The following is an excerpt of Glacial Pace, a fantasy m/m novella appearing in Fated & Claimed 2 in early December 2023.
The Night Climb
Blueberry Hill was, in fact, a misnomer for this place, Tobias thought as he craned his neck upward, following the dark, craggy line of the mountain. He couldn’t see the peak, disappearing as it did into the gathering clouds. The air was sharp, snapping, the threat of snow hanging heavy.
Still. Tobias inhaled deeply and squared his shoulders. He knew what he had to do.
Bowing his head against the driving wind, he began to climb. The aura of the mountain was foreboding, its shadow seeming to frown on him as he ascended. The wind picked up speed, howling by him, whipping snow around.
He heard the threat loud and clear, but he ignored it. He wasn’t really in a position where he could take heed, turn tail, and flee the mountain.
After all, he’d sworn an oath that he’d carry out this task. It was the only way to escape his fate.
The mountain might have been threatening—and what lurked at its summit worse—but Tobias climbed as though the hordes of hell drove him.
In fact, they did. Perhaps they weren’t with him in the moment, but he knew all too well what jaws awaited him if he failed in this.
Onward, upward, he climbed, his feet numb in the snow. He suspected the climb might have been easier in his fox form; two-legged beasts such as humans weren’t truly suited to this sort of thing. But the snow drifts were high, and he didn’t know that his short fox legs would be of much use in them.
Certainly, his fur would have been warmer than even the heavy woolen cloak he wore. The wind tore at it with icy fingers, as though it wished to peel back his hood and see his face.
When he refused, the wind snarled at him, buffeting him about, as though it meant to drive him to some precipice and toss him over.
It abated when he entered a clump of sparse pines, moaning through their branches. Tobias tried to ignore it.
The snow started then. It drifted on the wind at first, swirling about like tiny dancers. Then it began to fall, faster and faster, in huge clumps, as though every star had decided to descend from heaven at the same time.
When he emerged from the pines, he could scarcely see his hand in front of his face, the snow was that thick. He couldn’t see the top of the mountain; he had no idea how near or far he was from the summit.
Gritting his teeth and raising an arm to shield his eyes from the driving snow, he plowed onward, feet slipping under him.
The weak light of day, already shrouded by the gloom of the storm, slipped away into the shadows of the night.
Tobias had hoped that he might reach the peak before nightfall. But the snow made things slow-going, and the storm made it worse. He’d been climbing for hours, but that bastard at the top wasn’t going to make things easy for him, now was he?
Of course not. He’d never made anything easy.
Smirking made Tobias aware of how frozen his face was, how painfully raw his skin was. He needed to find shelter—and soon.
His foot slipped from under him, and he went down, hard. He scrabbled in the snow, climbing back to his feet, swaying in the gale. His feet slid with every step now, the snow slick beneath him. He was soaked underneath the layer of fluff collecting on him, and he began to shiver.
The wind tore by him again, and this time he saw the hands, their icy claws grabbing at his clothing, pulling him backward, even as he tried to fight them.
He stepped back again but only his toes made contact with the ground. He risked a glance over his shoulder, staring into a yawning chasm, like the very maw of hell opening up beneath him.
The wind smacked into him again, and snow crumbled over the edge of the precipice, followed by a couple of pebbles, the mountain disintegrating under his feet.
Like hell he was going to die like this.
He flung his arms wide, forcing his own magic through his fingertips, a pulse that drove the wind’s grasping hands back. The claws withered, turning to snow devils, tumbling softly to the ground as Tobias heaved a breath.
Then he began to climb again. He didn’t know how long that would keep the wind at bay. He trekked steadily inward from the ledge, hoping he was threading his way up as well.
He wended his way through another clump of pines. The incline became steeper, until, at points, he thought he might have been climbing straight to the heavens. His calves ached; his chest heaved, and every breath rattled his frozen bones. He might have warmed himself with his magic, but he couldn’t spare the energy.
Strangely, the wind stayed at bay. He could feel it whirling around him, almost like it was curious or afraid. Occasionally, it reached out, brushing against him, but it was subdued, as though he’d tamed it.
Even if the wind had abated, he knew that wasn’t going to be the end of it. He could hardly guess what awaited him at the top.
At last, when he thought, he would simply have to fall down in the snow and die where he lay, he emerged onto a wide plateau, dark rock showing through the snow. Rising up in the midst of the craggy peaks was a dark castle, just as spiny and jagged as its surroundings. It glowered down at him, and he cowered.
The place was brimming with ominous magic, and every cell in his body screamed at him to turn back, to simply slide down the mountain and make his escape.
Swallowing fear, he pressed on.
The wind roared to life, screaming by him, swirling around him with fury seldom seen outside of hell. Snow whipped around, creating a whirlwind that blotted out everything—the castle, the crags.
The wind howled now with voices, and he cringed, then clapped his hands over his ears. He shut his eyes, wincing as their shrieks seemed to pierce through his very skull, making his head throb.
Eyes screwed shut, head bowed, he took a step forward, pushing against the wind.
Then another. And another. Until he felt light caressing his face, and he opened his eyes.
The wind swirled and danced around him, but it lacked malevolence now. Slowly, he straightened up, his steps becoming more confident, even as his heart raced faster.
He placed a hand on the smooth wood of the door, admiring the ornate carvings. He winced as magic stabbed through his palm.
He reeled back, peering at the door. Warded, of course. He should have expected that. He peered at the rusty knocker, then leaned down to inspect the lock.
The wards were strong, yes, but they were unsophisticated—a rough-and-tumble sort of magic it didn’t take much for Tobias to unwind. He unraveled it, then pushed on the door, listening to it groan as it slowly swung open, revealing the cavernous great hall.
And with that, he stepped over the threshold. His footsteps against the ancient stones echoed. He snapped his fingers, and the door slammed shut again.
With a sigh, he turned his head, looking at the various corridors. Right, he decided at length. He left the hall with quick, light steps, the only sign of his having been there the snow that slowly melted into the cobblestones, leaving puddles behind.