Skin and Frost

 

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Prologue

I

It came like a monster surrounded by mist — undetected, unsuspected, a great beast with a ravenous appetite. It glided over the northern waters, a storm like no other. The winds which carried the storm were like the touch of the dead, and the frost it brought was more bitter than winter’s kiss.

Those twisted clouds, black as the void and chaotic as frothing daemons, flew over the murky waters of the Goreg Ocean. It was the bringer of frozen death, a storm called Maelstrigis by the nation it approached — a people living within the expansive valley called Bal.

The storm moved through the sky like the advance of an invading force. For those who would see it, the sight of the storm was akin to seeing the raised dead — an army of gnashing, gnawing, rotting undead. The winds were like the great skeletal wings of long-deceased dragons, raised by necromantic means, carrying the legions of undead within and atop their exposed rib cages. The storm was unadulterated elemental fury.

And though there was no eye to this storm, the clouds circled the heavens like a kettle of vultures bent on becoming a wake. The Maelstrigis was like an eyeless maelstrom in the sky, its dark mass ever churning. But even without an eye, the storm had an aim: Bal.

And as if it was blessed with the clawed fingers of a creeping ghoul, it scraped its way through the sky, unleashing its frozen wrath upon whatever — whomever was below.

The storm reached the Aklarion Mountains, that range which circled the great Valley of Bal, and so its assault began.

 

II

“C’mon, Thal!” the man yelled as he ran through the cave, his slender legs carrying his feet over the black dirt. His path was illuminated by the dim light of the lanterns which lined the rock walls; he ran around mining equipment and ignored the silver-lodes shooting out of the ground and walls in all directions — the nobles who paid him would have killed him under any other circumstance. No time to think of coin, no time to think of equipment — no time to think.

“I’m comin’, I’m comin’!” Thal said, a chunky man whose face, arms, and hands were smudged with the black dirt of the mine. His breathing was heavy, so heavy that even Kevhon, the man ahead, could hear it. He carried a lantern, and it rocked forwards and backwards in his chubby hand, shining more light on his bouncing flabs of fat and his foot-long beard than the ground.

They both wore wool trousers and leather coats — now covered with the black dirt of the deep caves. It was simple garb, the kind commoners could afford.

“The outpost is just beyond!” Kevhon said, his short, brown hair, which looked black from how much dirt was in it, blowing back from the chilly winds blowing in from outside. “We need to hurry! Whatever it is, it’s not good!” He looked back at the fat man — Gods help us, he thought. He wiped his mouth with a dirty hand, the wisps of hair on his upper lip and chin turning black from the dirt — in this darkness, he could have passed for having a beard.

“It’s the terror wolves, Kev!” Thal said, heavy panting following each word. “I’m telling you! I don’t want them to eat me! Don’t —” he stumbled, caught himself, and kept running — “don’t let them get me!” His fat bounced as his beady black eyes were honed on Kev. He wished now his head had not been shaved, for the chill coming in on the winds was bitter cold.

“Then hurry!” Kevhon said, kicking a bucket in the path — the dirt stirred up from his kick blew on the winds into his face. He coughed.

The dirt reach Thal shortly after, and he sneezed after the dust had settled in his hooked nose.

Kevhon thanked the Gods the silver mine, known as Silver Mine: Stradsburg III, was orderly and greatly excavated. The Stradsburgs were a very wealthy noble family, owning many such mines, each of which were similar to their third installation, with caves dug out to let five men walk abreast.

Only the best mining equipment was used in a Stradsburg mine, and Kevhon and Thal were each paid two silver writs a month to make sure the equipment was not stolen in the night. Of course, they had to live in the mountains to ensure that they could guard the mine each night, and they shared a cabin only a few miles away — but their cabin was not as close as the outpost, and not nearly as prepared.

The Stradsburgs wouldn’t expect us to guard the mine in a time of crisis, Kevhon thought. Would they? He could see they were approaching the cave’s opening — no light at the end, for it was still the small hours of the morning. But the mine’s opening looked south and he could see the stars above the treeline — a beautiful sight; if he had been the son of a lord or noble, he would have learned the names of the constellations — he would have been aware that they even had names — while at skulogius. But his family, like Thal’s, was wretched and poor, just as likely to reach the status of a lordly house through wealth as they were to change the very blood in their veins to match the olden lines of the kings.

Despite the troubles of a commoner’s life, both Kevhon and Thal had landed themselves a job which paid beyond their rank and status. But that job was the reason they were in danger now, a danger still yet to be known, and they neared the darkness beyond the dimly lit mine.

And unbeknownst to the two weaponless guards was the greater blackness which crept over the mountains, only a few hundred feet above the cave they would soon exit — a darkness manufactured by the Maelstrigis. They would never have guessed it had come.

Gods, let us get out of this, Kevhon thought.

Kevhon and Thal exited the silver mine, and it was Kev who first saw the sliver of pale-green moon in the sky, slowly being blotted out by the malevolent fingers of the storm, fingers which reminded him of the ghastly grasping hands of spirits and revenants in old ghost tales. He looked beyond this visual taste to the larger mass of writhing cloud further up and further north, and his jaw dropped. He pointed. “Thal,” he said, unable to utter another syllable because of the fear crippling his mind.

It was more terrible a sight than either had ever seen, enhanced by the sheer unexpected nature of the storm’s advance.

“The Gods want us dead, friend,” Thal said. “They want us locked away in Malgolg.”

“They won’t have us yet,” Kevhon said, and he looked down the mountain. “There!” He pointed to a stone tower poking above the trees, its pyr lit to summon all mountain-men to its warm embrace. Hunters, miners, men of sport — none of us are prepared.

The blast of the horn bellowed from the outpost, the second one Kevhon had heard that night.    “Dammit!” he said, running like a madman toward the sound. “Why’d I have to listen to you anyway?!”

“What?!” Thal said. “How was I supposed to know?!”

“We shouldn’t have fallen asleep in the first place. We were supposed to guard the damn mine, not get caught up in rest!”

“It’s not even winter yet!” Thal said. “The shitting storm shouldn’t even be here! We would’ve gotten away with it, no problem!”

They ran down the mountain toward their only hope for survival. The trees had already begun to block their vision of the pyr, but Kevhon knew the path ahead. Guard the mine, Kevhon, he thought. That’s what you were supposed to do. Guard the mine and don’t — don’t — fucking fall asleep.

A streak of pale-blue light pierced the sky, followed by a crippling boom. The sound shook the mountain and echoed through the pines.

“Wha-what was that?!” Thal said, doing his best to keep up with the much thinner man ahead.

“I don’t know!” Kevhon said over the sound of a tree crashing to the ground. Whatever it was, it was powerful enough to bring a damn deim pine to its knees.

Another streak of blue light flashed above the mountains, followed by a chest-pounding boom. The ground shook once again.

Kevhon felt the frosty chill at his back — it was as if he had dived into a frozen river while naked. And he heard the slight grunt that came from behind. He turned around in a half-run — Thal stood ten feet behind, staring at him with beady eyes like a frozen lake.

The whole of Thal’s body had shards of ice protruding from it, as if he were a porcupine made of ice. From where the daggers of frost punctured his near-lifeless meat, blood ran like little rivers, almost-frozen and dripping to the rock and dirt. His gray beard now looked as stiff as a rock, having a pale-bluish tint and streaked with crimson. A long, needle-like shard of ice was sticking out of his temple, making his left eye bulge.

“Don’t let them… eat…” Thal began, and he collapsed to the ground, the shards of ice digging deeper into his front side. His back was filled with the icy daggers, pointing outward as if they grew out from within him rather than stabbing him from without.

Kevhon was horrified by the sight — he screamed. And after a long, sanity-reducing moment, he turned around, running like a lunatic for the outpost.

 

III

The storm moved along at its slow, deathly pace, covering the mountains with snow, and bringing doom to those it wished to punish — it wanted death as a babe wants for his mother’s milk. The Maelstrigis was the pure chaos that only nature could birth, a chaosborne horror.

It slew Thal with the indifference of a hawk swooping to take a mouse. The death was nearly instant, a flash of crippling pain, a moment of excruciating suffering, then all signs of life were gone. Such was the power of the storm’s lightning, a thing not experienced by any until now. And many more would die by that lightning this night.

The Maelstrigis moved on with a malignant steadiness, and any who bothered to look up at it would surely be struck with awe at how much the storm looked as if it enjoyed its terrible work.

 

IV

The horn’s blast bellowed for a third time, echoing throughout the mountains’ valleys and hidden places, and as Kevhon was nearing the outpost, so too were other men of the mountains. These men were just as surprised at the strom’s arrival as those two mine-guards, and if any of them survived, they would speak of this queer event for the rest of their lives.

One such man was Anold, a hunter. He abandoned his kills after the first call of the horn, knowing he could not run fast enough with the animal carcasses slung over his shoulders. They were good kills, beasts of high quality. But the storm had managed to creep up on him, for he did not imagine that the sudden drop of temperature, the heavy winds, and the unrelenting assault of snow was a mechanism of the Maelstrigis — a mistake made by many mountain-men that night.

“Hurry, Taltal!” Anold said, eyes locked ahead, focused on the outpost’s pyr as a dehydrated man would look at a fresh spring.

Beside the man was his companion, Taltal, a balhare. He was a rabbit of the mountains, standing three feet tall and having ears as long as half of his body. He had large, oval eyes, and two long fangs (which were visible when his mouth was closed). Long spines (of varying length) ran down the center of his back. His hind feet were hooved for mountain climbing, and he had a long tail, similar to that of a feline, for balance. The beast’s fur was dark-brown, and he was the perfect companion for night-hunting.

The balhare ran in a panic, just as his master did. He knew they were in danger by the way the human acted, and the clawed paws of his forward feet carried him beneath the trees as fast as they could.

A flash of blue light flew forth in a blazing, crooked arch above, illuminating the trees and ground, and the great boom came on its heels, shaking the earth.

Anold stopped, angling his head to see the storm. “Some kind of lightning,” he thought aloud, his hand touching the scruff of his jaw. “The Maelstrigis has never had lightning before.”

Taltal pawed his master’s leg. He could see the man was in thought, deep ridges forming on his forehead, blonde eyebrows arched, all of this accentuating the man’s widow’s peak.

Anold looked into the beast’s large, oval eyes. “I know, Taltal. I know.” He ran again, heading down the mountain, his fur cloak flapping behind him, the faint glow of the outpost’s pyr his guiding light. He hunted for the sport of it, and he now feared that his pleasure would get him killed. He was the son of a lord, a man who would inherit a large estate in the city — what was he doing in the domain of commoners and ruffians and bastards?

Taltal pattered beside him; Anold knew the beast could run faster than he, but the balhare chose to keep the pace of his master. He was very fond of the beast, and the beast was fond of him.

Their beginning was not so great; Anold had wanted a hawk, but his father had given him the rabbit instead, along with the bow and quiver now strapped to his back — this was seven years ago, and he was twenty-three now.

Anold had called the rabbit Beasty when he had first received him, but after the incident with that great, white elk — the closest he had ever come to death — his mind was bent in favor of the rabbit. Beasty was renamed to Taltal, which was the name of a character from a popular series of children’s books — books which he had read as a young lordling.

And all the bad was behind them.

Anold thought there was not a better hunting companion than a balhare — loyal to a fault, emotionally complex, and deathly vicious.

He looked down at Taltal with loving eyes — he was glad the beast was with him now. The rabbit would protect and serve him, and he would do his best for the beast in return.

A fourth flash of pale-blue light lit the night sky, followed by a deafening boom.

The sound of wood cracking and splitting rose in Anold’s ears, as it became louder than the storm, louder than the howling winds. He looked behind him, and he briefly saw the shape that descended upon him like an eagle to the mouse.

A tree (which was at least fifty-feet tall with the width of a man whose arms were spread wide) was falling. The base of the trunk looked like an icicle that had been snapped in half — but this icicle was part-wood, part-ice.

The felled tree came crashing down before Anold had time to react, and it slammed into him, trunk to midsection. With the wind knocked out of him, and many of his bones snapping on impact, he was toppled over and pinned to the mountain’s forested floor. He lay, belly-up, the massive tree settling over him, and he could feel his mind slipping to darkness, but not before he felt his ribs break — every last one. He screamed, though it was more of a hiss.

The balhare ran to him, nudging his chest with his snout.

“Go, Taltal,” Anold said, weakly, as he drifted away, his arms hopelessly pushing against the unmovable trunk. “Save… yourself.” His words were little more than wisps of air.

But Taltal did not go. He stayed near his master, nudging the man to get up, even after the man’s arms gave up, and even after the last breath of life exited the hunter.

And only after the cold of the storm was too much for Taltal to bear, and after the body of the man had been frozen over, did the balhare abandon his master. He descended the mountain, not knowing where to go — only knowing to run away from the storm. But the light of the outpost’s pyr guided him, and he went to it, hoping he would find his master alive where the flame stood.

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Part I: Moon and Storm

 

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