“I can’t believe we got lost. Again.”
Dan stifled a snicker and kicked a stray pebble, watching from the corner of his eye as Jamie, his companion and best friend, walked in agitated small circles in the small patch of shadow they’ve managed to procure for themselves.
It was hot. And dry. And the stranger sun was absolutely ruthless.
“It’s what, the third time? This week alone,” Jamie continued, finally dropping to sit on a rock with a defeated sigh. Dan lifted his head to the sky, seeing the collage of evergreen leaves swishing in the warm breeze. A sneeze was starting to build up at the crook of his nose from all this sand.
“And we’ve no way of getting back, yet again,” Jamie said. “Dan. Are you even listening to me?”
“Mhhm,” Dan hummed, turning to look at Jamie. Despite the sun — or because of it, rather — his friend’s beanie has stayed on. His jacket was tied around his waist, and the cuffs of his long-sleeved T-shirt were rolled up to mid forearms — much alike Dan’s cuffs.
“And it doesn’t concern you whatsoever?” Jamie prompted, eyebrows raised.
“Nope,” Dan said, popping the p. “It’s not my fault this time.”
“It’s not my fault, either.”
“Is too,” Dan said with a smug grin. “I told you we should’ve gotten off a stop earlier.”
“Because that would’ve been so much better,” Jamie mockingly said. “Lost is lost, no matter where we are.”
Dan could taste the sand in his mouth, now. “I can’t say I agree.”
Leaning back against an acacia tree, Dan looked around him — taking in the strikingly red dunes, the rocks and the dirt. The desert stretched for miles and miles, as far as the eye could see; the scattered acacia trees were the only offer of shelter from the sun blazing overhead. The clouds have gotten lost on their way here, leaving the sky a pale, consistent blue.
“Let’s keep going,” Jamie said, rising from the rock he’d sat down on. “We’ve got to find a way out of here before the sun sets.”
“What’s the hurry?” asked Dan, crossing his hands at the base of his nape. “It’s warm and quiet. We’re not gonna find anywhere better than this, not anytime soon.”
“And you’d know that how, exactly?” Jamie dryly asked. He leaned his shoulder against the very same tree trunk Dan was lying against, reproachfully looking down at his friend.
Dan waved a lazy hand about. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, Jay. Ain’t nothing exists in the middle of nowhere.”
“The snakes and the spiders would disagree, I think,” Jamie said, making Dan glance around him at the ground with suspicion. He’d forgotten about the rest of wildlife. “They come out at night, you know. They’d eat your carcass.”
“I’m not dead yet,” Dan said. Jamie grinned down at him.
Dan looked around him a few moments longer, before getting up from the ground and steeling his boots against the sand. He brushed sand and dust from his pants, and, at the cloud of it that puffed up, finally sneezed.
He stumbled back a step and a half, stabilizing himself against the tree. “Jeez,” he breathed. “This sand is killing me.”
“Should’ve thought of that before getting on a random train leading to a place we’ve never heard of,” Jamie said.
“Ah, yes,” Dan sardonically retorted. “I should’ve guessed we’d end up in the desert in the middle of December.”
Jamie shrugged, swallowing his smile. “Climate change is getting scary, isn’t it?”
Dan rolled his eyes and stepped forward, only belatedly registering the way he felt the ground crumble beneath his feet. He barely managed to let out a half-vocalized yelp before he was falling, his breath knocked out of him as he hit something much more solid than sand.
“Dan?” he heard Jamie yell from above. Blinking away the confusion, he scoured the place around him, then groaned at the darkness that greeted him. “Dan, are you okay?”
“I’m fine!” he yelled back, scrambling into a cross-legged sitting position. He threw a pebble against the wall. The sound echoed crookedly. “I don’t know, Jay, the ground just collapsed. I’m in a hole.”
“I can very well see that,” Jamie replied. Dan squinted overhead at the light filtering in from the break in the ground, seeing the silhouette of Jamie’s head peeking in to look for him. “Did you break anything?”
“I don’t think so,” said Dan. “But I’ve no idea how the hell I’m gonna get back up.” There were pillars of stone and sand around him, but they didn’t look nearly stable enough to support an ascent.
“Hold on, I’m coming down,” Jamie yelled at him.
“The hell you are!” Dan yelled back. “Then we’ll both be stuck!”
The issue was solved by the sweet care of Mother Nature, when a moment later Dan heard Jamie yelp; the sand above him collapsed, and his friend landed a few feet away from him on hard ground.
“You alright?” Dan asked, voice lowered back to normal. Jamie groaned in reply, throwing a hand over his eyes.
“I hate this place.”
“At least you haven’t got—“ Dan sneezed again, courtesy of the new clouds of red sand that’ve puffed around them with Jamie’s fall—“a sand allergy.”
Jamie snorted. “Yeah, at least I haven’t got that.”
They had to take a few minutes to gather about their wits, and shortly found themselves standing with their flashlights out and inspecting the walls of the cave —searching for a way either to get out, or get away.
They quickly discovered that the so-called room they were in was circular. About five inches from the wall, yellowish and reddish mushrooms with tall spines and thick domes created another circle around them, perfectly round.
“Make a wish?” Jamie asked Dan.
“That’s upon a star,” Dan replied. “And we all know how that sort of thing turns out.”
“Fair,” Jamie said, and they continued looking.
Dan was staring up at the hole in the ceiling for the third time, the sky already darkening by now, when Jamie called him over. He joined his friend to see him lighting his flashlight into a dark entrance; it was small, half an inch taller than him, and perfectly vertically rectangular. The white glow of the flashlight got lost to the darkness a short distance ahead, but from what it did reveal, they saw the beginnings of a descending corridor.
They exchanged a long look, before simultaneously turning their gazes back to the small, dark entrance.
“Are you scared of the dark?” Jamie eventually asked.
“Just a little,” replied Dan. “Are you claustrophobic?”
“A bit,” said that.
They both sighed, adjusted their flashlights to their brightest settings — which were hardly brighter than before — and walked in, Dan going on ahead while Jamie followed, occasionally looking back.
“Nobody’s gonna follow,” Dan quietly said. His voice echoed back at him from the walls, making him grimace.
“Hopefully,” said Jamie.
They treaded in silence for a descending patch of time. Dan occasionally stumbled on a strangely shaped rock; Jamie’s flashlight occasionally fell on an odd part of the wall or the low ceiling. Their eyes didn’t quite adjust; despite the seconds ticking and their flashlights illuminating, they could never see more than a foot or two ahead of them. It was all perfectly dark, specks of sand and dust swiveling around them.
Dan sneezed for the seventh time.
“Bless you,” Jamie monotonously said.
“Cut it out,” snapped Dan. “I’m not getting any more blessed every time you say it.”
“Well, curse you to all hell, then,” Jamie sardonically replied.
“Thanks,” Dan bitterly said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. Then he abruptly stopped, Jamie walking right into him. “Why are we stopping?”
“Take a look,” Dan said, waving his flashlight around. Jamie looked over his friend’s shoulder to see that the corridor they were walking through was now splitting into two identical corridors.
“That’s poetic,” Jamie remarked.
Dan nodded. “The only thing we’re missing is a swish of a magical wind and an old, wise voice to ominously riddle us.”
As he finished talking, a light breeze swished past them, carrying on to the left path. Dan and Jamie looked around and about them, flashing their flashlights in all directions in search of its source. A few moments of renewed calm fell upon them, and just when they turned their attentions back to the crossroad in front of them, a blast of wind swooshed past them from behind.
Dan stumbled forward. Jamie’s beanie was almost snatched off. The quiet, almost inaudible jingle of a mirthful laugh echoed around them, fading away with the quelling of the wind.
“Jay,” Dan said, slow and deliberate. “I think this place is haunted.”
Jamie massaged his brow with the hand holding the flashlight, which made the light jump up and down against the wall beside them. “Of course you’d think that.”
“What do we do?”
“What can we do?” said Jamie, shrugging. “We go after the wind.”
“The magical wind,” Dan tastefully specified.
Jamie paused, blinked, then shrugged again. “After the magical wind, yes.”
And after the magical wind they went. The stone corridor didn’t get any wider nor brighter, and their flashlights began losing their lights, which was only a little disconcerting as neither of them could think of anything they could do about it. When Dan’s flashlight flickered, he shook it, which seemed to have motivated it to keep on lighting.
They came out into a room, no bigger than the one they’d originally fallen into. It had a ceiling; way down underground, no natural light streamed in. They flashed their flashlights around, determining the walls, before Dan found something.
“Jay, come here a sec,” he called out, his voice echoing between the stone walls. Jamie followed him to where he was crouched, hand steadily holding the light on what lay scattered at the wall’s feet.
“What is that?” Jamie said, lowering his voice. He leaned slightly forward, eyes narrowing. When he directed his own flashlight at it, red light danced back.
Dan and Jamie both leaned away, cautious but hasty.
“It looks like feathers,” Jamie said, voice incredulous. Dan picked one up — a spotted red feather, as bright and shiny as wine, but chunky like a gemstone. That was probably because it was a gemstone.
The boys examined the pile of feathers in front of them, all in different colors but none nearly as frail as a bird’s feathers. They were hard and solid and, when picked up, heavy. There was emerald green and blue sapphire; hints of a golden amber imbedded inside a feather of clear quartz.
Dan picked up a handful of feathers and played with them between his hands, examining and weighing them in his hold. Their chunkiness sent a myriad of colors dancing across the walls in different directions, redirected by Jamie’s flashlight.
“I don’t understand much in gemstone trade,” Dan finally said, “but I feel like this is worth a lot of money, Jay.”
“With our luck, it’s also cursed,” said Jamie, a slight grimace pulling at his features.
“Who cares, as long as we’re rich!” Dan gleefully exclaimed. “Only problem is that my pockets aren’t nearly deep enough.”
Jamie quirked an eyebrow at him. “The only problem?”
“What I don’t get is how it ended up here in the first place,” Dan continued, glancing around at the circular walls. “Not only are they polished, but also carved. And oddly specifically, too,” he added, turning to look at Jamie.
“Maybe we aren’t the only ones who’ve gotten lost,” said Jamie, climbing to his feet. “And unless your pockets are suddenly magically bottomless—“ he rolled his eyes when Dan actually checked— “then I reckon we look for riches once we’re not trapped underground.”
Dan gingerly put the feathers down, inclining his head at them. “One day I’ll come back for you.”
“I hope not,” Jamie dryly said.
“You know, when we figure out how to teleport,” Dan said, climbing to his feet. He frowned at little, then added, “willingly.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Jamie absently said, searching the walls only to find there were no additional pathways leading out of here. “This place is a dead end.”
“I can’t believe the magical wind lied to us,” Dan jokingly said, whirling around to come back the way they’d come — only to stop dead in his place. “Oh, wonderful.”
Jamie turned around and saw what his friend did: the way they’d come from was no longer there at all. “That can’t be good.”
That was when their flashlights simultaneously flickered. Dan and Jamie exchanged nervous looks, then both shook their flashlights, which only flickered again.
“No-no-no,” Dan muttered as the lights died down, hitting the butt of his flashlight. “Don’t die on me, Barry, not now!”
“You named your flashlight Barry?”
“And what if I did?” snapped that. “Focus on the important thing!”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Encourage your own flashlight!”
“I really don’t think it’s going to help—“
And then their flashlights went out, moving on to the next world and leaving the two boys to fend off the darkness on their own. The faint jingle of a laugh echoed throughout the room, fading away into a quiet stillness.
Down in The Caves of Aestiria © Michal Rotko
Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash