Axioms of Light

A Shroud Of Ice And Time

A Shroud of Ice and Time

By Jacob Cooper

An Excerpt/Short Story from Circle of Reign, Book 1 of The Dying Lands Chronicle

(c)2016 by Jacob Cooper

Reign ran her fingers along the vertical surface of the glacier as she walked, the snow softly crunching beneath her steps. The plexus of glaciers stood as the Realm’s northern border, spanning from coast to coast of the Northern Province. Despite the jagged contours, the ice felt smooth to her touch, almost like river stone. The smell of cold—that pure, mineral-rich scent—wafted from the glacier. Why did that scent make her feel so alive, like a burst of energy despite the bite in her lungs taken with each breath? She looked up. The light rain fattened to pillowy flakes that landed on her lashes, frosting them. She did not blink them away. Even after years of living—hiding—in the North, she still had a hard time seeing where the glaciers ended and the clouds began, especially against a pale gray sky with only slightly darker clouds. She took a step back, catching herself as the world seemed to spin for a moment. The sheer height of the glaciers had to rival a mountain in places, though Reign had never seen a real mountain. That’s what Jayden told her. Perhaps one day Reign would see the Jarwyn Mountains, their snow covered peaks that pierced the clouds, where only eagles and archivers dwelt. Uncle Antious had been there once. His stories had always enraptured her when she was young. Antious Roan. She had not thought of him for some time, but thoughts of him would inevitably lead to thoughts of her father, then thoughts of others. Monsters. She cast the memories aside.

The cloak of furs bobbed lightly upon her shoulders and glided over the snow at her ankles. She had made it herself, a mélange of deer, rabbit, raccoon, and even a fox. She left the squirrels alone. The dress beneath her cloak was of a hardy make, one designed for northern wear: long sleeves that hugged her arms and extended to the knuckles. The layer against her skin contoured to her body, from torso to ankle, a one-piece pantsuit of sorts. It felt like it had been painted on her, scandalously revealing her figure, now that her figure had something to reveal, giving Hedron more to tease her about. The dress itself laid over this first layer, meshing with it rather pleasantly, she had to admit. It flowed with every step, as if anticipating her movements, unrestricting. Even pariahs—Jayden did not shield them from what the Realm said of her family—could still dress moderately well, could they not? Reign never knew how Jayden came up with new clothes at just the right times.

Crimson would not be far off. She felt his vibrational signature faintly, knowing it keenly. Though not the same type of feeling the Western Province forest projected, she had adjusted to the more muted, less rich vibrations of the Northern Province. Reign judged Crimson to be perhaps a mile away. The elk he tracked had no chance.

She placed her hand flush against the glacier, the way she would have against a triarch tree to make a connection with the currents of the forest. She longed for that connection. No trees, and certainly not the glaciers, spoke in the North. They had not been to Eledir—the northern most village of the Western Province—for nearly eighteen cycles, a full year and sixty days, not since that bounty hunter. She shook her head and continued to walk.

Hedron probably still slaved away under Jayden’s harsh tongue, preparing the ground for planting. They would try ashuk nuts this year. The crop was a hardy variety but required the seed to be planted very deep, more than a foot. Her hands still bore the blisters of digging seedbeds two days past. Hedron said he’d take her turn today, trying to hide his own blistered hands from her sight.

Silly boy. But I love him. She had tried to refuse but he wouldn’t hear of it and threw pine cones at her, chasing her off.

The base of a chasm laid ahead. Reign saw the opening just past a long wedge-shaped drift of the glacier that jutted into the forest like a massive white tree root, cascading with slushy soil. She grinned. More exploring to be done. Sometimes, these frozen slot canyons wound for several hundred feet until narrowing to nothing; but they always provided a thrill as she explored them. She had found bones frozen in a translucent wall of ice one time, bones that still held the rough form of whatever creature it had been, something resembling a large dog with wings. Maybe a horse with wings, but the shape had definitely been more like a dog. These glaciers, the North—she sensed concealed secrets within, something that beckoned to be uncovered. That magical mystery pulled at her, the childhood drive to discover something anew.

As she came to the opening, she wondered if she should wait for Hedron. She turned back toward the direction of the cottage, a league or so south, then back to the chasm base in front of her. The opening felt strange as she peered into it, as if something lingered there. Perhaps within. The way the chasm opened resembled a misshapen maw, as if it had spewed out something distasteful. Or, perhaps, something had escaped? Yes, the way the ice within what would have been the throat thrust toward her, spiraling blunt icicles reaching forward like hundreds of greedy fingers, unable to hold whatever had escaped the frozen prison. Reign shuddered.

The path turned quickly out of sight as she squinted into the passage. This would be a winding track. The mystery pulled at her. Looking south once more, she took in a breath of stinging chill and stepped into the mouth. She ducked to avoid the jutting nubs, some as long as an arm, others merely a knuckle. They seemed more like frozen branches with rounded ends than fingers, she decided, seeing now that they did not extend in straight lines. The spiral effect though, how they coiled about the inside of the tunnel … yes, that was strange.

The icicles abated as the path turned sharply left, giving way to a smoother variety of frozen walls. Cascading rivulets, like vertical rivers, stood stagnant in time, thinning as they reached up the icy slot canyon. Reign thought these formations must be newer than the rest of the glacier. Darker ice rimmed a crack some hundred feet above, maybe more. She saw the clouds more clearly now and they streaked by like naked children, shy of showing themselves but having nowhere to shelter. A thought hit her: clouds could never hide, only be reformed into something new. Ever changing. Ever morphing. For some reason, that struck her as profound.

After several more steps, ducking and squeezing, the passage coalesced into a single sight. White upon white, little distinction. A sense of slight vertigo came back to her and she wondered if she were still looking up at the clouds. She wasn’t. It ended—the passage—so abruptly that she nearly stumbled into the furthest reaches. Tentatively, she reached out to confirm the passage’s end. Her fingers touched rough ice, a different texture than the face of the glacier. She sighed.

Nowhere, yet again. Of course. She would have to feel her way out until the ice turned different shades again. How long had she walked? Roughly a minute? She had no way of knowing the distance, though she probably had not delved too deep. There were no branching corridors—or so she thought. In the last part of the enveloping and barren whiteness, would she have even seen an offshoot? She looked up. The dark-rimmed crevice in the ceiling was not there. A cloud, frozen amid the ether, must have engulfed her. Floating—the sensation that overcame her. Something had transported her here, trapped her here. But then, breaking her vertigo, she saw something beneath a bend in the ice at her feet. She traced the wall with her hand, fingernails purple with cold, to the ground. A small arch bowed up from the ground. Could she slide through? She measured: just over three hands at the tallest part of the arch. She rubbed her bottom lip. If she got stuck ….

Reign unfastened the cloak and got down on her stomach. She sucked in and shimmied through. It came easier than she thought but the cold bit through her clothing without the cloak to protect her. On the other side, she rose and brushed herself off, blowing a disobedient bundle of dark hair from her eyes. She came face to face with another ice wall, white as the room she had just left. Again came the sigh. She reached out for the wall as she lifted her foot to take a step forward. Her hand went through the wall, her foot through the ground. She flailed for balance, but her weight had shifted. Too late she realized the whiteness before her was not another frozen wall, the ground her foot searched for nothing but clean, frigid air. She fell.

She stepped upon soiled stone and tree root. The next step came with warm, moist soil seeping between her toes. Where had her boots gone? The air, so thick with vapor that it almost felt oily, made her wheeze a bit. It brought no sting to her eyes, though. What was she wearing? A simple frock against the cold would not do. Where had she laid her cloak? But it wasn’t cold. No, she felt it now—the soil was indeed warm beneath her bare feet, the air too thick for chill.

She heard a cry, muffled, to her right. Trees, not iced over, dripped with a morning dew. Sunlight, more orange than yellow, raked across the ground. The cry again. Thin and high pitched but not a scream. A baby. More steps led her to a woman kneeling, a shawl over her head and shoulders. She rocked the baby in her arms, whispering comfort. Reign looked around, seeing no one, no sign of where this woman and her baby had come from. The little bundle squirmed a bit, fighting to reveal its head from the coverings, but the mother would not allow this. Sometimes little ones fought what they needed.

You must eat, Reign thought, as if her silent encouragement would sooth the child.

She saw it then. The blood. A glistening red stained the woman’s dress, more of a gown, below the stomach and ran down her exposed thighs. The baby squirmed more fiercely, fighting. It managed a breath, a desperate sound riddled with fear and pleading, but the mother clamped down harder, forcing the child’s covered head into her shoulder. She cried—the mother—sounding not unlike the baby’s, a plea for deliverance in the overtones.

“Stop it!” Reign screamed. “What are you doing? Stop!”

The mother gave no heed to Reign’s call. Her heart thudded as she watched the blankets jump and spasm in the mother’s arms. The woman curled over the child, saliva escaping clenched teeth and running down her jaw as sounds of anguish tore free from her.

“No!” Reign cried, feeling a bulge of bile in her throat. “Please stop! Why?”

Inconceivably, the mother started singing, barely above a hum. Such pained tones.

“They won’t take you,” she sang, “Where you go, I’ll shortly follow. They won’t take you. No pain. No tears. They won’t take you. Quickly now, before they come.”

This last line was not melodious, but a harsh whisper. The redness on the mother’s legs thickened. The blood would not stop. Reign did not know how she knew that. The ache in her heart and gut climaxed, forcing her to act. She drew her short blade, the one she kept sheathed to her inner thigh, and took one step toward the woman before freezing.

Purple lightning flashed, silhouetting dark figures in robes, their hoods down. The orange sun was no more. They surrounded the mother and child, like solemn obelisks the color of the night sky. Seventeen. Seventeen stood with such stoicism that Reign doubted her eyes until the mother screamed. Her face contorted with unmistakable terror. Dejection. Violet again splintered the sky and Reign saw, for briefest of moments, the heads of those seventeen. Shorn and marred with carvings she knew all too well. She gripped the short blade with both hands, trying to steady her trembling. Blood dripped from the back of her right hand as the nails of her left dug deep. She barely registered the pain but it anchored her somehow. The seventeen did not turn toward her or even acknowledge her. Reign wanted to run, but this place—whatever it was—held her fast.

Again the mother screamed. One of the figures approached slowly, each step a pronouncement, a command. He held out his arms toward the mother. She began to sob in abjection. Her shoulders slumped and the baby fell away from her breast, breathing in sounds of life. Still, the blanket covered the child. It was a boy. Reign knew that now. The man who approached reached down, more tenderly than Reign would have thought possible, and took the child. The mother collapsed to the ground, sobbing with gentle jerks.

“Kill him,” she muttered. Her gaze seemed to fall on Reign. Was the mother speaking to her? But no, her eyes had emptied. “Please, let me kill him.”

Her eyes glazed over as she said this, her body succumbing. The Helsyan that had taken the baby smiled, not paying any mind to the dead mother at his feet. He lifted the blanket and the corner covering the baby’s head fell back to drape across his forearm. There, Reign saw the markings on the child’s head. The blanket fell away completely as the man held up the child, raising him to the angry sky. Soft, the music that flitted upon the breeze, so faint that Reign thought it might be a distant ringing in her ears. But it was there. A melody within the breeze, weaving itself within the fabric of her dream. The song was the dream, the architecture of what she witnessed, the strident harmonies and melody becoming incarnate before her. Devastatingly beautiful.

“We are eighteen again,” the Helsyan growled. “Let our dreams be complete once more, Mother of Helsya, for Helsya must rise.”

Reign had not blinked for minutes. Her eyes stung but she could not turn away. On the child’s back, there remained a spot unmarred, unclaimed by the otherwise continuous weaving of glyphs. This absence gave her hope, and yet the hope could not be explained. It was short lived, however. The baby screamed, rocking his head back, as a red glow emanated from that barren, innocent parcel of flesh. An acrid, burning scent filled the oily air. Finally, Reign blinked.

The Helsyan holding the child jerked his head toward Reign. “You should not be here.”

The others started turning their heads.

The scratching woke her. It came from above, she felt sure of that now. She sat up, awkwardly, before opening her eyes. They fluttered irritably. When they did open, she shut them again immediately, holding a hand up to block the blinding white. She blinked away the brightness. As she took her hand away, a crust of dried blood came with it. Something throbbed above her right eye, a tender knot.

More scratching. She turned her gaze up, squinting. It might have been twenty feet above her. She had fallen just twenty feet? She saw plainly now the ledge from where she had fallen and shook her head. Stupid. Then, a whine.

“It’s all right, Crimson,” she called.

Her head pounded something fierce. The slope of the wall was steep but not sheer. No doubt she tumbled a bit on the way down. Thank the Ancients Hedron wasn’t here to see that.

Crimson continued to scratch, enlarging the arch she had crawled beneath. She shivered and wished she had brought her cloak through with her. But, no. Crimson had found her because she left it behind. The wolf’s large head poked through finally and he barked. Reign looked up again, completely stunned. He had barked. Like a dog. Crimson’s long pink tongue hung out playfully. This was a day of discoveries after all.

The dream came back to her. The baby. The dead mother. The Helsyans. No. She let the memory fade. She had become increasingly good at doing that.

Carefully, Reign raised herself to her feet. “Next time, wait for Hedron,” she chided herself. The wall laid slanted enough to scale, she thought. Rough patches and crevices dotted the climb. Crimson growled, the playful bark gone. Reign’s head snapped up. The wolf glared at something behind her. He clawed, frantically now, trying to pull himself through the narrow opening. His bark this time become a feral shout, a snarl of challenge. Reign turned her head, just slightly, not enough to see over her shoulder. The hair at the nape of her neck tingled. That indescribable awareness of another being’s presence prickled over her. She reached for her short blade.

“You should not be here.” The voice sounded as if it came from the glacier itself, all-encompassing, gritty, like a blade across a whetstone.

She ripped the short blade free from its sheath, her hand sweaty despite the cold. Ducking and spinning on one knee, she held the knife horizontally beneath her chin, the flat of the blade running along her forearm. Nothing. No, not nothing, but no one. Something, though. Reign had not looked at her surroundings completely until now. She knelt in a crater of some kind, a narrow crack splitting the halves. Above, a thin dome of icicles did not completely block the daylight from seeping through. The canopy of ice shards, high above her, was not comforting despite the prismatic display of radiance they spread across the done. But in front of her lay the biggest discovery: across the narrow crack sat a hold coated in ice. This ice was not the milky white of the glacier but clear like a pure sheet of water flowing over rocky terrain. It encased the hold entirely, as if a gentle waterfall had poured over the ancient structure then froze in an instant.

The hold itself appeared to be more of a fortress. Rising the height of roughly four men, its body took on a cylindrical shape, sprawling wide across a hundred feet, perhaps more. She could see browns, grays, and light yellows of the wood and stone that composed the structure through the frozen covering. At the rounded top, eaves hung with giant spear-like structures pointing out nearly parallel to the ground. Steeples, she decided. Massive steeples, set obviously to impale an onrushing force. But what could the steeples hope to impale at such a height?

An outer curtain of stone walls, just taller than her, surrounded the front with towers reaching so high that they disappeared into the icicle-bladed dome above. That felt oddly disproportionate, but she recalled the height of the steeples. Haxlium? she wondered, remembering the mythical stories of giants in the days of the Ancients. The door itself, a pointed arch rimmed with stones, was perfectly preserved; a dark wood embraced by what appeared to be ornate ironwork. In the center, a symbol. She squinted as she lowered her short blade, just slightly. Should couldn’t make the symbol out.

Everything about this structure bespoke an aggressive ambiance, an underlying promise of protection for those within and a defiant challenge to those without its walls. Crimson Snow breached the arched opening above and leaped down to her, landing adroitly on all fours, hackles raised.

“Thanks for making that look so easy,” Reign said with a huff. “What is this place?” And the voice, who had spoken those words? The same from her dream, though the voice had been different this time. She quieted her thoughts, searching for the feeling of another’s presence, for telltale pulses in the ground.

Nothing. Whatever she had felt, whomever she had felt, had left. Looking at Crimson, she guessed he was not as convinced. His snowy-white hackles still spiked high.

The fortress had no doubt meant to appear intimidating in life, but in death did not hold the same feeling. Still, if some peril lurked therein, Crimson now stood with her.

“We’ll be fine, right?”

The wolf whined. Not a pathetic plea, of course, more of a warning against continued stupidity.

“Don’t be scared.”

Crimson cocked his head at Reign in the oddest expression she had ever seen from him, as if to ask if she were serious.

“Well, come on then,” she said, rubbing his ears.

She easily jumped the narrow crack that separated her from the fortress, the wolf just behind her. Even through the frozen ground, Reign felt the grudging pulse in Crimson’s steps as they neared the door. With the pommel of her short blade, Reign chipped away the sheen of ice from the edges. The hinges, a different cast than Reign had ever seen, opened outward. Of course they did. This was a fortress. She went to work on the ice beneath the threshold, freeing any obstruction. The door drifted toward her, slowly, with a low groan.

“Oh,” Reign said, her heart speeding up again. “I guess I thought it would’ve been bolted from the inside.”

That told her its former inhabitants had probably abandoned the fort. Tentatively, she pulled the door open wider. It creaked in protest, almost sounding like the sinister laugh Old Lady Wendham would make as she told Reign and Hedron scary stories, stories Reign now believed had more truth than myth woven into them.

The air from inside the fortress smelled old. Still. Was that a thing? Could she smell stillness? For some reason she thought the atmosphere within the fortress would have been warmer, but in that she had erred. It was, however, somewhat humid. Ambient light breached the door’s threshold, casting a cone of pale illumination into the entrance.

“After you, boy.”

Crimson stepped forward, head lowered just a tad. Reign followed. Her boots touched stone. No ice frosted the ground, save for the cracks between the stones that made up the floor. Wooden beams flanked the floor stones—probably a pace apart—outlining a path. Her eyes adjusted and the rest of the chamber began to manifest itself. Plain. Disappointingly plain. There was literally nothing to investigate. Well, almost. A giant hearth with a pitched mantle sat to the left, an iron log catch in the fire box. More wooden beams lined the walls and rose to the ceiling. She couldn’t make out anything beyond that.

It was just a giant room, as if the builder simply wanted to capture air. Ancients take me, she thought as she sighed once again. Crimson turned and walked out. She had to admit he was right. Maybe one of the towers would have something of interest. She turned to follow Crimson, then stopped. From her periphery, she had glimpsed something in the center of the floor. A design. She whirled back around and walked deeper into the fortress. Coming to the center, she knelt. The wooden beams outlined a path leading to the center. She saw it now. Other paths branched out from the middle, leading into corners of darkness. She cursed herself for not bringing a torch, but the timber of the fortress looked so old it may as well have been a tinder box.

In this central design, different shades of cut stone sat recessed in the ground. Triangular shaped stones with inner curved lines circled a bone-white center quartet, a single rounded stone halved crosswise twice. Each quarter piece looked about the length of her arm along the inner flat edges.

“Crimson!”

The wolf poked his head through the threshold, silhouetted by the outer light. How could a wolf display such vivid disinterest?

“I think … I think this is a compartment. Like a hideaway.”

Crimson disappeared again.

Fine.

She traced the mortar at the grooves between each quarter piece. The edges were fine. The mortar, though, was not mortar, but simply frozen soil. Reign dug her short blade into the grooves, anxiously freeing the dirt. Depending on the depth of the stone, she might be able to lift it. It took her an hour to dig deep enough to get several fingers beneath one quarter piece.

She lifted. The stone came free from the cold ground. It wasn’t thicker than half a finger’s length but, fallen Ancients, it was heavy! She dislodged it enough to rest a corner on top of the adjacent quarter piece, nearly smashing a finger as she set the stone down. With both hands and a grunt, she pulled stone from the far edge, digging the heels of her boots into the ground for leverage. The stone budged, inch by inch, until half of it rested on top of its adjacent counterpart. The smell that ascended from the opening knocked her back.

“Oh … my …”

She coughed and spat. It was death, the odor, somehow preserved in this sealed chamber for ages. She knew the scent from the crypt under her family’s hold, but this odor assaulted her with such pungency. Breathing through her mouth just made her taste it instead of smell it. She sprinted from the fortress, still coughing and spitting.

“Well,” she said, looking at Crimson through blurry eyes, “you were right. But I’m still going to look.”

Reign ascended the climb back to the arch and retrieved her cloak. Crimson really had destroyed the small opening. Chunks of glacier laid in ruins all around, the arch having lost its shape. It was now just a ragged opening.

As she again entered the fortress, she held the hem of cloak over her nose and mouth. It did little good. At the center, she knelt beside the opening and lowered her ear to it. The air felt warmer but she heard nothing. Crimson nudged her chin with his.

“Oh, now you want me to see what’s inside?” she asked. Reign swallowed hard. She would not come away from all of this with nothing to brag to Hedron about. Tentatively, she laid on her stomach and reached down, inside. Her hand flailed in the darkness, searching. Did she hope to find nothing? In a way, that would be relieving, she supposed.

Her fingers grazed something. She recoiled from it, as if bitten. But no, she had not been harmed. Just her childish fear taking over. Crimson sort of chuckled.

“Do you want to go down there?”

Crimson looked away. Reign couldn’t be certain, but a distinct feeling that the wolf knew this place teased her mind. “Fine, but if I get dragged down by something you’re coming after me.”

She reached down again into the opening, and found what she had grazed against. Smooth and cold, like a box. But the surface gave slightly when she pressed against it. She found the edge and ran her fingers along it until she found change. Something rounded and slender, smooth, interrupted by nubs. Hard. Reign gasped and pulled back, breathing heavily as she scampered behind Crimson.

Bone. Fingers. A hand. She was certain it had been a hand she had touched, or the bones of one. But what had she felt first? That cold, smooth but not completely hard surface?

There’s nothing here, she told herself. Nothing living. Something had riled Crimson, though. And she had heard a voice, hadn’t she? She imagined herself in a tale the storyweavers would often tell to frighten younglings, where some demon would gobble up little children for being curious. Elethol, the kennel master, would always snicker and tell her storyweavers were just drunk on horse piss, which would be followed by Old Lady Wendham scolding him for using foul language in proper company. Of course, then Lady Wendham would affirm the storyweaver’s tale, adding her own embellishments.

Would Reign continue to live under fear’s oppression, letting fanciful stories define her actions? But they weren’t just fanciful stories. Not all of them. She had seen the horrors that the night could unleash. She had seen demons, had known death, had known the feeling of being hunted. Prey. No, she would not let this define her. She took the fear she felt and let it force her forward. Before she could think twice, Reign shoved her hand through the opening again, found the smooth-surfaced object, ignored the skeleton hand, and yanked. The object came free. A clang, like that of metal links, rattled against the stone wall beneath her. She heard and felt the sound. She stopped. Chains?

Reign scooted forward on her stomach and reached her other hand down, feeling for the metal. She found it. Thick chain links, pitted with age, she discerned. Flakes of metal fell away under her touch, like sand from a rock. She ran her fingers down, shaking slightly, until they came to the shackles around the wrist. She grimaced, trying to avoid touching the hand again. Something, not rusted metal, coated the wrist cuff in places. Some kind of hardened residue. A queasiness stirred within her and she jerked her hand away, bringing the freed object up with her.

It was a book. A cover of thick parchment encased papers yellowed by time. Some kind of cord or twine bound the book, threaded through four holes along the spine. A burned glyph, like a brand, in the parchment looked familiar. The door. The same symbol was on the door of the fort.

Reign looked at Crimson. “I don’t know, boy.” The book lay in her lap as she rubbed her numb hands. She blew hot air into them, thinking. “Should I open it?”

The edges felt frail but overall the book appeared to be in remarkably good order.

Of course you’re opening it, just get on with it, she silently scolded herself. The tome released a smell of wet wood as she gently opened the cover. She touched the top of the page where the writing began.

I am Kelon of Shaung ol’Eihrin, one of the Nine that was sent. I fear I may be insane.

Reign stopped. These words, the shapes on the page, were foreign to her. She couldn’t read them, but their meanings came to her as she touched them. She blinked, not believing what she was experiencing, and looked at her finger tips. The words, they had a feeling of such foreboding, but not forbidding. Wait, she had felt the words? Like pulses in the forest? She shook her head. That’s new.

Whoever Kelon had been, he had not meant these words to be forgotten. No, why else write them? She pushed aside the feeling of invading something private and ran her fingers along the next line. The words again came to her mind.

Though il’Helosha hunts us, in order to spill sorrow and all we bear back to the world, we have not retreated to our stronghold for protection. We trust not ourselves among the people. I trust not myself. Isolation seems the answer. The worst of us have we fettered in chains at their behest. Their capacity overflows. They have changed. I can see it. It is the same change I see in myself. The Ancient Heavens for strength I petition. I may choose the fetters for myself before long. The pain. The weight. It is heavy, but I will not seek death as many of my clan have. I cast not blame upon them. Any sane person might choose that path. But I may not be sane. No, I may not be. I choose to remain, but I know not what the burden will do to me. I fear it. Mishan and Clyvhar have chosen the same fate as me. We suffer. We fear what we are becoming. The apostasy. The dejection. The world turns to woe. Maybe death is right … but I cannot. I must not.

The next several lines proved too far faded to decipher. Reign skipped them.

Only il’Kiarra and ol’Axeila stand with us. Chaimere il’Kiarra protects us, shields us, that our work might continue. It may not matter. The Lumenatis has grown so dim. Confluence already frays. Chaimere says he will do what he must [illegible text] regain a foothold. Shaung il’Shroul, our kin, hath abandoned us for the mountains. They cannot bear it, [illegible text] see what we feel. They can shield their pain by choosing not to see. We cannot choose to not feel.

All other have followed Noxmyra and il’Helosha openly or simply become indifferent. Still, I take their sorrows, their frailty, their strife, their apostasy, the woe of the Ancient Dark. She has blessed them, il’Helosha, changed them. Their bodies … it seems more curse than blessing. [Illegible text] the way of Those Not Remembered. They seek something, something beyond this world. Noxmyra calls it a harvest, having renamed her followers as Light Reapers. They have seized one of the gates … Chaimere will not let Entropy reach Orwian. He gathers il’Kiarra to their gate. I … I fear what will happen if he … I cannot write the words. My mind, it is not my own. I feel the pulsing. It is changing me. The dejection. The wrath. The anguish.

Geilla died last night. She writhed in the chains, tearing her flesh against the shackles.

A chill crept up Reign’s shoulders. The crusted residue on the shackles—she shuddered.

We could not comfort her. Mishan took her burdens when death released her lest they spill back into the world. This is what Noxmyra seeks. Mishan will take the chains tonight.

“You should not be here.”

Reign startled and jumped up. Crimson snarled.

“Who are you?” Reign shouted. It echoed through the cavernous fort. Reflexively, she stared at the opening of the underground chamber, but the voice had not come from there. “Show yourself!”

“You would not approve.”

Crimson barked so savagely that Reign almost expected the air to split before her, ripping itself asunder as it fled.

The voice came again. “The purifier knows my kind, Arlethian, Shaung il’Kiarra.”

Crimson lowered his head, shoulders hunched. It seemed almost an acknowledgment of sorts, though still an aggressive posture.

Purifier? Reign thought. To the voice, she asked, “Who are you?”

“We are woe.”

Reign couldn’t explain why, but this ethereal voice felt feminine to her. “What do you want?”

“To die, il’Kiarra.” The voice surrounded her, directionless.

“Why won’t you show yourself?”

“If you wish it …”

Wind howled from outside and crossed the open threshold, bringing snow through the door, blowing past Reign into one of the darker reaches of the fortress. From that recess, a figure stepped forward. The whirling snow clothed it, gave it shape. The being trailed flakes in its wake that melted upon the floor but were replaced by new crystalline powder, the wind constantly renewing the discarded snowflakes from outside. The body of whatever approached appeared to flow. The snow about it outlined a head, rough facial features, a hollow mouth, slender shoulders, and talons at the end of graceful arms.

Reign stepped back. Crimson stepped forward. The apparition halted just before the dislodged quarter piece Reign had removed.

“You are not him,” it spoke.

“What? I don’t know what you mean.” Reign’s voice quavered slightly. “Who are you?”

“We are woe.”

“I don’t know what that means. Please, tell me what you want. What is this place? What is down there?”

“You should not be here, il’Kiarra.”

Reign felt a defiance rise in her. “But I am here.”

“You are hope, though not that of which Amnoch spoke.”

Amnoch? Did this thing before her mean Master Amnoch? The one who had been master of the hold guard for grandfather? She had never met him—her grandfather or Amnoch—but her father and mother had told stories of them both.

“How do you know Master Amnoch? What is he to you?”

The snow thickened the outline of the ghost “See.”

A feeling of apprehension grew within her at the word. “See what?”

“See.”

The apparition disappeared. The fort changed, lightened around her. Reign spun, witnessing the transformation. People appeared, dressed in formal attire. The hearth on the left side of the fort came alight with a warm glowing fire. Music filled the air, a sweet, jaunting melody, and the people began to dance, bowing to each other, then moving gracefully over the floor. The floor, that had changed, too. Ornate designs of glistening stones shimmered with reflections upon the polished surface. High above, golden cradles, suspended from the ceiling, held oil lamps that swayed slightly. Wooden arches, a rich birch color, curved and intersected in a dizzying display.

“What … is this?” Reign asked, a bit breathless.

“Patterns and symbols.”

The atmosphere was so light, so joyful. The people all around her smiled and walked without a care in the world, it seemed. But, against one wall sat three, all men. Stern faced and stoic, they seemed apart from their surroundings. Their countenance darkened, as if in pain. The unrecognized symbol on the front of the fort’s door came to her thoughts.

“Who are they?

This time an answer did come. “They are woe.”

“Why do you show me this?”

“See.”

It changed again, the vision before her. The scene of a great battle materialized. Two distinct forces clashed within a valley. They tore at each other, the death feeling foreign, its presence seeming a profanity upon the land. Not death itself, but the killing. A third segment of people, larger than either force, watched.

The snowy specter came to her side and pointed with a talon to one side of the battle. “Lo, Shaung il’Kiarra, your kin, and Shaung ol’Axeila.” Indicating the opposing force, it said, “Shaung il’Helosha and those that have followed after the Ancient Dark.” Of the third group, those that observed the battle without taking part, it said, “The remainder of the nine that were sent save ol’Eihren.”

Reign’s attention shifted. On a hillside, removed and above the fighting, stood the same three from the first vision, still stern and stoic. ol’Eihren? On the outside, they appeared emotionless as they witnessed the battle; but Reign sensed the turmoil within them, the absolute pain and misery. Theirs, yes, but also that of others.

“They … they feel it,” Reign whispered. “The pain.”

“They are woe.”

“What am I seeing?”

“The Turning Away, Arlethian. The loss of Confluence.”

Before her, the three seemed to fade, to be erased as the battle became more intense. And then, Reign saw it, the sky. It was wrong. Her focus on the battle, she had completely missed it. Hovering above the battle in the air, something blocked out the sky. A bluish orb with swirling clouds—not the sky’s but its own—loomed, its presence threatening. Beneath the blue swirls, patches of darkness seeped through before being covered again. The clouds, they conceal something, Reign thought. That feeling of being trapped, of being pushed toward the cliff’s edge, knowing the fatal plunge to be imminent, came to her. She stumbled back, nearly dropping the book. She breathed shallow exhales, trying to find her voice.

“What … what is …

“Those Not Remembered. Resurgence.”

“Why do you show me this? What do you want?”

“To die.”

A new voice ripped into the vision, startling Reign. “Encriyo, esha vash dustánt, ol’Eihrin!”

The vision vanished. The dark fort returned. Where the specter had been, only a mound of snow. Orange light flickered from behind her. Reign turned to see Jayden standing in the threshold, a torch in hand. She wore a downtrodden look, one of sad inevitability. Reign hugged the ancient tome to her chest.

“You have started seeing them, then.” Jayden’s words were not a question. “The dreams.”

Reign trembled. “What are they?”

“The different elements of the world reaching out to you, little one.”

“Don’t call me that. What elements? Why?”

“Because of who you are, your blood, or the Light within it. The forces of the world seek to manifest themselves as the veil thins. They know an end approaches. It began with your father.”

Veil? The swirling blueness, the looming orb. “I don’t know what that means.”

Jayden approached her and took her hand. “No, of course not. Not yet.”

Reign loosed her arms, releasing the book from her chest. “I found this. In there.” She motioned to the opening in the ground. “The words … they spoke to me. The writing is strange but I knew what it meant when I touched the symbols.”

Jayden swallowed. “Put it back.”

“I want to understand—”

“Put it back, child. Now.”

Jayden’s words contained a gravity to them. Reign did not argue.

“What is this place?” she asked as she reverently replaced the old tome.

Jayden pursed her lips, as if considering how best to answer. “This was once a hold of the Shaung ol’Eihrin, it appears. They are known in myth as desert wraiths. It was their clan that bore the suffering of the world, eased the burdens of Våleira.”

“But, a desert wraith in the north?”

“The glaciers, to some, are a kind of desert,” Jayden said.

“It said it wanted to die.”

Jayden nodded. “There are few left.”

“I saw things I don’t understand. Did you see them, too?”

“Våleira has many secrets, child. It is time for you to leave.”

Reign understood that Jayden meant more than this old fort. “Why? Are you angry with me?”

The wolf shepherd shook her head slowly. “No, child, but this was inevitable. The dreams. This was not the first one, was it?”

The baby. The mother.

“No,” Reign admitted. “I didn’t feel that it wished to harm me.” But it could have, her mind told her. Crimson’s reaction had confirmed that.

“You must return to Arlethia,” Jayden said. “The time hastens now.”

“It spoke of Master Amnoch. The ghost.”

Jayden raised an eyebrow.

That surprised her, Reign thought. “I don’t know Amnoch,” she continued. “It called me hope.”

Jayden nodded, her eyes distant. “Yes, that makes sense.” Her eyes met Reign’s again. “Come, away from this place with you.”

***

Jayden watched Reign exit the fort. “Ish’en guhn’il au.” The dislodged stone snapped back into place. Turning to Crimson, she said, “How long, Elohk, before you call them forth?”

Crimson stared back at her, then looked away.

“Yes, you are lonely. You have trodden the world before the time of their return.” Jayden exited the hold, Elohk in tow. Reign had leaped across the narrow crevice that divided this crater and scampered up the incline, back through the destroyed opening. Jayden laid a hand, tenderly, upon the glacier that now engulfed them.

“Are they still here, Elohk ol’Axeila?” She closed her eyes, hoping, praying. “Will they answer you when you call them forth?” She opened her eyes and sighed. “They must. Oh Ancients, please, they must. The veil thins. Evrin cannot eradicate the parasite.”

The wolf howled a low tone.