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Ember in the Dark
Ember in the Dark

Ember in the Dark


All night the cold, wet wind had swept up the gorge, and the tall oak trees swayed as clouds scudded across the face of the full moon. Harboring the hidden silhouettes of a hundred evil creatures riding inside the dark mass.

Hunter's smoky campfire cast more light reflections in the rainwater than the moon did, and he reached over to add more brushwood. He shifted uneasily on the log, eyed the approaching figure critically, noting the long, worn cloak, evidence of frequent outdoor sleeping; the knee-high boots, run down at the heels. The rapier and dagger looked to be the man's only valuable possessions.

Dulin kicked a stray pebble away into the darkness and heard it plop over the cliff after bouncing twice along the way.
I had to look closely to see the scars he got years ago fighting the Storm Riders.

Dulin chuckled ruefully, as he plumped down next to the fire pit across from Hunter. What is the name of the devil, he thought irritably, scratching the gray stubble on his chin.

'Sit down, please,' Hunter said, waving a hand at the old man.

"I don't mind if I do,' Dulin told him.

'Whatever you prefer,' he opened a bag and took out a couple of pieces of dried meat, handing one to Dulin.

Dulin peered closely at the meat before he took it, thanking his friend in return. 'Have you got any water to offer a friend?' He glanced at the sky—an hour or so after midnight. It has been a tiring journey, so if you don't mind, I'll just stretch out next to your fire. A few hours sleep is what I need right now, and then get an early start tomorrow.

They got started a little early, and Dulin began telling Hunter about the cave he'd found. “I found the cave quite by accident," he said, “something I wasn't sure about. An opening narrow and hidden, one that is overgrown with vegetation, obscured by fallen rocks, veiled by a waterfall, precariously placed in an all but inaccessible spot. A cave worthy of inspection, so I explored it. I had been exploring for several hours when I entered a large and silent chamber with stalactites above and stalagmites below in gorgeous profusion. I skirted about the stalagmites, and then I came across what must have been a thick stalagmite that had broken off at some natural plane of cleavage. There was a litter of limestone to one side of it. What had caused the break I cannot say—perhaps some large animal, fleeing into the cave under pursuit, had blundered into the stalagmite in the dark, or else a mild earthquake had found this one stalagmite weaker than others? In any case, the stump of the stalagmite now topped by a smooth flatness just moist enough to glisten in my torchlight. It was roughly round and strongly resembled a basin, deeply cut, filled with clear water. The concave container next to it was filled with dried leaves from the nearby forest. So I had assumed someone had lived in this for years. There were plenty of wood stored up in one corner and a natural fire pit with ashes under a small opening above the pit. I searched about, looking for signs if anyone still lived in it. No one has been around in a long time, and I think it will make a great fortress for our group.”

Hunter was very interested in the idea, indeed, it had occurred to ask Dulin to show it to him. Hastily, Dulin outlined the situation, and he must say that Hunter grasped it at once. He is very good that way, never requiring long explanations.

“I don't know.” Hunter stared at the trail ahead. “There's nothing out here. Are you sure you haven't gone in the wrong direction?”

So Dulin followed the footsteps back to the arroyo, stood at the edge, and looked down into it. Something white caught his eye, glinting in the sunlight a few feet down the slope. He climbed down the ravine, then said to Hunter, “the area where the cave is located is precarious because the waterfall is the main watercourse.” Within the space of a few minutes, they were at the river edge in the bottom of a deep ravine. As they crested the hill, Dulin saw the cave, and some cracks were small, yet some were very large, along the cliff walls. He spotted the opening and knew they were going in the right direction. He could indeed see the cave and the dark opening in the rock behind the waterfall. The forest ended, now they were heading toward open fields atop a hill. The rolling forested hills fell away in a sheer cliff, and Hunter saw the valley spread out beneath them. The river twisted in loops like a brown snake in the valley it had cut hundreds of thousands of years before.

Hunter suddenly saw an open expanse of the cleared green field as they came over one rise. In the center of the field were the remains of ruined stone houses, walls set at odd angles to one another. This had once been a town, its houses located beneath the walls of a castle. But the walls were just a line of rubble, and nearly nothing of the castle remained; he saw only the bases of two round towers and bits of the broken wall connecting them. They walked for a distance over the rough hillside and then came to a halt on a rocky promontory that loomed out over the ravine. Across the waterfall, the cave entrance hidden behind the thick foliage looks like it could be the lair of much darker creatures.

On occasion, they turned left and right, weaving through the trees toward the cave. We had plenty of time to admire the water clarity, the stalactites and stalagmites, and the view of trees framed by the entrance. A succession of eroded spaces and cavities beget a moody, cave-like atmosphere inside. Rudimentary stalactites and stalagmites were protruding from ceiling and floor, like the teeth of some gargantuan creature's mouth. Our path was frequently obstructed by those various things, and the beauty of the Cave became notable in its own right.

Dulin said to Hunter, "I gave it the name, The Enchanted Cave, and it can be our fortress.”

Hunter watched his breath coalescing into a faint mist in the air as he breathed heavily, his chest rising and falling quickly. He was excited indeed, in fact, the catacombs below would become a glorious fortress.

They went about gathering material for the fire pit and started a fire in it. The flames from the fire leaped high into the night sky, bathing the natural cave in a warm red glow. The circular wall of rock rose over a hundred meters into the sky, an ancient volcanic caldera several hundred meters across that was pock-marked with dozens of cave dwellings accessed by an intricate web of rope ladders and bridges they had formed.

It took several days for Hunter to return to the cave, bringing the troops, along with Lady Katherine, Sharokina, Misty Dawn, and the rest of the women. The older men had provided excellent recruits—natural and hardy warriors that could only be found on short notice. The cave gave them a place for their outpost, a haven they could dwell in without interfering with the development of the new village.

Long dormant, the same geothermal activity that had created such a cave now provided the inhabitants with much of their power, and Hunter could see the thermal venting from the fire pits hanging like a thick haze over the island, obscuring the ground below the tips of the waterfalls.

“The recruits will be well and truly settled in by the time they arrive, and they seem to be very well armed somehow," Dulin said to Hunter.
“Be ready to push forward with the training when they arrive,” Hunter warned.

Author Notes: To be continued

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26 Dec, 2021
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