A Frozen March Up Cold Mountain
Jolchek, the Sunflower Warrior, was surreptitiously trying but failing to hide a dangerous spate of frostcrotch, which was quickly turning his loins into as barren a wasteland as the one he had found himself surrounded by. The persistent, nagging numb caused by the pale, white fingers of cold guaranteed he would feel no pain there. He was grabbing his unmentionables often and obscenely, needing to be confident they hadn’t fallen off, lost in the countless feet of fallen snow. It was a ritual, and the fact of their remaining existence was a totem he returned to keep himself sane.
“Jolchek,” Lyllia said, stopping and turning her head to face the warrior.
Jolchek did not have the energy to speak. Seeing his face, Lyllia let the conversation drop where it never began and continued on.
The best the group had for a tracker was the thief Lyllia Shadowfeet, who was more listless than alert, but was nevertheless the only one to take the initiative in navigating an impossible terrain of a blank, shapeless, formless whiteness in every direction. In her previous life, as in, her life before embarking on this journey, she was known for a taste of ribald jokes and gallows humor. The most she could muster these days was to play with the compass she brought along. After the first few weeks, or possibly months, the compass functioned as it should. However, ever since surviving a routine snowstorm, the compass would end up spinning its metal arrowpoint one direction as though in a race, before stopping and starting to spin again the opposite direction, slowly. When the others slept, and it was her turn to keep watch, she would often stare into the compass and chortle.
“Lyllia,” said Jolchek, sitting down on a charred stump, slicked with ice.
“What is it?” Lyllia asked.
Jolchek cleared his throat as if he was going to talk. After a long, uneventful silence, Lyllia took out her compass. Jolchek grabbed his genitals and went to finish making camp.
The inebriated wizard, Crustbeard, had taken to flagging behind them both when travelling, having long lost the little will and enthusiasm needed to stay in the lead. His staff was so wracked by death-chilled air that it was as smooth as bone and twice as brittle. His last drink had been the single drop of Distilled Dragon Pissbrew, which he had been coveting for a dark time. That dark time had come when he was forced at wand-point by the highest of his order to join the warrior and thief on their doom march through Cold Mountain. The potency of that one drop had lasted and was still lasting the entire length of the journey. He had yet to show any signs of sobriety, except for rare moments of lucidity during which he would seem to dispense great wisdom. Yet, it was impossible to truly say, given the slurridity of his speech. Even more so any of his spoken-word spells, which were useless except for the hilarity of hearing him try to perform them.
All that lived on the mountain were either sickly, long dead, or a trick of the mind. Jolchek was positive he had seen a rabbit and spent weeks creating a trap to catch it, but no rabbit turned up. Though the lands were noticeably absent of most food, there were many spots of frozen-over lakes, and it wasn’t dark. The light never changed from an opaque noon sun.
Most of the group seemed to believe they were being followed, or at least watched. Whenever their journey needed a stop, for rest or food, they would hear a crying woman. Lyllia swore on her life she was not making the sound. And after hearing the crying for long enough, and on enough nights, it was easy to tell it was not her.
The sound was unsettling not because they only heard it when they made camp, but because although sounding very human, it just wasn’t close enough to fool them. There was something off about it. It was more practiced, perfectly repeating each time. The ability to sustain a noise for hours over the span of many nights was preposterous. The group could barely manage a whisper most days.
“Do you have my beef sack?” asked Jolchek.
Lyllia looked up at him. He was rummaging madly through a bundle of clothes. “Me?” she asked.
“Crustbeard,” said Jolchek. The wizard perked a head up at the sound of his name.
“Where’s my beef sack you old fool!?” said Jolchek, running over to the wizard, and grabbing him by his tattered robes.
“Eh? Wot?” said Crustbeard.
“Where’s my dragon-loving beef sack? You had it last, wand-arse!” yelled Jolchek.
“Yer no wot’s got see gonna havin’ here when’s gotta done!” Crustbeard yelled back. Jolchek’s fists tightened around the edges of robe, his face turning a slightly darker shade of pale white, indicating anger. Realizing he was not going to get an answer from a drunken slop-wit, he dropped Crustbeard back down.
As Jolchek walked away, Crustbeard reached down to his own bags and took out the beef sack. Any evidence of beef was long gone. Instead, there were a few of Crustbeard’s own fingers, bitten off by the maw of Cold Mountain. They clanked together in the bag like icicles. He rubbed a few of his good fingers over his finger-stumps and grimaced.
As the months went on, the weather seemed to be getting warmer or colder, depending on who was asked and when. Though these differences of opinion were likely not because of weather changes but just a further and further deepening well of delirium.
One of the warrior’s toes broke off during the night. He didn’t find out until it slipped loose from a hole in his boot as he was chasing down an emaciated buck. He picked up the involuntarily dislodged piece of himself, not really comprehending what he was holding, and pitched it away into a snow-capped gathering of stones.
He returned to camp, buckless. The others listened inattentively as he complained aloud. He kicked a deadened tree in frustration, and walked away. He was too angered to hear the sounds of rattling icicles from inside his boot.