Delias stretched out his arms and breathed in deep. The air was damp and heavy, but Delias still enjoyed it as the cave had been even more damp and the air in there even more heavy. Compared to being back inside, it was heavenly.
The four had finally left. It was hard to tell, but by how long the time went, it was still afternoon. There were no signs of wraiths when they got out. But those ghastly specters left the bodies of their prey rotting across the realm. Bodies were everywhere, especially nearer to the stalagmites, growing sparse the further out. It was apparent that whatever kept them safe also housed the dangers within. To north there was just grassland that soon reached a narrow river. The water’s force was fast and fierce. There was a bridge farther northeast, and beyond the river there was what appeared to be a forest, but it was hard to tell from where they were. All that they did know was what they saw, and that was more and more stalagmites to the north.
The students had come through the barrier from the south. Even the river seemed to flow from the south, but whenever they looked upon where it came from, the air seemed fuzzy. It was apparent that they could not go that way.
“So what is the plan, Delias?” Cotter grimaced as he trudged into the wet earth. It had not rained last night, but his boots seeped slightly into it as if it did.
Delias took another deep breath, his lungs filling with moist air and exhaled; then turned to Cotter. “The first part of my plan is to get full. I’m hungry.” He looked around. “Aren’t any of you?” The first part of the plan is to get food. We will die if we go on like this.
Cotter and Daniel gave Delias weird looks. When Delias saw that, his heart nearly skipped a beat. What? Do the averati not eat? But that skunk did, didn’t he? Delias turned around thinking that they were not actually looking at him. He had read enough horror novels in the fourteen years he laid in bed to know to always be aware of what was behind you. And as far as Delias was concerned, this realm was more of a horror novel than any. But there was nothing as he looked.
“What are you looking at?”
“That’s your the first part of your plan?” Daniel scoffed, looking at the others. “I knew it. He has no plan at all.”
Delias shrugged his shoulders. “Believe what you want, but that means, I’m guessing, that you all don’t need to eat. Has the averati finally evolved to where they don’t need a form of sustenance for an entire month or two?”
Skylar’s face never changed, but the other two looked glum. Daniel’s face even more so. So they do need to eat. Made me worry for nothing. Most likely they are just annoyed that I hadn’t shown all my cards yet. As I thought, I must be wary of those two.
It was not that Delias was never going to tell them that the light crystals could affect the wraiths and possibly be used to kill them, it was just that he did not know for sure himself. Furthermore, if they inquired about where he received his information, what was he supposed to say? That he got it from an ancient book he found in a library? What library? And how did he have access to such knowledge? Questions he might be able to lie himself out of, but in the process, it was highly likely for him to be caught. He did not know the averati culture. He did not know their ways. And so, he would not risk saying anything. Not now, at least.
It had become apparent to Delias after seeing the dozens of bodies that either none of the averati students that died knew how to fight the wraiths using the crystals or that the crystals themselves just didn’t work. He needed to make sure. And that was the second part of his plan. But that part he was definitely not going share with the others.
Delias was pulled from his train of thought when Skylar spoke. “It does not matter if you have a plan to get us out of here before a month. What matters now is if we can live long enough to realize it. We are all hungry. We have all not eaten since yesterday or perhaps longer. If we go on like this, we will only get weaker and weaker. We need to eat. We need to stay at our best. Or it is likely that we will die.”
“Yes. Yes. We all know this. But how will we find food in this God forsaken realm? Look around you.” Cotter swished his hand around. “What food can we find in a place where there is wraiths, nearby bogwater, and deep and dark caverns filled with who knows how many dangerous creatures? I’m not going in there, and I’m sure you weren’t thinking of doing so either.”
“Referring to the bodies then? asked Daniel, and his face contorted into a sneer. “Only a demon would.” .
Skylar did not reply to the remark. Delias thought highly of that. If it were him, he would have sacked Daniel in the mouth by now. But Delias found everything to be amusing. It had been so long since he had such a long conversation with anyone. No matter how much he tried, his caretaker back in Northcroke would just give a few short replies and then leave. There were some exceptions of course, but a few rare occasions amongst fourteen long years was a horrifying concept to grasp; being alone for so long… That was not something humans were made to endure. And Delias did not want to remember it. Living his life was akin to a form of torture. If he hadn’t been so scared to die, he would have killed himself, and the few short visits he had received from a small number of people, including his caretaker, were the only thing that kept him from going insane. But now, with this, Delias felt good. People were not like the novels he read. They were not the one stroke painting that those books portrayed them as. There was depth. There was more.
“Enough of this.” Delias stepped forward. “We need to stay together. We’re a bunch of people who don’t trust each other. Why did we come together then? To survive. We each think that surviving will be easier by helping one another. So that is what we do. First things first. Scout. What is the layout of the area? Where can we find food? Has anyone found a key? If so, where? We do not need to search everywhere. We just need to learn from those that have or search in places that have not been searched. Our goal is eventually beyond the river. There might be more food or keys there, there might be none. So we must make sure we have all the food we can and get all the information we can before we cross. As for the other parts of my plan, they can wait. If we can’t get a simple thing like this done, then it would not matter, anyways.”
Cotter and Skylar nodded. Daniel seemed skeptical, but eventually, he too, nodded.
The four split..
Delias was alone. It might have been safer to go as a group. Even though there were no wraiths in the day, there were still people. Thousands of them. But they did not have that kind of time. Delias had been tired and had already slept through half the day, losing precious time. He could not play it the safe way now. Besides, going as one person might be make it harder for them to be spotted by a larger and much stronger group. Though there was a lot of tall grass, a few trees, distant bogs, stalagmites, rock formations and more, hiding four people was harder than hiding one.
Delias saw groups passing by. Some of them saw him too, but chose to ignore him as he did them. Those groups were of two to four people. They were not the big groups that he was wary of. A group of four was dangerous, but he knew that they would not wish to fight at the moment. It was too dangerous to go fighting and getting injured without knowing what they could gain out of it. But for larger groups, the chances of them losing anything was minimal. They would not have such reservations. That was what made them dangerous.
Maybe the bigger groups had the same idea. If there were ten or even twenty people, they would divide four groups of five, cover a much wider area in a good amount of time. That was what Delias hoped. It meant the danger would be considerably less.
As Delias traveled west, he passed a few stalagmites. He etched along the walls, peeking his head into the caves and caverns. He sent the others on a job, but for him, it was to go searching into the places around the stalagmites for information. What he thought was the most dangerous job. When he told the others what they were supposed to do, Cotter, of course, complained. It wasn’t until Delias said what his role was, and if he wanted to switch, that Cotter finally kept quiet.
But what Delias did not want was to accidentally look in on a group and get caught. With his speed, he would be dragged down in seconds. But it had to be done. Delias searched through a few stalagmites. He found the positions of a few places that showed signs of usage, signs of the dead, or had no signs at all.
He marked it down on a sheet of paper the ones he saw were that were still in use. Most of the time, Delias was within tall grass or behind a rock formation. Observing students popping in and out, or members guarding their base at the entrance, without being caught, were easy to do from the distance.
After an hour of doing this, Delias came upon a cave. It was not like the others, formed within the giant stalagmite towers, but its entrance was in one of the various rock formations that Delias skirted around to view some of the stalagmites hidden from enemy view.
The cave was dark. His flesh goosed as a hollow moan echoed from it, showcasing that it was deep as well. The sound was slight. It would not have been heard from afar, but it did not need to be for it to get under Delias’s skin. Should I wait until I meet the others and then go exploring? I would not mind having them out in front.
But Delias shook his head. He had spoken about trust. That they all needed each other. And everyone had implicitly agreed, but trust was not something that could just be decided upon. It was a feeling that was born of experience and the knowledge of one’s character as well as their weaknesses.
For all he knew, the cave, or whatever it was, lead to a key or a way to get it. If the others found this, and they went in, it might be that not all of them would come out, and not by the hand of wraiths or monsters.
A fear welled inside of Delias. He was not as bad as Cotter, but he was a coward in a way. His cowardly behavior was something deep. It had not always been there. It was something he learned. Something inscribed into his flesh. And a part of you like that is hard to rid yourself of. But this was not about being brave or being cowardly in a moment of glory or convenience. This was about living or dying. It was a necessity. The risks of not going in there outweighed the risks of actually doing so. Delias knew the true gravity of the situation.
Without power or information, he would die. And right now, the other three only followed him because he was first through the barrier. They probably felt as if he was a key to going further, to succeeding, or at least to living on longer than they could by themselves.
But if Delias went back without much information, it would not look good. He was too weak to go into the caves or the caverns that had or still had people in it. Too weak to get close enough to spy and listen to them. Or even go up and discuss a few things with the smaller groups. If he said anything that infuriated one, he would lose his life! So all he could do was watch from afar. But the information he gained was trifling. His group right now was fragile, held only by what they thought of him.
If he came to them and brought nothing…
Delias steeled himself. Taking one long look at the dark and dreary cave, and walked in.