They stood hand in hand and stared at the structure before them. Her palm – cold and damp with sweat – squeezed his tightly as though she were afraid to let go. He looked down at her with affection, unsurprised by her reaction for he felt just a fraction of her fear and even that was enough to cool his blood.
Hovering fifty feet aboveground, an enclosed biome completely constructed from glass loomed over them both. The way it levitated forebodingly with nothing to support it was not the frightening factor for the two individuals, however; Rankoor held many objects and creatures which defied the laws of gravity.
Through the biome’s soundproof glass walls, all that could be seen were harsh, jagged mountains bedecked with shin-deep snow, despite the fact that the sun’s rays which illuminated Rankoor caused the sphere to glimmer radiantly.
He knelt down in front of her, grasping both of her forearms. Even as she turned to face him, he could still see the biosphere reflected in the corner of her pupils as they dilated with fear. “You don’t have to do this, you know.” He murmured, as though any loud noise could shatter the design and cause it to roll right over them both. At least I would be the first to be crushed, he thought, perhaps I could protect her from any damage. Even as he thought this, he knew he could not safeguard her forever.
“No,” her voice was much louder than his, causing birds to fly from far-flung trees in great distress, “whatever it is, I want to do it.”
At these words, he raised his head skyward and forced himself to let go of her arms. Afraid that he would prevent her from continuing, he backed away a couple of paces – eyes still intently staring at the heavens – before taking a deep breath and looking back at her.
“The next task begins here. You will be flown to the biosphere. Find a way inside. You must stay there for an hour before you can be freed. This phase will test your endurance and strengthen your will to survive even in heart-stopping conditions. As with the previous phases, if you fail this undertaking, you must begin again from task one. Are my instructions clear?” He tried not to look at her flimsy dress patterned with daisies; it only acted as a reminder to him that she had lived in Rankoor all her life, a city which did not even divide the year into seasons, for the air was continually warm and light with only the occasional rainfall. Instead, his attention strayed to her brown hair, tied back in a high ponytail with the barrette he had given her before the training had begun. If he looked closely, he could see the head of a wolverine in its design, paw swatting the air angrily.
Hope warmed his innards.
She had no reason to be cold yet, but still she trembled. Her ears listened to his words but hardly heard the meaning behind them. A high pitched sound filled the pair of organs instead, reverberating around her eardrums like her own personal alarm. She shook her head to clear it and looked up at his kind face. Worry lines creased his forehead so that he aged a dozen years. She thought of never being able to trace her fingers across those creases again; of freezing to death in that icy biome. But then her mind recalled her fractured childhood, images flashing before her eyes: an orphanage; a bloody, snot-filled nose being pinched; high pitched laughter from voices not yet broken.
She had made her decision.
She knew what to do.
When he paused expectantly, she stamped her feet against the soil of Rankoor, raised her fist to the air and said triumphantly, “Yes, I understand” as though she had already faced the cold; had already gained back all those wasted hours of crying that her youth had given her.
At these words, a large krackurr soared down to the ground and landed just to her right, wings spread as if in invitation.
She could not wait to fly.
Her confidence filled him with hope, but as she punched the air, her dress rose to her thighs to reveal small, knobbly knees, bruised and cut from inquisitively exploring her surroundings; the same knees he had to kiss better every time their owner fell.
He swallowed the lump in his throat as she mounted the krackurr.