Alec hurried through the dark, his fingers touching the cold wall for guidance as he went. He was breathing hard, both from the exertion of his passage and the remnant of adrenaline in his system from his short fight with the fire dǽmon, his breath coming in long, bursts of vapor that dissipated in his wake.
After what seemed a long time, he saw hints of light illuminating his path and the walls of the cave and, moving with more confidence, redoubled his efforts at reaching Haruka. He turned a final bend in the tunnel and saw her silhouetted against the fading light outside.
When Alec stopped he offered a weak smile and said, “It’s over.” Then, he looked closer at the light outside and a frown creased his face. “The storm is almost upon us,” he said.
Haruka turned to face the darkening sky and nodded. “I have been listening to the wind and have seen the clouds gathering,” she said and then hugged herself. “And it is getting much colder.”
Then she looked at Alec. “Is everyone all right?”
Alec shook his head. “Ästa was injured. We need her clothes to bind her wounds until we can get help for her.” He bent to gather the small pile as he spoke. “Torval needs you to come with me.”
Haruka looked unconvinced. “I don’t like dark, confined places,” she said and took an involuntary step back.
Alec nodded his understanding. “I would prefer to be out of here too, but with the approaching storm it will be safer toward the rear of the cave,” he said and turned to start back. “Come on; it will be all right.” He held out a hand for Haruka to take. When still she hesitated, Alec moved up and clasped her hand in his. “I will be with you all the way,” he said and started into the dark.
Haruka followed, her steps tentative, her grip tight on Alec’s hand. Then, as they moved deeper she relaxed and increased her pace to where Alec no longer felt he was pulling her along. He thought she must have won some small battle in her mind and smiled.
He was glad to have this opportunity for a private moment with her. Still, even though he wished he could tell her of his feelings, he decided not to say anything; at least until he saw the right time. For now, he took comfort in the feel of her small hand gripping his as they moved through the darkness.
“What happened to Ästa?” Haruka asked, once her fear of the dark abated.
“It was a fire dǽmon,” Alec said. “She attacked it to defend the bears, and it hurt her.”
“How bad is she hurt?”
Alec hesitated before answering. “I don’t know,” he said. “She is still in her wolf form, but unconscious and bleeding from a bad wound. Beyond that, I don’t know. She could have broken bones or damage inside.”
“Then we must hurry,” Haruka said and increased her pace, now pulling Alec along in the dark.
Pulled awake by some irresistible force, Ästa’s consciousness sprang up to the front of the wolf’s mind where waves of pain slammed into her and threatened to drive her back down. With an effort she forced the worst of the pain back and tried to focus on what had pulled at her sleeping mind.
The last she remembered, the wolf had been fighting a dǽmon – and losing. The memory of the recent skirmish caused fresh pain to swell up once more until she pushed it back. As best she could, Ästa took stock of her situation. She was still in her wolf form, but its consciousness regressed while Ästa’s mind was dominant. Because of this, she was better able to determine the extent of her injuries. At once she knew her body was in bad shape. She could tell that she had a broken shoulder and hip. There was no internal bleeding from a ruptured organ, of that she was grateful; it was the bite to her back that worried her the most. Beyond the obvious physical damage done when the dǽmon bit her, which would heal easy enough given time and rest, it was the dǽmon’s toxin that was the major concern. It was preventing her from reverting to her human form.
She had no choice but to remain as a wolf until she could rid herself of the poison.
Then finished with the assessment of her physical condition and accepting her situation, Ästa opened her mind to seek out what had wakened her. “Who is there?”She said with her mind-speech, not sure what she expected as an answer. When the answer came, it did not surprise her.
“You are a shape-shifter, I see,”said a voice in Ästa’s mind. “You are very brave, but very foolish for fighting that dǽmon like you did.”
“I had to do something,”Ästa said. “The cubs were frightened, and the mother injured. I could not allow the dǽmon to hurt them.”
There was a long moment of silence and Ästa was preparing to say more when the voice came again. This time though, it was less accusing and, Ästa noted with interest, filled with emotion.
“I thank you for your selfless sacrifice for my children,” the she-bear said. “I could not defeat the dǽmon and it would have killed them.”
“How bad are you hurt?”Ästa said.
“It is bad,”the bear said; “but I have some time. However, I must get to the springs soon or I may perish. What about you; how are your injuries?”
Ästa told the bear what she knew of the wolf’s physical condition and then added: “The dǽmon bit me and now I fear there is poison in my body that is keeping me from changing back to my human form.”
Ästa felt the bear considering this information. Then its voice, filled with urgency, said: “You must travel to the springs with us. That is the only thing that can help you rid your body of the damage done by the dǽmon’s bite.”
Ästa despaired; there was no way she could make a trip to these ‘springs’ the bear spoke of with her body broken as it was. “I cannot move,”she said. Then, she had an idea. “If I could talk with my friends, perhaps they could help.”
“Your friends are very brave, shifter-girl,”the bear said; “and one has strong magic. But they do not have the mind-speech as you do and cannot know what to do.”
Ästa considered this and almost gave up, but then she had another idea. “Would you be able to carry me if my friends help?”
The bear considered this for a moment. “No; I am too weak. Your friends will have to carry you.”
“How will they know what we need to do?”Ästa said.
The bear seemed to consider this for a long moment. Then it said, “Are you able to take control of the wolf’s body?”
Ästa thought about it and answered, “Yes, but only for a short time; the pain is too great.”
“If you help, I will try to get your friends to understand,”the bear said.
“I don’t understand,”Ästa said.
“Just get your friend to look at me,”the bear said; “I think I can get him to understand.”
Ästa agreed to try. Then, steeling herself against the pain she knew was coming, Ästa’s mind ascended and took over control of the wolf. There was a brief struggle while the wolf resisted, but Ästa assured it that she was trying to help and at last, the wolf relented and gave over control to Ästa. As soon as the wolf withdrew, the pain washed over her and it took all of her effort not to flee back into the safe recesses of unconsciousness.
She turned her head and saw Torval seated next to her, his hand on her side, his head bowed, eyes closed. She tried to vocalize her need, but could only utter a weak whine. However, it was enough. Torval looked up and their eyes met.
While he waited for Alec to return with Haruka, Torval busied himself by gathering the few pieces of dry wood that lie around and building a small fire with the help of the power in the staff. He called up a brief flash of heat from the Kenazrune and set the kindling alight with a touch of the staff. With the fire burning and giving off light with the heat, Torval extinguished the magic, choosing to save it for later…just in case.
All the while he was going about his wood gathering and fire building, Torval kept an eye on the injured she-bear, unsure of its intentions. It had not moved, but its eyes did not seem to miss anything he did. Torval made every attempt not to approach the bear or its cubs while he gathered the wood. But while he was casting about for the fuel for their fire, one of the cubs came right up to him and stared, unafraid.
Knowing better, but unable to resist, Torval extended a hand to the little bear. To his surprise, Torval watched as the cub stretched up and allowed its white fur to be stroked. Looking back toward the mother bear, Torval tried to smile as he petted the inquisitive fur ball. But the mother did not seem to mind.
“I guess you must trust me a little,” he said. “Don’t worry, mother; I will not harm your cubs.”
Now, seated next to the wolf, Torval rested his hand on her side, bowed his head, and offered a prayer to the gods for his cousin.
Torval shook his head at the madness of their predicament. Hadn’t they broken both the rules his uncle had admonished them to abide to? Now here they were, intervening between a mother and her cubs andinside a cave.
“If it wasn’t for your injuries, I’d kill you,” he said with mock exasperation to the wolf and then stroked its fur. “You know I’ll do what I can to make you better, Ästa.”
His eyes still closed, Torval felt the wolf move and heard it whine. He opened his eyes and stared into the wolf’s yellow ones.
“Ästa, are you in there?”
The wolf blinked and tried to move its head. Then Torval noticed the she-bear rise, and started to move out of her way, but halted when the wolf took his hand in its mouth and held him fast.
Torval looked down at the wolf. “What are you trying to tell me?”
The wolf tilted its head toward the bear that was now on its feet and moving closer.
Swallowing hard, Torval stared at the approaching bear and then over to where the staff lie – out of reach. There was no way he could retrieve the staff without removing his hand from the wolf’s mouth, which was not likely to happen as she held it quite firm.
So, summoning his courage, Torval returned his attention to the large, white beast looming over him and tried to put on a confident face. Not knowing what to say, Torval sat still and waited.
When the bear was within arm’s reach, it lowered its massive head and pointed its nose at the wolf’s injured back. Then, it turned and looked at its own wounded side and then back at Torval, and waited.
“I don’t understand,” he said and then stopped to consider for a moment. Then he said, “The wolf is hurt and so are you. Is that what you are trying to tell me?”
Again, the bear pointed at the wolf’s injured back and then its bloody side before turning back to Torval. This time, Torval was sure of the message. “Yes; you are both injured,” he said. “So what.”
The bear huffed, its breath shooting out of its open mouth in a rush. And in that small outburst, Torval thought he detected a hint of frustration. Then the bear turned, faced the exit of the cave, and made to walk away. It took two steps before stopping and turning back to look at the wolf and then at Torval. It swung its head back toward the exit and Torval smiled.
“You want us to come with you?”
The bear turned back and settled down next to the wolf, its gaze fixed on Torval.
Torval’s smile faded as he re-evaluated the wolf’s condition. He looked back at the bear and said, “She is hurt too bad to carry. I do not know how we can move her without doing more harm.”
Just then, Alec and Haruka arrived and stopped short, unsure of what was happening. “Torval,” Alec said. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Torval said and noticed the pile of Ästa’s clothes Alec was carrying. “Is there something there we can use to bind her wounds?”
Haruka stepped forward, stealing a quick glance at the three bears, and pulled Ästa’s woolen undergarment from the pile. Then she knelt next to Torval and passed the item to him. “This should work if you cut it into strips,” she said and offered him her knife.
“Thank you, Haruka,” he said and began cutting the fabric.
Before long he had several long strips of cloth and, using as much care as he could, began to wrap them around the wolf’s body, trying to staunch the flow of blood without putting so much pressure on the wound that it made it difficult for the wolf to breathe.
After several, stressful minutes, during which Torval was sure the wolf would bite him, he covered the worst of the injuries and the blood stopped flowing. Torval sat back on his heels and exhaled, glad for that to be done.
During the entire time he was attending to the wolf, the she-bear and her cubs sat nearby and did not move. Now though, the she-bear grunted and tried to rise, and Torval thought he understood.
“Do you want us to follow you now?” he said.
Without replying, the bears walked off toward the cave entrance.
Torval looked to the others. “We need to fashion a sled to drag her,” he said.
Alec looked about the cave and shrugged. “Not much here,” he said.
“How about this,” Haruka said and took Ästa’s heavy traveling cloak from Alec. She laid it out on the cave floor, spreading it out alongside the wolf’s body before stepping back to consider. “I think it will work,” she said.
“I don’t know,” Torval said.
“Sure,” Haruka said. “We will lay her on the cloak and pull her using the sleeves.”
Torval thought about it as he looked at the long cloak. “You might be right,” he said. “Here, Alec; help me move her.” Torval moved closer to the wolf’s head and shoulders and gestured for Alec to do the same, but nearer the hips.
When both were in position, Torval said, “Now, be careful…lift.” They did and placed the large wolf onto the cloak’s thick fur. The wolf let out a whine of pain, but otherwise made no sound, nor did it try to bite either of the two young men trying to help her, which pleased them both immensely.
With the wolf positioned on the cloak, Haruka used the remaining strips of cloth to secure the wolf to the cloak. This took several minutes, and when she finished she stood and regarded Torval.
“Where are we going?” she said.
“I don’t know,” Torval answered. “The bear wants us to go with her though, and I think we should.”
Alec stepped up at this. “But the storm,” he said.
Torval started. “Oh no,” he said. “I forgot about the storm.” He looked to see where the bears had gone, but they had already moved out of the light. Then grabbing the sleeves of the cloak and handing one to Alec said, “Come on; let’s try to catch them.”
“Be careful,” Haruka said. She was standing to the side and keeping a close watch on the wolf as they pulled the cloak across the icy floor of the cave.
“It’s working,” Alec said.
“Yes; it is working,” Torval agreed. “Now, pull; we have a way to go and I don’t want to lose the bears.” But before they had gone very far, he said, “Haruka; would you bring the staff, please?”
“Of course,” she said and bent to retrieve the ash staff. Then as she caught up, she handed it over to Torval.
Their progress was slow, but based on what Haruka could tell, the wolf was not in any additional discomfort from being moved in this manner. After several minutes they saw dim light ahead and before much longer arrived at the mouth of the cave only to see that the storm had arrived and was blowing ice and snow with furious winds that cut with cold.
The three ice bears were there as well, waiting at the cave’s entrance, and seemed unaffected by the fierce winds and bitter cold. The she-bear, when she noticed them arrive, turned and moved out into the storm, her cubs close on her heels.
“We can’t go out there,” Alec said. “We’ll freeze.”
Torval nodded and considered what they might do. Then he looked at the staff, an idea forming in his mind. I’m not sure about this, but I’ve done it before, he thought, recalling the shield he conjured against the tree dǽmons. He turned to the others and said, “Stay close and don’t worry; I’m going to try something that may help. If it does and as long as we don’t lose sight of the bears we will be all right.” Then he created an image in his mind of a warm shelter surrounding them and, pushing past the lingering doubt, called on the staff to provide the shield necessary to protect them all. Raising the staff and pressing the Thurisazrune, he invoked enough energy to blanket them all in protective warmth.
At once, a transparent dome blocked the wind – and more importantly most of the cold – and enveloped the quartet. It was not warm, but as long as it lasted, they would survive the harsh weather.
“It worked,” he said with a laugh and glanced about to make sure the dome was covering the wolf’s body and theirs. Then praying that the power would hold, Torval nodded and the three, pulling the wounded wolf along behind, stepped out of the cave and into the teeth of the storm to follow the ice bears.
Ästa allowed her mind to slip back into darkness when Torval and Alec began to drag the cloak as the pain was too great for her to withstand. Now however, she felt that same irresistible force drawing her back and though reluctant to face the pain, she ascended once more to speak with the bear.
“We are nearly there,”the she-bear said. “When we arrive, your body must be placed in the waters of the spring to heal. I will go first to show your friends, but you must help them understand. Once you are immersed in the water, you must not be removed before the new day, or else the healing will not be complete.”
“I understand,”said Ästa. She allowed herself to see out through the wolf’s eyes and saw Haruka walking beside her, her head bowed against the wind. For a moment, their eyes met and Ästa could see that she was struggling against the cold, but Haruka offered a smile and gently stroked the wolf’s fur before turning back and facing the snow and wind.
Unable to look around, Ästa lie there and tried to keep the pain at bay while she waited for their arrival at the springs and hopefully the healing that would allow her to resume her human shape.
For the rest of the day, Torval and the others followed the bears, dragging the wolf on the makeshift sled as they made their way across the ice and snow toward…Torval did not know. He trusted that Ästa knew what was happening and that the bear could help.
The protective dome was keeping the majority of the wind and cold from getting through; however, as the hours passed, Torval could not help but notice that more wind and cold were passing through the shield. He turned his mind to the staff and willed more energy from the staff, but soon realized that it was waning and would soon be depleted. With growing concern, he hoped that wherever it was the bears were taking them, they would get there fast.
They closed the gap that had grown between them and the bears since leaving the cave, the bears having better mobility and speed over the difficult terrain. But since then, by taking care not to jostle the wolf more than necessary as they pulled the crude litter, they dropped back, allowing the gap to increase once more. Once during their trek they had lost sight of the bears, their white coats blending in with the blowing snow and ice. Fear threatened to take them until they found them during a break in the wind. Now, they were keeping close so as not to lose sight of them again.
Then with no other warning, the staff’s energy failed, leaving the four of them exposed to the cold and wind. Faced with the prospect of freezing, Torval shouted to the others, “Keep moving; it can’t be much further.” To himself he thought, I hope so. We won’t last long otherwise.
Over the last mile he noticed the landscape begin to change. Where there was nothing but the vast, flat expanse of the ice, now there were tall spires of rock jutting up from the otherwise flat ground. As they pushed on, the numbers of these rock formations increased, and as they wended their way around and between the narrow, black monoliths they soon discovered that these dark towers of stone blocked the majority of wind, so by the time the sun was dipping below the horizon, the wind ceased blowing at their backs. The cold was another thing though. As the sun lowered in the west, the temperature fell so that by the time dusk came it was threatening to freeze them in their tracks.
“Torval, I cannot go much farther,” Alec said. “The cold is killing me.”
Torval had no words of encouragement. He was colder than he had ever been. His hands and feet were numb, and he was so tired. All he knew was that he had to follow the bears. He trusted that they had to be close to whatever or wherever it was they needed to go. So, he dipped his head and pulled harder. “Keep pulling,” he said and tried to follow his own words.
Then, just as his strength was about to give out he heard Haruka call out, “Look!”
Torval lifted his head. There, in the failing light not one hundred yards away, was a low shelf of rock that crossed in front of their path. It would require that they climb over it if they were to continue. However, rather than despair at the newest impediment to their travels, Torval shouted with relief. For what he saw rising just beyond the low run of black rock was just what they all needed: steam. They had arrived.
The she-bear led them through the rocks by a just discernible path on which they had to move with extra care so as not to disturb the wolf, whose breathing had become more labored during the last hour. Haruka noted the change and called out to Torval, “We must hurry; she is failing.”
The final push through the rocks was difficult because of the tight turns and narrow opening through which they had to pass. In the end though they made it and stood facing a large pool of steaming water, its surface black and roiling. Jagged, black rocks jutted up from the surface at the edge of the pool and the dried remnants of small trees and bushes dotted the immediate area, all of which combined to form a protective barrier around the pool. As a result, there was little or no wind and with the steam from the water rising around them, the travelers were at once warmed and shed their cloaks.
As they watched, the she-bear moved toward the pool through a small gap in the rocks. It formed a natural entrance to the pool, and the bear, with her cubs in tow, moved through the gap into the black water.
“We must do the same for Ästa,” Torval said and removed the bindings that held the wolf to the cloak. Taking great care, he pulled the cloak toward the water. It took only a short time before they had the wolf positioned next to the water. Then, Torval removed his boots, stepped into the water and eased the wolf in with him.
The water was not deep near the edge of the pool and Torval controlled the wolf as he lifted it from the sodden cloak that sank beneath and away. “Alec,” Torval said. “Can you retrieve the cloak; we will need it for our trip back.”
Alec moved closer to the edge of the pool and leaned over to reach for the sleeve left floating on the surface. As he did, he lost his balance and his left leg slipped into the water. When he did, his sword tip dipped into the water as well. The result both startled and amazed them all. For when the enchanted blade sank below the surface, it glowed with a bright light that seemed to emanate out in all directions.
Torval took an involuntary step back, unsure of what was happening, and lost his grip on the wolf when he tripped on a submerged rock. As the wolf started to sink, and before Alec could recover and move out of the water, the light gathered into a single point and shot out straight toward the wolf, bathing it in the light and bearing it up so that its head was out of the water.
“Don’t move,” Torval said and Alec stood still. “I think the magic in your sword is helping her.”
Alec did as Torval said and eased his dry leg into the warm water and allowed more of the sword into the water as well. The light surged as the entire blade became wet and Alec and Torval had to avert their eyes at the white light that engulfed the wolf’s body.
They remained still, standing in the warm water and letting it soothe their cold joints. Haruka removed her heavy cloak and boots and stepped into the water to stand next to Torval. She sighed with pleasure as the heat of the hot springs banished the cold from her body.
“It has been such a long time since I have had a hot bath,” she said. “It feels wonderful.”
Torval smiled at her and agreed. “I have heard of hot springs,” he said; “but we have none in my homeland.” Then he looked at the wolf floating on the water. “These are healing waters, I’d warrant,” he said. “That’s why the bear wanted us to follow. Look.” He pointed to where the wolf lay in the water.
With care, the wolf tried to move its limbs in the water. It lifted its head a little and peered around at its surroundings, the light bathing it and holding it up. Then the wolf started drinking the water. As it did, they noticed its eyes become brighter, more alert.
“It’s working,” Haruka said and smiled. She grasped Torval’s hand and squeezed. “You were right.”
As the wolf drank, it grew stronger and soon tried to turn around in the water. But the light held it fast and would not allow it to thrash about. Alec nodded as if he understood.
“The magic of the sword is keeping Ästa from hurting herself while it works with the waters of the black spring to restore her to health,” he said and faced Torval and Haruka. “It won’t take much longer.” Then, his face grew serious. “Once the light recedes, we will need to be careful with her,” he said. “She may not return to her human form for a time, while the magic of the water completes its work on her body. She may be hard to control.”
Alec stared at Torval. “Do you think you can keep her calm and in the water? It may still take some time.”
Torval nodded. “I will do what I must,” he said.
During all this, the bears moved off a distance by themselves. And while the cubs played and splashed, the she-bear relaxed and took in the restorative powers of the hot springs. Now quiet, the three ice bears were staring at them as if waiting to see what would happen. When at last something did, it did not happen all at once.
At first, the light from Alec’s sword began to fade. Then, with a flash of finality it blinked out and the hot springs plunged into near darkness. After a few moments, his night vision restored, Torval noticed a bluish light coming from the hot springs. He glanced around, looking into the depths to see if could determine its origin, but soon realized that the light was coming from the water itself and not some single point.
“It’s the magic of the black springs,” he said to no one in particular, but when he looked around at the others, noticed that Alec was nodding agreement.
“Magic,” Haruka murmured and looked all about, her voice filled with awe.
“Torval; she’s slipping below the surface,” Alec said and moved toward the wolf as it struggled in the water.
“I’ve got her,” Torval said and moved up to wrap his arms about the wolf’s body, keeping its head above the water.
As he held it, the wolf’s alert yellow eyes intent on his, Torval said, “I told you I’d take care of you, Ästa. Now, hold still for a while longer; you are not healed quite yet.”
The wolf blinked and relaxed in his grip. They spent the rest of the night standing in the warm, healing waters of the black springs while the storm raged all around them.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish