“Time for you to go home, girl.” Mallory headed in the direction that the fight had taken place.
“Wait.” I chased after him. “I need to know who Robert Renselar is. He may be able to help someone very close to me.”
He turned toward me. “What makes you think I know who he is?”
“You looked disgusted when you said his name.”
He smirked. “You may be perceptive, but you lack good judgment. You’d rather converse with a cursed man in a cursed forest than scurry home to safety.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my judgment.” I pointed at the inscription on my compass. “Who is this man?”
Mallory hooted. “Tell you what. Not only will I tell you who he is, but I’ll tell you exactly where you can find him.”
“You will?” That seemed easy.
“Sure will.” He pulled his dagger out of its sheath and offered it to me.
“I don’t understand.” I backed away.
“My terms,” he said. “Once your curiosity has been quenched and Mr. Renselar is of no more use to you, you take this dagger and you drive it into his heart.”
“You’re crazy,” I said. “I’m not going to murder him.”
He returned the dagger to its sheath. “If you’re not willing to kill him, then you’re not ready to meet him. Go home. You’ve nothing to offer me.”
“That’s not true,” I said, but he walked off. “If you want Robert Renselar dead so badly, then why don’t you kill him yourself?”
“I’ve got more vicious snakes to toast over the fire first.” Without glancing at me, he waved his hand in the air, shooing me off.
I dashed after him. “Please, I need to know how to find this man.”
He yanked me close by my collar. “Dammit. Didn’t your pop ever teach you not to chitchat with questionable men in evil forests?”
“Please,” I said. “I need to know.”
The clicking sound grew faint as whatever it belonged to wandered off. Mallory cursed under his breath.
“Now you listen real close,” he said. “You tell everyone in your village to barricade their doors and windows and to sleep alongside their weapons. Dark things are coming for them.”
I squirmed out of his grip as a cool breeze slithered through the Dark Woods. It brought with it the sound of chanting. The words, indecipherable, came in short, sharp whispers, like dozens of snakes hissing at once.
“Now you got their attention,” he said.
“Whose attention?” I looked around, but saw no one.
“Go home.” He grabbed my compass and hurled it out of the Dark Woods. It landed in a patch of brambles.
“That was uncalled for,” I snapped.
The chanting thickened as more voices joined in. Things moved in the brush. I went rigid with dread. As much as I wanted answers, it was time to flee. With basket and fishing pole in hand, I raced to where my compass had landed. Trembling, I rummaged through the prickly brambles until I found it next to a rock sprinkled with shattered glass. I covered my mouth, holding back a cry.
“You broke it!” I shouted at Mallory, but he ignored me and trekked farther into the Dark Woods. How could he do such a terrible thing and then saunter off without an apology? My ears burned hot, but there was no time to have words with him. The eerie melody closed in.