“What are these gelatinous droppings?” Fletcher crouched down in the tall, brownish grass. A translucent, yellowish blob dangled from his hunting dagger.
I grimaced while rubbing my face. This explained why the nobles wouldn’t come to this cave if it was bountiful with turoo root. “Those belong to sightless cave shrews, they leave their feces,” I gestured at the blob, “throughout the forest as trails back to their caves. If we were to encounter them out in the forest while they are hunting, we’d be fine because they are scared of larger predators like birds and snakes. But in the caves they inhabit, they tend to dominant any other creatures living there due to their numbers and eventually eat them all,”
“So, they are carnivorous?” Fletcher raised an eyebrow as he eyed the dropping.
“Yes, they have a very routine cycle. They go out hunting for ten days and then hibernate for twenty days. If they are out hunting, then the majority of the colony will be gone and the ones remaining will be babies and the grown ones won’t bother us unless we find the chambers where the babies are. So, we do have an opening to get it. It’s just going to be difficult to tell what part of the cycle they are on,”
“Hm, if we staked outside of the cave for a few hours, wouldn’t we be able to determine their routine that way?”
“No, they burrow underground or slip through tight crevices in the rock to get in and out of the cave,”
“What if we ventured in a little ways into the cave, would we be able to tell then?”
“Yes, they tend to be active in any part of the cave when they aren’t hibernating. We should wait for the next day though to try that, my bolas can be used with fire orbs as well, but I only have one full one remaining. By the time my other three are recharged, it’ll be too dark to go in the cave. If they were to follow us out at that time, they would still give pursuit because the sun would be down,”
Fletcher sighed and nodded his head. “Let’s prepare for tomorrow then,”
Once Fletcher took my mace, I tapped right above the trigger on the middle of the handle. “If you hit that it’ll shot out fire. If you hold it down it spits it out continuously, but do that sparingly because it’ll drain the orb rapidly. If you push in that button on the bottom it’ll keep a small flame, which will be best to use if there are only a few of them,” I pointed at the circular button on the bottom tip of my mace. “The second orb is already in, it has got a mechanism that’ll swap them out after the first one has been used up, so don’t forget and waste time searching for a second orb you don’t have on you,”
“Got it, you ready?” Fletcher asked.
I slid both of the blades of my bolas into the tracks on my guard gloves. “Yes,” Rising to my feet, we started into the cave.
The entrance was rather large, about Fletcher’s height in width and double it for the height. The cave was made of pale brown rock with no notable formations near the entrance. The further in we went the less the light from outside streamed it and the more distant the chirps of the birds and the humming of the cicadas became.
Eventually, we reached the point where the only light source was the dim glow of the elemental orbs in my weapons. We took about twenty more paces until we stopped to survey the area. The path had become narrower with stalagmites, stalactites, and other rock formations filling in the previous space. A musty, moldy smell hung in the air with the occasional drop of water echoing throughout the corridor. No scurrying of little feet or squeaks. No small creatures were visible. It would be safe then to assume they were sleeping, so we could search for the turoo root.
Fletcher and I met eyes in the poor light and both gave a small nod of our heads. Fletcher took the lead, squatting down to avoid the distract drop in the ceiling. I followed behind him and frowned upon realizing the next few feet of the cave stayed this low. If the cave stayed narrow and cramped like this, we would be slowed down if we had to run from the moles.
We continued for a long time, squeezing through small openings, avoiding puddles to not make more noise, and crawling through a tiny hole that led into a gigantic room.
Fletcher eased himself down beside me, only causing one rock to flip over, letting out a click. I held my breath as I lifted my right arm to get a better look at the room. My eyes widen. A lump formed in my throat. My body tensed up and I hid the orbs against my body.
In the top half of the cave, were hundreds of little holes filled with sleeping sightless cave shrews. It resembled a beehive made out of rock. Though they couldn’t see the light, they could sense the warmth the orbs emitted. They were very sensitive to heat, which was why they hated the light.
Fletcher lightly touched my arm and I glanced over at him. He pointed my mace towards the ground as he kneeled down. I followed suit. On the other side of the room was a narrow opening with eerie, bluish light streaming in from it. It would be tight, but that was the only way to go next.
Crawling on all fours, we moved slowly across, the damp, slick rock. Reaching the other side, I slipped into the crevice first. Laying flat on my stomach, I used my arms and legs to pull myself through. Though I kept my body low, I still barely avoided the ragged rocks above me. A chilled breeze hit my left cheek as I reached the end. I lowered myself down into the glassy water. Soft splashes accompanied the ripples I created in the clear pool. I took tiny steps back and observed the new domed part of the cave.
Various holes were in the ceiling, allowing roots, weeds, and sunlight to come through. It also helped the room smell less moldy. Large stalagmites grew out of the floor, encircling the pool. A low grunt caught my attention and my eyes snapped up to the crevice.
Fletcher dropped down into the pool, his feet slipping on the slimy stones resulting in him smacking into the water. The cold water sprayed me as I made my way over to help him. He grimaced and his cheeks were scratched up. I grasped his arm, heaving him up.
High pitched squeals echoed throughout the cave. My grip on his hand tightened. I frowned. My eyes met his ablaze ones while he snarled. The shrews were awake. Fletcher muttered something under his breath while getting to his feet. I slid off the bolas blade on my left hand and readied the chain in my grasp.
“We should go for the tunnel on the east side. There’s light, which means we might find an opening big enough to climb through,” Fletcher said while heading towards the slender tunnel to the east.
“We still haven’t found the turoo root though,” I followed behind him, but my eyes kept glancing to the crevice we came through and the tunnel on the south side, cast in shadow.
“Well, better hope we find at least one on our way out. Remember Azalea said they are a cranberry red, with a shape resembling a pinecone and speckles of white,” Fletcher yanked on my left wrist as he dragged me into a run.
Right when we made it to the entrance of the east tunnel, little shrieks echoed off the walls of the domed room. We glanced over our shoulders and saw hundreds of shrews scurrying along with the stalagmites and each other. They were tan in color and had long, thin noses that were bigger than normal shrews. Their noses were also curved at the ends, supposedly it helped them feel their surroundings.
Stepping back into the pool of water, I let loose more of the chain of my bolas. Rapidly spinning it, the blade caught on fire, creating a firewheel in front of me. While my mace had a trigger to activate the elemental orbs, my bolas relied on quick movements.
The shrew let out higher pitched shrieks while stopping in their tracks, with the closer ones unsuccessfully backing up. The intense flames flushed my skin and caused sweat to bead down my body. Increasing the size of the firewheel by letting loose more chain, I angled it towards the ceiling. Eventually, the roots and weeds started to catch fire as I maneuvered the firewheel around the dome. The burn plants began to drop into the water and stalagmites. I made my way back towards the entrance. The cries of the shrews increased, half of them starting to crawl back into the crevice.
Fletcher joined me out at the edge of the pool. I decreased the size of my firewheel. Upon my blade falling into the water with steam wafting into the air, Fletcher shot a sweeping torrent of flames out from my mace. He aimed at the middle of the pool, avoiding the shrews, yet near enough to send more of them back into their nest.
Entering the entrance of the tunnel again, I had reeled in my chain and attached the blade back onto my guard glove. Fletcher continued to sweep the fire across the pool. Looking back at me, I gave him a slight nod. Returning it, he seized the stream of fire.
Whipping around, we dashed down the tunnel, jumping and ducking under stalactites and other rock formations along the way. The shrews would likely wait a bit but would give chase, so we had to make the most of this chance.
Approaching a fork in the tunnel, we chose the left side, continuing to follow the path with the most light. The tunnel had shrunk, we didn’t have to hunch or crawl, but the tighter space with huge rock columns slowed us down. Our heavy breaths almost drowned out the distance shrieks of the shrew.
Fletcher hissed. “Those darn vermin are still coming?!”
“They won’t give up on the hunt when it’s in their home,” I said, taking a sharp left to follow a faint rushing sound.
“Evelyn, that way might lead us deeper into the cave,”
I clamped my hand over his mouth and held my breath. My burning lungs, struggling with the complete cutoff. The almost silence confirmed my suspicion, the rushing sound was moving water. Likely a river. I removed my hand from Fletcher’s face, a grin spreading across my lips.
He smirked at me, lightly shoving me forward. “Sounds like our best way out,”
We sprinted down the tunnel, weaving our way through the small, cramped passages until the sound of the water nearly overwhelmed out the cries of the hunting shrew. Coming to a halt, I rested my hand against the smooth, chilly wall. My chest rapidly rose and fell and I brushed my plastered hair out of my face.
The passage had dumped into a huge tunnel, skinny ledges of crumbling rock on either side of a fierce, pounding river. The left side of the tunnel shrouded in shadow, but the right side was dimly lit with a slight breeze passing from that direction.
“Looks like that way leads to the outside,” Fletcher gestured with his head, a grin on his face. “Well, I’ll see you on the other side,” Running down the short ledge, he jumped into the middle of the clear river. Breaking through the surface of the water, he floated on his back, going along with the current.
I took a few steps, following his plan, but stopped. My eyes catching something red along the slope of the ledge beneath me. Hunching down, I craned my neck out to get a better look. My eyes bulged slightly, before dropping. A massive smile on my face. There was the turoo root Three of them to be exact.
Carefully scaling down the slope, I placed my feet and hands into the cracks along the rock. Avoiding the protruding rock or stones to ensure it didn’t crush underneath my weight. Reaching the middle of the slope, I stopped by the turoo root. Grasping one, I succeeded in twisting it free from the rock. The second piece was as dry, so it came off easily, but the third root wouldn’t chip or crack. Shoving the two freed roots into the inside pocket of my jacket, I sawed away at the remaining root with the blade on my right glove.
The screeching of the shrews flooded the room, I growled as I saw them on top of the ledge, beginning to venture down towards me. Grasping the root with both my hands, it ripped off causing me to drop down into the icy water below me with all three roots in tow.