Ryel took the lead now. Suddenly, Arkmar realized, Ryel was the one who was gung ho about climbing the big rock. She led him upward, bearing to the right still, at a pace that was not quite insane enough to make him overcome his natural dwarf stoicism about such things. She didn’t seem to care a whole lot about exposure, but by now they were just far enough around the mountain that they would be hard to see by someone below them. He tried to figure what they would look like to someone above them, because he still suspected the two who had passed them knew they had done so. But Arkmar couldn’t quite calculate in his head whether a mountain was more like a sphere or a cone, and whether, if, as he suspected, it was more like a cone, that made the curvature grow as you went up. He thought so, but he couldn’t quite remember his differential geometry teacher’s view on the issue. And did the fact that this mountain was shaped like a head make any difference? Most skulls were basically round, but he had certainly known some people, human or dwarf or elf, with pointy heads. He snorted at his own joke.
“What’s funny? Keep up,” Ryel hissed back at him.
“I’m coming,” said Arkmar. “Just keep your pants on. For once.”
“Ah,” she said, grinning as he caught up with her, “you find my love life amusing. I get hours of laughs out of it myself.”
“Actually I was thinking about cones and spheres. It’s not all about you.”
The sun was dropping to horizontal, but the horizon still looked some distance downward. The going was getting more interesting. For one thing, there were the caves, which had disturbed Arkmar and Ryel when they were far below. Now they were passing them, at a distance, and trying not to look at them, and Arkmar still could not get rid of the sense that things were watching out of them. He found he had no trouble now keeping up with Ryel. At least the flying specks above them were still specks, and still far above them. The face, on the other hand, had disappeared around the curve to their left.
Then they clambered over a tumbled dome crossed with rising cracks and ripples, then they faced a sudden cliff, long and tall and sloping at perhaps seventy-five degrees. High up, perhaps hundreds of feet above them still, it seemed to curve back out of sight. To the left the cliff ran down very gradually toward a rounded outcrop still a good hundred feet high and undercut; to the right, it got steeper and then ended in a complicated knot of stony ripples and fallen chunks. A few gnarled pine trees hung on in these knots, which surrounded a cave opening.
“Do we have to go up it?” asked the dwarf.
“Yep,” replied the elf. She started off to the right again, and in ten minutes of fairly mild climb they were past the knot around the cave.
Looking back again, Arkmar cried out. Something had peeked out of the cave, and pulled back. Ryel stopped and glared at him. “I don’t know,” said Arkmar. “I’m pretty sure I saw something that time.”
She looked up at the knot of rock and back down at Arkmar, standing twenty feet behind her and five below her. She seemed concerned but said, “Well, it must have seen you and freaked out.”
“I have that effect at times,” said Arkmar, resuming the climb.
Ryel led him further up and to the right around the peak until the climb on their left was less intimidating and also smoother, almost like the normal rock of a bare-topped mountain. They paused in the golden glow of the Sun shining under clouds far below them and out over the Western Sea. She handed him her bottle. “Have one on me,” she said. “You’re doing great.”
“Ryel,” he said, taking the bottle. “I should feel ashamed to be praised for my doughtiness by such as yourself, but thanks. I appreciate it.” He took a drink and handed the bottle back. She grinned and slapped him on the shoulder.
“Let’s hit the bald pate on this head,” she said.
So Ryel led Arkmar again, up this time steeply, up a great shallow dome and then up a ravine. This segment seemed to go on and on, while the light began to take its leave. Presently they could see the eastern sky ahead of them (Arkmar remembered that this meant the line of ascent was concave down now) and in it stars were beginning to gather in crowds. The Moon, nearly overhead, blotted out most of the stars of the zenith, but it didn’t offer much comfort. For one thing, it actually seemed bigger, as if they had moved significantly closer; for another, both Arkmar and Ryel began to think they were seeing wings flitting across it.
Just when Arkmar thought he would just give up and forget about it, Ryel led them off to the left again. She turned to shush him, which was not necessary; but what she said was, “Down! Duck!”
Arkmar knew how to duck.
And he was glad he did so, when an arrow flew through where he had been, and flew beyond him only a few feet before embedding itself in flesh. Arkmar rolled and jumped up, swinging his sword level and catching the next ghast across the stomach, slicing it nearly in half before it could get its disturbingly long claws and fangs on him. Another arrow found a mark, and then Arkmar was hurrying to where Ryel was. “Down!” she hissed. “There’s one more!”
Arkmar dove, sure that those claws would catch at his neck any moment, if not something worse. Something worse happened indeed, to the final ghast in the party. As he dove for the rock, Ryel dropped on her stomach nearby, and they rolled just in time to see black wings sweep over them, carrying a fecklessly flailing ghast away to feed the hideous dholes.