The Kabernian Mountains
Dusk broke in hazel mist from the mountains presiding over the downs that encompassed the land south, floating from the darkened east to the hazy west. The sun soon breached the cloud cover that seemed so far below in a last call of wine red, then just as if poured onto the snow, melted into the distance and the stars seemed evermore present. Among the stars was the light of three moons, each slightly more waned than the last and having stretched further east. The three acted to only shine light on the worst that the world brought; for a night in the northern mountains, the Kabernian Mountains, was not one that was wished to be seen.
Koda Amontis had been born on the peaks that delved into what was commonly called the Lost North, a place that had been lost to darkness and that only the most desperate of creatures’ barks, howls, growls, or caws could be heard. But as far as he could remember he was raised as little south of that indefinite line as his master deemed appropriate, enough to still call the Far North home, and in fact the people just south would call his home uninhabitable as well, but he did not know this. He kept his mountain stalking and his surveying to himself, even if someone passed onto his land it was only to watch, report, and wonder on what else people like him did, at least people that looked like him. They walked differently, laughed differently, hunted differently, and most had more protection from the cold on their bellies and necks, although Koda thought this strategy of little use. The men were not as sparse as one might think an uninhabitable land would be. A war had surfaced eons ago, one against the southern men and what his master and he called Nocctiëm demons. It appeared to him that it was of utmost importance that they keep the demons at bay in the highlands and many mountains away from their civilizations, he had not found this to be successful, but he did not think too much on the intricacies of southerners. Of one thing he was assured, he would gaze ironclad men crossing into the Lost North, but many less were once again looked upon.
Koda was not immune to the dangers of the Southern Man. If anything, he was thrust with the dangers of his land far more than any passerby. The game was always slender and paltry. It was a quiet scape on which more than one war was fought. Each animal kept to their own life, their own survival the only matter to them, except perhaps the occasional she-wolf and her pups. This war was far more one sided than any superfluous southern army. The Kabernian Mountains gorged on any animal emaciated in the least, and those that went out alone would be found pushed between packs of wolves and a sheer cliff. For those that might, in another land, have been enough were pruned away as each day passed in turn for heat to perhaps live to eat again. It was very early in Koda’s life that he accepted that one day the mountains’ jagged teeth would fall onto him. And it seemed, as the golden-hazel sunset fell, as snow sparkled in starlight, as three moons started their ascension, that his time had come.
Koda Amontis ran, his thick furred boots falling into the sleet and grasping at the dead grasses below. He passed many trees on the slope down one of the mountains, lurching down the milk-spattered slope in quick kicks as he caught himself once more if only to stumble again. He looked over his shoulder and saw the empty shadows cast by the lengthy trees, but it did not calm him. He knew that they were there, he could feel the prickle along his back and an unnatural sweat that called to his mind to keep running. He made it until the slope evened out into a short valley severed by a frozen river, rocks pillaring out of the icey bank and following along a collapsed beaver dam. He slid briskly on the ice which warbled under his weight. He knew since years ago that he could chance a step on the autumn day, in the sweeps of a chilled week and a night that cemented frost on trees and bears in their dens.
He cleared the path over the river quickly, much quicker than a doe across the way expected as her ears curved toward him and she skipped frantically into the forest which Koda had his eyes set upon. Once he got to the treeline, a mixture of barren trees and conifers, he clasped onto the maroon wood of a thick pine, hiding himself from anything that would cross the river after him. It was a rattle above him as branches shook, an unnatural way in which happened all too frequently in his home. He knew that there was no creature that was doing it, it was as if the world was telling the trees that they should run but had played a trick, cursing them with long, still roots. Koda wanted to as well, but knew, for the time being, that he was safer in hiding. His legs collapsed and he clutched his sword, Endre, by his side. As he listened to the nighttime routine of nature the trees shook ruefully yet again and he thought that if they could they would pick him up and throw him back in the clearing in hopes to drag all evil from their lands.
It was the small patter of a rabbit’s steps that drew his ears and caused his heart to pound. It was a soft gliding, nearly soundless. Koda turned his blue eyes further into the forest where he saw the doe once again, she was looking at him. The doe thought nothing of the rabbit, or the sound of its steps, only that there was a human a few trees’ distance away. Her ear twisted behind her as she became much more attuned with everything around her and the gliding shadows below made a single heavy crunch and the boughs above gave a hearty crack. Before she knew it she felt the shadows leap at her. The strides were not that of a small creature but of one human sized. There were four of them, although it might have looked like one single beast to the untrained eye. They pounced as one, two from the overhanging branches while the other two had paced as soft as an arctic hare. Their sable bodies enveloped the doe and it mooed as it was quickly raked and maimed. It stumbled back but one of the demons pushed her back into the center where the one at her head sunk into her neck.
Their eyes were much like Koda’s: a vast blue, but theirs were pupilless and depthless with their tear ducts all but driven away in black veins that snaked to their centers. It might be assumed that they had no mouth, but their sleek black skin suddenly parted and rows upon rows of teeth sunk into the doe from each side of its jawbone, if there was a bone in its humanoid appearance that faded into wisps of darkness. It was then that the doe gave in and, with a gentle elegance, leaned into the ground. She cried back but it was a worthless cry as she knew no buck would save her. The Nocctiëm demons bit and clawed, the snow painted as well as their bodies, but the blood that speckled their shadow seeped through their skin and was once again a pristine coat of silky oil. Their claws were not as other creatures, rather it was an extension of their detestable skin that stuck out in five serrated edges. It was a minute of rapture upon the deer that the demons decided that their fun was over, and then dug headlong into her neck with a snap, the doe was dead.
While the demons were callously eating one felt Endre’s blade pierce it as Koda leapt at it. It cried out in a warbled tone but was silenced as Koda pulled his sword from its body with his boot and then arced it into its neck, severing. The other three lifted their heads and bounded across the carcass toward Koda. His blade met the mouth of one of the demons, striking through the back of its head. The demon yelled gutturally and clawed at Koda, who felt the long slashes down his chest which added to the others. Its mouth convulsed in waves of black liquid and its eyes died several seconds as its movements did. The other two pushed at Koda, having to fling the other demon off, but this also pulled Endre from the other’s body and he flung his sword with more force at the new attacker, its head and body thrown back and bleeding from the blow. Koda was kept to the ground as the final demon grabbed at his leg, tearing at his calf and reaching for his other leg to pull him. He was being dragged as it sought to creep further up his body but released one of its hands as Koda swung. He brought the blade back with one motion, thrusting the demon to its knees as he stood up. He took the ghostly feathered hair of it and sliced through its head, its body falling suit.
Koda’s clothes were covered in the black fluid which made up the entire anatomy of the Nocctiëm demon. He heaved once more, feeling a stinging in his chest as he breathed in the cold air and a kilter as his left leg made him stumble once he got up, he was not the only one to rise, however. It was too far away for a stealthy attack so it brought itself back up, its neck flung to the side and an oozing gnash to the side of its head. Its eyes stared back, it knew it was to die but looked at him with only one aim. Its mouth warped open and its slitted nostrils drew air. It then let out a gut wrenching scream which made the birds fly, the trees once again quiver, and every shadow turned its head upon the trees by the frozen river. Its call was ended quickly as Endre, a sword in nature, morphed to the size of a dagger and was flung square at its forehead. The roar lessened until its body drained and it fell into a quiet heap on the ground. Its attack may have been fruitless but its call had not, Koda knew. He grabbed the dagger out of the demon’s head and it transformed back into the sword it had been. The blade’s length was now black but showing through the thick liquid were several illuminating symbols drawn with purpose: runes. The glow died as its form became determinately that of a three foot sword then was sheathed at his belt. He started running feebly but effectively, feeling a fear crawl his spine and an arch in his back.
Koda weaved down the slope south for hours, hugging the treeline, all the while knowing that hoards of shadows drew closer on him. As he descended the trees grew vivacious and thick with needles, if there was ever a time to hide away it was then. He grasped onto boughs as he made his way to the top of a particularly tall pine The needles bristled his skin and stuck to his matted clothes, an uncomfortable itch creeping and nipping at the ends of his ears. It was then that he heard the patter of small feet, but proceeding it were several larger ones. He pushed aside a branch just enough to get a clear look down to the ground, which is when he saw the snow’s glitter fall to black sleet. The wind picked up and dragged the decaying particles that emanated from Nocctiëm demons, covering the land in an ash-like substance that drifted up to the height of the trees on sheer arctic winds. Only after the smog laid thick in the air did sparks of sapphires blink through the haze, tens if not hundreds glowing in the shrouded moonlight. The trees gathered in unison, fitting together. But where trees were not were the forms of the demons. Some hulked with the size of bears, their eyes more subdued and reaching further into the sky. Between the large masses were the slinking features of those that had attacked the doe. The shadows and their companions soon masked the trunk of the tree Koda was in, a shiver running up it.
From his view looking down, Koda saw the forms clearly walking around, some like maddened animals while others strode. Several ran wildly, scratching and sniffing at trees, making their way as the mist continued on further into the forest. As one ran it bashed its head below Koda and his breath skipped. It looked dazed as it lurched back up to two feet and another demon passed it.
“It here,” the demon spoke in a gnarled rasp as if parts of its throat had been tormented and ravaged for years, leaving a husk of a brain and voice like a sword being whetted. It looked around frantically, speaking all the more crazed. “Here. here!” But its eyes did not meet Koda.
“I smell it crossing to the valley,” another said.
“No, no, no!” the first replied, grasping at the wisps atop its head. “Not southern man. Not going to go the southern path.”
“Not southern?” it scoffed. “What of it then?”
“I smelled it long before! It sleeps near a far ridge most days, long since.”
The demon clawed at the crazed one’s head and it fell to the ground with a thud against the tree. “We are one shadow, you will follow,” it said sternly, imperially turning to depart as the others walked toward the southern path. The straggling demon looked around once more, its depthless eyes looking somewhat helpless as they failed to ascertain what it smelled, and then took off as the other told: toward the valley, its head hung low. The smoke fled west toward the southern path and Koda’s lungs thanked him in the cold air. He felt lightheaded as he descended the tree, branch by branch. As he reached the lowest bough he jumped to the roots swathe in snow, a soft padding to his legs, but not soft enough. His left leg quickly slid under his weight and any prowess or agility he had shown during that night left his consciousness. Nonetheless, there was no demon to hear or see his collapse. He got up, although felt more than ever the wound trailing his ankle to his knee and the slashes in his arms from the prior attack.
His resilience wasn’t simply a fault in his nerves or ignorance of his body’s pleas, although it was crying for him to stop moving as he trudged on. It always happened, the several times it did, that when he looked at men of the south fighting or staving a night in the Kabernian Mountains they succumbed far sooner than him. While they fell at a single wound Koda always managed to stand back up, enough to serve his attacker his punishment. And the times that the Southern Man kept to a cave in hopes of recuperating, preparing himself to face the North once more, he always lingered for weeks, sometimes several fortnights. Koda always found himself walking by the time it was necessary, sometimes ready, sometimes not. It had been his understanding that he was different from the Southern Man, but he did not know how.
Koda traveled east, the middle moon, Beracio it was called, reaching its apex. His mind sharpened as his fears dampened, reality catching him as the demons had yet to achieve. He was far from home and his stomach was starting to yearn. He didn’t recognize a tree or mountain peak, and if he could then it was far too dark to notice. But he had found himself blocked by foe and distance many times, and knew that he must find shelter and rest for his journey back. It also became more apparent with each step that his body was draining, his wounds drawling to his mind in sweet breaths of sleep. But even so, he kept marching through the thinning snow cover.
His walk had become laboring and mundane. From above, winds graced ridges and the cliffs crashed down to the hill just north. The winds that lapped at nature soon turned to Koda and with it drifted the smell of fire. His feet faltered in place and with the staticism felt his muscles ache and his bones, particularly his arm, give him wish to fall. The next thing he noticed was a bout of cursing that came on the winds from where the fire had come. It piqued Koda and he hurried closer, although led by noise and not the eminence of fire.
“You call yourself Master Surveyor? I oughta take my pinence back and leave you to the wolves. You should’ve known this could happen if we camped here!” Ghollin yelled.
“A cursed happening is all,” Irdan Aslé said calmly, although his face was bright red and fear ran his lanky body.
“Cursed! We don’t need no curses on toppa our task, ya hear!” Herford said. He was dressed as Ghollin was, in leather studded with metal, his right shoulder fitted with a heavy plate. His sword was sheathed to his side and its bevel flashed what little light there was at Irdan in anger befitting its master.
“We won’t need any curses or demons to kill us; if you don’t bring that fire back we’ll die of cold,” Malin said brutely.
“The,” Irdan Aslé stumbled, “the jasper is buried in there, I can’t start the fire without it.” He and the fifteen armored men looked at the ruins of their tents that had been buried in the avalanche.
The soldiers crossed their burly arms- much burlier than the Master Surveyor’s, and one of the men shouted, “then dig this land as your ancestors did, Kaber.” He promptly did so, his cheeks so heated the snow melted as his face stared intently. But as the minutes passed he had only dug a small hole. The other men grunted and begrudgingly plowed through the heap, all the while whispering of something urgent, of curses and, if it be allowed by their king, fear. Their excavation was to little efficiency but they had gotten to the dead fire soon enough. It was Ghollin that grabbed the browned maroon stone with his soaked leather glove, trudging away with each step, snow immersing itself to his knees. He neared Irdan, his fist closed around the stone. From his other hand he pulled out an axe that had been set next to the jasper and by the singed, damp logs.
“Master Surveyor, what did you say your father was known for, in your village that is.”
Recognition hit Irdan as he met his eyes. “A sawyer, sir. He was a sawyer.”
“Then do use that blood of yours for something and get us some wood,” Ghollin jeered, the axe thrust in front of him.
Irdan started away and Koda, for the second time that day, pushed himself into a tree, flattening his back to it moments before the Master Surveyor closed in. Irdan passed him with ignorance, stomping away and occasionally whisking the axe around. Once Irdan left the southern soldiers whispered once again, their boastful, prideful appearance in front of Irdan fell to the weight of their lives.
“He said it all so brazenly but there be truth, a curse is set upon this journey. Haggíen, Mergiol, or some Nightfallen, I do not know, but we are indeed cursed. Look to the last week, wrangled into this suicide mission, and only to be served a half portion for each day- although what does that matter, it’s buried now. We had to leave a steed worth of armor at Estamere as he fell to a lame leg. Then when we arrive at the first mountain we find that the soles of half our heavy boots have been gnawed by rats. And the second mountain was not much better, a chill that our Master Surveyor says hasn’t happened in some years,” Barréd said to two other soldiers but by the time he had finished the entire company was listening.
Ghollin shone disapproval at his fellow. “Reavmörn is only another fortnight’s journey away, less if we’re fleet-footed. We have fine archers in our company, sharp an eye to kill a white hare in these conditions from two hundred feet. We are skilled swordsmen, all of us. We have prepared for a glory such as this since we were born men of Sahn; to save Lord Cúrain Dolkman and his army from the Lost North is more than any of us had taken heart to. Do not give into the trials that Divos has set for us, He doesn’t hoist on us more than we can take.”
“Only a fortnight, he says,” muttered a soldier mockingly.
“In a week we be dead. Even if our guide was th’ Prophet Harleé of the Promised North we would be hard pressed to find a clear path this time of year, the mountains take to winter faster than a hungry pup to its mother- and don’t think on the southern path, they be lying in wait as long as they know Sir Dolkman is out there. And even if our eyes were as keen as ye say, what hare do you see? Long have the natives told of starving men. But paramount, any and all our faith will do nought to the Nightfallen- much it did for Sir Cúrain Dolkman’s men,” Herford said.
“Fifteen did the King send, does that not invigorate anyone else?” Ghollin looked around to shadowed faces, still darkened by the large cliff and without fire; but what was clear was that not a single Sahnian soldier was invigorated. “King Gregerous believes in our small company enough to let us alone save a lord and his men.”
“Or perhaps-” Herford started, the discussion now a group affair, to which he thought on his words wisely and kept his mouth shut.
“Nix perhapses or probablys. The only curse we have is disloyalty, and it wanes as the moons do and will pass by daybreak. The Owl King is wise and rules with divinity,” Ghollin said.
“Oh stop with your blitherin’,” Herford said, irate. “Take the King to bed all you want but don’t bring us with you. You want to know my ‘perhaps’? Well, I think the King sent us to die. He want to say to anyone willing to hear ‘I did what I could’, while knowing Lord Dolkman is dead an’ gone, whether breath fills his lungs now or not, he’s a dead man. King Gregerous merely wants to curtail his losses- fifteen, what a fine number,” Herford finished sardonically, his chest heaving and his breath leaving his body, stratus clouds huffing from his mouth.
Ghollin was speechless, but that was not to say stunned or passive. His eyes furrowed and he made a show of throwing the jasper to the snow with a pathetic pad and then went for his sword’s handle, taunting, almost begging Herford to follow in his steps. Herford took to his challenge but the other soldiers looked amongst themselves and walled them from each other. Ghollin looked at Chalson, Barréd, and Malin, all men who he would not draw upon even with unforgiving reason, and so his sword’s point was not privy to the moons’ gaze on that night. His anger slowed to a heated simmer as they all stood still, knowing that Ghollin would jump at Herford given the chance.
“What do you intend to do?” Ghollin said quietly, his eyes looking anywhere but at them.
Barréd looked around to the others who all shivered under their leather and their ears were a scarlet red. After everyone’s hearts laid on their cold shoulders Barréd looked back at Ghollin. “We go back home once the sun comes. We tell the War Council that we found Sir Dolkman hung from a cliff face, his men laid to the chasm below.”
As their treason set in the winds picked up and snow sifted off the ridge above.
“When will the Master Surveyor return?” Malin said, his hand over his head. The winds stopped and after a moment he brought his tanned brown glove back, wiping his shoulder off, but the snow that fell to the ground was not the white specks he was accustomed to, it smeared his glove and metal plate in charcoal black. He looked up to his fellows, “ash,” he replied, coating his fingertips. “Perhaps Sir Dolkman’s army is near and with fire. You may get your wish, Ghollin.” Another layer showered them and everyone of the fifteen men’s hair had become black, their clothes little better.
Irdan Aslé let the axe sway limp as he walked under the heavy tree cover, three thin logs wrapped in the crook of his arm. His vision brightened as he passed under moonlight, the trees becoming thinner and the faint sounds of the men he had been tasked with guiding becoming louder. He pushed past several low hanging branches to the men, their armor matted with ash. They examined themselves and looked up and one turned to look at Irdan, then his eyebrow raised.
“What is it, Master Surveyor?” he asked quizzically, gesturing to Irdan’s befallen face and constricting pupils, the ends of his mouth helplessly pulled to a downturned expression.
“Run,” Irdan said, the logs falling from his hands, his body becoming numb, but not from cold. Another wave crashed on them like sand, only smoother. Irdan looked up at the ridge. It was high but the azure brilliance had a sightless visage, as if felt more than looked upon. As the shadowed clouds got thicker, more appeared, some towering behind the small ones and others looked like they had wings of shadow. Soon their bodies became all but invisible until the only thing left was the luminescence of their eyes hazed in their own smoke. Once the men realized Irdan’s palpable fear they looked up, but the smoke was too thick to see anything and all they thought was of a strange North. “Nightfallen!” he quivered, looking around. “Saddle the horses before they bolt!”
The men quickened to their reality, grabbing what little wasn’t buried and yelling of ways down the mountain. “‘To the grim apex of Divos’ creatures does smoke come, only for bravery to follow, all despite chance and eventuality,’ chapter one: verse sixty-four,” Ghollin said in realization but all panic had been sapped for a fear impossible to ingest. He lifted his head toward the demons- or perhaps Divos.
“Fool,” sputtered Barréd as he pushed Ghollin back to life, he stumbled back and kept his balance but his head was still upturned. He grabbed at his face and saw the ash that coated his eyes and the tears that ran along his rugged features.
“‘For the Patrons of Divos will be regarded in respect above life, above health, above the sullen creatures marred by shadow,’ book two: verse twelve.” Ghollin started speaking faster, “Eat as Divos does, with mind and soul, through ear and eye; for those that eat of teeth are bound to gorge upon themselves- they-they,” his eyelids pushed the ash away from his pupils and, although painful, he could see. His eyes shone more clarity than the other men, some of whom had started running while others did as Irdan said and were saddling the horses. Ghollin then looked at Barréd, a friend who had known him since he was born, both raised in Eadwéard. “They are going to eat us.”
Koda had run as he felt the first black wave rush at him, although it took him a moment to understand what was happening as his clothes had already been soaked with sable blood and his eyes squinting with exhaustion. His legs took him far, but even his break when he peered at the southerners was not enough for him to run to the barren hill that connected the mountain he stood on and the one a gorge away. He knew he would not cross as he felt long claws sink into his back, the body barreling into him and pushing him to the ground.
“I knew, I knew, I knew!” it said hysterically. Its cadence was the familiar ramble of the demon that had prowled the trunk of the tree he had hid in. It pressed its hand into Koda’s head, pressing him into the snow and to the hardened dirt below. Koda fingered for Endre but the demon caught on quickly and stabbed at his forearm. “I caught you, boy. Play along, play dead.” it dipped its head closer, its teeth gleaming in the corner of Koda’s eye. “Why you stop moving? I lie, I lie! Struggle, wrestle!” But Koda felt the last of his strength go, the demon kept to pressing his back, yelling that he should move, that he should fight back. It got irritated and pulled at Koda, flinging him on his back so he could “see the life go.”
As Koda’s eyes set upon the demon it faltered, its pupilless eyes knowingly looking at its own, how, in that moment, they looked exactly the same. Its maniacal deposition changed and its eyebrows drooped. Its hands morphed from sharp points to oily fingertips, which pressed at the sides of Koda’s head almost affectionately. “What beauty,” the demon said. “You are demon but- but smell human? Human. Human.” It took a long sniff at the motionless body of Koda, who with each moment felt his consciousness slipping. “What do I do?” It caressed again, this time a despicable sweetness to it. “Only one way to find out.” It drew its mouth to its full width, its teeth as white as snow. It neared Koda’s face, its jaw wide enough to reach his chin and hairline.
Koda vaguely felt what was going on, its acrid breath, the faint moisture, his hand holding onto something. His hand was holding something. Endre? Perhaps. What he knew was that whatever it was served him better than giving up. He rolled his shoulder to lift his hand and felt it move with far more fluidity than expected, as if his muscles were numb to everything, as if his shoulders hadn’t been clawed a moment ago, his arms hours before. With a sudden flash of speed he found himself plunging something into the demon’s neck, the rest of his body just as his arm, giving him the strength to push it off and straddle it as he kept stabbing. The demon tried to claw back but its hands couldn’t morph fast enough and they fell lifelessly to the ground. And yet he kept stabbing ravenously, a bloodlust, an anger toward this deranged creature, even far after it was dead.
Koda felt everything focus once again, as if he gained the ability to focus. He blinked his eyes to alertness and realized that he was on top of a demon, its mouth ripped apart and its many teeth scattered. Its eyes were simply not there with no evidence as to where they were. He looked at the ground where he saw his hand, soon realizing that he could feel it. In its grasp was an icicle, although clearly wasn’t broken off from anything as both sides were as sharp as any given sword. He looked at the surface coated with black blood. He was curiously pulled to it but as he realized he threw it away. Only after he threw it did he realize how bad an idea that was, but his pain was dulled, as if he knew he was injured and that he was only going to make it worse, and yet felt power from the very fact that it did not hurt in the moment.
His newfound strength did not mask his situation, however. And he could not push it away as it blasted his face in a shadowed haze. He could see the domineering blue eyes of a Nocctiëm demon, but not as the one he had killed. It was tall and bulky, reaching its amorphous body halfway up some of the tallest trees. He knew that where there was this much smoke an army was nearing, at least thirty. He stood up, looking at the painted portrait of his former battle: the red blood that skated toward his location and the black imprint that stabbed from near his feet, it all felt like a portrait that someone else painted. The shadows thickened at his sides and to his front. And out of it flung a figure.
Ghollin stood in the clear autumn air with Koda Amontis, he on his knees over a demon, although Ghollin didn’t notice the demon, only the blackened, ashen faced, blue eyed form of Koda. A shiver ran down him, one of immense cold that emanated from the clearing. He brandished his sword, pointing at Koda as he started in a run, fleeing. Koda made no move to advance on him, although Ghollin did not care as his blade still shivered feverishly when he glanced behind him. He soon ran down a small hill where the snow unexpectedly piled and he tripped. His mind flashed with all the possibilities of how Koda may take advantage and as he lifted his head he scrambled for his sword, grabbing and thrusting behind him in the chance that he was behind him. An attack did not come from his back, however. The smog that surrounded him jumped swiftly and he was pushed, but he held his ground. He gasped as the Nightfallen’s claw raked at his shoulder and with its other pushed his sword to the ground, its point grazing the snow.
The demon squeezed down on Ghollin’s shoulder and he gave another cry but as he looked the creature in the eye he noticed a stump in the place of a head. From horseback, Irdan had swung his pike, cutting at its head so that it fell in a blotched patch of snow. The horse kept riding, loosely tugged by his reins. He ducked for a tree, lowering his pike as well. The tree was shrouded, not in leaves but in smoke, and from the smoke billowed a demon that promptly leapt down, its feet as sharp as any claw that had pierced a human that day. Irdan Aslé was flung from the horse and Ghollin ran toward him, his mind boasted words of selflessness and honor but deep down knew that what he desired was the clear air that only a thin strip south gave him.
He took one look behind him and then charged toward the unscathed horse and Irdan. It was Ghollin’s time: to strike the demon dead and claim his first in the name of the Northern War. But as he neared the dead sapphires looked at him as it sunk its fangs into Irdan’s carotid artery and he let out a blood curdling scream and then “Jave Siere!” he yelled in his native tongue. Ghollin took everything in him not to gag as the darkened ground was splattered with blood while Irdan writhed. He glided past him, however, seeing the horse flee into the cleared path. From his left he heard the growling cry of Malin while the boorish, inarticulate roar of Herford was quickly sundered by the claws of a massive beast. The others did not fare much better, several skipping over the next bank, but cries told Ghollin their escape had failed.
Ghollin prayed to Divos, the One Above, to let him live. But He either forsook him or found His disregardance of Irdan enough to leave him to his own fate, which would come fast as cerulean eyes found their way toward him and he was pulled into the ever-thickening fog, never to be seen again.
Koda had only taken a moment to see the gigantic Nocctiëm demon before running in pure effervescent fear. The way ahead, the way Ghollin ran, was clear of smoke, but not without its demons. But through the smog he only saw the starlight reflected in the snow, and so he breached it and his vision seemed to lose all clarity. He ran, leaping over several mounds and careening around blurred trees. His mind raced but his body felt weightless, as if the gods had given him one last chance to survive. His quick movements rounded a tree only to fall over. He expected a hearty root at his feet but as he looked he saw the lifeless form of one of the southern soldiers, a sword thrown several lengths away and his leather dug into as if it was a dog searching for something it had buried. Koda, his ear to the ground, felt the heavy footsteps of some of the demons while the skating of the smoke rode on the ground. He stumbled up, partially in fear, partially in a worsening pain down his arm and a wobble in his leg.
He ran past the sanguinary marks, most running east to west or west to east, all a sign that a body laid at the ends of the scarlet trails. The ground beneath him rose and he pushed up it, the clouds thinning. He reached the apex, seeing a gradual slope on the other side, and so he sped down. To his left and right he saw his swinging arms, they were a deep, pulsing red as his blood flowed in heavy pumps. Even as he ran down he could see the ends of his fingers whiten and with it a prickling numb followed. His ears soon joined, then his toes. By the time the hill neared the end he felt all the adrenaline he had disappear, and when his foot found that the ground was not hard but rather a slush, he fell into its embrace without a single muscle movement.
The embrace was only a quick hug as Koda flailed his arms, everything covered in darkness as he pushed himself toward the top. When he pushed through, however, his embrace must have been anything but short. Warm daylight shot at his face and his eyes had to close at its sudden emergence. Birds sang and the low echoes of a river nearby trickled through his ears. Once his eyes became adjusted he saw the beauty that surrounded him, no sign that just a few hours ago there had been an attack. Koda felt his wounds in full, especially the ones that crossed his shoulder blades. And so he made his way out of the softly packed snow and laid supine with the sun beating on him. For a moment all was silent, silent enough that he felt himself being brought back into sleep. If only for another minute, he thought, then he would leave.
From nearby he heard an odd, vocal sound. But, squinting his eyes open and looking to where the noise should have been, he saw nothing and played it off as a call of the mountain’s valley. But after a few minutes he heard it again. And again. It sounded sad when it called, several noises harmonizing from the same location. Koda’s stomach growled at the animalistic cry, if it was dying or alone it might be the difference between his survival, and so he shuffled closer. It was spurts of lifting to his feet and then falling back. He rounded on a tree, the noise coming directly from it. Once he made it over he saw a tan horse with white speckles, shaking his head and calling out helplessly. But once he saw Koda he went from mournful to panicked and rustled around, shaking, but his predicament was still forcing him to a standstill. His legs were over knee-deep in snow and despite his movements could not escape. Koda got nearer and the horse shook, batting his head around so that his neck smacked into the tree a couple times.
Koda took pity on the creature, looking between Endre and him. But his southern coat was a strange sight, one that all together unnerved him and he found that he could not kill the steed, not as it lay as helpless as him, if not a little moreso. Koda got closer, laying his hand on the horse, his nostrils flared with fear but was so tired that he could not keep up his pace. The horse’s ears bristled and he looked at Koda, to which he set a hand in the snow, throwing the clump aside, and he kept on digging.
Koda took many breaks and was slow moving but eventually dug until the sun was directly above them, panting and a sweat running down his back once he sat up. After all that time the horse could move a single leg, and so it did ragingly. Despite his time with Koda he persisted with his discontentment. After many trials the horse put his leg on the snow and felt it bear his weight better than that which he had been trapped in. He thrusted up and, with a cloud of dust forming, jumped out. He quickly got to his four hooves and bounded south, making it to the curve along the mountain before it dove into a gorge, but then stopped and turned.
Koda watched as the horse looked back at him with a grateful gleam. But soon Koda turned back to the north, looking at his home. He could see the jagged peaks and the endless unknown that must have fallen beyond them. Birds flew overhead, one landing in the tree above him. Since his birth he heard his master tell stories of the birds, how wise they are, how they were honored with the ability to be truly free. Their master was once the King of All, as it was written. But kingship is rarely decent, and such was their presence. They were known to bring the darkest omens of the world, as was their fate since the dawn of creation. And so it cawed and flew further into the mountains and Koda saw with understanding. The Far North, the Lost North, the Kabernian Mountains, they were a dark omen unto themselves. If the gods had granted him strength last night it was not to travel north once more, or to wait on another onslaught of demons. He then looked back toward the horse which stood on the clearing, as if knowing what Koda would do.
He grabbed the hilt of Endre, pushing himself up and walking toward the horse. He took one too many steps and the horse backed a single step, but not another. “Take me south. Take me to Sahn,” he said. The horse understood, not in his words, but in his feelings. And so dipped his head and turned, sauntering south.