Captive On The Echo
While the team purchased their tickets, K-1 listened to everything they said. Instead of grabbing them in broad daylight, he decided to get to the Drapery Room first and hide there until they showed up.
Then I’ll get mine.
K-1 used his extensive knowledge of the caverns to find solitary shortcuts to the location. Once inside, he looked around for a spot in which to hide. He scanned the stalactites, stalagmites, and sandstone and shale cap rock far above for any sign of something that might provide cover. He quickly found exactly what he was looking for.
K-1 entered his hiding spot and waited for Team SoNaR to walk into his trap.
After purchasing their tickets, the team walked to the entrance of the Frozen Niagara tour.
“At least we’ll get to sightsee while we’re here,” Maddy said. “I’ve always wanted to visit Mammoth Caves.”
“I have too,” Corbyn replied.
Aaden frowned. Of course you have.
“The tour is gathering over there,” Maddy pointed out.
Once everybody was gathered together, the guide welcomed the group and explained what to expect during the tour.
“Good morning! Name’s Amy Jo. I’ll be taking you through the Frozen Niagara tour today. The tour will last a little over an hour. We’ll walk a quarter of a mile in total, take a whopping twelve stairs, and see lots of different limestone formations. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. We ready to go?”
The group was eager to start. They began to file through the entrance. Because he was still in a sour mood, Aaden hung back. He was the last to enter the cave, and was therefore the only person that heard a mysterious voice somewhere behind him whisper, “Choose right.”
Aaden turned around but the source of the voice was nowhere to be found. He had no idea who said it or to whom it was even said.
Great. Now I’m hearing things.
Aaden was brought back to attention by Maddy. She had poked her head back out the entrance.
“Yeah.” Aaden looked back once more, but there was nobody to be seen. He didn’t want to tell Maddy what he’d just heard. The last thing he needed was for Maddy and Corbyn to have another reason to call him crazy.
K-1 remained hidden. He had found a perfect spot to wait for the team until they walked right into his trap. Even better, his position completely concealed him from the public. When he’d finally get to exact his revenge, he wouldn’t have to worry about being seen. K-1 anxiously tapped his crowbar against his leg. His anxiety grew as he realized that his chance to finally put an end to the team and their petty quest was finally at hand.
After visiting the Rainbow Dome, Crystal Lake, and the Frozen Niagara flowstone formation, the tour finally made it to the Drapery Room.
“This is it,” Maddy said under her breath. “Keep your eyes open for anything we’re supposed to notice.”
The tour guide briefly explained how the Drapery Room had formed. She then gave the group some time to walk the cavern’s path and admire its formations. Maddy, Corbyn, and Aaden walked around looking for anything that may have something to do with the quest.
“I don’t see any silver canisters lying around,” Corbyn said quietly.
“Me either,” Maddy replied. “There are a lot of places to hide a canister in here, though. You don’t think someone already found it, do you?”
Aaden shook his head. “Whoever set this quest up hasn’t put a single canister in easy reach of the public. I doubt they’d start now.”
“True.” Maddy looked around. She scanned all the spots that could have concealed a silver tube. “If there’s a canister in here, it’s hidden well.”
Corbyn suddenly spotted something. “Over there,” he said as subtly as possible. “Look down.”
Maddy and Aaden followed Corbyn’s eyes to a formation a couple feet away.
“The EIS symbol,” Maddy said.
There it was. Approximately the size of a silver dollar, the EIS symbol had been stamped on the bottom of a stalagmite. Following the pattern throughout the quest, this one had a third dot added to the lower-right corner.
“The dots have meaning, don’t they?” Maddy asked. “I haven’t really paid much attention to them so far.”
“The EIS symbol resembles the atomic symbol,” Corbyn replied, “so I’ve just thought all along that the dots represent electrons. Maybe they mean more than that though. Think about it. The symbol at Chippewa Park had one dot. The symbol at Biosphere 2 had two dots.”
“And the symbol at our third stop has three dots,” Maddy said. “Can’t be a coincidence.”
“Not in the world of puzzles and ciphers,” Corbyn replied. “I also think we might’ve just figured out how many stops we’ll be making on the quest.”
“How so?” Maddy asked.
“Only one more dot can be added to the symbol. Our next stop is probably the last one.”
“That’d be nice,” Maddy said.
“Okay, so we’ve figured something out about the mysterious symbol,” Aaden piped in sarcastically. “Good for us. Can we figure out why the symbol is stamped here before the tour group leaves?”
“Fine.” Corbyn wanted to argue back but knew it was a bad time.
Team SoNaR looked around in silence to determine the significance of the symbol on the formation. Maddy finally had an idea.
“Look just to the left of the stalagmite,” she said. “There’s an opening there. Big enough for us to crawl through.”
Corbyn realized Maddy was on to something. Right next to the stalagmite was what appeared to be a dark tunnel that led from the Drapery Room to an unknown area behind.
“I’m not a fan of how dark it is behind there.” Maddy shivered.
“Me either, but we have to find out for sure.” Corbyn casually ducked down. “We’ll sneak through when nobody’s paying attention. As soon as the group heads out, we’ll hang back a bit and get through as quick as we can.”
A few minutes later, the tour guide herded the group out of the Drapery Room. The area needed to be cleared before the next tour entered. The teens strategically snuck through the opening and into the blackness beyond.
The moment he noticed the EIS symbol stamped on the limestone, K-1 knew he was on track. He entered the cave and turned on his flashlight.
Despite his extensive knowledge of the cavern system, this area was brand new to him. He immediately noticed the tunnel split in two directions directly in front of him. There appeared to be no obvious indication which way he should go. He considered staying where he was until the team showed up, but quickly dismissed the idea because he was still well within earshot of anybody touring the Drapery Room.
If anybody hears what I’m about to do to those kids, I’m a dead man.
K-1 decided to move deeper into the tunnel. He chose to explore the path on his left, keeping his ears open in case he heard his targets behind him.
Not long after K-1 moved further into the tunnel, Team SoNaR entered. They were standing in the same spot he had been in moments earlier.
“We need our flashlights,” Corbyn said quietly. “Who’s got the backpack?”
“I do.” Maddy found the three flashlights and handed them out. “Anybody want an energy bar while I have the backpack open?”
“Yes.” Aaden grabbed one of the bars and unwrapped it.
“No thanks.” Corbyn looked around the tunnel’s entrance. “Have either of you noticed that there are two different ways to go from here?”
Maddy took a bite of her snack. “I just did. Was there anything in the clue that tells us which way to go?”
“Not that I remember.”
Aaden suddenly realized something: he really had heard a voice near the tour entrance, and it had been telling him to go down the passageway on the right. With a smirk, he decided he was going to use this information to take advantage of his brother. If he could get Corbyn to make the wrong choice, it might make him look better in Maddy’s eyes.
“We should split up,” Aaden said. “Since we don’t know which path to take, it’ll save us time if we explore both tunnels at the same time. I’ll choose the one on the right.”
Maddy wasn’t sure. “Isn’t it kind of dangerous for us to separate?”
Aaden played it cool. “Nah. We all have flashlights, so we’ll be fine. It’ll save us time.”
“I actually agree with him,” Corbyn replied, much to Maddy’s surprise. “I’ll go left, you guys go right. We’ll explore for a bit then meet back here to decide which way to go together.”
Aaden turned to his twin. “Wanna make a friendly wager who ends up choosing the correct path?”
Corbyn scowled. “What’re you getting at?”
“If I win, you and Maddy stop flirting with each other around me. If you win, I ignore it.”
Corbyn wasn’t surprised. “So that’s it, huh? I knew it all along. You’ve been acting like a jerk lately because you’re jealous of us.”
Aaden tried to respond but Corbyn didn’t allow it.
“And this is how you decide to finally admit it? By coming up with some stupid bet?”
Aaden shrugged his shoulders. “You got me.” He stuck his hand out to seal the bet.
Corbyn smirked. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Maddy was dumbfounded. “Are you kidding me? Since when did I become a bargaining chip?”
Corbyn continued shaking his brother’s hand. “Maddy, keep in mind who came up with this stupid bet. And Aaden, good luck.” Corbyn released his grip and headed to the left.
“Guess that means we’re going the other way,” Aaden said confidently. “You coming?”
Without responding, Maddy angrily walked to the tunnel on the right. As she pushed past Aaden, she unknowingly dropped the wrapper to the energy bar. With a smirk and a shrug, Aaden followed.
She’ll get over it.
Corbyn turned his flashlight on and walked deeper into the tunnel. He was fed up with his brother and wanted nothing more than to prove him wrong. He continued on for some time, seeing nothing but dripping water, stalactites clinging to the ceiling, and an occasional stalagmite hugging the pathway’s floor.
Corbyn started to get anxious that he had chosen the wrong path, but he refused to turn back around and admit so. Unfortunately, he soon found out that the passage was not only the wrong one but it was also far worse than he could have imagined. As he rounded a bend, he bumped into someone walking the other way.
K-1 was surprised at first, but quickly gathered his senses before Corbyn could turn tail and escape. He grabbed Corbyn’s arm and squeezed. “Look what I found.”
Corbyn dropped his flashlight and flinched in pain. Frozen in terror, he couldn’t speak. How did he find us again?
K-1 sneered. “Where are the other two?”
Corbyn simply stared back. Having none of it, K-1 punched Corbyn square in the face.
“I said, where are the other two?”
Tears welled up in Corbyn’s eyes, but he still refused to speak.
“Fine.” K-1 drew himself upright. “You’re coming with me, and you will lead me to them. You got me?”
K-1 dragged Corbyn back up the passageway until they returned to the tunnel’s entrance. He looked in the direction of the right passageway. “They went that way, didn’t they?”
Corbyn didn’t respond. He knew he needed to stall K-1 as long as he could so that Maddy and Aaden could get as far away from him as possible. He wished he could’ve heard another group of tourists walking nearby to scream to help for, but to no avail. He was all alone with his captor.
K-1 backhanded Corbyn across the face again. “Every time you ignore me, that’s what you’ll get. Now, let’s try this again. Your friends went down that tunnel, didn’t they?”
Corbyn remained defiant. He refused to reveal Maddy and Aaden’s location even if it meant more beatings. Unfortunately, K-1 figured out the answer on his own. While dragging Corbyn to the pathway’s entrance, he stooped down and picked up the wrapper Maddy had carelessly dropped. He smirked and tugged on Corbyn’s arm. Covering Corbyn’s mouth with his other hand, he led the way.
Corbyn couldn’t believe Maddy had been so careless. His two best friends were now also in mortal danger, and there was nothing he could do about it. For almost ten minutes, K-1 dragged Corbyn down the tunnel. Corbyn did his best to keep his footing on the slippery ground, but he kept stumbling and bumping into things. K-1 refused to slow down. Before long, bruises began dotting Corbyn’s legs.
The two eventually reached the end of the tunnel and entered a large cavern. K-1 looked around. There was an underground torrent of water rushing by. The nearby river was so loud that Maddy and Aaden, who stood with their backs to K-1 only a few meters away, could not hear him. Their eyes were fixed on a large inflatable raft on the river’s edge.
K-1 smirked. He realized he could finally dispose of the entire team and complete his job. Better yet, he could do so without anybody finding out. The river was so loud that nobody would hear the teens’ screams as he drowned them for good. To top it off, he also wouldn’t have to worry about disposing of their bodies. He could finally get paid and get Charles off his back.
It was all too perfect.
Fortunately for the team, Corbyn was not going to go down quietly. He bit K-1’s hand, causing his captor to reflexively release his grip. Over the roar of the underground river, Corbyn shouted at the top of his lungs. Maddy faintly heard his voice and turned around. Her eyes became as big as silver dollars. She screamed.
Wondering what all the commotion was about, Aaden also turned around. His heart sank. K-1 had Corbyn. Worse yet, Aaden instantly knew it was his fault. It was up to him to save his brother’s life, one way or another. Because Corbyn was being held captive, running away was not an option. Aaden had to try something else. He motioned for Maddy to stay put and turned towards the team’s pursuer. He hoped to engage him in conversation long enough to figure out what to do.
“What do you want with us?” Aaden took a step forward as he shouted above the roar of the river.
K-1 sneered. “None of your business, little man! And don’t you take another step or your brother will get it!”
To prove himself, K-1 knocked Corbyn upside the head again. Corbyn started to bleed from a small cut near his temple. Maddy screamed and moved forward, but Aaden held her back. He put his hands up in a show of surrender. It suddenly dawned on him that he had to stay in control of the situation so that he could negotiate Corbyn’s release.
“I’m impressed!” Aaden shouted. “How did you find us?”
K-1 yanked Corbyn closer but didn’t respond. He took out his crowbar and pointed it at Corbyn’s head. “Either you do what I say or he’s a dead man!”
Aaden was terrified, but pressed on. “What’s it going to cost us for you to release him?”
K-1’s lip curled. “Like you could afford me!”
Aaden hoped K-1 was driven by as much greed as it appeared. It was the only card he had to play. “What if I promised you that I can? How’s billions sound?”
K-1 laughed. “You think I’m that stupid?”
Aaden maintained his composure. “I can prove it to you!”
K-1 pressed the crowbar against Corbyn’s temple. “You have five seconds to explain yourself or else you’ll watch your brother die right here!”
Aaden responded instantly. “Join us on that raft over there and we’ll take you straight to the secret we’ve been looking for! Once we find it, you let us go and it’s all yours! What do you say?”
K-1 hesitated, but did not loosen his grip on his hostage.
“Look at this!” Aaden grabbed a silver canister from Maddy and tossed it towards K-1. “It contains a clue that will lead us straight to the secret! I promise! We just found it right next to the raft before you showed up!”
K-1 looked down at the canister. “You’re threatening me with a bomb now?”
“And kill my brother?” Aaden shook his head. “I’m not lying! It’s the clue that will lead us to the secret! Open it and see. It could be worth billions of dollars to you!” Aaden slowly put his hands down. “I don’t even care about the quest anymore! I just want to go home! This whole week has been nothing but a disaster!”
K-1’s grip tightened. “What’s your plan? You have two seconds to explain!”
Aaden felt a small sense of relief. His intuition about K-1’s greed might prove spot on. “You let my brother go, leave the three of us to figure out the clue in the canister, and we take you to the secret! When we get there, you take the secret and we never see each other ever again! The secret’s got to be worth way more than you’re getting paid to come after us!”
K-1 hesitated, processing his options. He nodded once. Still holding onto Corbyn, he walked over to where the other two stood.
“Release him,” Aaden ordered. “Or the deal’s off.”
K-1 growled. “You’re ordering me around now?”
“No release, no secret, no money. Simple as that.” Aaden began to sweat.
“Then you die.”
Aaden took a chance. “So be it. And you forfeit billions of dollars. What’s that prove?”
To Aaden’s great relief, his strategy paid off. K-1 violently pushed Corbyn to the ground and picked up the canister. He confirmed it was not an incendiary device and opened it up, revealing a piece of paper rolled up inside. He threw the paper at Aaden.
“You better not try anything.”
Aaden helped Corbyn up. He gave his brother a wink, mouthed that he was sorry, and turned to address K-1 once more. “We won’t. You have my word.”
Aaden unrolled the paper. Corbyn walked over to Maddy and hugged her. Crying hysterically, Maddy wiped the blood off the side of his head and held him tight.
“Get a move on!” K-1 ordered.
Corbyn and Maddy broke their embrace and joined Aaden.
“Thanks,” Corbyn mouthed.
Aaden nodded and held the paper up for all three teens to see.
As you travel the River Echo,
Make sure that you always know:
Four challenges you will meet,
To move on, each one you must defeat.
Should you find yourself astray,
With your life you might pay.
Aim first for the Monster’s Teeth,
Or else get sucked underneath.
Second, of all the options in the lake,
Clockwise says the luckiest path to take.
Third, get devoured by Mammoth Falls,
And you will find yourself in the Great Halls.
Finally, you’ll need to “blow” your way through the barrier within,
But make sure you don’t burn and scar your skin!
Should you navigate the river from beginning to end,
Your quest will continue on the Green River, my friend.
Team SoNaR huddled together so they could hear one another better.
“When Maddy and I got here we figured the raft was meant for us. Looks like we were right.” Aaden looked up. “Water again. Great.”
Maddy’s tears were subsiding. She knew she had to trust what Aaden was up to and help out however she could. “We have to trust the raft will do its job. The river’s moving too fast for my taste, anyway.”
“Hurry up,” K-1 ordered. “I don’t have all day.”
Corbyn spoke quickly. He ignored the throbbing in his head. “We’re going to have to pick the correct path on the river four different times. Let’s take it a step at a time. The first part is to be on the lookout for something that resembles fangs or something.”
“Monster’s teeth,” Maddy agreed. She looked at Aaden. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she mouthed.
“Me too,” Aaden mouthed back.
Team SoNaR beckoned K-1 forward and walked towards the raft. They looked inside. There were three oars and three life vests. Unfortunately, they now had an extra unplanned passenger to account for.
“Who gets to wear the vests?” Aaden asked.
“I’ll take care of that.” K-1 picked up two of the life vests and tossed them into the river. They quickly floated downstream, far out of reach. He put the remaining life vest on himself.
“What’re you doing?” Maddy shouted in horror.
K-1 smirked. “Simple. If you try anything, I push you overboard. Or, if the raft sinks, you drown, I float. Now get in.”
All three teens stared at K-1 in stunned silence. Speechless, Maddy finally climbed in the raft and grabbed a paddle. K-1 followed, taking up the rear so that he could maintain full view of the team. Corbyn and Aaden followed after they pushed the raft further into the river. It quickly found the current and was on its way.
“We need to use the oars to keep the raft in the middle of the river!” Corbyn shouted. “We can’t run into the walls or else we might puncture or flip the raft!”
Corbyn and Aaden each grabbed an oar. All three members of Team SoNaR did their best to guide the raft through the fast-moving torrent, fighting against the rapids that engulfed them. K-1 held on for dear life. Despite having the only life vest on, he wanted nothing to do with falling in.
After navigating through a particularly nasty set of class four rapids, Maddy asked, “How long do you think we have until we find this Monster’s Teeth thing?”
Before Corbyn or Aaden could respond, the answer became clear. As the raft flew around a bend in the river, an immense formation came into view.
“Are you kidding me?” Maddy asked in shocked horror.
Directly ahead, not more than one hundred meters downstream, the Echo River diverged in two directions. To the left was a sight that intimidated the raft’s occupants. Hanging from the ceiling of the cavern, directly above the middle of the river, was a line of six of the most massive stalactites any of them had ever seen. They were spaced approximately two meters apart from one another. Directly below each stalactite was a stalagmite that stuck up three meters above the water.
“The Monster’s Teeth,” exclaimed Corbyn in fascination. “That’s where we need to go!”
Unfortunately, in the few seconds they had spent staring at the massive formations, the teens had stopped steering the raft. It was now heading the wrong way. Instead of going towards the Monster’s Teeth on the left, the raft drifted towards a gigantic whirlpool on the right. And the whirlpool, which rotated at an extreme velocity, looked very hungry.