It was about five the next morning when everyone began arriving at the Moore home. ToyLin, Yuwon, Jasmine, and Anthony were already there when Eddy and Veronica arrived. Lester and Franklin were in the barn getting the separate back packs ready. Mrs. Moore asked if anyone wanted something to eat, but everybody had already had breakfast, so they went to the barn to pick up their packs and pile into Mrs. Moore's big van.
It was flat and grassy almost to the very edge of the cliff they would be climbing down and Mrs. Moore drove them as close to the edge as she dared. Everyone got out. Mrs Moore and ToyLin hugged them all, then got back into the van, and drove off. They all agreed that was less likely to draw anyone's attention.
Lester slid down the wall first to the little ledge and waited for Jasmine then took her hand and led her into the opening behind the stone finger. Anthony was next and he waited for Veronica. She slid down a little fast but Anthony caught her.
"Oh thank you," she said.
Eddy was next, followed by Yuwon who both acted like it was something they did every day.
When they reached the stone slide they turned on the carbide head lamps and went in the same order as they had come down, holding hands and forming a chain. When some of the stones started to slide out from under Lester and Jasmine, Anthony managed to keep them from sliding to the bottom.
"I'm glad you're here, Anthony," Veronica said. "I think you've already save us twice."
When they had reached the bottom and brushed themselves off, Eddy said, "Looks like the tunnel is not so secret after all."
The floor was littered with trash, empty bottles, various kinds of food containers and other trash.
"Then we may not be alone," Lester said.
"Well there's no one here now," Anthony said.
"And not as far as we can see," Lester said.
"But around the next corner," Jasmine said, "who knows?"
"We don't have to wait to get around the next corner," Eddy said.
"What is it, Eddy," Yuwon asked.
"Eddy turned his head so his headlamp shown on some rocks to their left and they could all see little black eyes reflecting the light."
"What are they? They look like mice?" Veronica said.
"They're small like mice, but they're rats," Eddy said. "Cave rats. They're harmless but they'll keep the cave clean."
Lester said, "We have ninety miles to go ..."
"So we better go," Yuwon finished the thought, and she and Eddy started.
Yuwon and Eddy set a fast pace but no one had trouble keeping up. They had gone perhaps seven miles and were beginning to believe they were really alone and that what they found near the opening to the tunnel was old and that whoever left the trash had probably gone long ago.
At what they guessed was about fifteen miles they decided to take a break.
"It's interesting and I like the way my voice echoes, but it's not what I expected," Veronica said. "I thought there'd be stalagmites and stalagtites and pretty colors on the walls. It's just a big empty stone chamber."
"Have you noticed that we've been going downhill all the time?" Anthony asked. "That's one reason we've been able to walk so fast without getting tired. It will probably go like this for a few more miles. This thing goes under the ocean. At the other end it will start going up again. That's when the walk will get hard."
"Good. Something to look forward to," Jasmine said. "By the way, it's our turn to lead," she said grabbing Lester's hand and starting out before Lester had his pack on.
"Wait, wait," he said laughing, but Jasmine just pulled him along. "You can put that on while we're walking.
They had been walking for a couple of hours when they could see about a mile further on the tunnel turned to the left. As they approached the turn they heard a tinkling sound that became louder and deeper as they got closer to it, then, as they turned Veronica cried out, "stalagtites and stalagmites, and look at all the beautiful colors on those chalky white walls."
The sound they had heard was thousands of drops of water dripping from the stalagtites into pools of water that were everywhere.
There was no path through the chamber and no way to avoid the puddles and they all got their feet wet. Fortunately the chamber was not very long and when they were through it they stopped to change into dry foot gear.
Yuwon sat on a bolder and Eddy sat beside her. "Look," Yuwon said, pointing to something behind them.
"It looks like a backpack," Eddy said.
Looking around they saw other debris: something that looked like pieces of an old crate, more bottles and cans, and some old rotting clothes.
"So we're no alone after all," Jasmine said, "and it's not just rats."
"There's nothing in it," Eddy said when he'd checked the back pack. "It looks old."
"It sure is pretty," Jasmine said sarcastically. "What are all those ugly symbols and writing on it?"
"I know what they are," Anthony said. "They're Neber signs."
"I remember," Eddy said, "they don't have a religion so are considered evil, and Yuwon said their real name is Nebetrastians. Marten said Nochose are sometimes called Nebers as a kind insult. But what's the difference if Nochose and Nebers are just people without a religion?"
"Eddy remembers everything," Jasmine said to Yuwon with a wink.
"Oh, there is big difference, Anthony said. Nochose don't have a religion because we refuse to be part of a lie and because we believe only what is true and right.
"Nebetrastians don't have a religion because they don't believe in anything. They don't believe there is any such thing as good and bad or right and wrong. They don't think it matters how you live, that you can do anything so long as it is what you really want. They live almost entirely for pleasure and believe it does not matter how you get it. The reason thessaline was forbidden is mostly because it was the favorite drug of the Nebers. In some ways forbidding thessaline worked backwards. Nebers under the influence of thessaline frequently die, because they lose all interest in everything except the feeling it gives them, so they don't eat or drink or bother about dressing or where they do anything. Forbidding thessaline just saved a lot of Nebers' lives and they just go after other meaningless highs and pleasures.
"Are they very dangerous?" Veronica wanted to know.
"Yes," Anthony said. "Very! Because they will do anything to get what they want and they are frequently cruel just for the fun of it, and they don't mind what they destroy or who they hurt."
"What are the chances we'll run into any Nebers?" Lester asked.
"I have no idea," Anthony said. "I would have thought there was no chance. This is the last place I would expect to find them, but now that we've found that pack, I cannot say. I'm sure the Nochose on ChildIsle would never tolerate them.
"If we should run into them, there are a couple of advantages. Unless they are behind one of the bends in the tunnel, there is no place they could hide and surprise us from. And we are all armed," Lester said.
"The Nebers will be too, if there are any," Anthony said.
"How come you know so much about the Nebers, Anthony?" Veronica asked.
"I've studied them as part of history, which I study a lot. The history they teach in school is all bunk."
"So is everything else," Jasmine said.
They had been walking for almost ten hours and decided to get some sleep. Anthony, Lester, and Eddy took turns watching.
It was Jasmine that got them going again, but this time Lester was ready.
Lester and Jasmine started out but Eddy and Yuwon caught up with them and said they would like to lead for a while, and they did.
Eddy and Yuwon were holding hands as they walked, Lester and Jasmine were walking behind them and Jasmine had her arm over Lester's shoulder. Veronica and Franklin followed up. They were all close enough to talk while they walked.
"There's a bend coming up," Eddy said. "One of us should go ahead to see what's on the other side."
Before anyone could stop her, Jasmine said, "I'll go," and sprinted by Yuwon and Eddy to the right hand turn in the tunnel. She suddenly stopped and waved her hand for everyone else to stop, then waved it again in a way everyone understood to mean, "spread out." She turned off her headlamp.
Eddy and Yuwon went to the left, Franklin and Veronica went to the right, and Lester crept forward to be with Jasmine.
"Oh, it's them alright," Jasmine whispered to Lester.
Lester looked around the turn. "There are about ten of them that I can see," he whispered. "With our guns I think we can take them."
"Take them!? Take them where? Are we going to just kill them?" Jasmine said, trying to keep her voice down.
"Of course not." Lester said.
Anthony, Veronica, Eddy and Yuwon had slowly crept up to where Jasmine and Lester were talking. They all had the headlamps off and were keeping their voices hushed.
"I'd shoot 'em," Eddy said.
"That may not be necessary," Anthony said.
Lester and Jasmine both said, "why not?"
"The Nebers do not believe in any religion, but they are very superstitious, and terrible cowards," Anthony explained.