8.3

Stray woke first, dizzy with a vague memory of movement in the dark, and something cold caressing his legs. It took him a few seconds to identify the rock walls and the stack of debris protecting the entrance to the hermit’s cave. The soft light of morning brought new clarity to the cave’s hollow dimensions and jagged contours, trading its nocturnal drama for a crisp salience.

Stray roused Edzie, and they both dressed quickly and devoured some of Stray’s rations. They scrawled their names on the cave wall, next to the melancholy skeleton, and then departed in haste, hoping to come near the ruins of Gryffe by that evening.

“I think there was a snake in there with us last night,” Stray said as they continued east. “I felt it slithering around my legs.” Edzie made a disapproving face, but kept her theatrics to a minimum.

The path along Assay’s Cut was forgiving for the next hour or so, passing through spacious groves in something like a very small valley. Aside from a few small foraging creatures, called from hibernation by pangs of hunger or the cries of their young, there was very little wildlife, and the evergreen woods on either side seemed like a scenic gallery rendered entirely for Edzie and Stray’s benefit. Eventually, the trees became sparse, and the rock faces on either side drew much closer together. Stray and Edzie found themselves scrambling over ridges and boulders that protruded into the path, and there were times when they feared they had lost it entirely, only to have it reappear as a furrow and a gap in the underbrush ahead.

Soon, the north wall, on their left, began to lower, and then it fell away below the level of the path, and Stray and Edzie were on something like a narrow, mossy ledge, clambering laterally along a steep slope, navigating between resipine and pitchfir trees that seemed to be clinging for dear life to the stone. It was only after two hundred meters of this desperate scraping along the cliff that Stray, leading Edzie by a few arm-spans, cried out in celebration. Far ahead, a few meters down, he could see a cleft in the rock where this rise met another, and through that cleft, he could see the level surface of the Cragstep Road. By the time they reached it, Edzie and Stray both wanted to collapse and expire with exhaustion.

For those first few minutes, Edzie and Stray felt withered and defeated. They huddled in the crevice alongside the road, the outlet where Assay’s Cut deposited them, and finished a few scraps of Stray’s rations. Finally, feeling barely rested, they stood and scanned the landscape around them. They were among the sharp spires at the eastern end of the Andromous Front, surrounded by bluffs and escarpments that looked like they had burst forth from some infection in Pantempus’s craggy flesh. To the west, they could see the stretch of the Cragstep that ran parallel to Assay’s Cut, a tangle of bumpy road twisting through rugged terrain, over two bridges (the Fraternear and Fraterfar) which they had entirely bypassed. They could see a small figure on the further bridge, barely a dust mote from this distance: another lonely Prospect climbing toward the temple, perhaps the same figure they had spotted on the road the previous day.

Turning the other way, they could see that the road traveled back into the ridges and bluffs that formed this part of the Crag Mountains’ foothills. The mountainous pinnacle gave way to a valley of evergreens on the east side, and Stray and Edzie would be descending into its forested reaches, the last stage in the journey to Gryffepeak. The clear sky gave the sun a piercing command of the afternoon, and Stray and Edzie barely noticed the gray clouds casting a diffuse shadow a few leagues to the north. Their survey finished and their energy somewhat replenished, they started the walk through the cliffs, and within an hour’s time, they were scrambling down needle-carpeted slopes, dizzy from the smell of resipine sap.

The sun was high overhead, just at the threshold of that gray cloud-front, when Edzie and Stray reached the bottom of the valley, thick with evergreen trees, following a road that was little more than a flattened footpath between boulders. Under a canopy of needles and cones, they reached a low wooden bridge over the Draught River, the narrow, swift stream that ran down from Gryffe and the surrounding ridges. Almost immediately after they had crossed the Draught, the road turned sharply left, following the stream north. The earth became soft and flat, and the road widened almost beyond recognition, as the foothills receded on either side. The valley gradually became a forested vale, bordered on the west side by the Draught River, with a gradual uphill slope as they drew nearer to the Crag Mountains proper.

Edzie and Stray walked steadily, satisfied at the progress on that long day. The dark cloud overhead loosed a smattering of flurries, and with the snowflakes drifting down between the evergreen trees, the woodland took on a furtive, fragile quality, a stillness that seemed to brush Edzie and Stray with its cold fingers as they walked. It was nearly evening, Stray observed… he had hoped they might reach the ruins of Gryffe before that day ended, but he was prepared to make camp regardless.

Stray’s hopes turned out to be reasonable… as the shadows turned magenta and blue in the twilight, he and Edzie came upon a wide clearing in the trees, and on either side, they found rows of wooden markers placed by the pilgrims who had traveled this path. They were made from wooden boards, stakes, and whittled tree-limbs, and they generally consisted of a single vertical stake, one or two meters high, with an “X” near the top, made from two boards fastened together at the center. The figure was sometimes called the Standing Hex, and though the Caesurites themselves made no claim on it, it was commonly associated with their crucial role in the history of the Pastures, and was seen as a fitting tribute to the fallen city of Gryffe. Stray had heard about this grove from the Mistras, and he knew that the ruins themselves weren’t much further along.

The light was almost gone, and Stray and Edzie were comfortably within their window… perhaps even a little ahead of schedule… so they left the path and found a crevice between two boulders. They created a makeshift torch, chased away a family of arborrats, and made camp in the stone shadows, building a small fire and hanging a fly tent from a drooping pitchfir branch. In the dead of night, when the cold became bitter, they used some of Edzie’s twine to expand the fly-tent, and they created a second small campfire inside its confines. The arrangement wouldn’t protect against aggressive bristlebears, but it kept the wind off, and as it grew warm in the firelight, it came to feel like a gathering room in a very small dromo.

Whose twine did Edzie have, Stray wondered? That was from Gransa, Edzie informed him, along with the two rolled blankets that she had used to expand the fly tent. What had she used to catch the shade hare, Stray asked? A deadfall trap she had dug with a small trowel on her last day in the settlement, Edzie answered: she didn’t want to steal away with too much of Elkansa’s winter provisions, so she had made an effort to secure her own.

Did she have anything else useful, Stray asked?

Some fishing gear from Eryff Afekt, Edzie answered, plus her own firestarter set, a map of the Cragstep Road leading into the mountains, a second, smaller map of the approach up Gryffepeak, a small guide to edible plants from Mistra Septa, and some small utensils to prepare them.

“So,” Stray finally ventured, after she had recited this list, “how long have you known I was leaving?”

Edzie shrugged. “Since I caught you and mom talking about it, that one night in the gathering room. You spent a lot of time talking to the Mistras, taking those walks to the bridge. It wasn’t that hard.” She took a sip from her waterskin. “I think I did pretty well keeping my preparations secret… I think only Eryff figured out that I was planning to leave.”

Stray nodded, smiling at his own incompetence. Edzie always said he couldn’t keep secrets. “Who’s this Eryff Afekt?” he asked presently. “I don’t think I’ve met him.”

“One of our transients. Been with us half a decade now, lives by the docks with a woman named Pithri. Quite the galeed.”

“Would I like him?”

“You’d have mixed feelings.”

Stray and Edzie continued in this vein for a bit longer, speaking quietly over scraps of Stray’s rations and foraged root vegetables. They left the fire to burn as they felt their own wakefulness waning, and curled up on the ground, padding it with whatever soft thing they could find. Stray fell asleep almost immediately, his breathing suddenly audible and glacially rhythmic. Edzie, lying on the other side of the fire, kept watch over him for several more minutes, wondering if she could lie closer. She thought, for a brief moment, that the dying fire and the winter air might give her an excuse to curl up against Stray, her adopted brother and illicit companion. When she imagined his waking moments, with the confusion and strained words that would follow, she abandoned the thought and tried to make herself sleep.

 

At some point during the night, the temperature rose a few degrees, and the moisture in the air became a wet mist, freezing as it touched the needles of the evergreen trees. When Edzie and Stray awoke the next morning, their fly tent was damp and growing heavier, barely suspended over their exhausted fire. Striking camp was a disheartening experience, but they were prompt and dutiful about it, returning to the road with the onset of the gray morning.

As they reached the road, which was more of a wide, soft, murky footpath, they peered between the tree trunks to the north. Stray took Edzie by the arm, arresting her momentum, and pointed: there, some hundred meters ahead, they could see another figure, bound up in brown winter attire, trudging through the wet forest.

As they looked on, Stray seemed to twitch, distracted. He whispered, after a moment, “There’s another one behind us, probably back at the Standing Hexes. Walking slowly. Shouldn’t see us for another five or ten minutes.”

Edzie raised an eyebrow, not sure how to react to this news. “Other Prospects?”

Stray nodded. “It’s time for you to head back, Edzie.” He spoke quietly, but insistently. “I was told to take this journey alone. It’s part of the ritual. If they see us walking together, I don’t know how it will be regarded.”

Edzie scoffed, trying to keep quiet, though with resounding contempt. “So they’re not even allowed to see me?”

“I don’t know,” Stray said, “but they’re all walking alone. I think I need to take that cue.” He looked impatient. “Come on, Edzie, you knew we would have to part ways eventually. Step a bit off the road, we can say our farewells, and you can start back to the settlement before you’re so weary you can hardly travel.”

“I’m not going back until I see the temple, or at least the road up the mountain.” She left no room for argument in this declaration. “Tell you what… you go ahead. I’ll wait until you’re almost out of sight, and then walk behind you, and nobody will know we’re associated. They’ll just think I’m another Prospect.”

“How long…”

“Until the foot of the mountain. Once we get there, I’ll turn around.” She grasped Stray’s hand. “Don’t worry about looking back, until we get to Gryffepeak. I’ll be a shadow in your wake. Go on ahead, and think about your initiation.”

Stray conceded to the arrangement, and the two of them resumed their walk. The vale opened up, and the two travelers… Stray walking ahead, his mind on his goal, and Edzie a few minutes later… arrived at the southern edge of the ruins of Gryffe, the town at the base of the mountain that had once been a supply hub for the Crag Mountains and the Envoclajiz Temple.

It had been almost two millennia since the Break War and the invasion that had destroyed Gryffe, so most of the ruins had vanished completely, reclaimed by the landscape. The most obvious sign of a former settlement was the empty, rocky field that interrupted the soft earth of the vale. Stray stepped carefully over stone fragments, mere corners and shards peeking out of the mud, and he tried to identify former structures across the landscape. Only a few outlines of old buildings were visible, rings of sunken stone and sudden deep depressions in the ground. These signs would seem to disappear entirely, and Stray would think he had passed through, when suddenly he would trip over another broken hearth, or see the obvious remnant of a side-street cut across the road in front of him.

There were only three structures left in town that were complete enough to deserve the name. Two were unrecognizable… probably large houses or places of worship… but the third looked like it had been a watchtower, stripped of all features, now the merest calcified framework tottering along a path leading alongside the Cragstep. Stray tested its integrity, and though some stones were loose, it had generally been reduced to its stablest substructure, so he felt safe in scrambling up its exterior wall. On the top, at a height of fifteen meters off the ground, he could see over the sparse woodland, into the mountain peaks that surrounded the ruins. There were vast, white-capped ridges wrapping all the way around the ruins, with only two breaks: a lower, more ragged gap to the southwest, where Edzie and Stray had crossed the foothills… and a visible fold in the mountains to the north, revealing a single, monstrous peak a couple of leagues ahead.

This was most certainly Gryffepeak, the sentinel mountain, and somewhere in its upper reaches, Stray would find the Envoclajiz, his destination.

 

The final stretch of open ground north of the ruins, soggy and gray in the wet midday air, proved to be the first test of Stray’s emotional stamina. After the evidence of habitation finally ceased, the slope of the valley floor turned gradually upward, and for several kilometers, the trees seemed larger, leaving darker pools of shadow over the Cragstep Road’s final stretch. The matted yellow grasses grew thin, and Stray could feel, from the shape and consistency of the earth, that the dirt was shallower in this part of the forest. He marched dutifully on, knowing Edzie was a few hundred paces behind.

Gryffepeak loomed closer with each passing hour, and by early afternoon, its sharp, jagged cliffs obscured Stray’s view. He could pick out a few features now… he couldn’t see the trail itself, but he could trace the thread of level ground that ascended the mountain, frequently disappearing behind some spur or irregularity, eventually vanishing into the higher reaches. At a few breathless moments, Stray looked up between the pitchfir needles and thought he could see the silhouette of the Envoclajiz itself, a geometrical blemish wedged into the mountainside, too small and hazy to discern any particular features.

Closer to the mountain, the trees became more sparse, suddenly having to compete with large rocky outcroppings and boulders split into fragments the size of whole dromos. The trail was no longer soft and earthy… it became a thin layer of mud caked over solid rock, still sloping upward, punishing the soles of Stray’s feet. He occasionally passed another Prospect, huddled up and resting by the side of the Cragstep, massaging her feet or digging through her supplies, and when he could see the road ahead, he always saw three or four others at regular intervals along it. Like Stray, they seemed to be timid and weary, keeping their distance from one another, enduring the climb alone.

Stray realized that he didn’t technically know what constituted the “foot of the mountain,” so he decided he would stop at the last bit of large-scale terrain, so that he and Edzie could confer in private before he started up the long, bare, brutally exposed final stretch of mountain road. In the meantime, he started to see the first signs of the Order’s presence… coming around a boulder, he found the path marked by a primitive sculpture of a human form, waist-high, polished perfectly smooth, with no features or detail. Its legs were joined into a single column, and its arms formed an unbroken circle raised above its head. The flatness of its chest suggested it was a male, but its groin was a triangle, vaguely yonic, leaving its intended gender to the viewer’s imagination.

Peering around a pile of geologic debris, Stray saw, beyond the slightest doubt, that it was time for Edzie to abandon her pursuit. From here, he could see directly up the side of the mountain, and aside from a couple conspicuous wooded depressions, there was no longer any crevice for refuge or commutation. From this point forward, Stray’s solitude had to be genuine, or Edzie would certainly draw suspicion. The androgynous statue seemed to announce it: the partnership had to be severed.

Stray stopped and sat down on the nearest boulder, sorting through his belongings, trying to look inconspicuous. He stole a look back at Edzie… she had stopped, as well, and was stretching near the shadowy pool beneath the nearest tree-line. Both of them lingered there, a mere hundred meters apart, biding their time… four minutes later, another prospect passed them, and then another in their wake. Edzie glanced back, peering through the trees; when she saw that the road was empty behind, and that the most recent traveler was too far ahead to see them, she turned and hastened toward Stray, leading him into the shadows of the stone rubble beside the Cragstep.

Edzie knew why Stray had stopped. She smiled inanely, with all the humor of a wilted flower. “I guess it’s time for me to go,” she said.

“Right,” Stray confirmed. “It’s not much further, and it’s really time I made this journey my own.” He paused a moment, and then offered a hand. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me, Edzie. You’ve been the…”

He hesitated, and Edzie filled in for him. “The worst teacher possible, I know. And the meanest big sister imaginable. It was the least I could do.”

Stray laughed with his eyes, and the warmth seeped out into his words. “Yes, Edzie, and also the best possible friend and mentor and guardian spirit. Too many things to count, really. Now go make a life for yourself, and once I’m settled, I’ll come find you, and we’ll be long-parted siblings, embracing and crying.”

“In the meantime, I forgive you,” Edzie declared, turning her tight smile to a wry smirk. “I forgive you for trying to leave me back there, with the Denorian boggs. My way was fastest. I’m happy.” She hesitated, and then said, “Go on. Vorlis Dissadae bestir roprista (Dissadae is tired of waiting).”

They shared a long embrace, and Stray transferred his remaining rations to Edzie’s pack, trying not to think about her long, lonely walk back to the settlement. Finally, he left the shadow of the boulder and started up the rising slope. His pace slowed immensely, but still, it only took him a few minutes to pass entirely out of sight of the boulders and the statuette. He glanced back, just at that last moment, but Edzie was still out of sight… or she was already gone. He shook his head and forced himself to take his first step up Gryffepeak.

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