Pulling Meah forward, Jaxon breaks into a run. The group follows. Bruer and Fleance draw their weapons and swing at the creatures moving too close.
The cavern ends and the group enters a large hallway. Jaxon uses his torch to chase away any creatures in their path. Ime cautiously uses his earth magic to clear their path while Kylii uses the fire from torches to send projectiles at the creatures. Tanith snaps her tail at the creatures and uses her sharp claws to keep them back.
Those who can use magic try their best to fend the creatures off, but only succeed in slowing them down. The only ones who have any success are those who can fling fire from the torches at the creatures.
Jaxon releases Meah’s hand and quickly pulls out the map. His eyes look from the map to the walls and he makes a sudden right turn, announcing it so those behind don’t pass the passage. Mava and Rava stand at the passage entrance to help ensure no one gets separated.
Light ahead sends a wave of relief through Meah and the group runs faster. The light grows larger and they emerge into an immense cavern thousands of feet high. The top is open to the outside and sunlight shines down, creating a large circle of light. The group runs into the circle of light, momentarily blinded. The pursuing creatures explode from the passage behind the group, but most stop before entering the circle of sunlight. The slits on their heads open and close quickly and they shriek. The few that run into the sunlight leap at those lagging behind in the group. Large birds appear from above and grab the creatures in their sharp talons.
The creatures that stayed out of the light move back into the passage, their sounds fading away. The group stops and some collapse to the ground, gasping for air. Mixed sobs of fear and relief are heard.
Ime moves to Meah’s side. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. Are we safe here?” she asks.
“It sounded like those things know not to come in here,” Kylii states.
Daniil stares up at the opening. “Yeah, but what happens when the sun goes down?”
The sun is already moving away from the opening, beginning its descent into night. Jaxon searches the walls of the cavern. There are dozens of openings leading in all directions, but none lead outside. He searches the map, his eyes following the numerous lines leading out of the cavern. The only way to reach the exit of the caves is to go further down.
“This way!” Jaxon yells. “We have to keep moving!” He heads for a smaller opening. The group hesitates, only wanting to rest.
“Come on! We can rest when he says it’s safe!” Ime yells, grabbing Meah’s hand and running after Jaxon.
The group groans, but they know Ime is right. They follow, heading back into the darkness. The smaller passage stretches them into a longer line, but they push against one another to stay close together. The sounds of the creatures grow louder as they travel further into the passage.
Meah and Ime try to keep up with Jaxon’s figure, but the uneven earth slows them down. Suddenly Jaxon comes to a stop and Ime and Meah almost crash into him. They look past him and see the passage open onto a subterranean canyon. A drop stretches several yards across.
“Hold on!” Jaxon screams back to the group to stop them from crashing into the each other and sending those in front over the edge. Jaxon stares across the large gap and spies the opening they need to reach. He faces Ime.
“We have to get across.”
Moving Meah safely away from the drop, Ime nods and moves forward. He uses his earth magic to create a bridge and the group hurries across. Ime waits at the other end of the bridge, encouraging everyone to pick up the pace and follow Jaxon into the passage. Bruer and Fleance, still bringing up the rear pass Ime.
Grabbing Bruer by the arm, Ime sternly orders, “Hold the light high. I’m going to buy us some more time!”
Bruer does as Ime says and Ime watches the darkness for movement. The creatures emerge from the passage and hesitate at the bridge. They touch the stone cautiously before racing across. Ime waits until a large number have reached the halfway point then stomps his foot on the bridge. It collapses sending most of the creatures down into the deep gap.
Those that didn’t cross the bridge shriek at Ime and begin climbing the walls, searching for another way across. Knowing they will eventually find a way across, Ime turns to Bruer. “Go!”
The large man hurries into the passage. Ime follows, slamming his fists into the side of the passage. The earth rises, blocking the entrance of the path and Ime increases his speed. He and Bruer eventually catch up to the group.
The group slows and Jaxon allows them to stop as they enter a smaller cave with only one other entrance. He grabs Ime. “Did you seal off that passage?”
“Yes. It should buy us more time. Unless there’s another way for them to get in,” Ime says as he closes the opening.
The group listens intently, waiting for Jaxon’s answer. Jaxon studies the map. “No. We should be safe to rest here. Unless they can dig through the earth, we should be fine.”
A great sigh of relief moves through the group and everyone falls to the ground. Torches are placed around the group to light the entire cave. Some prepare food while others fall asleep, exhausted by the chase.
“What were those things?” Kylii asks.
“The creatures from your stories, Jaxon?” Ime asks.
Jaxon nods his head. “It would seem there was truth to those stories. It would also explain this line in the notes on the map.”
“‘There are too many.’ I thought it had meant too many passages, but now I think it meant those creatures.”
“Is there a name for them in those notes?” Kylii asks, peering over Jaxon’s shoulder.
Jaxon closes the map and glares at the inquisitive brother. “No. In the village we called them flesh carvers because of the strange marks we’d find on dead animals near the entrance of the cave, but it was only a joke name. We never truly believed they existed.”
“Well, looks like they do,” Kylii says, walking back to Daniil and Tanith seated on the ground.
“Glad you were wrong about that,” Daniil sarcastically adds.
A sneer from Jaxon silences the brothers. “Anyway, we should rest here for the night. According to the map we should be safe here if Ime closes that pathway up. We can open it in the morning and make a run for the exit.”
“Do you think we’ll need to run the rest of the way?” Meah asks.
Jaxon doesn’t answer her. She looks at Ime and he swallows before closing the only way in or out of the cave.
“How many did we lose?” Jaxon asks Bruer.
“Only those two who ran off at first,” he reports.
“Are we sure about that? Everyone do a head count.” The group begins checking those who made it. They discover one other missing. “Well, that’s lucky.”
“Lucky?” Mava hisses. “We lost three people!”
Jaxon stares at her and shrugs. “We could have lost more. Our torches may not last much longer and I’m sure those of you who know even a little fire magic are tired from that chase. We still have one more day in these caves before we reach the exit. How many of you think you will last that long?”
Rava places a calming hand on her sister’s shoulder. “More people could have died, Mava. Right now we need to rest and gather our strength.”
“Everyone should sleep and eat a good meal. We’ll figure out what to do about the torches tomorrow,” Meah speaks up.
The group mumbles a tired agreement and prepares food. After everyone has eaten their fill they prepare to sleep. Not until Ime assures everyone they are safe does the last eyelid close and the cave grows silent.
Meah smiles to herself when she sees even Jaxon lie down and sleep at Ime’s comforting words.