"Gods -- can we -- take a -- break?" Baye panted.
Behind him, Viola was wincing, her shirt soaked transparent with sweat. Even though it was June, and they were still at the base of Skull's Peak, not all the snow had washed away, and they’d been running through the mud and ice since the crack of dawn.
Any reasonable expedition for the steadfast that didn’t want to be trapped at the summit in a blizzard would leave before July, so they had just weeks to acclimate to the oxygen levels at superaerotime heights. And so, every day they would fly their airship as high as it would go, train for hours, and then fly back down, until their lungs were bitter cold and their legs weighed more than lead. Ruan was struggling to stand, and wanted to cry with frustration.
"No, man." Macduff sputtered. "We’re -- doing -- great."
He stopped and caught his breath. "We can do it, we just gotta keep at it."
Duff stood and helped Ruan up.
"Dude, you're doing great!" Duff grinned.
Ruan shrunk away from him. "Me?"
"Yeah! At the rate we're going we're all gonna see the top of Skull's Peak."
Is that really a good thing? Ruan wondered. Only one of them could use the sacrifice of the steadfast, he knew, and until now they’d agreed that they’d just give the ruby to "whoever survived the climb." There had been plenty of incidents of expeditioners seeking out the steadfast, but none had succeeded. When the corpses of the last expedition had been recovered from First Camp, the coroner hadn’t reported exposure as the cause of death, but rather exsanguination and infected wounds.
Bullet and knife wounds.
"One more mile, conversational pace, then we turn back," Celeste said through chattering teeth. And so they were off again.
Duff's encouragement felt good, but Ruan wasn't going to make it to the top anyways. Everyone else in the party had been training all their lives, he knew, while he’d only started a year ago, when he'd seen a flyer Duff and Celeste had written, advertising for adventurers. Your wildest dreams could come true! they had promised. The poster did not warn the would-be climbers of their genie's price -- but as soon as they had clarified that the expedition was for the steadfast, all but five of the original seventy-two heroes dropped. But unlike the others, if Ruan survived the climb and expressed his heart's truest desires before Frederick's blessing, he wouldn't have to bloody his hands. The others would have to kill for their wish; the ruby demanded of them sacrifice. And so he started training, first with five-pound dumbbells, then ten. But all the weights of the world could not have prepared him for the wooziness and aches of altitude. If he couldn't even make a ten mile run along the lower trails, how could he survive a several-week climb?
It wasn't like he was in the arms of friends. No, Ruan had no friends, and on this mountain he didn't even have acquaintances. He was surrounded by would-be murderers.
No, worse than murderers.
She certainly wasn't what Ruan would've imagined a killer to look like. The rest of the crew were reminders that Ruan was smaller than life: Baye had a huge frame and his wild blonde hair that curled in the wind, while Duff had the booming voice of a play-by-play commentator, with which he commanded a general's respect. Celeste was never seen without her dark hooded jacket, under which her eyes burned in a fire of copper.
But Viola? She was short and wiry, but not so petite that anyone would take her for a child. Her straight black hair was short, too, but not so well-trimmed that it looked like she put effort into it. There were faint threads of of blue and purple beyond each ear -- as if she'd tried to dye her hair, but had later forgotten to maintain it and slowly let the color wash out. Though she seldom smiled, her whole face lifted up when she did, closing her thin violet-stained eyes.
In short, Viola wasn't any more intimidating than anyone in particular. She was terrifying.
"Please don't look at me like that."
Her words stung like frostbite. Had Ruan been staring?
"Yeah, Baye, quit creeping!" Duff ordered.
Apparently not. Ruan breathed a bit more easily.
"Sorry girl, sorry boss, but I just can't help myself," Baye said.
"We're supposed to be a team," Duff said. He spoke normally, without taking deep breaths; a strong leader could not show such petty mortal weaknesses as oxygen debt. "Respect your teammates, Baye, or none of us aren't going to be getting up this damn mountain."
"Sorry boss, but we're not kids."
"Then stop acting like it!"
"I mean, we never voted you King of the Hill, or President of Skull's Peak, or whatever, either, so stop acting like it."
Viola wished she had never said anything: now they would never stop barking at each other. As childish as Baye was, sometimes it seemed that Duff was no better. They hadn't even trained together for a day!
She slowed her pace, fell behind the group, and let the wind drown them out.
After thirty minutes -- no, five, her watch said, just five -- they reached the mile marker. Struggling to stand, Viola grabbed the post and tried to look out at the horizon to settle her stomach; but there was no horizon, only hills and trees all around. Every muscle ached, and they were only halfway done. Everyone was fumbling about and coughing. Even with oxygenating magicks, the air was far too thin for their experience level.
She knew that Frederick had wanted to reserve His precious ruby, and all the power and pain that it held, for only the most worthy, but surely there had to be a better means of determining worth than raw physical exertion. Maybe the Silver Dragon had chosen this test because by any sensible gauge of worth, He was unworthy of His own blessing: the promise of an omnipotent wish, at the small price of the lives of all of the beneficiary's loved ones. Viola had agonized over the tax of the Guardian of Gyro day and night for months.
It was a truly divine cruelty. Between His penchant for ordering His men on suicide missions, His alliance with Kailen the Mad King, and His mass execution of Lucians, Frederick had been a brutal tyrant in mortal life, but He had always been grounded by His own loved ones, the children of the throne whom He had sworn to protect. If justice existed for kings and their counselors, the Martyrmaker would have been damned to serve in the inferno for an eternity. Instead, He was remade as a god, without petty responsibility, and He could play such games as these.
But in the big picture of life, the just choice was to play along: not just with Frederick, but her own party as well.
"How's everyone doing?" Duff asked, showing his dimples. "I know this is tough for a first day, but the clock's ticking before winter."
He was met with groans.
At last Viola said, "My hamstring hurts a bit, but I think I just need a minute to stretch it out a bit."
"That's fine. Try a hurdler's stretch, maybe."
Viola sat down, folded her left leg against her right thigh, and reached for her right toes. But the burn in her upper leg slowly overtook her, first a light ache, then a scorching, lactic flame, and she could reach no more.
"Need some help?" Baye asked. She nodded reluctantly, and he pushed down on her back, bringing her fingers and toes an inch closer. As the aching in her thigh faded, Viola came out of her pose and stood up. Baye's hand uncomfortably slid down her back.
"Please don't do that."
"Girl, you're no fun." He pinched his lips and turned away, presumably to harass Celeste.
"Yeah, anyways, enough chatter, gang." Duff came out of a stretch and turned to face the trail. "We're doing great. Let's get back down to the airship landing while our muscles are still warm."
Ruan wiped the sweat from his face, Viola finished rubbing her side, and they were off again.
A brisk jog later, they arrived at a fork in the road. The right path, which they'd come up, would spiral around downhill and arrive at the airship landing in another mile, while the left terminated a hundred feet ahead in a pile of boulders and ice. A short climb down from the boulders was the landing.
"How are we feeling?" Duff asked.
He was met with groans. Baye was eyeing the left path.
"We should keep going," Celeste said between breaths. "We don't even have weight vests or backpacks."
At this, the boy stood up straight and turned his gaze from the boulders. "Of course, we should take the long path. I think it should be pretty easy for me, though maybe not for the newbies."
She raised an eyebrow. "Must you always be so eager to show off?"
"I'm not showing off, girl, just doing what a man has to do, you know?"
Ruan put up his right hand -- just his fingertips above his head at first, but a little more when Duff turned away from the boulders and looked at him.
"Ruan, this isn't a school!" Duff laughed. "What's up?"
Ruan put down his right hand and fiddled with the pebble in his left. "Can we take the shortcut? I've never run so far before."
He tapped his skull. "You know, I was just thinking the same thing. Taking the shortcut would be good climbing practice, and would get us used to the cold especially. Let's go left."
Viola and Celeste nodded their assent, while Baye rolled his eyes.
"Duff?" Ruan asked.
Duff smiled, showing off his perfect white teeth.
As soon as they got to the escarpment, Baye whooped and jumped down. It looked kind of fun until he landed on his kneecaps halfway down, skidded down through the ice, flopped off of the bottom boulder, hit his head on the granite and ended up in a puddle of mud.
"Piece of cake!" he shouted up to the party as he wiped his eyes clear.
"I would sooner not risk broken bones," Celeste said through clenched teeth. She climbed onto the highest boulder, one limb at a time, in and out of the melting snow. Like a cat who could not find a branch to pounce onto, she crawled through the rock, until at long last, she reached the landing.
Her whole frame shook as she shook the icy water out of her hands and began to take off her soaked shoes.
"For Helen," Celeste whispered, a bit too audibly.
"Helen?" Viola asked as she took off her own shoes and socks and threw them down the escarpment. How could anyone use the sacrifice for another's benefit? If the beneficiary was so beloved, surely they would be sacrificed for their own blessing.
"Oh. My sister. She died of a pox. My mother too. So now, I want to wish for a cure. I've been training ever since."
"Aww, don't cry," Baye said. "I'll bring your sister back if I get to be God."
As the snow gave way under her, Viola gave Baye a look, then glanced at Celeste. "I'm sorry. Though, that's a really noble goal, Celeste."
The copper-eyed climber smiled shyly. "Thank you," she said, at the same time that Duff slapped Baye and brusquely ordered of him: "Don't be so insensitive."
Baye scowled, turned away, and muttered something that sounded like a "Fuck off"; Viola looked for a way to change the subject. "What about you, Ruan? What do you wish for?"
"Well." The brown-haired boy had stopped climbing as if to wait for her to reach the bottom. "You see..."
"Sorry if I'm intruding. You don't have to answer that."
"Maybe I'll tell you later. It's nothing special, you know?" He didn't meet her gaze, but rubbed his fingers through the snow.
Viola stepped onto the platform and picked up her shoes. "It's fine, really. These sort of things are really private."
She considered making some absent remark on the weather, but thought better of it; rather, she quietly walked off to the aircraft. The others followed: first Baye, then Duff and Celeste, and lastly Ruan. They all strapped into their seats and prepared to descend.
At thirty square feet, the berthing was a bit too cramped for Viola's liking: but it was Duff's personal cabin cruiser, whose engine had rusted to the point that looked like it had a few hundred thousand leagues on it; it clattered and thundered every time he rotated the hull even slightly. Even if it had still smelled of paint, however, the cruiser would still have been unsuitable: it was meant for getting oneself to work, not for hauling a party of five up a mountain. When she'd first been offered a position on this divine expedition, Viola had assumed that most of the climb would be in some sort of sleek hi-tech craft powered by phlogiston fuel cells, funded by a wealthy benefactor, resistant to all elements, with a bridge manned by world-class engineers in their mid-twenties who were seasoned decades beyond their years. It could have happened like so; indeed, the expeditioners all had pitiful backstories, a necessary prerequisite for anyone attempting such a mission as this, and their pasts could have forged them into valorous heroes.
As they landed, Duff cleared his throat and spoke: "Excellent work today, all! You should all be proud in yourselves, especially since this is our first day training together. We'll be able to take off on our main climb in early July, with a little luck. We'll meet at the same time tomorrow. You are dismissed, unless anyone needs anything."
Celeste said, "There are certain issues that I would discuss with you."
"No worries." Duff gestured half a thumbs-up, half an 'okay' sign. "I was planning to get lunch at the Tanvi in town after showering, so we can talk then."
As everyone was departing, Viola approached Ruan, eager and anxious to play her part in the play. "Hey."
"Would you like to walk back to the hostel together?"
"Yeah, sure, I guess."
Ruan grasped at his pocket. His pistol was still there.
The trail to the hostel, while picturesque, was sticky and cramped. Though the snow had melted, it had not dried, and the muck weighed down their shoes even more than the lactation in their thighs or the frigid mountain gusts blowing every which way. Encroaching on the narrow road were grasses, trees, and shrubbery whose barbs and fruits were like as not poisonous, making it impossible to walk side by side comfortably. Viola let Ruan lead the way, and as they walked, he tore off leaves from the bushes, shredded them, and tossed them aside.
Minutes passed before Viola said a word. "Your leaves keep blowing in my face."
"Oh. Sorry. I'll stop now."
"It's fine!" She laughed faintly. "The smell reminds me of my childhood."
"I must've spent years in the park, sitting under the trees."
"Why were you always in the park?"
"I had an interesting childhood."
"I'm sorry if I'm intruding," he muttered. "You don't have to answer that."
"Maybe I'll tell you later." She smiled. "It's nothing special, you know?"
Did her grin hide only cheek? Or was she also obscuring her gloom? It surely wasn't an honest beam, for her eyes were still open, but maybe Ruan would meet the light in them nonetheless; the cobble and lichens weren't particularly enthralling, and as they distanced themselves from the snowmelt, the road grow drier and easier to walk.
After a time, she threw a leaf at him. "What did you like to do as a kid, anyways?"
"Well, I think I read a lot of books."
"See! We have that in common. What kinds of books?"
When he didn't answer, she added helpfully: "I always liked the Coffee Bot Mountain trilogy. I had a huge crush on Luka."
Lavaluka Gyro, Ruan knew, had been so badly distorted from the historical figure that he was unrecognizable. By all accounts, the ancient prince had been a dashing figure in life, but that had not been enough for Momoka Torrance, whose young-adult novels gave him pitch-black, waist-length silk for hair, smooth one-liners, an iron six-pack that glistened under the moonlight at least once per chapter, and a mischievous smirk. Less credibly still, the fictional Luka could conjure an army of frogs to smite evil and bring the waters of life to barren deserts with just a prayer to Helix.
"I read some foreign-language books. I guess I just liked learning new languages."
"What languages?" Her inflection changed ever so slightly, and a single drop of sweat formed on Ruan's forehead.
"I picked up this tongue," he said, one consonant at a time, in Yamashitan elvish.
"You flirt!" That, and what followed, was in perfect Yamashitan.
What followed was a polysyllabic rave rattled off far too fast for comprehension. Still, it made Ruan's whole respiratory tract tense up.
Viola switched back to their mother tongue. "Krat is slang for a young woman, but it has a very specific connotation. Since you didn't know any better, I can forgive you for speaking to me in that manner. Kurata means language, if that's what you meant."
His worthless larynx was still jammed.
"It's an easy mistake," she concluded. "They share etymology -- kurta meant mouth in esoteric elvish."
"Why do you know all this?"
"Yamashitan elvish is my mother tongue. Or, talking like my dad after he's had too many drinks, kurata ell krat."
Maybe it would be less humiliating just to be honest.
"I guess," he murmured. "I guess I just really liked comics and radio shows. And so many of them are Yamashitan."
"I kind of guessed. I tried to get into them, but it feels like they're not really meant for women. I forget the word for it, but I'm sure you know what I mean. There's always one male character, some clueless schmuck, but still surrounded by all these gorgeous girls?"
Ruan tried, to little avail, to sound indignant. "Didn't you just say you liked Coffee Bot Mountain?"
"Yeah, so we're even: both our tastes are a great mountain of trash. The trash might even be discarded coffee bots." She poked his forehead. "Or it could be us. We could be the trash."
Do you ever stop talking? Ruan might've asked that out loud.
If he did, either Viola didn't hear him or she pretended so.
But he got an answer quickly enough. Side by side, they walked in silence punctuated only by the occasional birdsong. The clouds were blowing in, and it was sure to rain in the afternoon, but they had plenty of time before then, and neither had plans in the midday. They proceeded in this state of false peace for another hundred meters, before Ruan broke it.
"Viola, do you trust the others?"
"Of course not. I know what's happened to past expeditions, and they all get up in your face." Viola's nose wrinkled up about her snout. "Baye wouldn't know what personal space was if he was being strangled by it, and Duff's going to end up sacrificing the sound of his own voice."
"If you don't trust anyone," he clarified, "why'd you ask me to walk with you?"
"I think you answered your own question." She listlessly threw another leaf at him. "Strength in numbers."
Ruan had not answered anything. He pulled the leaf off of his cheek with a single finger, and began to shred it. Its veins bled a resin that glued his fingers together, trapping the barbs in between. As irritating as the prickling sensation was, he could not wrench his index and ring fingers free. He continued tearing the leaf with his other hand.
Viola looked alarmingly amused. "Need some help there?"
"Oh, uh, no, I'm good."
She cocked her head and turned to stare at Ruan, as if to search him cell by cell for the smallest insight. "You really don't trust me."
"It'll take time. But, you know, it would help if you stopped reaching for your gun every time every time I say something that makes you a little uncomfortable."
Ruan instinctively reached for his pocket, but stopped himself with his hand just a few inches from his leg. If he allowed her this much, perhaps, she'd let up with whatever she actually wanted of him.
"Also," she continued, "you're sweating so much I would have never guessed that it's not above freezing. Ruan, do you really have it in you to commit cold-blooded murder?"
Those damned indigo eyes had him pinned to the alder behind him. "Oh," he stammered. "Yes. I mean. No. But." He felt his pocket again. "I don't want anyone to die."
"Why are you here, then?" Viola dropped her chipper voice to a deep warning call. "Don't you have family?"
"I don't think so."
"Bonchan" -- I think. She put her right hand around her neck, and then set it back down again. "It's the same for me."
This concluded the interrogation. They did not say any more; they could not say any more. Ruan would not open up any more to this stranger. As endearing as Viola wanted to appear, he would not be ensnared by her scheming. He checked his pockets once again before retreating to his hostel room to take shelter from the world.
Shortly after Ruan's folly, Celeste was waiting alone in the Tanvi, which was more a shack than a restaurant. The heater smelled of petrol, the soup bowls were cracked, and the waiter, who also seemed to be the culinarian, busboy, cashier, and supplier, was a gruff, chubby, bearded man who muttered to himself in a mysterious tongue. Though Celeste did not understand the words, she correctly guessed that they were quite profane.
She wondered if the meat would be incompletely cooked. It was better to worry about that than what the meat was made out of.
In truth, every building in this town was a shack. After the village had been burned down by vengeful expeditioners not once but twice, locals had gotten the message and moved away, until all who remained were grifters looking to make some quick coin off of adventurers with more money than sense. Since climbers usually hailed from developed countries, most of the villagers were migrants who lived down in the valley, but came uphill for work during the summer, when expeditions were most common, bringing their families, food, and filth with them. Indeed, the nineteenth expedition had been wiped out by the jail-fever when a group of locals, returning from winter labor in the cramped, soot-belching sweatshops of the black district of Delmorev, introduced body lice to the mountaineers.
Maybe their deaths were merciful. There were far worse fates on Skull's Peak than delirium.
Delirium or no, the reaper still earned his due. And when the corpses of dead expeditioners were found, they usually had been naturally preserved by the ice, and retrieving them from the Underprakt was probably cheaper than shipping meat from the valley. After the twelfth expedition had turned to cannibalism in a desperate bid to survive, their leader wrote in his diary that the triceps of their youngest had tasted like --
No, Celeste wasn't going to contemplate this any more, lest she vomit before she'd even eaten anything.
Thinking that her imagination would be best off occupied, she opened a copy of the book she'd brought along, a modern translation of the Equinoctial Analects. The tome was a compilation of several ancient scholars' discussions of philosophy, warfare, and magicks, focusing in on the theme of an ideal society. In order to attain a society, the argument went, humanity would first have to pass through a highly suboptimal period in which the individual could not act in her own self-interest, and would have to willingly sacrifice all she held dear. If the collective faced resistance in this period, they would have to suppress it by cantrips of friendship.
She turned to the thirteenth analect, the Annals of Enchantments, and began to read.
Duff finally showed up an hour late, smelling of shea and, of all things, cologne. There was no way to tell that just that morning, he'd been covered in mud and snow and perspiration.
Who are you trying to impress? Not Stumpy, surely.
Duff and Celeste had known each other since childhood. She wasn't going to be cowed by the clumsy boy who was obsessed with histories of dragons, the teenager who couldn't get a date but who could dazzle any cleric by reciting the seventy-seven inventions of Helix from memory.
Before he could even sit down, Celeste spoke.
"We need to remove Baye from the group, effective as close to immediately as possible."
"And why in the hells would we do that?"
"The man is twenty-five going on thirteen," she said. "He'll never take the mission seriously. I told him to wake up at the crack of dawn and he giggled about 'the ass-crack of dawn'."
"So?" Duff shrugged and smiled an apology. "I'll whip him into shape."
"Will you whip the rather blatant misogyny out of him?"
"I hate to interrupt," the waiter said suddenly, setting down jugs of water that was tainted a sickly celadon. "But are you going to eat or are you just chatting?"
"We're going to eat," Duff said with cheer.
"I'm making curry. Now here we like it hot, but your Ascalon hot is -- what's the word? -- bland -- yes, bland to us."
Celeste didn't even get out the word "Ascalon" out before being interrupted.
"Of course," Duff said, "It would be horribly rude of me to not respect your customs. I'll take it hot."
"And I shall take my curry as hot as you could possibly make it," Celeste said.
Stumpy laughed heartily. "Brave little girl! I like you."
After he walked off to the kitchen, mumbling a bit more cheerfully than before, Celeste repeated herself.
"As I was saying, will you whip the sexism out of our fifth member?"
"What sexism? He just needs to learn some boundaries, and a little respect."
"He was harassing, and will continue to harass, Viola." Celeste's voice was tinged with frost. "The woman is a godsdamned doormat. Ruan also. We selected them for this mission precisely that we might control them. But we can't control her if she's being pushed around by a buffoon who thinks he's the life of the party."
"Give me a break. Every boy as immature as he is acts like that."
"You are as reassuring as ever. Baye is not a boy, and he has no excuse to act as though he is one. What if he gets the steadfast, Duff? Have you ever read the legendarium of a god who wielded the almighty power of fraternal ragers?"
"The oldest Melindros tales are about his coming-of-age, and he started off pretty much the same as Baye. Anyway, what about Ruan and Viola? We don't even know their wishes."
Celeste didn't have a snappy retort to that, but luckily the waiter saved her, bringing two bowls of curry. One could have mistaken it for the goop left after sticking her arm in a running blender.
They sat there in silence and ate, only occasionally looking up to ensure that the other was not finished. Celeste still had her doubts about the meat, and her stomach was arming for revolting. Worse still, the broth was as sweet as her own blood, but the curry was quite filling. It was, however, agonizing. Every bite scorched her tongue, made her face and nasal cavity cry out in pain. But, as long as Duff was eating, she would also.
She just had to imagine her sister in intensive care, stuck full of needles, bumps, scars, wires, drugs, magicks, so feeble Celeste had to hand-feed her, and she she knew that she could tolerate any agony. Though she couldn’t afford to waste the strength, Helen would always kick and fuss until the nurses left the room; for she was still Helen, Makoto Academy's star tennis player; Helen, who was going to grow up to be an ace ranger in the Mochizukan military; Helen, who took Celeste's hand, squeezed it red, and fought back tears and whispered "say strong" in her ear after her mother died of the same pox.
And because she was still Helen, nobody but Celeste could see her at her weakest, not even the nurses. She had been loath to admit them until she was "presentable" -- meaning that she could sit upright and feed herself -- and had even asked Celeste to bar the door to her chambers in the hospital. Celeste had reluctantly refused. It was for Helen that she would put up with this farce.
Who did Duff have to fight for?
After cleaning most of his plate, the allegedly prophesied child glanced at the door of the Tanvi, but nobody was there.
"You know what, I actually agree that Baye is a threat." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "But he won't survive the climb."
"You shouldn't be so sure." Celeste spoke between sips of water that only further inflamed her mouth. "His is not a dystopia that I'd want to live in."
"He's cannon fodder, Celeste. We brought him along to haul provisions and take the fall for us when something goes wrong. Just the same as Ruan and Viola. Just cannon fodder."
"Cannon fodder, just the same as me?" She wiped the sweat off her face.
"You're being ridiculous." Duff gestured for Stumpy to come. "The food was excellent. I only wish it had been a bit stronger."
The waiter chuckled to himself as he took their plates away. "Strong man. Foolish little girl."
"This expedition was your idea," he continued, "and you're my friend. Anyway, I can get behind eradicating Starflower's direpox."
Not as much as you can get behind your own mad scheme. She looked for a restroom, but the Tanvi didn't have one.
As if he could hear her inner thoughts -- as if he could hear the author and his surely skeptical reader -- the party's self-designated leader set down his glass. "It doesn't matter if you or I make it to the top: the principles behind our plans are strong. The world will be a better place for it, which is why we'll do everything we can to make sure one of us gets the ruby."
He spoke with deliberation, as if Celeste was an idiot.
"They won't survive the climb because we will not allow them to survive the climb."