The next several days went quietly. Most nights they ate bats or other cave creatures. They occasionally encountered snow-screamers. Sometimes the screamers ran away. Other times they fought. They refilled their water skins at underground streams that Thornfire said were safe. They slept in the caves he chose.
Hawkwind came to long for the sun almost as much as the children did. She continued to take the tail of the party, but the feeling of being followed and watched never abated, and she began to sleep poorly. If it was snow-screamers following them, the beasts never revealed themselves from behind, but Hawkwind wondered if it might be something else, one of the other threats of the tunnels.
On the sixth day, Thornfire suddenly halted them before a bricked archway. It was a unique find, as most of the tunnels had been rough and moldy thus far, the only structures being wooden timbers to brace the ceilings, but Hawkwind didn’t quite have the energy to appreciate it. She heard a noise like a foot scraping on the rocky floor and glanced behind. There was nothing to see there except the black tunnel vanishing out of sight.
“What is it, Master?” she heard Starbright ask.
Thornfire motioned them closer, and Hawkwind pushed up beside Rainsoft.
“We’ve reached the halfway point,” he said, voice hushed but tense. “Through this archway is a short tunnel and then a large, open cavern. Once we cross that, there will be another tunnel, and then a bridge over a chasm.”
Hawkwind’s neck feathers prickled and she whipped her head around. There was nothing there.
“Hawkwind?” Thornfire queried.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I’m very jumpy. I didn’t sleep well.”
“Do you think there’s something following us?”
Her bill dropped open a little. Was he serious or mocking her?
“I mean it. Do you think there’s something following us?”
The others were looking at her, too, now.
“I think I’m just nervous,” she said. “I haven’t seen anything. Sometimes I think I hear things, or I feel like there’s something there, but there never is.”
His brows lowered. “It concerns me. It’s always possible it isn’t just your nerves. The light keeps most things away down here, but there is one thing it will attract. To cross through this cavern safely, we must cover the light stones.”
“What’s in there?” several people whispered.
Thornfire took his time before answering. “I don’t want to frighten you unduly, but extreme caution and even a little fear is merited.”
Karo cowered down on the mage’s back. Kassandra looked as unmoved as usual. Rikah seemed to be trying to keep a fearless and determined countenance, but Hawkwind saw his hands whiten against Starbright’s feathers. Jessika’s hands, too, began tightening against Hawkwind’s back.
“In the war against the talis, the one that utilized this tunnel, many griffins were killed. Others were entranced by the talis, but not killed due to rescue or the talis getting distracted, or other such good fortune, if you can call it good,” Thornfire explained. “Sometimes, when a talis entrances, if it is just briefly, no harm is done. When the spell is broken, the affected griffin can just shake it off. Other times, if the entrancement lasts too long, or if a griffin’s will is completely broken by it, there is lasting damage. Some such griffins cannot recover.”
“What kind of damage?” Hawkwind asked.
Thornfire continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “Of course, our people would not leave any injured behind. Some mind-wounded griffins were brought back here. This cavern was the recovery area for the wounded. Our people thought that the dark and quiet would be soothing, but I can’t say if that was the best thing they could have done. Some of the mind-wounded ones recovered eventually. Some died.” He took a deep breath. “Others changed.”
“What happened?” Kassandra asked in a breathless whisper.
“They went mad. They became afraid of everything, or attacked their friends and family, or both. You can imagine that our ancestors couldn’t imagine slaying their former companions and loved ones, their Linemembers, no matter how sick they seemed. Maybe some were put to rest, but others escaped, ran into the depths of the tunnels, but without light they were nearly helpless. The army moved on. The lost ones remained. The descendants of those griffins make their main colony here, but they are no longer like us. They are no longer griffins.”
Thornfire stared intently at all of them. “If they detect us, they will attack. We can only hope that if we move silently and stay to the darkest shadows, that we might go unnoticed.”
Hawkwind shivered. She wanted to know what these not-griffin creatures were, at the same time afraid of seeing them.
“Their eyes have become extremely light sensitive; they see very well in the dark. High on the wall to the right is a small hole that lets in the slightest bit of light. To be illuminated by that light is fatal. We must cover all the stones, and I would like the children to wrap up in their blankets, which are darker than their clothes and skin. Please prepare.”
Hawkwind turned to Rainsoft while the children got ready.
“Did you understand?” she asked with words and hands, hoping she knew enough gestures now to convey anything he hadn’t gotten from Thornfire’s brisk explanation.
“Mostly,” he replied, keeping his gestures clear and slow so Hawkwind could understand. “Dangerous animals?”
Close enough. “If they see us, hear us, they attack us. No light.”
Rainsoft was watching the children hide the light stones and cover their pale skin, although Rikah was rather browner than the others, and seemed to understand. He sagged his dark grey wings to hide his lighter underside. Of all of them, Rainsoft had the coloration most suited to going undetected here: if he stood still and kept his belly covered, he would almost blend into the rocks. Thornfire’s tan, Starbright’s gold, and Hawkwind’s coloration which was merely a bit browner than Starbright’s, were all light enough to readily reflect light.
“Are we ready?” Thornfire asked. “Follow me. We will go very slowly. Children, hold on tight. If we are spotted, we will run for the exit on the far side and make for the bridge. Now come, and be careful with your foot steps.”
Thornfire went first. Starbright followed him. Hawkwind let Rainsoft go next. Now in the near total darkness, Hawkwind strained her ears and focused on placing and lifting her feet silently. Something rustled behind her and she looked back. She thought she saw a darker shape in the darkness. Was it just a feature of the tunnel walls? Had it been there before but not visible because of the light stones? It didn’t move, and after a moment, she continued following Rainsoft down the turning tunnel, through the archway, and into the big cavern.
Despite all of their best efforts to keep their footsteps silent, it seemed to Hawkwind that every step echoed with the crushing of fine grit. She followed the faint outline of Rainsoft and tried to still her racing heart. She could see the pinprick of light high above, so high that she wondered just how tall the ceiling was. Faint dust motes danced in the light. To her left, the cavern vanished into deepest black. She couldn’t see the back wall, but she thought she faintly detected the wall to her right.
They passed behind a pillar wider than her whole body. It was roughly carved but clearly solid and functional. There were some old, grey bones piled at the base of it; she could only see them because compared to the blackness of the cavern, they glowed. Hawkwind moved on, passing between the pillar and the next one, still in slow, steady silence except for the faint grating of the dirty floor under their feet.
Hawkwind glanced behind, noting the grey bones still seeming to glow in the darkness. Then they vanished. Her breath caught. A second later, they reappeared. Had something moved between her and them, blocking her view?
She looked around frantically for anything else she could see, anything else that something might cross in front of, revealing a moving object. Something rustled in the darkness, like dry feathers. She felt Jessika tremble on her back; the girl had heard it, too. Hawkwind walked on, trying to follow the dark shadow that was Rainsoft.
Then she saw three dark shadows ahead of her. Rainsoft was the one in the middle—she hoped—and what were the other two? They seemed to mirror Rainsoft’s movements, pacing him on either side. Had he seen them? They couldn’t be just Thornfire and Starbright, could they? Had they fallen back to walk beside him? What were the dark shadows? Were her eyes playing tricks on her?
Trying to restrain her racing heart, Hawkwind looked ahead, searching the blackness for what she assumed would be the deeper blackness of the exit. She couldn’t find it yet. One of the dark shadows ahead of her began separating towards the right. Was that one Rainsoft?
Hawkwind’s mouth went dry. She couldn’t tell which one was he. She passed another pillar with a larger pile of bones around it. She heard crushing from ahead, like brittle bones breaking underfoot. That must be Thornfire. Hawkwind headed towards the sound, following the middle shadow. She glanced to her right and thought she saw a deeper darkness moving, paralleling her.
The dry, dusty blackness settled over her like a spidery blanket. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure where her companions were or what she was following. Frightened, she halted. Jessika shifted silently on her back, probably concerned. Feathery whispers drifted around her. Hawkwind tried to make out the next pillar, thought she saw the glowing bones at its base, and started moving towards it.
A dark shape passed in front of the bones and away again. Hawkwind strained her ears for the sounds of the others’ footsteps. They seemed to be coming from in front of her, steadily, slowly moving away. Almost shivering, eyes stretched wide, Hawkwind continued on towards the next pillar. She thought she saw dark shapes moving all around her, beyond the reach of her limited vision. She envied Jessika, who could just hide under the blanket, waiting for someone else to get her out of the fear, never having to try to look and listen to the emptiness.
A sudden scrape followed by a scratch followed by a dull thud came from ahead to her right and Hawkwind clenched her body, refusing to jump in surprise. Footsteps shuffled on the floor. Someone grunted. Hawkwind heard panting from behind to her right. No one was supposed to be behind her.
Adrenaline flooded her body, telling her to run, fly, escape, but she didn’t know where to run. She couldn’t see the exit yet. Slowly, as silently as possible, she worked her way to the next pillar and searched for the following one.
She heard footsteps behind her.
Hawkwind’s fear spiked and she turned her body, putting the pillar, festooned with bones, behind her. She looked left and right, searching for the owner of the footsteps, but they had gone silent.
She felt Jessika’s fingers run through her back fur, soothing. No doubt the girl could feel Hawkwind’s racing heart. Hawkwind waited, listening. She didn’t hear anything anymore. Though her hearing probed the room, it was more silent than snowfall, as if she was now alone in the big cavern, but she dared not move. Who or what was all around her?
Her held breath began to burn in her lungs. She had to move, had to breathe. Perhaps the others were already at the other side, waiting for her. Hawkwind turned again, stepping towards the next pillar. Never in all her life had she been prey. Always she had been the one stooping down, winged death. Was this how it felt to be hunted?
She reached the next pillar, all the while trying to stop the bone fragments under her feet from crunching. Behind her, more crunching footsteps echoed. Panic rose higher inside her like a swelling tide. She wanted to run, and her body trembled with the effort of keeping to a slow walk. Any second she expected to feel claws in her back, or rather in Jessika. She imagined the girl’s scream of terror, at the same time that acidic guilt chewed at her for feeling relieved that she might be protected by the girl’s body.
Sharp cracking, as though someone had crushed a dry skull underfoot, echoed from Hawkwind’s right. Hawkwind choked on a gasp and barely restrained a startled jump. She kept walking smoothly, at least that was her intention; her arms and legs trembled with every step. To her left, someone walked sloppily through a pile of bones, scattering them with the sound of dry laughter slithering across the floor. More gritty footsteps came from behind her.
Jessika hugged her tighter. “They’re all around us,” Hawkwind heard the girl say in the slightest, barest of voices.
The next rough footstep, like sandpaper on steel, came from Hawkwind’s right, much closer than before. She stared into the darkness, barely detecting a blacker shape moving just out of reach. Hawkwind came to the next pillar and didn’t stop. Looking ahead, she thought she saw Rainsoft’s back, with his human bundle on top. She hoped it was Rainsoft.
Behind her something kicked a pile of bones she’d very carefully stepped over. She felt some of them knock harmlessly into her hind legs and she wrenched down hard on a budding scream in her throat. Jessika was trembling on her back. She passed another pillar. Out in the pit of the cavern, something hissed. It was sharper and higher than a griffin’s hiss, but close enough in sound that it sent shivers dancing over Hawkwind’s skin like prickling fire sparks.
The hiss resonated through the cave, and then was repeated from a different location, ahead to the right, and then from directly behind, and to the left, and again and again until the hissing rasped like icy rain, wearing away what little sanity remained. Jessika had been right: they were all around, whatever they were.
As Hawkwind passed more pillars, not daring to run, the hissing and gritty footsteps and tinkling scattering of cracked up bones came closer and closer on either side. She stared straight ahead, but with her peripheral vision saw only a moving mass of deeper darkness on either side. She could no longer guess how much she was imagining and how many of the sights and sounds around her were real. The possibility that a horde of misshapen not-griffins were about to leap on her and tear her to bits was something her mind couldn’t quite get a hold of, like the one time she’d tried fishing with Eagleye and Hawkcall and hadn’t been able to get the knack of gripping those scaly, slippery fish. Hawkcall had laughed at her fumbling.
A darker shape appeared ahead, beyond a final, paler pillar, like a clearing in the midst of storm-tossed forest below: the archway exit and safety. With all her will, Hawkwind resisted the dancing urging of her adrenaline, but couldn’t stop her feet from hurrying. The scratchy hissing rose in volume around her. On her back, Jessika was shaking like she was sobbing. Hawkwind thought the dark shapes around her were moving in, ready to snare her with prickly claws like blackberry vines.
She passed the final pillar. The dark shape in front of her, hopefully Rainsoft, moved into the archway blackness and vanished. Hawkwind followed to the accompaniment of dozens of screeching hisses, expecting an attack at the last moment.
She saw the edges of the stone doorway clearly as she passed through. Below her, the stone changed from planed flat rock to uneven laid stones. An easy glance left and right showed her the floor dropping off into blackness only a yard away on each side. She’d reached the bridge. Behind her, the final shrieking chorus of hisses died away. The dark shape in front of her stopped, and she did, too.
“They let us pass,” Thornfire whispered from the front of the line.
Hawkwind’s body shook as her dying adrenaline burned in her like acid.
“You didn’t say they’d do that,” she stuttered, “that they’d surround us and follow us and hiss.”
“They never did that when I’ve passed through before,” he replied. “Let’s keep moving and get across this bridge. Then we’ll rest and talk.”
Hawkwind followed, still in darkness, hearing now only the muffled crying of the children and the steady tread of four sets of griffin feet across the old bridge. She was too wearied to even fear the open chasm below her, forgetting that her wings were not yet fully feathered again and, if she fell, she would plummet to the bottom. The archway on the other side, leading to more tunnels, with stone walls closing back around her, gave a sense of security.
“Let’s stop here a moment,” Thornfire said. “Children, you can reveal the light stones again.”
Hawkwind had a moment of irrational panic. She’d only heard Thornfire speak, not Rainsoft or Starbright. What if they had been silently snatched, and it was two not-griffins walking along with them? What if the light revealed not her friends’ faces, but the sightless eyes and pale feathers of the hissing monsters from the cave behind them?
Four blankets were tossed back and four children sat up, holding four glowing stones. Hawkwind’s heart stumbled like a stag run into the ground and she swayed on her feet, clumsily sitting, panting for breath. It was they: Rainsoft, Starbright, and Thornfire, all shaken, but safe. The children, too, looked terrified, with dirty tear streaks on their cheeks, but unhurt.
“What happened in there?” Starbright asked, and Hawkwind was secretly relieved that the apprentice’s voice reflected as much terror as Hawkwind herself felt.
“I have before passed through that cavern without being noticed,” Thornfire murmured. “The first time, my brother and I were attacked and we had to run; we were more cautious after that and eventually decided to travel to and from Snow-in-lee only when the weather was good, so we could fly. I’ve never witnessed what happened this time. They noticed us, but didn’t attack us.”
“Because there were four of us?” Starbright suggested.
“Bright, there were dozens of them,” he shook his head.
Hawkwind raised her brows; she’d never heard Thornfire refer to his apprentice so informally before, but she kept any comment about it to herself. Usually only Linemembers called each other by their shortened name.
“I’m glad we’re all safe,” he went on, and in the dim light Hawkwind saw the tips of his feathers trembling. “They could have killed us all. I think something was making them too unsure to attack. I can only assume it was the presence of the children. They might not be so indecisive next time.”
The group sat for a few more minutes in silence, huddled around the light. The children dismounted and went to Hawkwind for comforting hugs. All four griffins shared reassuring preening of feathers with each other. In time, the dregs of the terror passed, and Thornfire got to his feet.
“We should choose a campsite as far away from that cavern as we can. Let’s get moving, and then we’ll have a long rest,” he said.
The children remounted, the griffins stood, and they resumed their trek through the tunnels.