Cloud Flute: Part Five
Lae landed with a thump on soft soil. She looked up; the hole gaped open, shedding some much-needed light in the murky darkness. The walls were rough and cold to the touch – the smell of earth threatened to overpower Lae as she took a step forwards, staring into the looming shadows ahead.
"Come on, Akorri," the Cybunny said.
From his place above ground, Akorri did not move. Laerya clicked her tongue impatiently. "Don't tell me you're scared to come down," she grumbled. Oh, she so wished she could march on ahead and leave the Xweetok here, but what would Kyra say if she found out?
"I'm not," Akorri retorted, but Laerya could detect anxiety in his voice.
"We've come so far, we can't stop now," Lae said. "Hurry up!"
To her satisfaction, she saw Akorri slowly drag himself towards the opening. With a moment's hesitation, the red Xweetok jumped in, almost landing on top of Lae. As his feet made contact with the ground, he hopped back elegantly, his long tail streaming behind him. Lae had to hand it to him – Akorri was light on his feet and his movements were very impressive. Without a hint of her admiration, Lae said quickly, "Good, good, you managed to do it. It's not so hard, huh?"
Akorri ran a hand through his red hair. "Let's just keep moving." He sounded apprehensive.
Lae noted Akorri's uneasiness, trying not to let it affect her. She was in her element – this was a new place that needed exploring, and she was just the Cybunny to do it! With a hop, she took the lead, heading down the narrow tunnel underground.
The further they went, the darker it got, until eventually they were swallowed up by the darkness. Lae had good eyes, but they weren't sharp enough to see through the gloom. At one point she bumped into a wall, exclaiming loudly.
"Oh, great Fyora, I thought you were actually hurt," Akorri growled as he realized what happened. "We can't keep going like this. It's just as well this path is one-way, or we would've gotten lost ages ago..."
Laerya was getting tired of breathing in the same loamy smell, and she could feel the air getting warmer the deeper they went. Her patience was wearing thin. "Don't you have something to light this place up?" she asked, her voice reflecting her irritation.
"I travel light," Akorri replied.
"Not the kind of thing I was after," Lae said flatly. "I meant, don't you have an Orb of Light or anything mystical like that? Tunnels always call for magic items."
"If you knew that, why didn't you come prepared?" Akorri countered.
"I didn't think there'd be a tunnel!" Lae protested.
"Some explorer you are."
"Oh, shut up!"
Their argument continued as they went down the tunnel. Lae was grateful; she preferred this to silence when walking through a dank passageway. It took away the worst of her nerves, and she didn't realize just how anxious she was feeling until she and Akorri stopped bickering and ambled on quietly.
What felt like five hours passed (but may have only been half an hour) before the earthy scent and musty air threatened to overwhelm Lae. There was nothing here, she was sure – the tunnel had probably been made by Symols or Bori. Laerya felt as though her legs would drop off, and her head was pounding. Despite the warmth, she felt cold, very cold, and she was positive she wasn't feverish. "I...I can't go any further," she admitted reluctantly to Akorri.
"Oh?" Akorri's tone was incredulous. "What was all that talk about coming so far?"
"Shut up, I really think there's nothing here," Laerya growled. "Let's just go back."
Laerya heard relief in Akorri's voice as he replied, "Fine, let's go."
A week had passed since Lae's and Akorri's exploration and the Neopian Times still hosted reports on tremors in the Endless Plains, except now they were getting worse.
"I was told by my fellow Neopians that the tremors have actually turned into weak earthquakes," Fericeus said at the breakfast table one morning. "Luckily there are no buildings, otherwise they might have collapsed."
Lae felt a choking sensation in her throat and suddenly found her white chocolate muffin unpalatable. Guilt clawed at her insides, a feeling she had been struggling with since she and Akorri had returned from their expedition with very little news. A voice in her mind told her that she should have stayed underground, to keep going and see what was down there.
But it wasn't just exhaustion that held her back that day. For the first time in a long while, Lae had felt a very strong sense of anxiety the further she went down the tunnel, eventually developing into a quiet fear. So fearful she was that her fur felt it had turned to ice. Even Akorri seemed less scared than she was, and Akorri was the one hesitating to go down the tunnel.
"Are you absolutely sure you didn't see anything in that tunnel in the plains?" Kyra asked Lae. Her voice was caring but filled with expectation, as if by asking this question Lae would suddenly find something down in the hole that she hadn't seen that day.
"I'm positive," Lae rasped, the guilt crushing her inside. She had told the others that she explored every inch of the hole and had found nothing – Akorri had gone along with it, if only to prevent himself from being sent back to check the tunnel.
"Neopians have also told me," Fericeus continued, "That it's best for everyone to stay above ground now. The tremors are so bad that Neopets are worried if someone goes underground, they'll be caved in."
"C-caved in?" Akorri echoed squeakily.
Lae's heart dropped. However unsafe she felt when she had gone down the tunnel before, she knew now if she tried there was an even greater risk of her never coming out. She imagined being trapped in the humid darkness, unable to return, stuck in the hole forever...
"I-I'm done with breakfast," Laerya stammered, practically thrusting herself out of her chair and hurrying out of the room, rushing up the stairs to sit on the bed in her small room, breathing rapidly.
There was no way she could go down the tunnel now, with the risk of being caved in looming over her head. Yet she felt so sure that she had missed something, so sure that she and Akorri hadn't gone deep enough...
"Oh, Peach," Lae croaked, watching her Gruslen amble towards her, wagging his tail. He leapt onto her lap and she stroked his rough orange fur, speaking quietly to him. "Did I make a mistake? I could have gone down the tunnel when I had the chance, but I chickened out. That's something I'd expect Akorri to do!"
Peach snorted in reply, as if he couldn't quite believe Lae had given up before Akorri.
"I feel the shame of it digging inside me," Lae continued. "I honestly don't know what made me so scared. I just felt that if I stayed any longer, I would just... lose it..."
Peach licked her hand to comfort her. Lae smiled in response, stroking the top of the Gruslen's head.
The longer she thought about it, the guiltier she felt. She had been stupid; she had let fear get in her way. Never before had she been controlled by such an emotion, and in her lifetime she'd faced quite a few dangerous challenges. Yet there was something about going down that tunnel that made her heart plummet and her blood freeze every time she thought about it.
"Am I being silly, Peach?" Lae sighed. "I know some Neopets let fear take them over, but I never thought I'd be one of them!"
Peach tilted his head to the side, his intelligent brown eyes staring at Lae. If only she knew what was going on inside his head; he seemed to be mulling her words over carefully.
"It's not who I am." Laerya looked away from her Petpet, biting the top of her lip in frustration. "If I truly want to be the best explorer, I shouldn't back down when I start feeling afraid. I've even battled a few Neopets in my time and not once did I feel as scared as I did down in that tunnel."
Peach hopped off her lap and sat down at her feet, scratching his ear.
Laerya sighed. Even though Peach wasn't saying much, she was thankful that he was there to listen to her. She often had these one-sided conversations to clear her head, and now that she had voiced her thoughts, she felt slightly better for it.
Yet the guilt still lingered, and Lae knew there was only one thing she could do to abate it. The shame of her actions made her burn with anger – together, guilt, shame and anger combined to become a horrid mess, one that Lae couldn't deal with.
With this thought, the solution dawned on her like a bucket of icy water drenching her fur. "I have to go back," she whispered, struggling to cling to the tiny resolve that had developed in her mind. She held it tightly, feeling that with the slightest slip, she would let it go. "I have to go back," she repeated, this time in a firmer voice. The more she said it, the stronger her resolve became, until she could think of nothing else but going back down the tunnel and discovering the secret of the tremors.
"That's it, Peach, I'm going back to the hole," Lae breathed. Peach barked happily in response, wagging his tail cheerfully.
Laerya smiled, heartened by her Gruslen's support. However she wasn't going to go back to the plains with Akorri. She was going to do this on her own, because she felt this was a personal battle against her fear, and having Akorri string along would only make things worse. She would slip out of the house silently – it shouldn't be too hard, considering everyone was always busy doing their own thing – and she would reach the plains by nightfall and camp out in the tree as she had done before. Yes, it seemed like a good plan.
Almost with excitement, but more likely trepidation, the purple Cybunny ran down the stairs, opened the door and closed it behind her. Immediately she set off at a run until she had put in a good distance between herself and the house. Slowing to a walk, she took a deep breath to calm her nerves, thankful at least that the day was once again warm and sunny.
"No turning back," Lae muttered to herself. "You're going to do this, and you're going to do it alone. No need for help this time."
However there was a slight flaw in her plan. Unbeknownst to her, a red Xweetok had overheard her conversation with Peach in her room, and was now doing his best to tail her.
To be continued...