A man is strangled to death. The particulars of his death are irrelevant in the face of the facts. The Phosians take to superstition well and the treasure hunters stand as stone guardians while that high-speaking warrior woman from the far village makes clear the way for all involved.
Cold winds whip into the valley. Winter reaches a little farther in and the villagers huddle against the warming fires of taboo. Water basins left out ice over, feathered crystals latticing across their surface.
Even near the equator such cold isn’t uncommon, but the warrior woman explains that this isn’t a natural cold. Evil wanders the land. The dead man, a traveler like those who came in with the woman from the far village, was certainly strangled by the night things which roam the slopes of Haga Ephos, but this wasn’t mere happenstance. Here the woman sets the crowd straight. Entertained into belief the Phosians accept this gross ignorance of experience.
The brave, in her well-worn reed garments and hair tied into a series of ceremonial knots, gestures upwards to the slopes of the great mountain. There the cause of this death can be found, a group of violent taboo-breakers who have angered the powers of the magic mountain and must pay like remittance as the dead priest. And the village is eager to play the game of hate on the outcasts above; one with a sword, another a trumpet.
The mountain seemed to go on forever. Only a single day out from the base village of Phos and the thawed waterfalls below gave up a potent mist, obscuring the surety of ground. Above, clouds gathered amongst the spires. There was no end in either direction but the way was warmer than most the travelers had bested. It was easy enough to put one foot or hand in front of the other in order and haul themselves into the future.
“What are you looking for?” asked Hue of the Trumpeter, the Fencer being up ahead of them some ways. The musician startled at the question; he had grown adept at hiding his sky searches.
“Just a something,” he pondered, refocusing on the climb at hand. The Fencer was insisting they take a difficult way, the reason being that previous explorers would certainly, and reasonably, take the path of least resistance. Now they clung to the pale vastness of the western face, the only borders being gravity and sky, as they searched for greater knowledge.
When either man tried to engage the Fencer about a larger plan the swordsman he grew angry, aloof, and silent. That last quality being something he had been engaging in since their first meeting with a Jhem, one of the frozen ascetics of the mountain. It did not help matters that they had another non-speaking character with them. This wasn’t exactly true, Eluax would happily talk to any of them, but only he could understand what he meant and even that might’ve been a stretch. For this reason the Trumpeter was glad for the scarlet man’s company; at least he had someone to talk to.
“It’s quite a something,” he continued.
“And this something is?”
“It is the biggest thing we can think of.”
“Not in terms of size, if you would let me finish the thought.”
“In what way then?” grimaced Hue as he hefted himself up a particularly nasty rock protrusion.
“In the way that it contrasts with what we know,” riddled the Trumpeter. “The faint sun, the common clouds. Cold, snow, ice and terrible death. Hungry creatures and worse men. Winter, you could say.”
“Summer?” answered Hue without much thought.
The Trumpeter acted troubled by the response, made warding gestures and signs against the evils of the red demon, but really he was jealous that the man guessed the answer to the riddle so quickly, and maybe more that the answer itself didn’t satisfy. So he took a cue from the Fencer and grew silent and brooding.
“Wasn’t that it?” asked Hue with confusion as he climbed after the Trumpeter who had decided to move ahead with some speed.
They made slow time up jagged rocks, precipitous overhangs, and met no more Jhem. By afternoon the skies cleared and the whole land below emerged as white snow and purple grass, pale blue where Winter flora spoke out against the rolling hills. Far to the east the ocean tumbled, clothed in retreating haze. Above them Haga Ephos waited like a dead relative, or a forbidden temple.
Shortly after their lunch of dried fish they clawed their way onto a high basin. Once a lake fed by two thin waterfalls from above, it was now a frozen sheet of ancient ice, the falls turned to pillars, each housing a shadow obscured by their natural sarcophagi.
“Have you heard tell of this pair?” asked the Fencer once all four men were up.
“Never,” said Hue, considering the two Jhem before them.
“Then maybe now we can gain some unspoiled answers,” smiled the Fencer. He wanted to question painted Eluax on this matter but the gibberish-speaking Teller kept whatever he had fought from these heights secret.
The group walked out across the frozen pool. There was a hollow, cracking note to their footsteps, but their attentions were held by the two shadows and the stories they would tell. With a sudden crash the ice broke, plunging the Trumpeter into the frigid waters below.
The Fencer cursed and dashed to the frothing break but found no musician in the water. Then a deep thumping rose from beneath. Through a rough window of frozen pond the wide-eyed Trumpeter fought for breath and attention.
Dhala drew and flickered dark through the shadowed air of the basin. The musician, fear peaking, pushed off against the ice and back into the depths. Three vorpal flickers struck the surface and the inner pressure of the water popped free a large triangular sheet of frozen pond. The Trumpeter surfaced as a gasping, sopping tangle of silver and heavy wool. The Fencer put away his weapon and with Eluax’s help dragged the man to the safety of the shore nearest the falls. Hue, stunned through all this, backed into one of the frozen falls and that is when the voice came.
“We are the Jhem,” said the inner presence of the thing within. “You may know this but it is right to go about things in the proper fashion and so I repeat this basic statement as proof of the veracity of what is to follow.”
While the crystal-perfect thoughts resonated in their heads they rushed to the sheer rise of stone which backed the entombing cataracts. The Fencer grimaced at the prospect of the slow death for his friend the Trumpeter who kept sucking air in frantic gouts while huffing out with quacking shivers. With his wet clothes sticking close to his skin the tall musician looked like a drowned tundra wolf. The swordsman began frantically searching his gear.
The voice of the long dead ascetic continued on without care for the drama playing out. “It is my task to remember the frame of the world that is as compared to the world that was. Like the sudden storm bringing deadly flood or the plagued survivor casting the merciful city into bloody mayhem the cold came and never left as would have been right and proper.”
The Fencer at last found what he was looking for; a glimmering vial carefully wadded up in cloth to prevent accidental breaking. With all his might he cast the potion into the corner of the rock some meters away. Instantly a blast of terrible heat blustered against the men and a blue flash blinded them. When their vision cleared, the voice of the imprisoned Jhem continued in contrast to the sapphire bonfire. It blazed so hot as to make the temperature almost unbearable even this far away. Quickly they peeled off the Trumpeter’s many layers until at last he sat annoyed on a large flat stone wearing nothing but his loincloth, soaking up the heat from the alchemical fire.
“The curse of eternal winter was the result of hubris,” continued the Jhem’s litany. Now the Fencer took note of the words. The whole group of men awaited the continuance of the story.
“The swallows told the tale to me, as I meditated upon the eight-fold mysteries, of the Chemists of Loom and their greatest feat. It was already known that the alchemical rulers of that whole continent had filtered out the secrets of the natural cosmos and could brew triumphs through their alembics and wands. They had conquered disease, poverty and death. Theirs was a people who submerged themselves into vats of spiced liquids and through a shared liquid network and the interaction of their peculiar tinctures existed in a communal state of great harmony. They knew each other’s thoughts, secrets, hopes, dreams, lusts, hates, and so were able to concentrate the propitious aspects of their society and sublimate the rotten bile of corruption and disharmony.”
The audience stood enraptured by the telling. Even Eluax, who usually seemed lost in his own epiphanies, crouched down, fully comprehending the inner voice. The secret of Winter’s Riddle flowed out like a mantra, illuminated by the blooming fire.
“Yet, like all men who do not understand the flux of the living world, the Chemists sought to change the planet to fit their mould. Convinced that their fellows across the globe were living in error they sought a great change through the natural motion of the weather. They seeded the high skies with pungent fires and built massive alchemical devices to disperse their benefices into the world system. In this way all things would be linked.”
“They would at last know failure. Though their compounds and mixtures did reach all things there was an unforeseen reaction. Perhaps it was the salinity of the oceans, or the conspiracies of ravens, the lichen clinging silent and green to the high mountain rocks or even some quality of the Lattice itself, but the plan failed. The world did change, but not as planned. Ice began to form at perfectly normal temperatures and then the climate followed. Animals died, plants withered, and a great and terrible cold, like something born of the dark places between stars, crept in from the polar regions, in to kill the world.”
“The swallows tell me, as the night grows colder and colder, that the Chemists now try to find a cure for the ill they engineered. But their continent freezes, their people turn to ice and their vast web of knowledge fragments and dies. Perhaps they will find a cure, or at least stop the reaction they precipitated, but now the future seems sure and we brothers make ready to save what knowledge we can for the mere chance that others will survive the ice to hear our telling.”
Voluminous shadows leapt up from the men, all motion to their stillness. The tale stole deep into their hearts. They had no means to verify the Jhem’s claims, but the power of the voice, its presence in their minds, lent the story a weight of verisimilitude Then, even as the first presence receded into the cloised ice and Hue was about to speak, Eluax touched the second.
“We are the Jhem. In the long centuries before the coming of endless Winter we meditated upon the mysteries through discipline, ordeal, practice and letters, all seeking a most perfect and true knowledge of the world around us. In our labors we discerned many secrets, and this wisdom we meted out to the peaceful and the just, those seeking knowledge and those in need of it. When the cold came we began a different calling.”
“The world has known many vices and of these the worship of angry and petty gods is most indulged. The Order decries such creatures as false and base, powerful, yes, but on the whole petulant, lustful, offering nothing to their cults and taking much. Of pantheons there are many, outnumbered only by the local spirits and god kings on their thrones. Their wars were such that mortals died in droves for the pleasure of deathless masters and these most high beings simply laughed, or spoke not at all.”
“The paradox of these inhuman beasts was that their actions were all too human. Scholars would point out that many deities emerged from mortal ranks but wisdom would hope that divinities should be of higher virtue than Wrenk of the Terrible Arm and more noble than the venomous Mother of Serpents. This foolishness led to an escalation in their squabbling, yielding, as their actions caused more deities to arise in answer. In the end emerged the Frost Maiden.”
“The northern tribes were few and terrible. They murdered their own when their troubles weren’t enough, perhaps needing such manic violence to survive on the polar continent. Harsh lives breed harsh people, and to supplement their tragedies it was customary to drown unwanted daughters as a sacrifice to the blind hate of underwater powers.”
“The scholar notes many such tales, and perhaps the origin of the Frost Maiden should be seen as a composite for the overall practice of female infanticide. In any event there was a peculiar case, with specific drama, treachery, and deceit, resulting in the death of a single female child. Shortly after this a terrible storm froze many of her community dead in their homes. The survivors, sure that the girl had returned to revenge herself, began blaming all unlucky occurrences, ice storms, poor hunts, murders, on the dead girl. Rumors spread and the whole region fell under the spell of a new and terrible being.”
“Whether their combined faith gave birth to the Frost Maiden or simply some previous local deity took advantage of the title and grew in power remains a point of curiosity. I would note the recursive nature of the murder blamed on the victim. Regardless, a new and active god began a reign of terror which bound most of the frozen north in a web of superstition which totally dominated the lives of the inhabitants. They wouldn’t set out on their oil-skin boats without first dumping the bones of their enemies into the sea, and no woman was born who didn’t carry the inked mark of the Maiden with her to the grave. She would’ve remained in this fashion, a powerful yet local concern, but a traveler came.”
“It isn’t known who he was, or what he was doing so far north. It is fair to assume he was a treasure hunter or outcast of some sort. On occasion the Frost Maiden herself would emerge from the frozen depths to engage her hungers. The two principles met and in order to save his life the treasure hunter made a desperate case for logic.”
“’I’m to die for simply trespassing on your waters, and those waters reach far south and in fact connect with all other such oceans and continents; why do you choose to persecute me, here and now? If you are a deity, as terrible and powerful as the locals say, and if you are as angry and unpleasant as you seem to be, why don’t you seek greater revenge on the world as a whole? It would be the surest of follies to waste your time with a single interloper such as myself.’”
“Debate concerning this line of thinking is best saved for another more fit in the arts of rhetoric and discourse. Yet history has no such time. What happened to the treasure hunter may never be known, though knowledge of this story seems to lend credence to the rumor that the propagator is also the survivor. In any event the cold came.”
“The Frost Maiden, hate-mad and terrible, in a fury commensurate with the notion of winter itself, bent the world to her will and covered all with ice. The mechanisms of deific power are beyond the scope of this meditation and how she was capable, despite all the other gods and demons, to drench the world with her sorrowful chill remains unknown. I once again point to the recurrence model of a cycle between the effect of the cold and the power of the deity. Perhaps none will endure the endless winter, or maybe some quotient of other gods will stave off the full extent of the Frost Maiden’s curse. In any event here is where I will stay, until the world falls to nothing, as is the proper end of things, according to my intuition.”
If the first Jhem’s story brought illumination then the second inverted the effect and left confusion. Both stories held that weighty imprint of a master’s voice. The exact claims of either could neither be verified nor refuted. In all those present various qualities gravitated to this truth and that. The Fencer and the Trumpeter had their favorites and each was exuberant with the knowledge that the Answer to Winter’s Riddle now was certain, to each of them.