The path chosen by Jaccim entered a thick hemlock forest and became naught but a deer trail that twisted and turned through the seemingly endless grove. Cat Eyes relished the smell of the hemlocks which somehow reminded her of home though she did not recognize this particular path at all. Sunlight slanted through the forest ahead of her and soon, they exited the hemlocks and came around a bend with sheer granite cliffs on one side and a swift river on the other. Ahead, a high cliff shot straight up for a considerable height. It appeared too sheer and high to climb. She scanned the face for a path but saw none. She turned back to the others.
“It appears we have come into a box canyon with no way out. At least, I see no way out.”
“I knew it!” shouted Trunk of Tree. “We’ve been led into a trap!” He spun around and pointed at Jaccim. “You did this! Where are the ROI hiding? Speak now or never speak again!”
Jaccim could not understand the yelling of Trunk of Tree. He looked to Cat Eyes and shrugged.
Cat Eyes sighed and put her hands out in what she hoped was a calming gesture to Trunk of Tree. “I sense no danger here, Trunk of Tree. Jaccim has no idea what you are saying when you scream loudly. Let me translate for you.”
Trunk of Tree drew out his war club and scanned the surroundings for enemies. He repeated his question to Jaccim still more loudly and rapidly.
Cat Eyes tilted her head and looked at Trunk of Tree. “Jaccim will understand you no better if you scream more loudly. I can barely understand you when you scream thus. Let me ask him whether he made a wrong turn. Please. Relax. If we are walking into an ambush, why scream out an announcement?”
Trunk of Tree grumbled something incoherent, but held his tongue for a moment. Cat Eyes queried Jaccim in ROI and then turned back to the group.
“Jaccim says we are on the right path. He understands it looks like a box canyon with no exit, but it’s an illusion. He claims that there is a giant door up there what will allow us to go beyond the wall.” After a moment, she added, “I believe him. Think back. He is not a guileful person. At least, I don’t think so. Nor did Tu-Swift. Nor, obviously, did Many Paths. Let’s proceed. With caution, just in case. But let’s proceed. I have a sense we are closer than ever to my homeland.”
The group exchanged glances. All concurred, except Trunk of Tree. “I don’t agree. I think it’s a trap. I’m surrounded by people I don’t know! I don’t trust any of you!”
Fleet of Foot spoke, looking directly at Trunk of Tree. “We’ve known each other for many winters, Trunk of Tree. I see no trap. But, let us take your advice and proceed cautiously. We will soon discover whether there is a door.”
Before Trunk of Tree could respond, Easy Tears added, “We have also known each other for our whole lives, Trunk of Tree. You know me to be an open person. Perhaps I am too open. But you know that you are too valuable a warrior for Many Paths to put you in danger. Let us see what to make of this door, if it exists. We may need your strength to open it. Perhaps it is like the door that the rescuers had to open to find their way to Tu-Swift.”
Trunk of Tree frowned. He reached back and touched the bump on his head. It still hurt when he touched it. He felt as though something here did not fit. It was unnatural, somehow. But maybe it was just the sheer size of the cliff before them. They could not cross the raging river. And far above the trees on the far side of the river, he could see the first of the twin peaks. This path into the box canyon seemed directly away from their ultimate goal. His head still felt confused though. He decided to go along with the group for now, but keep his guard up.
Within minutes, Jaccim had led them to a smooth wall of gray rock with a strange and primitive drawing. He turned back to Cat Eyes and said in excited ROI (or, at least, in as excited as ROI ever got), “We’re here! It’s just as I remember!”
Cat Eyes stared at Jaccim. She turned and slowly “translated” for the group. “He says…he says, we are still on track. I guess this is the door. But I see no handle.”
Then, to Jaccim, she said, “What are you talking about, Jaccim. You’ve led us to a solid wall of rock.”
Jaccim paced and peered, clearly looking for something. He muttered as he searched and Cat Eyes translated. “I know. I know. It looks that way, but I think that’s why we use these portals from the ancients. People can’t follow us because it looks like nothing. Somewhere near here…ah, here! Watch this.” Jaccim went over to what appeared to be a tree trunk, used his hand to clear away some dirt and brush. A flat top to the “trunk” was adorned with a series of inlaid square stones of some sort. He turned to the group and said in thickly accented Veritas, “Watchit!” He pushed on the stones.
He pushed on them again.
He mumbled in ROI, “It seems to be broken. Sorry, Cat Eyes. We might be able to make it open with strength. One cannot possibly do it, or even two strong men, but with all of us, and horses, we might. I think we can.”
Trunk of Tree felt anger rise in him again, “I told you it was a trap! I told you! We’ll be attacked any moment! Look around!”
Cat Eyes stood close in front of Trunk of Tree and said, “Relax, Trunk of Tree. He thinks we can open it. He’s looking for the … edge of the door.”
All of the little search party were now looking around the strange looking rock. Easy Tears found a nearby flat rock which glinted strangely beneath the branches of a fallen tree. Its roots were still in the ground — but barely. It was a wild cherry and its branches covered the strange flat rock. “Look here. This tree has decided it must hurry and fruit though its time to do so has not yet come.”
Trunk of Tree whirled quickly. “Who cares! This is a trap, I tell you! I’m the leader.”
Easy Tears said, “Yes, of course you are, but we are looking for the edge of the door to push on. We will need your strength, but first we need to — what is this?”
She had finished pushing the fallen branches away from the top of the flat rock and beneath was a smooth blue surface. Soon, the entire group had come over to stare at this strange surface. Blue rectangles were made up of smaller rectangles. Between the rectangles were gray … lines. Everything was shiny, almost like water. It glinted in the sunlight. Fleet of Foot was the first to touch it. He turned to the others, “It’s smooth, like a crystal.”
Cat Eyes felt it as well. She turned to Jaccim and spoke in ROI. “What is this?”
Jaccim answered, “We don’t know. I remember it from before. It was not covered before. I have never touched it. We were trained not to touch anything we didn’t understand from the ancient ones.”
Cat Eyes quickly translated and turned back to Jaccim, “What ancient ones? What legend are you referring to?”
Jaccim frowned. “The Z-Lotz never told us really. They told us a story to make us remember to touch only what we needed to do our jobs. Otherwise, we might grow sick and die. Do you remember their stories?”
Cat Eyes didn’t like thinking back to her days being a slave in an ROI household, but thinking back had helped her work with the others to decode the game and the strange markings so she forced herself to try. After a time, she shook her head. “No, I don’t recall anything except what you already said — not to touch anything except what was permitted or I could get badly hurt. But I don’t recall any stories about ancient ones. Anyway, this is a mystery for another time. Let’s find the edge as you suggested and try to push this door, if it even is a door, open at last. I want to find my people!”
The group asked her to translate and she accommodated. Lion Slayer ran his hands along the vertical rock face and found a long shallow groove. “Is this the edge?”
Jaccim walked over to the place where he saw Lion Slayer pulling on the rock and put his own fingers into the shallow groove. He gestured to the others. “Here! Here! Pull!”
Soon all seven had found a place to put their fingers and they pulled, but nothing budged. They tried over and over.
Trunk of Tree had been straining mightily and the tips of his fingers bled. He stepped back, hunkered over and put his hands on his knees. When he had caught his breath, he said, “This is absurd. There is no way in. I still say,” and he paused to take another breath, “it could be a trap.”
Cat Eyes shook her head, “It’s not a trap, Trunk of Tree. I don’t believe that, and what’s more, I don’t think you really believe it either.” She turned to Jaccim and said in ROI, “Do you have any other ideas?”
Jaccim said, “Somehow, we need to use the horses. Last time I was here, long ago, there was a handle and we could tie the rope around it, but now, I see no handle.”
Meanwhile, Hudah Salah had walked over to the tree trunk with the inlaid jewels. She idly felt them. They felt cool to the touch, like crystal. She noticed that they were of different colors, though quite faded. She touched one that looked as though it had once been green like the underside of hemlock needles.
She jumped back as a thunderous rumble came from deep within the grey slate rock. The ground shook slightly and all seven felt slightly sick. They stared wordlessly as the great slate rock began to move.
Jaccim pointed to the widening gap. He said in excited, broken Veritas. “Opens! Opens! How works, is supposed to. Path! Path!” The Veritas and the Nomads of the Southern Desert were both familiar with doors but the doors that had used were always small, meant to accommodate one person at a time. Cat Eyes and Lion Slayer had seen larger doors in the ROI city, but the door that opened before them now grew wider and wider. The door slid to reveal a gaping hole, as tall as four or five warriors. The rumbling continued for a time. At last, the door stopped and beyond lay a deep cave.
The group slowly approached the entrance. Jaccim held the ropes that hung about the horses necks and spoke to them in a low, gentle, reassuring voice. The mare readily drew near but the young colt balked. He flared his nostrils and whinnied.
Most of the human travelers were reluctant to approach as well. They came to the entrance and peered inside. The inner cave seemed to disappear into blackness after a few feet. No-one could tell initially whether there was another wall, a deep chasm, a giant cave bear, a snake pit, or something worse. After a few moments, Cat Eyes turned to Jaccim, “Is this the path you remember, Jaccim?”
He nodded vigorously. “Yes. Yes. This goes beneath the mountain to the Veritas beyond. This is the path.”
Trunk of Tree grunted. “I am not going into pure blackness. How do we know there’s a path in there?”
Cat Eyes laughed, “Look, Trunk of Tree. Use your eyes. There’s the path. Right there.”
Lion Slayer and Hudah Salah exchanged looks. Lion Slayer said, “We don’t see a path either. I see solid ground for a little while. Then, it’s just darkness.”
Fleet of Foot and Easy Tears agreed.
Cat Eyes groaned. “What? Can’t you see the lights? Can’t you see the path?”
Reluctantly, the group moved beyond the edge of darkness into the cavity. They looked up and could barely make out the high ceiling. As they stepped in a few more steps they felt swallowed in darkness, as though ingested by some giant stone being. As their eyes begin to adjust to the dim light, they shuffled farther into the space. After a few minutes, they began to see what Cat Eyes had been talking about. Before they lay a gently curving path of a darkish and continuous rock. And indeed all along the massive walls were a large number of dim lights. Encouraged, fearful, yet curious, they strode in even farther. Jaccim had managed to calm the horses enough to join them.
Easy Tears spoke. “I don’t like this. I think it’s amazing. But it still scares me. Should one of us stay behind to warn others in case…in case, no one ever comes back?”
Cat Eyes asked Jaccim whether it was safe. He nodded enthusiastically. “I used this. I have heard of others using it. It’s a … safe path.”
Cat Eyes translated for the others though they sensed that he genuinely believed it safe.
After a few more minutes, they crept further in and their eyes adjusted still more to the semi-darkness. Now, they began to noticed the markings on the sides of the great cave. They included pictures but also the markings that they had been decoding back at the Veritas camp. Everyone continued and no-one offered to stay outside in case of disaster. Even Trunk of Tree forgot his misgivings as he walked into a world so different from everything he had seen or heard described.
Behind them, they heard a distant rumble. Too late, they realized the door behind them had just shut completely.