I had never been near the entrance to the cavern. It was forbidden, scary. As I walked with the seers, I started wondering if I had done the right thing, if it was ok to trust this woman, but as soon as she spoke to me again all my doubts disappeared.
“It takes about a year to learn everything that you need to get to the other side. It would be impossible to teach you all that there is to know in such a short time, so I will tell you just the absolutely necessary.” We stopped in front of a huge door made of stone. She made me look into her eyes and then, for a reason I couldn’t explain; I knew I could trust her.
“This place, where you have lived all your life, is connected to the Imperial Palace using a series of underground caverns. You have to navigate them to get to the Palace. That’s your goal. There’re a few things you have to remember. First: the path you have to take is going to take you deeper, deeper than you think possible, before showing you the path to the surface. Second: It is very important that you remember this; things are going to get much worse before getting better, there are no shortcuts or easy paths to get you through this test. Third: you will have to use everything you know, everything you have to get through, your intelligence, strength and your desire for survival.
“It is not an easy test” the young man was standing behind me, so I couldn’t see him, but I could hear his voice and the anger in it. I couldn’t help but wondering if he was angry at me or the women and why. “There’s a reason why this test is taken in groups. One person alone is not capable of facing the challenges of the test. You need a group with different abilities and specialties to work together. It is presumptuous to think that you have any opportunity in this. You are as good as dead, no matter if you stay here, or you get into the caverns.”
“She has an opportunity and you know it,” said the woman, “you also told me that the probability of her defeating Hoshi was close to zero, and yet here she is.” She was talking to the man, but she was looking at me. I was trapped by her stare, it was as if I could see myself reflected in her eyes, but not as I was, but as I would be. It was difficult to know what to expect around seers. “You can do it, the difference between living or dying is in how much you can resist. You have to keep going. And don’t listen to the bitter young man; you just have to trust in yourself.
“Do what you want, don’t listen to me, listen to the old witch and let yourself be entangled in her intrigues, but I’ll let you know something; she may be a seer, but even she cannot see everything.”
I heard a strong noise, like a rumble, but I couldn’t see what was happening, I was still trapped in the woman stare. I could hear rocks falling and a noise like something dragging through the floor. It took me a while to understand that it was the noise of the door opening.
“Good luck my child.”
That was my cue to leave. As I approached the door, the bigger it looked; it was at least three times my height and made completely of stone. I had no idea of how they had moved it, if it used some kind of mechanism or had to be opened by strength alone. Opening it looked like an impossible task, so I was surprised as it closed with incredible speed as soon as I crossed it. The Burrow had a series of skylights that kept us illuminated; it wasn’t the case here. As soon as the doors closed I was in absolute darkness. I was about to panic; I had no idea what to do or where to go. I had accepted too fast and at that moment, I regretted it, I thought I had made the wrong choice.
It took me a moment to notice the glow emanating from above me. Something resembling threads covered most of the roof of the cavern. It was a faint glow, but as my eyes got used to the lack of light, it was enough to let me get a good look at my surroundings.
The place was as big as the one I was coming from. The only difference was that it was covered with stalagmites and stalactites, some so tall that in some points, they seemed to touch one another. Some were broken; the place looked like it had hosted many battles. I could see tunnels around the place, about seven or eight that I could see, more where to far from me to see.
I understood what the young seer was saying; it was very easy to get lost in that place. If I could have the rest of my group there it would be easier, Trinu could find the way to the exit, Decaro would be able to formulate a plan, but I didn’t know what to do.
I decided I had to start moving; I couldn’t just stay there doing nothing. I got into the closest tunnel and started running. As I got further into the tunnel the darker it was, I was decided to leave my fears behind me and move as fast as I could. After a while, I stopped trying to sense where I was going, I forgot about the warnings and got careless. I was getting tired, running had made my wounds hurt, maybe I was pushing myself or perhaps the medicines they had given me were not that good. I was distracted and didn’t notice the change in scenery, suddenly I was falling. I reacted; I let my instinct kick in. Using the bandages they had put on me and my telekinesis, I reached out and tied the bandages to a rock on the tunnel I had just left. I climbed up back to the tunnel and let myself rest for a moment. I tried to get an idea of the place I was. I took a rock and throw it out of the tunnel. I never hear it hit the bottom. After a few minutes, I decided that I couldn’t stay there and started to walk back to the beginning.
I thought about my actions in my way back. I had been reckless and that had caused me problems. Falling had scared me, I had reacted on time and saved me, but I couldn’t afford another error like that. I needed a plan.
I reached my starting point. I sat with my back at the stone door. I was afraid and feeling insecure. I usually didn’t have to think about these things by myself; I just had to follow Dame’s or Decaro’s orders. I took a moment to rest and analyze my surroundings; the glowing threads on the roof, the broken stalagmites and stalactites, the sounds of falling water and wild animals, probably bats… I tried to take everything in, to think of a way I could take that knowledge in my advantage. I started to relax and before I knew it, I was asleep.
The subconscious is something powerful, always present, constantly working, even when we don’t notice it. It had accomplished before what my conscious self couldn’t, when I was facing Hoshi, and it was working again. Inside the cave, it was difficult to notice the passage of time, so when I woke up, I had no idea of how long I had slept, what I knew was, that in my dreams, I had paced the cavern and traced its form, and now I had a better idea of where I was standing.
I walked, following the traces of previous battles. I could tell by the damage in my surroundings the path that earlier generations had followed while taking the test. I looked for the worn-out paths, the most traveled upon until I found three tunnels that looked like good starting points.
I went into the tunnel to my left. I haven’t walked long before I found the first obstacle. I was running, trying to make up for lost time, when my foot stepped into something that collapsed under me, not a second later I was under attack. Arrows were shooting from the walls covering every inch of the way. I threw myself on the floor trying to stay clear of the arrows, but I couldn’t avoid one of them that stabbed me in my arm, plus I was covered in scratches. None of the wounds were deep and as I took the arrow out of my arm, I saw that there was no lasting damage done. I decided to be more careful, even if that meant slowing down. The next traps were easier to spot now that I was looking for them.
I had been walking for maybe a couple of hours when I noticed that the whole way I was walking upward, the seer had told me that I had to go further down before I could go up. I realized that I had been walking the wrong path, after all the difficulties and problems I had faced I couldn’t believe it, but if I was to believe in her, I had to take her warnings and advice into account.
I stopped to think about my possibilities; I could return or continue. Getting to that point had taken me a lot of effort, and I hated the idea of having to go back and face everything again. I felt afraid; I felt like I was never going to be able to get out of that place. Before I knew I was crying and feeling lost. I wanted out of that situation. I was scared and lonely, and I was wishing for someone to be there with me, to help me.
I was tired, but I finally decided to follow my instincts and go back to the start. I tried with the next tunnel that had identified as a probable exit. It looked just like the other two I had taken before, I noticed that the glowing threads were less and less present and not before long I was in complete darkness. I tried to find a way to navigate in the darkness, all I could feel were the cold, damp walls of the tunnel.
For a long time, the only obstacle that I could find was the darkness, and I began to feel restless. It was too easy to be the right path. I started to think about going back, but the path was going downward, just like the seer had told me, so I decided to keep walking, give this path a try. The slope was getting steeper; I stepped on some rocks and lost my footing. I was falling; I tried to grab something, but there was nothing I could get my hands on. The floor and walls were too flat at that point. I was gaining speed and had no idea where I was going.
I was scared, too scared to notice the odor that was coming from the tunnel. It wasn’t until I felt the heat, and I saw the light at the end of the tunnel that my fears started to take shape. My eyes, used by then to the darkness were blinded by the light, and didn’t see, but I felt the floor disappear under me and then, for just a fraction of a second I was suspended in the air before I started falling. I recovered enough to see where I was falling, it was a drop of no more than 5 or 6 feet, but the velocity I had reached made it very hard for me to stop. I barely could stay on the platform where I had landed.
I was at the end of the platform and just had to stretch a little to be able to see over the border and confirm my suspicions; I was trapped in the middle of a magma lake. The heat was unbearable; the air felt heavy. It was very difficult to breath, and my skin felt as if it was about to explode in flames.
I did what Dame has taught us, I tried not to panic and started to analyze my surroundings, looking for something that could help me out of that situation. I landed in a space of no more than 15 or 16 square feet. It was just a few feet above the magma. The magma lake was huge, and it was wider where I was, around 10 or 12 yards across. Behind me, I could see a wall that went from floor to roof, I could see the opening where I had fallen from. On the other side, a few feet above my level, I could see a cave, not so different from the one I had come from. I had to reach that cave. It was my best option, but I didn’t know how to reach it. It was far from me, and I couldn’t jump to it, if I fell into the magma, I was dead.
Dame always said that the simplest solutions were often the best. Thinking of that, I realize that I had a simple solution for the problem, I just needed something to grab the border of the cave and climb there, something like a rope. My hand was hurting, that reminded me of the bandage on my arm, the one I had used when I was falling in my first try in the tunnels. It had already worked one time, so I decided it could work a second one. I took the bandage and added my shoe laces, my belt and other clothing items that I could use and made a rope. Once I finished, I used my telekinesis to tie it to a stalagmite in the cave. It wasn’t until it was tied that I realize a problem, it wasn’t long enough, and even fully stretched it didn’t reach me. It hung, thanks to my telekinesis, out of my reach, a couple of feet from the border of the platform.
The heat was unbearable. I knew I wasn’t going to last much longer in it. I could try to take down the rope and try to make it longer, but I didn’t know what else to add, besides, I was too tired to try, I couldn’t breathe properly and my body felt like it was about to burst into flames, I couldn’t even see straight anymore. I had to act. I had to take risks.
The worst scenario was falling down on the magma, but at least it was going to be a quick death. I ran to the stretched rope and jumped, catching it in the air. My hands were slippery with sweat and didn’t have enough strength, the wound caused by Unzeta was hurting and making it very hard for me to grab the rope. I used my telekinesis and tie the rope around my wrist so even if I let it go; I wouldn’t fall. For a moment, I stood there, hanging from the improvised rope, until I felt the heat on my feet, the magma was bubbling and the little explosions were liking the bottom of my shoes. I looked for a foothold and when I found it. I propped myself up, took hold of the rope again and started climbing up. It was a long climb. It was a few yards, but felt like miles. As I advanced I coiled the rope around my arm, it saved me on a couple of occasions, when my foothold gave in, and I was left there hanging.
When I finally reached the cave, I was exhausted, I was hurting all over my body, I was tired, hungry and thirsty. My mouth and throat felt like they were full of sand, as if it was on fire. I started crawling deeper into the cave, trying to get as far away from the heat and the smell that made me sick and dizzy. A few feet into the cave my hand started to leave a trail of blood, I haven’t taken the bandage again and my hand was bleeding, and whatever medicine the seers had given me had lost effect a while ago.
I didn’t want to move. I started to cry; I didn’t know what else to do, I was hurting too much. I thought that I was going to die; I couldn’t move anymore. I was going to stay there and starve to death. I drifted in and out of consciousness for who knows how long, but any opportunity that I had I tried to move a little forward, putting distance between me and the heat. I advanced at inch by inch in the dark, without knowing if it was night or day, if it had been hours or days since I had entered that place.
I heard a noise and that put me on alert. It was something new, something out of place. I focused my hearing trying to find the source of the noise. A bat was flying straight for me. I didn’t stop to think; I reacted. I took a rock and threw it to the animal, but I failed, the bat bit me and clung to me. I used my hand to grab it and hit it to the floor, but it was struggling, trying to bite me, until I finally broke its neck. I didn’t have time to celebrate my small victory. I heard the beating of wings approaching me. I tried to run, but I didn’t have the energy to do it, so I curled up trying to cover my face and minimize the exposed areas of my body. I didn’t know what to do, how was I supposed to fight? As the bats started biting me, I thought that it would be far a better death to fall on magma than to be eaten, but it was too late.
I thought that I had heard laughing and thought that I was losing my mind. I heard another noise; a thump and a squeal, then the laughing again. Someone was trying to get the bats off of me. When I could, I sat and was surprised to see my savior, Dame was in front of me, keeping the bats at length.
“Are you ok?” I tried to answer her, but my voice was not working; I nodded. Not that I was really ok, but with Dame there I was better.
“Give the girl to me Dame, she must pay for her actions” I couldn’t place where the voice was coming from, but I knew it was Medeina speaking. She was a zoopath; she could communicate with animals and made them obey her, which explained why the bats had attacked me.
“Count to three and the run northeast, when you reach the end of the trail, search for the Clan seal and push it,” Dame whispered to me. Then she talked to Medeina “Trilambda is my responsibility, any problem you have with her, you have to address it to me first,” her words resonated in the cavern.
“As you wish” Medeina’s voice was cold and threatening, and I knew that she, just like Hoshi, wasn’t going to stop until one of us were dead.
I did what I was ordered to do, I counted to three, and then I ran. Dame’s arrival gave me hope and the energy I needed to move. I could hear the bats shrieking and the sounds of battle as I ran, but I trusted Dame. She was going to be ok. She was incredibly strong. She was everything I hoped to be one day. After a few minutes, I reached a wall with a stone door, just like the one I had crossed before. It was the door to the Palace, the end of the test.
I started to look for the Clan’s seal; a coat of arms with two swords and a crown, symbols of our clan’s power and reign. It took me a few minutes to find it because I was using more my touch than my eyes. When I finally found it, I pushed as hard as I could, for a few seconds nothing happened, then I heard a little crunch and saw that the door had moved just a couple of inches, I would have to open the rest by force. I pushed the doors, but I couldn’t move them. A bit of light was leaking through the opening. I tried to look to the other side. It took me a moment to get used to the light after being in the cave for so long, but it took me even more to begin to understand what was happening on the other side.
What was on the other side of the door was beyond my craziest dreams, and it was something that was going to change my life forever.
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