Fingers dug into packed soil. Then, the toes of her naked feet gripping the coarse rock, Neekin dragged herself onto the ledge. Rolling over on her back, she heaved a thankful sigh. She was dressed in a leather vest and a brief G-string, a hunting knife at her right thigh.
Exhaustion was knitted into her every fibre.
She had begun climbing hours before. Hours of inching up the sheer mountain face, dogmatically muttering praise to the spirit of the mountain, blessing its wisdom and, above all, its mercy, as she sought cracks for her fingers and toes; hours of muscles straining under the burning gaze of the sun; hours of leaving blood stains where knees and elbows grazed the unforgiving stone. It was a climb which, once begun, could only be completed. If hand and toe holds were difficult to discern going up, they were impossible to make out going down, so close was her body pressed to the mountain's skin.
Which left only the drop.
Far below was the river Xlt'tip which even in the rainy seasons was scarcely worth wading in. And jagged obsidian stones stabbed viciously from the water's foaming breast.
So the climb had to be fulfilled.
Past vines hugging the mountain's lower face, thorns graced with such violent poison as to be too dangerous even to collect for war arrows. Past hungry mountain rats living in burrows that made deceptively enticing hand holds.
And on she went.
Slipping between the sticky tendrils of the Colchri's web, knowing that jostling one would bring the giant arachnid down upon her. And to the Colchri, who feasted mainly upon flying giant Latchas, a human being would stand no chance at all.
At last, though, she had achieved the ledge.
Neekin propped up on her elbows. Across the chasm was the mountain's sister, even more treacherous and impassable. To her right was the wood-arched mouth to the Namilo's Cave, which she had expected. Before it was a tall figure in a ratty green robe, features concealed behind a ram-horned mask, which she had not. Not so soon at any rate.
"Most do not even make it half-way," he growled, his voice lent a cavernous echo by his mask, "before slipping and being dashed upon Xlt'tip's teeth. Congratulations." He leaped forward.
Neekin started to move. Too slow.
A sandaled foot hit her hard, shoving, and she plunged into the abyss.
Neekin looked up from where she knelt before the high priestess. She would not be dissuaded, nor intimidated. "My foster brothers were already first level priests by this time in their training at the temple of Ghun."
A look shifting between amusement and boredom played with Yisherud's steel-grey eyes. "They are men. The priests of Ghun are as lambs before the slaughtering blades of my priestesses." She spoke purely theoretically, of course, since the warrior-priests and the warrior-priestesses were sworn allies, going on two thousand years. "You would emulate them?"
Neekin glanced at the flame burning in the centre of the chamber as she considered her next words. "I feel...restricted. I am capable of more than I am being given, of learning more."
"You wish to advance to the next level?"
Neekin met the high priestess' gaze. "Yes."
"Impudent child. You will not be ready for half a score of years - if then."
"I am ready now," Neekin insisted quietly.
"Indeed?" Yisherud's hand fell casually into the folds of her cloak. Neekin caught the movement with her eye, tensed, and was ready when, with a flick of her wrist, the high priestess sent the bristling point of a knife whistling toward her.
Neekin neither ducked, nor turned. Instead, with practised ease, she snatched the blade from the air itself and let it clatter harmlessly upon the marble steps.
Something flashed in Yisherud's eyes; she narrowed her lids. "Perhaps..." she whispered. Then she drew her cloak about her. "But if I am to advance you, and risk causing dissension among your fellow novices, you must be tested. And by more than that simple trick." She nodded at the discarded blade and smiled coldly. "Yes. More thoroughly indeed."
Her eyes snapped open, breath freezing in her lungs. There was only one thing between the ledge and the river below. And it was not salvation.
The Colchri's web.
She was spread-eagle upon the thick, gummy strands, suspended between the two mountains, the wind whipping about her legs and arms. A few paces away stood a grisly foretelling of her future: the husk of a Latcha. The black- blue shell of the cow-sized insect was intact, as were its wings, but the flesh had long since been consumed.
Neekin, rocking back and forth, helplessly awaited her own contribution to the Colchri's repast.
She turned her head and her heart stilled. The great arachnid approached, its long, hairy legs picking its way across its massive net.
Neekin writhed, attempting to dislodge herself, a death upon the rocks being infinitely preferable to what was approaching. To no avail. The clingy web was not irresistible - she could shift back and forth, even pry a limb loose - but to pull required pushing. For every limb she freed, another was reaffirmed.
Sweat that had nothing to do with exertion trickled into her eyes, blurring her vision. But she was not spared the sight of the beast coming closer, each step sending shockwaves through the web. She could smell its awful stench and hear its jaws rubbing hungrily together.
But there was something about her obscured vision that triggered a fleeting memory. Calling upon her training, her months at the temple, willing her terror to subside, Neekin concentrated.
Then she had it. The Colchri were almost blind and responded solely to the trembling of the web.
She glanced at the dead Latcha, then at the Colchri that was almost upon her. Was there time? What choice did she have? She jerked and rolled across the sticky threads, slamming her body against the husk of the insect just as the Colchri reared up. The web trembling, mirroring its master's anticipation, the arachnid threw itself upon the long-dead shell. She winced as mandibles crunched through the hollow exo-skeleton, and tensed as the Colchri pulled back, recognizing the corpse for what it was. The beast attacked again, sinking mandibles once more into the Latcha's back, one furry leg brushing Neekin's hip.
After a moment, the Colchri relented. Confused, but convinced there was no flesh to be found, the great predator lumbered around and scurried off for a preferred spot on the web's perimeter.
Neekin let out a gasp of relief, only then realizing she had been holding her breath. For the moment, she was safe, but what good was that? If she moved, the Colchri would return, hungrier than ever, and below her was still the impossible drop.
She bit the words off with such vehemence that Neekin found herself speculating as to how the thief had 'acquired' this confidence. Thirty years ago, Yisherud would have been a ranking priestess, and the order did not insist on celibacy once one had been ordained...
"How is not important," snapped Yisherud.
Neekin's eyes flared. Then she realized Yisherud meant the method of the thieving.
"He fled with the pearl, retreating to the Namilo's Cave in the face of Xlt'Hogun, to lead a hermit's life...meditating upon the pearl's spiritual properties. For thirty years attempts have been made to reclaim it, novices like yourself, desiring greater wisdom, greater rank, have sought to prove themselves in this way. All have died in the attempt. For though there is a tunnel that leads through the heart of the mountain, its opening is unknown, even to this day. Thus, the only route to the cave is to climb the face of the mountain itself." Yisherud inhaled and drew her cloak about her, eyes narrowing. "Do you still wish to be tested, my eager young pupil?"
And Neekin said: "Yes."
She glanced across the web to where the Colchri crouched against the face of the cliff. Its coarse fur was the same brown-grey as the stone, rendering it all the more terrifying since she could not be sure where it left off and the cliff began. Only its black eyes, unblinking like a dead man's gaze, betrayed it.
She shuddered and glanced up at the wings.
No. That was stupid, impossible.
She shifted slightly and viewed the river below. Her only options were to drop, and gain a quick death, or to attempt crawling across the web, outracing a beast three times her size that traversed the web every day. Down or across.
But what about up?
Again she stared at the fluttering wings.
The Latcha was at least the weight of a human and it flew. Why not a novice? Her body slick with sweat, she peeled free one arm. Stealing herself, she slipped fingers between the plates on the creature's side, and pulled. The gummy threads released her reluctantly. Easing herself to a crouch, she glanced at the Colchri. The smear of camouflage stirred restlessly, aware of the trembling her activities caused, but not yet fully curious.
Drawing her knife, she cut at the web, shaving off sticky strips from the thick threads. When she had what she hoped would be enough, she stood. The wind tumbled past her, threatening to dash her from her perch. Instinctively she muttered a prayer, praising the Latcha's spirit and asking its permission. With an unsteady hand, she went to work.
"Don't go," said Aolian. "What's so evil about training with the rest of us, anyway?"
Neekin smiled. "Nothing. But I need more."
"'Those who refuse to follow the river may become lost in the woods'."
"Quoting scriptures?" She stroked the prone woman's cheek. "How dutiful of you."
Aolian frowned. "I'll never see you again."
She opened her mouth, then stopped. "You don't know that," she said lamely.
In the half light of dawn, Aolian reached up and cupped Neekin's firm breasts in her warm hands. After a moment, Neekin lay down again. Perhaps they had a little time.
She thought Aolian meant that, once a priestess and freed from the order's rather loosely interpreted vows of celibacy, she would take a man to her bed and not Aolian - which might well be true, Neekin had to admit to herself.
Later, though, while climbing, it occurred to her that Aolian meant something more final. She did not expect her to return alive. No one did.
Dazed, she tried to get up but was thrown down again as the web spasmed. Twisting her head, she gasped. The Colchri was scurrying toward her. Struggling, she managed to stand, but the gummy threads clung to her soles.
Glancing over her shoulder, she let out an instinctive scream as the Colchri launched itself at her. It fell short by a mere half-metre. As its weight dipped the web down, Neekin was flung into the air.
The wind caught her outstretched wings and, suddenly, she was flying.
She was flung one way by a current, then snatched up and dragged in the opposite direction by a new gust. She pitched down, almost into the web again, then was sucked up with a heady speed that almost made her faint.
Obviously, she realized, this would not be easy.
In the middle of the sky she looked down. The Colchri resembled more a tarantula than its true gargantuan dimensions, and the river had become of thread of blue and white. She saw the summits of Xlt'Hogun and Xlt'Garien, both lushly green; like a goddess, she saw what no human before her had ever seen. She felt a shuddering thrill from groin to head as she road, unsteadily, the wind.
The Namilo's cave was already far below her, with no sign of the ram-horned figure. She twisted her wings and straightened her legs and shot down toward it. Panicking at the last moment, she pulled up, arcing into the heavens. She dived again, each time becoming surer, more in control of her newfound abilities. On the fifth pass she made to land.
She hit the ledge and rolled end over end, one wing snapping in half. She ended sprawled awkwardly, dazed, patches on her legs and arms scraped raw. She shook her head and, grunting, pushed herself to her knees. She cut at the strands tying her to the wings, unencumbering herself. Then she rose unsteadily to face the dark cave.
A shadow moved beneath the arch, disengaging itself from the deeper darkness. Two horns emerged into the light of the sun.
"Persistent," a voice said simply.
He leaned lazily, almost wearily, against the wood frame which Neekin now realized to be rotted and old. "Yisherud sent you for the pearl?"
She nodded, bone-white knuckles about the handle of her knife.
"And how is she? Yisherud, I mean."
Neekin raised an eyebrow. After a moment of hearing the wind's song and feeling the sun's gaze, she said, "Well."
The masked head nodded to itself.
"I want the pearl."
From slits in the mask his eyes blazed briefly with defiance. Then his shoulders sagged. "I was young when I stole it; cunning, brave...much like you, I imagine. The pearl was said to contain great secrets, its value more spiritual than temporal. Would you like to know at what great insight I have arrived after years of meditation?" Without waiting for a response, he said, "That I have grown old staring at a marble." He chuckled dryly. "And Yisherud, no doubt, has grown old trying to reclaim it." He stared out at the chasm for a moment, then looked back at her. "And what did you hope to gain from this feet?"
Neekin shrugged. "Advancement in the order. Greater knowledge, greater insight into the universe."
"What we sacrifice in the name of a lust for wisdom, eh? Are you familiar, perhaps, with the parable of the wiseman who sold his eyes for an ancient scroll only to find that, without eyes, he could not decipher its meaning?"
"How do you know the scriptures?" she demanded.
"The priests of Ghun and the priestesses of Hiotchri study the same texts," he explained simply. In answer to her astonished gaze, he nodded. "I was a priest of Ghun. Long, long ago."
She held out a hand. "Give me the pearl."
He stared at her blankly.
"If it has brought you no happiness or wisdom..."
"But it's mine," he said quietly. "I refer you to the story of the share-cropper covered in boils. When asked by the medicine man why he would not allow them to be lanced, he replied: 'I own no land, nor roof, and even these clothes I wear are borrowed...'"
"'..but the boils are mine.'," she finished for him.
He gave a curt nod. Then, with a yell, he leapt, an arc of steel flashing as it emerged with him from the shadows. He slashed at her head, but she ducked and drew her hunting knife along his thigh as he passed. She started to turn but something hit her in the back of the head; a foot perhaps. She fell and was lifted up again by a vicious kick to her belly. Flowing with the blow, she allowed the momentum to put distance between them.
He was a priest of Ghun, no doubt about it.
Scrambling to all fours, she watched as he charged again. At the last moment, she shot between his legs, kicking up as she went through. She rolled to a crouch and turned.
He was limping, she realized, from where she had cut him. His left leg. His weak spot. She launched herself at his left side, too late seeing the blood on his right thigh. A trick. The arc of steel slashed the air, but she twisted at the last moment, flaying her back as she skidded along the ground.
Gasping now, bone-weary from her climb, she flung her knife in desperation.
He made to catch the blade in mid-air...and screamed as a finger split from his hand.
A priest. But long ago.
She gained her feet as his eyes blazed from beneath the ram's horns. He flung back his arm and charged, a battle cry echoing from behind the mask.
Neekin gathered what little remained of her strength and jumped, kicking out with both feet. The impact made him spin, then crash into the earth as his legs became entangled. Landing, Neekin instantly adopted a ready stance.
The man in the green robe struggled to rise, faltered, then lay still. She watched dumbly as crimson pooled about his chest.
Approaching cautiously, she nudged him with a toe. He did not stir. She realized then that he had fallen on his own steel.
A hollow end, she thought grimly, for a hollow man.
Kneeling, she turned him on his back and pried the mask loose. His hair was thinning and grey, his face pale. Once he might have been handsome. He seemed somehow unimposing.
Quietly, Neekin rose and entered the cave. Finding a gold casket, she brought it out into the light. Too impatient to search for a key, she worried the lock loose with her knife, then lifted the lid.
The pearl sat contentedly among green silk. She lifted it gingerly between thumb and forefinger. It was not a pretty stone, neither smooth nor fine. As he had observed, of spiritual value only.
She rolled it in her palm and considered. If she returned to the temple she would receive immediate promotion to one of the inner circles and instruction in the wisdom that was exclusive to the elders. She could learn much. Then she closed her hand about the pearl. But then, it was she and not Yisherud or any other who had scaled Xlt'Hogun, who had outwitted the Colchri and had flown like the birds. It was she, Neekin, who now held the pearl.
Perhaps the dead man had been trying to tell her something. What is the pursuit of wisdom if you are blind to having it? With a shrug, she tossed the pearl over the edge and stood up. Inside the cave would be a path to the valley, but Neekin did not think she would be returning to the temple.
After all, she had passed her test.