A droplet rippled through a small puddle an indiscernible distance into the cave. Another dropped somewhere closer, dripping and echoing along the narrow hall of the tunnel.
Arnold clenched his hand weakly, enwrapping his fingers over a collection of moist pebbles before dropping them back into their puddle. Nebulously kicking his leg about, the youth probed the functionality of his limbs. As his eyes fluttered open, Arnold stared deep into the recesses of the darkness whose only greeting was the lax orchestra of timely water pellets falling from the ceiling.
Arnold remained motionless, considering for a moment as to whether or not he was gazing down a long corridor in the afterlife, before lifting a hand up to gently caress his head. A steady flood of crashing water resonated a short distance behind him. As the youth craned his neck, careful to regulate the stiffness in his bones, he saw the entrance of the small grotto leading out to a great wall of falling liquid that all but sealed the entrance.
Arnold sighed breathlessly, rubbing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. His chest wreathed with aches and sores though his muddled mind could hardly decipher their exact locations.
Little light was able to diffuse through the barrier of water. The amount that did was tinted a deep blue and streamed in fluctuations over the interior walls of the entrance.
Arnold propped a hand behind himself and one foot into a sinkhole puddle in the floor. With great effort, the youth lifted his body from the dampened rock surface and supported his back against the curvature of the cave wall.
Examining his arms and legs, Arnold noticed the rope wrapped around his chest, still securely fastened and digging uncomfortably into his ribs. Clutching at the cord, the youth’s eyes followed its length to the other side of the cave, where he found the craftsman watching him wearily.
“So you’re finally awake hm?” Tristan asked from the opposite wall.
Arnold blinked sluggishly in return, moistening his dry throat before being enveloped in a fit of coughs and gagging. The craftsman, digging into one of the deep pockets of his tattered overcoat, tossed the canteen he’d been carrying into the youth’s lap.
“There’s still a little bit left. Drink it,” the craftsman instructed with a gestured nod.
Arnold bumbled his way around the cap before downing the last of the remaining liquid in one gulp. The contents seared his throat, sending the youth into another pungent cough. He lowered the canteen, dabbing his lip with the torn hem of his sleeve before sliding it back across the floor.
“Thank you,” the youth thanked hoarsely.
“A little too strong for you?” he chuckled humorlessly. “Maybe you’ll grow into it. I never quite got out of the stuff once I started.” The craftsman gave a fading smile. Half his face was a canvas for the aurora of the water’s refracted light, streaking thoughtlessly across his features. He took the canteen into his hands again, turning it in his palms nostalgically.
“Somehow, out of all the things I could’ve managed to hold onto, this was the one,” Tristan murmured, tapping the metal against his palm. “Funny isn’t it?”
Arnold didn’t answer, instead reeling through his head the events that had transpired prior to that moment. The thundering sound of the perpetual waterfall attracted his gaze. Hundreds of gallons spattered on algae grown rock at the entrance of the cave, its flow offset just enough as to prevent the whole tunnel from flooding. The violent crashing created a wisplike mist that dashed across Arnold’s face, soothing it slightly and causing the youth to realize the extent to which his numbness had dissipated.
“Where are we?” Arnold asked finally, tightening his grip around the rope. The craftsman looked about himself and the interior of the cave, constructing a coherent reply.
“Well, to begin with, we’re in a cave behind the waterfall,” he responded. Arnold squinted through the dim light, waiting for more. “After we somehow became dislodged from the Dragon Pine that dragged us under, we fell into the river channel flowing down from the top of the mountain. Shortly after that we happened upon the falls. And it would seem that we’d somehow conjured enough fortune to end up here. At least, that’s what I’ve been able to rationalize.”
“How long have we been here?” the youth questioned.
“I’m not all too certain. The storm itself seemed to have calmed, though it is impossible to know from within this cave. A few hours at least,” Tristan replied.
Arnold shifted his weight uncomfortably, droplets seemingly coupling the distance between the two men.
“How’d we get here then? Was the fall not as severe as it seemed?” the youth asked, adjusting his head against the unrefined grit of the calcium glazed wall.
“Well, though it wouldn’t be correct to say that we didn’t fall over the edge, we didn’t exactly make it to the bottom of the cascades either,” Tristan replied.
Arnold furrowed his brow in confusion, prompting another weak laugh from his companion. The craftsman smiled lightly and gestured out to the falling wall of water at the entrance. He chuckled mutely at this, directing his forefinger toward the rope around Arnold’s chest.
“Believe it or not, the cord here snagged on a sharp outcropping of rock right above this cave. The torrent forced us down and toward the cliff face as a result,” Tristan explained, motioning for an invisible diagram with his hands. “I couldn’t quite discern what was happening amidst the chaos, but somehow… we ended up here. Lucky too, after landing and scrambling about for air we found that you’d received a nasty gash through your skull. If the priest were any slower then I can’t say I’d be speaking with you right now.”
Arnold’s eyes widened, lifting his head to comb the rest of the cavern, searching for his other two companions. Following the line around his chest, the youth found them huddled against each other within a slight depression further down the tunnel.
“They’re tired. The Vu could do very little without his staff, but managed to conjure up whatever strength he could muster and healed your wound,” Tristan explained.
Arnold lifted a palm to his head, graciously feeling at the mended injury. The boar breathed weakly, slightly lifting the priest’s back with every inhalation. The youth gave a pensive expression.
“How of Firefly?” Arnold asked, edging himself toward the creature.
“I couldn’t say. The falls definitely rattled him, but it was not so much different for us either. I’d like to believe that it kept an eye open all the while until the Vu was finally finished with your healing,” the craftsman responded.
Arnold exchanged a somber glance, running a hand across the bloodied hide of the animal’s large back. The priest looked to be in much a similar state. His eyes and cheeks were sunken further inward from the cold and humid environment and his hands were drenched in a deep crimson.
The youth shifted his weight again, suddenly blotching out a patch of his vision in a dizzying whirl. He secured a stabilizing hand atop a stalagmite stump on the floor. Feeling at his head, it suddenly occurred to him that it was his blood on the priest’s hands.
The falling wall of water ahead of him contorted visually in his disorientated delirium. As the youth lurched forward in nausea, he managed to catch himself on the length of the priest’s trousers, rousing the resting man.
“Sit down Arnold. It’s likely anemia. You’ve lost a substantial amount of blood,” Tristan motioned, leaning the boy back against the wall.
Brandon wiped at his lids, eyes raw from the stinging whips of the water’s mist. Shaking himself into an upright position, he carried his body over to the youth, placing a hand over the boy’s forehead and examining his condition.
“Indeed. It might be best to lie back for the time being. I’ll see what I can do to remedy the nausea,” the priest exclaimed from his stupor.
“It seems as though I’ve incurred yet another debt now haven’t I?” he murmured after a silence, the Vu’s clammy hand transferring a trifling amount of relieving heat.
A stray tablet of water bowled over Brandon’s cheek, trickling off his chin and spattering on the floor. In following the path of the droplet’s descent, Arnold noticed a near imperceptible smile on the priest’s face, shadowed partially by the obscurity of the dim light. From beside them however, a low and rumbling laugh emanated from Tristan’s core, temporarily stifling the crescendo of crashing matter outside.
“Yes, it seems you have,” the craftsman smiled.
The three men shared a humorless chuckle, momentarily draining the worry and anxiety of the situation. Even the boar, whose one fluttering eyelid greeted their laughter, seemed to observe amusedly from its niche in the wall.
As the dark stains in his vision lifted into clarity, Arnold’s mind returned to reality. And within the hollow confines of the cave’s perspiring hall, the youth brought his knees up to his chest and clutched at them tightly.
“We’re not going to make it are we?” he muttered through the ensuing rumble of the outside world.
“Now why do you say that?” the craftsman asked, though he was fully aware of the answer.
Brandon brought his hand back into his lap, using the other to stroke Firefly’s fur in silence. The boar grunted in response, unopposed to the soothing treatment.
“Well… a dragon. Not many people can say they’ve seen one before. They’ve been so elusive in these past centuries. Who would’ve supposed that one was housed atop this mountain?” the priest said half ironically. “… And for that I am sorry boys.”
“It’d be easy to blame anyone for our being here. I could easily have blamed myself for the transgressions of the last few weeks, however if we embarked on this journey together with our one goal in mind, I find it hard to believe that our quest was a tainted aspiration,” Arnold replied, slightly surprising Tristan with the volume at which he spoke.
“Of course. In fact, far from it,” the Vu agreed.
“And though it may not mean much to say, I wouldn’t have preferred it any differently,” the craftsman sighed thoughtfully.
This time, Arnold managed to steal a smile onto his face. Looking over his shanty band of companions, the youth couldn’t help but wonder at the lengths he’d been through to meet them. Though they were few, they shared a common goal and set out on a whim in order to conquer it.
Arnold turned his head over to the waterfall at the entrance, large streaks of mud slicking over the walls and ceiling from the upturned earth. As he observed deeper into the muddy cascade, he could vaguely distinguish his own reflection in the froth.
The youth looked curiously upon the reflection, which appeared as if it were climbing the very rapids of the falls themselves. It was with a closer inspection, however, that Arnold noticed the reflection beginning to move about the water of its own accord.
Suddenly the surface of the waterfall began to distort, creating a contrived yet prominent protrusion into the cave in the semblance of a vague face. As the water brought itself further into the tunnel, the flittering aurora of deep blue translucence gave way to a muddier darkness.
“Wait, what’s happening?” Tristan asked in surprise.
The four travelers scampered to their feet, Arnold being hit with an upsurge of queasiness once he stood. Paddling back into the interior of the grotto, the engulfing edifice of water advanced further and further into the confined space, fastening a liquid shutter before them.
Swallowing and fracturing dangling stalactites and blotting out the last of the natural sunlight, the encroaching wave prompted the craftsman and priest to quickly pull their dazed companions more vigorously backwards.
The vague face within the wall of water formed distinctly, having a very definitive nose, two sunken areas for eyes and a fluttering depression of a mouth. As the cascade chased the four travelers further into the cave, the sunken eyes began to glow a very dim green, akin to the color of the algae outside.
“Step back! Stay away from the water!” Brandon shouted, the gaping mouth of the watery expression etching ever closer. The four travelers backed further toward the end of the tunnel.
“What is this? Another display by the dragon?” Arnold cried out, the swelling bellows of the churning water shattering his eardrums.
“I am no dragon,” the liquid face seemed to growl. Arnold shuffled further back in surprise, allowing Brandon and Firefly to step in front of him.
“Wretched demon! Do you not see that we are but wounded travelers? I bid you be gone from us and allow us our peace!” the priest shouted back through gritted teeth. The boar grunted menacingly with a heavy stomp of its hoof.
“I am no demon either,” the wave replied, receding slightly to allow the travelers more room and greater light.
A mass of loose debris spat out at the four journeyers from the darkness. Tristan held his cloak in front of Arnold, shielding him from any incoming projectiles. Brandon took a threatening step forward, sloshing his foot through newly formed muddy puddles.
“Malicious spirit all the same! We may be broken but we will not whither without a fight!” Brandon proclaimed, raising two softly radiating palms of gold.
“Choose your actions wisely Brandon of the Vu! I am not your enemy!” the wave roared, nearly deafening Arnold for a second time. The priest narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the wall of liquid, his fatigue evident in the flickering of his glowing hands.
“What do you want then?” Tristan shouted, lowering his cloak.
The great wall of water shifted, its ambiguous features churning slowly and its perceived mouth returning to an open orifice on its façade. It receded further to the entrance, observing the travelers all the way.
“It is not what I want, but what you want that is the reasoning for which I am seeing you now, Tristan of Edles,” the wave rumbled, shaking the very rock of the mountain.
“If it’s what we want then we wish to be left alone, spirit!” Brandon demanded.
“You know yourself less than I do, priest of the Vu,” the face thundered. Tristan took a curious step toward the wave, holding his fist out in front of him.
“What do you know about what we want?” he probed, grits of sand blowing into his face from the water.
“I have observed you four ever since you set foot upon the mountain. I have witnessed your bumbling toward the summit and your subsequent descent. I was the one to lead you here and most of all, I know what you want,” the voice clicked.
Tristan took a step back into the tunnel, the streaming surge of water flowing close to his face before restoring itself. As if a metaphor for their own confusion, the liquid sifted sporadically in the four traveler’s wake.
“Who are you spirit? What do you want?” the priest questioned, notably fazed.
“I am known in many lands by many different names. Here I am the great deity Barrientos of Mark,” the water spirit proclaimed, “I am here, not only to deliver news of your noble search for the meaning of life, but also your greater destiny in the face of the whole world!”
The priest’s face paled.
Arnold’s mouth fell ajar, unable to fully process the information given to him. Despite having his back propped flush against the tunnel wall, the youth found the need to support himself on his now rickety legs. And whether amplified by the ungodly condition of his body or perhaps the dizzying state of his mind, Arnold felt as if his limbs were sinking into the ground. As if the very rock of the mountain were consuming him and grinding upon his loins to be offered up to the wave of water.
The sudden proclamation of the supposed deity Barrientos’ reception lent the three travelers rent of a primal anxiety suffered in all men. Suddenly the priest felt ever so cold as the warming glint of his radiant hands faded into black. He now stood before a god.
Only Firefly, who could not rightfully understand the deity, maintained his steady footing through the course of the revelation. The priest and the craftsman caught themselves on the walls of the cave, nearly tripping over invisible concavities in the floor.
“Impossible… the deity Barrientos of Mark is a myth. The god of balance from my storybooks,” Arnold gasped in the great spirit’s presence.
“And yet I am here, before you now,” it responded soberly, “Did you not learn of me, priest of Vu?”
Brandon rounded his head about confusedly while smacking his lips, unsure of what to say. He turned to face Arnold, peering into the youth’s eyes from a backdrop of dirty light as if questioning as to whether or not the elapsing events were truly occurring.
“Of course, but… Barrientos of Mark is fabled. We have many gods within our beliefs, but you… you were simply an idea during the times of creation… A personification meant to… explain a concept…” the priest murmured almost inaudibly, wiping his eyes and turning back to the wave. Tristan searched through his mind, muttering incoherencies into his palm.
“And ideas are eternal are they not? All powerful as well as all seeing,” the deity rumbled. The Vu nodded in agreeance but reeled through his mind for the proper words to express his thoughts.
“This is true but…” the priest trailed off.
The great deity’s flushing waves washed inward and outward, wetting the walls and sending new arrays of dripping pellets from the ceiling. Remnants of broken bark and mangled shrubs created dark splotches within the already murky water. The billowing vertical dunes of the wave’s face resembled the arid deserts slopes Arnold had traversed during his journey. The similarity encapsulated him momentarily in thought, before thrusting his mind back to reality.
“Why have you come to us now great spirit?” Arnold asked, slowly rising on quivering legs.
His knees bucked and rattled violently underneath him. As the miscellaneous rubble washed hectically through the deity’s face, the youth felt a great tension emanating from the dirtied disguise.
“What is this destiny you speak of?” Tristan questioned, still holding onto the wall. There was a great silence; even the droplets from the ceiling seemed suspended in midair.
“I have waited… a long time for the coming of you fair warriors…” the deity proclaimed at last.
“Warriors?” Brandon repeated in confusion.
“Your search for the meaning of life is a noble one. However your coming here was no coincidence. For many, many millennia have I awaited this destined time. And now you are here,” the deity spoke.
The three men exchanged confused glances, shaking their heads, unable to decipher the true meaning in the god’s words.
“What could you mean? Our quest to find the meaning of life… led us here? By fate?” the priest asked. The disembodied face of the wave shook sluggishly, frothing liquid about from its contact with the wall.
“By destiny,” the god professed, “Ever since the times of creation you four were destined to come here.”
“But how? And why?” Tristan asked.
The mouth of the water wall closed, replaced by a reverberating rumble throughout the tunnel. Arnold held tightly upon a depression in the wall, supplanting his feet further apart for greater stability.
“I am dying, fair travelers… For thousands of years I have watched over this realm. In my weakest of times the scales of equilibrium have teetered dangerously between good and evil. Through the instability I was able to maintain balance in this world… but now I’m afraid that there’s a force too powerful for me to control, and with the scale favoring one end of the spectrum… I am now dying…” the god said.
There was silence. Save for the steady washing of the deity’s waves, Arnold could only hear the indistinct muffle of his own raspy breathing and rapid heartbeat.
“But how is that possible? Did you not say that ideas were eternal?” the priest quivered.
“This is true, ideas are eternal. However it is also true in the case of balance that imbalance may tip the scales of the world’s equilibrium to one side,” the deity clarified. “Great tumult is to come in the near future.”
“Great tumult? Like war? Famine? Disaster?” the craftsman asked, fear-stricken.
“All of that and more. The forces of Hell have been rallying strength within the last few hundreds of years. I can no longer contain them to maintain balance. The express evil of the Hell Gate has already descended upon this realm with demons and feral imps scattering throughout the land,” the deity informed. Arnold brought a hand to his mouth.
“And the dragon?” he muttered. The shallow, glowing eyes from the water wall directed themselves toward the youth.
“And the dragon, yes,” the deity confirmed.
The priest shook his head thoughtfully, pacing hastily from one side of the tunnel to the other, making gestures through his mind. He turned to his companions and then to the boar, lightly stroking its mane nervously before directing his eyes back to the god.
“And what is our position within this ensuing madness?” he asked shakily.
“Once the forces of Hell unleash themselves upon this world, I can do little to prevent the total annihilation of this planet,” the deity exclaimed, sending a chill throughout the hairs on Arnold’s body. “However a means of sealing the Hell Gate has been prophesized to be possible. This is a task I now present unto you.”
“Folly! Impossible! There is nothing we can do above the more noble holy warriors from the capital cities! How can you come to us with such an impossible task as fending off the forces of the Devil?” Tristan stormed, throwing his arm in front of himself in a vigorous gesture.
“If there was a prophesized method to sealing the Hell Gate, then why hasn’t it been done yet?” the priest added, more calmly then the craftsman.
“As the god of balance I am liable to the maintenance of equilibrium for both good and evil. It was not yet the time to close the Hell Gate, but now it is,” the god explained.
“Then by that logic, wouldn’t the Hell Gate be opened again in order to honor the balance of light and dark?” Arnold asked. The wave looked over to him once again, seemingly nodding in acknowledgement.
“And thus the cycle would begin anew. But now is the time to act, else evil attain strength and rule this world for the next hundred millennia,” the face announced. Tristan shook his head.
“You still haven’t answered my question. Why not send the holy knights of the capital cities instead? Four travelers couldn’t hope to withstand all the force of Hell. We were nearly killed from our encounter with the dragon!” the craftsman noted.
The god seemed to shake its face, all the while receding further and further to the entrance of the grotto.
“The knights are powerful yes, however if we were to enlist the legions of the holy armies… they would be assuredly destroyed. The mobilization of such a force would also advance the date of Hell’s ascension to this world. Instead, a more covert approach is needed,” the wave explained.
“That way being?” the priest motioned.
The god was now upon the entrance, thinning his volume enough to allow for the permeation of light through the liquid body.
“The Hell Gate is a one directional portal from the underworld to this realm. The dragon you encountered protects it from atop this mountain, warding off any travelers who come near. No other method of entry into this realm is possible, thus the forces of Hell have it within their interest to keep it protected,” the god explained.
“So only one gate exists? Could the holy armies not simply surround the gate and force a seal upon it? If they succeed, the portal will be unusable,” Brandon exclaimed. The deity shook its head.
“The Hell Gate cannot be sealed from this realm. No amount of magic will be able to completely blockade the portal. It must be done from the inside,” the voice echoed. The three men exchanged a wary expression.
“We’re to assume a method of entering Hell is possible?” Tristan guessed. The wave arched its face forward.
“Yes. Eight arch stones, imbued with intense magic have been scattered throughout the land, awaiting their call to service. When all are assembled and constructed, a one directional portal from this realm will allow passage into Hell. However, each stone possesses a difficult trial that you must overcome in order to obtain them, and with the coming of Hell’s invasion, demons and monsters will no doubt be guarding each one,” the god explained.
Arnold swallowed an accumulation of saliva and air simultaneously, coughing and causing his heart to skidder about in his chest. Tristan and Brandon were too occupied to look concerned, only Firefly turning a comforting tusk toward the youth.
Arnold couldn’t entirely believe what he’d just heard. In his mind he ruled out the possibilities of it being a dream, or perhaps a nightmare. The youth wondered as to whether or not the group was being tricked, fooled by their fatigue as they straddled the threshold of Death’s door. But no, Arnold understood that everything was all too real.
“One directional? Then once we attain these stones, then what? Who is to enter Hell to fend off the hordes of the damned while contriving a method of sealing the gate?” the priest quarried. The face of water melted out of the cave, now suspended only by the crashing of the waterfall.
“That is of no concern to you at the present time. Where your destiny lies is the retrieval of the arch stones. Without them, darkness will consume this world,” the disappearing face described.
“But why us? And how would you even know as to whether or not you’ve found the right people to your prophecy?” Tristan cried out after the deity, running and dragging his three companions by the rope.
“I have watched for you on this mountain. Your search, your character, your persistence and your concern for one another could not be mistaken. You are none other the travelers of the prophecy,” the deity professed.
Tristan gripped at the rope around his waist. He narrowed his eyes in thought and skirted a foot nervously in a puddle of small stones.
“And if we fail? What does the prophecy say about our success?” he asked.
“Nothing. The prophecy does not foretell the outcome of the events to come. But if you are to fail, then I can say with great certainty that this world will perish and plummet into a darkness lasting a hundred millennia,” the god replied.
Tristan fell up against the wall, sliding his back down its course surface and slumping heavily to the floor. Brandon made a motion to say something, but lost his words in the silence. Firefly rustled his head up against the priest’s hand though no comforting palm met his ears.
Arnold thought over the supposed prophecy and the implications of what it could incur toward the future. If the god were correct, then the four travelers now played Fate for the lives of everything on the planet. Not too long ago Arnold had thought himself as a simple youth who basked in the pleasures of menial things… but for no longer.
“So… what does all of this have to do with the meaning of life?” Arnold asked lowly.
The now foaming façade of the deity’s face splattered closer, drilling into the rock as it leaned inward.
“This you will find on your journey. You said yourself that to find the meaning of life, you would be willing to die. Well… the answer to your search lies somewhere upon this journey. However, in regards to your survival, I cannot guarantee your success nor your safe return. As you descend this path for the battle over this dominion I can do little to assist you. Even if you succeed I cannot know as to whether or not you will ever be the same,” the god answered. Tristan winced at the revelation, partially swallowing the weight of the words.
“I see… You mentioned that there was a date in which Hell was prophesized to ascend. When is this date?” Arnold asked.
“Exactly one year from now,” the face explained, “You must traverse the land, gather the eight stones, return alive and construct the arch. All within the next twelve months.”
Arnold’s head lowered, acknowledging the harsh parameters.
“I see…” he murmured.
The god withdrew back into the waterfall, becoming uniform with the cascade’s flow and leaving the four travelers in silence. As the light within the cave illuminated their faces once again, Arnold saw his own terror wrought face in the water’s reflection. He moved over to the wall, unable to think of anything to say.
“I am aware of your anxiety travelers. However with the onset of evil on the horizon, it is only you who have the ability to help prevent disaster. Perhaps the other gods above are simply indifferent to the happenings within this realm. This is not so with I however. Just as in your search for the meaning of life, your destiny beckons you forward,” the god’s voice reverberated. “Thus, you have but two choices: stay here, die and watch the rest of the world fall into discord, or step through the waterfall and begin your journey… once again.”
Tristan rose slowly, his face a slate of different emotion, but his eyes burning with an intense fire. And upon looking toward his other two companions, Arnold saw just the same. Clutching at the searing fervor within his chest, the youth pushed himself from off the cave wall and stood before the waterfall.
“So where is the first stone hidden?” Arnold directed toward the water.
“The peak of Mt. Wilson will hold the first arch stone,” the nebulous voice replied.
Arnold nodded understandingly, stepping forward toward the crashing water.
“Every subsequent stone location will be indicated by an etching on every arch piece that you find. With every trial comes a sheer increase in difficulty. You four are the undeserving vassals for the carrying out of our prophecy. Because of this you will suffer through your trials. However, despite being of little assistance to you on your journey, I still bid you well holy travelers… for you will all undoubtedly climb through the grit and bark of Hell itself… and return as legend,” the voice dissipated as the four travelers stepped through the torrential downpour.