There was no telling how far into the mountains the tunnel went. With a single lantern, all Thomas Gracie could see was a small amount of light passing over gray stone wall. He was careful where he stepped, as the cavern floor was uneven. Stalagmites littered where water had contorted the stone with mineral deposits over time. Some were fairly large spikes, which Thomas Gracie picked his way around. He dipped to his left, avoiding a low-hanging stalactite. Another nearly caught his shoulder.
It must have leaked through this part. He hunched low to keep from smacking a whole family of them. Wonder how Jenario’s fairing?
He had to laugh, then listened to the echoes of his solitary musings fade down the tunnel. It was too easy to imagine the young man smacking into one of these long rock formations, though he hoped no injuries occurred in the frigid weather. Nickademis already had his hands full back at camp. Adding one of the four leaders would only dishearten the group from a survival perspective.
Gradually, the tunnel curved to his right. He was almost positive it connected to the one Jenario had gone down. A few others branched off here and there, but nothing that contained questionable sounds other than his own echoing movements.
“Jenario! Can you hear me?” He thought it odd no echoes could be heard anywhere else. A little farther down he called again. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this doesn’t connect. But if that’s the case, then where does it lead? It has to be parallel to Jenario’s!
As if to answer his question, the lantern’s light finally revealed a dead end. To his left, a smaller opening continued with the possibility of connecting to his friend.
With a sigh, he contemplated turning back. Having told Jenario not to veer from the main tunnel, Thomas Gracie was not about to chance his own luck. Other than watching his step, he had proven the cave empty – at least on his side, and he hoped Jenario’s was same. The thought of bringing in the group deemed safer by the minute.
Even if the air is still cold, at least we’ll be out of the wind.
About to turn back, a hint of blue caught his eye. It was a faint glow that illuminated the side tunnel entrance, so low in fact that his own light source had overpowered it. But once he turned away, the glow remained. Curious, kept the lantern behind him to better see.
Jenario doesn’t have any such light. Should I..? He peered into the opening.
There was something traced into the wall. The etchings themselves cast a faint aura that flickered along the mark like a slow pulse. Intrigued to its meaning, Thomas Gracie decided to take a chance. He stepped through the opening.
As soon as his foot touched the inside floor, more symbols lit up as though activated by his mere presence. Not one, but four of these marks, lined side by side down the wall. Thomas Gracie just stared in stunned silence. He finally stepped close to the first one and watched while the blue light faded away. It was hard to see anything once the color dimmed, but he swore the symbol looked like waves of water.
He stepped to the second. This one revealed a fiery crimson that reminded him of Shafari’s attempt at spell-casting, and he wondered if the two were related. The mark’s shape resembled something like fire before it too dimmed.
The third was harder to identify. Its fading color had been a light teal tracing several swirls winding into the stone. It reminded him of a drawing Jenario’s son had scribbled out one day. The simple forms of clouds swirling onto the top part of the paper slightly matched the etching.
Maybe it represents the sky? Unsure, he moved to the last mark. It was the easiest to recognize, being the shape of a leaf. Like all the rest, its green lighting faded until Thomas Gracie had to raise his own lantern again to see in front of him. Someone had to have made these, but for what purpose? What does a leaf, a cloud, fire and water have do with anything?
The tap of toenails over stone floor echoed from the tunnel he had just been in. Frozen in place, Thomas Gracie held the light steady as the tapping drew near. When a low growl penetrated the silence, he knew a hungry wolf was about to enter.
He started to back away, his light no longer able to reach the spot where he was sure the wolf’s head had appeared. Now only two glowing orbs of white reflected from what little light reached them, but it was enough to make Thomas Gracie turn on his heels and run. Armed only with a lantern, as the council prohibited weapons, his only defense was to flee.
Why didn’t I think to grab something from one of the Trappers? As a master huntsman, A Trapper was granted this title if the council approved their successful hunts. There was only one in the group, as the rest had been too proud to consider leaving the city. It was these the council had promoted to guard duty, and probably were the same tasked with eliminating those off Jenario’s list.
Thomas Gracie did not hear anything advancing after him. His steps, however, did not slow. He wanted to find Jenario and hoped he was on a connecting path. As he ran, the same four symbols lit his way, dimming when he approached and flaring up again when he had passed. The interest in them had vanished, replaced now by a rising fear that something may have happened to his friend.
“Jen—” His call was cut short when his foot tripped on a stalagmite. The lantern went flying, and so did he. All he could hear was shattering glass and the echoes of his own painful grunts when his arm scraped against jagged floor.
He lay still, waiting for the tunnel’s returning mimic to calm itself. Nothing approached from behind. Not a footfall, a pant of breath – had he imagined the eyes in the dark?
Frowning, he pushed himself up and brushed a patch of dirt from his pants.
Pull yourself together! You can’t go back with your wits a wreck when people are relying on you! Thomas Gracie fumbled with his belt, readjusting himself after the fall when he paused. How come I can still see?
He checked the spot where the lantern had stopped rolling. Its glass exterior lay scattered around the tunnel floor with no lit center. The crash landing had completely drained all the oil needed to light another wick. And yet, there was still a faint illumination that outlined the cavern walls. Curious, and deciding against returning in the dark without a proper light, Thomas Gracie continued.
As he rounded a corner, the air felt slightly warmer.
Has someone managed to light a fire? For a split second, his mind conjured a horrid image of Jenario’s clumsy nature somehow lighting himself on fire. He quickly threw the idea aside. Even so, the air wouldn’t feel like this so quickly. There’s something else here.
Another tunnel just ahead confirmed where the light was located, as a blue glow lit just inside the opening. The closer he came, the warmer the air felt. His heavy, winter clothing was not the proper thing to wear in the changing temperature. By the time he peered inside, Thomas Gracie had already removed a layer.
It was obvious by the cloak that lay on the floor that Jenario had also been in this part. Yet he was nowhere to be seen. The only other thing in the spacious chamber was an oblong mirror contained within a wooden, swivel frame. Light poured from its reflective surface and caught his own puzzled expression when he took a step closer. The air was warmest around its structure.
“Jenario?” Unless his friend had turned back, the room was otherwise vacant. The amount of light brightening the space allowed a glimpse to the far back wall. There was no other way in but the way he had come. With a sigh, Thomas Gracie stared into the blue glow and wondered what to do next. The group could use a little warmth, but how is this possible? Can I move it?
He reached out to touch when the image began to waver. As if a veil uncovered the truth, the mirror vanished, replaced by a single, oval ring hovering just above ground. Thomas Gracie had heard of portals, just never seen one. Fascinated, he watched until the opening revealed the location of his companion standing just on the other side.
Hesitating, Thomas Gracie slid a finger over where glass should have been. Yet instead of touching hard surface, it slipped beneath the rippling image to tap the shoulder of his friend.
Jenario jumped at the unexpected touch. He whirled around in time to catch a pleasant, yet somewhat relieved smile as his friend stepped through the portal.
“Am I ever glad to see you!” Jenario wiped his brow and tried to recompose himself.
“Were you expecting someone else?”
Jenario just shook his head. “You have no idea.” He motioned to the forested area beyond the cave entrance. “What do you make of all this?”
“Definitely something the group needs at the moment.”
“But where do you think this is? Obviously not Astra. It’s not even remotely cold here! For all we know, this portal could have taken us thousands of miles across the sea!”
“Perhaps. Would make sense with the weather.” Thomas Gracie examined nearby foliage. “The trees are still familiar enough. We can’t be but so far. If I recall, there was a map that used to hang on the wall back at Mayla that showed another landmass. No’va, I believe was the name. We could be there.”
Jenario kept glancing back at the portal’s flickering outer-rimmed light. “And if so, we’d have a long trek getting back if that thing decides to close on us.”
“Indeed.” Thomas Gracie eyed it for stability issues. Thus far, the opening to the other side remained clear. “I think we’ll be all right for a while. Let’s go ahead and check the area while we’re here.”
Jenario hesitated. “So you expect to just wander around in this nice springy weather while everyone else freezes?” A hint of anger rose in his voice, but Thomas Gracie reassured him.
“Jen, think about it. We went in the cave to make sure it was safe, which it is. But I’m not convinced, only because while we can come out, something else could go in? Therefore, we need to secure the area in both locations to make sure before risking everyone’s lives. Does that make sense?” He crossed his arms. “It’s not like we haven’t had our fair share of mishaps along the way.”
It was then that Jenario noticed that his friend no longer held a lantern, nor did he see it through the portal where his cloak was still laying.
“So yours broke too, I see.”
Thomas Gracie chuckled as he moved passed the young man. He glanced up to see a break in the leaves, allowing a glimpse of full moon. It’s pale light filtered over parts that were clear of shadows, but beyond the thick foliage of towering forest there was not much else they could see.
“If we stay in the moonlight, we’ll be fine.” He pointed out spots of light. “Just check the perimeter around the cave. Then we’ll go back and get the others.”
“That simple, huh?” Jenario counted the patches of light to his left while his companion started around the other side. A quick glance to the portal confirm it still locked in place. “So long as we make this quick!”
Shafari reached into the snow to where his spherical light had dived. Fingers groped in the cold, unsure if where the light led was accurate or not. Had one of his friends become buried?
It had finally stopped snowing, though every now and then a brisk wind stirred up any loose flakes in the air. Most of the tracks made from earlier were still visible enough to follow without the need of light bobbing in front of his face. He clamped his teeth together to keep from chattering against the cold, fingers numb from rummaging in the snow longer than he wanted. At last, he clamped down on something smooth. Just as quick, the light popped back out, throwing bits of snow in the air when it did.
“Watch it, now!” Shafari scolded with a smile. He lifted the small, crimson pebble out and wiped off the excess flakes still stuck to it. “This was Jenario’s.”
As if to reply, the orb darted to his right, following a second set of prints to an opening in a rocky hillside. Shafari turned to follow and looked up at the mouth of the dark cave. He let out a quick sigh.
“Well, that’s convenient.” While the orb drifted about the empty chamber, Shafari took his time surveying along the walls and floor for signs of his companions. It was quickly noted that several tunnels branched from the main cavern towards the back. “I’m pretty sure the two are still together.” He signaled for the orb by holding up Jenario’s tracking stone. “Find Thomas Gracie.”
Without hesitation, the light sped down the left tunnel. Not expecting the swift response, he hurried after its trail of glowing dust. Its reaction to his request worried him that one or both had become injured on their quest for shelter and a way around the blocked road.
Nick would have a fit if I brought two more injured into the mix of what we already have. He thought back to the doctor waiting at their makeshift campsite. When he had felt the tug of Jenario’s tracking stone, he knew something had happened. Just the mention of venturing out to check caused a series of demands to make sure he knew what he was up against in this weather.
A dead end did not deter the orb from its path. It hesitated only a moment before swooping into a connecting tunnel. As Shafari stepped through the opening, he was immediately aware of several colored symbols that lit in presence of his light.
“Interesting.” He paused by each one, noticing how their pulsating glow faded when he had passed. When he realized his orb had moved on without him, his patience grew thin. “You know, an Assistant Orb was made to assist? Not fly off! See if I call upon you again if you plan on leaving me in the dark!”
For a brief moment, the tunnel remained devoid of movement. Gradually, however, the light returned with a slight droop to its motion. As though ashamed of its behavior, it dimmed and hung low while approaching the magic-user.
“I don’t care if you wander, just not without me.” This seemed to perk the orb up a bit, for it brightened and lifted to his eye level. “All is forgiven. Now, find me Thomas Gracie. But keep me in view!”
Shafari gave a sigh and just shook his head when the light darted around the bend. It soon returned when it realized he was not following.
“Better.” He gave a crooked smile and continued past the symbols, wondering if his friends had also noticed them. Elements are nothing to mess around with. I wonder if they set something in motion by coming here. With that thought in mind, he was careful to check for more while ducking under a family of long stalactites. The uneven floor crunched with bits of dirt and loose stone under his boots. When the crack of glass replaced loose stone, he called for his light to check around where he stepped. It did not take long to discover the broken lantern scattered across the floor.
Shafari’s breath caught in his throat. In panic, his voice croaked out their names.
“Jenario! Thomas Gracie!”
He followed the orb, which darted this way and that at its master’s hectic calls, until it paused in front of another opening. Halting in mid-step, Shafari watched it dim and hover just inside the passage. Strangely enough, a blue glow seemed to wash over the walls. The outer edges of the opening hinted a secondary light source, though he knew it was not from an ordinary lantern.
Why is it warm here? Shafari stepped to where his orb hovered and lifted a hand to extinguish it. “I’ll bring you back, don’t worry,” he whispered, peering into the spacious chamber. It was the oval mirror that captured his immediate attention, and when he came closer it revealed the same secret his two companions had discovered earlier.
Shafari looked on in curiosity as the mirror showed where his friends were through the portal; however, he himself did not enter.
“Let them make sure the area is clear then,” he said aloud, conjuring his spherical light to his side again. It darted in haste back toward the opening in eagerness to leave. “I’ll finish their work and bring the others in.” With a chuckle, he added, “They can thank me later.”
A weave of hand left a fiery message scrolling across the floor for the two to discover when they came back. Then, with a grin of satisfaction, the magic-user let his guiding light lead him back to camp.
“What took you so long?!” Nickademis was not happy to see the magic-user traveling alone when he returned. “And where are the others? Did they..?”
“Relax!” Shafari raised his hands in defense. “They’re fine. And I think you’ll appreciate what they’ve discovered, too.”
“Wait… You mean they actually found..?”
“Oh, it’s better than what you think.” The magic-user chuckled. “Wake the others. We’re moving tonight!”