Chapter 13: Separation
Ava noticed many changes in the landscape on the way back to the cave. The quake had created disheveled waves on the forest floor. Fallen trees and rock slides now marred the slope with violent crests jutting up at sharp angles. Yet, she saw no gaping sink holes. Her heart raced faster and faster as she approached the pinnacle, unsure if she was even in the right place. With Archereus right at Anani’s hooves, Ava made it to the top just ahead of him and jumped off to dismount.
“Boys! Stranth! Onar!” she shouted, darting toward the ravine. There was still no answer as she grabbed hold of Onar’s vine and leapt off the ridge without checking to see if it was still secure.
“Ava!” Archer hollered, surprised. He could hear the echo of her shrill voice calling for her boys and knew that she would not receive an answer. Vineless, he leapt off the top of the ridge as well, skidding to a stop just behind her.
She dashed into the cave and was immediately confronted with its disarray. A fresh layer of rubble covered the cave floor, and large pieces of rock had crashed down into their dwelling. A large crack fractured the south wall. But most importantly, she saw her sons were not there. At the far end of the cave, the tunnel was full of dust still clouding the air; the floor was littered with pebbles, stones, and rock. However, since it was not impassable, she waded through it, coughing and calling for her children with every step. No echo carried her voice; the lingering cloud of dirt and debris absorbed her calls. Her voice became more and more raspy, her shouting more and more urgent, and her spirit more and more distraught with each unanswered call as she came to the underground spring.
The sight that met her eyes when she peered down the drop off evoked a desperate wail of despair. Archer came up behind her just in time to keep her from leaping down the impenetrable shaft.
“Let me go down!” he ordered.
“My babies— ” she argued as she fought to hurl herself down the shaft, but hysteria overwhelmed her ability to speak.
“The Shadow Lands are steeped in wicked darkness, Ava! Even the ground is cursed and will behave as a malicious accomplice. You can either conquer or be conquered by it. Decide now!” he said, shaking her shoulders. “Pull yourself together and purpose in your heart not to be defeated by it!”
His words stung.
“Your boys are well and fine,” Archer informed her. “Let me go down and bring you back proof,” he said, pushing her back from the edge of the shaft.
She pressed forward like she would fight him for the right to go down first, but she quickly discovered just how much stronger than her he actually was. Glaring up into his eyes, however, she was met with a steely determination looking back at her through those crystal blue eyes that turned quickly to compassion when he finally had her attention.
“They are unharmed. You will see.”
Archer picked up the still burning torch that had fallen off the wall next to the opening of the drop off. He lowered himself down with the rope and stood on a large boulder now obstructing the lower third of the shaft. He found the token the boys had left behind. Climbing back to the top, he handed Ava a flat rock with a strip of Stranth’s tunic tied around it. The letter M had been scratched on one side; on the other side was a crudely drawn image of a smile. Ava clutched the rock to her breast and wept silent tears of both gladness and sorrow.
Archer’s attention was drawn back to the mass of rubble below, and he climbed back down to examine the cave in. He placed a hand on the largest boulder obstructing the passage and peered through it. He could envision the path the boys had taken through the long dark passage. He was able to pinpoint their location with his mind’s eye and see their course as if he had traveled with them. He suddenly became aware of the danger they were in. They were in the path of a leviathan. He looked beyond them to the farther reaches of the tunnel. There was a split some distance ahead with a corridor leading east and the other turning westward. The east passage would split multiple times, most of the corridors leading to dead ends that housed dragons and other fiendish creatures. They would encounter more hideous monsters no matter which path they chose, but only one or two passageways to the east would lead them safely back to the surface. It was a maze of dead ends.
Multiple passages led to the surface on the westward trek. They could certainly reach the surface more quickly, but all of them surfaced in dangerous areas too close to Dem or its outlying villages. Many of the western caves served as dongrel lairs with lurking shadows or housed other fiends and monstrous beasts.
Archer stretched his arms out wide and pressed his body against the barricade of rock. Bearing down against the wall with his forehead, his vision penetrated the rock walls between himself and Ava’s sons; he determined which path the boys should take. The distance between their current location and the eastward split was too far off to outrun the leviathan. They would have to face the beast, which was now aware of their presence. He could feel it snarling at them at that very moment.
For a moment or two, the boys stood to listen. They could not discern the direction the growl was coming from as it rolled around the broad cave walls. They could not see the creature or determine its proximity. As it neared, however, they sensed a large presence. And they could feel it drawing close.
Onar was the first to realize the direction it was coming from. He drew close to Stranth and directed his attention toward the beast as it slithered toward them. Stranth positioned himself between his brother and the approaching monster. Onar drew his sword.
Suddenly, Stranth felt a surge of power. He was able to visualize the creature lurking in the darkness. Aiming his torch at the beast, he willed a stream of fire toward the approaching brute. It shot forth from his light stick like a blue streak of flame setting the beast ablaze in its tracks. Simultaneously, Onar surveyed the labyrinth of passages ahead of them and perceived the best path leading them to their eastward exit. As he lunged toward the boys, the leviathan let out a piercing shriek in the midst of the flames that engulfed him. The sound echoed down through the chambers, causing a great stir among the gruesome residents in their various crevices. Onar pulled Stranth along with him as he lurched toward the split up ahead in the distance.
With two hands pressing against the obstructing boulder, Archer whispered, “Now go!”
He turned back to climb up the shaft and found Ava in the main quarters of the cave quickly, but calmly, packing up their belongings.
“I’ll tend to the horses,” he announced, moving toward the exit. “It’ll be dark soon enough. We’ll need to camp here one more night,” he said, expecting an argument.
She stopped long enough to look at him and quietly affirmed, “I know. You’re right.”
“First light,” he promised.
“First light,” she concurred.
While Archer took care of the horses, she pulled the bear skins outside to beat the dirt off of them so that they could have as comfortable a night sleep as possible. She cleared away some of the fallen debris and stoked the fire. Mostly, she wanted to keep moving, afraid time would stop if she sat still. Finally, however, she accepted that she could do nothing more. She went out and sat upon the boulder at the cave’s entrance. Archer joined her there. They sat in silence for a good while. He kept a quiet vigil over the boys in his spirit, monitoring their progress through the tunnels. He could see that they were on the right course and had begun an upward ascent through a narrow passage that would prevent most of the predators from reaching them. They were a safe enough distance from the dead carcass of the leviathan which drew most of the attention. The boys would likely have to endure the sound of vicious fiend brawls echoing through the dark tunnels as the creatures squabbled over the remains; but their attention was certainly diverted for the evening. Seeing that the boys were growing weary, he directed Onar’s attention to a good resting spot not too far ahead. He sensed no fear in either of their hearts, and he was proud of their performance through this trial. They were able to keep their hearts and minds, just as he had expected they would.
Archer noticed Ava was trembling as if she were cold, but knew it was not physical discomfort causing her to quiver. She was anxious for her sons’ safety. Still, he offered her his cloak by draping it over her shoulders. She bundled up in it as tightly as she could, hoping her tremors would stop. He picked an elpece stem for her and drew close beside her to lend her his warmth. She received the elpece, almost smiling as she brought it to her nose. After inhaling the plant’s rejuvenating scent, she stopped shivering. She relaxed enough to rest her head on his shoulder.
“You have them in your sights, don’t you?” she asked.
“And they are not in harm’s way?”
“They are secure for now.”
“And you’ll watch over them through the night?”
“I imagine they think they’re having quite an adventure,” she acknowledged.
“They are not frightened, Ava.”
He could feel her relax a bit more before she whispered a slow, “Thank you.”
She knew he was reading her thoughts, but Ava was not troubled; neither did she feel invaded. It was a welcome change to have someone to share her feelings with; indeed, it was a welcome change to be in the company of someone who was interested to know her thoughts. She was glad for the opportunity to communicate without having to further weary herself with talking. The reprieve from organizing and articulating her crowded mind was a pleasant experience. She was sorely exhausted. After a while, her eyes began to grow heavy.
“We should turn in,” he suggested.
He stood to offer her his hand. When she looked up at him, his heart was stirred by her simple, unassuming beauty that was evident even with the gray pallor of a Terra Dombrian. How striking a beauty she would become when once she passed through the refining flames of the Great Wall and her complexion received the healthy glow from the light of the Menetoy sun! For now, however, he had a job to do, and he could not allow his mind to pursue that path. He would need to keep his thoughts unclouded by anything outside his objective. Ava and her family were not the only ones he had been sent to assist.