[CW: gore and torture]
The snow crunches beneath their feet. A crisp, if somewhat muted sound. It is familiar to the norn, reassuring even. Something reminiscent of home and kin.
But today, it feels more like giant teeth on gravel for the necromancer’s nerves.
Fiel is uneasy. He was treading on a path he knew was littered with bones, figurative and otherwise, right there just a few feet under the immaculate shroud. The norn loves the cold. Relishes it, even. But the cold of this place brings him no comfort. Here it seems to lap at him like the starving predator licks at the rock beneath a fresh kill to get the last drop of blood, each step robbing him of just a little bit more warmth and resolve. Welcome back, the bones below seem to whisper to him. Finally. We’ve been waiting for you. Come, come. Join us.
For many years he has avoided coming back to this place. Coming close to the Shiverpeaks, even, for fear that the secrets buried below would crawl their way to the surface to haunt him. For fear of feeling icy fingers wrap around his neck and frozen lips murmur in his ear. He would flee once again, if he could.
How ironic then, that the chase for one man brings them both here, here where neither of them seem to be able to truly be themselves. And perhaps the man has done this on purpose.
For Willhem S. Kendrall is very observant, very smart, and has an excellent memory.
Fiel turns to the man tramping behind him.
“Just peachy,” the pirate snaps, drawing his borrowed furs around his shoulder. “There is no place I’d rather be than freezing my face off in the Gods-damned Shiverpeaks.”
The norn turns back, turns towards the vast, unwelcoming white expanse that the bear-people called Frostgorge Sound. His heart is heavy with remorse, fear, and grief. He hates this place. More than anything in the world, this place most of all.
Secrets and pain were buried here, and the human knew about them. He had pulled them out of Fiel’s lips as he screamed and writhed and begged, and now he was using that knowledge to slow down his pursuers. For of course the norn would dread to come back here. Each step in the accursed tundra echoes with distant screams and calls, each whipping of winter wind against his face feels somewhat colder. Still, he pursues, because something more than revengeance was at stake now.
He silently glances back at the gunslinger once again. Shivering, but far too much than to just be affected by the wind and snow. There’s a dread in his eyes, an ache that he carries in his shoulders.
Like many days before that one, the necromancer thinks back on what he saw the first day they confronted Kendrall.
That day, he almost died. Ice and stone crushed him, pierced his flesh. An abject fear took over him, but was then replaced with that odd feeling he came to grow familiar with: an unnatural blending of senses, a mix of joy and despair, cold and warmth, hunger and satiety, serenity and wrath. As an ultimate reflex against oblivion, a dying spasm, he had taken the form a wraith and survived. And during that short time when he could see the world and through the veil beyond the world both at once, he saw something perplexing about the captain.
There was a hole, in the white soul-flame that was the gunslinger through his wraith eyes. It shivered and pulsed with life, but instead of being whole –unspoilt– there was a tear, a wound that cracked its head with hair-thin fissures that spread out like a spiderweb, or the impact of a bullet. A void right over his right eye.
The man was missing a sliver of his soul.
Then Kendrall fled, Fiel had to tend to his wounds, and both bounty hunters had to leave the village before the armed forces there took too much interest in them. It took a few days for the necromancer to truly understand what had happened, to realize what the captain had done to their mark. What he’d done to himself.
In that time they tracked the renegade ex-Priory. Despite the man being intelligent, it was not too complicated to figure out. After all, proud men would rarely cover their tracks, even the smart ones, and after a few years of crimes there weren’t many places where someone like him could hide. So he ran to the only place where, with the right words and the right coin, no one would ask too much about torn clothes and a bleeding side: Lion’s Arch. The city of pirates.
The right words, right coin, and a little bit of well-orchestrated threats loosened a few tongues, and they had a lead: East. The Shiverpeaks. And from there, more amicable tongues pointed further North.
That notion thrilled neither of them, but they went anyway. And as they traveled Jesse grew restless. It had started as an itch, an irritation that quickly grew into something more malicious and malignant. He didn’t sleep. He barely ate unless prompted. Fiel suspected that much: whatever formidable magic the captain had used, intentional or not, it came with its price. And with his target now still at large, the bond he had placed over the both of them was grinding him down. Such magic often involved a sacrifice, if not of someone, then of the one who cast it, and he wonders, and worries, about how much longer the gunslinger could continue on like this.
Now here they are, surrounded by white, under a thick sky of white, avoiding the sculptures of dark ice and the ones who erected them. The Sons of Svanir. Fiel hates them as well. Almost as much as Kendrall. But he’s saving his hatred for later. Fiel is an idiot, but he’s not a fool. He knows how his blind hatred made him reckless and temerarious the first time. Instead, he lets his concern for his friend push him forward.
He resists turning back to his companion once more. If the cold here was bothering Fiel, he could only imagine how it must affect him.
Fiel was not the only one harboring a secret. One could not easily cast away the boons and curses one’s blood would carry, and the gunslinger was no exception. Yet somehow this one did. A human that was too big, a giant that didn’t like the cold. Un-norn. Un-human. Stuck between the two, not quite either.
The secret had been obvious to the necromancer, and as to why the captain chose to live in the guise of a human –or if it was even a choice– he did not bother to prod. The man was playing a long pretend game, wearing a mask that the norn felt no desire to tear off.
Kendrall does what smart men on the run always try to do: he covers his track as best he can, using his elemental magic to make the snow fall and the ground shift to blur his path. But the man has always only been a scholar. Fiel was born a hunter first, reborn a necromancer second. His methods were imperfect. A strip of cloth here, the frozen imprint of a hand there… And where the was no scrap of him to be seen, the unnatural shape of the terrain was a dead giveaway. The norn hunts him down, and manages to stay on his tail.
Eventually even Kendrall gives up on the idea, or perhaps he too was tired and restless, and was eager to meet the end of this chase, whatever the outcome may be. The tracks become obvious, and they lead to a deep icy cavern on the side of a cliff.
Svanir used to camp there. A small group was still littering the ground not far in, scattered by fire and torn up by stone. Icy bodies less than a day old.
They approach slowly, the memory of the stone daggers still making the norn’s flesh ache. Fiel is careful and collected, even where his companion was slowly devolving into a mess of jitters and fraying nerves, he walks gingerly to avoid disturbing the small stalactites of ice jutting from the floor. A voice was rising from deeper in the frozen maw of the cavern. A rabid murmur that drone on as they pushed up to the where the frigid cadavers lay.
Kendrall was talking. To the air, it seemed. Occasional grunt and sighs interrupted the flow of his wavering voice. He was too far away, the words were unintelligible. Was he casting a spell, or arguing with himself? Or both?
Fiel hovers his hand above the unmoving wide chest of a dead svanir. Luckily for him, the ones the elementalist killed were not at this point too far encroached in corruption, much of their flesh remained for the necromancer to exploit. He whispers his spell, and the bodies around him begin to shiver in a manner more gruesome than the gunslinger was. Their frost-covered skins bloom outwards like flowers, their pale-blue sepals unfolding to reveal brighter pale-crimson petals, and, from there, stamens of ivory-white bones trembled. Their rib cages spread out, eagerly opening up to the cold outside air, then began to move. They rip themselves out of their cold cocoons, their icy eggs of flesh, dragging bits of still-uncorrupted dead organs along with them.
A terrible act that never failed to make Fiel’s hair stand on end, despite him being the author of it.
Spider-like bone minions, six in total, were now chittering around their master, who rises up to his feet with grim determination.
If the human heard them coming, he made no sign of it. The pair steal deeper into the cavern, and arrive into a large room in which a low flame is burning. The elementalist is there, somewhere further back, hidden from sight by large natural columns of troubled ice. The place is a maze, corridors twisting and turning, clear and opaque walls blurring their understanding of the layout of the room, warping and reflecting whatever lain behind –or in front– of them.
They both know the place is a trap. There is no many options, sooner or later, the human would know they were here. Fiel casts one last glance at the gunslinger near him. He looks just as eager, if not more, and like their quarry, something terrible and flighty hides just under his skin. Not a foreign body, a foreign soul, but that missing part of him, calling out. The draw is too powerful. Fiel shudders with worry and morbid fascination. He can almost feel that pull, like the vibration of a chord of an unseen doomed instrument.
A silent nod, and they are ready.
The necromancer sends one of the bone abominations forward through one corridor, then another one into another, and so forth. Their ivory appendages click on the icy ground like pebbles tossed in the dark, but still Kendrall mutters, unperturbed. Until suddenly, a flash erupts behind one of the walls, and a bone minion is destroyed.
The elementalist roars in surprise and anger.
“Finally! By the Six, took you long enough! What were those two idiots doing? Taking a break? Loafing around? The beach… Lion’s Arch’s beach –filthy town… filthy people… brutes… uncultivated ruffians– Don’t step any closer! What did you do to me?! What is this, Farrinsson? –Farrinsson, Farrinsson… thief… norn… is that a norn? No, no… yes?”
The mage was raving. Now mumbling aloud, next shouting at them from beyond the maze. He moved around, dodging the bone spiders when he heard them creeping close, leading them to more and more traps until there was no more fleshy horrors.
Fiel and Jesse stalk him from a distance. He might have lost his little army, but at least there was now a clear path to where the fugitive was hiding.
He was scrambling up an icy platform: the place where he would make his last stand. His prim travel clothes now ragged at the fringe, stained with dry blood and mud. He looked like he didn’t stop running since their first encounter. The thought of it would have brought a wicked smile to Fiel’s face, but he was preoccupied by more pressing matters.
It doesn’t take long for the tension to erupt. As soon as he is in his line of sight, Fiel casts a blast of necrotic energy at him, then another. The first hits him in the back. The human chokes on his garbled words and swivels around, raising a shield of ice to block the second. A healing blue glow envelops him as he turns wide hate-filled eyes at them, and more so at the gunslinger.
Jesse bristles and snarls.
Fire erupts at the pair’s feet.
Faster than can be described, the Captain is pulling out his weapons, unloading both guns at their target and charging forward with a yell that doesn’t sit well. It’s primal, desperate — he matches their target well for a man who is seeking his literal missing piece. Death is the only solution, it seems. He takes a step forward and disappears in a swirl of smoke, only to appear instantaneously at Kendrall’s side. Both blinded by a hungry madness. The human shrieks in surprise and absolute hatred, and also fear. For a moment pure instinct takes over, he forgets his cane-scepter and strikes at the man with a weak fist. A lithe scholar against a hardened pirate. Of course, it’s ineffective. Jesse responds to the blow with a strike with the back of his metal hand. The blow is meant to kill, but once again Kendrall’s reflexes save him and he is only grazed.
Fiel meanwhile observes in perplexed shock. He jumped back from the fire and for a moment he can only watch as two men that he knew to be level-headed, pragmatic, shrewd even, where now scrambling over each other and snarling at each other’s faces like animals. There is such despair in their eyes that he can’t help being hypnotized.
The norn is brought back to reality when the elementalist summons a large fire elemental between Jesse and himself, forcing the gunslinger to leap back. It rushes at him, tries to shove him down the platform while Kendrall curls on the floor, clutching his bleeding cheek, shouting in absolute fear.
Fiel’s guts twist in his belly. His throat tightens. He’s heard that shout before.
“Go away!! Go away, leave me alone! Leave me alone!! PLEASE!”
But Jesse does not seem to hear. He is gripping at the elemental’s throat with his fake hand. It burns white-hot, but he doesn’t feel it. Or if he does, he doesn’t show, only a painful rage remains simmering just under the surface and manifests in how he screams. The gunslinger roars, bullets rip through the molten body of the elemental in rapid succession. Its wings flare up, threatening to engulf Fiel’s friend, and he seems to embrace it.
The norn finally speaks. With his greatsword he points, and dark shadow-fingers curl around the elemental, pulling it from Jesse’s hand. Thankfully he knows to release it, or maybe the prosthesis is so damaged that he couldn’t keep hold of it anyway, and the fire entity explodes in a great conflagration in the air between the two of them.
The blast pushes all of them against the cave’s walls. Steam rises in the room, the ground is slick with melted ice. Fiel protects his face with his blade, and when he lowers it, Jesse is already over the human that was groveling at his feet with pathetic whimpers. There’s no fear, or remorse that goes into grabbing the man by the neck, the screams and smell of searing flesh and blood that went along with it.
The mercy of a gun barrel jammed down his throat.
When the trigger pulls, both of them seem to slump backwards and into the camp, melting cave wall that rushed the blood from the impact point, a bullet lodged deep within the ancient ice. Crimson spiderweb fissures over the permafrost wall claim back what left void-black spiderweb fissures in the gunslinger’s soul.
Kendrall died screaming.
Jesse straightens, his puppet strings cut and still among the carnage. Whatever wild-eyed fervor had gripped him, it had dissipated with the crack of a gunshot, and Fiel is left watching him rub at his face with his palm, his other hand still red-hot from the forged heart of the extinguished elemental. Zen. Tranquil. The abject hatred and desperation now replaced with even more abject serenity and satisfaction. He doesn’t say much else, and the shrewd, pragmatic tactician retakes his place by the necromancer’s side. There are no more words he needs to say.
Fiel feels sick. Not from the carnage, he’s seen plenty of that. The necromancer had played with dead flesh. The saw bodies fester and decompose in minutes in front of his eyes. He has waded through literal tides of undead. And yet, he feels like he is about to throw up. The captain felt whole, while he felt empty.
The norn slowly steps towards the body. Remnant steam troubles his vision while he lifts up his sword to sever the neck of the mangled head. After all, they were bounty hunters: they needed to bring proof of a job well done.
It took a moment for the norn to realize that it wasn’t steam clouding his eyes, but tears. He roughly wipes them off before the gunslinger can notice. It takes a little longer for him to realize why they were even there.
Fiel takes Kendrall’s head in his hands, and observes his bloodied features one last time. His eyes are red, blood-shot from restlessness, and rolled black in the most grotesque fashion. He had gotten a few wrinkles since the last time he got to be this close to that face. Streaks of crimson-dyed tears stain his cheeks. His teeth and gums are coated in red. His once impeccable hair is now sticky with blood, sweat and frigid water. The norn can see the icy floor through the hole in the back of his throat. A pitiful mess of blood, snot and drool was all that was left of the once dignified elementalist.
He doesn’t know how long he stood there, staring at this head.
He thought it would bring him peace, to be finally standing over Kendrall’s dead body, but it doesn’t. The norn feels cold. Colder than ever before. As cold as that day, when–
Tears threaten to spill from his eyes once more. Now, he understands. Finally.
Over a decade ago, when he was younger, a proud norn warrior, along with her eclectic group of friends, brought down a powerful champion of Jormag, the Ice Dragon. Her name was Eir, and she inspired generations of norn after that. Fiel and his cousins were among those young fools. Hope and bravado still brimming in their heart, they went, singing and laughing and challenging loudly any and all Sons to come fight them. They went, about twenty or thirty of them, their numbers growing as they met even more emboldened norn along the way.
Fiel was the younger of them all. A pup, still untested, still unworthy of opening the march, relegated to follow the tail of a small army about forty men strong.
His inexperience was what saved his life that day.
It came down without warning, falling upon them like an icy meteor. It crushed half a dozen of them that way, and the rest did not fare any better. It blew a frigid wind that froze solid those who were standing at the front, and shattered the limbs of those at the periphery. A giant abomination of ice and hunger. That’s when the screams started.
By then Fiel had already given up to fear and panic. He jumped into a small chasm nearby, and hid from sight and from the dragon champion’s icy breath. He huddled there, whimpering, paralyzed. He heard some of them call for a retreat. He heard his cousins call to him, and call again, until there were no more calls. Then, even the shrieks of pain and terror and he pleads for mercy ceased.
He doesn’t remember how long he stayed in that hole. Snow blew over, covering the fissure overhead and locking him in the dark. Was it hours? Days?
Eventually hunger drove him out of it. He dug his way out, and saw…
Everything was covered with smooth, immaculate snow. A virginal landscape, untouched by conflict, or even animals. Pure.
Fiel made his way back to Hoelbrak. There he learned that none of them came back.
Then he fled from that place, fled from the Shiverpeaks. He never told anyone what exactly happened that day. He told them he got knocked out, survived by pure luck. It was only half true. He couldn’t bear looking at his parent’s faces, the faces of those the stupid warriors left behind in their folly, with their eyes full of questions and silent accusations. He couldn’t bear the lie. So he fled.
Then years later, when he had become a necromancer, he had foolishly tried to break into the Durmand Priory’s vault. All because he wanted to learn. And on that day he met Kendrall.
With allies of the elder dragons being revealed in the most improbable of places at the time, the magister suggested he tried an unearthed truth spell on him, devised centuries prior by a cruel orrian mage, and that the human was itching to test out. After all, they had to make sure the young necromancer wasn’t some would-be lich on the rise, spying for Zhaitan for whispered promises of power and knowledge.
Whether Gixx knew what he was approving of, or if Kendrall even asked the Steward’s permission in the first place, Fiel never knew about it. All he knew then, was the small room deep inside the belly of the library, and the elementalist sadistic stare as he read out the ancient words.
The norn was not even bound. He was even stupidly welcoming that “test” of his, eager to prove him wrong. But as the spell took hold, the pain settled inside of him like a worm. It began to tear at his insides, gnaw at him. He fell to the ground and writhed as Kendrall talked.
“Let me explain to you how this fascinating spell works,” he said as the norn struggled to contain his screams. “For as long as you stay quiet, you will feel pain. Talk, and the pain subsides. Tell a lie, the pain will become intense. Lie too much, or stay quiet for too long, and you will die.”
It was too much. Fiel finally let out a shout, and it was as he had said: the magical worm inside him relented, but only for a moment.
Kendrall then took an obscenely long time to interrogate him. A simple “are you an ally of Zhaitan?” would have sufficed to clear the norn’s name of all suspicion, but the magister was determined to experiment. He asked for his name, his age, where he lived. Inconsequential details about his life: his first love, his first intimate moment with someone else. Petty childhood secrets. Little white lies. All the while the mage took notes, a grim and cruel biography.
The amount of hate Fiel was feeling for this man was nothing compared to the pain of the curse. After a short while all resistance and bluster was gone in him. He didn’t even need to be prompted. Fiel talked, he wanted to talk, if only to make the pain go away for a moment. Kendrall was obviously pleased, sitting on his chair and scribbling in a fine leather-bound book.
Then the human asked about his cousins.
Fiel’s eyes opened wide in panic, as they had been shut tight from strain only a moment prior.
“No?” Kendrall slowly closed his book, tucking in pen neatly inside. “Why not? You’ve been so cooperative so far.”
“Please… please don’t make me…”
“What happened to your cousins, Fiel?”
Desperate tears stained the cold stone floor. Fiel was clutching his jaws so tight his teeth might have shattered.
“Fiel…” the human purred.
He felt tiny vessels under his skin pop. Blood filled his mouth, and dripped from his nose, and eyes, and ears.
“What happened to your cousins, Fiel…”
There was such a tension in his bones that he felt they could shatter at any second. He was now bleeding from his nails, his teeth, and every orifices of his body.
“You will speak. Now.”
And so, he spoke. He told everything. The joy, the bravado, the bolstering group, the fall, the cold wind, the crevasse, the days in the dark, the lie. He hated the man with every syllable he uttered, but more importantly, he hated himself for uttering them.
Right then the doors of the small room flew open. Fiel didn’t remember much after that.
The spell was lifted, someone distracted Kendrall, or forced him to stop, and the norn was finally allowed to pass out. The priory tended to him, The elementalist was cast out, his name stricken out of their roster, and the rest was history.
Now in the cavern of ice, with the head of the being the hated the most cooling off in his hands, Fiel did not feel joy. Or relief. Or even a sadistic sense of justice.
All he was left with, was the pain. And the grief. And the lies.
While he lived, the human had been the focus of his suffering. Whenever his mind would stray to Frostgorge Sound, or his cousins, instead of guilt, he would think of Kendrall, and the hate he had reserved for him. But he never sought him out. During all those years, Fiel fled South, to Orr, to Elona, as far as he could from this man and what he represented. He never tried to find out what had become of him. And only now does he know why.
His hatred for the man had become catharsis. A distraction. Something to prevent him from confronting his guilt.
For as long as Kendrall was alive, Fiel had something to hate other than himself.
The necromancer casts a simple preservation spell over the mass of bones and flesh in his hand and shoves it into the waxed leather bag he always keeps on him for such purposes. He turns to Jesse, finally, trying his damndest to ignore the epiphany that made his voice quiver.
“Are you alright? Everything back where it belongs?”
The gunslinger says nothing. His words don’t come, he stands with a fixed, withering glare at the body, then towards the bag. “Mostly” he murmurs. It doesn’t sit well. But he sniffs and wipes his face with the back of his hand, and reaches under his coat to unhook the harness that kept his prosthetic firmly attached to his body. Fiel frowns as the damage is revealed. A huge burn blister has started to form on the stump, along the edges of the brands the metal mechanisms inside left behind. Everything is red, or bloody, cauterized and charred.
“…we should get back. I’d call for Ambrosine, but she’s likely to chastise me more than any city doctor would”
Fiel lowers his head. From fatigue, annoyance, or contrition, who could tell. He reaches back to his sword and slides his palm over the edge, then applies a bloody hand over the raw flesh, quick and implacable, before the gunslinger can protest or step away.
“For the risk of infection.” he says, some of what little energy kept him on his feet transfering over to the captain, partially healing the stump.
He mutters as he turns to leave the cave, the deed, the memory and the ghosts behind.
“I’ll get you a better one.”