Dave woke up sick, scared, and soaked in cold sweat. Thoughts of the conversation kept running through his head making nightmares of whom, and what, Shannon was. Childhood events added to it. He crawled out of the tent hoping for a fire, trying to shake the dream with motion or activity.
The fire was down to embers, but Kaava had gathered enough wood to build it back up and keep it going all night. Shannon was likely to have gathered more for the sake of the others. As much as the man hated fire, he always provided the wood for others to keep it going. Dave took his time building it up before he set to walking about the ruins. He needed to think and move.
He hadn’t gone far when he found tracks through the new snow illuminated by the twilight glow of the two moons. He followed them for lack of anything else to do. They led him along a street, or what seemed to be one, and down a flight of stairs, and through an arched gateway that entered into a yard below. He nearly shouted when Theo stepped from the back side of the arch into the opening, startling Dave and his already short nerves.
“Very neat place,” Theo said with the light in his eyes of a child in a toy store. “Can’t sleep?” he added.
“No… restless dreams. I think Shannon likes to make sure I have bad nights now and then.”
“Said something creepy, did he?” Theo sighed and looked out at the ruins that glowed faintly in the moons and snow. “He does that… but then, I don’t think he does it to be scary. I think he’s tired. I think he has just about run out of patience and is doing all he can to just keep it together, to get us out of here. Although,” he said with a shrug, “I’m not sure why he does. This place isn’t that bad.”
“You saw what he did to Kelly?” Dave asked.
“I saw,” Theo said softly. “Did you?”
“I saw her nearly fall over,” he admitted. “Why, what did you see?”
“If you have enough power, be it in a loadstone keyed to you, or within yourself, a great enough magic can create spaces in the Shadow Realms – like closets in your own soul. Safe havens that you can lock yourself in to escape anything… or anything that can’t break in.” he added with a slight frown. “Anyway, he took her there to have a little talk with her. I never saw the links before then, but with the weight of someone like Kelly, not even Shannon could hide it all. I suspect it’s where he goes to rest, entranced into the safety and silence of his own realm.”
“A Focus,” Dave asked.
“Sort of, but a Focus is not real. It’s just a point and detail to focus on. A Sanctuary is as real as this realm or any other. Heavens and hells, as seen by the worshippers of the world, are the Sanctuaries of the Gods that they worship. Reality is the mass realm of all creation. Make sense?”
“I suppose. Like a Vault.”
“A vault is very similar but it holds things not souls.”
“So Shannon has one of these in his pocket, does he?”
“Well, so do I,” Theo said carefully, with a little shrug. “Don’t you?”
“No. You do?”
“Sure. I used to hide from my mother there.” He drew a breath and offered his hand. “You want to see?”
Dave looked at his friend, suddenly very uncertain that he knew at all who the pretty little man was. He bit his lip and then took Theo’s hand. Why not?
There was an odd pressure, the sense of falling, and then he blinked and stood in a world away. The cold was replaced with warmth, to the point that it was almost hot. He could smell the fire that was burning in a copper basin. It stood on iron feet in the center of the tent that they were in. The fire was low and had a small green teapot of some sort hanging over it.
The tent was tall with side walls that were vertical, and then rose to a sharp point where the smoke lifted out. There were tapestries that hung on those walls. They were unlike anything that Dave had ever seen before. These were all in complex design, resembling words or writing of some sort. As he looked closer they captured his attention and held him transfixed. It seemed that the threads were flowing, almost as a liquid. Yet, as soon as he looked close enough, he could see that they were not. It was simply a fantastically woven cloth, more remarkable than anything Dave had ever seen in all his travels around the world.
Dave tore his eyes away from the tapestries to see what else was in the room. He saw that there was a bed of furs along one wall and mats for sitting about the fire. A low work table was covered with stones and gems of all sorts and sizes. A number of tools as well were scattered among the trinkets on the table. Dave turned around as he recalled where he was supposed to be. There was no Theo, and this did not seem at all like Theo. He would’ve expected a pretty castle or tower library, if anything. As he turned back, he saw his friend appearing out of nowhere. The man was transformed.
Theo looked to be almost ageless, but certainly not young. His hair was very long and white. He wore a short beard that was nearly white and he looked to be more of a warrior than the delicate little thing he was. He wore an ancient-style Awens long-riding tunic, leather pants, tall boots, and a belt that was studded with gold knots. It wound about his waist three times and still had a length that was tucked around, hanging long in front of his left leg.
He smiled and folded his arms over his chest.
“You look shocked, Dave,” he said in a deep rich voice, the voice that seemed to almost be trying to take hold in Theo in the real world.
“You’re not you.”
“No, actually, I am more me here than I am me there, just as you are more you. Part of the laws of this place is that the damage caused by your environment, even your conception, is nullified. You are made into a whole, returned to a divine balance.” He looked Dave over. “It also finds your heritage energy and offers you a base wardrobe of it. It took me a great deal of time and energy to get that all worked in.”
Dave looked down at what he was wearing. He expected to find that he was in his sailing clothes or the things he had been wearing, but found he was in a long robe of fine layered silk. The elaborate cuts were definitely Elven. The edging of them was finely stitched in thread matching the gray of the robe itself, but shimmered slightly adding a mystical appearance. About his waist was wound a scarlet sash. It knotted on the side and fell off of his hip with long golden tassels.
“Huh?” he said, picking it up in his hand. The silk was like nothing he had ever felt and the fabric shimmered in the light. It shimmered so faintly, though, that he wasn’t sure he had even seen it. He looked up at Theo with a scowl. “So, what’s this say?”
“Well,” Theo shifted with his own light scowl, “that’s the sash of the Imperial House. I guess you have some Von blood in you somewhere, but you are part elf, too, by the looks of it. Although… I’ve known elves all my life and I’ve never seen a robe like that.”
“My mother was part elf.” Dave shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter, I suppose.” He looked around at the tent and smiled. “So, you’re Awens, I see.”
Theo laughed and shrugged. “That I am. But see, this is what I was talking about. This is my own realm. I set the rules to it. I just tend to play off the same rules as the reality of All. A lot of the basics are built on a child’s concept and desires though. I would have to say if I were to do it again, I would do it in a very different way. But now, I just expand it. The base is the hardest part. Once that is done though, it’s done.” He reached over and opened the door of the tent; light flooded in. He nodded for Dave to step out.
Ducking out, Dave was not sure what he would find. What he saw left him breathless. Sweeping hills of green rolled out and away from him. A small stream gurgled, flowing out of the higher hills behind, and then wandered off and away into the hills before them. The smell was wonderful, in a way that Dave had never smelt. It was grass and herbs and sunshine. He breathed it in and stood, rather in awe, staring at the multitudes of rich colors across the landscape and the intensely blue sky that met the hills.
“Expand?” Dave asked as if that word was a slight understatement.
Theo smiled. “It’s not as big as it looks. If you walk far enough in one direction, you end up where you started. It takes a great deal of effort and power to expand the space. I haven’t had the time, energy, or the desire in a long while to do anything of the sort. It is enough for its purpose, and for those who dwell here.”
“People dwell here?” Dave asked, shocked. He could feel his religion sort of shift, struggling to keep up.
Theo laughed. “No,” Theo went on sadly. “No, I’m not strong enough for that. I can bring you here because you’re my friend, and you trust me. And… I’m drawing a lot of energy from the ruins.” He looked away at the horizon. Sadness seemed to age him, and his eyes were lost to it. He drew a breath, slow and deep, and tried to shake it off. “No people… but there are those who dwell here.” He smiled faintly and looked over at Dave. “The little things I killed as a child, I would send here…..spiders, crickets, a few small birds. Nothing with a complex mind or energy, nothing that worries about food or anything…. they just are and do as they do. Spins webs, builds nests…” he shrugged.
“How long have you had this?” Dave asked.
“I started building it rather young. I don’t even really know. I read about it, and as a child daydreamed that it was real. Somewhere along the way it actually became so.”
They started to walk, following the stream. Theo stopped and pointed to a spectacular flawlessly-spun spider web that was shimmering in the sun. It was strung between tall reeds that grew along the bank and held dewdrops that glittered like magic gemstones. He nodded farther to where a bird perched on a rock suddenly burst into a warbling song. The sound was almost as if it was in a great hall, echoing back with a grand quality to it.
“Wow,” Dave said softly.
They stood on the bank of the stream, watching and listening until the bird flew away and left them with just the wind in the grass.
“You think this is like what Shannon has?” Dave asked.
“On the basics, yes. It’s the same sort of thing, but Sanctuaries are as different as clothes or weapons. I don’t think Shannon’s is anything like mine.” He sighed heavily. “We should go back. I can start to feel the strain. I haven’t brought anyone here before, and I don’t know what I’ll feel like in the morning.”
Dave nodded and just that fast, they were back in the bitter cold, back to chapped lips, stinking furs, and freezing wind. His breath steamed in the cold as he sighed.
Theo sagged a little but caught himself. He looked past Dave and almost shrank back a little. Dave turned to see Shannon standing in the shadows watching them. Dave didn’t linger at all, but turned to walk away at once. He got as far as around the nearest wall, but stopped as he heard Shannon’s voice.
“You risk using the Local Power to show off?”
Theo cleared his throat. “I took nothing more than you did,” he said back, even if a bit shaky, his voice cracking a little. Dave almost winced for Theo at that.
“I did so for a very good reason.”
“So did I.” Theo actually stood his ground. Dave was impressed with his friend’s sudden lack of meekness.
“You disappoint me, Theo,” Shannon said, walking away.
Dave remained in place and waited for Theo. He came around the corner, pulling his furs up close about his face.
“What was all that?” Dave asked.
Theo jerked the coat even tighter.
“I am not a child and I am not an idiot.”
“Ok, so why did you do that? Why show me that?”
Theo stopped and looked at Dave. “A lot of reasons, but the main one was to show you first, before I try to teach you how to build one.”
“Why would I build one?” Dave laughed. “I have no reason for that.”
“You have to know what that belt means.”
“Yes, but it could be…”
“The heritage is in your blood,” Theo said. “The Powers saw it. It was not looking at your father, or his father, but at you and your power. And if Gerome, his demons, a vampire, a blood wizard, or any of a thousand other evils see it, you are in for hell. Your mind and soul need a place to retreat to should you be taken.”
“But, you didn’t know about the belt until you saw it.”
“No, that just makes it worse. Now, I’m almost desperate to teach this to you. Before, it was just practical concern for my friend. I have had… unpleasant dreams of late and they tend to be all too quickly manifested.”
“You’re a seer?” Dave whispered in half-shock, half-awe.
“I’m a lot of things, Dave, and right now, I’m very cold, very tired, and about to pass out, but we can talk later.”
“If you say so, Theo,” Dave smiled a little. “Let’s go get some sleep then.”
“Like I told you, my magics are obscure and impractical, but I will teach you mine for you teaching me yours. It’s only fair.”
“It’s not wise to anger Shannon. I’m not sure he will approve.”
“He thinks he can protect you always. I fear it will be he who needs protecting before too long, and that will leave you very vulnerable.”
Dave’s head hurt when he woke. The dream of Theo’s tent was still in his mind but began to fade as soon as he got up. He crawled out of the tent and found the others up and camp already being taken down.
Shannon caught his chin and looked at him, his eyes searching. “You alright?” he asked.
“Just a headache,” Dave said, feeling a bit nervous about Shannon’s intent look. It left him feeling a bit vulnerable and exposed.
“Just a headache? What did you dream about?”
Dave opened his mouth to tell him, but the memory was gone. It had slipped away and left him with the vague feeling that he should know, but didn’t.
“I don’t know,” he said after a moment. “I did for a moment, but it’s gone now.”
Shannon let him go, but shot a glance at Theo. Dave looked to his friend, and just as fast, recalled it all. He also had the very real feeling that Theo had made him forget for a moment, and so be unable to say anything to Shannon. He did not think his friend had done that for anything but self-preservation.
Dave had the creeping feeling that Theo was a lot older and more powerful than anyone would guess, and that he had reason to shield and shrink and stay as hidden as possible. Whatever, and whoever Theo was he was nothing like the others had once thought him to be.
“The weather is holding; we should make as much ground as we can,” Kaava said. “We should move now and hope to get the next storm between us and them. The horses cannot travel with us beyond here, so free them and pack your own gear.” No one was happy about it, but they all set to clearing away the last bit of camp and loading on their packs.
They headed west and south, down through a low sweep of a valley and then began to climb up into the next wall of mountains. They had a long hike up the slopes toward the next pass, but it was the last high pass, Kaava assured them. After this last one, things would get easer and warmer, he promised.
Theo struggled to keep up, his head hung low, stumbling in the deep snow, hiking behind Ivan as best he could. Dave couldn’t help but notice how tired Theo was. There was no doubt that Shannon saw it as well.
They followed the valley up as far as they could. It wound ever higher through the mountains in a track that was once made by a great glacier. Kaava explained that this path would be too dangerous most of the year because of the avalanches that would plague this area. Now, because of the cold of winter with all the snow frozen solid, they could travel here in relative safety. Over the few weeks they climbed continuously higher.
Snowstorms rolled in with such icy fury that they were all frozen to the bone. Never able to warm up, they had to sleep tightly together and huddled around what small fires they could manage to get going. They needed Riven or Oirion to use blessings on whatever frozen wood they found to get it to burn at all. Most of their heat came from the heat rods that the orcs had given them, but they used them only to thaw out food. The use of magic was dangerous in this area, but the heat from the fires was not enough to even melt water; just enough to offer warmth to out stretched fingertips. Kaava was wary of any use at all, but they needed to eat.
The hoods of their long coats were pulled tightly around their faces, their breath freezing in the fur. It froze on the beards of the men and the women were frost bit from exposure. They all had chapped and peeling lips, raw cheeks, and hands cut and bruised from the smallest scrape or fall. Shannon took the lead, asking Riven’s advice in choosing the route when he was unsure which way to go. Kelly carried Travis most of the time, with Ivan or Dave also taking turns. Kaava kept an ever-roving guard, just on the edges of their sight. Whatever dwelt in the area made Kaava very uneasy.
There was no blue sky and no end of the snow that seemed to ever swirl in its attempt to separate them from one another. It felt, before long, that they were in some desperate game of survival against the mountains. Almost every night they found decent shelter, with Riven, Shannon, and Kaava working at it. They made it, night after night, finding somewhere safe to pitch their tents, until they got stuck on the mountain pass itself. Then their luck seemed to fail them and dark was coming up quickly.
Shannon, Riven, and Kaava stood together, out in the wind, looking at the options through the snow that churned like a white wall before them. The others huddled back against the frozen cliff face, trying to stay out of the wind as best they could.
The three men spent longer out there then they had before now. Finally, Kelly went out to them. Catching at her fur to uncover her face a bit, she stepped up to Shannon, cleared her throat, and tried to talk over the wind without yelling.
“If we go up, we can cross the peak and get out of this storm.”
Shannon turned and looked up through the snow toward the peaks that were unseen above.
“It will take too long,” Riven said back. “We wouldn’t have shelter by dark.”
“If we don’t keep moving, we’ll get buried in snow,” She yelled back to him as the storm seemed to pick up even more rage. “The storm center hasn’t even hit us yet. We have to get out of it, or they will freeze. You and I will make it, Master Dwarf, but even the Ezeeren would be put to a trial in the cold that is about to hit us. He’s not accustomed to the cold anymore. He’s been in the south too long.”
Riven swore, frustrated, and looked at the silent Shannon. “I’ll lead up, but I told you already how I feel about it.”
Shannon bowed his head. “Just keep moving. Kelly can keep the others on track and I will bring up the rear.”
“Ivan should carry Travis,” Kelly said to Shannon. “He’s got the strength, and the child needs the extra warmth or he won’t make it. He will adjust eventually, but not by dark.”
Shannon nodded and led them back to the others.
“Ivan, you take the boy.”
Ivan grunted, adjusting his cloak to have Travis crawl up under it and ride on his back. Dave helped him belt Travis securely in place so that the boy was held securely, but Ivan still had the use of his arms.
“This way,” Riven said, and then turned to start climbing up the cliff face, disappearing into the white wall of windswept snow. Kelly urged Theo up next and then Salma. She nodded to Shannon and went third. One by one the others followed. It was going to be a very long climb.
The climb went up a cliff that was sheared off in layers, offering an almost ladder-surface to climb on. It wasn’t overly hard in the reaching and finding of hand holds, but it went up and up, seeming to go on endlessly. They could see the one person above, and if they looked down, the person below, but little else. The snow hid everything in an ever-shifting wall of whiteness. Wind gusts tried to rip them off the walls and the gloves they wore made it hard to hold onto the frozen stone, but they gripped and pulled themselves up inch by inch.
As with the grasslands, they found strength that they didn’t seem to think they had. Minds went blank as they focused on nothing beyond the grip and toeholds that they needed. Time spun away in the endless blur of white. There was nothing to distract them from the climb or to break the drudgery.
The cliff ended suddenly on a slope of white snow and those first to reach the summit were out of the blizzard. Blue sky spread out above them for one last moment before twilight set in. The air burned their lungs from the sheer height. They could see the peaks of many mountains strung out above the clouds and the dark storm that poured in between them. Below them they could see where the storm clouds boiled dark and wild where they would have been. They all saw the darkness of it, unable to avert their eyes. It was a storm too dark for anything of nature to call forth. They all knew there was intent in it. It chilled to the soul.
Riven stood, shivering at the blackness that he could see, almost like a snake in the clouds. His grandfather had told stories of such dark magics in the storms. He whispered the dwarven words though his teeth and frozen beard. Kelly dropped a hand on his shoulder, making him look up at the big woman. Her eyes were looking down to the storm. Even as she struggled for each breath, her focus remained fixed on the dark weather below.
“There is darkness in that storm,” she said to no one.
“This whole land is full of Darkness,” Oirion panted, joining them in the open air above the clouds.
She looked over at the priest who was white-faced and frozen, ready to collapse.
“This time I don’t think it has to do with the land, Oirion. I think we’ve angered our hunter. We should move on as fast as we can.” She looked to Shannon, who was the last up the slope. He stood still, leaning his hands on his knees, like a weary runner trying to catch his breath.
“Lead the way, Master Dwarf,” he said around a breath. Riven nodded and looked to the south. He picked a path and headed out with a fast pace. He definitely wanted to get away from the serpent coiled in the storm behind them.
They followed Riven’s trail of footprints across the snowfields and then down into the whiteness of the cloud cover on the other side of the mountain. Their upward climb was over, but now they faced an ever-downward slope. It continued down at such a steep angle fear of falling was on everyone’s mind. They all realized that a single slip would be disastrous. It would be a wild, sliding ride over the ice and snow, ending in unknown unpleasantness.
It was Theo who fell first. Stumbling, he lost his balance and slipped. Tavia made one grab for the man as he slid past, but he rushed by just out of reach. She fell in her attempt to save him, but was able to catch a hold of herself to keep from sliding after him. She shouted, startling Ivan out of his blank-minded hike. He jumped and dove after the man. Sliding on his side, he caught Theo by the fur belt. He then twisted about and stabbed his dagger into the ice. With a shout, he drove his toes in, spreading out to slow the fall as best he could. It was very clear he knew what he was doing and no stranger to ice slopes, but even so, they didn’t stop their pell-mell descent.
As they rushed past Dave, the sailor’s training kicked in and he cast out Lines of Power. His Ropes, when cast instinctively like this, also sent out back ropes that held him from joining the wild fall. The Ropes caught the two men, jerking them to a stop with such force that Dave was driven to his knees and nearly fell himself. It felt as if he had been slammed between two brick walls.
Kaava moved down to them and with relief helped the men up.
“Alright?” he asked the boy on Ivan’s back, patting him. Travis nodded, and the hike began again.
Theo brushed off the ice and snow, trying to hide his hurt pride and his hurt body. “Thanks, Ivan,” he said.
Ivan grunted. “That’s what friends are for.”
They moved on, trying to stay in closer groups, straining to be careful – to be ready should it happen again.
The slope dropped off into a cliff, forcing them to turn to the west. Riven tried to keep them up away from the edge in case any of them did happen to fall again. If they went over, there would be no way to save them .They trudged on in mindless exhaustion, slowly spreading out as the wind and snow began to blind them again.
It was well after dark when Riven stopped. He had no choice. The hike had gotten too dangerous and to push any farther was to risk lives more than necessary. They had dropped down low enough that the air was breathable; even the humans would be alright here. He dropped his pack and set to putting up his little tent, driving the tent stakes into the snowpack and muttering Dwarven blessings against the dangers of such a camp site. They were exposed, on a slope, and in danger of both attacks and avalanches, but they had no choice.
He had the little tent up and staked down by the time Theo stumbled into camp. The blonde man dropped to the ground, not having nearly enough strength to set up his tent. It was all he could do to just keep sucking in ragged breaths. Riven hauled Theo up and stuffed him into his own tent. He pulled out Theo’s tent and was still setting it up as Kelly arrived.
She helped him set it up before starting on her own.
“Go curl up with Theo before he freezes. He needs you in there,” she said with a nod. Riven considered arguing, but she was right and she looked remarkably better than he felt. He just nodded and crawled into the small tent to try to save the delicate man from the cold.
Kneeling by the tent Kelly dug in her pack. She found one of the Orcan torches and ignited it. The red light flared, acting as a marker to hopefully aid the others in. It was already dark; with the wind and snow it would be amazing if most of them managed to find the camp… a miracle if they all did. They were almost out of the warming rods, but tonight she figured was a worthy night to use her last one.
She crawled into the tent that she and Riven had set up to heat tea for those who came in. They would need it. She debated how much to have on hand. It was unlikely that everyone was going to make it. How they had traveled so far she was not sure, but she knew it was not on their own powers. Alone and unaided they would never have gotten here. She had no doubt that Shannon could have made this hike, but as for the rest of them, only she, Riven, and Ivan might have made it this far. Dave might, if he was conditioned for mountainous environments, but he wasn’t. She pushed it from her mind and set her thoughts to other things.
Kaava and Ivan arrived together, and they were grateful for the tent and the tea. Travis was so cold that he just clung to the big man as they entered the tent. All that Kelly could do was try to get the little boy to sip the warm tea.
Kaava was just as tired, cold, and short of breath as any of them, but he still carried the extra packs that they had taken from the horses left behind at the ruins. He dropped the packs and dug out what rods he had left. As Kelly emerged from the tent, he gave them to her and then went into the tent with Travis and the big man.
Kelly let him go in. She busied herself setting up the next tent and making more tea for the others. As the tea neared ready, she moved outside.
Finding a solid stance, she began to hum softly. The wind around the camp slowly died down, despite their exposed position. Inside the tents, the others slept unaware of her. She stood looking out to the trail, back they way they had come, her arms folded over her chest, whispering to the wind, her lips barely moving, her eyes fixed on the wall of snow illuminated by the red light of the Orcan torch.
It was over an hour before Salma and Tavia stumbled into camp and collapsed with blood on their lips from the lung-burning air above. Kelly dragged them into the shelter of the tent and pressed warm tea into their hands for them to sip at.
“Travis?” Tavia asked in a harsh voice.
“Asleep with Ivan and Kaava,” Kelly assured her, then took the empty cup. She tucked a heating rod into the blankets between them. Both were asleep before Kelly crawled out of the tent to wait for the others.
It was hours later when Dave emerged out of the cold and blowing snow, stumbling into camp. He found Kelly waiting with a cup of tea. He sank to his knees, wrapped his hands around the cup, sucked in air and struggled to just lift the cup to his lips. She let him take one sip before she took the cup away. Then catching him under his arm, she helped him into the nearest tent. In the stillness of the tent, warmed by the last of Kaava’s rods, she pulled his tent out of his pack as he sipped at the tea.
What took you so long?” she asked, trying to not sound too upset at him.
He looked at her through his frozen hair and iced-over fur collar. “I slid and had to crawl back up to the trail.”
“Are you hurt?”
“No, just tired.” He drank his tea. “Well, maybe a little,” he said after a moment, then gave the cup back to her. “Who isn’t here?”
“Oirion and Shannon.”
Dave nodded. “They will be.”
Kelly grabbed him in a furry hug. “You had me worried. I would rather you not do it again.”
He chuckled at her, despite how tired he was.
“I had me worried, Kell,” he said. He sat with a blank look for a moment and then looked up at her. “Nice to see you waited, and with hot tea no less. “He tried a smile, then closed his eyes and sank over. “Wake me when this is all over.”
Kelly stayed in the tent for a bit before she left Dave sleeping. She crawled out to set up the next tent and to watch for the last two men.
She waited in the middle of the camp. The storm here had slowed to barely above a breeze in a ring about the tents. It made snow drift down and lay heavy on the tents, but they were not whipping and tearing in the wind as they had for the last few nights. A great bank of snow was building up about them as well, forming a wall to further protect them.
Oirion entered camp with his head hung low and his every step slow and shaky. He had a grip on Shannon’s arm. Shannon matched Orion’s step, keeping him moving one step at a time. Kelly moved to them and pushed a cup into Oirion’s hands.
Oirion looked up at her, not realizing he had made it to camp. After a moment, he took the cup and drank several little sips from it.
“Dave could use another body in the tent he’s in,” she said. “Come on, Oirion, you should lie down.”
She took a hold of the man, moved him to the tent and helped him crawl in. Oirion’s pain was obvious. It was hard to force him to keep moving. His hands shook and his entire body shivered in pain as well as cold. She had to all but roll him inside the small space. Once he lay back, she shoved one of Dave’s rods down his collar, to warm his back.
“Thanks,” he groaned.
“Try to sleep, Oirion.” She touched his head, whispering long unspoken magics to ease his pain and aid him to rest and heal. For all the power that she once had, the most she could do now was to make him tea and offer that small comfort.
“Trying to stay awake has been the hard part,” he muttered, and then sank away. Kelly crawled out and found Shannon kneeling in the snow, not the least bit bothered by the cold. His lips were chapped, but that was it. He was already in a trance and just sat there as still as a statue.
She made him a cup of tea and waited for him to rouse.
Shannon remained still long after he had awakened from his trance. He didn’t dare to enter a deep trance here. He wanted to be allowed to recover from his long hike; aiding Oirion most of the way had been exhausting. The last thing he needed was to have to deal with Kelly’s questions, but she was still out in the cold and still holding the magic about the camp. Her magic created a small center of shelter around the tents, while the storm raged beyond the wall of energy she held. If he had any questions of who she was before, this little show of power proved it all.
He didn’t care about the details, only for the affection that Dave was holding for the woman. He had hoped to get through all of this and never have to deal with the issues of who these people were, but she was up and waiting for him, and he knew it. Settling his emotions as best he could, he opened his eyes and looked at the woman who sat across from him.
She waited in her own way, her dark eyes hiding a great deal. The long hike had made her tired to start with, and the strain of the magic that she was sustaining was showing. But she stayed awake for the sake of the others, and to talk to Shannon with them not around. As tired as they were, not even the cold could keep them awake.
“You knew though, already,” she said, more as a statement as to why she was not bothering to hide who she was anymore. It said that she knew he was aware, and also that she hadn’t put together the full scope of things yet.
He didn’t bother to respond for a moment. She was about to get up and leave him to the night… to let the Ring slowly sink inward, eventually exposing him and the tents to the full force of the wind. Hopefully, it would not rip the tents off the snow slope.
“I wouldn’t care…” he said, stopping her just as she tensed to get to her feet. “Such politics and magics are nothing I bother to concern myself with.”
“But?” she asked.
“Often, power comes at a price; often that is a price taken in relation to how much the one who used the magic values a thing… or person.”
“The price to hold the storm will be paid, but the cost of letting it go would be lives. If lives are going to be lost to the storm if I do nothing, why not save those that I can now and deal with the price later?”
Shannon leaned forward a small bit, resting his elbow on his knee. “Do not think yourself the only royalty in this company. Do not be so arrogant to think that they will not be defended against your God. They might win. Keep that price in mind. You want to play with your magics? Do so, but the price will be paid by you… and you alone.”
Kelly sat, looking at him. “You serve a powerful king, Shannon, but even he has weaknesses. All do. I am all too aware of the magics I use and the price I will pay. I have made my Deal, and I know the vows and the price for breaking them. Do not think me a stupid child.”
“That I do not, Kelly,” he said, “but, on the same note, do not assume that I am ignorant as to how your magic works. You are rousing a sleeping serpent.”
“And you would rather I let them freeze? You are worn out and at your end of strength. Your magic also has a price, and you losing hold may be worse than anything I must pay for.”
He didn’t reply and let his eyes sink closed. She got up and went for her tent.
“You know of the Deal?” she asked.
“Yes, I do,” he said, not opening his eyes.
“You also know why He would make it?”
“I do,” he said. Her question told him that she still didn’t know who he was. That was for the best and made him feel a tad better about the whole mess.
“The Deal is far more than I know, isn’t it?”
“It is more than it is. That is the way of great power. You, of all people, know that.”
“Has he set me up then?”
“Not in the way you mean, but hold your magic, woman. If you inadvertently awaken your Goddess too soon, you will find the price very high indeed and not worth anything you could possibly gain by using your magic now.”
She stood there for a moment before she went into her tent.
They hiked for several more weeks along the mountain’s ridgeline. No mountains in the world were like these, their sheer peaks reaching right up into the Barrier itself, creating views that had to rival any heaven, but nothing prepared them for the one at the end of the ridge. They squeezed through a high gap to emerge on a great slope. They could see the peaks drop out of the heights in a great downward sweep.
The landscape was stunning and like nothing they had yet seen. The day was ideal with clear blue skies and no wind. They all stopped and stood in awe of the vastness and beauty of it. Still admiring the grandeur of the heights, they moved down the cliff to a small level outcropping about halfway to the tree line. They stopped to make a meal, have tea, and enjoy the beauty before setting off on the next stage of the hike.
“Reminds me of home,” Ivan said, “I miss the unbroken snow.” He smiled faintly, “But beware,” he said cheerfully. “The ground is neither level nor flat and the snow can drop out from under you and let you fall a thousand feet into a raging river.” He leaned back on his elbow, his ankles crossed. He gazed out at the land. “There have been wars won that way… luring an army in mass, using only a few warriors. If you run fast enough, you can get across. The snow bridges will give out under the weight of the army, while you might survive. Not always, though.” He sighed at the memory of his people.
“What’s your home like?” Salma asked Riven, sitting down next to him.
“It’s sort of like this, but different stone that forms what seems to be towers, not peaks. Not like the serpentine ridgeline we just hiked. Flat topped more often as not, and full of caves and hidden vales… mist and tree, rock and stone.” He shook his head. “But I left that home long ago. I hail to Purt now.”
“We should keep moving,” Kaava said. “The slope looks easy, but it’s not going to get hiked in a single day, and we’re being followed by something hungry but wary. Do you feel it, Shannon?”
“Yes.” He picked up his pack and swung it upon his shoulders. The others all got up. Ivan kicked out the small fire and scooped up Travis. They started off down the slope at an angle, switching-backing the length of it to make the steepness easier to traverse.
They hiked until twilight. Kaava chose a solid campsite. It was a spear of the mountain coming through the snow, indicating that the ground was solid under them. They planted their backs to the stone so the heat of the fire would reflect back at them once it warmed.
Shannon didn’t leave camp that night and let the others sleep while he took watch. It was nearing dawn when Shannon tapped Riven through the wall of his tent. The dwarf was out in a moment and joined Shannon silently.
Shannon knelt and motioned with his hands. He used cleric signs, telling Riven where to look. Riven nodded and looked. It took a long time in the pre-dawn darkness, but when his eyes saw it, he sucked his breath in sharply. He had no idea what it was, but it was either big or many of them very close together. Shannon motioned that he was going to circle around and signaled for Riven to wake the others. Riven nodded and then moved to do so. Shannon was gone, silent and fast.
Ivan was just rolling out of the tent when the attack came. Riven shouted in surprise at the suddenness of it. Shannon’s presence in the camp must have delayed the hunters’ attack. There were many and they were very big. They seemed like wolves at first, but then they stood up and moved like long-legged men.
Riven barely escaped an attack, falling backwards from the powerful swipe of a great long arm. He shouted a Dwarven shout of surprise and, unexpectedly, a flare of power shot outward from his hand. He did not anticipate the flare; it had never happened before. He was not even sure if it was the Dwarven shout or the motion of his hand… or something else all together.
The Blast hit the creature and flung it away into the darkness, leaving at least five more. They blurred into the darkness with some sort of magic. This made them harder to see and targeting was all but impossible. Riven hit the ground on his back and rolled up to his feet. His hand was tingling down to his elbow and nearly useless.
Dave threw up a flare, which shot upward and exploded into brightness, illuminating the campsite. Even with the light of the flare, the enemy was still hardly visible, blending into the dark background. Ivan roared. He had swung and missed; claws raked across his back, causing him to stumble forward. Oirion stepped in with an attack. He was able to judge, by the angle of the attack on Ivan, where the creature actually was and got in a solid strike, saving Ivan. Kaava jumped out of the darkness, taking down another of the beastly men.
The creatures were nearly starved and mad with hunger. Their attacks were wild and savage. Kelly was attacked coming out of her tent, her leather bracer torn by claws as she deflected the beast. Tavia scrambled out of the tent with Travis, not wanting to be caught inside the tent if it collapsed. Dropping to her knees with her son sheltered in her arm, she did her best to pull her bow out. Hindered by Travis and struggling with the cold and dark, she fumbled trying to get an arrow to the string. Salma screamed and leapt at the beast rushing at Tavia.
The fight had barely begun, when, all of a sudden, a spell slammed into the camp. It felt as if they had all been hit with a brick wall. The air was driven out of them with a shockwave and all motion failed. They simply stopped being able to move. The creatures shrieked and dropped as well, panting and whining.
Another creature appeared in the light of Dave’s flare. It was unlike anything they had ever seen before. It was black, with spines coming out of its skin, like some sort of gruesome exoskeleton. It walked like a four-legged spider but had the body of a man, all of it shrouded in darkness. It darted forward with its staff in hand, glowing red from four great spikes jutting from the top. The spider-wizard grabbed Oirion by the shoulder with one of its “legs,” and pulled him close to smell him. Oirion groaned in pain. It hissed and shivered in pleasure. Its thick meaty tongue shot out and twined around Oirion’s neck and chin. Oirion gagged on the touch of the thing.
Its enjoyment was stalled when it jerked and spun around with an annoyed hiss as it felt Shannon driving a sword into its side. The man in black had come up as silent and unnoticed as a shadow. The wound seemed to have little effect at the moment, but it was at least an injury.
“Run,” he ordered, as he jerked the blade sideways. “Leave the tents and run!”
The spell began falling off as the spell-caster began shrieking. There was a dark magic that was being used. The priests could not tell if it was the creature’s attempt to stay alive or if it came from Shannon. The thing dropped Oirion as it turned to deal with Shannon more fully. Shannon drove the sword in again, ducking through arms and attacks.
The last of the spell dropped away as the thing screamed with its dying breath. Riven glimpsed the motion of a thousand more wolf-creatures rushing down the mountain toward them and swore a Dwarven curse.
“Run!” Shannon yelled again, using the full volume of his voice, the urgency clearly evident in his tone. They all started to move, staggering out of the spell. Before the stunned wolf-men could move to follow, Kaava was on them. He had shaken the spell faster than the others and attacked while they were still recovering from the magic. The wolf-creatures in the camp didn’t have a hope of beating Kaava. He swung the halberd with brutal efficiency, taking off their heads with a single precise swipe. The company stumbled onto their feet and began fleeing from the camp.
Shannon cleanly severed off the head of the spider-wizard before he stepped in to help Kaava kill the last two wolf-men. He then turned and took off into a sprint with such speed that even Kaava was impressed by it. Kaava suddenly felt as if he was about to be jerked off of his feet, as if some kind of powerful magic was pulling him down after Shannon. He began running full speed down the hill and caught up to Shannon and the others in what felt like just a few strides. They ran all-out until the sun came up over the peak behind them.
Only then did they slow and stagger, almost as if dropped, collapsing to the snow. Kaava was exhausted. He had no idea how any of them had run so far and so fast. There had to be some sort of great magic that Shannon used to keep the others going, Kaava thought.
“What were they?” Ivan asked.
“Hungry,” Shannon said. He looked back up the slope. “Rest, then we move.” He stayed on his feet, out of breath, sweating, with his attention still focused up the slope.
“Well, that was enlightening,” Salma shot at Shannon, obviously annoyed. “We run and lose all our packs and tents, and all you can say is ‘Hungry?’ That’s petty, Shannon.” She flung herself to the snow.
“Not all our packs,” Kaava said, holding up the one he had grabbed.
Shannon looked at the little woman as he dropped his own pack on the ground.
“If you would like to hike back up and ask them what they call themselves, and to what god they hail, please…” he gestured, “be my guest. I am sure they would love to have you for dinner.”
“Go to hell,” she snarled back.
“Drop it, Salma,” Dave said. “He just saved our lives… again. You should be grateful for that.”
“Well, maybe I am… but I’m also scared a little and venting helps,” she growled back. “He knows that! He can smell emotion like any good demon.”
They ignored her and all sank down to rest a bit. After a short rest they moved on down the slope, eager to get to a place where they could build a fire and possibly hunt up a meal.
Within a mile of the tree-line the slope shifted and began to ease off somewhat. They spread out and crossed the crust of hard snow. Their thoughts were interrupted as the snowfield thudded underneath them, dropping several feet all at once. They all froze in place.
“Move,” Riven ordered. They all began to move as the snow began to drop and settle in sections.
“Dave, cast out a net line,” Shannon ordered with a calm that seemed oddly urgent. “Disperse the weight.”
Dave made a motion as if casting out a great net. The cords of power flashed for a moment as they flew though the air but went invisible as they landed on the snow. They could all see their footprints press outward, leaving impressions that were five times larger than their feet.
“Spread out,” Dave said. “We’ll drop into an avalanche if our weight presses too close together.”
They all spread out, moving slowly and carefully. Dave remained in the center of them, his magics like a spider-web spreading their weight out over a span of a hundred feet. Just when they were starting to think they had made it, Oirion’s foot dropped though the snow crust. The cords under him broke with a visible snap. Dave almost lost his balance.
“Shannon?!” Dave’s tone was half-question, half-shout.
Oirion dropped though the snow-crust up to his waist, gasping in pain.
“Keep moving,” Shannon ordered the others. He walked softly to Oirion, caught the priest by his shoulders and pulled him up slowly, moving him an inch at a time. By the time Shannon had pulled Oirion back to the surface of the snow crust, the others had already reached the tree-line and turned back to watch.
Oirion was so tired and so sore he stayed there, kneeling in the snow, his head hung low.
Shannon waited, still as a statue, stone-like, only his cloak shifting in the wind. He remained beside the priest… a silent guardian not about to abandon him.
“Let’s find a place to set up camp,” Riven said. “We can make some lean-tos with boughs… and, Kaava, we need food.”
“I’m on it,” the orc said, and then trotted off, leaving them to try to find a suitable spot to prepare the campsite and build a fire.
They were almost finished by the time Shannon finally took Oirion under the arm and pulled him to his feet. Oirion struggled to get up, but wasn’t able to without help. For once, he accepted Shannon’s assistance without argument.
The others intentionally kept their focus on the camp, allowing Oirion what dignity he still had, as he once again limped into camp with the aid of Shannon.
The campsite was sheltered by a snow bank that had swirled around one of the few great fir trees. It had a wall of snow wrapping around it, which provided a back-rest to lean against. It also blocked out all the wind and held in some heat.
Tavia had a fire going, built out of small twigs and pine needles, and the others had built a roof around the top of the snow bank to hold in more heat and to hide the light of the fire. Kaava was not yet back, but the others were gathered in their snow shelter. All of them offered Oirion a wary smile, but nothing was said. Shannon eased the priest down to the ground. Tavia gathered extra boughs to put under him to ease the cold and soreness of his body. Oirion groaned despite his attempt not to.
Riven left his last bit of shelter-building and knelt with the other priest. They took hands and sank into Prayers of Perseverance. The others huddled around the meager fire. Everyone was exhausted and sore. Tonight Shannon made no effort to go food-seeking or to help with any other tasks as he normally did. He sank to the ground with his back to the wall of snow, his knees drawn up. His arms rested on his knees, his hands limp with weariness and his head hung low. There was no movement out of him, but it was obvious that he didn’t enter his usual trance.
Theo struggled along with Kelly and Ivan to put up more boughs. They did the best that they could in the gathering darkness and limited space. They all hurt and the cold never went away, but tonight they had a real fire and a more solid shelter than they’d had in weeks. They were all glad for it. The pain of the cold was a constant thing that never left them, but despite the cold, this campsite actually gave them the hope of sleeping.
Tavia made a meal of thick broth using a powder that the orcs had given them which she found in the remaining pack. The others were very glad for it and ate all that she gave them. She didn’t press Shannon to eat with them, but kept a small bowl for him, set to the side. The broth was hot and filled the stomach, but was the last of their food. Unfortunately, Kaava had nothing to add to it when he got back. Shannon didn’t move to help, nor did he react when the meal was done.
“Too high yet,” Kaava apologized, as he finished the broth, “and I think the things on the slopes have come down to hunt the area out.”
No one said anything, but shrugged it off. No one blamed him at all or worried about it; they were far too tired.
They ate and then, one by one, crawled into their cloaks and with each other’s company, they tried to get some sleep. Tavia sent Travis to sleep with Kelly and Salma – she would be there shortly. She took the little bowl, watered it down, and crawled over to Shannon. She knelt in the snow, holding it out to him.
He lifted his head slowly, looking from the bowl she offered to her face. He didn’t say anything, but looked at her as if he had no idea who she was. He had to wonder if she realized what gesture she was making – in that stance and the way she held the bowl… right down to the way her fingers crossed under the offering. In another age and another place her motion could well be taken as a marriage proposal. It almost struck him as funny that he would even notice such a thing.
“Please,” she whispered.
He didn’t move at all. He could taste that she was tired, sore, and cold. Shields blocked her emotions, as always, but all her pain was open to him. It was very tempting. He was so tired and strained. Her life was so close… whispering at him, as real as a perfume and as welcome as warmth to a cold man.
The emotions she normally kept so well hidden got to her, however, and he watched a single tear run down her cheek. It was far sweeter than physical pain. It cast such a lure to his needs… His hands began to shake and his head buzzed with it; his body ached to pull her in. He could not even take his eyes off it. He could see the power in it, like swirls of light and flecks of gold. Whoever Tavia was within her soul, she was far more then the farm wife she played at being.
The broth offered nothing he needed or even wanted to bother with, but the tear offered so much more. He could not just let it go. To let it be wasted, while he was left with his sinking energies and unbearable pain, was almost a guarantee of harm to the others.
He moved slowly, not sure he was actually going to reach out, but he did. With care… with the softest touch he had… he wiped the precious tear off her cheek with his middle finger. He wanted to take it on his lips and let the energy sink in and save him, but not with her watching him. Not with those eyes.
Instead, he wiped it with his thumb and absorbed the unshielded emotional energy and life energy of the tear through his glove and his fingers. It was a small breath of relief… not nearly what it might have been, but he could not show that side of himself to this woman.
It was, to him, what the hot tea on the slopes above had been to the others. It was all he could do to hide how sweet even the smallest taste of her had been. He grit his teeth and hoped the cold explained his shivering away.
“You can’t keep this up,” she whispered. “I can’t keep going if you give up on us.”
Shannon knew what role Tavia played in the group. She was the one who ran the camp, and saw to food and care. She was the matriarch of the group and if she cried in front of the others, they would all lose a lot of their strength. She was holding them all up with her solid calm.
“I am just tired,” he said in Norwen. He watched almost in disbelief as his hand cradled her cheek. He spoke without a whisper, struggling to remain where he was and not draw up the power of a lure.
“You don’t eat, you don’t sleep, you don’t even share the tents, and you expect to be well?” She did not respond to his Norwen, but spoke the common Purt… something he realized she hadn’t done before. Until now, they had spoken Common trade, as it was on the ship. Shannon doubted Ivan knew Purt; he certainly did not expect it of Tavia.
He forced himself to pull his hand away and leaned his head back against the snow wall, and looked at her. It would not be hard to make her cry… wipe the tears away, and breathe in her exhausted fear like a potion of healing. If it had been just about anyone else… he would have. He rarely, if ever, used women, but now, in this condition, he would have…anyone but Tavia. He just did not have it in him to abuse the woman who was working so hard, and with so little thanks, to help them all.
Not only that, but she was trying to help him as much as anyone. That was a rare thing. Most people either wanted to drive him out, pretend he was not there, or play seduction games with him. It had been a long time since a woman cared for his well- being, not because of vampire magics or Purtan looks, but just as a man. It was nice to be treated normal.
The snow started to fall. He moved – he had to – taking the cup out of her hands with his left hand. He caught one of her hands with his right.
“Tavia, I am alright,” he tried to reassure her.
“No, you’re not,” she breathed back, her voice catching in her throat. She reached out suddenly and grabbed his beard in her fingers. “You are not alright, Shannon,” she half-growled at him, tugging on his beard, making sure he knew that she realized ‘if he was alright,’ he would not have a beard. You are not the man you were three months ago, and only the blind would not see that. You are very far from where you were six months ago, and you are not alright. Do not lie to me and say that you are. Your magic is slipping in things so mundane as your beard that it scares me. We are relying on you for far greater things than that.”
He pried her fingers out of his beard before he spoke to her.
“What I am doing must be done without break. If I break the fast now, it will be worse for us all. The others are holding as strong as they are because of your strength, and if they see you crying, we will all be worse off.”
“Then don’t push me over the edge. Drink the damned broth,” she said firmly. She caught her breath, trying to catch her emotions into control. He watched her as she fought with her emotions, wishing that she didn’t have shields. Her inner war would be worth far more to him than anything else at the moment. He could lure her in and have her drop her shields, but the very idea of it made him feel ill. New tears escaped her eyes, but she wiped them away quickly.
He dropped his eyes to sip the cold drink. She waited until he was done, making sure that he drank it all. She took the cup from him and, very stiffly, got to her feet. With stubborn resolve she went to the last hint of a fire, scrubbed the cup clean, and then stashed it back into the pack. She sat wavering at the side of the embers, so tired that she was all but falling asleep. She was too tired to get up and move beyond the reach of the fire.
Shannon forced his body to get up. It was aching and sore, even beyond normal. The cold was not his problem; the problem was the constant drain on his resources. Oirion was a great part of that. Oirion’s pain was enough to drive Shannon nearly crazy and now this…. The shields that both he and Oirion kept layering over it were all that was saving him, but Tavia wasn’t making it easy to hold onto his sanity.
He crawled over to her, despite the nearness of the fire, took hold of her shoulders and pulled her over to him. He wrapped his cloak around her and offered her shelter and support for a moment. Slowly her shields drew tight and her shivering began to lessen. He wanted something from her, but wasn’t sure what… to send her to bed was not it though.
When he could take it no longer, he struggled to his feet, pulling her up with him. He guided her to the other women. She stood cold and half asleep until he pushed her down to lie with them. The group needed her, and that meant she needed to sleep.
“Lie down.” He had to force her to lie back. He freed the edge of the bedding and drew up the fur around her cheeks. He couldn’t use wizardry and hope to stay sane, but he had other powers at his command that he could sneak in. He could pull in just enough to put her to sleep, and still not be detected by the priests who were far too tired to even be conscious, or by anyone else who might be watching for him.
She couldn’t see him in the dark, but he could see her. He fought with himself… then struggled up, allowing her to fall asleep on her own. He could not trust himself to touch her, even in attempt to help.
Once free of the nearness of her, he took two strides and then stepped into a run. He needed to get away, and he needed to find something to kill… not just for the meat for the group. He would hold whatever small life form he could find in his hands, drawing in the energy of its fear, of its life, of all that it was, saving himself from having to use those under his care. Using fear for life was not his favorite method of obtaining energy, but the whole damn situation was horrid, and at this point he had no choice. Due to the amount of warp and power in the air of this place, the wild animals here worked better than most. It had held him for months and would for months more; besides… they needed the packs.
It was well after sun-up when they began to crawl out of the huddle. Ivan trucked off into the snow to find wood to burn, and also to let the others stay curled up and warm. Dave headed off to help Ivan. He couldn’t sleep any longer and figured motion might help with the cold. They found a long fallen giant of a tree, gathered armloads of wood, and then returned to camp without a word.
They dumped the load and went for more. Dave suspected that Shannon was hunting; hopefully they would get food today. It was odd he wasn’t back yet, though, and that he had left the camp unguarded all night. A fire would be needed for the meal which Dave hoped to use it for… and the heat would be good for them all.
Tavia struggled to get the embers to ignite, but with no luck. It got to the point that she actually threw her tools to the snow in frustration. Kelly got to her feet and slowly drew her sword. She held the sword in front of her, closed her eyes and focused for a moment, and then thrust it into the pile of wood.
The blade ignited in flames which curled up the blade toward her hands in serpentine golds, reds and blues. When the fire began to coil about her fingers, she had to pull the sword free. It was enough. The wood was burning.
“Nice,” Tavia approved, shooting a grateful smile to the other woman. Kelly knelt half-behind her, putting her arms around the ‘mother’ of the group. Kelly just held her. Engulfed in warmth that seemed to be more than just cloak and arms, Tavia knew there was some sort of magic to the embrace. Kelly remained for a moment, then got up and went after the men to help gather wood.
Tavia looked after her with an odd expression.
“What do you suppose that was?” Tavia asked Riven, who stood near the new fire, looking wild and worn.
“We all feel that way, Tavia,” Riven said. “You do a lot.” He pulled his hood up over his wild hair and went to gather wood as well.
They returned with great armloads of wood and piled it as a defensive wall. Then they dropped down to soak up heat from the fire. Shannon returned hours later. He carried a speckled brown deer over one shoulder, and had several of the lost packs in his hands and slung on his arms. They had been torn and likely emptied, but he had them and none of them were empty now. He had to have risked a great deal to get them and to gather up what had been scattered.
Ivan jumped up with a cheer as Shannon dropped the great load of packs. He caught Shannon up in a great hug, lifting the Purtan off his feet for a moment. The big Ezeeren kissed the man with a show of his affection. He set Shannon down, grabbed up the packs, and began to pass them out with delight. Shannon stood, stock still, as shocked as the others. Dave had stopped breathing altogether. For a moment, they were all so stunned that no one moved at all.
Ivan didn’t even notice as he dropped to his pack. Pulling out a pair of clean socks with the happiness of a delighted child, he started to sing a little happy Ezeeren rhyme. They all had brightened at the idea of meat. Having the tents and packs back only added to it.
Shannon took a small breath, then turned, pulled a rope from his tunic, and ran it though the leg of the deer. He hung it off the tree, acting as if nothing had happened.
With his pearl-handled dagger, he sliced the skin around the ankles and skinned the deer with swift, skilled speed. In Dave’s opinion, it peeled off with abnormal efficiency. He had skinned things before and knew it was not that easy.
They watched as Shannon stripped the bones of meat in a hurry, leaving very little to be wasted. When he had it cleaned, he tossed the spine and skull to Riven.
“Deal with that, Master Dwarf,” he said. “Theo.” Theo came over and helped him gather up the rest of the bones. They headed down the mountain with the waste. Theo was tired and cold, but he hoped, maybe, he would earn another lesson if he helped without a word. He suspected this was Shannon’s way of easing the tensions from their talks earlier.
On the edge of a deep wash they stopped. Shannon set the bones down and knelt in the snow. Theo dropped down across from the man. Shannon stayed there a moment as if too tired to move for a moment.
“The bones of all creatures hold power,” Shannon said. “Within the bones is the essence of the creature. That is why some cultures burn their dead and others glorify the bits and pieces as holy relics. The best tool for a sorcerer to start with is wood, the second is bone.
Bone can be made into jewelry and tools, but also into weapons and wands. Before you can ably use a tool made from bone, you need to know how to use the bone itself.” He picked up a bone. “Take this and trance down… if you can. Let’s see what you can see.”
Theo took the bone in his bare hand and tranced down. He knew how to do it. It was a skill used to track and learn about others. Through their possessions, and more-so through bits of skin, hair, or blood, a sorcerer could find anyone.
He tranced into the bone. As he did, he felt Shannon reach over and touch his hand, shifting things in a way he had never had them shifted. He would never forget how it felt. He knew, even then, that he would be able to do it again.
In the back of his mind, he had always known that he was being taught ‘just enough,’ and never the full scope of skills he was capable of learning. This was, he knew at once, a missing link. It was all he could do to stay focused through his excitement.
Once his mind settled and the shift took hold, he was light and small. He saw the world in a wider angle than he ever had before. Every sound and smell came to him, sounds and smells he had never experienced before were suddenly clear. He had the impression of leaping… bounding though the snow, up the face of a cliff, leaping over a deep, dark gorge… all of it rushed to him at once.
Still, there was more… he felt power in a way he never had. He felt it all – the way the creature knew how to shift color, to hide, to feel hostility and hunger from others, and how to avoid dangers. It was a rush that seemed to last a lifetime, and yet, it was over before Shannon had folded his hands back into his lap.
Theo was breathless as the sensations still flowed through him.
“What did you learn?” Shannon asked.
“Lightness – to leap… how to shift color and to hide, to smell for danger… so many little magics!” Theo said breathlessly, desperately clinging to it, as it all began to slip away like a lost dream.
“Let it go, Theo,” Shannon said gently. “You cannot hope to master it in one breath. But you feel it. Now, do it on your own.” He took the used bone, tossed it out over the slope and handed Theo another. It took several tries, but he did it again. One at a time they went through every bone, until the last one.
Shannon held it. It was a piece of leg bone.
“Bone is not dead for some time. You can take a bone and grind it into potions. If you do so correctly, you can boil certain essences out of bone, and you can use the bone as a tool to give you powers you do not have for yourself. The power you gain will differ a bit. It is different for each man who makes the tool and for what sort bone is used. The energy resonates differently off of each of us – no two sorcerers are alike. Your voice will never be exactly like mine, and I will never sound like you. That is a simple enough explanation for why it will be different. Only you can master you.
What we are going to do is create a Sorcerer’s Essence using the deer’s memory and essence in the bone. You need to have tranced into the bone enough that the essence will recognize you. So, now shave off a piece.” He handed over the bone and the dagger that he used to butcher it earlier.
Theo looked at it a moment, then moved to saw though the bone. He found that the knife sliced though it as if it was nothing more than a block of cheese. Shannon had him slice the entire length into disks.
Theo gathered them together. Shannon drew a rune in the snow, explaining its name and power, while Theo carved it into the bone disks with the dagger point. They repeated the process for most of the bone disks.
Shannon set aside the extra disks before he set to work on the carved ones.
The disks that Theo had carved were strung on a cord of sinew that Shannon had saved from the deer’s gut. He explained how to twist the cord, preserving the essence in it, how to bind spells, and how to add more spells for wear, strength, and other small magics, most of them rather mundane.
In the end, Theo had a bone-disk belt. It was a little crude looking, but it was his. It was made by him, for him, and held more magic than anything else that he owned.
Shannon took the last three disks, carved different runes on them, and strung them together. He handed them to Theo.
“Tell me what this is, and for whom I made it.”
Theo held it and tranced down to touch the magic and the runes. He saw that he did not recognize any of the runes, but opened his mind to try and place them.
“It is for Oirion. It is a shield to hide his pain in the way the deer would have hid from the creatures here… creatures that prey on the energy of pain. It has magic to make him feel lighter, to aid him with his back.” He looked up, amazed at both the fact that he knew what the new runes were, and that Shannon would make such a gift for Oirion. It seemed even more amazing that it was so easy to read.
“Oirion will not accept anything from me,” Shannon said, “but a gift from you, he might wear.”
“Won’t he know that it’s sorcery and be mad, as well as refuse it?”
“No. To him it is but bone and sinew. With the warp here, the tiny bit of power that we used to activate the essence spells will not be detected. Riven will know… not as a priest, but as a dwarf. Look at a dwarf’s jewelry and see what they wear.
Bones hold power and dwarves are masters of bone-work. He might ignore it, or he might give you lessons. If he does, listen well to him – his blood-line is very powerful.” Shannon rose and offered a hand to Theo. Taking it, Theo got to his feet and tied the belt on under his fur.
He slid the new belt for Oirion into his pocket and they headed back up. He smiled at how light he felt, and noticed how much less he sank into the snow than he had on his way down.
This trip might be worth every step if Shannon kept giving him the missing pieces of power that he had so desperately been seeking.
“Thank you,” he said, stopping just as they reached the top of the slope.
Shannon stopped and looked at the often misunderstood man. He didn’t say anything, but just turned to hike back up the steep hill to camp, pulling his hood up as he went. Theo smiled and trotted ahead to beat Shannon to camp.
Riven knew what Shannon wanted. He moved uncertainly, not sure if he was going to do what was asked. He took the skull and spine away, wondering why Shannon would ask such a thing. It was a Dwarven magic that the Purtan asked for and one that Riven knew well enough. All boys learned it before they ever went hunting.
Riven hiked up above the camp, still not sure how he felt about it. He stood, holding the bones, debating if he was going to call on the gods of his childhood. He was not so sure he was ready to just give up on the religion he had devoted his life to. Closing his eyes, he stood in the snow and waited for a sign.
He moved easily when he finally did. Lifting the bones before him, Riven looked to the white-gray sky above, and to the Dwarven gods. He began to whisper the words he had not whispered since he was young. As he did, he felt the priesthood of Purt falling apart and slipping away. Weight seemed to be un-weaving and sliding off his shoulders, one heavy cord at a time.
The ropes he used to hold his priesthood together and had clung to, began to come undone. Patched over a thousand times with denial and refusal – refusal to accept what he saw and knew was wrong – they began to fray apart. The bindings were falling off and with it, his sense of self and duty. It left behind only the hollow, empty reality of the sad, lonely man he had become.
He forced the words of gratitude to the deer for giving its life that they might live, and to the gods for giving life to the deer and all its kind. He prayed that the company would be worthy of the life taken, and offered the deer to share in their life through its essence that they would consume, thus allowing it to become a part of them.
He was sobbing by the time he had reached the last words. He could barely see through his tears. He stood, weeping for quite some time before he got his breath back. He offered the bones back to heaven so that the spirit of the deer would live again, strong and well. He laid them in the snow at his feet and at the feet of the gods.
As he did this, power flushed through the bones. The skull and spine were lifted off of the ground as the ghostly figure of the deer retook its bones, enveloping them within its essence of burning power.
Dropping to his knees, Riven knelt in the snow, transfixed at the glowing deer before him. It stood upright, proudly lifting its head as it looked down at the dwarf. The antlers that it had not been allowed to develop in life were there, fully grown and glowing translucently like icicles of shifting power.
Riven had never seen such, but he had heard of it. When the creature was powerful enough – it became more. Soul power could transform it into something beyond the world of the physical. It was at this point that most Dwarven priests would die, shredded by the power they sought to hold. Much was needed as they tried to bind the Greater Creatures into summons and not all passed the tests. Unicorns, dragons, or Totems were normal and expected to be Summons, but this was just a small deer…or he had thought it just a small deer. The deer looked at him a long moment and then bowed its head, blowing hot air in his face.
The dwarf caught his breath as the deer turned and bound away, leaving no tracks behind. It was not released and given a place in the Holy Gardens; instead it had chosen to become a Summons for the Dwarven priest that it saw in Riven.
Covering his face in his hands, River tried not to cry again. He didn’t succeed. Dwarves were emotional by nature, and the trip was catching up. He just could not bite it all down anymore. Everything flooded out – from the stress of the caves, to the fact that he knew he was no longer a priest of Purt, but was taken back by the religion and gods of his grandfather’s world. Shannon must have known, not only that the deer was so powerful, but that Riven would pass the test.