The river hurled him over the precipice. The boat rode the bumpy cascade a pine tree’s distance to the bottom, splashing nose-first into the stream below. The impact submerged the vessel long enough to draw a few inches of water, but not enough to sink it. When Dalowin opened his eyes and looked up, he found himself floating toward the reflecting pond in the middle.
The ordeal left him speechless.
The boat drifted to the next shore where the channel met the lake. As the vessel touched the rocky bank, Dalowin stepped out and kicked the water off his feet. Silence followed. Inside, he shook, but he didn’t know what to do. The gurgling rush of the falls rumbled back to life. The spill of the river rose from his gut and flooded into his cheeks. The dam in his throat couldn’t maintain its hold any longer.
“What illness has struck your reason?” he asked. “You could have killed me.”
As the water dripped from his metallic coverings, a gale blew down from the tallest canyon wall and knocked him into the stream. For one brief moment he was completely submerged. When he resurfaced, the voice reverberated off the rocks.
“Are you dead?” the voice asked.
“No, I am not dead, but I could be.”
“But are you?”
“Could I speak if I were dead?”
“Draw the boat from the water and ascend the next stair.”
“What? Are you mad? After—”
“Do you trust Me?”
“I do not know who you are.”
“In your spirit, you know. Do you trust Me?”
Dalowin kicked his feet against the rocky path. He didn’t need this, nor did he want it. Ambient voices, unpredictable journeys; all he wanted was to go home.
He glanced up to the precipice from which he had fallen. Aspyre, the Iberian Saddle Horse, was looking down at him. He could sense it snorting as it ate of the grass at its feet. Then it turned around and headed for the forested bank of the river above. Dalowin knew he was on his own now. He shook his head.
“What do you want from me?” he asked the voice of ambience.
“Draw the boat from the water and ascend the next stair.”
Dalowin followed the sheer rock with his eyes to the second ledge and shook his head. It was so much higher than the first.
“As you wish,” he muttered.
It was a difficult reality to process; the voice of ambience was Someone indeed, Someone with an agenda no less, but Someone who knew much more than he did, so he complied. Though he couldn’t stifle his resentment, he pulled the boat out of the stream, dumped the water from the hull, and carried it to the adjacent stair, which climbed about a hundred feet to the next level.
The higher ledge resembled the one below, though a bit wider, a lot darker from shadows cast down from the thousand-foot sheer rock, and more unkempt. The grass was wilder and the gnats busier. Dalowin huffed in his exhaustion as he threw the boat to the ground. The second stair wasted his stamina.
The river on the second tier had a wider channel than the first, but it flowed a little more slowly. Currents hugging the banks oozed, while the deeper regions moved at a resistible speed. Scents of decaying fish emanated from downwind.
“Set the boat in the water,” said the whispering breeze.
“But at this height the fall will kill me.”
He waited for the voice to respond.
“Why do you wish to kill me?” he asked.
“Do you trust Me?” asked the voice, fainter than ever.
Dalowin wasn’t sure what to say. He nodded, though the tear in his eye left him questioning the truth. His fear outweighed his courage.
“Set the boat in the river.”
Continuing to nod, though he didn’t know why, he dragged the boat to the water’s edge. Climbing stairs and falling down waterfalls took its toll on his body. But he pressed on. When he set the boat into the stream, he entered the hull and let it carry him to the next precipice. He held his breath as he drew closer and closer.
Though he could justify survival from the first fall, he wasn’t sure what to make of the second. There was still enough ground presence from the lower tier to sense the swiftness of the drop, but from this level, he could not see the bottom. His vision permitted him sight of only the rock wall across the lake and the huge pit in between. Anxiety tapped him on the shoulder and clawed at his chest as he waited. Then the river took control of his future.
From this height, his stomach lost anchor. As the nose tipped over the edge, the rush of the plunge engulfed most of his boat. Far below, the central lake expanded across the rocky canvas; then it fled behind the curtain of water closing over his eyes. Within a second he lost contact with all surfaces, feeling only the torrent on his back and his sword detaching from his waist.
The end came as quickly as the beginning.
When he splashed into the stream, he dropped knees first. His boat landed a few feet to his left and his sword thrusted away like a missile, just inches to his right. Both he and the weapon went under so deep that he hit the bottom. The fall drained him; he didn’t have the strength to kick back to the surface.
“It is not finished yet,” gurgled the voice of ambience. “Remove what armor you can and swim to the boat. I will give you the strength to make it.”
Though he was tired, Dalowin felt the second wind hit him, even at the depths of the stream. Heeding the surge of energy, he unfastened the straps holding his breastplate together and slung it over and off his head. The strain on his muscles exhausted what remained of his lung capacity, but he was buoyant enough now to return to the surface. Grabbing his sword from nearby, he kicked away from the bottom and rose into the violent bubbles of the falling stream.
When he reached the surface, he inhaled volumes of air. Survival had never felt so refreshing. It was like watching a ship coming to rescue a survivor from a deserted isle. He whooped with whatever amount of strength he could muster.
Once he got hold of his boat and floated to the shallows of the shoreline, he climbed onto the next rocky platform and fell onto his back. For several minutes, he panted as the sunshine spilled over him from high above the bowl. When his strength finally returned, a swift breeze shot down the sides of the canyon and across his face.
“Dalowin,” said the voice of ambience, “it is time to climb the final stair.”