“Well, at least we’ll take a lot of them with us,” Daniil says, raising his hands. Tanith growls next to him, hissing at any of the creatures that take tentative steps closer to the group.
“Just how I imagined we’d die. So far beneath the earth no one will even know we’re gone,” Kylii jokes.
“Shut up, Kylii,” Ime grumbles. “Better here than in that damn Arena.”
Words of agreement escape the lips of the group. Weapons that weren’t already drawn appear and the group readies for the flesh carvers to attack.
Ime looks at Meah and squeezes her hand. She smiles and pulls a knife from her bag. They face the flesh carvers and prepare to fight. Prayers are spoken and those who don’t have weapons move to the back of the group.
One of the creatures releases a deep roar and runs for the group. A few follow, while the rest stay back, waiting. The flesh carver in the lead leaps for Daniil. He raises his hand, freezing the creature. He and Kylii kick the frozen flesh carver and it smashes into thousands of pieces.
Bruer and Bern cut another at the throat and tail. Fleance, Mava, and Rava dispose of a third. Tanith fights with a fourth, rolling on the ground and clawing the creature while avoiding its razor sharp teeth. She roars as the flesh carver grabs the side of her front right leg and pulls a large chunk of flesh free. She digs her long fangs into the flesh carver’s throat and holds the struggling thing until it dies. She throws it away, limping to Daniil’s side. She bares her teeth at the rest of the flesh carvers, angrily.
The last of the charging flesh carvers leaps for Meah and she manages to dodge, allowing Ime the chance to impale it with a stone pike. Meah stabs her blade deep into the flesh carver’s throat and Ime lifts the pike, throwing it over the side of the cliff.
The rest of the flesh carvers charge and the group prepares for the onslaught. The air fills with different mixtures of magic and nervous gasps of air.
A strange light fills the tunnel behind the flesh carvers and the creatures closest to the passage stop. Their heads twitch around, unable to see, but able to feel the strange light and smell something strange in the air.
Blue flames explode from the passageway, engulfing the creatures still swarming into the cavern and by the opening. The flesh carvers caught in the fire are instantly burned to ash and those that manage to escape leap for the walls. The flames chase the creatures up the wall as though alive. None can escape and their screams fill the cavern. After clearing the walls and passageway of the flesh carvers, the blue flame rushes towards the group. They prepare for the pain of death, but the flames split down the middle and circle the group, killing the flesh carvers that had been crawling up behind them, under the cliff edge.
The flames cover the group in a circular tornado of blue, but they feel no heat. Screams of the few flesh carvers still trying to escape the fire fade and several in the group sob with relief.
The blue fire opens in front of the group, allowing them to see a figure emerging from the passageway. The flames die out and not a single flesh carver is left. Ime, Bruer, Fleance, Daniil, Kylii, and others at the front of the group prepare to face this new horror coming for them.
“Finally caught up to you. I wasn’t sure you’d actually follow my directions, but thank the gods you did. I was able to make it in time, no thanks to Ime’s destruction of the bridge.”
Everyone lowers his or her weapons and stare at the familiar face in shock. Many are so shocked they have to rub their eyes to make sure they aren’t seeing things and others fall to the ground.
Ime is the first to find his voice. “Jaxon?”
Jaxon holds his hands out to his sides and smiles. Scratches cover his face and his clothes are torn. His belt around his waist holds his gloves securely. Blood can be seen on his arms and legs where the flesh carvers managed to rip some skin away, but he is mostly unhurt. His blue eyes appear brighter in the crystal lit cavern, but those who know magic understand it is the magic inside of him making his eyes glow.
As he walks towards the group a large number of flesh carvers flow from the passageway, running for Jaxon. He turns and throws his hand out in front of him and the blue flames erupt from his hand. The fire flows into the passageway killing the creatures.
A single flesh carver, somehow having escaped the blue flames appears on the ceiling above Jaxon. It drops towards Jaxon, claws and teeth ready to tear into him.
“Jaxon!” Daniil cries.
“Look out!” Kylii shouts.
Jaxon turns his head towards the creature and the blue flames race out of the passage at the flesh carver, incinerating it in midair. The flames die out and the cavern fills with the sound of the waterfalls. The group stares at Jaxon in dumbfounded silence as he walks up to them.
“You’re a magic user?” Ime asks, the shock making his voice come out as a whisper.
“That was blue flame,” Kylii says.
“That’s rare fire magic,” Daniil adds.
Meah’s awe changes to confusion. “Why did you hide you were a magic user?”
Jaxon’s smile fades and his expression becomes somber. “All magic users are thrown into the Arena, especially rare kinds. I chose to hide my magic in order to survive.” He looks at the entire group. “We should go. More will come.”
“Can’t you just, you know, burn ‘em up?” Kylii asks.
The smile returns to Jaxon’s face, but his eyes seem unfocused. “Unfortunately, I haven’t used my magic in many years. If I use too much too fast, I may pass out.”
“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Daniil says.
“Enough talk. We’ll have plenty of time for that once we get out of here.” Jaxon heads into the passageway, stopping at the entrance to grab the wall. He shakes his head and continues forward. The group follows, excited to hear the potential of escaping the caves.
Meah, Ime, Daniil, Kylii, Tanith, Bruer, and Fleance hesitate for a moment.
“Did you know he was a magic user?” Daniil asks Bruer and Fleance.
Fleance shakes his head as Bruer puts his weapon away. “We all carry secrets. Secrets do not define us. Our actions do.” The two men follow the group.
The others look at each other before following, hurrying to catch up with the rest. Jaxon leads them back to the underground canyon where he was separated. He takes them along the edge to a second natural bridge where they cross and enter a large passageway.
Hours pass and after finding a cave with a stream flowing through it, Jaxon tells them it’s safe to rest. He sits on a large rock as most of the group sleeps. Those who stay awake cook a large meal for those sleeping. They eat their portions and as one person awakens another falls asleep. Jaxon stays awake to guard the group from the flesh carvers and to make bandages for his arms and legs.
Meah walks over to him and leans forward to meet his eyes. “Let me heal you. You’ve lost a lot of blood.” She reaches her hands towards his arms.
Grabbing her hands, Jaxon shakes his head. “Not now. You need to keep your strength up. I’ll be fine.”
“You say that, but you’re ready to pass out.”
Jaxon’s eyes glow with his magic. “Rest, Meah. I’ve been worse and in worse situations than this.”
She reluctantly nods and moves back to Ime, Daniil, and Kylii. Tanith whines as she licks her wounded leg. Meah carefully approaches and looks at Daniil.
“Would she mind if I helped?”
“I think she would appreciate it a lot,” Daniil says, placing a hand on Tanith’s back.
The Khorgoi looks up at Daniil and her white eyes move to Meah. She stands and limps to her, turning so her wounded leg is closest to Meah. Meah smiles and strokes Tanith’s brown mane. Tanith chirps and nudges Meah with her snout.
“Didn’t Jaxon want you not to use your magic?” Kylii asks.
“I can heal one wound without using too much energy.”
Meah places her hands on the wound, expecting Tanith to growl at the pressure, but the Khorgoi stays still and looks ahead. Her tail thumps on the ground and Meah closes her eyes.
She wasn’t sure she could heal Tanith as easily as a human, but as she feels her magic flow into the animal’s leg the knowledge of what to do fills her mind. Her magic allows her to understand the differences between human and Khorgoi. She sees the skin reform and scales grow. The work is done quickly and as Meah pulls her magic out of Tanith she hears a soft, female voice.
“Thank you, Life Healer.”
Meah’s eyes open and she looks into Tanith’s white eyes. Tanith coos and rubs her snout against Meah’s chest. Meah strokes the cool scales of Tanith’s back and smiles, knowing it was the Khorgoi’s voice she had heard.
Small flesh carvers venture close as the group rests, smelling the food and feeling the heat of the burning fires. Jaxon easily dispatches them with a flick of his finger. Small balls of blue flames keep the creatures from attacking and even chase a large number away.
The stream allows the group to clean wounds and dirt from their skin. Further upstream they refill their jugs and a sense of normalcy returns.
Louder shrieks fill the caves behind and Jaxon tells the group the time to move has come. They gather their belongings quickly and follow Jaxon out. He navigates the passages easily, turning down different directions. After the third hour of turning down different passages, the group’s fear returns as the darkness surrounds them once more.
The screams of the flesh carvers can be heard, but as time goes on the screams grow more distant. Beyond all odds they are actually moving farther away from the creatures.
It takes the group two more hours of Jaxon’s navigation before the flesh carver’s screams fade into nothing. Relief fills the group at having escaped one threat, but Jaxon doesn’t slow his pace. He hasn’t allowed the group to rest again since the cave with the stream and many feel exhaustion fill them.
Meah watches Jaxon as he leads the group. She can see him swerve as waves of light-headedness hit him, but he manages to regain control and continue. A few times she catches Bruer and Fleance ready to grab for their leader, but decide against it, knowing Jaxon wouldn’t accept their help.
A hand on her shoulder causes her to jump, but she is quickly reminded that it’s only Ime. “He’ll be fine. He’s very stubborn and stubborn men survive.”
She takes Ime’s hand in hers. “Or they die, because they’re too foolish to allow anyone to help them.”
The torches have started going out and soon they are left with only a third of the original number. Food is running out as it is passed around though they have plenty of water left, especially after filling at the stream.
The air grows cooler and Jaxon picks up speed, making it more difficult for the group to keep up. Making it even more difficult is the floor naturally angling upwards. The uphill climb sends a few in the group into tiring gasps.
As the caves continue to stretch ahead of them, realization dawns on them. As time passes and the torches die out the group understands why Jaxon has picked up his pace.
The darkness of the cave has been lessening. The group turns a corner and bright light is seen far ahead, across a mighty cavern Green plants grow on the walls and floors, providing color to the browns and blacks of the earth.
This light cannot be confused with glowing crystals. It’s sunlight. They have finally reached the end of the caves.