The Obsidian Sword: An Unusual Quest - Part Four
Chapter 4: The Cabin
Before I enter the abandoned shack, I circle it twice. Once I'm assured that it is, in fact, abandoned, I allow myself to enter. The floorboards creak and groan under the weight of me, and they sound so tired that I have the strange urge to apologize. Taking a look around, it's hard to guess how long the shack has been on its own lonesome, but one thing's for sure - it's been a long time. There's dust on absolutely everything, layers and layers of it, and the smell of stale air lingers. White sheets cover the few items of furniture there are, and if it weren't for the dust, I'd think maybe the shack was a vacation home. Maybe used for camping? Cringing as the boards let me know just what they think of me walking all over them, I make my way across the room and take the sheets off. There's a vanity with a washbasin on it against the wall closest to the door, a stool in front of the vanity, and a bed in the opposite corner. Just seeing the bed makes me yawn, and suddenly I realize I'm exhausted.
I'm turning to the vanity to grab the wash basin and look for some water to clean up before bed when I freeze in my tracks, because I see it - a door. I don't know how I didn't notice it before, when I first walked in. I rub my hand over my face and blink drowsily. Maybe I'm more tired than I thought I was. It's not a large door. In fact, it's barely tall enough or wide enough for me to squeeze through, and I'm not exactly a Skeith or Grarrl. Whoever stayed in this shack before must have been pretty small.
I glance towards the bed, then back to the door. To sleep now, or to sleep later? That's the question of the moment. It's probably nothing. A pantry, maybe, or storage. But before I can stop it, I get an itchy feeling in my skin. It's the feeling I always get when I'm curious about something. This feeling got me into a lot of trouble as a young Shoyru, always getting into messes. Hopefully this isn't one of those times, because I've made up my mind. Before bed, before anything else happens, I have to find out what's behind that narrow door.
My legs traverse the entire floor in ten long steps, and then I'm there in front of the mysterious door. It's got a Spyder crawling across the knob, and I have to wait a second for the Petpet to get to the other side before I can turn the handle. Inside there are numerous cobwebs - probably where the Spyder came from - and a few shelves with a few ancient canned goods resting atop them. The floor is made of hard-packed dirt, but what's intriguing about the ground isn't what it's made out of, but what I find there. A square space has been carved out, and if I squint, I can just make out stairs below me.
Okay. Ancient abandoned shack, possible Spyder infestation, lots of cobwebs, ghostly-looking sheets on the furniture, and now a passageway leading down into the depths. Nothing could possibly go wrong here.
A grin spreads across my face.
I'm definitely going down.
My backpack proves particularly unhelpful as I try to balance myself on the first few rickety steps. I keep pitching either too far forward or too far backward, but I'm determined to reach the bottom in one piece. My mother used to tell me repeatedly that curiosity got the Kadoatie in trouble, but I never could seem to get the message through my head. Eventually, I get my footing corrected. But as I descend further and and the hard-packed dirt walls narrow, I really hope that I'm not going to be the Kadoatie in this case. Down, down, down I go... it's as if there is no end. A few times, I have to take large steps to avoid especially rotted wooden stair steps. Even the ones in relatively good condition protest my presence when I put my weight on them. Just as I'm wondering when the stairs are going to stop, I reach the end with the abrupt tripping of someone who expect there to be another stair step when there isn't one.
Looking around, I see a tunnel branching off from the stair landing. It takes me a moment to realize that I shouldn't be able to see this far down, and a moment longer to notice with a downward glance that the necklace the Light Faerie gave me is glowing brightly. I smile, strangely comforted, and continue forward.
I don't go more than five steps before I hear scratching, echoes of small noises, and scurrying. The tunnel amplifies the noises and gives the illusion that they're everywhere - whatever they are. I turn slowly in circles, expecting to come face-to-face with some terrifying creature. When nothing shows itself, I reach for the necklace and extend it farther forward. It lends a small pool of light, but beyond that, I see nothing.
But one thing's for sure. It's not nothing.
And I am not alone.
Scurrying - louder than before - sounds from my left, and I whirl around, holding the light in front of me, but I've just missed the creator of the sound yet again. Hearing it suddenly from my right, I lunge towards it, but again there's nothing. Frustrated now, I decide to use a focusing method I learned from Stephen. My eyes close, my breathing becomes deep and methodical, and all my attention goes to listening to the noises around me. The slight breeze that reaches down into the tunnels. The sound of my own breathing. And then - there! - the scurrying. My eyes fly open, and I whip around only to come face to face with...
I blink, less startled than you'd expect to see him standing in front of me. He's looking insanely pleased with himself and his success at having tricked me into thinking there was something dangerous down here. I roll my eyes at him, but my feelings about finding Stephen at the bottom of the staircase (of all places) are more, "Well, of course you're here," than, "I am so surprised you're here!" Because, in reality, Stephen's role in my life is less petpet and more companion. We have a respect for one another, Stephen and I. He's part colleague, part trusted friend, part family member, and - honestly - part of me. He's protective in a way that doesn't hover, doesn't judge, and doesn't condescend. So when I saw his bright eyes at the bottom of the stairs, all that was exchanged was the raising of an eyebrow as if to say, "Really?" Stephen replies by simply looking up at me as if to say, "Come on, did you really expect me NOT to show up?"
I shake my head and sigh. "Come on," I say, and put my arm out. He waddles towards me and scurries up my frame, using my outstretched arm as a sort of branch to help him onto my shoulder. As he settles into place, he breathes a sigh.
"Don't tell me you're getting out of shape, old man."
Stephen glares daggers, and I allow myself a short burst of laughter.
He hates that he's so small, so stubby and less-than-amazing in his own eyes. For someone as levelheaded as he is, he has a penchant for selling himself short when it came to his form. Stephen is a Tai-Chi warrior trapped inside a fuzzy, unremarkable-looking little body. When people look at us, they think I am the one who is taking care of him, but if they knew how we'd met, they would know better.
If they asked, this is the story I would tell them:
We met about three months into my training. I'd been doing well, staying focused. Or at least, I thought I had been. During sparring, my trainer noticed that I was being too forceful, too jerky with my movements.
"You don't have peace," said the Techo, with his perpetual frown. "If you don't have peace, you will never learn to be an effective warrior. You have no business being here without it." I wanted to snap back a sarcastic remark, but before I could, he continued on. "Good thing for you, we have a guest trainer today. You will spar with his students, and you will see the difference." When he said I would do something, it was more like a command. It would be so simply because he said it would be so. He could move a mountain out of sheer willpower and by glaring at it. "Ah!" I remember him saying, "Here they come now."
Such simple words to introduce something that would change my life.
With that, the Techo Master strode over to greet the Tai-Chi class that generally trained on the beaches on the other side of the island. Often at sunrise. Which was, in my opinion, a miserable time to be awake, unless you had never gone to sleep in the first place. They were a myriad group. Three Kougras, two Grarrls, an Eyrie, six Techos, and, behind them all, barely rising to most of their shins, was a lone Harris. I caught his eye, and he blinked at me, unimpressed, before looking away. It seemed like a challenge, somehow, his complete disregard of me. It made me angry.
"Taro!" the Techo Master called to me from where he had been chatting with the Tai-Chi Master, a certain Ruki named San Syng-Yun. Everything about the Ruki was precise. And much too slow for me. My eyes flicked back to the Techo Master as he continued his demand. It would be a demand. Everything out of his mouth was a demand. "You're up first. Stephen will be your sparring partner. Meet. Bow. Dance." I stifled the urge to roll my eyes. He considered martial arts a dance form, full of grace. A practical study full of precision. I considered it a way of learning control and a step towards becoming a knight. Something that could offer me a future better than the past I'd gotten myself stuck in. I considered it all those things, but definitely not a dance.
One could say that wasn't as poetic, but it was at least practical.
I took my place in the center, expecting a Kougra to step forward. Maybe even one of those fierce-looking Grarrls. But no. Instead, waddling as fast as his legs would take him, the Harris took his place in front of me. My jaw nearly dropped as I looked between my teacher and my sparring partner.
"Are you kidding me?" I asked aloud before I could stop myself. "He's, what, two feet tall? This is completely unfair. He's gonna get hu-"
Before I could finish my sentence, I was on the ground, on my back, with my pride somewhere on the other side of Neopia. I was sure I'd never find it again. Above me, Stephen's face loomed. He smirked, a fire in his eyes, and offered me a hand up. I don't know why I didn't push it away. It was something about the fire that said we were kindred. Something about the opposite sides of us - his fire controlled with peace, my stability cloaked with fire - that cemented us.
As soon as I was up, the Techo Master clapped twice and uttered his favorite word: "Again!"
I smirked with narrowed eyes, all focus. I would not underestimate Stephen again.
Before long, we were sparring nearly every week. Ours was a tenuous friendship of few words at first, and then a more sincere one with as few words as before. We spoke not with sounds but in the midst of sparring. The two schools partnered up for a while, the Techo Master teaching the precision as San Syn-Yun taught the dance. We excelled as a whole class, but what I noticed most was that, like flint, Stephen and I were sharpening one another. His strikes were fast, but he had lacked the fierceness he had been smothering. I seemed to coax it out. And while I had been all fierceness, now I had learned to calm myself in order to think more clearly. Words that before would have lit me from the inside and made me angry were now merely smoke in the wind. More and more of my bully past was fading away. It started to seem like reality now, the thought of becoming a truly better person and - one day - a knight.
After a few months had gone by, Stephen confessed to me that he had been wandering. It was one of the only times he'd ever spoken to me with words. I suppose it was too important, too difficult, to say with our usual wordless communication. The school had been kind enough to give him a place to stay, but it could not be forever. He didn't have a family to go to. He didn't have many friends nearby.
"Don't worry," I told him without a second of hesitation. "From here on out, you'll have more family than you know what to do with."
He moved in with us and we've been looking out for one another, he and I, ever since.
Bringing my thoughts back to the present, I turn to Stephen resting on my shoulder. I don't know, in all honesty, what I'd do without him. However he found me, I'm glad he's here. He must have run hard and fast to have caught up with me. All I can figure is that he found the shack before I did, guessed I'd have to stop in at some point, and went searching the tunnels on his own before I arrived. It's like him to be curious. It's one way we actually are similar. Given the amount of work he's undoubtedly put in today, it's no wonder that his eyes are drooping. His shoulders are leaning so far forward that he might fall off if he leans any more.
With a yawn and a resisted urge to stretch lest I fling Stephen off his perch, I once again feel the exhaustion that's been creeping up on me ever since I got here.
"Come on, buddy," I say quietly. "Let's go get some rest."
To be continued...