Flying was terrifying. I’d never in my life been so high in the air, nor gone so fast. The flight was admittedly fairly short, but I spent its entirety gripping desperately to the rough and stony hide of the drake beneath me. I’d kept my eyes locked onto the colossal sword ahead of us, but at the halfway point, made the mistake of looking down, and felt my stomach lurch. Everything zipped by us below, and my vision swam. I looked away quickly, feeling my blood surge intensely, and focused either on the back of the creature’s head, or back at our destination. The wind blasted me as I rode, threatening at times to unseat me and send me spiraling into the valley beneath us, but I was able to hang on.
In direct contrast to myself, Freya seemed to be enjoying her flight.
Her drake led the way, and I kept catching occasional glimpses of her smiling, pointing and exclaiming, or adjusting her position to see more clearly the world below. It was impressive that she seemed so undaunted by the unconventional nature of our travel. She looked back at me only once or twice, and when she saw my trepidation, she waved, then pointed down at the drake before lifting her fist in an encouraging gesture.
We reached the sword after just a few minutes. I felt a peculiar lurch, and watched as we quickly descended to the base of it, and felt suddenly weightless, my insides feeling as though they were just a step behind the rest of my body as we made our way down, before the drakes landed. As I slid down from my perch, the tension from the flight hit me, and my muscles were suddenly sore and exhausted. I must have been clenching nearly every fiber of my body during the trip, and now, all at once, I felt as though I was... untied. As if my tendons and ligaments had been smoothed out like fabricated steel.
Freya hopped down happily and beamed at me in her way, winking.
“That was fun! I hope we get to ride them back to the Almagest.”
I shook my head, looking up at the immensely menacing drakes.
“I hope I’m not rude in saying that I hope that I never see the two of you again.”
“You do not wound us with your words, half-Ilfin,” the drake spoke into my mind, “we do this task with distaste, as is our contract, and no more than that will we do.”
Without another word, the two creatures stretched out their wings, beat them a few times, and launched back into the air.
“Even if you don’t make it through the Challenge, thick-head,” Freya said, “at least you’ll always have that experience under your belt.”
Yes, an event I’m not likely to forget, ever.
I peered straight up at the immense structure before us. It was the size of a small mountain, and now that I was closer, appeared to be hewn from white stone. There was nothing metallic about its structure at all, and I wasn’t sure what sort of possession had caused its construction in the first place.
Surely it’s too big to have been for something to use?
Freya was staring up at it too, her head craned back as she took in its full magnitude. Finally she tilted her head down and peered at me.
“Are you ready to go?”
Down the slope of the hill leading to the base, there was a set of stone stairs. They were made of a completely different type of stone--granite, perhaps-- and led to an open doorway. There was no door that I could see to shutter it closed though, so it seemed that this entrance was always exposed to the environment.
We left our landing, and tramped down the slope of green grass, and then climbed the stairs, entering the doorway at the top.
It was much colder inside, and the hair on my arms stood up in the chill. I glanced over at my companion, but she didn’t seem to react to the change in temperature, content to stare at the stone hallway that had been roughly forged out of the rock and dimly lit by a single torch on the wall.. The passage was uneven, and stretched out into the darkness beyond the light. The walls were misshapen and chipped, and the floor was uneven. We had to watch our step as we moved along, careful not to fall. We traveled its length for a few minutes, and then the path arced right, and we continued on.
“So, why did you decide to try to take the Heroes Challenge?” Freya asked me, her playful voice reverberating off the thick stone.
“It was my father’s idea,” I said, ducking beneath a low-sloped section of ceiling, “a letter arrived at our room one day at an inn in Gessel that we were staying at. It came just as we were preparing to head out.”
I recalled Father’s dour expression when he’d seen it. It was a fine thing, pristine almost, and had the red wax and symbol of the Royal Seal. He’d opened it and handed it to me after he scanned its contents.
Alder and Hutch Carthage, it had read, are requested to try at the Heroes Challenge in Ingvald in one month’s time, on the Night of the Sequence. Attend, and perhaps be Appointed to an order of Equites. This summons is directed to any in the land who have recently acquired an Adventure Class, and those without shall be turned away. With this letter shall be a sapphire key, and those without it shall be turned away.
We shall enjoy the pleasure of your arrival,
- King Procello Wirbelvint Zephyr II
I’d asked Father about it, and he’d expressed that we needed to go. He seemed to suggest in his tone that it wasn’t a question. Suddenly, our plans had changed, and we had to prepare for the journey to the capital. Even when I’d asked why, he’d promised to tell me later, and that was that.
I wished that I had pursued the answer more aggressively, but I trusted that Father would tell me before I became too confused. Now, however, I was bewildered by everything that had happened, and it was a bit frustrating to not have answers.
“Both my sister and I received letters…” Freya said, and then stopped, “in any case, here we are. I wasn’t sure I’d make it this far. The Equites are some of the strongest Heroes in the land, and I figured I’d get crushed by the Harbinger Arch right at the go.”
I knew what she meant. Until now, the Equites were such an unfathomable thing. Powerful warriors and magicians that represented the king in each of the regions of his realm. When I was young, I had seen some of the Aries Nightsign Equites in Vuss, and they’d seemed at least ten feet tall and unbelievably strong. But now, seeing the others here, it was likely that they were even as young as I was.
Freya had mentioned her sister, but I’d never been the type to prod, so I let it be. If she wanted to tell me, she would. Her cavalier exterior struck me as a facade. She was around my age, perhaps younger, and her attitude reminded me of some of the village youths I’d grown up around. Acting as though they didn’t have a care in the world, yet insecure below the surface.
I glanced at her in the dim light of the tunnel, and saw the shape of her jaw was set hard, as if she was considering something difficult. Better to change the subject, for now.
“So what is your Adventure Class?” I asked, trying to keep my tone casual as we continued on.
How long was this passage anyway? We’ve been walking forever.
“Oh!” Freya said, suddenly brightening, “it's called Nightshade.” She’d emphasized it as though it was some holy word of power, and her eyes danced.
“Nightshade?” I asked, “isn’t that another name for the deadly plant, belladonna?”
“Yes!” she said, leaning forward conspiratorially, “you know about those?”
“I grew up in the Berrywood,” I said, “it was one of the flora I learned to avoid.”
I’d learned about many others as well. Living in the forest, it was very important to know the difference between the types of things you could eat, and what would kill you.
“I only learned about it after I found out my Adventure Class,” she said, “Nora told me all about it. It’s said that the First Lords dipped their arrowheads in a mixture of them.”
Father had told me that the ancient Ilfin had used it as well, in rituals and rites of passage. I’d once asked Mother if she had ever encountered it, and she said that her grandmother had made all sorts of tinctures and elixirs out of the berries, and ground up the leaves for medicine.
I remembered Freya phasing through the Mazestalker in the Labyrinth. Perhaps the features of her class had more to offer?
“Your class is Giant Eater, right?” she asked, then she looked as if she had been caught, “oh, or something like that.”
“Wait, how did you know that?” I asked, stopping in my tracks.
“Oh, maybe I overheard you telling someone?” She said quickly, and lifted her hood.
“No,” I said, “I haven’t told anyone. Freya, were you there when I stepped into the Arch?”
She was silent beneath the hood. That was as much as an answer.
“So you saw me get dismissed?” I continued.
“Yes,” she said, and her tone wasn’t nearly as confident as before.
“So you knew I wasn’t supposed to be here then?”
She nodded once, stiffly, under the hood, and I caught a glimpse of her face. It was screwed up in a strange expression.
“I see,” I said, “so, then you also knew I wasn’t actually a Libra?” I wasn’t mad, I was just perplexed.
Freya sighed, and then pulled down her hood again, her expression was now placid. It seemed as though she’d put it up to hide her embarrassment.
“I thought it was interesting that you weren’t revealing your real motives,” she said, “clandestine operations are something I can appreciate. I was surprised when you showed up with Commander Luciferi, and knew something had to be up. It’s the whole reason I sought you out inside the Labyrinth.”
I nodded. She’d noticed all of that, and wanted to learn more about me? I was flattered, I suppose, I didn’t think I’d leave such an impression on someone.
“So, is that why you waited for me to emerge from the Second Trial?”
She nodded, and smiled.
“I figured that if you were able to get that far, you’d come up with a way to get through,” she said, “and I was right, you did.” She seemed pleased to announce this, and I had to return the look.
“Thank you, I suppose,” I said.
“For believing the best in me.”
“Oh come on, thick-head!” she exclaimed, shoving past me and walking off into the darkness ahead, “don’t get all corny and sentimental. I just think you’re interesting, that’s all.”
“Right,” I said, but I couldn’t stop myself from beaming.
We walked in silence for a little while longer, until eventually, we reached the end of the passage. On a sconce in the right hand wall was a faintly flickering torch, almost at the end of its life. Ahead of us, was a solid, blank wall.
“What the hell?” Freya demanded, moving up to the flat rock and pounding a fist on it like a door.
“Hello?!” she called, “can anyone let us in?”
I looked around.
Did we take a wrong turn?
No, that couldn’t be the case. It had been a single path the whole way, and unless we had missed some door or separate outlet, this was where it led. I inspected the wall itself, and saw, up near the ceiling, was a fist-sized symbol.
A ram’s head.
“This is part of the Trial,” I said, pointing to the etching in the stone, “we have to figure out a way to get beyond this. Maybe a secret passageway, or a hidden catch?”
Suddenly, from behind us, there was a loud crash. We both turned to peer back into the darkness, but I couldn’t make anything out. Then it sounded again, louder and closer this time. Freya and I exchanged a look of confusion as we both drew our weapons, ready to face whatever it was the Third Trial was attempting to throw at us.
Then, I saw movement in the dark. About fifty feet away from us, a section of the floor of the passage suddenly shot up, slamming against the ceiling with the loud smash that we’d heard. It formed a wall that completely sealed off the tunnel. I shot a look at Freya. I could tell by her face that she’d seen it too. Then, a moment later, another section snapped up with another crash.
It was closing off our escape, and coming to crush us.
I turned back to the wall barring our way forward. Nothing had changed about it, but we needed to act quickly and figure it out or we’d be smashed against the ceiling. Freya raced forward and slammed her shoulder against the dead end, but nothing happened.
“Got any ideas?” she demanded.
I heard another section of floor crash against the ceiling, and my heart rate began to quicken.
“No,” I exclaimed, “but we’ve got to figure something out!”
We are going to die.