Panic. A reeling mind can send people into the craziest places. As they followed Jack down the slope, scrambling over wet rocks, stones and leaves flying in their wake, it was wild, blind instinct that propelled them, knowing only that forward was better than back. If their world had blackened, above the cave Jack led them into was pitch.
“Wait,” said Blake. Breathless, she still hugged Madison tight. “Where are you taking us?”
The party stopped, blind in the darkness of the tunnel they had lurched into. “Old smuggler’s trick,” said Jack, instantly regretting another Star Wars reference. “This cave goes straight through the hill, maybe buy us some time to get our bearings.”
“We used to come down here together to get away,” said Neri. “It’s safer than it looks.”
“You think your secret tunnel is something the people who’ve lived here all their lives don’t know about?” said Blake. The bitch was back.
“Let’s just keep moving,” said Jack. “It’s wet and slippery, but use your hands to feel the wall and keep upright.” He looked down at Madison, who obediently placed her mitt on the stone. “Follow me.”
As the light from the cave entrance dimmed behind them, their eyes grew accustomed to the dark, aided by chinks of light falling through holes in the rock ceiling. Madison looked up as she gingerly picked her way along and was surprised to see the roof was full of stars.
“Look Mum,” she said, pointing upwards. “The night sky.”
“They not stars chile,” said Neri. “They flying fox.”
The canopy was covered with a forest of bats, staring down at the intruders whose scrabble had woken some of them. Gleaming eyes, white, yellow and red and a murmuring click as they fidgeted.
“Quiet,” said Jack. “Let’s not get them started.”
They progressed gingerly, stumbling as quietly and painlessly as possible, until the silence was broken once more by laughter. Jack was about to shush his posse, when he realised the noise was from above. Where the cavern lowered, a chink of light revealed a hole in the roof as two rock slabs didn’t quite meet. With horror, he saw the barrel of a rifle protrude through the abscess towards them. Someone was above and knew where they were.
Instinctively, Jack leapt up and grabbed the weapon with both hands, yanking down with force. Miraculously, it fell out of the bearer’s hands with a yelp, too quick for the trigger to be pulled, surprise being in Jack’s favour for once. He fell back onto the wet stone, but scrabbled to his feet before the shock turned sore. Now, they had a rifle and he aimed it back towards the light. However, bullets were no defence for what came through next.
A spark and a flare of light toppled through the gap towards them. Dynamite. Someone had sparked and dropped a stick of dynamite onto their heads. It rattled and bounced across the stones at their feet.
The terrified quartet rushed blindly forward, praying the fuse was long enough to chance a distance between them and the inevitable.
When the explosion came it deafened, the blast propelling them face forward smack into the walls of the tunnel. The flash revealed for an instant the length they had to travel before the air was filled with flying pebbles, acrid smoke and the screeching flaps of a hundred flying foxes blown from their beds.
Jack wasn’t sure if he had been knocked unconscious or was still moving when his eyes opened. Was he even the only survivor? “Are you alright?” he said, calling to his love and charges as much as himself.
“Sore.” Neri. “We’re still here.” Blake and Madison. Spluttering, bruised, bleeding, he reached out and was greeted with the warmth of their clammy bodies. The party held each other, grateful for life.
“We keep going,” said Jack, unsure if their ears were ringing as much as his. There was light at the end of the tunnel, just a dot, but something to aim for.
Unfortunately, there was light above as well. Another spark, a shout and the bounce of stick on stone as a flaming TNT torch dropped straight down in front of him.
This time Jack wasn’t going to run, but he did move fast. He grabbed the lethal grenade, fuse still burning and lunged it upwards at the chink of light. With relief his aim was true and lucky. The flare disappeared into the sky and over the lip of the ground above. Seconds later, screams, then a boom and a shower of mud splashed down upon them. Taste of their own medicine.
Panting, Jack looked back at his party and grinned. Maybe that had halted the assault. Schadenfreude is short-lived however.
It was a mistake to pause. There were indecipherable yells of rage from the ground above, then a torrent of flares rained down upon them. Six lit and flaming sticks of dynamite to put paid to the invaders once and for all.
No time left. The four rushed wildly towards the light, their only hope being the dot ahead was closer than the inferno that was about to engulf them.