As the afternoon wore on, dark clouds began to roll in from the distant ocean. They swept over the slopes, the mist only growing thicker as the air became heavy with the scent of rain.
Zoltar watched the darkening sky with worry. He wouldn’t be able to fly back to the maze if the storm broke. He’d be stuck on the mountain for the night. He shivered at the idea.
Maybe they should go back? Why were they up here anyway?
The Wisp Talon was walking just a little ways ahead, her head hung low as if deep in thought. She turned when Zoltar broke the silence between them.
“I think we should go back. Or at least I should. I won’t be able to get back to the maze if this breaks,” he pointed at the rumbling clouds swirling overhead.
Emerald glanced up as if it were the first time she’d noticed the storm, “I wouldn’t worry. There’s a cave up ahead that you can use for tonight if you wish. Besides, I don’t think you have enough time to beat the storm home anyway.”
Zoltar clinched his teeth. The last thing he wanted was to spend the night up here. It was unfamiliar territory and who knew what lived up here besides the Wisp Talons?
“I don’t know. I still think I should head back,” he argued, “It’s safer in the maze anyway.”
“Not when a storm hits,” Emerald replied grimly, “You don’t want to be anywhere by when that happens. The harder the storm, the more of them there’ll be. Trust me. It’s safer up here.”
Zoltar flattened his ears. Was she talking about the Death Grippers? Why would they be a problem? They didn’t seem to come out of the maze. Though, come to think of it, it hadn’t rained since he’d been here.
“Here we are,” Emerald continued, breaking through his thoughts, “You should be alright in there.”
It took Zoltar a moment to see it, but etched into the slope, was a small crevasse. A cave, just big enough for a dragon to squeeze through. Rocks lay strewn around the entrance, a ruminant of some ancient landslide that had befallen the mountain. Wiry bushes and stray patches of weeds grew over the stones, concealing the cave from all, but the sharpest of eyes.
“How did you find this?” Zoltar asked as he stepped up to have a closer look.
“Topaz was the one who found it,” Emerald said, running a paw along one of the many rocks surrounding the entrance, “She, Jasper and a few other dragons used it for meetings.”
“Yes. It’s abandoned now. They don’t use it anymore... Not since her death.”
Zoltar glanced back at Emerald. She was hugging her chest, a far off look in her eyes. A wash of pale blue was pouring down her wings, the colour overtaking the violet hues from before.
A light rain had begun to fall, the droplets spattering against Zoltar’s obsidian black scales. He rubbed his talons anxiously. Should he say something?
“I’m sorry about what happened,” Zoltar whispered after a few moments.
He winched at how he sounded. It felt so useless, like a whisper amongst a deafening roar. What was he doing? He knew it didn’t help, but what else could he say? How did one comfort another after they’d lost a sibling? He knew from experience that often, it was pointlessness. Nothing could dull a pain like that.
Emerald gave him a soft smile, before shrugging, “It’s in the past now. Jasper and I are trying to move on.”
She sucked in a quick breath. “Come on. I’ll show you around,” she said, brushing a wing against his as she slipped through the opening.
The rain was coming down harder now, drumming against the rocky ground in shining silver sheets.
Ducking to avoid scraping his horns on the low hanging ceiling, Zoltar followed her. It was pitch black inside the cave and the light from outside did little to illuminate the narrow tunnel Zoltar found himself in.
‘How can she see anything?’ He wondered. Even with his nocturnal vision, it was hard to make out anything. Though, maybe she didn’t need to see anything. The walls pushed in on them on both sides. There wasn’t really much they could do other that go forward.
The deeper they travelled, the darker it got, the little light coming from the outside growing dimmer by the moment. A strange murmuring echoed through the passage, growing louder the further they went.
Zoltar was about to ask what it was when Emerald called from up ahead, “Watch your step. There’s a bit of a drop here.”
Just as he registered her warning, the ground disappeared from underneath his paws. He found himself clawing at the air for a few seconds as he pitched forward.
It was a brief shock though as his claws met rock after a moment. Stepping down from the ledge, he realized that they’d entered a cavern.
The gentle gurgle from before was now loud and clear. It was a stream, its steady roar drowning out the distant drum of rain against the mountain.
“Wow,” Zoltar murmured, gazing around him in wonder.
The ceiling twinkled like a clear night sky, the sapphire gleam from thousands of glow worms pulsing like the light of a million stars.
The floor was carpeted in soft vines, each seeming to radiate its own brilliant azure light. Glowing flowers bloomed from the creepers. There were thousands of them, cherry pinks, cosmic violets and greens so vibrant that it seemed impossible that they were real.
Through the middle of all of it was the stream. It rushed through the cavern, tossing deep purple spray as it whipped past the vines growing along its bank.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said as he turned in a slow circle, taking in the scene around him.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Emerald smiled, looking back at him, “It’s almost impossible to believe that the world outside exists while you’re down here.”
Zoltar nodded, leaning down to examine one of the flowers. Its flowing petals looked so soft. He ran a talon over one, leaving a shimmering trail down the petal.
“Anyway, you should be alright down here for the night,” Emerald continued, “Barely anyone knows about this place and besides, with the heavy rain, no one will be flying until the morning.”
“Wait,” Zoltar quickly stood up, dropping the flower as a wave of anxiety ran through him, “You’re not leaving me here are you? As nice as this all is, I still think I’d be better off flying back to the maze. I can fly through the storm. It’s not that bad.”
“You can if you want, but like I said before, I wouldn’t advice it. Not unless you have a good hiding place for the night and that cave isn’t really going to cut it. They’ll find you in there.”
“But Felistia and Shiraku have been living there for ages. They never mentioned the Death Grippers being a problem,” Zoltar blurted, the idea of staying this far inland curling his scales.
Emerald gave him a pitying look, “No offence, but I don’t think you can compare yourself to those two.”
She gestured to him.
“But…” Zoltar started, before stopping and looking at himself. His ribs were clearly visible through his scales and his limbs were less than bulky. He hated admitting it, but one couldn’t ignore it. After years of barely enough food to survive on, all Shadow Talons look hardly more than scaled skeletons. Not to mention that he’d been better off than most.
Emerald was right. He wasn’t exactly in fighting condition, not like Shiraku and Felistia. Before it hadn’t been a problem, but now that they’d separated, it was something he’d have to be more aware of. If a pack of Death Grippers did find him, he wouldn’t last long.
“Fine,” he sighed, his wings sagging.
Emerald brushed a wing over his shoulder, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to come across as condescending or anything. It’s just…well…you know.”
“Yah,” Zoltar shrugged. He hated how the other tribes saw him, saw Shadow Talons. Even though most were being sympathetic, it still hurt. All it did was remind him of how they’d been before the volcano. They’d been respected. Now all they were seen as were a dying tribe. The last stragglers of a soon to be extinct race.