Just as they finished making camp, and the moon was peaking over the treed, Five-Raven was the first to notice the motion in the darkness. He felt it first, a terrible pulling on the essences that made his stomach turn. Quickly scanning the twilight of the forest he found the source. A rip had appeared in mid air.
It was like a wound opening up as though someone were tearing reality with a ragged knife, and it was being done by someone powerful on this side of the Pale. On the other side he could see an inky blackness darker than the night surrounding it. It all happened in the blink of an eye. By time he got out a cry of warning, the small rip had burst open and torrent of twisted and misshapen forms were pouring through the breach that had opened in mid-air. Shivers! Lots of shivers. He knew immediately that this wasn’t a true breach. Someone, or something, had “stepped” a force of shivers through Shadow to attack them.
They reached Kara first. A shadowy blur of claws and limbs engulfed her as she turned to face the mass of shivers, flames beginning to flicker in her hair. There was a shout and then they all lost sight of her as even more of the creatures poured forth.
Rona rolled to her feat and released a terrible keening that caused a rift in the mass like a boiling water thrown into snow. Yrjo and Five Raven brought spears and axes to bear, taking advantage of the opening made by Rona’s scream, and became a blur of blades as they chopped and sliced their way through to the breach that continued to grow with every passing moment.
“We should get Kara,” shouted Yrjo to Five-Raven.
“Don’t worry about her!” Five-Raven barked. “She can handle a few shivers. Worry more about what happens if we don’t close that breach now. Clear a space for me to weave!”
Ducking beneath and blocking the swipes of multiple twisted forms, Yrjo cut them down in one mighty spinning sweep of his axe. As more charged at him he bit his lip and spat blood into the air. Calling on the mysteries of the Natures, he struck at the flying blood in midair with his axe and invoked the seventh technique of the Ten Cleansing Axe Strikes – “Avalanche of Rage”. In response, the blood splattered and shifted. What was of his flesh, his blood, transformed. Each drop became a spinning axe-shaped force of crimson fire that spun out into the darkness killing tens of the creatures at a time. This cleared a space near the breach that Five-Raven stepped into.
Once near the breach Five-Raven spoke a blessing onto his spear and swiped at the air before him. As he did so the very night sky seemed to get smudged and pulled as though he were a painter blending colors on a canvas. With every stroke more of the world seemed to get pulled and smeared into the breach and the breach got narrower and narrow.
As this ensued the Rona had joined Yrjo’s side. Her hummingbird blades flashing as she darted in and among the shivers. Every strike she landed seemed to slow a creature and pin them to the air waiting for Yrjo’s axe to finish the job. Between the two of them the battle seemed more like a performance than a fight in which the shivers were volunteering to die.
Five-Raven drew close to completion. The tide has stemmed and all he needed to do was invoke the Weave, closing the gap permanently. As gossamer threads of reality made manifest and began to sew the breach closed, he was suddenly aware of a terrible humming like a thousand-fold chorus of locust, all singing a foul prayer. It seemed to come from all around and grew in intensity with every passing second. The sound was debilitating and seemed to overwhelm the minds of all three warriors. They could feel doubt growing in their ability to continue. Sorrow was trying to take root.
“What is that?” screamed Yrjo as he tried desperately to cover one ear while wildly swinging at the oncoming creatures with his axe. Rona too was thrown off balance by the psychic onslaught but managed to continue her dancing through the shivers.
“Ferralak!” returned Five-Raven as a great black scythe-like blade pierced through the nearly closed breach with a smoking his like a hot poker dipped into water.
With a single downward stroke it severed all of the threads and a the rest of this great shiver, the Ferralak, a perverse, mantis-like, monstrosity began to emerge. Its body was a writhing congregation of locust-like things, all with the twisted screaming faces of children in agony as they constantly melted and reformed. It was disquieting to look at as. The mind and soul wanted to deny its existence. The flesh recoiled at the possibility of its existence. With every movement the malformed locust bodies dripped off like hot lead then hurried to return to the mass, leaving sorrowstain where they had touched the earth.
Rona dove to the ground as a bear sized shiver, with great knotty fists swung at her. It’s face was covered in layers of peeling, desiccated flesh that sloughed off like loose bandages as it lumbered. As she came back to her feet she produced her singing bowl and dowel and, with one intense circular stroke, began playing the piercing and sorrowful “Eighth Note of Contrition” which seemed to counter the effects of the ferralak’s droning prayer. The tone also would act as a beacon to any Crow who could feel its call.
The earth rumbled and roared, and Rona spun around in preparation to avoid another attack from the shivers. Instead she saw that they all seemed to being pulled back to a swirling column of rock shards and flame that had erupted from the ground.
At the center of the column hovered a twirling Kara sheathed in stone and immolated in flame. The earth itself dragged every shiver in sight back, on crested grasping waves, to the deadly column where they were churned, and burned, into an ashen pulp.
Yrjo rushed at the emerging ferralak narrowly avoiding a stroke of its “Truth Rending” forward hooked, scythe-like arms. Though he wished for the glory of defeating it, he could see that Five-Raven was trying to gather energy to finish the job once and for all. Having fought beside essence masters on The Line he knew how much more important closing the breach was than his own glory and was so compelled to switch to a defensive stance to guard the d’Zul essentialist. Invoking the stance “Mountain Blocks the Blizzard” he called on the Nature of Body to increase his form so that he was mighty enough to stand toe to toe with the terrible creature.
As he moved, his the sound of flesh stretching and bones being remade was audible. He actually doubled in size and his axe began swinging so swiftly it seemed to be a wall of blades blocking every strike the creature launched. This was magnificent but wearing on his body however as his skin began to rip and peel, and his eyes bled, but he persevered. He remembered when he last saw a Ferralak, as a child in what his village called the Winter of Hungry Ice. At that time, such a beast slew his aunts and uncles and nearly an entire settlement before a host of BearWalkers and Crows arrived to stop it. He was a child then but today he was a man and walked the Bear’s path. That memory drove him forward. His ferocity even made the Ferralak hesitate, concerned.
After what seemed like an eternity Five-Raven caused the world around them to ripple as though a stone had been dropped into water. The ripple exploded outward and then coalesced into a large shimmering orb that seem to reflect everything around them. With a shout he launched the ball into the terrible creature. There was a moment of silence. The ferralak froze in mid attack, then exploded into a swarm of the locusts as the magic that had bound its form was unraveled. The swarm tried to escape, but it Five-Raven followed up with a wind that blew them into Kara’s maelstrom where they were destroyed like the shivers before it.
In the moments that followed, the maelstrom subsided, Kara descended to the ground, and Five-Raven closed the breach.
“The Graces preserve us!” exclaimed Kara as she walked over to the others, the flames in her hair subsiding. “We’ve only just begun the damned Trail of Slumbers, haven’t even made it to the first temple, and they hit us this hard? What’s it going to be like when we get to the end?”
“I do not know,” Five-Raven responded. His gaze drifted over the treetops and landed on the hill to the north. “But we are not yet done with this particular engagement.” He motioned to the hill in that way that D’Zul do, pointing with chin and lower lip.
The others looked up and could see standing on the high hill a human-like figure, Where his head should have been, there was instead, a collar connected to seven chains that lead out to bloated flying heads that alternately yanked and pulled at the chains like rabid dogs. The heads had malformed faces like grotesque, perverse theater masks. Their mouths seemed open and chattering, caught in an endless silent scream. The largest head, as big as a pumpkin, the creature held beneath one arm while gripping a great spear in the other.
“No! A Dul Ah’gallaan!’ Rona observed with a hissed breath. She tucked away the singing bowl and drew forth a small dorje with a bell on one end.
“We call them Barrow Lords” in the Great Forest added Kara. “The Calleach has mobilized all of the Tathlum against one with just three heads. I’ve never heard of anything so monstrous as one with seven.”
“We call them WidderMen in the White, and we can take this thing!” growled Yrjo though he could barely stand after his recent efforts. “I don’t care how many heads it has, I’ll cut them all off!”
“It won’t be that easy,” countered Five-Raven.
As the words left Yrjo’s mouth, one of the creature’s heads barked out a baleful wail that resonated throughout the forest. Immediately shivers began to crest over the hill. A small army of them. Ten times more than they had just fought. These were regimented and under control of the Du’ Ah’gallan unlike the wild things they had just defeated.
“Oh,” observed Yrjo. “I see. Well then we shall die gloriously!” He shouted, hefting his axe as the creatures began to race down the hill.
“That’s not your job,” came a voice from behind them.
Turning to look, they saw a tall figure stepping out of the darkness, wearing a cloak that shimmered with blacks, blues, purples, and greens and carrying a distinctive two-headed spear. It was one of the Crows. Materializing from the shadows of the trees, dropping like descending birds, came even more like him, by the dozens. “The Crows heard your call and have come!”
The first figure approached, kissed Rona gently, then turned, speaking to the rest of the group. “Sisters, brother, grandfather. . .” he addressed them. “Your role in this is to walk the Trail of Slumbers. Please continue on to the Green Keeping Temple and serve the Still the Woe beneath. We will hold for you here. We will bleed if we must, till the sun rises to wash away the evil things. Go”
With that the Crows charged forth, running across the grass and leaves, borne on a wind that smelled of sage and sweet grass, singing out in whoops and caws, and engaged with crowlances and magic. Meanwhile, quickly mounting their great hares, the Trailwalkers rode off, continuing to their destination with haste.