Trendil frowned at the warped wood as she finished the knot. Fortune had favored them – as it had not for some sailors of years past – by providing the remains of a ship run aground. There was enough loose wood to construct a boat of sorts. Something between a raft and a coracle, except without the stability of the first or the utility of the second. If you took the worst aspects of each and combined them, you would get something akin to what they had made.
She heard footsteps approach from behind and turned as she asked, “Did you find sap?”
“Yeah, two of ‘em. ‘Cause that’s what we must be, to be listening to you.” Koren dropped a waterskin on the ground next to her. It spurted sticky goo as it landed. “This is stupid.”
“You have a better way of getting to the island?”
He sneered but didn’t answer, choosing instead to turn and walk back to the small fire. Rell squatted on the other side of the boat-like object they had created and began squirting his own skin of sap into the interior. Trendil shook her head and joined him, rubbing the sticky stuff into the wood. Many of the gaps were too big to seal and she had only guessed sap would work for this anyhow, but it was the best plan she could think of. The island with their quarry loomed across thirty feet of ice-cold water. Their boat just needed to get them that far. Twice.
Maybe Koren was right.
Still, it wasn’t like they had a choice, other than, perhaps, simply wandering around until they happened to run into a different ice wraith. But those were as rare as they were deadly – it could take days or weeks to find another. And it was likely the officer had some way to know whether this little group actually went to the island, as instructed. She had no idea what that way might be, but she had seen enough magic to trust that it could be the case.
She finished her side of the boat and began to stand. “We’ll wait until…”
Rell’s eyes slipped from her face to just over her shoulder and his eyes widened. It was all the warning she got, and it was not quite enough – she began to dive to the side but the club glanced off her temple. Sparks of light briefly filled her vision before a second, more solid blow caused both the sparks and everything else to turn black.
Twice, now, she had allowed someone – the same someone! – to catch her unawares. He hadn’t killed her but if her mother ever found out about this, Trendil was certain she would wish Koren hadn’t shown such restraint.
Though she silently berated herself as she worked at the knotted ropes that pinned her to a scrawny pine tree, she was forced to concede that it wasn’t only her failings at work. One time, she could attribute to a moment of laxness on her part, but more than that…well, praise where it’s due, there had to be something more to the man than she had let herself believe.
And if that was the case, then she had made yet another critical error by underestimating him. In fact, in a sense, this actually made three times he had come out on top in the undeclared war between them, versus her lone victory in the least important battle of the war – direct physical confrontation. No wonder she had not yet manifested her inherited gift. Assuming she actually had it.
The rope came free and she jumped to her feet, ignoring the tingling pain in wrists and ankles. She swooped up her sword, grabbed her pack, and sprinted to the shoreline.
The raftacle sat on an outcropping at the base of the icy hill that held their quarry. She growled to herself as she dug in her pack, then paused for a split second as a scream rent the air, cut off after only a heartbeat. She began to swear as she turned the pack upside down and shook it, dumping its contents onto the shore. She scooped up three blue-white flasks, stuffed two in her belt pouch, then unstoppered the third and chugged the contents. Minty, her mind supplied, but she had no time to give it more than a mental glance. She tossed the flask to the side, bent her legs, and dove into the water.
The warmth that the Potion of Frost Resistance had infused into her limbs was subsumed in an instant by the knife-keen water, but it kept her limbs from seizing, and that was enough. She plowed through the thirty-foot channel with efficient strokes. Each breath was a stab into her lungs and she dreaded the inevitable consequences in the days to come. Of course, if she died in the next few minutes from the wraith, she wouldn’t have to worry about those consequences. Or have to face her mother, for that matter. So, on balance, things were looking up.
She reached the edge of the hill, sparing only a bitter glance at the coracaft (it had a little water in the bottom but not as bad as she had feared. Too bad she hadn’t been able to use it!) on her way up a steep path that circled the edge before cutting toward the crown of the hill.
Three things drew her attention. First, there was a set of standing stones at the apex of the hill which seemed somewhat incongruent. Who built things on random frozen hills in the middle of nowhere?
Second was a decidedly Rell-shaped pillar of ice about halfway up the slope, one arm, still clutching a frost-laden sword, extended. If the poor guy was somehow still alive, he wouldn’t be for much longer. It seemed a terrible way to go.
Third was, of course, the wraith itself. It was larger than she had envisioned, a good five feet long and as thick as a tree trunk (from a real tree, not the tiny ones that somehow eked out a life in these frozen barrens). It was a translucent blue-white that blended with the ice and sky, making it difficult to see despite its girth, and it swam through the air with a grace she would have found breathtaking had her breath not already been taken by her swim.
All right, and fourth. There were four things that drew her attention, because, of course, Koren was still alive, so she supposed she had to acknowledge him. He circled the wraith in a crouch, hammer held between his hands at the ready. Even as Trendil ran, the wraith struck and Koren dodged to the side with that same deceptive speed he had shown against her, while the hammer sang an arch toward the wraith.
The wraith was, itself, deceptively quick, twisting its body to avoid the blow while turning to keep up with its prey. It lunged and Koren yelled out as the wraith grazed his left shoulder. Ice covered the shoulder, much of the arm, and a portion of Koren’s chest in an instant. He stumbled back, still gripping his hammer, but now only in his right hand, as his left hung uselessly.
The wraith slipped past just as Trendil finally reached the fray. “Here,” she said as she pressed one of the flasks toward Koren.
She didn’t have time to waste on his response – she let go of the flask without noting whether he had reached for it, all attention on the wraith. It undulated in a semi-circle and, had she not known better, she would have thought it was teasing her. Come to think of it, she didn’t know better, so perhaps that’s what it was doing. Regardless of its motives, she shifted into jêd shûnylal and edged to her left, trying to draw it away from her injured…not companion. Compatriot? That also seemed too personal. She needed a word for “ass who has tried to sabotage me from the start but is still technically on my side so I need to help him anyway.”
The wraith straightened and shot toward her with astonishing acceleration. She waited until it got within range – hard to judge with its speed and translucence – and slid to her left. As expected, it snapped that way, and she jumped back to her right.
Close. Uncomfortably so. It slid through the space she had vacated just a heartbeat before. She twisted and struck with her blade, holding it in place as its body cut itself on its edge. There was no visible marking on the creature’s body but frost sprayed and it let out a warbling whine as it twisted to the right and away, passing over Rell’s frozen form.
Brother-in-arms was, again, far too personal. Besides, he only had one working arm right now. Brother-at-arm’s-length, now that one she could maybe get behind. She moved forward, not wanting the wraith to get too far, stopping next to poor Rell. Now he, she would have called a compatriot. Koren, on the other hand…
The wraith turned back, and now all sense of playfulness dissipated. It streamed toward her like an arrow. She was certain her previous trick wouldn’t work a second time, so she waited until it got close and dove down and to the side, kicking at Rell’s outstretched hand as she passed under it. The plan had been to dislodge the sword. What she hadn’t counted on, as she hit the ground and rolled, was the possibility that his hand might come with it. But it did, snapped off clean at the wrist, which was frozen straight through. She grabbed the sword as she scrambled back to her feet, then hacked at the hand with her sword until it chipped away and fell with a solid thunk onto the stone. Then dove again as the wraith made another pass-by. She felt it graze her ankle, felt the icy lance of pain go up her foot. Had she not taken the potion, that little touch would have been enough to end her, she was certain. As it was, her foot felt like it was asleep once she got back up.
But now the icy tables had turned. She smiled and the smile became a laugh as the wraith turned once again. She shifted into vod enmê, swords held ready. Then, after a moment, switched the swords to their opposite sides - Rell’s was much nicer, with near-perfect balance – before readying herself again.
Maybe “companion” wasn’t so bad. That’s what people called their dogs, after all, and that wasn’t a bad parallel. Although dogs were generally considered to be agreeable. Now cats, on the other hand…
The wraith moved toward her, its body twisting into a corkscrew motion as it gained speed. This time when it came into range, she stood her ground and began the lebbûshrâ.
It was her absolute favorite shûnyuu y̌êz, one she almost never got to use outside of practice because…well, how many enemies are going to just rush directly at you, no weapon or shield or armor to block or bypass or pierce before reaching their lovely exposed body? Vestud’, even bears were smart enough not to just rush headlong at an opponent. As she would know, since she had attempted many times to goad them into doing just that.
Ice sprayed in all directions as wraith met spinning blades. Trendil was surprised when the first time through the pattern of the lebbûshrâ failed to stop the creature, even more so when it kept coming after the second rotation. Where in Vestud’ was this thing’s heart or…whatever equivalent it had? The wraith tried to turn away, but it was too late for maneuvering – Trendil stepped with its motions, meeting its…well, not head, apparently, but its front in each direction it tried to go. And still the ice flew and still it remained, and Trendil began to grow a little concerned.
Not greatly concerned. She still had the thing under control, and every flick of her wrists skimmed a bit more of it away. But the thing was cold, bitterly so. Just being in its proximity hurt. After the twelfth time through the rotation, her teeth were chattering and she could feel her wrists and arms begin to slow from the cold.
“J…j…just d...die alre…ady, dam…m…mit!”
It did not seem inclined to obey. Trendil’s breath began to come in pained waves as the last of the heat from the potion wore off and her body began to remember that it was supposed to be in the throes of hypothermia, not chopping a stubborn icicle into snowflakes. Her vision became blurry and her focus narrowed until all she saw was the point of her target directly ahead. Her arms kept the swords moving by rote – she no longer noticed them except for the shock of each hit on the creature’s surface that sent little rivulets of sensation through the growing darkness that surrounded her. Then even that was gone. The day had become a pinprick of light. She thought her arms still moved but she couldn’t be sure of it.
Then a voice from far away whispered soothing words. Something touched her lips and warm liquid blazed a trail down her throat. The world returned at once in all its crisp bright glory. She coughed as some of the liquid tried to follow the wrong path, then drank from the flask that was being held to her lips – the last Potion of Frost Resistance. Warmth spread through her limbs and she discovered she was laying on the ground, breathing heavily. She looked around with wild eyes until they latched on to a figure kneeling next to her. She squinted through the bright until she the figure’s face coalesced into something recognizable. She groaned and let her head drop back to the ground.
“Associate.” She muttered the word. It seemed to fit. Not too personal. Still conveyed some sort of professional attachment. It would do.
“What?” Koren’s voice rumbled through the air but she didn’t acknowledge it. The heat from the potion soothed her, and she suddenly wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep. She closed her eyes and let the warmth ease her away.