The last of his servants had fled the night before, joining the porters from Conall's Valley who'd abandoned him two days earlier. They had laughed and dared him to come retrieve the fees he'd paid them. He would have his revenge on them all, but first he must slay the great snow bear and could afford no deviance or wasted resource until his plan was complete. Even now the plan hung in the balance for if he were to find the bear and slay it how was he to transport the carcass back to the temple in Stygia unaided?
First things first though. Slay the bear and harvest the more easily preserved and transported organs, then stash the rest of the beast until he could fetch it later. At this time of year the body would not spoil, buried in the frozen earth, and it was still several months until the partial thaw of Spring.
Having hidden the bulk of his alchemical equipment and whatever loose items around the camp which might prove of interest to wandering beasts or human pilferers, he hoist his pack high on his back. The massive holdall was stuffed with preserving jars, provisions and a selection of poisons and potions which were very much the tools of his trade.
Legend had it that the great snow bear roamed a broad step like plateau in the mountain range, reachable only by a treacherous path and it was this that he now hauled himself along. Even the easiest going was fraught with peril and taxed every last muscle and sinew as he fought his way up sheer inclines foot after foot. With each agonized step he muttered an invocation to bolster and enervate his sinewy body, slowly finding himself closer and closer to the summit. Then, no more than ten feet from the top, his foothold faltered and he tumbled wildly down the steep slope, futilely grabbing at shrivelled weeds for handholds only to have them pull free in a shower of frigid dry soil. With a crash he jammed against a stunted bush that stubbornly clung to the jagged path.
Now the weight of the massive pack threatened to tilt him back towards his head over heels tumble to a certain death, so without a thought for the consequences he shrugged himself out of the straps which now cut into his shoulders and ached to tip him over to his doom. With relief he was at last free of the pack and after a brief rest and some arcane ministrations to his scuffed and bloodied limbs returned to his climb.
By the time he pulled himself up onto the plateau's floor it was midnight and he was totally spent. He lay oblivious upon his back until the call of a night bird shocked him back to sense and, warily, he looked about. Lit only by dim moonlight the plateau had an eerie quality and the hairs on his neck stood to attention as an unfamiliar wave of hopelessness wrung him out.
With a curse to olden gods he shook himself from these feelings of despair and attended to a closer inspection of the plateau by whatever light there was, for even had he dared to without his pack he goodn't strike a light. The plateau was, as to be expected, almost perfectly flat with just a single gnarled old tree standing very close to the edge where he was. A hundred yards or so across the plateau was the mouth of a terrific cave, decorated about with tumbled boulders and rocks apparently fallen from the mountain range which continued ever upwards towards the grey skies that framed the mountainside beyond the plateau.
Eyes fixed upon the massive cave mouth, he patted at his clothes as though entered in some compulsive ritual. He stroked his hair, rubbed at his chest, felt along the seams of his pockets, at the belt at his waist and finally checked the tops of his boots. Then just as he prepared to head towards the cave a movement from the tree caught his eye and he spun to face it.
Until now he had not seen it but a great shadowy figure perched within the branches of the tree and with a start he realised that he was looking at a vulture, its wings drawn up about its scrawny body. What did this weird vision portend? There were no vultures to be found in this cold country and the carrion bird could mean only one thing. Tonight someone would die but who would it be?
"You'll not dine on my flesh this night graverobber!" he raged.
"I had not wanted to eat you," came a gruff reply in awkward stilted Stygian.
"Who's there?" cried the Stygian, switching to flawless Cimmerian, reckoning this to be most appropriate. Now, as the figure became clearer he could see that this was no vulture but simply a man wrapped in a ragged fur cloak. But the Stygian was still wary for even now that he could see no trace of vulture in the man's appearance, he was yet sure of what he had seen.
As he drew closer he saw a weathered Cimmerian, as he had correctly guessed, garbed for war.
"I said who's there?" he said sharply. "What do you want?"
"Plain to see that I am here, stranger," said the Cimmerian. "as to my purpose, well... I hunt the great snow bear."
"Pah!" spat the Stygian. "You hunt squirrels and birds if you choose to clamber amongst them. Why else would you be up there?" Then after a moment's thought he said, "What can you see from your lookout?"
"Why, I do believe I see the great snow bear," said the barbarian and he nodded his head to indicate that the priest of Set should turn and look.
What the Stygian saw was even more imposing and fearsome than he could have imagined. It would have taken a team of elephants to haul this beast home. Padding from the cave's mouth on all fours its shoulders stood taller than a man. Its head alone was almost two feet wide with raging pink eyes that shone bright against pure white fur. It stopped and sniffed the air letting out a low rumbling questioning groan that seemed to shake the Stygian's bones loose in his skin.
He turned back to the barbarian in the tree. "You will not interfere with my business here. You will not cross me and you will not aid me. I hunt the great snow bear and I, and I alone, will slay it."
He turned sharply and strode towards the bear. He felt no fear now and indeed a feeling of bloodthirsty elation was bubbling up from his gut spreading warm rage to his very fingertips. This beast was huge but it was just a beast and no match for a priest of Set.
He flung his hands towards the mighty bear and at once it was haloed in bright blue light as sparks leapt about it's shaggy coat dancing from ear to ear and front to rear. When the dazzling show was done the bear lazily turned to regard the priest, apparently none the worse for the magical assault. With a curt word the priest sent another more focused blast of lightning directly into the face of this king of bears, landing a terrible smoking ruin directly upon its soft pink nose.
With a roar that surely shook the very mountains to their roots in the ancient earth the bear launched itself with horrible pace towards the priest, who stood momentarily frozen by the blood-curdling sound. With only inches to spare did he throw himself to one side before the bear could land upon him and instead it charged past him towards the edge of the plateau.
With familiar ease the bear turned with uncanny agility before the precipice and hurled itself back towards the Stygian who was now back-peddling furiously to create some distance between himself and the moving wall of death.
Plucking a brooch from his chest he flung it at the bear and as it arced through the air it grew and twisted until it landed on the bears head as a spider as big as a cart. The evil many-legged creature scuttled about the bears back but the priest could see it could find neither purchase for it's spindly legs on the thick stiff bristles of the bear's hide nor opportunity to sink its fangs into the great beast's flesh. With an irritated swipe of a paw the bear turned it to sickly orange pulp and continued in its mission to rip the Stygian to pieces.
Simultaneously the priest pulled a long needle from the top knot of his hair and a glass-bladed dagger from his boot and hurled these both towards his nemesis who simply batted them aside in his fury. Stymied for now, the priest dashed once more past the hurtling monster and swung about, pulling a folded parchment square from his belt. With feet to spare he flipped this at the bear's head unleashing a cloud of powder directly into its face but its steamy breath clouding the frigid air harmlessly dissipated the threat of the black lotus dust.
Then, certain his fate was sealed, the priest felt a strange sensation as though the weight was lifted from him and he suddenly found himself hauled up into the tree beside the Cimmerian. A moment later the tree shook and shuddered but it did not fall.
The barbarian leaned in towards the Stygian and said. "And NOW do you see why I'm up here?"