A journey into the volcanic tunnels of Mt Girrwassen, Calanda
by Hinotori (火鳥)
When my aunt announced her intention to explore the centre of Mt Girrwassen, I did not at first pay it any mind. My aunt was a university professor and was always away on one expedition or another. It did not affect me except for the lack of company at the dinner table.
It was only in the month leading up to her departure that she commented that I really should be starting to pack my bags.
“But of course you are coming with me!” she exclaimed, when I professed my surprise.
I suppose she had decided that I should accompany her on the expedition because it had been I, indirectly, that drew her attention to the volcano.
In my work as a editor of a popular science magazine, I had come across an article on the network of tunnels around the base of the mountain, leading deep beneath the earth and even, perhaps, under the surrounding ocean. Many of them had never been explored or mapped by human beings. It was rumoured that the deeper parts of the caves had some kind of natural phosphorescence. When I informed my aunt of this, she had been immediately intrigued and set out to find out as much about the volcano and its home as possible.
My aunt, being a stubborn and insistent woman, bullied my employers into giving me an assignment to write a followup article on Mt Girrwassen.
And so, I stood on a windswept pier in Calanda, waiting for a tiny boat to finish docking so we could board and begin the final leg of our journey to the island of Hafsiiren.
My aunt had tied her hat tightly around her chin but was still forced to hold it on with one hand, shouting in order to make herself heard. “It’s eight hours to the island. Maybe more, in this weather.”
“Perhaps we can spend the night in port, try again tomorrow,” I yelled back.
“No time! We’ll be waiting days if we don’t go today.”
I sighed, and pulled my coat tighter around myself. There were two others waiting at the pier, a man and a woman, and they both appeared to be locals. They regarded us with surprise but had thus far not braved the winds in order to ask us our purpose.
The captain of the boat was a swarthy man with a bushy moustache. He did not seem overly curious about us or our purpose in travelling to the island. Once we were shut tightly inside the cabin of the boat, however, our fellow travellers were alive with curiosity.
“But you cannot just go to Mt Girrwassen on your own!” cried the woman. In her lilting speech the ‘r’ of the word was more pronounced, the vowels lengthened and higher in pitch. “It is much too dangerous.” She had unwound the scarf from her head and let her dark hair fall out, fanning around her face. Next to her, the man had done the same. His hair fell past his shoulders in gentle waves.
“I have copies of every map ever created of the tunnels,” my aunt reassured them. “And I am well experienced in exploration of volcanic areas.”
The woman snorted. “Maps are no good. Oh, they are very well-intentioned but they are quite inelegant. No, your best guide would be Alecco here.”
The man started in surprise and exclaimed something in his own language.
“When he was a child he would always be wandering off into the caves alone,” the woman confided in us. “I had many a time to excuse him to our parents.”
“Haleni, it is bad for you to talk when I have not the…” The man struggled for a moment. “The words to defend myself.” His accent was thick, the lilt even more pronounced than his sister’s. I found it quite charming.
“That is an even better reason to be their guide,” his sister, Haleni, assured him. “You will learn much Tenalian with them.”
“But as I have told you, we don’t need a guide,” my aunt cut in. “We are quite adequately prepared. This is merely a reconnaissance expedition.”
Haleni ignored her protests, and continued to talk to her brother in their own language. His hands moved quickly as he talked, and he shot glances at us occasionally. I wished I understood more than a couple of words.
I could not help a little glimmer of satisfaction at witnessing the frustration in my aunt’s eyes at being ignored.
At long last, Alecco gave up his argument with his sister.
“Then it is settled,” said Haleni triumphantly. “And you will be staying with us tonight.”
“Oh, I couldn’t…”
While they discussed the details, I got unsteadily to my feet and walked to the rear of the cabin, where I had a clear view of the rain lashing the windows and the waves licking at the sides of the boat. I shivered.
Alecco had risen and come to stand beside me. “It is safe,” he assured me. “Ilano is good. No boat was lost in several years.”
I gave him an incredulous look. “Thank you for the reassurance,” I muttered.
He looked confused for a moment, then grinned. “I am sorry, that was not helpful.”
On the other side of the cabin, my aunt sighed gustily and finally acquiesced to Haleni’s demands.
“Let’s change the subject,” I said. “What were you and your sister doing on the mainland?”
“I was meeting Haleni. She was at school there, so she speaks Tenalian better.”
“My parents sent my sister away because they think it will make her quiet.” He paused for effect, then added in a slightly louder voice, “I do not think they were correct.”
I was startled into laughter. Alecco’s sister gave him a dirty look.
Alecco continued quietly, “I am still learning your language. It has many words.” He gave a mock-frustrated sigh.
I laughed again. “I have noticed that about most languages. Yours, I studied before I came, but I cannot understand even half of what you and your sister say.”
Alecco grinned at me. “You learn mainland language. They say that we do not even speak Calandish. But if they cannot understand us…” He shrugged. “We understand them.”
I grinned at him.
The boat lurched abruptly to one side, and while I was still regaining my footing it lurched again to the other side. I was thrown bodily onto the the floor.
That is to say, I would have fallen onto the floor had Alecco not already been there. We blinked at each other as the boat settled itself.
Feeling heat rise in my cheeks, I spread my hands flat on the ground and lifted myself off him. “Sorry.”
Alecco did not seem offended, much to my relief. He was still sitting on the floor next to me, smiling at me in a somewhat amused fashion.
“Sit again?” Alecco rose and offered me his hand.
“Indeed you should!” snapped my aunt. “I need in you in one piece, thank you very much.”
And so it was that we set out the next morning with Alecco in tow. My bed was too soft in some places and too hard in others, and thus I had slept badly. It was not with pleasure that I looked forward to the day’s expedition.
Our hosts fed us a herbed potato dish and some kind of marrow for breakfast. As I was usually content with a simple boiled egg and juice I found it difficult to stomach, although in the usual way of things I would be delighted to try a new style of cooking.
When Haleni saw our packs, she insisted on supplementing our food with hard breads and meats dried in the local style. In the end, it was not until mid-morning that we departed.
The morning was clear, although the storm of the day before had left its mark in the scatterings of leaves and twigs across the ground and the deep puddles that had formed on any appropriate surface.
It was slow going for the first few hours as we picked our way over the loose rock and gravel at the base of the volcano.
Attempting to navigate an unruly pile of gravel, I lost my footing and was only saved from an uncomfortable ride down the slope by the swift action of Alecco grabbing my flailing limbs and pulling me to safety. He held me close to his chest and I felt his heart beat against mine, quick with alarm. I flushed and pulled away, thanking him softly.
After the second time this occurred he took to walking by my side and instructing me on where to step on the slippery path.
“He was like this as a child, too,” my aunt pointed out unhelpfully. “No sense of balance.”
At last, Alecco pointed at the entrance to the cave system. This was not the only entrance, of course, but it was the nearest to the town and, he said, the most accessible.
We entered the cave and waited for our eyes to adjust to the dimmer light. Wrapping my miner’s lamp around my forehead, I waited until my aunt declared herself ready to move on.
“Further inside, there is… wall light,” said Alecco. “Enough to see.”
“Phosphorescence?” asked my aunt excitedly.
Even in the dim light I could see Alecco’s doubtful look. “If that is your word.”
The cave walls were dry to the touch, much to my relief. We could hear the occasional squeaks of bats overhead, even if the physical evidence of their presence were not enough. I wrinkled my nose as I stepped over a pile of guano.
Alecco smiled at me. “Deeper, there are no animals.”
He was correct. As we travelled deeper underground, it became quieter and the signs that there was a world outside that did not consist of darkness and rock disappeared. When we paused to rest, we could hear nothing but the sound of our own breathing.
Alecco had us turn at two junctions. “You want to go new places, yes? I have seen your maps. I know where they stop.”
The path was sloping downwards quite steeply now, and I estimated that we would soon be below sea level.
“In front there is a big cave,” said Alecco. “Wall light begins there.”
It was a gradual process, but as we walked the darkness in the tunnel began to lighten. At last, the tunnel widened and we stepped into a vast cavern. Streaks of light coated every wall in colours ranging from orange-red to blue-green, as if a painter had grown frustrated with his work and emptied his palette in a rage.
“Incredible,” said my aunt. “It seems to be biological in nature. But what does it live off?” She set up her tripod and balanced her camera on it gingerly. “Don’t disturb me, I have to do this very slowly.”
Alecco and I retreated to the far wall of the cavern, where a little stream ran. I squatted beside it so I could wash my hands. The water was like ice and I hissed in dismay.
“Cold,” Alecco agreed. “Cave is cold too, but we do not feel it because we move.”
I nodded in understanding.
The streaks of phosphorescence on the walls continued into the next tunnel, although they were rather less bright. The little stream ran along the side of the passage, breaking the oppressive silence of the earlier tunnels.
When we reached another cavern, this one decorated with great columns of crystalline formations, Alecco cleared his throat. “This is the furthest I know,” he said. “But the passage continues behind that…” He paused. “Large rock.”
He was pointing at a tall crystal formation.
“It’s crystal, not a rock,” my aunt remarked absently.
“If that is your word.” Alecco grinned amiably. “We follow the river.”
My aunt was busy setting up the tripod again. “Not right now, if you please. I have to document this room.”
Alecco and I looked at each other in perfect understanding.
If I thought the previous night had been uncomfortable, it was nothing compared to waking up on a thin pallet laid out on a bare rock floor. I spent several minute stretching muscles and cracking my various joints in order to get feeling back into my limbs.
When I finished, I turned to see Alecco watching me with a little half-smile. “Good morning,” he said.
I returned the greeting in kind. “If it is morning,” I added. “I cannot tell and I forgot to wind my watch.”
Alecco shrugged. “In my language we have only one greeting.”
I grinned at him. “That is ‘eviken ga’, right?”
He laughed. “Yes, but your accent is not good.”
“Oh? How do you say it?” I was not offended, but eager to improve.
He repeated the greeting and I attempted to imitate his pronunciation, much to his amusement.
My aunt appeared not long after I finally managed to pronounce the greeting to Alecco’s satisfaction. “Ah, good, you’re finally awake. Ready to go?”
I realised I hadn’t even noticed her absence and felt a little guilty. “Yes, aunt, I’m ready.”
“Excellent. Come along, boys.”
We followed her meekly.
The next passage seemed to take us most of the day to navigate. The rocky floor was smooth and the path relatively straight, so there was really very little to create interest. Alecco and I passed the time taking turns in teaching each other our respective languages, consulting with my aunt’s Calandish dictionary when we were stumped, with occasional interjections from my aunt correcting a minor aspect of grammar or word usage.
We ate our midday meal crouched on the floor of the tunnel, our backs against the wall and our feet pulled up to avoid dragging in the little stream that still accompanied our travels.
Alecco offered his hand to me in assistance when we rose, having somehow come under the impression that I was clumsy. I took it graciously.
“How long are we going to follow this tunnel?” I asked my aunt. “Shouldn’t we turn back?”
“The water must be going somewhere,” my aunt pointed out. “I want to find out where it finishes.”
At long last the tunnel opened out into another cavern. If I had thought the first cavern vast, it was nothing compared to this.
My awe at the size of the cavern was quickly surpassed as I began to make out its decor. “Are those… plants?”
My aunt was already on her knees examining them. “They are not like any plants I have ever seen before. Look at the shape of their leaves – if you can call them that.” She sat back on her haunches. “Truly remarkable.”
Some things that resembled vines twined up rocky columns toward the ceiling. Ledges along the floor were decorated with bulbous grey forms topped with wiry outcroppings of pink, yellow and blue.
Alecco muttered to himself in his own language, clearly overcome.
“It would take me months to categorise all of this!” said my aunt.
I winced. “Please do not say that, aunt!”
“Where is your sense of scientific duty?” she retorted indignantly. “Do you work for a science journal or not?”
Stung, I replied, “I am an editor, not a scientist.”
Alecco was wrinkling his nose. “Something smells bad.”
I sniffed the air. “Sulphur?”
“If that is what you call it.” Alecco was smiling. “It is like the…” He paused. “Rock baths.”
“Hot springs,” said my aunt. “It has to be. Perhaps it is the sulphur which gives these plants their unique characteristics,” she added to herself thoughtfully. She retrieved her tripod from her back and set it on the ground firmly.
“Aunt, please, let us explore this cavern a little more before we begin cataloguing it. I would like to see these hot springs.”
My aunt sighed heavily. “Very well.” She shouldered the tripod again and rose to her feet. “Left or right?”
We headed right, following our noses. At several points we had to clamber down a rocky ledge, but nothing insurmountable. The plant-life – as we had decided to call it – grew thicker the more oppressive the rotten-egg smell of sulphur became.
“We should be cautious, in case the air becomes unbreathable,” said my aunt. We nodded in acknowledgement.
It was the steam that let us know when we reached the hot springs. It billowed from a collection of three pools, swirling in a breeze of unknown origin. Large plants with wide, flat leaves surrounded the pools, the tips of the leaves dipping into the water as the breeze shifted. Moss-like collections of tiny leaves coated the rocks surrounding the larger plants.
“Incredible,” breathed my aunt. She placed her pack carefully on the floor and dug through it until she uncovered a thermometer. This she placed into the water, finally pulling it out and pronouncing the water a safe temperature for humans.
“If you are hoping to turn this into a tourist spot, I think you should bear in mind most people will find the journey down too tiresome.”
“I am thinking nothing of the sort,” said my aunt indignantly. “I am merely thinking that I would be appreciative of bathing in warm water for a change.”
I agreed fervently.
“You are too accustomed to city comforts,” sniffed my aunt. “I should bring you on more of my expeditions.”
“Aunt!” I cried indignantly.
Alecco was hiding a wide grin behind his hand.
The cavern showed no sign of reaching a closure after several hours exploration, so my aunt requested we turn back.
“At some point a great river must have run through here,” said my aunt, staring at one of the great columns of stone that supported the roof of the cavern. “I wonder what happened to the water source to make it drop to a trickle. It must have been a very long time, for all this life to grow.”
“We have a story, on Hafsiiren,” said Alecco. “Once the mountain was not hot, but cold, and it was the home of the god Fesnir. Fesnir was married to Hefana, but his brother Gegrii wanted to marry her instead.”
“So he kidnapped her?” I asked, when Alecco paused.
Alecco shook his head, smiling. “No, of course not! Hefana would never go! Gegrii told his feelings to Hefana, who rejected him and told Fesnir. Fesnir was so angry he fought his brother, and in the end both were dead. Hefana’s anger and sadness caused the mountain to grow hot and the ice flowed into water for much years and made tunnels under the mountain.”
“That is a very curious story,” said my aunt thoughtfully. “A mixture of creation and fable, I think. A warning against excessive pride combined with an attempt to describe the world as you see it.”
Alecco shrugged. “That is the story.”
“What happened to Hefana after that?” I asked curiously.
Alecco shot me a startled glance, then laughed. “I forget you would not know Calandish legends. Very famous is Hefana is. She is the daughter of the land and became ruler of the gods. But the story of Girrwassen is our story only.”
We set up ‘camp’ back at the entrance to the cavern, as my aunt insisted that she needed to begin cataloguing at once.
The undergrowth providing some cushioning, I slept better than I had since we first came underground.
When I awoke, I could make out the distant whirring click of my aunt’s photography. I ate and followed the sound until I found her. Alecco sat beside her, curiously leafing through her notes. My aunt was muttering her findings to herself as she worked.
“Ah, you are awake,” said Alecco as he saw me. He sounded relieved.
“You could wake me if you wished,” I muttered, aggrieved.
“I would like to go to the… hot springs.” He paused for a moment, then added in a more subdued tone, “I did not like to go alone.”
I glanced at my aunt, who had not even acknowledged my presence. I recognised this mood, it was almost impossible to rouse her. “Of course I will come with you.”
Alecco gave me a bright smile. “Thank you.”
I tapped my aunt lightly on the shoulder and waited the requisite moments for her to realise what had happened. “What is it?” she snapped.
“Alecco and I are going to explore the hot springs again.”
She nodded shortly, and returned to her notes.
I grinned and returned to Alecco’s side. “Don’t take it personally,” I advised him. “She’s always like this while she’s working.”
We carefully navigated to the hot springs, trying not to unnecessarily damage any of the plants for fear of my aunt’s wrath.
When we reached the springs, Alecco began to strip.
“What are you doing?” I cried in alarm, flushing quite severely.
“Your aunt said they were of a good bathing heat,” said Alecco, as if it were perfectly logical. His clothes divested, he folded them neatly on a rock at the side of the spring and sat on the rocky edge, dipping a toe in gingerly. As I watched – keeping my gaze fixed firmly at chest level and above – he seemed to decide the temperature appropriate and slipped into the water. He disappeared up to his shoulders in it. “It is not deep.”
I shivered violently.
“You are cold,” Alecco pronounced with disapproval. “You should join me.”
When put like that, I found it hard to refuse. I stripped quickly and, using my free hand to protect my modesty, I followed him into the spring.
Alecco was right – it was not very deep. Navigating carefully along the base of the spring, wary of stubbed toes, I found the source of the spring in several deep, narrow fissures, but the depth of the spring itself did not vary greatly.
The spring was more than deep enough for the two of us to lie side by side, floating spread-eagled on the surface of the spring.
Once I got over my self-consciousness I found the hot spring almost heavenly. The warmth of it sucked away the aches and pains of several days worth of bad rest and hard travel I felt warm, when I’d been starting to think I would never feel warm again.
I feel into a kind of daze, not really thinking about anything in particular, just drifting. Even the sulfurous odour seemed to dissipate.
I was brought out of my reverie by Alecco touching my shoulder. “Do you hear that?”
I blinked, and let my legs fall back to the ground so that I could stand again. I cocked my head and listened. Now that he mentioned it, I could hear a kind of scuffling noise. “My aunt?” I whispered back, hesitantly.
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. It sounds… large.”
We quietly moved in unison to the edge of the spring and cleared a window in the overhanging plants.
At first, I could see nothing out of the ordinary. The sound was growing louder, however, and the angle of the springs provided little outlook onto the area of the cavern where the sound appeared to be coming from.
“I do not like this,” murmured Alecco. I nodded in agreement.
We waited as the sounds grew closer. I could hear Alecco breathing beside me, the frequency of it increasing and growing louder as time passed. I wondered if he was observing the same from me. It seemed likely. I felt like my heart would soon pound its way out of my chest altogether.
Alecco spotted it before I did – his gasp was my first warning. I could hardly believe my eyes. The source of the noise was nothing like any other animal I had ever seen in my life.
It was easily twice my height and covered in some kind of hair or fur. Tall, pointed ears framed its face, which was long and sported a prominent snout. Its legs were long and limber, with long, slender toes on each foot. It had a thin, wiry tail. Its eyes were tiny and almost completely hidden under its fur.
Alecco was swearing quietly in his own language. I added a few curse words of my own to the collection.
The creature was sniffing among the undergrowth, occasionally pawing at a plant and scooping it up in its mouth with a long black tongue. I shuddered.
To my dismay, I realised I could make out my own footprints and Alecco’s in the mossy coating on the rocky floor, and when it reached them the creature froze. Its ears pricked and it sniffed loudly.
Seemingly excited, the creature followed our path to the hot springs. We retreated to the far edge of the spring, pushing ourselves flush against the rocky wall. A vine wrapped itself lovingly around my ear, its leaves tickling at my neck and chin.
Alecco was still swearing under his breath. The creature followed the trail all the way to our clothes, which it sniffed at loudly.
Settling itself on its haunches, the creature began to sort through our clothing with its long, hand-like paws. I saw its long fingers flex on the ground, and wondered if they hid sharp claws. I could not see into its mouth to determine the shape of its teeth, but even blunt teeth could be deadly with a powerful jaw.
Panicked, I wondered what we should do if it were to come into the spring. Climb out and run away naked? Was it intelligent enough to find us if we climbed one of the columns? It seemed to navigate largely by scent.
The creatures sniffed at our clothes again, then sneezed loudly.
The noise was somehow all the more horrifying for being so ridiculous. The creature sniffed three more times, then backed away from the spring.
Hardly daring to breathe for fear of attracting attention, we shifted back to the edge of the spring to watch it go. Its tail twitched from side to side as it moved, long and sinuous.
At long last, the creature disappeared behind a curtain of bushes and we could no longer watch its progress.
“Kafna,” breathed Alecco. “I thought I was dead.”
“I take it that thing was new to you too?” I asked hysterically.
“Kafna,” Alecco repeated, then he turned to me face on. There was something wild and desperate in his eyes, and I didn’t even flinch when he reached out and pulled me closer.
I wrapped my arms tightly around him to quell their shaking. I could feel his heart beating rapidly against my chest as his thigh pressed between my legs.
Alecco put a hand to the side of my face and cocked his head in a silent question. At my nod, he kissed me passionately, and I gave into desire and kissed back.
As my hands tried to find purchase on his back and failed, I reflected that it had been really too long since I’d done this. We kissed some more, then broke apart for a shaky breath, then kissed again.
He had me pressed up against the side of the spring, his hands exploring me from head to hips. I could feel the upper edge of the escarpment against my shoulder blades. I let my hands fall to his hips, then lower, liking the soft, supple feel of his skin against mine.
He stroked his hands down my sides, laughing as I squirmed and pushed him away in protest at the tickling. He moved his fingers to tweak at my right nipple, nipping at my neck as I gasped, then repeating the process on the other side.
I cupped his cheeks and gently encouraged him to face me again so that I could kiss him some more. This he acquiesced to with little protest, exploring my mouth with his tongue and letting his hands fall to his sides.
That is, I thought that was the position of his hands until I felt the first touch of his fingers on my cock. I shivered in surprise, the sudden jolt of pleasure making me draw in my breath sharply.
Alecco gave me a cheeky, gratified smile. “Up,” he ordered breathlessly.
Once the words penetrated my foggy brain, I hoisted myself up so I was sitting on the edge of the spring, my feet still dangling in the warm water. I was expecting Alecco to follow, but instead he moved between my legs and licked a stripe up my cock.
I froze, eyes widening.
Alecco pulled away and cocked his head to one side. His eyes were wide with surprise. “This is not all right?”
I shook my head rapidly. “No! I mean, yes. Don’t stop!”
He laughed, the sound warm and pleasant to my ears. I was growing exceedingly fond of his laugh. He gave it a few more firm licks, then slowly drew my cock into his mouth.
I groaned softly. Warm, wet and slippery, his mouth caressed me with apparent ease.
My hands were tangled in the undergrowth, and I could feet dirt building up under my fingers but couldn’t seem to stop myself scrabbling at the earth behind me. Remaining in a sitting position was becoming increasingly difficult, but I couldn’t bear to give up the sight of Alecco’s tousled head between my legs.
Alecco pulled off again, breathing rapidly, and caressed the head of my cock with his tongue for a moment. I moaned again.
“Stop,” I gasped. “Stop, and we can…” I couldn’t think of the words to describe what I wanted, only that it involved him and me and maybe some kind of horizontal position, where I could see his face properly…
He shook his head rapidly. “Let me finish. I will join you later.” His voice was raspy, full of promise.
I threw my head back and shut my eyes tightly as he let his lips encompass me again. With his encouragement fresh in my mind it seemed not only unnecessary to hold back, but impolite. Next time, I thought vaguely. Next time, perhaps we could have a bed…
I came with a gasp, all thought disappearing into one long string of exquisite pleasure.
I’d barely had time to come down off the lofty precipice I seemed to have been transported when Alecco hoisted himself out of the spring and onto my lap. I gasped as his body came into contact with my still-sensitive cock.
Somehow Alecco maneouvred us so that we were lying side by side in the undergrowth, my hand wrapped around his cock.
I gently curled my thumb and forefinger around the base of it and moved up and down, once, twice, swirling my finger around the soft, warm head of it before resuming. I played his body like I would my violin – tender but firm enough to ensure a good sound.
The steam was still rising from the spring, giving the little alcove where we lay an almost dreamy appearance. He lay beside me, facial expressions wild with abandon, gasping and biting his lip as I stroked him.
He was beautiful. I tried to kiss him again but he just gasped against my mouth distractedly, and when I felt warmth flood over my fingers I knew why. I stroked him through it, letting my free hand play with his hair gently.
We lay beside each other on the edge of the spring in silence, as the world slowed back to normal speed and the air of the cavern cooled our bodies to normal temperature.
Unfortunately for my exhausted muscles, this cooling continued beyond what was comfortable. I shivered and sat up. Beside me, Alecco’s eyelashes fluttered and opened.
“I think we need to either do that again, or I need to put some clothes on,” I said, rubbing my hands up and down the goosebumps on my arms.
Alecco reached out and pulled me down until I was lying on top of him, one leg pressed between his thighs. We kissed again, slowly this time, lacking the desperation of before but none of the passion.
“I was not sure if you… did this,” Alecco murmured against my lips.
It took a moment to discern his meaning. “Sleep with men?”
He wrinkled his brow for a moment, then nodded.
I realised that this implied that, at least for Alecco, this liaison had not come out of nowhere. We kissed again before I rolled off him to lie facing him, leaving one hand tightly clutched in his. “Sometimes. I am for the most part to busy to pursue any romantic liaisons.”
“Oh.” He still had a little wrinkle of worry in his forehead, which I soothed away with my lips. “I am glad.”
I squeezed his hand tightly and sat up again. This time he followed, and we looked at the crushed plants and scattered pieces of our clothing in dismay. “My aunt would be so ashamed of me.” I drew in my breath sharply. “My aunt! What if that creature–?”
I quickly got to my feet, swaying a bit as my muscled protested the extended stay in liquid heat. Alecco muttered something that sounded suspiciously like an insult and held me steady.
“I have to go to her,” I said, finding my underwear and pulling it on. How could I have forgotten my aunt?
“I know,” said Alecco soothingly. “But do not kill yourself.”
We found my aunt’s camera and notes intact, but my aunt was nowhere to be seen. Fearing the worst, I called her name in the loudest voice I could manage.
It echoed around the cavern hauntingly. I shivered, and Alecco put an arm around me, gently rubbing my upper arm. “Look,” he said, pointing at the ground. “We can see her feet.”
Sure enough, there were footprints in the green and red carpet of undergrowth on the cavern floor. “My aunt would never damage any plants on purpose. She must have been running.”
“Then we follow,” said Alecc, shrugging. I was thankful for his calm, as my own thoughts were too panicked to be considered truly coherent.
The trail led us back to the entrance tunnel.
“That creature wouldn’t fit in here, I’m sure of it,” I said in dawning hope.
Alecco squeezed his fingers around mine, and I suddenly realised we were holding hands.
I called for my aunt again, this time standing in the tunnel entrance way. Barely a few seconds later, I had a response.
My aunt clung to me as soon as she saw me, dislodging Alecco. “I feared the worst!” she said, pulling back and then hugging me tightly a second time.
“I was afraid for you, too,” I said, a little guiltily.
“You saw the creature?” My aunt’s eyes were shining with eagerness. “I got a few photographs, but then it started coming closer to me.” She shuddered. “What a great brute. I had to run.”
“We hid in the springs.” It was only a little bit of a lie.
My aunt raised her eyebrows. “Your clothes are dry.”
I flushed, while she started laughing. “Oh, but I am so glad that you both are all right.”
We elected to make camp in the tunnel that night, not far from the entrance but far enough that we should be safe if the creature decided to return.
“I suppose it was silly to be so afraid,” my aunt said as we ate. “It was clearly not a carnivore, not with teeth like that. I imagine it lives off the plant-life.”
“Even a cow can kill you if you get in its way!” I protested.
My aunt and Alecco both laughed.
“You are right. Perhaps instinct served me well.”
“I don’t want to spend another day in that cavern, though!” I added.
“No, I think you’re right. Perhaps we can follow one of the other tunnels out once we’ve rested. You said there were several that seemed to head up towards the surface, did you not? I definitely have enough information to convince the university to send a complete exhibition team.”
I was a little disappointed that we could not just return the way we had come, but I nodded.
“We should be able to identify the ones that will reach the surface as they will be water-worn as our entrance tunnel was. I suspect these tunnels were originally created by lava flow, but they have been reformed by water in the millennia since the volcano was last active.”
My aunt continued in this vein for some time. Sitting with our backs to the tunnel wall, I fell asleep with my head on Alecco’s shoulder.
I had not quite been prepared for how different travelling up the sloping path of the tunnel would be. Barely a few hours in, all my muscles felt like they were on fire.
Alecco was an attentive companion, ready with a hand to steady me if I lost my footing. This tunnel had its own babbling stream running along the left side, but the water flow was much greater than our entrance tunnel’s and there were occasional spills across the passageway.
The finger-painted bio-luminescence continued up the passageway in the familiar shades of pink and green.
There were no caverns to break up the monotony of the tunnel, although there were occasional forks in the path. My aunt and Alecco would have a discussion at each one, sniffing at the air to determine which was freshest. They ignored any path that did not have water.
Much to my despair, one of these forks led us to a cave-in. “Should we turn back?” I asked, nervously keeping my distance.
My aunt pulled out her lamp and examined it closely. “It looks old – see how the rock has worn away with the stream? I think we should be safe to continue up the other path.”
Alecco followed her pointing finger, crouching to look closer. “I see it. Yes.”
We retreated quietly and backtracked to the fork, Alecco running his fingers lightly along the wall so that we would not miss it.
We slept lying head to toe in the narrow tunnel, water running mere inches from my elbow.
I do not know how long the gradual climb towards the surface lasted, only that by the end of it I was giving seriously thought to acquiring a claustrophobic condition.
The bio-luminescence began to lose its intensity and at last faded altogether, forcing us to pull out our lamps once again. I did not mind the inconvenience as it seemed an indication that we would soon be reaching the surface.
Sure enough, the tunnel began to gradually lighten, and it was not long before I could see a little circle of daylight in the distance. I could not help letting out a little whoop of joy, much to the disgust of my aunt. Alecco just laughed and reached for my hand in the darkness to squeeze it gently.
We maintained a dignified pace towards the entrance. In time, I could make out the smell of the sea – as well as bird and bat dung. I wrinkled my nose in distaste.
“Do not be surprised if it takes your eyes some time to readjust to being in full daylight,” my aunt told me sternly.
“It is raining,” said Alecco. “We should not walk the volcano side in rain. It will be…” He hesitated.
“Slippery?” my aunt prompted. “You’re quite correct. We can’t proceed until the rain eases.”
We waited several hours in the entrance of the cave, perched on rocks and watching the rain drip over the opening with gentle plops.
“I think we are on the south side of Girrwassen,” said Alecco, after some time staring out of the entrance. “I think that rock there is the… I do not know your word. We call it Helana si Forswa.”
My aunt rummaged around in her bag until she uncovered the little dictionary. “Hope of Helana?”
“It is where Helana saw the star.” Alecco coughed. “Another island story. She was a princess and the star was her… love?”
“You’ll have to tell me someday,” said my aunt. “But look, the rain seems to be easing.”
It was very slow going over the wet shale of the volcano’s south side, and once again I found Alecco sticking close to my side, ready to offer assistance wherever necessary.
At long last we found the road and began the trek back into town.
“You are welcome to stay with my family again before you leave,” Alecco told my aunt.
My aunt hesitated. “You are very generous, but we could not impose again. I think we will stay at the inn.”
Alecco cocked his head at me, a little half-smile decorating his mouth. I swallowed.
“I will stay with Alecco’s family,” I said firmly. “That is to say, if they will have me.”
My aunt gave a little double-take, looking between the two of us in confusion. Obviously torn between politeness and a desire not to put herself through unnecessary hardship, she hesitated. “Did you find it comfortable?”
“I am sure I will find the accommodations quite comfortable indeed.”
My aunt was still staring at me as if I had become a complete stranger. “Suit yourself,” she said at last. “Come on, it looks as if it may rain again.”
“I do not still live in my family home,” added Alecco conversationally. “But you are also welcome in my home. It is not large enough for two of you but for one, yes.”
“Thank you,” I said warmly.
We grinned at each other for a moment.
“And in return,” I continued, a little shyly, “you would be welcome to come to my house in Tenalia. My aunt is frequently away on expeditions and I find myself longing for companionship.”
Alecco seemed surprised but pleased. “I would like that. Very much.”
My aunt, who had been walking ahead, suddenly turned and looked back at us. “What are you two muttering about?” She paused, then pointed behind us. “Well, would you look at that?”
We turned. A magnificent rainbow painted the sky, coming to rest somewhere behind Mt Girrwassen.
My aunt sighed happily. “Now, aren’t you glad I talked you into coming along? You wouldn’t see something like that back at home.”
I glanced sidelong at Alecco. “Very glad, aunt. Very glad indeed.”
Author’s Notes: This is in no way scientifically accurate or even plausible, although some part of me wishes it were. In addition, none of the places
mentioned in the story are based on real Earth locations. For both of
these, I humbly apologise.