The sound was barely a whisper in the wind that sliced through the
frozen city. Urlish reined in his horse and listened, but could hear
nothing over the howl of the blizzard through the tall, impossibly thin
He pulled his fur cloak tight about his shoulders and frowned at
the ghostly blue structures looming around him--a mad array of giant
icicles jutting out of the snow. Westernmost Barisvar was supposed to be
uninhabited, except for the hardiest trappers--and even they came only in
the slightly less snowbound summer.
Surely he’d heard something that time--there, in that narrow
alley. Urlish tethered his horse, drew his rapier, and walked gingerly
along the slippery streets towards the sound. The cramped passage was no
more than a dozen strides deep.
And completely empty.
Damn those soldiers! They had chased him across the tundra for so
long that he was hearing spectral noises like a child on a stormy night.
And for what crime had they pursued him so doggedly? Preaching natural
philosophy. In Barisvar, it was apparently a capital offense to utter
such heresies as the world is round and circles the sun.
Urlish sighed and leaned against the wall, but jerked back in
astonishment when he found that the building was exactly what it seemed.
Ice. What kind of people would (or, more importantly, could) build a city
of solid ice?
He was shocked out of his musings by a new sound. It was his
horse ... screaming.
Urlish raced back into the street and confronted an animal he had
never come across in any bestiaries. A white wolf, twice the size of a
big war-horse, had impaled his mount on a sabre-like horn that curved from
its snout. Black talons as long as daggers ripped at the stallion,
turning its flesh into gore-soaked tatters. In an instant, its hooves
ceased to flail and it sank into the snow, spine snapped in two and head
torn from the bloody stump of its neck.
The giant wolf lifted its terrible maw towards Urlish. Wisps of
steam rose into the frigid air from the red stains upon its fur. Then,
with all the startling speed of its smaller kin, incredibly powerful thews
launched the beast at him like an arrow from an Oppulite bow.
Urlish lunged back into the alley, skidding along the ice until he
came to an abrupt stop against the far wall. As quick as he had been, he
was barely able to get out of the way before the gargantuan animal crashed
against the buildings with enough force to make them shake.
The alley was too narrow for more than the creature’s muzzle.
Urlish watched in fascination as huge fangs gnashed the air, and he
marveled at the powers of Nature that had evolved such a magnificent
predator for these snowy wastelands. Realizing the futility of this
attack, the wolf twisted its features into a vicious snarl and began to
The sound was like living thunder.
It began to claw and slash again, not at empty air as before, but
at the icy walls of the alley--trying to chip away just enough of the
structure to squeeze through. Urlish gaped with fatalistic curiosity as
clumps of the wall fell to the ground. Strangely calm, he swung his
rapier high overhead in a last flurry of bravado, determined to enter
Oblivion charging his foe rather than awaiting the Eternal Darkness
cowering in a corner like an insect.
The blade had clanged against a projection on the ornately carved
wall, causing a panel to slide back with the same squeal of ice on ice he
had heard before. For an instant, Urlish stared into the darkness,
hesitating. Then he dove into the passage, certain that whatever lay
inside had to be preferable to the wolf-thing’s gullet. [SPACE]
Each of the needle-like towers was connected by tunnels of ice,
and Urlish lost all sense of time as he wandered those frozen corridors.
The passages twisted round and round, unexpectedly branching off in odd
directions, often bringing him back where he knew that he had been before.
It was impossible to keep his bearings when the only light was dim
sunshine filtered through one icy prism after another.
There had to be an explanation for the insane whim that had caused
someone to build in such a way. Some subtle precept of Nature as yet
unknown to him must explain all that he’d seen. Still, he shuddered as he
imagined the beings that would make their home in halls of ice, guarded by
a monstrous white wolf.
It wasn’t a sound--at least not the type heard with the
ears--which caused him to whirl around. The presence that had appeared
behind him was a woman--or, it almost appeared to be a woman. She was
very tall and slender with pale skin that gleamed like polished ivory.
The long platinum hair draped about her slim shoulders was only slightly
darker than her flesh. Her face was so beautiful that it gave her an
alien appearance--somehow beyond human. But oddest of all was the fact
that she wore no more clothing in this bitter cold than if she were
basking on the sun-drenched beaches of Constanbul.
Urlish blinked twice, but the woman remained. “What are you?”
“The Answer.” Her voice was as hushed as falling snow, yet it rang
inside his head like an avalanche.
Urlish crept towards her, only to see her slip away faster than
his eyes could follow. He glimpsed movement through the semi-transparent
walls, but the ice distorted his vision so that he could not clearly make
out the shapes. Delicate laughter tinkled in his mind like Mingish wind
He stepped gingerly after her, his hand straying towards his
rapier. “The answer to what, m’lady?”
She was suddenly behind him, a slight smile curling at one corner
of her alabaster lips. “The Answer to all that you question, Urlish of
She shot behind another bend. Urlish sprinted after her, but ran
face-first into a wall. More delicate laughter sparkled inside his head
as he tried to rise from the floor.
“Your questions brought you to these halls, no?”
His stiff limbs were so heavy. Perhaps if he sat just a moment
... “I thought it was my answers which brought me here. It seems others
did not want me to share the truth about the world, and so chased me to
this desolate place.”
“After all that you have seen, you still refuse to believe in
sorcery? That is the only true Answer, mortal.”
“Sorcery?” He tried to chuckle, but the sound was broken up by his
chattering teeth. “Nature leaves no room for ‘sorcery.’”
She stalked closer, her delicate muscles rippling like a snow
leopard’s. And with her every step, Urlish shivered more fiercely.
“Your ‘nature’ is only a hollow illusion.”
“I do not--cannot--believe that! The clockwork of Nature is
subtle, true; but there is an Order to be found if one searches thoroughly
enough. Reason, m’lady. That is the only answer worth having.”
She leaned close, her frigid breath stinging his eyes. “And what
has your ‘reason’ to say of me?”
The air was so cold that Urlish’s aching lungs felt like they were
filling up with shards of broken glass. “In truth, I do not know what you
are. But there is a scientific explanation for you, of that I am certain.
And even if my science cannot name it, some science surely can.”
She opened her mouth wide in a silent laugh, and Urlish saw that
her blue tongue glistened with frost. “A heretic completely without gods,
yet still filled with faith in his ‘science.’ Ah, what a fine jest.”
Wind swirled around him. If only he could still feel the cold, he
surely would have shivered.
Dozens of soundless voices fell upon Urlish like icicles,
shattering across his mind. “Listen then, faithful heretic, and hear the
Truth of my people.”
In the North, where cold reigns o’er all, An ancient God did there install
His See of frost and hoary might, Hidden safe from mortal sight.
In the stillness by winter wrought, Icy spires to the Heavens shot
Sparkling bright in Arctic dim: The City of Kubistahlim.
And at its gates the God did send An Apparition to defend His frozen home
from all trespass, So Solitude He could amass.
But e’en Gods do lonely grow In empty lands of blinding snow, So fashion’d
then that God of yore Maidens of Ice to Him adore.
The Chill Folk He did named them, His harem of Kubistahlim; Frigid
delights did they impart To fill His bleak and barren heart.
But n’er dream’d He they did conspire In darkness deeds towards Him so
dire; To leave behind their icy home, Freed by murder, the World to roam.
Guardian Beast they did confound And trick’d it off their Master’s ground.
Brew’d they then an elixir vile And brought it to their Lord with guile.
“Sip, we bid, Father-Lover-King, Slake Thy thirst, then pleasures we
bring.” He silently the poison drank And somberly in Death He sank.
The Chill Folk then rejoic’d in cheer, Now Liberty was with them near. But
then return’d the vengeful Beast And celebration at once ceas’d.
So frozen halls do echo still With Beastly howl and forlorn trill. For
n’er can the Chill Folk flee Hoary frost of the Ice God’s See.
Urlish’s lips were frozen together, but he heard his own voice
echoing in his mind. “There are no gods.”
This time, her laughter rang out loud and malevolent. “Then you
are blind, Urlish of Ardyé.”
If he could have moved, he would have would have raised a hand in
protest. “Eyes can see things which are not present, and ears hear words
that were never spoken. You may not be of human blood, but that does not
put you outside of Nature. Perhaps you hale from a different plane ... or
one of the stars. There is a scientific explanation for you.” Fingers as
delicate as snowflakes caressed his face then suddenly sank into his
throat. Her grip was as sturdy as cold iron. Purple veins swelled at his
temples, and consciousness was slowly squeezed away. A sound like the wind
sighing through the boughs of hoar-frost-heavy trees caught his captor’s
attention. “We shall finish this anon, Urlish of Ardyé; my aid is
required to deal with your kindred.”
With that, she vanished and some tiny measure of true warmth
seeped back into his bones.
Urlish forced his numb fingers into the leather pouch at his
waist. The kharabib herbs inside were bitter, but had served him well
over the weeks to stave off frostbite. Cold, after all, was of Nature.
And Nature’s inherent balance assured that there was always some force to
counteract another. [SPACE]
When he recovered, Urlish wandered through the passageways more
stealthily now, rapier in hand. His ears were alert to the slightest
creaking of the ice, wary for any sign of his comely assailant. His eyes
scanned every white cubit that stretched before him, searching for a way
out of Kubistalhim. A scream fell upon him like a stone. He had no doubt
that it came from a human throat, and so hurried to find who had fallen
prey to the Chill Folk now.
The narrow passage soon opened into a cavern dominated by a
gigantic golden statue upon a thin dais of ice. It had the body of a
muscular man and the head of one of the fierce woolly rams that roam the
north lands. No doubt, it was an effigy of the Chill Folk’s murdered
Urlish took all of this in at a glance, in the instant before his
attention was drawn to the scene unfolding at the foot of the dais.
There, a handful of Barisvarian soldiers struggled against a score of
snow-white women, each identical to the one Urlish had encountered. The
Barisvarians fought with all of the fury that fear bestows upon warriors,
striking with sharp axes and swords. Steel bit into the pallid bodies,
but it was like hacking at thick wood--the blades could only nick the
perfect, alabaster forms.
The Chill Folk, however, dealt red carnage.
Slender fingers ripped through chain mail as if it were cloth.
Slim maidens hoisted burly, armored men high over their heads and dashed
them to the floor, causing brains to ooze through cracked steel helmets.
These, then, were the “kindred” his attacker had mentioned--the
same men who had been sent to slay him. For an instant, Urlish was
tempted to leave them to their fate and continue searching for an exit.
But what would such cowardice accomplish? He could not stand idly by
while those men fell like wheat at harvest. Whatever their intentions
towards him, they were human beings. His natural place was at their side.
He removed a torch and flint from his jerkin. It blazed into life
just as one of the “women” rushed him. Urlish thrust the fire into her
face, and she reeled back shrieking.
Smiling at the thought of having a weapon of some use, Urlish
jumped into the fray, swinging the torch in front of him. As one, the
creatures gave way while he advanced upon the soldiers. However, their
attack had been so fierce, that by the time he reached the dais only one
warrior still stood.
Urlish dragged the man onto the platform, and put their backs
against the golden feet of the idol. The soldier had been stunned, but
reason was swiftly flooding back into his intelligent eyes.
“My thanks to you,” he said, spitting blood. “I am Amroika of
Barisvar. And you, I take it, are the heretic.”
Urlish handed him a fistful of kharabib herbs. “Eat these.
They’ll help against the cold.”
Color returned to Amroika’s cheeks as he chewed the herbs and
shook his head at the torch. “Fire. I should have guessed. What else
would be deadly in this icy purgatory?”
“We’ll be safe so long as we keep this statue to our backs. The
only reason I made it through the middle of their ranks is because I took
them by surprise.”
“An advantage we no longer possess.” The Barisvarian wiped his
bloody mouth. “You can’t expect to hold them at bay forever. Sooner or
latter that faggot will burn out, and then...”
Urlish waved the torch at a “maiden” who had strayed too near.
The Chill Folk circled them, their cold eyes never blinking. Urlish
swallowed hard. “To die in the midst of a myth.”
“Myth?” Amroika stared into the middle distance. “My lads’ deaths
Urlish watched the Chill Folk stride among the gory corpses.
“They tried to warn me,” Amroika continued quietly, more to
himself than to Urlish. “They told me not to come here. But I had to.
Duty ... duty demanded it.” He looked accusingly at Urlish. “You’d better
get another torch; that one’s almost burned down to your hand.”
“I wish I could, but this is the only one I have. The rest were
in my saddle bags.” Urlish stared down into ravenous eyes that regarded
them from an ever closer distance as the fire died. “Amroika, I have an
idea. Hold the torch.”
Urlish turned towards the statue and furrowed his brow. “The feet
of this thing are imbedded in the ice only a few fingers’ widths down.
With that huge skull and outstretched arms it must be extremely
top-heavy.” Urlish’s eyes danced to and fro as he ciphered in his head.
“It might work,” he muttered to himself as he sought a handhold in the
folds of the idol’s golden robes, and began to shimmy up its leg.
When Urlish reached the effigy’s shoulders, he wrapped his arms
around its immense neck and threw himself against it.
“What in the name of the seven hells are you doing?” Amroika
shouted from below. Urlish ignored him, and continued rocking back and
forth. If he had recalled Pythemores’ Theorem correctly, his weight might
be just enough to upset the statue’s precarious balance.
There was an almost imperceptible rumble from deep within the icy
dais. Urlish had hardly been able to disturb the statue at all, but it
was enough to allow its own tremendous weight to do the rest. Urlish
leapt off the idol as the dais erupted, tossing Amroika aside. The statue
toppled, its great ram’s horns crashing through the thick ice wall. Wind
and snow whipped into the chamber through the gaping hole it left behind.
Amroika dusted icy shards from his beard and glared at Urlish.
“Madman! You extinguished the torch. We’ll never make it to your damned
exit before they rend us to pieces!” As if to confirm the Barisvarian’s
prophesy, the Chill Folk were already rushing towards them.
Urlish shouted over the wind. “My purpose was not to make an
exit, captain, but an entrance!”
The Chill Folk closed nearer. If only there was some small
measure of truth in the poem. Then he saw it. A gigantic white wolf with
a horn the length of a scimitar protruding from its snout stood at the
opening. It leapt into the midst of the Chill Folk, and within a
heartbeat half-a-dozen were reduced to bloodless chunks of ice.
Urlish shook the Barisvarian, who stood mesmerized by the
wolf-thing’s slaughter. “I’m not willing to stay here to see if that
creature will be grateful for finally getting vengeance, or simply be
still hungry!” [SPACE]
The city of the ice god was no longer on the horizon when they
stopped running and collapsed into the snow. The Barisvarian spoke first,
though his words were broken up by gasps for air. “By the fiery beard of
Ishtik, but I’m glad to be safe from there!”
Urlish laughed. “Safe from the curses of long dead ‘gods’
perhaps, but we’re still alone and on foot, many leagues north of any
Amroika laughed as well, but there was far more mirth in his voice
than Urlish’s. “Ah, but we’ll find some village, of that I’m sure.” He
brushed at his red beard. “But tell me, how did you know the Beast would
run for the opening when it heard the ice walls shatter?”
Urlish smiled. “Because vengeance, for good or ill, is a very
natural thing. And one can always trust in Nature.”
Amroika shook his burly head and stretched.
“Now you tell me, good captain ... when we do come across a
village, are you still intent upon arresting me?” Urlish’s hand wandered
discreetly towards his rapier.
“Phon and Chyra, lad! What kind of a scoundrel do you take me
for, that I would send you to the chopping block after you saved my life?”
Urlish sighed and nodded his head slowly. “I suppose that I must
take you at your word then.” “You must learn to have faith, friend
heretic. Faith.” Amroika’s gusty laughter was swept away by the bitter