Rising in folded, sinous ridges, the snow-mantled peaks of the Drokpas writhe like a dragon’s spine across the oldest continent known to man, a mighty wall between different worlds.

To its east lie the jade-hued ricefields of the Quan empire, to its west the turbulent steppes, and to its south the spice-scented lands of Lakhmaristan and Varanga, all ancient, yet this Mother of All Mountains is older than all the empires at its feet put together. In its labyrinth of secluded valleys are scores of hidden tribes and kingdoms, and beneath its age-worn stones, secrets and powers older than man. Had he known he was about to blunder into one of these last, Orhan Timur would’ve fled by another path.

As he struggled up the rocky slope of Mount Koro Shan, driving the girl Altani before him with assurances and encouragement, an arrow spalled off a rock mere inches from his face. He whirled, drawing his own bow to the ear, and the next bandit to dare draw a bead on them died.  There were yells of fury from the pursuers as their comrade’s corpse rolled down the mountainside, and Orhan laughed.

The laugh sounded more like a leopard’s cough though, grim and mirthless and boding ill for his enemies. Orhan Timur was not named the Snow Leopard in vain. He had the deadly speed and strength of a great cat, an evil cunning, and he had made high Drokpas his home.

The bandits knew that if they lost sight of Orhan for long he would disappear entirely, so well did he know the mountains. So they played cat and mouse with him, and left a trail of their own bodies on the slope. All the treasure of a rich caravan lay back down in the pass for the raiders to despoil, but instead they persisted in hunting for the caravan’s last two survivors. To their own grim cost. The thought touched the Snow Leopard’s dark sense of humor.

But the Drokpa mountains are wide, and not even the gods can know their every nook and cranny.

Shooting another arrow and cursing when it missed, Orhan scrambled from his cover and raced after Altani. He had expected to find her still climbing, for so far she’d shown she had good sense, but she was not. Instead she had stopped, panting, looking left and right in desperation. Lying across their path were the remnants of a gigantic wall, with no way over it that they could see.

“Which way do we go, Orhan Bahatur?” cried the girl.

It warmed the Snow Leopard that Altani called him Bahatur, Valorous One, but the wall sent a chill down his spine. Not only did it entrap them, it was an ominous thing in itself: it was built entirely of cyclopean blocks of black stone, each block so massive no team of yaks no  matter how many could’ve dragged it across the mountain paths, and columns topped by leering idols of inhuman proportions rose above it in regular intervals.

The wall was surely of prehuman origin, perhaps even older than the Drokpa mountains themselves. There were hints of the sea in these ruins, seven thousand feet above the plains — the scabs of long-dead barnacles well above their heads, piscine features on the idols. Orhan, who had seen the great trading ports of Lakhmaristan, now recognized the structure as a quay.

Arrows spattered around him. “Go left!” Orhan hissed. One direction was as good as another now, but at least going left went uphill and naturally presented his bow hand to the enemy. Altani scrambled up, but no arrows were sent her way; the bandits wanted her alive, for she would fetch a fortune on the slave block. So Orhan let her have a head start of several heartbeats, shooting several more shafts at their pursuers to make them keep their heads down, then sprinted after her.

They ran crouched along the foot of the wall, ducking and weaving under the bandits’ arrows, using every scrap of cover from the tumbled megaliths. Orhan stopped shooting back, for he was down to his last few shafts. He could afford no more misses. But without his shooting, the bandits were emboldened to close in, and soon they would be at handstrokes where even the Snow Leopard would be overwhelmed by superior numbers.

He cursed the monsoons that had cost him his Murjen horn bow — with that in his hands he could’ve picked off the bandits from afar while they were still crossing open ground. The bamboo bow he now carried had only two-thirds the range, which had let the brigands creep that much closer.

He dodged more arrows, grunted in pain as one slammed into his side. It failed to pierce the kazaghand he wore beneath his robes, though, and he kept running.

“Bahatur! Look, a cave!” Altani called from ahead of him. She  pointed. The wall ended at the mountainside there, and a little uphill of where it abutted the mountain was a jagged slit opening over a little rock shelf.

“Get inside!” Orhan yelled. “I’ll hold them off at the mouth!”

“And I’ll stand with you!” the girl declared before she clawed her way up over the bare rock. Good as her word, even as the Snow Leopard reached the foot of the shelf she started throwing whatever loose rocks she could find at the foe. They had guessed Orhan’s quiver empty and begun their charge.

Orhan stood to meet them, drawing his scimitar. The first two bandits to come near however were knocked down by Altani with rocks the size of her head, but the third, trusting to his own speed, met his match in the Snow Leopard’s. The marauder fell with a despairing cry. The rest of the bandits checked their advance, and in that pause Orhan threw his sword and bow up to the girl then scrambled up after her.

Together they disappeared into the blackness beneath the mountain.

Liked that? I hope you did. This is the opening for my new story, which I plan to release as part of my upcoming collection Shadow of the Horned King. Please follow the blog for more!