With so many of them working at once, the bandits were able to break into the cave in a matter of minutes, chipping away to make an entrance the breadth of three men and a height that allowed me to enter in astride my horse, so long as I ducked my head a bit. Prior to our entry, a number of the elves had lit torches and lanterns to light our way through the darkness, but it provided only a modicum of comfort to me. The foreboding in my heart had increased with the ice and the flame and the darkness and the light. What was it the fortune teller had said? That I needed to embrace contradictions like this if I were to fulfill my fate. I reminded myself once again to strengthen my resolve, to make up my mind that I could do what I needed to to free the realm. I took a deep breath and entered the obscurity.
The light from the torches danced distressedly across the walls of the cavern, and I could see the smoke of my freezing breath in the amber glow. Orlo’s voice echoed from the front of the group back toward me, but whatever he’d said, Keon found no need to translate as he walked just before me. I noticed that, besides these few words and the shuffling of feet, the company was stone silent.
The interior of the cave, from what I could make of it, consisted of damp, silvery rock that formed the rounded walls as well as natural columns and other curious structures. There had been frequent drip, drips that had followed us as we traversed the hollow tunnel…. but after a spell, I noticed that, indeed, all had succumbed to an eerie silence.
It had been difficult to tell how far we’d walked, and even more of a challenge to guess how long we would be in the caves, so I decided to ask Keon about the silence in a roundabout way.
“Keon,” I addressed him in a near-whisper. “Are we nearing the other end of the cavern? Is that why the water stopped?”
“No… we’ve a ways to go yet. It must’ve frozen, is the only thing I can figure. There’s no sunlight down here, so it makes sense….” There was no denying that his voice lacked the usual confidence. “We’ll reach an underground lake of sorts soon, if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps it’ll be iced over. Should be pretty either way. And when we get to Sekerheim, they’ll have a nice f-fire going at the inn,” his teeth chattered in the cold, which was becoming much more severe. I was concerned for Fia, her coat and wings being somewhat damp from the snow that had fallen on us prior to our entry. But she trudged on, seemingly determined to not let the chill get to her.
“Have you ever travelled through here in the winter before?” I asked.
“Yes, but I suppose it was quite a bit more mild then, seeing as the waterfall was still flowing. Don’t lose heart, dear. We’ll be in Sekerheim before the sun sets.”
He spoke of the place as people speak of fond childhood memories-- as I might speak of my old village, were the good memories not so blurred by those less pleasant ones-- and it did help me to focus on the end of our journey being at hand. But the mention of a sunset seemed to make a mockery of his words. Where was the sun, that I should care about its state? We were in the depths now, and the sun was so quickly beginning to feel like one of those fond old memories.
A great roar emanated from the heart of the caverns.
“What was that?” I didn’t bother to hide the fear in my voice.
“I’m… not sure,” Keon said. Several of the Alfar spoke amongst themselves, and they sounded no less scared than I. I sought out Orlo’s frame up at the lead of the group, and I could see that he had signalled for silence. He spoke in a hushed voice, just loud enough for those in the back to hear. Keon muttered something to himself in his father’s language.
“He says it could just be a bear,” he explained to me. “But he wants us to stay on our guard. The lake is just ahead.”
It was only moments after the troupe had started walking again that a strange crackling could be heard growing louder, closer to us.
“And what is that?” I hissed.
“I don’t know, alright dear? But I suspect we’ll find out soon.” Keon replied uneasily.
Indeed we did. The cracking finally reached us, and the men shivered-- or perhaps simply shook-- at the sight of a thin layer of frost approaching, coating every side of the cave.
“Frost feathers,” Keon spoke in fascination of the intricate design that seemed to wrap itself around us. “Brace yourself, dear. I suspect it’s about to get much colder,” he said as he hesitantly took his next step onto the frozen surface of the cavern floor. “I suggest you lead Fia on foot from here. Things are getting slippery.”
“Should we turn back?” I blurted out, starting to panic. I carefully dismounted.
“Not an option,” Keon said. “There's no viable alternative route anymore. But there's another matter. You see, I’ve been looking through your magical creature book and--”
“You’ve what?” I patted my satchel to find the book missing, and I was temporarily distracted from my fears. “You can’t even read--”
“Never mind that. In the book, I saw a picture of an ice monster. It was huge and ugly and I think there’s one in here.”
“Since when were you such a firm believer in magical lore?”
“Since I saw a flying horse, dear. That’s all it takes, I suppose.” In a different situation, I would have taken his words for ridicule, but his tone was somber, and another low growl sounded ahead of us. “I think it knows we’re here.”
“Tell Orlo!” I shouted. “Tell him what you’ve told me!”
But my urging became moot in the next moment, for just as we stepped into the shadowy heart of the cave, the monster was upon us.