I tried not to panic.
There was nothing, I reasoned, to be frightened of. I couldn’t possibly be the first kid to wander off the path like this, so there must be procedures in place for this kind of thing. There was probably a tracking spell of some kind, right? Any moment, some mage would come gliding down the slope of sand with a fancy, magical-looking compass in hand, pick me up and fly me back to the path. Then give me detention or something, probably.
I waited. Magical people stubbornly refused to appear.
I thought back to Kylie’s declaration that the school was empty. Well, that obviously wasn’t completely true – Mr Cooper was here, as was the person I’d been following. Who had not, I’d noticed, come to help me. Maybe they’d gone for help? Yeah.
Well, while I was waiting, I might as well get a feel for the lay of the land. Or lay of the sand. I walked until I found somewhere I could reach the wall, then paced until I reached water, followed the water to the opposite wall, paced until I reached the unclimbable sand slope again, and the followed the slope back to my starting point. After some quick maths, conveniently forgetting my earlier personal vow not to do any, I discovered that the part of the cave I could actually traverse was vaguely crescent-shaped; the cave was probably circular with the lake taking up most of the space, I figured, but I couldn’t see the far end of the lake to confirm that.
The crescent was about twenty metres wide across the middle and about two hundred metres tip-to-tip, with the sandy slope along the outside of the crescent and the wall meeting water at the tips. So I had quite a lot of space to work with, which would be great if I wanted to play football or have a beach party or something. What I seemed to have a lack of was exits, and given that my main goal was to get the hell out of there, that was a bit of a problem.
What was it they said you should do if you get lost? Stay put. Wait to be found. Eventually, Max and Kylie would realise they hadn’t heard from me for a while and go looking. When they got worried, they’d find Mr Cooper, and people would come searching for me. Of course, that would probably take a while; their only clue would be that I’d been heading for the shop, and I had no idea how far from said shop I’d been when I strayed from the path. And it would probably take a while for them to start worrying, too. They didn’t know me that well; if they didn’t see me for a couple of days, they could very well just assume I was a bit of a loner. How long could a human survive without fresh water? A few days, right?
No, no. Don’t panic. I’d been trapped for… less than half an hour, probably. It was nowhere near time to start freaking out about dehydration or hypothermia or whatever strange venomous animals might live in the dark of the cave or…
I glanced at my tablet, my light source. I had light, so I probably didn’t need to worry about accidentally putting my hand on some deadly cave animal. I ran my fingers along the smooth edges of the device, and then a thought struck me – I couldn’t find evidence of any power source.
How was the tablet powered? Was running the torch draining the batteries?
I lowered the brightness to a dim glow even as I told myself there was probably nothing to worry about. The tablet had to be magic; otherwise, electronics would be visible through the clear perspex, and there’d be some kind of charging port. No charging port, nothing to charge, right? It stood to reason.
I kept the brightness low anyway. Just in case.
There had to be something I could do. Some way back up to the path. I couldn’t walk through the slope of dry, soft sand, but maybe I could climb the cliff wall next to it, then inch out over above the path and drop…
No. Best likely scenario would be me landing on the sand slope and sliding back down again. Worst likely scenario would be me not making it that far and falling all the way back down, hitting the ground hard enough to kill myself, or at the very least leave myself horribly mangled. I might be adventurous but I wasn’t that much of an idiot. But if there were no exits at ground level, and climbing was out of the question, then the only other place to check was… I looked out over the lake.
The water was never completely still; it was constantly interrupted by the water trickling down from high above. But it looked calm enough. I dipped my fingers in again; it was unpleasant, but not dangerously cold. And I was a reasonably strong swimmer…
No. Absolutely not. That idea was even worse than the climbing one, in many ways. I was a reasonably strong swimmer at the local pool, but I had no idea how big this lake was, or what was in it. If I got into trouble, there would be no one to rescue me. And even if I found an exit on the other side of the water, all that would do would get me even more lost and much, much harder to find. If I failed to cross but somehow managed not to drown, I’d just be in the same situation, but soaked and likely to die of hypothermia.
“This place is supposed to be magic,” I mumbled. I glared at the water. “Aren’t you supposed to be magic?”
The water was easier to see than it had been before. Now that I’d drastically dimmed the tablet, my eyes were adjusting to the dark. There must be another light source somewhere, one that was too dim to see properly. After one last look to make sure there wasn’t a giant spider or something lurking in the shadows to eat me, I turned the tablet light off entirely, and waited.
The silence of the room was broken only by the trickling of water. It had an uneven, high-pitched rhythm that had seemed peaceful at first but, without any other distractions, was starting to set my teeth on edge. I dug my toes into the sand and tried to ignore it. Slowly, it became clear that I could see the water itself, and not much else, which meant… what? The water was luminescent, I supposed. Maybe it really was magical. More likely, it had something in it. There were glowing algae and stuff, right?
Waiting in the dark could be a maddening experience, but I’d had a lot of practice. Once, I’d waited inside an actual chimney, knees and elbows pressed to the sides to hold me up, for over an hour while Chelsea’s family had dinner inside. Lounging on an underground beach was nothing.
Eventually, I became aware of another light source. It wasn’t just the water itself that I could see – far off on the other side of the lake, something was glowing.
It was glowing blue. The exact blue of the school hall lights. Another exit! One that led into the actual school!
That changed everything. It meant that there definitely was an exit on the other side of the lake, and that getting there wouldn’t simply be getting more lost. And it was hard to be certain, but the exit didn’t look all that far away. I was pretty sure I could make it.
‘Pretty sure’ wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t going to cap off my first day away from home by drowning.
Okay. What would Melissa do?
Melissa would not follow some stranger through a network of unknown caves and end up here in the first place. Not helpful.
What would Chelsea do?
Chelsea would rig whatever she could find into a raft. Except there wasn’t anything around except sand, so she’d… wait, I supposed. She’d have brought snacks and water with her, so she could afford to wait around a lot longer than I could. And she’d be dressed warmly, because she hated the cold, whereas I was wearing a t-shirt.
Well, none of that was going to help me. And nobody had come for me yet, meaning the person I’d followed – if they hadn’t just been a figment of my imagination – mustn’t have gone for help. Waiting to be found by someone else meant my chances of survival were low.
It was getting difficult not to panic.
I looked again at the blue glow out over the water. Yeah, it was definitely quite close. I could make it easily; I’d swum that length in the town pool all the time. Nothing to it.
I debated whether or not to take my tablet with me. I didn’t have a pocket big enough for it, and the last thing I wanted to do was lose it in the lake. I’d have to come back for it later. I fixed the location of the blue light firmly in my mind, propped the tablet up on a small mound of sand, and turned the light up all the way.
Then I turned and strode confidently into the calm waters.