“Before one can learn to increase his or her shifting, one must increase his or her body’s endurance. Each spark of flame, churn of the water, lift of the ground, gust of wind, or surge of lightning, depletes the body of energy.” He stops at looks at them. “We have learned to both decrease the energy output of shifting and teach our bodies to withstand the shifting for as long as we need it, which hopefully isn’t very long.” He continues to pace. “Lee knows of our full power.” Lee nods shamefully as they look to him. “We can alter the very ground you stand on if we saw it fit.” They all look down and move their feet in some way.
“But this level of shifting takes decades to learn and control. What we hope to see by the end of this is far short of that.” He stops and points at Keenen, “Keenen. We expect you and Sheik to be able to create tornadoes four times your own height and have them last from here to that city just over there.” He points at Isaiah. “Isaiah. We want you to be able to breathe the dragon’s breath before this is over. Do you all understand what I mean by this?”
“Yes,” they respond.
“Good, because training is starting, now.” He looks up to Mount Yangpa in amazement. “Climb this mountain. And from there, we will know if you’re able.” He turns from them. “You have three days.”
The group panics at the presentation of the first test. They talk amongst themselves as they discuss the ridiculousness of such a feat. No one has ever climbed 13,000 feet in a week. The mountain stands in front of them like a bad omen. Its multiple walls and plains leading to the spiraling cone in the center do not bode well for them. Cyclone steps back to chuckle with the others.
Isaiah pulls the group in. “We can do this,” he encourages.
“It takes at least a week to climb this mountain,” Brandon counters.
“I don’t have any climbing gear either!” Trae adds.
“I can’t make a stairwell. I’m not that good a shifter,” Diamond continues.
They look at the first cliff they must climb. It is 70 feet high with no clearly manageable path. Three days from now they must be at the top of Mount Yangpa. The only way to climb up the mountain is to climb up three different cliffs that circle around the mountain. After each cliff is a plateau that leads to the next cliff. There are four layers of plateaus before the last wall leads to a circular path twirling up to the mountain’s peak.
Tsunami walks over to their horses. “And you won’t be needing these,” she says as she smacks each one and causes them to run off.
“The rest of my gear’s on that horse!” Sheik complains.
“Make sure your bodies are ready, then we’ll worry about gear and armor,” Omni says.
Isaiah looks at the wall and begins to climb the wall. He reaches for an opening but falls back down.
“Can’t climb a mountain with armor on can you?” Inferno laughs.
Isaiah tries to climb again, ignoring Inferno. He gets off the ground and then reaches the opening he reached for previously. In his excitement, he pulls himself higher and tries to reach for another sturdy part but slips and falls. Cyclone breaks his fall with a gust of wind, and then Isaiah lands flat on his back. He squirms.
“That wasn’t a challenge, Isaiah,” Cyclone explains. “Take the armor off, all of you. It will only slow you down.”
Each of them strips their armor off to leave them only with their weapons and clothes. Isaiah goes to climb again, this time with Keenen next to him. They both begin climbing up the mountain. Isaiah hurries his way ahead of Keenen while Keenen tries to find the strength to maintain his grip. In just a few minutes, Keenen finds his hands at Isaiah’s feet. He thrusts himself too far and begins slipping back down. Isaiah drops down and manages to catch Keenen before they both fall. Isaiah holds Keenen up with all his strength. Keenen grips the ledge and exhales in frustration.
“It seems they need help,” Storm chimes in looking at the four still on the ground.
The rest begin to climb the wall with Keenen and Isaiah. Brandon stays near the bottom to prevent people from falling too far down. The other three get the hang of climbing rather quickly and find themselves catching the tired Isaiah and Keenen. Halfway up the wall, Keenen stops. He reaches for the next opening but misses. He stops and takes a moment to rest his hands as much as possible by putting more weight on his legs. Trae catches up with Keenen.
“Come on, Keenen. You can do it,” Trae encourages.
Keenen nods and reaches again but misses again.
“You already have your weight on your legs; just push the rest of you up.” Isaiah explains.
Keenen nods but doesn’t move. The others slow down to make sure he’s okay.
“Come on, kid,” Brandon utters under his breath.
“Come on,” Diamond says as she continues to climb. “I know you can do this.”
Keenen inhales and then continues to climb. The Dragoons cheer below as the group pushes each other up the cliff. Isaiah reaches the top first and helps the others reach the top as they come within arm’s reach. It takes them ten minutes to climb the wall. The Dragoons fly up on the wind from Cyclone and land next to them.
“Good job. Only three to go,” Cyclone says. The group is huffing and puffing but still smiling. “See you at the top.” He looks to Lee. “Why exactly are you here?”
Lee shrugs, and smiles like a boy seeing his surprise party being set up. “I wanted to see if there was something I missed.”
“We don’t normally allow just anyone to see us training, but- it is you.”
“Still not a good reason,” Inferno defends.
“True- but I trust him.”
The Dragoons take Lee with them as they hover their way to the top of the mountain. The group lies out on the grass and rests for a little while. They look toward the center of the mountain to see how far there is to go. At first glance the journey looks to only take about a day, but as the spiral goes high up into the sky, the days seem to increase.
“Ah…My hands,” Keenen says panting. “So how are we supposed to get up there in three days?”
Also panting, Trae says “I don’t know. I don’t know how we’re even supposed to get food.”
Isaiah stands to his feet still winded. “We have to make it to the second cliff before night. That’ll mark a good start for us. The plateaus above look much shorter, but the walls are higher, so most of the days ahead will involve climbing and less walking.”
Brandon looks up. “That shouldn’t be hard at all.”
“Well if it isn’t… Let’s just rest,” Trae complains.
They all lay on their back and rest. Isaiah stares at them.
“No! We have to keep pushing,” Isaiah commands. They all groan. “We just started! We can’t show them we’re already too tired to continue!”
“We’re all not mountain climbers like you, Lieutenant,” Trae says. Isaiah walks over to Trae and lifts him from the ground. “Let go of me!” Trae shouts.
The rest of them stand up.
“Let him go, Isaiah,” Keenen warns.
Isaiah lets Trae go. “So I see we’re all not that tired.” He brushes his hands on Trae’s clothes. “Let’s move out!”
“Who made you leader?” Sheik asks.
“Sheik don’t,” Diamond whispers.
“Does anyone else have experience as a ranking officer in an army?” he asks blatantly. “No? I didn’t think so!”
Sheik approaches Isaiah, “I’ve handled men like you before!”
Isaiah utters through his clinched teeth, “Back, off, legend.”
The two of them stare each other down as the others try to convince them to stop.
Brandon murmurs, “Well aren’t we all just pathetic,” which begins a streak of blaming and pointing fingers. Keenen just stares. Thirty minutes into training and already a fight is about to break out over leadership. Keenen thinks to himself and considers what Lee would do.
“Alright, I’m out!” Keenen yells as he starts walking off.
Isaiah looks to Keenen, “Where are you going!?”
“Let him go!” Sheik demands.
“I want to make it to the second cliff before the sun goes down,” Keenen says as he paces for the center of the mountain. “You’re all welcome to join me if you want to see this thing through.”
They all watch him slowly making his way to the second cliff. The tension all but ends as the breeze hums in their ears. Keenen keeps pace, never looking back.
“Hold on, I’m coming!” Trae shouts as he hurries up to catch Keenen.
Brandon continues to follow Keenen as well.
Diamond looks over to Sheik, “Come, Sheik. Let’s go.”
Sheik turns to walk away, but Isaiah grabs his shoulder and says, “This isn’t over, legend.”
Sheik jerks his shoulder away from Isaiah and joins with Diamond to follow behind the group. Isaiah adjusts his clothes and reluctantly follows behind. The walk becomes a jog, but it isn’t far and things seem to be going steadily. They jog in groups: Brandon, Trae, and Keenen at the front; Sheik and Diamond in the middle; Isaiah is alone in the rear. With each step, the air becomes more and more unbearable, but not in the way they expect. Isaiah stretches articles of his clothing to give his body some air to breathe in. Trae continually wipes sweat from his forehead, unsure if this is how the weather is supposed to be. The sky changes into a bright orange as the hour goes by. Upon closing in on the second cliff, Brandon begins to take off his cloak.
“I’m assuming this isn’t the typical weather here, and that Inferno is making the sky hotter with a fire somewhere in the sky,” Brandon mentions.
Trae looks up into the sky, “I think you’re right. The sky is awfully orange right now.”
Keenen presses a hand against his forehead, “Feels like the south coast except the air is thinner and not muggy.”
“I would say let’s find some shade but I doubt it would help,” Brandon says.
Diamond looks at the ground alarmed by something. She kneels down and feels the grass beneath her. She then presses her ear against the ground and listens carefully. No one is paying attention to her. Keenen and Brandon debate whether or not shade is all they need while Isaiah stays quiet listening in. As Diamond focuses, she can feel something burrowing underneath them. As she listens closely, the burrowing stops. She hears growling and jumps to her feet.
“Everybody move!!!” she warns.
Before anyone can react, three wolves jump their way out from underneath the ground. One knocks Diamond over while the other two help. Sheik instantly goes to her defense, but another wolf thrusts itself from the underground and attempts to bite him. Diamond manages to wrestle a dagger from her hip and tries to fend off the hungry beasts. Keenen blows the wolf off of her and Brandon takes a wolf down with his spear. Sheik kicks the wolf attacking him and the group repositions themselves together as the wolves close in for a second attack.
“What kind of wolves can dig underground!?” Keenen asks startled.
Sheik observes the wolves. “I have no idea but I highly doubt these are wolves!”
Sheik is right. The animal has the head and walk of a wolf, but its legs are short with paws that look like the paws of a mole. Their hair is short and their eyes solid black. The wolves close in, growling. They seem to be part wolf and part mole. Regardless of the mutated appearance, the wolves remain a danger to them. Isaiah shoots a fireball at one and the other two stay away. Diamond takes an arrow from her quiver and shoots the burning wolf through the head. Sheik goes to chase one down, but as soon as he takes off, a wolf pops its head up from beneath the ground and bites him in the calf. Sheik falls to the ground screaming in agony as the wolf jerks its head around.
Keenen looks desperately to Diamond, “Diamond! If you can, make sure all these things stay above ground and keep track of their positions.”
She nods. “I’ll try.”
She gets a feel for the ground beneath her feet and senses the location of the other wolves. Brandon removes the wolf biting Sheik, and the group protects him. Including the two dead ones, there are ten wolves total. Without hesitation she locates the buried wolves and slowly forces them above ground by making the ground shake. The wolves rise above the ground and circle them.
“Isaiah, Brandon! Burn or electrocute as many of them as you can,” Keenen orders.
Brandon immediate goes to sending out little shockwaves of electricity to the wolves and makes some break off from the circle. Isaiah sees the effectiveness of the shocks and follows suit. Keenen then charges at one of the isolated wolves and chops at its neck, killing it. One by one, the group stuns and slays a wolf while Diamond keeps them afraid of burrowing back underground.
Diamond’s hands begin to shake, “I can keep this vibration up for too long!”
As he kills another wolf with his spear, Brandon answers, “There’s only a handful left. Just hold on.”
She nods unconfidently.
Three wolves remain when Diamond collapses from exhaustion. The wolves burrow beneath ground and never resurface. Keenen runs to Sheik and helps him to his feet. With Sheik under his shoulder, Keenen begins to help him march to the second cliff.
“We have to get out of here before they return with more,” Keenen warns.
Isaiah helps Diamond to her feet. “The cliff is only one more mile. If we can make it, maybe the wolves will stop following us.”
“Or whatever those things are,” Brandon adds.
“Has anyone ever seen those things?” Trae asks.
Some shake their head, others say, “no”. Brandon goes to help Keenen aid Sheik and the rest follow behind them. Within a few minutes, they reach the cliff, which is twice as high as the first one. The heat simmers a little, and the sun is halfway down the sky, helping the sky maintain its orange glow.
“Are you going to be able to make it?” Keenen asks Sheik.
Sheik reaches for the cliff, “Yeah. I think I can manage.”
“I would ask Diamond to make a path up the hill but I think she’s too tired,” Isaiah mentions.
“No, I’m fine. But I can’t shift rock. It’s too dense; too heavy for me. I can only do soil and dirt to an extent,” she explains.
“We can’t have you collapsing again anyway. We just have to climb. Sheik, you go first with Isaiah beside you since he’s good at climbing and strong enough to catch you if you fall. Diamond and I will remain here to stop the wolves. Everyone else climb,” Keenen suggests.
“I’ll stay. You help Sheik,” Isaiah challenges.
“You are more useful to us by helping Sheik, Isaiah.”
“Lieutenant Isaiah to you, and my shield can help prevent these things from jumping up to get you!”
“So can my wind shifting! Stop playing rank and just help Sheik climb! No one else is better suited for that, but we can all fight,” Keenen yells.
“They’re coming back!” Diamond warns.
Isaiah thinks for a moment. “Fine.” He turns to Sheik. “Let’s go.”
Sheik nods. Together he and Isaiah begin scaling the wall while Diamond keeps a steady ear to the ground. Brandon and Trae begin to climb and Keenen stays next to Diamond anxious. He constantly asks for updates and she helps. Twenty feet up the wall, Isaiah suggests Diamond and Keenen begin to climb. Keenen helps Diamond climb first. She climbs ten feet when a wolf jumps up from the ground at Keenen. Keenen sidesteps and the wolf slams into the wall. Diamond loses her grip but Keenen sends a gentle wind up her back to press her back against the wall.
Keenen then runs away from the group to draw the wolves to him. Isaiah pushes Sheik harder so that he can climb back down in time to help Keenen. Diamond does her best to distort the ground below but the wolves come out in droves to scratch and bark at them. Luckily for them, they are too high for their claws and teeth. Keenen, on the other hand, is dodging the surprise pop-ups from other wolves.
He runs in circles around the wolves, and blasts a few of them with gusts of wind to draw them away from the wall. In the middle of his running a wolf bursts up from the ground with its mouth aiming for Keenen’s head. Keenen goes to punch the wolf and a strong gust of wind blows the wolf back thirty feet. Surprised by his strength, Keenen gets caught by a claw on his shoulder. Keenen grunts and turns back to the wall.
“That’s it!” Isaiah yells. “Sheik, can you use the wind to burst yourself up higher?”
Sheik thinks about it and answers, “Maybe, but we’re barely halfway. I can’t promise I’ll make it.”
Isaiah screams in frustration. With one hand he holds himself up. He turns around and sees the wolves following close behind Keenen. He begins shooting small fireballs at them to give Keenen a little room to break away from their pursuit. Keenen gives him the thumbs up and continues circling once again. Sheik climbs up to a small pathway leading to the top of the cliff.
“Hey guys, there’s a small pathway over here that leads to the top!” Sheik declares.
Isaiah quickly climbs up behind him to the path and together they hurry their way to the top. With the others still trying to climb their way over to the path, Isaiah begins shooting larger fireballs down at the wolves, creating pockets of burning grass in Keenen’s circular path.
“You’re! Not! Helping! Isaiah!” Keenen says nearly out of breath.
“I’m trying to stop them from eating you alive! Do you mind!?” Isaiah asks as he continues to burn the plateau below.
Within a few minutes the field is ablaze and Keenen can’t circle anymore. Luckily for him, the wall is within view and the others have gotten to the path. Keenen dashes towards the wall. He looks up at the top and knows he can’t make it, but the path halfway up might be a good chance. Running full speed, Keenen jumps into the air and curls up. He then bursts wind into the ground in order to thrust himself higher on the cliff. Others watch as Keenen’s body flies straight at the wall. Keenen unfolds himself and prepares to collide with the rock. As expected, he slams into the wall. He instantly begins to fall when suddenly a patch of soil breaks his fall. Keenen looks up to Diamond, who is still on the pathway but has enough strength to have her hands extended towards Keenen with the soil under her control.
“Get – up,” she manages to grunt out.
Keenen leans forward and grips the wall solidly. Diamond lets the soil drop back down to the growling and barking wolves below. Some of the wolves burrow beneath the ground while the others continue to claw at the cliff for Keenen. The soil dug up from the burrowing puts out a few fires, and the remaining flames don’t seem to be spreading. Diamond isn’t moving further up the wall. She stands next to where she was when she turned to help Keenen. Sheik looks at her worried.
“Come on, Diamond. You can do it. Climb up here,” Sheik encourages.
The others begin cheering her on while she tries to muster up enough strength to take another step. Keenen makes it to the pathway and slides his way over to Diamond. She looks at him, lowers her head, looks down, and then tries to relax on the wall.
“Come on, Diamond,” Keenen says.
She looks at him afraid. “I don’t have much strength left.”
Keenen sees her breaking down, so he reaches for her back to keep her against the wall. Blood seeps from her nose. She plugs her nose and lifts her head. Together, the two slowly scale the path up to the top of the cliff. Sheik comes back to help Diamond up to the second level plateau. He hugs her tight as he tries to make sure she’s ok. The others talk about the wolves and their strange involvement in the first day of training as Isaiah heats a dagger for Sheik.
“Do you think the Five Dragoons made them?” Trae asks.
“No one has that kind of power,” Brandon reassures.
“And their ability to dig that fast… remarkable,” Isaiah ponders.
“If it’s all the same to anyone, I think we should rest,” Keenen suggests.
They nod and make camp. The air cools down; Inferno must be done tampering with the atmosphere. Brandon puts his cloak back on and stares at the ground between his feet. They sit in silence wondering what else they may see up the mountain. With the evening in full effect, they only have two more days to reach the top.