Audiobook Edition:

3

↤ THE SUMMIT ↦

(that is, an uninvited guest)


Despite the grueling slog that burned the thighs and calves of everyone plodding up the stone stairs, once the end was in reach of everyone’s eyes, their pace quickened. A thicket of brambles surrounded the final step like a tortured halo, inviting everyone to finally see the Valley laid before them.


Despite having barely eaten the batch of eternal stew in the Rake, and his body tired from the long ascent, food wasn’t near Arteo’s thoughts. His trepidation, anxieties, and fears all fell underneath the heat of his excitement. It had been months, even years, of careful thought leading him to here. He had few resources to clothe himself with, and no one who could help him survive as he traced a path through the dangerous terrain ahead, but he would at least have this moment.


With a few more heaving motions, he stepped onto the marbled rock of the platform and beheld the sight of the Valley.


Arteo had read descriptions from his books, his favorite being that it was “as a painting brought to life.” He had longed to witness such majesty in his life, contrast to the icky browns and washed-out grays of the farm. Yes the fields were overgrown with greens, and lushness came with the spring rebirth following the rains, but that always seemed so dull compared to what his stories had spun of the wild, untamed lands in the Valley, or in the world far across the seas.


Yet as vivid as his mind was, nothing could compare to what he saw as he stood at the top of the stairs. Beyond the thick cover of trees was the Great Tree itself, standing as its own giant above everything, even the mountains. It looked less like a huge tree and more like a tentacled mass of roots had erupted from the earth and spread out over the Valley in waving, unusual patterns.


Dark brown, crinkled bark held deep cut shadows from the morning sun, the light illustrating the crimson scars that cut into parts of it from fires that had failed to enter its core. There were no leaves or greenery on it, as it was long dead. He could see one of the gigantic roots dive into the enormous hole that was carved by the meeting of the Five Rivers, the waters raging into the depths and swirling into an unfathomable maelstrom that fed an underground river before exiting out to the Glass Sea further south.


Though he could only see crest of where the root went down, the remainder covered by the riparian wilderness, the fine mist ejecting out of the hole accompanied the distant sound of the untold fathoms of water that plunged from the edge every second. And just barely visible, the tip of the Basilica — the black, hardened tower that sat on a rocky outcropping near the vortex, a place never to be trespassed.


To the west, wicked mountains of harsh, sandpaper-like rock in splashes of reds and oranges looked like colorful whales breeching out of the ground. He knew that the West Valley was where he would find the most miraculous place in the journey, where he would trace a line around the mountains and view the stone Giant that walked there. So large that cities were built on its back, populated by mysterious peoples that killed any who dare try climb or visit their homes.


Never in his life, in a hundred of his humdrum lives on the farm, could he have imagined how spectacular it would be to actually see such a place. And with that understanding, the weight of what he was attempting pressed down on him. He felt his legs lose their strength, his vision darkening. He sat himself down off to the side to catch his breath and take his eyes away from the incomprehensible view, allowing other travelers to make their way down the winding dirt path to the first section of the trail.


And as the world sometimes does, it challenged him further.


“Tey!” came a boisterous, feminine voice from behind him. He stopped and waited, hoping his mind was playing games with him, that the nickname was for someone else, or any uncountable possibilities except the one he knew was true.


A patter of footsteps met him and he caught the flash of goldenrod hair that swept the corner of his vision before his younger sister’s beaming face popped in front of it.


“Arteo, why didn’t you look at me?” Her face was soft and rambunctious, a row of wisping beauty marks dotted her left cheek and gave extra character to the smile squatting in front of him. But Arteo could only see the girl that would ruin his careful, stupid plans.


He grabbed her by the shoulders, shocking the grin off her face, and nearly yelled, “Kessa! What would compel you to come here? Why!”


Too stunned to think, she stammered out, “I- I thought you’d be happy to see me.”


Emotions flipped through him as wind does a picture book. In the space of a moment he was so relieved to see a familiar face, angry at her leaving home, disappointed at having to look after her now, and, most pressingly, afraid. She was barely old enough to know the ways of the world and her own body, she couldn’t survive this journey alone, and maybe not with him either.


Her panicked eyes met his own and he considered every possible thing to scream at her, but instead he sighed and gripped her in a tight embrace. He was so focused on crossing that initial threshold that he hadn’t even noticed his sister amidst the crowd. Or maybe she didn’t want to be seen.


“I am happy to see you, sister. But also so…” He decided not to voice the fears of the terrible ends she might meet out in the wilds of the Trail. He pulled back and tried to find a way forward without terrorizing her. He stood up with her. “What are you doing here? Is something the matter with Mother and Father?”


“No, Tey, they’re perfectly fine.”


“Do they even know you’re gone?”


“I left a note,” she clucked, her grin returning. All those nights of carefully scrubbing her teeth with thistlereeds and moonwax had given her a shiny, beautiful smile.


“A note?” he whiffed. “What did it read? ‘Dear Mother and Father, left to go get eaten by a Snarle, entrails to be sent back later, Love Kessa’?”


“You are way over the sun, Tey. I just told them I was going to find you. Besides, there aren’t any Snarles around here.”


“You’re right, there are a lot worse.” He wanted to say many more things, but with so many thoughts to share, he could only shake his head and turn his back to her as he moved towards the bend in the dirt trail that met the far edge of the platform and descended to the Valley below. “Let’s go.”


Although they weren’t playing a game, Kessa nevertheless felt she’d won. She breathed in the sunlit air of mid-morning and spun around in a whirl of turquoise leaves before jogging after her older brother as they began walking the path together.


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