Keyley stumbled into the cave, gasping for breath and bleeding from dozens of cuts. He stumbled into the safety of the shadows, knowing he was doomed. The monsters would find him eventually, and there was nothing he could do to fend them off.
The cave was set high in the mountains, a long climb from his riverside village below. It was small and nearly invisible to the passing eye, narrow and covered in brush.
It used to be narrow enough, in fact, that only a very small child could enter. As he groaned in pain and fear, Keyley spent what time he had left reminiscing on the earlier days in which he had sat in the very same dirt, and played in the very same shadows.
Keyley had come up with the idea to cover the entrance in bushes and leaves, and the downside he hadn’t thought of was that the plants blocked what little light could shine through the narrow entrance. It filled the cave full of shadows. Still, it was a fantastic place to play if you remembered to bring a torch.
Taye held the torch, her hands clammy from the climb.
“We won’t be able to fit through the entrance before long,” Ande said sadly.
“No, we won’t,” Keyley replied, nodding thoughtfully.
“You might not be able to,” Taye laughed, “But I will!”
Keyley and Ande frowned at her. “But then there wouldn’t be anyone to play with in the cave!”
Taye frowned too at this, setting the torch into a hole in the dirt. The flames flickered, a yellow light among the blue shadows.
“That’s true. We should do something about it,” she says finally.
“Yes, we should…”
“We can borrow some of my parents’ tools, and make the entrance bigger,” Ande suggested.
“No, that won’t work. We aren’t strong enough to swing them,” Keyley replied.
“Then what should we do?”
“We could ask one of the older kids to help us,” Taye offered.
“No!” Keyley shouted. “This cave is ours, and it has to be kept secret!”
“Fine, fine. What do you suggest we do, then?” Taye said angrily.
“Well, what if we used my parents’ Terehdo?” Keyley said, a smug smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.
There was a contemplative silence between Ande and Taye.
“That might work,” Taye remarked. “It could eat away the stone at the entrance enough that we could fit through even as we get bigger!”
“Exactly,” Keyley exclaimed, looking much too pleased with himself. “I’ll steal it from its pen tomorrow morning when Mom and Dad are out at work. Then we can bring it to the mountain and back before they’re done, and they’ll never find out!”
Too excited about these developments, Taye, Ande, and Keyley decided to head down the mountain early. The sun was still up, and it was mid-afternoon, but Keyley knew they’d be safe.
The jungle’s green shade would protect them for the most part. It wasn’t a complete sanctuary, like the blue darkness of the cave, but the three children rarely were attacked.
Keyley led the way down the switchback footpath through the trees and foliage, Ande and Taye close behind. The air was much crisper than the musty smokiness of the cave, but the dirt was filled with more rocks and roots than the cave’s soft, almost sand-like dirt.
“My house is right up against the wall, so it’ll be easy to sneak the Terehdo out. Just leave it to me,” Keyley boasted, turning around to look at his friends.
Taye and Ande nodded, smiling slightly.
Within no time, it seemed, the trees were thinning and Blue River Village was coming into view.
It was a small gathering of houses with a dark blue river snaking through it. The houses were shabby for the most part, their stilts wobbly in the mud and their thatched roofs fraying. A hodgepodge of logs, clay bricks, and vines formed a barrier twisting around the village’s boundaries. Commotion, as usual, is rampant at the front gate. Tall adults wield long spears of supple jungle wood and wear the armor of animal skins, roaring raucously.
The monsters called Maluci, with their bright yellow scales and stubby legs, roar back.
“There’s more of them this time,” Keley notices.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” Ande snaps tersely as they step out of the jungle’s green shade and into the yellow sunlight. “It’s my job to watch the Maluci.”
That was true. Whenever the three of them went into the sunlight, Keyley watched the area in front of them, Ande monitored any nearby groups of Maluci, and Taye watched their backs.
So Keyley kept his eyes on the rocky footpath that led down to the river. He kept his eyes on the walls as he approached them, and on the ladder that rose to the top of it. He kept his eyes on the village as he clambered down the other side of the wall.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Keyley said, waving at the other two as they split ways.
“Don’t you want to play in the river?” Taye pouted.
“I’ll probably be having dinner before long, and I want to scout out the Terehdo’s pen beforehand.”
“See you later, then.”
Keyley nodded, then started towards his parent’s hut. He leapt over ditches and stepped around tufts of tall grass and boulders. He jumped around murky puddles, which he guessed would be full of Redthurst Leeches. He smelled his house before he saw it. His parents raised most of the animals of the village, so the enclosure right behind it always stank of animal remains. He passed the crumbles of a house that had finally been beaten by time, and his house came into view. He passed it too, heading straight for the wooden fences of the animals’ pen.
Green-furred Belles with their curly horns, the tall, grey-feathered Granite bird, the striped, fat, Terlyt, and finally--the long-snouted, blue-haired Terehdo!
Keyley reconnoitered the scene, deciding that he would get the Terehdo’s attention with a handful of pebbles from the riverbank, then lure it through the gate and along the edge of Blue River Village to the ladder at which he, Taye, and Ande always met. There he would continue to lure the Terehdo up the mountain with pebbles, picking up more as he went so as not to lose the creature’s interest.
Satisfied with his plan, he headed inside his hut. It was dimly lit, the late afternoon sun shining through the gaps in the thatched roof providing the only light. Keyley relaxed as the sun’s light fell away from him, along with any threat of the Maluci.
“Ah, Keyley, there you are. Dinner’s almost ready,” his mother said from a cauldron full of watery soup.
“Thanks,” Keyley replied.
“Where do you go during the daytime, anyways, son?” his father, a burly man with a scowl, asked.
“Off,” Keyley replied vaguely. He was determined to keep his secret cave just that--a secret.
“Yes, but off doing what?” Keyley’s father snapped.
“Having fun,” Keyley responded stubbornly. He could see his father growing pink under his beard.
“Do you know how many die each year because of those damn Maluci, boy? The healing center is constantly full, and I’m at the front gate all day to make sure the morgue isn’t!”
Keyley flinched under his father’s roar.
“Honey--” Mother started.
“I’m just trying to make sure the kid’s not going to get killed! Is that so bad?”
“Of course not, dear. Just try to calm down.”
Keyley felt his lip trembling, waiting for his father’s next roar, but it never came. The man just stroked his beard, grumbling, “I can’t calm down ‘til that damn sun disappears. We usually have a lot more clouds this time of year. I feel like they could launch a larger scaled attack at any time, or find some hole in the wall we don’t know about.”
Keyley’s mother patted his father’s shoulder comfortingly, and said, “I trust you to keep us safe.”
They ate dinner in silence, scooping the fishy broth into their mouths. Keyley could tell the sun was setting because the light shining through the roof was dimmer, and his father looked more relaxed.
Keyley relaxed too, knowing that there would be no more yelling as the safety of darkness came. When he and his parents were done eating, he cleared their dishes and banked the fire. He crawled into bed with his parents in their small cot, their arms tucked around each other and their warmth enfolding him like a blanket. Not the bad kind of warmth, like the warmth that came with the light, but the comforting warmth of his family and the darkness. Keyley smiled.
“I’m sorry I yelled,” his father apologized, affected by the darkness as well.
“I love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too.”
“I love you, Mom.”
His mother laughed. “I love you, Keyley.”
He snuggled deeper into their loving warmth and fell fast asleep.
He drifted in and out of sleep as the sun rose. He woke to find his parents had left for work already. His father guarded the gate of the village against the Maluci that attacked each day when the sun rose, and his mother tended to the animals before leaving to work in the healing center. He rose from the cot and peered into the sunlight, where he could see his mother tending to the animals.
He went to help. The work was tough as he moved rocks and hay bales, milking the Belles and plucking feathers from the Granite birds. Eventually, he and his mother finished, and she left, striding off towards the healing center to help with the constant flow of injured.
He shuddered. His mother had brought him along to work when he was younger. To see the blood and filthy bandages up close brought a new perspective to Keyley’s life. He feared the Maluci and the sun that heralded them. Even now, he felt fear. His father was right. The sun played on your nerves, making Keyley worry about his father, who was guarding the gate.
He pushed these thoughts aside and focused on the task at hand. He was able to lure the Terehdo out of its pen with no problems, and it climbed over the wall easily. Unlike the Maluci, the Terehdo had no problems with climbing.
Taye and Ande were waiting for him on the other side of the wall.
“Let’s go,” Keyley exclaimed.
They tromped up the mountain on their familiar zig-zagged footpath, Terehdo in tow. The thick canopy of jungle leaves permitted them to relax somewhat, and they talked freely, admiring the vibrant blue hairs of the creature following the pebbles in Keyley’s hand. They noticed the wildlife that flitted about in the trees and skulked about in the undergrowth. They laughed at the smells of the Stankfruit, moving past it as quickly as possible.
Eventually, the three found the cave, and the Terehdo’s eyes lit up. It leapt at the rocky entrance of their sanctuary, attacking with hungry vigor.
Keyley kept a close eye on the animal as it ate, making sure it didn’t overdo it on the entrance. Once he measured the Terehdo’s work was done, he pushed the creature away from the cave and picked up another handful of pebbles. The Terehdo, it seemed, did not have a great memory.
“That worked well,” Taye remarked as they headed back down the mountain. “You’re definitely the smartest of the three of us.”
“Hey!” Ande protested, then laughed.
“I’m glad it worked so well,” Keyley admitted. “Now we can play in the cave forever!”
“We usually stay at the cave a lot longer, though. Can we play in the river when we get back?” Taye pleaded.
“That sounds fun,” Keyley responded.
“Let’s do it,” Ande agreed.
They emerged from the green shade of the jungle and into the bright yellow sunlight. There they found a battlefield.
They were silent for a time, albeit for shaky, sobbing breaths.
“That’s--” Keyley started in a trembling voice, “A lot more than normal.”
Maluci were piling over each other, their yellow scales blurring until Keyley couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began. Their hisses and roars were deafening, even from where Keyley, Taye, and Ande stood, right on the edge of the jungle and the light.
Red stained the entirety of Blue River Village, it seemed.
It wasn’t a battlefield, Keyley thought. It was the site of a massacre. He remembered his father’s words-- “We usually have a lot more clouds this time of year. I feel like they could launch a larger scaled attack at any time…”
The Maluci had seemed larger in number than normal the day before, too.
So this was it. The day that Blue River Village fell.
A chill went down Keyley’s spine when Taye and Ande said, “I’m going to help.”
He couldn’t make his feet move. He couldn’t open his mouth to stop them.
There was no one to help. It was a suicide mission. Why couldn’t they see that? Then again, as Taye had said, he had always been the smartest of the three. What he was doing was right. That’s what he told himself, at least, as he fled the yellow and ran into the safety of greens and blues.
That’s what he told himself for three years.
Keyley looked up at the ceiling of the cave, feeling his breaths slow. He made a strangled sound in his throat, some wild mixture of a laugh, a cough, and a sob.
The Maluci had arrived. They crashed into the rock of the cave entrance, squirming through it just as Keyley, Taye, and Ande had all those years ago. Funny, he thought, how one small act as a kid, widening the entrance to the cave with his parents’ Terehdo, would be the death of him. Then again, maybe it was all the small acts he did as a kid. Like running to safety when he could’ve stayed. Maybe then he could’ve died with Taye and Ande.
As the light took Keyley away, his head was filled with regrets.