The arrow flew wide and the goat skittered, darting away from the clattering sounds of the arrow shattering against the mountainside.
“Shit,” Chester cursed as he watched his prey bounce away from him. That was the third goat he’d missed today – and he couldn’t return home for another night without one. His drunkard father would beat him bloody if he did and worse, his mother would go out a proper meal for another night.
Further up, then. He’d never been this far up the mountain, but he saw no other choice. He stowed his bow on his back and climbed higher still. It was fast approaching twilight and a path without sure footing would be dangerous in the dark, but the thoughts of his mother and his own rumbling stomach pushed him onward… and upward… As he climbed, he trees grew more sparse, replaced with short stubby bushes that grew out of the cracks from between the boulders that little the side. The wind grew only more biting and Chester hugged his cloak tighter to protect himself from the cold.
Movement! To the left! He dropped to a crouch and retrieved his bow. He nocked an arrow, gently fingering the fletching at its end, checking that his next shot would fly true. It was the goat again, but it was already looking dead at him… Chester drew back the string as gently as he could, but even that was enough to send the goat bounding towards a steep mountain path between a cliff-face and the open sky. He risked keeping the bow out this time – it cost him his hands which were useful when climbing, but with any luck, the goat was right around the corner. The path should make it a relatively clean shot. He snuck around the corner and, sure enough, the path was long and straight… He could see the goat bounding up it. He drew back the bowstring, lined up his shot… and then noticed the cliff face.
It was carved – the rough stone had been hewn and polished into shapes and patterns and designs. There was no color, but the image was perfect in its depiction that it was difficult to believe its patterns were once something as lifeless as a stone. The image showed a staircase – raising at the same rate as the slope of the path – climbing towards a radiating sun. On the stairs, near the bottom, was a dog; but the next figure was slightly less dog and slightly more human; the next one, even more so; the next, even more; until after about six or so figures, it was a perfectly human girl. Her features were perfectly and subtly carved that she could have been a real girl forced into the rock… Her features were gentle and delicate, her hair blew in an imaginary wind – Chester could pick out individual strands across her face – and her hand reached towards the impossibly radiant sun that crowned the stairs…
It was possibly the most beautiful thing that Chester had ever seen.
A clack of hooves suddenly reminded him of why he was here and quickly realigned himself and fired. He was distracted though, by the cliff-face, by the beauty of the stone girl and his arrow sailed way over his target, striking nothing. The goat darted again.
“No!” cried Chester and he increased his pace up the slope. The goat turned the corner, out of Chester’s sight. Then, there was a rush of noise and the mad bleating of the goat as if he was caught in a trap. Chester increased his pace again, turning the corner… then came face-to-face with an enormous man – at least a foot taller than him in height, bare and barrel-chested, with dark skin covered in tattooed spirals and curves and holy symbols – grasping his quarry tightly in his grip as the goat flailed madly trying to escape the stranger’s iron grip.
Chester tried to cry out in shock, but no sound emerged from his throat. The mountain stranger made an odd face, then twisted his arms around, grabbed the goat by the neck and twisted it around hard. There was a sickening crack and the goat instantly fell still.
The stranger looked up at Chester. Despite his fearsome appearance, there were kind eyes under the complex, circular tattoo in the center of his forehead. “This is yours, I assume,” he said, his voice was deep and stern, but not commanding.
“Um…” Chester managed.
“Oh, it’s alright,” said the man. “I have another. You can have this one.” He offered the goat to him. Chester put away his bow and accepted the gift, slinging it over his shoulder. The stranger smiled at him kindly. “Well then,” the man continued. “Enjoy the meal.” He turned away and began to retreat back up the mountain.
“Wait,” said Chester, stepping up after him. “You live up here?”
“I am the Brother of the Mountain,” the man said matter-of-factly. “This is where I belong.”
“Well, thank you. For the goat, I mean.”
“You are most welcome,” said the Brother. “Do you know how to skin it?”
“Not really, but my dad can do it tomorrow.”
“I can show you, if you’d like. I have the right tools right up here.”
Well, it wasn’t the greatest decision… but the Brother seemed friendly enough and curiosity got the better of him. Chester nodded in approval and increased his pace to match the much bigger man’s. As they walked, Chester awkwardly introduced himself as he noticed more and more of the stone art – not as large as the mural that he first saw, but no less beautiful. They were all different – some were carved into the boulders, some into cliff faces – and many of them featured that same girl from before. So intricate and beautiful were the carvings that he could recognize her even when her hair or clothes were different from before.
“You’ll have to forgive me if I am not the greatest of teachers. I have done it once before, a long time ago, but it did not go particularly well,” said the Brother simply as he approached a simple campfire, next to a domed stone structure that he was clearly sleeping in. Clothes were hanging over nearby rocks to dry and a small waterfall trickled over a cliff a few feet away into a small mountain pool. A small bird, a falcon maybe, sat atop a small stone pillar near the campfire – that pillar was carved too into beautiful spirals that spanned its length.
The bird squawked loudly as Chester approached. “Oh, and you’ll have to excuse Eos,” said the Brother. “He’s not used to visitors.”
“Yeah, I can kinda see why,” said Chester. The Brother smiled gently in response.
He approached a flat stone surface – this too had been made flatter than nature intended and picked up a carving knife that lay flat on it. Chester took the hint and laid the goat down on the makeshift table. The Brother then went about explaining the various details – it was true, he wasn’t a very good teacher. His voice was too monotone and Chester kept zoning out and glancing around at the various carvings. Still, the Brother was patient and observant – whenever Chester got distracted, he simply waited until his attention was back with him and then continued. After he finished, the mountain man picked up the goat and handed it back to Chester with a smile. “I trust you can find your way back down the mountain?”
Chester cursed again; he’s taken way too long up here – it was already dusk. The path would be dark by the time he was even halfway down the mountain and he’d brought no torches to light his path. He looked around for a branch to start crafting a torch out of. “Any chance I can borrow some of your fire to light my way down?”
The Brother nodded with understanding. “No need. Eos will guide you down.” He gestured to his bird, who quickly fluttered to his arm. “Eos. Light.” The bird closed its eyes, then burst into light – not flames, just a solid white glow that radiated from every one of his feathers and bathed the two of them in its radiance. “He will see you safely home.”
Chester nodded his thanks though his amazement. He started down the mountain, but he turned again to speak one last time to Brother. “Can I come and see you again?”
The Brother nodded. “Though, I cannot guarantee I will be here. I feel it may be time to finally move on from this place. You are welcome to use this place though. I do not intend to remove it.”
Chester couldn’t help but smile. A simple base camp when hunting… A place to get away from his father… It was practically a slice of heaven in the middle of the mountain. “Thank you… But, can I ask… who’s the girl?”
Bathed in the simple white light of the luminous bird, Chester watched the Brother’s face fall – the genial amusement fell from his face, replaced by a stern, disciplined mask. “She is nobody, and yet she is all that matters,” he answered.
“I don’t get it. Is it someone you loved?”
“She is someone I failed;” he said, his voice hard, yet filled with emotion. “And, in my hubris, I believed that if I carved enough monuments to her memory, that it would absolve me of those failures. They do not, so I will try another way…”
“What was her name?”
The Brother closed his eyes. Shame washed over his face. “I don’t know.” He turned away and walked towards his stone hut – ducking to get in through the door. “Goodnight, Chester. Be well.”
Chester nodded again, adjusted his freshly-skinned goat, and started down the path, drinking in the stunning stonework – somehow even more detailed now in the light of Eos, like the stone had adopted the texture of real skin and hair and fabric. He promised himself that he would make the trek up here again in the next couple of days – if only to refresh his memory of the place. He ran his hands over the cold stone – wondering and wishing that others had witnessed the magical art of this strange mountain man – and hoping that he would get to see him again some day soon.
A long way away, two monastic students swept the long, darkening hallway. All along the walls, leading to the main cloister were decorated with long bass reliefs, carved into the simple stone. Each of them depicted photo-realistic men and women waiting to reach the main part of the church – they started simplistic, but got increasingly ornate as they got closer and closer. By the end, the figures were dressed as fully-fledged members of the Imperial Court, complete with flowing robes and golden artifacts, bathing in the light of righteousness.
“Who made these anyway?” asked one of the students.
“Not sure. Master Tide refuses to speak of him,” replied the other. “I think he’s some kind of traitor, but the monks decided the art was too nice to get rid of.”
“If he’s a traitor, then we should get rid of them.”
“Take it up with Tide then. Don’t complain about it to me.”
Suddenly, there was a bright, blinding flash of light accompanied by a deafening boom – both students yelled out in shock and pain as the sudden searing radiance unexpectedly burned their eyes. Their brooms clattered to the floor – the noise echoing around the dank stone chamber. As their eyes began to readjust and come back into focus, they noticed a new arrival among them – a woman, garbed in a nun’s habit, but reinforced with armor and carrying a sinister shield.
The newcomer was just as flustered as them – she held her head briefly, shaking the white noise out of her eyes, then she looked up with menace in her gaze. She glanced around at the carvings in the walls – then, at them, the menace quickly turning to hatred.
“Where am I? Where are the others?” she said, her voice icy.
The servants stuttered as fear took them over. “Outer hall… Frostfield monastery…”
“Bastards!” cried the woman. She swung her arm wide and with great force – a blade sprung into existence in between her fingers and, by the end of the swing, the sword had carved a large swath into the wall carving, decapitating three stone monks and causing a hideous screech that sounded like the images had come to life simply to die in agony. “They stole it!”
The servants stepped back quickly, nearly tripping over their robes. At the ends of the hallway, others had come to investigate the ruckus and were stepping through the door to see. Monks, brothers, orphans, even a couple of the town guards were now witnesses to the woman, whose anger seemed to rise off of her in thin wisps of black smoke.
The woman eyed all of them of the newcomer with that menacing glare. A guard stepped forward, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Ma’am, put the sword down.”
She looked at him – he hesitated for a moment… The black smoke thickened, rising from her skin as her eyes filled with blood, turning the whites there to a sinister crimson. She smiled slightly. “Oh, it’s been too long…”
The guard drew his weapon and tried to shout a response, but the walls, the floor, even the ceiling, exploded outwards – filling the room with swirling patterns of red. Razor sharp daggers of bones coalesced out of nowhere and joined the rapidly increasing maelstrom before the guard was overwhelmed by the instant, macabre storm. The bones tore at his meagre armor, the patterns of red dragged the skin from his bones and within seconds, his entire person was gone replaced by human debris that added to the twisted whirlwinds.
The woman brandished her blade and smiled wider as the storm grew and grew, swirling around her. Everyone was screaming, stampeding out the hallway, while the stone monks looked on emotionlessly. The flying debris scratched and chipped away at the relief work, adding pebbles and shards into the ever-growing whirlwind… and the woman ran at the cowards that fled from her – dragging her blade against the frozen images of the wall, and bringing it down hard on the living souls they were supposed to mirror – and reducing both to nothing.