A former priest, having left his temple and much else behind, is caught in a web of dark magic when he finds the body of a young woman who has been ritually slain.
At Silver Pass the snow sat knee deep except where others had trudged through and flattened it to mud and ice. The frigid wind swept over the white-capped mountains and felt like the cold hand of death itself. Katashan pulled his heavy cloak closer to him and tried not to feel the bone-aching chill. Emista himself, the old God of Ice, could still rule in a place like this where summer probably never reached.
In a few more steps he topped the crest of the high mountain pass and Katashan stopped and stared at the distant golden shore and sapphire sea far below. He waited for a feeling elation at seeing the end of his five month journey and the new future the distant view promised.
Unfortunately, he'd already wearied of too many new beginnings in his life. He couldn't look at the sparkling sea and the land of Cyrenia and believe they promised him any better life than what he'd already given up: the good and the bad, and all of it lost to him now.
The windswept silence suddenly filled with the bray of donkeys and the inharmonious yell of the caravan master. The rest of Katashan's traveling companions would soon make their way up the trail to this final pass along the Old Iron Road. Tyren, the shaggy, unkempt caravan master, had a voice that could wake the dead. As far as Katashan could tell it had no effect whatsoever on either the thirty donkeys or the half dozen workers in his employ.
Tyren had been an odd companion for someone who had spent a few years serving in the temples of home. The caravan master believed in every omen and superstition, while at the same time he cursed gods and men alike. It had made a very long, and loud, journey.
Tyren did have his virtues, though. The man knew every trail, village and ford between Taris and Cyrenia. He also had no problem taking hire from a northerner, even though Katashan might be unpopular where they traveled. The war between Cyrenia and Taris had ended only three short years before and trouble still erupted along the border now and then.
Katashan had hurried ahead of the caravan to do more than gawk at the welcoming sight of the Inner Sea. Stone-carved Verina Guardians -- waist high images of the kneeling goddess -- stood sentinel at every important locality along the Iron Road. The statues represented an old religion now in abeyance in the south since the old Taris Empire had long since fallen into smaller, often warring, kingdoms.
Katashan hadn't realized he could feel any affection for the Gods who had turned their backs on him when he needed them most. Yet the first time he had seen the kneeling statue of Verina, protector of travelers, he'd felt an odd stirring in his heart. During the long journey he had stopped at every Verina statue and made a token offering of food or drink. He had served in her temple for a few years when he was younger. Those days seemed so long ago now, that it might have been another person who had prayed at the altars and wished all travelers in the world peace and safety.
A shame those prayers had never been saved for himself.
Tyren and his men had scoffed at the superstitious northerner at first, but as the journey progressed with few problems, he saw Tyren eyeing the old goddess with some consideration. It amused Kastashan to think he may have helped to reintroduce a piece of the old religion to counter the apostasy of the south, where the Cyrenian monarchy had introduced new gods as soon as they broke allegiance with Taris.
"Up! Up ye' damned beasts!" Tyren bellowed and the donkeys answered in much the same tone. Soon the pack would catch up with him. After so many months on the trail, Katashan knew better than to waste the few precious moments he had to himself.
However, even knowing where to look, he still had trouble finding the Verina Guardian for this pass. He had started to believe --being this close to the Cyrenian heartland -- that it had been thrown down during the war.
He spotted the very top of the statue's head showing through a snowdrift off to the right, farther from the trail than he had expected. By then he could also hear the plodding step of the lead donkeys and knew he didn't have much time if he wanted a moment to say his thanks in private for having had such a trouble free journey.
Getting to the statue wasn't easy this time, though as he plowed through the snow, knee deep in many places and he tried not to curse as he forced his way through the ice crusted snowdrifts. Katashan had always believed the Gods listened at the worst of times, and he had already dared their ire too often in the past to take a chance now. He even bit back a curse when his foot caught on a snow covered limb that sent him sprawling at the feet of the Guardian.
Katashan stood and quickly brushed snow from his pants and cloak. Tyren had almost topped the rise, all but dragging the lead donkey with him. He took the last step and reached out, brushing snow from the covered statue --
The stone felt uncommonly warm, and should have melted the snow for several feet around the shrine if this had been true warmth. What he felt was magic and that could not be good.
"There you be," Tyren said from behind him. "Why'd ya not take the cleared path to your Guardian? Never struck me as a snow lover."
Path? Katashan turned and could clearly see the stone-lined trai a few steps to his left. He could not possibly have missed the path before, except that the Goddess intended him to trample through the snow.
And even fall as he had.
She would not have done it on a whim. The Gods had never shown a taste for burlesque before, though irony and farce seemed common enough. So why send --
"Damn," he whispered, despite himself.
Katashan quickly retraced the three steps back to where he had fallen. He knelt, ignoring the cold, and brushed snow away from the limb . . . and found frozen cloth beneath and then fingers, blue as the ocean below.
"What norther ritual is it this time?" Tyren demanded as the rest of the caravan began to move past, his men anxiously herding the laden donkeys onward.
"Tether the animals and bring a blanket," Katashan ordered. He looked up into Tyren's scowling face. "I've found a body."
Tyren stood close by shaking his head with his matted hair bouncing from side-to-side. He snarled curses barely loud enough to be heard as Katashan carefully brushed snow from the body, uncovering an arm, a shoulder . . . a woman. Tyren would do nothing to help. Neither would his men, of course, though they all gathered at the trail to watch and mumble about bad omens.
Katashan didn't feel better about the discovery than they did. However he knew matters would be far worse if he walked away from something the Goddess so obviously wanted him to handle.
As he uncovered her -- a young woman, her golden hair shimmering with ice crystals -- he noted her ankles had been bound in heavy chains and her wrists tied behind her back with a silken rope. The frozen blue silk of her expensive dress showed no rips and he saw no bruises on her ice pale skin. The woman had come here without a battle, either willingly or drugged.
The blade that had killed her still rested hilt deep in her breast where it had pushed through blue silk cloth and pierced her heart. There wasn't much blood staining the dress, so she had died quickly and not been left to freeze to death. He couldn't guess how long ago this had happened since the body showed no signs of decay. It wouldn't in this winter land, but he still felt as though this had not been done more than a few months before.
The knife was no ordinary weapon; gemstones formed a spiral pattern on the long jade hilt and he could see the edge of a design etched into the silver of the blade itself. This looked like a very easy weapon to trace and he mistrusted its presence for that very reason. No one would purposely leave such a clue behind.
"What do ye plan to do with it?" Tyren demanded.
"Her," Katashan corrected as he stood. He pushed his half frozen fingers up under his arms and looked at the trail where even the donkeys appeared anxious to go on. Contrary creatures. "I suppose we ought to take her back to the fort at the upper pass --"
"Ah, no." Tyren said with a shake of his shaggy head as he glanced over his shoulder. "Took us a full day ta' hike down ta' here. It would take two, maybe three goin' back up. Times bad enough, but supplies are low."
"Excellent point," Katashan said. "Is there some place closer?"
"Chances be she came from the mountain village there along the trail," he said, pointing to where a path along the summit and leading into the trees. "Half a day. No way to take the caravan, but you could get her there --"
"I don't think she's from the mountains," Katashan reluctantly said. "She's not dressed for the cold. I think she must have come from one of the shore villages. Are there many close by?"
"Two days ta' the closest," he said, and looked even more unhappy. "What would she be doin' up here, so far from the shore?"
Katashan could see no way around the truth though he dreaded making the situation worse. They would have to know before they moved the body, though.
"Someone brought her here, bound in chains, and murdered her."
Silence greeted those words. Tyren held his place but the rest of his men had backed up a few steps, wrists crossed and palms held outward in a sign to ward against evil. And they were right because this had been evil. The woman had been murdered at the foot of a benevolent goddess, who wished harm to no one. The act had perverted the place.
"Want nothin' ta' do with this," Tyren said. "This can't be good."
"No, this isn't good," Katashan agreed. He tried to warm his fingers again. "But we cannot leave her here unless you wish to risk the wrath of the Goddess."
Tyren glanced nervously at the still mostly-covered statue and frowned in annoyance. However, having spent so long with Tyren, Katashan knew the caravan master would not ignore such a possibility. He was a superstitious, though not truly religious, man. Katashan hated to use that ploy against him, but he would need help.
Just as he expected, Tyren muttered a curse or a prayer, and stomped his way across the snow pack. He stopped over the body, glaring though his look softened a moment later.
"Young," he said shaking his head. "Not her fault. Damned fancy blade that killed her and she be a shore dweller, it's true. It wouldn't be right to take her elsewhere and we can't leave her here to upset your Goddess. We'll take her down wrapped in blankets and packed in snow. I'll make a travois."
"Thank you." Katashan knelt and began to carefully brush more of the snow away from around her. "Someone is bound to ask how we found her. I'm going to make certain there are no clues nearby. I'll move her when you're ready to leave."
Tyren looked relieved to find that Katashan would handle the body. He nodded and went back to his men, shouting orders and brooking no disagreement this time. Katashan did see him cast one plaintive look toward the distant shore though; so close to the end of the journey to find trouble!
Katashan waited until everyone had gone out of sight to gather wood for the travois. Then, his fingers tingling as they moved along the frozen ground, he began to carefully brush the snow away from around her body.
He found the first glyph to the left of her shoulder, almost even with the blade in her heart. The pattern had been carved into the dirt and filled with sand and the sand had later fused to glass with the power of the spell. This had been a sacrifice, not just a murder, but he had known that already. What he hadn't been certain of, until he saw the first glyph, was if the person who had worked the spell had known what he was doing.
"Goddess guide me," Katashan whispered. He swept his hand over the rest of the glyphs to the left of the first quickly dislodging the snow. One glyph curled into another: Life, bondage, death.
He heard the tinkle of ice and the body twitched.
Katashan covered the glyphs over again, his heart thumping and his hands almost aching with the cold and the power mixing in the touch. The body went still again but he could already feel other forces beginning to gather.
For a brief moment he considered leaving her and reporting the find to the first authorities they found. He didn't want to be involved in anything like this, not in a place so far from his home and with no personal prestige to back him up if he ran into trouble. However, Verina had obviously brought him here for a reason. Unlike any other hapless traveler, he could read the glyphs and feel the magic all around him, calling to the magic in his own blood.
Verina wanted this work undone and the taint removed from her shrine. He could do it, though not all the work today with people so close by. The first step would be to take the body away. He slowly stood, turned his back to where the others still searched for suitable wood, and crossed back to the statue.
After another glance to make certain no one stood too near, he withdrew the small black handled knife he kept on a chain and always close to his heart. The blessed silver blade held magic of its own; a dangerous relic of his past, but one he could not part with since it would be far more dangerous in the hands of anyone else. He whispered the ritual, trusting the goddess would not fault him for being discreet.
His hand didn't tremble as he made a small slit in his left wrist, even though he had not done this act in many long years. The blood flowed quickly into her upheld hands, forming a small puddle in the palms, bright red against the white of the marble. He watched, silently praying and hoping -- and starting to feel light headed --
The blood seeped into the stone and disappeared. Accepted. With a feeling of relief mixed with dread -- he didn't want to be involved with the Gods again -- he laid the silver blade against the wound and quickly whispered words that seared the cut shut with a sharp, hot pain.
He stumbled back to the body, almost grateful when he could kneel again in the snow, even though he now had a new awareness of the delicate magic all around the area. The power tingled and stung like fire ants moving up his arms and he'd never felt anything like it before.
Katashan could hear Tyren and his men coming back up the incline from their foray into the woods. Katashan had no time for subtlety or to reacquaint himself with magic he hadn't used in far too many years. He wrapped both his hands around the knife that had killed the young woman and whispered a quick incantation, dispelling as much of the ritual's power as he could in one quick sweep as he pulled it out.
The magic to do the work came unexpectedly easily to him. Power fled from the blade in a flash of blue light as he dropped it onto her chest. He took his own ritual blade from around his neck -- still red with a little of his own blood -- cut at the glyphs. The magic dispelled so quickly it called a wind in the void and snow blew up from the ground and flew around him, sending a chill through the world.
He looked up and saw an outline in the veil of white: a human shape, reaching for him.
"Away!" He held up his left hand, power flashing bright from his fingers as he ordered the specter back.
The shape fled with a howl of wind and the sudden storm disappeared as quickly as it had arisen. He could hear shouts of surprise and dismay from Tyren and his men who likely felt the dark power in that wind even if they didn't understand the implications.
However the danger had gone, though he couldn't say for how long and the magic lessening. Katashan picked up the body and carried her to the trail, anxious to be away from this place, even though he took part of the trouble with him and feared more would follow.
Watch for chapter's 3 and 4 on Wednesday, December 12th.
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