Screams and groans and shrieks seemed to be coming from everywhere. Sinnik’tok could feel a burning, turning, in his chest. His heart pounded in his ears and his breath had grown quicker and raspy, escaping from him in steamy plumes in the cold air.
The cold north wind had picked up. It swirled snow all about them severely reducing the ability of the defenders to see the gathering horde of shivers that all of their senses told them were amassing outside of the tower’s threshold. Altogether it invoked a certain claustrophobic feeling in Sinnik’tok.
M’nwtsa maintained the traveling song without wavering even though they’d been singing and playing for what seemed like hours. The steady rhythm went a long way towards calming the nerves of the defenders as they shifted their attention around the circle looking for evidence of the creatures.
Makkitu’q worked feverishly tending to the pile of spears and war clubs stacked before her. She painted the symbols of spirits and ideas and sang soft songs into each one so that they glimmered softly in the dwindling firelight. Nergui watched over her, handing back weapons as Makkitu’q finished her making
There was a sudden flare of light and a shriek off to the southwest that made her and Sinnik’tok jump. Some shiver had just tried the threshold and was repelled by the magic of the waytower.
“Is this your first stand?” Nergui asked. Putting a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“No…” Makkitu’q began and rethought her answer. “The first one where we have to fight like this. This feels more intense than normal and the thing we saw earlier has me worried. I’ve seen shivers. Killed a few too. But that one really made me afraid. I’ve never felt that kind of afraid. I’ve heard there’s many such shivers on the Line. Is this what the Line feels like.”
“No,” Nergui offered. “The line is far, far worse. The White offers a lot of protection for some terrible things. Some grow very strong in the dark places and deep in the ice. I have seen shivers as big as the great beasts that carry the Wu Towns. Some are really strong, some are really fast, and some can control the mysteries. Some don’t even have forms, waiting for bodies to inhabit like puppets. Unfortunately they’re not the worst things out there. Sometimes you come up against a shiver that isn’t a shiver. They’ve usually some toy of one of the Sorrows. Those are the worst. The sorrows cultivate special shivers that they turn into new things to murder us or control us with.
“I used to not believe in the Sorrows when I was younger. Then something stumbled out the Shiver Plains from beneath the ashcloud and started rampaging through villages in Batu territory. My order, the Eight Mountain Society, rode out to find it, alongside some Crows. The Crows warned us that it wasn’t a normal shiver and we laughed at them. We we sooo eager to show the much lauded Crows that they weren’t as mighty as we.
“After four nights of searching we finally came across the thing moving through a ravine. We heard it before we saw it. There was this screaming like hundreds of people being slowly torn apart. We thought it was attacking some village so we rushed toward the sound. What was there made no sense.
It was like a giant walking hand made of corpses and wood. The corpses were where the screams came from. When it saw us, they started laughing maniacally and the bellies of them burst open and things like babies poured out but they had razor sharp claws and instead of heads they had just huge mouths across their shoulders and these ridiculous tongues lolling out and rows of jagged teeth.
The thing has set a trap for us and they swarmed us. We fought for hours. The Crows had caught up and helped, While we fought the baby things the hand crawled up to us and began stomping and crushing warriors. It was a massacre. We would have all died if it weren’t for a group of Illuminators who had followed it out of the ashcloud. They came to our aid and joined the fight with their lights, and fire, and sun lances. In the end we brought the thing low and killed all the spawn. As the thing died it turned to dust and the wind picked up and the dust swirled and formed a terrible face that I can’t even see anymore.
It laughed at us. It just laughed like we were nothing. You could feel it unravel you with that laugh. It was a Sorrow and it was looking at us. I’ll never forget that moment.
“That was the end of the Eight Mountain Society. Were were twenty strong going into the battle. Only five survived, including myself. We returned home but we were broken. The hearts of those who remained were so broken that they had all fell to sorrowstain over the course of the next week. Even worse the stain took those who knew those warriors as well. It seemed like every day I heard someone wail as they discovered yet another smoky black stain were someone had laid down to sleep the night before. At least five times as many people faded to stain as those who had died fighting. We had to abandon our village altogether.
“I would have faded too were it not for a Rook who came with a group of Doves and Jays to cleanse those who remained. The Rook lay with me and took the story from my heart. It turned into nasty black words that crawled across her back. She left to carry it to the Line to have it purged by First Sun.
“The next year, in honor of the Rook, I traveled to the Line and fought for the first time to gain my rebirth.”
“Wow!” offered Sinnik’tok. “I’m sorry for you loss. I wish good travels to your fallen.”
“They have all traveled well, I believe,” returned Nergui. “All except those who fell to sorrowstain. They will never travel or return to the world again. That is the great loss. That is what the Sorrows do. They don’t want to kill us, they want to remove us from existence altogether. Luckily they fight each other so much that they have little time to devote to us.
“I learned that if you meet them you’ll have so much sorrow in your heart it will spread to others like a plague of sadness. They make creatures just to ensure that happens. We couldn’t kill the sadness with spears or knives. The only defense is cultivate joy and light. Whatever you do don’t take the sorrow back home to your people or you might destroy the next generation.”
“Aho!” the other warriors responded in unison.
“Thank you for the reminder and that lesson sister,” Tu’Urok said graciously.
The wind shifted momentarily revealing myriad shapes gathered at the edge of the threshold. They were all kinds of twisted and wrong but the snow and darkness made it near impossible to discern one from the other. Moments after that blue flashes erupted in multiple points on the threshold’s perimeter followed by wails and shrieks as the creatures tried it and were repelled.
“There are lot of them out there. There shouldn’t’ be this many. Not yet. Where are they coming from?” Dal observed. “Will the tower hold?”
“Don’t know for sure.” said Makkitu’q “It depends on how strong they are. The tower didn’t get an exposure to a full day of sun and the moon is hidden behind the clouds and storm. As long as we’re just dealing with this mindless kind of shiver we should be good. But if that strangle comes back I don’t know. Sinnik’tok?”
Sinnik’tok stooped to the ground and dug his hands beneath the fallen snow to touch the earth below. He let out a reverberating hum and cast his senses out into the earth surrounding them. He did this a couple times and turned to address the group. “It’s hard to tell. They have so many shapes and legs I don’t know if there are 10 or 100. But it does feel like a lot. My safe guess is at least 20 or 30. I don’t know if we can survive a mass assault.”
The threshold flared multiple times as shivers tried again to push through. The entire perimeter was crackling with energy.
“There are too many out there working the the threshold,” Tu’Urok announced. “They’ve got our scent and are hungry for us. We’re going to have to go cull them.
“Grab long spears and head to the threshold. Partner up and kill what you can from our side of the it. Sinnik’tok you go with Dal. Nergui, you’re with me.”
Tu’Urok withdrew multi-part poles from the packs at the center of camp and assembled them into what looked like long ice fishing spears, twice as tall as a man. He handed one off to Dal and one to Sinnik’Tok. Nergui opted instead for a long length of bladed chain. Once armed, they all shuffled down the hill to the base near the marked threshold.
As they got closer they could see the shapes pushing and rolling against each other. They were all mouths, and teeth, and legs of all sorts. Sinnik’tok’s stomach turned and jumped more and the things responded to his presence by throwing themselves against the barrier in suicidal attempts to get at him and rip him apart.
“Be careful,” Dal called out to him. “Brace your footing and stab at spears length. If something should recoil from your attack it could yank you forward, and through the threshold, if you get caught off guard.”
They began to slash and stab and the shivers spilled their black blood and fell slowly. However, even as they killed them, new shivers scrambled to take the place of the fallen.
Sinnik’tok had slain a first, then a second. As he stabbed at a third another shiver bit at the spear and began to pull, dragging the young stonecaller forward.
“Help!” he called out. Trying not to lose his spear while trying to resist the creature’s strong pull. He wrenched his knee a bit in the process, making his footing even more unsteady.
Dal, produced a long hunting knife and flung it into what looked like the creature’s head, forcing it to release its grip. Sinnik’tok flew backwards and landed in the snow on the hillside, dropping the spear.
“Get back up and fight!” Dal called as he shifted over to stab the thing. Hooking it with his spear he dragged it into the threshold which burned it as it died. The knife fell out of its dissolving form and into the snow.
Sinnik’tok scrambled to his feet, looked around for the spear but couldn’t see it for it was already covered by the blanket of snow. His knee protested his every step sending sharp pangs down his leg. Shivers were pressing even faster against the threshold. Seeing that, he momentarily gave up the search for the spear. He instead reached into his satchel and produced two fistfuls of large stones.
Holding his hands outstretched before him he focused on the stones, calling on the mysteries of the element of earth. After a moment he caused them to slowly, at first, levitate before him. He then made a flattening motion with his hands while whispering words to the rocks and they began to flatten and stretch like sand poured on a table, until they were sharp like blades. He followed that transformation with a motion like he was setting a great wheel turning, and the rock blades began to circle each other in the air. They moved slowly at first, but then faster and faster as he continued to motion with his hands. As they picked up speed they sliced through the rushing air making a sound like a bull-roarer.
When they were moving so fast they were like a blur, he directed them out of the threshold and into the mass of shivers. They tore through the terrible beasts like a mill saw through fabric. Bone, ichor, and bits of shiver flew everywhere as he sawed through them.
Dal, pulled back to let the rock blades fly into the shivers before him. He whooped and hollered as the creatures died. Unfortunately the integrity of the stone blades wore down quickly and they fell to dust. Not, however, before they had slaughtered nearly a dozen of the creatures.
“Can you do that again?” Dal called out excitedly.
“No,” responded Sinnik’tok. Those are specially prepared stones. They’re not really meant for battle, we use them for clearing trees.
Dal returned to killing shivers that had begun to fill in for the fallen monsters. Sinnik’tok took the opportunity to find his spear and lucked up on Dal’s nice in the process.
On the other side of the perimeter Nergui and Tu’Urok made short work of shivers as fast as they could. Nergui got her chain moving in a blur, catching, hooking, and dragging shivers into the the barrier as Tu’Urok systematically slew them. They worked with a deadly, well rehearsed rhythm. It was a killing dance. This was not their first time working together.
On top of the hill, Makkitu’q finished the last of the heavy spears, then fished a bow out of her own pack. Rushing to the northern edge of the hill top, she wrapped a paper with some marking on it around an arrow and fired it into the shivers beyond the threshold.
Moments after the arrow embedded itself in the shiver she targeted, the paper flared and then exploded with a bright light, burning a small handful of shivers caught in the blast. The light was like sunlight. It was a making trick she had learned from an Illuminator who had come up north to the Line last year.
Off in to the north there was a rumbling like distant thunder, and in the flash, something odd in the swirling white caught her attention. She knocked a new arrow, with flash paper and fired it off into the sky. As it soared, it brought bright light that was scattered by the swirling snow. At the apex of its arc, however, it illuminated the silhouette of a gigantic humanoid figure headed toward the hill dragging something behind it.
“Oh no!” she gasped. Her stomach dropped and nausea rolled through her. She rushed over to the eastern side of the hill where Nergui and Tu’Urok fought and shouted at the top of her lungs to be heard over the din of the screaming, croaking shivers.
Hearing Mikkitu’q shout, Tu’urok turned his attention to her. “What?”
“Y’yahila! Approaching from the north!” she shouted as loud as she could.
Tu’Urok and Nergui bounded up the hill, which was now slippery and heavy with snow. When they got to the top. Makkitu’q shot the last of her Illuminator arrows off into the distance again and they saw the great figure, three times as tall as the hill. Tall and gangly, with gnarled rock like skin, these creatures were said to be spawned by the Sorrow known as Y’ya and not really shivers at all. This one was big. It was old, and likely powerful.
“No, no, no, no!” called out Tu’Urok. “We’ve got to drop that thing before it gets to the mound. If it has a weapon it can crush us from outside the threshold and break the tower. He motioned for Nergui to follow and whistled to Dal and Sinnik’tok, motioning for them to meet them at the northern quadrant of the threshold. He grabbed a couple of the spears that Makkitu’q had finished blessing. He tossed one to Nergui and kept the other for himself.
Nergui, turned to the center of camp, put her hands up high, making a waving motion, and called out to the two great arachnids that were waiting patiently. “Bura! Moma! Hai hai!” she called and took off running behind Tu’Urok. The two white-furred spiders held their forelegs up in some strange announcement dance, let out a low vibrating chortle and leapt to the base of the hill where the others gathered.
“There is a huge Y’yahila out there.” Tu’Urok barked. “We’ve got to run out and try to take it out or distract it. You two draw shivers away to clear us a path somehow.”
“What?” protested Sinnik’tok. “That’s crazy! Do you see how many of those things are out there? You’ll get ripped apart!”
“That’s what we do my friend. We’re Bear Walkers and Line Walkers. If we’re not ready to do this we’re not ready for the Line. Sacrifices and gambits keep us all alive. Can you draw the shivers?”
Sinnik’tok thought for a second. “Yes! Makkitu’q and I can open a breach in the threshold. It will weaken the threshold overall but we can close it. We can open it long enough to get the shivers to rush it. Then pull back the perimeter of the threshold about maybe 20 feet and close it.”
“Do it! Dal, you hold the breach. Nergui, you and I rush out with Bura and Moma when they give the word.”
Sinnik’tok rush back up the hill with Dal and they talked with Makkitu’q to explain what was happening. The brother and sister then sprang into action. Sinnik’tok shaped a stone gate to mark for Dal where to defend. Makkitu’q prepared to adjust the flows of mystery in the tower and Dal planted himself at the archway and began calling to the mysteries within himself.
Bear Walkers were trained in the natures of body and mind which let him meld his rage to his flesh. As he called forth his rage, the sinews and skin of his body protested as he swelled with strength and power, growing more feral, his teeth grew into fangs, and his nails grew into claws. His face was that of a madman, tears of blood ran from his eyes and spittle foamed and drooled from his mouth. He let out a howl.
“Now Sinnik’tok shouted at his sister. They both placed hands on the tower and channeled the mysteries through themselves. A visible seam appeared in the air where the threshold gave way. As soon as the first shivers realized there was an opening, they all poured forth. Like locusts they rushed around the remaining bit of threshold to get in through the breach. They were hungry to kill. Instead they met death.
Dal, slashed and stabbed and rended them with inhuman ferocity almost as fast as they came through. Though he tried to hold ground he was slowly being pushed back. He managed to keep the things from surrounding him and pulling him down, but only just.
Atop the hill, Sinnik’tok and Makkitu’q struggled to maintain the integrity of the tower while watching Dal fight. Some shivers had slipped pass him and were coming up the hill.
“Go!” Makkitu’q shouted and Tu’Urok and Nergui sprang into action.
Tu’Urok charged towards the Y’yahila, the giant man-shaped shiver, as it was finally coming into view. It was dragging a massive club behind it made of a pine tree with its branches hewn off. The thing saw Tu’Urok charging and began to raise its club to swing.
“Bura! Moma! Chak chak!” Nergui shouted at the two arachnids, pointing at the giant. Again the massive spiders waved their forelegs in a little dance, in response to Nergui’s motions, turned in a jerky manner to face the gargantuan shiver and launched themselves like bullets.
Bura slammed into the the belly of the creature, snapping its fangs into the monster with a sound that resembled a “chak chak”. Moma did the same thing as it slammed into the giant’s face. Their impact spun the creature and it swiped at them, but they were gone almost as soon as they had landed. They moved around the battlefield in lighting fast hops that took them twenty to thirty feet with each leap.
The Y’yahila, momentarily forgetting about the charging Tu’Urok, directed its ire at the wicate-wa and swung its club in a wide arc trying to kill them. It stirred up a storm of snow and earth in the process but the two jumping spiders were far too swift, jumping in and biting it from opposite directions and then jumping away.
Nergui, fell into a charge behind Tu’Urock, each of them moving toward one leg of the great creature and calling on their rage as they closed in on it. Their skin was so hot the snow hissed and steamed as it touched them, causing them to leave a billowing trail of white mist as they rushed forward.
Meanwhile, Makkitu’q and Sinnik’tok reset the threshold and the shivers that were inside erupted in flames. Dal, unfortunately was not in the area of the new threshold and the creatures were swarming him faster than he was able to put them down. Makkitu’q took up her bow and deftly began to sink arrows into the shivers around him and Sinnik’tok rushed to his aid. He stabbed furiously at the creatures at Dal’s back.
With his path cleared, Dal turned to rush into the safe area. Just as he was crossing the threshold, something looking like a frog made of ants lashed out a tongue. Catching his leg, it yanked him to the ground and began dragging him out. Sinnik’tok rushed to grab Dal’s arms and pulled back. Another creature took the opportunity to bite into Dal’s leg, nearly ripping it off in the process. Arrows rained down on them from Makkitu’q forcing the monstrosities back and Sinnik’tok pulled Dal to the safe zone.
Makkitu’q rushed down to help her brother drag Dal back up to the center of camp. She looked at the wound and could see that not only was it poisonous, it was some kind of spreading poison that was quickly turning the leg black.
“Take it off!” Dal shouted at them. The brother and sister looked at each other in apprehension. Sinnik’tok rifled through the camp tools and returned with an axe.
“Do it!” Dal shouted! “I can still fight with one leg. I can’t fight if I’m dead!”
Mikkitu’q stretched the leg out, found clean flesh, and held it straight. Hope rushed into her as she could see that the sleeping warriors who had traveled to dream were beginning to stir. Sinnik’tok took a deep breath and brought the axe down.
The ground trembled as the Y’yahila did the same with its club. It was still missing the two fast moving spiders who were alternately ripping bits and pieces out of it. Moma and Bura leapt at the great shiver’s face and attacked its eyes. It let out a howl and swiped at them, temporarily blinded.
Tu’Urok slashed multiple times at the creature’s leg. After a few attempts he sprang high into the air and brought his blessed spear down into the creatures ankle. The power of Makkitu’q’s blessing driving it through and nailing it to the ground. Simultaneously Nergui closed with the other ankle and swung her chains. They wrapped around the ankle and the blades bit in.
The creature howled and swung first at Tu’Urok who dived beneath the attack. It brought the great tree club back around swiftly, however, and connected with Nergui who tried to avoid it but was slowed by the snow around her while trying to hold onto the chain. There was a crunch as her left arm gave, along with a few ribs, and she was sent flying twenty feet into a snow drift. Her rage flowing through her, she wasn’t phased by the pain and broken arm. As she rolled to her feet, she was vaguely aware that M’nwtsa’s drum had stopped. Her arm hanging uselessly to her side she called out “Moma! Bura! Sha Sha!”
The two spiders sprang to the chain. Taking it in their pedipalps, they began to make short quick backwards hops. Though considerably smaller than the giant, their strength was immense. They dragged the chained leg out, forcing the creature into a split, and it began to fall to the ground.
As it fell, Tu’Urok charged again. As he closed with the creature the giant swung out an arm trying to fend him off but he jumped over the massive limb. As he did so Nergui, pulled the other blessed spear and threw it to Tu’Urok. He caught in mid air and brought it down on the prone creature’s throat, pinning that to the ground. Still, it wasn’t dead. Moma and Bura then descended on it ripping out its belly, with their fangs and chelicera, until it lay a dead mass of rotting flesh.
Tu’Urok rushed over to Nergui who waved him off. The two spiders bounded up to them like gore covered puppies and nuzzled Nergui with concern.
She smiled at them both. “Good, good! No time for pets though.” She said as she observed the shiver horde, thwarted by the threshold, turning their attention back towards them.
They braced themselves to receive the charge only to see the horde scatter as Ja’qolimaq, BrownFox, and Ganji appeared and led the other warriors down the hill, into the mass, and began killing them in droves.
Tu’Urok and Nergui glanced triumphantly at each other, drew long knives and rejoined the fight. With the Crow Gangi calling lightning down, searing everything he could see,and the Dove BrownFox causing the earth to rise up and swallow and crush the horrors, what remained of the battle was all over in minutes.
From off in the distance, high on a hill, the great fox watched the people fighting the bad things then licking their wounds when the battle was won. So focused on them was it that it didn’t hear the thing that was like smoke and strands of hair sneak up on it. Truth be told, there was nothing to hear for the strangle moved with the silence of death.
At the last moment the fox felt the things presence as a disturbance in its fur and whiskers. It tried to jump away but the strangle lashed out and snatched the fox out the air and pulled it to the snow. The fox struggled and tried to cry out but the thing of smoke and hair enveloped it and as it thrashed the thing wrapped its strands tightly about the fox’s neck and choked the life out of it. When the creature was dead, the strangle poured itself into every orifice on the pearly fox until there was non of it to be seen. The fox lay still in cold, slowly being buried by the rushing snow, seemingly lost to the soft, white quietude of the White.
Moments later the fox crawled out of the deep snow, its legs seemingly unsteady. The color had gone from its eyes. They were black as obsidian. It stumbled about jerkily like a marionette at first and then seemed to regain some semblance of body control as though it had just come out of a seizure. It returned to its perch watching the humans. It settled down, studying them, placing its head on crossed paws.
As it listened, its face twisted into a hideous mockery of a smile in a way that it wasn’t built to do. The effort pulled skin far away from teeth and revealing shadowy filaments that crawled across its gums like worms. Then it laughed. A soft raspy, wicked laugh, that was swallowed by the muffling soft snow.