Kuzeyli had killed off two more of the invaders down below and more importantly, given the Khazari a chance to free themselves. They had taken so many… Although I was of course happy to see so many of my brothers still alive, my heart ached at the thought of how close they had been to being clapped in irons.
I spoke with an old man of Ondar named Tengar who explained much of what happened. Thankfully it was confirmed that the Nagalai snake who had sided with the enemy did indeed not act on behalf of his tribe. I had not truly thought that he had but it was still good to hear it confirmed. The snake, a man named Izir, slew his own brothers in their sleep and opened the way for the Hyperboreans.
They were indeed here for the cursed gold, hidden away within the shaman burial place. The only reason they would store the gold there, would be so that the shamans could guard it. These heathen fools did not know what they might unleash. And neither did I.
I suggested that Tengar and the others would settle in for the night at the camp, and barricade it the best they could. It should prevent any potential Hyperborean stragglers from attacking them, or from easily escaping. They armed themselves with the slain Hyperboreans’ weapons and we returned into the valley.
We continued forwards, towards the shaman’s cave when I noticed a hyperborean helmet glinting up ahead. As a snuck forward, I suddenly became aware of sounds of a third presence behind me, not just Kuzeyli and Moonhawk. Someone was closing in on Kuzeyli. I gave away our position, calling out to her to duck. So she did, evading being grabbed by…a woman. A sister from the Merkit tribe.
That was enough for me not to worry and instead focused on taking down the enemies up ahead. Although they were on guard, their eyes had not adjusted to the dark and did not see me before it was too late. With the two men dead, I turned to speak with the woman right as the night’s earie silence was broken by a blood curdling growl.
An enormous bear appeared from the darkness, blood-crazed and bellowing at Kuzeyli and the Merkit sister. This was what…or who had killed the Merkits as well as several of the Hyperboreans. I recognized the bear as the spirit of an elder shaman, driven mad with rage and seemed unable or even unwilling to differentiate between friend and foe. It had a stark effect on everyone, especially Kuzeyli, who in a mad dash rushed the bear, telling the others to run.
At that moment she lost. She charged the elder, not to fight and win, not even I think, to sacrifice herself to buy time for the rest of us. No, she charged in to die. The Great Spirit was powerful and its very presence awe inspiring but I knew that it could be defeated if necessary and perhaps that was necessary to bring peace to the spirit. But not like this, this was not the crisp and rigorous attack and defense Kuzeyli used in the battles prior. She had already given up.
In a desperate gamble, I tried to reach past the rage controlling the spirit, proving myself an ally through my garb, and with a quick cut across my palm, through blood. Noble brother Moonhawk aided me with his singing, giving power to my voice where otherwise I might have faltered as I cried out to it in the old tongue. For a brief moment, the red fog lifted from the bear’s eyes and it truly looked at us for the first time.
Following my example, Kuzeyli cut her palm and let the spirit taste it. A long silence followed and for a brief moment I feared that the Hyperborean blood in the girl was too strong, but finally the bear simply turned and faded back into the night.
And then the world continued as if nothing happened. Even Kuzeyli returned to her usual self mere moments afterwards, at least outwardly. The Merkit sister named herself Manduhai and blood relative of Oglun who Kuzeyli wronged when she falsely wore Uncle Baatar’s name in their duel. Her respect and hate for Kuzeyli was palpable but she knew her duty and did not hesitate to fight alongside us against the True Enemy.
As we moved towards the shaman caves, Manduhai drew my attention to that for the first time in many years, the Vulture tribe’s fire was burning brightly up above in the mountains. What this meant however, I did not know. Did it mean they were alive and well and were ready to rejoin their brothers and sisters? Or was it a distress signal? I could only guess as we reached the cave entrance.
The enemy had barricaded the cave, with stones…as well as the cairn stones of my people. Once again, the same rage blinding the bear risked taking me instead. The moment passed and a plan of attack was made, Kuzeyli taking the lead. She ran towards the enemy, all hesitation forgotten and leapt over the barricade and began fighting. I sprang to join her but I miscalculated the strength of our new ally. With one powerful blow to the rock formation, Manduhai destabilized it, sending debris everywhere, disorienting both me and the enemy. Kuzeyli took the opportunity and slew them both.
We continued through the cave, everywhere were signs of the heathen dogs and their pillaging. As we continued there was more of that guttural barking they called language which Kuzeyli translated as them preparing oil. Whatever they had in mind, there could be nothing good involving oil inside these sacred caves so I began running, the others following soon behind.
A large fire had been set in the passage, likely as a way to defend against intruders but it would not stop me. I soared above the flames, knives drawn and landed, finding myself surrounded by six enemies. One of them was Crahask, the leader of this band of bandits. In the room there had been four shamans, standing in eternal vigil and protecting a large mound of gold with their bodies in death. One of the guardians lay shattered on the floor. Crahask spoke his insults in broken Khazari, making a mockery of our people, our traditions and even our language. Finally I felt my concentration waning, my self-control crumbling. Fuming anger and an overbearing sense of failure for letting invaders do this to my ancestors clouded my thoughts. I was trapped here with them. It would take time for my friends to douse the flames which meant that for the moment I would have to fight alone…or so I thought.
Kuzeyli fearlessly stormed through the fire, scattering it from the entrance, clearing the way for Manduhai and Moonhawk. With them at my back came renewed hope and clarity of both thought and purpose. I was not trapped here with them. They were trapped here with me.
A calm serenity made way past the anger. In here, I would not dance alone. The spirits joined me and smoke and ash danced in the air, blinding Crahask and his men as they tried to strike me down. As Manduhai opened the way forward by slaying one of his underlings, I finally made my way through to the man responsible for the attack. His dying words were of his lord, Valishin and his inevitable vengeance.
Those words hung in the air as the cornered stragglers made their last stand. Earth and rock began crashing down amongst us. Kuzeyli ended up being trapped while two of Crahask’s warriors used the opportunity to attack her while she was distracted by the falling rocks. One of them scored a grievous hit on her while she opened the throat of the other.
Before I could go and aid her, several men crashed down from above surrounding us. One of them pierced the last of the enemies, while the others pointed their spears at us. They looked like Khazari but their shaven heads and strange clothing appeared strange to me.
A man who seemed to be their leader named Azim asked us who we were and what we were doing in these sacred caves. He declared himself one of the vulture tribe and claimed they had taken to protecting these caves. This was all news to me, but I explained our goal and with our enemies lying dead before us, they believed us although it seemed as though he was still unsure if he should slay us anyway. One of his men, presumably by accident lifted a torch and showed us what was painted with great care on one of the walls. It depicted two of the great northern mountains and between the two, what could only be the location of the gold mine of legends. Azim did not want to risk us leaving with this knowledge and asked (or was it an order?) to go with him to seek council with their elder.
I refused, not just because of the implied order, but more importantly because I could not simply leave the broken remains of my ancestors on the floor the way the Hyperborean had left them. Brother Azim, to his credit agreed and let me do what little I could with my limited knowledge and time.
When I was done they let down ropes for us to climb and halfway up, I remembered about the coin I had taken from the captain. As I did not want to risk offense or have them take me for grave robber, I mentioned it to Azim who immediately suggested I throw it back down with the rest of the coins. That was what I originally had planned to do with the coin but somewhere along the way I seemed to have forgotten. I took the coin and just as I was about to throw it, I hesitated. Did I really need to be rid of it? It could be useful in the future, perhaps I could…. I hurled the coin back down to get it away from me, not looking back to see where it landed.
We reached the top as dawn broke and were hurried along to see their leader, Grandmother Kiryat. She seemed like a good but stern woman who had little patience with what she viewed as foolishness and invited us as honoured guests while provided us with hospitality in the tone of commands.
She told us of the Vulture tribe’s tragic history, of how they had been betrayed by one of their own. How it was one of them who had founded the Cult of the Black Sun and had unearthed its dark magic. Magic that would come to lead the tribe into civil war and cut off all ties with the outside world to keep the corruption from spreading. She told us of the mark of the White Ape in reference to Kuzeyli and the apparent resemblance she had with the Hyperboreans of old. But most importantly to me, she told me of my father, Zarathustra.
They had saved him during last winter after a fight with beasts controlled by the cult. He had stayed with them for some time to heal and recover, and then he had journeyed onward to seek out one of their stupas. He had also left a message for me. “Do not follow me”. I smiled, I wondered if my esteemed father had grown senile in old age, if not and if I did not know better, then he wanted me to seek him out.
I have listened to his command, and will act as is appropriate for one of the free men.