By Michael Dolan
“I really hope this artifact is worth all the hassle,” I remarked to my partner, Alma, as we climbed over a caved-in wall. “This maze of ruins is going to drive me crazy.”
“Oh, stop complaining. We’re getting close.”
“How can you tell? This place is so poorly designed.”
At that instant, the floor fell out, dropping us screaming thirty feet to the ground below.
Stunned, I lay still for a moment, then struggled up and rubbed my side. “Sometimes I hate being right.”
“Well, good thing I was, too.” Alma stood and gestured to a pedestal surrounded by rubble in front of us. A necklace with an iridescent opal lay on top.
“The talisman of prophecy.”
I walked up to the dais and lifted the chain from its dusty resting place. I placed it around my neck and turned to look at Alma, but my eyes struggled to focus. It was like looking at a 3D image without the matching glasses.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
I raised my hands in front of me, rotating them back and forth. “I think I feel fine.”
She stared at me for a second. “Okay. Good to know.” Her voice had a strange, echo-y quality to it. I chalked it up to the chamber’s acoustics.
“What?” I glanced down at both sides of my body. “How do I look?”
She shrugged one shoulder, responding in that same warbly voice. “Normal enough?”
“Ha. Snarky as usual, I see.”
She gave me another weird look. I ignored it, gazing up at the hole we’d fallen through. A mental image of us scrambling to climb up and collapsing in another heap surged through my mind, unprompted. I steadied myself against a column. “I don’t think we’re getting back up that way.”
“No.” Alma pointed past me, her arm hazy in the dim light. “I think that’s our way out.”
I turned around, seeing the dim outline of a hallway carved into the rock. “Excellent. Let’s get going.”
Alma wordlessly fell into step behind me, and we strode single-file through the passage. As we rounded a corner, something shimmered in front of me, and I saw a pair of axes swing down from the ceiling.
“Get down!” I wheeled around and pushed Alma back, then crouched against the wall. The hairs on my neck stood up as the axes narrowly missed my head, lodging themselves in the stone.
“Hey!” Alma’s eyes narrowed, then widened. “Wait, how did…”
My heart raced, and my eyes were probably as wide as hers. “That was close.”
“What are you talking about?” Alma looked toward the axes, her brow furrowed. “You did that like ten seconds before they came down.”
It was my turn to be confused. “What are you talking about? They just missed—”
“You’re doing it again.” She gestured to the talisman. “Take that off.”
I lifted it off. Her hand immediately snapped back to her side as she said, “You’re doing it again.”
“You said that already. I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Aha! I only said it once. But you already heard me say it?”
“And you took off the talisman because?”
“You asked—well, told me to.”
“Wrong. I was going to tell you.”
Our eyes slowly turned to the artifact in my hand.
“You mean the talisman of prophecy…” I started.
“Literally lets you sense the future,” finished Alma. “That’s why, when you were wearing it, you’d respond before I even said anything.”
“Incredible.” I admired the relic, then put it back on.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Alma asked.
“Of course it’s a good idea.” I pointed to the axes, still embedded in the wall. Then I added, “Sorry if you haven’t asked that yet.”
She shook her head, but I turned and continued following the ruined passage. As I neared a fork, I sensed each route, with different paths, obstacles, and outcomes. Getting trapped by cave-ins, wounded by booby traps, attacked by animals. I leaned against the wall, developing a headache as my brain raced to process it all at once.
Alma touched my shoulder. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” I gritted my teeth against the pain. “This way.”
We marched on. My headache faded as some futures disappeared, then grew as even more sprouted in their place. As we navigated each derelict corridor, multiple possibilities flashed through my mind. Making a choice lessened the ache slightly, but the mental toll continued to mount, my brain straining to process the onslaught of potential futures.
My distress must have become obvious, because Alma grasped my hand. I braced myself, expecting the number of prospective futures to multiply based on whether she kept or released her grip. But as she led us forward, I was thankful that in every future I could sense, none of them involved her letting go.
I lost sense of time, but when we finally reached the exit, the breadth of possible futures hit me like a tsunami. Continue exploring the ruins. Return to base camp. Donate the talisman. Find a fence. Hide it. Keep it. Only one action led to an uncertain future.
I removed the talisman, then collapsed to the jungle floor. I could finally breathe again.
“You okay?” Alma asked. “For a while, I thought I’d have to haul you out myself.”
“I’m okay,” I gasped. “But maybe next time, I’ll reconsider using an artifact’s power right away.”
Alma let out a sharp laugh. “Now that’s something I really never saw coming.”