Perhaps it was the altitude or the harrowing wind blowing over the peaks but the Trumpeter and the Outcast only heard their doom mere seconds before the attack. Hooting and crying, their large, yellow-ringed eyes wide and innocent, the Lemur-men hopped and yawned open their red-toothed jaws, clutching with claws made to dig in the ice. They hungered for the soft inner parts of living men and their ringed tails swayed with obvious excitement at the prospect before them.
Instantly the foul creatures split the two exhausted travelers apart from each other, over a dozen hopping fiends competing for each kill. The Trumpeter was uncharacteristically quiet as he took perilous steps backwards, swinging his Trumpet to more laughter and mocking hoots. The Outcast, however, was kept at the scene only by the stone of his shame, no matter how much he scrabbled on the ice trying to get away.
A blast from the Trumpeter’s horn cut through the wind but the creatures were unmoved by such music.
One Lemur-man began pulling the Outcast back by his chain, squeezing the air from him. This high up twilight filled reality where the ground had once been. Stars glared unblemished along with the languid midnight sun. The wind howled away the dusted snow revealing more black, red-eyed ice beneath.
Half frozen, this groundless vision filling him, the Outcast’s mood changed and with a start he grabbed the chain and pulled the offending Lemur-man to him. He bound up and strangled the thing, making its golden eyes grow wider and wider as its uncaring companions cried and laughed. Its talons raked at him.
The rest then rushed in, tearing open his arms and legs as he fought to keep their clutching paws away from the vitals they thirsted for. The Outcast’s world was a blur of claws and teeth and wide-eyed noise. There was warmth and this was from his own blood. They would’ve had him then but fortune played a strange hand.
One creature, smaller than the others and perhaps more cunning, was unable to join the frenzy, thought it did see the stone which was chained to the Outcast’s neck. Deftly it snatched the stone of shame and with some effort, and the help of the ice, slipped the obsidian block down the side of the mountain, down where the mists roiled up, down to the forbidden lands. The Outcast soon followed.
In a tangle of yelping Lemur-men the lost man slid almost in free fall. The no-time sun danced fitfully in his tumbling vision, along with the wide open sky and a scattering of ice. Any moment the stone would catch and his neck would break. Things like bone, or weak ice snapped against him as he slid with distant pain.
The Outcast hit the outcropping just after his burden and he had enough sense to grab the chain. Still in motion the weight took him. Out over nothing his stomach leapt. A thousand feet towered above his tumbled perspective and to this upside-down height he fell.
With his only free hand he caught himself; but it was truly only his distemperate soul which kept him from falling, arguing against absolutes. Below yawned a bowl of mist, blue and cloud-like. A gibbering sound betrayed the presence of another Lemur-man.
Most of the creatures had saved themselves from the fall with their ice-digging claws but this one now moved on to finish its quarry alone. It took it’s time, hooting with glee as the Outcast struggled. The thing’s eyes glowed as it made tender hops towards the helpless man.
In desperation the Outcast slowly let the stone’s weight down so that his arm was free, though his neck screamed from the strain. Still he made no progress up the rock, his hands tossing up fragments of ice, cut, bleeding and cold, finding no purchase on the jagged stuff.
Flailing against the icy wall of the mountain, the Outcast found no purchase on the uncaring ice, each strike of desperation almost falling in time with the short, expectant hops of the Lemur-man. Clear top ice, older than the village of the narwhale hunters was at first hard as diamond and then gave, chip by chip, to repeated assault. The Outcast’s mind swarmed with emotion while he suffocated from the choking collar. The creature slid closer considering its joys. Something cut deep into the man’s grasping hand and held him just as much as he held it.
Still on the peak, the Trumpeter was in a quandary. He didn’t want to have his innards devoured by the very same creatures that had decimated his community but at the same time was loath to use the only implement at his disposal, his trumpet. The Lemur-men had gotten his insane companion and now they closed upon him, backing him against the peak’s edge and the cold lands from which he had recently journeyed. He felt perfectly vindicated in his previous protests.
He was about to occupy his final seconds by gazing up towards the sky and the secret, forbidden thing which held his dreams when blood hit the ice and the tone of the howls changed.
With something dark in his hand the bloodied Outcast sheared the tops off of several of the unwitting creatures, brains steaming in the cold. An incautious Lemur-man hoped to slip by the armed man and in grazing itself on the razor blackness split open. Most of the fiends then leapt towards the wounded man. A handful impaled themselves, their dead weight sloughing off the Outcast’s blade like memory from a dream. More joined them.
Speed and blood and hollow, defeated cries resounded as the eternal sun brightened away from dusk towards afternoon or morning. The elegant instrument cut death from life with cold comment. The Outcast fought poorly, relying on his weapon as sole advantage. A few creatures made it past the blade, claws digging deep, sudden-wide jaws clamping down on the swordsman’s tired skin. These were the last to die.
A few fearful, marginally intelligent Lemur-men hopped away in the end. They would tell hooting stories of an undying thing wielding a nightmare. Their companions would feature only as blood and muscle and foolish foils for the unquestionably cunning survivors. In this way they were much as other men, though perhaps not much like the Outcast and the Trumpeter.
The mad musician stayed with his back to the sky. There was something unwholesome in what the Outcast held, that strip of demon-ice which all the mountain people shunned. The implement was roughly sword shaped; a long ribbon of some liquid metal which had been super heated and then quenched. Yet it was also crystalline, like ice, just as jagged. For some reason he was reminded of those lost crystals in the witches cave. The unblinking reddish eyes from within the blade seemed to stare at the Trumpeter.
“Have you survived or are you lost?”
The Outcast seemed to be confused by the Trumpeter’s glib question. He looked down, out of his fugue. He was all bloody.
“I told you, I don’t care for pain,” he explained.
“Do you also not care much for gravity? I saw you take a trip over the side just over there.” The Trumpeter pointed and both went to look. There they could see where the Outcast had fallen and where he had hung over the abyss on a lucky outcrop of stone. Below blood and half a Lemur-man lay steaming. The Outcast pointed out the cunning rents in the icy slope where he had used his new tool to climb back up to the summit and the shattered ice where his frantic efforts found the thing. Lastly, the Outcast now saw the outcroppings which had broken off at his tumbling descent; ancient petrified limbs, reaching up from the ice, toward some unknown salvation or wonder. There were more where ever the two looked on the inward slopes. The Trumpeter had not been lying about the ancient corpses from the dawn of time. The wind clawed at the two men.
“Well?” searched the Outcast but the Trumpeter had nothing to give him.
“Hmmm?” was the only response.
“You are now avenged on the unspeakable things which murdered and presumably ate your friends and family.”
“Yes, I think those were the things. Maybe not the exact creatures, or the same band.” Now the mountain man was searching the sky again in the waxing light.
To this lack of gratitude the Outcast could only mutter in impotent rage. The growing distrust, that mood which considered smashing in this addled fellow’s head in the night, was gone. Now it was replaced by a cold, a pure and terrible cold, one of the many for which his people had a specific name. Dhala. An old name for the quiet, absolute cold which permeated the world, looming like a last and thoughtless god or force bringing all things to stillness.
This was the thing the Outcast felt in his hand, this presence, and he struggled to pry the weapon loose. But it was frozen. Blood now fused him to the implement. He panicked and struggled and finally freed himself, new blood coursing so greatly that he had to bind that hand with rags.
“Where did your necklace go?” asked the Trumpeter oblivious to his companion’s pain.
The bare bit of chain left from the Outcast’s collar clinked as he stood up. Walking back to the precipice he searched for a moment and then pointed to a stuttered divot running down the side of the ice slope. Down this gouge went, out of sight, into the azure mist of the forbidden lands. His shame was gone, cut free by the icy weapon.
“It would seem that we have a path laid out for us Trumpeter, can you find us a way down with that as your guide?”
“I suppose,” mused the Trumpeter, obviously unhappy. “You’ll need to change your name though.”
“To what?” said the Outcast for the last time.
“To ‘the Fencer.’ I believe it has something to do with swords.”
So the two left the high peaks of the Wondering Mountains, awash with dying steam from cooling corpses, climbing down to a future shrouded and a land cursed.