lukas' pacing had increased. The black ashyou decided it was ash from Emil's exposition—began to kick up from the disturbance your feet were creating, and the dead twigs and thin snow crunched beneath your soles.
Regardless of the trip through the Bone Forest taking less than a day or not, you wanted to get out of this place. Why in the world did you have to stupidly move around Lukas' back the day he was taking you away from the castle? Then again, flying wasn't the best experience you had ever felt in the world. It made your stomach do flips, but in such a dark place, your stomach was in knots so it wasn't like it fared any better.
"It's far too quiet," you heard Lukas murmured in a barely audible voice.
Tell me about it, you sarcastically thought. The further you walked, the darker it got. It didn't matter if the ground was black anymore. It had dissolved into the shadows. The trees appeared to be growing taller, and the branches had wrapped themselves together so tightly that not a glimmer of overcast sunlight pierced into the forest. In times like these, you wondered whether or not there was a need for creatures to be nocturnal if the light was already close to zero.
"From here on out, it's monster territory," Lukas whispered. "Stay close to me, and make as little noise as possible, understand?"
You silently nodded in response.
"Good," Lukas breathed. "Let's continue."
For the next few minutes, you and Lukas walked hand in hand through the Bone Forest. Then it dawned on you that Lukas could have simply changed into his dragon form and blasted through the trees.
"That's not a good idea," you heart Emil say after hearing your thoughts. "Nightcrawlers are heatproof and are attracted to heat. Being a dragon would surely attract unwanted attention to ourselves."
Is it so bad that Lukas couldn't take care of them by himself? you asked.
He can defeat them, but remember that this is their domain. It might not look like it now, but there is most likely more than my brother can handle. They are fairly large."
They are? Suddenly you didn't feel so safe with being with Lukas anymore. If Emil, a dragon, said that nightcrawlers were large, then how large could they possibly be?
Emil, what do nightcrawlers look like?
"I don't know," Emil answered. "I've never seen one, but I've encountered them before. They stray on the grounds well away from any sunlight. That's why I know that creature back there couldn't have been a nightcrawler; it was too bright for a real one to be wandering around. Nightcrawlers don't feel like they have bones. Rather, they seem to have tentacles if you know what those are."
I'm unfamiliar with the word, you confessed.
"Tentacles are just like limbs such as arms or legs, but they don't have any skeletal structure," Emil explained.
You shuddered. You couldn't imagine arms or legs without bones. Nightcrawlers sounded like grotesque creatures, but it may have been that your imaginations of the creatures were getting the better of your sanity.
As if in response to your previous thoughts, your foot suddenly brushed against something squishy and soft. You screamed.
"Stupid girl!" Lukas snapped and clamped his hand over your mouth. Suddenly, the floor underneath your feet gave in as something long wrapped itself around your ankle and tripped you making you slip from your travelling companion's grasp. Your body began dragging on the ground like a helpless animal being caught in a hunter's snare and the leaves and snow plowed at your face. That's when you realized those things crunching under your feet weren't twigs—they were bones.
"Blast it! This is the last thing I need!" Lukas hissed. Other than his voice, there was little else telling you if he was there or not. Everything was pitch black, and the only sounds you could hear now were the shuffling of bones kicking up and the quick huffs of something writhing get louder and louder.
"Looks like we have ourselves a nightcrawler," you heard Emil say rather calmly despite the apparent chaos going on.
"Lukas, help!" you shouted. "I'm over here!"
"No need to say it twice!" the dragon growled from a small distance away. You could hear his feet shuffling along the bone-riddled forest floor as he ran towards you. All the while, the nightcrawler continued to drag you further into the darkness. You hit your head against something hard—most likely a tree—and brought a hand to your temple.
"Don't black out on me now, ___________," Emil's voice rang in your head.
Then, out of nowhere, you felt something pull you back digging its nails into your skin.
"Ouch! Goddammit Lukas!" you screeched.
"Shut up!" Lukas barked. "Grab onto something while I cut you loose!"
Instead of telling you, Lukas showed you. With his bare hands, he seized your ankle as you clung onto a nearby tree trunk and ripped the tentacle away with inhumane strength. The tentacle released its grip on your ankle spilling out a slimy, cold liquid that felt like some beastly oil or animal fat.
Gross… you thought. Your stomach began to churn.
But it wasn't over yet.
"Get up, human," Lukas ordered. "Get up."
When you got to your feet, you began to hobble from the unsettling feeling of having the slimy substance still clinging to your ankle. Then, you heard a loud chorus of shuffling and rattling encircling you.
"It's trying to confuse us," Emil said. "Be cautious. It can attack at any time."
Right after that warning, you heard what sounded like a snarl mixed with a high-pitched whistling noise. Then, you felt Lukas pull you close to him and step backwards to shield you from another attack.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a series of bright lights began to light up in a rope-like pattern snaking all the way to the top of the skeletal trees like a tower. The small lights bore an otherworldly greenish-yellow glow much like a young leafed cabbage, but this creature was far from a cabbage or any other harmless vegetable for that matter. You could see what appeared to be a thick coat of skin covered in a thin film of slime with a dark purplish color that oozed with a foul smell. At the top of the creature, there was a series of rounded teeth surrounded with tentacles on the sides.
Somewhere inside your drumming heart, you heard Emil speak in a meek voice.
"That is not a nightcrawler."