Aquatika - beta version - Part 12
Chapter 1: The Wilderness
The Sun is just rising above the blue mountain peaks. What will be waiting for me at the end of my journey? Will it be failure? Will it be success?
I stretch my arms and legs and begin massaging them, to set the blood in motion. I’m fortunate to wear these leather clothes, or I would have frozen to death overnight, despite the sturdy shelter of pine branches I have built for myself before going to sleep. Starting a fire here is not an option. I have to be as inconspicuous as possible. So far, I have managed to avoid all the intercepting patrols. It would be really the worst possible bad luck to be caught right before reaching Lucero. Diana, the departure city, is now more than a thousand kilometers behind me.
It has snowed again during the night. A thin white layer covers the ground. Snow can keep you warmer in your shelter, but it is also going to reveal your tracks. So, I’ll meditate and wait for another hour, until it melts.
There’s little to eat at this altitude. For the last week, my diet consisted mostly of pine seeds and occasional mushrooms. Of course, I could risk hunting, but hunting would generate tracks. Many master candidates were caught like this and then had to wait for another year to try again. Anh cautioned me about this before the start of the test, more than five weeks ago. It feels like a lifetime has passed since then.
I do some light stretching, trying to ignore my hunger, then begin the Three Circle Meditation, focusing on gathering energy in my weakened limbs. My palms are heating up first. Then the wave of warmth extends to the rest of my body. At the same time, my perception expands, filling the forest around me. Everything is quiet for the time being. That’s good. I might have a chance to continue along the same path. Lucero can’t be too far away.
Once finished with the meditation, I take my backpack and my sword, preparing for another day of trekking. It’s getting warmer, and most of the snow has already melted. If I tread on with care, I won’t leave any visible tracks. Yet, because this is probably my final day in the Wilderness, I have to be extra careful.
I dismantle my shelter with care, hiding the used branches among a bunch of thick bushes. Anyone showing up in an hour or two should see this place as pristine as it was before I came by. Then I begin moving along a large circle. Initially, I walk away from the path that goes to my destination, circumventing a group of rocks and descending on the other side of the mountain. This detour delays my progress by about half an hour, but it’s a tactic used to confuse any potential interceptor who might still glimpse my tracks.
I continue to walk cautiously. Besides tracking patrols, the Wilderness never lacks dangers. Bears, wolves, tigers, khorals, furry snakes, green wasps, or harpagons can send you quickly out of this world if you don’t pay full attention to your surroundings. My sense of empathy has developed tremendously during the last few years, and I can sense many dangers in advance. However, I’m far from most Aquatika masters. That’s why becoming a master is so difficult.
The whole process takes a lot of stamina, endurance, and, more than anything else, mental power. Those who want to become masters need to pasts this final test. Their journey begins in Diana and goes southwards across Sirenia until they arrive in Lucero. The examination starts in the fall, always on the same date.
The candidates have fifty days to complete their mission. They need to walk the whole distance unaided and without any tools. The only thing they are allowed to carry is their sword. Even their shoes and clothing are of poor quality and wear out in a week. The contenders need to make their clothes and shoes from what the Wilderness has to offer. In the rare cases when two contender paths intersect, they are expected to part ways as soon as possible and continue their trek individually. In the meantime, intercepting patrols comb the whole area, catching those who can’t conceal their tracks well enough and sometimes saving the unlucky candidates who are in danger.
Some of the contestants who leave Diana are never seen again. Tracking devices destroyed, their bones find their final rest inside the Wilderness. From those who survive, most are caught by the intercepting patrols and taken to either Diana or Lucero, whichever is closer. They can try again in the following year. Roughly, about one in ten pass the test and become masters. Yet, nobody has ever done it from the first try. Not in the last fifty years.
This is my second attempt. If God really wants to help me, it could also be the last. Focus! Stay focused! It’s not over until you either set step in Lucero or if an intercepting patrol has caught you. Or if you’re dead.
The forest is relatively quiet, except for a few laughing birds that are faintly audible in the north. I am descending now on the eastern side of the cliff, towards the next ridge. From the top, I might even be able to glimpse the sea. Perhaps Lucero is not far, either. I keep repeating to myself that If I’m lucky, this could be my last day in the Wilderness. I had to use all my skills to go this far. I had fights with wild beasts, hunted when needed, and stayed hidden when I had to, surviving periods of hunger, thirst, cold, and sleep deprivation.
I’ve made the shoes I’m wearing from thick bear skin. My pants and shirt are from deer skin. They’re not great, but reasonably warm and comfortable for this climate. So far, I had to avoid the intercepting patrols three times. Last year I was caught on the second encounter, midway into my trip. Using my previous experience, I’ve done a better job this time. Just one more day, and everything could be over.
(to be continued...)
Books by Marian C. Ghilea:
BUTTERFLY'S DREAM: https://bit.ly/2PM63uU
TIDES OF AMBER: https://bit.ly/2HfcHVB
This novel has won the #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) contest
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