15.2 Kudzu

# 2301 12 - 15 mins. 8

We led the way into the staircase, down to the cavern below. No one made a sound. It was solemn stepping down those stairs, with ten or so other groups of mixed races. This could be it. This could be the last thing we did on this island. Zef's eyes caught mine in the dark as he looked around the stairwell too. He smiled, and I smiled back. If this is the last thing we do, we better make it count, I thought.

We reached the bottom and saw the same dim lights at the end of the tunnel, along with the clanking of tools and sounds of moving rock. I stepped slowly into the cavern. Tigala flanked to the left and Lolan to the right in search of enemies. All clear.

I looked over the edge. There was a commotion at the base, and the creature seemed to be much more uncovered than the last time we had peeked in. Large sail-like fins stood straight up, and it's sides and the creases of limbs were visible.

The workers seemed different too. Some weren't digging. In fact, it looked like they might be fighting. I watched for some kind of an enemy, but I couldn't find one. They seemed to be arguing and swarming other workers. What is going on?

I looked back at the others. They were focused mainly on watching for enemies on our level, high above the scuffle below.

"Do we have a quick way to get down there?" I asked quietly.

Tallesia, Geralt, and Garlar leaned into the huddle. "Not all of us," said Tallesia.

"We don't want to be seen," said Tigala. "It could be a trap."

"Right. Where to then?" I asked, looking at the two paths that stretched out from the cliff we stood on. On the one side, a rope bridge led to another cliff on about the same level as us.

"Crag!" hissed Marv as the small rock creature toddled down the staircase to the other side. Marv chased after him.

"It looks like that way will get us down there quicker," said Zef, following after Marv.

I nodded. "Let's go."

Was this a bad idea? We attracted a lot of the outcasts, all of the people who didn't fit in with their own. Each one had their own set of quirks. I hoped it wouldn't hurt us in the long run. But then again, it wasn't just my group down here. The other groups followed behind and all had the same goal, to get our people back.

We headed down the stairs, and this was the first time I had a chance to get a good look at the place. I had seen it previously, but didn't have as much time to study it, especially with Lolan's brother looking for us.

The cavern was massive with maybe a dozen rooms scattered about the walls. Each one was connected to the others by more rope bridges and stone carved stairways. The enormous stalactites that hung from the ceiling also housed at least one room near the tip of the largest one. It was wrapped in a walkway, and close enough to the monster below that it would make for a great spot to get a better idea of what was going on beneath us. At the bottom, many workers kept plugging away at their jobs while others clustered.

At the end of our staircase was a room with a closed door. Marv had finally grabbed Crag, and stuffed him back in his pouch. He tried the door, but it seemed to be locked. He looked back at the rest of the group for guidance.

Then Geralt stepped forward, thrust his sword into the door jam, making a spectacle of the whole thing. He twisted and the door popped and squeaked as it swung open.

"Ah hah," said Geralt quietly, looking at his sword.

"Nice one, Geralt," I said.

He smiled wider than I would have expected. "Of course."

We crept into the room studying every corner of it to try and find hidden enemies. But again, it was empty.

The room itself looked like some sort of bunk room. There were beds that were fluffy with feathers and a table on one end with a couple of crumb-covered plates on it. A half eaten piece of bread lay beside one. There were no cobwebs, and even the bread looked fairly fresh. But why was it empty?

I looked at the rest of the group. The Saurians looked equally confused at the room, as did Tallesia, and Geralt. Seth and Wallace seemed uninterested. The only person who didn't look confused was Kricoo. Her eyes glowed with magic. I wanted to ask her what she saw, but we didn't have time. We needed to keep moving.

Behind us, the other groups followed and spread out, taking different routes around the large cavern. If someone was looking for us, it wouldn't be hard to find us now. Some of the Gnomes covered their groups in illusion, while Beastfolk disguised as bats and small birds.

The next room we reached was further down. This one had bars in it, bringing me back to the cells where they held the Dwarves. It was where we first found Talia. The awful stench of refuse filled my nostrils as I looked in. But again, the room was empty. So we continued on.

We followed rope bridges to rooms, then stairs to more rooms, working our way deeper into the cavern. Finally, we reached the room at the lower tip of the giant stalactite hanging from the ceiling of the cavern. Below us, we could see the groups with much better detail now. Saurians were using water to push mounds of dirt and spray parts of the underground monster clean. Elves were using large gusts of wind to clear away rubble from the creature's arms.

The clusters we saw turned out to be conflict. The Beastfolk were attacking a few Gnomes riding in some kind of bi-pedal machinery. I couldn't understand why, or how they were getting away with fighting though.

And then I saw the Treeks. There weren't many of them, but they were there. My people were down there, using vines and roots to tunnel through cracks in the rocks. At least one of them had the pink glow on his temples. I couldn't make out faces, but I still searched for build that would match those of my parents. We were so close, but we weren't there yet.

"...Kaia," Tigala said, shaking my shoulder. I got the sense that she had said something already, but I wasn't sure what. She caught my blank look and said, "Come on. We get down there by going through this room."

"Oh. Yeah," I said. I followed her into the room that sat inside the stalactite. This room was different than the others. There were no beds or tables. There were no jail cells or piles of bodily waste. No, this was the command center. And for whatever reason, they had left it completely unguarded.

"Look at this," said Lolan. He was standing over a map on the shelf that bordered the room. I walked over and found a map of Daegal.

There were markings showing plains, hills, forests, and beaches. The wyvern mountains were on there. I got my bearings and found the colony marked out on it as well. Then I followed the shoreline and found more locations marked out. One read, 'Dwarves'. 'Gnomes' was another. Then 'Saurians' and 'Beastfolk' and 'Humans'. I found the 'Treek' one.

"Are those the original colonies of each race?" I asked.

"I think so, but look at this." Lolan dragged his hand across the map to the tower in the woods. It was our first trip as a search party, where we found the teleporting spider. Sure enough, there was a label in purple-blue ink that read 'Warp'.

"The magic veins," I said.

"And here," said Lolan. He pointed to a mountain. I looked at it in correlation to the tower and the colony. It was where we found the Dwarves. It bore a bronze-colored label that read 'Earth'.

We looked around the map pointing out the other markers. There was a blue label for water that was further inland from the waterfall. There was a white label deep in the jungle for sight. There was a location for fire near something that look like a lake of lava, and a spot for storm magic on one of the wyvern cliffs. The spot where we found the nature veins was marked too, with green. But from the nature label a green dotted line continued, tracking the movement of the wandering forest. It followed them up until I had last seen them, to the north of the valley.

There were more than the just locations for the magic I knew of as well. There was a pink location labeled 'Mind'. It looked like it may have been underground, close to where we found the nature veins. And there was another labeled 'Death', highlighted with a pale green. That sat right above us, on the valley. That explains the shambling dead.

As I studied it more, I noticed that the map was darker in the middle than it was at the edges. It was subtle, but the edges of the island were brighter. I took a step back to get a better idea of what I was looking at and recognized the dark shadow marking about have the size of the island. It filled the center in the shape of a creature—the monster buried in the earth below.

"They know we're here," said Kricoo.

"What?" I said. I straightened. "Who's they?"

"Elves," she said. "They're headed our way."

I stepped back out onto the platform surrounding the stalactite, and sure enough, a gust of wind was stirring near the Elves. Dirt and stone blew into a dust cloud as I ran back inside.

"Run!" I said. "Free as many as we can to help."

We charged out the door at the far end of the room and across the bridge that led to the cavern wall. The Elves were on us in seconds. They landed behind us on the bridge. I looked back to see two of them, both with a pink glow at their temples.

"Who are they?" I called to Lolan.

"The tall one is Wikith. Don't try to fight him," he said. A blast of fire shot from his hand burning through one side of the bridge as me, Marv, and Abigail jumped onto the staircase. Only the Elves remained on the bridge as the rope frayed and then snapped under the flames. Both Elves fell.

Then, as if gravity was irrelevant, Wikith whirled around and a gust of wind shot him toward the other falling Elf. He grabbed the falling Elf and flew toward us.

Lolan ended his torrent of fire and continued running down the stairs after us.

I looked over my shoulder at the Elves as they landed at the top of the steps. Wikith smiled at me, menacingly. He looked like he was in no rush at all as he walked down the steps.

Then, Wikith raised a hand and a blast of lightning ripped into the stairs in front of me. They broke and crumbled away. I stopped just in time to avoid falling to my death. I looked back at Wikith who was now laughing. If we waited here, we were dead. I looked at the gap in the stairs. I wasn't sure I could make it, but I had to try.

I stepped back and then launched myself across the gap. I made it, but as my feet landed, more stone crumbled away. I began to slip and clawed to find a good handhold. And just as I thought I wouldn't find one, stone shot out of the wall, making a step. my feet settled on it and I saw Abigail quickly rebuilding a few simple steps. I climbed back onto the lower section of the staircase and Marv, Abigail, and Lolan followed on the patchwork stairs.

Another lightning bolt struck up ahead, but Kricoo pushed Tigala out of the way a split second before the bolt hit her. This wasn't good. We wouldn't make it to the workers if we kept up like this. We were too high to jump and rely on magic to catch us, but staying out in the open meant that Wikith would kill us.

Crag had now encased Marv in his rock suit again. Marv ran at the back of our group, both because he was slower now and probably to protect Abigail. But it didn't matter. Wikith was too skilled a fighter.

A gust of wind hit my back and I heard a crash behind me. I looked back and grabbed Abigail out of the way as Marv toppled down the stairs onto the platform below us. Wikith laughed again.

"In here," yelled Wallace at the front of the group. He followed up the statement by crashing through a door in the side of the cavern, leading into another room. The group ran in while the Arcus casually walked behind us.

"What is happening?" I asked.

"It's the Arcus," said Tallesia.

"Yeah, and the shorter one is my brother, Brendell," said Lolan. "We can't hurt him."

"We can hold them off in here until the other groups catch up," said Ferek.

"We don't know that the other groups will avoid injury," said Garlar.

"So we're up against two very powerful Elves that we can't hurt?" said Tigala.

"Yeah," said Lolan. "Incapacitate or capture, but don't do any permanent damage."

"I wish we brought more Gnomes," said Zef.