A giant mountain touched the empty blue sky.
There were no clouds but the sun hid behind the mountain, giving the mountainside a dull, grey color. A dense forest stretched into the far distance in the East, while smaller mountains ran to the West. The faint sound of running water told me the river lay beyond the forest.
“At least nobody’s following us,” said Elenor as she tapped her baton on the ground.
“Are you covering our tracks?” asked Ben.
There was no path, not even a game trail. We picked our way through the shrubbery and wild grass. Elenor raised her hand and we stopped. I was about to say something when Elenor pointed to a bush.
I narrowed my eyes and read the tiny green serpent that had blended into the bush. It was even swaying in the breeze, in sync with the leaves. The snake froze and information flooded my mind.
“Sasper. A tiny serpent that camouflages itself inside leafy bushes and trees. Injects victims with magic toxins that immobilize prey within seconds, regardless of size and species. For reasons unknown, its victim’s bodies become green after death.”
We walked slowly around the Sasper, making sure to give it a wide berth. A part of me wanted to stomp on it, especially because it lay prone in the aftermath of my reading, but I decided not to risk it. Ben and Elenor could have taken it out from a distance, but chose not to, so they must know something I didn’t.
I asked them about the Sasper once we’d left it behind.
“There was no reason to,” explained Ben.
Elenor nodded. “It’s not like you could extract the venom or sell any part of it.”
Snakeskin purses weren’t a thing in Illustair, I noted to myself.
We took a short rest at the base of the mountain. The mountain’s sides were steep and crumbly, and there was a deep ravine between the mountain in front of me and the ones to the West.
“There’s no reason to climb the whole thing,” I said.
“We should skirt around the edges, going as high as we can without climbing it with our hands,” said Ben.
I nodded. It would make the journey a little longer but it was safer and less tiring. We could make up for the lost time by walking faster.
“Actually, the quickest way through might be over there,” said Elenor, tapping her baton in the direction of the ravine.
“Do you know how deep it is?” I asked. We would waste a lot of time going to the other side, especially because the mountain was too steep and crumbly on that side.
“Not much, just a few dozen feet. It’s a straighter path to Bendeck than climbing the mountain and the drop isn’t very steep. We could walk on it.”
I shook my head in amazement. Elenor’s magic was ridiculously effective for this sort of stuff. However, it wasn’t like her magic was foolproof.
“What if there are a ton of monsters down there?” I asked. “We don’t know if the other side is climbable, either.”
“I think we can handle most monsters, and if a dangerous one appears, we can use your reading ability to incapacitate it while we run,” said Elenor.
“She has a point,” said Ben. “It’ll be easier than climbing the mountain, and shorter than skirting around it. Let’s give it a try.”
I relented. After snacking on some wild camcot berries, we made our way to the ravine.
The mountainside was sharp, with rocks and boulders poised to roll down into the chasm below. Like Elenor had said, the ravine didn’t have a steep drop, so we could walk all the way to the bottom along a winding trail of crumbling dirt. This was probably the result of several landslides.
The bottom of the ravine was dark and lifeless. The mountain hid the sun, and the sky wasn’t bright enough to light up the dry soil and spiny plants beyond a dreary shade of black. It would get better as the sun reached its zenith, but for now, we had to trek across the barren landscape while watching our every step.
Everything was silent. Even the air was still in this place. I could hear the echoes of our breathing and the thumping of my heart, as if these sounds had been amplified inside a recording studio. The end of the ravine wasn’t in sight, but judging by how far the mountain went, it couldn’t be that far ahead.
It had taken us a day to get to the mountain, and it would hopefully take us less than a day to pass it. I didn’t want to be stuck in that ravine during the night.
Sunlight never came in, even after hours of walking on the barren, desolate ground. I looked up and saw why. Thick clouds blanketed the sky, prolonging and intensifying the darkness that covered the ravine. The clouds looked heavy with rain, which would mean mud and mudslides. It would be best to get to high ground before the heavens burst.
We didn’t speak while we crossed the ravine. Sometimes Ben would juggle a pebble, sometimes Elenor would miss a beat with her baton, but usually, it was the same pattern. We breathed, our footsteps fell, Elenor’s baton tapped the earth, breathe, walk, tap, breathe, walk, tap. Over and over again under a veiled sky.
Elenor skipped a beat, probably lost in her thoughts or she could have noticed movement somewhere. I glanced at her and saw the frown on her face. She rarely made facial expressions so I stared at her.
“What’s wrong?” Ben asked her before I could.
“There’s something up ahead,” said Elenor in a quiet voice. “Something I can’t see with my magic.”
I surveyed the empty land in front of me. It seemed like more of the same, an endless stretch of grainy topsoil and weeds. But I focused, reading every bush and bramble. Elenor’s burnt magic was incredibly overpowered. She had seen all the way down the ravine from the foot of the mountain, could identify people for miles around, and could even cause shockwaves with her control of sound. For her to be unable to see something, it had to be extraordinary.
The horizon had a dot on it. As we approached, it grew to be a dark hole in the hitherto unbroken ground. The hole wasn’t very big and since the sun was still covered by clouds, I couldn’t see inside it at all.
We stood on the edge, looking down at the abyss.
“What is it?” I asked.
The Tempest was already fluttering in the back of my head as I played Ben’s character. Yet, even with his deductive skills, I couldn’t figure out what lay inside the hole.
“I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s worth finding out,” said Ben as his eyes skimmed the hole’s perimeter.
I followed his gaze and my heart skipped a beat. The hole’s edges were curved, as if someone had carved them with a scalpel. Looking at it as a whole, it seemed frighteningly close to a perfect circle. A perfect circle of darkness.
“Val, can you read it?” asked Elenor.
I tried focusing on the hole, on its edges, on the bottom I couldn’t see, yet nothing happened. “No,” I said. “I can’t read it at all.”
Then the clouds shifted and the sky brightened up just a bit. Under the pale sunlight, I could barely make out the insides of the hole.
It wasn’t very deep. If I jumped in, I could pull myself out with my own hands. However, I wouldn’t dare jump in for real. I had goosebumps on my arms and a single bead of cold sweat trickled down my back.
At the bottom of the hole, lay a ring of statues. They were old and decaying, covered in moss that shouldn’t even be able to grow in that godforsaken ravine. All the statues were different. Some were old men, others little girls. Some were tall enough to almost reach the top of the hole while some lay virtually buried under the earth.
The soil inside wasn’t the grainy, arid kind I was standing on. The ground near the statues teemed with life. Grass grew in tufts along the statues’ feet and insects crawled on stony faces.
The statues’ faces were so lifelike, it was as if real people had turned to stone. The various emotions frozen on their faces also suggested the same. Some were happy, some were sad. A few of them were crying while others clenched their teeth and glared at me.
I met one of their gazes. It was a tall, slender youth. He wore a stony robe and hair that didn’t stick out much. I shivered as I looked at him, because the smirk on his face was so arrogant, so full of self-confidence and playful mockery, I almost became angry.
I wanted to punch that guy in the face. That’s what you did to people with smirks like that. I had to take him down a notch, show him he wasn’t as amazing as he thought he was.
The nerve. A statue smirking at me! My blood boiled and began breathing heavily. I took a step forward.
Then I clutched my head in pain.
Static filled my head, along with a high-pitched whistle. It ended and I gasped for breath. The first thing I noticed was how precariously close I was to the edge of the hole.
The next thing I noticed, was how close Elenor and Ben were to jumping at the ring of statues. Elenor had a wistful expression on her face, with sunken, drawn out cheeks, and quivering eyebrows. Ben had a giant smile plastered on his face, but his eyes were about to overflow with tears.
I grabbed Ben’s outstretched hand and flung him back. I lunged at Elenor just as she jumped into the air. I clenched my fists around her leg, stubbing a finger as I pushed her to the side. My foot slipped and the ground beneath me crumbled.
I slid. Rocks and gravels rubbed against my clothes, and even the high-performance clothes Sally had bought for me couldn’t fight against the friction as my left thigh was rubbed raw.
I coughed and blinked the dust out of my eyes. I glanced behind me.
I had stopped right in front of a statue. It was a statue of a little girl. Her eyes were wide and vacant. She couldn’t have been older than ten. A strange cat curled around her shoulders. This cat had several eyes and even as a statue, I could tell it had a silky coat of fur.
I looked away from the statue, and scrambled to my feet. Elenor’s voice vaguely registered in my head as her figure appeared over the edge of the hole. Ben appeared beside her and he stretched an arm into the hole.
I grabbed it and he pulled me up.
I collapsed onto the ground, breathing quickly and irregularly. I gulped some saliva that had caught in the back of my throat.
“Val! Val, are you alright?” asked Elenor as she put her hands on my shoulders.
I nodded because I couldn’t speak. The little girl’s gaze still flashed in front of my eyes, filling me with dread.
“We should get out of here,” said Ben as he helped me onto his shoulders.
Elenor led the way with her baton, never looking back once at the hole of darkness. Ben stared resolutely ahead as we stumbled away from the hole.
But I couldn’t help myself. I glanced over my shoulder for a split second, unable to resist the phantom of the little girl’s stare.
There were no faces. All of them had turned their backs to me. Even the little girl and her cat weren’t looking at me anymore.
The phantom in my head disappeared and I regained some calm. My breathing smoothed out and I kept staring at the statues out of curiosity, not compulsion.
What were they and why were they here? Could this be linked to one of the Wonders? I couldn’t let an opportunity like this slip by. I needed to investigate. If there was even the slightest chance that they were related to the Wonders, I needed to seize the opportunity immediately.
But first I needed to regroup. Ben and Elenor were in no shape to deal with those statues right now, and I couldn’t just go rushing back into the middle of the ring with no plan.
In fact, I couldn’t rush anywhere because my legs felt like jelly.
Right, plan and prepare. I would calm my nerves, gather some more information, then confront the ring of statues again. Calm down, plan, and prepare. That’s what I had to do. No big deal. I could do this.
As I glanced away, I caught something the corner of my eye. The ring wasn’t perfect. A single statue stood just out of line, hidden from my sight by a couple of larger statues who stood too close together.
This statue had a young face, a young face with a sad smile. His gaze was calm. When I met it, I couldn’t help but catch my breath. His eyes sparkled with minerals, unlike the dull grey stone the rest of his body was made from. Its eyes looked like a sky full of stars. For a moment, I even thought I caught a golden streak run across it. Probably a trick of the light.
We left the ring of statues behind. It took two hours for us to calm down and collect our wits. It took me another hour to convince them to go back. We got into an argument but I eventually won. This time we knew what to expect, so we could handle it. Just don’t look into their eyes, and don’t let your thoughts wander.
The clouds were gone and sunlight lit up the whole ravine. The storm had passed without bursting over us. In the brightness, what had been a desolate wasteland now showed signs of life. Insects wriggled beneath the soil, greener plants poked through the dead weeds, and a few birds began to peck at the ground.
It bolstered my confidence. I felt like I could face the statues and their trials. The sunlight galvanized Elenor and Ben too, as they didn’t seem as opposed to returning to the hole. In fact, they were anticipating it.
We kept walking while retracing our steps. Elenor tapped her stick and Ben looked for signs in the ground. After a while, I frowned. I used The Tempest and Ben’s character to inspect the area on my own.
Footsteps. Signs of our passing. I followed them until I realized I was too far away from the center of the ravine, which was where the hole had been. I backtracked, focusing intently on the ground.
Eventually, I noticed something odd. The footsteps I was following, my footsteps, which had been facing North, suddenly faced South on the next step.
Elenor stood next to me, tapping her baton on the ground, her eyebrows furrowed. Ben had followed different signs that led him to the same place. I crouched and dusted off some topsoil.
It blew away in the wind.
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