Crystal Awakening Preview


Seer (hand mark), Citrine

Sage bounced on the balls of his feet, willing the line to move faster, though objectively he knew it was his own fault for arriving so late, just as he knew there was nothing he could have done differently that morning. He kept running his hands over his pockets and belt pouches, muttering softly to himself under his breath as he checked off his list of supplies.

“Cane, return bell, shield sigil.” He touched the dueling cane hooked through his belt, and the smallest pouch tied near it, then touched the enchanted metal brooch fastened to his protective tunic. “Rations, potions, and water.” He tugged the strap to his satchel, shifting its weight as a way of confirming its contents. “Cloak.” He caught the fabric between his fingers, giving it a light tug. “Glasses.” A light tap against the frame, confirming their presence on his face.

A final check, one he didn’t murmur aloud, cupped a medium-sized pouch hanging from his belt, this one positioned farther back so it wouldn’t be upset by a hasty draw or mistaken for something important during a time of crisis. His fingers found the rounded shape of the enchanted object, soothed that it was there as he expected it to be, but irritated that it was the reason he was running so late. He’d arrived at the Enchanter’s shop on time — a little early, in fact — but the Enchanter herself had arrived late. It was a thoroughly aggravating reminder that even a Seer could fail to plan for every possible scenario.

“Next!” A harried and gruff-looking woman waved Sage forward. She stood behind a counter beneath the awning marked for the Soaring Wings that administered access to the Tortoise Spire of Dalenos. The spire loomed just beyond the edge of the awning, massive and coal-black, wide enough to make the bright and sunny day seem shadowed and gloomy. Sage still remembered when standing in the spire’s shadow made him feel wary and anxious; now he only felt that way for making his companions wait on his arrival. “Climber identification and team name?”

“Sage, ah, I mean, Seiji Hayden. I’m with the Guiding Star team.”

He rocked from foot to foot as the woman made a loud humming sound, scanning a page in the massive book before her. The Soaring Wings not only protected the Soaring Spires of the goddess Selys, but they also protected civilians from attacks originating from the Soaring Spires. Luckily, attacks were rare, so for the most part, they acted as administrators, confirming identities of climbers, as well as keeping records of Judgments. This climb had been registered with the Soaring Wings a week ago, when Lani and Nieve recruited the final two climbers they needed for a full team. Why was it taking so long for the administrator to find the team’s registration? The others should have all checked in by now.

“Hm, nope. No team by that name listed here.” She gave Sage a pedantic look. “Do you have the right date and time, Mr. Hayden?”

“What? No, I’m sure it’s — ” Sage cut himself off with a groan. “I’m sorry, I forgot it’s a legacy team name. Can you look up Guiding Star Legacy?”

The imperious woman gave Sage a level stare as she flipped a page in her book. She set a finger to the page, dragging it down slowly as she scanned the list of teams scheduled to climb. It was a foolish mistake on Sage’s part, but he usually checked in with at least one other team member, if not all of them, so it was usually someone else who checked him in. Yet another mistake of timing to add to this morning’s tally.

“Hm.” The woman tapped the page, frowning darkly. “You know, you can’t just keep guessing team names until you get one right. The team gets charged for every gate teleport our Wayfarers perform.”

“I know, it was my mistake. But that really is my team,” Sage insisted, trying to sound patient rather than whiny. “I’m sorry, I’m a bit anxious because I’m running late this morning. The team is registered under Nieve Yukihara, it’s her family’s legacy.”

Sage didn’t need to divine the future in order to interpret the malicious glint in the administrator’s eye: he was about to be even later than expected.

“Let’s just double-check and make sure you really are Seiji Hayden, a member of the Guiding Star Legacy team,” the woman said, tapping something in her notes and holding her pen to the page as if marking her place. “Can you show me your attunement mark?”

Sage sighed and held out his right hand, showing her the Seer attunement mark, stark as a tattoo against his pale skin. The question was more invasive than it seemed, and Sage could only be thankful he had a hand mark. He would have been embarrassed to show a heart or leg mark, especially with the line of other climbers just behind him, waiting to reach the Soaring Wings’ Wayfarers, stationed to send climbers to their desired spire gates.

The woman grunted as if dissatisfied but made a check in her book. “Current level?”

“Citrine.” He was both proud and a little abashed to say so out loud. It was the second-highest recognized level, so hard to reach that people often referred to it as “breaching the Sunstone wall.” He’d only recently reached Citrine, but the few people he had told so far all seemed impressed.

“Hmph.” The administrator, it seemed, was not. “What floor is your team currently starting at?”

“Ah, last time we started at seventeen and got up to eighteen.” Sage hedged, unsure what notes the administrator’s book held. “We’re starting on the nineteenth floor today for the first time. We have a key.”

“I see that,” she said with an air of aloof calm, the type of air that said “I can do this all day.” “You mentioned your team leader, Miss Yukihara. What’s her attunement and level?”

As frustrated as he was, Sage knew he didn’t have a choice but to give in to the administrator’s demands. His team had taken two full months off between climbs, a gap that hadn’t been necessary since floors eight and nine, which was the last time they’d needed to recruit a new climber. While Sage mostly climbed for the challenge and the profit, his oldest friend Nieve made no secret of the fact that she wanted to reach the top of the spire and make a request of the goddess. As reaching the top of a spire could often take the course of a lifetime, breaks as long as this one tended to make Nieve restless and irritated; if this climb got delayed because of Sage’s tardiness, he had no illusions that Nieve would drag him to the nearest dueling ground and demand satisfaction. In order to avoid a few bruises, Sage ducked his head and silently invoked a spell in order to speed up his check-in process.

Divine Future.

The vision played out rapidly, like a memory crystal viewed at the fastest setting. The woman was planning to ask Sage about each of his teammates in turn, drawing out the interaction as a petty power play over Sage’s apparent impatience. He let his breath out slowly, keeping his tone as calm and even as possible while he answered all her future questions.

“Nieve has a Champion attunement. She leveled up to Citrine on the last climb, same as I did. Emiko is our Cloudcaller, still Sunstone level. Lani is an Acolyte, she’s been Citrine for a while, I believe she’s a midrange Citrine, if your records show that. Our Soulblade is — ”

The woman grunted but didn’t quite get a word out before Sage shook his head, reminding himself that Ren and Wyle had both retired after the last climb.

“Wait, I’m sorry, we have new climbers on our roster this time.” Sage checked his pocket for a folded piece of paper. He pulled it open, squinting at Nieve’s messy writing. “We have a new Wayfarer, by the name of Aldis Somers. He’s, ah, Sunstone. And the other one is Hane.” No last name was listed, but Nieve had written a note after their name so Sage wouldn’t address them incorrectly when they met. “They’re a Citrine-level Wavewalker.”

“They? A follower of Wydd?” the administrator asked in a bored tone.

“I haven’t met them, so I don’t really know.” Sage tried not to fidget and give away his impatience. “Look, I’m very sorry for forgetting to say that this is a legacy team. I’m running late and that’s my problem, not yours. We found a key to a nineteenth-floor gateway on our last climb, which is higher than any of us have ever been before. I’m sure my teammates are all just as excited to get started as I am.”

Excited and probably impatient. Sage expected at least one tongue-lashing by the time he arrived. If he ever arrived.

The woman sighed, adding a roll of her eyes for a grander effect. “Fine, fine, go on through. Take the line into consideration next time so you don’t keep your team waiting.”

“Yes, thank you, yes.” Sage rushed through the gate, gritting his teeth as he banged his knee against the latch. “I’ll remember for next time. Thanks again!”

Hopefully next time isn’t delayed by a sleepy Enchanter, Sage thought, checking the pouch tied just behind his left hip once again. It was still there, of course. It might be enchanted, but it wasn’t going to vanish just because he took his mind off it for a moment. He’d wanted to give it to Lani at the beginning of the climb, but that was out now. She wouldn’t thank him if she realized it was the reason he was late.

“Hi!” Sage put a cheery smile on his face for the Soaring Wings Wayfarer, putting the administrator out of his mind. “I need to get to the southern gate on the nineteenth floor, please.”

“No problem!” the Wayfarer chirped, giving Sage the kind of smile most people could only conjure in the first hour of their shift. “Have a great climb!”

“Thanks, you too!” Sage cringed as he realized his mistake — he’d expected the Wayfarer to say “Have a nice day,” making his response awkward at best. Luckily, the teleportation spell had already taken effect, thankfully ending the interaction rather abruptly.

Sage’s relief was short-lived. He might have avoided further awkwardness with the Wayfarer, but that only meant he now had to face his team after arriving late.

“Look who finally decided to show up.” That drawl was unmistakably Nieve, her hand hooked over the hilt of her custom-made and custom-enchanted katana. “Would have been nice if you’d told me yesterday that you were going to be late.”

“I’m sorry, everyone.” Sage ducked his head, abashed, holding back a quip about conserving his mana for the climb. “I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”

“Do you have everything this time?” Lani asked archly, her arms folded over her chest. She was roughly the same height as Sage, but she had an imperious way of seeming to glare down at him. “If you forgot your canteen this time — ”

“I have it!” Sage reached back to swing his satchel forward of his cloak, pointing to the canteen lashed to the side. “I have everything this time, I promise.”

“Stop picking on him, you guys!” Emiko jumped forward, looping an arm around Sage’s waist and leaning in for a quick hug. “It gave us some time to get to know our new teammates! Sage, come meet Hane and — ”

“Aldis! Aldis Somers.” A portly fair-skinned man bounded forward, clasping Sage’s hand so suddenly that he very nearly pulled it away out of surprise. The new Wayfarer was taller than Sage by perhaps an inch, with close-cropped brown hair and twinkling blue eyes. He wore a dueling cane on his belt, similar to Sage’s, and wore plain but sturdy-looking quilted armor, typical of most climbers. “How unexpected to be climbing the Dalenos spire with a fellow Valian! After reading the team roster, I thought everyone else was going to be Dalen!” He paused in the middle of pumping Sage’s hand, seemingly aware of the faux pas he’d just made. “Er, not that I have any problem with Dalen climbers. It’s just nice to see a face from home!”

“I’m, ah, not Valian.” Sage tried to break the grip on his hand without seeming rude. “Sorry for any confusion over my name. Everyone calls me Sage.”

Aldis chuckled heartily, nudging Sage with his elbow as he moved to stand by Sage’s side. “That’s really appropriate considering you’re the Seer! Nice to meet you, Sage.”

“Ah, yes. Thank you.” Sage shifted sideways, a little put off by Aldis’s overly friendly greeting. He told himself it was because his team hadn’t had to recruit new climbers in years, so he just wasn’t used to meeting new people. Aldis seemed well-meaning, if a little eager. “Nice to meet you, too.”

“He’s really nice,” Emiko said in a stage whisper, grinning up at Aldis. She took Sage by the hand and tugged him across the balcony outside the spire gateway. “Come meet our new Ren!”

Nieve made a noise deep in her throat that Sage recognized as dubious. Lani shot her a look that he interpreted as “be nice.” Sage had no idea of the newcomer’s talent, but he knew how difficult it would be to fill the hole Ren’s retirement left in their team. And as the other frontline fighter, Nieve would be the one working most closely with the so-called new Ren.

The newcomer, a slender youth a few inches shorter than Sage lounged back against the railing encircling the balcony. They wore black clothing, faded to gray in patches around the knees and elbows, showing its use. Dark hair was cut to chin length, longer in the front than the back. Their arms were crossed over their chest, but they lifted a hand in greeting.

“Hane,” they said by way of introduction. “Wavewalker.”

“Welcome,” Sage said, offering a smile even though the stranger offered nothing by way of expression. “Sorry I’m late. I promise it doesn’t happen often.”

Hane shrugged, saying nothing in return.

“Hane’s a professional contract climber,” Lani put in, standing next to the gate, one hand tapping her belt purse lightly. Sage had learned to gauge her mood by how loudly she made the coins jingle. Right now, the sound was low and muffled, placing her mood at “feigned patience.” “They’re only with us for this one climb.”

Sage cringed. “I didn’t realize that. Sorry, Hane. I hope you won’t judge the rest of the team based on my tardiness.”

“It’s fine,” Hane said in a tone that lacked emotional indicators. “If everyone’s here, can we get started?”

“Ah, yes. Right. Sorry.” Resh it all, Sage could just not stop apologizing today and the climb hadn’t even started yet! His stomach churned unpleasantly as he turned to face Lani and Nieve, both flanking the gate to the nineteenth floor. “Should I have a look?”

“You mean do your job?” Nieve asked with a taunting smirk. Sage knew her well enough to understand that she wasn’t in a bad mood — not yet, anyway — but she’d pick on him regardless for being late. “Why do you think we keep bringing you along? We don’t enjoy your company that much.”

“Rude, Nieve!” Emiko protested, hooking her arm through Sage’s defensively. The way she huffed into her chest and held her head stubbornly high made her look as threatening as a songbird. “I’m sure Sage has a very good reason for being late and you haven’t even asked what it is yet!”

“It’s nothing!” Sage said quickly, eyes darting away from Lani. “Nothing at all. Just slept in today. Totally my fault and I accept responsibility for it.”

Nieve’s grin was wolfish and bright against her dark skin. “Yeah, you will.” She thumped Sage on the shoulder with the back of her knuckles, not really a punch, but not gentle either. Sage scowled at her and jostled her with his shoulder, intentionally wedging himself between her and Lani.

Nieve and Emiko were as good as sisters: Sage had taken all his climbing classes with both of them, had even taken his Judgment on the same day as the both of them. There wasn’t a single embarrassing story they didn’t know about each other, no life event that wasn’t at least partially shared among the three of them, no biting remarks withheld, nor did they hide their relief when they all came out of a challenge together and unharmed. The three of them had started this climbing team under Nieve’s parents’ legacy, mostly for the discount it offered when registering as a climbing team. The team itself had gone through some changes since those early days, but the three of them remained, stalwart and unflappable, and probably would until one of them retired, or died while climbing.

So it was a particularly cruel joke of fate that had both Nieve and Sage vying for the affections of the same woman.

Lani glowered at the two of them, the jingling of coins growing louder. “Let’s get a move on, Sage, we don’t want to sit out here any longer than we already have. Nieve, you’ve got the key ready?”

“Right here.” Nieve smirked as she held up a gray iron key, the reward they’d earned at the end of their last climb — the one that nearly killed them all. Even though they had all survived, two of their former team members had decided to hang up their climbing gear for good. Not that Sage had been too surprised: he expected to hear word of an engagement soon.

Sage hid a scowl as he tapped the side of his glasses: he was the one who had actually grabbed that key before ringing out of the last climb, yet Nieve was the one who looked victorious as she tapped it against her palm. He hated to think that she’d been cozying up to Lani while he’d been anxiously waiting for the Enchanter to open up shop that morning. He wouldn’t score any points with Lani by giving her the gift now; if she knew it was the reason he’d been late, she’d eschew it on principle. Sage would have to pick his moment and give it to her later, hoping that when she made the connection, she would find it amusing rather than annoying.

Channeling a touch of mental mana into his glasses, Sage activated the Divination runes etched into the frame as he sized up the gateway through the lenses. Images flashed by too quickly for him to identify as more than a blur, sounds crashing one on top of the other in a cacophonous roar. He kept his eyes wide and unblinking, focusing on the gateway beyond the flashing images. The visions weren’t as important to process as they were to simply be seen and known: knowledge was power, especially in the eyes of a Seer.

The images continued to flicker one after the other as Sage held his attunement-marked hand out toward the spire’s gateway. “Divine Future.” He said it aloud to let his team know he was focusing, though he’d done this enough times by now that most of them knew not to interrupt him. But better to be safe than sorry with new climbers in the mix.

In general, Seeing the future through a spire door or gateway didn’t work. Once inside a spire room, Sage’s attunement could be used to view the future, or rather possible futures, depending on how his actions changed the outcome of each foreseen reality. But early on in his climbing career — probably around floor six or seven — Sage’s enchanted glasses had turned up in a treasure chest after a particularly grueling challenge. They were specifically designed to work in the Tortoise Spire and must have spent a long time within it in order to possess the wealth of information they held for each floor, room, and challenge. But they could only show what had happened in the past. While assessing a particular door or gateway with the divination glasses, Sage’s attunement could interpret the data into a vision of what awaited them on the other side.

The images on Sage’s glasses continued to flicker even as his vision went blank, wiped clean like a slate. In his mind’s eye, a new set of images took shape behind the rise of a velvet curtain, revealing bits and pieces of what was to come. A fortress surrounded by high walls with storm clouds rapidly approaching. Lightning flashed behind the fort three times; Sage was careful to keep count. A two-headed monster with the second head constantly shapeshifting into something new while the first head remained human, a glowing sword clasped in its hand. A deep, dark lake with something shadowy twisting within its depths. A hand holding out a key that flickered with golden light. And finally, the quickest flicker of reflected light off a surface Sage couldn’t make out, along with the toll of a bell. That was new. He’d never Seen anything quite like that last part before.

“It looks like a scenario room,” Sage told the team, watching the vision as it played out in his head. “We’re defending a fortress. We’ll move on if we can survive a siege for three days. The invading army is a mix of human soldiers, some attuned, and a lot of monsters of varying types. There’s also something about a lake with some treasure, maybe a monster battle? And . . . a trading sequence. Completing the trading sequence gets us an extra key for later on.”

“Any specific warnings?” Lani asked, direct as usual. “Traps? Traitors? Death?”

“Wait a minute!” Aldis protested, pushing forward in front of Nieve and Emiko. “You can See through a gateway? That’s not supposed to be possible! Why isn’t that a skill listed on your team roster?”

Still leaning back against the railing, Hane tipped their head to the side. “Are you hiding your attunement level? Are you actually an Emerald Seer?”

“No!” Sage flushed. He’d gotten so used to his glasses that he forgot how unique they were, especially in combination with his attunement. “It’s these glasses. I got them as a treasure a few years ago. It’s almost like a memory crystal that’s recorded a lot of different rooms within the spire, and when I focus my Sight through the lenses, it shows me the upcoming challenge. It’s not all that special.”

“It sounds special,” Aldis assured him. “Did you have an Enchanter take a look at those? If there’s no patent for them yet, you could be wearing a fortune on your face.”

“Ah, that’s . . .”

“We’re getting off topic,” Lani said sternly. “Sage? Anything else we need to know?”

“Right, sorry.” He concentrated on Lani’s earlier question. “No traps, at least not right inside the doorway. As for our allies at the fortress, I’ll need to meet them before I can be sure.” Sage double-tapped the side of his glasses, deactivating the Divination runes. He turned, putting his back to the gateway in order to study each of his team members. Even with an attunement designed to show the future, there was no guaranteed spell that could accurately predict a team member’s death. Everyone who climbed a spire courted death closely; it was a risk climbers accepted the moment they crossed the threshold. The best Sage could do was use a passive warning spell he called Divine Imminent Threat that would hopefully give him a few seconds’ warning to try to avert disaster. He cast the spell silently over each of his teammates, hoping, as always, that it wouldn’t be necessary.

“Nothing I can See from here, Lani,” Sage said, gaze lingering on her just a touch longer than on anyone else. He felt a familiar touch of heat in his cheeks as he looked away. Her hair looked nice today, all in braids that were twisted into an elegant knot on the top of her head. By the end of every climb, everyone looked so ragged and battered that sometimes he forgot how elegant she could be. Although if Wyle were here, she would have already started taking bets on how long Lani’s intricate braided knot would last after the climb began. She used to take bets on Emiko’s two hair buns, too, but in all the years he’d climbed with her, Sage had never seen Emiko’s hair out of place. It had taken him far longer than it should have to realize she was using enchanted clasps in her hair to keep it from falling out, but he’d never said a thing to anyone — save from placing the occasional winning bet.

“Good. Thanks, Sage. Final checks, everyone.” Lani dropped her hands to her belt, touching the sheathed dirk on the right, the pouch marked with a first-aid symbol tucked right behind it, the hilt of her cutlass on the left, her coin purse, then finally the tiny pouch containing her return bell. With her gloves folded through her belt, Sage couldn’t miss the fact that she’d lost another fingertip. This time it was her left ring finger. He flushed as he noticed, gaze darting away as he made his own final equipment check. He knew it would only start a fight if he said anything, so as much as he hated it, he stayed silent. Fighting wouldn’t change Lani’s mind and all it would do was sour the run. He wished she’d accept a loan from a friend sometimes, rather than surrendering her hand to the mercies of the collection agency. Even if it didn’t affect him in any direct way, he hated to see her lose another knuckle. Too many more, and it would start to impact her ability to climb.

But he’d seen loan offers play out more than once, and they never ended well. Even eternally stingy Nieve had offered to lend Lani cash when she needed it, and Lani had viciously rebuked the offer. After that, neither he nor Nieve had brought it up again. It was almost a challenge now, as if the first one of them to bring it up would lose. Sage shot a subtle glance sideways over at Nieve as he checked his dueling cane once more, trying to see if she’d noticed. By the tight pinch of her lips and her determined stare at the ground, Sage guessed she had.

“Everyone set their anchors, right?” Lani asked as the shuffling tapered off. “Hane, Aldis, did you set your anchors near the team flag?”

Hane nodded, still standing at the edge of the group gathered around the spire gateway.

“I planted mine at the Soaring Wings check-in station,” Aldis said, making a vague motion with his hand. “I can always teleport to you after we ring out.” He chuckled in a way that suggested he was covering up nerves. “Unless you suspect we’ll be out of mana by the end of all this.”

“It’s hard to say,” Lani admitted, ruthlessly honest. By the grim expression on her face, Sage knew she was thinking back to the end of their last climb. “We nearly lost people on our last climb and we were all drained by the time we were able to ring out. This is a new floor for us and the current plan is to at least make it up to the twentieth floor or higher.”

“Or find another gate key.” Nieve tossed the gray gate key up so that it flipped once before she caught it again. “Our last climb lasted ten days and we managed to get through two floors. I expect this one will take longer.”

“If you come early next time, I’ll show you where our flag is,” Emiko offered, smiling brightly at Aldis. “If you want to climb with us again.”

“Ah, thank you.” Aldis’s face was shiny with sweat already. Sage didn’t think it was that hot on the balcony outside the gate. “I’ll take you up on that offer for next time.”

“We’ll see about next time.” Lani’s tone was cool. Direct. “Your experience isn’t what I’d like it to be. For your sake, I hope your travel mana specialization and your doorway theory make up for your level. If not, we’ll look for a new Wayfarer next time.”

Aldis’s cheeks flared red, as if embarrassed, and he muttered something Sage couldn’t quite make out. Not that Sage blamed him for that response: Lani often gave the impression of being cold or uncaring, but that was far from the truth. She was reserved, sure, but her levelheaded leadership had saved the team more than once, and as a healer, she was unparalleled for her level. If it weren’t for her one heretical habit, the temple would probably have hired her to climb with a government-sponsored team, earning a salary in addition to any treasures recovered. When Sage thought about it that way, he was almost thankful that Lani’s missing fingertips gave her away. But that was selfish thinking and he knew it.

“Okay, so after we get the lay of the land, we’ll divvy up the tasks and get to work,” Lani ordered. Sage grunted as Nieve grabbed his shoulder and dragged him backward so she could get to the gateway. He made a face at her as she shouldered past him, only looking back to bare her teeth in a feral grin. “Sage, once we get the basic rundown, take another look, okay?”

“Yes, Lani,” Sage replied promptly.

“Yes, Lani,” Nieve repeated mockingly. The grit and grind of the key was loud enough that only Sage heard her. He pretended that he hadn’t, anyway. The gray stone slab of a door rippled outward from the lock, but not in the same way that water rippled. The movement was more like a shiver through scales, or the ruffled quills of a bird. It always made Sage think of goose bumps. The last ripple ended and the gray stone door faded, the key vanishing along with it. The space beyond was an inky black, not so much a doorway as a portal that would take them to their first challenge of the climb. Nieve swept back from the doorway, deliberately standing in front of Sage as she swept her arm out graciously. “After you, fearless leader.”

Sage couldn’t help but feel a tiny pinprick of jealousy when Lani gave her little purse-lipped smile, the one that said she was amused but not that amused. He reached back and checked the pouch tied to his belt again, feeling the object through the sturdy canvas. The timing was still bad, he knew that, but he wanted so badly to show Nieve up just then. She wasn’t even all that interested in Lani! At least, not the same way he was.

“All right, let’s go.” Rather than step through the portal, Lani reached out and cupped her hand over one of Emiko’s hair buns, shaking Emiko’s head back and forth as the shorter woman squealed a protest. One brief smile, and then Lani stepped through the portal and vanished. Nieve was a little rougher, tugging on Emiko’s hair bun until Emiko huffed and crossed her arms, appearing put out. Nieve grinned, then jumped through the portal after Lani. Sage was about to repeat the gesture but stopped at the mystified looks from both Hane and Aldis.

“Ah, sorry.” Sage cupped his hand over one of Emiko’s hair buns and shook lightly. “It’s a preclimb ritual. We’ve done this since we started climbing.”

“Yes, you have to!” Emiko declared, all signs of irritation vanished from her face. “It’s bad luck if you don’t.”

“I thought preclimb rituals involved prayers and incense,” Aldis said, looking taken aback. “You don’t offer a prayer to the spire’s visage? Or invoke the god beast? What is the significance of pulling on a teammate’s hair?”

Sage exchanged a look with Emiko, her shoulders lifting in a shrug.

“It’s just what we’ve always done,” Sage replied simply. “Our Visage Katashi is busy enough without all the climber teams praying to him. As for Genbu, we’re taught he prefers action to prayers.”

“I lit some incense at the temple and prayed for a safe climb yesterday,” Emiko added on. “Is praying before a climb something Valian teams do before a climb?”

“I’m not sure about Valian teams,” Aldis huffed. “But most of the preclimb rituals I’ve seen at this spire usually at least mention Katashi or Genbu.”

“From what I’ve seen, praying doesn’t make much of a difference.” The soft, clear voice made Sage jump, clasping a hand to his heart. How had he forgotten that Hane was still on the balcony with them? The Wavewalker turned to Emiko, a hand outstretched but stopping short of actually touching her. “May I?”

“Yep!” Emiko dipped her head, though it wasn’t necessary as Hane stood about a head taller than she did. They placed a finger in the center of her hair bun, wiggled it once, then stepped through the portal.

“Rather unorthodox for a healer to go through first, isn’t it?” Aldis asked, eyeing the dark portal beyond the gate with no small amount of trepidation. Emiko sidled up beside him and nudged him with her elbow, smiling as she pointed up at her hair buns. “Oh, fine, if you insist.” He gave the nearest hair bun a tiny twist. “Will that do?”

“Yep!” Emiko reached up and squeezed both her hair buns before looping her arms through Sage’s and Aldis’s. “Let’s go! One, two, three, jump!”

Sage jumped when Emiko did, holding his breath out of habit. The darkness swallowed him completely.

The climb had begun.

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