The curving path was more precarious than any their feet had taken them on so far on their journey up the mountainside. Ice crusted the snow and glinted dagger like above them as they cautiously stepped in a narrow line. Harl kept his eyes on the join of the two peaks ahead of them, where the ledge flattened out again to a snow-swept plain before whistling between the stone giants there. His fingers, dead as they were in their borrowed fur lined gloves, were wrapped about the thin rope that Alnim was securing as he edged his way forward ahead of them. Harl had felt sick as soon as he’d first clasped onto it, remembering the dyed red rope’s path in the castle by the sea that had taken him through darkness and into the greater darkness of Orinius’ study. Or, when his head was dizzy with the distance below them, he thought it was the rough hemp he’d wound about his hands in the sea room where the water had scoured his flesh almost to the bone. But it was neither. It was just craftily woven mountain-voln rope, and it was helping him to the end of the path.
When his boots finally found their way about the final turn of the ledge and suddenly had enough space to stop his toes from cramping, he found himself breathing out a too long held breath. A few of the mountain-voln fell to one knee when they were free from the narrow path, and placed their palms to the snow, and the rocks deep beneath, to thank the mother mountain that she had not cast them from her side. One of their number did not, and instead, he walked slowly upwards on the sheltered plain of deep snow for a moment, gazing up at the two peaks in awe. Miran looked back to the rest of them, his one good eye wide open and staring madly.
“The path. Do you not see?! The path!” he moaned.
Harl looked up from his own feet, having been lost in his efforts to breathe the thin air and regain his strength after the climb, and saw what had disturbed the giant man.
Scattered in the deep snow ahead of them were the torn and shattered remains of immense dark bodies, bloodless black limbs flung about and shreds of skin flapping from the overhanging rocks. Their doom marked the white snow up until some boundary where the snow remained gleaming, as though some invisible wall there had not been breached.
Miran’s feet crunched into the deep snow as he ran their way as quickly as he could, shoving Harl out of his path as he returned to the perilous ledge pathway that they’d only just escaped from.
“Wait!” Harl shouted, but the man was disappearing around the corner of the path, his good eye looking down and focussing on his careful steps as he grasped his rope again. Moments later he was entirely out of sight. Others went to step towards the path when a despairing scream stopped them in their tracks. It receded into silence as Miran’s journey with them ended.
“By She Who Shaped the Skies!” wailed one of the other warriors, and none of them took even a single step further.
Harl did move. He drew closer to the remains and confirmed what he had already suspected. Ghosts had come here, and ghosts had been torn apart by something. Something worse than them.
“There is no path here.” Another mountain-voln muttered, almost to herself. “There is no path. The mother mountain gives us no path.”
“There is the path back down” spoke another.
“Tell Miran that!” A third laughed, verging on the very edge of madness in his humour.
“He was old and stupid. And one-eyed. We can make it back down!”
“Go.” Said Harl quietly. “The path forward is only for me.”
“There is no path here!” the woman shrieked at him, drawing a dagger as she did. Cole moved as quickly as he could in his thick furs to intercept her, but she merely pushed him aside as he tugged at the Emphon steel tied to his backpack. He landed heavily in the snow and cursed her loudly. Harl stood his ground, but shaking, as she came closer.
“You can go!” He shouted into her face as she leaned down toward him. “I release you from your service!”.
She laughed and lunged towards him, sweeping her arm about quickly, the blade flashing as it came towards him. He struggled back and fell immediately into the deep snow, knowing that any moment the blade would puncture his chest and leave him to bleed red into the white.
It did not come. For him at least.
With a wail the mountain-voln tore at her layers of furs and scarves and slashed her own blade across her throat, spraying the white with the red that he’d thought would be his. She staggered to her knees, mimicking the others who’d initially praised the mother mountain for their success, her red hands pushing into the snow as she bled out. Finally, her body joined the corpses of the ghosts on the snowy plain.
It had happened too quickly that Cole was just breathing out his last curses as she fell.
“There is no path.” Moaned another, and others took up the cry, muttering it under their breaths.
“You have to do something!” Cole hissed as he dashed as quickly as he could through the snow drifts to help Harl to stand. “Charm them!”
“I- I-” Harl stuttered, chilled and shocked in equal measure and seemingly unable to control his teeth and tongue.
“Becalm them!” Cole shouted, and Harl felt his wyrd power respond to the man’s commanding tone. Just as he had calmed the mountain-voln on that lower slope, he spread his will by a fog that blurred the edges of the snow and stones and covered up the giant remains of the ghosts. Cole was also caught in its sway, and Harl watched as the man’s stern face softened beneath his hood as peace came to his eyes. Harl took deep breaths, taking in his own charm, and felt no effect. But just having the mountain-voln becalmed lessened his own terror and slowed his loudly beating heart. He sought out the ones carrying the most massive packs and quickly charmed them into setting up a camp for them all. As grim as the snowfield was, filled with the dead and bright red mountain-voln blood, it was calm enough to set the tents and give them shelter.
But he was starting to suspect that the shelter was not meant for him.
After he had made sure that the mountain-voln and Cole were safely within their hide shelters, he slowly pushed his way through the deep untouched snows and explored the corpses of the ghosts. Whatever had happened to them had left many parts, but none of them seemed to go together. Some were caught mid shifting, being partly one thing and partly another. Some parts were still smoke like and drifted on the breeze without being lost to the air and sky entirely. In one place he found a completely whole voln-like arm, but hairless and smooth like none he’d ever seen before. In another place there was a pile of thin bones with a curve in them, joined together by some mesh of sinews making them like the bars over some windows in Bara. The worst thing was the eyeball. He looked away from that.
His path took him close to the strange line where the remains suddenly stopped. Before that, they increased in number and variety so that soon it was hard to find empty snow between them on which to tread. But apart from the dead mountain-voln from their party, there was no blood on the whiteness at all.
He stopped, knowing by the way his hairs were rising on his arms that something lay ahead of him that explained why the body parts ended there.
He looked back to see Cole standing some ways behind him, and started back towards him.
“You let the becalming drop. The others are nervous and talking nonsense again.” Cole gestured back to the tent.
“Maybe they should not stay here. Miran was panicked, perhaps they can make their way back down-”
“You mean without you.” Cole snapped.
“I think… I think…” He looked back towards the boundary that he felt was there, a line passing from one side of the snow plain to the other, a doorway between the two stone peaks that walled this place.
“You can’t be thinking of trying to get through the pass?!” Cole looked panicked. “You’ve seen what happened to the ghosts!”
“I am not a ghost.”
“You are… you are like them. Like the other boys in the castle.” Cole said, his voice coming deep from within his hood.
Harl could not take his eyes from the clean snow beyond that invisible line. It carried on into shadows as the day came to its close. But some how he knew that there was something beyond there he needed to see. To know.