No one had to say it. It was obvious that the object of their quest could be in no other place in than the grand ziggurat clearly visible to them from across miles upon miles of landscape infested with ancient reptiles.
“How far do you figure that is?” Warrick asked Tink, who had pulled her goggles down over her face to get a better look using their magnification mode.
She shook her head. “My rangefinder says thirty-two point six miles. We’re… not making that walk in a day. And Occult’s platform moves slower with the more people who ride on it. It’s going to take… days. Days out there in the wild with monsters when most of us have never even been camping.”
“I know a few things,” Juniper offered, shyly raising a hand.
Cyn smirked at her. “I keep forgetting that you know about this sort of thing.”
The other woman shrugged. “It doesn’t come up much.”
Warrick gestured to the land before them. “It’s totally coming up now. Back home, camping out for us was draping a blanket across the backs of a couple of chairs in the living room, so anything you have to say… well it’s gonna carry a thousand times more weight than mine. Where do was start?”
After a second of tapping her bottom lip with her index finger, she nodded to herself and began to speak. “Well… if it was me and my parents, we could make this trip in a little over two days and one night. Only we’re experienced. Our group? I mean we’re all in good shape, but there’s general shape and hiking shape. We’re going to need at least another night and day to get there.”
She regarded the terrain between them and the ziggurat for a moment before continuing. “We don’t really have the supplies on us, so we’re going to need to forage for our own food, find and purify water, and build shelters at night. For nine people. That’s… a lot.”
“Isn’t there’s camping supplies and junk back on the jet we can go get?” Tammy asked.
“There are,” Warrick confirmed, “Only there’s a problem: we’d have to go back up the tunnel while the faeries? They’re coming down our way and we don’t want to face them in an enclosed space with no escape. Our best bet is to go forward and try to avoid being tracked.”
He looked to Juniper. “You think you can help us with that, Jun?”
“Sure,” she chirped, nodding.
That wasn’t Warrick. Or anyone in their group in fact. The voice was male as well as deep and rich and ageless.
Every head turned to look up. They’d been so distracted by the view from the natural balcony jutting out of the tunnel that none of them had noticed that there was another spit of rock above and behind them until that very moment.
There on that rock, sitting in a meditative position was some dressed in layers of cloth whose color pallet ran the entire spectrum of ‘drab’. Though it wore a hood, its recesses failed to conceal a long, crooked nose with a blue-purple coloration that contrasted heavily with its dull wardrobe. Even sitting, it was as tall as Tink was and twice as broad.
Isp and Osp immediately shifted their leading edged into blades, interposing themselves between the being and Warrick. The others similarly went on high alert, brandishing whatever weapons and powers they had at their disposal.
The being didn’t even seem to notice. “My progenitors have no intention of handing over their Great Work to one who can’t make full and efficient use of it in the conflict against the Air and Darkness. You will have to demonstrate guile, strength, and mettle to gain access to it. To that end I used the power invested in me to construct this world—with the help of your own subconscious minds to create personal challenges.”
His head tilted and he made what might have been an amused sound. “But my plans have now changed. Thanks to interference from the Enemy: you are being hunted. I believe that between this savage land and the Maeve’s forces, you will be challenged enough.”
With that said, he rose, unfolding to an impressive twelve feet in height. “I will await you at your goal.”
“Wait just a damn minute!” Cyn interrupted him before he could leave however he was going to. His nose swinging around to point at her was evidence enough that she’d gotten his attention. “You can’t just pop in acting all chummy, drop ‘you’re being hunted’, then skedaddle.” She paused to look to Warrick. “Is that the right word? ‘Skedaddle’?”
“You’re asking now?”
“Eh. Whatever. Look Blue, you’ve at least to got give us some useful information, otherwise, you just showed up to be a jerk.”
To everyone’s surprise, that seemed to give the creature pause. “Very well: I will tell you what you are being hunted by. The party consists of two dozen creatures known as korrigan—fast, small warriors of the dense brier forests who use archery and swarm tactics. Not dangerous alone, but powerful and small numbers. With them is a centaur: a mighty tracker and hunter of the plains. You have seen how they make war. Also with them are two unicorns.”
“Really? That’s awesome!” Tammy said.
The figure tilted its head. “That image in your mind is almost sublimely inaccurate.”
“Oh.” Tammy frowned.
Then the nose pointed at Kura. “That one has a closer idea. Unicorns are fierce guardians of their territories with incredible speed and illusory magic. The best advice I can give is that as a society they have their own code of honor. Perhaps even one who serves Maeve may yet maintain some semblance of that.”
Somehow, he managed to put his arms in the opposite sleeves without revealing his hands. “Finally, leading them is one of Maeve’s top servants called Ozimas. Once he was a daoine of the Low Soder, but he has been consumed by her power, infused with the infinite cold of the Air and Darkness. His touch will freeze flesh and he commands great magic. At his side is also a captive oracle—a spirit not unlike a demon who has been forced out of the astral plane and into the material. He keeps her captive in a cauldron of iron.”
“At the risk of this being a ‘duh’ moment,” said Cyn, “But an oracle does…”
“Oracles share a special connection to the Wheel of Fate which grants them Sight which varies from oracle to oracle. Ozimas hopes to use her to avoid the perils of this place and to foresee your plans.”
Cyn blinked. “That’s… ominous.”
“And that is the extent to which I shall aid you. In some ways I have already exceeded my instructions. I will exceed them again to wish you luck: touching the minds of Maeve’s servants and slaves has given me insight into the dire hour that approaches.”
And then he dissolved into a vapor before their eyes and blew away, the resultant faint, blue cloud disappearing toward the ziggurat.
“Well at least we know specifically who’s going to be trying to kill us in our sleep the next couple of nights. That’s always nice,” Melissa said dryly.
“We better get moving to put as much space between them and us as possible,” Warrick said, then turned to Lisa. “How long can you keep one of those platforms going?”
“Around the same amount of time as in wall move—just under half an hour,” said Lisa. “But the issue is that the more weight it carries, the slower it’ll move. Assuming I just move the people who can’t fly—”
“And Kura,” Tammy interjected.
Kura scowled. “Hey!”
Shrugging, Tammy explained, “You fly slower than you walk.” Kura stuck her tongue out at her.
Lisa gave them a moment to interrupt them more, than continued. “We’d be flying… well about twice as fast as a brisk walk. There’s a reason I usually don’t carry more than three people. Teleportation’s out because I’m not sure how it would even work in a magically constructed space.”
Juniper timidly raised a hand. “I can make a platform too and carry people. I’ve only ever caught one or two people at a time and lowered them to the ground before, but we can at least get away from the cliffs.”
“Then let’s do it,” said Warrick, giving a nod before gesturing back at the landscape before them. “Where should we be headed, seeing as you’re the survival expert.”
She frowned, her forehead creasing slightly as she studied the lay of the land. At length, mindful that they had faeries snapping at their heels, she pointed. “There. The forest is open enough that we’ll be able to see predators or enemies coming, we can follow that stream to make sure wherever we camp will be near fresh water, and it doesn’t look to be near a game trail.”
Warrick nodded. “Alright then. Crossing a magically built world designed to test us, one of the Big Bad’s henchies on our tail and dinosaurs looking for a nibble. Let’s get this movable feast underway.”
After a short flight—one that was a bit wobbly for Warrick, Tink and Kay riding on Juniper’s psychokinetic platform—they set down in the scrubby clearing Juniper indicated and used the time they bought doing so to organize and prepare.
Cyn took wing and scouted ahead, using her palmtop to film the terrain and locations of the larger groups of animals. Meanwhile the others were taking cues from Juniper and foraging on the move, picking and pulling whatever edible plants they came across as they walked as well as collecting other natural supplies.
Tink and Warrick were playing pack mules for said supplies thanks to her enhanced strength and Isp and Osp.
The group spent several hours trekking through the forest following Cyn’s lead.
They didn’t have long to get comfortable though, as around late afternoon (or it would have been outside of the magical hollow world), they broke through the treeline and found themselves standing at the edge of the floodplain—and at the edge of a migrating herd.
Sauropods of unknown species, their long, narrow necks stretched out stiffly and counterbalanced by their tails, plodded along placidly, barely noticing that they were joined by hunchbacked, loping iguanadon—recognizable by their thumb spikes. Mixed among them were spike-armored ankylosaurs and a veritable swarm of foot-high, feathered beasts and flying reptiles about the size of falcons that actually perched on the big sauropods.
Upon seeing them, Warrick crouched back into the shadows of the forest and raised his best friend on the comm. “Uh… Cyn? What gives? You could’ve told us these guys were here.”
I didn’t tell you because they… weren’t. They just appeared like a second ago. Spawned, like in a video game!” After a pause, she cursed. “Oh, that dirty blue jackass! He talked about ‘challenge’ this and that—that’s what this whole thing is: it’s a video game made by magicky people from thousands of years before video games!”
“So… what? The cool dino march is a cut scene?” asked Tammy.
“No.” Melissa said, starting to back away. “No, he pulled ideas from out minds, remember? He didn’t com up with any of this, we did. And I remember you making me go to this movie, Cyn. We need to run—get somewhere high or underground or something.”
Juniper looked at her with wide, confused eyes. “What are you talking about? What’s going on?”
By that time, Warrick was starting to inch backward too, looking around for possible shelter. “She’s right. Think about it: if you were making a challenge or a movie and it had a big herd of any large animal, what’s going to happen with them at some point or other?”
Now it was Tink’s turn to curse, but she didn’t get a chance to voice why before a bugling call went up from the herds. One of the sauropods stopped and turned toward the riverbank as it let loose another call, then rose up a few feet on its hind legs and stomped.
A few others paused and did the same—all big male or even bigger elderly females. The rest of the herd—sauropod and not—stopped trooping forward and started milling restlessly. Some of the iguanadons danced skittishly.
The little feathered beasts ran first, abandoning their meal tickets in an instinctive rush to avoid what was coming. Then the ankylosaurs moved, muscling their way past even smaller sauropods. Once they were on the move, it was as if a dam broke and the herd broke and ran, stampeding for the woods.
And the heroes hiding there.
To Be Continued…