From its base, Mount Chozea appeared impossibly high. “How high is this mountain?” Belgrave asked Naiya’Nal. She was no longer disguised as one of the soldiers, but was now wearing her black armor.
She looked up the mountainside. “I would guess that even if it was placed at the bottom of the deepest part of the sea, the top would still be showing above the waves.”
Belgrave shook his head. “This is going to be an impossible climb.”
“It won’t be impossible,” Naiya’Nal reassured. “Was it impossible for you to find the sword or become the king of Tanarad?”
Belgrave laughed. “Alright, it won’t be impossible. It’s just going to be long and hard.” They turned as Commander Sidrahkir came up behind them. He was carrying some heavy coats.
“I believe these coats will be needed as we climb,” the Commander said.
“Are there enough coats for all of the soldiers?” Belgrave asked.
“That is what I wanted to ask about,” Sidrahkir answered. “There aren’t enough coats so I thought we might not need to take all the soldiers to the summit with us. Perhaps we could leave most of them camped down here.”
“That brings up an old problem of ours,” Belgrave noted. “All the soldiers are eager to continue with me and we would once again be forced to leave some behind.”
“It won’t be as hard as before Sidrahkir,” claimed. “All those we left with Colonel Balvain stayed in Panei. While the soldiers still with us have been with us the entire time, we would only be leaving them until we came back down from the mountain. I am sure they would understand the reasons for leaving them.”
“How many could still go up with us?” Belgrave asked.
“We have enough coats for you, me, Naiya’Nal, Captain Haloz, and ten soldiers. I would suggest taking five Red Exemplars and five regular soldiers.”
“We can do that,” Belgrave agreed.
Naiya’Nal took one of the coats and held it up. They were thick and lined with fur on the inside and the outside. “The coats won’t fit over our armor and our armor wouldn’t fit over them,” she announced as she unsuccessfully tried it on.
“We can’t wear our armor up there anyway,” Sidrahkir explained. “With the frozen winds at the top of mountains, the metal would be too cold to touch.”
“You haven’t been to the mountains of Sarda then, have you?” Naiya’Nal remarked. “There are tales of large hairy creatures that live in the snow and ice and wear thick armor.”
“We are not covered in fur,” Sidrahkir countered. “I have climbed the mountains in Tanarad and while they are small in comparison to Mount Chozea, they are still deadly in the winter.”
Belgrave rolled his eyes and sighed. “I doubt any of us know much about climbing mountains. Either way, we are not going to battle so I don’t see why we can’t leave our armor in the camp.” He turned to Naiya’Nal. “We will take our weapons and shields, but the coats should provide all the protection we need. It’s a long climb and I don’t want to carry more than I have to.”
The next day they started their climb up the mountain while the others stayed in the camp just inside the forest at the base of the mountain. Captain Haloz and the five Red Exemplars went first to find the easiest route up the rocky mountainside. By evening, they were walking through snow. Soon they stopped and made a small camp beneath an overhang. Naiya’Nal used her magic and started a small fire to keep them warm.
“I don’t know how much farther we can go,” Captain Haloz exclaimed as they ate their meal. “The higher we go, the harder it is to breathe.”
“It will be difficult,” King Belgrave admitted. “In my world mountain climbers carry bottles of air when climbing mountains this high. I know it isn’t possible to bottle air in your world, but I hope that whoever placed a ring at the top of this mountain also provided a means to breathe.”
“Breathe slower and deeper,” Naiya’Nal suggested.
“I just find it strange that I lead the greatest soldiers in the world and I seem to be taking a greater toll on this mountain than you are!” the Captain explained.
King Belgrave chuckled. “We are definitely feeling the effects of climbing so far so fast,” he said, looking over at the five Red Exemplars who had already fallen asleep. “You need to remember that despite your great abilities, we’re all still human and need the same amount of air.” He yawned. “Get some rest tonight and allow your bodies to get used to the thin air.”
None of the Red Exemplars were in the camp when King Belgrave awoke the next morning. He could see tracks where they had begun to hike higher up the mountain. The rest of them ate a quick breakfast and packed up their camp before they began to follow the tracks of the Red Exemplars.
Shortly before noon, they heard a shout above them. “King Belgrave, I think we found something.”
King Belgrave looked up toward the ridge above them. Captain Haloz was waving down at them. “What is it, Captain?”
“There is a tunnel on the next ridge over!” the Captain yelled. “You really should come see it.”
“It had better be warm!” King Belgrave responded. “We’ll be up as soon as we can.
Two hours later, they reached the tunnel entrance. The wind seemed to be blowing down from the slopes above and roaring into the tunnel. King Belgrave pulled out his sword and slowly entered. The others followed behind. The wind pulled at King Belgrave’s coat, but he kept on. The sword provided enough light for him to see where he was going. He was thankful the floor was smooth since those behind him had no light.
After almost an hour, King Belgrave could see a reddish glow and soon the tunnel opened into a wide cavern. He could see several other tunnels on the other sides of the cavern. The air was turbulent as the cool air coming from inside mixed with warm air and rushed toward the top of the chamber. The ceiling was up higher than they could see. To their right was an enormous stalagmite with a staircase carved into it that wound around and around until it led to the next ledge high above them.
They spread out to take in the view. Commander Sidrahkir walked to the edge of the large ledge they stood on and looked down. He could see churning magma far below, the view distorted by the heated air above it. He pulled back as a blast of rising hot air singed his face. “It’s definitely warm in here,” he shouted back to the others. “We’ve walked into a furnace!”
The others walked over to where the Commander stood. “That’s a long way down,” King Belgrave observed. “I’m not particularly fond of heights.”
“It’s not the heights that I’m afraid of,” Captain Haloz replied. “It’s the chance of falling and knowing the whole way down that you cannot stop yourself.”
“That’s why you should always be prepared,” Naiya’Nal said. She reached behind her and pulled at a rope on her pack. The others stepped back in surprise as two dragon wings opened. “I can fly if I fall,” she explained.
“You can’t fly in here,” Belgrave argued. “With these winds the way they are...” He stopped as Naiya’Nal screamed. A sudden gust of wind pushed her forward and pulled her over the edge. They watched in horror as she fell toward the magma below.
Naiya’Nal struggled frantically to gain control of her wings as she tumbled down into the abyss. The air became hotter and hotter the farther down she went. After a brief terrifying moment, she managed to straighten out and tried to pull up out of her dive. An updraft caught her dragon wings and pushed her up faster than she expected.
“Watch out for the ceiling,” Belgrave yelled as she soared up past them. Within moments, she was out of sight past the ledge above them, but they all heard the loud crack as she hit a rock far above.
Naiya’Nal partially closed her wings just before she hit the ceiling to slow her ascent and also so that the impact would not damage them. The impact against the ceiling was still painful, but not as bad as it could have been. She opened her wings and glided toward a ledge below as she blew back down. She successfully landed, but her head hit hard against the rock. She closed her eyes and waited for Belgrave to come up to her.
Captain Haloz grabbed King Belgrave and pulled him toward the staircase. “She’s somewhere above us,” he shouted. They ran up the stairs and emerged on the next ledge.
Captain Haloz stopped at the sight of Naiya’Nal sprawled motionless on the ledge, but King Belgrave rushed to her side. He ripped off her pack with the wings and her smoking coat. She opened her eyes as he rolled her over. “I don’t think I’ll be making that mistake again,” she groaned.
Commander Sidrahkir and the rest of the soldiers made their way up to the second ledge. The Commander removed his coat. “Hot air rises so we’re going to be warm and have plenty of air to breathe as long as we’re in here.” He set down his pack and pulled out some bread. “This is as good a time as any to take a break. It would also give Naiya’Nal some time to recover.”
“I’ve been through worse,” she replied, “but I definitely do not recommend falling in here.”
Captain Haloz sat down. “Have you ever actually flown with those wings?”
“Only once,” she answered, “but that’s a long story.”
“You’ll have to tell us someday,” Belgrave suggested.
While King Belgrave and Naiya’Nal sat on the ledge, along with Commander Sidrahkir and some of the soldiers, the Red Exemplars surveyed the path ahead of them and found a staircase carved into the rocky wall leading high up the side of the cavern. At the final platform of the cavern, the wind was extremely strong as it rose into an even narrower vertical tunnel. The staircase then entered a separate tunnel that spiraled around the windpipe. Small windows let in the warmth while keeping out most of the wind. The Red Exemplars did not go any higher until King Belgrave and the rest of the group had joined them.
They climbed up the stairs for what seemed like hours. Just as King Belgrave began to feel that he could go no further, they found the tunnel widened into a small room. “Walking up stairs is harder than walking up an incline,” King Belgrave sighed, sitting down against the wall.
Captain Haloz laughed. “I can’t help noticing that the longer I stay with you, the more I find myself running into the limits of my own abilities.”
“If you go up a few more steps right now, you’ll still be able to say you could go farther than us,” Naiya’Nal joked.
The Captain walked over to the steps and lifted his leg over the first step. He paused briefly before setting it back down on the floor. “I will let King Belgrave have the honor of continuing first.”
The room was silent and everyone looked at Captain Haloz. “That is unlike you,” King Belgrave said. “I thought the Red Exemplars lived to prove themselves by their great feats.”
“My soldiers can explain my actions to you,” the Captain replied. “Hureto, tell King Belgrave why I did that.”
“I will explain,” said the soldier. “It goes back to something King Belgrave said to Captain Haloz while we were going through the Dark Forest on Panei. He said that if Captain Haloz died in combat, he promised to remember the Captain with his own blood. Since the captain of the Red Exemplars is the last one to die, the Captain’s death would mean that the unit is lost. However, if King Belgrave were to slice his arm to remember Captain Haloz, he too would be a Red Exemplar and the unit would survive through him. Therefore, King Belgrave is the future captain of our unit and as the fulfillment of prophecy, he outranks us all. Captain Haloz is merely showing his respect in anticipation of future events.”
“I did say that,” King Belgrave agreed, “but I do hope it never has to happen. I do not know the future and prophecy may not require me to do such a thing.”
“Hureto is correct,” the Captain said. “Even so, if you never become a Red Exemplar, you have still proved yourself worthy of our respect.”
“Whatever the prophecies have in store for me is what I will do,” King Belgrave stated.
“I am beginning to understand your confidence in the prophecies,” Commander Sidrahkir stated. “This mountain would have been impossible for us to ascend on the outside, but in here we have everything we would have lacked out there.”
King Belgrave grinned. “I am confident that I will live until prophecy is fulfilled. I know it’s not a nice way to look at it, but for all we know, those same prophecies could end up killing the rest of you.”
“You’re the reason we risk everything,” Naiya’Nal said, wrapping her arms around Belgrave.
King Belgrave smiled. “I say we get some sleep and continue when we’re better rested.
When they awoke, they ate a quick meal before they continued up the stairs. King Belgrave went first as Captain Haloz had suggested and the rest followed behind. They trudged upward for several hours before they realized that the air was becoming cooler and thinner. “I think the warm air leaves the mountain somewhere below us,” Commander Sidrahkir suggested. “We must be near the top.”
“You are correct,” King Belgrave replied, wrapping his coat tighter around him as they stepped into a small chamber. “This seems to be the last chamber and there’s an exit to outside.”
Naiya’Nal held out her hand and used her magic to make a ball of fire to provide more light. She looked around at the markings on the walls. “There is something evil about this mountain,” she warned. “The walls are covered with the markings of five hundred years worth of Dark Witches!”
Captain Haloz ran his hand along the carvings on the wall. “Then the Dark Wizard knows about the ring on this mountain, but must have been unable to take it. He is trying to scare us.”
“I don’t think he would stop at merely scaring us,” Commander Sidrahkir countered. “I would expect the Dark Wizard to be fiercely guarding against the fulfillment of prophecy. Naiya’Nal, what do you think?”
She slowly scanned over the many markings on the walls. “There are symbols, names, dates and a few brief messages. Some of it is in an older dialect of the dark tongue and is hard to make out.”
“Does any of it mention a trap?” King Belgrave asked.
She finished looking over the chamber. “I see no mention of a trap, but strangely one name is missing.”
“How would you know look for a specific name?” Belgrave asked.
“Because I killed her,” Naiya’Nal answered. She took Belgrave’s hand. “There is no point in trying to figure this out. Let’s go outside and take the ring.”
As they stepped through the door, the turbulent wind hit them like a wall. The steep sides of the mountain sloped down until the clouds hid them from sight. A narrow path led from the chamber up the steep incline toward the peak. Belgrave could see the ring held in place by a long finger-shaped piece of rock that stuck up from the highest point. He slowly staggered up the precarious path. “We’re almost there!” he shouted to Naiya’Nal. There was no answer so he turned to face her.
Her face was white and she stood motionless, staring at a smooth surface on the cliff. Her eyes were wide as she ran her fingers over some words carved there. “Belgrave, don’t pick up the ring!” she yelled.
He hurried back down to her. “What’s wrong?”
“The Dark Witch that I killed did not die as a Dark Witch,” she explained. A tear slowly froze on her cheek as she remembered the final lesson from her mistress, Lorica’For. “We need to warn the others. This mountain is guarded by a magic that I do not know, but the spirit of Lorica’For will defend us as long as she can.”
Belgrave stepped back inside the chamber. “Hurry back down as fast as you possibly can,” he ordered the soldiers. “I do not know how much time we will have to get off this mountain once I take the ring.”
The soldiers grabbed their equipment and began to head back down the stairs. “I’ll stay behind with you,” Commander Sidrahkir said.
“Not this time,” King Belgrave objected. “Prophecy is my protection, not yours. Go! Get the rest of the soldiers off this mountain. I will give you plenty of time to get started before I take the ring.” He watched as the Commander reluctantly obeyed and headed down the dark stairs.
Captain Haloz took off his coat and handed it to King Belgrave. “Naiya’Nal hasn’t needed a coat while we were inside, but she’s going to need one waiting up here with you. I’ll grab her old coat on our way out of the mountain.”
Belgrave took the coat and turned back to the doorway. He pulled in Naiya’Nal and gave her the coat. “We can wait in here to give them time to get out of the mountain.” They sat down against the wall and shivered as they waited.
“What will happen when I take the ring?” Belgrave asked.
“I don’t know,” Naiya’Nal answered. “If we go back inside, the mountain may try to fall on us, but if we tried to climb down the outside, the mountain may try to cause us to fall.”
“Could we fly with your wings?” he asked.
“Have you lost your mind?” she squealed. “The winds outside are worse than the ones inside. The wings would be ripped right off my back!”
Belgrave laughed. “I was only joking. We’ll figure out how to get off this mountain when it’s time.”
They sat silently until Naiya’Nal finally moved. “I am freezing and I think they have had plenty of time to get at least most of the way to the entrance.”
Belgrave stepped back out the door and looked up at the ring. Naiya’Nal followed behind him. The wind was blowing even stronger than before so they moved slowly as they groped their way up the path. Near the top, the path disappeared under the slippery ice. “I can’t quite reach it,” Belgrave yelled as he reached up toward the ring. It was only inches from his fingers, but he was already stretching as far as he could.
“Hold on tight,” Naiya’Nal yelled. She still had decent footing and pushed up on his feet.
Belgrave hoped the wind would not blow him off the slippery ice as his hand closed around the ring and pulled it off the spire. The opaque silvery ring seemed to have an inner glow, but did not give off any noticeable light. He dropped down beside Naiya’Nal and put it on.
Naiya’Nal grabbed Belgrave and pulled him into the tunnel. “We need to go!” she yelled.
“Sit on your shield and ride it down the steps,” he yelled back. “It’ll be bumpy, but we’ll go faster that way.”
She threw her shield in front of her and jumped onto it. Belgrave followed her. They slid fast down the spiraling stairs and within minutes they entered the small chamber halfway down and crashed against the far wall.
“Come on,” Belgrave yelled. He rolled over and grabbed his shield.
“Be ready to stop,” she warned from behind. “The stairs end at a ledge without a railing.”
“Just roll over off your shield when you reach the bottom,” he yelled back as he disappeared down the stairs. She quickly followed. There was a crack and a loud rumble echoed down the stairs above them.
Once they reached the large chamber with the ledges, they grabbed their shields, ran down the stairs to the second ledge, and sprinted through the tunnel to the entrance. The mountain was beginning to collapse into the cavern and they could hear the wind blowing down from above them.
All of Hayve knew the instant King Belgrave placed the ring upon his finger. The land became strangely silent, but every cloud in the sky seemed to darken and with a loud shriek, they sped straight toward Mount Chozea.
Commander Sidrahkir was the last of the soldiers to step from the tunnel. He looked up toward the peak. “We’re out of the mountain as King Belgrave ordered. We can wait for him now.”
Captain Haloz grabbed the Commander’s arm and pointed out toward the clouds. “King Belgrave wants us off the mountain,” he shouted. “With the entire sky coming our way, we won’t be able to stay here!”
“I am not going any farther without King Belgrave,” the Commander sternly replied. “Form a shield wall against the wind.” The soldiers knelt down and held up their shields to block the wind.
Captain Haloz pulled Commander Sidrahkir to the side. “I rush in and a few people get small cuts and bruises from an antelope. We’ll see what waiting does to all of us when those clouds smash against the mountain.”
“We wouldn’t have had time to get off the mountain,” Commander Sidrahkir replied as the clouds slammed against the mountain above them. Loud almost-human shrieks filled the air and the freezing wind blew down on them. They saw a bright flash high above them and the mountain rumbled as a large crack made its way down its side.
King Belgrave saw the soldiers sitting right outside the tunnel entrance, but he kept on running. “RUN!” he screamed. “Don’t just sit there, RUN!”
Captain Haloz turned and noticed King Belgrave sprinting through the tunnel. He stepped aside as King Belgrave and Naiya’Nal hurtled past him.
Belgrave did not wait for the soldiers to get out of his way. He jumped over them and placed his shield beneath him. Naiya’Nal did the same. They would ride down on the snow and hope the soldiers followed their example.
Commander Sidrahkir saw what King Belgrave did. “After them!” he ordered.
“Wait,” Captain Haloz countered. He grabbed the Commander. “Get back into the mountain!”
Commander Sidrahkir looked up as he heard a loud rumble. The snow was falling off the mountain. They backed into the tunnel and watched as the avalanche blocked the entrance with snow.
Belgrave and Naiya’Nal slid down the side of the mountain as fast as the wind. They held tight to their shields as they went over precipices and bounced against rocks. After an especially jarring cliff, Belgrave suddenly realized Naiya’Nal was not beside him. He flipped over and saw her floundering in the deep snow further up the mountain. He climbed back up to her. “We’ll both fit on my shield,” he said as he helped her out.
Another loud crack shook the mountain and they both looked up to see a large mass of snow bearing down on them. Naiya’Nal jumped on Belgrave’s back. “Get on your shield,” she ordered. “I’m not letting go.”
Belgrave struggled to get the shield moving with both the extra weight, but soon the falling snow engulfed them and they were swept along with the flow.
When the avalanche seemed to have stopped, the Red Exemplars dug their way out of the tunnel. They emerged to find the sun shining and the entire side of the mountain below them changed into a solid slope of snow.
“Do you think King Belgrave survived this?” Captain Haloz asked.
Commander Sidrahkir placed his shield on the snow and sat on it. “There’s only one way to find out. See you at the bottom!”
Captain Haloz jumped on his shield as he watched the Commander slide down the slope. He stood on his shield facing sideways with his feet slightly apart and legs bent. “Don’t get the notion that you could ever beat me,” he shouted, passing Commander Sidrahkir.
The rest of the soldiers followed them, some sitting, and some standing on their shields, but all of them enjoying the downward rush. They rode their shields all the way down to the edge of the forest at the base of the mountain where the trees had stopped the avalanche. The rest of the soldiers were waiting for them.
“Has anyone seen King Belgrave?” Commander Sidrahkir asked, rising from his shield.
A soldier stepped forward holding Naiya’Nal’s shield. “This came down ahead of the snow,” he explained.
The Commander turned to Captain Haloz. “Did we pass him on the way down?”
Captain Haloz shook his head. “You know I would have stopped if I did.”
They looked around at each other. “Did anyone see King Belgrave?” the Commander finally asked. The soldiers all shook their heads. Commander Sidrahkir lowered his head. “This is not good,” he stammered. “We escape unhurt while the king we came to protect is lost under a mountain of snow.”
A pack of dogs suddenly ran up to them. “Is the king safe?” the one in charge asked.
“We fear he was lost in the avalanche,” the Commander answered.
“Don’t worry,” the dog replied. “I am Princess Fluxeena. My mother has sent Vortrog and our best trackers and they will find him.” The rest of the dogs ran up into the snow and began sniffing around. “I have never seen the sky so disturbed,” the Princess noted. “I can only hope that the Dark Wizard does not know the ring has been taken.”
Beneath the weight of the packed snow, Belgrave and Naiya’Nal could not move. “Try to wiggle,” Naiya’Nal suggested.
“I can barely breathe,” he responded from under her. “You can make fire, do something!”
She made her magic fireball and slowly began to melt away the snow around her left hand. Eventually she could move her arm at the elbow and began to melt away the snow to their side. “Let me know if I get too close to you,” she warned. Belgrave did not care. The melted snow was soaking into his clothing and he was becoming very cold.
Soon they could move freely and Naiya’Nal began to expand the hole into an icy cavern. “Couldn’t you just melt our way to the surface?” Belgrave asked.
“I don’t know how deep we are,” she answered, placing a fireball on the ground to provide some light. “If we’re deeper than we think, we’d soon be swimming in ice water.”
“Is there anything you can do to give the others any clue where to dig for us?” he asked.
“Duck down and cover your ears,” she said. Naiya’Nal raised her left hand above her head and sent a bolt of lightning up through the snow. “If they didn’t see that, we’re stuck here forever.”
Belgrave and Naiya’Nal sat waiting in their snow cave. “Do it again,” Belgrave suggested as he peered into the jagged hole created by Naiya’Nal’s lightning. He could not see any light from the surface.
She glared at him. “I don’t see you doing anything to get us out of here. Besides, if someone saw the first blast and started digging, I don’t want to hit them.”
“I wasn’t exactly born with the ability to use magic,” he replied.
Naiya’Nal sighed. “No, you were born to fulfill prophecy and if prophecy ever requires that you must use magic, then you will have that ability.”
“How do you use it?” he asked.
“I’m not entirely sure,” she explained. “It seems almost natural for me. I just focus on what needs to be done and it happens.”
“I’ll try that,” Belgrave said with a grin. He held out his hand and curled his fingers.
“I don’t think it will work,” she said. “I was once told that men are too aggressive and unrefined.”
Belgrave silently stared at his hand for a few moments and suddenly thrust it into the snow. “My hand was starting to get hot!” he justified.
Naiya’Nal laughed. “You can’t fool me; I knew you couldn’t do it! You’re still bound to the laws of your own world.”
Belgrave leaned back. “My clothes are so soaked from the melting snow that now I’m freezing.”
Naiya’Nal’s ball of fire flickered and fizzled out. “Take off your clothes,” she suggested. “We’ll stay warm longer if we’re dry.” He heard her discard something in the darkness and he knew she was following her own advice. He started to do as she had suggested. “I have a blanket that always stays dry,” she said, rummaging through her pack.
Soon they were wrapped together in Naiya’Nal’s blanket and struggled to stay warm as their bodies slowly succumbed to the cold.
Belgrave opened his eyes. He was lying inside a hot steamy tent with warm towels wrapped around his body. He sat up when he noticed Sidrahkir sitting beside him. “I may be a king, but I don’t have time for steam baths,” Belgrave said.
The Commander pushed him back down onto the bed. “If you have time to sit freezing in the snow waiting for us to dig you out, then you have time for us to warm you up.”
Belgrave held up his hand and looked at the ring. It was the shape of a crescent moon and looked as if part had been broken off. “I need to find the other two rings and fulfill prophecy,” he argued.
“You aren’t leaving this tent until tomorrow,” Sidrahkir ordered. “Besides, it’s almost evening so we wouldn’t go very far anyway.”
“Oh, come on Belgrave,” Naiya’Nal pleaded. He turned his head and saw her on the bed beside him. “It’s nice in here and you could use a bit of relaxing.”
“Right,” Commander Sidrahkir said. He stood and walked to the entrance. “Now that I know the two of you are fine, I’ll give you a bit of privacy.” He shut the flap behind him.