In just one blow, Breanna smashed through the old rotten wood and tumbled to the ground in a mass of splinters and debris. The axe went flying from her hand and dust choked her mouth and stung her eyes. She was certain the ferocious crashing would arouse the interest of any predators within earshot and she lay still for a moment listening.
But there was nothing.
She picked herself out of the wreckage, disappointed that there was no sunlight, not even a promise of fresh air. She could only hope that a wooden wall would not have been built too far from the surface and she must be drawing closer to her escape.
She felt around for the familiar haft of her brother’s axe and had almost resigned herself to having lost it when she felt the familiar wooden grip.
Only it wasn’t an axe. Her disappointment immediately turned to joy as she realised it was a torch. Old and likely to have been used, but a torch nonetheless.
Hurriedly, she scrambled around in her pockets for her flint. After a few moments, the torch sparked and was alight.
She could have cried.
She missed the sky, she missed the fresh air, she missed her brother, and she missed her friends. But she had missed the ability to see her way.
Blinded for a few seconds, it took her a while to adjust. She had fallen a few feet from the blocked up tunnel to her right. But she was no longer in a small tunnel, instead, she was in a cavern or a room hewn out of the rock. All around her glinting in firelight were odd shapes stacked together and thick with dust.
Curious, she inspected the misshapen mound closer to her. As she cleared away the dust and dirt with her sleeve, the metal underneath glistened in bright patches. It was armour.
A pile of bronze chest plates, green with age but with bright patches here and there. Another mound was leg plates, another arm guards, and there were rows upon rows of helmets… she stared in disbelief. What were they doing down here?
Without another hesitation, Breanna quickly found herself armour. She had little clue what else she was going to run into and if the last few hours was anything to go by, then she would need it.
Much of it was too small, and many of the leather straps disintegrated in her hand. But she managed to find a chest plate, two arm guards, and a pair of shin guards. It was heavier than she was used to, but the bruises already on her shin and head reminded her that she would have been glad of it had she been armoured during her fall.
She found a shelf of bronze swords, mostly green but still good and strong. She lifted one down from the wall and tried it in her hand. But as she did she noticed her brother’s sword, lying not to far from the wreckage of her dramatic entrance and she put the sword back. Broc’s axe was her weapon now.
Lastly was a helmet. Most of them had open faces and the long body of a dragon running over the crest with its snout resting on the forehead. But there was one row of helmets with masks. Greened with age, they were frightening in the glinting firelight of the torch.
Empty eyes stared at her, and the figure of a second dragon was spread-eagled across the face; two clawed feet spread across the forehead and appeared as eyebrows and long tail gave the mask a nose. It was unlike any dragon she had seen before and yet the curve of its head and the line of its jaw made her certain that it was a dragon.
She reached up to take one, too heavy with one hand she rested the torch on the floor, checked the helmet for little webspinners, and then placed it over her head.
It was heavy, her breath was warm, and her vision impaired, but she felt safe. She grabbed the torch from the ground, glanced around to ensure she had everything she needed, and searched for another way out.
There were rows upon rows of armour and weapons. The further on she searched, the cleaner and newer the armour became.
Eventually, she could hear a noise. Not the scuffling or scratching of before but the clamouring buzz of people.
She followed the sound, hurrying as she went. Her torch guttered and choked but when it went out it didn’t plummet her into darkness.
Up ahead, from the same direction as the bubbling of life, there was a glow.
She ran. She knew it must be a village, Leasha would be there. Perhaps Mim. She could find the others, rest, eat, and she hadn’t realised how thirsty she was until now the prospect of drinking some cool spring water was all that filled her mind.
She edged onwards toward the source of the noise and the glowing light; it grew brighter as she moved through row after row of bright shining armour. The air tasted different; it was still warm, and a little stifling but it wasn’t as stagnant, there was the scent of food and her stomach growled as she tried to think when last it was that she ate.
She saw a low door up ahead, a bright light shone from beyond and she was sure that was the source of the smell and the noise, but the light wasn’t daylight.
‘It must be fires,’ she thought, ‘It must be the middle of the night.’
But there were no stars up above.
As she reached the door she saw it led onto a balcony. But above, rather than the blanket of night, was the ceiling of a cave. Stretching out into the immeasurable distance was a ceiling of stone, bathed in the warm glow of the fires below. The heat was stifling, and she could hear the familiar occasional clang of a blacksmith hammering bronze.
She hesitated. She wanted to rush out, find food, water and friends. But a sudden fear made her pause. She edged toward the balcony, careful, worried that she might be seen, then she poked her head over the low wooden fence.
There below her, like a nest of ants scurrying about in tunnels, pulling carts of rocks, clanking, grinding, and smelting, were hundreds of creatures.
She didn’t recognise them.
They weren’t elves or druids, and they certainly weren’t iskia.
Although some distance away she could see they were small, no more than three or four feet at least. Their skin, what she could see of it, was so pale it was almost translucent, they had no hair on their heads and their eyes, bright yellow she could see even from her high vantage point, seemed to take up most of their heads.
Most of the creatures were working at two great forges that were spewing out all the heat and the light that bathed the giant cavern, but others wore the bronze armour and helmets that blazed in the light and were patrolling or guarding with swords and whips.
She heard a cawing and noticed these yellow-eyed beasts weren’t the only creatures. There were iskia too. Only these ones did not look like the sprightly ShortThorn. Some had malted their feathers and had great bare patches of pink skin, others were grey or white with dust. But all of them were pounding at the rock or breaking apart stones with their thick strong beaks.
Then she knew.
She understood why ShortThorn had been so afraid. ‘This must be the Deepers,’ she thought.
What a fool. She had thought he was afraid of the gorge when he was really afraid of the nightmare that was buried beneath it.
But that also meant, if he had seen Leasha and Mim taken into the Deepers, then they must be somewhere here. Somewhere lost in this huge network of tunnels, caves, and mines.
And she was the only one left who could find them.