Tristan flexed his brawny forearms and muscled the supply crate clumsily over his shoulders, its added weight sinking the him into the dampened soil. As he took up one of the remaining torches from the deadened charcoal, the craftsman hurried into the voided impression his young companion had left in the brush.
“Hold boy!” Tristan cried out into the darkness, halving obstructive branches and dense shrubbery.
Coarse bark clawed at the craftsman’s abdomen, leaving darkened streaks where the damp wood had collided. He hacked away at the thick film of low-hanging moss that draped above his head, much of the stringy webbing becoming latched across the man’s face and torch, igniting into an even greater flame. Despite this, the searing light seemed only to penetrate a small sphere into the surrounding black.
Tristan heaved himself over the fallen masses of obscured obstacles within his small bubble of light, calling for the youth all the way. Arnold was so quick with his departure that Tristan hardly caught sight of the boy’s fading shadow before it was all but lost to the mist.
In his haste, a thick root snagged his footing, collapsing the craftsman’s right side into a wide pine and flinging his torch to the mud. Tristan rebounded off the trunk and into a small sapling, stabbing him in the side before crumbling underneath his form. The frigid winter air quickly cauterized the injuries to numbness, but still managed to blister the artisan’s throat with his heavy inhalations. The burly man had only but a moment to caress his sores before the steam of his breath flickered to black with the extinguishing fire.
“Tristan?” the boy whispered shakily. “Brandon? Firefly?”
Arnold tossed his eyes in all directions, searching for any indication of his companions. Despite the advanced shade of night, Arnold had ripped through the obtrusive brush with surprising ease. His nimble step treaded lightly over the mountain slurry, amplifying his speed, but leaving the older craftsman in the night.
At the time, it hadn’t occurred to Arnold to stop running. The guttural roar had evoked a primal fear within the boy that he’d long since forgotten. Racing headlong into the darkness the youth recalled the rumbling of the dragon’s maw overhead and, even older still, the hellish barking and hollering of hounds during that night so many years past. The maddening cackles of the dogs echoed noisily in the boy’s mind and had deafened him to the craftsman’s hails.
It was not long after his abrupt departure, however, that the boy found himself alone. The towering pines melted along their lengths, creating a cage that allowed only the cold fair entry. In a quivering voice of questionable conviction, Arnold called out for his companions a few more times, receiving only the chilled whispers of the wind in return.
Suddenly, a soft rustling challenged his attention. Tame enough to be a ferret mole, but close enough to be at his very side. The boy pivoted in place, swiping at the earth with his feet for any form of contact. The rustling came again, a little further now and ahead of him on his path.
“Tristan?” Arnold called out in a hushed whisper.
A stark shadow tussled through the bushes close ahead, moving quickly. For a loss of sight, the boy’s hearing extended beyond its natural range and enabled him to follow the figure’s movement. Judging from the inclination, Arnold guessed it to be heading toward the cliffs, but couldn’t make out its form.
Arnold took a cautionary step backward, drilling his fingers into a length of bark and gritting his teeth to silence. The rustling continued briefly, not predictable like the wind, but too deliberate to be an animal. Its movements were akin to searching, low to the ground with long sweeping pauses.
“Tristan? Are you there?” the youth called out softly, the shadow halting in place.
A lengthy silence stole the breath from Arnold’s lungs, a trickle of sweat bounding across his brow. In a single measured step, the shadowy figure investigated the source of the call, crushing fallen twigs underfoot.
“Arnold?” a reply breathed into his ear after another silence.
The voice had steamed up right next to the boy’s face, warming his cheek but still maintaining a semblance of distance. The boy whipped his head to his side, an arm pawing at the void but clutching nothing.
“Tr-Tristan? I’m here!” the boy stammered, “Tristan! Where are you?”
The rustling started up again, fading into the winding of the wind. Before it could dissipate completely, the boy took off toward the sound. As he advanced, Arnold repeatedly found himself vaulting over a growing number of collapsed trees, almost forming a barrier in his path. Clumsily navigating the field of peculiarly fallen pines, the sound of the rustling ahead of him diminished with every step.
“Tristan! Wait!” Arnold cried out.
“Arnold? Arnold is that you?” the breath steamed rather calmly. The voice seemed to swing and fade in its inflections through the crunching of the snow and pine, but still sounded closer than what the distant rustling seemed to indicate.
“Yes Tristan! Where… where are you heading?” the boy choked, throwing his legs over yet another trunk and burying a sapling beneath his foot.
“Come this way Arnold. I know the way,” the voice fluttered, a gust of wind carrying a slew of moss with the noise.
Arnold followed the sound of snapping branches and tearing leaves, gasping for the figure to slow its pace for only a moment. Despite his pleas, the voice simply continued with its urging and sped through the forest with the boy not so far behind.
Tristan cursed, sinking a hand into the wet earth as the supply crate uncomfortably listed to one side, making it difficult to rise. Slogging the large box back into position, the craftsman crawled over to the glowing embers of the dying torch and held a hand out to its heat. He quickly removed his flask from his satchel and dowsed the red charcoal in the alcoholic liquid, though this only produced a momentary display of ashen smoke and sparks before darkening completely.
Tristan craned his neck about surroundings. From above, the moon lay sunken behind a sheath of thick clouds that did little to permeate through the mesh of leaves. Beyond the void, Tristan could all but perceive vague shadows of what he determined to be the messy conglomeration of pine, shrubbery and, as his most ominous specter, the mountain.
A wispy wind channeled through the crevices of the floating summit, whining and whistling with every groaning breath. As the onset of the winter chill slivered its way into his garments, Tristan worked quickly to stave off the numbing. Snatching at some of the ice-encrusted moss above him with quivering palms, the craftsman coiled their lengths about the expended charcoal before dowsing the branch with the flask’s remaining alcohol.
Laboring for sparks with a wet stone and the end of his canteen, the craftsman managed a meager flame at the tip of the torch. Desperate for its warmth, Tristan hardly had the mind to notice the very earth beneath his feet sliding like a sheet across the ground. The craftsman, with his belated recognition, took the canteen to his breast and drove the torch into the mud like a makeshift pick, securing himself in place.
A wave of icy sludge came barreling over his ankles, drowning his toes in the cold. As the mudslide progressed, it carried with it souvenirs of the forest, gifting them heartily in Tristan’s direction.
“Arnold! Priest!” the craftsman cried out, “Stay away from the ledge! The quake will take you over!”
As the force of the thrashing persisted, the sizeable upsurge of earth coerced overhead pines to the ground, further amplifying the magnitude of the rumbling. And with his hands frosted over from the assault of nature, the craftsman rattled in fear and desperation for the tremors to subside.
Pulling himself from the mud, Tristan held the flask close to his heart, protecting it from the swelling onslaught. It wasn’t until the craftsman very nearly succumbed to the crate’s dragging weight that the shuddering calmed to stillness.
Tossing the stick aside, the burly man picked the wiry moss from his face with deadened fingers and listened for any indication of his companions. A shower of pine and snow embraced flesh and cloak as the grinding and gnashing of stone was exchanged for the sound of the winter gale.
Tristan wrestled his knees from the mud, ambling forward only a few steps before forcing a stabilizing hand over to one of the fallen trees. He groaned vehemently, the canteen still tucked beneath an icy palm. Above him, a single streak of moonlight infiltrated the sable-vested night before vanishing back into the mist.
In his inactivity, mounds of mud began collecting about the craftsman’s foot wrappings as the large man struggled to keep his balance. Looking off toward the direction in which the light had dissipated, Tristan determined that the foreboding shadow that loomed just above the crest of his sight was most probably the direction of the mountain. And despite his warning to the youth to remove himself from the vicinity of the ledge, Tristan knew no better way as to how to gather his bearings than to approach it.
The craftsman slid his feet up the hillside carefully, occasionally catching the hem of his trousers on a protruding thorn or jagged rock. Light patches of snow scattered about his path made for easy footholds, anchoring him momentarily to catch his breath. Every uneasy step lurched the contents of the supply crate from one side to the other, threatening his stability.
“Arnold! I’m here! Where are you boy?” the artisan husked toward the earth, concentrating on his movement. “Priest! Are you out there? Firefly?”
Clasping and blowing steam into his hands, the grit of the dampened earth chilled his fingers to practical stiffness. Tristan coughed gruffly, gritting his teeth as to prevent them from clattering against each other.
As the land evened out, the craftsman slowed his pace even further, perusing cautiously for any sign of the cliff edge. However, as the tree line receded into a clearing and the midnight gale blew ever fiercer, Tristan noticed that the sound of the crashing waterfalls, which had been so apparent before, had fallen silent to the general ambience of the wind.
The uncooperative moonlight betrayed little of the surrounding space, forcing the craftsman on his knees to locate the ledge. And, while fielding his hands across the dirt, Tristan eventually came upon what he believed to be a large ditch that diverged from either direction of his person. So expansive was the ditch that, had his fingers not been able to scratch at the bottom, the craftsman likely would have mistaken it as the very ledge itself. In fact, beyond the very perimeter of area, most of what the man could define appeared to be yet another extensive tree line.
“More… trees? But…” the craftsman huffed through a dry throat. And despite concerns of his having been misdirected from the darkness, Tristan lowered one leg into the recess of earth.
Mid-step, another volley of the familiar quaking sent a shuddering plate of earth to greet the craftsman’s tired form. Unlike the previous tremors however, crackling stone and loose mud seemed to bounce from the very earth at the force of the rumbling. The irritating sanding of moving landmasses grated at Tristan’s eardrums as he clung desperately at the ditch wall for security. And though the battered man did not notice as it had occurred, when the trembling all but subsided, the expansive trench wall was flushed evenly with the rest of the ground. The ditch was gone.
Feeling at the ground once again, the craftsman discovered a thin channel running where the wall of the ditch had been. It seemed as though the surrounding soil sank to become level with the ditch or, in greater likelihood, the trench was simply filled in with whatever was below the man now. Looking up through the thick veil of darkness, Tristan could still hear the groaning and clattering of the stone partitions of the mountain, but much closer now.
“What strangeness be this?” the craftsman grumbled roughly, warily raising and rearing his head back to call out for his companions. “Arnold! Priest! Firefl-“
A shrill roar emanated from the depths of the new tree line, much closer than the first cry at the fireplace but much different in tone. As Tristan considered the possibility of multiple creatures roaming the mountain, a sudden jostling of distant pine leaves splayed disturbed mist about the passing moonlight. The craftsman shackled his attention to the source of the sound, widening his stance and shuffling about the surrounding area for a large stone. In his search however, yet another differing cry echoed off hidden walls, growing closer and closer with very yelp and bellow.
Tristan could hear heavy footsteps crushing and sifting the shadows before his limited eyesight. Unable to procure a sizeable stone, the craftsman held the silver canteen defensively with an outstretched arm. Another surge of wind locked Tristan’s cold fingers about the width of the container as invisible needles lanced his extremities.
The familiar sound of splintering bark, collapsing foliage and crunching ice slung out from the dusk so clearly that Tristan could nearly distinguish what was approaching him. Soon, with humble exposure from a stray light beam, a hulking shadow loomed intimidatingly against the backdrop of Mount Wilson.
“Another step and pray I’ll leave a trace of you!” the craftsman threatened, dropping the supply crate to his side and fidgeting anxiously.
The mist settled with the movement of the wind, the shadow halting its advance. Despite the dark, Tristan could feel a thin layer of snow-fallen tufts accumulate about his arms and cloak as his bruised shoulder ached from the advanced strain.
The animalistic shrieking of before began echoing now from all directions of the forest. The proximity of the roar, by the merit of its own power, disturbed the very snow from Tristan’s arms and coursed through the remainder of his body. But as the craftsman motioned to call out for his companions once more, the eerie visage of the looming shadow bolted toward him with surprising speed.
“Stay-!” Tristan started before a vice-like grip latched its fingers across his mouth.
The boy’s scrambling and cries evidently fell upon deaf ears, as no amount of calling or shouting seemed to garner any form of lasting attention. Not so long into the pursuit even, Arnold felt his already fatigued body failing underneath its weight, slowing him to a slug’s pace.
“This way Arnold. Just a bit further,” the voice whispered into his ear.
The voice sounded like Tristan, but gave no confirmation to that assumption. Perhaps out of a youthful naiveté, however, Arnold ignored the potential dangers of the elusive shade and followed it anyway. But before the boy could reach out and call toward the senseless figure once again, a shattering rumble displaced the earth beneath his feet and rolled a thick trunk into his side, pinning him to the other fallen trees.
Arnold’s cries were muted by the gnashing of stones beyond his sight as slicks of mud flowed like water underneath the wooden stalks. And though the toppled pine clasped painfully into his side, it prevented the youth from being sucked under by the current.
“This way Arnold. I know the way,” the voice hushed repeatedly through the hurling landslide.
The course bark etched its pattern into the boy’s skin, threatening to crush his spine. Twisting about the two encasing trees with shaky arms, Arnold managed to free himself from their vice grip just before a large boulder came tumbling down to seal the gap shut. So too came the end of the quaking as Arnold fell over the side of the logs into a hill of dirtied slush.
The boy laid there for a great while, allowing his cloak to drink from the melted snow. Gasping for breath, Arnold almost expected to hear the voice telling him mockingly to follow and to keep pace. Instead, he heard in the distance, the very faintest call from the dark.
“Arnold! I’m here! Where are you boy? Priest! Are you out there? Firefly?” it labored.
This voice, though feeble and unlike the other, called in earnest as the boy crawled to his feet. Cupping his hands around his mouth and attempting a response, the youth was unable to produce an answer, his throat too raw from his previous outcries. Ambling toward the source of the sound, the haunting whisper returned to his ear.
“Come Arnold. Just a bit further now. Follow me,” the voice hissed behind him, a little clearer now.
The youth felt his temples pulsating from the strain, a coursing headache settling at the back of his skull. Despite the sharp pain, Arnold’s mind was clear and he knew that what it was that he had followed was most definitely not his companion. Though the boy determined this quickly, he had still opted to tail the figure, not to discover its identity, but to confirm to himself that he was indeed not going mad.
“Arnold, it’s this way. You must follow me,” the voice urged, the mist flickering with every word. The boy shook his head, holding onto his side.
“I must find Tristan…,” the youth murmured, the mist receding in on itself for a moment and revealing a clearer path ahead.
“You will not survive the journey Arnold. It is too great for you. You must come with me,” the voice murmured in response. The boy continued on his way, limping across the slippery slope and resting at every tree left standing.
“That is not for you to decide,” Arnold breathed, nearly tripping over himself.
“I know what is best for you Arnold. You must follow me,” the voice tempted once more.
“You… you are not my father,” Arnold spat.
Freeing himself from the tree line, the youth felt a strong torrent urge him back down the mountain, but he persisted still. The wind wafting the mud from his cloak, the boy took only a few steps forward before a second quake buckled his knees.
The earth fissured before him, deep pockets of mud sinking into the ground and revealing the crater beneath the mountain. As the dirt gave way at his very hands, Arnold could do little to scamper back to safety before finding himself hanging loosely over the ledge of the massive water basin, large boulders crashing into the lake below.
Desperately dangling from the sinking cliff, Arnold could vaguely make out another faint cry in the distance calling his name before another bone rattling shriek bellowed from the darkness in front of him. The youth felt his throat strangled as his grip upon the land inched further and further into the dusk below.
Just beyond his sight, Arnold recognized the rustling figure from before sauntering drunkenly from the tree line. The mist seemed to crystalize out of the air, stabbing the boy with every struggled movement as the large shadow now loomed above the youth’s arms menacingly. And though the figure’s speech felt robotic and monotonous before, a highly distorted voice replied to him now, staying Arnold’s heart with dread.
“Then… you will die… my son,” the voice threatened as the shadow pushed the youth over the cliff.
“You fool! Stay your tongue! Do you wish for it to hear you?” the priest gritted in a forced whisper while clutching at the craftsman’s mouth.
“Vu!” Tristan muffled, slapping away the man’s arm in surprise.
A plume of warm vapor caressed the craftsman’s face from the priest’s slighted breath. The boar, on which the man was mounted, also released heavy winded steam from its nostrils, kicking the floor to maintain warmth in its legs.
“I was calling out into the night. Why didn’t you respond? Arnold is-,“ Tristan began.
“I said quiet!” the priest growled, taking the craftsman by the hood of the cloak and bringing him close. “Not but a few moments before there was a great beast tailing Firefly and I. There’s no telling where it is now. We must remove ourselves from this clearing.”
“I’m sure there is a beast. Several in fact. The cries were coming from all directions and gave no quarter to speculation. However, we must make haste in order to-,” Tristan stammered, resisting Brandon’s tugging.
“Quiet! Did you not hear me?” the priest scowled, “There is something amiss about this very mountain. If you agree then we cannot spend our time idling on petty errands. We must leave this place at once!”
“Yes, I understand that but we must first-,” Tristan started again.
“Now just follow me up into the tree line ahead. Try to keep your movements slow and-“ the priest interrupted again.
“Let me speak!” the craftsman roared, steam funneling through his nostrils. The boar recoiled slightly from the sudden outburst, very nearly toppling the Vu from its back.
“Are you mad-“
“Arnold is gone! He’s in danger!” the craftsman professed finally.
Brandon’s heart lapsed a beat, the man falling silent as he perused the area for the youth’s familiar face. The priest pulled the craftsman closer by the cloak, bringing him but centimeters from his nose.
“What do you mean, ’he’s in danger’? Where is Arnold?” the robed man interrogated.
“If you’d let me speak then I would tell you. But if there’s a beast out there then we must make haste to find the young one. Did you catch a glance of it? What of its features?” Tristan exclaimed, pushing the priest’s arm back once more, and hoisting the supply crate back onto his shoulder.
“What do you mean ‘find the young one’?” the priest pierced through the dark, “Where is Arnold?”
Another of the beast’s guttural cries echoed off in the far distance now, though still straining the craftsman’s features with anxiety. Moonlight bridged the faces of the two men for a moment, conveying the concern on either’s expression. The craftsman shifted restlessly in place.
Brandon took Tristan by the rope and dragged him hastily into the coverage of the pine, Firefly making short work of the forest’s natural barriers. There the craftsman’s eyes embraced darkness, frosting over in a deluge of thick and winding mist.
“Whatever that monster is, although it appears as many, it is a single creature. If anything I believe the mountain itself to be amplifying the scale of the roaring. As for the beast, I believe it capable of assuming any organic form it wishes. I saw it morph its figure within the darkness,” the priest sweated, dismounting the boar and peering beyond the trees.
“Morph its figure? How can you come to a conclusion such as this?” Tristan coughed, leaning himself warily against a half splintered root bush and scanning cautiously through the clearing.
“Because I saw it with my very eyes. There are, to my knowledge, several classes of demons that can perform such a feat. It would stand to reason that these demons are trying to prevent us from obtaining the Wilson arch stone. But that doesn’t matter right now…” the priest whispered hastily, quietly pacing through the crunching snow. “Where is the boy?”
Tristan sighed, a billowing cloud of steam frosting over his cheeks as he knelt beside the boar.
“After the very first quake the boy ran off into the forest. I presume it was to search for the two of you. Try as I did to stop him, he never came around. It was as if the boy had wool over his ears. He wouldn’t react to a single word I said,” Tristan described briefly.
“Well why would he do such a thing? Did you at least follow him?” the priest stressed agitatedly.
“Of course I did. I ran after the boy to the best of my ability but lost my torch during a fall. Then the other quakes came and I was lost myself! I headed for the ledge to gain-“ the craftsman responded.
“You couldn’t catch a tired boy bogged down by a forest of mud? You just let him out of your grasp?” Brandon scoffed angrily, raising his voice now.
“I just told you that I tried to run him down. The boy gave no elapsed notice, he just left! I had to collect the supplies and take hold of a torch-,” the craftsman explained.
“The supplies! So you had all the time in the world to gather the supplies? Well isn’t that wonderful for us?” Brandon spat in disbelief, raising the craftsman back to his feet.
“What would you have me do then? Throw the crate and torch to the wind to pursue him in the dark? How better do you think you’d have fared in that situation?” Tristan crossed, jabbing a finger at the priest’s chest.
“That boy is our top priority! How can you value a wooden crate over him?” the priest fumed, “Have you any idea where we are? What type of situation we’re in? That boy is far more important than a crate of supplies that you could have just come back for! Did you not consider that? Or do you not understand the gravity of our trials?”
“Better than you! I wasn’t the one who suggested we split off and have a merry escapade in the darkness!” Tristan retorted.
“The boy was your responsibility. I left him in your care and now…” Brandon fumed, stabbing his staff dangerously close to the craftsman’s feet. “Fools!”
Firefly snorted concernedly, trotting just slightly closer to craftsman to nudge his thigh with a twisted tusk.
“Well, do you at least know in which direction he went?” the priest calmed. Tristan spun himself toward the mountain’s shadow once again, orientating his body upon the path of his initial pursuit of the boy.
“As I was saying, I ran after him, I took a fall and lost my torch. I decided to follow the shadow of the mountain and look for the crater’s ledge to direct myself. As I approached I listened for the sounds of the waterfalls or the undulation of the vines, however, I only found a ditch that led into the small clearing,” the craftsman explained, tapping the priest to indicate the direction the boy had went.
“A ditch?” the priest asked confusedly.
“Yes, yes. A slight ditch about a meter deep. I stumbled across it and found my way to the clearing we met in. Now from my speculation-,” Tristan explained.
“Only a meter?” the priest repeated through the cold.
“What? Yes, only a meter. But anyway, I believe-,” the craftsman started again.
“Was there a quake when you found the ditch?” Brandon interjected.
“Would you stop interrupting me? Arnold’s in danger! You’re the one who asked for directions but now you’re simply meandering on useless tangents!” Tristan huffed.
The priest didn’t seem so concerned with the craftsman’s scolding and simply continued pacing through the snow. Tristan sighed and looked out beyond the clearing again, a sense of suppressed guilt spilling over in his mind for having let the boy out of his sight.
“Now, this beast that tailed you, did it show any malicious intent?” the craftsman began calmly. “It’s been matching howls with the night but it seems to have distanced itself from us now at the very least. By the sound of its… What are you doing?”
The slight glimmer of the priest’s bell grew faintly into a radiating ember, just enough to illuminate the man’s upper torso. The man contemplated silently with his eyes averted.
“Priest, now isn’t-,” Tristan was silenced by an outstretched finger, the priest staring back out into the clearing once again.
“I think I realized something,” Brandon exclaimed, pursing his lips. “The beast… it halted its pursuit of me once Firefly and I fell into a very similar ditch to the one you found after the very first quake. I’d initially believed that we’d somehow managed to fall right over the cliff itself, but landed here. Then we scurried off into the safety of the tree line and found you ambling about.”
Tristan squinted confusedly and shook his head, “What’s your point? The monster fears slight depressions in the earth?”
“I did not fall into a ‘slight depression in the earth,’” Brandon replied. “The trench I fell into could have very well killed me had Firefly not been present to brace the fall.”
The boar scraped its tusks against a bark of a low pine, producing the only audible noise within the vicinity. The priest returned his stern eyes over to the craftsman. The resonating scratching of the boar’s labor shattered the peace of the surrounding ice, hailing small icicles over the priest’s straw hat.
“I very much believe that we are currently at the base of Mount Wilson, as in, the base of the floating island itself,” Brandon postulated. Tristan squinted in consideration.
“Impossible. The mountain hung hundreds of meters in the sky…,” the craftsman trailed, considering the thought. “But it is supposed to move is it not? As the journal described?”
“And if not laterally, then vertically,” the priest continued, a muddied hand pinching at his stubble.
“You’re suggesting that the mountain sunk back into the crater?” Tristan murmured. Brandon nodded again. “Well why would it do that?”
“You ask as if the very premise of a flying mountain isn’t outlandish in and of itself. As I mentioned before, there is something amiss on Wilson that we have yet to understand,” the priest reasoned further.
“Well then this still changes nothing. We still have to find the boy and ensure his safety before we continue with further deliberation,” the craftsman exclaimed.
“But it does change some things,” Brandon exclaimed coolly, “Because assuming we do find the boy, our decision as to whether or not to remain on Wilson might decide our fates. For if that beast is here on the mountain with us by dawn, after the island begins to rise, then we would have trapped ourselves atop a floating prison with nowhere to run.”
Tristan gripped dearly at the canteen by his heart, finally settling it into the satchel at his waist before lugging the heavy crate from the ground. A muffled cry sounded from far beyond the clearing, its tone frantic but dwindling. Firefly rose to its hind legs and squealed loudly, pointing its snout in the direction of the noise. As Tristan knelt to secure the crate over the boar’s back, yet another animalistic shriek filled the air and sent a coursing shiver through the travelers’ hearts. Even more so than the very ice.
“Not if we kill it first,” Tristan said with conviction.