No one travels across the Falas Mountains during the night, especially in the midst of torrential snow fall. No one who knew better. Even those with a sense of urgency to cross rarely stepped foot above the frost line after sunset if they wished to see the same sun rise again. Common reason suggested the mighty winds that passed swiftly through the difficult roads the primary suspect in every wayfarer’s disappearance since permanent winter fell on this jagged patch of earth ages ago. But even the most unwary traveler wore a coats of fur in these parts. No, something much more sinister lived in the crags and caverns, and everyone within leagues knew it. And those that didn’t know it were soon informed.
Despite this, a lone figure shivered in the cold among the towering fir trees, blindly treading slopeward, away from the village of Olvaren at the base of the mountain. A boy. A sensible being might think him foolish and stupid, and drag him back away from hypothermia or worse. He wore no coat or jacket, but the rags of a slave, with thin leather soles the only thing keeping his feet from the snow.
But there was no going back. He couldn’t. The bruises on his arms, the swelling black eye, and the dried blood clinging to the side of his right leg proved he no longer belonged anywhere. Death on his own terms. Those were the thoughts that passed through his trembling mind. Either he made it to freedom on the other side of Falas, or… He’d find peace in the hands of the Goddess.
Simple as that.
The frigid air of the pass embraced the lone boy like a blanket made of glass. Whether his toes still existed he wasn’t completely sure. Ice clung to his hair, and the wind stung his face like jagged needles made of stone.
It doesn’t matter, he thought to himself. I’m not going back.
Despite the lateness of the hour and the absence of the moon, the snow reflected enough light to give the boy some idea of the trail ahead of him. Or lack of one. The boy could no longer tell. The howling blizzard that surrounded him blinded him, especially to any creatures that might dwell in the forests beyond.
His hands slowly lost feeling. He lifted them to his lips and blew; the warmth brought feeling back for a moment. The wind sapped it away in an instant.
What else had the men in the marketplace told him of the mountain? Wolves, packs of them, roamed the hills searching for any opportunity to steal from the shepherds’ flocks. Woolly bears lived close to the thermal rivers, smart enough to wait besides the unmeltable torrents for an upstream-jumping fish or two. Eagles with discerning vision made homes atop the trees, soaring down from lofty heights for food. And every so often, hunters—the ones that braved the trek without camping the night—would take aim at moose and deer that lay trapped between the frozen rock of the mountain and the predators of the canyons. All these creatures of creation stood for symbols of the goddess Tiala’s power, and reflected her diverse attributes of strength, cunning, and endurance. At least, that’s what Her priests taught at the modest commune back in Olvaren. When given time, the boy used to sit and listen to the sermons, and wonder if the goddess had time to give an orphan slave. Maybe now he would find out.
According to tales, however, there lived in these mountains a terrible creation that had no place in Tiala’s domain, and profaned Her mountain. Every so often, when the priests had the monetary means to do so, the call would go forth for the strongest and most resourceful hunters in the province to hunt a beast known as a mephandras. Twenty foot tall in size and terrible in temperament, the boy had heard it described as a feral bear with scales and spikes in place of fur and a tusked maw that could rend a man to pieces in a second. Just as rare as the call, even rarer were stories of successful hunts against this baleful monstrosity. According to one such tale, a group of intrepid hunters once lured a mephandras to the foot of a steep cliff with a series of explosive traps. Cornered by men with firearms and spears, the beast roared—certainly loud enough to alert the village below—and made the hunters deaf through the sheer ferocity of it. Nevertheless, it was trapped. With a single explosive charge placed some hours earlier high above on the cliffside, the hunters brought the whole mountain down upon it. When the smoke and dust cleared, the creature seemed dead, but that wasn’t enough for the hunters. They quickly filled it with bullets and spearheads enough to bring down an entire herd of elk, and even made use of one last explosive on top of its head.
It took days to harvest even a portion of the creature’s poisonous meat, hide, and colossal bones, which were quickly promised at great value to the province’s merchants. It might have brought prosperity to everyone in the process. It might have ended the tale happily there.
But the mephandras had a mate.
Whether the village watch been drunk, sleeping, or both, it didn’t matter. An even larger malevolent specimen tracked the hunters from the mountain, and brought death and destruction with it. Into the midst of an impromptu festival held to celebrate the hunter’s great accomplishment, the creature charged, killing the hunters and many of the townsfolk immediately. It bucked and heaved and roared, tearing through stone buildings and storefronts like a child through so many wooden blocks. The villagers retreated to the town hall and rallied as much defense as possible, and to their surprise, managed to hold the creature at bay. Or, perhaps, the mephandras wasn’t interested in carnage for its own sake. It found the bones of its beloved placed in the village square, and proceeded to mourn quite violently for hours. Bullets were fired from the hall, but none found purchase into this great creature’s hide.
It took three days for the creature to finally lose interest in the village and the bones. It took the largest bone in its razor-filled mouth and departed for the mountain. Where it wandered no villager desired to find out. The rest of the now-frozen carcass of the slain mephandras was never sought after, and the remaining spoils of the hunt only just covered the costs necessary to repair the damage wrought to the village.
Or so the tale was told. Was it true? Apparently, many hundreds of years had passed since. Trackers and merchants that visited Olvaren insisted they knew the descendants of those slain hunters, and the claw marks made by some fell beast could be seen quite clearly on the walls of the old hall that had once served as the village center. And while hunters were still hired to hunt the mephandras every decade or so, not a single one had been spotted for over a century.
Perhaps they were all gone. Perhaps the mountain was not as dangerous as everyone in the village made it seem. True or not, the boy’s thoughts centered on encountering such a monster on the mountain. Perhaps it would find the boy, and put him out of his misery. Perhaps it would carry him over the mountain and place him on the other side, right as rain.
Or maybe the boy was going out of his mind from the cold.
The boy raised his hands to his face. He couldn’t feel a thing. His teeth had long since passed chattering. Every step he took was uncertain, since he’d long lost feeling in his legs.
I’m not going back. I’m not going back.
A howl echoed across the snow, just barely audible above the frigid wind. The boy didn’t hear it, too obsessed with the cold. Then a second howl cried out much louder and clear to the boy’s right side. This snapped him out of his frozen trance.
For the first time in several hours, the boy’s feet stopped walking. It felt strange.
He waited. He watched the fir trees dance back and forth, the giant snowflakes falling in large clumps as stars from the sky. Something watched him in the trees. He didn’t know how, but he knew it. Or maybe delirium had set in.
A shadow passed through the trees, perhaps fifty yards away. Too dark to tell. The boy wasn’t afraid. His fear had been frozen away. He simply stood like a pole buried in dirt. His eyes felt tired, somehow burning when the rest of his body solidified. He’d been walking for such a long time. Perhaps the shadow would let him sleep.
It approached. The image of a bear. A mephandras. It had to be. Its jagged scales whipped in the wind, its deep-throated growl echoing across the snow.
I’m not going back.
The rigid boy suddenly felt gravity. A terrible weight. His knees could no longer sustain themselves. He felt the world spin, and its surface collided with him. The snow gave place for him as if he belonged there all along. His perception darkened to match the night sky, and he felt himself drift off into a sea of starlight.