Chapter Two: The Icescapes Edit
- "Orithia, the Icescapes of the North, consist of vast plains of snow and ice and towering mountains home to the hardy and ancient warriors known as the Skyborn. Absolutely merciless to the foreigner who finds himself there, the Icescapes are fierce and brutal, and there are far too many mysteries that dwell underneath the snow."
- —Historian Ivan Kessler
- Nathaniel Adamus
- Skrugenhaal, Orithia
“Damn you, Solicius of Myrin,” I spat angrily. “Damn you to the darkness of the Netherworlds.”
Solicius stuck the knife back into his belt. “Save your breath,” the old mage muttered. “Unless you’d like to thank me for saving your life.”
“I didn’t need saving, but you could’ve at least numbed the pain, you bastard.”
I heard Solicius snort in derision. “Is the fearless mercenary growing old and yellow?”
The pain was slowly fading away, but my back still hurt like hellfire. I managed to get on my feet, and looked around.
“Where the hell’s Garim?” I asked, still furious.
Solicius looked at me, eyes cold.
“A vampire snatched his amulet away. I assume you’re familiar with your friend’s trinket?”
I found myself nodding. “Aye. It was his mother’s. The only thing she could give him when she died.”
“Well, I think it’s better if we stay here and guard the area we’ve cleared out. That way, we can at least ensure no vampire follows him or us when we leave.”
I bent down and retrieved Runeshard from the ground. “Well,” I retorted. “I’d rather not. Garim may be a great mage, but he can’t take on a nest of those fiends by himself. I’m going with him.”
“Don’t m'boy. It’s far too dangerous.”
“Garim might die!”
“Garim can take care of himself.” In a lower voice, he said, “Garim is a fine lad, a talented wizard, but … well, he isn’t the only one of his kind. There are others more talented.” I stared at him, numb.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I don’t want to risk you, Nathan. That’s it.”
A sudden thought came to me. “Did my father ask this of you?” I demanded hotly.
Solicius chuckled. “Now that would be a thought!” Then all humor and amusement faded from his voice. “No, Jason did not. None of your relatives did. Garim wants to retrieve his mother’s amulet, and as I can understand his attachment to the trinket, I will let him go, but I will not risk you going into a pit of vampires. You are too … important, let us say.”
Frustration boiled in my mind. “For Vahkaran’s sake, will you answer me with a straight answer for once?!”
“Yes, Nathan, that is why I am doing this! For Vahkaran’s sake!”
Before I could respond, a huge tremor shook the cave. My heart chilled when I heard a faint scream, and the entrance to the tunnel Garim took collapsed.
“So, tell me about these nightmares you’ve been having.”
Solicius offered me a mug of hot water, and I gripped it tightly with my freezing hands. The warmth of it came as a relief after the chilly winds we had to endure.
Skrugenhaal, though it was in southern Orithia, was almost colder than what I could endure, and the thought of having to travel northwards into the heart of the Icescapes was one I did not rejoice in.
I took a long gulp of the stuff before setting the mug down, wrapping my heavy cloak even tighter around me. “Where should I start?”
Solicius scratched at his long, snow-white beard thoughtfully. “From what I’ve heard, they started happening on the night you joined our ranks.”
“Aye.” I paused, shifting uncomfortably in my chair. My mind wandered for a second, and in that moment, I recalled a faint scream. I shuddered inwardly. “Look, Sol, I know you’re just trying to be helpful, but … but what happened to Garim … I just don’t want to talk about it.” Quietly, I continued, “But if I could say some last words on the matter before we put it to rest, it’s this; was Vahkaran’s will worth the life of my friend?”
Solicius eyed me critically, cocking his head to one side. “That,” he said, tone solemn. “Is a question I sometimes ask myself.”
A part of me wondered, even if were true, did Sol still have the capacity for sympathy or empathy? Even if he wasn’t as the legends said, an immortal magician of infinite power, he was old; it was possible that he’d been living for the past Age or two. A man like that would’ve seen far too many deaths. And how many deaths did a man need to see before he stopped thinking of them as real losses, instead, as statistics, numbers to be counted over the course of time’s merciless road?
“… be known that I serve Vahkaran as another of my order would.” My mind had wandered, and I barely realized Solicius had been talking. I struggled to recall any subconscious memories of his words. “The Lifesower’s will is our bidding. And even if I were not a Vahkaranist, I would heed his orders. He … has plans for the future.” He cast me a glance. “And you are very much involved.” Before I could respond, someone knocked on the door.
“Sol! It’s Victor! I’ve got a message from Ragnarok!”
The old warlord rushed into the room, his cheeks ruddy and red from the chill. A woolen brown scarf was wrapped around his neck. The man was at least sensible enough to dress in thick fur and leather, forgoing his usual habit of wearing at least a piece of his iron armor all day long.
Both Sol and I got out of our chairs. “What is it?” the old magician asked.
“One of Ragnarok’s mystics contacted Captain Lanoff just a while ago. They said that they need immediate support from us, because there are undead warriors attacking their camp.”
“Undead,” Solicius spat with distaste. “How long will it take us to reach the Ragnarokian camp?”
“If we don’t stop and we can ride snow mules? A few hours, but by the time we get there, we’ll probably be well exhausted.”
“The Vahkaranists have snow mules. I’ll ask a favor of them.” To me he said, “Nathan, see to it that the others know of this development while Victor and I make the necessary arrangements.”
The two men left the small guest room that was Solicius’s, and after I gulped the last of the hot-turned-lukewarm water, I followed shortly.
We had planned to reside in Skrugenhaal for a day to gather our bearings and let everybody rest. Riding a Conduit drained not only the mage controlling the Conduit but everybody else on the metaphorical ‘magicka wagon’ as well. We would’ve taken breaks, had lunch, and then made our way through the Runic Plains armed with what the Vahkaranist Disciples could offer us.
I entered the mess hall, filled with warmth due to the Vahkaranists’ heat charms they had placed over the area. Vincent and Jove were playing skeleton dice. Vincent muttered something under his breath, and the bard laughed a bit too loudly as he poured more mead into their mugs.
“Gentlemen,” I greeted them with a slight mocking tone.
Vincent downed his drink, and then turned to me. “What ails you, lad?” he asked, his Highcliff accent mangling his words. He always sounded like that when he had a bit too much drink.
“Solicius asked me to inform you that we’ll be leaving shortly.”
“Already?” Jove asked incredulously.
“There have been some unexpected developments.”
“Knowing Sol, he wouldn’t do somethin’ like this ‘less he had a real reason. Pro’ly somethin’ important, somethin’ dangerous has come out.”
“Aye. The Reaver Ragnarok has just sent a message to Skrugenhaal and reported that undead warriors are attacking his encampment. While he and your brother make the preparations, we should pack up and be ready to leave.”
Vincent nodded as Jove emptied his mug and packed up his dice and game board. As they did so, I looked ‘round the hall. “Where’s Aelia?”
“In her room, down the hallway.” Vincent replied. Both men were already walking rather hurriedly towards the exit. “Best hurry up ‘bout it, lad. Don’t want to miss the fun.” Jove and Vincent disappeared out the door; the man’s last words were nearly drowned out by the slamming of the hall’s doors. I went back the way I came from, walked down the hall, and arrived at the Kynliadian Huntress’s door.
“Aelia? Are you there?” I tried to make my voice clear but not far too loud. I rapped on the door. “Aelia?”
There was a short bout of silence. Then a rather irritated voice responded, “Who’s asking?”
“It’s Nathan.” Before she could say anything, I quickly continued, “Sol asked me to tell everybody about a few changes in the plan.”
I could almost hear her hesitation. “Come in.”
Skrugenhaal’s Masters did not furnish their outpost fashionably, but practically. And they built it practically as well. Every building located in the outpost was built from good quality wood and stone, and with magicka ore deposits nearby, they could afford to keep continuous heat charms on their buildings. Most rooms were furnished with simple but sturdy furniture, and many of those rooms had private baths, but unlike other Vahkaranist outposts and halls, they had little in the way of paintings and tapestries.
Aelia’s room was not the case; that I discovered as I walked into her room. A fine, thick-woolen rug hugged the polished stone floor, a few worn but colorful tapestries hung on the walls, and a painting hung over the large fireplace, depicting a scene I recognized as the Kynliadian chieftain Jelal Ra’Jbai leading his tribesmen against the Wilderfolk. But I noticed the architecture of the room had unique Kynliadian touches to it as well - faint, intricate carvings into the walls and the colors were of that of a forest. I suspected that Sol picked out the room for her just for that reason, and I would later discover I was right.
I watched her as she extinguished the flames in the fireplace, an unnaturally-strong gust of wind impossibly extinguishing the flames as she waved her hand towards it. Her worn, old hunting rifle was strapped to her back. She caught my gaze neutrally. “Thought I might go out for a bit of target practice before we leave.” she said in an offhand way. “Though I anticipate we’ll have plenty of that later.”
“Well, you won’t have to wait,” I replied. “We’ll be leaving in a bit. One of Ragnarok’s men contacted the outpost, said that undead ghouls were attacking their camp. Sol and the old warlord are making preparations, and I’ve already told Vincent and Jove.”
She nodded. “Very well.” she said. I saw her brown eyes glance at me strangely. I frowned.
Part of me wanted to bring up the fact that she knew of Garim’s tale. The other part of me reasoned that it would be wrong to address her in such a familiar way, when it was quite the opposite.
Instead, I left her room, feeling odd. There was something strange in her eyes, her voice … I shook the thought away. There were more important things in hand, more pressing matters at the moment.
Many folk call Orithian-bred Patheon horses ‘snow mules’. Myself, I think it is a derogatory term that undermines the reputation of the horses. Naturally snow-white in color, they are perfect for blending into the landscape, and after millennia of adaptation, they are well-suited to travelling quickly through the Icescapes and enduring the harsh cold weather.
The Vahkaranists kept two stables full of Patheon steeds for emergency work, which was rather common. After all, they were stationed in Orithia.
Ragnarok’s camp was located a few hours’ ride from Skrugenhaal. We tried not to overwork the horses, as Solicius did not think the Orithian Hallheads would take it gently if we broke their horses’ winds. Nevertheless, it was hard not to have that sense of urgency hang over our heads like a storm cloud that would unleash rain upon us any moment.
I knew we reached the place when we saw the blood. There were a few bodies, but far more bones and ashes. We slowed to a trot and got off the horses.
The encampment consisted of a few rugged-looking tents and far more bedrolls that surrounded a large fire. Judging by its abnormal size and the ferocity of which it burned on little firewood, it was probably enchanted to keep the warmth going.
The bodies were laid out on pieces of bearskin, their faces covered and arms positioned to grasp their weapons. Warriors even in death. The bones and ashes had been tossed into the fire, and the smell of corpses filled my nostrils.
A burly man covered from head-to-toe in thick furs and wielding a battleaxe was approaching us. He barked something in what sounded like Old Runic. Orithia was perhaps one of the few places where folk still spoke the language of the dead.
A tall, lean young woman in perhaps her mid-twenties came from a tent and stopped him, holding out her arm. The burly man glared at her, and roared something in retaliation, but the woman responded in kind. The burly man reluctantly walked off.
The woman approached us, looking cautiously at Solicius. “You are Solicius?” she asked in Leabinese, a light Orithia accent slurring her words.
“Yes,” the old mage replied. “Who might you be? And where is Ragnarok?”
“I am Ollia,” she replied. “And clanfather is gone. Gone with the mystic and half-dozen men, towards the northwest, towards the Dragon’s Teardrop and the Old Hall.” She pointed towards a vaguely northwestern direction, and I could make out a gray-black blur in the distance.
“What? Why?” Victor barked, his voice gruff but discernable even though the winds blew hard. Ollia glared at him for a brief moment before replying. “The skeletons and ghouls, they came from the Old Hall. Why, I do not know. Maybe because the Old Hall was built by those now dead, and some stupid marauders decided to go digging up graves. Clanfather wanted to go make sure the dead stay dead, and so he left to make sure that the skeletons and ghouls would trouble us no more.” Her words began to make sense to me; I remembered a thing from my old history lessons, something about the dead Runic Empire’s ruined temples and buildings buried underneath the ice and snow in Orithia.
“Damn,” I heard Solicius swear softly. “Looks like we’ll have to chase after them,” That was directed towards us. To Ollia, he said, “Well, thank you for your assistance anyway, Ollia. If there’s anything we can do to fend off this menace – heal your men, supply you with arms or armor – just ask.”
But Ollia shook her head. “No, you can help us by finding clanfather and the mystic and the half-dozen men. And you can help by putting the dead back into their graves, where they belong.”
“We’ll see to it,” Solicius assured, and motioned to us to saddle up again.
The ‘Old Hall’ Ollia mentioned was not too far away. I assumed the skeletons and ghouls must’ve attacked the encampment early in the morning, when the clouds were still thick in the sky and the sun just over Dragon’s Peak. Why the undead would go after Ragnarok’s Reaver camp, I had no idea, but were we riding towards the necromancer Solicius spoke of? The infamous Lucifer Morag? Did he raise these ghouls, and did he know we intended to win Ragnarok’s support? Or was it all a big damn coincidence?
I pondered these irritating questions for the short, half-hour ride. As we approached the Old Hall, which looked a lot like the old temples I’d seen in paintings, we heard battle-cries and the sound of steel against bones.
“Ragnarok!” Victor bellowed, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Aelia getting her rifle ready.
“Look lively; we’ve got some undead ghoulies!” Jove roared as he leapt off his horse, drawing his twin shortswords.
I saw a stout but muscular man clad in thick leather armor swinging a battleaxe the size of a child at a skeleton, and I watched its bones scatter apart from the force of the impact. A mage hurled a fireball and off came a rotting ghoul’s head, its corpse joining dozens of other undead bodies, but I noticed a few human ones as well.
I drew Runeshard from my back, and, still on the horse, swung at a ghoul who was lurching out towards a Reaver. The blade cut through the ghoul like a knife through melting cheese, and part of its upper torso was severed. Stunned, it staggered back, only to be finished by a Reaver’s axe.
The horse slowed, and I leapt off the steed, drawing whatever magickal energies from the earth. To my surprise, a sudden strength and energy filled my body. My eyes flickered towards the half-buried temple, and I caught the gleam of magicka ore. The entire temple was built from the stuff.
Lightning crackled between my fingers, and I directed the energy into my blade. The small flash of light got the attention of a wandering ghoul, its one good eye staring blankly at me. I didn’t hesitate. Charging forward, I lifted Runeshard, sliced off the creature’s arm, leaped back from its awkward lurch as the electricity surged into its body, and caught the edge of my sword on its shoulder, cleaving its head off.
“No time for fancy tricks, boy!” I heard Solicius shout. I saw him unleash a torrent of flames towards a half dozen rotting ghouls. “Kill ‘em cleanly and quickly!”
I nodded to myself as I made flames flicker on my blade. A skeleton tried to attack me with a rusty old war axe, but I parried and stabbed it through the skull, and the rest of the body dissolved into ashes.
The others were making short work of the undead. Jove was hurling throwing knives like mad, and three of them found their targets in the heads of a few ghouls. Victor seemed to be reveling in the slaughter, roaring joyously as his falchion impaled a ghoul and Vincent stabbed it in the skull. My eyes flickered over to a few bodies with small holes in their foreheads; I judged that to be Aelia’s work.
There were seven of the undead creatures left – five ghouls and two skeletons. A throwing knife caught a ghoul in its right eye.
“And then there were six,” I muttered before charging into the scene.
Battle can make a man lose awareness of his surroundings, lose awareness of his higher functions. I do not recall being injured, but I would not know til the adrenaline left me.
I quickly took out the last two skeletons with a skillful sweep that shattered their legs. A Reaver crushed their skulls with his warhammer and nodded to me with his right hand over his left shoulder; I would later find out from Ragnarok it was a Reaver’s way to show respect to a foreigner.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a ghoul make a strange motion with his rotting hand and a flash of light, but a wild whoop of laughter from the Reaver Ragnarok distracted me as he brought down his battleaxe on a ghoul missing its legs who was making a pathetic attempt to crawl and retrieve its weapon.
Before we knew it, the battlefield fell silent as the small skirmish was over. Leaning against the side of the Runic temple’s wall and trying to catch my breath, I saw Jove limp over and pat me on the shoulder.
“Saw you cut through the things like a knife through jelly,” he said, chuckling. “Did you even get scratched, o fearless mercenary?”
I was too out of breath to even respond, but I managed a shrug towards the bard, who laughed and went to check up on the others.
There weren’t many casualties. Of Ragnarok, the mystic, and the half-dozen men who came with them, there were only two dead and one injured. Far more bones and ashes littered the snow.
I decided I should follow Jove and meet the infamous leader of the Ragnarokian Reavers himself, but as I took a step forward, a sharp pain on my back dazed me. My hands felt for the spot, and came away sticky with blood.
“Shit,” I swore softly, feeling dizzy. The wound probably wasn’t much, but the pain was starting to get worse. I tried to move, but fatigue clouded my senses. When had I been hit? And as I felt parts of my body turn numb, I wondered if the undead had been equipped with poison weapons. Then I remembered the ghoul who had made the strange sign with his hands.
No. That was impossible. If there was one thing every budding mercenary knew from An Adventurer’s Bestiary, it was that the undead – especially ghouls – were incapable of performing magick. Only the living, only creatures with Souls and Essence could do so. Did that mean that the necromancer we faced had the power to defy the magickal laws of Arett?
I certainly didn’t have enough time to think of an answer. I heard someone shout before my entire body went numb and I collapsed on the ground.
“Watch over him, Aelia; if he wakes up, give him water and find Galen. The Nether magicks make a man’s body betray itself, and the worse thing he can face after the poisoning is illness.”
“I will, Sol. Go take a breather.”
The sound of a door closing roused my consciousness. I shifted amidst the thick bundle of sheets I laid in, but even that was an effort.
Someone came into the room.
“How’s he doing?” a smooth, unfamiliar voice said.
“Well, he’s alive, but just about barely. Hasn’t woken up since he collapsed outside the Runic ruins.”
“I’m not surprised. But what I am surprised about is how he came into contact with the Nether magicks. The undead … are not spellcasters.”
“A mage’s spell gone awry?” Aelia suggested softly.
The voice was affronted at that. “None of our folk practice magick as despicable as such. We’re not those damned Vaevirians. Or some filthy Marauders.”
“I know.” Their voices died away to soft murmurs. Or was it just my ringing head that made it harder and harder to hear what they said.
I lapsed in and out of consciousness for heavens know how long. I supposed it was a few hours before I found a bit of strength. I didn’t exactly know who was in the room watching over me, but I didn’t really care at the moment. I shifted a bit, but to no avail. Growing frustrated, I put all my strength into sitting up on the bed. My wrists ached, but I relented.
I heard a soft gasp, and then someone rushed over and helped me sit up.
“Water?” My ringing head couldn’t exactly remember whose voice it was. Colors swam around my eyes, and everything was blurry. I managed a faint but noticeable nod.
The person put a clay cup of water to my lips and I drank it painfully. My lips felt dry and my body completely dehydrated and fatigued. A soft, undeniably feminine hand pressed against my forehead, and then abruptly left.
My mind fell docile again for a few moments, before I heard someone coming into the room.
“… burning up,” someone was saying.
“I’ve some old remedies used by the mystics during the times of the Red Plague,” the smooth voice from earlier said. “Crushed leaves from the Valevin plant can brew a fine tea that will cool the body. Though,” the man continued. “I’m not sure a Leabian constitution can handle Valevin tea. Just being cautious. Might have to dilute the dosage …” He trailed off.
The only time I awoke with a mostly clear head was when it was late in the evening, and the moon shone bright and full through the sheet of frost on the window in the Healer’s Hut of the Ragnarokian village. Someone entered into the room for what seemed like the tenth dozen time today, but after a few moments, I recognized him simply by the trim of his robes.
“So, Nathaniel, m’boy,” Solicius said kindly, pulling up a chair next to my bed. “How are you feeling?”
I managed to speak, though my throat still itched and burned slightly. “Tired. Uncomfortable. But … seems like the healer’s tea worked; the fever’s mostly gone, though the tea tasted like ogre shit.” I tried to laugh, but ended up in a coughing fit. Solicius patted my back firmly, then got more water for me to drink. I pushed it away. “No, Sol, no more water. I really need to take a piss right about now. I’ve been confined to bed for the whole damn day; what the hell happened?”
“You collapsed right outside the old ruins a few moments after the battle had ended. At first, we were shocked because we hadn’t seen anything hit you at all. Then we found the wound on your back.” Solicius shook his head solemnly. “The Nether Magicks,” he growled with distaste. “Foulest thing a man can dabble in. Compared to it, necromancy doesn’t seem that bad. Nothing good comes of the Nether Magicks; it kills its targets slowly or drains every ounce of Essence and Soul out of them, and it affects the minds of its casters as well. It reduces them to gibbering, moronic madmen who go on sadistic killing streaks.
“Your wound was … spreading by the moment, growing larger, and your bloodstreams were starting to … Al’vala-tusk, may our Ancestors be merciful, its foul corruption was starting to leak into your blood. Had it not been for the Ragnarokian mystic Galen, you would’ve died. There’s no true cure for Nethic corruption, but one can overcome it until its effects are completely harmless.”
Solicius looked thoughtful. “I don’t know how you could’ve possibly … unless … no, but that would mean …” He paused, as if considering, even as I looked at him, confused. He saw the look on my face and laughed. “Hah! Don’t trouble yourself with it, boy. I was only thinking of how the undead could possibly wield the Nether Magicks. No, don’t scoff, it’s possible, but I’ve not heard of it for … so long. This necromancer, this Lucifer Morag, if he set these beasts loose on Ragnarok’s clan, then he must have knowledge of old rites and spells I thought were forgotten. I thought, at least.”
He got up. “Do you feel capable of walking? Ragnarok wants to talk to all of us, and he won’t exclude ‘the poor bastid who got thumped by the fist of darkness’.” I nodded wearily, and he helped me out of my bed. My feet felt fatigued and ached like hell. “Grab my large cloak, because I don’t feel strong or patient enough to change right now.” I said. I pulled the cloak around me and, with the help of Solicius, pulled on my boots.
“Let’s go,” the old mage said, opening the door for me. “Ragnarok’s waiting.”