9.1

We are all a thousand people, but they only show their faces

In the dust of different days, in the light of different places

 

… … … … …

 

With Edzie’s parting, Stray came to the final, withering, arduous denouement of his pilgrimage. The cold, wet air darkened the mountainside, and the soil vanished from the slope entirely, leaving rough road and bare stone. Stray felt the presence of that fecund, fertile valley behind him; ahead, he saw only a steep stone path, weaving back and forth over the mountainside, always skirting some ridge or precipice. Here, he could see the first signs of the permanent mountain winter: the dusting of snow highlighting the bluffs and ridges, the frozen droplets suspended from cracks in the stone. He did his best to keep his eyes forward, lest the relative warmth and shelter of the valley soften his resolve.

As he climbed, and the descent behind him yawned and stretched into an impenetrable void, he became incessantly aware of the pain in his feet. The stone pathway, just smooth enough that a sturdy cart might traverse it with difficulty, pounded against the soles of his feet, and his legs started feeling like threshweed stalks beating against an anvil. He did his best to keep himself distracted… to his left, he fixated on a pair of waterfalls pouring out of channels in the mountainside… but his feet always called his attention back, reminding him with every step that this was his fifth day of walking.

The path grew steeper rapidly, until Stray felt himself leaning uncomfortably into the mountain, lest he topple over backwards and tumble into oblivion. The path was weaving up the mountainside, lurching to and fro in a succession of folds, each marked with a small statuette. His pace was regulated conveniently by the speed of the next Prospect, several hundred steps ahead, who was trudging along like a century-old tribeswoman. In a few places, the mountain fell away completely, and the path was extended by wooden scaffolding until it could pick up again on solid ground.

Before the ninth twist in the path, there was a short expanse of evergreen trees, some species that Stray didn’t recognize, except in that it resembled pitchfir. In the shade of the trees, he stopped and unwrapped his feet… a few toenails were dislodged, and the grit of caked blood rubbed between the toes of his left foot. He did his best to remove the loose toenails, wipe off the blood, and secure his footwear, and though both feet still felt like they were being ground in a mortar, they were more tender now, and less disconcertingly numb.

Leaving this final, misplaced stretch of soil and trees, Stray found himself doubly exposed. He could see the entire vale of Gryffe below him, including the tower he had climbed several hours before, and he wondered if he might catch a glimpse of Edzie. He watched for thirty fruitless seconds before he returned to his climb, feeling vaguely heartbroken.

Stray crossed a swift, narrow stream on what appeared to be a natural stone bridge, wide and strong enough that it would have supported the weight of a whole caravan. He veered around another switchback turn and crossed the same stream again, passing another statuette. His senses were dull from the pain of his listless stride, but he managed to survey his surroundings, piercingly sharp in the cold, muted air. To the west, he could see two icy sheets of water tumbling down the mountainside from some unseen spring. The eastward mountain was so irregular that he couldn’t see much further forward, so he followed the path with a sort of numb blindness.

Stray noted, at the next turn, a branch of the road splitting off to the right. He was apprehensive for a moment, shaken by the choice of direction, but then he saw that the path to the right, continuing east, was blocked by three chains, thick and heavy enough that he doubted he could have lifted them. The path to the left was more promising: after kilometers of steeply-graded road, it suddenly leveled out, and the surface was smoothed and polished. The Mistras had told him to go straight up to the temple’s front gate, and this left-hand path beckoned him onward, signaling the final approach.

Twenty meters on, the path broke suddenly to the right, making a perfect right-angle around a bend in the rock. There Stray discovered, leading upwards like a promise, a massive flight of stone stairs, wide as five wagons side by side. It seemed to fade away into nothing in front of him, continuing for hundreds of steps, but at the top, he could just discern the lip of a plateau, flanked by a pair of barely-visible stone towers, and in the center, a stone arch fixed with a massive wooden door, its surface engraved with a silhouette of a bird hovering above a tilted square.

Dissadae’s Relief, Stray thought. And he still had a night and a full day to spare.

 

Edzie waited until Stray was out of sight, and then scowled and stamped her feet, trying to keep her eyes dry and her cries quiet. She shivered, suddenly tense with the cold, and turned back toward the shadows of the forested valley. She took ten steps in that direction, shuddering with each one, and then reconsidered, retracing them exactly and returning to the shelter beneath the boulder, just out of sight of the road. Feeling less visible, mercifully obscured by the lifeless stone, she curled up, hunched over, and buried her face in her elbows. Aside from an occasional sob that escaped her brivsa, she might have been mistaken for a sleeping child.

Edzie’s mind cycled as she sat, motionless, and seconds stretched into scores of minutes. She thought about the settlement, about her mother’s indictments and Ghada’s helplessness, and she remembered the faces of women from the other tribes: unfamiliar, and yet perfectly, precisely identical to her own neighbors and elders. Her thoughts shifted to the swarming crowds and massive, unified stone edifices of Resine, and she felt some momentary comfort in its palpitating strangeness and anonymity… but in every passing image, in every reassuring flight of imagination, there was a poisoned barb, a toxic intrusion that corrupted each promise: Stray’s absence, the relentless, voracious awareness that he wouldn’t be beside her.

Edzie passed from despair to disgust, directed at her tribe, and her enemies, and herself for being so helpless. When this became too exhausting, she slipped into a troubled half-slumber, drifting in and out of consciousness without breaking her protective huddle. After a particularly disorienting lapse in consciousness, she found her emotions calming (perhaps numb from the strain), and so she finally looked up into the evening shadows.

Feeling the cold of the mountain air, Edzie willed herself to start back the way she had come, walking languidly into the forest. She passed a single fire, far off the path, but aside from that lonely campsite, there was no other sign of life in these woods. Walking in complete solitude, Edzie got as far as the ruins of Gryffe before she felt her determination waver once again.

It might have been the depth of nightfall, or the drop in temperature, that broke Edzie’s nerves. It might have been the ruins themselves, a voice on the wind, telling her that the world was passing slowly into oblivion, and that her sole prerogative was to follow the light source that had become her beacon. At the first moonlit glimpse of the fallen watchtower, Edzie turned around and headed back into the forest. She was resigned to her impulses, shackled by her own emptiness, and finally, she embraced her purpose: she would follow Stray, even in defiance of his rejection. It was the only role that was left to her.

Edzie had to stumble and grope her way through the forest, but once she was back out the other side, she found that the bitter midnight cold had pushed away the clouds, so she could follow the path by the moonlight. The climb up the mountain was not easy… she counted nine turns as sharp as stitches, five successive waterfalls cleaving channels in Gryffepeak’s stone, and seven smoldering campfires, attended by silent pilgrims, pressed up against the edges of the road. She was glad she had secured padded soles for her footwraps, but she still felt like her legs were going to buckle and collapse with every step.

After three hours of this punishment, she finally succumbed, ducking under the first natural bridge and clearing herself a small nest in a tangle of brambles. She rested there for a few more hours, unthinking, half-asleep… when she awoke and resumed walking, the pre-dawn atmosphere was prone, breathless, ready to give itself over to the morning sun.

At last, Edzie – sick from the thin air, buffeted by a stern westerly wind – found herself at some sort of split in the path, whose main branch was clearly turning back northwest. The branch heading to the east was blocked by three chains, each as thick as Edzie’s arm, but the barrier was a statement, not a physical obstruction. Knowing she had no plan, and not wanting to be noticed at an inconvenient moment, Edzie decided that deviance and curiosity were her only reliable guides. They pointed her east, along the blockaded branch of the mountain path, and as the first traces of light started bleeding into the sky overhead, she slipped under the chains and vanished around the far side of Gryffepeak.

The path, Edzie found, was wide and fairly level, a welcome change from the preceding struggle up the mountainside. Its surface was strewn with stone, crushed into dust and gravel and gouged with ruts from wagon-wheels. From this path, Edzie could see south and east, into the boundless face of another ridge. A word came to her from a dormant memory of some long-forgotten book – tsushayma – a term originating with the barbarian Fisher Kingdoms, referring to a mountain rearing up like a massive wave, ready to sweep away the world.

After a short stretch, Edzie came upon a ravine cutting across the path. It was only about five meters across… far enough that it would be impossible to jump over, but close enough that the idea was dangerously enticing. Edzie could see a well-organized pallet of planks and timber on the other side, a bridge that had been dismantled and left out of reach. She approached the precipice with careful steps, and when she saw the bottom, thirty meters below, she reeled a little from the sudden consciousness of its depth.

Edzie looked left, and two things impressed themselves upon her. First, she saw a slender breach in the mountain, wherefrom there flowed a steady stream of crystal-clear water. Second, Edzie saw a single, sagging, dilapidated tree, clinging by its roots to the stony dirt a couple steps from the mountain. It was stout and gnarled, perhaps a relative of the orebark, but without its leaves, she couldn’t identify the species. The root system was large, plainly visible, and mostly dead and cracked, but some of the roots had grown back into the fissure, where they could soak up the water trickling out of the stone. The half of the tree nearest the mountain seemed alive, though dormant for the winter. Its trunk bifurcated at Edzie’s eye level, and one large spur extended over the ravine like a hand reaching out to pilfer a piece of fruit.

Edzie lingered at this obstruction for half an hour, her brivsa pulled tight around her face, as the dawn twilight turned into an overcast morning sky. She dared herself to step closer to the drop-off, and then she tested the tree’s integrity, and then she glanced along the path behind her. Finally, unwilling to abandon her capriciousness, she resolved to make the crossing. The lower limbs of the tree were easy to reach, and footholds were plentiful, but she still took a few seconds to test each step, terrified of the yawning depths below her.

Between waves of panic, Edzie managed to advance along the tree limb, clutching the bark with her arms and thighs, moving handspan by handspan. The tree limb sagged considerably as she moved away from the trunk, and though this was expected and favorable (getting her closer to the far side), it still sent shivers of anxiety through Edzie. At one point, she allowed her eyes to drift downward, and she was so overcome with terror that she had to close them and remain motionless for a full minute. From that point onward, she moved by touch alone, feeling every shift in her body weight, focusing intently on the contact between her muscles and the tree’s fiber.

The fear seemed to build as she moved over the ravine, until it finally climaxed with the last departure from the tree-limb, a clumsy half-lunge and protraction of her upper body. She landed hard on her knees, her calves hanging over the chasm, and the tree branch leapt out from under her, creaking and cracking as it returned half-heartedly to its upright position. Edzie was consumed with giddy, nauseating relief, and she lay on the road, panting, for another ten minutes before her strength returned. She stood and glanced back with pride, fully aware that she had denied herself any recourse but to move forward.

Edzie didn’t have far to go: the road looped back on itself as it climbed the side of Gryffepeak, and after two tight turns, she found the path leveling out and suddenly widening into a small terrace, hacked artlessly into the mountain. Beyond this platform, the road ended suddenly, terminating in a sheer rock face. Edzie approached slowly, warily, wondering why this path, with its wide berth and dismantled bridge, would lead to an abrupt dead end. When she finally stepped into the open terrace, wide enough that she felt the wind pick up around her, she discovered a tentative answer: on her left side, the path continued into a cave, wide as a small dromo, that bore directly into the mountain. It was chiseled from the bare stone, rough-hewn, with sconces just inside the threshold, their torches cold and wilted.

Edzie stood on the terrace for a moment, contemplating her path to this strange, lonely outcropping, and then turned toward the tunnel.

The tunnel’s first blessing was its shelter from the wind. Even a few paces inside, the oppressive air became mortally still, though it was still frigid. It was a simple matter for Edzie to gather some dried twigs and foliage and make herself a small fire, and once it was burning, she felt surprisingly secure in her stone refuge. The air around the fire grew just warm enough that she could curl up and let her muscles loosen, and she found she was bone-tired. Sleep took her, and she didn’t wake up for several hours.

When Edzie finally stirred, she could see it was the middle of the day. She felt physically refreshed and mentally sharp… the only drawback was that her muscles, back, and kidneys all seemed to have gotten sore at once, and when she stood up, it was like trying to push a sledge up a hill through black mud. Fighting through the ache, she plucked one of the torches from its sconce and lit it from the last embers of her tiny campfire. Whatever oil coated its head burned brightly, with a flame whose yellow tongues were cold, almost white.

Like the path outside, the tunnel remained fairly level, curving to the right a few meters into the mountain. Shortly thereafter, it opened into a small chamber, around the size of Elkansa’s gathering room, where the rhythmic clefts left by some human delver flowed into the natural folds of the rock. At the rough corners of the chamber, the stone had been sculpted into sinuous lines that seemed to be growing from the floor to the ceiling. There was an upright pedestal where another long-snuffed torch was propped up, and Edzie lit this one, as well, feeling oddly cavalier about claiming this whole stretch of tunnel. The pathway branched off to the left, and she continued along it.

Edzie followed the chipped and chiseled walls deep into Gryffepeak, her torch casting a dancing light on the rough culmination of many laborious hours. The floor seemed particularly well-fashioned, having been ground down to the remarkable flatness of a mansion’s banquet hall. Only the walls remained tortured and angular, crumpled into folds and crevices and depressions. Edzie passed a couple of narrow corridors on her left, and she was tempted to deviate, but she was determined to follow the spacious main tunnel until she could go no further.

It turned out, after the second side-path she elected to ignore, she didn’t have much farther to go. There was one more antechamber, and then the tunnel suddenly became perfectly straight, its walls polished, its artfully sinuous pillars suddenly appearing at consistent intervals. This tunnel, which seemed more like a ceremonial hallway, ultimately opened up into a vast empty space, large enough that Edzie’s modest torchlight was entirely devoured by the darkness. She could hear a sound here – a whisper that resonated through the atmosphere – and she retreated to the nearest wall, suddenly nervous that this cavern might have another resident.

Following the wall, Edzie found another pedestal, holding a significantly larger torch, which she promptly lit… and a few paces further on, another. In the glowing diffusion of torchlight, Edzie could see deeper into the chamber, which was broad and exquisitely empty, its walls exhibiting all the natural rock formations that a delver might expect to find in the bowels of the earth. In the center, starting a few meters in front of her, there was an expansive underground lake, its waters perfectly still, like a black mirror. To her left, the light fell away into the abyss, but to her right, she could see the source of the whispering noises: a wall that hosted a series of cascading waterfalls, each taller than Edzie, but whose flow was unbroken, and thus barely audible. Intertwined with these waterfalls, weaving around them up the wall of the cavern, there was a staircase fashioned from massive stacked stone blocks, connecting natural ledges and shelves as though they were landings in an architect’s petrified dreamscape. Edzie strained to see where the stairway led, but the light didn’t quite reach.

Edzie spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the cave and the mountainside near its entrance, still intending to stay entirely out of sight. This didn’t turn out to be a problem… it seemed as though this side of Gryffepeak was entirely deserted, at least for now. Returning to the underground lake, she discovered a sturdy wooden bridge, gently elevated in the center, that led across the very center of the still water. She tried to explore the two smaller corridors… the first one led to the fissure above the ravine, overlooking the half-dead orebark and the dismantled bridge. The second corridor led to a tiny antechamber, barely large enough for a human shoulder-span, and this opened up into two more corridors. At that point, Edzie turned around, not wanting to get lost in some endless branching maze of featureless subterranean hallways.

At dusk, Edzie tried to climb the staircase by the waterfalls, but as the light of the torches behind her began to fade, she felt a profound fatigue settle over her, informing her that she was too exhausted to make the full ascent. She was satisfied with her situation, however, and felt secure in this well-prepared, absolutely deserted underground tunnel that seemed to pierce the bowels of Gryffepeak itself. She returned to her small fire pit at the tunnel entrance, and with a little effort, she raised a more comfortable little camp, with a torch at the ready and a small nest, assembled from dead leaves and personal effects, giving her a soft place to sleep. She allowed herself a few of the rations she had taken from Stray… a cache that would not last very long, she realized… and when her hunger was sated and the moon was high in the sky, she closed her eyes and slept the sleep of annihilation.

 

The colossal door of Dissadae’s Relief opened at the expected hour, more or less. The Prospects on the stairway couldn’t really tell if it was “dawn,” precisely, because the upper reaches of Gryffepeak entirely blocked the sun. Nobody cared much… the opening of the doors brought a surge of relief, the kind of shiver that only comes after long hours of anticipation. The Prospects… thirty-four of them in all… climbed toward the doors serenely, wonder in their eyes, feeling their long journey finally coming to an end.

Stray had spent the final day resting and meditating, nibbling the last of his root vegetables, and observing the other Prospects. They arrived all through the intervening night and day, some settling on the steps, some making camps under the lonely evergreens. Most were apparently tribespeople, their heads bound up in brivsas, their bodies bundled in wool and huskin fur. A few wore more exotic garments: ornate traveling cloaks from distant cities, or awkward cotton robes that didn’t seem appropriate for the cold midwinter. When Stray caught glimpses of faces, they had the glazed eyes that came with an interminable, torturous journey.

The entire group had conceded to an informal code of silence, keeping their distance from one another, presenting fierce disinterest in their campfire light. Stray had seen one boy moving from camp to camp, desperate for food, and though one of the other Prospects reluctantly supplied him with a spare ration, she refused to converse with him otherwise. Any pilgrim who wasn’t familiar with the custom – the requirement of complete isolation during the journey – was quick to learn it, as any attempt to socialize was met with a wall of refusal.

The spell seemed to break when the door opened. Nobody spoke, but the Prospects suddenly looked at one another, their eyes bright and hopeful, their mutual interests aroused. They had all gathered their belongings, and were preparing to surge up over the top step – many had already gathered into a crowd at the threshold – when a monk’s shadow filled the archway. The Prospects were all suspended in place, as if a spell had been cast on them, and the monk spoke.

“Welcome, Prospects. Your journey is over. You are in Dissadae’s hands now, and your period of compulsory solitude has concluded. Rest, talk, admire our lovely grounds. You’re safe and among friends.”

Stray took note of the monk. He was short and square-bodied, with thick eyebrows and a dense black beard cut into a neat rectangular slab below his chin. He robe was simple, and though he was obviously shivering in the cold, he kept his stance wide open and his arms proudly upon his hips.

“Thank you for receiving us! What should we call you?” asked the perky young Prospect who stood directly behind Stray.

“I am Miggish,” the monk replied. “Now be still, galeed, we will have time for better introductions at the Arrival Banquet.”

Through the open gate, the Prospects could survey the ample grounds, larger than the eye could take in, with a carpet of thin mountain grass turned fallow in the winter cold. At some distance on their left, they could see a small cluster of one-family homes, like a tiny hamlet along a country road. Just ahead, on the east side of the grounds, they drank in their first glimpse of the Envoclajiz itself, a temple-fortification embedded in the dauntless face of the mountain. The Envoclajiz was mostly obscured by a massive wall of quarried stone blocks, presided over by three watchtowers. The part of the Envoclajiz that was visible above the wall was an angular bastion made from the same blocks as large as huskin-drawn carts. The temple was stout, multifaceted, and sunken into the mountain behind it.

The outer wall of the Envoclajiz was accessible by a wooden double door, thrice human height and wide enough for three carts to fit through abreast. As Stray and the other Prospects approached, the doors swung outward, confoundingly silent, like they were floating open on a breeze.

“Wait here until I signal you,” Miggish said, “and approach the doors alone. Say your word of sanction, clearly and proudly, before you step through the threshold. Once you’ve spoken your word, you are free to enter.”

Another Prospect, a younger boy standing to Stray’s right, called out, “Who are we saying it to? Will somebody tell us if we get it right?”

“You are saying it to Dissadae,” the monk replied. “You won’t see any guards or overseers… but we are all listening. If there’s a problem with your appeal, we’ll know.”

Stray lingered near the Relief, where he could watch the Prospects step up, one by one, and approach the door to the Envoclajiz. Each of them paused there, looking small and brave before the yawning temple entrance; Stray could only see the backs of their heads, and they were too far away to hear their words, but he imagined them all recalling their Mistras’ dispensations, condensed into a single phrase that would open the way to their future.

When Stray was called – the seventh Prospect to enter – he tried to stand up proudly, walking steadily under the morning sun. He couldn’t see much through the open door… shadows shrouded the architecture and geometry within… but he felt a strong, unsettling presence as he neared the threshold. He stopped at last, looking up, and said his words.

Iproma val trastis bronton dragnin avre dribidis ben ritasna.”

The presence in the air seemed to suddenly dissipate – Stray wondered if he was just imagining it – leaving the air thinner and cooler, and the interior of the temple less ominous. Stray strained to see the Prospects before him, but they were already out of sight. He glanced back at the other petitioners, pondered the great, silent procession that had absorbed him, and took his first step into the Envoclajiz.

 

Edzie woke slowly, groggily, and uneasily, with a remote impression of footsteps and prying eyes. Her fire was cold, and the light through the tunnel entrance was soft and misty. She couldn’t tell whether it was morning or evening.

Presently, her eyes were drawn to a dark recess at her flank… not so much to movement or volume, but to an apparent absence, as if a hole had opened up in the cavern wall. She watched it for several seconds, and eventually, unable to shake off her discomfort, she approached warily, reaching toward the shadow.

“WHOSE FOOTSTEPS HAVE SOILED MY CAVERN?” came a voice from the recess, loud enough that she felt the tunnel struggle to contain it. Edzie stepped back defensively, fighting panic… she mentally accounted for her katsun, though she didn’t take her eyes off the dark corner.

Her eyes adjusting, Edzie could make out a figure, barely silhouetted in the dim light… a tall, gangly physique, hunched over under the weight of years, apparently naked except for a wisp of gray hair and a loincloth. The figure had stood up – making its presence visible – but it wasn’t coming any closer, so Edzie didn’t make any rash moves.

“Who are you?” she demanded, doing her best to sound authoritative.

“YOU HAVE NO CLAIM UPON ME, INTERLOPER. I DEMAND YOU… MAKE… ANSWER…” The voice hesitated. “YOU FIRST.”

“I’m Edzie, a refugee from the tribes.”

“SO YOU ARE ONE OF THE PROSPECTS?”

Edzie struggled, perhaps too obviously. “No, but I followed them up the mountain. I didn’t really have anywhere else to go.” She waited for a response, but none came. “And who are you?”

“I AM THE GUARDIAN OF THE CAVERN. YOU HAVE TRESPASSED UPON MY SOVEREIGN SOIL. THE PRICE MUST BE PAID.”

Edzie glanced down, looking for her katsun… it wasn’t by the the campfire, where she remembered leaving it. “And what is the price?”

“YOU MUST BE REMOVED! CAST DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN! YOUR FATE IS SEALED!” The figure shuffled a bit forward, taking form in the soft light: it was indeed an old man, at least sixty, whose white hair had left his head and sprouted from his eyebrows, ears, and upper lip. Edzie would have relaxed, but the stooped body that presented itself was so completely at odds with the booming, all-consuming voice that spoke, she was afraid to trust her own eyes.

Also, this old man was holding her katsun!

Edzie, feeling disoriented and vaguely furious, hesitated a moment, and then lunged, closing the distance between them in three steps. The Guardian moved surprisingly fast, pivoting away from her like a dancer and withdrawing the katsun from her reach. She nearly stumbled as she landed, but she was quick to catch herself and turn back toward him.

He grimaced, showing an array of uneven teeth. “YOU ARE SPIRITED, FOR ONE WHO IS ABOUT TO BE CAST INTO THE VOID!”

Edzie remained taut as a harpstring, ready to spring. It struck her that she was now separated from her campsite and supplies, stripped of her katsun, and feeling more exposed with each passing moment. Still, she doubted this old man could possibly catch her and throw her off the side of Gryffepeak, so she kept her composure.

“And is there any… alternative? To my sentence, I mean?”

“YOUR BREATH SPOILS THE AIR OF THESE SACRED CAVERNS, YOUR FOOTSTEPS INSULT THE STONE. IF YOU HAD A FRACTION THE WISDOM OF THESE ANCIENT CATACOMBS, YOU WOULD HAVE ALREADY CAST YOURSELF OUT, MERELY IN DISGUST.” The Guardian paused, apparently considering Edzie’s question, and then continued. “HOWEVER, AS YOUR MEAGER DESIRE FOR SELF-PRESERVATION HAS CLEARLY HAMPERED YOUR JUDGMENT, SOME PROOF OF YOUR WISDOM AND WORTHINESS IS DUE.”

Edzie waited in silence for the outcome of this digression. Finally, it came.

“YOU CAN EARN ANOTHER DAY IN MY CAVES BY ANSWERING… THE GUARDIAN’S RIDDLE!”

“And what’s that?”

“WHAT DO YOU CALL A TRIBESMAN WHO’S BEEN DISEMBOWELED, STUFFED, LAQUERED, AND MOUNTED?”

“That’s not a riddle,” Edzie replied, trying to suppress a sneer. “That’s just a dumb joke. And yes, I know the answer: drislis pramistae, the perfect husband.”

“WELL DONE,” the Guardian’s voice boomed. “YOU MAY REMAIN IN THE CAVERNS UNTIL THIS TIME TOMORROW, WHEN I SHALL RETURN TO RENDER MY JUDGMENT ANEW.”

Edzie was perplexed by the whole situation, but before she could think it through, a practical consideration came to mind. “What if I don’t have enough food? I might die in here anyway, even with the… uhh… guardian’s mercy.”

The old man shrugged as the Guardian’s voice thundered through the cavern. “THE GUARDIAN SEES ALL. HE ALSO HAPPENS TO HAVE CHECKED IN YOUR PACK. YOU’LL BE FINE FOR AT LEAST A COUPLE MORE DAYS.”

Edzie frowned at this, but before she could proffer a reply, she saw the Guardian doing something with her katsun. His arm cocked across his body, and without warning, he hurled the weapon out of the cave entrance. It landed in the scrub a mere meter from the edge of the cliff. Edzie gasped and sprinted after it.

“NEXT TIME, KEEP IT CLOSER BY YOUR SIDE!” she heard the Guardian call after her, but as she emerged from the cavern entrance, the voice was blunted in the thin mountain air, losing all its majesty. She snatched the katsun from the ground, inspected it for damage, and turned back toward her campsite, her jaw tense with indignation. The expression was wasted… peering back into the cavern’s shadows, she found the Guardian had disappeared.

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