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Blood and Snow

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Over the course of the next three days, Paolin had found and brought six Touched to the castle. All of them had come from the most notorious slave camp in Karvoth. It was called Xethes and sprawled in the center of Mandrell, the same province that boasted the capital and its castle. When Paolin had visited the Settlement Facility, he'd nearly choked from the stenches of blood, sweat, and feces. Men, women, and children -- packed together in narrow structures filled with wood-working equipment.

          Worst of all were the piles of corpses, ominous pyres erected to intimidate the remaining prisoners.

         When Paolin entered the eating area - if it could even be called that - guards were in the middle of breaking up a fight over a piece of moldy bread. There was an older man, a teenage girl, a woman who appeared to be pregnant, two men around his age, and a little girl who looked scared out of her wits. All of them seemed to be smeared with dirt – at least, that's what Paolin had hoped it was. He didn't have the heart to leave them behind in a cage, especially the young girl, and so he decided to bring them back to the castle with him.  Now they were sitting in the King's dungeons, awaiting the beginning of rehearsals.

          Paolin closed his eyes and tried to focus on the wind whistling past his horse, setting his hair wild. He was riding towards north Mandrell, along the western coast. Actually, the coast could be reached no matter which direction one traveled: Karvoth was an enormous island, and the only continent there was. Therefore, it was the single source of dry land on the planet. That's why the King had such unlimited power over his people, and why his rule hadn't been evaded earlier; much like his castle, there was no hope of escape.

          The air steadily grew cooler as Paolin rode towards the Blade Mountains, named for their precarious, thin peaks. That's where she'd be: he was sure. Hardly anyone lived so far into the mountains, for they were far too cold and much too dangerous. The King never bothered to send his patrols into the Blades. That's why they were such a good hiding place.

          Paolin began to shiver uncontrollably, and each time Tulip's legs sank into piles of snow she'd shudder as well. He latched his fingers into her thick mane and tried to whisper soothing words. The whistling wind  drowned out his voice.

          The horse began to crest a snow bank, and the sparse tree cover suddenly gave way to white sky and towering mountains. Paolin was in awe of the sight. He'd had to run errands across the Kingdom before, but never had he imagined venturing into the most dangerous part of it. He only hoped that his whim was correct. If he got lost out here, he'd surely die.

          Gritting his teeth and yanking his cloak as far around him as it could go, he urged Tulip into a quick trot and they began to scale the Blade's foothills. The mountains above were pitch black under the snow and jutted up into perfect points. When the hill grew steeper and began to turn into a small valley, Paolin urged the mare to a stop and hopped off, chaining her to a particularly thick stone.

          "I'll be right back," he promised. She stomped and shook her magnificent head as he made his way through the valley. The torn boots on his feet did nothing to keep snow from entering, and the dry wind brought on several coughing fits. Paolin knew that he had to find her fast, or else he'd succumb to the cold. Suddenly spurred on by fear, he started walking faster, searching his surroundings for even the smallest signs of life. Several times he believed he saw the movement of a person, but it turned out to be small, furry animals attempting to dig out shelters. Unlike the animals in his barn, these creatures possessed an erratic energy that effectively discouraged him from communicating with them. His breaths came raggedly, and he leaned up against a sheer, rocky outcropping. He was starting to wonder if he had it all wrong, if he really might die up in these mountains. If I were the most powerful witch in the continent, where would I think to hide? As if in reply, Paolin spotted a stain on the snow several feet away.

          A blood stain.

          He hopped to his feet and ran over to it as gracefully as was possible with snow-sodden boots and a twenty pound cloak. The stain was enormous up close -- fatal-looking, even. And another small distance away, there was another. And another. The trail led all the way behind what looked like an enormous stone. Paolin felt a sudden chill in his bones, and his magic boiled in his gut. The blood came from animal suffering: he could tell.

          "Hello?" Paolin muttered. His voice nearly failed him. "Hello?" He crept up to the huge stone and peered behind it apprehensively. Before he could discern anything, an inhuman screech destroyed the chilly silence and a black shape lunged at him from behind the stone. Paolin shouted and fell backwards, nearly cracking his head on a particularly packed sheet of ice. The creature leaped on top of him and held something sharp against his neck. Before he could fight back, he realized that the creature was not inhuman at all: it was a young woman.

          It was her.

          "Paolin?" It was no more than a whisper, torn from her ruby lips. He hardly recognized her. The fire that used to blaze in her orange eyes was long extinguished; her luscious black hair trailed over her shoulders like limp tails; she donned thick, black bear furs instead of an intricately sewn dress. A dagger made of black rock and splintery rope dangled from her pale fingers. And, most alarming of all, her face was torn and twisted by unsightly scars and gauges.

          "Hi," he wheezed. He noticed numbly that dried blood coated her hands. She pressed the dagger deeper, drawing a pinprick of blood.

          "Why are you here?"

          "Marithyda, just let me explain, okay?"

          "Tell me NOW!" She bellowed, her harsh voice echoing back and forth across the expanse of the valley. Paolin was ashamed to find himself frozen in fear. Afraid of his friend ... What a thought.

          What had happened to her since she fled Pathos? What had made her like this? Her bottom lip looked nearly cleaved in two, both of her cheekbones were sleek with scarred tissue, and a long scratch cut across her forehead and right eyelid. He tried to calm himself and did his best to set his face in a cool expression, but he knew she could sense his fear; his breaths rasped, his pulse throbbed mere centimeters from the tip of her blade. He had to stop her from killing him – fast.

          "I have a way for you to get revenge on the King," Paolin blurted. The words died in the whistling wind, but he knew she heard them. Paolin watched as her eyes widened and the dagger slightly dipped away from his throat.

          "What?" He swallowed and took another steadying breath.

          "I'll tell you all about it if you can help my horse and I find shelter for the night."

          "Your horse?" She muttered, staring into the distance. Dazed. "Yes. Of course." As if she hadn't just nearly killed him, she jumped to her feet and pushed the giant boulder a few inches to the side. Paolin carefully stood up and gaped at her strength.

          "Why don't you use your magic?" He asked, forgetting himself.

          "I haven't in three years," she said, glaring at her hands. They were scarred too, with what looked like burn marks. Then she pivoted and stalked into the dark recess behind the stone.

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