Further reading failed to divulge the exact route through the maze of mirrors either to the Merchant, or the Arch of the Ti-Ocks as he began to think of it. Kiernan’s journal hadn’t been written for others, but for the scribe’s own use. Information that would have proven useful to Holk, Kiernan must have felt unworthy to note.
The journal had made it very clear that he was entrapped within a vast labyrinthine maze of some scope. Kiernan himself had been six months in trying to find a way out before the lethality of the place consumed him. Holk vowed that he would affect his escape before meeting such a fate, and within a substantially refined timeframe.
Before heading out to explore, Holk deposited his strip-rope, the spare strips he had been using for fuel, and the torch sconce within the small storage room. The lanterns held a small amount of oil, which he augmented with oil found within the small cask. One of the lanterns was a regular glass oil lamp that provided illumination through all four sides. The other was a hooded lantern with a bull’s-eye opening that could be closed so as to prevent any light from escaping. He took the bull’s-eye lantern.
He also used two cloth scraps located within the storage room to wrap his portable mirrors. Without the cloth, he ran the risk of inadvertently triggering their translocation properties.
With journal in hand, he left the storage room, shut the door and locked it. The key he deposited within his pouch alongside his flint. He lit the wick of the lantern and then adjourned to the Mushroom Room. Once there, he harvested one of the little red-capped mushrooms Kiernan had stated held healing properties. Popping it within his mouth, the first bite produced a euphoric feeling that radiated outward through his tissues, bringing an ease to the aches that plagued him. Two more, and he felt better than he had since that fateful day he and his comrades had fled into the Kiln.
The small red-capped mushrooms grew in great numbers, and before he left, eight found their way into his pack. He planned to make it a point to always have a few with him. From there, he used the small, wooden-bordered mirror, the one without the red dot, and translocated to Kiernan’s Room.
Coming to stand next to the scriber’s remains, he said, “You may not have made it out, but together, we’ll win through. When I make it out, I’ll do my best to find your family and let them know what happened.” He then took up the lantern and began searching the room for the mirror that had to be there. Sure enough, he found one at the end the tail end of the cavern.
A full length mirror with a narrow, iron border, it was by far the largest mirror yet encountered. Holk took a moment to gaze upon his features and found that the remnants of his experience in the Kiln had been removed by the mushrooms.
“Now, let’s see if you’ll tell me anything about where you go.”
He kept his gaze fixed unblinkingly upon the mirror. When after a full two minutes the image failed to alter, he figured this to be one of the ones that showed nothing. Reaching out, he touched the mirror.
Instantly, he was assailed by oppressive heat. The air was hot, but not painfully so. A vaporous cloud of steam filled the room. He had been brought to another cavern, of that there could be no doubt, though it lacked the stalactites and ‘mites of precious rooms. Much narrower than the others, it couldn’t have been more than ten feet wide. Droplets of water fell from the cavern’s roof only to vaporize in a hiss of steam upon striking the floor. Seeing the water’s reaction made him aware that his feet were growing uncomfortably hot.
Behind him, the cavern came to an abrupt end while the way before him extended farther into the steam. Moving ahead, he stepped quickly as the discomfort his feet felt increased.
The tunnel continued only a short distance before dead-ending at a much wider area. Two mirrors were discovered; a circular one with a gold frame on the wall to his right, and a silver-framed, squarish mirror to the left.
He entered the wider expanse and stepped quickly to the mirror to the right. His eye caught sight of two red, horizontal lines painted upon the rock alongside the mirror. Curious to see if the other mirror might have similar markings, he moved to the silver-framed, squarish one and discovered no markings of any kind.
Holk was fairly certain that it had been Kiernan who had placed the markings near the gold-framed mirror, for there had been three such lines etched upon the stalagmite signifying the location of the second, handheld mirror he had found. Yet the question remained, what did this marking signify? Was it a warning, or maybe a trail marker of some kind? There had to be something special about it, or why mark it at all. Holk decided to see where the marked mirror led.
After removing and holding at the ready the handheld mirror that would take him to the Prison Room, he reached out and touched the one on the wall. The heat vanished and was replaced by a warm, yet somewhat cooler, humid environment.
He had been taken to another cave. Sunlight streamed in through a large opening less than a dozen paces away. From beyond came twitterings of birds and the rustle of wind-blown leaves. The way out! Moving to the mouth of the cave, he took in the panoramic view.
The cave resided upon a hill overlooking a valley. Trees occluded a valley floor that stretched for miles with towering cliffs bordering it on either side. Excitement surged within him as he realized he had found the way from his imprisonment. A split-second later, his exuberance fled as experience gleaned from a lifetime of military service screamed that this was far too easy. Kiernan had to have discovered this way from the maze, after all it was but two mirrors removed from where Holk had found his body. Yet, the scribe had failed to make good his escape.
Pausing near the opening, he searched the journal for any mention of a forested valley, but failed to find any. The mirror that brought him there had been marked with two lines, as a warning perhaps? The panoramic view suddenly became a lot less enticing. What danger might lurk within that canopy of trees? Did he have a choice but to brave the unknown? This may very well be the only way to win his freedom.
He couldn’t turn his back on this chance. Stepping forward, he maintained the highest level of awareness. From the cave entrance, the hillside dropped at a steep angle for well over fifty feet before reaching the tree line. Holk took it carefully.
Five paces from the opening, a sparkle from his right drew his attention to where another mirror lay partially exposed upon the stone wall some distance from the cave entrance. All but a forearm’s length was encased within the rock, the border glistened silvery in the sunlight.
After casting a quick look to his surroundings, he quickly made his way to the mirror. Just as the one before, this mirror also had a pair of red, horizontal lines painted alongside it upon a prominent outcropping.
Holk shook his head. “Not this time.”
Unwilling to take the chance of again becoming entrapped, Holk turned his back on it. Freedom lay in the woods, not through another mirror. Stepping forth, he started down the hill toward the trees, ever alert for the sudden appearance of danger.
What he really needed was a weapon of some kind. Searching the forest’s edge, he spied a fallen tree and made his way toward it. A few well placed blows with his foot succeeded in breaking off a limb that would be suitable, barely, as a staff. It took several minutes to trim the extra branches from it, but when it was done, he held a seven foot staff that was only slightly gnarled and bent. Though not his preferred weapon, he was not completely without skill in its use.
From the tree, he entered the woods and set out for the far edge of the valley. It would most likely take him a couple hours to forge through the dense underbrush. By the position of the sun, he should clear the valley before nightfall.
Ten minutes into the trees, a sense of foreboding settled over him. At first he was unsure of the cause, but then came to realize that the sounds of the forest had died. Birds no longer sang, and the wind-blown rustle of leaves in the boughs above had stilled.
Holk paused by the side of a gnarled, old oak. Cocking his head to the side, he sought even the slightest trace of sound. All he heard was his own breath and the beating of his heart, such was the stillness of the forest.
Shaking off the uneasy feeling, he attributed it to time spent in the caves and continued on. Not far from the oak tree, displayed between the two halves of a tree split by lightning, stretched a leathery tapestry adorned with many oddly shaped bones. Holk came to an immediate halt.
The sight of the object before him gave him pause. Scanning the trees, he sought the presence of others. Upon failing to detect any, he went to investigate the tapestry, though it could only be considered a tapestry in the broadest of terms. Closer examination revealed it to be made from a skin of some kind. The bones weren’t just attached to it, rather, they looked to be an integral part of the construction.
Wary in the extreme, Holk came to stand directly in front of the split trunk supporting the unusual item. After casting a quick glance to the quiet forest about him, he moved the end of his staff toward it. Before it could come into contact, a ripple coursed through the leathery tapestry.
The movement so completely took him by surprise, that he darted backward two steps in shock. What was that thing? Could it be alive? He couldn’t see how. It was thin as parchment and the bones were bare of any type of muscle or sinew. Thinking that perhaps the momentary shudder that had rippled through it to be a product of his own over-active imagination, he decided to put it to the test, but not with the staff.
Retreating a good five yards, he picked up a stone from off the ground and tossed it toward the leathery object. The reaction produced when the rock struck was anything but what he expected. Hitting dead center, the rock was immediately enveloped by the leathery object. Letting go of the split-trunk of the tree, the thing wrapped itself tightly around the rock as it, and the stone, fell to the forest floor.
Holk hurried to acquire a better vantage point to view what the thing was doing. To his horror, he found its outer surface undulating like waves rippling across a pond’s surface. The bones moved back and forth, producing a grinding noise as they worked against the stone. For a full minute, he remained transfixed by the sight before the motions of the thing stilled. It then unfolded itself from about the rock and expanded back to its original shape.
To his utter surprise, it began rising in the air. The outer edges of the thing rippled in rhythmic waves as it rose. Holk had never seen anything like it. Coming off the ground, it returned to it previous position between the two halves of the split trunk. Reattaching itself, it grew still.
Seconds passed as he kept watch upon the thing. When it looked as if no further movements were imminent, Holk cautiously made his way to where the rock lay on the ground. Holding the end of his staff out toward the thing in the event it made any sudden movement in his direction, he alternated the focus of his gaze between where the thing sat in the crook of the split tree, and the rock on the ground.
As he drew closer, he saw where pockmarks scored the surface of the stone that hadn’t been there before. Making sure the thing remained in its position, he knelt next to the rock and examined it more closely.
An unpleasant odor wafted up from the rock that caused his nose to wrinkle in distaste and his sinuses to burn. “Gah!” he exclaimed as he back-stepped quickly away. He didn’t stop until the noxious scent could no longer able be detected.
Holk turned an uneasy gaze upon the thing. “What are you?” But an even more important question plaguing him was whether or not it was alone in the forest. He scanned the nearby trees and turned up a second one attached between a bush and a fallen log; a third was positioned high in another tree. Altogether, he found six more of the things. To his horror, he found one lying prone upon the ground not far from where he had entered this part of the forest. Had his path taken him but two feet more to the right, it would have…
A shudder coursed its way through him at though of his foot being treated as had the rock. That which would leave pockmarks upon stone, would assuredly have ruined his flesh. Holk was beginning to reconsider the wisdom of trying to escape along this particular route.
Movement off to his right drew his attention to a seventh thing floating among the trees. Still fifteen feet away, it didn’t look as if it was heading in his direction, merely floating along. Deeper in the forest, another came into view.
He could now understand why Kiernan had not fled this way. They were everywhere. Better to take his chances back in the underground rooms, than to attempt to go any farther. Turning about, he came to a sudden halt. One of floaters was en route toward him and was less than a foot away.
Instinctively he struck out with the staff. When it struck, the thing wrapped itself around the staff’s end and began working on it as the previous one had the rock. Its body spread along the wooden length, coming ever closer to where Holk held it. Unwilling to surrender his weapon, he slammed the thing-covered end against the bole of the tree.
Upon impact, an intense waft of odor, similar to what he had smelled when examining the rock, exploded into the air. The thing failed to relinquish its hold. Whack! He again slammed the end of the staff against the tree. The subsequent discharge of odor from the thing made his eyes water and burn. It remained firmly attached to the staff.
Movement from around him brought home the sudden change in the gravity of his situation. Dozens of things were now airborne and making their way directly toward him. One floated in the air between where he stood, and the cave.
Holk tossed the staff toward the floater. When it struck, the thing wrapped itself around the wood, and Holk raced back through the trees toward the cave.
He easily outdistanced the floaters and they quickly disappeared behind him. Realizing danger was no longer an immediate concern, Holk came to a stop and glanced back to the trees. Several minutes passed before one of the floaters came into view. The thing was moving in his general direction, but not in an absolute straight line. It looked as if it was hunting, like a hound that had lost the scent. When a second one appeared behind the first, Holk turned about once again and took off for the cave. This time, he didn’t slow until he broke from the tree line.
Though a bit peeved at the loss of his staff, at least it had only been the staff he had lost, and not something irreplaceable like a foot, hand, or head. After putting further distance between himself and the forest, he paused to again search the trees. Several moments passed with no appearance made by the things. Satisfied that either he had lost them, or they had broken off the chase, he made his way up the incline to the mirror by the cave.
Once there, he glanced again to the tree line to make sure none of those leathery, tapestry-like things were in sight. His gaze roved over the leading edge of the forest, then scanned the treetops. How many of them might the innocent canopy of leaves conceal? He didn’t want to find out.
From the treetops, he turned his attention to the hills surrounding the valley. Rising steeply, they would make for an interesting climb should he dare make the attempt. Fighting Ti-Ocks would be much preferable than facing those things again. An opponent wielding a weapon he could handle. But those things that floated through the air…they made him shudder.
Putting them out of his mind, he glanced back to the mirror. The pair of horizontal markings upon the rock face next to the mirror somehow gave him comfort. In a small way, they meant he was not entirely alone. Kiernan had made those marks, and so the mere sight of them gave him the feeling that the scribe was there with him. Holk reached out his hand and touched the reflective surface.
A dazzling display of light greeted him on the other side. Crystals of varying sizes and colors jutted forth from the cavern walls. Before him, a mosaic of blues, purples, and reds refracted the lantern’s light in a prismatic explosion of color. It was perhaps the most beautiful sight he had ever encountered.
The cavern itself wasn’t all that big, the lantern’s light easily illuminated it in its entirety. To his right loomed a single mirror, bordered by bluish crystals. Another set of red, horizontal lines had been painted upon one of the larger bluish crystals next to the mirror.
Giving the room only a brief inspection to reveal the mirror to be the only one, and that the room lacked any other form of egress, Holk went to the mirror and placed his hand upon it.
The explosion of light vanished. In its place was darkness broken only by the light from the lantern. He stood in a wide hallway of sorts. Stone blocks had been used to from the floor, walls, and ceiling. Before him, the hallway extended past the reach of the lantern; a few paces behind him, it came to a dead end.
Now, maybe we’re getting somewhere.
He took a step toward the unknown then came to a quick halt. What if this was an area in which the Ti-Ocks held dominion? Without a weapon of his own, he wouldn’t survive against them. Taking a moment to ready the small, handheld mirror that accessed the Prison Room, he continued, but at a much cautious pace.
Fifty feet from where he had arrived, the hallway made a sharp turn to the left. Rounding the corner, Holk saw a light flickering directly ahead off in the distance. He immediately closed the shutter of the lantern.
Seconds ticked by as he stood in the dark, utilizing every sense in an attempt to discover what may lie ahead. The flickering light he took to be a torch mounted in a wall sconce. But of smells, sounds, or other optical discoveries, there were none. Sensing no immediate threat, he proceeded toward the light.
His footsteps made the barest of noises as he crept forward, eyes straining as they sought to pierce the dark. As he drew closer, the area illuminated by the torch grew in clarity. It did in fact reside within a torch sconce as he had first surmised. The wall upon which it was mounted was of the same stone-blocked construction as the rest.
An object that sat upon the floor beneath the light was quickly revealed to be a plain, wooden table of modest dimensions. The sight of the table gave him pause. Aside from what he had found in the Prison Room, it was the first man-made construction he had encountered. Or perhaps, should he say…Ti-Ock construction?
Continuing forward slowly, ever alert for signs of the bestial slayers of Kiernan, he passed from the hallway and into the room. Though unable to accurately determine the room’s dimensions in the limited light emitted by the solitary torch, Holk felt it to be rather large.
No shadows moved, nothing indicated the presence of another. Keeping to his cautious pace, he made for the wooden table. Constructed of plain, time-worn wood, the table was in every way nondescript. Sitting alone, bathed in the glow of a solitary torch, its presence gave off an ominous, foreboding feel.
Holk couldn’t shake the feeling, and it grew the closer he approached. When he was but ten feet from the table, an explosion of light erupted before him. So bright was it, that the transition from almost absolute darkness drove needles of pain into his brain. Covering his eyes, Holk quickly back-stepped away.