Chapter 4

Heart’s Puzzle

The beam beneath him stilled.

The glow of the runes faded.

The wall vanished.

Then the fallen beam hit the bottom of the pit.

Rin stayed where he was, half-fallen against his still-there beam, half-hugging the stone pillar and bowl.

Nothing hurt per se.

But his entire being felt…raw. If he focused he could just make out that hole in his soul where something had been but wasn’t anymore.

I want tea. Rin curled into himself, thinking of limon tea and honey and Mami Kaira’s billowy sleeves blocking out the entire world. I want to go home!

Rin started when red droplets splashed onto the wood under him. Another dropped onto his supporting hand, streaking it with red as it trailed down him thumb. He wiped his sleeve over his face. The cloth came back smeared with blood. He tentatively fingered his face as another drop slid over his lip. His nose was bleeding.

A shaky sigh escaped as he shoved himself up, leaning against the pillar for stability. He kept his sleeve pressed to his nose, hoping the sluggish drip would stop soon.

The way the beam had cascaded into the black abyss below repeated through his head. Carefully, he peeked around the pillar just enough to see the damage the collapse had caused.

The entirety of the left and right beams were gone – only the jagged shards slotted into the pillar remained.

And one of the far torches had winked out.

Five torches remained lit with a conspicuously black space at the far left end of the curved wall.

I can’t get there now, Rin realized, heart sinking down to brush his knees. One of his options had been removed.

He glanced over his shoulder at the first torch, and his nose scrunched in frustration. Compared to the distance to the far torches, he hadn’t actually made that much progress.

He glanced forward again in time to catch a misty ball illuminate in the distance. Then another. And another. Until a dozen or so of the faintest flickers, of the turn-away-and-you-might-not-find-them-again variety, ignited between Rin and the doors.

He peered out at the misty not-mage glimmers, then blinked up at the pillar, then back to the lights. Are they all offering pillars? he wondered. He tugged the fortune bowl more securely into his lap with another rough sigh. There weren’t many stones inside. Thirteen. Out of a set that should have been twenty-four.

He glanced back up.

It was hard to count all the fake mage glimmers, as faint as they were, but he didn’t think he had enough stones to make it around all of them.

That empty spot within him ached at the thought.

Avoid the offering pillars, he decided, giving a curt nod.

Gathering himself and his bowl together, Rin turned to his only option. Carefully, dabbing at his nose occasionally, he edged around the pillar to the other side and face the last remaining beam.

At least it’s not rotted, he thought, tapping bare toes against the surface. It was the same as the beam he’d followed to get there: solid, smooth hydrawood about two hands wide.

He took a deeo breath and stepping out onto the surviving path, the family path he named it. He felt gingerly before him with his toes before each step, checking for edges and turns. The family beam turned once – to the right – but he navigated it well enough.

Rin froze after a quick glance up. One of those not-mage glimmers was a lot closer. Oh no, not another offering!

Better than an actual mage glimmer, whispered the darker voice.

His soul ached. I’m not so sure about that.

He shook his head to clear it, then squared his shoulders. If the last offering pillar had had a route around the magical wall then maybe the next one would as well. He began to move once more.

The pillar loomed out of the darkness, foggy light slowly crystallizing into something more substantial though dim.

Rin kept his gaze down, only darting up once to verify that the offering rune was indeed there. He stepped carefully around the stone ledge, trying left first. And ran into the shimmering, magical barrier.

His heart rate ticked up, but he breathed in through his nose then out through his mouth. Then he shifted rightwards. And farther still. Until he could toe the rightmost beam.

I don’t have to do the offerings! Relief slumped his shoulders before he pulled them back together and stepped onto his new path.

The right beam eventually made a left turn and led to yet another offering pillar, which Rin proceeded to skirt around via the only open path available to him. Another beam, another stretch of darkness, another offering pillar.

Slowly Rin made his way across the chasm of a room.

At another offering pillar – he’d lost count of them by that point – Rin glanced back the way he’d come.

The first torch glimmered in the distance. So did the other torches along the other wall, but the distance between them and him was similar.

I think I’m halfway across! A genuine smile split his face for the first time all day. I can do this!

He gingerly sat the fortune bowl on the hydrawood beam before shaking some feeling back into his arms. The bowl wasn’t heavy, but it was certainly awkward. He stretched and twisted, trying to loosen up some muscles. The light was dim and the room was massive, but having made progress he could actually see, yeah, Rin began to feel…almost good.

With a smiling huff, Rin picked his bowl back up and turned to the offering pillar. The barrier was magically invisible, but he’d picked up that the unblocked beam tended to alternate sides. So, with one arm wrapped around the bowl and the other on the stone pillar, he edged left.

A frown tugged his lips back down as the dim light revealed the left path. It wasn’t quite rotten, but it also didn’t look exactly stable. Rin took a step farther around the ledge, studying the beam, trying to gage if it would hold.

He should have studied the stone.

With a sickening crack the stone ledge gave way. Screams tore free as his foot plummeted. In a rush Rin jolted back before he could thine. The shelf of the pillar caught the back of his head as his right shoulder glanced off it. The stones in the bowl rolled against the rim, and he clutched it to his chest as he slammed his other foot down on solid wood.

Head spinning, screams stealing any air, he staggered back again under the momentum. His heel slid off the edge of the beam. Another jolt forward over-corrected again, and Rin tripped forward.

Can’t twist!

Both hands flung out to brace himself, releasing the bowl. One hand scrabbled at the edge of the stone ledge. The other slammed hard against the beam, and he felt the wrist give in a way it shouldn’t. Stones spilled over the low rim of the bowl.

Then the bowl hit the beam, and his chest hit the bowl, and all the air left in Rin’s lungs whooshed out. Pain exploded in his left side.

The clattering of stone and wood against the bottom of the chasm snapped Rin from his daze.

Gingerly, testing every joint before he moved it, he sat up, fingers unwillingly parting from the beam He blinked rapidly, clearing away the unshed tears and cradled his right wrist to his chest. The other hand very carefully pressed along his chest and abdomen, wincing at the bruising but overall relieved.

No blood at least. Not that that helped the pain in his side.

He spent several minutes just breathing against the sharp ache, as deep as he dared, trying to test for broken bones.

He’d never had broken ribs before. Or even bruised ribes. This definitely hurt. Like all six hells rolled into one. But he still breath. That had to mean nothing was broken. Right?

His wrist was easier to check. He’d both broken and sprained a wrist before. Several times. It didn’t feel like that. It was tender, but seemed okay overall.

Rin found himself wishing Mami Kaira was near. Not…not right there, obviously. She shouldn’t be anywhere near the Pyramid. She should be heading home. Safe. Because people needed her. She was a Healer of Shime. Who else was going to stitch up stupid kids when they did stupid things?

With something shamefully close to a sniffle, he dragged the fortune bowl to his knees and ran his left hand through the stones inside it. Three. He’d managed to lose all but three stones.

With a ragged sigh, he didn’t have the emotional energy for anything else, Rin glanced around. There’s another. Just one other stone had fetched up against the stable part of the pillar.

His boots hadn’t been so lucky.

Those were new. His very first pair of real boots, not just simple sandals that could be kicked off to go running around barefoot anyway.

Mami Kaira was going to throw such a snit when she found out.

Stop sap sucking! Rin swiped angrily at his eyes, wincing as the jerky gesture tugged at bruised muscles. Need to check the damage. Grimacing, he carefully peeked around the pillar.

The left beam was still there.

Technically.

A good chunk of it had fallen with the ledge, leaving a two pace gap between stone and wood.

His head lolled back as his shoulders slumped. He stared upwards and focused on not crying. Not tears. Not again. He was twelve. He was some babbling baby!

He glared up at the glowing offering orb. It glittered down at him.

I hope you’re happy, he snarled at it. Then he tried standing.

It took a few false starts, but he eventually stood, the stupid bowl clutched to his good side with his good hand. He glanced at the stone shelf.

The characters surrounding the offering inset were warrior and sage.

Tears prickled all over again.

That’s. Not. Fair!

He wanted to throw something. He wanted to punch something. He wanted to slam the fortune bowl repeatedly against the pillar until it shatter. Bowl or pillar, it didn’t matter which.

Instead he slumped forward, letting his aching head rest against the cool stone shelf.

Eyes squeezed shut tight – really, what was the difference between one darkness and another – he just…breathed. Just inhaled the scent of cold stone and old must and tried to clear his head.

I hate this.

He had no idea how long he’d been in that room. Too long, came the dark thought.

This is the first puzzle room. Somehow he had to find two more ring rooms. And work though at least two more puzzles. His breath hitched uncomfortably at the thought.

Nika would know what to do.

Nika would have known exactly what to do about the offering runes. And what they meant. What they’d take. And he wouldn’t have dropped so many stones.

Nika wouldn’t have been about to outrun the nekhesa.

Rin’s fist hit the pillar with a thud and a sharp stab of pain. Which, as the yelp echoed around the cavernous space, wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever done. But the pain was a welcome distraction from that particular train of thought.

Nika’s safe in Hifumegu, Rin told himself. And made himself believe before he straightened back up. Dad won’t risk him in the Pyramid.

Dad wouldn’t have risked Rin in the Pyramid if he hadn’t been Mum’s son. But he was. And that was all there was to it.

Shaking out his hand, Rin stared at his choices. Warrior or sage. He glared up at the runes, then twisted and edged around the pillar to scowl at his options. Straight or right.

Not that he could make out much beyond two paces. Just blackness. Sprinkled with other faintly glowing offering orbs. So many offering pillars…and he had four stones left.

Maybe I could jump it? he thought, circling back to consider the left beam. Before his fall, yes, of course. Now though…his side twinged just thinking about it. On the other hand, considering the offering choice made that missing piece of him throb and prickle.

What would the Pyramid take?

His breath caught.

Would it take his muscles? His ability to fight?

His knees felt weak.

But what if he gave up sage? Would he just…lose all knowledge?

Breathe! You have to breathe!

But sages knew so much! And…Rin began to suspect he didn’t know much of anything. Particularly about the Pyramid. Because Mum had told him all about her Questing the night before. And her father’s Questing. And her grandmother’s Questing. And none of her story talked about a big, dark abyss of a room crossed with beams.

His eyes narrowed as he considered that thought, fingers drumming against stone. There was the big fighting arena. Mum had made sure to mention that the monsters she’d fought were different from those Grandfather had fought…but the room had been the same. Down to the golden nekhesa pillars holding up the ceiling.

Otherwise there had been rooms that tested strength, speed, discipline. But they’d been smaller rooms. Rooms that Mum could see the end of.

Not big, echo-y, temple places, Rin concluded.

Mum had never mentioned the place Rin found himself in. That meant that, somehow, he’d managed to screw up something as basic as following his warrior clan’s path.

Stop it! Rin cut off that thought. He straightened and slammed the bowl down on the shelf. He could figure out how to fix his path once he got out of this room. And to do that he had to make a choice here.

Warrior or sage.

What could he give up?

What would the Pyramid take?

He was already hurt, so he didn’t want to lose what fighting ability he still had. Although the only monster he’d encountered was the nekhesa. And all the style mastery in the world wouldn’t help him there. Even Mum had said to stay out of the open hallways!

But he also didn’t want to lose what little knowledge he had.

“Information is just as important as skill,” Mum had once said. “It can be the difference between a clean job and fatal injury.” Mami Kaira had smirked at her, and Mum had blushed and blustered before continuing the stalking lesson.

Knowledge. If he was right and he’d somehow lost Mum’s path…then he needed more information to correct that.

Which meant he had to give up some warrior aspect.

It felt traitorous.

I am a warrior, Rin thought, fingering a stone and idly watching as its etching flitted between warrior and sage. I am. Upholding clan tradition was why he was even in the Pyramid in the first place.

But he needed knowledge.

Before he could change his mind his slammed the warrior stone into place.

The offered stone disintegrated.

Both characters lit up, and the warrior rune winked out.

Then everything began to shake.

Rin clung to the stone pillar, wincing as every tremble jolted fresh bruises. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the rest of the left beam collapsing into the void. He pulled the bowl closer and pressed his face to the pillar. With every crash he squeeze his eyes shut tighter.

It’ll stop, he told himself. It’ll stop. It’ll stop. It’ll stop!

And then it did.

A hush fell over the cavern once more as the last cracks faded.

Rin peeked around as the shimmery wall, still rippling with the vibrations, vanished.

One moment it was there. The next it was gone.

He waited until the pillar stopped trembling. Then a bit longer for his own tremors to cease. Then he scooched carefully around the pillar, keeping flush against it and dragging the bowl with him. The gentle grate echoed terribly in his ears in the freshly fallen silence.

Two beams stretched away before him. Straight or right? The choice stole the air from his lungs for a moment. He hadn’t expected another choice so soon after the first.

A moment of hesitation stretched into a minute of frozen indecision.

Straight or right?

Beyond where the wooden walkways vanished into the surrounding darkness, Rin caught sight of the torches along the curve wall. Two more had extinguished. The wall before him was black. Devoid of light. A lone torch glittered near the center of the semi-circular wall, while the other two held fast together on the righthand side.

Right, Rin thought, zeroing in on those hopeful glimmers. I want to go right.

So he did.

Back out onto the hydrawood beam he went, clutching his bowl and side and stepping ever so gingerly.

He kept to the unblocked paths once more, skirting the ledges of the offering pillars as they appeared. Taking a left, a right, and so on. He focused on putting one foot in front of the other and breathing just deep enough to not cry as bruises flexed and stretched along with his lungs.

Just one step after another.

Gradually, time passed. The darkness lightened. The distant torches grew closer. Until Rin stood once more before on offering pillar.

The difference was the torch that illuminated a door to the right, so close that Rin could make out some kind of stonework at the top of the door: the mouth of some creature held the torch.

Of course, the right path was behind the magical wall, while the left stretched out towards the dark half of the room.

Rin’s head swiveled back and forth. Blood and bone. He stepped up to examine his choices.

And promptly froze.

The old Izzian characters for life and death stared back at him, slender strokes deceptively simple for such important runes.

Rin sidled left and peered at the walkway.

Nothing. Blackness as far as he could see.

Of course, he couldn’t be sure that just because the torches were out that meant the doors were locked.

But he couldn’t be sure they would open either.

Frown back in place, he turned back to the offering orb.

Life or death.

Obviously he wanted to live!

With a whine, he peeked around the other side of the pillar, gaging the distance to the torchlit door. Too far to jump, even if his side didn’t feel like fire.

What does it even mean to give up death?

And what could he possibly get if he gave up life?

It felt like one of Mum’s lesson questions. The ones that had some kind of trick to them that he always missed.

There’s a trick here too. Only a baby couldn’t see it. That didn’t help him identify the trick though.

And tricks in the Pyramid could kill you.

A rueful chuckle burst out from him. He shook his head and grabbed a stone. The etching flickered with his doubt before settling.

The Pyramid had taken magic when he’d given it. It wouldn’t hesitate to take his life next if he was stupid enough to offer it.

Which actually matched up with a lot of the old stories Grandmother told. And what Mum had told him as fact last night. Rin cocked his head at the thought as he slid the death stone into the waiting recess. The runes flashed, before the life rune glowed warm and bright.

I think I get it, he thought as he anchored himself to the pillar. The Pyramid’s like a spirit. You have to be wary but respectful.

Then everything seized and spasmed. Wood splintered. Stone shattered.

The beam to the left fell away.

Then the beam behind him fell away!

Rin scream as nothingness replaced the support beneath his heels. He clutched at the pillar, pressing as close as he could with the bowl between him and it.

The pit groaned, strain, creaked and crashed. And finally was still once more.

There was still nothing under Rin’s heels. Just his bare toes digging into the stone ledge.

He couldn’t move.

He’d fall if he moved.

That’s ridiculous, Azti’s voice snipped. You’ve done this how many times at this point?

You’re not here! You don’t get to say that! Rin fired back. But he uncurled his toes and took one sliding shuffle around the pillar, dragging the bowl with him. It took more of those shuffles than it should have, but he did eventually circle the pillar and see beyond.

Like a gift from Bajulo, a brilliant, spirits’ blessed torch illuminated a single door. The beam between the pillar and the door ran straight and even, with a bare two paces of dark separation.

Relief so intense he nearly collapsed swept through Rin.

He shuffled onto the beam and began the final crossing. One foot placed before the other, heart in his throat because the exit was right there and he was so close, Rin edged out over the black pit. His eyes fell from the door only to check his footing. But then wood was stone, and he actually see his toes, and then he couldn’t see anything because it was all too blurry.

Rin slipped to his knees, and the bowl fell from his fingers. He threw his arms instead around an ever so solid stone spirit statue, and boy was he ever glad he’d made that incense offering before he’d left home.

He managed a bare glance over one shoulder. There, on the farthest side of the dark abyss, was the lone torch. He could just make out the doorless, brickwork of the surrounding wall.

I made it…I made it!

He buried his face in his arms to muffle the relieved giggles and choked sobs.

One ring down. Two to go.


I’m still dissatisfied with this puzzle, but I can’t rewrite it again.

Guess what…I rewrote the puzzle again. And I’m a lot happier with it this time!

Edit: updated August 4, 2022

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