Chapter 1: A Tight Squeeze
The sun had only just begun to peak over the horizon, bringing with it the light of morning. It illuminated the backs of three individuals, casting their feathers and fur with a soft gold. The tallest among them was a massive Torvo Verian, her pelt a patchwork of blacks, greys, and bright orange and red. Next to her was a Prairie Kukuri with long black feathers and dark points on her limbs and face. The third, then, was the smallest of the three. He was primarily tan and black, but feathers which rivaled the Kukuri’s in length erupted from his tail in a dazzling blue plume. Their names were Flameheart, Spell, and Tide respectively.
They currently stood outside a cavern entrance nestled on the slope of a mountain. Spell stepped forwards, sniffing the air. “I’m sure I saw it go in here,” she insisted to the other two. “Come on, let’s go in. If you both don’t want to look for that thing, then you can probably look for whatever else it is you’re interested in. But I’d appreciate the help.” Without a second thought, she wandered into the open maw, her body being cast in shadow as she did so.
Flameheart showed no hesitation to follow, curious about what Spell had seen. She’d only caught a glimpse of it: some agile dragon-like creature. As she trailed the Kukuri, however, she noticed that the Stryx who had been standing with them hadn’t yet entered. The Torvo stopped and twisted her head to look back at him, Spell doing the same. “Are you coming?”
The Raptor Stryx stood a bit taller and lifted his head proudly. “As a matter of fact, I am. Though… when we get deeper into the gavern, we won’t have any light.”
“You’ll be fine,” Flameheart dismissed quickly. “Or are you afraid of the dark?” Her expression morphed into a smirk, her eyes glinting even in the shadow of the cave.
Tide fluffed up in indignation, not taking even a second longer to wait at the entrance. Instead, he narrowed his eyes and began to walk further into the cavern than either of the other two creatures. When he passed the Kukuri, however, he suddenly yelped and took a tumble. Spell quickly scrambled to his side, even as he was getting back up. “Are you okay?”
“I just can’t see well,” the Stryx explained. He sucked in a breath and looked down at his foot. Where a stone had jutted out from the floor and tripped him, a gash was now across his leg. It wasn’t severe, but Tide was anything but happy. “Dammit… Well, let’s keep going. Hopefully I didn’t scare away that thing you were trying to find.”
Flameheart couldn’t help but laugh despite her better judgment. The sound echoed through the cavern. Her reward was an icy glare from two sets of eyes which flashed angrily even under the limited light. “Sorry,” she quickly said, though the smirk plastered across her face hardly reflected remorse. “Alright, I’ve had my entertainment. Let’s go,” she added after relishing the moment of further irritation she’d caused.
“Asshole,” Spell hissed.
Tide looked at the feathered Kukuri, the corners of his mouth tipped downwards in a grimace. “The words I want to say are probably best left unsaid,” he admitted, though there was a note of sass behind the baritone lilt of his voice.
The dove smiled before beginning to walk once more, seeing as the Torvo had already started to leave them behind. The Stryx followed her lead and the group fell into silence as they navigated through the cave. The tunnel was gradually constricting, forcing Flameheart up ahead to bend down. Spell was soon to follow.
It didn’t take long before they’d fallen into a strictly single-file line. The constriction was rapidly growing tighter, leaving less and less space to move about. “Whatever you saw… I think we would have seen it by now,” Flame murmured softly to Spell. She could only just turn her head to look at the dove, who hummed softly in response. “If I go any farther, I may well get stuck.”
“Let me get in front,” Tide suggested. He was the smallest of the three animals, though his silken feathers concealed his lithe frame. “It’s possible this tunnel opens up further in. If it does, it might mean the both of you can squeeze in without getting stuck.”
The two other members of the party looked at each other, skepticism written over their faces. Still, if they wanted to investigate the creature who had almost certainly come here to hide or otherwise find anything worth bringing back, it was worth a shot. Spell gave a curt nod before beginning to back up, the Verian following her lead. The moment they’d gotten to the point that Tide could slip past them, he did. His feathers tickled the tip of Spell’s nose, then brushed across Flameheart’s underbelly. Though he could hear the displeasure of the pair, he was finally ahead of them, only having to crouch slightly in order to continue.
Now trekking alone, he investigated what seemed to be a dead end at first, as the walls only continued to curve inward and squeeze around him. However, just as he thought that Flameheart certainly wouldn’t be able to get past, the opening began to open up. Even more surprising, the darkness around him which made it almost impossible to see had begun to lighten. “You guys, you can come through. Just be careful!” he hissed to both creatures behind him.
“Why don’t you go first,” Flameheart suggested to Spell. “You’d probably be able to tell if I could actually fit or not.”
The Torvo looked uncertain and Spell could hardly blame her. Tide was such a small creature to be judging just how tight a space got in contrast to an animal so large. “Alright. I just need to get past, then.”
“And Spell? Be careful. If you start to feel like you might get wedged, it’s better to be safe than sorry. This isn’t worth risking your life for.”
The Kukuri blinked in surprise. “So you don’t hate me, do you?” she teased lightly. “Don’t worry too much. I’ll stop the moment I think I might get stuck.” As she pushed past the Verian, she made a point to press her head against Flame’s neck, wanting to reassure her. It was so odd to hear the big Torvo fret about her safety… but she was grateful as well.
Spell moved in deeper, noting that she could see Tide not that far away. He was partially obscured, but it seemed as if he were also standing on an incline. Perhaps that had been part of the reason the tunnel was so tight in this area. Tossing the contemplation aside, she began to scrabble around with her claws, using the palms of her hands to push herself forwards to the best of her ability. The shaft became so constricted that she finally had to make the rest of her way by stooping down low enough that both of her hands touched the ground. Still, the final narrow corridor was only a foot or so in length. Almost as soon as she’d realized just how close the walls were, they’d begun to open and she was on the other side with Tide.
“You’re all clear!” Spell relayed to the Verian standing across the way. “Just be careful. We can help pull you through if you can’t quite get yourself out on your own.”
Flameheart, with only a split second’s hesitation, began to return back into the confined entrance. Just as with Spell, she came to the point where she was touching the ground with the palms of her hands. Crouching was no longer an option, as her legs were too long, and so she decided to crawl on her knees. The walls were closing in around her quickly, but it was only when she could no longer move that she made the horrifying realization that she was stuck. Her panicked cry for help caused Stryx and Kukuri alike to launch into action.
Tide was the only one of the two who could easily get to where Flameheart was wedged. Thankfully, she appeared not to be stuck in an area that only became tighter. Her chest, instead, perfectly sealed the entrance. He bright his wing finger up to his chin and scratched it as he pondered how to get the Torvo out. “Just stay calm. I’ll be right back!”
Much to Flameheart’s horror, the Stryx scrambled back up the inclining floor and almost disappeared. She could hear him discussing the situation with Spell, though her panic allowed her to understand none of it. Half a minute later, however, Spell had returned. She was once again having to push herself forwards by the palms of her hands against the wall, but she stopped before she was forced to go any further. If she got to the point where she couldn’t back out, she doubted either of them would ever see the light of day again. “Alright… so… Flame? I need you to try to relax and breathe with me and Tide.” Although the Verian could not see the Stryx, she could hear him from further up the tunnel giving encouragement.
It took some time breathing in and out with the pair, but she finally managed to stop panicking… and finally, when she let out every speck of air in her lungs, she realized she had just enough room to wriggle forwards. Spell and Tide began to back up again, and Flameheart - inch by inch - managed to get through the tiny opening.
She was shaking by the time she was back in a space where she could crawl quite easily on her hands and knees. Sobbing by the time she could stand again. Tide and Spell looked to each other with unease, knowing that they’d have to squeeze back through to get out again. By the look on the weary Verian’s face, they could tell she was just as keenly aware of that harrowing fact… but in the meantime, they pressed on.
The brutal tunnel continued to slope upwards, but the amount of space they had to work with only continued to increase… and increase… and increase. The light grew brighter until they reached a room which they could all stand fully up in once more. Amber light filtered down through cracks in the ceiling above. Tide, Spell, and Flameheart all managed to forget the difficult journey as they admired it. They didn’t know how long they’d been in near absolute darkness, but it had felt like days.
Aside from the tunnel they had come through, there didn’t appear to be any shafts leading anywhere beyond this room. At least not any that weren’t concealed by a tranquil body of water which gathered on the other side of the opening. Moss and other hardy plants seemed to thrive here, where the moisture of the air was trapped by all but the slivers of light above.
“This is incredible,” Tide commented, noting some flecks of shining rock nearby. He grinned and walked over to the wall, placing his wing claws against it. He began trying to dig into the softer portions of the stone, using the killing claws on his feet to better grab onto the rock and pull at what he could grip. He made remarkably little progress, stopping to rest only about two minutes into his effort.
Meanwhile, Flameheart and Spell had tried to look for the creature they’d gone after in the first place. Where the dragon-critter had managed to hide was beyond their understanding. While there were no further tunnels which they could see, there were plenty of nooks and crannies within the rock wall that an animal could hide. Between the two of them, they could systematically search them.
What they didn’t expect, however, was for Tide to scream bloody murder just as they’d begun to give up searching. They both jumped into action, only to see that some sort of animal was attacking the Stryx. It was far, far smaller than the raptor, but it was vicious. It screeched loudly as he tried with very little success to get it away from him.
“That’s it!” Spell yelled excitedly. She ran to assist the Stryx, grabbing onto the critter’s tail. Rather than stopping its attack, it only fought harder. It wasn’t until Flameheart managed to get both hands around its wings that its violent behavior was forced to a close. She held firmly onto it, letting both Spell and Tide catch their breaths and recover from the flurry of blows. Once it had begun to tire itself out, she tucked it under one arm and started to pick up some of the shining stones that Tide had begun to gather. All the while, it still tried to bite and scratch with its limited mobility.
Tide proceeded to start assisting as well, utterly surprised that the stones scattered across the ground were more than just flecks of metal. They were gemstones! Lots of them! “Look at these,” he excitedly said, pointing to the stones and waving Spell to come see. “I guess that creature was hiding these.”
“So… the rumors are true,” the Kukuri said, watching with awe as Flameheart and Tide proceeded to find a stash of even more stones within the wall. “We found its stash. We’d better get these back to the outside world pronto… and maybe we can study this cave and see if there are more of these little dragons hiding things around here.”
Flameheart turned her head towards the entrance of the room and frowned deeply. “That means we have to get out of here first…”