Retreating into the cave, Morgan switched on the flashlight and plunged into the gem-studded corridor, determined to follow the winding tunnel wherever it led.
And follow it he did: on and on, hour after hour, until it seemed that his descending footsteps must have brought him beneath the very heart of the mountain. And the deeper he went, the richer and gaudier, the more stunningly brilliant grew the dripping stalactites, the elephantine stalagmites, and the jewel-encrusted walls of the passage. Precious stones protruded in clusters from the rock-face, hung down in bunches from the ceiling, jutted up from the floor like petrified bubbles of transparent color. Everywhere he turned he saw sapphires and rubies, amethysts and carbuncles, emeralds, topazes, and diamonds. Brighter and brighter they glowed, pulsating with a luminescence of their own, until the beam of Morgan’s flashlight faded away completely before their radiance.
Eventually he came to a place where so many gemstones lay scattered across the pathway that he had to slow his pace simply in order to avoid tripping over them. Here he saw signs that many treasure-hunters had passed this way before. There were broken shards of crystal on the ground, deep glassy scrapings and scorings in the walls, and a confusion of footprints in the ruby-red dust. Morgan was strongly tempted to follow their example by stopping to load his pack with precious stones, but he dared not take the time. The jewel he was seeking—the jewel of the miraculous sword—was of far greater worth to him than any gem. That jewel, he firmly believed, was going to help him find the greatest treasure of all: his father. And with every passing moment it was slipping further beyond his grasp. He closed his eyes to the dazzling beauties of the underground passage and pressed on.
At last he turned a sharp corner and found himself confronting what looked like a patch of blazing daylight at the end of a long, straight corridor. The door to the outside!
Picking up his feet, he bounded over a pile of glittering gold nuggets and began to run. But no sooner had he made the jump than the floor of the passage suddenly dropped and pitched steeply forward. A few steps more and it became as smooth and as slick as a sheet of ice or polished glass. Morgan slipped, fell, and began to slide.
“I can’t stop!” he cried as he hurtled forward at a great rate of speed. The square opening at the end of the tunnel lay straight ahead. With all his might he thrust his arms and legs sideways in a desperate attempt to brace himself against the wall. And then, in a second, it was over.
Not far off a shower of gravel was hissing and skittering over a hard rocky surface. To Morgan’s ears it sounded as if it were falling a long way. He opened his eyes and looked around. The strap of his backpack had caught on a sharp spur of limestone just inside the cavern door. Unhooking himself, he crept forward on his hands and knees and peered out.
The end of the passage, which stood high in the face of a steep, craggy mountainside, opened onto a little stone ledge no more than two feet wide. From this ledge a narrow stairway descended sideways along the cliff to the bottom of a deep gorge. Far, far below, at the base of the scarp, he could see heaps of sun-bleached skulls and bones glinting dully in the slanted autumn daylight. And higher up the bluff, between him and those grim piles of pale death, stretched a series of long, deep, thick-corded nets. These were laid out with great care and cunning along the face of the precipice, just as if someone had set them on purpose to catch greedy trespassers and gemstone-gatherers.
Many of the nets contained quarry. Among the trapped were several long-necked cranes; an eagle, a fox, and a highland goat; some squirrels and rabbits; a bandy-legged Fir Bolg mountaineer; and a couple of round-headed Fomorians.
Some of the prisoners squirmed and fought and struggled. Some howled and screeched at the top of their lungs. Some lay limp in the thick rope meshes, looking as if they had long since given up the ghost. But the victim that caught and held Morgan’s attention was the one that occupied the net nearest to the opening where he crouched—the one that hung just below the narrow stone ledge.
It was Baxter Knowles.
(To be continued …)