Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Torch Light (part 1)

(Source of pic, Leonid Mamchenkov)

I have long lost track of time spent exploring this colossal cavern. My best estimate is around a day. That's twenty-four hours, mostly spent in the dark. I guess when you are alone, entrapped in darkness, interspersed with short periods when you come across some sprinklings of light supplied by candles or torches lining the sides, the awareness of time becomes totally irrelevant. For once, there is no relativity in my world and the concept of absoluteness, so normally overshadowed by its adversary, captures my attention totally.

Legend says that the founder of the art of wizardry, Katherine, created this huge magical cave many centuries back. Historians hypothesized that this was her way of recording all of her lifetime's discoveries and teachings. Future generations of wizards have since worshipped it as a sacred ground and used it as a training ground for wizard apprentices like myself. Specifically, it has evolved to become the definitive final test every apprentice has to take before being ushered into the exclusive circle of wizards.

If I have given the reader the impression that this final test is a very difficult one, then I offer my apologies for having misled you. The test has thus far yielded a 100% success rate. Every apprentice, who has been declared by his teacher to be fit and ready for the test, has taken it and made it out of the cave alive, hopefully more enlightened. Which was why this cavern was given an unimaginative and void of creativity name, "Cave of Certain Return". How these teachers, wizards proper themselves, decide on the readiness state of an apprentice is as much of a mystery to you as it is to me.

What I do know is, I was extremely excited when summoned before my teacher two days ago and was solemnly instructed me to take the "Final Test" the very next day. So here I am, in this mystical cave left by the Founder for posterity and being awed by her magic and spells that are inscribed randomly onto its walls. The average length of time an apprentice stays in the cave is between three to four days. There was once when a plucky apprentice disappeared into the cave for nearly six days. Everybody in the town thought that the myth of divine protection from the Founder was about to be shattered. To the folks' surprise and to his teacher's greater relief, he came back on the sixth sunset, appearing none the worse from his "ordeal". There was an impromptu celebration throughout that night to congratulate him on his supposed brush with fate. That particular fortunate apprentice went on to become one of the most renowned wizards of his lifetime.

I did not bring much for this journey. There was not a need to. It has become the unwritten law that all apprentices need not bring supplies into the cave. The magic of the cave produces an endless supply of food and water, situated at strategic points of the cave. These sanctuaries have been specially created by the Founder for the journeying apprentices to rest and recuperate before moving on. I guess the Founder must have been a great planner as well.

I was also informed of the redundancy of my spell book. Any spell I intend to take down into my spell book will be erased once I see daylight again. You will have to commit the spells to memory and the trip does turn into a memory exercise after a while. So one enters and exits the cave very much unchanged in body (unless your diet changes drastically in the cave) but hopefully changed in mind. That is of course, the intention of our teachers in sending us on this journey.

I did bring in something that was somewhat unexpected, especially for myself. A walking stick. Prior to the trip, I was advised liberally by various wizards, including my teacher, to bring one with me. I initially scorned at the idea, since I viewed myself as a strong and healthy young man, but ultimately relented as it was after all, advice from my respected teacher. A couple of hours into the cave, the walking stick has already justified its presence. Most of the commencing tunnels were quite well lit and relatively simple to manoeuvre in. However, I was soon to experience much dimmer ones later. That was when the stick came in useful as an extended hand. As fatigue sets in from time to time, I also find myself relying more and more on the stick for support as I push on.

Despite the impending uncertainties, I still carried with me the utmost faith that I will emerge from the cave safely. And because of this confidence, I have chosen to travel slowly and to examine all artifacts I came across closely. Of course, any spell I find inscribed on the walls have been earnestly memorised and learnt, for there is no turning back in this journey.

Yes, you heard that right. There is no turning back. Apparently, a spell that governs the movement of an apprentice has been cast on the cave. The cave memorises the identity of each apprentice who has entered it. Thus, no apprentice can make this trip twice. In it, I can only move forward. Any new tunnel I enter will close out the exit of the last I was in. Because of the huge number of tunnels and their complex distribution in the cavern, there is an infinite number of ways an apprentice can actually complete this trip in. Every wizard will therefore get to learn vastly different spells from their contemporaries in their own special journey. Thus, I constantly remind myself to learn each lesson, each spell comprehensively before moving on.

Every apprentice handles the journey in a different way. Some lack the mental endurance, hurrying along, emerging in a day or so. Others take in the sights and sounds (little there may be), reappearing from the cave learning little but gaining a few stones. I am hoping I will have the mental toughness to stay in the cave for as long as I can tolerate, so as to learn as much as I can adsorb.

Tolerance, I say? Yes, you need tremendous mental toughness to combat the age-old enemy called boredom. It sometimes increases the urge to hasten one's step towards reaching the end. I am of course susceptible to it too. Fortunately for me, I was to come across this peculiar "Air" spell early in my journey that proved most helpful. It is called Music. With this spell, I can conjure up a tune that plays and plays continuously. That helps to break the silence of the cave and block out the disturbing crackling sounds of the fires that dance ever so cheerily on the stage provided by the torches. So fearful I am of the deadly silence, I leave my spell playing softly even when I am in slumber. Yes, the named spell does come with volume control.

It will be inevitable that boredom still sets in occasionally and you lose sight of why you are in here in the first place. Every tunnel looks the same, save the writings on the walls or some time-ravaged artifact. Occasionally, I enter the odd sanctuary that breaks the pattern a little. I am grateful to the fact that all these sanctuaries, at least all those I have been to thus far, are quite well illuminated. Each will almost certainly contain numerous fruit trees and a drinking hole. Occasionally, I even come across small and crudely constructed resting-places, perhaps left behind by a previous apprentice. What do you know? Historical artifacts!

The boredom does make me wonder about the Founder. What was the real reason behind this magnificent creation? I exclaim in surprise at her magical powers, as well as her magnanimity behind her motivation for its construction. Her creation has fed the minds of many generations of wizards and will continue to do so for more to come. I am most grateful to her for allowing me into her creation and to learn from her.

Strangely, most of the spells I have learnt thus far are "Fire" spells, meaning, they are fire- based (All spells are categorised under one of four ways, "Water", "Fire", "Earth" and "Air"). In a way, this has worked to my advantage. As mentioned, there are many parts of the journey wrapped in total darkness, some so dark I cannot even count my outstretched fingers. I find it annoyingly difficult to sleep in complete darkness. It does not make a difference whether my eyes are open or shut, I can only see pitch darkness. Moving without a light is obviously quite disorientating. I can only feel my way through the tunnel until the next distant candlelight comes into view. This makes progress excruciatingly slow and I do not even know if I have missed out on any spells or writings left by the Founder along the way.

So I was really relieved to learn a "Fire" spell, Finger Flame, a couple of hours back. I am extremely grateful now to have this little flame whispering sweet nothings to me from atop of my right index finger. The main drawback of this spell is it works only on my index fingers. My index fingers ache after some time because it has to be kept upright all the time (lest I burnt myself!). Even after alternating between both hands, the duo is still lodging complaints of ill treatment.

Yet, "Fire" spells are dangerous too. Even the Founder has taken the trouble to warn me about that, inscribing these warnings next to each "Fire" spell I come across. I guess the main danger comes not from fire's potentially destructive powers but that only the conjurer of the spell can put out fires originating from magic.

Spending over a day in the dark blunts my memories of the outside world. I start to forget the feeling of sunlight roasting my back, the smell of the morning fresh air lingering in my nostrils, the echoes of children's laughter. I miss those feelings but the conscious constant reminder to myself that this is a once in a lifetime experience usually curbs the temptation to hurry along. At other times though, I do get to appreciate the virtues of being alone. It allows me the space to ponder more deeply into the teachings of my teacher. I start to learn and relearn all that she has taught me in my mind, from interestingly new perspectives. It also helps me to derive a better understanding of the literature of this incredulous cave.

The literature used by the Founder is quite varied. In fact, she seldom used pure English. Instead she often relied on other dialects, such as those used by the goblins, dwarves, forest elves, dragons and strangely enough, even that of our age-old northern border enemies, the Witches. I was patting myself on the back for having learnt my foreign dialects well. It allowed me to interpret most of her expositions with relative ease.

Akan Datang: 三國演義

128 days to go.

P.S. I wrote this eons ago, like 5-6 years back. Just remembered it recently, so here it is in its full former glory.


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