The forest didn’t reflect what they were preparing to do. As Dan and the others climbed out of the gully, rays of the new morning sun broke through the trees, shivering and dancing on the forest floor, and painting the trunks of young trees with shifting patches of sunlight. Everything around them seemed to be in bloom, from the young shoots of new trees poking up from the ground, to the soft green leaves swaying overhead, to the patches of scattered flowers covering the ground. The grass itself seemed especially green. Birds twittered happily in the trees, and the sound of a nearby stream lent its voice to the sighing of a gentle wind. The air smelled of grass and clean water and damp earth.
The very idea that they were about to leave all of this, and delve into a dark cave, seemed absurd. The very thought that such a place as the Underdark could exist sounded to Dan like a fairy tale. But then he saw it, and the weight of its reality came rushing back.
In the middle of the forest, across a nearby stream, an outcropping of rock jutted up from the ground at an angle, like a giant spike of stone which had been driven upwards by some giant’s hammer. On the underside of the outcropping, hidden in shadow beneath the trees, was a hole, the black entrance to the Underdark. This was it. They were here.
No one spoke. No one waited. Led by Gideon, they all entered the dark cavern, one after the other. Dan was right behind Gideon, his night vision illuminating the dark cave for him. However, for some reason he could only see a few yards ahead. Beyond that, everything was blackness. This was no ordinary cave.
The tunnel was tall, but very narrow, forcing them to go single file. It was completely silent. After a few minutes of steadily going downwards, vines began to appear, covering the walls and ceiling of the cave. At first they were thin, but soon they were as thick as Dan’s arm, and when he lifted his goggles to see, he found that they were glowing with a dull purple light. In his night vision they were brilliant, almost blotting out all else, though strangely, they seemed to shed no light on anything but the cave walls.
The floor steepened, and soon a chill was in the air. Dan shivered even though it wasn’t particularly cold. The sense of foreboding seeping from the walls was palpable. He glanced behind him. They were all still there. The whole line was still following.
Eventually, the ceiling dipped down, the hall widened, and Dan saw the walls end, as they widened into a giant room. He tapped Gideon on the shoulder to stop him. The whole line came to a quiet halt.
Dan quickly scanned the dark void before them. Nothing. Nothing in the night vision. No heat signatures. He even scanned it for arcane traces. There were faint purple smudges all over the cavern, but Dan guessed that was normal. There were no powerful spells or enchantments nearby, anyway, just residue. He gave Gideon the all clear.
The instant Gideon stepped into the large room, the silence was broken. A long, muted, wailing cry reached them, seeming to come from the stone walls themselves. It rose, and then faded. Everything was silence once more.
Dan felt the hairs on his neck stand up. Was this magic? A trick?
Gideon took another step forwards. Silence. Another step. Silence. Another.
Again, the long wail echoed in the room, more audible this time, though still dulled, as if heard from behind thick doors.
Gideon turned on the spot as the wail faded once more. “What is it?” Dan asked.
Gideon shook his head.
“A prisoner?” suggested Ana, coming up.
“Maybe,” Gideon whispered. “It could be a trap, too.”
“Valkrill doesn’t know we’re coming though, right?” Francois said, joining Ana.
“No…” Gideon said. “No, he can’t know. No one but Vydar and I knew the plan, and you’re the only ones I told. Not even my father knew exactly what we were doing.”
“Then it must be a prisoner,” Ana said. “You know what we’ve heard of Valkrill. He loves torture.”
Gideon nodded slowly. “It could be. We have to be careful.”
Again, the wail sounded. This time it was clearer, and Dan could almost make out words, pleading words, terrible begging, and then a shrill scream of pure, unimaginable agony. The cry was that of a woman, a young woman, almost a child. Dan shivered as the cry washed over him. He felt sick. Ana looked sick.
“Stay focused,” Dan heard Gideon mutter to himself. “Come on,” he said in a whisper. “Valkrill’s wellspring is this way. Dan, to your right. There should be a tunnel.”
Dan looked, took a few steps forward, and soon spotted the outline of a narrow tunnel. The ceiling was low. They would have to crouch. He signaled to Gideon. The line moved forward.
“AAHHHGGGHHH… No, no, please, I – PLEASE, NO!”
The whole line stopped dead still as another scream of torture rent the air. Dan looked to his left. It had come from there. It was close, perhaps just behind one door.
“Gideon,” Ana said as the scream died. Her voice was shaky. “We can’t leave her.”
“The amulet comes first,” Gideon said, though he didn’t sound sure of it.
“Please, no, just kill me, please kill me, no… No… NO – AAHHH!”
“Fine,” Gideon muttered.
Dan didn’t need any coaxing. He turned to his left, and soon a much larger passage came into view. He pointed Gideon in the right direction. It was a much larger tunnel, allowing the line to move in three abreast. Dan felt someone pull his arm. It was Otonashi.
“Wait,” she said, as the knights moved into the tunnel, swords drawn. “Listen.”
Dan heard nothing. “What?” he asked. He was eager to rejoin Gideon at the front of the column.
“Listen,” Otonashi said again, whispering this time. “What is that?”
“I don’t hear anything,” Dan said.
“Wait until they’ve passed,” Otonashi said, nodding to the knights. “You can’t hear it over them.”
Dan glanced at the knights. “How come you can hear it then?” he asked, turning back to Otonashi.
“I’m a ninja,” Otonashi said, giving Dan a look which suggested this was the most obvious answer in the world. “I’ve trained myself to hear things others cannot.”
Dan waited until the last of the knights had moved into the tunnel. He still heard nothing.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said. “Otonashi, are you sure—”
Without warning, Otonashi pulled him to the side, away from the tunnel. Dan landed hard on the rough stone, just as there was a thunderous crash, and a giant slab of stone dropped from the ceiling and landed with a solid crunch right where he had been standing.
Instantly, Dan heard the knights and ninjas calling from the other side. Fists began hammering on the solid stone. Dan leapt to his feet, a feeling of dread in his stomach. It had been a trap!
Otonashi was already on her feet. “Valkrill knows we’re here,” she said.
Dan didn’t have to ask how she knew. Shrill cries echoed up from the floor itself, mixed in with low rumbling growls and the calls of horns. “What do we do?” he asked.
“We need to get the amulet,” Otonashi said. “There’s still time. Valkrill knows we’re here, but it will take him time to reach us. If we hurry, we can steal the amulet, and still get out without being caught.”
Dan felt like she was missing something very important. “What about the others?” he asked.
“There’s no time,” Otonashi said. “And besides, how would we ever break the stone?”
But Dan knew how to break the stone. One simple blast from his gloves and it would disintegrate. Wasn’t that what NT9 had said? “You go,” he said, thinking quickly. “You go and get the amulet. I’ll stay here and get them out. We can meet up back here and we’ll still have time to get out.”
Otonashi stood there for a moment, looking at Dan as if he had missed the point of an important argument. Then she grabbed him by both shoulders.
“Think, Dan!” she hissed. “These people are enemies!”
For a moment all sound ceased. And then Dan understood. Otonashi was in on it. Vydar had told her everything. She knew his plan to betray the alliance. And then Dan realized something else.
“They were meant to die, weren’t they?” he said.
Otonashi nodded. “Vydar made sure the commanders and leaders he knew would never join him were on this mission. He knew they would be trapped here.”
“But then… Valkrill knew we were coming.”
“He knew,” Otonashi said. “But not why. He thought Vydar intended to join him against both the alliance and Utgar, and gladly devised the trap to get rid of Vydar’s most powerful enemies. He has no idea that you and me are on the mission, or that we’re about to steal his amulet.”
Dan glanced back at the stone slab separating him from the others. Ana was behind that stone. And Gideon, and Sharwin, and Laelia, and all the rest. He couldn’t just let them die.
“But,” he said to Otonashi, “I can’t—”
“You can,” Otonashi said. “You must. How do you think Vydar will see it if you free them?”
Dan knew how Vydar would see it. If he freed them, any chance of getting Heleer would be gone.
“It’s either them or the amulet, Dan,” Otonashi said. “It’s right down there,” she pointed at the narrow tunnel. “Valkrill’s amulet is just there, waiting for you. You’re only steps away from it, Dan. Only steps away from Heleer.”
Dan didn’t even wonder how Otonashi knew about Heleer. Vydar must have told her. Right now they were running out of time. He looked down the narrow tunnel. Beyond that darkness lay the amulet and with it, Heleer. Everything he wanted was right there.
Dan looked back at the slab of stone. He could hear the muffled cries of those trapped within. He could hear sobbing which sounded like it was coming from Sharwin. Fists pounded on the slab. He could free them. He could free them, or he could have his horizon.
“We don’t have any more time,” Otonashi said, moving for the tunnel.
“I can’t leave them,” Dan said. “They’re my friends. I can’t leave them to die.”
Otonashi paused at the mouth of the tunnel. “Some things are more important, Dan,” she said. “This is the war. You have to see the larger picture.”
Dan did see the larger picture. He saw himself returning with the amulet. He saw himself at his horizon with Heleer, happy and content. Except he wasn’t happy. How could he be, knowing what the price of his horizon had been? How could he be content, knowing that his life with Heleer had cost the lives of Gideon, Ana, and the others? He couldn’t live like that.
Dan looked back at Otonashi, and at the tunnel beyond her. He couldn’t do it. After all this time, now that his horizon was so close, he couldn’t take it. He realized what Sharwin must feel, knowing that she could so easily reach her horizon, and yet refusing to do so. He was like her. He had found the line he wouldn’t cross.
“Last chance, Dan,” Otonashi said. “We have to go.”
“You go,” Dan said. “I won’t leave my friends.”
Otonashi watched him for a brief moment. “Fine,” she said. Then she ducked into the tunnel, and disappeared in the shadows.
Dan took a breath. He had made his choice, but had he just lost Heleer forever? There was no time to wonder about it. He could hear the creatures of Valkrill drawing closer, the sounds of their arrival becoming louder and clearer. He knew what he had to do.
He found the safety switch on his right glove, and pressed it. He felt no different. He supposed he would find out soon enough if it had worked. NT9 had said all he had to do was to put his palm at a right angle to his arm, as if he was pushing something. The glove would do the rest.
“Stand back!” Dan called, hoping his voice carried through the stone slab. Apparently it did, because the hammering instantly stopped. Dan placed his hand on the slab.
‘I know what I’m doing,’ he told himself. But did he? There was still time. He could still chase after Otonashi. Dan hesitated, staring at his hand on the stone slab.
‘No,’ he finally told himself. ‘I might have everything I want, but I wouldn’t be happy. I would know what the price had been. I’ll be reunited with Heleer someday. I will be. But not this way. Not at this price.’
He glanced back at the narrow tunnel despite himself. ‘The price is too great,’ he told himself sternly. He looked back at the stone slab, determined now. ‘And it’s not one I’m willing to pay.’ For a moment, he wondered if this was what Ana had meant, about a life not lived for others being no life at all.
Dan shook his head. He would have time to wonder later. He had made his choice. He took a deep breath, straightened his arm, and pushed against the stone slab with all his might.