Morning sunlight warms the air. Rays break through trees and reach the earth, stretching across the ground to warm all it touches. The dark of the cave swallows the warm light, ceasing the warmth before it can reach into the shadows. As though afraid of the unknown darkness, vegetation ceases growing close to the opening. Only a few vines dare to climb the surrounding walls, providing little color to the stone.
The group waiting at the opening sits in a tense silence, fear of the cave sending many to continually move further from the opening as the minutes pass.
Sitting around a pile of bags of supplies are Bern, Mava, Rava, Cal, Bon, Skara, and Tristan. Bruer and Fleance lean against the walls of the cave behind the group, unafraid of the scar-like opening. Bon and Cal struggle to keep their eyes open while the others eagerly watch the ones standing a distance from the cave.
Meah Flandine stands, facing away from the group and the cave. She wears a green tunic shirt with dark brown pants and boots. Her auburn hair is pulled back into a high ponytail. She plays with the silk bracelet on her wrist as she waits.
Sitting behind her on a couple boulders are Daniil and Kylii Lakeen. Kylii’s golden eyes stare at the sky, watching the passing clouds. Daniil’s pale blue eyes are locked onto the animal sitting next to him. Tanith, a female Khorgoi, sits patiently. Her white eyes stand out against the dark brown of her mane and dark red scales that cover her body.
The two men standing in front of the others stare into the forest towards the village hidden in the trees. Jaxon Parth wears his black armor including new black gloves. His blue eyes focus on the forest, paying attention to any movement. His black hair is combed back out of his face.
Standing with his arms crossed, Ime Gurek searches the forest with his silver eyes darting left and right. He wears a black shirt, pants, and boots. Every breath he releases creates a small gust of wind that blows into the trees.
“How much longer do we wait?” Ime asks.
“Until Elder Pu’ah gets here. He wants to see us off. If he has others with him or not,” Jaxon takes a deep breath and releases it slowly, “we’ll have to wait and see.”
Meah walks up to stand between Ime and Jaxon. She eyes Jaxon. “Will many stay behind?”
“That depends on how motivating Ime’s little speech proved to be. If you want my honest opinion, I believe some will not be continuing with us,” Jaxon says. “But don’t worry about them. Elder Pu’ah and the others of this village will take good care of them whether they choose to stay or try to find a way home.”
Rustling in the forest brings everyone to attention. Elder Pu’ah appears followed by almost all of the freed slaves. They each carry packs of supplies and small weapons.
Pu’ah smiles at those waiting. “I apologize for being late. The villagers wished to provide more supplies and those who have chosen to stay behind needed comforting.”
The others hand out extra bags of supplies to those waiting and torches are pulled from one bag. Those who had been waiting happily welcome those who have decided to journey with them.
Pu’ah walks up to Ime, Jaxon, and Meah. “There is more food and little medicine.” He turns to Meah. “Use your magic wisely, Life Healer. Losing your strength in these caves can be dangerous.”
“Thank you,” Meah says, stepping forward and hugging him.
“Please, watch over Jaxon,” Pu’ah whispers in her ear. She nods and pulls away. Pu’ah turns to Ime. “May the gods watch over your travels and bring you all good fortune. We will pray for you and protect your path as long as we are able.”
“Thank you,” Ime says.
“We should go before the day runs long,” Jaxon states, grabbing a torch. Several others do the same and the descent into the caves begins.
Meah takes in the sight of the forest one last time before plunging into the cool, moist darkness.
The rising sun provides little light for a few hundred yards before the torches are lit. Several who know little fire magic assist in lighting the torches, but only once the first fire is lit. None know how to create fire without a source.
Jaxon leads the group, carrying the map, and followed by Ime, Meah, Kylii, Daniil, and Tanith. Bruer and Fleance bring up the rear, keeping their eyes out behind the group. Those who carry torches circle those without keeping the group close together, afraid to allow too much space and to prevent anyone from accidentally wandering off. Bern, Mava, and Rava are among those carrying torches and hold their weapons ready in their other hand.
The caves are quiet, the only sounds being distant echoes of water dripping and wind blowing through the caverns. Insects scurry from the flames of the torches into dark holes. Strange insects with long limbs hanging from the ceiling disappear into small holes burrowed into the stone.
Small, flying creatures hang from the ceiling and shriek at the disturbance caused by the group. Several drop and take flight, heading away from the group. One flies through the group causing a small panic as it becomes entangled in a woman’s hair, but Bruer cuts it free. The woman thanks him, but can’t hide the sadness in her voice that her hair had to be cut.
“Are you sure you know your way through these caves?” Kylii asks Jaxon as they turn into a narrow passageway.
“I used to sneak into theses caves when I was a child. Never been this deep, though. The stories kept me from venturing too far from the entrance,” Jaxon answers.
“What stories?” Meah asks.
A sly smile grows on Jaxon’s lips. “The stories that tell of things that lurk in the dark. These caves are older than mankind, born from the very creation of this land. The creatures that call these catacombs home have existed long before mankind came into being. They are strange, twisted creatures that never go into the light. Their eyes are said to have never grown and they rely on other senses to find food. Their skin is so pale it is said you can see their insides. Their mouths are filled with razor sharp teeth and some have even said their hands and feet are like great suctions that allow them to climb the walls like insects. They also say once they grab hold of flesh they never let go, even when they are killed.”
Jaxon’s words echo through the darkness among the group. Several members make small whimpers of fear and move closer together. “We are well protected if we remain close together and in the light. The fires will keep them away. They are afraid of the heat. Stay away from the dark.”
Daniil shares a look with Kylii. “You didn’t answer Kylii’s question.”
Pulling out a small journal, Jaxon lowers his voice so only those close hear him. “There have been many who have attempted to navigate their way through these caves. Out of all who passed through our village, only one group ever returned.” He opens the journal and shows the pages of handwritten notes. “They took great care in writing down details of their ventures through these walls.”
Ime, listening to the conversation, moves next to Jaxon. “And we are following their path?”
“One of the many they wrote down, yes. Elder Pu’ah and I have read through this journal many times the past two days and found the quickest path. If the directions are correct, it should take us no more than two days to reach the exit.”
“How long did it take the ones who made this map to find the correct path?”
“They went into the caves when I was a small boy. Elder Pu’ah told me they only emerged a few years ago. They were a much smaller group when they finally returned to the light.”
“How much smaller?” Meah asks.
Putting the journal into his pack, Jaxon says, “When they entered the cave they were a group of twelve. Only two came back.”
The group continues the next few hours in silence following Jaxon as he leads them deeper into the caves. The passage narrows even more the further they go until they can only stand two across. The ceiling lowers until the group is forced to crouch for a good distance. When the passage opens up again the group squeezes closer together back into a mob. Torches begin going out and the circle of light shrinks. Members of the group who are at the center refuel the torches and hand them back relit.
Half a day of travelling brings them to a large open cavern. Numerous openings in the walls lead off in different directions. The wind creates strange sounds as it moves through the branched off caverns.
“We’ll rest here for two hours,” Jaxon tells the group.
The torches are placed in a circle on the ground and a few are placed at the center. Food and water are handed out and most try to speak of light topics to pass the time in the dark.
Bruer and Fleance stand outside of the flames, one on each side of the group. They keep their hands on their weapons as their eyes search the darkness. Mava and Rava stand close to Fleance and the three talk quietly.
Jaxon sits on a rock separate from the group outside the circle of light. He places a torch next to him and studies the map and journal in silence.
“How long do you think it will be before we see any monsters?” Kylii asks no one in particular.
“Tanith hasn’t sensed anything near us besides insects for a while. Maybe they were just stories,” Daniil says, eyeing his brother. “Back home they told the stories to keep children from wandering into the caves and becoming lost.”
“Getting lost is the biggest danger of these caves,” Ime says.
Meah looks at Jaxon. “Jaxon knows the way. If we stay with him and not let anyone lag behind we’ll be fine.”
“If that map he has really does lead the correct way out.”
“The ones who made it managed to escape,” Daniil says.
“It took them years to make that map. Between then and now anything could have changed. There could have been rock slides, earthquakes, other people, or anything like that,” Ime says, lifting a rock with his magic. “Caves are perfect places for earth mages to practice.”
They rest for another hour; some preparing small meals while others try to catch extra sleep. Conversations remain at whispers for fear of attracting attention of whatever may lurk in the darkness of the cave.
Jaxon rejoins the group, holding his torch to light his face. “It’s time to move.”