When Storm woke up the next morning he discovered Lorelei had crawled over next to him sometime during the night and was once again curled up next him, her head on his shoulder. His arms were wrapped around her, their legs tangled together under the blanket. He blinked his eyes to clear away the sleep then flipped the blanket back off their heads.
A cold shower of snow landed on his face.
“Aaah,” she yelled as it cascaded over her too. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to get up,” he cursed, wiping snow from his face and beard. More snow landed on them. “Ungh!” He sat up, wincing as the arm Lorelei had been lying on tingled painfully. He wind-milled it slowly, trying to work some life back into it as he looked around.
Winter had arrived with a vengeance.
The ground was covered by nearly a foot of snow, hiding all traces of the previous night’s life and death struggle. Only the fire, still smoldering, was free of snow. The branches of the trees around their camp were bent almost to the ground under their icy coating. The air was so cold it burned his lungs when he inhaled. He craned his neck stiffly looking up; the overcast sky was threatening more snow before long.
He levered himself up with a grunt. “It’s colder than a banker’s heart,” he cursed. He stomped through the knee-deep snow looking for the firewood they’d stacked by the fire the night before. He plunged his hands into the icy powder, shivering violently as he pulled it free. He looked around.
A foot deep?
It was closer to three feet, two cubits deep.
He began piling wood on the fire, casting a wary glance at the sky. Turning his attention to the fire he blew carefully on the glowing embers, coaxing them back to life. The frozen wood didn’t want to burn but he kept at it. Eventually, his persistence was rewarded with a warm blaze. He rubbed his hands briskly over the heat.
He turned his head when he heard Lorelei finally climbing out of their impromptu snow cave. “Yikes,” she gasped, hurrying over to the fire. “It was summer yesterday!”
“That was before we got run over by the Leader and his pet demon,” he observed sourly. “Now the gods are doing the same thing.”
“I didn’t know they ever stopped,” someone grumbled behind them.
They turned around to see Ralt stomping his way through the snow with a morose expression. Storm laughed in spite of himself. “Well said, oh mighty wizard! We’ll make a barbarian out of you yet.”
“Does it keep you any warmer than being a part-elven wizard?” he half-snarled, rubbing his hands over the fire.
“No. But it teaches you a lot of great curses.”
“Dwarven curses are much more effective,” Durin interjected as he straightened up from their makeshift lean-to. Storm saw it wasn’t much more than a few boards from the wagon propped against each other and covered with a blanket. Thomas was emerging from it too. “Barbarian curses lack style. There’s no poetry to ‘em.” He threw his head back and bellowed in Dwarvish, shaking his fists at the sky. He dropped his arms. “Now there’s a curse for ye,” he told them with a grin.
“But what’s it mean?” Thomas asked as he joined them around the fire.
Durin eyed him owlishly. “Trying saying it to another dwarf some day and ye’ll find out,” he leered. They could see Thomas turning it over in his mind, apparently none the worse for the wear from his harrowing brush with death. Durin laid a restraining hand on his arm. “On second thought, you better not. I don’t want yer death on me conscience.”
Thomas shrugged casually. “Sure, whatever you say.” He clapped his hands briskly, rubbing them over the fire. “So – what happened? Did we win?”
A pall dropped over them, wiping away the good humor of a moment before. Thomas’ smile faltered. “What happened?” he asked again. “Where is everyone?”
“You’re looking at us,” Storm told him grimly. He smiled bitterly at Thomas’ stunned expression. “We got our butts kicked. We killed the demon but we were too late. It tossed Krista’s soul box up to somebody who was flying around overhead. Ralt tried to stop him with a fireball but he was too far away. All we saw was a shape flying off into the clouds.”
“We think it was the Leader,” Lorelei added.
Thomas was in shock. “Everyone else is dead?” he whispered. “Sodan too?”
“Everyone,” Durin confirmed gruffly.
“What about Krista’s body?”
Storm hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the destroyed wagon. “Probably under there somewhere. We haven’t looked.”
“We should find her,” Thomas said. “See if she’s alright.”
Storm found himself wondering at his urgency but shook his head firmly. “No. She either is or she isn’t. First, we have to dig out our winter clothes before we freeze to death. Then we find the horses then we look for Krista.”
As it turned out they found Krista’s coffin before they found anything else. Her coffin had been spilled out the back of the wagon when the guardsman crashed down on top of it. Aside from a few gouges in the wood, it was intact. Krista’s body also appeared to have come through the battle unscathed when they opened it to peer inside. It was the first time Storm had seen her. She was fairly pretty, slender, with brown hair matching Ralt’s. It was hard to tell when she was lying down but he judged her to be of average height.
Satisfied with Krista’s condition they resumed their search for warmer clothes. They dug through the snow everywhere they saw a lump that might be a packing crate. The deep powder hindered their movements and they frequently returned to fire to warm themselves up before returning to the search. Eventually, Thomas found the right crate by the simple expedient of stubbing his toe on it as he kicked his way through the heavy snow. The garments were frozen of course but a half-hour spread in front of the fire thawed them out and everyone gratefully dove into the heavy clothes and fur-lined boots.
Finding the horses proved much easier.
When the demon attacked they’d run straight away from it, right into the swiftly moving water at the base of the waterfall. Their legs hobbled, the horses hadn’t had a chance in the icy water. Several could be seen at the bottom of the deep pool under the waterfall. The rest were further down river, snagged on boulders or washed up on shore. Only two of them had survived; Arthur’s horse and one they’d taken from the bandit’s hideout.
Storm’s heart gave a painful thump when he found Specter’s body. He’d been hoping the big war-horse had survived by some miracle, but the dead eyes shattered his hope completely. He trudged back to camp, kicking fitfully at drifts of snow.
He’d seen several deer tracks this morning too. With the first heavy snow, they were moving down the mountains into the lower elevations for their winter feeding grounds. He knew it meant the wolves who preyed on them would be on the move as well, following their food wherever it went. Depending on how recently they’d fed, they could either be a menace or not. If he’d been with a large caravan he wouldn’t have given it a second thought. As it was, with their strength reduced to five, wolves could definitely be a problem.
Only two horses.
How are we going to do this? He turned it over glumly in his mind. Five people plus Krista’s coffin meant a minimum of six horses. As the crows flies they were 90 leagues from Robling. Gaian leagues were about the same length as miles so on the winding mountain roads it was well over 100 miles. A rider on horseback could get there in three days of hard, very hard riding if he didn’t mind killing his horse to do it – on a clear flat road. A caravan, moving slower, could manage the distance in eight days if they didn’t mind damaging some of their cargo. But on foot, in deep snow . . . they’d be lucky to make three leagues a day, probably less.
He growled in frustration.
They could head back to Breckinridge of course. They had plenty of money, bags of it. But would anyone be willing to sell? Winter was just beginning but farm folk like those had to look ahead to the spring. Fields didn’t plow themselves. Without teams of horses to pull the plows they might starve. Storm shook his head. No, it didn’t seem likely anyone in Breckinridge would be willing to part with their horses, no matter how much they were offered. You couldn’t eat gold after all. Besides, this was Ingold, the kingdom famous for its numerous gold mines. Gold wasn’t exactly a novelty around here.
All of this was just idle speculation though, he told himself. Without Krista’s soul, there was no point in going on to Robling. Lamriack couldn’t heal her without it.
So what do we do?
The question plagued him all the way back to the camp.
When he got there he discovered the rest of them had been plunged into the same gloomy thoughts. Their next task did nothing to improve their mood.
They dug through the snow until they found all the bodies – and body parts – of their dead companions. The demon hadn’t been a tidy killer. He’d flung bits and pieces of the guards, and Sodan, to the four winds. Locating them was a gruesome task.
The worst though was Dolgun. He’d chopped at himself with his sword until he dropped, then bled to death. “Insanity of some kind, inflicted by the demon’s last spell,” Ralt told them. “Who knows what horrors he imagined were on him to make him do that to himself. I don’t envy him. It must have been a horrible way to die.”
They piled the bodies together in a heap, then poured oil over them and set it ablaze. Storm tried to find the right words to say but nothing came to mind. In the end, he just stood there, watching the funeral pyre burn itself out.
The others stood there with him, then followed him silently back to camp.
Ralt brewed some tea for them. They sat around for a while, each of them alone with their thoughts. It had started snowing again, adding to their depression.
It was Thomas who finally broke the long silence. “What do we do now?” He looked at Durin. “Are you going back to Zered?”
The dwarf shook his head. “Me pledge was to Sodan, not Meredith.”
Durin just shook his head, continuing to stare moodily into the fire.
“What about you, Ralt? Are you going back?”
“And put up with the dragon lady? Not a chance.”
“You’re still Gerald’s apprentice aren’t you?” Thomas argued. “You could go back to him.”
Ralt shrugged dismissively. “I suppose.” His tone didn’t evidence any great desire to do either. “What about you?”
Thomas grinned at him. “I figure my share of the loot from the bandits will keep me in high style for years. I might head for Carrzulm, live the good life. At least it’s warmer down there.” He shivered, pulling his coat closer around him. “So what about you, Lorelei? Got any plans?”
“Of course,” she said. “I have to take Storm to my father. He has a promise to keep.”
Storm lifted his head in surprise. He’d nearly forgotten about it. She met his eyes with a steely gaze. After a moment he acquiesced with a shrug. A promise was a promise after all. His father had ingrained it in him from a young age and he’d stood by it throughout his years in the Marines, then here on Gaia too.
Lorelei flashed him a brilliant smile when she saw he intended to go with her.
He turned it over in his mind, worrying it like a dog with a bone.
He’d made a promise to Sodan too. A promise he hadn’t fulfilled yet. It didn’t look like he was going to be able to keep it either. The Leader had flown off with Krista’s soul, God only knew where, somewhere in Ingold to continue his reign of terror against the kingdom until he conquered it or was killed in the process.
A promise he couldn’t keep.
He spat in the snow, hating the sound of it. He’d never broken a promise before in his life. A bright core of anger started to burn in his chest. Was he going to let this so-called “Leader” get away with this? Was he just going to walk away without doing anything? The more he thought about it the angrier he became. He ground his teeth in fury; there had to be a way to find that murdering whore-monger!
He suddenly became aware the others were staring at him in surprise. He slammed his cup to the ground. “I promised Sodan I’d get Krista to Robling so she could be healed and that’s exactly what I’m going to do!” he snarled. “I know it sounds crazy but that guy’s voice last night sounded familiar. I know him! And I want to find him!” He turned like a wolf. “Ralt, there’s got to be some way we can track him! You said others could follow the ripples Krista’s body and soul were making; why can’t we follow him the same way?”
Ralt’s eyebrows climbed in surprise. “We can,” he replied, taken back at Storm’s vehemence. “It’d be easy.”
“Then show me how! I’m going after him and get her soul back.”
“By yerself?” Durin rumbled, his eyes lighting up for the first time. He hefted his axe with a grim smile. “It occurs to me I have a promise to keep as well.”
“Maybe I do too,” Ralt added tightly. “I’ll go with you.”
“Hey!” Lorelei yelped. “I’m not letting you out of my sight until I deliver you to my father.”
“Well, I’m going too,” Thomas chimed in. “I’m a freebooting adventurer. I told you I go where the wind blows me and it looks like it’s blowin—”
“NO!!” Storm thundered. “We can’t all go after him! Somebody has to get Krista’s body to Robling and look after it until we get back with her soul.” He paused, a nasty smile surfacing on his face. He bent an evil eye on Thomas.
Thomas raised a placating hand. “Ah, come on Cap’em. You can’t do this to me! I’ve got as much right to go after him as the rest of you. You’ve gotta let me come.”
“You could wait for us on Blue Street,” Storm purred, changing his approach. “You’d have to take all our gold of course, and guard it for us while you waited. I know it’d be a hardship.”
Ralt couldn’t suppress a grin at Storm’s sudden underhanded tactics. “Yes, a real hardship,” he echoed. “Living on Blue Street, watching all that gold. It wouldn’t be easy putting up with all that carousing and gambling going on at all hours of the night.”
Thomas was starting to weaken. The mention of gambling had him practically drooling already. “Yeah, but--”
“It gets cold up in these mountains,” Durin added in a deep, meditative voice, playing along with their game. “Probably be a lot warmer on Blue Street. Of course, ye could buy a little companionship to keep yerself even warmer – if ye were there.”
He finally crumbled. “Alright, alright. No need to lay it on that thick.” He wasn’t fooling them though. They could see he was looking forward to it. “I can probably rig a travois between the horses for Krista’s coffin and my . . . uh . . . our gold.”
“Of course,” Lorelei muttered, barely restraining a giggle.