The Story of Cheng Harth

The Story of Cheng Harth

by Kyle Blackston

The lowlands of Turgathka. A desolate waste, dotted by stone spires jutting from the ground like fiends, clawing their way through the ice, or the tongues of many mouths screaming in pain. Home. I am Cheng Harth. I was one of the Hennfleur, or the “Edge-fliers,” but they are no more. I am alone. I am searching the tundra, trying to get my bearings and hoping to find someone, anyone, in this vast emptiness.

When the schism struck, we were mostly asleep and caught unprepared. My wife and I were watching our girl-child, Lonna, finally quiet herself and drift to sleep. Then, a world-shattering crack deafened me. I saw my family scream as our hide-skin tent was brightly lit from the outside. The bright reds, yellows and greens chilled me colder than the familiar snow and ice ever could. My hearing slowly returned, and I could faintly hear our chief, Heggar, shouting to the other tribespeople outside.

The Welkin, our sky, had torn. It poured unearthly fire down towards the ground, which erupted in anticipation. It was as if two great giants reached to embrace one another. My wife dressed Lonna, and I could see lava and hot ash raining from the sky through our tent’s opening. I saw the fragmented Welkin raining shards of half-molten glass that shattered as they hit the cool air in their descent. We had to hurry, but I knew, then, that we wouldn’t survive. The schism was far too close—practically on top of us. We had misread the signs. Nemma. Nemma, my wife. Lonna. When the otherworldly giants met, the horrific spectacle looming above us collapsed on itself, and poured down over our camp. My wife. My daughter.

Now, I continue walking. I am wrapped in the skins and furs that I shamelessly scavenged from Hennfleur’s remains. I have nothing left of my own except my tattered clothes and a necklace. Nemma made it for me after Lonna was born, and our marriage eternalized. A lock of her own hair, tied together with wire and a small bit of paste. I clutch it in my hand as I walk. It somehow survives, though her hair was burnt by the fire some. I hurdle through each gust of wind, hunched over to keep the roughest out of my face, if I can. The storm is picking up, though, and I need to find shelter. I dare not brave the Lowling chill I know is coming. I head for a new mountain, risen out of the calamity so quickly a traveler could not guess its freshness. I will hide in its roots for the night, huddled in the deepest hole I can find and covering myself completely.

The sky-giants passionate, reckless fall from glory made her beautiful. You could feel her energy from the ground below. The heat was almost unbearable. The world-giant could not resist her draw, and rose up to receive her. We was a volcano of force that fractured the frozen tundra. Deep trenches marked his eruption. The ground rippled and burst; the giants’ fires were immortal, and bathed the small, awe-struck men and women beneath them. There was a thunderous cacophony. It was a metamorphic wonder.

I watched. We all watched. We were paralyzed with fear.

I wake from the nightmare and try to close my eyes against the memories. The Lowling is still in force and I move under the furs to kindle what little warmth I can. I remember against my will. Nemma. To get her attention, I grabbed her hand and pulled on her arm. We began to run. Tremors shook us, and whole sections of the ground collapsed around us. Tents fell and disappeared into cracks in the ice. Far from my reach, I saw Hegger thrown to the ground. He slid down a slope and fell helplessly into the chasm. My heart ached for him, but my family was still beside me. We made it across several more chasms before an explosion of light threw us from our feet. I saw it briefly and it blinded me. The hiss of something hot being quenched, a change in color to something almost purple, at first, and then bright white. The sounds of screams.

I saw it, then, through the haze of my returning vision. Shards of obsidian, plumes of fire and chunks of lava not yet cooled. I saw the apocalypse that would destroy us. Nemma was holding Lonna tightly, yelling over the noise at me to get up. She didn’t see the sharp stones overhead. I shambled up, lunged towards her, and took her in my arms. I felt something hot graze my back as we resumed, but the pain was numbed by necessity. I didn’t see anyone else as we ran through the schism.

Without an end in sight, a mass of red rock flew towards us and I couldn’t avoid it. Nemma was thrown away from me, and the rock nearly took out my legs. My chest and arms burned from where it hit. I flew backwards through the air. I saw Nemma and Lonna where they landed, and they were sliding down into a crevice. I landed on my side and couldn’t press myself back to my feet. Lonna fell first, and Nemma’s hands were shook free by the tremors. They disappeared. I saw the chasm shift, close, and grind at the fault. I couldn’t breath anymore, and I lost consciousness.

The Lowling passed, and though I slept roughly, I cannot wait any longer. I note the passage of time as I walk. Nearly five days, and two without food, before I happen across a group of schism-seekers. I tell them what I’ve seen, and they offer me some of their supplies and some rest if I will lead them back to the nightmare I’ve escaped. I reluctantly agree, for truly, I have no choice. I have been struggling against the tundra for too long. Using the excess of my trappings as makeshift tents and carrying a dwindling stock of food has worn me ragged.

The seekers are led by a woman, and her name is Thania. An Ilthacan, she exhibits their greed remarkably. I’ve seen Ilthacans before, but never this far south. They come for our artifacts and our insight, always for their own, private ends. I am given just enough food to survive. I suppose I’m not upset with her, but my stomach aches for more. Thania speaks eloquently, and with an air of authority that defies contradiction. The two following her must have some respect for the woman, or else I could not see tolerating Thania very long. Her sort of single-mindedness is a dangerous trait in the wastes, and I foresee it causing many troubles for her expedition. She has another Gathkan traveling with her as a guide. I look into his eyes and see similar fears mirrored back at me. There is an understanding between us, and we immediately feel safer.

Thania allows us to camp through the evening and night, for my sake, but demands we leave at first light. I finish eating, they give me a mug of some brew, and I follow the other guide to the tent we’ll share. I sleep immediately, and I dream terrible things. I wake to find my fellow watching me. His name is Terun. “I know it must have been unfair for you,” he says. I only nod, and begin to think about Nemma again. Her necklace rests on my chest. He points to it and asks, “You lost a wife?” “And our child,” I say flatly. Now he nods and remains silent. Reverence for the dead. Respect for me. Terun is a good man.

“Quit the Gert and take these,” says the other man helping Thania. He walks through the tent flaps and tosses several stones on the furs beneath us. “Ey’re some trinkets Thania robbed off a trader back-aways. Ey’ll keep you warm, but I guess you’d know that.” He left as abruptly as he came, and I picked up a stone in each hand. They are warm, and very nice to hold. Gromglan is a rough Syrd from the north, and beyond the slurs and obvious prejudices, he seems to be a very capable man. He’s a merc of some kind, and his homeland has steeled him against the chill Turgathka winds. He knows Moarian, from the northern peoples, but not our Gath tongue, and it bothers him when Terun and I speak it. I make a note of that while Terun tells me about the stones I’m holding.

“I’ve seen them before. Produce heat when warmed. Good when held, or placed in a pocket, but I would not drop one in a fire. They are otherworldly stones, so care for them.” I understand, and place the two I grabbed into a pouch. I lay down and rest the pouch on my chest as I think of our journey to come. Even through the pouch, my body kindles a small fire in the stones and reminds me of Lonna. I’m afraid, and it shows on my face. I’m not sure I remember the way, and too many things change after schisms strike. “We will find your schism, satisfy the ‘Thacan, and return to my people,” Terun tries to comfort me. “Don’t worry. You will be welcomed there.” He is good-natured, but does not know the depth of my fears.

I scavenged off my dead friends’ corpses, and I noticed shards of strange rock embedded in their flesh. I wouldn’t have been surprised, but from those stones were rippling motions, like water, moving through the skin. I felt an unusual presence and avoided looking into the broken faces directly. They seemed half-alive, like they were still screaming. I could not bear it. I wake from another nightmare.

The stones had grown hot to the touch, and I sweep them off of me as I remember where I’m at. My memories wear me down quicker than trekking through the lowlands. I must sleep, but I cannot. I can’t help but think that we will find much more than Thania expects when we find my people’s remains. There is no imagining what may change after a schism. I lay awake until morning, taking what comfort I can in the warmth of my tent.

Gromglan comes to wake me, and is surprised to find Terun and I already packed. He looks between us without hiding his shocked amusement. “Right. ‘Et’s pull down the tent, then.” We finish packing the camp and begin our journey through the tundra. A light snow falls on us, and blankets the horizon like a fog. Thania won’t stop speaking, though the others and myself only grudgingly respond. “Come on! The three of you should be very well acclimated to this sort of weather. Certainly more than I should, at least! Still, there you all are, slogging behind. I understand that I bear a greater desire for this little trip, but it would be nice to hear some excitement in your voices. Gromglan, aren’t you the least bit interested in a schism this far south? It must be very unique, giving how few things live out here. It must be clear, and open. I can only imagine the secrets laying bare for the reaping!”

“I guess, Thania.” It hurts to listen, but there is little to say. “See! That is precisely what I mean. ‘I guess.’ So lackluster a response, I’m pained to think you don’t even care. Nevertheless, I will impress upon you once more how important our task is, and just maybe I will inspire some sense of comprehension in the lot of you.” She prattles on, and on. I believe she has spoken for hours, uninterrupted and thoroughly enjoying the sound of her monologue. She lectures and preaches, predicts and condemns—I quickly lose faith in her. Terun pays attention only to the world around us, and I can hear Gromglan grit his teeth over the sounds of our steps. Two, almost three days pass like this. While we set camp on the third evening, Gromglan has heard enough.

“What a thick she can be,” I hear him mutter occasionally. The tension was palpable already when she tells Gromglan, “Look, I understand that in some ways I owe you my life, but that does not extend to my wealth. With your attitude recently, and the absolute sluggishness I’ve tolerated, I’m trying to figure out why I’m paying you.” There’s no time for anyone to react, and least of all, Thania, before Gromglan reaches out and grabs her neck. He draws her dagger and holds it between himself and Terun, who had started to move. “Back off and settle yerself down, ya Gert.” He pulls Thania’s face close to his own and says, seething with frustration, “You pay me to deal with yer shit, and make sure nothin’ out ‘ia tears you to pieces. I tell you now, though, da’s only so much a yer mouth I can take.” He pushes her down to the ground, tosses her dagger into the snow next to her and leaves for his tent.

Thania’s wide eyes stare at Gromglan, knowing he’d reached his limit. “Well, he’s right,” she says with a small amount of composure returning to her, “He’s probably the only living thing out here I’d have to worry about.” She goes to her own tent without another word. I tell Terun to rest. With all the excitement, I have a strange feeling burning inside me, and I tell my friend that I’d like to stay out by our fire for just a little while longer. He nods, still partially stunned by Gromglan’s display, and heads to bed without comment.

Now I gaze into the mild fire and finish off a few scraps still left on the little animals we ate. I’m not sure what they were, but they were pickled and taste very good, roasted. I enjoy the quiet relaxation offered me, and enjoy my nibbles. I think it’s a type of small bird. I hear the howl of a distant wind and close my eyes. The fire’s warmth basks over me while I think of Nemma and our home.

Few people would choose to live on the tundra, but with plagued marshes and disease riddling the Moarian lands, many chose to travel Turgathka, hunt its wildlife and deal with the bitter cold instead. The night sky was clear and blue, and though the ice and snow is redundant, there was always something beautiful about it. “Cheng, would you look at this?” “Yes, Nemma?” “There. Right there. I believe it’s a comet.” “You might be right. It’s so small. So hard to see.” “I’ve seen it every night, these last few days. It moves slowly.” “That’s a good sign, at least. A long life, to both of us.” “Hm, yes. To a long life.” She smiles. She had been so happy, once. “Nemma?” “Yes?” “You’re cold.” “I know. You’re here to warm me, though.” She had looked so scared, and I’d not noticed.

My face grows colder. Tears glaze my skin, and the fire has gone quite low. The distant wind has grown close. It’s strange, though—I hear the wind, but I don’t feel it. The fire barely flickers. In an instant, Gromglan’s tent erupts. I see him hoisted up by his leg and some great hairy thing tearing through the tattered fabric of his tent. It has tusks, a full mouth of teeth and eyes set deep in its malevolent face. Gromglan doesn’t have his sword, but he grabs a dagger from the boot of his free leg and starts to carve the beast’s knuckles. I grab a charred stick from the fire and run towards them.

I see the others come from their tents, and so does the beast. It throws Gromglan against some rocks that jut out from the snow. He falls limp. I start ramming the embers of my firebrand towards the thing’s face and it screams wildly. It looks at me and howls. Terun shoots a couple of arrows at it, but they barely pierce its hide. He tosses down his bow and recklessly throws himself at the beast with his sword drawn. I see Thania in my peripheral, trying to pierce its underbelly with her spear. She has a beautifully shining shield held high. Terun is sent through the air with a strong-armed swipe. The beast grabs Thania’s spear while my firebrand leaves smoldering embers in its fur. It shoves the butt of it into her stomach and she is thrown to the ground. It drops the spear, reaches for me, and grabs me by my thighs. I’m lifted up at at least half-again my own height.

Chen & Thania

I feel my legs scream in pain. I dash the firebrand in its face again and again, but it doesn’t seem to help. I can feel its claws finding their way through my leggings, and each time I bat its face away, it moves in quicker to try and gore me with its tusks. A lucky blow and I strike one of its eyes. As it flinches I rip the pouch of stones from my belt and place it over the charred tip of my weapon. The beast roars once more and presses me towards its wide open mouth. I press the firebrand between its teeth and down its throat, and I brace myself. The stones had already begun reacting with the tinder, and now I see the light shine from between the beast’s teeth. It bites down on the wood, snaps the end off, but instead of relief the burning only gets hotter.

I’m thrown to the snow while it claws at its own face and throat. The combustion bursts from its mouth, and its neck glows yellow and orange under the skin. Eventually, the otherworldly fire consumes the thing’s flesh and fur. The creature melts a crater into the ice and leaves a pile of ash. I check the others. Gromglan is hurt, but he’ll live. The others are fine. My legs are weak, but staying where we are is not an option. “There are more, probably,” Gromglan says, echoing my own fears. Blood is already freezing to the side of his face.

“I thought it killed you! Do any of you know what sort of creature—” “Shut it!” Gromglan puts a quick end to Thania’s immature musings and bewilderment. For the first time, I decide to speak out, “There will be many more ahead. Forget the break, your schism. Please.” I haven’t heard nor spoke the common Moarian in so long, and I feel awkward making myself present in this way. Gromglan looks to Thania, who looks at me as if I were a young boy. “What we seek is worth our lives. I will not turn back, as a failure and a coward, for the glory of my efforts shall be well-rewarded.” She looks as if she’s shining when she speaks of her vision, “Ahead of us lies one piece of a grand puzzle, and one which, I believe, has very few pieces left unplaced. When I am done here, I shall know exactly what it means to be divine. I shall not let some hairy, mindless byproduct of greatness stand in my way.” She hesitates only a moment. “That said, we shall proceed with more caution, and avoid the beasts wherever possible.” She looks over at Gromglan and there’s the slightest hint of compassion in her eyes.

I resolve to speak no more. None of us will survive without the others, and I realize my concerns have no authority over Thania’s blind determination. Death on my shoulder, I pack my supplies and we all prepare to continue on through the tundra. We are all quiet, now, solemn and subdued by our individual pains. The lowlands are faintly lit by scattered stars, and we can see a larger rock formation in the distance. We hope it will hide us as we sleep. I’m concerned we might come across a lair where these creatures prowl, though. We do not know yet if they even sleep. I shudder to think that my tribe had served as fertilizer for these monstrosities. My only comfort lay in knowing that my family had not become these things. They are at peace within the ice, still, and quietly entombed.

Gromglan carries many supplies on his back. Each of the three carry large packs, but I carry nothing except the burden of my own memories and fears. I lead them through the wastes, moving ahead of them as if to scout out any hidden dangers, but I really seek solitude. None of them have spoken since the attack, but Thania’s boots crunch loudly through the snow, and Gromglan breathes heavily as we plod on. The wind picks up. I see Nemma’s face in the drifting snow, a pale memory scattered wildly before me.

The rocks we walk between are half-again or twice our height, and we pick our way carefully through their jagged edges and the coarse stones beneath our feet. The place feels like a cemetery, or like what foreigners tell me about them. We Gathkans do not bury our dead in the lowlands, for the tundra is too firm for us to dig through. Our ceremonies occur when the need arises, leaving our dead scattered and lost, though protected and never forgotten. We melt snow in buckets, and douse our fallen. Layers upon layers coat the bodies, shielding it from the weather and any animal that may try to scavenge it. After the families say their last goodbyes, we cover the fallen with snow and hide them from sight.

I imagine that sound will echo through these stones. I feel conflicted; I hear only us, and I feel safer, but I wonder what silent predator might also hear us coming through. I distance myself further from the others, let them lose track of me, and I turn to follow them from the shadows. I hear them mutter their aggravation at my disappearance. Thania orders them to press on, and still, happily, nothing more. I take a chance and climb up one of the stones. Crouched in a pit near its top gives me some idea about where we are, and how many of these rocks there are to hide in. On the horizon I see a twisted mountain. I cannot help but recognize it. I’m home. I dread telling the others. I return to them and tell them nothing about what I’ve seen. They ask me if we’re still going the right direction, and I only nod. We camp near the center of the stones. No fire. No talking. We eat cold scraps as quietly as we can and rest close together for warmth. Some of the stones are arched, and shield us well from the weather.

I had been a hunter, among other things, before the schism. Though I wasn’t anything remarkable, I had gained a certain, precious amount of respect for my levelheadedness and resourcefulness. I think back to my times hunting caribou and walrus, and the migrating the Hennfleur did to compensate winter’s edge. We had been traveling north through the small blizzards that warned us it was time to move, but winter has set in now. Most animals have either migrated away or have gone into hibernation. The tundra was special to me, but wild and dangerous. I think back again to the stories of even worse places.

Like many of the others, I had enjoyed hearing stories from those who had stumbled beyond our world into shiftlands—regions where multiple worlds, realities, universes, vied for dominance. Like most, I had never been, and never wanted to be. Only one of the Hennfleur had ever willingly entered a shiftland, and that was Heggar, who named the tribe after his experience. He often inspired us with his tale.

“I was watching several young children helping the fishers along the coast of Renkeg. They would bring the fish off the ice and clean them, fetch bait, food and drink for our fellows, you know. The ice suddenly began to melt, rapidly turning to gushing water flowing skyward. Everyone ran, stumbling in their fear, and one of the children slipped off the ice and was swept towards the border. Above us were stormy winds and sounds of thunder, a hurricane vortex of clear blue mist, and an endless sea beyond. Others pointed at the child, who was struggling with all his might to swim against the storm. Our chief called out to leave the child and forget him, to back away and stay alive.

Rather, I snatched up a plank we’d use over thin ice or to pull someone back out of the water, and I headed in after the terrified boy. My furs caught the wind, and board and all I was hurled beyond the boy. I was caught in the torrential winds, held aloft by the great geyser, and I somehow regained my balance. I spotted the boy falling towards me, arms and legs flying wildly about him. The plank was my vessel, and my furs became a sail, and I caught that boy. We were tossed around the edge of oblivion for time uncountable! I lost balance, struggled to orient myself with the boy clutching at my waist and being jerked back and forth across the border. Two worlds, fighting over my little burden and me. Imagine, just how surprised I was to be spat back out into the Renkeg.”

We wake up to pleasant quiet, alive. We are relieved and begin our walk refreshed. “I think we’re getting’ close, Thania. Somethin’ about that mountain out there don’t look quite right, an’ our lone wolf here’s gone pale.” Gromglan’s perceptive—or I hadn’t realized how easily I showed it. The sky had gone clear, and the snow had let up for now. Thania points to the mountain and turns to me. “Did the schism form that? Is that where we’re headed?” I nod again, knowing there was nothing else to be said. Rough crags as far as the eye can see, and it seems some new species of pine has started growing out of season where the ice had been broken apart. I wonder how long they’ll last before the lowland winds destroy it all.

Only one day passes before the wind-like howls in the distance. Unmistakably, now, we hear several of them at a single time from several directions. Terun voices the fear we all feel, and suggests we spread out slightly, just in sight of each other, so that we may remain better hidden and that we may spot the beasts before we are noticed. It’s a plan, at least, and it works well for a time. The snow comes and goes, but we maneuver around two or three of them by their howls alone. Though one draws close enough to see its contour, the blizzard picking up covered our passing in all imaginable ways. I dare to hope we shall arrive at the mountain in one piece.

I rotate between my companions, look in each one’s direction often to make sure none of us has been picked off. We are within a dozen yards or less of the elevated stone nearing the mountain when I spot one of the creatures ponderously walking towards Terun. It is a purposeful gait—it had seen Terun, who hadn’t noticed he was being hunted. Gromglan starts to rush past me, but Thania, closest to Terun, points to the mountain and waves us back. She catches Terun’s notice and warns him. Gromglan forces me towards the mountain, and we both run as quick as we can manage through the thick snow. Thania moves closer to Terun and the beast charges. Prepared, but not quick enough, Terun dashes to the side and the beast cleaves his left shoulder. He screams. Howls echo all around us.

Thania, still hidden by the snow and her white shield, still moves towards Terun as the beast lumbers up to pounce on him. As it reaches its apex, it finds a knife in its eye and several more piercing its face. Thania grabs a couple more blades from her coat and throws several more. One of them sticks in the beast’s remaining eye before it can recover, and it falls backward, stumbling in pain. She goes to Terun, presses her fingers to his mouth and helps lead him towards us. Quietly, they leave the blind beast dashing the snow around it. From a niche in the rocks, Gromglan and I watch five more of the tusked things charge in, close to the wounded one. They look between each other, seemingly unaware of Thania and Terun making their way off from the scene. Then, one points at the blinded beast’s face. They think! In a sudden act of starved cannibalism, they tear through their enfeebled other. Gromglan looks afraid for the first time. I know in my hear that my own courage has left me.

Thania and Terun make it to us in the crags, but they have left a trail of blood and Terun seems to be going into shock. Suddenly, Gromglan cracks a small rock on the side of Terun’s head, knocking him unconscious. I’m immediately appalled, but as Gromglan starts to amputate Terun’s nearly severed arm and Thania heats up another fire stone to a glowing red, I see why Terun could not have been left awake. The two make quick work of cauterizing and covering the wound. Gromglan picks the poor man up over his shoulders and we start our hike into the mountains. For the first time, I am impressed by Thania. I understand why Gromglan follows her. She is precise, and acts with an almost instinctual certainty.

We find a shallow cave a short way up the mountain to rest in. When Terun comes to, Gromglan stifles what would have been a sharp, loud scream. A minute or two of tears, and Terun calms down and recovers his composure. He runs his hand over the bandaged stump of his shoulder, and I can see the pain in his eyes. “I’d have moved quicker, but I would have been seen too early.” Not an apology, but more concern and compassion than I’ve seen from Thania so far. Terun smiles a sad smile and we are all quiet for a moment.

It’s been two hours or so since the attack. Terun is ready to walk again and we’ve decided to scale the mountain. I carry Terun’s things, knowing the climb will already be difficult for him. Gromglan gives us a warning. “I’ve done what I’ve done for you Gerts out of a bit of respect, but we’re close to Thania’s go’den prize now, and my lot’s with her. One of you chunks up’n falls, you’re on your own.” We begin our hike up the steep slopes. We pray the wind remains calm and steady.

I notice Terun slowing down. I fear for him, and almost laugh at the thought. We’re all walking to our deaths. There’s nothing else around for miles except the beasts, and we can’t kill all of them. Thania, who has remained unusually quiet after we reached the mountain, halts our group and begins to speak, “Set a small camp here. We are close to the epicenter. I can feel it. I will carry on towards it alone, for I alone have the keys to unlock its mystery, and I cannot be distracted. Terun looks like he could use the break, anyway. Gromglan, watch over them. We’ll need them alive if we are to make it anywhere through this tundra.” Obviously disgruntled, the Syrd growls an affirmation. We pitch our tents and take out a small bit of cold food to eat.

“She has been gone for over an hour, Gromglan.” “Shut it.” Silence passes for another few minutes. Terun starts to speak again, but a single look from the merc dissuades him. Gromglan relents near the end of our second hour of waiting, and offers some insight into Thania’s disappearance, “Whatever she does at these ‘ings, it takes a bit. Ain’t easy. Drains ‘er at first. Still, she killed a guy I knew for interruptin’ the process last time. Decided to check up on ‘er, and she didn’t do it on purpose. He just, got in the way.” He looks as uncertain as I feel, though, and Terun feels the same way. He reacts to the Syrd’s apparent helplessness, “I have taken you both this far, and now it is only a matter of time before those beasts find us here. We cannot sit here waiting any more. We must either find her and travel back to my village, or leave her here with her precious schism.” Gromglan has heard enough. “We will wait for Thania to return, and we will kill any of those things that come looking for us, you honorless village beggar!”

Terun turns to me, and I stare blankly at the both of them. I don’t know what to say, and I’ve lost hope. Terun speaks to me in our Gath, “We need to leave. You know this. Help me convince him!” Gromglan stares between us, growing furious with Terun. I shake my head, and try to warn him to stop. My mouth hangs open, “Cheng, help me convince him,” “Terun,” “The woman is crazed, brother! Help me talk some sense into him, so we can get away from this terrible place! I don’t want to die out—” Gromglan’s knife bursts through the center of Terun’s neck, and the poor man falls over forwards, sputtering in shock and blood. Gromglan growls at the corpse like an animal and swears. “That treacherous dog would’a been the end of us. Worthless fighter, spineless guide. Eh, Thania’ll be upset, but we got you, anyway.” “I do not know the way to his village,” I admit flatly. The Syrd shrugs me off as if he doesn’t care. He then looks up the mountain at where Thania should be. Roars echo through the rocky paths.

“Well, shit. A’least we got us some bait.” He looks down at the blood-soaked body. He hefts it up and moves it down the small, rough trail we’ve been resting on. I realize that, whatever the Syrd’s plan is, I want no part of it. I don’t want to be anywhere near him when the beasts catch up with us. I grab Terun’s pouch of heat stones from the ground near his pack and slip away while Gromglan puts together some rudimentary trap. I circle the mountain the best that I can, but can only seem to work myself further up. I hear howling all around from below. I can no longer tell if they are direct, or only echos. My pulse throbs in my ears and I’m not sure why.

I wrap back around so that I might see the Syrd. The snow and winds are picking up, though, and it’s becoming more difficult to climb. I find a small crevice and cower in it. I believe I hear thunder, a beast’s roar bellow out and fall distant. More roaring, and then, the merc’s screams. In the end, the screams and roars are all gone, but the wind is still threatening to cast me down the mountainside. If I stay here, I know I will die. I reach up and start climbing further, towards Thania and her summit. I fear what I will find there, but I’ve been afraid since my last night with Nemma.

I crawl carefully up the rocks, picking carefully where I place my weight. A ledge finally gives me enough room to pull myself over and rest my aching hands, and it’s breathtaking. Spiked ice and sharp stones encircle a crater-like hole. They shoot out sporadically like the remains of lightning-struck sand, and they grow smaller and more geometric as they near the center. Thania moves around within the circle, muttering something to herself, perhaps chanting. She moves as if possessed, twitching and erratically arching her back. Whatever madness brought her here seems to have finally broke her.

I feel the heat stones’ mild warmth growing cooler, so I remove them from their pouch, remove the gloves from my hands and hold them close together. I’m shivering from the cold winds, but I feel the stones start to kindle. Thania screams out above the winds in a language I don’t understand. She hasn’t noticed me, so I watch and wait. Her spear sticks out from the center of the strange patterns and her shield has been set off to the side. She continues to walk around her spear, casting wild glances around her feet as if she’s looking for something lost on the ground. “No, no, no!” I hear her cry out before going quiet and almost limp. I move away from her and press my back against a large gout of ice. Snow blows furiously and melts on my face and hands. I continue to shiver, and curl into myself slightly.

Despite the cold, Thania begins to disrobe herself. She slips off her thick furs, and then her protective chain and leathers. She appears entranced, and though I’m deafened now by the storm, I hear whispers slowly growing louder. As Thania’s tunic blows off in the wind, I bear witness to a beauty not entirely human. Her pale skin shines brighter than the surrounding ice, and partially formed wings only the length of her forearms struggle to spread open against the storm. Her arms open wide and her mouth moves. A strange light appears from the center of her chest. The strength has left her eyes. She is dying.

Fur appears at my side and moves past me. Another beast climbs over the edge across the crater, and another next to it. They heard her. She is oblivious. Her mouth slows and stops. The voice grows louder. Thania’s wings fall, and she drops staggered onto her hands and knees. She shakes her head slowly and reaches to the Welkin in vain. The snow blows thickly now, that I catch only glimpses of a terrible scene. The snow powders me red as it flies through and over me. There is no more warmth coming from the stones in my hands, but I’m no longer shivering.

In the snow I see her again. Nemma. She’s smiling, and she’s so happy. My heart aches, and flashes of memories flood my thoughts. Then, she touches my face and the pain is gone. She is so warm, and I start weeping in place atop the mountain. The tears freeze instantly on my cheeks. I close my eyes to shut out the mirage, and try to focus on what I need to do. I am freezing to death. I must get out of the wind. As I open my eyes, Nemma appears again, holding my darling Lonna. She shakes her head, smiling at me still. “You are home,” she tells me. She takes my hand, and I follow her. My body is covered in ice, but I shall never feel cold again.

 

Published by Punching Love Productions Ltd. © 2015

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