3 – 12
They followed Nicole’s footsteps as she illuminated the cave with a faint magical light.
Just how long had they walked? They found it hard to tell if it had been a few hours or already an entire day.
The rumbling in the deep never ceased. The concurrent sounds of explosions and collapsing rock could be heard echoing far in the distance and booming from what felt like right behind them.
As they trudged through that perilous darkness, they only became more and more anxious. Especially once they lost their sense of time and direction.
Nicole stopped moving, her quiet voice slipping out shakily.
“I-I’m sorry. It’s a dead end…”
Nicole’s light showed that the end of the tunnel they had been following connected to nowhere. All that was in front of them was a crevice far too narrow for anyone to fit through, densely packed with thick miasma.
“Well then, we’ll just have to turn back, won’t we? Let us return to that fork in the road.”
“B-But, this place had a really strong reaction, even more than before…”
“All the more reason to go back more quickly. I would rather not get caught up in an explosive reaction in this dead-end.”
As Camilla said that, the people around her sighed in exhaustion, but they didn’t try to argue or complain.
Although she couldn’t see everyone’s faces clearly, she had a feeling that they were getting more and more apprehensive. Their plodding steps were becoming heavier and more laboured, and the voices that called out to each other in the dark were little more than whispers now.
It was no wonder, Camilla thought, as she turned around. How many times had they already been turned around like this? Just how many of them were thinking ‘Are we really going to be okay?’ as they constantly advance to one dead-end after another?
When it came to following the breadcrumb trail of Alois’ magical energies, Nicole was clearly having trouble.
Every time she thought she had caught his trail, she ended up following the reaction of dense pools or foggy soups of miasma instead. Of course, she would make some mistakes but it seemed like it was incredibly hard for her to separate the magical reactions given off by the miasma to the magical power she was trying to follow. Whenever Nicole made a decision to go down one route or another, she never seemed confident and it felt like people were getting more and more dubious with every wrong choice she made.
Whenever Nicole stopped up against another dead-end, Camilla could heard the audible sighs of fear and frustration behind her. Even if no one said a word, she could tell what they were feeling.
Nicole, by nature, was never a person with truly strong self-conviction. She was a person afraid of the consequences of her own choices, quickly losing confidence in herself.
But, it was also true that Nicole was the only one amongst them with the power to direct them where to go. Much to her chagrin, Camilla had no choice but to leave it to her.
When they returned to where they had taken that dead end, Nicole stopped once more.
From that slightly cavernous break in the tunnels, there were several more tunnels leading off in different directions. The largest opening was the tunnel they had taken to get here in the first place. The second was covered in a dense fog of miasma and they avoided it. The third was the one that they had just gone through. However, it was a dead-end.
Other than that, there were a few crevices that only a small child would have been able to fit into. Camilla looked around, then spoke to Nicole.
“Which one? Should we try this one, then?”
Camilla asked, pointing at the second opening.
“I-I don’t think so, it has a strong reaction of magical power, but it’s dangerous…”
“Should we go back down the tunnel we came from, then?”
“You can’t! That place… It might explode at any time…”
As Camilla was about to speak, she head a clanging sound behind her.
Camilla turned around to look at the source of that strange sound, lying on the floor behind her.
What she saw was Martha’s walking cane that she had thrown to the ground, with the old woman herself hunched over on the floor. The manservant beside her looked worried as he called out to her.
“Lady Martha, what’s wrong?”
“I can’t walk anymore.”
Martha looked on emotionlessly as she told him that, making no effort to pick up her fallen cane.
“My legs won’t move. I can’t even grip my walking stick properly anymore. Yet, just where am I supposed to be going?”
“We’re trying to escape, please just hang in there a little longer.”
As the manservant tried to encourage her, Martha shook her head. Then, without raising her head, she shifted her gaze to Nicole.
“We’re constantly following tunnels that the miners themselves have never taken, running into dead ends every time. At this rate, can we ever truly escape?”
It was impossible to see Martha’s expression in the dark. But those words illustrated her doubts clearly.
Nicole seemed to shrink back as she trembled. Her hands were grasped together as she stared at the ground.
“Nicole, are we getting closer to Lord Alois’ magical power?”
“Y-Yes. I think we’re close now.”
Nicole managed to respond quietly to Camilla’s question. Although she had been reaching one dead-end after another in pursuit of it, Nicole was in effect getting closer to the source of Alois’ power. Although, even if she’s close, because she doesn’t know exactly how to get there she has chosen the wrong path more than a few times. That only made Nicole less and less confident each time.
Listening to Nicole’s words, Martha could only express an exhausted sigh, her breath ragged.
“Can we really trust what this girl has to say? Even if you can use magic, do you really understand how to follow its power? In fact, is there really someone’s power above ground in the first place? At this point, who can say.”
Martha tried to take another deep breath, but it turned into a hacking cough. It must be due to her intense fatigue that her breathing sounded more and more laboured with every word she spoke. Because of her old age, this ordeal must have been truly awful on Martha. That had only enhanced her doubtfulness of the whole thing.
Of course, that didn’t mean Camilla had to accept her selfish words.
“I would ask you to just remain patient, if you could. There is no point in trying to shift the blame onto Nicole now.”
“Are you going to have me be patient until I keel over and die?”
“I’d have you be patient so that you don’t die! If it weren’t for Nicole, we would have been caught in a magical explosion already!”
“The shaking and explosions have gone on this entire time. You don’t need magical power to know that nowhere in this place is safe.”
In contrast to Camilla’s echoing shout, Martha spoke quietly. She had never been one to raise her voice in the first place, but now it seemed she lacked the energy to do so even if she desired.
“Then why didn’t you say something about moving from that cavern before Nicole did!?”
“I was being more cautious than you two.”
“Ahh, you are always running your mouth! If you don’t have anything helpful to say, then-!”
Camilla’s loud voice was cut short by another powerful quake beneath their feet.
It was the biggest one so far. Screams and cries broke out amongst the group.
But those screams were drowned out by the roar of an explosion.
That resounding and terrifying boom dwarfed anything they had heard before.
After the echo of the explosion peeled away, they could hear the sound of a major collapse. The wind rushed out of the collapsed tunnel, buffeting Camilla and the rest with the thick miasma that travelled with it.
As if on cue, the sounds of collapsing stone walls started rushing closer and closer.
“We have to get out of here! It’s collapsing!!”
The manservant yelled. Martha took up her walking stick and the townswomen grabbed the children. But, when they turned to truly escape somewhere, they hesitated.
The collapse had come from the second tunnel. It was the place that Nicole had said not to go through just before.
Before that thought came to mind, Camilla was already shouting.
“Quickly! Run this way!”
There was no time to think about it. The people began to run as fast as their tired bodies could carry them. The chain reaction of explosions was growing closer and closer.
The place where they emerged was a large cavern. It was similar to where Camilla and the others had originally fallen. The air was thick with choking miasma and the ground was covered with familiar pools of the stuff as well.
They could still hear the explosions and deep rumblings behind them. The cavern creaked and shook with each one, the walls looking as if they were shifting with those worrying sounds.
As Camilla’s group reached the center of the cavern completely out of breath, they heard a voice shout out from nearby.
A person’s voice. Looking up in surprise, Camilla saw multiple people in that cavern who weren’t in that group, illuminated by the flickering light of Nicole’s magic.
It wasn’t a large group in that small cavern, perhaps only fourteen or fifteen people. They sat side by side, huddled together against the walls. Some of them were lying down. The walls around them showed signs of recent collapse.
“Frida!? Didn’t you escape to the town square!?”
The sharp-eyed maid with the chestnut brown hair yelled out in shock after a sharp intake of breath. By her side, Martha crouched down low to the floor out of sheer exhaustion. She didn’t seem to have the energy or the conviction to grasp her fallen cane again as she sat there in silence.
“The town square collapsed! But you too, why are you here!?”
The maid called Irma stood looked bewildered as she stood in stunned silence.
As for the people around her, they came to a stop as well. But, the dense miasma filled winds that had been expelled from the collapsed tunnels didn’t stop on their account. The chain reaction of explosions finally caught up to Camilla’s group, collapsing the tunnel they had just fled through.
In the glaring light of the nearby explosion, the people panicked. There wasn’t any time to catch up like this.
“We have to keep going! This place will collapse as well!”
“And where are we going to go?”
Someone responded to Camilla’s yell. There were an uncountable number of small tunnels leading out of the cavern that Camilla’s group now found themselves in. Camilla had no idea which of them were dead ends and which were ways out. Only one person amongst them could truly have any idea.
“Nicole! Which way!?”
“Um, I… Uh…!”
Nicole clasped her hands together tightly as she looked around at the seemingly endless tunnels, looking as if she were about to burst into tears. Her eyes darted from here to there, panicked and unfocused. It was like she was at a complete loss.
At the same time, the sounds didn’t die down at all. The earth rumbled and quaked, the air becoming thicker and thicker with miasma being blown from the collapsed tunnels by the second.
“Umm… I… Uh, this way, no, wait, this way…?”
Nicole mumbled as she looked this way and that. Camilla grew impatient as Nicole seemed terrified with the idea of making a decision at all. The cavern shook and people’s screams grew louder. Apart from those who were stilly laying down on the floor, the people sitting against the wall backed away towards the center of the cavern, petrified that the walls were about to cave in at any second.
Nicole quivered as everyone looked to her. All their expectations, as well as all their doubts. With only a single word out of her mouth, Nicole would hold all their lives in the balance.
The weight of that responsibility was too much on her small shoulders.
As she withered under the pressure, another explosion rocked the cavern. The biggest pool of miasma at the edge of the cave reacted, emitting a brilliant white light. One of the walls collapsed on top of one of the people who still lay down. The terrified screams reverberated ever louder. Yet, without knowing where to run to, they stood stone still as if they had been stuck to the floor.
Just where could they run to in this darkness? Which path could lead them to safety? What if where they fled to was somehow even more dangerous?
“You have to decide! Nicole! You are the only one who can!!”
“B-But, Mistress, w-what if I’m wrong?”
“If that happens, then I will take responsibility!”
If anyone died, Camilla alone would take on their grudges. That was what she had said when they first set out. Even if Nicole ended up making the wrong choice, it was Camilla who had taken over leadership. That’s why all Nicole had to do was decide. If her decision led to regret and resentment, then Camilla would shoulder that burden herself.
“Don’t worry, Lord Alois is up there. We can believe in him.”
Besides, Camilla had absolutely no intention of dying in such a miserable place. In order to return home alive, she had to trust Nicole’s judgement.
“T-That’s right… Lord Alois is…!”
“Not just Lord Alois, either.”
Even amongst the sounds of falling debris running through the cavern, Camilla’s voice sounded through as clear as day as she looked at Nicole.
“You too, Nicole. I believe in your power as well.”
Nicole’s breath caught in her throat as she looked at Camilla with wide eyes.
The ground swayed and another light lit up the room, with more terrified yells resounding. The walls shook ominously as people finally decided enough was enough and began running. They couldn’t stay here, even if that meant taking their chances with the caves.
“Lead on, Nicole! Just where are we going!? Have you made up your mind!?”
Swallowing her shaky breaths, Nicole yelled out as loud as she could, then ran in front of the people who had already begun to flee, leading the others on.
I only just realized there was a major cock up with the site over the past few days that I thought I’d fixed but evidently not. It should be good now.