The trek across the taiga had been a bruising one. Paved roads had run out a few hours north of Yakutsk, and the dirt tracks some hours north of that. John had prepared as best he could for this eventuality, but even with all his groundwork he found himself making the last part of the journey on foot, across game trails cut by reindeer across the lower reaches of the Verkhoyansk Range, the coldest place ever permanently inhabited by man.

By the time John had arrived in a small valley carved fromt he Range by an unnamed river, he was suffering from frostbite, saddle sores, and bites from the stinging insects that swarmed eagerly around him, desperate for blood in the short quasi-summer that was their lives. Deep within the valley, visible only from the place indicated on the map, was an old ostrog–a single-tower fortress within a mouldering palisade, erected by the earliest Russian explorers.

When he was nearer, the unmistakable resonance of Tuvan throat singing could be heard echoring through the forgotten valley. This was the place.

John found the Porok at the highest floor of the okrug, at a window that had once served as a lookout post, projecting the eerie sound into the world through dead lungs. The Porok was rotted and embalmed, like a badly preserved mummy with just enough flesh and sinew to hold together its bones and support the worn finery it sported.

“It’s beautiful,” said John. “The singing.”

The Porok did not turn to him. “It is the only sound that I can make that one might think came from something young,” it said. Its voice was raspy and choked with dust, the death rattle of an old general cut down in single combat. “And it serves as a beacon to those who, like you, have made the long trek north from Yakutsk.”

John was susprised that the Porok’s English was so intelligible, as he had extensively practiced his rusty Russian and Latin. “So I am not the first,” he said.

“Nor will you be the last.” The Porok now approached John. Its face was eyeless, its lips and gaping nasal cavity devoid of all but the most base of flesh. “To those who would seek the Porok out, the long trek is a welcome…filter. The cool climate also agrees with me, as you may imagine.”

It led John downstairs, throught the main room decorated with trinkets that others had brought in supplication. The pretty things, tapestries and china, were heaped in a corner. It was the utilitarian things that occupied a place of honor: a wind-up short-wave radio, a shake-flashlight, a water filter.

“I know why you have come,” said the Porok. “All is known to me, always, forever. It is my curse and my gift. However, I long ago made a pact with myself, and with the Ancients measured against whom I am but a zygote. I only act on that which people say, rather than what they think or what they are.”

“Very well,” said John. “I will give you your gift and tell you now, if it please you.”

“Do so,” croaked the Porok. “But be warned: once you speak, your lost is cast, words set forever in stone. You may leave now, safely, or stay an evening to fortify yourself. But once you speak, you will face the consequences. Your request may be granted, yes. Or I may tear out your throat for your insolence. In asking, you accept this. Do you understand?”

“I do.” John set his jaw. “I will proceed.”

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