Jasen hunkered down against the stone farmhouse wall, his collar turned high up to his cheek. Though the wind was spare, still the cold bit through his cloak and mail. He hadn’t used any magic to hold it at bay since he took the field. The Duke never liked to set himself apart when he was on campaign. Every man in his militia knew the depth of power Jasen could bring to bear. They saw the least of it every day: when he called upon the Shadowfell to stretch their stride fivefold; when their supply crates were full again each dawn. They never once considered him just another one of them : they held him too greatly in awe. But he kept his small conceit. They loved him all the more for it.
The farm had been abandoned in the face of the marauding Winter Fey. The army had come across several small groups of them during the ten day march from Reikenwold. His much larger, more disciplined veteran force had dispatched the disorganized fey with no losses of their own. When at last they neared the vale, he had dispersed the militia into small units throughout the surrounding farmland in order to approach the city without giving away his numbers. He trusted his commanders to avoid tangling with the roaming bands on their own. They were to keep low, out of trouble and report in to each other regularly. The Duke wasn’t a grand strategist. He led from the front, and had a knack for choosing just the right people. Some called it luck. Whatever it was, he had every confidence that his, sometimes vague, orders would be executed with efficiency. His men hadn’t let him down yet.
Jasen shifted to get a better view of the valley.
He needed information. Martin’s strike force had scouted the enemy several days ago, and there was little reason to believe their composition had changed since then. Knowing that an unnatural storm concealed a substantial force of all manner of men, fey, and creatures at home in Winter was valuable, certainly. Yet the full extent of the enemy remained unknown. He had to learn more.
Jasen himself was arguably the best scout in his entire militia, and there was nothing like first hand knowledge. So he’d given his men their standing orders and set out alone several hours ago. Now he found himself within sight of the City itself.
In the valley below, Winter had come in full force to the city of his birth. Haven was surrounded by a harrowing windstorm. Ice and sleet shielded the outer walls from view. Intermittently, he could hear the sounds of combat, men and steel screaming, over the fierce winds. There were few options. No sane commander would send his men into that storm. The losses would buy him nothing. His men would die and Haven would still fall.
Only one thing remained to him. He must destroy the Blizzard Sphere : the artifact at the heart of the enemy – a conduit to the loneliest corner of the Vale of Long Night, and source of that raging storm. Baern, the dwarven wizard working with Martin’s Circle, had described the sphere to him : a swirling orb made of ice and glass and magical force in equal measure, hovering above a low heavy black dray, drawn by a team of four Frost Giants.
Destroy it, and the enemy would lose it’s advantage against the walled defenders, and their full strength would be known.
Destroy it, and his men could be deployed and, with luck, the siege lifted.
Destroy it, and the advance of Winter would be stymied.
But how? Jasen rose from his crouch, ready to set into the open vale, toward the storm. He’d work out the details when he got there.
In the still air, a flurry of snow rose in a spiral from the ground. Jasen stopped in his tracks, hand on the hilt of his song-blade. The snow assumed the vague outline of a man. From within stepped a tall Eladrin man, his white flowing tunic cinched loosely over his leathers, chest bare to the freezing cold. Like many of the Winter Fey, his skin was a pale blue, not unlike a man taken by frostbite.
The Prince of Frost held his hands at ease, showing no sign of hostility, his cold longsword still sheathed at his waist. He moved with a grace and confidence common among the Arch Fey and few others. But there was a turn to his smile that spoke a callous disdain.
“Mortals… So ephemeral. So delicate. "
He inclined his head toward the besieged city.
“But so fierce – raging against the inevitable, inexorable creep of your decay. Such clamor. Such noise. Harken to the quiet night. The still cold silence of the fall of snow. That is the future. Why scream into the storm? “
Jasen kept his hand on his hilt. The Arch Fey played by their own rules, but what he knew of them said the Prince might be making some new ones. He was not about to drop his guard.
“Haven’t you got somewhere to be?” he countered.
“You race to defend this city. Why? In a blink of my eye, it is but dust. All it’s people long dead. The Havenburgs and their kingdom remembered only in a brief paragraph in a discarded text. At the last, it is all the same. The north wind sweeps the land bare, and there is quiet once more. What’s the point of your noise then?”
Jasen ignored the gibe, and asked “Why are you so eager to destroy us?”
The Prince’s smile grew hard.
“There is a time for beginnings, and a time for endings. And Winter, perhaps, is an agent of both”
“But why now? Since you’re in a chatty mood.”
The Prince turned to face Haven, his carriage full of ease and confidence.
“The endless cycle must end. The time has come to wipe the board clean, to start again. The Fey will thank me when I’m done with the mortal world.”
“Not if I’ve got anything to do with it.” Jasen narrowed his eyes.
“Do you think you can prevail? Is that why you’re here? Is that what keeps you going, keeps you screaming into the storm, standing against the tide? Hope?”
Jasen’s hand tightened on the hilt of his blade, and imagined it buried between the Prince’s shoulders.
“How can you plan when your opponent is concealed from you? You cannot know his numbers. There is no way you can win a head-on clash. Your only hope is to deprive this army of command. "
The Prince turned his cold gaze on the Duke, and Jasen felt the scorn in those eyes.
“If that is your hope, you have none. There’s not a one, not ten, nor a hundred in your midst who could stand against the Song of Frost, with Bitter Edge in my hand.“
Jasen leapt on the opening.
“Is that a challenge, your Highness?”
He carefully shielded his eagerness, but the Prince raised one brow slightly. Jasen had caught his mis-step, and he knew it. For all his talk of clearing the pieces from the board, he was still bound by the geas-like formality and honour of the Fey.
“You may take it as such, if you wish,” he replied, and Jasen thought he could detect a sliver of doubt in the Fey’s smile. "Array your finest champions. It matters not how many, and I will face them alone. When I win, you will quit the field and leave Haven to it’s fate.”
“And if I win?”
“If somehow you force me to concede, I will do the same, and I will take the Blizzard Sphere with me."
The Prince looked around the vicinity and spied an abandoned farm house on a small hill not far away. He waved towards it.
“I will await your champions in that field. Consider my offer for as long as you like. Every moment spent, your city is dying.”
With that, he stepped back in the snow and vanished into the wind.
Jasen dashed back to the shelter of the stone wall. This changed everything. Of course, he could ignore the Prince’s offer. He could let him languish there until he tired of waiting, all the while moving his own forces into a better position, and attacking the sphere himself. It was a tempting thought. But it was a fleeting one. He could not rely on the Prince keeping to the field for any useful length of time, and the opportunity to test the Prince’s mettle, while almost suicidally dangerous, was too good to pass up. He might never have a better set of circumstances — any other contest between them would most likely be at a time and place of the Prince’s choosing. This challenge would allow him to influence the terms of their clash.
He pulled out his Sending Stone and contacted his companions, hoping they were in a position to respond. Jasen had no illusions about taking on the Prince by himself. While he was formidable with a blade, the Prince of Frost was one of the Arch Fey: creatures so powerful they rivaled the Gods themselves. Everything hinged on convincing his friends that this was worth interrupting whatever they were doing right now..
“This is too good to be true, " Lyneth said. “He’s up to something.”
“When is he not up to something?” Anika replied.
“I mean, something intended to deflect us from our own purposes.”
Martin’s voice joined the others emanating from the stone.
“But can we afford to ignore him? We let the enemy approach Haven because it was the least threat. Given what we now suspect, The Prince is close to the center of this whole mess.”
“Exactly my point: If he’s willing to meet us face to face, then he’s got some hidden agenda working in the background.” Lyneth’s concern leaked into her voice. “If he wants us there, we need to look elsewhere. Trust me — the Arch Fey think circles within circles. I should know”
“And you ask us to trust you, " Jasen imagined Anika’s sardonic smile on the other end of the stone.
Jasen flipped his collar up to shield his voice from the wind.
“We could all be walking into a trap, I suppose. Or worse, leaving those near us vulnerable while he distracts us. But this is our best chance to deal with him outside his domain, and to take out the Blizzard Sphere at the same time.”
Jasen closed his eyes. His voice dropped to a whisper.
“And I can’t do it alone.”
That seemed to clinch it.
“I’ll open a portal. Be there in a minute.”
“Seems like you’ve learned another trick or two since we parted ways, Anika.”
“You have no idea.”
They walked abreast up the path toward the ruined farm, stopping fifty paces before the first broken building.
Martin turned to his old friend, “The strike team is nearly at the storm front. Even if we fall, they’ll be in position to assault the sphere within moments. All we have to do is keep him busy.”
Jasen smiled encouragingly.
Cur hefted his great hammer onto his shoulder, "We’ll do more than keep him busy, " he grunted.
Mongrel growled in agreement.
Lyneth bit her lower lip. She kept to the half-elven shape in which she felt most comfortable and familiar, but still she couldn’t help but fidget, fingers tapping on the handle of the winter court blade she wore at her side. As he’d so ably demonstrated in the Court of Senaliesse, the Prince of Frost held her Fey Pact, and he could use it, and had used it, against her. She had been so young when sworn into the Dark by the Cabinet of Faces, none could have faulted her choices. The Dark was all she’d known for years. Then, the lure of her heritage had drawn her towards the Fey. Perhaps foolishly she had sought to lessen the hold of Dark by tempering it with another source, another promise. While she remained indistinct, unnoticed by either Source, the power flowed freely and she broke free of the Cabinet, made her own way. The wellspring of dark and fey powers seemed endless.
Now everything had changed.
She had been noticed.
How naive she had been. From the streets of her youth, she’d only learned one road to freedom : power greater than those around you. She’d fled down that path, and yet it had taken her on a detour — a route that took her to the doorstep of the very Masters she had sought to avoid. She’d refrained from the Naming of a Pact Lord for years. Such a relationship was far too ..intimate. Swearing fealty to one Lord, it marked you.
But it also protected you. Protected you from what was happening to her now. Her Pact had been taken up by her enemy within the Fey Court. Only an Arch Fey could provide the source of power she now commanded, it seemed. The irony was not lost on her.
When she faced him in battle this day, what would he do? He’d compelled her once before. Would he do so again? Would he staunch the flow of his Pact? She’d have to rely only on the Dark.
Lyneth shuddered. She had been distancing herself from that source for years. Each time she fell back on the Dark she felt diminished, somehow less Lyneth and more of whatever loomed on the other end of that conduit.
The Prince was waiting for them when they crested the hill. He stood with his back to them, deathly still; staring in the far distance, as frozen as those hapless fools who found themselves captive in the Fortress of Frozen Tears. At the sound of their approach, he turned.
When he saw the champions Jasen had selected, he smiled.
Jasen smiled right back.
“You did say not ten, nor a hundred, did you not?”
“That I did.” The Prince’s smile faded slowly. He stepped sideways, keeping his distance, measuring their response as he slid Bitter Edge from its sheath. The cool air turned colder, gusting away from him, lifting the twice-blown snow from the ground.
“Well there’s only six of us.” Jasen shrugged and drew his song-blade. Cur’s hammer swung down from his shoulder. Anika’s Staff and Wand appeared instantly in her hands. Martin and Amata stepped apart from the others, and Lyneth brazenly drew out the Winter Court Blade she wielded- a trophy from a previous encounter with the Prince’s coterie.
“I did wonder if I would be seeing you today .. or at all, " the Prince said. He swept his blade through the air in a graceful salute. Crystals of ice formed in its wake, a musical arc glittering as they fell. The winds grew stronger, and the hilltop was wreathed in a laurel of white.
Jasen returned the salute and circled in the other direction.
“I wouldn’t want to disappoint you, your Highness.”
Faster than thought, the Prince launched into the space between them. But Martin had been readying himself for the opening move. He’d already raised the Shard of the Citadel. The air crackled and a storm of flame laced with black light descended from the sky, enveloping the Prince of Frost entirely. Windstorm and firestorm met, flame and frost. An elemental of cold would have been consumed by such a conflagration, but the Arch Fey are not so easily overcome. The Prince emerged, barely singed, steam and ice trailing him, each step taking his blade closer to Jasen’s chest. The rising snowstorm clouded their view of him, and the shadow of his passing made it seem as if he were in several places at once.
The Prince flourished his blade, and the slurry of sleet beneath Martin grew harder and stronger, rising up around him, and the Prince continued to advance. Jasen strode out to meet him, Cur and Mongrel at his side. But which one? There seemed to be a handful of Princes in the whirling snow.
“Straight on!” Martin shouted. “He comes at you from the center!”
Lyneth sprang into action. Pointing her eldritch blade at the indistinct figures of the Prince, she quietly uttered a single word of terrible purpose; a word that carried the echoes of screaming beneath the earth, of blackness and torture, of an age before the Gods had made order from chaos; a word she wrested from the clouded mind of a recluse driven mad by the knowing of it. A year and a day she’d spent preparing herself to even contemplate it’s alien pronunciation.
The winds parted before her careful diction, as the word hammered through the air in front of her. Every one of the Prince-like figures halted in their wind-borne stride as the word bore through them.
Jasen and Cur kept to Martin’s guidance, converging on the center. It was soon clear which was the real Prince: the other figures resembled him in form, but their features were coarsely made from snow. Only in the concealing storm would any mistake one for the other. As their target became clear Cur and Mongrel charged together. The great wolf leapt for the throat and the Goliath’s hammer followed, a coordinated strike few could withstand. Even the Prince’s blade-song training was not sufficient to avoid the both of them at once. He stepped squarely in the path of the wolf, rolling with him down to the ground so that Mongrel shielded him from Cur’s blow, guessing the Ranger would not strike his life-long companion. Mongrel twisted against the Prince, trying to latch onto him with a set of jaws strong enough to snap a man’s leg in two, but the lithe fey slipped away. Cur’s hammer slammed into the packed earth a hairs breadth behind him. The Prince smoothly rolled to his feet. It seemed the icy ground itself was his ally – he skated over it without pause or effort.
Anika turned her left side toward the arena. Shifting the Staff in her right hand so that it rested vertically at her back, she aimed the Wand at the Prince. A jagged line traced from it’s tip, reaching out to the Prince of Frost, a crack between worlds. Reality warped around that aperture and for a moment, she tapped into that phantom, replacing the Prince’s reality with her own will. His senses now would be subject to her influence, casting the illusion of enemies over his allies, forcing him to step where she willed.
At least, that was the plan.
The Prince danced across the snow, his blade flashing. Anika bent her will to force his steps to her own path, and exulted when he moved away from Cur as she directed, towards one of his own facsimiles. Then her joy turned to dismay as the ice bore him onward, past her target and directly toward her. The Prince grinned and glared as Bitter Edge slipped beneath her guard before she could raise her Staff in defense. Red stained her white robes and he continued past, faster than she could respond. Bitter Edge was a blur of burning blue.
What had happened? Her connection with the spell was still active.
She had her answer a moment later when one of the Prince’s decoys lunged at another one.
“Beware the snowmen.” she alerted the others. “They’re not just distractions.”
Indeed, they proved to be much more than mere annoyances. They moved to obstruct and attack whichever champion was closest, even using rudimentary tactics in their favor, as if imbued with their own evil intelligence. None of them were of any particular threat on their own, but together they served to give the Prince some extra room to maneuver. And when one dissolved in a bath of fire, or was obliterated by a hammer-blow, another would rise from the snow in the Prince’s footsteps.
Perhaps their most frustrating property : while any one of them existed, the Prince was all but immune to many of their more potent powers, for one of the snowmen would suffer it instead, a mystical lodestone for detrimentality.
Martin gripped the Raven Queen’s symbol tightly. Although the ice encasing his lower torso had risen in moments, he was not concerned. The Prince of Frost may be a powerful Arch Fey aspect of Winter, but Martin was favored by a Goddess with even greater power over that domain. Admittedly the Raven Queen had been mostly absent since this whole thing started — which was of some concern. Still, an icy tomb was not his destiny. With concerted effort, he broke free of the freezing block, and flung a bolt of gleaming black energy from the Shard. The Prince ducked Cur’s hammer, but Martin’s bolt caught him a glancing blow, spinning him. A cloud of dark energy coruscated from the strike, like a rising thunderhead clinging to him, racing around his shoulders.
The storm grew rapidly over the next seconds, expanding until it covered half the hilltop, and then bolts of deathly radiance reached out to each of the snowforms, destroying them.
Jasen’s song-blade sung in harmony, adding the destruction to it’s haunting refrain, resonating with the loss of each snowform, another voice in the chorus. Jasen called out, his lilting tenor in counterpoint with the magical blade : “Press on, press on! He falters!”
A dark scowl passed over the Prince’s mien, before his usual equanimity returned. The edge of his white tunic fluttered red in the wind, slashed and torn. Jasen glanced at his own sword, and there was blood along the edge.
Beset by perhaps the greatest heroes the mortal world had known in more than a thousand years, the Pale Prince knew this battle had turned against him. Still, he was an Arch Fey, and arrogant. The sight of his own blood threw him into a cold fury. He passed like a gale amongst them, foot and blade flashing with supernatural speed, the intricate dance of the Song of Frost, and so fast was he, that not one of them remained untouched. Then the blood that flowed was not his alone.
Jasen gritted his teeth, pressing his hand on the wound in his abdomen, and sprinted to the left, blade humming in an subtle feint : a move designed to force his opponent to his right, into Cur’s reach. The Pale Prince was not so easily deceived, and sprung into the air, somersaulting over the outstretched thrust. Cur’s hammer found only empty space.
So it would go, back and forth, cut and parry, snow and flame, ice and storm. A master bladesinger, the Prince rarely made a misstep. But in the end, it came down to just that, a forced mistake. In the chaos, the Prince slid towards Amata, seeing an opening where the shard-mind was unprotected. His strike was devastating, but it had been a gambit. Cur loomed out of the storm to his right, and this time, he could not escape the hammer. The bones of any mortal man would have been crushed, pulverized.
The Prince dropped to one knee for a second, then recovered, swiping at Cur’s throat with his blade. The Goliath stepped back, giving the Prince some space. Jasen had stepped in, thinking the Prince defeated but the Prince rolled backwards, coming up under Jasen’s guard, and slipping Bitter Edge between the links of Jasen’s mail.
The Duke staggered back, gasping for air, his face instantly pale.
“I am true to my word, Your Grace.” and with that, the snow spiraled around him and he vanished into the winds.
Jasen slipped to the ground, his fingers and toes stiffening, solidifying, turning to solid ice. In mere moments, the Princes curse had taken his whole body, and his companions looked on with horror.
Martin reached for his hand. He would not let this happen. Whatever the cost, Martin would pay it. He had already lost too many good friends. He began to pray.
“Why so glum?” Jasen asked.
“Did I?” Martin started.
“The fates have a greater destiny in mind for me, than becoming an ice sculpture.” Jasen smiled.
There was a flash of light the enemy forces surrounding the city, and seconds later they were swept from their feet by a shock wave.