The steep climb was the most physically demanding thing Arizeem ever did, and it had barely even begun. Even the strongest wingbeat seemed to push him up only a little bit, whereas a single missed flap allowed him to be yanked down by gravity’s merciless choke. Despite all the effort, the cliff edge didn’t seem to come any closer. If only he were even a little bit less tired, or in a little better shape, it would have made all the difference. However, in the current circumstances, the edge might have been as high as the sun itself. The strenuous horizontal flight had done its damage, or, in other words, fulfilled its purpose.
There were, of course, many other Avriels. Some had little issues, and moved up quickly. More were on the ground, recuperating after having given up. Most were struggling on the cliffside just as he was, stuck between triumph and defeat. Arizeem was quickly approaching the latter. His climb rate was slow, and even though he managed to conserve some strength by pacing himself during the horizontal flight phase, he began to suspect that he can’t sustain the strenuous climb for long enough to reach the cliff edge. Arizeem smiled without any mirth. Apparently, he was unfit to be an Athart brute. The thought was insulting, yet strangely calming at the same time.
So, why was he even trying? He couldn’t rightly tell. But it was something to do, something that didn’t involve banging his head against his artist block or binge drinking to keep the malaise at bay. Moreover, having lost so many times, even a small hope for victory in whatever form appealed to him. He wanted to confirm his belief that he is no worse than any other recruit, no matter how little it actually mattered. He was going to reach that cliff edge, by hook or crook. He widened his climbing spiral ever so subtly. It was safe to assume he was being watched; all recruits were. He could almost feel the eyes of the overseeing soldiers upon him. It had to be done with some subtlety. As his climbing spiral turn took him near the side of the cliff, he angled his torso and head into the spiral to act as if he were doing a normal turn, but reached out with his outer wing to discreetly skim the cliffside updraft. The kick of the rising air came immediately, and Arizeem had to awkwardly tilt the wing to transfer the powerful impulse into speed instead of climb. Quick climbing at the slope would make his efforts very obvious, whereas the speed could be bled into the climb gradually in a controlled manner. When he finally had to break from the cliffside, he did so far from any other recruit to make the speed difference less obvious. For a time, his upward flaps now needed much less strength for the same result. Even after he spent all the kinetic energy, his somewhat rested wings could bite into the air with renewed vigor. Arizeem was surprised with how well his little ruse worked. His experience in acting was certainly the last thing he expected to use today.
With another turn of the climbing spiral, Arizeem stealthily dipped into the cliffside upstream once more. The progress was much faster this way; he was now well over half way up. He reused the same method every turn of the spiral, again and again. It was on the fourth turn when he ran out of luck. An overseeing soldier, a young lightly built guy with blue-on-grey speckled feathers, dove down on him with evident purpose. The soldier hovered next to Arizeem, easily keeping up with him. “Hey, seventy three! You better knock that off!”
“Huh?” Arizeem decided to play dumb. He was told on several occasions that he was good at it. Well, in retrospect, much of that praise might have been meant as backhanded compliments.
“I saw what you were doing, so save that expression for the officers.” The soldier laughed. ”But seriously, don’t make me send you all the way down!”
Arizeem’s jig was up, and there was no way he could reach the cliff edge without his little cheat. “You might... as well... now.”, panted Arizeem. He was thoroughly disappointed, the bitter, well known taste of defeat already tugging his lips downwards.
The soldier’s features sank. “Hey, I know it sucks! I was flapping up this damn cliff less than two arcs ago… you just have to do it!”
“Damn... can’t.”, gasped Arizeem. The burn in his wings was picking up again, as they had to keep him afloat solely under their own power. Arizeem felt that they might soon cramp up, and that will be it. He hated the soldier. If he really wanted him to succeed, he wouldn’t have interfered. It was a little too late to play at being helpful. At least he had the courtesy to look guilty.
“Don’t you fucking give up now!”, yelled the soldier into Arizeem’s face, ”You are almost there! Go!”
“Why… trying...” Arizeem tried to question both the soldier’s motives and sanity, but the words refused to come out. His progress was slow, almost non-existent. The cliff edge was indeed closer now, but both of his wings seemed to be made of lead.
“Why try?! Don’t you want the better training? To do more interesting stuff?!”, misinterpreted the soldier.
Arizeem, as pissed as he was at the apparently quite dull soldier, couldn’t help but to latch onto the last two words. What does ‘interesting stuff’ even mean? Worthy? Challenging? Engaging? Meaningful? Whatever it meant, Arizeem would of course prefer to do ‘interesting stuff’. Too bad that his body wasn’t going to make it. “Cramps… ”
“Cramps?! Don’t flap around! Up! Fast!”, barked the soldier insistently.
The dumb soldier was probably right for once, Arizeem realized. His air time is limited. A final, all out push might serve him better than playing a prolonged tug-of-war with gravity. Steeling himself for the bit to come, he drastically increased his climb angle and started beating with all his wavering might. The cliff wall was passing by quickly. So was Arizeem’s energy. He felt light-headed.
”Yes! All out! I got you if you flop!” The voice came from as if from a distance, barely hearable against the heartbeat in Arizeem’s ears. However, the words of assurance were welcome. Once unconscious, he wouldn’t even be able to glide into safety.
”Up! Kill it! Push!” More words. The pain from the wings stopped, they were numb. Somehow, they still worked, they still pulled him up one wingbeat after another. The racing heartbeat and quick, ragged breath amalgamated into one disordered cacophony, no longer distinguishable from each other. There were more words, some even from other voices, but they had no meaning. An eternity passed and the edge was right there, the line between rock and sky, but it was also moving; twisting and turning in nauseating patterns, threatening to slip away at any moment. Like a child that was only just developing hand-eye coordination, Arizeem touched the edge to keep it from spinning. It only made his hand spin with it. Luckily, the blackness was there to dim the wild imagery a little. The second hand was placed on the edge, probing it with its claws. It was hard, as if made of rock. Figures. The claws scraped against it, as the previously steady and uniform bumps provided by the wings slipped, now coming only from one side. He had to hold fast, if he didn’t want the edge to shake him off completely. On the next wingbeat, he threw the leg onto and over it. Then, the rest of his body. The edge turned out to have a very comfortable side, filled with soft, soft gravel. It hurt his right wing every now and then, but it was still bliss compared to the trills before.
“Seventy three up!”, said some voice.
“You can stop beating that wing now, you idiot!”, said some other voice.