Fiction: Old Gods of the North

I wanted to push the boundaries a bit for this piece of short fiction and try writing a Christmas sword & sorcery. Here's what I came up with:

Old Gods of the North
By: Erin L. Snyder

Alnur’s knees shook as he knelt. He felt old joints pop and his muscles creak. He dipped one hand into the desert ground and clutched a handful of sand, which he brought before his eyes. Grains sifted between his fingers as he studied them in the dim light of the setting sun. He squinted to be sure his hopes weren’t deceiving him. “There is magic here,” he proclaimed in a booming voice. Behind him, the consumists chattered their teeth in a sign of applause.

“Kill them!” the consumist named Ducoris exclaimed. Like the others, he wore dozens of necklaces, sashes, bracelets, rings, and other assorted objects. “That we might take sustenance from their corpses and send their souls to the fields promised to the devoured!”

“No!” another shouted. “Leave them a touch of life. Their journey will be easier, if their souls aren’t trapped in frozen bodies.”

Alnur glanced over his shoulder. The consumists were fanatics, but he needed their loyalty. In most matters, he had it without question. But their faith always came first, and the holiest season of the year was upon them. He shuddered. It was far too late to change his mind. He gazed out across the horizon. Who or whatever was after them was too far to be seen. Briefly, he considered a spell that might scare them off, but this was too dangerous. He could not appear weak to those tracking him, let alone to the consumists. He would do his worst and hope it was enough. They’d lost several of their number against the spiked bear they’d stumbled across, and he didn’t want to lose any more slaughtering whoever was coming for them.

“I will call a storm and hurl it at them. It may kill them outright or drive them off. Or it may deliver them to your mercy. First, we will need cover.”

“Do not chase them away!” one of the consumists begged. “They have come to us to seek a brighter path! Whatever they think drives them, it is the will of Vallmar they be redeemed!”

“I can make no promises,” Alnur replied. He pressed his hand into the sands and leaned close to whisper the incantation. There was no need to do this so quietly, but the last thing he wanted was for one of the consumists to learn his secrets. If they ever felt they could do as he could, they might seek to show him the mercy they’d showed so many others; the path to redemption running through the digestive tracts of the chosen.

Three sets of glowing runes appeared before the wizard. The first set surrounded a symbol that looked like a small cabin, the second circled a picture of a larger building, and the third, a massive complex. He tapped the middle one, and the others vanished. Then he swiped at the ground over the symbol, scattering the glowing sands towards the north.

“Stay away from the light,” he instructed. Around where the sands struck, large sections of ground began to glow a faint yellow. The grains shifted, turning over en masse, as those imbued with ancient magic came alive. The lights spread out over the ground, forming patterns and shapes, the outlines of what would be his conjured building. The consumists fled from the inscriptions. The building rose up a moment later, four stories tall with glowing walls. Every ten feet, a symbol of a piece of a fruit stood as a reminder of the divine power that allowed such a spell to work at all.

“They will see,” Ducoris said, pleased. “If your magic cannot kill them, they will come for us.”

“They might try,” Alnur said. “The storm will not be easily overcome, and I should think they’ll be ready to receive your mercy by the time they reached us.”

“Then it shall be the will of Vallmar,” Enikia said. She was the smaller of two women in the group. Alnur had once seen her wrestle a two-hundred pound man to the ground and bite into his neck hard enough to sever an artery and bleed him to death.

“Go inside,” Alnur commanded. “I will follow when the second spell is cast.” The consumists hurried in, leaving him alone in the cold desert. He looked to the northwest, where they’d last seen smoke trails rising into the sky. “For what it is worth,” he muttered, “you have my sympathies.” Then he uttered the ancient spell, spoken in a language lost to time. This spell was longer, more complex. Tiny flecks of light floated out of the ground from hundreds of feet in all directions and hung in the air before him in a compact circle. He reached out to touch the ring, then began turning it to one side. The lights followed his movements, and as they did images appeared in their center, formed by specks of enchanted sand. He continued until the image formed into a cloud with lightning bolts extending downward. He touched this image then drew a line from the center of the circle to one edge. He spoke a final magic word, and the lights flew into the air, vanishing into the clouds overhead. He paused a moment as the winds shifted towards the northwest and flashes appeared in the clouds. Then he nodded, turned his back, and stepped into his fortress.

From across the expanse of desert, Vysil watched in horror through his sole remaining eye as the lights rose up. “Sorcery,” he pointed. “Can you counter it, Dalgith?”

“I don’t even know what it is,” the young wizard replied, tensely. “It may be nothing. In fact. Yes, it’s a shelter spell. My old master used to conjure structures like those. It’s really nothing to be concerned about. Unless….”

“Unless what?” Irisa demanded. The huntress carried a bow across her back and a sword at her side.

“Unless they’re taking shelter for a reason.” Dalgith flipped his long, brown cloak over his shoulder to free up his arm, then he dropped to all fours and grabbed a handful of sand. He stood up, dusting himself off with his spare hand. Finally, he held the handful of sand in front of him and allowed a trickle to drain out of his palm. His two companions watched silently as the line dropped down. After a moment, the stream began to bend, pushing back the way they’d come. “They’re altering the winds,” Dalgith whispered.

“Open your eyes!” Vysil snapped. “Look to the clouds! They’re swallowing the moon!”

“They’re calling a storm down on us,” Irisa said. “Can you change its course?”

Dalgith shook his head. “I can make us a wall,” he offered. “I don’t know what good it’ll do, but it might block the wind.”

“It’s better than nothing,” Vysil said, pulling his pack and axe off and setting them aside.

Irisa removed her weapons, as well, then pulled free an oiled tarp. “I have faced winter storms before. Will this be worse?”

Dalgith shrugged. “I don’t know. It depends a little on the wizard and a lot on the air. I have no idea how rich they are with magic and snow.” He focused and began a chant the others didn’t understand. As he finished, a line of glowing sand appeared and rose into an embankment, about ten feet long and four feet tall. “I’m sorry. That’s the best I can do.”

“It will have to suffice,” Vysil said. He staked an end of Irisa’s tarp tight against the wall on the side facing the wind and began stretching it over the other side.

“I can create a source of heat,” Dalgith offered, apologetically.

“Later,” Vysil scoffed. “Keep an eye out in case their conjurer throws worse at us.”

“It’s unlikely,” Dalgith said. “He’ll have expended whatever magic surrounds him by now. To do more, he’d have to go out into the desert. And that would put him at the mercy of his own storm.”

“He’s a consumist,” Vysil replied. “Cannibals aren’t known for reason.”

“Enough!” Irisa commanded. “Bickering gets us nowhere. Their shelter is already being swallowed by the winds.” She was right. A mix of falling snow and overturned sand obscured the distant structure. “Will your warning runes work here?” she asked Dalgith.

“I’ll try to conjure them,” the young wizard said, moving away from their camp. Already, the winds were picking up, throwing flakes of ice and sharpened grains of sand in their faces.

Outside, the winds howled, but Alnur’s fortress was protected. Still, it was growing bitterly cold. The consumists had been praying silently, but they finally looked up. “This is now sanctified as a temple of Vallmar,” Enikia proclaimed. “All that we need is within, if we should be so bold as to ask for it. Enlightenment. Hope. Joy,” she said, gesturing from side to side, as if these were objects to be gathered from various empty corners.

“What of food?” Ducoris asked, and some of the others chuckled.

“Your food may arrive come morning,” Alnur said. He was hungry himself, but didn’t dare eat any of his dried pork in front of the consumists. Their religion prevented them from eating any flesh save that of men until after the holy days. The last thing he wanted was to remind them just how hungry they were. It had been three days since they’d “redeemed” the last of the pilgrims they’d found in the river delta, and they were beginning to eye each other.

“I grow weary of this,” one of the others said. This was Lazdole, who’d been silent until now. “This is no time to be hiding. It is near the end of the holy season, and there are seekers in the storm. We should not have left them,” he said, sternly, while glaring at Alnur.

“If the blizzard does not kill them outright, it will weaken our stalkers. They will be ripe for your mercy.”

“If we are able to find them in time,” Lazdole argued. “What if they run into the desert and the snows cover their trail? What if Argek’s unclean beasts happen upon them first? Their souls will never know Vallmar’s graces. They will be lost to the red rings of hell for all time!”

Ducoris cleared his throat. “If Vallmar wishes them to find peace, he will provide them to us.”

“Vallmar has provided them! It is we who are too timid to grant them what they seek.”

Alnur looked around. He did not like the direction this was turing. “It is death to go into the storm,” he said.

“It is not for a consumist to fear death,” Lazdole said. “So long as one of us remains, they will perform the rites.”

“And if you all die out there, what then?”

“Vallmar provides for those with faith.”

“I have often heard you say Vallmar provides to those who are prudent. What if we send four. Four of the twelve of you, to find these pilgrims and redeem them. Would that be an acceptable compromise?”

“If I am one of the four,” Lazdole said.

“Shouldn’t that be up to fate?” Alnur asked. He reached into a pouch on his pack and removed a handful of small sticks. Then he motioned to Lazdole. “You first. There are four short. If you draw one, you go.”

He plucked a stick out and held it up: it was one of the short ones. The crowd cheered, giving Alnur a chance to palm that set, which were all short, and ensure the next three to draw, all of whom were among the cult’s less rash members, wouldn’t be going. He switched back for the next two, partly to break the pattern and partly because the second was one of the consumists he’d have happily done without. For the rest, he simply passed a single short stick into the bundle and allowed them to draw fairly.

He watched the four go with mixed emotions. Assuming they died in the snow, he’d be free of the worst of the group; better a resolution than losing a random few. But they’d be weaker as a whole, and would have to find converts soon. That was always dangerous. Even more so was the thought they might find their pursuers, kill them, and return. If that occurred, Lazdole would be a hero, and Alnur’s already tenuous spot as leader would be even less stable.

Beneath the sagging tarp, the three travelers huddled around a small section of sand glowing red. It barely offered any heat, certainly not enough to push back the cold pouring in from either side. “Can you do no more?” Vysil asked.

“We’re lucky we scraped enough magic for this,” Dalgith said, absently tracing a finger over one of the symbols of glowing fruit on his wall. “Between the warning spell and the shelter, the power in this spot was almost spent.”

“Dalgith,” Irisa said, calmly. “Use your store.”

Dalgith grimaced at the words. He opened his mouth to reply, but Vysil was quicker. “You’re hoarding magic powder?” He asked, furiously.

“Easy,” Irisa said to the old warrior. “Dalgith gathered some enchanted silt from the River of Misery, after we slew the giant eel. He’s been saving it for an emergency. Isn’t that right?”

The wizard nodded. “We don’t even know if it will work here. Some magic won’t do anything if you take it too far from its source. I was going to take it out if we needed it.”

“We do need it,” Irisa said, immediately, before Vysil could say it more forcefully. “We might live through the night without it, but we’ll be in no condition to fight a pack of consumists come morning. I know I won’t be. This isn’t just about revenge anymore. It’s about survival.”

The young wizard nodded and leaned to grab his pack. Meanwhile, the winds picked up, whistling past the edges of the tarp. He glanced at the piling snow seeping its way in and sighed. Then he pulled out a small pouch and shifted back to the center. “I’m going to use just a little at first, to test whether it will work at all. If it does, I’ll add more.” He removed a pinch of the silvery dust and sprinkled it onto the glowing section. As the specks neared the runes, they began glowing and flew to the illuminated areas.

“It’s working,” Vysil said. “Now dump the rest.”

“Back off,” Irisa told him, before turning to Dalgith. “Add enough to make it warm, at least.”

He nodded and removed a small handful, about a third of the contents of the pouch, and sprinkled it on the floor. “We’ll want to save the rest, if we can. I have some spells that might be useful against the consumists.”

Vysil simply rolled over, covered himself with a fur blanket, and shut his eyes. The other two sat quietly around the source of heat. Some wind slipped in and tossed the mundane sand about, but the magical grains remained still.

“This wizard. Will he be a problem?” Irisa asked quietly, after a few minutes had passed.

Dalgith shrugged. “We’re better out of a fight than in one. War magic… real war magic, anyway… it’s mostly a myth.”

“Mostly,” Vysil mumbled and rolled over to face them. “I saw a man crack open the earth once.”

“Outside the blotted lands?” Dalgith asked, shocked.

“No. Inside. But that’s more than you can do.”

Dalgith relaxed a bit. “Of course, it’s more than I can manage. I never pretended to be more than an orphaned apprentice. But magic works differently in the blotted regions. I’ve heard it said they’re spots where a dark god pissed eons ago, before being chased off.”

“Rubbish,” Vysil said. “The dark gods were lies told by the ancients to absolve themselves of the magic they made. They realized what that power was doing to the world, so they made gods to blame.”

“Since when were you an atheist?” Irisa asked. “Why are you waiting out a conjured blizzard if not to avenge an insult against the Great Red Lord of the Northern Air?”

Vysil made a sound that could have been a laugh or a cough. “I said the dark gods were lies. The old gods, the ones of the south who rule the summer and those of the north who claimed the winter months… they’re real enough.”

“I hope not,” Dalgith said. “They say if you’re killed by a consumist, you’re claimed by their god. By Vallmar. I don’t think I’d like that.”

“Then make sure you don’t get eaten by them,” Irisa laughed. “They are not great warriors. They swarm their prey and fight by numbers, trusting in fear as an ally. Against steel, they fall easily enough.”

“How about it, Wizard,” Vysil said. “Which of the gods do you fancy?”

Dalgith shrugged. “I do not know that I trust any of them. The southern gods are all strange. As for the northern… I’m not certain. The Child of the Nativity is better than Vallmar. But I do not see how a baby could offer salvation.”

“That is the wisest thing I have ever heard you say,” Vysil said. “What do you think of the Red God, then?”

Dalgith started to reply, but before he could get a word out, he was interrupted by a screeching sound around them. He let out a yelp and started to stand, forgetting the tarp, weighed down by a foot of snow, was just above him. Before he even had time to speak, Irisa had grabbed her sword and crawled by him. On the other side of the runic fire, Vysil was rolling out into snow, having grabbed his axe. Pouch of magic powder in hand, Dalgith crawled out after Irisa. He reached the edge of the tarp and looked out to see her staring down three figures shrouded by the storm. A flash of lightning offered a brief look at their opponents, who were covered in blood. Consumists, of course, and from the look of things, they’d just eaten. However, they were also shaking. Their clothes weren’t suited to this kind of weather, and the decorative metal objects they were covered in only made matters worse.

“Hear us,” one of the consumists stuttered through chattering teeth. “We have come to offer you the redemption of the grandest lord of the north. Those consumed will find peace in the fields of Vallmar. Those given this gift in the holy season will be honored upon their arrival. Our companion has already begun the journey. Lay down your weapons, and pass with him to the fields of peace.” As he spoke, the consumists approached slowly.

Irisa held her ground while Vysil joined her. “Where is your wizard?” she demanded.

“He waits in the temple with our brethren,” the consumist replied. “Do not fear. It is only necessary for us to consume your heart. The three of us will be enough.”

“I have another idea,” Vysil said, squinting against the wind blowing against him. “We cut you down and burn your bodies. Your friend’s spirit won’t have had time to pass through your bowels, right? So what will be befall him? Same as you, I’d warrant: lost to the cold wind.”

The three consumists traded worried glances. “Do not say such things,” one whispered, raising his sword.

“There’s three of you and three of us,” Vysil taunted them. “And we’re rested and warm. Come on then.” He raised his head to expose his bare neck. “Come try for our souls!”

The consumists charged forward, wildly swinging their swords in an attempt to wound or throw their opponents off balance, but neither looked impressed. Dalgith stayed where he was, hopeful he hadn’t been seen. He had a few tricks that might help, but using them would almost certainly give away his position. Still, he reached into his pouch, in case the consumists proved more dangerous than they appeared.

But it was quickly clear they wouldn’t be a threat. Numbed by the cold, their attacks were awkward and slow. Irisa disarmed one with cuts to the elbow and forearm. He seemed oblivious to the pain, but both blades fell from his grip and landed in the snow. The consumist fell seconds later, clutching his throat which Irisa’s blade had cut open.

The other two charged at Vysil, who batted their clubs aside with his axe. He struck one in the nose with the blunt top of his axe to stun him, then chopped into the chest of the third. The one bleeding from the nose staggered backwards a few steps and looked up at Vysil. “Do not do this! We offer redemption!”

He never saw Irisa walk up behind him, and a second later he fell in the snow. Vysil spat on the body.

The storm had long since worn itself out by the time the sun began to rise. From the top of his stronghold, Alnur surveyed the white expanse. The four he’d sent out had never returned, which was of course part blessing and part curse. He could see three distant dark specks against the light snow: the trackers had outlasted his storm. That meant they must have a wizard with them, a fact which presented even more danger. The consumists had need of arcane power, but there was no reason Alnur had to be its conduit. He could not allow the wizard to be taken alive.

“We must find the others’ bodies,” Ducoris said. Alnur hadn’t even heard him approach from behind. “We must perform the rites to ensure they go to the fields of Vallmar, where all things are in abundance.”

“Soon,” the wizard replied. “The men who are tracking us will arrive soon. We should confront them here rather than on the snow. Nothing will befall your companions. They would want you to wait.” He felt reasonably sure this was a lie, but he spoke the words convincingly and smiled. The consumists, like most unfamiliar with wizardry, still suspected he had some connection with the dead.

Ducoris ran his fingers over a golden chain looped around his wrist. “It does not feel right to leave their spirits in the cold. Especially on the holy days.”

“There is plenty of time. The solstice is days away. Is it not true Vallmar will not rest before then?”

“It is,” Ducoris admitted. Then he paused and looked Alnur in the eye. “You only speak of him when there is something you want.”

“I respect your god,” Alnur said quickly. “But I follow a different path.”

“There is only one path to redemption,” Ducoris replied. “In the end, there are only those consumed and those who are damned.”

“I am not at my end yet,” Alnur said, forcefully. “Do not forget our arrangement. Do not forget your oath.”

“I will not forget,” Ducoris said. “But it is not the only oath I have taken. I have promises to keep to my brethren, too.”

“They will be kept,” Alnur assured him. “Once those coming for us are dead, we will retrieve your companions.” He saw that Ducoris remained skeptical. “There is a chance the trackers confronted them last night. If so, we may learn more from them.”

“All the more reason to meet them on the plain.”

“If they are as dangerous as I suspect, we would do better to face them here. I do not doubt we could best them on the snow, but we may be forced to sacrifice some of your people.”

“Death is not a sacrifice.”

“But it would mean fewer sets of eyes to look for your lost brothers. If we wait until the trackers reach us, when they are cold and we are ready, it will be easier. Easier to compel their help. Easier to perform your rites. Then easier to find the others and send them to the fields.”

“You may be right,” Ducoris said. “But I do not like this. I fear sometimes Argek’s lies infect you.”

Alnur smiled. “Argek’s lies are strewn all over this land, are they not? We must do our best to pierce the illusion and perceive the truest value. I learned that listening to you.”

Ducoris nodded and wandered out of the room Alnur had claimed for his own. The wizard sighed uneasily. All of this was worrying. He turned back to the open window and gazed out. The trackers, whoever they were, would reach them within the hour.

Irisa notched an arrow and approached slowly. A few feet ahead of her, Vysil carried his axe in one hand and a shield in the other. A dozen feet behind them, Dalgith clutched his pouch of magic sand and looked around anxiously. Before them, the glowing citadel of the consumists rose above the icy ground. A thick layer of snow was visible on window sills, and its light, though fading, reflected off the ground below.

“They might not have seen us yet,” Dalgith said, just loud enough for the others to hear.

Irisa and Vysil shared a brief amused glance, then Vysil bellowed, “Come out and answer for your crimes! For the burning of the evergreen woods of the eastern pass! Or would you rather hide in your hut until it falls down around you?” He laughed.

A moment later, two consumists appeared in the entryway holding spears. “Hold,” the first said. “We mean you no ill. Our only wish is to deliver the lost souls of this world to a greater one beyond. Whatever hate is in your heart, know that it was put there by Vallmar to lead you here. He cares not for your anger or sins. He seeks only to redeem your spirits and give you all you have dreamed of. Before we consume you and send your spirits onto him, we ask only that you tell us what you know of our four brothers.”

“We slit their throats and fed their carcasses to wild hounds,” Vysil spat. Irisa shot him an angry look - in reality, they’d just dragged the bodies a hundred yards from their camp and tossed some snow on them.

“You lie,” one of the consumists said.

“Do I?” Vysil asked. He fished a bracelet out of a pocket and flung it towards the startled consumists. One bent over to pick it up. “The one who wore that was the last to die. He forsook his god at the end.”

“I will not be deceived!” the consumist cried out and stepped forward, drawing a short sword as he did so. The other fell back to the doorway and traded whispered words with others inside.

Irisa began to draw back her bowstring, but Vysil shook his head. The consumist threw his spear, but Vysil dodged easily. “Your god’s fields are barren!” He called. Behind him, there were now three watching from the doorway.

“Throw aside your weapons!” The man charged.

Vysil waited until he was a dozen feet away then lunged. As he did so, he called out, “Irisa! Door!” He batted the consumist’s blade aside with his axe then grabbed the smaller man’s neck with his free hand. At the same time, Irisa released her arrow, burying it in the stomach of one of the three by the door. That consumist dropped, and she fitted another arrow, took aim, and shot another in the shoulder when he ducked to help the one who’d fallen. The others dragged those two inside while Vysil wrestled his to the ground, knocked him senseless with his axehandle, then killed him quickly. “Is that all the might the great Vallmar can throw at us? He is weaker than the Child of the Nativity!”

“Vysil!” Irisa snapped. “They’re angry enough already!”

“They are cowards serving a false god!” he cried out.

“Enough!” A woman appeared in the doorway. She held no weapons but approached with open hands. “You are unworthy of Vallmar’s gifts,” she said, extending a finger towards Vysil. Barefoot, she staggered forward on the bloody snow. “Will you kill an unarmed woman?”

“I’d kill a tree burner,” Vysil replied, striding forward.

“Stop!” Irisa howled, but Vysil ignored her. The consumist opened her arms, as if to offer the approaching warrior his choice of target. Then, when he was only a dozen feet away, she dropped face-first into the snow. A warrior leapt out from the opening behind her and hurled a spear over the woman. The shaft struck Vysil in the side, and the warrior fell. The two consumists charged full speed towards him.

Irisa loosed an arrow, striking the man dead center in his chest. The woman kept crawling, as Vysil wrenched the spear from his body and righted himself on one foot. The woman reached him and jumped, pushing away his axe and clawing for the open wound. Vysil screamed and struck the woman, who did not relent. She tore at his wound, trying to rip off pieces of meat. Behind him, three more consumists dashed out the door, and Irisa fired another arrow into their midst, catching one in the leg.

Dalgith pulled a handful of dust from his pouch and whispered an incantation. The dust formed into a floating, glowing ring, which followed his finger as he pointed directly at the woman on top of Vysil. The ring shot forward and swarmed around her before pouring into her mouth. She cried out as she fell back, crawling towards the opening.

“Kill her!” Vysil shouted, but Irisa ignored him and shot one of the armed men, instead. When the last reached Vysil, the warrior managed to sweep his legs out from under him using the axe, then finished him in three brutal strokes. He clutched his side and made his way to the doorway, where the consumist Irisa had shot in the leg was attempting to retreat. He cut downward into the back of the man’s neck, nearly severing his head. After, he leaned against the outer wall and panted. Irisa and Dalgith caught up a moment later. “I may have gotten carried away,” Vysil said when he saw Irisa staring at him.

“Can you do anything for him?” she asked Dalgith, who nodded.

He poured out another handful of the magic powder he’d saved and whispered to it, then directed it towards the warrior. It fluttered around him, before coalescing against the wound. “This may hurt a bit,” Dalgith warned. The dust glowed red-hot, and the warrior screamed.

Enika was gasping and choking when she found Alnur on the second level. She pointed to her mouth frantically. The wizard spoke three words loudly, and the dust collapsed, allowing her to spit it out.

“Be careful,” Alnur said. “We may be able to use this.”

“It was eating my teeth,” Enika said, horrified. “You told me magic could not do such things, not outside of Argek’s lands.”

“The spell was trying to clean your teeth, not devour them,” Alnur said. “This mage is clever. We must finish him quickly.”

Enika shook her head. “Ducoris is dead. Most of us are wounded.” Below them, they heard the shouts of combat as the warriors fought their way into the building. “You need to listen to me. I have heard it said a chosen of Vallmar can pass a believer’s spirit to the fields of plenty in a moment if the need is great enough and the heart is pure. I cannot promise it will work, but this may be our only chance.”

“You can’t give up,” Alnur said, stepping back. “This is a test of faith. You must stop this before they destroy everything. There is still time to fix this.”

Enika nodded solemnly. “This is a test of Vallmar. I think I am true enough. Set aside your fear and accept his redemption.”

The wizard opened his mouth to call a spell out to the magical dust that remained on Enika’s clothes, but she shoved her hand between his teeth first. She cringed as he bit down, but she did not relent. She grabbed for his shoulder and pulled her mouth towards his neck and bit deep into the side. Alnur fell back, wrenching himself free for a moment, but she was upon him once again.

“This is a gift!” she cried out. “To be consumed in the name of Vallmar! As thanks for your years of service!” She wedged her fingers between his jaw again and began forcing his head back. The wizard managed to pull a knife and stab her in the shoulder, but she simply pulled it free and stabbed him three times in the chest and stomach. “This will serve us!” she said, preparing to drive the point into his eye.

But she never had the chance. She jerked forward as an arrow plunged deep in the center of her back. She fell over as a warrior woman entered the room, followed soon after by a wounded fighter and a young conjuror. Alnur pushed himself backwards against the wall. “Wait,” he said. “They made me conjure the storm. I never wanted… never wanted to help them. They’re cannibals.”

“You are a poor liar,” Vysil said. “Your name is Alnur, the conjuror sworn to serve Vallmar. How many hundreds died at the hands of your followers?”

Alnur shook his head. “It is not like that.” It wasn’t, at least not exactly. But it was closer to the truth what he had originally claimed.

Dalgith moved around the others and approached. “I can do a little for the stab wounds, but I don’t know if he’ll live.”

Vysil laughed. “I was just planning on tossing him out of the window, to be honest. Is there a reason we want him alive?”

“You’re standing in it,” Dalgith replied, removing some magic powder, which Alnur eyed, greedily. “If I keep you alive, I want to know the spell that makes this.”

Alnur nodded. “Each day I live, I will teach you a spell I know. If you cannot conjure shelter, I do not expect to exhaust my knowledge before death claims me.” He opened his hands to accept the powder, then cast the same spell Dalgith had used to bind Vysil’s wounds. He bit down as the sands scorched his skin.

“He has crimes to answer for,” Vysil said sternly.

“Dalgith is aware,” Irisa said. “If Alnur’s wounds don’t bring him to his end, others will. If you wanted to do the deed, you should have kept your senses. You lost your claim to the wizard’s head.” She stared the old berserker down until he nodded and slumped back to tend to his own wounds.

It was evening, and the stars overhead were beautiful. A few days had passed since the consumists had been slain. They’d started south and had yet to reach an end to the expanse of snow and ice left by Alnur’s conjured storm. This, too, was beautiful in a way, though the frigid air had given the old wizard a cough that upset the stab wounds.

Alnur stood outside a building identical to the one his magic had summoned before, though this was created by Dalgith, who was learning the incantation quickly. It had still taken him a dozen tries to speak the words correctly, but he’d managed it in the end.

The older warrior still eyed him menacingly from time to time and occasionally gestured threateningly, but he’d yet to actually harm Alnur. He suspected that was more due to the interference of Irisa, who seemed willing to let him live for a time.

But only for a time. Magic had cleaned the stab wounds, but it could not heal them. Every day, they seemed to grow worse and worse. If they didn’t reach civilization first, he would eventually be unable to go on. Perhaps they would stay with him as he died. Or perhaps Irisa and Dalgith would relent and allow Vysil to cleave off the wizard’s head.

It would go no better if he survived to reach a village. He was well known throughout these lands, and would be made to answer for the crimes of those who had followed him. They would pass judgment quickly, he was certain, and execute him before his injuries and sickness made the matter moot.

But that would take a few more days. Dalgith had wandered out to keep an eye on him, which amused the old wizard. “Dalgith,” Alnur said with a cough. “That cloud. Try and clear it.” As he’d promised, Alnur had taught him the charm to conjure shelter on the first day and the magic to manipulate the weather the next. It was a costly spell for larger effects, but clearing a single small cloud from the sky would remove only a trivial portion of the land’s magic power.

Dalgith spoke the words slowly, mispronouncing a syllable. Alnur corrected him and waited for him to go through the spell again. This time, the ring of weather appeared, and he watched closely to make sure Dalgith chose the correct one. Then lights rose into the air, and within a few minutes the cloud had dissipated.

“Good,” Alnur said, nodding. “Good. Come. I have another incantation to show you. Irisa may want to see this, as well.” He began walking across the sands while Dalgith called into the shelter to tell the others something was happening. Alnur suppressed a grin - it pleased him, so close to the end, to be able to elicit a sense of mystery.

Dalgith caught up to him almost at once. “You have already shown me a spell today,” he reminded him. “That was the arrangement. One a day.”

Alnur chuckled. “I am aware. But this cannot wait. It can only be cast tonight, and I would show it to another before I die. I have not been able to use it in years. If I’d used it around the consumists, they would have killed me on the spot.”

“What is it?” Dalgith asked.

“It is a spell of conjuring. I will call on the likeness of the Red God, and he will appear. It can only be done once, and only on this night.”

“That’s impossible,” Dalgith said. “Only the southern gods appear to men, and only in the ruins of their cities. The northern gods, if they even exist, stay hidden beyond the stars.”

“Not this night,” Alnur replied. “Magic is different this night. I do not understand it, but I will show you. I can only call the Red God: I once saw my master invoke the Child of the Nativity, as well, along with his host of donkeys and servants, but he never taught me that spell. I do not know if Vallmar can be summoned. I have heard such disparate descriptions, I almost doubt it. But the Red God, on this night, I can call. Listen to the words. Listen carefully.” Alnur glanced over his shoulder to confirm Irisa and Vysil had emerged from the fortress, then he began. It was a short incantation, as far as they went, and the old words, whatever their meaning, had an almost whimsical meter and rhyme.

Then, in the desert before them, the sands began to glow beneath the snow. They formed patterns like those of a giant snowflake, an evergreen tree, and finally a box with some sort of knot on top. Then the box burst open and out flew the Red God on his sled, pulled by a team of deer. It was as strange and incredible as the old stories described, and Alnur gazed in wonder, as he had so many years before. He turned to see the same look on the face of Dalgith, who could not believe what was above them. The Red God turned, waved, and called out in the ancient tongue of the north. His words were like the stuff of magic themselves: indeed, it was the same lost language.

Alnur did not need to look to confirm the same look of astonishment was on the faces of the two warriors. The old wizard laughed, which turned into a cough, then back into a laugh. Of all the spells he’d ever known, this was by far his favorite. Even though he knew this was only the visage of the Red God, not the god, himself, as the appearance, path, motions, and words never deviated. He did not know what the spell meant or why it existed, but that did not matter.

Yes, he was dying. Almost all who knew of him wanted only to see him dead, and he could not deny their desire was just. But this was the most magical night of the year, and he had an apprentice to pass his secrets onto.

This was certainly to be the last time he set eyes upon the Red God, in this life, at least. So he laughed, as the Red God laughs, and Alnur waved back at the figure above.