Early the next morning, Holk stood at the mouth of the cave overlooking the forested valley. Having arrived just before the sky began to lighten, he now waited for the sun to crest the eastern hills. During the wait, he had sought, and believed to have found, the area to which the Merchant indicated he must go. From this distance, he couldn’t make out any trace of the building hidden within the trees. It should take only an hour or so to reach the place. If everything worked out well, he’d be out of there by noon. Once the first rays hit the treetops, he made his way down to the tree line.
He again acquired a staff since he didn’t wish his sword to be ruined should an encounter develop with another of the things. The image of what one had done to the stone remained very much on his mind.
Along with the staff, he collected half a dozen, fist-sized rocks and three smaller sticks, each roughly a foot in length. Those he stuffed in his belt. Between the stones, sticks, and staff, he hoped to keep any of the leathery, tapestry-like creatures at bay while recovering whatever it was the Merchant had sent him there for.
As he made his way between the forest’s outer fringe, he realized for the first time that the Merchant hadn’t stated what Holk was to recover. He would just have to bring back everything found at the location, just in case.
The presence of birdsong eased his anxiety, for if memory served, it hadn’t been until the sounds of the forest had stilled that the first of the things appeared, which made sense. Considering the way they positioned themselves like spider webs, they more than likely snared anything that happened by.
Even though he felt their presence was unlikely, he kept constant vigil; eyes roving the ground before him, as well as the trees and bushed. During the first quarter hour, his progress remained steady, and he covered ground quickly. Soon, the sounds of the forest quieted and an ominous pall settled over him.
Not long after that he sighted the first thing. It had positioned itself between two young saplings several feet from the ground. Holk paused and scanned the area more thoroughly; from the ground all the way to the tops of the trees above. Upon seeing that the thing was alone, he made sure to give it a wide berth.
As he continued, others came into view. Some were situated between trees such as the first, while others lay prone upon the ground. There was even one that had wrapped itself about the trunk of a fallen tree. His pace slowed to a crawl as he wended his way between them.
Making his way between two that had taken position among limbs of neighboring trees, Holk couldn’t help but recall how the day before, when he had brought the tip of his staff close to one of the things, it had reacted. Now, would they react more strongly to a warm-blooded human than a dead piece of wood?
As he made his way between the pair, the leathery, tapestry-like bodies remained motionless. Not even a ripple did they make. Once past, he turned his attention once more to the forest before him, and paused.
They were everywhere. Easily two-score were stretched throughout the forest. All were relatively the same size and color, which struck Holk as odd. Were there no young? Didn’t they grow larger the longer they lived? Perhaps the Merchant could answer those questions, but doubted if he wanted to pay the price.
From this point on, he had to plan his route with much greater care. One misstep and he’d be in a world of hurt. Continuing on, he worked his way around entire trees that were virtually encased by the creatures. Swaths of the forest floor were covered with them, and it took some time for him to find a safe avenue through.
Was a carrier for the mirrors really worth this? He was beginning to seriously doubt whether or not he should continue when from up ahead, he saw a dilapidated structure all but overgrown with flora. It wasn’t the one he sought, but it indicated that he was close. Steeling his nerve, he scanned the area between where he stood and the structure, found a path, and made his way toward it.
The forest was absolutely silent at this point. He heard not so much as a frog croak, bird chirp, or even the rustle of leaves blown by the wind. The air was still and slightly stagnant, almost as if even the breeze feared to enter this thing-infested area.
One broken wall was all that remained of what had once been a small building. The rest lay in an overgrown crumbled heap with only intermittent sections lying exposed. Making his way around the structure, he had to step carefully as several of the things were laid out across the ground. Forced to make a wide detour in order to avoid having to leap across them, he finally reached the far side of the broken wall and continued on to where he saw three more edifices rising from the forest floor.
None were the one he sought. Each lay broken and shattered. Holk began to wonder if perhaps it had been something other than time that had brought these buildings down. Having recently come from a siege, he could very well imagine stone-hurling siege engines raining death upon the long ago inhabitants. Further speculation would have to wait, however. He needed to keep focused on the task at hand.
As he made his way toward the three structures, he caught sight of a thing adrift upon a non-existent breeze. Its body rippled as it floated along a parallel course some distance away. Holk gave it little heed since it wasn’t moving in his direction, and cast only periodic glances toward it as he continued on his way.
What he had taken to be three, separate structures, tuned out to be the remains of a single, enormous one. The things were in high concentration in and around the walls, forcing Holk to proceed in a wide arc. So numerous were they, that the actual stone of the building’s construction was all but covered. For a fleeting, gut-wrenching moment, he contemplated what he would do if they would, en masse, rise and float his way. He prayed to the gods that such an event would never come to be.
At a point several yards from the remains of the large building, the structure he searched for came into view. Surprisingly, it was not covered in things as the others had been. In fact, beginning six strides from its walls, it was encompassed by a thing-free area.
Pausing a moment to scrutinize this irregular occurrence, Holk realized that the six pace radius was fairly even around the structure. It was almost as if an invisible, circular line completely enclosing the building had been drawn in the dirt, one that the things were unable, or unwilling, to cross.
Moving closer, he threaded his way through the things spread out upon the ground. They were quite numerous and twice he was forced to step uncomfortably close to them. One rippled briefly, but otherwise remained still.
The structure was as dilapidated as he remembered from the look the Merchant had given him. About the size of a small house, it lacked one wall yet still retained a third of its roof. As he drew close to the “ring of safety” that seemed to protect the place, he had a fair view of the interior. All that was visible were bushes and trees in and around the rubble.
“This better not have been a wild goose chase,” he mumbled. Stepping carefully around the ground-hugging things, he passed the invisible line and breathed a sigh of relief. In the back of his mind, he feared that what kept the things out, would react harshly to his incursion.
A glance back at the ground-huggers revealed them to be as inactive as before. Now, to locate what it was that the Merchant wanted. Moving quickly he approached the building and stepped through the crumbling remains of the wall. Inside, he glanced about and was met by a sight he hadn’t expected, but should have. A mirror.
Attached to the wall through which he had just passed, sat a mirror barely two feet by three. It had an ivory-like border that looked to have been made from femurs. Whether human or otherwise, Holk couldn’t tell.
Remembering the words of Kiernan, he stared into the mirror. At first, nothing happened, but then his reflection began to alter. His hair shriveled against his head and skin began to peel. A look grew in his eyes, one of unremitting horror. When tremors of fear began coursing through him, he turned away.
Sweat had broken out on his brow and it took some time before the mirror’s effects subsided. He definitely would not be seeing where this particular mirror led. To get his mind focused on something else, he turned his attention to hunting for the Merchant’s item.
If it had been conveyed to this spot by a human, and that person had died, then there should be evidence to that affect. It was a certainty that no wild animal had made its way in there and made off with the carcass. The things would have gotten to it long before it could have reached this point. So, where was the body?
He used his staff to poke through the underbrush and turn over some of the smaller pieces of rubble, all to no avail. He even got down on his hands and knees to sift through the dirt with his fingers. There was nothing. No bones, no coins, nothing one might expect to be left behind after someone had died. He had risked his life for nothing! Had it not have been for the numerous hostile creatures surrounding this place, he would have vented his anger in a more vociferous manner.
His gaze returned to the mirror. If what he was supposed to retrieve lay on the far side of that mirror, it would forever remain so. The Merchant would just have to wait a bit longer. A second was all it took for the fear to once again rise within him. Shaking his head, he looked away and the fear subsided. No, he wasn’t about to go through there.
Taking out the handheld mirror that led to the Prison Room, he unwrapped it and touched his finger to the reflective surface. Nothing happened. Placing his hand full against the mirror, he grew anxious when he failed to return to the Prison Room.
Why wasn’t this working? His anger almost got the better of him. The Merchant! He must have done something to it! Trying his other handheld produced no better results. Neither would work. There was nothing for it, he would have to return through the thing-infested forest.
Casting his gaze outside the building, he found everything to be as quiet as it had on his way in. The ground-huggers remained immobile upon the ground, and no floaters made their way through the ruins. Holk returned to the point where he had entered the circle of safety that surrounded the broken-down structure. Finding the path, he carefully threaded his way between a swath of creatures so thickly laid, that it looked like a brown carpet.
The path felt narrower than it had been before, and each step caused ripples to course through the neighboring things. Holk had never been so nervous in his life. With at times less than half a foot of clearance, he came perilously close to drawing unwanted attention.
Each step was placed with care. Staff held at the ready, he moved the end toward any of the things that reacted to his presence. So long as they were content to do nothing more than ripple, he would keep the staff away.
The narrow path began moving off in a direction other than the way he had come. He was certain that the cave resided at the southern end of the valley, yet he was moving in a more easterly direction. The ruins remained a constant companion, the ancient city stretched farther to the east than it had to the south.
Above, the sun still sat low in the eastern half of the sky, thus he had most of the day before him. Upon reaching an island of safety in this sea of leathery things, Holk paused to determine if a more southerly direction was possible. There were areas clear of the creatures, each roughly the size of stepping stones, that dotted the forest floor to the south. However, in order to move from one to the next, he would be forced to step over and perhaps even leap across many ground-huggers. One misstep and it might very well be the last step he ever took. No, he had to keep to the path, as least for as long as it lasted.
Anxious minutes passed as he continued eastward. At one point, he tried the hand-held mirror again, thinking that perhaps the reason it hadn’t worked was due to it being in the remains of the building the things avoided. Unfortunately, his theory failed to yield results.
When the sun reached its apex, he reached the final structure of the ancient city. Naught but a pile of broken stones, the building lay in crumbled ruin. From that point on, there were only trees, and things. The forest floor grew less populated with the things and a more southerly course could be taken. Tree-huggers remained a problem, but they were easily avoided. Passing quickly beneath three that stretched between overhanging limbs, he came to a latticework of the creatures stretching throughout the boughs of a score of trees. It had to be the single, greatest concentration of the creatures yet encountered. Easily fifteen foot in height and at least thirty wide, it was truly a fearsome sight.
Holk had a fleeting urge to fling a stone into its center just to see what would happen, but knew such an action could possibly create a situation from which there was no escape. Instead, he worked his way around the things and continued on.
For the next half hour, other latticeworks appeared to block his southern path. Time and again he was forced more to the east. After having to alter course for the fifth time due to a high thing concentration, he noticed a white structure within the trees ahead. Curiosity piqued, he threaded his way between the tree-huggers and the ever more infrequent ground-huggers to get a closer look.
It turned out to be a stone obelisk. Fairly overgrown with vines, it rose to a staggering height of fifty feet before tapering off to a point. The surface facing him was smooth with not a mark other than those caused by the ravages of time. He worked his way around to the right in order to see if the other sides were equally devoid of markings.
On the far side, there were no markings, but there was a hollowed out, arched cavity in which sat a hand-held mirror, identical in every way to the two he already carried. His excitement at finding it was quickly dampened by the notion that this could be a trap to the unwary. He had experienced enough strange occurrences since leaving the Kiln to be wary of something placed so invitingly.
Unlike the structure avoided by the things, this one had them in abundance. Over half its surfaces was covered by them, there was even one in the niche with the mirror. Attached to the right side, it rested less than two inches from where the mirror sat, a distance much less than others that had caused previous things to ripple and react. Any attempt on his part to retrieve the mirror would most likely result in awakening the creature.
He considered using his staff to knock the mirror out of the niche, but the recollection of a notation made in Kiernan’s journal as to the fragile nature of the hand-helds stayed his hand. If not remove the mirror, then perhaps the creature? Deciding the risk was worth it, Holk picked up a stick from off the ground and moved one end slowly toward the thing. Once he saw it ripple, he quickly pressed the stick to its side and watched as it wrapped itself about the stick.
Withdrawing it from the cavity, he flung the stick threw the air. Before it even hit the ground, he reached in and snatched the mirror, ensuring to grip it only by its wooden frame. “Got you.”
The thought of seeing where the mirror went crossed his mind, but with his other two inoperable, there may be no way to return. It might be best to wait and see if the Merchant had indeed done anything to the other two, and if so, somehow get him to remove it. Holk slipped it carefully into his shirt between the other two.
From off to the side came the sound of the thing working on the stick. He glanced to the forest about him, fearing that his actions at the obelisk may have provoked others from their lethargic repose. Fortunately, the forest remained still and quiet. Happy with his latest acquisition, Holk quickly set out on the most southerly path available. Soon, the obelisk disappeared in the forest behind him
During the next hour, the number of things encountered gradually tapered off. No longer having to head east, he kept to as southerly a heading as possible. There were still both ground and tree-huggers present, though the number of the former had reduced to only one every now and then.
To his left, the cliffs bordering the forest rose quite high. They were very sheer and he doubted his ability to scale to such a height. The ground had taken to sloping upward to meet their base. When he happened to cast a look farther up the eastern slope, the sight of movement brought him to a halt. The trees were too dense for him to get a good look at it, but it was definitely too large to be one of the things floating about. Besides that, it walked upright on two legs.
Holk came to an immediate halt and ducked behind a tree. Peering around the trunk, he watched as it continued to move in a lateral trajectory. Based on the description of the Ti-Ocks Kiernan had written in his journal, Holk was fairly certain that what he looked upon was one. Scanning the upper slopes for signs of further movement, he discovered the creature to be alone. This was too good a chance for him to learn more about the creatures to pass up.
Dodging stealthily from one tree to another, he worked his way closer to the creature atop the slope. Where had it come from? Where was it going? Perhaps more importantly, what was it doing?
Holk worked steadily closer, narrowing the gap marginally with every mad dash from one tree to the next. When the Ti-Ock stopped and knelt, he was able to come to within twenty yards without being spotted.
From this distance, he could easily see the bestial face and pair of tusks protruding upward from its lower jaw. It was heavily armored just as Kiernan had said, and bore a wicked looking battleaxe strapped to its back.
The Ti-Ock used a small hand tool to dig in the ground. From his vantage point behind a tree trunk, Holk was unable to determine what exactly it was the creature was doing. After several minutes of digging, it stood, turned, and headed back the way it had come. Waiting for a bit more distance to develop between them, Holk emerged from behind the tree and followed.
He kept just far enough behind to be able to see the creature moving through the forest. It headed farther up the slope toward the base of the cliff. Holk was pleased to note that as he drew closer to the fringe, the things were no longer present. He figured they must prefer the forest’s interior.
As the Ti-Ock passed from the forest and continued climbing the slope toward what looked to be a sheer cliff face, Holk noticed that in its hand, the creature held a sack with a small bulge. Perhaps containing whatever it had dug out of the ground?
Holk debated whether to keep following, or close the distance and dispatch the creature. Seeing as how Kiernan noted the two times the scribe encountered Ti-Ocks he had been immediately set upon, Holk held no qualms about taking the offensive. Surprise, after all, was the key to most engagements. His sole quandary was whether dispatching this solitary Ti-Ock out was worth the possibility of alerting the others to his presence, or at least the presence of something hostile to them. He doubted if communication was an option. Any attempt on his part would more than likely provoke an attack. No, better to learn about your enemy. Only a fool fights in the dark.
The Ti-Ock reached where the hillside met the cliff face. It then turned southward and proceeded along the rock wall.
Holk kept to the protective shelter of the forest’s fringe. Thus far, the creature seemed oblivious to his presence; its pace not having altered in any way. For a hundred feet, he kept it in sight. But when he had been being forced to scramble around a tangled pile of vines having overgrown two fallen trees, the creature vanished.
His first impulse was to race up there and discover what had happened. But years of combat experience made him wary of such reckless behavior. Keeping behind the bole of a rather large tree, he searched the hillside for any sign of where the creature might have gone.
Minutes ticked by and still no egress or other methodology for the Ti-Ock’s disappearance could be found. Unable to quell his rising curiosity, Holk cautiously emerged from behind the tree and quickly made his way to the Ti-Ock’s last known position.
Hand gripping the hilt of his sword, Holk made ready to launch an attack should the creature reappear. As he drew nearer the cliff face, he saw the Ti-Ock’s tracks in the dirt. In fact, the tracks were part of a well-trodden path. Seeing evidence of repeated Ti-Ock incursions, Holk knew he pressed his luck just by being there.
The path continued along the hillside for only a few feet before turning toward the rock wall. Holk grinned. There was a crevice, hardly noticeable unless one stood directly before it, through which the Ti-Ock path continued. Moving to the opening, Holk peered around the edge.
It proceeded straight for less than three strides before making a turn to the left. An animalistic odor wafted from the deeper recesses. Holk concluded that it must be the scent of a Ti-Ock.
Keeping still, he cocked his head to the side and listened. All he could hear was the faint sound of air passing through the opening, and of the forest behind him. There was nothing more that he wanted to do but to enter that opening, but knew that to do so could be a tactical disaster. First rule of combat, know your enemy.
Embarking on such an ill-conceived, stumbling-around-in-the-dark plan would assuredly be the height of stupidity. He didn’t know where the crevice led, how many of the enemy he would encounter, or what defenses they may have in place. Better to wait until he knew more. He could always return
After a quick scan to make sure the hillside remained deserted, he left the crevice and raced south toward the cave and the mirror that led to the Merchant via the Crystal room.