Trarel cursed his bad luck while he was trudging through the snow which was falling fast, like a solid wall by now. It swallowed all sound, nothing was to be heard but the hiss of more flakes settling on the bushes and rocks around him. The cold was like knifes stabbing through his fur coat and trousers and he blew on his numb fingers trying to massage some life back into them. He was not sure for how long he had been walking like this. A few hours? Half a day? In the morning when the party broke camp the blizzard had struck. Suddenly, with not so much as a breeze. Nothing had warned them of the masses of clouds that rushed over the mountains as a herd of sheep driven by dogs. He had lost his companions not long after that. Had they survived? Trarel tried not to think about the cold hard death waiting for him in the whiteness. If no one was to get out of this alive, their expedition to the fiery mountains would just be another one that had failed like so many in the years before. “It's an evil range up there” that's what folk down in the valley had said. And even then he had noticed as they drew ever nearer to the sheer cliffs of the mountain range how the population dwindled. No one wanted to live up here. No one dared.
Trarel had been trying to keep the flank of the mountain to his right. The only thing still visible through this maelstrom of weather: A dark shadow looming behind the ever falling snow. Now he had reached some kind of outcrop, and as the winds picked up again, he walked around it to find some shelter in which to eat a bit of his last rations. To his surprise there was an even darker shadow in the corner where the landslide that formed the barrier joined the mountain. Not just a shadow, a black hole. He walked cautiously towards it, mustering the rest of his strength, gripping his walking-staff tighter so he could readily use it as a weapon.
As he reached the hole in the mountainside he could not believe his eyes: A cave! Just as he was about to give up hope the gods had pity on him and gave him this! He walked into the mouth of the entrance and quietly let his backpack slide to the ground. He took on a defensive stance, hefted his staff, took a deep breath and yelled into the darkness: “Hello?! Come out, come out, whatever you are!!” … More Silence. Only the hiss of snow behind him. The echoes led him to the conclusion, that the cave was not as big as he had first thought. And as nothing moved or made a sound he relaxed a bit and took a few steps into the velvet darkness. His boots crunched on a mixture of sand and ice. With one hand to the wall, and his staff held level before him he realised after a few meters that he would have to move deeper into the cave in any case if he wanted to survive the night as the day waned. He went back to his pack. After some searching he grasped the wooden end of one of the torches. He lit it, shouldered his pack and still using his staff in a weapon-like manor crept deeper into the cave.
Soon he realized that he was walking into an ancient volcano, the cavern not being a cave but a lava shoot leading him into the very heart of the mountain. Every now and then another tunnel would join the hollow way from one side or the other and the diameter of the tunnel seemed slowly to expand over distance. Still there was no sound except for his crunching steps. But wait. There was a new texture to the silence. Trarel stood and listened. It wasn't sound, more like a rhythmic wafting of the air. Slow as a heartbeat. Trarel felt his hackles rise as he tried to move soundlessly deeper into the blackness before him. With every step he took, the rhythm gained texture until he was sure it was the base of a huge drum. “Or the heart of a monstrous creature” he thought. He walked on.
After some more minutes the tunnel was awash with the steady “Whooomp!” of the rhythm, Trarel's eardrum vibration in unison. Another few minutes an he came to a bend in the tunnel. As he slowly crept round it he suddenly saw light. Here there was an opening cut into the very rock, letting yellowish light stream into the darkness. And the sound clearly came from the bright area behind the opening. Trarel extinguished his torch, gripped his staff with both hands and tiptoed towards the brightness.
Trarel gasped and stood transfixed in the doorway. He was clearly on a balcony or outcrop, overlooking an unbelievably vast cavern. He could only guess at the real dimensions since he could not see the opposing walls. What he did see though took his breath away: Here at the heart of the mountain was a settlement. An actual city blazing with light. All around the floor of the cavern and up the walls were huts and houses, hewn from the sheer rock rising in concentric circles around a centre place. In its middle stood some sort of arch. In between its pillars blue light flickered. And now that he look around that centre circle he was aware that there were people down there. Hundreds bowing and rising and bowing again. This made him realise the hight. His balcony must be some 100 metres above that ground. He took a step backward. He took in the whole city. Now that his eyes had become accustomed to the brightly lit scene he made out blue and red flags hanging on the doors of the houses and the dancing shadows around the centre, where the blue glow painted the silhouettes of the kneeling figures on to the surrounding houses.
He turned his attention back to the arch. There were priests or guard around it at least they appeared to be, since they were the only ones standing with their back to the circle. From what he could see from up here, they wore brightly coloured ornate clothes which seem to glow. Now that he was looking at them closely he thought he saw the same ebb and flow in the light of the arch as in the ornaments and headgear worn by the guards. The light seemed to pulse in time with the sound that was now a giant wave, a solid force. A base that moved his body as a whole. While he was thus looking at the scene of prayer he spotted a glint in the blue light of the arch. He strained his eyes and could just make out a golden shimmer and as the blue light ebbed once more he saw golden statues, chests, barrels. Then the blue light flared up again and overpowered his vision. As he stepped closer to the edge of the balcony once more to get a better look there were suddenly voices to his left.
Trarel didn't waste any time to find out, who was coming up to his ledge, he turned around instantly and ran into the darkness of the tunnel whence he had come.
“I want five men on the perimeter at all times. Relieve them every 3 hours. And arm them well.” The young captain bowed. “As you wish, Elder.” Man'gar nodded and reached into his pouch for his pipe. It had been a long day and it would get even longer if he had to take control of all the details of setting up camp for the night. As the soldier started barking orders at his men, pointing in different directions Man'gar slowly shook his head and groped around the inside of his pouch. Honestly, these young warriors didn't seem to have a clue what they were in for if things should take a turn for the worse. Like the last time... He pushed that thought out of his mind and looked around the camp-site. “Grador? Boy, I swear, one of these days you'll feel the back of my hand! Where are you?” he yelled. On queue a young Magmar rose above the back of one of the Zorbs laden with equipment. He obviously had been unloading the beast and seeing to it, that their mounts were fed and looked after. Paternal pride crept into Man'gar's heart as Grador ran towards him. This was easily the best apprentice one could hope for. Quick on the uptake, always interested with an eye for the little chores that needed doing and filled with humility. But it would surely take another decade to get him to fully understand this region and its strange laws. “You can take care of the animals later. Our safety and defence is more important right now. And my tobacco. Where have you absent minded fool stuck it?!” “It's in your pack, Elder. Right where you told me to put it this morning.” Right. He had said something of that kind, Man'gar remembered. “Well, don't be standing there leering at an old Mag like me. Fetch it this instant!” And of the Boy went.
Man'gar surveyed the camp-site. They had been climbing all day, making slow progress through the dense forests of the valley floor in the morning. Around noon they had left the visible paths and started straight up the flank of the mountain, the young captain and two of his men easily clearing a path for the expedition riding their battle hardened Zorbs three abreast. Within the next few hours the undergrowth and bushes had given way to more and more boulders and barren ground while all the time the trees seemed to shrink. Here and there a few spots of snow where already on the ground. Winter would come early this year and suddenly as it always did in the mountains. Late in the after noon they had finally reached the tree-line and now, just an hour before nightfall Man'gar had an unrivalled view of the whole valley lying beneath them like a green lake flecked with whitened treetops here and there like foam floating on murky waters. Further up the mountain's flank he could clearly make out the summit of the first of the “Three brethren” - Arzak-Annoi – the holy mountains.
For all the times he had laid eyes upon them – every ten years since he himself had been initiated by his master just like he now did with Grador – for all these times the view still took his breath away: Majestically the three volcanoes rose to incredible heights. He was standing on Arzak-Truin, the southern of the two ice-capped peaks on either side of Arzak-Anzyn itself, their destination. As always there was a column of smoke rising from the summit of the sacred mountain, its fires ever burning in the depth. A shiver crept over Man'gar's back. It was hard to keep the memories at bay, this close to the site. The last time he had been here, the pious scenes of worship had turned to carnage within the blink of an eye. He was still uncertain of what had really happened that day. He took a deep breath of the cool air and saw Grador coming around one of the boulders waving the tobacco pouch.
“Thank you, boy.” Man'gar took the tobacco from his apprentice's outstretched hand. “Let's sit by the fire and have some food. I see they have already pitched the tents and lit a few logs.” They walked to the centre of the camp where yellow and orange flames were dancing over pine logs that had been brought up from the woods. Man'gar supported himself on Grador's arm and set down on one of the blankets draped over the bench-like stones around the fire. “Sit down boy and tell me. What do you remember about the Arzak-Cannui?” Grador screwed up his face in concentration. “The Arzak-Cannui are an ancient race. This is their realm. They share an ancestry with the Krofdors and Eldives. They are a proud warlike people, that view us a minor nuisance rather than a threat.” Man'gar nodded. “Well remembered. I see the last view days you have indeed been listening. Now, what of their customs?” Grador's gaze went skyward. “As they live inside Arzak-Anzyn, the Eternal Flame, they worship fire, heat and the earth. They believe that they are indeed the mountain's children, their duty being to protect it and its secrets from the world that surrounds it. Oh! I nearly forgot: For them Winter is like the time of death and dying. Literally: They sacrifice themselves to the flames to give their life-force back to the mountain.” Man'gar lit his pipe. “Themselves and everyone who they deem suitable” he mumbled.
The sun was setting and its last rays washed the holy mountains in bright blood-red and golden light before a jet black sky studded with stars. Night came like a dark blanket, quieting down nature and the lands around them. But suddenly there was a loud scream for alarm! Grador was about to jump up and run towards it, but Man'gar had a rock-like grip on his shoulder. “Don't act! Think first! You are not a soldier.” And indeed the camp was already filled with Magmars spurting up the mountain flank to the guard that had issued the warning. Weapons were drawn, swords unsheathed. In the last rays of the dying light all the warriors sped up Arzak-Anzyn. “Tell me what you see, boy! Quick!” “They are all running toward Magnor! He is pointing up toward Arzak-Anzyn. There! I see it too!” Grador gasped “It's a human! A human on the holy mountain! There! He's running now. Running north!”...”He's gone! I swear he was just up there on the ledge and now he's gone.”
With that the sun finally sank and all that remained were the fires and torches of the camp. Man'gar got up slowly, sat down his pipe and blew a long loud whistle on his fingers. “Cease the pursuit! Man the perimeter! Captain, get over here. Grador, get our weapons. We shan't rest tonight after all.”