Melting Ice – Xin Rong Chua

The snow blankets the entire mountain, but the pulse of magic from the sacred cavern is unmistakable. Élivágar glows a bright blue, calling to the gatekeeper with his aura. A line of stone appears amidst the ice, and the gate opens.

“It is a sign of mastery when a man comes to be known by the name of his sword,” says the gatekeeper, stroking his white beard. “Long have I awaited your arrival, Élivágar.”

“And long have I awaited this chance to seek audience with the gods,” Élivágar says, repeating the words of challenge.

“Many have sought the favor of the gods within, but none have lived to savor the rewards. In the light of this knowledge, is your will still set?”

Élivágar nods.

“This is a test by the gods and not of man, thus the sword will be your only armor,” continues the gatekeeper. As the shiny scales of Élivágar’s skymetal mail fall to the floor, he notices the gleam in the gatekeeper’s eyes. Beneath the scripted words and obsequious demeanor, the old man wishes him to fail, wishes to claim Élivágar’s armor for his own.

But a man has no choice when he wishes to prove his sincerity to the gods, and Élivágar now knows that the gods do not step out of their way for the purpose of man. His village had been content with their distant prayer. His father had counselled him to seek the gods through their craft, in hewing the perfect blade from the slabs of unmelting ice excavated from the northern islands. That had not been enough to withstand the invasion of the Skógar. The ice swords of the village had melted under the bursts of lava that had sprung from their weapons as they enslaved the villagers and killed all who stood in their way. Élivágar’s father had shielded him at the cost of his life. With his dying breath, he had told Élivágar of the Hingalen cave, where the gods were still said to reside. It is the only way to gain new lore, to bring the lessons back to his people so as to beat off the oppressors.

So there Élivágar stands, clad only in his weathered fur pelt. He brushes his fingers over the chain at his collar, from which a single snowman’s blossom hangs.

It is not a flower one would find in the halls of kings, but it is much beloved by his people, its fiery hue often the only hint of color in the harsh ice-covered lands of his home. Though the flower has travelled a great distance with him, its delicate fragrance has hardly been diminished. It is a reminder of his quest, his search for a power over the dark magic that has terrorized his homeland.

Élivágar draws his sword, the serrated edges of it gleaming like icicles in the sunlight, and steps into the cavern. Behind him, the stone door seals with a massive boom that echos in the space. He knows immediately that the legends did not lie. Amidst the damp of the cave, the sense of something superhuman tingles around his ears, the hairs on the back of its neck.

Just as he takes a breath, it begins.

Tiny stones begin to detach themselves from the wall, then larger ones, pelting themselves against him like a hailstorm. Élivágar’s sword waves in the air at the speed of thought, speeding up and slowing down with the speed of the rocks, and it’s almost like a dance, the cracks and thuds sounding in a long, rhythmic line.

When the stones slow to a patter and then stop, Élivágar has no delusions that this dance had been anything but an opening courtesy. Sure enough, with a loud hiss, a jet of water bursts from the depths of the cave, swirling rocks off the ground to form the shape of a rider on his mount. While an ordinary rider would hold a lance, the weapon that has coalesced around its hand is covered with spikes like a mace, but has the thickness of a club. No ordinary sword, Élivágar knows, would withstand a blow from this weapon.

But Élivágar was named for the ice waves that occurred at the beginning of the world, and not without reason. Every turn and edge of it was honed by the joint devotion of man and sword to mastering the unparalleled harshness of winter. None of his challengers have withstood the power of its sharp, angular precision, its relentless drain of vitality towards the bitter end of death and destruction. The spike pierces through the rider, which disintegrates under the force.

But it does not end here. The air itself begins to churn like boiling water, forming a torrential storm that whips water and stones against him.

The barrier spell springs naturally from the tip of his sword, and the first wave of water crystallizes in a wave of dazzling blue ice. But more water is piling up on the blade, and the weight is becoming increasingly difficult to bear. Yet the storm rages on. If he continues the attempt to stand his ground, he knows, all will be lost. To achieve any counterplay, he needs his own source of kinetic power. But how is he to extract this power from magic whose essence is harsh and draining?

Under the tremendous force, the barrier shudders and cracks, and the wind charges towards him. It is in his eyes, in his mouth, and choking him through the chain on his neck. As his breaths start to shallow, the blossom’s scent spreads into his nostrils. Amidst the agony of imminent death, his heart lifts. For a moment, he’s a youth again, savouring the joy of spotting the flowers blossoming like flames against the bleak icy landscape.

The image of fire against ice is fleeting, but the insight it triggers is electric. Ice may bear the face of death, but it bears life within its heart. One who has the power to extract vitality has also the power to contain it, release it.

With this realization, his sword blazes red with fire. It does not propel ice, now, but bursts of fireworks. The sound the blinding spray makes as it hits the storm is like water on roiling oil multiplied a hundredfold. The roar is so deafening that he fears that his eardrums will shatter with the force of it. But that is all the storm does, and eventually it slows, weakening to a gust that is almost a caress. Still panting, Élivágar examines the sword before him, and the energy pulsing from within the blade makes his heart lift. Finally, after all his travels, there is now hope for his village.

“You have found what you once lacked, Élivágar,” he hears in his mind, an unearthly sound that is at once strange and familiar. “Go forth, and may the luck of the gods be with you.”