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       Firebolt, p.25

           Adrienne Woods
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  Gathering my courage, I opened my eyes and turned around carefully.

  Let the games begin.

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  A faint burning smell drifted from the glowing lanterns mounted on the walls. In the front of the cave was a drizzling waterfall sending a misty spray into the air. The cave rumbled as a square stone hoisted from the floor. I wasn't sure at this point what I was supposed to do.

  This was a bad idea. Taking a deep breath, I stepped towards the stone and words magically appeared on the wall to my right. "A challenge you have to complete in fifteen beats." I read the first words out loud, hoping it would help me make sense of them.

  They do love their rhymes. The first two sentences disappeared.

  “Paegeia is enchanted with dragons, shifts, and nymphs hidden behind a wall. The most important one is not one, but them all.”

  They have nymphs too.

  I frowned, already confused, as the words swirled in my head.

  C'mon, Elena, you have to think fast. The most important one? The only thing that I could think of was Blake's words. I would have his respect when I exited those doors.

  Not one but them all, Blake! The riddle was about the Rubicon.

  I ran to the stone and found a puzzle. It looked ancient, and the blocks I needed to move were huge. This kind of puzzle was my favorite as a little girl, so this should be easy.

  Ten square disks stood in front of me, and only one square empty space. I was allowed fifteen moves to get them into the right places. Each square disk had the sign of a different dragon embellished on it. I knew immediately that it was Blake's sign. I closed my eyes, imagining the order,as I’d intended to draw this on T-shirts for extra money but hadn’t had enough time. The Fin-Tail was first and then the Copper-Horn; next was the Swallow annex sign. The Crown-Tail and the Fire-Tail after that. That was the first five Metallic dragon signs. Then came the Chromatic dragons; the Snow dragon followed by the Moon-Bolt, the Sun-Blast and Green-Vapor. Last was the Night Villain. I had the final picture of Blake’s sign fresh in my head.

  I found the Fin-Tail and reached out for my first move. The square disk was stuck, and I couldn't move it. My heart pounded and sweat formed on my forehead. A picture of Lucian busy laying dynamite popped in my head.

  Stop it, Elena, there is no time for negative thoughts. I pushed Lucian out of my mind. Deep breathes, Elena, you've got this.

  I started to look around and found an hourglass-shaped object. Something told me that it was the timer, but the amount of sand didn't equal an hour. It was only fifteen minutes. I ran towards the glass and wiped off all the spider webs.

  Jeepers! I hate that. A cold shudder ran up my spine as I rubbed the goose pimples from my arms. I took another deep breath and turned it over.

  A big clicking sound indicated that I needed to hurry, so I ran back to the puzzle. I didn't have time to think, I just started moving the Fin-Tail into position. I worked out the order of disk movement that would allow all the others to end in their correct location. Every move was critical. The adrenaline must have been making my brain work ten times faster as I shifted the last one in place and closed my eyes.

  My heart skipped a few beats.

  The only thought that was running through my head was what the consequences would be if I was wrong. I would probably have to stay here forever, until I died.

  The cave rumbled again. One of the walls had left an open doorway.

  I blew out my breath slowly, not recalling breathing one time while I had waited. I turned around to look at the first door I had entered. Right behind it, Lucian, the love of my life, waited. I slipped through the wall without saying my goodbyes, and it closed behind me.

  It was dark. All I could hear was the sound of my beating heart as it pounded inside my ear.

  Come, come, come. My hands trembled. I gave them a couple of shakes, hoping it would take the edge off.

  A spark right next to me made me jump. Fire ran along the wall all the way down to light up the second cave.

  My throat became dry as I faced my next task.

  What is this?

  My eyes grew wider as I realized what was ahead.

  For the love of blueberries,you’ve got to be shitting me.It was my worst nightmare. In front of me stood a huge obstacle course. It was the same one we’d seen in the museum; the one where I imagined being a tiny human. Yeah, it hadn’t worked out so well for my tiny self, who had been crushed. This time, it needed to end differently.

  The only thing I could see was two huge upside-down axes, swinging at a slow pace past each other.

  Words appeared on the wall again.

  “A task you must complete, that only the brave can defeat. One false move and you might be without a heartbeat.”

  No time limit appeared, and I blew out another breath.

  Okay, Elena, you can do this. It's easy. Yeah right. I bounced on one spot as I kept my eyes on the obstacle of death. I noticed that the movement of the axes started to pick up its pace. I had no choice but to do it now.

  I decided to trust my reflexes, but my legs wobbled as I climbed the stairs, not making me feel very confident. The axes parted from each other, and I got a glimpse of a crusher and something else that looked like it could slash me in two. There were balls turning at the end with things going up and down. At least the speed seems manageable.

  As I slipped through the blades, the tip of my shoe bumped up against a piece of bulk that stood out, causing me to fall flat on my stomach. I felt something miss my head by an inch. I jolted up and moved a step forward.

  The object that missed me a couple of seconds ago came back. I saw that it was a wooden log, and I arched my body forward. Who would have thought my clumsiness would someday save my ass!

  My heart pounded so fast, it felt as if it was going to explode out of my chest! I took another couple of steps and found myself sliding onto something icky. Another blade slashed right past my nose.

  Lucian's voice rang inside my head, loud and clear. “Move your ass, Elena, and no matter what, trust your reflexes.”

  Relying on my clumsy butt was more like it. I’d made a joke. That was a good sign.

  I listened to Lucian's words as my voice of reason to survive. The crasher came next. I decided to dive for it. If I lost a leg, I could somehow still manage to finish and get the reward.

  As I dusted myself off, I couldn't believe it.I had escaped the crasher and made it three quarters through the obstacles. I didn’t have a moment to celebrate because there was no time to waste. I had to get up fast as ankle-height blades were approaching. I ran forward, and my body ducked for no reason. Blades that could split me in two missed me by a hair. I moved forward the minute they parted. Even though I couldn't see the next obstacle, I still managed to jump over it, and I ran a couple of feet. I heard a deadly noise approaching at the speed of light.

  The sound came from all around me, and the solid object hit me directly in my shoulder. The instant I heard a loud snap, I cried out of pain. I bit hard on my jaw, trying to suck it up, and forced myself to move forward. The pain coming from my shoulder triggered my tears, and I wiped them away.

  When I looked up there weren’t any more obstacles in front of me. I couldn't believe that I had somehow managed to survive my worst nightmare.

  I grabbed my shoulder with my other arm and ran. I fell over my shoelaces, the ones I knew I had double-tied. How the hell did they get loose?

  I missed a blast of blistering fire.

  My entire body froze up as a blast of fire erupted inches above my head. The heat from the flames baked the one side of my face. When the fire stopped, I got on my good arm and knees, lifted up my ass, and crawled into the third cave.

  Using my good arm, I touched my hair and face. Everything felt fine, except that my face felt hot, and tight, as if it had shrunk a couple of centimeters. I wanted to cry when it dawned on me that I was going to be fine. Well, apart from the acute pain in my shoulder.

  It was unreal to think that I just finished the second task.

  Before I could process what was happening, an old chandelier came to life above my head and illuminated two doors.

  Oh, please, I can't handle another obstacle. New words appeared on the wall.

  “There are two doors. One leads to the fourth cave, and the other to purgatory. The door that leads to the fourth cave is the one guarded by the old man telling the truth. The other door that leads to purgatory is guarded by his twin that always lies. One exact question you may ask, but be careful for the question can only be a yes or no. Beware they don't know time or space, and your question may not be linked to whether they are related.”

  I had to ask them the same question. A yes or no answer to find which one was guarding the door that leads to the fourth room?

  Questions filled my mind immediately. If I asked the one are you guarding the door to the fourth chamber, both of them would say yes. I couldn't ask them personal questions either,or the time, because they didn’t know what time was. Yes or no answers. My mind suddenly went blank.

  For the love of blueberries, this always happens to me.

  Come back to me, Elena. I forced myself to concentrate on Lucian's words.

  Think, think, think.

  If I hid the door to purgatory and lie, what question could I lie about that would give the answer away.

  It has to be about the doors, it couldn't be anything about the two men or their relation. Doors. One is hiding the fourth cave, the other one hiding purgatory. I knew it was in me somewhere. I could feel it and taste it on the tip of my tongue. Are you guarding the door of truth? No. Are . . . both doors…? My body went through an ocean of pins and needles. I might have it.

  I ran to the hourglass and saw the sand running really fast. Two small crazy men appeared.

  They were skinny as if they hadn't eaten in weeks and were missing a couple of teeth. They smelled really bad, and I started to make gagging sounds. Becky would have cracked up if she were here with me. They each had long beards and hair, with only a scruffy rag covering their private parts. When they saw each other, they started to scold one another. Cussing and fighting. How could one of them be capable of telling the truth?

  “Do both doors lead to the fourth cave,” I asked the first one carefully.

  “No,” the one on the left answered,and the other one on the right answered,“yes”. They started to fight again as they disagreed.

  “I choose the door on the left,” I yelled, and it opened up.

  I slipped past the crazy men that had started to go mental on each other and went through the door. It closed immediately after me, and I felt bowled over as I found myself outside. It was a weird place. Mist and fog covered everything. I could barely see through the mist, but I made out the shape of a small wooden rowboat. Plants and trees that grew near the swamp were everywhere. The Night Villain jumped to my mind. What if Lucian was right and I do need to fight a Night Villain?

  I ran to the boat and cussed a little when the man inside the boat startled me. He wasn't as old as the two in the third cave, but smelled just as bad nevertheless. He resembled a lazy fisherman, with a hat covering his face.

  I bumped the boat with my foot. “Excuse me.”

  He woke up angst-ridden and grabbed the edges for balance.

  “Jeewiz, miss, what are you doing here?” he asked in a frantic British accent, but smiled as soon as he realized where he was. “Ah, you have come to take a look at your future, maybe present or past.”

  I clutched my pounding arm and asked, “What is it I have to do?”

  “You got hit?”

  I nodded.

  “Those balls are a bummer. It was my idea,” he boasted.

  I felt like kicking him, but was too scared that if I did, he wouldn’t help.

  “Hop on. I'll take you to your final task.”

  I climbed in the boat and closed my eyes. I didn't know how long I'd been away.

  “So, you want to visit the millpond, hey?” he asked.

  “No, I'm here for the pleasure of it.”

  “Oh, I guess there is always a first for everything,” he said. “Have we met?”

  “No!” I snapped at him. Idiot.

  “Must have mistaken you for someone else then, besides once you enter, you can never leave.” He started to fold himself in two at his lame joke, and I just stared at him.

  Poor guy must have inhaled too much fog or something.

  The trip to the other side felt long. My head started to ache with his non-stop babbling, and I jumped every time something bumped the boat. Maybe this was the fourth task, trying not to throw myself overboard just to get a bit of peace and quiet.

  “Don't worry, miss, it's the lost souls that weren't worthy enough to complete the last task. They won't hurt you,” he said in a singsong tone.

  My heart rose, and my eyes felt as if they were going to pop out of their sockets.

  Dead people. I pulled my gaze away from the water and stared at the idiot.

  “What's the fourth task?” I hoped for some sort of a distraction away from the dead-people thing.

  “You'll get the assignment on the other side,” he said, and just kept rowing, starting to whistle as he paddled along.

  It felt like hours before we hit something. I managed to see some land through the mist.

  “Get out!” he said.

  I huffed and almost fell out of the boat.

  He pushed the boat back with one of the paddles and started to row back to the other side.

  “Wait, what if I need you to get me back?”

  He laughed.

  Idiot. I turned around and couldn't see anything in front of me because of more fog. I tried to wave it away, but was only wasting my time. A low growl alerted my senses, and I grabbed one of my axes for protection.

  I didn't like this feeling of not knowing what might attack me. Not being able to see meant that I had to rely on my senses. That was going to be interesting since I didn’t even trust my senses myself.

  Lucian was right. I was not cut out to fight a dragon, especially one that spits acid.

  “Good day, Elena Watkins,” a deep voice rumbled in front of me.

  A strong force pulled me forward. I could feel my feet skimming forward, and I was suddenly ankle-deep in yucky mud. “A true maiden.” A strong wind blew into my face, almost causing me to fall down on my butt. When I opened my eyes, the fog was gone. In front of me stood a huge dragon, the kind of which I'd never seen before.

  My head started to thump, and I squinted to make sure that they weren't playing tricks on me. Vertical stripes covered his entire body, as if he had stolen a rainbow and made himself a suit.

  “Hey.” I swallowed hard.

  “Here to take a look at my millpond.” His low honeyed voice made me feel safe, but I didn't dare to trust it. “So you can't speak Latin. That's what the Keeper told me. He had to lend you the gift.”

  “Thank you for that.” I remembered Blake's words as he asked me if I understood him.

  “Appreciation. It's a rare quality. You'll be one of my most prized possessions,” he said, as if I had already failed the final task. “Come in.”

  I followed him to a massive gate that resembled the one at Dragonia, and tried to kick off the mud that still clung to my shoes. The gate opened and I stepped inside.

  The hill was steep. It drained the energy I had left.

  When we reached the top, I saw some sort of a castle. It had the most beautiful garden with a giant labyrinth in front. Cupid and dragon statues surrounded by fruit-baring trees and a beautiful big pond reminded me of the Garden of Eden. The stars shone brightly in the sky. Laughter came from the garden, and I saw young women chasing each other.

  So creepy. One wanted to be more beautiful than the other, and they all wore garments that made me think of ancient Greece.

  “You know I can take away your pain for a small price,” the dragon said soothingly.

“What's the price?”

  “No, you have to trust me, Elena. First I'll heal, and then I'll ask something in return.”

  Lucian's voice screamed “Hell no” inside me.

  “No, I'll bear it. Thanks for the offer.”

  “Are you sure? They might have to cut it off the longer you wait.”

  It was tempting, and I really wanted to give in, but I came here for one thing, and that was to look in the millpond. Temptation might be the final task, not to give in. “No.”

  “So be it. Here's your final task.”

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  “For your final task, I need to know the answer before sunrise.”

  I scratched my head. “Before sunrise?”

  He nodded his big purple and yellow head.

  “It is greater than God and more evil than the devil. The poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it. You will die. What is it?”

  “You're asking me another riddle?” I wanted to pull out my hair. As if all the other riddles weren’t enough.

  “Oh,I love riddles,”the dragon said with a smug look on his face.“You have until sunrise. If you don't know the answer to it, you will stay here forever.” He began walking toward the castle and disappeared through the big steel door.

  I realized what the Sacred Cavern was all about, a cave full of riddles and brainteasers. All these years, the people of Paegeia were afraid of nothing,and I wondered why dragons weren’t allowed to enter.

  I tried to ponder the answer, but for the moment, fatigue, as well as a throbbing shoulder, made it too difficult to think clearly.

  My lower lip vibrated and I wiped off a tear before it could even run down my face as it became apparent that I didn't know the answer. I sat against a rock and rested my head against the cool stone as I watched the maidens play in the dragon's garden. I started to think about Becky and what would have happened if it had been her and not me that entered those wooden doors. Would he have let her in or ate her up and chucked her soul in the lake with all the others?

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