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"You believe we're going to find something on the other side of the mountains?" Hachim Arondir crunched through the snow as they followed Stefan along a rough path, gravel mixed with ice, while the ground undulated wildly along the line of the Avian mountains. It had been over a day since they had last set eyes on the valley and it now felt like an increasingly distant memory. The rock and ice had them now.

Tranton had immediately liked the squad leader. They were of a similar age and temperament, and Hachim was a man who refused to accommodate weak minds or bodies. He said what he thought, and thought what he said.

"There'll be something there," Tranton replied. "There's always something."

Hachim laughed. "I suppose that's what got you travelling across the Barrier Mountains in the first place."

"'To see what's there?'" Tranton snorted. "Perhaps. It was as much about getting away from a place as it was getting towards one." He saw Hachim raise an eyebrow in his direction, but knew the other man wouldn't press for more information.

The wind was still, leaving a fine mist to unfurl a foot above the ice, dispersing as they moved through it. There was complete silence, which became deafening as the higher peaks leaned in all around them. They had made good progress already, yet the highest slopes remained unknown, inaccessible and malevolent.

"You don't subscribe to the old man's theory, then?"

"Fenris has his theories," Tranton said, smiling. "He has a somewhat...mythological approach to history. You Lagonians don't seem to have kept especially good records."

"I'm a stonebreaker, Seldon. Stonebreaker first, always. I live on the edge of Lagonia."

"That's why you wanted to come on this journey?"

"Not exactly." Hachim lowered his voice. "Another squad came this way recently. They were investigating where all the mutated creatures were coming from - and they never reported back. I intend to find them."

According to the best maps available in Bruckin, the Avians were considerably more compressed then the Barrier Mountains: twice as high, but not nearly as deep. What had taken him years of travel to cross the Barriers should only take weeks, if they could find an efficient route. Ascending to the highest peaks wouldn't be necessary, and the temperature never reached the freezing horrors he'd encountered atop the glaciers to the south.

Tranton nodded in the direction of Stefan Vortal, who was out in front. "Does he really know where he's going?"

"No," Hachim said, "not really. But he's been all over the valley, studied every map, spoken to every living cartographer and read about all the dead ones. I'd wager he knows the shape of the valley and mountains better than anyone on Evinden."

They trudged along, step after step, Tranton marvelling at the novelty of companions and the comfort of the Bruckin packs and equipment. Everything was honed to design perfection, managing to be both elegant and precisely functional, from the shoulder straps to their shoes. The people of Bruckin wasted nothing but found a kind of beauty in mechanisms and purity of intent. It was an entirely different form of expression than the extravagant artifices and animations of Treydolain.

"It's a shame we couldn't ride in one of your fancy airships."

Hachim pointed at the sky. "They don't go up into the mountains. They can get this high, of course, when they're out over the valley plains. But as you get closer to the mountains the air pressure drops, or so I'm told. I like to keep my feet on something solid and unmoving."

They came across scrubby plants and half-frozen grasses, sprouting from exposed rocks. Crossing a hump, Stefan stopped up ahead and waited for the rest of them to catch up. Tranton stood next to Kirya and found himself looking down into a broad depression, inside of which was a forest. The trees stood tall and thin, oddly unmoving in the still air. On the far side of the depression the ground angled up steeply, the tree line apparent. From their elevated position they could see over the trees to the centre of the forest, where a settlement could plainly be identified, nestled in a clearing.

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