Don’t think about it, Rin warned himself as the structure loomed above him. He busied his fidgeting fingers in the folds of his sash, cinching it tighter to avoid raising his gaze a little longer. Just…don’t think about it.
A humid breeze tugged at his dark brown curls. He breathed in the tang of the incoming storm and tried once more to shove all those pesky thoughts down deep.
He’d been attempting just that since he woke up this morning. Since his mother’s cracked whisper of “Happy birthday.” Since the entire family had left home and boarded the train. Since the Hifumegu Station, where they’d rented a wagon for the last leg of the journey.
But especially since they had finally arrived.
Did Aapo feel like this? The tense restlessness. The smothering uncertainty. The thought was jarring. Aapo had been bigger, smarter, older.
The underlying fear flitted across Rin’s mind: Will I end up like him?
Rin grabbed the thought and wrestled it back into the mental box housing all the other thoughts that had to do with Aapo. It had gotten so crammed recently, he struggled to clamp it shut again.
A gust of wind rose up, and Rin breathed in shakily. He watched the black flecks of shadow dance over the cracked stone slabs as the kapok leaves stirred above. The same breeze brought the smell of damp earth and cinnamon with it, coiling through the expansive courtyard’s stone pillars. Along for the ride was the fresh smell of water and the bite of lightning. Two massive obelisks – all that remained of the courtyard’s only gate – framed the dark clouds that boiled up on the horizon.
They had been lucky during their journey. Rare were the sunny days during monsoon season. Rare were even the cloudy but dry days. Rare were any days that weren’t pouring down sheets of water that threatened to drown anything that dared look upwards. If those gathering clouds had any say, the night wouldn’t be as clear as the day had been.
Hopefully they can make it back to town before it hits, Rin thought. His dark brown gaze dropped from the horizon to the people gathered at the edge of the Pyramid grounds.
He wasn’t the only one considering the sky. Grandmother’s wrinkled face was stiff as she peered upwards, lips pulled in a deep frown. She huffed in distaste and rearranged the folds of her sari.
Dad stood with his first wife, Mami Kaira. Dad had kept a steady stream of chatter throughout the entire trip. He pointed out interesting clouds through breaks in the canopy to his sons, sang silly traveling songs with his youngest daughter, and debated the merits of Solian batik linen versus Franstric polosy wool with his eldest daughter.
Now he was silent, broad shoulders hunched inward.
Mami Kaira had been quiet the entire trip, her embroidery needle an occasional silver flash in the corner of Rin’s eye as she picked out something blocky on pale blue silk.
Now Rin watched her stab the needle into the silk with uncharacteristic force. She yanked it out and stabbed again, muddling the thread further. Abandoning the needle in her work, she tilted her head up and blinked rapidly. Dad tried to wrap his arms around her, but she shoved against his chest.
“He’s twelve,” she hissed, bright eyes glittering. “You’re throwing away another son.” Then she spun on her heel and stalked back through the gate and out of sight.
Dad watched her go, teeth gnawing his bottom lip. Then he let out a slow, ragged breath and followed her.
“Not even the first son,” Grandmother couldn’t help muttering as soon as Dad was out of range. Her voice was pitched just so Rin could hear. But he wasn’t the only one that could.
Beside her, Nika stiffened and guilt flashed across his round face. He struggled to stand straighter, taller, to somehow fill the role he had inherited. No one moved to comfort him.
In an ironic twist of fate, what Nika should have had by inheritance, Rin had by birth. Rin would be the third in their family to enter the Pyramid. With the spirits’ favor, he might even be the first to leave. There had been a total of four family funerals in the past five years. Rin didn’t think they could weather another one.
“Remember, not a word inside. Understand?”
Rin returned his dark eyes to where his mother, Dad’s second wife, knelt down to his height. He nodded quickly and shoved down the rising memories of the story she had told last night. The story of her Questing.
“Stay out of the open hallways as much as you can,” she continued, hard black eyes focused on Rin, pinning him in place. “You’ve emptied your pockets?”
Rin nodded again. She’d already asked that. Twice.
“Stay focused,” she continued. “And…” Her voice trailed off as her gaze drew up from her son to the imposing structure before them.
Rin hadn’t gotten a good look at the Pyramid yet. He’d caught glimpses, of course. A dark block here. A bit of staircase there. From the moment he’d left the wagon he’d kept his gaze locked on the vine littered slabs beneath his boots. Then he’d focused on Mum’s face and everyone else’s, trying to get a last look at them all. But for the most part he worried seeing the Pyramid properly would feel…final.
Rin felt more than heard Mum’s shaky sigh, and his attention snapped back to her. A small, crooked half-smile had found its way onto her face, softening the harsh angles. Her dark gaze swept over her only son, memorizing him. She swept a hand through his hair, tenderly tucking a stray curl behind his ear. After a moment of hesitancy she pressed a quick kiss to his forehead, lips lingering in a way she never did. “Come back to me,” she whispered hoarsely, voice so soft that Rin, standing right before her, barely caught it.
I’ll try, he thought, squeezing her hand once.
A shaky breath whispered over Rin’s skin, then Mum pulled back. Her face soft but unyielding; her easy control back in place.
She raised her eyebrows at something back at the gate, then stood gracefully, long limbs moving fluidly. “Say something to your father,” she directed, gently pressing Rin towards Dad, who was making his way towards them.
Mami Kaira was nowhere in sight.
Rin shoved the spike of hurt into his mental box.
He turned to face his father, putting the Pyramid to his back for a few more precious moments.
Dad dropped to his knees and pulled his son into a bone-crushing hug. Unshed tears sparkled in his eyes. “You’re going to do well, my boy!” he choked out.
“I’ll be back,” Rin said, pulling back from his father slightly.
The big man gave him a watery smile in return, pride warring with grief. “Of course you will. Such a dutiful son!”
I have to come back. Rin let his fingers tangle in his father’s thick hair as he hugged back. Dad can’t handle losing another son. I have to come back! Over Dad’s shoulder, Rin could make out his siblings. His sisters clustered together, hands held tight. His brother stood alone, trying to be stoic. Rin remembered Aapo’s Questing. Back then, everyone was smiling and laughing; everyone was happy…everyone was still here. It was a far cry from this.
When Dad stepped back to wrap Mum in his arms, Rin wanted to cry and run for that embrace. To snuggle between them. But he stayed where he was, breathing hard. He watched his family head for the entrance. They had to make it back to town before the rains hit. They had to leave.
They had no choice. He had no choice. Mum was counting on him. Counting on him to uphold their house. To be a warrior. To come back home.
“Rin,” Nika called, his soft voice jerking Rin from his rising panic.
Nika stood awkwardly before Rin, his coiled hair loose about his ears and dripping into his eyes.
Shifting from foot to foot, with a glance over his shoulder, Nika shoved a clenched fist to Rin. “It’s from Meggi,” he blurted out. “Not me. But we – she – noticed that you lost your hair tie. During the trip. A-and, well, you don’t want to get it caught anywhere, right? Your hair?”
A yellow silk ribbon dangled from Nika’s fingers. Mami Kaira had embroidered red and blue interlocking diamonds all along it. Not fruits and flowers like she typically did for the girls’ ties.
“Thanks,” Rin whispered, taking the ribbon. He wound the thin strip of fabric through his fingers as he met his brother’s gaze.
Guilt still smothered those amber eyes, but sorrow and fear had done their part as well. Like Rin, Nika remembered Aapo. The difference was that Nika was four months older.
Nika’s gaze swept over Rin, pulling out every detail he could. A slow, ragged breath slid out from his lips. “Come back,” he whispered, the words just barely audible over the rising wind.
Rin nodded. His throat felt too tight.
That…that’s not fair, Rin wailed to himself, twisting the ribbon violently. But he swallowed and nodded. “I promise.”
Then Nika’s arms were around Rin, crushing Rin’s ribs until they creaked.
Rin squeezed him close and tried to stash the feeling away in his heart.
“I’ll be okay,” Rin whispered, blinking frantically.
“You’ll be okay,” Nika whispered back, voice cracking.
I don’t believe you, he thought.
Rin forced himself out of his brother’s arms and turned to face the Pyramid.
It was an enormous, sprawling stepped pyramid composed of the dark blue-gray stone found nowhere else but the Dungeons, fitted seamlessly together. The sunlight flickered off the stone sporadically, glinting wherever rain water from the night before still speckled the surface.
Vines thicker than an anaconda rippled over the stone slabs that formed the base of the Pyramid, wrapping around the whole structure as if to keep it in place. Trees wider than a large wagon reached upward towards the plentiful light afforded by the huge clearing that was the Pyramid grounds, some growing around and over the masonry to do so.
Rin took in the size of the structure and that of the old growth forest. This place is old. So very, very old. It was one thing to hear about “the ancient Pyramid”. It was quite another to see it all and feel the age of the place settle over him.
How does anyone hope to leave after just seeing it, let alone entering?
Mechanically, wide eyes still roving over the structure, Rin tied back his hair.
Peeking through the greenery were traces of faded pigments, reds and greens and blues, shades that mimicked the vibrant colors of the rainforest around them. Runes once chiseled deep into the surface of the stone had been worn smooth from time and weather.
It was hard to imagine any other place as old as the Pyramid. Let alone four more. But there were. They were the Dungeons of Danrya: five megalithic structures scattered about the continent of Viency. No one knew what the Dungeons had been meant for. An ancient tomb or temple or maybe even prison, long abandoned and filled with powerful monsters, clever traps, and magic. It was the last that made it a Questing place. The hope was that if you had a spark of magic, the Pyramid would trigger it, activating any mana that would otherwise lay dormant.
In Izzia, the Questing age was between twelve and thirteen years old. Traditionally, the day you attempted was your birthday.
Rin was twelve as of that morning. He had a bloodline in his favor. His mother was a mage. Her family line stretched back generations, with at least one mage each generation. That didn’t guarantee that Rin would survive the Pyramid. He could enter with a spark and still never leave, just like he could make it back out without one.
It was the former that concerned Rin. Dad would break.
Rin shook the thought from his head. He took a deep breath. Then another. Then, before his resolve could leave him, he marched for Danrya’s Pyramid.
There were two entrances to the Pyramid, one at the very top and one at the bottom. Rin fixed his gaze on the ground entrance. It was closer, and he wouldn’t have to climb the thousand odd stairs to the very top of the Pyramid. With nothing to do but climb and think.
No, he’d take the bottom entrance. Besides, it was the traditional Questing entrance. Probably for the same reasons Rin had thought of.
In contrast to the worn edges of the Pyramid, the bottom entrance was a perfect square – all sharp, well-defined angles – cut into the base stone step of the Pyramid. It was as tall as a man and framed all the way around by a pale, fossilized wood that revealed its true age. Two soldiers flanked the entrance, as opposed to the near dozen that guarded the front gate.
“Good morning!” one soldier said, smiling warmly at Rin and bending down to his level. “My name is Lieutenant Ix. What’s yours?”
“Rin. Khet,” Rin managed, stuck staring at the doorless opening. The entrance opened up to complete and utter blackness. Absolutely no light made it past the threshold despite the sun poised perfectly behind him.
“You’re the first today,” Lieutenant Ix continued, cheerfully making a mark next to his name on the scroll. She nodded to her broader companion. “Sergeant Nekt, if you please.”
Sergeant Nekt grunted and stepped out of his slump against the Pyramid wall to prep a long copper needle. He rolled the tip between his fingers, and the air around it shimmered with heat. He gestured Rin forward with two crooked fingers.
With another smile to Rin, Lieutenant Ix asked, “Home and main contact?”
“Shima. Um, my mum, Zahra Khet.”
She beamed at him. “You’re Zahra’s boy? A pleasure!”
Rin tried to smile in response to her grin, but found he just couldn’t.
Aapo once stood here.
With efficiency, if not much care, Sergeant Nekt pricked Rin’s left index finger and quickly pressed the developing bead of blood to a pure white square of fabric. He held it there for several moments while Lieutenant Ix frisked Rin for anything he might be trying to take into the Pyramid, prattling on about another mage-hopeful that had tried to smuggle in a dagger. As if Rin was that stupid.
“You’re all set,” Lieutenant Ix announced. Sergeant Nekt labeled the small fabric square with Rin’s name and the date, then nodded at the smiley lieutenant.
“You’ll need to find three big rings and step through each, then the exit will appear. Alright?”
Rin nodded, swallowing down the sudden lump of nervousness. This is it.
“Good luck,” murmured Lieutenant Ix with a friendly smile. Sergeant Nekt smiled as well, though it looked far less practiced. They waved him towards the opening.
Rin wondered if they had smiled at Aapo too.
So…what do you think? Would this be something you’d be interested in reading fully? Is there anything you didn’t vibe with?
Any and all comments (including typo & grammar reports) are immensely appreciated.
Edit: updated August 1, 2022