Brother Edmund's Journal:
The time of the Warriors' Rites draws near, and all the young gargoyles of the clan spend their every hour preparing for it.
A Guard's Story:
My word! What did she do to herself this time?
I was in one of the sheds in the field, mixing sulfur with saltpeter and charcoal and the torch fell over. The next thing I knew I was airborne, tumbling head over heels into my brother's arms here. *Wistfully* I'll have to remember what I did. It made such a lovely hole.
What exactly does this invention of yours do, rookery sister?
I'm not sure what I want it to do. It is in its beginning stages, after all.
You really need to get out of the workshop more often.
What are they called?
They're not called anything. They make things far away look closer.
Where did ye get them? Did ye make them?
You certainly made an impressive display of bravery in the battle, sister. What were you doing? Trying to perfect a gadget that would help this creature scrape the last of the meat from off our bones, perhaps?
Prince of Thieves: Part 2:
What are you going to do to me?
I'm going to make you pay. For every blessing you received, for all that I was denied,... I ... Will... Make ... You ... PAY!!
Would you like to talk about it? I won't tell another soul.
I don't know why, but every time I think of going down to my cave, a cold chill grips me and I can't seem to breathe. All I can think of is that he was there, in my special place. I used to feel safe there, I could do anything I wanted, build whatever my mind could come up with and, oh, Brother Edmund! I miss that SO much! When I'm making things, that's the only time that I feel I'm really me. Without my gadgets, I'm nothing.
The Winter Solstice is approaching here at Castle Wyvern. In many ways, this time of the year is very special for the winged denizens of this area. The nights are the longest of the year, and so a gargoyle is allowed to remain wakeful for longer than at any other time, and as these noble creatures bear a stubborn resistance to cold, they remain active as well. But this year's Solstice is special for another reason. For this year, a rookery is tested for full membership in clan affairs. While I have yet to learn the details of this ordeal, I do know that no gargoyle in recent memory has failed to pass it. But this year, there is one young gargoyle who many fear might be the first to attain that dubious distinction...
Demona howled with delight as she dove from the sky towards her target. This was surely what it meant to be alive, to feel the air rushing past, to scream a challenge to the earth that sought to bind her, to swoop falconlike upon the unwary prey. As the ground rose up to meet her, a brightly colored ring abruptly appeared in front of her, a hoop two yards in diameter and supported by a length of iron pole jammed into the ground. Demona paid it little attention, unconsciously folding her wings around her plummeting body just long enough to flash through it. Once past, she flipped her wings open once more to catch the air and level off her headlong descent. Within moments, she was gliding parallel to the ground at a phenomenal speed, mere meters from the grassy turf below her.
There. Demona's eyes picked out three nondescript wooden rings, each about the size of a small bracelet and mounted atop three short, wooden poles. She was approaching them rapidly, but she was ready. Demona had only one shot at this; after this pass, she was going to have to gain a lot of altitude to catch an updraft powerful enough to allow her to continue. She gripped the two-foot pointed rod she carried in her right hand and extended it just the right distance...
SHICKSHICKSHICK! Demona grinned fiercely as she tilted her wings to transform her horizontal movement into a more vertical variety. The sound, as well as the triple vibration she felt in the hand that held the stick informed Demona that she had captured all three rings. Just as she had known she would.
Demona folded her wings once more to pass through another of the brightly colored hoops without difficulty. Her velocity was much greater than that of the others she had seen attempt this Trial, and where they had been forced to struggle to maintain their ascent, she reopened her wings and continued with an unbroken grace. Soon, Demona had reached the enormous bonfire that had been set at the base of a cliff to provide Demona and her companions the warm updrafts they required to continue onwards. Demona could have laughed. On her own, she had attained enough height to continue without the bonfire's aid. Nevertheless, Demona decided to err on the side of caution, and allowed her wings to fill with the warm air.
Demona flashed through a colored ring set in the side of a cliff, then another, and then with an acrobatic aerial somersault, twisted through a third and a fourth. Almost absently, she extended her hand. SHICKSHICKSHICK! Three more small loops, these colored grey to match the mountain stone, were added to the three she carried. Without even a smile this time, Demona twisted in the air to start back towards the bonfire. There was no question that she was going to need it this time. It was time for the most difficult part of the Trial.
Flying closer to the center of the column of rising air, Demona grimaced as her wings were buffeted by the blisteringly hot air currents. Nevertheless, the hotter air served well to loft Demona up and up, over the edge of the cliff, and ultimately, above the scattered pine trees that made this part of the countryside their home. When she had gauged her altitude to be sufficient, Demona swooped out of the comforting, if uncomfortable, updrafts, eyes swiveling back and forth to try to pick out where the final three rings were located. There would be no colored hoops to guide the way (nor to interfere with her gliding). She had only a limited time to find the rings before she would lose the altitude necessary to stay aloft--there were few air currents atop the cliff, and none strong enough to lift a gargoyle.
Demona needn't have worried. Within moments, her sharp eyes picked out the three rings, each colored a dark green and set atop three adjacent trees. SHICK...SHICK...SHICK! Demona skewered each one. Green rings having taken their place next to grey and brown, Demona descended through the sparse foliage, weaving easily between the scattered trees, and occasionally through another brightly colored hoop, before finally dropping into the dead center of a circle that had been marked in the ground at the meager forest's edge. Wings spread wide and eyes blazing, Demona crowed triumphantly and lifted her right hand into the air, proudly displaying her collection of rings. After a moment, she folded her wings around her shoulders and gazed at the gargoyle elders surrounding her. "So, how did I do?" Demona asked politely, certain that she already knew the answer.
She wasn't disappointed. "That was magnificent, child!" answered a kindly female elder whose left leg had been rendered lame during a long-ago battle. She extended her hand to accept the stick of rings Demona had collected.
"Aye, 'twas," agreed the brown male who was referred to as Hudson in the writings of the good Brother Edmund. "And ye took all nine rings, as well!" Hudson nodded to the female, who took off to set the rings anew for the next participant.
Hudson's second, the female who would come to be called Deborah, added, "We need only wait for our companion to return. But this I can tell ye: that was some of th' finest gliding I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing, and I doubt our brother will return with news to the contrary." Demona positively glowed. Deborah's praise was that she sought most, as her praise was the hardest to come by.
"Yuir doubts are well founded," an approaching voice responded. It was a voice that Demona frequently found irritating (a judgement she was not alone in making), but now she met it with eager anticipation. The elder who Edmund had named Agamemnon continued, "She didn't even brush the hoops as she flew through them, and she missed not a one. And," he concluded dramatically, "She didn't need to land even once. Not even to climb."
"It is agreed then?" Hudson asked. The elders each nodded. Hudson smiled warmly at Demona. "Congratulations, lass, ye've passed the Trial of the Wing, and then some. Ye should be proud; never have I seen skill such as yuirs."
Demona's blue cheeks flushed with crimson. "Thank you, elder." Demona was not one to waste her breath with false modesty. She knew that she was the best glider of her rookery--only one other came close, and her Trial had yet to come this night.
"Is it my turn, then?" a chipper feminine voice asked cheerfully, but nervously.
Demona sighed. Only one came close, and this was not her. Quite frankly, Demona had no idea how Asrial expected to pass the Rite of the Warrior. Tonight's Trial, the Trial of the Wing was but the first of four Trials composing the Rite of the Warrior. Tomorrow night would be the Trial of the Claw, and the following would host the Trial of the Mind. The fourth night, the night before the Solstice, Demona and her rookery siblings would face the most important, and yet most grueling Trial of all: The Trial of the Warrior. On the night following, the Winter Solstice, those who had passed the four Trials would be admitted to the clan as recognized Warriors, full adults in the eyes of the clan. But Asrial... Demona sighed. To her knowledge, it had been generations since a gargoyle had failed the Rite of the Warrior, but she could see no way that Asrial would be able to pass any of the Trials--save, possibly, the Trial of the Mind. Asrial was clever, and Demona wished her the best of luck, but it would take more than cleverness to succeed now.
Demona examined Asrial judiciously. Demona was certainly willing to grant that Asrial was an attractive female. Her reddish-brown skin nicely complimented her long, golden-orange hair, hair which was tied neatly into a long ponytail. Her face was beautiful, and made more so by the twin spiraling horns set above each eye. The expression on her face, however, was the same sort of distracted look Asrial's rookery siblings had come to associate with their sister. It meant that she was thinking of some device she'd like to build, or some fascinating tidbit she had picked up from the library. It generally meant that she was concentrating on something other than that which she was supposed to be concentrating on.
In this case, she was failing to concentrate on Agamemnon's instructions. The old windbag did have a tendency to ramble, and Demona was willing to admit that as well. This time, however, she wished that Asrial would pay attention for once. These Trials were important, and the least she could do was give them her best!
Asrial shook her head and blinked at Agamemnon. "I'm sorry, what?"
Agamemnon sighed, backed up, and started to repeat the instructions. Demona sighed as well. Then her eyes noticed something. Asrial was wearing her satchel, the sling she carried several of her more portable devices in. Demona shook her head. Portable or not, she hoped the girl would remove it before beginning the Trial. Even a small weight like that could make the Trial far more difficult than it normally would be. Unfortunately, Demona couldn't warn her of that difficulty. The rules of the Trial were quite clear in that regard. No one, save the instructor, may speak to or in any other way aid or hinder the participant in his or her Trial. Demona merely hoped that Asrial would notice her folly in time.
"Let me see if I understand," Asrial was saying, having apparently listened to Agamemnon this time. "I gain points for every ring I capture, and for every hoop I glide through. There are bonus points for graceful gliding, and I lose points every time I touch the ground before reaching the finishing goal?" Agamemnon nodded, apparently pleased that he had finally managed to get the rules across to the notoriously scatterbrained young female before him. But Asrial wasn't finished. "And these rings are colored to match their surroundings right?" Dubiously, Agamemnon nodded. The participants were not informed of that fact, but apparently Asrial had figured it out on her own. Asrial seemed to gaze off into space a moment. "They won't be firmly attached to their mountings," she muttered to herself, "though they should be held down enough to avoid being dislodged by a strong breeze. Hmmm..." She began to dig around in her satchel. Demona and the elders exchanged looks among themselves, bewildered by Asrial's odd behavior. After a moment, Asrial withdrew two objects from her satchel. Both were bizarre, as Asrial's contraptions tended to be. The first was a bundle of leather straps attached to a rectangle of glass. The other appeared superficially to be a butterfly net on an especially long pole, but with an odd sort of lever jutting out of the pole at the opposite end from the net. The net itself was connected to a jointed framework.
"Er, what might those be, lass?" Agamemnon asked uncertainly, as Asrial began to strap the first device to her head.
"Oh, just a few tools I made," Asrial answered blithely, as she began to strap the leather and glass contraption to her head. "I think they'll definitely come in useful in this Trial." She had finished donning the first device. The rectangle of glass was now held firmly in front of the young gargoyle's right eye.
Asrial concentrated a moment, and her eyes flashed red. But the glow from the eye behind the glass was far more intense, a bright beam of crimson light that forced the elders in its path to shut their eyes in pain. "Ach, yuir blinding us, girl!" a grey, beaked elder complained. It was in violation of the rule allowing only Agamemnon to speak to Asrial, but no one held the elder to task for the slip
"Oops! Sorry!" Asrial said, blinking distractedly. Her eyes dimmed once more. "I had forgotten how bright that could be."
"Sorcery-?" Agamemnon started doubtfully.
"No, no magic," Asrial hastened to assure him. "This is just plain, ordinary glass. But I found that when you shaped glass in certain ways, it could create interesting effects. This one makes light much brighter when shined through it properly."
"I see," Agamemnon answered, not really understanding at all, but unwilling to look foolish either.
Asrial hadn't waited for his answer, already moving on to double check her second invention. She flexed the lever on the end of the pole, and seemed satisfied to see the joints at the other end shift, opening and closing the net attached to them. Demona's eyes lit up as she realized what her rookery sister intended. "Clever indeed," she muttered under her breath, too softly for anyone to hear. If her suspicion proved correct, it would seem that she had underestimated Asrial's ingenuity.
"I'm ready!" Asrial proclaimed with a determined set to her jaw. She looked mildly ridiculous with the odd glass and leather device on her head and the strange pole in her hand. "Oops! Almost forgot!" She slipped the bag holding her remaining devices from her shoulder and deposited it on the ground. "Don't need to be weighed down any more than necessary." Demona's respect for Asrial rose yet another notch. Asrial may have been scatterbrained, but when she set her mind to a task, she was no fool.
"Not so fast, lass," Agamemnon chuckled. "We must wait for our companion to return. Ye wouldn't want tae begin before th' rings were set, would ye?"
Asrial colored. "Of course not." She glanced at the ground. "I guess I'm just a bit nervous, that's all."
Agamemnon chuckled uneasily, and several of the elders behind him exchanged glances. By their reckoning, Asrial had a right to be nervous, even more so than most of her rookery. Few of the elders believed Asrial stood a chance of being accepted as a warrior in the days to come.
The lame female finally returned, having flown a roundabout path to prevent Asrial from knowing in what direction the last few rings she had planted were. The elder tried to hand Asrial the stick the rings had been on, but Asrial refused it, gripping her net instead. Asrial glanced at Agamemnon, who nodded back to her. Without another word, she spread her wings and walked over to the cliff's edge. The moment she stepped off, she would be expected to remain aloft until she reached the circle of elders once more.
Asrial turned one last time to wave cheerfully, and then stepped off the edge. Hudson, whose turn it was to observe her performance, turned to follow. Demona gripped his arm and asked, "May I follow as well, my leader?"
Hudson cocked an eyeridge curiously. "If ye wish, lass, just so long as ye donnae interfere." Hudson stepped off of the edge, followed closely by Demona.
Asrial came into view just as she was approaching the first hoop. Her speed wasn't nearly that Demona's had been, but she was flying quite well for someone with as little devotion to training as she. She passed through the first hoop fairly smoothly, grazing the hoop's edge just enough to start it wobbling slightly. Now would come the difficult part: locating the brown rings against the brown earth. But if Demona was right, it wouldn't be quite as difficult as it first appeared.
As the blue gargoyle had expected, Asrial chose that moment to flare her eyes. The earth below her was bathed in a scarlet glow, causing every irregularity in the ground's surface to cast a distinct shadow. It was now quite easy to pick out the three short rods tipped with rings, and Asrial flew straight towards them. Demona flashed a glance at Hudson and saw that he was frowning slightly. Clearly, the elder was troubled by Asrial's methods.
Asrial extended her mechanical net towards the three poles, and flew by. Two of the three rings tipped and slid into the net, but the third ricocheted off the edge and arced into the air. Asrial faltered a moment, but was able to lash out with her left hand and snag the errant ring. She gripped it firmly as she approached the second hoop. This time, however, she had too little altitude, and was forced to attempt to regain some hight. She just barely managed it, but slammed her shoulder roughly into the edge of the hoop. Demona winced sympathetically. Once clear of the hoop, Asrial flipped open the net once more and dropped the third ring in. With the net closed and secure, she approached the bonfire for the next phase of the Trial.
What followed was almost too painful to watch. Asrial made a valiant attempt to navigate the cliffside hoops, but was ultimately forced to skip most and stagger through the rest. The grey rings, however, she quickly located and captured, this time gathering all three on the first sweep.
Demona alighted on the cliff wall and sank her talons into the rock, beginning the climb upwards. Even had she wished to bake her wings again, the bonfire was reserved for the Trial participants. So, she was forced to climb. But she was in no danger of missing Asrial's performance at the top of the cliff. Asrial was having a very difficult time using the hot updrafts from the bonfire, and was uneasily circling the hot center of the column of air, the part she would need to use to gain enough height quickly.
Not long after Demona crawled over the cliff's edge, she saw Asrial soar over the edge, her face a mask of pain and exhaustion. Demona followed her with her eyes, and saw that she had definitely not gained sufficient altitude, rising barely above the treetops.
Red light flared forth once more, and Asrial's determined gliding took a more purposeful course. Apparently she had found one of the rings. But would she make it to them in time? At that point, Asrial dropped below the treetops, but she lashed out with her net in one last overhead swing. Demona saw the tip of a tree bend as the net struck, but could not tell whether or not Asrial had collected a ring, or even if that treetop had held a ring at all. Demona ran towards the circle of elders, and arrived just in time to see Asrial plow face first into the dirt at their feet.
Coughing and spitting dirt, Asrial staggered to her feet. Panting heavily, the young gargoyle presented the contents of her net: three brown rings, three grey rings, and one green ring. "Seven out of nine isn't bad, is it?" she asked hopefully.
The elders glanced at one another. It was something people tended to do around Asrial. Hesitantly, Agamemnon ventured, "Nay, 'tis not bad at all. To be perfectly honest, 'tis more than we expected of ye, lass." Asrial started to look hopeful, but Agamemnon abruptly said, "Before we say more, I think we'd best await our leader."
Hudson had been a bit behind Demona, as he had been required to wait and watch Asrial's long, difficult ascent. Nevertheless, the wait was not long. "What is th' word?" Agamemnon asked him.
Hudson grimaced. "I would be lying if I were to say that she flew well. She missed several hoops, and was far from graceful in the attempt. But she flew well enough, that I cannae deny."
"And what of her contraptions?" the grey, beaked elder pressed.
"Those do make me uneasy, and that is a fact," Hudson sighed.
Asrial set her jaw. Demona could tell that this was an argument she had prepared herself for. "Is there anything in the rules against using tools?" she demanded.
"Nay..." Agamemnon began, "but it has always been assumed that the participant depend on their own skill-"
"But I DID depend on my own skill," Asrial insisted. "No one built these tools for me. I built them myself. No one told me how to use them in this Trial. I used the greatest skill I have at my disposal: my ingenuity."
"She has a point," Deborah conceded.
"Aye, that she does," Hudson agreed reluctantly.
"Then I pass?" Asrial asked expectantly. All of the elders nodded, but several looked as if they had swallowed something bitter. "Great!" Asrial beamed. "So long! I have to get ready for tomorrow's Trial."
Asrial scooped up her satchel and stuffed her leather and glass light-enhancer inside. After folding the net into a more compact form, it followed. Demona caught her arm as she turned to leave. "That was amazing," Demona said.
Asrial blushed, "Do you really think so? I didn't think any in my rookery cared about my devices. Well, except for one," she amended thoughtfully.
"Really, it was," Demona assured her. "I had no idea how you were going to pass this Trial, but you did it! Those devices really did the trick!"
Her companion suddenly scowled. "No one thought I'd be able to pass," she answered resentfully. "Just because I don't train as much as everyone else." She swept her arm wide. "I don't see the point of this anyway. Why should being able to glide or fight determine whether or not one is a full member of the clan? Those skills are not so important!"
"Oh, but they are," Demona answered instantly. "How can we protect our home if we can't glide or fight?"
"But why should those who CAN'T glide or fight be denied a voice on the council?" Asrial smiled slightly. "Who would you rather see guiding our clan's decisions. Me, or our muscular but narrow-minded crested brother?"
Demona grinned back. "I see your point."
"But HE will undoubtedly pass all four Trials with ease, while I-I-" Asrial faltered.
"Don't even think that," Demona scolded. "You'll pull it off somehow. Believe in yourself."
"I'll try," Asrial whispered.
To no one's surprise, the remainder of Asrial's rookery siblings passed the Trial of the Wing. Desdemona's display of arial ability was truly a thing of beauty, and she was the only one to come close to Demona's skill. Indeed, had it not been for a few feather-light touches of wing against hoop, she might have surpassed Demona altogether.
Now, a day had passed, and the time had come for the Trial of the Claw. This Trial tested the skill of the participants in dealing with foes on a personal, one-on-one basis. To accomplish this, each would square off against an elder warrior in personal combat, fighting with claws covered with cloth to prevent accidental injury. The fighters were each required to choose one weapon, but nothing sharp or pointed. This generally meant that participants would carry wooden clubs, but a few occasionally chose some other weapon, like a sling, or even just a big, heavy rock. The presence of a weapon was important, as it gave the participant a chance to know what it felt like to wield a weapon--and more importantly, to have a weapon wielded against him or her.
With inexperienced fighting veteran, it was assumed that the elder would win (though bonus points were scored by those few who could actually overcome their opponent--earlier that evening, both Goliath and Othello had succeeded in that very goal, qualifying them as the best of the rookery so far in one-on-one combat). The Trial of the Claw was merely to test the fighting ability of the participant.
At that moment, Asrial was arguing with Hudson regarding the equipment she intended to use. "Ye cannae use a crossbow in th' Trial of th' Claw," Hudson insisted.
"The rules only say that I can't use sharp or pointed weapons," Asrial responded. "And there's nothing sharp or pointed about THIS crossbow." She held out her hand, which held nothing but a pair of rocks, apparently connected by a coiled rope. "I'm just going to be using these."
"She's right, ye know," an amused Deborah told her mate. "Again."
Hudson gave her a dark look. "Why are ye always siding with her?"
"Because she's right," Deborah said again, her smile widening.
"As ye say," Hudson sighed irritably. "'Tis ye that'll be facing her, not I."
"So I am," Deborah replied. She gripped the long quarterstaff she had chosen as her own weapon. She grinned at Asrial, a nasty grin displaying a mouthful of fangs. "And are you ready to face me, child?"
Asrial nodded after strapping a pouchful of her special ammunition to her waist, and after loading three into the wide stock of her unusual crossbow. Deborah and Asrial stepped into the area that had been prepared for the fight, a small clearing with trees on either side, in case either participant decided to take wing for an aerial assault.
Deborah studied her opponent. Only a night ago, Deborah would have been certain that Asrial would present a very poor front for this battle. But last night's Trial had caused her to reevaluate the girl. It was true that Asrial rarely attended her training sessions, and those few that she did attend demonstrated that she cut a very poor figure of a fighter. But Deborah had never seen how she fought using her devices, and the elder was wary for that reason.
Not entirely unexpectedly, Asrial made the first move, firing a volley from her strange crossbow and forcing Deborah to dodge to the side. Unfortunately, she had misjudged Asrial's peculiar projectiles. Three paired sets of stones separated in midair stretching the sturdy ropes between them, and two of the three missiles twisted around Deborah's right arm and wing. The weight of the stones caused the ropes to wrap around the limbs, binding them together, and making it very awkward for Deborah to use either.
Growling with irritation, Deborah clenched her quarterstaff with her bound hand in order to free the other. She slashed at the ropes, but her cloth-blunted claws proved inadequate to handle the rope. Even worse, her distraction had given Asrial the chance to fire off another round, these ropes binding her quarterstaff to her legs and her legs to each other. Deborah tumbled over.
Only a moment later, she began feeling mild lashes and scoring that indicated that Asrial had taken advantage of her distraction to get in a few of the hits she needed to score points. Deborah's eyes flashed red. She had had quite enough of this. Straining, she quickly snapped the bonds that held her arms and legs and scrambled to her feet, growling in a malevolent manner that had rarely failed to unnerve her students. Indeed, Asrial did pause a moment, but it seemed to be more with surprise than fear. "How did you break those ropes?" Asrial began to look distracted. It was decidedly not the best of times for it. "I was SURE that that particular weave would have been enough to hold you at least a little longer-"
Deborah snarled and lashed out with her tail. She connected with Asrial's crossbow, reducing the complex device to a mass of broken wood and metal. The greenish-blue gargoyle loomed over Asrial, a sinister catlike rumble echoing from deep within her throat. Asrial didn't quite seem to realize her predicament, however. "Hey! Do you know how long it took to build that? Oof!" Deborah's quarterstaff swung in a vicious arc, catching the younger gargoyle in the stomach and throwing her to the ground.
Hudson's second-in-command approached the downed female, who had weakly crawled to her hands and knees, coughing and wheezing. When she had come within tail-length, however, Asrial lashed out, attempting to hook Deborah's leg with her tail to send her tumbling to the ground. Deborah was pleased, in spite of the fact that she easily blocked the attempt with her staff. This was a standard attack, and she had not imagined that Asrial had picked it up. She had executed it very well, too. Had Deborah not been expecting something of that sort-
Deborah's train of thought was cut short as she did, in fact, go tumbling to the ground. The tail had merely been a distraction, well-executed or no. Asrial's real attack had involved another one of her weighted ropes, which she had wrapped around Deborah's other leg while she was distracted by her tail. Asrial's sneak attack did not go wasted, either. Not even a second had passed before Asrial launched herself at Deborah, the younger gargoyle's catlike screech splitting the night air. Asrial clawed and struck Deborah with a ferocity the elder had had no idea she possessed. But the attacks were inexpertly placed, and it took Deborah only a moment to knock her away. Asrial sailed backwards through the air, impacting heavily with a tree, and collapsing limply to the ground in a boneless heap. Deborah approached her, quarterstaff once more in hand, but stopped when Asrial croaked out the words required to end the Trial, "I yield."
Deborah refused to meet her mate's smirking gaze as she rubbed a sore spot on her shoulder. "A bit more of a challenge than ye had expected, my love?" Hudon asked her.
"Ach, hush, ye great oaf. Just tell us how th' young girl scored."
Still weak, Asrial nevertheless focused an intense gaze on Hudson as he spoke to her. "Well, lass, yuir fighting style was terrible. More that of a brawling drunkard than a warrior." Asrial looked a bit indignant for a moment. "Yet few drunkards fought with the guile ye showed." He grimaced. "Or with the contraptions. I would imagine that the fight ye showed us tonight would have been more than sufficient to let ye hold yuir own against most opponents. So the Trial is yuirs, lass. Ye pass."
Asrial swatted aside a low-hanging branch in annoyance. Some "Trial of the Mind". She had hoped for some more civilized activity, perhaps something like a game of chess. Not this stupid hike through the woods. But those were the rules. Follow the trail to its end before the moon had traveled a tenth part of its journey across the sky. That was it. Sure, the trail was a bit difficult to follow, at least with her level of tracking ability, but if this was their idea of brainpower, Asrial wasn't sure she even WANTED to be a warrior-
No. Not true, she scolded herself. There's little use fooling yourself. Asrial knew that she'd give her right leg if it meant that she would be able to join her rookery siblings in the Warrior's Ascension on the Solstice. Surely a boring hike through the woods was not too much to ask. And it was quite unlikely that that was all the trek had in store for her...
"HALT!" a deep voice growled. Asrial halted, a smile creeping across her face. It would seem that she was correct. Naturally.
A burly gargoyle stood, arms crossed, in front of the entrance to a cave set in a stony cliffside. His skin was black as pitch, and he was hairless and hornless, save for a bony ridge that stretched across his forehead and down the sides of his face. The ridge ended in a pair of spikes that jutted from his jaw. Asrial recognized him as a member of the rookery before hers, and one of the better fighters of that rookery. "You may not enter," he added menacingly. Asrial glanced downward. Sure enough, her path led directly into the cave.
"But I must," Asrial said, hesitantly.
"Then you will have to fight me," the dark gargoyle smirked. Then his face became passive once more. "But know this: even if you defeat me, within this cave lies a second guardian, one even stronger than I, and beyond her lies a third, stronger still. And should you somehow reach the cave's exit, you will find a guardian you stand no hope of passing."
Asrial's hopes sank as she heard this. Fighting. More stupid fighting. Didn't the old fools think of anything else?
Asrial froze. Something else. Of course. She mentally slapped herself. Asrial stepped off the path and walked carefully around the guardian to the cliff face, making no move to attack him. The guardian turned to watch her, moving just enough to keep between the gargoyle and the cave entrance. Keeping a wary eye on the black-skinned gargoyle, Asrial sank her talons into the rock of the cliff. She began to climb.
After having climbed a short distance, she looked back down to see that the guardian had not moved from his post, though he did continue to watch her ascent. Asrial turned her gaze upward again, assuming that he was probably not going to try to stop her.
Asrial climbed over the top of the cliff, and found that she didn't have far to walk before the ground began sloping downwards again. When she reached the bottom of the gentle hill, she found the path. She also found the cave's exit. She grinned widely. It seemed that the clan elders weren't so single-minded after all. Asrial peered into the cave's exit, a long, narrow opening that she wouldn't even have been able to fit her hand through. Not even the strongest of her rookery, he of the lavender skin and the flowing black mane, would have been able to dig his way out before morning. Certainly not after having fought his way past three powerful opponents. Truly a guardian one stood no hope of passing. Asrial wondered how Goliath had done on this obstacle. Though he had already passed the Trial of the Mind, it was the one Trial that no clan member was allowed to discuss with any gargoyle who had not yet passed it. Asrial wondered if he had fallen into the very same trap that she had nearly found herself in, assuming that fighting was the only way to pass. Probably not--there was a mind behind that muscle, and Asrial knew it.
Ajax, on the other hand, was another story. Asrial could easily imagine the unimaginative, crested gargoyle battering his way past all three opponents and spending precious time scraping away at the cliff rock before finally turning back in confusion. The command to follow the trail, he would certainly be able to understand. But could he make the leap of intuition that would allow him to follow the trail without actually remaining on it? Asrial didn't think it likely.
Asrial continued down the path. Perhaps this Trial wasn't going to be so bad after all. It might be fun, trying to puzzle out the answers to the physical riddles that had been set up for her-
TWANG! Asrial gasped as she was jerked into the air. Her wings spread in an involuntary response to the sudden lack of a solid surface beneath her. After the initial ascent, however, Asrial's flying form came to a halt, bouncing gently at the end of a long rope. The reddish-brown gargoyle eyed the noose tied around her leg with annoyance before swiping at it with a handful of claws. The fibers parted easily, and she dropped to the ground with a thump.
Wincing and rubbing her head, Asrial reconsidered the possibility that this Trial was going to be particularly fun. Returning to the problem at hand, Asrial considered her predicament. She had just been caught by a snare. It seemed likely that the snare had been set for her, both because it lay on the path she followed, and because few wild game hunters placed snares strong enough to loft a gargoyle. The fact that she had already stumbled into one led Asrial to suspect that there were probably a good many more of them around.
She considered her options. There was no way she would be able to glide over them. There were too many trees, and no updrafts to help gain altitude. Should she step off the path again, as she did at the cave? No, there was no telling how widely the traps were spread out, or for how far. She had to find a way to navigate them. The brute force method would require a careful search of the path as she traveled it, but that would take too much time.
She couldn't see any bent trees. They had to be there, of course, but the foliage was too thick here to see which trees were bent and which were not. Asrial broke a sturdy branch off of a nearby tree and began poking at the ground before her. Before long, the branch was jerked out of her hand, nearly taking her arm along with it. Asrial rubbed her shoulder ruefully. Obviously, she wouldn't be able to do it that way.
Well, when in doubt, consult the satchel. Asrial opened up her pack of devices, looking for one that would do the trick. Soon, she found a device with promise. Asrial withdrew a bundle of jointed sections of wood, along with a quiver of crossbow quarrels. Unfolding the bundle, Asrial quickly assembled what might well be her greatest, as well as her most complicated, contraption: a self-loading crossbow. It was, at its heart, just a basic crossbow, but Asrial had altered it with an elaborate array of gears, pulleys, and cranks that allowed the user to fire and reload at a phenomenal speed. The self-loading crossbow could hold an entire quiver of standard crossbow quarrels at once in a chain of hollow wooden tubes held together with twine. The chain was pulled through the mechanisms of the crossbow by a crank, one that also served to draw back the windlass as the quarrel was pulled into place. Once set, the quarrel could be fired either by pulling the trigger, or by continuing to turn the crank (the crank was easier for continuous fire, but allowed less accuracy). Used at full speed, the self-loading crossbow could load and fire six quarrels in the time that a skilled archer would be able to load and fire a single shot on a regular crossbow. Overall, the shots fired didn't fly quite as far or hit quite as hard, but Asrial needed neither speed nor striking power for the obstacle before her.
Asrial leveled her creation at an innocent looking spot of dirt a few yards in front of her, and began to turn the crank. A staccato rhythm of twangs echoed through the forest as the crossbow did its work, and a localized spread of quarrels began to appear in the dirt before her. The small twangs were suddenly joined by one much louder, as one of the traps was finally sprung by a quarrel. Asrial stopped firing and leapt to the disturbed earth where the snare was no longer, and began to pick up her wasted quarrels. After reloading, she chose another location further along, and began firing once more. Asrial felt confident that the elders would not have laid overlapping traps, so she knew that once a trap was sprung, the area where it had been was safe. So, jumping from sprung trap to sprung trap, the young female soon passed the second challenge.
The third challenge was not long in coming. Asrial crested a hill, and was thrilled to see the sight of a circle of elders, standing around a dirt circle which marked the end of the path. But between her and the dirt circle was a chasm, and spanning that chasm was a narrow bridge. Guarding the bridge was a figure that struck veneration and awe in most any gargoyle who beheld her, but the younger the gargoyle, the greater the awe. The figure was commonly referred to as The Eldest, and she was the only survivor of the generation of gargoyles that had laid the rookery that had grown to lay the rookery of the clan's current leader. No one knew how old she was, but all agreed that it must be a very large number. Her days of fighting were long past, and she was frail and withered, but no one denied that she was a great source of wisdom, having seen more nights than most any pair of other gargoyles combined.
In short, Asrial doubted the Eldest was there to wrestle her for access to the bridge.
"Good evening, Eldest," Asrial said politely, standing a respectful distance from the old gargoyle.
The Eldest sneered at her. "Donnae 'good eavnin' me child! I ken what ye be thinkin', and I'll be telling ye now that 'tis a wasted thought. Feh, ye, a warrior? I think not!"
Asrial paled. "What-?"
"Ye know very well 'what', girl. There be little chance 'o ye Ascending with yuir rookery kin come Solstice, and ye know it well. Even if ye have yet tae admit it tae yuirself."
"That's not true!" Asrial protested, beginning to become angry. "I've already passed two of the Trials, and if I have any say in the matter, I'll be passing this as well!"
"'Tis true, I'll admit, that ye have a fine mind, and ye may indeed pass the Trial o' the Mind 'fore the night be done." The old gargoyle's eyes narrowed and focused on Asrial. "But the Trials of Wing and Claw were passed by yuir toys, not by ye."
"Not true-!" Asrial began.
The Eldest cut her off with a wave of a gnarled hand. "Save yuir speech. I heard it the night before last. Whether it be yuir toys that carried the night for ye or no, they will nae be there to help you in the fourth trial." Asrial began to look grim, with a touch of hopelessness. The Eldest cracked a toothless and vicious smile. "Ah, ye begin tae understand. Ye know as well as I, that the Trial o' the Warrior is tae be run without aids o' any kind. Why, in the days 'fore the humans came tae Wyvern, ye would nae even be allowed yuir clothes!" The ancient female cackled at Asrial's sudden blush. "The humans brought many changes, for good or ill. But the fact remains that ye will nae have yuir tools come the morrow. Do ye honestly think ye stand a chance?"
"Maybe," Asrial answered defiantly, but hollowly.
"'Maybe'," the Eldest repeated with a derisive snort. "And maybe we'll celebrate yuir victory by dancin' under th' noonday sun. Ye are nae a fool, so donnae pretend ye are. I've seen ye train. 'Twas nae easy, as ye skip yuir trainin' more than ye attend. But I did see ye, and I know that ye be the weakest, slowest, and most helpless of yuir clan. And ye know it, too."
Asrial was horrified, and looked ready to protest, but her tormentor cut her off before she had a chance. "And tell me this: Even if ye were tae pass the Trial and become a Warrior, what then? Would ye really stand with yuir clan in battle, as a warrior would?"
"Even if it meant that ye might be taken by the Rogue again?" Asrial suddenly froze, her eyes becoming round. The Eldest grinned viciously. "Aye, it could happen, ye know. I saw ye, girl. I saw ye when ye awakened on those nights after yuir rescue from the Rogue. Yuir dreams were not kind. I could see the terror in yuir eyes. I can see it now."
Asrial's thoughts were panicked. The ugly Prince of Thieves was, perhaps, the only thing Asrial feared. (This was not necessarily a sign of Asrial's courage, though she had no shortage of that. Rather it was one of many symptoms of her general absent-mindedness. Doubtless, she could have found other things to be frightened of as well, had she taken the time to think about them.) The Eldest was absolutely right. For weeks after her torture at the hands of the rogue gargoyle who was called Roland, Asrial had awakened from dreams that replayed the helplessness, the pain, the confusion, the terror... When Roland had struck his final blow against her, Asrial had been certain that she was going to die. There had been times, when the nightmares had been at their worst, that she had wished she had.
"Turn about, child," Asrial barely heard an ancient voice telling her. "This bridge is nae for ye."
Pain. Fear. Claws slashing. Dripping water. Cold, cold, merciless eyes. Bloody claws, tearing at her again and again and again and again and they won't stop not ever and the stone sleep comes and she wakes up and the claws come all over again and--Asrial shuddered at the memories and tried to sort her thoughts. Forward lay a chance, however small, of becoming a warrior--that was the important thing to remember. And as a warrior, you might have to face the Rogue's torments all over again, or worse, a tiny, frightened corner of her mind whispered insistently. Remember the claws, the voice pressed, remember the blood, so much blood, and all yours-
Asrial moaned and ran, driven by some pocket of willpower. She dashed past the startled old gargoyle, and was soon across the bridge. When she stopped, she collapsed to her knees in the center of the ring of elders. Tears streamed down her face as she sobbed into her hands. She had thought that she could overcome the horror of what she had faced at Roland's hands, had hoped that her logical mind would be able to quantify and isolate the pain, to store it far, far away from her conscious mind. The Eldest had torn away her logical defenses like the scab off a wound, and this wound was very painful. If the last challenge of the Trial had been one of bravery, she had failed it. Utterly.
A hand touched her shoulder, and Asrial flinched sharply. An ancient voice, now free of the biting scorn it had possessed, spoke softly, "Stand up, lass. Ye've won."
Asrial looked up, still shaking violently and sniffling. "Won?"
"Ye've passed the Trial."
Asrial tried to pull herself together, and her shaking subsided slightly. "Ye did quite well," the Eldest continued. "Only two of yuir rookery kin did better, in fact."
When Asrial finally spoke, her mind was not on her victory, or her placement (though she did eventually discover that the two champions were Thersites and, to her disgust and mild surprise, Iago), but on the final challenge. "Why-?" was all she managed to croak out.
The Eldest seemed to understand. "Donnae fret, child. I know that yuir pain is great, but the Bridge was the greatest part o' the Trial o' the Mind. The Trial o' the Mind is nae just about yuir intelligence, or yuir skill at making choices, but also about yuir spirit. Few pass the Bridge without shedding a tear or doubting themselves, though I'll admit that few be quite so shaken as ye."
"Then I did poorly," Asrial said, slumping.
"Hardly," the Eldest laughed sharply. "If anything, yuir misery proves that yuir spirit is very strong. Ye were all but lost in yuir fear, but ye ran forward in spite o' it. Tomorrow, ye face yuir final test, and I've little doubt that yuir spirit is willing-" The Eldest suddenly trailed off with a grimace. Asrial knew that the ancient gargoyle regretted her words. For though Asrial's spirit might have been willing, even Asrial was beginning to believe that her flesh would prove all too weak.
Asrial stood with her rookery siblings at the edge of the very same cliff she had used during the Trial of the Wing. A signal was given, and Asrial reluctantly spread the wings she had been keeping tightly and self-consciously wrapped around herself into their open position. In spite of herself, she flushed. She felt absolutely ridiculous wearing these skimpy clothes, and she felt certain that everyone was staring at her. It was a silly thought, of course. After all, all the other females were wearing identical outfits. It was part of the rules regarding the Trial of the Warrior, that all the females wear a brief top of white linen cloth, and that all the rookery wear a simple loincloth of the same material, tied with a length of cord. The principle behind the change in attire was to guarantee that the participant not be weighted down by heavier clothing, like the coarse woolen loincloths and leather belts favored by many of the clan. The Trial of the Warrior was a test of endurance, and would be difficult enough without such garments.
Still, the logic did not entirely ease Asrial's misgivings. Many of the other females of her rookery--Desdemona and Demona, for instance--wore as little clothing, or less, on a regular basis. But Asrial was used to her modest tunic, and the feel of the night winds blowing against her bare midsection made her feel practically naked. The thought reminded her of the words of the Eldest, and her claim that the Trial of the Warrior had once been run without even these pitifully light clothes. Asrial's flush deepened, in spite of the obvious logic. After all, the less clothing, the less weight. But was it worth dying of embarrassment? Asrial was certain that would have been her fate in a similar situation.
The truth of the matter was, that, had Asrial not been so absorbed in her thoughts, she might have noticed that she had, in fact, turned a few male heads. Few of her rookery brothers had ever given much thought to Asrial, as she was always so preoccupied with her experiments. But it was becoming clearer and clearer over time that their scatterbrained rookery sister was growing into a very attractive specimen, a fact that Asrial herself had only begun to realize.
"Go!" shouted Hudson. Asrial and her rookery siblings stepped off the cliff as one. The arduous journey had begun.
The first part of the Trial of the Warrior was well within even Asrial's abilities to conquer. She and her rookery siblings merely had to glide a distance, until they reached the first checkpoint. To touch down at any time meant instant disqualification, but none expected to suffer that penalty. The distance was only a few miles, certainly much farther than Asrial had ever glided before, but she felt it would be well within her capability, particularly since there was no looping or diving, as there had been in the Trial of the Wing. Her wings would be sore after a journey like this, but sore wings she could handle.
The landscape sped by beneath her, and Asrial finally released the tension she was feeling. It was true that the very thought of what the Trial of the Warrior had in store for her caused her stomach to churn with worry, but there was no point in letting it eat away at her. The simple truth was, she loved to glide. She was fairly certain that every gargoyle did, and several had told her that they never felt more alive than when they were aloft. The humans had so many wonderful things, all their fascinating devices, their sciences, their philosophies, but Asrial would always pity them for never being able to know the sheer delight of gliding above the treetops, the wind rushing past-
Or could they? Asrial blinked twice, her mind racing. Perhaps they could fly, if they had wings--mechanical wings. After all, a gargoyle's wings were basically flat skin, supported by a frame of bones. Could something similar be constructed from wood and cloth? Perhaps, but there were problems. Cloth, unlike skin, was composed of thread, which left many tiny holes in the material. Asrial wasn't certain, but she suspected that the holes in cloth would make it difficult to for the wings to grip the air. The wings would have to be coated with something to fill the holes. Candlewax, perhaps? But that would make the wings too brittle and fragile, and probably too heavy as well. Perhaps cloth was the wrong way to begin. Animal skin would probably be better, maybe leather stretched across a wooden frame. This had problems of its own, of course. The leather would have to be of one piece--stitched leather faced the same problems cloth did--and a piece of uncut leather that size would be difficult to come by, unless a large dragon happened by. And it would not be an easy task to get the leather off of that particular beast. But suppose--just suppose--that she were able to find such a quantity of leather. Would that and a wooden frame be enough? After all, gargoyle wings could bend and shape themselves to the drafts, while a wooden frame would be rigid. A human using Asrial's hypothetical wings would not have the muscles or joints to flex the wings properly. Pulleys and hinges? Perhaps, but how-
Asrial shook her head, suddenly realizing that someone was talking to her, and had addressed her several times. Asrial turned to see a lovely female with curved ram's horns. Her clean white linen clothing was a striking contrast to her brown skin. Loveliest of all, of course were her wings. Desdemona was almost universally envied for her oddly shaped four-piece wings, wings that gave her the appearance of a butterfly in flight. It was probably mostly due to her wings that she was the most sought-after female among the males.
Butterfly wings. Hmm... Asrial's gaze wandered. Would wings shaped like that be a better design for flight? Or would her own wings be the model to use? Or, perhaps even webbed wings that attach to the arms and legs, like that young hatchling who always seemed so interested in her devices? How far would the-
"Oh, no you don't!" Desdemona chuckled, a tolerant look in her eye. "I managed to get your attention, my absent-minded rookery sister. And I don't intend to let it go that easily."
Asrial shook her head yet again. Of course. She was being rude. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I just had the most fascinating idea. Wings!"
Desdemona looked askance at her. "Wings? We have wings."
"No, no, no, wings for humans! Made of leather and wood!"
Desdemona looked skeptical. Then she sighed. "If it can be done, I'm sure you can do it, my sister. But this is not why I called to you." Desdemona frowned as she tried to think of a tactful way to continue. "Many of us are...concerned for you."
"Concerned?" Asrial repeated, trying to look confused. In truth, this was just the sort of conversation she had been dreading. The moment when her rookery siblings finally came out and told her that she wasn't going to be able to finish this Trial. It was a belief that Asrial was all too afraid was true, but she didn't want to hear it from them. Just once, she wanted to show them that she could play their game by their rules.
Desdemona's forehead wrinkled with discomfort. "Sister, we know that you are used to using your clever machines to help you. This Trial is a real change of pace."
Asrial forced an airy chuckle, despite the fact that she saw no humor in the black future ahead of her, and waved Desdemona's concerns aside. "Don't worry! I don't need those silly things to get me through this. Don't you have confidence in me?"
Desdemona hesitated a moment. It was a brief moment, but enough to confirm Asrial's suspicions that her rookery siblings had no more confidence in her ability than she herself did. This did not make Asrial's day. "It isn't that," Desdemona lied. "We just thought you might appreciate some help when we touch down. We're expected to work together, after all."
Asrial pondered this. It was true. While a good three-quarters of the Trial of the Warrior was a grueling trek across rough terrain, the rules of the Trial allowed--even encouraged--the participants to assist each other. Asrial suddenly realized that she did yearn for that assistance. Certainly a little help wouldn't hurt-
"Of course we'll help you!" a mocking, oily voice called out. The olive green shape of Iago swooped down to glide alongside Asrial and Desdemona. "We wouldn't want our precious inventor to strain herself when she's this close to becoming a True Warrior!" The way Iago's voice oozed the words 'True Warrior' made it clear that even if Asrial somehow passed, he would consider an egg to be more of a warrior than she. Asrial tensed.
"Brother-" Desdemona began warningly.
"I'll carry you, if you like!" Iago offered. "I doubt you are very heavy...there can't be much muscle on that body of yours," the male leered as his eyes traveled up and down Asrial's form.
"Forget it!" Asrial snarled, eyes glowing red. "I don't need your 'help'! I don't need anyone's help! I can do this myself!" She dived away from the two, straining to put some distance between herself and them.
"Rookery sister!" Desdemona called after her, but Asrial wouldn't listen. Just before Desdemona was out of earshot, Asrial heard her berating Iago, "She SHOULD have let you carry her! It would have served you right for you to collapse of exhaustion halfway to the meeting place!"
When she was sure no one could see her face, Asrial frowned hopelessly. She truly hoped that she could live up to her vow. Asrial's anxieties returned in force, and no matter how she tried, Asrial simply couldn't concentrate on humans with wings.
Asrial clawed her way wearily over the enormous boulder wedged in the narrow chasm that her path wound through. Her wings felt like lead sacks on her back, and were almost as useful. She wished that she could just remove them, set them aside until she needed them again, just like the artificial wings she had contemplated for the humans. The second part of the Trial had barely begun, and already she was exhausted. This was not promising.
As Asrial knelt panting atop the boulder, a bat-winged shadow passed over her. Asrial didn't even need to look. It was one of the two elders who were accompanying the struggling rookery to make sure that none broke the rules. Foremost among these rules was an injunction against flight. Once the initial glide to the touchdown point was finished, the remaining three-quarters of the Trial were to be run entirely on the ground. Asrial was bitterly certain that they were also there to make sure that she didn't cheat by using one of her contraptions. Whoever had just passed, Asrial knew it had to be either Hudson or the grey, beaked male, she was certain that he was watching her with smug satisfaction, happy to see that Asrial was paying the price for her reliance on brain over brawn. Asrial's ire rose like bitter bile as she thought of it.
All in all, it was not the best time for Othello to offer his aid, particularly considering his rather blunt mannerisms. "Sister, the chasm ends but a few hundred feet ahead," the blue-grey gargoyle with the mane of long white hair called to her. He was standing at the edge of the chasm wall to her left. "The chasm walls are much steeper there. Please, let me help you up here, where the climb is not so difficult!"
"I don't need your help," Asrial bit off nastily. Nonetheless, she was not such a fool as to ignore the description of the coming terrain that Othello had just provided her. She grasped the cliff walls and began to climb, wheezing with each pull.
Othello looked concerned and uncomprehending. "Sister, it is clear that you are not strong enough to pass the Trial of the Warrior on your own. Let us help you!" Othello extended his hand to help Asrial over the edge. She ignored it, pulling herself up, and then collapsed to her knees, glaring up at her rookery brother.
"I'm so tired of all of you telling me how strong I'm not!" she snapped. "I can do this myself. I don't need any help. So just LEAVE ME ALONE!"
Othello's eyes narrowed. "Very well," he growled. "I tried." Othello whirled and loped off on all fours, hurrying to catch up with the rest of the rookery, most of whom were much farther ahead.
Asrial trudged wearily towards the final goal, a goal still so very far ahead of her. Every deep, ragged breath cut into her cramped, aching muscles like a knife, and she had nothing to look forward to but still more miles of rugged terrain. Of her rookery siblings, there was no sign. Even the slowest of her brothers and sisters had passed Asrial long ago. Similarly, the elders keeping watch overhead had moved ahead with them. "They've probably given up on me," Asrial muttered bitterly to herself. "Illiterate, uneducated, arrogant old fossils, with their stupid test that any oaf with enough meat on his bones could beat. They never even thought I stood a chance of beating this test. When it's over, they'll all be so smug that I couldn't keep up with the others, so smug that I'm so helpless without my 'contraptions'!"
The gargoyle's venomous words were cut short when she nearly stumbled into a rift in the ground ahead of her. It was a small chasm, only a few yards wide, but fairly deep. It stretched away in both directions as far as Asrial could see. Glancing across, Asrial could make out the dusty footprints where her rookery siblings' taloned feet had gouged the ground. So, she was to jump it, was she? Asrial sighed in resignation, and backtracked until she felt that she had a good running start.
Asrial charged toward the chasm, each step a red-hot knife stabbing into her ribs, and leaped. The moment her feet passed the chasm edge, Asrial knew she wasn't going to make it. Fighting the urge to open her wings, Asrial arced toward the far chasm wall, and impacted with the stony surface only a few feet below the top of the other side. Asrial's claws clutched at the rock. Only a few feet, Asrial told herself. Only a few feet to climb, and I'll be past this. But her arms would not move. Asrial's muscles simply wouldn't respond, exhausted beyond any hope of continuing. Asrial merely hung there, unable to move, as her lifeless claws slowly began to lose their tenuous grip on the cliff face.
The young gargoyle was unable to do anything but emit a thin scream as her fingers slipped free of the rock, and she fell backwards into the chasm. Asrial fell, but only a short distance. The chasm was not as deep as it looked, though it was not a pleasant impact. Asrial lay upon the stony ground, stunned, for several moments, unable to do anything but breathe. Breathe and think. And Asrial's thoughts were not kind.
"I was so STUPID to think I could handle this on my own!" Asrial cursed herself hopelessly. "Stupid, stupid, stupid! What good is it, anyway? Just another chance for the others to show off their muscles and win more meaningless praise from that useless flock of tradition-bound buzzards that leads the clan!"
Asrial finally regained enough strength to climb into a sitting position. "This isn't for me!" she told herself. "Who cares if I pass some useless test? It won't make me smarter. It won't change who I am. The others can have their right to speak on the council. They can all lead the clan wingbound off a cliff for all I care."
Asrial grasped a nearby tuft of grass and ripped it free with a jerk of her arm, ignoring the desperate voice in the back of her head that demanded she consider carefully what she was about to do. "I quit," Asrial told herself fiercely. "I've got better things to do than waste time trying to prove how powerful I am." Asrial finally finished twisting the grass, having produced a crude piece of cord from the fibrous vegetable matter. "Me, a warrior?" Asrial said loudly, forcing a sneer into her voice that she didn't really feel. "Hardly."
Mighty Goliath, indisputably the strongest of his rookery, was finally beginning to grow weary. Truly, the Trial of the Warrior was a true test of endurance. It was for that reason that Goliath was extremely concerned for a certain reddish-brown tinkerer with whom he had developed a close friendship over the past several years.
Goliath had wanted to stay close to Asrial, to help her pass this, the most challenging of the Trials, but he had been needed elsewhere. As the strongest of his rookery, Goliath felt obligated to use his strength to give aid to all his brothers and sisters that might need it, not just Asrial. He knew that others had attempted to help Asrial in his stead. Desdemona, another of his close friends, had confided in him regarding Asrial's refusal of aid earlier (as well as Iago's taunting), and Goliath himself had sent his brother Othello back to offer her another chance. It was Othello that Goliath sought now. It had been nearly an hour since Goliath had sent him after Asrial, and he wanted to know what had become of her.
Goliath finally found Othello at the end of the toiling pack of gargoyles, where the less powerful of the clan were struggling to keep up with the rest. Othello was by no means one of the less powerful--in terms of sheer brute force, he ranked not far behind Goliath. Rather, Othello was engaged in the same sort of work as Goliath, lending his strength to those who needed it. It warmed Goliath's heart to see this. Othello was, by nature, a suspicious and sensitive gargoyle, but it seemed that he was willing to do the right thing. It was a trait that Goliath had found sadly lacking in his brother Iago, who tended to consider his own interests first, and those of others later, if at all.
Nevertheless, Asrial was not among the gargoyles Othello was helping, and that fact bothered Goliath a great deal. Othello looked up at Goliath and grinned, fangs gleaming in the moonlight. "Rookery brother! Have you come to bolster our rear? Your strength would be most helpful."
"Perhaps, my brother. But what of our sister, she whom I asked you to aid? I do not see her among the others."
Othello's grin faded and he began to look distinctly sullen. Goliath's spirits sank. It was clear that Asrial had said something that had bruised Othello's pride. In Othello's case, such an injury was all too easy to make. "Do not waste your time with her," Othello grumbled. "She has made it all too clear that she wishes no aid on this journey."
Goliath groaned. "You should not have left her. You and I both know that she could not pass this test alone. Few of our rookery possess stamina of that degree!"
"I give my aid to those who desire it!" Othello snapped back. "I will not force it on anyone, even those who need it. Go back for her, if you are so concerned. I do not think she will be pleased to see you."
"I will," Goliath answered grimly.
Goliath turned on his heel and dropped to all fours, dashing away with long, powerful strides. It was difficult to travel in this manner without spreading his wings, but the rules of the Trial dictated that no gargoyle may open his or her wings from the point of touchdown to the goal. Nevertheless, Goliath needed the speed that running on four limbs could provide.
Goliath traveled for an hour, and there was still no sign of his rookery sister. Worried beyond belief, Goliath began to curse himself for leaving her behind. He should have realized that Asrial might prove to be so pig-headed. Though she would undoubtedly deny it, Asrial could be just as prideful and stubborn as any of the clan at times.
So absorbed with self-blame was Goliath that he nearly missed Asrial. Fortunately, he caught a glimpse of reddish-brown flesh out of the corner of one eye as he leapt over the narrow chasm he had crossed earlier that night. Goliath slid to a halt and turned around to peer over the edge. It was Asrial, all right, sitting hunched over something at the bottom of the gorge. Goliath quickly climbed down to her.
"Rookery sister?" Goliath asked. Asrial made no response. This did not necessarily indicate that she had come to any sort of harm. Frequently one had to speak to Asrial several times before she would break out of whatever musings her creative mind was engaged in. But this was no time for Asrial to be lost in thought. Goliath grasped her shoulder firmly. "Rookery sister!" he said again.
Asrial jerked slightly, and swiveled her head to look at him, blinking in confusion. Asrial's cheeks were stained with recent tears, but she was apparently not aware of that fact. "Oh, hello," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"I came back for you!" Goliath responded, slightly exasperated. "Come, my sister. If we hurry, we can still catch up to the others before they reach the goal."
Asrial laughed. To Goliath's ears, it was clearly forced. "Don't be silly!" she admonished. "I'm too busy to waste time trying to keep up with the others. See?" Asrial revealed an object she had been keeping in her lap. Though it was composed of twigs, grasses, and small stones, it was clearly an invention of some kind.
"What are you doing?" Goliath asked, horrified. "The elders have already decreed that you may not use any of your devices in this Trial!"
"This ISN'T for the Trial," Asrial responded primly. "When it's finished, it's going to be a model for the human wings I'm going to build. If it works, that is. Don't you see? This is much more important than any stupid Trial. So, I've decided that the Trial just isn't worth it. I'll work on this until morning, and then return to the castle tomorrow, when I have my strength back. You can all go to your Ascention, and I'll work in my workshop, and everyone will be happy!"
Goliath stared wide-eyed at Asrial, who glared back at him defiantly. He had long realized that Asrial was, in many ways, very different from the others of her clan. Those differences were part of the reason he so treasured their friendship. But the idea that she could so blithely abandon her chance of becoming a warrior... "I thought I knew you, my sister," Goliath said with faint accusation. "I had not thought you the sort who would give up in the face of a challenge-"
"I'm not giving up!" Asrial responded instantly and heatedly. "I'm not!" she repeated unnecessarily. It was clear that Goliath was not the only one she was trying to convince. "I've merely set my priorities in a more logical manner." Asrial's voice took on the lecturing quality it frequently possessed whenever Asrial was trying to explain something to her muscular friend. "The way things stand, I have two options. I could try to pass this test. The cost would be time, and a huge amount of physical energy, and the reward would be status as a warrior. Warrior status, while desirable, would not be particularly useful. Can you imagine our tradition-bound elders seriously considering anything I had to say, whether or not I passed the Trial of the Warrior without my tools?"
"But-" Goliath tried to interject.
"My other option is to use the time allotted developing my devices. I am well aware that many of the things I've created have been less than useful, but my human wings, if I can make them work, would be enormously valuable in easing the tensions that exist between their kind and ours. Can you imagine the gratitude humans would have for us if we were to give them the ability to fly? In my estimation, such a goal far outweighs the immediate gratification passing this silly test would grant me."
Goliath looked at her with grim concern. "Your logic is flawed," he replied sternly. "And you know it."
"How is it flawed?" Asrial challenged weakly.
"Your invention truly sounds like a grand achievement, and I am certain that you could well accomplish such a goal. But it also sounds like a project that will take months, or even years to develop. One night is insignificant compared to such a span of time. It makes no sense to throw away your chance at becoming a warrior to advance your plans by a single night. As for your claim that the elders would ignore your ideas, I think you judge them too harshly. They do cling to the ways of the past, but age has brought them great wisdom as well. And a warrior's status brings that warrior many gifts more subtle than a mere voice on the council. He also strengthens his self-respect by having passed an extremely difficult challenge. Of near importance, that warrior gains the respect of his clan. If you just give up, the respect you would lose in the eyes of your clan could interfere with your projects in manners that you do not foresee." Goliath focused a stern glare on Asrial, who tried to avoid it. "But more than that, I do not honestly believe that you do not care how the clan looks upon you. You do care. Do not deny it!"
"I-" Asrial gulped guiltily, "-I do not deny it."
"You know all I've said is true. I know you do!" Goliath said with exasperation. Asrial nodded reluctantly. "Then why are you merely sitting here-"
"Tinkering around with another stupid gadget?" Asrial concluded bitterly. Goliath froze. Those were not the words he was about to use. Neither were they words he would have ever considered using. But they WERE words he had heard directed against Asrial time and again, though rarely to her face. It was beginning to become clear to Goliath what was wrong with his rookery sister. Most of the others in Goliath's rookery were frequently treated to the support and encouragement of both their peers and their elders. Goliath, in particular, rarely had to look far to find someone to compliment him on his strength and skill. But no one encouraged Asrial. Her unusual pursuits were regularly met with confusion and displeasure. Her achievements occasionally produced mild, though fleeting, interest, but her failures never failed to cause amusement. Asrial had come to rely on herself, and now her independence was costing her.
"Rookery sister," Goliath urged gently, "Please. Tell me what is troubling you. Why do you not at least try to reach our goal?"
Asrial slumped visibly. "I don't think I can make it on my own," she admitted, staring down at the ground. Her voice was quavering in a manner Goliath had rarely heard from the normally optimistic gargoyle. "I so wanted to do this without anyone's help! I wanted to prove that I could be just as good as the others. But I couldn't. And when the others tried to help me, I felt insulted. The only reason I could think of that they were offering to help me was because they didn't believe in me. I realize that that was probably not their intent--except, perhaps, for one," Asrial interjected darkly, "but I was so angry. When I finally realized that I couldn't possibly make it to the end, the others were so far ahead I couldn't even call for help. Not that I tried." A tear rolled down her cheek. Asrial clutched the model wing she was building and continued, "I finally started working on this when I realized that I was beyond any hope of making it to the end. I didn't want the time to be totally wasted." Her head lifted, and her watery eyes met Goliath's hopelessly. "Besides, whatever 'respect' I might or might not gain, I'm no 'warrior'! If I were to get that title, it would be a farce. A warrior fights battles, and protects her home. I simply don't have the strength or skill to be a warrior."
"That is nonsense. You have been and will be of great value to your clan. You have a brave heart, and the cleverest mind I've ever been proud to know. Mere strength pales beside these assets."
Asrial's grim expression was suddenly lit by a glimmer of her former chipper self as she smirked with amusement. "You're a fine one to be speaking so, my brother," Asrial said as her eyes roamed up and down Goliath's handsome, muscular form with a direct and appraising gaze.
Goliath ignored Asrial's comment (though he was less successful in ignoring her interested scrutiny of his body), and continued, "Besides, however strong an individual, and whatever that individual's particular skills, everyone needs help from time to time. There is no shame in asking or accepting that help when its time comes." Goliath smiled at Asrial. "As I recall, there was one, not so many years ago, who needed help, and was not so loathe to accept it when it was finally offered..."
Asrial glided under the low bar that had been set up and tried to adjust her wings to compensate. For the fifth time that night, the young gargoyle was rewarded for her efforts with a faceful of dirt as she plowed headlong into the loose earth. She was getting very tired of this. "Not good, girl," sighed the deep brown female who had been assigned to supervise Asrial's rookery during gliding lessons that night. "That be enough for tonight. Ye'd best get some rest, if ye hope to do better on the morrow's training."
Climbing to her feet with a decidedly dark scowl on her face, the young female turned to depart. Asrial was coming to regret all the training sessions she had missed. The Rite of Adulthood was in only a few weeks, and it was becoming clear to her that her lack of interest in training was going to cost her.
Asrial clenched her teeth. It was going to cost her, and perhaps her entire rookery as well. By tradition and law, the failure of any gargoyle to pass the Rite of Adulthood would mean that that gargoyle's entire rookery would be prevented from gaining adult status for an entire year. Asrial was certain of two things: first, that the rule had been set to encourage cooperation and teamwork among the rookery siblings, and second, that the writers of that rule had not taken the possibility of a gargoyle as pathetic as she into account.
Not for the first time, Asrial cursed her weak body and her overdeveloped intellect. What good was her ability to read, or her worthless inventions, when her sheer lack of physical ability was putting all of her rookery brothers and sisters at risk?
They knew that they were at risk, too. Asrial knew that they were all thinking of their failure of a sister, and the problems she was going to cause them. Most tried to hide it, but Asrial could tell, from the way they often talked in low whispers to one another with the occasional glance her way, from the way she could not pass near to a brother or sister without that sibling encouraging her to train hard for the Rite... And there were those who were less subtle.
"Rookery sister, you really need to work on that landing," a familiar voice teased good-naturedly. Asrial turned to see Thersites leaning against a tree, gnawing at a chicken leg he had undoubtedly pilfered from a human kitchen. "I mean, if you really like dirt that much, there's plenty around the castle. But I'd really rather you didn't collect any during the Rite, you understand?"
"Thank you for the advice," Asrial replied sourly. "I will give it my best effort."
"'My best effort', she says," another gargoyle sneered, standing forward. Asrial's sour feeling deepened. She really didn't like Iago. Even long before the Rite was looming on the horizon, the black-haired boy had rarely missed an opportunity to berate her for missing so many training sessions, or for her frequent bouts of deep thought. Now that Iago had a very personal stake in Asrial's performance, his taunting had reached new depths of viciousness. "But we all know quite well what her best effort is worth. Perhaps if there is a test of daydreaming during the Rite, she will pass that. But one test is hardly enough."
Thersites apparently hadn't noticed the effect Iago's words were having on Asrial, as he added, "Hey, a daydreaming test! Sure, that'd be just your thing, rookery sister! Mine, too, for that matter. I practice all the time!"
Iago looked slightly irritated at Thersites's interruption. "The point, my sister, is that you are a definite liability. You and I both know that you stand no chance. Even if you could keep your wandering mind on your training every hour of every night until the Rite you'd still stand no chance of passing."
"That's not true!" exclaimed Asrial, but with a quaver of self-doubt in her voice.
At Asrial's tone, Thersites finally seemed to realize the sort of emotional state Asrial was in. "Hey, rookery brother-" he began, placing a hand on Iago's arm.
"It IS true," Iago smiled thinly, shaking free of Thersites's restraining grasp. "We'll all be hatchlings until the next rookery has passed the Rite, and it will be all your fault." Iago stepped forward until he was practically nose-to-nose with his rookery sister. "All your fault. We'd all be better off if you'd never been hatched, my DEAR sister."
"BROTHER!" Thersites exclaimed, horrified. He turned to Asrial to say, "Don't listen to him-" but Asrial had heard enough. She turned from the two, ignoring both Iago's victorious smirk and Thersites's fervent denials.
Asrial had never been so depressed. While she didn't honestly believe that many in her rookery wished she'd never been hatched, the simple truth was that Iago was right. They WOULD have all been better off if she'd never been hatched. Or if she were to disappear before the Rite--NO! Asrial told herself firmly. That was a dangerous way to think, and one that never failed to cause more problems than it solved. The only problem was, Asrial could think of no other solution. The fact frightened her, and her depressed state deepened.
Asrial's ears registered the sound of talons striking stone, and it took her a moment to realize that they were her own. She was climbing a wall. A quick glance around revealed that she had unconsciously taken a route to what had become one of her favorite places: the Castle Wyvern library. She shuddered a moment. She really should be training. But what was the point? Iago had spoken the truth when he remarked that Asrial could never train enough to succeed. Besides, she was tired, depressed, and troubled, and she wanted more than anything to lose herself in a book, practicing her reading skills.
Asrial crawled through a window and scanned the library. It was empty, as it frequently was at that time of night. That was for the best, as many humans tended to be discomfited to find a gargoyle curled up in the library with a book. Asrial dropped to the floor, and chose a worn, leather-bound text from the shelf. It was a treatise on the tactics used in one of the many wars the humans had fought, and was the most complex reading Asrial had ever attempted. She would have to concentrate to make sense of it, and as long as she was concentrating on the book, she would not be concentrating on her other problems. Asrial sat in one of the many library chairs, her tail draped to the side, and began to read.
The truth was that many of Asrial's problems were directly related to the fact that she spent so much time engaged in intellectual pursuits, of which reading was merely one (though the most frequent one). Asrial had learned at an early age that the games of skill and strength that so captivated her rookery siblings simply didn't interest her. While they would enjoy spending hours playing games like Protect the Hill, she always grew bored with such pursuits. In fact, she spent a good deal of her early youth in a state of boredom. But then, she discovered books. Once she had learned to read at a tolerable level, she began to devote hours of her time to fervently devouring the written words Wyvern had to offer her. Unfortunately, it was around that time that the rookery reached the age when the elders felt it was time to begin their training. So, Asrial had frequently found herself dragged to dreadfully boring exercises in gliding, fighting, and other such activities, most of which were eagerly anticipated by her rookery siblings, who saw it as a step up from their hatchlings' games. She found these lessons boring--so boring, in fact, that she left them early, or even skipped them altogether every chance she got, instead heading to the library to hone her reading skills, an activity that did interest her. Nearly as frequently, she would head to her workshop.
Asrial had long been fascinated by the machinery that humans used. From the pulleys that would allow a single man to lift a portcullis many times his weight, to the sophisticated crossbows that she had seen many a guardsman practice with, Asrial dreamed of creating such tools herself. To that end, she claimed an unoccupied cave in the cliffside below the castle and constructed her workshop inside. Here she was free to tinker with wheels, and levers, and pulleys, and gears, and other such wonders in solitude, free from the annoying activities her elders would have preferred her to engage in. While her rookery siblings had occasionally teased her about her lack of interest in fighting and gliding, none of it was enough to distract her from her passion for engineering. Until now.
Asrial shook away her self-doubt and her thoughts of her darkly uncertain future, and tried to become absorbed in her reading. The subject matter she was reading dealt with the final battle in a bloody war that a famous Welsh king had been fighting with his son (Asrial had read of King Arthur in many other texts as well, and his exploits never ceased to fascinate her). The author of the text was discussing the series of mishaps that sparked that final bloody struggle at Camlann, and whether the tragedies of that battle could have been avoided through better planning, or better strategy. Asrial was soon caught up in the text, just as she had hoped. But before she slipped totally away from reality, she was distracted by familiar voices speaking loudly and heatedly nearby. The voices were coming from the adjoining room that Prince Malcom had set up as a study for the clan leader and his advisors. Curious, Asrial crept up to the doorway to listen.
"I donnae like it, and that's a fact," Hudson, the clan leader was arguing. "That ye would even suggest such a thing is unthinkable!"
"Ye be thinking with yuir heart, and not yuir head, old friend," Agamemnon responded, his own voice much calmer.
"That is because my heart is right!" Hudson insisted. "Th' very thought that we could hold the girl back while her brothers and sisters pass th' Rite...It's unthinkable!" Asrial's breath caught in her throat. There was little doubt who they were referring to.
"Worse, it stands against tradition!" another elder said in defense of Hudson's case. "No rookery has ever passed without passing together. It is the Gargoyle Way."
"Ach, no rookery has ever failed, either," Deborah argued. "At least not tae my knowing. But that could well happen this year. Is it fair tae punish all of the promising young lads and lasses of her rookery for no better reason than that she cannae hold her own?"
"She could pass yet," Hudson's supporter said doubtfully, evidently feeling his position slipping. "I've seen the girl trying to catch up on her training-"
"Then you've seen that she stands little chance of making it," another voice replied firmly. Asrial recognized the voice as that of the instructor for the gliding lesson she had flubbed so badly earlier that night. "She has spirit, but it's far too little and too late. Perhaps if she had been attending her lessons regularly...there's no denying that she has great promise. But the fact remains that she did miss those lessons. Th' Rite of Adulthood is as much a test of maturity and responsibility as it is of strength and skill. And it seems that the young lass is lacking in all those qualities."
"Have any of ye considered what this is going tae do tae th' girl?" Hudson asked after a moment of silence. "Tae remain a hatchling while her brothers and sisters become adults...it will kill her."
"Nay, she'll live," Agamemnon said. "It will be hard on her, no doubt about that. But it is far better that she endure that than for her brothers and sisters to endure it with her. Perhaps being held back a year is just what the lass needs tae teach her the discipline she needs."
There was a long pause, during which Asrial could hear her own heart beating like a drum. Hudson's next four words were like knives in that heart. "I'll think about it."
Asrial backed away from the door, her eyes like saucers and her wings spreading involuntarily. The elders were actually thinking of...of... Asrial couldn't even make herself think it. Her book slid from her hands and she turned and ran, away from the elders, away from the library. She had felt so guilty for holding her rookery siblings back, but now that there was a chance that she might be held back alone... Somewhere, deep inside of her heart, Asrial had believed that the elders would never let the rookery be held back, no matter how poorly she did, that she would be able to slip through the cracks somehow. Now, that safety net, however slight, had been torn away, leaving Asrial naked and alone in a cruel nightmare world.
Asrial dropped down to the narrow strip of beach lining the base of the cliffs that supported Castle Wyvern. There, she wrapped her arms and wings around herself and curled into a tiny ball, trying to lock out the horrible reality around her. Feeling frightened, lost, and alone, Asrial began to cry.
Iago would have smirked, had every breath not been a fiery sword in his gut. He was among the first to spot the goal, and it amused him to no small degree that he was going to reach it before Goliath. Mighty Goliath, the elders' pet champion. But it was he that was going to arrive first. In fact, Goliath would be lucky to reach the goal at all. Iago did not know where his brawny brother had disappeared to, but he could guess. The simpleton had undoubtedly stayed behind to try to help that pathetic excuse for a gargoyle. With a little luck, neither would pass the Trial of the Warrior tonight. Oh, how Iago would love to see his mighty brother forced to wait behind while he, Iago, was granted the Warrior's status he so craved and deserved.
But Iago's delusions of grandeur did not dim his instincts, and right now his instincts were telling him that something was very wrong. "Where are the elders?" he asked his blue-skinned, red-haired sister. "I have not seen them for hours."
Demona frowned thoughtfully for a moment. Then she grinned. "Perhaps they have fallen behind, my brother!"
"Hey, the others have just about caught up," Diomedes, appearing rather odd without his customary breastplate, chimed in. "If we hurry, we can reach the goal before the elders get here! Won't they be surprised to find all of us there ahead of them?" A few of the gargoyles arrayed around them chimed in their support for the idea.
In spite of his apprehension, Iago was finding himself becoming caught up in his rookery siblings' enthusiasm. Especially since nearly all of his siblings were present, and Goliath and Asrial were not among them. Forcing down his paranoia, Iago surged ahead with Demona, Diomedes, and the others toward the clearing.
Iago might have been gratified to know that that clearing was, in fact, crowded with dozens of hidden men and gargoyles, some motley thieves, some trained soldiers, but all waiting to ambush the rookery once they had gathered in the clearing. But given his look of disgusted resignation when those soldiers finally did attack, it was probably safe to assume that gratification was among the last things on his mind.
From a tree branch, Roland watched as his men and their allies swarmed over his startled ex-rookery. His face, hidden behind his mask, twisted into a wild grin as he dropped from the branches, eager to join in the fray. Soon, very soon, Roland would have the revenge he so craved, the revenge he had only begun with Asrial not so long ago. And this time, there would be no one to save them.