"What?" Satrina blinked unbelieving at her husband.
"We're going with the pilgrimage. I've already made up my mind. Now start packing." He turned away.
Satrina watched her husband who was over twice her age and had been the best friend of her father while he had been alive. She still didn't understand. "We're leaving New Dome? But ... I've never even been to the surface. What of the terrestrials? Won't they kill us?" She stood, her many skirts making it hard for her to hurry after Sir Malkius. He turned on his heel, his short hairless tail twitching with his barely contained annoyance at his young wife.
"I said we are going. It is not your place to question my decissions. Now pack lightly, we only get one wagon. We leave in a few days." He turned away again, stalking away.
Satrina sneered, her tail stiff as she started going through her things. If only her father hadn't promised her to his childhood friend long before she was even born. She bent over to pick up a scarf and cursed at her corset as it pinched her. She hated wearing all the "proper" women's clothing that Sir Malkius made her wear. He was not a cruel husband, but she had few freedoms.
As she packed, a shadow at her window drew her attention to a handsome grinning face. She caught her breath for a moment in surprise then threw her scarf at the man who hung outside down from the ledge above her window that looked out over the underground city of New Dome which glowed faintly from biolumenasant insects held in bottles throughout the city. She loved to look out to the park of glowing grass that young people liked to lounge on. But now the young man's face and shoulders blocked the view.
"You, Lord Dane, truly are a scoundrel. You obviously have had much practice with sneaking in and out of young maidens' windows while their husbands are away!" She turned away from him as Lord Dane let himself in, flipping upright as he dropped to the ground. He was dress in a white tunic the laced up around the neck and tight dark brown breeches as well as knee high brown leather boots.
"Yes, I'm afraid all the rumors are true. And yet, I still can't entice you. Thus, I'm obviously not that good. Getting ready to find a new cave? I hear the pilgrimage will be leaving soon." He came up next to Satrina, a good head and a half taller. He held out the scarf that she had thrown at him. She turned to take it from him, their hands touching. She looked up into his large black eyes. They all had huge black eyes to see in the faint glow of other creatures. Most Lukatians never see the surface of their world. But after so long, caves would get overcrowded and several hundred would band together and head off in search of new caves and found new cities.
His oval eyes pierced her's with an emotion she didn't quite understand. She turned away from him as she thought about the kind of cave they would find. "My husband says we are going. So I don't have much choice." She brushed past Dane, opening her antic wooden dresser and pulling out several shifts, stuffing them into her large bag. She had been friends with Lord Dane for several years now, having met him in a bar when she had doned her husband's clothing and slipped out when he was at work. Dane was, sadly enough, her only friend. And she felt a horrible aching in her chest as she thought about never seeing him again.
"Well, if you have to go, then I guess I should go home and pack." He was already over the windowsill as he said it, not giving her a chance to say anything. She rushed to her window but could only watch him nimbly climb down the cliff wall and drop to the ground. He didn't even turn as he made his way down the street, his tail swaying behind him in contentment. Satrina smiled and shook her head.
"No time for daydreaming, Satrina. We still have much to do." She turned, her face a little flushed as her husband walked in, completely unaware that anyone had been in her room. Damn, that Lord Dane is good! she thought, barely containing an amused smile.
As the pilgrimage gathered and people greeted one another, Satrina tossed her things into the back of their own personal wagon. Then her pointed ears perked slightly. "You hear Lord Dane is joining the pilgrimage?"
"Indeed. Keep your wife locked up."
"Hmph, he even looks at my daughter and I'll take his head off!"
Satrina had to giggle. Her friend had made quite an impression. "And think of the devil..." Satrina didn't even need to look up as Lord Dane leaned up against the back of her wagon next to her.
"You were thinking of me? Oh, maybe I haven't lost my touch. You know, it all starts with a thought..."
"Oh yes, I know. So does getting yourself in trouble. Might want to be careful on this trip. You're not very popular ... at least not with the men." She tossed her last luggage into the wagon and smiled at Dane. "Which makes me wonder why you are coming along? You have to know you aren't well liked."
Dane shrugged, looking at a group of men who glared hatefully at him, their tails stiff. "Not much left to do around here. Figure there's an adventure to be had. Besides," he grinned at her "admit it, you'd be so lonely without me!" He winked at her and slipped around the wagon before she could say another word.
"Finished, my dear?" She turned on her heels to look at her husband. "Uh, yep. I mean, yessir." She could barely contain her amusement at that scoundrel's timing.
Sir Malkius gave her a glance that let her know he knew something was up, but he also knew she was too stubborn to tell him even if he demanded it. So instead he turned and pushed the wagon's door shut and locked it. He held out his arm for his wife, which she took, and he led her to the high seat at the front of the wagon. The massive, grey, armor skinned beast that was latched to the wagon gave a grumble when one of it's eyes saw its mistress, hoping for a treat. Satrina patted the beast on the rump with affection as she hiked up her thinner traveling skirt and climbed up into the seat. Her husband followed and took the reins. They then waited a few minutes until the shrill whistle broke the dull noise of many people talking in hushed tones.
The pilgrim lurched forward, making their way toward the single road that led to the surface. As the minutes ticked by, the air started to feel warmer, fresher. It started to get brighter. Satrina held her breath as they came up to the entrance, a massive gaping maw to the surface world. As they came to the top, her eyes widened in amazement. The sky was a brilliant fiery red, the sun setting behind white tipped mountains in the far distance. Trees towered over them, and Satrina could barely blink as she stared at them in wonder. These plants didn't glow. She had read about life on the surface, but this was the first time she was ever seeing any of it.
Scouts were constantly running ahead then coming back with news of the road ahead. Their quick birdlike mounts covered the distances rapidly with their long strides. Occasionally, Satrina could hear what they were saying but none of it was of anything concerning. She wished she could be one of the scouts so that she could see everything before anyone else.
The sun had fully set and now she stared in wonder at the multitude of stars and the great moon that was bright enough to set the landscape glowing. She had all night to stare at the amazing sights as the pilgrimage ambled along, a long serpent snaking its way through the forest and out onto a praire. The grass waved lazily in a gentle warm wind that came from the east.
The hours went much to quickly and the sky was starting to turn grey with the threat of the sun. The pilgrimage ground to a halt and people scrambled to get their dark tents up. Having evolved underground, they had little protection against the sun. Satrina waited and watched as the sun peeked over the distant hills. It burned her large black eyes, but she continued to stare, amazed at its beauty. With the sun came a warmth, something she was not accustomed to, but it was not unpleasant.
"Satrina, I know it's beautiful but come inside before you burn!" With a sigh, she obeyed her husband and slipped into the blackness of the tent. She listened as her husband got comfortable, ready to go to sleep for the day, but her mind raced with the beauty of the surface. She longed to go explore, but he was right. If she went out without protection, she could be permanently blinded, and her skin could literally boil under the harsh rays of the sun.
"I'm assuming you're not asleep." Satrina automatically rolled over and lifted the edge of the tent, squinting out at brown leather boots. "What are you doing?" she whispered harshly, looking over her shoulder at her husband who breathed deeply and evenly in sleep.
"Put on long sleeves. I've got eye shields. Let's go take a look ahead." Satrina dropped the cloth and thought a moment. She couldn't pass up an opportunity to go exploring this new world. She quietly removed her clothes and slipped into a long tunic and breeches of her husband, pulling on his boots. They were very close to the same size, which she was glad for. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she slipped out into the blinding light. She barely noticed the black goggles that were held in front of her face. She took them and pulled them over her eyes, breathing a small sigh of relief as the sun's rays stopped hurting so bad. She then looked up at Lord Dane who grinned charmingly at her and grabbed her arm, dragging her quickly out of the camp, easily dodging the guards and running out into the nearby woods.
Satrina couldn't help but laugh, spinning around as she looked up at the high branches. Dane smiled in amusement, watching her. He was only a few years older than her, and he had seen the surface before but watching her wonder for everything brought great pleasure to him. "Satrina, look!" He pointed at a small bug that fluttered silently onto a nearby flower. She watched it with such intense interest. Then they both looked up at the sound of whooping. A flock of large creatures flew overhead. They had skin that stretched from a single elongated finger to the middle of their thick tails.
"What are they?" Satrina felt ancient instincts cause the hairs at the back of her neck rise. The loud whooping of the aerial beasts sent shivers down her back. They obviously disturbed Dane as well for he grabbed her and pulled her behind a bush. They crouched there, looking up at the large creatures.
"I'm not sure, but they don't look friendly. I don't want to let them know we're here." They stayed crouched until the flying predators moved on and their whoopings were mere echoes. With deep relieved breathes, they stood up from their hiding place. Then they looked at each other and started to laugh, releasing their nervousness.
They only had another hour or so before they knew they would need to go back. They slipped easily back into camp and Satrina made it back to her tent, sliding in quietly. Her husband was a deep sleeper. She removed the clothing and got back into her own shift, falling asleep quickly.
The nights passed slowly, which was fine because Satrina couldn't get enough of the stars. They made her homesick a little. She had grown up in Central Dome, a huge cave system that was lit by billions of glowing grubs on the ceiling of the cave. She had visited her old home a few times after being married by way of the underground tram system. When new caves are discovered, very often they eventually get linked up with the other cities by way of a magnetic train system. But it would be many years before such a train system existed between this new city and any of the existing ones.
The mornings she spent exploring the area with Dane. She enjoyed his company, his easy smile, and his deep voice. He was well studied and knew of many of the surface plants. He showed her some of the most delicious berries she'd ever tasted. He showed her strange plants that moved when they were touched. They spied on the local wildlife. At one point, they got too close to the baby of some creature and had to flee for their lives as its mother lunged its 2 tons into a gallop, bellowing as it charged, its powerful hunched front legs tipped with huge claws that it kept turned back, walking and running on its knuckles, while its shorter back legs ended in huge hooves. The encounter did nothing to quail their wanderlust.
Days passed and seemed to blur together, only their time together making it bearable. One morning dawned misty and eerie. Satrina and Dane left the safety of the camp and hiked through the massive trees. These trees were different than the others. Nothing grew around them. The ground was tainted red, which they figured had to be from iron rich clay. The few bushes that grew under their menacing branches were scraggly and looked starved for sun even though they grew in the only bright beams that filtered in through the immense spines that grew in bunches at the ends of the long, slightly drooping branches.
After a few minutes, Satrina started getting an eerie feeling. The air was warming up and the mist was getting thicker. Occasionally they heard a creaking but it was some way off. "Dane, I think we should go back." Satrina slowly came to a stop, looking around. Dane stopped and looked back at her. "Why? They're just trees. Don't worry, I'll protect you!" He struck a heroic pose which normally would have her giggling, but now she did not feel like laughing. The forest was groaning and creaking, the trees were seeming to sway.
Dane looked up, his tail twitching in nervousness. Instincts gnawed at him as well. "I guess we should go back." He started walking back to Satrina. There was a deafening discord of groaning and snapping. Dane stopped and fell backward in time as a massive branch came slamming down, the massive barbed spikes burying themselves into the red soil. He scuttled back, staring in shock as the branch groaned back up into the air where it swayed slowly as if searching for him. Satrina stood with her hands covering her mouth. She was barely breathing.
"Satrina, go. Go back to the camp." Dane stood up slowly, eyeing the tree cautiously. Satrina didn't feel like arguing and turned, starting to run back the way they had come when another deafening crash resounded through the forest. She screamed, falling to the side just out of the reach of the spines. The branch came back up but its partner brought down it's own branch. Satrina barely had time to roll out of the way, smacking into the trunk of the tree. Dane cried out and ran to her, the air cracking with the noise of branches smashing down into the ground. He slid under a branch after it made contact with the earth and bundled Satrina into his arms.
They knelt there, breathing hard, looking around at the forest that had come alive around them. The trees swayed for a little longer before stopping and standing still like normal trees. "By the first king, they sense when we move," Dane realized. He touched the trunk of the tree and felt that it was warm. "They couldn't attack us earlier because they were cold. But the sun has warmed them up."
Satrina looked up at him in terror. "The camp! If they start to move, everyone will be crushed! We have to figure out how to warn them. It will take the trees a long time to cool down during the night."
"Ok, I'm going to try something. Stay right here. Don't move." Dane let her go and slowly stood. He slowly put one foot out, leaning over onto it. Nothing happened. He made his way slowly, one tentative step at a time. After he'd gone a few steps, he turned and waved at Satrina. "They can't feel soft, slow steps. Just take your time. We have plenty of time before everyone wakes up and starts to move."
Their progress through the trees was very slow and agonizing. Every few minutes, a branch would sway above them, causing them to stop in their tracks and stare at it until it went still again. Finally, they got to the outskirts of the camp. They knew that raising an alarm would cause people to panic and that would set off the trees. Looking at each other, they figured they would have to wake people one by one.
"Halt! What are you doing, Lord Dane? Dragging another woman to your bed?"
"STOP! DON'T MO... !" They both screamed as a crack and groan sounded from high above. The guard didn't have the chance to even look up before a branch crashed down, impaling him. Then with another groan, it rose up into the air, holding the dead man high, letting his blood run down its bark where it would soak it up and use the nourishment to continue to grow in the dead soil.
They both held their breathes, barely able to comprehend the complete and total silence that fell over the forest. And then the silence cracked open like an egg and the trees all around them groaned and creaked and snapped. They could hear tents snapping under the force of the branches, wagons breaking apart. They heard screams and cries, the sick crunching of bones. The whole forest came alive, trees in the distance swaying from the vibrations in the ground, getting ready to attack anything that had escaped their neighbors.
Satrina was shocked still, but she had no choice to move when she felt Dane's hand grab her arm and drag her behind him. Adrenaline kicked in and they were both running through the camp, dodging the branches as they raced to help people. Dane snatched up a screaming child as a branch crashed down, burying itself into the ground. He threw the child into the back of a wagon. The beast it was latched to bellowed in terror but it couldn't move while the wagon was anchored to the ground. Dane screamed at the people fleeing around him, urging them to get into the wagon. Through panic and the horrible chorus of crashing and crunching and screaming, he managed to fill up the wagon. He leapt into the seat, cut the anchor and whipped at the poor terrified beast. It lurched forward, running as fast as its short powerful legs could take it. Branches crashed around them, but they moved too fast for them.
Finally, after they had left the terrifying sounds far behind them and had come out into a massive sweeping grassland, Dane slowed and eventually stopped the great tunkta. The beast sank to its knees, panting hard. Dane dropped off the seat and ran around to the back, opening the door to the wagon. He had managed to shove about a dozen people into the small supply wagon. His heart skipped a beat when he noticed Satrina wasn't among them. But he didn't have a lot of time to deal with that. He had people to care for, most of them women and children. As he helped everyone out, they looked back and could see the entire forest move and sway. A few of them dropped to the ground and sobbed, both in anguish and relief at being alive.
The night brought little solice. Every strange sound made them all jump. Dane built a fire, hoping the light would attract other survivors and keep away predators. Slowly, through the course of the night, a few started to show up. Another wagon that had survived ambled into view. One of the large and nimble scaraaes cautiously approached, no one riding it. But it knew people to be its only source of food so it came readily when one of the women held out some berries.
Morning started to break. Dane scrounged around and managed to find a few more eye shields, giving them to the men to help scout the area and look for more survivors. Only a few spare tents were left that had been in the wagon to begin with. Everyone else huddled into these and the wagons to stay out of the burning sun.
Dane and three other men went off toward the hills that bordered the Forest of Death. They figured people must have made it out to there and were waiting for survivors the same way they were. The wagon with their weapons had been lost so they moved through the tall grass with caution. They could feel the sun burning even through their clothing, but they had to find the rest of their people and that thought kept them going.
They finally reached the low hills and started to head up through the thick brush. They called out every few yards, hoping to hear a response but thus far were only met with their own echoes. As the hours went on and hunger and exhaustion took its toll, they had to stop the search for survivors and focus on finding something to eat. As they came over the hill, they looked out onto a completely different kind of forest. If any of them had been geologists, they would have realized that the soil on one side of the hills had been deprived due to glaciers and floods, while this side had been spared just barely, thus the reason for the drastic change.
Tired, they huddled down onto a clear patch at the top of the hill where they could look back and see the fire they had started. "Well, if it can be seen from here, then hopefully more people will notice it," one man said. Dane nodded. He continued to scan the horizon as the other men laid back to rest. Off in the distance, Dane saw a number of dark shapes. His heart skipped a beat, thinking it was more survivors. He leapt up and started to wave his arms, yelling at the dots. The other men stood up, saw what he saw and added their voices.
It didn't take more than a few moment for the hair on the back of Dane's neck to stand up. His ears perked at the faint sound of whooping. "Quiet! Get down! Hurry!" He crouched against the ground. The others, confused, did the same. And then they realized what the dots were. Everyone started to slow their breathing, too scared of making any sound or movement. They stayed huddled against the ground as the flock flew over them, breathing a sigh of relief as the predators continued on.
"That was close. Hey, do you see that? It's one of our wagons! They're coming over that ridge. HEY! OVER HERE!" Dane grabbed the man's ankle and tried pulling him to the ground. "SHUT UP!" he hissed. He tripped the man over as a massive shadow fell over them. Large claws clicked together just inches over them all. Wind buffeted them as the creature flapped to gain altitude. It whooped as it turned to dive again. Several others from the flock turned and came back to the aide of their flockmate.
Everyone scattered. Dane rolled away as one of the beasts landed, its sharp claws stabbing down into the dry ground. He rolled again as its large hooked beak snapped at him. The beak had two fanglike tusks that came down from the top portion of the beak. It had big ears that twitched as it followed him through the brush. Its sharp, slitted eyes flicked with his every movement, its long eyelashes giving it an almost feminine look. Two brightly colored feathers hung down from between its ears. A row of stiffer feather raised up along its head and long neck as it whooped, which Dane realized came from the nostrils of the beast near its chest rather than its face.
Dane heard one of the men screaming and ton of whooping and he knew one of them had not been fast enough. For a moment, the creature attacking him turned its head to see what the others were doing. He took his chance and stumbled to his feet, running for the tall, straight, thin trees that grew extremely close together. The creature immediately heard him and turned, raising its wings and chasing after him with its long legs. It whooped loudly, signaling the others it was in pursuit of more prey. Dane ran as fast as he could, but he was no match for the long strides of the beast. It reached out with its long neck and snapped at his leg. Its sharp beak tripped him, sending him spinning out of control down the hill through the brambles.
Lifting off, the beast still pursued in the air, hovering over him as he rolled. Finally, dizzy and feeling sick to his stomach, Dane hit the base of the trees. He knew he didn't even have a moment to get his bearings because he would be dead in that moment. He wriggled against the trees and managed to slip in amongst them. They were so close together that it made maneuvering hard. As he pressed backwards, the beast came crashing in amongst them, its big heavy beak acting as a bulldozer. It whopped and snapped at Dane, but the trees it had snapped were sharp like spears and prevented the creature's body from making it further into the forest. It snapped more of the trees, which let forth a torrent of water, for they were hollow and held water year round.
Dane realized he could wiggle no further. In desperation, he kicked out, striking the bird thing over and over, terrified that any moment it would take his leg off. It whooped loudly, this one more high pitched, and he realized that the beast was bleeding. It withdrew, whooping shrilly and flapping its wings, taking off after its flock.
Silence fell around Dane for a little while. He could still hear them whooping, but they had decided he wasn't worth it. Dane started to feel cold. He looked down and realized the beast had ripped through his leg at some point. He was bleeding from a ton of smaller scratches from his roll. As the adrenaline slowly dissolved, he started to feel the pain. At least one rib was broken. He was soaked from the water of the strange trees.
He barely heard the rolling sound of thunder and the surprised, terrified whooping of the beasts. He knew that the thunder was the sound of their guns. But that offered little comfort as he felt darkness sweep over him. As his eyes closed, he thought he saw Satrina slide down the hill and rush toward him, leaping through the broken trees and pulling him up. He heard her as if he was under water. The blackness closed in on him before he was able to comprehend her words.
"Satrina, Lord Dane is waking up. He wants to see you." A woman came out of a tent and came toward her as she knelt over another person, keeping a rag moist and cool to help his glazed eyes. Glazing could be reversed, but if left for too long their eyes could turn completely white and they would go blind. She stood up as the woman came to stand behind her and take over the care for her. Satrina then turned and slipped into the tent.
"Satrina. I thought I'd never see you again!" Dane sat up with a groan. Satrina put her hand on his shoulder.
"It's ok, Dane. Just stay still."
"Did ... did any of the others survive?" He didn't dare hope.
"Only Neletrik. But he lost his leg. You were lucky. We were able to stitch up your wounds. We saw those beasts fly over us, but they hadn't shown any interest in us. I guess they didn't realize a wagon is full of food. It wasn't for a little while until we realized what they were doing. I ended up killing the tunkta making it run as fast as I did. Its heart just stopped. You have no idea how scared I was when I saw you laying there covered in blood." Her voice choked up. So many of them had died just in the last few days. Was this how all pilgrimages were? She had heard of some that had never made contact back with the other cities. But no one had ever thought they had all died. No one knew how dangerous the surface really was. All they knew were little bits and pieces.
Dane touched Satrina's face. "I'm so glad you're ok. You're my hero." Satrina couldn't help but laugh.
For the next few days, they stayed where they were, letting their wounded heal. A constant trickle of survivors came in throughout the days and nights. At least a hundred had made it out alive thus far. Many of them had glazed eyes. Some had ugly boils on their skin. Almost all of them were suffering from exhaustion and shock. So many had lost loved ones, mates, siblings, children, parents. The amount of orphans was depressing. A few reunions had brought some hope but as the days wore on, fewer and fewer people came.
A few more days passed and no one came. They all knew that if they didn't find a cave system soon, they would not be able to survive for much longer and they all might as well have died back in that forest of blood thirsty trees. So they packed up, putting their wounded in the few wagons they had left. They had to improvise and latch the 5 scaraaes they had to the one wagon that had lost its tunkta. The road was tough and long. They were much more cautious now, understanding that there were dangers they had never even imagined.
It didn't take them long to start running out of food. As so many of their supplies had been destroyed, they had very little left and they knew little of how to ration supplies. So that morning, as they stopped to make camp, several of the men gathered in a tent and discussed their options. They were nowhere near the mountains they could see in the distance that would likely harbor caves. They didn't know the plant life of the area. What if most of it was poisonous?
"So why not hunt?" Dane looked up at everyone. All eyes turned to him.
"Hunt? Are you mad? I don't think we've eaten meat in a thousand years!" an older man stated.
"But we used to. We used to journey to the surface and kill animals and bring them back. What says we can't still eat meat? We haven't changed that much over the years. Besides, we need materials for more tents. Skins would be dark enough. We could make new clothes to cover our own skins and not burn. As far as I can see, it's our only hope right now."
"I hate to say it, but I think he's right." Several of the other men nodded grudgingly.
"Ok. Then I guess we'll have to hunt. And since you came up with it, you can have the pleasure of bringing us our first taste of meat, Lord Dane."
Dane nodded and slipped out of the tent without a word. As he strode through the camp, Satrina came running up to him. "What did they say?"
He stopped and sighed. "I have to go hunting. Problem is, I don't know how to do that. We haven't hunted in generations."
"Well," Satrina held up a gun, one of a few they still had. The guns shot out an ultra concentrated sonic burst, using sound waves to shatter bones and stop hearts. Dane pushed it away.
"Something tells me that using one of those will scare off any food for miles."
"Then what should we use?" Satrina slung the gun over her shoulder.
"Wait, 'we'?" He laughed. "Very subtle but no, you aren't coming."
Satrina put her hands on her hips. Dane pursed his thin lips. Her will was much stronger than his own at that moment, and he sighed, turning away. Adjusting his eye shields, he headed off for a huge ridge overflowing with plant life in the near distance. He didn't know where to start looking for prey, but that seemed as good a place as any. Satrina followed close behind.
They had been walking for over an hour when Dane realized they had been going steadily uphill. It was such a gentle incline that they hadn't been able to see it from a distance. But when he looked back, he could see they had gone up quite a ways. He could see the camp far below them. Satrina stopped, panting, and turned to see what he was looking at. "We're uphill?"
"Yeah. I noticed that just now. Odd. Well, let's see what's at the top." Satrina took a deep breath and kept going. Soon enough, the slight incline leveled out and they figured they must be on some kind of plateu. After a while, they both started thinking of turning around. As Dane thought about it, looking back at Satrina, he felt his foot slip and his tail jerked out to pull his center of gravity back. His eyes widened as he looked down a nearly 3 mile drop. He quickly backed up when he felt the soil shift under him. Satrina gasped as she saw what he saw.
"It's amazing!" At that moment they realized they were standing on the edge of a massive cliff, the likes of which they could never have dreamed of. It stretched for miles in every direction. They looked around them, marveling at the hundreds of thin, vapory waterfalls that cast the cliff and the jungle at its bottom in a glorious pink mist from the reflection off the bright red stone. Far below, a green river snaked its way along, peeking through the thick trees, fed by the many tumbling waterfalls. Above the roar of wind and water, they could both hear the calling of some kind of animal. They could see the animals, smaller than the flying monsters, but they too could fly.
"Do you think we can eat them?" Satrina glanced at Dane.
"If we could get down there." Dane looked around them, but the cliff face was sheer where they were. They would have to find an easier route down. He moved off to the east, following the edge of the cliff. Satrina followed slowly, still marveling at the beauty of the place. After a short search, Dane noticed what almost looked like a steep staircase down into the jungle. Slowly, cautiously, they made their way down. It took them over an hour to finally reach the bottom. The humidity was intense and they were both soon soaked.
They explored the area slowly, aware of every little sound and smell and sight. They soon noticed that the sun was starting to go down, so they pulled off their eye shields and marveled at the plethora of colors. Without warning, a small swarm of glowing insects buzzed past them. The sight made them both suddenly home sick and relieved to see something familiar. Smiling at each other, they chased after the bugs to see where they were headed.
They hadn't gone too far when Dane heard something strange and stopped. Satrina immediately heard Dane stop and turned to look at him. Perplexed, she came back to him and looked in the direction he stared. "What is it?"
"Shh," his fingers touched her lips ever so lightly and she felt an unfamiliar warmth flood through her at his touch. He had refrained from touching her all this time and only at that moment did she realize how much she wanted his touch. Stalking forward, Dane left Satrina behind, unaware of the strange war that was occurring between her head and her heart. Swallowing hard, trying to clear out that lump in her throat, she followed after him as quietly as she could. Together, they moved slowly, moving in a way that came entirely from some long forgotten instinct.
Dane suddenly squatted, looking out between some bushes. Satrina came beside him, looking out as well. She gasped. It was a village, made of wood and hide, towers framed with brutal spikes and huts made of massive bones. But that wasn't what caught either of their attentions. In the middle of this small village were several large wooden cages held together with sinew. And in the cages were at least 60 of their people. It was the drumming that had first drawn Dane here, but now that they were close, they could hear singing, words they couldn't quite make out, and the sound of huge fire. Then they saw one. A terrestrial. It walked upright like they did, but did not have a tail. It was dressed in very little, furs wrapped around its thick waist and draped over one shoulder. It's flesh was dark, almost black, and it's hair was raven and wiry and short. With its back turned to the two crouched in the bushes, they couldn't tell its gender or if it had one.
Using a spear, it pointed at one of the females in the cage. Two more of the terrestrials came into veiw. Now they could see their faces and they sneered at how primitive they looked, with their faces jutting out like a small muzzle and their heavy brows. It gave them a primate look. Their eyes were small and slanted and blue. Their noses were broad and covered nearly a quarter of the face. Opening the cage, the two terrestrials pushed others aside. Screaming, the woman tried to back further into the cage. Several of the men tried to fight back, but the short, thick terrestrials were immensely stronger and tossed them aside without effort. One grabbed the woman, screaming and struggling, and pulled her out of the cage.
Dane leapt up, his heart pounding. Satrina grabbed him quickly. "What are you doing?" she hissed.
"We can't just let them do that to our people!" He readied to leap out, but Satrina pulled him back with all her strength, pulling them both over, falling onto the ground. Luckily, she had rolled in the air and he didn't land on her.
"They'll kill us! We are outnumbered and out muscled! We should go back and get everyone and launch a rescue! Otherwise, we will end up in that cage and no one will know about this!" They both quickly regained their feet. Dane sneered, opening his mouth to retort.
"Prag! Prag!" They both whipped around. It was a little one of the terrestrials, probably one of their children. It's slanted eyes were wide and it pointed at them, screaming again. "Prag! Prag!"
Looking at each other, they didn't waste any time. Instinct told them these were people to fear and to flee, and flee was exactly what they did. The purples and reds and greens of the jungle blurred past them as they fled, hearding the yelling and crunching of the terrestrials right behind them. Thinner and nimblier, with their tails for balance and longer limbs, they were able to keep the distance constant, but somehow they knew the terrestrials had much more stamina than they. They had to find somewhere to hide. The forest was getting dark around them, the colors dulling.
"Look!" Satrina pointed up at a flood of bioluminescence pouring out into the darkening sky. Without thought, they changed course to follow downstream of the glowing creatures. They were losing speed and they could hear the terrestrials right behind them. Dane felt the wind of a spear whizz past his head. Adrenaline pumped hard in his body and he redoubled his efforts.
And then there it was, the gaping maw that brought a twinge of hope. The glowing creatures were pouring out into the night, their shrill cries almost deafening as they drew closer. Without care to see if it was safe, they both plunged into the black of the cave, their eyes adjusting fast. They saw the gaping maw narrowed into a slit, and without hesitation, they risked the sharp little claws and teeth of the creatures still pouring out of the slit, and dove for it, wriggling into it with all the strength they had left in their starving, exhausted bodies.
Finally, they reached the other end of the slit and dropped to hard, cold stone. They lay there, panting, praying. They could hear the echoes of the terrestrials. They could tell they were mad at having lost their prey. They yelled and whooped, throwing rocks into the mouth of the cave, but not daring to go in after them.
After a few minutes, Satrina slowly got to a kneeling position, still panting. She looked around them, looking up at the now trickle of creatures. And when they were all gone, they were left in complete darkness. They could still hear the terrestrials outside the cave, but they felt safe in the cool black. As they gained back their breathes and their legs stopped cramping, they slowly got to their feet, breathing in the dank smell of a new cave. But a new smell made them cough. They looked back at the slit and realized the terrestrials were somehow blowing smoke into the cave. At first it was just wisps, but it got thick fast and the two had to press further into the cave to avoid choking.
As they wandered through the darkness, their sensitive eyes saw a faint light further into the cave. Curious, they continued, figuring they might as well explore and see if this could make a new home. The cave narrowed again into a hallway and made a sharp turn. As they turned the corner, their jaws dropped. Giant crystals glowing a faint green towered all around them. The cave was massive, it went on forever it seemed like. And as far as they could see were these brilliant crystals. They looked at each other and grins split their faces. With a laugh and a shriek of joy, they threw their arms around each other, dancing around in pure euphoria. They had just found their new home.
As they laughed, Dane noticed a strange little plant growing at the bases of the crystals where the dropping from the creatures piled up. He quickly released Satrina and went to it, kneeling down and plucking one. It looked exactly like the mushrooms that grew in Central Dome. Taking a chance, he took a bite. Satrina held her breath. After a few chews, Dane handed it to Satrina with a huge grin. "It's brath! It's the same plant. We don't have to hunt afterall!"
Without hesitation, Satrina took it from him and devoured it. They ate until they couldn't even look at anymore of the plants without feeling ill. Sitting back on a clear spot of the cave floor, Dane took a deep breath. Satrina came to kneel beside him, looking into his handsome face. She could see a few wrinkles around his eyes from the last several months. His eyes flicked to look at her. Then he looked away.
"Somehow, we have to free them and get the others here. They'll die without this cave. And then we'd be the last ones." His voice choked a bit.
Satrina slid her hand under his and held his up, holding it in both her hands, brushing the back of his hand against her cheek. It was so warm from their flight, and he couldn't help but lean forward and put his free hand on her other cheek. She looked up into his face. Anguish, fear, hope, sadness all flooded through them and without thought their lips touched. The soft touch released a torrent they could not stop.
All things fled their minds. Not knowing how, they found themselves laying on their clothes rather than in them. Satrina's blood burned. She had never been touched like this, never felt these urges. She had never kissed her husband, had never enjoyed his touch. She didn't know it could have been any other way. She didn't know the sounds that could come out of her at the hands of someone who really cared.
Dane knew this was dangerous. He knew this was forbidden. Before, it had never bothered him. But as their lips closed, muffling her whimpers as he touched her with all his expertise, it nagged him. Finally, he pulled back, breathing hard. "Satrina." Her name came out as a lustful whisper, not quite what he had had in mind. Her hands reached up to him, her warmth so inviting, her body moving under him with naive desire. He ground his teeth, trying to keep his mind on track. "We shouldn't. You're married..."
"Shhhhhh." Her hands, calloused from the hard work the journey had called for, touched his strong chest, tracing his muscles up his neck and to his lips. She looked into his eyes. "I don't know if he is alive. And quite frankly, I'd be glad if he wasn't. I never even knew it could feel so good. Show me everything."
With a groan, he kissed her again, his hands doing everything he knew a woman liked, touching her everywhere. She made little noises that drove him on, boiling his blood. All thought was gone, no more nagging, just pure emotion. And when he finally moved into her sweet recesses, it was like nothing either had ever felt. Their love echoed through the caverns, causing the crystals to vibrate slightly and brighten around them. Their vibration made a wonderfully pleasant chiming sound that slowly filled the cave with a beautiful hum. It was as if the whole cave came alive around them, heightening their sensations.
They were blind to everything, deaf to everything but each other. It was all they could smell or taste. Their whole existence came down to that moment of bliss, the feeling of falling into each other, like they were becoming one skin, one mind, as if they were melting into each other. They wouldn't stop, couldn't stop, until they felt the intense rush through their blood, feeling each other shudder. Their lips hovered close as they moved, their bodies so perfectly fit together, their limbs tangled together.
Just when they thought there could be nothing better, it was as if everything real shattered around them, falling away into an intense black fire that burned through them both. It was as if their very souls mingled and merged; like Heaven had fallen from above and landed on Earth. Hot shivers ran through their bodies, lending to the feeling of floating in a sea of dark flame where the stars burst with brilliance at every tiny twitch and touch and sound.
Panting, the cool cave air brought them back to realty grudgingly. The cave had gone quiet and still even though they could hear each other's heart pound. There was no going back, no taking back what had just happened. In the absence of her husband, their action had bound them forever. Satrina held him with all her limbs, breathing in his smell, feeling him inside her still. With barely a breath, she whispered in his ear, "You know what happens now, right?"
Dane got on his elbow and looked down at her. She saw an emotion there that she had never understood before, but now was clearer than the rivers that flowed through the caves. His jaw clenched and he looked away. "If-if you don't want to, I won't blame..." She turned his head and lifted herself to his lips. She felt a shudder run through him, knowing it to be relief. This had been what she had always wanted. And nothing was going to take it away from her now that she had it.
"Now, what we going to do about the others?" Satrina raised a brow at Dane, knowing he had no plan.