A quiet world slept along the frozen interior ring of the Wondering Mountains. Obsidian ice peered with scarlet eyes at the two men descending. The cliffs were slick, almost sheer and absolute. Occasionally a buttress of dark rock jutted from the ice, leaning out and peering down. To the untrained eye the only possible avenue of travel here was a swift and terminal fall to the mist shrouded nothing below. To the Trumpeter and the Fencer this forbidden incline felt like the only place they could ever be.
They were not alone in their journey. Upon the slopes where no man could climb, along the fissures down which the two descended, the remains of people reached towards the heavens. Their limbs and flesh petrified into marble, caught at a moment of sudden deliverance. Most were encased in the thick and watching ice.
Down continued the two men through the unseen paths the Trumpeter puzzled from sheer nothing and it was this nothing that he focused on to keep his imagination from dwelling on the weapon which swung at the Fencer’s side. He focused on the windless cold, all Winter, everywhere. A world without heaven or earth suspended in an icy vacuum from which stared unblinking eyes. And they had nothing in their bellies because in the struggle the Lemur-men which survived the battle on the peak had stolen their only sack of supplies.
A handful of days passed in such fashion. They slept folded away into tomb-like fissures and they drank from pools of purest snow water which the Trumpeter was adept at finding. In silence the azure cloudscape bellow greeted them.
At a distance the clouds seemed a solid landscape of barely moving blue fields, but where reality ended and the azure began, this terminus grew gauzy as they approached. By now the way had become easier and the slope less severe. The becalmed silence of the world became a silence between the two vagabonds. Without a word they slipped into the unknown.
Within the cloistered cloud they were each alone. The Trumpeter, only a few yards ahead of the Fencer, bobbed in and out of existence. Here and gone. With a sudden jerk the Fencer scrabbled at his evil weapon.
Something simian loomed out of the quiet air, clutching at the wall mere centimeters from his head. It drooped lazily in hunger and the Fencer was awash in alien fear.
“Do you feel that?” hissed the thing from the rocks, reaching with a conical appendage towards something unseen in the fog. Fear crystallized in the Fencer, almost possessing him. His heart reached towards frightful possibilities beyond that which his mind could grasp. Out there an alien thing in the mist approached, bringing an uncomfortable intimacy.
“Do you feel that?” urged the Trumpeter from his uncertain perch, scanning uselessly in the mist, using his trumpet as an eyepiece. The Fencer fought with his fear. An urge to decapitate the useless madman that seconds ago was other. “Like some stranger sitting right next to me, apart from you of course.”
“I’ll put an end to it, whatever it is,” rasped the Fencer, hungry for a tangible threat. A residue of his former fear clung to him. “I don’t fear anything that lives.”
“Feel it,” argued the Trumpeter reaching out to the mist. “There is something in the mist. What kind of thing would live here? Perhaps it grows by being cut apart, or laughs in joy as all the pain it feels is transmuted to sunlight, snow flowers, or things stranger still. Or maybe it never reveals itself for understanding, existing always as a vague feeling shrouded by this cloud.”
“Most certainly it is the cloud,” spat the Fencer. “I don’t know. It’s beyond me, but I must see things through to the bottom.”
They traveled a day more, the uncanny thing following them, ubiquitous and yet unseen. Another day and the slope continued to lessen and the cloud increasingly thinned out. By the third day the two men had entered a new world.
The Fencer believed that they were far below the ground level on the other side of the mountains but the Trumpeter was cannier about such matters; it had taken them longer to descend due to difficulty and not height. The gouge which had lead them down, the trail of the weighty stone of shame, once chained to the Fencer’s neck, still guided them in fits and starts. This reminder of the outer world warded away the charge the two had felt in the air, though it still threatened what was left of their sanity. The Fencer was the first to find the children.
At first he believed they were more petrified bodies, but those had dwindled as the climbers had descended. Also these reached out towards no hope.
Here and there, in various depths of newer, aquamarine-colored ice, the corpses of the young and newly born lay. Many were exposed, their hollow shriveled eye sockets blandly staring. They were akin in deformity. Clubbed feet lay crumpled and little, malformed flipper hands clutched at themselves to ward off the infinite cold. Others were stranger, seemingly normal, only the vivid streamers of fantastically colored hair betrayed them now, as then, whenever they had been cast down the mountain. The stone of shame rested here from its long journey.
“At least we know what happens to ours,” stated the Fencer philosophically to the Trumpeter who waited at the edge of the cemetery. “At least we know that ours are dead, that they can’t be taken.”
“How is it done in the village of the Narwhale hunters?” The Trumpeter’s voice was clear and even.
“At the first sign it is a father’s duty to hold them beneath the ice; I’m told it is very quick.”
“I wonder what kind of secrets they took with them to the ice,” pondered the Trumpeter clutching his instrument. “What few things their brief lives revealed. Is it like anything we can imagine? Is this worth just keeping them from being taken?”
“More secrets,” muttered the Fencer.
“Maybe they aren’t taken, maybe they just leave.”
“A bit surprising you didn’t end up among them,” jabbed the Fencer.
“It’s not my practice, I’m going to say it never was,” declared the Trumpeter, ignoring the Fencer’s jibe, using his own manner of reason.
“Maybe it still is,” sighed the Fencer. “With no food we’ll never make it back up the cliffs. We’ll probably end up like those your people abandoned.”
“Then we had better get walking; I’d like to see whatever it is that brought us here before I fall over dead.”
The Fencer and the Trumpeter walked out across a vast, frozen expanse. As the days passed it revealed itself clearly as a bowl sloping gradually towards a singular point within the ring of the Wondering Mountains. No living things stirred but the presence in the cloud seemed to dilute as the mist itself thinned; now it watched from above. They could see the sun as a greenish disk of copper at noon time.
A few days past the cemetery the Fencer noticed the trail of a massive creature, something like a bundle of rope with weight enough to gouge the eternal ice. He decided not to mention this to the Trumpeter who would probably want them to chase it down for a conversation. Then they would have to kill it and despite this promising thought the Fencer marched all the wearier.
The Ice beneath their feet was crystalline and sapphire over the black and crimson. A sound of scratched glass rose with their footsteps. In time the two were exhausted and didn’t notice when they marred a line drawn upon the ice with their tired footsteps. This was when they heard the fluttering of many wings.
A tree appeared, so massive that the two spent many minutes walking from where the branches first broke through the azure fog to where the wide trunk leaned. It grew out of ice broken with the upheaval of ancient growth and reached far above into the deepening cloud. Neither man had seen a living tree before nor was this an exception as its bark was petrified with the ages it had reclined in this forgotten place.
Cages hung from many branches and inside the wire mesh things flapped. Peering into one the Trumpeter could see a butterfly, a snowfly as he knew them, the size of a falcon struggling against its bars. In each of the other prisons more and stranger snowflies toiled ceaselessly. They were of all bright colors with multivariate patterns. With two, four, six or more wings they sought escape. Some were small and delicate while others were as large as an eagle. The Fencer found their noise maddening.
“The slope grades upwards past the tree; this is it!” exclaimed the Trumpeter. “You see? At the very center a tree. A big, old, dead tree, with mutated snowflies in little cages. It all makes sense and we can die now.” The madman collapsed to the ice breathing with excitement and exhaustion.
The Fencer circled around the tree once gathering his thoughts, trying to cut through the haze of fatigue and the pangs of starvation to some understanding of their find.
“Who put the snowflies in the cages? Who made the cages?”
The Trumpeter only groaned at the thought of thought then stood up with a manic flourish.
“Obviously this is call for a bit of the art.”
To the Fencer’s horror the madman brought his trumpet to his lips. With a full intake of air the instrument called up into the cloud, the peal sounding over the vast basin. Things in cages struggled with renewed vigor and as the sound died away something shuffled beyond sight.
A sobered Trumpeter took a few steps back against the ancient tree while the Fencer grimaced. He drew his sword and waited as the shuffling grew close. Imagined creatures like the one he had tracked days ago filled his mind but what stumbled from the haze was far worse.
Its tattered plastic garb crinkled with each movement. It didn’t seem old, but worn away, ancient. It had once been a man, possibly still was, with long limbs ending in frostbite blackened nails, and a strange face, the edges of which were worn away by time. His eyes smoldered sleepily and red, but it was the man’s hair which brought the most fear, old fear, up from the bones of both travelers.
Despite the filth and dust of ages the long drape of hair the ancient man dragged behind him was the color of the sky. That blue of rare, unclouded days. The color most common to those with a gift or knack or talent beyond the normal instrumentalities of man. It was the reason for drowning one’s children or casting them down the side of a cliff. It was the sign of magic. It was a sign that they would be taken by others of their kind and never seen again.
The Fencer thought he might jump this creature now, see if it would die as quickly as a Lemur-man, but he couldn’t help remembering the witch in the cave. He tried to remember the color of her hair.
While the Trumpeter hid behind the tree their visitor shuffled up without hurry, smiling with broken teeth, letting them know they were welcome.