The two mountains were equidimensional, and their tops brushed against each other. They rose from the ground for several meters like two huge bull horns, allowing travelers to glimpse a path between them.
It was as if a lightning bolt had shaped the great fracture that had divided that mountain into two perfectly identical parts.
“Are those the Oakrath Heights?” Takuma asked, waiting for confirmation from Yoichi, who was checking on the map.
The drawing on Ryutaro’s map depicted the horned mountain perfectly, and after repeated comparisons between what he saw in front of him and what he saw on the map, Yoichi confirmed Takuma’s question with a movement of his head.
“Well. Despite the mishaps along the way, we arrived perfectly on time. Now, all we have to do is reach Oakenfair” – as he spoke, Takuma touched the wound on his side, not far from his abdomen. The yellowish camisole was not stained with blood in that spot, which meant the cut had healed completely.
Yoichi spurred Ichiro on with both heels of his boots and, holding on to its thick red mane, rode towards the two mountains, admiring the scenery. Nature seemed to have preserved that place, which didn’t look like a typical passage leading two populated areas.
Vines and bulky bushes full of berries lined the lower part of the gap, which was about a couple of meters wide at its lowest point. Outside, inside, sideways, or down, there was no sign of a signpost pointing the way to Oakenfair.
That one detail allowed Yoichi to realize that what Takamori, Ryutaro, and Gompachi claimed was true: Oakenfair was such an isolated and unimportant place, and that made it a perfect hiding place for those who wanted to live their lives in the unknown.
According to Ryutaro, who knew Emperor Tatsui’s private blacksmith in the flesh, Shusaku was a man with a quirky personality. The gatekeeper claimed that his enemies were more than his friends and that his particularly impetuous and unfriendly character was one of the reasons Shinzo exiled him from the Imperial Palace.
“We should proceed with caution from here on, Yoichi,” Takuma advised, ordering his horse to slow its pace. “I have never set foot beyond these mountains, and I have no idea what may await us on the other side,” he added.
Yoichi paid attention to his traveling companion’s words but did not answer that statement. In front of Ichiro’s hooves, just a few meters from his attentive view, two rocky walls over twenty meters high rose toward the sky, letting the foliage of the omnipresent oaks caress them.
“The moment of truth is drawing nearer and nearer. Oakenfair is only a few miles from this passage. All we have to do is follow the path, and we’ll be in front of the main gates of the stone city,” Yoichi explained, folding the map and tucking it into one of the two saddlebags.
Obeying his team leader’s orders, Takuma followed Yoichi into the cove that would lead them out of the Valley of the Northern Waters. The Grimbrook warrior had kept his promise, and upon reaching Oakenfair, he decided to follow Yoichi on his mission, hoping to meet Princess Sui and save her from the hegemony of her tyrant father.
Although the mountains looked as small as hills from a distance, a slight fear enveloped their minds when the two adventurers reached the foot of Oakrath Heights.
The grayish rock turned black inside the cove. In addition, the two giant stone ‘horns’ were still connected in some places: due to these facts, light could not filter from one side to the other and what was supposed to be a cove was actually a kind of perforated tunnel.
Ichiro hesitated for a moment before entering the place that reeked of fear and mould. The incessant sound of drops falling from the ceilings of that cave feeding the puddles on the floor echoed in the Inoshuma’s ears.
“When we looked at them from the west, these mountains didn’t seem particularly wide. I think we’ll reach the exit in a few minutes,” Takuma spoke.
A moment before entering the passage of the Oakrath Heights, the two adventurers had made sure there was no other way to get through to the other side. As they feared, the one they were traveling was the only possible way.
The two riders followed the curved path at the base of the horns-shaped mountains, taking care not to hit their heads on the low ceiling or bump the horses’ saddlebags at the cave walls. After a little more than ten minutes, a light of hope illuminated their pupils wide because of the darkness.
“There it is! I knew the exit was near!” Takuma rejoiced, pointing to the exit with his hand. Step by step, both horses breathed that oxygen-poor air until they reached that light spot.
Ichiro’s ears were the first to pop up on the other side, and the eyes of the horse demon and its master took a few seconds to adjust to the new light conditions.
Yoichi’s retinas tightened and then widened again, allowing the light to focus the images in his eyes. What he saw left him speechless.
Beyond that short, narrow path that passed within a mountain split in half, Ryutaro and Takamori’s tales became a reality. The rocky path descended down a steep slope, and a sort of basin separated the current location of the two adventurers from what was on the other side.
A mountain with sharp peaks was filled with small holes and indentations from the bottom to the top. Hundreds if not thousands of windows and doors sprouted on the edges of that conical-shaped massif, looking more like a volcano than an ordinary mountain.
Along its steep slopes, bumpy roads and bridges with improbable trajectories connected the various points of that city carved in the rock. Oakenfair looked like the work of a mad genius architect, growing inside and outside the mountain and using the natural shapes of the promontory to develop and house its many inhabitants.