The Return of the Cryomancer

Simon Whitechapel

Qui dat nivem sicut lanam, nebulam sicut cinerem spargit. Mittit cristallum suum sicut buccellas: ante faciem frigoris eius quis sustinebit?

--Psalmus CXLVII, xvi-xvii.

'He giveth snow like wool: he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes. He casteth forth his ice like morsels: who can stand before his cold?'

--Psalm 147:16-7.

Winter had claimed the fallen city of Jmorsuu three years before, crushing and overturning her homes and temples with torrents of slow-flooding ice, burying her deep in blizzard-borne snow, and only the great pyramid at her heart was not yet fully conquered, eighty-nine of its frost-cracked, ice-sheened steps rising above the waste beneath the grey-shrouded vault of heaven. And now, out of the far north, the cryomancer Gmurr-Tsvolg came to survey the city's ruin, riding a wolf-drawn sleigh of silver-sheathed pine. He had been expelled from the city in his youth, death-condemned for summoning the septentrional dæmons in whose service he now stood high, an ipsissimus of ice-magic; but the geas that had been laid upon him, directing his unwilling steps ever northward, to the killing chill of the ultimate pole, had failed in its purpose, and he had survived and flourished where his judges thought he would find only swift and inevitable death.

He had been long in shaking the geas from him, that he might return and exult in the overthrow he had earlier directed, rousing and sending destruction against the city, till he entombed her finally in ice and snow, but now he was free and could summon and board his sleigh and order its thirteen wolves southward. They were albinos, white-furred and pink-eyed, and drew the sleigh unfalteringly through the gloom Gmurr-Tsvolg had laid down ahead of his passage, cloaking the bright sun behind grey cloud. The fog of their breath, harsh-spiced and spine-tingling, rode above their panting jaws, flowing back into the face of Gmurr-Tsvolg as he watched the horizon ahead of him, cloaked and hooded in the fur of arctic bears. When the darker triangle of the pyramid cut against the southern sky, he nodded with satisfaction, knowing that the runners of the sleigh were hissing above the ice-tomb of Jmorsuu.

Then they reached the truncated bulk of the pyramid and Gmurr-Tsvolg drew up the sleigh beside it with a word of command. He stepped forth to climb its steps, tugging back the hood of his cloak and loosening the silver chain that held it tight round his throat. His feet were unfaltering on the steps, sheened though they were with ice, and he soon reached the frosted summit, where he stood and turned a complete circle, surveying the final ruin of Jmorsuu before he fixed his gaze on the prize yet unclaimed: the sun-warded lands of the south that glimmered on the horizon. His exultation had fueled his ambition and his fingers twitched with incipient runes, as he pictured himself rousing the glaciers round him from their sleep and sending them grinding on further conquest, till they met their brethren of the austral pole and the whole earth lay beneath the dominion of ice.

But his ambition was premature: his strength was not yet at its height, his cryocratic masters not yet fully persuaded of his complete devotion to their cause, of his disavowal of all his human heritage. But that would come, and come soon. Indeed, perhaps his dreams of conquest were too small: he could cloak the earth in ice by sending his glaciers south, but one day, on his death or a century past it, his spells would weaken and spring would return, driving the ice back to the poles in an irresistible world-thaw. No, frost could never be eternal unless he found some way of loosening the sun's grip on the earth and driving her out into the black pastures of interstellar space, to lie eternally ice-bound in thin star-light.

He turned his back on the south at the thought of it, looking north and offering up a prayer to his masters, and smiled suddenly to hear a snarl and snap from one of his wolves, the sound carried precisely to him through the searing, sterile air. But then he sniffed, frowning as a thread of scent met his nostrils. It awakened a long-buried memory of his youth atop this same pyramid, when tropical blossoms nodded here and glinting fish cruised in the green water of a rectangular pool. He strode to the spot whereon the pool had once stood, stamping on the snow that buried it two or three handbreadths deep, then looked towards the ice-narrowed door of the tetrahedral stone hut a few paces beyond it, where the master of the pyramid had once dwelt. The master had been Dulak-Lohh when he had been expelled from the city, but he had known of Dulak-Lohh's death, informed by the ice-dæmons, and had closely followed the career of his successor, the nineteenth pyramid-master Ngwerr-Qsimb. Nineteenth and last, stubbornly refusing to leave the doomed city, and doubtless his frozen corpse lay within the hut, finally acknowledging the suzerainty of cold.

Gmurr-Tsvolg strode forward, stooping to enter the hut and greet its frost-mummified occupant, but he saw only this: a scattering of ice-filmed ash; a jumbled pile of scrolls, also filmed with ice; a pallet heaped with tattered cloaks of rhea-feather and sloth-fur; and, hanging from a bronze hook in one slanting wall, another cloak, one of oddly variegated colors whose composition he did not recognize. A further thread of scent seemed to meet his nostrils as he plucked the cloak down and carried it outside to examine it, snorting a little as he saw whereof it was sewn: the skins of many dozen hummingbirds, glittering faintly in the grey-shrouded gloom. Ngwerr-Qsimb had surely gone mad or apostate to fashion it in his final days, profaning cold-slain hummingbirds by turning them to this quotidian usage. Aye, mad or apostate, for now Gmurr-Tsvolg saw, spreading the cloak wider, that the skins were not sewn together at hazard, but were blended and contrasted to spell out in emerald, gold, sapphire, and ruby the sigil of the pyramid master, subtly extended and distorted, that it might lie symmetrical on the back of him who wore the cloak.

And suddenly the cryomancer laughed, recognizing him for whom the cloak had been unconsciously fashioned. Ngwerr-Qsimb had been nineteenth master of the pyramid, aye, nineteenth but not last: the twentieth and last was he, Gmurr-Tsvolg, and here was the cloak of his accession, fashioned for him by his predecessor. He returned to the hut to hang the cloak again from its hook while he threw off his white cloak of bear-fur. When he had assumed the hummingbird cloak and claimed mastership of the pyramid by right of undisputed possession, he would summon frost-giants to dismantle it in a final triumph over the city and the religion of sun and water that had died with her. Out he strode from the hut, carrying the cloak with him to throw over his shoulders as he stood looking south.

A few moments later, at the foot of the pyramid's steps, the ears of the wolves twitched and swung, seeming to catch a sudden twittering from the summit; and a few moments after that the wolves' pink eyes, well-adapted to the gloom, caught a swift-moving speck against the southern sky. In sunlight the speck would have glittered with purple fire, but even then the wolves could never have recognized it for what it was, for in the normal course of nature the arctic wolf and the hummingbird once known in Jmorsuu as the amethyst sun-angel never come within a thousand leagues of acquaintance. Then the speck was gone, and the wolves settled back to the snow. In a day or two, grown weary of waiting, they would gnaw through their traces and desert their post, trotting off to test the hunting over the ice-whelmed wastes of lost Jmorsuu.

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