This excerpt was originally a part of The Books of Knowledge.
Slate set out for the high peaks that loomed over the city of Isvain. Arianna’s map showed the Books' location as up the side of Mt. Isvain, the tallest of the peaks which rose up from the frozen landscape to incredible heights somewhere above the clouds. Isvain translated to certain death in the local language, Slate learned, but there was much signage about the bottom of the hill, for hikers and climbers, so he figured it couldn’t be too certain. There were some others near the foot of the mountain when he reached it, skiing and playing in the snow, and they called out to him as he began to head up the trail his map told him he had to follow, a trail known as the Ancestor’s Walk. They shouted that the trail was closed, that it was too dangerous that time of year. Slate didn’t like the attention he was attracting, or the fear those warnings stirred in his chest. When a snow began to fall, he was grateful that it would cover up the footprints he had left behind.
The trail followed a stream, over stone bridges and around a number of switchbacks. After passing through a tunnel carved through the mountain, Slate came upon a temple, the first of the seven that were marked upon his map. What with the difficulty of pathfinding in the snow, it was gratifying for him to know that he was going the right way. He stopped at the temple for a bit of lard mixed with bretton root, which woke him up and filled his stomach. The temple was mostly destroyed: the roof was gone and three of the sides had gaping holes through them. The snow drifted in and out, and so did Slate.
The mauve skies cleared completely between the first and second temple, and the chill grew stronger. Slate’s breath punctuated the air in steamy hot blasts. He came to the second temple, which looked much like the first, but had more of a roof. There was a painting on one of its walls, depicting people drinking tea in colors vibrant and bright despite its age. The faces portrayed seemed happy and the sun-drenched landscape was covered in grasses and flowers. That suggestion of such possibilities awaiting in warmer climates encouraged Slate to redouble his efforts.
He found the third temple in much better repair than the first two. It didn’t seem as if many others ever made it up this far. There was less wear on the temple floor, and more clutter: candles, a few books, even a blanket and a pillow. Slate considered stopping for the night in this third temple, but decided instead that he’d try and make it to the fourth with the little sunlight he had left. He set off from the third temple at an almost frantic pace, determined to make the fourth as quickly as possible.
The snow started to fall again after Slate rose above the end of the tree line. Without trees to buffet the wind, the gales gained force, channeled through the nearby peaks and crags into a wailing current that seemed poised to blow Slate clear off the mountainside. He hunkered low, stumbling and sweating as he continued to forge his way. It seemed to take forever for him to finally reach the crest of the trail, where Slate’s heart fell.
There must have been an avalanche at some point, as most of the fourth temple was strewn down the mountainside into a ravine. Half of a stone foundation was all that remained. Slate reluctantly accepted that he would have to continue up to the fifth temple. He didn’t stop to consult his map as to how far that would be. He had no choice anyways.
The sky turned gray and then black and Slate couldn’t think for the howling scream of the wind. He battled through, every step excruciating, post-holing in the blackness, ignorant of his body’s extremities and closed off from his senses.
He managed to reach the fifth temple what felt like hours later. His purple hands wouldn’t work to open the door, so he had to throw his body against it repeatedly until it fell open. He was startled to find himself inside, waiting.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, recognizing himself but not comprehending it.
“Me? What are you doing here?” he responded.
“You know why I’m here. Why didn’t you help me get here sooner?”
“I couldn’t go out in the cold, I would get sick.”
“But you left me out there to die! You don’t care if I die!”
“That’s not true, I don’t want to die. You’re the one trying to kill us. Why are you still after those stupid Books anyways?”
“Because they can help people.”
“Why should you want to help anyone? People have been horrible to you.”
“That’s not true. Some have been so kind and loving.”
“Islands in a sea of selfishness.”
“I don’t care what you think. People deserve my help.”
“Do they? They’re using you. You’re a pawn. The Falls used you, Guh Hsing used you. They know you’re stupid enough to do it!”
“What are you trying to do? Are you trying to tear me apart?”
“You’re so stupid. You’ll do this again. And again. You torture yourself. You love it.”
“I keep us alive!”
“For what? We should have died many times before. That’s fate for you! You’re denying fate!”
“Shut up!” Slate screamed, as he used all his remaining strength to lunge at his apparition.
Slate stepped out of the way though, and sent himself flying into the wall of the temple. A great mass of snow fell off the roof with a thump outside.
“You had better be careful,” Slate said. “Or we’ll die like we should.”
“I will not die,” Slate vowed, “but if that is what you wish, so it shall be.”
Slate got up off the ground, fixed his target, and lunged, but again he ducked out of the way. He smacked into the temple floor, head-first, and fell unconscious.
Slate was relieved to wake up alone again the next morning, feeling more or less returned to his senses. Thankfully, when he had knocked the snow off the roof of the temple the night before, it had insulated the walls of the temple, and so he was actually rather warm when he woke up. He looked down at his hands. He had gotten frostbite. He pawed through the items in his bag, eventually locating a tube of balm, then unscrewed the cap with his teeth, and squeezed a bit onto his hands. As he rubbed them together, feeling and color returned. Another medical marvel from the doctors in Fjird. Maybe he should try to find their books, Slate thought, as he ate more lard and bretton root. After some hard candy, Slate pushed out of the temple into the sunlight.
The mountains were absolutely beautiful in the clear light of morning. Down below the peaks, the clouds swam and flowed like an ocean. Slate found the sixth temple to be made of stone, and double the size of the temples before it. A statue of a twisted face stuck out a disparaging tongue from above the entrance as Slate entered the temple. Inside were a pair of snow monkeys, seated at a table as if playing chess or waiting for dinner. The scene made Slate feel as if he were interrupting something important. He laughed, and the monkeys laughed back, and so he shared a bit of his fat with them. They were more interested in his balm, which they found delicious, and he had to wrestle it back to keep them from eating it all.
Slate consulted his map again and saw that there would be a split from the main path ahead, coming after a rock that looked like a frog. When he came to that divergence in the road, Slate took the only-somewhat-hidden path to the right, which led him to the last of the seven temples, where his treasure should have been waiting.
This seventh temple was near a tiny alpine lake into which a waterfall poured. The condensation in the air from the falls kept the little area around the temple mostly free of snow, and allowed a most beautiful flower to grow there; one with dark blue petals, and pink and gold clusters in the middle that looked like tiny explosions. It was the only plant of any kind Slate had seen since leaving the tree line, so surely it was a rare flower indeed. Slate picked one, hoping it might be hearty enough to survive the journey home to continue life on Proterse.
He then walked up the sagging, wooden steps of the temple. Its decoration was less ornate than the sixth temple, but commanded a greater presence. The subtlest suggestion of fractal patterns were carved into the corners of the temple, and this, along with the moss that covered the roof, made the building look like a mystical thing the mountain had grown.
Inside the one-room temple, Slate lit a candle. He took off his heavy bag and closed his eyes for a short while, to breathe and center himself. Following the directions on the back of Arianna’s map, he set about finding what he had come there for: behind one of three bookshelves on the right side of the temple, he should find a false door, the map said, and his treasure would be behind that. How was it possible, he wondered, that it had sat there so long, undisturbed?
Slate’s pulled on the bookcase and it fell right over. The fake wall piece behind it fell off when the bookcase hit the floor. There was something there, but it was not a collection of books. It was only one. Slate pulled the lone book out of the tight little space in the wall. It was wrapped in leather, and heavy. He dropped its huge weight onto the table in the middle of the temple.
Lifting the cover of the book, the spine cracked like it had never been opened before. Inside, Slate found something both familiar and strange: the pages had the same layout that Slate had seen in the other Books, but its illustrations weren’t in color, and they were far less impressive and numerous. The main difference, however, was that the text was in Protersian. Flipping through the pages, Slate recognized bits from the Book of Medicine, and other parts from the different Books he had seen at the Protectorate’s meeting Aurora Falls. Perhaps this single work was a summation of them. He wondered how the totality of the knowledge of the world of the gods could possibly be contained in the single volume on the desk before him.
Making sure not to crush his little blast flower, Slate forced the leather book down into his pack, stood the fallen bookshelf back up against the temple wall, and then left its confines, to enjoy the waterfall outside. The air was cold, but he felt warm and happy as he traipsed over the algae-covered rocks to the small lake. The stones about the tiny valley had purple and orange striations that imbued the waterfall with the color palette of an Allestian sunset. Slate listened to the water flow, felt the air on his neck and back, on his bare toes when he took his boots off to let them breathe. He took the mountain air deep into his lungs, every inhalation the creation of a universe and every exhalation annihilation.
After sitting for some time, clearing his mind, Slate felt for an instant undistinguished from that which surrounded him. It was not an altered, distracted vision like the one he had experienced in the Ojikef Jungle. It was a moment of being in the center of the universe, as opposed to alongside or in opposition to everything that informed and defined his senses.
On the journey back down from the seventh temple, buoyed by his new state of mind, Slate felt lighter. It was still cold, and the snow fell more heavily, but he had succeeded in his quest. If he could only make it back to Morai, if he could just complete what he should have the first time he had the Books, what might that feel like? To feel that light?