The freezing northern wind was crashing into my bare chest, yet it wasn’t the wind that made me shiver to the bone; in fact I didn’t feel the cold at all. My trial trial into adulthood was about to come, and even though I was aware of my own skill and strength that surpassed most of my age, I also knew many self-confident initiates who never returned from the trial. The shaman of our clan was standing in front of me, finishing the final verses of the mythical rite that was supposed to prepare my body and mind for the upcoming initiation ritual. A group of his apprentices then brought forth a vessel containing boiling tar-black liquid, and I tensed my body, for I knew what was about to come. He then put two of his fingers into the vessel, not showing any signs of pain as he was probably protected by his shamanistic powers, and then proceeded to start the initiation. A sharp burst of pain entered my body as he laid his fingers on my chest and started drawing the ritual markings. The paint was searing my body, causing me to almost faint from the shock, but I had vowed that I wouldn’t let out a single sigh, a single scream of pain. The pain was supposed to rid me of my fears and the markings were supposed to protect me during my trial, but I would give anything for it to stop at that time. As all the important wards and markings were drawn on my chest and searing through my flesh, the shaman moved his hand up to my face. I know not how long the ordeal took, but it seemed like hours to me. However demonic the process might have seemed, when all was done, I noticed that I was no longer shivering. I was one with pain and pain was one with me, and nothing I was to face during the trial would stop me. I was destined to be a warrior, but for the first time I truly felt like one. At this moment I realized how many members of our clan were watching my initiation, among them my father, who no matter how gruff and tough he tried to look, still had a visible proud smile on his face. The shaman looked straight in my eyes and I returned the gaze. I seemed like he was looking straight into my soul, before the intense glare weakened and he did a simple nod. I knew what this meant, I was prepared for this moment. I took a crude wooden spear that was jabbed in a snow mound next to me, and started walking towards the frozen wastes outside of our village. I would return victorious… or not at all.

I have been hunting the creature for two days now, or perhaps it was hunting me, and I felt in my very bones that the inevitable confrontation was growing nearer and nearer. But until then I had to survive and prepare myself. I didn’t know what kind of creature it was supposed to be, I had no strategy on how to defeat it, I only knew what the shaman told me. The creature has been summoned to be my personal nightmare, the culmination of my fears and doubts, and defeating it was supposed to mark the overcoming the fears and weaknesses of mine. All the warriors in our clan who passed the trial were forbidden from speaking about it, so I presumed it would be no ordinary beast. I’ve made my temporary home in a small cave, as it sheltered me from the merciless weather that raged across the land and would give equal footing to both me and my adversary as the fight would be done on solid ground and not on treacherous snow. It also gave me assurance in the fatality of the situation, because it will mean that I will have nowhere to retreat. If I were to die, I would die with honour as a warrior and not as a fleeing craven prey. I felt it in my very bones, the confrontation was nigh, maybe the spirits were talking to me, maybe it was my intuition, but I knew that this night, would be the fateful one. I lighted the campfire and sat back, closed my eyes and started to gather my strength as the sun was vanishing beyond the horizon. Hours passed, and suddenly I felt an uneasy feeling in my guts, I opened my eyes and saw a shape in the cave’s opening. I couldn’t see the details as it was still covered in shadows, yet it looked quite small and amorphous with what I assumed to be tentacles of tendrils protruding from its body. However it was constantly shifting and changing, and as it grew closer it grew thinner and longer. Then suddenly a pair of malicious yellow eyes entered the range of the light and then towering before me was the body and head of a giant snake. Murder in its eyes and poison dripping from its fangs. It raised its whole body, so much so that its head was nearing the cave’s ceiling and I could see the muscles on its scaly body tensing as it was preparing for an attack. My hands were trembling during that sight, as the primal desire to run away entered my body. I almost dropped the spear that I was holding, however the still burning marking on my skin reminded me of who I am and what I stand for. The creature seemed taken aback by my show of conviction and for a moment its form almost seemed like it lost a sustenance of sorts, looking more like an illusion, or a vision than a real creature. But after just a blink’s time it was back in all its frightening glory. It hurled itself against me head first and tried to pierce me with its fangs, yet I dodged to the side and grazed its neck with the tip of my spear, and a stream of white lymphatic liquid came pouring out. The creature retreated back with a hiss and I took my chance and charged at its body. I prepared myself pierce it through, but as I was charging it started to change its form. It became a blob-like mass for a moment, that then turned into a humanoid figure. The spear would have gone through its body, were my hand not to stop mid stab. It wasn’t some outside force that caused me to freeze. It was because of the shock that struck me, as I gazed into the familiar face of my mother. I couldn’t move, I didn’t understand; she was supposed to be dead, she has been dead for years. I knew even then that it had to be a trick, but my body wouldn’t listen and this moment of hesitation was all the creature needed. Before I could do anything, my mother clawed at my face with razor-like talons and blinding pain ensued. At that moment, an image of my mother’s funeral ceremony came to my mind, and seeing the despicable creature before me, daring to take my mother’s form, a storm of rage started raging inside me. With all the fury I could muster, I stabbed the creature right through the chest and it felt dead to the ground, where it became an amorphous blob once more. I was shaking. From shock, pain, fear and other things. After finally catching my breath and focusing myself, I tried to wipe the blood from my eye, because I couldn’t see anything through it. However nothing changed upon doing so; I tried once more and to no effect. It was only then, that I realized the full scale of my injuries.

There was much cheering and back-patting as I returned weary and beaten from the wilds. My wounds were tended to by the shaman, however my eye was beyond saving. I decided that I will carry it with honour, to remind me of the conviction and willpower, the lack of which resulted in my injury. The thought of finally finishing my trial and becoming a warrior still hasn’t settled in yet, and many of the praises I got seemed hollow to me. Every warrior in our clan went through a similar trial, I was no different. I had always envisioned my return from the trial as gloriously as possible, and the reality wasn’t much different. Yet there was one significant difference; All the praise I had craved earlier now rang hollow in my mind. I was supposed to be feeling happy, proud of becoming a warrior like I always wanted to be. But I felt like no warrior; I barely survived and my victory was but a coincidence. And at the top of this all, stood the image of the dead creature in the form of my mother. I secluded myself to a less inhabited part of our village, in hope of avoiding any more congratulations, each of which made me more and more miserable. As I was brooding in my solace, I failed to notice a person approaching me until it was standing right before me. It was my father; I expected him to start questioning me and praising me like the rest, but he simply sat next to me in utter silence, which went for about half an hour. Whilst it surely is unheard of from a warrior to display weakness, I broke the silence to confess and told him what ailed me. He was silent for a few second, before he told me that he himself had similar thoughts after a trial and so did many others; he said that everything will clear up at midnight. I impatiently waited until midnight, upon which I was approached by the shaman who gave me a slight nod, beckoning me to follow him. I was led into his hut, which contained a heavy, intense smell of burnt leaves and incenses. In the hut stood a stone altar, upon which I was supposed to lay down. As I was laying there, the shaman procured a small queer dagger from his robes and started taking something from a small basket near him. It turned out to be a snake, no less than 3 feet long. He took it in his hands and put it in front of my face. “Your greatest fear, shall become your greatest strength” said the shaman, and he sliced the snake along its whole body with his dagger. Blood should have been pouring out, but instead it started floating and circling around it, creating few streams of blood. Then abruptly all the blood came charging at me. I should have been covered in it, but instead my body absorbed it and I could feel renewed strength rushing through my veins. My head started spinning due to the sensation, the vapours, the shock and visions started happening in my mind. I could see a giant ocean leviathan floating depths. A frozen statue with a crown on its head. A dying tree with few leaves left, and roaring hearth. And before the vision ended; I could see myself; old and weary, with too many scars to count; standing in front of people, who viewed me as a hero; and ready to give my life for them. I didn’t know what to take from these visions, but the last image brought me out of my misery, being a warrior isn’t just about glory and killing, but also about protecting what we hold dear. It was at this moment, that I finally felt like my trial has ended, at the moment I realized how much more are to come.

Few winters had passed since my initiation, and I had become accustomed to the life of a warrior, and protector in our clan. Every time our village was in danger, we were there to quell it; be it predators of either beast or human kind, or something else. It was a good and honest work and, even though I had been through many nearly fatal perils and encounters, relatively calm. However, part of me was still anxious, for the visions I saw during the fateful ritual kept returning to me. The form of the ocean leviathan was the clearest one, and every time I had dreamt these dreams, It was clearer and clearer; I knew something was about to come about, and I was to play a vital role in it. It was during a winter four years after my initiation that I was about to find out more. It was a very grave winter, and we had been struck by many misfortunes. Rats had eaten many of our crops, our livestock died due to a disease, and many of our shelters and houses were laid low during a powerful storm. We were facing starvation, and it was only thanks to our hunters and fishermen, that we were somehow still alive. But one day, our fishing party did not return; neither did the one on the next day. We were dependant on fishing, and not only had no fish been brought in the last four day, but no man returned either. It was on the fifth day, near midday, that a lone fisher came running back, with horror in his eyes. He told stories of a giant monster in the sea, crushing our fishing boats and eating our fishers whole. It was immediately decided that a group of our best warriors should go there and try to kill this creature. My father was supposed to be the leader of this group and he picked twelve of his best men and women to accompany him. Remembering my vision, I proudly told my father, that I was certain this was the time to prove myself, to become a hero. Yet I was met with only a grim, stern face. “You are not going anywhere son, you are far too young for this.” I protested, I felt rage consuming any tidbits of reason within me, and I started arguing. “You still almost a child, and you even act like one now; This is too dangerous for you, stop embarrassing yourself and man up.” My face was red with anger, but I was unable to say anything. He then said to his warriors, that they will be leaving at dawn, and they were to prepare themselves. I felt my world crumbling, this was supposed to be my moment of glory, not his; This was my vision, not his. But then it occurred to me; if I was supposed to slay the beast, then my father’s hunt for the creature was doomed to fail, I told this to my father, to others warriors, to the shaman, but no one listened. So here I was, cursed with the knowledge, that my father was likely going to his death, and I couldn’t do anything about it… or could I? At night, I sneaked myself into my father’s room and found what I was looking for, a totem, which I knew he was about to use during his hunt. It had a simple enchantment; It worked similarly to fisher’s lure, but much stronger and on a much greater scale. I guessed he wanted to lure the creature to shallow waters, where it would be more vulnerable; a sound plan, which I decided on following. I took the totem, a handful of spears, my armour and a few other useful things and made my way to the coast. It wasn’t very far, but the night and the weather made it quite hard to travel, and it took me a few hours to arrive there. When I arrived, it was already dawn, and I knew I only had maybe an hour before the hours arrived. I took a small boat that was stationed there and started paddling. When the water was nearly 10 feet deep and the shore was in a far distance. I stopped my paddling and placed the totem on the front of my boat. I did a short incantation, which I knew would activate its powers. I waited, my heart beating with excitement and fear, when I saw it. A gargantuan turquoise shape moving towards me.

As the creature grew closer and closer, the certainty I had about the meaning of my visions began to waver. I expected the creature to be large all right, but this was a completely different kind of large than what I had in mind. The shallow waters were supposed to make it more visible and easier to hit with a spear, well that certainly won’t be a problem anymore. Still a few hundred feet from me, I could already see that it was slowly emerging from the water, since the water was too shallow for it to swim in. Realizing the disadvantage a 10 feet deep water would give me, I started paddling back towards the shore, in hopes of reaching a more appropriate footing. I braved a quick glance behind me, and it was about 200 hundred feet away from me, and it already had the upper part of its body visible and I could see ravenous hunger glistening in its enormous eyes. It must have been something over 20 feet tall in height, and who knows how long. Even though it wasn’t the fastest whilst lumbering towards me in shallow waters, It was barely 40 feet away from me, when I had reached the shore. There was nothing on the shore except snow and ice, and the forest was about 200 feet further. Perhaps I should have tried to run away, but my pride got the better of me, and I grabbed one of my throwing spears and aimed for the creature’s head. It was a good throw, A flicker of hope lit up in my heart as I saw the weapon descending upon the forehead of the leviathan; but it was slowly snuffed out, when it simply bounced from its carapace. I was just reaching for a second spear, when I heard the beast taking a very deep breath, I quickly grabbed the spear and instinctively took cover behind my boat. A gust of freezing air, and a volley of icicles were suddenly swirling around me. The cold, was practically indistinguishable from burning, and I didn’t even take the brunt of the attack. When it stopped, My boat was now almost one block of ice riddled with huge sharp icicles, and the creature was only a few feet away from me. Controlled by desperation, I quickly rushed towards the creature and tried to stab it in its more vulnerable looking lower torso, but to no avail, and I only barely escaped the crushing doom of its maw. I kept my distance and tried to find any vulnerable spots, while at the same time dodging any attacks it made with its jaw. I moved to its side and tried to pierce one of its eyes, but I was unprepared for the creature to use its tail. I was swapped of my feet by the sheer force, with which the tail moved. Even with the soft blanket of snow, the following landing knocked the breath out of my lungs, and the tail then started descending towards me, like an odd caricature of an executioner’s axe. Whilst the snow may have eased my fall, it also impaired my movement, and I could see that I would not be able to move away in time…
The tail did indeed land, however no longer attached to the body, for massive heavy battleaxe cut it off, before it could strike. Chaos then ensued, it was my father’s warrior group and they started attacking the creature from every angle. But the creature was not defenceless; three of my saviours were killed by the crushing maw of the creature and two were crushed under its body. Soon the group found themselves overwhelmed and fell back to regain their footing and catch their breaths. I followed suit, but before I gained a safe distance, I decided to try to throw my spear once more, but this time I would aim for the eye. As soon as the spear left my grasp, I knew it would hit my target, and indeed it pierced right through its biggest right eye. I kept standing there appreciating my handiwork, expecting the monster to fall any second now… but it kept standing, and then suddenly took a deep breath. I had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and the irony of facing certain doom second after being saved from one dawned upon me. I tried to protect my face and head with my arms, but I was certain it would be of no use. The creature was preparing to exhale when I heard a scream behind me. I was knocked face first into to the ground by some unknown force and when the gust of icy death came, I was relatively unharmed. As the cold passed, I looked up and saw a familiar figure standing above me, protecting me with its own body. A figure I knew since my birth, a figure who taught me everything, a figure I called my father. His whole body was frostbitten and pierced by dozens of icicles, and while dropping his axe it slowly fell to the ground. Engulfed in fury, sadness, horror, and overwhelming unknown emotions, I took the dropped axe and charged at the monster. It tried to freeze me as well, but it was too slow; and with a blow of pure fury, I chopped its head right off.

Hero, saviour, chosen, that’s what I was called now; But what was I really, fraud, fool, a patricide. When we had returned from the battle, me carrying my father’s lifeless body in my arms, and the others dragging the carcass of the damned creature, we were hailed as saviours, and when the other warriors said, that I was the one who had dealt the killing blow, I was showered with undeserved praise; but for what cost… Three days later, my father got the funeral he deserved; that of a true hero and warrior, an honour bestowed to only a few. I was the one who caused his death, I was the one who foolishly ran straight into danger, and yet I was hailed as his equal, as his legacy. People were trying to comfort me, saying that he was a great man, and that he would surely be proud to have such a son, who will certainly overshadow him. They didn’t know what I knew, They didn’t understand, They didn’t listen. Even though I tried to tell them the truth, they only thought I was being humble, and that that was the grief talking. The final blow came at the end of the funeral ceremony; due to all my “accomplishments” and due to my legacy, it would be only fitting for me to become a new leader of my clan’s warriors. A title held by my father before his untimely death. I protested, I didn’t deserve it, but I had no choice in the matter, it had already been decided. And as a reward for slaying the terrible leviathan, and saving our clan from starvation in doing so, I was to be given a powerful item, that would forever remind me of my deeds. A helmet fashioned out of the scales of the leviathan, enchanted during a great shamanistic ritual, that left our shaman and all his apprentices on the brink of complete exhaustion. That item would surely forever remind me of my deeds that day, that was for certain, the image of my father’s frostbitten body protecting my foolish self, would be shown to me every time I would look at the helmet. This was the breaking point, This all was too much. All the attention was focused on me, and everyone was silent. They were probably expecting a speech of some sorts, or anything at all. But I was only standing there, with the helmet in my hands; paralyzed, incapable of speech. I craved solace, I craved to be alone, so I did the only thing that could come to my mind at this moment… I ran away. Ignoring the crowd of people, ignoring everything, I ran out of the village, I ran a mile, two, five; before I was able to gather myself and fall to the ground. I scorned myself for acting childish again. This wasn’t what my father would want me do to, I was now responsible for my clan, I had weight on my shoulders, I was no longer the brooding moody child, like I was during my initiation, I should return to the village and act like a man. As all these things were running through my mind, A storm started roaring above me. Cold winds were rising, and snow started swirling. My already weakened vision, left me nearly blind in these conditions, and I tried to find my way back to the village. I donned on the helmet, and found it to be most useful in this situation. It kept me safe from the snow and made me breath and see clearly. But no matter how useful the item was, I had to admit one thing… I was lost. Lost in the middle of a blizzard, not knowing where I came from, and not knowing where I was going. I was in the hands of gods now, and I wasn’t keen on finding out what else they had in store for me.

The Storm was becoming direr and direr with step, and my reserves were running out. The helmet was giving me at least some form of protection against the elements, but it would ultimately prove irrelevant, unless a shelter were to be found. Perhaps this was my punishment, perhaps the gods had passed their judgement on me for my previous deeds. But whilst I may have not been in god’s favour, my destiny was still my own, and I was prepared to go to any lengths to survive. Considering further events, I suspect that my salvation was not a stroke of luck, but instead my destiny, for I was to encounter another object of my visions. I found myself in a clearing, with a small cottage in the middle of it. I first thought my eyes were deceiving me, for I knew every crevice within 20 miles of my village; and this, I have never encountered. Yes, the storm made me unable to find my way back home, as it had obscured my vision, but it would surely not make me forget such a unique landmark. There were other powers at hand here, of that I was sure. Distrustful of any spirits and gods, I treated carefully towards the hut, with my axe at the ready. There was light coming from under the door, but I would not let myself be beguiled by temptation of quick comfort. I still treaded slowly, making sure not to make a single sound, even if there was a storm nearby. Who knows how perceptive a spirit living here might be. Upon reaching the door, I quietly grabbed the handle, raised my axe and prepared myself to rush in, and incapacitate anyone who might be there. My plan was simple, yet it still managed to fail spectacularly in even its first phase, because I had not anticipated the door to open itself with me still holding the handle. I unwittingly stumbled inside, and I was quickly disarmed and grappled by whatever inhabited this cottage. I welcomed the warmth, the smell of burning wood and roasting meat, even thought I had other problems to attend to. Once my eye adjusted to the indoors, I found myself being held in a lock by a man at least a head lower than I was. For such a small man, he had incredible amounts of strength and I couldn’t escape his hold. Before I managed to do anything else, the inhabitant only said; “You should just knock, you know.” And with these words he released me. I was left dumbstruck, unable of speech. What kind of sorcery was this. The man before me was an ordinary human of the empire kind, those scrawny puny fanatics, not a barbarian; yet he was living in this land, and didn’t try to kill me on sight. “You are not a barbarian.” was the first thing that came out of my mouth. “How very observant of you, indeed I am not. The previous owner of this place was though, and I am just honouring his legacy.” “What legacy?” I asked. He took a deep breath before answering my query; “This ancient place is known as the Last Hearth, it is a safe haven, a last bastion of hospitality, and it will exist as long as there are people willing to help others without seeking any gain. Those unfortunate, lost, or wandering sometimes find their way here, and they will never be refused hospitality for as much time as they need.” This got me quite curious, but before I managed to inquire further, my host stepped outside and returned with a unique queer axe, which he left me to examine. “This axe is the symbol of the protectors of the Last Hearth. It was a gift by a god long forgotten, It is enchanted by magic of old, and is very powerful, yet it may only be wielded by those who would use it for the good of others and not their own. It is our means of preserving the warm fire burning in all of us, which unfortunately many want to snuff out.” I was finally prepared to ask my questions, but it would seem my host was lonely for quite some time, and had a few more words to say; “But enough with the grim stuff, what misfortune brought you here?” Upon being asked this, I realized how much I wanted to talk about my ailments, so I started to talk. I started with my initiation, I talked about my insecurities, about my father’s death, and lastly… about my vision. My tale seemed to catch him off guard, and with a trembling voice, he said; “You saw this place? this axe? and the frozen king? The others have told me this moment was destined to happen, and I am to do anything in my powers to help you, for you will need all the help you can get.” And with these words, he ceremoniously knelt down and raised his hands, that were gently holding the magical axe. This was a gesture of offering, and with a grateful bow, I accepted his gift.

The violent storm that led me to the Last Hearth wasn’t diminishing with passing time in the slightest. I would even dare to say it had gotten stronger, so I was forced to stay in that mystical place, until it would weaken. This at least gave me the time to question my host about a plethora of various things going through my mind; be it the nature of this place, his origins, but most importantly, my visions and his knowledge thereof. “Am I a part of some prophecy, am I to fight some great evil to save the world?” I asked, and as soon as I asked the question, my mind started spinning. My story is how every heroic tale my father used to tell me used to go; There was a prophecy about me before my birth, my parents died, my deeds got me praise and glory, and now I was about to vanquish a great evil or die trying. Or at least so I thought, but this idea went crashing down as soon as my host started speaking; “You are not a part of any prophecy, none that I know of at least. You are a part of a cursed cycle that will cost more and more lives until it is broken.” There was a slight pause, and I was afraid that was my host being ominous and that I wouldn’t be able to get more, but then he continued; “Did you ever hear the tragedy of the King of Winter?” I shook my head. “I thought not, it’s not a story commonly told among your kind, for it bears much grief and pain. He was the first and only king of barbarians to ever rule. No one else managed to unite all of your clans together before him and ever since. He was wise and strong, and great was the love for his people. However as his kingdom grew bigger and stronger, so did his hubris. He started thinking of himself as a god, eventually calling himself King of Winter. The shamans and seers warned him, that he would bring doom not only to himself, but to his people as well if he were to insult and challenge the gods any further. But he didn’t listen; and one day, he ordered all the sacred sites and temples burned down. What happened next could be compared to many a cataclysm and it might not do it justice. Blizzards, Hailstorms, Tidal waves, and much more stroke the kingdom, leaving only ruins and dust in its wake. The whole civilization was destroyed and those shattered pieces of society that prevailed eventually turned into the barbarian clans of today. But seeing his kingdom turn to dust and dying wasn’t the full scale of the king’s curse, the gods raised his body from death as a murderous revenant; unable to control his actions, but being conscious of everything. Now every few years, in winter he returns from the grave, forced to watch as his body slaughters the people he loved above all else. His coming is always preceded by a pack of celestial wolves, that warn the people of his coming.” I was still confused, so I asked; “So where is my part in all of this?” “I was just getting there; you see with every cycle, one young warrior is given these visions of yours and is destined to free the king from his curse, or he and his whole clan shall die. They all came here and all were given this axe; you are my first in this regard.” A grim silence filled the room, but not wanting to succumb to fatality I broke it; “If that is so then there is no time to waste, otherwise more people will die, what am I supposed to do now?” “Remember those wolves I told you about, they are the ones causing this horrible storm, you need to find the pack and find a way how to make them stop this storm, they are not mere beasts and are very dangerous, so trying to kill them might not be the best course of actions. Anyway, you have no chance of beating the king in this storm, that is his domain and none can stand against him on such conditions; but without it, you might still have a sliver of chance.”

I ventured into the domain of winter regardless of the storm, in search of those beasts of ice. I knew that they were to be found in the worst of it, so as the burning cold and the freezing wind kept growing in strength, I knew I was nearing my destination. My helmet was invaluable in its ability to grant me sight under these conditions, and the godly axe by my side was giving me much needed confidence. However, sight and confidence were not enough as the cold kept gnawing on my skin and flesh, oh how I craved the searing pain of my initiation warpaint to protect me from the elements. It was unbearable, and even with all my strength, I couldn’t bare it any longer. I fell to my knees, unable to move. I tried to force myself to go on, but to no avail; this was the end of my journey, and how anticlimactic it was. Then I saw them, wolf-like shapes emerging from the winter mist around me. There were at least 8 of them, encircling me and looking at me with a look of indifference; as if I was a mere ant they were watching, for there was nothing else for them to do. In my current state, I had a hard time staying conscious; fighting them wasn’t in consideration, so I tried to negotiate; ” Please, stop this storm you spirits of winter, I have come to end the cycle once and for all, let me break the curse.” Their indifference turned into a mild curiosity, and perhaps amusement. Then a deep husky, voice started resonating inside my mind. “We are the warning, the harbingers. We announce his coming, so that there will be no more slaughter than needed. Yet here you stand, telling us to deny your people such salvation. Why?” “I shall kill the King of Winter!” The voice laughed. “There were many before you who tried; faster, stronger, wiser, yet they all failed. How are you any different, why shouldn’t we leave you here to die? It would be the most merciful outcome.” This statement hit me like a horse. How am I to defeat the King if so many others had failed? Yet I had to try, I had to stop the bloodshed once and for all. It was a risk; many might die because of my choice, but If I wouldn’t try, the next chosen would eventually face the same decision, I was not going to let that happen. No, I will defeat the King, I will break the curse, now only to convince the wolves; “You might not think much of me, but I will defeat the king, no matter the cost. If I am to die in doing so, so be it. If I am to sacrifice everything I have, so be it, But I will end this cycle.” This caused quite a stir among the spirits, laying down their masks of indifference, their appearance quickly changing into that of a hungry ravenous beast. The voice resonated inside my head once more, but much more snarly and breathy now; “You have got spirit, warrior. You are either very brave or very confident. But words are nothing. You say you are willing to sacrifice; so show us. But beware, that sacrifice you speak of must be great indeed to back up those word. Those magical items of yours won’t do. It must be something that will scar you for life, something that cannot be healed, something you shall crave for the rest of your life.” The wolfs were shaking with excitement now, waiting for my offering. I don’t how, but I knew what the gods wanted me to give in return for their favour, I knew… and I was afraid. I had taken off my helmet, and I grabbed a small dagger that was hanging from my belt. I raised it, my body almost paralyzed with hesitation and fear, but It had to be done. I raised the dagger towards my face and put its point to my one remaining eye… and then I pushed. My vision turned into a single red point. The pain was enormous, and I felt blood running down my face, but I couldn’t see it. As I was trembling with pain, the voice spoke to me with a tone of respect now. “Very good young warrior, perhaps you are indeed the one.” the cold around me started to go away, and I felt a slight warm breeze caressing me. The pain was leaving my body, and the sound of the storm seemed to faint. “Your sacrifice was great indeed. We will uphold our end of the bargain, but there is one more thing. Take on your helmet so you may see what it is.” I did so, and was amazed that the magic of the helmet allowed me to see, even though very faintly and blurry. The storm was gone, and before me lied a horn from one of the wolves. “This is our gift to you, It will allow you to bypass the king’s defences, and fight him on equal ground; Use it well.” I picked the horn up and tried to examine it further, but I was unable to focus on the details with my limited borrowed vision. Regardless, I raised the horn to my mouth and sounded it from the bottom of my lungs. After doing so, my lungs started burning, but I had no regrets. This was my challenge to the King of Winter, this was the point of no return, only death or glory awaited me now.

Tracking the King of Winter was, for a change, not the most difficult of tasks; one only had to follow the carnage and destruction left in his wake. lifeless carcasses of beasts and men alike, creatures frozen in place, encased in blocks of ice. Abandoned cottages, houses and villages. I for once was grateful for my lack of sight, for the enchanted helmet that I wore could only show me the basic outline of my surrounding, but not the horrible details engraved in the land. I couldn’t examine the faces of the dead, but it was for the better. Seeing all this macabre display around me, I was about to quicken my pace to reach the King before more blood was spilt, but one small shiny thing on the ground caught my attention. It was an engraved bone frozen in a crust of ice; under ordinary circumstances this wouldn’t be especially noteworthy, but in this place, during these events… This was no ordinary charm or fetish, this was a small piece of the prey I was hunting. And seeing this small unremarkable thing in this godforsaken place, gave me a small nudge of pride and hope. These were ordinary people: no magic, no gods, no prophecies, yet they defended their home valorously against an enemy of such power, and they managed to hurt him. It would seem my deal with the Harbingers did leave him vulnerable. I cut off a part of my breeches to gain a small string, and I decided to create this fragment into a lucky charm of sorts. If I were to lose to despair and fear during the fateful confrontation, this would remind me what I was fighting for: my father, my clan, all those countless people that died due to this damned curse. I didn’t think this bone fragment would have any magical properties, but I felt… different when I donned the handcrafted talisman; my mind and purpose felt clearer, my anger, thought not diminished, was less savage and wild, but more righteous and just. It was almost like the gods spoke to me through that fragment, perhaps since the King of Winter was created by the gods, his bones were a conduit to their influence. Be it as it may, my newfound clarity granted to me by the spirits conveying their wisdom through the bone led me to a revelation that changed my outlook about the gods; our northern gods might be harsh, they might be brutal, but they are not needlessly cruel. This curse wasn’t created for the purpose of punishing an arrogant ruler, but to find a new and better one. The old barbarian kingdom began collapsing from within, it started with the King of Winter and his pride, but it was destined to fall one way or another. If no action had been taken, the splintered clans would never again unite under a single banner, into a new and better kingdom. That is why the King was created, by giving all the clans an overwhelming menace to fear, by giving them a common fear, the one to defeat him would be hailed not only by his own clan, but by others as well. Was that my destiny? Was this cycle a series of trials to find the one that is to unite the clans once again and bring forth a new golden age to our people? But regardless of the importance of this revelation, it didn’t really matter to me, for my only purpose was to defeat the King and make sure no one will die because of this cycle again. Let the gods play their games and do their schemes, the destiny of our people is ours and ours only, and I will not be a pawn that the gods can control on their whim.

While hunting my adversary, I noticed that the landscape around me had started to become more and more familiar, which filled me with a sense of dread. I ran with all the haste I could muster, hoping that the cursed king has not yet reached my village. It was in a deep valley, at the end of which stood my village, that I finally caught up to my enemy. I first saw him as a distant looming figure, walking slowly and ominously towards the place I valued the most. As I got closer, I sounded the horn given to me as a gift, to challenge ruler of a bygone age once again. But this time, my challenge was not ignored. He turned towards me, and there was something menacing and horrifying about his almost nonchalant movements. They reminded me of the draugar and skeletons, but while their shambling movement lacked purpose and control, there was a sense of pride and focus in his. As we were walking towards each other, I finally saw with whom I were to have the honour, and the sight filled me more with pity and melancholy, than with despair. The legendary King of Winter was almost nothing but a skeleton in a prison of ice now, if not for his regalia, the crown of the clans and his legendary greatsword now resting on his shoulder, he could be mistaken for a simple ice wraith. My already significant spite for the gods grew even stronger; to turn a once mighty warrior and great man into this mockery is a fate no one deserves. Once we were but few feet apart, we both stopped and looked each other in the eyes. I realized what a bizarre pair we were: a disgraced cursed king, who was nothing more than a rotting skeleton, and a blind crippled man, who could only see through the slits in his enchanted helmet, both of us standing against each other due to the machinations of gods, with just a small say in our own fate. I unsheathed my axe and held it to my chest, whilst also doing a slight nod, as a show of respect for my opponent. My adversary lowered his greatsword from his shoulder and stabbed it into the ground, and I could swear I could see the skull trapped in his armour of ice do a nod as well. Everything was silent now during these few seconds before the clash would begin. The warrior spirits from the axe were silent in anticipation. the godly spirits from the talisman were silenced, and my own mind was clear. Knowing I had speed on my side I stroke first, I tried to cut the King in half with my first attack right at the hips, as they seemed like the most vulnerable spot, however my axe didn’t manage to go even through half of the layer of ice protecting the body of my enemy, even though it was already weakened by the sound of my horn earlier. I tried to quickly free my axe from the wound, but it was stuck in place. As I was doing this, the king did a wide cleave with his greatsword, and I was forced to duck and release hold of my weapon. Now my speed was meaningless, for my enemy’s reach was far greater than mine and my axe was stuck in what would be his abdomen. We were circling around each other, both of us waiting for an opportunity or a mistake. He kept trying to hit me, but I was keeping my distance, and even though his attacks were quite fast and powerful he was unable to hit me. I noticed something as the fight went by, water was slowly dropping from his ice armour; he was melting. Perhaps it was due to the horn, but I didn’t have time to ponder that now, for I saw an opening that could give me the upper hand once again. I slipped right under the king’s swing and grabbed my axe. I managed to free it in an instant and then did a quick overhead cut at the king’s chest. The outcome wasn’t what I expected. Upon impact the ice shattered in an explosion of needle-like icy shards; the force of the shattering caught me off guard and threw me a few dozen feet away. My body was pierced numerous times by the shards, and I was in a world of pain, yet I mustered my strength to stand up and face my nemesis once again, but this time, there was no armour to protect him anymore. I could see ice starting to form once again around his body, so I had to end this dance now, once and for all.

Even with his armour shattered, the King was still a dangerous foe, and I was prone to making mistakes as I wanted to end the clash before his icy armour was restored. I was hurt, battered, exhausted, but I remained in the offensive, showering my foe with one brutal attack after another. His now skeletal form seemed frail, but it was still quite durable and it would seem that the destruction of his armour allowed him to move more easily. But then, he did a slight misstep during one of his dodges and he stumbled a bit. It was a slight mistake, but enough to allow me to do one final blow. I did a heavy overhead swing and I was about to strike my enemy with all my might right into his skull. But my strike never landed, for as I had raised the axe above my head and used my strength to bring it down, I was unable to. Something was holding my axe in place, but there was not a single living being around us. I looked up, and I saw the culprit of my misfortune; the runic cloth that was no longer on my rival’s weapon, it was wrapped around mine almost as if it had a mind of its own, and was preventing me from landing the decisive blow. Seeing my predicament, the King opted for a counterattack, I knew that I would not be fast enough to dodge, so I used all my power to bring my axe down so I could block the mighty counter attack. The blow shook with my like a mighty storm would, the cloth that was wrapped around my axe was obliterated in the attack, and fortunately it seemed to absorb most of the damage. Yet the axe didn’t go without damage neither; it was probably only due to its nature that it was not in shatters, but it certainly wasn’t in the best condition for combat now; twisted and bent to a strong degree. With the axe not in a state that could make it a usable weapon and with my small insignificant dagger, that would be unable to penetrate the king’s defences, I focused my attention on the only thing in the vicinity that might be used as an instrument of battle… Unfortunately, the thing was now in the hands of something that would not give it away willingly. While my mind was racing, I had to dodge and deflect my enemy’s attacks, but I was unable to escape them all. While they lacked the raw strength of the previous attacks, they were still dangerous, and have taken their toll on my body. Seeing the ice armour slowly reforming around my foe, I knew I had mere seconds to act before all would be ruined. I gave everything I had into one desperate effort. Faking a misstep, a stumble, I hoped that my foe would take the bait… and he did. Thinking he had me at his mercy, he tried to end me with one powerful vertical overhead slash. He was exposing his whole skeletal body, but he had nothing to fear as I had no means of endangering him, or so he thought. One could thing that a bent axe would be useless, however it had the perfect shape for what I was about to do. I charged right at my enemy and I plunged my axe right into his upper ribs, handle first. I then pushed it further until the end of the handle went through the gap between his right collar bone and shoulder blade. The curved blade of the axe got stuck between the ribs and I hoped neither the ribs nor the blade would break. I heard a cracking of bone and wood…but no snap ensued. My adversary was unable to bring down his sword upon him, as there was an axe inside of him, that made it impossible to do so. I quickly grabbed the grip of his sword and jerked it away. He might have been holding unto it with all his strength, but his strength was fuelled by hate and vengeance; I was fighting to save my people, my home, everything I had left. I snatched the sword from his hand and did an upward diagonal cut aiming at his neck. I don’t know what fell to the ground first, whether it was I overcome with exhaustion, or the rotten skeletal head of the first and only barbarian king. But relief had not yet come to me, I had one final score to settle.