The weeks passed as Camon and Jorn rode hard northeast towards Taanpuhkaw. They passed out of the Lake District and into much hillier and rockier terrain. It was not apparent to Camon or Jorn when they left the influence of one city and came near another as the farms between them never seemed to stop, and villages were much more common along the highway than they had been further south to Rhattaay. Camon and Jorn chose to avoid public accommodations like caravansaries, waystations, and Imperial outposts, sticking to private establishments along the way to avoid Imperial and Inquisitor entanglements, although they did pass troops of both types along the way.
A few days out from Taanpuhkaw, they came into view of the mountains to the east. They rose over the horizon with majesty. Their jagged, snowcapped peaks seemed an odd sight during the late summer months, with those below wanting a taste of the cool snow to quench the sun’s burning heat. Camon was glad to see the mountains, as it meant they were getting close to Taanpuhkaw to venture up into the pass beyond to find the fabled fortress of the elves. The road brought them in much closer to the base of the mountains as they rode along, looking up at what appeared more like a wall going up to the heavens at this distance than it did mountains.
Within three days, they reached the outskirts of Taanpuhkaw. Taanpuhkaw was impressive in its own way, with towering walls and massive gates that arched high over the highways that entered into the city: The Pilgrim’s Way that ran east to west and the other north and south. They intersected the road northbound road at the town’s center. To avoid going into the city, Camon and Jorn took a bypass that went along the city’s outer wall. The bypass was occupied by heavy wagons and other shipping fixtures and caravan camps.
“This is a major hub of trade for stuff going in and out of Rhatsaan. If it isn’t loaded on a ship and sent down the river, it passes through here,” Camon said as they passed the camps and wagons.
“Seems to make more sense to put it on the river, Jorn said. “Easier to float stuff down and bring it to port than haul it over the mountain pass.”
“You’d think that, but some folks are still leery of using the sea for transport.”
“We all have our superstitions, I guess,” Jorn said.
“We’ll be up into the pass by nightfall,” Camon said.
“If this place is as hard to reach as you say it is, is it appropriate to take horses up there?”, Jorn asked.
“I hadn’t really thought about that. But I don’t have any idea what the terrain is like either to reach the fortress. We’d best not take them. Perhaps we can find somewhere to board them.”
“It was that stable right there that made me think of it,” Jorn said, pointing at a stable along the roadside.
Camon looked at the stable, “Well, it looks like there’s the answer to that question then.”
They stopped at the stable and asked about boarding. The keeper said he could watch after the horses for a while. Camon rummaged through Achara’s things and left everything that he deemed nonessential with her horse’s saddle. Camon paid him in advance, and they unsaddled the bags and shouldered them.
“We’d better lighten these things and pack essentials only,” Camon suggested. And get some things we’ll probably want like some ropes, dry food, and warmer clothes.
“Looks like avoiding the city isn’t going to be an option then,” Jorn said.
“Perhaps. Let’s see if there’s a market somewhere. But it’s not the end of the world if we have to go in.” They continued around the city and came to where the bypass met up with the Pilgrim’s Way and headed into the mountains. There was an ad hoc market with vendors selling food and staples two hundred yards down the way. Camon ventured over to the market and found some woolen clothes which he bartered for. He also found some rope from a tack dealer, and they bought dried fruit, crackers, cheese, and offloaded anything that was not essential after repacking everything. Camon brought out his travel cloak and had it ready. Jorn purchased one, and then they turned east, setting their gaze upon the road that ramped up the side of the mountains into the pass.
Along the way, Camon stopped and picked up a strong stick that he used to help him walk. They trudged onward and upward for the remainder of the day, and by sunset, had climbed significantly. They looked back and could see the sun setting in the west over the town below.
“This view would never get old,” Jorn commented.
“It is pretty incredible. I’ve always loved coming up this way, especially in the summer. It’s a bit cooler, but the scenery is always beautiful. And just think. We’re not even halfway up!”
“Don’t remind me,” Jorn said.
They went a way further and stopped at an enclave off the side of the highway. They ate, drank and slept, and woke up the next morning ready to go setting out as soon as they had finished a hearty meal. They continued to climb upwards, enough so that Camon wrapped his cloak around him to block the wind and protect against the cooler temperatures. By the end of the second day out of Taanpuhkaw, they had reached the crest of the pass.
“This is where we turn into the mountains north,” Camon said. “There’s nothing beyond this point that will help us.”
“What are we waiting for?” Jorn said.
“The morning. We’ll start early to ensure that we aren’t seen. Most people would consider this a one-way trip into the wilderness.”
“Why is that?”
“Because it’s mostly unexplored. Nobody that I know of or have ever read about has ever ventured into the mountains here to explorer them.”
“Then how do you know about the Sky Elves?” Jorn asked.
“By reading elven accounts of them.”
“Not many people can do that,” Jorn said.
“Priests can. It’s required study at the monasteries.”
“But how many actually remember it beyond the tests?”
“Not many, I suppose. We’d better get some rest. There’s another enclave about a mile from here that we can sleep at tonight.”
They continued over the crest and down the hill and reached the enclave within twenty minutes. Like the other one, they had food and drink and slept soundly in the inn. The next morning, they awoke early, ate another hearty breakfast, and set out while still dark up the hill. As they reached the top of the crest, they could see the twilight breaking in the East, and they turned north and started their cross-country trek into the mountains beyond.
The pass’s sides were steep and unforgiving as they slogged their way through rocky crags and along perilous ridges that spanned gaps between peaks with sheer sides that dropped hundreds of feet below. They went up and down and zigzagged east and west, though generally keeping their course northwards. They managed to scale a few of the peaks to get a better bearing of where they were, keeping in mind which peeks they had climbed in reference to the other peaks around the mountains. They continued to rise higher and eventually got high enough for the presence of snow. The air was cold and dry, but the snow was packed from thaws and refreezing, making it hard enough to walk on some places.
When nightfall grew close, they decided to stick to the lower elevations below the snowline. They found an outcropping of rock that offered some shelter from the wind. There was nothing around that could be used to build a fire at this altitude. They rolled up in their traveling cloaks after the sun went down and tried to sleep the best they could. The moonlight was bright, and the wind howled around them, but even so, they were tired from the day’s climbing, so they had no problem sleeping. They did not bother setting a watch, either.
Morning came soon, and they ate from their provisions and started again, continuing in much the same way they had done the day before, and they traveled for several more days along the ridges and peaks along what seemed to be the spine of the world. In some places, they could see more sky than land as it fell away to the east and west. By the end of the fourth day in the mountains, Camon saw something that he thought might be the feature he was looking for.
“Do you see that peak to the north that looks like it’s half missing?” Camon said, pointing.
Jorn looked intently in that direction and didn’t see anything at first, but then saw what Camon was pointing at, “I think so.”
“That’s another day from here, at least. We could make it there by nightfall tomorrow if this weather holds,” Camon said.
Camon looked to the west and saw nothing but clear skies. They then searched for a place to stay for the night and found a nook downwind of the western wind, and then they made camp there as their routine had been. They slept again under their travel cloaks in the cold night air, but they were more than warm enough out of the wind. They were up and ready the next day with the resolve to reach the peak Camon had pointed out the day before, and they started the trek across the ridge that snaked back and forth through the mountains. They followed it up to another peak and were able to spy the peak Camon mentioned, but now clearer than yesterday. It appeared taller and leaner than the other peaks along the ridge. They worked their way north along the ridge for the remainder of the day until it was almost sunset. They came up to another peak and were able to gaze at their goal.
They saw before them what looked like a city on a flat shelf that protruded from the mountainside. It had no walls or streets, only narrow walkways and stone buildings multiple stories in height. The ceilings of the buildings all had spires that twisted around, forming points that looked like spear tips. Each one was crested with a gleaming metal shaft that gleamed in the evening sun. A series of terraces rose above the city with what looked like perfectly round holes going back into the cliffside. The terraces got gradually smaller the higher they went until they gave way to the mountain, which like the spires of the buildings, twisted upwards to a point and shimmered in the light of the setting sun.
“Incredible,” Jorn said. “I had never imagined I’d see a place like this.”
“Especially this high in the mountains this far removed from anything else,” Camon added.
“Are those terraces for what I think they are?”
“Rookeries for Nasherim. This, I believe, was one of the places the Nasherim were bred.”
“Yes, the Nasherim are bred, not unlike cattle or horses. However, the elves adapted them from a much smaller bird eons ago and, through the craft of magic and selective breeding, created the birds they are today. Their culture evolved around the flight the birds were capable of, choosing to live high above the world in the mountains where they were safe from aggressors, except for dragons and their kin.”
“But with the Nasherim in numbers against a solitary dragon or amphithere, then I imagine they could hold their own.”
“According to the elven histories, they are quite formidable in battle. They were crucial in many of the victories the elves had over orcs in the past.”
“Why do you suppose they abandoned this place?”
“The histories never said why, but my guess is it happened sometime after the beginning of what historians refer to as the Age of Men when humankind decided their own destiny apart from the elves’ influences. The elves used to shepherd humans, but when the young seer slayed the demon lord, the elves realized that humans had become a power in this world that could no longer be controlled, so they relinquished much of their grip on humanity, allowing humans to choose their own path forward. Over time, they withdrew from the human realm into the South. The Sky Elves withdrew too to other high places.”
“This place looks like it was abandoned yesterday. There’s absolutely no decay or crumble in the ruins. It looks perfect!” Jorn exclaimed.
“Elven architecture is not like anything you will see among humans. Wait till you see it up close. But I’m afraid that will have to wait until tomorrow when we can get a closer look. And I don’t want to be up here on this peak tonight exposed. We’d better find shelter somewhere. The wind is out of the west, so we’d probably best check the east slope.”
They walked over to the edge of the east slope and peered down. Jorn spotted a crevasse in the rocks below, and they descended to investigate. It opened enough to provide enough shelter for both of them, but barely. In any case, it was out of the wind more than any other place they had stayed. They ate from their provisions and bedded down for the night and slept dreamless sleep, better than either of them had had since climbing up into the mountains.