Authors: Eric Van Lustbader
For all the heroes
There is no journey’s end.
OARING THROUGH FRIGID MISTS
and roiling clouds, he stretches fully his long wings upon the unpredictable currents. Streamers of silvered plumage, running bilaterally across his wings and cresting his majestic questing head, ripple and blur in the wind. He banks and dips. There is a moaning in his ears. His large liquid eyes stare unblinkingly ahead at the immense eye of the setting sun, its face a broad and flattened disk, wider at the sides as if caught in a vise of immeasurable proportions. Then thick ribbons of cloud of a metallic gray ride before it like the ghostly remnants of a once vast, victorious army, reaving it.
He banks again, deftly avoiding a treacherous downdraft, and turns his incurious gaze beneath him, through the layers of cloud and mist, to the painful twisting of the earth far below.
High peaks beaten by age and scraped by merciless weather, crowned in bitter frost, sealed in pearl and emerald ice, thrust their humped backs in snaking lines against the whipping winds which, forever swirling, gather layers of fine powdery snow from the mountains’ slopes, turning them into rising sheets, hurling them forward, like giants striding across the barren land.
He floats over sheer gorges, frosted thickly in gleaming sheets of periwinkle ice, plumes of loose snow drifting along their flanks like smoke from a funeral pyre. His keen eyes trace the vertiginous descent from dancing ice crystaled green-turquoise-magenta in the dying light to the violent violet of their yawning and uneasy depths: precipitous chasms sliced out of the land as cleanly as if by a cruel blade of immense size. Powerful wings flutter as out of these depths now is heard the agonized groaning of shifting rock. Ozone and sulphur fill the air as the earth shudders and trembles. Shards of ice shear off in the dense clusters with infinite slowness, hanging impossibly in mid-air, crumbling in layers until, with an abrupt and complete swiftness, they explode silently into vast spurts of hyalescent spray high in the sky that turn to rainbow arcs as they catch the last oblique rays of watery light.
He wheels in the colored, suddenly solid air, unperturbed.
Everywhere is ice and draperies of snow with only the occasional tired fist of granite or twisted schist rising like ancient tombstones in an alien desert, useless punctuation on a blank and crumbling page.
Against this inimical icescape nothing moves.
The bird banks and glides in the sky, his black-irised eyes scanning the dreadful sameness of the land. Into the setting sun he flies, his majestic plumage stained a dilute scarlet and, glancing once more earthward, he sees a dark and tiny shadow limned before the glare of the ice. Muscles respond to the brain’s command and the wings dip, their silver plumage losing for a moment the scarlet wash, turning a rich lustrous gray, as he heads southward for a closer look.
Resolution of image comes far too swiftly, for the shadow is huge. Abruptly it moves and, startled, the bird wheels away from the edge of the steep precipice along which he has been flying and, flapping his wings in alarm, speeds westward, rising, gaining the high currents, diminishing into the light of the lowering sun.
Transfixed, Ronin stands at the verge of the high ice ledge staring southward, oblivious to the receding speck in the sky.
Motionless, his body tall and muscular, he appears more a statue erected to the countless legions who, throughout the myriad ages, have fought across the changing faces of this land. For here once grew lush verdant forests of giant fern and slender willow spreading their fans of feathered leaves, building dense jungles of crowding greenery and thick tangles of vines through which cocoa warriors crept and crouched, sweating, listening methodically to the shrill cries of startlingly colored birds, readying the leap, an uncoiling blur, tan and brown shadow, flickering in the filtering light, the quick silent slash, the gout of bright blood beading the foliage, the dying body of the enemy. And in another age—earlier or later, one cannot be sure—here swelled and sucked fifteen fathoms of green water alive with the riotous growth of the sea. High-booted feet tramped the stained tarred decks of wide-beamed wooden ships, long oars extending from their high curving sides, beating through air and water in hypnotic rhythm. Hoarse shouts filled the sky heavy with brine and heat as helmeted and bearded warriors prepared themselves for battle.
Layers of hard snow encrust the slippery ice of the precipice upon which he stands, feet apart and planted firmly in the frost. Unconsciously he clenches his left hand, which is covered by a strange scaled gauntlet, dull and unreflective. The wind gusts, screaming in his ears, and rushes by him, unheeded, sucked in by the crevices and piled hillocks of the plateau tumbling at his back. The air is dry and chill. The staggering sight at which he gazes longingly resonates in his mind with the supravivid impact of an ecstatic dream. And for this time, the event of the recent past mercifully dim.
For what lies before and below him, just past the beetling lip of the high ledge, is a cyclopean sea of ice. Desolate. Limitless. Awesome and electrifying.
“An overwhelming sight,” said the voice quite near and behind him. And he turned slowly, as if in a dream, to behold Borros, the Magic Man.
“The true wonder is that we have been denied this sight for all of our lives.” A thin and weary smile curled Borros’ lips.
Wind whipped loose snow against their legs as they stood atop the ice plateau, strange creatures garbed in the one-piece foil suits they had found on the highest Level of the Freehold before each, in his own time and his own way, breached the last metal defense of their subterranean world, cracking the outer hatch, buried in drifting snow. The suits were extremely light, skin tight along chest and arms, with filled pockets of hardware and food concentrates, vacuum-sealed, immune to the ravages of time, even a small supply of mineral-enriched fluid to refresh themselves. These pockets ran around the suits’ waists and down the outside of each leg, somehow increasing the warmth of the garments.
Ronin stared at Borros, seeing him now as if for the first time, the focus of reality at last forced upon him, and all the raw hate that he had held in abeyance for these long moments flooded back on an inexorable tide. Caught in the slipstream of sewage; shook himself, as if the motion would somehow cleanse him. He knew that he carried now within his depths an anger and a sorrow, that thus was bound to him irrevocably a hideous strength.
The Magic Man had misunderstood the gesture and he grasped Ronin’s shoulder.
“Surely you are not cold?”
His fingers moved along the foil to a fold at the back on Ronin’s neck. “Look here.” And he pulled gently upward, the metallic skin stretching to cover Ronin’s head, leaving only his eyes and mouth exposed. Borros wrestled his own hood into place.
Borros turned to stare behind them, peering across the rubble of the frozen waste to the hidden Freehold, the tiny access hatch leading down and down to the world inside, a world at war now, factions struggling for desperate power.
“Do not think me a fool,” the Magic Man said urgently. “But we must flee from here at once.”
Tears call to Ronin and the mountains melting as he ceases to feel the bite of the wind at his eyes and lips. The sky colorless and the earth with no substance. His feet leaden. His heart pounding as it hit him searingly like the aftershock of a deep wound, the rent cauterized but the nerves still in dysfunction. At first there was no feeling at all. Numb. The body protecting itself. But there is a limit. His consciousness narrowed because he was struggling against it now. All his loves, all his friends, all the people. Gone in a wink of an eye. Just a flutter of time, the space to pull two breaths and lives are snuffed out like tapers at first Spell. K’reen and Stahlig and Nirren and G’fand and—the Salamander, the center of it all, still down there, alive, alive…
Slowly, it seemed to him, he became aware of a plucking at his sleeve.
“Ronin, please, we must be off.” He heard the words as if from a great distance. They hung in front of him like lamps, separate and solid, one after another, turning on some unseen axis, their sheen…
“Chill take it! Ronin, we must go now! Before pursuit from below can be organized.”
Then the meaning had penetrated and he started as if from a deep slumber.
“Yes,” he said hoarsely, turned to look at Borros. “Yes, of course we must be off.” His colorless eyes were clear now, their gaze sharp and quick. “But which way?”
“There,” said the Magic Man. And he lifted his arm in a sweeping gesture outward, over the lip of the precipice to the enormous expanse of the darkling ice sea.
There was nought but the crying of the freezing wind. The ancient rock at his face, rippling, studded with ice in pockets and rivulets, slipped away above him centimeter by centimeter. The sound was like the wailing of the damned. Striations made a constantly changing pattern that held his attention as he searched for foot and handholds. Following Borros down the immense face of the cliff toward the ice sea far, far below, he felt all too distinctly the void at his back. The magnitude of its emptiness beckoned to him, the wind its siren call, ululating hypnotically. Relax, let go, feel the gentle parting of warm flesh from cold stone, to fall backward, slowly, effortlessly onto the comforting cushion of the wind, turning, to be borne away, tumbling, into the void…
An ending he did not wish.
“What, over the edge?” he had said.
A peculiar animation had come to the Magic Man’s face, a keen anticipation. “Yes. Yes! Do you not see?” As if he had waited all his life for this kinetic moment. “It is the only way down to the ice sea. Our way lies south. South into the land of men.”
And so Ronin had walked with Borros through the crusty snow and treacherous ice to the very edge, entirely free at last of the ties that bind every man at one time to home. Masterless but not directionless.
They went carefully along the lip for perhaps a thousand meters and then Borros slipped over the side. Without a backward glance Ronin too quit the plateau.
Ronin became aware that Borros had stopped below him. He called down but the fluting of the wind made communication impossible at this distance. Carefully he lowered himself to the other’s side.
“The way below is blocked,” Borros said in his ear.
Ronin peered down through the intermittent showers of snow. Indeed, directly below them a fresh fall of snow and ice crystals layered the cliff face and it was impossible to determine the nature of the footing. Suicidal to attempt the descent by touch alone, yet it was imperative that they move onward.
Ronin swung his gaze to their right where his peripheral vision had registered a dark area along the rock wall. Now, motioning with his head, he led the Magic Man toward its smudgy outline.
They inched along the narrow ledge upon which they had stopped their descent and soon the dark area took on definition. As Ronin had hoped, it was a cave of some considerable size and within its mouth they found a semblance of shelter from the wind and the cold.
Borros sighed deeply as he pulled off his hood. His hairless skull, faintly gleaming in the dim light, seemed peculiarly fitting for this foreign and forbidding place; its singular saffron color could almost have passed for the patina of age.
Ronin went away from the rough rock walls to the lip of the cave. Below him the cliff dropped precipitously. Beneath the heavy fall of new snow clinging to the rock with an almost sentient tenacity there must be a way down to the ice sea. He could just make out a sliver of its surface sparkling in the lowering light. But from what he could see, there was no way of knowing, therefore no practical way down. Laterally there was only the mean ledge along which they had come. Farther to the right it disappeared into the rock face only meters from where he stood. He kicked at the snow, left plumes arcing out into the wind as he returned to the twilight of the cave.