Chapter 9
Mist and Ice

Trader's Point, Arma

"I really dislike the cold. I am fortunate to live in such a temperate region. That being said, I have had to deal with greater colds than most people can dream of. However, I have seen people who have spent their lives knowing nothing but the cold. I wonder if they dislike heat the way I dislike cold."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

As they went further north, Mark and his companions were awed by the wall of ice rising in the horizon, stretching from east to west as far as the eye could see. Felix explained that the wall was known as a glacier, a piece of the Northern Icelands ever creeping southward. Four days after they left the Amazon Basin, the group came upon a small traders' outpost where local herders and merchants from Porto Sul would meet.
Although Felix was reasonably conversant in the language, the locals were reluctant to speak with foreigners. The prospect of them completing their task was looking rather bleak when they met with some unexpected help. The resident parson happened to notice the mark of the Red Chi-Rho on Felix's hand and immediately offered the group his help. An established figure in the community, the parson had no trouble eliciting a conversation out of the locals and acted as the group's interpreter. Since he did not know Bannish, the parson translated into Imperial, which Felix and Mark would then relay to the others.
The stories soon began to take form. The area was plagued by a fearsome beast that lived in the glacier. His howling alone was said to cause their ewes to miscarry and the milk to curdle, among other things. In all truth, it sounded like little more than common peasant superstition, but the parson vouched for the truth of the stories, swearing that he had heard the noises himself. In the end, it did not matter much whether the stories were true or not. If the group wanted to return to Gladius, they had to venture to the glacier and find the source.
The closer they got to the glacier, the more they realized just how daunting their task was. The seemingly endless wall of ice rose as high as a mountain. Exploring it would not be easy, not by any stretch of the imagination. Lacking a better alternative, the group split into pairs to look for a way in.
Naturally, Jill paired with Sonia. Because Rowanite scouts do not walk when they can run, Jill went out well ahead of her adoptive sister. As Sonia lagged behind, she stopped briefly, resting her hand on the wall of ice, and looked at her reflection. Quite unexpectedly, hers was not the only face reflected by the ice.
She whirled around, reaching for her weapons as a man in black armor pinned her against the wall. He was unusually strong, so strong that she could feel his arm digging into her chest in spite of her armor. She was going to draw anyway, but then he leveled a long serrated blade at her throat. If he wanted to kill her right away, he would have done it already. Sonia thought it better to bide her time and wait for an opening.
Holding the blade steady, the man took his arm off her chest. He lifted his blank mask of a visor to reveal his face. His skin was pale, his features grim and his eyes a cold steel-grey. Absently, Sonia was reminded of Adrienne. The man pushed her into the wall, this time leaning into his arm much harder. His face was not much more expressive than his visor, but Sonia could feel the frustration channeled through his actions.
"What keeps me from killing you right now?" he asked, more to himself than to her. "Are you the one that old conjurer spoke of? Will your fire melt this heart of ice?"
Much to her surprise, he leaned in further and kissed her. Sonia had no idea what the long awkward kiss was supposed to mean, but if the man in black thought she was going to go weak in the knees from such an amateurish play, he was sorely mistaken. The distraction was just the opening she had been waiting for.
With their bodies so close together, Sonia could not draw her rapier or her main gauche, but she had a special weapon for an occasion like this. Tucked under her arm was a small sgian dubh, perfect for what needed to be done. In a single swift, fluid movement, she drew the knife and buried it in his neck. His blood flooded into her mouth in the brief, awful moment before she pushed him away. The triumphant fencer spat out the blood and wiped her mouth with the back of her glove. She threw down the sgian dubh and drew her rapier, fixing the point only inches from the man's face. By now, he had fallen to his knees, clutching his wounded throat as blood dribbled liberally down the front of his coal-black armor. Within mere moments, the light faded from his eyes and he collapsed. Confident he was dead, Sonia sheathed her rapier. She spat again, this time out of contempt for her mysterious attacker.
"I don't know who you are," she said, "but you got what you deserved."
Even as she was speaking, the man's fingers dug into the earth and he slowly rose to his feet. Sonia recoiled in shock. Not only was he alive, but the wound in his neck was gone.
Seemingly emotionless before, now bitter anger smoldered in his steely eyes. Before Sonia could draw her sword, the man raised his hand. His cape billowed as Sonia's body was driven into the ice with some powerful, invisible force. There was magic in the attack unlike anything she had ever experienced before, a black energy that sapped her strength and chilled her to the core. The fencer lay in the crater left by the dark blast, barely holding onto consciousness. Apparently having no intent to finish her off, the man brought down his visor, hiding his face behind the iron mask once more, and walked away.
Sonia struggled to keep her eyes open as the man disappeared into the distance. Even though the after-effects of the blast were wearing off, it took a few moments for her to summon enough strength to pull herself out of the crater. Having heard the commotion, Jill came running to the scene. It was probably better that she had missed the man in black.
Upon seeing Sonia and the crater, the Rowanite huntress rushed to her sister's side. "What happened, Sis?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Sonia replied grimly. "We need to meet up with the others."
The group was reassembled a short while later at an entrance Jasper had found. Seeing Sonia limp toward them, she immediately gained Mark's concern.
"Are you hurt?" he asked. "What happened?"
"It's not bad," Sonia said. "I ran into a man in black armor. I stabbed him in the throat and it looked like he died, but then he got right back up and the wound was gone. He hit me with some kind of magic I've never seen before. He had me down and then he just walked away."
Edward was all too quick to ridicule her.
"I don't believe a word of it," he said. "Dying and coming back to life, magic you've never seen? Rubbish!" He crossed his arms. "Some herder must have given you a good thumping before that forest girl scared him off. You just don't want to admit it. When are you going to learn that a woman's not fit to wield a sword?"
Sonia reached for the hilt of her sword. "You want to try me, drunkard?"
Before the argument could escalate any further, Giles intervened. "Hold on there. The man she described sounds like the Dark Knight Vincentian. He's one of Randwulf's best men, unnaturally strong and an excellent swordsman. They say the warlock made him immortal."
"Impossible!" Edward scoffed.
"Do not be so quick to judge, Prince," Felix said. "There is much that is possible in this world. I have heard legends of men and beasts with extraordinary regenerative powers. This Dark Knight seems to have this and more." The old knight stroked his beard. "He will be difficult to defeat..."
"Leave him to me," Adrienne said, stepping forward unexpectedly. "Let me know the next time you see him and it'll be the last."
"What can you do?" Edward sneered.
"I can kill him," she replied in a matter-of-fact voice. "I'm the only one who can."
Felix cut off any further conversation on the subject. "Nothing can be done about it right now. We must focus on exploring the glacier. That is our first priority. All of you, you must learn to fight as one. Do so and you can overcome any challenge. I wish you well. May God be with you."
After having kept the group on such a short leash for the past few weeks, everyone was surprised to see Felix bowing out of the mission, none more so than Mark.
"You're not going with us?" the swordsman asked.
Felix shook his head. "I am afraid not, Mark. I am too old to survive the freezing depths of the glacier. Besides, someone needs to guard your flank should Sonia's attacker return."
The old knight rested a hand on Mark's shoulder. "You will need each and every able body to succeed in this mission. This trial will make you stronger as a team. Do not worry about me."
Mark had his doubts, but no one else was going to try to dissuade Felix from the course of action he had chosen. The swordsman had no other choice but to abide by Felix's wishes. Mark decided they would resolve the matter as quickly as possible. The sooner they returned, the less risk to the venerable old knight.
They were not far into the tunnel when the subzero temperature began to take its toll on them. What extra clothing they had acquired to bundle up against the cold did them little good inside the glacier and they immediately felt icy teeth latching onto their bones. Sonia and Ignatiy each produced a small orb of flame that drew everyone into a tight huddle. Adrienne was the exception, who kept her distance and seemed unaffected by the cold. It would have been nice to take fuller advantage of the two pyromancers' powers, but no one wanted to risk the tunnel collapsing.
After traveling for about an hour, the howling that terrorized the locals began to reverberate throughout the tunnel. Unfortunately, the tunnel had many branches and even Jill's keen ears could not pinpoint the source. As they continued forward, the howling seemed to come closer, but it could easily have been a trick of the tunnel's acoustics. Even so, the group had their weapons at the ready just to be safe.
For some unknown reason, Adrienne darted to the side all of the sudden. Before the others had a chance to react, a large fist burst through a nearby wall. They all took up defensive stances to block the shards of ice flying their way. The fist belonged to a hulking giant whose body was made completely of permafrost. Its frame was broad, its arms nearly twice as long as its squat legs, and its wide face completely featureless except for two cavernous eye sockets and a gaping mouth. A roar rumbled deep in its chest as the group prepared to attack.
Edward charged at it first, swinging his sword widely, and yet the heavy blade merely glanced off the creature's arm. Shocked that his strength and trusty weapon did not even leave a scratch on the creature, the Prince was unprepared for a blow from the creature that dropped him to the ground. Mark and Sonia wasted no time putting themselves between the creature and the fallen Prince while Giles and Jasper pulled him out of harm's way.
While the two Elemental Knights charged their weapons, a strange light rose from behind the creature. Mark and Sonia hesitated at the unexpected sight, momentarily dropping their guard with dire consequences. A blue wave radiated from the light, stunning everyone in the group the moment it touched them. The creature then knocked most of them aside with a broad swipe of its arm. While they lay stunned and helpless, it struck the ceiling with a forceful punch, bringing down a cascade of ice upon them. It struck again for good measure to ensure all of them were buried under the ice. It was an unqualified success.
Under the grinding, freezing weight of the jagged chunks of ice, Mark's consciousness began to fade. He thought he heard the shrill voice of a woman laughing.

* * *

Mark came to his senses feeling his who body engulfed in a strange warmth. After being overcome by the bitter cold, it was a welcome sensation, but it was not entirely pleasant. It felt like he was being pricked by hundreds of needles while iron hands gripped at his legs. It was difficult to breathe, not only because of the pungent smell burning his nostrils but also the feeling of a great weight on his chest. That was not all. There was something else to it. He realized that these sensations were against his bare skin. He could not feel his clothes. Gripped by unease, his eyes snapped open to reveal himself immersed in a bubbling, steaming pool.
He looked around and saw all the others in the pool except for Adrienne. Looking surprisingly relaxed in the unfamiliar environment and uncomfortable circumstances, Sonia smiled at him from the other end.
"Welcome back," she said. "I'm surprised it took you so long to come to. You'd think this water would wake you right up."
"Where are we?" Mark asked curiously, doing his best to stifle his embarrassment and speak without stammering.
"One of the hot springs of Niflheim," the fencer replied as she rubbed her shoulder. "I'm pretty sure that's what he called this place."
Sonia grinned. "The guy I found lying on top of me when I woke up. The locals warmed us with their own body heat before putting us in here."
Mark could feel his cheeks burning at the thought. Sonia laughed. Trying to take his mind off the situation and to restore his composure, Mark's eyes wandered about his surroundings. The pool was one in a series of hot springs scattered throughout a wide tunnel. The sulfurous steam pushed the ice back several fathoms in all directions and blanketed the interior with a thin haze.
Looking at the others, he saw that Teresa was the only one of them who was still unconscious. Jasper was close to her side, watching over her as intently as he did during his all-night vigil at the witch's hut. When her eyes opened, it took a moment for her to realize the state she was in. Her face turned a shade of red that surpassed Mark's own by a long shot. With a mortified squeak, her hands shot up to cover herself. The dark water rose up to her shoulders, so there was no threat to her modesty, but no one would be able to comfort her with that.
It did not take the skittish novice long to notice Jasper staring at her so intently and sitting so close. She hastily moved away from the thief and, not paying attention where she was going, bumped into Giles. The pikeman could easily have taken advantage of the situation, but he proved himself to be a gentleman or at very least uninterested. He did not make any moves, nor did he pay her anything more than a brief glance, allowing her to readjust her position between him and Jasper.
Relieved to see Teresa unharmed and amused at her overwrought reaction, the thief burst into a hearty guffaw. "Doan' beh shoi, moi gel. Wir owl frinds 'eah." He gave a wistful sigh. "'Tis a sheym, tho'. Oi onlay wish Oi woz th' lahki fellah wo' gow' tah lay wif ye!"
If it was possible, the hapless Teresa's face became an even deeper crimson hue.
"W-what!?" she stammered.
"Relax," Sonia said over Jasper's laughing. "Your vow of chastity is safe. They had to warm your body to save it from the cold. That's all they did."
The sheer magnitude of her embarrassment left Teresa mute. Mark did not feel quite so bad anymore. Things were settling down again when Adrienne appeared and began pacing around the perimeter of the pool. Mark noticed that her face was freshly bandaged, much as it was when they were in the Nereidium.
"What happened to you?" he asked.
"The cold has no effect on me," she replied, "but ice is made of water."
"That sounds a lot like what you said in the Nereidium," Mark noted. He shook his head. "I don't understand. How does water hurt you?"
Adrienne looked away. "Another time, perhaps..."
"Hurt by water?" Edward scoffed. "Ha! You're just a leper is all! We couldn't tell before 'cause of all the filth on you. It's a wonder you haven't diseased the rest of us!"
"Think what you want," the cloaked mystery said in a disinterested voice. As she was walking away, she told them, "Now that you're all awake, I'll tell the attendants to get your gear ready. The king of this realm wants to see us."
Adrienne was not gone for very long when eight servants clad in thick fur-lined cloaks filed into the chamber, each carrying a folded cloth. The servants took their places around the pool, each helping one of them out of the water and wrapping them in the cloth. The servants then led the group to individual cells where their clothes and gear were waiting. Along with their gear were cloaks like those worn by the servants sized to be worn over their gear.
Once they were ready, the servants guided the group through a series of corridors until they reached a massive chamber where two columns of ice sculptures lined the way to a throne of finely chiseled ice set on a high dais. The one sitting on the throne seemed more like a great statue of the ancients than any man. He was over nine feet tall by Mark's estimate with pale ice-blue eyes and flowing hair white as snow. His deep basso voice echoed throughout the chamber.
"I am Ymir, King of Niflheim," he boomed. "My people restored your lives, lives nearly taken from you by the Ice Golem. Tell me, why have you ventured into my domain?"
Edward started to reply, but Mark beat him to the punch, moving forward to the head of the group and kneeling before the throne.
"Your Majesty, forgive our trespass. We are strangers in this land and did not realize our encroachment on your sovereign territory. We made a deal with the magistrate of the port city in exchange for passage home. We were sent here to uncover whatever is terrorizing the herders of the borderlands. I believe this Ice Golem that attacked us is the very creature we are looking for."
Ymir stroked his beard thoughtfully.
"The Ice Golem threatens my people as well. Tell me, young warrior from a distant land, do you and your party have the strength to defeat this creature?"
Mark bowed his head low. "We owe our lives to Your Majesty's grace. On our honor, we will destroy the Ice Golem to repay our debt to you."
The King nodded. "So be it. By oath I am bound to this place and there are none among my people who can face this threat. I will tell you only this: the creature's strength does not lie within itself. Find the power that guides it. Now go!"
Ymir's mighty voice caused chips of ice to rain down from the ceiling. Mark rose silently and bowed before the group turned to exit the chamber. They were met by a stout, ruddy-faced man with a full beard that went down to his chest. He bowed respectively to the group.
He addressed them in perfect Bannish, much as Ymir had done. "You who have found favor with our King, greetings. I am called Thorfinn Egilsson and I will be your guide. Your lives were spared because the King sensed the power of magic within you. We are a hardy people, but we do not have this power and only by magic can the Ice Golem be destroyed."
As he was talking to them, Thorfinn's eyes kept straying to Sonia. No one else seemed to notice, but the fencer was not oblivious to the attention being paid to her. When Thorfinn finished what he was saying, she held his gaze a little longer, finally prompting her to acknowledge him.
"Yeah, I remember you," Sonia said. "From before."
Thorfinn laughed. "Ah, yes. Well, we were surprised to find a woman arrayed as a man. I found you interesting, so I took responsibility for you." He scratched his head coyly. "I thought you might be one of the battlemaids from the sagas. From what I could see, I was not wrong."
A normal woman would have blushed--indeed, the implications of Thorfinn 'taking responsibility' brought a slight flush to Teresa's cheeks--but Sonia was not easily embarrassed, nor was she the type to be taken in by flattery. She simply crossed her arms.
"You're taking us to the Golem, right?" she asked.
His attempt at charm rebuffed, Thorfinn appeared somewhat deflated, but he did his best to play it off. "Yes, we have been watching the creature for the past few weeks and have found a pattern to its movements. Along its path is a wide chamber that will give you enough room to fight it."
Fighting the Golem was more than a matter of simply having space to move freely. Mark thought on the cryptic hint Ymir had given them. 'The creature's strength does not lie within itself.' Could it mean that the Golem was being controlled by some external power? If so, their target would be that power manipulating the Golem, not the Golem itself. But what could that power be? As Mark groped for an answer, his train of thought was disrupted by Edward.
"All we had to do was find out the cause of the problems," the Prince said. "There's no reason to risk our necks fighting that monster a second time."
"Where's your sense of gratitude?" Sonia retorted. "We owe our lives to them! The least we can do is kill the damn thing!"
"She's right," Mark agreed. "Felix didn't send us here to run away."
"Did he send us here to die?" Edward sneered.
His words did not deserve an answer and none was given. Mark estimated that they had walked a good quarter furlong before they reached the chamber Thorfinn had promised. It was an uneven oblong at least a hundred yards in diameter. In spite of several large stalagmites poking up from the ground, there was plenty of room for them to maneuver. There were only three tunnels connecting the chamber. Against any normal enemy it would be encouraging to have so few points of entry, but the Golem had already demonstrated its capacity to simply tear through the walls wherever it pleased. They had to be prepared for an attack from any direction.
While the group was evaluating the chosen battleground, Thorfinn had fallen behind. When a few of them looked back at him, he made one final bow.
"This is as far as I go," he said. "The rest is up to you."
"Doesn't your king need a witness?" Sonia asked.
Thorfinn shook his head. "Time will be your witness. It will soon be clear whether you are successful or not. Besides, I am not fit to help you and would only get in the way."
"You must do what you think is right," Mark said. "Thank you for your help. We will defeat this Ice Golem."
"I have no doubt of that," Thorfinn replied. He nodded to Sonia. "May we meet again, my battlemaid. Until that blessed day, I will remember you by this."
Thorfinn held up something between his fingers. It was a lock of blonde hair. Sonia felt the back of her head. Whether she was able to find the spot or not, she looked rather perturbed, but her reaction was limited to a dismissive wave. The tacit acceptance of his deed was enough to bring a smile to the guide's face as he made his way back to Niflheim. Once he was gone, the group turned its attention to more weighty matters.
"What are we going to do now?" Edward asked irritably. "You've gotten us into this mess, so now what?"
Before Mark could answer, Sonia spoke up first.
"I've got a plan," she said. "I'm going to make a big fireball in the center of the chamber to draw it out. I want Edward and Giles backing me up. With any luck, brute force will be enough to knock it over. Once it's on the ground it should be easy to destroy. I want the rest of you to scatter throughout the chamber. Hide in the tunnels or behind cave-teeth. If we're dispersed, that light shouldn't be able to hit us all at once. Any questions?"
"It sounds like a good plan to me," Mark said.
In truth, Mark thought her strategy was a little too simplistic. It did not seem to take Ymir's words into account. Simply attacking the Golem itself would not be enough to defeat it. Still, its simplicity made it easy to execute and there was no point in confusing the others trying to pinpoint the undefined power guiding the Golem's actions. If everyone else kept the Golem busy, it could draw out the power behind it. That would be his chance.
If for no other reason than the fact that Sonia was the one to think it up, Edward was the one person who could find fault with her plan. Surprisingly, the Prince did not voice any complaint, possibly because he was given a prominent role. His tendency to be a glory hound was not entirely without virtue.
In the absence of any debate, the group wasted no time taking their positions. Once she reached the center of the chamber, Sonia cast off the fur cloak so it would not interfere with her ability to fight. Everyone followed suit except for Jasper, Ignatiy and Teresa, who were more reluctant to abandon what warmth the cloaks provided.
Now that she was ready, Sonia began to form her fireball, steadily increasing it to nearly three times the normal size. It was not long before the howls of the Golem could be heard echoing in the distance. Allowing herself a momentary lapse in focus, Sonia glanced at Jill, who was taking cover nearby. The archer pointed to where she expected the Golem to emerge.
Her guess was not far off, for moments later the creature burst through the ice and lumbered toward Sonia. The Defender thrust her arms forward, sending the fireball crashing into the Golem's chest. As it reeled back, Edward charged forward with his mace. Though his forceful blows only made small cracks in its frozen armor, the Golem was kept off its balance by the combination of his assault and numerous jabs from Giles' pike. The Golem tried to swipe at the pikeman, but Adrienne's whip lashed out and held the arm back. Braced by one of the walls, she restrained the Golem's great strength with curiously little effort.
It was then that the light appeared. The same blue wave that had stunned them before hit the four fighting the Golem. Jill sprang out of her hiding place and shot an arrow into the light. Much to the archer's surprise, the arrow flew through its target like it was nothing. Another wave burst from the light, striking Jill to immobilize her as well.
As the light hovered over Mark's stunned companions, it let out a tinny laugh, the same laugh Mark heard when they were attacked the first time. His ears had not deceived him. In that moment, he knew that the light was the power behind the Golem. Now was the time for him to act.
While the light was distracted, Mark jumped out from his cover and sent a bolt of lightning streaking into the ethereal foe. Although he had only used his power in short bursts before this time, Mark did not stop channeling energy into his blade and electricity continued to surge into the light. Overwhelmed by the power of his attack, it flickered briefly and fell from the air. The Golem collapsed immediately afterward, shattering the ice underneath.
The light had dimmed enough to reveal its source, a woman whose fair skin radiated with supernatural luminance. Her slender frame was cloaked in a sheer gown that matched the silvery white of her hair. Mark approached her cautiously, keeping his blade fixed on her and charged for another blast. Even though magical beings were supposed to be gone from the world, the Guardian knew better than to lower his defenses.
When the woman's ice-blue eyes opened, she rose with a start, reflexively backing away from Mark. In an attempt to look intimidating, she drew herself up to her full height, which was fairly short by human standards, and glared at the one who brought her down. She raised her hand slowly, as if to attack. Mark held his blade steady, prepared to loose another bolt of lightning at the slightest provocation. The tense standoff was disrupted by a grunt from Edward as he struggled to get back on his feet. The woman's attention was momentarily diverted from Mark, her eyes darting back and forth as the others recovered from her attack. This seemed to make her all the angrier.
"You wretched mortals," she hissed. "How dare you raise your hands against me! You will all die! Golem! Kill them!"
The Golem did not rise. Looking back to her thrall to see what was wrong, the woman's eyes grew wide. Like a conquering hero, Ignatiy was perched on the fallen Golem with his entire supply of bombs spread liberally about. With a wave of the firebug's hand, all the fuses were lit simultaneously. A little too caught up in the moment, Ignatiy laughed triumphantly as the fuses burned down, not bothering to move. Much to Mark's relief, Jasper sprang forward to drag Ignatiy away before the bombs ignited and ripped the sturdy Golem apart in the compounded explosion that rocked the entire glacier.
For an awkward moment, no one knew what to do next, not the woman nor Mark and his companions. A smaller light emerged out of the smoking remains. As it floated away unsteadily, a squeaky voice piped up.
"Mistress Nivy, forgive me! I was not strong enough!"
Trying to uphold her haughty bearing in the deteriorating situation, the woman, who was apparently called Nivy, took a few defensive steps backward and scanned the chamber nervously. Encircled by the group, the odds were not in her favor.
"It cannot be helped," she said reluctantly. "We must withdraw. These wretches have the upper hand this time."
In a bright blue flash, the two vanished. The group simply stood there, not knowing what would come next. The Golem lay in ruins, but with the escape of Nivy and her cohort, it did not feel like a definitive victory.
"What happens now?" Edward asked.
Sonia shrugged and sheathed her weapons. "The Golem is dead. Our work is done." The fencer shuddered and rubbed her arms vigorously before picking up her cloak and wrapping it around her. "Let's get out of here. I'm tired of this cold."
The others murmured in agreement, but they did not get out as quickly as they would have liked. They wandered around for several hours until Jill finally picked up on the air currents from outside. As they approached the exit, Mark wondered how Felix was doing. At least a day or two had passed since they left and he hoped the old knight was all right on his own.