Ursa dashed across the gloomy clearing and slid head-first underneath a small thorn bush. With a tiny heart beating hundreds of times per minute, she felt like she could drop dead at any moment, but she also felt alive—more alive than she’d been in months.
Her long, slender ears tilted this way then that, alert for signs of danger. Her soft nose twitched furiously. This forest wasn’t hers! It was far too dark and ominous, the low canopy too tightly intertwisted to let in more than a meager twilight. But despite all that, it didn’t feel like an evil place.
Dangerous, yes, but not evil. Whatever powers kept watch over this place guarded it jealously, determined to keep outsiders at bay.
Without warning, Ursa sprung from her hiding place and dashed quickly ahead, over vines and under fallen trees, until she paused once more inside a hollow tree.
When she’d paid to see the map—every last gold coin in her purse and a promise to return with more—she’d doubted it could be right. How could this be the “highway” if there was no road?
But the map had proven correct. She’d yet to find a single path nor even a game trail. The trees grew too close together, like a picket of soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The underbrush—though it should have withered and faded without the sun’s rays—thrived! Even with the sharpest machete and a tireless arm, this forest would have taken a lifetime to cross.
Ursa dashed and paused, dashed and paused, leaping, letting her long, muscular legs do what they did best. And while she ran, she tried to empty her mind of why she had come. She’d done more than her share of foolish things in her life, but this put them all to shame. This plan was so foolhardy that she didn’t even dare speak it out loud.
But yet, here she was. She hurt so deeply that even the most imprudent plan outshone the alternatives. She couldn’t lie in her cave one moment longer, waiting for the pain to fade. She knew it wouldn’t.
She froze in place, her nose twitching at an unexpected smell—smoke, but not a wildfire, nothing big and dangerous. She smelled a cooking fire. She smelled … stew.
Creeping ahead just as slowly as her rabbit feet would let her, she peeked from beneath a stinging nettle, to a small clearing that ended at a sheer cliff, a nearly featureless wall of basalt. High overhead, a tiny crack opened on the mountain’s flat face, then widened slightly as it worked its way down. The crack jagged this way and that, like a lightning bolt, opening just wide enough that she could see the dull red glow from deep inside the rock.
“I made it!” Ursa whispered to herself as her eyes followed the widening crack down … down … down…
Her long ears fell against her back, and she blinked. There, at the base of the cliff where legend said that the crack grew wide enough to allow someone to squeeze through, stood a house.
Well, not a house really, just a one-room cabin, but that cabin had been built right up against the cliff, blocking her way.
“Come on out,” said a voice.
Ursa blinked again and peered around a thick clump of green nettles. There she saw a spectacled bear sitting beside a rock-lined campfire. The druid hadn’t been expecting to run into any people here, but the old bear was speaking to her, wasn’t she?
“You’re not going to eat my nettles, are you? I need them for my tea,” said the spectacled bear. Though her eyes were white with cataracts and her face streaked with grey, the bear stared directly at her.
Ursa froze, and the moment stretched until the silence grew awkward. Was she just one of those eccentric old ladies who spoke to animals as if they could understand her? Or could she see beyond the transformation, see Ursa as she truly was? Not sure what else to do, she cleared her throat. “No, ma’am,” the rabbit said in a quiet voice.
“Good,” said the bear, turning back to her dinner. “Come and join me. And put another log on this fire. It’s starting to burn down.”
Ursa waited one more moment, then extracted herself from the nettle bush. Leaning her weight on her gnarled oaken staff, she let her rabbit form slide away and effortlessly returned to her natural shape. Then, the brown bear plucked a small log from the woodpile and set it atop the campfire. The druid poked at it with her staff once until flames licked both sides.
Then, she sat down across from the other bear and waited in silence.
Eventually, the older bear pulled a spoon from the pot and sipped a taste of her stew. Before dropping it back into the pot, she pointed the wooden implement at Ursa’s face. “You’ve come a long way for nothing,” she said.
Ursa shook her head. “No, I suspect my adventure has only just begun.”
The other bear released a great sigh and stared at the druid with white eyes. “Don’t be foolish,” she huffed. Then, she pointed her spoon at the crack in the mountain. “Whatever it is you’re seeking, it’s not there. There’s no fame, no treasure, no glory—only death.”
“As a matter of fact, I know that it is in there, and I intend to get it back.” Ursa crossed her arms, her lower lip hanging low in a frown. “And who are you to tell me otherwise?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, dear,” said the spectacled bear as she spooned some stew out into a small wooden bowl. She handed it to Ursa before serving herself. “I’m Calypso.”
Ursa hesitated while Calypso dug into her meal. The blind bear paused, then wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “It’s not poisoned,” she promised. “I don’t mean you any harm. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m keeping you from harm’s way.”
“I don’t want your help. I don’t need it,” said Ursa, setting the bowl down beside her host. “And you’re not going to keep me. I’m quite capable of making my own decisions.”
Calypso said nothing. She ate her stew in silence.
“You do realize that I could transform into a tit, don’t you?” the druid asked. “I could turn into a small bird and fly right over your house. I bet that even above your roof, the crack would be wide enough to admit a sparrow … or perhaps a hummingbird?”
“Probably,” said the old bear as she tilted her bowl and scraped the last of her stew directly into her mouth. “But yet … you haven’t. Why is that?”
Ursa lifted her chin in defiance. “Well, if you must know,” she huffed. “When I have what I came for, I intend to walk out on my own two feet. So, I might as well walk in that way too.”
Calypso stared at her for a long while and shook her head. “If you’re planning on bringing someone out with you,” she said, “forget it. It’s not allowed. It’s not possible.”
The older bear stared at Ursa for the longest while. Eventually, she picked up the second bowl and ate from that as well. “You blame yourself,” she said. Not a question. “Why is that?”
“That’s … none of your business,” whispered Ursa.
“Oh, come now,” Calypso wheezed. “You say you’re not afraid of what’s in there, but yet you’re afraid of telling me the truth?”
Ursa said nothing. She sat in silence as her host finished her dinner. Then, the two sat silently beside the fire as the sun began to set. The birds stilled and the insects grew bolder until crickets and the crackle of a dying fire were the only sounds.
Ursa wiped at her eyes as she remembered her lover’s final moments, his brown eyes closing for the final time. She cursed herself for feeling it again, for letting out the pain she’d pushed so far down inside her.
“His name … was Tuur,” she finally shared. She didn’t look over at the older bear, instead choosing to stare right into the fire. “And he wasn’t that sick. Or at least … he didn’t seem so.”
“Your magic couldn’t save him?” asked the other.
Ursa shrugged. “It shouldn’t have even been necessary,” the druid whispered. “Herbs alone should have been plenty. Summer dill would have broken his fever…”
“But it didn’t?”
Ursa tilted her head, still staring. When her words returned, they were barely loud enough to be heard over the insects. “It had been a wet spring … and the tiniest specs of mold had formed on the underside of every leaf. I should have seen them. Perhaps I panicked? I had helped so many others in their time of need, and I did so calmly and carefully. But perhaps when it was Tuur…”
“Does mold negate the power of summer dill?” asked Calypso.
Ursa chewed her lip for a long moment. “Worse,” she said. “It turned his fever into something that even my magic couldn’t treat.”
Calypso put her hand on the younger bear’s knee and gave it a squeeze. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, “but you can’t bring him back. Going to him will only get you killed as well.”
Ursa said nothing.
“Come,” said the old bear. “Even if you don’t wish to share my dinner, at least you can sleep by the hearth. It will be warmer than sitting out here. You should allow yourself one comfortable night before heading back home in the morning.”
After cleaning the bowls out with a splash of water and a wad of freshly picked grass, Ursa followed the spectacled bear back to the cabin.
And she might have done as Calypso had instructed, might have headed home despite how she’d sworn that she wouldn’t without finding Tuur first … but she noticed that one of the planks on the back wall of the modest home had never been nailed into place, it had only been dry fitted between the others, held tight by all the boards around it.
So, when Calypso excused herself to visit the privy, Ursa stuck her claws in on either side of the plank and wrenched it free.
Though not a slender bear, Ursa managed to squeeze her girth through the opening long before Calypso could ever return.
Ursa squeezed past the roughhewn planks and into the dimly lit cavern beyond. At times she had to duck, other times she had to crawl, and then there were a few spots where the passage grew so narrow that she feared she’d have to turn back. But eventually, the way opened wide and tall, and her only challenge was keeping from sliding down the chute of loose stones that led her deep into the earth’s crust.
While she hiked across the scree, Ursa tried to puzzle out the source of the red light illuminating the cavern. Wherever the glow was emanating from, it didn’t seem to cast a shadow. The dim light seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Using her staff to steady her footing, she worked her way down the gentle slope for half an hour until—perhaps a hundred yards ahead of her—she could see that the cavern narrowed abruptly into a lumpy corridor. But blocking the way was a different sort of lump—something huge and hairy rested on the cavern floor, its attention focused solely on the corridor beyond.
“Hello?” called the bear, not wanting to startle the humongous creature. “Are you trapped?” she asked. The way ahead looked large enough for the creature to navigate, but she was confident that the way behind her wouldn’t be.
Six ears stood high and pointed her way before the creature rose and turned. The beast was huge! It easily stood seven foot tall at the shoulder, and three different heads loomed high above that. Metal clanked and echoed off the stone walls, but the growl that followed rattled the teeth in Ursa’s mouth.
“What the…?” she gasped. “No!” She hurried forward, scrambling over rocks and gravel, moving so quickly that the beast actually took a full step back as she approached.
Ursa skidded to a stop. A chain—each iron link forged as thick as her thumb—dangled from the creature’s middle neck and ended in a thick iron plate bolted to the cavern’s floor. She grabbed one of the links and heaved, pulling just as hard as she could, but the iron plate showed no sign of yielding.
“Who…” she grunted while she pulled, “did this to you?”
The dog’s leftmost head—with curious eyes and shaggy fur—stooped to sniff at the druid while she toiled. It shoved its cold nose up under her armpit and nearly bowled her over with a snorfling sniff.
“Stop that! Stop that!” She put her palm flat on his forehead and shoved him away, only for him to stick his snout back under her arm again the moment she tried to pull the chain free. “Stop it!” she giggled as the sniffing intensified.
Giving up on pulling the plate loose with her hands, Ursa shoved the end of her staff into the bottom-most link. She channeled her life force into twisted length of oak until it glowed bright green, but the wood creaked and threatened to snap when she pried against the stone floor.
“Damn it,” Ursa grunted in frustration, throwing down the staff. Then, she followed the chain up with her hands.
The dog’s middle head—sleek of fur and eyes wide with worry—tugged hard on the chain, pulling it taut until the spiked leather collar rode up as high on the dog’s neck as possible.
“Oh, you poor thing!” cooed Ursa the Kind. “Your neck is rubbed absolutely raw. When was the last time this collar came off?”
The middle head yawned nervously, and it licked at its lips, but Ursa grabbed the end of the collar strap and yanked it loose from the loop. “Shh, don’t pull so hard,” she whispered. “Just let me have a little slack, and I’ll get you free.”
For just a moment, the dog eased up, and the druid pulled the prong loose, so the strap could slide from the buckle. With a dull metallic clunk, the collar and chain fell to the stone floor. All three heads crowded around the collar, sniffing madly at it, but Ursa ignored the horrid thing.
Instead, she put her hands to the raw skin where the collar had rubbed the fur from the dog’s neck, then she channeled her healing magic into it to sooth the damage. “I don’t know who could have been so cruel and thoughtless,” she grumbled, “but they better hope that I never get a hold of them…”
When the spell was complete, Ursa stooped and retrieved her staff. While bent over, she checked the tag that still hung from the collar. When she stood, she found herself eye-to-eye with the third face. The rightmost head glared at her, eyes glowing yellow and a pelt that was more scabs and scars than fur.
“Cerberus, huh?” she asked the third head. She ran her fingers across his pelt. “I’m afraid there’s not much I can do for the scars. The scabs I can fix, but they’re just cosmetic at this point.” Still, fed a trickle of healing power into him and the dry, crusty skin fell away, leaving fresh, mostly smooth skin beneath.
The third head stared, fierce still not as aggressively as it had before. “There. At least that will keep you from scratching at them, keep them from getting infected,” she said.
Ursa kissed his cold nose, before waving and heading down the passageway alone. Over her shoulder, she called back, “You be a good boy now, okay?”
The druid continued on her way for another hour. At times, she thought she heard movement or the sounds of a creature, but nothing she heard was comforting and familiar. She knew the sounds of every forest dweller, but here in the underworld, she had no idea what to expect. She’d certainly never run across a three-headed dog before, that was for certain. Just lucky for her that it was so friendly.
Ursa yawned. There was no deadfall inside this cavern, but that wouldn’t much matter. She wouldn’t need a fire for warmth and didn’t need to build a shelter from the elements. Besides, she had plenty of mana left to conjure some food and drink, but she was growing a little anxious about finding a place to rest.
Normally, she would take turns with Tuur keeping watch so that the other could rest, but with his passing, he’d left her alone in the world. So, Ursa kept an eye out for cracks and side passages—hoping to find one wide enough that she could squeeze inside but still sufficiently snug that it might keep a foe at bay. Considering her height and girth, she didn’t hold high hopes, but she knew she’d rest easier even in an alcove than she would curled up in the main tunnel.
She heard the sound once more, and then again, but louder this time, a crunching of feet on gravel. “Hello?” called Ursa. “Who’s there?”
Around a bend, two eyes peeked out, glowing red like coals in a bonfire. Beneath that, a huge maw slowly opened, featuring an unnatural number of teeth. With each heaving breath it exhaled, black smoke and drifting embers floated out.
Ursa paused, uncertain. In some ways, the creature reminded her of a dog, but in other ways a bull—not only due to its massive size, but also from its proportions. Most of the beast’s weight centered over its forelegs.
She’d been a druid almost all her life, and at this point, Ursa used several spells so often that it hardly even registered when she’d cast them. “Animal Friendship”, in particular, would have to top that list. “Who’s a good boy?” she asked, projecting friendly confidence.
But at this, the creature scrambled forward, its long claws digging deep, kicking rocks and gravel out behind it as it ran her way.
The druid grabbed her staff from the narrow end, holding the curling top out in front of her. “Now, hold up there!” she called, trying to project calming caution, but the creature didn’t slow. Ignoring the staff, the monster leapt, claws and teeth slashing the air while Ursa rolled away to safety.
The hellhound circled about, preparing to charge her once more, while Ursa slapped a hand to her shoulder, stemming the blood flow from the monster’s glancing bite.
“Now, you stay right there!” the bear shouted. Without any conscious thought, her hand traced spellforms in the air, and a thick mass of vines sprung up from the gravel beneath the creature’s feet. The hellhound yelped in surprise, trying to step away, but the vines moved quickly, entangling all four of its coal-black legs.
Instead of fighting with the vines, the hound drew a deep breath and then spat a gout of flame in Ursa’s direction. She tried to dodge out of the way but took most of the fiery impact to her shoulder and back.
“Gah!” she shouted as she tried backing away over the loose scree, trying to get out of range should the creature try its breath weapon once more.
Frustrated, the hellhound bit furiously at the vines that held it, snarling and snapping as it tore the lush greenery away. Meanwhile, Ursa grabbed her staff in both shaking hands and chanted, channeling the powers of nature and life until a black and swirling storm cloud obscured the cavern’s ceiling. Power, pure energy crackled inside the cloud as static electricity arced across the underside of the cloud and concentrated in the middle.
At nearly the same moment, the hellhound broke free of the last vine holding it in place and a lightning bolt nearly as thick as Ursa’s arm leapt from the cloud to the vine-covered cavern floor.
In the dim, enclosed space, the flash of light and explosion of thunder were so intense that they knocked the druid backward, and she slid down the loose scree on her burnt back. Her pupils constricted to pinpricks, leaving her blinded.
“Did I get it?” she gasped, lifting her head.
But as if in answer to her question, she heard the bark as it leapt. Then, it landed on her legs. Ursa screamed as its claws dug deep in her thigh, its teeth sank into her knee.
With its massive neck muscles, the beast shook her like a rag doll, her knee snapping and popping as the bones shattered.
“Help me!” Ursa screamed on the verge of passing out. But the creature showed her no mercy, only loosening its bite for a moment to try and get a better grip.
The bear swung her staff blindly while it gnawed on her leg, sometimes connecting and sometimes swishing through open air.
But then, just as she was certain she’d meet her doom, a great baying howl filled the chamber as a gigantic three-headed dog bounded toward the combatants.
For a moment, the hellhound hesitated as if uncertain whether Cerberus would side with him or the bear—but only for a moment. Then, it released Ursa’s leg and bolted, unwilling to challenge the gigantic dog for the meal.
Ursa didn’t even bother taking a parting swing as it ran. Instead, she grabbed her leg with both hands and tried to squeeze the larger wounds closed.
Cerberus skidded to a stop at her side. Then, he rolled on his back curling this way and that, as if trying to scratch an itch with the cavern’s floor. Then he stopped, his leftmost head staring at her, shaggy fur disheveled and tongue lolling as he waited.
Ursa groaned in pain. “Okay, okay,” she finally managed. “Sure, belly rubs, but first I need to use the rest of my spell slots on this knee if I want to keep my leg.”
In the morning—if indeed it was morning, as the underworld remained lit to a dull red glow the entire time she’d been underground—Ursa uncurled from beside Cerberus and climbed her staff hand-over-hand until she had more or less regained her feet. Her back ached from sleeping on jagged rocks, and she winced when she put her weight on her injured knee. The hellhound had shattered her bones, and her magic had healed them once more, but “good as new” they were not.
After a quick, conjured breakfast, the pair continued on their way. The druid kept a steady—albeit slow—pace, but the three-headed dog took the long way: running this way and that, snorfling urgently at scents that only he could detect, and marking the passage from time to time as he went.
After a half-hour or so of shambling, keeping as much weight on her staff as she could manage, the passageway opened to a cavern so vast that it was hard to believe they could still be underground. In fact, the extents faded into the distance, so she doubted she could see precisely just how vast it truly was.
And everywhere, everywhere she looked, souls of the departed gathered. Some sat in groups, others wandered singly, but their sheer numbers overwhelmed her. “Tuur!” she shouted at the multitudes, then not as loud, “Tuur.”
Her staff slipped from her grip and clattered against the stone. “Shit,” she whispered to no one. She hung her head. “I suppose it makes sense … everyone who has ever passed away in all of history…”
Cerberus stooped, and his leftmost head retrieved her staff, then held it out for her until she took it from his mouth. “Thanks buddy,” she said, taking a moment to pet his snout. “Hope you’re not expecting to play fetch with it.”
“Aw, why the long face?” asked a melodious voice from behind her.
Ursa spun as quickly as she could manage without falling over, she raised her staff defensively, but the bear leaning up against the cavern wall did not react. He just smiled as if this were the greatest place to be.
And. He. Was. Gorgeous!
Despite her eternal love for Tuur, just the sight of the grizzly with the perfect cinnamon fur was enough to make her heart beat louder. He had golden eyes, powerful muscles, and a belly so vast that it looked like he was ready for winter’s nap. And sure, the horns on his head and the bat wings on his back were unusual, but with the look he had going, they worked.
“Oh, I see,” he said, his perfectly white teeth sparkling like stars, “you’ve come looking for someone named Tuur.”
“I… I am!” she gasped. Then, struggling to contain herself, she hobbled closer. “Do you know him? He’s a panda with a terrible sense of humor, the sweetest disposition, and brown eyes so soft…” She shook herself from her memories. “Do you know where I can find him?”
The bear grinned wide. His eyes disappeared into crescents and his teeth gleamed so brightly that they filled Ursa’s vision. She leaned forward on her toes waiting until he laughed, “Not a chance!”
“Oh,” the druid huffed, sinking in on herself slightly.
“But I do know a lovely couple who will!”
“You do?” she gasped, but he was already walking away, strolling with long strides as if headed to a fancy party. “Wait! Wait!” Ursa called as she hobbled after him.
Cerberus whined but remained by the druid’s side, and the two rushed to keep up with the cinnamon grizzly. Though he walked quickly, he never let himself get so far ahead that Ursa lost track of him.
When they finally arrived at their destination, the druid scrunched up her face, confused at the sight. A pair of doors, each standing seven foot tall and nearly three feet wide, had been mounted to a flat spot in the cavern floor. With craftsmanship beyond any she’d seen before, both had been carved to resemble a bear’s face. But though the doors’ bases looked sturdy enough, there wasn’t any sort of wall behind them. The two were free-standing in their casings as if someone had forgotten to build a home behind them.
“Uh,” Ursa muttered, confused. She took a moment to peek around the doors, but the back sides looked no different than the fronts.
“Never mind that,” laughed the winged bear. From atop one of the doors, he snatched a wand, and from the darkness above them, four brilliant lights came to life like sunlight streaming through gaps in dark clouds—one focused on either of the doors, one on the cinnamon grizzly, and one on Ursa herself. She winced and shielded her eyes, her night vision so disrupted that the rest of the cavern fell away into darkness.
The horned bear pointed the wand at his mouth, and in the smoothest of tones, he announced, “Welcome once again! Today’s challenger is…” He pointed the wand at the druid’s mouth and waited, his teeth sparkling like diamonds.
“Uh… Ursa?” she said into the twig.
“Welcome, Ursa!” he laughed, the wand pointed back at his own mouth. With a twinkle in his eye, he explained, “Today, Ursa will be facing two doors. Door number one has been carved from hickory, and the grain has been polished to a beautiful shine.”
The carving on the leftmost door came to life. It looked shyly down, a blush of mahogany coming to each of her cheeks. “Oh, Typhon, that’s so kind of you to say!”
“Oh, whatever,” grunted the face carved into the rightmost door.
“Door number two has been carved from one single slab of oak!” Typhon announced.
“Like that’s something to be proud of,” huffed the hickory door.
“Uh,” interrupted Ursa, “and how is this supposed to help me find Tuur?”
“Because,” the horned bear explained with one finger raised, “stepping through one of these doors will take you right to him!”
The druid frowned, apprehension lining her face. “And the other?”
“To annihilation!” Typhon cheered, his voice dripping with honey.
“What?” gasped Ursa.
“He means,” the door on the left explained, “that if you were foolish enough to step through that door,”—the hickory face glared at the oaken door—“then you’ll be completely annihilated, and you’ll never be able to reunite with Tuur—not even in death.”
“Ugh,” the oaken door growled. “Why do you tell everyone that? You’re the door that leads to annihilation!”
Ursa’s lower lip drooped. She turned to the winged bear. “Which door leads me to Tuur?”
“Don’t ask me! Only they know. But I’ll warn you,” the cinnamon bear laughed, mugging a grin as if he were using his favorite catchphrase, “Someone’s a Liar!”
“So, I guess you’re saying that I need to … uh…” she said, seeking affirmation from Typhon that he wasn’t giving her, “have to first discern which door is the liar … and then ask the other door which one leads to Tuur?”
The winged bear only smiled. Ursa looked over at Cerberus, but though he tilted his head supportively, his size and strength couldn’t help her. So, she turned back to the doors and addressed them both, “What color is my fur?”
The carved bears responded simultaneously; though the oaken door replied, “Brown,” while the hickory door said, “A lovely shade of brown.”
Ursa scowled. Her fur was brown, so the oaken door hadn’t lied. Did that mean that her fur being lovely was a lie?
She scowled over at Typhon, but he winked when he explained, “It would be far too simple a challenge if one door could only tell lies, my dear. One of them lies, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not capable of telling the truth.”
“Okay,” said Ursa, “so, I need to figure out which door is incapable of lying and ask them which door to take.”
Hickory started, “If you wanted to know who was capable of cruelty—”
But Oak interrupted, “Back to this, huh? I already apologized! And you never even—”
“I don’t owe you forgiveness!” shouted Hickory.
“Guys?” Typhon whispered from the side of his mouth. “We’re getting off track here.”
“And how could I forgive,” Hickory barreled on, “when you just keep doing it?”
“All I said was—”
“I know what you said!”
“But all I—”
“It wasn’t what you said, and you know it!” she shouted over him. “It was how you said it!”
“I can see that you guys are having some issues right now…” Ursa said in a reassuring voice, but her attempt to mediate between the doors fell flat.
“This is the same sort of crap you’ve pulled for the last millennium!” shouted Hickory.
“Me?” Oak shouted back. “Ever think that maybe you’re over-sensitive and taking everything as an attack? I could ask what time it is, and you’d pretend that I was calling you old!”
Cerberus whined and the druid leaned back against him, frowning hard.
“C’mon, I need you on your A-game, guys!” the horned bear hissed at the doors, but they ignored him, shouting louder and louder—shouting always, listening never.
Typhon looked over at Ursa. He smiled at her, but the smooth, easy grin he’d worn before looked faded and desperate. “Heh. Looks like today’s challenge is … uh, extra exciting!”
“Not really,” the druid huffed. “Pretty simple stuff, actually.”
Typhon’s face lit with hope once more. “Oh yeah? I mean of course, oh yeah! For a clever adventurer like you … uh…”
The druid just stared at him, and he searched desperately for something to say. At last, he managed, “Someone’s a Liar!” but he failed to deliver it with even a fraction of the charm he’d used before.
“Yup,” said Ursa.
“Oh, uh, so you’ve figured out which door is which?”
Ursa leaned her weight back on her staff. “They both lead to oblivion,” she said as she turned to walk away.
“Uh, no!” Typhon chuckled. “That’s not how this game is played!”
“And you,” Ursa said without looking back, “are the liar.”
Ursa was quick to put some breathing room between her and the animated doors. She wandered, feeling little hope that she could ever find Tuur in such a massive place but uncertain that the world above was ever worth going back to without him.
The souls of the departed ignored her. Other scarier underworld denizens took more interest, but when they caught a glimpse of her three-headed traveling companion, they carefully kept their distance.
And so, she wandered, resting from time to time and snuggling with Cerberus when her loneliness threatened to overtake her. In time, the scenery changed. She saw great rivers and seas, grasslands, tundra, and even the deep lush forests that made her feel so at home. At times, she even forgot that she was in the underworld at all. Either the light had shifted to the greens all around her, or her eyes had adapted. She couldn’t be certain, nor did she care.
Cerberus’s leftmost head waited with stick in mouth, ready for her to take it and throw it once more. His middle head seldom rested, ears always perked, listening for danger. But it was his rightmost head that had become Ursa’s confidant these past few months. Though he never spoke—none of his heads ever did—it was the rightmost head that always listened when she talked. His eyes watched her closely, his brows lifted as if he was carefully considering what she said.
“Am I wasting my time?” she asked him. “Is this hopeless? Is it even possible to find someone in such a place, or would you have to have a guide?”
He tilted his head ever so slightly, his brows drawn together as if to say, “I don’t know.”
“And if I chose to leave,” she continued, “could I? We’ve been wandering for ages! I’ve only got the faintest notion of how we got here. I certainly couldn’t retrace our steps.”
She took a moment to toss the stick for Lefty. When they returned, Righty took up his post beside her, listening intently once more. “Do you suppose he’s looking for me?” she asked the dog. “He had to have known that I’d come. I mean, of course I did. But there’s no sign, no clues, no…”
She stopped and leaned against his shoulder for a long while. Then, she wiped her eyes, letting out a half-smile when Righty licked her cheek. “I guess I’m … disappointed. I feel like he’s left me.” Ursa shook her head. “Well, of course he has, but I wonder if he gave up on me coming back for him.”
The two of them—or four, depending on how you counted—stepped out of the trees and into a wide green clearing. The druid paused, her blue eyes squinting a moment as she caught a ray of yellow sunshine that glinted through the trees. She pointed. “Did you see that?”
Without waiting, she transformed into a hawk and soared above the trees. Though not bright, there absolutely was a yellowish light way off in the distance. Could this be the sign she’d been searching for? Was this Tuur’s doing? A fire? A beacon of some sort he’d set up to draw her attention?
Her heart lifted, and she wanted to set off across the treetops, but instead, she circled back around, refusing to leave Cerberus behind. And so, they traveled together: her flying from one branch to another, then waiting for the giant dog to bound through the trees and catch up. Occasionally, she’d soar back above the canopy before heading back down once more, adjusting their trajectory so they wouldn’t veer off the true path.
Whatever the light was, it continued to burn day-in and day-out. She rested when she had to and traveled whenever she could. And in less than a week, she was there.
Ursa slipped back into her bear form and stepped from the trees. There, not thirty yards away, sat a familiar-looking panda, sitting with his back toward her and warming his hands against the yellow-orange glow. Tuur turned his head a moment, and he fixed her with his soft brown eyes. He gave her a sad smile before turning back.
“I was wondering if you’d come for this,” he said with a voice that every fiber of her being had missed.
“Yeah, well,” Ursa sighed as she stepped closer, “I kinda need it.”
He nodded without looking back. “Should never have given it to me.”
That made her smile. “I never intended to, y’know? It just sorta … happened.”
Tuur scooted over and Ursa took a seat beside him on the fallen log, snuggling up close. “I’m glad you did though,” he whispered. He rubbed his hands together for a moment before extending them once again. He warmed his palms with the heat radiating from Ursa’s glowing heart as it hovered above the ring of stones like a campfire. He explained, “It’s brought me great comfort this whole time.”
The druid pressed a fist against her hollow chest. She squeezed her eyes closed and forced a tear to run down her cheek. “I’ve missed you,” she whispered. “I’ve missed you so, so, so much…”
“I’ve missed you too, honeysuckle.” Tuur put his arm around her and pulled her close. He kissed her on the cheek, then smacked his lips a few times, savoring the taste. “But you know I can’t go. This is my place now.”
She looked at him with red eyes, and he smiled. “Take it,” he said. “Use it. Love someone else.”
Ursa buried her face in his shoulder. She grabbed two fistfuls of his black and white fur. “I can’t.”
He turned and cupped her face in his palms. “Of course, you can. You still have time left. Please don’t waste it.”
“I could never love another,” she sniffled.
“Then, I’ll be here, waiting for you, when you’re finished.”
She bit her lip. “But what if I do?” she whimpered. “What if I do find someone else? What will happen to you?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Tuur.
“Hold me,” she begged. “Kiss me.”
But the panda just shook his head. “I want to. I do. But every moment you spend here with me is just going to make it all the harder for you to go back, to go back where you belong.” He drew a great breath and released it slowly, his brown eyes sparkling in the firelight of Ursa’s heart. “Take it. Go home and live the rest of your life. When you’re ready, I’ll still be here, waiting.”
Ursa shook her head. “No! I can’t. That was the only way I found you in the first place,” she explained. “If I take it back, then I’ll never find you again. I just know it!”
Tuur just smiled. With his bare hands, he took her heart from where it hovered. And with a gentle push, he put it back where it belonged, deep inside her chest. Then, he cupped her face and gave her a kiss on the forehead. “Don’t be so silly,” he said as he wiped away her tears with his thumbs.
Then, he sat back and basked a moment in the warm yellow glow that radiated from her. “You won’t have to,” he promised. “I’ll find you.”
Epilogue: Life Goes On.
Illustrations by me. Writing by my friend Gre7g Luterman - if you want to find more of his stories you can follow his content here!