Is there clean air ahead?

Dip and dive. Duck and drop. From time to time the trickle of birds would grow, as in some secret distant cave hidey-hole the damned swiftlets suddenly massed once more, to siphon down his tube for the attack.

They're not attacking. They're escaping…you. He was the threat, and he'd disturbed them somehow, with his scent, his voice, his vibration.

Maybe just by being here. You came to make your mark.

The slime was drying on his pants now, caking and cracking.

Marked, all right. This wasn't archeology as he'd pictured it. Still…toughened by experience. He pushed himself up, determined to get on with the job…and slammed his head on a jutting stalactite. "Hell!"

In those upper elevations, though, the fresh air was there for the taking. Nudge skated into a side chute, then quickly consulted his stained map. It was the condensation of all his research—the result of long hours of compiling research papers, and reading cultural histories, most of them dry as the dust he'd breathed on entering the cave system. According to legend, to oral tradition, there was another cavern, deeper within the mountain, further down the tunnel. He swallowed hard, and checked his equipment. Had the light yellowed? Was it going? He patted the side of the pack. Batteries, just in case.

He stiffened when he swiped at a tickle on the side of his face. His fingers came away bloodied.

Just a trickle. He tracked it to the scalp wound—his encounter with the stalactite.

Flesh wounds, all the way. The damaged warrior, setting out once more… Nudge nodded toughly, narrowed his eyes, set his jaw, and dove into a channel, worn smooth by years of water funneling through the rock.

Source stream for an underground river. Moisture still clung to the glazed walls. He sucked in a deep breath. It spoke of dark and dank, deep-in-the-Earth traipses through the unknown. Gooseflesh danced across his shoulders.

The click-clatter continued intermittently, but Nudge could ignore it now, and it was soon lost in the rumbling vibration beneath his feet.

What the hell?

Something lay ahead, but nothing he'd read had forewarned him. His steps slowed and he flashed the light on his map once more. In sudden pained insight he realized that during his evasive maneuvers—in the slipping, sliding speed of his all-fours scurry—he'd taken a wrong turn. This wasn't the tunnel he'd thought it was.

And I have absolutely no idea where the hell I am.

The End

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