Hastily, I turned around, an excuse poised on my lips. But the words died straight away. There, floating beside me, hanging upon the air as if perched on a shelf, was a candle. Nobody was holding it. The wind seemed not to touch it, for it continued to burn steadily though my own flame flickered when a light breeze passed.
I stared at the candle transfixed. Then I slapped my face with my free hand. Hard. Yet the candle was still there when I opened my eyes. It started moving backwards, continuing down the path out of the garden. It bobbed ever so slightly, as a candle does whenever someone takes a step.
Someone was holding the candle.
This realization sent a chill straight through me. Yet, I did not hesitate to follow. A strong curiosity thrilled me to the core. Nalda would call it foolishness that gave me a sense of security; that I would trust an invisible guide to lead me, most likely, into a trap was madness.
Yet, there I was walking out of the safety of my garden and down the empty paths and corridors of the Palace. The candle led me past looming, dark houses, windows barred from the outside world and their owners sound asleep inside. The flame never hesitated or showed any confusion about where to go. Its owner knew these walls with strong familiarity, taking shortcuts that I never even knew existed.
Utterly lost and now completely dependent upon my ghost of a guide, I was just beginning to worry about how I would find my way back home, when the candle stopped. I followed its example, and taking a careful look around, realized where we were. We had crossed through the Emperor’s garden from a wall in its side hidden by vines and were now standing in front of the mountain’s entrance.
The candle continued to wait. I frowned, confused. Then a thought came to me.
“Do you want me to speak the password?” I asked in a hoarse whisper.
The candle bopped up and down as if its owner was making it mimic a nod.
“But I don’t know it.” I threw my hands up helplessly.
The candle continued to wait.
“Fine,” I huffed, “I’ll try.” I closed my eyes and tried to probe my mind to bring back the password. A password my younger self knew. A password given to me by my mother.
My mother. My mind veered off the search for the code that would open up the wall and instead brought back every word written by the most precious woman who brought me into this world.
Why had she called me that? Was it her special nickname for me? And she had called herself Ÿĩşŧƍƞ. I shook my head, trying to focus back on the task at hand, the candle never wavering. Yet, I couldn’t draw my attention away from those names. A thought crossed my mind.
I breathed in deeply, my knees trembling, knocking together.
“Avacë y Ÿĩşŧƍƞ!”
The mountain groaned loudly, the door cracking open slowly to reveal its dark, engulfing mouth. A mysterious, cold wind whistled through the mountain’s teeth, snuffing out my flame. My guide’s floating candle continued to burn brightly as it calmly crossed through the door’s threshold, leaving a trail of light for me to follow. Not too eager to be left behind, alone and out in the cold, I stepped through, keeping my feet out of the shadows and within the glow that fell from my guide’s candle.
The mountain’s walls immediately closed behind me, sealing me in darkness. I swallowed nervously and wished I had brought some matches. Though I wished to be back among the moon and stars in my garden, I forced myself to face the heart of the cave … or what I assumed was its heart.
It was so black that my eyes could not see my own hand when I held it in front of my face. A musty, earthy smell filled my nostrils and my mind couldn’t help picturing white bones lying sprawled out in abandoned corners, waiting for my clumsy step to crush their skulls. A shiver coursed through my veins and I wrapped my arms tight about me.
Then a light shone, approaching from about the corner of the cave’s passage. At first, I thought it was my guide returning for me. But as I ran towards the light, I saw that it was not so.
The candles that had lined along the walls of the cave when I came earlier that day, were each being lit, one by one. Flickering flames mysteriously appeared upon wicks, burning brightly and filling the cave with warmth. Each candle cast its own dancing shadow across the rough, jagged walls of stone. Though slightly eerie, I was cheered by their savage dance as each candle worked to keep the dark’s cold fingers at bay.
Slowly, I walked down the passage. It was the same tunnel that I had gone down with my family earlier that very day. Only now, I was alone. Though I was only taking small, tiny steps, my breathing was shallow, coming out in short puffs. Finally, the tunnel ended and opened up onto the pool.
And I entered a dream.
Luminescent moon beams fell softly through the roof, shining radiantly upon the hundreds of dewdrops cast from the rushing waterfall, sparkling like blue fairy-dust. The pond itself was filled with open lilies, their delicate, white petals dancing and surfing on their circular green pads along the waves of the rippling water. Ivy crawled out from their cracks in the pebbles, their long, leafy vines stretching out their arms up to the moon. The night air felt vibrant and alive.
Then the waters of the fall parted, like drapes being pulled back from a window. I could smell the woodsy burnt scent of pine sap. A spark flew through the gap between the falls. A fire seemed to be burning on the other side.
I looked back over my shoulder. The tunnel was still lit by rows of candlelight, yet the pull that convinced me to follow the invisible guide, began to tug at the strings of my heart with a new sense of urgency. I suddenly had a haunting premonition that not much time was left. That if I didn’t rush through that waterfall right now, I might not get another chance.
Hastily, I ran over to where the water was parted. Looking through the crack between the marble slabs of wall, I could see a fire being stirred by an invisible hand. Smoke rose to the ceiling as the flames of the roaring fire waved and danced. It looked warm and welcoming. Hesitating no longer I stepped through.
I walked into the room, watching the flames lick at the wood fervently, sending yellow and red sparks up into the air with wafts of smoke. Shadows danced merrily across the floor, leaping and chasing after each other.
But the cave was empty.
Not a soul answered. Only the sound of my own echo, the breeze rustling the leaves of the trees outside, and the crackling of the fire at my feet pierced the silence.
“Would my guide please be kind enough to reveal yourself?” I asked pleasantly, but rather nervously.
A heavy, cool sigh answered in reply.
“I’m sorry, child.”
The voice came across the fire from where I stood. It sounded sad. Nevertheless, I took a couple of steps back.
“Wh … what for?” I stammered, clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering.
“Do not worry, dear. I shan’t hurt you.”
I raised my chin and nodded, trying to appear brave. “Who are you?”
“Of my mother’s?” I asked eagerly.
There was a chuckle. It was warm.
“In a way, yes. But I was more your friend.”
“Why can’t I see you?”
“Because you can not remember.”
“Remember what?” I echoed.
“Everything. Sweet child – your memory has been tampered with. Blocked by magic. Thus, you can not see me or remember who killed your mother.”
My hands shook. “Do you know who killed her?”
“No. But you do.”
“I do?!” I gasped.
“Yes. You saw your mother be taken from you before your very eyes.”
I collapsed on my knees, tears streaking down my face. I clenched my hands. “What must I do to break the spell?”
“There are some powerful herbs in Quonxi. Mixed together with water from the midnight flower will break the cords that have been binding your mind all these years.”
I nodded. “Take me to this land and I will find them.”
“You must search for these herbs on your own. I can not help you.”
“But how shall I find Quonxi?” I threw up my hands helplessly.
There was another chuckle.
“You are in it.”
“The waterfall in the mountain – that is the portal into Quonxi. You are now in an abandoned cave at the south of the kingdom.
My brows flew up and I ran outside to look over the cliff’s edge. It looked even bigger than before. The landscape, full of trees and mountains seemed to go on forever and ever.
“It’s so big,” I breathed quietly, “How am I ever going to find what I need?”
“I shall leave you careful guidelines. And you shall have some help.”
There was no answer. I turned back around, though that proved useless since my mysterious guide was invisible.
“Are you there?” I asked.
Still no answer.
My shoulders fell, and I felt rather lonely. A wind blew through my clothes, causing a shiver to course through my body. Wrapping my arms around me for warmth, I went back into the cave. Picking up a stick, I stirred the fire till it burned ever brighter. Rubbing my hands together, I looked around aimlessly.
That’s when I saw it – written on the cave wall.
Laughing Grass from a widow’s meadow. Weeping Willow Tears in the lonely forest. A Kelpie’s salty fins of truth.