It had been four long, peaceful years since Kemper Shadowfang had last visited the Valley of the Mists. Indeed, the wolf-lion hybrid had enjoyed those years with friends and family and wished to put the ominous place behind him, but even then he had known that his work here was not completed. He rubbed a paw through his short, dark-grey mane as he stood at the top of Mount Drennon, a shadow in the cold, clear night, his fur midnight blue and adorned with dark grey rosettes, his bright, heterochromatic eyes his only revealing feature.
The Caligo lived in this valley. It was a fearful creature, a cross between a dragon and a werebeast, with bright blue scales that shone in the eerie darkness of the valley itself with its dead woods and steaming geysers, and a mane like white fire flowing down its back. Cruel fangs adorned its vicious face, and its eyes, despite shining bright blue and cloudy, beheld the most detailed of its surroundings. It was a terror to behold, massive in size and cruel in action. It killed indiscriminately; innocent travelers, enemies, and even its own servants were not safe from its wrath. Worst of all, it could not be hit. Weapons would phase through it, as if the Caligo were made of mist itself.
For over a year, the Caligo had frequented Celeduin, the city where Kemper lived, and terrorized its inhabitants. It took livestock and destroyed homes. The king of the region of Duremark, which governed over Celeduin, sent his best forces to combat the beast, but it drove them back and continued its rampage until the residents of Celeduin had no choice but to crowd into Duremark’s fortresses for safety.
It had been the illusionist and shadowpath Kemper Shadowfang and his longtime acquaintance, a lupine cryopath and hydropath named Ice, that had been the solution to Celeduin’s problem. Kemper’s ability to move through shadow and seemingly alter reality had rendered the Caligo’s brutal attacks almost useless, and Ice had frozen the beast inside its own lair.
Unfortunately, as powerful as Ice was, his strength alone would not seal the beast forever. They would have to return to the treacherous valley now and then to refreeze the Caligo and ensure that it would not break free from its prison to once again harm Celeduin or others within Duremark’s boundaries.
Kemper had had to say goodbye to his friends and family and embark on a week-long journey to the Valley of the Mists.
“I wish I could go with you,” his friend Lukos had sighed.
“I know,” Kemper had replied to the lion. “And you will next time, if your power gets stronger. I don’t think shooting a few white sparks from your paws would impress the Caligo.”
“Hey,” came a soft voice, snapping Kemper out of his memories. Ice stood right next to him, his piercing gaze aimed straight ahead into the darkness.
“Oh,” said Kemper, wondering how the blue-and-white wolf had snuck up on him. “There you are. You ready?”
“Not really,” said Ice, his blue-padded paws in his white trench coat. “We beat the Caligo nicely last time, but I would rather not spend too much time in this Valley. I know I haven’t seen you in awhile, but let’s get this done quickly so we can get out of here.” With that, he walked westward into the gloom, leaving Kemper to chuckle softly.
“You never change, Ice,” he said as he followed the wolf forward into the darkness of the Valley.
Kemper’s eyes seemed to shine as light itself bent around the two of them, rendering them invisible to anyone outside his will. The creatures of the Valley were about as friendly as the Caligo itself, and its worshipers powerful and dangerous, and the place seemed as if it were alive to breathe its aura of evil. Stealth was a blessing.
“Have you been up to anything interesting over these past four years?” asked Kemper as they traveled through the light covering of snow that had fallen into the Valley, melted and thinned around its boiling geysers and hot springs, adding to the eerie mist that surrounded them and worsened their visibility.
Ice was not up for chit-chat. Kemper knew well that he rarely was, but he also knew Ice well enough to understand that he wouldn’t ignore a friend. The Valley had a way of setting the stoutest of good hearts on edge, and even with his stoic exterior, he knew that Ice would be grateful for the conversation.
“Had a few new recruits to the team,” he said, referring to the band of powered friends that he associated himself with. He held out his paws and flash-froze a fallen tree. Another wave of his paw caused the trunk to shatter and their path to open. “Still wish you would join.”
“We’ll see,” said Kemper, his mind wandering over his friends back at home. “Lukos’ power has started to come in. I’m not sure what it is yet. It could be light-based or ice-based. Either way, I can’t leave him and Willow right now. Who will protect them?”
Ice sighed softly. This felt like something they should talk about another time. His sharp eyes had not been looking at Kemper, but alertly in front of him, detecting the slightest of movements, his ears scanning for the softest of sounds. Still, he felt he should say something, even though he had said it before. He stopped and turned around, relying just awhile on Kemper’s stealth alone for their protection.
“Look,” he said, his ice-blue eyes piercing Kemper’s red and green ones. “I’m a loner. I don’t know what it’s like to have people to care for, or to have people care for me. I get it. You do.”
Kemper perked his rounded lion ears, his eyes, shining as they were with his power, fixated on Ice. The wolf was rarely straightforward, rarely met anyone’s gaze. When he did, it was important and probably wouldn’t be repeated.
“I joined the supers because I wanted to stop people from going through what I went through,” he said. “I wanted to protect people I didn’t know from that kind of… that….”
Kemper nodded understandingly. His heart was pounding. Ice never talked about his past with anyone. In fact, he rarely talked openly with anyone at all. Only Ice himself and the psychomancer Zevie knew what he had gone through, and Zevie had nearly lost his life for it. Ice must really have regarded Kemper as something special.
“You have something that few do,” continued the cryopath, “and it’s something that people in Duremark and everywhere else wish every day would come to them. It’s something unique even among other ‘supers.’ You can still protect Lukos and Willow. We’re in a time of peace, and what would protect them more than working to keep it that way?”
Kemper sighed a bit. Ice was not telling him anything he hadn’t heard already. Ice didn’t understand. He had said it himself; Ice had been alone. Kemper had people to look out for and worry about, people that needed him.
He got so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the low rumble in the ground until Ice looked toward the west, his paws at his sides and steaming with icy condensation, his eyes focused and his ears laid back.
“Something’s wrong,” Ice said softly, tensely. “Move.”
The two set off at what became breakneck pace, as quietly as they could manage without affecting their speed. That rumble didn’t feel like that of one of the Valley’s many geysers. It was something else, something much bigger—and it had come from the direction of the cave in which the Caligo had been sealed.
Running was proving to be noisier than Kemper had hoped. Twigs snapped as their paws pounded the earth, and the dead and mangled branches and roots of trees reached hazardously in front of them. The shadowpath had a better idea.
Without a word, he wrapped his arms around Ice’s torso, and the two of them suddenly plummeted into the shadows of the emaciated trees around them, disappearing into the ground. A familiar feeling of falling washed over Kemper before they landed a few hundred yards forward, closer to the cave, in the shadow of a cliff. Not close enough. Again they dove, falling through shadow. This time, as they landed, Ice suddenly reacted.
The wolf wheeled around, his elbow connecting firmly with Kemper’s gut, sending the hybrid sprawling onto the cold, damp ground. When Kemper opened his eyes, gasping for breath, Ice was standing there, his ears back, a low growl emanating from his chest, his paw raised and back above his head, a spike of ice protruding from it and ready to plunge straight at a very surprised Kemper. Reacting in defense, Kemper held out his paws, and the shadows around them disappeared from their sources and rushed to his paws, shimmering with a light as dark as his velvety fur.
“Ice, stop!” he gasped. “I was only… transporting us!”
Once the wolf’s eyes finally recognized Kemper, he allowed them to glance at his surroundings. Kemper was right. They were only another hundred yards from the cave. He panted softly as the tension left him, the ice melted from his paw, and his ears returned to their former position.
“You know better than to sneak up on people like that,” he growled. “That’s new. I had no clue if it was you or one of the Caligo’s—”
Suddenly, a growl far more ominous than Ice’s came from the cave. The trees around them shook, and the depth of the sound caused their chests to rumble.
“It’s… it’s awake,” said Kemper, his voice trembling. “How? It was… I mean, you sealed it!”
“This isn’t right,” said Ice, staring thoughtfully into the darkness of the cave’s yawning mouth. He looked at Kemper, outstretching a paw and pulling the hybrid upright. “Get us inside.”
Somewhat warily this time, Kemper grabbed Ice’s arm. With hardly a sound, they plummeted into the shadowy ground, reappearing inside the dark cave, not far from where they had stood four years ago as they sealed the Caligo. Kemper held out his paws, and light collected between them in a silvery glow, illuminating their surroundings. The cave was just as they remembered it: dark, damp, musty, rank with the smell of death.
The only major difference was the water. The ground was covered in it. The sound that shook them earlier repeated, and this time from so close that it threatened to shake them off their footpaws.
Ice growled. “It’s still cold… someone’s melting the ice….”
“Let’s go!” said Kemper. He lunged forward, evaporating into the cave’s shadows and reappearing inside the massive, domed room where the Caligo had been sealed, flash-frozen into suspended animation. Yet there it stood in front of them, as terrible as ever, its head tossing as it fought to free itself from the remaining ice around its taloned feet.
Before Kemper could react, however, four bright spikes of ice went zipping by him. With deadly accuracy, they zipped underneath the Caligo’s body, and there was a thud and a high-pitched cry as they lodged themselves into the opposite wall, pinning a creature to its rocky surface. Ice immediately went to work repairing the ice, leaving Kemper to spring into action.
He appeared in a wave of shadow in front of the unfortunate creature, who squealed in terror.
“Yaack! A phantom! Leave me be, specter! You have no business with me!”
Kemper could see the creature clearly. Its skin was a dull grey, its eyes large and amber, its body devoid of hair. It had a goblin-like appearance. As stupid and innocent as these creatures could appear, their power in numbers was terrible. Worse, they were known worshippers of the Caligo. This one did not appear to be a major threat. It looked weary and emaciated.
Kemper’s eyes shone as his bare paw closed around the goblin’s neck. “What have you done?!” he demanded.
The creature’s eyes widened in recognition. “Ohh!” it said almost mockingly. “I know who you are!” It smiled, its voice becoming a whisper of mock awe. “Yes… you’re the Shadowfang... sealed Master away, yes? Thought you defeated Master?”
Kemper squeezed his paw threateningly around the creature’s neck, but this only seemed to amplify its mirth. “GAHAHAHA!” it cackled loudly, its shrill voice echoing around the cave. “You will never defeat Master Caligo! Grutang’s power erases your filthy magic, yes! All gone! Geeheeheehee, Master Caligo is aliiiive!”
“Kemper!” This voice belonged to Ice. Never had Kemper heard the soft-spoken wolf sound so strained, so urgent. “I’m... this isn’t working!”
Ice was in trouble. The Caligo was almost completely free of its icy prison, with only its dangerous feet and the tips of its huge wings still encased. Earsplitting shrieks ripped from the beast’s throat as it snarled down at Ice, who was focusing all his power on keeping the creature from lowering its head toward him. No matter how much he tried to freeze the Caligo in place, somehow his power was nullified. His teeth were gritted, the ice-cold force of his abilities blowing his trench coat about as he fought to keep the Caligo at bay with a powerful jet of water.
Again came the cackling laughter of Grutang, almost completely muffled by the Caligo’s furious cries.
“GEEHEEHEEHEEHEEHEE!” shrieked Grutang, wriggling in vain against the spikes of ice that kept him pinned in place. “Grutang gives Master Caligo the strength! Master Caligo will be free! Grutang will be honored!”
Kemper had to act quickly. Ice was considered one of the stronger of the supers, and Grutang had somehow canceled the effect of his power on the Caligo—and strengthened the beast in the process. All Ice could do was defend himself, and against the sheer strength of the Caligo he wouldn’t last for too long. He held out his paws. If he wasn’t too late, light would bend to his will.
Suddenly, Ice’s power ceased, and the wolf crumpled to the ground. The Caligo snapped forward, aiming to crush Ice’s body and erase his existence from the world.