Grotto

… continued from Confrontation

🚀

She descended into a pool of water, halfway up her calves before the ladder ended and she stood on firm sand. The sounds of conflict from outside became muted and muffled, as if a door had been shut, and while there was no mistaking the shrill whistles of Kwakitl soldiers squaring off against their technologically far superior foe, the reverberating echoes of waves lapping against stone dominated the rocky chamber. Anna’s eyes gradually adjusted to see Laxmi, Jaci, and their juvenile guide waiting for her in the dimly yet colorfully lit grotto. Shafts of sunlight pierced through gaps in the ceiling of boulders, lighting the watery floor in hues of aquamarine and turquoise, reflected to dance across the stone walls.

The young Kwakitl regarded her for just a moment more, then shook her head in an unmistakeable come-hither gesture before darting into a darker gap between two stones making up the chamber’s walls. Jaci turned to follow, with Laxmi and Anna right on his heels.

The path twisted and turned, clambering up over rocks then descending into the water again, though never deeper than knee height for the humans. At times the way was narrow, while at others they passed through cavernous chambers. Always the multi-hued light lit their way, sometimes dimmer but never completely dark, sometimes brighter but never direct sunlight. In almost no time they could no longer hear any sounds from outside, nothing but the gentle lapping of waves and the splash of their own feet through the pools. Occasionally an alternate route branched away to disappear around the rocks toward some other unknown destination.

They continued this way for about twenty minutes, always scrambling to keep up with their guide, until Anna began to notice the shafts of light becoming less frequent, the chambers and passages overall darker, though the change remained gradual enough that her adjusted without much problem. She noticed too that the pools became shallower, with more frequent patches of exposed sand, until eventually she realized they had been walking on bare rock for several minutes, with the squish of her wet boots being the only remaining dampness. The ground sloped gradually up, the walls and ceiling became less boulder-like and more cavern-like, and before long it was clear they were once again in a carved tunnel, shaped by avian craft. The lighting shifted from its prior colorful hue to a more even yellow-white, no longer seeping through cracks and gaps but now transmitted by the familiar crystal-lensed tubes.

Their Kwakitl guide led them around one final corner and came to a halt. Before them, two spear-wielding adults guarded the base of a stairway, curving up and around out of sight to ascend the interior of the mountain to the main living levels far above. Their spears were lowered, pointing straight at Anna’s party, but upon seeing who had arrived both spears were raised. Standing behind the guards, on the bottom step, was a familiar figure.

“Li-Estl!”

Jaci pressed forward. The guards tensed, but at a gesture from Li-Estl they allowed Jaci to step between them.

“Jaci. Anna. Laxmi. Come.”

Li-Estl spoke to them in Englese, no translator required. Without waiting for a response, she turned and headed into darkness up the curving stairway. The humans followed, with the juvenile bringing up the rear. The guards remained at their post.

Anna groaned inwardly at the thought of climbing stairs for hundreds of meters to reach the main community levels, but to her relief they ascended for only a few minutes before the old teacher led them through an arched passage to the side, leaving the stairway which continued its rise. They trod down dark, empty corridors, meeting no other Kwakitl as they made several turns, before passing through another archway into a small, low-roofed, oval room, similar to many they had seen in the upper levels. The air was dank, redolent of the sea below them, and moisture seeped from cracks in the walls. There seemed little doubt these chambers and passages had gone mostly unused for quite some time.

“You wait here. Dangerous outside. Do not….” Li-Estl paused as she searched for the Englese word. “Do not wander.” She turned to leave them, the juvenile in her wake.

“Li-Estl, wait.” Jaci stepped forward, quickly bringing up his tablet to translate more complex phrases. “What has happened outside? Is the village being attacked?”

Li-Estl responded in Kwakitl, allowing the tablet to translate. “All is not clear. There have been deaths. You are safer here. Someone will come for you. I must go. I must help.”

“Li-Estl.” Anna stepped up beside Jaci. “It is us the Orta want. We have no reason to believe they will harm us. Perhaps they can even help us. You know all the old stories about them are not true. Let us go to them, and we can clear up the misunderstanding. We can avoid further bloodshed.”

Li-Estl listened to the tablet’s translation and did not immediately answer. If anything, she appeared uncertain, but then equally appeared to have made a decision before she spoke.

“That time has passed. Killing has begun. Old prejudices have ruled this day. I must go now. I will send someone for you when it is time.”

With that, she turned and exited, leaving the humans alone in the dark chamber. Laxmi turned to face the others.

“What do we do now?”

“Wait here, just as she said,” Anna replied. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I could find my way back to that stairway now.”

Jaci sat down, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a meal bar. He unwrapped it and was about to take a bite when he noticed both women staring at him.

“What?”

“You still have shuttle rations with you?” Laxmi asked.

“Well, yeah. I mean, you never know what’s going to happen, so I shoved some in my pack before they picked me up back at the lagoon.” He again lifted it toward his mouth.

“We lost all ours when the raft sank. It’s been nothing but kelp and fish for weeks now. Fried fish and fried kelp. Stewed fish and stewed kelp. Boiled fish and boiled kelp. Oh, and some kind of algae soup.”

“Oh come on, the food here’s not that bad! But… here…” Jaci split the bar three ways.

“Thank you,” Laxmi said through a mouthful. “Wow, I never thought I’d appreciate one of these quite so much.”

“How many more of those do you have with you, Jaci?” Anna asked.

He looked into his pack. “About a dozen. You said to bring everything with us, so… should we split another?”

“Save those. We have no idea how long we’re going to have to wait here.”

Time passed, and if not for the tablet’s chronometer, it would have been difficult to know exactly how long they waited. The already dim light grew dimmer. Laxmi investigated what appeared to be a fungal growth in one of the oozing cracks in the wall, while Jaci took a nap.

Anna paced back and forth, ducking to avoid the low ceiling, then sat impatiently. She could not help feeling they should be doing something, taking action, and she had started formulating a plan to explore the tunnels and find their own way out when she heard the scratch of feet coming along the passageway. She gently kicked Jaci to wake him up and gestured for Laxmi to be ready.

“Li-Estl…” she began when she saw the avian body come around the corner, then stopped in surprise.

It was not Li-Estl, but Ca-Seti who entered. The grizzled veteran limped into the chamber, a bloody bandage around one leg and favoring a wing, burned and partially de-feathered, yet she radiated defiance from her scarred face. Without preamble she pointed her good wing at Jaci and squawked in Englese, “Translate.”

Jaci turned on the tablet.

“You must come with me now,” Ca-Seti said through the translator.

“Where is Li-Estl?” Anna asked.

“There is no time. Come now. We move fast.” Without waiting for the translation to finish, Ca-Seti moved out into the hallway.

“Wait!” Anna followed her, Jaci and Laxmi in her wake. “Ca-Seti, are we still prisoners? Where are you taking us? Where is Li-Estl?”

Ca-Seti did not reply. Despite her leg wound, she moved quickly through the corridors, unhesitating in choosing her path through each dark intersection of unlit ways. The humans struggled to keep up, shuffling hunched over.

Before long they arrived at a stairway, but Anna was not completely certain if it was the same stairway they ascended several hours earlier. To her surprise, Ca-Seti headed down rather than up. Anna shot a puzzled look at the others, then scrambled down after the old bird, taking care not to slip on the damp stone steps.

They arrived at the sandy base, but this time there were no guards, and they stepped almost immediately into a shallow pool. Phosphorescence sparked away from their feet as they splashed through, and overhead Anna saw pinpricks of light. She reached up to point, then yelped softly when she smacked her hand into rock overhead. Immediately, all the points of light within several feet of her hand went dark.

Ca-Seti stopped and turned back to face the humans. “Must be quiet, or <untranslatable> stop light,” she whispered. Without waiting to see if they understood, she turned forward and continued on her path.

“Glow worms,” Laxmi breathed in wonder, her grin barely discernible in the light created by the tiny creatures.

Anna rubbed her sore knuckles, gave the glow worms an appreciative glance, and moved to catch up with Ca-Seti. Though the worms’ light was too dim to truly cast a light onto any surface, there were so many of them that collectively they outlined the contours of the passageway, while the fading phosphorescent glow in the water indicated where Ca-Seti had stepped.

After ten minutes or so, Anna began to feel a fresh breeze on her face, and five minutes after that she realized that the dots of light overhead were no longer the worms, but this time stars for real. They had exited the grottoes and were wading through surf alongside the cliff. Neither of the moons were showing in the sky, but the stars were so numerous and bright that Anna could make out the sandy shoreline of the lagoon and the crashing breakers of the reef beyond.

A patch of darkness blotted the stars just before them, and with a start Anna realized it was a boat, a smaller version of one of the fishing trimarans, floating in a wide pool at the base of the cliff. The same pool, she also realized, from the diving ceremony of several days earlier. Ca-Seti stopped at the pool’s edge and faced the humans.

“Anna,” she said, “you are navigator. You are sailor. Take the boat and go. There is food on board.”

“But… Ca-Seti, why? We can talk to the Orta. We can explain. Where is Li-Estl? Together we can make this right.”

“Li-Estl is dead. Orta have taken her. Orta search Ar-Danel for you. Better for us if you are not here. Better for you if Orta do not find you. You must go. Take the boat and go.”

“Go where?”

“To where you were going when we found you. To Ar-Makati. To the island that touches the sky.”

🚀

… to be continued.


header image credit: Stefan Keller / pixabay.com under Pixabay License


© Matt Fraser and mattfraserbooks.com, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matt Fraser and mattfraserbooks.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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