Part 7: The Test
Kouzel groaned. Pain ripped through his body and his bloodied fingers gripped the granite. Why was it so rough? Did they make it like this on purpose?
No. He couldn’t get distracted now. He stopped to catch his breath, his hands tight on the rock, his legs bent awkwardly to find crevices in the wall. Ice-cold night wind whipped at his body, threatening to throw him from the plinth.
No one said the Test would be easy, but Dragons above, no one warned him it would be this hard.
Kouzel didn’t know how far up he was. He didn’t dare look down, for fear or dizziness might send him tumbling to his death. What he did know was that he’d been climbing up the Staff of the Gods for hours. All night, he’d gripped the rough rock, pulling himself upwards towards the sky. It was ironic how it was named the Staff, since magic in Atharron was considered evil.
The journey to the Staff of the Gods had been tiring enough. Atharron was far from the Staff, as the enormous natural structure would send a shadow over the royal castle. Now Kouzel dared look around him, sweat almost blinding his gaze, and the kingdom’s glow glittered, awaiting his return. Though why would they wait for him? He was cursed with magic, the ultimate crime in the eyes of Atharron. The only reason Queen Cassandra had granted him this test was because he had concealed his cursed gift so well.
Kouzel groaned. Pain shot through his hands all the way to his shoulders. He couldn’t waste energy by stopping and admiring the view. He had to press on. Had to reach the peak of this accursed Staff.
Kouzel gritted his teeth as he found new footholds in the rock. He reached upwards, ignoring the hot blood that ran down his wrists. Clouds floated around him. The wind was strong, but at least the rain had stopped. He shuddered to think how slippery the rock would be in the rain.
He climbed farther. Kouzel felt as if his arms were about to pop from their sockets. Stabbing pains ripped at his muscles and crimson ran from his palms to his elbows. The wind howled above, like a Dragon roaring in welcome. The Staff wouldn’t defeat him. He could do this.
His heart almost jumped from his body when his hand slipped, leaving him dangling by one hand. He scrabbled at the wall, found a safe ledge and heaved rasping, terrified breaths. His heart pounded in terror, his bleeding hands throbbing with pain and he clutched at the rock, sobbing aloud. He was going to die… he was…
No! Kouzel gave a growl, and he wiped his bloodied hands on his tunic, first the right, then the left. With the last of his strength, Kouzel reached for the next of the rock above. Tiredness threatened him. Taking long, raspy breaths, he struggled upwards. The cold wind soothed his hot skin, even while it threatened to freeze the sweat that ran down his face.
Just a little longer.
Agony tore through his cramping muscles. His legs felt like they had turned to lead. Desperate fingers reached upwards…
Nothing, only air. No more rock. He’d reached the top!
Kouzel fought against the weakness relief brought as he scrambled upwards, gripping the mercifully flat rock of the top. He’d reached the peak. He’d done it.
He lay flat on top of the world, his chest heaving, his bloodied hands stinging and every muscle in his body aching. Finally, his eyes opened, and the white wisps of cloud floated above him, congratulating his victory. A smile stretched across Kouzel’s face. He sensed a warm, orange glow. Struggling to sit up, he shielded his eyes from the bright horizon where the morning sun had risen to greet him.
The wind had dropped, losing much of its earlier power. Kouzel got to his feet, a new strength filling his body as he gazed to the east, where the morning sun melted away the clouds and brought a new day, heralding the magic-cursed man’s victory. From here, the land stretched before him, more beautiful than anything he’d ever seen in his life. There it was, the east, where his fellow magic-cursed brothers said sat a land where magic would be not only accepted, but worshipped.
Green hills were bright under the morning sun’s smile, greeting Kouzel with open arms. He looked down at his hands, almost unrecognisable under the blood and fragments of rock, but he felt the powerful magic at his fingertips. No longer would he be forced to hide his gift from Atharron’s magic-hating law. He and his alchemist brothers would venture with their armies to Theldiniya, start new lives, be accepted…
And as if to roar in approval, the enormous silhouette of a powerful Dragon rose into the sky, larger than the hills and even the sun itself. Kouzel watched in mixed horror and thrill as the beast circled the sky, darted through the clouds on powerful, scaled wings, and disappeared into a flash of bright light.
It was a sign, he knew it. He would abseil down this Staff of the Gods and take his tale of victory straight to his brothers. A new age would dawn for Alchemists – no, ‘Alchemist’ had a negativity to it, like some kind of witch doctor. Kouzel smiled as he let the wind caress his hot face. He and his brothers were to be Mages. Kings. Gods.
Thus, would begin their road to immortality.