The animals always know something's wrong before anyone else. Rufus grabs Mort's pants gently between his teeth, tugging and making a low growling noise, while Hank chitters quietly in Lola's ear and flees into her shirt collar.
"What's wrong, boy?" Mort asks, kneeling next to Rufus. Rufus pushes his nose into Mort's skeletal palm and whines, trying to tug Mort back away from the direction they're going. "Come on, Rufus, we've got to keep going."
Ezra turns. "Mort! Everything all good over there?"
"Rufus thinks there's something bad over there," Mort calls back. "I'll be right there." He scoops Rufus up in his arms and hurries back to Ezra's side.
Lola looks down from where she's perched on Ezra's shoulder. "Hank's not too happy about it either," she says. "Even if it's nothing, better safe than sorry, right?"
Cammy frowns from the other side of Ezra. "I can pull out U.O. if you want? I don't think there's anything about dangerous ruins or anything over here, but I can ask."
Ezra grunts as he readjusts Lola and Cammy on his shoulders. "Let's go check it out," he says, and starts marching off deeper into the woods, half-mumbling a traveling song that Lola is, frankly, getting tired of hearing.
"I don't think this is a good idea," Lola says, but she doesn't hop down from his shoulder. A quick glance behind her confirms that Mort is following, still holding Rufus.
"It'll be fine, Lola," Ezra says with far more confidence than he has a right to.
It's not long before birdsong dies away, and not long after that when the ground becomes more and more spongy. Somehow the woods seem darker than before, almost painfully so. The group quiets as they approach the center of this disturbance, as if their energy is being soaked into the ground and it's all they can do to keep going.
"What's that?" Lola asks in a hushed voice, pointing. She's indicating a relatively large, squarish hole. It's obviously not a naturally occuring feature; there's dirt around the sides and what looks like broken tools nearby.
No one replies to Lola's question, but Ezra and Mort slow their pace toward the hole. Mort carefully sets Rufus down as they approach.
"Aw man," Cammy says. "I've definitely seen that before." Her voice shakes just a little, but she's still determinedly cheery. "That's some bad news bears right there, that is."
"You seen this before?" Ezra asks. "What's it do? What is it? Do we need to fight?" He's reaching for Yanov's incendiary ammunition even as he asks.
Cammy shudders. "Do you guys know the Good Guy Squad?" she asks.
There's a long pause. "No," Mort says, answering for all of them. "Never heard of them."
"Well, I hung out with them a while back. Jeff, he's a handyman, he and Carol went to find his cousin who went missing, and it turns out he was trapped in this big hole in the ground like this one, and in it was a big onyx chamber, and I think U.O. wrote that part down but I'm not sure. Our worst fears were in there, covered in moss and made out of wood, and Albert -- that's Jeff's cousin -- was trapped down there for a week. He said he was gonna grow silly weed over it, but I don't know if he actually did --"
"Stop!" Lola reaches around the back of Ezra's neck to clap a hand over Cammy's mouth. "Just -- what are we expecting, here?"
"Mmmgh," says Cammy, before Lola takes her hand away.
"Sorry," she says, sheepishly. "Forgot you needed to talk."
Cammy tosses her head, running a hand over her snoot. "Well," she starts, as smoothly as if she'd never been interrupted, "the floor's gone all funky. Gravity changed by a quarter turn last time I was in there. And the wooden moss things. That's a big one." She pauses, tails twitching in thought. "That's pretty much it, though! It's pretty creepy but as long as we don't go in --"
Ezra, never the most patient, was already halfway in before Cammy could even finish speaking.
"-- I guess that solves that, then!" Cammy finishes, a sunny smile creasing her face that's quite at odds with the dark, wet hole the Brute Force finds themselves in.
Mort, conscientious as ever, follows Ezra down the sides of the pit. "Why don't I go first?" he asks. "I shouldn't get too terribly hurt if the gravity changes suddenly. And the rest of you can be prepared."
"Sounds like a good plan, Mort," Ezra says. "Just what I was going to s- suggest-ify." He steps backward to let Mort by, just a little too quickly for that claim to be believable. "Lola? Cammy? Do you wanna stay up here or should I let you come down before I go in?"
Lola turns to Cammy, waiting. "I'll stay," Cammy says after a beat of hesitation.
"I'll get down," Lola says. "As long as I can get right back up there once we're just walking again."
Mort gingerly steps into the yawning mouth of the onyx chamber. It had parted for him easily, and as soon as he sets foot inside he tumbles head over heels, landing hard on his right side, against the wall of the chamber.
"Everything's fine!" he calls, sounding none the worse for wear, except having had the wind knocked out of him. "Cammy was right about the gravity, though. Come on down!"
Ezra doesn't quite jump, but it's close. Lola follows close on his heels, staying close to the corner to lessen her fall. The wall -- or, more properly, the floor -- is damp and slightly tacky, mossy in a way that wouldn't be nearly so unpleasant if it wasn't all over her feathers. But she finds it easy enough to scramble to her feet, and takes a brief second to check in on Hank, who is huddled in a little ball. She strokes his head gently in apology, before tucking him back safely in her pocket. There's a deep-seated itch to move, to explore, drawing her deep into the tunnel. Her feet start moving without her express permission, but with a bit of willpower she stops it.
Mort dusts his hands off, more for show than anything else. "Well. Onward, then?" he asks, head tipped slightly to one side.
"Onward!" Ezra says loudly. His voice booms down the dark corridor, but the echo back is much fainter than it should be. Lola chalks it up to the moss being somehow noise-cancelling, but it still makes her uncomfortable.
They start cautiously moving down the corridor. Ezra takes point, with Lola and Cammy close behind, while Mort and Rufus bring up the rear. Lola doesn't like the sensation of the damp moss all around them. It feels cloying, suffocating in an existentially horrifying way. She casts her senses out, trying to pick up anything more specific than the magic that suffuses this whole place.
After a long moment, she leans down to whisper in Cammy's ear, "You said this was about fear, didn't you?"
Cammy nods. Her eyes are wide in the darkness, flicking left to right as she doesn't quite manage to focus on Lola. "The tunnel should start branching," she whispers. "One fear per branch."
Lola swallows hard, and casts Message twice -- once to Ezra, once to Mort. Turn down the branching path, she sends. There's a wooden tableau of our worst fears there.
Mort pauses long enough to throw her a skeptical glance over his shoulder, but dutifully leads them down a narrow passageway to their left.
They walk down the passageway long enough for Lola to start wondering whether this fear isn't just endless, pointless walking, but almost as soon as she has the thought, the walls widen into a cavern. Ezra steps to the side, letting Lola and Cammy see in.
There's a figure -- gaunt, thin, skeletal -- holding a knife above several bodies on the ground. Lola doesn't recognize most of them, but the one she does --
Even covered in moss, like it's been here for years, she recognizes Clashtiger's armor like a punch in the gut. It's easy enough to guess what Mort's worst fear is, and Lola feels a guilty little stab of relief that hers isn't first. She hears Mort draw a sharp breath in behind her, and she glances up at him to try and gauge what he needs.
Mort decides it for her by pushing between Cammy and Ezra to wipe the moss away from the faces of the bodies scattered around the floor. His hands shake more and more with each wooden figure, and at the last he kneels down and just sits. He doesn't move, even when Rufus tugs at his pant leg.
"Let's go," Ezra says, a low rumble that's far more gentle than Lola expects. "Mort. My turn."
Reluctantly, Mort allows Rufus to drag him back to the group, and they file out of the chamber and back into the passageway. Reentering the main tunnel is a relief, even though the compulsion to go further still pulls at Lola's chest.
The next branch is to the right, and it has a much shorter distance to reach the chamber. Ezra stops in his tracks, blocking the way for the rest of the group, until Lola clambers up onto his shoulder and coos gently, bringing him back to himself. This scene's source is nearly as easy to pinpoint as Mort's had been: the only thing in the chamber is one large body, alone in the center of the room. The wooden Ezra figure faces away from the group, shadowed even relative to the dim lighting.
"Don't," Lola says, low in Ezra's ear, when she feels him step forward. He twists his head to look at her, a pained frown on his face. "Don't," she repeats. "It's not going to help. Let's just keep going."
"Lead the way," Mort says quietly, and Ezra does, without saying a word.
The left branch is next, and it twists in Lola's chest like a worm. Whether it's hers or Cammy's, the anxiety of needing to keep walking makes her heartbeat speed up.
This chamber is even closer to the main passageway than the last. Lola has to bite down on a near-hysterical laugh of relief when she doesn't recognize anything about this scene, which means it must be Cammy's. Her book -- U.O., Lola reminds herself -- lies open on the floor, torn asunder, and around the small figure in the middle are several other kitsune, all with nine tails. Cammy darts around from behind Ezra's legs to hurriedly scrape the moss from the wooden U.O.'s pages.
It's too far away for Lola to read, and she averts her eyes as she takes Cammy's paw and leads her back out the passageway. "Cammy, I'm sorry," Ezra says. He's still oddly subdued, but Lola supposes that's normal enough after confronting one's worst fear.
They're halfway down the passageway before Lola really registers that this is her fear that will be in this chamber. The dread swells in her throat, a wave of nausea that threatens to turn into some very real upchuckage, until Mort puts a hand on her shoulder, guiding her gently further in.
"Lola," Ezra starts, before she can even properly see.
"Just let me at it!" She startles everyone, even herself, with how loud her voice is. Ezra steps aside with an audible closing of his mouth, and immediately Lola is nearly sick to her stomach.
She honestly didn't know what she'd been expecting. Maybe something about heights, or about Agarrion, but -- this wasn't it. The wooden Lola that stands in the center of the cavern is very much like the flesh and blood Lola at the entrance, and perhaps that's the worst part. She's surrounded by dead bodies, of Jamtooth, of Mirka, of Ezra, Yanov, Mort, Cammy, Moon Kevin. Even a tiny wooden Hank lies belly-up on the floor.
Hands scoop her up and set her gently on her perch. Ezra carries her out of the room, finding no resistance, and the Brute Force drift at a much slower pace down the main tunnel.
"I think we can get out of here," Cammy says, voice sounding hoarse. "Now that we've seen everyone's -- now that we did all four."
She's right, Lola realizes with some surprise. The draw of the onyx chamber doesn't sing in her ears anymore, doesn't tug at her gut with need. "Let's get the fuck out of here," she says, with feeling.