THE PIT OF DESPAIR
Rohan, having slept on a full stomach, woke in jovial spirits.
“On to quest number two!” he said, jumping up and exaggeratingly flexing his muscles.
Willow felt rested and refueled, but the apprehension that they were being followed still lingered. The distractions from the Fairies, Centaurs, and Gnomes had temporarily driven it from her mind, but this morning her fears had resurfaced.
“Hey, look!” Rohan said excitedly.
“What is it?” Willow asked, turning in his direction.
“The Gnomes made breakfast! I love those guys!”
Protected under the low slung branches of several bushes were dishes piled high with fruit and fresh bread. No meat, of course -- Gnomes being faithful vegetarians. The aroma was sensational. A small folded scrap of parchment was leaning against a large, intricately carved bowl full of ruby red strawberries.
Willow bent down and fingered the tiny paper, while Rohan reached for a handful of the strawberries. The note was scripted in small but elegant writing. Willow read:
We deeply wish we could join you, but nature waits for no Gnome. Merciafoodle suggested we leave you with a proper sendoff. Please enjoy! And may the winds blow in favor of us meeting again someday. Long live the Lord Protector!
Your kindred spirits,
Bournfoodle, Merciafoodle, Cromwick, Elvinawick, Begawicket, and Rowbiddle.
P.S. The apples, carrots, and sugar lumps are for the horses.
“Those Gnomes are just the sweetest!” Willow said.
Rohan wasted no time -- stuffing his face with great mouthfuls of fruit and pocketing large chunks of bread. He caught Willow’s eye and shrugged.
“For later,” he said, his mouth packed with food.
“If I had to guess...I don’t think it will last you until lunchtime.”
“You’re probably right,” he said jovially.
Not an hour after they had started on their journey for the day, the steep inclines slowly leveled out and the dense trees thinned. The even elevation made for easier and speedier travel, and by late afternoon the trio pushed through the last of the trees on to a plateau covered only by short wild grasses.
As they rode on, their horses became agitated. All was clear to the horizon, yet within another mile mournful wailing seemed to rise from the earth. Bellefire whinnied nervously, and the three stopped to get their bearings.
“It's close,” Devon said.
They pushed their horses slowly forward until the ground before them opened up. An abysmal, bottomless pit yawned before them, stretching endlessly to their left and right.
“The Pit of Despair,” Rohan whispered, all signs of his earlier glee gone.
The cacophony of murmurs and wails increased as they carefully approached the edge of the chasm. Nothing but impenetrable midnight lay below them. The craggy sides oozed with slime before disappearing into darkness. Across the vast gulf, nothing could be discerned but a rickety bridge that swayed precariously and disappeared in a vague haze.
A howling wind reverberated off of the rocky walls. Water roared at an indiscernible depth. The three futilely covered their ears to block the sounds. Then a horrible stench, reminiscent of rotting flesh, filled the air. The horses rose up on their hind legs braying frantically. Willow and Devon managed to regain control, patting the necks of the horses and whispering soft commands. Walking the beasts seemed safer than riding, so they slipped off. Willow patted Bellefire on her snout in encouragement, wishing that there was some way to comfort her.
A faded wooden sign nailed to a rotten post read: The Pit of Despair -- Cross at your own peril.
“What is that moaning?” Rohan yelled above the mayhem.
“The pit is the abode of evil spirits. The infernal fiends writhe in agony against the bondage of corruption they brought upon themselves. Their only solace is to bring as many souls with them as dare wander into their realm,” Devon shouted back.
“How do you know all of this?”
“I learned a lot from my time spent with Mr. and Mrs. Payton.”
“What were your ancestors thinking, Willow?” Rohan bellowed. “Let’s walk into the abode of evil spirits -- could be fun, right?”
A hacking screech, full of sadistic laughter rose from the pit.
“The bridge doesn’t look safe,” Willow yelled.
“Safe or not, we have to cross. It’s the only way to find the Secret Place,” Devon called back.
“You volunteering to go first?” Rohan asked.
“Might as well,” Devon said.
He took a deep, steadying breath. Leading Apollo, he walked to the edge of the narrow bridge. The shrill howling increased with his every step and morphed into crystal clear, malignant insults. Willow cringed. The pit was impassable. How would they ever cross it alive?
“Here goes nothing,” Devon hollered.
He took a first step. The bridge swayed from side to side. Willow’s stomach jumped to her throat as Devon grabbed the vine railing with both hands.
“Whoa,” he breathed as the bridge slowed to a stop.
“I think you should just go for it. Like ripping off a bandage. You know, one quick go of it,” Rohan called.
“Sound advice coming from you. You didn’t seem too keen to cross first.”
“Enough, you two. We need to focus,” Willow yelled.
“Alright, alright. Quick as a bandage, huh?” Devon shouted, gathering Apollo’s lead and preparing to make a dash for it.
Devon made to run but Apollo locked his legs, which caused Devon to fall backwards. The flimsy bridge creaked eerily and swayed even harder. The mockery seeping from the pit gained tempo.
Rohan leaned toward Willow and spoke into her ear. “There is no way he’s going to make it.”
“Let me see if I can coax Bellefire across,” Willow's voice strained against the bedlam.
Devon stepped off the bridge making way for Willow and Bellefire.
“Good luck,” he said sincerely as she passed.
“Well of you to let a lady go first,” Rohan said fiercely.
“Again, if you’d prefer to go first, by all means, be my guest.” Devon retorted.
Disregarding them both, Willow shouted orders. “Rohan, walk behind Bellefire, but keep some distance. You don’t want to get kicked. Maybe if she feels you behind her, she’ll be more willing to go forward.”
Willow walked painstakingly backwards stroking Bellefire’s muzzle and whispering softly to her. With Willow’s focus on Bellefire, she managed to take the first step. The bridge swayed, but she was prepared for it and did not loose her footing. Maintaining eye contact with Bellefire, she gingerly stepped backward, feeling for rotted wood with the balls of her feet. Rohan followed right behind.
The loud cries increased exponentially. Ghostly hands, decaying and skeletal, grasped the narrow planks of the bridge, shaking them with surprising strength and threatening to clamp around the travelers’ heels.
“Run!” Devon shouted from the edge of the gulf, panic heavy in his voice.
Rohan screamed as a rotting hand closed around his ankle, attempting to pull him over the side. He clung to the railing and gasped. His injured arm stretched from the sling hurt excruciatingly. He reached for his wand with his left hand and aimed a spell downward.
Decaying chunks of flesh flew in all directions. The bridge rocked dangerously as a choir of angered spirits wailed in outrage. The ghostly hands retaliated with a vengeance, violently groping the air to pull them into the pit.
Rohan forced himself past Bellefire and ran to Willow’s side.
“We have to get across! Now!” Rohan yelled.
Both fear and determination resided in her hazel eyes. “I’m not leaving Bellefire!”
The bridge creaked and several slats shattered into powder, but then a brilliant blur of gold and red plumage, resembling a blazing fire ball, swooped down from nowhere, emitting a breathtakingly beautiful cry.
“A Phoenix,” Willow managed to whisper.
The Phoenix had a tuft of feathers on its head, ancient gentle and soft eyes, a curved beak the shade of a rosebud, and a long tail of glistening gold and scarlet.
It dug its sharp talons into Bellefire’s hindquarter. Bellefire brayed in pain as the pointed claws pierced her flesh, and she lurched ahead. The bridge teetered dramatically, but Rohan grabbed the lead rope with Willow. Together they pulled Bellefire to safety and then fell into a heap.
Bellefire paced nervously pulling against the lead as she searched for an escape. A ferocious ear piercing shriek came from behind Devon, who was still staring at the departing Phoenix with wide eyes and mouth agape.
A Griffin, a creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, broke through the woods and charged directly toward Devon and Apollo. Willow and Rohan jumped to their feet, watching in horror.
The massive beast had tawny brown fur that covered the back half of its body and long blue feathers at the base of its neck. Sharp talons replaced lion’s forelegs and snow white wings grew from its shoulders. The enormous eagle head was adorned with feathers and a sharp curved beak.
Apollo took off at a full gallop across the bridge. Devon dashed right behind crushing the skeletal hands under his feet with each stride. The second Devon’s feet hit solid ground the bridge gave way, slamming against the far wall of the pit before disintegrating into a thousand pieces. The monster remained at the edge of the gulf and did not fly in pursuit of its prey, though to do so would have been nothing for this creature. Watching in shock, Willow wondered why the Griffin surrendered his prey. The beast let out a final deafening screech and retreated into the woods.
Willow, Rohan, and Devon stared at the gap between the trees where the Griffin had taken shelter.
“Look!” Rohan panted.
A cloaked silhouette of a man peered back at them, a black hat pulled down to shield his eyes.
“It’s the man my parents saw. I felt like we were being followed.”
“Think he set the Griffin on us?” Rohan asked.
“So it appears. I don’t like the looks of him,” Devon said.
“Ho! You there!” Rohan shouted across the pit.
His shouts were too late; the man was already fleeing after the Griffin, his cloak billowing out behind him.
“Looks like trouble,” Devon said. “We might want to keep posts overnight from now on.”
Willow and Rohan nodded solemnly in agreement.
The wailing had ceased. A sense of safety descended upon them despite the dense vapor that surrounded them.