"So this girl, you said her name was Lynn?" Pat's voice came from down below a five-meter drop of loose rock that Garth was desperately trying to find handholds in as he descended.
"Liz!" Garth shouted down below.
"Liz, got it. You okay up there?"
His cheek pressed hard to the rock's surface, his claws desperately dug in for the least bit of traction he could manage, and his muscles aching already, Garth thought of a thousand answers to the question. As small stones loosened during their descent ricocheted off the top of his head, he finally managed to say "Yeah, I'm fine."
"You look a little precarious," Pat stated. "It's only three meters from where you are. Just jump!"
Garth turned his head, looking down. Pat was gesturing with both hands. "Come on!"
Garth turned slowly, easing himself away from the rockface, then pushed off. The ground came up very fast. "Ooof!"
He hit, rolled, and came to a stop. "Ouch."
"You okay? Nothing twisted?"
Garth looked up, brushing bits of forest floor off his whiskers. "I'm fine, Pat." Turning over and sitting down, he examined himself more carefully. "Everything's in one piece. The next time you give that advice, please remember that we Terrans don't bounce back quite as quickly as you do."
Pat laughed, a sound Garth was beginning to enjoy regardless of the circumstance. "I'll do that. Come on. Here's your pack."
Garth stood up slowly, groaning, and shouldered the heavy pack, locking the belt around his back and settling it onto his hips. "Anyway, she was a really interesting person. I had a few girlfriends for the past two years, but I was really concerned for Kolya and Furry 'cause Kolya and Liz were doing so well."
"But he left her for Furry, right?" Pat led the way down along the streamside that seemed to be heading in the direction of the black cylinder, now visible. Garth thought it looked a long way off, but Pat kept assuring him they'd make it long before nightfall. It was only four lome' as it was; they had gone to bed much earlier than Garth had suspected, and both had awoken over an hour before dawn. That had given them time to wash and have breakfast and break camp long before the first flash of morning light.
"I sort of arranged things that way. I had an email conversation with her. I made her realize just how important Kolya and Furry were to each other. I was surprised. She took it really well."
"Does she love him?"
"I think so," Garth said. "Even though by his own words he's 'off limits' to me, I can understand why people like him. He's very honest, very open."
"I can understand why that would lead people to like him, too," Pat replied, smiling. "Hold up."
"Look." Pat pointed. Ahead of the them, the stream turned to the left suddenly, going in exactly the wrong direction for them. "We have to forge this thing."
"It's not that deep or that fast," Garth said. "At worst, you'll get your dick wet."
"That water is praggin' cold," Pat growled. "It'll either shrivel up and disappear or freeze solid and break off." He grinned. "Oh, well, what's life without castration complex once in a while? Come on, let's do this as quickly as possible." He began running, splashing water left and right. As he made it half way across, the depth slowed him down. He was shoving water out of the way by brute force. It didn't quite reach the bottom of his pack, and Garth figured he could make it just as easily since he was actually taller than Pat.
The water chilled him quickly. It was quite cold. "Bracing!" he said to Pat.
"Freezing is more like it," the Felinzi said.
Garth climbed out of the river quickly. "After the kind of heat we've been through today, I'm surprised you're not enjoying that dip."
"I'd rather be warm," Pat replied. "Come on. I think we're close."
Garth nodded. Pat wasn't wrong; less than half an hour later the imposing black wall of the Hall came into clear focus through the trees. "Hmm," Pat mused. "No break."
"No break. Usually there's a grassy space between the trees and the Hall. This time, the trees come almost up to the edge of the Hall. No door, either."
"Is that good or bad? I'd been told I might have to hunt for the door."
"I'm not sure," Pat said. "It means something, at any rate. Let's start walking. I'm sure we'll find the door eventually." He paused for a moment, pulled a strip of ribbon out of a side pocket on his pack and tied it around a tree. "There. Now we'll know if we've gone all the way around."
As they circumnavigated the Hall, Garth wondered what the point of hiding the door was. He asked.
"I'm not sure. Proof of tenacity and intent, I guess. Three times people have come to the Hall and not found a door. All three eventually walked back and went home. I believe there was a book one woman wrote about her failure to find the door, called 'Like Roland At Jericho.' I'm not sure what the title was supposed to mean."
"Neither am I," Garth admitted.
Pat sighed. "Damn. Another stream."
Garth looked up. As Pat had said, another stream lay before them, this one heading under the wall and into the Great Hall. "Well, there's no getting around this... Hey, Pat, could this be the entrance?"
"You mean, swim under the walls?" Pat grimaced at the idea. "I've never heard of it happening before, but I'm sure it's possible. It's not something I want to do."
Garth nodded. "I can do it alone from here," he said. "It's only a klick inside to the center, right?"
Pat nodded. "You really think this is it?"
"We've almost walked all the way around."
"Look, let's at least walk to the tree. If we don't find the door, you can come back and try it."
Garth nodded. They forded the stream and made their way around the Hall. Finally, Pat had to admit that they'd returned to the tree where he had tied his ribbon. The first words out of his mouth when they found it were "I hate swimming."
"Like I said, I'll go alone," Garth replied. "You don't have to go with me."
"I... Tough position you've put me in, Garth. I hate the idea of leaving you like this."
"Well, don't worry about it." He put his hand on Pat's shoulder. "I'm a big Kat now, I should be able to make my own decisions, right?"
"I'm five times your age."
"Yeah, so?" Garth smiled. "Come on, let's go."
They walked back to the stream. Garth looked at the water flowing under the dark cylinder and said "This is crazy."
"You said you wanted to do it."
"So I did." He dropped his backpack on the ground. "I won't be needing that anymore. At least, that's what everybody tells me." He pulled his T-shirt off and dropped it on the sand, followed by his boots. "I hate losing these shoes after breaking them in so damned quickly."
"That just means they'll lose form fast," Pat said. "But if you want, I can pack 'em out for you and leave them with your friends."
"Could you?" Garth said. "I'd appreciate it."
"Must be nice knowing you'll have the same shoe size coming out."
Garth laughed. "I guess." He stripped off his pants and tossed them into the pile with the rest of his stuff.
Pat smiled. "I didn't get a good look at you last night in the dark. You look good, Garth."
"Thanks," Garth said. "That's something I needed to hear."
"Because I don't believe it. But it's people like you who convinced me to do this with the morphing off. I just hope I'm not making the biggest mistake of my life."
"Probably not," Pat said. "You're just going ahead with your life the way it should be."
"Who says it should be this way?"
Pat shrugged. "I do. "
"Good enough," Garth admitted. He stepped in the water until it was lapping at his ankles. "Bye, Pat. See you on the other side."
"Maybe someday," Pat said. "Good luck."
Garth dove into the water. It was freezingly cold. He could feel the temperature seeping into his bones, chilling him as he swam under the wall of the Great Hall and into his destiny, or so he hoped.
There was a light ahead of him, and he swam towards it, assuming it to be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. His lungs began to burn a little, then a little more. He began to worry; the light he saw was getting no brighter, but seemed to be dimming and fading away. His heart began to be loud in his ears. He turned around, making sure that he could see the entrance he had come in. It was gone, and when he turned around again so was the light he had been following.
Panic gripped him as if the pressure were about to crush his skull. He swam up, or at least he hoped it was up. The burning in his lungs spread to his heart while the cold gripped his belly. He clawed at the water, disoriented. His thinking was becoming tenuous, then nonexistent. He no longer knew what direction he was swimming in. He could no longer see in the cold, dark tunnel that was going to swallow him and kill him.
NO! This was not the end, he wasn't going to die here. Ken had promised him; nobody ever just "disappeared" on a walk to through The Great Hall. He swam in desperation, and his lungs felt like they were going to explode, and finally they did.
A great rush of cold water filled his chest as he inhaled reflexively. His body gagged, and he felt his stomach muscles cramp at the cold attacking them and he vomited into the water. In the dark, he saw none of it.
And then he was gone.