We didn’t know what cold was. Back on the ground, where we had our humble campfire and our blankets, we only knew a sort of discomfort. Reality became a biting frigid beast of unholy chill up in the mountains, where we toiled toward the unlit sky against howling winds that took away our voices, our names, our hope.
When you feel emptied of everything that you are, that is when things become truly bleak.
At the start, we stopped at the first alcove we came across, only a few hundred feet up and nearly a day’s effort. It was too slow. Staring further up the mean dark cliffs, I knew that there was much more for us to traverse, and we would have to be faster. If we weren’t, we would die. Burdened with worry, I huddled together with the other five in a meager attempt to try and solicit some warmth.
That’s what happens in those conditions. You end up clinging to the people you don’t even like.
We nibbled on dried meat to quiet our stomachs, but our food was lean on fat. Kali whispered to me as I chewed the tough rabbit meat down: We need something more, or we will grow too weak!
I didn’t have energy to respond to her, even in the most basic sense. That first night’s travel, I fell asleep with my face buried into Argos’s hind quarters and Paulo hugging me from behind.
When we awoke again, the struggle continued. Paulo and I, both the strongest, lead the climb with the others tied to us by rope. We used climbing axes Paulo had crafted from daesce bone to haul our way up. All of us wore daesce cloaks to help lessen the cold, for all the good they did. Argos had become the one tasked with the burden of Hakeem, pulling him along in a strange hammock by a harness we had made from recovered armor. In turn, Quincy and Lethia helped Argos along over the areas where the dog’s lack of opposable thumbs proved a problem.
This is what made us slow. Much as I wanted to push harder up the mountain cliffs, doing so would put the others in danger. But how much longer could we climb under these conditions? The higher up we went, the thinner the air became, and of course, the colder it became as well. We didn’t have enough food to last us the whole way if this was the best speed we could manage.
Kali! I called in my head. Do you have any ideas?
I would leave the others and go alone, was her simple response.
I growled. Of course that’s what she would do.
But I couldn’t do that. Much as it frustrated me, I needed these people for what they could provide. Perhaps the real folly was in our preparation? Maybe we should’ve spent more time gathering food or fashioning protection from the cold then gathering materials for carrying Argos and Hakeem? We didn’t eat much our first day climbing, but stretching only a few days worth of food over such a perilous period…?
Biting my tongue, I pushed on and tried to clear my thoughts of such fears.
There was no going back. In our efforts to climb, the snow had swallowed much of our path, making climbing back down too dangerous an option. Anyway, as the end of the second day came, I could see the tip of the first mountain. Troubled as I was, the only way now was forward.
Another two days went by. We had eaten what little we had of food, and even after Paulo caught a few rabbits, and I a snow ferret, that still left us weak and malnourished. We kept to the Albian cliff line as much as possible, but soon we had no choice but to traverse down into the dark valleys between the mountains. The relief from the cold winds was nice, but in exchange, we now found ourselves in daesce territory. This area wasn’t as infested as Holzoff’s, but the monsters still posed a threat, and their presence meant good hunting would be scarce.
How I loathed the daesce. We couldn’t even eat the damn things for their meat was tainted. I loathed them even more for our related wrongness. Being Lacertli’s champion was a chance at redemption for me, but that still didn’t change the fact that I was a being against nature. Kali was defiant on this matter.
I do not believe we carry the sole blame! She snarled, interrupting my thoughts one night. The gods have the power to stop such things, and they did not! We did not ask for this!
Be quiet! I snapped in alarm.
I wasn’t sure why, but my Twin was becoming increasingly blasphemous these days. Was it her experience against Syria that started it? I don’t know. All I knew was that she was sounding eerily more and more like Elmiryn in her opinions.
The last thing we needed was to be smited by heaven.
Though, it would be in keeping with the sort of luck we’d been having the past few weeks.
As this thought crossed my mind, we had been following Lethia’s direction across the valley when I stopped in my tracks. It took a while before the others noticed I had stopped. Quincy, beyond irritable since leaving Holzoff’s, marched up to me with a harsh scowl.
“Ailuran, what is the problem?” she snapped.
“Luck!” I whispered, smiling a little.
The wizard scrunched her nose. “What?”
“Luck, Quincy! Luck! That’s our problem!”
Quincy looked over her shoulder at the others. At their bemused looks, she turned back to me and said carefully, “Nyx, I think the cold and hunger might be getting to you. Maybe I should take point with Paulo and–”
I grabbed her by the shoulders. “How can you not see? Survival is one part wit, one part will, and one part luck! We need more luck!”
Quincy pulled out of my grip, her face contorted in a sort of disgusted wariness. “Uh…”
I gave an impatient growl and turned to the others. “Nine! We need to do as much as we can in multiples of nine!”
Paulo, Lethia, and even Argos exchanged looks.
The Moretti crossed his arms and frowned at me. “Why do we need to do that, Nyx?”
I shrugged. “Because it’s lucky!”
“That’s stupid!” Quincy said next to me. “Where did you get such an idea?”
I looked at her coolly. “Tristi told me.”
Her annoyance cleared, leaving a nonplussed expression on her face. “T-Tristi? The champion of Fortuna?”
Quincy’s eyes ticked back and forth as she thought this over. I could hear the others shift restlessly. Standing in the cold was uncomfortable, I knew, but this was important. We had nothing to lose in trying my idea.
“How do we know that Lady Fortune would hear us at all?” Quincy asked next, hands on her hips. “The way Tristi practices it, it’s as though luck is a skill. If that’s the case, we’re all untrained in it!”
“Being untrained in it isn’t the issue,” I argued eagerly. “The issue is that we haven’t been trying to use it at all!”
Quincy snorted and gestured around at the desolate valley of white around us. “I’d say this was certainly a gamble, wouldn’t you? How can you say that we haven’t tried our luck?”
“Because this wasn’t a real gamble! Not in the sense that Fortuna would oversee it!”
“You can’t be serious!”
“She… She has a point!” Lethia interjected. We all turned to stare at her, and at the attention the teenager seemed to wilt. Looking at her boots, she stammered out, “I just–I mean to say that–When we started on this journey, we worked hard to prepare. I knew the way to go. We knew the risks involved. This wasn’t a decision taken on faith. It was one taken out of desperation. We had nowhere else to go! Logically speaking, that isn’t truly a gamble so much as walking through the only open door available to you. So… That would mean that this effort isn’t under Fortuna’s domain!”
I nodded at Lethia, and for the first time of what felt like ages, I felt genuinely grateful toward her. “Thank you, Lethia.”
The enchantress made a small choked sound and averted her eyes.
Quincy sighed roughly and rubbed at her face with her cloth wrapped hands. “Fine. Fine. You make a good point.” She flicked a hand out at the treacherous landscape. Daesce could be seen fighting amongst themselves. We had no way of concealing ourselves out here, but we couldn’t afford to skirt the valley. We’d freeze or die of starvation if we tried.
“I just don’t get what there is that we can do or count in multiples of nine!” the wizard groused.
“We can make it,” I said, clenching my fists. I turned and started walking in the direction we had been originally going in. I passed the others and didn’t take my eyes off the dark horizon. “We can make it. We can make it. We can make it. We can make it. We can make it. We can make it. We can make it!”
I heard the others follow me, and the teenagers repeated my words nine times, just as I had.
“We can make it… We can make it… We can make it…”
Amidst Paulo and Lethia’s chants, I heard Quincy grumble, “If we do make it, it’ll be in a very annoying fashion.”
There was a beat of silence from her. Then:
“If we do make it–”