Sparks Clearpath continued along the unfamiliar forest trail before her, not at all sure of where she was being lead this clear, chilly morning. Dressed in her soft, warm hunting gear with little more than a bow and a handful of arrows in a quiver across her back, she had, two hours ago, realized she was being hurried along off her usual paths to parts of her forest she did not know. Ordinarily, she might have preferred a slower pace, but that wasn’t an option, not with the Dymestl-aeron siblings encouraging her ever onward.

Somehow, her four Gnomish friends seemed to have no lack of energy, darting in and out of the foliage around her, even though they were half her height and very nearly had to remain on the run for their short legs to keep up with her brisk walk. They were laughing and fighting and playing little games that Sparks was sure she’d never fully understand, even having observed them for the better part of two decades.

At a little over fifty years of age, Sparks was a good ten years older than Tân, the oldest of the Dymestl-aerons, though one could hardly tell, what with the differences in the two races heights and manners of aging. It was the most unapparent of facts that the four Gnomish brothers and sisters were all nearly considered adults while Sparks herself was only a few short years into her long transition to maturity.

“How much farther?” Sparks asked in elvish, addressing the four gnomes scurrying around her. Even she was beginning to tire despite being as fit and at home among the trees of the forest as any of them.

<“Somewhat!”> the white haired Gwynt answered with unhelpful cheer in Gnomish as she, and her long, hair breezed by.
<“It’s too late to turn back now…”> Blue eyed Dŵr gushed.
<“You promised you’d help!”> Tân said, almost accusingly, so quick to anger, as he always was.
“Why do you ask?” Galon asked sincerely in return, the only one of the four to reply in elvish, even though they had all learned to speak it years ago.

“We’re getting pretty far out…” Sparks answered. <“And I will help, Tân, but I told my parents I would be back by nightfall.”>

<“They will understand you had to keep moving forward,”> Dŵr insisted.
“Will they?” Galon inquired of his sister, his tone ever kind. ”I would think they would worry, they lov…”

<“It doesn’t matter now, ’cause we’re here!”> Gwynt interrupted.

Here, it turned out, was a curious clearing that seemed to have no place so deep in the woods. There was no stream or river or solid, growth-impeding rock jutting out of the soil. It was only as she passed out of the tree line and into the bright sunlight that Sparks got her first hint as to the cause of the clearing. A dozen steps closer and she had her answer for sure. Though it was still a good twenty feet in front of her, she could now make out the rounded rocky lip of what had to be a large depression or some sort of sink hole. Slowing her movements to careful, creeping steps, Sparks edged closer, eager to know more.

“Whoa…” she exclaimed as she reached the edge. What lay before her was no depression or minor sinkhole! No, somehow the Dymestl-aerons had found a huge, ten foot wide shaft of a cave that dropped almost one hundred feet straight down. Along the way down were a multitude of outcroppings, divots, and patches of lose rock covered in moss or vines, but beyond a very good grip and a whole lot of rope, there was seemingly no safe way to descend… which is why Sparks was entirely unsurprised when she turned around to find her four smiling companions holding one of the longest lengths of sturdy rope she’d ever seen.

“No.” Sparks told them at once. “Very much no… and where… how did you keep that rope hidden all this time?”

<“Magic?”> Gwynt asked, as if she too were unaware of the true answer. Her brothers and sister all nodded in unison, each of their smiles flashing even larger than before.

“Fine, keep you secrets…” Sparks said, knowing she had no choice but to relent, at least on that point, “but there is still no way I’m going down there. Even with the rope. One false move and I’d be killed!”

“But look!” Dŵr replied, moving over to the cave’s mouth. “Can you see it? At the very bottom?!”

“See what?” Sparks asked. She walked around the circular opening until the sun was at her back. She shielded her eyes from the still bright, cloudless sky, but even then the deep shadows that covered the lowest parts of the cave made discerning much of anything impossible. Except… Sparks squinted harder and angled her head and… yes, there was something there. Something… “Glowing?” she asked.

“It’s glowing fungus!” Galon explained.

<“It is a pool of moldy water.”> <“No! It is a firebug,”> <“A mirror!”> the other three Gnomes disagreed all at the same time.

“So none of you know what it is but want me to risk going to find out?” Sparks asked once their explanations ceased.

The four Gnomes looked to each other for a moment, then, again in unison, nodded and begged in their best Elven, saying: “Please? We just have to know!”

Sparks sighed. She turned back to the cave and began tracing a route from crag to outcropping to handhold. It looked…doable, and her friends had helped her with more and required far less… It was only fair that she try.

<“Okay, I’ll do it,”> she answered her friends in Gnomish, causing a small cheer to pass between them. “I want this tied around me double tight,” she indicated as the four Gnomes jumped into action. Tân and Galon helped her with the rope while Gwynt and Dŵr scouted around for the best place for their Elven friend to begin her descent.

<“There’s a smooth patch of ground over here for the rope to slide over!”> Dŵr called out a few moments later.

When everyone was ready, and her four small friends had taken their positions in a line holding the rope, Sparks carefully lowered herself over the edge and began her long climb down. It was a slow, tricky process, dealing with unyielding rock, crumbling dirt, and thin unhelpful plants. She’d spend minutes just testing her weight on the next ledge or next set of roots before proceeding. Halfway down she passed into shadow but fortunately the sky above was bright enough to continue to light her way after her eyes had a minute to adjust. She slipped twice, but each time only dropped a few inches as the uncharacteristically quiet Dymestl-aerons did their jobs holding the rope. After nearly an hour of slow, tense work, Sparks was finally a few feet from the bottom.

“Let go, give me slack!” she called up. A second later she felt the tension on her safety rope fall away and was free to hop down to the cave floor. “I made it!” she called.

Above her, four small heads poked out over the edge of the drop off, each casting a comically large shadow on the sunlit section of the cave wall far above.

<“Well? What is it?”> Tân’s voice echoed down in impatient irritation.

<“A mirror?”>
<“A fire bug??”>

“No, none of those…” Sparks called back as she stooped down to inspect the glowing object before her. “It’s… like a torch, alight… but not on fire…It seems about done for…” She smiled at the distant, excited chatter that filtered down from the Gnomes back up at the surface.

Taking a moment to really examine the dimly glowing torch, Sparks put it in her quiver along with her arrows then began her climb back up. In truth, she should have taken some time to rest, but the Dymestl-aerons’ joy was so infectious that she’d forgotten just how much her arms and legs had been aching just a few minutes before.

Some twenty feet up, Sparks stretched to reach the next obvious handhold, only to find her other fatigued hand unable to keep its grip. For a long, desperate moment, Sparks felt her fingers slipping and slipping and slipping free, and then she was falling. One of the Dymestl-aerons must have remember their job though, because a moment later the rope went tight, causing her head and body to slam painfully into the cave wall. Dizzy, and in pain, Sparks felt herself being lowered back onto the cave floor. She shifted to lay on her back and when she clutched at her forehead her hand came away wet with blood!

Sparks stared up at the circle of light coming down from the mouth of the cave, but she could hardly seem to do any more than that. Distantly, she was sure she could hear the cries of her friends, but answering them… it seemed… but she couldn’t… to get her thoughts… line up properly…

Then, far above, she saw a small shape, complete with hands, feet, and long blowing hair, jump out over the mouth of the cave. For a long moment, Sparks watched the in terror as Gwynt fell down the center of the shaft. The gnome fell closer and closer until Sparks had to force herself to look away, only to have a sudden gust of wind kick up along the cave floor. Sparks shielded her eyes from the dust thrown up by the sudden gust and a moment later… there Gwynt was, kneeling by her side.

“Sparks? We’re so sorry! Are you ok?”

“No… Not really,” Sparks answered. “How..?”

“Magic.” Gwynt replied with a shrug, as if the answer was the most obvious thing in the world. “Can you hang on to the rope? We are going to pull you up.”

Sparks nodded and, placing one hand above the other, weakly gripped the long length of rope that stretching upward before her.

<“Ok! Pull!”> Gwynt called up to her brothers and sister.

Inch by inch, Sparks felt herself being lifted out of the cave, even as Gwynt remained on the floor below. Sparks helped where she could, stretching out a hand or foot to push herself out away from the cave wall when it was necessary. At the cave’s mouth several pairs of small hands helped pull her back up over the edge, and then…

…she must have walked back home along with the Dymestl-aerons, but Sparks could remember very little of the return trip. It was almost as if one minute she was being helped back into the noonday sunlight and the next, it was night time and her mother’s worried arms were encircling her outside of their forest home.

“My child, you must not be so reckless! If you had hit your head any harder…” her mother scolded before trailing off. Not even she wanted to speak the dreadful words that would have finished that sentence. Instead, she placed a firm palm on her daughter’s gashed forehead and closed her eyes.

Sparks shuttered slightly as her mother’s powerful magic flowed into her. This time, when Sparks touched her hand to her own forehead she found the gash that had been there was now completely gone. She sobbed her apologies softly into her mother’s shoulder and then was sent to her room for bed without supper as a punishment for putting herself in so much danger.

It was only late into the night, when memories, good and bad, of the day’s events kept playing out in her mind, that Sparks realized one of the Gnomes had swiped her hard won magical torch!

She couldn’t help but smile. It was going to be a lot of fun getting it back.