The encounter with the ogre invigorated them; being nearly eaten alive had its perks. They set off briskly, the little narrow trail winding them up and down Dunthur’s hilly landscape, though they took care to first peer around corners in case more ogres crouched in waiting. Toad silently hoped that Cutter had witnessed the ogre dash away from them, or better yet, he hoped the beast had run straight into the thug.
They came upon a lopsided, weathered sign that was barely dangling from the gnarled tree trunk it had been nailed to.
“What’s that say?” asked Toad, squinting at the sign.
“Caves of Dunthur: Enter at Your Own Peril,” Melena read.
“Sounds like they’re right up our alley,” Toad joked with a cocky grin. Joe, once again returned to his place at Toad’s hip, let out an odd snort, but otherwise remained mute.
“So, we’re gonna go in, find this gold and get out,” said Toad businesslike.
“That’s the idea.”
Something in Melena’s voice made Toad pause.
“What?” he asked.
“Well, it’s just … ” Melena looked unusually uncomfortable. “They are dangerous, the caves.”
“So,” Toad scoffed. “We just handled an ogre! What’s more dangerous than that?”
Joe again made his strangled grunt.
“Well” — and now Melena really wasn’t looking at him — “they’re caves, Toad. I’ve read that they’re quite … complicated.”
Toad stared at her, finally realizing fully for the first time that they would be going underground, down who knew how many tunnels, down who knew how deep.
“You gotta plan though, right?” he asked quickly.
“I’ve got a plan,” Melena nodded, though she still refused to meet his eye.
Toad sighed in relief. “Good. What is it?”
“Remember our way.”
“Re-remember our way?” Toad repeated in disbelief.
“Remember our way,” said Melena with a firm nod, and it struck Toad that she was probably trying to convince herself more so than him. “Come on. This must be one of the openings.”
A hole just large enough for them to crawl through gaped open at the foot of the slope a little off the path. Scraggly, yellow grass half-covered the opening from view.
“How d’you know it ain’t a rabbit hole?” asked Toad.
“It’s too big.”
“Then maybe it belongs to a badger. I hear they ain’t too nice.”
Melena looked suddenly anxious.
“How do you know if it belongs to a badger?” she asked him, worried.
Toad shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen one.”
Hazel spared Toad from Melena’s rolling eyes by swooping down and strolling straight into the hole, her long green tail disappearing into the darkness.
“Well, we’re not going to get anywhere standing here,” said Melena, sounding more like herself. She squared her shoulders, readjusted her knapsack more securely on her back, got onto her hands and knees and followed Hazel. Toad was about to do the same when Joe suddenly spoke, making him stop.
“Leave me here, Master Toad!”
Toad looked down at the mug, eyebrows raised. “What? Why?”
“I — I do not wish to go further,” said Joe. His marble eyes were fixed upon the dark entrance with something close to terror.
“I can’t leave you sitting out here,” said Toad. “Anyone could grab you.” And ignoring the mug’s protests, Toad crawled through the entrance.
Darkness pressed upon his eyes like a blindfold. Feeling about with his hands, he inched forward until he felt a strong draft. He waved his arms tentatively above his head and met empty space. Slowly, he stood; he must be in a cavern. How large, he couldn’t tell.
“Toad?” Melena whispered.
“Here,” he said; reaching out, he found her arm.
They stood, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dark. Then without warning Melena let out a screech.
“What? What?” Toad yelled.
Beside him, Melena was gasping for air.
“It’s — nothing —” she heaved weakly, “ — just — Hazel. Hazel, where are you?”
There was the sound of rustling and Toad felt the dragon’s smooth, slick scales brush the back of his hand as Hazel clambered up Melena’s front.
“This is crazy. How’re we supposed to find any gold when we can’t see our own feet?” said Toad.
It was a problem that made him feel incredibly stupid. Why hadn’t they thought of the fact that it would be too dark to see?
“I suppose we could go back out and find a stick. Hazel could light it for us,” said Melena.
There was a great, heavy sigh from Toad’s hip and a moment later, with a small pop, a single orb of light appeared before them, floating in midair.
Toad stood rooted to the spot, staring at the floating light, stunned. Then he looked down at the mug in gleeful amazement.
“You can do magic?”
Though it was clear Joe was trying hard to restrain it, a grin flickered across his face.
“Master Toad wished to see,” Joe explained. “Now Master Toad can.”
“Joe, you’re brilliant!” Toad cried, punching the air and making Hazel shiver from the onslaught of echoes.
“Shhh, Toad!” Melena scolded, cradling her dragon. “How can you do that?” she asked Joe, reaching out a tentative finger toward the orb. It shifted higher out of reach.
Joe opened his mouth, but Toad exclaimed, ecstatic, “He’s the Bewitched Beer Mug of Thieves! He can do anything!”
“Well … Master Toad, I wouldn’t say I could do anything,” Joe mumbled, flattered and embarrassed. At the onslaught of compliments, it seemed that Joe could not hold onto whatever fear had gripped him at the cave’s entrance. “I too do not enjoy the dark. Ol’ Joe is happy to be of service.”
They started to walk. The orb drifted ahead of them, shining upon the walls and ceiling. In a surge of inspiration, Toad fished out his set of lock-picks and periodically made long scraped Xs on the walls to help them retrace their steps. The caves were damp and chilly; every now and then a loud drip drop could be heard from somewhere up ahead, but more than anything, there was deep, utter silence. With the orb, Toad and Melena feasted upon the dazzling sights of the caverns and tunnels and their initial trepidation of the caves began to dissipate. They wound through tight, narrow passages with ceilings so low they had to bend over double before walking into expanses so enormous that the ceilings disappeared into darkness. It was like a monstrous maze and many times they were forced to double back when the route grew impossible. They waded through pools of water that — thankfully — only came up to their ankles. There were odd, strange creatures: insects of bright orange and red with spindly legs and bulging bodies. Sometimes they heard the rustling of bat wings from overhead. Hazel left Melena’s shirt and began to fully enjoy herself, exploring nooks and crannies that were far too small for Toad and Melena.
“What’s this Elfin Gold look like, then?” asked Toad, inspecting a pale scorpion-like creature, snoozing on a stalagmite. “Like gorents only smaller?”
Melena gave him a bewildered expression before letting out a laugh that ricocheted around them like cannon fire.
“What?” Toad demanded, suddenly feeling hot around the collar.
“Elfin Gold isn’t money, Toad. It’s a kind of moss.”
“Yes,” said Melena, still snickering. “It shimmers like gold, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Toad muttered, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Figures.”
As their eyes swept the rock walls for anything golden and fuzzy, the recollections of the turns they had made became more difficult. When they came upon a huge cross-section of five different openings, Melena stopped.
“Okay, let’s think about this.”
“Left, left, straight, left again at that rock that looked like Hazel on a pumpkin, right, straight, past that waterfall, and right again,” Toad reeled off.
“Yes, I think that’s right,” Melena murmured. “So, which way now?”
They took the far right. This tunnel was as smooth as glass and just large enough for them to slip through single file. As they walked, the tunnel sloped downward until it became alarmingly steep. They shuffled quite slowly to keep from sliding straight downward, hands gripping the tunnel’s sides. The stone floor beneath them was slick with moisture and Toad wondered if the water escaped this way during heavy rains. Finally they reached the bottom where the largest expanse of water they had yet seen stretched out before them, answering Toad’s question. Around one edge of the dark lake was a narrow strip of cave floor. Toad reached down and picked up a rock. The orb floated near him. He dropped the stone into the water with a plunk.
In the orb’s light, Toad couldn’t see the rock in the water. In fact, he couldn’t see the lake’s bottom at all.
“This looks deep,” he said, unnerved. He peered across the black expanse. For some reason this underground lake made him far more nervous than anywhere else they’d been. “I don’t think there are any other passages here. Let’s go back. Pick another tunnel.”
As the orb drifted dutifully back overhead, Melena let out a shout that made Toad jump.
“There it is!” she yelled, pointing to the far side of the lake.
“There! Over there! On those rocks. That’s Elfin Gold! I’m sure of it.”
Toad squinted his eyes.
“I don’t see it,” he said.
“Oh, come on,” said Melena impatiently. “It’s just over there!”
Melena hurried around the lake, Toad right behind her, to the far side where a cluster of tall rocks stood on the largest expanse of cave floor. As they neared, Toad’s heart pumped faster. He could see them now in the orb’s light: dark green until the light from the orb spread over the rock, turning the moss suddenly an unmistakable, brilliant gold. They had found it! They had actually found —
Melena screamed and nearly tumbled into the lake. Toad grabbed her from behind at the very last moment and his heart leapt into his throat. There, sprawled amongst the base of the rocks, was a skeleton. A human skeleton.
“What happened to him?” Toad demanded, too horrified to care that his voice was higher than usual.
“It is difficult to tell from this angle,” said Joe with the air of an intrigued doctor. “The bones look a bit …. chewed.”
“You mean,” Toad sputtered, “something ate him? There aren’t ogres down here, are there?”
“O-o.” Melena tip-toed over the bones and reached up for a cluster of the fern-like moss, glowing so brightly that it was painful to look at.
“Careful,” said Toad.
Melena stretched. “Got it!”
“Excellent!” Toad cheered. “Let’s get out of —”
Toad’s voice died. He felt the blood drain from his face, turning as white as the bones around Melena’s feet. He was staring at something over Melena’s shoulder. She turned to look when an odd squelchy gurgle sounded behind her.
A monster — a frightfully, awful monster — was mere feet from Melena. Its eyes were enormous, the size of goose eggs and milky white. Its gray, pebbly skin was stretched taunt upon a fleshless face. Its jaw was hinged and abnormally wide, full of shark-like teeth. Its hands rested on the rock, hands that were oddly webbed and huge with each finger ending in a sharp, jagged nail. It was as tall as a human man, yet oddly shrunken and hunched, jagged bones jutting out against gray skin.
It let out its odd gurgling croak again. It tilted its head, its sightless eyes roving over them; it reached out a hand …
The creature hissed and jerked backward. Toad dived down to scoop up another rock.
“Run!” he yelled, taking aim.
Melena scampered over the skeleton’s bones, making them roll into the lake with a splash. Toad kept up a rain of rocks and pebbles and the creature ducked back behind the boulders, spitting like a snake. Toad hurled one more rock; it missed and bounced off the cave wall, landing with a plop into the lake. He turned and ran, catching up with Melena in seconds. They dashed to the tunnel’s opening, but it was so steep and slick that their feet couldn’t get traction. It was as if the floor had been mopped with oil. The more they tried to run the more they stumbled and slipped backward. From somewhere behind them, they heard the monster slip into the water. It could swim. Whatever it was could swim. And in the midst of Toad’s panicked, pointless, sliding running he knew that if it dragged them into the water they were dead.
It would drown them.
The creature gurgled behind them. Melena let out a terrified sob. Toad pushed her behind him, shielding her from the two, bulging eyes above the water’s surface. In a last ditch effort, Toad hurled his own knapsack at the monster’s head. But the bag landed short with a loud splash and the creature flashed an angry mess of teeth. It swam closer.
“M-M-Master Toad!” Joe cried from Toad’s hip, his voice quaking. “M-M-Master Toad, I —”
“Get climbing!” Toad roared. “I’ll hold it off!” Though how he would against such a mouthful of teeth, he had no idea. He scooped up a fistful of more pebbles as he heard Melena’s futile attempts to crawl up the tunnel. He threw back his arm; the monster’s long, sickly forearms were upon the edge of rock, ready to hoist itself out of the water —
The orb vanished.
They were plunged into darkness.
“TOAD!” Melena screamed.
“JOE!” Toad bellowed, groping for the mug at his hip. “Turn it back on! TURN IT BACK ON!”
“I — I —” Joe sounded as if he were hyperventilating. Water sloshed onto the curve of rock and Toad could hear water dripping. He threw the rocks blindly. With an angry hiss, he knew one had hit its mark, but the monster was coming closer, its gurgle growing shallow and quick with excitement; Melena clutched him, sobbing into his ear.
Something swooshed past, ruffling Toad’s hair, and a sudden blaze of fire illuminated the lake; Toad stumbled backward, nearly falling on top of Melena. The creature had been less than a foot from him. It shrieked as the fire licked its skin and Hazel swooped past its head. But the fire was gone as soon as it had appeared, leaving them in inky blackness. Hazel breathed fire again and again, forcing the monster to duck, swiping its arms blindly.
“Quick!” Toad gripped the sides of the tunnel and slowly began to climb the steep slope, slipping backward every other step, Melena just ahead of him. Bright light momentarily flashed into the tunnel every time Hazel flamed, but Toad couldn’t tell if they had increased their distance or not; he dug his nails into the tunnel’s smooth walls and inched upward. Behind them, Hazel roared and water splashed, the creature’s shrieks murderous and tripled in volume from the echoes. After what seemed an eternity, they stumbled through the tunnel’s entrance, back into the criss-cross section of openings.
With a whoosh, Hazel shot back up the tunnel.
Toad grabbed Melena’s hand and they ran through the impenetrable darkness, bouncing off stone walls in their haste to get as far away as possible. He didn’t have a clue where he was going; all that mattered was Melena’s sweating hand clamped in his own — that they run, run, run —
With a pained cry and a startled screech from Hazel, Melena’s hand was wrenched from his and Toad skidded to a stop, spinning around, chest heaving.
“I tripped,” said Melena. “I think … I think I’m okay.”
Toad reached out his arms, waving them through the air, trying to find her. His right hand collided with her skull.
“It’s okay,” she repeated, her voice shaking. Her trembling hand found his and she rose to her feet, but moments later she let out another pained gasp.
“What? What is it?”
“I think I twisted my ankle.”
Toad groaned. “We shouldn’t have been running —”
“It’s okay,” though with every ‘okay’, Toad heard the waver in her voice grow. “It’s not your fault.”
“Can you walk?”
“I think so. Anyway, I — I don’t think it’s following us.”
At her words, Hazel blew sparks from her nostrils; the orange glow allowed Toad a short glimpse of Melena, pale and terrified, eyes wide, Hazel poised on her shoulders, before they again returned to darkness.
Toad glared down at the mug at his hip, though he couldn’t see him.
“Some light would be nice right about now.”
When the mug didn’t reply, Toad tapped him on the cheek. “Joe?”
“Joe?” Melena asked quietly. “Joe, are you okay?”
The mug shuddered against Toad’s hand.
“It’s okay to be scared, Joe,” Melena continued and Toad felt her shift her weight off her ankle. He gripped her elbow to help. “We’re all scared.”
Joe expelled a shaky breath and a moment later the tunnel they stood in was illuminated; a much smaller orb floated over their heads.
Toad immediately looked around them, but the creature was nowhere to be seen. “Thanks Joe. That’ll help a —”
“Cast me out!” Joe cried, his marble eyes squeezed shut.
Toad looked down, startled.
“I am a disgrace! I am a coward!” Joe’s eyes flew open; they were brimming with tears. “Joe told Master Toad to leave him outside! I am useless! I am a sham! Cast me out, Master Toad! Cast me out, I say! Joe is unworthy of you!”
The orb flickered, but Toad hardly noticed it. He untied the mug from his belt loop, bringing the mug up to his face. “What’re you going on about? You just panicked. We all panicked.”
“Not Hazel!” Joe wailed miserably.
“She’s a dragon,” Toad argued. “They don’t do scared.”
“She’s actually quite terrified of cats,” said Melena with a small smile as Hazel cocked her head at the trembling mug. “Kittens are her worst nightmare. Cheer up, Joe. You brought the light back. No harm done.”
Toad didn’t agree with this, but felt it better, considering Joe’s state, to keep his thoughts to himself.
Joe heaved back quaking sobs. “Master Toad and m’lady will not … abandon Joe for his folly?”
“Abandon you?” Toad repeated, thrown for a loop. “You mad? Never.”
Melena nodded fervently and the orb seemed to glow a bit brighter.
“Now,” said Toad, looking around them. “Where are we?”
An uneasy silence settled over them.
“There are supposed to be openings to the caves all over Dunthur,” said Melena in a would-be-calm voice that fooled no one. “If we keep moving, we’ll … we’ll probably run into one.”
“Yeah,” said Toad, latching onto the idea. “That’s right. That’s all we need to do. We’ll be outta here in no time.”
Melena limped forward, grimacing and Toad quickly took her elbow, but she shook her head. “It’s not that bad. Really. I’m okay.”
Before skeletons and nightmarish monsters, the caves had been fun and beautiful. Now Toad’s heart hammered with fear, shoulders tense as knots. The sudden sound of dripping water had them both freezing, scrunching up close together, fists raised, staring into the darkness. During these moments, Joe squeezed his eyes shut and recited in whispers random bits from the Dragon Book of Dragons. It seemed to work; the orb would flicker dangerously, but stay. Toad had never been more grateful to have stolen Joe than he was now. Torches would have burned out long ago.
There were no weapons in the caves. No sticks or clubs, so Toad filled his pockets with whatever pebble and rock he came upon.
The tunnels went on for ages, as if a giant worm had carved its underground home eons ago. They never came upon one of Toad’s scratched Xs, though they both kept an eye out for them. It felt to Toad that they had been walking for hours. They were forced to stop and rest when Melena’s ankle grew too painful. Finally, she was forced to lean heavily upon Toad as they progressed, slowing them to a snail’s pace. Hunger wasn’t even a thought anymore; Toad’s stomach had long given up. At least the periodic pool of water they passed kept their thirst at bay. The terror of the monster had dissipated somewhat, replaced now with the gnawing sickness that they would be lost underground forever.
“Tell me about your dad,” said Melena, her voice strained with pain and exhaustion.
“My dad?” asked Toad, surprised.
“Yes. Tell me about him. What’s he like?”
“Well…” Toad cast his mind around. Somehow the stories that had always filled his chest with a warm glow were difficult to conjure up while trapped in the horror of the caves. “He’s … built like a bear. Wilson once told me how he saw my dad pick up a boulder all on his own and throw it five yards. Hey — he woulda had that old witch’s wagon out of the mud in two seconds!”
Melena’s laugh was breathy. “I’d think so.”
“And then one time my dad showed Lynch something he’d gotten from a huge treasure hoard — a human skull made out of pure gold with diamonds fixed in its eye sockets and rubies for teeth.”
“I say, Master Toad, your father is quite the noble pirate!” Joe commended. “Why, not many treasure hoards can boast such exquisite finds as that!”
“I know, I can’t wait to see it!” said Toad, but then a cold drop of water landed on the top of his head, extinguishing the happy ember in his chest: he’d never see it or his father if he didn’t get out of these caves.
Toad had a feeling that Melena could sense his sudden dreary switch for the arm around his neck tightened momentarily. “We’ll get out,” she assured him. “And you’ll go on so many adventures with your father.”
Toad felt a smile tug at his lips.
“And you’ll find Miles —”
“That’s the one,” Toad laughed.
“It’s not a hard name to remember,” Melena scolded him lightly. “But maybe if he’d had a more original one like yours, he’d — what is it?” For Toad had suddenly jerked to a stop. He raised a hand and Melena fell silent. Hazel swiveled her head, smoke curling from her nostrils, and peered around their ankles. They were in another large cavern, the orb’s light not reaching the distant, dark edges. He heard it again in the silence: the slipping tread of feet … a low throated croak.
“It’s found us,” Toad whispered, his blood running cold.
Whether it had tracked them by sound or smell, he didn’t know, but there was no mistaking the soft hiss that reached them through the darkness.
“What do we do?” Melena whispered back. “I can’t run.”
At Toad’s hip Joe began to mutter in a frenzied undertone: “The Tri-Horned Yellowbelly can breathe fire up to twenty yards but only reaches two yards in length. Dragon book of Dragons, third edition…”
“What do we do?” Melena repeated as a string of gurgles echoed off the cavern’s walls.
Toad looked wildly around. There had to be somewhere they could hide, somewhere …
A sickly white leg slipped into the pool of light cast from the orb. The air in Toad’s lungs seemed to freeze. Hazel scooted in front of them, her little chest expanding —
Toad dug into his pocket, pulling one of the rocks he’d found and tossed them across the cavern in the opposite direction. They dinged loudly in the silence. At once the creature swung its flat face toward the sound, hinged jaw working. Holding their breath, they watched as it slowly slipped toward the other side of the cavern toward the sound. They inched backward, not daring to breath.
Without warning Hazel shot into the air, the flap of her wings sounding like the cracking of sails in a high wind, and the creature let out a pronounced croak.
“Hazel — what are you —” Toad wanted to throttle her.
But the dragon turned in the air and was flying down a narrow side passage, speeding into the darkness.
They hurried after her in an awkward half-lunge, like contestants in a three-legged race. There was no denying the creature had heard them. Its feet slapped upon the cold cave floor, its lungs wheezing.
They turned a corner and a bright circle of light that had nothing to do with the floating orb dazzled Toad’s eyes.
“The exit!” Melena cried as Hazel’s sharp little face peeked back at them through the small opening.
Something swiped across Toad’s back and he pushed Melena forward. He spun, his vision suddenly filled with sharp teeth and long arms. He kicked wildly and the creature recoiled, its nails raking down his arm. Melena shouted “TOAD!” He turned and jumped for the hole as a skeletal arm shot after him; he landed with a painful umph on Melena. They scrambled backwards, away from the exit, away from the grasping hand, but the moment sunlight touched the creature’s white skin, it let out a horrible scream and receded back within the gloom.
Toad’s lungs heaved, Melena panted beside him, and all of Hazel’s tense attention was trained upon the dark hole. They could hear it, just out of sight, hissing and spitting — Thank Hickory it wasn’t night. Toad shakily stood, helping Melena to her feet.
“Come on,” he said, voice trembling as badly as the rest of him. He wanted to get as far away as possible from the cave’s opening before nightfall.