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The Wraith

 

It came from the mountains. It took everything.

Now he lives only for revenge.

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“How does it look?”

Carefully, I gripped my companion by the shoulder and pulled him away from the slippery stone wall. He left behind stains of blood on the cobalt rock; strands, thick and black, sticking to where he once rested. In the flickering firelight, what little I could see was pure horror. Three deep gashes, each about three inches apart, were scored across his back from left waist to right shoulder. A mess of torn flesh, muscle and tendons, he had been ripped to the bone, right through his thick furs and leathers. In the freezing temperatures, the blood seemed to flow less willingly, but this made the injury no less grim. Slowly, I let him roll back to his resting place against the wall of the cave. The heat from the fire warmed the rock that encased us, forming droplets of water that either dripped from the jagged ceiling or slid their way down the curved wall. I wiped my hands on the moisture, trying to remove some of the blood that coated them.

“I’ve seen worse”.

“On a gutted pig?” He chuckled breathlessly, his voice rattling.

“You just need rest. The wound will heal enough by morning.”

He gave another, hollow laugh and smiled, a crooked, disbelieving smile.

“You make it pay, won’t you?”

“We will.” I insisted, putting my hand on his shoulder.

I looked the dying man in the eye, hoping that some of my confidence would inspire him to keep on fighting. He just gazed back, his eyelids drooping. I could tell he was tired. So very, very tired. He didn’t seem to have the energy to fight, or to even care that he was facing his last moments. Harsh winds wailed past the entrance to the cave. A blizzard was tearing through the night beyond our little shelter. I could feel the bitterness of the frozen world outside. The dwindling fire a meagre offering compared to the unrelenting nightmare of snow; little protection against the sharp, icy winds that crept their way into our abode.

By the time dawn broke, I was huddled in the deepest corner of the cave, wrapped tightly in the fur cloak I had thought would keep me warm in these unforgiving mountains. My companion lay dead, taken either by his wounds or the ice that encrusted his lips and eyelashes. The fire had died about the same time he did. So long ago that it no longer even smouldered. The blizzard had cleared, but snow still fell. It almost never stopped falling in the mountains. In a stupor of hunger and sleep deprivation, I emerged from the cave. The sun had only just risen above the towering mountain peaks, but shone so brightly between the gaps of grey cloud that swarmed overhead I was nearly blinded. Its rays streamed off every flake of glossy white snow, snow that coated everything in sight; from giant boulders jutting from the canyon walls, to the trees that lined the deep valley sprawling away over both of my shoulders.

We’d found our hideaway halfway up the side of the valley the night before. As night fell, a lucky break in the barrage of snow meant the dark rocky archway caught my eye, a striking contrast against the white world that surrounded it. In a rush of cries, blood and panic, we’d scrambled inside. There was no sign of that now. No sign of the frantic night before. The snow made everything so elegant; so calm; so clean. I had no idea where I was going now. I had no idea what I was going to do. The man that lay dead inside the cave was the smart one; my problem solver. The man that lay dead somewhere in the snow before me was my navigator; the one who could tell me where to go. I was just the muscle. The farmhand with a large sword and the will to swing it.

And I was alone.

My father had always warned me about coming into the mountains. There were two truths in life, he used to say: That the mountains were no place for farm folk, and that Uncle Ryle was a no good swindler. I’d learnt as a boy that my Uncle was not a swindler, he was just better at business. But many years later, I was finally learning my father wasn’t wrong about everything. But I had a purpose for being here; we all had a purpose. And we knew there were risks.

There was nothing left for me now. Nothing left but to finish what we started. I dug my boots into the snow beneath and trudged on. Where I was travelling — east, north, west, I had no idea — but I knew what I was looking for. I knew what I was hunting. Wraiths left behind a sort of luminous mist wherever they moved, like the shimmering trail of a slug. This was how we knew what had slaughtered the people of the village. This is how I knew what had killed my father. Often the trails meant it was easy to avoid the wraiths, but I wasn’t looking to avoid this one.

We’d found it already, or I should say, it had found us. Its bright frosty-blue eyes had emerged from in the encircling blizzard last night, appearing as if from nowhere out of the gloom. I immediately took a swing and missed, but it didn’t. It took out my navigator with a slash off its left claw, falling away into the blizzard, lost in the night forever. In the same movement, the beast carved up my companion with the right claw. There was no chance to defend ourselves, no chance to fight after that. We just had to run. It had now taken everyone from me. The last survivors. My family, my home. I couldn’t even go back to the farm, not really. Growing food on the frozen plains that lay in the shadow of these hellish mountains was damn-near impossible. Getting the conditions right in the frigid temperatures, where ice never left the ground, took a lifetime of experience and my father had not yet managed to teach me all I needed to know. Twenty-two years apparently was still not enough to be a farmer in a world ruled by frost. All I had now was my goal, our goal. To kill the beast that stole my future.

We weren’t even sure why it was in the village. Not in my lifetime, nor my father’s, nor his father’s before him, had a wraith left the mountains. He used to tell me all about them, as the hearth crackled away. The stories had grown even longer of late, with the new mining going on in the mountains. They brought to the village some new stone fuel, and with it, the fire burned longer than ever — which meant the stories just kept on going. Stories of monstrous creatures in the mountains. Bloodthirsty demons of an old world. My father would regale me with tales of wraiths cutting down weary travellers and seasoned knights alike. He himself had never seen one, nor had anyone I knew, but we all knew what they were. The stories were as old as time. The miner’s work got me asking even more questions about my father’s rules, though. Why were they allowed into the mountains if they were so dangerous? Apparently, a combination of military convoys and fire-wielding sorceresses kept them safe from both the elements and the wraiths. I was a bit disgruntled with the notion that I was so incapable when they were not. Those feelings had long since passed.

I wandered through the frost-touched valley for what seemed like an eternity. The land was beautiful, but baron. There was no food, no warmth, and no life, save the snow-laden pine trees that reached on for miles. I was feeling weaker and weaker by the minute. I had lost our supplies in the rush the previous night. The pack of food was now buried under inches of snow. I knew I’d never find it. I didn’t bother to search. Between dazzling brightness and dreary gloom, depending on how covered by clouds the sun was, I started to feel my resolve wain. I wanted to quit, to give up and leave this glorious, deadly place behind. But I couldn’t. I thought of the mangled bodies of my family. The guilt was overwhelming. Had I been there, not out in the city chasing women, I might have been able to fend off the beast.

The village wasn’t home to many able young men, only three, and none had been around when it came. Then I thought of my companion in the cave, the frost surely still biting at his quickly freezing corpse. The guilt was worse still. As they wept over their families, my heart filled with rage. I felt the anger wash over me, masking the pain — I knew that now, as the cold bit at my own heart and began to thaw the fiery anger that burned inside. I had to almost drag our navigator into the mountains, and now he lay dead within them. My companion was only slightly more willing. The wraith took both his wife and daughter, but even he wouldn’t have set foot on these treacherous slopes if I hadn’t driven him to it. I goaded him, playing off his torment. I had to kill the beast, it was the only way to unburden my guilty conscience.

Was the wraith that attacked us last night the same that cut down the villagers? It was impossible to say. They all looked identical, apparently. We didn’t know exactly how many were living in the mountains, but we did know was they were mindless killers and even if I slew the wrong one, I’d redeem myself by culling a true vision of evil. Wraiths were ancient creatures, powered only by a lust for death. I was always told that they didn’t consume the flesh of their prey, they took the very life from them and fed off that instead. I didn’t believe it, and I was still not sure. Except for the massive slashes across his torso where the wraith had cleaved him as he worked in the fields, my Father looked as he ever did when I found him. I expected the draining of life to look more dramatic, but maybe it wasn’t something you could see.

I continued to struggle on through the wilderness, my feet sliding into inches of fresh snow with every step. My pace was slow and staggering. I had no direction in my mind, just eyes peeled for the sight of that luminous foggy trail. Bitter breezes sailed through the trees constantly, hitting me from all angles. Beneath my thick furs, I was covered in leather padding wrapped in yet more furs. Beneath that were tight linens tucked into my boots and gloves. I was used to the freezing temperatures and knew how to keep them out, but in the mountains, where winds gathered speed as they whipped through the deep valleys, even I was succumbing to the pain of the cold. The steel greatsword, heavy on my back, was not helping either.

Nothing much changed all day, other than that I progressively shrank into myself, residing to the fact that I would simply wander these frozen wastes until I collapsed and died; dead wraith or not. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to fight the monster alone when I was fit and healthy, not least now when I was ragged, tired, cold, weak and hungry. But what else could I do? I didn’t know my way out the mountains, even if I was coward enough to run. And yes, I’d thought about it. But then, things changed. It began with a bang. A horrible, low rumble that emanated from far away in the mountains, shaking the very ground around me and knocking snow from the branches overhead.

It lasted only a second, but was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Then, on the far side of the ravine, through the wiry trees, I saw cracks emerge in the snow, like splits in an ice-bound lake struck with a pick-axe. With a groan, the snow started to slide, slowly at first, but quickly picking up pace. It was crashing towards the deepest part of the valley — exactly where I stood. Heaving my stiff legs through the dense snow, I ambled frantically towards the other side of the valley, fear driving my frozen body to move faster than it should. I went up higher and higher until I could go no further; blocked by steep rock walls. Looking back, I saw snow swarm where I once stood, burying the land deep enough to cover me several times over. The force of the drift had brought down trees and uncovered a great expanse of bare rock on the cliffs of the valley’s far side.

Whatever had just happened transformed the landscape. It was as if I was standing in a totally different place. But that was not what interested me most. Down in the pit of the valley, where the freshly moved snow now lay, I could see something moving. Ducking behind a tree, I peered around to watch.

A lone wraith was moving around frantically in the canyon below, similar to a fly trapped in a jar. It was slashing wildly, dashing from tree-to-tree, cutting through them with ease. It was hard to make out its features, so far away was it, but it was definitely a wraith. About the size of a man and floating a foot or so above the ground, it left glowing trails of frosty-blue dust in its wake. After a moment of what seemed to be sheer panic, it let out a shriek, a piercing almost metallic noise, before darting away, dragging its low slung claws through the dusty, unsettled snow. With haste, I followed, just fast enough to outrun the dispersal of its trail. Walking through the mist was like walking through the heart of winter itself. The air was so cold it dragged deep into my lungs and felt like every breath was scaring them. I could feel ice forming on the hairs above my lip. I took to a path beside the wraith’s trail, I wouldn’t last long within it, and I was already on my last legs as it was.

Pushing forward took every scrap of energy I had, but I knew this would be my only chance. The wraith had moved far, its path leading me out of the sprawling valley and to the shores of a great frozen lake that stood between three looming mountain peaks. The frantic trail had slowly become calmer. The darting from side-to-side had stopped as the beast’s focus seemed to have narrowed. The trails were also thicker and more densely packed, spun with more and more floating specks of shimmering blue dust. I think it had slowed down.

I found it, seemingly rummaging through a bush of succulent red berries on the edge of the expansive lake. If I was to fight it, I was to fight it now, before I lost a single ounce more of my strength. The fires of revenge lit in my heart again at the sight of the wraith, they would keep me moving — even if the cold was trying hard to turn my bones to ice. My desire to slay the beast was all my mind’s eye was fixated on; that, and getting to the juicy berries on the bush behind it. We farmed these berries all the time. They grew on the slopes of the mountains just outside the village in abundance, although most were unreachable up the side of great, snow-covered clefts. They were delicious and hearty. They’d keep me going a little longer. With my heart pounding and my palms sweating despite the bitter, bitter cold, I drew my sword with a clatter of steel.

The wraith spun around in a smooth, gliding motion, its glowing blue eyes immediately found me. They were empty, soulless; without any humanity or emotion. They just glowed a hollow glow. Its eyes were set inside a narrow, elongated and pointed skull, grey and bare. A skull more like an ox’s than a man’s. From the skull grew a spine, of large bones as big as a fist that slowly trailed off into smaller pieces, until one, pointed bone hung about a foot from a ground. Just below its head, two arms sprang seemingly from nowhere. Attached not to shoulder blades nor its spine. To the arms were fixed giant claws, each longer than my forearms, thin, curved and sharp. There was no muscle, flesh or skin on the wraith. Nothing holding its bones together but a thick fog of glowing blue dust that clung to its form. Legend has it that a stroke of a sword through the spine would severe the magic that bound this ancient monster together, and the wraith would simply crumble.

I was about to find out if that were true.

As it approached, the beast’s gaze bore into me. It moved slowly, seemingly cautious. Stopping and starting, edging closer. I gripped my sword with both hands, raised it as steady as I could and prepared to swing. But about ten feet away, the wraith stopped. It let out a hollow snort. Again, the noise was metallic, an unusual sound for a living creature to make. To my surprise, it didn’t charge, leap or race towards me, slashing its talons. The wraith simply turned and started to glide away. Ignoring my presence, my stance, my willingness to fight. It was just leaving. I was frozen, not by the cold, but by disbelief. Where was it going? Why wasn’t it trying to tear me apart? My confusion turned to anger. Did it think it could just kill my father and get away with it? Did it think I would just let it float away?

“No!’ I screamed, my voice echoing across expanse before me.

It didn’t even turn around. It just kept moving towards another patch of berries nearby. I’d had enough. I started to run. The snow thinned by the lake’s edge, allowing swifter movement. I held my sword high. I was going to kill it. I was going to take my revenge. One slice, across its back. It was too easy. But I was going to do it. For my Father. For my companions. For th…

My foot caught the lip of a concealed rock beneath the snow and I tumbled forward, sword flung from my hands. I landed face down in the snow, and my strength evaporated in that moment. My body was so battered, so achy, so cold that it hurt. I couldn’t bring myself to rise. I could just lay here and die. I steeled what little resolve I had and rolled over to face the sky. Above me I saw blue, but I wasn’t the soft blue of a clear sky. It was darker, and shimmered in the sunlight. The wraith was above me, its long, gangly, claw-ridden arms either side of my head. It gazed down, arching its spine, peering at me. I prepared myself for the end.

Yet again, the wraith shocked me.

After a moment of curiosity, it moved on, far more interested in the berries than me. Hauling myself to my feet, I grasped at my sword on the ground beside me, dug it into the ice and used it to prop myself up as I stood panting, watching the ancient being. I didn’t understand. The wraith leaned over the bush, using its claws to cut away thicker branches and dead foliage. Taking a long, jagged breath, it made a sound like howling wind blasting through a cave. How it breathed without lungs I’ll never know, but it seemed to do so all the same. The bush rustled as the wraith inhaled, and began to wither, the berries turning from a cherry-red to mouldy black. Their plump and juicy shape sagging and oozing. The wraith moved on to yet another bush. There were plenty in this exposed part of the mountains.

The scene unfolding before me was nothing like what I expected a wraith encounter to be like. It was… peaceful. The fires of my rage, my desire for revenge, were all but extinguished. Instead, I felt the cold creeping up inside my body, taking every inch of me. My breath was slow and shallow and I could no longer feel my heart beating in my neck. I wondered if it was beating at all. What drove me no longer did, but now I had no reason to go on. I could no longer feel my legs, my hands gripping my sword, or anything else for that matter. I just felt the ice. Ice in my veins, ice in my heart. I caught one final glimpse of the wraith, draining the life from another patch of berries, before my hand slipped from the hilt and I felt the snow envelop me. What followed was a haze. I could feel myself moving, snow rushing over my shoulders, down my back and into the crevices of my boots. I was being dragged. My eyelids were heavy and frozen shut, but I could see light flickering beyond them.

Then, darkness.

I was no longer being dragged through snow, I was on a much rougher surface. I tore my eyes open and cast a look around. I found myself in yet another cave, now propped up against the wall, just as my companion had been. The navigator crouch over me, grinning. He reached beneath his shredded fur cloak — it was slung over his shoulders haphazardly, its proper form destroyed by large gashes all across it — and pulled out a handful of berries. He pushed them towards me. I took them without a thought, without even a thank you.

“I thought you were dead” I croaked, after scoffing down the sweet berries.

“I thought you were dead” The navigator replied, nodding to the tracks that lay outside the cave; the marks of my body that he’d dragged through the glistening snow.

“I slew the monster”.

“What?”

“The beast was just there, looking at a bush. It didn’t even notice me sneak up. I took your sword and cut it in half. The stories are true, you know? One swing was all it took.”

When would I stop feeling it? This all-consuming guilt. Sadness overcame me, the mourning feelings I should have had for my Father, instead of the unbridled anger. The anger that had cost too many too much. The navigator could see the look on my face, the look of regret, sorrow and devastation, not the joy and retribution he’d been seeking. I didn’t feel anything I thought I’d feel. I just felt more pain.

Pain for another life lost for no reason.