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Volume II of the Omens of Gaia

118 years after the events of Necrosis…

 

On the third afternoon the armsmen exchanged muttered prophecies of imminent doom. The snow and sleet piled steadily higher, and the sky showed no signs of calming.

Mikhail sat with clenched teeth inside his tent, staring unmoving at the wall as the storm screamed and buckled the canvas in a wild frenzy. He took no food and drank only when the Magistr pressed a draught of ale upon him. His skin burned with fever, answering the challenge of the storm. No queries did he acknowledge from anyone.

On the third night, as the candles burned low and the armsmen counted their rations yet again, Mikhail abruptly rose, slid his halberd from its oilcloth, and stepped from the tent.

The Vladyka stood in the snow for a moment, listening, then turned and trod the way down the long path to the dell. His sable coat hung loosely from his shoulders, exposing bare skin to freezing wind.

The cold meant little to Mikhail; one with the proper strength of will should have the fortitude to withstand any protest of the flesh. Not for nothing did the sages choose to meditate beneath icy waterfalls or step barefoot upon glowing coals. The desires of the body were but a hindrance to the needs of the soul.

The maelstrom of hail parted before him, offering a narrow passage through the tarred night. Mikhail’s boots slogged through thigh-high drifts of snow. He moved with a certainty of direction that belied his blinded senses.

At last the Vladyka came to the dell where the stream ran mute beneath a thick crust of ice.

The wind grew still.

Mikhail stood alone, immersed in the silence. The mountains rose cold and impenetrable on every side, ominous yet serene. He breathed, and listened as the sound was swallowed by the wilderness. It was vaster even than it appeared by day, when the mists would briefly part to reveal the peaks fading into endless blue.

In the darkness the world was fathomless.

The Vladyka’s feet grew colder as he took up a guarded stance in the snow, straining to hear through the inky blackness. Soft white flakes kissed his face.

Silence.

A huge leopard padded down the cliff, its pelt the color of moonlight awash with shadows. Powerful tendons rippled as it stalked through the drifts, its monstrous eyes fixed on Mikhail. The Vladyka stared into two pools of ice as deep as the midday sky, their pupils as black as the crevices below.

The young man struck the butt of his halberd against the mountain, digging the spiked tip into the frozen soil. His hand flexed restlessly against the shaft. “I know not what manner of beast you are, nor why you have sent this curse upon us. Did we offer you some insult, spirit?”

The leopard grinned, black lips peeling back from glistening incisors. The beast growled softly, its voice vibrating through the stones beneath Mikhail’s feet, the sound of distant boulders tumbling down the mountainside. Mikhail’s heart leapt like a startled hare, kicking frantic legs against his ribs…yet he did not move. He mustn’t show fear to this creature.

The Vladyka’s hand convulsed against the shaft of his weapon. “I’ve no wish to fight.” The words came through gritted teeth.

The huge cat stalked closer, mouth hanging open in silent laughter.

Mikhail grimaced. “Surely the Magistr did not know of what he spoke. Do you mock me, spirit?”

The beast crouched ten paces away, watchful, its spotted tail twitching in anticipation above the virgin snow.

The very sight of it dredged up rage from the murky streambed of Mikhail’s heart; ire too long ignored to be contained. The Vladyka ripped his weapon free from the soil and set his feet in a battle stance. “Come at me then, and see how long your cunning avails you against my blade!”

The snow leopard gave no warning before it sprang.