17. The Mountain

It wasn’t hard to get inside the mountain itself. The opening had been waiting for us. But once we were inside, things got a lot trickier. 

The way was lit with torches that burned violet. They lead us down a path that ended abruptly at a stone wall. It had five wooden doors. Each door was painted a different shade of orange (all of them were pretty dull from age). with an animal engraved in the center. They weren’t tall, as far as doors go. I thought that maybe the dwarves had built them at their own height. There were words above the center door, etched onto a silver plate. 

“What does it say?” asked Deli, who was now squinting through her glasses. 

I read the plate aloud: 

 

To find the door, you must be clever, 

Else you will be lost forever.
No amount of magic spells, 

Will aid you if you seek the wells. 

Don’t forget the trodden trail, 

For those who do, are doomed to fail. 

 

“What does that even mean?” asked Soy. 

“I’m not sure,” I answered. “Deli?” 

Deli was biting her miniature glasses. For a moment, I thought that I saw a shimmer from inside her mouth. 

“It’s some kind of clue. We need to find the right door to get to the wells.” 

“This is easy,” said Soy impatiently, “let’s just try each door, one by one, and look inside” 

He strode forward to open the door closest to him, second from the left. It was a pale orange door with a carving of an antelope in the center. 

“Soy! Stop!” I yelled as I lunged towards him. 

The moment that Soy turned the wooden knob, the door flew in away from him. Soy was being pulled in, too. I reached him in time to grab his other arm and we fell to the ground. I pressed my feet against the wall to pull harder, desperately trying to keep him from being sucked in. 

“Close the door!” yelled Deli behind us. 

I saw through the opening that this door led to another dark cloud, even scarier than the one we had barely escaped. But something else was different about it, too. Instead of seeing a long field of rock with trees ahead of me, I was looking at a far away wall with holes that faced me. Warlugs jumped out towards us, then fell back away. This door was in the top of the cloud. 

 

The words “Else you will be lost forever" hit me with a chill. Using all my strength, I pulled Soy until he was free from the doorway. The moment he cleared it, the door slammed shut behind him. We rested on the dirt floor, both out of breath. When I looked at the door again, I didn’t see an antelope. Instead, the door now had the face of a lion. The color was slightly different too. 

“Deli,” I asked, "did the doors just...”
“Yes,” she stopped me short. “The doors changed.”
“But wherever the antelope is, we know never to open that one again, right?” Soy asked, still catching his breath.

Deli looked upset, and I understood why. The doors in front of us were now a serpent, a lion, some kind of fish, a spider, and a rhino. No antelope. 

“I think the doors are trying to tell us something,” said Deli.
“That no matter what we do, each time we open a door it will be for the first time,” I finished. 

“That’s unfair!” cried Soy. “They can’t do that!” 

 

Soy had almost been sucked into a dark cloud, so I could understand why he was upset. I gave him a minute to cool off and turned my attention to the words on the plate. My mom had taught that when I don’t understand something, I should take it apart piece by piece. Maybe, I thought, that was what I needed to do with the clues. 

 

The first verse seemed pretty straightforward. 

 

To find the door, you must be clever, 

Else you will be lost forever.

 

To find the right door, we were going to have to be smart. We also knew what might happen if we chose wrong again. The second verse was no mystery either. 

 

No amount of magic spells, 

Will aid you if you seek the wells.

 

We couldn’t use lore to find the wells. That meant that Ream wouldn’t be able to use rile to find them, either. Although he couldn’t get to them without me, anyway. But the last verse was the tricky one. 

 

Don’t forget the trodden trail, 

For those who do, are doomed to fail.

 

“Hey Deli,” I asked without taking my eyes off the plate, “what exactly does trodden mean?”
“It means that it’s been walked on before, like a path that’s already been taken,” she answered. 

I thought about the story Tryt had told us. The dwarves who found the wells made it almost impossible for anyone else to find them again. So if there was a “trodden” path, it must have been theirs. But how did they find them in the first place? I had hit another dead end. Tryt never told me which way they went to find the wells. In fact, he had really only told me one thing about the dwarves.

Suddenly it hit me. I read the clue one more time and it all made sense! 

 

“That’s it!” I shouted.
“What is?” asked Deli.
“The ‘trodden trail’ means the path that the dwarves took,” I said.
“Okay,” said Soy, now perking up, “But, we still don’t know which way they went. The clue says that we have to pick the right door and I’m not up for guessing another one. Actually, I’m not up for guessing anything ever again.”
“But it doesn’t say pick the door, it says, to find the door, you must be clever. The door is hidden!”
“So… where is this hidden door?” asked Deli pointing to the empty room.
“The dwarves found the wells because they’re the best diggers. The path they took should be right where they left it, under our feet!” 

Deli suggested digging in the center of the room, but I disagreed. There was an area of dirt to the right of the doors that seemed right to me. I couldn’t explain it, so I asked them to trust me. After a few minutes of digging with our hands, Soy and I felt the first sign of the sixth door.

It’s a good thing we found it when we did, because Soy was beginning to get annoyed with Deli. She was directing his digging, and Soy didn’t take kindly to direction from what he described as a “non-digger”. 

 

The wooden door that we discovered wasn’t orange like the others, but purple. I cleared off the top and bottom, getting it dirtier before it got clean. There was still another difference between this door and the others. The carving in the center wasn’t an animal; it was a shape that I could now recognize easily. It was a fairy. And something told me that the carving would never change, no matter how many times we opened the door. 

“Do the honors, Cal,” said Soy. 

I opened the door slowly, not knowing what would pop out at us (or suck us in). It turns out there wasn’t much to see, just a stark black tunnel. It was impossible to tell where it led since only the first few feet were visible. Beyond that, only darkness. 

“I’ll go first,” I told them.
“Are you sure?” Deli asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “It’s why I’m here. I need to get to those wells.” 

I had started to lower myself down into the dark hole when Soy grabbed my arm.

“Cal,” he said with a concerned voice.
“Yeah, Soy?” I asked with a smile.
“It’s just, if there’s something horrible down there… make sure you yell up really loudly, so I know not to follow you,” he said.
“Sure, Soy,” I answered without the smile.
“I’ll be mad if you don’t,” he added. 

Deli rolled her eyes. 

“Rocketship underwear,” I thought to myself. 

 

I dangled my legs over the edge first and took a few breaths. When I finally let go of my grip, I immediately regretted it. I’d been counted on the tunnel wall to curve under me and catch me, but it went straight down. I started falling fast, not sure if I was screaming out loud or just in my head. 

I could barely think at all. I’d never fallen so far in my life and had no idea what was waiting for me at the bottom. The tunnel seemed to go on forever. Finally, I started to scrape the sides with my back. More and more of my back touched the tunnel, slowing me down. The walls got smoother and took most of my weight. My fall had turned into a slide, and I was starting to level out. The ride ended when I was ejected out onto a landing. There was a rich purple lake glowing in front of me. The lake was the only source of light, showing off a stubby, wooden dock jutting out over the liquid. 

I knew that I must be deeper underground than I had ever been before. It was hard to tell how long I had been falling, though. My guess was somewhere around three minutes. I called back into the tunnel, not knowing if Deli and Soy had any shot of hearing me. 

“Hello! Deli! Soy! I’m OK!” I yelled.
To my utter surprise, I could hear them like they were only a few feet away. 

“What took you so long to say something, then?” Soy asked suspiciously. 

“Because … I was falling,” I said. “… for a while,” I thought.
“Are there monsters with you?” he asked.
“No, Soy. Come down and bring Deli, but be careful on the way down.” 

I could hear him whisper to Deli, “See, but that’s exactly what a monster would make him say.” 

I decided to use the acoustic phenomenon to my advantage.
“Soy, you can hear how close I am. If there were monsters you’d hear them too,” I said. "Just jump down. I can still see you from where I am.” It was a lie, but time was wasting.

I heard Deli talking to Soy until he let out a big sigh. They jumped in after me.