“At the northern most peak we will see the sierra divide amongst itself and create the great valley. There, at the conjunction of the two ranges will be the Holy Jim,” the Vu explained, gesturing to his diagram in the dirt.
“Why here?” the Arnold inspected, perusing the drawing closely.
“I have traveled in this area a long time. If we follow the stream beside us, it will eventually lead to a large river that runs down the valley,” the robed man answered, seemingly ignoring the youth’s question.
“I’m assuming the source of the river comes from the mountain’s snowfall then?” Tristan surmised. The robed man nodded.
“I was last at the mountain’s base a few weeks ago. We should be able to return in a similar time,” Brandon said, setting his staff to the side.
“Have you ever scaled the mountain before?” the craftsman asked, a quick glance to the Vu’s face.
“No. And I don’t know anyone else who has,” the robed man replied.
“But why this mountain?” Arnold asked again.
“A small forest village is housed at the mouth of the water’s runoff. We can supply their before making our ascent,” Brandon explained, again seemingly ignoring the youth’s inquiry. Firefly nudged up against Arnold’s side, as if the only one to acknowledge his words.
“Are there any escorts to guide us on the path?” Tristan asked, rubbing at his stubble.
The youth eyed both men silently. The light that flooded into the alcove burned at his neck as the early morning sun replaced the shine of the fireflies. A trickle of sweat careened passed the youth’s brow, whether from the heat or the foreboding silence he didn’t know.
“There is no path. No one has ever made it to the summit of the Holy Jim,” the priest said.
The craftsman leaned back onto his hands and creased his brow, assessing the Vu’s words. The artisan’s tired expression, long since alleviated during the travels of the past months, returned to the same weary façade he wore from the first time Arnold had encountered him. The priest directed his gaze to the youth.
“Why this mountain? Because I do not believe that searching aimlessly within the wide expanse of the continent will provide you with any answers as to the true meaning of life. I too wish to unveil the secret of your search. However I will not amble my way about without direction. If a goal is set, we’d at least be able to take the journey in stages. And where better to search for the answer to an unanswered question, than the peak of a mountain no one has ever climbed?” the priest proclaimed.
Arnold pursed his lips. The steady stream of light dipped further into the alcove, now shining at the tips of the priest’s sandals and lengthening the streak of sweat down Arnold’s face.
“I have heard rumors about a fabled mountain that no mountaineer was able to scale. I never paid them any mind as I was a simple craftsman… What makes you think we’d be able to make it to the summit of that mountain?” the craftsman glowered sternly at the priest.
“I don’t. What I do believe is that if we are destined upon this path, we would be fools not to take it. If we scale the Holy Jim and find nothing, I believe there is little place else that a haphazard hunt could take us to find the meaning of life,” Brandon answered.
“It’s not that simple,” the craftsman grumbled. Arnold reached a hand out to placate his companion.
“Well, if this Holy Jim does prove to be more than we can handle, we could always come back down and try again another time when we’re more prepared,” Arnold suggested.
The two men exchanged glances.
“The last attempt up the mountain by two climbers ended tragically,” the priest explained solemnly.
“And it’s not without merit either. If the rumors I’ve heard are true, simply ‘coming back down’ will be more than we could hope for,” the craftsman elaborated.
“Some of the strongest climbers of the region, born of spit and brawn have returned only with fear stricken eyes and pommeled bodies. If we choose to embark on this trek, you both must be willing to endure this reality,” the priest proclaimed.
“Which is why I believe it unwise for inexperienced wanderers to challenge such a task,” Tristan expressed.
“Well what makes this mountain so dangerous that even the greatest climbers could not scale it?” Arnold asked.
“That’s still a mystery. At first glance I couldn’t distinguish any notable geographical obstacles that they would have given trouble to experienced mountaineers. Additionally, climbers who returned were never able to provide a full account of their ascent. Most of them left the village as soon as they were able,” the priest informed.
“Then perhaps a demon or a monster guards the mountain. If we encounter one of those, then what?” Tristan probed further. Brandon sighed, slightly agitated by the questioning.
“If that were the case then that’d be all the more reason to scale it. I have exorcised hundreds of demons and lesser beasts in my time. So long as the mountain isn’t completely infested, we should be fine. Besides, if the threat was so great, then the village would have known about it long ago,” the robed man responded.
“And if it is? Do you still think that attempting such a thing would be a good idea?” the craftsman huffed.
“I never said it was a good idea, but I do believe that it’s better than what you two were doing up until now,” the priest replied.
Arnold’s mind rippled like the stream’s current in considering the details laid out before him. Jostling a stray stone with his foot, the pressure caused the youth to become hyperaware of the fatigue and aches that plagued his body.
Arnold understood full well the physical capacity required of a journeyman, however he himself had made it a point to avoid the most hazardous of trails on his journey. Even then the youth frequently found himself at the will of nature as the brunt force of the elements wreaked his body with the scars of travel. He turned his attention to the priest.
“The last two climbers then, if they truly were so experienced, what happened to them?” the youth asked.
A sudden torrent of wind sent a flurry of dried leaves and sand over Arnold’s head and coat. The thin bead of sweat broke off at an angle and subsequently splattered to the ground.
“They both died,” the priest said, simply.
Dust permeated the air with an ambient sense of emptiness that seemed fitting for the three travelers’ lack of funds. With the most high qualitied of supplies being out of their financial reach, the three men resorted to the age-worn Hinsberger’s Emporium for the provisions needed on their journey. And as the youth’s first step splintered the termite bitten timber of a patio board in two, Tristan placed a hand on Arnold’s shoulder and spun him around.
“We are not shopping here,” he declared, assisting the youth in wrenching his leg from the floorboard. The empty cavity left by Arnold’s foot became a pulsating mass of swarming insects, working diligently to investigate the breach. “Good god.”
“It’s not much of an emporium is it?” the youth murmured disconcertingly.
“Looks could be deceiving. Supplies are supplies. If they do the job on the trail then there’s no reason not to indulge ourselves,” Brandon affirmed, tying the boar’s harness around an equally rotten post.
“There must be another store. This village is large enough,” the craftsman protested.
Despite the priest having called the town a village on his diagram, it seemed more accurate to compare it to a small city. An expansive network of paved roads propagated throughout the area, creating an intricate web of streets and avenues.
Upon arrival, Arnold took the sight of the new environment with awe, as he had never truly explored an urban setting outside of a very small portion of the capital city so many years ago. The volume of new sights for the youth came in strides as hundreds of people passed him by, heading about their own business. From the hustle and bustle Arnold heard the clacking of wooden carriages, the bartering of merchants in the plaza bazar, the distant barking of a mangy stray and even the soft pecking of gray pigeons at discarded crumbs.
Tristan smiled at the youth’s apparent wonder, when not a few days before, they were wandering about the pristine calmness of nature. Like the priest had said, after a few days of treading the shallow water of the stream, the three travelers were eventually met with the raging cascades of the great valley defining river. Years of erosion had nestled it into the earth like a carving in stone.
Continuing up the river’s path, indications of urban life became apparent with the occasional water mill, lumbermen’s hut and branded cattle. As the forest thinned from the usage of resources, the group finally came upon the wooden gates of the river city. And with a surge of short-lived enthusiasm, the three men eventually found themselves before the rickety façade of the Hinsberger’s Emporium.
The emporium looked more akin to a weathered stable house let alone a supposed shopping complex. And Tristan, a man who had previously devoted his life to creating things of utility and beauty, could hardly stand the sight of it.
Both directions down the cobbled road were lined with constructions in stark contrast to the one before them. Though these buildings were no masterstroke of architectural design, their clay shingles, tall plastered walls, and wide edifices looked refined, clean and capable of supporting the weight of a human being.
The craftsman rubbed frustratingly at his hair, causing bits of sand and dirt to fall to the ground. Certain onlookers averted their eyes with the occasional transitory glance in his direction, whispering to each other after doing so. Even a carriage horse shook its mane the other way upon passing the dirtied man. Arnold pulled his companion back.
“You’ve been out in the wilderness with little to nothing and an old building is what frightens you?” the priest asked.
“It’s not the building, it’s the items in the building that hold my concern. The wilderness is different. All the supplies out there are fresh. So long as you have the creativity, you can make what you need as well,” Tristan replied.
“We aren’t exactly in the position to complain. Our attire alone has warded us from the last three retailers. Though I doubt we could’ve afforded any of their stock anyway,” the priest mentioned, calmly removing his hat and stepping onto the patio. The plank groaned at the sudden load. “You see? It’s sturdier than it looks.”
“Come now Tristan. We’ll be fine,” the youth urged.
“We’ll die in there long before we reach the mountain,” he groaned in reply. He shook off Arnold’s hand and looked down the street again. “You two have a look. I’ll see about finding ourselves a place to stay for the night.”
The craftsman trotted off in the other direction, nearly toppling a man carrying a basket of apples in his haste. The priest sighed and shook his head, but prompted Arnold to the entrance. Careful to avoid the festering gap in the floor, the youth stepped passed Brandon and threw the door open.
The action parted a sea of dust, sending a wave of powder deeper into the building. Interior items lining low shelves rattled disconcertingly as the wooden door fractured the passive solitude of the room. An off-kilter metal sconce shone brightly behind a crude counter, its open flame dangerously close to a large wooden showcase of similar deterioration to the rest of the store. Brandon sauntered through the threshold.
Large crates with a now tarnished iron lining stood at the left corner of the emporium, blotting out the only window that allowed natural light into the murky chamber. Straw fibered ropes dangled from the ceiling, reinforcing the structural integrity of second floor while also providing makeshift displays for various hanging trinkets. The wide shelves bordering the room likewise displayed tools and utilities of varying usage atop overflowing, cobweb-ridden planks.
As Arnold entered behind the Vu, he could vaguely distinguish the scurrying forms of small lifeforms through a crevice in the far wall. They watched him intently with glowing eyes, more curious about his presence than frightened.
The priest tapped the end of his staff to the floor, its bell simulating a common chime that would normally indicate the coming of a potential customer. Peaking his head from behind a set of drapes dividing another room behind the counter, was a broad-shouldered man with the very early stages of graying speckling portions of his long beard and hair.
“Oh, visitors? I wasn’t expecting any visitors today,” the large man husked with wide eyes. He drew the curtains aside and allowed his form into the room. The bun of hair atop the man’s head nearly brushed the surface of the ceiling, avoiding complete contact through the grace of the weak floorboards, which caved under his weight.
“Not visitors, but customers hoping to see your wares,” the priest clarified, looking about the store.
“Customers? This store hasn’t had any customers in…” the giant stroked his beard thoughtfully, “Why, I can’t remember the last time it’s had a buyer!” The storekeeper chuckled amusedly under his breath.
“All the better. More supplies for us then,” the Vu smiled in return.
“Well in that case, what can I help you with?” the man beamed, pounding a hairy hand onto the counter.
“We were looking to buy some food, perhaps a few sets of gloves, oil for our lamps and-” Arnold began, fumbling through a list in his mind. The priest held out his palm, cutting him off.
“Let’s start with that,” he suggested.
“Hm, seems like quite the load. Travelers are you?” the shopkeeper asked, rummaging through the dust saturated crates stored behind him.
“Yes. We plan on traveling a great distance in the coming days, so we were looking to restock before our departure,” Brandon explained.
The burly man arched his back toward the open crate, hiding his body behind the counter. Arnold could vaguely distinguish the sound the clicking glass and scraping wood before the large man reappeared with several jars of dubious liquid which he promptly blew the dust from. He chuckled as he transferred them from the crate to the countertop.
“Well it’s not much but these pickled fruits usually get me through an average day,” the storekeeper announced, leaning beneath the counter again. “Maybe some dried venison would be a little better on the road though.” Large portions of dried meat, precariously strung together with a thin string, appeared from beneath their vision. The youth nearly gasped at the sight of the decaying rot.
“Excellent,” the priest beamed, garnering a bewildered look from Arnold. The burly man reared his head in an equivalent degree of surprise and smiled, scratching at his head.
“I didn’t catch your names. People call me Kennie. I’m the owner of this store. Where are you two from?” the man Kennie asked, streaking his dirty fingers across his woolen tunic.
“I am Brandon of the Vu. This Arnold of Chang. As I’ve said, we are travelers on a journey,” the priest answered. He walked himself closer to the counter, inspecting the goods. “These will do.”
“Why, this is a surprise. I haven’t made a sale here in forever. Are you sure you want these items?” Kennie asked, fingering bits of grime from the dried meat. Arnold shuffled closer, inspecting the damage for himself.
“They will do,” the priest repeated. Arnold opened his mouth to retort, but was promptly silenced by the Vu’s outstretched arm. The storekeeper’s large watery eyes shifted between the two travelers before he gestured to Arnold for a more completed list of supplies.
“So what else did you need again?” he asked.
Arnold recounted the items he’d mentally catalogued in his mind. Moving across the room to the shelves lining the opposite wall, the storekeeper began his search for the rest of the items.
“Did you open this store yourself?” Brandon asked, breaking the silence. Kennie bumped his head on a dangling canteen and laughed gently, massaging the wound.
“Oh, no. That would be my father and mother. They opened this place long before I was alive. Made a living and raised me here as well,” the Hinsberger clarified.
“Ever consider a little bit of redecoration?” the Vu jested.
“Never. When my parents passed away, this store was never the same, despite my efforts to keep it that way. In recent years it seemed as though the decay scared some of the townspeople away,” he explained, returning to the shelf.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the priest bowed.
“No, no, it’s alright. If anything they died doing what they loved most in life,” the burly man expressed.
Kennie continued to rummage through the contents of the shelves, knocking down a few loose articles that were insecurely fastened. An empty glass jar rolled down from the plank and tapped Arnold’s shoe, catching a glint from the sconce.
“Where are you two traveling anyhow? Somewhere exciting I hope?” Kennie inquired, tossing the requested items to a pile on the floor once he found them.
“We’re simply two individuals…” Brandon began, “looking to scale the Holy Jim.”
The storekeeper stopped momentarily, his wide shoulders similar to a high cliff face, before shaking his head and continuing his search.
“No mountaineer has attempted to scale that hell in the last ten years. Are you aware of this?” the giant rumbled.
“We are. We have something that we are searching for and we believe that we might find it on that mountain,” the priest replied.
“Well, whatever it is you’re looking for you won’t find it there. Don’t you know the tales of that mountain? It’s best to stay away,” the burly man glowered back before returning to his search.
“We know of its reputation and we are aware of the risks,” the priest answered.
“So you’re fools then?” he grumbled, a noticeable diminution in tone. Arnold’s eyes narrowed though the priest seemed little affected by this.
“Why do you say that?” Brandon asked.
“Because only fools climb that mountain to die,” Kennie glowered, tossing another item into the pile.
“Who’s to say we’re going to die? Do you rule out our abilities that easily?” the priest questioned. The Hinsberger turned to face them, his previously grinning and approachable expression now a slate of emotionless ridicule.
“Yes,” he answered, throwing the last item into the pile. The priest took a step back, the towering shopkeeper surpassing even his height. “If fools wish to be fools, then I have no say in the matter, but let me warn you now that you’ll never return from that mountain alive. I’d advise you reconsider.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t within our interests at the moment. What makes this climb so dangerous anyhow?” Brandon probed. The Hinsberger gave a blank stare, a long pause passing before he eventually shook his head.
“No one knows. But that’s all the more reason for you not to go. No one in this town knows anything about that mountain, and it’s looking to be that no one plans on finding out. With so many of our greatest figures unable to make it to the summit, everyone else stopped trying… I bid you do that same,” the storekeeper warned.
Kennie jutted a threatening finger in the Brandon’s direction, before passing him and opening one of the large crates in the corner of the room. The giant knelt and began fishing the items from the pile he’d created into the box. His solemn expression seemed emphasized by the downcast caused by his broad forehead.
“Your parents died on that mountain… didn’t they?” Arnold asked, provoking the burly man’s momentary slack.
“Yes,” he answered without removing his attention. The two men watched as the storekeeper finished with the items on the floor and hoisted the wooden box to the counter, filing the items there inside next.
“So, do you consider your parents fools?” the youth asked.
“I don’t. My father and mother were some of the greatest mountaineers in the world before they came to settle here in this old shop. They’d been around the globe, scaling peaks some people had never heard of. But this mountain, this mountain took their lives,” Kennie recalled soberly.
“You believe that your parents were great then? They did what they loved until the very end?” Brandon asked.
“The greatest in my life at the very least,” he replied. Arnold stepped forward, the boards beneath him a symphony of splintering groans.
“Do you not disservice your father and mother for brandishing us fools then? For taking up a task that ended the lives of individuals as great as they?” Arnold asserted.
“I would be doing them a disservice by not calling you fools! Having you two die atop that mountain would put my parents’ example to waste! If anything, their deaths should be an indication that no motley band of travelers should contest the summit’s rule. This is what I’m telling you now,” Kennie exclaimed, packing the items in the crate ever the more hastily.
Arnold observed the man’s slumped shoulders and jerky movements. Internally, despite being an individual who himself was never one to connect with other people, the youth felt the deep-rooted sorrow that the man must have carried.
“You believe your parents loved what they did, but you can’t bring yourself to destroy this place now that they’re gone. To me is seems as though this store has fostered your misery for years. It was the place in which you knew your parents best, but at the same time… it was probably the place that prevented them from doing what they loved,” Arnold exclaimed.
“And knowing this supposedly makes you an expert at climbing mountains? I’ve long since realized that this place will eventually crumble with time, but until that happens, I will stay here and do what I must to carry their legacy,” Kennie replied.
“And you believe their legacy to be that of sitting in a rotting old building? The very space that segregated them from their lives’ passion?” the priest asked.
“If it takes a fool like me to do so, then yes,” the man sighed.
Arnold inhaled deeply, a fire alit in his eye, and strode forward once again.
“Then allow us to be the fools who finish what your parents had started,” Arnold proclaimed. The Hinsberger’s head rounded about, facing the youth with a look of part confusion, sympathy and rage.
“What makes you think that you can make it to the summit of that mountain?” Kennie demanded, facing the youth in his entirety. Arnold looked towards the priest, who nodded in return. Though as the youth opened his mouth to answer, another voice interjected first.
“We don’t. What we do believe, however, is that if we are destined upon this path, we would be fools not to take it,” Tristan recited from the entranceway. He and Brandon shared a mutual look of agreement as the craftsman entered the room stood beside Arnold.
Kennie shifted his gaze between each individual, a slight smile creeping back onto his face. He chuckled underneath his breath, boxing the crate of assorted goods and moving them to the side. He stood still for a moment, feeling at the wood of the crate and the rust on the iron.
“Indeed,” he murmured before lifting his arm, grasping at the straw fibered roping and, with one forceful motion, ripped the rope from the very boards in the ceiling.
Particles of dirt, grime, grit, and splintering wood rained down upon the four men as whole wooden planks dropped in strident crashing around them. As the rope fell to the floor in a heaping mass of tangled destruction, the shelves along the walls became dislodged and the items previously on display flew outward in all which ways, further progressing the disarray.
Tristan and Brandon held their cloaks above Arnold, shielding him from any stray debris. As the dust settled, they could hear Firefly snorting and huffing outside in concern. Arnold wiped the newly layered film from his eyes and looked up toward the cause of the chaos.
“Are you insane? You could’ve killed us!” Tristan cried out, stamping his foot with enough force to create yet another hole in the floor.
Brandon lowered his cloak and wiped at his eyes as well, following Arnold’s gaze to the man. Once the craftsman was also able to clear his sight, the three men saw Kennie before them, holding the bundle of rope, which he had just pulled from the ceiling, in his hands. The large man returned their looks with the same unwavering smile on his face.
“If you truly wish to do my parents’ legacy justice, please take this rope. It was the original line they used together when they climbed. They gave it up when they had me, and used it to build this store instead. But with you, perhaps my mother and father will be able to protect you on your journey,” the storekeeper informed, wrapping the rope around the crate of supplies.
“So do you have faith that we’ll make it to the summit now?” Brandon asked, taking up the crate by the rope. Kennie shook his head.
“No. But I’d like to believe so. I don’t know why you’re journeying up the Holy Jim, why you found it in yourselves to come to my establishment to find supplies or as to whether or not I’ll ever see any of you ever again…” he began.
“But?” the craftsman asked.
“But at the sight of three fools willingly walking up and through Hell’s door, I can’t help but smile. Because in some ways perhaps we’re similar,” the storekeeper exclaimed, dust trailing from the wrinkles on his face. “I want to believe that you three will make it, because sometimes it takes a fool to believe in a band of fools.”