Descending into the ancient mines, the surface world faded from existence so quickly it was like falling from the waking world into the realm of dreams. In the deepening black, the air took on a chill and all sound ceased, save that of his own breathing. It was an eternal darkness, where the planet slept and only rarely stirred, paying no mind to what went on outside. The darkness, the silence, the cool air that had hung unmoving for indeterminate years until stirred by his migration, wrapped around him, settling upon him and soaking in to his skin, sinking deeper and deeper until it was in his blood and bones.Climbing down, down, into the endless night where no star’s light ever pierced, meandering through a combination of natural caverns and manmade corridors carved into the rock millennia ago, he descended, following the signs written in the light of cultivated luminous lichen until he reached the deep darkness of the bridge.
There, beyond the that eerie glow patterned upon the walls in hues of green and blue, often bright enough to make a glowrod unnecessary, he hesitated, skin crawling at the thought of coming in contact again with the Manes, the humans that time and daylight had all but forgotten. Regardless of how softly he trod, their sensitive ears had picked up on him some time back, this he knew, and there would be one waiting for him halfway across the bridge. Indeed, he could feel its presence but a short distance ahead of him. Steeling himself to the thought of their clammy touch, he lit a glowrod, and holding it before him as far as he could reach, and stepped onto the narrow span that would carry him across the bottomless rift that yawned beneath.
No matter that he was expecting to see the bridge keeper waiting for him at the halfway point; when he came within the small circle of light, Les gasped and let the rod slip from his hand. Though he cast his gaze downward to watch it tumble end over end until its glow fell out of sight, the image of the short, thin, eyeless creature, its pale translucent skin that showed every vein, looking as though belonging on something dead rather than living, was burned into his brain. Standing absolutely still, he steadied his pulse and breathed the traditional greeting in Old Atadi in barely more than a whisper. The replies came in whispered murmurs from behind and before until they swarmed and swirled about his head like an almost incandescent vapor in the absolute blackness. He felt the movement of the fabric draped from his shoulders as cool, clammy hands touched and explored the hems of his robes – his grandfather’s robes – as they sought out his identity, and his right to tread in their domain.
Then, as quickly and as silently as they had appeared, they were gone, and he sensed himself alone once again, free now to stroll wherever he pleased throughout the Draed Mines. Satisfied that he was Les Wyler, descended from the Skyys, watchers of the mysterious lands over their heads for generations, they had granted him passage. Glad they were gone, he released a sigh, holding no judgment towards those who superstitiously regarded the Manes as something of myth, of legend; zombies or haunting spirits who wandered dark woods on moonless nights, up to who knew what kind of mischief. Even with the understanding of their gradual transformation over the ages to explain their deformities – continuous confinement far beneath the surface world for generations – it made their appearance or their unnerving whispers in the dark no less startling. It was hard to think of them as human.
Igniting another glowrod from his pack, he carried on.
Instead of following the path that would lead to the larger chambers containing what was left of the Manes’ ‘cities’ and all the scenic places he’d enjoyed seeing on previous visits, such as the lichen garden and Issatah Falls and the Lake of Pearls, Les sought out Marratah. Some translated it to mean Heart, or Center, of Darkness. But he agreed with his grandfather, Leslye Skyy, who knew Old Atadi and the ancient lore at least as well or even better even than the Zehdekians, interpreting in the ancient tongue with a slight difference of inflection: Center of Everything. Though it had never been used as a meditation chamber before – as far as anyone knew; indeed no one was left who remembered its purpose – it seemed custom made for the part. Whether the perfectly spherical chamber beyond the shadow-hidden entrance was an act of nature or magnificent feat of engineering was, to those who were aware of its existence, it was a thing of mystery. Before stooping to crawl through the low doorway to enter, he switched the rod off and returned it to his pack. From this point on, there was no lichen to guide him. Having not the super-sensitive hearing that guided the Manes in their pitch-black world, nor the natural night vision of the Zehdekians to find his way, from here on, he must rely on the Force to guide him.
Managing to get through the narrow tunnel with his cranium intact, he felt an open space open up in front of him, and he stood, extending his senses forward, outward, until he felt out the dimensions of the room. In the exact center was a raised formation that seemed to be made especially for sitting and contemplating, positioned so that it rose to the epicenter of the chamber. A narrow flight of steep stone stairs, definitely fashioned by the hands of men, gave him access to the dais. Climbing onto the platform, he sat with legs crossed and settled into the silence.
He needed not have closed his eyes, for the darkness was total and complete, as was the silence; all enveloping. There was no sound at all to reach his ears in this lonesome chamber that had not seen light in centuries, if not longer. The space between him and the walls that encircled him was even throughout, no crevices or corners, all shrouded in eternal shadow. After awhile it gave him the sensation of sitting in the middle of starless space. A shudder went through him as it recalled to him the nightly vision of being atop Jinx’s castle, beneath a sky where all the lights had gone out. For a long time he sat as still as stone, hearing nothing but his steady breathing and the beating of his own heart. Outside of that there was nothing, no one, not a sound, nothing but blinding darkness. It was in this atmosphere that he opened himself up to the Force.
Patience. Taking a deep breath, he sighed it out, closed his eyes, and waited. He sat alone, as motionless as stone, in the silent darkness until his joints ached and the chill of the deep became oppressive. He began to wonder if he was being toyed with again.
“Is this what you intend for me? To wander around alone, stumble about in the dark? Are you trying to chase me into the shadows?” he spoke to the Force in thought so loud the words rang outside his head. I don’t want to go there, so if that’s where I’m going to end up you may as well just go away and leave me alone.
Still nothing. Maybe it did; maybe the Force was gone. Shuddering, he realized he could no longer touch the Force. It was like being held within that void where their new enemy dwelt. He’d never been without it; he suddenly felt so cold and alone. Hot tears melted from between tightly closed lids.
Why? Where is the Force that binds all things? Have I become as one blind to it? Am I a Jedi…or not?
To be aware but unable to touch was like knowing he was surrounded by stone but unable to see it for the darkness.
But it’s there. He knew it was. What was the wall that stood in the way?
Wherein lies your trust?
The words rose tangibly in his ear, while simultaneously something colder and darker than the cavern coiled around his head and covered his eyes. It was as if the darkness enshrouding him had become a living thing, encasing him in an embrace like the coils of a cold, black snake. A chill went down his spine as he sat immobilized by whatever force held him in place, unable to move, to fight against the thing that had wrapped itself around him. A rushing like wind and water filled his ears so that he could hear naught else but the voice that repeated itself audibly – Wherein lies your trust?
The more he struggled, the tighter the coils became, until it worried him that he would soon be unable to draw a breath. It seemed so real, too real, and he wondered if it were not a vision at all, and would he emerge from it alive? Fighting panic, he forced his mind to calm, his muscles to obey the power of his will. When they relaxed and grew slack, the thing that yet held him relaxed as well, letting him breathe a little more easily. With the concreteness of residual warmth of breath lingering in his ear, he realized that an answer was being expected of him. But he had a question of his own:
“Who – what are you?” he asked, ashamed at the tremble in his voice.
Though he couldn’t see, he somehow detected a smile from the Thing. No reply – it was he who had been asked, and now required an answer. With sweat breaking out all over his body in spite of the coolness of the cave, he turned his thoughts inward, concentrated, disciplined his mind to focus on seeking the basest and most honest answer, sensing that anything less would be unacceptable.
What did he put his trust in? Through his lifetime of training to become the Jedi he’d hoped to become, as he no longer believed he’d truly been worthy of the title to which he’d been accorded, he’d been taught to rely on the Force, to trust his feelings. But what if those feelings betrayed? Rely on the Force. Could the Force be relied upon? Of course. Then why the struggle?
It was himself he didn’t trust. In the midst of that heavy cloud of doubt, where did he end and the Force begin? How could he differentiate between his own will and the will of the Force? He thought he knew, back before the lives of those he loved were in the balance, until the burden was on him to make the choice. The wrong choice made, never to be undone, with so many left bleeding in the aftermath, his confidence was shattered. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to wear the title of Jedi Knight anymore.
The Thing tightened around his chest; his arms were clamped to his sides, his head squeezed as in a vise; – it was growing impatient. Fear gripped him again as in vain he struggled against it.
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” he gasped out.
From somewhere he heard a derisive laugh – or did it come from within? You don’t even know in what you believe?
“No – I mean, yes…I mean – ”
What do you mean?
He wasn’t answering the questions, making his breath harder to come by. Mind growing more clouded and confused, reduced to its primal need for air, the more he resisted the more ensnared he became, the more entangled in the strong bands that held him.
“Who are you?” he asked as he gasped and gulped for air like a drowning man.
Wearing a sinister smile, the answer entered his ear and resonated in his head, tremored through his body: I am your fear. I am you.
“No….” His heart hammered against his ribs, throbbed in his temples.
Embrace me and I will be your guide – make the darkness your ally, for that is the realm in which I dwell.
Never. He had played with the dark side once, and it had shaken him to the core. Or had he been playing with it all along? Strength nearly gone from the struggle, he found the breath to shout, “Let go of me!”
Suddenly his mind cleared, and he knew – it was he who had to let go.
With that realization, he shut his eyes against the endless night. It took every bit of will, every bit of trust he had, to relax once again – at the risk of having the life squeezed out of him – and control his thoughts, focusing in on the Force. The coils began to slacken and he found he could breathe more freely. Drawing closer still to the binding force of the universe, the bands slipped away. Even then he did not stop; he sought out the Force like an air-starved diver for the surface.
The peace that came over him, in contrast to the oppression of his own fear, gave him the sensation of floating that was so real that, forgetting there would be nothing to see but deep darkness, he opened his eyes to make sure he was grounded.
They were met with an ocean of stars. They spread from where he sat to infinity on all sides, all around him – the timeless walls of stone that had entombed him had been drawn aside as a veil and he was, truly, in the Center of Everything.
Icy coldness wrapped around him like a cloak. Realizing he was in reality lifting from where he sat, his hands instinctively groped for the stone seat below him and clung to it for dear life, as his legs dangled over starlit space. Again it came to him that he must let go.
No, he pleaded, gripping faster to the tangible, to the concrete, to that which he understood, to the stone he felt beneath his fingers.
Wherein lies your trust? This time the words came as a whisper from somewhere inside his head and echoed throughout his body.
Where was the Force taking him, he wondered. What was going to happen to him? If he was going to find out, there was only one thing to do. Taking a long breath as though it would be his last, he surrendered, releasing his trembling fingers from the stone, not knowing where he would end up, or even if he were still alive. As he did so, warmth enveloped him, and he rested within it, letting himself drift in the endless stars, yielding to the current to take him wherever it would.
Days later, when he stood upon a rocky precipice overlooking the crowns of the forest Dramen as it marched into Hallod Valley, squinting in sunlight so bright it hurt his eyes, he felt as though he were about to step out into a world newly created, a world abuzz with life, with the Force, flowing all around him, through him. After emerging from his immersion in perfect darkness, everything had taken on a new brilliance, a vibrancy he had missed on the trek to the caverns. He felt as though he were seeing the world anew, as though through the eyes of his late grandfather that he had never met but for the written word he’d left behind; Leslye Skyy, whose love of nature came through in his numerous journals so eloquently that it could be seen without looking up from the pages. Could it be that he had once stood in this very spot, surveying this very scene? And now, here he was. Someday, his descendants would stand here and wonder the same thing, of him – Marcus Leslye Wyler III, Jedi Knight. He drew a deep breath of the clean, wild air. The day was new; life, indeed, would go on, and he was glad to be a part of it.
What went on in the caves far below, he couldn’t exactly say; he hardly remembered the journey there and back again, but the experience in the spherical chamber and the lessons he’d learned, they would stay with him forever.