Waterfall Junction

Part 3

The Test

Shell Out

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Sometime later, when the morning reached its peak, Dalowin nearly lost his balance. The road before him finally changed. Though the rocky trail maintained its rugged surface, the bordering cliffs tapered off into a series of platforms that formed a cylindrical container rising a thousand feet at its highest point, with the river spilling into a bowl-shaped lake. The entire landscape reminded him of the interior of his discarded helmet, but upside-down, craggy, and full of water.

The river itself, now calm at the mouth of the great pool, branched into three adjoining streams that met at the edges of each shore. Its channels, all about thirty feet wide at the mouth, flowed from the spray zones of three large waterfalls. Dalowin took a deep breath as he absorbed the splendor.

Each waterfall spilled from increasing heights: the lowest precipice standing at the height of a tree, the highest at the top of the sheer rock. He also noticed a series of steps ascending the rock face from the base of each surrounding path. Though the segments passing the greater falls were inaccessible—cut off by the adjacent streams—the stair leading up the smallest wall started at the end of the main path.

The majesty of the reflecting pond drew from him a sense of wonder, but the confined quarters still trapped him. He resolved to find a way out. The path he followed reached a dead end. The steps climbing above the first stream appeared to lead to a higher river. He sighed, relieved.

“Come, Aspyre,” he said, “I think we found our way.”

The horse hesitated at the first ascending step; Dalowin helped it navigate the curvature and sharp zigzags leading to the next level. It was no simple ordeal—the steps couldn’t have been wider than his shoulders, making the journey especially awkward for the horse. But with an intense strain on the horse’s bit to keep it level, the burdensome task was a successful one. At the top of the stair, he found a small field at the edge of a wood and a stream passing through.

The field was narrow. Trees squeezed it against the riverbanks on one side; the adjacent border cliff tackled it from the other. It was also absent of any defined path, making the river the only clear navigation point for escape. It bent right, about half a mile into the heart of the forest.

As Dalowin mounted his horse, he set course to follow the shoreline. The trip seemed easy compared to the canyon’s claustrophobic road, yet still he had uncertainty. On the one hand, the ground was softer than the former path, making his steps shakier. On the other, the forest was so dense that keeping to a straight line was impossible. His safest measure, then, was to tread the shallows of the river, but that meant hitting deep pockets, throwing him and his horse off footing. After contemplating his choices, he realized he had made a mistake coming this far.

“Take the boat,” said the voice of ambience.

Again, Dalowin stopped to listen to his surroundings. That voice—it was driving him mad. And the boat—what boat? He looked around; all he saw was—wait, there was a boat. It was sitting against a small rock just inside the forest. It was wooden, rickety, and far too compact for a horse.

“Leave the horse behind,” the voice said as softly as a cold breeze. “I will take care of him. Your journey must continue in this boat.”

“Who are you?” Dalowin asked at last. “Why have you followed me?”

“Set the boat in the river.”

He glanced from treetop to treetop, suspicious of the wind and the birds. But then he laughed.

“Certainly, there is no one there. Aspyre, am I imagining things?”

“The horse will not answer you,” the voice said, “for a horse does not speak.”

“But the wind speaks? How is this so?”

“I am more than wind, as I am more than life. Trust My instruction. Set the boat in the river.”

The rider wanted to protest the wind but realized further response was folly, so he did as the voice instructed—questioning his foolishness at the same time. He climbed off the horse and approached the river. Then he waded in to reach the boat.

“What shall I do now?” he asked, as he stepped into the boat. He could not believe he was listening to the wind, or understanding that which it spoke.

“Let the current carry you.”

Dalowin squeezed into the tiny vessel and waited for the river to respond. It took a moment for the boat to move, but a soft breeze pushed it to the river’s center. From there, the current gained control, leading him down the watery path. Without an oar to steer, he prayed he had made the right choice. Only, when he realized the current did not lead toward the bend as he assumed, but toward the waterfall, he panicked.

“This is mad,” he said. “I will not do this.”

Before he could take further action, the boat accelerated, pulling him into a forward motion stronger than his ability to resist. He put one foot over the side in preparation to jump, but he knew he would never make it in time—the water was pulling him too fast. Whether he was ready for it, whether he stayed in the boat, one way or another he was going over the edge. He pressed his forehead against his knees to prepare for his impending doom.