Today’s post is brought to you by the letters I, C, and E. It’s prose an several pages. It ends abruptly, perhaps with an ellipsis. Apologies for that. Enjoy.
Leik climbed carefully up the slope. In the dark, it was difficult to know where to place his feet. Tumbles of scree skittered down the slope behind him. He turned to look back at the vista behind him.
The moon hung like a fat ball of yellow glass, bathing the plains below in a dim, angry glow. He could see the horses tethered to a few scraggy trees a mile or so off into the distance – small black shadows silhouetted against the horizon. Leik and the others had ridden in from the west, riding down overnight past the boundary of the great Eastern Forest. The small foothills at the eastern edge of the forest gently gave way to the grassy basin he now looked over. Far to the north, barely visible in the against the night sky, rose the Argonne mountains. Behind them lay the cold Northern Sea. Leik strained his eyes to make out the sea far to the northeast. Maybe on a clear day, someone with keen sight might be able to see the glint of the water. But not tonight.
Tributaries of the Gliebe flowed from the east, skirting the southern edge of the Argonnes, and growing as they leapt out to the sea to the north. A small river cut around the eastern side of the small mountain he now climbed, cutting sharp cliffs from the flat top of the mesa. As he turned his gaze to the east, Leik could make out the edges of the ancient stone bridge that spanned a section of white rapids on the narrow portion of the Gleibe. Though he could not see them now, he knew there were a pair of pillars at the western end of the bridge, adorned with runes and letters marking them as the beginning of the Great Road on its trek eastward to Alyzrad and Stanbrook, and finally through to the Drylands.
Dane and his armies would come along the spur of the Great Road. Like a black fog, they would pour across the bridge, leaving command groups on the far side of the river, safe to direct the battle outside the threat of dart or arrow. The Great Road climbed swiftly through a set of switchbacks after the bridge, gaining several hundred feet within the first half mile of westward climb. One of the switchbacks snaked around a large ledge that overlooked the basin. Dane would set up camp there, posting sentries along the walls of the road the lead eastward. In the event that the Comorraugh were triumphant, the retreat would never devolve into a rout.
Leik turned to look back up the slope to the south. He was following a small trail, perhaps left by game – goats or deer – that lead to the top of the mountain. The mountain had as many names as there had been people within the basin – Stone of the Gods, Malock’s Tooth, Umlauk, Grim’s Folly, Leijhorne’s Bane. It loomed above the basin, an enormous red giant. The sun had baked the rock dry, exposing the red bones of the earth. Trees did not grow on Umlauk. The grass along the path was sparse and coarse, thin brown tufts creeping out from behind boulders.
Leik took a few breaths. The air was cool and thin, and a lifetime of study had left him ill-equipped for a strenuous hike up the face of a mountain. He closed his eyes and felt for what had called him from the basin below. It was stronger here, near the top. It was like the scent of rich flowers under a sunlit meadow – or like the call of some strange bird under the thick canopy of the forest. It drew him onward and upward. He felt a calling that urged his body forward beyond what he knew was practical.
Leik had felt something in basin before. Many years ago, when he had crossed from Alyzrad to the west. He had only been a child, only the first signs of whiskers darkening his chin. But he had felt the calling as the caravan drove eastward. With no training, it was like the memory of a distant scent – something he knew but could not understand. Now, as a demi-chain wizard, he could feel the call so much more strongly. He turned his face southward and closed his eyes, baking in the light of something invisible to his eyes, something unknown to the men that walked the basin below. The source lay at the top of Umlauk, a few hundred feet southward and upward. He drew a deep breath again, and hiked up his robes to keep from tripping. After half an hour of climbing, using his hands to half-crawl up the slope, Leik arrived at the top of the mountain.
Umlauk opened before him, bare rock a full furlong across. The mesa tilted slightly, dropping several feet to the north. Leik stumbled, feeling as though he would roll off the flat top to the basin below. The sky unfurled like a flag, radiant with star and moon, driving a feeling of smallness towards Leik like a thunder. He cringed in the nakedness atop the mountain, squatting against the bare rock and panting like a wild animal.
But the draw was so strong here that he could not long stay crouched. He felt the aura penetrate his body, filling his lungs with each gulp of air, inflating him with presence with each heartbeat. It was almost too much. He wiped a tear from his eye, and walked slowly, but purposefully, to the center of the mesa. From here, a rich vista spread out to Leik’s eyes. The moon seemed to swell, pulling more light from within to better light the valley below. Leik felt he could see the shore to the north, that he could hear the gentle crash of the surf on the beach. He closed his eyes and sensed the conversation of his comrades below. In his mind’s eye, he saw them walking, scouting the field for the battle to come. Leik fell to his knees and wept silently, filled beyond all that he knew.
After an eternity, after a lifetime of bliss, he opened his eyes to the shining night. He laughed as he saw the fog of his breath rise in the cool still night air. He walked briskly back to the path he had climbed. Looking around, he gathered several small rocks – each the size of an egg – and placed them in the pockets of his robes. Then he walked back to the center of the mesa.
He bent and placed one rock at his feet, closing his eyes to sense the source of the flow. Then he rose and strode a full chain’s length to the north. Then he gently placed a stone on the ground. He repeated the process at each direction, making a circle of stones roughly ten meters across. Leik returned to the center of the circle and picked up the stone. Kneeling again, he drew a small mark as long as his palm on the ground. He took a short iron bar about three links long from his belt. The end of the bar had been bent into an eye four inches in diameter. Leik knelt and held the bar out before his chest. Each hand was balled in a fist around the shaft of the rod. Leik held the eye of the rod level with his own face, making a circle with his arms – the end of the rod hovering above the mark on the stone ground.
Leik closed his eyes and inhaled several times, drinking in the scent of the area. In his mind’s eye, he saw the landscape around him. He felt the magnitude of the mountain, and each boulder lying on its shoulders. He felt the gentle massage of the river along the eastern edge of the mountain’s foot. Leik brought his focus closer, feeling the bare surface of the mesa. He saw and knew each divot on the face of the stone, tested and tasted the thin dust that covered its surface. He stilled his mind until he could feel the tremors of the stone itself, vibrating imperceptibly in the night.
At each breath he drew in, he felt the presence of the stone itself drawn into his body. As he exhaled, he kept the energy within. He felt himself swelling larger than his own body, growing with each breath to something larger than he could be, an entity that was not himself, but that contained all that he was. Leik kept his focus on his breath, as his training had taught him, lest the energy consume him. He felt the chill on his skin, his hairs prickling against the frigid air. He drew in the vibrations until he felt he would burst, until his heart cried against the ecstasy.
Then he breathed it all out into the iron rod. All the vibration, all the energy, like a deflated bladder, like a slow rolling volcano, he released all that he was into the foot-long piece of iron.
Leik did not feel the hairs on his arms singe as the iron glowed white hot. In the weakness of release, he allowed himself to squint against the glaring white light that leapt from the end of the rod. He raised the eye of the rod a few inches, then drove with all his might into the floor of the bedrock beneath him. Like a hot knife into cheese, the rod slid easily into the ground below – sizzling and spitting as it went. Leik buried the rod up to the edge of the eye, a full eight inches into solid rock.
The world dissolved into unknowing.