Chapter 3 | The Grey Forest

Phaedrus knew something was wrong before he opened his eyes.

He inhaled deeply through his nose. The air was all wrong, and it tasted bitter in his mouth. This was not the crisp, dewy air of a summer morning.

And the light was much too soft. He could always tell a rainy day from a dry one by how the light felt on his eyelids. He was just getting used to the warm pressure of early summer. This light felt like that of a dreary day in autumn, a soft skeletal caress.

He opened his eyes to a shroud of fog in a forest he didn’t recognize.

He nudged Ruh Ruh — honestly, what kind of a name was Ruh Ruh? — and the dwarf awoke with a grunt.

The ranger stood and stretched his arms above his head. He spent many nights asleep on the forest floor, but this morning he felt the ache of his muscles where rocks and branches had pressed themselves into his limbs and back. This is exactly why he didn’t drink while he was guiding. Mead made him slow and unfocused. Phaedrus glared at the dwarf, who jumped to his feet, unaffected by the previous night’s activities.

Liam and Akra stood awake and alert, hands on their sword hilts, peering into the fog. Hoben draped his instruments over his torso, and fitted his feathered cap onto his head.

The paladin looked to Phaedrus, inquisitive. “What is this? Where are we?”

“I don’t recognize these trees.” Phaedrus looked to Ruh Ruh, who shrugged. Some outlander he is, Phaedrus thought, sheepishly aware that he, too, had no answers.

The warlock was the last to stir. Amira looked around, groggy and puzzled, before sighing, as if unsurprised by this development. She pulled herself to her feet, with effort, and brushed the dirt from her sleeves.

“I don’t suppose anyone has any coffee,” Amira said, wrapping a scarf around her hair, and tucking her braid into it.

Phaedrus ignored her. There were more pressing matters than coffee, although his stomach also rumbled. He rifled through his satchel, and pulled out a strip of tough, dried meat. He was wary to hunt anything that could be found in this forest.

The fire had been reduced to embers. Phaedrus rubbed his palms together to warm his hands, and inspected the ground around him. The spindled branches of twisted trees formed a web above them. The forest floor was a ghostly shade of gray, and the fog encircled them. The start of a path funneled out from the circle.

Akra noticed it at the same moment. Before Phaedrus could protest, the dragonborn went straight into it, headfirst into the mist.

Determined, Liam followed, his sword at the ready.

Amira hesitated, looking into the impenetrable mist, and her eyes widened as something dark flashed within the fog. She darted toward it, and the mist swallowed her.

Wordlessly, they proceeded, one by one. Hoben went after the warlock, and Ruh Ruh, ever the protector, pulled an axe from his belt, nodded at Phaedrus, and made up the rear.

Phaedrus didn’t know if they were all stupid, or brave, but his own curiosity won out. He held his breath and stepped onto the path, his hands reaching for his bow.

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