First Test of Hell
Thyatira dwells on a Nexus, one of four entrances to Hell. The people here must learn self mastery or else fall victim to the demons among them. The mountain caves are their threshold and at the largest cave stand ten children around the age of fifteen. In front of them are four elders each with dark robes and a row of colored jewels sealed into the flesh of their right forearm.
An elder speaks,
“We are Lords of the Nexus. Our era is closing as the time of Zephaniah is on the rise. You that stand here have displayed the most vigor, self-enactment and self-control of all your peers. We have chosen you to train under us, to lord the next generations. You will all become leaders, but only one will take the name Zephaniah and rule beside us until we transition.
“You have already learned ways to control your demons and human nature. But once you cross the threshold you are on their terrain, they will claw you down and do everything they can to stop you from leaving. Your mission is to find a precious stone and find your way back out of Hell. If you fail, you will start over until you succeed. When you do, we will meet back here twenty minutes from now.”
“What if it takes longer than that?” one child asks.
“Time is irrelevant when crossing realms, you can enter back here at any time after you have entered.”
“So we could return years later?” another asks. The elders mumble among themselves.
“There will be a time keeper who’ll see you back here,” answers the elder.
The children are lead into the cave. It’s dark. Each one is blindfolded and told to breath deep seven times.
At the count of seven one a boy removes his blindfold. It’s still too dark to see. He’s holding a stick. No… It’s a torch. He checks his pouch for his flint. Every child in Thyatira carries a flint. Lighting the torch he sees there are only rock walls with no way out.
“The others left,” came a voice from behind. It’s one of the girls, “I’m Tierra. I waited for you.”
“Where is your torch?”
“Not everyone got one. I need to share with you.”
The boy didn’t like the idea of having to share in a time so crucial. His stomach growls. Agreeing to share he ignores the hunger and asks where the others went.
“There’s an opening above that boulder.”
They climb it, slipping through the narrow crack. It opens up into a tunnel.
“What’s your name?” Tierra asks.
“I don’t have a name.”
“Then what should I call you?”
“Don’t call me anything.”
“Can I hold the torch for you?”
“No,” he notices an iridescent mushroom growing from the wall. Likely poisonous, but that didn’t stop his stomach from rumbling again. They keep walking. Shadows cast by the light move as if dark things were scurrying about, never quite coming into the light.
“This little light of mine…,” she begins to sing.
“Shut up or I’ll leave you behind,” he demands.
“But it’s so creepy and cold. Can I hold the torch to warm up?”
“No,” this is his chance for rulership and he’s not about to compromise it.
“At least hold it this way so I can see better.”
Begrudgingly he complies. With hunger rising he starts noticing more mushrooms. Perhaps the others aren’t too far ahead. He tries listening for them, but all he hears are Tierra’s footsteps. He rolls his eyes.
“You’re going too fast,” she insists.
“You’re going too slow,” he replies.
“Why are you being so cruel? I waited for you.”
“You waited because you needed light, so quit trying to lead.”
“But I can’t see properly.”
“You have other senses. Use them,” his irritation turns to anger.
“You’re not going to earn the crown if you can’t be a good leader.”
“Why would you care?”
“Let me have a turn with the torch.”
“How dare you yell at me,” she leans in pushing him to the wall. The torch hits the ground, “You’re so indignant, how did you even get chosen for this? I don’t want someone like you as a Lord. I hope you die here.”
She picks up the torch and speeds down the tunnel. Anger burning, he tackles her. The torch hits the ground again as the squabbling turns into fighting. Tierra’s foot slips on loose stone, but there’s no wall here to catch her balance on. The boy dives for her hand, but it’s too late. She falls into the darkness. He runs for the torch and brings it back to the edge trying to see where she might be, but there is no bottom in sight. A sick feeling hits his gut. Maybe she was right. If he can’t care for one person how can he be trusted to care for all of them? He calls for her, but hears no reply. This is certain failure. For the first time ever he considers that he may not have what it takes. He looks about and sees an old bridge crossing the ravine. He swallows the knot in his throat and tries to move beyond the deep feelings of guilt.
The ropes are fraying and covered in a mossy mildew. The small wooden planks have mostly rotted away. He looks to the other side and thinks he may be due for the same fate as Tierra. Testing it he slowly moves his weight across each plank. Some of them crack. One of them crumbles. The bridge feels so unstable that he hurries to get over it. His speed causes more instability. The whole thing creeks and cracks until it breaks from behind. He lets go of the torch to tighten his grip on one of the ropes as it swings into the cliffs edge on the far side. The impact hurts. A lot. His grip slides on the mildew. Hooking his feet into a crack between the planks he regains his grip and starts inching his way to the top. His heart pounds in his chest as some of the wood continues to crumble away under his feet. He knows better than to look down and keeps his focus upward.
With a final thrust, he pulls himself to safety. He rolls to his back catching his breath, muscles turning numb. He has no concept of how much time has passed, only that the hunger pains are getting worse. He sees a glow not far away and heads toward it.
Mushrooms! Lots of them. Their iridescence combining to create a soft light. He feels very tired… defeated… is this a dead end? Mushrooms aren’t something to choose wrongly of and nothing iridescent is ever edible. He wishes for Tierra back. What if he went the wrong way and can’t get back across the ravine? He slouches down. Is this what loneliness feels like? He had never paid much attention to it before. Now in the face of failure it’s beginning to consume him.
This isn’t anything like he expected. Where are the others? Where are the demons? Then it sinks in. He’d been expecting to see the demons embodied, but they were already inside him playing off his human nature. How could he have let himself be so blind to this?
He’s thirsty, hungry and in desperate need of some rest. He reaches for the nearest mushroom and contemplates it. Even if it is poisonous, it’s what he deserves. He eats it. The flavor has a potent bite. His head spins. He passes out.