Over the booming echoes Mark was startled to hear his own cry. He was even more astonished when he became aware the shoulders of Geheimberg were getting closer. His alarm at watching Platinum plunge to his death deepened as he realised that Ignariuss purpose had already been partly achieved. Cold terror gripped his heart. He had to make sure the wizard didnt kill the other two dragonlings. Without knowing how he managed it, he landed on the ledge beside Ebony and Ash.
The two baby dragons seemed stunned by what had happened, looking as though turned to stone. But as soon as Mark landed beside them life returned to their limbs and they scuttled back to the cave mouth, where Flame was staring out in disbelief. Mark stumbled over to her. Flame! Oh, Flame, Im sorry! Its my fault: I led Ignarius here.
Flame looked at him sadly, but there was no reproach in her gaze. She hustled both Mark and the dragonlings into the safety of the cave.
Its not your fault. You couldnt help it, she said. But as soon as the screening spell is repaired I must go and fetch Platinums body.
It was only then, as he remembered the false vision that had suddenly disappeared, leaving Geheimberg exposed, that Mark grasped that he was free of Ignariuss purple light. But there was no knowing when it might return.
How long will that take? he asked nervously.
Flame had already returned to the cave mouth and was peering out, her bulk hiding the view from Marks anxious eyes. Any moment now.
And less than five seconds later she launched herself into the air. Ebony and Ash scuttled over to Mark, nudging his ankles and chittering in alarm. He stooped to comfort them. Their chitters turned to squeaky cries and they carried on nudging him until he had an arm around each of them. As they continued the piteous crying, Mark tried stroking them under the chin. Their cries died to an occasional murmur until it seemed he had mesmerised them into near-sleep.
With the dragonlings quietened, Mark turned his attention back to the cave mouth. In the same instant Flame reappeared. She landed on the ledge and moved into the cave. Platinum dangled from her mouth, small and limp like a dead, silvery fish. She placed the lifeless little form on the ground in front of Mark and moved into the cave so that the light caught the baby dragons hide, turning it to pure silver. The long, single cry of mourning that issued from her throat as she moved made every hair on Marks head stand on end.
Ebony and Ash started nudging the pitiful little body and keening like their mother in high, squeaky voices. They followed Flame as she began walking around the tiny corpse, wailing in a regular pattern that was soon copied by the young ones. Though startled by this strange mourning rite, Mark felt compelled to join in: his sorrow at Platinums death was as deep as if the little silver creature had been a dear friend.
Finally, the dragons seemed to have exhausted their griefat least for the time being. Ebony and Ash curled up together and went to sleep.
Well lay him where the Godkings skeleton once lay, Flame said to Mark. Well build a cairn over him with some of the stones that once sealed this entrance.
She bent her neck and sadly picked the silver dragonling up again. But the little body was no longer limp. She felt it wriggle. When Platinum spoke Flame was so astonished she nearly dropped him.
Arent we back in the cave yet? Platinums squeaky voice complained.
Flame lowered the baby dragon to the floor with exaggerated care. Platinum! Why did you let us think you were dead?
Im sorry. I tried to stay conscious but as soon as I saw you coming I knew I was safe and couldnt keep awake any longer.
By this time Ebony and Ash had awoken and now pounced on their brother with squeals of joy.
Ow! Mind my bruises! Platinum cried, trying to fend them off. They backed away. Platinum looked towards the cave mouth. Is it safe to talk?
Of course, Flame said in surprise.
The wizard isnt around?
Not any more.
Maybe we should move further insidejust in case. Platinum screwed his face up in pain as he tried to move. Ooh! I feel as though Ive been bashed all over. If I hadnt just managed to get the hang of flying before I landed Id have certainly been killed.
What were you going to tell us? Ebony asked, curiosity getting the better of her concern for her brother.
Oh, yes! Platinum looked surprisedas though he had forgotten that he had something to tell them. I dont think these are the only caves in Geheimberg: just before I flaked out I saw what looked like another entrance in the mountains flanks.
Flame looked doubtful. Unfortunately, any caves lower than this one will probably be even damper.
We might have to put up with that, Platinum said. Ignarius knows of these caveswell, everyone doesbut its possible he doesnt know of the lower ones.
Oh well, its only in winter that dampness will be any real problem, Flame agreed.
There is another problem, thougha more difficult one, Platinum said, recalling what he had seen. The entrance is very narrow. We three would get througheven Mark should be able to squeeze inbut youd get no further than your head and neck.
Flames ruby eyes glinted as she thought about this.
If it would be a squeeze for Mark, then Ignarius wouldnt be able to get in, would he? Ebony said.
Couldnt he use his powers? Mark asked. And anyway hes still a spirit. Cant spirits walk through anything?
He can use his powers to find Geheimberg, Flame said. But that doesnt mean he can get inside, spirit or not. Geheimbergs caverns are protected against any who would enter by means of magic. She turned to the baby dragons. Ill take Mark down to have a look inside the cave. If he likes it Ill come back for you.
Mark felt very uneasy that such an important decision had been placed on his shoulders. But he followed Flame out onto the ledge and climbed upon her back. There was that dreadful feeling of out-of-control falling as she launched herself into the air. Then the beating of her wings sounded like thunder in his ears. A few seconds later they were riding the air currents with Flames wings spread out motionless on either side of him like the wings of a strangely designed glider.
The wind in his face and hair gave him a wonderful sense of freedom. The sound of it filling the dragons wings was the only noise he could hear. His heart lifted. Riding on the back of a dragon was an adventure he would never tire of.
All too soon he was standing on the lower slopes of the mountain where Flame had found Platinum. While Flame waited Mark stood exactly where Platinum had landed and looked around. Almost immediately he saw the black gash in the mountains side. It was as though the mountain wanted him to find it, for the narrow slit seemed to be beckoning to him.
Although he had to enter sideways, Mark had no trouble getting through the crack. For a while he was disappointed, for the crack seemed to be just thata deep split in the mountainside. Then the walls on either side of him came to an abrupt end, and he was facing a vast empty space. But by that time he couldnt see a thing.
He was about to turn back when Flames voice made him jump. She had put her mouth up to the crack before speaking and the echoes made her voice seem as though it came from inside. Heres a torch. Hold up your hand.
And when he raised his right hand Mark found himself holding Flames idea of a torcha rod with fire at its tip that didnt burn the wood up. With his heart beating a quick, light tattoo in his chest, Mark held the torch up.
The cave was very high. Marks light was too weak to show more than the shadows of stalactites and stalagmites. The floor just inside the cave mouth was reasonably clear so he entered and walked over to a line of stalactites and stalagmites that didnt quite meet to become pillars. Something beyond them seemed to draw him forward. It was as though a magnetic force somewhere in the darkness had been turned on at his entrance. He stood beside a stalagmite and lowered the light to the floor. His heart did a somersault. For he found himself looking into a seemingly bottomless pit.
And the pitor something inside itwas trying to draw him into its depths.
© L A Barker Enterpses