„And with this...!“
*THUMP THUMP THUMP*
I was hammering the last wooden peg into the last wooden plank to secure it.
“...it is done!” I turned to the crowd waiting below the ramp.
A cheer went up through the caverns and the steward led up one of the horses carrying the remaining eldest on its back up the ramp. The long path to the top took them a while but not a single worrisome creek was heard. I had expected not anything different, for I had insisted on Chrysita testing the laid planks almost every day since the stone part of the ramp had been finished.
It was now more than one month that we arrived in this village. Anne’s leg had healed up nicely and she was back to walking on her own. A bit weakly and wobbly but surely, she would find her strength again in good time. The first caravan we had seen had already departed but two new ones had arrived and stayed to witness the inauguration of the new ramp.
The remaining eldest finally arrived at the top and with a gesture, proclaimed our debt paid. My companions and I sighed with relief. It was finally over and we could return to our travels.
We did not however yet leave. Yet another small celebration was had with even more morsels the other caravans had brought. Again, stories were exchanged and we even managed to acquire a new map of the area. Together with the one we had bought in Slabtown, we were now more than equipped to reach the next pillar of upholding: a city by the name of Bev-Shturam, supposedly built in the same chamber as a pillar of upholding and a centre for much trade between peoples and cultures.
We left the next day, some of the villagers were almost sad to see us go, but we were too determined to stay any longer. To Valdissa, I bestowed a last gift: Out of the same gabrro stone as the ramp, I had magically formed a coin as large as my palm. This coin depicted a shining sun, a crescent moon and three stars, all in the same circle. On the backside, my name and those of my parents.
“So that at least is not lost.” I told her. She accepted it with a smile. There truly was no love between us, but some sort of deep respect and inclination to one another. She showed little distress over her possibly soon death and so I decided to show none either.
With supplies restocked more by kindness than by trade, we set back out on the road downwards. Not much about the scenery changed, meadows with a few grazing horses with the occasional herder watching over them, waving a friendly goodbye to us remained the most common sight, even on our second day of travelling.
We eventually came to a rather steep incline directly behind a sign that marked the outer border of Staerja’s territory, but with rope and care, we managed to descend this one as well. After around 900 feet of this descent, we found ourselves in a wide and open chamber, which the Professor theorized to be another layer of soft rock washed entirely empty by water and wind. We travelled along a dirt path flanked by high grass and bushes, hiding wild animals we could hear. Our Urshog companion stayed always alert, his spear at the ready.
Not much later we saw the chamber narrow and merge with another one, bearing a torrenting river, that had eaten its way through a tube. Single pillar-like stone islands still stood several feet above the rapid flow. Mages had shaped bridges of stone between those islands, but it seemed long ago and no sign of any cadre was in sight. We found the bridges to be reliable enough and forged on, since our Urshog companion assured us, it was the way to the throughway reaching Bev-Shturam.
The tunnel varied between as much as a hundred feet and just five or six in width, the river below seemed to have a strongly differing depth as well, sometimes squeezing through as little as a foot of space between the island pillars, sometimes running calm and shallow across its entire width. From the consultation of our map, we knew that we would come across a fork further ahead, where the river would leave divert from our path. From there on, we would continue to a vast chamber with a lake and beyond that, another throughway that spiralled further down towards Bav-Shturem
Before we reached that chamber however, our Urshog friend stopped dead in his tracks.
“What is it, friend?” The Professor had noticed and asked him.
But the Urshog remained silent. He seemed to listen into the darkness before us. Finally, he resumed his walk, with slow steps. “We might have become chosen prey.”
We stood in our circle of light in the dark cave and looked to the Urshog.
“We have become chosen prey?”
He nodded. “Yes. Something is in these caves and it might have already sensed us.”
It gave me an uneasy feeling, conjuring memories of those tentacled reachers were once again in the dark waters.
Sarita seemed distressed in a more knowing manner, as if she could already tell what our professional hunter was referring to. “What kind of predator have you sensed?”
“It must be a Hochon-Yi, I have seen its tracks earlier and just now... there was this air on the wind."
“Dear goodness.” Sarita whispered, as if afraid the named beast could take offense from hearing it.
I had to inquire. “What kind of beast is that Hochon-Yi?”
“A tunnel stalker. It tries to catch prey in narrow tunnels where it can flee into only one direction. It is difficult to take on there, as it cannot be flanked.”
“And what do we do now?”
“Continue and hope we reach the large chamber before the Hochon-Yi reaches us.” He held his spear close and put his left hand on the hilt of his gladius. He took the lead and we followed. Soon I could hear an odd noise reverberating through the cave from far away; the others seemed to as well. It was the call of the Hochon-Yi as the Urshog and Sarita pointed out, a high-pitched chirping followed by three short hisses. Why it called, neither of them knew, but if it was in search of a mate, it might wander great distances, hence its presence close to populated caves as our friend in the blue shirt told us.
Our trek went ahead slowly, or did it only seem so because the pressure forward had increased? We soon could hear faint steps and more calls. We scraped our moonlight crystals in the hope of coaxing just a bit more light out of them, but even with Chrysita’s last remaining intact beam, our lights seemed wholly inadequate against the darkness that concealed the beast making the ever-nearing sounds.
We came to a sharp bend in the tunnel and I could already feel the portent in this moment warning me not to turn the corner, but it had to come how it came to be. We made it around the corner and stood face to face with the monstrosity, only twenty yards apart. Its shoulder stood six feet tall. On first sight, it reminded me of a wolf, the way it stood and walked on all four, holding the tail out behind it and swinging it as it walked, but then the light falling upon its face with the large, black eyes revealed a skin, reptilian and tough, like leather cut into overlapping scales. Its serpent-like jaw was open, revealing a row of long, curved teeth that were sure to hold any prey tightly with unforgiving pain. Its head flowed seamlessly into a muscular neck, its feet bore long curved claws and its tail was thick and meaty, covered in even thicker scales and spikes pointing out the sides.
The Hochon-Yi eyed us greedily for only a mere moment. I did not know how long we stared silent and full of fright at the creature at the edge of our light’s reach, but our Urshog friends pushed us to run before the beast broke out into a sprint after us.
“BACK, BACK TO THE NARROWEST POINT!” He yelled.
It was for nought, however. While we hurried across the bridges connecting the many tiny islands along river, it was still not enough, for the Hochon-Yi simply leapt from island to island, sometimes even skipping one or two with a single leap.
We tried to get across the meandering paths as quickly as possible, but the beast gained on us. Soon, Anne, by far the most laden of us, screamed from the back of the group. “IT ALMOST GOT ME!”
I could not resist throwing a glance back and truly, its snout was at times close enough to scoop her up in a single bite. It started another attempt, its neck reared left, its jaw opened into a tensed pose for just the blink of an eye before its head whipped right, snapping close with a sound that made my guts wrench, missing Anne by a mere inch or two.
Ahead we neared a narrow point in the tunnel, too narrow for the beast to fit through without climbing. The Urhsog pointed forward with his spear. “GET THROUGH THERE!” then he made a sudden stop. I almost collided with him but managed to stumble past him and catch my fall on my hands.
A sound like bone on stone was heard, scraping and grinding of teeth. I looked back and saw Chrysita, opposing the Hochon-Yi, her torso rammed into the beast’s maw. It tried to chew through the granite but it was futile. The Urshog whirled around the golem’s massive body and successfully drove his spear into the beast’s side.
A hissing roar went across the rock and hit my eardrums with painful force. I stood up and looked ahead; Anne and Sarita had already climbed through the narrow spot, Brad was helping the Professor through and I headed for it as well when a sudden scream made me turn around once more.
The Urshog was pinned under the beast’s claws. The Hochon-Yi readied its maw to bite his head off, while Chrysita, lacking any arms or momentum, could merely push herself against the beast otherwise occupied.
I tightened the grip around my staff, dashed forward. I found a simple formula in the recesses of my intuition and fired it at the beast. A whistling and hissing wind of frigid air shot from the tip of my staff, vapour and ice crystals hit the Hochon-Yi in its eyes. It flinched, recoiled, hissed again. Its paw was off the Urshog, he got up and pulled his gladius in a motion so fluid and fast as such a mountain of muscle did not look to be able to.
I kept my concentration, continually pushing energy through my veins and out of my mind, hoping to push the enemy back for good, but after the moment of recoil, the Hochon-Yi merely closed its eyes and in a swift motion from left to right, snapped for my staff’s head. It caught it by its tip, bit down and whipped its neck around another time. I gripped as tightly as possible, lest the beast wrest it from my hands.
A jerk on my arm, I held onto the staff, lost my balance, fell flat on my belly. The sound of cracking wood above me. I looked to see the beast’s maw wide open, the Urshog’s figure approached, the beast’s claw came down upon from above. I rolled to the right, into empty air.
Before I could realize my folly, I slipped off the island into the roaring river below.
Icy cold enveloped me, crushed down upon my body, robbed me of my breath, pulled me along. My name was yelled, the beast roared and hissed, far far away in the distance. The icy force pushed me further away still. All light was gone, only darkness remained. I was whipped side to side, pulled along, and dashed against rock over and over, my head remained unscathed by my legs, my arms which took the brunt of the force.
Countless bruises and a long time without a calm breath later, I came to rest on what seemed to be a shore of pebbles.