Cat Eyes looked back at the entrance in time to see the door close out the last sliver of distant yellow daylight. She turned back toward the group, now bathed in dim silver-blue light. She cautiously approached one of the artificial “moons” (as she thought of them) that continued to light their path. She put her hand up toward the light but felt no heat whatsoever coming from the strange circular disk. She turned back toward the others. As she turned her head, she noticed that the light flickered slightly.
Cat Eyes tried to speak. Only a short deep-throated cry emerged.
Easy Tears asked her, “Are you all right, Cat Eyes?”
Cat Eyes swallowed hard. She took a long slow breath to calm herself and found her voice again. “Yes. It’s nothing. Just — a memory. I’ll put it aside to explore later.” Indeed, she pushed away the memory, the terror she had felt. She had seen these odd lights before and she felt a bruising in her ribs as she had felt so many years ago when she was strapped on the back of a horse and stolen from her family. It had to be a hard push, but it worked.
“These lights have no heat. What … have you seen anything like this before?”
Lion Slayer said, “They are like moonlight. Dim light but no heat.”
Easy Tears added, “I’ve never seen anything like this entire … thing. It’s much like the tunnels of ants or moles. But I have never seen such a huge tunnel. As though the giant sloths made a tunnel like that of moles. But the lights? How can this be?”
Trunk of Tree spoke. “We must go back at once and try to open the door before it’s too late!”
Cat Eyes shook her head. “I think we should keep going. Jaccim said this tunnel leads to the Veritas. Leads to my original home. Let me confirm.”
She spoke to Jaccim, who led the horses on leads, in ROI, “Are you sure there is another way out?”
“Oh, yes. Quite sure. It’s been many years. I suppose it could be broken. But there is another exit. There should be, at least.”
She nodded and spoke to the rest in Veritas. “He says there is another exit up ahead. We should be able to open it when we get there.”
Trunk of Tree glanced ahead and saw a seemingly endless stream of dim blue lights disappearing around a gentle curve. He could see the strange smooth floor. He glanced back the way they had come. More dim blue lights, but they ended in darkness at their entry door.
“I think we should go back. I am the leader. I say we should go back.”
Salah Hudah glanced at Cat Eyes and the others. She walked over to her husband and took his arm in her hands. She looked up into his strong, handsome face. She spoke quietly, still with an accent, though her command of Veritas still grew daily.
“Trunk of Tree, you are our leader, right? Many Paths appointed you? Is that right?”
Trunk of Tree seemed to grow an inch or two. He held his chin high and said, “That’s right! She did!.”
“To do what?” asked Salah.
“What? What do you mean?” asked Trunk of Tree.
Easy Tears said, “She means what were you asked to lead us to do?”
“I am to … I am to lead us … to the Veritas beyond the Twin Peaks.“ Trunk of Tree’s voice trailed off. He ground his teeth. He looked at the group. He hoped that they would not see his cheeks redden in the dim blue light. They were all staring at him. He felt as trapped in the logic as he was in this tunnel. The truth was that he was terrified to be trapped like this under the ground. It felt very wrong to him. But he could barely admit that to himself, let alone to the others.
Cat Eyes swallowed hard. She didn’t want to speak of it or think of it, but she plunged ahead. “I have been through this tunnel myself. There are two ends. Of that I am certain. I came through here as a small child. I survived as a small child. We are all adults now. Surely, we are brave enough to stay a bit longer. We have provisions. If we get to the end, and we cannot open that door, we may have to retrace our steps and try the door we came through. We won’t starve so long as we can eventually get at least one door open.”
Lion Slayer smiled at Trunk of Tree and pounded him on the shoulder. “Let’s go! We’re not going to be less brave than a small child, are we? How about you, Fleet of Foot?”
“I’m for it. But if you are too tired to go on, Trunk of Tree, I could run ahead and run back. I could just leave my pack here. I could report back on how it looks at the other end. This path is so smooth. Now that my eyes are adjusted, I can see enough to run up and back if that is the wish of the group.”
Trunk of Tree sighed. In some way he couldn’t quite put his finger on, control of the group was slipping away from him, but he couldn’t see how to stop it. Then, he had an inspiration and spoke. “Listen, we came her to find the Veritas beyond the Twin Peaks. That’s what we’re going to do. Let’s all go to the end. We are plenty strong enough to walk back if need be. We have provisions. None of us in injured. Let’s explore and continue. No need to send Fleet of Foot on ahead. Let’s go together. Also, this could still be a trap. So we should stick together. Let’s go.”
Easy Tears stifled a smile and said in a serious tone, “Good idea, Trunk of Tree. Let’s stick together. I am actually pretty eager to see what’s at the other end.” Easy Tears thought back to the time Many Paths had offered up the Seven Rings of Empathy for Trunk of Tree to borrow. They had saved his pride then too. What goes on inside Trunk of Tree, she wondered, that makes him so … unable to learn? He seems to think that being big and being able to bellow loudly means he should be a leader. She Who Saves Many Lives must have seen through to his underlying character.
Trunk of Tree took the lead on their march since there was no need for Jaccim to “choose” the right path. Cat Eyes hung back in order to speak with Jaccim. First, she had to bring herself under control. She had put aside the fact that he was a stealer of children. But now, somehow the flashing moon-lights and the smell of horses had triggered a rage in her. She saw herself strangling him from behind. Such rage was not good. She might not ever be able to forgive and forget, but she wanted some answers.
The group walked at a steady pace, marveling at the continuous stream of images and markings on the sides of the tunnel. She pushed her mind back to her village as she had often tried to do before, but this time, when her mind got to the white clouds that kept her from seeing more, she walked through. In her imagination or memory — she wasn’t sure which — she looked up at the giant warm and smiling face of her mother singing to her. It was only a single flash of memory, but it was more than she had ever been able to achieve before. It made her happy. It made her cry. She did it silently.
Even in the dim blue light, Jaccim could see that something was wrong. He spoke softly in ROI, at least, to the extent that it was possible to speak softly in ROI. He asked her what was wrong.
She stopped in her tracks and whirled about staring at him and pursing her lips tight together, not trusting herself to speak.
Jaccim also stopped, staring at her. He frowned. He looked at the others who marched steadily onward. He began to speak in ROI. “I did steal children. You don’t like me. I did it. I was told to do it and I did it and ….” He balled up his fist and struck the side of his temple with the side of his fist. Then, he pointed to the steal-healing scabs on his face where he had been dragged. “It all hurts.”
He hung his head and shook it. Then he said in a soft voice, using his broken Veritas, “Stealing is bad. Stealing you hurt here.” He thumped his chest. “Sorry me. So sorry me. Now you go home. I help.”
Cat Eyes looked at him. Her fierce gaze began to soften. She turned and began to walk quickly to catch up with the others and to hide her face. After she had walked for a few minutes, it occurred to Cat Eyes that in all the time she had lived with the Z-Lotz and the ROI, she had never heard anyone say that they were sorry for something they did. The closest expression she recalled were someone saying, “Bad luck!” People sometimes would say that when someone they knew got hurt or failed at a task. But taking blame upon themselves? She couldn’t think of a single instance. How odd, she thought.
After some minutes, she thought she had relinquished her anger enough to pose a question to Jaccim. “Do you recognize these moon colored lights?”
“Oh, yes,” said Jaccim, in ROI, “they are here in the tunnel, but as you know, they used to be everywhere.”
“What? What are you talking about? Everywhere? I have never seen lights like this anywhere else.”
“Nor I, Cat Eyes. I am not that old! But in the stories you read about the olden times, there were many descriptions of such lights. You remember?” Jaccim glanced at her quizzically.
Just then, she heard the deep voice of Trunk of Tree proudly bellow out, “I found the other door!”
Cat Eyes left her conversation with Jaccim and began to run to get to the door. Even as she ran, she smiled. Just like Trunk of Tree! After being the only one in their tiny group who wanted to go back, he had been manipulated into going forward. He followed the only path to the end, and now claimed he had “found” the door. Oh, well, at least he brightened my mood. She glanced sidelong back at Jaccim, still a few paces behind. His grim look had been replaced with a smile. Perhaps, she thought, he is a good-hearted person who never learned to look beyond his “orders.” That is more or less what Tu-Swift had told her.
This door looked very similar to the first one, but they saw no groove. Fleet of Foot and Trunk of Tree began running their hands over the surface, while the rest began searching the nearby walls and floor for more of those bright jewels.
Jaccim said to Cat Eyes, “What is everyone doing? Don’t you want to go out the door?”
“Yes, of course! They’re looking for a handle or … something to make the door open. The light is so dim, they can’t find the handle. Do you remember where it is, Jaccim?”
Jaccim frowned and tilted his head. “Handle? There is no handle on the inside of these doors. Why?”
Now the entire group was looking at Jaccim. Even though they couldn’t follow the ROI conversation, they knew something was wrong. They all realized, he was the one who should have known where the handle was.
Trunk of Tree spun around, “You led us in here and there’s no door handle of any kind!? It is a trap! I knew it!”
Jaccim knew something was amiss, but he didn’t know what. He looked at Cat Eyes and asked in ROI, “What is wrong?”
Cat Eyes rolled her eyes and said in ROI, “What is wrong!? Jaccim, you led us in here with no way out!”
Jaccim stared at her for a moment. “There is a way out. Of course there is. This tunnel works like all those of the ancients.” Jaccim looked at her but she looked at him blankly. Then, he added, “Oh, but say it in ROI of course.”
Cat Eyes stared at Jaccim as though he had gone completely mad. He shrugged his shoulders. He stepped forward a few steps and, in ROI, said, “Open the Door.”