Chapter 4

A woodland chase to a strange new place

      Koen now began to lead her to wander into the woods, perpendicular to their path and farther from their balloon. Nary one step off the trail and into the grass, Shepry said "Koen, I don't mean to call your navigational intuition into question, but don't you think we might as well just head straight to this game? I mean sure, we don't have tickets, but at an event like this, I'd guess there are some charitable people nearby who are willing to make some tickets for people like us."
      He said back to her "Do you think I know where I'm going?"
      After a puzzled pause, Shepry said "Ok I lied, I have every intention of calling your navigational intuition into question. That's not the point though."
      "Well I know that Valentine guy made this game sound totally amazing, but the situation with our house is more important, right?"
      "Of course."
      "To tell you the truth, it wouldn't matter at all to me if we get into that game today, as long as I have a soft bed to sleep in tonight. I still want to go, you know, but the people there will be more focused on all the fun going on there and all the stuff in their own lives, so we're probably not going to find someone who wants to help us figure out what happened to all our stuff, or who took it, or anything like that."
      "If we just wander into the woods, we've got about an even chance of making either goal, so we might as well just go in any direction. Besides, this way... Won't this probably make a better story for me to write about?"
      Shepry had to logically believe this was just a bit more dangerous than what an ordinary person would do, but Shepry and Koen would like to believe they're a bit more special than ordinary people. She smiled at him and continued walking aimlessly the same way.

      "It's so strange. Why haven't we ever heard of this game, and why such a strange way of getting admission?" Shepry asked a bit later on.
      "Yeah," Koen said, "It sounds a bit weird to me. I've never heard of any kind of game where you have to go through some stuff like this to see it."
      "I can't even imagine where we need to look for people who have been there, but since we're close to the actual event, I suppose we're likely to find at least a couple of people who've been. Hopefully some people live out in the woods here, or nearby in town."
      They had been walking mostly uphill since leaving the trail. They figured it to be a mountain, but not a very steep one, and a very easy walk. Plants were few and small on the ground, and the trees of these woods were very tall, thick, and far apart, surely an old forest. The treetops made a semi-concealing canopy high above, causing the ground to be covered with blurry speckled areas of sunlight and shade, sunnier in some places and shadier in others. It was a nigh cloudless sky above them, with a gentle breeze forming the perfect late summer day. If there were ever a fortunate time to have one's house emptied, this would have to be that time. After all, who wants to leave their home, even if it's an empty one, on a dreary winter day? Such weather would probably just have Shepry and Koen huddled back home at odds for a blanket from Shepry's bed.
      Koen spotted another wanderer of the woods far ahead of them. He was a large man dressed very strangely. All that he wore was a sort of crude fur loincloth suspended from his shoulders, he had a completely bare head, and carried with him something like a thick club. He was slowly trotting around the trees, just sweeping across the ground with his eyes, perhaps looking for something.
      "Hey look!" He pointed the man out to Shepry, "Maybe that guy can help us!"
      Shepry waved and called out to him "Hey!"
      As soon as Koen pointed to him and alerted Shepry, the man stiffened up and froze on the spot, looking straight at him. As soon as Shepry called to him, his face showed absolute anger. Now they'd have nothing but regret for seeking his attention.
      The man returned their greeting with a savage cry of "BAAAAARRRRG!" so great that he had to brace himself on the spot to properly deliver it.
      He leapt forward and gave them immediate chase, driving them even more urgently into the deep unknown forest. Koen gave such a start that he had to clasp his hat down onto his head as he began to flee, shouting "Holy crap, what's his problem?!"
      They got a good headstart as the chase ensued. They were grateful for the cumbersome club slowing him down, though not at all pleased with what might happen should he get within reach of them with something like that. They were grateful as well that he had no shoes, but they had strong pairs of boots on their feet. These things helped the two of them keep well ahead of him, and escape more quickly than he could pursue, but just as they'd slow down, thinking he'd been lost far behind, his odd grunting and shouting would get closer to them again, and they'd see him threateningly swinging that frightening club. They couldn't find any reliable place to hide from him or any way to stop him running, and this chase was beginning to take its toll on their hearts even though he seemed to have lost no breath as he shouted at them through the woods.

      Shepry voiced her concern as they achingly ran on, "He's catching up. We aren't going to be able to outrun him."
      In good fortune, they soon came to a lone building in the midst of the woods. An indoor hiding place seemed absolutely ideal, so Koen made a desperate effort to run ahead to this place as soon as he could, via a nearby window. It wasn't locked, so he lifted it right open and called Shepry over.
      "Here, this window's unlocked."
      Shepry climbed in hastily with no question, and Koen immediately followed, but Shepry looked out and could still see the big strange man angrily charging them and said "This window isn't going to stop him!"
      Koen was already at work solving this problem though. Having needed only to look over his shoulder while climbing in, he knelt down as soon as he touched the floor to untie his right boot. He took it off, and waited until the man was just a moment's distance from their window, then leaned out and flung the boot straight at the man. It met his forehead with a dull thump, and had him immediately sent to the ground on his back. Koen's right foot was already on the sill so that he'd have something else to throw, but he saw the man slowly get up and begin to retreat. He obviously wasn't hurt badly, but was surely startled.
      He was so caught up in this defense that Koen had hardly noticed that Shepry was no longer standing next to him, so when he let her know that the man was going the other way, he turned around with a bit of surprise when he heard her reply from some distance away, "Great, so... What's this building we just jumped into?"
      As its full view came into sight, Koen realized how hasty his last decisions had been, and he said "Oh, yeah! Almost forgot!"
      They were standing in the middle of a great hall, the height of two stories at least. The walls, floor, and whole structure of the building seemed to be made of stone, some very smooth kind, almost marblelike. This room was mostly empty except for the grand fireplace, with an elegant chair and couch in front of it, appearing very old, though also soft and cozy. Twin staircases were on either side of the fireplace, leading to a darker second floor not concealed from the first by any walls. Up there a few bookshelves could be seen, and still on the first floor were a couple of archways next to these staircases, leading to some other dark unknown chambers. The fireplace had only the faintest remnants of flame in it, naught but embers casting a red-orange glow to the floor in front of them. Shepry was now in the middle of the room between the chair and couch, and the large, wooden front door of the place was directly behind her, with a torch adorning either side. Most of the light of this place was cast ominously not from the torches or fireplace, but from the great windows above the front door. The clearly aged windows were too aged and cloudy to illuminate the full room, or even cast a distinct window-shaped pattern of light on the floor. They merely contributed an ancient appearance to the place, characteristic of any old abandoned structure.

      Koen said half to Shepry and half to the darkness "Is anyone here?"

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