Sigvar Half-Quiver knelt on one knee, head bowed, while the wind beyond the gates howled like the ice-wraiths of legend.
He was the Cleaver of Peaks, the Bloody Sword of Winterspike. He had taken the head of the warchief of the Chosen Children, Helmgar Cragheart, and had held the Valley of Spines alone, fighting the Mourncrow tribe to a standstill until reinforcements from the citadel arrived.
What’s more, Sigvar was Iceborn.
And yet—for all his deeds, all the honors he had earned under the Eye of Howling Abyss whipping around him, he felt a flutter of trepidation at the task ahead.—as he knelt in the open gateway of the Frostguard Citadel, with the wind lashing and the unearthly banshee’s wail of the
He did not wear his heavy, dark armor, for its weight would have been impractical for what was to come, but he felt comfort in having his shield on his back and his sword at his hip. Expectation hung upon him. He prayed he would not be found wanting.
“You delve now into the darkness below, brothers and sister of the Lodge,” said Ralakka Split-Tongue, Frost-Father of the Keepers, “but you will not be alone. We, the Children of the Frozen Shadow, are never alone, not in the darkest winters of the frozen expanse, nor in the deepest chasms of the hidden ways. The Eye of Lissandra watches over us, now and always.”
“From ice we are born, and to ice we will return,” intoned Sigvar, his words echoing those of the other two lodge members kneeling beside him.
To his left was Olar Stonefist—a legend among the Frostguard who had fought in their ranks for half a lifetime before Sigvar had even been born. Wolf-lean, grey-bearded, and iron-eyed, his skin was like hardened leather, riven with deep crevasses and valleys. Ice-bear furs draped his shoulders, but his arms were bare, and covered in faded war-tattoos and a dozen iron rings, each won in ritual combat. His massive great-hammer, Thunderchild, was strapped across his back. That weapon, its head encased in True Ice, was as storied as Olar himself.
To Sigvar’s right knelt Halla Ice-in-her-Soul. While he idolized Olar, Sigvar was over-awed by Halla. Utterly fearless, and her faith unshakeable, she was as unforgiving and deadly as winter. Her twin short-hafted axes—Bloodfang and Bloodclaw—hung at her waist, though it was strange to see her not garbed in her dark mail and horned helm. She, like Sigvar and Olar, had eschewed her armor for their journey. The sides of her head were shaved, while the rest of her pale hair was tied into a single intricate braid down the center of her head, like a crest. Her left eye was white, blinded by a blow that had left a trio of savage scars cut across her face.
He’d heard Olar tell the tale of those scars, earned when Halla had fought a hunting pack of Ursine. She’d killed three before the others slunk off, so it was said, and Sigvar believed it. Had she not been embraced into the Frostguard as a child, Halla would undoubtedly have been a powerful warmother in one of the tribes beyond the citadel.
The Frost Priest stepped in close, moving first to Olar. “The Eye is upon you,” he incanted.
Sigvar barely heard Olar’s growled reply, his heart was thumping so hard. Then the Frost Priest was in front of him, and his stomach lurched, as it had before his first battle.
“Look up, Frostguard,” the priest said, quietly, and Sigvar obeyed, tilting his chin back to look upon the old man’s face. It was skeletally gaunt, with sunken cheeks and shadow-rimmed eyes. There was no kindness there, but Sigvar expected none. Theirs was a harsh and unrelenting faith. A shard of sacred Dark Ice hung around Split-Tongue’s neck; another topped his knotted staff. Slivers of holy reverence, used for healing and worship. The Frost Priest dipped a finger into a shallow basin filled with kraken ink, black and stinking, and drew an eye upon Sigvar’s forehead.
“The Eye is upon you,” he said.
“And it does not blink,” intoned Sigvar in reply, lowering his head once more. His forehead burned as the ink seared his skin, but he endured it with the stoicism of the Iceborn. Pain was blessing.
The priest moved to Halla, completing the ritual, and the three chosen Iceborn stood.
Olar was the tallest of them, wiry and corded with lean muscle, while Sigvar was by far the heaviest. Halla stood half-a-head shorter than Sigvar, yet the power and authority she radiated made her seem larger.
The three Frostguard stooped to collect their packs, icepicks, and coils of rope, which they threw over their shoulders and hooked onto their belts.
Sigvar glanced back at the ranks of Frostguard standing in silent witness to their departure. Ralakka Split-tongue, turned away, his part in their expedition done. A cluster of other Frost Priests followed behind him, like crows shadowing a war-party. The darkness of the citadel quickly swallowed them.
“Time to go,” said Halla Ice-in-her-Soul. “The darkness calls.”
With a nod, Sigvar joined Halla and Olar, turning away from the gathered Frostguard and walking through the giant gates of the citadel, out onto the bridge beyond, spanning the Howling Abyss.
The ethereal wails borne upon the wind intensified, and shards of ice slashed at them, but none of them flinched from it. They welcomed it. The ice was their ally. The ice was their truth.
Behind the three Frostguard, the great gates of the citadel slammed shut with a resounding boom that was soon lost in the gale.
Sigvar took a deep breath.It was time to descend into the Abyss.
The journey was made every year, on the vernal equinox, when day and night were of equal length. Three among the Frostguard were chosen. All came from the Keepers Lodge, the inner circle of the faith who guarded the deeping ways.
It was a great honor to be singled out for this most sacred of duties, and Sigvar’s chest had swelled with pride when the deep-horns had sounded and his name been called. At nineteen winters, he was one of the youngest Frostguard ever to have been chosen. How many times had he gazed upon the roll of honor, thousands upon thousands of names, chiselled into the walls of the lodge? One of his first memories after coming to the citadel was of reverently tracing the outline of those names, and dreaming of their great deeds. More than half had a simple rune engraved after their name, the rune of death, indicating those who had perished while performing this sacred duty. It was a dangerous thing, to delve too deep, even for one of the Iceborn bloodline.
Kneeling before the Dark Ice statues of the Three—revered Avarosa, Serylda, and Lissandra—he had long beseeched them to find him worthy, to one day let his name join those esteemed others. Now it seemed his prayers had been answered. He had trained his whole life for this honor. He would do the Keepers Lodge proud.
They walked along the bridge, beneath the gaze of the giant, silent guardian statues that marked the way. The relentless winds battered them, screaming around them in whirling eddies.
It had many names, this bridge: the Proving Grounds, and the Murder Bridge among them. Others knew it simply as Citadel Bridge, or the Howling Arch. If it had a name during the time of the Three, it was now lost. Among the Frostguard, it was often referred to as the Bridge of Sorrows. Thousands of Iceborn had perished here, after all.
It was truly ancient, said to have been crafted by. The time of those deities was long past, of course. Some of the heathen tribes still worshipped them, but in time they would be brought around to the true faith—voluntarily, or by the sword. Regardless of whether they accepted it or not, the ice would claim them.
Parts of the stonework had crumbled, falling into the darkness. Time had no respect for ancient beauty, the frost priests taught. Everything was fleeting, on a large enough timescale. Even the greatest mountain would be leveled by wind and ice given enough years. Only faith was eternal.
A deep sense of reverence hung over Sigvar as he walked with Stonefist and Ice-in-her-Soul across the expanse. The greatest battle ever to have been fought had taken place here, thousands of years past. Here, the Iceborn had fought the Watchers, in a battle that would determine the fate of the world.
And here they were victorious, though only at great cost, and the Watchers had been hurled into darkness.
Sigvar walked in silence, lost in his thoughts of that earlier, greater age. Neither of the other two Iceborn spoke as they made their way across, though whether that was due to the relentless roaring of the wind, or if they too were lost in ancient legend, Sigvar knew not.
They reached the other side of the Bridge of Sorrows, where Lissandra had led the Iceborn in that ancient, titanic battle, and there Halla Ice-in-her-Soul called the halt with a raised hand.
“We go down here,” she said, shouting to be heard over the gale, pointing towards a section of the bridge near the chasm wall that had long ago fallen.
Sigvar and Olar both nodded in deference. Olar might have been older and more experienced, his name carved nine times upon the wall of the lodge to Halla’s three, but old habits died hard. The blood of the Three was stronger in the women of the Freljord’s tribes.
“I lead the way,” shouted Halla. “Stonefist is the anchor, in the center. Half-Quiver at the back.”
They unravelled two lengths of rope, hooking them onto each other’s belts—Halla’s to Olar’s, Olar’s to Sigvar’s. They tightened the straps on the iron toe-spikes affixed to their boots, and unhooked icepicks, securing them to their wrists with loops of leather.
Halla whipped her picks around in a few arcing, tight circles, loosening her muscles. Then she jumped off the bridge, landing ten feet below on an outcropping of ice jutting from the chasm wall. Sigvar and Olar waited for her to secure herself, digging her picks into the ice, before they jumped down join her.
“We are the will of the goddess, She Who Walks Among Us,” said Halla. “Do her proud, sons of winter.”
Then she went over the edge, putting her picks deep and scrambling over the precipice. She kicked her toe-spikes in, and began the descent.
Olar grinned at Sigvar, his eyes glinting with savage glee. “You will not be the same Iceborn when we return. The Howling Abyss changes you... if you return.” He gave a wink, then he too went over the edge, disappearing from sight, leaving Sigvar alone.
No, not alone, he reminded himself. The Eye was upon him. He felt it burning still into the skin of his forehead. Lissandra was with him, now and always.He waited a moment longer, then began the long climb into the fathomless depths.
They moved fast, Halla Ice-in-her-Soul setting a punishing pace, though they did not take any undue risk. They climbed one at a time, first Halla, then Olar, then Sigvar, moving almost to the lengths of their ropes with each descent. In this way, they were able to keep a steady anchor in case of a fall, and the intermittent rest allowed them to keep progressing downward steadily, without need for a longer pause.
The Bridge of Sorrows was not the only one of its kind to cross the expanse. Dozens of others spanned the walls of the crevasse, though only a few were visible at any one time, the distance, fog, and darkness closing in like a shroud. All but the uppermost bridge had long been abandoned and remained unused, the myriad tunnels and gateways leading onto them having being sealed by avalanche or by the Frostguard themselves, to limit the number of entrances into the citadel.
The closest bridges were several hundred feet apart, yet the deeper they went, the more spaced out they became. Some had been destroyed completely, only the skeletal abutments protruding from the ice walls indicating where they had once been.
It was dark, but not the complete, all-consuming darkness of mid-winter; it was more akin to the faded half-light of the gloaming hours. The ice itself seemed to radiate a dull, ethereal glow, which reflected upon the thickening fog, such that the three did not need carry torch or brand.
The shrieking gale still whipped through the ravine, tugging at them like spectral hands, trying to prise them from their tenuous hold on the ice.
It was impossible to judge the passing of time. The hours blurred together into one single, uninterrupted span. Climb, wait, climb, wait. On the climbs, Sigvar found a good rhythm, losing himself in the repetitive motion of hacking the icepicks in deep, kicking in the toe-spikes, and hauling the picks back out. While waiting for Halla and Olar to descend below him, he mouthed the Litanies of Truth, keeping himself focused.
Resist not cold’s embrace, for within it lies truth. Be as one with the ice, and understanding shall follow.
Down and down and down they climbed, moving steadily. Hours might have passed, or a day. Unable to see the sky, Sigvar had no way to know.
Endure, without complaint. The ice begs not for mercy, nor offers it. Neither shall we.
No lesser being would have been able to match their pace. They were Iceborn, the children of the gods, and they were not as other mortals. Able to march for days on end without sleep and still fight any foe to a standstill, they stoically endured that which would have killed any Hearthbound.
Even so, Sigvar’s forearms were aching, and he was covered in a sheen of sweat beneath his skins and furs. And when the ice gave way beneath him, he was too slow to react. He struck out with one of his icepicks, but it did not bite deeply, and merely tore a chunk from the wall.
Then he was falling.
Fear not pain, nor seek to avoid its blessing. Without it, there can be no life.
Turning in the air, he made another attempt to arrest his fall, slamming a pick into the ice, but it tore from his grasp, and he would have lost it had it not been tethered to his wrist.
And when death comes, flinch not from its approach.
He dropped forty feet, hurtling past Olar. The older man’s flinty eyes were wide.
From ice we are born, and to ice we return.
“Brace!” the old Frostguard warrior bellowed, tightening his grip and bending his legs in anticipation.
He saw Halla look up and mouth a curse as she realized he was falling straight towards her. She moved quickly and assuredly, hacking her picks swiftly into the ice and shifting herself sideways so he didn’t smash her from the cliffside.
The rope caught his fall then, arresting it with bone-jarring abruptness. He slammed into the ice wall, the impact driving the air from his lungs.
Olar roared as he took Sigvar’s weight. Stonefist held, however, clinging to the ice, his arms as taut as iron.
Sigvar recovered quickly, slamming his picks home, and kicking his toe-spikes in deep. He glanced over at Halla Ice-in-her-Soul, who stared at him, her own piercing eyes—one blue, one white—as unblinking as the one painted on her forehead.
She stared in silent judgement.
“We’ll take a rest at the Bridge of Shadow,” she said, finally, and continued climbing down into the twilight gloom. Sigvar cursed himself, his cheeks burning despite the cold.
When Olar climbed down past him, he gave another of his wide, toothy grins.
“You’re a heavy bastard, Half-Quiver,” he said. “Damn well nearly took us both down with you.”
“The ice gave way,” said Sigvar, weakly. “I’ll do better.”
“See that you do. Might just cut your rope next time.”
Sigvar looked at the old warrior, quizzically. On three of his previous expeditions down into the Abyss, Olar had been the only one to return alive. Was this why?
At the Bridge of Shadow, they dropped their packs, uncoupled their ropes, and unhooked their icepicks. The bridge was so named because, even in midsummer, when the sun never dipped below the horizon, it was never truly in the light.
Olar slumped to the flagstones with an exaggerated groan, propping his back against the low balustrade at the edge of the bridge. Halla stepped away from the other two, unhooking a tiny black effigy of Lissandra from around her neck and placing it upon the ground. She knelt before it, breathing a devotion. Sigvar stood stock-still, wondering if he too should take this time to pray, but Olar waved him over, urging him to sit.
The older man—exactly how old, he didn’t know, but Olar was certainly well past sixty—produced a small leather flask. Unstoppering it, he took as swig, gave a satisfied sigh, and handed it to Sigvar. The younger warrior took it with a nod of thanks, and knocked back a measure.
“,” said Olar. “Nothing like it this side of the Ridgeback Mountains.”
The liquid burned hot in his throat, making his eyes water. Those tears turned instantly to ice on his cheeks. He nodded in appreciation, and handed it back to Olar, who took another swig before secreting it back within his furs.
A waterskin would have frozen as soon as they stepped beyond the gates of the citadel. They would endure without, but the strong spirit was welcome moisture on Sigvar’s throat.
Olar’s heavily tattooed arms were still bare, and Sigvar shook his head as he pulled his furs tighter around him.
“Aren’t you freezing, old man?” he said.
“It’s going to get a lot colder than this, boy,” said Olar, giving him an evil grin. “This is like a summer breeze, compared to what’s yet to come.”
Sigvar didn’t know if he was joking. He pulled his pack over to his side, and brought out a small strip of salted meat, wrapped in waxed leather. He snapped off a frozen section and handed it to Olar, before breaking off a piece for himself. He worked it around his mouth, thawing it enough to chew. It was tough and sinewy, but in that moment it seemed an extravagant luxury.
Slumped with his back against the low wall alongside Olar, Sigvar was out of the worst of the howling wind, which itself was blessing. It screamed over them, wailing horribly, sending flurries of ice and snow swirling across the bridge. Some said the sound of the wind was the screams of the thousands of Iceborn killed in that final titanic battle in the age of heroes, long ago, their souls trapped here forever in this chasm.
“It’s a fearful sound, isn’t it, lad?” said Olar. “Gets inside your head after a time.”
“Is it the same all the way down?”
Olar shook his head. “Would that it was. No, down towards the bottom it’s as silent as the grave.”
“That’s got to be better than this…”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But the silence is worse. It’s heavy, that silence. Weighs upon you like full-length chainmail. No, I’d take this any day.”
Halla finished her devotions and joined them, sitting alongside Olar. She took a long swig from Olar’s flask, then wiped her mouth with the back of her gloved hand.
“How is it you always have the best stuff, Stonefist?” she said, making Olar snort.
“Must be my charming personality,” he replied.
“I’m quite certain that is not it.” Her expression was deadpan, making Olar snort once more.
Sigvar leant over, gingerly offering her some meat, still hot with shame at having fallen. She looked at it for half a moment, making Sigvar think she was going to reject the offer, but finally she took it, and nodded her thanks.
“How did you earn your name, Half-Quiver?” she asked as she chewed.
“There was a raid. I was a tenderfoot, accompanying a caravan escort, bringing provisions back to the citadel. We were attacked out on the frozen expanse. A blizzard had hidden their approach. Tusk-Crow tribe.”
Halla grunted. “Dangerous warriors. Head-takers.”
Sigvar nodded. “I took some arrows in the skirmish. Kept fighting, though. Stonefist honored me with my name once the last of the Tusk-Crows had fled, leaving their dead and dying to the ice.”
“You’ll never make a saga-teller, boy,” said Olar. “Too modest by half. No sense for the dramatic.”
“Not like you, old one,” said Halla. “I swear your stories get more far-fetched with every telling.”
“Have I told you my bear story, lad?” Olar asked, giving Sigvar a wink.
“No,” said Halla, levelling a finger at the old Frostguard. “I will not hear that again.”
“Another time, then,” said Olar, with a resigned shrug. “Anyway, the Tusk-Crows stuck the boy with no less than a dozen arrows. You were only, what, fourteen winters? He was a big lad, though, even then. Not quite the giant slab he is now, but still big. Had four arrows in his shield, two in one leg, one clean through his forearm. Two in his chest, one in his shoulder, more in his back. But he kept on fighting, bellowing like a stuck elnük. Took down three Tusk-Crows before another arrow hit him, making him drop his sword. Still didn’t slow him. He pulls one of the arrows out of him, and kills another two Tusk-Crows with it! One of the funniest damn things I ever saw! True Iceborn. Would have done Serylda herself proud.”
“Fearless Mother,” said Halla instantly, grasping the pale talisman of Serylda, hanging around her neck alongside those of Avarosa and Lissandra.
“Fearless Mother,” Sigvar murmured. His face was burning, and he looked down, uncomfortable with Olar’s praise.
“You have a strange sense of what is funny, Stonefist,” said Halla, pushing herself back to her feet. “Come. It is time to move on.”
“I’m sorry I fell,” Sigvar said, as he regained his feet and made ready for the next stage of the climb. “On my oath, I will not let either of you down again.”
“If you fall, it is the will of Three,” said Halla. “And if you fall and take us down with you, then such is to be our fate also. Your oath matters nothing.”
She walked past him, looking for the best place to recommence their descent. Olar grinned and slapped a heavy hand on Sigvar’s shoulder.
“It’s fine, lad,” he said. “Happens to the best of us. If that’s the worst we go through, we’ll all be on our knees thanking the Three.”Down into the deep they continued, chased, as always, by the howls in the biting wind.
It appeared like a wraith out of the fog. One moment there was nothing below them, then it was there.
The Bridge of the Lost.
From a distance, it looked almost as though it had been overrun by some kind of voracious black weed, or thornbush. The notion was absurd, of course, for no life could flourish at this depth, such was the cold that almost seemed to radiate up from below.
No, this growth was nothing as mundane as plant life. It was the very antithesis of life. A knot of unease had settled in Sigvar’s gut, and he swallowed, feeling his gorge rising. He had heard the legends and the fireside stories from lodge members who had made this descent, but even so, it was unnerving.
He dropped the final ten feet, landing in a low crouch. His muscles burned with exertion, and his hands were twisted like claws from gripping his picks. Nevertheless, for all his exhaustion, he stared around him, barely daring to breathe, eyes wide.
“Touch nothing,” Halla warned him.
“If I do touch something, that is the will of the Three, is it not?” said Olar. Sigvar didn’t have it in him to smile at the old warrior’s jibe.
Halla turned away, shaking her head. “Catch your breath. This is the last bridge. There’s no more stopping before we reach the bottom—and the next stretch is the longest. May the Three watch over us.”
Having dropped his excess load, Sigvar walked into the center of the bridge, gazing around him in horrified wonder. The wind was not as fierce here, hissing through the strange, stony formations that grew like a twisting lattice around the structure of the bridge.
He found it hard to fathom what he saw, though just gazing upon it made him feel sick.
Giant arcs of what looked like volcanic rock encased the bridge, as if bursts of lava had leapt along and around the length of the bridge before hardening suddenly, in mid-air.
He knew the history of this bridge, of course. That which was trapped below had tried to escape its imprisonment long ago, long after the time of the Three.
Here, Frostguard had fought that darkness, and here they had died. And with each death, the power of What-Dwells-Below grew. It consumed the bodies of the fallen, absorbing and repurposing them to fuel more explosive growth. Such was its nature. It might lie dormant for thousands of years, inert and seemingly lifeless, only for a single drop of blood to rouse it in sudden, shocking violence.
What Sigvar was looking at, those strange, nausea-inducing looping arcs and conglomerations of misshapen detritus were the growth paths of What-Dwells-Below, as it had leapt from Frostguard to Frostguard, claiming them.
And from the matter it consumed, things had been born.
There was an uncomfortable, maddening pressure on Sigvar’s mind here, a pressure that seemed to be coming from below. He pressed his knuckles into his temples, trying to relieve it.
From nowhere, a memory long forgotten came back him in a rush, like a swarm of bats bursting from a cave. He remembered his childhood, before he had been taken by the Frostguard. He remembered the ice-arks of his tribe; sleek, three-masted ships that raced across the frozen wastes upon sharpened keel blades. He remembered the night their ships had slid to a halt at the Great Pinnacle. Black-helmed warriors of the Frostguard awaited them there. Sigvar and six other children under the age of ten winters were chosen from among the tribe. It was a great honor. And there, under the midnight sun, he watched his tribe sail away. It was the last time he saw his family.
He was taken to the citadel, where he underwent the Trials, and was subjected to the grueling, brutal Testing. One-by-one, the other children of his original tribe dwindled, until he was the only one that remained.
By then, he had all but forgotten his tribe. He had a new family. A new faith.
He was Frostguard.
A hand on his shoulder brought him, shuddering, back to the present. He was sitting with his back against the splintered stone statue of an ancient guardian. He had no memory of sitting down. Olar was stooped over him.
“Don’t sleep,” said the old warrior. “Bad dreams, down here. Bad memories.”
Sigvar climbed to his feet. He hadn’t thought about his old tribe for years. The lingering fragments of the dream slipped away, leaving Sigvar with a deep sense of unease.
“It is time,” said Halla.
And so they began their final descent. There was nothing below them now but madness and cold and darkness and dread.What-Dwells-Below waited, just as it had for millennia.
The ice darkened the further down they went. Black veins spread through it, clawing upwards. A vague, crackling sound surrounded them, seeming to scratch at the back of Sigvar’s eyes. He could see no movement, but he imagined it came from those unnerving threads in the ice, seeking to escape this accursed pit and reach for the surface…
Sigvar tried to push the sound from his head, invoking the Litanies under his breath, and focusing on each kick of his toe-spikes, each strike of his picks.
The ice was less even here, with jutting sections and savage, undercut overhangs to traverse. At times, the three Frostguard were forced to continue using only their picks, legs dangling precariously above the endless depths as they worked their way ever downward. Twice their progress was blocked, with no conceivable way down, and they were forced to backtrack until Halla determined a new route.
Icy fog closed in tightly around them, heavy and oppressive, such that Sigvar could no longer see his companions below. The fog muffled all sound bar that incessant, maddening scratching.
At the last, a floor of solid ice emerged, surprising Sigvar with its abrupt appearance through the fog. Halla and Olar waited for him, having already unburdened themselves of their packs, ropes and picks. The silence here was overbearing. Even the crackling in the ice seemed to have stopped.
“We’re at the base?” whispered Sigvar, his breath fogging the air as he shrugged off his gear.
“This is as far as we go,” said Olar, in a low voice. “But it delves deeper still.”
The older Frostguard ushered him forward, pointing. They stood close to a precipice, and Sigvar saw the chasm dropped away below them, ever deeper.
“How far?” he whispered.
“No one knows. To the center of the world, and beyond. Perhaps to the realm of What-Dwells-Below.”
Sigvar tapped one toe-spike onto the ice underfoot. “We could very easily have missed this. We come down thirty feet that way, and we would be climbing down forever.”
“Ice-in-her-Soul would not have steered us wrong,” said Olar, putting a hand on Sigvar’s back, guiding him to Halla.
Sigvar knelt, placing one gloved hand near the ice. The cold was intense, causing him pain even through his thick layers. More than just cold, though, the ice radiated power.
“This is all… True Ice?” he whispered, his eyes alight with reverence and awe.
“It is,” said Halla. “Only the chosen few have seen it. The Eye is truly upon you, Half-Quiver. Upon all of us. We are blessed.”
True Ice was part of the Frostguard faith, revered as a holy gift from the Three. Infused with ancient, elemental power, it was harder than iron, and would never melt, even in the hottest forge. To carry a weapon that bore even a portion of True Ice—like the warhammer Thunderchild borne by Olar, and Halla’s twin axes, Bloodfang and Bloodclaw—was an honor of deeply religious significance. The skill to craft such weapons was long lost; those remaining were sacred relics carried by Iceborn heroes of long ago. Sigvar prayed he would one day be found worthy to bear such a venerable relic, but for now, his trusty hand-and-a-half sword, forged in a land far beyond the frozen wastes, would do. It was a fine weapon, by any measure, and had never let him down.
“We are close, the Three be praised,” Halla said. “We move.”
They loped along the ravine, running as a pack, with Halla leading the way.
The temperature here was unlike anything Sigvar had ever experienced, though he had lived his whole life in the barren, frozen wastes. Despite his layers of skins and furs, it chilled him to the bone, and every breath was painful. His exposed face was quickly encased in a thin layer of ice, which cracked every time Sigvar blinked. Olar’s beard was frozen, such that it could have snapped were it struck. Frost crackled up their boots as the ice underfoot tried to claim them, making every step an effort.
Only an Iceborn could survive this. Even so, Sigvar wasn’t sure how long he would last down here. An hour? Perhaps two? Certainly no longer than that.
Halla kept them moving. To stop was to die.
They came, finally, to a section where the chasm narrowed, so that they could only proceed one by one through the gap.
Halla went first, and Olar indicated that Sigvar should go next.
“Do not let your gaze linger on it,” warned Olar. “It is not a good thing to look upon.”
“What do you mean?” said Sigvar.
Olar merely shook his head, and would say no more. Sigvar pushed himself into the crevice, wondering what it was the old warrior meant.
The gap was narrow, and he was considerably larger than Halla. The True Ice seared him as he squeezed through, pressing in on all sides. He was so cold that he was sure one hammer blow would shatter his bones, but he continued on, edging forward, inch by inch, until he was through.
A large, bowl-like cavern awaited him on the other side. The ice underfoot here was clearer, shifting from opaque towards transparent. In the middle of the cavern, it was perfectly smooth, like a black mirror. The floor at the center was a broad expanse, surrounded by massive, jutting shards of True Ice. They looked like pillars, arranged in a rough circle around the open middle, giving the cavern the feel of some sacred circle of lost gods. There were nine of those icy pillars, and it took Sigvar a moment to realize the significance of that number.
“The Hall of the Nine,” he said, in reverence.
He had learned of the Nine, of course. They were akin to great shackles, holding What-Dwells-Below down, and were said to have been created by magic long lost. Some said that it was thewho created the Nine, but Sigvar had long grown out of such childish tales.
Even so, he knew they had arrived at their destination.
“We stay to the edges, outside the circle,” said Halla, once Olar had slipped through the narrow defile to join them. “Go nowhere near the center of the ice, and do not look down.”
Sigvar knew she was speaking for his benefit, and he nodded.
“Each of the Nine must be checked. I will start here, and go that way,” said Halla, indicating the closest pillar, and motioning past it, around to the right. “Stonefist, you start there, and go that way. Take the boy with you.”
At any other time, Sigvar would have bristled to have been called boy and have someone tasked to watch over him. He’d faced chargingberserkers in deepest winter and felt nothing but savage joy—but right now, he was grateful to remain at Olar’s side. A palpable tension hung in the air, like the threat felt in the moments between a lightning flash, and the thunder’s crash.
They walked towards the nearest pillars, Sigvar making a conscious effort to keep his gaze high. Once, perhaps, this had been an enclosed cave, but the roof had long ago collapsed. Sigvar had the impression that the collapse had been caused by something vast having been hurled down from above.
He dared not look down, but even so, he could see the dark shadow beneath the ice at the periphery of his vision. It tugged at him, as if straining for his attention...
“Don’t look,” Olar hissed, perhaps feeling that pressure himself.
Halla reached the first ice shard, and began a slow circle around it, peering intently. Olar and Sigvar approached the second.
“What do we look for?” said Sigvar, in a low voice, struggling to keep his gaze from wandering towards the center of the ice.
“Anything that has changed,” replied Olar.
Up close, Sigvar could see threads of frozen darkness trapped within the True Ice. “How do we know if anything has changed?” he murmured.
Olar didn’t answer at first, eyes narrowed as he surveyed the sharply angled sides of the towering ice shard. Finally, he gave a grunt, and pointed. “Runes were carved in this ice, long ago, when What-Dwells-Below was first banished. See here?”
Sigvar stepped in closer and saw a small series of lines carved into the surface, forming runic script. “What does it mean?” he asked.
“It means the ice has not melted. Come, let’s check the next one.”
They set out, hugging the left wall of the cave, continuing to skirt the open expanse in the center.
Sigvar would never be able to clearly articulate what happened next. He remembered following Olar, staying close as they moved toward the next pillar. He remembered a heavy pressure building in his skull, and the sensation of movement in the corners of his eyes. The silence weighed upon him, oppressive and heavy, and everything seemed to become unclear, as if he were surrounded in a sudden fog, muffling every sense.
Then he was standing out in the center of the ice, gazing downward.
An immense eye stared back at him, unblinking.
Sigvar’s soul recoiled, screaming inwardly, yet he was unable to look away, completely in thrall to that giant, staring, lidless eye.
Perhaps twenty feet of solid ice separated him from this shadowy behemoth, but it was not nearly enough. It was impossible to see clearly, but Sigvar was left with an impression of the shadowy, coiling, tentacled limbs that surrounded that great eye. It would have dwarfed even the largest of the titanic leviathans that swam the fathomless depths beneath the ice floes. A creature of such size should not be.
And it was not dead. There was life and a vast, unknowable intelligence in that stare.
It saw him. Its gaze bored into him, through him, and he felt his sanity begin to unravel like a spool of yarn hurled into the night. Sigvar’s stomach was an ever-tightening knot, dark shadows coiling at the edge of his vision, squirming and serpentine, threatening to—
A hand grabbed him by the scruff of his collar, hauling him backward. He stumbled, boots flailing and slipping as he was dragged out of the circle, and dumped unceremoniously on the ice beyond. He scrambled to his feet, shadows and coiling shapes still swimming in his mind.
Dimly, Sigvar registered Olar standing before him, gripping his furs in one tight fist. Halla was on her knees nearby, praying frantically.
The writhing shadows still moved at the corner of his eyes, and his head felt heavy, filled with a stifling fog. Unwittingly, his gaze started to turn back towards the center of the ice, back, back toward—
Olar’s heavy fist struck him across his jaw, snapping his head back sharply. “Don’t. Look. At. It.”
Sigvar blinked, his head a little clearer, and he nodded.
“Halla, he’s not strong enough,” said Olar, fist poised. All the humor in his eyes was gone now, replaced with an intense, ruthless chill. “He should go back.”
“No!” said Sigvar. “I… I’m fine.”
“He should go back,” Olar repeated, looking to Halla. She finished her hurried entreaties, and pushed herself to her feet, studying Sigvar with narrowed eyes.
“I’m fine. I can do this,” he assured them both.
“If he falters again, kill him,” said Halla. “Go. Check the pillars.”
She made her way to the next one, crunching over the ice.
“Don’t make me do it,” Olar growled at Sigvar. “I don’t want to have to haul your body back out.”
No corpse could be left down here, for fear that it could be used to spark the growth of What-Dwelled-Below. It would be an incredibly difficult climb back out anyway; Sigvar couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to have to haul a body out as well.
And Olar had to bear out two bodies on his last couple of climbs, he reminded himself. His reverence for the old warrior was redoubled.
“I will not look,” vowed Sigvar, keeping his eyes locked on him. “Let’s go.”
Olar grunted, and gestured for Sigvar to take the lead.
They located the rune on the next pillar almost instantly. “Here,” said Olar, pointing it out.
The edges of that marking were so sharp, it could have been carved only an hour earlier, not thousands of years ago. That was good. It meant the ice had not melted in all that time.
“This one’s yours,” said Olar, as they approached the next mighty pillar, jutting up at an acute angle from the floor. “I’ll check the next. Don’t let me down, boy.”
Sigvar nodded as the warrior left him to survey the shard alone. It was almost completely black, and as he looked upon it, the shadows at the edge of his vision seemed to return, making it seem as though things were moving within the ice.
He shook his head, walking around the pillar, eyes tracking up and down—searching for a rune, but finding none. Every angled surface was completely smooth. Frowning, he made second pass, moving more slowly this time.
Still he found nothing.
Glancing toward the others, he saw Halla and Olar had almost linked up, having checked all but the last two pillars.
“Come on,” he said to himself, blinking hard. “Focus.”
He made a third turn around the circumference. Still nothing.
Halla and Olar were making their way towards him now, their expressions grim. When he looked at the pillar again, he would have sworn he saw a bead of water sliding down its side… but that was surely impossible. Narrowing his eyes, he leaned in.
Up close, he could see the ice was slick with moisture. The edges of the shard were less defined than they were on the other pillars, blunted and rounded smooth. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed that sooner. Still, he felt no sense of alarm, even when he saw the flicker of movement within the Dark Ice. An unnatural sense of calm infused his being.
Dimly, he heard a shout from behind him, but it barely registered. The sound was muffled, as if it were coming from a long way away. He gave it no mind. All that mattered was the blackness in the ice before him. It was calling to him, whispering to him, urging him closer. The shadows were no longer just at the periphery of his vision; now they were all he saw. He reached out toward—
A hand grabbed his own. Halla’s hand. He was hurled backwards, hitting the ice almost ten feet away.
In horror, he recognized the darkness thrashing within the ice pillar, struggling to be free. It stabbed from within, straining to breach its prison. He realized it had been reaching for him.
Halla’s eyes were closed, one hand outstretched over the weak point in the ice where the darkness attacked. In her other hand, she clutched her talisman of Lissandra. She barked a catechism of the faith, and her outstretched hand began to glow with cold light. New ice crystals began to form upon the pillar’s face.
It was not going to be enough. What Halla was praying into existence was not True Ice. No one had the ability to create that anymore.
A spiderweb of cracks appeared upon the surface, as the darkness within redoubled its attack. With her eyes closed, Halla didn’t see it, and Sigvar was too far away, even as he lurched to his feet and drew his sword.
Olar was suddenly at Halla’s shoulder, Thunderchild clasped in both hands. Just as the darkness breached the pillar’s surface, spearing towards Halla with the speed of a lightning strike, Olar shouldered her aside.
His warhammer smashed the tendril of darkness asunder with a deafening crack. It was not the only one, however—three more spat from the rupture.
“Stonefist!” bellowed Sigvar. He leapt forward, but was too slow. They all were.
Olar staggered back, swatting one of the tendrils aside with a sweep of Thunderchild, but was unable to stop the other two. They thrust into his flesh with relish, one piercing the meat of his left shoulder, the other the side of his neck, biting deep.
Olar Stonefist’s muscles rippled as the unearthly tentacles writhed into him. His veins turned black, starkly visible though his pale skin, and he dropped to his knees. Sigvar made to grab him, but Halla pulled him back.
“No!” she shouted. “It will claim you too.”
With his last strength, Olar tossed Thunderchild towards them, spinning it across the ice. “Go!” he gasped. “Get... word... to the citadel!”
“Take the hammer!” Halla yelled at Sigvar.
“We can’t leave him—”
“It is too late. He is already gone.”
Sigvar watched in impotent horror as Olar was consumed. The Frostguard warrior was shuddering, and most of his skin was now horrible shades of black and purple, like a bruise. More than a dozen tendrils pierced him, connecting him to the darkness within the ice.
“Take the hammer, Half-Quiver!” repeated Halla.
Sigvar sheathed his blade and picked up Thunderchild, bracing for the pain. It made him gasp, the intensity of its cold flowing swiftly up his arms to his heart, almost making it stop, but he did not fight it. He embraced it, becoming one with it.
A creeping shape, ridged and segmented like an insect, began to spread across Olar’s flesh. It hardened, like cooling volcanic rock. A sickening purple light began to pulse within him, like a second heartbeat, radiating out through his flesh.
In horrified disgust, Sigvar realized something was growing within Olar.
With an anguished cry, Halla hurled Bloodclaw, sending the axe spinning end-over-end through the air. It struck Olar square between his eyes, killing him instantly. It was a merciful act, yet it saddened Sigvar to see a legend of the Frostguard meet such an ignoble end.
Ice instantly formed upon Olar’s corpse, extending down from where Bloodclaw was embedded. Crackling hoarfrost soon encased his head, chest and arms. The power of the True Ice seemed to stall the consumption, the tendrils becoming slow and sluggish, the purple light within him dying.
“Has it stopped?” hissed Sigvar.
“For now, perhaps.”
“We leave it,” said Halla, speaking swiftly. “With the blessing of the Three, it will hold What-Dwells-Below in check, but there is no knowing how long. We have to go. Now.”
Sigvar didn’t argue. He began to pick his way around the edge of the circle, but Halla stopped him.
“Too slow,” she barked. “Across the middle. Go!”
Sigvar froze, unwilling to step onto the open ice, but as Halla sprinted out before him, he took a reluctant first step. Forcing his gaze to remain raised, he followed her, gingerly at first, then moving faster. At any moment he expected to feel movement below him as the immense, horrific creature trapped in the ice awoke from its endless slumber.
He could feel its malign force working on him, straining at his consciousness, like clutching tendrils. It was watching him—that giant, lidless, unblinking eye boring into him from below. The urge to look down was overpowering. Sigvar tightened his grip on Thunderchild, gritting his teeth against the pain of its cold.
He kept his gaze locked onto Halla as he breathed the Litanies. “Turn not from pain, for pain is life, and its absence means death. Savor its caress. Welcome it.” Even when he stumbled, he resisted looking down. Every step was an effort, like he was running through a snow drift. He could feel the eye boring into him, whispering to him, calling to him. He croaked the blessings louder to drown it out.
Then he was across, and he gasped for air as the pressure upon him lessened. Halla was there, urging him on. She shoved him ahead, towards the narrow defile marking their exit.
Just before he slipped through, Sigvar glanced back.
Did he see that purple light within the frozen corpse of Olar? He had no time to check, as Halla pushed him urgently through. “Go, go,” she said.
There was no time for a careful, steady passage. Sigvar pressed forward, grinding against the ice, uncaring of the pain. On the other side, the two of them sprinted through the ravine, racing back to where they had descended the ice wall.
“We have… to alert… the citadel!” Halla huffed as she ran. “The Nine… has been breached. The chains… that hold back… What-Dwells-Below… have been weakened. All the other sites… must be checked! The ice must be… reformed!”
They reached their discarded climbing gear, breathing heavily.
“Shouldn’t we stay to fight it?” Sigvar gasped.
“The Watcher will only awaken… once all of the pillars are breached,” said Halla. “Bloodclaw should hold back any lesser creature.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Then we kill it,” said Halla. “But word must reach the citadel. At least one of us has to make it back. Leave anything you don’t need.”
With some reluctance, Sigvar swung his shield off his shoulders and propped it against the ice wall. His scabbarded sword joined it, and Halla helped him strap Thunderchild across his back. They roped themselves together, secured their icepicks, and began the long climb back to the top.And all the while, he felt the great eye in the ice below, staring upward.
The shell that had been Olar Stonefist cracked open with a wet tear, and a pale thing spilled forth in a tumble of hissing ichor and segmented limbs.
It righted itself unsteadily, clawing at the ice with talons the length of daggers. A slashing tail unfurled behind it, and it lifted its head, all bony tusks and jutting spines, revealing a burning, purple-tinged light at its heart. Sections of its spongy, flexible exoskeleton closed protectively around that heart and began to harden.
It was a sickly white colour, devoid of hue, but its hide quickly darkened, as if in reaction to the air. The creature’s eyes tore open to look upon the icy world into which it had been born—twelve pinpricks of hot, purple light, gathered in three clusters.It lifted its head high, and a keening birth-scream ripped from its throat.
Halla and Sigvar were halfway to the Bridge of the Lost when the inhuman cry reached them. It echoed through the fog all around them. It was impossible to tell the direction it came from, or how close it was.
“Climb faster,” was all Halla said, and the pair increased their pace, eschewing safety for speed. Their picks hacked into the ice in a wild flurry, and they drove themselves upward with powerful kicks, toe-spikes biting deep. Sigvar kept glancing down, expecting some nameless horror to emerge from the depths at any moment…
And then, just as the ghost of the Bridge of the Lost appeared through the fog above, it did.
“Ice-in-her-Soul,” he hissed, and Halla looked down past him.
“Move!” she shouted, eyes narrowing.
They climbed frantically. If that… thing made it to them before they reached the bridge, they’d be helpless. Sigvar glanced back once more, to see the creature racing up on them. It ascended with vile, sinuous movement, multiple bladed limbs stabbing into the ice with frenzied speed. Glowing eye clusters blazed, and it screeched, the sound like steel grinding on steel, mandibles clacking.
Halla made it to the bridge first. Turning, she reached down to Sigvar with her iron grip, and hauled him over the edge. By the time he regained his feet, she had untied her ropes, and had Bloodfang at the ready. In her other hand, Halla held one of her icepicks. It was a poor substitute for Bloodclaw, but would have to suffice.
Sigvar dropped his picks and made to unsling Thunderchild from his back, but Halla stopped him. “No,” she said. “Keep climbing.”
“I will stand with—” he began, but she cut him off with a glare.
“You will climb, Half-Quiver,” she said, pointing at him with Bloodfang. “No discussion.”
“No discussion!” she snapped. “Climb. Get word to the citadel.”
“But I should be the one who—”
“Go!” she roared, with such fury that Sigvar took a step back. “Go, Half-Quiver,” she said, quieter. “If the Three will it, I will join you shortly.”
With great reluctance, he scooped up his picks, and began climbing, as Halla dropped to her knees in prayer, eyes closed.
He was some thirty feet up the wall when the creature scuttled over the edge of the bridge. It looked up, its eyes locking onto Sigvar, and started to move in pursuit.
“Here, you ugly beast!” Halla called out, rising to face it. “Come to me and let me smite you down, by the will of the Three!”
Sigvar looked on, powerless. The creature below swung its attention from him to Halla, and leapt toward her with seemingly impossible speed.
She rolled under its scything strike, talons sweeping through the air just inches above her. She hacked Bloodfang deep into its side as she came up, sending forth a burst of steaming entrails and eliciting a horrible screech. Then she followed up with a strike from her icepick, but it bounced harmlessly off the beast’s toughened exterior.
She danced away, spinning out of range as the monster lashed out at her again.
Halla struck twice more, hacking off one of the vile creature’s limbs and scoring a deep wound across the side of its head, but it was unnaturally fast. As Halla’s axe came back for another blow, it darted forward and stabbed one bladed limb through her forearm, making her drop Bloodfang with a hiss of pain.
She hacked desperately at the creature’s face with her icepick, but managed little other than putting out a few of its eyes. Her arm was still impaled. She couldn’t get away.
With a roar, Sigvar ripped his picks from the ice, and pushed himself off. Thirty feet he fell before landing, knees bent and hands outspread for balance, right beside Halla. The frozen flagstones cracked under the impact, and he rolled hard, the wind driven from his lungs.
He already had Thunderchild in his hands as the creature turned its attention toward him. It tried to tug its clawed limb from Halla, but she clutched onto it, keeping it trapped, even as it struggled.
Its maw opened impossibly wide, exposing rows of serrated fangs and tusks, and screamed in defiance as Sigvar brought Thunderchild around in a lethal blow.
The immense hammer took the creature squarely in its head, half-pulping it and sending it flying, with a burst of cold and crack like thunder. The hateful beast struck the balustrade of the bridge and tried to scramble to its feet, but staggered drunkenly, the purple light at its heart faltering.
Bellowing, Sigvar charged the monster as it tried to recover. It hissed but could do nothing to avoid his next attack. This time Thunderchild smashed it squarely in the chest, crushing its exoskeleton and sundering the protective cage around its glowing heart. As the beast sailed over the edge of the bridge, flailing wildly, that heart darkened and died.
Then it was swallowed by the fog, and was gone.
“That was… rash…” said Halla. She was slumped on the ground, her wounded arm hanging loose at her side. Her skin was pale—paler than usual—and her eyes were sunken and dark.
“Or perhaps it was the will of the Three,” Sigvar replied, moving to her side and dropping to his knees.
“Perhaps,” she conceded, smiling weakly.
Using a knife, Sigvar cut away the bloodied sleeve over Halla’s injured arm. The flesh around the wound was dark and steaming. Blackness was already spreading into her veins. Both of them knew what could happen, if that darkness were to spread any further.
“Use Bloodfang,” said Halla. There was no hint of fear in her voice. “Aim true,” she added, tapping the center of her chest.
Sigvar took up Bloodfang, gauging its weight. Ice radiated from its haft over his hands, but he barely registered.
“It has not yet spread beyond your arm,” he said. “It may not…”
Halla stared up at him, eyes clear and devoid of fear. Then she nodded.“Do it,” she said.
For three days, Sigvar climbed.
And for three days, he felt the malignant eye in the deep watching him.
He felt the ravenous hunger in that gaze, gnawing at him, eating away at his resolve, but he continued on.
Endure, without complaint. The ice begs not for mercy, nor offers it. Neither shall we.
While the hunger of that ancient being was palpable, Sigvar realized there was no real emotion in it. It did not feel anger, or hatred, or resentment at its fate. It was dispassionate, uncaring, unknowable… and patient. In a sense, that made it even more horrific.
Finally, he pulled himself onto the Bridge of Sorrows. Only now, as he climbed from the great chasm, did he finally move beyond their gaze.
Halla Ice-in-her-Soul was roped to his back. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing shallow, but she lived. Her left arm was gone below the shoulder, but there was no blood on her sleeve―the True Ice core of Bloodfang had effectively sealed the wound. Bearing her had been exhausting, making the difficult climb that much harder, but such was his duty, and he had done it without complaint.
Pausing only a few seconds to catch his breath, Sigvar stomped heavily across the bridge, towards the citadel. It felt like he had been gone for years.
The way was obscured with a billowing icestorm, so that he couldn’t see more than a dozen yards. As the walls loomed out of the storm before him, he saw a shadowy figure awaiting him.
Ralakka Split-Tongue, Frost-Father of the Keepers, leaned heavily upon his staff of office. Sigvar eyed the black tip of that staff as he stomped to a halt before the gate, and took in the shard of ice hanging around the priest’s neck.
He looked upon the two of them with unease. He knew where they came from, now.
“Few among your brethren have glimpsed the darkness below, as we have,” said the old priest. “Your understanding of the faith has deepened, but there is still much to learn.”
Sigvar nodded, accepting this. Split-Tongue’s gaze then settled on Halla, strapped unconscious upon Sigvar’s back, before shifting behind him, searching.
“Stonefist?” he asked, to which Sigvar simply shook his head. He was too exhausted to say more. “From ice we are born, and to ice we return,” said the Frost Priest, touching the center of his forehead in reverence.
“It’s melting,” Sigvar managed. “One of the Nine. Something emerged.”
“The Watchers stir…” breathed the priest, eyes widening—perhaps in awe, perhaps in fear.
Sigvar merely nodded, his breathing ragged. His prodigious strength was close to failing him.“Our revered mistress, the , must be informed,” said the priest. The immense gates of the citadel ground open, the shadows within beckoning. “Come, Iceborn. We must prepare for what is to come.”