“The bowels? We’re out of the belly?” I ask hopefully.
“Just being cycled back up,” Kai tells me. “We’re going in a loop it seems. We’re at the top again, just on the opposite side of the forest we originally decided to skip.”
Of course we are. Why would we get to skip at least one death option?
“That’s a terribly sneaky riddle, because if we can’t see the forest before we answer the riddle, then how do we know the forest is part of the answer without prior knowledge of the course?” I ask incredulously. “What we saw through that wall after it opened was a flat, fiery tundra. That turned out to be the small gulley we started in, and not even a big part of the course. It was all an illusion to think we knew the course.”
“We saw the forest in the beginning. That was the clue to our answer, because to finish the course, you have to complete every obstacle,” Kai says with a shrug.
Ezekiel randomly lets out a loud yell, startling my already traumatized heart, and the vine in his hand slaps forth like an exposed wire full of untethered electricity. He dodges a few slashes it makes.
“The vine closest to you always reacts the wildest,” Jude says quietly.
“You sent the entire horde of vines near edge of the forest over the cliff because your screams were so loud and echoed around. It was almost like you knew the answer without realizing it,” Kai adds.
“No,” I confess, holding up a finger for a correction. “That terrified the living shit out of me. That’s why I was screaming. Apparently I’m a panicky screamer when plummeting to a fiery death.”
Gage laughs under his breath, still staring up at the sky and lying flat on his back.
“For the record, that was a horrible plan. You’re certainly no closer to being my favorite now,” I prattle on nervously to Gage.
A little bit of reluctant laughter follows that as we all turn to face the forest. The high we’re on from the survival of something that seemed impossible is now eclipsed by the dark forest that grows so pitch black we can’t see any deeper than ten feet.
My eyes glance over to the forgotten archers who are now covered in vines and being treated like they’re officially part of the forest.
“At least now I know why they were trying to kill us instead of just running along. They needed a beetle to cross a fiery stream. They could have shot an arrow with rope. But how they planned to paddle the thing upstream is a mystery,” I say as I look back to the guys.
I think Ezekiel gives me a pity laugh, but the others just start walking into the forest.
“I’m almost positive this was their starting point,” Gage says, gesturing over to the two fallen archers. “The forest ran over them like it considered them collateral instead of passengers.”
“I guess they’re not too good at riddles then,” I state absently.
I’m the only one who can see, apparently, once we get into the thick of it.
My night vision isn’t grand topside, but I can see in shades of gray down here, while they stumble their way around. The one person who can’t trip is the only one who can see.
Ironic twist, huh?
Jude follows close behind me, as though he can see my outline and is using me for guidance. I pass through a tree, and I hear a loud grunt when he runs right into it.
I grin as he curses me.
He’s apparently glutton for punishment because he gets behind me again.
“You can turn whole for a while in here. He can’t see you,” Gage says as he comes up on my side, stumbling a little.
Instantly turning whole, my hand darts out and grabs his like I’m stopping him from falling, though he doesn’t need my help. The physical contact feels so good after watching him almost die the last time I was touching him.
He clutches my hand for a second a little too roughly, almost a desperate sort of cling, then drops it and walks ahead, feeling his way around as he manages to pull away from me.
At least I can see with my own eyes that he’s okay. And even in flesh, I still have gray vision. I can’t see too far ahead, but it appears to be more visibility than they have.
“We need some light,” Ezekiel gripes.
Feeling out the energy stirring in me, I test out my powers in whole form. I haven’t been able to do that yet, since I only just started being able to reach for it. Maybe it’s all the adrenaline these damn trials are pumping through me after my level-up.
With one hard push, the acidic power bursts into the vine I grab. It sizzles and sparks, then lights up, slowly climbing up the rest of the vine. If these things like fire, then I’ll consider this their “watering.”
Yes, I contain my laughter for my own joke since they likely won’t find it as funny.
The small flames don’t put off much light, but I do it every ten feet or so, offering them some visibility.
“That’s called a burn,” I say jokingly.
I get groans instead of laughter. See? It’s like someone cut out their ability to find humor.
“That’s not even close to what that nineties line is referring to,” Jude, the all-knowing prick, says.
“If I’m using nineties lines, does that mean I’m from the nineties?” I ask.
“If you’re using nineties terms wrong and causing those around you to cringe, it’s likely you’re from a few generations earlier than that. It was always the parents that screwed up the best phrases when they got in on the fun,” Jude goes on.
“Says the guy who is centuries old. You could be my great grandparents’ great grandparent.” I grin as I add, “Burn.”
More groans. Damn it, I thought that one was awesome.
“It’s a good thing we don’t need your help insulting people,” Ezekiel says, patting my shoulder a little patronizingly.
“Careful not to hit the base of the trees. If they catch fire, it’s like tossing a match on gasoline. The entire forest will go up in flames and burn until the screaming vines drink all of it in,” Gage cautions.
“Well, I’m glad you decide to share that after I’ve been lighting these thirsty bitches up for a while,” I point out.
“You just used thirsty bitches wrong as well,” Kai states from in front of me.
“I don’t think I want to know your definition of that phrase,” I grumble, causing all of the chauvinist dicks to chuckle.
The deeper we go, the more suspicious I get. It’s been terribly quiet. Nothing has tried to eat us, roast us, or drop us into a fiery pit in quite a few hours. Granted, the beetle ride took a while, and aside from a few bird-snakes flying overhead rather ominously, it was rather uneventful.
I’m sure this is just like that. Something long and dull to break down your guard so you aren’t on as high alert when a three headed hellhound comes after you.
“Are there such things as three-headed hellhounds?” I decide to ask aloud.
Gage and Kai shake their heads, and Ezekiel smiles to himself, walking easier under the small bit of illumination.
“Sometimes I wonder how your thought process works, and what all happens from the last time you speak until the next time,” Gage grumbles. “That’s what I find most surprising.”
“Glad my entertainment stock is going up, but I’m actually expecting an answer to that.”
“The Devil invited us to a party last minute, ambushed us with an early final round of the trials, set everyone up for failure on a three-day, impossible quest, and then sent us in here unarmed, while allowing all our competitors to carry their weapons of choice. During all that calculated and obvious plotting, he decided to kindly hand over a list of all the possible creatures we may or may not encounter,” Jude states, each word dripping with sarcasm as though he’s really trying to drive home his point.
Just because I’m feeling petty, I scream loudly, startling all the rest of them.
Three vines whip through me as I go back to phantom mode, and they crash into Jude hard enough to send him flying backwards into a tree. I smile over my shoulder at him as he pushes to his feet, glaring at me the entire time.
“Burn,” I say with a saccharine sweet smile.
Third time’s a charm, apparently.
Kai bursts out laughing, and the vines stay dormant. They truly do only like a good scream. Not just any noise will do. Makes sense, since it’s hell. Screams are probably a part of its diet.
“We’re going to have to stop for the night, or we’re going to—”
Gage’s words are cut off when the light disappears and a cool chill creeps in. I hear thunder, and I worry what it’s warning us is to come. Somehow I don’t think rain and a little lightning are what’s in store for us.
“Black ice,” I hear Kai say on a short breath. “Run!”
“Find shelter!” Gage shouts, dashing through the forest as it lights up in neon blue pulses.
Thousands of flying spiders go crazy when the light starts glowing brighter, slithering like an oozing, neon, live entity over the black trees.
I can hear the sound of rain gaining on us, and I’m too scared to ask why it’s called black ice. I’m also scared why the forest is turning a creepy, glowing blue, but I’m positive the two are related.
Kai shouts, tumbling sideways with Gage as they roll with the shifting ground of the forest that seems to be breaking apart to drink in the rain.
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