The cave was dark.
He had taken for granted the fact that he was descending. It was a reliable sensation of motion in a lightless environment, and along with the scent of damp stones and soil and the refreshing coolness of the air it was just a part of the backdrop for the trials he expected to start at any moment. What he wasn’t expecting was for the descent to stop so abruptly.
He shifted his gravity to avoid teetering over the edge, and adjusted his grip on the vines holding his platform. Did the vines stop lowering because there was no more vine to lower, or because the platform had reached solid ground? It felt like the ground. He tried rocking back and forth, but the platform didn’t sway beneath him. He carefully moved his hands up and down the vines, and felt the faintest hint of slack. He nervously reached down from the platform and felt solid stone.
Zack took more steadying breaths and cautiously stepped off the platform. He reflexively clutched his hand, but remembered that he didn’t have his lumisphere anymore.
“Where’d I put that?” he muttered, checking all of the pockets of his coat. He needed to start carrying actual light sources with him.
Except the light was dangerous, yes? The darkness was confusing but safe, while the light was illuminating for… whatever was in the darkness. That’s why someone told him not to use the lumisphere too often. Without the lumisphere there would, at least, be no risk of overuse.
“Hello?” he said, taking a careful step forward. “I’m looking for some sort of… trial? People who… don’t speak my language. Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala? Am I saying that right? …do tsaya and tsara mean different things, or are they different forms of the same word?”
A rustling came from the darkness in front of him. Soft hissing? Feathers ruffling? Shifting air pressure from an elevator closing on poor terms?
An electric hum sounded as a bright green crescent of light unfolded in the air in front of him. Zack stared at it, not sure why it looked so familiar. When it danced through the air, the way it moved reminded him of an old image of the Grim Reaper he saw a long time ago. Suddenly the light of the arc increased and he saw the manic smile face of Nectra, the shangmere assassin, illuminated by the light of scythe. Her wings spread and she seemed to surge through the air toward him, and Zack jumped out of the way. As Nectra drew nearer, he realized that she looked stranger than normal. Scales covered her face and her wings were graced with feathers, making them appear more like a bird’s than a bat’s.
The scythe vanished, and the light went with it.
“You are hunted,” said a voice behind him. Zack turned as his eyes adjusted. A dimmer light coming from somewhere above illuminated something that looked like a Sthenite but with vibrantly colored scales, fewer feathers, and strange spikes and ridges protruding from its skull.
“You speak English?”
“No,” said the creature. “But you can understand me right now. I should learn English, though. It appears to be the language of choice for Veskid’s children.”
“It’s a trade language,” said Zack. “Did I just see what I thought I saw?”
“An image taken from your mind. An assassin, Nectra. She was clearest, but colored by recent events. You are anxious about how the Sthenites will treat you… but you hold a deeper fear of being discovered.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t use Vox Cul-Dar or Murk. Or the… other one. The really scary one. …Fletch. She’s the DMA’s best.”
“By which you mean most skilled. Already I am learning some of the curiosities of English. Yes, there are many you fear discovering you. And many of them carry more weight than Nectra. But discovery, capture, loss of life… these are your strongest fears, but not your deepest. The one you saw tugs at your deepest fear as well.”
“Lady, if you think I’m afraid of anything more than being caught by those people-”
“Do not presume to know your own psyche, just as a man who has never seen a mirror believes he knows his own face by the touch of his hands. So far we are still in the realm of fears to which you can give name. I would not be so cruel as to show you your greatest fears, the wordless terrors and designs that rise formless in the back of your mind. There are emotions you fear voicing and that your species has never defined, as well as racial memories of terror that go back a long way… I wonder what put them there? Charlotte had many of them as well.”
The feathered snake creature tilted its head and a trill rolled in the back of its throat. She threw her head back and, despite the visual disconnect, Zack heard the sound of laughter.
“What? I don’t know any Charlotte.”
“The one you call Chala. It is more like the name of the Sthenites, and so she took it for her own before joining them.”
“Weird name for a human. Wonder why she didn’t tell me.”
“Hmm… dare I yield to temptation? There are so many ways to go… you already knew her name.”
“You sure about that? She’s not had long to tell me, you know.”
“And yet she has. It came up quickly. Close to your meeting with… hmm… the Haktorash.”
“Wait, the… giant worm thing? The Phantom Judge?”
“Say, do you know if there’s more than one of those things? Or if there are a lot? Apparently there’s some debate about that.”
“I do know.”
“Would you tell me?”
“Would it matter? After you leave here, you will learn about the fungal spores that cause mild hallucinations in these caves. Not strong enough to cause something like me, but strong enough that you will always wonder if I was all your imagination.”
“So… are you my imagination?”
“No,” she said. “But I wish you good fortune in your endeavors to believe my claim later. For now I am the overseer of your trials. We must see if you are worthy of walking with the Sthenites.”
“Even though they don’t walk?”
“Ah… yes. Your language again… ‘trips’ me. So many delicious flaws… like the ridges and knobs on a log in a forest.”
“Yeah, sure. Look, for what it’s worth… I’ve got a feeling honesty’s important here. I don’t plan on being one of the Sthenites. I’m leaving as soon as my friend comes back for me.”
“Your friend may be delayed, though… she will need a way to land other than her asteroid.”
“Oh,” said Zack. “Right. …yeah, I’d… missed that.”
“So had she. And she has already encountered some troubles. Hmm… She guards this world, but not for the world’s sake. Only for yours. Friendship is admirable, as is your honesty. But neither are factors. The trial tests your worth, not your intent. And your worth shall, in fact, be tested.”