Archive for October, 2012
Dennethom had been following the cavern paths for what seemed like forever. He felt exhausted. Hungry. But mostly he remained edgey. He hadn’t experienced any real challenges since the chamber of sunrise. Something was sure to happen at any moment.
Eventually the path led him to a new crystal-walled cavern. Unlike the previous caverns, there was no way out. It was a dead end. In the centre stood a table holding a metallic box. Laying on the floor next to the table was his cousin.
Dennethom rushed to Lossepharr. He lay sprawled on his side, his breathing erratic. Dennethom shook him but his cousin remained unconscious.
He studied the metallic box. It had no lid, only a hand-sized cut out. From the cut out, he could make out an eerie red glow.
He frowned, unsure what to make of this new task. Was it a puzzle? Had Lossepharr failed? If so, what did Lossepharr do that Dennethom could do different? Glancing back down at his cousin, he saw that Lossepharr clutched his left hand. The skin was red and cracked. It was obvious Lossepharr’s hand had been in the box.
Dennethom walked around the room, searching for an exit. None. Even the door in which he arrived was now gone. He was supposed to put his hand in the box. Of that, Dennethom was certain, but why then did Lossepharr lie on the floor, unconscious?
Taking a deep breath, Dennethom placed his own hand inside the box. His skin felt tingly, as though he had pins and needles. A warmth washed over his hand which quickly grew hot. He flinched as the heat increased, forcing himself to remain still. It didn’t seem to hurt quite as much if he stayed very still.
The unbearable heat continued to sear at his skin. Sweat poured down his forehead, but Dennethom remained still, trying to breathe through the pain. His hand was on fire. There would be no hair or skin left. He would be scarred, even worse than his cousin. Surely he wasn’t expected to stand by while all the skin on his hand burned away!
The moment he left the chamber, the sound ceased, although his head pounded. Dennethom collapsed to his knees, heaving. His last meal was several hours ago so it mostly consisted of bile. He felt hot and sticky. The ooze was fake but the effects of this second chamber were very much real. He remained on the ground for some time, until his breathing eventually slowed and the headache subsided. The path continued on to another chamber.
This chamber looked exactly like the previous one. Again Dennethom stood at the threshold. The last one had been bad. He didn’t know what could be worse. Taking a deep breath, he stepped in. At first, all seemed normal. Then suddenly he was shrouded in darkness as though someone switched off a light. Before his eyes could grow accustomed to the dark, a light came on, emanating from within the strange crystal walls, floor and ceiling.
Instinctively, Dennethom shielded his eyes, for what good that did. He knew this room. The chamber of sunrise. The very room in which his uncle had lost his sight. Too much exposure. Like the previous chamber, this one was meant to disorient. But if you stayed too long, you would surely go blind. He needed to continue on his way. It was dangerous to stay too long in here.
He couldn’t see in front of him. Not his feet, nor the chamber exit. Still he shuffled forward, trying not to think about the damage this chamber was doing to his vision. He kept on shuffling, while every now and again peeking out from behind an arm, hoping to see a change in the light. Nothing.
His foot hit something hard. Dennethom reached out with his hand and felt a wall in front of him. He hadn’t gone in quite the straight line he hoped. He tried to stay calm and breathe. It was okay. If he shuffled his feet all the way right, while reaching out with his arms, surely he’d find the doorway. He was certain he stood at the correct wall. He hadn’t gotten that turned around. But what if he had? What then?
Trying not to dwell on those questions, he allowed his fingers to brush the smooth walls of the chamber. He had to leave the chamber of sunrise. That was all that mattered. His hands felt a corner where two walls met. He cursed and began again, methodically moving to the left until finally he felt the opening of the doorway and stepped through.
In the dim light, Dennethom sank to his knees waiting for his vision to adjust to the relative darkness of the proving ground.
The cavern was strange-looking. The walls were made of some type of crystal, giving it an eerie glint. It looked like nothing he had ever seen before. He stood wearily at the entrance. His senses tingled. There was danger all around, Dennethom was certain of it, but he didn’t know from what, or where.
He placed one foot on the mysterious crystal floor and his boot sank down. The crystal had turned to some kind of muddy, almost liquid consistency. He had no choice though. There was no other way out. He placed another foot in, and felt himself sink down to his waist.
This was impossible. And yet, after the hallucination with his cousin, nothing seemed impossible to Dennethom. He continued to struggle forward, but for each step he took , he found himself sinking deeper. I must cross this way, Dennethom told himself. Still, as the oozing liquid reached his chin, he couldn’t help feeling apprehensive.
Another step. The ooze was up to his eyebrows. He could feel the thick sludge in his nostrils and in his ears. It would suffocate him. He struggled above the ooze. He had no choice. Taking a deep breath, he dove down into the ooze, pushing out as best he could in a straight line.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to move or breathe. Still Dennethom struggled, determined to keep moving forward. Suddenly his whole body collapsed with a thud on the strange crystal floor, all the earlier resistance having disappeared. He opened his eyes, having closed them to keep out the ooze. He was now at the other end of the chamber. His clothes were dry. No sign of the sludge remained.
Taking a moment to collect himself, Dennethom moved on, following the path to yet another chamber of crystal walls. Again he stepped through apprehensively, unsure what to expect. The instant he entered the cavern, a loud high-pitched sound tore through his brain.
He continued forward, undeterred but still the noise pounded in his head. Which direction should he go? Oh, there’s the exit. He just had to walk in a straight line. But with every step he took, Dennethom found his vision blurring, the sound roaring against his brain, so loudly and so constantly, he could hardly recall a time before the sound. His stomach churned. The noise was making him nauseous. Still he kept on moving forward. What choice did he have?
Together they walked through the tunnel, which led deeper under ground. Although the tunnel widened, it still seemed to wind further down leading the gods only knew where. Dennethom was at least grateful that if they had to leave, they knew which direction to go. The tunnel was bright. Artificially lit, though Dennethom couldn’t tell from where or how.
Eventually the tunnel broke out. In one direction it continued on. In the other direction, the path ended at a precipice. Dennethom glanced over the edge but could not see the bottom. Lossepharr shined a light down, but still nothing.
“It looks as though the path continues this way,” said Dennethom, turning back.
“Are you certain?” asked Lossepharr. “The proving ground is a maze. Just because we can’t see the path, doesn’t mean it isn’t the direction we should go.” Lossepharr paused, peering down. “Actually, I think I see a way down.”
Dennethom watched his cousin warily. Lossepharr hung his body over the edge. “I’m not sure,” Dennethom began.
“Let’s just check this out first,” Lossepharr said as he hauled himself back up. “Give me a hand.”
Dennethom reluctantly agreed and walked to where his cousin knelt. Lossepharr handed him the his light.
“Here, hold this while I take a better look.”
Dennethom did so, crouching down and dropping his hand over the side. All was inky darkness below.
“A little lower,” Lossepharr said, as he began climbing down the side.
Dennethom laid down on his stomach, his chest hanging over the side, much like his cousin had been doing a moment ago. Suddenly the light wasjerked from his hand and Lossepharr, much stronger than Dennethom anticipated, began pulling him down. Dennethom attempted to struggle free from his cousin’s vice-like grip but to no avail.
“What are you doing?” he cried, punching out at his cousin. He felt himself being yanked over the ledge. This was impossible. His cousin was barely clinging to the wall and yet he was still so strong!
“You knew this was the only way. Only one of us can return from Hadad,” said Lossepharr’s calm voice.
“That’s not true,” Dennethom said, gasping as he dug his feet into the ground, trying to gain some traction. “Our father’s both returned from Hadad.” His breathing was ragged as he struggled against his cousin’s grip. And then it struck him. Lossepharr was strong. Too strong. And he wasn’t gasping for breath. In fact, Dennethom wasn’t sure he was breathing at all.
“You…. are not…. my cousin,” Dennethom roared in fury as he gave an almighty yank and pulled himself away.
He hit the ground hard, cracking his head against the rock floor. Dennethom drifted into unconsciousness. When he awoke, all was quiet, and he found himself back at the entrance to the proving ground.
As his head slipped down into the tunnel shaft, Dennethom heard a noise. Glancing up, he saw the hatch to the tunnel closing, leaving him in darkness. He felt his muscles tighten and told himself to breathe. He, like most Boentu, had excellent night vision. Still, he couldn’t help feeling slightly suffocated by the darkness. Slowly, methodically, he forced himself to keep going.
Eventually his feet reached the bottom. As soon as his boots touched the ground, a blazing white light shone, illuminating him. He pulled away for a moment in terror. It was no secret Katha had lost his vision on the proving ground. Had he inexplicably found himself in the cavern of sunrise? But as his eyes adjusted to the bright light, he realised he had panicked for no reason. All was fine. He chuckled nervously to himself.
Waiting for his eyes to adjust, he wondered if this was the only entrance. If so, was Lossepharr already in the proving ground, or still searching for a hatch? Dennethom tried to push the thought out of his head. This wasn’t a race. The proving ground could easily cripple both him and his cousin. He just had to do the best he could.
Once his eyes had adjusted, Dennethom noticed a small opening in a wall. It was a water dispenser, similar to the one on his shuttle. A cup sat beneath the dispenser, already filled with water. With relief Dennethom took the cup. His throat felt scratchy despite the breather that filtered out all the dust. Removing his breather, he would no longer need it in the proving ground, he swallowed the entire contents of the container in one motion before collapsing to the ground.
Dennethom struggled to open his eyes. They wanted to stay glued shut and refused to cooperate.
“Are you all right?” asked a voice.
He recognised the voice, though he couldn’t quite place it.
“Slowly now. Whatever was in that cup messes with your senses. Take your time.”
Dennethom blinked several times, trying to blink away the throbbing feeling in his head. Finally his vision cleared and he glanced up to find his cousin kneeling next to him.
“Where are we?” Dennethom asked. His voice sounded clear but soft. The liquid, whatever it was, at least seemed to quench his thirst.
“At the entrance still,” Lossepharr replied, giving his cousin a helping hand. “I climbed down and found you here slumped on the ground. Looks like you drank something poisonous.”
“It looked just like water to me,” Dennethom muttered.
“Don’t trust anything you see to eat or drink when you’re in the proving ground. That’s what my father said to me.”
“Oh. I didn’t know,” Dennethom replied. Perhaps had his father lived, he would have told Dennethom just the same thing.
“Looks like we go down this tunnel,” said Lossepharr. “It’s the only way out of here.”
Dennethom blinked. His head still ached. “We’re travelling together?”
Lossepharr shrugged. “We’re going the same way. I don’t see we have much choice. Believe me, this doesn’t change anything. I will beat the proving ground, and you, but for now, we may as well work together.”
Dennethom nodded his head. He supposed it made sense, though he was still unsure whether or not to trust his cousin.
Dennethom scoured the plateau, but to no avail. Finally, he paused. It didn’t make any sense. If by some miracle the entrance to the proving ground was also on this plateau, it would stand to reason Lossepharr’s craft would have landed here as well. Since he was sure his cousin was nowhere nearby, it meant only one thing: the entrance to the proving ground had to be somewhere down below in the rocky craters.
His boots crunched on small loose pebbles as he climbed down the plateau. Several times, he lost control, sliding down on the dirt, allowing gravity to take his body down the rocky hillside. Finally, he found himself on level ground. Through the dust-filled visors, Dennethom spotted several large craters. But which one should he search first?
Exhausted from climbing around the plateau, Dennethom breathed hard as he walked about the craters. There were so many of them, at least twelve he could easily make out, and they all looked remarkably similar. What was he missing?
Frustrated, he kicked at a small pebble. What was different about them? he wondered. They varied in size. Some were so small he could lie down in it quite snugly. Others were several times as large. Glancing back at the plateau he considered returning up the hillside. Perhaps there was something about the craters that could only be viewed from above. Maybe. He cringed at the thought of climbing back up. His throat felt parched. What he would give for a glass of the sweet wine currently being stored at Boentu palace.
Suddenly, Dennethom stopped and blinked. He then began walking around the craters again, this time carefully and methodically counting. He was right. Twelve craters. He walked to the smallest of the craters and began searching. Nothing. Dennethom cursed. He had been so sure the craters were representative of the Boentu System’s twelve planets. If that were true, then the smallest crater would represent Hadad, the smallest planet in the system and home of the proving ground. Surely the entrance would be in that crater. He searched once more, kicking aside rocks but to no avail.
Glancing about him, Dennethom noticed a nearby medium-size crater. That would be Anhur. Anhur, home to the Boentu Palace and the Leader of the system. He hurried over, jumping down into the crater. His boot landed with a hollow clang. Dennethom jerked up, then jumped again. Once more, a clang. Beneath the breather on his face, a slow smile escaped his lips. Somewhere within this crater was the entrance to the proving ground. He kicked about in the dirt searching for a handle or a button of some sort. Nothing. Finally he knelt with his hands on the ground, carefully sweeping the floor with his palms. His fingers felt a grove. More sweeping and he found a large hatch. There were no buttons or latches. He kept running his hands over the entire surface when suddenly the hatch gave way, slipping down and revealing a tunnel with metal rungs attached to one wall.
With relief Dennethom climbed into the opening, his feet easily finding the rungs, and carefully began climbing down into the tunnel.
Dennethom watched as the craft landed on the brown plateau. He peered through a view port. Light brown dust clung to the windows and every other part of the ship he could see. He felt the engines power down. For a moment, all was quiet, save for the hiss as the doors to the small shuttle craft automatically opened.
He looked down at his waist to make sure the small emergency pack was still secured at his belt. It was. He then took one last gulp of water from his cup and set it down. That would be his last sustenance for some time. From now on, if he wanted food or water, he would need to find it for himself, somewhere within the proving ground. He placed his face respirator down and, with some trepidation, Dennethom climbed down the ramp to the desolate planet outside.
It was like no planet he had ever visited before. The ground remained hardened and cracked. The colour, almost a monotonous shade of light brown. Even the sky had a brown haze from all the dust in the thin atmosphere. If not for the dust in the sky, he might be able to see for miles. As it was, his visibility was somewhat more limited. Not that it would change the view. Hadad was a dead rock. No life to speak of. No water, at least, not at ground level. No trees. No anything.
Well, there was one thing out there. Somewhere in the haze his cousin’s craft had also landed. He wondered how far away Lossepharr actually was. It wasn’t important though. His cousin would not be standing around taking in the scenery. Lossepharr would be making his way to the proving ground entrance. Which meant Dennethom didn’t have the luxury to hang about either. He needed to find a way in, and quickly.
The siblings huddled together in their private family quarters. Yasana, exhausted by the festivities, nuzzled her children and went to bed, leaving Dennethom, Arjuna and Arronanto to speculate about their uncle’s plans. Arjuna politely said goodnight to her mother and watched her leave.
“Strange. She doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about Katha’s news.”
Dennethom shrugged. “It’s no surprise. Before, if I had failed at the proving ground, Arro would have to go next. With our cousins being considered for succession, she risks losing maybe only one of her children.”
Arjuna scowled. “It’s not Boentu for her to think that way.”
Dennethom leaned back in his seat with a sigh. “She’s not a warrior, like us. Anyway, she’s not the one you’re angry at.”
Arjuna snorted. He was right about that. For a time the siblings sat in silent disbelief. Had their uncle really decided to try and take away Dennethom’s birthright? After a while, just sitting wasn’t enough for Arjuna and she got to her feet, her ears twitching as she stalked the room.
“I wonder if we can arrange for an accident for Lossepharr,” Arronanto mused aloud.
Dennethom shook his head. “As much as I appreciate the sentiment Arro, now is not the time for violence.”
“Isn’t now precisely the time?” Arjuna demanded, loudly. Remembering her mother asleep next door, she quieted her tone. “Katha is trying to take away your title.”
Dennethom sighed, leaning forward with his head between his hands. He had drunk plenty over the past few days and had been well past buzzed when Katha made his announcement, but now all that remained was a headache. “It isn’t my title yet. It won’t be unless I can prove myself a leader on Hadad. That was always the case.”
“But Lossepharr-” Arronanto began.
“-will do his best to make sure I don’t become Leader. But I’m not going to stoop to his level.”
“We can’t ignore this. This is an affront to our father’s memory,” Arjuna hissed.
“I don’t see that we have much choice. I’m not happy about this, but our only option is to train hard so I make it back alive.”
Arjuna sat down, exhausted. For a while the siblings were quiet again but finally Arronanto broke the silence. “Usually when a son is sent to the proving ground, the father helps prepare him. It’s not exactly allowed, but according to Quani, it is common practise.” Dennethom said nothing. “He won’t help you. Not if Lossepharr’s going to Hadad as well.”
Dennethom nodded his head. They all knew Arronanto was right. “We’ll just have to train you for every possibility,” said Arronanto into the quiet room.
Arjuna heard Arronanto growl dangerously under his breath. She knew what Katha was going to say before he opened his mouth.
“Both Dennethom and my eldest son Lossepharr are the same age. Lossepharr is just five moons younger than Dennethom. I believe the only fair way of deciding who is the next leader of Boentu is to send both of them to the proving grounds of Hadad. Just as I and my brother did.”
There it was. Arjuna, despite her better judgement, glanced at her eldest cousin who had been standing across the large banquet hall scowling into a glass of sweet wine. Now, however, he stood tall and proud, a wide grin on his face.
Arronanto scowled and seemed to lurch forward, whether to choke the smile off Lossepharr’s face or approach their uncle, Arjuna didn’t care, she pressed a hand against her brother gently holding him in place. He made a barely audible snarl but obeyed. The two siblings eyed each other, both feeling the same sense of betrayal. How could could Katha do this?
Dennethom glanced over at his siblings as he hurried up to the stage to thank his uncle. The two grasped hands, and hugged. Dennethom spoke a few words about not letting down his people. He skipped the speech he had been preparing for the past moon. Katha’s words had rendered it useless. As he left the stage, Dennethom found himself cornered by a well-wisher. Arjuna moved to extract her brother, when she noticed a horrified looking Quani hurrying to meet her uncle.
“Lord Katha,” murmured Quani. “I wish you had warned me you were going to make this announcement.”
“Oh Quani, what difference does it make?” said Katha taking a jovial gulp of wine. “It came to me in a flash last night. And, it is only fair.”
“Tradition says, as you know, that only one Boentu warrior can go to Hadad at a time.”
“Only one from the line of succession, who is of age. My son and my nephew come from two lines of succession.”
“But, my Lord, I think you may be mistaken.” Arjuna could tell that Quani was nervous. “There is only one line of succession. Your brother became Boentu Leader after saving you on the proving ground. And then he was only confirmed Leader once he returned to Hadad for a second time.” Katha’s face hardened but he remained silent, allowing his Vizier to continue. “For all that you have done for the star system since your brother’s death, you are still Steward. The line of succession must run through your brother’s children.”
“That’s hardly fair to Lossephar,” Katha replied with a shrug of his lean shoulders.
Arjuna watched as a flabbergasted Quani was shuffled out of the way by a smug Lossepharr. She suppressed an urge to confront her older cousin. Now was not the time. Besides, her brother would need her.
“As you know, the nineteenth birthday is a significant day in the life of the future Boentu leader. Only when a future leader turns 19 can his ability to lead be tested. This test takes place on the proving grounds on the planet Hadad and must be undertaken alone. Many fine Boentu warriors have died on the proving grounds.” Katha paused. His next words held just a touch of bitterness. “I lost my sight on Hadad.” He took a moment to regroup his thoughts. “I am here today to announce the date at which this fine Boentu warrior, Dennethom, my brother’s first-born child, my nephew, must prove himself to you. This date shall be five moons hence.”
A murmur ran through the audience. There was not usually so much time between a warrior’s nineteenth birthday and the day at which the warrior would prove himself. Most Boentu leaders preferred to get the proving ground over and done with. Not that there was any rule against waiting. It was always up to the future leader to decide on a date and Dennethom hadn’t wished to wait longer than a moon. He distinctly remembered telling his uncle so on several occasions.
“I know some of you are surprised at the date I have chosen, but I can assure you I have a reason,” said Katha. “For, as you know, although my brother Chran became Boentu leader, I was also a future Boentu leader who went through the proving ground. In fact, my brother and I went through the proving ground together.”
Arjuna stiffened. She didn’t like the direction of Katha’s speech, but she saw no way to stop it. She tried to catch her brother’s eye but he simply stood watching his uncle carefully with a curious smile plastered on his face which Arjuna knew was anything but genuine. At least the newsies wouldn’t catch any of the shock he was no doubt feeling.
“Since I currently lead the Boentu people,” Katha was careful not to claim the title of Leader for his own, “we have a unique opportunity. You see, there are now two lines of succession.”