Climb Every Mountain
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Beryl's Storyline.
I. The Darkest Hour
The slow, steady patter of raindrops against Aloise’s window had a strange, almost hypnotic effect on the tired mage. Her eyelids felt heavy with sleep. It was late – nearly midnight, she reckoned – much later than she had meant to stay awake. But the young mage’s mind was restless, and the thought of retiring to her bed – soft and warm though it would be – held little appeal. Not until she could figure out just what it was about the map she had been studying for the better part of an hour that was bothering her so much.
Because the map was bothering her, even if she couldn’t quite articulate why – which only made things worse. Mysteries didn’t frustrate Aloise – they energized her. They were what fueled the fires of her curiosity, they were what drove her to explore. Knowing that the world was full of mysteries was no bad thing. It was a welcome, tantalizing promise.
Knowing that a mystery was close at hand, though, and not being able to grasp what it was? Well, that was pure torture. It was an itch that couldn’t be scratched. And that was why, even as she struggled to stifle her third yawn in as many minutes, Aloise cast aside all thoughts of sleep, and tried to refocus her drifting mind on the problem at hand.
Unhelpfully, the musical clock on the far end of Aloise’s long worktable chose that precise moment to chime the hour. It was a beautiful clock, made from delicately-hammered brass – one of her many souvenirs from her trips across the planes. The clock depicted a series of tiny brass birds perched atop tiny brass burnwillow trees, and, at each hour, on the hour, the birds would flutter their tiny brass wings and open their tiny brass beaks, chirping out one high, clear note for each hour.
As Aloise listened, the clock chirped once. She waited to hear the remainder of the clock’s sweet song, for it to mark the midnight hour, but the birds fell silent after their single note.
It wasn’t midnight. It was one in the morning. No wonder she was so tired.
Aloise stifled a fourth yawn, then reached up to rub her blue eyes with tired, ink-stained fingers. She would press on a little bit longer, she decided.
But she was fading fast, and she knew it.
She picked up the mug of Lys’s sweet, minted tea, which lay on the table next to the map she’d been studying, and she swirled its half-finished contents around; the tea had gone cold. Lys, ever sensible, would doubtless have retired to bed hours ago. That thought brought a smile to Aloise’s face, and she reflected for a moment about how genuinely fortunate she was to have Lys in her life. Aloise kept on smiling as she downed the last of the cold tea, wiped her lips on the edge of her sleeve, and turned her attention back to the puzzling map, resolving to have one last go at deciphering its mysteries before admitting defeat for the night.
Aloise had discovered the map near the end of an old, ancient book, bound together with faded red leather. The tome bore the scars of its age – there were deep creases along its spine, where it had lain open for years at a time, and the gold leaf around the edges of its well-thumbed pages had been worn away in places. But, despite its obvious age, the book had clearly been lovingly preserved by a long line of owners. Its pages were still supple, and the text was still as clear as the day the author had first put pen to paper. And the gold-embossed title on the leather cover – Arcanum Obscurata – still tantalized Aloise with its promise of ancient knowledge long since forgotten.
Aloise had been reading through the Arcanum for the past several weeks, slowly and laboriously working her way from cover to cover. The book was unusually difficult to parse, even by the standards of ancient arcane texts. Its author, identified by only a single name – Thineaus – wrote in a painfully-stylized manner, running so many different thoughts and images together into single sentences that his words seemed to circle back upon themselves, like literary snakes devouring their own tails. Aloise got the impression that Thineaus had never seen an infinitive he didn’t want to split, nor a comma he didn’t want to splice. And, if that wasn’t enough, he had the most infuriating habit of jumping back and forth through time, or from one perspective to another – or, even, from one archaic language to another – without so much as a word of warning, so that unraveling his stories was like trying to untangle a particularly difficult knot.
To put it plainly, the Arcanum was not easy reading. Aloise sometimes got the distinct impression that its author was being deliberately obtuse, almost as though he were attempting to conceal some fossils of knowledge beneath multiple strata of narrative obfuscation and literary malpractice.
And that notion, of course, only spurred Aloise to redouble her efforts to penetrate the text. If there were mysteries buried beneath the surface of the Arcanum Obscurata, then she was determined to excavate them.
Before she could properly grapple with the Arcanum, though, Aloise found her mind drifting from the tome itself to the woman who had lent it to her. Aloise found herself thinking about what Beryl had said to her, when the scarred woman had pressed the old, leather-bound book into her hands:
“Thineaus claimed to have travelled the planes, and to have recorded all the wonders and magic he found during his journeys,” Beryl had told her. “People don’t pay much attention to Thineaus’s writings these days because they assume that he was more of a myth-maker than a historian. But my mother always said that every myth has a kernel of truth in it, and the trick was learning to pick out the history from the legend. That seems like the sort of thing which you would enjoy.”
Beryl had been right: that was the sort of thing which Aloise enjoyed.
Beryl. Just thinking that name brought an image of the pyromancer’s face flooding back into Aloise’s memory. Aloise saw long, black hair, combed carefully down the front of the older woman’s face to conceal the scarring around her blind eye. Aloise saw that face angled slightly down, and slightly to one side, almost as though it were hiding away from the world. And Aloise saw a single, green eye, staring out at her from beneath a stray wisp of hair, as its owner had said:
“I’m a killer, Aloise. Whatever else I may be, I’m also a killer. And where I’m about to go, and what I’m about to do, there’s a good chance that people are going to get killed, and that I’m going to kill them.”
Aloise had wanted to follow after Beryl. She had wanted so badly to help. But the other woman had begged her not to, and, in spite of her misgivings, Aloise had acquiesced. Because Aloise would not go where she was not wanted. She would not force her company on someone who did not wish it.
Still, as much as she was determined to respect her friend’s wishes, Aloise found herself wondering for perhaps the hundredth time whether she might have made a mistake.
Because there was something about Beryl. Something about the way that sadness clung to her, like an invisible spider’s web, the way that fear seemed to haunt her from the dark recesses of her soul. But there was also fire inside her, a source of lightness and warmth that Aloise could sense in the depths of the other woman’s heart.
It was in there, Aloise knew. She could see it, whenever Beryl managed to lower her guard for long enough that it could peek through. It wasn’t the hungry, consuming fire that the pyromancer feared. It was a kind flame, a good flame – something to warm your heart by. It was visible in flashes, before it vanished back into the dark shadows of the older woman’s fear.
Aloise found herself shaking her head. There had to be a way to drive away those shadows.
There had to be a way, and she would find it, whenever Beryl came back.
Yawning a fifth time, Aloise gave her head another weary shake, trying to clear away the cobwebs from her mind. Then she placed a finger on the Arcanum’s open page, and read through the puzzling bit of text one more time.
The passage which had piqued her attention was near the very back of the book. Titled “The Wanderer’s Heart,” it was a chapter that was so short, and so strangely lyrical, that it was almost more of a poem than a story. It told the tale of a traveling mage who had grown tired of worldly concerns, and longed to find a place that was free of ignorance and suffering. So he cast aside his worldly possessions, and went to seek a mythical place of meditation: an ancient temple located atop a sacred mountain. Along the way, he traversed raging rivers; he ventured through deep, dark forests; and he scaled great heights, climbing up 77,777 steps to the mountain’s mist-shrouded peak from the valley below. He reached the temple, he faced its trials, and he conquered them all. And, at the end of all that, he ventured inside the temple’s ancient sanctum, to seek the answer to his questions.
And then… nothing. The story just ended.
Thineaus just dropped “The Wanderer’s Heart” right there, without so much as another word, before delving into a seemingly unrelated tale about five brothers who tried to invent an elixir of immortality.
Reading that abrupt non-ending again for what must have been the tenth time, Aloise found it just as frustrating as when she had first stumbled headlong into it. “The Wanderer’s Heart” was a story without an end, and it was infuriating.
Even more infuriating was the accompanying map on the facing page, although the map was infuriating for a different reason – the map was infuriating because Aloise could not shake the notion that she had seen the mountain it depicted before.
The book’s illustration was frustratingly sparse in its specifics – it was more of a stylized sketch, really, than a proper map. It depicted a vast, woody forest; a wide, rushing river; and a tall, needle-spired mountain, with what looked like a grand staircase rising up to its peak. A little village was nestled in the valley at the foot of the mountain, but the village was – agonizingly – unlabeled.
The map was the thinnest of clues, especially when considered against the vastness of the multiverse. But there was something about it that tugged at the strings of Aloise’s memory, even if she couldn’t quite put her finger on just what it was.
At the end of her workbench, the ornate brass clock whirred to life again. Its little birds chirped twice before falling silent once more.
Two o’clock, Aloise thought. Long past her bedtime.
Aloise sighed, rubbed her tired eyes, and looked up at the nearby window. Raindrops continued to patter away against the rippled glass panes. Crossing to the window, Aloise took its green copper latch in one hand and gave it a turn, then swung the window outward, so that a cool, moist breeze wafted in from outside and nipped at her face. On another night, Aloise might have drawn back from the chill, but, on that night, the crisp, autumn air felt invigorating.
Aloise reached her hand out through the window, catching a few drops of rain in her cupped palm. Then she spread her fingers wide, and enjoyed the sensation that the cool water gave as it trickled between them. She closed her eyes for a moment as she listened to the soft, rhythmic falling of the rain.
The nights had been growing cold, she reflected. It wouldn’t be long before the rain turned to snow.
Suddenly, Aloise’s eyes shot open. She felt herself gasp involuntarily, and she quickly brought a hand up to cover her open mouth.
Not rain, she thought. Snow.
She looked back down at the thinly-detailed map in the ancient book, with its tiny handful of landmarks. Then she tried to imagine those same landmarks, not as Thineaus had described them, but covered with a thick, downy blanket of snow. She pictured the trees in the forest drooping beneath heavy white coats. She pictured the wide river, not blue and rushing, but glassy and frozen, its current concealed beneath a thick sheet of ice. She pictured the tall, needle-peaked mountain, not shrouded by mist, but wreathed by glaciers.
Aloise’s face broke out into a broad smile. Her blue eyes twinkled, and she clapped her hands together – quietly, so as not to wake Lys, but excitedly, in a little, private celebration.
She knew the world depicted on the map – she had seen it before, had been there before. The landscape had changed, had frozen over. But the mountain was still there.
She wondered if 77,777 steps still rose to its summit from the valley below. She wondered if the ancient temple was still perched at its top. She wondered if a wandering mage had ever ventured inside its walls, and, if he had, what he had discovered within.
Well, wondering was all very well and good. But finding out would be much, much better.
So Aloise resolved to do just that.
She would start packing the next day, she decided. But, for now, she had earned her rest.
Aloise was just closing the cover of the Arcanum Obscurata when she heard a small sound coming from downstairs. At first, the noise was so faint, that she wasn’t really sure she had heard anything at all. But, when she sat still for a moment, with her head tilted slightly to one side, listening intently, she heard the sound again – clearer, this time, and more distinct.
It sounded very much like someone was knocking at the door.
“Who could that possibly be, at this time of night?” Aloise wondered aloud, to nobody in particular.
Standing up from her workbench, Aloise stretched her arms and yawned one final time. Then, slipping on her aurochs-wool robe for warmth, she summoned a tiny, floating orb of light to hover just above her shoulder, and she slipped quietly out through her loft door. Taking care to watch her step as she went, she tiptoed cautiously down the stairs to the parlor below, keeping one hand on the bannister lest her tired feet get tangled beneath her. And, as she descended the stairs, she tried to fight back the sense of trepidation she felt growing in the pit of her stomach.
The knocking came again as she crossed the darkened parlor to the door – louder this time, and faster. Almost frantic.
For a moment, Aloise’s tired fingers fumbled with the latch. Then, having worked it free, she opened the door.
Aloise had just opened her mouth to speak when she caught sight of the woman standing outside. In an instant, her words vanished from the tip of her tongue, replaced by a sharp intake of breath, and a little gasp of concern.
It was Beryl.
Beryl stood there, on Lys’s doorstep, looking cold, and scared, and miserable. The scarred woman was shivering in the rain, soaked-through from head to toe, with her teeth chattering, and her arms pulled tightly around herself for warmth. Her long, black hair was matted across her forehead, and Aloise’s heart skipped a beat when she saw a puffy, blue bruise encircling Beryl’s one good eye. Her heart skipped another beat when she saw even more bruises, these ones already turning purple and black, ringing the scarred woman’s neck – bruises in the shape of large, powerful hands.
As if Beryl’s battered appearance wasn’t disturbing enough, her manner of dress was equally worrisome. She was wrapped in what looked like a grand, majesterial robe, cut from the finest white silk and brocaded all along its seams with delicate needlework in silver and gold thread. It would have been a breathtakingly beautiful gown, except that its whole front was stained rusty brown with blood, and the cuffs of its long sleeves had been burned away, leaving blackened threads hanging down from their ragged, singed edges.
Before Aloise had managed to fully process what she was seeing, Beryl opened her mouth, and spoke to her through chattering teeth.
“Aloise,” she said, her voice quiet and quavering, “what would you say if I told you that I did something really, really bad?”
Aloise looked at the scared, scarred, shivering woman who stood on her doorstep, staring up at her with a single, blackened eye. Aloise looked into Beryl’s eye, and she saw shame, and guilt, and desperation.
She saw the same heavy pall of sadness which she remembered seeing on Beryl’s face on the night they had first met.
It had been raining then, too, Aloise remembered.
“I would say, ‘come inside, and let’s get you warmed up,’” Aloise said.
Then she stepped out into the rain herself, and she wrapped Beryl up in a big hug.
At first, Beryl seemed to stiffen beneath Aloise’s embrace. But then, like a dam breaking, Beryl just collapsed into her, hugging her back, burying her face in Aloise’s shoulder, and crying with deep, heaving sobs.
“Thank you,” Beryl finally said. She looked back up at Aloise, wiping both rain and tears away from her eye. Then, sniffling a little bit, she whispered: “I missed you so much.”
“I missed you, too,” Aloise said, giving Beryl one last, heartfelt squeeze. “Now come on inside, before you freeze to death.”
Still shivering, Beryl nodded her head, then shuffled inside, with Aloise closing the door behind her.
II. Breaking the Ice
Three days later, Beryl had not yet told her what had happened.
Aloise had postponed her trip, naturally. The temple, the mountain, and the 77,777 steps were not going anywhere.
Then again, neither was Beryl.
And it was not as though Aloise wanted Beryl to leave – not at all! The other woman was an insightful delight to have around, often commenting on this magic trinket or that arcane bauble, asking pointed questions and offering thoughtful responses. Beryl really was a skillful identifier of small magics, though Aloise thrice caught her eyeing the little gold coin which she kept on her desk with a look of dismay. So Aloise ended up pocketing the coin while Beryl was not looking, in order to save her any additional heartache.
No, Aloise most definitely wanted Beryl to stay with her. But Beryl was stuck inside her own head, and Aloise was not sure how to pull her out.
On top of all that, Lys had been acting strange ever since Beryl arrived, although it took Aloise the better part of a day before she finally put her finger on exactly what it was that Lys was doing that was so unusual. Lys had, of course, woken up immediately to the commotion in the parlor which heralded Beryl’s late-night arrival, and, with practiced pragmatism, she had put a bit of tea on. Together, Aloise and Lys had tended to Beryl's wounds, clothes, and general disrepair, before setting her up in a small, but warm, cot in Aloise's room.
Before putting Beryl to sleep, Lys had given Aloise a smile and a nod, and had asked no more questions.
What had been strange was that she also offered no advice.
Lys was hardly pushy with her counsel, but her wisdom was deep and practical, and Aloise cherished it. In fact, she had even come to take it for granted, especially in moments of crisis, and so she was not sure what to make of Lys’s kind but conspicuous silence. Aloise was sure that, if she approached her, Lys would give her all the insight she wanted. But Aloise was a quick study. And, if Lys was intent on keeping quiet, then it must have been because there was something that she wanted Aloise to figure out on her own.
The first day, Aloise did not have much of an opportunity to figure out anything. Lys had gone out to meet with someone, and Beryl had slept through most of the day. When she finally did wake, Aloise was not even aware of it until she turned around from fiddling with the lamp she had been trying to enchant and saw that Beryl’s eye was open, and that she was staring at the ceiling. Aside from her eyelid, the scarred woman hadn’t seemed to move a muscle, and Aloise wondered, briefly, just how long Beryl had been lying there, awake. Then, she asked if Beryl was hungry.
Beryl affirmed that she was. But she ate in silence, then fell asleep once more.
The second day, Beryl actually got out of bed, which was an improvement. She wandered around Aloise’s loft, and they had little discussions about Aloise’s souvenirs and magical projects. Already, Beryl was looking much healthier, with her bruises magically pulled from her skin and the swelling around her eye all but gone. Lys had no shortage of spare gowns, and so Beryl was wearing a cream-colored cotton dress. Though, for all the health Aloise saw returning to Beryl's face, the scarred woman moved around rooms like a ghost, with a soft voice and downcast eye.
The two of them talked, to be sure. But it was, Aloise understood, small talk. Beryl was just distracting herself. Whether or not she was being successful, Aloise did not know. Neither Lys nor Beryl were forthcoming with answers, and so Aloise just spoke with Beryl softly, but with her eyes intent, until the other woman would meet them briefly, before turning away.
Aloise knew, then, that whatever “bad thing” Beryl had done – or thought she had done – she could overcome. There was nothing but regret in Beryl’s eye. And, while regret was a terrible thing, it was not the worst thing.
On the third day, Beryl suggested that she should be going.
The suggestion came meekly, just after they had eaten breakfast and returned to Aloise’s workshop. Aloise had begun tidying up the large splay of papers, notes, and maps that had dominated her attention just a few nights ago, but which she had barely thought of since Beryl’s arrival.
She paused halfway through folding a few of the papers to file away, and pursed her lips, but did not turn around.
“Oh?” she said.
Aloise knew that Beryl needed to be taken care of, but not coddled. She knew how strong Beryl was. How strong she still was. And sadness, regret, even fear – those were very real emotions that Beryl struggled with. She understood that.
But she would walk through hellfire and back again before she would let Beryl hate herself. Not while she was still there to stop it.
“Yes,” Beryl mumbled, with no further explanation.
Aloise hummed thoughtfully, then finished folding her notes and putting them neatly into her bag.
“Well, I suppose I'll have to go with you, then!” she said, and turned to grin at Beryl.
Beryl blinked her one eye, and then immediately shook her head. “No, Aloise—”
“—So, where are we going?” Aloise cut in. “I would not want to hold you up, of course, but we need to prepare, you know? Is it someplace I’ve been? We’ll need some money, of course – local currency, or perhaps something for barter?”
“Aloise—” Beryl protested, but Aloise did not hear it.
“Warm clothes? Cool clothes? We’ll probably need sturdy boots for you if we’re going to do a great deal of walking. Luckily, we have the best cobbler I’ve ever met a few miles down the road, and he could outfit you with something!”
“So where is it, Beryl?” Aloise asked, suddenly pointed, and sharp, and with as much rebuke as she could bring herself to use. “Where do you have to be so suddenly? Only two days out of bed? It must be important to you, Beryl, because you’re so eager to go, aren’t you?” Aloise felt tears, then, and she wiped them from her eyes angrily. “You’re so eager to be away from safety and comfort because I know you think you don’t deserve them! I know you think you don’t, but you do, Beryl! You do, and if you won’t stay with me, then by the Gods am I going to stay with you!”
Beryl stared, her one eye wide, and Aloise hiccupped once, twice, but did not break eye contact – despite the tears.
“Please don’t cry,” Beryl whispered.
“Then take me with you!” Aloise replied fiercely.
There was a long, long silence, before Beryl spoke again.
“I... I don't have anywhere to go,” she murmured, looking away.
Aloise sniffled, and wiped her eyes one last time.
“Well, I do,” she told Beryl, smiling. “And I want you to come with me.” Aloise touched Beryl’s shoulder, and guided her over to the workbench. On it was the last thing she had to pack up: the Arcanum Obscurata. “Remember the 77,777 steps, Beryl?”
Beryl looked at the book, and then at Aloise, and then, very, very weakly, Beryl chuckled.
“I always thought it was strange that the story just... ended,” Beryl said.
“So did I,” Aloise replied, and she quickly opened the book and flipped to the relevant page. She pointed at the map, and the mountain specifically. “But I’ve been here before, Beryl, and I was going to go see what was in that temple! At the top of that mountain!” She grabbed Beryl's hand excitedly. “Come with me! We can find out together.”
One by one, the lines of Beryl’s face relaxed into a tired, unsure smile.
Shortly after, Lys called them down for tea. When she learned of their plan, she smiled approvingly at Aloise, and began offering advice on how best to keep warm in the cold.
* * *
Aloise bounced from one foot to the other, rubbing her mittened hands together in front of her face and trying not to bite her lip as she waited for Beryl to appear. All around her, the forest was silent and still, and every breath that Aloise exhaled became a little blizzard of ice that shimmered like tiny diamonds in the snow-tinted light as it danced in the air in front of her face.
Aloise tried to be patient, tried not to be nervous. But as a minute passed – then two, then three – with no sign of her friend, worry began to creep into the back of her mind.
They had spent the morning together in the loft, double- and triple-checking their gear, making the final preparations for their expedition. To Aloise’s relief, Beryl had been in relatively good spirits, and even seemed to be looking forward to the trip. But, as the moment to make the actual ‘walk to the 77,777 steps had drawn closer and closer, the scarred woman gradually seemed to retreat back within herself, until the look in her eye was frightened and distant, and she had stopped responding to Aloise’s questions with anything more than single-word answers.
Aloise had been just about to ask Beryl what the matter was, when Beryl had suddenly blurted it out:
“Aloise, I’m scared,” she said. “What if we get separated?” The words seemed to explode out of the normally-reticent woman, as though they had weighed heavily on her for some time, and she couldn’t bear their burden any longer. “What if I get lost along the way?”
Aloise had shaken her head at that, and had given Beryl her best reassuring smile.
“You won’t get lost,” Aloise said, and Beryl’s whole body had seemed to visibly relax in response, as though Aloise’s calm certainty were propping her up. “Tell me,” the blonde had continued, “how do you ‘walk?”
“I close my eye, and I try to picture the place I’m going to,” Beryl had said, closing her eye as she spoke, as if to demonstrate. “Then I try to imagine myself in that place – I try to imagine how it sounds, and smells, and feels all around me, and I hold on to that thought until the Eternities just sort of fade away into the world I’m thinking of.”
Beryl had opened her green eye then, and, rather than looking away, she had met Aloise’s gaze.
“But, you already knew that,” Beryl said. “You’re the one who taught me how to do it.”
A faint smile had appeared on the scarred woman’s face, and something in that smile had made Aloise’s heart soar.
“Well, I’m going to tell you everything I know about the place we’re going,” Aloise had said then, motioning for the two of them to sit together on the edge of her bed, which they did. “I’m going to describe it until you can picture it in your mind, clear as crystal. That way, you’ll know exactly what to imagine, and we’ll ‘walk there together – simple as that.” Reaching behind her, Aloise had picked up her enchanted traveling pack, and had given the pocket which housed their copy of the Arcanum Obscurata a reassuring pat. “And, remember, the world we’re going to is one of the worlds in your book,” she’d added. “You made your very first ‘walk to one of the worlds you knew from a story, so I know you can do this.”
“That was my second ‘walk,” Beryl said in reply, her smile widening ever so slightly. “My first ‘walk was the one where I met you.” The scarred woman closed her eye one more time, and exhaled deeply. She seemed to gather herself then, and her face had grown serious. “Okay,” she’d said to Aloise. “Tell me where we’re going. Paint me a picture. Tell me how it sounds, and smells, and feels.”
So Aloise had described the frozen world to Beryl, and Beryl had listened, and nodded, and repeated each detail back, until Aloise was sure that the two of them had the exact same image of their destination fixed in their minds.
Then they had closed their eyes, taken deep breaths, and they had ‘walked.
Aloise had floated through the aether, which felt almost like a second home to her, until she could feel frost nipping at her cheeks, until she could sense the almost preternatural stillness of deep winter all around her, until she could almost taste the crisp, frozen air, which smelt of balsam and holly and wintergreen.
Then she had opened her eyes, and she had found herself in the middle of a stand of great, snow-covered fir trees, which she remembered from her last journey to the frozen world. She had arrived precisely where she had meant to, on the spot where she and Beryl had agreed to meet.
So where was Beryl?
They had agreed that, if anything went wrong during their ‘walk, or if they got separated at any point along the journey, they would each return back to Lys’s house, and would regroup from there. Aloise was beginning to consider whether she ought to do just that when she heard a sort of popping noise behind her, like the sound a wet log makes when tossed onto a hot fire, followed by a rush of falling snow, and a woman’s muffled cry of surprise.
Aloise turned around, and, when she saw what had happened, she had to put her mittens over her mouth, to try to cover a giggle.
Beryl had apparently stepped out of the aether just a few paces behind where Aloise had. But, instead of emerging in the middle of the stand of towering firs, the scarred woman had materialized right at the base of one of the trees, and the spatial disturbance generated by her sudden appearance had caused the tall evergreen to shed its accumulated burden of snow, which had cascaded down its needled branches and landed right atop the stunned-looking pyromancer, who now lay awkwardly on her backside atop the frozen forest floor, half-buried beneath a small mountain of powdery snow.
Aloise immediately felt bad for laughing at Beryl’s awkward predicament, but that only made her giggle more. It was something about the confused look on Beryl’s blinking face, which almost put Aloise in mind of a kitten that pulls on a bit of yarn hanging from a knitting basket, only to be surprised when the whole basket comes tumbling down on top of it.
“I’m sorry!” Aloise said, her new boots crunching through the deep-packed snow as she hurried over to where Beryl sat. Kneeling down, she helped Beryl to brush herself off, then, offering a hand, she helped the pyromancer up to her feet. “I’m sorry,” she said again, as Beryl shook yet more snow out from the folds of her clothing. “I know I shouldn’t laugh. It’s just that you looked so adorable there for a moment.”
To Aloise’s surprise, Beryl’s cheeks seemed to flush in response, turning a bright, cherry red, as though she had already spent hours upon hours exposed to the winter cold.
“That’s alright,” the snow-dusted woman said, stammering a little bit as she spoke, and turning her head slightly away. “I’m sure that I must look as ridiculous as I feel.”
“You can hit me with a snowball later,” Aloise said, using the fringe on her scarf to brush away the final flakes of snow still clinging to Beryl’s hair and shoulders. “I promise I won’t try to dodge.”
That drew a smile from the other woman, much to Aloise’s relief.
“Maybe I’ll hold you to that,” Beryl said. “For now, though, I’m just relieved to see you.”
“I told you we’d make it!” Aloise said. “I knew you could do it.”
“I know,” Beryl said, her voice suddenly quiet, so that her words seemed to drift away, like wind-scattered snow. “You always believe in me.”
“Always,” Aloise said, with a wink and a nod. “And you should, too.”
Aloise leaned forward a bit as she swung her pack off of her shoulder. Unbuckling the top flap, she reached inside and pulled out a tall walking stick. Made from burled Selesnya ironwood, it had been given to her by a conclave dryad, and it was the perfect aid for trekking through knee-high snow. Aloise gripped the stick between the two knobby burls around its middle, feeling the wood’s familiar weight in her hand. The sensation brought a wide smile to Aloise’s face. It was a feeling she remembered well, and it always presaged an adventure.
Then Aloise reached back into her pack, and she pulled out a second walking stick, which she offered to Beryl.
“Come on,” she said. “We’ve got a mountain to climb, and a river to cross, and we aren’t even out of the forest yet. So let’s get going. Let’s get our blood flowing, before we freeze solid.” Aloise gave the walking stick a little twirl. “What do you say? Let’s have an adventure!”
Beryl was quiet for a moment. Then she took the offered walking stick, and her smile grew to mirror Aloise’s. She drove the stick’s narrow tip down into the ice-crusted snow with a satisfying crunch, and she nodded her head at her fellow explorer.
“Lead the way,” she said.
* * *
The ice forest had a quiet majesty to it, so that Aloise and Beryl fell into a sort of awed and reverential silence as they crunched their way across the frozen ground. Tall, fragrant firs towered over them like silent sentinels, whose green-needled boughs shrugged beneath heavy coats of fresh-fallen snow, so that the trees almost appeared to huddle together, bowing their heads in silent prayer. An occasional breeze would set the tops of the firs swaying, blowing snow down from the canopy and lifting it up from the ground in tiny, curling wisps, only to deposit it again atop dune-like drifts. Otherwise, the world was quiet and still.
The frozen, tranquil landscape was so barren of obvious signs of life that Aloise and Beryl almost seemed to have the forest to themselves. Once they heard what sounded like the cry of a mistlethrush – or it might have been a nuthatch – calling out from above, but, even when they stopped and craned their necks to look up, they were unable to locate the bird or its nest. Another time they came across the tracks of a noble stag – a set of big, broad hoofprints, leading off in the opposite direction from the one in which they travelled – but they never caught sight of the beast itself. So Aloise and Beryl simply walked together in companionable silence, picking their way through the tall trees in the direction of the one landmark visible in the distance: a steep, snow-shrouded mountain, which seemed to rise like a deep purple monolith from the tree-topped horizon, only to disappear into the white wreath of clouds which veiled its peak from the world below.
The winter air was bitterly cold. It was the kind of hard, biting cold that seemed to steal your breath away, to numb the tip of your nose faster than you could rub it warm. But Aloise and Beryl were well-outfitted for the freezing conditions, and the blonde mage offered a silent thanks to Lys for her expert advice and aid with their preparations.
“There’s no such thing as cold weather,” Lys had told Aloise, with her characteristic brand of understated wisdom. “There’s only incorrect clothing.”
So Aloise had taken great care to ensure that she and Beryl were clothed correctly. Aloise’s feet were warm and dry inside two pairs of thick, woolen socks, and the local cobbler she had spoken so highly of had outdone himself yet again, for Aloise’s new knee-high boots fitted her like a glove. Yet they were wonderfully soft and comfortable, too, as though she’d spent months breaking them in. Aloise had tucked the bottoms of her shearling trousers into the tops of her boots; the trousers’ waxed leather exterior kept out the cold and the snow, while their soft, wooly interior kept her legs toasty and warm. Atop a thick, sheepswool sweater, Aloise wore a tawny-brown, mammoth-hide coat, with toggle fasteners made from ram’s horn. Mammoth hide was marvelously warm and essentially waterproof, yet it was surprisingly light and flexible, permitting a full range of movement. For precisely those reasons, Aloise’s mittens were sewn from the same material. The white, woolen scarf wrapped around her neck was Lys’s own handiwork, as was the hooded cloak she wore, with its white satin lining and sky blue exterior. For her part, Beryl was outfitted in an identical fashion, except her cloak was red like a robin’s breast.
But, even with all that sensible attire, there was nothing standing between Aloise’s nose and the ceaseless, biting cold. So, every so often, she would stop walking, slip her hands out of her toasty mittens, cup her hands in front of her mouth, and blow warm, moist air onto her fingers. Then she would press her hands up against her frozen face, trying to transfer some of their warmth to her cold, numb skin – a process which felt like little pins were poking her all up and down her cheeks. She’d repeat that process a couple times, until at least some feeling returned to her ice-reddened face, before tucking her hands back inside her mittens and resuming her trek.
It was during one of these brief respites that Beryl spared a moment from her own warming ritual to gesture up at the snow-covered pines all around them.
“When did it happen, do you think?” the scarred woman asked through chattering teeth. “I mean, when did this world freeze over? There’s nothing in ‘The Wanderer’s Heart’ about snow or ice, so it must have happened after Thineaus recorded that story. But that hardly narrows it down – the Arcanum Obscurata is so old, it’s practically a relic from time out of mind.”
Aloise blew into her hands a few times, then offered Beryl a similarly-mystified nod.
“I don’t know when the seas of ice came,” she said, rubbing her cheeks as she did. “Or, for that matter, why they came. I don’t think magic caused it – this doesn’t feel like an enchanted winter to me.” Aloise looked inquisitively at Beryl, who nodded her head in agreement – neither woman seemed to sense any residue of enchantment clinging to the frozen landscape around them. “But, whatever did happen, it must have happened a long, long time ago, because none of the people I’ve spoken to on this plane ever mentioned a time when the world wasn’t frozen.”
That seemed to shock Beryl. “You mean, people actually live here?”
“Oh, sure,” Aloise said, hopping from side to side a little to keep her muscles loose and her blood flowing. “Not many, I’ll grant you, but they’re here, and they’re a hardy sort. Friendly, too! You’ll like them. There’s a little village at the base of the mountain. We should make it there in time to spend the night, which would be a very fine thing, because a warm fire and a soft bed both sound lovely to me at the moment.”
Aloise was surprised to see Beryl flinch, as though something she had said had struck a nerve. But, before she could ask about it, the pyromancer seemed to shake off whatever had bothered her, and Aloise decided not to press the matter.
“I don’t think I could live in a place like this,” Beryl said. A prolonged shiver wracked the scarred woman’s gaunt body as she put her mittens back on, then stuffed her hands inside her cloak’s deep pockets. “I don’t like being cold, and this is no normal cold. It feels like it creeps its way inside you, like it chills you down to your bones.”
Aloise nodded in agreement. As she did, she gave Beryl’s thin figure a covert glance. She noticed that the green-eyed pyromancer, whom Aloise always remembered as being somewhat slight, looked even slighter than before – dangerously so, even. No wonder she was freezing. Aloise made a note to make sure that Beryl got plenty of hot food that night, and to generally keep an eye on her, for that matter. Aloise got the sense that, when Beryl was upset, she tended not to eat – whether out of pure forgetfulness, or as some sort of self-inflicted punishment, Aloise wasn’t sure. But that hardly mattered. Either way, it wasn’t healthy, and Aloise resolved to put a stop to it.
“For our next expedition, we’ll pick someplace warm,” Aloise said, smiling at Beryl as she donned her own mittens and adjusted the hood of her cloak. “You can choose, if you like.”
Beryl was silent for a moment, her breath collecting in a frozen cloud which partially obscured her face. “I didn’t know we had a next expedition,” she said.
There was something in Beryl’s tone which confused Aloise – a sort of rising inflection at the end of her sentence, even though it hadn’t been phrased as a question, and a strange but subtle emphasis placed on the word “we.”
“There’s always a next expedition,” Aloise said, cheerfully. “And you’re certainly welcome to come along! Assuming you want to, of course,” she hastened to add. “I mean, I’ll understand, if you have other things that you have to do.”
“No, no,” Beryl said. She was looking slightly away, her head tilted just a little bit down and off to one side, but her green eye met Aloise’s expectant gaze. “I would like that, very much. Assuming you don’t mind, I mean.”
“I don’t mind at all!” Aloise said. Then she gave her head a little shake, as though she had just remembered something, and she hoisted her walking stick and used it to point in the direction they had been headed. “But we’re getting awfully ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? After all, we ought to finish the journey we’re on before we go planning the next one.”
“You’re right,” Beryl said, reclaiming her own walking stick from where she had propped it against the side of a nearby tree. “We should be going. I didn’t mean to cause a distraction.”
The two women put their heads down and resumed picking their way through the knee-high snow. Each laborious footfall began with a loud crunch, as their boots broke through the thin layer of ice which had formed atop the settled snow, like the crust on a loaf of bread, so they took turns following in each other’s footsteps, which made the going slightly easier.
“The good news,” Aloise said, “is that we must be getting near to the river. See how the trees are beginning to thin out?” She gestured around her at the forest, where the firs had in fact grown smaller and sparser over the last several minutes of walking.
Sure enough, it was just a short while later that she and Beryl emerged from the forest to stand on the bank of a vast and wide river. “The Wanderer’s Heart” had described the river as wild and rushing, and a strong current still swept great volumes of clear, blue water along its stony bottom. But the surface of the water had largely frozen over, with shelves of thick ice extending out from each sandy bank towards the center of the water. The ice glinted almost black near the shoreline, where white drifts of snow topped it in places. But the color of the ice turned bluer and bluer as it stretched nearer and nearer towards the river’s heart, until it disappeared entirely, leaving an open, free-flowing channel about ten fathoms wide between the two expanses of ice. There, in the river’s middle, fast-moving water burbled and churned as it rushed down towards some distant, unknown sea, carrying floes of ice along with it as it did. The floes bounced and bobbed, ricocheting off each other and the surrounding ice as the current swept them away. Occasionally they bunched together, looking to Aloise as though she could walk right across them. But no sooner had the thought entered her mind than the floes would dislodge themselves with a great scraping and splashing, only to resume their treacherous, inexorable ride.
“How do we cross?” Beryl asked, her trepidation plain as she gave voice to the question both women had been thinking.
“I picked my way across the floes last time,” Aloise said, her brow furrowed in thought. “But I don’t think the river was moving nearly as quickly then as it is now.” As she spoke, two of the larger floes collided mid-river, with one turning over and then sinking beneath the other. “I’m thinking this crossing might call for a different approach.”
Standing at Aloise’s side, Beryl nodded wordlessly.
“Hmm…” Aloise took off one mitten and scratched the tip of her nose. “You can’t teleport, can you?” she asked.
“No,” Beryl said.
“How about flying?”
“No,” Beryl said again. Her voice was quiet, as though she felt useless.
“Well, then we’re just going to have to jump,” Aloise said.
“Jump?” Beryl said.
Aloise turned to look at the green-eyed woman, and there was a look of non-comprehension on her face.
“Yep! Jump,” Aloise said brightly.
“Aloise, I can’t jump that far,” Beryl said, waving a mittened hand at the wide gap in the ice. “I can’t jump anything like that far.”
“I’m not talking about a normal jump,” Aloise said, smiling. “It’s a little spell I know. Not quite as useful as flying, but it works in a pinch, and it’s much easier to take someone else along with me.”
Aloise took off her pack and slid her walking stick back inside, before taking Beryl’s and doing the same. After re-shouldering her pack, she took a moment to study the river which loomed before them, gauging distances.
“With a running start, we should clear a hundred feet, easy,” the mage said. “That ought to get us from one side of the ice to the other without any problem.”
“What do I have to do for this to work?” Beryl asked, still sounding nervous about the prospect.
“Just hold on to my hand,” Aloise said, “and don’t look down.”
Beryl seemed to consider that for a moment, before swallowing deeply.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s jump.”
The two women carefully made their way down the riverbank and out onto the shelf of thick ice. They walked slowly, always testing the ground as they went, so as not to slip, and so as to be sure that the ice was strong enough to hold them before putting their whole weight on it. Finally, when they were about twenty paces away from the flowing water’s edge, Aloise held out her hand to Beryl, which the other woman took.
“Alright,” Aloise said, squeezing Beryl’s hand tight. “We’re going to count down from five. When I get to three, we’re going to start running, and, when I get to zero, we’re going to jump.” Aloise had to raise her voice a little to be heard over the bubbling and churning of the river. She put her other hand on top of Beryl’s, giving it a reassuring pat. “All you have to do is just hold on tight, and don’t let go. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Got it,” Beryl said.
“Good,” Aloise said. “Ready?”
Aloise nodded back. “Alright then,” she said, gathering in her mana as she did, and thinking about the spell she wanted to work, remembering its sound and feel. “Five… four… three…”
She and Beryl began to run towards the gap in the ice, moving as quickly as the slick surface below them would permit. Aloise gripped Beryl’s hand tight, and Beryl squeezed back.
“Two… one… zero!”
And, with that, Aloise bent her knees, and she jumped.
As soon as her boots left the ground, Aloise released her spell. When she did, a towering gust of air appeared beneath her, as if from nowhere. It surged up like a massive updraft, and it hoisted Aloise and Beryl into the air, as though bearing them aloft on astral wings. Aloise’s scarf and cloak fluttered out behind her as she arced through the air, and she felt the lightness in the pit of her stomach that she always felt whenever she jumped or flew.
Aloise could hear Beryl screaming, but, mercifully, Beryl held on to her hand, and she did not let go.
After a few unnaturally long seconds, the gust of air which had borne them aloft subsided, and Aloise watched the distant horizon level-off as their jump reached its apex. Looking down, she could see that the momentum from their running start had carried them almost clear across the break in the ice, so that, as they went from rising to falling, and began to plunge earthward again, there was no question that they would land atop on solid ice on the other side. Aloise took a calm breath, and she cast the second half of her spell. Another column of warm, rising air billowed up beneath her, feathering her fall and controlling her descent, so that, when the two women touched down a moment later, they landed softly on their feet. Aloise touched the ice with the toes of her boots first; the rest of her feet followed a second later, so that the ground was bearing her full weight. She flexed her knees slightly, absorbing some of the force from the impact, and she slid a few inches along the ice before coming to a full stop.
Aloise turned around, and looked at the open patch of water some ten paces behind her, where the river rushed past.
Then, beaming, she turned to face Beryl.
The pyromancer still held Aloise’s mittened hand in a veritable deathgrip. Her face was pale, and she seemed to be panting for breath. But, as Aloise watched, a simple, uncomplicated smile spread across Beryl’s face.
“Do you think that’s how birds feel?” Beryl asked, with a trace of excitement in her voice.
“I don’t know,” Aloise said. “I’ve never asked them.”
“I used to talk to birds all the time,” Beryl said. “When I was locked away, inside my room, I would sprinkle crumbs across my windowsill, so that the birds would come to eat them.” Beryl’s look grew distant, and a hint of sadness crept into her smile. “I used to love to listen to them, to hear them sing. They always seemed so free, like their lives were so simple. I tried to imagine what it must be like, to be a bird. I wished I could fly away like they could. So I’d ask them: What does it feel like, to be a bird?”
“And what did they say?” Aloise asked, anxious to hear the answer.
Beryl laughed a little at that. “I have no idea,” she said. “I don’t speak bird.” Then she motioned over her shoulder, at the river they had just jumped across. “But I assume it must feel something like that.” Finally, Beryl released her grip on Aloise’s hand, but not before saying: “Promise me we’ll do that again? I’ll scream less the next time, I swear.”
“It’s a promise,” Aloise said, as she started to walk towards the riverbank. “I know a great place for that sort of thing, too! It’s a whole world covered with these red, rocky cliffs, and you can walk right up to the edge and—”
Behind her, Aloise heard the sudden, sharp sound of ice breaking, followed by a loud splash.
The blonde mage whirled around just in time to see the top of Beryl’s red-cloaked head disappearing through a fresh hole in the ice.
Aloise screamed out Beryl’s name as she sprinted towards the hole. Dropping to her knees, she slid the last few feet to the ice’s jagged edge, before plunging her arm down into the freezing water as far as she could reach, and fishing around frantically, trying to grab hold of any part of Beryl or her clothing that she could grasp. But her fingers closed around empty water. The swift current beneath the river’s icy surface had already swept Beryl away.
Aloise frantically looked along the ice in the direction of the current, searching for any sign of where Beryl might be. She had just spotted a patch of dark red beneath the translucent blue ice, moving swiftly away from her – which she recognized as Beryl’s cloak, and which she prayed was still attached to Beryl – when she heard a sharp, splintering sound coming from just beneath her. Aloise looked back down, and she saw jagged cracks forming in the ice beneath her knees, radiating out from the hole which had swallowed-up Beryl.
Aloise knew she didn’t have time to think, so she acted.
In a flash, she was on her feet, and she leapt in Beryl’s direction even as the ice she had been kneeling on gave way with a sharp crack. Then she was off, her boots pounding against the treacherous ice as she chased after the fleeing patch of color that was her only clue to Beryl’s whereabouts. Aloise ran so fast that she practically flew, each magically-enhanced footstep swift and light as she raced to close the distance with the submerged red cloak. And she kept calling out Beryl’s name as she ran, even though she knew that there was no chance the other woman could hear her. But it felt important, somehow, so she did it anyway. After a few seconds, Aloise was almost on top of the red shape moving beneath the ice. Sparing a quick glance down, she saw what looked very much like a dark patch in the shape of a struggling body moving along with the red cloak, which sent both hope and adrenaline surging through her.
Pulling in more mana as quickly as she could, Aloise crouched, then launched herself into the air again.
This time, as she flew above the frozen river, Aloise paid no mind to the sensation of the wind whistling past her ears, or the lightness she felt in the pit of her stomach. Her whole mind was focused on the ice which raced past below her, as she tried to anticipate the direction in which the current would carry Beryl, and to adjust her flight so as to land beyond that point.
And, unlike the first jump, she made no attempt to summon a second wind to slow her fall. Instead, Aloise extended one booted foot downward, and she came crashing down onto the river’s frozen surface with all the force that gravity and her magic could bring to bear.
The impact was tremendous. She felt it shudder up through her leg and the whole of her body, and the ice beneath her foot cracked and split open with a great, shattering crash. Aloise fired off a small buoyancy spell so that she bounced off the water’s surface rather than plunging into it, and when she landed atop unbroken ice a few yards forward, she tucked into a ball and rolled, going head over heels twice before skidding to a halt. Faster than she could catch her own breath, Aloise was up on her feet and charging back towards the great hole she had opened with her impact. A massive section of the thick ice shelf had broken free, and it was being pulled out into the main current as a series of jagged, bobbing floes. Aloise dropped to her knees and she slid to a halt at the water’s edge, continuing to cast her light step enchantment as she did, so that she didn’t fall through the widening cracks which were forming beneath her.
Just then, she saw Beryl emerge from beneath the ice, as the surging current carried her into the section of the river which Aloise had forcibly cleared of ice. Beryl’s head shot above water, and Aloise could hear the pyromancer gasp a single wet, gurgling gasp as she tried to catch her breath even while the river threatened to surge back over her head. She seemed to catch sight of Aloise for a split second then, and she struggled to raise her arms – which were tangled up in her sodden cloak and scarf – in Aloise’s direction.
“Beryl!” Aloise screamed again, as the river carried the drowning woman towards where Aloise lay crouched at the very edge of the ice. As the current swept Beryl past, Aloise lunged forward, stretching out her arm as far as it would possibly stretch, and trying desperately to grab hold of her friend.
This time, Aloise felt her fingers close around the sodden fabric of Beryl’s cloak. Then she felt Beryl’s hands wrap themselves around hers, like a pair of icy vices.
“I’ve got you!” Aloise yelled. Then, before the river could carry her prize away – and possibly her with it – Aloise threw her weight backwards and pulled with every ounce of strength in her body. Beryl came free from the river with a great, heaving splash, and the two of them slid backwards across the fragile, cracking ice. Aloise tightened her grip around Beryl’s hand and dug her heels into the ground, so that she half-crawled, half-slid backwards as fast as her scrabbling legs could carry her, pulling Beryl further and further away from the open water as she did. Only once they were a good distance away from the flowing river, and Aloise was convinced that the ice beneath them was solid and thick, did she let go of Beryl’s hand.
The blonde paused for a second to close her eyes and catch her breath. But just a second. Then, with more strength than she realized she had, she picked up Beryl’s sodden, shivering form, and she ran, carrying the other woman in her arms until they were on the riverbank, and Aloise could feel solid ground beneath her feet.
Aloise set Beryl down on the ground as gently as she could, before leaning over her, and trying to take stock of what shape her friend was in. What she saw was frightening. Beryl’s skin was practically blue, and with every heaving, choking attempt to breathe, the scarred woman’s whole body seemed to convulse, and she coughed up mouthful after mouthful of water.
“Just relax,” Aloise said, her voice calm, even though she herself felt anything but. “You swallowed a lot of water, and we have to get that out.”
Aloise pulled off her mittens, and she dropped her pack to the ground. She took hold of Beryl by the shoulders and tried to roll the other woman onto her back. There was a small necklace on a thin chain around Beryl’s neck, which didn’t seem to be helping matters any as the scarred woman gasped and wretched, so Aloise quickly unclasped the necklace and stuffed it into her pocket. Then she positioned her hands above Beryl’s chest and took a deep breath.
“Just try to relax, Beryl,” she said again. “It’s going to be alright. You’re going to be okay.”
Then Aloise pushed down, compressing the scarred woman’s chest. Beryl gasped in response, an action which brought more water trickling out of her mouth. Aloise bent down and put her ear next to Beryl’s nose, listening for the sound of air moving in or out of Beryl’s lungs, but all she heard was choking. So she pressed down on Beryl’s chest again, then again, then again, drawing more water out each time, until finally, after one last, long, hacking wheeze, she saw Beryl’s chest start to rise and fall of its own accord, and she heard air rushing into Beryl’s lungs in long, greedy gulps.
Aloise allowed herself to exhale. She closed her eyes, and she said a silent prayer of thanks to everything in the Eternities that was holy and good.
It was only then that she realized how cold she was.
Aloise felt her teeth start to chatter, and the sensation almost took her by surprise. In the heat of the moment, she had virtually forgotten about her freezing surroundings. But now that the most acute danger had passed, Aloise discovered that her wet arms and hands were so cold that they actually burned, as though a thousand hot needles were stabbing into her otherwise numb flesh. Aloise knew that she needed to dry out and warm up – and fast – before frostbite set in, or worse. But she just shook her head. She didn’t have time to worry about herself, because Beryl wasn’t out of the woods yet.
And, if Aloise was cold, having only put her arms in the water, then she tried to imagine how cold Beryl must feel, having been completely submerged for a minute or more.
Looking down, Aloise saw her worst fears confirmed. Beryl seemed to have gone completely stiff. Her teeth chattered uncontrollably, and her whole body shook with constant, violent shivers. She was going to go into shock if Aloise didn’t warm her up, and fast.
Aloise summoned one of her light orbs – the largest version she knew how to conjure – which hovered just above the two women, bathing Beryl’s sickly blue skin in its pale, reflected glow. The orb gave off some heat along with its light, but not nearly enough to counteract the effects of being exposed to the freezing cold air after being doused in an icy river. So Aloise tore open her pack next, pulling out the thick, down-stuffed blankets which she’d brought with them, and she did the best she could to wrap Beryl’s shaking body in layer after warm layer. But that was just another half measure. Aloise was fighting a losing battle, and she knew it.
Feeling at a loss for anything else to do, Aloise took Beryl by the hand. The pyromancer’s fingers were like icicles, and feeling their icy stiffness sent a jolt of panic through Aloise’s heart.
“Beryl,” she said, trying to make eye contact with the shivering, shaking woman. “Beryl, we have to warm you up. I need you to start a fire.”
Something like sheer horror flashed across Beryl’s face, and the scarred woman struggled to shake her head.
“N-n-n-no…” Beryl gasped through teeth which chattered so hard that Aloise feared they might break.
“You have to,” Aloise said, hearing the desperation which crept into her voice even as she tried to sound reassuring. “There’s no other way.”
Beryl seemed to writhe in Aloise’s grasp.
“I c-c-c-can’t,” she croaked. “No m-m-more f-f-fires!”
“Beryl, you have to!” Aloise said, dropping all pretense of calm. “If we don’t get you warmed up, you’re going to die!” Aloise felt a strange sensation on her face, and she realized it was the feeling of tears rolling down her frozen cheeks. When she spoke again, she was practically shouting. “And you’re not allowed to die, Beryl! I won’t allow it!”
For a moment, Aloise’s blue eyes caught Beryl’s green eye, and she refused to look away. Then, with her whole body still shaking, Beryl’s head moved in something that looked like a nod, and the scarred woman closed her good eye.
Almost before Aloise could be sure what was happening, she felt the air around her begin to grow warm. At first, it was a pleasant sort of heat, so that it reminded her of a day spent lying on a warm, sandy beach, or a night spent roasting marshmallows in the glow of a roaring bonfire. But the temperature around Aloise continued to rise and rise, and the warmth soon switched from that of a pleasant summer’s day to something more like a blazing, oppressive sun. Aloise could actually see the heat radiating off of Beryl in waves, as the air above the pyromancer’s body began to shimmer, the way Aloise remembered having seen iron do in a blacksmith’s forge, when the metal was red and molten. Aloise could feel beads of sweat forming on her forehead – something which would have seemed impossible just a minute before – and Beryl’s fingers, which had felt like icicles a moment ago, were warm to the touch. A strange noise came to Aloise’s attention then, like the whistle of a kettle on a hot stove when it’s almost ready to boil, and Aloise’s mouth fell open slightly as she realized that trails of hot steam were actually rising out from Beryl’s wet clothes, as the pyromancer’s body started to glow white-hot. Only Beryl’s hand, which Aloise still held, seemed largely unaffected by the scarred woman’s internal fire, and even that hand was beginning to grow uncomfortably warm beneath Aloise’s grasp.
Then, suddenly, Beryl’s eye shot open, and Aloise pulled her hand away with an audible gasp – not because of anything she felt, but because of something she saw.
She saw the fire. She saw a single, red flame, blazing like a lit torch, glowing deep within the black center of Beryl’s one green eye.
Aloise had never seen anything like it before, and, in that first, surprising moment, what she saw had startled her.
Then, just as suddenly as the fire had appeared, it went out. Beryl blinked once, and it was gone. All the heat that had built up around Beryl’s body seemed to wash away in a great outrush of air, and the winter chill swept back in to take its place. Despite having spent all day in the freezing cold, its sudden return almost took Aloise by surprise.
Beryl, who appeared to be completely dry and more-or-less fully revivified, seemed to regain her senses then, only to dive immediately back into a state of blind, wild-eyed panic. She looked like a woman possessed as she struggled desperately to shed the layers of blankets she was wrapped in, and to claw her way up onto her hands and knees.
“Did I hurt you?” she yelled frantically, as she stumbled in Aloise’s direction, one blanket still looped awkwardly around her ankles. “Did I burn you?”
Before Aloise could even open her mouth to respond, Beryl had grabbed hold of Aloise’s hand and pulled it roughly towards her. Beryl held Aloise’s hand so close to her face that Aloise could feel the pyromancer’s warm, anxious breath against her skin. Beryl’s eye squinted in intense concentration, and she seemed to be inspecting every inch of Aloise’s skin with a kind of frantic, manic urgency, as though the fate of the world hung upon what she might find there.
“Relax, Beryl,” Aloise said, feeling a little stunned by the intensity of the other woman’s reaction. “You didn’t burn me, I promise.” Then she winced a little bit, in spite of herself. “You… well, you are kind of twisting my wrist, though.”
“I’m sorry!” Beryl let go of Aloise’s hand as though it had bitten her. The panic seemed to ebb from her eyes then, only to be replaced by a look that Aloise read as either guilt, or shame, or both. Still on her hands and knees, Beryl scuttled backwards a ways, so that she was a few paces removed from Aloise. Then the green-eyed woman shifted into a seated position. She hung her head, she pulled her knees up beneath her chin, and she wrapped her arms tightly around her own legs. “I’m sorry,” she said again, her face pointed down at the ground, her voice quiet. “I shouldn’t have come here. I… I ruin everything.”
Aloise sighed. She shimmied across the ground until she was seated next to Beryl. Wrapping one arm around Beryl’s shoulders, she lowered her own head, so that it was close to Beryl’s ear.
“You don’t ruin anything,” Aloise said.
From between her knees, Beryl sniffled a little bit. “I almost got us killed,” she said.
“And then you saved our lives,” Aloise said. “I’d say those cancel each other out.”
“You wouldn’t have needed saving if it hadn’t been for me,” Beryl insisted. “I’m dangerous, Aloise. I’m dangerous to you.” Beryl gave her head a single, sharp shake. “I shouldn’t be here. I should have stayed away. I should never have come.”
“You can’t say those sorts of things,” Aloise said. “Aside from being just plain wrong, you make it sound like I don’t have any choice in the matter.” Aloise patted Beryl on the back. “I want you to be here, Beryl. I want us to climb the 77,777 steps together. I want us to write an ending to ‘The Wanderer’s Heart,’ together.” Aloise shook her head, and her voice rose. “Doesn’t what I want count for anything?”
After a long second, Beryl nodded her head.
“It counts for everything,” she said.
“Good,” Aloise said, giving Beryl’s shoulders a squeeze. “Then no more doom and gloom talk, okay? We’ve got work left to do.” Then Aloise leaned back, and she stared up at the crystal-blue sky. “We’ve got work to do in a minute, anyway. For now, I need a chance to catch my breath.”
“Me, too,” Beryl said quietly.
So, for a minute, the two women sat together, sharing a moment of silence as Aloise looked up at the sky, and Beryl stared down at the ground. It was then that Aloise first noticed that she was sitting on bare earth rather than packed snow. Looking down, she realized that all the snow and ice within a considerable radius from where she and Beryl sat had melted away, revealing a sort of hard, sandy permafrost beneath. Aloise picked up her mittens from where she had dropped them in haste; they were bone-dry, just like the rest of her clothing, and she slipped them back onto her cold hands.
“You know?” Aloise finally said. “We’re incredibly lucky.”
“How’s that?” Beryl asked, raising her head and looking up at Aloise.
Aloise smiled at Beryl. “We’re lucky that you picked the red cloak,” she said, “instead of the blue one.”
Beryl seemed to consider that for a moment. Then she burst out laughing – a short, stilted giggle that grew into a loud, genuine laugh, which Aloise quickly echoed.
Sitting together, atop that little patch of melted ground, Beryl and Aloise shared that laugh, and, at least for that one moment, Aloise felt like everything was right with the frozen world.
III. A Light in the Darkness
The sun was low in the evening sky, turning the ice fields purple and the horizon wine red, when Aloise and Beryl made their way into the little hamlet of stone-walled and shale-shingled homes which lay clustered together at the foot of the mountain. The village was called Hollihoff, and, as Aloise felt the uneven cobblestones of its narrow, ice-bound streets beneath her boots, she felt the same sense of happiness and homecoming that she felt whenever she returned to a place where she knew that friends awaited.
Aloise had been looking forward to reaching Hollihoff ever since their near escape from the frozen river. In particular, the thought of finding lodging at the Hare & Hearth – the village’s homey inn – had tantalized her imagination. The prospect of ending the day with a bowl of good stew in her belly and plenty of hot water bottles beneath her blankets had kept her spirits high and her strides light while she and Beryl covered the final few miles to the snowbound village.
So, when Aloise and Beryl came within sight of the little inn, only to find no light beckoning to them from its snow-frosted windows, and no wisps of smoke rising from its stocky stone chimney, Aloise felt a pang of disappointment. But disappointment was a sentiment which did not come naturally to Aloise, and it did not keep her down for long. Instead, as she rapped her cold knuckles on the Hare & Hearth’s green-painted door, she said to Beryl: “I can’t wait to introduce you to Ursalyn. She’s a marvelous cook, and, if anyone will know anything about the 77,777 steps, it will be her.”
“Come on in,” boomed a gruff-sounding voice from inside. “Our fire may be out, but our door’s still open. Just wipe your boots first, if you’d be so kind.”
A small mat made from woven evergreen branches seemed to have been provided on the doorstep for just that purpose. Aloise and Beryl took turns scraping as much snow from the bottoms of their boots as they could. Then Aloise opened the door to the inn and ushered Beryl inside.
The interior of the Hare & Hearth reminded Aloise of a welcoming front parlor. It was filled with comfy, overstuffed chairs, and little wooden tea tables with lace tablecloths. Holly and balsam hung in fragrant bunches from the low, vaulted ceiling, and a great stone oven lay at the end of a long, wooden bar. Above the oven, a great copper pot hung from an iron chain. Aloise knew that Ursalyn always kept one of her marvelous stews bubbling away in the pot, ready to serve to cold and weary travelers in hot, heaping bowls, along with mulled cider and honey biscuits. In Aloise’s memory, the inn was a warm, cozy place, bathed in reflected firelight and filled with shared laughter.
Which was why it was so startling to see the Hare & Hearth empty and dark. The oven lay silent, and the air in the room was hardly warmer than the gathering blizzard outside.
“I’ll be with you in just a shake,” called the gruff voice from the kitchen. “In the meantime, please do me a great favor and close the door after you, so we can keep what little warmth we have.”
Aloise swung the painted wooden door shut behind her. Then she and Beryl moved into the room, standing next to the cold oven.
Just then, the door to the kitchen swung open, and a great bearfolk wearing a cornflower blue apron and thick-rimmed spectacles emerged. As soon as she laid eyes on Aloise, the bear’s mouth fell open in surprise. She took off her spectacles and wiped them with the hem of her apron, as though concerned that her eyes were playing a trick on her. Once she seemed convinced that they were not, a wide smile broke out upon her broad, ursine face.
“Glory be, it’s the skychild!” declared Ursalyn, owner and proprietress of the Hare & Hearth. The big, white bearfolk, who towered over the two human women, threw her arms wide and dropped to her knees, before wrapping Aloise up in a bear hug which practically swallowed the smiling mage. “What a wonderful surprise! I was just thinking about you the other day, and hoping that you might return – and here you are, big as life!”
“It’s good to see you, too, Ursalyn,” Aloise declared as the bear released her. Then, indicating towards Beryl – who stood a few paces off to one side with a gape-mouthed look on her face, and seemed to still be coming to terms with the size and nature of their hostess – Aloise said: “Ursalyn, I’d like you to meet Beryl.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Beryl managed to stammer. The pyromancer extended a hand, holding it up for the bearfolk to shake, and Aloise had to stifle a giggle as Ursalyn took Beryl’s hand with a clawed paw that was bigger than Beryl’s head.
“Beryl is a dear friend,” Aloise added by way of introduction. “She’s a skychild, too.”
Planeswalkers had not been known among the citizenry of Hollihoff prior to Aloise’s arrival several years before, so Ursalyn had dubbed Aloise the “skychild.” It was a name which Aloise liked; it was more humanizing than “planeswalker” – more evocative, too.
“Any friend of Aloise’s is a friend of mine,” Ursalyn declared as she released Beryl’s hand. “It’s just a mighty shame that you two arrived when you did. You’ve caught me at the absolute worst of my hospitality.”
“I was going to ask, but I didn’t want to be rude,” Aloise said, motioning in the direction of the lifeless oven. Her frozen breath fogged the air as she spoke. “Why is the fire out?”
A frown appeared across the bearfolk’s white muzzle.
“The fire is out, my dear, because I made the mistake of leaving a certain forgetful-minded assistant of mine in charge while I went out to deliver some biscuits. Young Petyr was so absorbed in his knitting – of all things! – that he didn’t even notice the fire had gone cold until I returned and pointed it out to him.” Ursalyn shook her head at that. “Which is why Petyr is currently on his way to the blacksmith’s with the emberbox, and not here to greet you. Which he will be very sore about, I don’t doubt. Perhaps that will teach him to mind his duties in the future. In the meantime, though, sit yourselves down.”
The bearfolk motioned to a pair of tall stools in front of the bar, which Aloise and Beryl climbed up onto.
“I almost hate to ask,” Aloise said, feeling the stirrings of hunger in her belly after a long day’s hike, “but, does that mean there’s no stew?”
“There is indeed a stew,” Ursalyn said, walking over to the oven and removing the cover from the great copper pot. “Snowshoe hare and parsnips – caught the hares myself, and the parsnips are very fine, too. But I’m afraid it will have gone stone cold by now.” The bearfolk looked at Aloise, and she sighed an apologetic sigh.
“It just so happens that you’re in luck,” Aloise said, smiling brightly. “Beryl is a—”
“—I don’t mind cold stew,” Beryl said.
Aloise looked over at Beryl, her mouth still open from when Beryl had cut her off, mid-sentence. She tried to catch Beryl’s green eye, but the scarred woman would not meet her gaze. Beryl’s face had gone red, yet her knuckles were white where her hands gripped the bar.
For a moment, Aloise wanted to say something. It hurt to see Beryl so afraid of her magic. Afraid, or ashamed, or both. But Beryl gave her head a quick, furtive shake.
“Please,” the green-eyed woman whispered, so quiet that she was barely audible. “Please, not now.”
So Aloise held her tongue.
Turning to Ursalyn, who was looking at her with a quizzical expression, Aloise said: “I’m sure the stew is just as wonderful cold. Would it be possible for us to have some?”
“Of course,” the bearfolk said. “I’ll just get some bowls and biscuits.” And she disappeared back into the kitchen.
Once Ursalyn was out of sight, Aloise turned back to Beryl. “Why, Beryl?” she whispered. “Why?”
“I can’t,” Beryl said. Sadness clung to her scarred face like a veil, and her eye had turned distant. “I just can’t.”
Aloise had to close her eyes for a moment, had to remind herself to give Beryl time, to give Beryl space.
But it was hard. It was so hard. Beryl was in pain. And, when Aloise saw someone in pain, she only wanted to help.
Give her time, Aloise thought. Give her space.
When she’s ready, I’ll be there.
Ursalyn came back into the room then, carrying a pair of bowls, a ladle, and a basket of honey biscuits. Aloise was silently thankful for the bearfolk’s return.
The innkeeper ladled-out two heaping bowls of rich rabbit stew, which she placed on the bar in front of Aloise and Beryl. She placed a big, fluffy biscuit atop each bowl, and left the rest of the biscuits within easy reach.
Beryl stared down at the food with a hungry eye, but she didn’t eat. “I don’t have any money,” she said to Ursalyn.
That drew a loud snort from the bearfolk. “No friend of mine will ever go hungry beneath this roof,” she said, and she made a scooping motion with her great paws. “Eat, please. Else it will just go to waste.”
“Thank you,” Beryl said. Then the scarred woman tucked greedily into the stew, gulping it down so fast that Aloise wondered how she found time to breathe.
“Yes, thank you,” Aloise said, pulling a flaky, buttery layer from her biscuit and soaking it in the stew before popping it into her mouth. Even cold, it was delicious, and just the feeling of having food in her tummy brought a sense of calm to Aloise’s mind.
“Now, skychild, what brings you back to Hollihoff?” the bearfolk asked. “Still searching for those… what did you call them? Yetis?”
Between bites of stew, Aloise shook her head. “No, I found the yetis. This is a completely different search.” Aloise swallowed her food, then gestured out the window, in the vague direction of the looming mountain. “Tell me, Ursalyn – have you ever heard about a sacred temple at the top of the mountain?”
The big bearfolk considered that question for a moment. After scratching at her snout with a mighty black claw, she nodded her head.
“Aye, there used to be a temple of some sort,” she said. “But I don’t know if it’s sacred or not. At least, I don’t know if it’s any more sacred than any other temple. And it’s been abandoned for as long as anyone can remember. It’s just an old ruin.” The bearfolk shrugged. “The builders go up there sometimes, and carry down stones. But no one else bothers much with that place these days. It’s a long, long climb just to look at some old, crumbling walls.”
“There’s this story,” Aloise said, “called ‘The Wanderer’s Heart,’ about a mage who climbed the steps to that temple. The story says that, inside the temple, he faced a series of trials, then he discovered a great secret.”
Ursalyn shrugged her massive shoulders. “Can’t say as I know anything about it,” she said. “I’ve never heard of any trials, or any great secret, or anything of the sort.” She sighed, and cleaned her spectacles on her apron. “It’s like I said: the temple’s just a ruin, and I’ve never heard of it being anything but.”
Aloise nodded her head. “I figured as much,” she said, “but I also figured there was no harm in asking.”
“None at all,” the bearfolk agreed.
Just then, the door to the inn swung open, and a young human man stumbled inside. He was carrying a glowing iron box in his thickly-gloved hands, and he tracked snow into the lobby as he shed his hat and coat.
“Mind your boots, there,” Ursalyn called out, “or you’ll be the one washing the rugs, you will!”
“Sorry, ma’am,” the young man said, as he hurriedly shed his boots. Holding the hot emberbox out at arm’s length, he was carrying his glowing load over to the oven when he finally seemed to notice Aloise and Beryl eating at the bar. At the sight of the blonde mage, the young man nearly tripped over the rug.
“Aloise?” he asked, as though he couldn’t believe his own eyes.
“Hello, Petyr,” Aloise said. “It’s wonderful to see you again.” She smiled at the gape-mouthed youth. “I’d give you a hug, but you seem to have your hands full.”
Petyr looked down at the iron emberbox, and seemed surprised to discover that he was holding it.
“Oh, right!” he said. He set the box down and opened its lid. Using a pair of iron tongs which were leaning against the oven, Petyr extracted a red-hot coal from inside the box, which he used to restart the cooking fire.
“Miss Aloise and her friend are to be our guests for the night, Petyr,” Ursalyn said. “Be a help, if you would. Run along upstairs, and make sure there are fresh linens in the closets.”
“Of course, ma’am,” the young man said. But, instead of rushing to attend to the innkeeper’s request, he lingered for a moment near the bar.
“Will you be staying long?” Petyr asked Aloise. The skychild shook her head.
“Just tonight,” she said. “Tomorrow, my friend and I are going to climb the steps up the mountain.”
A look of concern passed across the young man’s face. “That’s a powerful long climb,” he said. “Won’t you get tired?”
“Of course they’ll get tired!” the innkeeper said, giving her assistant an exasperated look. “All the more reason for them to get a good night’s sleep tonight, which they will find difficult indeed with no bed linens! So off you go!” She made a scooting motion with her paws.
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am,” Petyr said, and he hurried up the stairs.
“He means well, Ursalyn,” Aloise said, feeling a bit sorry for Petyr.
“I know, skychild,” the bearfolk said. “And that’s why I haven’t given up. I’ll make a proper host out of him yet.”
The bearfolk paused for a moment to clear away the dirty dishes from the bar. Aloise was surprised to see that, along with the stew bowls, the basket of biscuits was also empty – Beryl must have eaten the lot while Ursalyn had been talking.
That was a good sign, Aloise decided.
“Now, as for accommodations,” the bearfolk said to Aloise, “you may have noticed that we’re a bit short on guests at the moment, the upshot of which is that you have the place to yourselves. So feel free to take whichever rooms you like. Assuming Petyr hasn’t managed to get lost along the way, you’ll find fresh sheets and pillows in the linen closet. And, assuming that Petyr remembers to light the boiler in the washroom, you should have all the warm water you need.”
Aloise opened her mouth to thank their host, but what came out instead was a yawn. It had been a long day, and the exhaustion which she had held at bay until then had suddenly caught up to her. Looking over at Beryl, she could see that her companion was struggling to keep her eye open as well.
“I hope you won’t think we’re being rude,” Aloise said to Ursalyn, “but I think we’d better be getting to bed. We’ve got an early start ahead of us tomorrow, and I feel like I could sleep for days.”
“Sleep well, skychild,” Ursalyn said, giving Aloise one more bear hug before Aloise and Beryl climbed down off the barstools and made their way to the stairs.
Aloise was climbing the narrow steps up to the inn’s second level, with Beryl following close behind her, when Petyr came bounding down the stairs in the opposite direction.
“Miss Aloise,” he said, “I’m glad I caught you!” With one hand, he gripped the staircase railing for support, while he fished around in his pocket with the other. “I, ah… Well, I want you to have this,” he said, and he pressed a small object into Aloise’s hands.
Aloise looked down at Petyr’s gift. It looked like a little knit pouch, with woolen straps on each side.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s a nose cozy,” the young man said, his pride evident in his voice. “I knitted it myself. You tie it around your face—,” he indicated the straps, “—and it keeps your nose warm.” Then he stared down intently at his own shoes. “I thought you might want it tomorrow, seeing as you’re going to be out on the mountain, and it gets powerful cold up there.”
Aloise smiled. “It’s wonderful,” she said. “Thank you, Petyr!”
The young man blushed. Then he nodded in Beryl’s direction, although he continued to stare at his feet. “I can make one for you, too, if you like,” he said.
“I’d like that,” Beryl said quietly. “Thank you.”
“It’s no trouble at all,” the young man said, before he scurried off down the stairs.
Aloise and Beryl continued up to the second floor. Once the assistant innkeeper was out of earshot, Beryl turned to Aloise.
“He fancies you, you know,” she said.
Beryl, Aloise noticed, had also developed a sudden interest in her own footwear.
“What? Petyr?” Aloise asked, feeling surprised.
Beryl nodded. “He’s head over heels,” she said.
“Why do you say that?” Aloise asked, feeling her face turning red. “Because he made me a nose cozy?”
“Not that,” Beryl said. Then she corrected herself. “Well, not just that.” She shook her head. “It’s the way he looks at you,” she said. “Or, more properly, it’s the way he doesn’t look at you. Whenever he thinks you’re not looking, he never takes his eyes off you. But when he thinks you are looking? He looks away.”
“Really?” Aloise said. She turned to face Beryl, but the green-eyed woman looked away. “I guess I didn’t notice.”
“I noticed,” Beryl said quietly.
Aloise smiled. “He’s a sweet boy – I wish Ursalyn weren’t so hard on him.” Then she paused for a moment to lean back and stretch her arms, and she yawned a fearsome yawn. “Anyway, come with me – I’ll show you the absolute best room!”
She led Beryl to the very end of the hallway, where a simple wooden door opened up into a cozy little room with a low, pitched ceiling and a blue-and-green stained glass window which looked out upon the sleepy, snow-covered village. Twin beds were nestled against the wall, one on either side of the window, and a pair of comfortable-looking armchairs were clustered around a little corner bookshelf. Aloise set down her pack next to the right bed, and she stared out the frosted window for a moment. Beryl moved to stand behind her, and gazed out at the night sky as well.
“It really is beautiful,” the green-eyed woman said. “The way the snow looks at night.”
Aloise nodded in agreement. “I always love the way it sparkles in the starlight,” she said.
They were both quiet for a moment, before Beryl cleared her throat.
“I’ll go get blankets and pillows,” she said.
The scarred woman went out into the hallway to look for the linen closet, while Aloise used the time to lay out two fresh changes of clothing for them to wear the next day. Beryl returned shortly, and the two of them took turns yawning as they made-up the down mattresses.
Aloise was taking off her coat when she felt something unfamiliar inside her pocket. She pulled it out.
It was Beryl’s necklace: a little blown glass pendant, in the shape of a heart, on a simple gold chain.
“I completely forgot,” Aloise said, holding the necklace out for Beryl. “I took this off you earlier, after you fell in the river. I meant to give it back, and it just slipped my mind.”
“Thanks,” Beryl said quietly. Taking the necklace, the scarred woman held it in her hand for a moment and stared down at it, before she slipped it around her neck. “I was afraid that I’d lost it.”
“It’s lovely,” Aloise said. “Was it a gift?”
Beryl shook her head. “No,” she said, holding her hand protectively over the little heart-shaped pendant, as though she feared it might break. “I mean, yes.” Then she shook her head again. “I mean… What I mean is, it was my mother’s.”
Beryl closed her good, green eye. When she opened it again, Aloise could see a tear rolling down her cheek.
“I wish you could have met my mother,” Beryl said. “She was a good woman, with a good heart.” Beryl sniffled a little, before wiping the tear away on her sleeve. “I think you would have liked her. I know she would have liked you.”
Aloise fluffed-up her pillow, then she slipped into bed. The blankets were warm and soft, and, as her body relaxed into the downy mattress, she sighed a contented sigh.
Rolling onto her side, so that she faced towards Beryl, Aloise said: “If she was anything like you, then I know I would have loved her. And I know she would be proud of you.”
Beryl was lying in the other bed and staring up at the low, slanted ceiling of the darkened room.
“Earlier today, you said that we could go on another trip sometime,” she said, her voice echoing softly around the small room. “You said I could choose where we went.”
“I did,” Aloise said. “Do you have someplace in mind?”
“Not someplace,” Beryl said. “Someone.” She was silent for a moment. “There’s someone I need to find. Someone who tried to help me. And I thought that, maybe, I could help her, too, only… I think she got hurt, instead. And… I think I’m the one who hurt her.”
Aloise shook her head. Her eyelids felt like lead, and she could feel sleep beckoning, but she tried to keep herself awake.
“I’m sure you didn’t do anything of the sort,” Aloise said. “But we’ll find her for you. I promise.”
“Thanks,” Beryl said.
Aloise could feel her eyes closing, could feel sleep coming to claim her.
Aloise saw Beryl’s green eye gazing at her from across the darkened room.
“Yes?” Aloise said.
For a moment, Beryl looked like she was about to say something. But then her eye closed, and she exhaled softly.
“Yes?” Aloise said again, yawning as she did.
“It’s… it’s nothing,” Beryl finally said. “I just wanted to wish you sweet dreams. That’s all.”
“Sweet dreams to you, too, Beryl,” Aloise said.
Then Aloise closed her eyes, and she slept.
* * *
Aloise turned around to face Beryl, who seemed frozen in mid-stride. The green-eyed woman was staring blankly off into space and tapping one finger against the side of her forehead, as though she were straining to remember something.
“What’s the matter?” Aloise asked.
Beryl looked up at Aloise, disappointment plain on her face. “I lost count again,” she said.
Aloise exhaled, and she smiled. “You mean, you’ve been counting the steps in your head this whole time?” she asked.
Beryl nodded. “Ever since we started up the trail.” The green-eyed woman blushed. “I mean, I know it’s silly – it’s not like it really matters how many steps there are. But I just wanted to know if the story was right, if there really are 77,777 of them.”
“So that’s why you’ve been so quiet,” Aloise said, feeling relieved.
Beneath her woolen scarf and her newly-knitted nose cozy, Beryl’s cheeks reddened even further. “Sorry. I didn’t realize I was being quiet. I was just trying to count steps, and it takes more concentration than you’d think. A lot more, really. But I should have said something. I wasn’t trying to worry you.”
“Don’t apologize!” Aloise said. “After all, I had the same idea you did. I want to know how many steps there are, too.” Aloise tugged off her right mitten, and she reached inside her pocket where she kept her metrometer, which she handed to Beryl. “That’s why I brought this.”
“What is it?” Beryl asked. Her one eye went wide as she flipped open the little device’s brown leather cover, revealing a whirring mass of copper and silver discs housed inside a clear crystal ball. The metrometer was lit from within by a tiny glowsphere – the smallest Aloise had ever crafted. She’d used a single strand of horsehair and a paint mixed from powdered alabaster and essence of wisp to draw the lightlines onto a little golden orb, and she’d done all the work underneath her strongest magnifier. As Beryl tilted the metrometer this way and that, trying to get a better look inside the mechanism, the discs inside the crystal ball rotated so that their relative orientations stayed fixed in space, with the copper discs pointed skyward, and the silver discs level with the horizon.
“It’s a metrometer,” Aloise said. “I designed it myself!” The proud young mage stood next to Beryl, so that she could demonstrate her handiwork. “See, the discs are enchanted so that they attune themselves to the fieldlines of each plane, and, as they move through space, they rotate. Let me show you.”
Beryl handed the metrometer back to Aloise. Holding the little instrument in her open palm, Aloise took a long step. As both women watched, the largest copper disc rotated once, making a little clicking noise as it spun in place.
“The metrometer tracks how many rotations the discs make,” Aloise said. “And, since each rotation occurs when I travel a predetermined distance, I can use the total to work out for far I’ve gone.”
“And you crafted that yourself?” Beryl asked.
“Not entirely by myself,” Aloise said. “I came up with the design, but I had help with building the mechanism. I met a wonderful Izzet mechanist who helped me to mill the flywheels, and the casing is the work of the best glassblower in the multiverse.” Aloise’s face brightened. “I should take you to see her someday – she has a beautiful little workshop right on this warm, sandy beach. The sand is so white, you wouldn’t believe how it sparkles in the sun. That’s why the glass she makes is so clear – she has the very best sand.” Aloise clapped her hands together. “You could show her your pendant! She loves beautiful glass.”
Beryl’s hand closed around the little heart-shaped pendant which hung from her neck, and she smiled at Aloise. “You have a way of making everything sound so beautiful,” she said. “It makes me wish I could see the world through your eyes.”
Aloise shook her head. “There’s nothing special about my eyes,” she said. “There’s beauty all around us. You just have to look for it.”
“A lot of people don’t, you know?” Beryl said. “A lot of people can’t see it.” Then she shook her head, and she pointed at the metrometer. “But that’s neither here nor there. I want to know more about your metrometer.”
“Oh!” Aloise said, looking down at the device in her hand. “Anyway, as I was saying, based on the number of rotations the discs make, I know how far I’ve travelled. Normally, I use the metrometer to track horizontal distances, for when I’m making maps and the like. But, for this trip, I reversed the polarity of the runes, so now they rotate as they travel in a vertical direction. So, all I had to do was calibrate the device when we climbed the first step this morning, and...” Aloise peered into the crystal sphere, where a little number glowed at the center of the mechanism. “…It looks like we’ve climbed 22,747 steps so far,” she said, with a note of obvious pride in her voice.
Beryl smiled, too, and she shook her head. “I guess I’ll leave the counting to you,” she said.
“It’s a deal,” Aloise said. “Of course, you know this means you have to talk to me now, right?” She tucked the metrometer back into her pocket. “We’ve got a lot of steps ahead of us, and they’ll go a lot faster if you’re keeping me company.”
“I think I can do that,” Beryl said.
“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” Aloise said. She gave her walking stick a little twirl, and pointed in the direction of the ascending staircase. “What do you say? Onward and upward?”
“Onward and upward,” Beryl said.
And the two women continued their climb.
As they walked, Aloise took a moment to look around her, and to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. The sky overhead was a cloudless, crystal blue, and the sun was almost at its midday zenith. It was a fine day for a climb. The air had been bone-chillingly cold at the base of the mountain, and it had gotten colder still as they ascended. But Aloise and Beryl were dressed properly for the occasion, and the nose cozies which Petyr had given them actually did make a difference. As silly as Aloise felt about wearing a little knitted pouch over her nose, it really did keep her face warm. And, thankfully, the air that day was slack and still, without even a hint of wind, so that, although Aloise could see her breath freeze every time she exhaled, the cold didn’t penetrate all the way through her meticulously-layered clothing.
The two of them had made an early start of it, bidding a fond farewell to Ursalyn and Petyr before the sun was even up, and striking out for the mountain trail. The morning had actually started on a worrying note. Aloise had woken to find Beryl’s bed empty, and, for a single, terrible moment, Aloise had felt her heart leap up into her throat. She was just pulling on her boots, and trying to think of where Beryl might have gone, or what could possibly have happened to her, when the door to their room opened, and Beryl had entered, carrying a wooden tray laden with mugs of steaming hot tea and plates piled high with toast.
Beryl had seemed crestfallen when she saw that Aloise was out of bed.
“I had a nightmare,” the scarred woman had said, by way of explanation, “and then I couldn’t get back to sleep. So, I figured I’d go downstairs and see about breakfast. Ursalyn helped me to put the tray together. I was hoping I could surprise you.” Beryl had stared down at the floor. “You know, breakfast in bed, or something like that.”
Without saying a word, Aloise had kicked off her boots and climbed back into bed. She had pulled the covers up beneath her chin and closed her eyes, then she had snored a few loud and rumbling pretend-snores.
When she had opened one eye again, just enough to peek through, Beryl was beaming at her.
“You’re too good to me,” Beryl had said. “You know that?”
“No such thing!” Aloise had said in reply. “Besides, you’re the one who brought me breakfast in bed.” Sitting up, Aloise had stretched out her arms and yawned a half-pretend yawn, before swinging her legs over the side of the bed and patting the spot next to her.
So Beryl had sat down next to her, and they’d shared a hot breakfast together, finishing up just as the very first hint of a sunrise was reddening the horizon.
Downstairs, Ursalyn and Petyr had seen them off, and they’d left the Hare & Hearth with warm wishes fresh in their minds and fresh biscuits wrapped in waxed paper and stuffed into their packs. Then they had crossed the sleeping village to the foot of the snow-shrouded mountain, where an ancient, timeworn staircase made from low, broad steps had been carved into the mountain’s rocky flank, and they had started to climb.
The going was not particularly arduous. The trail rose slowly and gradually as it wound its way up the purple mountain in a long, looping spiral. The steps themselves were broad – wide enough across for Aloise and Beryl to walk comfortably side-by-side – but they were also fairly shallow. More than once, Aloise had jammed the toe of her boot into the face of the next step – an action which probably would have been more painful if her feet hadn’t been swaddled in two layers of thick, wooly socks. Ice and drifting snow covered the steps in places, but finding a foothold wasn’t too difficult. Even though the steps had been weathered both by the passage of time and the treads of countless pairs of feet, the tool marks in the stone were still sharp and deep – almost as though they had been carved the day before. Aloise wasn’t sure what kind of rock the mountain was made of – it was a granular stone, with hints of black and gray and even purplish-blues in places, and it was unlike any she had seen on other worlds. But, whatever it was, it must have been incredibly strong to have preserved such tool marks across centuries or more of erosion. And that only served to heighten the mystery of who had carved the steps in the first place, and how they might possibly have done it.
Whoever the mysterious stone-carvers were, Aloise assumed that they must have been human – or at least human-sized, given that the spacing of the steps seemed designed to accommodate human strides. And the design worked; the steps weren’t difficult at all to climb. There were just a lot of them. A whole lot. Aloise could feel the muscles in her legs beginning to protest against their seemingly endless task, and she reflected that, even if nothing else came of her adventure, at the very least she was getting a tremendous amount of exercise.
As if on cue, Beryl drew to a halt beside her. She bent over, rubbing her calves.
“That cobbler of yours really is a miracle worker – I’d swear my feet are the only bits of me that don’t hurt right now,” the pyromancer said between deep breaths. “Do you think, maybe, we could sit down for a moment? My legs would be eternally grateful.”
“Of course,” Aloise said. She glanced up at the sky. “It’s almost midday anyway. How about a bite to eat?”
“Yes, please,” Beryl said. The green-eyed woman lowered her walking stick to the ground, and sank down on a little snowy hillock just to one side of the stairs. Off to her right, the mountain sloped steeply upwards. A few paces to her left, an almost sheer cliff descended down ten fathoms or so to the previous loop of the trail below.
Aloise sat down next to Beryl atop the dry, powdery snow. She unshouldered her pack and retrieved two of the paper-wrapped biscuits which Ursalyn had kindly provided for the trip. After unwrapping one and offering it to Beryl, who accepted it gratefully, Aloise unwrapped the second biscuit and began to munch on it herself.
“Why do you think someone built a temple on top of this mountain?” Beryl asked, getting biscuit crumbs all down the front of her cloak as she ate. She brushed the crumbs away with a mittened hand, before gesturing down at the stairs. “These steps didn’t just grow out of the mountain; they were carved out of it. Can you imagine how much work that must have taken? Lifetimes! So why go through all that trouble? Why not build your temple someplace more convenient? Someplace closer to the ground?”
“I don’t know,” Aloise said. “But it sure stands to reason that there’s something special on top of this mountain. Or else why go through all the bother?” The blonde mage could hear the excitement growing in her own voice, and it reminded her of what she loved so much about exploration: the thrill of the unknown, and the joy of discovery. Those were two of her absolute favorite sensations, and their current adventure offered the tantalizing promise of both. “If ‘The Wanderer’s Heart’ is to be believed, there’s something sacred up there,” she said. “Something magical. We just don’t know what.”
“If that’s the case, though, then why doesn’t anyone in the village know about it?” Beryl asked. She scratched her head. “Ursalyn said that people occasionally climb up to the ruins – if there was something immensely magical there, then you’d think somebody would have noticed.” She shook her head, then turned to look at Aloise. “And that also raises the question of why the temple was abandoned in the first place. If it was magical, or sacred, why leave it? Why let it fall into ruin?”
“I don’t know,” Aloise said, feeling her heart beat a little faster as she did. “But I really, really want to find out.” She smiled at Beryl. “Don’t you?”
Beryl smiled back. “I don’t like stories that don’t have endings,” she said.
“I don’t either,” Aloise said. “So let’s cross this one off the list.”
After she was finished eating, Aloise folded-up her empty biscuit wrapper and tucked it back into her pack. The mountain was beautiful and pristine, and she was not about to spoil that by leaving her trash lying around. With that taken care of, she rose to her feet and did some simple stretching exercises, until her legs felt limber. Offering a hand to Beryl, she helped the black-haired woman up to her feet.
“You’re putting me to shame,” Beryl said as she stood, grimacing a bit before bending over to rub her legs again. “I’m not used to this sort of thing.” For a moment, uncertainty flashed across the scarred woman’s face. “What if I can’t make it?” she said. “What if I just slow you down?”
“Then I’ll carry you,” Aloise said, before giving the other woman a half-serious wink.
Beryl was quiet for a moment.
“You know something? I really think you would,” she said with a smile.
Aloise took Beryl’s mittened hand in hers.
“Beryl, I’m here for you,” she said. “I’ll always be here for you. Whenever, and wherever. If you need help, then I’ll help.” Aloise gave the Beryl’s hand a squeeze. “I’ll help in any way I can, whether it means carrying you up a mountain, or—”
“—Or pulling me out of a freezing-cold river?”
“Or that.” Aloise smiled. “But I’m also available for more mundane things, too, you know? Like talking. Or listening.”
Beryl looked away. “I don’t deserve you,” she said. Her words trailed away for a moment, then she shook her head. “Ever since you met me, all I’ve done is bring trouble to your doorstep. Literally.” Beryl was gazing out at the frozen valley below, and all Aloise could see was the back of her red-hooded cloak. “All I’ve ever given you is trouble, and all you’ve ever given me is kindness.” Beryl turned back to face Aloise, and her voice dropped to a whisper. “Why?”
Aloise moved to stand next to Beryl, at the edge of the stone steps, and she gazed out across the valley as well.
“Because everyone deserves kindness,” Aloise said. “Kindness is a wonderful thing. It’s a good, powerful, additive thing. It can only make the world better. It can only make us better.” Aloise sighed, and she turned to face Beryl, who was now staring intently back at her. “But then you already knew all that.”
“Maybe,” Beryl said. “But, sometimes, I guess I just need to hear you say it.”
Aloise smiled. “Well, if I ever manage to get my voxogram to work,” she said, “I’ll make you a recording. Then you can hear me say whatever you want, whenever you want.”
Beryl brightened a bit at that. “Tell me about your voxogram,” she said. “What is it, and why doesn’t it work?”
And, with that, the two women resumed their climb. They chatted companionably as they wound their way up the curling mountain path, putting thousands upon thousands more steps behind them as the day wore on. The mountain grew steeper as they climbed, and the air grew thinner, but the scenery grew more breathtaking as well. In the valley below, Hollihoff looked like a little gingerbread village. Its snow-covered roofs were heavy with white icing, and the crows circling the smoke which rose from the village’s chimneys were little more than black specks against a sea of white. At one point, as Aloise and Beryl climbed, they came upon a frozen stream, which tumbled over the mountain’s edge in a majestic, three-tiered waterfall. One loop of the trail actually passed beneath the waterfall, which had frozen solid into a curtain of ice, so that it caught the light from the sinking sun and split it into a dazzling array of deep blues and pale oranges as Beryl and Aloise stood gape-mouthed behind it.
Beauty really was all around, Aloise thought, if you only knew where to look.
She could have spent hours there, just studying the way the light played off the ice, basking in all the colors it made. But she and Beryl had a rendezvous with the temple at the top of the mountain, so they pressed reluctantly onward.
As the day wore on, Beryl started to flag. The older woman tried to conceal her exhaustion at first, trying to carry herself as though nothing were wrong. But the strain of her exertion was written on her face, and it was audible in every thin breath, and Aloise wasn’t fooled. After a lengthy argument, Beryl agreed to surrender her pack to Aloise, who slung it alongside her own. And Aloise cast a simple feather-step enchantment on Beryl, which took some of the weight off of the pyromancer’s tired legs. That seemed to give Beryl a second wind, at least for a brief while. But, as the sun began to sink low on the horizon, it was clear to both women that they needed to find a place to stop for the night.
Several times during the course of the climb, Aloise and Beryl had passed sections of the trail where the steps became wider and deeper, culminating in a single step which was really more of a broad stone platform than a step at all. The platforms were always located on the side of the mountain which was shielded from the prevailing wind, and they were flat and round, with a little depression in the center which seemed to be meant for use as a firepit. It seemed that whoever had carved the 77,777 steps had been considerate enough to provide stations for resting or camping along the way, and, as day turned to night, Aloise and Beryl found themselves standing atop just such a rest station. As they stood for a moment to catch their breath in the thin, cold air, Aloise checked her metrometer: They had climbed exactly 44,444 steps to reach that point.
“I’m pretty sure this is where we’re supposed to make camp,” Aloise said, looking around at the broad, flat shelf carved into the mountain’s flank. “So, let’s make camp.”
Beryl, still doubled-over and fighting to catch her breath, nodded her wordless assent.
So Aloise and Beryl swept the little campsite clear of snow, and Aloise removed a pair of small tents from her pack. Laying the precisely-folded bundles on the ground, she spoke to them with a whispered word and a smidge of mana. The tents responded by pitching themselves, with a rustle of fabric and a snapping of struts. Aloise peeked inside the flap of the tent nearest to her, and she felt satisfied by her handiwork. Maybe the tents weren’t up to par with her favorite attic room at the Hare & Hearth, but they would be cozy and dry, with their waxed canvas keeping out the draft and the damp.
Next, Aloise summoned her favorite light to float just above the ancient firepit at the campsite’s center. The glowing orb provided enough light for the women to see by as they dined on their supper of biscuits, dried fruit, and honeycomb, and Aloise’s light cast just enough warmth for them to take off their mittens as they ate.
After the few leftovers had been wrapped in paper and stowed away, Aloise stretched and yawned.
“Well, I am bushed. I’m going to curl up for the night,” she told Beryl, who was still sitting next to the light orb, and staring into its center.
“Sleep well,” Beryl told her.
“Aren’t you coming to bed?” Aloise asked.
“Not just yet,” Beryl said, quietly. “I… I need a minute.”
“Alright,” Aloise said, stifling another yawn. “Just don’t stay up too late. We can’t have you being all sleepy-eyed tomorrow. After all, we’re going to reach the temple!”
There was something about the look on Beryl’s face – she looked distant, maybe, or even a little bit haunted – that made Aloise hesitate before leaving her alone. But she had vowed to give the scarred woman her space, and she held to that vow. So Aloise just gave Beryl a little pat on the shoulder, then she knelt down and crawled into her tent.
Inside the tent, Aloise curled up beneath her favorite patchwork blanket, and she tried to sleep.
But she did not sleep well. She tossed and turned atop her bedroll, and real rest eluded her. Her body was tired, but her mind was restless. She felt troubled, worried. And she knew what she was worried about.
Aloise sat up and rubbed her eyes. Through the canvas wall of her tent, she could see Beryl’s hunched form silhouetted by the light from the floating orb.
Aloise pulled open the flap of her own tent, and she crawled outside.
“Beryl,” she said, with a note of concern in her voice, “are you alright?”
Beryl turned to look at Aloise. The faint, reflected glow from the light orb cast long shadows across her scarred face.
“No,” Beryl said. “I’m not alright.”
Aloise scooted across the frozen ground until she was sitting across from Beryl, so that she could look into the older woman’s green eye.
“Please talk to me,” she said. “Please tell me how I can make it better.”
“That’s the thing – you do make it better. It’s just… I’m afraid to go to sleep,” Beryl said. Her voice was quiet, and it shook as she spoke. “I’m afraid that, if I go to sleep, I’ll have the dream again. The nightmare.” Beryl looked away from Aloise. “I’ve had the same nightmare every night since Astria died.”
Aloise felt her breath catch in her throat. “Your sister died?”
Slowly, Beryl nodded her head.
Aloise tried to reach out to Beryl, to take her hand, but Beryl just looked up at her, and her face was haunted.
“I see her every night, when I close my eye,” Beryl said. “I see her empty, dead face, with her empty, dead eyes, and I hear her say to me: ‘You killed me. Just like you killed our mother. Just like you killed our whole family.’ And then I look down at my hands, and there’s blood on them.” Beryl held her hands out in front of her then. She stared down at them, as though expecting them to drip red beneath the light orb’s faint glow. “It’s the blood of all the people I killed. Thousands. More. I close my eye, and I can still hear them screaming.”
Beryl’s whole body shook. Aloise was about to go to her – to hold her, to comfort her – when the scarred woman held her hands out, and shook her head violently.
“I have to tell you what I did, Aloise,” she said, her voice suddenly firm, even as tears started to flow from her good eye. “You have to know.”
“Beryl, I—” Aloise started to say.
“—I have to tell you,” Beryl said, “because, if I don’t tell you soon, it’s going to eat me away from the inside, until there’s nothing of me left.” Her tears were flowing freely now, and she sobbed as she spoke. “And the longer I go without telling you, the more it feels like I’m lying to you. And you keep being so kind to me, and that just makes it worse.” Beryl held Aloise’s gaze, and her voice trembled. “You deserve to know what kind of person I am. You deserve to know happens to the people I get close to.”
Again, Aloise tried to speak. Again, Beryl wouldn’t let her.
“Once I’m done, you can say whatever you want,” Beryl said. “And… if you want me to leave, I’ll leave.” Her voice broke, and she looked as though she might fold up into herself and disappear, like one of Aloise’s magical tents in reverse. “I’ll leave, and you’ll never have to see me again.”
Aloise opened her mouth to speak, but she stopped herself. She could feel that her fingers had balled into fists. She wanted to argue with Beryl – to yell at her, even. To tell her how silly she was being. To tell her to stop assuming she knew how other people saw her, how they felt about her. Beryl had come so far. They’d come so far together. Aloise had thought they were past all this, that Beryl was done with the fear and the self-hate.
But Aloise swallowed those words, and she unclenched her fists.
Beryl was hurting. It was that simple. She needed warmth. She needed light.
So Aloise placed a hand on Beryl’s folded knee, and she looked the scarred woman in her green eye.
“You can tell me anything,” she said.
After a hesitant second, Beryl nodded her head slightly. She took a deep breath. And she told Aloise everything.
The good, the bad, and the awful.
As Beryl told her tale, her words came faster and faster, and she grew more and more agitated. Her memories just seemed to flood out of her, as though each word couldn’t wait for the one in front of it. It was as though those words had been trapped inside her for too long, until she was ready to burst. And now the dam had crumbled, and everything came pouring out like a giant wave, sweeping away all that lay before it.
All the while, as Beryl spoke, Aloise just listened. She listened, and she nodded her head in empathy, and patted the other woman on the knee in understanding. And she never looked away. She looked Beryl in the eye, and she kept looking at her, even when tears filled the pyromancer’s eye, and even when Aloise felt tears of her own begin to roll down her cheeks.
Finally, Beryl came to the end of her story. She told Aloise about Astria, and Alessa, and The Shifter. She told Aloise about fire and smoke, about killing and death, about grief and pain. Her whole body seemed to tremble at the memory of it, but she kept speaking, until there was nothing left to say.
When she was done, Beryl looked down at the ground. Her shoulders slumped, and her head drooped. She seemed exhausted, and empty, as though her secret guilt had been the only thing propping her up.
“They’re all dead, Aloise,” Beryl said. Her voice was quiet and hoarse, from overuse and from crying. She looked up at Aloise, and there was shame in her eye. “They’re all dead, and it’s all my fault.”
Aloise had to clear her throat and wipe the tears from her face before she could speak.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry you were hurt. I’m sorry you had to see what you saw, had to feel what you felt. And I’m sorry for everyone who died.”
Aloise’s voice was soft, and soothing. She spoke with compassion and understanding. But she spoke with conviction, too. She spoke from the heart.
“But you didn’t kill those people, Beryl,” she said. “You were trying to help them. You were trying to do the right thing.”
“Does that make it any better?” Beryl asked. “Or does that make it worse?” A fresh sob racked her deflated body. “For almost my whole life, I tried to hide myself away from the world. Because, as long as I kept myself hidden, it meant the fire inside me couldn’t hurt anyone – it meant I couldn’t hurt anyone. Then, everything changed. I discovered I was a planeswalker, and it turned my whole life upside down. And I started to think that, maybe – just maybe – my fire wasn’t the bad thing I always thought it was. I started to think that, maybe, I could use it to do something good – that maybe I could do something good. But I didn’t. All I did was hurt people. I hurt more people than ever before.”
“You weren’t the one who hurt those people,” Aloise said. “You were trying to save them.”
“But I didn’t save them!” Beryl said. “They died! They died in a fire that I started!” She clenched her eye shut, and she shook her head. “I didn’t mean to do it. Gods know, I didn’t mean to do it. I never mean to hurt anyone, but it happens anyway. That’s all I do. I start fires, and people get burned.”
Beryl opened her eye and she looked at Aloise. She seemed to be on the verge of shattering.
“I burn everything I love,” the scarred woman said. “I burn everything I touch.”
For a moment, Aloise just looked at Beryl, and she tried to think of what to say.
Then she reached out, and she took Beryl’s hand.
She took Beryl’s hand, and she guided it up to her own cheek, so that she could feel the tips of Beryl’s icy fingers against her skin. So that Beryl could feel it, too.
“You won’t burn me,” Aloise said.
Then she hugged Beryl.
Slowly, gradually, Beryl returned the hug. For a minute or two, she cried silently into Aloise’s shoulder. All the while, Aloise patted Beryl gently on the back, and she whispered into her ear, over and over: “It’s alright. You won’t burn me. It’s alright.”
With her face still buried in Aloise’s shoulder, Beryl asked in a muffled voice: “Has anyone ever told you how good you are? Has anyone ever told you that?”
Aloise smiled. “Someone mentioned it once,” she said.
Slowly, Beryl disentangled herself from Aloise. Her tears had stopped, and the haunted look had vanished from her face.
“There’s something else I need to tell you,” Beryl said.
“I meant what I said,” Aloise said. “You can tell me anything.”
“I wish I could be sure about that,” Beryl said. She opened her mouth, then closed it again. She shut her eye, shook her head, and appeared to change her mind about what she meant to say. When she opened her eye again and started to speak, her voice was quiet and soft.
“Aloise, I was alone for a long time,” Beryl said. “The longest time, really. And, loneliness? It’s a terrible, horrible, insidious thing. It wears you away, bit by bit, until you can’t remember who you are any longer. It’s like being in a room full of mirrors, only there’s no light. You’re just alone in the darkness, and you start to imagine monsters all around you. Stay in that darkness long enough, and you start to imagine that you’re the monster. You start to believe that’s why you’re all alone.”
Beryl looked away for a moment, to stare into the nearby orb of light, which cast a soft white glow across both women’s faces.
“That’s where I was, when I met you,” Beryl said. “I was alone. I was scared. I was trapped in the dark, and I’d lost sight of who I was. Then I ran into you, and it was like you turned on the light for me.” Beryl nodded at the floating orb. “It was like you turned on the light and, suddenly, I could see myself again. I could see that I wasn’t a monster. I could see that, in spite of everything I’d been told – in spite of everything I’d started to believe – that there was light in me.”
Beryl looked up at Aloise.
“You’re that light, Aloise,” she said. “I don't know if anyone has ever told you that before. But, if they haven’t, then I want to be the first. You’re the light by which I finally saw myself. You're my light.”
For a moment, Aloise stared into the floating orb.
“No one has said that to me before,” she finally said.
“Then I’m glad I was the one who did,” Beryl said. “I think that’s what I meant to say before, the last time I saw you. I just… well, I just didn’t know how to say it then.”
“Then I’m glad you came back,” Aloise said. “I’m glad you gave me a new reason to shine.”
Then she smiled at Beryl, and Beryl smiled back.
For a few minutes more, the two women sat next to each other, staring silently into the orb of light, and feeling its faint warmth against their skin.
Eventually, Beryl yawned, and she rubbed her good eye.
“I think I might be able to sleep now,” she said.
“That’s good,” Aloise said. “I think I might be able to sleep, too.”
So the two women said their goodnights, and they returned to their tents.
Inside her tent, Aloise curled up beneath her blankets, and she rested her head atop her pillow. For a moment, she lay awake, thinking about Beryl, and about what Beryl had said to her.
Even though the night was dark, and the air was cold, Aloise felt warm.
IV. Sleeping Dragons
Aloise woke with the dawn. After a good stretch and an even better yawn, she emerged from her tent to greet the red, rising sun and the cold, crisp morning.
She found Beryl still in her tent, still sound asleep, with her blankets pulled up tight around her like a warm, wooly cocoon. The look on Beryl’s face was so calm, so peaceful – so happy – that Aloise invented some chores for herself around the campsite, in order to let her friend sleep in just a little bit longer.
Goodness knew, Beryl needed the rest. Besides, just seeing that look of peace on Beryl’s face made Aloise’s heart soar like a bird.
The mountain would wait.
Aloise was dangling her feet over the side of the 44,444th step, and chewing meditatively on a bit of breakfast, when she heard the sound of Beryl stirring behind her, and the green-eyed woman emerged from her tent.
“How did you sleep?” Aloise asked, handing Beryl the last of the honey biscuits.
“Like a log,” Beryl said, sitting down next to Aloise. She took the offered food with a grateful nod of thanks.
The two of them sat together and ate as they watched the sunrise.
“I actually had a good dream last night,” Beryl eventually said, with something of a laugh. “I honestly can’t remember the last time I had a dream like that.”
“What did you dream about?” Aloise asked, as she nibbled on her biscuit.
Beryl seemed to choke a little bit then, as though her biscuit had gone down the wrong way. Concerned, Aloise patted Beryl on the back, which only seemed to make the other woman cough more. For some reason, Beryl’s cheeks had gone red as the rising sun.
“Nothing in particular,” Beryl said between fits of coughing. “Just… good things. Happy things.”
The two of them finished their meal. Then they broke camp, and they resumed their journey up the 77,777 steps.
The ascent was tiring, but pleasant. The tension from the previous day was gone, replaced by cheerful banter and easy camaraderie. The two women spoke ceaselessly as they walked. They discussed magic. They shared stories. They debated the merits of the many different schools of thought on how to enchant a glowstone. Aloise liked the cool, blue light which came from a twin star design in silver and mother of pearl – that was the best for reading at night, and its brightness could be precisely controlled. Beryl argued for powdered lightning whelk shells painted in a simple, solar design, both for the speed with which it switched on and off, and for its warm, orange glow.
Clean air, beautiful surroundings, and interesting conversation with a good friend – it was, Aloise thought, just about the best possible way to spend a day.
Aloise’s smile was wide, and she felt as light as a feather.
All the while, the two women continued to climb. Each loop of the winding staircase was shorter than the last, and each loop brought Aloise and Beryl closer and closer to the mountain’s sacred summit.
It was just around noon when they began to pass through the layer of white, feathery clouds which concealed the mountain’s peak from the valley below. At first, Aloise had expected the air to be damp and misty, like a morning fog on a cool, autumn day. But the clouds which wreathed the steep mountain were totally different. Instead of water, they were made of ice, suspended in the air as a sea of tiny, flake-like crystals, almost like a snow globe which had been frozen in mid-shake. The wispy clouds tickled Aloise’s cheeks and nose as she walked through them, and little ice crystals collected in the folds of her blue cloak, until all of Aloise’s clothes were coated with a thin layer of white powder, so that she looked a bit like a flour-dusted baker.
Aloise and Beryl stuck close together as they climbed through that stretch of trail, since it was hard to see more than a few steps ahead through the cloudy haze. They held hands, and they took care to watch where they stepped.
After making maybe a dozen circuits within the frozen fog, the staircase rose up and out from the layer of clouds. The air all around them grew thin and dry, and the sky overhead was impossibly clear and blue. The incline of the steps seemed to increase, slightly, and the loops of the trail were growing very short indeed.
They were getting close. Aloise knew it.
Finally, late in the afternoon, the steps changed again, becoming deep and wide. Then the path flattened abruptly, and the stairway just seemed to end. Instead, the trail continued onward as a level walkway, which passed beneath a tall stone arch set into a great, curving wall.
They had reached the summit.
Aloise could barely contain her excitement. Rubbing her hands together in anticipation, she glanced across at Beryl, and she could see from the look on Beryl’s face that her companion was caught up in the moment, too.
Even though her legs were tired and her belly was empty, Aloise practically sprinted the last few feet to the base of the towering arch. Beryl followed after her, barely a step behind.
From a distance, Aloise had assumed that the archway – and the high wall which extended out from it in both directions – had been constructed from blocks of stone. But, as she drew nearer, Aloise realized with a start that both the wall and the archway hadn’t been built. Rather, just like the staircase which led to them from the valley below, they had actually been carved out of the mountain itself. As she considered the feat of construction which such a structure represented, Aloise couldn’t help but shake her head in wonder.
A message was carved into the curve of the arch. A message written in great, looping letters, each the size of Aloise’s head.
The language was an ancient one, Aloise knew. She also knew that it was not from the world on which they now stood.
“I’ve seen this writing before,” Aloise said quietly. “Although that was a long, long way from here.”
“Can you read it?” Beryl asked. She was standing next to Aloise, her mouth hanging slightly open as she craned her neck up to look at the serpentine script. “I don’t recognize the words, but some of the letters look familiar.”
“They should,” Aloise said. “It’s a very old, very arcane tongue – one which has worked its way down through the ages, even as its speakers disappeared. Its patterns have been incorporated into who knows how many spells, across who knows how many planes. And I know how to translate it.” Aloise’s brow furrowed, and her lips moved silently as she tried to parse the ancient message. “There are a couple possible ways of interpreting this sentence, but I’m pretty sure that it says: ‘Faith is the final step.’”
“If faith is the final step,” Beryl said, “then I have to wonder what the first 77,776 steps were for.”
Aloise giggled at that.
“Come on,” she said. “Aren’t you just dying to see the temple?”
Beryl nodded, and the two of them passed beneath the arch.
When they discovered what waited for them on the other side, it was hard not to feel disappointed.
The temple was little more than a ruin. In fact, it was barely even that.
The space inside the archway was a sort of small, cloistered courtyard, shaped roughly like an oval that was about twice as wide as it was long. In some long-distant past, it had clearly been home to gardens, statues, and fountains, not to mention the temple proper.
Now, though, all that remained were crumbling, knee-high foundations, and the occasional bare plinth, with nothing but snow resting on top of it. The temple had been reduced to a skeleton. A memory.
“It’s gone,” Beryl said quietly, as she surveyed the barren cloister. “It’s all gone.”
Aloise walked over to the remnant of what had once been a temple wall. The foundation had been constructed from blocks of speckled gray granite, mortared together by builders long since dead and forgotten, their history lost to the ages. The explorer ran her finger across the dusting of snow which covered the ruin, feeling chisel marks in the exposed mortar. What remained of the wall was no more than two or three stones high where she stood – it came barely up to her waist. The rest the of stone had been chiseled free and taken away.
Aloise remembered what Ursalyn had told her, about how the villagers sometimes climbed up to the temple to carry down stones, and she wondered whether the granite blocks which had once formed the sacred temple could now be found lining the great fireplace inside the Hare & Hearth.
Aloise turned to look at Beryl. The green-eyed woman’s shoulders were slumped, and her expression had changed from excited to despondent.
“There’s nothing here,” Beryl said.
Aloise shook her head.
“There’s always something to be found,” she said. “It’s just a question of finding it. Will you help me look?”
Beryl’s posture was decidedly mopey, but she nodded her head, and the two women began to search through what remained of the temple ruins.
There wasn’t a whole lot to search. The mountaintop temple was small – smaller than Aloise had expected. In the story, and in her mind, the sacred temple had been large and grand, but Aloise could have thrown a stone across the length of the tiny cloister. She picked up a few bits of gray granite which lay scattered along the ground, and for a moment she felt tempted to test her arm. But instead she pocketed the worn stones, on the theory that she would examine them more thoroughly later. Then she walked along a half-buried footpath, which wound its way past silent, frozen fountains and toppled bits of statuary.
In her mind’s eye, Aloise tried to imagine what the cloister had been like thousands of years ago, when the fountains sparkled and sprayed in the clear mountain air, and hooded monks tended to the gardens, which would have been green, and verdant, and fragrant with blooms.
Aloise closed her eyes, and she tried to imagine what it must have been like, to be a pilgrim who had climbed the mountain to visit such a green and peaceful place. She thought about passing beneath the archway which permitted entrance to the mountain’s sacred peak. She thought about the words inscribed upon the arch: “Faith is the final step.”
The final step.
Aloise felt a prickling at the base of her spine as realization dawned on her.
Quickly, she reached inside the pocket of her mammoth hair coat, and she pulled out her metrometer. After fumbling for a second to remove it from its case with her mittened hands, she held the little device close to her face, and she stared at the illuminated counter which glowed at its center.
It read: 77,776.
Not 77,777. 77,776.
Aloise knew it was possible that she had made a mistake when she had calibrated the device. She knew it was possible that the metrometer had missed a step.
But she doubted it.
No, there was another explanation.
Aloise held her breath as she swept her eyes across the little cloister one more time. Only, this time, she knew what she was looking for.
She found it at the very rear of the courtyard. That was where she noticed a tall fountain which seemed to have been carved into the face of the mountain, so that it looked like a natural spring. The fountain had frozen solid, so that it formed a wall of thick ice against the stone cliff. All around the fountain, glyphs had been carved into the mountain’s side, inscribing the rock with the names of three virtues: knowledge, strength, faith.
There was a little frozen pool at the base of the fountain. And, ringing the pool, there was something which looked very much like a low, stone step.
Aloise walked across to the fountain, and she climbed atop the step. She looked down at the metrometer in her hand.
“Faith is the final step,” she said to herself, and she smiled.
“Beryl, come take a look at this,” Aloise called out over her shoulder. “Does this ice look strange to you?”
She heard Beryl’s boots crunch up the path until the pyromancer was standing next to her.
“I’m... not an expert on ice,” Beryl said, staring at the frozen fountain.
Aloise grinned at her. “Humor me,” she said, and Beryl gave her a small smile in return before turning her attention back to the ice-covered rock.
“I don’t...” Beryl murmured after a few moments spent studying the fountain. Then the scarred woman seemed to start in place, and her breathing grew quicker. “Wait – do you feel that?” She reached out to touch the ice with a mittened hand, and her eye seemed to turn distant, as though she were seeing something which was not actually present.
Aloise had no idea what Beryl was talking about, but she copied Beryl’s gesture, and placed her own hand against the ice as well.
“I don't feel anything,” Aloise said. “But this is the 77,777th step – we’re standing on it now. So there has to be something special about this spot.” She tapped her mittened hand against the ice. “The ice right here is a little less blue than everywhere else. I mean, it’s possible that it’s just that the stone of the mountain is colored differently here, but we haven’t seen it colored differently anywhere else, so it would stand to reason that…”
Aloise trailed off when it became clear that Beryl was not listening, but was concentrating upon the ice instead. And, since Aloise would never have accused Beryl of being inattentive, she trusted that Beryl really had felt something which she had not.
Something strange, obviously.
“I’m going to melt this wall,” Beryl informed her after a long moment. The pyromancer began removing her mittens.
Aloise blinked. “Do you think something’s behind there?” she asked.
“Yes,” Beryl said. “Something familiar… but different, somehow? I need to be closer, to be sure. I need to be able to actually touch it, to actually feel it beneath my fingers.” She glanced at Aloise, and she looked apologetic. “Sorry – I'm not making much sense, am I? It might be nothing. It’s just that, well, sometimes I can feel enchantments. I can feel them even before I can see them.”
Aloise took a polite step backwards.
“Melt away, Beryl. I trust you.”
Beryl smiled faintly, she then turned to face the ice-covered cliff. She placed her bare hand directly against the ice, as Aloise looked on with rapt attention.
It was over almost before Aloise had a chance to see it. One moment, Beryl had been standing still, with her fingertips resting atop a giant sheet of ice, and the next, a gout of steam had engulfed the entire scene with a great, serpent-like hiss, almost completely obscuring the pyromancer from Aloise’s sight. Aloise took an instinctive step back and covered her face with the edge of her cloak, so as not to get drenched by the rapidly-condensing cloud of vapor, and, when she finally looked up, Beryl was standing in front of her, soaking wet, with her hair matted against her forehead and a completely miserable look on her face.
Aloise could not help it. She began giggling uncontrollably.
“You poor thing,” she said, taking a step forward to comfort Beryl, and tugging off her scarf to offer to the damp pyromancer for use as a towel. She trailed off, however, as the steam continued to clear and the result of Beryl’s handiwork was truly revealed.
Concealed behind the fountain stood an enormous, stone door. Engraved upon the portal was what appeared to be a stylized dragon, whose coiled, serpentine body encircled a large, black gemstone centered in the middle of the door.
The door and the gem were magnificent – beautiful, really – but that was not what gave Aloise pause.
No. What gave Aloise pause was the figure of the dragon. She had seen that dragon before.
Beryl, who had been busily drying herself with the scarf, finally followed Aloise’s gaze, and she gasped.
“I was right. I knew I could feel it,” Beryl said, sounding almost breathless as she splashed across the newly-melted pool at the base of the fountain to get a closer look at the gemstone. “I knew I could feel the heartseal.”
A heartseal? Aloise hiked up her shearling trousers and waded through the ankle-deep water to join Beryl, who was reaching up towards the gemstone gingerly. Aloise did not recognize the exact variety of precious stone which was set into the door, but, as Beryl reached up, a faint, red light glowed within the gem’s center, and a network of almost vein-like runes began to pulse along the stone surrounding it.
“Beryl, what is it?”
As Beryl touched the stone, she suddenly cried out in surprise. She jerked her hand away from the pulsing gem with a hiss of pain, and her eye went wide.
“—It’s... dangerous?” Beryl said, sounding confused. “Gods, but that smarts…”
“Are you alright?” Aloise asked, putting a concerned hand on Beryl’s shoulder.
Beryl nodded absently, rubbing the palm of her hand.
“I’m fine. It’s just...” The pyromancer took a deep breath. “See, a heartseal is a special sort of seal. It’s old magic – very old. But I’ve seen them twice before. Once on a small box, which belonged to my mother, and I know that she was the one who made that seal. The other time was on the door which connected my home plane to the world of mirrors.” Beryl closed her eye, and she swallowed. “Anyway, a heartseal requires a certain sort of knack to unlock. You have to feel the magic pulsing away inside it, until the beating of the seal’s heart becomes one with the beating of your own. It’s a very, very strange sort of sensation, like you’re joining yourself to the heart of the person who cast the seal. But there's something wrong with this one. Heartseals are meant to be opened, you see. Once I know how to feel them, it feels like they want to be opened. This one, though?” Beryl grimaced. “This one doesn't want me near it. Someone has tampered with it – tainted it, really. And whoever did that doesn’t want me to get inside – me, or anyone else.”
Aloise folded her arms, and she furrowed her brow in thought. Someone had put a seal on the door. A very specific kind of seal – a seal that was meant to be opened. Someone had left hints as to where the door might be found, which seemed to imply that they wanted it to be found. Then someone had done something to the seal to... corrupt it? Could they even open it now?
It didn’t make any sense. Why create a locked door, only to break the lock?
Unless, Aloise thought, the hand that had broken the lock was not the same hand that had created it.
Aloise hummed a little to herself as she pondered the door, and she examined the dragon insignia again.
“I’ve seen this before,” she murmured, leaning forward to get a closer look, but without actually touching the door. “On a different plane. It was in a forest, though, and not on a mountain. I was searching for something called ‘The Master’s Torch.’” Aloise shook her head. “I never found it. The ruins collapsed around me before I could find much of anything, really, but this dragon was all over the walls. This exact same dragon.”
“What do you think it means?” Beryl asked.
“I think it means we need to get this door opened,” Aloise replied, with determination in her voice. “I’m just not sure how.”
“I know how,” Beryl said. The scarred woman gritted her teeth, and rolled up the sleeve of her coat. Then she flexed her fingers, and she moved her hand so that it hovered just above the pulsating gem.
“Beryl, no,” Aloise said. She tried to reach out, to take Beryl’s hand, to pull it away from the dangerous seal. “I can’t let you do that, not after what happened before. We’ll find another way.”
But Beryl just shook her head.
“You have to trust me, Aloise,” she said. “There is no other way. With magic like this, opening the seal isn’t a question of skill. It’s more a question of will. It’s my will against the will of whoever poisoned the enchantment. And whoever did that was strong. They were very strong.” Beryl looked at Aloise then, and Aloise saw determination in the pyromancer’s one green eye. “I just have to be stronger.”
For a moment, Aloise looked Beryl in the eye. Then, slowly, she nodded her head.
“How can I help?” she said.
“Help me be strong,” Beryl said.
Aloise took Beryl’s free hand in hers.
“You don’t need my help for that,” she said, and she gave Beryl’s hand a gentle squeeze.
Beryl flashed Aloise a big, goofy grin. Then she closed her eye, pursed her lips, and pressed her fingertips against the glowing facets of the black gem.
The moment that Beryl’s skin made contact with the pulsing stone, Aloise could feel the scarred woman flinch, and a look of pain flashed across Beryl’s face. But, this time, Beryl did not pull her hand away. Instead, she tightened her grip around Aloise’s hand, and she pressed her palm fully up against the sealed door.
Aloise watched what happened next with a mixture of fascination and trepidation. Beryl became as still as a statue, and she actually seemed to stop breathing. Feeling suddenly frightened for her friend, Aloise quickly slid one finger around to the inside of Beryl’s wrist, and she sighed with relief when she felt the slow but steady beat of a pulse beneath the scarred woman’s skin. Meanwhile, the strange, vascular pattern of runes around the sealed gem had flared to life. They glowed intensely red against the purple-gray stone of the mountain, and they throbbed as though blood were flowing through the very rock beneath them. The pulsing of the runes was fast and violent, like the beating of a racing heart, and, for a moment, Aloise felt Beryl’s pulse begin to speed up as well, as though the malign magic inside the seal was compelling Beryl’s heartbeat to quicken. Beryl’s muscles went tense, and her face was a strained grimace.
Aloise gave Beryl’s hand another small, reassuring squeeze.
“You’re strong,” she whispered in Beryl’s ear. “Your will is strong, and your heart is strong. I know it is.”
Beryl still didn’t move, she still didn’t breathe. But she seemed to relax a bit, and the scowl seemed to fade away from her face.
Beneath her finger, Aloise felt Beryl’s pulse resume its slow, steady rhythm from before. And, amid the silence of ruined temple, Aloise almost felt as though she could hear the steady, rhythmic beating of Beryl’s heart.
Beat… beat… beat…
As Aloise watched, the pulsating red runes around the heartsealed gem began to change. Their flashing grew fainter, and less frequent, until Aloise realized with a start that the timing of their pulses had fallen perfectly into sync with the beating of Beryl’s heart. With every pulse which Aloise felt from beneath the skin of Beryl’s wrist, the runes around the gem flickered with soft, red light.
Then, with an audible pop, the black gem came loose from the stone door, and the runes around it fell silent. Beryl’s hand closed around the gem, and she opened her eye with a sharp intake of breath.
“How long was I gone,” Beryl asked, sounding a bit disoriented.
“Not very long,” Aloise said, letting go of Beryl’s hand.
“Did I do it? Did I break the seal?” Beryl was staring confusedly down at the gemstone in her hand.
“You did,” Aloise said, and she wrapped the stunned pyromancer up in a big hug. “Just like I knew you could.”
“Thanks,” Beryl said. She rubbed her good eye, and shook her head, as if to clear it. “I don’t remember what happened, exactly, but I know that you did something. I know that you helped me.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Aloise said, “except remind you of something which you already knew.”
“Well, it helped,” Beryl said. “Whatever it was, it helped. Anyway, what do you make of this?”
Beryl held out the gem to Aloise, who took it from her.
Aloise held the stone up to the light, and peered at it intently. Its color had changed completely, from pure black to a clear, radiant blue.
“There’s nothing enchanting it anymore,” Aloise said, after another moment of careful study. “It is beautiful, though. The color reminds me of the sky on a cloudless day.” She offered the gem back to Beryl. “I think you ought to hold on to it, for now. I’d say you earned it!”
“Thanks,” Beryl said quietly, and she slipped the gem into her pocket.
Meanwhile, Aloise took a step forward, and she placed her hand on the cold surface of the stone door. Planting her feet as firmly as possible, given that she was standing in an ankle-deep pool of water – which was rapidly turning to slush – she gave the door an experimental push.
The great stone portal – which must have weighed as much as Aloise did a dozen times over – slid smoothly and silently back into the mountain, revealing the opening of a wide, dark tunnel. A gust of cold air rushed out through the open door from the passage beyond, and the water in the fountain’s pool ran down into the darkened opening. Listening intently, Aloise could make out what sounded like water splashing down a long flight of stairs.
Aloise summoned a glow orb to hover just above and in front of her head, and she leaned forward to peer into the darkness beyond.
“Come on,” she said to Beryl. “We may have climbed the mountain and reached the temple, but I have a feeling that the real adventure is only just beginning.”
* * *
The stairs went down, down, down, deep into the dark heart of the mountain.
Mercifully, there were fewer than 77,777 of them this time. According to Aloise’s metrometer, she and Beryl had descended only about a thousand steps through silent, inky darkness before they reached the great chamber.
The room they found themselves in was vast. The walls had an almost indistinguishable curvature, which led Aloise to surmise that the room was shaped like a massive circle, but the light from her floating orb did not penetrate far enough through the darkness to reveal any other wall in the distance of any hint of a ceiling above their heads. The air in the chamber was bone-chilling cold, and it had a heavy stillness to it – it was that sort of staleness which air somehow seems to acquire when no living lungs have breathed it for a long, long time.
“What is this place?” Beryl asked, her voice echoing around the chamber’s unseen walls.
“I don’t know,” Aloise said. “I really don’t know.”
Slowly, the two of them made their way towards what they assumed was the center of the room.
As they walked, Aloise studied the floor beneath their feet. It was cut from the dark purple stone of the mountain, and it had been polished almost to a mirror sheen. It was covered in strange, arcane designs – mazes of concentric circles, tangles of stylized knots, and elliptical glyphs strung together in a chain-like fashion. And dragons. Everywhere, she saw variations on the same, telltale dragon. The markings appeared to have been painted onto the floor with simple, white paint, and their lines were as sharp and as clear as if brush had touched stone only the day before.
Aloise glanced up from the floor to see Beryl pointing at something which looked like a low stone pedestal. Silently, the two women stepped closer to their discovery.
It was indeed a stone pedestal, about an arm’s length across and waist-high. The pedestal had been carved from the same speckled granite as the ruined temple above, and a familiar mark was inscribed upon its smooth surface: the image of a dragon. In the middle of the dragon’s coiled form, a round hollow had been carved into the otherwise flat stone.
The dragon was not the only familiar thing about the pedestal’s design. The shape and size of the round cavity also triggered Aloise’s memory.
“Do you think?” she started to ask.
“I do,” Beryl said.
The pyromancer reached into her pocket, and extracted the blue gem which had been released from the hidden door when she had broken its enchanted seal. Aloise could not help but notice that Beryl’s fingers were shaking as she held the gemstone next to the hollow in the pedestal – although whether that was due to the cold, or excitement, or both, she had no way of knowing.
Carefully, Beryl pressed the gemstone into the slot at the center of the coiled dragon. It was a perfect fit.
Then, suddenly, the gem flared with white light, and it was as though the sun had risen inside the chamber. The sudden switch from heavy darkness to bright light was almost physically painful – Aloise had to throw her arm up in front of her face, and blink repeatedly, as her eyes adjusted to the dramatic change. Off to her side, she could see that Beryl was doing the same.
Once her vision had adjusted, Aloise caught her first real glimpse of the chamber around her, and her mouth fell open in awe.
The room was now awash with a pure, white light, which seemed to emanate up from the painted lines on the floor, like bright sunlight filtering through a screened window. The chamber was revealed to be just as massive as Aloise had suspected. It was easily a dozen fathoms across, and its domed ceiling seemed equally high at its apex. The chamber was shaped like a single, perfect hemisphere, hollowed-out from the inside of the mountain. Its walls were plain and featureless, and the only visible door was the one through which the two women had entered. In fact, other than the small pedestal bearing the emblem of the dragon, and the luminescent markings on the floor, the only other objects in the chamber appeared to be three giant statues.
The statues were placed up against the chamber’s curving walls, and spaced at even intervals from each other. Each stood twice as tall as Aloise, and was at least twice as wide. Each depicted a single, human form, stylized and featureless, bowing down on bended knee, in a position of supplication. And each statue held a black stone tray in its extended hands.
Aloise jogged across the room to the nearest statue, with Beryl following close behind. A stone carving in the shape of an open book lay atop the tray, and ancient words, written in the same archaic language as the message above the temple’s archway, were carved around the bowed figure’s base.
“‘The soldier walks the path of strength,’” Aloise read, her voice slow and halting as she did her best to translate the long-forgotten tongue. “No, wait… not ‘soldier.’ That’s not quite right. This word, here, it’s referring less to a profession, and more to a… well, a mindset, really. A philosophy.” Aloise scratched her head for a moment, as she considered alternate translations. “‘Warrior’ would be a better fit. Yes! ‘The warrior walks the path of strength.’ That’s what it says!”
Aloise nodded her head in satisfaction. Beryl, meanwhile, looked confused.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
Aloise shrugged. “No idea,” she said. “But I wonder if the other statues have similar inscriptions?”
Moving clockwise around the room, the women found that the second statue held a stone axe atop its tray, and bore the words “the priest walks the path of faith” along its base. The final statue had a stone censer upon its tray, and was inscribed with “the scholar walks the path of knowledge.”
The warrior, the priest, and the scholar. As she turned those three translations over in her head, Aloise couldn’t shake the notion that she had heard them before, that she had seen them somewhere else, in some other context. But where? And when?
“They’re holding the wrong symbols.”
The sound of Beryl’s voice startled Aloise back from the depths of her memory.
“They’re holding the wrong symbols,” Beryl said again. “There’s a warrior, a priest, and a scholar, and there’s a book, an axe, and a censer. But that’s the wrong way around. The warrior should have the axe, not the book. And—”
“—And the priest should have the censer, not the axe!” Aloise interrupted, feeling barely able to contain her excitement as she realized what Beryl was saying. “And the scholar, the scholar has the censer, when she ought to have—”
“—The book, right?” Beryl said, completing Aloise’s sentence for her.
“Right!” Aloise said. “The way it is now, they’re walking the wrong paths!”
They were standing next to the kneeling figure of the scholar. Aloise lifted one hand and pointed it in the direction of the censer on the scholar’s offering tray. Summoning her mana, she brought her spatial magic to bear on the censer, which became translucent and seemed to phase in and out of reality. Aloise raised her hand, and her spell lifted the heavy stone carving several feet into the air.
“This belongs over there,” Aloise said, pointing with her unoccupied hand to the statue which bore the inscription about the priest. Then, with a single, smooth gesture, she swept her hands past each other. The floating censer seemed to disappear into a portal of pure, blue mana; at the exact same instant, an identical portal opened above the statue of the priest, and the censer rematerialized atop the priest’s offering tray.
For a moment, the two women stared silently at the kneeling statue.
“I guess I’m not sure what I was expecting,” Beryl said. “Maybe a noise, or a light, or something. Anything, really.”
“We probably have to fix the other statues, too, before anything happens,” Aloise said. “If anything is going to happen, I mean.”
So Aloise repeated her spell, teleporting the axe – which still lay atop the priest’s tray, next to the relocated censer – over to the kneeling figure of the warrior. Then Aloise pointed one hand at the stone book next to the warrior’s axe, and her other hand at the scholar’s empty tray.
“Here goes nothing,” Aloise said, and she crossed her arms.
As soon as the teleported book materialized atop the scholar’s tray, Aloise heard the sound of stone sliding against stone coming from behind her. She spun around just in time to see the floor around the dragon pedestal in the center of the chamber – a floor which she thought had been carved seamlessly from the mountain itself – separating into sections and sinking down into the ground, so that it formed a spiral staircase with the pedestal at its center.
“I think we just passed one of the temple’s trials,” Aloise said, grinning from ear to ear.
She walked over to the dragon pedestal in the center of the room. The draconic emblem was now glowing with a pale, white light, and the gemstone at its center was now blue and silent. After a second of indecision, Aloise picked up the round gem – nothing happened when she did, so she handed it back to Beryl, who pocketed it again. Then they descended their second staircase of the day. And, just like the one before it, it led them deeper and deeper into the mountain.
“How many more trials do you think there are?” Beryl asked as they picked their way carefully down the steep, spiraling stairs.
“I don’t know,” Aloise said. “But, now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t think that was the first trial at all. I think the first trial might have been opening the sealed door, or even finding the sealed door in the first place – or even climbing the 77,777 steps, for that matter. I think we’ve come farther than we realized.”
“Maybe that’s part of the temple’s secret,” Beryl said. “Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to learn.”
Aloise was pondering that thought when the staircase came to an abrupt end, just like the one before it. And, just like the one before it, it ended with an open doorway, which seemed to lead out into a vast, empty chamber.
Aloise was just about to step through the door when she felt Beryl grab her by the shoulders and pull her violently back. The two women tumbled backwards, landing in an awkward heap at the base of the spiral staircase.
“—Aloise, look down!” Beryl rasped into Aloise’s ear. The scarred woman was breathing in short, sharp bursts, and was holding Aloise’s shoulders with an iron grip. “Look, but don’t step…”
Gingerly, Aloise climbed back up to her feet, and she peered out and down through the doorway.
She saw nothing, because there was nothing to see. The space beyond was not a chamber with a floor. It was an open pit.
Aloise gasped a little bit, covering her mouth in surprise. “Oh my Gods…” she said, quietly.
“I know…” Beryl said, before falling silent. “I… I almost lost you.”
“How far down do you think it goes?” Aloise asked. She reached into her coat and retrieved one of the worn stones she’d pocketed from the ruined temple. With a little flip of her wrist, she tossed the stone through the door, and waited to hear it strike the bottom of the pit, wherever that might be.
After a full minute of waiting, she still hadn’t heard a sound.
“It’s a good thing that you stopped me when you did,” Aloise said quietly. “Thank you.”
“If you really want to thank me,” Beryl said, “I would feel a lot better if you’d take one more step back.”
Beryl was still shaking, so Aloise did as the pyromancer asked.
And that was when she spotted the dragon emblem on the wall beside the door.
“Look!” she said, moving her glow orb closer to the stylized insignia. “Another dragon, and another slot for the gem.” Aloise brushed her little finger across the round hollow carved into the curled dragon’s center, just as on the heartsealed door and the stone pedestal in the statue room.
Again, Beryl took the blue gem out of her pocket and, again, she placed it carefully into the matching slot within the emblem. And, just as before, the gem seemed to light-up from within with a pure, white light, and the same light filled the cavernous chamber just on the other side of the door.
The room beyond appeared to be the same size as the hemispherical chamber one floor above, but with the very notable difference that it had no floor. Instead, it just seemed to fall away into space, forming a dark pit with no observable bottom.
At the opposite end of the room, across the open chasm, a second doorway stood open and waiting. A message was inscribed above it in large, glowing letters.
“The path of faith cannot be seen,” Aloise read aloud. “It must be believed.”
“What does that mean?” Beryl asked.
Aloise took a deep breath, and she placed her hands on her hips. “It means we have to walk across to the other door,” she said.
All the color drained from Beryl’s face, and the ashen pyromancer grabbed hold of Aloise by the wrist.
“You can’t walk through that room,” Beryl stammered. “You’ll fall!”
“No, I won’t,” Aloise said. “We won’t fall. Don’t you get it, Beryl?” She pointed at the glowing inscription on the other side of the yawning pit. “This is the final trial. It’s a trial of faith, and that’s the path of faith. We can’t see it. But we can walk across it, if we just believe that we can.”
“What about the stone you tossed? It didn’t seem to land on any path!”
Aloise suppressed a giggle. “Of course the stone fell,” she said. “Stones can’t believe.”
“Aloise, I’m not sure I can believe in this,” Beryl said, her voice starting to grow desperate.
“Then believe in me,” Aloise said, gently extracting her wrist from Beryl’s vise-like grip. “You believe in me, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Beryl said. “Absolutely.”
“Then hold on to my hand, and follow me,” Aloise said, taking the scarred woman’s hand in hers. “You can follow me, can’t you?”
“I’d follow you through the darkest Eternities,” Beryl said quietly, her good green eye staring down at the floor.
“Well, this isn’t nearly as dramatic as all that,” Aloise said, smiling. “We’re just going to walk across a room. And, if you believe in me, then nothing will happen.”
“And… and if something does happen?”
“Then we’ll planeswalk,” Aloise said. The explorer closed her eyes for a moment and focused her mind, confirming that she could still sense her connection to the Eternities, even from their strange location beneath the sacred mountain. “But everything is going to be fine. You’ll see what I mean.”
“Actually, the sign over there says I won’t see what you mean,” Beryl said nervously. “That’s what scares me.”
“I’m not scared,” Aloise said. Still holding Beryl’s hand in hers, she stepped over to the very edge of the pit. “Won’t you have faith in me?”
Beryl swallowed audibly, but she nodded her head.
“I have faith in you,” she said. “I believe in you, more than I’ve ever believed in anything else in my life.”
“I believe in you, too,” Aloise said.
And then she stepped out into nothingness.
Even as her foot descended down towards a path which showed no outward sign of its existence, Aloise never doubted for a moment that the path of faith was there. She believed that she understood the trial, and she believed that she would pass it.
So, when she felt her foot come to rest atop some unknowable, unseeable path, when she felt that path support her weight and hold her aloft, she didn’t so much as flinch. She didn’t even blink.
Instead, when Aloise looked down, and saw herself suspended impossibly above the unfathomable darkness of the pit below, she smiled.
“Come on out,” she said to Beryl, giving the pyromancer’s hand a little tug. “I’ve got you – it’s fine!”
Still standing in the open doorway, Beryl closed her eye and swallowed deeply. “I believe,” the scarred woman chanted beneath her breath. “I believe. I have faith. I believe.”
Then Beryl took a tiny, shuffling step out into empty space. She did not fall.
Slowly, Beryl’s eye opened. The scarred woman looked at Aloise, and a big, goofy smile blossomed on her face.
“I believe,” Beryl said.
“I know,” Aloise said.
And, just like that, the two women walked the path of faith, hand-in-hand.
This time, the door on the other side of the room did not lead to a set of descending stairs. This time it led Aloise and Beryl into a wide, gently-sloping hallway. The hallway was filled with cool blue light from glowstones in the ceiling, which flickered to life as the explorers passed beneath them, and the tunnel’s stone walls were decorated at regular intervals with a single, repeating motif: the coiled form of a white dragon.
The further the two women followed the tunnel down into the depths of the mountain, the wider the hallway grew, until it was nearly as broad across as the chambers they had encountered earlier. The incline of the floor gradually flattened, too, and the ceiling grew higher and higher, until Aloise and Beryl found themselves standing in a third hemispherical chamber. The chamber was dark, initially, but as they entered it, a ring of glowstones around its domed roof flared to light, bathing the room and its inhabitants in an icy blue glow.
That was when Aloise and Beryl discovered that they were not alone.
Lying curled on the floor in the middle of the chamber, and frozen beneath a thick layer of blue ice, lay a great, white dragon.
Aloise gasped at the sight of the massive creature. Standing just next to her, Beryl took an involuntary step backwards.
“Oh my Gods…” the pyromancer said quietly. “Is that... is that?”
“Yes,” Aloise said, feeling her excitement rising. “Yes, it is.”
“Not just any dragon,” Aloise corrected. “An ice dragon.”
For a moment, the two women both stared at the great, white-scaled beast in the center of the room. The dragon lay absolutely, perfectly still. It didn’t so much as move a muscle as the explorer and the pyromancer both stared at it with open mouths and wide eyes. It didn’t even seem to breathe.
“Is it… dead?” Beryl finally asked.
“No,” Aloise said, stepping closer to the massive, prone dragon. “I think it’s sleeping.”
Cautiously, Beryl moved up alongside Aloise. The scarred woman closed her eye and was silent for a moment, and Aloise could tell that Beryl had sensed the same enchantment as she had when she’d drawn nearer to the beast.
“That’s a powerful geas.” Beryl said. “It’s powerful magic. Big magic.”
Aloise nodded in agreement. “It would have to be,” she said, “to imprison a dragon.”
“You think he’s a prisoner?” Beryl raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think he cast the spell upon himself?”
Aloise shook her head. “You can feel it, too, can’t you?”
Again, Beryl closed her eye. Her breathing fell silent, and her face turned distant – searching, sensing.
“Yes, I can feel it,” Beryl said as she reopened her eye. “I can feel it in the enchantment, like a malign echo. This was a spell cast in anger. A spell cast in hate.”
Aloise took another step forward and rolled up her sleeves. “That settles it, then,” she said. “We’ll have to wake him up.”
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Beryl asked. “I mean, there’s an expression about exactly this. He’s a dragon, Aloise. A dragon.”
“No,” Aloise corrected, “he’s someone who’s trapped and alone. He’s someone who needs help – someone who needs our help.”
A look of shame flashed briefly across Beryl’s face, and the pyromancer hung her head.
“You’re right,” she said, avoiding Aloise’s gaze. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Aloise said, with a smile on her face. “You just have to help me wake him up.”
“That, I can do,” Beryl said. “Like I said, that geas is an old one, a powerful one. But it can be dispelled. Do you know how?”
“I think so,” Aloise said, gathering in her mana as she did. She could feel magic suffusing her body, and she felt a kind of beautiful lightness as the thought of an open, rolling plain filled her mind, and its mana filled her heart. “On three?”
Beryl nodded in agreement.
Aloise closed her eyes and began to count. “One… two… three!”
Then she opened her eyes, and she directed all her mana against the geas which bound the frozen dragon within a prison of dreams. She cast her most powerful disenchantment spell, and, as she did, she pictured the ancient geas in her mind’s eye as a sort of dark shroud around the sleeping dragon, which she imagined herself driving away with a burst of warmth and light. Aloise did not take her eyes off the dragon, but she did not have to look up to know that Beryl was standing next to her, and casting a similar spell of her own.
Aloise heard the sound of ice cracking. In front of her, the frozen dragon appeared to stir from its slumber.
Its movements were small at first – barely more than a twitch of its tail, a flicker of one eyelid.
Then, slowly, the great, white dragon opened its eyes.
And it roared.
Aloise covered her ears as the deafening roar echoed around the stone room, and she watched in awe as the dragon woke. Its scales were white as alabaster, and they glinted in the blue light of the chamber like snowflakes at the break of dawn. Icicles hung from the dragon’s curved horns like a crown, and ice gleamed all along the dragon’s flanks. As the dragon rose to its full height, flexing its thickly-muscled legs, the ice caking its sides cracked and shattered, falling away from the stretching beast in a miniature blizzard. A cascade of ice rained down upon the chamber’s stone floor, filling the vast room with a sound like that of a box of pins knocked from a table.
Finally, the dragon blinked its eyes. They were deep blue – bright, and vivid – with slit pupils at their centers, which narrowed as they regarded Aloise and Beryl.
The dragon craned its neck down, as though to get a better look at the two humans who had woken it from its slumber. Aloise could feel the dragon’s breath washing over her, and she was startled to discover that it wasn’t warm, but ice cold – like a biting winter wind.
Aloise realized she was holding her breath. She had to force herself to exhale.
“Are you dreams?” the dragon asked. Its voice was low and gravelly – it was the voice of someone who has not spoken in a long, long time.
“No,” Aloise said. She took a step towards the dragon, even as it loomed over her like a snowy white giant. Her whole body was maybe the size of one of the dragon’s clawed feet, and she had to crane her neck up to look the dragon in its eyes. “We’re not dreams. We’re planeswalkers, and we’re very real.”
The dragon seemed to consider that statement, before shaking its great, horned head, which sent a shower of tiny icicles flying in all directions.
“Then I no longer slumber?” the dragon asked, sounding almost as though that notion were beyond belief.
“That’s right,” Aloise said. “You’re awake.”
The dragon was silent for a moment. The only sound inside the vast chamber was the low, thunder-like rumble of the dragon’s breathing.
“It is strange,” the dragon finally said. “I dreamt for so long, I have almost forgotten what it is to be awake.”
“How long have you been sleeping?” Aloise asked. Her curiosity was beginning to overwhelm the nervousness she felt just from being in the presence of the giant ice dragon, and she could hear the excitement in her own voice.
“I do not know,” the dragon said, and it shook its head again. Then the white dragon unfurled its wings, as though testing to see if they still worked. That gesture sent another flurry of ice raining down from above, so that ice flakes dusted Aloise’s cloak and tickled her nose. “I feel as though I have been asleep since time out of mind, as though I have dreamed beyond memory.”
“How do you feel?” Aloise asked.
“I feel… restless,” the dragon said, stretching its scaled haunches. “I feel… hungry.”
In spite of herself, Aloise swallowed, and she felt a lump in her throat which hadn’t been there just a second before. Then, before she could say or do anything, Beryl dashed in front of her, so that she stood between Aloise and the dragon.
The dragon appeared to regard Beryl’s attempt at shielding Aloise with amusement, and it laughed. Aloise had never heard a dragon laugh before; it was a low, sonorous rumble, like the roll of distant thunder, and it shook the floor beneath her feet.
“Do not fret, little planeswalkers. I do not eat anything which can speak, or which can answer to a name. To do so would hardly be consistent with the path of faith.” Then the dragon laughed again. “It would also be impolite in the extreme.”
“My name is Beryl,” Beryl quickly volunteered. “And this is Aloise.”
The dragon bowed its head, and touched a claw to its horns in greeting.
“Beryl and Aloise,” it said, as though trying the names out on its tongue. “I would offer my name in return, but I fear your lungs are too small to pronounce it. I once travelled among your kind, though, and they knew me as the Wanderer.”
Aloise inhaled sharply at the mention of the dragon’s name.
“The Wanderer?” she asked. “Like in the story?”
The dragon laughed again.
“Without knowing the story of which you speak, I am afraid I cannot say,” it said. Then, after raising its head and sweeping its great tail off to one side, the dragon sat up on its rear legs, and folded its wings in behind its back – those motions, and the dragon’s resulting posture, struck Aloise as surprisingly human. “I have appeared in many stories, and have done so under many names. And I am not the only one of my kind to have born the title of Wanderer.”
“Your kind?” Beryl asked. “You mean, dragons?”
“I mean planeswalkers,” the dragon said. The corners of its mouth curled up into what Aloise took to be a smile. Granted, it was a smile with more arm’s-length fangs than a typical smile, but a smile nonetheless. “For you see, we three share the same nature. We are joined by the same fate.”
“What made you come to this plane?” Aloise asked. “What brought you to this temple?”
“It was I who built this temple,” the dragon said. “After I was called to walk the path of faith, I journeyed to countless worlds, and I built countless temples.” The dragon seemed to sigh then, a gesture which sent two great gouts of bone-chilling air washing over Aloise and Beryl. “I wandered from place to place, and, everywhere I wandered, I discovered suffering. So, wherever I encountered suffering, I built my temples. I built them as places of meditation, as beacons of faith. To those who needed a priest, I became their Priest. And I hoped that, in doing so, I might bring some measure of peace and order to a multiverse which has too little of either.”
“But how did you wind up trapped here, inside your own temple?” Aloise asked. She was close enough to the dragon to touch it, so she did, resting one hand atop the dragon’s nearest paw. The dragon’s scales were cool to the touch, but not unpleasantly so.
“I was not the only one who sought to pacify the Eternities,” the dragon said. “Even as I walked the path of faith, there were others who shared my sacred mission. There was a Warrior, a being of great strength, who walked the path of power. And there was a Scholar, a being of great learning, who walked the path of knowledge. But, over time, our paths diverged from one another. And, to those who had once counted me as a friend, I became an enemy.” The dragon shook its head, sweeping its horns in great arcs. “The Scholar, in particular, came to value cleverness above wisdom, just as I came to value peace above order. And so he came to regard me as dangerous, as a threat.”
“So he put you to sleep,” Aloise said, “and then he tampered with your temple, to seal you inside.”
The dragon nodded. “I sought no conflict with him,” the great beast said. “I tried to remain within my temples, to steer my path clear from his. He afforded me no such courtesy. He followed me to this plane, into this very sanctum, and he confronted me. He knew that I could not kill him – not without straying from my own path – so he placed a geas upon me. He confined me to the realm of dreams, to live without dying, but never to wake again.”
“You poor, poor thing!” Aloise said, giving the dragon’s icy flank a soft pat.
“You need feel no sorrow for me,” the dragon said, “for, while I have slept, I have not suffered. And now you have woken me from my slumber, and freed me from my prison of dreams, for which you have my deepest gratitude.” The dragon rose to all four feet, then, and began to circle the chamber. “But what of my followers? My flock? They will have been too long without their Priest. What do they say of my disappearance?”
Aloise and Beryl looked nervously at each other. Beryl cleared her throat, but it was Aloise who spoke first.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, but, well, your flock is gone,” Aloise said, offering the dragon a sympathetic look. “You’ve been asleep for more than a thousand years. The temple is abandoned.”
For a moment, that seemed to take the dragon aback. The winged creature stopped circling the room, and closed its blue eyes. Then it shook its head, and sighed.
“I suppose that is only to be expected,” the dragon said. “Left untended, even the deepest faith may wane over time.”
“Well,” Beryl said, “there’s that, and then there’s also the fact that the mountain froze. I suspect the monks had no choice but to leave. It’s very, very cold up here, and the winter never ends.”
Again, this news seemed to take the dragon by surprise. After a moment’s consideration, the Wanderer gave his head a sad shake.
“Then I fear that I have been the cause of their suffering,” he said. “For, as I slept, I retreated into dreams of the land of my birth. The world upon which I hatched was one of never-ending ice and snow, and the power of my dreaming is such that I made my memories of that world manifest themselves upon this plane. And, while those memories were a source of comfort for me while I slumbered, I fear that they are memories of a climate which is not well-suited for the inhabitants of this realm.”
The dragon bent its head down, and seemed to bow before the two human planeswalkers.
“You have done the people of this world a great service, Aloise and Beryl,” it said. “Now that I have awoken, the seasons will return, and balance will be restored.”
As the dragon spoke, Aloise thought about Ursalyn, and Petyr, and all the villagers in Hollihoff, who had never known any life but one of ice and snow, and she felt a sudden surge of concern.
“But the people who live in the valley, they’ve adapted to this climate,” she said, her worry plain in her voice. “They’ve lived with winter their whole lives – it isn’t easy, but it’s what they’re used to. If the snow just melts, it could destroy everything they’ve built!”
Again, the ice dragon laughed, and that sound helped to calm Aloise’s concern.
“Fear not, little planeswalker,” the dragon said. “The progress of seasons is a necessary thing. Just as fall turns to winter, so must winter turn to spring. But winter will not disappear.” The dragon indicated to itself with one massive claw. “Should the folk of the village find themselves in need of cooler weather, I am well-positioned to provide it. But, first, we should make ourselves known to them, and inform them of the great change that is to come, so that they might better decide for themselves how to respond. And, since you tell me that I am forgotten, it would perhaps be best if you were to introduce me to my new flock. For, even though I walk the path of faith, such is not always apparent to others upon their first meeting me. I am aware that my sudden appearance can be a bit… overwhelming.”
At the thought of venturing back down the 77,777 steps, Aloise felt her poor legs ache.
“We’d be delighted to introduce you,” Aloise said. “You’re going to love everyone in the village, and, since you’re hungry, I hope you’re in the mood for biscuits and stew. But, do you think we could maybe spend the night here in your temple?” Aloise bent over to rub her sore legs. “It was getting pretty late when we found our way inside, and we’ve done an awful lot of climbing up and down stairs today.”
For one last time, the dragon laughed its deep, sonorous laugh.
“I can think of a faster way for you to travel down the mountain,” it said. Then the dragon lowered itself down on all fours, before extending its neck and summoning Aloise and Beryl with a dip of its head. “Provided you can hold on tight, of course.”
As Aloise realized what the great dragon was offering, she felt the urge to jump for joy.
For a moment, she considered resisting the impulse. But only for a moment.
Which was how, minutes later, Aloise Hartley found herself perched atop the back of an ancient, planeswalking ice dragon as it dove down the side of the sacred mountain. Beryl was seated directly behind her, with her arms wrapped tightly around Aloise’s waist, and, from the moment the dragon had taken flight, the green-eyed woman had stopped screaming only for long enough to draw the occasional breath. But Beryl’s screams were ones of pleasure and delight, and they echoed Aloise’s own as she soared through the air atop the great dragon’s back. She could feel the wind whipping through her hair. She could feel the dragon’s powerful wings beating beneath her. She could feel the warmth which radiated out from Beryl – the pyromancer’s presence was so warm that Aloise barely noticed the winter cold. And, looking down, Aloise could see the first tiny, telltale traces of green as the snow began to melt in the valley below.
Behind her, Aloise could feel Beryl leaning forward.
“Do you think this is how birds feel?” Beryl asked. Even though she practically screamed the question into Aloise’s ear, it was barely audible over the sounds of rushing wind and beating wings.
“Maybe,” Aloise called back. “But I think this might be better!”
“Promise me we’ll do this again?” Beryl shouted.
Aloise smiled at that.
“I promise,” she said.
The Wanderer was awake.
The rush of actual wind felt odd against his actual scales. And though he smiled slightly at the sound of the two women enjoying their first flight upon his back, his mind was troubled. How long had he slept? How long had he been confined to the realm of dreams? What had happened during that time?
He had missed much history. Doubtlessly, his name and purpose had been forgotten. Chaos... Chaos threatened all the multiverse.
As it always did.
The flight was short, and the village the woman named Aloise directed him to, small. He remembered fondly the ursine folk who resided within, though he remembered their fur to be brown, not white. An unfortunate side effect of his imprisonment, he reflected – it would be made right, in time. But this grain of sand was meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
This plane, too, would pass, and he needed allies.
Allies not unlike the earnest young women who were climbing off of his back.
“That,” Aloise stated, pulling her hood down and grinning broadly, “was much faster! Thank you so much, Wanderer.”
The other woman – Beryl, if his memory served – was catching her breath, it seemed, and staring unabashedly at Aloise.
An idea took root, and the Wanderer bowed his large, horned head.
“You are welcome,” he said, keeping his voice low. No need to cause an avalanche. “You are a remarkable woman, Aloise. As are you, Beryl. That two pure souls should find and free me – such serendipity is rare. I am not a strong believer in coincidence.”
At his mention of souls, the scarred woman winced, just slightly. A guilty conscience? Aloise, however, only gave him a curious look.
“Well, I had no idea that we would meet you, but I’m glad we did,” she offered. “That seems coincidental to me.”
“You misunderstand me,” the Wanderer replied, stretching his wings and folding his claws beneath him. He settled into the snow, and lifted his head to regard both women regally. “Fate conspired to set me free. Of this, I am sure. You – both of you – have a potential for greatness. You are instruments of fate. That you played such a role in my release is evidence of this.”
Beryl glanced at Aloise, who was listening with rapt, if skeptical, attention.
So, the Wanderer thought, the half-blind mage took her cues from the younger woman, then.
Aloise was interested by him, this he could tell – but she was unworried. Even in the face of a dragon, she was unafraid. Beryl had relaxed as well, and seemed content to let Aloise talk.
“That’s very flattering, thank you,” Aloise said to him with a small smile. “But, really, we just read about the temple in a book, and decided to investigate.”
When Aloise smiled, Beryl smiled as well. She appreciated her humility, then.
That they had made it through his temple at all? The credit would fall solely upon Aloise’s shoulders, he concluded. Yes, she was the one to watch.
And a book? The Wanderer was familiar with those who dealt in books.
The pieces were coming together.
“Your humility is the mark of a true hero, Aloise,” he told her. “Allow me to grant the both of you a boon, if you will. Then, we will go to meet my wayward flock.”
Aloise thought about that for a moment, and then turned to Beryl.
“I don’t suppose we should turn down a present from a dragon,” she said wryly, and Beryl laughed.
“I don’t suppose we should,” Beryl agreed.
The Wanderer nodded his great, horned head, and though he was tired, weak, and hungry, he drew two, impossibly-small circles in the snow with his claw. Then, with a small bit of mana and a flash of light, he crystallized the snow.
Resting on the ground were two perfectly-clear crystal rings. With a flick of his wrist, the rings rose into the air and floated over to hover above the waiting hands of both women, who looked at them with a mixture of wonder and excitement.
“Should you lose one another,” the Wanderer told them both solemnly, “these rings will bring you back together. Whisper her name, and she will hear it.” He spoke his final words while looking directly at Beryl, who had gone slightly more red around the ears than he had ever known a human to do. She remained quiet, but Aloise hopped excitedly on the balls of her feet.
“Oh, thank you so much! These are wonderful!” She slipped the ring easily onto her finger, and Beryl silently did the same. The Wanderer just smiled.
“You are welcome once more,” he said. “ But now...” That little bit of magic had drained him more than he had thought, and he was... eager to meet his new flock. A short rest before they arrived to greet him would be in order. “I will wait here, Aloise and Beryl. When the villagers are prepared to meet me, bring them hither.”
“Oh, yes! Of course.”
Aloise grabbed Beryl by the hand, and practically dragged her off towards the village without a backwards glance. The Wanderer settled into the snow, and closed his eyes.
Yes. They would do.
He had seen much in his dreams, but it was still far too little, and it had gone on for far too long. With the help of these two women, he would, perhaps, restore what had been lost.
If they believed.
If they obeyed...
Aloise Hartley and Lys are original characters created by RuwinReborn for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.