Peepers surveyed the forest below him, then glanced back at the apartments. Leaning back a bit, he glanced at the card in his hand.
“Yeah, I’d say it worked,” he said, pocketing Armored Ascension. The hole he’d left in the wall was starting to repair itself – he’d picked an empty room, of course. There were enough of those now – with the appearance of additional housing units, each person was able to take a room for themselves and still leave plenty empty. It was probably because their population was now growing. Only a few weeks prior, the first birth since the transportation had occurred. It wasn’t anybody Peepers knew, but the news had traveled quickly.
Slowly, Peepers drifted away from the building and over the cliff’s edge. He felt a small change, a little of the energy that had empowered him at casting leaving. Reversing his direction, it returned. He noted it didn’t occur all at once; the energy was at a maximum right next to the apartments, presumably higher inside or on the other side, and at a minimum as he passed over the newest labs.
Chebon had told him, after returning from the scouting mission yesterday with a restrained and angry squirrel-man in tow, that there was something strange about that building, and Peepers had to agree. Even just passing it at a distance, he could feel something different from all the others. It definitely needed a more thorough investigation by a better-prepared group.
…but right now he wasn’t thinking about that. He was enjoying his flight as he drifted out over the sea of leaves. Gradually he descended to skim above them. Things were still busy, getting busier, and he knew it would remain that way. This moment was a bit of a break. He could barely see Maytee breaking up a fight between a few of the students. the telltale flashes of light glinting between the trees. There was a thermal rising from the forest, and he rode it for a moment, hovering in midair as he looked towards the horizon. He glanced down, and noted a clear section of forest, as if a new path was opening up. With a grin, he brought his wings back and dove down, swooping towards the path opening.
He dropped past the canopy, scaring a number of small birds. The noise didn’t even catch his attention. Just above the ground he leveled off, following the slight curves of the path for a distance at full speed, and finally slowed to a stop, hovering briefly as he looked up at the sky. The path stretched on ahead, probably not much longer based on what he’d seen from on high. He casually glided on.
Shortly ahead, the path did in fact end. Nothing there except an irregularity in the positions of the trees, some of them crowded oddly closer than anywhere else, looking as if they had, somehow, been moved. Peepers made a note of this, deciding it needed to be revisited, then turned to head back. He didn’t quite get off the ground before something caught his eye. A movement in the canopy; something unnatural… he didn’t wait to see what was moving. Instead he turned back around and took flight, soon at full speed again.
As he darted between the trees, there was a roar behind him. Deciding then that he couldn’t escape this way, he pulled back and concentrated on rising. Whatever was behind him was getting closer with every moment – it was much faster, and much larger, than he was. Branches whipped past his head, leaves blinding him. After several terrible moments, however, he cleared the treetop and continued his rapid ascent, only stopping to look back when he was high enough to be out of his pursuer’s reach.
What he saw horrified him. Below, a green shape, very much like a dragon but with a texture like the canopy itself, was rising away from the forest, straight at him.
On instinct, he moved in the direction of the school. He escaped the thing’s jaws by inches, and was again straining to move as fast as he could. High in the clear sky, he could see the school even at this distance, but it was so far, he couldn’t hope to make it, not with this just behind him. And that wasn’t even taking the other one into account.
Without warning a second dragon rose from the trees below, almost instantly in front of him. With no other options, he immediately adjusted his course to dive back into the canopy. This time his descent was wild and uncontrolled, opposed again by branches, and he barely avoided contact with the forest floor.
Keep moving. Stay ahead.
There was nothing else to think of in this situation. The trees barely hindered the chase, as he dodged easily around them and the dragons didn’t even seem to be impeded. Reaching the school was his only hope of survival; he hadn’t brought a stock of cards or other symbols to help in case of a fight, and there would be no time to cast spells without one.
There was a gap in the trees ahead, which Peepers welcomed as less dodging to do until he realized what was in that gap, a large, wild-looking man, with an axe raised menacingly above his head. Peeling to one side, he just managed to not be in the way when the axe came down.
No stopping now.
By now he’d covered so much distance, he must have been close. He rose once again, emerging from the trees to see the cliff looming close. This was little help. Just overhead was one of the dragons. Before he could reach the school it would intercept him. His eyes darted along the cliff face. Surely there was something… and then he spotted it, a small cave. He could fit, but surely the dragons wouldn’t. A slight adjustment and…
As he plunged into the dankness of the cave, he heard the sound of something very large striking something very hard, but rather than pause to check he continued as deep as he could at this speed. The light, he found, was unexpectedly good, with no real source. After a minute’s flight, the stone walls of the cave spread, and he slowed to a halt in what looked like a largeish shrine, complete with an altar at the far wall.
As Peepers approached the center of the chamber, the altar began to shine. The light increased in intensity until Peepers had to cover his eyes. When it died down, he looked and saw that something now stood atop the altar. It was a humanoid figure, apparently female, tall but still within the limits of natural human size, with massive angelic wings, each roughly twice as large as the figure itself. Peepers drew back, a little alarmed by the appearance of the angel, but it made no move toward him. Instead it fixed its gaze on him, observing with an expression sort of like bored indifference. After a brief silence Peepers decided he might as well ask, “Where am I?”
“You are in the Underworld,” the angel replied, its tone absolutely flat.
It took Peepers a moment to figure out how to respond to that. “The… Underworld? Does that mean I’m dead, then?”
“No,” said the angel, “you are alive, though you are in mortal peril. That is why you are able to find this place.”
Peepers nodded, wondering if that meant he had to leave before the dragons gave up. “Okay, so… you’re Death, then? And you’re not going to try to harvest my soul or something?”
“I do not harvest, only await the dead,” the angel answered.
“Good, I really wasn’t looking forward to being harvested. So, if you know I’m in danger, do you know what I need to do about it?”
“You must unlock the power to save yourself.”
“So then you can’t tell me…?”
“It is your own concern, not mine.”
Peepers nodded. “I see… you know, you’re kind of boring for Death.” The angel didn’t respond, so Peepers turned away and walked to the cave entrance. The dragons circled outside, waiting and watching him as he waited and watched them. He sat down and meditated on his next move for a minute. Realizing all at once, he stood and charged to the entrance. The dragons swooped toward him as he left, and plunged straight down the cliff.
This time he deliberately got as close to the ground as he could before making a ninety degree turn to fly parallel to the ground. The dragons barely missed him once again and he pulled ahead, flying toward his destination as quickly as he could.
Not far now… just ahead…
Soon the gaps in the trees increased again, and ahead he saw the man with the axe, waiting for him. The axe came down…
It worked. Now that the guy with the axe had cut him in half he was safe. He had no idea where he was, but since it seemed to be a place other than the Underworld, and he was apparently in one piece, he figured he must be alive.
He stood up, rubbing his aching head. Wings gone… well, he could cast the spell again, but better hold off on that until he’d had a look around…
When Peepers returned to the campus, he was nearly knocked over by “Loud” Joe Diciani, who was running about frantically working on… something. Peepers wasn’t sure what that something was. “Hey, what’s going on around here?” he asked.
Joe gaped. There was a pause of about ten seconds before he managed to respond. “Everyone’s been looking for you for the last few hours!” he exclaimed. “Where have you been?“
In response, Peepers looked over his shoulder, and stared out toward the forest, like he was expecting something. He then fixed Joe with a deathly serious gaze before answering his question.