The cave was fine. It only had tight spaces, which made even breathing difficult. And with my light orb, the darkness was not overwhelmingly absolute. There were ambushes by blind monsters straight out of nightmares, but we survived. Of course, no one lost their waterskins, or part of their provisions, or even their own fucking knife. No one had to wait in turns to eat and drink while we moved, since anything that stopped to take a breath soon parts with it.
Things took a turn for the better when we took a left and ended up in an arena. But instead of people, trees took the stands. They were identical, with thin trunks, curled leaves, and branches that don’t branch off. It was creepy, and we turned around to leave. But the entrance was gone, replaced with a seamless wall. The trail I followed had inexplicably vanished as well, dispersed into a kind of fog that filled the air.
“Shit,” Dorn spoke. “Mr. Knight, where’s the exit?”
“It’s not clear,” I admitted. “It turned into a fog just now.”
“A fog? What do you mean a fog?” Wesson asked.
“I’m saying there’s no way out of here.” I pondered at that statement even as I said it. “Or maybe there is. I don’t know. Ask the trees, why don’t you?
“The trees?” Wesson said, incredulous. “What trees?”
“The ones on up there.” I pointed at the stands. “Maybe they talk and don’t want to kill us on sight.”
“That’s pretty high up.” Dorn mused. “I don’t think we can climb up there. The walls are too smooth.”
“Hear that Wesson? Seems right up your alley, eh?” Quentin teased. Wesson ignored him and stared at the stand with a frown. I copied him and studied the stand as best I could from down low. The whole thing seemed a creation of magic, and indeed the wall confirmed itself to be such. But the blocks that made up the stand seemed weathered, with cracks and pieces missing. There were also impressions on these old blocks, like scratches. After staring at them for a while, I realized that they were writings.
“Guys, there’s something written on the stands.” I pointed at the scribblings closest to me. “Could be something about a way out written there.”
“Oh yeah, I see it.” Quentin agreed. “But it’s too small to make out from here. Someone needs to get up there.
“I told you the wall is too smooth.” Dorn said, “No one can climb up.”
“A human ladder,” Zai spoke what I was about to say. “We make a human ladder and make our way through all the stands. Then the person at the top can write down the writings.”
“You have ink on hand?” I said, surprised.
“Even better, Mr. Knight. A pencil.
“I call for the top spot,” Wesson said immediately.
“No, I call for the top spot,” Quentin said.
“I’m lighter than both of you. I should get the top spot.” Dorn said.
“None of you will take the top spot.” Zai hissed. “I will.”
“What about me?” I asked instinctively.
“You’ll take the lowest spot.” Zai declared. “It’s only fitting and I know you can take it.”
I looked at the trolls’ heft with doubt.
“Zai, I don’t think Mr.Knight can take our weight,” Quentin said. “He’s practically skin and bones.”
“Yeah, he doesn’t look like he can lift himself.” Dorn chimed in. “He looks winded.”
“I can lift these two fools with one arm. Let me take the lowest spot.” Wesson offered.
Subtle. Also hurtful. My body is perfectly fine. I thought while looking at myself. You try living off the land while always on the move and killing monsters.
“…very well. You’ll be the one supporting me then. Don’t get any funny ideas.” Zai said while turning his back on me.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said, trying to throw my hands apart, only to be reminded that I still had accessories on me. “By the way, can someone take these off?”
“Sure,” Quentin said, coming over towards me. “Hold still.”
After some time, I rubbed my wrists while the trolls sort out the finer details of the human ladder. Zai joined them but still kept an eye on me. Finally, the trolls took their place, bracing against the wall. After that, came my turn to go up. I went and took my place, staring up at the writings until Zai came and stood on my shoulders.
I wavered but remained still. Time ticked by until a slight tap by Zai with his heel told me he was done. I repeated the gesture and the trolls seemed to get it. Once everyone was on the ground, I walked up to Zai and stared at the scrap of paper he was holding.
“Well, what does it say?” I asked. “Can you read it? Want me to help?”
“No.” Zai waved me away.
“Mr. Knight, please show me your hands,” Quentin said, rope in hand.
“Ah, right,” I said, not sure if I replied to Quentin or Zai. The knot this time around was looser but no less effective.
“I don’t like getting tied up,” I remarked.
“You’re a dangerous man, Mr. Knight. It’s only proper to show respect.” Quentin said.
“Well, this isn’t the kind of stuff I was hoping with people showing me respect,” I scratched my chin on my shoulder. “I was thinking about getting free lodgings, free food, and free drinks, for a start. ”
“You and everyone else, Mr. Knight.” Quentin said, “Now, I want to ask you something.”
“Go ahead. I’m not going anywhere.” I said without thinking.
“Are you leading us to a trap, Mr. Knight?” Quentin asked, his eyes serious. “Because I can snap a man’s neck with one hand and it only takes me 3 seconds. You have 4 seconds left.”
“No!” I nearly shouted. “I’m not leading you to a trap. I promise you, I’ve been through this cave before.”
Quentin seemed unimpressed. “So you’ve made it out of this dead-end before?”
“Well, no. I don’t go through here normally, but everything seems to have been jumbled all over somehow.” I said while keeping an eye on my ghosts.
“So this didn’t happen before,” Quentin said, scratching his cheek. “Interesting. By the way, do you know what this is, Mr. Knight?”
Quentin had taken out a necklace, with a dark blue gem dangling from it. A purplish trail came from it.
“It’s a necklace with a gem.” I said, “A dark blue gem. And is that chain from gold?”
“Yes, but it can do a lot more than that. The important thing about it right now, though, is that ghosts can’t hear me or anyone touching me while I’m wearing it.”
“Ah, that’s convenient,” I said, nodding all the while. “Wait, so I can-”
Quentin grabbed one of my hands and nodded.
“…I think we are being led to a trap. But I also think the ghosts know where the gateway is.” I said my piece after holding on to it for so long. It felt good.
“How do you know?” Quentin asked. “Maybe they lied.”
“Ghosts don’t lie, Quentin,” I said firmly. “That’s something only the living does.”
Quentin seemed unconvinced, and I don’t blame him. I wasn’t convinced either. Quite a lot of things in my life had been a gamble, and this part is no different. The difference between me and the average gambler though, is that I don’t rely on the odds. I set the stage, switch the dice, count the cards; whatever it takes to get the upper hand. And at that time, when Quentin showed me his hand, an idea began to form in my mind.