@Copyright E. Charles Tucker, all rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without the expressed written consent of the author.

Rites of Passage (Part I)

M'Kowh stood before the cave entrance, his brow tight with determination. To turn back now would be cowardice; his people would maul his body with hoof and horn, exiling him forever from the ancient homeland. As custom dictated he removed his weapons, stripping off his metal leggings and sleeves; he would face this challenge as a true warrior, relying on his skills and strength to see him through. A breeze whipped through his mane, sending his black hair flying across his face; he grinned, remembering small boyhood pleasures of running into such winds, his brother at his side.

Growling deeply he shook his head, chasing away those distracting thoughts. Now was not the time to think of C'Toyn or childish games; he had his Passage to think of. The young Minotaur knelt before the cavern, offering a soft prayer of victory to Krag the Mighty before stepping boldly across the threshold, forcing his fear into the recesses of his mind.

The cave was pitch black; the light from outside seemed afraid to enter any deeper within. M'Kowh wondered, briefly, if the cave had been warded by the old mystics to chase away any light. "I should have brought a torch" he reflected, knowing that to have done so would make his victory seem hollow to the Elders. To enter the Cave of Passage with nothing, save his horns and a loincloth, would prove his worth to the Herd beyond any doubt. In the few years since his sire's death his family had been shunned by the others; his brother's lost eye only added to the superstitious lot, believing his family cursed by the gods themselves. He knew his Passage would be watched carefully, his fate determining that of his family. He would bring honor back to his family, or die in the process.

The youth reached out to the wall of the cave, using it's rough surface as a guide. The ground was hard but covered with rough gravel, making his hoofsteps echo endlessly into the underground labyrinth that awaited him. As he walked he remembered old D'Nothe's words to him, helping to prepare his former commander's son for the trials ahead.

"This is no ordinary maze" D'Nothe advised. "Do not think you will simply wander for hours, lucking across the correct path." The old bull frowned then, seeming to remember his own journey through the labyrinth of manhood. "No, whelp, this maze is filled with creatures foul and evil, determined to make you pay for their existance. Traps abound, you'll see; 'ware the ground, or you'll find yourself at the bottom of a spiked pit!"

M'Kowh heard a low growling from somewhere ahead, snapping him out of his reverie. So it begins, he thought, his body tense with both fear and anticipation. He moved forward slowly, his eyes beginning to adjust to the darkness that surrounded him. He could see, barely; outlines really, general forms of things that lie ahead. He knew better than to rely on his sight - not here, underground. His nostrils flared as he scented the air, using it as a guide; something smelled of hair or fur, not too far ahead. He thought for a moment; he could avoid the creature, whatever it was - but instinct told him that to do so would place him on the wrong path. The labyrinth was made to test the young bulls, to see if they held the strong will and determination worthy of the Minotaur; it would be like the Elders to place a challenge this close to the entrance, forcing him to make an early choice. "Come on then" he growled, moving towards the scent. "It shall be me or you, whatever you are."

Something roared just beyond his position, as if in answer to his challenge. He could smell it strongly now; thick fur, mixed with blood and old grime. Whatever creature waited for him smelled of rank filth, the wet earth of the cave thick with it's scent. Another few yards and he'd surely come across it, he reflected - just as a dark shadow leapt from an upper ledge, knocking him to the ground.

He scrambled to his feet, seeking his attacker; it growled from his left, deep and angry. M'Kowh turned, squinting in the darkness to see what creature he faced. Slowly it came into focus, although it left him more confused. The great cat advanced cautiously, it's thick mane mangled and unruly around it's massive head. What in Krag's name, he thought, is a lion doing down here? It's fur was cacked with dirt, blood and gore; it's ribs showed through it's emaciated hide. The beast licked it's lips eyeing him, looking for a chance to pounce; it obviously hadn't eaten considerably in days, maybe weeks. The minotaur would either be it's merciful killer, or it's first good meal; either way, M'Kowh wanted this over with. "I'll not be stalked, lean one; come, kill me now, if you can!"

He charged forward, the cat rushing to meet him. M'Kowh tucked his head low, aiming for the beast's belly even as the cat leapt to tear his head from his neck. He felt the tips of his horns graze the lion's belly, tearing long strips of flesh from its yellow body. It howled, landing roughly on the ground behind him and croching defensively; M'Kowh spun, ready for another pass with the beast.

Crazed from near-starvation, the worn feline obliged. Forepaws high it leapt in a desperate lunge, off-balance with pain and fatigue. The minotaur twisted aside of the attack, wrapping a thick arm around the cat's neck as he turned and slammed the beast to the ground, using his weight and momentum to force the lion down. M'Kowh frowned; this was no honorable fight! Angrilly he placed a palm against the cat's head, giving it's tawny neck a forceful twist and ending it's misery forever.

He rose, brushing himself off. In his heart he knew he'd done the once-noble beast a service, ending it's pathetic life. Still, he thought, the cat deserved better. No, he mused; I deserve better! This was no test of manhood, but butchery! With a disgusted snort he continued further into the maze, a new resolve kindling his spirit.

The labyrinth twisted and turned like the coils of a snake, winding in and around itself and giving the young bull cause to stop, reassessing his surroundings. He'd wandered now for the better part of an hour, finding nothing to give him challenge. His snout wrinkled in thought; aye, he realized, I've passed this same chamber not long before. He knelt in the fine gravel drawing a measure into his hand, marking the steps of his own passage; at least twice now I've been through, judging by the markings. A trick? "Of course" he answered aloud, studying the walls and floors for some sign of exit. Disgusted with himself he flung the sand away from him, watching the thin grains waft away on a light breeze.

M'Kowh glared at the walls, hoping to find some clue to his escape - then turned, eyes wide in dawning realization as he knelt again to the sand-strewn floor. "The breeze" he muttered, scattering a handful of grains before him. As expected the dust drifted away from him, wafting south...he whirled, eyes fixed on the north wall.

The minotaur frowned; the wall was much like the others, covered in greenish-brown lichen and made of large, grey stone - and solid. Rising to his feet he walked closer, sniffing the air - there was a breeze, tho' light; but from where? And how? He leaned forward, placing his head against the stone in hopes that some sound on the other side would give the room's secrets away - and fell forward, through the wall and flat onto his chest!

Surprised he snapped his head up; he lay at the fore of a long hall, leading deep into darkness. "Illusion" he grumbled, pushing himself onto his feet. Silently he cursed the gods that allowed the robe-wearing mages their powers. "A bull should fight horn to horn, not across a field like elves or humans."

From further down the hall echoed a high chuckle, causing the young bull to spin and face the darkness. "Who laughs?" he challenged, fists clentched; silence alone answered him. Undaunted he took another step forward, eyes peering for some sign in the blackness ahead. "Do you hide, coward? Well you should!" Again came the answering chuckle, light and hollow. M'Kowh let out an angry snort, rage building inside his chest. "I'll not be mocked; not here, not now!" Defying the shadows he strode forward, letting the darkness envelop him.

He could see nothing beyond an arm's length, and even then it was shadowed and hidden; he growled, smelling the acrid tingle of magic. "Gods blast you, coward, show yourself" he roared, muscles tense with anticipation and concealed fear. "This is no bull's fight!"

"And you are no bull, bull, bull" sang a voice within the shadows. M'Kowh snapped his head around in vain; the voice seemed to come from all around him. "And you are?!" he growled, ears straining for a clue to his antagonist. The voice sang out once more. "Not a bull, either". Again the chuckle, more womanly than male. "A cow, then? A clanless woman with no home to call your own?" he spat, hoping to draw the taunting voice into the open. "No", it answered. "Not bull nor cow, mare nor stallion, tree nor frog." A bead of sweat appeared on the minotaur's forehead, more threatening to follow. Still, he decided, he would hold his ground; better that than wandering aimlessly. "Then what?" he called. "I grow tired of this game."

A shadow shifted to his right; he whirled to face it. "We are death" it cackled, stepping closer into view. M'Kowh snarled, taking a reflexive step back. "Imp!" he hissed through clentched teeth, arm raised defensively. The small creature chittered in malevolent glee, hopping closer. "The calf knows us" it grinned, yellowish saliva dripping from it's lips.

M'Kowh frowned, taking another step back. The imp was small, no taller than his knee; still they could be dangerous, their appetites even worse than the Ogiers. "I've no quarrel with you, Imp" he warned. "Stay away and let me pass."

The imp chuckled, a tinny sound that bounced back and forth down the darkened hall. "The calf wants us to leave it be, does he?" it asked. "Perhaps we'll leave him...after he's dead!" It lunged forward, tiny hands lashing out with razor-sharp claws; M'Kowh darted away, unable to avoid the light scoring along his kneecap. He cried out in anger, lashing out with a hoof. The imp bounced aside, neatly dodging the attack and letting out an ear-splitting shriek. "By Krag, what is this?" shouted M'Kowh, hands over his ears. The sound didn't just echo, he realized; it came from all around him. He squinted, peering into the darkness - and saw the shadows move! He panicked; more movement came from his side. His eyes were wide, his chest heaving; what madness was this?

A shriek sounded from above his head just as something wet and scaly landed onto his back; ignoring the noise he reached back, grabbing slime-covered flesh and hurling the mass from him. It landed with a sickening flop onto the ground, rolling beside the imp that taunted him from the beginning. The second creature stood, it's cackle joining that of it's brother. The minotaur snorted a blast of air through his nostrils. "Two?" he asked, already dreading the answer.

The second imp hopped up and down in place before it's kin. "The calf knows us, does it?" it cried, it's head whipping back and forth between the first and the young bull. The first imp chittered happily, stopping to turn a knowing glare onto M'Kowh. "It knows us" it agreed, grinning at the minotaur with jagged teeth. "But does it know how many?"

- to be continued - .