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Snow Blind
 

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Snow Blind


  Snow Blind

  By

  Mark Campbell

  Snow Blind

  Copyright 2014 Mark Campbell

  Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favorite ebook retailer to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.

  Snow fell steadily, a thick white curtain of flakes descending at a sharp angle, propelled by the harsh arctic wind howling through the Norwegian mountains. The remote valley was far enough from the coast that significant snowfall was not uncommon during winter, but it was still October and a blizzard like this was unusual, even here within the Arctic Circle.

  The hunter made his way slowly through the valley, his progress impeded more by visibility than by the foot deep snow. He was tall, nearly six and a half feet, and his long, well muscled legs strode through the cold white expanse with no semblance of effort. Although he was only approaching his sixteenth winter he was already taller and stronger than any other in the Fenrir Tribe. This hunt was to be his Proving, a rite of passage to demonstrate his readiness to take his place among the Warriors.

  The Proving was a test of strength and resourcefulness; although not in recent history had a prospective Warrior dared such a bold undertaking. Typically it was a ceremonial hunt, for a bear, a lynx, or a wolverine, armed only with a hunting knife. On rare occasions a hopeful would join a skirmish against a small band of trolls or other minor agents of Darkness.

  This hunt was far more dangerous. Normally an untested Warrior would not have been allowed to even accompany a hunting party on such a pursuit, let alone undertake it on his own.

  But no other had so much to prove.

  The young hunter stopped his trudging to get his bearings. Even though he had spent his entire life roaming these valleys and mountains he barely recognized where he was through the storm. Shutting his eyes tightly closed, he pulled back the hood of his cloak slightly and removed the goggles he wore. By feel he quickly made his best effort to wipe the snow from the lenses and then replaced the tinted eye-ware, pulling the hood down low once again. Only after they were securely in place did he dare open his eyes.

  The hunter had always been light-sensitive, his mother said it was because his body had no color, what the outside world called albino. His skin was pale, although that in itself would not have set him apart, as all of his people were fair-skinned. However, most of them had brown or blond hair, occasionally even red. His hair was stark white, like that of an old man’s. Even more disturbing were his eyes. Since his irises lacked pigment the blood behind his pupils showed through, giving his eyes an eerie red tint. It was this that made him light-sensitive. Although the clouds and mountains mostly obscured the sun, the snow glare was still bright enough to pain his sensitive eyes, even through the goggles.

  The hunter checked his weapons, the stout sword at his left hip, two throwing axes at his right, and his short hunting knife pressed against the small of his back. He resettled the strap of the supply pouch he wore under his cloak and resumed his march.

  He didn’t really mind the chill, cold had never seemed to bother him, although he made certain to protect his skin from frostbite. The only time he had ever been sick from cold was when he had fallen into a frozen lake as a child and nearly drowned in the icy water. Even then he had recovered far quicker than the tribe’s healer had thought to be normal.

  Not that anyone ever accused him of being normal. He had, in fact, been called a freak his whole life, except by his mother, who told him he was not cursed—as so many said he was—but blessed, set apart for something marvelous.

  That was why he had asked for this Proving, to show his whole village that he was special. Of course, they had laughed at his request, more out of shocked amusement than in true derision: it was absurd to send an unproved boy to hunt such a creature as the one he now pursued. It would have ended there—the war party leaving him behind, their laughter ringing in his ears—if not for the Skald. To everyone’s surprise, the Old One had begun to speak in her typical cryptic way, and though her voice was low and crackling, it was somehow clear to all assembled.

  “Alone, the colorless hunter shall pursue that which walks after death. Through frozen breath and falling darkness, he will find his path and it shall lead him to himself. Fear not the Lindworm, oh hunter, for the serpent’s fang shall become your strength.”

  The Elders were not pleased, but none wished to refute the Skald. The Old One was the tribe’s connection to the Light, a holy mouthpiece whose wisdom and prescience guided them in their battle against the Darkness. A Skald’s word had only been challenged a handful of times in the history of the Tribe and every instance had led to great loss and woe. If she declared that she had seen the young hunter undertaking this task alone, then it would be so.

  He had wasted little time setting out; lest the Elders change their mind despite the words of the Skald. The hunter had gathered his supplies (such as they were) and bid his mother a quick farewell. She had been worried, that much was plain to see, but she had not tried to stop him. She knew all too well how important to him this Proving was. To show once and for all that he truly belonged, that he was a Fenrir Warrior.

  The young man had headed first for the sight of the attack. Early that morning one of the tribe’s shepherds had stumbled into the village, raving like a madman about dead sheep and a horrible monster. Warriors were sent out and had found the other shepherds slaughtered among the remains of their wooly charges. The Elders tried to get information from the survivor, but even once he was safe it was clear that his mind had been damaged by the violent event. He raved about a walking corpse, with inhuman strength and glowing, hate-filled eyes.

  A draugr.

  Although one of the undead creatures had not been seen for generations, the description matched: an animated corpse, impossibly strong, filled with hatred of the living, and capable of instilling madness by its very presence. Those of the outside world who lived in comfortable ignorance may have relegated such things to folklore and myth, but the Tribe of Fenrir knew better. They held to the old tales, knowing that within them were warnings of the creatures of Darkness.

  Though the bodies of the shepherds had been brought back to the village to be attended to, the place had been easy enough to find. Even the light snowfall hadn’t obscured the great splatter of blood. The bodies of the Spælsau sheep—or rather parts of them—had been strewn across a huge area. Clearly the draugr had chased down both sheep and men with wicked abandon.

  The creature’s tracks led toward the wilderness. By the looks of them it was human sized, despite its great strength.

  Following the tracks away from the attack site the hunter sniffed the air. Even among a people who were renowned for their tracking skills and perceptions, his senses had always been exceptional. Though it was hard to be certain with the smell of carnage and gore, he had thought he had detected a hint of putrid rot, far greater than what should be from the freshly killed animals.

  It was said that the draugr reeked of decay.

  The tracks had been easy enough to follow; the creature had apparently felt no need to obscure its trail. But by mid-day the light snowfall had grown more profuse, until at last the hunter now found himself trudging through the blinding sheets of white. He had been following along the direction the tracks had been going, but at last he had to admit that they were now completely covered by snow.

  The hunter thought back to the tales of the draugr. Being so uncommon it had not been spoken of often, but he thought he remembered something about the creature having the ability to control
the weather. Had it brought in this blizzard to obscure its tracks?

  Or maybe so it could circle back and attack him?

  Throwing back his head in frustration he howled out a cry of challenge.

  “I am Gavin White-Fury of the Tribe of Fenrir. Show yourself monster! Face me!”

  Despite his strong, resonating voice, the words were swept away by the snow-filled wind. Gavin looked through the curtain of snow, but saw no movement. There was no response of any kind.

  Forcing down his aggravation, he closed his eyes, reaching inside himself for a sense beyond sight and sound. Every Warrior of the tribe had his or her own gifts: exceptional strength, enhanced speed, great endurance, superior eyesight and accuracy, or sometimes a combination of such gifts. But one blessing the Light bestowed upon all was an innate awareness, a sixth sense that allowed them to detect and track creatures of Darkness. This awareness was the most fundamental attribute of a Warrior, without it one could not even attempt to join the ranks.

  Like his other senses, Gavin’s inner sense was exceptionally powerful, if not yet fully disciplined. Only the eldest and most powerful Warriors had a sense as strong. It galled him that in so many ways he was superior to all his peers and even some of his elders. He was both strong and fast, far beyond any other his age. He was a formable fighter, skilled in sword, axe, and even unarmed combat. His stamina was twice that of most men and he seemed to possess a recuperative ability like none had ever seen. With his heightened senses, along with his own diligent studies, he had become one of the best trackers in the Tribe.

  Yet still he was not accepted. He was certain that, had he not been born with his strange appearance, his superior abilities would have made him the favorite of the entire Tribe by now. As it was, Gavin believed it was only because of his exceptional abilities that the others even tolerated his existence.

  It was so unfair. No matter how many times his mother had tried to reassure him, he knew how the Tribe thought of him. If his mother’s father was not the chief Elder and his own father not been a renown Warrior, Gavin was certain that he and his mother would have been forced out of the Tribe long ago. As it was, his grandfather acted as if he did not exist and his father…

  Once the champion of the Tribe—loved and respected by all—his father had died heroically, leading the Warriors against a Dark-tainted warband of Jötnar, on the very same night of Gavin’s birth. It had been a night of the Blood Moon, considered an ill time for any birth. Along with his appearance, this auspicious timing was a strong factor of the Tribe’s attitude toward Gavin. Many were convinced that one of the Jötnar must have cursed his father and his lineage.

  Gavin cursed them for their stupid superstitions and closed-mindedness. Just because they knew the truth of the world—that most of the legends and tales of monsters and magic were real—didn’t mean they had to be ignorant and backward.

  His mother was not that way, but then she had spent time in the outside world. Every year a few members of the Tribe would go out, to trade for needed supplies and to learn of a world that pretended that the Darkness was not actively trying to destroy it. His mother had taught him all she had learned, of a people cut off from nature, hopelessly dependent on their so-called technological advances, and oblivious to the dangers of the Dark.

  And yet some in the outside world still believed in honor, compassion, and love. Although most knew nothing of the battle of the Light against the Darkness, that didn’t mean they couldn’t be noble and heroic in their own way. And Gavin had always loved hearing tales of the magic they called science: of flying machines, the healing of great sicknesses, even men who walked on the moon!

  Those in the outside world might be weaker and willfully ignorant, but they would not have labeled him cursed simply because of the timing of his birth or lack of pigments in his skin. It made him so angry.

  It always made him angry.

  His anger and frustration had gotten the best of him ever since he had been old enough to understand why he was shunned and to hear the things the others said about him. He had gotten into many fights, never caring if he was outnumbered or outmatched. It was how he had earned the name White-Fury.

  It had been several years since any of the other young people had dared to provoke him, ever since he had become taller and stronger than most of the grown men. In truth, he found that he missed the brawls. At least he had an outlet for his anger, someone to hit, something to vent his emotions on. Plus, when he had been picked on and bated into fighting he hadn’t been completely ignored. But now the ill words and bullying had been replaced with furtive whispers and dismissive glances. He was a pariah in his own community.

  A sudden blur of motion in front of him shook him from his thoughts. Gavin reached for his sword as he peered through the heavy snowfall. There was only the frozen valley stretching out before him.

  Had he actually seen something? With the swirling snow it was hard to be certain. He swore and berated himself for once again allowing his anger to get the better of him. Not only had his emotions distracted him from his surroundings, they had impeded his supernatural awareness as well.

  Forcing his feelings aside, he tried to clear his mind again and reach out with his senses. There was something, but it was unclear, like a faint whiff of a scent on the air. Indeed, the sense was the psychic equivalent to the putrid decay he had smelled earlier.

  He centered himself even more, willing his awareness to stretch out further. Yes, he felt it stronger now, the cold malignance of the Dark as well as that same sense of grave rot.

  Although nightfall was still hours away, the light was growing dimmer as the sun sank behind the mountains and the dark clouds closed ranks above, descending as if they meant to slowly crush him. His sight was quickly becoming useless for navigation, so he fixed his inner sense on the “scent” and trudged toward it. Trusting it to guide him, he kept his head down, keeping an eye out the best he could for pitfalls or obstacles.

  Gavin lost track of how long he walked. He fell into a trance-like state, his conscious mind fixed upon his feet and his unconscious awareness leading the way. The psychic trail waxed and waned in intensity, but he was fairly confident that he was at least heading in the right direction. He could barely see his surroundings and by now had lost all sense of his location, something the small part of his brain knew he should be concerned about. But he had no time for such nonessential worries. Tracking and footing. That was all that mattered.

  He stopped and tried once again to get his bearings. He wiped half-heartily at the snow-crusted goggles with the back of his gloves, not even bothering to remove them this time. It had grown even darker and he could no longer see the mountains.

  Impossibly, as he stood looking around, the wind seemed to grow stronger yet and the snow began falling more heavily than before. Within moments his vision was completely obscured, leaving only a dark haze of swirling snow.

  His awareness screamed a warning, as the psychic stench flared to nauseating intensity. Gavin threw himself to one side, just as a figure flew at him. If he hadn’t been relying on his inner sense he would never have known the attack was coming. The figure sailed through the space where Gavin had been standing and landed gracefully in the thick snow.

  The churning fog of snow abated momentarily and Gavin caught a vague glimpse of his attacker.

  It appeared to be a man, though one dead for several days at least. The thing’s sagging skin was as pale as Gavin’s, but with the sickly grey pallor of a corpse. The thing stood slightly less than average-height—which put it a head shorter than Gavin—and wore only ragged remains of pants, leaving its bloated torso bare. A living being could not have survived long in the frigid weather, but the creature seemed unfazed by the cold or the snow. Dark stringy hair fell around its face like a moldering curtain, obscuring most of its features. But even through the tangle of hair and the blowing snow Gavin could see the thing’s eyes. The sunken pits burned with hate-filled red.

  The dr
augr opened a mouth filled with rotten, yellowed teeth and let out of gurgled cry of challenge. Then—impossibly fast considering the knee-deep snow—the undead creature charged, covering the distance between them in a blur.

  Gavin tried to dodge again, but the draugr clipped his shoulder, sending him spinning into a snow bank. He jumped to his feet as fast as he could—fully expecting another attack—but the creature was again just standing there, looking at him with an almost amused look in its scornful eyes.

  Without taking his own eyes off the thing, Gavin reached for one of his throwing axes and flung it at the creature. It was a hasty throw, with little time to truly calculate the distance and wind resistance, but it flew more or less at his mark. Unsurprisingly, the draugr, side-stepped the axe with ease, but Gavin had anticipated as much. Even as he had loosed the first axe he had been readying his second, this one aimed right where he had anticipated the creature would dodge. His instinct had been right on and the weapon flew straight toward the creature’s head.

  But his feeling of triumph was short lived. One of the draugr’s flabby arms snaked up with contemptuous ease and plucked the axe out of the air inches from its face—

  And then flung the weapon back the way it had come!

  Again Gavin dove desperately and felt the stir of air past his head as the axe whirled by, barely missing him. He managed to roll into a defensive crouch, but the thick snow slowed his movement. By the time he was back up and reaching for his sword, the draugr had already rushed forward, seemingly unimpeded by the drifts. A pale fist flew towards Gavin’s chest and he found himself flying backward, landing on his back in the snow.

  He lay there stunned; his chest feeling like it had been struck by a battering ram. He was fairly certain that nothing was broken, but for a moment his body simply wouldn’t respond—and a moment was all it would take for the draugr to gut him! He thought about the poor shepherds, slaughtered so easily, but instead of fear, anger coursed through him. He was here to prove that he was a Warrior and not some helpless victim. With anger-induced energy Gavin pushed himself up, determined that he would at least die on his feet.

  But no attack came. Steadying himself, Gavin looked around. Again, the curtain of snow diminished just enough so that he could see his immediate surroundings.

  The draugr stood less than ten feet away. It made no move toward him, simply standing there as motionless as an ice sculpture.

  Then it lifted its head slightly and the howling wind blew its matted hair away from its face. Below those smoldering eyes, the thing’s lips were twisted upward in a gruesome parody of a smile.

  It was mocking him. Twice now the abomination could have killed him, but instead it was toying with him.

  And laughing at him!

  Gavin’s rage flared higher at the indignation. With amazing speed he drew his sword and with a primal howl of challenge, charged the creature. His anger lent him strength and his determination quickened his steps. For a moment it was if it were a warm spring day, the cold wind completely forgotten, and the accumulated snow no more of a resistance than tall field grass. In a heartbeat Gavin had spanned the space between him and the monster. He raised his sword over his head in a powerful strike, the creature still unmoving. With a cry of triumph, Gavin brought his weapon down on the draugr’s neck with all his rage-powered strength.

  If it had been a mortal opponent the attack would have cleaved it nearly in two. Even with a preternatural creature, such as a troll or an ogre, it would have certainly been a killing blow. But it was not so with the draugr. The sword did not sink deeply into the pale flesh—

  It shattered. As the blade struck the creature it broke apart as if it were made of ice.

  Gavin felt his arms grow numb as the sword was destroyed, his powerful charge now sending him reeling as he lost all sense of balance.

  Time seemed to stand still as he fell. He looked up through the growing dark and the falling snow and saw the draugr turn its head to regard him with those burning, contemptuous eyes. Its leering attempt at a smile stretched wider, showing the creature’s yellow teeth. Too late, Gavin remembered that in the tales mortal weapons could not harm a draugr.

  Time reasserted itself and Gavin was still falling, but with incredible speed the monster surged toward him and seized him before he could hit the ground. The draugr hauled him up and for a moment they were face to face. The reek of decay and death was overpowering, even in the wind and cold. Gavin wanted to fight back, to strike or kick, but he was still stunned by the failed attack and weakened as the rage-filled strength ebbed away, replaced for the first time with fear.

  Not of death, but of failure. He would never be a Warrior, never prove himself to his tribe. Never be more than a freak in their eyes.

  At least in death, he would finally meet his father. He closed his eyes and prepared for the killing blow.

  But once again the draugr eschewed a direct attack. Instead Gavin felt himself lifted off the ground and then flung away like a discarded toy.

  He tumbled through the air and landed heavily in a thick snow bank. The would-be Warrior fought to orient himself, expecting the creature to come howling after him. But as he managed to regain his feet, the only thing that descended was the snow once more. The wind picked up and the large snowflakes seemed to come from every angle. Gavin desperately wiped at his goggles, but it was no use. The blizzard was as obscuring as a blanket over his head.

  With no other options, Gavin turned in what he thought was the direction opposite from where the draugr had been and ran.

  Or at least he tried to run. Against the howling wind and the thick snow cover, he couldn’t move very quickly, even with his long, strong legs. The best he could manage was a desperate lurching pace.

  A part of him wanted to give up; to just lie down in the snow and wait for the draugr to tire of the game and finish him. It was a game, he was certain of that. The creature was toying with him, enjoying the chase. So what was the point in playing? Why not simply deny the monster its fun?

  But Gavin couldn’t give up. He was a Warrior of the Tribe of Fenrir, in heart, if not in title. He wasn’t about to just lie down and die. The small part of him that had already abandoned itself to despair protested his retreat as a cowardly act, but he needed to regroup, to find some shelter and come up with some kind of plan. Even if it meant his death, he would die trying, but not like this, blind and disoriented—completely at the draugr’s mercy.

  So he stumbled forward, through the gray haze of the heavy snowfall. He kept expecting the draugr to materialize again, but no attack came. Still, he didn’t think he had lost the creature, the snow and wind obeyed it after all. Gavin tried to pinpoint the monster with his inner sense, but found it difficult to focus. He caught only the barest trace of the creature; just enough to know it was still out there, but not enough to distinguish its position.

  He blindly trudged through the snow, until suddenly he brought his foot down and found only empty air beneath it. He knew he shouldn’t be near any cliffs, but with the snowstorm, he really couldn’t be certain where he was. Besides, there were always ravines or fissures to worry about. Desperate, Gavin tried to throw himself back, but it was too late. Overbalanced, he tumbled over the edge, with no idea how far of a drop awaited him.

  As it turned out, it wasn’t a sheer drop, but a sharp incline. Unfortunately, he hit the snow covered ground and began to slide—head first—downward. Gavin threw his arms up to protect his head as he gained speed. Oddly, he was reminded of when he had been a child, sliding down the snow covered hills, using a wooden sled with metal runners.

  He had never felt sorry for the sled, until now.

  Gavin hit the bottom of the incline and somehow ended up flipped over on his back. The young man lay stunned for a moment, trying to assess any damage. He seemed surprisingly uninjured, though his heart was pounding so hard it felt like it might burst out of his chest and go scurrying across the snow.

  Willing his heart to calm and hi
s head to stop spinning, Gavin rose shakily to his feet. The unexpected slide might have given him the distance he needed from the draugr. He had to keep moving.

  But before he could take a step, there was a cracking sound beneath him, loud enough to be heard even over the howling wind. He couldn’t tell if it was ice or stone fracturing, but whatever was beneath him was giving way.

  Gavin tried to jump away, but the exhaustion of his ordeal and the disorientation of his slide dulled his responses. Before he could move, the ground beneath him dropped away with another loud crack.

  In hopeless panic the young hunter grasped for a handhold—any handhold!—but found only the loose snow. Then he was falling, into the sudden darkness of underground and then as he hit bottom, into the darkness of unconsciousness.

   

  Gavin awoke with a start, his eyes flaring open, but he saw nothing. He pulled the tinted goggles off, but the darkness did not recede. Above him he could hear the wind howling, but he felt only stillness. Slowly it donned on him that he had fallen into an underground cave. The wan sunlight must have faded altogether while he had been out, because he couldn’t see the hole he had fallen through.

  His body had begun to grow cold as the ground beneath him had stolen its heat, but he was not quite frozen stiff. Good, he hadn’t been out for very long.

  Cautiously, Gavin got his feet under him, settling into a defensive crouch. He moved slowly, wary for broken bones or torn muscles. He’d been lucky; he felt nothing but a growing bruise along his left shoulder and down his back, obviously from the impact. Apparently, the snow that had fallen with him had somewhat cushioned his collision with the ground.

  Gavin stretched out his senses, but did not feel the presence of the draugr.

  Reaching inside his pouch, he pulled out a small object. Although his people chose to live the simple life of their ancestors, they did, on occasion, take advantage of the technology of the outside world. The magic that they called “science” had produced many wonders, such as the object he now held.

  With a quick strike to the end of the light tube—a flare his mother had called it—the darkness was suddenly replaced with a blinding white light. Gavin lifted the flare above his head and examined his surroundings.

  He was indeed inside a rough cave, the walls and floor covered in ice and frost. He could just make out the hole he fallen through, some twenty feet or so above him. Even if he could reach it, he was certain that the fragile surface would be unable to hold his weight. He would have to find another way out. His sword and axes were gone; the only weapon left to him was his hunting knife. It would probably be no more effective than the other weapons had been, but he felt better having something. He checked that the blade was secure and then quietly stood up and began searching for a way out.

  He made his way through the maze-like tunnels, trusting his instincts to lead him. At times the ground rose sharply and he was forced to hunch over as he went, but most of the time the cavern was spacious, the ceiling too far away for him to touch. After some time the flare’s light began to dim and eventually went out all together. He reluctantly retrieved a second, concerned because he had only brought three of the sticks along. He hated to use them up, but without the light he would never find his way out of the caves.

  As he struck the second flare to life he caught a flash of metallic reflection before him. Cautiously, Gavin walked forward, toward the source of the glint.

  The path he had been taking ended in a single, nearly perfectly round room. The ceiling was obscured in shadow, too high for the meager light of the flare to reach. He must have delved deeper than he had thought. The room seemed as natural as the rest of the tunnels, and yet there was a feeling of reverence about it, as if it was a holy place.

  In the middle of the room was a large, pedestal-like chunk of ice, a couple of feet thick. The ice stood about four feet tall and appeared to be natural, except for the top that was perfectly uniform and smooth. The metallic gleam had apparently come from what was imbedded down into the ice.

  It was a sword.

  The blade was completely encased in the ice, but the hilt shone in the white light of the flare. The guard, grip and pommel all seemed to be made of dark silver, designed to appear as a serpent. The cross-guard was a thin figure eight, the tail of the snake: beginning on one side and angling back to the grip. The grip itself looked to be a comfortable two-hand span and was etched the entire length with a fine scale pattern. The pommel was the snake’s head, its mouth open in a strike—fangs bared. The eyes were rubies or garnets, the deep-red gems twinkling in the artificial light.

  Gavin had the sudden unnerving feeling that the snake was watching him. Stranger still, he felt a kind of affinity toward it, possibly because of his own red-tinted eyes.

  He shook the feeling away and stepped toward the ice pedestal. He needed a weapon and here was one. It might seem a bit coincidental, but he wasn’t exactly in a place to question his luck. Reaching out, he took hold of the handle, wanting to test how firmly the blade was stuck within the ice.

  The instant his grip was on the sword he felt power flare to life beneath his hand. The metal felt white hot, even through his glove; he tried to release it, but the muscles of his hand would not respond. Sound seemed to fill his ears, a roaring that dwarfed the raging wind of the storm above. The sword began to glow, illuminating the ice encasing it. Pressure seemed to buffet his entire body as the light engulfed the entire room. The heat beneath his hand changed to electricity and he felt his body go rigid with pain.

  The sensations intensified, the agony that racked his body becoming overwhelming as the light became blinding. At last it became too much to endure and he felt himself slip away, once again succumbing to unconsciousness.

   

  Gavin came back awake, lying on the ground, the bright light still filling the chamber. He instinctively flung his arm up, reflexively blocking the intense light, but almost immediately realized that light did not sting his sensitive eyes. He lowered his arm and slowly got to his feet.

  He was naked. His clothes and supplies were nowhere to be seen, but he felt neither the cold, nor for that matter, the pains from his earlier fight and fall. The spherical room seemed the same as before, except for the wall—which now pulsed with the intense white light—and the ice pedestal with the embedded sword, which were both gone.

  And except for the giant snake that filled the space where the pedestal had been.

  Gavin stared at the great serpent. The ophidian coiled in the center of the room, its body looped in such a way that it was impossible to determine just how long it actually was. Its head—which was as large as Gavin’s torso—bobbed slightly from side to side. It was a lazy motion, nonthreatening, or at least as much so as a creature like this could be. Its body was the same metallic-grey as the sword had been, but with a fluid texture, like that of molten silver. Its eyes appeared to be dark-red jewels as well, but full of intelligence. They studied him with intense scrutiny.

  This isn’t real, he thought to himself, it’s a vision.

  *Yesss,* came a reply in his head, but was not from himself. It was cold voice, full of authority and sibilant. The snake?

  *Yesss,* the voice said in his head again, this time with a touch of amusement. The creature continued to stare at him, its tongue flicking in and out, as if tasting his scent.

  “What do you want of me?” Gavin asked, spreading his arms in supplication.
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