Keagan’s relived memory comes to an end as he finishes telling Bran what happened to cause his fear of being underground. I hope this final installment leaves you wanting to read more of Keagan and Bran’s adventures.
Hours or days later, I blink back the ever-present exhaustion when I stumble to a stop. The most recent curved passage Chaser has led me down opens into a cavern that is a mirror image of the one where I had first seen the rodent. Disorientation hits me. “What? Did you just lead me in a circle? Are we back in the chamber where I found you?”
Releasing a rasping grunt, Chaser races back to me and sinks his sharp, little teeth into the side of my leg. His whiskers twitching, he spins and zips deeper into the chamber.
Rubbing the bite, I smear a drop of blood. “You little beast. I am going to catch you and turn you into rat stew.”
The sputtering of my torch draws me to a stop. Pulling the sack around, I open it and curse. There is only one brand left. I grimace, uncertain, and decide to hold off lighting it. I toss the useless bag aside and walk away from it holding a torch in each hand, one lit, the other not.
Moving farther into the room, I realize this is not the same chamber. There is no sound of dripping water, no side tunnel leading to a fountain. Just one exit directly in front of me. Chaser stands there, once again raised up on hind legs and waving me forward. I growl at the silver rat. “You had better be right. After this one burns out, we are down to one torch.
Three lefts and a right bring us to a round room where I find another barrel holding torches. Our water may be gone, but at least we will not die in darkness. I barely have time to grab a few more unlit brands as Chaser vanishes into a passage across from where we entered. I pull in a breath and hope he is indeed heading to the way out as I take note of four other tunnels leading from the circular room at different angles.
Breath hissing in my ears, I lick my cracked lips with a dry tongue. I follow. This passage is short, but by the time Chaser turns left into another tunnel, my torch is smoldering. I drop two of the three brands I brought from the round room and light the third. Once it is burning well, I throw down the burned out one and pick up the unlit two.
I move into the tunnel where Chaser had vanished, but I do not see the little rodent. My steps come slow, and I trip over my own feet. Laughter surrounds me. The stench of corruption stings my nostrils.
You are alone, brave boy. It is time. We have come to feast on your fear.
Again, as before in the fountain room, fear forces its way into me, turning my legs to jelly and my mind into a fog-bound seat of terror.
No. The strong shout of rebellion I hear in my head leaves my lips as nothing more than a wordless grunt. I drop the torches and fall to my knees. My vision narrows, and panic engulfs me. I am lost. The Whispers have won. Dread and fear, unlike anything I had experienced before, build within my spirit, driving out any remnants of courage. I crawl on the cold, stone floor like a weak animal seeking to escape its death.
When I think I can no longer take the Whispers’ influence, they stop. No laughter. No insidious muttering. Even the air smells cleaner; stale but without the odor of death. I open my eyes. Chaser sits before me scratching one ear with a hind paw. His presence drove the whisperers away. I had not imagined it before.
Chaser waits as I reclaim the torches and stagger toward him. He stares at me with his too wise black eyes for a moment as I gather my strength. Then, with a tiny squeak, he turns and runs up the tunnel. But something has changed. He no longer leaves me behind as before, but instead, waits again and again, until we make a right turn. Light filters into an oblong room. A ladder on the far wall promises freedom. The exit. I shake my head, thinking I have gone crazy and am imagining things. My focus falls to a pool bubbling up from the ground. I stumble past Chaser, flinging the torches away as I do, and plunge my face into the welcoming flow. Pure, fresh, and cold.
After drinking my fill, I turn to thank Chaser for his guidance. But he has vanished. I do not think much about where he has gone. Instead, I climb the ladder and find myself in a place I recognize from attending Shadespawn’s ritual sacrifices, the vast hall of Shadespawn’s House of Worship. It is over.
“I fall to my knees and cry.”
Keagan blinked his eyes open, surrounded by Bran and the pitch-black cavern. The underground passage from Noras’Delsham to the Thoronore Plains. Nasen’s map. His father’s command. It all came back to him.
Blessings and Happy Reading,