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140 Actual Incinerator Way, Apt. 23
Great Inferno Village, FL, 33030
In the Garden of Giants
“A land where the living may not tread,” Harper said, eyes trained on the towering peaks before him. And yet, he couldn’t help but smile. Here were giants. The Ghairkhan range, a wilderness so untamed, so feared, few men dared even speak of it. Back home there had been mountains. Or what he’d once considered mountains. But now, in this distant corner of the world, he felt he’d finally learned the true meaning of the word. It was no wonder the Ghangerai thought this land sacred. Standing in the shadow of these mighty peaks, it hardly seemed possible they could have been crafted by anything other than the hand of the divine. What was man compared to such immensity? As a drop of water before the ocean, so was he before the Ghairkhan. His smile grew wider.
“I’ll be the first to conquer it. The first to lay bare its secrets to the world.”
He could almost see it now, his name recorded in the great histories. He’d share pages alongside heroes such as Stanson and Monsare, men who’d expanded the limits of the known world.
“Aye, a right bloody hero you’ll be. Long as we get our cut when we find the city. Or more importantly, the city’s gold.” Sterne said, thumb idly rubbing the pommel of his sword.
“Wealth is a temporary condition, Sterne. Life’s grandest ambitions, glory, fame, a name that will live on after one’s death, these are eternal. These cannot be bought.”
“Giving up your share of the profits then?”
“I’ll think I’ll keep them, all the same.”
Crude as they might be, he much enjoyed the company of simple men. Just as a bowl was most useful when empty, prepared to be assigned any variety of tasks, so were the minds of men like Sterne. The prospect of good pay compelled them to any amount of toil more civilized men would find unbearable. And besides, it was the duty of those of means to improve the situation of the less fortunate. He always rewarded those that served him generously, both with pay and lessons in the ways of leading a respectable life.
“We’ll find that valley, Sterne, and with it, Rhom. We’ll walk among the ruins of the greatest city ever built, the birthplace of civilization.”
“You’re sure it exists then?”
Harper shook his head in disbelief. What child hadn’t grown up dreaming of Rhom? Hadn’t been lulled to sleep each night with stories of the grandest city ever built?
“There isn’t a doubt in my mind it exists. Did your mother not tell you the tales?”
“Never knew her.”
“Your father, then, surely?”
“Never told many tales, ‘cept for when he was in his drinks. And those weren’t the kind to leave you asking for more.” Sterne coughed a wad of phlegm into the grass. “Long as the pay keeps coming, me and the boys’ll follow you.” He walked ahead, entering the deepening shadow of the Ghairkhan with his small retinue of porters. Fewer men than they needed, truth be told. Harper’d hired them back west and brought them all the way to the Ghairkhan, a painfully expensive endeavor. He would’ve preferred to hire Ghangerai porters, but they’d been so fiercely superstitious none would take the work. None except for one, he noted as Hongke approached. Though his wide, almost puffy cheeks, and skin the color of fired clay gave him the appearance of a typical Ghangerai, his presence on the expedition marked him as a forward-thinking man among his people. Even if he did charge ten times the normal rate for a guide.
“I ask for the last time. Is your mind set on this task?” The words were slurred and thick with his accent. Harper sighed. The regard with which the Ghangerai held their ancestors would have been impressive had it not been such a pain in his ass.
“The Garden of Giants is no place for the living. It is a sacred land, inhabited only by the spirits of the honored dead.”
“So you insist on telling me.”
“And yet you do not hear.”
Ancestors this, ancestors that. It was the place of lesser men to fear the dead. Harper looked to the mountains once more. Did the dangers of the eternal dark stop Stanson crossing the ever-dark of the Murkwater? Did the cannibal tribes stop Monsare from mapping the frozen wastes of the Yupiak? No, of course not. And he’d be damned if a few angry spirits were going to stop him.
“It is the duty of great men to explore this world. To go where others will not.”
“We do not deserve the honor to walk among the ancestors.”
“Honor be damned,” Harper said, adjusting the weight of his pack and striding forward, “there’s glory at stake.”
* * *
As much as he admired the great explorers of days past, Harper was not unaware they’d been occasionally guilty of exaggeration. The burning shores of Golan were not actually aflame. World’s End was a fine name for the small port in the far north, but only a fool believed it to be literal. Whoever had named this place the Garden of Giants, however, had struck far closer to the truth. The heat of the steppe had ended three days ago when the land began to slope upward. The air grew more brisk as they continued to rise, until all the world seemed splayed out behind them, stretching on and on until it vanished in the haze of the southern horizon. Harper had felt they were on top of the world then, until he’d turned back north, and the Ghairkhan still rose above them, shadowy, snow-capped giants among the clouds. The Ghangerai’s honored ancestors had chosen their realm wisely. Even now the expedition only skirted the lowest fringes of the mountains, winding their way along a narrow path. The height of the walls of stone around them was rivaled only by the depth of the canyon waiting one step beyond the path’s edge.
“How long of a fall, d’you reckon?” Sterne asked, breath rising in a plume of heat as he kicked a pebble over the side.
“A question I hope never to answer,” Harper said, pulling his coat tighter.
“Not fond of heights? Bit of a backwards notion for the man who would conquer the Ghairkhan.”
“I find I’ve an aversion to situations that would kill a man.”
“Always found them situations pay the best.” Out of the corner of his eye Harper could see Sterne was grinning. The angry red scars across his face brightened by the chill of the morning, twisted sharply with his smile. He looked the very sort of man who’d witnessed an abundance of fatal situations. It wasn’t unlikely he’d been the cause of more than a few of them, as well. It was, after all, the reason Harper had hired him. Where a man of means would often find his sensibilities too genteel to order others into deadly environs, a brute like Sterne would find the act considerably less objectionable. His was a necessary evil.
The foremost porters disappeared around a bend in the path ahead. Hugging the mountainside, Harper followed. And stopped mid-step. The beauty struck him like a bolt of divine lightning. The dangers of the canyon fell from his mind as he stared transfixed at what could only be an earthly manifestation of paradise. The presence of the mountains, previously looming over them, opened here to a vast expanse of sky. Far below rested a wide valley dusted a brilliant white with fresh snow. Pines swayed in a light breeze as a river, not yet iced over, rolled and tumbled with the slightest of distant murmurs. A hawk cried in the distance. If the Ghairkhan were the giants, here was their garden.
“Have you ever laid eyes on such beauty?” Harper asked, breath quick with awe.
Sterne spit over the cliff’s edge.
“Bunch of trees and snow.”
“Trees and snow? How could you speak so?” Harper waved a hand at the valley. “Look at those sheer walls of stone. So smooth, so crisp. Have you ever seen such perfection? And the way those twin peaks dip in the middle, right there in the east wall so the radiance of the morning sun can fill the land below. It’s no wonder the first men built the shining city of Rhom in such grandeur. If mankind were ever to know peace, to know truly what it meant to live, it would be in a place such as this.”
“Aye, it’s a valley.”
“My friend, I haven’t—”
“Down!” The world spun as a hand clamped onto Harper’s shoulder and threw him to the ground. A rain of pebbles and dirt showered the trail and Sterne stumbled backwards, eyes turned to the mountainside above. The ground shook with a thud as a boulder two strides wide fell onto the path and bowled over a porter. He barely had time to grunt, one quick “umphh” and he was gone, thrown over the edge of the cliff.
The man was silent as he fell, spinning end over end over end and looking increasingly tiny in the seemingly endless open air. Harper averted his eyes at the last second but there was no escaping the sound. A faint crack, quiet at such a distance, but as clearly shown on their cringing faces, heard by all.
Several of the porters cursed under their breath and said quick prayers to their ancestors. Sterne only shook his head, then shrugged.
“More pay for the rest of us.” But there was no happiness in his voice.
Harper raised his waterskin to his lips, hands shaking violently. It had happened so quickly. The man was there one moment, then gone the next. Dead, just like that. Well, dead a few long moments after that, he realized, the sinking feeling growing in his stomach. But that’s the price of glory, right? Isn’t that what Stanson or Monsare would have said? They’d experienced some losses themselves. These journeys can be dangerous. It happens, he assured himself. He made to drink from his waterskin but bile rose suddenly in his throat and he stumbled back from the edge, eyes watering as dry heaves forced their way up from his chest. He collapsed against the mountainside, fighting the rising vomit.
A hand grabbed his shoulder. The same one as before. Hongke leaned in close, voice but a whisper in Harper’s ear.
“The ancestors speak with more than words. We are not welcome here.”
Glory came at no small cost, Harper told himself over and over. Sacrifices had to be made. He shook violently and breakfast splattered onto the mountainside.
* * *
A fresh snow had fallen during the night. It crunched underfoot as Harper pulled himself from his tent, trying to warm his shivering body and forget the previous night’s dreams. In them he’d been falling, tumbling endlessly in a vast blue sky. He’d turn and turn, the world spinning, then out of nowhere the ground would rush up and he’d break against it with a sickening crack. They were just dreams, he told himself, shaking the thoughts from his mind.
The camp outside his tent was beginning to stir, porters rolling their thin hide tents and sleeping furs into tight bundles in the predawn light. After the incident with the boulder, Hongke had led them down from the mountainside and into the valley. Safer there, he’d said. They’d passed close to where their doomed companion had landed. Harper had forced himself to look away, but not before seeing the snow was stained pink and red for a span of ten paces around the area. Sacrifices had to be made. It was a lesson all great men had to learn.
He raised his hood and walked towards the smoldering fire. The snow around it was melted to mud, but the flame itself had dwindled to smoking coals. What’s the point of a fire if not to warm those who built it?
“G’morning to you too,” his voice came from off to the right. He was running his sword against a whetstone, the blade seeming to growl with each pass.
“You do know the men who built the first city are long dead, yes?”
“Fighting or not, can’t think of a time I’d need a dull sword.”
Harper shrugged. He’d come across few problems solved with swords that couldn’t have been solved first with coin. But, if one was going to be surrounded by armed men, it was best they were in his pay.
“While I admire your dedication to maintaining your equipment, whoever was manning our fire appears to be neglecting their duty.” Harper nodded to the smoking coals.
“Who had last shift?” Sterne yelled to the camp. A moment passed before someone muttered ‘Joren,’ no one wanting to out their companion.
“Joren!” Sterne called out. “Tend the fire.”
The porters continued packing up the camp, but none moved to answer his order.
“Joren!” Still no answer. Sterne pointed at the man nearest him. “Check his tent.”
The porter nodded and hurried over to one of the last standing tents. He pulled back the flap. The early morning light was dim, but even Harper could see the tent was empty but for Joren’s sleeping furs.
“Did anyone see him leave?” Sterne was up now, concern evident on his face. “Check the snow, look for footprints. He must have left a trail.”
Dawn broke over the surrounding mountains, the shadows long across the valley but shortening by the moment. The fresh snowfall around the camp betrayed no tracks, neither human nor beast. The search expanded to the surrounding area. By midday the shadows in the valley were all but gone, and the fresh snow had been ground to a mush by the searching men. They returned to camp defeated, Sterne behind, red in the face and cursing loudly.
“Get your packs,” he ordered, pulling on his own. “The bastard doesn’t want to be found, fine, we’ll leave him out here.” He nodded to the man next to him. “Take his tent and furs.”
Harper rose from where he’d been sitting by the now cold coals. His entire body was numb, but not from the lack of a fire. Men just don’t disappear, he’d told himself over and over. Especially not out here. The missing porter would barely last a week with the food in his pack, even less without his sleeping furs. Why would he leave? Where would he have gone? Harper looked at the faces of the porters, sweaty from searching the valley. His eyes came to rest on Hongke. The guide shook his head sadly.
“No man may find what the ancestors have taken.”
“Bugger your ancestors,” Harper said and spit into the snow. “It is the place of lesser men to fear the dead.”
* * *
“This is the best place to ford,” Hongke said, eyeing the river as his breath rose in a puff of steam. It was colder by the water, much colder than it had been in the forest. “We can cross here then dry around a fire on the far shore.”
Harper didn’t respond. His thoughts were still on the missing porter. It hadn’t snowed the previous night, so their tracks were still evident. He’d hoped Joren would follow them, catch up with the group. However angry Sterne would have been at the man, it was a better fate than freezing to death in some unknown valley far from home. Sacrifices must be made, he’d told himself over and over, each time believing it less and less. And then night had fallen. They’d sheltered in a shallow cave along the valley wall, a door of woven pine branches blocking the entrance. The northern wind had howled through the valley that night, whipping among the trees like the wail of the dead.
One of the porters had mentioned it first. Quietly, almost like he didn’t believe it. Or wasn’t sure he was actually hearing it. But he was. And so were they. The wind was howling, but beneath it there was some other sound. A voice. Human, and in pain. Sterne had spoken what they all were thinking: It sounded like Joren. His voice was carried in the wind as if he were a part of it. Far away at first, high among the mountain peaks, then closer, winding through the forest, and finally, right outside their cave, shaking the woven-pine door so fiercely it had to be tied down. It was for lesser men to fear the dead, but by the dark of night, in this forbidden corner of the world, Harper knew such fear.
“Harper.” Sterne slapped his shoulder, shocking him back to the present. “We crossing, or what?”
It hadn’t snowed since Joren had gone missing and Harper had once hoped the man could follow their tracks to catch back up. Now he hoped for anything but.
“Alright boys, time for a bath.”
The porters mumbled their discontent as Sterne started across the water. Harper immediately followed, stepping in front of Hongke in his hurry. He’d once believed he would never fear the dead, but he realized now he wasn’t the fearless explorer he once thought. And if he knew one thing about this new man he was becoming, it was he damn sure didn’t want to be on the same side of the river as their lost porter.
The water was shallow and swift and felt daggers of ice to his feet, slicing through his boots and clean to the bone. His teeth chattered incessantly and his body shook as he waded deeper, the water rising to his knees. The rocks beneath the surface were slick, smoothed from an eternity in the river. His boots struggled for purchase, but still he pressed on, thoughts only of the howling in the night, the wail of the lost man battering at their makeshift door.
Sterne was ahead, cursing with each step. There was a splash from behind and Hongke started across, mouth set stern as he felt his way through the slick rocks. More splashes and the others followed.
Harper took another step and the water pulled at his leg, his foot slipping along the bottom. He slid forward, the water urging him on, then caught himself at the last moment, boot finding a spot between two rocks. The current seemed stronger now, dragging at him with icy hands.
“The water is quickening!” he yelled.
“Nonsense,” Sterne said from ahead. He grabbed a root protruding from the other shore and pulled himself up the steep embankment. “It’s just a tad deeper in the middle. Hurry up and cross, oh fearless explorer.” He laughed, shaking the water from his pack.
Another rush of current and Harper was driven sideways, slipping downriver slightly. He moved forward more quickly, the water pulling at him with each step. He’d broken from the course Sterne had set now, forced by the river into deeper water.
“Walk only where I did.” Sterne set his pack down and stomped along the bank towards Harper, face angry.
“The water flows more quickly.” Hongke’s voice from behind. He’d stopped walking, was staring up river.
Sterne pointed at the guide.
“Follow my course, damnit!”
Hongke’s eyes went wide. “Get across,” he shouted to the porters behind him. “Now! Move!”
Harper took another fumbling step, and then he heard it. It was the rustling of a thousand leaves, at first. But it grew, louder and louder. The ground began to shake as the sound blossomed into a roar. A fresh wash of water slammed into him, raising the level of the river up to his waist, and Harper scrambled forward, mind refusing to believe what his eyes were telling him.
A great wall of white water was raging down on them. Half the height of the pines on the riverbank it surged into the valley, swallowing all in its path.
“Move, damnit! Move!” Hongke was behind him now, pushing him on. Harper slipped and was swept beneath the water. Time slowed to a near stop. All feeling drained from him. He was floating through the river, stiff fingers clawing at the rocky bottom though he found he couldn’t remember why. He opened his eyes and a single sluggish thought crept into his mind. Boots? Splashing towards him, the water churning around them seemingly in slow motion. Someone yanked him up by the collar and he burst from the water, skin burning with cold as the air rushed against it. He coughed up a lungful of river, but Hongke was pushing him forwards again, driving him to where Sterne was waiting, arm outstretched on the shore.
The roaring was all around them now, drowning out all other noise. Harper swung an arm forward. Sterne grabbed it and yanked him ahead to stumble from the river, face slamming into the mud.
Forcing himself up on cracked and blistered hands he turned in time see Hongke. He seemed rooted in place, one arm half reached out towards Sterne.
“Grab my hand!” Sterne screamed, left arm wrapped around a tree, the other reaching across the water.
Hongke looked a man frozen, head turned to face the oncoming wall of water. The porters furthest back panicked and turned, dashing for the other shore. The water hit them with the force of an avalanche and they were gone, swallowed instantly in the swell.
“Hongke!” Sterne yelled, barely audible above the roar.
The call woke him and he rushed forward and wrapped a hand around Sterne’s forearm. His muscles strained as he pulled himself a step onto shore, Sterne growling as he held tight to the tree.
Hongke locked eyes with Harper. His face was drained white, eyes wide with fear.
“Don’t let them take me,” he said, voice pleading. “Don’t let them—”
The wall of water slammed into him. Sterne’s arm shot straight, straining for a moment under the tension. His shoulder popped audibly and he fell back, hand empty and limp. Hongke was gone.
The roaring echoed off down the valley as the water passed. The river quieted and slowed, and in moments was knee deep once more. It flowed calm and smooth, all traces of Hongke and the porters swept away.
Sterne rolled and kicked, one hand clasped to his protruding shoulder, growling like an animal as he writhed in the mud. A howling wind whipped through the valley, echoing vaguely with the pained cry of a lost man, but Harper could only hear one thing as he covered his face with his hands. Don’t let them take me. Don’t let them take me.
* * *
They didn’t speak afterwards. Didn’t seem there was anything to speak about. Their guide was lost. Their men were dead. What food remained in their packs would last just long enough for them to freeze to death. So they walked in silence, Sterne with his shoulder jutting out in all the wrong directions, and Harper, clothing near frozen, thinking of nothing. Not the face of the porter who’d plummeted off the cliff. Not Joren, disappeared into the night, nothing more now than a howling in the wind. Not the rest of the porters. And certainly not Hongke. Not the man that had saved him, pushed him to shore so that he could return the favor by watching as he was swept away to his death. He’d once thought Hongke a forward-thinking man for joining the expedition. Now all Harper thought him was a dead man.
It is the place of lesser men to fear the dead. His words. He’d believed them when he’d spoken them. But that time felt a lifetime ago. Now he knew Hongke had been right. The Garden of Giants was no place for the living.
They emerged through the tree line and into a great meadow covered in a layer of undisturbed snow. The mountains rose around them on all sides, peaks towering so high as to block out the sun.
Sterne stopped walking, empty eyes staring out into the meadow ahead. His frostbitten lips moved, but no words came.
“What?” Harper asked.
Sterne replied, a single word.
“What, here?” Harper turned his eyes to the meadow once more and the mountains rising on all sides.
“Trees and snow, Sterne. Isn’t that what you said to me once?” He kicked a patch of snow, revealing the frozen ground beneath. “That’s all this is. And all Rhom ever was. Trees and snow and some damned children’s story.”
Sterne’ sword unsheathed with a scraping ring. Harper found his limbs weren’t quite frozen yet as he jumped backwards, but there was no need. Sterne moved slowly, a man drawing nearer to death by the moment.
“What are you doing?”
His actions were far better an answer than words. Sterne’s eyes rolled up in his head leaving only blank white behind. He turned the sword on himself, placing the tip in the crook of his neck.
“No, don’t!” It was too late. With one sure, steady movement, he slid the blade through his neck, the point blossoming red behind his head. He never made a sound.
Blood dripped in a pitter patter to the snow below, staining it more and more red with each drop. Harper found himself unable to look away from the slowly spreading puddle as the snow melted with the heat that had once coursed through Sterne’s veins. When he did pull his eyes up again, he found himself surrounded by the dead.
They stood on all sides. The closest was bruised and bloodied, arms broken with bone jutting through the torn skin. His head was caved in on one side. The porter that had fallen off the cliff. Harper took a step back and bumped into what felt a wall of ice. He turned.
Joren stood completely still, eyes open wide, mouth twisted into a silent scream. His skin was blue and iced over, icicles hanging from his coat, his beard. He shivered and a single breath of freezing air escaped his lungs to wash across Harper’s face.
Harper cried out and spun away, throwing down his pack and preparing to run as the dead men watched. His eye darted from face to face and he recognized the rest of the porters. These were wet, dripping with water, their hair twisting and whirling in the air in slow, steady movements as if still submerged.
Hongke stepped forward, drowned like the rest who’d perished in the river. His wide cheeks were sullen now, skin once the color of fired clay now a deep, shivering blue. He opened his mouth to speak but his words were naught but gurgling as a wash of water poured forth and splattered down his chest.
Blood pounded in Harper’s head with each beat of his heart. Run! His mind screamed at him. Run, you fool!
“You cannot escape this, Harper.”
He turned to find Sterne had stepped forward. His neck and chest were stained red now, the ground a pool of blood at his feet. He spoke, but the voice was not his. Not any voice Harper knew.
“The Ghangerai warned you. Hongke warned you. But it is for lesser men to fear the dead, is it not?” Sterne pulled the sword from his throat. A fresh wash of blood ran down his chest. He dropped the blade.
“The dead have come, Harper. Do you fear them now?”
“Go on then,” Harper said with a sigh. He was tired of running. Tired of freezing. Death would be a release. “Kill me. I’ll die out here anyway. And I deserve nothing more.”
Sterne laughed, a wet choking gurgle escaping his blood-filled throat.
“We will not kill you, Harper.”
“Then I’ll do it myself.” He snatched Sterne’s sword and, holding his arms outstretched before him, placed the tip over his heart. He pulled it into himself with a sharp jerk, the blade piercing his chest. He felt no pain. He pulled again and the blade emerged through his back. Still, nothing.
“Neither will you kill yourself.” Sterne grabbed the hilt and pulled. The sword slid out, and even as Harper watched, the skin knit itself back together, twisting and stretching until only a faint pink scar remained.
“You sought glory and fame, and a name that would live on after your death.” Sterne let the sword fall loose in his grip. “You ignored the warnings of your fellow man, and were willing to sacrifice their lives for your ambition.”
The circle of dead men, with their dead faces and dead expressions stepped closer.
“You mocked the ancestors and sought to conquer their land.”
“I was wrong!” Harper grabbed Sterne by the collar, pulling him in close. “I was wrong.”
“For your crimes you will neither draw breath, nor know the release of death. You will starve and not die. You will tire and not sleep. And you will tell your tale to all you meet. Warn them of your folly, that they may fear and honor the ancestors, as their forefathers, and their forefathers before them.”
He spoke the words and Harper knew them to be true. He’d once mocked the ancestors, scorned their supposed power, but even now he felt himself changing. The air was colder on his skin, hunger gnawed at his stomach. And he was tired, so tired.
“Walk this world a hundred years, and warn all those you meet. Do this and one day you may yet know the release of death.” Sterne stepped back, then collapsed to the ground, lifeless. The dead men vanished one by one, blowing away like so much smoke in the wind. Hongke was last. He reached one bloated arm out towards Harper, then was gone.
The voice spoke once more, this time seemingly from all directions.
“Tell your tale. Tell them of Harper, the conqueror of Ghairkhan.”
If you really enjoyed this story, feel free to make my day by downloading it for $0.99 on Amazon. As well, it appears alongside three other stories in my Kindle / paperback anthology, Nine Parts Bluster and Other Stories.