Excerpt: Chapter One
MOVE IT, AYRION! You stop, you die.” My words echoed off the mountainside as I fought to make it up the steep granite wall in front of me. The shelf I needed to reach was close. I was nearly there. The excitement of finishing before the others had me climbing even faster. My right hand slipped, and for a moment, the only thing that stood between me and the deadly rocks below was my left hand and a few hundred feet of nothing.
This is what I get for yelling at myself.
A freezing gust of wind lashed against me, whipping me around. Even in the middle of the night, I could see the ruins of the Lost City in the distance. My home had never looked so small. Dragon Fang was the tallest of the peaks in the Northern Heights, and it was the final stage of the Tri’Nephrin. We weren’t expected to climb all the way to the summit, only to the top of Howling Gorge.
I kicked my legs and twisted around to find another hold. The wind howled as it pushed through the gaps in the deep ravine, coming in heavy gusts.
The rock face was sharp in some places, smooth in others. From one swing to the next, you never knew what you were going to get. Deep crevices and cracks made for strong grips if you could find them, as long as you stayed away from the ones with webbing. One bite from the wrong spider and it would be a quick trip down.
I found another handhold a few feet to my right. I had to hurry; my fingers weren’t going to hold much longer. I waited for the next gust to pass and then kicked out and swung for it. My fingers latched onto the textured part of the rock, and I let go with my left hand to reach for the next one up. Just as I did, the rock gave way and time seemed to stop. I felt what it was like to fly, suspended in the air, as free as a bird.
The moment didn’t last.
Before my mind had even registered what had happened, I was falling. I tried to scream, but the wind ripped the air from my lungs. All I could do was watch as the ground grew closer. This was it. My short life was over, all thirteen years of it. I’d spent my entire life training to become an Upakan warrior, the youngest to ever claim the title, and here I was, about to die before completing my first real advancement. Worse yet was the thought that after working so hard to get a full day’s lead ahead of Flon and the other trainees, they were going to find my bloody remains, laugh, and go on without me.
It’s amazing what runs through your mind before you die. I closed my eyes and waited for the impact.
My head cleared, and I realized I was still hanging by my left hand, looking down at the rocks below. My stomach heaved from the sensation of having fallen to my death. I swallowed, forcing myself to take a breath as I tried to slow the beating in my chest. Even knowing how my magic worked, I still had a hard time getting used to it.
The visions were so real.
My knuckles were white as I held on to the small crack in the rock with everything I had. I couldn’t feel my fingers. Any moment, they were going to give way. Frantically, I searched for another hold. Thanks to my vision, I knew where not to grab, so I swung for a small outcropping just above it.
I pulled myself up and grabbed for another just under the shelf I was trying to reach. The ledge over my head extended too far out for me to climb. I considered my options. It seemed my only choice was a bad one. Almost as bad as having decided to undergo the Tri’Nephrin in the first place. No one had ever attempted to complete the advancement course at my age. It was unheard of. The course was made for trainees at least three or four years my senior.
On my left, about six or seven feet below me, was a small section of rock jutting out from an adjacent wall. It was just enough to stand on, but not much more. The only way I could see to reach it was by jumping.
Now would have been a good time to have anchored a rope to the wall, but since I had left my pack below in order to increase the speed of my climb, not to mention the bragging rights, I had to make do without it. Instead, I opted to use one of my picks. Letting go with my right hand, I grabbed it from its holder at my waist.
Not wanting to give myself time to reconsider, I planted both feet and aimed myself at the shelf. “Here goes nothing.” I released my grip and kicked off the wall.
The wind pounded in my ears as I flew across the gorge. My eyes never left the small outcropping on the other side. My feet landed first, and then the rest of me hit the side of the mountain. A sharp pain tore through my legs and chest where they struck the hard granite, letting me know I was still alive.
I slammed my pick into a small crevice and yanked myself back against the wall. I released a heartfelt sigh of relief as my face pressed against the cold stone. This was as good a time as any to take a breather. My hands were shaking as they clung to the pick’s handle. My legs weren’t doing much better.
I glanced over my right shoulder at the shelf above me. It was so close, and yet just out of reach. As desperate as I was to finish, I needed to slow down and think. The other trainees hadn’t made it this far. They were probably still in the caverns below the city, trying to get through the previous three obstacles. Not a single trainee had volunteered to team with me, so I had gone on alone. I wasn’t too worried. I worked better alone.
My fingers prickled as the blood and feeling returned. I gave them a few more minutes to rest before moving on. Carefully, I tapped down on the end of the pick to release it from the rock, then slipped it back in its hoop at my waist and started climbing. There were plenty of decent holds on this side of the peak, something I wished I had known before I’d chosen the other one.
The problem now was that to reach the final shelf, I was going to need to jump back across the gorge. Unfortunately, the two walls separated farther up, making a jump all but impossible.
“Why is it never easy?” I moaned. Talking to myself helped. I was an excellent conversationalist. I very rarely argued, but if I did, it was for a good cause.
My anticipation grew as I climbed high enough to see over the top of the shelf and spot the five flags bracketed to the walls on the other side, one for each of the trainees. Mine was second from the left—a black background with a white rune at the center. The rune was from the old tongue and supposedly stood for my name, Ayrion. There were few who could still read the ancient language, so I had to take their word for it.
At the back of the rise was a door with torches on either side. Behind the door was a set of tunnels leading down to the bottom of the gorge. In the old days, they had used rises like this as lookouts for oncoming armies. No guards were in sight, which wasn’t too surprising, considering they wouldn’t have expected the trainees to make it this far for at least another day.
A little farther up, I found a small outcropping for my feet, which took some of the weight off my arms. I rested as I studied the gulf between me and the ledge where I needed to be. It was too far to jump. I didn’t need a vision to tell me how stupid I’d be to try it. Yet, that was exactly what I needed to do.
I studied the wall above me and then looked back at the shelf. What was I going to do? The only way to make it that far would be to jump from higher up to add additional glide time. Even then, I wasn’t sure it would be enough. And if it was, it would be a very hard landing.
I took an extra few seconds to let the blood flow back into my arms while I looked for the next set of holds I’d need to reach to get high enough to attempt something this ridiculous. Two deep breaths and I reached for the first of what looked like eight pulls.
The first wasn’t a problem; it was close enough to reach without having to stretch. But the next two were a different matter. There were no toe-holds for my boots, which meant I had to heft my entire weight with my arms. The fourth and fifth had small ledges beneath, large enough to place the tip of one boot. I used them to ease some of the weight on my arms as I readied myself for the final three pulls up to where I estimated I needed to be to make the jump across.
By the time I’d reached the top of the narrow ledge on my side of the gorge and stood looking across to where I needed to jump, I had all but talked myself out of it. If it weren’t for the fact that I had nowhere else to go, I would have been tempted to give up and climb back down. But I’d rather fall to my death than let Flon and the others see me quit. So, I pushed all doubt and fear aside and focused on the task. Even from this height, I could see I wasn’t going to be able to jump far enough to land on the shelf, which meant I needed to try something else.
I could have kicked myself for not taking the full pack of supplies offered before the climb. I figured the lighter load would cut my climbing time down and allow me to gain even more distance from my fellow trainees. That had been a mistake. That grapple would have come in rather handy right about now. In fact, if I had carried it along, I probably wouldn’t have been forced to resort to such a foolish stunt.
Without the grapple and rope, my only options were my picks. I removed both from their holders and held them in front of me, testing their balance. Each had a small leather loop at the end of the handle for me to stick my wrist through in case my hand slipped.
I took a moment to glance over the side one last time. It was a long way down. At least it would be a quick death if I missed.
Tightening my grip, I concentrated on what I was about to do, picturing it in my mind—the jump, the swing of the picks, the jerk as they struck the ledge. Each time, the image ended with me falling to my death. So far, I hadn’t received another vision, so maybe I would make it. Then again, my visions only gave me a few seconds’ warning. With my luck, the vision would come halfway across the gorge and make me miss the strike.
I walked back from the ledge until I reached the face of the mountain behind me. I needed as much room to run as I could manage.
My breath coursed through my lungs—in and out. In and out. I started counting down.
Three. I locked my fingers around my picks.
Two. My legs tightened, and I bent to run.
One. I screamed, hit three steps, and pushed off the ledge as hard as I could.
There was no question. I wasn’t going to make it.
I raised my picks and swung at the top of the ledge.
My picks sparked as they scraped down the side of the shelf.
One of them snagged on a boulder at the bottom. The force of the catch nearly pulled my arm from its socket. I screamed in pain. My fingers came loose, and for a moment, I was hanging from the side of the mountain with nothing but a leather strap holding me up.
I looked down and wished I hadn’t. The fear of heights had been trained out of me years ago, but something about hanging there by my pick’s strap had me on the verge of losing my stomach. I closed my eyes and fought through the pain, praying to anyone who’d listen that my strap wouldn’t break.
Opening my eyes, I raised my other pick and swung. It stuck.
“Come on, Ayrion! Pull!” I bit down and hauled myself up with one arm, far enough to pry loose the first pick and reach for something higher. I swung, but the rock I hit gave way, raining pieces down on my face. I shook my head and tried again. The pick held. I tested its weight before releasing the other.
Arm over arm, I swung and pulled, swung and pulled, until I reached the top of the shelf and stumbled over the edge. I rolled onto my back, panting harder than I ever had before.
I couldn’t move.
My entire body was shaking. I couldn’t believe I’d made it. That was by far the stupidest thing I’d ever done, and yet the most thrilling. I wished the other trainees had been there to see it. I shook my head. No. If they had been, that would mean they had made it up the mountain in front of me, and I wasn’t about to wish for that.
The wind howled above me as I lay there gasping for breath, and the moon flooded the top of the rise with pale light. With what strength I had left, I rolled onto my side and tried to stand, but sitting with my back against one of the smaller boulders on the side of the rise was as far as I got. I looked out over the edge of the cliff into the depths of the gorge below, and I wondered if all of this was really worth it. Did I really want to become a warrior after all?
I got my answer when my legs pushed the rest of me up to a standing position. From there, I hobbled over to where the flags waved in their brackets and lifted the black one with the white rune. I tucked it under my arm, hobbled over to the door, and knocked. While waiting for someone to open, I raised my hands up to the torches to warm them.
It was a while before someone lifted the latch on the other side of the door and the hinges groaned. I stepped back to keep from getting hit.
A short man with a round face stuck his head out, took one look at me, and then went back inside. “Hey, Jesup. You were right. It was a knock.”
“Here, let me see.” A taller man with a rather bulbous nose stuck his head out, then finally opened the door the rest of the way. “I don’t believe it. How’d you get up here?”
The man stepped around me and scanned the top of the shelf. He turned back around. “Where’s your pack?”
“I didn’t carry one.”
“What do you mean, you didn’t carry one? How’d you climb up here without a pack?”
“I used my hands and my picks.” I patted the picks where they hung at my sides.
The two men stared at me like they’d seen a specter.
“Well, I never,” the second guard said as he scratched the top of his head and glanced at the first. “Mark this down, Argust. Could be for the records.”
I smiled. I couldn’t wait to see the others’ faces when I walked in carrying my flag a full day in front of the others. They couldn’t deny me my right to be there anymore.