(Two chapters are posted every Sunday and Wednesday. Links to the other chapters can be found HERE)
They might have made it all the way to the summit of the pass the next day, except the weather turned on them. Katashan watched the storm rushing over the mountain top and down at their party, and he could do no more than summon a feeling of annoyed resignation. He should have expected this. If something could go wrong, it was bound to.
The winds hit only moments before the falling rain; a frigid drenching that set Katashan shivering within a few steps. The horses balked at the sudden rain and the bite of ice in the wind. Katashan caught tighter hold of the reins, grateful when Cork came closer, making certain the horse didn't bolt and get away from him.
Everyone else, including his lordship, cursed. Katashan only leaned into the cold and pulled up hood of his cloak. He'd already begun looking for a likely place to camp and decided, given the weather, that they should break early. He thought he could feel magic in the storm, but that didn't mean someone directed it. The world was filled with natural power, and it would be drawn to places like a sacrifice on the mountain top.
Katashan looked upward as rain fell in a deluge, pelting his face and making his eyes water from the cold. In moments the rain turned to ice and then to snow sending small white flakes swirling around them like a fog made solid. He could no longer see the pass.
"We need to stop!" he called out and the others agreed without any argument.
Lord Fordel's men quickly found a spot to camp to the side of the trail. The glade, though covered in ice-incrusted snow, sat slightly out of the wind, and not so far from the trail that they had to wade through the snow to reach it. Branches were downed in the area, and the others had little trouble gathering enough to make a shelter which they overlaid with evergreen branches, still heavy with needles. The makeshift covering looked like a fragrant, though drafty, refuge for the night.
Fordel and Katashan remained with the unhappy horses. The snow fell harder, promising them a long, cold night. The five guards and Cork worked quickly, cursing, and getting things in order with as much speed as they could manage.
"Do you feel half as useless as I do right now?" Fordel asked, stomping his feet much like the horses.
"More so, I imagine. I can barely hold on to two horses and you have the rest."
Fordel laughed, shaking his head. "Thank you. I hate feeling I'm useless, you know. And I'm not used to my position yet. I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
"I suppose that this has come as a shock. I'm sorry. Have I said that?"
"Sorry?" he asked, looking confused.
"At the death of your father."
Fordel stared at him, snow falling around them and the wind biting at their faces. He said nothing for a long time.
"My lord?" Katashan finally said.
"You honestly sounded as though you meant those words -- that you were sorry."
Fordel shook his head, and then continued. "My father intended to murder you. You knew he wanted your death because he feared what you would say about Sherina."
"Yes, I know," Katashan answered. He tried not to show the discomfort of wounds that hadn't fully healed yet. "But that doesn't mean I cannot be sorry he died and left you in this situation. Though, truth be told, it's obvious you are better suited to being the leader of this land than he ever could have been."
"Thank you. But I didn't want to be next lord. When Sherina disappeared, I spent a lot of my own funds trying to find her to make sure she was still heir. Does that shock you?"
"Not at all."
"I didn't think it would." He met Katashan's quick glance with a little nod. "So, tell me why you left the north, Katashan."
"To leave behind ghosts and emptiness. To find a place where I might make a difference, since I could not do so there."
"You sound bitter." Fordel looked surprised. "I hadn't expected it."
Katashan bowed his head, silent again. He could have told Lord Fordel many things about his past, but none that would help them now. Instead, he watched as the guards set up makeshift poles, and piled more pine boughs to make a sort of shelter for the horses as well. Good. He could cast a ward if they had even a little bit of a shelter around them tonight, and he could protect the horses from the worst of the weather.
Fordel didn't ask any more about his past.
Cork came to take the two horses, relieving him of even that much use. He carefully trudged toward the shelter. It would be a close and uncomfortable night. He hoped it remained a safe one.
He crawled into the opening, wrapping his cloak tight around him, and waiting for the others to come in. He would set the ward and then sleep. Sleep, at least, would make him less aware of the cold.
But they took longer than he expected, and he tried not to grow cross. He wanted rest --
"Sir?" Cork said, leaning down under the covering where he sat, huddled and cold. "I think you had best see this."
Katashan managed not to curse, knowing it couldn't be good. His body ached and trembled as he crawled back out of their little covering again. He wasn't ready for this. Really wasn't ready for anything.
He looked towards the summit of the pass without Cork even telling him where the trouble would be. The snow blew harder. He didn't want to standout here and even the little pine-bough shelter seemed not so bad. But as he watched, he saw a flickering of light through the storm, like land-based lighting.
"Damn," Fordel said softly from somewhere just behind him. "I don't like the looks of that."
"Me either," Katashan needlessly added.
Katashan slowly lifted a hand, ignoring the ache along his arm and up through his shoulder. He could feel a hint of magic in the storm, but now he could feel the stronger surge of power from the mountain top, though he detected no real signature to the power. For all he could tell, a lightning storm had settled to ground and played among the trees.
"What do we do?" Fordel asked
"Not much unless the trouble comes closer. We'll face this soon enough when we climb up there," Katashan said.
Cork looked at him uncertainly and then nodded. "Yes, of course. Forgive me. You need rest tonight, sir."
"I need far more than just a night of rest," Katashan said, but he put a hand on Cork's arm when the man looked worried. "I'll be fine. I'm just very weary and far less certain of what I'm supposed to do now that I see the trouble."
"That's not reassuring."
"No, it isn't."
Cork sighed and took hold of his arm and the three of them went back to the little shelter. One of the guards -- Tyos -- handed Katashan a cup of tea he'd warmed over a small, fitful fire which proved to be mostly smokeless thanks to some little magic one of them knew. Katashan wrapped his hands around the cup, grateful for that warmth.
"It'll do better inside you while it's still warm, sir," Cork said, gently nudging his arm as he sat beside him.
"I don't know. This is pretty nice."
"Drink. I can warm your cup again, foreigner," Tyos said, and then frowned. "Your pardon --"
"It's quite all right," Katashan replied. He leaned back, glad to find they'd given him a relatively soft spot. The wind blew through the little shelter, though, sending a sprinkling of snow and ice to sizzle in the fire. The temperature had begun to plummet.
"We'll have to do more than ward," Katashan finally said. He felt a little odd -- he'd never been open about using magic, even among those who knew about his abilities and would not condemn him for them. "Well need protections not only from magic but also from the cold. This is a damned mess. We'll drain power tonight and I fear we'll need far more when we reach Silver Pass."
"And that's probably why we're in this situation," Fordel said with a quick nod as he took a cup of tea as well. "Something wants to weaken us."
"Weaker," Cork said. He looked from one to the other. "It's not as though you're strong yet anyway, sir. This may not have been the time for this journey after all."
"Whatever is at play here has been wearing me down from the moment I found the body." Katashan realized the truth of those words as he said them. He leaned closer to the fire, letting it warm his fingers while he tried to think this through again. "I don't think waiting would have helped. In fact, I believe the longer we wait, the weaker I become."
"Because you found the body," Fordel said. "And you are the one who already disturbed this magic, and it is obvious that whoever -- whatever -- is behind this has targeted you. Sherina follows you, but the mage hasn't killed you."
"The mage has recognized me as an enemy and knows my powers are substantial."
Fordel leaned forward, warming his fingers as well. The others had settled in around them, as comfortable as they could get on a night like this. "It may be this isn't even consciously directed. You are the one who disturbed the site. You said mage. Are you certain whatever is directing this is human?"
That question finally did make the others uncomfortable. Katashan didn't blame them; it made him uncomfortable as well.
"Someone human-like, at least, wrote the runes that bound your sister," he answered. "I can't say more until I learn more. But we need to be safe tonight."
Katashan pulled out his ritual blade and paused, considering how much power to use. Not the wrist this time. He nicked several fingers and touched them to the wood to his right. Branches crisscrossed everywhere, and he closed his eyes as he spread his spell around the edges of their little area and to the connecting area with the horses; warding against magic, but also against the worst of the wind and cold as well. The magic helped almost immediately, and he heard sighs of relief from the others.
Katashan pulled his cloak up and settled into the pine rushes, grateful for the blanket that kept most of the needles from stabbing him. He stared at the fire for a moment, and silently wished his companions well for the night. He even put a little magic in his wish. He hoped it was enough.
Morning came too soon, and looked no better for the light of day. Storm winds howled around them, battering at his wards, perhaps even more fiercely now, as though to blow hope away. He could still hear the crash of thunder, though the combination of daylight and the blowing snow obscured the flashes they had seen on the pass.
The snow had piled up around them during the long night, but they and the horses had remained safe within the wards. If Sherina or anything had tried to get in, he never noticed in the fury of the storm.
Katashan slipped out of the covering and stood slowly, stretching stiff muscles and hoping his aching head would ease as soon as he had some of the tea Cork had already started making. The constant assault of untamed magic felt like an irritant, scratching at his brain like insects. He could see Fordel felt much the same way, though neither of them said anything aloud.
"Drink this, sir," Cork said, pushing a warm cup into his hand. His fingers wrapped around the cup, even if he didn't look at the contents or Cork. "And stop thinking for a few minutes, sir."
"Pardon?" Katashan said, glancing back at Cork this time.
His guard hadn't shaved in a few days, reminding Katashan that he was in the same state -- haggard, dirty, and worn. Snow lighted on Cork's hair and shoulders, and then blew away in the next burst of wind.
"Stop trying to think it all out, sir," Cork said at last, tapping the cup to remind him to drink. "You've made it plain you don't know what to expect here. We accept that answer. You should as well."
"I don't know what I'm doing. I don't like feeling as though so much rests on what I've done and what I might do wrong."
"Far better chance that I'll make some mistake, especially if I don't have the facts to go on."
"Maybe so," Cork said. He looked up at the hilltop now as well. A flash of lightning brightened the snowfall for a brief moment and they could barely hear the thunder above the roar of the wind. "We'll be there soon enough, sir."
"And I should enjoy my tea and trail bread while I have the chance, eh?" Katashan said, and finally sipped.
"That's my way of thinking it, sir," Cork said. "You aren't going to find any answers standing here freezing. So don't waste the time on looking for them."
He didn't argue this time. He found the least windy spot he could and savored the warm tea, trying not to think how long it might be before he had a chance at more.
"Katashan, I think we're going to have to go in on foot from here," Fordel said, coming up beside them. Cork gave a little sigh of frustration, though Katashan couldn't decide if that came from the interruption or the idea of walking.
"Probably wise," Katashan agreed. "The horses would like bolt closer to the magic, or else we'd need to use magic to hold them, and that would be a waste of power. It will mean less we'll need to ward as well. In fact, if just you and I --"
"No way in hell," Cork said, and the nearest two guards echoed him, though in less terse terms. "Begging your pardon, my Lord and Katashan, but there's no way we can let the two of you go up there without a guard. You have already said you don't know what you'll find. Maybe it'll all be magic and nothing I can do to help. But maybe it won't be, and you'll need guards while you do what you can to deal with the magic."
"He's right," Katashan said. "Best not to take any chances. It won't take us long to make the rest of the hike, even in this weather. A little magic can help to make the trail less wearing on us."
Fordel looked at him, head tilted for a moment. "Are you sure? You don't look up to a climb out of bed, let alone a climb up a mountain."
"The sleep helped, but the wild magic is giving me a headache. If we can do something about that damned storm, I think we'll both feel better for it."
He drank the last of his tea, and had a second cup to please Cork while the others gathered a few belongings for the hike. They traveled light, taking only cloaks and weapons, and a few flasks of liquids of varying types to help along the way.
They didn't bother to leave a guard on the horses and the supplies remaining at the camp. No one from the low ground would hike up towards the summit in this chaotic weather. Fordel used a little magic to settle the horses and then they headed back for the trail.
Unfortunately, the trail had a knee-deep covering of snow, with ice formed underneath, making it exceedingly treacherous to climb. Even the magic Fordel used didn't help much.
The wind blew with such a force it made talking impossible and Katashan could do nothing more than lean into the gale and follow in the footsteps of the others as they headed upwards to the pass.
The closer they came to the top, the louder the thunder grew and the brighter the lightning. It was, he suddenly realized, unwise to go any farther. He signaled a stop and no one argued. They huddled in a small semi-circle, flinching as the storm struck the already blackened trees not far up the trail from them.
"There is no way we'll ever be able to explain this as natural," Fordel said, waving a hand toward the area above them. "Damn."
Katashan nodded. He had seen the destruction of the trees, the burnt ground, and the twisted boulders that had been hit by lighting. This would add a layer of trouble to the situation, but only if they survived to leave this mountain. Looking at the storm, he thought it might be questionable, though he didn't say so aloud.
"Any suggestions?" Fordel asked, looking at him.
"I must get to the altar. No matter what, Verina is strong here, or else she would never have been able to direct me to the body . . . ah."
"Ah?" Cork asked, after a moment.
"That's our protection." He lifted his hand and tested, finally, the magic in the air. He could feel her presence, even over the other magic that had been battering the area for two days. "We need to reach her. She'll help us."
"You're certain?" Fordel said, looking upward with a frown.
"Yes," Katashan answered and felt certain of this if nothing else. "She wants this abomination away from her holy site. That was a mistake they made, to choose this place."
"We tend to think of the old gods as gone from here," Cork said. He started to stand first, having been with Katashan long enough to know it was time to move on. "That would be a mistake, I think."
"Very much so," Katashan said. "And that might give us a clue about what happened here, you know. It could be that we're looking for someone local who thought this just a convenient site, away from everyone and with a ready-made and unused altar. I had expected it to be someone from the outside, perhaps another northerner, since magic isn't well known here."
"Good point," Fordel said. "You might be right. We'll never make it past that storm, friend."
"Yes we will," Katashan said. He drew his ritual blade from beneath the layers of warm cloth and pulled back the edge of his shirt sleeve. His skin looked white with the cold.
"Kat," Cork said softly.
"I know what I'm doing."
He sliced before anyone could say more or move to stop him: A quick and deep cut this time -- already too cold to really feel much -- and he wove magic with the drops of blood and blowing snow, creating a shield as strong as he dared without leaving him so depleted he could neither hold the power nor move. The magic glowed around them with an ice-white light, substantial and strong, though little warmer, except the wind no longer blew against them. They had to reach the pass. They didn't have time to waste.
As they moved upward, Katashan could more clearly feel the power in the blasts of lightning around them. The magic it took to create this storm had leached nearly all life from the area and even from the ground itself. It would be years before anything grew here again.
Katashan led them straight towards the pass and the Verina statue, knowing they had little time. Magic drained from the ground around them and drained from him as well, slipping away with each step.
Climbing the last half mile would have been impossible for anyone but a heartblood mage whose innate magic gave him power. That power wasn't available to someone like Fordel, who had to pull most of his magic from outside himself. He could feel damned little magic left in the world -- but as they reached the final rise he could see the Verina statue, untouched by the storm and glowing with power of her own. She welcomed him, and he could feel her power like a warm breeze in this place of ice.
Lightning struck the shield, sending ripples of golden light over them, almost blinding him in a dangerously glorious show.
"Stay with me," Katashan warned. He laid the blade against his still bleeding wrist, and then lifted it and wrote runes in the air. They hung there, glittering red and adding a little more strength to the ice wall around them. "If you slip outside the shield, you'll be lost."
"You'll be dead is the plain way of saying it," Cork said, yelling above the crash of thunder. "Stay close! Your lives depend on it!"
Katashan didn't look back at his companions. He had to keep their goal in sight. He feared he would falter now, with others depending on him for protection. He'd failed too often before: the men on the ship when it sank; his wife and daughters when he wasn't there --
Fordel put a hand on his shoulder, and carefully fed him strength from his own magic hoard. He hadn't expected the help, and for a moment the shield flickered with blue light and cold wind -- but he steadied the power before danger found a way through.
"Sorry," Fordel said from behind him. The man sounded breathless already. "You weren't answering me and you weren't moving. We have to go on, Katashan. There's no turning back."
Katashan hadn't realized he'd stopped. He felt a lethargy trying to take hold of him, to drag him down the path of self-recriminations and loss. This had been a subtle attack. He slapped the feeling away with a wave of his hand and accepted the help from Fordel as they moved upwards again. They would reach what he hoped -- what he believed -- would be sanctuary in the next few steps.
The blackened stubs of trees stood around them, with little left for the lightning to strike except the bare ground. Much of the dirt had been fused into a glass-like surface, cracked and twisted in places by the repeated strikes. He saw boulders that had been shattered but the area around the Verina statue remained untouched.
If this had been summer, the entire mountain would have gone up in flames. Instead, the snow had melted, and fog and smoke hung in a perpetual swirl like the ghosts of the trees that had been lost. Each step proved to be treacherous, but brought them closer and closer. . . .
He didn't know how long he fought his way across to the Verina statue. The storm grew and he could feel the cold of the wind sometimes batter its way through his shield. Another step. Closer. He lifted his hand and touched the statue.
Mistake. . . .
Verina was not a dead goddess. She came to this place, disgusted and angered, to deal with the dark magic done on her sacred ground. She came in a very strong emanation of her power, real and intense, and not something even a strong mage should ever interact with, and especially without any warning.
Her power coursed through Katashan like a wave of fire, burning his body and soul. He distantly heard Fordel cry out. He sensed a surge in the storm as the enemy sensed weakness. People depended on him.
Goddess save them! Don't let the shield fall!
Fire, bright . . . and then darkness.