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 led us down a path that ended abruptly at a stone wall. We saw right away that there were exactly five wooden doors. Each of the doors was painted a different shade of orange (all pretty dulled down by 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. Then I noticed that there were words above the center door, etched onto a silver plate.

“What does it say?” asked Deli, 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 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. But, opening doors in a magic mountain willy-nilly seemed like a bad idea, even for Soy.

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

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

“Close the door!” yelled Deli from behind us. 

Although my heart was racing with fear, I couldn't help but look through the doorway to the other side. It clearly led to another dark cloud, even scarier than the one we had just barely escaped. But something else was different about it, too. Instead of seeing a field of rocks and trees ahead of me, I was looking at a distant wall with holes in it. 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.

"Soy, what were you thinking??" I asked, surprised at how angry I was. "You can't just go opening strange doors!"

But, when I pointed at the door that almost took my best freind, I didn’t see an antelope. Instead, it 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.”
“Okay, but ... wherever the antelope is, we know never to open that one again, right?” Soy said, still catching his breath.

Deli looked upset, and when I looked around, 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.

I let out a frustrated sigh. 
“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 back to the words on the plate. My mom had taught me that when I don’t understand something, I should take it apart piece by piece. Maybe 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 "lost forever" meant now. Choosing wrong again was not an option. 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, though. Plus he couldn’t get to them without me, anyway. 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 someone's already 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!”

Deli and Soy looked confused. 
“So … where is this hidden door?” asked Deli pointing to the empty room.
"The dwarves found the wells because they’re the best diggers. So that means the path they took should be right where they left it: under our feet!” 

 

Luckily, that was good enough for them and, since no one had a better idea, we really didn't have any other choice. Deli suggested digging in the center of the room, but I strongly disagreed. There was an area of dirt to the right of the doors that seemed right to me. I couldn’t explain it, but I knew it was out best shot. After just 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 us as we dug, and Soy didn’t take kindly to orders from what he described as a “doesn't-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 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 easily recognize. It was a fairy. And something told me that this 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, I saw 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 barely 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 and took a few breaths. When I finally built up the courage to let go of my grip, I immediately regretted it. I’d counted on the tunnel wall to curve under me and catch me, but nope- 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 eventually took most of my weight. The fall had turned into a slide and I was starting to level out. The ride ended when I was ejected out onto a landing. As I stood up (slowly) I saw that there was a rich purple lake glowing in front of me. It was the only source of light, showing off a stubby, wooden dock jutting out over the liquid. 

I knew that I must've been deeper underground than ever 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 OKAY!” 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. "Pretty far,” I thought.
“Are there monsters with you?” he asked.
“No monsters, 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 Soy arguing with Deli until he let out a big sigh. They jumped in after me.