1.3 Uphill climb

I was not lying when I said bustling streets. The corridors we had taken before merely had a few souls walking along, minding their business. But this corridor was just bursting with people. Donkey or horse carriages pulled carts stacked with crates and barrels. Coming from a quiet place, the sudden change of pace caught me by surprise. Never before in my life had I seen so many people in one spot, and the sentiments in the air lay on me like a suffocating blanket. I wanted to head back, but I had no idea from which corridor we came from. It seemed as if there were endless possibilities from where people poured into the main hall. E’Nun noticed it and gently took my leash in his hands. “… boy”, he suddenly said. When he realized that I wasn’t reacting to his voice, he walked in front of me, signing his words while he spoke. “This is one of the main streets of Issud, boy,” he repeated. “I will take your leash so you won’t get lost.”

I have no idea what magical charm he cast on me. However, just seeing him helped me regain some sense of direction. “That’s right, focus on me.” Even though his voice was calming, I hesitated. “Here, hold on to my cape.” He grabbed the tip of his indigo-colored felt robe and handed it to me. As I grabbed it, I noticed how warm and comfortable it felt in my tiny hands. Clasping it like a dear stuffed toy, I followed the old guard as he made his way across the main corridor. Every now and then, I would feel a cold but refreshing breeze brush across my face. I also couldn’t help but notice that many of the people here wore felt or woolen coats, their feet protected by woolen shoes or leather boots, reminiscent of E’Nun’s outfit. Focusing on the old man instead of the crowd, I noticed his uniform consisted of a deep indigo tunic and pants, topped by a matted scale armor to protect his torso. His boots were worn but seemed well in shape. As my gaze wandered from his body to his furrowed face, the old guard turned to face me. Only then did I notice that his left eye was piercing blue, whereas his right eye was a bright brown.
“Oh, you’re curious about this?” He smiled and pointed at his blue eye. I nodded.
“You and I aren’t that different,” he continued. “However, my magic is not something meant for battle. Instead, I can see traces of magic and find out who cast a spell.”
“How does that work?” I asked, even more interested.
“That will be a lesson for another day. Look, this place is better, right?”

When I looked around, I realized that E’Nun had safely navigated through the busy corridor into a lesser-known one. Handing back my leash, he said, “We will soon set foot outside. It is summer, but unfortunately, the mountains remain cold. Be prepared.”

Without really understanding what he meant by “cold”, I nodded. We walked a few winding corridors. I started noticing it began to get chilly. Soon the little piece of cloth wasn’t enough to keep me warm, and I found myself wrapping myself tightly in E’Nun’s cape.

Finally, we stood before a wooden door. The wind came howling through the cracks. A small group of guards sat at a table in a niche to the right and wasted their leisure time playing with die. Their happy conversation suddenly fell silent when they spotted us.
“Ah…” One of them tried to speak, but E’Nun silenced them with a hand gesture. Everybody scrambled to pay him respect.
“There’s no need to be so formal, soldiers.”
“How do we deserve this honor” one of the guards spoke. She seemed starstruck as if she had met a celebrity for the first time.
“It was an unplanned event,” he said and patted me on the head. As all attention shifted to me, I began to bury myself deeper into E’Nun’s cape. Curiously, their feelings weren’t hostile, unlike the guards I had met before.
“A candidate?”

The guard who had been speaking noticed I was ill-equipped to go outside. “The dungeon guards really are something.” She grabbed her cape hanging behind her and walked towards me. “Here, take this.” Very cautiously, I peeled myself out of E’Nun’s warm cloak to accept her offer. As I looked into her eyes, I noticed she had blue eyes. When our gazes crossed, she winked at me before moving aside. When I looked at the other soldiers, they all had blue eyes of various shades. Some were like E’Nun, carrying only one blue eye.

“I wish you good luck!” the guard said and saluted along with the others. E’Nun saluted back, albeit not as stiff as the others. Trying to imitate them, I tried my best to salute, even though the tightly wrapped cape made me resemble a stuffed tortilla more than a human being. At least, the guards smiled. Finally, one of them took a massive set of keys and unlocked the door.

A sharp breeze slammed the door open, causing everybody to shudder in surprise. A cold, sharp breeze blew into my face. The blinding light from outside hurt my eyes, and I had to avert my gaze.

“Come on, E’Rion!” E’Nun’s voice guided me outside. As I blindly stumbled towards him, feeling the pain of the ice-cold snow on my bare feet, I suddenly felt him grab my arm tightly. I gasped as I lost my halt and skidded. When I opened my eyes, I peered into the abyss face-first. Below me was seemingly nothingness, disappearing into clouds. Again, the wind blew into my face, reminding me clearly that I had nearly fallen down the mountain.

“Careful there,” he calmly said. But it was the first time I had felt incredible stress emanating from him. With his help, I found my way back onto the narrow slope leading to a snow-covered bridge made of ropes.

“We need to get up there.” He pointed upwards. When I looked up, I saw an enormous castle-like structure, knocked out of the mountain. A pair of kite wings adorned the walls. And to get there, we not only needed to pass the tiny bridge but also to climb up a frosted rope ladder. The bridge helped us a river that poured out into a thunderous waterfall down below. The water spraying caused many tiny icicles to form along the ropes. However, by an unseen force, the bridge itself was not slippery. In fact, it felt warm beneath my feet, as if it was producing its own heat.

The ladder was on a completely different scale. While it was not frozen or frosted, it was cold. The icy winds obstructed my view by blowing my hair in my face. The only thing to guide me was E’Nun’s calm voice from below, instructing me to carry on carefully. As I hung onto it for my dear life, the cape that I had only loosely wrapped around myself was blown away by the icy winds. I sadly watched it fly out into the mountainous distance.
Finally, at the top, the castle seemed much larger than I had first guessed. A set of iron gates were open, with a long line of people standing in front of it, waiting to be let in. Unlike us, they had come from a wide street that led around the mountain. Looking back at the sheer number of people walking there, it does not surprise me that E’Nun opted for a smaller, yet more risky route.

Four guards were in charge of letting people through. E’Nun swooped me up and carried me the last steps to the gate. When they saw him, they let him pass wordlessly inside.

Well, being inside was like entering another world. While not as crowded as outside, it was still full of people, many of them seemed to be merchants. There was no snow here, even though there was no roof to protect the court. From a distance, I could hear children chant or practice combat stances. When E’Nun finally let me down, I noticed the floor wasn’t icy cold like outside. Indeed, it was relatively warm here, as if the Goddess herself had wrapped her castle in a little bubble. To each side of the large, open entrance stood three pillars, holding a large, triangular roof in its place. Indigo-colored banners with golden embroidery hung from the top. We quickly left the courtyard behind us and entered the impressive building. Even though we were inside a building, it was so well-lit that it felt as if we were strolling through a gigantic pavilion. Whenever we passed by guards or other people wearing an indigo tunic, they all halted and paid E’Nun their respect. Ultimately, I asked, “are you famous?”

“I guess you could call me that,” he laughed and patted me on the head. When he saw that I was not satisfied by that answer, he added, “I did a few things to help this kingdom. So they perceive me as a hero.”

“A hero?” I was in awe. No wonder these people looked up to him. “But what about those-” I couldn’t ask about the keepers who had first dragged me away from my mother. I recalled their dark and evil thoughts and wondered how they could abhor a ‘hero’. However, we reached a final checkpoint, a gold-coated heavy door full of different symbols and ornaments. Two bulky men donning indigo tunics guarded it. No weapons, no armor. Their eyes were glowing blue.

“Halt.” One of them said, motioning for us to stop. E’Nun immediately complied. “State your business, Hero of Gessud.”
“I bring you a new candidate for your Order. I wish for her Highness to inspect him before we submit him to the test.”

The two scrutinized me. It felt uncomfortable being subjected to their piercing gazes. I inadvertently hid behind E’Nun.

“We will bring this matter to her ears. Wait.” The second one gestured, dissolving the heavy door into thin air before passing through. The moment he entered the court behind it, the door rematerialized. I thought it was quite the surprising feat, and ran up to the door, touching it to confirm it was actually real. The other guard smirked at my wide-eyed wonder. “Pass the test, and you will one day be able to do the same.”
“What do I need to do?”
“Show your magical ability.”
“And dodge a few deadly things at the same time,” E’Nun added dryly.
The guard smirked again. “If you can wield magic, then avoiding traps will be like second nature to you, Hero.” His last word was clearly hostile. I sensed the same negative energy as the young keepers who made fun of me. I was about to comment on my observation when E’Nun hushed me with a sigh. “Some things are better left unsaid, boy.”

At that moment, the second guard returned, dematerializing the door as if it were nothing. “You may enter, Hero. However, her Highness is tending to other guests. You will have to be short.” E’Nun nodded thankfully and pushed me through the open door.

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