A loose foothold collapsed under Arnold’s weight, streaming down the slope in a tapestry of rubble. Using one hand to clutch the rough bark of a large protruding root, the youth fell to his knees as an excuse to swallow a few indulgent breaths.
The abrupt stop caused Firefly to squeal in exertion, digging his hooves into dirt as the youth’s collapsed form added strain to the rope around his waist. Unable to progress further, the boar simply sank deeper into the gravel, creating mounds around each leg.
“Come now Arnold. Let’s make it to that tree up there at least. Then we’ll take a rest,” the priest huffed breathlessly, a tone of uncertainty in his voice. Gravity etched the texture of the root into Arnold’s palm, hardening the calluses on his hand.
Tristan turned his back to the slope, burrowing his heels into the earth to prevent himself from sliding. The craftsman held an outstretched hand, steadying himself before ultimately collapsing to the floor like Arnold, causing another small avalanche of sediment.
“We can’t stop on this slope… Come boys, we have to continue...” the priest urged, tugging both ways at the length of rope tied at his waist. Firefly squealed tiredly once more before falling to his side, his ribs hulking up and down through his abdomen. The wooden supply crate they strapped to the boar’s back scratched against the surface of the rocks, tossing the materials about inside.
The priest sighed, removing one sweat slicked glove and using it to wipe his face. After wafting his dampened hand dry in the air, he threw his leather belt to the gravel and removed a thin metal spike and hammer from one of its pouches. He reached up and motioned the tools toward Arnold above him.
“Secure the rope,” he requested.
Arnold spared him a weary backwards expression before reaching out for the tools with his free hand, missing, and then finally grabbing a hold of them. Brandon’s legs buckled underneath him, dropping him like a stone. At his feet, Tristan took a swig from his canteen before hacking his throat dry of the excessively viscous saliva. From lack of energy or perhaps lack of effort, the spittle fell but a foot away at the base of a thorny bush beside them.
“We can’t stay here long. It’s almost sunset and… it seems like overcast is coming this way,” Brandon informed, pointing to a congregation of angry grey clouds amassing overhead.
The priest fumbled through another one of his pouches, removing a chunk of the dried venison and a small flask of the pickled juice. The priest set the rancid articles before him, taking up his staff and giving a small prayer. Flicking the bell at the end of the cane, the familiar orange aura of purification surrounded the four travelers.
“This will probably be your last meal today Arnold,” the priest said grimly, handing the youth the now purified meat and water. Arnold tightened the knot he’d made around the protruding root in the ground, hammering the metal nail deeper into the wood for good measure. He turned and took the food graciously.
“We must have gotten lost again. This damned map… it must be outdated,” Tristan grumbled in frustration, unfurling the leather scroll at his waist.
“It’s not as if this mountain has changed in the last few years. Besides, I doubt anyone came up here with the explicit intent of mapping out the area,” the priest slumped back against the slope, resting his aching form against the rocks.
“This map… it says that the climber who made it the furthest up the mountain took this trail here. We became lost a day or two ago after we passed the old Dragon Pine,” the craftsman mumbled, motioning his finger across the vellum.
“There’s Dragon Pine all over this mountain, how are we supposed to distinguish the single one?” the priest sighed.
“Exactly. But now we’re having a hard time just figuring out where we are,” Tristan expressed.
“Perhaps we should’ve just followed the river up the mountain. We’d know where we were at the very least,” the priest reflected. The craftsman shook his head.
“There’s no way we could have made it up those falls. Besides, the brush was too thick around the water’s edge anyway. Firefly couldn’t have made it through that,” Tristan exclaimed.
“Well what’s the point in a map if doesn’t help us get back to where we want to be?” Brandon asked.
“That’s my point, this map is worthless,” Tristan fumed, tossing the map down the slope. Though it didn’t fly far, a sharp torrent of wind carried the map, along with other loose pine needles and grit, up the mountain and out of view. The priest sighed and shook his head.
“Regardless, we’re up this far. We should keep moving,” Brandon exclaimed.
“This slope doesn’t appear to be leveling any time soon. If we don’t find a better path, or at least make it to the top of the mountain within the next few days, we’ll die of dehydration,” Tristan reported.
“I can just purify some tree sap. We can make it,” the priest exclaimed, patting his staff. The steady rustling of the trees grew intensely with the onset of another wave of cool air.
“In which case we’ll die of starvation. I don’t think you understand. Look around you. The Holy Jim is supposed to be the tallest mountain in the area, but across the valley you can clearly see that we’re just about half way up the peak on the other side. If we’re still below that mountain, then we’re leagues from being at the top of this one. Now look at the boar and Arnold. They’re going to die of exhaustion before they ever make it to the summit!” the craftsman stomped, creating a depression in the gravel.
The priest simply observed the incoming storm clouds, pursing his lips at their unfavorable trajectory. The prickling treetops began swatting at each other, composing a symphony of ominous thrashing and crackling as one stray cloud blotted out the sun. Beside him, a large pinecone fell at the priest’s side and rolled down the slope into the obscurity of the encroaching shadows. Tristan arched his neck backwards and sighed, understandably ignored, and took another swig from his canteen.
“We don’t have to go down right away, but we should consider the option if we don’t want to end up like the shopkeeper’s parents,” he sighed, screwing the nozzle shut. Arnold devoured the last morsel of his meager supper, wiping at his mouth with his cloak.
“Though I wouldn’t disagree with you, we still have plenty of food left in Firefly’s crate. If anything we should go on as far as we can to find the route we’ll take if we ever try again,” the youth breathed, tossing the small flask back into the priest’s pouch. Tristan flashed him a concerned expression. “Don’t worry, I can handle it.”
“Well that’s the least of our worries. The meaning of life is important, but it’s not worth dying over. That would seem counterintuitive,” the craftsman said.
“But it is worth dying over, at least I think so,” the youth responded. The two men looked towards the Vu to find his opinion though he had maintained his gaze toward the incoming clouds. Tristan scoffed at the silence.
“Well, this mountain isn’t as dangerous as it was made out to be at the very least. But our supplies can only last so long,” Tristan grumbled. Arnold nodded in agreeance. “We don’t even have any more firewood…”
“Why couldn’t we just burn the Dragon Pine?” the youth inquired offhandedly, not particularly giving much weight to his question. Tristan diverted his gaze to the youth.
“That wouldn’t work; Dragon Pine doesn’t burn. It’s a popular material in desert regions where the climate is especially arid. I usually bought it to make bowls, pots, cooking ware and-,” the craftsman started.
There was an instantaneous flicker of light where the saturation of everything around the three travelers immediately vanished, before returning with a thunderous crash, fragmenting the very depths of their eardrums. The three men grew silent, even the boar having a wide eye trained to the sky whose wide expanse was now roofed by a thick cloud shielding.
As abruptly as the clouds had appeared, Arnold felt a thick droplet smack his cheek from above. Then another. Then a score began to batter his body, soaking through the inner layering of his clothes.
“Where’d this rain come from?” Tristan cried out, throwing his hood over his head. Arnold did the same, scrambling to cover the boar from becoming wet.
“This isn’t possible! The clouds were still hours away!” Arnold shouted. The ever strengthening downpour drowned his words, replacing the comparatively quiet thrashing of trees, with the slates of coursing water underneath Arnold’s feet.
Brandon, who was still in a daze from the initial rainfall, fumbled his hands over the ground, just narrowly missing his staff and belt as he watched his two belongings float hastily down the slope. He gritted his teeth and looked up toward Arnold.
“This mountain! I had my suspicions when I first saw the clouds! But I think that what makes this mountain so dangerous is-,” the priest recoiled.
Another intense glint fractured the air, a disgusting cracking following its appearance. Arnold helped Firefly from off the ground, having trouble maintaining a steady footing himself.
“We have to find shelter! We won’t make it through this storm!” Tristan cried above the deafening encore of rain. In standing, the earth beneath the craftsman eroded from under him, voiding his anchoring and dragging him down the slope.
The rope tied around Tristan’s waist caught on the priest who followed him onto the ground. Before he could be dragged with them, Arnold clutched onto the protruding tree root, now a vague and indiscernible lump under the stream of oncoming water.
The rope burned into Arnold stomach, pulling him toward the water and allowing the top soil washing down the slope to assault his face. A composite layer of small pebbles, mud and thick pine needles flooded into his clothing, weighing him down closer to the water.
Firefly squealed wildly, frantically tossing his beaded harness through the deluge and shoveling masses of earth back at the three men. The heavy ceramic beads of the boar’s harness flailed about wildly until striking Arnold in the cheek with one particular turn. The youth resultantly released his grip from the tree root, stumbling backwards as the rope connecting himself with the boar coaxed the large animal into following.
As all four travelers fell back, the protruding root Arnold had fixed a knot to had its length pulled back from out of the water, wrenching itself from the very ground by the strain of the rope. Though it kept the group from completely plummeting down the mountain, Firefly’s incessant wailing loosened the root even further.
“The crate! Arnold! Cut the crate off of the boar! The weight will… the weight will drown him and he’ll take us with him!” the craftsman railed, trying to find stable footing within the rapids.
Another whip of rainwater stung Arnold’s face as he tried to assist the boar back to its feet, though it couldn’t manage to stable itself. Despite only beginning moments before, the rainwater and frigid air chilled Arnold’s body, his fingers numbing at the touch of the small knife at his waist. As the youth worked through the straps that secured the supply crate to the boar’s back, another flash of lightning proliferated through the sky, this time settling upon the tip of a tree only a few meters ahead of them.
The bark of the Dragon Pine jettisoned from its base in a flurry of sparks, the rest of the debris scattering and falling on top of the four travelers. As Arnold ripped through the last strap, he gripped at the sides of the wooden crate and hoisted it off the boar’s body, watching as the group’s supplies shattered to pieces in the flood below.
“Arnold! Look out!” the priest cried out, pointing ahead of the youth.
With barely enough time to get Firefly back to his feet, the large pine that had been struck by lightning listed to one side atop its weakened base. Compounded with the surging force of the water, the tree was uprooted and rolled down to meet the four climbers.
The tumbling log collided with the tree whose root was temporarily ensuring the survival of the group. A small blast of gravel was strewn across the air, nicking Arnold’s arms and forehead. The force of the impact almost completely tore the climbers’ pine from the earth, its lofty stalk now looming dangerously over their heads. A spattering of bark complimented the rain.
“Quickly, get on to the log before the pine falls over!” the priest shouted, rekindling his senses and pushing up on Arnold’s back.
Just then, a blistering roar reverberated through the sky, louder than the thunder, rain and coursing flood all together. The four climbers suspended themselves for a moment, looking around for the source of the roar, before Brandon quickly urged the rest of them to continue.
The three men labored extensively, heaving Firefly onto the fallen tree which had become lodged in place. They then lifted themselves onto the log, their length of rope still attached to the root below. Arnold threw his arms around the width of the trunk, arching his head over the water to see it flow briskly underneath them.
“We’ll… we’ll be safe here for now,” the craftsman exhaled breathlessly.
“How did the overcast come on us so quickly? One moment it was there and the next it was right on top of us,” Arnold questioned, another flicker of lightning illuminating the forest, its light refracting off every sodden surface.
Brandon, who had since returned his gaze towards the sky, wiped water feverishly from his face, trying to maintain a clear line of sight through the infringing fog.
“This isn’t a normal storm and that cry we heard wasn’t from the thunder either,” the priest stated, wide-eyed and looking toward his two companions. “There! Look there!”
Arnold followed the direction of the priest’s outstretched finger to the obscurity of the white mist. As another strike of lightning struck the earth and the resounding boom of thunder burst through the wood, a massive, partially outlined shadow momentarily passed through the youth’s vision before settling back to the churning white haze. The size of the shadow could’ve easily engulfed the climbers’ side of the mountain, though Arnold knew that there was enough definition to entail that what he saw was no coincidence or optical illusion.
The youth wiped at his eyes, unsure of what he’d witnessed through the bloated folds of the fog. He peered out into the darkness, comparing the shade of the forest’s shadow to the one he’d seen in the clouds. His assessment proved inconclusive. However, in turning to his two companions, the youth beheld Tristan’s expression which now seized the same wide-eyed terror as Brandon’s. Arnold returned his gaze to the mist.
“Dra-dragon…” Arnold stuttered.
There, grimacing down at them with yellow fangs blared out in a deep rumbling hiss, was the long serpentine neck of a massive sky dragon through the fog. Its livid reptilian pupils scanned the four climbers closely, edging its neck further from out the overcast.
The mist around the creature’s neck parted slightly as if signifying some deranged deification of the monster before them. As the dragon brought its head right above the climbers’ area of refuge, its size was able to completely shield them from the rain. The water flow was redirected and came down in streams over the sides of the beast’s skull. An earthly rumble from the dragon’s core rippled its throat, causing the falling water around it to scatter and flake in different directions.
Arnold could hear the clattering of his own teeth through the deafening downpour as the serpent unfurled its scales, making it appear larger than it already was. Tristan and Brandon stood petrified, watching as the enormous monster flared its nostrils at them. The dragon’s cold respiration forced both men to their knees and crushed Arnold’s chest against the wood of the fallen tree.
Then, as another flash of lightning captured the brief exchange between man and beast, the thunder was drowned out by the earth quaking roar of the dragon. All three men desperately covered their ear though Firefly could simply flail about, running his head along the course pine wood.
Arnold’s vision and internal organs rattled at the astounding cry. The youth gave a shout of agony that didn’t even manage to register in his mind as having been made. He shut his mouth and curled himself into a fetal position in an attempt to blot out the noise.
Despite his efforts, the relentless roaring endured. As painful as his months of traveling had been, Arnold could barely sustain his cognitive thought processes, feeling as though the pain of the roar would drive him into madness should it not let up.
After an indiscernible amount of time, Arnold realized that he could feel the heavy rain striking his body once again. As he looked back to where the dragon had previously glowered over them, its figure had all but disappeared, replaced by the blackness of the storm clouds and the heavy sheets of rain dripping from the treetops.
Confusion wreathed through Arnold’s disorientated body. And though he was slowly piecing the situation together, he still held at his head in a desperate attempt to shut out the looming cry of the dragon. In pressing against his ears so roughly, the youth nearly didn’t notice the frantic shaking of his shoulder. As Arnold opened a weary eye to greet Brandon’s presence, he could barely make out the words the priest seemed to be shouting.
“The tree’s going to fall!” he heard through deafened ears.
Right then, the leaning tree of the root that the four travelers’ rope was tied to, broke loose and dragged all four of them into the muddy water.
The large Dragon Pine fell, top first, down the steep slope, carrying the four climbers with it. The sheer momentum of the collapsed tree ripped shrubs and bushes out of the water, momentary dints in its destructive path. As the sliding log grazed other Dragon Pine on its descent, the tree’s thick outward sticking branches were lobbed off, leaving the upper half of the tree devoid of its usual ornament.
Arnold could barely see. Try as he may to lift his head above the water, the lurching mass ahead of him continuously pulled his body under into the cold and murky torrents. The youth felt as if he were drowning, the rope around his waist had ridden up his chest, further constricting his ability to breathe when he did manage to steal a breath of air.
As the log carried the group down the slope, accelerating along its route, Arnold could feel swift and sudden jabs at his body from all sides. Large stones embedded in the earth that managed to remain in place through the rushing water, battered Arnold’s back, his heavy clothing being the only thing preventing all of his skin from being completely sheared off. His arms, trying in desperation to find something to lift him from out of the water were pommeled anytime the log would run its course through an extensive line of shrubbery.
Arnold broke his head through the surface of the water, gasping for air before being engulfed once again. The youth felt at his belt, searching for his small knife. With the liquid temperature enough to chill him to the bone, Arnold couldn’t distinguish as to whether or not he had attained a firm grasp of the blade.
Motioning his arm above him instead, the youth followed the length of noose around his chest to find the rope that fastened the group to the tree. Another sudden drop threw Arnold’s body into the air, slamming it back into the water with a heavy splash. He maintained a grip on the cord.
Arnold strained to open his eyes underwater though he could see little more than the same chaotic darkness of the storm. With a muffled groan, the youth pulled himself up the length of the rope against the force of the log. As he battled his own fatigue and the persistent bashing by surrounding objects, Arnold finally brought his head out of the water and took another momentary breath.
All around him the youth could see small adjacent trees and foliage part before the storming presence of the raging pine. His ears were drowned in water and still suffered from the effects of the roaring dragon though he could still feel the most prominent of vibrations that came smashing through his body.
Arnold felt the rope at his chest tighten even further. Just then, through the distorted view of the water that clung to his eyelashes, the youth was able to see his two companions trailing behind him, appearing and disappearing under the waves. Arnold shouted to them, but couldn’t even hear himself over the resounding clamor.
The youth turned, ahead of him he could scarcely make out Firefly’s form, kicking wildly about above the water before submerging again. Arnold took the rope firmly in both hands and climbed further up its length, probing through the water for the root. When he found it, Arnold traced his fingers along the stalk to find the thin metal spike that he had hammered into the wood.
Arnold transferred his grip to the metal spike, pitching his body violently to try and loosen the fixture, but to no aid. The descending log slammed into a sizable boulder, veering the tree off course and throwing Arnold into the base of another pine. Underwater the youth shouted cries of pain, bubbles bellowing from his mouth and nose with the inaudible screams.
Arnold gritted his teeth and tossed his head above the water once more. He took a hand to his belt, this time finding his knife immediately and bringing it above the water. With a flame of conviction burning brightly in his eye, Arnold tore the knife into the body of the root where the spike was situated and proceeded to blindly carve around it. Stabbing the knife further into the root and with a final, long grunt of exertion, Arnold pried the nail out of the tree, freeing the four of them from its heralding death.
The youth’s face sunk beneath the water once again, slating up against the ground before the boy’s own buoyancy carried him to the surface. Flailing his arms to preserve his flotation, Arnold looked all around, finding his companions above the water and gasping for air.
The youth waved to them, shouting what he believed was a call. But before they could react, the flow of water dropped into a deep crevice, plunging Arnold into the dark water for another time. As he surfaced, Arnold wiped at his eyes, flicking stray pieces of wood and pine from his face. High walls of cascading water surrounded them. It took a moment for the youth to realize that the deep drop the four of them had fallen into was in fact the eroded walls caused by the river running down the Holy Jim.
As Tristan and Brandon resurfaced, coughing and sputtering water from their mouths, Arnold could feel the water’s velocity increase. Turning his head in a drained and weary sort of horror, the youth could see the precipice of the white foam frothing waterfall ahead of them. And with nowhere to swim and nothing to cling onto, Arnold looked over to his two companions and Firefly who managed to float beside them.
The two men wiped at their faces, unable to recognize the threat ahead of them. When they did eventually find Arnold in the fray of water, he returned their gaze solemnly. Then, with a slight smile creeping up on the ends of his lips, the youth sighed and waved gently in their direction before disappearing over the edge of the lathering waterfall.