THE WIND BENEATH THE PEAKS
The sky was scabbed over with ominous looking clouds, but Amiri refused to take them as an ill omen. Just being back here in these mountains was all the bad luck she needed.
Amiri hadn’t yet decided just how much of a fool she was for coming back to the lands of her birth. Just on the other side of these peaks lay the place where she’d stood drenched in the blood of her kin: the finest warriors of the Six Bears. Men she had called her brothers. Her friends. She had felt the heat of their blood fading from her skin and known she could never go home again.
She’d told herself she never wanted to.
And in the time since, she never had. Until now. Following a witch-woman’s words of warning and promise. Because though in all that time she’d never wanted to return these lands had never fully loosed their hold on her.
Amiri gritted her teeth as she hauled herself over the sheer flank of a boulder. From here she could see down the slope toward the overgrown valley below and peer up toward the snow-crusted peaks. Not a single crow cawed. No mice scuttled among the rocks and scree.
More bad omens, maybe. Or they’d been scared off by a lumbering warrior who’d forgotten the way of navigating easily through this landscape, she thought, and spat.
“Told you it was a bad idea.” she muttered, though there was no one else to hear. She’d told herself it was a bad idea just about every step of the way, but she couldn’t get the witch-woman’s words out of her head.
The town was nothing special. Just a cluster of unremarkable houses, preyed on by unremarkable bandits who were foolish enough to mistake Amiri for an easy target. She hadn’t even known the town was there until the residents greeted her cheering, at the gates. They’d insisted on a feast, and who was Amiri to turn down free food?
The witch-woman’s gift had been less welcome.
“I don’t have any gold to offer, but I have a fortune,” she'd said.
“Knowing the future only ever causes trouble.” Amiri replied with a grunt, starting to turn away, but the woman had held on with a surprisingly firm grip.
“You hear the whispers. The wind among the peaks. When you wake, when you sleep. You hear their voices. The men you killed. You hear them mocking you. You hear them cursing you.”
“Leave me be.” Amiri had growled, but the woman was relentless.
“I see you returning to the land of your birth. I see two stray cubs, a broken blade. I see your heart torn from your chest,” the woman intoned.
“My heart torn from my chest?” Amiri echoed, skeptical. “Doesn’t sound like something I ought to go looking for.”
The old woman shrugged. “Could be a metaphor. Can’t always tell with these things. But I hear the splintering of bones.” The smoke from the cookfire twined around them, strangely thick.
“You’re telling me if I go back there... what? I find some kind of peace?” Amiri had asked, voice sharp with scorn. She was a creature of battle and bloodshed, not peace.
Though maybe sometimes she did hear the wind howling in the peaks. Maybe sometimes she even thought she imagined voices in that wind, and felt—what? Not guilt or regret, exactly.
More the sense of something unfinished.
“Peace? No. A kind of silence, maybe.” the witch said.
That night Amiri dreamed of howling wind and when she set out in the morning, her path bent northward.
Part of her had almost expected spirits of vengeance to come screaming out of the sky the moment she entered the Six Bears’ territory but so far, her journey had been uneventful. She was skirting the edge of it now, just at the border of her old clan’s hunting grounds. If everything was as barren as this, it must have been a lean winter.
A skittering of rock drew her attention up the slope. She almost missed it—a flash of gray against gray, something ducking behind a stone. Then came a tiny yip and a growl. She wasn’t entirely alone here, then.
Two stray cubs, she thought.
“Bad idea.” She reminded herself. But, shaking her head, she started up the slope. The footing was unstable and twice she slid back down a foot or two, almost losing her grip on the mountainside. But finally, she hauled herself up to where the small form had vanished. There was a cleft in the rock—a cave, too small for a human, but large enough for an animal’s den, perhaps. Amiri crouched, peering into the darkness.
In her experience, fortune telling and prophecy were infuriatingly vague or uselessly symbolic. Irony and prophecy were for bards as far as she was concerned. Just tell her what a thing was plainly—and how to kill it. So she wasn’t really expecting to find two stray cubs in this den. That would be too easy. Too literal.
Amiri took a strip of jerky from her pack and held it out. “Come on. Be simple for once,” she muttered, and tossed it on the ground just outside the den.
Two glowing eyes appeared in the darkness. A second set blinked just behind. Wolves’ eyes, Amiri thought, and for one bright moment let herself believe that she might find her “stray cubs” and be done with this whole business.
The nearer beast sprang forward. Amiri leapt back with a wordless sound of surprise. She’d been mistaken—that hadn’t been the click of claws she heard, but of hooves and talons.
The cub was a hideously proportioned thing—a fawn’s spindly front legs, an oversized wolf cub’s head, the nubs of antlers pushing up from its blunt and blood-speckled brow. Ragged wings, pinfeathers not yet grown in, sprouted from its back, and its hind end sported the wicked talons of a bird of prey at the end of each scaly foot.
The peryton cub snarled at her, hunching over the piece of jerky. The second cub scrambled out, diving for the meat, and the two snapped and tore at each other, their antics almost sending them rolling down the side of the mountain.
Amiri grimaced, putting a hand to the dagger at her belt. The beasts were the size of small dogs now—not much of a threat. But they’d grow fast, and perytons were vicious, evil things. Fully grown, they delighted in tearing the hearts from men’s chests. Just like the witch had seen.
Was this all the witch wanted from her? Come here, kill a couple of perytons before they could grow up and threaten the Six Bears? Penance for her crimes.
As if that would wipe away the past.
She drew the dagger. The witch said find the cubs. She’d found them. She’d put them down and leave and forget she was ever foolish enough to listen to an old woman’s rambling fortunes.
The cubs seemed to notice her at last. They looked up, their muzzles and faces plastered with blood. No wonder the slopes were so quiet. Even fledglings would go after anything with a heart they could pry from its chest. The two growled at her, advancing. Utterly fearless. Like they completely believed the combined fifty pounds of them could take out a full-grown warrior.
Wind stirred Amiri’s hair.
Or maybe they were fearless for another reason.
Amiri threw herself to the side the second before a massive beast slammed into the rock where she’d been standing. It whirled in a storm of fur and feathers and flashing claws, a howl of rage in its throat.
Peryton by Firat Solhan
She let out an oath. The thing was massive, bigger than any peryton she'd seen—or heard of. Its ragged gray fur was striped with scars and liberally stained with blood. Bits of dried gore hung like macabre ornaments from its broad antlers, and when it spread its wings, they blocked out the sky, casting Amiri in shadow.
Amiri grinned. This was more like it. She sheathed her dagger. Planted her feet. And gripped the hilt of her massive sword. Its weight strained her shoulders, pulled at her arms. But she could feel the familiar, welcome heat uncoiling through her veins. That bitter taste was on her tongue and her heart raced with that mix of danger and eagerness and fury—fury that this creature would dare to face her. Fury it would think it could stand against her strength and blade. That it would think her prey.
“Come on, then!” she screamed at the beast. It rose on its hind legs, beating its great wings and sending blasts of wind that tore the loose rocks and pebbles from the hillside, sending them tumbling.
An arrow hissed through the air. It struck the peryton’s flank with a dull, meaty thud. It howled in rage and pain, its attention twisting away from Amiri. Toward the young woman standing a hundred feet away, feet braced, setting another arrow to her quiver. A young man crouched next to her. They wore hunters’ leathers, and by the matching red-gold shade of their hair and their angular features, they looked to be brother and sister.
The peryton leapt for the young woman. Amiri screamed out a curse and threw herself after. The girl loosed another arrow, but the peryton’s leap had startled her, and it went wide.
Amiri knew she wouldn’t make it to the pair in time. Knew the girl’s hands, quick and sure as they were, weren’t quick enough to nock another arrow. Nothing would stop the creature’s murderous dive. Unless—
The man lifted his hands. The air seemed to bend and fold in front of his palms and a crack like thunder boomed out. The peryton’s charge broke. It slewed away in the air, snarling in pain and shock. The edge of the blast of sound tore past Amiri, slamming into her shoulder, leaving her ears ringing.
The peryton climbed into the air with powerful beats of its wings. Amiri leapt the last few feet to the rock where the two youths stood.
“It’s coming back around,” she warned.
“I can see that.” the young woman snapped, her gaze tracking the beast as it rose, as it turned.
It seemed to hesitate. Its gaze shifted away from the trio, tracking higher up the mountain slope.
Then Amiri heard it. Not the scrape and skitter of a few dislodged stones, but a deep, desultory rumbling. She looked up just as, high above, the mountainside gave way.
“Rockslide!” the young man cried. The peryton let out a warbling howl and dove, but not at the three of them this time—toward its cubs, their half-feathered wings useless to take them out of the path of the rapidly growing avalanche of stone. It swept them up in its hind talons and angled away in seconds as Amiri and the other two sprinted down the slope.
“Don’t suppose that magic of yours can stop a rockslide?” Amiri shouted over the growing din.
“Just start them, apparently.” he tossed back with a reckless grin, and Amiri couldn’t help but answer it.
Over his shoulder she spotted it: a blot of darkness—a cave entrance.
“There.” she said, pointing. The two didn’t need her to explain. The sister got there first but she stopped, waited as her brother reached her and dove past before she flitted in after him.
The dust cloud riding the front edge of the avalanche swept over Amiri, blotting out her vision and swallowing the light. She threw herself toward the cave opening just as the rockslide hit.
There was no light, only darkness and furious sound, as if the whole mountain was coming apart overhead. Amiri scrambled back from the entrance. Stones rained down. Above her sounded a horrible grinding and groaning—then a crack. The cave entrance was giving way. Amiri roared, bracing herself beneath her sword, as if she could hold the whole mountain up.
The roof of the cave collapsed over her.
About the Author
Kate Alice Marshall is the author of young adult and middle grade novels, including I AM STILL ALIVE, RULES FOR VANISHING, and THIRTEENS. She lives outside of Seattle with her husband, two dogs named Vonnegut and Octavia, and two kids. They all conspire to keep her on her toes. See katemarshallbooks.com for more information.
About Iconic Encounters
Iconic Encounters is a series of web-based flash fiction set in the worlds of Pathfinder and Starfinder. Each short story provides a glimpse into the life and personality of one of the games’ iconic characters, showing the myriad stories of adventure and excitement players can tell with the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games.