Talvikki the eagle was flying over lake Starpath.
Pursuing the group of fleeing Icewinders, she had had time to think. They had cast hoarleaf on the milk. As fatal as any physical poison, the spirit of the rare plant was even more insidious. Luring all of the soul away from one’s body, it had done most of the work for them. That way, only the children were affected. They had had no chance at all against the experienced shamans.
That brought another thought to her mind. So, regardless of what she had said, Tuuli had never switched back to milk. Talvikki should probably be a little angry. The only thought that came to her was, Thank gods the girl doesn’t always do as she is told.
Crossing the eastern shoreline she immediately saw the eleven small figures making their way southward in the nearby forest. It was the shortest night of the year and eastern horizon was already starting to light up. Finding them had been easier than she had expected. Perhaps Rika had underestimated her skills as a shaman. No matter. It was time to get things into motion.
Descending rapidly Talvikki headed for the north end of a small forest clearing the group was currently crossing. Landing on a huge fallen trunk of an oak, she changed back into her human form.
The group of ten men and one woman sprung around. Spears were pointed at her.
“This is about as low as it gets. You have much to answer for.”
The Icewind shamaness pulled her hood back, sneering at Talvikki, “Bold words for little bird rushing to its death. You understand nothing.”
“Then tell me. Why did you do it?”
“I will not explain myself to your kind.”
Rika motioned to her warriors, “Put her down.”
Talvikki lowered her gaze and sighed as the nine men started to approach her. She raised her right arm holding it up for a moment and then swung it down motioning at the enemy.
Twangs of hidden bows echoed from the south. The Icewind warriors realized too late what was happening. They had barely time to turn around. Four fell immediately, impaled by a hail of arrows and spears.
Rika looked behind her. Face twisted with rage she screamed, “Damn you! You mangy curs!”
The ancient witch turned to the dark young man with blue eyes, “I’ll take care of this. Go kill her.”
Without a word he freed his thickly rune-covered spirit web from his belt. Then, fixating his eyes upon Talvikki, he started to sprint at her.
She could feel the tide approaching. Again, she was being pulled into the spirit world. This time it was against her will. Planting her feet firmly she raised her own spirit web to meet the attacker. Mists of the void rushed in and bore her mind into another, far greater forest as the magic combat began.
This part of the Spirit Realms felt eerie and threatening. Talvikki tried to make sense to his surroundings. She stood beside a surrealistically large fir tree. Its trunk was wider than ten men. Thick fog surrounded her on all sides limiting her vision to what she imagined to be barely a couple of meters. In the fog she could dimly make out silhouettes of other trees. A cold wind, that was not wind, chilled her spine. It barely caused the fog vapors to shift at all. Nothing she saw resembled the warm glade she had been in only moments earlier.
She knew fully well that her physical body was still there and it was a part of her spirit that had been carried to this dark place. It was very unlike the earlier light trance she had entered at the ceremony. When done with delicate control, the shaman could remain at her body. She usually used such magic to examine her immediate surroundings and see much more than she could her with bare eyes. Doing battle was another thing altogether.
In the mock duels where she had trained against young shamans of her age, attacking someone spiritually usually carried enough momentum to tear the combatants’ spirits away from their bodies. Still, when that had happened, she had always remained at least dimly aware of what was going on around her physically.
This time she was lost. The ferocity with which this unknown Icewind shaman had assaulted her had thrown them both deep into the Realms. Possibly deeper than she had even been. Out of habit she tried to mentally lift herself in the air and failed. The life force of her enemy weighted heavily upon her. If she wanted to get a better perspective, she would have to take the form of a spirit animal.
The same rituals that she had used to transform physically into cat or eagle form would work here, only differently. In this place they would do much more to her than merely changing the shape of her body. With each aspect something essential from the animal would be gained and something of her humanity would be lost.
She wasn’t ready for such risk quite yet. She didn’t know enough about her opponent. If something went wrong, there was no telling what would happen. She was currently unable to leave this place. There was no escape if the other shaman wasn’t willing to let her go – except through defeating him. What was worse, no matter how hard she tried, she could sense nothing from above. She would just have to trust in the Starpole warriors and Ahiram to keep her safe while she did battle here.
Looking around Talvikki noticed some faint glimmer in the fog. Even this deep, there was still some loose mana she could use. Her hand appeared pale and wispy to her. More so than usual. She was holding her Spirit Web. Not the wood, leather and bone frame she carried around, but what it actually was. Brilliant shimmering strands of blue light. Slowly crafted with years of meditation, if was made out of her very soul and an integral part of her. Now it would be a good time to use it to save herself. All right, girl. Try to get something done before he finds you. Raising the mystic construct she started to gather power from the fog. She would undoubtedly need some soon.
Throwing down his bow, captain Ahiram drew his curved blade from its sheath and turned to face his opponent. This is bad, he though.
To his men he shouted, “Keep the line! Form tight on my sides! Protect the archers!”
Very, very bad.
There were soft whispers in the shadows. So quiet she could not make out the words. Sometimes she thought she could see glimpses of dark forms moving in the fog. Each time she turned to take a proper look, the sounds stopped. Nothing was there to be seen. She did not know what it was. Fear was seeping into her mind.
Usually she found soul travel thrilling, even when there was some danger about. Not this time. The Realms had never felt this alien to her. A sound from behind her startled her again. This time is was louder. There was a warmth about it.
The second she realized what she had just sensed, she dropped down. A spear of pulsing blue light flew past her, missing narrowly. Rolling to her side she jumped back to her feet.
So, the game is on, she though. I’m ready for you. Having made up her mind she touched her spirit web to the shimmering band of light that was around her neck. The web-like structure of light in her hand spun itself anew. A short edge of brilliant blue appeared in her hand.
What? she looked at the small object made out of light in her hand. This is the lousiest Spirit Blade I have ever summoned. Is my necklace…?
A sudden sense of fear interrupted her thoughts. Something was closing in fast. She swung around just in time to meet a dark spirit wolf. It lunged at her.
Fang and dagger were bared, seeking their mark. The fang found it first. Talvikki gasped with sharp agony in her flank. Continuing its charge the wolf rushed past her and vanished again into the fog.
Holding her side Talvikki cursed, Damn it smarts. I guess I wasn’t so ready after all.
Looking where the large canine had gone, Talvikki saw a trail of bright wisps of light in the air.
So I managed to prick you too. Does that make us even?
She had been surprised to learn as a child that spirits could bleed too. They would not of course spill liquid blood but rather energy. It was still just as dangerous as actual bleeding. In some ways even more so. The most that could happen to a body was death. When souls bled, they would forget things instead. Lose too much and you would become something less that a man. The thought had terrified her immensely. It was one of the reasons she had chosen to become a healer shaman.
At least now those skills would serve me well, she thought as she focused on reciting a renewing ritual. The wound below her arm closed quickly. With the effort she felt weariness wash over her. She looked back at the shimmering mist the wolf had left behind. At least you gave me some mana to work with. Let’s see how fast you can recover.
In mere moments she had gathered enough of the substance to feel stronger again. Walking sternly forward she followed the trail. Judging by the amount of mana the other shaman was bleeding, it would appear he was in trouble. Perhaps you have practiced too much hurting others, my friend, she smiled to herself. Just at that moment she started to make out a form in the fog.
“I think it’s the time to end this, little doggy,” she said out loud.
As she finished her sentence, the creature in front of her stepped out into plain sight.
Talvikki’s heart in her physical body in the forest clearing near Lake Starpath skipped a beat.
It was a spirit animal all right, and it had been hurt by her blade. There was a bloody gash in its furry throat. It just wasn’t a wolf. It was a huge brown bear.
She had only a second to think. Impossible. It took even Hendrix a lifetime…
Gathering her strength Talvikki unraveled her Spirit Blade and grasped the reformed spirit web tightly. Calling the spirits, she felt mystic winds surround her.
She fell forward as her hands and feet became paws and her ears turned pointy and tufted.
A moment later, where the shamaness had been, there now stood a black dotted arctic lynx.
Then the bear charged.
Compared to its size, the monster was incredibly fast. Talvikki could barely avoid it in her lynx form. She was tiring fast. Something was wrong with her Waterword necklace. It could barely hold any mana. I can’t keep this up much longer, she thought. Looking around she could see no way out.
Well, this is it then.
Running around the bear she looked for an opening. It tried to hit her with one of its massive paws and missed. Now! She pounced on the bear, aiming for its throat. Talvikki struggled, clawing and biting her enemy as she could. It was to no avail. The beast’s hide was just too thick. She couldn’t get through. She bit its throat with all her might, but came up only with a loose flap of skin in her mouth. I guess that’s why nature made bears this way.
Then it happened.
She had held on for too long. A gargantuan paw landed on her head with incredible force. She was knocked off her feet and flung back. Her head was spinning. Then the bear was upon her. Before she could move, it grabbed her by throat with its rakelike fangs and started shaking her violently. In her eyes the mist of the Spirit Realm bloomed with bright red.
There was nothing she could do.
A last thought came to her, Tuuli doesn’t know how to make the antivenom. She’ll blame herself for this. Poor, brave girl.
The bear stopped moving.
There was a faint surprise in its eyes. Then its expression froze. Talvikki felt a burst of mana wash over her as the massive creature exploded into a cloud of vapor. She was thrown toward the skies.
Talvikki was lying on her side. When she opened her eyes, she first noticed the sun had risen. Then she saw the black haired, blue eyed shaman was staring at her. It seemed strange. Was he lying on the ground too?
Then she realized the head was not attached to a body.
Looking up she saw a large figure looming above her. It came closer.
“You’re welcome,” Ahiram said nonchalantly and wiped his large curved sword on what appeared to be the dead shaman’s pants.
Talvikki struggled to sit up. Her throat was hurting. “Did you ..? You knew what was going on?”
“I was not born yesterday, lady. We do have magic in the south too,” Ahiram smiled at her. “And while you were lying on the ground you sure sounded like you could use some help.“
“Nah, I had it.“ Then she started coughing. It was a while before she could stop the fit.
“I am sure you did.”
Suddenly she remembered. Jumping to her feet she scanned the glade with her gaze. Six, seven, eight Icewinder bodies. Two of their warriors were still alive and on their knees with their hands bound behind their back. Further, near the south end of the field, many more corpses were lying on the short underbrush. Both Starpole warriors and Ahiram’s mariners were there but Rika was not among them.
“Where is she? What happened?”
“She got away,” Ahiram answered bluntly. The good spirits in his voice were gone. “Blasted hag turned into a bear and killed eleven of my best men. Then she ran into the woods that way, “ he pointed southeast. “Was damn fast too. There was no way we could have kept up even had we been in the condition to pursue. Tough old wench.”
So that’s where the power came from. I knew he was too young to have mastered the ritual of the bear himself, Talvikki thought.
Aloud she said, “Did she have anything with her?”
“Now that you mention, the bear did grab a bag in its mouth before it ran away. One of the stranger sights I’ve seen.”
“Bitch of Pohja!” Talvikki swore in frustration. ”Of course she did. The webs with the souls of the children must have been in that bag since they aren’t here.”
“If you say so,” Ahiram frowned. Then after a short pause he continued, “So what do you want to do now? Shall we go after her?”
Talvikki scratched her head looking up. “No. No, we won’t. As much as I wanted to, we can’t. It’s just like you said, we are in no shape to pursue. And even if we were, I can’t leave the village before I have completed the healing rites on the children. Tuuli is expecting us back. I’ll go after her soon, but first we’ll have to make a plan.”
“Very well, then. Back to the village. Do you think you feel well enough to check on a couple of my men? They were mauled up pretty bad.”
“Still a bit of wind left in me. Lead the way.”
The bright summer sun was shining on the beautiful forest meadow as the weary warriors gathered their dead. They headed back to their ship at the eastern shore of Lake Starpath. Soon they would sail back to Starpole village. This solstice morning the men and women would be mourning their lost children.
The beautiful weather didn’t do much to cheer them up. The festival of joy had turned into one of tragedy.
Meanwhile, in the top of the tallest fir tree someone was unconcerned about such mundane troubles. Actually it was exceptionally pleased with itself.
It had just looked into its new shiny blue gemstone and figured out what the soul thing was really all about.
END OF PART ONE