Author: Finder77 PM
When Delwyn is chosen to become a Breaker, she gets a chance to reclaim her exiled family's honor. Unfortunately, she can't control her spirit animal and the other Breakers won't even spar with her. But when she saves Kyran's life, everything changes.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Adventure - Chapters: 8 - Words: 19,375 - Reviews: 2 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 06-16-12 - Published: 05-09-12 - id: 3020996
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Ida seemed to have particular trouble moving over the stone floor—smooth as it was—and once or twice, Delwyn could see in many of the others' faces that they wished she would move faster, but seeing as Authild watched the woman with silent respect, Delwyn did the same as the old woman hobbled across the worn stone.
Delwyn's eyes snapped to attention. She hadn't even realized that Ida was explaining something to them. She had been watching Marthuk, whose fists clenched and unclenched almost hungrily at his sides—it also didn't help that everything the old woman said sounded like wind blowing through empty caverns.
"These caves were here long before we of the Diana tribe ever set foot inside of this mountain." Ida raised a trembling hand, pointing at the far wall, which was mostly shrouded in shadow.
Delwyn looked closer now and saw what she had failed to see before: Five caves dotted the base of the wall like black eyes, staring out at them with darkness that trailed off from the eye of Diana like lashes. Ida stopped before them and lowered her hand. "This is where your journey begins."
A breath of air blew up from deep in the tunnels as she spoke.
"Inside these caves, you will come into contact with your beluin, a beast that the mountain, Diana, has woven from the threads of your destiny. Each Breaker's beast will be different and each Breaker will have to face his or her beast alone. Once inside the caves, your goal is to bend your beluin to your will and lead it out of the cave. This is the first step in the process of becoming a true warrior."
Delwyn's eyes passed over the tunnel entrances and she felt her heart grow cold. How was she supposed to navigate a cave in darkness? For all she knew, they could be doors of shadow, descending for eternity. She might never come out alive.
Even as she tried to quell her own fear, Delwyn saw that Kyran's face had paled, but his stern eyes hid his fear. Others could only guess at what he was feeling.
Delwyn turned toward Authild, though her eyes stayed locked on the cave entrances, which stretched on further than she could see into darkness. "Has anyone ever not returned from the caves?"
The silver-haired woman held up her hand as if to push the question away, but her mouth formed a grim line that was even more daunting than a true answer would have been. Delwyn felt anxiety settle in her stomach like a heavy stone. What if she entered the caves and never came out?
"You will reemerge from within your cave when and only when you have broken your beast." Ida took a deep breath and waved once more to the five caves, leaning heavily on her staff with the other. "Take whichever cave appeals to you—only one child to a cave." Her face shattered into wrinkles. "Choose wisely."
The moment she spoke those words, the three young men who had been chosen to become Breakers looked at each other and sprinted for the entrances—bodies colliding and tackling in a mad rush to get first pick. Kyran got the cave furthest to the right, disappearing into the darkness without a moment's hesitation. The other two men—Marthuk and the hawk-nosed one—fought over a cave that was in the perfect center of the cavern wall. Delwyn was startled for a moment, watching the much smaller man hold his own against Marthuk for a good minute before Marthuk won out and left him to take the tunnel left-of-center.
Balking, Delwyn realized that there were only two tunnels left—the one to the far left and the one just right of center. She stepped toward the one at the left—wanting to stay as far away from Marthuk as possible—and looked back only once toward Authild, who gave her a half-smile accompanied by tears in her eyes.
Delwyn felt her chest tighten and for a moment had the absurd thought that maybe there was a chance she could simply turn around, walk back into Authild's arms, and return home as if the events of the day were nothing more than a fever-dream. Then she turned to her cave, realization overcoming her that Authild had done this before her, and even before that, her mother had done it as well.
The cave stared back at her, a charcoal Cyclops eye, watching almost expectantly—waiting for her grand entrance—and as Delwyn stared back, she felt as though she were staring into some sort of gate into something darker—a time before her inception had even been conceived—a mirror-like surface reflecting all that had come before and all that was yet to come.
A great whoosh of breath rattled up from the darkness within the cave, brushing Delwyn's dark hair around her face and filling her heart with a calm she had not yet known. She took a deep breath, steadying herself as if she were about to dive into the most unknown parts of a very deep lake, and then she stepped forward, her stride much braver than she felt. Only when the darkness had enveloped her completely did she begin to stumble.
About an hour into the cave, Delwyn's breathing became panicked as it echoed back from the narrow walls that surrounded her. A mean part of her mind kept suggesting that she had at some point taken a wrong turn in the passageway and was not heading toward her beluin at all, but toward only darkness. Delwyn told that part of her mind to be silent. If Authild could do this, then she could, too. So she kept one hand tight against the right wall as she walked, knowing this was the only chance she would ever get to prove that she was just as capable as any other member of the village. This was the path she had chosen and as far as Delwyn was concerned, it was the only path. She would either make it out of the caves or die trying.
Nonetheless, thoughts of dead ends and walking in circles forever crawled through her mind. In the darkness, time seemed to slow down and Delwyn felt as thought she had been descending for hours. Her eyes—though Delwyn thought they should have adjusted to the darkness by now—still refused to see. She had never been in a place so entirely lightless. Only the senses of sound, touch, and smell were left to her, but most of these seemed useless, the tunnels silent except for her echoing footfalls, the stone of the cavern wall the same in all directions, and the only thing to smell a mildewy dampness that hung in the air.
Delwyn plodded forward carefully, testing each step with her foot on the off chance that some great ravine were lying in wait for her to tumble into. Clutching the jagged stone of the wall, she listened for even the tiniest noises, but none reached her ears. The silence did nothing to ease her worries.
It got to a point where Delwyn became sure that she must be headed towards the deepest depths of the mountain—from which she would never return—but then a pinprick of light appeared in the distance. At first, Delwyn wondered if it were just a trick of the darkness, but as she approached it, it became clear that it wasn't a trick, but a sign that her descent would soon come to an end.
Disregarding all prior caution, Delwyn ran toward the light, climbing right back to her feet when she stumbled over the uneven floor. As she stopped into the room, a sense of relief swept over her. Light from the moon spilled down from an opening in the roof of this cavern, too, like it had in the eye of Diana.
The room was circular and made of beautiful blue-white stone. Around her, rectangular stones jutted from the walls in spiraling twin staircases until they met at the open ceiling. In the middle of the room was a tiny well, much like the one in the main cave.
As Delwyn's breathing calmed and she took in the room, fear and anticlimactic disappointment began to tighten her throat. The cave was empty—there was no sign of her beluin—and not a single tunnel trailed off from the room except for the one she had come through. This was a dead end—the light at the end of the tunnel—but there was no beluin for her to claim.
A roar shattered the silence of the cave. Delwyn stumbled backward, reaching for the dagger in her chemise. Another roar splintered the air and the hairs on the back of her neck stood straight up.
Standing on one of the stone staircases was a great cat—six feet in length and four at the shoulder. Its massive fangs and claws would have reminded Delwyn of a saber-toothed tiger if not for the spear-sharp horns that spiraled out from its brow. But the most frightening feature of all was the cat's slanted eyes, which watched her with a sentience far above that of any animal.
Snarling and baring teeth sharp as bone spears, scorn shown in the beluin's eyes—a human emotion that was somehow twisted into something darker on the face of a beast. Delwyn felt her stomach drop. She hadn't expected that. From a fellow human being, sure—but she had thought this would be different.
Growling low in its throat, the beluin spoke without speaking and somehow Delwyn understood.
Delwyn's eyes widened. No one had ever said that a beluin could speak. She raised her dagger as the creature descended toward her. "I'm not weak." The cat stared down at her and, for a moment, all Delwyn heard was her heart pounding in her ears. The hilt of the dagger felt sweaty and useless in her palm.
Then the beast jumped. It lunged at Delwyn, barreling her to the ground as it bared its dagger-sharp teeth. Delwyn gasped, the cat's great paws knocking the wind out of her and light flashing in her eyes as her head hit the stone floor. She threw her dagger up without seeing, catching the cat in the face, and it bellowed out a roar that rent the air of the chamber, echoing up off the walls and down the lone tunnel.
Delwyn met its eyes—golden and staring down at her with fiery scorn. Its massive teeth dripped with saliva; its claws—extended on her chest—kneaded slightly, as if it were indecisive as to what way would be best to kill her. Pinned down by its force, Delwyn wondered how something so terrifying and strong could be like her—woven from the threads of her destiny. How was she supposed to break a beast that was twice her size? Was she really supposed to fight it?
Before she could think of an answer, the cat gave another roar, its jaw stretching almost wide enough to clamp down on Delwyn's face—its teeth mere inches from her flesh.
I'm dead, thought Delwyn as she cringed away. She could do nothing—the beast was on top of her, too strong—and when she struggled, its claws only dug into her flesh. Its teeth looked sharp enough to pierce through bone and its eyes looked more antipathetic than any of the villagers'. All she could do was attempt to hold her dagger steady before her—though of course it seemed as though the cat could bite it out of her hands if it wanted to.
Delwyn looked to the cat's eyes and struggled to breathe—its weight felt like it was crushing her ribs against the stone floor. "I won't—" She cringed as the cat shifted its weight forward. "I'm not going to fight you."
For a long moment, the cat stared her down, its expression betraying nothing, and then it leaned its head up and howled in a way that sent stalactites of pain through Delwyn's ears, raising every hair on her body.
"I won't." Delwyn met the beast's eyes with a hard glance. "Kill me if you want. If that's what I came here for, then I'm ready." She grit her teeth, easily able to imagine how much the serrations of the cat's teeth would hurt if they bent to tear her apart. "Just do it."
Just when she was sure it really would, the cat howled again, this time so painful that Delwyn doubled over clutching her ears. That was when she realized that the cat had removed itself from her chest, claws scraping against the rocks as it leapt up the rugged staircase of the cavern.
Delwyn took deep intakes of breath into her lungs, letting the oxygen wash through her as she watched her beluin retreat. She reached up to wipe a hand across her cheek where the great cat had dripped blood onto her face and frowned as she saw the deep red color stain her hand.
Hours had passed, but for all the good it did Delwyn, it could have been years. Sitting at the entrance to the tunnel she'd come through, she watched her beluin like a sentinel. High above her, almost out of reach, the great cat paced back and forth just under the opening in the cave—a shadow along the wall where the staircases met. The sun was beginning to rise now and Delwyn's eyes felt bleary—her body felt even worse, having had only stone to lean on during the night—but she hadn't let herself sleep. She knew it might be risky in the long run—if the cat attacked her now, she would be in no shape to fight, not that she could have held her own in the first place, but still. She just couldn't bring herself to close her eyes the night before. She worried—and for good reason—that the moment she did, the cat would come crashing down on her, teeth, claws, and all.
Fortunately, the cat had helped her during the night, loosing an inhuman howl whenever Delwyn was just stepping over the edge of unconsciousness. Whether the cat had done it on purpose or just to unsettle her, Delwyn wasn't sure, but she didn't care—as long as she was still alive, she felt as though a small victory had been won on her part. Nonetheless, she almost began to resent her decision.
"Maybe I should have fought you." Delwyn lay on her back on the damp stone of the cave, closing one eye against the dull rays of the dawning sun, knowing full well that if she had provoked the beast into a battle, she would've lost. The hairs on her arms and neck seemed to refuse to flatten after the beluin's last howl and it made her retain a sense of unease. A dull throbbing in her head and stomach were the only signs she had of just how many hours it had been since she entered the caves.
"It all would've been over then." Delwyn stared up at the height of the staircase where her beluin had dropped to the ground to lounge in the coming sun. Its tail swung idly over the side of the stairs, flicking back and forth like the tongue of a snake.
Delwyn heard it, then—the great cat grumbled to itself and inhaled. She pressed her hands to her ears before it could send another shattering howl through the air. With her hands pressed to her ears, Delwyn heard her heart pumping through her like a great waterwheel turning in the distance. She knew she had only days before the river would run dry.
"Why do you howl?" she asked. She wasn't even sure if she expected an answer or not—she just needed to do something. And if she wasn't going to fight the beast (what was the point of that, anyway?) and if she wasn't going to run screaming pathetically from the tunnel in the disgrace of an exile, then she had to stay, and she had to do something.
Shaking her neck free of kinks, Delwyn rose to her knees, putting one hand to her spinning head and keeping the other clutched tightly around her dagger. Her eyes lighted on the top of the stone staircase, which seemed to her like a pair of white, twisted serpents in the morning light. Her beluin stared back down at her from the top, the fire in his eyes not as harsh as it had been the night before.
"Why do you do it? It's not even night anymore. There's no moon. You're not a wolf, anyway. Do you have a thorn in your paw? Would a thorn even hurt a creature like you?" Delwyn felt her words evaporate on the air. The beluin did nothing to respond—kept perfectly still, in fact—as if it were only a statue of a beast, carved out of the side of the mountain with unfathomable skill, and not a real one at all.
Then Delwyn felt it—a flicker of frustration through her mind that felt both a part of her and completely foreign. Delwyn felt her eyes widen and her nostrils flare. The cat blinked at her and she realized that the emotion was what her beluin was feeling. Apparently verbal communication wasn't the only thing Ida had forgotten to mention before sending them to their dooms.
Delwyn held her arms around herself, suddenly cold, and stared up at the great cat, whose horns glowed like molten amber in the new sunlight. It suddenly occurred to her that she might have forgotten her manners.
"I'm Delwyn, by the way. I suppose I forgot to mention that when you jumped on my chest and roared in my face." She stretched. "What about you? Did you forget to introduce yourself when my dagger accidentally nicked your face?"
The beluin stared down with eyes as empty of expression as one of the mountain's dark tunnels.
Delwyn pursed her lips. "Well, I suppose it was worth a shot—"
When Delwyn finally succumbed to sleep, she heard the word repeating again and again like an endless mantra in her head.
Six days passed. Whether it was sleeping on the spine-corrupting floor or being woken up every three hours by the beluin's howl, Delwyn survived it all, clutching her dagger and her hope the entire time, though she was beginning to think maybe the whole breakers thing hadn't been the best idea.
If it weren't for the sky above her changing from night to day, Delwyn wouldn't have known just how long it had been—well, that and the growling of her long-empty stomach. Her mouth was dry and she was so weak with hunger that she had taken to just lying in the shadow of the stairs. If it weren't for the blessed well in the middle of the cavern, she wouldn't have survived at all.
An almost-feverish state had taken over her during the night and now she talked with an almost fatal desperation, feeling as though if she stopped at any point, they might very well be the last words she ever spoke.
"—But Authild always protected me from them. Always. Up until… only a couple days ago. That's when I knew I couldn't stay here anymore. I had to do something." She'd just spent more than an hour recounting memories of her childhood to the beluin—some of them happy and some of them not. "I think you'd like Authild," she said, her eyes half-lidded as a lazy hand reached to wipe beads of sweat from her brow. "She's lovely—tall and bright and strong. I always thought she must be what a mountain spirit would be like, but I guess if you're a mountain spirit, then maybe I was wrong."
The beluin had stopped howling—whether because it had grown tired of it or because it had tired itself out doing it—but it had taken back up its annoying habit of calling Delwyn weak. Fortunately, Delwyn had all but blocked it out.
"I should have just run away like I planned to," Delwyn said. "When Authild came to tell me I was chosen… I should have just run away." She closed her eyes, exhausted. "That's what my mother did. Everyone calls her a traitor, but now I understand why she left—who wouldn't want to run away?" Her unfocused eyes swept around the cave, taking it in as a swirl of stone. "What am I even supposed to be doing here?"
Weak. Weak. Weak.
It had been hours. Hours and hours and hours.
Delwyn cringed, closing both her eyes. "Don't you know any other words?" Her voice cracked, but she waited attentively for the answer.
"Fine. Fine, I won't talk to you, either."
As far as she could tell, the beluin didn't seem to mind.
Delwyn lay with her head against stone, staring right up toward the eye of the cave where her beluin lay growling what sounded like a tune in the heat of the sun. As its tail flicked back and forth over the lip of the ledge, Delwyn wondered exactly how many hours it had been. Had the others gotten out of their caves already, or were they having just as hard of a time as she was?
She got to her knees—feeling lightheaded—and raised her dagger, but when she looked back up to where her beluin had been, it was gone. Delwyn spun and almost collided with fur and teeth. The beast sat next to her—a slightly different gleam than it usually possessed in its eyes. It stood and turned, sweeping into the tunnel—its tail flicking side to side behind it. Delwyn stood, barely comprehending what had just happened.
"W—wait!" she called, running to catch up with the beast. "Was that it? What did I even do?"
Her clumsy footfalls echoed off the walls of the lightless tunnel and she had to strain her ears to hear the great cat up ahead. "Slow down, would you?" she called. She fell once or twice, skinning her knees, but she did think the beast slowed up a bit. She could hear it shuffling ahead of her, its claws scraping against the stone floor.
The way out seemed a lot shorter than the way in had been. It wasn't long at all before Delwyn could see the light up ahead. She rushed to catch up with her beluin, who growled in greeting, but said nothing else as they stepped into the eye of Diana.
Delwyn had to shield her eyes—sunlight was streaming through the hole in the ceiling and she had long become accustomed to the darkness of the tunnels. Ida and Authild were there waiting for her, as if the quest had taken all of five minutes. Authild stepped forward and smiled. "Congratulations, Delwyn. You did it!"
A smile of relief spread across Delwyn's face, but it seemed that that was the extent of her energy, for she promptly fainted and collapsed against the floor of the cave.