Authors: Clayton Emery
Human wisdom cannot save us.
What can, then?
Good. Think on my scheme. We have time. A little, anyway…
Candlemas’s nose was red from breathing wheat rust. It clung to his skin and covered his robe with a fine coating. The stubby mage had supervised his underwizards all night long and most of the day, but they were still no closer to stopping the blight or finding its cause.
The door blew open and Sysquemalyn flounced in. Today she wore a red sheath from high collar to ankle that split all the way down the front. Much of her was revealed, but not all, for a purple mass, like a jellyfish, pulsed and writhed across her stomach and loins. Another of the grotesques she collected, Candlemas thought. A particularly ugly one, like the world’s biggest bruise.
“What do you want?” he snapped.
“My, we’re touchy. Solve your problem with rye blisters yet?”
“It’s wheat blight. And no, I’m not even”
“Too bad.” She didn’t listen, but sashayed around his workshop, touching a silver statue, an inlaid box, a glazed porcelain plate, a wreath of silver-gilt holly leaves.
“Don’t touch my things!” Candlemas was touchy, not so much from loss of sleep as from frustration. A hurried query to his various substewards had confirmed his fears: wheat rust was everywhere throughout Lady Polaris’s lands. There simply was no crop to speak of. “The last time, you threw one of my favorite pieces out the window”
“And might again, if any of these trashy trinkets suit.” Sysquemalyn stood with forefingers at the corners of her mouth, pouting prettily, but the spectacle was spoiled by the purple horror, which wriggled up her flesh and curled a tentacle around her breast. Idly, she scratched. “I’ve decided to up the stakes. Your mud man is too canny to stumble over the orcs.”
“Those orcs bother me too.” Candlemas arched his back, found it hurt, and stepped to a small, low table laden with jars and potions. He began to mix a soporific. “Those orcs are remarkably organized, for orcs. They wear uniforms, and all have that red hand painted on the front. I’ve never heard of”
“Mud men, all of them.” Sysquemalyn waggled purple fingernails in dismissal. “The antics of ants would concern me more, for they might get into the honey in the larder. Ah!”
From a table she plucked up a spun-glass ornament that resembled a crystalline praying mantis. “Since it’s your mud man who must fight this, you won’t mind sacrificing it.”
“I do mind!” Candlemas took a slug of painkiller, grimaced at the taste, and added more blackberry brandy. “I don’t come down to your kitchens and paw through your shelves!”
“No, you paw the scullery maids. There was one you stripped and smeared with raspberry vinegar, I’m told. Didn’t that make your mouth pucker?” She stroked designs on the black palantir until she had a picture of Sunbright plodding through an icy mountain pass. The barbarian was bent double against an immense head wind. “Perfect!”
Stepping to a window on the western side, Sysquemalyn balanced the crystal on both palms, pushed past the mild shield on the windows, and puffed the glass creature into space. It zipped away from her hands as if launched by a crossbow.
Candlemas stood over the palantir. Ahead of Sunbright by perhaps a quarter mile, the glass object bounced off a wall and hit the icy ground. “Good shot. And it was raspberry jam, not vinegar. But your girls talk too much.”
“Shall I have her rip out her own tongue?” Sysquemalyn asked sweetly as she dusted off her hands. “And smoke it for sandwich meat?”
Candlemas looked at her with a mix of disgust and pity. “You can’t defame humans enough, can you? You think you’re ready to move on to the next plane.”
“Let’s hope.” A bright smile, a poke at the purple slime moving down over her flat stomach. “If I advance quickly enough, I plan to make Lady Polaris my personal chambermaid. She’ll shine shoes and empty chamber pots, and no man will lust for her, for I’ll slit her nose and slice off her eyelids. I’ll make her feel like a lowly groundling.”
Candlemas shook his head and tapped the palantir, making the snow scene within jiggle. “Care to watch? This lowly barbarian might surprise you.”
“No, he won’t. He’ll die.” Sysquemalyn stepped up beside him. The purple slime plucked a tentacle from her navel and tried to wrap itself around the man’s wrist. He moved out of reach. “And I’ll laugh, and then collect on the debt. Won’t the maids be disappointed to hear of that tragedy?”
“You talk too much, too,” Candlemas growled. “Look!”
Head down, Sunbright slipped and slid across lumpy glare ice.
The ice was old, he decided, probably old snowpack left from last winter. He found it hard to believe it had lasted the summer, but this granite-walled pass was deep and the bottom shadowed. And this evil unceasing wind had polished everything as smooth as glass.
He didn’t mind the ice so much, for a tundra barbarian lived with it eight months a year. But the screaming wind he couldn’t face for long. Thus he trudged, skidding every which way from high to hollow, paused to squint into the wind, seeing little with watery eyes, then moved on. He’d tied his blue blanket around his shoulders and face to better breathe. He kept both hands free in case he fell, so he could land lightly. It would be death to break an arm or even fingers.
Then he did slip, and it saved his life.
He’d been leaning into the gale when suddenly it lessened directly in front of him. Caught off-balance, he stumbled headlong, tried to correct himself, and lost his footing, crashing on his bottom as his long shirt rode up.
Skidding, swirling around like a top, Sunbright had a glimpse of twin columns of icicles flash by. Icicles thicker than his leg, and jointed.
The young man fetched up against the second column of icicles, felt them twitch at his touch. Above him, he found, was an arched ceiling, starting at three feet and rising to …
… a round, flattened head as big as a musk-ox carcass, with a snarling mass of glittering icelike teeth and mandibles and whiskers.
And twin eyes like glowing blue lamps that craned down to see him, there under the creature’s belly, trapped between columns of jointed legs like a wicker fence.
Remorhaz, the barbarian’s mind flickered. Ice worm.
He’d never seen one, only heard adventurers speak of them. They infested ice plains in the far west and north, and crushed entire dog teams and musk-oxen in their clashing jaws. Not formed of ice, really, the stories went, but with a solid carapace like an ant’s only white, with blue-white slush churning inside.
But no one had hinted that they moved so fast!
Fumbling his blanket off his head, Sunbright had barely snatched his sword from its back scabbard before the remorhaz drove a bushel of glittering, icy mandibles at his chest. The mandibles were as long as Sunbright’s arms, backhooked and jagged so fiercely he could barely tell one end from another. Too, the wicked wind was still sizzling, keening a song of death, hissing between the forest of legs and around his head, making his eyes sting and impeding his vision. He saw no way to shear those mandibles or even deflect them, so he simply whipped the sword directly in front of him, locked his elbows, and hung on.
Harvester’s hooked point lodged into that nest of shining evil and fetched tight with a clunk, as if he’d struck cordwood. The beast’s immense head brushed the sword backward like a twig, and Sunbright went with it.
As the great jolt struck his arms, his head and back slammed a trio of the beast’s legs. The tips resembled ski poles so much that part of Sunbright’s brain wondered if man hadn’t copied monster. The chitinous legs expanded to mushroom shapes, that the beast might cross snow, but underneath formed points as hard and sharp as ice axes, which they were. Two of these legs gave way before Sunbright’s body, and he slid clear of them, out into the open, icy stretch of canyon.
The beast had retracted its head rather than tie itself into a knot. The boy half spun and thumped a granite wall. Instinctively Sunbright scrambled to rise and defend himself, but the ice might have been oiled. Paddling uselessly, he fought down panic, tried to think how to survive.
Use what you’ve got, screamed instructions burned into his brain.
Ideas flashed. The beast could maneuver; he couldn’t. Why? Because it had ice axes for feet. So if he…
Acting, Sunbright juggled Harvester to one hand and with the other snatched out his flint knife. Striking hard, he stabbed the ice enough to gain hold. Gingerly, warily, he scooted his feet on either side of his hand. He might look foolish, he thought, but at least he wasn’t sledding on his butt.
Chipping ice, swirling in a circle as gracefully as a dancing horse, the remorhaz turned to face its foeor meal. Sunbright marveled at the size of it, fully as long as a fourteen-dog team and sled and as many-legged, higher than he could reach with the tip of his long sword. How could he kill something like this? Or even strike it? Given a choice, he would have run, screaming if necessary, but he was a cripple on ice and the beast was at home.
Yet again, his mind shrilled, why was this monster so far from its native land? Were the gods playing with him again? Or was everything he’d heard of the beast wrong?
The one thing he did know was not to strike its back. The old tales agreed that the ice beast managed to funnel all its body heat out a vent behind its head, a slot as scorching as any natural hot springs, hot enough to melt a sword. So …
The warrior watched as the horror rippled, arched its long back like a rainbow, and lunged from on high. The slashing mandibles clashed for his head.
Yet keeping cool, Sunbright managed two things. He kicked at the granite wall behind him while hanging on to the steady flint knife, then released it. He couldn’t have done it on earth or grass, but on the slick ice he fairly flew in a full circle. One second he was facing the creature; the next he was sprawled full length pointing toward it, sliding into it.
The great head smashed down where he’d been. Closing mandibles scarred the ice. But Sunbright was skidding on his side toward the first triplet of legs. His sword was ready, and as he closed on the columns he rolled and swung.
Before the keen steel, the sturdy but hollow legs snapped like thick reeds. Three of them were shorn; then Sunbright’s feet rapped into the opposing column, which flinched. Clapping his feet around one woody leg, he reached high over his headblinding himself with his own shouldersand chopped chopped chopped wherever he felt resistance.
His efforts worked too well.
With half a dozen legs cut from under it, the undulating bulk of the ice worm, its belly as smooth and white as a snake’s, sagged to the icepinning Sunbright underneath. At the same time, the foot he’d been clinging to lifted and slammed down on his belly.
Smothered by an icy insect carapace, Sunbright still screamed at the pain. The ice-axe foot ground into his guts like the club of a frost giant. And now the blistering cold of the monster’s belly stuck to his warm skin, stuck and burned like fury, then ripped skin when it lurched. The barbarian was being suffocated and crushed at the same time, and despite the white-hot agony lancing through him, he knew it would only get worse as the beast settled.
He wasn’t going to escape this trap.
Desperately thrashing his arms and legs yielded nothing, for there was nothing to strike but tough carapace. Somehow he retained his sword in a death grip, but could apply no leverage, hit nothing. And his vision was fading, swirling flashes like the northern lights exploding in his eyeballs.
The great weight of the creature settled further, and Sunbright heard his ribs snap, snap, snap, like pine trees freezing and splitting on the coldest winter days. His own screams were loud in his ears.
Then he heard nothing.
Sysquemalyn slapped the top of the palantir smartly, making the image of the screaming Sunbright jiggle and fade.
Over Candlemas’s chirps about his equipment, she cackled, “Done! He’s dead! That was too easy!”
“He’s not dead,” protested the other wizard. “He appears to be dying, I’ll grant you, but these barbarians are tough! He may yet live!”
Smug, the female wizard only smirked and backed away from the worktable. When she was six feet away, she laughed again and snapped the fingers of both hands, then pointed at Candlemas. “No, no, no. I win; you lose. Pay up.”
The stocky man crossed his arms across his chest. He felt cold, seeing Sunbright die frostbitten and crushed to ice like that. “I still contend Eh?”
Something had flicked at his sleeve. Something behind him.
Taking his eyes off Sysquemalyn, he turned to see what it was.
A vibrant hiss, like a steam geyser erupting, made him jump. Looming beside him was a monster as skinny as a coatrack, gray-skinned, with a tall head and elongated jaws sporting dripping fangs as long as Candlemas’s fingers. Slanted yellow eyes bored into his from above that evil, gap-toothed grinan evil smile much like Sysquemalyn’s.
Gibbering, Candlemas backpedaled from the horror. Fiend, he identified. Lesser fiend, from the outermost rings of the Nine Hells. Not particularly dangerous to a wizard with personal shields in place, but they were known to bite …
Hopping, the fiend grabbed Candlemas, one scaly claw on the human’s neck, one grasping his wrist. The wizard uttered a curse, a foolish waste of words. For a blast or banish spell was what he needed. Hurriedly he babbled, “Fiend, I name you, and command”
Too late. The gaping jaws clamped down on his biceps, biting flesh to the bone. Candlemas screamed, then shrilled as the beast ripped down toward his elbow. Horror-stricken, the wizard saw muscle and arteries stripped from his arm bone like a peel wrenched off an orange. The fiend bit again, and he heard its harsh teeth grate on bonehis.
Then the bone snapped, parted, and the fiend fell back with Candlemas’s right arm in its mouth. Far behind him, Sysquemalyn laughed and laughed, the sound a rising shriek of hysteria.
The wizard’s vision went black, as black as he imagined Sunbright’s had gone only minutes ago. Was this what it felt like, he wondered for a second, for the groundling to die?