A dire wolf raced out of the temple’s fourth circle, tongue lolled out to one side, panting, exhausted terror in his eyes, his thick fur matted with dried blood. His back legs were caked up to the stifles in red loamy mud; he’d kicked free in time to get bit in the muzzle by something venomous. He skidded to a stop where mud met ice, into the forelegs of the alpha, his eyes down, unsure whether to be more frightened of what he’d run from or what he’d run into. The ground rumbled, the ice cracking outward in long lines. The alpha’s hackles rose, ears twitching at the sound of his pack howling, whining and yipping in pain. He could name every one of those sounds: son, daughter, mate, packmate, friend.
After the first quake, the alpha had inspected the inner circles of the ancient temple, his nails tapping on the ice, his breath fogging in the frozen air. A foreign scent bothered at his nose. The tremors intensified, the scent grew stronger and the pack’s restless whines and tail-chasing had to be contained with barked orders. Within hours, the ice in the first circle melted into pools of water that the ground drank up with greedy thirst. The second and third circles, once ice and brick, became mud. The scent choked every inhale, and the constant shaking set the wolves to howling.
Then, the vines appeared.
They were like nothing the wolves had seen. They whipped out from the mud, piercing blind in all directions. They wrapped around the temple pillars, crumbling them to gravel. The pack tore them apart, but within minutes the thick stems grew anew. The well itself, once richly decorated with sculpture and carvings, became nothing but a dark hole in the ground leaking putrid air. The inner sanctums turned to rubble.
Eggs frozen for untold millennia bubbled up from the mud and broke open, spilling out long-toothed reptiles. The wolves went to battle, ears flat, snarling, leaping in fast and retreating in the way of the hunt until the blood of their prey dribbled out in thick clots that fed the carnivorous mud. But the creatures could not be contained – and the surviving reptile hatchlings grew larger than the wolves. Everything birthed in the fertile mud was bloodthirsty and more dangerous than anything the wolves had hunted before. The mud itself was an enemy, drinking the wolves into itself, forcing them farther and farther back from the well.
They might have fought back the horde if not for the insects. Clouds of bloodsucking mosquitoes and hives of venomous wasps burst upward. Crimson ants burrowed into the wolves’ fur and chomped into their belles. The pack snapped their teeth into the stinging swarms to no avail, bit into their own itchy hindquarters, limped on poisoned limbs.
The guarding of the Halcyon Well had been the alpha’s vocation since the temple had been built, from materials found nowhere near the frozen tundra, by a people whose lineage had died out before their story could be told. It was unthinkable to abandon it. Yet without a pack, an alpha commands nothing.
“Get the others out,” he snarled at the beaten-down wolf, who turned without protest and ran again into the doom. The alpha turned snout to the moon.
“Old friend,” he growled into the empty air, “I have need of you.”
Then, Fortress let loose a wild howl that carried for miles.