The Ice Witch does not sleep in her citadel. She sleeps anywhere, and everywhere, and nowhere. Sometimes all at once.
The cavernous place where she now chooses to lay her body down for a few hours could hold a thousand fortresses. A veritable sea of True Ice stretches from underground horizon to underground horizon. They are not the horizons of the tumultuous world above, but closer—much closer—to an entirely different kind of madness.
She visits this place often, and always by herself, but she is never alone.
Some called them monsters. Some called them gods. Regardless, the vast shadows that slumber beneath the icy blanket can only dream.checks in dutifully. Makes sure their bedding is comfortable.
The Watchers must not awaken.
She lost her eyes long ago, so it is her mind that traces their sleeping forms. What she sees has always chilled her beyond the concerns of flesh and bone, so that she no longer shivers at the touch of ice against her skin.
When she is down here, her blindness is a blessing. It is horror enough to feel their presence. To walk in their dreams. To know what it is they desire for this world.
And so, she must keep them dreaming.
One of them has begun to stir.sensed it with the last new moon, hoping against hope that it would settle itself once more—but now its abyssal intelligence squirms against the others, growing ever more restless.
She removes her helm. Her ceremonial robes fall around her ankles, and she pads out across the frozen emptiness beyond.
splays her fingers across the ice. Her hair hangs over her face, hiding the lines of age, and the scarred ruin of her empty eyes. She learned long ago the secret ways to walk in dreams, to traverse the impossible distances of this harsh land in moments, back and forth a hundred times before each new dawn. Sometimes, she forgets where her physical body is.
Her mind drifts down, now, through the barrier. She muses briefly at the thickness of the True Ice. To place the entire burden of faith upon glass is pure folly, and yet there is no other choice.
On the other side, the Watcher is all teeth and darkness and chittering, frustrated anticipation.
It is bigger than a mountain. Is it one of the small ones?hopes so. She has never dared probe the defenses of the largest—the ones that seem able to devour gravity and time itself, eaters of not only worlds, but entire planes of reality. They make her feel very small and insignificant, like a single mote of frost in a blizzard.
She focuses on the great and terrible creature before her.
Its dream becomes hers.
Anotherwaits for her there, in the dreamscape. This ageless being towers behind a black sun, the strands of her hair floating into the heavens, her eyes whole, crystal-blue, and shining all with the celestial energies of the world’s final dawn.
She is beautiful. She is a goddess. She is struggling to press the sun down below the horizon.
The fiery black orb fights back, trying to rise again. It burns the goddess’ fingers.
She sees long un-shadows falling over mountains blanketed with frozen ashes. This land is a mockery of the Freljord, devoid of all life and magic…Life. Life is the key. The living souls of the Freljord, this icy land that once offered in sacrifice to the beasts below. She leads the stirring Watcher away from its own dark thoughts, as gently as she can, and tries to soothe it with the dreams of others.
The tribe is split across three camps. It is this way because the Iceborn warmother decrees it so. To hedge against an assassin’s blade, she says, so that none will know in which tent she slumbers.
Glacier underfoot, stars overhead, the priest marks his observations on a fold of cured elnük skin by candlelight, upon an icy outcropping. His hand is steady and bold. He must send his notes each night to the Frostguard Citadel.
He wonders, does power mask paranoia? Does—
He sees his breath, and knows that he is not alone. Shame constricts his throat. Dutifully, he reaches for a strip of cloth to honor, greatest of the Three. After all the oaths he spoke, only her gaze could ever bring such a chill to his heart.
“Do not bind your eyes,” she says, emerging from the night’s shadow. Her voice is steady and cold.
“Forgive me,” he says. “I am late. My reports are—”
“It is not your words I seek. You are dreaming. I need you to listen. Listen to the ice.”
The Frost Priest’s eyes widen at what he hears. The ice hungers.
No. Not the ice. Something… beneath it?
“What does it mean?” he asks, butis gone.
The priest awakens. He ruminates on the dream. He pledged to serve, freeze, and bleed blindly. He reaches for the strip of cloth, and binds his eyes.
Before dawn breaks, he is miles away from the warmother and her three camps.And drifts away into another’s dream.
Seven ice-hawks take flight across a blue sky, scattering the frost from their feathers. The dismal fang of a mountain looms over a beach of rounded gray stones, descending into the shallows of the sea.
The little girl—no one remembers her name but her—walks alone.
She picks up a crab. It’s black, with square eyes swiveling atop its head. She holds it carefully, its legs tickling the palm of her hand.
She looks up to see a chunk of ice floating in the dark water, carried to land on near-frozen tides. It bumps onto the rocky shore and begins to melt. Inch by inch, it shrinks away to reveal the form of a woman curled in a cradle of ice, a thing born of winter.
The girl drops the crab.
arises from the breaking waves like a—
“WITCH!” the girl shrieks. A gale of ice and snow and searing cold bursts from her mouth.
The witch vanishes, and only the little girl crying a blizzard remains.
She wakes with a start beside a dying fire, surrounded by other sleeping children. They are the ones orphaned upon the Freljord’s reddening snow. A stern-looking woman watches over them, an axe strapped to her back. They all know she would die for them.
An ember pops from the hearth, landing in the shabby furs at the girl’s feet.
She touches it with her finger. It freezes solid in an instant.
Already walking into another dream, Iceborn. Perhaps a new weapon for the war to come.Or a new enemy. knows to watch this child. She is
High up in the mountains, it is not the deep cold that has laid this poor traveler low.
It is his own ignorance.
He hunches in a shallow cave. He hums because he can no longer sing the songs of his youth to comfort himself. He cannot bear to inhale the icy air. His beard, white with frost and frozen snot, makes it painful to open his lips, now blue and cracked. He cannot feel his legs, nor his hands. He no longer shivers. He is too far gone.
He has surrendered. The freeze will take his heart, and then it will be over.
It’s not the end he desired. But he feels warm. Free.
“To the fair lands! To the sunshine!” The lyrics slide dully around his brain. Instead of snow and ice, he sees green pastures. He can feel the summer breeze in his hair.
approaches the man from the back of the shallow cave. She can see the death in his fingers and toes, spreading slowly. He will not awaken again. This will be his final dream.
She places a hand on his shoulder. No one should have to be alone in their final moments.
“Your people are waiting for you, friend,” she whispers. “Lay down in the long grass. I will watch over you while you rest.”
He looks up at her. He smiles, and nods. He looks younger.
Then he closes his eyes, and drifts away.remains on the edge of his dream, until the dream is no more.
War cries and death screams drag Freljord will ever know.south. She can smell blood and fire on the wind, and the sharp tang of angry steel. Grass grows here, where the thaw happens. It is not a sunny pasture, but it is the closest thing that most tribes of the
The dream spins, and distorts. Her knees feel like they will buckle, if that would have any meaning. She steadies herself against the upright timbers of a burning hut.
The flames do nothing. They are not real.
A shadow falls over her.
“Long have I waited for this day, witch!”
Surprisingly, it is one of the Avarosans—a great red-haired brute, his neck bulging with strained arteries. He hefts a notched sword over his head. The bloodlust is plain in his eyes, as he imagines victories he will never see in his lifetime.
Nonetheless, he is ready to deliver the final, cleaving blow to his sworn enemy.
has lost count of how many times she has died in someone else’s dream. Each time, a piece of her drifts away, never to return.
No. Not again. Not this time.
Great claws of ice close around her to form a shield, entombing her. The warrior’s blade does not even chip the surface. He staggers back, roaring defiantly as he—
Let him awaken, and believe himself the hero who drove off the Ice Witch. It was only a dream. The Avarosan tribes will fall… just like the treacherous harridan from whom they took their name.And has more pressing concerns.
The eye of the storm is most ferocious in the Freljord.
The gale roars. Lightning flashes. Even snowflakes can draw blood.
finds the spirit walker channeling this elemental fury. His trance is much like a dream—a bridge between worlds. The storm is a prayer, a direct line to the Ursine’s demi-god master.
Freljord, no matter how hard she tried.would spit. That hateful creature is one of the few memories she could not purge from the
Lightning strikes the shaman multiple times. A toothy maw stretches his jawline. Fingernails blacken into claws. It is neither man nor bear, but something else entirely. All its life will be much like a dream. No sleep. No joy. Only the storm.edges closer, looking for anything she can use in the roiling madness.
Then the shaman’s frightful gaze snaps to her, and she finds herself face to face with an avatar of thehimself.
Without thought,lashes out with cleaving spikes of True Ice pulled from the earth around them. She tries to snare the creature’s limbs, to slow it for even just—
Dark blood stains the snow. Thunder rolls around the distant peaks. The twisted shaman falls to his knees, his body torn between the shape of what he was, and what he might have become. It is a kindness, really, for his mind is still mostly his own.Other eyes shine out from the storm. These shapechangers are not the threat they once were. They are a battle for another time.
warily circles the Watcher beneath the ice. She can see her own tiny body on the surface above them—her pale, corpse-like flesh is almost as white as freshly driven snow.
The beast is barely aware of her presence. It is like some monstrous, mewling newborn.
In the dreams of the Watchers, there is nothing.
And more nothing. And more nothing. A horizon of nothing, framed by mountains of nothing. Above all that nothing? A sky of nothing, with dense clouds of nothing.
In the face of all of that nothing,fights to remain… something.
The abyss yawns around her. She watches the black sun devour her avatar, but no matter how much it pulls into its maw, there is always more for it to eat.
She screams, and explodes into dark fractals that divide into billions ofs—every one of them screaming. Against all the nothing, the sound is barely even a whisper, and yet even that is enough to rattle the dream to its very foundations…
Her barely conscious body traces glyphs on the surface of the True Ice barrier. It is an old spell, born of a fire now long extinguished. She scrawls in spasms and convulsions. Her movements are desperate, jerking, clumsy.
Only a shred of her spirit remains in her body.
And then, in a rush, most of her returns. She vomits watery bile onto the ice, and curls up as it freezes around her.
Below, the writhing shadow sleeps again. It dreams of eating her for a little while longer, and that dream buys it the only measure of peace its kind ever seem to desire.
Peace. It is somethingnever experiences. Not anymore.
She dresses herself, and returns to ascend the worn steps. The Frostguard await her leadership and guidance. She will find no peace in this life.
That is a small price to pay, to keep the beasts slumbering.
Blistering winds lash the orphaned Iceborn’s cheeks almost bloody. Her nose went numb an hour ago—or was it two? It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters, because whenever she closes her eyes, she sees the witch.
Silhouetted against the never-setting sun, the woman rides a beast of ice, bone, and dark magic, and dazzles in a gown of freshly-fallen snow. The horned helm that covers her eyes gives the impression of her head rising out into the stars.
Parched black lips part to offer horrific prophecies.
“Reathe, I see you.”
The Ice Witch has never failed to make a dramatic entrance into Reathe’s dreams.
“The darkness grins,” she continues, “and says to me ‘Ice and lies make desperate tools’. I implore my hand to curl into a fist! To pluck out the ever-watchful eye! To impale it upon a spike of ice! Before the wind howls its song only to the widening abyss…”
Reathe’s eyelashes have frozen shut. Now, it hurts to tear them apart. But she must. The longer they’re stuck together, the harder it will be to break them open.
She cries out, and feels hot blood trickle down her cheek. She fogs a piece of ice with her breath, and rubs it until she can see her reflection. The split in the corner of her eyelid is not too bad.
But in that reflection, she sees she is not alone in her sheltered cave.
An emaciated man shivers at the entrance, with early morning light casting its blue tint over his face. Then Reathe realizes this is no fanciful illusion. The man’s skin is blue, and translucent. His movements are haggard and stiff, as though he’s trying to reawaken his failing joints.
“It’s cold,” said the haggardly man. “I knew this as I lay dying.”
Reathe skitters backward on her palms and heels, away from him. “I have no food,” she calls out, hating the fear in her own voice. “Little shelter. There is nothing for you to take from me.”
The man tilts his head.
“I am of no hunger. No shelter shields me. I saw this cave, and you… as her frost clouded my eyes. Our paths are like rivers meeting. I knew this as I lay dying.”
“Died often, have you?”
“Just the once was enough.”
“You…” Reathe hesitates, unsure of herself in that moment. “You saw the witch, too?”
“No. But I hear the witch in my veins… in every moment, with every beat of my once-still heart.”
He holds out his blackened hand to her.
“There are others, little Iceborn. Others we must meet. And there are many miles to tread in each other’s company.”
“And you knew all this as you lay dying?”
“Death reveals much, little Iceborn.”
Reathe stands slowly. Warily. “Who are you?” she asks.
“I am no one anymore. I am but a passenger in my own body. My name is frozen over. But you may call me… Shamble, and I shall call you…?”
“Reathe, of the Narrow-Foot Clan.”
“Then come, Reathe, Iceborn of Narrow-Foot. The others are near.”She does not move. “And who are they?”
The spires of the Frostguard Citadel rise from the frozen landscape. Waves of magical aurorae—greens, and pinks, and blues—dance in a sky that is almost always night. The stars twinkle eternally here, in the coldest and cleanest air.
Few know how to find this hidden fortress. There are many in this world who would raise an army, and raze it to the ground. Those who do find the citadel rarely leave on their own terms.
Even so, five weary figures trudge down from the rocky mountain pass, through the hidden wound in the very fabric of the Freljord.
They seek the Ice Witch. Like so many others through the centuries, they each metin their dreams… but now they each feel something else, deep inside.
Something beneath the ice. Something dark, and empty.
- "The Dream Thief" is an updated version of "Keeper of Dreams" short story.
- The 5 characters who appear in the story may be the same ones featured in the artwork of 12 Warmother's Call.