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The blackened finger lay in the snow, a spatter of leaked blood stark against the whiteness. After a few seconds the dead finger, swollen from necrotic decline, was covered with fresh fall carried in by the blizzard.

He stood, looking down at where his finger lay buried. "Never did like that one," he muttered, his voice muffled behind layers-upon-layers of ragged, ice-laden fabric. Tranton Seldon was talking to himself more and more these days.

Cauterising wasn't possible but the frozen air had numbed the wound, with the remaining stump already showing signs of spreading frostbite. He'd left it too late to amputate. Sheathing his hunting knife, he wrapped his hand in animal skins until it resembled a leather ball, thin shards of ice sticking out in all directions like filings sitting against a magnet.

The cold permeated every part of his body as the storm's tendrils grasped their way inside. He'd somehow avoided frostbite anywhere else but losing the finger was a sign of things to come. He'd be rolling sideways down the mountain, a limbless head and torso, by the time this place was done with him. Despite everything he grunted in amusement at the thought. In retrospect, coming here may have been a mistake.

There was no sky. Instead, the unending whiteness of the snow merged imperceptibly with the clouds, creating the feeling of being trapped inside a child's snow orb. More than once he'd felt nauseous, brought on by the lack of any visual aids, stumbling and losing his balance as his body tried to remember which way was up in a world of pure, blank nothingness.

He was a shambling mass of furs and skins, piled one upon the other, making him almost twice his normal size, waddling across the awful, murderous landscape. At first he'd merely covered his lower face and the back of his head, as the climbers back home had advised, freeing his eyes to see and nose to breathe, but at this altitude and this far into the cursed place it was no longer sufficient. Fashioning a small sliver of a window from two hardened leather scraps, pressed flat to each other and then wedged apart a little, he spent his days squinting through the three inch deep slit, while the rest of his head was entirely hidden. Falling was part of his daily routine, but at least the padding reduced the risk of breaking a bone on a hidden rock.

Cocooned inside the husks of dead animals, he had traversed the mountains for months, a man walking the top of the world, initially thrilling at the adventure and the sense of venturing into the unknown; now only delaying his certain end. Legend claimed that the peaks were impassable, and certainly there were no records of anybody crossing them successfully in the previous two hundred years - at least, nobody had returned to claim the glory. To attempt to do so was said to court death. It was called the long suicide. He believed it all now, yet had set out so boldly and stubbornly, against all advice and pleadings from his friends and the old ship's crew. Even then, back in the city, there'd been a part of him that knew he wasn't going to return: an understanding that was consolidated with each discarded item or property - every sale and donation an abandonment of his previous life.

Sometimes the twisting flow of the blizzard seemed to direct him, pushing his feet onwards like the water of a river or the ocean current. Mostly the snow was just noise; a shifting, indistinct pattern of white slicing against white. When he encountered a boulder, its dark grey surface emerging from the fog, exposed on one side where it was shielded from the wind's vagaries, his eyes soaked in the shocking range of contrasting hues. It was a feast for a starving man. He was no longer sure where he was in relation to the mountains or his destination as he hadn't seen farther than a couple dozen feet for weeks. Distance was unknowable, though his compass kept his direction true.

They were called the Barrier Mountains and could be seen from the coast, rising up behind the Headland peninsula like a shark's mouth emerging from the surf. Always present, visible from any town and always the first sight to greet sailors voyaging back from Safast, the mountains were ignored by most of the population. They were gargantuan, but irrelevant. An endless supply of fresh water washed from their slopes, giving the Headland its lush vegetation and its reputation for agricultural excellence, but otherwise they were regarded as little more than background decoration. Headlanders were comfortable in their presence and thought nothing of them.

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