Sh’ra crawled, sometimes on hands and knees, sometimes flat on her stomach, always the stone pressed on every side. After the climb outside, it felt disconcerting to be so enclosed. Rather than clinging to a wall with empty space behind her, this passage consisted of alternating between snaking herself forward on her stomach and carefully guiding herself down steep inclines. Most of the way was lit by a luminescent moss that appeared in various patches along the rock, casting an eerie glow. Halfway down, she was so covered in the stuff she could still see even in the places where no moss grew. The final section before the bottom was a pipe like formation in the rock. It had been the most difficult to climb up. Now though, she simply pressed her back against one wall and walked herself down.
At the bottom, she stretched her arms upward and out, luxuriating in the space surrounding her. Steam rose from the ground beneath her feet. She was thankful for the warmth after being pressed against cold stone of the passageway. She was not as thankful for her clothes being soaked through. She had worried during the climb that the goddess might have resealed the room, but the crack was still there. She stepped up to it and peered through. The room was empty. The blankets she had slept on still covered the floor. The goddess must not have many visitors. Sh’ra tossed the bow into the room and then pressed herself through the crack. It was about her height, narrowing at the top and bottom. As a child, she had stepped through it, her shoulder barely brushing either side. This time, she got stuck halfway. She shimmied herself downward toward the wider portion releasing the pressure on her upper body. With all the grace and dexterity of an edge dancer, Sh’ra flopped into the room, landing hard on the floor. She groaned, thanking the goddess Shin had decided to stay behind. She would never have heard the end of his praises for that masterpiece of dexterity.
She stood in the room for the first time in ten years. It was the same as it had been when she left. She could not be sure, but even the blankets appeared unmoved. Doubts crashed in on her. Was it wrong for her to be here? She was an intruder in a sacred space. Would the goddess be angry with her for returning? The goddess was supposed to reward the finders of lodestones, but those stories spoke of finding the stones in remote caves, not the home of the goddess herself. Something about this felt like stealing to Sh’ra. She shoved the thoughts down before they spiraled out of control. It was too late now. If the goddess was here, Sh’ra would know soon enough how she felt.
She snuck out of the chamber into the hallway, her mind remembering the steps from a thousand rehearsals. A soft blue glow emanated from the walls, lighting her path. If the goddess were here, she would be in one of these next few rooms. Sh’ra needed to get to the opening, around the corner at the end. That would lead to another long hallway with a gradual downward slope. At the end would be the two large doors she had slipped between as a child. She was close now. She just needed to get to the stone.
She peered cautiously into the first room. It was dark and empty. She darted past the doorway. As she went, her mind returned to something Shin had said: Sh’ra had been missing for a week. That was not possible. She had only slept one night in the cave before the goddess had opened the exit to her. Was the home of the goddess under some kind of spell that caused time to pass differently? Shin would not be able to wait for a week. She needed to move quickly.
Sh’ra ran. She was foolish to think she could hide from the goddess anyway. Her best chance was to get to the stone. She slowed as she rounded the final corner, preparing to sprint down the hallway. Instead, she slid to a stop. The door was gone. Not shut, disappeared. There was no evidence it had ever been there. The hall just ended, a flat wall of stone. She stared in confusion. She ran to the end anyway. Placing her hand against the rock, she pushed, hoping it would give way, that it would it be some kind of illusion. It wasn’t. She backed away feeling desperation rise within her, wanting to crumple to the floor and curl into a ball. This was not how it was supposed to be. Not sure what else to do, she retraced her steps, checking the rooms she had passed.
The room behind the second door was the same, bare except for a few empty wooden shelves. She returned to the first doorway. A white light now stretched from it across the hall, striking the far wall. In a chair in the center of the room, the goddess Lo’rah sat, hands folded in her lap.
Sh’ra stepped into the room and knelt before the goddess. On one knee, with head bowed, she spoke.
“Great goddess, I was not sure… I didn’t know if you would be here.”
“I am.” The goddess paused as she examined Sh’ra with a look a curiosity. “Were you hoping I would not be?”
Sh’ra was not sure how to answer that. She had hoped, but could she say that? Which was worse, insulting the goddess or lying to her?
“I had hoped.” Sh’ra admitted, choosing honesty.
“Yes, I know.” Lo’rah replied, but her voice held no malice.“It is good to see you again Sh’ra. I have missed you. Come, sit with me.” She indicated a chair to her right.
“I would love nothing more great goddess but my friend is in danger.”
“You defy the will of the goddess?”
Sh’ra froze, her throat constricting, her head getting light. She stood, ready to obediently walk to the chair.
“I’m only jesting girl. You are here for the stone?”
“Yes, goddess.” Sh’ra nodded, relief flooding through her.
“Why should I give it to you? What have you done to deserve it?”
“I… I don’t deserve it goddess. I need it. Without it they will kill me. They will kill Shin. My family will be lost. Please, whatever you ask of me, I will give it.”
“You are willing to admit you came here to take it from me, hoping I would not be here, but you lie to me about this?”
“I… Goddess, I have spoken no lie. I will do anything you ask of me.”
The goddess examined her, weighing her words, weighing her. Lo’rah’s face remained passive, but she closed her left hand into a fist, then uncurled her fingers. There, in the palm of her hand, lay the stone. She extended it toward Sh’ra, inviting her to come take it.
“I require nothing from you. I give the stone to you freely. But know this, it will not be able to prevent all that is coming. The stone is powerful, but it will not grant you all you seek. Most have forgotten the old ways, but those who remember will seek to bend its power for their own ends. ”
Sh’ra stepped forward for the stone.
“Th..thank you goddess.”
The goddess inclined her head. Was it really going to be this easy? Sh’ra picked up the stone and slipped it into her pocket, double checking to ensure it was secure.
“Sh’ra, when you are ready, come to me again. Return the stone and I will give you a new life, a new purpose.”
“Where will I find you goddess?”
“I am here.”
Sh’ra turned and bowed, not fully understanding but knowing she should feel grateful. She felt only the pressure to return to Shin before it was too late.
“And Sh’ra, leave the bow. You will not need it.”
Remembering the bow for the first time in the conversation, Sh’ra set it on the floor.
She bowed once more to the goddess before running from the room.
In the sleeping chamber, Sh’ra regarded the crack that was her exit. She was about to bend down so she could squeeze through again, but stopped. Instead, she reached inside her jacket to pull out the stone. She held it, feeling the coolness of its surface in her palm. The texts her father had found had not been very clear as to how to use it, but they had all said to begin by focusing on the stone. She closed her eyes, extending her senses as she had been taught. Beginning with the stone, she moved her attention slowly up her arm, then down through her torso, her hips, her legs, and finally her feet. She concentrated there a moment before she found them. Extending from her feet, invisible lines connected her to the stone floor beneath her. She followed them. Below her they branched in a thousand different directions, webbing outward across the floor and up the walls like the threads of a cloth. She traced the strands extending from her toward the crack in the stone. She imagined her hands gripping the threads on either side of the gap, gently pushing them outward as one would widen a tear in fabric. She heard the stone grind.
When she opened her eyes, the gap was wide enough for her to walk through unimpeded. She stepped through, a smile breaking across her face.