After three weeks zigzagging across the tundra/taiga line of northern Caledron, the Warrior had learned a few tricks to stay warm. Stay moving, for one. Eat a lot. Wear layers of clothes to trap warm air close to the body. But most importantly, he had learned to always wear the magic heatstone amulet he’d bought at a trading post. It fought off the chill perfectly. Didn’t help with the water, of course. The heatstone melted the snow that got inside his coat, which then trickled down into his boots. But at least it wouldn’t refreeze there. He might get trench foot, but not frostbite.
His search for rimefiends had been quiet. They had been attacking northern villages for several months in ones and twos, but never in a coordinated way. These ice elementals weren’t smart, but they were fused with a rare malice—a form of cold that hated you. Some were nearly translucent ice, while others were all too visible, bursting from frozen lakes or swooping in on icy gales.
The Warrior had heard lots of stories from the northern villages, but hadn’t seen much suspicious activity in his scouting. When someone means to invade a country, there are plenty of signs. Supplies are the main one—even an army of elementals needs some kind of sustenance. Prices always went up before a war too, but scared as they were, villagers in the taiga settlements didn’t seem to be hoarding or selling to some secret quartermaster. The tundra orcs continued their skirmishes. They didn’t behave like anything unusual was going on. If Doom planned to invade Tala by marshaling forces here, he was being extremely subtle.
The Warrior’s crampons crunched the ice beneath his feet, and the wind howled out of a distant ice canyon. In retrospect, he decided the two sounds combined covered the approach of the charging frostsaber rimefiend.
A typical frostsaber was not as big as the Warrior, perhaps 3 feet at the shoulder. But it had at least 100 pounds on him. This one was probably a little larger than average. It pounced on his side, thick, icicle claws slashing into his greatcoat. Its ice-teeth punched holes in his coat, but didn’t pierce the layers of hide underneath. They still left two throbbing welts on his shoulder. Its breath was frigid, chapping his entire face at once.
Both bodies went down, with the frostsaber on top. The Warrior’s skull bounced off the hard ground and his vision blurred for a second. The monster savaged his shoulder again, ripping off his whole left sleeve.
The Warrior knew weapons were scarce. He had traded his dagger last week to an ice dwarf for information. His longspear was 30 yards away, scattered by the rimefiend’s charge. Using what he had, the Warrior tucked his knees and clawed at the creature’s underbelly with his crampons. Shreds of ice flew from the creature’s body, and sparks of magic spewed from the cuts.
The creature moaned like a winter wind, but hung on to its advantage. Its face hovered over the Warrior’s own. Clouds of supercooled air trickled from its mouth, falling in reluctant tendrils. Everywhere the tendrils fell, the Warrior froze. His coat stiffened, the fur lining of his hood became icy needles, and as the gas crept onto his face, he felt stinging cold of near-instant frostbite.
He reflected on how he had gotten to this point.
Dun Ordha had been the single most impressive thing the Warrior had ever seen. An entire metropolis of elves, dwarves, and humans, living in splendor amid a forest city that seemed more grown than built.
There was literally singing everywhere. Not sappy, half-drunk bard song, but good music. Animals lived among the races freely, and many seemed bonded to a person, like familiars. Trees intertwined with crystalline structures, spiraling up into the canopy. And as natural as it all looked, it was too perfect to have grown that way. These people had built it to look like this.
At the center of the city lay its most impressive structure, Capitoline Mount. A palisade of living trees surrounded the central castle, crafted from marble, crystal, fine metals, and live plants. The Mount was home to King Caelan V, the storied elven king, universally beloved by the people of Dun Ordha.
The rangers accompanied him to the palisade wall, and deposited him with embarrassingly sincere farewells. When Isbeil handed him a handmade bracelet made of rare bark and engraved silver, he reddened. He had never quite learned all their names.
He was saved from further embarrassment by the arrival of a thin, well-dressed dwarf from within the palisade wall. “Thanks be to you, friends, for bringing our guest safely,” he said to the rangers. They exchanged formal pleasantries, and departed with one more handclasp with the Warrior.
“Welcome to you, honored guest!” said the dwarf. “I am Ailig Holtt.” He pronounced each “t” separately.
The Warrior craned his head back to study the crenelated tops of the palisade. “Hello Ailig. Who are you?”
“Ha!” Ailig laughed with good humor. “I am a court historian in service to the king. I will be your guide while you’re in Capitoline Mount.”
“Are you my guide or my watcher?” The Warrior turned his gaze back down to the dwarf to watch his reaction.
The dwarf smiled. “Outside these walls, go where you may. There is no compulsion. Inside, we want you to feel welcome and gain ready answers to any questions. I can help with that.”
“Watcher it is,” the Warrior said, with a smile of his own.
Ailig led the Warrior through a number of large rooms, adorned with frescoes and tapestries. In the Warrior’s experience, these sorts of things usually depicted wars and quests. Here, they glorified making objects: pottery, silversmithing, instrument-making, enchanting, and some things he didn’t recognize. Animals of every kind featured prominently, and twining ivy and crystal motifs bordered each one. Ailig kept up a monologue throughout the entire journey, describing architectural flourishes or portraits of dead people. Sometimes he referred to a cluster of different looking portraits as the same person.
A few minutes later, they arrived in a great circular room, many yards across, with a large wood table in the center. Several people were already seated around it, in various discussions. The Warrior recognized some faces from the chaotic last battle on his own world. He hadn’t been the only one to make it after all.
A trumpet sounded from the hall outside, and all the Talans quickly stood, even the animals. The Warrior had barely cleared his own chair when a muscular, regal elf entered, dressed in tasteful finery. The Warrior recognized King Caelan from the numerous portraits and busts he had passed on the way in. There was no announcement, but none was needed. The king magnetized the room. He had the kind of charisma that made you stop what you were doing.
“Visitors to Tala, please accept our welcome,” Caelan began. His voice was smooth and musical. “I have heard that your journey was arduous, and your losses many. May we sing for the honored dead.”
The room broke into spontaneous song, a mournful ballad for the fallen. No one from the Warrior’s world knew the words, but some were humming along by the second verse. It was catchy for a dirge.
When they finished Caelan continued smoothly, “Like your friends who crossed the Veil, we too have battled great evil. Over 900 years ago, our ancestors and children won a great war against the evil forces of Tala. With the help of our beloved goddess, Bandia, we drove out all manner of evil. Then we set boundaries around our nation, preventing their re-entry. “
“Since then, Caledron has enjoyed centuries of peace. We put away war, and became artists, musicians… and most of all, builders. We build wonders so that we may be edified and our goddess glorified. We build for joy. We build for future generations.
“Building lasting treasures is one of our highest callings. But treasures, as you know, are costly. The very pact with Bandia that ensures our peace also hinders us. Before Doom’s arrival, the evils of our world were weakened and contained. Now, they are enlivened by his presence. They stand at the gates of our civilization and threaten invasion.
“Time passed differently for you who followed Doom. Some of you only arrived days ago. We have known of him for months, and suspect he has been here longer. His evil is subtle, and his corruption spreads like an untended fire.
“We must face harsh truths, my new friends. Our warriors are few, and our pact with Bandia prevents us from engaging in the hostility and horrors of war. But you know this evil,and do not feel the Curses as we do. You have defeated Doom before. Will you join us, and help us defeat it now that its crouches outside our door?”
The Warrior recognized the senior wizard from Doom’s banishment ritual in the room. The wizard was missing an eye now, and looked frailer than when he had yelled in the Warrior’s ear not that long ago. He raised his staff and said quietly, “We did not intend to release Doom onto your world. But I, for one, must be responsible for the consequences of my actions. I will go.” The rest of the old worlders fell in after that.
Everyone was assigned to various outbreaks and threats on the borders of Caledron. The Warrior was tasked with exploring the rimefiend threat on the northern border. The rimefiends had been checked by a magical artifact known as the Glacierhame. This artifact kept them harnessed and harmless a dozen miles from the Caledronian border. According to reports, the Glacierhame had broken, and the elementals were mustering under a leader along the border for an invasion.
So the Warrior went to investigate. When he arrived at the village of Snowfall, he showed them his rumpled orders, on the fine, hand-made paper. As predicted, the locals were dutiful, but distant, in helping him discern the goings-on of the rimefiends. The welcome in the capitol has been warm and sincere, but on the outskirts, trust was more precious. They sang only two verses of a welcome song at his arrival.
That lukewarm welcome cooled until, three weeks later, he was staring into a face of frigid elemental breath.
The Warrior’s lips cracked. He felt his tear ducts begin to freeze over. He could not live through much more of this, so his gloved hands fumbled to get between him and the frostsaber, to push it off. In the scramble, one hand brushed by the heatstone. Even amid the killer frost assault, his chest felt comfortably warm….
He grabbed at the amulet, feeling its heat radiate through the glove. He snapped it off its ivy lanyard and shoved his entire fist into the rimefiend’s mouth.
The creature screamed like an ice shelf cracking. The scream echoed across the tundra, startling a flock of birds into flight. He dropped the amulet in its gullet, and pulled his hand back before it bit down. It leaped off the Warrior in agony. The rimefiend shook its head and pawed at its mouth, like a dog that accidentally ate a bee. Then it ran away making ghastly sounds, water pouring from its maw.
The Warrior lay on the ground half-stunned. Then he got up and brushed the snow off the rags of his coat.
He did not know why the Glacierhame was broken, but he knew enough about military strategy to recognize a feint. There were not enough forces in the region to commit more than a few days’ march into Caledron, and not nearly enough resources to hold captured land. The rimefiends were a threat, but not an invading force. Doom’s strength lay somewhere else.
Naive and odd as the Talans might be, the Warrior couldn’t let this flower of a world get crushed under Doom’s boot heel. He had to get back to Dun Ordha and let them know what he’d discovered. It would be a cold trudge back to Snowfall without that heatstone.