The rocks shifted beneath us, but slowly, so that although one never had the sense of total security, it was possible to continually re-orient oneself to leap to the next foothold. It was not easy for Xelena with the sheath of the long dowsing rods strapped to her waist, and I had long since slung my own sword onto my back to lend her my hand for support. Tergen snorted when he saw what I was doing, but he did not comment. Though he was the wisest of the mages in my father’s realm and invaluable for his counsel, he knew better than to insult the Crown Prince.
The title still seemed strange to me, for I had always assumed that my elder brother, Dargus, would be the next King of Girshoen when our father died; little had anyone suspected that Dargus would fall prey to the mysterious illness which now laid low the most hale and hearty of men ― rather than the weak, the old, or the young ― decimating our army as well as the workhorses of the land. It was a curse, the blind old dams began muttering in their dark corners; a curse on the land because of the never-ending bloodshed of the wars. Soon the rest of the peasants began to echo their words, wrapping the city in unease like a flea-infested blanket. My father had been forced to gather the mages and learned men in an attempt to dispel these superstitious rumblings, but they had been unable to discount it entirely.
“Send for the Oracle at Kaphisel,” said one old mage, whose years were beyond anyone’s reckoning. “When there was pestilence before, my father was sent to Kaphisel to inquire of the Oracle. There were many sacrifices made, but the plague was eventually purged from the land.”
And so a band of trusted men (too old to be likely victims of the current plague) were sent to the Oracle, who in turn prophesied, in a trance, that the answer would be found with the Priestesses of Adeäna. As the temple of the Goddess was currently in the domain of Ja’ales, our neighbor and enemy, my father was loath to send a party across the bloodily-contested border. However, some of the mages had dealings with the High Priestess and assured him that they could cross undetected. When they returned safely, it was more than any of us had hoped; what they had brought back was an answer, in the form of Xelena, the next High Priestess in training.
The rocks beneath us moved again, in their lazy yet unceasing dance. I gripped Xelena’s hand and pulled her up to where I stood on slightly firmer footing. The larger the rock, we had soon learned, the more stable ― much like rafts on water. In this strange place, the rocks seemed to float on air as driftwood on water. Tergen seemed immune to the effects of the cavern, called by those who lived near it the Cave of Möebius, where even our own bodies seemed lighter, more buoyant, as though the very order of the natural world were suspended in the air. The villagers had called us fools to enter it, and not long after we had, I came to believe them.
The High Priestess had answered our query by saying that the cure to the disease would be found in the heart of this cave, where an ancient book of deep magic ― the Book of the Tree ― had been sealed away for safekeeping. All copies made of it had long since rotted away, and even copies of the copies were hard to find. But if we could bring back the Book of the Tree, it would contain all the knowledge garnered by the mages of the great Kingdom of Shinoar, of which Girshoen and Ja’ales were mere splinters and shadows. Much of the learning of Shinoar had been lost in the wars that had torn it asunder, but legends spoke of marvels far beyond anything we knew. We were staking our lives on the hope that those legends spoke truly.
We saw light ahead of us in the cavern, yellow daylight, and when we were close enough to pick our way without the aid of the glowing blue mage-fires, Tergen darkened all but one of them. Mine he left lit in case our way was darkened by a moving boulder, so I slung it over my other shoulder to keep my hands free. Despite our lightened bodies, a fall would be disastrous in this cavern of shifting stones, which could as easily crush us with their slow movement as any fast-falling rock in the world outside.
We found a large boulder spanning a rift towards what, Xelena promised, was the center of the cavern. She herself was a kind of dowsing rod, attuned to the Book of the Tree and all other artifacts of great power, but she had brought the slender dowsing rods strapped to her body in case the spells protecting the Book confounded her senses. The rods were immune to such spells, having been wrought by the long-lost art of Shinoar which had been preserved in some measure by the Priestesses of Adeäna.
The High Priestess had insisted on sending Xelena, the mages told us, because she feared that we might use the other knowledge written within the Book of the Tree in ways not condoned by the writers. Some spells, the learned ones hinted, could eradicate our enemies in one blast, leaving the land scorched and barren for generations. While such power seemed to arouse my father’s interest (more so than a cure for the plague, since it had already taken his favorite son), I was glad enough to let the Priestesses take possession of it. I knew that they would protect it from our enemies as well as from us, whereas there were enough traitors and men desperate for gain in our own kingdom to try to steal it and sell it to the king of Ja’ales; and once there, the destructive spells could be used against us. It was madness to leave such power lying about, like a sharp knife in a room full of children. Nothing good would come of it.
My thoughts on the matter were far different from my father’s, of course, as well as my dead brother’s ― but then again, the weight of the kingdom had not been placed upon my shoulders since infancy, and I had been free to think and act as I chose. Having never had a taste for battle and acts of bravery, I had not accomplished myself in swordsmanship or other manly arts, much to my father’s disappointment. Or rather, his disdain ― for he could not be disappointed in one for whom he held no expectations. However, as he was left with little choice but to name me his heir, he had commanded me to accompany the Priestess on this journey to prove my mettle. I more than half suspected that he hoped I would perish in the attempt, leaving the throne open for my younger brother, Deorga, who was more to his liking.
Tergen pointed to an outcropping of rock that seemed to be solid and unmoving, although it was hard to tell what was and was not in motion since even our current bridge was swaying. We headed toward that outcropping, hardly daring to hope, but hoping nonetheless as we grew surer that it was a fixed point. As Xelena and I leapt from our bridge, that boulder dipped down, scraping past a jutting rock that must have been holding it in place. Tergen was forced to use his magic to leap up to where we were, although his face remained as infuriatingly impassive as ever. However, we could now see that there were solid, unmoving structures of rock all around us, which were keeping the cavern from collapsing.
“Look!” Xelena said, releasing my hand to point above. There we could see great rocks shifting and drifting apart to allow more sunlight in from what must be the top of the mountain that contained this cavern. I squinted at the light, wondering what it was that she saw there, when I felt her catch the tips of my fingers again.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she whispered.
Now that my feet were on firm ground, I looked at it anew and could appreciate the beauty of the changing light, the slow dance of the boulders as they floated, bumped into one another, and rose or sank like so much flotsam on an ocean wave. There was power there ― deadly power, before which mere mortals were wise to flee. But there was also beauty in the bobbing movement of the rocks, and perhaps some humor, too, as though some invisible god were playing with them as a fool plays with pebbles in the marketplace. Perhaps there were omens and augurs in their movements, I thought, and we simply did not know how to read them.
“We must be close,” Tergen remarked behind us, and I could tell from his dry tone that he cared nothing for beauty or omens unless they served to speed us on our way. The almost dreamlike spell that the drifting rocks had cast upon me was broken. And yet not entirely, for as Xelena led us up the steep rock cliff to find the path leading further in, closer to the Book of the Tree, she cast a small smile back at me, and I felt the light within my soul, trapped there to cause my heart to float and dance like the great boulders above.
A/N: Inspired by a beautiful painting by Damascus5 on deviantArt (http://damascus5.deviantart.com/art/Mobius-Cave-167400154).