Across the frozen river, the distant, glowing lights promised warmth and food.imagined a hearth fire crackling inside one of the city's homes. Around the fire, bedding furs rested, prickling with warmth.
The loud crack of river ice shook the shaman from his fantasy. Udyr cursed and shivered. The sleet had soaked his furs, and the setting sun already hinted at a dangerous freeze coming. It was going to be difficult to convinceto change course. He wasn't looking forward to continuing that conversation, or to rejoining the rest of her army.
In the valley below him, the bulk of Sejuani's host approached. Through victory, the Winter's Claw tribe had absorbed dozens of clans and all of the Stone Tooth tribe. Sejuani was a true Warmother now—commanding thousands of blooded warriors, steelclad, mammoth riders, and Iceborn.
Ahead of the main force, the warriors of Sejuani's vanguard were unpacking yurts to house her bloodsworn and to serve as the command outpost for the army's scouts. Sejuani's tent, marked with blue wards and covered in rune-stitched leather, loomed over the center of the encampment.
As Udyr approached, drool slithered down his long jaws, and his teeth gnashed with bottomless hunger. The feeling seemed his own before he spotted a wolfhound trotting past. He snarled at the dog, struggling to regain control of his own jaw and rid himself of the animal's invading consciousness.
He found Sejuani helping her bloodsworn build a yurt.
Udyr smiled in pride. This was her way. No matter the work, she led from the front. Raising these mammoth-hide tents in the soaked earth was a burdensome task. As Sejuani slammed a tusk-spike into the mud, she stumbled to one knee. Nearby, bloodsworn warriors struggled in the icy rain, with curses echoing hers.
Watching Sejuani pull herself to her feet, Udyr was struck once more by how she'd grown into a heavy-shouldered swagger. He would never be able to think of her as anything but the bone-thin girl he'd met a so many seasons ago; he wasn't sure he wanted to. She had so desperately needed his guidance then. In perhaps only a few more years, Udyr worried, he would become a useless burden to her.
“The weather ended this discussion, Udyr,” she shouted over the downpour.
“The Vargkin tribe are a few days west of here,” Udyr began. “We could avoid crossing the river, take them by surprise and—” The minds of a dozen passing horses filled Udyr's head. He felt their frozen muscles tightening as they shivered in the cold. Udyr snapped at the nearest horse, “Shut it! No oats now!”
Taken aback, Sejuani's bloodsworn exchanged nervous glances. Sejuani gave her men a look of warning. Immediately they returned to work. Even they did not have the right to question her shaman's strangeness.
Hiding his hands behind his back, Udyr gently took a small spike made of silver from a hidden pouch. He pushed the metal nail against the flesh of his palm. Hardly the relief of meditation, but the metal's pain cleared his mind, allowing him to focus on speaking like a human.
“The Vargkin are only a six-day march,” Udyr snorted, “no walls around their villages.”
Sejuani let his eyes settle before responding.
“We're out of time, Udyr.” Sejuani indicated the sagging yurts around her. “We must take that city across the river or freeze!” She gestured to a few of her older warriors nearby, “Most of the long tooths skip meals to feed their young. Yesterday, I helped Orgaii bury her daughter.” Sejuani's lips, purple from the cold, tightened bitterly. “The child was two summers, but as small and frail as one on its first spring.” She exhaled and looked away before continuing. “I will not be responsible for another child growing too thin to survive the cold.”
“Then attack now.” Udyr said pointing toward the distant city across the river. “Trust in our axes and muscle. Claws and teeth. The old way.”
“The old way is to use the best warriors,” she interrupted. “What clan or tribe do I know stronger than the Ursine? How many of us would die crossing that river without their help? I will not watch my army diminish from hunger, not when I promised my people strength and victory.” She steadied Udyr's shoulder, “I know you have good reason to fear what they—”
“army is what I fear,” Udyr countered. “New clans bend their knee to your rival's banner every day. Each moon, the Avarosan absorb whole tribes. You say you want to make the Winter's Claw stronger? If we work with the Ursine… there will be no thralls. No warriors to be reborn as clan-kith. The Lost Ones won't stop until they kill every living thing in that town.”
“Our name is Winter's Claw. They are our kin.” She explained, “I called this war, and we stop when I—”
“The Ursine do not obey!” More than the pain from the silver he held, it was Udyr's certainty that finally cleared his mind. His voice lowered. “Their bloodlust spreads like a sickness. It will consume us.”
“I have valued your advice my whole life,” Sejuani said, as she considered his words. “But we must overwhelm that city tomorrow,” she concluded.
“You've beaten odds worse than this.” Udyr lost his train of thought as the consciousness of boars, horses, wolves, men, and elnük flowed through him. He fought against it, knowing this would be his last chance to change her mind.
“Sejuani,” he said finally, “Kalkia had many failings. She was too prone to compromise, too quick to see defeat. I know how badly your mother failed you. But it was your grandmother who was our tribe's true coward, afraid of ever looking weak. Afraid of—”
“You will not speak ill of Hejian,” she warned.
“Even Kalkia was smart enough to avoid your grandmother's mistakes.” As he spoke, Udyr knew he had crossed a line.
“Was it a mistake for Hejian to take me from mother?” Sejuani's eyes flashed in anger. “Would it be better if I became a southern cow, like my mother? Should I have laid on a throne as she did? My legs open and my belly full of mead? Worthless in a fight, unworthy of ruling.” Sejuani stated coldly. “The only mistake my grandmother made was tolerating my mother's rule.”
“Hejian raised you for her own ambitions.”
“And I honor her for that.”Any closeness and deference Sejuani had shown Udyr was gone. “I will call the Lost Ones. You may help negotiate with the Ursine, or you may rot in this storm.”
Udyr's hopes sank. “Then I should leave,” he said admitting his defeat. “The Hounded Lord wouldn't be happy to see me.” And Udyr had no desire for that unhappy reunion either.
Sejuani's face transformed, softening before she gave a cunning smile.
“No,” she grinned. “That's exactly why I need you with me, old friend.”
Above him, the song-tree's leaves were the color of blood. Watching a scarlet leaf fall, Udyr realized how badly he'd misunderstood the color red. In his homeland, he had only seen its hue splashed against the white snow. In the Freljord, red was the color of violence. In the Freljord, red was the color of death's approach. But in truth, it was the color of life. As long as they lived, every man and beast carried it with them.
Udyr opened his eyes.
The light of his meditation candle burned a red spot into his vision. Rain hissed against the weakening flame of his campfire. Wind shook the hut's sagging leather walls, promising to collapse them before the night ended. On the ground around him, a thin stream of freezing water flowed between the hides of his yurt's floor. He wasn't sitting with monks on a hilltop in the foreign lands of Ionia; he was on the edge of Sejuani's camp.
This is my home, he thought with bitter pride.
It'd been weeks since Udyr had meditated successfully, but there wasn't time to dwell on it. As his current surroundings came into focus... the voices returned.
The inescapable cacophony knocked the breath from the shaman. The foreign thoughts of nearby elnük, drüvasks, and horses flooded his consciousness with feelings that weren't his own—a thunderous soundscape only he and the most powerful spirit walkers could hear, and could never truly quiet. The emotions of men came next. They were beasts as much as any other. A thousand scattered thoughts: anger, fear, bitterness, cold—
Udyr couldn't hear himself screaming. He simply became aware of the rawness in his throat. The voices wouldn't go away; they never went away. He ripped through his bag searching for the silver nail. The metal burned in his fingers as Udyr found it. He plunged it into his palm again and again. The shock of the metal compounded the pain a thousand-fold—but to quiet the voices, he would give anything. Anything.
Sejuani wondered how much of the army's supplies she was risking in an attempt to contact the Ursine. Massive bonfires roared with flames three times the height of a man. Around them stood Sejuani's army, starving and cold, stared at the fires with exhaustion and uncertainty. Dry wood was a commodity that determined life or death in this weather. And there was no guarantee the Lost Ones would come.
The bonfires' logs had been arranged to match the interlocking triangles of a death knot's pattern. Piled on top of each other, the wood formed a series of burning towers. Surrounding the fires, tall, ancient iron-stakes were arranged. Forged with the Ursine's symbols, around each stake was heaped a pile of weapons and bones, like kindling. All was ready. The warriors preparing to channel the oath needed only the Red Blessing to begin the ritual.
She nodded to the bear spirit's acolyte to begin. He lifted the massive wooden bowl above Sejuani's oathsingers and poured. The bear's blood covered them in sticky strings of gore, clinging to the men's features and chests. Each man then took the bear-claw totem, dragged it across his chest, and snarled in pain as his skin was ripped open.
The final oathsinger, a girl of only ten summers, shivered as the bear spirit's acolyte attached the traditional shawl of raven feathers around her neck like a collar. Then she joined the choir of warriors around the main fire. Her eyes rolled back as she released a sustained noise from her throat, like wind crying in a storm. Then the other oathsingers began. Each overlapping, several pitches at once, creating an unnatural, guttural dirge which harmonized with the fire's roar. The sound dug fear into Sejuani's stomach like an unquenchable hunger.
“Get Udyr,” she commanded a pair of bloodsworn nearby. Hypnotized by the fire, they nodded dumbly, failing even to look away from the ceremony. “Find our shaman!” she barked.
Her voice cut them from the trance, and her guards trudged into the darkness, outside of the firelight's reach.
She marched from the fire to Bristle, her mount. Sejuani knew, whatever uncertainty she felt, her people needed to feel she was ready to lead them into battle.
She climbed onto her saddle atop the giant mount's back, an enormous, boar-like drüvask. Its shoulders were twice as tall as her and heavier than a dozen men. When it snorted uneasily, she didn't need the great shaman's training to know what it felt.Ice crackled around its claws as her unease resonated with her soul-bonded steed. She was risking something other than her army's supplies.
Above Sejuani, the fire's embers floated toward the sky. Pinpricks of flickering light danced upward and pointed to an approaching storm. Distant lightning flashed, briefly illuminating the wall of ferocious clouds boiling toward her. In the face of this huge maelstrom, she felt as small as a child.
The first lighting bolt smashed into an iron stake with a crack. Sejuani leaned forward in her saddle and ran her fingers through Bristle's dark, wiry fur. To a horse, or some lesser mount, Sejuani would have lied and uttered soothing words. Instead she whispered, “I don't like it either. But now everything depends on the great shaman…”
Morning never came.
Churning, black clouds blocked the sun's return.
Udyr shuddered in the cold. The rains had frozen overnight. The frost on his leggings resisted his every move. His mind twitched and wandered uncontrollably. Too many creatures, too many men, surrounded him, and the clamor of their misery howled in his mind.
Sejuani had arranged her forces in the twin-horn formation at the edge of the woods lining the riverside. The camps and hearthbound warriors stood on the hill behind her frontline troops. Awaiting the arrival of the Ursine tribe, everyone in her host had their weapons drawn and ready. Blooded warriors smashed shields, drums sounded.
This was the way of the Freljord. You proved yourself a friend before either side sheathed arms.
Tiny sparks of static electricity began crackling across the Winter's Claw's armor, swords, and axes. Udyr watched as the tribe's warriors reacted to this alien thing, arcing and jumping across their weapons. He could feel their fear.
At the front of her army, Sejuani threw off her cloak with a flourish. No doubt to remind her tribe that their Warmother was a true Iceborn. Battle was the only warmth she needed; ice magic was in her blood. The army cheered.
Udyr followed her to the edge of the forest. The features of his face stretched, transformed. Fangs formed, became tusks then twisted back into an approximation of his own features. Waves of hair formed and cascaded across his skin, covering him in fur before reversing like waves in an inlet, reacting to some unknown tide. He growled, jabbered, and drooled. Suddenly, Udyr's eyes widened.
A silence swept over everything.
The first of the Ursine slipped out from between the black forest's trees without a sound—savages, with their skin stained brown by blood. Their hair matted with filth. Some were naked; others wore bear hides or the rotting remains of clothes.
Next came the beasts, bears mostly, of various sizes and colors. Some breeds Udyr knew, others he'd never seen before. They were spirit walkers trapped in the form of the unrelenting bear. Men who had forgotten they were men.
Then came the monsters.
They were strange amalgamations of bears and other creatures, things of legends, dreams, and folklore. They had all been men once too, but now, so consumed by the true spirit, they had passed beyond what the normal animals looked like. The largest of them, a huge bear-like thing, lumbered out of the forest—where its head should have been, a decayed elk's skull rested on a mane of black feathers. Eyes glowing with blue fire, it opened its jaws to reveal a child's face inside its maw. Then the child opened its own mouth too, spewing a foul brown liquid. Other nightmares followed it from the woods, limping, crawling, and shambling forward.
The Ursine assembled in a rough battle line across from Sejuani's army. They made no gesture to attack, spoke no words. They simply waited.
Udyr's ragged breaths slowed, his nervous jittering became a hypnotic sway. The pain in his hands dissolved. He recognized a few of the souls across the field from him: pupils, masters, and former oathsingers. Clan shamans he'd known in drink, warriors he'd known in battle. Little of their consciousness remained. Most had forgotten they were men. Some had rended their souls into the raw, singular emotion of the unrelenting bear's spirit, an unchecked confidence bordering on rage.
A man walked from between the trees, wearing only a great raven-feathered cowl and a bearskin cloak. The Hounded Lord.
“I am Ursine. I come to bring the word of the,” he announced.
Udyr remembered him from years before. Back then he was Najak, a troubled boy and an untrained spirit walker of great potential. Udyr's first pupil, now reduced to the voice of the Ursine. Even searching for it, pulling at the magic around him, Udyr could find little sound coming from Najak's spirit or mind. That boy was gone.
How deeply I failed you, Udyr thought, remembering too late that the Najak could hear his mind as clearly as shouted words.
“Cowardice is your true failure,” the Hounded Lord snarled to answer Udyr's thought. “You torture yourself by trying to control our gift. Denying its true power.” The wind howled briefly through the ice-covered trees behind him, sounding like ghostly chimes. “Why have you called us, Winter's Claw?”
“I ask for the strength of the Ursine.” Sejuani intoned. “I ask you fight alongside my host, Hounded Lord.”
The young spirit walker turned his head from Udyr to Sejuani without moving his lifeless eyes. “You ask wrongly. I am only the voice of the Volibear.”
“As his agent, I would take your oath as—”
“I cannot speak for him. I am simply his instrument,” The Hounded Lord interrupted her. He seemed to stare through Sejuani. “Our lord walks with us.”
Udyr felt its power before it appeared. The voices, the spirits in his mind from the men around him, which had endlessly plagued him... began to soften. Even that of Sejuani, standing beside him. The ring of her annoyed impatience faded away. The Volibear had come.
In the forest behind Najak, the great black-leaf trees cracked and shook. Taller than a mammoth, stepped out of the woods. Walls of muscle, each limb larger than a man, propelled the beast forward. Its broken, ancient armor of dark, metal plates was caked brown by the dried gore of a hundreds of battles. Broken weapons, rusted with age, jutted from its back and shoulders. One half of its face had been stripped of flesh, revealing oily bone, teeth, and horns. From its mouth, an unnatural, black blood dripped. Its four eyes, impossibly ancient, alien, and pitiless, looked over Sejuani and Udyr.
As the bear spirit's avatar came closer, it was like the quiet at the center of a storm. Udyr's focus became singular. No sounds were left in his head. No animals. No feelings. Even Udyr's own thoughts barely whispered. He felt only the Volibear. Its silence felt nothing like a man or animal. The Volibear's consciousness crushed everything with its purity.
Despite Sejuani's army outnumbering the Ursine by a hundred to one, her warriors backed away from the Volibear's approach. Huge war mammoths, veterans of numerous battles against men, trolls, and the skard vastaya, trembled in fear.
Sejuani gasped at the awesome creature before her. She had not considered the possibility that the avatar of the bear spirit would answer her summon personally. Whatever value the Lost Ones offered, their master was worth a thousand times that.
She steeled herself in her saddle and held her ground against the Volibear's slow advance. Instead of fear, ambition flashed across her face
Udyr fought against the silence, trying to speak, to remember the stories of his childhood. Some said even the Volibear had been a man once. A great shaman and spirit walker who'd surrendered himself to the bear spirit so completely that it was able to truly manifest through him. But looking at the scale of this monster, he doubted this thing could ever have been a man. When the Volibear stopped in front of Sejuani, lightning crackled across its back.
The Volibear's question flooded Udyr's mind. It overwhelmed him. Udyr felt as if the words were bursting from inside his eyes, ripping through his fingertips.
“What battle is worthy of us, warchild?”
The voice reverberated from every Ursine and spirit walker on the field.
Sejuani had watched as the Hounded Lord's eyes rolled backwards, then darkened to black pools before his head tilted back. Now the slight man spoke with a voice like an avalanche. It was as if a thunderstorm had taken control of his throat and shaped itself into those words. But what turned the Warmother in surprise was hearing Udyr whisper the same question.
Recovering quickly, Sejuani smiled, then answered with a voice both armies could hear. “I will burn the southern farms. I will hunt their children for sport. I will level their stone walls and houses so that none may stand against us again.” She gestured southward. “All that snow touches will be ours. My name will be fear, and our tribe will rule forever.”
For a moment, only the sound of Udyr's cloak flapping in the wind followed her proclamation. Above her, the black clouds circled like a tempest.
“Ask for our strength,” the voice said.
With every ounce of his will, Udyr reached into his bag. He pulled out his silver nail; the cold heat of the metal numbed his arm. If he could speak before Sejuani made the bargain... if he could make the human words come from his mouth... He had time...
It wasn't too late.
“I ask for your strength,” Sejuani replied, before her former mentor managed to force himself forward. But shaking and stiff-legged, he then stumbled between her and the great bear spirit.
Udyr dug the silver nail into his hand—he felt nothing as it passed through. No pain, not even the energy of the metal. He opened his mouth to speak but found no words would come. Instead, the Volibear's consciousness shook him, forcing him to his knees.
“Whom do you offer as sacrifice?” Udyr and the Hounded Lord spoke with the spirit's voice.
Udyr closed his eyes and pictured the Ionian hill, the red leaves falling around him. That memory of learning mediation, learning to control his powers seemed so hollow now. A faraway land he could never call home and would never see again. Then, Udyr remembered his return to the Freljord, meeting young Sejuani, and the years of watching her grow into a Warmother under his tutelage.
From outside his body, Udyr heard his voice crack in effort. “She makes no pledge to you, bear spirit.” He swallowed as he pushed himself toward the monstrous creature. “We offer only the war and its dead.”
The Volibear roared in anger. The force of its howl pushed Udyr back toward Sejuani as the beast's spell broke.
Sejuani had hunted ice-wyrms alone. She had tied her hair into a death knot before battle a dozen times in the past and, with those oaths, pledged victory or her own death. She had charged into total darkness and fought trolls blind. But the moment the Volibear's spell broke, when she looked up at the monstrous thing looming over her, she knew its true horror. Its hair stood. Lighting raged from within its flesh. Its scars glowed. Electricity poured from its mouth, as if it would explode. And Sejuani felt the most intense fear she'd ever known; she had almost pledged herself and her people to the Ursine.
This was the true power of the Volibear.
She looked to her former mentor in awe. Somehow he'd found the strength to stand against this power.
“Do you fear our war, spirit of the great bear!?” Udyr screamed at the monster.
The massive creature roared again, seeming to become less and less like a bear—its flesh seemed to lift away: muscles, fur and flesh floated apart, connected only by the endless lighting crackling inside it. The Volibear moved to attack. Before it could strike, Sejuani rode straight at it, blocking its path to Udyr.
“Will you fight alongside us, bear of storms and wilds?” Udyr shouted. “Or do you fear our war?”
After a long moment, the monster answered.
“We fear nothing.”
Udyr walked through the city's ruined gates. With what was left of the river city, there would be no warm hearths to rid the cold from the night. The structures around him had been reduced to black skeletons. Only scorched timber and stone chimneys remained above the sharp piles of rubble.
As he headed to the center of the city, Udyr's footsteps left a pale gray trail in the soot-covered street. Walls of black smoke swept around him, obscuring the streets and razed stone buildings. When an inky cloud swept aside for a moment, it revealed a dozen Winter's Claw warriors. They'd formed a line around a burning guard tower, surrounding the few survivors and pushing them against the blaze. The remaining town guards desperately, helplessly clawed for an escape but they were met only with axes and death.
Near them, an Ursine butchered the remains of a shopkeeper. It turned its bestial face to look at Udyr. Gore covered its fur as it mindlessly slammed a pair of axes into the man's long-dead corpse. Without stopping, the Ursine bellowed a roar, and the neighboring warriors closed in on the remaining guards, mercilessly pushing them into the fire.
These were the first survivors Udyr had seen. The Ursine had smashed through the city's defenses first. Sejuani's forces followed, but they had matched the Lost Ones' savagery. Even now, Udyr could feel the cruel, unquestioning certainty of the bear spirit creeping through the thoughts of every creature around him. The power of the Ursine was growing.
Udyr climbed up the rubble of a stairway to a ruined square. Surrounded by tall stone buildings, he found the monster waiting for him. Alone and in the middle of the city, the bear spirit's avatar impaled corpses on stakes arranged in some unknowable pattern. Black branches and roots grew from the speared bodies around the beast, like worms slowly crawling from the earth. The flesh and fur on the Volibear's face had healed, it's muscles seemed thicker, stronger than before.
The Volibear's eyes turned to Udyr as the shaman approached. Across its face, a dozen new eyes bloomed, each as dark and cold as a spider's. Perhaps it smelled the foreign magic on the Winter's Claw shaman, and now deemed him worthy of examination. Somehow Udyr knew, this time, it spoke to him alone.
“I will be reborn. You cannot stop that, son of man,” the beast said.
Udyr removed his cloak. Then, prepared by his evening meditation, he walked through his forms: the Undying Eagle, the Clever Lynx, the Iron Boar, and a dozen more spirit beasts. He paused when he assumed the aspect of the. With perfect control, he matched the shape of the giant beast looming above him. Then, finally, Udyr changed from the bear into its sworn enemy, the spirit of fire, hearth, and forge—the .
Udyr wasn't afraid of the fight he would inevitably have with this creature. He wasn't afraid of anything. His head was clear. And in this certainty... he knew those were bad signs. The Volibear would consume him as readily as Sejuani. But his resolve did not falter. He had sworn an oath to protect Sejuani, as a father would. No matter the cost.
“You will not take her,” Udyr spat.
Silence was the only answer the beast gave as it turned back to its gruesome task.