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Part one is here. The beginning of this was very fun to write, and the end was... well, fun in its own way. I don't know if I can do Virgil's story justice; I didn't think it was fair to show it all through Tessa's eyes. But this will have to do.

The mountains had stopped looming over them; once you were on the thing, it tended to be less intimidating, in the sheer visual sense. It was easy to forget, in the beginning, that they were climbing; their muscles reminded them, and the shortness of breath, occasionally. It was strange; looking forward, the ground rose but gently; looking back, there were only trees.

"We're getting close, you know."

He didn't look up from the small campfire. "Of course I know," he replied, his voice taut. "I'm hardly in a position to forget."

Tessa shrugged, a bit annoyed. "I mention it because if the idea is to sneak you through, it might be a good plan to come up with some way to, you know, actually accomplish that."

The fire crackled into the silence for a long while; somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled into the empty night; the echoes bounded off, around the cliffs. Virgil ground his teeth and was silent a long while before he spoke again. "Aside from slitting my throat and hauling my carcass down the other end - not recommended for either of our sakes - I highly doubt there is any way you are going to get me through this pass without the guardian's knowledge."

She bit her tongue, stifling her first response. After a moment, she said, very carefully, "This might have been a good thing to mention before we left town."

Virgil looked up from the fire. "I told you there was a guardian on the pass, and that he would not be entirely pleased to see me. I did not ask you to hide me, or sneak me past him. I didn't hire you to save me from Leore. I hired you to get me through the mountains. So far, so good; I'd like to keep it that way. Your best bet is to forget I ever said anything about the guardian of Leore - after all, my purpose in bringing him up was merely to steer you towards any other route in existence." He stared moodily into the fire for a moment before adding, "Of which, apparently, there are none."

"Whatever you say." Tessa stood abruptly, and set about securing the fire. It was funny - most of the time, the man seemed lucid, rational, and pretty average. He'd been something of an asset so far, not by any means the worst client she'd traveled with. It was only when this subject came up - just three times, so far, though it had been in the back of both of their minds, she suspected, since they stepped onto the road - that he turned into some kind of lunatic. Her method of dealing with this, thus far, was to remove herself from the conversation and focus on moving forward.

The next morning, the trap she'd set in the stream had been raided by something - probably a raccoon, she figured, but just as likely something bigger. They had some supplies left from an earlier net, but the less margin of error they left, the better, and if she was reading her signs right, this was the last night they'd be in a position to catch fish at all. Not the end of the world, she reminded herself. Just keep moving forward.

It wasn't until three days later that they hit their first serious snag. Virgil woke up a few hours from dawn, clutching his stomach. Tessa was awake in an instant, watching. He groaned again, and then cried out. She stood, and moved over to his side.

"Feels like my stomach's turning inside out," he told her, through gritted teeth. "Are there poisons up here I've been eating?"

She shook her head, cursing inwardly. "It's the water. From that stream, when we rinsed the tubers; we're farther up than I thought. Stupid of me. I doubt you got much in your system, and I picked up a remedy for the worst of it before we left, just in case, so you should be alright." She turned back to her bedroll, where she'd stowed the powder the old woman had sold her.

"It's not fatal?"

"No." She pulled out the little pouch, and her waterskin; fortunately, they'd been boiling their drinking water from the start. The stuff mingled, and she handed it to Virgil; his teeth were gritted, but he drank the whole thing. "You'll be alright."

"Pity." He curled, violently, and she grabbed his arms and yanked; she'd had this happen the first time she brought someone over a higher pass, and knew from experience that leaving him in his bedroll was a terrible idea. She started to stoke the dying embers from the evening; fortunately, they weren't too far from a snowmelt stream. As long as she only left him for brief intervals, she'd be able to keep him hydrated, avoiding the worst dangers of the scourge. It was going to be a long, long night.

The morning was long, too; fortunately, he fell asleep again, before the sun had climbed high enough to reach over their shoulder. When he woke again, in the afternoon, the worst had passed, and he ate, and drank.

"What's the plan? Wait until tomorrow morning, or hit the road now? I don't think this is done, but I've probably got a few miles in me before I collapse, and it's probably not too great to be staying here for so long."

She glanced over at him. "If you're sure it's not going to bite you, we should probably see if we can eat some more elevation. We were cutting it pretty close with the snows already; this isn't going to help our chances of making it down without hitting any bad drifts."

"Alright, then." He stood up, slowly, and stretched. "As long as we take it slow for now, I think I'm good." Together, they got camp packed up; without debate, he handed the heavier load to her, and they kicked most of the camp remains under the dirt. He looked around. "What's the plan long range, though?" he asked, looking up the trail. "How do you intend to get through this?"

Tessa shrugged. "Keep moving," she told him. "Generally it seems to work."

For the first time since they'd broken the tree line the previous day, he cracked a smile, and fell into stride on the trail ahead of her.

The point they were aiming for wasn't a summit, but a sort of valley - the lowest path between Leore and Rikha. At this point, the trail they were following hit its highest point, and more or less leveled out for a little while. It was unusual, topographically speaking, but this made it a more desirable pass, really - it was much easier to get over than Darsun, especially when things got icy or wet. But at the moment, Tessa only had eyes for the immense cliffs on either side of them. The stone rose up, wind-carved into strange and ethereal shapes; the backdrop was sheer, shades of grey, draped in beautiful, deadly icicles and drifts of powdery white. In the fading sunlight, it was breathtaking, but something in the entire otherworldly scene was striking needles of terror into her chest. She wondered, somewhere in the back of her mind, if that was the apprehension; she suspected otherwise.

But the long and short of it was, her eyes were elsewhere, watching the wind whip a long tendril of glittering snow off of a cliff into one of the last stretches of reddish light, howling all the while, when one of the cliffs up ahead, on their right, moved. By the time her peripheral vision caught it, the immense shape had shifted, and was directly in front of them, blocking off the road, and the light, in one fell swoop.

When her brain did catch up with her eyes, she reacted immediately- grabbed for her mace as she sprang ahead, between Virgil and the-- oh, gods, it was. Wasn't it. Dragon.

And so she found herself there, damn near petrified, holding up a mace that suddenly didn't look so much like a weapon as a hefty twig, looking into a pair of eyes bigger than her head, and deeper, she thought, than anything she'd ever seen. Oh, no. Oh, gods. No.

She couldn't have moved for all the worlds, but she projected the glare behind her as best she could. "You didn't say you had gotten on the bad side of a -dragon-! I did -not- agree to this!"

Half a tone deeper, she thought, and it would've shattered bones. The voice boomed, through the rocks around them. "Silence."

Tessa shook her head, fixing her glare on the-- ah, no, they were too big to even focus on-- eyes in front of her. "Leave him alone!"

The immense red eyes narrowed. "I said, silence. Whatever he has told you, I am not a demon of the abyss, craving innocent blood to bathe in. You are meddling in matters which do not concern you."

Behind her, Virgil cleared his throat and stepped forward, carefully around her. "She's just doing her job," he said quietly, leaning on his walking stick.

The dragon shifted its gaze slightly, and the air thrummed. "And you. I had thought it was understood you were no longer welcome here."

Tessa took one, then several steps backwards, managing to stop before she stepped off the edge of a precipice, and leaned up against one of the edges looming overhead. The light was fading faster and faster; the scene before her seemed to fade into a tableau of shadows - the cliff, as dragon, looming over a single shifting figure with a staff; her mind seemed to blur at the edges, leaving everything echoed, dreamlike, the softness of shadows. She had wandered into a dream; it was the most likely possibility.

Words came clear, through the haze, clear and human, wrought through with sorrow: "I had no choice." The staff wavered and bent and shimmered in the moonlight, the stars slid in and out of her vision. The mountain roared in pain and fury, shaking her to pieces, and the lone standing figure cried out, fell to its knees. You were the last hope! The cliff over her shattered, reformed, joined the sky as a pillar; the pillars merged and shook and dissolved, and the moon wept into the winds, and she watched the mountain crumble to the core, and her world melted into some terrifying, beautiful nightmare.

It was inexplicably afternoon when the nightmare began to fade, and her charge was sitting next to her, his arms folded behind his head. She glanced at him.

"The sky is heavy," she told him. "I'd like to get down out of the open air before the storm hits."

He nodded. "Let's get going, then."

Tessa stood, and stretched, before turning off down the path. The cliffs loomed still overhead, watching them go, and she shivered as they turned onto the switchback that led away, down the Western slope of Leore. They made good time that day, and were in a fairly safe location by the time the skies opened up. Virgil cleared a space in the lee of some of the stunted scrub trees that grew on the higher slopes, and they stretched out the bedrolls. The night passed in the slightly eerie silence unique to falling snow, and the morning found the path covered in a few inches of white. Tessa took her own walking stick, not willing to take any chances on an unfamiliar path in the snow.

It was mid-afternoon before either of them broke the silence.

"I didn't dream that."

He glanced at her, pausing by the old, gnarled juniper. "I don't know what you saw. Leore has a way of twisting the mind and perception. You probably didn't see everything, and you didn't see it the same way I did." The wind twisted the branch around, slightly, and a puff of snow settled onto the stubble over his face. "But... it happened. You weren't hallucinating. Make of it what you will."

She nodded, and continued down the path. Boris might ask. Ali... she thought, remembering when Ali had told them about the ice-worshippers, the vague look that had come over her face, the vague hesitation. Ali wouldn't ask. Tessa shook her head, clearing the snow from where it had settled over her hair, and moved on, down to the next stretch of path.


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May 2013


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