So that was it, huh? The famed Cave of Introspection.
Looked nothing more than a regular cave to him.
But, well, he needed to try. It had been decades since it had last been visited - too dangerous, too high a risk of learning stuff you do not want to know. Countless tales about the poor sods who had entered it, learned of their sins, and, not being able to live with them, had gone to join whoever the preacher said was the being in the clouds at the time of the recital. Bunch of fear-mongering baloney to him.
While he always had trouble with understanding his own head, there was one thing he knew: more knowledge was never a bad thing. If it took magic to help him, so be it.
So, after double-checking his backpack, he climbed above the poorly maintained metallic fence, turned on his phone's flashlight and went in.
The first thing that hit him when he entered was the severe smell of guano. Bats? Weird, in the stories there was always a mention of an enchantment that forbid living beings from entering without a purpose. Were bats actually smart, had the enchantment faded somewhat, or had it always been rumors too? Nonetheless, he started to feel a slight buzz in his head. He hoped that was the cave's magic doing its thing. He closed his eyes for a moment as he went further inside, the flashlight chasing away the ambient darkness.
So, introspection. That's what he'd come here to do, right? Where to start? Well, if he came to this place, it was clearly because he felt like he was hitting problems in his life he couldn't grasp. Huh, neat, the magic was already working. He narrowly avoided tripping on a bump of stone. What problems, then? His love life was absent as always, but that was more a symptom than a root cause. Oh, boy, the root cause. He sighed... His parents. The cave was taking a turn, and he noticed a statue carved into the stone. Long faded away, but he could make out that there used to be writing on a plate at its bottom. He took a last look at the sculpture - clearly humanoid in shape, but that's about all that was left - then resumed his trek deeper down, the light of his phone waning somewhat.
His parents. Well, his father had always been an ass. That much he always knew. The new knowledge the magic brought him was that he noticed, finally, why he always felt that way - never in his life had that man ever uttered an apology. And that wasn't even a failing on his part - he had plenty of forgiveness to spare, and in retrospect he'd even encouraged his father to say "sorry" more than once, but it never stuck! So the change wasn't on him to do. It was on his father. The light was starting to fail him as he headed further. But the slightest bit of light was more than enough for him to make up the path of the cave. Maybe he'd gotten used to the darkness, he thought. As for his mother, that was the exact opposite problem. He'd made mistakes, like everyone does in their lives, mistakes that had hurt her. He'd given more than a fair share of genuine sorrys, comforting thoughts, time spent being there for her. But she never forgave anything. At least, unlike for his father, he could empathise here. Forgiveness is... easily abused; that some people lived through circumstances that rendered them adverse to giving any is rarely on them. He felt his armpits itch; maybe he should've worn a top that would have tolerated sweat better.
A lesson never learned, a trauma never processed. Those were the people closest to him in life. He wondered what more he could do to help them fix themselves... And just from the way his thoughts phrased this, he realised how incredibly awfully he'd been handling this all along. They weren't problems he had to "fix". They weren't even his problems. Did his parents have to move past, one having to learn to say sorry and the other to accept genuine expressions of apology? Most likely yes. Was he to be the messiah that would bring that down onto them? That was such a foul way of thinking, blergh. He quickly took a glance at his phone, and noticed its energy was draining eerily fast. Maybe the cave’s magic feasted on its battery? He could’ve picked up the pace, but decided it was better if he kept taking his time with his thoughts. At least even with the diminishing light of his phone he could still make out enough details not to bump into any walls. He'd already given way more than was expected of him. He'd taken in their pains for so long, turning himself into a martyr, not caring about his own well-being for the sake of hoping to improve those of the people in his life. He'd been blinded by the fear that time alone wouldn't help, and that he had to go out of his way to be always there for them, but that only made him be there to observe their pain, internalise it, and develop his own.
But they weren't his "projects", they weren't on his "people to fix" list, because he had no claim on making such a list. It wasn't going to be selfish to leave them to their own problems, it was self-care. It wasn't abandoning them to their fates, it was going separate ways. He'd been thinking for a while and only now realised his phone had given out, yet he was still going the right way. He was... focusing on the echo of his footsteps? Like he was able to make out the shapes of the walls from the way sounds bounced off of them, his ears even turning themselves to better pick up the sounds around him. Wait, turning? He felt up the top of his head with his hands and found two gigantic, ridged ears with very thin fur on the back of them. ...He grew worried and stopped in his tracks.
The magic of the cave stopped along with him, his thoughts receding back to their usual clueless levels. No, this wasn't right, he couldn't stop now. He had to continue and see this to the end now, even if it did weird things to him. He touched below his armpits and found a membrane starting to grow along his arms, while his hands were seemingly vanishing into them, his fingers becoming thin and skeletal. He barely managed to hold his phone, and his backpack was starting to dig into his shoulders. He noticed his shoes had completely given out, apparently having been abandoned a while back? One way or another, they weren't on his feet anymore. Feet that had very much become clawed.
He quickly put his phone in his bag while he still had enough of his hands to do it, held onto it as best he could with his thumbs that were growing into a curved shape, and resumed forward.
Now free from the problems of others he'd forced onto himself, he finally managed to dig into his own. He'd actually always felt a fakeness to life, like all this time he'd just performed a role rather than been himself. Selflessly absorbing the pain of others had only been one of the ways he distracted himself from those feelings. After all, if he was hurting for his friends, he had no time to hurt for himself. But this was over now. He could be a free spirit who didn’t let themselves get wrapped up in the problems of others beyond any reasonable level, actually dealt with their own, and was just whoever they wanted to be.
Whoever they wanted to be... That sounded good. They nodded, satisfied at the answers the cave had given them. Maybe next time they were at home, they should try on that scarf they’d always felt too self-conscious for.
Huh. At some point during this last batch of thinking, their thumbs had morphed into claws. Well, holding their bag had become easier again, so that was nice. And from the sounds they picked up, they'd hit the bottom of the cave, having reached a complete dead end. They yawned in satisfaction. Now all they had to do was leave the cave with their newfound knowledge and get to the new chapter of their life... But a nap couldn't hurt first. They grabbed onto the wall with their feet, climbed to the ceiling, and wrapped themselves in their new wings like a blanket. They had plenty of time.