Dura’s frail fist trembled as he punched at the gusting breeze ahead of them, but it struck with the power of the mightiest hammer. Any of the razor shards of ice flying across their path were obliterated, smashed to the smallest slivers. The howling winds on either side seemed to buckle and balk when his reed-like voice cried out in the old speech. An avenue of calm opened through the whirling maelstrom.
Elph dashed forwards, hearing the others’ feet crunching on thickly frozen snow as they raced along the ridge. Once they were safe on the bare rock at its far end, where sharp ridge met sheer mountain, the bowman turned to see what they had come through. The old magicker, Dura, panted at Elph’s side. His hands were still and his tongue had ceased yelping enchantments.
A mere few paces behind them, a wall of rippling silver stretched from earth to sky, thousands of blades of jagged ice spinning and flying in the highland gale, shredding the blanketed snow and throwing it up to the clouds.
“There’s no going back that way.” Elph muttered.
“That’s a shame and no mistake.” Dura responded. “I’m not optimistic about what lies ahead.”
Elph led the small party up through the foothills of the great mountain. Now and again, their progress was marked by the booming cries tumbling down from the rock spire among the clouds. The sounds’ passage was followed by the cracking roar of avalanche and splintering ice.
“Dragon speak that is.” Dura said in a mysterious, gravelly voice. “Not a word of it can be understood by those unfamiliar with the tongue.”
“You mean to say someone who doesn’t speak it can’t understand it? Now there’s a surprise.” Cati, the trapper, said in tones slick with irony.
Soon they came to their first obstacle. It was where the rolling hills and meandering valleys became the mountain proper. All of a sudden the path shot upwards into the sky, a steep ridge with a near-vertical wall of stone to either side. Snow clung to the cliffs as best it could, but a single snowflake might tip the balance and send the whole crashing down to entomb unsuspecting climbers.
The group of adventures, the mercenary and his highland companions, stood in a small defile and waited to proceed. They were in a dip, a bowl of rock which allowed some shelter before the real climb began.
But the way ahead was blocked by an obstacle either natural or magical in origin, or perhaps some of both. Shards of ice whirled over the beginning of the ridge along which they meant to pass. Some were mere slivers, razors of ice, while others were thick splinters that could impale a man through. All were sharp enough to slice bone, whipped by the fierce wind into a raging torrent which could pierce the hardiest of armour.
“Here is the first gate into the fortress.” Dura said to Elph. “Which will it be, grappling hook or battering ram?”
The beast was angry, furious at having been woken from a slumber stretching back to before our galaxy’s birth.
But I did not care.
It was a monster whose wings could span the distance between the planets. It was a dragon whose breath could roast the sun and, with one whip of its tail, it could obliterate a hundred moons.
But it was only a beast, and a beast is a thing to be tamed.
When I called to it, gently rousing it from sleep, my voice was sweet nectar dripping from a budding flower. Now my tongue became a whip which reached up in an angry chorus and snapped across the dragon’s hide.
It flinched and roared defiance into the vacuum of space. I raised my voice again, louder this time so that the mountain beneath my feet trembled. Ice cracked and splintered, showering down the steep slopes below.
The beast heard me and was still.
Elph the bowman looked up from the campfire to the towering peak of the mountain. Heavy clouds seemed to be billowing down its sides. Great avalanches, large enough to bury whole cities beneath their rumbling advance.
“That’s the cry of the man on the mountain.” Dura said. “What do you think?”
“He must be stopped.” Elph replied.
“Can your arrows reach that high?” Burr asked. “Can by axe break rock or Cati’s knife skin a dragon?”
The bowman turned his keen eyes towards Dura’s wrinkled face.
“You have magic.” He said.
“Magic to bring fire to life in wet snow, yes. But not to summon a dragon from the depths of time.”
Elph rose to his feet and shook the frost from his legs.
“Help me get up that mountain. Help me kill the man who seeks to destroy the world, and you will have your weight in gold.”
Dura’s creased, weathered face broke into a gap-toothed smile. A dry, rasping chuckle grew in his throat and was drown by Burr’s roaring laughter. Cati hissed her own amusement.
“You want to kill a wizard, mercenary?” Dura asked. “You want to conquer a mountain and slay a dragon? Alright, alright. Gold speaks many tongues and all of them sound sweet to my ears.”
Dura, the wise old magicker, scratched at his grey-stubbled cheeks. With quiet, crystal green eyes, he surveyed the new arrival. The intruder was tall and lean, with a powerful back which bent to hold taut the longbow in his outstretched hand. A point of glimmering sunlight reflected on the tip of the quivering arrow.
“Come sit by the fire, friend, and tell us what you know of curses and eternal nights.”
The stranger lowered his bow and stepped into the firelight. He did not sit but kept a long shaft drawn across the bow-staff. Small eyes flickered from face to face, the woodsman, trapper and charlatan.
“I’m a mercenary by trade.” He began.
“A bow for hire.” Burr said as he spat over his shoulder to ward off evil.
“Let him speak, lumberjack.” Dura said. “Tell us your name first.”
“I’m Elph, and like the woodsman says, a bow for hire. My trade took me across the Eastern Sea to the Pale City. There I spoke with astrologers and other men of learning who spoke of a universe stretching far beyond this world.”
“Is that news to them?” Dura asked.
“We heard tell of an evil spell-caster lurking in the north among the high mountains. My lord did not believe it, but to be sure he sent me here with a purse of silver to investigate.”
“That purse must weigh heavily on you.”
As Burr spoke, he shifted the weight of the axe across his shoulders so that the handle was within reach. Beside him, Cati the huntress lowered a finger to stroke the handle of her skinning blade.
“Not so heavy as my arrow will weigh on your throat.” Elph replied.
One of his hands reached out as he drew the other to his ear. Faster than any of their eyes could follow, he lowered his arms again just as the string snapped back against the bow. The arrow’s feathered flight trembled as it stuck in the packed snow between Burr’s resting feet.
Dura clapped his hands, a spark of humour glinting in one eye. His laugh cut through the chill silence around the blazing fire. With a flick of his forefinger, he sent a tongue of flame crackling up the spent arrow.
At the very bottom of the mountain’s sheer southern face, a group of three had gathered in the shelter of a lush green valley. The trees and bushes around them were hidden under a thick blanket of snow.
The campfire at the centre of their bivouac threw red and gold light against their faces, making them appear like bronze statues of malignant gods. Though no gods carried such weathered cheeks, creased brows and calloused hands.
“Well, what do you make of it?”
The first to speak was Burr, a woodsman with a long-handled axe slung across his broad shoulders. His beard hung so low over his muscled barrel of a chest and round belly that he could have tucked it under his belt.
He was answered by Cati. She was a trapper and trader in furs. Her legs were narrow and her figure nymph-like. It was said in the lower valleys that if a rabbit escaped one of her snares, she could chase it for a day before tiring.
“Night has fallen, that’s all I see.”
“Have you ever seen night fall from four sides at once, darkness meeting in the middle of the sky? This is no natural night.”
“I never said it was natural. But night it is.”
Tired of their squabbling, the third bronze figure spoke up.
“Hear me when I say this is the work of forces outside this world.”
His tone was sage and his voice carried crisply over the crackling fire. Dura scratched at the grey stubble of his chin and spat into the glowing coals. He was a wise man by all accounts, even if some called him a charlatan.
He was a man of only one talent, but he put it to many uses. He told tales of sorcery, mixed potions for the weak and helped in the birthing of babes. A physician, he called himself, others naked him magicker.
“It’s a spell then, an enchantment?” Burr ventured.
“What do you know of magic, lumberjack?” Cati asked.
All three had spent enough nights beneath the stars to hear when a stranger approached. They turned towards the edge of the clearing and an unfamiliar voice spoke out of the gloom.
“I reckon it’s a curse, but one that can be broken.”
Three pairs of hands slid along faded leather belts towards the hilts of three honed knives. But the sight of a poised arrowhead and a taught bowstring arrested their movements.
“Let’s be civil.” The bowman said. “Is there room by that fire of yours for one more?”
The last few steps were always the hardest. I could feel the plates of bone in my knees rubbing raw against each other. No cartilage left to soften the scrape and grind.
But I had reached my destination with the dragonfire burning hot in my thundering heart. It spread a pulsing heat through my body, sending my spirits soaring among the clouds.
I stood on the roof of the world, the peak of a tapering granite-sided mountain rising many thousands of leagues above the valleys below. It was a wrinkled finger, a jagged dagger piercing the sky’s belly. White mist bled down its sides.
My hands trembled as I lifted them up high to the heavens and made the dragon call. Music light as air and sweet as honey flew from my mouth, sounds I could never make before another human.
My call was answered. From the black depths of space a darker shape emerged. Its scales were coal black, it’s eyes fiery red. The dragon swished its tail and bright stars vanished from the eternal night beyond.
Nightmare black wings spread out and began to fold the world in their smothering embrace. The sun’s rays struggled and failed to pierce its obsidian hide.
On the surface of the world below, everything slowly began to rot and die in the gathering gloom until only a small island of life remained at the foot of my mountain.