Flying turned out not to be as big a deal as Aylwyn had worried it would be. Yes, it was difficult. Yes, physics were completely against her and she had to burn a lot of magical energy to compensate. Yes, it left her worn out each time. But there was one thing she forgot to consider at first: just like with the larger birds, the most difficult part was getting off the ground. And we were climbing up a mountain, which meant she could actually get airborne the same way large birds do it. The funny thing is, I’m the one who’s studied physics, but I never even thought of the logical solution. It just sort of came to her in a flash of inspiration after we’d been looking up at the first sheer cliff blocking our progress, wondering for a good six or seven minutes if we could really make it up. Then she looked out across where we’d already come from, said she had an idea, and dropped her pack, letting it slide down her arms and off, onto the stone.
I’ll admit, it was a bit gut-wrenching to watch her take a running leap off the edge of a cliff the first time she did it. She sailed out into open space, and then plummeted like… well, like someone who just took a running leap off the edge of a cliff. And my heart plummeted as well. I figured she’d gone nuts, and she was done for. But then she spread those beautiful wings out wide, and her body began to shine with the light of her power being used, and she pulled up and began to fly, and it was one of the most majestic things I’ve ever seen in my life.
Then she turned and flew towards me, and the broad, radiant, purely gleeful smile on her face… I had a new favorite memory.
By the third time she flew by, I was able to overcome my distraction enough to get my head back in the game. I tossed her the end of a long coil of rope, and she beat her wings for more altitude, making her way to a ledge almost thirty feet up. But the rope we’d brought along was more than was long enough. I took off my pack, carrying our supplies, and tied the other end of the rope to it and to Aylwyn’s pack, which had the tent and bedrolls. Then I lashed the climbing rope to a makeshift harness we’d improvised for me out of some smaller ropes. Not anything that would be up to code back home, and it would probably hurt a lot if I suddenly fell, but it would at least arrest my progress if I used it right, and that’s what matters.
We’d tied good, thick knots in the rope at five-foot intervals, and I had two rope loops to connect the harness to the climbing rope. From each knot, with my feet atop it, I could reach the next one up without difficulty. I would tie the free rope above the knot, check to make sure it was secure, and then untie the one below and climb up. Kind of slow going, but as good a way as we could come up with to ensure my safety.
Aylwyn had secured her end of the rope to a heavy rock, but was still holding on to it near the edge of the cliff. Neither of us were taking any chances here. At first, she’d suggested pulling to help me along, but I vetoed that. I was used to climbing at my own speed, and having the frame of reference I was lashed to move independently of my actions would probably distract me. Plus, even if she was usually strong enough to do it, I didn’t want her to wear herself out any more than the flying already would. So she just stood there, feet braced against the stone, holding the rope as still as she could while I climbed up the rock wall.
It turned out to be a lot less daunting than I’d thought. By the time I got to the top, I was sweating hard but not breathing too heavily. I pulled myself over and up onto the ledge, then untied the rope from my harness and helped Aylwyn pull it up, with the pack attached to the far end. It was hard work, but it felt good. We’d accomplished something difficult. We’d worked together, effectively.
We’d worn her out. She suddenly sighed and sank down to one knee. I turned towards her–would have taken a step towards her if she hadn’t been right next to me already–but she held up a hand. “I’m all right,” the angel said. “I just need to rest. That was exhilarating… but wearying.”
I grinned at her. “Exhilarating. Yeah. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you actually look happy like that, you know? You really were made to fly.”
She took a deep breath, and reached up to wipe some sweat from her brow. “I was,” she said.
“But don’t ever scare me like that again. If you’d said you were about to get airborne by jumping from a high place, I’d have understood. But when you just run and take a leap like that… I didn’t have time to think. I just instinctively thought you were going to crash and break every–“
“I won’t,” she said calmly, cutting me off, but gently. “Next time, I’ll let you know before I do something risky.” A few deep breaths, then, “If there is time to, of course.”
“All right,” I said. “How long do you think you’ll need?”
“Just give me a few minutes. And some meat.” I rooted around in the pack and handed her some dried beef to get her strength back up. Then, on a whim, I pulled out a small, flat square covered in wax and handed it to her as well.
“Cheese?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at me.
I grinned and shook my head. “Have a look.”
The angel used her nails to peel the protective wax coating off, and her eyes widened slightly when she saw the rich brown color of the substance beneath. “You, Paul Twister, are a scoundrel, seeking to tempt me with the pleasures of the flesh.” But she bit into it anyway, and her eyes closed as she savored the rare delicacy. It was another first: the first time I’d ever seen her actually enjoying food. “Where did you find chocolate?” she asked, a bit incredulously.
“In Gerald’s pantry,” I replied. And then, to forestall any objections, I quickly held up a hand. “And I paid him good money for it, too. This stuff isn’t rare where I come from, and I really miss it. It’s been about ten years since I’ve had any. I thought I’d pick some up, to celebrate once we got the skull.” Then I grinned and shrugged. “Then, just now, I figured I had a better use for some of it.”
She shook her head slowly. “I believe that’s the first true thing you’ve ever said about your home.”
I grinned at her, peeling the wax from a square of my own. “That part’s harmless. It won’t get me in trouble if people know chocolate was my favorite food as a kid.” I took a bite, and… oof. This stuff was not much like my favorite food as a kid; they still had a lot to learn here about the finer points of chocomancy! Chocolate here was very rare, very dark, and more than a little bitter, only made palatable by mixing a good deal of honey or molasses-sugar into it during production. Still, it was chocolate, and therefore awesome, even if there was room for improvement. “So, is it working?”
She looked at me, a bit confused. “Is what working?”
“The whole ‘tempting you with the pleasures of the flesh’ thing. It sure looked like you were enjoying that…” I smirked and wiggled my eyebrows at her teasingly.
The angel scowled, rolled her eyes, and slowly got to her feet. “Let’s keep moving.” There was still a bit of mirth in her eyes, but overall the stoic paladin was back now. Ah well. Happy-Aylwyn was fun while she lasted.
* * *
We made good time to the second rope point, and this time I was ready when Aylwyn jumped off the cliff. I tossed her the rope on her first flyby, and she flew with it up to the next ledge. This climb wasn’t as long as the last one–a bit more than twenty feet–but it was just as tiring because I was still a little bit worn out from the last one. And Aylwyn definitely needed to rest afterwards. The sun was just beginning to head lower in the sky, and we probably had a good three hours of daylight left, but I started looking around for a plateau or a cave large enough to pitch the tent, because we just wouldn’t make any substantial amount of progress after that. I didn’t find much in the way of caves nearby, but it was only a few minutes before I found an area with a wide open surface, enough to pitch the tent on safely.
I’d have really preferred a cave, simply because caves offer much better protection if it starts to rain. As everyone who’s ever been camping in western Washington knows, waterproof tents… aren’t. And they hadn’t gotten around to inventing waterproofing chemicals around here anyway. Luckily, there weren’t too many clouds in the sky at the moment, but that wasn’t any sort of guarantee for the rest of the night.
It didn’t rain, but it was hard to get to sleep that night. Probably had something to do with the gorgeous woman laying nearby, literally close enough to touch. Not that I ever seriously entertained the idea; I knew that would be an incredibly dumb thing to do. Playful flirtation was harmless enough, but actually making a pass at her, something serious? No way that would end well. But it was the first time on this journey that we’d slept without a wall in between us. The night was quiet enough that I could hear her breathing, and it was driving me nuts. And it’s not like I could go outside and walk around for a while to cool down. Without flashlights, that would be downright suicidal.
So I lay there, eyes shut tight, trying to sleep, trying to think of anything but her, her hair, her smile, her wings, her… well, the rest of her, the way she shone when she was flying, the things I wanted to do to her, things I wanted her to do to me, the soft sound of her breathing in the darkness as she lay there, unaware of my inner turmoil, and so on. You can probably tell just how successful I was. Stupid teenage body! Stupid raging hormones! (And trying to sleep on hard stone, with only a bedroll as padding, didn’t help either.) Sleep eventually claimed me at some point, but the next morning arrived way too soon.
I groaned as I started to return to consciousness, feeling soreness in my back and neck, and weariness in my head. “Unnngh,” I moaned incoherently. The sun was up, at least far enough that I could tell it was up from inside the tent.
Aylwyn was awake already, doing what looked like some sort of warm-up exercises in the limited space she had to move in. “Difficulty sleeping?” she asked sympathetically. I nodded, and she looked over at me. “I suppose you are not used to sleeping on hard stone.”
Yeah. The hard stone kept me awake. Sure, let’s go with that. “And you are?” I asked. As near as I could tell, she’d spent the last few weeks sleeping on reasonably comfortable beds, just like me.
“I’ve been trained to deal with discomfort,” she said.
“Sure,” I said, grumbling a little. “That, and you can probably use magic to help out. Not to mention having some extra soft padding on your back that I don’t.”
She looked slightly horrified by what I’d said. “You think I sleep laying on my wings, using them as padding?“
“…did I just say something wrong again?”
The angel laughed softly. “You did,” she said, but apparently she was starting to get more used to my ignorant missteps. “They are actually fairly sensitive, and the bones inside are much more fragile than the rest of my skeleton. Crushing them between the weight of my body and hard, unyielding stone would be quite painful. I generally sleep face-down, unlike what I have heard is normal for most humans.”
I let out a soft, slow whistle. “I’m a bit surprised you trust me enough to admit that,” I said, only half-teasing.
She shrugged. “Better that than having to put up with more of your horribly ignorant questions.”
Ouch. I needed some sort of comeback, so I just blurted out, “Well, forgive my imprudent questions, but I must know. If laying on your back is so painful, how do two Celestials–“
“In flight,” she said matter-of-factly, cutting me off before I could finish the question. “In midair.” But from the twinkle in her eye and the subtly smirky curve of her lips, I couldn’t tell if she was serious or putting me on.
It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to push the question any further, though. Time to change the subject. “So can you show me some of those exercises you’re doing? I… correct me if I’m wrong again, but I assume they’re some sort of warm-ups, to limber up and get you ready for physical exertion? I could really use something like that. Especially my back.”
She nodded slowly. “You are right, moreso than most. If you were anyone else, I could use my power to ease your discomfort more directly.”
“Like the horses?”
“Yes. But as I have reason to doubt that it would work at all for you–and as I would prefer not to end up with green wings–something more fundamental will have to suffice. Your bone and muscle structure is similar enough to my own that I believe I could show you some things that will help.”
She wanted to take down the tent first, and then we spent the next half hour practicing stuff, mostly stretches of various kinds. My back was definitely feeling better by the time it was all done. We took a quick breakfast of trail rations, and then she helped me into my harness again and it was time to move on. Hopefully we’d be able to reach the cave by evening.
* * *
There were three more rope points that I had to scale with the aid of her flight. I know it took a lot out of her, but for whatever reason, she was pushing herself a little harder than usual on the way up. We made it to the cave just as the sky was starting to color as the sun made its way down, and I could immediately tell it was the cave, and not just a cave; just stepping up to the mouth of it made my skin tingle.
Sundown was probably not the best time to go into a lair like this, but the cave mouth was facing almost due south, so it’s not like there was any point where it would have an exceptional amount of illumination anyway. “I’m going to need light to see by,” I told Aylwyn.
I figured she would just light up like she occasionally did, but instead she held her hands over her head, and a ball of light, a little bit larger than a fist, faded into existence. With a flick of her wrist, she sent it slowly drifting into the cave tunnel, illuminating the open area fairly well. It seemed to be a fairly straight tunnel, more or less round, about fifteen feet in diameter. The floor was unnaturally smooth, almost polished, which made sense if a dragon had used this as its way in and out for several years. I didn’t get too good of a look, though; the ball only got about ten yards in before something on the wall glowed a deep blue and the ball of light shattered into a million tiny firefly-sized specks, which quickly faded.
I looked over at Aylwyn. “All right, I guess that’s why I’m along. Can you light that spot up again? And get your sword, just in case?”
She rolled her eyes a little at the request and called up another ball of light, but didn’t seem to think the flaming sword would be necessary. Oh well. As long as she could get it ready fast enough in case something jumped out of the shadows at us, I’d be willing to defer to her judgment and experience in the matter. In the meantime, I had some magic to break.
The dragon’s wards yielded easily enough to the Twist. I laid my hand on the cave wall at about the right place, then ran my fingers along the stone until I felt something squirming beneath them. Not that anything was physically moving in the stone; it just sort of felt like that. There was magic there, and it squirmed and wiggled when my entropic touch started eating away at it, and then snapped and began to evaporate after several long seconds.
“All right, this one’s down. Depending on how it’s set up, it may or may not regenerate over time. So we’ll need to be careful on the way back out, but for now we should be safe.”
I found and disabled five more, progressively stronger wards as we slowly made our way down the tunnel. Aylwyn never did need to get her sword out, but I’m sure glad she was along, and not just for the illumination. The tunnel turned sharply after the fifth bend, and began to widen considerably. And as I turned to follow it, the rays of light from Aylwyn’s ball glittered and shimmered back at me from something just up ahead. Gold. Silver. Gemstones. And, laying atop the whole thing, a massive bestial skeleton made of some sort of translucent violet-colored crystal. It was a breathtakingly beautiful sight, and I stepped forward a bit more quickly than was prudent.
Aylwyn suddenly reached out and grabbed me rather firmly by my shoulder, jerking me back. “Ow! What is it?” I asked, wincing and rubbing my shoulder a little.
“Look up,” she said.
I did, and swallowed hard. I’d spent so much time looking at walls and the floor, where the dragon had placed its seals, that I’d completely missed what was almost certainly the workmanship of Ryell, since it appeared to have only one purpose: killing somebody who walked in here with the Twist.
There, suspended high in the air all over the roof of the cave, were dozens of large boulders and thousands of smaller stones. “They’re being held up by magic, aren’t they?” I asked.
She nodded. “A moment.” She sat down on the ground and closed her eyes, taking what appeared to be a meditative pose, and stayed like that for a couple minutes before slowly getting back to her feet. “The entire room is filled with an intricate, delicately-balanced latticework of levitation spells. It would take very little disruption to cause the entire thing to crumble. Perhaps as much as would be caused by you walking over to the skeleton.”
“Thus placing me in right the middle of the room when the rocks start to fall, and everyone dies. Got it. So, can you head in there safely then?”
“I could,” she said slowly, “but I would be levitated by the magic, and unable to reach the dragon’s hoard.”
“And the same would probably happen to me, if I tried to use my ring. So… only I can get in there, but if I do, I bring the whole thing down around our heads. That’s actually quite clever.”
Quite clever, and without any obvious solution. I hate when that happens!