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The cave entrance before them was low. Laulja would have to stoop to enter. Thick green vines hung from the flat rock outcropping above that formed a natural roof over the cave entrance. An earthy, rotten smell emerged from within.

“A shaman,” Kalju said, “is master of both the Spirit Realm and the Realm of the Living. In this cave, which I have aptly named the Kalju Cave of Trials, you must prove to me your mastery over the Realm of the Living, before I can train you to become masters of the Spirit Realm.”

The four younglings peered into the dark opening. “What is in there?” Maimu asked.

Kalju gestured at his eyes with a wild motion. “Are my eyes better than yours even though I am older?” He said.

“I--”

Kalju stamped his hoof on the ground. A disturbed owl gave an indignant hoot and flew up from the canopy overhead.

“Perhaps,” Kalju said. “Perhaps my eyes are better, for the Wendel favor me more than they favor you, youngling. But I do not know what is in the cave: it is dark. You must go and see, and be tested.”

Türann was the first to come forth. “I am not afraid,” he said. “I shall go first.”

Kalju studied his prize pupil carefully and then shook his head. The thin gray beard that hung from his chin swayed from left to right. “No,” he said, “You must all go in at the same time.”

The other younglings exchanged nervous glances, but Türann did not waver. “I shall lead us, then,” he said and shook his large, iron-studded club fiercely.

Laulja leaned over to Maimu. “Stay close to me if you’re afraid,” he said softly. “I am already a capable shaman, for I command the spirits beyond and can summon creatures of unimaginable strength to come to our aid.”

Maimu gave him an uncomfortable look. “You still have some sick in your beard from eating the--erm. . . that one mushroom.”

“Oh.”

Laulja turned away and stroked his beard until he came upon a sticky, filthy patch. He brushed it out, but then it clung to the fur on his hand instead. He rubbed his hands together and managed only to spread it.

“Onwards, younglings!”

Laulja wiped his hands on his robe. Already the other younglings were making their way into the cave under Türann’s leadership. Maimu was very close to him. Just before they entered, Türann faced her and said: “You need not be afraid, Maimu, the Wendel will protect us.”

She grabbed hold of his hand and threw him a grateful glance.

“And remember, younglings,” Kalju called after them, “face the great nature and her traps and snares like a true shaman, and you shall have proven your mastery over her.”

Laulja sighed. The link between dominance over the eternal spirits and souls of mortals and immortals alike and--well--spelunking was not entirely clear to him. He would have preferred to prove his mastery over the ‘great nature’ by avoiding her altogether.

He snorted and slouched after the others, muttering as he went.

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