LIVING TOTEM, by Vaughn Heppner:
Kulik lifted his face into the blizzard, rose from his shivering crouch and kept staggering. Icy particles beat at him. Snow crunched under his moccasins. His toes throbbed, but that was good because it meant they hadn’t frozen.
He pulled his fur cape tighter. Hoary frost coated his eyebrows and his lips were horribly chapped. He wore a cap made from a dire wolf’s head and fled across the ice.
A manito with an evil totem had arisen among the People. The manito had said they must return north to the bog lands. Kulik’s grandfather—the old manito—had only lain in his cairn a month. Kulik would have challenged the new manito, but nine days ago hunters with protective medicine bundles had tracked him as he’d wandered in the high forests for a sign. The hunters would have dragged him back to the new manito so he could slash Kulik’s stomach and read the People’s future in his intestines. It had taken all Kulik’s guile and accumulated spirit power to reach the ice, the dreadful ice that none dared cross, the ice that blocked the People from the southern lands of plenty.
Kulik shivered. He heard the spirits in the wind. They were minions of the ice, the destroyer of life and the stealer of souls. The new manito had boasted of his strength, yet he lacked the courage to face the ancient enemy, to conquer it.
Kulik snarled. He was as lean as his dire wolf totem. The nine harrowing days—three of them trudging across the ice—had dangerously sapped his strength. His stomach knotted with hunger as he tottered through the winter horror-land.
Kulik stumbled then and fell hard onto his rawhide-wrapped hands. He panted with billowing white gusts of breath. Hail beat at his head. He squeezed his eyes closed and felt the icy particles in his lashes. Spirits howled, mocking him.
He frowned, moved his moccasin and moved the thing that had tripped him. With agonizing slowness, he shuffled around until his hands fumbled across…something.
His cold-fogged thoughts tried to understand. It was hard to see in the stormy gloom. Oh. It was an ancient pine branch about twice the length of an arrow. It was black, and it was the straightest wood he’d ever seen.
His eyes widened and his heart thudded. A double length arrow, a spirit arrow—Kulik wheezed pitifully. But a terrible gleam now shined in his clouded eyes.
He clutched the pine stick, jabbed one end against the ice. His aching muscles groaned with effort. His wheezing became horrible and then his chapped lips peeled back. It made cracks appear in his lips and sluggish, oozing blood froze in place. Kulik bared his teeth like a dire wolf until he swayed on his feet.
He was dizzy and his eyes shined crazily. He clutched the stick against his chest and staggered into the icy wind. His bloody lips writhed and he chanted his death song.
* * *
Kulik awoke in a strange valley of moss and humps of snow. He had no recollection of how he’d survived the blizzard. He unfolded from his crouch where he rested against a boulder, brushed off snow and discovered that he still clutched the pine stick.
He touched his nose and checked his toes. They were cold, but not frozen or black. Thirst racked him. So he ate fresh snow, let it melt in his mouth before he drank. The hunger in his shriveled belly—
He resolutely ignored it.
He had the makings of a name-arrow. The pine stick shivered with the power of his death song.
A crazed laugh bubbled out of him. He’d cheated the blizzard. Even more importantly, he’d defied the ice and likely stolen some of its killing strength. Now, hovering between life and death, he must cunningly fashion the arrow and imbibe it with even more magic.
The rest of that day, Kulik chanted to the spirits of the ice. He played a dangerous game. It was close to mockery. His hunger, his fantastic survival through the storm and the fact that some mighty spirit had granted him the pine stick filled him with the temerity.
That night he slept like one dead. Upon waking, he wondered if that was a sign. His grandfather could have read it. Kulik knew he was not yet manito enough.
He sat up and his chest tightened. After his grandfather’s death, he had simply hoped to be a shaman. Now he aimed to become a manito, to replace the coward who led the People.
The valley had moss, patches of snow and twisted, dwarfish trees unlike any he’d seen. All around him towered baleful glaciers. The ice mountains howled their anger this morning like little gods, a cold thing that ought to have made him shiver. Instead, Kulik began to search. He found sparrow nests in the wind-twisted trees and eggs in the nests. He chanted to the sparrows, asked their permission and then ate the eggs and trapped several of the fluttering birds. The ease of it showed him the increase in his power.
Fortified by the food, slight as it was, he worked hard. With his stubby flint knife, he notched the end of the stick. He used sparrow feathers to fletch it because small sparrows dare to attack ravens many times their size in defense of their nests. In three carefully cut slivers, Kulik fixed tufts of dire wolf fur for cunning.
It might have surprised Kulik once, but not now, when he discovered perfect flint pieces. With a shaping stone and the upper beak of an eagle, he chipped and ground an arrowhead. The eagle totem would grant the arrow swiftness in flight. Tomorrow he would bind the flint to the arrow. Then he would paint a blood portrait on a boulder and perhaps let the arrowhead sip the blood so it would become greedy for more.
Kulik bowed his head in awe at what he did. This arrow might become as deadly as Feast of a Mammoth. He had once held the legendary arrow as it quivered with rage.
“It thirsts to kill,” his grandfather had told him, the arrow’s maker. “Now chant the song of safety, lest a death spirit strike you tonight in your sleep.”
Kulik shuffled deeper into the valley. Thoughts of food began to consume him. He had three regular arrows and his bow. He began to hunt for hares and rats, although the spirits yet shrieked across the icy mountains.
It dawned on Kulik later that this was a sacred valley. The constantly howling winds, the lack of rabbits or rats, the strangely twisted trees and the mossy humps and folds of land, a dreadful fear seeped into him. He shuffled over a rise of ground and came upon a terrifying print in the snow. He knelt and his heart began to flutter like one of the sparrows he’d caught earlier.
The footprint was like a man’s but twice as big. The endpoints on the toes could have been claw marks. Kulik knew the legends of the Lurii. Some told of Lurii hunting men.
As Kulik stared at the footprint, a shadow filled it. Openmouthed, Kulik raised his head. He felt numb and was unable to move or croak a sound.
The beast was huge, likely ten feet tall when it stood upright. Its furry head resembled a man’s in a vague way, although the head was as wide as Kulik’s chest. It had a flattish snout, with flaring, leathery nostrils. The ears were triangular like a sabertooth’s ears. The eyes were black and sunken under a bony brow ridge. As it opened it’s mouth, the beast revealed wolfish fangs.
“Who are you?” the beast asked, using the spirit tongue.
Kulik was too dazed to reply, too terrified to draw his knife.
The beast’s fur was sable, sleek and black. It had long arms, one of which rested on the ground, on its knuckles. It had comparatively short legs, and it hunched forward, as if it used its dangling arms to help it walk or run on all fours like an animal. The beast must weigh as much as five men.
Kulik groaned. Sweat trickled down his back.
The Lur cocked its awful head.
That’s when Kulik noted other things. The Lur wore a leather belt. From it dangled a rabbit-skin pouch. A big leather sack lay at the Lur’s feet. In its monstrous hand was a dreadful stone axe.
“Why are you here?” the Lur asked. “I thought men feared the ice.”
Kulik tried to gather his wits. Listening to the Lur speak was like having a cave bear grunt words or a dire wolf growl with meaning. The thing was so huge.
—The Lur spoke the spirit tongue.
Kulik drew a painful breath, and struggled to speak. Then he jeered himself. Was he a simple hunter to faint at great magic? No. He’d trained his entire life to understand the spirit tongue, to know the meaning of visions and dreams.
“I…” Kulik closed his mouth, concentrated. “I seek powerful magic to fashion a name-arrow.”
The Lur sank onto its rump, almost seemed as if it collapsed to a seated position. The monstrous beast laid its axe on the ground as if it had become too heavy to hold. It stared at him with sickening intensity.
It dawned on Kulik that the Lur acted dazed.
Slowly, the Lur unhooked the rabbit-skin pouch, untied the sinews and poured tiny, painted bones onto the dirt.
“The bone runes spoke about you,” the Lur said. “They said I would find an ally here to join me in the ice.”
Kulik struggled to understand. It was almost too bizarre. The beast seemed to use the spirit tongue as ordinary language. That seemed profane, but maybe it was power unlike anything that even his grandfather had known.
Kulik asked, “The ice?”
With its huge hand, the Lur gathered the rune bones, dropped them reverently into the pouch.
Then the Lur exposed its hideous teeth in what might have been a grimace. “For ages, the ice has ruled. Before its coming, my race swarmed the mountains. We fought the giant beasts and others now long gone. Near here is an ancient place where my race made a stand against the ice. Our last king gathered those mighty in spells and incantations. They unleashed lava, the spirits of steam and earthquakes against the advancing ice. Mountains perished and the ice retreated. It was a great victory, although the king died. They built his cairn there and left on his right arm the ancient charm of royalty.”
The Lur bowed its shaggy head and then looked up with anger.
“The ice knew of his passing. It soon advanced and drove the Lurii south, ever south, scattering us. The ice entombed his cairn. Then the ice grinded over our victory steles and snapped the olden totem poles of legend and thereby shattered the link between my race and our mountains.
“I have searched for the cairn over a hundred moons. I have mastered forgotten spells and have unearthed these olden bones and learned to unravel their mysteries. I have journeyed far and pitted my strength against the ice and its cunning. I mean to find the cairn and gaze again upon our ancient king. But to win through, the bones said I need an ally, one I would find here in the Valley of Spirits.”
The Lur cocked its head. “Yet you are smaller than a child and resemble the Skunk People, who are enemies of the Lurii.”
“The Skunk People?” Kulik asked.
“They live in caves and holes in the ground. Their shoulders are thick and they have squat necks and a bony ridge over their eyes. Likely you are weaker than a Skunk Man and fear great danger.”
“In great danger lies great magic,” Kulik said hoarsely.
The Lur laid its triangular ears flat against its head. “The Skunk People are clever, makers of traps and users of smooth words. I know little of men, other than that they breed like lemmings. How do I know you will not awake in the night and slink off with my axe or my bag of bones?”
Kulik could have asked how he knew the Lur wouldn’t slay him in his sleep, but the answer was obvious. The gigantic Lur could slay him any time it pleased.
Then Kulik had an idea, one that might magically strengthen his arrow enough to defeat the new manito.
“There is a rite among the People and among other nations of men,” Kulik said. “Two warriors of enemy tribes mingle their blood, call upon the Great Spirit to witness their oaths and thereby become blood brothers. It is a hideous crime for brothers to harm each other or steal their totems.”
“Tell me more,” the Lur said.
Soon, the Lur raised its stone axe and cut its hand. Kulik cut his palm with his knife. They clasped hands—the Lur’s dwarfed Kulik’s cold fingers. They mingled blood and swore frightful oaths.
Before they left, Kulik knelt and pretended to retie his moccasins. In reality, he palmed his newly chipped arrowhead and dipped it in a drop of the Lur’s blood. Kulik chanted softly so the arrowhead would not simply lap the blood and grow greedy for more. He had sworn the oaths and dared not risk his soul. He let the arrowhead feed on the Lur’s strength and ferocity. He let the arrowhead grow strong with the power of a living totem.
* * *
Kulik regained his strength the next several days as the Lur continually startled him. It could hear a rat burrowing in the snow or sniff out a hare where it stood frozen. When the hare bounded out of the snow as they closed in, the Lur hurled a wooden dart before Kulik could draw his bowstring. The beast’s accuracy was uncanny.
In three days, they crossed the ice four times, searching each valley for the last king’s cairn. Fortunately, each time they crossed the ice the wind blew gently and the sun shined. The Lur slew a caribou in the last valley and they feasted that night before a roaring fire. Instead of twisted dwarf trees, pines grew here in abundance.
Before the fire died, the Lur rattled its spirit bones in its huge cupped hands and threw them onto a circle in the dirt. The beast crouched over the bones like a dire wolf over a lemming’s hole. Soon, while its hands shook, the Lur gathered the bones and dropped them into the pouch.
Kulik lay on his side, with his stomach comfortably bloated with meat. He sat up, however, and rubbed sleep out of his eyes as the Lur picked up its axe.
The axe-head was fashioned out of a red stone unfamiliar to Kulik. A normal axe had a thin, triangular-shaped piece of flint set in a split of wood and tightly tied by leather thongs. The Lur’s axe was different. The red stone was smooth, without the chip marks of a normal axe. It was heavy and oblong, with a hole drilled through the middle of the stone. The axe’s maker had thrust a stick through the hole and wedged it tight through cunning artifice. It still had leather thongs wrapped around it, however. One end had been ground to a sharp edge, but that part was also uncannily smooth. Someone had chiseled tiny symbols upon the axe-head and painted them white. The huge axe was dotted with them.
“This is Blood of the Earth,” the Lur chanted. “My father gave it to me. His father gave it to him. It was fashioned before the great battle against the ice, thousands upon thousands of moons ago. After each heroic victory, the bearer chiseled his soul’s mark upon the axe. In this way, the axe grew more powerful through the generations. Tomorrow, I will brandish it in the ice. And because of its strength, we shall march to the cairn of the last king of the Lurii.”
“The bones spoke of this?” Kulik asked.
The Lur’s ears lay flat against its head and it snarled like a sabertooth.
Fear coursed through Kulik. He lay down as his grandfather had said a man should do before an enraged bear. In this way, hunters who acted dead sometimes survived as the bear sniffed their pretend corpse and then waddled away.
After Kulik heard the thud of the axe upon the ground, and the Lur as it stretched out, he peeked around. Kulik waited until the fire become red glowing embers. Then, stealthily, he arose and silently sang the weasel song. He crept to Blood of the Earth. With a pounding heart, Kulik crouched before the legendary axe. His thirsty eyes drank in the many marks. Then, just as stealthily, he retreated to the other side of the embers. He sat cross-legged and took out his double-length arrow. Kulik pricked his finger, and with all the delicate art of a manito, he painted two of the Lur marks on the arrow.
Later, he bundled the arrow and lay down. Tomorrow awaited his destiny. He knew, because the bones had spoken.
* * *
A glacier loomed nearby. It throbbed with a malignant will. Snow drifted from its peak, and high above an eagle soared. Its piercing cry sent a shiver down Kulik’s spine.
“Death,” the Lur said.
Kulik nodded. He’d read the cry similarly.
They continued to trek between pines and crunch through the snow. The Lur halted, crouched and pointed at a track.
Kulik’s stomach knotted. “Cave bear,” he whispered.
The Lur gave an ugly laugh. “It is a beast of the ice. Look at the size of the tracks.”
The clawed snow-prints made the Lur’s tracks seem small. Kulik understood that this bear was a monster, likely near the size of a great sloth.
The Lur lifted Blood of the Earth and looked down at Kulik. “Should we flee?”
Kulik closed his eyes. He had given the arrow all he could, but the eagle’s predictive cry, the size of these paw-prints… Kulik recalled the awful days when the hunters of the new manito had tracked him like a rabid beast.
“We are blood brothers,” Kulik said. “I want to see the cairn of he who is also my last king.”
The Lur gazed down at him for several heartbeats.
Kulik had the terrible sense that he’d insulted the beast. No, the Lur was no beast. It was a man after a fashion.
The Lur grunted, and the trek resumed.
Later, the Lur held up a massive hand. “That way,” he whispered.
Kulik hurried after the Lur. A shift of wind brought a musky odor of bear. The hairs on the back of Kulik’s neck lifted in terror. He thought to hear the crunch of snow on the other side of the drift they raced past. He doggedly followed the Lur, who lengthened his stride and left Kulik struggling farther and farther behind.
Kulik caught up to the couched Lur hidden amongst a clump of pines. They waited and caught a glimpse of the monster. It was beyond Kulik’s understanding. The bear was indeed the size of a great sloth. The white bear rose to its hind feet to become a towering monstrosity, several feet taller than the Lur. The beast sniffed the air. The bear had paws bigger than a man’s chest and had to weigh more than ten grown men. The gigantic beast surely belonged to the ice. If it caught their scent and charged, they would die.
Despite the distance, Kulik heard the bear grunt as it dropped back onto all fours. The deep sound put goosebumps on his arms. Kulik held his breath, but the awful beast ambled away into the forest.
The Lur glanced at Kulik. They arose and circled the area. In time, without further incident or more sightings of the beast, they reached the base of the dread glacier.
“There,” the Lur whispered. “Last night, the king’s spirit spoke to me in my dream. That is the entrance.”
Kulik shaded his eyes against the sun. There was a fissure, a vertical crack in the ice. The crack began fifty feet up on a ledge. The crack or fissure jagged for thirty feet more. Vapors drifted out of the fissure, as if the glacier slumbered and only trickled a tiny portion of its evil.
The Lur began to climb.
Kulik struggled after him. The holds were slippery and the way steep. Then a massive hand gripped his highest wrist. The Lur lifted Kulik the last twelve feet as if he were a child.
When Kulik’s feet rested on the ledge, his heart began to thud. Eerie groans emanated from the fissure, together with a slow and terrible creak, as if the glacier grinded its teeth in rage.
“It’s haunted,” Kulik whispered.
“With the spirits of my ancestors and the evil of the ice,” the Lur said.
Kulik thought about the terrible bear. He chewed his lip. It was so dark inside the fissure. “We need a torch,” he said.
The Lur reached into his leather sack and withdrew a tightly tied bundle of dried reeds. He knelt and struck flint and tinder, and soon the torch crackled with fire. Then, with the torch in one hand and Blood of the Earth in the other, the Lur entered the fissure. Kulik followed with his knife in his fist. He marveled at the warmth that blew out of the fissure. The Lur must have noticed it, too, for he glanced down at Kulik.
Within the fissure, the ice glowed with a blue radiance. Kulik touched a side. It was cold, but it was also beautiful and pure.
The glacier groaned, and vapor drifted in the air.
“Look at how your torch flickers,” Kulik said. “There must be other openings.”
The Lur tightened his grip of the torch. “Likely, the bear lives somewhere near. Take out your arrow.”
Kulik sheathed his knife, strung his bow and congratulated himself with having coated the string with goose fat. It was damp in the fissure, and if that dampness seeped into the string, it would weaken it. He notched his double-length arrow, and he breathed deeply, and noticed the warmth once more. He hoped the bear lived far from here.
“Follow me,” the Lur said.
Instead of shrinking, the fissure grew until the Lur’s torch no longer lit the upper reaches. They took several twists and turns, and glanced at each other in the eerie blueness of the torchlight. Each grinned, Kulik crookedly and the Lur with hideous savagery.
Soon they came to a fork.
The Lur sniffed the leftward passage and the rightward one. He thrust the torch to the left. “There is an animal stench, and the air is warmer. This way also leads down. The other goes up and is cold.”
They descended until the dwindling torch singed the Lur’s fur. The Lur took out a second torch and lit it from the first. By the time the second torch had burned halfway, they reached frozen ground deep inside the glacier.
Icy stalactites hung like fangs and the passage grew ever wider. Water dripped from some of the giant icicles and soaked into the ground.
Kulik knelt and touched the ground. “It’s thawed out,” he whispered.
The stench of bear grew, but the Lur’s stride lengthened and the air grew warmer still. They turned into a new passage and halted in wonder. Steam hissed from a vent in the ground.
“The legends are true,” the Lur whispered. “Not even the ice could kill all our great magic.”
“Over there,” Kulik said, and then he could no longer speak.
Like one in a dream, the Lur shuffled to the sight. Kulik stumbled after him.
There embedded in the ice lay the ancient king of the Lurii. The frozen king lay on stones, stones chiseled with many of the soul marks on Blood of the Earth. On the corpse’s upper arm was a reddish band that gleamed in the torchlight. By squinting, Kulik noticed marks on the band.
The Lur gave the torch to Kulik and then put his hand on the ice. “I carry your axe by right of blood, O king—” The Lur’s voice cracked at the end.
Kulik glanced at him sidelong.
The Lur soundlessly moved his mouth. When he spoke again, it was with a tremor. “Our race perishes, great one. We dwindle because the ice broke our steles and snapped our totem poles. It severed us from our mountains. We have valiantly struggled on, O king. But lately the wombs of our women have grown barren. The Skunk People with their beetling brows ambush our last warriors. We need the charm of royalty. We need a new king to gather us, infuse our hunters with pride and raise new victory steles. I am of your blood, great one, descended through the generations. I have sworn to find you and return with the charm. Honor us, great one. Defeat the ice once more and keep its minions at bay while I free the great charm.”
With slow and steady strokes, the Lur began to hack into the ice with his axe.
Kulik watched with growing fear as ice shards flew. The Lur seemed demented, unmindful of the angry grunts that came out of the depths of the darkness. There were shuffling sounds and the occasional click of claws against stone. Then Kulik felt the bear’s presence. The thought that it was here in the ice with them—
With trembling hands, Kulik hacked ice with his knife and wedged the torch into that. Sweat beaded his face and slicked his underarms.
The Lur cried out triumphantly.
Kulik glanced over his shoulder. The Lur touched the dead king’s reddish charm.
“We will rise again!” the Lur shouted. He hacked at the ice with renewed force and soon exposed more of the legendary king of the Lurii.
Then a dreadful roar refocused their attention. Horrible eyes appeared out of the darkness. The eyes were much too high off the ground. Then a vast head took shape and the monstrous, shuffling body of the gigantic white bear.
The bear of the ice exposed teeth the length of stakes. It roared. The sound shook Kulik’s ribs and the sight robbed him of motion. The monstrous creature the size of a great sloth had a rank odor and meaty breath. Here in the ice, in this huge cavern with stalactites higher than even the Lur could reach, the bear reared up onto its hind feet. It was a nightmarish sight. Kulik felt like a mouse before a lynx.
The Lur shook his stone axe.
“Slink back into the darkness, beast! I defy the ice that compels you! I am of the Lurii. I am home. We will not let anyone drive us from our lands again!”
The bear roared, then sank onto its front paws, and charged. The deafening bellow caused a giant icicle to crack. It plunged like a spear and shattered against the ground. Pieces went flying. The Lur stepped on one and slipped, and that saved his life. The bear’s paw passed over him. The fantastic beast lumbered past.
One tiny shard struck Kulik on the cheek. It woke him from his stupor. Hot blood welled up, making him blink in surprise.
The white bear whirled around with brutal speed—a magical act for such a monstrous beast—but the Lur leapt to his feet and met the attack with a roar. He swung Blood of the Earth and the blade shattered the giant bear’s shoulder bone with a terrible crack. The monster rolled and struck. The blow hurled the Lur against ice with such violent force; he slid to the ground in a seemingly boneless heap.
Kulik gave a loud cry of anguish.
The bear rose up onto its hind legs and shook its head. It bellowed rage. The left front leg dangled uselessly and crimson blood stained its white fur.
With tears in his eyes—even as he marveled at the blow and the powerful magic of Blood of the Earth—Kulik ran at the bear. He yanked the bowstring farther than he ever had. He aimed at the chest. The bow twanged. The double-length arrow hissed and sank into the furry expanse. It cunningly slid past protective ribs, and with baleful spirit power, it punctured the mighty heart.
The nightmarish bear coughed explosively.
Kulik stood before it as the bow slipped from his hands. Beast and man regarded one another. The giant bear took a step toward Kulik. It was so startling manlike that Kulik felt compelled to speak. He tried to form words. Then, as if in a dream, the great bear toppled sideways.
His hands shook as Kulik crouched beside the wheezing Lur. He lay on his back. Ribs protruded from the ruined chest and blood matted the black fur.
Kulik stumbled to the king’s cairn and pried off the charm of royalty. It was heavy in his hands. The magic it contained—
As the Lur lay dying, Kulik knelt and worked the band up the long arm. Then he pressed the handle of Blood of the Earth into the Lur’s hand.
The Lur watched Kulik with glazed eyes. He worked his bloody fanged maw. “I would have reunited my race, raised new victory steles. There would have been a new king, a new era. Now….” Bloody froth bubbled. “Take the land, O man. Defeat the Skunk People. Destroy the ice.”
Kulik laid a hand on the Lur’s shoulder. There were tears in his eyes and he spoke hoarsely. “I will lead my People across the ice. We will battle the Skunk People wherever we find them. This I vow, blood brother. Your courage—” Kulik could say no more.
The Lur turned his head toward the king in the cairn. The dead bear lay in the way. Its blood had already begun to freeze. The Lur struggled to raise his axe. Then he rattled his last breath.
* * *
Later, a weary Kulik emerged from the glacier. He bore mighty bear claws in a pouch. And in his quiver, he carried a double-length arrow. Its name was Blood of the Lurii.
Vaughn Heppner livins in Turlock, in Central California. He teaches high school and has published in Writers of the Future and Sword and Sorceress and has several upcoming stories to appear in Black Gate Magazine. His favorite movies are Matrix, Spartacus, and the original Terminator.