The Snow Queen and the FireHeart

Shadows and Doubts

IV

Shadows And Doubts

"You see, Elsa, I don't think I can be Arendelle's Ice Master anymore," Kristoff said despairingly, pacing back in forth in front of his halted sled. His hat was wrung between his hands and he was sweating heavily, not just from the warmer air of the Weeping Valley but from the torturous thoughts at his lips and the way they might offend his audience. His face was twisted and his eyes darted up from his feet and back, afraid to linger anywhere too long. While he had practiced this speech for days, it felt like climbing a completely different mountain when speaking it out loud. "But it's not you. It's me, really. I mean, who needs a guy to fetch ice from the high mountains when the queen can make it magically appear with a flick of her hand? I've spent my life wading through snowdrifts and sleeping in snow caves, all to learn how to do a single thing. Then…wham!"

A heavy sigh escaped his lips and he wilted forward.

"Your best suddenly doesn't matter."

He listened to the silence for a moment, anxiously waiting for a response, though afraid to look over. The lack of response made him brave the silence and glance to Olaf, smirking. "That bad, huh?" he sighed. The snowman was twiddling his twigs together and trying his best to construct a criticism for the speech.

"It wasn't really not good?" he suggested, laughing nervously.

Kristoff groaned and continued wringing his hat, feeling confident that no matter how much he practiced it and how deeply he trenched the snow, it would always come out pathetic. After all, everything he said made him feel pathetic. "Ugh, how would you explain to the queen that you're basically useless because of her magic?" he sighed, once more feeling aggravated that all of the things he did best seemed inconsequential compared to the extraordinary nature of Anna's sister.

Olaf found the question odd, as he only existed because of Elsa's magic.

Just as he was groaning further, Elsa approached them from the rocky terrain ahead, an air of cold surrounding her. Ever since setting out with them, she had been slipping further into the dark thoughts about Anna's kidnappers, silently brooding over what she would do to them. It made it difficult to think of anything else. "I think I've found the path," she said, something clenched tightly in her hands. Kristoff instantly straightened at her appearance and his ears burned, wondering if she had caught any of his speech.

Olaf was oblivious and simply waved. "Oh hey, Elsa. Kristoff was just talking about how useless…" he began when Kristoff slapped a massive glove across his face, cutting him off.

He smiled sheepishly at Elsa as her brow twisted.

"How useless…?" she repeated.

"How useless…uhm, the sled is now that the snow ends. Yep! Going to have to go on foot from here," he replied quickly, looking at the slushy snow as it faded away completely in the depths of the valley. In the face of her glowering mood, he was terrified of presenting his speech to her, realizing that Olaf was probably not the best audience he could have picked to practice on considering the snowman's blatant lack of common sense.

Still distracted by her own thoughts, Elsa followed his eyes into the foul colors of the valley and scowled. The lack of snow and ice disturbed her, for the clean sheets of snow around Arendelle always brought her comfort, reminding her of her own affinity to the world. This place was foreign and frightful to her. It was like the darkness and squalor of a villain's heart.

"What a terrible place," she remarked.

While she gazed at their destination, Kristoff's eyes had wandered down to the strip of colorful material in her hands, feeling as if he had seen something like it before. The memory felt intimate and it caused his heart to start thundering in his chest. "Is that…?" he asked, feeling unable to really appreciate what it meant.

She was brought back to the world and looked to her hands, where she had been twisting the material tightly between her fingers. When she first saw it, she instantly recognized it as part of the dress Anna had been wearing, its ripped condition fueling the burning in her chest and the darkness in her heart. Her eyes scoured the way the edges of the cloth had been cut cleanly, but left jagged patterns, as if it had been removed under duress. "It's Anna's. It was tied to a tree next to a path that leads into the valley. They're showing us the way," she whispered, not even trying to hide the fury within her. Even the warmer temperatures of the valley failed against the wrath of the Snow Queen and the snow began to encroach further onto the rocks, turning the black and yellow of the place to blue and white as a testament to how ruthless her judgment would be. Just the thought of Anna's clothing being torn from her made her blood hot and her powers flared as a reaction.

It was difficult keeping calm.

Although Kristoff would have been the first to try and stave off her dangerous mood and the ruthless cold that came with it, he was also suffering his emotions and stared at the strip of cloth, imagining much the same things. It heated his blood even hotter than hers as he abruptly turned and began unfastening Sven's harness.

"Let's go then," he barked anxiously.

As they descended into the valley, Kristoff walked ahead with his keen eyes on the area around them. He had only skirted the edge of the valley through his years of living in the mountains and now he was glad he had at least some knowledge of the area. There were signs of danger all around, from the loose shale underfoot to the pitiless, saw-toothed rocks that lingered below the trail. His instincts allowed them to avoid the danger and a part of him was glad to be useful to the queen, even as he could barely think of anything except getting to Anna, while Elsa's bad mood created an air of silence around them which began to distract him back to his buried concerns and just how helpless he felt in the face of her seemingly limitless capacities.

His heart was as jagged as the rocks underfoot, but twice as unstable.

Approaching a chasm, he suddenly waved everyone to stop and looked across the gap. He wondered if they had lost the path, but looking out to the other side, he saw a natural run heading farther into the valley, making him wonder if there were simply more than one way to get to where they were going. While his mind was in flux with the torrent of thoughts about Anna and Elsa, he came to the realization that they wouldn't simply be able to stroll along to find the abducted princess, and that he had to be focused on the path itself to find its end. In that, he found a measure of peace. "Hang on. It'll take a minute to make an over-under. Then we can cross," he said, rummaging through his satchel for some rope. He was suddenly eager to demonstrate his skill to the queen, realizing this might be a way he could stand apart, but Elsa suddenly walked past him and thrust her hand out at the chasm, making a perfectly frozen bridge arch over the gap to the other side.

She said nothing as she continued on.

Kristoff stared on pathetically as Olaf and Sven followed her, his head drooping and a heavy sigh escaping his lips.

"Oh, right."

The four of them continued on, quieted by the colors, sounds and heat of the place. Both Elsa and Kristoff moved with caustic expressions, neither of them speaking much even as Olaf provided unending commentary about the howling wind and stained rocks. Oddly, the valley became more and more distorted to the snowman as he followed and he was beginning to wonder why everything began to lean to one side.

"Hey guys? Is it just me or is this place getting kind of soggy and wobbly?" he asked.

Kristoff turned to find him strolling ever deeper into a puddle of his own making. "Elsa! Olaf's melting!" he yelled. She had been preoccupied, but his alarm made her turn and see the dire situation her friend was in. Quickly flicking her hand out, her magic swirled around the snowman and turned him back to normal, with his usual flurry popping up overhead. A sigh of relief settled over them, but soon the heat of the valley overcame the flurry and Olaf began to melt again, much to his despair.

"Uhm, maybe a little more flurry?" he suggested.

Elsa appeared annoyed and flashed both hands at him, returning him back to normal again and this time supported by a much bigger, much darker flurry. It blew freezing air over him and he retained his shape even against the stifling heat of the valley. Kristoff had his eyes on her, concerned at how she simply resolved the situation with more power, but Olaf was overjoyed at the squall that hung over his head. "My flurry's become a tempest! I love it," he cheered. Elsa didn't seem her usual self and glared down at her hands, wondering how her flurry would protect him on the hottest summer day, yet did nothing against the unnatural heat of this place. The mystery only irritated her more and she turned to continue on, flipping her dress angrily behind her.

Kristoff followed her with his eyes. "Queen Elsa?" he said, following her cautiously. She didn't answer and barely looked back to him. Feeling his feet slip a bit, he glanced at the trail of frozen ground that followed behind her, sensing that her mood was eager to seize the world around them in angry fractals of ice and revenge.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"No, I'm not all right," she suddenly growled, her eyes looking around for another sign of the path and her mood slowly drifting away from her, "Anna's being dragged around this awful place by some person who's slowly tearing the dress off of her. Why would I be all right?" He understood that and winced, but he was getting more concerned at the blunt usage of her magic and couldn't help but glance at Olaf's new tempest. He didn't know why, but it worried him.

"Look, I'm worried too, but getting angry won't bring her back any faster. You have to calm down," he pointed out.

"I am calm!" she suddenly yelled and a flash of her magic sent a frozen wind through the wiry trees around them, freezing them into fearsome creatures with frozen spines and spindly claws. He jumped at her fit and glanced around, finding these ghastly golems of ice crying silently into the air. She was obviously not as calm as she claimed to be as she turned on him, her eyes on fire. "Why are you so calm? Why aren't you angry? Don't you care what happens to Anna?" she hissed. Kristoff winced. Having his feelings questioned hit him brutally and he looked down from her, not because he questioned them but because her lack of faith in him only furthered his own self-doubt. But as much as he had been struggling lately, there was definitely one thing he didn't doubt.

He didn't doubt his love for Anna.

Not even for a moment.

"More than anything," he replied, and his eyes rose against her accusations.

His expression struck her and she realized how cruel she had been. While it had been very difficult in controlling her emotions, she realized that lashing out at someone who also loved Anna got them no closer to helping her and that she had been unfair. She stepped back, rubbing her hands together and taking a few shaky breaths, wondering why she had been so vicious. "I'm sorry, Kristoff. I didn't mean…" she began, but couldn't even finish her apology. There was too much anger building up in her and seeing something of Anna tied so carelessly around the tree had churned up something dark inside. All she could think about was using her powers to make the kidnappers suffer.

It felt like only the anger mattered now, and that frightened her down to her very core.

Seeing her distress, he stepped forward and put his strong hands across her slumping shoulders, looking at her calmly. "Look, I'm angry. I'm scared. Anna is everything to me and knowing she's gone makes me crazier than you can even imagine. I'm fighting the urge to run forward with everything I have, but none of that matters if I can't find the way that leads me to her. None of that matters if I'm too angry to know how to bring her back," he said. She looked up to him, full of uncertainty. It was comforting to hear that his focus was so much finer than hers and that he wasn't just thinking of what he would do when they found those responsible. The difference in their approaches made her feel guilty and alone.

She trembled.

"I'm scared Kristoff," she whispered, "If I were to lose her, I…"

"That won't happen," he said quickly.

"How do you know?"

His lips pursed. It wasn't the sort of question he could answer with words, but rather something he could only answer with his heart. "I just know," he replied, though it did little to assuage the fear in her eyes, "It's nothing I can explain to you, and I can't tell you how I'll find her or how I know she'll be okay when we do. All I know is I could never let anything happen to Anna, and that I'll do everything I can to save her," he replied confidently. She glimpsed the relief she felt when they had joined her and hope managed to chip away at the anger. She still felt the fury boiling deep inside, but she would borrow his strength and focus of the path, finding that his strong hands and his strong heart were almost enough to defeat the fears she still had. Inwardly, she didn't know what she would do when she finally confronted those that took her, but that was a bridge she would cross later, and she wasn't sure any amount of comforting words would calm her rage then.

For the moment, she just had to trust in him. "Thank you," she said, placing her hand across his.

He was glad he was able to calm her down, but soon realized how close they were standing and that he was touching the queen somewhat intimately. He awkwardly jumped back and held his hands out between them, as if to defend himself from some unknown consequence of assuming too much with her. "Thank you. I mean, you're welcome. I mean, you're the queen and everything, so of course I'd do whatever you ask of me, but that's not why I'm going to save Anna or anything. I'd do that, you know, because of that other thing. Me and her…that whole thing," he stuttered incoherently. She kept looking at him, still vulnerable and unsure, though his sudden awkwardness made her almost smile. She was glad he was trying to console her, but she couldn't shake off her emotions or the dread she harbored when thinking of Anna's fate.

With a sigh, she simply wished that she shared his confidence.

"Hey Elsa! Kristoff! Up ahead there's this big hole in the ground. You know, like a big, gaping hole in the side of the rocks that leads inside?" Olaf suddenly said, coming into sight on Sven's back.

"A cave?" Kristoff asked, glad to get a break from his awkward exchange with Elsa.

The snowman nodded vigorously. "Oh, yeah! One of those," he replied.

Finding a way out of their situation, Kristoff glanced to Elsa and then moved around her, though he was already feeling anxious at the prospect of going underground. With her in tow, they came into sight of the large hole, feeling like they were staring into the open jaws of a terrifying animal. A hot wind blew out from the jowls of the earth and it was foul with sulfur, which made him grimace. He didn't like caves, as certified by the way he grumbled at the sight of the hole.

"Great. Just great," he groaned.

Not paying attention to his anxiety, Elsa had noticed something blowing carelessly in the wind coming from the cave and moved reverently to the side. Reaching out slowly, her fingers caressed yet another strip of Anna's dress, a grimace overtaking her face. After a moment, she noticed he was watching her and she slipped her fingers from the material, feeling the old anger come back. "It leads inside," she said, looking to the dark depths. Lingering in the bowels of the earth she thought she saw a dim blue light, as if to lead them on their way.

"Of course it would," he mumbled, rubbing his forehead harshly, "Down into the dark. Rocks everywhere. No air to breathe. The ceiling waiting to come down on you at any moment."

Elsa once more caught on to his anxiety, but said nothing.

With no other options, they entered the caves and continued to follow the path. Each sign of Anna's clothing brought a new level of tension among them and now even Kristoff was having trouble focusing. Oddly, he had no trouble with digging out a snow cave to survive in the cold winter, but caves of rock and darkness had always bothered him. He much preferred the open skies of the mountains. "Just a cave. A nice, big, open cave with lots of room and no tumbling rocks burying you up to your nose," he chanted as they trudged along. Elsa had been watching him, feeling that she should probably try and help him relax. Before she had the chance, she began to notice a strange sound filling the cave ahead. It was decidedly different than the low moan of the wind coming through the rock and it sent a wave of chills through her, making her attention shift solely to it.

The sound was chilling. "What is that?" she asked, coming to a grinding halt on the sandy floor.

With the queen stopped, everyone else did the same, looking around the dim caverns and ancient pillars of stone. "Did it sound like a pile of rocks sliding towards us?" Kristoff asked nervously. Again there was a strange, tonal sound filling the caves accompanied by the grind of rocks grinding against one another, something that put Kristoff further on edge. It was the tonal sounds that struck Elsa however, and she stepped a few steps forward to try and focus on it.

"No, it sounded like that," she replied.

As the clamor continued, the group was on edge and Sven's ears danced all around, trying to isolate the source. Elsa instinctively raised her hands out and scanned the dark recesses of the caves, but found nothing that would make such a terrible sound. The anticipation hung in the air heavily and she fearfully wondered if they would suddenly find the criminals they sought, rushing the inevitable decision she would have to make when she finally laid eyes upon them.

In truth, she realized she was utterly unprepared for that moment. She still had no idea what she would do to them.

Suddenly, a large, bulky form crashed into the cavern and screeched with a pitched whine, shattering the tension and throwing the atmosphere to chaos. The Xenolith looked as if it were fleeing something even more terrifying than it was, which seemed absurd considering its fearsome appearance, and it was stumbling around violently like a child in the dark, though finding this new group of trespassers focused its rage and it suddenly turned its attention to them, flaring out sharp claws and glowing ominously in the dark. They had no idea what it was or why it had come, but they were instantly aware of its malicious intent.

"What is that?" Elsa shrieked, jumping back with her heart racing in her ears.

Kristoff grimaced as he looked up the rocky body of the creature, his hand instantly grabbing his snow axe. "Never seen that before!" he yelled back, trying to take a heroic position between it and the others.

"Maybe he's a nice rock monster?" Olaf suggested hopefully, but the Xenolith suddenly howled and took a swing at them with its massive, clawed hand, making them scatter into the cavern to avoid being torn to pieces.

"I'm guessing that's a no!" Kristoff replied as he rolled to his feet, then took a quick look around to try and see if Elsa was okay.

Without warning, a flash of light filled the cave as she thrust her hand out at the Xenolith and a blue, frozen crust formed over the creature's arm. Another flash of light froze the creature's leg to the ground and it screeched loudly, trying to thrash at them but finding that the thick ice had rendered it unable to move. Seeing her magic deftly stop the creature from its attack, Kristoff clenched a fist through the air.

"Hah! Got him!" he cheered.

To their disappointment however, the Xenolith strained against the ice, making it crack and groan, then violently pulled its leg free and stumbled around to them, obviously not as vulnerable to her magic as they had hoped. Elsa winced and attempted to freeze the entire creature with both hands, changing it from a looming black monster into a frosted blue statue. Even then, the ice around its joints cracked free and the creature was able to lurch forward towards them, unfazed by something that would have otherwise stopped anything else in its tracks.

Its immunity to her magic made her panic and she took a frantic step back. "It's not working!" she cried. With a direct attack useless, she changed her tactics and suddenly swirled her hand up through the air, causing a large, bulky snowmen to rise up from the ground before the creature, nearly as tall and just as fearsome. The Xenolith appeared confused for a moment, but soon saw this enemy as nothing more than an obstacle to its prey, branding its fierce claws at it with a harrowing shriek. The snowman lunged forward and grappled the Xenolith, wrapping its massive arms around the black rock. It forced the black creature back away from its master, though after a moment of struggling the Xenolith regained its footing and howled in rage. With unprecedented strength, it cut down with its black claws and sliced deeply into the snowman, which roared out in response. The razor-sharp edges of rock twisted inside of the snow, with the Xenolith then lifting the snowman above its head before smashing its other claw into its head, shattering the frigid ice, then throwing the white golem against the nearest wall, making it shatter into pieces that instantly began to melt on the heated rocks all around.

The massive Xenolith howled its dominance at its melting foe, then turned its attention back to the group.

Elsa grimaced at how quickly her sentinel had been dispatched and tried to catch her breath. "What do we do?" she cried, thrusting her hands forward and trying to overpower the creature with a concentrated blast of magic. Impacting the creature's rigid body, it was holding it at bay for the moment, but it was obviously draining Elsa as well. She had never focused so much of her power before, finding that using it to outright attack was unnatural to her.

In the helplessness of the moment, Kristoff was trying to think. Frantically looking around with his axe in hand, he once more felt entirely useless as she was trying to fend off the creature, unsure how to attack something so formidable and cursing his inability to save her. Even her magic could do little against it and he felt like all of his knowledge and skills were meaningless, driving more corrosive doubt through him at the worst time.

When Anna and Elsa both needed him, all he could do was stand there and watch, frozen in place.

As her icy magic continued to freeze the solid parts of the creature but get broken away at its joints, he suddenly snapped out of his daze, watching the way the ice acted against the crystalline body of the Xenolith. In the back of his mind, he was seeing things that not many others would see and the sounds of its body creaking against the cold made his heart race, as if the creature was suddenly speaking his language. He stared intently at it and adjusted the axe in his hand, feeling empowered by his reasoning of the creature's nature and its weaknesses.

"Keep freezing it!" he yelled, suddenly rushing away from her precarious position and skidding to the side of them, his eyes wildly scanning the creature for more clues to its undoing.

Her concentration wavered a moment as he retreated from her and the lull in her focus made the golem stumble forward through her magic, though she quickly renewed her push. "It's not working!" she cried again, taking a step back. Her magic was beginning to wane and the Xenolith was taking steps towards her, which frightened her and shook her concentration even more.

"Just a little more!" he yelled, still dancing around the two as he passed the axe from hand to hand, his eyes searching every inch of the creature. She had no idea what he was doing and she started to feel resentment at his inability to help her. The strain made her knees wobble and she suddenly took another step back, where her heel hit a buried rock and she stumbled backwards uncontrollably. Hitting the ground harshly and her magic no longer keeping the creature at bay, she looked up in a panic to find it crashing towards her, screeching with its terrible, tonal sounds and reaching out a terrifying claw to seize her. With her magic useless against it, she lifted her hands up to defend herself, realizing it was futile and that her flesh and bone would be crushed in its terrible grasp.

Gasping loudly, she realized she had no defense against this terrifying creature.

"There!" Kristoff suddenly called and the axe came hurling through the air. While seeming harmless against the hard body of the golem, the metal head of the axe struck it in an unimportant spot and caused it to abruptly stop its charge at her, like a pebble stopping a charging bull. A strange, resonating tone was vibrating through its body and its limbs began to shake well out of its control. Soon enough, cracks began to appear in it and its limbs were now flailing through the air, the stress of the movements only exaggerating the growing fissures and causing shards of black rock to spray into the cave. The resonance soon violently shattered the Xenolith's body and it crumbled into a screeching pile in front of Elsa, who was staring in disbelief at the effect of such a simple blow. The Xenolith's yellow eyes and the ethereal red markings disappeared from the depths of its rocky body and soon it no longer moved at all.

She continued to stare in disbelief.

"Queen Elsa! Are you all right?" he asked, hurrying over to help her to her feet. Her shoulders rose and fell wildly as she tried to catch her breath, though even as she still felt the saturation of fear in her, seeing such a formidable creature fall such a simple thing made a smile pulse across her lips as her breath forcefully pierced them.

"That was amazing!" she said, suddenly looking to him with an impressed gasp. "How did you do that?"

He was a bit surprised by her response, but scratched at his hat with a nervous hand as he shrugged dismissively. "Oh, well even the hardest ice has weak spots. Fracture points and shear planes are some of the first things you learn to look for, especially when walking onto a frozen lake for the first time. This thing was built sort of like ice anyway, but with you essentially making it into a giant ice crystal, I was able to find those weak spots. The harder it is, the easier it shatters," he explained, looking down at the lifeless, frozen fragments. Elsa was impressed. Secretly, she had patronized Kristoff's skills and had given him his title of 'Ice Master' out of respect for his bravery and his relationship with Anna. There had been no need for anyone to go get ice from the mountains when she could simply wave it into existence with her magic, however she now realized that while she commanded snow and controlled ice, he understood them on a level that she didn't. She forced it into being with her imagination and her emotions, but he saw the details in it and understood its nature.

In some ways, he was more of a ice master than she ever would be. It made her look at him in a new way. "You saved me," she said softly, repaying him with a genuine respect glowing in her eyes.

Kristoff was uncomfortable under the attention and looked around for his axe, using it as an excuse to get out of the spotlight. "Oh, come on. It's not like I could let anything happen to you. Anna would kill me," he said, which drew an amused smile from her. Finding the axe near the Xenolith, he picked it up and slipped it through the leather ring at his belt. He then turned back and faced her, shrugging at her amazement in something that should have already seemed so obvious. "You're her sister, and you know, the queen too. So if we have to face all sorts of monsters like this, I guess I'll protect you both," he suggested, nervously under her gaze.

With his oath calming her, she managed to let a true smile escape her troubled face. It was obvious why Anna had fallen for him and why Elsa so easily approved of their relationship. "Well then, Ice Master, I'll be counting on you, then," she said warmly, not feeling as helpless against the darkness with him nearby. He nodded, fully intent on living up to her expectations and felt a surge of confidence inside. He had spent the better part of three weeks agonizing over how helpless he was in the wake of her magic, yet finding that she could still need him made his shaky hands go steady. When the time came, he would not simply be watching as Elsa's magic decided the fate of the one they loved. He would be there beside her, doing what he could to bring her back to them, safely and forever. If he could defeat a giant rock monster that not even her ancient magic could slow down, then he could save Anna from whatever foul villain had taken her.

As he saw the new level of respect Elsa had for him, he was sure that he could save her.

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