Snow crunched softly beneath the heels of his iron-plated boots. The day was still, the wind subsided, and their steps were the only sound beneath the ice-coated needles. They had left a trail of footprints down this road all the way back to Greengate, but down there in the plains their footsteps would have been covered by hundreds more in only days.
Here they lingered alone until the snow filled them.
Nobody walks the North Road.
There was no danger to men like him, not once you had entered the forest and passed beyond the last villages. There were wolves, bears and the cold, but fire was enough to keep all three at bay during the night, and no bandits strayed so far from their prey. Sigaerd had a blade at his hip by day, and a decade of experience to put behind its edge.
The magii did not fear wolves. He dreaded darker things, creatures Sigaerd's mother had used to scare him into staying inside after the sun set when he was a boy.
Sigaerd had heard him praying to the Brajr, the three living Adilar, every night and every morning to keep them at bay. He had laughed about it with Friadi and Eskos for a while, but the magii had not stopped and the joke soon grew old.
This place was old too. The roots that covered the stones were here before the forests to the South had been seedlings, and the flagstones themselves had been laid long before his ancestors had fled south in the Long Winter their history only hinted at.
Whatever the magii feared was as old and false as those stories, but the man paid good gold for safety from shadows, and Sigaerd was not one to pass up such an opportunity. A decade of spilling blood in the wars of the southern city-states had taught him to seize such gifts if he could. Four weeks in the cold here would grant them as much gold as twice that time in the service to Qar or Volissos.
'This was not worth the money, Sig,' Friadi sighed, tapping his boot with her bow while they waited for the magii to finish drinking.
'You're just impatient,' he grinned, tugging gently at the lock of blonde hair that had escaped her hood. Friadi would rather have her fight soon, and her gold sooner, than wait on the edge of one.
'I am cold.'
There was ice lining the furs over her mouth, and the white goose feathers of her arrows were frozen solid over her shoulder. Neither he nor Eskos fared any better. Faint patterns of frost had spread across the soot-darkened, iron plates sewn over his stomach and shoulders, and the stained leathers beneath were stiff with the cold.
'It is worse today,' he conceded, 'but it will be every day until we turn south again.'
The magii had promised them this would be the last day, but it was not the first time he had, and the trees still seemed endless.
Eskos grunted in agreement, grinding the bronze-tipped butt of his spear into the snow in another attempt to see the stones of the North Road.
'You will have to dig for days to find them,' the magii told him good naturedly, tucking the wineskin away. 'It's been millennia since the snows first covered it.'
Eskos did not reply: he could not; the priests of Assat had taken his tongue for blasphemy when he was a boy, but the spear stilled in his hand.
'Are you ready to continue?' Sigaerd demanded, straightening his mail; it was painfully cold to touch even through his gloves, and he shivered, reminding himself again of the gold this venture would bring.
'We are almost there,' the magii answered calmly. 'The city of Frostcircle lies beneath the snow and trees to our right,' he gestured with one leather-clad hand, 'and the stone circle is above us.'
'Above?' Friadi studied the trees sceptically.
'You will see,' the magii nodded. 'Together we will be the first to see it since the Pale Men abandoned the city.'
Eskos grunted again, brushing snow from his bronze-scaled shoulders and pointing his spear south.
'Soon,' Sigaerd grinned. Eskos liked the cold even less than Friadi and he. They were of the North, born and raised in Yronwood, but their darker-skinned friend was of the south, from the city they had named him for, and more used to hot sand than cold snow.
The four of them continued through the trees, following the line of smaller trunks where the trees could not grow so large over the ancient road. The walls and works of their ancestors were not easily overcome, and endured beneath the snow to this day.
The magii was moving quickly now, forcing them to almost run to keep up, and Sigaerd could only wonder where his sudden energy had come from when he had been so quick to dawdle and rest for the last fortnight.
Friadi was cursing quietly under her breath as she half-jogged beside him, not relishing the prospect of spraining an ankle on a hidden tree root or rock, but even less fond of the idea of the magii dying up here and their venture being for nothing.
The trees were growing more sparse, the trunks smaller, and beneath the branches scattered mounds of snow were grouped. They were too high for roots, even those of this forest, and Sigaerd carefully avoided walking between or on them.
There were better ways for a mercenary to die than in falling into an ancient house and breaking his neck.
There is always a better way to die.
He grinned, running his tongue over his chapped lips. The mercenary who had used to say that had once owned only a sword, and now owned a house on the coast by Qar. It had been bought with the reward earned from a hundred ventures such as this, and the spoils from the last war between the city states.
'Frostcircle!' The magii exclaimed from half a hundred metres in front, gazing up through the trees.
Sigaerd followed his eyes through a gap in the trees and swore softly to himself.
How did we miss the mountains?
Sharp, grey spears of stone thrust up into the belly of the clouds and from them the rivers of ice ran, grinding down to meet the fading line of trees the four of them stood within.
'Tunglio's teeth,' Friadi muttered. 'There's so much snow.'
'The circle is up there,' the magii said. He pointed at the lowest of the peaks, little more than a thin, grey ridge flanked by sheets of ice and beneath the bright white line of the comet that traced its way over the heavens. 'The glacier has grown to swallow the towers, but we should be able to climb up.'
'That's at least a hundred metres up,' Sigaerd judged.
'More,' the magii agreed. He gestured at the lowest, nearest mounds of snow that stretched across the plain, drawing imaginary lines over the white. 'These were the buildings of the inner city,' he explained. 'Those were the walls.' He pointed to a dune of snow almost ten metres high, barely discernible from land or sky.
'Is there anything else left?' Friadi asked.
'No treasure,' the magii frowned. 'It would be best not to disturb the ruins if we can help it.'
'Scared there might be draukr?' Friadi laughed, flashing her crooked teeth. Eskos rumbled in amusement.
The draukr are myths, magii.
'Or worse,' the man said grimly, fingers curling in his sleeves.
Sigaerd snorted at the magii's fear, loosening the blade at his hip so the frost did not catch it in the scabbard. He doubted he would have need of it, neither wolves or bears would shelter here, but it was better to be safe.
'Shall we continue?' He suggested, eager to be heading south towards a warm bed, proper walls, and hot food.
'I would like to study the circle as much as possible before we have to head back south,' the magii said, starting towards the tip of the glacier and the ridge.
The snow was deep, almost waist deep, soaking their cloaks and legs as they waded.
'At this rate it will take another day,' Friadi growled beside him.
'Still more than we would make for this down south,' he reminded her quietly, 'and less chance of dying too.'
'If he paid us any less I would leave him here,' she said.
The magii stumbled onto his knees in front of them, pitching forwards into the snow with a soft exclamation.
'It's less deep here,' he told them embarrassedly, picking himself up.
'Really?' Sigaerd smirked.
'Odd,' Friadi murmured, pulling herself up alongside the magii, but not looking too displeased at being out of the worst of the snow.
Eskos poked the butt of his spear into the snow until he found the ridge, then grunted, and drew a square with its tip.
'Marketplace?' Sigaerd proposed.
'Temple,' the magii corrected after a moment's thought. 'We are standing on the roof.'
'Don't these temples usually have a hole in the roof?' Friadi tested the snow in front of her very tentatively.
'An oculus? Yes.' The magii eyed the innocent white-veiled ground warily. 'Tread carefully.'
Eskos went first, checking each step with his spear while the magii twitched impatiently behind.
'So will you tell us why you wanted to come up here now?' Sigaerd asked. 'There's nobody else to find out about whatever you're after, and you're already paying us.'
The magii gave him an odd look.
'We are here,' he said slowly, 'because of this.'
He pulled off his right glove, one finger at a time, then reached inside his cloak, furs and robe to retrieve a slim roll of paper.
'Another treasure map,' Friadi groaned, hurrying to catch up with Eskos who had drifted ahead. Had the man not been a magii Sigaerd might have dismissed the piece of paper too. They had often been offered a share of the riches for exploring old tombs and ruins, but no sensible mercenary wasted his life on such things.
'Map?' The magii laughed and unrolled it. 'This is not a map, and there is no treasure here.'
The paper was a sketch, a thick, rough, charcoal outline of a standing stone and the runes that were carved in bands around its width.
'A standing stone,' he realised. 'I hope it's special enough to be worth the journey.'
Truthfully he did not care. The magii would pay them in gold, not with the stone.
'I hope it's not,' the magii disagreed darkly, 'but that's why we're here, the first men to follow this road to its end since the Era of Myths.'
'There are footprints,' Friadi called from in front. 'Two sets.'
'Looks like we aren't the first after all, magii.' Sigaerd laughed quietly at the man's pale face. The three of them were more than a match for a couple of bandits.
'How old?' The magii demanded.
'An hour or two,' Friadi judged, squinting at the them and the surrounding snow. 'Whomever made them was wearing a lot of armour, they pressed deeper into the snow than Sig is.'
'They're going in the same direction as we are,' Sigaerd noted, glancing up at the ridge where the standing circle the city was named for was now just visible. A line of dark specks against the glacier.
'Competition?' Friadi asked curiously.
'This is the only drawing,' the magii answered seriously, tucking it away, 'and only three of my order have seen it since I found it buried in our library.'
'Treasure hunters then,' Sigaerd dismissed. 'They won't be worried about us once we head towards the ridge and away from the ruins.'
Eskos nodded, starting his way cautiously across the temple top again. The tapping of the spear butt through the snow was the only sound, thudding just out of time with Sigaerd's heart.
Friadi stalked alongside him, placing her feet into the footsteps of the treasure hunters, bow strung, and held low and ready in her left hand.
He fixed his eyes on the stone circle, still just a row of dark points on the ridgetop. Friadi was likely right he realised with a grimace. They would not reach the circle today. That meant this evening would be spent huddled in whatever shelter they could find behind the thin fur walls of the tents, and the day after would be wasted while the magii studied his stone.
'The footprints have stopped,' Friadi murmured.
'What?' The magii stopped dead in his tracks, and Sigaerd walked into his back catching his nose painfully on the back of the man's skull.
'Maybe they fell into the oculus,' Sigaerd suggested, holding his nose with one hand until the pain stopped. 'Let's carry on.'
'No,' Friadi said distantly, 'they just... stop.'
He peered past her feet.
The snow was flat and unmarked from beyond her toes.
'They must have covered their tracks,' he decided. It was the only way it made sense. Men didn't just disappear, and footprints didn't just end.
Eskos grunted, pointing his spear at their own footprints, and frowning at him. The sunlight reflected painfully brightly off his bronze-scaled torso and Friadi tugged her hood a little lower to shield her eyes.
'I don't know why they only covered half,' Sigaerd answered, shrugging. 'I don't even know why they bothered hiding them at all.'
'Scared of monsters?' Friadi suggested lightly.
The magii flushed and turned away to kick gently at the ground in mortification.
Something hurled itself from the snow beneath the magii's scuff marks, catching him hard in the side. The blow drove the breath from his lungs, and he rolled desperately across the snow, hearing iron clash against the temple roof where he had been only moments before.
Sigaerd pushed himself back up, drawing his blade and pressing his free hand to his likely broken ribs. The ring mail had shattered beneath his cloak, the iron brittle in the cold, and he grunted in pain as the sharp edges dug into his skin.
The snow was red. A bright crimson spatter spread from his face to Eskos' sprawled form, and a twisted, rusted greatsword protruded from his chest.
We never even knew his name.
He almost wanted to laugh. They called him Eskos for the city he had come from, and because neither he nor Friadi could read well enough to learn his true name.
The something hissed, cold, stale air rushing over rotten lips, and he was engulfed by the stink of the grave.
This time he did laugh.
It was taller than he, a good four inches taller; its gaunt, stark figure loomed over him, clad in iron from its toes to its empty, weeping eye sockets and shrivelled face. Shivering grey fog drifted from its wounds and about its face, hinting at features long since decayed.
'This time you will stay dead,' he promised it, rising on to the balls of his feet. Behind it he glimpsed Friadi dancing around the spear of a second, smaller figure, and the magii desperately clutching Eskos' short blade with both hands beyond her.
The first draukr reached for its two-handed blade, thick grey mist trailing from the gaps in its flesh, and between the partings of its iron plate as they moved.
Sigaerd leapt forwards, slicing at its outstretched arm, but it was faster than he had expected and twisted away, abandoning its greatsword for the slim dagger at its waist.
It turned his next stroke aside with its bracer, slipping closer to get within the reach of his blade.
Sigaerd stepped back, preserving his advantage, and hacked savagely at the creature's side until the dagger broke beneath his sword.
The edge of his blade bit deep into the iron of the draukr's stomach plates.
The thing did not flinch, but caught his arm, and drove the broken hilt of the dagger into his forearm. The mail held this time, and he wrenched himself free, gagging at the sudden wave of putrefaction that emanated from the wounded draukr.
A white-feathered shaft sprouted from the creature's shoulder and it snarled in irritation, snapping it off.
'They don't feel pain,' the magii cried, 'you have to destroy the body so that it can no longer trap the wraith within.'
The second arrow struck the small of the draukr's back and it staggered forwards into his reach. Sigaerd took its right arm off with a single swing, severing the limb at the elbow where the iron plates parted.
'Not so tough,' he said, grinning. The loss might not hurt the creature, but it would certainly hinder it.
The draukr lunged forward again, but this time he was ready for it, side-stepping and hamstringing the creature.
Friadi screamed, and he turned, leaving his crippled opponent in his wake to help her.
He was too late.
Her bow was splintered, cleft in half, and a dark, gushing gap had replaced the smooth hollow of her throat where the foe she had thought fallen had thrust his spear into her neck.
Devourers take you, he swore at the draukr, fingers tight upon the hilt of his sword.
Twenty years they had lived side by side, and this was not how he had envisioned it ending. They had supposed to make enough to buy a house in Volissos together, not be separated here.
The draukr rumbled, pulling the long white-feathered shaft from its ruined eye, and advanced towards the magii, glinting orbs of thick, grey mist peered from its rotted face as the wraith bound within the tattered flesh picked its prey.
The magii threw up his hands, dropping the bronze blade he had taken from Eskos to protect himself from the creature's swing, and there was a flash of heat. A sudden scorching roiling warmth washed across his face, and in an instant of red the draukr burst into flames, staggering forwards, still alight, before crumpling onto the snow to smoke harmlessly.
'Well done, magii,' he said darkly, pleased to see Friadi's killer burn.
'Magic,' the man whispered, staring dazedly at his hands.
Sigaerd took the head off the shoulders of the other draukr in three vicious swings, kicking the body angrily away from him. The grey mist seeped from its flesh, condensing into a vaguely humanoid shape for an instant before dissipating in scattered wisps.
'We should not have agreed to take you here,' Sigaerd said bitterly.
'This is more than you realise,' the magii replied cryptically. 'Magic waxes where before it was waning. I must reach the pillar.'
Sigaerd grit his teeth, jerking the broken ringmail from his ribs and pulling his cloak closer about him. The cold had returned, more hungry than before, biting deeper, slicing through his cloak and furs like a knife.
A third figure stepped from the snow.
It was no draukr.
Eyes burned as bright as stars, white as the snow, and as cold as the moon in a face of riven, cracked ice. An otherworldly hatred gleamed cruel there, naked aggression outlined in the tilt of its hoarfrost-bearded chin and the lean of its snow shrouded form.
The magii had frozen, staring at the thing in disbelief, and when the heat leapt from his fingers again it was weak.
The creature did not waver, made no sound, and left no imprint upon the snow as it stalked forwards, a blade of ice growing from between its fingers. The sword was as long as his outstretched arm, but as thin as a coin, and as clear and sharp as shattered glass. The sunlight reflected from its edge in sharp, stabbing lances of light.
There was another moment of heat, desperate and searing, then the snow was drenched red, and thing turned to him.
Its face had half-melted from the magii's magic, but now froze again, the burning white eye flaring back to life. The veil of snow that had garbed it was gone. Beneath lay a body armoured in the same clear ice as the blade in its hand, spattered crimson, too bright to look at in the sun, but gleaming so cold the hairs rose along the nape of his neck.
His mother would have been praying, but he'd seen men die praying, seen them burn, drown and bleed with their faith in their eyes and the names of their gods on their lips; it never seemed to help any of them, and he doubted it would help him now.
Another figure appeared behind it, then more, until Sigaerd could no longer count them, a host of cold, clear swords and burning, white eyes to watch him fall.
There is always a better way to die.
His blade clashed with the clear-edged weapon of the creature, showering bright, blue sparks across both their faces.
A second and a third strike slithered of its unnatural edge, then the creature twisted, stepping closer, and he was forced to step back. With each touch of their blades the frost spread further along his sword, its icy pattern spiralling from the nicked edge to battered hilt.
His blade was so cold from it that it burnt his fingers.
Another brief exchange of blows and he had to retreat again, leaving the creature standing over Friadi's body, still silent, still staring, and still hateful.
The grey mist swirled over his companions' forms, sinking and seeping into them. Friadi's fingers curled, her body shuddered, then she stood, rising smoothly to stand in glassy-eyed silence beside the creature. Eskos and the magii rose only a moment later.
'Damn you,' he hissed, lashing out with all his strength at the thing that had defiled his friends.
Their blades met midway between them, but the instant they touched his sword shattered in a spray of shards that sliced his cheek, and clattered from his iron plate.
Cold fingers tightened upon his wrist. Feeling fled from its touch, the cold burnt so deep into his muscles that his arm slackened and grew numb. The chill was like nothing he had ever known, hungry, consuming, devouring the warmth within him.
He prayed now, calling the names of the Adilar over and over in his mind, begging, pleading. He had not been a good man, but he could be, he would be, if only they would save him.
The fingers released him, and for a moment he dared to hope, then a point of cold burst in his breast as the creature thrust its unnatural sword through his ribs, slicing through the ring mail like it was wool.
The world faded into white as he crumpled to his knees. The snow, the sky, the creature and his friends mist-shrouded forms, all faded into the milk-white, burning, eldritch eyes.