Section I: Episode 5
August 17, 2014
Second-place Galavar looked around. He had climbed the net; now it was time for the heavy lifting.
Nightlight was nowhere to be seen. She had already completed the challenge, and was gone. Instead there were throngs of cheering spectators, held back behind crude stanchions. They framed an open dirt area where Galavar saw the baskets he would need to lift. The baskets were arranged along a series of tiered platforms. The challenge was clear: He would have to carry all of his baskets to the top platform tier.
Behind the platforms, the seven remaining joggers waited to take on the final leg of the relay. Galavar finally noticed his team member Ornithate and realized that she was shouting at him. Her eyes were lit up and she was jumping and waving.
"What did you say?!" he called.
"You're almost there!" she cried, straining for her tiny voice to be heard over the din. "Nightlight just left!"
"How'd she do it?"
"I couldn't see!"
That was by design. And the crowd had a tradition: They'd never say.
"Was it easy for her?"
"I think so. She was fast."
I wonder what she did.
Galavar jogged forward to the platforms, flexing his exhausted arms. On the ground before the first tier was a row of seven baskets, each filled with rocks. The platform behind it stood about hip-high. Were it not for the jar of water, this would be easy.
Taking the jar in his left hand and putting the baton in the grip of his teeth, he tested the weight of the first basket with his right arm. It was heavy. But he hoisted it up with a huge grunt, then braced the jar underneath it to lend extra strength from his left arm, and that was enough for him to guide the basket onto the platform. Then he carefully climbed onto the first tier himself. It was a lot more difficult with the water jar, which he wasn't allowed to set down, but he managed it, and the crowd shouted approval.
On the first tier was the basket he had just placed, along with another row of seven more baskets. These ones were bigger and clearly heavier, and the next tier was belly-high.
Galavar took a couple of breaths and flexed his exhausted arm, then dove right into the thick of it. He hefted up the first basket, again with his right arm, and with a maddened groan he got it up high enough for him to put his left hand underneath the bottom, and guided the basket onto the second tier.
He switched the jar of water over to his right hand, and with all his strength he took up the second basket. This one must have been half again as heavy as the first, and even the wicker fibers groaned from the strain. Sweat poured out of him and he muttered incoherently, probably swearing.
Entallil arrived at the top of the net, and the crowd began cheering for her. She had a lovely name, an homage to the harsh winds of the highest high desert. Even now some corner of Galavar's mind found strength to admire it.
From the corner of his eye, he saw her appear at the bottom line of baskets, just a couple paces away from him.
"I seem to have dropped mine," said she. "Could you come down here and get it?"
With what truly felt like every portion of his power, Galavar hoisted the second basket onto the second tier, nearly tipping the water jar at the end as he scrambled it out from beneath the basket. His muscles were trembling, and when he climbed up to the second tier himself he just stood there for a moment, panting.
His thoughts wandered for a moment, to the legend of the orange salamander. One of the biggest naturally occurring animals out here in the wastes was the orange-, yellow-, and brown-banded orange salamander, and, although a village of people devoted to logic did not make the best sort for believing in legend, legend held nevertheless that salamanders from all over the world would sometimes spend several lifetimes to approach this forsaken place, returning with each death as a hardier, more arid-dwelling variety. Most would give up along the way, or be destroyed utterly, and for them there would be nothing more, but those who made it through every lifetime to at last reach the Village of Ieik and climb to the Streams of Stone were said to transform into dragons, and take flight into their new destiny.
Entallil's grunts began to sound out below him, and then he heard another name on the voice of the crowd: Remedy. Somehow he had recovered from his disastrous fall in time to keep fourth place.
From here, Galavar could see the top tier. A couple of slots away were the three baskets Nightlight had lifted, all neatly arranged inside a larger circle with her team's color painted on it. Meanwhile, his three baskets all sat on the second tier, waiting impatiently for him to lift them to glory. How much time had he lost getting this far? How had Nightlight done it so fast without cheating? She was strong, but not as strong as he was, not even close.
"Good form, mates!" Remedy shouted as he joined them at the platforms.
"Aaargh!" shouted Entallil.
"It's harder than it looks," Galavar said, unable to help himself from gasping.
The final tier was chest-high. Galavar was a tall mate; chest-high for him was neck-high for Nightlight.
"How can it be? Are we allowed to throw the rocks one at a time?" he asked himself. No, surely not.
Even without the water jar, this would have been hard.
Galavar stopped and took stock of his immediate surroundings. Maybe there was something he had overlooked, a tool—or anything.
What would Javelin do? His wisecracking team captain would probably have figured it out by now. She was smart; her air of superiority was a façade for somebody who cared very deeply about failing. He appreciated that.
He could stack the baskets, and use the lighter ones as steps. But…they had big, half-hoop handles on the tops. The handles would get in the way. A glance over at Nightlight's baskets showed that their handles were all perfectly intact. So that wasn't it.
Wayhanding★ wasn't allowed, nor any other kind of appeal to the Power of the Gods. Neither could Galavar put down the jar into the basket and rest it there; he had to keep a grip on it at all times.
He would just have to lift it all up directly.
He dragged the baskets close to the third platform, then climbed onto the smallest one and squatted down. With a mighty heave, he took the third basket up in both arms, gripping the handle with his right hand directly and using the topside of his left forearm as he held onto the jar.
Then he tried to stand up. The basket probably weighed as much as he did, and he was lifting it from below his feet.
He regretted joining the team. He regretted ever training to be a bodybuilder. He scratched his vocal chords growling, and heaved for all he was worth. Every part of him strained, but none more than his shoulders and arms and fingers. It was all he could do to remember not to grasp the jar too tightly, lest it shatter.
The biggest basket came up to the top of the smallest basket, where he was standing, and in one fluid motion he squatted down again and gripped the underside with his hand. His grip held.
Now came the hard part.
His face red, his heart pounding, he give it his very all, and scooped the whole thing up as one would cradle a load. Immediately he flung his left arm underneath it for extra purchase, and in one fluid motion he yelled at the top of his lungs—though he had never been much of a yeller—and raised the basket up to his head and veritably threw it onto the third platform, where it landed with a dull thud.
He'd done it. The crowd roared. He sat down on the basket of rocks to catch his breath.
All the other bodybuilders were among him now, at the platforms, but he was still in second place. Next closest was Remedy, who was just about to finish getting the second of his two platforms up to the platform where Galavar now sat.
"I was hoping you'd have some easier trick for us to follow," Remedy said to him. Galavar just raised a hand in the negative and panted. He began to covet the water in his jar, which looked perfectly drinkable.
Instead, he stood up. His bolt really was coming loose now, but he didn't particularly care. He squatted down, and took up the second basket. He'd done the heaviest one first because he knew there was no way he could clear the mental hurdle of progressively heavier obstacles, but the next-heaviest one was no joke either.
Thinking sweet thoughts, he conquered it, tossing it up to the final platform just as he'd done with its heavier mate.
Now the end of his tribulation was in sight. Ignoring the crowd and the sounds of his competitors, he climbed off the smallest basket and lifted it up, and tossed it up.
Then he took the jar in his right hand one last time, his right arm being more exhausted than the left, and climbed up the final platform, using the heaviest basket for extra purchase when he got high enough. With one final grunt and half a roll, he made it onto the third tier, where he sat in a daze for only a moment, to recompose his wits.
But there was still a relay to win! And, sure as the sun was bright, there was Remedy next to him, putting the finishing touches on his baskets.
"See you at the bottom!" Remedy said, and darted off.
Galavar shot to his feet and dragged the baskets into the neat Team Javelin blue circle, then covered the jar with his free hand and ran down the stairs on the back side of the platforms.
Just as he came in full view of all the spectators way up here, at one of the highest points in Ieik, his bolt finally came off at last.
The crowd just cheered even more.
He left it and finished the last few paces to Ornithate in the nude.
"To the finish line!" he said, handing her the baton.
"Not so fast," said the section marshal deputy, one of Race Master Veskegen's many assistants. "There has to be enough water in your jar to fill this teacup."
"Then pour it!" He handed over the jar.
"Well done, Galavar," he said. "Plenty to spare. You may pass the baton."
"I'll see you all at the finish!" Ornithate said, and with the baton in her left hand she was gone.
To Galavar's right, the sun began to set. So ended his leg of the Summer Spring Relay. He stood there and watched it shimmer on the windy horizon, and gasped.
Wayhanding is a telekinetic power.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!