The Legend of the Hell Climbers

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The Letter

Dear Merchant Hinsberger,

It’ll likely be a while before you receive this letter as our trek to Mount Wilson was far from a simple one. Several days ago we were finally able to navigate the Limbic Pass, a flooded canyon road of narrow passage that led out to the valley of the Limbus capital city. And though the municipal spires were visible just over the crest of the far hills, we opted to move forward.

I am writing you as we are approximately a day south of the mountain. Even now we can observe the snow-laden peak dip its tip into the clouds -- much to the craftsman’s dismay mind you. Just over this next field of rolling knolls and pine and we’ll finally be able to set our eyes upon the entirety of the great summit.

Tristan was able to barter extra garments for our travels through the northern taiga. Provisions are sparse now but our stockpiling over the last week has readied us for our climb up the mountain.

We have walked a long way since leaving your establishment and I’m sure you still hold concerns regarding our abilities; however, despite our enthusiasm towards our arrival, I’ve something else to report. When we returned to your store after having made our descent from the Holy Jim, you might’ve noticed both the craftsman and priest acting strangely, asking questions about your memory or behaving curiously in general. I’ll have you know that I am currently not the writer of this letter. Rather, we’ve enlisted the aid of a wandering bard to pen themessage for us.

Though this might seem strange, the four of us trust that we’ve come to a realization concerning the nature of a particular threat that rests atop your mountain. You may find much of this hard to believe, but please know that what I am about to describe should remain undisclosed as to avoid excessive alarm. Now, allow me to explain…

~~~~~~

The Hinsberger’s journal had outlined Mount Wilson as a “taxing endeavor of testable courage and fortitude.” This, in and of itself, was not a characteristic that so much concerned the four travelers. They understood that the physicality of their trials would bear great strain on their bodies. This was a reality that they’d long since come to accept. However, what did elicit some averted concern was the subtext underneath the journal heading that read, “Large vines string the moving mountain in place. It was difficult to climb. The base is unstable and liable to collapse.”

Though the Vu wrestled with exactly what this could entail in the days leading up to their arrival, the four travelers didn’t quite suspect that the “moving mountain” was in fact, suspended some one hundred meters above the ground with a forest of organic cables nestling it in place. A chilled updraft strew a dancing line of frostbitten leaves up the large hill they’d just ascended, before barreling down in a stream on the other side. And as they gaped in awe at the apparent wonder of the massive floating island, the three men couldn’t help but fall to their knees in premature defeat. Believing it a time to rest, Firefly also slumped its body up against the craftsman’s thigh and closed its eyes.

“What in the name of the gods?” Tristan mumbled through an awe-stricken hand.

The Vu removed the merchant’s journal from his robe and held its pages before his eyes. Outlining an imaginary contour along the curvatures of the mountain, the priest’s tracery movement seemed to startle an assembly of distant birds into flight and whose size was diminished by the scale of their surroundings. Brandon’s fingers continued upward until the distinction of the dark rock against the high bellowing white clouds tapered into snow-laden obscurity, concealing the peak from sight.

“There’s more… Several rising masses… They’re all connected with vines,” the priest noted, the journal faltering in his palm.

What the three men had taken for a single mass before was, in reality, several levitating portions of the large mountain, broken into three distinct partitions with countless smaller formations strapped to the hanging vines. The spaces between the three most prominent shares of the mountain were a thick mesh of greenery that cemented the pieces together. Like the journal had described, massive green vines tethered the floating mountain to the earth beneath it.

Arnold lowered his hood, allowing the ensuing winter cold to fog his breath. Though it hadn’t occurred to the youth before, the boy now realized that the large hill that the four had just ascended was, in fact, a sheer cliff face that formed part of a deep basin which traced a ring about the circumference of the mountain. Centuries of erosion had weathered the island into its current state before them and, judging by the size of the crater, Arnold could only imagine the initial magnitude of the mountain. As if a testament to its age, thick, snow-laden moss hung from the base of each rock formation like an old necklace.

The green vines coiled about themselves like the fibers of a thick hemp rope, and draped lazily underneath the shadowing mass of the great mountain. They drew back and forth in the distance, lazy recipients of the winter wind as Arnold’s eyes trailed the glint from the numerous patches of snow that blanketed their lengths.

“Incredible…,” the boy trailed in wonder, prompting a concerned sideward glance from both of his companions.

Crystal blue streams of snowcapped runoff crashed down the many sides of the mountain, creating a large lake that rested at the bottom of the crater. The water was shadowed in a tint of gray though a stray beam of sunlight betrayed its true color, revealing a brilliant dabble of deep blue. One waterfall spilled over a vine that hung just beneath the current and broke the tumbling stream in two, casting an arch of liquid into the lake. And though it didn’t seem the appropriate season for such a sight, a well-defined rainbow manifested itself through the mist of the falling water.

Tristan allowed himself a few deep breaths, slacking his jaw and adjusting his wide shoulders before helping himself up from under the boar’s back. The priest likewise stood again, resting on his staff and stowing the leather journal back into his overcoat.

“So how do you assume we scale this monstrosity?” Tristan gestured in repose. Firefly, stirred from his momentary slumber, snorted gruffly before resting his head on the ground once more.

“I can’t hardly make out where these vines start through all the mist,” Brandon exclaimed, wiping tiredly at his eyes.

“You’re suggesting that we climb the vines?” Tristan questioned, stepping over to the cliff edge to peer down into the basin.

It was a sheer drop that leveled out nearing the bottom of the crater. Though it didn’t seem impossible to descend, Tristan questioned the viability of doing so and turned his attention to the floating islands themselves. Although seemingly stable from this distance, the craftsman considered the possibility of strong winds rustling the vines and dislodging large portions of the mountain from above them. Tristan scanned the perimeter of the crater instead and, from what he could see through the thick mist, no vines latched themselves anywhere aboveground.

“That would be the most straightforward approach. Though…” the priest trailed, “the prospect of it doesn’t elicit much confidence.”

Arnold joined Tristan at the precipice and kicked a small stone over the edge, watching it tumble into obscurity. Another strong wind urged the visitors back down the hill as its force churned the vines like leeks in a thick soup.

“What causes the mountain to levitate so?” the youth inquired.

“A form of enchantment. I have seen this type of magic before, although on a smaller scale, used on decorative items,” Tristan explained, following the perimeter of the cliff edge.

“Someone enchanted a mountain?” Arnold asked curiously. The priest shook his head and squatted beside the boar, two long fingers stroking his chin.

“Not likely. Aside from the sheer impracticality of it, I doubt that a mortal mage or even a whole sect of capital mages could form an enchantment of this scale. As if anyone would have a need for a floating mountain in the first place. Yet…” Brandon trailed, another whip of cool wind fluttering the dirt from his cloak, “It is quite the sight isn’t it?”

The priest breathed deeply, inhaling the substance of the surrounding pine and dew. His exhale streamed two long wisps at the corners of his mouth like smoke.

“I couldn’t disagree with you there, although I wouldn’t say I’d share in the same positive sentiment,” Tristan paced.

“And who said I was positive?” the priest responded.

“Does the journal describe as to how the Hinsbergers managed to scale the vines?” Arnold turned, looking over to the Vu.

Brandon shook his head, removing the journal from his overcoat again and tossing it over to the boy.

“The journal hardly says anything at all,” Tristan exclaimed, leaning up against a nearby tree and taking a drink from his canteen.

Arnold thumbed through the yellow pages until he came upon Mount Wilson’s. The youth had read over the description of the mountain countless times before their arrival, though he now understood what some of the more cryptic passages were referring to when they addressed the moving mountain.

“It’s not exactly moving so much anymore,” the boy thought, rereading the contents of the page.

“Well if the Hinsbergers ascended the vines, then we should be able to find a similar route. Why don’t we stake out the area?” Brandon suggested, squinting his eyes to focus beyond the thick fog. “The haze obscures the other side from our view. Perhaps there’s a vine that leads to the base of the mountain over there.”

“It’ll take a whole day to get to the other side. Especially through this brush,” Tristan replied, downing what was left in his canteen and replacing the item in his rucksack.

“Do you suppose we could climb down into the basin and have a look?” Arnold asked.

“I considered that as well, though I’m fairly certain that we’d simply find ourselves in a different kind of trouble,” the craftsman revealed.

Arnold looked into the basin again. The stream of light that illuminated the water below had since faded into the clouds. The various waterfalls frothed distant white into the lake that matched the color of the mist. Arnold could only barely make out large mounds that protruded from the base of the crater, likely once a part of the mountain before becoming “liable to collapse.”

“I think there’s another pressing issue that we must consider as well,” Brandon announced, directing a hand at his companion beside him, “And as much as I’d like to believe, boars simply cannot fly. There’s no way we can lift Firefly up those vines.”

Arnold looked up from the journal to the boar who was nodding off peacefully. It wouldn’t be out of the question to simply allow the boar to roam the surrounding area for a few days. Firefly was a resourceful animal and would be able to manage on its own. Where the true issue lay was in the new crate of supplies that was strapped onto its back by the golden rope. What the travelers had been stockpiling up until that moment was stored in said crate and attempting to lug the wooden box up the vines would be no different than trying to take the boar up in the first place.

“Let’s settle our issues one step at a time. We hardly have an idea as to what will get us on top of the mountain let alone the boar,” Tristan reasoned.

“Do we even have the tools for an ascent like this?” Arnold questioned, inspecting the angle of the vines. “We’ll basically be climbing vertically at some portions.”

“Like I said, we’ll come to those issues once we figure out how to get onto one of these vines in the first place,” the craftsman repeated.

Arnold returned his gaze to the small journal in his hand and looked over the pages one last time before strapping it shut and tossing it back to the priest. The squawking of the distant birds echoed through the misty void as the three men considered their options.

“What say you this? The two of you will pitch camp and start a fire while Firefly and I search around for any low hanging vines that we can potentially latch onto,” the priest offered, untying the heavy crate from off the boar’s back and heaving it over to craftsman. “Better than standing around and speculating at the very least isn’t it?”

“It’s very nearly dusk. Shouldn’t you wait until morning to venture off?” Tristan exclaimed, kneeling at the crate.

“And waste time fiddling through the journal?” Brandon mused, “I’ll return soon.”

The priest roused the sleeping animal to its feet and mounted it, swiftly securing the beaded harness into its mouth. Firefly shook its mane free of the damp earth and grunted softly before carrying the Vu into the thick brush.

Arnold watched as the pair wandered into the shade of the undergrowth before returning his gaze to the floating island. In the proceeding quiet, the boy could hear the gentle groaning and battering of stone against itself. The three massive partitions of the mountain were less transfixed than they had originally seemed, bobbing in a very steady manner in the sky.

Arnold held out a hand to the mountain, drawing an imaginary contour along the edges of the rock as the priest had done a few moments before. As he held out his hand, a small tuft of white landed at the tip of his finger before disappearing completely. Mesmerized by the departure of the tiny white particle, Arnold watched in apparent wonder as more small fluffs fell from the sky in small collectives around him.

“We’ll have to stave off the cold with an extra large fire tonight,” the craftsman murmured under his breath. “Gather up some wood now and start the fire. I’ll put up the tents and see what I can do about the rations.”

The youth nodded, rising to his feet and ambling down the hill to procure some timber for the fire, all the while grasping at the dropping articles of frigid ice. Arnold smiled gently.

So this is snow,” the boy thought.

~~~~~~

Arnold buried his feet wrappings under a blanket of dry moss and leaned close to the fire to accept its warmth. Gnawing casually on a bit of stale wheat bread from the previous season, the youth twiddled his fingers through a clump of snow that had fallen from an overhead tree. And as violent embers leapt from their stone enclosure, stray sparks landed beside the tuft of snow, melting it away.

Tristan unplugged the opening to his canteen and refilled the container of its contents from a separate bottle from the crate. The light of the fire illuminated the man’s face, very similar to the first time Arnold had met the craftsman. Taking a quiet mouthful of the alcoholic liquid before capping off the opening, Tristan playfully spit a stream of it into the fire, the flames bellowing outward in want of more.

The craftsman, turning the container about in his large hands, looked off into the advanced darkness, toward the mountain. The blaring wind had since reduced itself to a gentle whisper that blew softly against the man’s thick clothing and carried the smoke of the embers to greet the frigid mist. Arnold’s gaze followed the smoke back to his companion until finally settling on the object in Tristan’s hands.

“Tristan, if I may ask, from where did you come upon that canteen? Did you make it?” the boy asked in curiosity, replacing the remainder of his wheat bread into the crate and shutting the lid. The craftsman glanced over to the boy with a hint of intrigue and stopped turning the canteen.

“Why do you ask?” the man returned, bringing his own moss blanket higher up his shoulders.

“Well… when we were in the tunnel atop the Holy Jim, you seemed to speak of it fondly,” the boy started, “And it simply occurred to me that I knew very little about you.”

The craftsman chuckled lightly and nodded his head in acknowledgement. In the time the two had been traveling together, Tristan had seldom spoken about himself, often favoring silence while listening to anything the boy had to say. Holding the canteen before the light, Tristan looked between the container and the youth before tossing it through the fire and into the boy’s lap.

“The inscription at the neck of the bottle. Can you read it?” the craftsman asked with a smile.

The man’s face danced behind the wall of flame that separated the two of them. Holding the canteen before the light, Arnold felt at the worn silver metal of the container. Searching through the uneven lighting, the boy eventually felt the impression of thin lettering along the side of the bottleneck. Holding the canteen close to his eyes, the boy read what he saw aloud.

“For in what depths hast left the start,” the boy read, turning the canteen to continue, “take what’s left and follow thy heart.”

The youth turned the canteen in his hands in search of more but could not find any further continuation of the line. Arnold furrowed his brow and tossed the container back to Tristan who ran it carefully through his hands.

“So? What say you?” Tristan asked, scratching at the metal.

“Well what does it mean? Is there more?” the boy replied. The craftsman shook his head and placed the canteen back into his rucksack.

“I could very well ask you the same question,” the craftsman explained through a downward smile. “I’m not too sure. I was given this flask long ago by someone I held dear. I was younger then, perhaps a few years older than you in fact, and was always off on all assortment of small adventures… did I ever tell you that?”

Arnold shook his head, adjusting his sitting position and lying himself comfortably within the opening of his small tent.

“Well, it was a simpler time then. Especially for those like me. Simply learn the trade and reap the benefits of your work for the rest of your life. There was little more to the formula,” Tristan explained.

“The benefits of your work?” Arnold asked.

Tristan didn’t answer, instead opting to slowly look between the boy and the mountain. Arnold looked out toward the abyss as well, the fire glinting off falling flakes of snowfall on their descent into the basin. The craftsman chuckled lightly, himself lying down in his tent and hiding his face behind the stone barrier Arnold had fashioned around the fire.

“I’ve had this canteen a long time. The person who gifted it to me never mentioned the inscription at the neck of the bottle. Either that or I was simply too foolhardy in my youth to give anything much close attention,” the craftsman continued from behind the flames. “It was only later that I found it.”

“And you never came to ask what it meant?” the boy inquired thoughtfully.

“No. Never had the chance to once I did come around to finding it. That was a long time ago…” the craftsman trailed.

Arnold reared up on his elbows to glance over the stone enclosure to the craftsman, pricking his wrists from the thick carpet of pine needles beneath him in the process. The youth was never one to probe into the affairs of other people. While he matured in the capital city, Arnold generally tended to himself and remained distant from the other orphans, often burying his nose in books and fairytales. He was never one to ask questions of other peoples’ pasts though this might’ve spawned from an absent of the necessity to know any of that sort of information. However, the look in his companion’s eye told the boy everything he needed to know or, rather, everything he understood that he wouldn’t know. For there, looking off into a backdrop of white speckled blackness, Arnold thought Tristan looked in grief.

“The canteen… it looks to be made out of some special material. What is it?” the boy asked, decidedly attempting to lead the conversation into a different direction.

“You have a good eye,” Tristan said, smiling again and sitting up in his tent. “That’s Melcot silver from the Dusk Mines. Quite expensive actually. Out in the country I seldom had a client requesting something that required Melcot silver, but the occasion did arise every once and a while.”

“Melcot? From Melcot City?” the youth guessed.

“That’s the one. It’s said that the scales of an ancient water beast turned to silver after the creature became buried under the roof of an underwater reservoir that collapsed on top of it. Because of that Melcot silver is easily blessed and feral creatures don’t take kindly to it,” the craftsman explained.

“Does it repel them?” Arnold asked, greatly intrigued.

“No, nothing that significant,” Tristan answered, shaking his head with a smile. “I’m not too sure exactly what it does, but, as I’ve been told, it isn’t too pleasant.”

This brought a smile to the boy’s face, allowing both of them to share in a short moment of respite. Stray flakes of bark stabbed through the moss blanket into Arnold’s side. Sap, baking within the heated confines of its wooden prison in the fire, popped and released a pungent aroma that mingled with that of the fresh winter breeze. Bright orange sparks merged with snowflakes to elope back into vapor at the height of the fire.

But as Arnold’s eyes followed the smoke up toward the limit of the tree tops, a sudden, jolting rumble began to dispel the tranquility of the youth’s surroundings. Snow buildup from the tops of the surrounding pines came down in large mounds around them. One particular bundle came barreling over of the fireplace, smothering half the fire and sending a legion of embers over the, now compromised, stone enclosure.

The force of the earth was so abrupt that Arnold could hardly register the impact until it had all but vanished.

“Stay away from the ledge boy!” Tristan cried out, rushing over to pull the youth further down the hill from where they had initially thought secure. “It might give way during the quake.”

Arnold reactively grasped onto the long rope that was wrapped around the wooden crate and dragged both items with him as the two men distanced themselves from the warmth of the fire. Pulling the wooden box closer to his feet, Arnold could feel the steamy breath of the craftsman’s breathing on his neck. And though all that sounded throughout their immediate space was the crackling of the dying embers and the weight of their concerned lungs, Arnold felt that there was no calm in the relative silence.

Tristan held a hand on Arnold’s shoulder, ready to move the boy if the quakes persisted. Looking about their perimeter, the youth knelt down and inspected the condition of the items in the crate. The sudden departure from the inviting comfort of the fireplace quickly numbed Arnold’s hands and face as he quickly shut the lid on the box and securely fastened the line around it.

And as the boy stood and stared up the steep hill at their pyre of light, Arnold heard the very faint but distinct cry of some creature in the distance. It came from the direction of the mountain but found no opposition in breaking through the void. Both Tristan and Arnold shared a concerned glance before a massive flock of large birds came roaring above their heads. A surge of glacial wind carried their large forms and the sound of their squawking and calling into the mist of night. The gust disturbed a wave of fresh pine needles from their original homes.

“What was that?” Arnold cried over the fading wing beat of the deserting flock.

“Some… sort of-,” the craftsman began before being interrupted by the cry of a second creature, this time closer.

It didn’t take the youth long to consider the safety of his companions who had been out in the brush to investigate the potential location of a protruding vine. Arnold went slightly pale at the prospect of yet another crippling incident that, this time, might have actually led to the debilitating injury of either the boar or the priest. So, without much of a second thought, Arnold rushed into the thick of the brush, kicking slush and pine into the air as he went. And, despite the cries from Tristan to return, the boy continued forward, leaving the safety of the fire for the uncertainty of the dark.

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