Sharon was exhausted. She had been running and hiding for two days and nights now – ever since those abominations had emerged and began terrorising the southern Vale. She was unarmed, and had not eaten since she fled her farm.
An hour ago she had sought shelter at her cousin’s property, only to find his decapitated body in front of the smouldering remains of his house. Her last hope was a vague memory she retained from her childhood.
Somewhere in the nearby hills was a cave, and that cave led to a vast underground cavern. Her sister had wanted to explore it then, but Sharon had been too timid. Perhaps now it could take her to safety.
It seemed like a reasonable plan, given that she had no other options.
It took some searching, but eventually Sharon recognised the oddly shaped rocky overhang that looked a bit like a nose, and squeezed into the small cave entrance hidden behind some shrubs.
Turning the first corner she was plunged into darkness, and paused while her eyes adjusted. A soft luminescence emitted by moss covering parts of the tunnel walls gradually became visible.
It made navigation difficult but possible. Cautiously Sharon crept further down the cave.
After a few more turns the tunnel branched, and Sharon was faced with a choice.
She figured there would be many such choices, and decided to always take the leftmost branch, and if that didn’t work out, track back and try the next.
She had always been methodical like that, a trait that her sister Rachel found annoying. She missed her sister, more so now than ever.
The scratching of claws on rock made Sharon freeze in her tracks. Slowly inching forward, she saw that the tunnel opened up into a large cavern with several exits.
The source of the sound was a Kobold. It had apparently been prospecting, and was now loading rock samples onto a small cart. After a short while the creature tossed his pick on top of the samples and headed off into one of the exits, pushing the cart in front of him.
Sharon feared becoming lost in these endless tunnels even more than she feared the Kobold, so she decided to follow him at a discreet distance.
Maintaining that distance proved surprisingly easy, as the Kobold’s cart made quite a racket. Keeping track of his location was not difficult.
Well, for a while that is. Until there was a loud crashing sound, followed by deathly silence.
A couple of turns later and Sharon found what remained of the Kobold’s cart.
It lay in splinters, with rock samples scattered everywhere. All that remained of the Kobold were dark stains on the tunnel walls and a steady drip of blood falling from a large hole in the roof of the tunnel.
With her eyes fixed on the hole, Sharon crept past and continued on.
Sharon was starting to feel faint from hunger now, and thirst was a constant preoccupation.
The violent death of the Kobold had been unsettling, and she began to wonder if she had made the right choice in entering the cave system.
Her sister would have said “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” and pressed on. Sharon was now forcing herself to be more like her sister simply to survive, and the strain was beginning to show.
In fact, it seemed she had begun to hallucinate. Sharon swore she could smell fried onions. Wasn’t that a stroke symptom? Or was that burnt toast?
Following her nose, she broke her rule and turned right at the next junction. A gentle upward slope took her through a couple of turns and then a blinding light marked an opening through which she could see blue sky.
Sharon forced herself not to run as she passed through the opening and found herself on a narrow ledge. Immediately below was a small cottage, from which the inviting smell of fried onions came.
Sharon half fell, half slid down the rocky slope to the base of the cliff.
Picking herself up she crept over to the window and peered inside. An old man was cooking a meal, and looked up as he noticed her at the window.
“Goodness me, you look exhausted. Please, come inside and rest.”
A few minutes later Sharon was recalling her harrowing experiences between mouthfuls of food as she eagerly devoured the shared meal.
The old man listened intently, and his brow furrowed as Sharon recounted the creatures that she had witnessed in the southern Vale, and the fate of her cousin.
“You have been lucky,” he said, “but I also detect a strength and resourcefulness that few possess. The kind of attributes that mark a good mage.
I am retired now, but in my day I made quite the name for myself.
I am happy to share that knowledge with you if you are interested. That is, unless you have somewhere better to go.”
Sharon nodded, and decided to stay.