Vale Malady is as down on his luck as a man can be -- as the seventh son and only bastard of a minor king, his options in life are few and his hopes are fewer. Fortunately for Vale things start to change when high magic, vicious barbarians and an ancient evil are thrown into the mix, and though he may be dragged to hell and back he's certain to win the glory and honor he craves. If, of course, he survives the journey!
He could feel his heart racing, thrill and terror colliding in his veins like currents, catching him up in their torrential clash. He slid a palm slick with sweat down across his trousers, then swung it up and pulled - he may as well have been pulling the world downward for all the effort it took, but the colossal strain lasted only a moment before his feet scrambled themselves onto a secured purchase and his opposite palm was finally allowed to feel the frigid chill of exposed perspiration.
Saints' blood! It was just too cold!
In a final push of exertion Vale seized on a convenient crag and pulled himself up, into a small but accommodating recession in the stone, breathing for a few seconds before twitching just enough to flop over onto his back.
For a blissful moment he lay in silence. Eyes closed, he felt nothing but a wisp of cold air flowing in over his chest. He extended both arms outward, and was surprised that they could both extend fully - apparently, the alcove extended a little further inward than he had expected. Indeed, when Vale hauled himself upright he found that he was in a proper little cave, roughly twenty paces square and tall enough at least to sit in. Thinking ahead, he rolled to the back of the cave and laid down.
Vale grinned. "Hullo, Sam."
Those were the only words hanging on the air for several minutes as they both lay panting and ever-so-slowly testing exhausted muscles. That was fine; between warm welcomes and a shelter from the chill wind, Vale found himself thawing pleasantly.
What a day! His shoulders ached, his arms were agony and his legs were filled to the brim with fire, but every breath he took was a heady mix of purity and light. What a day!
With no small amount of effort, Vale propped himself up against the cave wall. It was surprisingly smooth and accommodating, if a little damp.
"Just think of it, Sam," he said, looking out not at his companion but into the muted glow of the fading sun beyond. "Tomorrow we should reach the top of the world!"
"Tell me that tomorrow, when my arms aren't creaking on their hinges," Sam groaned, but they could both feel it, the heady sensation that they stood (or lay, as the case may be) on the cusp of something magnificent - the top of the world!
"Do you know what we need now?"
Sam finally sat up as well, in time to expose a perfectly blank, questioning expression. Of course, for Sam that face was fairly ordinary.
"A nice, hearty serving of Catherine's stew."
Sam's eyes went wide. "You didn't-"
His friend's wide smile sank a little as he considered the situation. "But it's no good cold, and unless you have some tinder hanging off in the packs, we haven't got much hope of a decent fire up here tonight."
From his pocket, Vale produced a small red pouch, allowing the familiar false ruby to glitter in the dying light.
Vale nodded. "Cornithian flame powder. I told you it would be useful eventually."
Indeed, Sam hadn't been too happy a few months ago when Vale had convinced him to pool together all their money and purchase the powder from a merchant who had gotten lost and stumbled upon the little city of Dolban, even after Vale had proved it viable and volatile by starting a few small fires with the stuff. It wasn't that Sam disliked magic; he simply felt that it should be left to wizards and their like. "After all," he always said when pressed, "would you give a forge to a cobbler, or shoes to a blacksmith?"
Now, though, as Vale carefully drew out a handful of powder, no more than a dozen grains, his friend was more than willing to bypass his prejudice in the name of warmth and, after he hauled up the ropes and brought out a small container of stew, a warm meal.
Stew is one of life's simplest yet simultaneously most amazing phenomena, in that the harder one works before eating eat, the more delicious it is. The potatoes could be old, the meat tough and stringy, but if the day included mountaineering or rowing, stew was a winner every time. And if it was Catherine's stew, which had among other wonders the golden gravy ratio, well, suffice it to say that the entirety of the pot Vale had managed to take with him was consumed in mere minutes.
When they had both savored the last tiny traces of potato remaining in the pot, Vale put a few more grains into the flames, and they both leaned back satisfied.
"There is nothing better in all the world than a cup of Catherine's stew," Sam sighed. "I swear, Vale, if she weren't noble, why, I'd marry her in heartbeat."
"Hey now," Vale said, a tiny edge coming over his mostly contented voice, "that's my sister you're talking about!"
Sam shot him a sidelong glance.
"Well, she's mostly my sister. I've never really worked that bit out, the specifics I mean. Half sister, maybe? I'll ask Olver when we return home." He knew that he wouldn't, and for good reason. Being a bastard child with seven proper siblings, he had found that it was often best for him to just think of a sister as a sister, and not drive himself mad with measures and conjectures that just distanced himself from her. Parantine and Edmond could jump into the Rift for all he cared, but he was dead set on the fact that Catherine was his sister, blood charts be damned.
Sam sensed that he was treading into dangerous territory, and quickly changed the subject to a much safer one. "So, the top of the world!"
"I was thinking that over, when we were climbing," Vale said, noting Sam's cringe at the mention of climbing. "Laman's Peak probably isn't the tallest mountain in the entire world. It may seem that way to us now, having just climbed it for three days, but all other peaks aside, just think of the Rift."
"What about the Rift?"
Vale made vague motion with his empty stew cup. "You know the stories as well as anyone. How far down does the Rift go?"
"Well," Sam replied, "what kind of a question is that? No one knows how deep it is! Like you said, I know the stories. Some people say it goes down forever."
Vale pressed on, intent on his point. "And it is bordered by what, exactly?"
Sam was beginning to catch on, but felt compelled to defend Laman's Peak anyway - the saints only knew that if Vale got it in his head that there was something taller, harder, stranger to do, he would dive headfirst into the affair and drag Sam along with him. "It's a mountain range. But they're not very tall at all, nothing like the Peak."
"Actually," Vale countered, holding up a finger, "they aren't very tall on one side, on this side of the rift. But they drop off into the Rift, meaning that they could be-"
"Limitlessly tall," Sam concluded. "But that doesn't make them the top of the world, because no matter how tall they are down, Laman's Peak is higher up."
"Yes, but wouldn't it stand to reason that the top of the tallest mountain should be the top of the world?"
Sam scratched his head. "So, you're saying that the top of the world is the peak of a mountain that is lower than where we are now? Are you saying we've left the world?"
Vale could sense that he was now the one skirting dangerous subjects. Sam always prided himself on his simplicity, and what he called Vale's "nonsense wordplay" usually got them both worked up and angry. So it was his turn to shift the topics around.
"What about mountains in the East?"
Sam dismissed the notion with a much surer hand. "Those hardly count. I hardly consider te East to be part of the world."
"You can't just dismiss-"
Sam silenced him with an exaggerated brow movement. "Oh, but I can!"
With a laugh, Vale suddenly lifted his water flask aloft.
"To the best of friends!"
Sam returned the sentiment, and they both drank with a grin. With that, they watched the last few grains of Cornithian powder go out, and sleep stole over them both.