Grinning skulls greeted Harrow upon his return from the promontory’s edge. Hunter’s trophies. He observed the grim, sunfaded relics and smiled at them and laughed. His isolated mirth far-echoing across the high ambit. When he had satisfied himself he turned from the cranial statuary and beheld Hunter standing before his shack, furs girding his shoulders, a dark leather hood shading his eyes. Harrow paused, surprised by the sudden appearance and tipped his threadbare hat to the man but recieved no reply and stood a moment, perplexed. At length, Hunter spoke, gravely and deliberately.
“Hase says you’re fixin on heading down to The Spine.”
Harrow nodded matter-of-factly.
“I suggest putting that notion out your head, if you wanna keep it.”
Harrow, unsure whether Hunter’s words were warning or threat, said nothing. The sky cracked and rain poured fat and fast, turning the soft clay ground into a transient mire. Hunter seemed unconcerned and stood looking critical and disturbed at the would-be itinerant. Harrow raised an arm over his head and, vexed at the man much as the weather, passed beyond the promontory margin and followed the thin, twisting cobblestone path that let out to a irregular plain where lay the borough proper. He made his way back to his cramped and windblown house and found his bow, carving knife and rucksack and made for the door once the rain had passed. The townsfolk peered at him from behind shutters, whispering with suspicion and sorrow and disdain and disbelief.
Harrow pulled his hat low over his head and flipped up his collar against the chill wind and quickened his pace, turning to the left and descending the wending path that let down the cliff. When he reached the bottom of the eroded sedimental exposure he found a stick from a decaying tree along the plain; he withdrew his knife from the sheath at his belt and carved it as he walked until it was slender, smooth and even to the touch and sharply pointed at one end.
Come nightfall, he bivouaked in a cave among the hillands which rolled out like great xanthous whales from the base of the bluff. He awoke at the break of dawn and caught a rabbit for breakfast, roasting it over a small fire with the stick he sharpened. When he had finished his meal he cleaned the lightly charred stick best he was able and continued toward the vast, stygian partition that slit the sky; a brand of esurient providence.
He traversed the hills to the north and emerged into a patchy and blasted heath were a faint trail was visible through rootrotted frass. At midday the wayfarer spied the form of a packhorse and a man atop it, moving steadily and slowly along the road. They stopped beside a large and withered tree where swarmed innumerable beetles, humming thick and black and cloying. The old plant bent towards the distant wall, as if drawn towards it by some eldritch compunction. About the trunks and the poor, course soil into which they slithered, lay the skulls of various animals and a curious totem.
Harrow hailed the man on the packhorse and the man waved and pulled the wide-eyed beast to a stop, dust hissing bout its hooves.
“Morning,” The man on the packhorse said. He was stout, with a frazzled bread and a starchy hat, titled jauntily upon his head.
“Strange land.” Harrow declared, starring at the obsidian totem that appeared as a synthesis between centipede and serpent.
“Yes, sir. Dieback every which. Ground’s full-up with parasites. Ya haven’t drunk water hereabouts?”
“Recommend you abstain from doing so.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You headed to town?”
“Didn’t know there was no town up here. I’m headed north.”
“Towns along the way. Haven’t seen another soul in weeks. Not opposed to some company.”
Harrow considered the proposition and then nodded pleasantly. “Alright. What’s your name?”
“Walter Hoskins, and this here is Marybelle,” the man patted the neck of the horse, which whinnied and flicked its head. “And you, sir?”
“Ebner Harrow. Pleased to meet you.” He walked up to the horse which leaned down towards him, sniffing curiously, expectant of food. “And you too.”
The two men struck out together on the heath-bound road as morning passed to midday. The few trees which were visible upon the infertile plain were stag-headed as the former specimen, surrounded by droning hordes of tunneling beetles who seemed dedicated to unmake the world in their ravenous image.
After an hour and a half, the clouds coagulated and the wind blew in, as from an astral horn, harbingers of a hailstorm which grew so intense the itinerants bolted from the path to a ruined shrine to the north-west and there shut up against the savagery of the sky. Their skin stinging from the impact of the hailstones. The shrine was large and composed of cracked and sun-leeched stone that had sunk unevenly into the ground such that the left half was lower than the right. Around it were large stone lanterns, where fire had long since absented. As the storm raged, Harrow searched the inner sanctum of the shrine and discovered another totem, identical to the one by the tree he had previously passed. He brought the small statue from the sanctum to the outer veranda where Walter stood, starring out into the ice battered plain. The hiss of hail and the irregular clacking of the horse the only sounds.
“Dunno. Some kind of… idol. Found it inside. Seen another one along the road.”
“Thinkin its religious?”
“Could be. Was in the sanctum.”
Walter extended his hand for the thing and turned it round, studying the dark object. Then he grimaced and handed the statue back to Harrow.
“I don’t like the look of it.”
Harrow gazed down at the artifact and smiled slightly.
“I think its fascinating.”