There were places in the Clara Lux Mountains that not even God knew about. Though they were His brides, these peaks forming the great range which traversed the earth near its shoreline, they held secrets - all but the central peak, the tallest, most beautiful of them, Wilhelmina, God's Queen, which He had hewn from a magical island in the middle of the ocean and carried to settle here in the midst of His other brides: she held no secrets, at least none she knew of. But these sisters of Wilhelmina: it was said that they bore a secret for every foot of their height, and that these many secrets were their endless jealousies of their Lord's chosen Queen; but, not wanting Him to know, they hid them in recesses and caverns barely visible from the surface but reaching deep into the granite and limestone which had forged the great peaks from an ancient gravel pit where fires seared the earth's crust and lightening reached to the skies before falling back into the pit with a fierce howl. One such cavern was nestled between Wilhelmina and her closest sister, nameless now like all the others but once called Clarissa. In her mind the entire range was named for her; but, as God had explained to her many times, this was not possible, since He had only named the range after He had placed Wilhelmina beside her sisters, at which moment they had all lost their names - to which she always countered that the name of the mountains, as the mountains themselves, had existed long before there ever was a God. This, in turn, always produced a fierce rage in the deity, who swore on everything He ever created that before Him there existed nothing but chaos. Clarissa merely shrugged, sending an avalanche of mud and debris onto the villages and people below.
"These are my servants," God would remind His second bride; "be careful of them."
"Servants to you," Clarissa replied; "vermin to me." For Clarissa hated these tiny creatures, barely visible from her summit, nearly as much as she hated her favored sister, Wilhelmina. "Made in His likeness!" she would smirk in contempt. "I should hide my image beneath a pit of tar before I shared it so indiscriminately!" And then she would entice the clouds that always hovered nearby to empty into great swirling sheaths of snow for days on end, until at last, her crags and steep walls covered in ice, she would say to the heavens "Am I not the most beautiful thing in existence?"
More than anything else, though, what Clarissa hated most was the mysterious island in the middle of the ocean from which her rival sister had been drawn. The Isle of Magic. A place she had always contemplated, always wondered what it was, what the strange eerie lights arising from it meant, always longed to be a part of. But never saw, no matter how she strained to pierce the mist that never lifted, never broke, never evaporated; the deep thick mist that had always been there, that no one had ever seen descend or congeal about the island, that nothing ever entered or left until the day Wilhelmina had risen like a great towering beacon out of the cloud into the sky to be borne by winds to the Clara Lux Mountains, where she settled within the crater separating Clarissa from her sisters to the south. She fumed and raged and would have crushed the island into the very core of the earth if only that vile mist would have dissipated long enough to allow her to see it first; but nothing would move it. A thousand tremors she sent streaming across the ocean, but to no avail: great masses of shock waves that rocked the island to its very foundation, thunderous waves that upturned trees and squeezed the mortar from the great castles and toppled house after house. But nothing she could do, no destruction she could unleash, could lift the mist. Like an impregnable cocoon it held the island within, as if only whatever metamorphosis lay breeding beneath it could undo it, and only at the appointed hour. Should the universe end, and the moment yet not be right, the mist would remain; and the island burrowed within.
But a world, all the while, lived on her slopes of which she knew nothing. A world as much the changed stuff of the island as a butterfly of its caterpillar. A world borne and nurtured of the soft warm mist coiling the Isle of Magic. A world in exile high on the snow capped peaks of this mountain who would wreak so great a vengeance upon the place her rival was created; upon the home of a race of magicians, whose magic God had stolen and used for His many purposes. And upon the beings who dwelt on her rocky ledges and coiled about her many trails as the seasons shifted the cold from point to point: beings who, because her vanity was so great, she never allowed into her thoughts. Beings whose vision saw everything Clarissa sought vainly to witness, though they knew nothing of their ancestors except for the stories handed down through the ages, stories they transferred to stone and ice as their vision took hold of what they were told and turned it to a thousand legends depicted in a sweep of paintings across the faces of this mountain. These were the descendents of the Magicians, driven from their island by an endless stream of catastrophes culminating in a monstrous tidal wave which leveled everything. These were the children of the Isle of Magic Clarissa had sought to destroy, come now to live upon her frigid slopes.
They trekked as high as the foothills would allow, and followed wherever the snows fell heaviest; for, though it was not cold they searched for, it was cold that gave them what they sought. And the name of this elusive thing that could only be found where the climate was harshest and life most tenuously coaxed from the forces of nature was freedom: freedom, with all the great values of human existence streaming from its icy font. Peace, security, kindness, generosity - as precious as magic spells and potions; as difficult to find and keep; as dependent on one special location; and once lost, lost forever.
The bitter cold of Clarissa's slopes - and her seasons were, like her winds, snows and piercing clouds, more severe than those of her sister peaks, just as the tremors she generated were more powerful and wreaked greater havoc below: this bitterest of cold kept all others away from where these descendants of magicians lived, and kept their world safe from the madness and violence that festered into ever engorging demons threatening to end all life within the shadows of the Clara Lux. The people of the shore, those of the valleys, the ones who dwelt in the foothills: they never ventured beyond the clouds, therefore they never knew that a race of beings lived in the cold and passed month by month along the deep trails that covered the jutting crags of Clarissa. This race had learned to live in snow and gather sustenance from the rare plants that grew far above ground; and only when the blizzards made Clarissa's slopes impassable did they take to the caves that honeycombed her massive granite walls. But they knew the dangers lurking within those caves, and vowed as a people never to become dependent upon them for shelter, though there were places where even the warmest blooded creature might flourish, for deep within the snow and ice of eternal winter were pools of water heated almost to a steam by magnetic currents arising from the many hidden caverns, and warming the air in those caverns enough to support life where otherwise would be none. These were the caves where Clarissa and her sisters hid their jealousies, and where the moist warmth arising like the mist that encircled the Isle of Magic nurtured those jealousies and gave them form; but not a form born of the magic of that island: one born of the fierce hatreds of these the lesser brides of the Deity. Hideous forms, the forms of monsters and many-headed beasts, some with arms like a spider's, some with the teeth of a tiger, some with razored claws; and all with an insatiable urge to destroy anything and everything. But with no power to advance so much as a step beyond the deep caverns which had given them life. These were the Icemen of the legends and nightmares of all the peoples of the world, whether on the wayward or leeward side of the Clara Lux or in the lush foothills that slowly vanished along the jets of granite lifting upward into the clouds.
There had been one single such creature - one Iceman - brought here from without, stolen by the Deity from the Isle of Magic and turned to a beast at God's behest. But only one. And it alone had ever been seen by the people below, though they ascribed it to an entire race of creatures they had never seen, and fixed their home as the snowy caps of the Clara Lux, where they had never been. In irony only were their imaginings correct. Whereas those descendants of the Isle of Magic who dwelt on Clarissa's slopes had actually seen the beasts, had felt their fetid lurkings, had suffered the nearness of indescribably monstrosities that they might escape the madness of humanity below - for while the Icemen might tear a man to pieces out of sheer hatred, humanity could do so without stirring a single emotion. And while the Icemen endlessly awaited their victims, humanity actually sought out its victims. Avoid the caverns, and be ever vigilant should the blizzards drive you to them, and you could escape these beasts; but there was no escape from humanity once it had fixed upon its path. The descendants of magicians chose therefore to risk death at the hands of beasts rather than go among creatures capable of a cold, systematic destruction of one another. And just as the first Iceman had become a part of humanity's legends, so too had these Icemen become part of the legends spelled out brightly on the rocks of the Clara Lux by these descendants of magicians, these painters of rock, these dreamers and visionaries: these artists of their own souls.
* * * * *
God was out walking Clarissa's many winding paths, searching a place to deposit His seed (for He had grown weary of His chosen Queen, Wilhelmina, with her all to perfect ways, her calmness and gentleness and sweetness and, above all else, her incorrigible innocence; and He longed for the abrupt and vain hauteur of His second bride) when He happened upon something that so intrigued Him He forgot what He had come here for. He had noticed these strange rocks before: they dotted Clarissa's perimeter, and He had often commented upon the bright swirls and clear lines that seemed almost to compose images, but always to complain of these "ugly splotches and vile markings," wondering aloud what they were and how come they to be there, to which Clarissa would always reply that she had put them there and found them "beautiful raiment fit for a queen." Her vanity would not allow her any other explanation; nor did it allow her awareness of them at all. Her thoughts were always elsewhere, in a deep mist in the middle of the ocean.
"You are not a queen," God would remind her.
"Perhaps none of us are who we imagine we are," she would pointedly reply.
But this was different, this rock, these markings, the image they seemed to form. It almost shimmered with life, its hideous nine-headed visage appeared to be watching, its seventeen arms seemed about to reach right off the stone and clutch its prey, its hundred fangs almost dripped blood. It was the most beautiful thing God had ever beheld. Even the creature He had stolen from the Isle of Magic and set loose to terrorize a populace unwilling to bestow upon Him the love and honor He warranted dissolved into a murky, nondescript blur alongside this beast.
"Surely this cannot be an illusion," He exclaimed. "Surely this must be a thing alive within this rock, that I might reach out and touch and somehow release from its prison. This could be my prodigy, the very form of my living seed. I must free it! I must!"
God approached the rock. Slowly He caressed it. "Come!" He coaxed. "Arise!" "Be with me, my son!" "Come!" "Arise!" But nothing He could envision could bring it to life. It was trapped in the rock and He could not free it. He longed to hold it in His arms and carry it below to set upon His grandest altar, built at the base of Wilhelmina, His Queen. But until He could find a way - the perfect combination of spells - to free it, He would keep the discovery hidden, lest Clarissa, in a jealous rage, hurtle the rock down her steep walls in an avalanche and destroy it.
Born of jealousy: the real beast, of which this was but a reflection cast in stone by the hands of a painter; yet God imagined the very jealousy that had created it would destroy it, just as He imagined it the shoot of His seed (although in the truer sense of its having been generated by His slights to Clarissa it was indeed His progeny). At no cost would God jeopardize His magnificent discovery, though to do so would ironically yield the creature behind the beast portrayed upon the rock, the monster that dwelt deep within a cave on Clarissa's coldest, most forbidding slope, and wallowed in the moist warmth of her womb, patiently awaiting its prey. The real beast.
* * * * *
In the year of the most magnificent spots the sun had ever displayed, the bitterest cold that had ever been known settled onto Clarissa's peaks and drove like spikes of crystal into the pores of her slopes - a cold drawn from a great mass of pure white clouds which had formed fifty thousand feet above and hovered for days until at last descending to within reach. It came at first as a sheath of wind that sheared the tops of the trees that grew beneath her pinnacle; then, as a blinding spray of snow surrounding her forbidding southern wall and covering everything, a snow so fine it looked like an army of mites barely visible to the naked eye, stirring unceasingly in search of shelter and food. Then, finally, the ices that had lodged deepest within the clouds loosened their symmetry enough for Clarissa to pull them to her breast, that great rise of granite beneath which lay her heart, which was her womb as well, and the monster her jealousy had generated.
The descendants of magicians had witnessed more than usual activity, and activity more virulent than usual, in the foothills and valleys below and the shoreline and plains beyond. They had moved to higher ground and to the southern wall, where their knowledge of clouds had told them it would be coldest, and safest.
"This mountain is more agitated than I have ever known her to be," the oldest descendant of magicians said to the others. "Come, let us try our hand at portraying her state." And rocks were gathered round, and the descendants of magicians sat each before a rock with paints and brushes in his hand that he might put to stone his impressions of Clarissa's agitation.
But there was one among them - a stern young man, the greatest of the rock painters, in whose hands the skills of the magicians had metamorphosized into a power that could cast images fuller of life and more vibrant than anyone else who had ever lived on these peaks - one not convinced of the perfectness of creating stories upon rocks, not content with the ancient ways his people had evolved from their ancestors' magic and spells and other means of causing great things, not satisfied that the portrayal of existence was its highest expression. One among them who yearned for something more than paints and brushes and shimmering images, but had no means of expressing that yearning, for it was too indistinct to come into clear focus long enough for him to define it.
Even so, he sat round with the others, and spread his paints before him, and took his brush in his hand that he might in a series of careful strokes give form to the gathering winds and snows. Enough beauty had escaped his distracted attentions to dazzle the other rock painters into ceasing their efforts to witness his when, suddenly, he picked up the rock and hurled it over the precipice. Then he walked to the ledge and watched as it rebounded ever downward, becoming smaller until disappearing altogether long before striking bottom.
An old man, not the oldest of these descendants but the most adept at sensing his fellow descendants' moods and attitudes, came also to the ledge and addressed this rock painter. The cold grew colder even as he spoke, the wind nearly drowned his words, the snows cast a jumble of fogs about the two.
"Do not imagine yourself the first to ever wrestle with these thoughts," he said. "Our ancestors waged mightier battles than we can dream of; and these matters were settled. A way was worked out to deal with the world without disrupting their own spirits. Much was sacrificed - by them, and now by us. But in sacrificing that which disrupts, a great freedom opened up; and in this freedom were the seeds of great magic. But only after resolving the other matters could these seeds be nurtured."
"Perhaps," the rock painter mused. "Or perhaps it was the battle itself that opened the path to all their greatness: not the resolution but the act of resolving, the process, the movement, the strenuous weighting of one force first, then the other, then back again, and yet again. Perhaps the struggle itself is what produced the magic; not the freeing themselves of struggle. We're free of struggle," he went on after a moment of deep breath, when his lungs felt as if they would freeze, "but where is our magic? What spells do we cast? What potions conjure? What spirits summon? Where is the magic in our freedom?"
"Our magic is in our work," the old man replied. "We create something where nothing existed. Is that not magic enough?"
No, the rock painter replied, but inwardly. Outwardly, he said nothing, but simply returned to where the others were gathered.
"We cannot fathom this cold," he said. "We must seek shelter, must we not?" he asked of his elders.
"Yes," they all agreed, "we must."
They hurriedly finished their work, watching the ice separate from the softer fluffs of snow onto their wet paints, their images growing blurred as the melting and reforming crystals sank into the thickened vibrancy of their colors. "We will lose all this," the rock painter muttered.
"No," replied his elder. "When we return from our shelter, it will be to a gallery all the richer for this intrusion."
The caves of Clarissa's slopes were well known to these magicians' descendants as sinister places which must be avoided: though they had never set foot in any of them, they knew, by the same deep sensing of their world that gave them pictures of its many wonders, that they were places where evil had been given reign - just as they knew the lands below the peaks of the Clara Lux to be given over to evil doings. They felt, many times, the bone shivering touches of Clarissa's endless jealousies and rages; and they knew that such fierce hatreds could not help but put cordons of form about themselves. And it was in the caves that these formings took place, sculpted by the warm moist air arising from Clarissa's soul.
At last, a cave appeared through the howling snows, and the painters of rock made for it, though with every step nearer they grew ever more aware of an unnaturally malevolent atmosphere within. "We cannot go in here," some of the elders warned; but even as their warnings were being spoken they knew otherwise. They knew they must go in, or all perish on these slopes, for the cold had thickened almost to a sheath of ice, and visibility ceased, and no one - not even the greatest visionary among them - could hope to find another place of shelter. So they continued onward till at last the cave was before them.
The opening was larger than that of most of Clarissa's caves; easily it was traversed. In barely a moment the entire history of the universe, as written in the wandering descent from the Isle of Magic to the slopes of the Clara Lux, entered into the mountain. A great stillness began, which spread along a hundred foot passage of overhanging rock no higher than the tallest painter. And when the last had entered, the first stood at the end of this corridor. But rather than ending in a solid sheet of stone, the passage opened into yet another passage.
"Let us go no farther," the elders said. "We are safe here from the wind. We can survive. Let us rest now until the storm abates.
But others wanted to go forward. "Let us see what lies beyond," they said. "Why stop here when chance may never again bring us to this place?"
"No," insisted the elders. "There is too much risk. We must wait out the storm here. Our imaginations can feed our curiosity." And with these words they began establishing their camp. While they busied themselves, the rock painter who had questioned the wisdom of his people's path lingered at the end of the corridor.
"You mean to continue on," the old man who had conversed with him on the slope said.
"Yes," the rock painter replied.
"And nothing I or anyone can say will deter you?"
"No. I must see what lies beyond. Not merely imagine it but see it for itself."
"Then go along - and go quickly, for others will follow. They do not have your need, they will do as well to sit, as we elders sit, and contemplate, and in that way conjure up the world beyond this passage. But if they see you go, they will be drawn. And they must not, for the danger, the evil within this place, is immense. I feel that this place you go to is the very heart and soul of evil. It is the purest form, it is the fountain from which all evil springs. Quickly! The work is nearly done. Go now!"
But they had lingered a moment too long. The others caught sight of them, and came up to the rock painter. The instant they approached they knew what he was about to do. "We will go with you," the younger among them said.
"I cannot stop you," he said; "but neither do I encourage you." Turning once more to the old man, he said only "I am sorry."
"I will go too," said the old man. "Young as you are, and eager as you are to experience this place, you may fail to sense the core of evil within it until it is too late to escape. For already my thoughts have gone ahead, and the world I sense beyond this passage will deceive you and lull your spirits, for it is like nothing you have ever dreamed of. Come. I have already been there, I will lead the way."
In a moment, against all the elders' pleas to remain behind, the party, led by the old man and the rock painter, disappeared out of the passage into the world beyond.
No one, not even the old man, could have imagined how beautiful this cavern was. No one, not even the rock painter, could have captured the infinity of design. No one's skill could have represented it to the outside world.
"We have entered heaven," everyone either thought or spoke outright.
The cavern walls were terraced white as if a thousand glaciers were delicately piled on top of one another, each to capture a spear of blue at its edge should a flame draw near. Steam arising from heated pools deep within the cave congealed against the colder walls surrounding the entrance into an endless pattern work of shapes and subtleties ascending the vertical planes. At regular intervals massive columns pierced the terraces' ascent; smaller columns arose at each level to fade into the next level. Mists enwraped the higher terraces, the way clouds cover the peaks of the Clara Lux, touching the ceiling as clouds seem to touch the sky. A stream descended in a series of cataracts into the hidden depths beyond the cavern.
"Were there only trees, and grasses, this place would be the great plateau at the southern end of the Isle of Magic," said the old man.
"Your dreams have gone there, too?" the rock painter asked.
"No," came the reply. "When I was a child, my grandfather took me there, as his grandfather had taken him, and as I will take my grandchild at the first turning of green. The southern end of the island has never changed, not in a thousand eons. It is abandoned; all the Magicians left when their store of magic was destroyed by this creature in whose bowels we now stand. This mountain is as evil as anything in a thousand worlds. Her beauty can neither obscure nor purify her evil. We must be on our guard, for in a creature such as this the greater the beauty the greater the danger; and this is surely the center of her beauty. I cannot fathom what we may encounter here, but it will be horrible in proportion to the magnificence of its surroundings. No descendent of the magicians has ever been killed in the Clara Lux; but none have ever ventured so near the heart of any peak before. So let us be wary."
The party, knowing the dangers and wishing to be gone from this cavern before it was too late, yet remained, drawing, instead of farther away, ever nearer the terraces of ice. A hissing echoed from the hidden depths where the stream disappeared, together with a sound as of mud being raised from the mist banks of the stream. The hissing grew steadily in volume, the lifting and settling of mud seemed to be drawing nearer, as of footsteps approaching.
"We will never again see such beauty," the members of the party said to one another. "Let us remain as long as we can. Can whatever it is we hear be as terrible as these terraces, these columns, these blue flames of light are wondrous?"
The old man warned his fellow descendents that however beauty may transfix its beholders, it is nothing compared to the hypnotic pull of absolute ugliness. "Men will sooner tire of the most exquisite form and texture than take flight from the most hideous," he said to the others; but they were not inclined to believe him - they who had never seen anything truly ugly, they who had lived their whole lives in search of beauty, they who had drawn and carved and in a hundred other ways given expression to their visions. They could not imagine being held captive by anything hideous or monstrous, when their every impulse was repelled by even the thought of it.
Still the hissing and the lifting of mud grew stronger; still the party of rock painters remained. All the while a strange, barely perceptible transformation took place. The ice terraces and columns and trapped blue flames began to blur, the nearer they were to the dark steamy place where the sounds arose the more readily the transformation took place. They were melting, infinitely slowly like a glacier might move, but melting as surely as a block of ice melts beneath the rising sun. The approaching sounds carried heat.
"We must go," said the old man, "or we may very well perish in this place. I sense a malevolence such as no one has ever encountered. We must go at once."
All agreed at last to leave, but it was too late, for a shadow opened and brought forth the beast spawned of Clarissa's jealousy; and the old man's prophecy came fulfilled. The absolute horror of this beasts ugliness gripped the minds of these descendents of magicians and held more firmly than the beauty of the cavern had earlier held them.
It was huge, nine feet in height and weighing half a ton, possessed of a hideous visage wrinkled into thick brown furls vertical against the frame of its face. It had three irregular orifices corresponding to the space where eyes would open; and from each protruded a pale yellow orb with a reddish center. A foot beneath lay its mouth, a tiny slit which grew larger and higher and deepened onto greenish fangs pocked by a sickly black. Its trunk was furled and ridged, almost jagged, at the apex of each furl. Its arms and legs, brown like the rest of its torso, ended in nine claws each, which lay at angles to one another. But none of this was its horror, none its ugliness, none the spew of evil filling the cavern. For it seemed disjointed; not un-attached to itself but without a center. It seemed to have no unity of purpose, no central theme the way every living creature, even the most uncomely, has. Its parts - limbs, face, genitals - only adhered to its trunk; they did not seem to arise out of it or be attached by anything but large grayish tendons. The horror of its form was its formlessness. And as there seemed to be no being below its flesh to give it form and purpose, so too did there appear to be no standard directing its behavior. A shape without form, a motion without movement. A creature poised to run absolutely amok. A beast whose entire existence was doing. Eating; sleeping; tugging at its thick folds of flesh as if scratching; tearing icicles from the cavern wall; ripping an intruder to shreds: each an act done, with no prior impetus and no further consequence. Not done because of, or for, anything: just done, and over with. And in this was the vilest ugliness imaginable.
The descendents of magicians, these painters of rock, just as the old man had predicted, were held absolutely transfixed by this beast, this progeny of Clarissa's monumental jealousies, this being-less being less than fifty feet away. The mud of the river bed, hissing as each step forward lifted then returned it, framed the unseen bond holding the rock painters fast to the spot where they stood. The melting ice of the terraced walls, arising as steam and falling in trickles to the cavern floor, caught their horror and carried it as if through a network of arteries to the deepest reaches of the cave. The awful heat the beast gave off made them wish to lie down and sleep forever in the pit of the mountain. They were but moments away from eternity.
"It must not be allowed to do," a voice spoke from out of the mist - the mist that a moment earlier had been sculptures of an ecstatic materialization. But not the old man's voice. It was the rock painter - the greatest of the rock painters - who spoke. "If it does not do, it cannot be. Go, each of us, a different way. Each call out, in turn. So that it is pulled a hundred ways. Until it is pulled apart by its own impulses. Go! Now!"
The party of rock painters quickly separated; each moved a different way from the others, until in a moment a fan of nearly equidistant points was formed.
"Here!" the rock painter cried out; the beast stopping in its tracks, turning to the cry, climbing onto the thickened mud bank of the stream, beginning its first step toward that which had made the sound. Before it could finish that step, the next cried out.
"Here!" It turned again.
"Here!" And yet again, and again, and ever again, as the cry escaped from a legion of points circumscribing an arch - like the great archway leading, a thousand years ago, to the Hall of Magic in the middle of a mist swollen sea - and arch seen only in the stories the old men passed on to their grandsons, and the dreams these stories inspired in a hundred generations of young artists.
And with each turn, it grew more disjointed, this beast whose only impulse was to set upon that which had caught its attention. Until finally it cried out in hideous anguish and, with it hands of nine claws, which dangled by the merest straps of tendon, reached up and ripped away its ears from its skull that it might no more hear its thousand-voiced tormentor. And a sickly yellow blood streamed down its furrowed cheeks from the wounds where its ears had let a thousand sounds torment its brain.
Then it moved again, toward the first thing it saw, no matter what that might be. For it would no longer be distracted by a cacophony of disparate noise. It was within an arm's reach of its first victim when a sudden flailing about of objects caught its eye; and it turned toward the objects, for motion was higher in its hierarchy of stimuli than stillness.
The rock painter had distracted the beast by waving his arms back and forth across its field of vision. It left its path to pursue this new one. As it nearly reached the rock painter, he called to another to do as he had done. Once again, the beast stopped in its tracks to pursue this new movement; once again, too, the motion ceased just as it neared, and another set of arms took its place. So that it turned a third time, and a fourth, and yet again, and again, until it grew so angry and its violence so overpowering that with its hands of nine claws it reached up and with a single movement gouged its eyes from their sockets. A stream of thick yellow blood poured from the empty sockets down its cheeks and drop by drop fell upon the mud bank where it stood, the clotted blood perfectly matching, in texture, color, consistency the clods of dirt forming the bank.
Then it began to move, slowly, steadily, toward one of the descendents of magicians, who happened to be nearest. Its nostrils flared, its head raised back so that the nostrils obtained prominence among its remaining features.
"We can do nothing now!" cried the descendents. "It will seek us one by one by our scent and thereby destroy us. We are lost! Even if we run we cannot escape it!"
"Each of you!" the rock painter called out. "Remove a garment - hurl it at the beast! Quickly!"
Each member of the exploration party did as commanded; each removed a piece of clothing; each hurled it at the beast.
"Now, quickly, step back, all of you!" the rock painter called out again. Each member removed a few steps from where he had stood, leaving his garment in his wake, the sum total of their garments composing a semi-circle about the creature.
It reached out, in turn, to where each garment lay; but found nothing. Its hands fumbled and flailed wildly but could extract no substance from any of the points its nostrils told it held its victims. Loudly, deafeningly, it wailed its anguish; then reached, as it had twice before, to destroy the source of its anguish. In a blinding instant its claws ripped its nostrils from its face. A third time a stream of yellow poured from the ruptured visage.
"Surely now it will die," said one of the descendents of magicians.
"Surely now we will," the old man corrected the speaker. "As long as this mountain's jealousies live, this beast will ever be revived. Can you not see that its blood and the substance of this cave are of the same design?"
"Even so, old man, it has no way to find us now. We are safe no matter what."
"It no longer has senses with which to seek us out," the old man said. "But now it goes by its instincts alone. Such a beast, with such a tool, will find us as surely as if we were strapped to its back."
"We must kill it," said one of the descendents of magicians.
"It cannot be killed," said the old man.
"Then we must let it kill us," said the rock painter. All turned toward him. "Are we not artists?" he asked. "Have we not fashioned universes, worlds, islands, and every conceivable manner of being with our bare hands? Let us now become, for once and for all time, the greatest artists the mind can imagine. Let us create ourselves. Let each among us mold from this ground his own image and likeness and set it in the path of this creature that it might die in his place. Come! Let us begin at once, while it still reels from the loss of its senses."
"There is not time enough!" the others protested.
"Then we are not worthy to continue our lives as artists," replied the rock painter. "Come! Do it! Each of you! Now! There is time. Put all of your skills to work for something at last truly worthy of them! Come! Come!"
And they all set upon the task of molding another self from the raw stuff of this cavern. And as they worked, the beast born of a mountain's jealousies searched deep within itself for its soul, its essence, its true and ultimate being. And as they completed their work; as each of these descendents of those who, long ago, had left the mists and seas surrounding the Isle of Magic, put before him his own likeness; as a stand of statues fanned across an invisible arch between the churning river and the entrance to the cavern; the beast at last found what it had sought. And like a spew of lava gushing from the earth's core, it sprang, howling and spitting, from the river's bank. And presently it was upon the host of images, ripping and tearing and hurling pieces against the walls of the cavern, until at last every single statue was utterly destroyed.
Then it stopped its flow and turned and retreated to the river. Almost at once the ice began reasserting itself, reestablishing the integrity of patterns set deep within it, millions of eons before, by the force of winds upon hardening crusts of moisture. The farther the beast retreated, the more the ice crept throughout the cavern, fixing to walls of limestone and granite like lichen to tree bark. Patches of bare wall slowly ripened with shape and texture, furrowing downward from the cavern roof. An outline of terraces began filling the barren landscape. Droplets pelted the ground as if each were a seed implanting the impulse to rise up in slender columns. Raw matter crystallized in a sequence of slow but steady steps that, in time, would produce a piece of artwork against which all others would pale.
The old man was first to speak. "We are witnessing but a portion of the wellspring of our ancestors' magic," he said to the others. Then he thought further and said "Our magic too. For it was the magic of our fathers' as much as the power of our art that saved us. No skill alone could have produced such works as these torn statues in so short a period. What the ice is now working upon the cavern, we worked upon the clay here at our feet. We are as much a part of the great, mysterious forces that inhabit matter and determine its cause as were our fathers. The Isle of Magic is where we are. But, like our ancestors, we may not go among humanity; for, having chosen to divert these forces toward ends other than creation, humans have set themselves at odds with all other matter. To go among them is to risk losing our magic altogether."
"Nevertheless," a voice arose from among those gathered to hear the old man, "I will go among them."
It was the rock painter who had spoken. The others turned to him as if to perceive some strange manner of being never before encountered; looked at him as if he were not their brother but a new creature altogether.
"What can you mean?" they asked, but inside their question was a deeper question, one that begged a newfound language for translation: not what he had meant did they seek to learn, but what he had said. For no one of their race could have uttered such words.
"I have tasted such things as I have never imagined," he said. "Never has my work given me so powerful a thrill as when I faced that beast. The danger, the excitement of being pursued and having to defend my life. The need for cunning - not simply the cleverness works of art demand for their execution, or the skill of manipulating paints to make real what was only imagined: but the cunning needed to outwit death, the grace of movement needed to escape its servant. Having tasted life and death and having experienced the struggle to survive, I can never return to my work, to my paints, to my ideas and their realization. I can not remain on these icy slopes. I must go where the dangers are even greater than in this cavern. I must go among creatures whose blind and senseless passions make of even this beast a mere house pet. I don't know if it's possible to survive amidst their madness, but I must try. I must try."
"And what of the day when it will fall to you to return to the Isle of Magic?" asked the old man. "No one else will glean from that visit all that you will. It is through these visits, and the magic tales brought back to be added to our lore, that we renew ourselves. Would you deny us a great renewal? sentence us to something less simply because someone less must go in your place?"
"It is not a turning away from my people," the rock painter replied. "I may return. There is time for that. If I do, I will bring with me a new richness of experience."
"You may also bring a beast with you," said the old man. "Magic is not attained in one lifetime. Our ancestors were patient for eons before it was perfected. You seek to do in a span of years what took a people centuries to do. You are already beginning to be like the creatures you wish to go among."
"Whatever the cost, I will go," the rock painter told the old man.
"And whatever the cost," the old man in turn told the rock painter, "you are welcome to return."
Presently they left the cavern, with its beauteous forms coalescing behind them, and rejoined the others. Only the rock painter looked back, and only for a moment, for it was no longer beautiful to him. Its beauty had been ravaged in a moment of exhilaration; it no longer existed for him. The struggle alone existed; the place, like the elements creating the struggle, had dissipated into a shapeless fog.
The others rejoiced at being reunited with their fellow artists, whom they wondered if they would ever see again. In time the storm abated and they left the cave to wander the slopes of the mountain again. The snows had drifted almost to the top of the cave's entrance, but almost without effort they broke through to resume their endless trek through the mountain passes.
They came upon a rock which, alone of all the rocks, remained uncovered, unburied in snow and ice. Some chance combination of cross winds had kept it clear; or some vortex within the spiraling current of snow had formed above it which the cold could not break.
The rock painter went up to it. He reached out his hand and it felt warm to his touch. He knelt down in the thick blanket of snow and ice surrounding it and took out his paints. He looked up at the sky and studied the particles of ice glistening in a shaft of light where the clouds had parted. Then he began painting, the whole time keeping his eyes fixed on the gleaming swirl above. When he had finished, the old man approached.
"Will you hurl this one too?" asked the old man, already knowing the answer.
"No," said the rock painter. "This one belongs here."
The old man studied the rock. "Will this beast be the last thing you create?" he asked.
The rock painter did not reply as he gathered his paints and replaced them. He stared at the rock for a moment then turned to the old man.
"I must go now," he said. "Soon it will be the season for you to seek higher ground. I must seek elsewhere."
No one but the old man saw him leaving.