Johann had paid a demon guide to take them to the graveyard from the docks. Apparently, due to Hell’s bizarre geography, they were going to have to somehow cross a mountain range to get to Duke Janson’s fortress, where Albert Janson’s body was interred in the vault. Johann spent a very angry night in an inn near the mountains, because the demon, Rustyn, wouldn’t let them attempt a crossing until the morning. They entered the Border Mountains early in the morning, with Rustyn in lead, then Johann, Deirdre, Sylvia, Alice, and finally Wilhelm.
The mountains were odd. No one had to wear warm clothing because the mountains actually got hotter as they went up, but they had to wear heavy-duty boots because the ground was made of sharp black rocks that were vaguely like obsidian but much denser and more opaque. They seemed to go on forever, but Rustyn insisted that they actually bled into a rainforest at some point, which was equally unpleasant to go through. Having walked even part of the way through the mountains, Johann doubted that such a thing was possible.
Fortunately, Rustyn knew the terrain quite well, because he’d evidently been there several times. He knew where the avalanche hazard areas were, so Johann followed him for the most part without question. Sylvia had made disapproving noises at several points, but that didn’t really mean much, because she disagreed with most things that didn’t have opium in them. Either way, Rustyn led his charges along the narrow mountain passes for most of the morning, never once stopping or even pausing for a moment. This was necessary, Rustyn claimed, to reach the fortress before the demon who lived in these mountains, Stolas, discovered that they were in his territory.
By noon, Johann was drawing on his last reserves of strength, because he had been clambering over hot, sharp rocks for the past five hours, and his limbs were beginning to feel like dead weights that had been tied to their bodies.
“Can we stop?” Wilhelm whined.
“No,” Rustyn said.
Johann wanted to throw back his head and groan, because he was also exhausted, not that he would ever admit it.
He was quiet for some time after that, staring angrily at Rustyn. The group crested a hill and were met with an amazing view of the surrounding area. Black tipped mountains surrounded them on all sides, as if to flaunt the full majesty and terrifying power of nature. The valleys were bluish in color and so far-off that they seemed wholly another world. Far in the distance, at the top of a mountain, a huge black observatory rose into the sky. That was probably Stolas’ tower, and possibly his place of command.
“Please tell me we’re almost there,” Wilhelm said.
Rustyn glared at him. “Not even close.”
“Well, can we still stop now?”
Rustyn turned around. “Look, do you want to get caught by Stolas in this hellscape? Because I certainly don’t. So get moving.”
Johann was ready to kick him in the crotch, but he stayed silent, because he would rather walk the whole of the mountains again then admit that this demon might not have been the best choice.
They resumed traveling, but hadn’t been walking for more than twenty minutes when Sylvia suddenly stopped. “Hold on just a second. Where’s Wilhelm?”
Johann swung around and was about to give Sylvia a piece of his mind for making excuses for Wilhelm’s whiny little ass, when he realized Wilhelm actually was gone. Johann scanned the area. Heat rose off the ground in waves and made everything shimmer. “I noticed he was lagging behind, but didn’t really think much of it.”
Sylvia looked around. “Well, where the hell is he?”
As abruptly as he had disappeared, Wilhelm’s slim form appeared from behind a rock. He had an absent look about him, and was moving so slowly, Johann wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d collapsed right then and there.
“Are you alright?” Johann asked. It was a rhetorical question, really. He could tell pretty well when someone was sick.
“No,” Wilhelm said. “My head hurts, and my nose is bleeding, and I’m more tired than I’ve ever been before. Can we stop?”
Rustyn was about to open his mouth, probably to say no, but Johann shot him a venomous look.
He backed down immediately. “We have been going for a while. Probably be good to get a few hours of rest.” He waved his arm to follow him “C’mon, there’s a cave a few minutes from here we can rest in.”
Sylvia nodded in his direction. “I think the altitude is starting to get to wilhelm.”
They stumbled up the mountain a few paces, then came to Rustyn’s promised cave. Johann practically fell into the small cavern, pressing his tired, hot body against the cool sandy floor.
Deirdre leaned down to speak in Johann’s ear. “Rustyn has a map.”
Johann groaned and crawled over to where the others sat in a circle. Wilhelm, Rustyn, and Deirdre leaned over an extremely confusing and disorganized map of Hell.
“Listen,” Deirdre said, “if we were to go this way,” she indicated a spot with her finger and traced a line, “We would all be dead in seconds. I’m telling you, the Pass of Eagle is the way to go.”
Rustyn shook his head, his puffy brown hair flopping back and forth. “No, there’s going to be a storm, and a big one at that. The entire Pass of Eagle will be blocked for days.”
“How can you possibly know that?” Johann asked.
Rustyn glared at him. He had the appearance of a rugged man in his thirties, with a goatee that made him look cartoonishly evil. “Do you want to stay around here when it’s raining ash and hellfire?”
“But how do you know-”
“Because Stolas’ weather predictions about his mountains are always on point, and I was issued a pamphlet a few days ago warning that there would be a storm. Is that good enough justification for you?”
Johann shrugged. “What about Emperor’s Pass, here, in the opposite direction? It won’t be blocked, will it?”
Rustyn shook his head. “Emperor’s Pass is a bad idea.”
“Why do you have to question every goddamn thing that comes out of my mouth?”
Johann shrugged. “I’m paying you, remember?”
“Well, shut up so that I can do my job.”
Deirdre pointed to the map. “Look, this leaves Wolf Icefall.”
Sylvia, who had been helping Wilhelm stop his nosebleed, dragged herself across the cavern on her stomach. “Alright, so, I only heard that last comment. What’s so bad about Wolf Icefall? Sounds alright to me.” Sylvia brushed some dust off the map. “Where are we?”
“At a rough guess we’re here,” said Rustyn, pointing to a spot on the map that wasn’t too far away from any of the three routes they’d been discussing. “Wolf Icefall is one of the most dangerous places around here.”
“Why is it called that if there’s no ice?” Sylvia asked.
“Molten rock acts the same way ice and snow does,” said Rustyn.
“Holy Hell,” Sylvia said.
“I know my way around Wolf Icefall.” Rustyn pointed to it on the map so that any of them who had forgotten where it was in the five seconds that they hadn’t been looking right at it would now be reminded. “It’s a bit hard to get to. You can either do what’s basically skiing on molten rock, or climb down a treacherous rock wall. Once you’re actually in the Icefall, there’s huge mounds of crystal and rock that you have to climb around. I think that if we make something a bit like mountain climbing shoes, with grips on the bottom, we should be able to make better time climbing over the rocks.”
“And, how do you know all this?” Johann asked. He’d been led astray by guides who only knew the land hypothetically before.
“I’ve done this route before, idiot,” said Rustyn.
Wilhelm, who had been laying down, stood up, stretched, and sat back down. “When are we doing all this?”
“After we rest,” Johann said immediately. He wasn’t going another centimeter without at least twenty more minutes of inactivity.
“We have to pass the time,” Sylvia said. “Someone start singing.”
“Can anyone here sing?” asked Johann.
“I can,” said Deirdre.
He hadn’t known that about her. “Are you comfortable singing for us?”
“I guess I can try. I only know medieval songs, though.”
“I can play the pipe,” Wilhelm said. “I know lots of tunes.”
“I’ll sing, then,” said Deirdre. “Do you know that old lullaby that was probably about Rome or something?”
“I think I do.”
“That’s what I’ll sing. Are you ready?”
Wilhelm took out a bone pipe. “I’m ready.”
He started up a slow, haunting tune that echoed off the walls of the cave and seemed to fill up the whole world. The music was beautiful enough, but Johann was shocked by Deirdre’s voice when she opened her mouth to sing.
My ship’s a-coming in after all the months
sailing the sea
No matter how far I go, there’s always the castle
waiting for me.
The Red City’s on the horizon, I see it
in the dying light.
The Red City’s there,
they’re losing the fight.
Cursed be thee, Red City’s Bane,
Bred in a place where things have no name.
Lay down your head, Beloved, you’re safe under lock and key,
Fall asleep to the song of the sea
She was far, far better than anyone he’d ever heard before. Her voice was incredible, unearthly, even. Johann listened in a happy stupor from the music and the atmosphere and the good company as Deirdre sang the song twice more, and Wilhelm played along in the background, before they both slowly fell silent. Johann didn’t want to speak for a moment afterwards, wanting to preserve the magic of the moment, but at last he did.
“You’re incredible,” he said. “Both of you! Why are you trying to be a doctor, Wilhelm, when you should be a musician?”
Deirdre had flushed red, but there was a tentative smile on her face.
“Thank you,” Wilhelm said. “I suppose being a doctor is knowledge I want, and it’s harder than being a musician. Nothing can ever be difficult about being a musician, but being a doctor, now…”
This was an odd burst of arrogance from the usually normal and humble Wilhelm. Johann gave him a look that was meant to scrutinize him, but probably just looked like he had indigestion.
“You should sing something else,” Sylvia said. “Or play another song.”
“I want to get moving again,” said Johann. His muscles were rested for the most part and he was ready to go.
Sylvia laid back with her backpack for a pillow. “You do that.”
“We should stay here, actually,” said Rustyn.
“I’m not going to,” Johann said.
Rustyn looked down at his grubby nails. “Then you can go out and scout.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Have fun,” said Wilhelm.
Johann glared at him, but did step out of the cave into the open. He immediately remembered how hot it was, and regretted being alive. However, he was going to keep moving, because going back in would include admitting he was wrong, and Johann would never admit that he was wrong.
The first order of business was actually getting down into the Icefall, and Johann would apparently need skis to do that. Rustyn had said that there were two ways to get it, but Sylvia was the only one who could reliably climb a wall of sharp rocks down into the valley.
Rustyn wouldn’t be dumb enough to suggest skis and not have any, would he? Johann poked around the rocks, moving some of them and feeling under others, looking for skis. He found none.
“Well, skis would have been useful,” Johann said. He wished he had some.
Suddenly, a pair of planks with leather straps on them were lying on the ground in front of him, next to two wooden poles. What was this? Where had these skis come from? Johann wracked his brain for an answer, and soon came up with the fact that, since he had sold his soul, he might be allowed to have whatever he wanted in Hell.
“I wish I had Albert Janson’s body,” said Johann.
Predictably, that didn’t work.
Johann sighed and slung the skis over his shoulder. He had a pretty good idea of where Wolf Icefall was, judging from the look he’d had at the map, and thought that he could be there within an hour. Walking was monotonous, so Johann defaulted to going through his inventory of supplies back at the house. He would need to buy more purgatives soon.
As soon as he came to the edge of the Icefall, Johann unslung his skis and strapped them to his boots. He leaned down to feel the ground that he was going to be on, but found that it was almost too hot to bear as soon as he had his hand a foot away. Johann felt a twinge of annoyance as he brought his hand back up.
Either way, it was malleable enough that he would be able to ski down it, or so Rustyn said. Johann knew how to ski well, since he’d vacationed in the alps many times during his childhood. The slope was steep, and he would have to make wide turns to keep in control. Mercifully, there were no bumps, which would have been a problem not only because they were hard to ski, but also because they would probably be spitting molten rock.
Johann grabbed his poles and shuffled forward. He looked down into the slope, and, after a moment’s inspection, let his skis dive into the Icefall.
He didn’t make a sound as he slid through the rock. He stuck his poles in the ground every time he turned, which pierced the film over the molten rock and made magma bubble up where he’d been. Avoiding the “wedge” shape that would be deadly on this steep of a slope, Johann skidded smoothly down the mountain, at last coming to the bottom of the dreaded entrance to the Icefall.
He unstrapped the skis from his feet and slid them under a rock. It would really be a nice place if there was any vegetation. Johann took a moment to try to imagine the valley as it would have looked if it was on Earth, and has all the greenery that entailed.
Johann caught himself in a daze of imagination, which he shook off. Too much time devoted to only imagination was dangerous, he thought. Everything in moderation.
Johann could not forget where this hole was, because if he did, he would be stranded at the bottom of an Icefall all alone. So, he took off one of his socks and tied it around the rock. He pulled on it once or twice to make sure the knot was tight, then walked through the narrow entrance to Wolf Icefall and ran his hand along the smooth wall. It was so different from the rest of this godforsaken place.
Suddenly, he had a funny feeling that something was in the process of going horribly wrong, and that he would pay for his unseen stupidity. Johann smiled at the bizarre urge, and kept walking.
Johann remembered the last time he’d ignored a feeling like this, and how it had led to the wagon crash. Maybe he should start listening to his feelings more. Reluctantly, he turned around and saw that the sock he’d tied around the rock was gone.
Oh no. Johann ran back and skidded to a halt right in front of the rock. He suddenly realized that the ground under the rock where he’d hid his skis was molten and bubbling, which meant that the skis had been eaten and burned.
“Goddamn it!” Johann threw his hands up in the air. “Someone come help me!”
Unfortunately, his friends were all cozy in a sandy little cave kilometers away. He screamed until his voice was hoarse all the same, until all the hiking caught up with him, and Johann’s eyelids began to droop. Before long, he had dragged himself to a spot somewhat out of the way, underneath a rocky overhang, and fallen into a deep sleep.
Fun fact: Rustyn is lifted from the same story from when I was eleven that I talked about in my last post. He was supposed to be the stock ‘cool guy rebel who doesn’t listen to anyone, plays by his own rules, and is the absolute best at everything’ character. The only problem is, in the original story, he was eleven years old and still acting in the same way you might expect a Mary Sue straight white cis male wish-fulfillment character from a bad action movie might.
This is a prime example of why reading my old writing is such an experience. Anyway, thank you for reading!