Welcome to the next chapter in our continuing saga. Before you begin, if you’d like to see the answers for Chapter 5’s question, “What is the test of courage?”, you can find them here. And in case you haven’t read them yet, here are the previous chapters: Chapter 1, Chapter 2 Chapter 3, Chapter 4 & Chapter 5.
Please enjoy Chapter 6 of our story where we find out what the test of courage entails.
Rick didn’t remember stepping through the doors. He could recall the other chosen watching with bated breath as a blast of white-hot light hit him, and then he was standing in the middle of a strange, yet familiar place. It wasn’t clear at first why it felt so familiar, but he was aware that it was very important to him. His first instinct was to look for Sameer and Frensessa, but unlike the fishbowl (and in some ways, the wormhole), this didn’t feel at all like a dream — or at the very least, a manifestation of his mind. The trees, the grass, the sidewalks, the stars — they were as real as the taste of the mist that chilled his body.
If this was the location of the test, he was dumbfounded by how it could cause enough fear, or present the necessary odds needed to test his courage. Were the shadows playing games with him? Was a tree going to transform into a fire-breathing dragon and force him to fight like some sort of knight to prove his worth in battle? Would he have to endure the torture of solitude among a never-ending night to prove he was courageous enough to fight his own growing madness? Whatever it was, at no time did he consider that he had failed the test and was returned home because of it.
Not until he came across a tree that brought a flood of emotions with it, even if its importance remained just out of reach. A blanket lay slightly wrinkled underneath the lowest set of branches that Rick figured would perpetually shade this particular spot when the sun was up. An open basket with used utensils and open food containers sat offset at the frayed edge of the blanket. Rick knelt down and closed his eyes, trying to remember anything about this spot, even if it was just a random memory of burning an army of ants with a magnifying glass. He tried so hard, he grew slightly dizzy and needed to catch himself against the tree.
His eyes snapped open. Lauren!
Excitement and fear burned through his veins as his memories flooded back to him. Rick had been returned to the very spot where the nightmare began. Which could very well mean the entire thing was a dream, or at the very least that he was no longer bound by the shadow and an insane theory of destiny. But it could also mean that because he failed the shadow’s test, Lauren and the rest of his family would parish for that failure.
“Lauren!” he called out, hoping for an answer he never thought was possible.
Then a scream broke the silence. It sounded extremely distant, but that could simply be because there was absolutely no wind to carry it. He was unsure of what direction it might have come from, and prayed for another. His heart nearly ripped in two when his prayer was answered.
“Lauren!” Rick ran as fast as he could into a nearby wooded area that grew denser the deeper he went. He may have tripped a half a dozen times on errant logs and brush, or got smacked in the head a couple of times by loose twigs and large plant leaves due to the thickening darkness, but no amount of abuse was going to keep him from finding his aunt, whose screams grew louder and more frequent with each passing moment. Rick returned each one with his own, hoping to ease Lauren’s fear and keep her signaling her location. Part of him hoped she’d meet him halfway, relieving his legs, which at this point felt like rubber. It made him a bit annoyed, to be frank, that she hadn’t already come to him, but how could he be resentful when the shadow very well could be holding her prisoner. Damn bastard! For all Rick knew, the entire situation was a trap that he was falling for hook line and sinker. The thought didn’t linger long.
Lauren’s final scream was cut frighteningly short as Rick reached a circular clearing. Had the shadow killed her? No amount of calls achieved any response. His heart beat uncontrollably as he scoured his surroundings, hoping for a piece of her dress, a chuck of her hair, a drop of her blood — anything that would tell him where she might be.
Whenever you’re in the dimple of a pickle, his father used to say, take a moment to smell the brine. That’ll stop your ass and clear your head real quick. It was a somewhat disgusting analogy, but the meaning behind it was solid — Rick had to calm himself down and find his bearings.
He stood still for a long minute, taking in several deep breaths before systematically going over every inch of the border around the clearing. From what he could remember (or at least, what he thought he remembered), Lauren’s screams had been coming from directly in front of him as he entered the clearing, and other than a small open area a little to his right that appeared to be some type of natural pathway constructed by man, the rest of his surroundings were a highly dense wall of forestry. If the shadow wanted Rick to find Lauren, her location would be easily accessed. Following the path — to the detriment of his better judgment — was his only viable option.
The path sloped downward pretty steeply the longer Rick followed it, and the more he traveled, the more he felt he was going the wrong way. He was just about ready to turn around and look for new clues when he heard the wind pick up, even though the air remained as stale as year-old bread. He finally realized it wasn’t the wind — it was water; a stream or a river of some sort. And if his past tests told him anything, water was going to be a major part of what he had to face to prove his courage. So he picked up the pace a little, following the growing rumble of the river until he saw it, raging and frothing like a rabid dog. But that wasn’t what stopped his heart. Dangling over the river by her neck was Lauren — or at least who he thought was Lauren, given that the woman’s greasy brown hair concealed her face. But it had to be her. Who else could it be?
“Lauren!” he called out regardless as he ran to the edge of the river. He tried so desperately to reach her, but she remained just out of reach of his fingertips. Not like he had a plan if he was able to reach her, but right now, just being able to touch her was enough to keep him satisfied while he figured out how to get her down without the river eating them both alive (assuming she was alive).
Just then, Rick heard footsteps behind him. He turned to see a young woman with striking red hair that reached her waist walk up to him.
“Help me,” Rick said frantically.
“I can’t do that,” the woman said. Her voice was like crystal, tickled with tiny sparks of metallic chimes. “Who do you think put her there?”
Rick’s eyes turned red. Could she be some manifestation of the shadow — his true identity, perhaps? Or was she just one of his minions? Either way, Rick wanted so badly to rush the woman and beat the living daylights out of her, but his legs wouldn’t let him. In some ways, he was thankful for that.
“Who are you?” he belted out instead in his best angry voice.
“You may call me Salinar.”
* * *
“Salinar,” Jaden said quickly, waving his hands. He shook his head, trying to grasp the connection. “That’s Sawyer, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Rick said, nonchalantly.
“Are you trying to tell me you met Sawyer twenty years ago?”
“In a way.”
“How old is she?”
Rick smiled knowingly; he couldn’t help himself. “You have to remember,” he said, bypassing the question altogether, “this was part of my final test, so whether she was real at the time is still questionable. But yeah, I met the real deal some four years later, I think. She’s one tough bitch, let me tell you.”
“Why would she be part of the test?” Jaden asked.
“Salinar is the leader of the shape-shifter faction known as The Resminatè, which makes her the most recognizable figure among the entire race, so I assume he uses her image in everybody’s test of courage.”
“Why? Get you all riled up and pissed off?”
“You’re not far off there, brother,” Rick said with a wink.
* * *
“Why are you doing this to her?” Rick said with disdain.
Salinar floated gracefully to the edge of the river. The moonlight highlighted the curvature of her nose and painted a serene sparkle to the tips of her lashes. “I’m not doing this to her,” Salinar said softly.
“But you said…” Her words hung heavy in Rick’s mind and weren’t completely clear, but she had said she was behind the hanging — didn’t she?
“The noose was tied by my hand, yes. But the reason for her lynching is of your own making.”
“No… no… you promised me —”
“I made no such promise.”
“But you… You aren’t the shadow?”
Salinar laughed heartily. “The shadow? Is that what he calls himself these days?”
Rick was just as confused as he was infuriated. “No. I just assumed…”
“Wouldn’t it be best to at least learn the name of the creature for whom you give your life away?”
“Give my life away? I never gave my life away.” Why was Rick so offended by that?
“The moment you allowed him into your soul, Rick, you signed away any life you would ever have.”
“He was going to kill my family. What else was I supposed to do?”
Salinar turned to Rick, her head cocked slightly to her right. “You never once thought to fight him?”
Rick couldn’t answer that question. He would have turned away in shame had he been able to stop staring at Salinar’s glistening features.
“Ah, yes. You understand now that the empty gesture of bravery was nothing more than a lie. What you really are, Rick, is a coward.”
“I am not a coward.” Not even Rick could believe the words as they came out of his mouth.
“I’m not here to judge you, my friend. In fact, I’m here to change all of that.” Salinar rested her hand on Rick’s cheek, her thumb tickling his skin just under his jawline.
“How?” he said.
Rick stood motionless for some time, captivated by her eyes, which sparkled like glitter.
“It’s something you’ve always wanted, isn’t it?” Salinar said. “To save her?”
Rick wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that exactly — until he was compelled to look up at the woman dangling like a Christmas ornament. The woman convulsed slightly, pushing her hair from her face, and then opened her eyes.
* * *
“Mom?” Jaden said a bit stunned.
“Let me finish,” Rick said.
* * *
Salinar’s lips arched at the corners as Rick let his toes curl over the edge of the river, calling out for his mother. Seeing her again made him blind to everything else around him.
“Mom, hold on. I’m coming.” No more were his father’s words more applicable than in this moment. Rick calmly assessed his surroundings and quickly noticed that the rope was tied to a large branch overhanging the river. Following it back, he traced it to a tree sitting a few feet to his right. It was covered in spiked branches and dozens of knots — perfectly suited for climbing.
Had that tree been there before?
Who cares? It was his chance to do what he wasn’t able to do before. He climbed the tree like a cat in fear of its life and quickly straddled the branch. It would take a little time (which he didn’t really have) to slide out to his mother, but he couldn’t take the chance of slipping off.
When he got to the tip, he found that the rope was actually tied to the roots of a tree on the other side of the river. His only chance of saving her was to pull her to safety and remove the noose. He lay down flat and reached down, stretching as far as he could without losing his balance. “Mom, give me your hand.”
His mom didn’t react at all. It was almost as if she didn’t even know he was there.
“Mom!” Rick screamed, which finally got her attention. She looked up but remained otherwise motionless. “Please,” he said, his eyes starting to glisten.
She smiled slightly and grabbed his hand. It felt incredibly warm for having been out in the cold for so long, but Rick didn’t think anything of it. His first attempt at pulling her up almost led to his rolling right off the branch. He caught himself, releasing some of her weight without letting go of her hand and then used his legs to reposition himself in a much more powerful hold. He re-gripped his mother’s hand and then finally looked directly into her eyes.
He hoped to see his mother’s love shining bright within them, but no matter how hard he tried, the bastion of what he remembered from when he was a child was gone. Her eyes were utterly hollow, as if her soul had been stripped from her body. This wasn’t his mother; it was nothing more than a costume made up to look like her.
“What are you waiting for?” his mother said, though in a very familiar crystalline voice.
He looked down at Salinar, who stood as still as a statue.
“Rick, please,” his mother said. “Help me.”
Unwillingly, Rick turned back to his mother, whose eyes were suddenly as gentle and loving as he remembered them.
Rick shook his head. “I’m sorry.” And with heavy moisture building in his eyes, he let go of his mother’s hand and ripped the rope from its hold. His mother screamed as she fell to the water, but her voice carried beyond the splash of her body.
“What did you do?” Salinar screamed.
“What I had to,” Rick said and lowered his head in sorrow.
Suddenly, the cold air of the night and the touch of the wood along his hands were gone. He looked up and wiped the tears from his eyes. Surrounding him in a misted triangle were the shadows.
Well done, my friend, the lead shadow said. You are now one of the Galaxy Gifted.
* * *
Jaden stood up and paced the room a moment before turning back to Rick. “That doesn’t make a lick of sense. How do you pass a test of courage by killing your own mother?”
“It wasn’t about killing her,” Rick said. “It was about letting go of her.”
“Literally,” Jaden said, and though he had a clever quip about Elsa at the ready (at least in his mind it was clever), he decided to keep it to himself. “So what happened next?” he said instead.
“I started my training as one of the Galaxy Gifted.”
“That’s it? That’s the end of the story?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Well, what happened to Schwarzenegger and the bitch? And the fat valley girl?”
“To be honest, I have no idea. As all recruits do, I trained with the shadow alone and when they felt I was ready, I was assigned my quadrant and have been patrolling it ever since. For all I know, none of them ever passed their test. Hell, some of them might even still be in the dome.”
“How anti-climactic,” Jaden hissed.
“I never said I was a great storyteller.”
“So what then? You abandon your post to chase down Sawyer?”
“Pretty much. But Salinar is my responsibility, and if she gets her hands on that treasure, the consequences will be far more severe than going AWOL.”
“So why are you telling me all of this?”
“Because I need your help to track down the treasure.”
“What makes you think I know where it is? I don’t even know what the hell it is.”
“Salinar chose you for a reason, which means either you have direct access to the treasure, or she found a way to use you to manipulate her way to it. There has to be some clue in what she’s done or what she’s said since you two met that will help lead us to it.”
Jaden bit his lips. He knew it was too good to be true. “It would help if I even had the slightest clue as to what she was after. And if you say the greatest treasure in the universe again, I’m definitely going to throw you out that window.”
Rick just smiled.
What’s the treasure Salinar/Sawyer is looking for?
Be as creative as you can, as outrageous as you want, and as detailed as possible. The best answer will determine where the story goes next.
Post your answers to Facebook, Twitter (using #WriteANovelWithMe and @phoenixmoirai) or in the comments section below by 5 p.m. PST on Thursday, December 18, 2014. You can give as many different answers as you want. The top 5 will be posted on Friday.
I can’t wait to see where your imaginations soar.