The party awoke in the morning and gathered their things before bidding farewell to the orks of the castle and the humans that had been their prisoners. The ork lord gave Soren Hashlakos, as he no longer had any need of it – he now had three blades to carry on his belt.
They traveled for a few hours before reaching the river that ran through Ukulu. They followed it up stream for another few hours, rather uneventfully, until they reached a natural earthen bridge that extended across it. By the time they reached the bridge, the sun was getting close to the ground and they elected to make camp. If they were attacked in the middle of the night, they could easily use the bridge to their advantage.
After setting up a fire pit and three tents – one that would house Aryia and Maya, one for Soren and Karkog, and a final one for the Madam alone. Skullcrusher slept outside.
Soren and Karkog took first watch, sitting opposite each other by the fire so that they could watch each other’s backs.
After nearly an hour of watching, Soren decided to break the silence.
“Why do you speak like that?”
Karkog furrowed his brow. “What speak like me?”
“Like that.” Soren fiddled with a stick he picked up off the ground as he kept his eyes on the grassland behind the ork. “Your words are perfect – accented sure, but perfectly pronounced otherwise. And you seem to be able to understand what I’m saying just fine, which means you understand Shelezar grammar perfectly well. So why don’t you speak it?”
The ork cocked his head. “Easier this. Not think about me.”
“Is that Orkish grammar then?”
“Not Orkish language mine.”
“If your native language isn’t Orkish, then what is it?”
Karkog shrugged. “Giant.”
“It’s the language of the giants?” Soren leaned over to look at some movement behind the ork. Just a hare moving in the grass.
“Mm,” Karkog grunted in a sort of doubtful agreement.
Soren nodded in thought as he continued keeping a watchful eye. The rest of the night passed uneventfully.
The next morning, they crossed the river and into the small thicket on the other side. As they passed through the initial layer of thick leaves and greenery, a hare sat on the other side. It sat beside a tree, watching them.
When Maya crept toward it, it darted behind the tree, vanishing from sight. Maya ran to try and catch it, but it was no longer behind the tree.
They began making their way through the dark thicket – the trees above were so dense that they couldn’t see the sun. The could only travel by the dim, green light that shone through the leaves.
They walked in a straight line for a good period of time, encountering another hare every mile or so. After traveling for far more time than they really should have, Maya spoke up.
“Shouldn’t we be in Amaranch by now?”
Soren stopped; the rest of the party following suit. Skullcrusher whined as he realized he was the only one who kept walking and nuzzled the Madam’s face in a fruitless effort to get the party to keep moving.
Maya continued, “Mister Arakim’s atlas said the thicket was only a couple miles wide. We should be through it by now.”
Soren nodded in agreement as Skullcrusher started restlessly walking in circles around the group.
“How long have we been walking?” Soren asked.
“It’s difficult to tell,” Leondrea answered, “the sun’s not visible through the canopy.”
Skullcrusher let out a yelp as it began running off through the trees; the party took off in chase. After what felt like a full minute of running at full speed, he stopped at a tree and began barking, clawing, and biting at it.
He attacked the tree for several minutes before Leondrea finally calmed him down. “Does anyone know what he was chasing?”
Maya let out a huff, “I think it was another hare, ma’am.”
“Another hare,” Aryia piped up, “or the same hare for a sixth time?”
Soren raised a brow. “How do you mean?”
Aryia crossed her arms and shrugged. “Well, every hare we’ve seen has had light brown fur with a large black spot in the middle of its back. And all of them have gone completely unnoticed until they suddenly ran away in the woods. I feel like it’s fair to reason that they’re all the same one.”
Leondrea nodded. “I agree, it may very well be one in the same – it might not be a hare at all.”
“Do you think the hare is why we seem to be stuck here?” Maya asked.
“I don’t know. All we can do is keep traveling and wait until we see it again.”
It was yet another mile until they did.
They chased after the hare once more until it disappeared again. The tree it had disappeared behind looked awfully familiar – especially considering that it had bite and scratch marks from when Skullcrusher had attacked it a mile back.
The party exchanged confused – and worried – glances.
“We’re stuck in a loop?” Maya cried.
“Or something like that,” Soren said.
Maya held out her hand in disbelief. “We didn’t turn around or anything did we?”
“No, surely not,” Leondrea answered.
Aryia put her hands on her hips as she thought out loud. “The hare always runs in the same direction whenever we pass it, right? And no matter how far we walk in the same direction, we always pass through the area exactly as we did before.”
Maya tilted her head. “So?”
“So,” Aryia continued, “what if the hare isn’t the one keeping us here. What if it’s trying to show us the way out?”
Soren knit his brow as he crossed his arms, stroking the thin beard that had slowly grown out during his stay on the island. “Why wouldn’t Arakim mention something like that in his atlas?”
“Perhaps the effect on the thicket is new? The castle wasn’t mentioned in the atlas either,” Leondrea commented.
“It doesn’t matter,” Aryia said, “I think if we keep going in this direction, we might find that the hare runs a different way.”
Leondrea shrugged and started walking. “I suppose it’s as good a strategy as any.”
After a short walk, they saw the hare again, this time darting in a direction opposite to where it went before. They followed it back to the tree again, but this time from a different angle.
After several times of that, they finally came up to something different.
A tree stood before them in a small clearing where the ground was covered in grass – unlike the rest of the thicket which was simply dirt covered in dead leaves. The tree itself had a stump as thick as a house but was no taller than any of the others around it. It almost looked like multiple trees tightly wound together. Beside the tree sat the hare, looking to the party.
“What’s this then?” Soren sighed.
The hare lifted its front paws up and down. It almost reminded Soren of an excited horse prancing in place.
Soren slowly approached, his hand rested on the hilt of Delmore’s sword.
The hare moved its head, almost like it was gesturing at the tree.
Soren kept his eyes on the hare as he slowly approached. Then he noticed what he would later determine to be what the hare was leading them to. A very large hole, enough for a man to fit through, between the roots of the dense tree.
The hare leapt over to the hole, looked up to Soren, and jumped down into the dark.
Soren looked back to the others, motioning them over.
After a brief discussion, it was decided that Soren would go down, taking only Delmore’s sword, his bag of fireballs from Otto, his lighter, and a torch – though he wasn’t sure how well it would burn in such a place.
They lowered Soren down by a rope – though, once he reached the floor of the hole, it seemed relatively unnecessary given that a slight jump would allow him to grasp the ledge above.
The hole had led to a tunnel, which wound downward. Soren followed it, going down for quite some time, before opening up into a room of hewn stone some 30 feet long. Pristine tiles lined the floor, while the walls displayed perfectly preserved reliefs of battles between one-eyed giants and massive hybrid-creatures. As well, candles lined the walls, shedding a dim blue light that just barely covered the whole room. The stench of rot hit Soren’s nose like a wave.
The hare was nowhere to be seen.
Two doors led out of the room, one to Soren’s right and one straight ahead.
He first walked over to the one on the right, where he noticed a small, spherical indentation on the wall next to it. Looking through the doorway, he saw a long bridge over a chasm. Even from the doorway, he could feel a strong wind – which made little sense this deep underground – which would push anyone trying to cross the bridge into the pit below.
Instead, he took the straight path, which entered into another small room that had two hallways extending from it in the same direction. Distinct markings decorated the archways that led into each hall, but Soren had no way to know what the marking meant.
He chose to go down the right hall. It went on for quite some time. As he walked, the stench of rot became stronger. He would occasionally see movement on the walls out of the corner of his eye. When he would look, there was nothing there.
Maybe the shadow of the hare, he thought.
As he walked, he began to hear shuffling behind him. He thought about not turning around. Maybe if he didn’t look at whatever was behind him, it wouldn’t matter. But it would also get the jump on him.
He turned around just in time to avoid the swipe of a wight’s claws – two more stood behind it.
He slipped the charm off his neck and ducked beneath its next attack before pressing the charm to its forehead. Like the one he faced in the temple, it began to shine. However, while that one was busy dying, the other two managed to get the jump on him.
Soren managed to avoid one of the wights, but the other caught his arm. In pain, he dropped the necklace to the ground. One of three was dead, but he’d just lost his way of killing them and it was difficult to see in the dark.
He traded blows with them, only barely avoiding their attacks – a task made significantly more difficult without the necklace quickening his reaction time. All the while, he kept glancing to the floor, hoping to catch a glimpse of the necklace that would help him win the fight.
Finally, he saw it. He leapt to the ground, rolling as he snatched it up. He spun around and knocked out the legs of one of the creatures – disabling it for only a moment as he jumped up, placing the charm on the other’s head.
It began to shine and Soren stepped to the side, narrowly avoiding the claws of the one he’d just knocked down. With each one he killed they seemed to get faster.
This one now was moving too quickly for him to get close to, giving him just barely enough time to dodge its blows before it struck again. It didn’t matter how hard Soren tried – he wouldn’t be able to close the distance. He wouldn’t be able to press the symbol to the wight’s forehead. Then he wondered if he even had to. That was just what the snake said.
He took the chain of the necklace in hand and swung it at the creature. For a moment, he thought he saw fear in its empty eyes.
Its claws collided with the charm as it swung through the air. The light emanated from its hand this time and slowly spread across its body. Then, it exploded like all the rest, leaving a pile of ash behind. But, unlike the rest, there was something in the ash. A small yellow-green orb, about the size of the space between the forefinger and thumb when formed into a circle.
Soren wasn’t sure why, but he decided it might be a good idea to take the thing with him. He also wondered where the wights had come from – he hadn’t seen any side paths or skeletons lying on the floor – but decided it may be best to simply continue forward.
After walking nearly the distance he had before being attacked by the wights, he finally came to an open room. It appeared the other hallway led to the same room, and, in the center, there was a large staircase leading down into a chamber below.
As he looked at the staircase, he once again saw movement on the walls. He decided it would be prudent to investigate this time.
When he got close to the wall, he realized what he’d seen moving. A thick, translucent slime was running down the wall, occasionally wavering in its direction for no discernible reason.
He started reaching out to touch it, then thought better of it. It could be dangerous. It seemed dangerous.
He watched the slime for a few more moments before turning back to the stairs. They didn’t seem dangerous.
He slowly made his way down the stairs into a chamber where the stairs sat in the center. On all four walls were archways that held decorative walls within. One showed billowing flame, another a flowing river, a tall mountain, and a massive bolt of lightning. In the center of each was a small hemispherical indentation.
Soren pulled the small orb he’d acquired earlier from his pouch. It looked slightly purple in the current lighting.
He decided to put it in the indentation on the door across from the base of the stairs – the wall will the decoration of fire.
Immediately, the sphere was absorbed into the wall and the carving was made whole. The floor rumbled slightly as the decorative wall lowered into the floor, leaving a passage into a long, dark hallway.
He stepped into it, and flames erupted from the walls, lighting the room.
Before him stood four spindly beings, with noses like those of pigs, eyes sewn shut, and ears like a bat. Each of them held a crude sword, the tips of which scraped across the ground as they moved.
Soren stood in shock for just a moment before the things started hobbling toward him. The first brought its sword high above its head – an amateur mistake – which Soren easily side-stepped.
He rammed his shoulder into that one, knocking it to the ground, before turning to block the attack of another. He discovered the blades were dull when one cut painfully across his arm, ripping plenty of flesh with it.
He turned around again, running the one that’d cut him through and dropping to the ground. Another strike hit him – this time on his back – but not deep enough to cause any real damage. He swung as he spun around, slicing off the head of one of the creatures before turning once more at one about to strike him and running it through – only one was left standing.
As it brought its sword down from above once more, he parried the blow, sending the pig-bat-man’s sword clattering on the ground, and cutting it across the chest before knocking it down with a swift blow to the head.
He thrust his sword downward and twisted, finishing off the creature. As the last died, they all burst into flame. On the far side of the room was a small pedestal, holding two things: another of the small orbs, and a bracelet, made up of red stones strung on a white cord.
Soren pocketed the bracelet and took the orb to another of the decorative stone doors – this time to the one with the river.
Once again, a long, dark hallway greeted him.
As he stepped in, a bright light shone in the room – only for a moment – forcing Soren to cover his eyes. When he opened them, it appeared a glowing, white thread had been run through the room, bouncing from wall to wall. He touched it. He immediately recoiled in pain.
He sucked on the tip of his finger for a moment. The thread was no thread at all – it was a beam of light, hot enough to cut through flesh. On the other side, he could see a pedestal. Another orb, accompanied by what appeared to be a choker this time. He would have to weave himself through the light to get to it – something he was not up to the task to do.
He went back up the way he came, once again passing through the hallway where he’d fought the wights. He found the room they’d ambushed him from – a very small door in one of the dark sections of wall just outside the reach of the candle light. The room itself was small, containing three stone slabs that he assumed the wights had rested in.
He made it back up the tunnel and to the hole at the bottom of the tree where he shouted up for Maya to come down.
As they descended the tunnel, Soren recounted what had happened.
They made their way to the room with the light beams and Maya studied the setup for a moment. After a few seconds planning, she began moving through them.
She ducked and weaved, occasionally making short leaps to get over the beams. She moved like a river, winding through a mountain pass. Before long, she was on the other side. As she grabbed the orb and the choker, the lights disappeared.
Soren decided he’d had enough of the trials these doors seemed to offer and began going up the stairs, but something caught his eye on the way up.
In front of the door that had a bolt of lightning was the hare, staring at him. It wanted him to go through that door specifically. He didn’t know why, but it certainly hadn’t steered him wrong yet. He considered ignoring it. Just turning the other way and leaving.
The room seemed empty.
When he stepped into it, it didn’t have the same reaction as all the rest. Blue candles lit, allowing him to see, but nothing else was there. Just the pedestal, holding another orb and a pair of sandals – the kind worn long before the dragons showed up.
He took a step forward.
Pain shot up his leg, seizing his heart as the symbol of Imya shone bright through his shirt. He stumbled backward and looked at the floor more closely as he clutched his chest – he could feel his heartbeat pounding in his skull.
Excepting closest to the doorway, the tiles in this room were smaller than the others – just barely large enough to fit a foot on. He hadn’t realized before, but the cracks between the tiles let off a faint glow – the same blue as the candles, just several times dimmer. He stepped carefully onto one of the tiles. Then another one. It was the cracks that shocked him.
He stepped forward again, making sure to set his foot on each tile, avoiding the cracks.
Slowly but surely, he made it across.
As he grabbed the orb, the glow in the floor ceased. He grabbed the sandals and made his way out of the room and toward the stairs where Maya had been waiting.
“Isn’t a bit childish to be avoiding stepping on cracks, sir?”
“Shut up,” Soren replied, a slight smile on his face.
As he climbed the first step of the stairs, he felt a tug on his boot.
When he looked down, he saw the hare.
It motioned with its front paws before nuzzling his boot with its nose, then sniffed at the pair of sandals he now held in his hand.
“Are you not able to talk?” Soren asked. “I’ve heard a snake talk, I’ve heard a rat talk, I’ve heard of a talking raven – why is it you can’t seem to talk?”
“Are you sure you’re not going crazy?” Maya asked as the hare sat back and stared at Soren.
He gave Maya a pointed look before looking back to the hare. “Do you want me to put these on?”
The hare tilted its head to the side.
“Dear Imya, please let me be seeing things that aren’t here.”
The hare continued staring at him.
Soren shut his eyes tight and prayed that when he opened them, the hare would be gone. It was still there.
Soren sighed before sitting down on the stairs. The sandals didn’t look like they’d fit him, but it was worth a try.
He removed his boots and set them aside as he held the sandals in his hand. They definitely weren’t going to fit him. But as he brought them closer to his foot, they seemed to grow larger. When he pulled the laces tight, he found they fit perfectly.
As he stood, he found he felt lighter on his feet. He tried jumping and went higher than he could have before. He ran across the room, and, while he wasn’t extremely fast, was certainly much faster and built up speed much faster – and slowed down much sooner.
He nodded at the hare in thanks before slipping his newly sandaled feet into his old boots. A snug fit, but a fit nonetheless.
Soren and Maya made their way up the stairs and back through the hallway until they reached the entrance chamber once more. After a brief argument – much like those they’d had previously – Soren sent Maya back up to the others. He stepped up to the windy corridor with the bridge and placed the final orb in the indentation in the wall.
As the orb was absorbed, the wind stopped, allowing passage to the other side. An archway was there, with a stone wall not unlike that which Soren had found blocking the way to Naga’s chamber in the temple.
Just like then, he pulled out a fireball and blew it up.
He found another large chamber, like the one Naga was in. The wall depicted a great battle, and a similar inscription was found at the bottom. He couldn’t be certain, but he was sure it was the same. Other than that, the room was empty. Or so it seemed.
As he turned to leave, a squelching noise echoed through the room, followed by a loud splat as a giant glob of translucent slime dropped from the ceiling. In the center of it was a giant eye, staring right at Soren.
It would have been easy enough to just run away. Dart around the monstrosity and leave. But something told Soren he had to kill it. That this thing was why they couldn’t leave the thicket. That this thing was why the hare led him down here in the first place.
Soren felt a slight burning on his arm and looked over to see a small collection of slime had already eaten through his shirt. He pulled his sword from its scabbard and brushed the slime off with the flat of his blade. He’d have to kill the thing without touching it. It was probably reasonable to believe he had to strike its eye. Perhaps the slime he’d found on the wall had eyes of their own, but lost them. That’s why they moved in an unintelligent manner.
The slime lurched at him. It moved slowly, save for the times when it would bound into the air, coming down with a loud ‘splat’ and sending slime every which way. He just barely managed not to get hit.
He thought through his options. He couldn’t duck underneath like he did with Naga. He couldn’t reason like he did with the Djinn. He didn’t have a magic snake to help him like he did with the ogre. He did have fireballs, though.
He lit one and waited. He needed it to hit the slime just as it exploded, making a hole large enough for him to stab at the eye. He had to wait for just the right moment.
After a few seconds, he threw it. It spun through the air and Soren prayed the fuse would burn enough that the slime couldn’t put it out. His prayer was answered.
He ducked as an explosion sent slime flying throughout the room, then ran, as quickly as he could at the eye. He leapt through the air to avoid the slime gathered on the ground, and held his sword, point down, to land on the eye. He stuck the landing perfectly. As the sword punctured it, the eye deflated, spewing gunk through the hole Soren created. He was left standing on the flattened eye – an island in a sea of corrosive slime.
He pursed his lips as he stared at the ground. Had he lifted the curse on the thicket? There was no way to know until he went back up and they tried walking again.
He leapt over to the door and made his way back outside. He climbed out of the hole and greeted his party, and they started making their way toward their best guess of the right direction. Before long, they were out of the thicket, and the sun hung just above the horizon to the east.
Somehow, no time had passed at all.