The first time I saw a Mistwalker, it was only a distant silhouette as it rode a fogrider, soaring far overhead. I had tumbled back inside my house as fast as my legs could carry me, right into my Father’s arms as my Mother closed the doors behind me.
“You can’t go outside when the Freezing Fog comes, Mallady. It will kill you if you stay out there too long,” my Father had said, admonishing and stern. I had only nodded in response, and I still remember how fast my heart had been pounding in my chest. Like I had just seen a demon. But I didn’t want to say anything about the Mistwalker, too scared that if I talked about it I’d see it again. My little three year old brother had been nearby, watching me worriedly, as if he knew I was hiding something. But I never told him either.
Back then, just eight years old, I thought I was the only one who had a secret to hide. But I learned as I started growing up that everyone had something that they didn’t want others to know about.
And maybe I had more than one.
Sunny days were the worst. They usually meant Fog was right around the corner.
I looked up at the sky, and saw the bright morning sun just a few inches over the distant, small mountains in the west. I frowned at the sight, and turned away from the offending sun, which was pretty pointless since it didn’t know how I felt about it anyway. Looking back at the front door of my house, my frown deepened even more.
“Lars! Could you quit messing around with that stick and help me carry these buckets already? We have to get to the spring before the Fog comes,” I said with a raised voice, and my brother blinked at me, lifting an eyebrow. He swung the stick around a few times.
“It’s not a stick! It’s going to be sword,” he said, and though he probably tried to sound indignant his smile ruined the words.
“Swords are made of metal,” I pointed out, and he shook his head at me, a quirk to his lips.
“Not wooden swords. That’s why they’re called wooden,” he explained witheringly. I huffed out a sigh and turned away, trudging down the street.
“Whatever. Stay behind then, we’ll see who gets frozen to death when the Fog arrives. Or maybe you’ll just have to clean up after dinner tonight by yourself because you were lazy,” I remarked, and heard some scurrying behind me. I looked back after a moment to see him picking up the two remaining buckets, his stick hastily shoved through his belt, and grinned a little to myself. Within moments he was catching up to me.
“Are you kidding, Mallady? I could run from our house, to the springs, and back again with filled buckets before the ice even started forming on my clothes,” he said with absolute confidence, and I sighed.
“Yeah, right. Knowing you, you’d trip and fall,” I said, and he glared at me.
“Would too,” I said back, and watched as he jogged a bit to keep up with me, studiously avoiding looking at me. He was only eleven and I was sixteen, so I was still taller than him, but I wondered how long that would last. Our Dad was super-tall himself.
Lars caught my stare and looked up at me, raising an eyebrow again. “What? Something on my face?” he said with a grin, and I shook my head.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff on your face. What, you didn’t know?” I asked, and he shoved an elbow into my side, making me stumble a little.
“Shut up, sis.” I giggled at his slightly embarrassed look.
As we walked quickly down the white stone streets, we passed a lot of our neighbors that lived in town Borderlines. We called out a ‘good morning’ to each of them, and received a wave in return, or a hollered message back to give to one of our parents.
That’s how it usually was in the town; all the adults only really talked to other adults. If they talked to one of us, it was usually just a greeting, or a “Hey, tell your Mom” or “Dad” something. Sometimes I wondered, with a bit of curiosity, if those adults just thought us ‘kids’ didn’t understand important things yet. But we were always listening, always learning. Even if we never joined in their conversations. Lars was a good example of that. He knew things that even I never thought an eleven year old boy would understand. It kind of made me proud.
As we reached Borderlines’s town square, or more like circle, we caught sight of all the crowds of people bustling to and fro hurriedly. Most of the shops were in this area, and there were hastily erected stalls outside their doorsteps, which was what everyone gathered around. Everyone was doing their shopping now while it was still early and clear out, before the Fog came.
In the center of the town circle was a fairly tall tower. On top of the tower was a giant, clear glass orb, and in the orb was a large coin. One side light, the other side dark; both sides had an odd marking on it. The coin was shifting to the dark side. As it flipped over, it would chime three times; the first time when the Fog was in sight of the tower, and the third chime happened when the Fog reached the tower. I wasn’t sure what made it chime so accurately, but I assumed it was something to do with the coin and Magic.
“Look. The coin’s already turning to the dark side. That means the Fog’s on its way,” I stated, and Lars and I both increased our pace, dodging the crowds and making our way down the main street.
I glanced to my left at the sun, and saw that Fog was rising on those distant hills. I thought of the Mistwalkers and the beasts they rode, and suppressed a shudder.
“Hey, Mallady! Slow down a little, will you?” Lars said irritably behind me, jogging to keep up, and I blinked as I looked back.
“We’re almost there now. I thought you said you could run there and back before the Fog came?” I retorted, my worry making me snappy, and he sighed, clearly giving me a glare. I ignored it and looked back up ahead, and saw that we were nearing the steaming spring.
The spring had been here before the town had even been built, from what Dad had told me, and it was because of this spring that we could withstand the Fog. It was encircled with the same white, polished stone as the streets, and had eight raised daises around its circumference, with water flowing out from each dais. I saw several other people around the spring, also filling up buckets and even pitchers of the spring water.
I looked at Lars as we crouched down next to a dais, shooing away some of the water spheres that floated in front of my view.
“When you’re done, make sure to get some of the—”
“—Spheres, I know. I’ve done this several times, sis,” Lars said with a small eye roll, and I closed my mouth. I always seemed to be reminding him of things; I guess it was because he was my little brother, and I felt I had to look out for him. I hoped he didn’t think I sounded too much like Mom. I frowned a bit at the thought as I began filling up the first bucket.
The spring water would be poured into the vault in our house; the vault would then distribute the spring water throughout the pipes that ran all through the house. Ideally, as long as the Fog didn’t last forever, the hot spring water would keep the Fog from clinging to the outside walls and freezing us while we had to stay inside.
For some reason, even using Magic couldn’t stop the Freezing Fog. We used Magic in many things throughout our lives, but when the Fog came, we couldn’t stop it. Or the Mistwalkers. Dad didn’t like the Mistwalkers; he even told me that he thought they might be the ones causing the Fog to come. I didn’t know about that, but I had to agree with him about not liking them. Well, I mean, I hadn’t ever met one, or seen one up close… but anything that could live in the Fog like that and not be harmed was a little frightening. They were so strange, so—unnatural. Lars didn’t seem to mind any mention of them, though; he was always laughing off dangers. For being so young, he sure could be brave; I had to give him that.
I began filling up my second bucket, and out of the corner of my eye saw that Lars had already filled both of his and was trying to catch a water sphere.
“Move slowly,” I advised, and he made a face at me, but nevertheless moved his hands more slowly. He caught one of the little translucent orbs and pushed it into one of his filled buckets. I soon joined him in catching a few spheres for my own buckets, trying to be calm and slow but unable to resist thinking of the Fog that was creeping in. When I had three spheres in each bucket and Lars, annoyingly, had five in each of his, we both took our buckets and headed back home. Most of those at the spring were gone now, and I starting worrying more and more; our house was on the outskirts of town, at the other end. We should have got the water faster than we did.
“Don’t look so worried, sis. Even when the Fog comes, it’s not like you freeze instantly. If that was the case everyone would be ice sculptures in this town,” Lars said, sounding completely unfazed as he looked at me. I nodded, trying not to look too jittery, rolling my shoulders in an attempt to relax. If it wasn’t for the buckets of water I was carrying, I’d run back to the house.
“I mean, just imagine. Ice sculptures. Everywhere. The cats, the dogs, Mrs. Baker, Mom and Dad, me, you…” At Lars words, I had a vivid mental image of everyone in the town frozen in place while they had been shopping, like the crowds earlier.
“Um, her name’s not Mrs. ‘Baker’, Lars. Just because she runs a bakery doesn’t mean she’s named after one,” I pointed out when I realized it. Lars ignored me.
“Wouldn’t it suck if you were frozen in place right when you were eating? Oh no, wait, it’d be even worse if you were using the bathroom,” Lars amended.
“Lars!” I burst out, and then started laughing, unable to help myself. He grinned at me, smiling that mischievous little smile of his that always came out when he was having fun.
We passed the town circle and I saw that the dark side of the coin was teetering for control. The light side was almost completely gone, and from the tower came a sudden, loud chime. The second one.
“Oh no. Come on Lars, walk faster,” I said in a smaller voice, my heart jumping in my chest and my skin tingling. I saw little tendrils of Fog starting to creep around the eaves of the house. Already the western forest was enveloped by the Fog; the buildings of town wouldn’t do much to slow it down. The last of the townsfolk in the streets were heading indoors, some of them calling out to us to hurry up. Despite his casual expression, even Lars now had an urgent air about him. I walked fast, as fast as I could get away with. We had to get back before the Fog came.
“Remember what I told you, Mallady. We’re not going to freeze,” Lars said to me, jolting me out of my whirling thoughts. I glanced at him to see him eyeing me worriedly. I just shook my head, feeling a tinge of amazement through my tight chest.
“You’re worried about how I’m reacting? You should be more worried about the Fog,” I said, a sudden, shaky laugh coming out of me. At my words Lars looked away and to the west, where the Fog was roiling in from. It looked harmless. But it was moving at an eerie, creeping pace, faster than we were walking, faster than I thought it would. I knew it would come over us in less than a minute.
Our house came into view. I was jogging now the best I could, not even caring when some of the water in the buckets spilled over the rim. As long as the spheres didn’t spill out, it would be fine. The warm light coming from the windows of our house was comforting, and already my fear was abating; twenty seconds and we’d be at the door. Mom and Dad were probably starting to worry, especially Mom.
I looked down at Lars.
Only he wasn’t beside me.
I stumbled to a halt and looked around me frantically, panic already shoving up through me, until I saw him standing ten feet back. He was staring into the western woods with an odd expression, the woods drenched with the Fog that was starting to spread out onto the streets.
“Lars! What—are you—doing?!” I shouted out at him, exasperated and still panicking.
He blinked and looked at me, and then we heard something.
A scream that hugged the ground, flying past us as fast as the wind, abrupt and instantaneous. Coming from the direction of the trees. But it wasn’t any sound that I thought could be made by a human, and it sounded like whatever had made it stood right in front of us.
Lars and I jumped, violently, and he fled from the sound and ran straight for me.
“The house. Get in the house,” he panted, his voice jumpy and nervous, and I didn’t need any urging from him. We ran to the house as fast as we could, losing who knows how much water, and just as I felt the sudden drop in temperature from the Fog touching our skin, we were in the house. I slammed the door shut behind me, and found out that both Lars and I were breathing hard, water drenching our arms and parts of our legs. That scream kept echoing in my head, and my nerves were scattering like lightning bolts.
“What the hell was that?” I whispered out, the curse slipping out of my mouth without warning. I didn’t care, I was too freaked out. Lars’s eyes were wide, but whether from what we just heard or from my words I couldn’t quite tell.
“I… I don’t know. It couldn’t have been a Mistwalker,” he said, and I gave him a disbelieving look.
“How would you know?” I said, and he didn’t respond, only shrugging helplessly.
We both heard the sound of footsteps, and looked up just in time as the sliding door opened nearby. Mom was standing there, and as soon as her violet eyes fell on us a look of relief came across her face.
“There you two are! Your father was just about to go out and look for the both of you. What took you so long?” she said, her relief rapidly giving way to a furious admonition.
“Sorry, the Fog came in faster than we thought it would,” I said suddenly, straightening. Mom raised an eyebrow, and her face slowly relaxed as she took in how tense Lars and I were.
“Sometimes it does. I’m glad you two are okay,” she said in a more gentle tone, and then a hand was on her shoulder. She looked over at Dad as he stepped into view, and it was silent for a moment. Mom was fairly tall, but he was almost a head taller than she. With his close-cropped hair, it always made him seem sterner.
“You two were gone for almost too long,” Dad stated, and I felt somewhat guilty. None of us could stop the Fog, but if Lars and I had ran to the spring in the first place, then maybe… Well, it might have still turned out the same way. Lars and I traded a look, and both of us made the silent decision to keep the scream we heard a secret.
Another secret I held.
“The Fog can freeze a human in mere minutes. And if that doesn’t get you, the Mistwalkers will, and their beasts,” Dad said, stepping down into the entryway of the house. I felt a cold shiver in me at the mention of the Mistwalkers, and watched as Dad took my two buckets and carried them over to the nearby vault.
“Lars, could you bring the other two?” Dad asked, bending down to open the vault, and Lars complied.
“Do you think the Mistwalkers would really kill someone?” Lars asked him, interested. I inwardly groaned at the question, and watched as Mom rolled her eyes at her son.
“I’m going back to finish the roast for dinner,” she said to me, and I nodded, a sudden grin perking up on my lips. Mom seemed about ready to smile too; we both knew how curious Lars was, no matter how many times he heard the same things. I watched her leave the doorway, and for the moment decided to stick around and listen to Lars and Dad talk while I sat down on the steps and untied my shoelaces.
“I mean, they could be just like us. What if they’re just as scared of us as we are of them?” Lars was saying.
There was an obvious frown in Dad’s voice when he spoke. “They are not the same. When someone’s stuck out in the Fog, you find their bodies frozen the next time the Fog clears. But sometimes you don’t find a body. Sometimes you never find anything. No animals are out when the Fog comes, except for the Mistwalker’s beasts. It’s said that those fogriders don’t do anything unless their masters order them to.”
“You mean you think the fogriders eat us if we stay out there in the Fog and don’t freeze first?” Lars asked curiously, and I gave him a look that went ignored.
“It’s possible. I don’t know why else no one can find the missing bodies,” Dad said, his deep voice sounding icy. I shivered at the thought of being stuck out in the Fog, only to be eaten alive instead of freeze to death. I didn’t know which one would be worse, but I was betting being eaten was.
“Why don’t we just ask them?”
Dad started pouring the second bucket now, carefully, into the vault. I hoped Lars’s continuous questions wouldn’t put him in a cold mood. Prolonged conversation about Mistwalkers and anything related was bound to do that to him.
“Because they’re not humans, and because they never come out to our towns and cities unless they’re covered in Fog. We don’t seek them out because they live in the Fog, and Magic can’t penetrate it. They have the advantage no matter what.”
“You mean you’ve thought of finding them before?” Lars asked, his eyes a bit wider. I set my shoes aside and watched the scene somewhat anxiously, waiting to see Dad’s back tense up as it always did when he was done talking about Mistwalkers.
“Several times. Especially after a good friend of mine, Joss, went missing.”
“Joss was Brandon’s father, right? The guy who used to run the forge years ago? When did he go missing?” I inwardly sighed at Lars’s bright and curious expression, but even I couldn’t help myself from staying where I was to listen. When Dad wanted to, he could be talkative and tell good stories; I really didn’t want to miss out, honestly.
“Yes, he was. He went missing thirteen years ago. Brandon lost his father when he needed him the most,” Dad said, then went quit for a moment. I would have been three at that time; I hadn’t ever remembered Dad talking about this subject. Lars and I were holding our breaths, waiting to see if he would continue or not.
“Joss was cutting wood near the edge of the forest when the tower gave out its first chime. Everyone was rushing around to finish what they were doing; many stopped in the middle of their activities to get inside. The thought of a few rusted tools or frozen food and livestock wasn’t much in the face of death. But Joss, stubborn man that he was, thought he might as well finish the tree he was on. After all, even when the Fog came, it still took a few minutes before it froze your blood.
“And he would be right, if that was all he had to worry about. His wife took Brandon inside; the boy had been helping Joss with the wood. She told Joss to hurry up. She didn’t want him staying outside when the Fog came, no matter what. He told her he’d be inside in just a minute; kept chopping the wood, looking like nothing was wrong. He was even whistling. She heard the sound of him whistling and cutting the wood until the Fog obscured her windows, and then she ran outside. Brandon heard the sound of the door opening and called out to her, and then he followed her out. If it wasn’t for Brandon, she might have been lost as well, but when he stepped outside to find her she dragged him back in. You see, it’s one thing to bet on your own life, but it’s entirely different when someone else can be harmed by doing so.”
I was watching Dad pour the last bucket into the vault, rapt with attention. Lars had been playing with one of the floating water spheres he’d fished out from a bucket, but now it just drifted, unwatched, around his head.
“…So? What happened to Joss?” Lars’s voice was slightly hushed.
“We never saw him again. After his wife took Brandon inside, she didn’t go back out again. Brandon kept insisting he’d go out with her if she went, and she didn’t want him hurt. That time, the Fog lasted for four days. No one could, or was willing to, go out into the Fog to search for Joss. Besides, what kind of search would it be? It would only last for a minute. They would find his body, frozen, next to the wood. But when the sun finally shone again and Joss’s wife stepped outside, there was no body. Joss was gone. Then we searched, but we never found him, not even going a few miles into the woods.
“The worst part was when Brandon found his wood splitting axe. The handle had been broken down the middle, barely connected, and the blade was almost entirely chipped off, like he had struck solid diamonds with it. That’s when I knew it wasn’t the Fog that had killed him. It was the Mistwalkers.”
Lars and I just stared at Dad’s back. I felt slightly nauseated at the images in my head, but Lars only looked somewhat confused.
Dad set the last bucket down, and sighing, he stood up. His arm accidentally nudged the water sphere floating in the air when he did so, and it careened into the wall behind Lars’s head, missing him by an inch. It exploded against the wall, and Lars and I jumped and gave shouts of surprise at the same time as we were all covered in steaming hot water.
“Lars! You idiot!” I cried out to him, wiping the water out of my eyes and looking down, indignant, at my now-soaked body. Lars wiped some water off his face, blinking a few times, and stared at me. Then he started laughing. My hand was itching to grab one of my shoes and fling it at him, but Dad turned and faced him instead with a dry look, which made Lars’s laughter turn to barely concealed chuckles.
“Lars, clean up the water. Don’t even think about stepping inside the main house until you’re done.”