Candice was in trouble.
A lot of trouble.
Perhaps because she was the oldest at eleven and theoretically the most responsible, she would get an earful when they returned to the settlement. The others would get in trouble, too, but not as much as her. No, she was going to get it, stick and all. And for what? Because she couldn’t walk away from a dare? Mama would have none of this. It was the only thing outside of venturing into the forests that her parents warned her not to do, the one thing all parents warned all children not to do.
Don’t go in the holes.
How could they obey that silly little rule, however? They were kids, and curious kids will do what curious kids do: the opposite of what parents tell them. Candice knew for certain that her parents had ventured into the holes that peppered the dry lakebed when they were kids. Grandpa even told stories about all the treasures he found hidden out there, just below the dirt, inside the holes. The riches were guarded by dragons, apparently. Maybe the stories were made up, like her brother Micah claimed. After all, if Grandpa found so much treasure, why was he still a farmer?
And so, on a dare, Candice was in a hole and deep in trouble. Naturally, Micah opted out of going with her—claimed he had classes to attend, or something—so she had to find a few other willing kids to do the thing parents said not to do.
Candice adjusted her braided black hair and pushed forward. Ryan, her cousin, was ahead of her, the bouncing light from his lantern barely visible. He was about four years younger and the skinniest, so he was chosen to lead the others deep into the only hole they could all fit into, one of many on the opposite side of the ship buried in the dirt. Candice’s friend Trisha, also younger but older than Ryan, was in the best position to watch her little brother, Killian. Both struggled to find footing on the loose dirt and rocks behind Ryan. In the rear, and a little overweight, Candice held her own lantern. It was good to be in the back. She had no desire to lead the group, even if she was the oldest. If something happened, she could get out fast, but she would still have bragging rights to shove in her brother’s face.
The light ahead stopped bouncing and Ryan’s voice echoed in the tight space of the cavern. “Right or left?” he asked. “Got another tunnel here.”
“How should I know?” Trisha stopped on what looked like a large rock. She lowered her head a little to keep from knocking it on another rock sticking out from above. “Pick one and get moving.”
“Go right! Go right!” Killian’s voice echoed. He was too excitable for this adventure, too bouncy and full of energy. Candice was surprised he’d made it this far. It seemed the little kids were always bored fast, ready to bounce from one toy to another, then to the streets to play or the storerooms to look for a snack. All of six, however, this kid was a born adventurer and would not stop until he found treasure. “Go right,” he said again.
“Aye, aye, Captain.” Ryan’s light slowly moved to the right and bounced again. Candice couldn’t see much past Trisha and Killian still on the rock. Candice raised her lantern so she could see Trisha’s face better. “You going?” Candice asked.
Trisha looked nervous, her freckled cheeks grimier than normal. She gripped Killian’s hand tighter. “I don’t know. Maybe we should head back.”
“No!” Killian’s screech echoed. “Go, Tish.”
Candice was on Trisha’s side. “We can turn around.”
“No, Tish.” Killian jumped up and down. “Go, go, go.”
“Maybe a little more,” Trisha said. She didn’t look confident in her decision, however.
Maybe they should turn around. They were already in so much trouble. No, that wasn’t true. Candice was in so much trouble. The others would get a scolding, but she would get the stick. Not that any sort of punishment like that had been used before, but she could imagine her being the first. It would be worse if anything happened to them while they were down here. The aldermen would tie her to a stake during the next Council meeting and let everyone else have at her, make her an example of what bad children get when they do the thing their parents said not to do.
“I’m okay with going back,” Candice said.
“No!” Killian screamed. Apparently, he was also not a child who accepted defeat.
Candice knelt to meet Killian’s gaze. “We can come back another day. We made it this far.”
“Ryan up there.” Killian brushed a curl of red hair away from his eyes and pointed to the receding light ahead. “Ryan will be rich.”
“There’s no treasure.”
The little boy’s head bobbed up and down. “Yes, there is.”
A scream ahead caught their attention. Candice stood and tried to see around Trisha. “What was that?”
“Ryan?” Trisha cupped her mouth with her hands and called again. “Ryan?”
His light was still visible, but faint and now unmoving.
“Come on,” Trisha said to Candice. “We need your lantern.” She pulled on Killian’s hand and headed toward Ryan.
Candice felt nervous, unsure of whether to follow or run back to the settlement and get help. Since she was already in so much trouble, why not push ahead?
“Ryan!” Trisha called again.
Killian echoed his sister. “Ryan!”
The screech of the boy made Candice’s heart race faster. She looked at the lantern in her hand, then up toward Trisha and Killian. They really did need her.
She had no choice. She had to be the light in the dark. She abandoned her idea of running for help and followed the others. What could happen? She had heard stories of other children falling in sudden drops in the holes and twisting their ankles. One adult, Brother Moran, broke his arm according to legend. That had never been verified, however, and eventually the dangers of the holes made way for the excitement of adventure, of doing the thing parents said not to do, of beating a dare.
What bad could possibly happen in a hole?
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