Hours later, Graysteel and I gazed outwards where the mountain pass led up, looking out from the back door to the temple. It was no easy road. The rocks jutting out of ice and snow were jagged with no wind to smooth its edges. It would be an easy climb, but a single misstep could lead to serious injury, or worse, even if the weather itself was temperate.
“I’m going,” I said.
The knight frowned. “Confidence is a good quality, Aspirant. But there is a fine line between it and arrogance. None have ventured that path and survived in centuries.”
“I can’t let the Windcallers win. If I turn back now I will lose my chance to prove to them that I’m better.”
“You’re willing to die for such a cause?”
I gulped. How could the rocks be so sharp?
Graysteel placed a hand on my shoulder, and I looked at him. “Banishment is not such a bad thing. Archon’s fury, boy, you seemed excited at the prospect of leaving Zephira.”
I brushed his gauntlet off with a shrug. “You’ve made your position quite clear. But I’m still going. Besides, I’ve solved the problem.”
“You know how you’re going to get up there without air?”
“What? No, it’s going to use a lot of Chi. Maybe more than I’ve ever used before. It depends on how high up the temple is.”
“Boy, you barely meditated at all. An hour at the most. You were pacing the rest of the time. There’s no way you have a meaningful amount of Chi stored.”
He was exaggerating, but it was certainly a real concern. I just hoped that the Archon’s temple wasn’t too far up. “Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“You’re going to use air magic again, aren’t you. That’s how Zephirine got up.”
“I already told you, that’s impossible. You can believe what you want, but nobody has used air magic since the Archon.”
“Alright, alright.” By the sound of his tone, he remained unconvinced. “There’s no way I can talk you out of this?”
“Not unless you can convince the Master Windcallers to grant me their title.” I didn’t say it, but part of me wanted to do this anyway. I had just spent the last several hours thinking about doing this. Giving up now was not an option.
Graysteel nodded. “In that case, I respect your decision. Your bravery befits a full knight of the Riftguard, and I would commend you for it. Archons guide you, Aspirant.”
I nodded, grateful. It was time to go.
I stepped outside, soft shoes melding into the cold snow. I turned to him and gave him a bow. A genuine one. He wasn’t like the Windcallers, even Tilehn, and part of me regretted even comparing the two.
He returned the bow, but didn’t leave.
I glanced up the mountain one more time. It would be far more comforting if the temple was at least visible from here, but there was nothing but rocks and ice.
I exhaled, relaxing as I mustered my Chi. Throwing my hands outwards, a large dome of water burst from me, shielding me in a protective bubble. The water was thin, though. It was nothing like a ward designed to block attacks.
Focusing back inwards, I collapsed the dome inwards, condensing it so that it surrounded me and the ground I walked on, no more than three feet away from me in any direction.
“Clever!” Graysteel called from behind me. “I wish you luck!”
I didn’t respond. My mind was too occupied with maintaining the water bubble. Instead, I left him with an affirming thumbs up and began my journey.
At first, the trek was easy. The path was clear, and with my shield I could breathe normally. Careful to avoid stepping on ice, I kept toward the solid rock and, after confirming it was safe, the clumps of snow that pervaded the walkway.
After some time, the water shield started expanding slowly. Since more surface area would mean a thinner shield, I pulled it back, but it resisted. It wanted to expand, and tampering with it would cost more Chi than it was worth.
Soon, the bubble was well over fifteen feet in diameter, and the air began to thin. No time to worry. I had to press on.
In a few places, the road required me to climb. This path had no carved stairs like there were on the road up to the lower temple, so it was a good deal more treacherous. I wasn’t prepared for actual climbing, and my focus was still on maintaining the water bubble. Soon my hands were cut and bleeding as if I had cast them into a bucket full of snowpine needles. Once I lost my balance and slipped on a sheet of ice. The rocks below were happy to greet me and tore my right arm open. I stuck it into my robes to help the bleeding. Hopefully the rest of the journey would just be a short walk.
By now, cursory glances up the mountain told me I was nearly there. I still couldn’t see any building, which was worrying. It was still just rock and snow. A thought suddenly occurred to me. What if there was no temple? What if the Archon’s residence was the place I had just left? Would I reach my destination only to find out there was no sanctuary there? I would certainly suffocate.
The water bubble popped.
The air flew out with nothing left to encapsulate it, and my next breath was met with a void.
Hurriedly, I wrapped another water shield around myself, but it was too late. Nearly all of the air was already gone, and my Chi was spent. The new bubble evaporated.
Do I press on or try to make it back to safety?
If I turned back, with no air the hike would be dangerous at best. I wouldn’t have time to carefully avoid ice patches.
At the same time, there was no guarantee there would be any refuge further on, and the further I went, the less likely anyone would be able to save me.
Except, nobody was coming to my rescue anyway. I made my choice.
I might as well follow through with it.
Breaking into a run up the mountain, I felt my body twist in agony as I no longer had fuel to give it. My vision started to blur.
Once again I slipped on some ice, but it barely slowed me.
I was going to die.
I clutched my chest, heaving and gasping for air. Somehow that helped a bit. I concentrated on the feel of the ground beneath my shoes. Rock. Snow. Snow. Snow. Rock. Rock. Anything to distract me.
My eyes started to darken. I couldn’t keep them open anymore.
Was the ground here flatter than usual? I hadn’t tripped in some time.
My hands felt snow. Apparently I had collapsed.
Forcing my eyes open, I saw that the ground below was drenched in blood. I looked ahead of me. The path ended.
I had taken a wrong turn. Ahead of me, there was nothing but cold stone.
But… Was that a door?
My head crashed into the snow.