We departed from the side of the throughway with the first swathes of mist rising from below. The trampled path through the wilderness led us down very soon, with some sloped caves being only traversable over serpentines and barely secured stairs of wood and mud, but the mere fact that this was obviously a travelled route gave me more hope than the aimless wandering through thickets and barren rock caves we had escaped from.
At lunch, our Urshog companion decided to test his injured arm and found it rather dependable. We still insisted he leave the splint on, but he could at least loosely grasp with his hand that way, making him less awkward when handling food and wardrobe. We had to fight that engrained sense of honour and servitude of his when imploring him to go easy. He was no direct burden to us thanks to his own rations and so, he had to do little to prove his usefulness. He had already shown impressive strength in just one arm when hauling firewood or securing the others with a rope for descents on steep slopes. With two arms, his strength would surely prove to be of significant usefulness.
Our path led downwards at a regular pace and with the help of our map, compass and trigonometry, we could confirm that we were indeed descending at a good pace. As our altitude decreased, the mist would stay up for longer and the vegetation grow thicker. In an especially large cavern, which stretched at least half a mile far and wide, we saw for the first time something that gave off the impression of being a pasture.
Tall grass sprawled from wall to wall, free of any shrub or tree as if carefully tended to so that softer green may grow for herds of grazing animals, if there had been any. But the tall grass told me that this chamber had not seen grazing animals in quite some time. The cavern went on like this, wide but flat, in some places even with terraces dug out of natural rock by hand. the few animals we did see were small critters and those peculiar birds that clung to the walls. As we disturbed their habitat, they dashed from left to right and back, hiding in the tall grass, always poking their heads out in alertness of potential dangers.
The path reached a sudden stop at a cliff. Ahead of us, the ceiling stayed where it was, while the ground dropped down at least a hundred feet. Leading down that drop was what could generously be called a ramp on a wooden scaffolding, meandering its way down from left to right, slighlty, just slightly, sloping downwards. Its wood was halfway to decayed and tied together with rope that clung on by mere threads. As we looked and stared, illuminated by the glowing mist, a gust of wind came through the cavern, sending a creaking through the scaffolding of rotting wood.
Anne looked at the dilapidated construction and shook her head. “I am not setting a single foot on there, let’s find another way!”
But the Professor was already consulting the map. “I don’t think there are even any other ways out of this cavern, Lieschen. We’d have to return to the throughway.”
Unease made its way into Anne’s face. “You go first then, uncle.”
But he seemed little impressed. “Or we shall again send Chrysita ahead again to test the stability.”
Anne did not object to that proposal and neither did anyone else. Happy to be of use, Chrysita stepped onto the wooden ramp. As her foot settled on the wood, a creaking and groaning arose all the way downward to the bottom of the cave, where its echo resounded and made its way back several seconds later, like thunder in the distance.
Chrysita waited for a moment, then set her second foot ahead.
The scaffold held. We stepped onto the wood ourselves, emboldened by the weight it already sustained. It was only after the heavy and tall Urshog had walked onto the planks that a second creaking sound arose. Mere moments later, Chrysita plummeted through the floorboards, crushing any remaining stability the ramp might have had. The planks under my feet turned to splinters.
One loud crack after another, the seven of us plummeted through all levels of the staircase. On occasion, I would plummet two or three levels down at once, on others, I would be granted a blink of respite before the wood gave way under me.
Many bruises and bumps later, I felt soft, moist soil on my face. Groaning and whimpering arose around me. Everyone was calling out their body parts that hurt me most. For me, it was the forehead, for on that soft and moist soil, a single rock had been in place right where my head would land.
I managed to get up and regain my orientation just in time to hear the scaffolding above us creak downwards, first slowly, then folding onto us like playing cards and toothpicks, but manifold times heavier and harder. The first level of boards hit my head quite harder than I had wished, every following level just added to the constant pressure upon me. Finally, the last piece of the ramp had fallen down for good and I was alone in darkness and splinters.