The Outcast awoke to ribbons of light streaming in from the jagged cave mouth and to thoughts, perhaps formed from a dream or the mutation of the Trumpeter’s half-heard ponderings, playing in his mind. Certainly this could be some lingering enchantment left by the previous resident. Outside he found the Trumpeter standing upon a jutting rock staring at the gauzy folds of the clouds above.
“I need you to take me beyond the painted peaks,” stated the Outcast, trying to see whatever it was that the Trumpeter was looking for.
“Insanity,” stated the tall strange mountain man. “My people never ventured down the far slopes, unspeakable horrors are all you’ll find. In fact, that was the second most important duty of my people; keeping lunatics such as yourself out so that whatever waited beyond wouldn’t be made curious by uninvited guests.”
“What was your first most important task,” asked the Outcast. To which the Trumpeter flourished his instrument and made ready another hellish blast from its pristine workings. This distressed the burdened man greatly.
“I see, I see,” he said, interrupting the performance. “Still you must know what lies over these mountains.”
“Nothing,” replied the Trumpeter playing with a frayed end of his scarf. “From the top, only mist can be seen, and the arms, of course. Corpses frozen since the dawn of time.”
The Outcast considered all these possibilities and sat down on a flat patch of blue snow pressed almost clear by the work of centuries.
“What did your people say of the lands down by the great sound?” searched the Outcast, pointing to the place where his home once was.
“Oh, only demons and bloodthirsty cannibals would make their home so close that abyss of sea hags and water witches.”
“And what did I say my fellow villagers thought of these mountains?” continued the Outcast adjusting his chain.
“Something about ghosts and sorcerers...” began the Trumpeter as what little sense he had brought him back from the clouds. Considering this juxtaposition he took time in speaking.
“I concede the point, but under protest; there truly are hideous creatures that live in the mist. It was a band of such horrors that devoured my people not two weeks ago.”
“Were these things of flesh and blood?” queried the Outcast, his mind feverishly working on this possibly tangible problem.
“Quite, and they were after ours,” responded the Trumpeter realizing he was in the company of a man as deranged as himself.
“Then I have no fear of them,” finalized the Outcast as he stood up and entered the cave, preparing a further ascent of the mountain whose blue-going-to-purple peaks loomed high above.
With daylight guiding the way the Trumpeter and the Outcast searched the witch’s cave. When they had first tumbled into its cloistered darkness exhaustion stifled any misgivings they might’ve had about a place of magic. Now they searched for supplies with the knowledge that the occupant was long gone, like all the wonders of the world. Still, there lingered an eerie beauty and with it worry.
The room they had slept in was small and crowded with every manner of root and berry and blossom that managed to grow on the icy slopes. While mostly tough and mean varieties survived at this frigid height a few delicate and strange things flourished. Here the men found Ling roots, Tolem tubers and a sack full of frozen Klee berries, which they gnawed on with eager hunger.
Other reagents were of less obvious use to them; rime lilies which bloomed only during the times of endless sun, the icy-veined flowers known as pale liars grown from where fresh blood was spilt on the colored ice, and many specimens of other rare plants capable of surviving the endless winter. Most were poisonous, several were deadly and all were useless to the vagabonds.
Particularly troubling were the animal supplies which the two, superstitions flaring, avoided as best they could. In spite of themselves they were drawn to the jars of staring eyes, the skins, and other pickled, preserved reasons that the witch had been feared.
“We called her Tchrana,” stated the Outcast solemnly. “It’s a word which refers to rogue female narwhales that murder their own young, and was a joke at her expense. I seem to recall that she had lived in our village once, long ago, but had committed some crime against her husband and was thus thrown out.”
“That wasn’t her name,” retorted the Trumpeter blithely. “She was the Hungry Lady and was yet another reason not to leave the mountains. She had been of our people but had ventured into the forbidden place to which you are taking us both, may you be damned to a very peculiar hell. I think her name was Ihela or something like that.
The Outcast merely laughed at this paradox and pondered the light spilling in while the Trumpeter quietly disturbed jar and bottle and pot, looking.
Behind a cunning fold of stone they discovered a passage leading deeper into the mountain. Some air passed through this narrow fissure which was remarkably warm and fresh. Several hundred meters of darkness later they ventured into a place beyond the permafrost world they had known.
It was a hidden room, an unworked palace. Water fell on glassen crystal and pooled up in a wide basin of smooth white, soft-edged stone. The alabaster walls were shot through with veins of precious metals, speckled with uncut gems and curved, with a natural grace, reaching dozens of meters into the air. There was light, a sort of radiance all about. In the middle of the basin, which was far wider than any hut either man had ever seen, an island of crystal rose up in chiseled beauty to form a massive yet elegant chair of dubious comfort and decadent form. The two men stood still for fear of shattering the dream they had stumbled into.
The Outcast wandered aimlessly forward while the Trumpeter’s only reaction was to let his instrument slip in his awed grasp.
“A hot spring, it must be,” said the Outcast kneeling down to the hyper-clear water. “Probably fed from above to fall all the way down here. Still, the water is so clear.”
He stared into the spotless clarity of the pool and was drawn in. His people had a thousand words for the various expressions of ice and distantly he remembered he had been named for one such kind but just as his name was lost to him so too had his razored thoughts abandoned him in the face of such wonder. Why thoughts of ice now, he questioned internally.
“A dream,” mused the Trumpeter who ambled forward, his eyes continuously cast upwards. “Did she find it or carve it or dream it?”
The question would be left unanswered. The Outcast made a thorough, though haunted, examination of the room while the Trumpeter splashed through the pristine waters in his filthy coat to become better acquainted with the throne. This violation disturbed the Outcast but he kept his thoughts to himself. Seated on the great emerald, the Trumpeter lounged like an exiled prince while the Outcast felt disquiet settle upon him as he searched.
“We need to leave, go back to our journey,” stated the Outcast flatly when he had found what he was looking for.
“I believe she made this place,” pontificated the oblivious musician from his repose as he traced the designs of small winged things on the seat. “She simply conjured up a spirit and it gave her a dream of stone, a secret place. That’s what separated us from the magicians and their kind; secrets.”
Considering this the Outcast returned with, “are you going to leave that chair or do I have to knock you out of it?” His mood had turned and his face was set and cold in the mysterious light. The Trumpeter half scrambled from his seat, placing the glassen work between them.
“You’re the one who is so keen on taboo subjects,” he retorted cleanly, his features blurred and distorted by the chair.
In response the Outcast splashed across the basin to roust the Trumpeter. He forced his companion to back out of the room and then snatched the trumpet in front of the madman’s widening eyes.
Just as he had seen the day before the Outcast placed his lips to the instrument and before the Trumpeter could do anything had blown a vast and despondent blast into the hidden chamber. Crystal cracked in pain, stones jostled and fell. A flaw in the chamber, or perhaps some ancient ward left by the previous tenant, buckled from the sound and in seconds the two men could only stare at the blocked-up fissure and the lost treasure beyond.
There were some tense moments. The Trumpeter waited, perched on his rock once more while the Outcast bumped and smashed inside the cave. They were returned to their ice-bound world and the barbarian beauty their thick skins allowed them to witness. Their lives of hardship allowed the luxury only of viewing the towering slopes of stained ice, contemplating the frozen bay down below while clear and uncaring skies looked down thoughtlessly.
“That was a stupid thing to do,” commented the Trumpeter when his companion had finally exited the cave with a large oiled leather pack. “In fact that was the single most foolish, short-sighted, ignorant, childish action to which my life has ever born witness. For someone who values sound reason you certainly let your demons get the best of you.”
The Outcast made no motion that he was listening.
“I’m not going up there with you,” and with that the Trumpeter hopped down on the Outcast’s rock like some rancorous yet cowardly scavenger. Sighing audibly, his breath escaping like steam, the Outcast considered this challenge.
“It was like she was hiding from us, in that chamber,” explained the Outcast. “And now they are all gone, all the miracle workers, and they are still hiding from us. It’s just like you said; it’s all about secrets. Really makes my blood boil. Also, I’m known to do frightfully stupid things from time to time.”
With very little meditation the Trumpeter accepted this explanation. He suspected the Outcast wasn’t telling the whole truth but he also felt a sort of competitiveness. Inscrutable and chaotic as he was the Trumpeter still knew when he had been out done and maybe if he watched this violent individual long enough he’d see what the Outcast had seen. Secrets were the thing after all.
Indeed the Outcast was holding back. The chamber, the room, the gems and metals, all were far from natural. Where the basin emptied through a vent too small for a man he had found evidence of a walkway, and in tracing the spray of metals across a wall he found a few scorched teeth. Once that room buried in the mountain had been part of some great building, composed of that white, perfect stone, adorned with those fantastic metals, the hot spring part of an elaborate waterworks, but something had happened. Fire was his only guess; a fire which melded dweller and dwelling, reforged the past and then tempered it in freezing winter.
This narrative was only a flimsy construct of his reason and the secrets that were kept from him stung at the Outcast’s heart. Survival so occupied his mind that he felt buried under a sudden swarm of secrets, mysteries he would never know. Fear that his dream, his quest for Summer, was in vain brought back his demons and compelled him to bring the gallery crashing down. All so simple.
Facing the Riddle it was well they returned to the climb. Under the mid-morning sun the entire phase shift of the land expanded above and below them. The distant realm of the Outcast was dirty white and sullen. Then, as the eye followed the slopes of the Wondering Mountains the ancient ice gained color which peeked out from the dusting snows. At first the tint was aquamarine and very faint but gained vibrancy with altitude, through cerulean, azure, violet where faint traces of clouds clung, to indigo near the peaks, where the two arrived after a few days following the rare rocky paths the Trumpeter’s people had worn.
It took all of the Outcast’s resolve to carry his burden to the top. The Trumpeter had thought of many ways to be rid of the stone of shame but none were of any practicality. Most of this time was spent in contemplative silence, which fit the atmosphere at the top of the world, but in truth the actions in the cave had left the two distrustful. They dreamed of murder.
At the peak though their spirits lifted slightly, probably due to the thin air. Here the ice reached to deepest black in color with rare specks of crimson peeking out from within like beads or maybe eyes. The Trumpeter mentioned that they had best stay far away from such spots. He then went back to regarding the sky, as if what he was always training his neck for could now be seen above the cloud line. The Outcast was about to ask about this new taboo but that was when the first of the Lemur-men fell upon them.