In a land much-marked by canyons and cliffs, the Godswatch Heights were the greatest rise of all. The main Temple of Caarok perched up there, a short way back from the cliff’s edge, hence the name. It wasn’t the grandest temple – that title belonged to the Temple of the Three, at the heart of the city below. But it was plenty grand, and it was there that Caarok Himself spent most of His incarnate existence. To scale the cliffs was the last step on a pilgrim’s path to seek audience with Him and possibly enter His personal service. It was a harrowing climb, a test of skill and resolve, but it was one that could be done.

Kalim knew all this – most people did, who knew much of anything about the Three. It was one thing, though, to know a collection of truths. It was quite another to be standing at the foot of the Godswatch Heights, to see them stretching up, it seemed, to the scant clouds in the lightening sky. Here, it was not so easy to remember that people had made the climb successfully; much easier to recall those that had failed – especially those that had fallen from the cliff face and met their end. There had certainly been a number of such.

Up to this moment, Kalim had thought himself ready. He was athletic – strong, agile, and limber. He had been climbing things since he was a boy, much to his mother’s despair, and after the first year and a few tumbles from smallish trees, he’d not fallen. Not even when he’d moved on to mighty ancient trees and then, indeed, cliffs. He was a good climber.

And yet he was fairly certain that most who’d tried and failed had thought themselves good climbers as well. This wasn’t a tree in his family’s yard; this was the highest, craggiest cliff in the land. No other challenge he’d faced could be its equal. How could he say for certain that they’d all prepared him for this?

Kalim yearned to reach the summit. Since boyhood, the teachings of Caarok had resonated within him with a special strength. Caarok the Father, Caarok the Warden, Caarok the Lawgiver – in all of His aspects, His lessons had called to Kalim’s heart, in a way that the others of the Three, however right they’d felt, hadn’t done. Kalim had been on the cusp of manhood when he’d come to understand that what he felt was a call to serve. It had not been much less time since the young man he’d been had set out on the pilgrim’s journey.

That trek had been no mere formality, as some thought it. It had taught him, trained him, and tested him. As he’d grown, he’d learned, and he’d become stronger and better. His was a serious calling, and he’d taken it as seriously as it deserved. All of that time, in one way or another, had been to prepare for this.

And yet, as he stood at the foot of the cliff and stared upwards, Kalim quailed. He shivered, and it wasn’t from the cool of the early Spring morning.

All too many were the people who’d thought themselves prepared for this, and failed. Could he truly be sure that he was prepared? For all the tests he’d faced so far, none had been equal to this.

At the rocks of Suncrest, on the eastern shore, the deceptive difficulty of what seemed an easy crossing had taught him, and taught him well, to be wary of pride and vanity. Pride could drive a man to do great things, he knew, when reason alone might have him forbear; but pride could blind one to the risks around him, too. It was pride in excess of ability that had slain others trying to climb the Godswatch Heights.

In the years of his pilgrimage, Kalim had overcome challenges of note. Suncrest had taught him to never let his pride go unchecked; in truth, it had been a harder lesson, for him, to learn when he should take pride in his accomplishments. But he fancied himself an honest man, not least with himself, and the pilgrim’s path had taught him, among many other things, self-awareness.

He had thought himself ready for this climb. Facing it now, gazing up at the cliffs as the sun began to sweep over the rock, he was unsure. Perhaps he was ready in truth; perhaps he was not. He couldn’t say for certain one way or another.

There would be no shame, he reminded himself, in turning back. He was still young and in his prime; there was time yet for him to train, to prepare further. It would be the safer course, if there was doubt in his mind.

But how would he ever know if he was ready? If he didn’t make the climb now, would he ever?

He thought of lessons learned, challenges overcome, and tests passed. He gathered his pride about himself – not too close, not so much as to cloud his judgement; just enough to insulate him against doubt, so that he could analyze that doubt and say if it was merited, not to ignore those doubts entirely.

Thus fortified in mind, he looked closer at the rock.

What he learned was that, high and imposing though the Godswatch Heights were, the rock itself was good, sturdy, and offered holds aplenty. So far up as his eyes could see in detail, that held. There was a chance that the upper reaches would be more treacherous, though he saw no moss or other obvious telltales of such; but so far up as he could see, he could make the climb without tools of any kind. An incredible task for an everyday man; less so for one of the changing blood, or one who’d trained hard for this very purpose, and Kalim was both.

Others had made the climb that way in the past. Speaking of pride.

But by that token, Kalim had nothing to prove by following that path. It had already been done; that didn’t mean he needed to do it. All that would be required of him was to scale the cliff, bottom to top, alone. And while it looked easy enough as such climbs went, it was a long way up, and sheer distance would tire him.

He had come prepared for a climb, and he didn’t need to feed vanity by setting aside those preparations.

In the light of dawn, he set aside his cloak and began to stretch. The morning breeze was cool on his skin as he went through the first smooth motions; cool and pleasant.

Once he’d done that cycle, he reached into himself, and Changed. The world wavered as his face reshaped, mouth and nose melding into a short but toothy muzzle. Sparse dark hair grew far thicker, far longer; the thin queue that flowed from his scalp lost prominence, becoming all but invisible, for the moment, against an ebony, black-spotted coat of fur. Balance shifted as a sinuous tail sprouted from the base of his spine, flicking behind him. A dizzying new array of scents and sounds reached his newly-heightened senses, but all these were incidental, and he put them out of his mind.

All this took only a few breaths.

Kalim adjusted his gear, letting it sit better over the additional thickness of fur. A sturdy vest, hung with tools, his belt bearing more of the same along with a coil of rope, and holding in place short-legged trousers; under it all, a harness of good, thick leather. He dispensed with his boots, stowing them in his pack; instead he wrapped his feet in cloth, leaving clawed toes free to seek purchase. Over his hands he pulled fingerless gloves, thick about the palm.

And he took pitons in hand, and began to climb.

At first, he didn’t sink them far into the rock; just enough to lean on, to give him something easier to grip than the naked stone. To do more would have been to use more strength than necessary. As it was, his progress was swift. Though he didn’t look down and couldn’t gauge the distance very well looking up, he guessed he was about a third of the way along when that progress began to slow.

Then he switched tactics, securing a rope from his harness to the pitons, and driving them in with a mallet from his belt. Not so hard that he couldn’t remove them, so long as he was pulling upwards; far enough to hold his weight while he dangled below them. At all times he kept one of them firmly anchored, while he shifted the other to a new place.

And so he climbed.

So intent was he on the next body-length, it came as a shock when he reached up for the next hold and found only air; beneath it, the rock was nearly flat, sloping gently away from the brink. And then a voice was calling to him, and a hand reached down to take his.

“Artfully done, pilgrim,” the voice said. “Once you set your mind to it, there’s no stopping you, is there? But you’ve done enough. Come inside, rest, and drink; He will receive you once you’ve had a chance to refresh.”

Leaning on an elaborately-trimmed spear with his free hand, the man pulled Kalim up to his feet, then guided him up the path towards the squat pyramid of the Temple, an arm draped over the werejaguar’s shoulders, already naming him brother.

With the urgent demands of the climb behind him, it dawned on Kalim that he was sore, tired, and very thirsty. He wasn’t too proud to lean on the man a little as they walked. He’d proven himself, conquering difficulty and his own doubt alike to get this far; now he could let himself be a weary young man.