Arek looked down and his head spun fast. The drop was immeasurable and planks of fear mounted on his shoulders kept pushing him down. The ground beckoned him to fall in his deathly embrace. His lips trembled, and his shoulders started shaking ever so slightly.
Why would it not? He was more than halfway to scaling the top of the greatest mountain in the Kingdom of Arcania, which jutted out nearly 3,000 yards from the sea level.
He tried to push his fears down, half succeeded at his attempt, and then built a wall in his mind so that the fear does not go over the edge – so to speak. Sweat precipitated and dropped freely below, with the drops getting dissipated by the wind blowing from north.
As a desperate attempt, he closed his eyes at last, and tried hard not to think about the fall below. Finally, he opened his eyes and stared ahead at the small ledge overlooking the peak of the hill top. A crow alighted itself there and looked down on him, cocking its head in a mocking gesture.
Arek strained his head, and tightened his grip on the craggy rock outcrop he was clinging to and bunched up his legs and pushed upward. It was slow going at first, but anger flared up in him in a tight ball on seeing the mocking crow, and he was determined to reach the top no matter what.
At his next lunge, his hands caught up on what appeared to moss outgrowths and loose soil, and he lost balance for a moment and then his right arm came loose, still picking at the crumbling earth in his hand.
He reached out with his right arm, palms open to flutter the soil to the wind, and pivoting himself against his left, he tried to use the momentum to swing around. The bones in his left hand bunched tight, and his muscles and tendons creaked in agony. Still he held on, gritting his teeth, thinking about the mocking crow, and sprung forward in an arc. There was an outgrowth of a small, but sinewy plant growing between the cracks in the stone. He missed it by inches, his curving body swimming dangerously close to a narrow, rectangular stone projecting out towards his face. He ducked and missed it narrowly by inches.
Breathing out in ragged breaths, he tried one last desperate lunge towards the plant. This time, again he missed it and in his despair time seemed to stop and move slowly across. He could see it clearly in his eyes. He saw himself smash his face on the hill, grip slackening and alarming confusion pass through his head as he plunged to his death on this unknown valley, his body lying undiscovered, and rats picking up his bones afterwards.
Grunting against the vision, he took one last desperate attempt. It was the only way to prevent his fall. It had a very less chance to succeed but he had to take it. As he rolled along, he tightened his grip on the left hand, put pressure downwards, tightening his knees downward for the jump, and in one flash moment, jumped upward, both of his hands free. This time, he caught the plant with both hands and hung precariously, catching his breath and to stop his heart from bursting out.
Finally, he climbed to the top and pulled himself up through the narrow ledge, jutting out just enough for him to grab a hold. Once up, he flattened on his back, stretched his arms to the side, and sighed in relief. He took long, deep breaths sucking in gallons of air and letting out slowly.
The sun had almost disappeared, with a few traces of sunlight slowly losing the fight against the darkness that was covering the land. He watched the sun set, slipped out a yawn, and got back up. He dusted his trousers and saw flecks of dirt deposit themselves onto the ground. There was a rusty, old mud path winding down a few yards down from the top and snaking its way below.
Arek clasped his hands over his head, and leaned back to stretch his shoulder muscles. Then he started walking towards the mud path.
Trees were laid out in either side on the road sheltering it. They were an odd assortment of trees, but there was one thing that they had in common – all of them were very old.
People seldom came here and it showed. Weeds and grasses had grown in hazy patterns around the trees and layered on the road, giving it a mossy green color in patches.
Dust motes descended from the branches in a silent rain and reflected silver in the bright moonlight from the sky.
Up ahead, the road would give way to a small pond where Arek hoped to drink some water. He was already very thirsty and his water skin was empty after he had swallowed the last of it after getting up.
Abruptly, a flock of birds burst from the nearby trees as a deep growling noise echoed through the mountain.
Arek jumped back, tense. It was a deep, growling noise coming from the wide lungs of an animal. A scuffle broke through the nearby bushes and suddenly, in the spur of a moment, there was a movement behind him, closing in a flash. an. Arek jumped forward, driven more by intuition than a timed jump, and landed on a jagged stone projecting from the ground. His right leg slipped, just as a raking paw slashed the empty air in a murderous swinging arc where his head was present moments ago.
Out of balance, he fell to his right and started rolling down the steep slope on the road side. The world swam into a mass of swirling stars, and he stretched his arms to grab something to stop this maddening roll.
The animal was still pouncing behind him, faster steps pounding away – but it was still no match for gravity as it bounced Arek in its arms downhill the road. Dirt and slime mixed went into his mouth and he spattered, still in his roll, but more came in when he opened his mouth and he shut it for fear of breaking his teeth.
Finally, he came to a jolting halt when a jutting outstretched piece of granite – the length of a man, stopped his momentum. He hit it chest first in a jarring impact, sending shudders of twinging current flowing through his spine, his left hand crushed beneath him, definitely broken. He groaned as blood rushed to his temple and pounded in exploding stars in his brain. The granite had a concave exterior of about two feet which had stopped him falling to the ground below.
Behind him, he still heard the pounding footsteps of the beast.
Squinting his eyes, he turned around, groaned at the pain and tried to focus at the blurry shape speeding towards him. Slowly his eyes cleared, and he could smell the rancid breath of the animal. It was very near. Finally, his eyes focused and he could see it. And his eyes nearly popped out of his head. It was a behemoth size monster, the kind which was only whispered about in dark to scare the babies, and its red-tinted eyes displayed only one thing – a maddening, need to kill. And not for eating. It would do it just for fun.
It was nearly eight feet tall, muscular black body with no fat, hawk like piercing eyes, four legs the size of pillars, head shaped like a lion, its coarse mane whipped around by the wind. Its body resembled a gorilla with unprecedented strength and its razor sharp claws were the size of his arm. In short it was a perfect killing machine and it had its eyes fixed on him.
Arek shivered and muttered a short prayer. He could see the reaper sitting near him, smiling about, his empty skull socket glaring, bony hands running through the black scythe in delight. Then Arek screamed. He screamed as never before, his body completely overtaken by terror. He was unable to move as he awaited his death.
‘Up…Up…Fight with all your strength, son. Show no fear to the enemy,’ he heard his dead father’s voice shouting at him.
Arek laughed then. His father was right. But, he would bet on his life that his father never confronted a monster with a gaping maw the size of a dog, with razor sharp teeth dripping saliva bounding towards him.
The monster lunged then, and landed with its paws at the border of the rock. Fortunately, due to its size, it could not get a grip on the mossy rock undersides that were not exposed to the sun and fell down, losing its hold. The drop was only a few yards.
Arek rolled on his stomach to look down. The drop was only a few yard, and he looked to see the beast landing on all fours in a heap of thorns. He sighed. May be it would get tangled and –
The beast pulled clear and came out with only a few scratches. It licked its paws and fixed its baleful eyes on him.
It found its footing in the underside, at the edge of the plains and began to climb towards him. Lumbering towards him, it had reached near his place in no time.
Now, it rumbled its throat, a sense of victory leering through its grin – if you could call it – spread across its sharp knife-like serrated teeth. Arek felt terrible. All his life flashed before his eyes. The memories were like sharp needles, pricking him in points of his failure and finally towards his regretful bet to climb this mountain. He felt pathetic to be hunted down like another animal and worst yet, to be its food.
Hot piss began leaking from his trousers as he raised his arms in front of him in a vain attempt to ward the animal. Its rancid breath smelled awful, and he thought for a moment that he would die of the smell before the beast tore into him. Laughter peeled out of him then, even startling the animal for a moment.
It lasted only a moment as the beast jumped towards him, its paws striking towards him, and it was going to be the last moment of his life, all his work faded to nothing, all his dreams turned to dust and all that epiphany that traveled through him demeaning his path of failures so far.
Then the beast stopped. Its eyes had that quizzical glance that someone often has when struck by a sudden misfortune. Its eyes suddenly rolled upwards and it fell down in a heap, limbs twisting and twirling, rotten saliva flowing freely from its mouth and tongue floundering out helpless as if the body had lost all control.
A few moments later, the beast lay still.
Arek waited for some more time, and checking down again and again for any signs of sudden movement.
But he could not find anyone around.
Then he sat up and cautiously climbed his way down the slope and went near the beast. His legs told him to run away, but his curiosity took over. The beast lay on all fours, and its large mouth was open devoid of any breath. Few flies had already begun to land on its open eyes.
He gave a quick glance around and went further near the beast. There seemed to be no arrows or anything sharp thing jutting out of the body. So, he ruled out the presence of others who had hunted the animal.
There were no signs of any previous injury that could have caused the death. It was getting more curious to Arek than anything in his life. In the span of an hour, he had experienced death as close as possible and had escaped very narrowly with his life – through sheer luck. He now wanted to find out what that luck was and how it brought the beast down.
Suddenly, as he was examining the beast, all became clear. Though it was nearly dark, he saw green patches where the beast had scratched itself before. As he neared the thorny bush, he saw it was a poisonous shrub that grew around these regions which was again one of the main reasons people avoided coming to this area.
Anyway, for now, he was very thankful to the dice of fate for not rolling against him – at least this time. Fate had granted another shot at life and at the spur of the moment, without any preamble, he decided what he was going to do.
He would become a Magus.