Wind broke across the ice in violent gusts, tearing at Noel’s cloak, howling through him, threatening to blow him right off the mountain as it sent tiny frozen crystals ripping at the flesh on his face. The air was thin and wet, and with every breath his lungs burned, seizing up with a cold unlike any he had ever felt before. What the hell am I doing here, he wondered as he knelt down behind an outcropping of rock to shield himself from the blasting air and threw open his pack. He pulled out the thickest shirt he had with him, a shirt which reeked of smoked wallaby dung and weeks old sweat, and tied it around his head like a keffiyeh to protect his face and hopefully keep some of the warmth inside him as he breathed deep, filling his lungs. He tugged an odd pair of socks, caked with dirt, onto his hands, though his fingers were already numb and he doubted they would do him much good in such harsh conditions. At least his cloak did its job as long, as he could keep the wind at his back, he thought, adding in a mutter, “But I’d better find the way in fast, or I’m going to die of hypothermia and become part of this place too. Aw, Taree would be so proud.” As he stood, he was laughing at what he imagined his old shaman friend would say at finding him there, of all places, but as soon as the wind caught hold of him, he decided it would be best to continue on in seriousness, given the state of things.
Trudging over the glacial mass in the darkness, he had only the light of the stars to see by as he made his slow way down and across the peak, hoping to find some sign of human life, a light to guide him, a sign pointing the way, but with every careful step there was nothing to be seen but meters thick ice and blowing snow, rock and the occasional cloud that rolled over him, leaving him wet as it blinded him to his surroundings, more than once forcing him to seek shelter. Somehow he doubted anyone who might live in such a forbidding place had bothered to lay out a welcome mat. These people were isolated from the reach of the rest of the world, a damning cold their guardian and gatekeeper, if they even existed anymore, he thought, reason battling against the feeling in his gut that kept him moving forward in spite of himself and the icy fury all around him. Assuming what he had experienced little more than a week ago was real, even if the ones who listened to Fate had once lived here, for all he knew he was searching for the entrance to their tomb buried under thousands of years of ice, instead of some paradise lost, he thought as he lowered himself carefully down into a fairly deep crevice, hoping to find the entrance hidden in its depths, but at the bottom, the rock faces came together in a steep point, and he took the opportunity to lean against the wall for a rest. The prophecy in the Book of Ages had been given to his forefathers almost a thousand years before the Fall, and by the time Eurial’s great grandson got around to recording it in his book in the aftermath, any elf who might have known who A.D. was and what the prophecy truly meant had been slaughtered. Noel’s throat tightened at the thought of millions of his own people cut down, their lives savagely ended. For want of power that never came? Revenge? All of the five races had suffered under Fate’s curse ever since, so surely the people who called this mountain home had suffered as well, otherwise why wouldn’t they have made themselves known to the rest of the world in all that time, unless they had something to hide under all that ice and rock?
As if in answer, a heavy cloud passed overhead, blanketing the world in darkness, and Noel heard the wind pick up, whistling angrily over the opening of his crevice as sleet began skittering across the rock and hardened frost. He might have stayed there where he was relatively safe from the elements, but the mountain gave a menacing groan around him and to his imagination the sleet began to sound a lot like rock sliding against rock somewhere beneath him. Fearing the mountain was preparing to snap its jaws shut, Noel darted up into the sky, expecting to fly up above the level of the clouds. Instead he was met with a great blast of wind that sent him tumbling blindly. As he fought the currents, viciously whipping him around on himself, he feared he would wind up broken against a wall of stone at any moment, but after several seconds, the turbulence subsided and he landed gracelessly, splayed out on his belly like a child, hugging the ground tight as his cloak was pelted with ice.
Noel rolled over onto his back, his cloak crunching with the ice that had already frozen to it, and gave several grievous sighs before getting to his feet, pulling his makeshift keffiyeh up over his face. He was shuddering to the core as he looked around him. He had been blown off course, not too far, he was sure, but far enough that he could no longer see his own tracks in the snow where he began his descent from the height of the peak, and there was no sign of the crack in the mountain that had threatened to eat him, but he believed it was somewhere not far above him. Nothing looked familiar, so shaking his head, gritting his teeth stubbornly, he began to climb, hoping to quickly find his way back to where he had left off, before the next cloud rolled through.
Noel was not the sort to willingly admit defeat, in fact, he was exactly the sort to refuse to let a bit of inclement weather force him to give in so easily, at least not until he had covered the whole of the summit, but by now his strength was fading fast as he struggled against the wind and the cold, pulling his cloak as tightly around him as he could, turning his body and keeping his head low so his hood blocked the worst of the brutal winds. The truth was, he knew he wouldn’t be able to continue much longer, so to motivate himself to continue ahead anyway, he was just considering, with the sort of sarcastic air he was prone to, why he shouldn’t just go on home now, come back another time, bring Phileas and Paul with him to help, maybe in the summer, when the freezing temperatures at the top of the mountain would be more bearable, especially with the appropriate gear, when the valley below promised plenty to keep them occupied while they weren’t busy searching for a lost civilization, but as he laughed at his own idiocy, mostly for coming there without even considering the climate, he took a careless step up into what looked like an ordinary snow bank piled against the face of a rock that seemed easy enough to scale, its surface being marked with several fractures he thought he could use as grips. The frozen layer shifted beneath him, as if in mocking, and fell away. His left foot slipped right through the ice and snow, as his right leg twisted and crashed against the rock sending him sliding into the hole with both feet, and before he could even work out what had happened, he found himself clinging to a ledge by sock-covered hands, his painful, bloody chin providing a tiny bit of extra grasp on the mountain, which he was certain by now was desperately trying to kill him. Unable to feel any earth under his feet or anywhere around him with the exception of the bit he clung to for dear life, his right leg throbbing, Noel stared up at six feet of snow above him glowing blue and twinkling in the starlight, his face pressed into the frozen underside of the exposed stone where he had managed to catch a grip purely by chance. Just above the line of the snow, from the angle he was forced to look by his present circumstances, he could clearly make out a hidden cleft between the glacier and the rock beneath it, where the darkness beyond seemed to go on forever. He knew he would never have found the cave behind the ice face, never in a million years of searching that place, but there it was, perhaps fifteen meters away, and miles out of his reach as he dangled there precariously, wondering what he should do, what he could do, as he felt himself quickly losing his hold.
He didn’t know how bad his leg was, but he could tell he was bleeding because he could feel the warmth oozing out of him. He couldn’t muster the strength to fly now, even if he might have been able to ignore the pain long enough to take off and managed to maintain control in the deadly winds. “So this is it,” he growled against the mountain. “You’ve already raised a bloody glass to me.” And with that, he did something he had never done before. He let go, imagining tumbling down the slope below, leaving parts of himself splattered against the gargantuan beast, a trail of carrion for the vultures to feast upon the next day. For some reason, as he was falling through the air watching his ruddy socks still hanging above him, stuck to the frozen earth, probably destined to remain there for the rest of time, Noel thought of his father, whom he hadn’t thought about in years, not since the two of them had properly agreed they would never see eye to eye about anything except never seeing eye to eye. In that moment, in preparing to meet death head on, most people would have searched their souls for some measure of forgiveness, made their peace with this earth and those they left behind, but all Noel could think was how pleased his father would be to know he had always been right about him, and the thought of his smug, bitter grin upon learning the details of his foolish son’s death was enough to snap him out of his temporary willingness to accept whatever Fate and that mountain had in store for him.
He cried out in agony as his body crumpled against the solid ice below and he use every bit of strength he had left to force himself still, his words ringing out and echoing back at him as his body scraped across the frozen ground, “Not yet!”