Chapter Four – Into the Bowels of the Earth
Mathis strolled across the worn plaza toward the stair, still smiling faintly. “I do not know that I can really blame him. The process can be both disconcerting and uncomfortable when one is accustomed to it. Loop the reins up short so he cannot trip on them and let him be. He will come along when he is ready.”
As Mathis spoke, he lifted both pooves to rub over his broad brimmed hat, leaving behind a dull green helmet complete with chin strap and head lamp shining like a small, red star in the gloom under the trees.
“What process?” Nathan asked. He glanced over his shoulder only once while reluctantly crossing the ruined decoration. When he turned his head back, Mathis’ uniform had regained is original green, brown, and black splotches. He had a short, green electric torch with a ninety degree bend near the bright end in his breast pocket. The camel pack had grown fatter, with a thick coil of sturdy rope, a climber’s pick, and a collapsed shovel strapped to the outside in places Mathis could reach.
Nathan looked at Mathis’ two lights and then down into the well of night into which the slaves had disappeared. “Why didn’t you give them a light? After what they have probably been through, stumbling around underground in the dark hardly seems like a good next step,” Nathan asked. It took effort to keep his eyes on Mathis. Nathan heard the sound of four, slow heavy steps behind him, then an ominous bit of nothing.
“They did not go the Way we are going. It was more of a shortcut home and far easier unseen,” Mathis said, watching idly over Nathan’s shoulder.
“All right, we are all ready. Time to move out,” Mathis said. He turned on his heel to lead the way down the stairs.
Nathan could not stand the suspense anymore. He turned to look back over his shoulder to check on his horse and saw…nothing. The tall, roan horse was gone. Then Nathan’s gaze shifted a little lower as a long-haired, black and white dog approached with an odd, stiff-legged gait. Only when the dog walked right up to Nathan and shook himself all over, did the boy notice the silver-studded, dove-grey collar, very like the missing horse’s bridle.
“Flame Heart?” Nathan asked, kneeling down and holding out his hand for the dog to sniff. Instead of approaching Nathan like a new person, the dog slipped his head under the extended hand to have his nose rubbed.
Mathis called back, his voice echoing slightly in the stairwell, “You did not really expect to take a horse down all these stairs and through the cave complex to the next Way, did you?”
Nathan could not find any real answer to that question, though he opened his mouth once or twice as he tried. Eventually, he shook his head in much the same gesture Flame Heart had used, and followed Mathis down into the dark. The blackness closed over Nathan’s head much as he imagined the sea might if he could breathe it as easily as air. Suddenly, the small, double circle of Mathis’ lamps ahead seemed to contain all the reality left to the world. After two more steps taken more on faith than fact, all trace of the desert and oasis above had faded away, but oddly, Nathan’s surroundings began to grow clearer.
At first, Nathan assumed that his eyes were adjusting to the lower light, and perhaps that did explain things at first. Then Nathan reached the wide, flat place where the stairs turned back on themselves to descend back in the opposite direction, and the boy realized he held aloft in his left hand an old fashioned oil lamp with wire mesh reinforcing the glass panels, and his clothing had changed once again.
The flowing, elegant lines of Nathan’s desert clothes had grown well-worn and neatly patched in places. His trousers had darkened to brown. They were cut loose enough to cover the tops of his hiking boots and allow full range of motion, but, with far less cloth involved. His collared, button down, khaki shirt had two breast pockets. The heavy canvas cloth had been so very well worn in that it felt almost as soft as silk. A thigh length, brown, leather coat over top with a matching fedora and belt completed the costume.
Part-way down the second set of stairs, the neatly carved risers faded into a worn, uneven, slippery parody of their former selves. Many narrow threads of water seeped out of the walls to pool, and merge on the stairs until a generous stream wandered from one wall to the other, jumping from the edge with a rippling murmur. The sound echoed from wall to wall building from a small whisper of sound in the enclosed space to something just short of a roar.
Mathis led the way, walking four to seven steps ahead. His gait had an odd pattern to it as the moose paused to make certain each step would support his weight and would not prove too slippery, before putting his weight on it. The stairs had no handrail. While tumbling, sliding, and bumping the way down to the bottom of the dark wet, stone stairs might be exciting and much faster, it would be much too soggily painful to be any fun.
A yawning chasm blossomed into reality as their moving lights sought out wall, ceiling, and stair but found only emptiness. The unfathomable depths broke through the right hand wall low down, near the water’s surface and spread from there until it swallowed more than three quarters of the stairwell, the whole right wall, and half of the ceiling.
Mathis and Nathan stopped, at the edge looking down. Even with all three lights, they could not see far into the depths. It took Nathan several moments before he realized that the muting effect the chasm had on the water’s voice was not just from removing the surfaces from which to echo. Most of the accumulated water disappeared into the inky depths, and it fell so very far that not even a whisper of its landing reached the two figures at the top.
Then, a sudden gust of damp air rose up out of the depths. What had been merely cool and disconcerting under the trees outside had grown icy and strong enough to knock Nathan off his feet, even though only a scant fraction blew up and down the stairs instead of continuing up through the lack of ceiling.
No sooner did Nathan strike the floor than he slipped. He dropped his lantern and scrambled with both his hands and feet trying to find any sort of purchase. Then his thrashing feet struck nothing. His hands slapped against the upright chasm edge, serving only to force Nathan even further out over nothing. For an instant, in that fraction of a moment before gravity pulled Nathan far enough down to build up any perceptible speed, he hung weightless, like he was floating and had no acquaintance with the concept of down.
An unshakable grip fastened on Nathan’s collar, turning float into fwap as the boy swung into the vertical stone face of the chasm and fell no further. Admittedly, this was not the most enjoyable experience Nathan could think of, but it had to be better than his prospective landing could be.
“If I can lift you high enough, do you think you can manage to climb onto my back?” Mathis asked in the same tone of voice he might use to ask Nathan to grab him an orange from the refrigerator when the moose saw the boy on the way to the kitchen; well, not exactly that tone of voice, unless Mathis was exercising at the time. The moose was a touch out of breath; just a touch.
“I am going to have to manage, now won’t I?” Nathan said, fighting back a bout of half-hysterical laughter even as he kept his arms stiffly down his sides. Dangling by his coat collar meant that all Nathan’s weight was being supported by the seams under his arms. It would be so easy to ease the pain by lifting his arms and slipping free from the coat, but that would make for a very short-term solution.
Nathan marveled at the strength being manifested by the smallish stuffed animal first encountered in his hotel room not long ago. With one poof, Mathis supported the weight of both bodies, and with the other, he carefully lifted Nathan. With both of Mathis lights facing the rock face, and no hint left of Nathan’s lantern, one could only hypothesize, deduce, and guess at their relative positions, so Nathan waited until he felt the hard curve that was probably the back edge of Mathis’s helmet hit the back of his head before reaching back for a grip of fur, uniform, or pack to twist around towards and try climbing. When questing fingers found cloth, Nathan’s hand clutched convulsively and he, carefully, started to twist. Nathan felt his collar draw tighter and fervently hoped he could manage the maneuver without tugging his coat off entirely.
“When I get back on my own two feet,” Nathan swore to himself, “the first thing I am going to do is button up my coat…oh after I help Mathis up, too, that is.”
“No, not that way,” Mathis directed. “If you keep turning that way you will end up clinging to my chest. Climbing up this rock face will be tricky enough as it is. On my back please.”
With great reluctance, Nathan untwisted himself. It was even more difficult convincing his fingers to release the only secure hold Nathan had in the wet, chill darkness.
Luckily, Nathan’s second hold was more easily come by. Instead of a fist full of uniform, Nathan found one of the multitudes of straps, flaps, and connectors on the outside of Mathis’ pack. Mathis kept them all closed, fastened and neatly stowed. It was only a matter of moments for Nathan to find the far shoulder strap with his second hand, and then he was clinging to Mathis’ pack swelled back with both hands and elbows. If Nathan could have figured out how to hollow out his chest and cling with that, too, he would have done it.
“Lift your knees up and use them to grip my hips as if you are posting on a trotting horse with no stirrups,” Mathis said. He released his grip on Nathan’s collar when the boy had a secure perch. Acceding to the request, Nathan found Mathis’ hips quite solid enough for a good grip, but without the bony inclusions one might expect in a human. Mathis did something to his pack with his free poof, reached under Nathan’s left leg, fiddled a bit more, and then pulled, and one of the many pack straps took up some of Nathan’s weight.
“Are you ready to start up, or would you prefer I try to get the other leg strapped first?” Mathis asked as if he had never heard of muscle fatigue and he could hang there by one hand all day and never grow tired.
“I am more than ready to get back on my feet. I am having trouble deciding if I should be grateful for my temporary blindness.” Nathan said, forcing his voice into a light tone.
“On the one hand, not being able to see where I am and what else might be out there about to do what weighs on the mind and only seems to get worse over time. On the other, I cannot see where we are, and just what you managed to grab when you leapt over the edge to save me. I suspect that may be a significant blessing.”
“It is not that bad,” Mathis said. Nathan could feel the shoulder under his left arm rise until it hung level with the right. Then the moose’s bum pushed out farther from the rock face then Mathis’ head. At the same time, the increased distance between Mathis’ chest and the wall lit up a greater area.
“I have my climbing pick caught on the stair edge. My gloves and boots are coated with a substance that increases friction, so I had a better chance of grabbing the rock than you did.”
Nathan closed his eyes and tried to follow Mathis’s movements in his head. The first shift was probably when the moose got his other hand on the pick handle. The back tilt would be Mathis bracing his feet against the stone. Carefully Mathis climbed the pick handle; hand over hand until he could get one hand on the stone stair. At that point, the moose in Nathan’s head lost his grip and they both tumbled back to fall in darkness forever. Nathan decided to focus on the last time his father gave him a piggyback ride instead from that point on. His dad could still manage such things. Nathan was not particularly tall or bulky for his age, but he had still outgrown his mum’s comfortable carrying capacity several years before.
Mathis reached back and unfastened the strap binding Nathan’s leg to the pack. When Nathan did not immediately dismount, Mathis sat down on one of the steps, consequently setting Nathan down on the one above. Cold water instantly soaked through Nathan’s pants, jerking his mind away from his contemplation of the past, back into the present. Then, just to make certain the boy was paying attention, Flame Heart the border collie shoved his cold, wet nose into Nathan’s ear.
“All right! All right!” Nathan laughed, easing his stiff fingers out from under Mathis’ shoulder straps, and returning his feet to terra firma. For a moment, he almost forgot, and then Nathan quickly raised his hands to button up his coat by touch, just in case.
Mathis stood up with damp dignity and moved to stand not quite leaning against the wall with his lights pointing back at Nathan. “Well, that was exciting, was it not?”
“Definitely,” Nathan agreed. In the stronger light, Nathan noticed his lantern hanging from Flame Heart’s mouth. The fall had put out the light but the glass was intact, and there still seemed to be oil in the reservoir. “I think we have used up our excitement quotient for this stage of the journey, and we have not even made it off the stairs,” Nathan said, coaxing the lantern away from Flame Heart and searching his pockets for matches, hopefully waxed ones, or sealed in a water proof tin.
“You never know what might happen when you go adventuring, or what might not happen,” Mathis said, his smile clear in his voice even though his face was in shadow. Nathan got the lantern lit with only one match. He carefully doused the burnt match in the water flowing around him before stowing it away in the second compartment of his match tin. They had no reason to suppose anyone or anything might be following them, and the likelihood of anyone spotting a discarded match in that environment was exceedingly remote, but littering is a bad habit to get into, and even a burnt match can be useful at times.
“Are you recovered enough to get moving again?” Mathis asked. His fur was matted to his head with water in spots, but the uniform would not give away just how much water it held.
“Let me see if I can,” Nathan started to say and then another icy breath spewed up out of the chasm that they escaped so recently. Nathan paused until the wind died down again, then tried to go on as if nothing happened. He almost made it. His voice only cracked once and only stayed weak for a couple syllables. “Stand up without falling again, and then I will answer you.”
Very gingerly, Nathan stood up. Flame Heart slipped under the boy’s hand to lend moral support if not physical. “I am ready. Let us get to the other side before the next blast comes to wipe me off the little bitty ledge.”
“Right,” Mathis said. He turned to face the wall and started sidling down the jagged remains of the staircase. As he went, Nathan noticed the way Mathis held his hands out from his sides and how assiduously the moose avoided touching the wall.
Nathan decided he did not want to know why, and simply played followed the leader. With no back pack and narrower shoulders, Nathan had an easier time of it. He only had to turn on the narrow section. There was a nervous moment or two at the point where a step and a half were missing entirely, but after that the stairs were dry and started to widen back out.
On the far side of the chasm, the stairs kept growing wider and wider, and shallower and shallower until, almost without realizing it, Nathan and Mathis were walking in a wide, low ceilinged cavern and no longer down a staircase at all. All the surfaces that the light could reach gleamed smooth and polished.
“This cavern used to be full of water before the stairs were broken, didn’t it?” Nathan asked, running a few steps to catch up and walk next to Mathis.
“Got it in one,” Mathis said with a brief smile. “Back then we would have had to swim this section, not that we would be much wetter swimming than we are already, but we would need alternate breathing arrangements.”
Nathan pulled his damp trousers away from his leg. “You might have a point there.”
“The path jumps up and through a short, narrow chamber to the next cavern. It is a lot more interesting than this one,” Mathis said. Something in the way Mathis spoke made Nathan nervous, or perhaps his little fall had just made him a bit paranoid.
“Chinese curse interesting, or greater variety interesting?” Nathan asking, in case he needed to be prepared, but he did not show any signs of even thinking about slowing down.
Mathis laughed and glanced over. “Just a greater variety in the terrain. The landscape should be fairly stable for the rest of this section.” Nathan made a mental note of how the word ‘fairly’ made the statement somewhat less than reassuring, but it did not bother him much. An element of danger, or at least the potential for danger was almost a requirement in any proper adventure. Anyone who wanted everything organized, safe, and entirely comfortable should never go adventuring.
Shortly, the triple light began to reflect almost greasily off the smooth rock walls as they reached the chamber’s end. In that distant, long ago when the water still filled that space, someone had carved three steep steps, almost more of a ladder than a staircase , into the end of the chamber up to a narrow gap less than three and a half feet in diameter, and a bit wider than it was high. Ages of flowing water over the carved stone had worn away the edges of the steps in a way that would be no trouble for a swimmer, but made them all but useless for Nathan’s squodgily soaked hiking boots.
“Just a mo’,” Mathis said, and started slipping free of his pack. He would not be able to fit through with it on his back. “Do you want me to give you a boost up and go second, or shall I lead the way and trail a bit of rope to give you something to haul yourself up?” Mathis hefted his coil of rope in one hand while he held his pack with the other, glancing from Nathan to the dark gap in the wall and back.
“I will lead the way,” Nathan said just a bit stiffly. The moose was tall enough to reach the edge without the steps, but Nathan had to work not to resent the way Mathis assumed that he could not manage to get himself up without help. Mathis was probably right, but he did not need to say so before Nathan had a chance to try.
“Do not help me unless I ask,” Nathan said and then frowned. He was not doing as good a job at not being resentful as he would like. He thought about apologizing for his tone, but Mathis did not seem to mind and the words stuck in Nathan’s throat.
Marching up to the worn almost steps, Nathan immediately saw something he was going to need help with. He blushed and scowled and held his lantern back towards Mathis. “Could you hold this for me until I get up, please?”
“Of course,” Mathis said easily, and very politely refrained from laughing, and with his back turned, Nathan could pretend to not notice the smile in the voice.
“Thank you,” Nathan said just a trifle grimly then stepped forward to make his attempt. The water worn steps slanted slightly downwards with no definite edge, almost as if they were natural indentations and protrusions of the rock. Nathan reached up to the third step and carefully explored the width until he found a good grip, but when he tried to do the same on the lowest step, his heavy boots found no purchase that would withstand his weight.
After the third time his foot slipped and banged Nathan’s knee or nose against the wall, the boy growled and sat down to jerk his wet boots and socks off. The footwear was very good at protecting his toes from the environment, but it also reduced all sensitivity, and sometimes bare skin is just better at getting a grip than a stiff boot.
Nathan tucked his wet socks inside his boots and loosely knotted the laces together so he could hang his boots around his neck, and scrambled up the wall as if it dare not resist any further. Sitting hunched up in the low space, Nathan reached down for his lantern.
If he could have sat up straighter, Nathan might have had his defiant little nose up in the air, but Mathis only said, “There might be something of a drop on the other end, so be careful when exiting.”
“Right,” Nathan said. He did not want to—as pulling on cold, wet socks is not an experience he particularly enjoyed especially when his toes were already rather waterlogged, but he knew enough to keep his feet protected in an unknown environment—so socks and shoes went back on before Nathan turned to start down the tunnel, pushing his lantern ahead of him. The light did a good job of filling the space, so Nathan had no trouble seeing. The tunnel rose slightly for several feet, just a little too short for Nathan to really crawl on hands and knees in the ordinary way. He had to stretch his arms and legs just a little wider than could really be comfortable to keep his head from bouncing along the ceiling. They nearly touched the walls on either side and the strain on his muscles quickly built up.
Hearing a slithering, scraping noise behind him, Nathan glanced back along his body to see Mathis’ pack sliding along behind him framed by a broad pair of antlers dragging along the ceiling and walls as Mathis belly crawled along behind. Nathan hurried up his crawl before the pack could bump into him from behind.
Nathan had reason to be grateful for the unusual strain he put his body through. It gave him something to concentrate on. He was fine as long as the tunnel kept climbing, but then it turned down. After the near disaster at the abyss, Nathan started feeling every moment like he was about to lose his purchase and start sliding forward down the narrow hole, deep underground into who knows what. If he did not have the distraction, panic might have ensued, and that would be even more embarrassing than needing help up the wall.
At the bottom of the incline, Nathan found a noisome, stagnant puddle. The still surface reflected Nathan’s light dully, giving no indication as to its depth or anything that might lurk under the surface. Having nothing handy to use as a probe, he had no choice but to crawl though the puddle with the lantern in one hand and hope, while doing his best to hold his breath.
**Stalling for time, Nathan glanced back at the pack following him and called out, “What happened to Flame Heart? We did not leave him back there did we?”
“Flame Heart leapt up into the tunnel as soon as I got out of his way. He is having a much easier time of it than we are, as he can walk normally as long as he keeps his head down,” Mathis said, a touch of strain in his voice.
“Is there a problem?” Mathis asked when the sound of Nathan’s movement did not pick up again.
Nathan sighed. “Not really. Just a puddle I am not really looking forward to crawling through,” he admitted. Nathan took a deep breath and then took the obstacle at as close to a charge as he could manage in the circumstances, refusing to give himself any more coddling. When stirred, the bottom of the puddle proved just as slimy and noxious smelling as Nathan feared, but since, at its deepest, the water was less than half a foot deep and nothing worse lurked in the depths, Nathan just kept going, leaving a slick, smelly trail like a pair of snails racing along both walls behind him.
“Look at it this way,” Mathis called after him, “It is much easier to clean slime and muck off of your smooth human skin than it is to get it out of my fur. If you take a few really deep breaths through your nose, it should deaden the smell to more tolerable levels.”
Nathan tried it, and soon forgot out the smell. The rest of the tunnel leveled out and soon he could see the end where the tunnel pierced the next chamber. He could not see much as two vertical, ripple sided columns blocked most of the view.
With Mathis’ warning in mind, Nathan slowed to a stop at the edge. “I have reached the tunnel’s end. Please do not push me over the edge,” Nathan called then stuck his head through to study the terrain. One of the two columns formed from where a stalagmite had grown up to merge with its parent stalactite into a single feature had grown up against the wall until it sealed the left third of the tunnel’s exit. The second column had grown up some two feet further in, blocking most of the rest, but the floor was not much of a drop.
“The way out is partially blocked. Flame Heart and I should not have any trouble, but you are going to have some trouble getting your antlers through the gap,” Nathan said even as he pulled his legs up close to his chest and swung his feet over the edge. A short jump down, and Nathan reached back for his lantern.
“Do not worry about me,” Mathis said his voice tired but otherwise unaffected. “If necessary, I can always shift back to the size I was when we first met.”
“If you could shrink back down any time you wanted, why did you take the tunnel the hard way?” Nathan asked, slipping sideways between the second pillar and the chamber wall and around into the wider space. Nathan was careful not to touch the pillar. He knew that the oils on his skin could damage the formation, as odd as it sounded that delicate human skin could damage stone.
“This is an adventure and that would be cheating. If we wanted to do things the easy way, we could have taken the elevator down from your hotel room, and just brought a book to fill the time until they opened the buffet,” Mathis said, as if the answer should have been obvious. After a second’s thought, Nathan agreed with the moose. It should have been, so Nathan turned his attention back to his surroundings.
More pillars lined the walls of the nearly round chamber at uneven intervals. Several other tunnels like the one through which they came could be seen behind them, plus three larger exits piercing the far side. The leftmost path stood some distance from the other two, with several tunnels between, but the other two started off as a single, broad path splitting into two after only a few feet and then curving off in different directions.
The ceiling overhead arched high in the middle, and a generous crop of stalagmites dotted the floor, narrow at the top and spreading wider than Nathan thought they should have in uneven patterns until the milky built up stone looked like a small forest of snow covered pine trees growing there far away from the sun. Nathan held his lantern up as high as he could, staring up at the ceiling. The stalactites, as if in an effort to retain balance, dripped longer and thinner, glittering like icicles where the light struck the surface just right.
Walking carefully over the uneven stone, Nathan drifted toward the center of the room until he felt Flame Heart’s warm skull under his free hand and glanced up to find Mathis standing at his other shoulder. Nathan jerked his hand up as if the touch of the dog’s soft fur burned him. “Oh no, you do not want my mucky hands dirtying up your fur. Your nose is so much more sensitive than mine,” Nathan told the dog with distress clear in his voice.
Flame Heart gave Nathan a long look, and then he leapt up, bracing his front paws on the boy’s chest and started licking the raised hand. A look of unmitigated horror blossomed on Nathan’s face and Mathis started to laugh.
“More sensitive his nose might be, but you forget that dogs can enjoy rolling around in some very, to humans, stinky things while they have problems with some scents human like.
With an effort, Nathan regained control of his features. Very slowly, he lowered his hand and gently patted the dog. “There is no accounting for taste,” Nathan said in a faintly strangled voice. Then he deliberately changed the subject as Flame Heart dropped down to all four feet again. “So, which way do we go from here? Please tell me it is one of the bigger ways.”
“As you wish,” Mathis said, grinning and bowing. Then he went on more seriously. “There are actually several ways we could go. There are other, technically, shorter ways, but walking the longer way will probably take less time than crawling through the smaller ways. The shortest way narrows down to just a bit less than two feet square at a very inconvenient point, which is not a challenge I really want to face, unless you insist.”
“I am quite content to take the longer way around and avoid getting stuck somewhere in the middle,” Nathan said with dignity. “So which way?”
“Head for the left branch of the right exit,” Mathis said pointing. “The path wanders around for a bit but the chamber at the end has the next Way in it. Even if it was not where we want to go, the chamber is well worth a visit.”
Nathan pressed Mathis for more details as they wove their way through the petrified pine forest and started down their chosen ‘path’, but the moose refused to spoil the surprise. Soon Nathan was too busy watching where he was going to continue an interrogation that was going nowhere. The cave chosen was not so much a single, long cave as a series of roughly horizontal galleries that ran one into another at different angles. The surfaces were often jagged and littered with sharp edged rocks of many sizes that had broken loose from the ceiling at some point.
Moving through the seemingly endless gloom of that subterranean world, the boy lost track of the passage of time somewhere along the way until it seemed like his path had looped. He would walk along one gallery, jump or climb or squeeze his way into the next and then pick his way down the next, only to jump or climb or squeeze his way into the next. So deep was Nathan’s trance that he almost stepped right into the white foaming water of an underwater river before he heard its roar. The three travelers had to edge up the damp, narrow bank for quite a way before they reached a place where the rocks of the river’s bed stuck up far enough and close enough intervals for them to ford.
Mathis insisted on using his rope to bind all three of them one to another before attempting to ford. If anyone fell into that churning flow the icy water would make short work of them, if the rocks did not get them first. The moose, as the heaviest, strongest, and most sure footed also insisted on leading the way, feeling out the best path with his strong pooves and an extendable probe he pulled out of his pack.
After that, the adventurers only had one more gallery to cross. As soon as they stepped into it, still roped together, Nathan could tell they were getting close. Mathis put out both his lights, and even in the moose’s shadow thrown by Nathan’s lantern, a glittering light could be seen leaking into the path’s end from around the bend.
Without even noticing, Nathan sped up his pace until he had pulled the rope around his chest taut where it led back to both the moose and the dog. The color and quality of the light was wrong to be a way outside, but both Nathan’s arms ached from holding the lantern aloft, first with one and then the other. The boy was very ready to be outside in the open air again, but a change would be as good as a rest, and he was tired of the way the shadows seemed to crowd around the edges of the lantern’s light, as if waiting for any lapse so that they could rush in and pounce on the three surface dwellers that dared invade that subterranean world.
“Slow down, Nathan. If you rush into the next chamber without giving your eyes a chance to adjust, you will blind yourself,” Mathis cautioned, slowing his steps to drag Nathan’s headlong plunge back by main force.
Even so, Nathan kept straining ahead for several seconds until Flame Heart’s whimper of protest finally pulled him up short. With a sigh, Nathan dropped back to walk with Mathis. “Okay,” Nathan said in resignation. “I guess blindness would not be much improvement over the dark.”
Mathis patted Nathan’s shoulder and slowed their pace to a crawl. Since he did not actually come to a stop, Nathan managed to abide by the snail’s pace without straining forward towards the light again.
“Just be glad that we had your lantern for this instead of just the smaller colored torches like mine. Our eyes never really had a chance to adjust to the dark, so the opposite transition is equally small,” Mathis said, finally coming to a halt. With a few quick, economical gestures, the moose blew out Nathan’s now useless lantern, and removed the rope from around his own torso and Nathan’s.
“Go ahead and look while I free Flame Heart and recoil the rope. We will be along momentarily,” Mathis said, but Nathan was already moving with Flame Heart on his heels as soon as Mathis freed him from his bonds.
Nathan thought he knew what to expect when he all but rushed into the scintillating chamber beyond, but no paltry stretch of his imagination could truly have prepared him for what he found. His headlong rush slid to a halt only a few steps into the room as his eyes and his mind grew too busy trying to assimilate his surroundings to leave any neurons left over to control and guide his feet.
Broad veins of pure quartz ran through the wide, flat floor, glowing brightly with light reflected from who knows how far away. This light was caught, broken up, redirected, and amplified into millions of rainbows by the densely packed crystals that grew thickly on every other surface, like the inside of a geode. In the middle of the floor a shaft of bright light flickered and splintered and shifted. Nathan’s light dazzled eyes could not pick out any details, but such a blatantly eye grabbing feature almost had to be the Way to the next level. Slowly, shielding his eyes with one hand, Nathan started to creep closer.
“This way,” Mathis said. Startled, Nathan turned away from the pure, cold flame in the middle of the room. Mathis squatted down by the only dark spot in the whole room. Someone or something had removed or blackened all the crystals on that section of the wall, and Mathis felt carefully among the points, shards, and crevices until one gave with a sharp faintly ringing snap, like the breaking of a glass rod.