Your challenge: in 2000 words or less, write a fantasy story about a land covered in ice and snow. Who are the people that live in this land? Are they humans...or a different race? How do they survive?
Delevan’s cheeks stung as he lifted his face to the first icy pinpricks of snow. The harsh mountain wind forced its way down the hood of his cloak, making his lungs gasp with shock and his whole body shiver. Its bitter edge had caught him by surprise. He quickly looked down again, pulled his cloak more tightly around him, and quickened his step. He knew he must get to the monastery before nightfall or suffer a freezing night out in this wilderness.
As he climbed, higher and higher along the twisting road, Delevan tried to warm his heart with thoughts of home. Closing his eyes for one blissful moment, his vision danced with the sway of lush meadows and farmers’ fields bursting with ripened grain. Harvest time was almost here. The familiar sights and sounds of his home village brought a smile to his lips that faded all too quickly. Despite his efforts to push them away, other thoughts surfaced with them, darkening his pleasant memory.
The rasp of bat-like wings in the dark…sudden bursts of flame…a barbed serpent’s tail crushing thick stone walls to rubble and dust. The wyverns had come, from where no one could say. All Delevan knew was that those beautiful fields of grain had been consumed by fire, and it was too late in the season to replant them. His idyllic home, nestled into the green valley below the mountains, would never be the same.
That was how he had come to find himself heading alone into the cold northern mountains, whose white peaks had previously been nothing but a distant wonder. Beneath his cloak, Delevan clutched a satchel protectively against his pounding chest. Through its slightly opened neck he could smell the strong musk of ancient leather and parchment…a continuous reminder of his mission, and his duty.
The monks of his village had entrusted him with the only thing of value they had salvaged from the wreckage of the wyvern attack—an old tome of wisdom, scribed hundreds of years ago and carefully passed down through many generations. It was one of humanity’s irreplaceable treasures, and he had been charged to deliver it to the monastery in the mountains for safekeeping.
The snow was falling more heavily now, sticking to his cloak and eyelashes, and draping the limbs of the trees with a web of intricate lace. He struggled to keep up his quick pace on the slick road, but his resolve was still strong. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he detected a shadowy movement in the thick of the trees. He looked about.
Nothing was there. He tried to calm himself, but remained alert, glancing about as he walked. Something didn’t feel quite right. The monks had warned him that the frigid temperatures and the hazardous terrain were not the only dangers he might face. He had not given their warning much thought at the time, but now wished he had paid better attention.
Again, he sensed a quick, stealthy movement, above his head this time. He drew his gaze upward into the sky. Were the wyverns stalking him? They usually cloaked themselves in the dark of night, spreading unimaginable fear and chaos. If not the wyverns, what was following him?
His stomach sickened and his mouth went dry. Perhaps making this journey was a mistake. Was he really risking his life over a book?
The sense that he was being followed increased with each step. Delevan was convinced that he saw shadows between the trees and passing overhead, but each time he turned to get a true look, he saw nothing but the blinding whiteness of the snow. Cold though he was, his brow began to drip with sweat and he had to restrain himself from breaking into a run.
One bad slip could easily send him down the side of the mountain to his death. A low hissing sound brushed past his ear, sending a chill through his soul that was colder than any mountain wind. He had not imagined it. The dark shadows taunting him did indeed belong to something real, and that something was pursuing him.
Oh please, Lord, he prayed silently.
If you can hear me at all, protect me from this fear that would devour me. He wasn’t certain if his plea had been heard, but he continued onward with trembling legs.
The wind turned colder than Delevan had ever imagined was possible, penetrating even his fur lined cloak, and driving the snow into his numb face without mercy. He wanted so much to stop and rest, but dared not. He nibbled on some hard cheese and drank from his waterskin while he walked. Though his physical trials had not relented, at least for the moment there were no more shadows.
Delevan began to think again of home. He had never been so far away before. His neighbors would all be working hard to clear away the rubble, rebuilding their world stone by stone. Should he not be there helping them? Guilt weighed heavy on his heart. For the first time he stopped, turning to look down the road from where he had come. His desire for home grew so strong that he could hardly bear it.
There were a hundred reasons why he should return, and so few to compel him forward. His longing was almost a tangible presence in his mind, urging him, pressing him…assuring him that no one would think less of him for abandoning such a treacherous journey. But deep down, he knew that voice was false, and that he should fight against it. The shadows had returned, this time lurking not amongst the trees, but in the dark places of his mind.
Perhaps this quest was not simply about saving a single book. Protecting the tomes of wisdom was one way in which men sought to preserve their past and secure their future. Delevan’s village was not the only one to face calamity in recent years. Other parts of the realm had been decimated by wars, famine, and disease.
Shrines and monasteries were being razed by dark armies of terrifying creatures, their master a being of such evil no one dared to speak his name. His purpose was the complete destruction of humanity, body and spirit, and he pursued the tomes so that he might extinguish the light of hope they brought to men’s hearts.
That was the enemy who pursued Delevan now, he was sure of it. His heart fell. He turned his face to the heavens in his despair. What chance have I against such a powerful foe? Words of comfort filled his mind, but there were words of warning as well. His trials were not at an end, and he must brace himself against them.
Swallowing hard, Delevan began walking again, but not toward home. The skies suddenly opened up as if to tell him that he had made the wrong choice. The snowfall was so heavy he could barely see where he was going. Layer upon layer, the road and mountainsides were being covered by a thick wet blanket that clung to his boots, weighing them down.
Delevan gritted his teeth and pushed onward, testing the strength of his will. He closed his eyes and imagined it was spring. There was no time for rest, no room for complaint, though every muscle ached and his hands were sore with opened blisters. The warmth of the sun would not wait to do its work, and the seeds must be planted.
Delevan’s hands were on the plow, his back bent against the hard brown earth that must be broken up for planting. The snow was no match against that.
For hours he continued along a seemingly endless path of white, twisting upward into the sky. Delevan’s stride weakened and he began to wonder how much farther he could push himself. Yet he knew he must, or he would surely die in this blinding storm. More than once his footing stumbled on hidden stones and branches, or slid on patches of ice.
Not a single soul passed him on the road, nor had he seen any homes, or distant plumes of smoke to offer him hope. If he collapsed into a snow bank, who would ever find him? The monks had told him that the road ended at the monastery, but they had not told him how long the road would be. Perhaps the shadows had stopped pursuing him because they knew he would never make it.
Delevan’s limbs were dangerously cold. He could barely feel his fingers, even though he wore thick, protective gloves. His toes burned, and a fearful expression was frozen onto his raw, sore face. His legs only continued to move because he forced them to. Worst of all, daylight was beginning to wane.
Delevan had ceased to care about his oath or the tome. Had he means to make a fire, he would have gladly burned its pages just to warm himself for but a few moments. His remaining determination was focused on survival alone—the shadow pursuing him now was death.
He began to wonder what it felt like to freeze to death…would it be more painful than his present torture? Or would it be like slowly falling into a cold, dreamless sleep? He was close to giving into his despondency when he thought he saw firelight ahead. He stumbled forward, nearly falling face first into the snow in his haste. At last, there was a small village.
Tears swelled in his eyes as he took in the tiny cluster of humble homes, and the delicious scent of burning hearth fires hanging on the air. He ran up to the first house and knocked heartily on the door.
No one answered. Desperate, he knocked again, harder this time. Still nothing. He went to the next house, and the next with the same result. Finally he approached the last house, his only hope for shelter from the elements.
He knocked, his heart fairly breaking when the door remained closed. What sort of strange place was this? Where was everyone?
He pounded hard on the door in a moment of frustration. The door, apparently not securely latched, opened on its own. Delevan called out one last time before peering inside. There he saw everything he had been dreaming of. A thick fur rug was spread before the hearth, which boasted a roaring fire that popped and hissed invitingly.
Off to the side was a table heaped with breads, cheeses, meat pies, and dried fruits. He began to peel off his wet things in front of the fire, then fell upon the food as a wild beast might, devouring handfuls of it so rapidly he barely had time to taste it. He hoped whoever lived here would forgive his desperation. When his stomach was full, he spread out on the soft rug and let the fire’s heat soothe his tired body.
His eyelids were heavy with sleep. He would reach the monks tomorrow—surely they would understand the delay. But Delevan’s mind would not let him rest. Deep within his heart, he knew something was terribly wrong.
The monks had not said anything about a village along the way, let alone an empty one with a ready fire and fresh food just sitting out for the taking. But the thought of putting back on his wet cloak and boots…going back out into the driving snow with evening soon descending…left him feeling completely defeated.
He had finally reached the end of his will and his strength.
Please, Lord, help me one last time, for I cannot finish this quest on my own.
Delevan began to hear voices, muffled and distant. Finally there was someone who might be able to help. He strained his ears, and gradually the voices came into focus.
“I saw him coming up the road when I went up into the bell tower to call for evening prayer. Just before he reached the gates he stopped, fell to his knees in the snow, and didn’t move…just stared.”
“Will he be all right?” another voice asked with genuine concern.
“His body is still warm enough—I’ve seen worse. Take off his wet things, and get him a blanket.”
“He carries one of the tomes with him,” exclaimed yet another. “I suspect that the worst of his hardships had little to do with the weather.”
Suddenly the illusion clouding Delevan’s vision peeled away, and he realized that he was sitting before a warm fire, not in an empty house, but at the monastery surrounded by three kindly looking monks. He had reached his destination after all.
The shadows had preyed on his desires…leaving him to freeze to death on the very threshold of his destination. Through chattering teeth he thanked the monks for saving his life and handed over the tome, relieved to be rid of it.
“Such a dangerous journey to make alone. Did you not bring any companions?” One monk asked.
“I had no companions,” he replied. “But even through the darkest moments of my journey,” he said thoughtfully, “I was never really alone.”
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