The tribal elder had pointed us in the direction we needed to go to begin our quest. It seemed to me that he could have been much more helpful than he had been. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything that might…encourage him to be more forthcoming. I thought about it, though. He probably wasn’t immune to my rock-hard gaze. I had been getting better at changing only pieces of a person. I bet if he had a stone foot, the elder would have gotten the heartfire for us…well, if he could walk on it, he would have. Shrugging those thoughts away, I was resigned to do this in whichever way was necessary. And in this case, that meant following clues all over the island.
I looked around as we walked, aware that the others seemed to have fallen into step behind me, and hoped I didn’t mess this up. The trees all looked the same, and I had the horrible thought we would end up lost. I tried to swallow the fear that was clawing at my throat, focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
It was hard to judge the time. The trees were thick overhead and blocked out a lot of the sunlight, but I didn’t think we had been walking very long before we came upon a deep gorge that cut through the forest floor in front of us. It was deep and wide with an ancient bridge made of old tree branches held together with some kind of vine.
As we stopped in the clearing before the bridge, words floated through my head, and I repeated them out loud,
“Hear the whisper not seen.
An abyss seen not heard.
One pebble at a time.
She the one aims for an end.
Only to reach the beginning.
The others fell silent at my words, clearly waiting for me to do something. I stepped closer and rubbed my eyes. The image of a stone-paved pathway overlapped with the rickety bridge, and seeing the two superimposed made me dizzy. I reached out to grab the vine that ran along the length of the bridge to steady myself, just as a snake reared up and hissed. It was coiled around the vine and blended in, but I was still shocked that I hadn’t noticed it. I retreated a few steps saying, “Give me a minute to clear the snakes out so we can cross.”
Vines held together the bridge, but it appeared to be more snakes than vines. Their muted colors blended with the pale green of the foliage, and now that I knew what I was looking at, I was surprised I hadn’t noticed them right away.
Athena whispered from behind me, “You’ve got this.”
Reaching a hand behind me, I caught hers and squeezed it as I changed into my gorgon form. I had never had a snake take me by surprise before, and it was unnerving. I let go of Athena’s hand and stepped back to the bridge. It kept flashing between wood and stone, so I kept my gaze focused on the vines and snakes writhing around them. I put my hands out, sending a feeling of calm to wash over the snakes, but it only made them more agitated. “What the hell?” I tried to call them to me, expecting them to rush forward off the bridge, clearing the way for us to pass. But they completely ignored me.
Stepping back and putting my hands on my hips, I gritted my teeth. My snakes hissed and went wild around my head. I tuned them out, concentrating instead on the serpents wrapped around the vines in front of me. “Hear the whisper not seen, an abyss seen not heard…an abyss seen not heard,” I repeated the words, trying to make sense of them. “What does that have to do with snakes!” I shouted, took a deep breath to calm myself, and stomped back and forth in front of the bridge.
Athena stepped in front of me, blocking my path. “You were meant to solve this part of the map. Try to remember your vision. It might help.”
Persephone stepped next to Athena and laid her hand on my arm. “We’re here if you need us, we have faith in you.”
I looked at each of the women gathered around me and nodded. My gaze fell on Artemis. The worry for Sayeh practically vibrated off of her. Without hesitating, I walked back to the bridge and grabbed the closest snake as it rose to strike. It turned to mist and vanished just as my hand closed around it. “They aren’t real,” I said as the words from my vision played on repeat in my mind. “The whisper not seen…that must be the map,” I muttered to myself.
“The snakes aren’t real. We should be good to cross.” I gestured to the bridge, and we all filed onto it. “That was pretty easy.”
We moved quickly, eager to get across and onto the next part of the map. We stepped off the bridge and looked around in confusion, finding ourselves right back where we had started. “How is this possible?” I asked.
Urania queried, “Was there more to the clue from your vision?”
I looked up, trying to listen to the whisper still playing on repeat in my head and muttered, “She the one aims for an end only to reach the beginning. But how do we reach the end without aiming for it?” I looked at the others. “I think we will keep ending up back at the beginning. Give me a minute to think.”
I closed my eyes and concentrated, the soft breeze that caressed my face brought the same sensations I had in my vision. I could almost feel the stone walkway forming in front of me. When I listened carefully, I could hear the sounds of the stones sliding together. “One pebble at a time…”
The others were all asking questions, trying to help. Their voices floated away on the breeze as I listened to the sound of the path forming. I still had my eyes closed, but I was confident that if I opened them, there would be a beautiful stepping-stone path laid out in front of us. Hmmm…not sure enough to open my eyes just yet, though.
“I’m not worried about the end—my focus lies with the truth in the beginning. The snakes weren’t real, and I feel that the bridge wasn’t real either.” I kept speaking softly to myself, working out the riddle. Everyone was counting on me. My snakes were still a writhing mess around my head. Their constant hissing had become a white noise that helped me think. Suddenly the vision washed over me like a blanket of awareness. I was back there…but I wasn’t. Even though my eyes were still closed, I could see just as clearly as I had in the vision. There was a stone path forming in front of me. The rocks slid into place, called from the forest to become the path. A path hidden by magic…and one you could only see when you weren’t looking.
I stepped out onto the bridge, ignoring the calls and warnings that it wasn’t safe. I shrugged away the hands trying to hold me back and continued to walk farther out over the bridge. I could feel it solidifying under my bare feet. The rough, dry wood became rock, worn smooth from the passage of time. I yelled to the others, “It’s safe now!” Then turned around, opened my eyes, and stumbled. The gorge was gone! A soft fluffy carpet of sand filled in the emptiness and trees shot up into the sky. Bright, beautiful flowers bloomed all around me. I was now standing on a beautiful stone pathway that stretched through trees and bushes. Not over a gorge. The gorge wasn’t anything more than an illusion, just as the snakes had been.
“What are you waiting for?” I canted my head to the side and spread my arms out, waiting for them to come across.
“The snakes still seem pretty real to us. Nothing has changed,” they called out, a safe distance from what they thought was the snake-covered bridge.
They still saw the illusion, and I had a feeling no matter how many times they walked across the bridge, they’d end up at the beginning. “You have to trust me. I think this is part of a test. We have to trust each other and have enough faith to get through each challenge.” I knew it was asking a lot. I had just started getting to know these women, but we needed to come together for this to work.
I stood still, silently giving them all a chance to make up their minds. Artemis was the first to step forward, taking a wary step onto what she thought was the bridge. After that first uncertain step, she squared her shoulders and strode purposefully towards me. Athena was close behind her, and by the time they reached me, the others had followed.