THE FIRST GIFTED – 5 – The Writing on the Wall

Soft flurries of snow fell around them as they trudged through the ankle deep snow. The tall pine trees were a barrier against the cold wind, but the chill of the evening still seeped in. Their breath materialized before them, and Riccar knew that they needed to build a fire, least their bodies succumb to the fierce cold, which was only added on top of the extreme fatigue both felt from their hurried dash away from the cliff face and the chasing wolves.

"What were those things?" Dichel questioned aloud, shoving his hands deep into his pockets.

Riccar shook his head. "I don't know," he answered, though it was not necessary. Dichel's question had been rhetorical. By the spirits, he wished he knew what was going on, and what those things were. They weren't wolves—not really, that much he was certain. Those black beasts had been bigger than any timber wolf he had seen. They were monstrous and fearsome, and so very unnatural.

The wind howled around them, and Riccar had to stand stark still for a moment to assure himself that the sound he was hearing was just the wind and not the growl of those fierce and terrible beasts. Dichel stood besides him, hesitant at first, startled.

A tug on his sleeve told him that his brother had spotted something. Bundling up against the cold, Riccar peered through the dense foliage and spotted the white gleaming marbles of that ruined wall they had spotted from up above when they had been trekking along the edge of the precipice.

Trudging through the snow, they pushed their way past the pine trees and made their exit out into the clearing with ease. Pulling the fur hood down from his head, Riccar let out a long sigh. The mist billowed before him as his warm breath touched the cold air. Dichel scrambled ahead, the white powder covering the ground kicking up as he ran. Riccar cautiously followed, keeping a wary eye out for those beasts. He knew that they were being stalked… that those great demons of black fur were hunting them, watching their every move. He could feel them, whenever he reached out with his magic.

"Riccar, look at this!" Dichel called out.

Stepping around the small saplings of spruce and jack pine, Riccar made his way over to where Dichel was standing. With his hood pulled down, Riccar noticed how much older Dichel now appeared. It had been a long couple of months, roughing it in the wilderness, away from Prima and the great maw of the valley they had always lived. Dichel had never traveled that far, or endured much hardship. This journey had tested him, and Riccar was proud of how well his younger brother had coped with it all.

Presently Dichel was gesturing at the ruined wall, towards whatever it was that had caught his attention. Riccar stepped over and brought his eyes up to the flat dirty slabs of marble. Etchings and carvings littered the ruined wall, strange and ponderous writings. Riccar frowned and narrowed his eyes, trying to make some sense of it all. It looked like writing, yes, but like none he had ever seen.

"Do you think this is it?" Dichel asked, excitedly. "The ruins of Azmith?"

"No," Riccar shook his head. "Azmith was said to be a large complex. And this…" he glanced around, spreading out his arms before bringing them back to his body to retain the heat, "this is just a single wall in the middle of nowhere."

Dichel frowned, his brow furrowing. "Then perhaps an outpost?"

"Perhaps," Riccar agreed with a nod.

He stepped closer to the wall. Bringing a hand up, he skimmed his fingers along the grooves carved into the marble. This writing… it baffled him. He had never seen such things before. Not in ruins as old as these.

"Can you read it?" Dichel asked, watching him.

Riccar knitted his eyebrows and stared at the writing. "It's old… very old," he commented. "But yes… I think I can decipher it. It'll be a rough translation though."

Dichel chuckled. "Whatever you can make out will be better than anything I could. It just looks like gibberish to me."

A grin tugged at his lips as Riccar glanced over at his brother, before he returned his attention to the wall and the writing carved onto it. Running his hand along the letters, he sounded out the words. "Black… white… good… bad… guard… death… watch… watch…," he whispered out the rough translation.

"What does that mean?" Dichel asked, completely confused.

Riccar frowned. "I… don't know," he answered slowly, gazing over the engraved letters and words. "No clear sentence structure or definitive start or beginning. I don't know whether I'm supposed to read left to right or right to left, or up and down."

"The last part almost sounds like a warning," Dichel observed. "Like the author of those words was warning us to watch out for something."

"But what?"

"The black wolves?"

"Maybe," Riccar turned back to the words. "Here… the words black and guard are together… and here, the words white and death seemed to be linked."

"White Death?" Dichel questioned. "Could that mean something like freezing to death? Warning of strong snowstorms?"

Riccar shrugged. "It's possible."

Turning, he stepped away from the wall and looked around them. The ruined wall was the only structure in the clearing, but it was clear that it had once been a grand outpost of some kind, maybe even a watchtower. Azmith must be close, or at least nearby. The wind picked up and Riccar froze, hearing a howl.

"That was close," gasped Dichel, turning around frantically as he searched for the direction of the howl.

There was a loud crack, and a large pine a few trees deep suddenly toppled, crashing to the forest flower. Riccar tensed, sensing danger. He reached inside his cloak and felt for the dagger on his belt. Dichel pulled his cloak open and pulled out his own dagger, glancing over at Riccar with an anxious expression.

"We can't run from it, can we?"

"No," Riccar concurred. "Whatever it is, it's at home in the forest."

The trees seemed to groan and quake as a white furry beast bounded out into the snow covered clearing. It was large… massive. Bigger than the pack of black wolves that had been chasing them. It looked vaguely human, but had an unnatural bent to its spine. Jagged spikes trailed along its back, gleaming in the fading light. Its forehead was elongated with jackal-like ears that pointed straight up. Powerful forearms rammed into the ground as its hind legs propelled it forwards, its stride not breaking for a single second.

The eyes. Riccar was terrified by the eyes. Ice blues stared at him, locking him in place. Petrified. He was unable to move or look away. Two large fangs, on either side of the jutting lower jaw, flashed as the beast opened its great maw to roar at them. The howl they had heard had not come from this beast… no.

And then it hit him. The writing on the wall: Black… white… good… bad… guard… death… watch… watch. Riccar knew the meaning.

Just then, as the revelations hit him, the black wolves burst out of the woods and dove towards the vicious white beast. The great alpha jumped high, pounding hard against the white beast's side, knocking it off its stride.

"Dichel!" Riccar shouted, and gestured with his hands, signaling their strategy for retreat.

They took off, running hard. Behind them Riccar could hear the snarling barks and fierce roars of the black wolves and the white beast as they fought. He didn't risk a glance behind, entrusting that his conclusion had been correct. It was a big gamble, but at the moment one that Riccar was willing to take.

"Tree!"

Riccar watched as his brother scampered up the tallest tree they could find. It was amazing how well Dichel could climb. He was a better climber than Riccar, and managed to make it to the highest branches quicker. But Riccar was on his tail, and they weren't far away from each other. Once they reached a safe distance—though safety was relative, considering that the white beast had toppled a pine before bursting into the clearing—Riccar looked down on the scene unfolding below them.

The white beast was rearing up on its stubby hind legs, swinging its powerful forearms at the wolves, and trying to beat them back. He noted how much like a primate the white beast appeared, but there were so many differences that made him shake that idea from his mind. The alpha wolf, with its yellow eyes, seemed to be coordinating the attack. Two smaller wolves pounced, going after the white beast's hind legs. Their jaws latched on, and held as the giant white monster howled in pain.

As the white beast reared back, roaring and seething with anger and agony, the big black alpha wolf sprung into the air. Its powerful jaws clamped down on the beast's throat, and Riccar watched as the alpha, with a single violent jerk of its head, ripped the white beast's throat wide open. The monstrous beast stumbled for a moment, seemingly unwilling to die, before finally giving in and succumbing to its fatal wound.

The small wolves scampered back, yapping and snapping.

As the large white beast collapse, the earth seemed to tremble. Riccar grasped the branch above him and secured his grip. Dichel did likewise besides him.

The wolves formed a circle around the beast and the big black wolf with yellow eyes climbed up upon the fallen giant. Throwing back its head, the alpha howled, declaring victory. The other wolves followed suit, and soon the dusk air was filled with the eerie howl. And then, the oddest and most unnerving thing occurred. The great big wolf, standing tall on the fallen mass of the white beast, turned its head and stared straight at Riccar with its large yellow eyes.

"Riccar?" Dichel gasped, seeing it as well.

The wolf seemed to stare for a long while, and then it looked away. It snapped and snarled, and then bounded off the giant bulk of the white beast, darting back into the fray of its pack. The alpha growled and howled and soon the entire pack was lining up in formation, scampering off into the woods, leaving the corpse of the white beast behind.

"Wa… what just happened?" Dichel questioned in a stunned breathless voice.

"I… I think they're the guardians," Riccar said.

"The wolves?"

"Yes," he nodded, already thinking back to the writing on the wall. "I misread it… at least read it out of order."

"The words?"

"Yes," Riccar inclined his head, shifting his weight on the branch of the tree, testing it to see how well it held him. "Black. Good. Guard. Watch."

Dichel's eyes lit up, understanding. "White. Bad. Death. Watch."

Riccar smiled, "Yes, you've got it. I… I think the ancient ones must have used their magic to create the black wolves, making them the guardians of Azmith."

"So you think they knew Azmith was going to fall?"

"Oh, most definitely, yes," Riccar asserted.

"And that thing… that white beast down there?" Dichel cocked his head towards the furry beast, a pool of bright red blood already seeping out around it, staining the pure white snow.

Riccar shrugged. "Perhaps we are looking at the last weapons in a war fought long ago that no one remembers."

Dichel raised his eyebrows, and shook his head. After a long pause, he spoke up. "So… what do we do now?"

"Now?" Riccar considered for a moment. "Now… we wait. We need some rest, and I think I might know what direction to go in to find Azmith."

"How?"

"The white beast, whatever it was, came from somewhere to the north."

"You're thinking that the white beasts have taken over Azmith, and the black wolves still patrol the surrounding area, guarding the ruins even though they have already been overrun?"

"Precisely, yes," Riccar said.

Dichel shook his head. "This is going to be a lot harder than I thought."

Riccar laughed. "It was never supposed to be easy."

"You should have told me that before we started," Dichel replied back with a smirk. "Then I might have reconsidered accompanying you!"

They both laughed, shaking their heads at each other. When they were done, Riccar decided they should remain in the tree for the night. Dichel had no argument against that. So they made a bed in the trees and carefully set themselves down, using some climbing rope to secure themselves to the branches, just encase they tossed and turned in their sleep. Neither wanted to tumble down to the ground and break their neck.

Resting his back against the trunk of the tree, Riccar let out a sigh and reached inside his cloak. He pulled out the lock of Caylinn's hair. His eyes softened and he skimmed his fingertips along the silky raven strands.

"Soon, my love," he whispered to the wind. "Soon."