Moralie and Zeke rode for what seemed like an hour. They were no closer to the end of the forest than when they started. The two traveled without saying much of anything. Only the sounds of the unseen creatures kept them company. The horses were beginning to tire. It was becoming more difficult to persuade them to move quicker. Moralie made the call for them to stop and allow themselves to rest. They didn’t like the idea of stopping in such a creepy environment, but there was nothing that could be done about it.
Zeke climbed down from his horse and planted his feet into the muddy ground. It felt soft and unstable beneath his boots. He walked over to Moralie and helped her down from her horse. He brought the ball of light over to them so that they could look for a spot to sit. The area wasn’t very accommodating given the mud, but no one was worried about cleanliness.
Moralie sat down a soggy patch of grass that looked appealing. Zeke sat next to her, feeling the moisture seep into his pants. It was unpleasant, but more comfortable than being on his horse for hours on end.
Zeke wanted to break the silence between them. He wanted to tell Moralie that everything was going to be alright, but doubted that she wanted to hear that. She had just lost the two people she cared about the most; there was nothing he could say that would make it alright. He knew this, and yet he wanted to try. He hated the idea of having to watch people suffer when there was something he could do. For lack of anything to say, he simply rested his right hand on Moralie’s thigh. She reciprocated and held his hand tightly.
“How horrible that this should happen,” Moralie said finally. She turned to look at Zeke and gave him a weak smile. “It’s been nothing but trouble since we met you, hasn’t it?” She reached out and caressed his face. “And you’ve been terribly brave considering the circumstances.”
Zeke was sure that he wasn’t going to like where this was heading. He felt that Moralie was regretting the day she met him. He couldn’t blame her; things had been bad since he joined the party. Tough as it had been, they had always emerged victorious. Now it seemed that no one would come out of this alive.
Moralie was trying her best not to cry anymore. She felt that she needed to be strong for Zeke. She didn’t know why. She knew that he wasn’t a child, but she was put in charge of him. It was her job to keep him safe; she was the leader now. Rafe would have kept it together. She was good at hiding her fear. Moralie wore her feelings on her sleeve. She couldn’t be as stoic as Rafe, but she resolved to change herself to be the protector Zeke needed.
Uncomfortable doing nothing, Zeke stood up and approached his horse, who was leery of anything moving around. He spoke softly to the horse and patted him kindly. He told the horse that everything was going to be alright, even though he wasn’t sure he believed it himself.
Zeke found his master’s spell book and pulled it out of his pack. He sat down by Moralie and flipped through the pages. There had to be something in there that could help them get out of the forest. He was sure that this was not a natural forest. There was no way that a forest like this could exist and not have people talk about it. Was it possible that the Dark One sent them somewhere else, a place that wasn’t on the same plane of reality they came from? That had to be it. He hoped that Gresar had something that would bring them back to their reality.
There were spells that could bring far items nearer, there were spells that could make the caster invisible, there were spells to make the caster and anyone they touched bigger or smaller. None of these were useful. Zeke flipped through the fragile pages growing more frustrated.
Zeke stopped and took a deep breath. He needed to focus on what he wanted to know. He felt if he concentrated on what he desired, the book would know and guide him to the correct spell. He hovered his hand above the book and closed his eyes. He took a slow, deep breath and focused his energy on the book. He felt a chill wash over him as he connected with the book. Pages began to turn on their own, searching for the perfect spell. When the pages stopped flapping, Zeke opened his eyes and discovered the spell he was looking for.
“The Seeker’s Compass,” Zeke read aloud. It sounded promising. It was a four line spell, a higher level spell than he was used to. It required a little more energy. Since he had only been replenishing the light spell this afternoon, he had more than enough energy left. He eagerly read the spell in his head first to get familiar with it. When he felt that he could recite it without messing it up, he spoke: “I hereby cast a net, that traps all known within, seeking answers in my need, my location, I ask the ones above to pin, and I will follow where it lead.”
Moralie watched amazed as a white light floated up from the pages of the book and shot into the air, making a bright column. The beam quickly dissolved, raining droplets of light down upon them. The light didn’t hit the ground, instead the light flew into Zeke’s eyes. They shone like diamonds for a brief moment before the light finally faded away. Zeke exhaled and fell backward into the brush behind him. Moralie reached back and propped Zeke up by the shoulders.
“Are you alright?” Moralie asked.
“I think so,” Zeke replied. He rubbed his eyes in an attempt to see past the spheres of light that had burned their imprints in his vision. “I know the way out! I can lead us out of here! I see the exit back into our reality. We must hurry because it is closing.”
Moralie was glad to hear it. She stood up and wiped the mud off her pants. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” She approached her horse and caressed it. She wanted it calm and relaxed before she demanded it to run as fast as it could. “How long does that spell last?”
“I don’t know, maybe an hour?” Zeke wasn’t sure, but he estimated that an hour was good. It would be more than enough time to get out of there, he hoped.
He stood up and replaced the book into his pack. It was time to sweet talk the horse and hope it let him aboard. When the task was done, Zeke was allowed to mount the horse. He thought about giving it a name for a second. He would have to worry about that later. He kicked the horse on its sides and commanded it forward. The horse was only too obliged to comply. Zeke recited the light spell again and led the way through the dark forest.
Zeke and Moralie kept their eyes and ears open for anything that sounded like it might be following them. The creatures of the night continued to sing their chorus of nosies. They felt that something was watching them; they hoped that was all that they did, watch.
When the trees thinned out a bit, Zeke risked pushing the horse faster. He marveled at how eerie the trees looked as they passed. With their spindly branches it looked like they were actually reaching out for them. If he didn’t know better, he swore that they might have been.
Zeke kept his eyes focused on the light ahead of him. He didn’t pay any particular attention to what might have been on the ground around him. He pressed forward, anxious to get out of the gods forsaken forest dimension. He knew that the exit was closing soon and he didn’t want to miss it.
He was distracted so he almost didn’t hear someone shout something. As he tried to pinpoint where the shout had come from, the solid ground had given way to mush. The horse expecting to continue its pace fell into what appeared to be a large lake of mud. The horse whinnied as it tried to reach solid ground, but there was no bottom that was easily accessible. Instead, Zeke and the horse began to sink.
Zeke turned behind him in the hopes of stopping Moralie from getting stuck in it, but he was too late. Moralie and her horse were sinking as well in the mud. Zeke tried to maneuver the horse out of the mud, but all it was able to do was frantically paddle in an attempt to stay above it. Zeke knew that he had any chance of surviving this, he would have to abandon the horse. He leaned forward whispered into the horse’s ears how sorry he was that this was happening. He said that the horse had been very brave and served him well. He finally decided on a name and whispered, “You are Valiant.” The horse neighed at Zeke sullenly as he climbed off it.
Now Zeke sinking in the mud. He tried to swim in it, but the mud was too thick. Any movement only prompted him to sink quicker. He stayed as still as he could. He looked over at Valiant and saw that he did not struggle anymore. As the mud came up to his neck, Valiant gave one last whinny before it completely consumed him. “Valiant!” Zeke cried out, but the horse was gone.
“Zeke!” It was Moralie. She had managed to get back to solid ground. She stood on the border helplessly and watched as Zeke sank. She looked around for anything that might help him. There were branches on the nearby trees. She quickly went to work snapping them off. They weren’t long branches, but she figured that she could somehow weave them together and make them longer.
“Moralie, hurry!” Zeke cried out. The mud was up to his chest now. He turned around and saw that Moralie was trying to do something. He hoped that whatever it was that it would be ready to implement quickly.
He checked to see if she had been able to save her horse. He didn’t see it. He sighed. Another horse was taken by the mud. How had Moralie gotten out of the mud? He didn’t have time to worry about that. He had to worry about himself. Maybe he could find a spell to save himself. He just needed his spell book… Zeke gasped as he realized that Valiant was carrying the pack where the book resided. Now it was sinking to the bottom of the mud pit. He closed his eyes as the pain of the realization hit him.
Moralie was having trouble putting her plan into action. The branches were too brittle to come together to form a cohesive rope. She kept trying, but the branches fell apart in her hands. She cursed out loud and gazed out to Zeke. The mud was at his shoulders. Short of jumping back into the mud, she didn’t know what else to do. She barely remembered how she had gotten out of the pit. She vaguely remembered being pulled and the next thing she knew, she was near solid ground. She hated that she couldn’t come up with anything helpful. All she could do was watch as Zeke slowly sank into the puddle.
Zeke saw the despair in Moralie’s eyes and knew instantly that he was on his own. He had to think of something fast. He was sinking at a quicker pace. The book was gone, he would have to rely on himself. He closed his eyes and concentrated. Words ran through his mind as he attempted to string them together. When he found the words, he wasted no time. “Mud beneath me’ll seal my fate, allow this wizard to levitate!” But it was too late. The mud had now claimed his neck and soon thereafter, his head.