Excepts from the Novel: Return To Ages
Excepts from the Novel: Return To Ages
Chapter 17: DARK CAVE
Early Tuesday morning, Ameh and his friends recited their morning prayers.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside still waters, He restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou Art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Thou prepareth a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou hast anointed my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever, Amen!”
At exactly 8.00 am, they proceeded down the path leading towards Echo Rock singing a popular motivational song, ‘We’re marching forward!’
“Be careful. Keep your eyes open!” Iverem warned. The frightening experience from the four snakes still haunted him. None of the rest appeared to heed his warning. Instead, Ali lifted Ameh’s wrist and then announced, “I am confident that we shall be at the foot of the rock in half an hour.”
They kept moving, unaware of Obochi and his men trailing them. They wallowed in-between other rocks, eager to reach their destination. Ali continued to pave the way while the three teenagers followed.
Finally, Echo Rock stood tall and huge before them, other rocks dwarfed by it.
“Here we are!” Ali sighed with excitement, throwing the stick he had been carrying away. They dropped their bags on the ground, admiring the huge mountain before them.
“God is to be feared. How did He create such a huge mountain?” Iverem questioned in awe.
“Where do we go from here?” Ali asked, folding his arms across his chest. Onuh brought out the map from his trouser pocket and read aloud. “On the north-eastern part of Echo Rock is a large boulder with a stone beside it and beneath the stone lies the entrance to the Cave of Ages…”
Onuh frowned. “North-eastern part of Echo Rock…” he repeated. He looked up at the others. “How do we know which side faces the east?” He looked at Ali for intervention.
“Then this must be the way,” Ali responded, pointing to their right. Taking his steps carefully, they walked towards the north-eastern part of Echo Rock.
“Ali, are you sure this is the north-eastern part of Echo Rock?” Iverem queried.
“But where is the stone?”
They halted and looked around nervously. There was no stone as indicated on the map.
“We are lost!” Iverem cried.
“Shut up, you fool!” Onuh snapped. “There’s no way we’re lost. It’s probably some little mistake.”
But Iverem was lost in his newfound misery. “We have lost everything! For good three days, we have been wandering through the forest, and now we can’t identify the right stone?”
“Let me have the map.” Ameh collected the map from Onuh and carefully studied it. “According to the map, from the forest of Alagirani we’ll arrive at Echo Rock, and here we are. Then on the north-eastern part of the rock lies a large boulder, which I hope is this other rock. And beside it stands a stone…”
“Well, here we are!” Iverem interrupted.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Ameh snapped at Iverem who was standing a little distance away.
“Are you sure the map is authentic?” Ali asked.
“Of course. I’m a hundred percent sure!” Onuh assured him.
“One hundred percent?” Iverem asked sarcastically.
“Mmm,” Ali grunted.
“Stop sounding like that, Ali,” Onuh fumed. “At least there is the boulder. Whoever drafted the map wouldn’t intend to mislead us.”
“Then where is the stone marked off on the map?” Iverem asked in naked antagonism. “Let’s admit; the map has an error.”
“I didn’t design the map, so don’t you dare put all the blame on me!” Onuh blurted out.
What followed was a silence so tense you could cut through it with a butter knife. Ameh let out a long sigh and looked up just in time to see the cloud give way to the spectrum of the sun.
“What time is it now?” Ali broke the silence.
“10.35 am,” Ameh answered.
“I’m sorry to say this, but if we can’t find this stone, I suggest we go back while we still can.”
Onuh glared at him. “Don’t be ridiculous! Not after all we have gone through.”
“I agree with Onuh. It is ridiculous to go back now!” Ameh supported.
“But we are in a tough situation now,” Ali argued.
“Success doesn’t come cheap,” Ameh said pointedly. “Besides, things don’t always go as planned. Everything may not turn out as the map says. This is an adventure. We are bound to face obstacles and we must not give up. We will surely find light at the end of the dark tunnel.” Ameh had forced himself to say those encouraging words because he did not want to accept what was beginning to look like a failure.
Ali shrugged. “I admire your courage, Ameh.”
“But what if there isn’t any stone? What if everything was just a fairy tale? What would we call our sufferings, then?” Iverem demanded.
“Call it whatever you want!” Ali snapped.
Enraged, Iverem turned to Ali. “Local champion! If you insult me, I will insult you too.”
“Hey, don’t you ever raise your voice at me or you’ll live to regret it.” Ali snarled, advancing towards Iverem like a predator after its prey. Had Onuh not quickly intervened they would have engaged in physical combat.
“We have to find a solution to our problem first, you two can fight afterwards.” He said.
While Iverem and Ali were engaged in a war of words, and Onuh was struggling to ease the tension, Ameh was busy looking around. The look on his face was like that of a child who could not find his feeding bottle. Just as he decided not to search any further, a whirlwind suddenly arose, carrying with it so much dust that they had to instinctively cover their eyes with their hands. The wind continued violently, forcing the trees in the forest to bend over as if to conceal a nature-guarded secret from the intruders. Frightened by the effect of the wind, Iverem and Ali stopped quarrelling. The wind stopped as abruptly as it had begun.
“What was that?” Iverem whispered.
“I don’t know.” Onuh whispered back.
They stared at one another in panic.
“I don’t like this place. I feel insecure,” Iverem said, looking around in fear.
While they were still speaking, the whirlwind returned, blowing more violently than before. It shook the trees to their roots. The four treasure hunters protected their faces from the dust it raised. The map which Ameh was holding flew out of his hand and dropped to the ground. Then the wind died down.
“This is not an ordinary whirlwind,” Ameh said. “There is no sign of rain. It seems the wind is being controlled by something beyond the physical.”
“This is not an ordinary whirlwind…”
“Hey, look!” Iverem said to draw their attention. “The map – look at where it is resting.” He pointed excitedly at the map which the wind had blown to the ground and was now resting on a stone. Ameh and his friends stared at one another.
“How on earth did it get there?” Ali asked.
“It dropped from my hand while the wind lasted,” Ameh replied.
Onuh shook his head with a frown. “But that stone wasn’t there when I looked around some moments ago.”
“Yes, you’re right. There was a heap of sand at that point a little while ago,” Ameh testified. “I think the wind must have blown the sand away.”
“This is frightening.” Iverem added.
They stared at the map which seemed to find comfort on the stone that nature had hewn in the shape of a box.
Onuh stared at the stone with wonderment. “Could it be the stone covering the treasures?” He shrugged. “Anyway, nothing is mystifying about the wind since none of us is harmed. Rather, the wind has helped us to discover the position of the stone.”
“Now that we have found the stone, what are we still waiting for?” Onuh looked at Ali who nodded in agreement. “We better move the stone and get our treasures out of this unholy ground.” Onuh walked over to the stone and retrieved the map. He folded it into his pocket “Thank God the wind didn’t blow the map away,” he added with a smile.
“But the map indicated that the stone is beside a rock,” Iverem voiced out. Ameh also supported his statement.
“Listen, I am tired of all your doubts!” Onuh shouted at them.
Iverem protested, “I am concerned about our safety.”
“I disagree. You are just being naïve.”
“You are becoming a fanatic about this treasure hunt.”
Onuh laughed aloud. “You fool! I am just passionate about our success.”
“So am I. But not at the expense of our safety.”
“Oh, I see,” Onuh taunted. “If you assume every event will go according to the geographical sketch, then it is time you faced reality. Like Ameh earlier stated, ‘success does not come cheap’.” He whirled and gestured with his hand, “If I may ask, isn’t this the north-eastern part of Echo Rock? The mistake we made was not to have spotted the stone as marked on the map, but now that we have, I don’t think it makes any difference either. All that is required now is to move the stone, get our treasures, and go back home.” There was a look of accomplishment on Onuh’s face. He laughed, rested his back against a rock and crossed his legs.
“I can move that.” Ali bragged. He puffed out his chest and flexed his biceps.
Onuh stared at Ali. “Are you sure that you can?”
“Do you want to bet with your share of the treasures?”
“Ha! No way!” Onuh said, shaking his head. “Go ahead then.”
Ali walked over to the stone while the youngsters watched beneath a cloudless sky.
“Are you sure you can do it alone?” Iverem asked doubtfully.
He threw Iverem a hostile stare.
“I won’t ask for your help even if I needed it.”
Ali flexed his biceps and fingers and then winked at the youngsters.
“My mother fed me well from childhood,” he boasted.
The boys watched as Ali bent to lift the stone. When his hands touched the stone, he let out a loud, shocking cry like one who has been electrocuted. As if by some unseen forces, he was lifted off his feet by a few inches and thrown to the ground. The eerie scene stunned the youngsters. Ameh felt a sudden sense of fear creep up his spine as he watched Ali writhe and groan on the ground.
The boys rushed forward and helped Ali to sit upright. “Are you alright?” They asked almost in unison.
Ali breathed heavily and nodded slightly. Another momentary silence ensued. Ali shook his head as he opened his palms. “That thing is very hot,” he lamented, “it shocked me!”
“But I just took the map from there,” Onuh said, looking curiously from Ali to the stone.
Ali frowned and looked into Onuh’s eyes. “Do you think I don’t know what I am saying?”
‘Please forgive me,” Onuh said hastily. He did not want to offend Ali.
Ali stared at his trembling hands.
“Ali, does it still hurt?” Iverem asked.
Ali inhaled sharply.
“Well, does it?” Iverem repeated.
“Of course, it does!” Ali was irritated by the boy’s incessant questions.
“Let me apply a salt solution to stop them from swelling,” Ameh said. He brought out a container of salt from his bag and poured some of the content onto Ali’s palms.
For the next thirty minutes, the four adventurers sat on the ground discussing the incident. Onuh glanced at Ali. “How do you feel now?”
“Better.” Ali slowly opened and closed out his palms. It was 11.20 am.
“This is strange,” Ali said, staring from his palms to the cursed stone. “Nothing of this nature has ever happened to me before. As soon as I rested both hands on the stone, I felt a sharp pain and I couldn’t take my hands off immediately.”
“We have to find a way to move that object,” Onuh suggested. “Time is running out.”
“How do we move the stone now?” Iverem asked turning his gaze at Ali. “Or will you give it another try?” The look he got from Ali made him wish he had not said that.
“I think I know how,” Onuh went on. He brought out the map from his pocket and read aloud again. ‘The stone can only be moved by three persons who must be natives of the Benue-Niger confluence; one from each of the three major tribes of the north-central region of Nigeria. …’
“Now, I remember!” Ameh exclaimed. “We didn’t follow the instructions of the map. That explains why Ali was hurt.”
“Henceforth, we stick strictly to every detail on the map to avoid future accidents,” Onuh warned.
“Little wonder,” Ali said, staring from one boy to the other. “You boys are from Igala, Tiv, and Idoma!” He let out a soft chuckle. “Since the three of you have all the requirements to possess the treasures, go ahead and remove the stone.” A fly buzzed close to his ear, in an attempt to get rid of it, he hit his left ear and winced in pain. “What are you boys waiting for?” The fly came again and this time it did not escape the fury of Ali’s hand.
Iverem shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “There’s no way I’m touching that thing!”
“You will!” Onuh shouted back authoritatively.
“I don’t want to get electrocuted!” Iverem shot back at him.
“Don’t be such an idiot! None of us will get hurt unless we act contrary to the map’s instructions.”
“What if something terrible happens…?”
“Stop it!” Ameh interrupted. Iverem’s cowardice annoyed him. “Have you forgotten that it was you and Onuh who lured me into this treasure hunt? What is wrong with you now? Why the cold feet when we are almost at the point of victory?” Ameh glared at Iverem who just stood looking like an idiot. “Nothing will happen to any of us!” Ameh shouted angrily.
Ali eyed Iverem. Had they not come too far to retreat, he would have strangled the coward with his bare hands. Onuh stared at Iverem in disbelief. Didn’t they plan this adventure together? If anyone should have cold feet now it should not be Iverem. Onuh fumed inwardly.
Ameh turned to his friends. “Didn’t our Integrated Science teacher say that ‘daring into the unknown is a risk meant only for heroes’ and anybody who wants to be a hero must be ready to take the risk?”
Iverem’s eyes glinted at Ameh’s words. “Alright, I’ll do it.” He finally agreed, nipping his toes inside his canvas.
The youngsters formed a close circle around the stone.
“Once I give the signal, we’ll touch the stone at the same time,” Onuh said to his friends.
Iverem and Ameh nodded. It was Ali’s turn to watch. He instinctively glanced at his injured palms. The salt had prevented his hands from swelling.
Onuh made sure he had eye contact with his friends. “One! Two! Three! Go!”
The boys bent and touched the stone at the same time. The whirlwind came back. Ali covered his face with his shirt. “Close your eyes and don’t take your hands off the stone, else something terrible might happen!” Ali shouted at them.
The youngsters heeded Ali’s warning. They shut their eyes tightly against the
the violent wind and did not take their hands off the stone. Accompanying the wind were several peals of thunder and flashes of lightning sizzling across the sky. It all lasted a few minutes as the wind calmed down and everywhere became quiet.
“You have done it!” Ali shouted in awe. “Open your eyes. You have moved the stone.”
Frightened, as they had never been in their whole lives, the boys slowly opened their eyes and glanced at their palms. Not a single harm was done to them.
“How did you do it?” Ali asked. He now stood beside them.
“We didn’t move it by our strength, we only placed our hands on it, that was all we did,” Onuh explained. Iverem and Ameh stood like mechanical robots. They were yet to recover from their shock.
“You didn’t make any effort?”
“I swear, Ali. We didn’t.”
Ali shrugged. He felt his courage swell. “Whatever was responsible for easily moving the stone, has aided us.”
“We have passed that phase,” Onuh agreed. He gave Ameh a high-five.
But Iverem did not seem to share in their excitement. He stood like a dummy with his face turned pale as if he was about to cry. Two mysterious incidents had just occurred. The first was the wave of the stone which had not affected them like it had affected Ali, and the stone had moved by itself. He felt Onuh tap his shoulder.
“There is nothing to worry about.”
Iverem looked up at the clear sky. “Wind, thunder, and lightning, yet there is no sign of rain. This is becoming more mystifying.”
“We should rather congratulate ourselves,” Onuh said, ignoring his statement.
They stood staring at a large hole, right on the very spot where the stone had been. It looked like an entrance into an underground cave.
“Doesn’t the map state that there are treasures under the stone?” Ameh asked, looking into the hole. “This looks like a link to another world.”
“Then the treasures must be inside,” Iverem said, “I have witnessed a lot of things already to doubt the authenticity of the map.” They looked into the hole in turns. All that was visible was darkness.
“Let me have your torchlight, Ameh.” Onuh requested. Ameh brought out his torchlight from his bag and handed it over to him. Onuh flashed its beam into the darkness below.
“There is another road inside. It looks like an underground bunker, about fourteen to eighteen feet below the earth. Maybe it is an old cave.” He straightened up and looked at his friends. “Anyway, one thing I am certain about is that we’ll have to go down the hole and find the buried treasures.”
“I suggest that one of us should go down for a closer inspection,” Ali said.
“Why don’t you inspect it on our behalf?” Iverem hissed.
Ali shrugged. “I need a long rope. Did you come with any?”
“Yes, we did.” Ameh and his friends eagerly answered. They surrendered their ropes to Ali who knotted one end to the other. Finally, he had single, knotted and long rope – which he tied to a nearby rock.
“I need one of your knives too,” he stated. Iverem offered him his knife and torch. Their occasional squabble like rivals had stopped.
“Be careful while inside,” he cautioned.
Ali smiled down at Iverem, “I will.”
“Or do I come with you?” Onuh suggested.
“No need. If anything happens to me, you three should live to tell the story.”
Tears gathered at the corners of Iverem’s eyes. “You are risking your life for us.”
Ali held the rope in his hand and buried his legs into the hole. He kept the torch and knife in his pocket. “Be careful.” Iverem cautioned for the second time.
Although he and Ali often had disputes, he did not wish that any harm should befall him.
“Oh, Iverem, shut up!” Onuh shot at him. “By God’s grace, Ali will be all right.”
The three youths watched as Ali dropped slowly into the dark hole with the help of the rope.
“Can you hear me?” Ali shouted. He was almost at the bottom. His voice sounded muffled as he went deeper, but the boys could still make out his words.
“Yes, loud and clear!” They answered. They brought their faces close to the large hole and could see Ali holding the knife and light as he let go of the rope.
Once inside the hole, Ali flashed his torchlight around. He was in a cave. He spotted a passage which he envisaged could lead to the treasures.
“It appears empty as far as I can see,” he shouted. “It’s a cave alright, but there is a passage here. I’ll inspect it before I allow any of you to come down.” With those words, he disappeared from their sight. All they could see was the light inside the hole. Ali trailed behind the beam of his torchlight. The temperature of the cave was cold and he felt uncomfortable. His instincts warned him that he was not alone.
There were rocks of different shapes inside the cave. On both sides of the wall were various writings he could not interpret. He went further into the cave, increasing his pace and being cautious at the same time. He had hoped that he would find a metal box as soon as his feet touched the ground.
He soon discovered that the passage led to yet another, which he and the boys would have to explore further. He felt excited and was optimistic that the treasures would not be far from their reach. After wandering around for some time inside the dark cave, he returned to the youngsters.
“Hey! Are you still there?” He shouted.
“Yes, we are, Ali. How are you?” They enquired happily.
“I am fine.”
“Did you find anything?” Iverem probed.
“You’ll have to come down here and see for yourselves,” Ali answered.
“You didn’t see any box?” Onuh asked, his face squeezing into a frown.
“I saw a passage and I hope it leads to the treasures.” Ali laughed. “You can come down right away.”
“I’ll go down first.” Onuh insisted. Some moments later, he was standing beside Ali inside the cave. “Iverem, it’s your turn.”
“Ameh, I am afraid, my heart is beating fast.” Iverem whispered as he clutched the rope in his hands.
“Iverem, be quick.” Onuh shouted from below. Soon Iverem was also in the cave.
“Ameh throw the bags in first.” Ali instructed.
Ameh assembled their bags at the edge of the hole. “Are you ready?” He asked.
“Yes. No, please wait! Drop one bag at a time.”
Ameh chuckled. “I was waiting to see how you’ll catch all three bags at once,” he joked. He threw the bags in one after another. Then he gripped the thick rope in both hands, wrapped his legs around it, and slowly descended. Soon, he was standing with his friends.
“This place has an unusual calmness, and it is cold,” Ameh observed. “Isn’t a cave supposed to be hot?”
Iverem nodded. “I told you I could feel a spirit in this place.”
“Let us not talk about that, please,” Ameh said, quickly changing the subject. “What is our next line of action?”
Ali flashed his torchlight into the heart of the dark cave. “We shall follow this passage,” he said. “I hope it leads us to the buried treasures.”
One after another, oblivious of the monitoring eyes of Obochi and his men, they trailed after Ali in their search for the treasures which had brought them down into the chilly dark cave.