“Please, Dhareen, must we go through with this? A bit of rock climbing is hardly a challenge for the Castrovel Kid!” Dhareen imagined her mentee thrusting his chest out proudly, thumb pressed triumphantly above his heart as he blustered several feet below her. She smiled to herself and pushed her piston-puncher into the mountain’s side, activating the gadget with a press of her lowleft thumb.
“Perhaps, but it is custom among the tribes for a Yavnii to administer a test to every hopeful Brekai wanting to undergo the Test of the Mountain, and I am afraid that not even I have the authority to make exceptions to shobhad tradition. Not even for the ‘Castrovel Kid.’”
“See, you say that, but I can hear your grin,” Vellero replied sullenly.
“I know not what you mean.” Dhareen grinned again.
Both gladiators fell silent as they climbed, Dhareen pausing her ascent long enough for Vellero to scale up alongside her.
He had taken to her tutelage well. Ka’s cliffside was grueling even for an expert; twenty-two miles long and comprised of thin basalt overtop stronger metamorphic stone, careless climbers often plummeted to their deaths after relying on pistons pounded into brittle basalt. One of the many roles of a yavnii was to ensure their breknai did not succumb to such a fate. Vellero had learned Dhareen’s lessons well thus far, scaling around several patches of basalt she had left in his path as a test.
Vellero’s concentration reminded Dhareen of when she first met the headstrong lashunta in the ring at Arl’s VitariTech Coliseum. They were competing in the Icons Grand Brawl, and he was favored to win. The young man was a crowd pleaser on a seven-match winning streak. He was good, but not good enough; Dhareen scrubbed the floor with her future friend’s face. Literally. Nevertheless, there had been a spark within Vellero, a spark that intrigued her. The second time she knocked him down—or perhaps the third—he clamored to his feet with a bruised antenna and a few chipped teeth, wiped fresh blood from his lip, and grinned.
“Why do you persist?” Dhareen had asked, scarcely winded. “You cannot win. You bring yourself only pain. Throw your towel; others have when facing me. There is no shame in surrendering to your better.”
“You’re right,” he’d replied. “But that wouldn’t be fair for the folks who came here to see me fight, and I don’t want to let a single person in this ring who believed that I could win down.” He raised his fists into a boxer’s stance, a pointless gesture against an opponent twice his size with twice as many fists. “When I go down, I want them to know I gave it my all!”
“I don’t mean to sound indignant,” Vellero interrupted Dhareen’s thoughts. “I know that the Test of the Mountain is sacred to your people, and that it is an honor to be allowed to undergo it as an outsider.”
Dhareen raised an eyebrow. “But?”
“But,” Vellero took a breath. “Is the reason we’re doing this,” Vellero gestured out behind them, over red dunes and rolling clouds of dust. “Because you don’t think I can?”
“If I didn’t think you could pass the Test of the Mountain, I wouldn’t have begun the climb with you, nor permitted you to undertake it.” Dhareen’s voice was gentle but her statement absolute. “The mountain is sacred to my people. We do not tolerate bloodshed on Ka. To send one who is unprepared up the Mountain is as shameful as slaying one’s enemies at its base.”
Vellero’s expression softened slightly. “Thanks.”
“Do not speak of it. You don’t want your throat to dry from the ascent.”
Vellero blinked, then burst out laughing.
“I don’t understand what you find so funny about that. You’ll have twenty miles left when we’ve reached the end of our shared path.”
Vellero kept laughing for a minute, wiping tears from his eyes. “Thanks, Dhareen.”
Dhareen reaches for a falling Vellero in this illustration by Victor Manuel Leza Moreno from Starfinder: Galaxy Exploration Manual.
Dhareen gave herself no time for thinking. Before the sound of shattering basalt reached her ears, before Ka itself folded like a withered tumblefern in a windstorm, she whipped around to where Vellero was climbing even as his cliffside shifted downward, a cascade of metamorphic stone tearing free from Ka and tumbling towards the ground below. Vellero screamed as he fell, but Dhareen plucked him from the air like a corpseheron snatching a leaping spookfish out from the Irkonian Sea. Dhareen didn’t speak Ysoki, but she had spent enough time around ratfolk gladiators at VitariTech to recognize the lashunta lambasting the situation with at least six of the fourteen different Ysoki swears that she knew.
“Hold on, Vellero!” Climbing down wasn’t an option; a rockslide was eminent, and the best place to be during a rockslide was above it. Vellero was much smaller than she and less experienced at climbing, he would only slow them down. She could climbe faster with all four of her muscled arms free, anyway. There was only one option remaining.
Hoisting the Castrovel Kid onto her shoulders like a mother giving a youngling a backride, she placed the much smaller lashunta onto her shoulders and started climbing as fast as she could, giving only the barest of warnings. “Hold tight!”
Though Dhareen could hear Vellero shouting, her intense focus and the earsplitting sounds of portions of the rock wall sloughing off afforded her no opportunity to comprehend him. She climbed as quick as her body would allow, muscles aching and flaring as she abandoned her piston-punch and climbed barehanded. She knew full-well that the smallest mistake would send both she and her friend to their doom.
Ten yards from the top.
She was going to make it.
She and Vellero were going to make it.
Then her world shook as shadow overtook her vision. A boulder dislodged from above, tumbling towards her, threatening to crack her skull and send Dhareen and her breknai tumbling miles to their death. She refused to close her eyes; she would greet the Lady of Graves with firsthand tales of how she died. She was not alone; at the peak of her vision, she saw a small lashunta arm, no bigger than that of a shobhad child’s, reach out as if to catch the boulder. Dhareen admired Vellero’s bravery one last time.
The boulder collided with Vellero, and for a moment it was like watching a diver plunge into a serene pool. Vellero’s hand, then his arm, and then both their bodies plunged into the boulder.
Was it just an illusion?
Fine dust covered Dhareen as the boulder passed through her. From within, she watched the metamorphic rock splinter and crack in flight, first into smaller boulders, then into stone and pebbles, and finally into dust. The boulder never touched them; it dissolved before it even struck the Castrovel Kid’s hand.
Dhareen was stunned at first. But with safety just a few yards above and Ka continuing to shake and splinter, the feeling passed quickly as she bellowed at her peculiar friend.
“That, Vellero! Keep doing that!”
About The Author
Alexander "Alex" Augunas (he/him) is an author and behavioral health worker living outside of Philadelphia. He has contributed to numerous gaming products published by Paizo, with several of his better-known contributions including the Starfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, Starfinder Character Operations Manual, and Pathfinder Lost Omens Legends. Alex is also a staff member of the Know Direction Network, where he serves as Master of Ceremonies for Know Direction: Beyond, and publisher of third-party publisher Everybody Games.
About Iconic Encounters
Iconic Encounters is a series of web-based flash fiction set in the worlds of Pathfinder and Starfinder. Each short story provides a glimpse into the life and personality of one of the games’ iconic characters, showing the myriad stories of adventure and excitement players can tell with the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games.