I wrote the following story several years ago intending for it to be a short prologue to a novel. As you'll see, it isn't that. It is, however, a lot of fun. Not perfect, but I'm trying not to care about that and just write the actual book.
In that spirit, I present a mythological comedy about a pregnant woman and a mountain, neither of which are exactly those things. It's somewhere between a short story and a novella in length and somewhere between Hitchhiker's Guide and Harry Potter in tone.
Enjoy, and please let me know if this background has rendered it illegible.
The Hidden Mountain
The Bit about Tella T'iin
Just above the top of the world there lies a hidden mountain. Secret and sacred, it is kept from the eyes of those unwilling to see it by the most tremendous storm there ever is. I cannot say ‘was’ for this storm is forever — it always has and always will be. This ‘Forever Storm’ — the Bride of the Mountain — is of snow and wind and thunder and all else that is difficult and treacherous, but this is not the story of the storm. This is the story of the mountain and the boy who climbed it.
The mountain was always intended to be climbed; from the very beginning it has been engraved with 12,000,000,004 steps of stone and cold, circling right to the top. Much will have been thought of this number — this twelve billion four — by the time the universe ends. “Perhaps,” some will say, “It is a holy number, meant to reveal some great truth.”
“Or,” others will suggest, “It is the number of heartbeats in a single day for a single —”
“I know!” still more will very rudely interrupt, “It is the number of philosophers a dragon must eat for a satisfying lunch!” Then it will be revealed that this last fellow — the rude one — was a dragon in a bowtie, and he will have lunch.
This will happen more than once.
People will suggest the flaps of a hummingbird’s wings. They will say that it is a secret prime. They will attempt to count the number of nightingales born each minute. They will seriously consider the dragon thing for a few moments. They will divide and multiply, often at the same time. They will even conquer worlds (not so much because of 12,000,000,004 as because they were just mean and greedy). But few will ever actually climb the mountain —content with their puzzles and plots.
Indeed, most will only ever know of the 12,000,000,004 steps by hearsay and myth or (more rarely) by the simple stone plinth erected at the bottom of the staircase. Perfectly still and perfect still, it stands forever — a picture of a mountain etched in, with the inscription “You are here,” marking the bottom right immediately above a small ‘x’ and the words “12,000,000,004 steps remain.”
If you must know, the truth is this: They (the super-eternal Beings who created the mountain) had been going for 12,000,000,000. Not for any particular reason, 12 is just a nice number and the mountain is very large. The thing is, stuff gets tricky on the sides of secret mountains encased in endless swirling storms, and they made a mistake. Really, their mistake was putting in the storm first, but TraaaaaaaaaA was just so impressed with her storm that it had to be installed right away. Still, to have only made one mistake at the end of such a massive undertaking is incredibly impressive, so give them a break already.
But I digress.
The name of this mountain is lost in the wind — yanked from history many years before history could even begin — taken by the Forever Storm. Some have called it Fyrétonn, but this was not its name. For Fyrétonn simply means “Flame’s Peak” in the oldest tongue, and there is no oldest tongue. So that makes it unlikely. Full disclosure, it could also mean “Badger Breast” depending on how literally you translate the double consonant. However, neither translation has ever been fitting, for no fire would ever stay lit upon that crest and no badger has ever had a breast in likeness of it.
But those who venture to name the unnamed are crafty, and they see things we cannot. This is the tale of what they saw: the flame that warmed the mountain.
In the beginning there was nothing. Just before that there was an argument as to what ‘nothing’ and ‘beginnings’ are. "I'm here," said God, speaking of Himself, "and You’re here," He continued, speaking of a totally distinct and separately personified facet of Himself. “And We have been forever.”
"But are We things?" She questioned, as the totally distinct and separately personified facet of Herself.
“It’s fine, they’ll know what You mean. Just write something down already,” added a third, just as distinct, and rather more irritable facet of God.
“What about: ‘God created the Heavens and a really excellent lizard.’”
“I don’t know. Seems a bit arbitrary.”
And so the argument went on and on for what — to us — would feel like an eternity, but what — to Them — felt like two.
Some have suggested that God created the universe as a way of coping with loneliness. This could not be further from the truth. Long before getting around to the universe, God figured out how to divide Her infinite, omniscient mind into however many forms He wished, all entirely Self-sufficient and Self-contained, but all One.
This came with the desired effect of kicking loneliness right in the yet-to-be-invented nethers, but was accompanied by a quite undesired – and thoroughly exhausting – feeling of obligation. God felt that if They were going to exist in all these forms, She had better go around spending time with each. And, since no One had any jobs to be bothered with, all any One ever wanted to do was float about together and play trivia — always for just an eternity too long. So God decided He would give Them something other than trivia to get on with.
This is why God created the universe. It is also why She loves it so much.
However, after all the nasty argument business above, God found that She was no longer in the mood to create that day, but, as days lasted several forevers then, She figured She ought to get to it. And so, with less flare than one might recommend, God touched Her finger to Her nose and created the egg. He quickly followed by giving it a nice twirl and thereby creating the chicken. Lifting and dropping Her arm, She then created gravity, to bring the two together. Then with a fast flurry of motions, He adjusted gravity, created a towel for the now soggy chicken bottom, and made a new egg. Finally, with something like a middle-schooler pretending to twist a nob while dancing to a song about turning things up, God invented time, so that They could get some sleep and start again the next day when She had a bit more energy.
What followed in the coming days was a flurry of creation so vast and brilliant, that it has never since been rivaled. God began by inventing popped corn (from which the non-popped variety was soon derived) so all the many facets of Himself would have something to munch as They looked on in awe. Then, in some particular order, He created: milk, love, Mars, chocolate, triangles, swords, magic, the double-decker bus, trees of all kinds, sunlight, the sun, zero, bumblebees, non-bumbling bees, the concept for Saul Rubineck, foxes, snow, heat, sectional sofas, the harvest, books, squirrels, irrational numbers, the color blue, the tandem bicycle, and the atom smashing dragon. After this last one, She quickly invented the undo feature. All of this and yet much more God made in merely the first second of Her creation.
In the end, or the beginning as it were, God created all things in some 513,322 seconds. It is not known on what day God finished creating the Heavens and the Earth, but it was, of course, at 8 pm/7 pm Central, just in time for Law & Order. It was one she had already seen. She then went about delegating the governance of many of these newly created things and concepts to each of Her facets, and by the time it was all just starting, every One had something to do (that wasn’t trivia).
Very little happened in the early days of Creation. God was still figuring it all out, so Her undo got quite a lot of use. But these restarts only affected the mortal world, so as time inched, leapt, and occasionally sprinted forward trying to break the long jump record for a facet of the universe, the Realm of the Infinite grew ever more so. Soon, the many facets of God had begun naming Themselves and each Other and even organizing as families. So it was that the multitude of God’s independent personhoods gained many and varied names, based on exactly what parts of Her personality and power they were meant to embody.
There was His brother Neptune, who also went by Poseidon and — at least once — Doug, God of Freshwater and the Sea. There was also cousin Mercury, God of Communication, Trickery, Boundaries, and thereby Ex-Lovers. There was Krishna, who was young, wise, and only sometimes blue. And there were many more still with proper, Godly names. On the other hand, there was also Aunt Sally, Goddess of Weird Cookies, Unexplained Smells, and Inappropriate Kissing. One of God’s great nephews, the God of Flattery, called Himself Phoenixbeauty Attractivan, the Great, Wise, and Especially Good-Looking Nephew of God, First of Any Name, Blessed Creator, and Best at Smelling Nice. What Infinity lacks in knowing when to shove off, it makes up for in diversity.
The last use of God’s undo occurred after a particularly taxing millennium wherein God spent most of His Infinite And Impossible Time dealing with petty squabbles about whether or not rain existed. Giving up, He told a guy to build a boat and grab the animals, did off with the rest of the people, and started over. While the whole thing was going on, She began to feel that maybe She ought to stop all this undoing. Perhaps the world could use a bit of commitment on Her part. Had it really helped so much when She used the asteroid on the dinosaurs? And besides, She really ought to be getting on with things. So She bent some light and left that as a promise that She would never use Her undo again, and somehow everyone got it.
After that, everything seemed to happen all at once, which, from God’s point of view, was sort of true. While the floodwaters were draining into the mysterious holes at the bottom of the ocean that seem to go nowhere and everywhere together, God decided He should set the world into motion, literally, which seems to have had the same effect figuratively. Soon people began domesticating mathematics, discovering milks, inventing medicines, distrusting magics, writing sonnets, singing covers of “Yesterday”, pretending dragons don’t exist, voting for idiots, riding elephants, trimming hedges, watching cartoons, and wishing — on occasion — that they weren’t doing any of it at all.
At some point in all of this, a woman got pregnant. Actually, at most points in all of this, a woman got pregnant, but we are concerned now with just one. Her name was Tella T’iin, she was born when the world was still quite young, and she was more than we can imagine. But together we will try.
Early one spring afternoon, in a small village made of curious people with big hearts and very little trust of complex sentence structures, Tella T’iin did a rather unusual thing for a pregnant woman: she chose to climb stairs. Not the 12,000,000,004 stone steps of the great hidden mountain just above the top of the world — not yet at any rate — just stairs, leading from some uneventful place to, hopefully, anywhere else. She had just discovered her pregnancy that morning, and had decided not to force upon her child the same life she had never wanted.
“Good day for it, darling,” bounced suddenly through her ears as she completed her ascent. She jumped and turned gracefully on a spot — not the spot, but a fine one still. The words that had knocked so jarringly on her poor, unsuspecting eardrums had come from Calence the Clever. Most people in their village knew Calence as the baker’s wife, but she was a complete person just like any of them and preferred to define herself as more than one relationship. Tella was fond of Calence.
“F-for what, then?” She stammered back. It was the first time she had ever stammered, and she found that she wasn’t a fan.
“All of it, I suppose: being pregnant, climbing stairs, running away…wearing that hat.”
“How do you expect to know all of that?
“Oh I don’t expect much, darling. By my age you’ve pretty much stopped expecting things. You just know them, or you don’t know them.” This was true, though whether or not it was true was one of the things Calence didn’t know. “Three fourths of the information I came by through my eyes. That is, your climbing and your hat and your leaving — you’re not carrying that bag for sport, dear,” she added in answer to Tella’s questioning gaze at the last of these gleanings.
Tella’s hand went instinctively to her bag. She had, with barely suppressed glee, packed that bag a hundred times in her life, each time ready to walk away to something new. Better or worse didn’t matter, just new. But each time she had relented and unpacked the bag. Until now.
The contents had changed over the years. When she was young, an orphan looking for a family, she had packed just three things: clothes, food, and a button. She never meant to pack the button, but every time she had somehow. As she got older, the list got longer: clothes, food, and trinkets, pots, pans, and keepsakes, things she needed to survive and things she needed to remember, and also a button. Eventually it had just become a part of the bag, staying in with each unpacking.
She had now unpacked the bag one less time than she had packed it, and she had no intent to even the score. This time she was leaving.
“And you’re better for it,” Calence continued, “You’re too much good for any of us, sweetie. You should have left years ago. …As for the pregnant bit — well, it’s a small town.”
“I told Lily.” Tella realized, drawing her thoughts back from her bag.
“Who told Rebecca Farmer’s Daughter, who told Little Jonathon, who told Arthur, who told Gwendolyn the Judgmental, who told Tom — my Tom,” there weren’t any other Tom’s in the village, but Calence always liked to make sure everyone knew he was her Tom. It was her way of getting them to define him as hers — it wasn’t working. “Then that fool told Groldir instead of me. But he told Groldir to tell me, and Groldir did tell me. So it’s alright I suppose.” As she finished, there was a note of importance in her voice that she always got when she was able to explain the flow of gossip through town; it touched Tella in a way she had not expected. She did love this funny old woman, and every last one of those nosey gossips Calence had named in her story, too.
They both stood there for a while, looking at each other much more fondly than this sort of conversation usually elicits, before Tella finally grasped back at the courage she had had moments ago. “I’ve got to leave now,” she said with a sad determination.
“And a good day for it, love,” said Calence, and she kissed Tella on the forehead.
And with that, Tella T’iin walked away, and she never saw Calence the Clever again for as long as she lived.
Every day Tella had imagined leaving this tiny village just between nowhere and nothing, and every day had come to the conclusion that it must be impossible. On this day, however, she found that it was the only thing that seemed possible. She had no family, no husband, no children but the one she was carrying. The people of the village had always loved her dearly and she had always loved them — always would — but the village itself had simply never been enough.
Truthfully the very Earth was not enough for Tella T’iin. She was never meant for this world. She had originally been intended for the Everlasting Realm, but Dale — God’s nephew who works in the Storkerie — is not particularly good at His job. Actually, He is the God of Incompetence, so in one respect, He is. This being so, He somehow managed to pass a soul clearly labeled “Goddess” into the talons of a stork marked “Strictly Mortal Loads”. So, there Tella was, on Earth, in a tiny village, yearning for the romance of the world abroad, and for a moment she would find it.
One month prior to her peculiar stairway meeting with Calence, when winds were high and the moon was low and Tella was trying to get a fire started – mostly, it seemed, by loudly suggesting impertinent things about its work ethic – so she could burn a dead chicken (she was not, nor was she ever meant to be, the Goddess of Cooking), she met a man. Well, not a man, actually, but a genderless, ageless being who was very nearly omnipotent and really, impressively knowledgeable on all the contemporary methods of burning chicken. He was God’s cousin, and He had not led with any of this.
Instead He asked if she would like help with her fire. He was good with fires. In fact, that was His job. He had been appointed God of All Things Fire and Fiery back when God was doing that sort of thing, and had only gotten better at it since.
“Are you in need of any assistance?” He had begun in a perfectly unnecessary accent.
Looking up, she had stared into His mouth and, through it, into the many levels of His supremely endless soul. He had shivered at this. No mortal had ever found all the parts of His soul she was finding. It felt a bit like walking through a carwash wearing only an old shoe, and not where you’d like to be.
For her part, though she was very practiced in gazing into the secret wishes, hopes, and machinations that moved the people around her, she had never before experienced someone so full. He was powerful, merciful, colorful — full of everything. And so, two beings who had rarely ever known surprise, found it in each other.
Then, as He was in fact the God of All Things Fire and Fiery, they, well, stopped speaking. At least, they had stopped saying anything that could be distinguished as “polite conversation” or even “known syllables.”
A little while later, Tella T’iin was pregnant, though she did not yet know it. They had also begun speaking again, which she did know. Their love was fast, bright, and beautiful. It burned in all the colors of flame, and danced through every part and every atom of all the world. And it was patient and kind and all that, too. They laughed at each other’s jokes, they told stories of adventures real and imagined, they stared into each other’s mouths, and they…held physical contest.
Many of the things she learned in this time were his names. He has had more than you have ever counted to, but you will perhaps know him best as Hades. He was not yet the Hades you may know, but when all of this had finished, He would be.
Then He had work to do. It was now just less than one month after their first, fleeting, fated meeting and He set off for the Highly Eternal and Very Everlasting Nation — known colloquially as ‘Heaven.’ There He had called a gathering of the Gods to make special request for Tella’s early allowance into Eternity. Only twice before had any such allowance ever been granted, and on both occasions God had requested and fulfilled the decision Herself. Despite that, however, Hades had been confident that once They saw her as He saw her, a being clearly meant for more infinite business than Earth, They would have to grant His request.
He also knew, however, that no amount of confidence would speed the process along. A Drudgery of Gods is best imagined by not bothering to at all, turning around, and going off to help a dog. At least, that would be more productive. But, as it’s important to your understanding of the story, imagine a courtroom of improbable size and immaculate architecture. Then, take out the walls, put it next to a lake, and get the barbecue going. Instead of a bunch of somber, grey-dressed people, fill it with a family reunion too large to be possible. Then consider that every One in this family is on the jury and also, technically, the same Being. If you expect that would speed the process — all of Them being the same person — perhaps you are right, or perhaps you ought to try a little more introspection. At any rate, you have forgotten to account wholly for the family reunion; specifically you have forgotten the trivia and the potato salad. Trivia and potato salad have never done anything to expedite the cause of justice.
Actually, there is a mathematical equation that calculates very precisely how long any given gathering of the Gods is supposed to take. It’s called “Hodgard’s Equation for Getting at When It’s Polite to Slip Off,” and it works, partly, by taking the sum of all Gods present as the level of infinity, adding to that the amount of potato salad present in terms of how much square footage it would take up if it were spilled, say, down the God of Clumsiness’s tunic, taking from that number — if you have the courage to call it a number — the nth root where n is the prime closest to your heart, multiplying by 4 for luck, and supposing a whole lot of things it really isn’t your business to suppose.
In the end you’ll be left with an unshakable feeling of loss as well as the rough amount of time you ought to wait before you attempt to leave, in units of Secarum, the time-measuring system of rocks. It is, of course, impossible for humans to understand Secarum, so the whole exercise is a bit theoretical for our purposes. Then again, Hodgard is the Goddess of Blatantly Pure Mathematics, so at least She’ll have gotten a kick out of it.
Add to that, Hades knew too that for some time Hephaestus had been after His job. Hephaestus was — among other things — the God of Volcanoes, and He didn’t think it very fair that He and Hades had to share jurisdiction over exactly the part that made volcanoes neat. “I might as well be the God of broken mountains,” He often complained just loudly enough for everyone around to hear. Fully aware of this, Hades knew that Hephaestus would hem, haw, and — when all the potato salad was just about up — demand that He be given full reign over Fire, but He was prepared to do whatever it took.
All this to say, Hades knew He’d be away for some time. So before leaving He had told Tella of exactly the place she had secretly been longing for her whole life — the place she had caught glimpses of in all her lowest moments — the peripheral dream that had held her up when even her own legs gave out beneath her — the sacred land where she could now go to seek her Beloved if she ever had need of Him before His return. He had told her of the hidden mountain.
The hidden mountain just above the top of the world, which goes by Many Names and None, called Fyrétonn by people who are wrong, encased in the Winds of Eternity, the Very Origin of Cold and Scary Things (who are surprisingly excellent dinner guests), that bears the 12,000,000,004 steps, and that — presumably — holds some gateway or doorframe or something to Heaven (I mean come on) is always just barely over the edge of the horizon — visible and invisible.
It is possible to glimpse just the base of the mountain by looking out straight over the horizon in any direction, tilting your eyes up to the top of the sky, and peering out of the corners of each. For best results, you should manage all this without moving any muscles, including those around your eyes and especially your heart. The big trick is necessity. Most people who see the hidden mountain do so because they need to, or more specifically, because they know they need to. The very sight heals them from the inside out.
But seeing it is the easy bit. Once you’ve done that, there’s still the trouble of getting to it. How does one reach a secret mountain just above the top of the world? Over the eons of mortal eternity, many answers have been given to this question by spiritual leaders, shamans, teachers, celebrities, and especially salesmen.
T’u’g’th’u’l’a' Bigcavehaver became the first of several people in human history to independently invent the oral pill and, almost immediately after, medical insurance. She advocated taking the pill five times daily and then sticking around to make sure you could get more pills when you ran out. She was always a bit vague about when exactly the mountain entered into the whole situation, but she seemed very confident that it did.
Later, Blimtree Wiseface, of the Babylon Wisefaces, suggested taking 2 healthy shavings of goat’s bane, sprinkling them into a stew of carrot and bark broth, dipping your mother’s head in the stew, then carrying it East across 100 horizons, and finally pouring it out. In theory, the seeker would then look down and notice that he was already there. In practice, he usually only noticed that his feet were wet and he was too far away from anyone to go storming off about it.
Dragoon the Terrible — called so not because of his nature, which was generally amiable, but his stench — touted the efficacy of smelling an ointment of beetle’s dung and lilac butter while riding a blind tiger in whichever direction it cared to take you.
If you haven’t guessed, none of this is correct. The answer, simple as it seems, is to search for it. You needn’t have seen the mountain, you needn’t even know for what you search; just try truly and seek. Seek because you desire wisdom, redemption, happiness, peace, love, glory, whatever. But seek: simply, earnestly.
Of course these are both the easy bits, seeing and finding the mountain. Hidden or not, it is a mountain. The trouble really starts once you’re there, stone plinth standing in front of you — weatherworn and perfect at once — on it, “12,000,000,004 steps remain”.
The mountain is tall, as tall as it needs to be, which is something impossible. It stretches above and through and beyond the heavens to the very place where stars begin. And across and above and surrounding all of this vast immensity dances the Forever Storm. It rages in wind, thunder, lightning, and snow. It hurls spears of ice and shoots arrows of air constantly at its battered beloved. Some parts and places of the mountain may seem protected from or avoided by the storm. Beware those lands, for more treacherous things lurk there than most are prepared to accept.
Through all of this danger and treachery ascend the 12,000,000,004 steps. They wrap and wind, crawl and climb, stair-by-stair to almost the very top. Carved into the mountain, set in brittle stone and bitter cold, they do not falter, fail, or fade. They are forever. Neither do they move, yet they have a curious habit of always finding those who climb the mountain, never being found. No matter what side or path upon which you find yourself finding the mountain, they will be there waiting. No matter how far you stray as you climb or how far you tumble down as you fall, they will be there waiting. The mountain wants to be climbed, the trouble is holding on to the courage and strength to want it back. Also, not dying.
For upon the hidden mountain there rests not just steps set to carry you up, but monsters placed to pull you down. Magical, mythical, mystical creatures they are, lying in wait and watch and horror in hope of scaring and tearing you away. Or perhaps they just live there. Perspective can be a fickle witch. By the way, if you make your journey to the mountain, it is advisable to avoid the Fickle Witch. She’ll spend all night painfully preparing you for a stew or a roast or a chop, only to decide she’d prefer you as another dish. Then she’ll magically restore you to full health and start over. This she’ll do for eternity.
In addition to all this horror and hopelessness, however, the hidden mountain holds all the highest beauty of the world. Streams and falls flow and dive across the snow-laden terrain. Pools sit motionless, nestled comfortably in green forests of plants known and unknown, unbothered and untouched by the cold. Caves of wonders and treasures unlikely and unheard of provide refuge and adventure for any who care to delve them. Purest light bounces through the storm, shimmering eternal moments on every shard and flake and drop. The stars crawl across the sky above and split like clouds against the Highest Peak. And yet in all these wonders, the true beauty of the hidden mountain just above the top of the world is only revealed in its most infinitesimal part, and a grace that is to us.
So, knowing all this, and knowing too of her pregnancy, Tella T’iin left the tiny village she had always lived in but which she had never actually called home. She left the people with their big hearts and small dreams and strong distrust of complex sentence structures — whom she had and would always love — and set out to travel across the world, seeking the hidden mountain that would lead her and her child home.
For seven months she searched everywhere — every corner, every hut, every palace; every waterfall, tree, and cave; everywhere. And along the way she had every manner of impossible, incredible, indescribable adventure. It’s only lucky they can’t be described, otherwise I’d feel the need to, and this story is long enough already. Trust though that there were trolls, and moles, and bridges with tolls too steep, and caverns with holes too deep, and swords, and dancing, and boards where ants sing, and all and every pirate on the sea. But every second of every day, the mountain loomed in the top of her vision, just waiting to be found.
Until, it was. It was that simple, that sudden, that anticlimactic. One day she was climbing a barren, snowy mountain to a shaman who might have a map to a town that may hold the key to a box which might hide a compass that points to a direction that may be the way she needed to go to find out more about a mountain which could be the one she actually wanted to be climbing. And then she wasn’t.
She had climbed up thousands of feet of snow-pregnant rock — pregnant was a word she was using a little too often these days and not always correctly — every step full of the familiar crunch of tiny fractals of frozen water breaking and compressing beneath. Then, suddenly, one was not. She had closed her eyes just for a pregnant moment when, where crunch should have come there was only squish.
She took another step to be sure, not daring to open her eyes. Squish. She forced herself to look down: grass. Looking up again Tella saw grass and trees standing tall all around. She reached a hand in her bag and found the button. She had taken to rubbing it whenever a new adventure began. Turning back down the way she had just come, she saw only clouds moving slowly against the ground. She was curious what would happen if she walked back through the clouds, but not that curious. The sudden realization of where she was instantly propelled her into a run for one glorious step before the sudden feeling of overwhelming pregnancy instantly pulled her back into more of a wobbling trot.
But no amount of wobble — or wibble, for that matter — could dispel her joy. She was there. She had made it. She had found the hidden mountain just above the top of the world and was currently shaking her way up it at full pregnant.
As she did so, she looked up the mountain properly for the first time. It was indeed massive, larger even than she had imagined, taller still than her eyes could see. It was like looking out across the sea, if the sea were frozen, and mostly vertical, and you had to climb it. But she was undeterred. If anything, Tella T’iin, at the sight of the grand impossibility before her, became even more eager, for she had yearned her whole life for something insurmountable to surmount.
Looking up also allowed her a first glimpse of the Forever Storm. Though she was still outside its grasp, she could now see the edge of its terror. Approaching the snow, Tella saw, to her great dismay, nothing — nothing at all. She had hoped to find the Great Stone that marked the beginning of the staircase; thought for sure that she would be able to see its tall figure somewhere across the vast space around her; dreamt, at the very least, that there might be a trail of meat and berries left to signal the vague direction she was meant to follow. She admitted to herself that this dream may have been brought on by factors other than sanity, but she wanted meat and berries no less for it.
The snow, however, was blinding. Even at the edge of the storm, her eyes were met with an endless gust of perfect, unique snowflakes never to be seen again by nature, not one of which she appreciated. Then, as she was stamping around this way, that way, the other way, and a final way, her foot attempted to move backwards into a section of space that was otherwise occupied and had no designs on exchanging tenants. Surprised by the sudden refusal of space to allow her access, which had — to this point — mostly obliged her frequent comings and goings, she tripped and, landing backwards, hit something rather harder than snow.
Looking around, she saw that she was now sitting — a position she would have gladly welcomed if only it had asked first — on a solid, stone platform. Then, as the snow and wind slowed their — frankly — repetitive dance, Tella finally saw exactly what it was she had been looking for: the stone plinth. There it stood, tall and deepest grey, unfazed by the flitting flurries that swirled around it and unharmed by the infinite years of its silent vigil — made, if anything, more beautiful by the small signs of wear it wore. It stood in the middle of the small, stone landing which had so recently coaxed her into sitting and just behind it, rising in one with the mountain, began the steps.
Standing up, she touched the monument and traced the tall etching of the mountain with her finger. She read its words aloud as a witch might recite an ancient incantation, [BG1] “You are here. Twelve billion four steps remain.”
Even with the aid of the stairs, the mountain proved a mountain to climb. While most steps were perfectly sensible, it was evident that not all had been wrought with the strictest of safety standards in mind. They wrapped to and fro, this way and that way and the final way, but not the other way. They leapt over holes, hung over cliffs and, every once in a while, sat more vertically than steps are generally permitted to.
They were by no means uniform in dimension, either. Most extended wide enough to lie across but others were large enough only to support the tiniest of toes. Similarly, most rose only as high as a bread box — however high that may be — while a few towered at least, I’ll say, ten bread boxes high. Also, while the snow and ice seemed to largely avoid landing on the steps, as a lover scorned may avoid a similarly scorned but more well-armed lover, parts of the path were still found to be iced, snow-covered, and otherwise blocked by the frozen torrent shooting endlessly from the sky.
Indeed, Tella T’iin who had traversed, climbed, and even rolled up the mountain for nigh a month, now found herself so exhausted, so cold, so beaten by the storm that she had grown indignant with it. But Tella did not yell or curse, nor did she throw things. Instead of violent, active aggression, she chose more passive routes.
“Oh is that the loudest you can be?” she asked as the blizzard roared its disapproval of her presence, “How sad for you.”
“I see your hail has gotten smaller,” she commented after a piece of ice that fit no known definitions of the word ‘small’ slammed into a cliff wall just past her head, “Pity, I know how much size means to you.”
And so she had gone on for hours, taking a step, then another, nearly being struck by lightning, casually mentioning how she’s seen dead birds with better aim, taking another step, almost slipping, noting how much she misses ice skating, and repeating, more or less.
But however much she complained, however annoyed she became, she was always, deep down, in love with this mountain. For no matter how cold it got, or how tired she felt, or how often she fell and retraced the same cold steps, or how ridiculous she looked — pregnant, crawling up the side of a frozen, stormy mountain, and still wearing that hat — she felt atop that big pile of rocks something she had never felt before: home.
So it was that as she shuffled across some steps that were simply too small, hanging over the edge of a cliff that was simply too tall, she began to sing:
Alas, a lass along a ledge
A long way down I’ll go
Should a shoe eschew the edge
And skim the sky below,
But ere I trip and in air slip
And meet what makes me meat,
I’ll rip my tongue and tear my lips
To tune a tune to treat.
For thee, soft snow I softly sigh
I whisper wisps per flake
Of praise appraising how you lie
Beneath the steps I take!
And for the wind, a window in
To gaze a gal called Gale.
The tempest temptress you were then,
But now you’re soft and frail!
But as she rose to the final note, a gust hit her right where it shouldn’t have done. Had the blow been less forceful, or had she focused a little more on surviving than on how impressive the timing of it all was, she might not have fallen. But those things did not happen. Instead, as the burst of air slapped her in all the most inconvenient places, she lost balance and tumbled over the edge.
But Tella T’iin did not fall to her death. She would have — gruesomely — but the whole business was cut short by her own surprisingly strong fingertips. As she fell, they grasped the edge just in time to save her life, or at least to stay her execution. But her fingers, however strong they may have surprised you to be, were not enough to save her things. As she fell, so did that hat she kept insisting on wearing and — much worse — her bag, holding in it every item she had brought to help her travels and every piece she had saved of her life growing up. But not a button.
Looking down, Tella immediately wished she had chosen another direction. Up, perhaps, or left. Left had always been good. But down proved itself worthy in the end, for as she looked, she saw a button. Not falling a thousand bread boxes to its death, but sitting calmly on top of her dangling foot, staring up at her with absolutely no eyes. And it seemed to her as if the button were saying, “I’ve only ever wanted to have adventures with you, and I’m not leaving until this one is done.”
And so it was that Tella T’iin, just when she felt most alone, just when she thought she could die, realized that neither thing was possible. She had never been alone, never truly, for she had always had a button. And if that sounds stupid to you, I hope you find a button.
Suddenly in her mind, she was the barrier for the mountain to climb. She was the obstacle blinding and battling the wind and the snow. Her voice was the inspiration for the cracking thunder, her soul was the electricity that shone in the lightning, and her eyes were the stars that pierced the clouds. She was not meant to fall, not made to let go, not created to die on the side of the home she had just found. And She awoke, and suddenly Tella T’iin was Infinite, and Her realm of Forever was the pulsing at Her fingertips and the drumming in Her veins, and She was the Goddess of Adventure and the Unknown. And Everything was.
Then, as She pulled Herself and Her button to safety, Everything stopped. Sitting there on the ledge that was too small above the cliff that was too tall, she became simply Tella T’iin again. She tried to catch her breath, but it kept avoiding and evading her. She decided breathing was overrated. Rocks don’t breathe, and most of them get along just fine.
Just as she felt she was getting over all that breathing nonsense, she felt something else, too. Something new. Something painful. Then less painful. Then painful again. Then less painful. Then she figured it out, calmly and carefully stood on the ledge, and ran. She didn’t wobble, wibble, or trot. She ran — pregnant, on the edge of a cliff, on a secret mountain, above the top of the world, having contractions — and she ran fast. What was impossible before was now necessary. She had to get somewhere safe.
As she rounded the corner at the edge of the cliff, she was relieved to see the stairs taking a more pragmatic approach to their job — cutting almost straight up the mountain. She bounded up steps at a time. Two steps. Three steps. Two steps. Two steps. Four steps. Nope, not four steps. Three steps. Five steps? Definitely not. And so she ran and leapt and hurt for close to two full minutes until her body reminded her that it was a body, and she was forced to stop and take up breathing again.
However slowed she may have been, she was not deterred. The land around her looked safe enough — an evergreen forest rose up on her left and a vast, white wasteland extended to her right — and the storm had relaxed into a heavy, constant, bitter snow. The only problem was that the trees of this particular forest had the odd habit of, just occasionally, making the exact sound of a horde of horrific beasts stalking their tired, weakened prey. In fact, had she not been so focused on climbing, she might have stopped to congratulate them on their truly spot on impression of monsters scrambling over each other to eat a poor, unsuspecting creature with a nice button and no hat.
She knew there were meant to be other beings on the mountain, but she was yet to encounter any and didn’t see why that ought to change now. “Nothing is different,” she told herself, “It’s the same old hidden mountain just above the top of the world, with many names and none, and a doorframe or whatever. There’s no need for anybody to try and eat anyone else. Certainly not a pregnant woman. I’ve heard it’s bad luck to eat pregnant women.” She said this last bit with far more volume and enunciation than she had mustered for the rest of it.
As she continued to climb, she picked up a large stick sitting next to the steps that had just been flung from the forest, probably by some natural process. Tella had never before encountered a natural process that did anything of the sort, but she was certain that she couldn’t possibly be aware of all the natural processes. That had to be it. At any rate, it couldn’t have been thrown at her by something that would like to eat her and her button. That would be silly. What kinds of monsters eat buttons?
She now walked — and contracted — with the stick, which she had picked up as a hiking tool and not as a potential weapon, and sporadically flung it around her in order to stay limber and not to ward off predators she thought she heard jumping out at her. As she walked — and contracted — she saw something beautiful — tall, red, and perfect. It looked like another stone plinth, but it could not be. She had seen several on her climb now, each the same: tall and grey, engraved with a large mountain, the words “You are here,” a small ‘x’ (always in a slightly different spot), and a dishearteningly large number.
As she drew closer it became clear to her, however, that this was in fact another plinth, and that perhaps its color meant this was indeed a new part of the mountain, with new things to be afraid of. It also became clear that she couldn’t walk much further, so she hobbled up the final few steps to the landing where the statue stood and read it aloud before collapsing. “You are here. 11,267,449,000 steps remain.”
Sitting on the sun-warmed landing with her back against the stone, Tella now looked directly into the forest — a direction she had been fervently avoiding to this point. The tree line came to a short cliff face that curved around the left side of the landing. The sun shone above and behind it, directly into her eyes, piercing through the currently thin clouds, but she was sure she saw some things scurrying on top of the ridge. She hated when things scurried. Nothing ever scurried with good intentions as far as she was concerned.
And, in this instance at least, she was right. Though she did not know it, the things she had seen scurrying above were the same things she had been hearing since she crossed the ledge: the Varatin, the half-lizards. There are many abominations, beasts, and creatures across the hidden mountain of which it is right to be afraid. Varatin are among the most fearsome. Varatin, or half-lizards as they are more commonly known, are half lizard. They are also half something else, usually something terrifying. There are lizard-bears, tiger-lizards, leopard-lizards, kangaroo-lizards, dragon-lizards, lizard-dragons, lizard-lions, ram-falcon-lizards, and many more. What is most terrifying about these animals is that they travel in groups (called “killyourfamilies”) of up to 50. Currently, they are locked in an ageless, never-ending war with the Chamthu, the half-wolves, which means they’re in a bad mood.
This particular killyourfamily of Varatin, though small, was among the most bloodthirsty, ruthless killyourfamilies around. Most of them even wore leather jackets, and you wouldn’t like to know where they got the leather. And now they were advancing, very slowly. They were seven total – a lizard-lion, two falcon-lizards, three lizard-panthers, and, at the very back, a small lizard-wolf. Even among these wretches the lizard-wolf was an abomination, a token of ultimate betrayal. She was not permitted a leather jacket.
As they advanced, with more slow, menacing circling than was strictly necessary, Tella frantically waved her stick, trying to scare them, succeeding instead at conducting the second movement of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor (though it had not yet been written). Then she wasn’t. She could now focus on nothing else but giving life to her child, a life destined to end as it was only beginning. The half-lizards were getting close, too close, still circling and snapping their jaws in shockingly well-timed, almost rhythmic synchronization. Was it her imagination, or were they all doing a sort of lift step with their left legs? Were they…dancing?
But Tella T’iin never found out what they were doing, whether or not it was dancing, or how much time it had taken to synchronize their snapping like that, for just then her baby was born. And the only thought she had time for before the Varatin attacked was that the baby was a lot warmer than she had expected.
Before she could scoop her child into her arms, before she could hold it and save it, just for a moment, from all the dangers of the world, it leapt. Her newborn baby leapt — high into the air — and he was on fire. But he did not burn. Instead, as he leapt into the air, the fire faded up his body and into his hair, which turned and burned bright orange. Then, with amazing strength for a person of any size, he grabbed his umbilical cord with both hands, and swung the placenta at the other end like a mace on a chain, slamming one attacking falcon-lizard into the other.
He continued to swing it, with great strength and precision, all around as he fell back to the ground, swatting and blocking every advance the half-lizards made. It was a thing amazing, glorious, and gross to behold. Watching, Tella T’iin thought her son must have the strength of 50 children. Actually, at that moment, he had the strength of 100 babies, 2 men, an excited toddler, and half a horse.
The second his feet touched the ground, the six jacket-clad Varatin lunged forward again in unison, but he ducked and dodged with a politician’s ease. The only contact with his person that he allowed them was to bite off his umbilical cord for him, which would no longer serve as an effective weapon in such close combat. He stepped and jumped around and between them as they flew back and forth, over and under him — tripping them, kicking them, letting them run into each other. He was not only beating them, he was humiliating them. He was showing them who really ought to be wearing the leather jacket in this fight.
Then, with an air of boredom and finality, Tella T’iin’s unnamed child grabbed the large stick from beside his mother, touched it to his hair, and lit it on fire. With that, the half-lizards scattered, scampered, and skitted away, and as they raced back over the cliff, the lizard-wolf took one more look at the boy with the flaming stick.
As the child approached his mother, he dropped the stick, fell limp into her waiting arms, and cried. With sweet words and soft rocking, she comforted him and then tore a bit of her tunic and used it to wrap him. Then she took her button, which she had held tight this whole time, slid it into his wrappings, and told him that his name was Tomar T’iin, that she loved him very much, and that he would be the greatest warrior in all the world. And to that, he fell asleep.
And next he awoke, his mother was setting him down softly beside the red plinth and crying, just as softly, as she whispered goodbye. Two blurry figures stood beside her, and they all seemed to cry. And as they cried together, Tella’s tears fell and broke on the button she had given her son, and it looked as though the button were crying too. Then, in a flash of light and snow and wind, the three adults disappeared, and Tomar took up their crying. And far off on the mountain, a strange and mysterious person heard his weeping and started to run.
And so begins the tale of Tomar T’iin, Warrior Baby, born of battle, who wielded the Placenta and the Stick, Scourge of Half-Lizards in Leather Jackets, who will one day be called the Flame atop the Mountain.