Obsidian sockets in fleshless bone sobbing tears of diamond and sapphire,
rubies not blood, in Mortal sorrows shed for the imMortal,
those living in universes breathing lip to lip, hand in hand, never eye to eye,
eternal Lovers with a mortal affair doomed to Die.
—Tomes of the Touched
Seventeen Days to the Eve of Snows
Cold breezes slipped up Tokodin’s sleeves, driving icicles into his arms as they approached the cavern’s exit to mountain skies, but there was a deeper chill in his soul. The depths of the world were safe most times, but today the warmth and security of being in from the weather had turned into a miserable march through winding, drip-slicked tunnels.
When they reached the final rise before departing the Chanting Caverns, the party stopped, and Guntar spoke to a priest Tokodin didn’t recognize. He slipped between bodies and cocked his head for a listen.
The priest’s tone was tepid. “An autumn squall blew through two days back, left us a couple hands of snow, but drifting pushed spots above your head.”
Tokodin’s eyes rolled, the dice were just the beginning to his luck. The whole damned year had been unseasonably cold, but this was the first mountain snow.
Guntar asked, “I’m on foot, then?”
“We’ve had teams out since, cleared the trails down to the Omindi, salting the worst parts, and word is it’s clear enough. Mountain pony should keep its feet for you.”
Guntar nodded and waved his guards up, but Tokodin lingered as Meliu stepped in his path and hugged him; the embrace grew too long, more than the ordinary goodbye, before she wriggled from his arms. Her smile belied the tension. “I’ll see you soon.”
“You’re not going back down there.”
“You know I am, there’re more than lives to be lost.”
“What the hells is that supposed to mean?” The smirk reminded him of what a scholar valued most. “Don’t you go dying for some damned books.”
She rolled her eyes and strode past him, walking backwards into the dark to face him as she faded in the shadow. “Worse things to die for.”
He watched until the light of her torch disappeared, mumbling to himself. “Foolish woman, anyhow.” But staring into the dark worrying after her wouldn’t save her life; getting Guntar to Istinjôln might. He spun for the exit with a new determination.
Blinding sunshine speckled by shimmers of snow falling and rising with swirling winds greeted his cave-accustomed eyes as he stepped outside. Tokodin covered his brow with his forearm, listening to the clop of hooves on stone as his vision adjusted. They had a solid three candles before dusk.
He gazed over the sturdy mountain pony’s withers as his eyes strained into focus, taking in the ring of mountains surrounding the cavern’s mouth. A fortnight past, only peaks and high ridges wore crowns of white, but now snow covered everything but the most severe outcroppings, and the green pine forest hugging the lower reaches of the valley stood frosted and gleaming.
Snowy mountains, white-capped seas, and ladies in white, Tokodin’s father had always said they were the three most beautiful and dangerous sights in the world. Tokodin had never seen the sea, and women in their postulant robes had battered his ego more than a few times, but of the mountains, his father was right.
Mountains killed men in a hundred ways, but the risks of an avalanche, tumbling from a cliff, or freezing to death, these dangers were mitigable; they weren’t random. Colok were more akin to the dice in Tokodin’s pocket.
When man and beast met, it meant death. No prisoners, no survivors, and a year ago the Colok had eaten their human kills for the first time. Whether he was dinner for vultures, wolves, or Colok, it didn’t sit well. Travel to the foothills would be half the speed they’d make on open ground, at least four candles, but once on the winding downhill they should reach the village of Ervinhin in a half candle or so. Istinjoln was a longer but secure journey from there.
It wasn’t as cold as it might be, the days were long this time of year. He pulled gloves from his pack and slipped them on, but several men went without.
Guntar swung onto his mountain pony and strapped himself to the saddle with leather lashes and steel buckles; even if Guntar died, the pony would take the message home to Istinjoln. The remaining priests and monks surrounded Guntar on foot as escort.
“Loepus, Tokodin, scout the lead, stay in earshot.”
Perfect. Scouting the trails meant them scaring up any fever snakes. The deadly creatures weren’t common, but the way his bad luck was piling up today, he didn’t like it.
Tokodin turned and strolled ahead, eyes dancing between boulders and brush for signs of ambush. They spent a quarter candle walking a rocky goat trail two men wide, with a jagged-fall precipice on their right hand. Violent winds rocked his steps without warning, and patches of ice hid in shadows the sun and salt didn’t find.
When they reached the Omindi Pass Tokodin kissed two fingers and pressed them to his forehead. Thank you, Burdenis, thank you.
Loepus grinned at his display of faith. “Don’t let no Colok eat me, now.”
Tokodin smirked and faked a laugh as they slid down a slope of scree to Omindi Pass. If Colok attacked his weak prayers made him fodder, not savior.
Guntar and his pony followed, guided down the loose rock by a monk on either side of the pony’s withers and flank. The Omindi was broad here, and the party spread out, their eyes on the walls of the trail despite it being an unlikely place for an attack. The Ambush Chokes, the most dangerous stretch of the Omindi, were a candle’s walk north, opposite their heading.
As promised, the pass was clear of snow, but there was a trade-off for easy walking. The sound of the pony’s clopping hooves kept time as they passed through open valleys and narrow gorges, announcing their arrival as sure as a drum.
The damned pony needed softer shoes.
A chill ran the length of Tokodin’s spine, but not from the bitter winds and pellets of ice in the air. Fear. Foreboding. Dread. A presence? He pulled his wool cloak tight, peering from beneath the hood for movement on the icy slopes of Omindi Pass. Colok were famous for ambush, their pelts perfect camouflage in snow, rock, and shadow.
A Colok roar echoed through the valley, an eerie blend of elk call and wolf’s howl carrying on the winds, but it was distant.
Tokodin muttered a prayer to Sol for warmth, and a comforting heat rose in his heart, spreading through his veins like warm molasses. A simple but blessed prayer on a frozen day.
A rock tumbled from the cliffs, clattering to his feet.
Tokodin crouched and whipped his staff off his back. He stood, chest heaving, ready for a fight, but nothing came.
“A little jumpy, aren’t you? That rock remind you of your dice?” Loepus’ eyebrows danced to a smart-assed tune.
Tokodin smirked, as close to a smile he could manage without poking his friend in the nose. He scanned the cliffs, spotted a switchback trail crossing above. Tokodin remembered passing it on the way in, a miner’s path, he figured. He squinted. High above, dangling over a rock, what might be a hand.
Loepus leaned in. “What the hells you looking at?”
He pointed. “Somebody pushed that rock.”
Loepus squinted, muttered a prayer. “Mercies be kind, it is a hand.”
“Move along!” Guntar shouted, only twenty strides away, but his voice was faint over a surge of wind. Tokodin signaled with two sharp whistles and pointed at the trail with his staff.
Tokodin faced Guntar’s scowl, glanced at Loepus. “If we don’t look and we get ambushed—”
“We make it quick.” Loepus raised his staff and nodded to Guntar.
Guntar waved his arm, giving them permission to explore.
Tokodin slipped his staff into its harness. “Let’s go.”
“We waste Guntar’s time or get ourselves killed, he’ll be pissed.”
Tokodin reached into his pocket. “The target is sixteen, Snake we stay low, Hawk we go high.” He held the dice in his palm: eighteen. He’d hoped for Snake, but the dice passed judgment.
“Considering your luck, we should stay low.”
Tokodin snorted and climbed the trail, slow and steady, slipping off his gloves to grab shrub Junipers for a better grip on the slope. Rocks skidded beneath their feet on the steep, narrow trail. They pulled their hatchets from their packs and used the pick side in slick spots, climbing on all fours. Picks clinking. Fingers scratching. Knuckles bleeding. Eyes wide unless chill winds forced a squint.
A ravine cut through the mountain at the top, a well-used trail leading west. To the Ihomjo mines? Dark mounds scattered the ground fifty feet away, likely bodies and gear, and a mule stood in the distance, still alive. The hand belonged to a man, arm outstretched, a crawling pose, and they rushed to his side.
Dead, but not for long. A bloody trail stretched behind him; he’d dragged himself this far before expiring.
Death wasn’t a stranger, but Tokodin swallowed back bile and covered his mouth. With clothes sliced, ripped, and torn the man lay damned near naked. Scratches and teeth marks marred his skin, half of his right thigh gone, eaten.
“By the gods, it’s true. The Colok ate him.”
Tokodin glanced at his friend. “You’re good with your prayers, but you’d make a damned poor hunter. Colok have claws, they would’ve split him open like a sacrificial goat. The scratches, too small, man-sized.” He stretched his hand over scrapes down the man’s back, his fingers matched. “And these.” He pointed at teeth marks. “Think a baby Colok did this?”
“You’re saying a cannibal?”
“If the killer were starving, why leave the damned mule alive?” Could cannibals gain such a taste for human flesh? Campfire tales of cannibalism in the mountains frightened and educated postulants, but those were desperate people in dire straits. This looked like a hunt, but so much wasted meat—his stomach turned. He rolled the man over. “Ah, hells.”
Loepus vomited too close for Tokodin’s taste, but his eyes didn’t leave the dead man’s face where dark bruises and blood surrounded empty sockets. What? How? The answer brought him to his feet.
Something had sucked the eyes from the miner’s skull while still alive; there wouldn’t have been bruising if the man had been dead.
“Get the hells out of here,” Tokodin whispered.
They scrambled down the mountainside, sliding on their asses to reach the Omindi and ran to Guntar.
“Miners, all dead. Not just dead, eaten, his eyes,” said Loepus, panting and out of breath
Tokodin added, “Not by Colok, either. Fresh kills.”
Guntar squinted at him. “Not Colok, then what?”
A damned fine question, and Shadows from the Stone danced on his tongue before he bit and swallowed them. Shadows couldn’t eat a man, could they? “Never heard of nothing like it. We need to get out of here.”
They traveled fast, his thighs burning as they cleared a steep rise and turned downhill into a section of pass with sheer walls. They were at least halfway to the foothills and they’d make good time downhill, but as they rounded the next corner, his heart palpitated.
Snow slide. Thigh-high with drifts above his head and stretching several hundred paces through a narrow gorge, the mountain pony wouldn’t make it through.
Loepus glanced his way. “Screams ambush, don’t it. There any way around?”
Only one came to mind. “There’s the Beroy Branch, but it’d add three candles and no promise it isn’t blocked too.”
Both men glanced back to the priest who’d decide.
Guntar bellowed over a gust of wind: “Monks to your shovels, priests in a circle. Slow and steady gets us through this.”
Tokodin shoved his staff into its harness and yanked his shovel from his pack, digging as Loepus strapped on snow shoes and strode atop the drifts, watching the heights of the gorge.
* * *
The snow was a fine powder that collapsed back in on them as they dug, adding to the torment, but perseverance made headway.
The sun was slipping behind the mountains to the west and the temperatures dropped fast with the growing shadow. Tokodin’s throat and lungs burned with every heaving, frozen breath. He wanted to collapse, but clear trail lay a dozen strides ahead. Muscles burned and shook with every step, and he dropped to his knees as he struggled onto bare stone with several monks following behind.
Loepus slapped him on the back. “We’re almost out of here.”
Guntar and the remaining priests entered the canyon of snow.
A bellowing roar louder than a bull elk’s call and far more terrifying ripped his sense of accomplishment to shreds; Tokodin had never heard a Colok so close.
The pony’s shrill whinny brought him to his feet. A boulder crushed a priest’s chest at the back of the party, burying him in the deep snow. Lightning answered a priest’s prayer, a series of flashes striking the walls of the Omindi with pulsing thunder. The deadly energies crackled in a terrifying display, but the attack was too slow. The enemy no longer hid in the nooks and crannies the lightning sought; Colok leaped through the air, landing in the midst of the holy men.
The bear-like creatures were over eight feet tall and wore bits and pieces of armor covering portions of their striped and whorled fur. They were powerful, lithe, and the snow didn’t slow them, while the priests slipped and slid to find their footing. Clubs, spears, and pole-axes thrust and whirled in the beasts’ powerful hands. Blood sprayed, and the holy fell screaming.
Guntar yanked his mount’s reins, an able rider, but the pony reared and spun with terrified eyes. If the priest steadied his mount, he’d be able to focus his prayers; hope remained, but the pony went wild, and only the leather straps kept Guntar in his saddle. Monks and priests didn’t lend the bearer a hand, they fought for their lives.
Tokodin stared at the scene, dumbstruck by fear and exhaustion. Courage and duty didn’t drive him to take the Oath of the Guardsman, a few extra coins and a roll of the dice had. Instinct begged him to stay on open ground and run; reason told him hope rode a pony, hope for them, and everyone at the Crack.
His legs drove him into the ambush. A rock twisted under his ankle and he plowed into a drift face first. He scrambled to his feet and brushed freezing snow from his cheeks and nose. With a duck and dodge, he slid between two Colok, collided with a priest and stumbled, snatching the pony’s reins to keep his feet.
The critter reared, its hooves missing his face by a finger. He yanked the animal’s head to its chest, and they spun in an uncontrolled circle, threatening to drag them both to the ground, but man and pony kept their feet. It was enough.
Lightning crackled from Guntar’s hand, striking a Colok square in the chest. The creature blew back from the thunderous force, opening a hole in the wall of battle.
Tokodin planted his feet and steadied the pony best he could, gauging the battle from the eye. Loepus held his ground, but of those on their feet, he was the exception. Another bolt of lightning screamed into the battle, saving a priest’s life, but for how long?
Chickens with their heads cut off, standing, fighting, but dead all the same. Hope deserted him. Everything was backward. The bearer protected them when they were his escort. His message must reach Istinjoln or an enemy he couldn’t fathom would slaughter Meliu and everyone at the Crack.
Tokodin grabbed Guntar’s arm and yelled. “Ride! Ride out of here!” Guntar’s infuriated eyes bore into him. Surrender and flight weren’t in the man’s nature, but Tokodin matched his gaze. “Go! Or they’re all dead!”
A moment passed, time enough for the mission to overpower the man’s temper. Guntar nodded and spurred the pony.
Lightning flashed as he drove through the fray, but Loepus lay knocked to the ground, freeing a beast to attack. The Colok struck Guntar in the chest with a club, throwing man and mount to the ground, the pony’s shriek echoing as it slid on its side into the snow. Another blow hit Guntar’s back.
Tokodin focused his mind and screamed a prayer; fire raged, enveloping the monster’s head, searing the Colok, and its club swung wide.
The creature dove into a drift to quench the flames, giving the pony time to scramble to its feet. Guntar clutched the animal’s neck and mane as it whinnied and bolted, leaping from the vestiges of deep snow to run free. The pony’s clopping hooves meant Meliu might live.
Tokodin watched the rider with pride before pain erupted in his left shoulder. He spun and collapsed into a boulder. A Colok brandishing a club the size of a small tree stalked toward him through trampled, blood-stained snow. Howls, explosions, and screams echoed, but for Tokodin the moment froze in time. Saliva flowed over yellow fangs set in a black bear snout, and bare skin pulsed red beneath deep-set yellow eyes, a terrifying trait men called the blood rage.
He prayed for fire, but the pounding pain in his shoulder fractured his focus, leaving him bereft of the power of the gods. He drove his back into the boulder, pushing, struggling to regain his feet, but snow, ice, and a ruined shoulder felled him.
“Loepus.” No one could hear such a pathetic cry.
Screams and intermittent explosions of a prayer’s might echoed between gorge walls, but he abandoned hope. Exhaustion and the excruciating pain in his shoulder defeated any chance of powerful prayer. His doom strode to him at its leisure, testing the heft of its cudgel and licking its fangs with a bestial smile.
Loepus leaped to his side, a prayer weaving fire between his hands. Flames seared the creature, patches of fur turning to a cloud of reek.
Tokodin tried to smile, but his hope was brief, as insubstantial as the warmth of a kiss on a winter’s day.
A glaive’s strike came from the corner of his eye and left his friend of fifteen years standing without a head. Blood splattered Tokodin’s face and robes, and he vomited through his pain as Loepus crumpled into a headless heap.
Tokodin fought for breath, retching, spitting, coughing, and by the time he regained control of his body the last echoes of battle had faded. The Colok who broke his shoulder rolled in the snow, snuffing its smoldering fur, and in the distance a pony whinnied. He wished Guntar well. If the bearer got his message to Istinjoln, it earned Tokodin’s soul favor with the gods as he strode the Road of Living Stars in search of the heavens.
He slumped against the boulder, staring at the blood-and-filth-soaked snow between his legs. The Colok approached with heavy steps crunching snow, the creature’s black claws digging ice and stone for traction. Tokodin refused to lock eyes with his death.
The silence of the Omindi Pass meant defeat. He muttered a prayer under his breath, but no power came, his prayer beseeched a merciful death.
A Colok growled, and hidden in the reverberations of the snarl he imagined the word “weakling,” and at this, the last moment of his life, denying the accusation was impossible.
The glaive tapped beneath his chin, and he felt blood trickle, pooling in his jugular notch.
The beast growled, long and guttural… trying to speak? He didn’t understand until:
The word hid in the back of the beast’s snarl, easy to pass off as his imagination, but the impression was too strong. Why the Twelve Hells did the beast speak of Clan Choerkin?
The blade slid from his throat, and a great paw grabbed his robes. The Colok lifted and flung him over a shoulder, pain ripping through his torso. He screamed. His heart pounded slow in his chest and he grew faint. Then, darkness.