This story begins many, many cycles back. Long before the people of the mountains were called by any name but that of their clans, and before the history of the Ikpik Clan was verbally taught. This story has no year, but their caves have a small alcove dedicated to the child who would become a legend.
It was Zimno, the cold time of the cycle, a time when few dare venture past the mouth of their caves for fear of the blinding blizzards that disorient even the more certain navigators. The frost had come early to a clan not quite prepared, and though they retreated into the safety and warmth of their mountain-hewed homes, all was not well. A fever had crept in, a sweating sickness that took hold and lingered, slowly sapping every bit of light and life from its victims. They would sweat, and they would eat as creatures possessed, but still, they would waste. The elderly were the first victims and many chose to leave the caves rather than risk the health of their clan. But still, the sweat came for more and more, until finally, it struck the children.
Mikhael was some time past their sixteenth cycle. Perhaps more. But they were young and strong, and against the advisement of others, they would venture out just as far as they could go into the tundra, snaring rabbits and other small creatures to help supplement the dwindling food stores. Their luck held for nearly a whole moon, as they left and returned with little issue, but as with all luck, it eventually runs out. While returning to the caves, a pine bough cracked from the weight of the snow, and it struck them square on the head. They had no memory of walking back to the cave, but sure as the snow, there they sat in the morning when the Lorekeeper came looking. All they could remember was a queer gray elk with antlers that rivaled the pines in height. It had looked at them, and the world had slowed, and somehow they knew. There was a cure, and that cure lay in the north, held by a people cloaked in the pelts of great beasts.
The Lorekeeper’s opinion on this strange vision has been lost to the ages, but it is known that Mikhael set out alone from the caves. Whether that was due to the supposed futility of their journey, or a lack of spare support due to the demand of the ill, we must be left to wonder. With two small packs and a spear, Mikhael headed north through the mountains, for that was all the direction that they had. They walked past the edge of the lake, and then followed its tributary to stay oriented. They walked and walked until the very mountains were coated in ice, and as the sun set behind the mountains on the sixth day, they realized that they were being followed. Some beast had their scent, and in their hurry to gain ground and cover their tracks, searched they stumbled right into a foreign hunter’s encampment.
The humans within were not like Mikhael: they bore no icons, they were marked with berry dyes and their bodies were wrapped in the thick skins of many a fierce predator. These were the people, they realized, that the elk had shown them. But they were not welcoming of the half-starved and frozen Mikhael, and though the strangers took them into the camp and heard the story of the sickness, it became increasingly clear that the intent was not to aid. The strangers meant to send Mikhael to the Black God, so that they may beg a ‘safe’ return home from the Kindly One.
One woman, scarcely older than Mikhael if by a cycle, stayed the hands of the strangers. “You ask for our help, but you offer nothing. That is not our way,” she told Mikhael in no uncertain terms, “But you are not fit. You are no help to us. And our help will be lost. You will not survive to return. What then would be the worth of it?”
Mikhael had no answer, for her words were true. They were tired, they were worn down by the cold, and they could say with no confidence that they could sustain the walk back to the clan. But they could say one thing, that they had the strength to try.
The woman nodded, clearly satisfied enough by that answer. “You will take our test. If you survive, we will believe you will return home. If you do not, we have lost nothing. Do you agree?”
The pelted strangers gave Mikhael the skin of a mountain ursine and escorted them past the shelter of the pines and into a valley coated in ice. Would they survive two days in this place and return to find the encampment, the strangers agreed to help them. Mikhael, speechless, allowed them to leave, knowing that they could scarcely survive one day exposed, let alone two.
They sheltered in a moderately dry spot beneath a scrubby tundra tree. The snow piled up around them as they packed down pine needles for insulation and cut into the bark for its bitter sap. The snow fell with little sign of letting up, filtering through the branches to land on their face. Worse yet, as the sun set, they spotted a dark form skulking through the brush several paces off. It circled their hollow for as long as Mikhael could squint into the dim twilight, and they were sure it watched them back, waiting. Try as they might to stay awake, always listening for the barely audible crunch of snow paws, sleep overtook them sometime shortly before dawn.
The sun had already climbed overhead when Mikhael awoke, much to their surprise, well-enclosed into their hollow by the snow. Peering out through the branches, they glimpsed a massive, pale grey form, not even a pace from where they’d slumbered. The snow was soaked in crimson where a juvenile mountain ursine lay slain, torn asunder by strong jaws. Mikhael did not dare leave the hollow, hoping that any other beast that may draw near would be attracted to the easy meal, rather than themself.
They slid in and out of consciousness as the wind screamed and another snow squall blocked out the sun. They knew their undernourished body would not withstand the temperature of another night, pelt or no, and in the occasional lucid moment, they thought of what they might say to the Black God when they met. Night had fallen when they fully awoke to the horrifying realization that they could not feel their legs. They reached out in the darkness, sure to find limbs frostbitten beyond saving, but instead of cold legs…their fingers brushed against soft fur. Something large and warm lay atop them in the darkness, and their legs had merely fallen asleep. They sent up a prayer to the Aegis that whatever great beast had found them did not treat them as food come morning, and fell swiftly back to sleep.
When the pelted strangers returned in the morn, they had to step over the body of the felled ursine, and found Mikhael curled up in the tree hollow. They were surprised not only to find Mikhael still alive, but that their sleeping form was protected by a wild-hound, its dark coat still flecked with the grey of adolescence, and old blood frozen around its maw. It refused to leave Mikhael’s side, and followed the group first back to the encampment, and then into the frozen wastes of the north to retrieve the fireberry, which the strangers promised would cure the sweat. The strangers made good on their promise, and even offered to escort Mikhael and their new companion back to their cave.
Mikhael arrived home three weeks to the day from the start of their journey, accompanied by an entire party of strangers, each bearing two baskets full of the fireberries. The Lorekeeer was wary of the strangers, but more so of the great wild-hound that stood by Mikhael’s side. When he spoke against their entry to the cave, the hound let out a low growl, and the argument was swiftly dropped. With the minds and hands of many to teach and help the clan to dry and grind the berries, enough cure was created to treat all of the sick in only a day’s time. All those who were treated were on the path to recovery by sunrise the next morning.
When the strangers prepared to leave, they bid Mikhael to come with them. An ‘akerafilos’, they said, was a rare thing indeed, and they should be honored to count such a strong and true-hearted individual amongst them. Especially one so blessed by the White as to earn the companionship of a wild-hound.
It’s unknown what the decision ultimately was. Whether they stayed with their clan, perhaps became the next Lorekeeper, or left with the strangers that we now know to be a group of Akerios. What is known: Mikhael Houndsfoot was the first to bring fireberry down south, where they would later share the cure with many other caves and even into the settlements beyond. They were, of course, accompanied by the Grim Hound the entire way.