Eliam Alterian peered into the cave’s mouth, his flashlight beam catching a glint in the darkness.
“Check this out, Ela,” he called over his shoulder as his twin hauled herself up onto the rock shelf.
Avid rock climbers and spelunkers, Eliam and Elayna loved testing their skill in the Rocky Mountains near the family compound in southwestern Montana. One of their favorite free climbs was Sphinx Mountain over in the Madison Range. It was one they could share with the rest of their family. While the twins reveled in the challenge of a sheer rock face, their cousins preferred various difficulties of hiking trails the area offered. Sphinx Mountain had both. Today, though, the twins were by themselves.
While on a family outing a few weeks earlier, Eli had spotted what looked like the mouth of a cave he had never noticed before. When he told Ela about it, she insisted they come back to find and explore it. Here they were, staring into the stygian depths.
Kneeling on the pebble-strewn ledge, they pulled out their caving gear, donning their heavy canvas coveralls, mud boots, gloves, and helmets. It wasn’t their first time exploring a wild cave system. It was the first time they explored a cavern without a more experienced caver accompanying them, though. In fact, the only person who knew where they were was Talbot, and it’s not like he cared what his younger siblings did.
Eli rigged their climbing harnesses to fit over their coveralls in case they encountered unseen drops. Packing the rest of the climbing gear into their packs, the twins gave each other reassuring grins and headed into the back of the cave, the light from their handheld flashlamps leading the way. The cavern opening was about thirty feet wide and close to seven feet high. The twins walked to the back of the cave, placing each step with care on the loose rock crunching under their boots. A twisted ankle would make it difficult to get back home. Twenty-two paces into the cavern, they reached the back of the main entrance and found a six-foot-tall gap in the rocks that led deeper into the mountainside.
Stopping to stow their flashlights in their packs and light the headlamps on their helmets, Eli took Ela’s hand in his and gave it a squeeze. He wasn’t sure whether the gesture was to reassure himself or his sister, but he felt better.
Eli laced the light rope through the rings in his harness and clipped the carabiner in place. Handing the rest of the coil back to Ela, he stepped through the opening into a narrow, but tall, shaft. He had to stand sideways in the tunnel to stretch his back; the tunnel was that narrow. He then gave three tugs on the rope. Ela stepped through the gap and looked up at the ceiling of the shaft, some forty feet up. Stalactites lined the roof, looking like spears ready to drop on their heads. Eli looked up. Seeing the jagged points, he broke out in a cold sweat.
“Perfect place for a trap, don’t you think?” he asked with a wink, flipping into the Bardic persona he used in their Dungeons & Dragons game.
“Yeah,” replied Ela. “I just wish I had that Find Trap spell like Etheria has.”
“I hear ya, Sis. I’ll go through first.” Eli tiptoed forward, scanning the ground for loose rocks before placing each foot. Half a minute later, he reached the other side and beckoned to his twin to traverse the shaft.
The hole on the far side of the tunnel was half the size of the entrance to the shaft. Eli slithered through on his belly, jagged stones scraping across his coveralls, and rolled out the other side, barely catching himself before going over the edge of the landing.
“I recommend coming out feet first,” he called back, his voice shaky. “But there’s really no good way to come through.”
Elayna pulled off her pack and shoved it through. She sat in the opening, then pushed her legs and hips through the hole, thankful for the thick canvas on her backside and elbows. Wishing she had pulled on her gloves as a sharp stone cut scraped her pinky finger, she shimmied her way through the tunnel. For a moment, her feet found nothing but air, then she felt Eli’s hands guide her legs over the edge to the floor of the ledge on which they were deposited. With feet planted, she rolled and shimmied her way out of the opening.
Standing on a seven-foot ledge, they gawked at a cavern filled with multi-colored crystals pulsing with faint energy.
“Whoa,” breathed Eli, his soft voice echoing through the chamber. The twins stared at the vision before them, dumbfounded by the view.
After a moment, Ela tore her gaze away, grabbed her pack, and searched for a path off the ledge. A few minutes later, her efforts paid off. Discovering an anchor point, she could see where a ladder of some kind had once been attached.
“Eli, check this out,” she whispered, a soft echo meandering through the cave.
Eliam joined his sister, boots crunching on the gravel, the sound resonating through the hollow. The echoes exacerbated the peculiar aura of the cavern. The air hummed with energy neither twin had experienced before. They had visited one of the high-power laboratories with their father, Ryker, once. Eli would never forget the feel of every hair on his body standing on end in the current field that surrounded the high-voltage cage. His skin tingled every time he thought about it.
This energy felt different. The sensation was similar to the crawl of electricity, but Eli could feel it inside his body. He glanced at his twin. Ela was testing the anchor to see how solid it was. Eli watched as she attached the rope and looped it through her harness, preparing to rappel down the side.
“Don’t you feel that?”
“Yes,” she replied through gritted teeth. “And I’m doing my best to ignore it.”
Sighing, Eli watched as his twin walked her way down the rock face. A few minutes later, he joined her on the cavern floor.
“Did you notice the runes carved into the wall on the way down?” Ela asked.
Ela rolled her eyes. She had noticed a series of symbols carved into the rock as she slid over the ledge. Walking her way down the twenty-foot drop, Ela had committed them to memory. She was entering the shapes into her caving journal when Eli joined her.
“What’cha doing?” he asked.
“Getting these runes down before I forget. I want to look these up when we get home.”
“Whatever.” Eli walked to the nearest crystal and peered at it. Almost three feet long, the quartz pulsed with a faint reddish-purple glow. Mesmerized, he reached his hand out to touch its pulsating surface.
Ela looked up in time to see her brother reach for the crystal. Bolting up from the rock, she grabbed his arm as he touched the surface.
The last thing Ela remembered was a flash of light, then darkness.