The two men continued their journey through increasingly difficult conditions. The terrain was more rugged as they started to pass through foothills and the temperatures dropped off markedly. They had left well equipped but travelling light, along with generally avoiding settlements, meant they had little in the way of replacements for damaged gear. Their tent was wearing significantly from the high winds and clothes were ripped. Fortunately their boots had held up well, a small win in the war to keep warm enough to survive. And at least there was a pay-off in that it would be difficult for any further pursuers.
Joziah knew they had got lucky the night after the attack of the Red Hand. Not wanting to push this luck they had returned to setting guard. Fillian though had ceased any scouting, forward or otherwise. He was too weary and needed all his energy to complete the journey. By contrast, Joziah felt strangely fresh and even strong. He had never been one to feel the cold in winter as much as others and his resilience meant he could give the best blankets, hides and protective clothing to his uncle, who he thought was looking all of his fifty-four years.
Occasionally they would spot one of the nomad tribes that dot the landscape in this region. Though these groups are peaceful the two decided not to run the risk of any contact and adjusted their route to avoid being seen.
Nearing their destination Joziah saw the way as if it was etched onto his own eyeballs. As he walked, the path opened up before him. Not sure now of who, or what, was guiding him, he found little comfort in this, except that at least it meant their journey time would be minimised.
The Teeth now stood just two days away and they settled in for the night. Fillian took guard but there are other forces in the night that cannot be seen with the waking eye and within an hour of falling into his sleep Joziah found himself in peril again.
Joziah was fleeing through rough icy caves and tunnels of varying size and shape, some of which he had to duck down when entering to avoid smashing his head open on the frozen low ceilings. The floors were slippery but he never lost his grip and was able to attain good speed through the twisting labyrinth.
But his pursuers were relentless and it was just a matter of time before he was over-hauled. They were fit and trained fighters and strangely well equipped for these conditions. A thought blasted into his mind as the realisation of the inevitable descended on him, like drowning in fear. They must have known exactly where we were going. To be readily equipped for this place, they must have been informed. We are betrayed. One of our friends has betrayed us!
In his absentmindedness he banged his knee on a formation of ice poking from the wall of the tunnel and cried out but still running on through the pain. He could hear loudly now the responding shouts of his pursuer. Priestess. Stop now. I am your doom.
Joziah replied with as much venom as he could with his failing energies. You are too late. Our lord will rise again to end you.
Stop Mai scum. The shout rang in his ears as he ran the next turn. He was too tired to continue much longer. And when he completed the bend, what met him there told him it was the end.
In the large chamber Jander was crouched down next to Folen and Mythra. They had not made enough ground and yet they were so close to the exit. But it was done; there was no escape from the pursuing assassins. Looking up to him Jander uttered. I'm sorry beloved. It is too much for them, we cannot go any further.
Joziah scanned the exit to this particular cave, a wide opening that would soon lead to the border of Kaien, and escape, just some seven hundred or so meters away only. Heartbroken, his mind made up of what needed to be done in the time available, he nodded slowly to Jander and smiled. A sad smile, but one that spoke deeply of the love between them. He turned his loving gaze to the children and whispered. I love you, be brave.
Joziah then faced towards the wide exit, closed his eyes and summoned what was left of his energy. After a few moments an air splitting cracking sound reverberated in the chamber and then rumbled as if the whole place would fall in upon them, but it didn't.
He completed his task just at the time his pursuers entered the chamber and he turned to face them. They were led by a man he knew of. Vistok, an assassin of the Red Hand. Dressed in black and red trimmed winter garb he sneered at Joziah. Behind him four more dressed the same came tearing around the turn and stopped. They were hopelessly outnumbered. He turned to face his family once more upon hearing the hoarse whispers of the children trying to sing, and in time to witness the horror of Jander completing the unthinkable act.
His utter sadness was only matched by his rage, nothing the like of which he had ever experienced. Joziah leapt forward towards Vistok, his dagger glinting coldly from the light cast by their torches and natural light that filtered through from above and beyond the chamber. The blade nearly hit its mark, but at the last moment it was blocked by a katana, the favoured blade of many assassins of the Red Hand. A counter double strike came fast and hard. First a blow to the jaw from the torch Vistok held and then an arcing slice from his blade that lacerated Joziah's back from neck to kidney. He fell, with the taste of his own blood in his mouth, only to see Jandar charge the five assassins with a wildness that momentarily unnerved them. As he ran he thrust his short sword towards Vistok's chest who parried, but Jander using his momentum to carry on forwards plunged his blade into the second assassin. He went limp and died, but as his body fell its weight dragged Jander down and off balance. Jander did not have to wait long for the blows to rain down on him and he fell face down. His blood pooled on the chamber floor in front of his eyes, his life draining along with it.
Witnessing this, the rage in Joziah rose one final time. For the first time in his life he was about to use his magic directly to harm. The four remaining assassins turned to him, but he knew that they would not kill him. Instead he would be taken and tortured for information he would never surrender, and then ultimately, they would slay him. No, I will at least be the vehicle of my own death... And theirs.
He looked over to Jander who lay face on its side looking back at him, his life all but spent. I love you my husband.
His last act, Joziah pressed his remaining life into the icy floor and with the final beat of his heart the energy pulsed through the structure of the chamber. The ringing laughter of the Red Hand assassins faltered as they felt the walls vibrate and the floors crack. Lumps of the ceiling began to fall on top of them, killing one with a sickening thud. The others fled back the way they came, dodging more blocks of ice, but just as they thought they would make it the ceiling there collapsed, sealing them in.
Fillian had calmed down Joziah in the usual way so he was ready to talk. The night storm continued to howl outside their tent, the high winds intensifying the piercing cold and the night sky was filled with threatening clouds. Joziah's shouts had cut through the cacophony of the winds like they weren't there, waking his uncle instantly. Fillian, red faced, huddled beneath hides but they could not keep out the cold brought by the winds that now blew towards The Teeth. "The same one?" he asked loudly.
In a hushed, devastated tone that still cut through the wind, Joziah told his uncle of the despair of what he had experienced. "Yes but also no. It was the same chase, but it went a little further. And this time I saw it all through my mother's eyes. It was even more real. I could see, touch, feel, taste". Joziah paused for a long while and Fillian gave him the space to assimilate what he had witnessed and felt.
"She's dead uncle, I saw it all. They are all dead. They were so close to getting out but they just ran out of time". Joziah looked ahead, The Teeth had been in sight on and off for the last couple days when the storm occasionally relented. Right now the skies and air were clearer and The Teeth appeared to Joziah to be mocking him with a toothy grin; a place that had been his hope for so long. How he hated the mountains now. If he could he would raise them from the ground and smash them into pieces if gravel. His attention was broken by clouds suddenly drumming with thunder over the mountains. Calming again, he looked at the very spot on the horizon where the entrance to the cave system stood. I'm still coming to you. To rescue you from that place. And we will be together.
"Joziah. Joziah!" Fillian yelled above the wind.
Coming back to the present, the fire in Joziah's glare burned straight through Fillian. "We're leaving uncle, now. I'm not waiting for morning. Pack you things and let's get this over. And if there are more Red Hand bastards out there I'll tear them all apart".
Fillian fell back at the force of Joziah's words that were so unlike him, and such a contrast to the compassion he showed to the Red Agent as he died. And then he felt astonishment because as Joziah finished his words a small break in the clouds formed overhead revealing another new moon that shouldn't be; it shone down more brightly than any he had ever seen. The next is not due for days he confirmed to himself. And yet silver strands of light like the hair of the goddess Kore herself were streaking down from the sky like lightening plunging into the ground. It seemed so powerful that it would light the world below, as well as that above.
Quietly, he watched the man in front of him stand and begin gathering his things in the moonlight.
The storm had worsened considerably as if mimicking Joziah's mood. Winds bashed into them occasionally knocking Fillian flat on his back. They still had enough supplies and Fillian was consuming most of them as his energy levels dramatically fell away. Joziah continued on strongly driven by a powerful mix of determination supplemented with anger. The wind didn't seem to touch him and his face was barely reddened by the freezing temperature.
Off to the north they had spotted another camp of nomads. They thought these were probably headed back to their fixed winter location in some valley a little closer to the mountains. They had not been able to spot the usual snow deer that these people reared and depended on for survival, so this was most likely a small group that continued to hunt before finally following the larger family group home. Fillian confirmed he was convinced they were not Red Hand but as before they skirted below them to be safe.
Joziah had not truly recognised the plight of his uncle until they were in clear sight of the mountainside. He could now spot the location where the entrance was waiting to be found along the white-grey edge of the base of the highest mountain in this section of the range. It was early evening and the storm had finally cleared leaving the darkening surroundings eerily quiet. Only about three kilometers remained. Joziah stared through the gloom and a picture of the entrance formed in his mind. It was hidden by rock and ice but not to his eyes. This is the exit they were so close to. I wonder if they had allies on this side waiting for them. His heart bled and the anger he had been feeling finally burned out like spent fuel and replaced with sadness again. Finally, the storm seemed to be subsiding but he suddenly felt the bitter cold again.
Fillian stumbled and fell to the ground on his knees. Joziah strode over to him. "Uncle, please forgive me. You must rest before we make our final approach and enter the caves. The storm is blowing over; we will continue when it has passed".
Without arguing, Fillian sat down. They lit a small fire and ate more of their rations. After an hour the storm had indeed blown out for now and the sky cleared. They both stood in readiness to leave. Fillian scanned their surroundings in the fading light as best he could for any final sign of danger and nodded his satisfaction to Joziah that all was set to continue. Each gathered their own thoughts in preparation for what they may be about to face. Joziah breathed deeply, eyes closed in a moment of prayer. So this is it. Now guide me one last time mother