The boys felt tired and hungry and broken. It had been days since either of them had eaten or had a proper sleep. They had been too busy fighting for their lives and witnessing an entire city crumble. In the end they had destroyed the hellgate without much fuss and left everything in the fortress to rot in its own dead filth.
And now, suddenly, it was all quiet.
They had emerged from the fortress into a pale pre-dawn drizzle. The flames of Mistral had cooled to a smolder, the smoke rising with the fog. The city was nothing more than lumps and ragged fingers of ash on the horizon.
Silently, Simon and Lewis had put their backs to it and moved on. Following the trail Peculier had taken, the boys headed for the hills.
Lewis wrapped his arms around himself and tried not to shiver. But the chill of the rain was getting to him. He was hungry and exhausted.
Beside him, Simon plodded along unfalteringly. His ax was propped on his shoulder and his eyes were locked on the ground a few feet ahead of him. He seemed lost in a world Lewis was not invited into.
Lewis ran his hand over his own face and through his hair, smearing rainwater as he did. He could see the raindrops dripping steadily from Simon's hair and eyelashes and yet Simon didn't blink.
Lewis slowed and gradually let himself fall behind, watching Simon as he did. But Simon didn't seem to notice. Finally Lewis stopped altogether and Simon moved on without him.
Then Lewis turned to look skyward, blinking away the rain. All he could see was cloud. It looked almost as if there was a ceiling on the world, hiding them from everything beyond. Almost unconsciously Lewis' hand drifted to his pocket to check for his converser. It was there, its dented outline comforting to his fingers.
His home was still out there. Somewhere.
"Oy! Lewis, look!"
Lewis snapped to attention. Simon was ahead, standing at a sharp bend in the road that lead around a hill. He was pointing, his face scrunched worriedly.
Taking his hand from his pocket, Lewis jogged over to join him.
As he approached, the road ahead came into view. And it did not look inviting.
For a long moment they stood side-by-side in silence, contemplating what lay ahead of them.
"That's a skull," Simon calmly said.
"Riiiiiiiight…" Lewis nodded.
The path climbed a steep set of stairs and plunged straight into the mouth of what looked like an enormous skull carved into the cliff-face. Lewis couldn't tell if it was a trick of the light or not but its sunken eyes seemed to glint faintly with red. And, to make matters worse, it didn't look like there was any way around.
"It's lovely, isn't it?" Simon asked sarcastically, hefting his ax back onto his shoulder.
"Do you… want… to go first?" Lewis suggested. He was trying to brace himself for what might be beyond sight. He was worn nearly through and didn't like the idea of having to fight more mobs or undead friends.
Simon tipped his head and studied the path ahead for a moment. Then he sniffed and shrugged. "We've done enough faffing around," he pointed out and began to stride on ahead.
Lewis blustered a little and shivered against the rain. The sun was beginning to grow brighter but it was not yet warm.
"Oh, let's just go," he griped out loud to himself and scurried to catch up with Simon.
Side-by-side they climbed the stairs and plunged between the teeth.
The inside of the skull was a surprisingly warm and dry cave. The path was smooth and clear and pleasantly lit by long-burning torches.
Simon ran a hand over his beard creating a puddle of rainwater at his feet. "At least we're out of the rain," he noted, dribbling water from his helmet.
"Yeah." Lewis shook himself, splattering droplets all over the walls. "It's the first nice thing in awhile. But where does this path lead?"
"Dunno," Simon shrugged, already stumping on ahead. "We'll have to see."
The cave road, though pleasant and well-kept, wound on for a long time without any hint of leading anywhere. Smoothed stairs and rounded curves carried them back and forth until they had lost all sense of direction.
Then, suddenly, it dead-ended. A wooden platform covered the last couple meters of path and the ceiling sloped down to meet it.
"Did we miss something?" Lewis frowned, looking back the way they had come. But nowhere had they passed a junction or branch off. The road simply ended.
"There's a sign here," Simon pointed out. He stepped onto the wooden platform and squinted at a sign on the dead-end wall. It was in shadow and hard to read. "You must be … at least this tall… to ride."
"What?" Lewis stepped up beside him. The letters were just visible in the flickering torchlight. "For your safety," he took over from Simon, "please keep your arms and legs inside the ride."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Simon asked.
At that moment, there was noise from above them. Gears creaked deep inside the stone and something chunked loudly just over their heads.
Simon and Lewis looked up just in time to see trap doors swing open and release a gush of water down on them. Lewis barely had time to shut his eyes and stop breathing before he was completely engulfed.
The water slammed down on their heads and shoulders with crushing force. At the same instant, the platform beneath their feet swung away and they were falling.
But hardly before they could realize it, they had hit the ground again and were sliding.
Lewis' head emerged from the water so he could gasp a breath and try to orient himself. But he was sliding and tumbling with alarming speed. The cave and torches rushed past his head.
Simon, just barely ahead of him roared and thrashed against the flow of water that carried them downward. Lewis dug his nails against the wall but the stone was worn smooth and offered no traction.
Their speed unchecked, Simon and Lewis slid with the water down and around corners, bumping and yelping as they went.
Suddenly there was blinding sunlight ahead. Simon screamed. Lewis splayed himself, trying to desperately to brace against the walls. But the slick water on the palms of his hands and soles of his shoes nullified his efforts.
They burst from the cave and were launched into the air. The ground fell away beneath them and they were in free-fall.
For a moment, Lew had a flashback to his fall. Panic overwhelmed him, blinding him, numbing him. He could feel the pain of hitting the ground. He lashed out to save himself but their was nothing to grab.
Then he slammed into a body of water.
He had no time to take a breath so his lungs simply shut. Bubbles clouded around him as his momentum drove him downward. But the water caught him, cushioning his fall, slowing him to a gentle stop.
As it did, it felt like everything paused. The world around him drifted and bobbed weightlessly. It felt like falling but it also felt like flying. Lewis opened his eyes and saw nothing but darkness and silvery bubbles. It was like being in space, surrounded by hundreds of little stars.
Then there was a ripple of movement. Simon pushed past him heading for the surface.
His presence snapped Lewis out of it and he immediately began to kick, swimming upward.
They broke from the water roaring and gasping and coughing. The pool they were in was relatively small and they both quickly reached the shore.
Lewis hauled himself from the water, choking and shaking water from his eyes while Simon clung to the edge to catch his breath. Lewis hunched on the ground, not quite lying and not quite kneeling, and tried to control his trembling.
Then, slowly, he became aware that something was standing over him. He opened his eyes cautiously and saw giant hairy feet only a few inches from his face. The something roared.
Lewis yelped and launched himself backwards, scrambling to get out of reach.
His panic snapped his senses into gear again and he took in his surroundings with surprising speed.
He was in a flat clearing on the edge of the mountain range. A warm midday sun was shining down on bright tents and colorful flags flapping in the breeze. And standing not a meter from him was a man in a gorilla suit.
Simon hauled himself out of the water as quickly as he could, ready for action.
As he did, the gorilla man straightened up and laughed. Reaching up he took off the mask revealing a terrifyingly cheerful face with an impossibly huge grin. "I had you fooled, didn't I!?" he laughed.
Simon hauled Lewis to his feet and they took up a cautiously defensive position side-by-side as they eyed the man warily. But the man didn't seem to notice or mind.
"Mr. Banjo! At your service!" he bowed. His thin voice sing-songed his way excitedly through the words. "And this!" he spun, waving his fur-wrapped arms at the scenery behind him. "Is the world renowned traveling circus Carnival Del Banjo!"
Lewis let his eyes wander, drawing in the setting as quickly but as thoroughly as he could.
They were surrounded by colorful, staked tents and hand-painted signs. Booths offered wares and games. A hastily constructed stage in the center of it all was draped in banners, adorned with flags, and circled by flimsy benches. A old, tired lion blinked sleepily at them from a cage and a donkey peeked around the edge of a dismantled wagon.
"This is not quite what I expected," he admitted.