“Keep pace Tristan!” the priest called.
The two men followed closely behind the boar as it parted the sea of frost. Not so far from where they had lain hidden did the shrill cry from before reach their ears. It was the assumption then, that wherever the beast should be found, Arnold would not be too far.
But now the notion of challenging the creature came into question should an encounter inevitably occur. What means of defeating a beast with shapeshifting capabilities had they? And even if the three travelers could manage to overpower one of the monsters, what prevented others from replacing it? Tristan caressed the worn metal of the silver flask anxiously.
“By your grace, keep that boy safe,” Tristan whispered into the inscription.
Firefly made a valley out of the ensuing muck, easing the burden of movement for the two men. Since the last quake, Wilson had all but fallen silent, the groaning whisper of the three partitions being the only indicator as to its presence. Despite this, that very groaning grew ever greater with every forthcoming step in the direction of the monster’s cry.
“We’re close now. On your guard craftsman,” the priest warned under the faint glow of his staff.
A steady wind blew in from the window of the great abyss, seemingly guiding the way. As the three travelers rounded about the perimeter of the fallen tree line, Tristan noticed that the gale drew inward and outward similar to the shifting exhale of a large cavern. And as irregular as this may have seemed at the time, the craftsman quickly dismissed the thought as the boar wound to a screeching halt.
“What is it? Have you found him Firefly?” Tristan huffed, shuffling in front of his companions for a better look.
Before he could take another step more, both the priest and boar simultaneously hooked the craftsman back, felling him to the mud with vicious force. Brandon then struck his bell, illuminating the area around them and revealing a great precipice at their feet.
“The mountain splits here. I can hear the vines wavering below,” the priest informed, pointing his staff into the ravine. The light barely managed to catch the shadow of the swinging cords from the dark. They were little more than a bundled mass of a hundred dancing coils.
“Shall we go around it?” Tristan grumbled.
“As if we had much of a choice,” the priest replied, the bell dimming again. “On your feet craftsman. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole forest was eyeing us through the mist now.”
The Vu kept his head low, an ever watchful eye perusing the surroundings. Chilled air was coughed up in a swirling tempest from the crag beside them, revealing the source of the ‘breathing’ and scattering the livid winter from its depths.
“Have you a plan to defeat the beast when we see it?” the man asked as he lifted himself up.
“With any luck, a simple exorcism would be sufficient. Supposing we’re facing a demon whose nature is based on illusion and trickery, then despite appearing powerful, it would merely be boasting a façade,” Brandon explained, following the ravine.
“Those roars definitely didn’t feel like an illusion,” Tristan exclaimed.
“Well that is the point of the illusion is it not? Regardless, these lowly demons resort to the deception of ignorant travelers who aren’t privy to this knowledge,” the priest continued.
“And if it isn’t a lowly demon?”
“Then we’ll have to make due with our fists. In which case the fissure might prove useful,” the Vu motioned.
“Either that or we break your leg as I escape with the boy,” Tristan mused, garnering a rare chuckle from the priest.
The three hastened their step, the fissure becoming noticeably wider as they continued. As it broadened, the sharp and spitting wind was diluted into an exasperated groan as if Wilson itself felt fatigued from the occurrences of the day.
It was not long before the travelers crossed the threshold of the mountain once more. The ravine ran perpendicular to the cliff side and ended in a bulbous extension of the surrounding crater where the ledge had presumably collapsed during the quaking.
The moon, tired of its clouded confinement, shone silver daggers through into the mist, reflecting off the particles and lighting the area. And though the visibility quelled Tristan’s nerves momentarily, a slighted whisper stole his composure.
“Did you hear that priest?” the craftsman whirled, nearly toppling himself.
Brandon turned quickly, seizing the boar’s harness and searching the area. “Heard what craftsman?”
“A voice! I heard it call my name!” Tristan revealed.
“From which direction? Can you tell?”
The moonlight intensified now, a tinted filter replacing the air and, carrying with it, the reverberant echoes of yet another whisper. The priest quickly set the clearing ablaze with blinding light, combatting the moon’s influence. Thick bladed stalks of grass began sprouting around their feet, though wilting under the weight of the snow and mud.
“At the chasm! I heard it coming from the ravine!” Tristan cried out, laying himself across the ground to look over the ledge.
Far below, clinging dearly to a twisted vine, Arnold gritted his teeth as his legs labored to keep him aloft the rolling cord. Brandon knelt beside Tristan, prompting a portion of the ledge to crumble into the ravine, showering Arnold.
“Get back! This ledge can’t support the two of us!” the craftsman cried, shoving the priest back.
Brandon motioned Firefly backward, quickly going at the knotted line tied about its abdomen. “Then you start with the rope. Lower it down as Firefly and I hoist him up.”
The priest planted his staff into a nearby snow pocket and threw one end of the glimmering rope over to Tristan. Lobbing the wooden crate deftly from the boar’s back, Brandon tied several loops around the animal’s curled tusks.
“Are you alright Arnold? Are you hurt?” Tristan called out, lowering the rope steadily into the crag.
Before Arnold could respond, the craftsman was hurled headlong into the ravine as thick slabs of rock began breaking free from their nests and descending into the darkness of the abyss. The sudden quake sanded the partitions of the mountain violently against the earth like a grindstone.
As the slacked rope burned a notch into the dampened soil, Brandon crushed the remaining line around his palm to halt the craftsman’s fall. The boar likewise reared up on its hind legs, thrashing its head from side to side in a panic.
Tristan’s body twisted freely in the air before bashing into cliff face, the rope being the only article dangling him above the craterous pit. The falling rocks battered the vines below, miraculously missing Arnold entirely as greater volumes of the basin buried itself with matter.
Despite their combined strength, Firefly and Brandon barely managed to stay aground themselves before the shaking finally subsided. Attempting to stand, the tension on the rope forced the priest back to his knees which burrowed reluctantly into the slush.
“Craftsman! Get your feet back on the ground!” the Vu strained, “We won’t be able to keep you forever!”
Still twirling about in the air above the young boy, Tristan hooked his elbow around the length of rope and kicked his feet until he was able to stabilize himself against the chasm wall. He was just some ten meters from reach of the boy now, close enough to see the desperate glint wailing from his eyes.
“Are you alright Arnold?” Tristan shouted, his muscles tearing. The boy nodded tensely, constantly readjusting himself on the vine as his mud-slicked arms continuously betrayed his grip.
“Hurry and climb topside craftsman! We can’t hold it much longer!” Brandon repeated as lumps of sludge from his knees began spilling over.
A stream of sweat trickled from every pore of Tristan’s body. Exchanging glances with the golden light above and to the boy below, the craftsman considered for how much longer Arnold would be able to wait for rescue. For, at the moment, he was within Tristan’s reach.
Firefly took a taxing step backward simply to be replaced back to its original position. Brandon had all but lost the color in his fingers, himself growing accustomed the exertion. The oscillating weight of the rope dug the notch even deeper into the ledge and began dragging the priest and boar dangerously close to falling over themselves.
“Are you almost up yet Tris-,” Brandon began before the weight on the line seemed to double.
Firefly squealed in discordant protest as one of the priest’s knees hung over the cliff. He leaned back, his straw hat grazing the slurry and his veins protruding from his forehead like hollowed mole hills.
“If still you have life in your bones, pull with all your might!” Tristan bellowed from below.
“Firefly! Back! Back!” Brandon wailed, steam exhuming from his very skin.
The boar kicked its hooves from out of the muck, turning backwards as it forced the rope upward. The friction against the earth made it difficult to continue as the line became snagged deeper into the rock. Despite this, the Vu once more found his feet firmly planted into the earth as his bloodied hands heaved resignedly.
Soon, a burly hand came over the top of the ledge, at first grasping at mud before simply using the tautness of the rope inside its notch as a handle. Brandon quickly uncoiled the rope from his palm, noticing a thick band of purple around its width and wincing painfully. With his opposite hand, he reached out to assist the craftsman.
“No. Help the boy first,” Tristan grunted, the priest noticing the youth hugging the craftsman’s back tiredly. “I climbed the rest of the way down to grab him. Hurry priest…”
Brandon took Arnold by the scruff of his hood and, with what remaining strength he had left, pulled him onto the cliff side. The ease in pressure made it easy for Firefly to lift Tristan the rest of the way up as all four travelers collapsed, heaving the sound of the wind to extinction.
The Vu scrambled closer to his glowing staff as the radiating light eased the pain out of his fingers. Tristan likewise brought the boy into the glowing sphere, slowly healing both of their wounds. The growing tufts of grass felt warm in contrast to the thick mud that caked their bodies.
As the last of the deep purple bruising faded to pink, Brandon removed his staff from the earth and begrudgingly lifted himself to his feet. “No time for rest now. There’s no way the beast wouldn’t have seen us by now.”
Arnold was still panting heavily and smacking his lips as he asked, “Wh-what beast?”
Tristan lifted the remaining rope from out the crag. Wrapping it soundly along the length of the wooden supply crate, he replied “Seems like there’s a monster who doesn’t quite fancy our presence on the mountain. But we’ll explain as we move. Come now boy, on your feet.”
As the craftsman extended a hand out to the youth, a sudden shuffling through the brush tensed their nerves. It started far off, but approached quickly. Firefly lowered its muzzle to the ground, snorting intimidatingly as the priest directed his light toward the sound.
Tristan reached into his cloak and removed the silver flask, gripping it tightly with a fist. All the while, Wilson breathed ambivalently to the situation. A soothing rush of air matched the exhales of each man as the mist sifted in wafts in the distance.
“Stay close together,” the priest whispered, Tristan pulling Arnold to the boar.
The rustling grew ever louder and more incessant as the mountain did indeed seem to amplify its noise. Tightening their grips on their separate articles as the shadow approached, two men nearly lashed out in a blind fury had the familiar and battered façade of their young companion not stepped out from the woods.
“Get away from it! That thing is a shapeshifter!” Arnold cried out, directing a bloodied finger to the Arnold behind Tristan.
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