Arc Eleven: Enter the Ice
Spring was a fleeting season in the north. From the moment of the first thaw, all manner of plants and animals entered an intense race to grow and breed in the brief warm months. It was for this reason, Jen had long ago decided, that there was really no such thing as spring. In his perspective, the north had exactly two seasons - snow and insects.
The latter, he decided, as he inadvertently walked through what had to be the twentieth midge swarm of the day at the very least, was well underway.
The sun had not yet reached its midsummer peak, but it was only a couple of months away now. It still hung high in the sky today, a blinding circle of light that pointed the way south. To the west, the foothills their road wound through rose up to form a vast pale cliff that seemed to cut through the mountains. To the east, those same hills formed a rolling, dark green blanket, patched with blue lakes, spread out under the ephemeral heat. All around, insects buzzed and swarmed, heedless of anyone passing through.
"I told you we should have escorted a wagon," he said. "Could have got some money too."
"Yes, and how many were leaving when we wanted to?"
"Hardly my fault," said Jen.
"I don't blame anyone for not wanting to go down here," Rosa said, fanning the air ahead of her. "Is it like this every summer?"
"More or less."
"Oh. Well." She looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun. "I'd still rather be here."
Any other time, Jen thought, and he would have laughed. But not now, not when he knew she was fleeing just as much as he and Dhaymin, not when he knew her love of hunting was the same as his desire for a soft chair and a pile of books, and not when he saw the smile on her face and knew she meant every word.
"I wonder if it's any better at night?" Dhaymin said. "Don't look at me like that, and I know you're looking. Doesn't make any difference to me."
Jen walked on, Dhaymin holding his arm as was customary, while Rosa took his free hand. A breeze wafted its way along the road, taking the edge off the sun. Even he couldn't help smiling, right now.
He stumbled. His ankle gave way, and he found himself struggling to right himself, as the other two let go. Dhaymin snapped a few swear words, Rosa grabbed his hand again and pulled him back to his feet. "Are you-" she began.
"Fine," Jen said. "Ground's just a little rough. Come on, let's get-"
He blinked, and the world turned hazy, and he sank back to the ground, as Rosa and Dhaymin's voices went from words to noise, and then nothing at all.
Winter was gone at last, and prey was abundant yet again. She stalked a scent, anticipating the kill at the end. Something hot, something bloody, something full of life that would fill her full of life in turn. Her ear twitched as a few flies landed on it, after her blood. Her thick coat saw most of them off, but they swarmed so heavily in this season it was hard to be rid of them all.
Nose to the ground, she continued, ears perked for the sound of prey, or others of her kind. She'd run into another female not long ago, one with cubs, and she still bore scars from where the mother had driven her from her territory. She had none of her own, not this year. There was something else at the edge of all she was aware of, creatures that were not prey, and she followed with all her determination, one step after another, across unfamiliar land.
Still the not-prey moved ever further south, and she was compelled to follow.
"...you've got eyes, what is that?"
"I don't think I- Jen!"
He came to himself in bits and pieces, his vision a blur of colour - blue, green, black. Black. That was new. He opened his eyes, and struggled to see what was there. He'd fallen, and Rosa and Dhaymin were holding him up.
On the road ahead, there stood the biggest, blackest horse he'd ever seen.
He fought for control of his tongue, and though his voice was thick, he managed one word.
From his low vantage point, Jen thought at first that the horse was riderless, for there was no tackle. He was proven wrong when Numbers unfolded herself, sitting with her chin propped up in one hand and her body draped over the horse's back.
"What do you want?" said Dhaymin.
"What do I want?" Numbers said. "All this time apart and you're asking me what I want? I'm hurt. You boys are good at hurting me. What about you, Rosa? I remember you were nicer."
Jen waved away a few curious midges... or perhaps they were tricks of his eyes. He shifted into a more comfortable crouch, and felt the world tilt and roll. "Remember... you've met?"
"Oh for- I should have remembered. Where are my manners?" Numbers sat up a bit more, so that she was peering over the horse's head, and waved her hands in the group's direction. "Dhalsiv brothers, this is Rosa, we've met. Rosa, these are the Dhalsiv brothers. We've met. Now can we please, as a whole, move on?"
"She escorted me to Kastek," Rosa said, never taking her eyes from the newcomer. Beside her, Cinn stood in a low crouch, ears tilted backwards.
"Same to us," Dhaymin said. "Except it didn't-"
"And you learnt what happens when you insult me. Well, it's your lucky day, everyone, because right now I'm here for you. And you, especially. You've had a funny turn, haven't you?" She leaned around the horse's neck, gazing down at Jen.
Jen blinked under her stare, and motes began to dance around his vision - not insects this time, but little points of light that vanished the instant he tried to focus. In that moment, swallowed up by her gaze, he saw how green her eyes were, bright as high summer. A memory stirred, deep within. Dhaymin crouched lower, pushing himself in front of him. "Leave him alone," he growled.
"If you insist. The next inhabited town is some hour's walk down there." She jerked a thumb back down the southbound trail. "If you're lucky, you'll make it by sundown. Else I can escort you to shelter, and I have just the thing." She patted the horse's neck, and it shifted in place, one hoof pawing at the ground. Jen saw muscles flex under a gleaming black coat. "You won't fall off. Not if he doesn't want you to."
"Who's to say we can trust you?" snapped Dhaymin. His hand found Jen's, and held it tight. He was trembling, Jen realised. With his free hand, he reached up and wiped the sweat from his face as a wave of heat pulsed through his body.
"She didn't hurt me," Rosa said.
"Of course I didn't. You didn't insult me." Numbers shrugged. "But perhaps I didn't tell you that I'm honour bound to cause you no harm."
"You knew our name!" Dhaymin said.
"If he-" she pointed to Jen, "didn't run off immediately afterwards, I'd have told him. I met your mother a few times. Sometimes beast-hunters do work together for the greater good, though I don't know how much of that you'd know. So listen to this, sons of Majiv - and you, Rosa, you as well. My honour is bound upon my mother and father, upon my sisters, upon my brothers. I can't hurt you." She spread her hands wide. "You can come with me, or you can find shelter yourself. Either way suits me."
"Go away," said Dhaymin. "Just... go!"
"Very well," said Numbers. She took hold of the horse's neck, and it turned, sending clouds of dark dust into the air. Jen watched her retreat, heading south toward the sun.
"Was that a good idea?" Rosa said. Cinn was watching too, her eyes fixed on the south road and her ears perked.
"Didn't go well last time we met," Dhaymin said.
"She left us to freeze," Jen added. He rubbed his forehead again, pushing aside strands of hair plastered with sweat. "Whole night's walk from Kastek..."
"And we'll..." Dhaymin sounded ready to shout defiance at the retreating Numbers, but instead his voice faded. "Jen... Jen, what happened to you?"
He knew, Jen could tell, from the strained look on his face. "I'm fine now," he said. "Help me up." What Dhaymin and Rosa needed now was a chance to be useful, to feel as if they were making a difference.
With Dhaymin on one side and Rosa on the other, Jen stumbled to his feet, shaky as a young deer. "There." He lifted his head.
The world tilted, fell away, and exploded into light. A million motes streamed across his vision, and he found himself crouched in a ball on the road, dust in his hair and the sound of insects unbearably loud in his ears.
The horse stopped. Numbers, shadowed against the sun, turned.
Numbers was as good as her word, and the horse never let Jen fall.
He lost track of the hours passing by as they turned from the road and into the forest. There was a path, though it was easy to miss at first, being as it was overgrown with brambles and ferns. Jen didn't care. He concentrated on staying upright, thankful for the shade from the trees, and held onto Numbers as she rode on. She felt so skinny, as if she never got enough to eat.
As he was struggling to keep his eyes open and his body upright, he saw tall earthen walls up ahead, through the shafts of light that penetrated the forest. They'd crumbled in places, and the horse stepped through one of the gaps into a paved ring. Dry weeds crunched under hooves and feet as the party came to a halt.
"This'll do," Numbers said. "I've been staying here a while. Don't worry, it's safer than it looks." She hopped down from the horse, and there was another soft little crunch as her feet touched the floor. "Come on down from there, now," she went on, offering her hand to Jen. Dhaymin stepped in, and helped him to the ground.
"Better?" he said.
"I think," he said, though he leaned on Dhaymin to steady himself, and there were still motes of light in his vision whenever he blinked. He wasn't going to mention it in front of Numbers.
She, though, seemed preoccupied, standing in the square, motionless with one hand raised in an uncertain gesture, as though listening out for something unheard. In an instant she snapped back. "Come on," she said, turning away and waving over her shoulder for them to follow. "Just this once, I'm being nice. Free rooms for all of you."
She led them through the deserted streets, past shattered doors and empty windows, over paving stones and rotting personal relics. Jen had little time to take it all in. He focused on staying upright, as Dhaymin and Rosa kept him supported. Once or twice, he felt them shiver, but he couldn't manage it. The day was too hot. Everything was too hot. He could feel sweat building under his coat, soaking his hair, falling into his eyes.
A door swung open, and he felt wonderful, cool air at last. "Make yourself at home," he heard Numbers say. He leaned against a wooden wall, taking a few deep breaths before removing his pack and sliding it to the ground. Dhaymin and Rosa did likewise.
"Good," Dhaymin said. "Maybe you can explain what's going on now?"
"Providing you with shelter because he's sick," Numbers said, pointing to Jen. "How many times do I have to do something nice for you before you'll realise that? I thought I told you, I'm sworn not to hurt you."
"Are you not?" Dhaymin said. He was still hunched over despite the weight that had been taken from his back. If he could see, he would have been staring at the floor. "Then why don't you prove it to me?"
"Certainly," Numbers said. She folded her arms and leaned against the doorframe. "So long as neither of us has to set anything on fire, I'm happy to."
"You and me," Dhaymin said, stepping forward, "are leaving this house, and we're going for a walk outside, and you're going to give some answers to me." Jen caught the unspoken words - it's going to be me, because I can't make it back on my own.
"Dhaymin..." Rosa said.
"You two stay here," Dhaymin said, holding up one hand.
"But you don't need to-" Jen began.
"Quiet, you two, can't you see he's made his mind up?" Numbers said. "Of course, I'd be honoured. Here, take my arm."
Dhaymin took it, just as he always took Jen. "Look after yourselves," he said, and stepped back through the door with Numbers. It closed behind them, clattering a little in the wind, and then it was still.
Jen wanted to call out after him, to persuade him back, but he managed nothing more than slumping down the wall, coming to a halt seated on the floor and splayed out. "Is there any water?" he whispered, closing his eyes and seeing the sparks dance again.
He heard rummaging in bags, and something cold pressed into his hand. He knew he needed to conserve it, but he gulped down as much as he could, barely stopping to breathe as he swallowed it all. "Better," he said, opening his eyes and handing the mostly-emptied bottle back to Rosa. "Thankyou." He looked around, taking in his surroundings. Someone had lived here once, but now there was only a broken, upended table in one corner and an empty hearth, and weeds were beginning to break through the stone floor where the light shone in.
Rosa sat crouched in the dirt, watching him with worried eyes as she stroked Cinn between the ears. "Jen," she said, "what's wrong?"
Jen rubbed at his forehead, wiping away the sweat. "Nothing," was what he wanted to say, and then he'd get up, and they'd leave this place, and Numbers with it. It was what he should say, but it wasn't what he did.
"I saw it again," he said, leaving no room for misunderstandings as to what it might be. "It's never happened before. Not like this. I was there, I was in its head, I..." His voice broke off, he closed his eyes again, and when he did there were hot tears. "Couldn't say earlier. Not with her around. I'm scared. I know it's been there before but this never happened and I'm supposed to be brave and stand up and I can't! I'm too scared!"
The rest of it came out in huge sobs that shook his body, sounds he was ashamed of but made anyway, because there was nothing inside him strong enough to stop them. A hand touched his shoulder as he did, calm and steady.
"I know," said Rosa, and her arm slid over his shoulders. "I know."
The birds were too loud, Dhaymin thought, as he walked alongside Numbers. Too loud, too cheerful, too melodious. He wished he could wave a hand and stop it all. No such luck. Summer was fast approaching, the sun was warm on his skin, the insects buzzed and the birds never stopped their blasted singing. Everywhere around him, living things blared out their joy at being spared the cold for a few months.
Under his feet, Dhaymin felt broken paving stones and dry weeds, the marks of the forest as it slowly reclaimed this nameless place. As he held onto Numbers' arm, he could not help but think of how small and slender she felt, as though she would shatter with one wrong move. Despite himself, he thought of leaving her here, flinging her to one side and running back to Jen and Rosa on the strength of his memories. They'd leave and run far away and never think again of this place, or what had happened here.
"Worried about your brother?" Numbers said. "Don't. He'll be fine here."
Dhaymin said nothing.
"Did I tell you I don't lie?" she went on. "It's a matter of personal pride."
Dhaymin remained silent. What was the use in talking to her? All that talk of being sworn not to harm them, of having known his mother, what good was any of it? Her apologies, her excuses, her past meetings with too many people close to him, each one was too contrived for its own good. The only way to deal with one such as Numbers was to give them nothing to throw back at you.
But he had come here for a reason, and she knew it too. Their pace slowed to a more sedate walk as she spoke up again. "You want to know why I'm here."
"And perhaps you want to know if I'll keep my word not to harm you, so you've volunteered yourself to come out here, with me, when you can't find your way back."
Dhaymin thought of Jen, slumped against the wall in a ruined house in a forgotten town, his mind filled with a beast on the road. He thought of knives to the throat and, with some force, willed himself to think of anything else. "Perhaps." He tapped his cane on the ground, drumming out an irregular rhythm to silence his mind.
"Then I can keep my side of the bargain. It can't have escaped your notice that he people who once lived here built some fine ruins." She paused for a quiet laugh, one that echoed around the empty streets and mingled with the ever-present bird song. "Of course they did not, but I often feel that some places are simply waiting after they have been built to become ruins, don't you think?"
"Maybe," Dhaymin said. He'd seen ruins too, when he had eyes and his father was alive. Some were villages like this, some were grand holdings whose owners had long since died or fled, leaving the shells to scavengers both animal and human.
Numbers led him to a shady spot, where they stood by a wall now coated with rough growth. "I can see it from here," she said, and her voice had taken on a slightly echoed tone, bouncing from wall to wall and back again. "Not these ruins. This is just another village someone forgot about. There's a fort in the hills, and I've been studying it. Which I think sounds boring to you, doesn't it?"
"I'm here to ask what you're doing," Dhaymin said. "I don't care what you think is interesting."
"This one is," Numbers said. "Let me tell you a story. Once, long ago, there was a very ambitious man who lived in that fort. So ambitious, he wanted to know what was happening to the world, so he went to what he thought was the source. He summoned the cold."
Dhaymin's hand touched the string of heavy beads around his neck. He knew enough. He'd been raised on stories and warnings from his mother - his mother, who was one of the lucky ones, who'd walked out of the frozen void with her mind intact long before he'd been born. His mother, who had told him that he may fight any creature with claws and teeth and tainting blood, but that he must never enter a frozen glade in summer. It was the only order she'd given that he never questioned. He'd seen what happened to the ones who hadn't had her fortune. The lucky ones never woke up. The unlucky cried and screamed in the night, and you never forgot the sound.
"Funny," Numbers said. "That's everyone's reaction."
"You led us here?"
"Relax. This place is safe. A little magical, tastes like frost on the air, but you'll wake up with the same body parts in the same place. People are superstitious. They ran, the south road suddenly got that big kink in the map, but it's the fort you don't go near. This is a good spot to study it at a distance. That's all." She paused. "I'll understand if you don't believe me."
"Is that your whole answer?" His mind ran back over her words. A little magical, tastes like frost on the air. What could Jen taste, that he could not?
"As good as any," she said, and offered her arm to him. "One more thing before we go back," she said, as they set off.
"And what do you mean by 'one more thing'?"
"I mean there's someone here who is waiting to meet you."
"What kind of shit are you pulling now?" Dhaymin said, but Numbers simply sped up, to the point where he nearly tripped over his own feet in an effort to keep going. A few corners later, and he heard a door open, and was nudged inside.
"I'll leave you two to it," said Numbers, and the door closed.
"Dhaymin?" said his mother.
Dhaymin stood in place.
This sounded like a small room - still air, slight echoes, muffled bird-song from outside. An empty house, perhaps, like the one he'd left Jen and Rosa in. He reached behind himself and felt the door, loose on its hinges and still unlocked. Numbers had been merciful enough to give him an escape, then.
He heard movement in front, and held out his free hand to stop her. "Fuck off," he said. "If I'd known you were here..." His other hand trembled despite himself, tight around his cane's leather grip.
"Dhaymin, listen to me." She was closer now, but holding back. "You have to turn back, now. You have to go home."
"Go home?" Dhaymin repeated the words as if they were in an unfamiliar language. He'd gone this far, run as fast as he could with Jen by his side, and only to have the last living person in the world he wanted to meet appear in front of him and tell him to give up? "Yes. Good idea. I think I'm ready to go home. That's why I set it on fire when I left, so it'd be all nice and warm when I came back!" A thought crossed his mind. "Wait. If you're here, who's there?"
"Kejik is watching things while I'm gone. You have to."
Kejik?" Dhaymin pictured the healer - quiet, keeping to herself, respectfully making herself scarce whenever voices were raised. Brave in her own element, yes, even when it came to removing a man's eyes because they were beyond hope, yet... "You can't. The second anyone hears it's undefended, it'll be overrun!"
"Then you should have thought of that before you ran away."
"That's..." He flustered, stepped backwards, and felt the door frame behind him. "That's not the same! You were going to have us both killed!"
"He's here, then?" Her intonation made it perfectly clear who she meant.
Dhaymin stood in silence for a moment. He looked deep into himself, and found that he could not even dredge up rage at her words. He'd spent it all on her long, long ago, on that night in another life when he'd fled the holding and felt the heat as the hall caught fire. He'd felt it ebb away when he stood on the hill and listened to Jen describe the scene before him. Little bits of light in the dark, like midwinter candles. He'd let it turn to nervous hope as he took his brother's arm and assured him that now, they were going to find some help for him.
He dug deep into his core, and found only the dread at the very centre that arose when Jen collapsed and he, without having to ask, why it had happened, even as he told himself again it was only the heat getting to him. Now his mother stood before him, as if Rakaros himself wished to send him a message to tell him there was nothing he could do, no matter how far they ran.
"Jen," he whispered. "His name is Jen."
"I took his name."
"And I gave it back." Dhaymin felt a hot, prickling sensation at the back of his empty sockets. His free hand gripped the door frame, and he lunged forward, catching Majiv by surprise. "Do you hear me? I gave it back! I stood in the daylight and cut my thumb and ran the blood down his forehead and I told him he was Jen Dhalsiv! Whatever you-" he jabbed a finger in his mother's direction as he strode forward, "have to say about my brother, you will not talk about him as though he is nameless!"
"You are not Lord Dhalsiv. You have no authority."
"I'm the closest there is."
"Then come home where you belong!"
"Why is that?" Dhaymin's voice was level now, almost tranquil. He could feel the anger subsiding inside him as fast as a storm in summer. "All this time you've told me to come home. Why? So you can find me a nice woman? So we can make you some grandchildren, just like Father would have wanted? So when I'm done with them, I walk out into the snow one winter's evening, because I'm useless? Go on, Mother. Say what you like. I know you can't fight me, we talked about this before, remember? If you win, you've overpowered an..." he forced the next word out- "unworthy opponent, and if I win, you've been beaten by a blind man. Either way, you're dishonoured, and I know you're better than that. So you are going to play nice, and you are going to tell me why I should give up on everything I fought for only to go home."
Majiv's voice did not falter. "Because you are in danger."
"Oh, am I?" Dhaymin straightened up and swept the area with his cane. Here was a wall, and here was a windowsill, and he leaned against it. A faint breeze told him the glass had long since shattered. "Now you mention it, I have been wondering about that. I think it started when a big monster clawed up my face and I had to have my eyes taken out. Always thought that was a little strange. And then I picked up a few hints on the road. Little things, like that one man who kept murdering members of his family to look like a hero, or the dead man who kept showing up in my dreams, or that fellow with the healing powers who turned people away when they couldn't pay for his help. My suspicions were further aroused when I found out that the lovely little abandoned village I'm staying in is a nice short walk from a fort where some idiot tried to summon a mind eating void!" He waved his hand in the direction of the window. "I'm very glad I have you here to tell me I'm in danger, because I would never have worked that out on my own!"
"That is not what I meant."
"Oh, you meant some other kind of danger, then."
"It's about Numbers. Now be quiet and listen to me!" Majiv's voice took on a new tone now, one from Dhaymin's childhood. It was a voice that told him that no matter how loudly he protested, he was going to listen to her and do as she said, because she was his mother, and it reached deep inside of him, right to that core of dread, and commanded respect. "I know you've met her before. I met her on midwinter's night, and she brought me here. She's been waiting for you to come down the south road. I made her promise that she would not hurt any of my family, but I think we both know how little a promise from her means. And I need to tell you this, because I'm not sure how leave this place. I'm not sure if I'll leave this place. The cold fort, what happened to me before you were born, her - everything is connected, I know it. I think some very old debts of mine are being called in, and I don't know what I have to pay."
Dhaymin listened, drumming his fingers on the windowsill, dislodging a fragment of glass. The mother-voice had gone from Majiv as she spoke. Now she was old, old and afraid. "Then I'm sorry," he said.
"Then you will come home?"
"No. I'm going south to help Jen. I made a promise and I don't break them."
"These things have prices. Why do you think the lord of that old fort decided to summon the cold? To get answers, to help his people? There was a price and he couldn't pay and we're standing in what's left. Can you pay?"
"I don't know. I didn't exactly plan on asking the cold to help him."
"Do you know any other magic that has the power to separate their blood? It's all connected?"
"No. But I'll find out." Because if I listen to you any more, he thought, I'll give up here and now, and I won't.
"There is another thing you can do. You opened the box, didn't you? The box your father gave you when you were small."
"What of it?" He touched the beads at his neck again.
"The necklace is a protection charm that Bala made. I don't know what it can do, but she made it long after she gave up selling fakes. She may have said not to put too much stock in it, but I don't have anything else. There were four in the box. Give one to me."
"Why?" There had indeed been four. Two others hung around Jen and Rosa's necks, and the fourth lay deep in one of his pockets. He could hear the stones click as he moved. He'd always had a picture of the person he wanted to give it to...
"It's all I have."
Dhaymin's hand brushed against his pocket. "Bala said not to-"
"It's all I have!"
He could feel the heavy beads as his hand slid inside, closing over them. What was he going to say now? No thank you, there's someone else I want to give this to? How much longer was he going to fool himself? Knowing my luck now, he thought, I'll have nobody else to give this to. He could make deals too, couldn't he? And better to make them with his mother, who was honourable despite everything else, than a wild hunter on a beast of a horse who ran in and out of their lives, playing with them as she saw fit. "I will give this to you," he said, "if you promise not to harm Jen."
"That's your idea of a deal?"
"I think it's the only way I can trust you," Dhaymin said, walking away from the window and finding the door again. Let her stare, if she did, when he touched the walls and swept his cane over the floor. He wanted her to see it. He wanted her to know how he coped, how he'd put himself back together. He took out the necklace, listening to the beads click together. "Here it is. You can't fight me, so you can't take it by force. Want it enough to leave Jen alone?"
"If you insist, then I agree."
"Good. Catch." He tossed the beads at her and turned away, pushing the door open. "And if you survive, maybe you can see it in you to go home yourself and we'll hear nothing more of it. Good evening to you." He strode out, and the door swung back with a crash.
If Numbers was there and waiting for him, she did not make herself heard. There was nothing but bird song and the evening breeze. He took a few steps forward, enough to take himself away from the house and all it contained. If she wasn't back soon... well, he had his memory to trust in.
As the breeze picked up, he tugged at his blindfold with his free hand and pulled it away from his face. The fabric was still damp to the touch. Let Numbers see the damage underneath, if she must. He didn't care.
Majiv watched and waited, with Bala's charm in her hand, and wondered what good it would have done her. Through the window, she saw Numbers approach Dhaymin. With some words she could not make out, she escorted him away.
Majiv turned away, sat by the hearth, and wished there was a fire. After an age, the door opened and a slender, dark haired figure stood in the fading daylight.
"I have it," she said, and held the charm out for Numbers to take.
"That was fast," she said, turning it over in her slim fingers.
"I know," Majiv said. "And you know what I asked in return."
"I'm not interested in your sons. Thank you." Numbers turned to leave, but not before stopping in the door frame and looking back over her shoulder.
In an instant, Majiv saw a different person. Everything was the same, but those eyes were older than before, older than they should be for one so young. "And you should talk to your family," Numbers said, and then she was gone.
"Do you think she is too?"
"How do you mean?" Jen said. His head felt a little clearer now, but he could still feel the world tilt and fall whenever he moved. He stayed by the wall, staring up and out of the window ahead. "Oh. Numbers and the horse? No, she's not."
"You can tell, can't you?" Rosa said.
"After the last time, yes. I think. I can feel the difference and... and she isn't the same as any of them. I look too close and it's all... faded and hazy. Like mist. Like... I couldn't do this before..."
Rosa insisted he have more water after that. It had gone warm, but he didn't care, and drank all that was offered. "I can see-"
"It's fine. You're fine." She sat next to him, leaning on his shoulder as if she was trying to believe her words.
"We could leave tomorrow," he said. "Think I'm getting better. I tell you one thing."
"My arse hurts. Not taking that horse again."
The quiet laugh in his ear was enough for both of them.
Then there was the rattle of a cane dragged across stone, and the world fell apart again.
Jen listened in silence as Dhaymin told them the news, because he must always be quiet and listen to his family and do as they said.
He reached deep inside himself and found the hidden depth voice, the one that told him of all the wonderful things that he must never do, the one that he had listened to, and pushed it away. It cried out, but it was wrong. It was always wrong. He sat hunched up, arms around his knees.
"Doesn't matter any more," he said. "We're going home. We have to go home. She told us to."
Majiv didn't stay long. She let Numbers escort her to the building where her sons were staying, and Dhaymin opened the door for her, and that was all.
A few moments later, she stood outside again, and tried to forget about Jen. She'd not been truthful about her reasons for wanting the charm, but she intended to keep her promise to Dhaymin. And no matter how long her life might be after this night, she would not forget the looks on their faces. Dhaymin was polite only because he had company, and Jen... Jen sat in the corner, curled up small, and watched her from under the pale curls that fell over his face. She had seen eyes like his before, on her quarry just before she landed the final shot.
She put the thought away, where she could not feel it, and watched as the sky grow darker over the ruins. She had been here too long, grown to know every broken wall, every root that ran through the cracked streets. In another lifetime, there would be nothing left of this place but shadows, buried walls and broken stone. Already, she felt, this nameless town belonged to the forest more than it had belonged to people, yet it had become home. Whatever tomorrow brought, it might be a relief to see something different.
They were still talking inside, and she resisted the urge to listen to the words. She knew already that she did not want to know what they said about her. But the tones were unmistakable, and some things did not need words. Perhaps it was best to leave.
But when the door opened, it wasn't either of her sons who stepped outside. It was the third one, the girl with the dog. She still had the dog now, and she was holding on to the harness as if it would run off at a moment's notice, which struck Majiv as strange, since the dog did not appear to have any intention of the sort. For a second suspicions arose, and her eyes moved from girl to creature in quick sequence, but it was nothing more than a well trained hunting dog, of the sort that people used to hunt bears when there had still been bears to hunt.
The girl stopped in front of her and looked up, brushing a little hair from her face - probably a futile gesture, as she had a veritable mane of black curls that seemed to do as they liked. She let go if the dog's harness for a second, enough to make a swift gesture of offering, and immediately took hold of it again. "It's you, isn't it?"
"If by 'you', you mean their mother, yes, I am. What of it?"
"I thought I should meet you... I've been travelling with them, and-"
"Oh," Majiv said, understanding dawning, and managed a smile - more for the girl's sake than her own. "You're with Dhaymin." It would not be the first time, or the tenth. She remembered that much about her eldest son, from the time when things were different.
"What! No!" Perhaps it was the encroaching sunset, but the newcomer looked rather flushed at the statement. "Jen!"
"Jen?" Majiv whispered the word, unsure she had heard it right. "He actually...?"
"Yes. In a way. I mean... that's not it." She paused, burying her hand in her dog's hair and giving it a scratch, to which it responded with a wag of its tightly curled tail. She stood like that a while, stroking her dog as if she'd forgotten about Majiv, until she spoke again. "Yes, I know about him. And I'm a beast-hunter. Rosa - that's my name. They told me a lot about you."
Yes," Majiv said. "I imagine they have."
She stood with her arms folded, immobile as she watched Rosa. She turned back to her dog, which nudged her hand as if prompting her for another stroke, and neither of them said a word.
"That's it, isn't it?" Rosa said, after an age.
Majiv had no need to ask. She followed the girl's gaze, turning around to see the fort. From here it was visible perched halfway atop of the pale cliff, a cluster of spires defying time and gravity, shadowed against the red clouds.
"Jivarin's Fort. I thought I'd see a lot of things when I came out here, but I didn't imagine I'd see that. Did you know he built it like that to summon the cold? It only worked at that spot, so he built it there. I read about it."
"That's how you met Jen?" Majiv said, almost conversationally, remembering her younger son's habits. Neither she nor Sarn had managed to shake that habit out of him, no matter how hard either of them tried. But there was plenty in Rosa's voice that was not Jen. Despite the way she clung to the dog like a frightened child with a favourite toy, Majiv saw herself reflected in the girl, young and fascinated and with no idea of what lay ahead of her, throwing her lot in with damaged people to complete the picture. "It's not a toy," she said.
"And I know too. I have been there."
Someone ought to know, she told herself. Someone who wasn't Jen or Dhaymin, or even Bala. Someone needed to know, so she could speak about it without thinking that if she didn't, maybe it hadn't happened.
"They didn't tell you that, did they? When I was younger than them or you, I found it, in the forest in the summer, and it took me. Now I'm missing part of my life, and I don't know what happened. I remember little pieces, and they're gone as soon as I think of them."
"Yes. Like dreams. I don't remember what it was, only what it felt like."
"And what did it feel like?"
You're supposed to turn back. You're not supposed to ask me that! Majiv looked away from the fort, where the first stars were already beginning to shine in a faint ribbon that cut the darkened eastern sky in two. "It felt like... something big. Bigger than the sky and too much to grasp. Very big, and very ancient, and very, very cold." She looked back at Rosa. "And I can tell right now you're fascinated, so please be careful. I've never known another person come out, remember anything, and not die from it. I don't think we're meant to remember. I didn't know you were here. If I'd known, I'd have asked Numbers to leave you alone too, so watch out, because I think she'll take any chance to sidestep a promise. Please be careful, if you do nothing else. I'll not see you dragged into this like they were."
Night fell, and with it, silence. A canopy of stars illuminated a pale cliff face that stood against the dark forest. It was only a short walk from the forgotten village, but a walk that few would care to take.
Numbers stepped out as her guests were falling asleep. There was a fire at the spot where the outer wall had broken down, which Dhaymin had insisted on. She turned away and scrambled up the wall instead, landing on the other side with a soft crunch of pine needles.
She eyed the cliff on approach. Here, the trees thinned out, leaving a slope of light-coloured scree underfoot. She could feel the breeze again out here - not the winter breezes that sent ice through her veins, but a gentle, cool, soft touch that wrapped around her body. As she stood in the open, she was alone under the stars and the fort, perched halfway up the cliff in defiance of nature. Numbers found it rather apt, considering its history. She paced back and forth over the unstable ground, gazing up and up, and took one step forward. She rubbed her hands together, and began to climb.
Her movements were swift and fluid, her fingers reaching into the tiniest of cracks. She flowed up the cliff, clearing the tallest trees, and rose ever further into the sky, as the breeze turned to a strong wind that kept her close to the cliff face, but she did not fear the fall. Rather, as she ascended, she felt that she was rising to meet the stars far above, to join with the vast spaces between them. The air grew ever colder, until it felt as if winter had returned and her breath turned to fog in her exertions. Yet she pressed on, ever upwards, until the fort stood above her and she could see its true scale. What had appeared as a toy castle from the ground was a collection of spires that, while nowhere close to her climb's height, rose straight and tall toward the still-distant stars.
She pulled herself over a low wall as the wind raged around her. There had been a garden here once, but here it had been hardly wider than a pace or two. The tallest spire rose above her, built from the same pale stone as the cliff itself. When built, it had been polished smooth so as to mirror the moon and sun, but now the walls had turned dull as they began to crumble, and had given themselves away to roots and vines. In places, narrow cracks revealed the passageways within. Numbers crept forward, taking care with her footing around the thick overgrown plants and the wind that threatened to blow her back over the way she had come. A few strands of her fine, dark hair blew out of place, and she smoothed them down again before crouching beside the largest gap. It was just small enough to squeeze through, and the ground was white with frost crystals that would never melt even in the height of summer.
She slipped inside, stood up, and let her eyes adjust to the dark. The wind still roared outside, but in here the air was still, and perfectly cold. She could feel it work its way inside her, filling her with ice again. She took a deep breath, her muscles loose and her eyes heavy. After that, it was only a matter of remembering the way.
The centre called to her, radiating peace and calm, and she found it in a chamber where a breeze blew heedless of the still air that surrounded it. In all the years, it had shaped the swirls of ice that coated the walls with a translucent blue. If she looked hard enough, she imagined she could see dark shapes entombed inside. It reached into her deepest self, whispering to her, the voices of all she had known. This close to the core, she felt her eyes try to close, felt her limbs struggle to keep her upright. They wanted to sleep, wanted her to curl up here and never leave, because this was all she wanted and all she needed, and with her remaining strength, she drew the charm from deep inside her coat and dangled it from an outstretched finger.
"Like that? That was handmade by old Bala Nevivin herself." She could feel even colder air wrap around her hand, and saw little frost crystals form on the stones, spreading up to her fingers. She smiled at the sensation, but around her she could feel it awaken, its being touching hers, vast against her, and once again she was a tiny thing against all the stars. "Don't forget him," she said, and wondered how much of it heard her. "Don't forget my brother." She steeled herself against the calm, against all the promises and the immense being that lay out of sight, extending far beyond the corners of this chamber into places that could not be seen or felt, and spun around. The charm flung from her fingers, and she turned once more, her hair blown by the breeze that rose into a wind, and bounded away.
As she left, little white crystals formed in her wake.
Jen slept, woke, and slept again, existing in that uneasy space between one and the other and never quite making it to either. He could feel Dhaymin and Rosa pressed up against him, could feel the still air around them, and by the faint light of the stars through the bare window, he could see the slightest traces of the four walls that bounded the room. Yet he shivered as though he lay outside and alone, as if everything that lay around him was a dream.
He already knew it was not, even as time itself felt as if it had stretched out. When he dreamed, it was in snatches, things that had no words to describe them. He was running, he was hungry, he was reaching the end of a long trail through snow and spring and to the stars, and it was all gone when he came back to himself, swinging back and forth between the two states and unsure of where he might be at any moment.
At last he woke, snapping awake and pushing himself upright, the blankets falling away from his body. "Dhaymin! Rosa!" Sweat ran down his forehead, but the fog was gone. Now the world felt sharp and clean and very, very simple, filed to a point.
"Whuu?" Dhaymin said.
"It's here," said Jen. "Got to do something. Got to do something now."
They gathered by the wall, where a fire still burned to ward off anything trying to get through the gap. Rosa fetched Numbers and Majiv, and for once Dhaymin didn't argue about their presence. "I thought I'd have to wake you," Numbers said.
"Bit late for that," said Dhaymin.
Jen stared at the fire. It left burning after-images whenever he blinked, and he wondered how big it would have to be to ward off what he knew was out there. He didn't need to dream to feel it. He didn't even need to close his eyes. He could feel it circling now, even as they stood in the flickering light for its comfort, and he knew what had to be done.
So did Dhaymin. "Whatever he does now," he said to their mother, "you remember what you promised."
"I..." Jen turned away, but he could still imagine Majiv behind him, weighing up everything, every movement, every word he spoke, every breath.
A hand touched his, and Rosa was by his side.
Jen closed his eyes, and stood in the fire's warmth.
"Go check the walls. All of them. If you find a crack, light a fire and guard it. I'm going to send it off. Only one person it wants and it's not having any of you."
He opened his eyes, and looked back over his shoulder at the assembled crowd, and felt that resolve was a lot easier when you tricked yourself into believing you were alone.
"Good boy," said Dhaymin. And then, to the rest: "Didn't you hear him? Check the walls! Get going!"
Jen watched them leave, but it was Rosa who hesitated, even after Dhaymin had turned away. "I have done this before," Jen said. "Go on. Go with him."
"One more?" Rosa said, and he felt her arms around his waist. He bent down, kneeling so he was at her level, and let her give him the lightest of kisses on his lips. "Just one," she said. "If you want more, you have to come back for them."
"I know," he said, and stood up, letting her leave. He tore himself away, and looked back at the fire. It was easier alone, easier with nobody waiting. Better they have something to occupy themselves with, so they didn't have to see what came next.
He sat cross legged on the broken paving stones, closed his eyes, and breathed in.
There was no snow. There was no cave. There was no creature waiting to tear into his flesh and eat it all as he watched. There was nothing to see, but much to feel.
Here they intertwined, here the beast he had come to think of, against all decency, as his, met his own mind, each brushing the other with a wary edge. It was close, still circling the walls for a way in, backing away from the second sun at the gate as it backed away from Jen himself. He reached out, but they did not meet, swirling around one another like dye in water.
Jen smelt burnt hair, all acrid and itchy in his nostrils, and opened his eyes.
The beast looked down.
It blotted out the sky, its coat scorched and smelling rank, its breath hot on his face, its eyes glinting under the stars. Jen felt his heart thump against his chest, and yet, as the beast raised a paw, it was all his mother and father's words that came back to him. His knife was at his belt, he could feet the smooth hilt under his coat. One lucky stab was all it might take. One lucky moment.
The paw came down, and Jen was knocked aside. Something cold wrapped around his body, something soft but firm, like the ghost of ice, and before he could even ask what had happened, he felt himself propelled across the stones as though pushed away by a giant hand. He looked around, steadying himself, his heart and breath still fast and ragged, but there was nothing of the sort.
"Numbers?" he said, even as his body obeyed the command without thought and he ran to where she stood, willing shaky legs to carry him.
"Promised I'd not let you come to harm." She stood in firelight, and her shadow wavered at the edges. "I don't break promises."
The beast looked up, and Jen grabbed Number' sleeve, tugging her away. "Can't call it off," he said. Feels different, he nearly said, until he remembered who he was with.
"That much is evident," said Numbers, as they ducked behind one of the taller buildings, taking care not to stumble on roots and debris. "Good thing someone decided to come back and check on you."
"Fine, I'm grateful," Jen said, feeling his heart finally begin to slow down. "Dhaymin, Rosa..."
"Safe, I think. It's not them it wants, is it?"
Jen let his eyes adjust, from blazing firelight to the faint silver stars. In the open square behind them, dry leaves crunched under hefty paws. "Jumped the fire. Not right. Nothing's right. Not how they work. They don't follow people like that unless someone's making them. I'm not-"
"Do you like books?"
Jen suppressed the first sound that would have come out of his mouth, forcing a whisper instead. "Not a good time for games!"
"Yes, but I don't-"
"So did my brother," said Numbers, and as Jen's eyes grew ever more accustomed to the dark, he wondered if there was a wistful smile on her face, or if it was just a trick of the starlight. "That must be why he reached out to you."
"Shut up! You've got his name written on you! Had it on your shoulder all this time! He was there and with you!" She stood flattened against the wall, staring at nothing. "Karos!"
Jen thought back now, to a waystation as winter closed in, to a mind reaching out to his own and enveloping his body in frost and shadows, until Dhaymin had burned them all away leaving only a name behind. His shoulder itched, and then it was all forgotten.
A pebble rolled away. Weeds were crushed to dust underfoot, and the beast rounded the corner to stare them down. "Still," he whispered, pushing all the questions to the hidden places in the back of his mind. "Very still." It was only a shade darker than the sky, and under the stars defined as a hole in them, a black shadow that smelt of musty, burning hair, and perhaps if he was very, very still indeed, if his heart did not beat so loud as to give him away, he would be nothing more than a shadow in return.
The creature moved closer.
"Run," said Numbers' voice in his ear.
Jen remained frozen, but the beast broke its slow approach and Numbers pushed him aside, letting him land on his feet. He looked back, and he saw her stand in place as it charged, and their shadows blanked out the stars.
He did as he was told then, and tried not to listen to the crunch.
He had become shadow-Jen by the time he found the others, moving through the world with all his fears put aside in a place he would not tread. To each one he said only to take cover, that the beast was inside the walls, and they listened.
They found one another around a hearth in another ruined home, where they lit a fire and Jen urged them to make it strong, to never let it go out. The rest could wait until that was done and the doors were tested. They asked what had become of Numbers, and he gave them two words. "She's dead." Nobody argued, nobody asked how or why. This was not a time to indulge in small details. She was gone, and nothing could be done for it but to ensure nobody followed her. They huddled around the fire like the last people in the world, and hoped it was enough, and only then, when that fire cast orange light and deep shadows, did Jen feel the night catch up to him.
One of them was going to ask questions, now, ask how it happened and what he'd seen. And Jen had looked back, because you always look back against your better judgement. He'd looked back enough to wish he hadn't. "She saved me twice," he said, and hoped nobody would ask more. How long until dawn, he wondered? How long had he slept? He sank into a crouch as exhaustion flooded through his limbs. There were others outside now, other creatures, not only his. They had not breached the walls, but he could hear their cries in the forest beyond, and they had become stirred into agitation, as though they were the guardians of this place and he was trespassing.
"So she did keep her promise," Majiv said. In the firelight, her face was deeply lined.
Jen sat curled up now, arms wrapped around his knees. Earlier, he'd been able to forget she was there. Now, he only wondered what she would have to say to it all, if she would have a hint of praise or not.
"If she is gone," Dhaymin said, "aren't I right when I say you can go home like you wanted and leave us alone?"
"I did not say I wanted that," Majiv said.
"You promised," Dhaymin said. "Promised if you got out of this alive you would! I gave you the necklace for that!"
A flash of expression passed over Majiv's face, one so fast Jen could not tell what it was before it was gone and she became once again impassive. "I did. Yes, I did. Though I wouldn't fancy my chances with that chorus waiting out there."
"There's always dawn," Dhaymin said.
The flames burned higher with each moment, and Jen uncurled himself a little. "Still," he said, "Numbers. I suppose I should see to her. Wouldn't be right to leave her, she needs the words." She saved me twice, he thought, and then, But you'd say the words anyway. It was good and right to say the words, and here and now he knew why. They were a little anchor for the self, as much as they were for the departing soul as he broke open the chest and freed it from the body (and here a part of him filled with dark humour wondered if breaking would be necessary this time). The words were part of the dead and part of him, and Dhaymin's words too were good and right. When the morning came and the danger passed, he would give Numbers her due, and then they would leave this place, and not because of Dhaymin's urging and plans, not because he had been pulled into something wrong, but because that, too, was good and right, and that was a thought he had never dared allow himself on any step of this journey.
It was not, he felt, the way things should be, but it was the best that any of them could do, just as saying the words would not return the dead, but would give a little something back to those who remained.
If he was lucky, he would not dream again tonight.
"Suppose it's for the best," Dhaymin said, edging a little closer to Jen.
Only Rosa had remained silent through all of this. She sat at the edge of their little semicircle, stroking Cinn's thick fur. Jen did not know if he should ask her, but he remembered what she had said about her own encounter with Numbers, how she'd been civil, maybe even kind. But when she did speak at last, it was not regarding the fallen hunter. "Has anyone noticed," she said, "how cold it it in here?"
"Cold?" Majiv repeated. "Out of my way!" She was on her feet in an instant, and without another word, Jen and Rosa were behind her, while Dhaymin hung back. Jen cupped his hands around his face to block the fire and let his eyes adjust again to the dark.
He'd put the shivering down to fear and exhaustion, and sitting with his head lowered, he'd never noticed the fog in his breath.
At first, he thought the stars were bright, and then, as he understood what he was seeing, he realised it was not a starfield but the fort itself. It sat high on the cliff, so far away that it seemed as though Jen could hold it in his hands, and it shone.
"Ice," said Majiv. "The gate's been opened."
"That's why I couldn't..." Jen began
"I don't know about that," said Majiv, "and I don't want to know. You can think of that later. You can do what you want later. I'm going to stop it."
"Can you?" Rosa said.
"Done it before. Set light to the whole thing before it spreads and it seals up. There's no other way, but it's a fine one. Mind you, the others were always smaller. They were weak spots, this is a deliberate tear, and someone's forced it back open."
Jen stared back out at the glittering fort. From the window, it looked as if someone had painted it into the sky, but had only brushed in the lights, so what was left was only traces of the spires. It appeared there and not there at the same time. It was beautiful, and it was everything Majiv had warned him to never touch.
"I'm going up there to burn it out," Majiv went on, "and it won't wait until morning."
"Alone?" said Rosa.
"This isn't your battle," Majiv said. "I want the rest of you away from it, as far away as you can go."
And then, as swiftly as it had approached, Jen felt the fatigue melt from his body, easing away from his limbs, and he looked away from the window. Majiv stood by the fire now, staring into its depths, and he drew himself up to his full height before her, his head brushing the ceiling beams. "No," he said.
"Do you know what this is?" Majiv said.
Jen thought of the ones who had not been as lucky, of the screams, of the silence when it was finally all over. "Yes. And we're all here."
"And I wouldn't try to reach the cliff alone," Rosa said. "I wouldn't even with Cinn. We'll have to find the stairways too, and I hope I can remember."
"I don't like this," said Dhaymin. He stood a little way off, his arms folded. "But it seems to me, its not like a beast-hunter to run."
Majiv didn't argue. Jen could feel their mutual agreement, not as he felt the bond between himself and the beast, but in another, far more human way. With a few words, a point had been reached. It was not from blood, and not from obligation. It was because there were things you simply did.
"Gather up the supplies, then." Majiv said. "Wood, cloth, anything that burns and plenty of it. I hope none of you wanted to sleep tonight."
This was the place where warmth came to die.
Under a clear sky strewn with cold, silver stars, there lay Jivarin's Fort. To Majiv it felt like being exposed to the night sky itself. Not a cloud broke the illusion, nothing but the spires cut through the ribbon of light above.
The little group kept close to one another, burying fingers in pockets lest they go numb. Each carried a burning torch, and save for the stars, they were their only light. Nonetheless, Majiv imagined that if she put it out now, she could see the world below, all the forests stretching out to Rhusav and home and warmth, things she could barely remember while she stood up here. She imagined the south road, taking a sudden western detour, a curve that took days to navigate, while the old course was left to grow wild until none could tell it had ever been anything but part of the forest. She'd seen the curve on maps before, and it spoke what words could not. Stay away. There is no reason for you to come here. Stay away and be safe.
It had been Jen and Dhaymin who helped them back to where their supplies were hidden away. Majiv might have run in an instant, but they needed coats if nothing else. They kept even closer to one another than anyone else, and Majiv saw how Jen held his arm, how Dhaymin took the crook in his hand. Something gnawed at the back of her mind at the sight, and she kept a firm grip on her torch to remind her of what was important. The rest could wait.
The stairs, meanwhile, where Rosa's doing. The four of them wasted no time making their way through the forest. The torches cost them their night-eyes, but they kept hold of them as the temperature fell and Rosa began to mutter words to herself, a sort of child's rhyme. It was Rosa who led them to the hidden entrance, now grown over with plants and dirt, causing them to take turns hacking at it with knives before they could pass.
After that, there was no light but the torches. By the firelight Majiv saw hiding places, tiny trap holes, and slabs carved into creatures she had never seen and did not wish to again. The stairs wound their way back and forth through the mountains, sometimes doubling back, sometimes heading down against all possible sense. The last few flights were slick with ice.
And finally, after their ascent, they emerged here, in a garden of frost halfway to the roof of the world.
There had been gates here, once. The frame remained, as did a few curls of iron, reaching up to three times the height of a man. But rust and ice had worked together to ruin them, and it was easy to slip through into the ornate ironworks to the garden beyond.
Here there were no fortifications. There didn't need to be. Only a waist-high wall separated anyone walking the winding paths from the cliffs on one side, while on the other, the mountains continued sheer and tall to the sky. The gardens had gone wild and desolate after their abandonment, and low growth and tendrils lay strewn over the pathways. A good eye could pick out the patterns they traced, curving through the undergrowth in complex curls and spirals. Now everything, path and plant alike, lay under a blanket of glittering frost crystals, and Majiv felt that if she stood here long enough, she and all the others would share their fate, left to become statues gleaming under the stars forever.
Beyond all that, there lay the spires.
She could feel the cold emanating from them, turning her face and hands numb. She had lived through nearly fifty winters. In the best, there was merely snow. In the worst, the people starved under the bare skies and jagged trees, the survivors never forgetting the pain inside their stomachs, and sometimes they forgot what was real and was not in their desperation. But each one of these was part of the world breathing, in and out, hot and cold, as each year passed. None of them were like this, a tiny piece of Kroakani's own doing, a place where their hot torches and hot blood and hot breath were as alien as a fish swimming amongst the moon and stars. None of them reached out with their own, ungraspable intelligence, and none made the hairs on Majiv's neck prickle as she wondered if, perhaps, it remembered her.
The entrance lay ahead, taller even than the gates, its coiled carvings picked out in silver by the frost and stars. It was waiting. This was not a simple frozen glade, waiting to be burnt out and destroyed. This was something far greater, something that had lain ever since it destroyed the ones who first opened it to the world. It had lain dormant for all those years, and now it had woken.
Majiv's hand tightened around her torch, the only spot of heat in the world. Nobody spoke. Nobody needed to.
As one, they stepped forward.
This had been a library, long ago.
It had not been large enough to rival Kastek's, even though Jen had been told there were larger still, but it was large enough to be lost inside. Shelves rose around him in columns nearly three times his height, interrupted by ladders and platforms where a reader could happily browse for a lifetime.
It was all encased in ice.
It gleamed in the torchlight as he moved. Swirls and curves, whipped into strange and beautiful shapes by an imperceptible wind, lay draped over the shelves. Everything was pale blue and white. The ice had formed in perfect layers, as if a sculptor had taken all the glass in the world and fashioned it into shapes like crashing waves and delicate ripples over the surface. If Jen looked closely, he could still read the titles and the spines, frozen forever in place.
"I am not sure," he said, "if we can burn everything out."
"Get the core," Majiv said. She walked ahead of him, looking over her shoulder. She need not ask why Jen was hesitating. He tugged his hood back over his head and followed. "Get the core and hold on to yourself."
They'd talked about this before entering. They'd talked about it long ago. She'd sat down with Jen when he was a child and warned him never to touch the cold, but that if he were ever to find himself facing it despite all her words, he must not lose track of himself. She told him to find an object, something that might move in a short time, and never lose sight of it. He must ground himself in what was there, and see things as they were.
He checked off the books as he went, remembering the names of those he could read and the shapes of those he could not. "There's only two of us," he said.
Majiv stopped, and turned around.
The wind rose, and whispered.
"It's safe," Rosa was saying. "I promise you. It's safe. Only a little further..."
Her arm was around his waist, and she was the only solid thing in his world. The rest shrank to ice or nothingness. He moved in the smallest of steps, each time feeling his breath catch in his throat, each time imagining that this would be the one where he would feel empty air again, only this time there would be no Rosa, nobody to stop him falling...
"Only way this could get worse," he said, through clenched teeth, "only way, is if there's water down there... oh fuck." He froze in place, his feet unwilling to move again. "Rakaros. Please. Tell me there's not water."
"No," Rosa said.
He willed himself forward, one more small step towards the end, pressing against the wall. It leaned a little, he was sure. It leaned outwards, pushing him over the edge of..
"Going to tell you something," he said. "Something I... got to say now."
"What?" She was holding up as best she could, he was sure, as best anyone could here. He had to be brave, just this once. It was all they could do to hold on to one another, and keep the torches. They mustn't lose them. There were only two...
"Don't know how I managed before you-"
It came as a whispering, at the edge of hearing, and a cold wind blew.
She had lost the feeling in her fingers, and she did not know if it was better or worse than the alternative.
Her breath came in ragged little gasps, her chest struggling against its own weight and the ice that enfolded her, pinning her spread out to the ceiling. Any moment now, and it would feel warm, like drowning in a wonderful hot bath. That was what the books said.
She'd been in the corridor, and Jen... she didn't know, but he was there now, reaching up and calling to her. He was speaking, but his words were gone, now. They had ceased to mean a thing long ago, and now there were only sounds. The torches danced in her vision, their flames so close by, but the ice remained. Still he called, still she listened to his voice.
Maybe it would be warm, soon.
Maybe it was warm now.
Maybe it was the torches, but there were only two, and the wind grew colder with every breath.
The dining hall had been left exactly as it was.
If Majiv looked closely, she could see meal remains under the ice, crumbs and glasses and silverware, and on the walls she saw woollen banners, woven with the emblems of families long gone. Everything was as it had been the day Jivarin and his family and all his followers had stood up from their dinner table and gone to awaken something they could not imagine. They had left the remains of their lives here, never to be touched again until her torchlight fell over their frozen cocoon.
She moved with care around the table, her free hand steadying herself as she picked her way across the hall. Dhaymin followed behind, and when she looked back, she felt ice in her chest this time, thorny little crystals in her lungs.
"Dhaymin," she said.
"Dhaymin, I am-"
She looked again.
She had two sons, and maybe, a daughter, and yet only Dhaymin stood before her.
The wind whispered, and at the corner of her vision, shadows danced.
The wind whispered to them, hissing in their ears, and they remembered.
And they saw-
-salt water dripping from bare skin, the cold soaking into his bones, waiting for the moment when he would hear what he had become, though he knew-
-the dark and nothing but, buried alive in his own self, imprisoned by a body that could not move without pain, and he tried to open his eyes-
-a bare room unadorned by hanging or portrait, no books and no pens, and eyes that saw deep inside of her, while a hand clutched a sheaf of childish drawings-
-his body, covered and shapeless and yet unmistakable, and still she could not bring herself to raise the sheet, as if he would walk through the door if she left it be-
As one, they found themselves together.
And the core, the cold itself, lay before them.
Once, this had been the centre of Jivarin's Fort, a spire that reached to touch the stars above. Once, this had been a vaulted chamber where he and his family gathered to seek the secrets of the world. Now the beams and carvings were coated in ice, thick, glassy, and suffusing the hall with a chill blue light. It had been shaped by an unnatural wind into twisting, swirling shapes that obscured the walls and floors, leaving into distorted traces visible. It had been left to build up over many years of neglect, until to Majiv's eyes this was no longer a place of men but of magic.
The four of them were tiny against its size, standing by a pair of doors twice even Jen's height that had frozen open so that no force could close them again. They clustered together, glancing around the hall. Nobody said a word about the dark shapes embedded in the ice. Nobody needed to.
But there was an alter, in the very centre, and though it was a long walk from where they stood, Majiv could see the low shape, even underneath its icy coat, and thought of another slab in a holding far from here. This one must be more ornate, or so it would appear underneath, but she could still imagine young couples sharing their first kiss together beside it, children placed atop it to receive their names, young men and women sitting by it to see who they had been and who they would be.
"We have to burn the alter," she said, and did not think of what it had been.
They piled firewood high around the shape, though none of them dared get too close. At first they built one, and set it alight with their torches, and as that burnt they built others in a ring, surrounding the fort's heart, and it was then that they remembered what it was like to feel warmth again.
"Everything holding up on this side!"
"Little more over here!"
"I think we can-"
The fort shook. There were cracks in the walls, cracks in the ice itself, and any second now great chunks would come crashing upon them. Majiv watched...
A cold wind blew, but the fires held, flickering but never dying. They burned even brighter at the resistance, and showers of sparks rose while tongues of flame reached to the heights to do battle with ice crystals, and in their light Majiv saw smiles on her family's faces...
She blinked, and opened her eyes in the dark.
The wind rose...
She was kneeling by the altar, and there was no blue light, no blazing fires, no warmth. She clutched her torch in her hands, but she felt nothing. Her fingers had lost all feeling. There was no other light in the chamber, in the whole world. She was alone in a circle of firelight that did little but cast a faint sheen on the ice, leaving the heights in darkness.
As her eyes adjusted, she saw the alter before her, and a shape crouched before it, encased as it was, and before that...
She stood up, shadows and highlights shifting in the torchlight, and saw her sons and daughter.
They lay behind her, only a pace or two away, and frost covered their bodies.
Immediately she knelt before them, her back turned to the alter and... no, she would not think of that, not now. She must become shadow-Majiv, must place all her fears and regrets into a corner of her mind and lock its door, lest she allow them to ruin her.
They had collapsed together, huddled close to preserve what warmth they had, but their torches had gone out and lay useless by their sides. They lay face down, their arms around one another, and the frost that blanketed their forms was the beautiful, crystalline form of a clear winter's morning.
She took Dhaymin's chin in her hand and, fumbling with fingers that would not respond, felt her way to his neck. There was still a pulse under the skin, but his flesh felt like cold meat, and he did not respond to her touch. "Dhaymin? Rosa? Jen?" One by one she tried them, and they were all the same - still breathing, their hearts still beating, but for all other intents, lifeless.
She needed fire, like before, if before had ever existed, but their supplies had been scattered, and when she gathered a small pile of wood, it would not light no matter how hard she tried, as if she held the last piece of fire in the world. It's supposed to feel warm, she thought. That was what she had been told since she was a girl, that before you froze and died, everything felt as warm as a hot bath, but here there was only the cold.
She looked back at the altar, and what she had seen before was still there. Their shape was obscured by the frost that coated everything, that threatened to engulf her, but even then there was no mistaking the beads she had given to Numbers, so long ago when the world had been different.
I did this, she thought.
She could stop now, go with her children. All she had to do was lie down as they had, lie down and let the cold take her, and maybe it would feel like that wonderful warm bath...
She laid her torch down, with care so that the flame did not go out, and stepped forward to stand by the altar. "I understand," she said. "It's time."
The cold knew her. It remembered her. She felt a breeze stir, winding its way through her hair, and she knew as well.
"But... I remember." Her lips struggled to speak, but she forced the words out. "There was a bargain, then. There was a price. There's a price for me. Them."
The wind rose, stronger than before, an ice storm from the darkest night of winter, and she was at its centre...
It's not so bad, she thought. Cold beyond ice and snow engulfed her, cold that spoke of the dark places between stars. In glimpse she heard whispers of things older, more vast, more complex than any creature she had chased through a winter forest. Things that she could never hope to know or understand, things that she had seen before and had left only the echoes of dreams on her mind, and they were beautiful.
She wrestled back enough of her fading self, and looked to her children. Someone moved, and what remained put a name to her - Rosa. She was calling out, calling something that might be her name, that might be a plea to stop, but she did not know any more. There was only the cold now, and its infinite beauty, reaching before her.
Go, Majiv thought, and she was gone.
They woke together, curled up around one another like children rising to find ice inside their windows on a winter's morning. From there they made their way to the outside of the dead fortress, and there they saw a pink dawn rise over the gardens and forests, and felt the sun's warmth on their skin.
Already the previous night felt like the stuff of dreams, but they were dreams that had come all too true, and none could deny them.
Rosa was the only one who knew what had happened to Majiv. It had been upon her to tell the brothers, when they woke together before the empty alter, of what she had seen.
The three of them remained silent on their descent to solid ground, through the winding cliff tunnels, their steps slick with melting ice. Each one, Rosa knew, was alone with their thoughts, and none of them were prepared to voice them yet. But it was an honest sort of silence, and one that she understood.
Cinn was where she had left her, inside one of the empty houses and waiting by the door, just as she had when Rosa told her to stay and be patient last night. At the first sign of the dog, she dropped to her knees and put her arms around her thick, fluffy neck. Cinn's curled tail wagged as she sniffed at Rosa's coat, curious of new, unfamiliar scents.
"I know why people want to forget," Rosa said, into the thick fur.
Jen had not forgotten his promise to Numbers. She was gone when he revisited the square, and so was the beast, but the trail they left was proof that last night had not been a bad dream. He followed it out of the ruins, past the smoking remains of last night's fire, and out into the silent woods. Shafts of warm light pierced the fir trees above, showing the way.
She was only a short walk from the encampment, as if the beast had not wished to drag her kill too far before something else found them. Jen circled the clearing, wary in case it or a scavenger might remain, but there was nothing. It had eaten its fill and left the rest here. If Jen didn't look at her face, still grinning as if the biggest joke in the world had been played and everyone else had missed the punchline, he could think she was just another corpse for him to dispatch, something he had done many times before.
Her ribs were cold in his hands when he snapped them open. He spoke a few words to the empty air, and turned to leave.
On the way back, he thought that once or twice he heard hoofbeats, or saw a dark shape between the trees, but every time he looked again, it was gone. He left it alone. She'd warned him about the horse, after all.
If Dhaymin stood where he was and did not speak, he could imagine Rosa's words were not true. If he listened to the silence all around and felt the morning sun, warm on his skin, he could imagine the previous night was another story to tell around a raging fire. There was plenty he could imagine, if he put his mind to it, and too little to face up to.
"She's not dead, you know," he said, while they were packing their supplies.
"Your mother?" Rosa said.
"She wouldn't be dead. I know her too well. Not like her, dying." He fastened his pack, and hefted it onto his back, testing the straps against its weight.
"Suppose so," Jen said, with a faint laugh. "She wouldn't something like that happen to her."
"Right there." Dhaymin took up his cane, feeling his fingers ease into the soft leather grip. Beside him, Jen took his arm, and by his other side, he heard Rosa push the door open. The south road was beyond, and the sun would sit high ahead, pointing the way. There were still promises to be fulfilled, promises he wasn't ready to put aside just yet. "Come on, the pair of you. We've got work to be doing."
Jen walked away once the words were said and done, and the sun continued its climb over the treetops. Insects buzzed in the still air, settling on exposed ribs. The day wore on, and the sun fell back to the horizon as the hours passed, until it was only a golden ball of light glimmering between the sharp black shadows of the trees.
Numbers took a sharp, gasping breath, and opened her eyes.
She raised a hand to her chest, and hissed at the pain. Her breath was a fine cloud in the cold air. She laid her arm back out to her side. They'd been good and acted as they saw best when they snapped her open, but in doing so they'd left her even more broken than the beast had. A whole night, then, laid here and waiting out the damage.
She craned her neck, trying to catch a look at where she'd found herself, but the light was fading. But she felt the world in other ways, sensed the lay of the land and the cliffs and the fort... and the gate, that she'd felt as a ripped, whirling distortion in her senses, the gate was gone. The fort was another pile of stone amongst many, and it was as rough as a scar on the world.
The moon was coming up now, and she could see frozen ground around her body. Frost settled in swirled tendril patterns on the earth around her, where the undergrowth had frozen and withered away, and she lay at the very centre like a pinned butterfly with wings of ice.
She heard hooves, and looked past her other shoulder. Her horse stood over her, his breath coming in great clouds, his eyes glinting in the moonlight.
"That's what I get for making promises," she remarked, to nobody in particular, and with that, she closed her eyes and waited for dawn to come.