Tristan clung to the mountain face. Its cold surface stung his body, but it was worth it to escape the rushing snow-filled winds. He stared up into the eerie, blue-gray sky at the dark silhouettes of his companions.
“Have I mentioned that I hate climbing?” he shouted up to them.
“Yes!” they shouted down to him.
Tristan gritted his teeth and reached up for another handhold. Long ropes attached him to Scar immediately above him. Shazdiel was further up, then Beryl, and leading the climb was Migani.
Tristan cursed his luck. He was forced to climb an icy cliff, with Scar’s rear or rock and ice as his only view.
What I wouldn’t give for Beryl’s view…he thought.
“Why do we end up climbing so much anyway?!” he shouted to no one in particular between huffing breaths.
Shazdiel answered him, “Because people keep putting things we want where we can’t reach it!”
This elicited some giggles from the girls, but Tristan frowned. They’d climbed for hours, but it was impossible to tell how long exactly under never-changing, gray skies that unleashed a steady stream of snow on them. They needed to get to the top of the mountain ridge, and the only way up was to climb…so they were climbing.
They gave him a “kit” to assist with the climb. It consisted of a harness, which he wore, two long coils of rope, one of which secured him to Scar’s harness, half a dozen hooks and clamps, all of which hung uselessly on his harness, a spiked coil that looked something like a wrapped up bear trap, which he had no clue how to use, and some spiked soles which he strapped to his boots, but they only seemed to make it harder to get a foothold on the rock. His climb consisted of scrambling around with numb hands trying to grip the rock’s surface as Scar continually pulled him upwards after reaching the end of the rope connecting them.
He wasn’t wearing his armor, but its weight in his backpack threatened to plummet him to the earth which lay somewhere far below him hidden behind a sea of fog and mist. The heavy coat, hat, pants, and gloves which he wore negated any mobility shirking his armor granted him, and Tristan felt cheated by that. The heavy coat and hat only seemed to muffle his grumbles.
Above him, Beryl was also having trouble. Her short legs and arms were ill-suited to mountain climbing. Digging under the mountain might have been another story. She halted and uttered another prayer to her goddess.
“Valoria,” she said, “fill me with your love and light. May it warm me and guide me and protect me from harm.”
She could not reach the jeweled rainbow necklace she wore, as it was buried under her coat, but she mentally kissed it. They placed her in this spot intentionally so that the others could help her as Shazdiel did now.
“Come on, Beryl,” he said pushing underneath her armpits to lift her up the mountain face, “There you go.”
“Thanks, Shazdi,” she said as she reached the ledge which eluded her.
Shazdiel paused and placed a hand at his brow. He peered up the cliff face with pupiless violet eyes, his keen vision seeing much farther and clearer than any human’s even in this weather.
“It’s not far now,” he said, “We’re almost there. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried,” she said looking back at him and smiling, her round cheeks rosier than ever in the bitter cold, “Valoria is with us! Always!”
“The goddess provides,” Shazdiel said with a smirk.
The small priestess nodded to him and turned back to climbing. Shazdiel did not share her faith, but her hope and enthusiasm were infectious.
Migani’s human vision could not pierce the wall of snow and darkness, but she continued to climb, preparing the path for her friends by choosing the gentlest ascent and planting strategic pitons into the cliff’s face. The mountains were not her native environment, but she climbed in the wilds of her own lands from the time she was a small girl. She felt at home here bearing the brunt of the elements. She was a part of nature. She would travel to any desolate location with her friends if it meant staying away from the cities which still overwhelmed her. The cold and wind let her know she was alive.
In contrast to her friends, she wore bits of cloth wrapped around her hands and feet leaving her rough, callused fingers and toes exposed to the cold; better able to find purchase among the rocks. Her wild, brown hair whipped behind her like a short cape, and ice and snow were scattered throughout it. Her tanned face, as always, was painted with a heavy black band across her eyes with a stripe of red beneath it that ran across her nose. White streaks were smeared on each cheek and red triangles like the fangs of a gaping maw were painted on her forehead, chin, and each side of her jaw.
She hammered a piton into the cliff face, her taut, muscled arms pounding it in with efficiency, and stared up to the ledge above searching for a path. She did not see the hulking, dark shapes rising there, called by the loud hammering and vibrations.
“Migani, look out!” Shazdiel cried.
Migani reacted with catlike reflexes pulling tight against the cliff face and leaning to one side. A large, irregularly shaped stone hurtled passed her skipping along the stone face. It crashed near Beryl’s small form, missing her by inches, but dislodging her nonetheless. She dropped sharply almost ten feet before the line connecting her to Migani went taut. Migani held fast against the sudden jolt. Beryl screamed.
“Beryl! Hang on!” Shazdiel shouted. His hand was already extended in her direction. He’d tried to catch her as she passed, but she was too far to his right.
“What’s going on?!?” Tristan shouted below him.
“There’s something on the ledge,” Shazdiel shouted down while shifting to his right and dodging another stone, “and it’s hurling boulders at us!”
“We’re coming!” Scar shouted, “Come on, Tristan, move it!”
Scar was built like a mountain. Rock hard muscle covered every inch of his six and a half foot frame. He was easily the width of the slender Shazdiel and not insignificant Tristan standing side by side. His muscles were not forged in the wilds as Migani’s, but rather in the death pits as a gladiator. Scar used brute force and determination to lope upwards one massive arm at a time, pulling half his body’s length upwards with each pull. Tristan was quickly yanked upwards, holding the rock’s face with his palms to keep from smacking into it.
More stones were hurtling down through the drilling gusts of snow. Shazdiel saw two massive figures lurching on the ledge. They had to be taller than Scar by a few feet and almost twice as wide as him. The thick arms hurling the boulders at them looked like white tree trunks. Shazdiel was torn by indecision; Beryl was hanging below him and needed his help, but the creatures above them were endangering the entire group. If he didn’t stop them, more of them might be knocked loose or killed.
He stared at Beryl. She was small; a little over three feet tall, squat, and curvy. Her heavy coat was a bright red color like her pants and armor, and she could not be missed against the gray and white. She was hanging there with no way to get back up on her own, but there were things on that ledge; things that needed to die.
Shazdiel sighted the two white hulks and unleashed a black bolt of energy from his hand. The bolt struck the center of the creature and sank into it spreading along its white chest. A pained roar echoed out over the cliff. The bolt continued to writhe, as if alive, and small tendrils reached out from the chest of the first creature to strike the second. The second creature flinched backwards and fumbled the boulder it was hoisting, letting it fall clumsily to the side, clear of Shazdiel and his friends.
The gray sky flashed with bright light and crackled with thunder. A bolt of lightning shot from the clouds under Migani’s direction. It forked and struck both of the creatures, illuminating them in the snowstorm. Their bodies were thick and covered in a shaggy white fur. Their two legs were even thicker than their arms and ended in wide feet making them look like pillars. The arms ended in wide, webbed hands with huge, curling claws. Their heads were small, round lumps with two curling horns on each side. Their two round eyes were like black lumps of coal and their mouths were dark ovals filled with pointy, irregular, yellow teeth.
They recoiled from the lightning strike and staggered back from the ledge; steam rising from their burnt forms. The let out low, growling cries and a strange sound answered in return. Over the howl of the winds, a strange, unnatural buzzing could be heard. Migani cocked her head and a dim recognition came to her. It was not a sound she had heard before, but she felt as though she remembered it; some ancient racial memory. It filled her with unease.
Below, Scar reached Beryl. He pulled her towards him and she clutched his shoulder. She peered through the whipping wind with tear-filled eyes and saw Shazdiel climbing towards Migani. Scar kept her on his shoulder and climbed up towards the ledge at a steady pace. Behind him, Tristan was sputtering and cursing. Scar came to a sudden halt staring up at the sky.
There were lights in the sky above them; strange little dots of sickly pink and yellow light glowing in the haze of snow. The lights were attached by short, vine-like stalks to a bulbous, soft cluster that resembled some kind of bloated mold. A thick stalk like a squash or eggplant descended from this and sprang out from a queer, segmented carapace. The shell was dark, colored like a lobster, and curved like a cornucopia ending in a thin, hornet’s tail. Strange, knobby appendages dangled from this shell, multi-jointed and bent at strange angles, ending in scissor-like pincers. On the back of its shell ran two, soft, dry fins that resembled flat, gray mushrooms. Higher up the shell, holding it aloft on the howling wind, were two bat-like wings each bigger than the rest of its body and looking like brittle, red leaves.
There were four of these nightmare perversions of plant, animal, and insect hovering above the ledge in the open sky. Strange, disturbing buzzing sounds came from them, and their lights flashed on and off in varying colors in some mysterious pattern. Scar, Tristan, and Beryl stared in dumbfounded silence at them.
Shazdiel said in a low voice, “Sweet, fucking gods…”
Migani spat a curse, “Abominations! Things that should not be!”
She drew her spear from her back, clutching precariously to the cliff’s face with her other hand. She held up the spear, and it erupted in glowing, orange flame. She swung the spear sharply from side to side as though flicking blood from its tip, and the flames dripped off surrounding the creatures in the air. The flames held them each in a glowing, orange aura hovering inches from their bodies without touching them. The creatures recoiled and let out shrill, high-pitched warbles; their bodies distorting inside the flame bubbles. They were bright against the gray sky; easy targets.
Shazdiel whipped his hands around above his head as though twirling invisible threads. Spirals of flame and lighting coiled out from him up into the air to snap at the flying things. The spirals seared like hot brands leaving black scorches and ragged welts on the things which redoubled their keening.
Beryl grabbed hold of the rainbow necklace under her coat and prayed loudly into Scar’s shoulder.
“Valoria, hear my plea, grant us your love and light against evil and darkness.”
As she finished her prayer, a warm, pink glow surrounded Beryl and her friends. They felt the warmth deep in the core of their beings. They felt neither cold, nor fear, nor hesitation.
Scar scrambled up the cliff’s face past Migani and Shazdiel to crest the ledge. The two shaggy, white creatures loomed there, recovered from the lightning strike, snarling and advancing on him. He set down Beryl and charged to meet them. He stopped short as the rope connecting him to Tristan caught, but the dark-skinned man appeared over the ledge a moment later and hurried to join him.
The first white behemoth reached Scar, swinging a claw the size of the man’s chest at him in a wide arc. Scar pivoted his hips and slid around the swipe, coming in close to the creature’s shaggy body and hammering short, upward punches into the creature’s sides. The creature let out stinking, gusts of hot breath as it reeled from the blows. As the second behemoth circled Scar, Tristan let out a sharp whistle and banged his longsword his shield with several loud clangs.
“Hey! Hey! Over here, ugly!” he cried.
The creature turned its attention to Tristan and charged him instead.
Tristan braced his shield to receive the blow and the heavy claws connected with it. The force of the blow sent Tristan sliding backwards on his heels to the edge of the ledge. He kept his balance and pushed back with two quick smacks from his shield followed by a horizontal slash with his sword. The blade caught one of the creature’s claws opening a gout of bright, red blood.
Shazdiel and Migani climbed over the ledge standing beside Beryl who was crouched in the snow praying and clutching a small, golden dagger.
The flying things were pushing against the fiery cocoons which held them, and they moved slowly across the sky as though moving through a strong current. As they floated nearer, two of the flying things hovered over Migani and Shazdiel while the other two closed on Scar. Their lights became a uniform blue-white, and a thick white mist formed around them. It spread out from the flying things like a cone to engulf Migani, Shazdiel, and Scar. The mist coalesced around them in a stinging, icy cold. Beryl’s glow offered some protection, but the cold shards still penetrated through them.
Tristan shouted, “We’ve got these,” as a massive claw crashed against his shield, “keep the fliers off us!”
Migani responded by gesturing in the air to call down a lightning strike on the two flying things above them. Electricity danced over and through their shells. They shook and smoldered in the air.
Shazdiel spoke strange words and formed his hands in front of him. A pillar of light appeared as if from the stars. Shazdiel guided his hands in front of him and the pillar moved under his command. He drove the pillar of blazing light first into one of the flying things and then the other. They were seared by its radiance, and both dropped to the snowy ledge, dark and still.
Beryl prayed behind Shazdiel and Migani.
“Valoria’s light will burn you!” she cried and a pillar of flame shot from the heavens striking the white behemoth battling Scar. The pillar passed through its round head and into the ground melting away the snow beneath the creature. The massive creature toppled backwards in a charred ruin.
Scar drew a large metal net from his belt, uncoiling it as he hurled it into the sky at one of the flying things menacing him. It folded around the thing, tangling its wings and dragging it to the ground with a thud. Scar was immediately on top of the thing, holding the net down on it.
The flying thing stuck its small pincers through the openings in the net and nipped at Scar shredding off tufts of his heavy coat, but Scar ignored it. He drew a wide, curved dagger from a sheath and plunged it repeatedly into the thing aiming it between the seams of its segmented shell.
Tristan circled the remaining behemoth, moving away from the edge of the cliff. The creature swiped at him. Tristan blocked and dodged, but it caught him with a backhand in the side, and he was knocked staggering back towards the edge. Tristan countered with his shield in an upwards strike cutting into the creature’s chest with its sharpened edge. It roared swinging its claws wildly. Tristan stepped back, one heel sliding out over the ledge, and raised his sword over his head in both hands. As the behemoth closed, he brought down the double-handed blow on the creatures head screaming, “Yah!”
It cut a rent down the center of the creature's skull leaving it confused and disoriented. Tristan stepped around the behemoth to strike it from behind.
As he did so, small, piercing pincers grabbed hold of him. He felt them dig into his sides through his heavy coat, and he was lifted from the ground. He hurtled through the air towards the open sky over the edge of the cliff. A black bolt struck the flying thing in its fins. The creature let out a strangled buzz and dropped along with Tristan.
“Tristan!” Beryl cried.
Tristan came down short of the ledge and tumbled over the cliff. He dropped a few feet over the ledge and then slammed backwards against the cliff wall hanging in the air by the rope attached to him. He saw the flying thing’s body fall through the white mist and disappear.
Scar was on his hands and knees scrambling for a hold in the snow and ice as the rope, tied to his harness at one end and Tristan at the other, pulled him towards the ledge. The flying thing in Scar’s net let out some meek buzzes, and its pincers twitched trying to snap at him.
The last behemoth, regaining its senses, lay between Scar and the ledge. Blood ran over its head staining it deep crimson. It stumbled towards Scar who was still sliding backwards. From over the side of the ledge, Tristan let out a cry as he scooted downwards jerkily.
There was a blur of motion in front of Shazdiel.
Migani leapt through the air gripping the bloodstained totem hanging from a leather thong around her neck. As she wrapped her fingers around its cat shape, her form changed mid-leap from wild woman into wildcat. The sleek, black panther that was now Migani landed on the behemoth’s shoulders and bit down with her powerful jaws and rent its back with her claws. She let out a deep, throaty growl as she tore into the monster again and again. The behemoth flailed its claws, but they could not reach back to strike the panther.
Scar rolled onto his back turning himself around to grab his rope with both hands. He dug in his heels and halted his slide. Tristan stopped falling and struggled to turn himself around. Scar hauled him up over the side, the rope rubbing against the icy, rock ledge.
Shazdiel unleashed black bolts in succession at the behemoth as Migani continued to tear it apart, never releasing the death grip of her jaws. The creature’s knees buckled, and under their combined assault toppled to the ground. Migani at last released her grip on it, stalking around the creature’s body, and letting out a jaguar’s growl.
The flying thing continued to buzz and thrash in Scar’s net, as the man grasped Tristan’s hand and pulled him back onto the ledge.
“Thanks, man,” Tristan said clapping Scar on the back, “You saved my life!”
“Any time, brother,” Scar replied giving him a shaking pound on the back in return.
Migani resumed her human form and knelt beside the two men putting an arm around each. They smiled at her, and she smiled back, blood and gore smeared across her face. Tristan’s eyebrows shot up, and he shared a look with Scar who grinned and shrugged.
Shazdiel looked around the ledge’s surface surveying the carnage.
Beryl padded over to Scar’s net, gripped the cluster of fading light stalks on the flying thing, pulled it upwards, and sawed through the stalk beneath with her dagger. The thing twitched and struggled, but went silent when she severed the cluster from the body. She dropped the cluster, and the lights on it went out, though the body’s pincers still twitched. She wiped her dagger off in the snow, returned it to her sheath, and joined her friends.