Zenith (Excerpt)

Originally published in 1993 by Pan Macmillan, Dirk Strasser’s The Books of Ascension went out of print before the final novel was completed. Two decades later, the entire series—including the “lost book”—is availble from Momentum in ebook format! Check out the first book, Zenith, below, and be sure to keep an eye on the site for additional excerpts from the series!

The world of the great Mountain is unstable. Giant pillars erupt from the surface and yawning chasms form unpredictably underfoot. Since the Maelir first stood on its slopes in the distant past, they have sought to still its anger and control its power. Each year, twin brothers are chosen to make a perilous journey to the summit. If they survive they will be witness to Zenith, and the secrets will be revealed to them.

When Atreu and Teyth embark on their Ascent, their Talismans lead them onto conflicting paths that will ultimately set brother against brother. And this time the Ascent itself is in peril as unknown forces that have long craved the power of Zenith will stop at nothing to make it their own even if it means destroying the very thing that sustains all life the Mountain itself.

 

 

 

The First Book

 

The man held the two swaddled babies under each arm as he darted through the confusion of shadows that fell across the rocks.

Don’t cry. Please don’t cry, my boys.

His thoughts whispered inside his head, fearful that they would be discovered.

The cave entrance yawned in front of him and he plunged in without hesitating. His vision adjusted immediately, as he expected. During his years in the shadow of the Mountain, he had grown used to the different layers of darkness.

He looked into the eyes of his twin sons.

Soon you will know what it’s like to feel sunlight on your faces.

One of his feet slipped on a loose rock and his leg buckled, but he caught himself before he fell. He drew a breath of dark air and felt his heart pounding deep in his chest.

Don’t fail. You can’t fail.

His pace quickened through the tunnel. He came to a fork and took the left one without hesitating. He was close now. Soon the Dusk People wouldn’t be able to stop him.

What was that? The echo of his own feet?

A cavern opened up in front of him, brilliant with live glimmerstones crusted onto the rocks. He breathed their light as he stepped in.

There it was. There was his Book.

He sat down, laying his boys in his lap, and opened the Book, searching for the right page.

‘I cannot … let you do this thing.’ The familiar voice, panting, came from the cavern entrance.

He looked up to see the woman’s pale, lidless eyes.

‘I must leave,’ he said, his fingers still rifling through the pages.

‘You … can’t take them. I won’t let you.’

He looked down at the page and smiled a sad smile. ‘Too late.’

The woman lunged her twisted body at him, but he clung to his boys as he felt himself poured into the Book.

And the Reader sprung to life.

 

 

Prologue
Nine years later…

 

‘Don’t open your eyes. You promised you wouldn’t look.’

Atreu nodded as his brother led him slowly by the hand. It would have been easy to cheat but he trusted Teyth, and besides, he liked making it dark. He liked it because it was his darkness. And it wasn’t really dark, not like night. He could see thin threads of colour shoot through the blackness. He liked the colours. Sometimes he pretended he could see a thread in a colour he had never seen before. Sometimes he wasn’t sure if he was pretending.

He could feel an increasing dampness under his bare feet. He tried to clear his mind. Where was he? Slowly he formed the picture. To his right he could sense the sparse beginnings of the woodlands; to his left, he was certain, were the fields laden with the high stalks of yellow grain. Valesend lay up the slope behind him. He could see the squat dirt-brown buildings which seemed to be growing out of the ground as they clustered around the market square.

He knew the direction was downslope. Teyth must be taking him to the lake this time. He strained to hear the soft lapping of the water, but there was no wind today.

‘I think I know,’ said Atreu, squeezing his eyes even tighter to deepen the colours.

Teyth laughed. ‘You think so?’

Atreu caught the edge in his voice. Teyth was always the confident one – he would have no doubts he could fool twin. Maybe Teyth just wanted him to believe that he was near the lake. Think, he told himself. But the threads dragged his attention away. Crimson, emerald, amber …

Teyth had quickened his pace and was tugging at Atreu’s arm. Atreu was sure that he wouldn’t fall; his brother knew what he was doing. He wouldn’t let him stumble over a rock or let one of the stinging bushes brush past his bare legs. Teyth was too determined to play the game properly for that. Then he stopped. Atreu knew what was coming.

‘Ready, little brother?’ cried Teyth. Atreu nodded. Teyth often called him little brother because their father had once told them that Teyth was the first to be born – by the slenderest of moments. Somehow Atreu had always thought of Teyth as the older – and bigger – though most of the villagers couldn’t tell them apart.

Atreu braced himself.

Then the spinning began. Around and around. The threads twirled wildly through his head. He could feel Teyth grabbing alternate shoulders as he forced him to spin even faster. Atreu knew he could stop if he wanted to; he knew it was just as much his own legs that were forcing him to turn. But he also knew this was part of the game. And he trusted Teyth.

Just as suddenly, it stopped. His brother had placed both hands on his shoulders. The threads kept spinning as he fought the urge to fall down.

They both laughed.

Teyth now half-supported him as he guided him through the final part. Atreu squeezed his eyes even tighter. He tried to think clearly, but the colours wouldn’t hold still for long enough. Could he still feel the dampness under foot? Crimson hoops danced in front of him. Was that the cry of a waterfowl? Emerald webs crisscrossed inside his head. Was it the water? An explosion of amber somewhere, and then … something he’d never seen before.

‘Come on, little brother, now you’ve got to guess.’ Teyth slowly helped his brother down to his knees and gently pushed his head into position.

Think! Atreu tightened his face. Teyth was clever. It had to be the lake, but that was too obvious.

‘You have to answer now.’

‘The first thing I will see …’ Atreu tried to give himself more time by beginning the incantation slowly.

Think!

‘… is …’

Think! It’s not the lake. It’s not the water.

He felt a flash.

‘… is … me!’ he finished jubilantly.

He opened his eyes and let the light flood back in, clearing the darkness and washing over the threads.

His brown face, with its angular features, high cheekbones and deep blue eyes, grinned back at him out of the clear waters of the lake as he stared at his reflection in triumph.

‘Wrong!’ The reflection had spoken.

Atreu turned to look over his shoulder. So Teyth had won again. It had been his brother’s reflection in the water.

He looked into Teyth’s eyes for a moment – his real eyes this time – and they both began to laugh as Atreu jumped onto his brother in mock anger and tried to pin him to the ground. Atreu must have still been feeling a little dizzy because Teyth kicked him off quickly and began to run away from the lake, upslope in the direction of the village. Atreu let out a battle cry and chased after him. He knew they were so evenly matched in speed that he would need Teyth to stumble and fall to be able to catch him.

He was not having any luck today and was about to give up the chase when he heard the drone of the village horn fill the air.

‘Zenith!’ they cried in unison as they covered their eyes and fell to the ground, pushing their faces into the earth. They both knew the sun was now moving across the far-distant Summit.

As the sound of the horn died, Atreu could feel the faint prickling sensation on his bare back and legs. A strange dullness at the back of his head grew. He strained to hear the final echoes as the heat washed through him.

Then there was silence.

Atreu lifted his head to glare at Teyth. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘one day I’m going to look.’

Teyth smiled as he got up. ‘Now it’s my turn,’ he said, closing his eyes.

 

‘So you two are all right.’ Tyr smiled at his two sons as they stumbled home leg weary and flushed with exertion.

Atreu sensed a hint of real concern in his father’s voice. It was the first Zenith the twins had experienced without his supervision, and though they were now considered old enough not to endanger themselves, there was obviously still some doubt in his mind.

‘We know what to do,’ said Atreu. ‘You’ve told us often enough.’

‘We would have been all right last year too,’ added Teyth.

Tyr laughed at the indignation in his sons’ voices. ‘I sometimes forget I’m dealing with men now.’

Atreu looked up into the face of his father as he placed a hand on each of their shoulders. He saw the strong jaw, the piercing blue eyes. He saw the gentleness and the tiredness which seemed to lie behind his every expression. He saw the familiar lines crease upward from his eyes so that his whole face seemed to be smiling.

This time the lines straightened quickly. ‘Tonight is going to be very important for you two,’ he said, ‘so I hope you’re not too exhausted.’

Atreu and Teyth looked at each other.

‘A story?’ cried Atreu, feeling a warm rush of pleasure in his cheeks. He had sensed for days that his father had been concerned about something. The regular stories based on his travels had all but ceased.

‘Not really,’ began Tyr slowly as he glanced at his sons in turn, ‘but it may be the start of a story. Anyway, I won’t be doing the talking tonight. We’re going to have a visitor.’

‘Who?’ asked Teyth.

The creases appeared around Tyr’s eyes again. ‘Wait and see,’ he said as he took his hands from their shoulders.

 

Atreu lay on his back staring at the flickering patterns on the ceiling cast by the candlelight. His blankets were pulled up past his mouth. He knew nothing could get him if the blankets covered his mouth.

‘Little brother?’ Teyth called from the other side of the room.

‘Yes?’

‘Can you hear what they’re saying?’

‘Not really.’

‘Who do you think it is?’

‘I don’t know. I can’t tell by the voice. I just wish he would leave.’

‘I wish he would hurry and come in to see us. Isn’t he supposed to be our visitor?’

‘I don’t think that’s exactly what Father said.’

‘That’s the trouble – it’s impossible to tell what he means sometimes.’

Atreu laughed. ‘Anyway, it’s not very late yet.’

‘Yes, it is. You know how it gets dark later in summer, especially around Zenith.’

‘Well, go to sleep if you’re tired.’

‘I can’t. Why don’t you tell me one of your stories.’

‘Which one?’

‘Tell me one about the Dusk People – I like those.’

‘That’s all you ever want to hear.’

‘But they’re good.’

Atreu shivered despite the relative warmth of the night and the thickness of the blanket that covered him. His eyes focused on the dark patches between the flickering lights on the ceiling.

‘No, I don’t want to,’ he said.

‘You never tell them at night. That’s the best time. You can’t get really scared during the day.’

‘I don’t want to be really scared.’

Teyth laughed. ‘But you’re making them up. How can you be scared about something you make up?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Anyway, there’s no such thing as Dusk People. Everyone says so.’

‘Father says there are.’

‘Father believes his own stories too.’

‘But the Dusk People are real. We have to keep watching for them. That’s our job, you know that.’

‘No, I don’t, little brother.’

‘But …’ Atreu’s breath caught in his throat.

The door to their room opened and a large, shadowy figure streaked by candlelight stood with its back to the boys. Atreu pulled his blanket over his mouth again, not taking his eyes off the figure as it backed into the room, carrying what appeared to be a large object.

‘Still awake?’ The voice was Tyr’s. He had now entered the room, and Atreu could see he was helping the figure with what looked like a chest. The two carried it to the far corner under the window.

The stranger grunted as they put it down, and he turned towards the boys. He’s definitely a Lower Reacher, thought Atreu; even in the candlelight that was obvious. His face was broad, like Tyr’s, but his nose was narrower and his eyes more closely set. They stared right into Atreu.

‘You do talk, don’t you?’ The stranger’s voice had a slightly unusual tone to it. ‘Well?’

‘They’re not usually this quiet,’ said Tyr as he closed the door to the room. ‘Atreu and Teyth, this is our visitor. He is here for a very important reason.’

The stranger walked towards Atreu and sat down on the end of his bed. Atreu noticed his clothing was made of a coarse material. Not even the strangers who often appeared in Valesend on market day wore such thick garb. His body seemed to give off an unusual odour too, like a mixture of vinegar and honey.

‘It is good to be silent,’ said the stranger, ‘but only at the right times.’ He paused. ‘You are Atreu?’

Atreu nodded, wanting to sink further into the bed.

‘And you,’ he continued, turning his head towards the other bed, ‘are Teyth?’

‘Yes.’

‘At last, one of you has shown me you can speak.’

‘You must excuse them,’ said Tyr, who had sat down on the end of Teyth’s bed, ‘they know nothing of why you are here.’

‘Ah. It’s good when things are revealed slowly. It makes them more valuable. Now tell me – both of you – why was today important?’

‘It was the first day of Zenith,’ said Teyth quickly.

‘The first day of our Zenith,’ added Atreu as he sat up slightly.

‘Yes. And what does that mean?’

‘It means we are allowed to be outside when it happens, without anyone else there,’ said Teyth. ‘But we’re never allowed to look.’ He glanced across at Atreu.

‘Why?’ asked the stranger.

There was a silence.

‘The Dusk People will take our eyes,’ said Atreu finally.

Tyr coughed.

The stranger hesitated before he spoke. ‘That’s not quite true. I think your father sometimes gives too much credit to the Dusk People. But it is true you would be blinded, and you would lose a good deal more than your sight.’

The unusual odour of the stranger wafted into Atreu’s head.

‘You both know what to do when the horn sounds?’ The stranger flicked a glance from Atreu to Teyth and back again.

They both nodded.

‘All right, then … what would happen if you couldn’t hear the horn?’

‘It’s so loud we will always be able to hear it,’ said Atreu.

‘Yes, but if you were far away from Valesend?’

Atreu wasn’t sure that he could ever be that far away from his village.

‘We would know it was Zenith,’ said Teyth.

‘Yes,’ added Atreu, ‘you just feel it, don’t you?’

‘What do you mean?’ The stranger’s eyes bored into Atreu as he spoke.

‘I … it’s sort of a feeling in the back of your head,’ he stammered, ‘and sometimes it crawls down the back of your neck.’

‘It doesn’t really hurt,’ Teyth added. ‘It’s like someone wants to get at you, but you know you can hold them off.’

The stranger drew a deep breath and turned towards Tyr. ‘I believe I am convinced. Not that I had much doubt.’

Atreu saw the creases return around his father’s eyes, although they appeared as dark slits in the candlelight.

‘Now, I want the two of you to listen very carefully to what I have to say,’ said the stranger, his voice taking on a slightly different tone. ‘You must begin your education tonight. I know you have already learnt much about words and numbers, but there is far more that you must know. Words and numbers will not be enough for what you must do. You two are destined to ascend. Do you know what that means?’

‘We’re going to the Summit?’ Atreu could feel his face flush.

‘Yes, that’s your destiny.’

‘When?’ asked Teyth, pulling his knees up to his chest.

‘When you are men. The first day of Zenith in the year of your eighteenth birthday marks the beginning of your Ascent.’

Teyth groaned.

‘I see your father is right: you are the impatient one. Well, it will do you no good. You must be prepared for an Ascent. That’s why I have brought you this.’ He pointed to the wooden chest that sat in the corner. ‘You cannot hurry understanding of an Ascent. The beginnings of that knowledge are in there. So are the Talismans you will take with you and which will guide your journey. The final understanding lies in them – if you find the right Path. And there is no guarantee either of you will.’

Atreu could see his father nodding a little wearily.

‘I believe you two should sleep now,’ said the stranger. ‘Your instruction will begin tomorrow, and I will be with you for the remaining eight days of Zenith. Your father will teach you after that. I am certain he knows nearly as much as I do.’

The stranger caught the confused look on the boys’ faces. He exchanged a glance with Tyr. ‘Haven’t you told them anything?’

‘Boys, where do you think all my travel stories come from?’ said Tyr, smiling to himself. ‘That was my Ascent. Did you think I made all those places up?’

He and the stranger stood up and walked towards the doorway.

‘There’s something I don’t understand,’ said Atreu.

The two men turned to face him, and he could see the candlelight dance across their faces.

‘Why us?’ he asked.

The stranger laughed. ‘You do have a great deal to learn. You do know you are twins, don’t you?’

Atreu could still hear him laughing after Tyr had said good night and had closed the door behind him.

‘Do you still want to hear a story?’ whispered Atreu.

‘No.’

It seemed to Atreu as if something had changed. He lay down and pulled the blanket over his mouth.

 

‘We can just sneak a quick look.’

Atreu was glad it was Teyth who was suggesting it. He was just surprised it had taken eight days for him to bring up the subject. Although his brother was echoing exactly what was on his mind, he felt it was his duty to argue the point.

‘I don’t know,’ he said doubtfully.

‘Come on, little brother. They are ours, aren’t they? We’ll find out eventually anyway.’

They both looked at the heavy oak chest that stood in the corner of the room. It had been beckoning them ever since they had been told what was inside. The morning sun now poured through the window above it, darkening the deep crevices of its intricate carvings. Battle scenes and strange symbols were etched across its lid and sides. Teyth ran his finger across the top edge. There was no keyhole. It was obviously never meant to be locked.

‘But we promised not to look. We are not to see them until our Ascent,’ said Atreu.

‘That’s not really what he said. He said they are not to be ours until our Ascent.’

‘It’s the same thing.’

Teyth laughed. ‘Nine years! You’re going to wait nine years to find out what your Talisman is? I could hardly wait the eight days so far. Why put an unlocked chest in our room if we’re not supposed to open it?’

Atreu’s fingers followed the path that Teyth’s had taken across the edge. ‘It smells like him, you know.’ The bittersweet odour of the stranger seemed to linger in the wood.

‘How would he know if we’d opened it?’ asked Teyth. ‘He’s gone now.’

The stranger – he had never revealed his name to the boys – had left as suddenly as he had arrived. There was little ceremony in his departure after the final Zenith. Despite having promised to teach them many things, he had said very little, and they had understood even less. He had mentioned the names of many exotic-sounding places and had spoken a great deal about paths and destinies, but most of his time had been spent deep in conversation with Tyr.

‘Father wouldn’t need to know,’ said Teyth, tracing a path with his fingers along one of the deeply carved grooves.

Atreu knew Tyr wouldn’t be back from the Council until well into the afternoon.

‘All right!’ Atreu’s abrupt change of heart took Teyth by surprise. Suddenly they weren’t simply talking about disobeying a direct command from their father and the visitor, they were actually about to do it.

Atreu had his hands on the lid when he noticed Teyth was now hesitating. ‘What’s wrong? It was your idea,’ he said.

Teyth looked him in the eye. ‘No, it wasn’t.’ There was a slight stammer in his voice. ‘You touched the lid first.’

‘All right, it’s my idea, so go away and let me look inside.’

Teyth hesitated for a moment. ‘You won’t be able to move it on your own. I’d better help you, little brother.’

‘Let’s go then.’

Teyth placed his hands on the lid. ‘Just remember this was your idea.’

The boys strained to lift the heavy wood. They could hear the hinges creak as they slowly opened the chest and looked inside.

It was filled to the brim with scrolls of parchment, each tied with a piece of gold braid. Atreu picked one up and slid the braid from it. Unrolling the parchment, he squinted as he tried to decipher the large ornate script.

‘What does it say?’ asked Teyth.

‘I don’t know.’

‘What do you mean, you don’t know?’

‘There are all sorts of strange words. I think they’re names of places. Here, have a look.’

Teyth backed away a little. ‘No. You better put it back. I don’t think we should be reading those things. We just want to see our Talismans, remember?’

Atreu agreed reluctantly and rolled up the parchment again. ‘Where do you think they are?’

The two ran their fingers through the scrolls to the bottom of the chest.

‘Agh!’ Atreu screamed in pain and quickly pulled out his hand. His finger was bleeding.

‘Get it away from the chest!’ cried Teyth, but it was too late, blood had already dripped onto several of the scrolls. ‘Now Father will know we’ve been looking.’ He got up and ran into the next room.

Atreu was sucking on his finger when Teyth returned with a piece of cloth and began to wipe the blood from the scrolls.

‘What about my finger?’ cried Atreu. He took it out of his mouth and held it in front of him, looking at the fine, narrow cut that went down almost to the first knuckle. As he watched, a thin line of red appeared.

Teyth threw him the cloth. ‘Wrap it in this.’ He picked up one of the scrolls he had wiped and shook his head. ‘I can still see a stain there. I knew we shouldn’t have looked. We’ve been punished.’

Atreu blinked away the tears in his eyes and stared at his brother. ‘We haven’t been punished. There’s just something sharp down there and I wasn’t careful enough. Come on, I want to see what it is. Let’s take all the scrolls out.’

He started to lift them out, placing them on the floor next to the chest and taking care to use only his right hand so that the blood-stained cloth on his injured finger didn’t touch them.

‘I’m sorry, little brother,’ said Teyth finally as he began to help Atreu with the scrolls. ‘Does it hurt?’

‘Yes, but I want to find …’

‘Look!’ Teyth was pointing to the semi-darkness of the bottom of the chest. A dull gleam of light shone from between the remaining scrolls. ‘That’s what cut your finger.’

Atreu watched Teyth as he reached down to pick it up. It was the largest axe he had ever seen, its handle carved with the same expert workmanship as the chest. The two boys together just managed to lift it out. They leant it up against the rim of the chest, and the sunlight hit the polished stone of its head.

‘It’s double-bladed,’ said Teyth.

‘A battle-axe!’ Atreu noticed the small red smear on one of the blades. ‘Whose is it, do you think? Yours or mine?’

Teyth searched the handle for a clue. His fingers traced over the grotesque creatures and mighty warriors that were carved into the wood. Then he became frantic. He retraced parts of the handle, his eyes flicking left and then right.

‘Perhaps it’s written on one of the scrolls,’ suggested Atreu, looking doubtfully at the pile that lay on the floor.

Teyth stopped examining the axe. ‘This is worse than not knowing anything. We should never have looked.’

‘Wait,’ said Atreu. ‘Lift it up.’

Teyth struggled with the handle, using the twin-bladed head which still rested against the chest as a lever.

‘Look at this,’ said Atreu, pointing to the bottom of the handle. ‘There’s something carved in here.’

They both stared at the strangely curved letter. It was unmistakably a T. Teyth let out a cry of joy, and he let the axe handle fall.

Atreu held his fingers which now seemed to ache anew and looked back down into the chest. ‘Where’s mine do you think?’ He rummaged through the few remaining scrolls, mindful of the possibility of another hidden blade.

‘Found anything?’ asked Teyth.

‘Yes, there’s something heavy down here. Help me, I can’t lift it with one hand.’

A puzzled look came over Teyth’s face. ‘It’s a book.’

‘This can’t be it,’ said Atreu. ‘There must be something else. Have another look.’

Teyth took out the remaining scrolls. ‘There’s nothing else here. It looks like that’s it.’

Atreu felt his face flush. ‘No! We must have missed something. Maybe we took it out by mistake … maybe it’s somewhere else … maybe …’

‘Atreu, I think this is it.’

‘No …’

‘Look at the cover.’

Atreu fell silent. The cover was made out of rich leather which had been formed into the scene of the Mountain with the sun at its Summit. Very clearly, embossed on the sun, was the letter A.

‘Aren’t you going to open it?’

Atreu shook slightly as he pulled at the clasp and slowly began to turn to the first page.

‘Little brother, does your finger hurt so much? Why are you crying?’

 


Zenith © Dirk Strasser, 1993

All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the publisher.

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