Pavil crouched in the dark chamber of ice, touching the walls on either side. It was too cold out and they had burrowed into the snowbanks to escape freezing to death. Inspired by the oroc cages, crafted of earth beneath the giant exposed roots of the Rocmire trees, he and Malec had made an icy shelter. Tightly packed walls, patted down until the ice was so dense it was blueish black, surrounded them in their makeshift shelter. The principle was the same they had used many times as kids making snow forts back home.
Surprisingly, the chamber was warm. Dirty furs were spread across the floor and the lower portion of the walls, making the chamber soft as well as insulating. Pavil ran his hands through them, marveling at how long they had been lost in the forest, to have collected so many hides. This temporary chamber had been their home for two weeks and would be till the midwinter cold snap was done.
Malec was out, taking his turn checking the snares and traps they had planted up in the trees. They had set snares on the ground before, but with the heavy snows, they were too obvious. Catching a fox or other winter quarry wasn’t worth the risk of an oroc noticing the trap. Pavil carefully poked his head out, checking on Malec’s progress. Pavil was constantly hungry; the sparse meals they caught were never enough to actually fill his belly. But they were alive, which was more than he had expected when they first realized the oroc patrols were forcing them deeper into the forest, away from the human border. The sun had finally come out, glittering on the soft white draped over the Rocmire, but it was too cold for it to begin melting. Instead it only made the cold a stark contrast, the smell of the snow all that much more cold.
Shivering in his furs, Pavil watched a bunny hop nervously down the game trail. It had sensed them, but it was, like them, hungry. It occurred to him to wonder what bunnies ate in the middle of winter, and why this particular one wasn’t hibernating. Did rabbits hibernate? He didn’t care; he was too hungry. He stared at the bunny intently. Maybe he could lull it, get them a surprise meal.
The rabbit stopped, staring through the white trees off to the east, ears and whiskers twitching. Pavil heard the sound that had caught the rabbit’s attention a second later—heavy footsteps crunching through the layer of ice over the snow. He crept out of their hidden ice house, careful to smooth over his footprints as he went, trying to figure out where the sound had come from. Their hiding spot was carefully chosen, sitting between several trees. Anyone passing through would naturally walk around their spot, without actually coming anywhere near it. It could be anything, though, not just orocs. It could even be a ravager, some beast twisted by a Heart Shard it had consumed.
Circling west, he kept his footsteps quiet by stepping into the clear spots underneath the trees and easing his way around tree branches heavily laden with snow. He dragged a fur behind him, erasing his tracks. Fluting voices echoed through the clearing, and oroc laughter. He froze, halfway to Malec, scanning the trees for the creatures. They had gone silent. So far, though, he couldn’t see them. Hopefully they couldn’t see him either.
His heart pounding, as quietly as he could, he reached Malec’s side behind a drooping pine tree. Taking a breath, he whispered to his friend. “Did you hear them?”
Malec grabbed him, pushed a fur under the snow, then carefully slid it over both of them. He shifted his shoulders, settling the snow over them, leaving only a tiny peephole to watch the outside world. “Shh.” The orocs came into view.
The creatures’ colors had faded with the season. Camouflaging themselves in the colors of winter trees, their leaves lay on their bodies in dull browns and blacks. They even seemed thinner with the foliage draped loosely around them, though they were still immense compared to a human.
Looking around, the orocs eyed the game trail. Pavil bit back a gasp. Malec glared at him again and elbowed him to be quiet.
Tense seconds passed as Pavil held in the gasp that tried to escape as a whoosh of terrified air. After so long running from these creatures, to be so close and not be spotted seemed impossible. The creatures could probably even sense that they were here.
Malec glared at him again, as if by merely glaring, he could stem the tide of rising panic that threatened to choke Pavil.
One of the orocs bent down and picked up a handful of snow, sniffing at it. He turned to his companions, dangling it from his fingers and gesturing toward the trees. The sense of dread spiked in Pavil’s chest. They had to run. They had to get out of here. But they couldn’t. Movement would give them away for sure.
Placing his hand on Pavil’s shoulder, Malec held him in place as if to say that they were dead if they tried to run. There was only one thing they could do, Pavil acknowledged: wait and pray they weren’t caught. But the orocs were Geists. There was no way they could be this close and not sense the boys’ spirits. It couldn’t end like this. There had to be something they could do. Something he could do.
The oroc dropped the snow and laughed at something one of his companions said. He gestured vaguely in the direction that Pavil and Malec were hiding. Malec’s hand tightened on his shoulder. Pavil squeezed his eyes shut, thinking furiously. There was only one thing he could do, and it was something he had never tried before. Leaning his face to the side slowly, he carefully touched Malec’s hand with his cheek. He drew upon his Pathos power, careful to not let it spill over, to keep it contained.
The oroc conversation stopped, the clearing was silent. Pavil opened one eye and peeked out. The oroc harvesters had all stopped. They were scanning the trees. Pavil unleashed his power. He and Malec were flooded with a surge of Pathos, overwhelming both of their emotions until there was nothing there. No panic, no worry, just utter calm; pure emotionless spirits. Simultaneously, he reached away from the orocs, slamming his emotions into the biggest creatures he could find.
A loud crashing sound came from outside the clearing. The orocs hurriedly closed ranks, forming a circle, watching the trees suspiciously. Crunching sounds, ice being broken by trampling feet, filled the air, and forms came into view. rocwolves, giant canines that stood five feet tall at the shoulder, padded into the clearing. The white and gray furred beasts growled when they saw the orocs, exposing deadly fangs.
The wolves circled the clearing, working their way menacingly toward the orocs. Backing up slowly and carefully, the orocs brandished their clubs, warily retreating. They fanned out into a semicircle, keeping the wolves from flanking them. The lead wolf snarled and lunged forward.
Swinging its club in a smooth arc, the point oroc smashed a stone into the wolf’s shoulder, sending it flying. Pavil stoked the fear and rage in the animal. It sprang back to its feet as the rest of the pack watched the alpha.
The orocs sped up their retreat as the pack attacked. The orocs were careful to not kill any of the wolves, batting them about like puppies, but never landing fatal blows. With precise discipline, the skirmish moved backward. Finally, the sounds of the fight were distant, then gone. Pavil let out a huge sigh and stood up, releasing the power he had been pushing.
Cold shocked him as his knees gave out and he slumped back down to sit in the snow. He was starving. Pushing his power may have been a bit much on an empty stomach. Malec pushed the fur back, shaking off the snow, staring at his friend in wonder. “What did you do?”
Pavil shrugged. “Dunno. I just, um, threw our emotions.” He pushed himself back up to his feet, being careful to not overdo it this time.
“What do you mean threw?” Malec tossed the fur over his shoulder and grabbed Pavil’s arm. Pavil was wobbling in place.
Pavil’s vision was going fuzzy. “Um, I grabbed everything in us, like panic, fear, anger, and stuff. Then I just chucked it at the biggest pack of nearby emotion I could find that wasn’t the orocs. Malec, I’m really hungry. Like, really, really hungry.”
Malec sprang forward, catching Pavil as he collapsed. Studying his friend, Pavil realized that Malec’s cheeks were sunken. He looked emaciated. Pavil wondered if he looked the same, perhaps worse judging by his friend’s expression. Carrying him carefully, Malec brought Pavil back to their shelter. Was this what Elder Proumin had talked about, what seemed a lifetime ago? Pavil didn’t need his Pathos to feel the fear from his friend.
“I’ll find us something to eat.” Malec left the shelter again and Pavil drifted to sleep, knowing that whatever food Malec was likely to find, it wouldn’t be enough to replenish the energy he had spent saving them.
Klithissala Kai Dren
Klithissala carefully stepped through the scorched remnants of the human settlement. Cold air blew past her, making her scales shift from a lighter green to midnight green. The wreckage of Jaegen lay around her, a charred skeleton: black beams and stone poking up through the year’s last snow. Around her, in a small circle, the snow melted, the heat from her Mah’Kali casting a wide circle.
The robes were uncomfortable, pulling at her body with their weight, but they were needed. In the winter months, outside of the deserts, all of the ifrahn tribes wore the Mah’Kali. There just wasn’t enough heat in the cold lands. She adjusted the robes, using both her Archon and Volcon magics, shifting, then warming the sand of her home desert, packed tightly into a thin layer between the fabrics in the robe.
Blessed warmth emanated from the sands, heating her veins. Sluggish thoughts sped back up, and she walked forward into the wreckage. The only part of her feet exposed to the elements were the wide hooked talons, excellent in the deserts, but difficult in the cold lands. Last fall they had manipulated the orocs into attacking this village, but it seemed their plan had failed. The Quantus lived. It was apparent. A Psion of unrivalled magnitude had been altering the entire region, forcing people to strange decisions since the raid. Only the Quantus could accomplish that on such a scale to stretch from the castle to the heart of the forest.
Klithissala studied the ruins and the patterns it held. Everything possessed patterns, but some proved difficult to perceive. Her tongue flicked in thought, tasting the cold, fresh air as she considered the reports from her scouts. The battle at Castle Drayston hadn’t gone as planned. It should have been the final spark to catch the tinder, the final piece of kindling on the pyre.
A winter campaign was not easy for her people, but the Quantus could not be allowed to emerge. This village had been the prophesied one’s home. She hissed and scratched at the ground. She believed in the Pattern, not the Prophesies, and this winter’s war was like a blizzard in the sands. The pattern was to kill the Quantus every century, and prophesy showed them where it was born. Even so … was it not just another aspect of an affinity? She gathered her thoughts, focusing. What was important was this mission, this moment. Not to question.
The shards said the Quantus still lived. She knew what had gone wrong. Watching from the shadows, providing the final tinder to spark the village during the attack, she had seen the orocs carry the hatchlings away. Would that she could have shared her knowledge with the forest dwellers. Or even with her own people …
Her plans were as sand under the wind. One could pile them as high as they wished, and the slightest breeze might scatter them to the dunes without warning. In much the same way, the fire the ifrahn wielded possessed a chaotic spirit, as like to burn the caster as the victim. This plan, this course of action, was in danger of burning her tribe. Was in danger of burning the whole world. She wasn’t sure what she sought here. It had been eight months since the village had been razed and the Quantus had escaped. Perhaps some clue. Something she had missed before.
She snatched up a blackened log and snapped it. The wood crumbled to ash between her talons, and she let the wind steal it from her palm. Drawing upon her Archon power, she spun the shasun blades attached to her outer robes, whirling them through the floating ash. She briefly touched the Prios crafted amulet hanging from her neck, but nothing was revealed. Ash floated and fell. Her tongue flicked out, tasting the smell of winter.
They had studied the humans for many sheddings, since the destruction of the tribes by the Dreadknights some thirty years before. Cycles of the snows in the cold lands had come and gone, the softskins unaware of being observed. They had been so sure the Quantus had been here. They had studied and studied, trying to find it, but had taken too long. They had been forced to just wipe out the village. The risk was too great otherwise.
What had they missed, then? Where had the pattern coiled awry? These humans were a fragile, fleeting species in the baking sands of Scaladrin, where weakness brought swift death. Yet here, the humans defied the natural order and cast themselves up as lords and kings over nature. This could not be abided any longer.
As she prowled by the split trunk of a ruined, charred tree, one talon grated over a larger, round lump of bone. Cold ran up her foot, a shock to her system. Klithissala hissed to herself and waved. The snow at the base of the tree melted away, revealing a human skeleton. Her tongue flicked out, tasting the air. She took up the skull and inspected it, her red-and-brown scales contrasting its ivory hue. Staring deeply into the empty eye sockets, she stroked the skull.
“Why did you protect the Quantus as it coiled among you?” she whispered. “Did you feel the shadow of your doom? Did you know you were marked for death? Of course you didn’t. You should have let it go.”
A flex of her talons crushed the skull to shards. Drawing upon her Archon power once more, she spun the shasun blades as she tossed the remnants of the skull. She touched the amulet. As the fragments dropped, she studied how they fell into the snowmelt, which had already begun to freeze over. The three largest shards settled on the outside of the pile, dagger-like tips all aimed in opposing directions. She regarded these with fascination, knowing exactly where they pointed.
Two toward the Rocmire. One toward Castle Drayston.
Klithissala flicked her tongue, thinking on both destinations. She sucked through her nostrils, scenting smoke on the wind. Good. Smoke from fire. Patterns within patterns. She wove in place for a while longer, turning over an imagined hourglass in her mind, weighing the balance of the blood-red sand within it. It might take longer than they’d planned, but she knew what would come.
“The Quantus will be stopped, no matter what the price of blood is,” she hissed as she slithered away, leaving the ruins to the carrion and cold.
The worst of the cold was over. Snow still clung desperately to branches and thinly coated the ground, fighting the coming spring. Wildlife skittered around the forest, breaking the silence of the long winter as the animals started waking for spring. Even the smells of fresh growth floated through the air, despite the snow and ice. Malec led the way forward, trying to find a path for the two boys to use.
Pavil’s stomach growled. He felt like he had been hungry for months. He had been, in truth, though neither he nor Malec were starving. He wondered, and not for the first time over the months since their escape, what it’d be like to starve to death, which seemed increasingly likely.
It had almost happened to him during the rocwolves escapade. He grimaced, remembering that afternoon. He had slept for days afterward, and in the weeks since awakening he had been having troubles controlling his emotions.
It was all Malec’s fault, of course. He’d agreed with Pavil’s escape plan, intending to get help for the other prisoners. Being the smart one in their bunch, Malec should’ve known better and pointed out all the flaws in the idea. Malec’s fault, for sure.
As he followed Malec through a thick patch of thorny weeds, Pavil shivered and hugged himself in a futile attempt to get warm. Their mad dash through the forest had reduced his nightclothes to little more than tattered rags. Every day—every week—since, they had gotten a bit worse. They both wore hide wraps, gathered from the little bit of wildlife they had managed to bring down. Pavil had also collected vines to tie tanned scraps around their feet, but these only did so much given the wintry conditions. His fingers and toes had gone numb long ago, and he kept pinching his face to make sure the skin hadn’t been scoured off it by the wind. Neither of them had been willing to risk a fire at any point during the long winter months.
His stomach growled again.
“I thought you said you never get lost,” he grumbled at Malec’s back. They’d been traveling for nearly two days since the last group of oroc hunters had almost stumbled across their hiding place. It hadn’t been as close as the time with the rocwolves, but it had been close enough. Malec claimed the oroc camp sat just a day’s walk inside the forest, and the camp was only a four-day walk from here. Head north, and they’d be clear in no time. But the packs of oroc hunters kept driving them further and further away from the direction they wanted to go.
“I don’t get lost,” Malec said, voice tight.
“Then why are we still in the forest? It’s been months!”
“Because of the orocs, Pavil. And today because of the river. I know we’re going southeast, but unless you want to swim across here and freeze to death, we’ve got to keep following it until we reach a spot shallow enough to cross, or find a bridge of some kind. With all the oroc patrols, we’re lucky we haven’t been caught. It’d be worse if we turned around.”
Pavil eyed the river. It was still frozen over long stretches. Though water gurgled beneath, it looked like the ice was still thick. “Why don’t we just cross the ice?”
Malec sighed and paused, brushing some slush off the furs protecting his feet. “Too thin. I can tell. So unless you want to go back and try to sneak past the orocs, we’ve got to keep going south.”
“Voids, Malec, how do you even know what direction we’re going? We’ve been trapped in this stupid forest for half the winter.”
Malec stomped, finished clearing the slush, and walked forward again. “I’m a Magnus, idiot.”
“What does that have to do with anything? And Malec, you’re not a real Magnus yet—”
Malec let go of a pine branch he’d bent aside and it whipped back into Pavil’s head. Slush from the bough splashed all over his face and he got a mouthful of snow. Pavil sputtered, slapping at his face and howling in frustration.
“Shut up,” Malec spun around and cupped his hand over Pavil’s mouth. “You want every oroc for leagues to hear you—”
Pavil dove to tackle the other boy, sending them both crashing through the wet branches. Malec pulled his hand away and jumped aside, letting Pavil sail past, tumbling down the incline he’d failed to notice just beyond.
Pavil lay panting at the bottom of the shallow gully, staring up at the sky. Ice and snow coated him, numbing his skin, and his temper. A flash of red caught his eye and he turned his head to get a better look. Blurry green and red splotches resolved into a bush laden with hundreds of crimson berries. He rolled to his hands and knees and scrambled over to the bush.
Malec shouted, “No!” as Pavil grabbed a fistful of the small berries. Malec slid down the slope and slapped the berries away just before Pavil stuffed them into his mouth. “Those are—”
Pavil loosed a squeaky roar and launched himself at the other boy. He successfully tackled Malec this time. They rolled through the snow and thick undergrowth, scraping and scratching themselves raw as they tried to get in a good shot on the other. Neither of them was hitting particularly hard. Both realized, that despite being frustrated with each other, neither was actually angry and their blows slowed.
A woman’s voice rang clear through the cold air. “I would think that the two of you would be better served spending your energies hunting rocboars. Do you really hate each other so much?”
Pavil and Malec froze. A silhouetted form, the sun bright behind her, stood atop a snowcapped boulder and gazed down at them. They released each other and scrambled to their feet. Both of them stood awkwardly for a moment, rearranging furs and brushing dirt and snow off themselves. The woman watched them, a smile twitching at the edge of her lips. The sun silhouetted her, catching her platinum hair but leaving the rest of her in shadow.
Pavil recovered from his embarrassment first. He looked up at the woman, eyeing her critically. Her height was the only thing average about her. Her lithe, muscled form and demeanor spoke of nobility. He took a step up the incline, drawn to this mystery woman. Teenage hormones flared in his blood, but he didn’t know what to say.
“No closer,” the woman commanded in an unfamiliar accent. She wore a patchwork of earth-toned clothing with mismatching leather armor and the occasional steel plate sewn in place.
Pavil halted. The woman dropped gracefully from the boulder, landing lightly on the forest floor. Locks of sandy blonde hair curled out from under her hood, framing high cheekbones and thick lips. A couple of quick steps brought her to the bottom of the slope. She smiled wryly. “A Pathos and a Magnus … little more than boys, in the middle of the Rocmire?” She walked a wide circle around them.
Pavil turned his head to track her movements. “Who are y—”
“Hush,” the woman said, continuing her inspection. After a few more steps, she paused and crossed her arms. “You two look like you have had a rough week.”
“Try a few rough months,” Pavil muttered.
“You’re a Prios,” Malec said, fists clenched at his side. After months of the two of them fighting to survive in the forest, he found himself wary of the human contact. Trust was not coming easily to him.
The woman smiled but stayed quiet, sharp eyes glittering.
“How’d you know that?” Pavil asked. He was certain Malec had never met the woman before.
Malec rolled his eyes. “How else would she know what we are? She’s like Elder Proumin was.”
Pavil’s leg twitched and he almost tackled Malec again. Almost. But the woman’s presence inspired him to act a little more dignified.
“And I’m not the only perceptive one here, am I?” she asked, continuing to study the two boys. “How’ve you come to this place? What’re you called by?”
“I’m Pavil and this is Malec. We were taken—”
“Don’t tell her anything,” Malec said. He shifted slightly, keeping her in his line of sight.
The woman pursed her lips and tilted her head, giving them an innocent, but concerned, look. She stepped forward between them, taking a step up the slope, then turned to face them again. Pavil was entranced, but Malec’s emotions made Pavil feel like a mouse being batted between the paws of a cat.
“We’ll be going now.” Malec turned away, while Pavil shuffled in place. Malec paused to grab Pavil’s shoulder, dragging him along.
A dozen figures dressed in garb similar to the woman’s emerged from behind the shrubs, rocks, and trees all around them. Pavil had no clue they’d been there, but Malec’s expression of frustration said he hadn’t been so unaware.
“A couple of months, you say?” The woman asked, sounding amused. “You definitely look like you have had a rough winter.” She stepped forward and flicked Malec’s dirty furs. Her nose crinkled. “You smell like it, too. Aren’t you hungry?” Pavil’s stomach growled loudly.
“No,” Malec said, still facing the direction he’d chosen.
“Yes,” Pavil said simultaneously.
Malec glanced over his shoulder and shot him a dark glare. He mouthed the word outlaws, then gritted his teeth.
“What? I am.” Pavil shuffled his feet and shrugged, looking away from Malec. He wasn’t feeling any hostility from the outlaws, just wariness, and hunger was overriding prudence at the moment.
“Wonderful,” the woman said. “I am Sibyl Nan, humble leader of these ever so quiet fellows. We’ll see you safely back to our camp.” Sibyl turned and held out a hand, motioning to her band. The men split into two groups, some behind, some ahead. As they started forward, Malec scowled at Pavil once more before falling in step.
They continued along the river for another hour, following its bends and icy shore. The couple of times they were forced away from the banks, they didn’t go far enough into the forest to lose sight of the water. They finally reached a massive fallen tree that spanned the river. Green moss peeked through the patches of snow covering the fallen pine. The troup carefully crossed the tree single file, the boys in the middle, then spread back out. They followed the river for a short while longer, then turned and headed north into the forest.
Pavil’s stomach protested its emptiness almost constantly. After a while, one of their escorts edged over and offered what looked like a brown stick. Pavil eyed it warily until the man laughed and bit a chunk off.
“Rocboar jerky,” he said through the mouthful. “Give it a try.”
After a first nibble of the tough, salty meat, Pavil’s eyes grew wide. It tasted better than anything he had ever eaten. He devoured half the dried meat and sighed in contentment. Malec watched from the corner of his eye. Pavil really wanted to eat the rest, but friendship won out over hunger. He handed the rest to Malec.
Malec raised his eyebrows, silently asking if he was sure. Pavil nodded, and Malec reached out and took the jerky, hungrily biting into it. He didn’t finish it as fast as Pavil had, but it was close.
Pavil looked to the chuckling man while Malec chomped on the jerky. “Thank you. What’s your name?”
“Jaimson,” he said with a nod. “Lial Jaimson.”
“Interesting accent,” Malec said, picking at his teeth while they walked. “I don’t recognize it.”
“I don’t hail from Promencia originally.”
“Where then?” Pavil asked.
“Levant.” Jaimson was tall and wiry, and with that revelation, Pavil noticed that his olive complexion and features didn’t look like anyone he had seen before.
“Never heard of it,” Pavil said. Malec grunted agreement, trudging along next to Pavil.
“Not many around here have.” Jaimson went quiet as a voice hollered through the forest ahead of them. One of the men returned the call. “We’re close to camp. Won’t be long now.” Jaimson quickened his pace and joined Sibyl up front, where they quietly exchanged words.
Soon they came to a thick wall of trees that appeared impenetrable. The group led them to a small gap between two trunks, where they slipped through one at a time. Pavil followed Malec into the hole and stopped short once he emerged on the other side. The smells of roasting pig hung thick in the air. How’d he not notice it until just then?
His mouth watered as he took in the sights. A large clearing sat within a ring of entangled trees. Cook fires blazed and small earthen shelters sat in random spots around the area. No snow covered the ground. The grass didn’t even look damp. At the clearing’s center, a stone dome rested atop a ring of smooth columns. Several people sat underneath this in poses of deep meditation.
A hand pushed at Pavil’s back, and he stumbled forward, making way for the people behind him. For the first time in months, Pavil wasn’t cold.
Sibyl stood before the boys, a fist planted on a hip. “Welcome to the home of the Admired.” She flourished her other arm at the camp. “Get some food and rest. Then you can tell us what brought you into our forest—and convince us whether you ought to remain, or if we should dump you back where we found you.”