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Ruzahl's Spire

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ADIRA RUETA ELAEZAR

At one toe's touch, she pulled back from the water's edge, skin singed from but a moment's contact. She was unprepared for how hot the springs would actually be. Days worth of travel through the unforgiving winter wastes had conditioned her for the coldest of climates, but stumbling upon this hidden paradise for brief respite was far from what she had expected on her journey.

"I can't...," she said softly, cheeks flush with the color of roses. "It's too hot."

As tempting as the hot springs may have seemed, she would settle for the warm, steamy interior of the insulated cavern. Standing up on the wet slate floor, she looked up again in awe. The cave was no wider than the average home, but its ceilings reached far higher than the apothecary could make out. There was hardly any light, save for the dim illumination of scattered lightning bugs, bioluminescent blues and greens scattered across the dark expanse like stars in a surreal sky. Around the pool, there was a thin curtain of woody trees whose only support were roots that encircled the black stone. From their thin, delicate branches hung dangling vines of flowers that spanned the various shades of evening. Hand running over the gnarled branches, Adira could practically feel the raw, primordial life flowing through the ancient grotto.

She could stay here forever, she thought, plucking a blue, fuzzy fruit, no larger than an apricot, from one tree's grasp. It was a stone fruit, she surmised, scrutinizing the soft curves and striated rind of the curious new species. Biting into it, she was surprised at just how tart the fruit was, accompanied only by a faint, pleasant sweetness. While it was nothing like the sweet, saccharine fruit she had expected from such an dreamlike environment, its flavor was mildly addicting.

"Garnet, you have to try one of these," she said, turning back towards the cerulean waters as she looked towards her guide.

@The Hummingbird

Edited by Artificer

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For a long moment, Garnet did not reply. Completely taken by the natural beauty and tranquility of this cave, he stared at the shimmering water surrounding him.  With the glowing insects hovering amongst the soothing blues of the many dangling flowers, the reflection there was arresting, illusory as it wavered when he shifted knee deep in the hot springs. Unlike his charge, Garnet did not flinch or waver at the heat, finding it instead as comforting as a warm bath. Reaching out, he touched one of the flowers. His eyes were wistful as he finally turned to the woman.

“It looks… odd,” he said, his soft voice sounding hollow, echoing slightly in the wide spacious cavern. His outstretched hand fingered the blue petals a moment longer before turning to grasp one of the fruits, pulling it free. He turned it side to side, frowning suspiciously at its furry exterior before taking a small bite. His frown deepened. “It’s too sour.”

He tossed the fruit away, letting it land amid the roots of the blooming trees. He waded up the bank, seizing hold of his pack, well stocked with provisions and varying supplies for long traveling. From this he procured a sugar cube which he popped into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.

By nature or circumstance, Garnet was a solivagant – a lone wanderer who was not used to company. But Adira’s situation and her objective was too captivating to ignore, impossible though her goal was. He wasn’t even sure then that she really meant it – really intended to scale the perilous heights of Ruzahl.

“Are you sure?” he asked once again. “It’s not too late to turn back. Ruzahl isn’t very welcoming to… well, the unseasoned,” he said apologetically. Turning, he waded back into the deeper parts of the hot springs, until he stood chest deep in the waters and his long, jet hair spreads out around him like a fan. “Personally, I think you would be better off trying to find a dedicated mage.”  

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ADIRA RUETA ELAEZAR

At the comment, Adira turned to the man and paused, looking at him with hard eyes.

"Of course I'm sure," she said with grave conviction. The woman wasn't surprised by the man's concern — going to seek out someone with arcane knowledge would have been the first thought anyone in her position would have had. Unfortunately, she had already done just that. Most of the mages, physicians, and scholars had no explanation for her condition, and those who did always conflicted with the next.

Tossing the fruit aside, Elaezar sat down and pinched her brow, wondering why the gods liked to play cruel games with her. As healer, she could cure a gamut of maladies, but this illness was something else entirely. It was shameful really — she thought she had seen it all in Raven's Landing. From mild fevers to the Red Plague, Adira had witnessed, studied, and treated various diseases, curses, and afflictions. The idea that a woman of the world of science — the known world — was trekking up a mountain to pray for salvation from guardians who may not even exist... was simply absurd.

Still, with no answers, there had no choice but to resign herself to the unknown. She needed to know how long she had left.

"I'm not afraid of dying on this mountain," she signed, pulling up her sleeve and undoing the knot of gauze which held the bandages covering her right arm in place. The fabric fell from her arm and the flesh beneath was exposed, revealing the scaly, charcoal-colored skin beneath. "What I fear is dying to something I hardly understand."

Adira bit her lip. "It's spreading faster," she noted quietly to herself.

There was no longer a need to hide it anymore. There was only Seventeen and her. No one but them and the gods.

After inspecting new periphery of its spread, Adira pulled her sleeve back down and stared at her distorted reflection for a time. Her eyes, despite their vibrancy in color, looked dull and lifeless. It had only been a year, but the entire ordeal was beginning to take a toll on her spirit. The silence soaked in. Should she tell him about the visions?

Pulling back from the water's rim, Adira walked back to where to her bag and unfurled her sleeping bag. "We should get some rest. We've been traveling for a long time, and the blizzard outside doesn't look like it's letting up any time soon."

@The Hummingbird

Edited by Artificer
17 != 13

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Silent, Garnet watched Adira without any expression that might betray his inner thoughts. Though he had never treated diseases as she had, he too had witnessed and studied to some length various ailments humans and other races fell heir too. Some were not too concerning – infections, soreness, aches and pains – while others were very much terrifying; atrophy of muscular structure, dystrophy of limbs and bone, terminal illness and even positive results of rare disorders and plague. But they were all from things he had heard, things that could be treated and in some cases cured. Things that were known, and understood.

When he saw her arm, and the blackness that engulfed the flesh, he knew it was not something that rightfully belonged in this world. When he saw her arm, saw the form her peculiar illness took, he understood her fear, and her determination to challenge Ruzahl’s cliffs.

He gazed at it for only a moment before respectfully averting his eyes. It was not his place to persuade her to change her mind, as it was not his place to encourage her either. She had hired him only to help guide her through the treacherous mountainside wilderness, to protect her should she need it, and he had gone for his own reasons.

He nodded as she suggested getting some sleep, but allowed himself some time to soak in the hot springs for a while longer, rinsing off the dirt of travel and washing his hair thoroughly before wading to the bank and drying off with a towel, watching the flurry of snow beyond the cave’s entrance. The weather had been vicious here for a while, but the skywatchers had claimed that the storms would cease the next day or so, and remain clear for a time.

He frowned, for sometimes the skywatchers were wrong. He turned away from the storm and checked his possessions to make sure all was in order for tomorrow. Everything seemed will in hand, prepared and orderly.

He unrolled his own sleeping bag next to Adira’s and slipped into it. It was a ragged. worn thing, but was still serviceable. “We start tomorrow, milady Elaezar,” he said, turning his back to her. “Sleep well.”  

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ADIRA RUETA ELAEZAR

The gelid winds were relentless. Even the smallest breeze seemed to cut straight through her layered clothing as if she was wearing a cotton shirt in the unforgiving blizzard. Having no other way to scale up the treacherous mountain, the two found themselves climbing up one of its many sheer faces of ice. Her frostbitten hands barely were able to hold onto the picks. Still, although the weather was less then ideal, Adira knew that they had to continue climbing. Something had her on edge — something that made her heart pound —; however, when she tried to remember what that something was, her memory drew a blank.

Then, Seventeen turned around, his lips moving but with no voice coming out. It was as if her ears were underwater, every sound having murky, washed-out quality. His face was calm up until the moment she drove her pick back into the ice, and that point, his emerald eyes widened as he seemed to yell something that she could not make out.

Adira felt the ice crack.

The pick within her hand dropped.

A brief sense of weightlessness cut through her shock as she suddenly realized she milliseconds away from falling to her death.

*     *     *

Eyes flashed open as she sucked in large breath, forcing herself upright as she clutched her pounding chest.

It wasn't everyday that one would catch a glimpse of their own death, but as of the past few days, it seemed to be the only thing that she was able to dream of. At first, they came rarely and seemed to be mere coincidences. Then, they became more frequent until finally she could no longer ignore them. Ever since her right hand was tainted black, death was hanging over her shoulder like a plague, and she had no idea why. Still, every premonition marked a choice, and despite the uncanny inevitability of every event, finality was never assured... at least, in all but one.

Shivering at the thought, Adira wiped the crust from her eyes so she could get a better look at their surroundings.

The now-stationary lights of the fireflies were fading star by star before her eyes, until finally the last light blinked out. From her limited experience in entomology at the university, she surmised it was an hour before daybreak. Hearing the calm, regular respiration beside her, she could tell even in the dark that Garnet was still fast asleep. Perhaps it would be best to wake him, she thought, heart still beating madly.

Reaching out to tap the man, she froze, eyes catching a pair of ghastly blue lights that had appeared in the distance. Across the waters, she found herself looking at the eyes of some beast lurking in the shadows. Imagination running wild, she wanted to shake Garnet awake, but she didn't dare move a muscle.

Based on the movement of the lights, the figure was proceeding along the rim of the pool, bending down occasionally to the ground every so often before getting back up. It could be no larger then a man, she thought, but then again, it could be crawling on the ground. Perhaps it was a lupine of some nature, or it maybe was a ghost of some sort. Regardless of what it was, it didn't seem to notice them.

Then the phosphorescent, sapphire eyes turned.

It was staring right at Adira.

@The Hummingbird

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In a time yet to be forgotten, Garnet was trained to sleep lightly. This was not to say he woke easily to any disturbance, but felt the tension in the air, even in dreams. His sense of danger had been sharpened to a keen point, and this tool of survival was vital for any Edgemaster. It had kept him alive more than once. When Adira reached out, he stirred. Her hand never touched him, but his brow furrowed, eyes slowly opening.

His arms still ached from the vivid nightmares that always plagued him in sleep. His body still felt the pain, the burn, the torture. Yet none of this affected his instincts. He rolled over silently, quickly, smoothly rising to his feet, knees bent as his eyes landed on the threat that now focused on Adira.

The creature froze as Garnet moved, but it was not in fear. A low, rumbling growl issued from it, punctuated by the glitter of sharp fangs. Still skirting the hot springs, it resumed its pace, slowly closing the distance between them. The growl grew louder, a challenge, turning into a hungry snarl. A few meters from them, it paused again, and the two travelers would see what stalked them.

Feared by nearly everyone, the dreaded White Wolves of the Cold South were intelligent, savage, unpredictable killers. They were daunted by nothing, but usually stayed in tight groups in the South. But by pure unfortunate fate, a few had migrated to the mountain range, and evolution had caused them to adapt to the harsher environment they had chosen. Their fur became as black as the midnight sky, the crimson eyes lightening to a blue that could pierce the darkness, and their size became larger, much larger even for a wild wolf, to fight off and kill the competition for meat.

Garnet reached out, his fingers curling around the handle of what always slept as his side; his sword. Sheathed in a scabbard of hardened leather, the weapon was a masterpiece, carefully maintained and cared for. The handle and crossguard was one, solid piece of iron, silver, and steel, with a pointed pommel made of amethyst. The blade itself was damascus, the edges dusted with diamond, and was no stranger to blood.

“Don’t move,” he whispered to Adira.

The wolf snarled again, and its voice rose in a high-pitched howl.  

Garnet didn’t wait. He sprang forward, pushing off from the ground with every ounce of strength. He sprinted toward the wolf, skirting the water, his weapon held adjacent to his side. The wolf, too, charged, maw gaping in a wide trap set with deadly teeth.

Garnet swung at the wolf, fully intending to cleave the wicked thing in half.

The wolf leaped…

… and landed behind Garnet. Fur bristling, it roared, dashing straight toward Adira.

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ADIRA RUETA ELAEZAR

1 hour ago, The Hummingbird said:

“Don’t move,” he whispered to Adira.

The man's voice caught her off-guard. How long had Garnet been awake?

Before she had a chance to respond back, she recoiled at the beast's howl. It was a direwolf — a creature of unparalleled savagery and cunning. Adira had heard rumors of a unique strain of White Wolves native only to the Cold Mountains, but she did not expect to meet one so soon. They were supposedly rare creatures, traveling in small packs of two to four. Meeting one usually meant there were more close behind.

Without a moment's hesitation, her partner disappeared from her side, the sound of drawn steel ringing through the air. The patter of footsteps quickened as the blue eyes darted through the dark. Left, right, up, down — the creature was zigzagging its way towards the duo in a chaotic fashion. Adira was barely able to keep track of the wolf before she saw its blue eyes rise high above her. Its landing on the ground sent flecks of imperceptible mud flying towards her face, before again it roared.

Grabbing in the direction of her pack, she felt around for it's strap, but touched nothing except for the smooth basalt floor. Where was it, she thought. The blues eyes came dangerously close, and she heard its wild breaths. Fingers finally brushing against the cool steel buckle of her bag, she threw her rucksack between herself and the shadowy assailant. There was the sound of tearing canvas as as an immeasurable weight pushed her back towards the ground. She was unscathed, but the the creature's blue eyes were mere inches from her face, Adira knew she had seconds, if not a brief moment, to protect herself.

Somewhere on her bag was an ice pick, but the question was where. It was difficult to know where exactly it was given that her bag was currently pinned between the wolf's massive paw and her body; however, this time, luck was on her side. Her hand grasped the steel handle, and before the wolf bit down into her flesh, she ripped the tool from its strap and held the bar up against the foul beast.

Teeth clanged against the rebar, and for once she could see more than just the creature's lurid eyes.

It's yellow teeth were stained with hints of red and its fur was as black as the darkness which enveloped the cavern. Adira could even see tendrils of sinew from its last meal still hanging between two of its teeth.

Then, she almost doubled over at the mixed stench of rotting flesh, wet dog, and fresh blood.

She faltered with her grip on the bar slightly, the beast's maw inching closer.

"G-Garnet!" Adira screamed, slightly gagging on the bile which rose in her throat.

@The Hummingbird

Edited by Artificer

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Infuriated, the vile beast struggled with the bar. Its teeth strained against the metal shaft. Its paws –gigantic, clawed feet – set hard on the ground, and the nails tore great rifts in the earth. It heaved one last time against the ice pick and finally, finally, it seemed to give up. The long, domed head retreated… and then it lunged again.

Its teeth clamped down hard around the ice pick’s handle, narrowly missing Adira’s fingers. With a mighty twist, it wrenched the pick from her faltering grip and flung it aside. The wicked blue eyes never left hers as it growled, and in the shadow of the cave it almost seemed to grin with those gruesome, bloodstained teeth.

With Garnet nowhere in sight, it leaped.

Several things happened next. The wolf’s hungry snarl turned into a startled yelp as Garnet slammed into it – not from the back where he logically would have been, but from the front; at a senseless speed, the Edgemaster flew directly over Adira’s head to ram against the wolf’s chest. The collision sent the two rolling, fighting and writhing across the earthen floor, eventually sliding into the steaming springs.

The wolf reared up howling in rage, shaking water from its drenched black fur. Garnet struggled to his feet, his sword pulled back, water falling from the glittering blade like oil. Blood drawn from snapping teeth welled and slid down his left arm, soaking the wraps he wore. But Garnet knew blood and pain, and seemed wholly undeterred as he slashed outward.

The creature lunged into the air, obviously trying the same maneuver as before, but Garnet was not stupid. He twisted in the water, swing the sword up and around, using the momentum to increase speed and force. The sword bit into the wolf’s throat… and continued down to its waist, slicing the wolf nearly in two.

The beast screamed as it fell to the floor. It squirmed as blood poured from the grotesque wound, and even in this state it struggled to reach Adira. Its maw opened and closed in futile efforts to bite, and its claws slashed against the earth in wishes to rend and tear.

Sloshing out of the water, Garnet strode over to stand over the wolf. He raised his sword and plunged it through the wolf’s head, giving the blade one twist. The body shuddered and stilled.

Somewhere in the distance, eerie howls echoed through the night.

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ADIRA RUETA ELAEZAR

As soon as the great wolf was knocked away, Adira greedily gasped in as much air as she could. Those few seconds where she was underneath the great weight of the beast felt like an eternity in her adrenaline-drugged state. With the oxygen, her vision cleared, catching the dull outline of her sole instrument of protection. Quickly, she scrambled towards the ice pick, springing up from the floor with weapon in hand, poised for the next attack. Eyes darting towards the sound of the fray, she glimpsed the final arc of the silvered sword as it sundered the foul wolf in two. With a wet thud, the wolf was downed.

Walking closer to the body, she thought it was dead. To her surprise, as soon as she came a step closer, the wolf's wild eyes opened as jaws snapped madly in her direction, a gaze full of hate, anger, and blood lust. She stepped away in shock. The beast had undying tenacity and a furious drive to tear out her throat. Only when Garnet plunged his blade straight into the creature's skull did the beast quiet. With a twist, the last shudders of severed nerves marked the end of the wolf's life.

Shivers ran down Adira's spine. Whether it was the cold, spiteful look in that beast's lifeless eyes or the chill of outside coming in, the woman felt uneasy. Walking forward, she knelt down and held her hand out to the corpse, drawing her fingers back at the first touch before finally skimming over its ebony fur. Her lips flattened. The rough hair was slicked with blood, body still warm. For a moment, the woman felt sympathy towards the monster. It was pitiful, what happened. No doubt the wolf was simply trying to survive out in the harsh, unforgiving crags.

She sighed. Death never had bode well for her. The coppery scent of blood was something she would never be comfortable with.

A chorus of howls rang from the mouth of the cave as Adira closed its eye. With a loop back towards Seventeen, she silently nodded her head. It was time for them to go.

Hurrying over to the bag, she knew she would have to leave her rucksack. The main pocket was now permanently hanging open, contents spilled all over the floor along with scraps of fine canvas. It looked like she could only bring the bare essentials. Food would be a worry for a later time.

Rummaging through the items strewn across the floor, she grabbed only what she thought was necessary. Clipped to her belt were again the two ice picks, curved at each handle, both sanded to a rough, matte finish, and one imprinted with new, teeth-marked dents. On her hip, there was a large, circular flask, sloshing with melted snow. When that was secured, Adira pocketed the few salves and tonics whose containers weren't savaged by the beast; however, it was only enough to be useful for a few minor injuries. The medicine would barely be enough to treat anything larger than a decent laceration, so the duo would have to be careful on their ascent.

Any injuries left untreated would serve as deadly crutches to their journey. Gangrenous infestations were an all-too-common reality in these colder parts, and infection was no laughing matter.

Throwing on her olive parka, she grabbed her cloak and boots. The front side of the jacket had many pockets, and the interior was lined with thick scraps of fur. Hardly anything stylish, but the menagerie of animal skins would stave off the cold. Her pants were simple, rugged khakis, the kind used by mountaineers on their journey, and they were tucked snugly into her newly-bought leather climbing boots. With everything in order, she enshrouded her form in the weathered teal cloak of her father. It would protect her. Her father promised her it would.

"We need to go."

"Do you still have any food packed in your bag? The wolf ruined all of my provisions."

@The Hummingbird

Edited by Artificer

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Stepping away from the wolf’s corpse, Garnet tore two strips of cloth from the bandages he wore around his arms. With one he cleaned the slick, steaming blood from his sword; the other, he used to bind the wound on his arm. Luckily, it was not a deep injury and he doubted it would impede him much in their journey up the mountain. Drawing the loose ends of the bandage tight with his teeth and free hand, he looked away as Adira paid respect to the dead beast. Perhaps it was just trying to survive, perhaps it was just following its instincts, but to Garnet, the eerily intelligent and savage black wolves were what humans always called man-eaters.

Monsters.

He strode over to his own backpack, left untouched and whole. Slinging it over his back he surveyed the outside. The blizzard was growing in ferocity, snow falling heavily in great drifts and piling up around the main entrance to the cave. This was a good thing. Their prints would be covered, and make it hard to follow them.

He nodded to Adira as she dressed quickly, himself rolling up his sleeping bag and strapping that to his back too. His sword followed. “I have rations for both of us. It should last a few days if we’re careful.” The high-energy bars of meat, fruit, and fat would serve them well. He motioned for her to hurry and then pointed to the back of the cave. They had entered the hot springs through a fissure in the back wall. It was just as well. If they had known only of the cave’s main entrance they would be dead in seconds in the jaws of the wolf’s companions.

As if to confirm this, another howl cut through the roaring snowstorm. It was getting closer.

“Quick!” Garnet snapped, giving her a shove. He rushed around the hot springs, and in due time they made it to the fissure, a few feet above their heads. He could see the flurry of snow through it, and the dim glow that existed even in the shadow of night. It was big enough for them to squeeze through, but the wolves would not be able to follow. If they were further distracted by the provisions Adira left behind, they would have a good head start. Good enough, Garnet hoped, that the wolves might give up.

Garnet went first. He latched onto the side of the crack, pulling himself up. It was cold, almost freezing, the temperature continuing to drop. His breath hissed out in a haze of mist. He thought about why he was here. Then he reached down to Adira. “Grab my hand. The trail isn’t far. It won’t take us all the way up either, but it’s safer than out here.”

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ADIRA RUETA ELAEZAR

7 hours ago, The Hummingbird said:

“Quick!” Garnet snapped, giving her a shove.

Easier said than done. Seventeen was far more nimble than she, scaling up to the exit with ease; however, while he bobbed and weaved through with ease, Adira was still making her way through the thick vegetation, nearly tripping on the thick tangle of gnarled roots. It was somewhat frustrating. While she was not weak, she wasn't used to this kind of gymnastic work in the slightest. Deeper and deeper she went, navigating through the thick shield of vines which had sheltered the duo and grotto from the elements. How was Garnet able to make getting through look so easy? When she had finally reached the fissure, she saw the man waiting.

7 hours ago, The Hummingbird said:

“Grab my hand. The trail isn’t far. It won’t take us all the way up either, but it’s safer than out here.”

Grabbing onto the edge of the crack, Adira could feel the ice biting straight through the black moleskin of her gloves. Looking up, she saw her guide's extended hand and grabbed it. His grip was strong and firm like an elm branch, much to her surprise. He was steady as stone.

The sound of padded feet splashing at the other entrance echoed. They had to go.

"Alright, I'm ready, okay... one, two, three!"

She hoisted herself up with Garnet's assistance, seconds before the cacophony of wolves shattered the silence in the cavern. Based on the beat, there were definitely more than two. If it was what she thought it was, this wasn't a miniature rag tag group of mongrels. If it was what she thought it was, this was a war pack.

"Garnet... Do you hear that?" she said looking back to the mouth of the cave. "I don't think that the wolf we met was the only one." There was a lump in her throat. There was no turning back now.

With all that was at stake, Adira was taking a leap of faith putting her trust in her guide. These mountains were unfamiliar to her which meant that her best chance of survival was Seventeen.

Thinking back to the encounter with one wolf, she wondered why the man had decided to help her. With the clear dangers of traversing the Cold Mountains, it was a miracle that anyone responded to her petition. He was the only one who responded. It was a beggar's quest. She had little money to offer, and the risks were far greater than the rewards.

What drove Garnet?

The sudden rush of cold air was a slap in the face — a reminder of the frosted hell which was in front of them. There was no time for extraneous questions. The hounds were right on their tail. "Which way is the trail," she said, voice muffled as she wrapped a worn scarf around face and mouth, walking beside the man through the ever-deepening snow.

@The Hummingbird

Edited by Artificer

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“Garnet… Do you hear that?”

He heard. The sharp growls and gnashing of teeth, the snuffling and snarls as the wolves examined the provisions Adira had abandoned. By the sound of it, there was at least four, maybe five. Perhaps more; he was not sure. He scowled to himself, shooting a glance at his charge. The wolf from before had been all too focused on her – why? As vicious as the wolves were, he was sure he could handle them, but with Adira to protect, his job had become much more difficult. Abruptly he turned.

“This way,” he said sharply.

Snow fell heavy around them, filling in their tracks as they struggled through the snow. They tread as lightly as they could, but even so they would find themselves sinking more than once up to their waist at the deep embankments. The temperature was dangerously low now, and the frigid air could be felt even through their thick cloths and furs worn for just this type of weather. Ironically, it was Garnet who seemed to be more affected by the cold. His teeth were clenched and he shivered, drawing tight his cloak.

The going was steady but slow, and even that only because Garnet kept a grueling pace. His eyes scanned the area constantly, watching their surroundings. Nothing went unseen by him.

There was another howl, hollow and harsh, but it was only the wind. For now, it seemed they were blessedly alone.

At last, they came to a strip of land that at first glance seemed very odd. The terrain rose in sharp ridges and dipped in low, erratic hills. It gleamed as if it were glass, and it was this that would tell Adira what it was – a small river, frozen into ice.

“Here,” Garnet said breathlessly, pointing to a bit of what appeared to be as bit of fence encased in ice. “This is the trail, beside the stream. There should be other caves and refuges up ahead when we need to stop for the night.”

He had hoped they might meet other foolhardy travelers. There was safety in numbers, but no such luck. Garnet trudged up to the trail, peering into the white oblivion that lay ahead. He could only imagine what they might encounter next. Hopefully nothing at all.

The trail was straight and relatively flat compared to the rest of the mountain. The snow still made it hard to travel, though there was some odd kind of comfort from being on a path made by man. Soon enough it would end, leaving them to face the wilds utterly alone, but for now, they could enjoy it while they could.

As they walked, he turned that sharp, focused gaze on Adira. “Why are they after you? Wolves don’t usually discriminate.”                          

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ADIRA ELAEZAR RUETA

She was unprepared for the man's sudden inquiry. His eyes might as well have bored holes in hers with that piercing green stare, a look of intensity that Adira had not witnessed before. Thinking the question was just to burn time, Adira blew it off, and responded, "I honestly have no idea — that wolf back there probably smelled some of my rations."

"Hell, maybe it smelled that strange fruit on me," she laughed. "The cave was probably its den from what I imagine. Its warm, shielded from the elements, comfortable. Everything that a pack of wolves would like for their kind, you know."

The man was still looking back, clearly unconvinced. "Could you please stop giving me that look, please? I don't know." He must have been able to tell a lie when he saw one because he kept staring, only taking brief glances forward to see if he was walking straight. Minutes of pressing silence passed. They continued traversing through the static white screen of snow, but no matter how far they went, he kept looking back at her — not responding, eyes prying for an answer.

She stopped. Did this man know?

"Look, the wolves are clearly not on our tracks, alright? This snowstorm has turned into a blizzard, and no group of animals would follow us out here, so could you stop staring at me like I'm some sort of criminal?"

Adira's cheeks were red as she was flustered. It was embarassing. Nothing was more humiliating to her than to know nothing about why these occurrences were happening. Beasts, misfortune, accidents — maybe even a falling anvil in her future given her terrible luck — they all came for her. It was as if death had a stake in her life in particular, marking her with his own brand of ownership. While she knew not what it was, she wasn't going to tell Garnet. It wasn't his business. Being interrogated was the last thing she wanted, and there were already had too many questions on her mind that needed answers. There was no room for her to conjure one for a stranger. While he saved her life, Adira made no mistake. Seventeen had taken her quest. She was the contractor, and he was just some adventurer. Did he pity her? Was that all it was? Pity?

"Why would I lie to you?" she said, stopping. It dawned on the woman that perhaps the reason the man had taken her quest was for that. Anger welled in the pit of her stomach, warming her from within from the biting cold. Her trust was a hard thing to be earned. She wouldn't fall prey to the smiles of strangers or faux kindness again.

Adira knew from experience what was in the hearts of men, and that was nothing.

Bitter memories left a bad taste on her tongue.

They cared for nothing but themselves.

Then, as if to defy her, they came right on queue — the wolves that is. It started with one howl in the distance, followed by another coming from the left, and then another diagonally from in front — adding on and on until individuals were no longer distinguishable. In the end, the wide circle of eerie, lupine calls surrounded them in cacophonous harmony. While the voices were far away, it was clear that they were not resting. They were searching — searching for Adira.

"Just... keep walking! We'll pass them!" she muttered lowly, pulling her cloak hard over her head as she walked ahead of her guide on the path. Adira didn't know the way if there was a fork, but perhaps her guide would do exactly what his position entailed — guide her. That's what she hired him for after all.

@The Hummingbird

Edited by Artificer

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