The sun rises as the next bard barges onto the rostrum: a strapping, angry man whose scowl silences the Hall.
“Why tell these pansy love songs, these boring history lessons, and these revisionist war stories?” he yells. “Here’s a real tale, one of superior men exulting in the taking of women, then assuming their rightful place as kings and—”
With a sickening, fleshy burst, the bard vanishes in an explosion of blood. The audience gasps. The red plume dissipates to reveal another man, crouched and shivering in a tattered, filthy combat uniform. The moist ping-ponging of the first bard’s organs ends as they roll to a stop.
“W-where am I?” the man says.
“Uh,” Imperial Bard Rothus ‘ja Darden says, “you’re at the eighty-seventh Conclave of Bards.”
“The Conclave?!” The man rises, trembling, drenched in gore. “I — I have a ballad I must share.”
“Go ahead,” Rothus says. He doesn’t know what else to do: No bard has teleported into the Conclave before.
“My name is Specialist Xeverro Salinas,” the man begins, “and I am the embedded bard for the Fifteenth Combat Expeditionary Legion…”
There was trouble at the Northern Grasp; that’s all they told us.
Yule celebrations were canceled. We were to depart Fort Frostrock come dawn and make the hundred-league journey north by any means necessary. We knew what that meant: travel by sleigh.
The Northern Reaches grow so cold and cruel this time of year, magic-bound steamhorses freeze and live horses fare no better. It is even dangerous to open the kennels.
But the Northern Grasp is less a place than a dagger encased in ice. Its beauty is that of a merciless sterility. Because the landmass looks like the palm of a hand with three stubby fingers outstretched, we think of it as the Empire’s next grasp: One day, Amal will pierce the impenetrable tundra further north and snuff out the cultures of the Frozen Flames for good.
I have never seen it that way. Even as a sickly child in the Booley Swamps, with my nose buried in sweat-stained books of history and politics and literature, any mention of the Northern Grasp sent a cutting chill through my body, as if a mad doctor was bisecting my spine with a scalpel forged of ice. The Northern Grasp did not — does not — look to me like victory within reach. It looks to me like a hand butchered and abandoned in the snow.
It was still dark when the dogs were saddled and readied, the sleighs packed with gear and rations, and the formation assembled. The legion commander called forward at the first blush of dawn.
Despite my heavy coats and furs, I shivered throughout that weeklong mush. I could barely feel the heated lanterns the mage corps supplied. Not even the memories of my last happy Yule three years past, drinking hot ‘nog in a storied House in Amalcross, could warm me.
I’d been stationed at Frostrock for two years, but not once did I imagine an assignment to the Northern Grasp. After all, the Icebound Outpost rests on the Grasp’s edge; that northernmost facility bears responsibility for the Grasp and anything beyond. It is the end of the world.
“We’ve received neither telegram nor messenger,” Colonel Markins said, “nor have any couriers or birds returned from Icebound in a month. You’re hearing about this now because the Imperial Generals demanded utter secrecy.”
We expected to arrive at Icebound the next day, on All Yule’s Eve. The ranking officers crowded into the commander’s tent, huddling over a detailed map of the Northern Grasp stretched across the commander’s table. Everything was heavy with the smoke of our breath and the leathery scent of officers’ tobacco. Outside, the wind screamed.
I was there because I’d be expected to recount the details of our inevitably glorious victory.
“It must be the people of the Frozen Flames,” Lieutenant Broida said.
“We don’t know,” Colonel Markins said.
“This close to the Grasp?” Broida said. He squeezed between two older officers and approached the commander’s table. “Ma’am, the Rilk’gar don’t even come here. It’s surely the Flames, preparing an ambush.”
“It’s not the Frozen Flames,” I said. “They don’t—”
“Was I speaking to you, bard?” Broida spat.
My ears burned. Broida was a graduate of the Unified Military Academies; I was still paying off my loans. He was wrong, but I knew better than to speak against him.
Broida turned back to Colonel Markins. “Give me the order,” he continued, “and I’ll assign my unit—”
The voice was deep, husky, velvet-like. A woman stepped out of the shadows behind Colonel Markins. She was short and broad and wrapped in the glittering fur of what I assumed was the hide of some slain Uncanny Being. Cream-colored patches covered her onyx skin — signs, I knew, of old, horrible burns from enchanted flames. Her bald head bore the tattoo of a detailed palmprint.
The officers around me shifted and tensed. I wondered briefly if Markins had taken a lover. But that was only a reflection of my own libido after two miserably celibate years at Frostrock.
This second interruption incensed Broida.
“Who are you?” he barked.
“I am Esper ‘ja Roarer, Imperial Magus to the Emperor of the Distant Reaches!”
She’d hardly raised her voice, yet the sides of the tent strained as if from a gale within. Officers tottered. I felt suddenly winded. Broida collapsed onto the table.
The Magus stared at the officers before her. “You have noticed the metal pallets packed upon some of the sleighs?”
There were some murmurs of affirmation.
“They contain magic weapons of my own devising,” Esper said, “bearing the mark of and Bound to my Rend.” She ran a heavy-ringed hand across the tattoo on her scalp. “At dawn, ensure every legionary is outfitted with one. We know not what looms.”
At that, the Magus returned to the shadows.
Colonel Markins faced us. “Dismissed,” she said.
The sun shone bright and distant as we made our final approach to the Icebound Outpost.
The day was crystalline: Beautiful and still, but sharp on the throat, stinging in the nose, and blinding to the eye. The land was empty. The thick snow had the glisten of frosted glass. It was as if we were sleighing across miles of the purest parchment in all the Amal Empire, tracing lines in invisible ink.
But for the panting of the dogs and the susurration of the sleighs, all was quiet. No birds called above us. No wind or breeze roiled. No one spoke.
The Icebound Outpost finally came into view. It stood atop the final ridge before the long descent into the Grasp, affording it an unobstructed view in all directions.
We halted so the Colonel and her staff could debrief the scouts. As we waited, I tried to control my shivering and focused on adjusting Magus Esper’s awkward weapon against my chest. It had the reach of a longsword but was heavy as a battleax, requiring both hands to wield. The blade was made of a malleable spiked chain. I could not imagine what manner of enemy it was intended to destroy.
I must have jumped a mile high. Magus Esper stood beside me, scrutinizing Icebound despite the midday sun.
“Magus ‘ja Roarer,” I gasped. “Don’t you need a headscarf, Ma’am?”
“What brings a young man from Booley Swamp to the Northern Reaches?” Esper asked.
I couldn’t imagine why the Imperial Magus wanted to know. I told her what I tell everyone.
“Serving the Empire is honorable,” I said, “and I want to sing in the Conclave someday. Service allows me to build a career, pay down my debts, and improve my songslinging.”
“A very pretty lie,” Magus Esper said. “Well done.”
I protested: “Ma’am—”
“I’m here for your wits, Salinas.” She faced me. This close I could see the rich green and yellow and red ring of her eyes — a thick wall of autumnal leaves encircling a vertiginous abyss. “Everyone in the tent last night thought the Frozen Flames are behind this. Probably the whole legion feels the same. Except you. Explain.”
I felt myself somehow falling deeper into her pupils. I pulled my eyes down to the hard white snow at our feet.
“Ma’am,” I said, “all due respect, I’m just a specialist and—”
“Dare you defy an order from your Imperial Magus?”
“No, Ma’am,” I gasped. I collected my thoughts as I caught my breath. “In the two-hundred-twelve years since contact,” I began, “the Frozen Flames have never kept an assault quiet. Their victories over Amal forces — any forces — may be complete and absolute, but there are always survivors to relay accounts. That’s intentional. It’s a warning: Stay away forever.”
After a long moment, I felt the Magus turn away.
“Prepare yourself,” she said. “We shall resume the mush soon.”
We were two miles from Icebound when the dogs ground to a halt and refused to move.
They bayed and howled and snapped at their traces, snarling at anyone who came too close.
Icebound loomed above us. Its stark façade glinted in the midday sun, entombed in such heavy ice I wondered how the structure had not collapsed.
No one knew what to do. Some of the legionaries formed circles and smoked together, their backs turned outward and their heads bowed to keep their conversations private.
I approached the group around Colonel Markins. Magus Esper stood beside her. Kennel Chief Quintus was at their feet, subduing a whining dog.
“Something’s spooked them good,” the Kennel Chief was saying.
“We need to get to Icebound, Chief,” the Colonel said. “We’re mushrooms for the picking, here.”
“It’s overriding all their training, Ma’am,” Chief Quintus said. “This’ll take some time.”
Colonel Markins crossed her arms. She squinted up at Icebound.
Magus Esper brushed her Uncanny fur. “I shall Bind the dogs to my will,” she said, “so we may—”
And then we heard the wild whistling shriek. It curled into the air and carried across our legion. There was a physicality to it, as if it was relieving pressure borne from the very bowels of the earth.
We all searched the white expanse for the sound’s source. We saw nothing but snow and ice, the pale sky, the rigid silhouette of the Icebound Outpost above us.
Rolls of tobacco hung loosely from mouths. Faces scrunched in confusion or fear. Hands moved uncommanded to the hilts of weapons. But no one drew their blades or readied their muskets, and Magus Esper did not speak the magic word to initiate her devices.
The packed snow beneath us shifted. Thick lines formed, split, and split again like great branching cracks in a pane of glass.
Then the snow erupted. Legionaries shot into the air, blood and bodies and broken limbs raining red upon the ripping white. There were screams and gunshots. Thick wooden tendrils burst forth from the snow, tearing through dogs and legionaries alike.
I plunged backward. Steaming innards washed over me as dying figures flailed above, hoisted by or impaled upon the writhing tendrils.
I saw one tendril looming toward me. Bulbous, like the limbs from the trunk of an ancient tree. It stiffened and whipped nearer. It would have me in moments. I raised the Magus’s worthless weapon in pathetic defense.
The Magus’s Rend on the weapon’s broad hilt glowed blue. The blade lurched alive, rotating silently but rapidly.
The spinning blade met the striking tendril and cleaved it in two with the searing sound of metal upon wood. Splinters and something hot and sticky pelted my uniform and face. The tendril lurched back, its two halves flopping and withering. The whistling shriek roared again.
And then the world spun.
Whole slabs of snow and ice and the permafrost beneath upturned like capsizing vessels. I tumbled airborne. Legionaries, dogs, and sleighs careened through space in a splay of gore and frozen earth, tendrils still snatching and screams still airing.
I hit the ground, felt a snapping in my chest, ate a mouthful of soil coarse as crushed stone. I choked on hot ferrous mucous then watched the ground redden as blood poured from my mouth.
There was a clattering, like heavy branches in a whirlwind. I thought of clubs dragging across stone.
I looked up. The sight I saw still boggles my mind: A forest — yes, thousands of massive coniferous trees — swarmed over the hills fleet as an avenging army, the smell of pine and sap sickly sweetening the stench of death.
And before me, thousands of small tendrils surged from the newly riven earth, tiny as the stems of leaves but undulating with motion. No, not tendrils: They were roots, living and murderous.
I scrambled back, every breath and movement a burning pain. But the roots had the wild speed of crazed rodents.
I swung the Magus’s weapon between my feet, severing a dozen roots. But two dozen more ensnared me up to my knees and entangled themselves in the folds of my armor, cutting through leather and skin like bladed wire. I screamed again, screamed as I felt the roots razoring through muscle and into bone —
An enchanted fireball, golden-blue, tumbled across the roots. Those caught in it crackled and burst with squealing gasps; the rest pulled away. The flame skittered along the roots that clutched me, burning them loose.
Something grabbed me. It tore the air from my lungs. The now-ashen roots fell away from my leg. I thrashed, unable to breathe but desperate to free myself, only to land in the commander’s sleigh with Magus Esper standing over me. Her Uncanny fur was singed and steaming but still glittering; her eyes had gone so abyssal I thought I’d fall into them forever.
She looked forward and roared, “MUSH!”
The sleigh leapt into motion. The legionaries around me jolted and stacks of rations toppled, but we all held fast. Colonel Markins hoisted me up.
“On your feet, soldier,” the Colonel said.
She caught me when I nearly collapsed again from the molten pain in my legs and feet. But I steadied myself and raised Esper’s weapon, prepared to wield it in close-quarters broadsides.
The trees did not let up. They surged across the shattered earth, their firs rigid and bristling in the wind of their pursuit. Their combined systems of roots kept pace with ease as snow tore around their conical bodies.
The legionaries left behind who weren’t already dead were snatched up in the tree’s clawing roots and branches and —
I turned away. Only three of our seventy-two sleighs remained.
The dogs mushed for Icebound. Their legs were a blur of impossible motion, pink foam billowing from their snouts. I knew then that Magus Esper had Bound her will upon them — that it was she who was driving them far beyond the brink of death so we could survive.
If, of course, the Icebound Outpost could protect us.
“They’re gaining!” someone shouted.
I looked back. My gods, the trees could nearly touch us!
“Legionaries, take aim!” Colonel Markins called.
I dropped the Magus’s weapon and flung my musket over my shoulder. I struck the loose snow from the flint and aimed.
“Steady!” Colonel Markins called.
Down my sight I could see mangled bodies dressed upon their limbs. I saw human torsos, blue and black, impaled through grasping branches. Arms and legs, dangling like street baubles on a windy day. One tree had crowned itself with a legionary’s dented helmet and another was bedecked in soiled garlands and a bloodstained wedding dress.
A meager volley of gunshots rang out. My musket’s kick sent a whorl of pain across my chest.
The trees countered before the gun smoke cleared.
Their branches whipped, and a dark green cloud washed over us. Steel needles rained upon the sleighs, piercing wood and metal, boring through flesh, shattering cartons. Cries rang out. The sleigh swerved. I groped for balance. A legionary slammed against me, covered with and blinded by fascicles of spikes. The dozen punctures in his neck choked his anguish, and he fell gurgling over the railing.
I watched the sleigh alongside us veer. Its lead dog stumbled, nosedived, brought all the others crashing down. The sleigh inverted, pitching its legionaries overboard. The trees plucked them from mid-air. The sudden inertia of the trees’ grasp was enough to dismember two of them.
Some trees decorated themselves with my dead or dying comrades. Others wound up their branches and hurled the bodies at us.
The bodies landed with such force they shattered upon the sleighs or snow. Or pulverized any legionary with whom they made contact. Blood and splintered steel covering everything.
Magus Esper yowled like a beast undone. Was she hit? Without her, we were doomed. I looked, saw the blood flowing from her nose and the veins bulging across her head and the sweat dripping from her chin, her eyes tight and her mouth gaping with a stillborn scream and her teeth bared wider than any predator. Her Uncanny fur singed and steamed, the strain of her myriad spells — her will, her weapons, whatever she was about to unleash — taking their steady toll.
But the trees were on us. Their branches lashed and grabbed and groped for us. I raised the Magus’s weapon and severed branches and needles. The appendages flopped dead into the sleigh, spilled burning stinking sap that blurred my vision and jammed the blade. The sounds of sawing and yelling and curses and screams arose. The trees let out their whistling shriek.
I sawed and parried and feinted, dodged a close swipe, and glimpsed one branch arch up. As it struck I realized it was aiming for —
“The Magus!” I cried.
I lunged for the branch. I was not fast enough.
Colonel Markins was. She leapt in front of Magus Esper. The branch tore through the Colonel’s armor and out of her back. Its tip unfolded and ensnared her further. A balloon of blood burst from her mouth. The branch whipped back, and Colonel Markins vanished into the fray.
Magus Esper wheezed something I couldn’t hear.
It was her magic word: Another golden-blue fireball, this one thrice as big as the last, launched from her joined palms. It crashed through the trees, incinerating needles and bursting trunks. Bark sharp as shrapnel hailed down on us. The stench of burning bodies wafted from the heat.
The Magus grabbed her head and fell to her knees. She groaned as blood drained from her nose.
Her fireball plowed through the trees in its path, but those that had not been engulfed were closing around those that had. There would be no respite from the attacking evergreens.
Suddenly the sleighs screeched across concrete. Sparks flew from the iron runners. We’d arrived at Icebound. Praise the gods, its gate had been opened.
“CLOSE THE GATE!” a voice screamed.
It was Lieutenant Broida, spilling out of the other surviving sleigh but unable to stay on his feet. He was drenched in blood. Needles protruded from his shoulders and back.
I straggled for the emergency levers on the curtain wall. Another bloodied legionary, Private First Class Dumont, arrived first.
The barrier launched upwards. The trees slammed against it, their blows echoing through the enchanted metal.
And then the concrete rumbled beneath us. If the trees’ roots could burrow through Icebound’s foundation, it was over.
We watched small cracks form. Tiny pebbles danced with the vibrations. Private Dumont cradled himself, his eyes squeezed shut. Broida chanted the word “no.” I couldn’t breathe.
The vibrations dimmed. The rumbling quieted. The pebbles stilled.
The trees shrieked again.
But we were safe for now. Only the four of us had survived.
We wept. And then, madly, we laughed.
Then we realized Magus Esper had collapsed and wasn’t breathing.
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