Rin fell, tumbling head over heels and spinning through a void of nothingness. Pain flared as he stretched out to an impossible height before being snapped back and squeezed down even tighter. His blood boiled in his veins as white light flared in a nova all around him and through him. Then everything went completely numb before he froze and shattered. Pinpricks of darkness overtook everything and exploded into a kaleidoscope of dizzying colors.
Abruptly he was spat out.
He fell to his knees on a smooth stone floor and promptly lost his breakfast all over it. Then his stomach made a fair attempt at tossing everything he might eat in the next week as well.
Three times… I have to go through that three times?! He shakily wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Wait. I can see my hand. Immediately, his head swiveled around to find the source of light. Set into the stone block wall in a bronze bracket, a good dozen hands above his head, was a torch. He whirled around to get a look at wherever this was.
The place was enormous, that much was evident from the echoing quality of Rin’s every movement. The wall closest to Rin ran straight and flat as far as the torchlight revealed. This contrasted with the other wall – there was only one other – which was oddly curved to make a huge semi-circular room… or cavern. Set at equal intervals into the arcing wall were six torches, which lit up six doors. There was no floor. Just a massive black pit. It was so large and dark and strange, with a weighty, expectant air similar to an inner temple.
Rin glanced from the torch to the recreation of the abyss itself. He had appeared on a small stone platform jutting out unceremoniously from the flat wall. There was no door. No ring. Only the torch and a narrow wooden beam that stretched out into a darkness that choked the rest of the room. He spent the next several minutes trying to scale the wall to reach that spirit-blessed torch.
Blood and bone! Rin griped to himself as he once more slid down the just-rough-enough-to-hurt-but-smooth-enough-to-be-unclimbable wall. Glaring up at that torch, just out of reach, he kicked the wall. And nearly jumped out of his skin when his boot connected with something – not wall – and sent it flying. A great clattering shattered the silence.
Spinning about, he saw a wide, shallow bowl of pale wood spinning on its rim. A collection of small river stones, smooth and flat, skittered across the stone floor, ricocheting off the wall and the wooden beam. A few dropped into the surrounding blackness. It took several long seconds before he heard them hit the bottom.
One hand gripping at his heart, Rin sidled closer to the bowl. He tentatively nudged it once with a toe. Then again, when nothing happened. A third nudge stopped its spinning. Gingerly, heart still racing, he picked it up.
Heavier than it looks. The character for luck was burnt into the bottom of the bowl. A ring of Common script etched onto the rim read: tumbled choices, fumbled fortune.
A fortune bowl?
Picking up a few of the stones confirmed it. Every stone had a character etched on both sides; love, strength, beauty, among others. Though when he held them, the characters seemed to shimmer and change, shifting into other runes before his eyes.
Magical stones! Enchanted stone sets weren’t too common in Shima, but such sets occasionally passed through Dad’s hands from the western city-states.
However, the stones never shifted to the child character, which was odd. He didn’t know much about fortune bowls, but the child stones were important. Every stone was an essential part of the whole, but child stones meant… well, babies and stuff. Which was really important to Grandmother and all her old lady friends.
Grandmother had several fortune bowls, all with their own set of stones. None of which he was allowed to touch. She’d freaked out when one of the amber stones from the tanzawood bowl had gone missing. She’d taken her slipper to him, Azti, and Nika. Which hadn’t been fair. Nika hadn’t done anything.
Okay. A fortune bowl. With enchanted stones. In a dark room. With no floor. Rin considered the problem as he picked up the stones that hadn’t fallen into the black pit. Should I take the bowl with me? Or maybe the stones? Magical stones might be useful.
A closer look revealed a deep shelf set into the wall just above the platform, almost completely hidden by shadow. The shelf stretched the entire platform, ending where the dark pit began. It was empty save for dust.
Rin replaced the bowl of stones on the shelf and skirted the puddle of sick as he made his way carefully to the raised beam. Maybe I just need to make it across?
The ring of torchlight was just enough to allow Rin to examine the wooden beam. It was a solid piece of orange hydrawood, barely two hands wide and about as thick. Nothing to Rin. Mum had had him up practicing forms on the balance beam by the time he was ten. But it was still narrow as far as bridges over unknown depths were concerned.
Rin tentatively stretched a hand down, fingers feeling along the bottom of the timber for any kind of support.
Nothing. Just… darkness.
He inhaled sharply and pulled back up, resolutely focusing on the single step that led up from the stone floor to the wooden beam. The stair was of polished tanzawood, the characteristic stripes shimmering like fire in the wavering torchlight. Burnt deep into the wood were two characters.
Rin cocked his head, considering the message. River and life. River was in the ritual script of old Izzian. Archaic but still recognizable. It usually showed up to symbolize unexpected change. In contrast, life was a mana sigil.
He ran his fingers hesitantly over the sigil, his small fingertips easily slipping into the burnt groove. He blinked in surprise at the wooden scar’s true depth, hidden from sight by darkened edges.
Is this important? he thought. If there was supposed to be water somewhere, why not the sigil for water mana? Unexpected change… is… the path going to change? He swiped his shaking palms across his knees.
I’m not going to find out if I just stand here! And with that, he hefted himself onto the hydrawood beam.
Crawling on his hands and knees, Rin edged his way along the beam. Slowly, the light of the torch behind him fell farther and farther back, until the darkness swallowed him up. Within the darkness, only the smooth wood beneath his fingers was real. Even his breath sounded fake, too loud and ringing in his ears to be real.
Bit by bit. Hand by hand. He made his slow way along the beam, fingertips occasionally brushing the edge of the beam and inviting a shiver to dance down his spine.
Sure, Mum had made sure he could fight even along a narrow balance beam. But that had always been safe, barely a pace above the soft grass of the yard. This beam was wider. But it hung unsupported above the black pit.
How far down is it? Rin wondered absently as his fingers once more brushed the very edge of the walkway. It had taken so long before those stones hit the bottom. But there was a bottom. The visceral thought of falling, of screaming as he fell, flashed through his mind, invoking a shudder along his shoulders and neck.
He slid his left hand forward.
There was nothing there.
The beam ended.
Blood and bone! Rin’s fingers reflexively tightened on the wood beneath him. He stared across the abyss at one of the flickering torches, just in line of sight but far out of reach. He couldn’t make that jump. Not even with a running start, which he did not feel comfortable making on this narrow of a beam in the dark.
Maybe if I had a really long bo staff. But he didn’t. He had nothing.
No one could bring anything into the Pyramid. Depending on the core material of an item, bad things happened. Mum had been vague when he’d asked at Aapo’s Questing. She hadn’t been vague last night.
Most materials from outside reacted… strangely once immediately past the threshold of the Pyramid. Solid pieces of most woods – not all types had been tried, for obvious reasons – began rapidly growing into a living tree, often fusing with whatever was in contact with them. Anything made of iron or steel immediately melted. Just… sploosh, and you had liquid steel all over your boots. Silver kept its shape, but sparked, attracting mana like copper did lightning.
There were only a handful of materials known to be stable inside the Pyramid. And all of them were expensive.
Focus, Rin reprimanded himself with a shake of his head. Drawing in a shaky breath, he gingerly trailed his fingers along the edge of the beam. To the right, it ended in a sharp corner. And some kind of joinery. To the left, it extended out farther. And farther. Beyond Rin’s reach.
It turns! The beam turns! He gasped out a giggle of relief, sagging onto the beam and just… breathing for a moment. Then he edged around the turn and set off again along the beam.
He hadn’t traveled far, maybe a pace, when he noticed a faint glow emanating up ahead. It was vaguely ball-shaped and fuzzed around the edges, as if seen through mist. It floated above the beam, about what would be eye-level if Rin stood up.
Rin froze, staring at the ball of light while stories of lost souls and mage glimmers sped through his mind. They’re just stories, he whispered to himself, simultaneously refusing to blink. Stories Grandmother told to scare her grandchildren into not wandering off. They’re not real.
Despite the thought, the ball of light continued to exist. It didn’t waver. Or shudder. Or led him farther down like mage glimmers were supposed to.
It was just… there.
Carefully, every nerve alight with focus, Rin edged forward the tiniest bit.
The light didn’t even flicker.
Maybe… maybe it’s a waylight? He took another faltering scooch closer.
The glimmer didn’t change.
Growing more daring, Rin began his crawl again. Though his eyes remained locked on the ball of light. Just in case. He wasn’t sure what he could actually do if a mage glimmer decided to set him on fire… but he still felt better keeping it in sight. After all, the stories always went bad right around the time the hero lost sight of the light.
A dim ring of light slowly came into view as Rin crawled towards it, illuminating a crossroads of sorts. Four wooden beams converged at an intricately carved stone pillar. Two narrow ledges encircled the pillar. One ledge connected the beams and was barely as wide as them. The other was higher up the pillar and was more a shelf than a walkway. Above the shelf, set into the carved stone, was a glowing gem the size of Rin’s head.
Rin carefully pulled himself upright, using the shelf as an anchor point. Standing, the glowing gem – which might actually be a ball of blown glass – was directly level with his eyes. A swirling rune was etched lightly into the gem’s surface. A rune Rin knew.
“Offering,” he breathed. The soft sound itched in his ears. Specifically, it was the old Izzian character for a spiritual offering, an exchange.
Rin gnawed at his bottom lip as he frowned at the rune. This was sage stuff. Sure, he knew the character. Anyone who wanted the spirits’ favor did. But… this was sage stuff.
Offering… his fingers drummed against the stone shelf, dipping into an indentation. He glanced down.
A shallow oval had been carved out of the shelf, just deep enough to hide a fingernail. To either side of the carving were engraved two smaller characters: family and magic.
Rin’s frown pulled deeper. Mana, not magic. It was an old-fashioned distinction no longer made in the Izzian language. Why would you? Mana was magic. There wasn’t magic without mana. Sure, there were different kinds of mana, but it was all magic. Rin shook his head, dispelling the thought.
Keeping a firm grasp on the shelf, he peered around the pillar. The beam to the left was the oldest Rin had ever seen. Pockmarked and scarred all over, it looked for all the world like it would collapse under a leaf.
Not that way, Rin decided, eyeing the dust that dribbled from the aged wood in a constant stream. He edged rightwards.
Then his nose hit a solid surface, sending a purplish ripple across empty air.
Rin jerked back, nails scratching across stone as he grabbed for the shelf. There was nothing there. Just empty space and two wooden beams, one extending straight out while the other went right.
He hesitantly stretched out one hand. Fingers stroked across a definitely solid surface that rippled like water under his touch. He pressed against it, but it didn’t give. The wall shimmered, catching light and shadow as it undulated beneath his fingertips. The surface stretched up into the gloom and down beneath the stone ledge.
What? Shock gave way to panic. Am I trapped?!
Stop! He took a deep breath in, held it for a count of four, then let it slowly out. Don’t panic. There’s another way around.
Rin moved back around the pillar to the rotten beam. He tapped it gingerly with a boot. Several slivers of rotten wood parted and fell into the pit. No wall though. A shaky sigh left his lungs as he leaned against the pillar. I’ve got a way forward. After a moment of quiet, deliberate breathing, he stepped farther around the stone, but halted again at the extension of the invisible wall.
There’s a magic wall blocking two routes, Rin muttered to himself, working his way through what he knew. With another open but not exactly safe. He side-eyed the rotting wood and edged back the way he’d come, once more facing the glowing gem set into the stone pillar. There’s an offering rune carved into magic glass… and also family and magic characters.
He frowned up at the offering rune. What am I supposed to offer? I don’t have any — his eyes widened. In a rushing whirl, he spun around, grabbing at the pillar for stability as he wobbled precariously.
But it didn’t matter. Because there, illuminated by torchlight, was the fortune bowl.
Crawling back along the bridge was easier with a light in sight and the vague beginnings of a goal in mind. In his rush, Rin wobbled a few times, but still reached the safety of the stone platform with little fuss.
He reached the low shelf set into the wall in a skidding dash. River stones clattered against the shallow lip as he yanked the bowl out. Family, the rune used to anoint every marriage, stared back up at him before slowly shifting into the magic character.
A sigh whooshed out, and Rin sagged in relief. He’d half-expected the bowl to be empty now that he’d figured the trick out. He grabbed the bowl and staggered back to the wooden beam.
It wasn’t until he had already clambered back onto the bridge, the bowl balanced awkwardly against his stomach, that the thought occurred to him that this might not be the best idea. But he was already there. With the bowl. And it would be a shame to change the plan now that he actually had one.
And what is the plan? Nika asked from Rin’s memory. Rin could almost hear the older boy adjusting his glasses, one eyebrow raised in imitation of Mami Kaira.
Give a fortune stone to the offering rune. Rin nodded to himself. It was a good plan.
Then he glanced between the bowl of stones and the faint glow of the offering gem. The blackness in between seemed to stretch wider.
He gulped, but stepped onto the wooden beam, balancing the fortune bowl against his hip like Mami Kaira did his youngest sister, Meggi. The smooth wood felt unnervingly slick against his soft boots.
Rin bit the thumbnail of his free hand. This was going to be dangerous. Balancing in the dark above an unknown depth. I’d have more grip without boots. But he’d lose any foot protection against spikes or acid or any other nasty surprises. He went back and forth in his head until, finally, he nodded and set about removing the soft boot from first one foot, then the other.
With both boots tucked safely in the bowl, Rin took his first step along the beam.
Not so bad, he thought, taking another step and trying not to listen to the stones shifting against each other in the bowl.
The wood felt comfortingly familiar as his toes curled against it, just like the beam back home. That one wasn’t nearly as thick as the hydrawood beam, but still a heavy plank of black plantain. It was too heavy to move around often, so Mum usually kept it outside Mami Kaira’s apothecary. That had been handy when Rin was younger and more prone to tumbles.
Head up, Mum demanded from memory, and Rin’s face jerked forward automatically. Blood and bone! He hadn’t even realized he’d been staring down at his feet. That was just bad form and begging for a fall, but especially so in the dark.
Step by step, Rin slowly made his way back to the offering pillar, letting the fake mage glimmer light his way. He still breathed a sigh of relief when he reached out and could rest against the stability of the stone pillar.
Okay, next step. Rin straightened his shoulders as he propped the bowl against the stone shelf. Family and magic. Fingers dipped into the bowl, but he hesitated. There’s only one slot.
Is… is this a choice?
Grandmother’s screechy voice echoed in his mind. “No, no, no! Don’t leave both! You want to give everything to the spirits? Hmmm! Then you won’t have anything to live with! Silly boy!” This had been accompanied with a soft thump to his ear, and he’d quickly snatched back one of the incense sticks from the laughing sage.
It had been his Rokunas, his presentation before the Circle of Sages and his warrior grandfather, and all the ceremony had been a lot to take in. So much so that everything Mami had told him had fallen out by the time he got to the temple.
Rin shook the memory away and focused on the carved pillar. The point of such an offering was to get something by giving up something else. Improve business by not taking another spouse. Get a baby by giving up honey and fire wine. That kind of stuff.
Only, in this case, he didn’t have a say in what he would get or give.
He eyed the family character, tracing over it several times before sliding to the magic character.
If I gave up magic… would I just… not be a mage? He wouldn’t be the first non-mage in Mum’s family. Just the first in two generations.
Uncomfortable relief sparked at the idea, but Rin quickly shoved it back down into the box of other unwanted feelings.
Family. Or magic. Which should he give up?
Rin dug through the bowl as his eyes bounded between the etchings. Mum’s face flashed through his mind, followed by Mami Kaira’s. Azti singing. Meggi laughing. Nika with the hair tie.
His fingers clenched tightly over the stone, nails scraped over the etched character.
It wasn’t a choice. Not really.
He slid the magic stone into the waiting slot. The offering rune dimmed.
Both characters lit up in a flash, warm and bright, before the magic rune abruptly winked out.
A gasp escaped as the offered stone disintegrated into the finest dust, blowing away with his breath.
Suddenly, the beam bucked underneath Rin. He clutched the bowl flat against his chest and screamed as another shudder tore through the wood beneath him.
Beyond the magical wall, the rightmost beam buckled and splintered. The wood screamed and shattered as the entire beam that ran left and right fell away.
In the midst of the chaos, something seized his heart, its spectral grip as strong as an ironwood root. It squeezed, and Rin gasped, clutching at his chest, at his throat. He fell against the pillar and clung to it, stone rattling like bones in a Franstric tomb. Wetness dripped over his lip as he struggled to scream but couldn’t. Then something tore away, leaving a gaping hole somewhere in his soul. And Rin was released.
He collapsed to the ground, shaking, tears streaming down his face as he struggled to understand what had just happened.
I gave up magic, he realized. And the Pyramid took it.
Let me know what you think!
FYI: I’ll be busy around Valentine’s Day, so Chapter 4 will be posted February 26th.
Edit: updated August 3, 2022