Chapter 14

Salabast and his captains walked Michael down a long tunnel passage until it opened into a large cavern. The vaulted ceiling was over twenty meters up, and Michael guessed that they were at least several hundred meters below the surface, in the very bones of the mountains. They had crisscrossed the various tunnels in this underground labyrinth until Michael was completely disoriented.

The only light source was a lantern Salabast carried as they walked to the center of the vast cavern. The darkness was foreboding as they made their way forward. Without the lantern, there was no hope of seeing anything, and with it they could only see for a few meters in any direction. The expanse of the cavern was disquieting, punctuated by the echo of their footfalls. As they began to approach the far side of the cave, Michael could just barely see something on the far wall, but it was hard to make out in the dancing shadows. Salabast’s expression was unreadable.

As they neared the wall, Michael could see stairs that had been crudely cut into the rock face. The stairway ascended at least twenty meters, maybe more. But there was something else there too. It was large and menacing, like a giant worm that had gone to sleep on the stairway.

Salabast grabbed Michael by the sleeve and halted him as he was about to step off the edge of a terrible chasm. Michael’s gasp of breath echoed terribly in its enormous depths. Surely they hadn’t brought him all the way down here just to push him in, had they?

“You see that stairway yonder?”

“Yes,” Michael responded, his voice cracking slightly.

“Hmph.” Salabast ignored Michael’s fear. “That is where we made our stand against a cohort of armed thieves. They thought they could outsmart us and force us out of these tunnels. Use the caves for themselves, they thought. But we bested them, didn’t we, my lads?”

Barks of laughter and cheers erupted from the men around them. It was clear they had bonded through adversity and were prepared to follow Salabast wherever he led.

“We were on the far side, there,” he said, pointing with his free hand. Michael squinted in the dim light and could just make out a shelf at the top of the stairwell where it disappeared around a corner. There was a small flicker of light just above the shelf.

“They outnumbered us, but we were prepared, and we knew our tunnels well,” Salabast said bitterly. “They were firing blast rifles at us—couldn’t hit much with their aim. They weren’t trained for running battles, you see. So we retreated and drew them here.”

More chuckles from the men around Michael as they moved closer to him. He was beginning to feel more nervous than before. He got the distinct feeling that this was not merely a history lesson.

Salabast continued. “And they followed. Thought they would run us into a corner where we would be overwhelmed by their numbers. So we fought them up the stairs, and when most of them were up there, we dropped a chunk of solid rock down onto the stairway. It took the stairs, and about ten or twelve of them, along with it into the abyss.”

Michael looked again at the stairway, and he could see where several of the roughly hewn stairs were gouged out of the side of the cliff.

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