Chapter 7: "The Mountain Men"
The summit finally came into view shortly before sunset as an eternal sheet of snow began to rise up under their feet. Colors were just beginning to smudge their way across the cloudscape around them.
Felix settled into step beside Kori and Marielle. “A few years ago, I met a girl. I meet a lot of girls; it’s sort of a hobby. I only really knew her for a few days…but I knew that she was different than the others. I was in love right away, you know? But I didn’t know how to say it…hardly knew how to feel it. She—Aquila—was only visiting my town for the week; she had come from somewhere overseas for a short trip. I wanted to ask her to stay…but…the words just wouldn’t come out. I tried so many times, but I couldn’t say what I wanted to say.”
Marielle took Kori’s hand. They looked into each other’s eyes and smiled with a silent promise. Marielle then looked to Felix, “What did you do?”
Felix shook his head with a sad grin. “I wrote her a letter. Aquila was supposed to leave the next day and I needed my real feelings to be my last words to her. So I put everything into that letter. Everything. But when I went to her the next morning, all I found was an empty room and a distant ship on the horizon. She had already gone. I never got to say my piece…never got to tell her. I sat there on the pier for hours after that, reading and rereading that letter.” Felix took a deep breath. “Some days I can’t even remember her face; just that little dot of a ship disappearing across the horizon. I’ve never forgiven the sea for carrying her away from me.”
In the emotional aftermath of Felix’s story, he took a moment to survey the world around him. He quickly noticed that the others were pointing at something just over the crest of the summit. Felix, Kori, and Marielle moved to join up with them. As they approached, Lesedi turned to intercept them. “No words. Move with care,” was all that the soft-spoken man said. The group crouched low and peered ahead.
The foul scene that played out then turned Felix’s stomach. There was a bonfire lit at the epicenter of a snowy plateau and ten frightful silhouettes encircling it. The figures all wore animal furs—if anything at all—and very thick beards and hair.
The Old Man whispered, “The other mountain men…just as Gorr warned.”
Suddenly, one of the mountain men leapt into the heart of the flame, clutching fistfuls of what looked like black feathers. The rest of the clan fell back from the fire and to their knees. A keening sound began to rise up from the wild men. The sound slowly gained a rhythm…and then became a chant. The man in the fire began to burn yet he did not cry out. He only stood with hands outstretched over his brethren, seemingly unmoved. The chant became a melody that seemed to transcend the original voices that had produced it.
As the chant intensified, Felix had to look away. That was when he noticed the other oddities around the campsite. Birds. There were hundreds of crudely built cages stacked around the snowy expanse, each containing a number of blackbirds. Yet not a single one of the poor, caged creatures made a sound. They just stared hauntingly at the mountain men’s bonfire.
Felix understood the scene just a moment too late; this was a ritual sacrifice. The man in the fire was not holding black feathers; he was holding two live blackbirds. And as the chant of his brethren reached a crescendo, he thrust the birds down into the flames below. The fire turned prismatic in color for a moment and rose around the man within.
After the colorful flames receded, the mountain man stepped out of the fire. He was unscathed, though he seemed to be glowing dimly as though his insides were emitting light. The renewed mountain man lifted his eyes and hands to the sky as the winds began to churn into a whirling cyclone. Then the mountain men, all together, began to dance over and around the fire, still chanting. The glowing man blew a strong breath into the sky; the cyclone rushed away from him and down the mountain side, off to some unknown destination.
The birds broke their silence and shrieked their anger at the mountain men. The sound of the birds’ cries only added a sickly harmony to the song of the savages.
Felix was dumbstruck. Terrified. He looked around at his companions, almost as a plea for help. When his gaze met Lesedi’s, Felix noticed tears streaking the man’s face.
Felix reached out a friendly hand for Lesedi’s shoulder. “You okay?”
Lesedi shook his head grimly. “A blackbird should never be caged or harmed. It is a creature of the Soul. A life that tends to the lives of others.” Lesedi twisted his upper lip with disgust, “This is evil work.”
Claire gasped and turned her head away with the dramatic flair that only an actress could muster. Felix looked back over the rise; a second mountain man was now collecting two more blackbirds into his hands and gazing excitedly at the bonfire.
“No,” the Old Man moaned. “Not again.” He clasped at his own eyes. “The Woman; she is weeping for these poor creatures. I can feel her sadness at the core of my own. Gorr was right. Lesedi is right. This is evil.”
Felix stepped to the front of the group. “Then let’s do something about it. We’re on a quest from an angel…or something like an angel. And she—the Woman—wanted us to come this way. Maybe we’re supposed to stop this madness.” He reached out his hand, mustering his best heroic smile, “Who’s with me?”
Everyone just looked around at each other, unsure of how to respond. They were obviously afraid.
But, just a split-second before Felix was about to retract his outstretched hand, Asher stood up beside him. “Do you mind if I tag along once more, big brother?”
Felix grinned and rolled his eyes. “Not my first choice, but I’ll take what I can get.”
Then Sorell stood up and moved to Asher’s side. “If you can do it, I can do it.”
Claire then stood with blushed face but without comment. One-by-one each member of the company joined the cause.
As the second mountain man stepped into the fire, a new sound overtook the chanting. It was a battle cry of sorts. All eight of the travelers charged up over the summit edge and towards the unsuspecting mountain men. There was no plan, no weaponry, and no training for this. It was faith alone driving them.
The mountain men fell into confusion. Just as the chanting ceased, the man within the flames was violently consumed by them. The birds, released from his grip, rose with the smoke and flew to safety. The mountain men collected their wits quickly, though, and braced for combat.
However, the Old Man and Marielle had broken off from the group and were freeing the other blackbirds from the cages. So as Felix, Asher, Claire, Kori, Sorell, and Lesedi charged into a fight that they were underprepared for, an abyss opened above them. Even darker than the night sky, the flocks and fleets of blackbirds descended onto the mountain men. The savages yelped with terror as they were overtaken and driven into the caves and outcroppings. But the blackbirds fought even harder to force justice upon the mountain men.
As chaos ensued, Felix and his companions joined together and moved, as a unit, to the far side of the plateau. As they climbed down to the ledge just below the summit, the sounds of the battle became distant. With victory and righteousness brimming inside their hearts, they moved swiftly downward. As luck would have it, the party’s fevered actions had landed them on the other side of the mountain peak and closer to their destination.
This side of the mountain was less steep and less rocky than the other; it made their climb down much quicker work. And as they dropped below the cloud cover, their hearts flew at the sight below. The Great City stood below them with the Endless Sea just beyond. It was a glorious view.
The travelers managed to reach the base of the mountain by sunset the next night. They camped—hopefully one last time—at the point where the rock bled back into grass.