Chapter 1: Clues

Katra Alterian had been trying to call her cousin, Elayna, since yesterday, to no avail. It was not like Ela to ignore her calls. So, she drove to Ela’s house to talk to her cousin.

Katra ran into Talbot on her way to Ela’s room.

“Have you seen Ela or Eli?” she asked Talbot, the twins’ older brother.

“I don’t keep track of those dweebs,” Talbot snorted as he brushed past her on his way to the kitchen.

“Asshole,” Katra mumbled under her breath as she raced up the stairs. “Hey, Ela, wake up!” she exclaimed as she burst into her cousin’s room. Ela wasn’t there. Her bed was untouched, and the room was pristine. Katra chewed the inside of her lip.

That’s not right, she thought. She began looking for clues to her cousin’s whereabouts, Ela never keeps her room this clean.

She and Ela were close, so Katra knew where her cousin kept her journal. Opening the notebook, she found the last entry. Ela and Eli went to Sphinx Mountain, of all places, to climb that damned rock! If they got hurt, Talbot would be in deep shit with his parents, Kat almost grinned. Aunt Aeryn and Uncle Ryker doted on those two, and gods only knew what Grandmama would do if something happened.

She whirled at a sound behind her.

“So, what do you know?” asked Dreyah, another cousin in their inner circle, as she walked into the room. “I’ve been trying to get hold of Ela since yesterday. Her phone goes to message.”

“Yeah, me too,” said Katra. “It’s not like her to ignore her text messages either. The same with Eli.”

Dreyah brought her hand to her lips, chewing a fingernail, thinking furiously.

“But check this out,” Katra handed her cousin Ela’s journal. “They went to Sphinx Mountain to explore a cave they saw.”

“Gods, I hate climbing,” groaned Dreyah, knowing they would have to find the twins.

“Me too,” said Katra.

It was then they heard the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs leading to the second floor.

“Yo! Eli!” the voice of Dreyah’s brother Chase boomed through the hall. “Get your skinny ass out of bed, dude. We got things to go, places to see, and people to do! Let’s GO!”

The sound of a slamming door made the girls roll their eyes, “Chase,” they said in unison. The girls went to Eli’s room, next to Ela’s.

“Chase, have you talked to either of the twins lately,” asked Katra without preamble.

Chase jumped at her voice, “What? No. That’s why I’m here. I haven’t talked to Eli since the day before yesterday, and I’m getting worried.”

“Us, too,” said Dreyah as she came up behind Kat.

“Especially since we’re supposed to play later today,” came Taliesin’s deep voice from behind the girls.

“Yeah, that could be a problem,” said Katra as she handed Taliesin the journal.

“Aw, shit,” he said as he read.

“Yeah,” replied Kat.

“Let me see,” said Chase holding out a hand as Taliesin gave the journal over. A muttered “fuck,” left his mouth before he could think.

“They left a GPS location, so that’s good,” said Katra as she flipped on Eliam’s computer and looked for the map program he used. It only took her a few moments to find the map pin he left with the cave location. “Eli made it easy for us,” she said as she turned on the printer and printed copies for them all.

“I remember this place,” said Chase, “we all went hiking there a few weeks ago. Remember, the twins raced us to the top? We hiked, and they climbed.”

“Yeah,” said, Katra rolling her eyes, “and they won, too.”

“They do know how to climb,” said Taliesin. “They’ve gotten away with a lot of stuff because of it.”

“Don’t forget to bring your satellite GPS, Tal,” said Katra. “If I remember, there’s no phone service to speak of out there.” Taliesin gave his sister a thumbs-up.

##
By noon, the group had parked their car next to Eli’s beat-up old pickup. Chase and Katra checked out the truck while Dreyah and Taliesin looked for clues to their cousins’ route to traverse up the face. Within minutes, each had found what they were looking for.

“Let’s go find the others,” said Chase when he found the encrypted note in the glove box. Chase wasn’t real smart, but he knew his cousin and how Eli thought. It was a code the two had used a lot growing up, especially when they needed to keep their stories in sync.

Dreyah led Tal back toward the car, the two having found the light rope left by the twins.

“We found where they began their ascent,” said Taliesin. “If I know the twins, they had both climbing and caving gear with them.”

“Yeah,” said Katra. “I made sure to gather both before we left, how about you?”

“Er,” stammered Chase, his cheeks reddening. Dreyah rolled her eyes.
“Of course you didn’t, you lunkhead,” replied his sister. “Why do I always have to think for you?” she asked eyes rolling in irritation as she thrust Chase’s backpack into his arms.

“Now, now, children,” said Taliesin. Dreyah threw her water bottle at her cousin. He ducked chuckling.

“Come on, you two,” said Katra, “I’m getting worried about them. And this climb doesn’t make me feel better.”

Locking both vehicles and donning their climbing gear, the cousins hiked from the parking lot to the rock face.

Katra scrambled up first. She hated climbing for all she was good at it. What the twins called exhilaration, Katra called terror. Sure, she was comfortable enough on the climbing wall Uncle Ryker built for the twins. But that was a controlled environment. This, not so much. She would do anything for Ela, though, who was more a sister than a cousin to her.

Chase came up behind her. He knew how much Katra disliked climbing and suspected she was afraid of heights, but would never admit to it. Dreyah and Taliesin came up last. The sun was shining on the ledge by the time the group reached the cave entrance. They quickly changed into caving gear and headed to the back of the cave.

Taliesin investigated the cut in the rocks. Katra looked for other clues. Finding nothing of interest, they wriggled through the tunnel into the long narrow cave. Chase wriggled through the crawlway on the far side on his belly, surging out the other side. He almost didn’t catch himself before he rolled over the edge, adrenaline washing away the claustrophobia.

“Come out feet first,” he called back to his group, his voice shaky. “The ledge on this side isn’t as wide as the one outside.”

Katra came through next and stared in awe at the forest of crystals below them.

“Move your ass,” said Chase pulling her out of the way as Dreyah wiggled through the opening. “You can gawk from over there,” he said, pointing to the ledge’s far side. “Go look for clues or something. It’s what you’re good at.”

Katra stuck her tongue out at him and went to the far end of the ledge, where she found the rope left by Ela and Eli.

“I think they went down there,” she said, pointing to the lower ledge of the cave that held the crystal structures. “I’m going down to look, who’s coming with?”

Chase stepped forward.

“I’ll go down first,” he said as he clipped in to rappel down the rock face. When he reached the bottom, he called up, “there’s something carved into the wall on the way down. You might be able to see it out if you come down a little slower than I did.”

Katra walked her way down the face, looking for the carvings Chase mentioned. About a third of the way down, she saw them. Runes were carved into the wall. Pulling her phone out of her chest pocket, she did her best to photograph them as she somehow kept from falling. Reaching the bottom, she looked around for more clues.

“Kat,” said Chase, holding out what she recognized as Ela’s caving journal, “this was over there,” he pointed at a small boulder a few feet away from where they stood.

Katra shook her phone and used the flashlight to examine the ground around the rock. She could almost make out prints in the rocky dirt. It looked like someone might have sat on the rock and used their knees to steady something. Opening the journal, she flipped to the last page and was alarmed to see a slight smear of blood on the paper. Oh, shit.

Looking down at the entry, she could see that Ela had tried to copy the runes in her journal. She had been partway through one of the drawings when it ended. Turning her light back to the floor, she could see places where the dirt was disturbed. The trail led to one crystal and ended.

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