In a flash, she rushed at the huge pile of rocks and started tossing them aside. "Come on, give me a hand with this!" she begged the others, "We've got to get a hole through...!"
"I don't think it's going to work, Holly," Max was shaking his head, even though he came over to help her, "There's too much rock, wedged in too tight. Maybe we'd be better to try and find another entrance."
"And what if there isn't another entrance!?" she raised both eyebrows at him in the dim light of her flashlight, "That's not really a risk I want to take...!"
"They'd still be waiting for us on the other side if we tried to break through here right now," Travis spoke up solemnly, flicking on his own flashlight, "And since Avor almost certainly has no cameras in here, he can't do anything to us right now if he can't see where we are. I don't like this any more than you do, Holly, and I pray to God there's another way out of here, but at least they can't capture us in here; if we can't get out this way, they can't get in either, I'm sure of it."
"They can summon fireballs out of thin air too!?" Tracy asked behind him, a bit numb from the experience that had almost fried them all.
"Yeah, unfortunately, Tracy. Avor must be really desperate to be utilizing that power from Bastor. You sure you're OK?" concerned, he approached her and took her hand, "I can see you shaking hard again..."
"I'm OK," she said quickly, not meeting his eyes, "Well, if we're going to find another way out of here, let's hurry."
"Right. Did your torch go out, Max?" Travis glanced around for it.
"Let me have some more light," Max asked him and Holly, glancing around the floor in the flashlight beams. "Aha," he proclaimed upon finding it after about two minutes. He seized one of the rocks Holly had tossed off the blockage pile and pounded it on the stick until it reignited. "OK, let's see what we can find," he told his friends, stepping deeper into the cave, "And hope a way out comes quick, and that it comes out somewhere the cult isn't."
The rest of them nodded solemnly. The light of the torch and the two flashlights offered comparatively little illumination, but they were grateful for it nonetheless. The cave wound slowly down and to the left for what seemed like a eternity before they came to a fork in the tunnel. "Which way should we go?" Max asked the others.
"Um...I guess left," Holly suggested with a shrug.
"If you say left, left it is," he grinned at her and led them to the left. "I've been meaning to ask, Holly, what are you into?" he slowed up enough so that she was walking alongside him.
"Oh, uh, I write like Tracy, although she's more of a pro than I am to be honest," Holly admitted, caught a little off guard by the question, "I'm also into volleyball; that's why I write for the Marshfield Trumpet's sports section..."
"I see. I bet you're one of the best volleyball players, then?" he smiled at her.
"Uh, not really, average, I guess. But I always play hard. How about you, Max?"
"Soccer, since I was nine," he told her, "I still have some hopes of making the national team some day. If we get out of her, you ought to come down to Lechtown and see me in action-if I'm still on the team after being AWOL all this time, of course. And I'd happily drop by to watch every one of your games, Holly."
"Well I'd appreciate...oops," Holly frowned as the four of them came to a stop at a blank wall that clearly marked the end of the tunnel, "Guess it wasn't left. Back we go, I guess."
Looking disappointed, she let Max lead them back out with the brighter torch. In no time, they were back at the fork and turned down the right tunnel, which seemed to go further down into the earth. "Seems like we're heading straight down to the Earth's core," Max mused softly, "I hope there is a rise somewhere; this is..."
"Hold up," Travis stepped forward and held up his hand. He aimed his own flashlight straight ahead, showing the tunnel was severely flooded right ahead of them. "Oh great!" Max sighed in frustration, "How do we know how deep this is?"
"Unfortunately, only one way to find one," Travis nodded forward. Shrugging in resignation, Max trudged forward into the water, after about a hundred yards, it was up to his waist, but no deeper. "I guess it's OK, guys," he called back to them, "Just stay alert and watch for any sudden dropoffs."
The others hesitantly trudged forward and soon were waist deep themselves in the water. "Just hope this is only brief," Holly grumbled softly, holding her arms high to keep her flashlight dry. The tunnel, however, remained basically flooded as they continued onward, although it thankfully did not get any higher than their waists, and there were no dropoffs. There was also, however, no sign of any other exit, although the cave did have rather beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations, they noticed in the beams of their flashlights. On and on they went, through the water-filled tunnels, around countless twists and turns, hoping and praying to find an exit of some kind. Time dragged on and on, for at least an hour or so, until...
"I can't go any further," Tracy spoke up for the first time in a long time, looking tired and glum, "I'm too tired out from this and everything else; I'm sorry. Can we stop somewhere, please!?"
"If you need a break, Tracy, we'll take a break," Travis assured her. He shone his flashlight around the cavern. "Ah, looks like there's a nice wide ledge up there well out of the water," he declared, focusing the light on it right ahead of them.
"Good, I think I could use a break too, Travis; how about you?" Max asked Holly, who nodded softly, "Just so it's drier than what we've been trudging through."
"Looks completely dry to me, pal. Let me give you a hand there," he offered Tracy, helping her climb up the wall. Tracy sighed softly as she climbed out of the water and up onto the ledge, which was even wider than it had initially seemed, more than enough to easily accomodate all four of them. The moment she was up on in, she slumped down into a sitting position, buried her face in her hands, and started sobbing hard. "Tracy, Tracy, what's wrong?" Travis worriedly hauled himself up and put an arm around her.
"It's all my fault, Travis; I've killed all of us!" she cried, slumping her face into his chest, "I had to have us run in here; I thought it would be safe; now we're trapped and we're going to die...!"
"It's all right, Tracy; you had no way of knowing they could launch that fireball and cause that cave-in," he pulled her into a hug, "Don't blame yourself; this is not your fault, OK?"
"Yes it is; everything's my fault!" she wasn't consoled, "I had to drag Holly along to try and get that newspaper story; I almost got my best friend killed twice tonight before this! I had to go check out what Joe Noxen was doing in that farmhouse; if I hadn't been so curious, so bent on getting a story, we wouldn't have been caught, wouldn't have been taken to that asylum and almost sacrificed; Holly was terrified, and that was my fault for dragging her along too! And yes, it is my fault for getting us trapped here with no way out! All because I was a selfish jerk who wanted to be more popular in school...I'm so sorry...!"
She couldn't continue and completely broke down crying into his chest. "Oh, Tracy, Tracy, Tracy," crying himself now, Travis gently placed his hands on her cheeks and raised her head so they were making eye contact, "Please don't cry, Tracy. We're going to get out of this, I promise you. And I know how it might seem you're to blame for everything, but I swear to you, nothing that's happened tonight is your fault, Tracy. These people trying to kill us are the monsters, not you. Not you at all."
"Tracy, it's all right," Holly crawled over to her friend and hugged her herself, "Maybe you were more curious about things than you needed to be, but that's not a crime. Tracy, I'm not mad at you; I never was mad at you tonight," she told her friend sympathetically, "It's as much my fault; I wanted to be popular too. We're even, OK?"
"I don't know..." Tracy tearfully shook her head, unconvinced.
"If it makes you feel better at all, Tracy," Max slid over and gently rubbed her shoulder, "You should feel proud about coming up here, really. If you and Holly hadn't, Travis and I would still be prisoners ourselves in that asylum. I was losing hope we'd ever escape. You and Holly helped us get out of there, even if you hadn't really intended it that way. You did an awful lot of good tonight, not least of all saving Travis and I from the quicksand."
"Exactly. So you saved us twice tonight, Tracy. Feel good about that. Come on, dry those eyes," Travis softly wiped Tracy's tears away, "Didn't I say earlier you're too beautiful to cry? I meant every word of that, Tracy..."
"I can't help it; everything I've gone through over the last I don't know how many hours, it's just been too much to bear!" she confessed, sniffing.
"I understand, I understand," he rubbed her hair affectionately, "I've been just as scared as you, Tracy. It's OK to be scared; I've been scared ever since I was taken prisoner at the asylum-scared of what I was going to do even if I did get away now that Mom's no longer..." he sniffed at the cold reminder that his mother was gone, then turned back to Tracy. "But don't think badly of yourself, Tracy, please. You're not a monster at all; in fact, you're the most wonderful girl I've ever met. If anyone should be blamed, it's the other boys at Marshfield for not seeing how special you are."
"You're just saying that to..."
"No, really, I mean everything," he was smiling as he lifted her head up to make eye contact again, "We may only know each other for a few hours, but I know in my heart you're the one I want to spend my life with, Tracy Keefe. You're brave, intelligent, selfless, caring, loyal...and by God, if you're not the most beautiful girl in the world, both outside and inside."
"Oh Travis," she blushed hard, touched.
"It's the honest truth, Tracy; all the rest of the girls in the world combined wouldn't be as beautiful as you are, and the other boys are fools not to see you for that," Travis pulled her close again.
"Travis, stop, you're making me cry again," she was sniffing again, but these were now tears of joy.
"Well you should know how special you are to me, Tracy. I love you; honestly, truly, I love you, Tracy," he stared warmly into her eyes. A warm smile broke out on Tracy's face, and in a heartbeat, the two of them leaned forward and locked lips in a strong kiss that they held for close to a minute. "Oh, I never thought I'd ever feel that," Tracy was crying tears of joy when they pulled back, "And let me tell you, Travis McCormick, you are the sweetest boy in the world yourself. I've never thought a boy could be so caring and sweet as you've been to me tonight. I really, really, appreciate everything you've done for me, and for Holly too-you saved my life twice too."
"Hey, anything for an angel on Earth like you, Tracy," he told her affectionately. With dual smiles, they leaned forward for another long kiss. "Uh, while things seem to be, uh, getting the way they are, Holly, I, uh..." behind them, Max cleared his throat nervously, making Holly turn towards him, "Holly, I...to me, you're the most beautiful and sweetest girl I've ever met too. I'll admit, I, uh, did have a date or two freshman year, but none of those girls really felt right. You're more than right, Holly; you're the one I want. I love you, Holly."
He stared affectionately at her with a wide smile. "Oh, thank you, Max," she was just as touched by his affection as Tracy was for Travis's, "And by the way, you're not so bad yourself, you know," smiling, she slid an arm around him, "You're really kind-hearted and chivalrous, Max, and that's what I've been looking for in boys to be honest. Not to mention you're really handsome, too."
"Get out of town," it was his turn to blush.
"Really, you are. And if there was someone I'd want to be with, it's you, you brave, sweet guy, you," she hugged him warmly, "How could I not like you a lot after you've treated me like a princess from the moment we've met?"
"Well, you are a princess, Holly, it's a simple as that; a brave, sweet princess yourself," Max happily hugged her back.
"Oh that means so much to me, Max," it was her turn to sniff in joy.
"So do I get a kiss like Travis?" he asked teasingly.
"Need you even ask?" smiling from ear to ear, she leaned forward and gave him a deep kiss. "I love you, Max," she reciprocated his proclamation of affection.
"I love you," he told her again, hugging her close once the kiss had ended. "And hey," he exclaimed. "Travis, I just realized," he called to his friend, who looked up at him but did not break his latest kiss with Tracy, "Remember, if they don't get a sacrifice by dawn, Bastor's powers are destroyed forever-and possibly, from the way I heard my uncle wording it in private, the rest of the cult too, at least those that still voluntarily worship Bastor at the time the point of no return's passed. So what's our rush? If we just hold out till sunrise, we'll be home free, and if they can't find a way in here, then we should just sit back and relax."
"Oh yeah," Travis nodded excitedly, "Yeah, what's our rush? Sunrise should be..." he grabbed one of the flashlights and held it to his watch, "No more than four hours from now. They can't pull anything on us down here if they can't see us, either. So what do you say, Tracy, should we just rest up for the rest of the night?" he asked her, involuntarily yawning at that moment himself.
"Fine by me, as long as we can find a way out of here," Tracy nodded softly; she did feel exhausted and ready to go to sleep.
"We will; if we can't find another way out, we'll go back to the entrance and get all those rocks out of the way no matter how long it takes, I promise," he put a hand on her shoulder, "In the meantime, see, this isn't totally a prison; it's a sanctuary too," he gestured around the cave, "We're safe in here, Tracy."
"For now, at least. But I'm glad I'm with you through this, Travis, above all else," smling warmly, she hugged him firmly and whispered, "I love you, Travis," in his ear. Travis let out a deep, happy sigh and gave her another kiss, this time on her cheek. "See Holly, I told you coming up here would be for our benefit," she turned and happily told her friend, who was still hugging Max hard herself.
"Yeah, I guess it was in a way," Holly stared dreamily at a smiling Max, "We're the luckiest girls in all of Marshfield right now. Now all we have to do is get out of here and back home to Marshfield, and everything'll be perfect."
The first thought on Avor's mind as he stormed towards the blocked cave entrance was that perhaps he had summoned too big a fireball to try and stop the runaways. Not only was half the hillside burning from it now, but the local fire departments had showed up to put the blaze out, jeopardizing his operation. But none of the firefighters saw him as he strode past them. Bastor had granted him, upon his prayer for it, the protection of invisibility-as too the rest of his underlings, who he could see crouched behind several bushes with their "experiments." His frown returned as he approached Imperio. "You still couldn't get them despite everything!?" he told his adjutant sternly.
"Noxen has proven to be no help; he and the others are still out cold," Max's uncle hung his head sheepishly, "My blasted nephew and his friend and those girls are at least trapped in there, so once these people leave..."
"What's going on now?" came Noxen's gruff voice as he and his henchman came walking up behind them, still looking a little dazed from having been knocked out earlier, "Did you mention my name...?"
"Shhhhh!" Imperio growled yanking him down, "We may be invisible, but they can still hear us!"
"Sorry. And sorry about earlier, too; we had them, and those kids showed they were harder to..." Norman tried to apologize.
"Silence," Avor glared them all down. He glared back at the firefighters at work in front of them. "They had better leave quickly so we can get them; we're down to four hours now before we're doomed," he frowned impatiently through his mask at the other cult members, "Fortunately, I know how we can get to them when the time comes. You there," he singled out one of the cult members, "Track down the banetra if it is well; it can still be of use in this matter...