Fringe Elements #5: Winter’s Warning

An announcement before we dive into the episode proper–some of you may remember a little endeavor of mine called Loremageddon. I’m ditching the pretensions to it having anything to do with NaNoWriMo, but otherwise? That sucker’s making a comeback this month of November!

There are huge portions of the broader Twin Spirals cosmology–not to mention a hell of a large number of cultures, historical tidbits and the like–that I want to fill out before I buckle down and finish The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear. Moreover, lore makes good DnD campaign fodder, and I’m going to be running at least one of those sometime in the next few months. That means that throughout November, both this and “Bird’s Eye View” will go on hiatus while I clatter out a lunatic’s fusillade of forbidden knowledge.

Not that I’ll be posting the forbidden stuff. It’s, er, forbidden. I will, however, be posting around 1,000 words per day in excerpts from the non-forbidden material based on which tidbits I think are the most interesting. My goal: 8,000 words of material per day. Can I do that in a given day? Yep! I believe my career best is that I once churned out 10,000 in about 12 hours (and yes, most of them were good). Am I likely to keep that on lockdown for a full month? Nah!

Anyhow, all that starts this coming Friday the 1st!–now then, when last we left a certain Cadence Pariah…

***

Cadence was dead. The novelty hadn’t quite worn off, but it was certainly wearing thin. They could just about see apathy through the other side, in fact. Their spirit floated in a near-lightless abyss lit only by blue flickers which refracted through dense black mist. Their disaffection lasted but moments, for no sapient could say in truth that they became used to meeting Mirtulla.

“Cadence Pariah,” the Boreal Lady said, Her voice at once soft and cutting, a whisper that stirred the mists with cacophonous shockwaves, a mother and a destroyer. Mirtulla was visible as a magnificent spectre of pale blues and snow whites, wreathed in shimmering energy. Her enveloping robes and Her long hair rippled alike with faint gleams, as of white steel woven and supple like gossamer. In this place, absent perspective, Cadence swore at one moment that Mirtulla was right in front of them, and the next miles away.

As ever, Mirtulla was so perfect to look upon that Cadence immediately became entranced. Where the mists met Her glow they but heightened Her aspect, their wisps and coils visibly warping to parallel or reinforce the Lady’s silhouette rather than simply turn it hazy. The flow of every line within the Lady’s grand form, as Her surging power’s currents fed into each other with brushstroke flourishes, could only belong to a goddess–the Goddess, rather.

Her proportions were so harmonious, so symmetrical, as to make the shapeliest mortal look imbalanced and gawky. And such wisdom, such intellect, such sheer unrivalled power, such that even this pale imitation, this projection the Boreal Lady used to commune with Her chaplains before resurrecting them, threatened to draw Cadence’s mind in and subsume it entirely.

Today, all that faded beneath the simmering fury and disappointment which radiated from Mirtulla. She spoke again: “‘I pride myself on my efficiency,’ I believe you said.”

“Lady, I–” Cadence began, their spirit plummeting.
“Silence prospers ere I beckon thee to speak,” Mirtulla said, auroral shimmers spreading out from Her distant form. And it was, Cadence now realized, extraordinarily distant, and immense, larger than they had ever seen the Lady appear before. Cobalt lightning cracked in the distant depths, and long as the bolts were–lashing down to the jagged suggestion of a riven winter landscape–still they were closer than the Lady.

Mirtull waited for some time. In the realm’s further depths, Cadence saw dark shadows and ethereal glimmers–a suggestion of misshapen giants approaching which, looking upon the Lady, cringed and fled. Finally the Frost-Goddess spoke on, “One second I consider efficient; two makes a statement of intention. At three seconds you’ve decided you must prolong the torment so that those watching may remember it–a calculated decision which should haunt you until the Void claims you. Anything longer than three seconds becomes sadism, and naught else.”

Cadence attempted no response. “Ah, a little wisdom,” Mirtulla said. “If you still fight for Me, Cadence, as you swore on that bleak night, then answer: why do you, My Tundra-Chaplains, exist?”
“To shape the world where it is too frail to bear Your touch, bring succor to the innocent where Your full glory would ruin them, and purge evil where it is shielded by the hands of other gods,” Cadence murmured, averting their eyes.
“Cadence,” Mirtulla ordered, “meet My gaze.” Cadence obeyed.

“The robes you wear, and My power that you borrow, and the title I grant you, all comprise a sacred trust,” Mirtulla said. “You betrayed that trust. There lived people in Flotsam who needed a nurturer more even than Ovin needed a spear-blade through the brain. When I require only slaughter, I send the Cadre. For Chaplains, I choose those with bitter pasts because you should understand you must ensure that no innocents face the traumas you did, and so that you heal those festering wounds wherever you find them. Answer Me: after the way you tortured Ovin to death, what manner of imbecile would look to you for kindness?”

A low keening sound escaped Cadence. The Lady’s disdain grew more palpable with every word, and now built to something like claws in the mind. Then, an instant later, it was restrained. Cadence took no comfort from that mercy–it too was a reminder of the cause they’d dishonored.
“I have lived longer than you can ever know, and witnessed destruction and damnation which–strong as it is by mortal standards–would shatter your mind instantly if you comprehended but the millionth part,” Mirtulla continued. “So I know this better than any: no ancient agony grants the excuse to create new ones.”

Two titanic arms swept together, robe-sleeves trailing through a building blizzard until fingers met and steepled. “If My plans’ motion carries unto victory, you need never see My power in full, Cadence. I think you would find I prefer to kill more swiftly than sight if some disaster develops to the point that I must act freely. This sadism you nurture concerns Me, child.” Mirtulla’s eyes, perfect symmetrical ovals gouting blue-star fire, narrowed. A brow-furrow reflected some little light, long as a mountain’s spine.
“He was scum, and a traitor to those who came to his tavern for rest!” Cadence protested. “Surely–”

“Surely he was scum, and a traitor, and Creation’s Fringe, like any world where sapient mortals hold sway, raises his ilk by the hundred-thousands,” Mirtulla interrupted. “Save your protests, Cadence. Do you suppose your mind might outpace Mine, or find an argument I’ve not already considered? This isn’t even the only such dressing-down I’m delivering at the moment. Or do you forget that when it’s My power you channel, you waste not a minute, but a week each time you indulge your feral urge?”

Cadence opened their mouth to speak, then closed it. They hugged themselves, ashamed.
“You realize that if any within that tavern mustered the courage to attack you, you’d have been defenseless?” Mirtulla continued. “‘Efficiency’… you started well in that regard. A shame how quickly you leapt from the path.”
“Then why didn’t you stop me?!” Cadence shouted, weeping openly at last.

“I considered it,” Mirtulla responded, cold as an incarnate gale. “And not for your sake did I stay My hand. The only reason you survive, Cadence, is that in the merest sense, your actions delivered justice. Even then, you acted with such brutality that had there not been innocents around you, well, understand Me: if you, Ovin, and the others you judged–correctly, I shall grant–stood alone, I would have annihilated you on the instant. You wanted to torture him longer yet, didn’t you?”
Cadence remained silent for a long time. At length, they nodded.

“Do you believe the fact that you withdrew from that brink this time means you’ll do so the next, or that the fact you might’ve acted worse erases the fact that you should have acted better?” Mirtulla said, then allowed the quiet to draw on. “No excuse exists for your actions, Cadence. I have weighed all courses, and determined to return you to service; you remain an important strategic asset. This time, that holds true. Stray again, and when next you appear within this place, you shall stay here, see it for what it truly is, and suffer its nature until I see fit to collect you.”

Cadence thought of the misshapen giants, those sprawling hunched creatures like riven mountains whose silhouettes suggested no heads that a mortal mind would understand, whose limbs were grotesque and bulbous, who distorted and sometimes fell halfway apart to form a new strain of the prior abomination. Was it Cadence they hunted for?

The star-fire eyes narrowed further, perhaps considering the same beings. “Understand, I shall not abandon you to make any point. I simply have much to do, and if it should chance that Fon Kerrick attacks again while you freeze here, then I shall devote My efforts to the innocent’s salvation. You might linger here but a day, or it might be millennia. It matters naught at that point–I should never have needed to make this speech at you.”

“I understand, Lady,” Cadence said, starting to weep.
Mirtulla sighed. Her tone gentled, but only a little. “Cadence, I wish to be proud of you. Please, conduct yourself this time so that when next I see you here, I may call you Chaplain, and find some way to embrace you for a briefest instant. Now–Return.” Howling snow and cerulean light consumed Cadence, and they braced themselves for the fractured heartbeat when the Lady’s true consciousness brushed theirs. Then it came, one blinding glimpse into eternity, and smote them from wakefulness, and darkness took them entirely.

***

Suddenly Cadence’s ears were filled with the sounds of rushing water, and a few blue flickers faded from their limbs. Before they could fully get their bearings, a big metallic hand fixed on Cadence’s shoulder and started hauling them upward. They almost lashed out before following the lines of the hand into an arm and a familiar suit. Thlibnarinc’s eyes didn’t allow him to imitate a human expression, but Cadence’s psionic senses were returning, and they could feel his concern; he was planning on concealing it with wry humor, they suspected, as if that would ever work.

Soon Thlib swam Cadence to the surface and pulled them onto the rocky pinnacle.
“Cadence, you can let go of the polehammer now,” Thlib suggested.
Cadence realized their hands were still wrapped around it. “Ah. So I can,” they said, and did so.
“Cadence, are you okay?!” Appy asked. “You and Thlib were down there for hours! How did you breathe?”

“I pulled oxygen out of the water,” Cadence said. They were fairly certain they could do that, which was as close to honest as they could risk being. The Lady never explained it and the Chaplains never needed to promise; it was just understood that none should know She’d resurrect them–provided, of course, their deaths hadn’t been too visible. Or too destructive. How much time did I lose? Cadence wondered. A mortal body could only withstand so much of the Lady’s influence, even with healing; all Tundra-Chaplains died young.

The weight of Mirtulla’s words settled on Cadence again. They shuddered and levered themselves to their feet, looking out across the returned sea-waters. A number of little islets like this stretched ahead, eventually reaching the high-tide shoreline. A collection of Takau homes, small but carefully crafted of arranged stones and wooden beams, occupied a tiny peninsula straight ahead and perhaps a mile away. “I think in short bursts I can make the water dense enough for us to walk on it,” Cadence said. “That should be easier than levitating us all.”

“Well, Appy is always flying, in a sense, and I can swim,” Thlib said. “Why not just…” He threw a sour look at several rows of fins circling the islet. “You cheeky wretch,” he muttered. Cadence would normally have chuckled; this time they only solidified the first portion of water into a glistening, barely-rippling block, collected their polehammer, and started out. They said nothing more until long after they reached the beach; Mirtulla had never threatened them with destruction before.

It was known that the Lady didn’t like to repeat herself.

(Previous Episode Here) (Next Episode to Come)

As always, I’d love to hear thoughts from any of you down in the comments! Otherwise, please leave a like, share this episode with your friends wherever you may go online, and follow me on Twitter if you’d like to keep up with my day-to-day musings.

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