The feathery flakes hung suspended in the air; the sixfold symmetry of the tiny crystals flawlessly intact, despite the raging blizzard that eternally ravaged the mountainside. But even eternity could be frozen, it seemed. Eternity could be trapped in time as a disquieting scene of cold and unfathomable terror – a terror preserved on the face of a warrior who had awoken to a glacial nightmare.

But what the spirit walker, Norgrund, saw was not only terror; he saw pain. Pain that was visible by the bulging veins that cracked over the warrior’s neck and face – as though he had strained against its excruciating touch. It was a pain seen by the flaying frost that had raptured his skin as it tightened and froze him from the inside out… It was a pain caught in bloodshot, glassy eyes that stared bleakly with futile desperation as the spell had dealt its fury. And yet… that same spell had lingered. It saturated the air, holding the chilling scene of the frozen encampment in place.

The spirit walker was no stranger to the tragedies that clung to this life. The tragedies that are recounted by fallen warriors in battle; or by the futile resistance to the elements; or even the natural course of mortality, and the timely visitation of death. But he had never seen anything like this…

Tents and makeshift hovels stood askew as the frost had taken them, with jagged icicles protruding through hides and canvases as the small and temporary settlement had been turned into a permanent burial ground.

Norgrund looked back upon the frozen figure in front of him. He had no idea if the warrior was dead. The spell, as much as it had frozen the large band of marauders, had also held the course of nature at bay. None of the cold bodies showed any sign of decomposition. It was as if the frost had affected them unnaturally. It had invaded them, devoured and ruined their hulking frames from within, instead of slowly taking them as the dreaded winter was inclined to do. The very ice had pushed the warrior’s jaws open, and had burst from his mouth in icy fractals that had left it ajar by the deadly force of its exit.

The very sight was an affront to nature; an insult to the cycle of all things. It was magic. And Norgrund knew that only an exceptionally powerful mage could be capable of such devestation. The time-warped mountainside was a testament to the sorcerer’s work. Not even the wind picked up to stir the horrific scene.

The feel of the place made the spirit walker uncomfortable. The magic had long since served its purpose, but it remained as a warning – a haunted memory of the consequences of crossing the likes of a spellcaster.

He had been unsure at first as to the cause, but as he had ventured through the broken camp – past the ice pierced abodes of sleeping warriors; past the snuffed out fire of drunken sentries; and past the bent bars of a metal prison that was once meant to keep something in – he had known.

He had known as he had found the footprints leading from the cage, winding straight through the icy graves erected by vengeful magic. Nothing but the snow remained to pay homage to the harbinger of this horror.

Perhaps, they had deserved it...

Norgrund was not unfamiliar with the brutality of his people. They were ruthless in battle. Each warrior was a powerhouse of raw fury; possessing a strength tenfold the amount of the steelclad knights that graced the kingdoms of the low-lying lands. But they were not monsters by repute… At least, they had not been. They prided themselves in the honour of the fight. They valued the code of just battle. They fought with unmatched fury, but never with cruel bloodlust.

But scores of them had become turncloaks. Once proud warriors had now forsaken all that their noble heritage once bestowed on them, and had become nothing but decadent raiders, dragging destruction in their wake. And from scout reports, their terrorization of local settlements had proven to all their ilk how far many of their own had fallen.

But retribution had come in the form of a cold fury, and nothing but silent snows and sleeping souls now stood vigil to this place. Yes, perhaps they did deserve this. For all they had wrought.

But the snow had revealed more than just the tracks of a runaway mage. Heavy boots had trodded through here, after the storm. No doubt, these had been another band of the same horde, who had come across the icy slaughter of their bretheren. And from the erratic trails that cut through the encampment, he knew that they had given chase… Yet another party who was about to underestimate the talents of a spellcaster.

Norgrund wondered if the mage knew of the avenging spirit of his people; a spirit of such fiery zeal and resolve that a reckoning was inevitable. They would follow him, bite at the sorcerer’s heels… until they overrun him, and made the mage pay for his daring to challenge the might of conceited warlords. But the spirit walker was unsure whether the ghosts of their comrades would be avenged. Those ghosts were certainly gone from this place. He could tell. And it unsettled him even more; all this silence. For all the death that seemed evident to the eye, the dead themselves were all but absent in spirit. The mage was powerful, for doing something like this: suspending time, nature, decay, and even the spirit world like so many snowflakes. He wondered if, once again, the marauders would underestimate the mage’s retaliatory prowess.

Perhaps they’ll deserve that as well.

But perhaps, not all had deserved this

The snows yet bore witness to another who had paid audience to the dangerous display of sorcery. A frail figure, now frozen, hunched over the cagefloor in what must have been its last agonising moments. He could only imagine what fear must have overcome him – a fear that that could outplay the ruthless treatment of his slavers. A fear the figure probably itself could not fathom, as a fate of frost had furiously engulfed him, procuring the same tragic end as was fated to the souls he had likely seen claimed from without the bars that had halted his escape. Norgrund wondered what was worse for the hapless soul: the thrall’s masters, or the stranger who shared his cell and had unleashed an arctic agony.

Perhaps he did not deserve this. But perhaps… it had been his only mercy…

With no glance to be spared for the memories of glacial ghosts, the spirit walker turned around, and cast his eyes to the unswept tracks that traversed the deep snow.

And so he walked. He walked until he could hear the spirits again…to places where their cries were no longer muffled by magic… To the places where the blizzard again covered the tracks…

Inktober #11

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