Lunar Trials

When I went to unlock my front door one day, I noticed a glowing key on my key ring that hadn’t been there before. I had to pee and my phone was ringing, so I ignored it at first, then forgot about it.

When I remembered the next day, I checked my key ring, ready to contemplate what it was for. But it wasn’t there.

“Wacky imagination,” I muttered to myself.

But I hadn’t imagined it, because a month later—on the day of the next full moon, to be exact—it was back.

“Hello, key. Nice to see you again.” I held it up and examined it. “What do you go to?”

The key, unsurprisingly, didn’t answer.

My natural inclination was to procrastinate. Why do today what you can put off for tomorrow? And as I wasn’t presented with any unfamiliar doors with magical locks, it seemed easiest to not bother with it.

But knowing it would be gone the next day added an intriguing layer of immediacy. I was curious. I was in possession of a key that would disappear the next day.

So I wandered around with, my hand outstretched, as I made my way through my daily routine.

There were no unusual doors in my apartment, on my walk to the bus stop, and certainly not on the bus. I ended up putting the key back in my pocket after several strange looks and a startled flinch from the bus driver.

The bus arrived at the college campus where I worked and got off on my usual stop. I pulled the key back out and squinted at it. It didn’t appear to be any brighter or pulling me any specific direction.

“Seriously, key. What am I supposed to do with you?”

After a moment of staring at the key, waiting for it to do something, I finally shrugged and sighed. I was late for work, and I wasn’t sure my boss would accept trying to find a door for a magical key as an excuse for tardiness. I rushed up the campus library steps and dashed past the reception desk, waving at the student assistant manning the checkout line.

I clocked in, dumped my bag in my office, checked my email, then headed for the stacks to start my daily shelving routine.

Surely the library was a good place to search for mysterious locked doors the needed magical keys to open them.

And searched I did. At first, I walked around with the key in front of me, hoping to use it like a dousing rod. No luck. It didn’t even flicker no matter what floor or section I was in. The rest of the day, I jiggled doorknobs to every door I’d never wondered about in three years working at the library.

Library patrons and a fair number of coworkers thought I was losing my mind by the end of the day, and while I had a new appreciation for the number of doors in my workplace, I was no closer to solving the mystery of the key.

As I made my way out of the library into the fading daylight, I frowned, searching for the moon overhead. I felt like I was running out of time. I knew that by the next day, the key would likely be gone again. And even if it did come back next full moon, I’d have to wait a whole month.

“Moon. Moon key. Moon door. Moon rise?” I tapped the key against my lips as I murmured nonsense words to myself, hoping to set something off in my mind. I regretted not researching magically appearing keys rather than wandering around looking for doors.

I made my way around the building to the small Zen garden. It was supposed to be a relaxing place, with a rock garden and a pagoda, a burbling fountain and lots of benches among a smattering of trees. But there was a taped off section where someone had snapped a large limb off of one of the trees, trash all over the ground, and the fountain was off since it was fall.

Despite all that, I sat on one of the benches and stared at the silent fountain. I used to visit the garden quite a bit, especially after I first started the job at the library. I didn’t know what I was doing and had cobbled together a lot of the requisite experience to even get an interview. But the interviewers seemed to like me, and I caught on to my job duties quickly.

Still, those first few months had been stressful, and the quiet garden had given me a place to meditate in relative peace.

I’d gotten out of the habit of meditating, and I chided myself for lapsing. The whole day I’d been focused on the key, what was the key doing, where did it fit, that I hadn’t listened to myself at all.

I pulled my knees up to sit cross-legged on the bench, palms facing up, key in one hand. I was antsy at first; it had been so long since I’d practiced sitting still. But once my breathing had calmed and I was listening to my body, I could feel it.

The key was letting out a little pulse that seemed to be matching my heartbeat.

Okay, weird.

It took a little longer to get my calm state back after realizing that. Once I did, I saw a door in my mind’s eye. I opened one eye to peek, but there wasn’t anything in the garden. After another few minutes, I was able to return to the door. I imagined myself lifting the key, and then I felt something unlatch.

When I opened my eyes, there was a doorway in front of me. Out of nowhere. In the middle of the garden. An archway that clearly went somewhere else.

I looked at the key and back to the arch.

“There isn’t even an actual keyhole to put you in,” I muttered to the key. Even still, I jumped off the bench and hurried to the doorway. I didn’t want to risk it changing its mind.

Once I’d stepped across the threshold, there was an echoing sound of a door closing. I turned around, and the archway I’d stepped through was gone. I was in a medium-sized room that held several card tables with various items on them. It felt like a church basement rummage sale.

On the far side was a door.

I inspected the different tables, poking at what they had to offer. One had a puzzle box. One had several pieces of card stock shaped into large puzzle pieces. One had a 1000-piece puzzle with a fantasy landscape on the box. One had a several books of Sudoku puzzles. Every table had puzzles of some sort. There were over a dozen tables.

“Hmm. Quite puzzling.” I looked around, but nobody was there to appreciate my joke. The key just continued to glow.

I shrugged and walked to the door at the far side of the room. It was locked, of course, but I had a key.

The key did not open the door.

“So, what? I have to solve all of the puzzles and the door unlocks?” That would take ages. I was miserable at puzzles. My cat would die waiting for me to get home. Hell, I would die before I managed it.

The room and the key remained silent. I took a calming breath.

“Okay, Rachel, think about this.” I closed my eyes and looked inside for the answer. Once I’d centered myself, I sent a question out. What do I do? How do I solve all these puzzles?

It seemed as if space and time opened up to me. I suddenly had any answer I could have ever wanted and more that I never would have even thought of. It was terrifying and awe-inspiring and exhausting all at once.

My eyes popped open, and I made my way to the first table. Using this strange new infinite knowledge resource I’d tapped into, I put together the first puzzle. I solved several puzzles in the Sudoku book, then started on the 1000-piece puzzle.

My stomach grumbled and I grimaced. I had a protein bar in my purse, so I ate it as I made my way to the puzzle box. Even having access to the all the knowledge of the universe, I was only one person. I couldn’t solve everything at once. Maybe there was a key in the puzzle box. I should have tried it first.

I made quick work of the puzzle box, but there was no key inside, only a slip of paper.

“‘Knowing all doesn’t mean doing all.'” I frowned at the paper. “Well? There isn’t anyone else.” This was a puzzle, also. “I hate riddles, for the record.”

I took another deep breath, closed my eyes, and searched through what I was starting to think of as a collective hive mind of universal knowledge. “Okay, hive mind. How do I solve this puzzle? Clearly solving all the puzzles isn’t the key.”

In my mind, an old woman winked, and things around her began to float.

My eyes snapped open.

Why levitation was the thing that weirded me out after everything else, I had no idea. But, I’d seen pencils writing by themselves and piles of books arranging themselves. Surely the items weren’t doing it of their own accord. Could I make all of the puzzles solve themselves? I’d proven to know what I needed.

I raised my arms, screwed up my face, and pushed the knowledge from the hive mind outward. I imagined the Sudoku puzzles filling themselves in, the puzzle pieces arranging themselves, the rest of the puzzles organizing themselves into order and solutions.

I closed my eyes, hoping that would help. And there was energy. Power. It emanated from me, and without opening my eyes, I knew what I’d imagined had come to pass.

When I felt the last piece fall into place, I did finally open my eyes.

The room had changed.

I felt like I was in a miniature diorama some kid learning about habitats had built. There was a forest-covered mountain in one corner, a desert in another, an ocean in one, and a prairie in another.

All in the same medium-sized room that had held card tables moments before.

I wandered from terrain to terrain, opening myself to the weird hive mind, and took in the details of my surroundings. Four corners. Four different geographies.

I sat down where the four geographies met and started to meditate. I could feel the heavy rocks from the mountain, the breeze across the prairie grasses, the lapping of the ocean, and the heat of the desert.

Four elements?

I felt them come together inside me. I was made of them. All of them were a part of me. And I could be a part of them. My body was mostly water, rounded out by earth, air came in and out of my lungs, and there was a fire that fueled my beating heart, giving me life.

I opened my eyes, and there was an altar. Four candles burned, four different colors. At the base of each candle was a small metal disk with patterns on them. The hive mind told me they were ancient symbols for the elements.

“Well? What now?”

The sounds of nature were the only thing that answered.

I looked from area to area, then back to the altar. Did it want an offering or something? I went to the mountain and found a rock. I hefted it in my hand, then nodded. I set it on the earth symbol and blew out the candle.

I felt something warm in my chest.

I smiled. I was on the right track.

I cupped a bit of the ocean water in my hand and put it in the little offering dish, some of the hot sand from the desert, and, after a moment contemplation, three tips of tall prairie grasses from the prairie.

I blew the candles out, one at a time, as I associated each with an element.

Something unlocked, and I closed my eyes again to enjoy the feeling of peace and tranquility, of power and chaos. When I opened my eyes again, the room was empty.

I squinted and turned in a circle. All that was left was the door.

I pulled the key out of my pocket and looked from it to the door.

“I already tried you once.” My tone, which I meant to come out annoyed, was more affectionate. The key didn’t answer, but it felt different in my palm.

I shrugged. “What the hell.” I walked over and stuck the key in the door’s antique-looking lock.

The little key flashed brightly, then faded away. The door unlocked and creaked open.

I frowned. I hadn’t realized how attached to the little key I’d become until it was gone.

“Well? Are you coming in?” came a female voice from behind the door.

“I’m not sure. Going through a door last time wasn’t exactly a great experience.”

There was laughter. “I told you she was sassy,” another female voice said.

A smile fought for control of my lips, but I kept my face serene.

“There’s tea and biscuits,” said the first voice.

My stomach grumbled.

“And wine,” said the second.

“Good enough for me.” I stepped through the door.

I walked into an old stone tower room that looked like it was from some cheesy fantasy movie. Three women stood around a table, gnarled with age and dressed in robes. There was a fire with a large wrought-iron pot over it. There were candles everywhere, and the heady sense of spicy incense filled the air.

Oddly enough, it felt like coming home.

“Hello, Rachel. Congratulations. You’ve passed the lunar trials,” one of the women—the one who hadn’t spoken before—said.

“Say what?”

“The lunar trials, girl. You passed. You’re now a witch,” said a woman with a wicked smile, and I was pretty sure she was the one who had offered wine. Still, my eyebrows shot up.

“A witch? I don’t want to be a witch. If witches were even real.”

The three women exchanged a knowing look.

“Is that the conclusion you’ve come to, after completing the trials?”

I harrumphed. “I mean. No. But I never asked for this.”

The woman who had asked if I was coming in raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t you? The key found you, did it not?”

I felt my lower lip stick out as sadness creeped through me at its loss. “There was a key, yes.” It was silly to miss the little thing.

The eldest woman—the woman who had said I’d passed the trials (really, why hadn’t they given me their names yet?)—smiled kindly.

“What was once gained is never lost. Check your pocket.”

I pulled the keychain with my house key on it, and there was the little glowing key again, pulsing happily. At least, I assumed it was happy.

“Hey there, little key. I missed you.” I put it back in my pocket self-consciously, realizing how ridiculous talking to a key probably looked.

“It is the key to the tower. You are welcome to be one of us now, if you’d like. The key will summon the door to our tower whenever you wish to begin your training.”

I patted my pocket and looked around the room. There were all sorts of herbs hanging on the ceiling, carpets and pillows on the floor, several bookshelves filled with books, and a very well-stocked wine shelf.

I knew witchcraft was in my blood. My mother had talked about it often enough when I was a child. But she’d died a long time ago, and I’d never imagined someday I’d get to live such a life. And as much as I liked my apartment and my cat, my job at the library and my city where I never needed a car, the idea of being part of something more—that infinite knowledge I’d had access to for less than an hour—was appealing. I’d always been a misfit. Was it possible I’d found where I belonged?

“Yeah, sure. I’ll come and see you sometime. I learned some pretty cool stuff, poking around your trials.” I gave them a broad smile and settled onto one of the cushions on the floor. “Did you say that there was wine?”

“Oh boy, just like her mother.” The affection in the old woman’s voice was nice. It made me feel warm and welcome.

A goblet of wine floated over to me. I hesitated a second, then gently plucked it from the air. It was deliciously warm and mulled.

I was ready to learn some things. About witchcraft. About the world. And about my mother. “So, what’s next?”

Sara is a Kansas-grown author of the fantasy and horror persuasions. She is convinced that fantastical things are waiting for her just around the corner, and until she finds the right corner, she writes about those things instead.

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