Chilled wisps flooded through the lesions in Arnold’s tunic, running their frozen form across the gashes in the boy’s skin. The hair at the back of his thigh stood erect as a torrent of invisible pine needles grazed his ankles, pinning into him momentarily before flaking off with the wind.
Arnold heard the distant clamor of tolling bells. As their reverberant waves strode through the air, the youth’s wavering eyes eased the tall clock tower of the city’s central plaza into focus. The familiar masonry of the winding spire felt almost comforting against its backdrop of the night sky. Arnold sighed, nearly toppling over the uneven cobble underneath him as he ambled a few steps forward.
“We’re back in the city…” the craftsman murmured, spinning around himself as if to reassure his own senses to their surroundings.
The large plaza was mostly vacant, save for a single aurous window light across the clearing. Empty wooden stands loomed ominously in the dark, stripped of their wares and patronage. A splintered wagon set beside a large, dying fountain reservoir yielded the only indication of life, three scurrying rats banking up the course marble sculpting to get a lick of the green water within.
The surrounding structures around the plaza sat atop elevated, stepped platforms, creating a great shadow that shielded the travelers from the white light of the moon. The narrowing lanes sprouting in different directions across the plaza echoed with the ringing of the bells, amplifying them slightly.
Arnold could hear Firefly’s hooves clack atop the pavement before the animal ultimately succumbed to its own fatigue, collapsing in a heap at Brandon’s feet. The youth turned wearily, pressing at his still wreathing lightheadedness.
“What do we do now?” the boy asked, kneeling to stroke the boar’s twisted tusk.
Brandon seemed removed, not entirely registering Arnold having made a question, as he softly muttered into his palm.
“We must get started do we not? The world’s greatest trial stands on us to accomplish,” the priest began, gesturing with a finger. Arnold palmed at a sore in his side, blinking through hazing vision.
“And where do you suppose we should start?” the youth asked.
“We should first find the whereabouts of this Mount Wilson. Perhaps we can visit my family home before we travel there as to gather more supplies and-,” the priest started.
“Let’s just slow down for a moment,” Tristan coughed, holding out a palm to quell the tall man.
“Slow down? Have you any clue how much time we have to accomplish our task? The very fate of-,” Brandon droned.
“How about a little rest first huh? The boar’s halfway traversed the ethereal plane and the boy very nearly died. We have to find a place to stay the night,” Tristan interceded gruffly. The priest lowered his hand, breathing in his own aches and pains as he shifted his gaze to his companion and knelt with Arnold to hold at the animal’s weak breathing.
“Do you suppose the stable we slept in before we embarked will quarter us another night?” Arnold suggested, the sound of the bells fading with the dying wind.
“I doubt it. That farmer didn’t like the idea of housing us up in the first place. That and look at the time. Wouldn’t think anyone would spare us any attention at this hour. I don’t think Firefly could make it that far out to the stable anyhow,” the priest reasoned, eyes still trained on the boar.
“Then I suppose we’re going to rest up in the alleys tonight,” Tristan grumbled lowly, “I’ll set out and try to scrounge some linen to dry us off. You two should move the boar up against the brick lining over there. It’s a chimney stack; it’ll be warmer at the very least.”
Arnold nodded, trailing a dangling knuckle in circles across the cobble. Stray articles of dust latched onto his hand, prompting the youth to mat the dirt between two stones with his fingers. Dry.
Arnold raised his eyes back up to the peak of the Holy Jim. Wide Dragon Pines swooned gracefully under the shadow of the mountain. Even within the oscillating fog, the boy could make out the distinct runoff of the mountain’s river and summit. The boy wiped at his eyes, the fog clearing slightly, and squinted. Dry.
The course fibers of the thick rope around Arnold’s chest now hung loosely from his waist. Squeezing at the length of rope dampened the boy’s hand and left a protracted stroke of mud on his palm. Tristan was just stepping his legs out of the heavy and saturated noose before Arnold motioned slightly.
“How about Hinsberger?” the boy asked, wrestling atop his knees with the effort to stand himself up.
Tristan spared a cursory glance before returning to his labor. “The merchant? What about him?”
“We could go to him and see if he’ll house us. It’s not too far from here,” the youth responded. Tristan fully diverted his gaze this time, a particularly taxing expression on his face as he muscled a knot apart.
“And why would he house us?” the craftsman asked.
“The rope. We can return it to him and ask him for information about this Mount Wilson,” Arnold exclaimed.
Despite feeling so vigorous moments before, Arnold could see the life slowly sap away from his companions’ faces. The orange light across the plaza paneled its luminesce in a long rhombus across the cobblestone, itself seemingly flickering out. The musty street rats had all but disappeared, holing up for the night after having drunk their fill.
“Not too sure how fond he’ll be to seeing us. His store was half destroyed when we left him a few days ago,” Brandon mentioned, removing his water drenched cloak and wringing it out beside him.
“I don’t know if that really mattered to him. He seemed to have a particular invested interest as to how far we’d be able to progress up the Holy Jim. Now that we’ve returned, I’d think it appropriate if we return to see and tell him of our ascent,” the youth explained. Tristen scoffed hoarsely.
“And about the dragon and Barrientos of Mark? He’d never believe us,” Tristan added, tossing the rope to the side.
“Well it doesn’t matter if he does or not. We’re looking for a place to stay and he’s quite possibly the only one who knows of us in this whole city. It’s worth asking for if not to at least return his parents’ line,” Arnold suggested.
“A line that almost got us killed,” Tristan huffed.
“But kept us together all the same,” the priest agreed, nodding.
Tristan sighed audibly, running his fingers through his hair, but mutually returned a nod. “Let’s make way then.”
Wrapping the length of rope in loops around his neck, the craftsman helped Brandon lift the boar back to its wobbly stumps as it began its agonizing trek to the emporium. Arnold felt another low surge of chilled air that carried the dirt of the city along with it, spiraling in a twister through the air before rippling and disappearing through the precariously strung clotheslines of an opposing alley.
Craning his neck to the last sound of the dissipated echoing bells, Arnold watched again as the soft orange light of the home across the plaza flitted uncertainly about its frame. Affording one last look to the open square that lay contrasted against the ground, the youth turned and followed the rope about his waist as the light in the window flickered out into nothingness and left the marketplace isolated in darkness.
“By the heavens! Did you lot bathe in the river before coming here?” the Hinsberger humored, handing each traveler a tin of repugnant coco.
The large man sifted through the debris of the room, gathering large woolen tarps to cover the muddy splotches on the floor. Despite several days having passed, the dust-saturated air still gripped at Arnold’s already tired lungs. As the Hinsberger navigated his way over a wide beam that had broken through the decrepit floor paneling, Brandon and Tristan helped the boar clear out an area to fashion a makeshift cot.
“Thank you merchant. We are in your debt,” Brandon exclaimed, nodding slightly while tucking a sheet under Firefly’s body.
“No need for thanks. You’re alive and that’s as much a thanks to me as anything. Though it does appear as though you encountered some trouble along the way,” the merchant hummed behind the drapes of the backroom.
A stream of pale moonlight cast through a breach in the second floor chilled Arnold’s face, coercing him to shimmy the crate he was sitting on further into the center of the room. The youth found it comical how, even in its nearly complete collapse, the atmosphere of the emporium saw little change. Despite the gaping wounds in the walls and ceiling, the dislodged planking above and below them, and the crushed and disheveled appliances and wares about their feet, the air still felt warm and homely.
“I think I managed to scare off most of the rats and insects though I don’t know exactly what good that’ll do,” the merchant announced, returning to the main room with a small stool.
“Finally coming around to repairing this place?” Tristan asked, setting down his jar of sifting brown liquid and kicking a small bundle of hemp to the side.
“That might be a good idea, though I doubt I’d have the funds to pay for the labor,” the Hinsberger smiled, nestling the stool into a hole in the boarding and sitting on it.
The merchant lowered his large hands to the wood floor, lifting the coil of rope Tristan had set aside from off the ground and examining it with his fingers. After having situated Firefly comfortably in the corner of the room, Brandon and Tristan gathered at the center of the emporium.
“Useful was it not?” the merchant asked, still turning the line in his hands. Tristan exhaled, dropping roughly onto an adjacent wooden beam that stood leaning against the wall.
“We actually came back to return it to you. It kept us together atop the mountain. Thank you,” Brandon explained, removing his cloak and hanging it from a large splinter in the wall.
“Whether we wanted too or not,” Tristan added.
Kennie creased his brow, thoughtfully inspecting the rope once more and running his hands along its length. After a moment, he returned the portion of the line to the coil and pushed the heap over to Arnold’s feet.
“Keep it. I’m sure you’ll find use of it in the future,” the merchant offered, gesturing slowly.
“We couldn’t possibly. Is this not your parent’s line? We could always buy or make a new rope if we needed to,” Arnold held, looking over the cord. The merchant looked genuinely surprised, eyes widening as if he’d caught wind of a great injustice.
“You don’t truly believe this to be just any old rope do you?” Kennie asked to confused expressions. “A cord is the lifeline of a climber. This one here has seen some of the most rigorous terrain imaginable, and more.”
“Well it almost got the four of us killed. Latched onto a wooden log and nearly drowned all of us. I understand that the rope should be sturdy but shouldn’t we also be able to cut it if we needed to?” Tristan piped, removing a waterlogged boot and watching it drain a stream to the floor.
The merchant teetered around the stool, visibly pressuring the thin legs that held up his great form.
“Cut the rope?” he questioned through pierced eyes.
“No, that’s not what he meant-,” Brandon started, sensing as if the merchant were somehow offended.
“Well of course you can’t cut the rope. I’m surprised you lot haven’t realized it yet, but this line is enchanted. It’s nearly indestructible. You couldn’t cut it if you tried,” Kennie explained.
“Enchanted?” Tristan asked, interested now. The merchant nodded.
He stood, walking over to the far wall and wrenching an axe head that had been pinned against one of the shelves. Kneeling beside the rope and motioning the axe head to each of them for emphasis, Kennie gripped tightly at the flat bit, flexed his muscles and brought the blade forcibly down onto the fibers. The blade rebounded off the rope and crashed into the wooden plank beside it instead, sending the Hinsberger’s whole fist through the floorboard and into the foundation underneath. The loud crash seemed to startle Firefly, who flung his hooves out from under the old sheet.
“You see?” he gestured, flicking wooden fragments from his hands and tossing them aside. Tristan and Arnold leaned forward in awe as the priest moved to calm the boar.
“That’s amazing,” Arnold glowed, taking the cord in his hands. Tristan held the opposite end of the rope up to his eyes, inspecting the frayed filaments.
“I know this material… my father showed it to me once,” the craftsman recollected, holding the end up to the orange light of the sconce.
“Manticore fur. The whole length of it,” Kennie informed, crossing his arms in an almost satisfied manner. “A rare creature it is. As my parents had told me, they went through quite the ordeal in order to obtain this.”
A certain sheen that Arnold did not previously notice captivated his eye to the apparent craftsmanship of the rope.
“Impossible. Manticore skin cannot be charmed. Who made this?” Brandon asked, swiping the length of rope from Arnold’s hands to inspect it for himself.
“Good question. I haven’t a clue. My parents never spoke much about their travels before settling here. It was only when I happened to inquire about the rope that they informed me as to what it really was,” the merchant reminisced, scratching at his chin.
“No ordinary rope maker could have created this. Could you not sell it to restore the emporium?” Tristan asked, allowing the cord to fall back to the ground.
The large man shrugged his massive shoulders, slumping back into the stool and straightening the gray hairs at the tip of his beard.
“It wouldn’t settle with me to so easily sell off this relic of my parents. Maybe that too is foolish to consider,” Kennie admitted.
“Ironic considering that you’re willing to give it up to strangers,” Tristan exclaimed.
“Quite so. But I’d wager that you’d be able to find a use for it in the future. Won’t you?” the Hinsberger smiled, directing a finger at the youth.
Both Tristan and Brandon turned their heads to Arnold though the youth neither agreed nor disagreed. Favoring silence above a response, Arnold watched as a slow-moving beam of moonlight half caked the merchant’s face with a pale shimmer, emphasizing the man’s sweat and oil.
“So tell me,” the merchant began, “What exactly happened on that mountain?”
Arnold watched his reflection in the brown water of the tin in his hands, eliciting the image of the god Barrientos in the muddy waterfall. The boy oscillated the jar, creating a swirl about the liquid and disrupting the reflection.
“So you didn’t see the thunder or the rain?” Arnold questioned. The burly man tilted his head curiously, creasing his eyes at the strange response.
“Rain? What do you mean?” the merchant leaned in, amused. Arnold set his can of coco to the side, breathing steadily at the onset of sudden nausea.
“Well surely you saw the rain. It was right up the mountain. Nearly flooded us into the reservoir,” Tristan exclaimed, diverting the merchant’s attention.
“Rain? No. No rain,” Kennie shook his head in denial.
“No rain? That couldn’t possibly be right. Then how about the thunder?” Tristen asked. The large man fingered at his apron, eyeing upward in thought.
“No. No thunder either. There hasn’t been a thunder storm here since a few seasons past. What’re you two talking about?” the merchant asserted.
Kennie swiveled about his stool, dragging his feet across the wood to orientate himself toward the craftsman. Tristan opened his mouth to say more, but stopped before continuing, slumping back in deliberation.
Arnold considered the possibilities presented before him. Creaking one eye passed a fissure in the wall, the youth observed the street’s matte reflection of its stone cobble against the moonlight. Looking up, the holes in the ceiling were devoid of moisture, dry as death. Despite this however, Arnold understood that the soggy garments and wounds lathered across his body were a testament to the existence of a storm.
“It was a dragon,” Brandon interceded rather ungracefully, looking between the three faces in the room.
The Hinsberger did not turn immediately, though his restless fingers found ease with the abrupt revelation. Acquitting him from its nauseous entanglement within the proceeding stillness, Arnold’s migraine subsided momentarily, allowing the youth to reflect more intently on a more coherent explanation.
“You told us that no one ever knew what was so dangerous about this trail after the climbers returned. I’d figure that it was due to the dragon that lurks atop this mountain. I wouldn’t doubt that the monster’s powerful magic shrouded nearly everything that occurred at the summit,” the priest continued, prolonging the resounding hush. The emporium itself seemed to sway itself to rest as the shuddering wind outside briefly halted its gale to allow the merchant a moment of contemplation.
“A dragon?” Kennie murmured quietly under his breath.
“The avenues and cobble along the streets are dry. Even the mountain itself seemed devoid of rain,” Arnold affirmed, recounting his observations, “When we were atop that mountain the force of the rapids nearly swept us down and into the city reservoir. Us and many a few Dragon Pine as well. Despite this, the mountain is pristine. At least from what I could see.”
The merchant lowered his eyes, clenching and unclenching a fist.
“A dragon hasn’t been sighted for centuries. And if there was a dragon at the summit of that mountain then the townspeople would have known about it ages ago,” the Hinsberger exclaimed.
“And I suppose the failed climbing expeditions were the ones to find out? Well if they were all attacked by a dragon I doubt they’d have much reason to make merry and spread the good news,” Tristan retorted.
“You expect me to believe that? It’s not possible. So many mountaineers up the path and not a single one returning without so much as saying the word ‘dragon’,” Kennie replied sternly.
“Fear is a powerful sedative. Or perhaps the climbers felt the need not to alarm the townspeople,” the priest suggested.
“And what makes the four of you so brave as to come to me with this information?” the merchant stared. The three travelers exchanged glances, unsure of how exactly to answer.
“That we’re unsure of. However all we can say is that the presence of a dragon atop the Holy Jim is very real. That’s not all however-,” the priest continued, though Arnold silenced him with an outstretched palm.
“Whatever happened on that mountain inevitably led us back here. Perhaps for a reason, perhaps by coincidence. Regardless of that fact we were wondering if you could provide us with any information as to where a Mount Wilson might be,” the youth advanced, seeing it needless to perpetuate any further explanation. The merchant himself seemed slightly off quilter by the sudden shift in conversation but pinched pensively at his temples as he considered a response.
“Well, I… I’ve heard of it before but… Here, my parents kept a record of the climbs they’d done in the past… and Wilson sounds familiar,” the Hinsberger exclaimed, quickly rising from his stool to fetch the journal.
Tristan crept his lips close to Arnold’s ear, and whispered quietly enough as to avoid earshot of the merchant, “We’re not going to tell him about Barrientos of Mark or the Hell Gate?”
Arnold coolly shook his head, aggravating his returned headache and forcing him to prop himself against the rusted corner of the wooden crate. Kennie rustled about the back room noisily, tossing mismatched trinkets through the curtains that separated the two rooms behind the old counter.
“Better not to alarm him,” the youth answered simply, “As Brandon mentioned, perhaps previous climbers had fair reason not to excite any unnecessary distress.”
“But these people are in danger,” the priest said, closing in as well. Arnold nodded his head in agreeance.
“But aren’t we all?” he whispered.
Returning with a small leather journal tucked under his arm and a large scroll of vellum in his fist, Kennie sprawled out the contents of the notebook before them atop the stool. The aged brown dye on the vellum scroll was difficult to decipher in the moonlight though Brandon quickly knelt down to take both it and the journal in his hands.
“A record?” the priest muttered.
“Yes and a rather large map of the land. I believe its range expands just passed the four capital cities,” the merchant motioned.
Brandon shuffled through the hoary pages of the journal, tracing his finger along the map once he seemingly found the correct one. Wiping tiredly at his eyes, the priest gestured a circle around a remote corner of the vellum scroll, far from any one of the capital cities.
“It seems to be here. Just off this range of mountains. If we keep heading northward then we should be able to reach it,” Brandon surmised.
“Where are we now? How far are we from the mountain?” Tristan hovered above the kneeling man, laying a hand on the course skin to smooth it over the stool.
“It says here that the sierra is named… the Limbic Range. So-called after the marginal capital city of the east, Limbus, which is just north of us. It’s far. Very far. One to two weeks’ time perhaps,” the priest concluded, setting the journal down.
“What exactly are you planning to do?” Kennie asked curiously.
Tristan passed a look describable only as one of complete uncertainty. Fiddling a piece of caked mud from his trousers, the craftsman returned himself to the leaning wooden beam and shook his head.
“I’m unsure if we quite know ourselves,” he said, looking over to Arnold, “But it’s of crucial import. Do you have any more information about the mountain that we should know about?”
“Well whatever is in the journal should suffice. It has everything my parents knew about their travels. You can take that too if you need it,” the Hinsberger offered.
“We just might. Your parents wrote that the mountain… moves?” the priest said, turning the page in front of him as if to reassure that his reading of the text was correct.“Happen to know anything about that?” The merchant shook his head.
“I-I don’t… but I think you should slow down travelers. Off one mountain and right onto another? What urgency warrants such post haste after your descent from the Holy Jim? Have you not learned your lesson? You need experience before you challenge these summits,” Kennie asked, genuine concern laced in his tone.
“Yes, though the difference here being that climbers have actually made it to the top of this Mount Wilson,” Arnold noted, staring the merchant back in the eye.
The youth could hardly keep his eyelids open any longer. His leg began rattling against the floorboards with any semblance of applied pressure due to the fatigue. Hands still slightly damp and tunic chafing up the ends of his arms, Arnold narrowed his focus on the Hinsberger.
“It’s all very difficult to understand I’m sure. But believe it or not the four of us have become ensnared in events far surpassing our capability…” Arnold wheezed tiredly to yet another look of confusion.
“Lie down Arnold, you look faint,” Tristan motioned a hand to the boy’s back to assist him from the crate.
“When we decided to scale the Holy Jim we never really told you the reason for our travels. In fact I’ve never told any of you about the real reason for why I wander. But now is a different story…” Arnold began before teetering dangerously to one side, stabilized only by his own injured arm. “Priest, as you’ve said before, if there’s a goal to be set, then it’d be foolish not to take it. I believe that to be a sentiment we can all relate to and appreciate. So as it goes, we should simply follow where the path takes us without so many questions and hesitation… else, in one way or another, we’re all doomed.”
Arnold closed his statement simultaneously with his eyes, allowing himself to fall into the priest’s arms. Brandon carried the exhausted youth over and laid him down beside the boar. Tristan gathered the items from the stool and bunched them underneath the weight of the rope coil on the floor, allowing a raspy exhale while doing so.
“I’ve never quite met such a youth as he,” Kennie muttered under his breath, taking up the stool and setting it beside the collapsed beam in the floor.
“Quite. A remarkable individual for sure,” Brandon agreed, moving a loose plaid of Firefly’s sheet over to cover the boy.
“Thank you for housing us here Hinsberger. We don’t mean to be a burden but I’m unsure as to whether or not we’ll be prepared to leave by sunrise,” Tristan nodded, unscrewing the cap to his canteen and sniffing at its contents.
“It’s no burden at all. You two are remarkable yourselves. Such free spirits,” the merchant stated, ambling behind the crooked counter. “I might not understand as to why you four still persist in pursuing the unreasonable, but promise to take care of the boy?”
“Strangely enough I agree with you. Unreasonable hm?” Tristan pondered momentarily, “But the boy will be protected. You have my word.”
The priest rose slowly, the bones in his knees cracking under the strain. The old merchant looked over the two dirtied men and smiled gently, grazing a hand thoughtfully over the surface of the hardwood and nodding in affirmation of the motley band of travelers.
“Oh yes, I almost forgot,” Kennie exclaimed, ducking below the counter, “You left this in the store before you departed on your climb a few days ago.”
The large man returned with a long object grasped firmly in his hand. Brandon’s face contorted with disbelief. The illuminate sconce behind the merchant’s head glittered off the yellow chime at the end of the item, all while flickering over the refined grooves, notches, wrappings and incantations inscribed all along the object’s bark.
“How did you get that staff?” Tristan bumbled almost incoherently.
“Hm? You left it here before you departed did you not? I thought it strange myself. It was simply lying on my countertop after you four exited. This is your staff is it not?” the merchant asked, holding the item out to the priest.
Brandon took it within his hands and felt at the textures of the wood before quickly rushing over to Arnold’s side and whispering some invocations under his breath. Flicking the chime at the end of the staff sent an aura of the golden light pulsating through the emporium. After it dissipated, Brandon held a hand out to Arnold’s head and felt at his temperature and condition.
“That’s it. There’s no mistaking it. But how?” Tristan lumbered once more. Kennie shifted his sight inquisitively between the two men.
“Well like I said, you simply left it here right before you left my store. I assumed that after I pulled the rope down from the ceiling that you’d misplaced it in the debris,” Kennie explained.
“No… no but I had this on the mountain. As we mentioned earlier there was a storm created by the dragon that-,” the priest stuttered.
“Dragon? I don’t remember you mentioning anything about a dragon,” the merchant exclaimed.