We had been racing through the tunnels for what seemed eternity, but I’m sure was only a few minutes. We had lost the last bit of light within seconds and had been moving by feel. That feel became deep fear when we felt only open air under our feet. It was momentary and we only dropped about three feet, but to me it was a warning, there could be a sudden drop at any time.
“Stop,” I said. “Let’s catch our breath and then move at a sane pace. I’m not in the mood to hit a well or something.”
“Fine,” Silriend said. “I’m with you there. That drop was bigger than me…”
“You don’t seem to know these caves,” I said.
“Of course not,” the little guy said.
“I thought your people made them.”
“They did. Hundreds of years ago. There aren’t that many of us left, and most of my people now live in a distant kingdom. We may return someday, but most likely not.”
“Oh. So these tunnels are a mystery to you.”
“What about the glowing butterfly we followed before? Can’t it help us?”
“No. That was a creature of those tunnels. This system is separate. Only ghosts live here, ghosts of our past. I don’t think they will help us, do you?”
I didn’t know anything about ghosts and didn’t care to find out.
“How big is this system?”
“Oh, there are many thousands of miles of tunnels with maybe two or three entrances. At any point there may be 20 or 30 levels of tunnels. We’ve gone up and down at random, so… To answer your question, its big and we’re lost.”
“OK, so we stumble through the dark, guessing our way through thousands of miles of passages with nothing to eat or drink. We have a pack of wolves on our tail, the Snow Demons are after us as is our own people. I think I’d rather deal with the Snow Demons. And then, when we do find a way out, we have to deal with a dragon. Am I missing anything?”
“You just have a way of making it sound so bad…”
“If we ever make it out we must deal with the dragon and get a sword that we have to give to the brainless wonder. I’m ready. Let’s go.”
“How do you know that the ghosts won’t help? Have you asked?”
“What?” This was the first time that Merla had said a word, and it didn’t make any sense to me.
“Please kind people,” she said to the air. “Please, can you help us find a path out the far side, close to the land of the dragon? We are on a quest to rid the land of evil.”
We stood in silence.
“That’s why we didn’t ask,” Silriend said.
“Look over there,” Merla said.
I became aware of a faint glow. It got brighter. Soon I could make out that it was a single footprint. Another appeared. And then another.
“Should we follow it?” I asked.
“Men,” Merla said. I could feel her moving and I dropped in behind.
The glowing footprints continued at a normal pace. I gave up trying to count the number of turns it took, the stairs both up and down we followed.
I was about ready to drop from thirst, hunger and effort when Merla said something again.
I noticed a glow in front of us. Daylight! Silriend and I started to push ahead.
“Wait,” Merla said. “We must follow our companion.”
We climbed over a pile of rubble and found ourselves outside at the start of a vast sandy plain. The footsteps continued across the sand.
We followed the mysterious prints. The sand was hard and I didn’t feel that I was sinking into it. I turned back in curiosity. Sure enough, us living weren’t leaving a single print, there was just the track we were following.
I glanced down. Our feet were about a half of an inch above the surface.
I tapped Merla on the shoulder and pointed at our feet.
“Exactly,” she said. “We aren’t leaving tracks nor a scent. No one will follow us.”
We went on and on. I had thought I was hungry before, but I didn’t know what it meant. My belly grumbled at every step.
The sun was going down when we hit the woods. Just inside was a small cottage. The door was open.
“Time to eat,” Silriend said.
He was right. There was quite a bit of fresh food in the cottage.
After eating, I asked the obvious question, “Whose cottage is this and why is there so much food in it?”
“It’s a trap,” Merla said. She didn’t seem concerned.
Silriend tried the door, but it was locked.
“Yes, a trap. The food is bait. My guess is we’ll find out who set it in the morning. For now, lets go to sleep. It’s been a long couple of days.”
How could we sleep? And yet, the next thing I knew, it was morning. I must have fallen asleep almost instantly.
After finishing a nice breakfast, we heard a commotion outside. Trying the door, we found that it was unlocked, so went out.
The prints we followed led us true, for in front of the building was the dragon. The great beast lifted it’s head and a ball of flame rose above it. It looked back at us and smiled. There was no escape.
— — —