Frost and Chaos

 

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Author's Notes

This is the second in a series of fantasy books about an ordinary man, who becomes more than he was born into, rising above what nature would dictate for him, and gaining the ability to save those closest to him.

You can find the first book on my Patreon.

https://www.patreon.com/colinswitalski

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The Skinwalkers

The white wolf was the first of the skinwalkers, sired by the great and terrible wolf, Hownduin, for only Hownduin’s bite could produce a white skinwalker, the most powerful of all shapeshifters. Only on rare occasion does Hownduin come forth to gift a man with his bite, for the man must be worthy of the bite and can not be of ordinary stock. And the white skinwalker has great power, for his bite can change men into skinwalkers, his flesh can mend grievous wounds, and his strength, speed, and stamina are unparalleled.

    It was such a bite that changed Dariôs, the man, the Bargârian, into the white wolf, a skinwalker, able to sire his own lineage of skinwalkers. And it was his bite that pulled Märy, the woman he was bound to, from the brink of death, changing her into a red wolf, a skinwalker. And still, too, did Dariôs bite his friend, Eglon, and he was changed into a pale green wolf, for he was nearly dead, and his new skin recovered him from the brink of death.

    Since their change, Dariôs, Märy, and Eglon have lived with Heskov, and his skinwalkers, in the secret city of Samahulta. Märy brought her mother to live among the skinwalkers; she also gave birth to a son, and is expecting a second child.

    Elgon found a woman to bind himself to, named Angana, and he has served as a scout for Dariôs, collecting news from the cities of Bâl. And that is Eglon’s business now, two years after becoming a skinwalker.

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Chapter 1

Midbál, the center of Bargârian culture. From the Lords’ District to the Lower City, Midbál offers a complete picture of life within Bâl, that great northern country. The Great Sanctuary looks down upon the busy city, and at dawn and dusk, its shadow stretches beyond the city boundaries. The cobbled streets are filled with traffic, both human and animal. The market places are crowded, and many a coin is traded from one hand to another. The lords and nobles walk their private streets, away from the filth of the commoners. Those of high position, noble blood, and heavy purse live on the eastern side of Gauntway, the slender road that divides the city, running north and south; while the poor, the needy, the orphans and widows, the sick, the scum, and the hungry live, and die, along the dirt streets on the western side.

    It was just such a day as described that Eglon, informant to the white wolf, walked the dirt streets of Midbál, west of Gauntway, listening for information that would be useful to Dariôs and his fellow skinwalkers. Since their transformation, Dariôs had, on occasionally, sent Eglon on scouting missions to various towns and cities across Bâl. He did not mind the trips beyond the skinwalker city, Samahulta, and he had come to enjoy them, but the trips had become more frequent as of late, for a swelling of foreign ideas had infected the commoners of Bâl, and Eglon felt uneasy about these radicals.

    This strand of thought had risen up amongst the commoners shortly after the passing of the last Mælstrigis, which came the earliest and lasted the longest than any other before. The brutal winter storm had come before winter that year, and it had lasted into the summer. Many commoners had died during that time, from starvation and the touch of cold, and, indeed, it would have been a hard task to find even one commoner who did not lose someone they loved to the storm.

    And though the nobles and lords did not cause the storm to come, or to last as long as it had, there had been few of them affected by the Mælstrigis, and many of them had thrived during that time when others starved and froze to death. But once word of this reached the common people, they were appalled, though they would never turn against the nobles and lords, at least, not without sufficient prodding.

    That was when individuals began to spring up from every town and city, all spreading a similar message of the equalization of wealth, mixed in with anti-noble sentiment. These outspoken peoples swayed many of their peers, though it was not difficult for them to stoke these fires within the minds of the commoners. And those who followed this ideology often referred to themselves in public as “populists” (though in secret they were known as the “Blôdhelg”, meaning, “blood makers”), for they sought to defend the common people.

    At first, the nobles and lords laughed at the supposed revolutionaries that were rising. And they made jokes about the populists, and looked at them with disgust and scorn, knowing that the commoners were below them. But as the months dragged on, and the movement continued to grow with no signs of slowing, the nobles and lords began to fear the populace that they once looked down upon. And soon, it was they who were mocked and spat upon as they went about their daily business. And few dared venture west of Gauntway.

    And there had been nobles and lords who had turned on their fellow wealth-hoarders, joining the populist movement, and they were labeled “class traitors” by the upper-class. Among these was Lord Blîtwald, who was affectionately titled “Champion of the People”, and there were many that were swayed by his eloquent speeches.

    It was just such talk that Eglon sought to hear during his time in Midbál, for he knew that listening to the thought leaders of the populists, and observing the crowds that listened, would be the most efficient way of assessing the tensions between the commoners and the powerful. And he had heard that Lord Blîtwald, himself, had been staying in Midbál, speaking a few days a week for the public of the Lower City, and gaining many followers.

    But, for the life of him, he could not seem to find the lord, for the city was massive and he had only been looking for two days. To add to his troubles, not a spirit among the commoners seemed to have the slightest idea of where the man was staying, for the leaders of the populists were secretive. And they took extra precaution to be sure that only their small circle of trust knew where they stayed — a wise move, if not terribly inconvenient for Eglon, considering the tensions between the nobles and the commoners.

    “Gods, this man is impossible to find,” Eglon thought, finishing the last gulp from a mug of ale. He was visiting an inn, named Deerhaven — which seemed a silly name to Eglon, mainly because they only served massive portions of meat of the deer — and he had hoped to find any information about Lord Blîtwald. But he was sorely disappointed in the lack of information that he had come away with, and he could not think of a less productive day than the one that was about to close.

    And as the sun began to set upon the city, he arranged for a room at Deerhaven Inn. But he was so disappointed in the day’s work, that he nearly decided to rest somewhere beyond the boundaries of the city; he was in no mood for another drink, either, and he would not have even touched the first one if it had not been for the innkeeper’s insistence. He felt rotten and useless, and he knew that he did not deserve to drink and sleep in a bed, at least, not following a day of failure.

    But he climbed the stairs of Deerhaven Inn and reached his room. He lain in the bed, thinking on what he would need to do the next day, and hoping he would find the lord he was looking for. As much as he wanted sleep, it eluded him, and he spent hours lying on his back, staring at the wood ceiling.

    His mind began to shift from thoughts of the next day, to thoughts of Angana, the woman he was bound to. He wondered if she would be asleep, whether she worried about him, how her shamanistic training was faring, and if she missed him as much as he missed her. But even thoughts of his love did not let his mind drift to sleep, and it seemed to him that he would never find rest this night.

    It was late into the night when he saw the rising glow of torchlight outside his window. His mind exploded with curiosity. He jumped out of bed and sprinted across the room. Peering outside, he saw close to twenty men and women, huddled together, with four torches among them, cloaked by crimson hoods, walking down the dirt road, passing Deerhaven Inn. Seeing the march was more than he could take — this was exactly the kind of thing that would interest Dariôs. But, perhaps, he was more interested in it all than Dariôs would be.

    Sneaking out of the inn, careful not to wake any of the other guests, Eglon followed the lights from a safe distance behind. The red clad group led him down many dirt ways and back alleys. Quiet were they, save for the shuffling of their feet in the dirt, and the occasional directional whisper. But they were not the only group walking in the forsaken hours of the night; it was after the group completed the distance of an alley, and began to walk upon yet another road, that they were joined by a group of about ten others, crimson cloaked and torches raised. And this was not the last group to join the larger, for three groups of five were also added as the large group walked the streets. And all of the walking ended, at last, in a district square, one which Eglon did not know the name of, for he was not all that familiar with the city of Midbál.

    And Eglon watched the gathering from afar, seeing the group he had followed join with a host of others at the district square. He saw that the surrounding buildings were of poor make, and knew that he was in one of the many the slums of the city, that which was west of Gauntway.

    There was a man standing on the fountain, which was in a state of disrepair, in the center of the square, however, Eglon could not hear what the man said, for he was too far away to discern what words the man shouted. But he could clearly hear the cheers and shouts that followed from the crowd — they certainly were not shy about making noise.

    “Dammit,” he thought. “If only I had my wolfen ears.”

    It was then that Eglon saw the thing that the shouting man held in his hand. The man raised his hand, lifting the collar of an older man, holding the man high above the hooded heads of the crowd. More shouting. More cries and cheers.

    Eglon had seen enough — he had to get closer. He crept his way down the road, careful not to make any noise, and he ducked behind the railing of a structure, just a few feet from the start of the crowd.

    “No!” The older man said, still gripped by the collar of his blue and yellow, pinstriped shirt. “It’s not true! Don’t listen to him!” This man had greying hair, and a goatee that shot out of his chin a few inches. He had a thin, bony facial structure, and his eyes were mad with terror.

    The crowd jeered. And a few among them yelled, “Liar!”

    “This doesn’t look pleasant,” Eglon thought, and he wondered if he had made the right choice in following the group.

    “It is true!” The ringleader said, dark blue eyes drilling into the suspended man. “We all know it, and there’s no sense denying it!”

    More shouts from the crowd.

    “Please, my good man, you must believe me!” The older man said. “Me and my family aren’t like that at all.”

    Boos came from some, taunting from others.

    “Let me ask you, then,” the man said, still holding the older man tight, stroking his long, black beard with his free hand. “How many of your family went hungry? How many died, hmm?”

    The older man hung his head, looking to the ground. “None,” he said. “But—”

    “You heard it from him, yourselves!” The ringleader cut in. “He and his were sitting plump and warm, while the rest of us were left out to freeze and starve!”

    The crowd went wild, and the ones nearest spat on the older man, but all of them shook fists in the air.

    “No, it’s not like that!” The older man said, eyes darting from one member of the mob to another. “I swear!”

    “And why should we believe you?!” One from the crowd asked.

    The older man looked in the direction of the questioner, or as best as he could while he was held in the air. “I made sure that a third of our food supplies were sent west of Gauntway! To any of you who would have it!” He said in a shaking voice.

    “I’ve never heard of such supplies!” The ringleader shouted, suppressing the urge to don a toothy grin. “And I’ll be damned if I take you at your word.”

    “It’s true!” The older man said, turning back the man who gripped him. “But all of that food was stolen before it had the chance to pass over to this side of Gauntway!”

    The crowd was not pleased with this remark, and many regarded it as an insult to their intelligence.

    “Likely story,” the ringleader said, almost in a whisper to the older man, an ever widening smile engulfing his face — he could no longer keep it hidden.

    “It’s the truth,” the old man said in a whimper. “The Divine knows it to be true, and I demand that you bring me before the priests of the Great Sanctuary, where we can settle this in a righteous way!”

    The crowd went silent, and a torch was dropped, only to be swiftly picked up from the ground. The ringleader’s smile was replaced by a look of horror, and the older man looked pleased, knowing the he had gained the upper hand among the minds of the mob. No man, noble, lord, or commoner, would dare interfere with the business of the priests, and this older man had just made the whole scene into a matter for the priests, but, more importantly, a matter for the Divine.

    “How dare you blaspheme against our great god,” the ringleader said with a mind to twist the mob back into his palms, and eyes desperately darting about — an external display of his internal struggle. “How very dare you invoke his name and his priests!”

    A few among the mob began to sway back to the ringleader’s will.

    “We would have let you go once we knew that you were remorseful for your acts of greed against your fellow man,” the man said, hand ever firm upon the older man’s collar. “But now your lies and wickedness must be punished!”

    Cheers and shouts arose from the crowd.

    The ringleader turned to the mob, and said, “I can not make this decision by myself! What, then, should be done?”

    Indiscernible shouts came from the crowd, as every man and woman gave their opinions loudly. One man said, “Make blood!” And that started a chant.

    “Make blood. Make blood. Make blood,” the mob said as one in low voices.

    The older man’s eyes went wide with fear.

    “Make blood, indeed,” the ringleader said.

    “No! You can’t!” The older man shouted at the man who held him. “This is a matter for the priests! Would you be so profane? Would you even plant yourself against the gods?”

    “Don’t you understand, old man?” The ringleader said in a low voice. “Your time is over. This is our time, and we are the gods of these streets. We’ll decide what is right and wrong, truth and lie.”

    And the ringleader was handed a dagger, and he raised it high for all to see. The mob cheered and jeered at an earsplitting pitch.

    Eglon watched in dumb amazement, for he could not believe what he was witnessing. And he looked away as the man, still standing on the fountain, plunged the knife into the older man’s throat. The following shouts and cheers were even louder than the ones previous, and he decided that he had seen enough for the night.

    “All of this in Midbál?” He thought, as he walked away from the scene, mind and spirit in a haze. “If a group like this can thrive here, then surely every city and town in Bâl will be infested with these unlawful, unruly, renegade scum.”

    The shouts behind him had died down, but there was one shout that he was able to clearly hear; someone was yelling, “Spy! There was a spy in our midst!”

    Eglon turned his head in time to see the man, shouting orders to catch the spy, pointing directly at himhe was the spy. He had been spying, gathering intelligence on this group, but he did not expect any of them to see him as he left, and he was surprised by the loud blast of the horn. A long, powerful sound came from the mob as one of them blew their horn in warning.

    In a matter of seconds, Eglon was running. But he was not the only one running those dirt streets of Midbál that night, for the mob was close behind him, and the raggedy houses seemed to have come alive by the blast of the horn. Lights were being lit in the windows, and there were some who looked out from their bedroom windows, wearing their long nightgowns, and shouting to the mob, “Here! He’s here!”

    In the span of one minute, the whole city, west of Gauntway, had turned against him.

    “Damn you, Dariôs,” he thought, knowing that his frustration was misplaced. “Two rules: don’t be seen, and don’t shapeshift into my wolf form. I’ve broken the first, and I might have to break the second, all in one night.”

    Eglon was, of course, a skinwalker, and he could change from his human self to a massive wolfen form in seconds. At the first, it would take him about two to three minutes — painful minutes, as his bones and muscles shifted and changed — to change from human to wolf, but he had almost perfected the transformation process in the two years that had passed since he became a skinwalker, and he had even come to like his wolf form better than his human body. As a wolf, he had pale green fur, and, strangely enough, as a human, at the roots of his long, braided, brown hair, was the slightest hue of pale green. And speculation as to why his natural hair color was changing was the talk of Samahulta; the most popular theory said it was because of the amount of time that he spent as a wolf, but there were many others, ranging from rational to cooky.

    But he dared not change into a wolf while normal Bargârians watched, for they knew nothing of the skinwalkers. And the general population stayed far from the forest that the skinwalkers lived in, for they believed that it was infested with aggressive, man-eating wolves, known as bâlwulves. And the bâlwulves served as a useful cover for the skinwalkers to live without the prying eyes of curious humans.

    And it was this knowledge that compelled him to stay in his human form, running down the dirt streets as denizens of the Lower City peered out from their windows, though he could have easily slipped away into the shadows on the powerful legs of a wolf, and he longed to, but his resolve was absolute.

    The streets of Midbál were a foreign entity to Eglon, and he ran, aimless in his attempt to escape the torch-wielding zealots behind him. He passed crossroads and back alleys, not knowing where to turn, not knowing where to go. He thought he was heading south, but in his initial, panicked dash, he had forgotten to note what directions he had turned.

    “Angil wouldn’t be in this mess if he were here,” he thought of his fallen brother, who, in life, had kept a more level head in these kinds of situations, and had always gotten Eglon out of sticky messes. Messes seemed to follow him around in those days, but, in that regard, little changed since then.

    Eglon hooked a sharp right as he entered yet another crossroads, and thinking that he was now headed west, he ran hard — he would be inside Deerhaven Inn, shortly. And he would hide in his room, safe from the mob at his back.

    But he did not recognize any of his surroundings, and the further he ran, the more fancy the buildings became. Had he been noticing the architecture, perhaps he would had turned back, but a pressing threat was at his back, and his thoughts were consumed with one thing: escape.

    It was this cloud that blinded his mind as he passed the narrow, dirt road, stepping on the cobbled street before him. And if the cloud was not over his mind, perhaps he would have noticed that he was no longer being chased, for the mob had stopped just before the cobbled street began. But this revelation came to him too late.

    Ahead of him stood four men, looking at him with sentinel eyes, shoulder to shoulder, each wielding a long axe. There was nowhere for him to turn, no gap between the elegant houses to squeeze through. And as he looked at the homes, he knew where he was: east of Gauntway. Somehow he had ended up in the Lords’ District — and lords and nobles were not known for leniency, and they despised disturbances.

    He darted a glance behind, and his vision was greeted with the sight of more men with massive axes — this was the end of his late night run.

    The men surrounded him, grabbed him with strong grips, and pulled him along the street, until he chose to use his feet. There was nothing he could do, aside from revealing his wolfen form to these ordinary men, but he would not expose himself. So, the men carried Eglon off, bringing him to the stairs that led under the ground, to a great door — a door with bars for a window and a great lock.

    The door was opened, and Eglon was led past cell after cell, until he reached an empty one, and he was thrown in. The cell door shut hard behind him, and he heard keys rattling as it was locked.

    “I haven’t done anything!” He shouted. “Let me out!”

    And he heard a laugh as the men walked back the way they had come.

    Eglon sat on the stone floor of his cell, darkness all around him. He had done it this time, gotten into a mess that he could not escape from. He missed Angana, he missed his brother, and he missed freedom. But he was caged like the beast that he was, and he would have to wait for better fortune to come his way.

    He thought about where he had gone wrong that night, and many instances popped into his mind — he was a complete failure. He beat himself to a pulp in his mind, knowing that there was much he could have done differently.

    But Eglon would have to face the consequences for his actions in the morning — or whenever his captors decided to deal with him. And when his eyes became heavy, he closed them, and, at last, he drifted off to sleep, not knowing what the next day would bring.

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The Returned Ones

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Chapter 32 

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Genethesis: Izads and Froads 

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