Snowflakes hung suspended in the frosty air. Without a breeze to drive them, the flakes fell slow and heavy, carpeting everything in a thick, soft blanket of treacherous white.
Kohd stood under a rocky outcrop, dusting the snow from his hood. He would have to wait for the flurry to pass. He perched himself on his haunches and chewed some dried meat, working it slowly around his teeth to soften its sinuous fibers.
With a visibility of thee arms lengths, there was no way to navigate across cracks and crevices or avoid sliding over a cliff’s edge. If the wolves wouldn’t hunt in it, Kohd wouldn’t travel in it either.
He knew he was close to his destination, but he wasn’t sure he could reach it in time. He had carried the heavy bundle for four days now, and he was exhausted. It lay at his feet, a mass of skins, sown together with gut. The dried meat had not been easy to come by, but he had traded as much as he could, then stole the rest.
The winter had drawn in fast, and many hunting parties had failed to return altogether, which was perceived as a bad omen in the distant villages.
Kohd leaned back against the rock, noticing that the snow was now easing. It would stop soon, and he would be able to carry on.
He woke suddenly to the howling of wolves. The light was fading fast, and the temperature had dropped drastically. He cursed himself for sleeping. Even though the snow had stopped completely, he wouldn’t make much progress without a full moon.
He sensed the wolves were close, he could smell their scent as they neared. He wondered how far it was to the shadow caves, and if he could make it there in the darkness.
Suddenly, a wolf jumped down from a nearby rock, landing in front of him. It bared its teeth and snarled.
He didn’t move. He looked the big dog in the eye and slowly sat down on his haunches again. The wolf edged closer, its teeth dripping with saliva, puffs of steam emanating from its mouth with each panting breath.
The wolf lurched forward and nudged its head against Kohd’s arm, almost knocking him over. He stroked its huge head and laughed for the first time in days.
Six more wolves approached, cautious at first, then with intrepid curiosity. These seven killers, capable of tearing a whole village to pieces, frolicked with him in the snow, yelping and whining. He could communicate with them, though he didn’t fully understand how.
The wolves headed out to take shelter in a thick forest, and Kohd was only too happy to join them for the night.
He was nuzzled awake in the predawn hours by a small female, though she seemed more interested in his pack that in him. It was definitely time for him to leave.
He struck out in the opposite direction from the wolves, leaving them to hunt the large herds that had migrated to the peninsula for winter.
He was close to his destination now, another day at the most before he reached the mountain. He knew they would still be in the same cave. The location was so remote that hunters would not venture that far from the lowland herds. He knew his winter hosts had not always lived in secret this way, but their true history had long ago been distorted by legends. People feared them, and they, in turn, feared people.
Odrik was the first to greet him at the mouth of the cave. Kohd was amazed at how well he looked, for a Shadow Wraith at least. His sunken face was not half as gaunt as Kohd would have expected. His jagged teeth attempted a grin.
“Young Kohd, welcome my son,” Odrik beamed.
Kohd was happy to see the yellow glow of fire flickering against the interior walls of the cave.
“You look exhausted. Come inside,” he said.
Kohd sensed something was wrong. He had visited the Shadow Wraiths each winter, and he had never seen such a merry sight. He’d expected to see a pile of dead at the cave entrance, and to be greeted by the weakened monsters, slowly dying of hunger.
He followed Odrik into the cave, confronted by a very different scene. Thirty Shadow Wraiths sat around a huge roaring fire.
There were several others like himself, two women and a small boy. The Shadow Wraiths referred to them as “those who can see,” because their gifts enabled them to find the Wraiths, as well as each other, provided they were within a days walk.
Kohd felt a warning emanate from one of his kind, a blonde woman whose tribe lived beyond the ice fields. He looked into her blue eyes and saw danger.
Then he noticed something that made his blood run cold.
One of the Shadow Wraiths was passing a vessel around. It was an upturned human skull, with dried skin and hair still attached.
He had found the missing hunters.
The blood curdling tales of shadow creatures hiding in mountain caves, preying on the unsuspecting, were nothing new. That was how the Shadow Wraiths got their name. But Kohd had always assumed these stories were perpetuated for the purpose of keeping hunters away.
“We are too slow to hunt fast animals,” one of the Wraiths shouted from across the cave to Kohd, seeing his astonishment. The creature cackled.
“But not to catch the hunters,” another added.
A roar of laughter went up in unison from the deformed mass.
The blonde girl, Kini, moved gracefully to Kohd’s side like a sleek hunting cat.
“They set a trap in one of the deep caves, with animal dung and other signs,” she said. “When the hunters followed, they blocked off the exit with fire.”
Two Wraith women took Kohd’s pack of dried meat from his shoulder, and dragged it away, thanking him with wicked grins.
“You smell of wolves,” Kini whispered, searching his face for a hint of compassion.
Kohd smiled at her, and they sat together in silence.
Odrik stumbled over to them, giddy.
“Just in time, we are building up the fire. It’s time for another feast, this time in your honor,” he said.
As Kini held his hand, he could feel her apprehension, her grip tightening. He had known her for many years now. They met at the caves each year, but always left alone. Most Seers lived alone. Their gifts were not always welcome among the tribes. Perhaps this year, he hoped, they would leave together.
Odrik walked into the crowd.
A commotion followed, wild laughing and hollering. The Wraiths, excited with anticipation, started dancing and thrashing around to the sound of banging drums, a macabre spectacle of disjointed arrhythmic movement. Kohd had never seen them so animated. It was a dreadful sight, a dance of the living dead.
A hunter was brought out, his hands bound with strips of skin, his eyes wide with fear. His dirty skin was caked with dried blood.
“The smoke made them sleep, and they were captured and bound before they woke,” Kini said, a deep sorrow in her voice.
The hunter was dragged towards the fire.
“Why didn’t you leave?” he asked, disgust in his voice. “This is not right.”
“It is the dead of winter Kohd, where would I go? I cannot live in the open this time of year.”
She was right.
“And besides, I waited for you,” she added.
He looked into her eyes and felt a deep sorrow. He wanted to be away from the madness around him, naked with her, wrapped together in soft fur.
Kohd wanted to do something, but it was useless. There was nothing he could do. A storm was closing in and it would be weeks before he could reach another cave. The Wraiths were as essential to his own survival as he was to theirs.
A Wraith woman lunged at the hunter and bit a chunk of flesh from his leg. The hunter screamed as blood gushed from the wound. Another Wraith joined her, and soon, the hunter was down, covered in writhing monsters, being eaten alive. His hideous screams of pain echoed off the cave walls.
The Wraith elder rose and shouted something unintelligible to Kohd. The others backed off, laughing, their mouths covered in blood. The bleeding man thrashed in agony on the cave floor, fresh bites and bruises covering his already filthy body.
“We would like to send our thanks to “those that see” for bringing us food and watching our borders. Kohd has now joined us, and as always, we extend our most humble gratitude to him,” he said.
Kohd stood, his legs shaking a bit. He bowed low and the Wraiths cheered.
“Our fire is yours, brother,” the elder said.
He looked down at the injured man. Two Wraiths, less contorted than the others, pulled him to his feet.
“And now, we give thanks to the wind and the rain for bringing us shelter, sustenance, and vengeance!”
Cheers erupted, and the hunter was flung onto the fire, his deafening cries piercing every corner of the cave. Kohd looked away. Kini squeezed his hand, a tear rolling down her cheek.
Shouts of approval drowned out the screams as the Wraiths rejoiced.
Kohd snuck off into the cool shadows of a rock passageway with Kini, unnoticed.
Something had started that could not be undone.
They made love in silence.