The sun finally disappeared behind distant mountains and the redness in the sky faded to blues and purples that were quickly washed over by a wave of gray clouds that ushered in a steady stream of falling snow.
Four warriors lay in a circle, feet towards the tower and heads to the cardinal directions. In the western quadrant of the large circular plateau atop the way mound sat M’nwtsa playing their drum. They maintained a low steady rhythm that was, in some part, hypnotic in its own right.
In the prepared circle BrownFox, Gangi, and Aanu stood facing the north. All others stood at the edge of the circle, fully armed and ready to fight.
M’nwtsa’s rhythm picked up and an they began to sing out a traveling song in a low throaty voice that rang out across the snowy hills like rapidly plucked bass strings that lifted the heart and brought a warmth in the cold hush of the snowfall.
Set your stride to walk these lands
Set your stride to walk these lands
My heart travels with you to the corners of the world
Show it to the sun,
Show it to the mountains,
Show it to the seas
Show it to the willows
You have walked the cycle now cross the river and take me back home.
The last line they sung out loud and it broke the silence of the snowy winds like a clarion bell. After a round of honor strikes they continued the song.
Set your stride to walk the road
Set your stride to walk the road
My intention travels with you along the traveling road.
Show it to my ancestors
Show it to my descendants
Show it to my shadows
Show it to my dreams
You have walked the cycle now cross over and take me back home.
Set your stride to return to center
Set your stride to return to center
My story travels with you to the place where we begin.
Tell it to who you are
Tell it to who you’ve been
Tell it to who you’ve become
Write it on the walls of home.
You have walked the cycle now cross into the center and take me back home.
Set your stride to return to the dance.
Set your stride to return to the dance.
Will you come as one?
Will you come as many?
Will you find my heart?
I will know your smile.
When you have rested cross back into the dance.
Dance with me again and send me back home.
It was a common enough song sung at funerary gatherings mostly to wish the departed a good journey. When M’nwsta sang, however, it had an even more powerful haunting quality to it as the world around them seemed to melt away into a fog of soft comforting whiteness without end.
The guarding warriors joined in when M’nwsta began from the beginning the second time. First Sinnk’tok, then Makkitu’q, and then the others added their voices to the song that rolled out into the cold night, growing more muffled as the snow began to fall with greater intensity.
Aanu reached out a hand and motioned in mid air. It was almost like he was petting or stroking some large invisible creature. A gentle caress to the air itself. After a moment he leaned forward and kissed the empty space before him. The air seemed to ripple where he had kissed. It was, at first, subtle. Almost immediately the rippling grew in intensity and then color seemed to just spill into the world at that spot. Reality became soft and fluid until it seemed to form a sort of rainbow seam with undulating folds and a bright, viscous center.
Aanu ran his hand along the seam and it opened, the edges folding back like cosmic labia, revealing a corridor or passage surrounded by undulating rainbow walls. A sensation rolled forth from the breach. It was at once ecstatic, joyful, mildly erotic, wildly possible, and a bit disquieting and gave everyone gathered goosebumps and a sense of pressure in the ears. This was what it felt like to be touched by dream.
The three travelers entered. First went Aanu, then BrownFox, and finally Gangi. Then they and the seam were gone. All that remained was a barely perceptible iridescent stain in the air that reminded on of water that has been polluted with just a bit of oil. The defenders felt a bit disoriented like they were just waking up from an unplanned catnap.
Those that remained cast glances at each other as if is to ensure that others had seen what they had witnessed and that they had not imagined the experience. Only M’nwtsa seemed unaffected maintaining their rhythm and the song without interruption.
Sinnik’tok had never seen anything quite like that. By the time he had regained his composure and looked around he could see that Tu’Urok was already distracted by something out in the snow in the distance to the west.
Casting his gaze out through the wall of snow, Sinnik’tok to make out a large form moving jerkily about and then alternately moving quickly into the air and back to the ground.
“What is th. . .” Sinnik’tok began to ask but was interrupted by Tu’Urok hold up a hand to silence him.
The form came closer and they could finally see the creature. It was a fox. A great white fox. It stood as tall as a man at the shoulder and had a pair of great fluffy white tails that waved and jerked behind it like some sort of sensor. The tails were bushy, thicker than the actual creature and nearly twice as long as the fox’s body.
It sniffed about the snow, twitched its ears, and then the tails came to attention and slapped the snow and launched the great fox high into the air. At the apex of it’s leap it twisted into a nosedive and plummeted deep into the snow thrusting it’s head deep into the arctic layers.
When it withdrew its head and snout it had some sort of snow crab in its mouth. Flecks of blood stained its otherwise pristine, white, scintillating opalescent coat of fur. Satisfied, it looked up at the gathering on the hill, considering the value of going after prey up top of the mound. Humans were certainly easier on the teeth than crab shell.
Tu’Urok readied his spear and waited for the fox to make its decision. Great Foxes were no joke. They were extremely agile hunters who had uncanny senses. They could hunt and kill chosen prey in the middle of a raging snow storm. Out in the deep white, the Bearwalkers often called them ghost foxes because they could descend on a party out of seemingly nowhere, they were so quiet and stealthy. When that happened they’d make off with a pack animal or a wounded soldier before you knew which way was up. Their teeth were needle sharp and allowing them to nip at prey and bleed them to death always dancing out of the way of spears and clubs.
M’nwtsa’s song continued strong but everyone else wavered their focus on the words as they watched the fox eye them, the small creature in its mouth bleeding out but the snow covered the evidence of blood as fast as the blood fell.
The creature stood there looking, still like a statue, for what seemed like an eternity. Its ears twitched and turned to catch some sound unheard by human ears. The wicate-wa began their purring growl that suggested danger was near. The fox turned it’s head to look north. It held still as a stone for a moment and then bounded off in a flash headed into the swirling snow off to the east, disappearing into the white.
“Well that’s not good,” Nergui offered. “Either it got frightened by something. Or it has decided to play with us.”
“Sadly it’s more likely the former. It’s not coming up here while the wicate-wa are here. They’re too much trouble when there’s only one of them. Two plus a bunch of humans is not worth the trouble.”
“Never,” corrected Tu’Uroq. “I repeat, never underestimate a great fox. If it decides there is an opportunity it can play a long game. I’ve seen them watch an entire herd of shiltonka for a couple days just to get at one calf.”
“So what do you think scared it off?” questioned Makkitu’q
“Don’t know yet. Sharpen your senses and be aware. This snow will get thicker before it lets up.”
“To the north,” called out Sinnik’tok. “There is something there. Hard to see in all this snow. Is that smoke”
They cast their attention toward where Sinnik’tok pointed and with a little effort they could all see the shape. It was darkness that was just barely visible in the thick flurry of snowflakes.
It looked a bit like billowing black smoke in the night. But it wasn’t smoke. It was tangible. On a normal night it might have actually gone unseen but the steady snowfall outlined it as flakes fell on it and dissipated. Just looking at it gave everyone a sudden sense of dread in the pits of their stomachs.
“That’s not smoke,” Nergui clarified for everyone. “Looks like we have our first shiver of the night.”
The two wicate-wa began to get a bit animated and made rumbling and warbling sounds of agitation.
“Bura and Moma sense it too now,” said Dal as he went over to pet the two large white furred arachnids. Their face plates had begun to change to a pinkish color showing their state of agitation. Their longer front legs had stiffened, a sure sign that they were ready to leap into an attack. The forelegs of a wicate-wa were like spring boards that could catapult them forward at prey at high speeds, sometimes clearing as much as a hundred feet in one jump.
These two were well trained however. They relaxed a bit at Dal’s touch. Nonetheless, he unhooked them from their sledges just in case. He didn’t want to risk the chance that one charged off in a rage and dragged the sledge through the ritual circle, possibly ruining something. A wicate-wa could only be trained so much. They always maintained a bit of wildness. That’s what made them so reliable out in the deep white. The wild, survival instincts of a wicate-wa pulling a sled in blinding snow could make the difference in someone surviving or not.
“Calm down ladies,” Dal said to the beasts as he soothed them, running his hands through their downy fur. “We’ve got this under control.”
“What is it?” Sinnik’tok asked to no one in particular.
“I saw a shiver like this once,” offered Nergui. “My first time on the Line. We were fighting shivers when someone cracked the ice beneath us and we saw this thing that looked like a giant ball of angry hair that had been trapped in the ice. It was smaller than this though, but really dangerous. It flew. It wrapped around warriors strangling them, and then poured itself into them and puppeted them around making them fight. It was a nightmare. Took us forever to destroy it. It was smart. Not a mindless thing. It thinks and plots. We called it ‘The Strangle’”
“How did you kill it?” asked Makkitu’q.
“We had to trap it in a body and burn it. It was nasty work, a slow burn. Had to use the mysteries. Luckily there was elder of the Owls nearby who was very powerful in the elements.”
The Strangled came further into view, pouring itself forth as a multitude of wispy tendrils looking like someone was painting black ink swirls across a snowy white canvas. It could have been considered a sort of beautiful and graceful were it not for the vile sensations it left in the mind of the viewer. A sort of noise that made one want to claw through one’s own skull to get at and silence it.
“Feel that?” Sinnik’tok observed. It can get in your head. It would be driving us crazy if we weren’t inside the threshold. The fact that we can feel it inside the threshhold says this thing is strong.” He braced his feet, digging into the earth of the mound. He was still connected and he feared he would have to keep that connection live all night.
The creature stopped just a few feet away from the threshold and seemed to just stare at them all.
From somewhere in the smoky mass a tendril uncurled and reached out to touch the area of the threshold. As soon as it made contact, there was a flash of cerulean light and and “pop” and hiss that caused it to recoil. An agitated ripple rolled through the mass. It seemed to almost roar with its body. A nasty odor of burning putrescence drifted in the air. Everyone could feel the things hatred. It was palpable. The creature retreated back till it was just barely in sight. For a moment all was quiet save for M’nwtsa’s singing.
“Sinnik’tok, will the tower hold against such a strong shiver?” Tu’Urok asked nervously.
“My making is strong.” Responded Sinnik’tok. “If there were more of them or if there was something more powerful, like a Dul’agalan, I’d be concerned. But this is just a shiver. How strong can it be?”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth when they heard the sound of scraping rock and turned just in time to see the creature rip a large boulder up from the ground and fling it. The rock soared swiftly through the air, leaving a trail of dirt and snow, as it flew straight at the spirit tower.
“No, no, no, no!” Sinnik’tok shouted and made a reaching motion, as though he were catching a ball, and the stone stopped in mid air, suspended like a fly in an unseen web.
“Got it!” he said. He made a flinging/discarding motion and the big stone flew backwards and tumbled back down the hill.
The creature remained at the edge of view for a few moments longer. Watching. Sinnik’tok could feel its presence focused on him. Suddenly the smoky tendrils seemed to flail violently causing all the snow around it to erupt into a cloud. When the snow settled the strangle was nowhere to be seen.
“Like I said,” offered Nergui. “This is a mighty shiver. It’s smart and it plans. My friends, we are in for a fight.
“I can still feel it moving around out there,” said Makkitu’q.
“We’ve got to get out there and kill it!” yelled Dal.
“No,” Nergui countered. “That’s what it wants. It just did two things. First it determined that we have someone who can wield earth mysteries in our midst and identified who it is. Which makes Sinnik’tok a target. Two, it made itself an obvious threat showing us that it can target things and people from outside the area of the threshold. It’s hoping to lure one or more of us to run out of the protection of the way tower. It is strong. That strangle will rip apart the first one of us that it comes into contact with. Our best bet to deal with it is to wait. Gangi and Brown Fox could kill it. So we wait. We wait either until the others to return from Dream or for the sun to rise.”
There was suddenly noise on the wind. It sounded like ghostly wailing and screaming and growls and barks.
“More shivers,” Tu’Urok called out. Pointing the silhouettes and shapes of misshapen things out in the snow stumbling and lurching forward, also coming from the north. “There is a force gathering. Makkitu’q, can you bless our weapons? Does your making work like that?”
“Yes,” but only on things with large surfaces like your spears and clubs.”
“The do so. We’ll need every advantage we can get. It’s going to be a long night. Sinnik’tok, your job is to keep the spirit tower up and maintain that threshold.”
“On it,” Sinnik’tok called as he moved into a kneeling contact with the base of the tower. I can cause it to flare a bit so we can have light to see better with.”
“Do it! Everyone else form up on me. A three corner defense. If you see or hear anything out of the ordinary mark it! We want no more surprises tonight.”
The warriors prepared for the inevitable assault that would come as the night grew deeper and M’nwtsa’s constant song and rhythm was the only comfort they had against the sounds of terrible things hiding in the snowy darkness.