They say the air is thin up here.
They say you see things up here.
They say only the strongest survive up here.
They say a lot of things. Most of which I don't listen to. Poems and catechisms, mostly. Not lessons or warnings, therefore not worth listening to. And I've done alright. Not top of any of my classes, but not the bottom either. I have friends, and we do the usual thing kids our age do. Yet everyone is so worried about me. If they just came out and said why, and just spoke to me, I might be OK with the behind-my-back talking they do.
See, I'm not the fittest guy. I don't go to the gym like the others do, at least not as often. I can hold my own in physical training, even when the master doubles down on me like I'm some fox come to steal his babies. It doesn't change anything. They still look at me like I'm the runt of the litter, like I'm beneath them. Well, the ritual is coming soon and once I clear that, then they'll see.
Dad came to see me today. He talked to me about the ritual, about what I should do to prepare. He’s alright, Dad. He knows what he’s talking about, mostly. So I did listen to him. But what he said was nothing I hadn't already worked out for myself. He’s worried that I won’t be ready. He didn't say as much, he said Mum was worried. But I know both of them better than that. I'm their only son, remember? I'm the one who carries their names forward. My sister has it lucky in a lot of ways. But I've seen some of what they go through, so not so lucky in others.
They’ve said the ritual is a month away. Might be a month. Sometimes they say a month, but it ends up being a random day three months after, when the snowline is at a particular place. Sometimes it’s less than a month. One time it was six months later. Like a lot of things, the seasons help make decisions.
There's a rumour going around that the best performer at the ritual this year will head into the city. I don't know what to think about that. I've been taught about the city and its many wonders and how the people who live there ignore how we live, ignore the work required to get things and choose the easy way out. The leaders here don't like the city and they don't like any of us going down there, or anyone from there coming up here. There has been one city person come up here since I've been alive. He was looking for something, but he didn't find it and left soon after arriving. He was so white, almost as white as the snow. I remember watching him and being scared. What do they think of us when we go down there? Are we as scary to them? It’s scary thinking about going down the mountain, but it’s exciting too. There are so many other things down there, so many other people. I sometimes watch the lights from the roof on the clear nights. They're so far away, but they can get to us with their light. The leaders don't like it when I'm on the roof.
The ritual is here, and I want to win. It’s not a competition. I'm not allowed to say I want to win, but I can think it. I know the others are thinking it too. A few of them don't believe the rumours, and they said the leaders made it up to make us go harder. I don't believe them. They've always lied to me.
There are 18 of us this year. Fewer than last year, and it looks like next year will be smaller again. I can’t think about last year or next, though. The Path awaits me and I have to focus. There are things out there I could miss if I don't.
I'm near the back of the group as we’re let off into the wilderness of snow and animals and trees. Not that there are many of the latter two around. But there is a lot of snow. More than most years, in fact. I listen to the leaders give each person their instructions; all of them different, all of them personalised, then they set them down The Path, wait five minutes until they disappear and then start the process again with the next kid. There's no real advantage to going first, or even last. Some of these rituals can last for weeks, others only last hours. I know that I'm going to be treated harshly, and I know I don't deserve it. If only for that reason, I am going to actually work on this.
“Come forward,” the leader said to me. “Are you ready?”
“Yes leader,” I reply, eager to get my instructions.
“You are to go to the Lost Place and retrieve the candle in the central temple. You must light it in the temple and it must stay lit at all times.”
“Yes, leader,” I say with a sinking feeling in my gut.
“The Path is ahead of you. Use it wisely.”
And without another word, I left. Everyone heard my instructions, and I could already hear the complaining and yelling as I disappeared into the snow bank.
The Lost Place; the city of our ancestors. The Castle in the Clouds. Call it what you will, I was not going to be back in the village for weeks. Longer. But that was OK, I knew my ritual would be one of the long ones. But keeping the candle lit? From there all the way back here? That was a tough ask, and with the winter storms bearing down on us already, it was a job made harder.
The only thing that made me confident is that you can never get a ritual that is impossible. Someone had to have done this sometime before, which meant if they can do it, so can I.