There comes a point in one's life where one must look back on their decisions and ask themselves, was it worth it?
And right now, for Echo, that answer was maybe.
The wanderer kicked a chunk of snow from her boots and squinted up at the cloudless winter sky.
From her spot in the branches, Echo could look out and see the vast, savage expanse of the Tolko mountains stretch out to the horizon. For going on three weeks now, those mountains had served as her home as Echo tried to make the crossing into Jujit and she was starting to get real tired of staring at ice and stones and evergreen needles.
The wind picked up, sending spears of cold straight though the furs of her cloak. Echo retreated further into her tree. It was the best shelter she could hope for, high enough off the forest floor to avoid becoming some wayward monster's next meal and surrounded by the tangled branches of an ancient conifer, the wanderer was protected from the worst of the elements. She could not risk a fire this close to Fort Durn, lest this whole trip be wasted.
The empire of Jujit was extremely prickly about its northern border, and trespassers were handled with swift and brutal efficiency. Their rangers were among the best in the world. Avoiding them had been a hellish challenge in and of itself. Echo had resorted to using trace bits of magic to disguise her scent and tracks. Enough to avoid detection but not too much to leave a trail. There were scarier things besides rangers in these mountains. Nasty, old things that would look at Echo and find a rare treat.
A raven's throaty croak snatched the wanderer from her thoughts and Echo smiled as her friend came wheeling in like an inkblot against the slate grey sky. Riot made his perch in a sturdy branch by Echo's ear, shaking the snow from his night dark feathers and snapping his beak against the cold.
"How's it looking," the wanderer asked.
Her friend shook himself once more. That patrol we missed yesterday seems to have turned back he told her. But we've got a storm rolling in.
Echo stuck her lip in a pout. A storm was the last thing she needed. "Anything else?"
I found a dead moose about three miles out. Seems like a bear stashed it. No tracks.
Her stomach grumbled its distress and Echo counted back to her last full meal. It had been the tiny fishing village on the other side of the border. She'd feasted on cod stew and cabbage. In terms of taste, it had not been much to write home about, but there was plenty of it and it had been warm.
Since then, they'd been surviving on whatever plants Echo could scrounge up and the kills of other animals. Ravens were experts at scavenging and in her years of traveling with one, Echo had grown accustomed to the taste of carrion enough that the idea of Riot's find made her mouth water. "Did you find a cave anywhere? I don't wanna risk braving a snowstorm perched in a tree."
Riot cocked his head and peered at her. I think you'd make a very fetching icicle.
Echo stuck her tongue out at him and then snatched it back in because she could feel it start to freeze. Winter truly was the shittiest season.
Could a raven look smug? Riot fluffed himself up. All jokes aside, I found a cave a few miles out.
Echo scrambled down the tree, inspired by the thought of food. She gave the wood a grateful pat and started off in the wake of her companion.
The snow swallowed up to her calves, making their progress agonizingly slow. Had it not been for the deep powder and ridiculously high drifts, this trek across the mountains would have taken a week at best. But their second day in, an early winter snowstorm had blown in and turned her careful planning on its head.
One frozen step after another, Echo followed her friend to a rocky riverbed. The kill had been stashed behind a boulder, half eaten, but more than enough for the two of them. Echo scrambled up the icy rock, already calculating how to get the leftovers to fit in her pack. The flesh was stiff with frost, but fresh enough. The only saving grace about freezing temperatures was how well it held off rot.
She slipped her dagger free of its home in her boot. Longer than her forearm and sharp as sin, the blade cut though the frozen meat without resistance. She went to work cutting the meat into strips, stomach cramping in anticipation. She would still need to cook it, and that thought made her work all the faster. Unhindered by such a human limitation, Riot ate his meal raw, ripping up great chunks of flesh and snapping them down in an instant.
Echo was working her way down a leg when a howl broke out over the snow.
He was half the size of a bear, with fur the color of rust and golden eyes trained on Echo as he slunk down the ridge. The wolf snarled and bared his teeth, showing of fangs the length of her hand.
Riot cocked his head and snapped his beak. I think that's our cue to leave.
Echo nodded and stuffed the meat into her pack. The wanderer was many things, but stupid was not one of them. Magic or not, going up against a wolf that size would be suicide. And Echo was fond of her guts staying in her body where they belonged.
Driven by the stench of the dead moose, the wolf picked his way forward. Echo took one step away and then another. She sent up a prayer to whoever was listening that the newcomer would find the moose more interesting than she.
But Echo had no such luck. The moment she shifted to stand, the wolf flashed his fangs. It seemed that she too was on the menu.
Echo gathered her feet under her. If she was to survive this, she would need to take him off guard. Nothing fancy, just slow him down long enough for her to escape. Simple enough in theory, but staring at those long, lethal fangs, fear forced her heart faster.
The wolf let out a low snarl and lunged, a mass of crimson fur and claws. With a hunting cry of her own, Echo met the wolf head-on. She dropped to a knee half a second before he would have ripped her throat out, blade angled upward. Her steel bit into him, but she'd misjudged his reach and his hind claw managed to rip her shoulder before she could roll away.
Echo tumbled forward. She struggled to her feet, cursing the snow as it shifted and slid under her boots.
Fighting in the snow was literally the worst. She fixed her stance, cursing again as her foot was swallowed up. The wolf paced before her, snarling and snapping his jaws. The powder beneath him stained crimson as the wound she gave him begun to bleed.
But it was not only her cut that wounded him. As Echo gripped her shoulder and watched him move, she saw he was suffering from what looked like thousand tiny cuts peppering his hide. And he was limping. How had she missed that?
Not that any of it helped. Wounded as he was, Echo would still be lucky to get out of this mess alive. Her shoulder was screaming from where he clawed her. She was outmatched. She could never hope to best his speed. Even worse, he was wary of her now. He would not make the mistake of leaving himself open again.
Echo would be dead if this did not come to an end soon.
The wolf still paced, fangs on display. Echo kept a sure grip on her blade. It would not be enough for what she needed, she knew, but its familiar weight brought her comfort.
So, Echo turned her mind inward and broke open the chains she kept on her soul.
All at once, the world became impossibly small and wonderfully infinite. The sun was too bright, the drab colors of the snow and stone around them grew brilliant. The wind roared and sang as the spirits around her made themselves known. And in the midst of it all was a desperate, angry haze where the wolf stood.
With her human blindness stripped away, Echo saw the creature for what he was. Not just a mundane beast of the wood, but two souls twisted together. Human and wolf. A lycan.
She reached out for the human smothered under the savage rage that was beast's influence. Slowly, painfully, she pulled him to the fore. As the body rearranged itself the sound of popping joints and cracking bones wafted by her ears. With her soul wide open, the painful sounds were all too loud. Her body felt too small, her skin too tight. All the while, Echo kept dragging the soul forward, studiously ignoring the growing pounding in her skull.
What could have been minutes or hours later, Echo awoke face down in the snow, every muscle screaming, her brain pounding at the inside of her skull. But as she took in the body beside her, Echo realized her troubles were far from over.
Dammit, it's a kid.
Echo lifted an eyebrow. "Why's that got you upset?"
The large raven turned his beak down at the bruised body below them. Because I could have talked you into leaving an adult.
He was pale as death, with wild, red hair, naked as the dawn. Echo swore. The wounds covering his skin were oozing, discolored, and reeking to all hell. And now, without the wolf's madness pressing down on her senses, there was no mistaking the miasma of black magic covering him from top to toe.
Echo sighed as empathy warred with practicality in her gut. They were pressed for time. There was a storm coming and she was dangerously exposed. Echo owed this boy nothing and he was pretty much dead already. Not to mention, witchcraft was a hellish thing to get involved with. It never ended well and Echo had enough bad luck already to last her a lifetime. But he was maybe all of ten years old and she didn't want a dead kid on her conscience.
She turned to her friend, who'd made his perch on her good shoulder. "Keep an eye out."
First thing, she took out the salt. Similar to plague, black magic infected anything it touched. A trick she picked up from a tengu medicine man, salt was a natural purifier and Echo was taking no chances. She rubbed the salt into her wounds, swearing against the black spots that danced in her vision.
With herself taken care of, Echo turned her attention to the wolf boy.
She searched him for any missing digits and found none. Echo took that as a good sign. Having all of his body parts accounted for meant that he hadn't been a witch's prisoner for long. Although any time spent in the company of a witch was too much in her opinion.
"You're lucky," she informed him, producing a small paper envelope from her bag. Mushroom spores. "I can fix these, but had she put a spell on you, you would have been as good as dead."
Witches were notoriously nasty, most of it having to do with the fact that they gathered magic through sacrifice. Usually the sacrifice of others. Removing a spell without a part from the witch herself was nearly impossible, due to the way they wove their magic. Each spell was unique to its caster.
A mushroom, however, gained its sustenance from refuse and decay, making it a wonderful sponge for soaking up witch magic. They would have to be quick. Already, snow was falling in a fine white powder, a small taste of what was to come.
Echo focused her power on the spores, coaxing them awake. Unlike the force she had to use to pull the change over the wolf, all it took was a small nudge to push the spores out of dormancy. They could hardly ignore the feast surrounding them.
The fungi sprouted and spread, sending spindly white shoots crawling around the body. She watched as they feasted on the black magic, growing large and meaty only to wither to dust when there was nothing left.
And when they were all gone, the change was instant. The purple rings had disappeared from his wounds, the rot was gone, and a bit of his color had returned. He was still bleeding, but the blood was clean. Echo let out a sigh of relief. The boy still might die, but it would not be the witch that killed him.
Satisfied that he would make it at least through the next few hours, Echo wrapped the boy in her cloak and hoisted him over her shoulder. The snow was coming down faster now, with fat wet flakes dusting her hair like confectioner's sugar. If they hurried, they might be able to avoid death by exposure, but it would be a close thing.
"We're going to die."
Asar shrugged deeper into the warm furs of his coat. "We're not going to die up here," he told his companion. However, judging by the grim look on his face, Tariq didn't believe him.
Well, he couldn't really blame the man. There was nothing but ice and stone for miles. How they were supposed to find a person in all this mess was anyone's guess. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howled, and a chill ripped down Asar's spine. He urged his horse down the meager path, eyes forward. He could not turn back, he had a job to do and if he looked back, he'd turn his horse around and go back to the fort. Then, what would his brother say?
"Cheer up," Asar told his friend. "This is hardly the worst job we've been sent on."
Tariq gave him a flat look. "Just because it's not the worst thing I've endured doesn't mean it isn't horrible." He turned a pensive face to the gathering clouds. "I'm going to die up here, I just know it."
Despite the man's dire admonition, Asar smiled. Tariq had always been a severe pessimist. It had made him a piss poor bunkmate when they were in training, but now Asar had gotten used to having a storm cloud hang around. "Let's hurry, I want to make it a few more miles before the snow sets in."
They traveled for a while in silence, each man alone with is thoughts. Asar had never been in a place so still. Even the sands back home made sounds. He shook himself to get rid of the crawling feeling just under his skin. The trees here were older than his country, and they seemed staunchly disapproving of Asar's and Tariq's interloping. One woman. All they needed to do was find one woman and then they could go home.
Easier said than done. They'd been tracking this coven for the better part of a year and this one kept slipping from their grasp. And now she'd picked one of the world's most treacherous territories to hole up in.
Asar and Tariq were flying blind. Their equipment had cut out the minute they'd crossed the border and no one in history had been stupid enough to try and scout this place to make a map. But going home empty handed wasn't an option so here they were freezing their stones of in an icy hellscape.
He needed a cigarette.