A thunderous crash echoed off of the wooden buildings in Northern Hope. The ground shook as dust and dirt and smoke billowed into the air, covering a small section of town. Horses neighed and reared while people jumped.
“Not another one,” I sighed, setting my hammer on the forge. I wiped my hand on my apron and then untied it from around my waist. As I left my shop and stepped out into the street, I saw friends and neighbors running towards the other end of town. Pieces of conversation snapped my way as people shouted, gasped, murmured, and cried. Looking, I saw a cloud of dust tinged with speckles of something, but couldn’t make out what.
“It’s Othra’s shop,” someone yelled.
“Not good,” I muttered, walking towards Othra’s. If it was Othra’s, then we had lost a good part of our winter stores. My pace was a slow deliberate one. I’m not built for running, but for swinging a hammer all day on an anvil. I could feel my chest move in and out in a relaxed rhythm in tune with my steps.
“What happened, Darvale?” Kael asked, running to catch up to me. Kael was about two hands taller than me, but his pace was the same as mine. He had long black hair that was tied back by three strands of leather and he wore a simple sleeveless tunic that fit tight over his muscular chest.
“Sounds like Othra’s building fell down,” I replied.
“Not another one?” Kael sighed.
“That’s what I said,” I replied. “But, yes, it seems to be. I heard someone say we should change our town’s name to Northern Curse.”
“I heard that, too,” Kael said. Being the town leader and the regent for the lands we all occupied, Kael took to heart most things that were said. We all had moved from Pyridain after the war because Beinison had still occupied our lands. King Haralan had given us a grant of land between three duchies: Dargon, Narragan, and Asbridge.
“It’s gone,” someone said ahead of them. The dust covered most of the area and it was getting hard to see anything clearly.
“Was anyone in the shop?” another asked.
“Othra and his family are out harvesting. The shop was closed,” someone answered, coughing.
“The wind will clear this soon,” I said, treading carefully into the cloud.
“Part of this is dust and part is grain and part is flour,” Kael said, covering his mouth with a cloth. “Looks like we lost some of our winter stores.”
“Straight,” I agreed, coughing. “But it’s a good thing we listened to you at the last meeting and stored our supplies in several buildings and not just Othra’s.”
“There,” Kael pointed. “The ground breaks up and it looks like a hole.” They passed several people who had stopped. Everyone was coughing and some turned around to leave. A gust of wind blew across them.
“The building is gone,” Kael said.
“No, it’s down there,” I told him, looking down into a large hole in the ground.
“Illiena’s sight!” Kael swore as he carefully stepped to the edge and looked down. Othra’s shop was a mess of broken boards and barrels that looked small compared to the hole it was in. Littered over everything was grain, flour, and dirt. The edge started to collapse and we both jumped back.
Something wasn’t right about the ground, so I knelt down and thrust my hand into it. “Feel this,” I said. “The ground is soft and very dry.”
“It wasn’t like this when we first built the shop,” Kael said as he gathered a handful of dirt and tossed it into the air. The dirt flew apart into small granules and lazily floated to the ground. “Everything here was hard. We had a terrible time driving stakes into the ground.”
“I remember,” I said, standing. “How can land change so quickly?”
“I don’t know, but it is as if something doesn’t want us to be here. My barn burned, one whole wall of Harra’s house collapsed, the cattle ran off –”
“Heh,” I snorted, partly from disgust and partly from the dust. “Took us three days to get them back and we still didn’t get them all.”
“Let’s get out of this,” Kael said, turning and walking away from the hole.
“What do we tell the council?” I asked, following him. The wind picked up and blew against us as if it wanted to push us into the hole.
“What happened?” a man named Lewis asked as he and John Harra ran toward us. Lewis was short and fat and I could never understand how he was able to run, but he seemed light on his feet. He and his family were responsible for trading with the closest towns.
“Othra’s shop fell into a hole in the ground,” Kael answered.
“I saw it!” John Harra added. Harra was the oldest of us all. His stringy grey hair ran down his head and over his shoulders. A large bushy beard filled out his face and its grey added to that of his hair. He and his family ran the local shop for clothing, quilts, lamps, and whatever else we needed. Harra and Lewis were close friends.
“Saw what?” Lewis asked.
“Saw the whole thing,” Harra replied. “Felt the ground tremble right under me. It was as if something ran under the ground straight towards Othra’s. Could almost see it going down tha street. Then the shop pitched to one side and rocked back ta the other. And whoosh, roof fell in, front fell in, and it was gone in a cloud of dirt and grain.”
Other people had gathered around us. “Don’t seem like we’re welcome here,” Vern said. He and his family looked after all the livestock.
“What are we going to do, Kael?” Lewis asked.
Kael looked around at the people gathered. “Looks like most of us are here,” he said. “We might as well discuss this now instead of waiting. Here’s as good a place as any.”
“We can rebuild the shop, but it looks like we lost most of the grain,” I said. “It’s going to be a tough winter.” I wanted them to understand that our situation was grave. Everyone here had traveled from Pyridain and most thought that trip had been the worst thing that had ever happened to them. Most had not seen any of the fighting, though. Losing their homes had been tough, but the trip here had been long and arduous. Winter was going to make them wish for the days before the war, if they survived.
“We made it here from Pyridain!” Harra said. “What’s winter compared ta that?” I sighed, but before I could explain, Kael spoke.
“We need to replenish some of the lost stores,” Kael told him. “We could butcher all the livestock, but what would we have next spring? Where do we get more calves, chickens, hogs? The game around here is sparse! The land is next to impossible to use for farming. And we are farther north than most of us have ever dreamed about. Winter here is harsher than … Ah …” he said, tossing his hands in the air and then letting them fall to his sides.
“Home,” I said.
“What?” Vern asked.
“Home,” I repeated. “Kael was about to say it and realized that where we are now is home.” It was finally sinking in to some. Kael, for all his wisdom, had not comprehended the finality of our move here. Or perhaps he did, but was pushing it aside with hopes of returning to Pyridain.
“We didn’t ask to be moved here,” Kael said, looking out and staring at each person, one by one. “We didn’t ask for our homes to be taken from us.” The wind stopped blowing and silence settled into our group. “We weren’t given a choice of where we would live, but we have a choice on how we’ll survive.”
“How?” Lewis asked, shifting his weight and trying to find a comfortable position to stand.
“We have some stores left,” Kael answered. “We’ll dig through Othra’s and scavenge every last grain that we can. We’ll rebuild the shop. And we’ll continue with the plans we’ve already made.”
“We don’t have enough people ta do that!” Harra complained.
“We’ll find a way,” Kael replied. “We’ll take what we can from Othra’s and use it to rebuild the new shop. Darvale’s son can help with that. Othra’s family, too. Vern, you can lend your youngest. I’ll send my youngest. It’ll be slow, but we’ll rebuild.
“As for finding the missing cattle … Lewis, you can lend a son. I see you back there, Jev. Your girls can help, too.”
“Girls?” Vern complained.
“Jev’s girls have helped me plant a field or two,” Kael said. “I think they can handle a small herd of cattle.”
“What about my trading trip?” Lewis asked.
“We might have to postpone it for a week. We don’t really have anything worth trading right now that we can spare. And the money we have might be needed for something else.”
“Like what?” Harra asked.
“Like the next disaster that strikes us,” I answered. They all looked at me in shock. “Are you all so naive to think that this was the last?”
“Osiniana bless us,” someone prayed.
“Also, Lewis,” Kael said. “There might be local villages closer to us. Remember that girl I accidentally shot while hunting? Her –”
“I forgot about her!” Lewis interrupted.
“Yeah, but Kael’s wife never has,” Harra said, laughing. I saw Kael’s eye twitch once before he continued his speech.
“As I was saying, her village can’t be that far away. I’d guess that they’ve lived here for some time and if they can, then so can we. And maybe we can find some trade between us to help both our towns prosper.”
“Are you still going into the mountains, then?” Jev asked.
“Yes,” Kael answered. “We’ll check the traps we’ve set, we’ll check the trot lines, and we’ll explore some of the caves for coal. But maybe not all in one trip.
“Once Othra returns, we’ll plan for the rebuild. Tomorrow, Vern, you can get your group together and search for the cattle. Lewis and Harra, I expect you to help fill in for anything that needs to be done. I’m sure Vern’s family will need help feeding and watering the livestock. Help will be needed to sift through the wreckage of Othra’s shop and carrying the good pieces out of the hole. My wife could use help in the fields. There’s more than enough to do. Darvale and I will set out tomorrow to check a few traps and if there’s time, explore part of a cave. We won’t be gone for more than a few days.”
“Unless you trap another pretty young lady,” Harra said, laughing.
I saw another twitch and whispered to Kael, “It’s something that gives everyone a reason to laugh in the face of dire events and not something against you personally.” I saw his shoulders drop as he relaxed a bit. The wind played a bit with his hair, but I couldn’t feel the wind on my face. This place was definitely strange.
“We might as well get started on Othra’s,” Harra said. “C’mon.” He motioned for people to follow him as he walked away. The crowd broke up, some following Harra and some drifting off to the work they’d been doing.
“We should talk,” Kael said, heading toward my smithy.
“We need one more person, but I’m not sure we can spare anyone else,” Kael mumbled.
“Why do we need another?” I asked. “And for what?” We entered my shop and I tossed a small stool to Kael.
“It takes two to pull one man out of a hole should we fall in,” Kael answered, sitting down. “I don’t diminish your strength, but I’d rather have two men to pull me out rather than just one.”
“Hole?” I said, confused. “Oh! You’re thinking of exploring a cave. Heh,” I spat. “I can pull two men out.” I reached out with both hands and grasped my anvil. Holding it tight, I grunted and started to pick up the anvil from its perch. I could feel my muscles bulge and I ground my teeth against themselves. Heat flooded my face.
“Muskadon’s breath!” Kael said, standing. “Enough. I stand corrected. You have the strength.”
“Augh,” I exhaled as I set the anvil down with a thud. “It is a good thing you spoke quickly,” I laughed. “I couldn’t lift it much longer.”
“What happens if I have to pull you out of some hole?” Kael asked.
“Eh?” I muttered, shaking my arms out. “You mean you can’t lift that anvil?” I teased.
“With a hoist and two men, yes, I can lift it,” Kael replied, chuckling.
“You underestimate yourself. Still, you bring up a good point. Who will pull me out? My son will be here helping to rebuild the shop. Your sons are too young. Othra’s boy should be there with him.”
“What about Jev’s girl, Erin?” Kael asked. “Jev’s got four girls, I think he can spare Erin to go with us.”
“That little thing?”
“Little?” Kael smiled. “Have you seen her lately? Especially when she’s out there wrestling with the other boys? She bests Othra’s son every time.”
“Heh,” I muttered in slight suprise. “I haven’t seen her much, no.”
“She doesn’t look it, but she’s fairly strong, quick and a good fighter. I’d wager on her against most of the men here.”
“Will she go?”
“I’ll ask her,” Kael answered.
“Your home is closer to the caves. I’ll meet you there at sunrise or so,” I said.
“I’ll talk to Othra,” Kael said, turning to leave, “and let him know what we have planned. I’ll also stop by Jev’s and ask Erin.” As he left, he said, “See you at sunrise.”
“Where is he?” Erin asked, pacing just outside Kael’s barn. An impish light glinted in her light brown eyes as the morning sun shone down upon her. She was a few hands shorter than Kael and looked thin, but underneath her clothes, her body looked well toned and muscular. Her nose had been broken, she had high cheekbones, and her lips were small and somewhat chapped. She brought up callused hands to run through her straggly dark hair. No one had seen, or heard, me walk around the barn, yet, which was good because I found myself staring at Erin and wondering what it was that drew my attention to her.
“He’ll be here,” Kael replied, leaning against the barn door. Two packs sat on the ground at his feet.
“I still don’t understand why I can’t go,” Jerial said. He was Kael’s oldest son, but not yet into his teenage years.
“I don’t know what the caves are like, Jer. We may need to haul each other over chasms, rivers, or holes. You aren’t old enough yet to do that. We’ve gone over this already,” Kael said.
“You’re taking Erin,” he pleaded.
“Ha!” Erin laughed. “I can twirl you around me with one hand.”
“Can not!” Jerial stomped.
“Jerial!” Kael said. “I said ‘No’ and that is the end of the matter.”
“I’m old enough,” Jerial muttered as he ran to the house.
“Not a good start,” I said from behind them. Erin jumped, whirled and swung her arm. I calmly reached up and caught her fist. After going through some nasty battles in Pyridain, nothing has yet caused me to react out of surprise.
“You didn’t say she was jumpy and fiesty, Kael,” I said, smiling.
“Don’t scare me!” Erin yelled. “And let go!”
“Erin,” Kael said, softly. “Relax and he’ll let go. What were you saying, Darvale?” Erin relaxed and I released her.
“Not a good start when you’re already turning down help,” I told him.
“He’s just a boy,” Kael replied, picking up his pack.
“I see a young man near bursting out of a small body,” I said. “You should give him a chance to prove himself.”
“I don’t want him along on this trip,” Kael said, picking up the second pack and handing it to Erin. I already had a pack on my back.
“Not this trip, no,” I agreed. “We’ve enough on our hands with young Erin, here. But soon I think you should give that boy some trials.”
“Let me teach him how to fight and wrestle,” Erin said. She and Kael shouldered their packs as they started towards the mountains.
“And have him beat up his younger brother even more?” Kael laughed. “I think not.”
“More likely you’re afraid he’ll best you,” I retorted, chuckling.
“That would be a sight,” Erin laughed. “A small boy atop you, pummeling you until you cried yield.”
“Let’s hope your caving skills are as good as your jokes,” Kael said, walking ahead of them.
“Looks dark in there,” Erin spoke, standing in front of the mouth of the cave. The opening was large enough to fit two people side by side, but there was a twist just a few strides in it. Nothing could be seen after that turn. Cool air wafted out from the entrance.
“We have lanterns,” Kael said as he unpacked his. “Can we leave the game here?”
“Yes, we’ll string them all up and tie them to a tree,” I answered. “We didn’t get much from the traps, but it’s a start and a good one. We could have gotten nothing.” I slipped off my pack to dig for my lantern. “We should have brought a bird,” I said.
“A bird?” Erin asked, striking flint to light her lantern. Kael tied the dead animals to a tree limb. They swayed to and fro in an eerie silence.
“Yes,” I answered, turning my attention to the lanterns. I lit Kael’s and Erin’s lantern.
“Why a bird?” Kael asked, picking up his light and heading into the cave.
“There is death in caves. Places where everything dies. We carry a bird to alert us of these places,” I explained. Kael stopped.
“You’re just now remembering this?” Kael asked, peering into the cave. “Or am I the bird?”
“Yes,” I laughed and lightly pushed him onward. Kael frowned and bunched his eyebrows as he carefully stepped further into the cave, lantern held at full arm’s length in front of him.
“You are next,” I ordered Erin. Silently, she took her place between us. The darkness seemed to swallow all words. As Kael led the way, Erin gulped and tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry. Sweat beaded upon her brow and she wiped it away with her sleeve. Her palms were clammy and she brushed them against her breeches. She continuously looked around at the softly-lit walls.
“I don’t like this,” she whispered. “It’s getting tight in here.”
“You should hope not,” I said, my voice just loud enough to hear. “Caves and mines often get so small, one has to squirm like a worm to wriggle through them. And so long that one wonders if he’ll starve before breaking through the earth.”
“Eeep,” Erin cried in a high, tight voice. “You jest?” she asked, stopping. Kael quickly noticed the change in lighting and stopped also. He turned his head and looked back, also wondering what the answer was.
“No,” was all I said. Let them think the worst so that if it did come, it wouldn’t be a shock.
“You do not give us much hope in here,” Kael said. “If we have to crawl like that, how do we ever bring anything of value out of here?”
“We dig and make the hole bigger once we find something of value,” I replied. “Continue on or we won’t ever find anything.”
The cave twisted and turned, but for the most part, the floor was easy to walk. I looked over the walls and floor and ceiling of the cave as we walked it.
“This opens up,” Kael called back. “It looks to be a large cavern.” Erin and I added our lights to Kael’s as we stood beside him.
“Walk carefully around the sides, Erin, Kael,” I ordered. “I shall walk the middle and we’ll see how large this place is. It isn’t very far from the opening. Look for dark black veins running through the walls or for glittering rocks speckled throughout. Finding something here would be the best of luck.”
“There are holes in the walls,” Erin noted as she started walking.
“Aye, there are holes here also,” Kael echoed.
“Holes?” I asked, walking over to Kael. We shielded our eyes from the lanterns as we tried to peer into a hole. It wasn’t very large, two hands or so wide, but it twisted and turned such that nothing could be seen inside it. “I haven’t seen anything of the like. I count seven here in our light.”
“There’s a lot of them over here,” Erin called. “Augh!” she screamed, suddenly. We rushed over to her. I found myself wanting to protect her from whatever frightened her and that frightened me more than the unknown.
“What happened?” Kael asked, seeing that she was physically fine.
“Something moved over there,” she said, pointing into the far end of the cavern.
“It’s dark. How can you see?” I asked, looking.
“I saw the darkness swirl,” she replied. “I did!” she emphasized when she saw Kael’s disbelieving face.
“These almost look natural, yet … something about them is wrong,” I muttered as I studied the holes in the cave wall. I ran my hand around an opening and then pushed my arm inside. All I could feel was dirt and rock, but it wasn’t as solid as I expected. There must have been clay mixed in with it.
“Osini!” Erin hissed. “What are you doing?” She reached out to pull me away from the wall. Her hand grasped my shoulder and pulled, but I did not budge.
“Darvale, there could be anything in there,” Kael warned. He stood watching.
“Unlike tales told to frighten children,” I said, reaching deeper into the hole, “caves rarely hold any danger of the animal kind. Most people die from rocks falling or from falling into crevices or rapidly flowing rivers. Occasionally, one will find a bear or devil cat making their home in a cave, but there are always signs for that. We have nothing to fear from these holes.”
“Osiniana?” Kael asked, turning toward Erin. The light from his lantern lit his face from below, casting shadows over his raised eyebrows and tilted head. “You fight and wrestle and war with the local boys and you call out for the goddess of bliss?”
Erin dropped her hand and turned away, but not before red flushed her cheeks. “Shouldn’t we be moving deeper, looking for something?” she asked, trying to change the subject.
“Aye,” I spoke with finality, extracting my arm from the hole. To myself, I thought, “Onward so that I can think of something else besides her warm hand on my shoulder.” The lantern in my other hand rocked as I turned, casting shifting and moving shadows of the three of us into the middle of the cavern.
We carefully moved deeper into the cave, taking a right turn at every intersection. I explained that this was to keep from getting lost. On the return, we would merely take every left and be out of the cave. Erin asked what would happen if we didn’t see an opening. I shrugged and said we’d be lost.
“What glints ahead?” I asked from behind the other two. Kael peered into the darkness beyond our light, but couldn’t see anything. As we moved closer, I said, “Swing your light slowly.”
Kael rocked his lantern. “I see it now,” Kael said. “Something is shining at the edge of our light.”
“How did you see that from back there?” Erin asked, looking around Kael. We were amid sparkling walls.
“I’ve been caving and mining for longer than you’ve been alive,” I answered. “It is a metal ore of some sort.” Bits of the metal stuck out in the walls. Pieces littered the ground as we walked deeper into the vein. “I’ve never seen the like,” I said, stopping to pick up a rock filled with the ore.
“Looks like a fairly long vein,” Kael said from a few steps ahead of them. “Do we go on?”
“No,” I replied. “It will be late enough when we return that we don’t need to go deeper on this trip. Gather some of this and we’ll head back.” We took off our packs and started picking up rocks. We set our lanterns around us to shed light where we worked.
“There!” Erin shouted, pointing into the darkness down the cavernous hallway. “Did you see that?”
“The air shifted, but I saw nothing,” I said, placing my pack on my back.
“I saw things,” she said. “Things moving in the dark.” She hefted her pack. “I want to leave.” Her voice quivered.
“Something does not feel right,” Kael said. “I think we should go now, too.”
“It is her fear,” I retorted. “You feel that. There is no danger in –” Something black, swift, and feline rushed out of the darkness. It bounced off the wall, landed between Kael and Erin, and then pounced upon me. My mind yelled to swing at it, but it was too late. I went down on my back and then the black thing was gone into the darkness. Erin screamed and pushed herself against the wall.
“Illiena save us,” Kael rasped, taking a step back. “What was that thing?”
“Strong,” I breathed out in a huff. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I sat up. “Erin is right. There was something in the dark.” I put a hand down and then stood. My pack slipped from my back as I did so, the straps cut neatly in half. A high-pitched wail echoed throughout the cave. Others joined in.
“Go! Now!” Kael ordered, turning to pick up a lantern. Black, powerful forms flooded out of the cave. Two hit Kael mid-stride and knocked him forcefully to the ground, where he bounced and rolled past me.
Erin seemed to fly to the other side of the passageway, where she smashed into the wall. Another form hit her and pushed her to the floor, before bouncing off of her and disappearing into the dark.
“Ol’s piss,” I swore, wishing I had brought my war hammer. It was the only sound to echo around us. I moved to Erin and knelt beside her. “Are you hurt?”
“No, no, I’m fine, I think,” Kael replied, groaning as he sat up. “Oh. My thanks for wondering,” he said when he saw I wasn’t next to him.
“Darvale?” Erin whispered. “I don’t want to die,” she pleaded to me.
“Neither do I,” I said, helping her to stand. “We are not seriously injured. That means something.”
“Yes,” Kael said. “It means we’ll have a lot of bruises every step of the way.” Erin smiled, but it looked forced. “Did you get a good look at them?”
“No,” I said as I grabbed a lantern and handed it to Kael. Erin kept close to me.
“Neither did I,” Kael said, picking up the remaining lantern and handing it to Erin. She took it, but didn’t hold it very far from her body. The light shone brightly into her eyes.
“Walk between us, Erin,” I instructed her as I picked up my pack. “You will have to hold this,” I said, handing the pack to her. “As well as carry your own.”
“It’s gone,” she said.
“Yes,” Kael said, looking about. “Mine is here.” He shouldered it. “At a fair pace, let’s get out of here.”
“Left,” I said. We moved quickly down the hallway and started to retrace our steps.
“I can’t hear anything,” Erin said, her voice pitched high and quivering. “Except our own echoes. And I can’t see anything anymore.” She sounded like she was about to bolt.
“You blind yourself with your lantern,” I said, trying to calm her. “Hold it away from your body a bit more and turn it thus.” I moved the lantern out a bit to show her.
Dark, sleek, bodies struck me from behind. One tore the lantern from my grasp and sent it spiraling out and upward over Kael. Another landed square on my back, thrusting me forward. I tried to turn around, but couldn’t. Erin screamed and I saw her jump sideways into one of them. Large, furred arms wrapped themselves around her. The light glared off long, curved, sharp claws. She dropped to the ground and her lantern hit hard and broke. Fire flared upwards, burning her and her assailant. They both screamed in pain and she rolled on the ground away from it. With a whoosh of air, the creatures were gone, leaving us battered and bruised once again. The fire crackled on the ground, snapped and popped for a mene before going out.
“Time to run,” Kael blurted out. “One lantern left.”
“My pack is gone,” I said, standing. “They frighten, but do not injure seriously.”
“Not to you,” Erin hissed. “I nearly died! I saw those claws and felt that deathly body! Osiniana save us!” She was splotched red in a few places from the flames.
“Come!” Kael ordered. “We do not have the time to argue.” We shut up and followed him. At each step, we peered forward and backwards. At openings, we glanced right out into the darkness, waiting for another attack. It wasn’t until we reached the middle of a large area that we realized where we were. Wispy shapes moved throughout the cavern all around us. Fear caught in my throat.
“The holes!” I spat. “They’ve been playing with us all along. They knew we would return here! Go! Run!” Kael broke into a run.
A muscular feline-like form landed in front of Kael, causing him to suddenly stop. Erin and I managed to avoid crashing into him from behind, but we stood next to him.
The thing in front of us growled, showing two large rows of triangular teeth. A set of curved fangs extended down from the upper jaw. Fur covered most of the body and the face looked somewhat like a dog’s with its ears flattened back. It crouched on two legs while one front arm helped to balance itself, and the other arm was held a bit out from it, claws extended. Snarling and curling its nose, it showed more of its teeth.
“To Eilli-Syk with you!” Kael screamed as he surged ahead, swinging the lantern. He swung it back and forth, but only hit air.
“Dar–” Erin screamed, but was cut short. A creature sat atop her, raking small furrows down her back with its claws. She screamed in pain.
“Ol banish you!” I yelled as I jumped for the creature. Other black forms hit me in mid-air and tackled me to the ground. I huffed as the breath left me. I could still see Kael, but not Erin. The creatures held me down with claws at my neck, threatening their use.
“Father?!?” a boy’s voice called from ahead. “Are you in here? I saw the game hanging outside.”
“Jerial?” Kael cried aloud. “Run!” Kael started forward, but two creatures blocked his path. “You’ll not have my son!” Feinting left, he turned quickly right and swung the lantern. Wind and fur brushed past his left side, but he still did not hit anything in front of him.
Light broke brightly from the other side of the room. Jerial ran forward, only seeing his father. “Father, I came to help!” he yelled, smiling. “I tracked you all the way here!” He sounded proud of what he’d done.
“Oh, sweet Illiena!” Kael pleaded. “Go Jerial! Run!” Jerial stopped, sensing something wrong. His father started toward him, but something stepped between them. Jerial shrieked as his father’s light showed what he had not seen. He turned to run, but one of the creatures stood in his way. “Father!” he cried, freezing in place. Small hands trembled and shook while light danced and flickered upon fangs and fur and claws.
“No!” Kael screamed as he surged forward. His legs were cut out from under him and something hit him in the shoulder, spinning him in the air. He landed roughly upon the hard, rocky ground. His lantern moved swiftly through the room to disappear somewhere in the blackness.
“They are smart,” I thought as Kael started to rise painfully. He was hit again and rolled over and over. The light from Jerial’s lantern barely touched Kael, but it was enough to see. Landing on his stomach, Kael looked up and saw his son. A creature landed on Kael’s back and sharp claws pierced his flesh.
“Father?” Jerial called. The creature blocking his way leaned in, nose twitching as it sniffed the air. It stepped forward and sniffed his clothes, his face, and his hair. Jerial was frozen in place by fear. It stepped back and cried out in sharp barks that hurt the ears.
The creatures on Kael disappearred and he rushed to his son. We watched the thing in front of Jerial look up at Kael with clear, intelligent eyes. I saw something flash across those eyes and then it was gone. All the creatures were gone.
“Go Kael!” I yelled. “We are right behind you!” Erin had reached me and we were running for the entrance. Reaching his son, Kael urged him onward. The four of us fled towards the opening, not looking back or left or right. Turning a bend, the light of day blinded us and we slowed enough to make it outside without tripping or falling. Some menes later, we stopped running to catch our breath.
“You said there was no danger!” Erin cried, turning to me. She beat her fists against my chest. “No danger!” Her words turned to sobs and she collapsed into my arms.
“Aye,” I said, softly, holding her tightly to me. “I was wrong.”
“What was that?” Jerial asked, standing close to his father.
“I don’t know,” Kael replied. “They could have killed us easily, but didn’t. I thought surely my death was close when I felt the claws dig into my back.”
“It sniffed me,” Jerial said. He sat down on the ground and pulled his knees up to his chest. “I couldn’t move I was so afraid. I wanted to run and I wanted to stay and I wanted it to all be a trick of the light. But it wasn’t.”
“No, son, it wasn’t. I don’t know why they let us go. But I saw something in its eyes before it vanished. It was as if your smell was familiar and …”
“And what?” I prodded.
“Recognition. That was what I saw,” Kael said. “Something changed in its eyes and it looked at me as if it knew me.”
“Osiniana blessed us,” Erin spoke, turning around but still in my arms.
“Someone or something did,” Kael said. “Let’s not test our blessing overly long. Let’s go home.”