This time it was Raithe who led the way, as the four companions walked determinedly back to the giant willow tree. He stopped at the base or rather, the middle section and stared up. This Willow tree was tall and wide, but looking at it now, it just seemed like a pitiful little thing. Though the ceiling above had also been cut, allowing it more space to grow upwards, instead it came about ten feet short, twisting near the top. One, thin and spindly branch, void of leaves, stretched out further than its sisters, only to almost reach the floor above. So that would be their main obstacle when climbing this thing. The rest would be easy.
He began by grabbing hold of a knot in the tree above him and pulling himself up. Raithe then walked the length of the tree, to the first branches. He reached up and took hold of the one above him, moving his hands slightly to gain a better hand hold and pulled. Swinging a leg onto the branch, he used his knee to help heave himself the rest of the way.
Raithe looked down at the others who stood there, staring at him. He gestured for them to follow. “I don't think we have much time, coming?”
Felix's first jump was careful and precise, landing exactly where she needed to on the knot. She walked up the tree as it curved and jumped onto the branch where Raithe was still waiting. She looked at him and snorted.
“Yeah yeah,” he said as he heaved himself onto another branch.
Luna came next. Though Raithe was pretty sure she could have done it herself, Sosuke lifted her onto the knot in the tree. She ran forward with her staff in hand and lept toward that first branch. Luna caught it and pulled herself up.
Sosuke repeated their actions, always staying in the rear. It was good that he did. Raithe could spot any dangers up ahead, while Sosuke could spot them from behind.
They came to an especially tricky part of the tree, where one branch was way off to the side. It was too far away for them to reach for it easily, so they all had to jump. Except for Felix who placed her back paws on a knot which happened to be in the right place and stretched out. Her front paws gripped the top of the branch and she started to pull. There was a point however, when her back paws slipped, leaving her dangling in the air.
Raithe reached down, grabbing as much skin on her neck as he could, in order to help her up. She growled in protest, but he ignored her. “There...” Raithe said, sitting back and taking big, heaving breaths when she was clear. “That... wasn't so bad... was it?”
She glared at him.
Luna lept, came just short of the branch, but Raithe was able to grab her hand before she fell. With her other hand dangling, holding her staff, he pulled her up. She was fairly light, so it was easy. Then Sosuke jumped to the branch, swung for a moment and heaved himself up.
Raithe stood and looked across the branch to the floor above. “I'll go first,” he said after a moment.
The others nodded.
Without any hesitation, he ran down the length of the spindly branch. He stopped in the center as it wobbled a little and bent his knees, spreading out his arms in order to regain his balance. Raithe found that he could use his tail as well. He stood up straight and ran the rest of the way, leaping near the end as the branch wobbled down and landing perfectly on the floor above them.
With Felix's size, she was only able to run down half the length of the branch, leaping in the center. Her front paws managed to grab the floor and once again, Raithe had to help her up. Then it was Luna's turn. She ran, lept and Raithe caught the back of her robe before she went plummeting down. Then Sosuke jumped and landed with just as much ease as Raithe had.
A noise behind them caused his ears to twitch and he stood up straight, looking into the darkness. From the corner of his eye, Raithe thought he could see a shadow, run up the stairs located on the other side of the room. He didn't wait for the others to recover.
“Hey wait!” Sosuke called.
Raithe ignored him and lept up the stairs, two at a time. As his foot hit the top landing, he froze. It was that feeling again. Like the veil protecting them from harm, had dropped. There was something watching them from the shadows. Watching their every move. Sneaking around behind him, breathing on his... he raised his spear and spun!
Sosuke caught it in one hand with a strong grip. “Careful with this thing,” he said as he pushed it away.
“Sorry,” Raithe said. “I'm just... on edge.”
“Yeah,” Sosuke replied.
Raithe looked at him. “You feel it too?”
Sosuke nodded. “We... shouldn't stay here,” he pointed to the other end of the hall. Maybe twenty feet ahead, there was another staircase leading up.
“Let's go then,” Raithe said and began a very cautious walk in that direction. There was a squishing sound and he turned.
Luna was lifting one foot, her face contorted with disgust and an oozing, black substance dripping from her shoe. “Ew gross!” she kicked, hopping on one foot, trying to remove it. “Get... get this stuff off...” she cut her complaints short when it wriggled.
“Time to go!” Sosuke said as he ran forward, picking her up under one arm and running passed Raithe.
Felix immediately followed, letting out a growl of warning.
Raithe stepped backwards and nearly slipped on more of it as it oozed out of the floor. The foul stench it gave off, alerted him to some coming out of cracks in the walls. He was terrified of this creature, especially after what had happened to him before, so he gripped his spear tighter, turned around and rand.
The hallway was about twenty feet in one direction, which wasn't that long, especially when running. However, when being chased by a terrifying foe, when you don't know what will happen if it manages to catch you, that short distance can seem a lot more like a mile.
He ran passed the oozing substance in the wall as it tried to stretch out black tendrils, grabbing him. His foot gave out and he fell. It was then that Raithe realized that one tendril had wrapped around his ankle. Another around his wrist and he couldn't move to get up. Not this again, he thought frustratedly. Then he felt hot like before.
The creature squealed, receding, setting him free and Raithe scrambled to his feet. As he reached the stairs, he could see wisps of smoke rising from Luna's staff. “Thanks,” he said.
“You're welcome,” Luna said, smiling.
Raithe smiled back at her and then proceeded to climb the stairs. It was when he reached the landing that he felt the veil go up, once again. So that meant they would be safe for the time being. He was relieved. Taking a short breather, he raised his head and took in his surroundings.
This hallway had a peaceful air to it. Light came in from the opening ahead, more light than what he had been able to see so far and it bathed the walls and the floor in its luminescence. He could see vines and moss growing on the walls, making the place appear eerily tranquil and straight ahead, the hallway appeared to open up into a large balcony.
His eyes opened wide when he saw the shadow again. That person raised a leg over the railing, but then hesitated. Before they hopped down, they looked back and Raithe could see his face. “Gin!” Raithe called, but it was too late. Gin had already jumped.
Felix came up beside him, rubbing against his leg.
“That was him?” Sosuke asked.
“I think so,” Raithe replied and rather than run like the other times, he walked forward with a steady, slow, purposeful gait.
They came up to the balcony and saw that it went around in a wide circle. Light came in through a glass dome in the ceiling, bathing the whole place in its ambients and its warmth. Down below them, was the same room they had entered the place through, with the same tunnel, the same round door, with the same giant tree and the same round indents in the stone with images.
He looked to the side and watched as Gin placed the three sigils in their appropriate spots. Then he stepped back, thinking.
“We have to get down there,” Sosuke said. “But it doesn't seem like there in an easy way from where we are.”
He was right about that. There were no ramps, no ladders, no giant trees they could scramble down. Raithe looked around until his eyes stopped on another doorway some ways down. He shook his head. No, that wouldn't work. There could be a way down from there, but unless they had a map. They had explored a lot of this structure, but not all of it. Who knew how big it really was?
“We have to jump,” he said finally. “You okay with that?” Raithe asked Felix.
She gave an affirmative meow and backed up a few steps. Then the panther ran forward and lept over the railing. She landed with a hard thump at the bottom, slipped a little and fell to her side. After about a minute, Felix climbed back to her feet and meowed back up at them.
Raithe let out a relieved sigh. She was okay. “Luna?” he said, holding out his hand.
She took it hesitantly.
He lifted her onto his back and lept over the ledge. Raithe used air hop twice and with just enough force, to bring them safely to the bottom. Sosuke wasn't so elegant. He lept off, landing on his feet with a much louder thump than what Felix had made. Raithe wasn't sure how that was even possible. Dust clouds billowed out around his feet.
“Gin!” Raithe shouted as he set Luna down.
The man turned to him. His eyes had a more serious expression and he was frowning.
Raithe stood up and with his other friends behind him, strolled right over to Gin and the door. He stopped a few feet away, when the sigils began to glow.
“Ah! There we are!” Gin said. His frown was gone, replaced with the same kind of creepy smile before. “I knew it.”
Raithe ignored him. “Why did you take them?” he asked.
Gin spread out his arms. “Because I am an opportunist!” he declared. “I'm surprised you still haven't realized it yet. That I'll do anything to survive and since you looked... dead already, I thought well, there's my chance.”
“I bet you did,” Raithe said and took a malicious step forward.
“Woaho now!” Gin said, putting his hands up in mock surrender.
Raithe raised his spear, getting ready to strike him, but Sosuke grabbed his arm.
“Maybe it's best if we... well, we don't know what's beyond that door.”
“Not that it would do us any good if we did,” Raithe muttered and lowered his spear. Then he held out his hand. “Hand it over.”
Gin looked as if he didn't know what Raithe was talking about, though he most definitely did.
“The dagger,” Raithe said. “Or you and me are gonna throw down right here.”
The man smiled at him and pulled it out. “Fine,” Gin said. “But you owe me.”
“For what?” Raithe asked.
“For finding the fourth sigil,” as Gin placed the dagger in Raithe's hand, it began to glow.