Silence and darkness shrouded the cave while outside, the sounds of the avalanche dimmed to nothing. Seconds passed slowly, then sounds of life stirred in the complete darkness. Survivors moved cautiously, feeling their way along rough stone to make sense of their new surroundings.
William coughed at dust that lingered in the air. “Anyone be thinkin’ ta drag a light along?”
Moira sat up slowly, careful to not bump into what she could not see. “Ah box of tindersticks and a striker, hold on.”
The blacksmith fumbled with cold fingers at a small pouch on her belt. By only touch, she withdrew a small leather bundle of sticks and a flat, thumb-sized piece of slate. Slowly, she worked one of the tindersticks out of the bundle. Then she struck the treated end of the tinderstick against the slate once, then twice.
One small spark followed another, then the end of the tinderstick burst into flame. Moira held the burning stick high to let the feeble light shine as best it could. The cave was small, but could just accommodate the group. The only entrance had been completely filled with snow. At the back of a cave a small niche rose upwards into the rock.
Her tinderstick’s glow also revealed grim and tired faces of people she expected to see, and a few things she did not. Namely, a small discarded pile of branches, some with leaves still attached. They were not much, but would make for a simple, yet serviceable source of heat. Moira laid hands upon one and ran the tinderstick over it until the flame caught onto the leaves and branch itself.
“We gotta lot o’ diggin’ ahead o’ us.” William sighed with a mournful look at the cave entrance.
Captain Hunter, however, was not looking at the snow. He had fixed a stern look on one of their number. “That we do, but once we are free of our little burrow, I, for one, will want a explanation, Miss Angela, straight away.”
There in the dim shadows of the cavern, Angela sat crouched against the wall. Her clothes were torn with bits of fur thrust through the ripped holes. All-too-human eyes peered out from an obvious canine face, complete with a wolf’s snout. Distinctive wolf-like ears had thrust through her hair, and while her body retained much of her human appearance, her hands had developed small claws. Her feet had a definite canine curve to her legs that ended in large paws.
Lithe as a panther, Angela shifted her weight uneasily. Aware of the uncomfortable stares from her companions, the look of worried concern from her younger brother, and the hard look of Captain Hunter made her more self-conscious than a girl her age would normally be. Her eyes drifted uneasily around the group to rest on Hunter. She nodded, almost ashamed.
“Yes Sirrah Captain. I’ll explain then.”
“Don’t you hurt her!” Blurted Miles in a fit of tears and young rage, his small arms shaking with all the bound energy of an upset youth.
William put his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Hush now, lad. No way to talk to the Cap’n.”
“He’s not my Captain! He’s not our father or anyone!”
Hunter sighed, his look softening a touch. “No boy, I’m not. But I and my crew were charged to bring you both back safely and that’s what we plan to do. Secrets like this? Right now lad, I’ve got to say aren’t helpful. However, that’s neither here nor there. This snow won’t dig itself. Angela, Moira, help me dig. William, see if that niche in back of the cave leads anywhere.”
“What … what a’ me?” Miles stammered.
“Think on what I’ve said, lad. Think hard on it and sit with O’Fallon. He’ll be needing someone with him right now. If there’s anything else we don’t know, and you think we ought to, speak up.”
Miles turned a faint shade of pink and obeyed with a downcast look on his face. He sat next to O’Fallon and stared glumly at the dirt-strewn cave floor.
The group worked in silence, as much to conserve air as it was their conversation had lost its momentum. After a few minutes William returned from his exploration to shake his head slowly.
“Can’t tell where that chimney’s goin’. No wider than my own fist could be fittin’. Seems taller than twice my height though, so I’m not thinkin’ the younglings could be scootin’ through it.”
Hunter shook his cold hands to try and warm them from digging at the snow, then sighed with a faint hint of frustration over the news. “Unfortunate. Well, another pair of hands working to clear the snow won’t hurt.”
Working in shifts, the group labored in silence. They scooped at a steady pace, depositing the snow in the back of the cave. Two hours later, hands numb from the cold, William broke the surface of the snow.
With an elated grin and renewed vigor, William desperately shoved the snow aside to scramble up. He emerged with a deep breath of relief, and smiled. Warm afternoon sunlight played through the trees overhead and lifted the chill just slightly in the mountain air. The young sailor closed his eyes and took another deep breath, enjoying the immediate relief from the claustrophobic cave below. Having enjoyed his brief moment of sunlight, he slowly opened his eyes, then froze in shock. There, no more than two yards from where he stood, was a large furred creature that had just stepped from behind a tree. Covered in white, matted fur from head to toe, the six-foot-tall beast took a heavy breath and a step closer, leaving the same peculiar animal tracks William had seen outside the camp the night before.
William tried to duck back down the tunnel, but realized too late it was not wide enough for that. In his haste, the snow had fallen back in around his waist, and he was stuck. Digging away at the snow at his waist, he only caused more to fall in around him. Suddenly the beast grunted and charged. Ten yards distance between them became five, then one. William went pale and tried to yell but his voice caught in his throat. When the beast was nearly on him, he managed to croak out a strangled alarm.
“Cap’n! We got Comp’ny!”