We awoke when the mist returned, finding its way into the chamber, flowing into many strands that followed their own paths across the ceiling before uniting again at the exit. It still is a miraculous thing to behold I have to admit.
We continued our trek through the caves, following the instructions of Sarita. Meanwhile, Brad foraged the area for the plants we now knew to be edible; the prickly buds were his greatest prize. He found but only two that were ripe enough. He stashed them on Chrysita’s backpack, for when we made camp again, to which all of us looked forward.
Anne tried to make conversation with Sarita again, guessing more and more words, but the girl appeared little interested, rather beat down in fact. It seemed she had really enjoyed her time away from home. Professor Scutolith and I meanwhile discussed the many possibilities how these caves came to be. We talked about the various weather phenomena we already saw and what else could exist and how they would further erosion. Maybe they would even form an entirely new form of sedimentary rock.
We also discussed the rhythm of the mist. Since we would rise with the mist, rested for lunch when it fell and made camp for dinner when it rose again, I noticed that it was a rhythm similar to that of the tides. When I, based on that, proposed the mist to be influenced by the same forces as the tides, which coincided with the lunar phases, the Professor agreed with my thesis, seeing little other indication and lauding me for noticing.
The deeper we went by Sarita’s directions, the more common vines and tree-like plants became, turning from a fern- and grassland to a thicket that at times blocked our path. More than once we needed to cut ourselves a path through thorny bushes, woody vines and thick leaves, but we continued on this path as Sarita guided us, promising that we would find her village at the end.
The darkness and hunger made us all irritable and it was again Brad who gave his frustration voice. “I think this brat is trying to lead us astray.”
The Professor took this concern serious and hummed in contemplation. “I could ask the spirits for additional guidance.”
Brad turned to him with cynical glare. “And why are we even relying on the girl of we could have done that all along?”
“It is not that simple, trusted guide. To convene with the spirits, I need to know their song quite well. Those down here are nothing like what I know from the surface. Let us find an offering and hope it does not enrage these spirits.”
We caught a larger one of those bird-like creatures alive. Through some scouting, we found a place where the ground was suitable for the ritual and began. The Professor drew a circle of protective runes around us, then sat down before the bound offering.
He began to hum and sing songs in various languages, apparently looking for the right harmony with the spirits of this place, according to Anne. He let his voice and volume wander through pitches and sounds previously unknown to me. This search for a harmony continued until finally arriving at old Pliranti poetry. This seemed to grant the Professor the best results and a cold draft set in through the cave. I felt a strong presence come closer from all sides, but it stopped at the protective circle. The atmosphere of the cave felt heavy-set and weighing down on me, pressing our protective bubble to shrink even more. I felt a layer as thin as a hair separate me from the danger. Even Sarita became more and more anxious. She looked at the Professor with fearful eyes.
The Professor began to draw more runes in the ground around the offering and took out a knife. He repeated a certain chorus several times, then sang in tune with something none of us else could hear.
A sudden burst of lines and words broke the monotony apart. It seemed the Professor was engaged in a fierce dialogue. He pushed and tried to subdue merely through his voice. His force rose in spirals throughout the chorus until all tension fell of his body and voice. He raised the knife and his voice above the offering and with a swift motion, brought it down upon its throat.
Blood squirted high in the air, the offering squirmed and screamed, trying to escape its fate, but the spirits had taken its life as sacrifice already.
All else around us relaxed and the Professor hummed and whispered a few last notes, then the oppressive air lifted.
“We are done now, you can relax.” He stood up with an exhausted smile.
“Well?” Brad was the first to step forward. “What did the spirits say? What direction must we go?”
“As much as I tried coming to an agreement, the spirits in this place do not know or trust me. All I could find out was that we are indeed nearing a settlement. The direction the girl leads us into is not the wrong one.”
It looked as if Brad wanted to protest the vagueness of the information but let it go with a sigh. We set back out under the continued guidance of Sarita, who seemed to be even more impressed and afraid of the Professor than already before.
And soon enough we did find something that could be a properly kept footpath, complete with crushed rock and boards to even out the slope. On this, we managed to get ahead much faster than before. It was a good feeling to walk ground we had not to constantly balance out to avoid falling.
We travelled on this road for the rest of the day and by the time the mist rose again, we had gathered two more of the prickly bulbs, along with sour berries, some roots recommended by Sarita and herbs that reminded me of sage. Together with crumbs of bread, we managed to make a rather tasty dinner that allowed us not only seconds, but also thirds and after all was gone, had me leaning against Chrysita’s body and loosening my belt one or two holes so my stomach could do its work unimpeded.
Without my sleeping bag, I slipped into a slumbering daze, of which I was awoken by the sweetest of noise. Sarita and Anne were hunched over Anne’s notebook, scribbling pictures and exchanging words. They had a proper conversation with each other, with primitive sentences, but still. Anne’s smile during that time, her giggles and chuckles, it was beauty in this harsh and rough place. When she noticed me looking, she moved close to Sarita, turning her back to me.
I finally managed to get up and prepare my sleep stead. I hoped to maybe see and hear more sweetness in my dreams.
We awoke in the rising light and continued our travel. Soon, we found ourselves in a thicket so impenetrable and dark that if we had been under open skies, we would not have been able to tell. Even mistlight could not reach down to the ground in most spots. The Professor and I helped Brad with forging a path, making use of weak but effective magic that turned our staves into cutting tools against leaves and twigs. Adapting to this limited but unending supply of power was certainly challenging much of what I had learned and so, I made sure to note down my newest ideas and discoveries in my small spell book the next time we came to rest. Although the shaping of a sturdy, stable step as we did in the shaft was not possible without flux, shaping a tiny section of rocky wall to serve as hold for foot or hand of a careful climber certainly was. Both the Professor and I learned to adapt our magic to tiny acts with significant effects.
But before such a time for rest and writing, we came to another impasse when Sarita froze in place, went down into her knees and made hectic “SHHH! SHHH!” noises.
Wary of what she could have heard that had escaped our ears, we tried to stay as silent as possible and though I saw nothing, I could tell there was a certain presence close to us. A leaf was pushed aside, a dead twig broken off, but nothing betrayed any direction. Brad’s ears turned and searched in vain, while Sarita’s had locked onto a direction. Too late I deduced it.
In a silent leap, a long, dark shape flew out at me from the thicket next to me. An open maw and clawed paws readied to push me to the ground and tear my jugular open. I brought my staff forward, the hefty crystal sphere hitting the cat-like predator in the shoulder, the shaft – still imbued with magic – inflicted a shallow but long cut along the predator's head.
Hissing in anger, the predator tried to attack again, but a second blow right to its forehead cut short its will to sustain its attack and it backed away into the underbrush.
Sarita screamed in anger and jumped around in her bindings. Another cat-like predator leapt out of the thicket on the other side of the path towards the Professor, a third and fourth came from behind. With a well placed kick, Chrysita hit one in mid-flight and punted it back into the jungle thicket. Then she turned to the one attacking the Professor, which he had fended off by ramming his staff into its mouth, which the predator now tried to wrest from him. A single stomp of Chrysita’s foot put a quick end to the predator’s spine and life with a wet cracking sound.
Another predator pounced the smallest and lightest member of the group, Sarita. She tried to evade, but with feet shackled and hands on her back, she stumbled. The predator was quickly on her back, readying for a bite to the neck, but the shouting Brad grabbed the predator by the head and yanked it around in an effort to subdue it. Instead, the predator redirected its efforts towards Brad, burying its teeth into his forearm. I still tried to think of a spell for the situation when a series of loud noises tore apart the noise of battle.
A BANG, then a whistling, thena splattering sound as the predator's head exploded into a hundred little chucnks of bone, teeth and brain, bright red blood spraying across the green leaves and the jaw letting go of Brad’s arm.
A straight line of sizzling air ran from the Professor’s staff to where the beast’s head had been, only an inch by Brad's arm. After a moment of tension, we sighed. We then made sure everyone was unharmed. Brad’s arm was tended to while Anne checked the girl for any marks.
“We should untie Sarita.” Anne confronted Brad after all wounds were seen to. “This could have ended badly.”
“So she can bail on us and leave us to die in this wilderness? No way!”
Anne remained stern, fists on hips. “Then at least untie her hands!”
I decided to speak on behalf of the humane side. “The least we can do is that, Brad. Leave her hands free. I have nothing against shackling her and keeping her by Chrysita at all times, but this could have killed her. Who knows what happens next?”
Brad gave in. The ties on Sarita’s hands and feet were undone and instead, he tied some sort of harness of rope around her, held together by a thick knot on her back, where she could not reach. By this harness she was tied to Chrysita. None of us wanted to risk the girl escaping or turning on us.
Brad studied the carcass of the predator and I peeked over his shoulder. They looked very much like large cats, possibly cougars, but much darker in fur and their legs were very short, reminding me of a weasel or those dogs bred to hunt badgers and rabbits. He found little of interest and we hurried along down the road and I agreed to that sentiment; the faster we left this thicket the better.