Continued from Tales from the Bog (IV): Owl and the Frost
Garric waited. He was standing still, surrounded by frozen brushes with icicles reaching down to the ground. He listened. Waited. And finally heard a swoosh of wings above. He raised his eyes and sure enough, a giant brown owl was gently, for its size, lowering itself on the ground in front of him. The bird hooted and pecked at its feathers before Garric heard a clear, deep female voice in his head.
“There is a small herd south east, past the pond.”
“Thank you, Mocks” Garric dove his hand into the white cloak he was wearing again and threw a bit of jerky towards the feathery figure. The giant owl caught it easily and swallowed it in one gulp, not without satisfaction. Garric took off south east immediately and before long he was already on the track of a herd of five deers.
This hunt was happening for the third day now, since Garric was able to move without wincing. Zvora sent him and Mocks out for game while she was out looking for signs of Kirsika, the wraith she promised Garric to hunt.
“I must be certain, for if I’m wrong, the wraith will escape again and this frost will continue.”
This was given to Garric as a reason to not go with Zvora immediately, despite his protests.
“Hunt as much game as you can. These parts are not completely barren yet and Mocks will help you” and with that Zvora reached out, touching Garric’s forehead again, but this time the halfling felt an itch in his head, which then popped and he could hear words in his head, but no one was speaking:
“You’re very small, you know” the voice said. Garric turned around. Zvora was simply smiling, her thin lips unmoving and the only other creature in the cave was Mocks, the giant owl. She pecked at the feathers of her wings and turned back to fix her giant yellow eyes onto Garric.
“But if lady demands it, I will help you hunt. You will need to keep up with those short legs of yours.”
“Coming from an oversized bird, this sounds funny. Can you actually stay hidden, or does everyone see you up there?”
“Now, now. You will need to learn to play nice together” Zvora stepped in, petting Mocks on the head: the giant owl looked normal size compared to the woman next to her “now go ahead and find some game. It should help you heal, Garric.”
“Thank you” Garric bowed a little bit before collecting his bow and quiver and making his way outside, Mocks behind him.
And so they were, a giant owl and a small halfling, tracking and hunting deer, rabbit and even a few racoons. At the end of every day, Mocks would fly carry the kill and Garric on her back to the cave, where Garric would skin and clean the kills, stretch them across two large sticks and lean them over the fire he made outside the cave in the snow, drying the meat in hours before wrapping it with rope and storing it away for the long journey back.
Every day, just after the sundown, Zvora would return, bringing all sort of curious items: a completely frozen lantern, emanating fog from the coldness of itself, some branches that also were unnaturally frozen, and bits of grey and blue cloth, dotted with frost instead of mould. All these items wouldn’t defrost even next to the fire but rather put out smaller fires on flaming sticks next to them.
“I found the trail” Zvora announced this time, when Garric was just done putting up another set of skinned carcass above the open fire. She returned, much like every time, without so much as a smudge or a scratch on her, perfect just the way she left “we are going, tonight.”
“Tonight?” Garric felt a pound of excitement in his chest “you mean right now?” the dusk passed and the only source of light suddenly became the roaring fire in front of cave’s mouth.
“Not at this moment” Zvora stood tall, dwarfing the size of the fire. When she looked down at Garric, he felt a shiver crawl down his spine and it wasn’t from the frost “you need to take a concentrate Vedere. Then we will go.”
“You know about them?” Garric instinctively felt the grey pouch of dry purple mushrooms in his pockets. The question suddenly rang hollow in his mind as possibly a goddess stood in front of him. Yet she didn’t seem insulted by his stumble with words.
“Give me two of them” she reached out her giant hand. Garric took out the pouch and put two miniature pieces on her palm. He watched her close her eyes and her hand suddenly lit up with green vine-like tattoos that were not visible before, but now were all over her perfect pale skin. As he looked with his eyes wide, the Vedere in her palm changed shape and slowly melt into dark liquid that pooled at the centre of her hand.
“Drink” she said, her voice sounding deeper than usual. Garric hesitated for a moment, looking at Zvora’s closed eyes and green vines snaking on through her skin. He didn’t know what she was, but he felt a sort of kindred spirit with her, something that drew him to her as he bent into her palm and slurped the dark purple liquid. It was bitter, but warm, as was her skin under his hands. When he swallowed the last drop, Garric felt the effect immediately, as the sounds and shapes flooded his mind, his gaze now piercing the darkness easily and for the first time, he heard a distant wailing, echoing through the scarce trees of the forest and rock formations. He listened in and focused on the wailing and the more he thought of it, the more unnatural it sounded, like two large razors grinding against each other, going all the way down to his soul and freezing it so he felt fear and hopelessness the more he listened.
“You hear it, don’t you?” Zvora’s voice brought him back to present, to the roaring fire and gentle hoot of Mocks. The wave of hopelessness receded as fast as it came on “first rule of hunting Kirsika: don’t listen to her wailing. Ignore it. It won’t affect you then.” Zvora stood up and unsheathed her sword “second rule: only silvered weapons will kill it. You can pin it down with yours, but it won’t be sent away permanently without silver.”
“Is there a third rule?” Garric inquired, gathering his arrows and hunting knife. Zvora let out a gentle laugh when sheathing her sword.
“Don’t let it touch you, lest you want to end up dead from frost.”
“Where does it come from exactly, this Kirsika?” Garric stood in front of Zvora and Mocks.
“Deep beneath the sea, as I told you” Zvora explained “it’s dark and cold there and Kirsika brings that frost to the surface, spreading it everywhere it goes. And if it stays long enough, well, the frost spreads too.”
“What makes it come out of the sea?”
For the first time, Zvora seemed hesitant to answer and Garric noted that. Yet she still knelt on what knee and looked at straight at him:
“Kirsikas don’t just come out of the depths. They are summoned or otherwise released from their dark tomb. Before you ask, I don’t know who or what brought the wraith here, but I do intend to find out. After it is dealt with.” Garric nodded in agreement.
“That will be a riveting conversation to have with anyone who did that” Zvora laughed and stood up.
“Indeed it will” she turned towards the darkness of the marsh “time to go hunting now. Mocks, observe our route from above. Garric, follow me. And keep up.”
As Mocks swooshed up into the darkening sky, Zvora and Garric made their way through the snow. The concentrated and quite probably magically enhanced Vedere gave Garric unprecedented carity of vision: he could see every nook and cranny of the bog, evade every little branch and ditch of ice on the way. He followed the large footsteps left by Zvora, who made large strides in deepening snow as they made their way through the night towards high cliffs behind which Garric knew was a way straight to the sea.
Through the thin forest they ran, Zvora ahead, giving Garric enough time to keep up with her. With his enhanced vision, the halfling was able to see they were following very distinct trail: tree branches or sometimes whole trees, rocks and bushes were frozen, not in the usual hoarfrost and icicles, but solid, white, emitting more frost from within. As they passed these landmarks, Garric could feel temperature plummeting, his eyes started watering from the wind, feet lost all sensation in them and his lips crackled. But none of it stopped him, even when the snow beneath him became solid ice and all vegetation and rocks around the cliffs and cliffs themselves became more akin to the ice statues humans would build during winter festivals in Meerstrand. Zvora didn’t turn back to check if he was still there, she didn’t need to. Mocks was flying high above them, Garric could hear every feather tickle each other in the wind. The sky around the cliffs was strangely clear, for the first time in months Garric could see stars gleaming and the young moon was showing its smooth edge, but still hiding the single eye. All the light was reflected onto glass-like ground and trees, giving the environment a strange, otherworldly glow. The temperature was low, Garric could feel it, as even breathing caused pain in his nose. He had to cover his mouth and nose with the collar of the cloak to keep his lungs from freezing.
They finally stopped in the shadow of the cliffs, tall enough to block the sky and any light that would come from the young moon, but completely frozen over, which gave them the impression of an immense glass wall. Here, in this ice wasteland, Garric could hear the wailing loud and clear, as well as feel the vibrations beneath his feet. The cold fear was thumping at his heart and mind, but Garric pushed the dark thoughts away, focusing on breathing and keeping the pace. Zvora stopped at a large mouth of a cave, which vented the misty frost from within itself. He stopped at the other side of the mouth, breathing deeply over the collar of the cloak. Mocks flew over and gently landed next to the halfling. He could see her feathers were ruffled as she shivered from the frost and possibly from the razor-like wailing sound coming from within the cave.
“It’s only going to get worse” Zvora said, looking at them both. She appeared untouched by the cold, only indication of the freezing weather on her was the steam coming out her mouth as she spoke and several snowflakes on the braid of her cinnamon hair that melted almost immediately.
“We came this far” Garric said over the collar.
“Agreed. Don’t forget: don’t get touched by it and do not by any means be distracted by its wailing. Mocks!” she turned her white gaze onto the giant owl “Keep flying and wait for my whistle. We will either get out together or not at all.”
The ominous way Zvora said that should have made Garric shiver, but he was so cold he couldn’t tell what his reaction was. He just felt a gentle bump on his head, which turned out to be Mocks landing her wing.
“Good hunting over there, little one”
“I’ll see you when we get out.”
With that, Mocks swooshed away and towards the sky. Zvora and Garric were the only living beings left, safe for the wailing creature inside the giant cave. Zvora took out her sword.
“Remember, you can only pin Kirsika, so use your arrows. Under no circumstances get too close to it. I will go first and try and restrain her.”
“Got it” Garric nodded, readying his bow with an arrow “we get out together, or not at all.”
“Well, if you see an opportunity to get out and I’m incapable of doing so, you should run” Zvora chuckled.
“I didn’t ask this before, but can you…die?” over the wailing, even with sharpened hearing, Garric couldn’t hear the low hmm coming from Zvora’s mouth.
“Not from this creature” she answered, readying her sword “but I can get injured badly. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Ready?”
They both moved at the same time, Zvora taking the front and Garric following in the back. The cave was just as frozen, Zvora had to lower herself a bit to not bump her head against the ceiling. It was darker than outside, wails here were loud and echoed from the walls, blowing dust of frost from the icy walls right at Garric’s face: he had to stop and bend forward often to keep himself on his feet when the wind blew. Witnessing this, Zvora knelt in front of him and traced a horizontal line on his forehead, which caused a wave of heat flushing down his body. Suddenly, Garric wasn’t cold anymore. Zvora put a finger on her mouth, shushing him before he could thank her and motioned to follow her slowly. They moved down the cave’s gullet, which became larger and larger with every step. There were no sources of light and the only reason Garric could see like in daylight was the concentrated Vedere coursing through his veins. Zvora didn’t seem to have a problem with darkness, no more than she had the problem ignoring the wailing, which was causing Garric heart-rending sorrow the closer they got to its source. His mind would trail off to Halftown, to the sick and dying and to his fellow rangers, images of their dead bodies in the snow flying through his mind that finally leapt to Noirin, her cold dead face and fiery locks frosted over. It took all he had in him to keep these images away.
They finally reached a turn in the gullet. Zvora peaked from around the corner, Garric doing the same from around her knee. What he saw was quite possibly going to haunt him in his dreams for the rest of his life. Around the corner, the cave expanded quickly, forming a dome, seizable enough for Zvora to stand up straight and still have enough room to jump up. The open dome was filled with frozen stalactites and in the middle stood…no, hovered, a creature Garric assumed was Kirsika: a ghostly, transparent skeleton, covered in tattered remains of a dress, holding a frost-oozing lantern, its ghostly skull maintaining a single eyeball that darted around violently, its jaw low and seemingly broken, wail coming out of it, as well as what could pass as dripping saliva that turned to slur of ice as soon as it touched the ground. The creature hovered half a meter off the ground, randomly turning and sneering at the emptiness around it, wailing never stopping for the moment.
Garric stared petrified at the horrific creature, its blueish white light burning into his memories and the razor-grinding wailing deafening his ears. The halfling only got woken up from this horror was Zvora’s warm, gentle hand touching his back and her calm gaze as Garric turned towards her. The feeling of horror receded as soon as he saw Zvora reassure him with her stern look.
“I will get closer and restrain it. That way, we can get a jump on it” the words rang in Garric’s mind. He nodded in silent agreement and steadied himself, bow at the ready, as Zvora, with sword in hand, slipped forward, hiding behind large boulders, staying out of sight. Garric watched the creature hover, following it with an arrow at the ready. He emptied his mind, thinking only of his breath and posture, which came easier now that he wasn’t shivering from the unnatual cold.
Then it started.
Zvora hid behind the closest boulder, closed her eyes for a second, then stepped out, vine tattoos glowing again. As soon as Kirsika saw her, the shriek that followed cut through Garric’s ears, making them bleed, but he didn’t twitch: he sent the first arrow, hitting its mark. It went right through the ghostly skull, but the wraith shrieked again, turning to see the sender of the arrow. It had no time though, since Zvora then spoke in a language Garric didn’t understand and in moments, the ground rumbled as thorny roots broke through the frozen ground and shot up, wounding around the wraith, immobilising it in place.
Garric aimed another arrow, but had to abandon his plan and duck behind a rock as the restrained creature shot a ray of white energy from its mouth towards Garric. It hit him in the shin as he was nearly behind a rock, causing him to wince in pain and loose the bow. Garric watched as his shin frosted over in the middle and the pain was immense, but he focused his thoughts on the hunt. He took out his shortsword and peeked out of his hiding place. Zvora ran towards the restrained wraith which was spewing white rays whilst wailing and shrieking harder than before. One jet of light almost hit the huntress, but her vine tattoos lit up again and appeared to absorb the deadly light, causing Zvora to take a knee. She shrugged it off fast, lifted herself up, avoiding another ray and moved closer to the wraith.
Just as Zvora got close, Kirsika pulled on its ghostly skeletal arm, restrained by multiple roots that were frosting over fast, broke out and slashed at the huntress, piercing her forearm as she instinctively lifted it to protect her face. As the wraith lifted her ghostly arm to slash again, Garric, limping from pain and possible frost necrosis, threw his shortsword at the wrath: it went through its arm and got stuck in the roots, but it was just enough to catch the wraith’s attention and in that split second, Zvora buried her silvered sword into its jaws.
The shriek that came after dazed Garric and he lost his footing, falling on the hard frosted ground. The light that came out of the cut wraith filled the cave, lasting for several minutes before subsiding. After some time that Garric couldn’t really tell, he came to, lifting himself up and peeking around: the roots were gone, only a pile of darkened bones and a rusted lantern laid in its place, together with Zvora kneeling next to them, holding on to her left arm. Garric stood up slowly, feeling numbness in his right leg. He limped over to Zvora and sat back down next to her. Strangely, the ice underneath them felt wet to the touch and water started dripping from stalactites.
“Are you alright?” Garric asked, trying to see the damage to her arm.
“I will be alright” she smiled at him, but then her gaze turned stern and looked over at the blackened bones “I am relieved it is over. We must burn the bones as soon as possible and throw the cinders back into the sea.”
“Is it possible it might return?”
“Not without some powerful magic” Zvora shook her head “but there are plenty of people and creatures in this world that would use Kirsika for their own ends. Best to not risk it” she stood up and showed him her forearm: it was perfectly healed “I’m better now. Let’s get out of here. You need that leg looked after, not to mention your people will be waiting. For you and spring to come.”
“Zvora” Garric swallowed, feeling he should come up with more respectful way to address her, but his words failed him “thank you, you know. For this and for helping me.” this caused the huntress to laugh honestly. Her mood became lighter immediately.
“You’re thanking me for getting you into a very dangerous situation. You’re a strange one, I’ll say.” she leaned over the bones and hovered her hand above them: they immediately burst into blue flame. Then she touched Garric’s leg and after a few waves of heat, he felt it coming back to normal. Vedere was also wearing off, so he could see the world as it was: an impenetrable darkness in the cave, only the burning bones giving out a bluish light. Garric took out a small torch from his pouch and lit it from the flames, illuminating the cave.
The ice around started malting faster, causing small streams running along the cracks in the ice. The bones burned down remarkably fast and as it finished, Zvora collected the ashes into a small pouch and put tem inside her pelted purse.
They both left the cave with springs in their step. The marsh in front of them was melting fast, streams large and small forming in the ice while all trees were dripping with water. For the first time in months, Garric saw the light of dawn, not realising how much time passed for them in the darkness of the cave. This sunrise was the most beautiful thing he’d seen.
Zvora called Mocks that came down eagerly. She helped Garric to get on top of the owl.
“Will I see you again?” Garric asked the burning question. Finally, standing on top of Mocks, him and Zvora were roughly at eye level. The huntress smiled.
“I am many things, but I’m not clairvoyant, so I don’t know” she pet Mocks gently “but I will leave you with a remarkable companion. She will be good to you, if you take care of her.”
“Thank you again” Garric lowered his gaze to the melting ground “I don’t know how I can repay you.”
“You don’t need to do anything of the sort” Zvora gently lifted his chin up to face her “although I’m not clairvoyant, I have a gut feeling I will hear of your deeds again. Have a safe trip home, young Garric.”
Zvora took a step back and watched the giant owl and little halfling take off into the warming air. A thin smile was present on her lips all the time until the silhouette of the bird left her view.
Garric enjoyed feeling the warm breeze on his face for a change. He saw patches of dark land peeking out of the white frost below him and he instantly felt lighter and, for the first time in many days, happier. As the sun rose up from the horizon, he leaned forward and said to Mocks:
“Let’s pick up the game we hunted and head back to Halftown. Do you know where it is?”
“Everyone knows where Halftown is” the steady female voice rang in his head and he chuckled.
“I see it’s no secret then. I think you will like it. There will be loads of jerky there once we return.”
“Will you see your ranger friends too?”
“I hope so” Garric swallowed, burying his face in tender feathers “look out for them on the way, ok?”
As they made their way back to Halftown, Garric thought about how he would be met and if the other rangers are alive. If Noirin is alive. He didn’t know, he worried, fidgeted and looked down to the marshes often. He hoped.
Only one thing he no longer worried about: Halftown, his people, will survive. And thrive.
Featured picture credit: Wooded view near Barbizon by Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1900. Currently displayed in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.