Her vassal circled the cinders of Redgrove, bird eyes peering down through the smokey haze, searching desperately for signs of life. It was a forlorn gesture, and they both knew it. There was nothing down there but smouldering stumps and charred corpses.
Still, Saskia hadn’t tried to dissuade Nuille from making the attempt. She knew all too well that feeling of hopelessness in the face of despair; of needing to do something.
When finally exhaustion claimed her, Nuille made a wobbly landing among the ragged band of survivors huddled at the edge of the devastated forest. She shifted into the form of a small furry animal, and sat on Garrain’s shoulder, with her tail wound about his neck.
Now that they were all gathered in one place, Saskia took stock of the survivors. Dallim sat against a wall with his head in his hands, muttering softly to himself. The young oracle had single-handedly saved half a dozen lives by hauling survivors up into that balloon of his. Never had Saskia imagined it being put to such a purpose. Among the gathered elves were Wuishe, Amur and a handful of others Saskia knew by name. Nuille’s grandmother, Dieste, was conspicuously absent. Hers was one of the bodies Nuille had found near the burnt-out husk of their gigantic housetree, next to the blackened bones of a giant cat…
Before the massacre, Redgrove had been home to hundreds of elves. Now there were less than thirty. If they hadn’t already been an endangered species, they certainly were now. There were surely other pockets of survivors on the surface of Ciendil or holed up in other Hollows, but these people had represented their best prospect for long-term survival.
And it wasn’t just the elves who had suffered catastrophic losses. Grindlecraw’s followers were equally broken. Many of them had been xenophobic donkholes, but they’d taken their families with them—not all of them willing. The innocent had suffered as much as the guilty. Then there were the dwarves who had gone into Redgrove to rescue the elves or fight the assassin. Baldreg had been among them…
Saskia swallowed the lump in her throat. Though his body hadn’t been found, Baldreg’s fate was very likely the same as the elves he’d tried to save. A part of her stubbornly clung to hope, despite the odds. He was Baldreg. He’d beaten the odds so many times already. He couldn’t possibly be…could he?
Releasing a ragged breath, she left the elves to their mourning. Garrain and Nuille would have to deal with the assassin themselves if he struck again in the near future. Much as she longed to fly or teleport straight back, that wouldn’t help anyone in the end. She had her own job to do. Unless she found a way to deal with arlium volcanos, none of it would matter.
“’Tis time, Sashki.” Ruhildi’s voice came through their oracle link. “Get your arse to the foundry.”
Saskia did her best to shove her morose thoughts aside as she walked the path to the north end of town, where her friends—and a sizeable crowd—waited.
“Tell me you have good news,” said Saskia, as she arrived at Ruhildi’s side, beneath the bone dragon.
“See for yourself,” said Ruhildi.
The great assemblage of bone and metal reared up, spreading its wings, the metal blades splayed wide. Some of the onlookers backed hurriedly away. Others gasped and cheered.
“Finally!” she breathed. The repairs were complete.
“Och aye,” said Ruhildi, offering her a doleful smile. “I ken how you feel. And not just ’cause I can feel your thoughts.”
Saskia couldn’t tell if Ruhildi was referring to her thoughts about the finished repairs, or about Redgrove. About Baldreg. Probably both, she decided. Ruhildi had heard the news, and, mind-reader that she was, she’d probably seen some of what Saskia had seen through Nuille’s eyes as well.
“I think all of us will be glad to see the last of this place,” said Saskia. “Well, maybe not him.” She rolled her eyes at Rover Dog, who was grinning at a buffet of barely-dressed troll women making eyes at him from the crowd.
The dog in question might have slept his way through half the women in Firespring if Saskia hadn’t, at Princess Vask’s urging, ‘laid claim to him.’ It was all a bit of a charade—in no way was Saskia ready to enter anything serious with him—but if it helped get Queen Atka off their backs, it’d be worth it. For his part, aside from his escapades with Vask and the other princesses, Rover Dog, seemed content to look but not touch. He sure did a lot of looking, though.
Rover Dog professed no recollection of his life as a companion of the old god, Sarthea. With the Night’s Dream seemingly inert after its keystone cracked open, they weren’t going to get any more answers out of it. Their own keystone didn’t fit into the same slot, so the site was useless to them now. His role in the ancient saga remained largely a mystery. She had to wonder though: how old was he, if he’d been alive in Sarthea’s time? Sarthea—otherwise known as Yona—who had been gone for a thousand years on Earth…
Trolls didn’t normally live that long; their enhanced regeneration didn’t do much to counter the slow ravages of ageing. Normally, their lifespans were barely greater than those of elves or dwarves; a few centuries at most. So why was Rover Dog any different?
She remembered the book he’d written—the one that spoke of his quest to find the mythical seed of eternity. What if Rover Dog had been born with the magic of eternal life?
An unnaturally long life may very well be the source of his amnesia. His brain must have some limit to its total memory capacity. At some point, he’d have to throw out old memories to make way for the new. Brain damage over the years could also account for that. Just because he regenerated damaged brain cells didn’t mean the memories stored therein would come back as well.
The visions of Rover Dog and Sarthea and Anduis and the reptilian demon had been so tantalising. She had many theories about what she’d witnessed, but they were only pieces of a larger puzzle. She needed to see more.
Sadly, those visions appeared to have been a one-time thing—a last gasp before the Night’s Dream keystone stopped functioning. She had a bad feeling about what its destruction might portend for Grongarg. The interference Sarthea’s simulation had mentioned—where had it come from? Saskia herself? Or from a certain someone who often invaded dreams?
In the weeks since then, she’d had plenty of time to ponder the meaning of what she’d seen, but no way to verify any of it. All she had were thoughts and hunches, though she’d learned to trust the latter in recent months.
To pass the time, she’d spent subsequent weeks making nice with troll royalty and training with her friends. By now, she was heartily sick of both. And apparently she wasn’t the only one.
“You must take me with you!” said Princess Vask. She too had been trapped here, after her roptir mount and her escorts had all been killed. Some of the other queendoms came to Firespring overland (Goldclaw Queendom, for example, had its stupidly strong lifters, who could fight off most predators with ease), but Cloudtop depended on the power of flight to safely traverse the surrounding wildlands.
“Sorry, but we’re not heading to Cloudtop,” said Saskia. “Not yet, anyhow. Maybe on the way back.”
“Where are you going?” asked Vask.
“South, to the seed of—south.” Saskia remembered belatedly that she didn’t really want anyone from Cloudtop to know where they were going. Sure, she had patched things up with Vask, but they didn’t want her mother coming after them.
“You’re visiting Goldclaw Queendom,” guessed Vask. A safe, if incorrect, guess. The Drackenruck Ranges, home of the Goldclaw trolls and the seed of strength, lay south of here.
Rover Dog nodded at Vask. “We trade with Goldclaw argnum miners.” Saskia flashed him a grateful smile. He was a better liar than her.
“I will go with you,” insisted Vask. “Aele invited me to pay her a visit in her home queendom. I should have accompanied her when she left. It will be so boring here without you. Most of the other princesses have left. Soon, I will not even have anyone with whom to share the scouring pools.”
“How awful,” said Saskia, with a mock shudder. “We can’t bring you with us, though.”
Vask’s eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
“Worse deal if Cloudtop present,” said Rover Dog, once again coming to her rescue.
Saskia sighed inwardly. Vask didn’t seem to be buying it. “How about this? Once we’re done in the south, we could pick you up on the way back, and take you home.”
“Oh very well.” Vask huffed. “You be quick. I cannot stand to wait much longer.”
Without further ado, they took to the skies. The great walled enclave fell away beneath them, and they shot southward on a trail of lightning.
The immense peaks of the Drackenruck Ranges loomed to the southwest, but they wouldn’t be going near those. To the southeast, the rolling hills and lowland jungles gave way to sparsely wooded hinterlands, then rock-strewn tundra, and finally a flat expanse of snow and ice.
As they drew closer to the frigid wasteland, the adorribles emerged from their little hidey holes, chittering excitedly. Zarie spared them a nervous glance, but to her credit, she didn’t turn into a quivering mess the way she had all those weeks ago when they’d first appeared. The younger critters were babies no longer, though they were still a long way from their full adult size.
Saskia held out her arms to them, and they piled aboard, icicles trailing up her arms and across her chest. Their touch didn’t bother her much these days, as long as she didn’t hold onto them for more than five or ten minutes. Her time in the scouring pools had not only made her more resistant to acid and sharp objects, but cold as well.
Which was just as well, because there was nothing quite like an armful of purring, chittering floofballs.
“Who’s my favourite little murderlings,” she crooned. “You are!”
The wriggling critters craned their necks to peer outside.
“Yeah, that place looks right up your alley, doesn’t it?” Saskia frowned as a thought occurred to her. “Or is it the seed of frost you’re interested in?” She turned to Rover Dog. “Is there some kind of connection between them? They are called frostlings, after all.”
“I not know,” said Rover Dog. “Frostlings on Ciendil, Grongarg, other branches. Only one seed of frost.”
“Good point,” she said. “It’s not like all of them could have been conceived next to a worldseed. And these little guys…” She nodded at the half-grown siblings. “…seem to have inherited some tempest abilities from the seed of storms, yet they’re just as frosty the rest.”
When they got close enough to the icy expanse to see it on her map, Saskia’s eyebrows shot up. Clusters of blue map markers ambled by; clear signs of life down there. The creatures themselves weren’t visible to the naked eye, so they must be very small…or very white…or both.
She glanced at the adorribles. “I think we may have found some of your distant relatives.”
It was snowing outside. At first a sprinkle, but quickly turning into a blizzard. Visibility was worsening, and Zarie’s wind magic was actually driving the snow into them, even as it kept them aloft.
“Is this going to be a problem?” she asked Zarie and Ruhildi.
“As long as there is air outside, these wings will fly, yes?” said Zarie.
“I’m not so certain about that,” said Ruhildi. “My magic can keep our wings beating, but the metal parts are starting to ice over. Colder still, and they’ll become brittle, get stuck, and mayhap break off.”
“So we can’t go much further in the air, then,” said Saskia. “Can we walk?”
“’Twould be a risk to bring the dracken closer, even on the ground,” said Ruhildi. “Mayhap ’twould get stuck. Mayhap ’twould become too cold inside the cabin for you to survive.”
“Isn’t the cabin temperature regulated by magic?”
“We are kept warm, yes,” said Zarie. “The magic is strong, but even that will fail if it gets too cold outside.”
Saskia pushed her bundle of fuzzy ice-makers gently away, whereupon they huddled together on their hind legs, peering outside, meerkat-style. One of them chittered loudly. It and several others had their paws out, as if pointing at something on the ground. Saskia couldn’t see anything down there.
“I think they want us to land and let them out,” she said. “If those are frostlings down there, I don’t see the harm in it. Maybe they could have a chat with their cousins…”
The dragon descended in a tight spiral, landing near one of the clusters of blue markers.
Sure enough, a swarm of fuzzy white forms hopped through the blizzard, before coming to a halt outside. Holding out stubby forelimbs, they formed into two neat rows, like a tiny honour guard. The adorribles inside the cabin chittered and pointed.
“They want me to follow them,” said Saskia.
“Do not do it!” cried Zarie. “They will eat you!”
“They can’t bite through my shell,” said Saskia. “Anyhow, look at them! Do they look like they want to eat me?”
“Aye, a little,” said Ruhildi.
“Oh shush,” said Saskia. “My map insists they’re non-hostile. In fact, it tells me they’re allies.”
“Like as not, you’d freeze to death out there, Sashki.” Ruhildi gave her a pained smile. “I ken what you’ll propose as a solution to that, but I don’t like it.”
“Let me spell it out for the others’ benefit,” said Saskia. “What if you go all-out with your spellcasting? All of you at the same time. The essence draw might create enough heat to keep me from freezing.” Probably not, though, she added silently. And if we miscalculate in the other direction, it might cook me from the inside out.
Ruhildi grimaced, but didn’t say anything.
“We can test it,” said Kveld. When they all looked at him, he reddened. “Saskia can stand just out…” He pointed at the snow. “We work our spells, faster and faster. Too much essence, and we’ll slow down. If ’tis not enough…”
“If it’s not enough, even after you’re all maxed out, then I can come back inside, no harm done,” Saskia finished for him. “I was thinking the same thing. Only problem is, it’s going to get even colder when I get closer to the seed of frost. Still, it’s a good starting point.”
Even Ruhildi agreed to that. Saskia briefly got in touch with Garrain and Nuille to ask for their assistance as well, if needed. Though she hated to impose on them at a time like this, she suspected it would take all of her vassals—and then some—to make this work. Besides, the pair were already furiously working their magic, casting spells of regrowth across Redgrove. She’d just need more of the same.
Then, without further ado, Saskia stepped outside—and into a wall of cold.
“Ye dogs it’s brisk out here,” she gasped.
The frostlings from the cabin piled out after her. Two of them touched noses with the ones waiting outside. Their gazes flitted between her and an unseen object to the south—the seed of frost, no doubt.
“Not yet,” she told them. “We need to try something first. You may want to stand back.” Shivering, she turned back to her friends. “Okay, do your thing, guys.”
An explosion of light and noise and movement erupted nearby, as her companions unleashed their magic on an empty patch of ice and snow, and the air above it. Spears of stone rose up out of the ground, subsided into sand, and rose up again, churning up the snow and ice into a brown mush. Overhead rose a whirling vortex of air, lifting ice and rocks and debris high into the sky.
Her furry audience seemed remarkably unfazed by the fireworks happening in front of them. They didn’t flinch or scatter, as beasts might when confronted by such a sight.
Saskia felt a small stirring of warmth from within—nowhere near enough to beat back the chill clawing at her bones—but it was a start. “More!” she shouted over the cacophony. “Give it everything you’ve got!”
The frenzy of magic grew louder, shaking the ground beneath her feet. Now they were drawing every bit of essence they could get from her. She felt a corresponding increase in her inner fire, but still it wasn’t enough. The surface of her shell was now one big sheet of ice.
“Garrain, Nuille, you’re up,” she said through her oracle link.
Somewhere below the surface of Ciendil, her two elven vassals began to add more of their magic to the mix.
Still not enough. A few months earlier, she’d have burst into flames. Now, with five vassals unleashing everything they had, it didn’t even warm her toes.
Saskia was about to call it quits when she recalled that her Earth counterpart had managed to stay warm as she descended the slopes of Sesayung, naked and alone. How had she done that, with no vassals working their magic for her? At the time, it had seemed as if she blacked out, then woke up shining like a ghost in the night, with the light and warmth of arlium coursing through her, melting the snow at her feet. But that wasn’t all she remembered. She remembered dreaming of that same episode as a troll, shortly after the Battle of Spindle. And in that dream, she’d…
Yes. That was what she needed to do.
She let her mind drift back into that same dreamlike trance she’d entered back then. Her body relaxed, surrendering to the icy chill.
It was so simple. All she had to do was let it out…
And just like that, her essence poured out into the air around her. Warmth. Oh splendiferous warmth. The torrents her vassals pulled from her were but tiny trickles compared to this flood; this ocean.
Light flared; not just from the arlium shining beneath her skin—though there was that—but the air itself was aglow. Innumerable motes of light danced before her, rippling outward in a vast wave. Outward, but also flowing in a certain direction…
Saskia spun about, eyes widening as she realised where it was going.
“Abort!” she shouted. “Stop cast—”
The sky lit up. A wall of heat swept over her.
Next thing she knew, she was lying on her back in a pile of slushy, half-melted snow. Her head pounded, but she seemed intact. Sitting up, she took in the sight of…
In the sky, Zarie’s lightning storm had been replaced by a whirling vortex of fire. A spreading pool of molten lava oozed forth from the ground, sending up jets of steam where it came into contact with the surrounding snow.
The half-grown adorribles peeked out from behind her back, looking a little bit fearful for the first time in…well, ever. Others had been punted across the ice. Shaking their heads, they came hopping back toward her. Thankfully, they didn’t seem to have been harmed by the blast that knocked her over.
“Well, at least it’s not raining cows,” she murmured.
“By sea and sky, what just happened?” cried Zarie.
“Sashki happened,” said Ruhildi.
“I found another way to heat up the arlium inside me,” said Saskia. “I let my essence leak out in raw form. It worked—I am now quite warm—but it also seems to have altered your spells somehow.”
“You released essence without form,” said Kveld. “I didn’t ken that were even…”
“Wild magic,” said Saskia. “I think that’s what it was.”
She’d seen stuff like this happen in a few games, often with hilariously fatal consequences for the characters involved. And yeah, sometimes there were cows.
Ruhildi hopped down into the snow. “It were wild, alright. You set our spells afire.”
“Yeah, sorry about…” Saskia halted mid-sentence, as she took in the sight of her friend.
Ruhildi outshone Saskia by a fair margin, if only because her skin was much thinner. Filaments of glowing amber threaded through her body from head to toe, revealing the shadows of the surrounding bones. Now this…this was a true ghostly visage. Terrifying…yet strangely beautiful.
“Well,” said Saskia, when she could finally speak again. “I’m glad I didn’t set you on fire.”
“Not afire, but I do feel warm,” said Ruhildi. “I haven’t felt this way since afore my death.”
“Not too uncomfortable, I hope?” said Saskia.
“No, Sashki. ’Tis just right for keeping the ice away. Now I can come with you to the seed of frost. I’d like to see what lies at the heart of this unnatural chill.”
“You and me both,” said Saskia. Turning to Zarie and Kveld, she said, “You’d better wait here. I’m not sure what would happen if you tried to fly off with my wild magic still lingering in the air. Also, best not to cast any other spells for a while. I don’t know the range of this effect. We can test it out later, but for now, let’s just get to the seed of frost.”
“Yes,” said Zarie. “You be safe, yes? We will be waiting.”
Saskia nodded at her, then turned her gaze down to their furry entourage. “Alright, let’s go, little guys!”
Before she could object, some of the younger adorribles and their parents were piling onto her back and shoulders. And she wasn’t the only one. Ruhildi had a couple of tiny passengers as well.
It wasn’t as if they were making her any colder than the air out here, although she wondered whether they could endure the heat emanating from her body. It didn’t matter, she decided. If she grew too hot for them to handle, they could just hop off.
They pushed forward into the blizzard amidst a patter of tiny feet. The critters who weren’t riding her back soon dropped behind, unable to keep up with Saskia’s four-legged bound, or Ruhildi’s unceasing sprint. The snow and ice melted beneath her feet, only to refreeze instantly after each step, leaving footprints of solid ice in her wake. Sometimes, they came upon other frostling swarms, who ran alongside them for a brief time, until they too fell behind.
Shapes emerged from behind the curtain of driving snow. Frozen trees and stone ruins and…bones. Great piles of bones, large and small, stripped clean of frozen flesh.
“Could you do anything with those, if you had to?” asked Saskia. “You know, just in case…”
“Och aye, beauties, aren’t they?”
“That isn’t the word I’d use for them,” muttered Saskia.
Here was where the frostling presence was strongest; the air coldest.
Above it all loomed a great ice spire, shining from within, and casting a blue-white glow down over the landscape.
“Aye, methinks ’tis the worldseed,” said Ruhildi, reading her mind once more.
Stepping up to the huge structure, Saskia drew in a sharp breath. There was something inside the spire. The form imprisoned in the ice was roughly the same as she’d seen many times before, but huge, with little arms and legs almost buried beneath vast rolls of blubber, covered in patchy white fur. This was the mother of all adorribles, though there was nothing adorable about her grotesque appearance. The frostling queen’s dark eyes were open, and they seemed to be watching Saskia as she approached.
Before she knew what she was doing, her hand was reaching for the crystalline surface of the spire. Something shivered beneath her fingers. She caught a glimpse of pulsating, spidery flesh, splayed outward at all angles. The light grew brighter, and then…
Wings rippling in the briny void, she circled the floating form of the frostling queen. Her surface mind had found her bloated, mangy body somewhat repulsive. But here, in this place, she seemed…elegant, even beautiful, in her own way.
The queen didn’t move; didn’t speak. Yet Saskia knew what she wanted from her. Why else would it be here, in the deep place?
She let one of her tendrils uncoil behind her, reaching for the soft flesh. Slowly, they began to fuse.
Wrenched back into the waking world, she let out a gasp. Her legs buckled beneath her. She landed heavily on the hard-packed snow. Frostlings scattered beneath her.
Saskia had become used to seeing out of her vassals’ eyes at the same time as her own. Sometimes three or four sets of eyes at once. It was akin to having multiple windows open on a screen. But this…
This wasn’t just three or four sets of eyes. It wasn’t just three or four thousand sets of eyes. She couldn’t even begin to count how many separate viewpoints she was seeing in that moment. A churning sea of white fur, liquid brown eyes, paws and pug noses and spreading ice.
She knew exactly what this meant, though she still struggled to wrap her head around the enormity of it.
These creatures were not the cute little terrors she’d thought them to be. They were part of something greater; a vast, shared consciousness spanning many branches; many hollows and crevices. All connected to their queen; all part of her. So tight was their connection to each other, to their queen, and to the seed of frost, that even individuals born many thousands of kilometres away still gained its blessing.
Saskia had just made their queen her vassal. And now all of the frostlings—every last one of them—were hers as well.