Zachary: Savage Slopes
The company begins their first mission together–getting out of these treacherous mountains.
Leaving Windreach is like jumping off a cliff just because someone told you to.
It’s not like my life was going anywhere else, so I have no regrets. But wandering out into empty wilderness with complete strangers isn’t generally considered a good idea. Everyone is here for themselves. Everyone has a reason why they wanted to join. Perhaps what they want is at the expense of one of us.
Maybe the beginning of the walk is quiet because no one has anything to say. Maybe tensions are high as similar paranoid thoughts pass through everyone’s mind. If it comes down to it, I probably have a bit more battle experience than…someone. No, come to think of it, they all look like they’ve had some sort of training. Except for Tok. I can’t imagine pulling out a flute in the middle of battle and playing a pretty song to make a dragon go away.
Tok sticks to the main path that links Windreach to the towns below. It’s mostly just a vague trail down the easier slopes and eventually through the forest cover on the mountainside. Still, there’s the occasional stair carved into the rock as an aid to make it more accessible from whoever blazed through here. We walk single file. Trailing behind Margot’s bright cloak in the snow is like following a beacon. I’ll never lose her in a blizzard, but it might attract too much attention from the things that can kill us.
The silence turns from comfortable to awkward after about an hour. It would normally be my wheelhouse to get others engaged, but while I’d never admit it out loud, the fear of the barren land has stunted my creativity. I was grateful I didn’t have to make this journey alone the first time, but then there was at least some semblance of trust amongst my traveling companions. I don’t expect anyone here to stab the group in the back. What could they possibly gain from us? It’d be one against many.
But I also don’t expect these people to have my back in a fight. No one’s going to risk their life for someone they just met.
Tok is the first person to speak in two hours. “This is prime time to get to know each other, you know.” As if he was the first to think of that.
“How do you suggest we do that?” Nevahl asks. “It’s a cycle—we know nothing about each other, so we have nothing to talk about because we know nothing about each other.”
“I’ll take anything to distract myself from the cold.” Margot’s voice shakes as she speaks, and she’s had her arms tucked against her stomach for the entire walk.
“I can at least cover that. I’ll play something.” Before anyone protests, Tok raises his flute and begins playing over the screeching wind. Some melodies are more cheerful than his wake-up song. He’s a good player, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what anyone had in mind.
Still, it does, in fact give us something to focus on other than the weather. Occasionally, the music cuts out abruptly, and I can hear Tok gasping for air from the front. No one says anything about his apparent breathing problems and determination to keep playing, and after a few minutes, he’ll start up the song again on the same note he left off. Time passes into midday, and the half-orc has practically performed an entire symphony by himself. When he stops for a longer pause than the usual breaks after what could be the conclusion of a song, I assume his soundtrack is over and begin applauding. The others join in, and Tok steps off the path to a circular area of rocks and stops our descent.
“Short break?” he asks, and we all nod eagerly. He told us we all have an equal say in the group, so technically, anyone could have asked for a break at any time. It still feels out of place, though, and I doubt anyone wanted to suggest interrupting Tok’s songs.
Nevahl immediately slings off his backpack and shield and leans them against a rock. I imagine that’s not fun to carry this long distance. Margot sits and curls into herself further. Zoiya’s firming the cold, but I doubt she’s actually handling this any better. She’s just not visibly disturbed.
“How much further?” I ask, jokingly.
The other three glare at me while Tok steps up on a rock, shields his eyes from the sun, and looks off into the distance. “Well, we can’t see the town at all yet, so I’d say a while.”
“Which town?” Nevahl asks, continuing to press for direction.
“That’s just the one near the base of the mountain,” Zoiya says.
“Yes,” Tok says. “You all want a warm bed when you can get one, right?”
Nevahl shuffles through his backpack and pulls out a waterskin. It must somehow be insulated enough to keep the liquid from freezing. “So Archdale’s not our actual destination?”
“Nope, just a resting place,” Tok answers.
The crew takes a few moments to hydrate and snack on our reserves. The sun is blinding against the white snow, so it’s hard to see the view, to not to look anywhere but down. The weather is surprisingly calm, which is a relief until Zoiya gives us something to worry about again.
“There’s a storm in the distance.” She points north into the sky to an area around the mountain curve of dark clouds, contrasting the blue sky above us.
“Is it coming our way?”
“I can’t tell.” Zoiya looks perplexed. “For once, the wind isn’t blowing strong enough to make that call.”
“We better get moving then.” Nevahl stands and repacks his bag.
“We can’t outrun a storm,” Zoiya snaps.
“No, but we might be able to get far enough down that there will be more shelter before it hits,” he says. “If we break the tree line, at least we won’t be immediately pelted with snow.”
“That could be worse for us if trees start falling.”
“Trees around here can probably withstand a lot,” I add.
“If it means getting off this mountain faster, I’ll take it over waiting around.” The shield clinks against Nevahl’s chainmail as he swings it over his back.
We file back out onto the path. It’s possible we can reach the tree line in time, but it depends on the wind’s stability. If it picks up, the storm will cover the area long before we make it. Storm or not, I find myself eager to reach that checkpoint anyway. It will be nice to return to a somewhat familiar landscape and out of the world of snow and rock. The green won’t reflect the sunlight and blind us like the snow does. The wind will filter through the trees rather than pelting us directly.
“Let’s discuss strategy,” Tok says.
“Err, strategy?” I hop over a rock, and snow splatters up around my ankles.
“We could be attacked at any time.”
“You mean battle strategy?” Margot clarifies.
“I guess it’s good to plan ahead,” Nevahl agrees. “What else are we going to do while we walk?”
“What is there to discuss?” Zoiya questions. “We all have our own styles. The best way to learn how to coordinate them is by actually fighting.”
“Well, then why don’t you call out into the wild and get some dragon to come and attack us? Then we’ll get in some practice.”
Zoiya looks back at me as she responds. “The tribe would send young groups on simple errands to force them to learn to work together.”
“You could say that’s what we’re doing now.”
“I agree, the best way to learn is through practice,” Tok says. “But I don’t see any dragons, so the least we can do is talk about it.”
“Sofya grants me some mild healing magic,” Nevahl starts. I have to remember that Sofya is the goddess he worships. It’s still a bit jarring to think that some people have a higher power they actively think about on a daily basis. “I’m usually a front-line fighter, so I’m most available to heal those that are up there with me.”
“I have a bit too,” Tok says, sounding grateful that someone offered to cooperate with his suggestion. “I can heal us from the back.”
“I’ve experienced fighting in both primary and secondary positions, though I’m better with the bow,” Zoiya says. Most of this information was covered in the trials it took to get here—Tok and Nevahl can heal, Zoiya can shoot. I guess it’s good to review everyone’s skills, though.
“Helgerra gave us training in both confrontational and support positions,” Margot explains. “I specialized in support later in my education, but that may change now that I’m actually going into battle.”
“I’m usually the upfront fighter on the non-front-lines,” I declare.
Tok, Margot, and Zoiya all look up from where they step with puzzled looks. “What?” Margot asks.
“Like, I try and halt the enemy that’s coming at us from our flank, rather than tanking the main cluster at the front.”
“Are random monsters really that coordinated?” she asks.
“It’s natural hunting instincts to surround their target,” Zoiya answers.
Nevahl adds, “And that’s just the wild creatures. If we progress to larger missions, we’ll be fighting creatures with the intelligence to develop strategies as complex as ours would be, if not more. Fae creatures, devils, dragons, ancient beings…they tend to be brilliant.”
Margot shudders. For someone who went to formal mage school, they didn’t seem to teach her much about the realities of the world. That’s the problem with sticking the tower deep in the west, in the middle of nowhere.
“Looks like we can make about an equal balance,” Nevahl concludes. “That’s good, at least.”
“I just don’t think it will matter much until we actually see how we fight,” Zoiya says.
“Maybe it won’t, but what else are we going to do?”
No one has an answer to Nevahl’s question, and the group falls silent after that. We walk for several more hours down the slopes, watching the sun fall across the sky. Man, this group is just kind of dead. I really hope all missions won’t be like this. Traveling is dull enough without dull company. What happened to the rowdy and argumentative bunch from the tavern the other night? Perhaps that only happens when they’re drinking. Maybe I need to get them drinking. Unfortunately, I have packed no alcohol.
Zoiya keeps an eye on the storm and mentions it to the rest of us every so often, as if we all weren’t watching the gray clouds inch closer to our location. She tells us that the storm is approaching faster than we are descending, and I wish she didn’t feel the need to say it out loud and confirm our silent fear. I mean, I had to walk through storms on these mountains many times just to get to Windreach, as I’m sure we all did. But we’re supposed to be getting out of this treacherous landscape. I was really hoping I had already experienced my last of these mountain blizzards. Believe me, if I can help it, I am never letting the company visit the Squall Mountains again.
Just our luck, the wind picks up to threatening speeds about an hour away from breaking the treeline. The sky fades darker, shielding the sun’s position from sight, making it impossible to know what time of day it is. Will the storm last until nightfall, leaving us without light while picking a shelter for the evening’s rest?
The space between each of us in the line shrinks. Within moments, a snowflake lands on Margot’s shoulder in front of me, I feel another one on my nose, and then they’re streaming from the sky.
“Stay close and keep a watchful eye,” Nevahl recommends. “The best thing is just to keep going, but remember it’s still dangerous out there.”
“Of course we’re going. It’d take us weeks to get down this mountain if we stopped every time there was a storm,” I remark.
No one speaks after that, or perhaps I just don’t hear them over the wind. I double tie the ends of the cloth, keeping my hair back to make sure it isn’t blown out, but it doesn’t entirely keep my hair out of my face. The ends of my ponytail whip into my cheek as I turn my head, and the front pieces pull out of the collection to swirl around my vision. The bottom of my waistcoat tangles around my legs and I have to exaggerate my steps not to get tripped up, which is rather annoying. In fact, this whole storm is annoying. I was cold before, but now the cold is being forcefully imposed upon my skin, and I don’t appreciate it. It makes me wonder why I ever thought to come up here in the first place. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had to go through this the first time, and I wouldn’t be going through it now.
What feels like an hour of travel only looks about ten minutes closer to our destination. I know there’s good reason to make it to the trees before we rest, but I’m questioning if my body can make it that long. My limbs are already growing sluggish, and I find myself tired enough for a night’s rest when it’s probably only just now passing into the evening. No one’s complaining, at least out loud, probably not wanting to be the first, despite that it’s what we’re all thinking. We’re still in the first impression phase, after all.
My heart jolts as Margot suddenly thrashes to keep her balance, her foot slipping off a rock. There’s no time to even try and catch her before she’s crashed to the ground, narrowly avoiding landing directly on the large pointed rock between us. The others gasp and turn around, but Margot’s already stirring. Her whole body is already sprinkled with snowflakes like the mountain was just ready to bury her in snow and take her in as part of itself. She turns, and clumps of snow detach from her cloak.
“I’m okay,” she says and stands carefully. Zoiya helps brush most of the snow off her person. She’s shivering violently now.
“Your clothes are soaked through,” Zoiya says.
Margot shrugs apologetically. “Yeah. They’re not exactly made for this.”
“All of our clothes are getting wet,” I say. “We’ll freeze stiff before long.”
Nevahl offers a hand to help Margot step over and rejoin the line. “We can make it. Just think about walking forward. That’s all you have to think about.”
“For how often I got warned about creatures out here, there don’t seem to be that many,” Zoiya observes as we start downward once again.
“Really? You’re going to say that out loud? Are you complaining?” I say, as Nevahl helpfully explains, “Few creatures hunt in wide territories. We’ve just gotten lucky that our travels haven’t crossed with their wanderings yet.”
“How is it you know so much about the landscape up here? Did you grow up here?” Margot asks through chattering teeth.
“No,” he answers simply. “I just study a lot.”
After what feels like an eternity, we reach the trees without any more complications. At this point, there’s no hiding how cold we are. If there was any semblance of putting up a front and toughing it out before, that’s gone out the window, even from Zoiya. She’s pulled her furs tightly against herself and has gone from speaking her mind about the weather and our surroundings to falling incredibly quiet as she braves the wind. Tok is the only one who doesn’t seem to be bothered with his inherent cold-resistant biology. Despite having no issues with it himself, he’s still showing concern for the rest of us, casting glances behind him often to check up on everyone.
The world immediately darkens beneath the canopy. It’s like we passed from twilight to midnight immediately. It’s too windy to use torches, and I start to wonder how we’re supposed to get any light to travel with as Margot sticks a hand out from under her coat and a ball of fire ignites in her hand. It flickers and drifts like a real flame but doesn’t react to the wind.
Zoiya’s eyes lock on the flame. “You can just do that? Does it hurt? How long does it last?” She reaches a gentle hand towards it, flattening her palm against the heat.
“It would hurt you if you touched it, but I don’t feel it,” Margot says. “I can do it for about ten minutes at a time, but it’s a simple trick. So essentially, we’ll have this for as long as we need it.”
The flame casts light around us. Not very strong, but about as far as any other simple lantern could get. It illuminates the outline of trees and fallen branches stuck in the snow. “You’re a human torch,” I say, and Margot smiles.
We’re in a thin spread of cover, but it’s better than open air. But the dancing shadows from Margot’s flame are in some ways worse than if we had attempted travel in the evening’s light. At least then, everything would be on the same level of visibility, instead of the contrast of orange lit and blackness. The light ruins any semblance of adjustment our eyes had had to the dark, making it impossible to make out even vague shapes beyond our safe bubble. We huddle close to Margot, a bit cramped to stay within the span of light. All except for Tok, who doesn’t seem to mind whether he’s just at the edge of the light or even out of it.
“Hey Tok,” I say, and he looks back from ten feet ahead, “Can you see in the dark?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says casually. “Another gift from Dad’s people.”
“So he can be comfortable in this cold and see in the dark?” Margot says under her breath.
“Really makes you proud to be human, doesn’t it?” I respond sarcastically.
“You’re an elf,” Zoiya says.
“I was talking about you lot.” I put a hand on Margot’s shoulder. “And I can’t see worth a damn either. Mummy and daddy weren’t the right kind of elf for special powers.”
The four of us day-seers stick to Margot’s tight circle as we venture about a half-hour into the trees before deciding to find shelter for the night. The suggestion comes as quite a relief. We can finally be done walking for the day and just sit down, eat, and take a very long break. I’d like to rest right where I’m at, but unfortunately, it’s not quite time yet. The others look exhausted too, and I think we’re all ready to just curl up between some blankets and get a little bit warmer.
When we agree it’s time to look around for a good resting place, Zoiya pulls a small wicker cage from her pouch. It looks exactly like just a contained version of Margot’s flame and extends our light distance to double what it was.
“You had that the whole time and are just now using it?” I exclaim.
“Margot can produce flame from her hands,” Zoiya responds, looking at me blankly.
“And you didn’t think another floaty light would be helpful?”
“It wouldn’t have made that much of a difference. Tok with darkvision was always going to be a better scout for danger than ten extra feet of visibility for the rest of us. Which, by the way, would only draw more attention from predators.”
“Isn’t that true now?”
“With two groups, we can cover more ground more quickly. It’ll be safer if we find a secure place for tonight as fast as possible.”
Whatever. She can just be wrong. Though it’s true—having the extra light allows us to separate a bit to scout the area. We don’t stray out of each other’s sight but can at least be more than ten feet apart now.
We’re facing snow, snow, and more snow. The trees aren’t packed tightly enough to fully block the blizzard. The wind shakes the treetops and causes rustling noises that makes us jump as we take careful footsteps across the land, stepping on fallen branches or logs when possible instead of sinking straight into the snow. I go with Margot and Tok to check the left side of the area for any semblance of cover.
“Look—” I point at imprints at the edge of our light, “tracks in the snow.”
Margot shudders. “We probably shouldn’t camp here then if there are creatures around.”
“I don’t think that’s something we can avoid.” I step closer to the tracks and bend down to examine them closer. My best guess would be wolf tracks, although who knows what kind of monsters around here have the feet like wolves but the body and head of something much scarier. Nevahl might have an idea since he seems to know so much, though I’m not sure I want to find out.
“We’re bound to see something out here,” Tok says, “but whatever it is, we have the strength to face it together.”
“I’m glad you’re so confident.” I stand, still looking at the tracks, wondering where they lead and how long ago they were left. They’re shallow, so the creature is either light-footed, or there’s been time for snow to fill them in since it passed. My guess is time, since the tracks aren’t complete outlines of full paw prints. But with the new addition of trees between the weather and the ground, it’s difficult to predict the rate the snow gathers and get an idea of how long it’s been. “We met each other yesterday, with the slightest formal combat training, and you think if a dragon shows up, we can trust each other with our lives?”
“What do you think I did all those years at school, memorized the arcane equations of all magical matter in the Planes of Existence?” Margot snaps with offense in her tone. “I’ve had tons of battle training!”
“Against other mages. What does that teach you about wild creatures that don’t follow the predictable behavior of humanoids?”
“Not just against other mages.” Her creased eyebrows shadow her eyes against the light. “Not all wars are fought with pure humanoid armies. Many cultures train or enslave beasts and monsters of all kinds to fight on their side.”
“I thought Helgerra was supposed to be a recreational magical school, for training scholars and the next great arcane inventor. The way you talk makes it sound like there’s some underground boot camp to train war machines.”
“Stop,” Tok cuts in sharply. It would have been more threatening if his voice hadn’t cracked on the word. But it does get Margot and me to stop glaring at each other and look instead to our half-orc companion. He turns away from us and back towards where we started exploring. “Let’s go back and see if the others found anything.”
The argument did nothing to convince me that this group can currently take down anything stronger than a dire wolf. I understand that’s supposed to change with time. As we adventure together, we’ll learn new skills, get stronger, be able to afford items to protect ourselves, and figure out how to fight together to face bigger and nastier foes. But right now, I have apprehensions about putting ourselves out in a territory that most definitely is the home to things stronger than a dire wolf when we have none of those advantages.
We close the distance between the two spots of light and join up with Zoiya and Nevahl. I describe the tracks we found, and they agree it wouldn’t help much to try and find another spot.
“Hopefully, the fact that we’re seeing tracks means they’ve already passed through here, seen nothing, and won’t be coming back,” Nevahl says.
“We found a small inset ridge in the cliff face,” Zoiya describes. “It’s nothing to hide behind, but the snow cover is at least a little thinner, and it’s the best chance we’ve got at blocking the wind enough to start a fire.”
“Great,” Tok says and gestures for them to lead the way.
They take us over and around a few trees to a spot exactly as described. The mountain juts out slightly at the top, cuts back in, and then falls vertically like a wall before joining with the rest of the decline. Our path has been largely a steady slope down with a few weird geographical features, and here’s one of them. They were right though, it’s probably the best place we could find to set up camp.
Within an hour, we shift as much of the snow as we can to clear spaces for our bedrolls and blankets, make a fire that’s successfully staying lit so far, and sit on logs around it for a meal. Margot’s been silent since we were scouting, and there hasn’t been much conversation beyond that. While it’s a relief not to be walking in the snow anymore, I think the dread has set in for what kind of evening it’s going to be, attempting to sleep in such a freeze. It’s gotten even colder with the fall of night when I didn’t think the world could get colder. The fire helps. I know Zoiya would say it’s a risk, drawing attention to ourselves like that. But on a night like this, there’s no way we could have avoided it, and at least the ridge above us helps to scatter the smoke a bit.
“Look, I know you all are cold and frustrated,” Tok says suddenly. We look up, and he’s still staring at his hands. “But I think today went well. And this is the start of something great. We just have to get out of the mountains, and everything will be fun again.”
“Depends on your definition of fun, I guess,” I say, popping a slice of jerky into my mouth.
“Is that not why you volunteered? Because adventure is fun?” Tok looks genuinely confused.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons across us for joining,” Nevahl says. “But those aren’t going to matter for much longer. We’re a group now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
He leans towards the fire, resting his elbows on his knees. “Well, where I come from, you don’t get to choose who you’re going to fight with. But after you train with them, you fight with them, you bleed with them, you save their lives a time or two—you become brothers. The reason you joined the fight no longer matters. The reason becomes each other.”
“I thought you holy men fight for the honor of your gods or something.” I gesture to the symbol around his neck.
He pinches it with his fingers. “I do. But there are a lot of reasons to fight, and there are a lot of things worth dying for.”
“The tribe speaks about hunting groups the same way,” Zoiya says. “A bond deeper than kin.”
“Did you feel that way about your hunting group?” Margot asks.
Zoiya’s eyebrows crease in thought. “I’m not sure,” is all she says.
After a few moments, Margot says, “I felt that way about the other students I trained with. They put you into circles at Helgerra—a group of six that you live and study with while you’re there.” Quieter, she adds, “I miss them a lot.”
“I like those sentiments,” Tok says thoughtfully.
I stand from the log, stepping closer to the fire and sticking out my hands to warm them. “I thought I was joining a business deal, not a blood pact.”
Nevahl stands as well, coming closer to the fire next to me. “You’ll understand when you have something like that.”
I don’t respond, a bit frustrated at his arrogance at asserting that everyone needs something like that and will eventually fall into a group. I’ve been fine on my own for this many years and never felt like I needed anything more.
“We should probably get to sleep,” Nevahl declares after a period of silence.
“Yes,” Tok agrees, though he sounds hesitant. Maybe there was something more he had wanted to talk about, and it just wasn’t the right time.
The group stands and begins preparing for bed. No one dares remove any layers, not of armor or coats or anything. It’s going to be an uncomfortable night no matter what—if sleeping in armor can add just a little bit of warmth, it’s worth it.
We organize shifts to keep the fire running and watch for danger. At the very least, it’ll give the rest a chance at sleeping soundly. Tok and Zoiya are the first, so they stay sitting around the fire while the three of us make use of our bedrolls. I discover that there is not much difference between sitting out and laying between a few blankets on the cold ground. It’s going to be a long night.
It’s not long before I can hear Nevahl snoring from a few feet over. Either he’s had experience resting in these environments before, or he was just incredibly exhausted. Margot has stopped stirring as well, and it’s possible she’s also managed to find sleep. I, however, have a fatigued body that refuses to start drifting off. I’m trying to be as still as possible, hoping to signal with my lack of movement that my body is supposed to be shutting down. It’s not working.
I can feel my focus just starting to drift off when Tok’s voice snaps me back to attention.
“I know something,” he says softly.
There’s a long pause. He must think we’re asleep. He’s talking to Zoiya. And it doesn’t sound like the rest of us are meant to hear. But I do.
“What’s that?” Zoiya asks, even quieter. I wonder if she doesn’t trust the rest of us are actually asleep and would rather not have this conversation.
My mind is immediately racing with what could happen next. What does Tok know? Why is he telling Zoiya? Is it about one of us? Our mission? Perhaps, her?
“You stole gold from Landon when you said goodnight at the tavern.”
Wow. This is going to be good.
An even longer pause from Zoiya, and then she says, “One coin, yes.”
“Did you use it?”
“So you still have it?” Tok doesn’t sound accusatory. Instead, everything is being stated very matter-of-factly, from both of them.
“I was going to, for another night in the inn. But then I joined your company instead.”
“But you didn’t offer it when I asked who had contributions.” Again, not an accusation.
“It wasn’t mine to give.”
“But you kept it.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
Another pause, when before her answers were quick and straightforward. “I don’t know.”
There’s a rustling. Their previous conversation immediately halts.
“Did you hear that?” Zoiya whispers.
“Hear what?” Tok says, at normal volume.
“Wake the others.”
I sit up. “Did you guys hear something?”
Zoiya’s attention snaps to me. She’s standing, bow, and arrow in hand. Her eyes narrow, suspicious. “Weapons out. Be quiet,” she orders.
Tok gets Margot and Nevahl awake. There’s no problem getting them out of bed and weapons ready quickly. Danger is a great motivator.
“Should I put out the fire?” Nevahl asks.
More rustling. We back around the fire. “I think it’s too late for that,” Zoiya says. “Better to fight in the light.”
She draws an arrow. Margot ignites the fire in her palm. I’m gripping my sword, Nevahl has his shield raised in front of him, and Tok is holding his flute ready for some reason. We shrink together in a line behind the fire, preparing for whatever assault is about to be upon us.