The winter air blew, unrelenting, against the side of the ice-covered ship as it moved into the docks. Heavy lines were thrown from the dockhands as eager soldiers, farmers, blacksmiths, and cooks all started to gather at the edge of the vessel. The airship Commodore had finally arrived at her destination in the Frozen Realm.
The crew had been waiting for this day for months now, some of them even over a year. The war against the Yunai had been going on for a while by the time I arrived in this place, and the rumor was we were nearing the end of the fight. The Yunai virus spread slowly now that we understood it, and our style of fighting had changed thanks to the use of luminary magic. The Frozen Queen, as the Yunai-possessed Ailyn was known by now, had only a few major strongholds left in the realm, and many believed she would soon fall to our combined might.
While the crew ran chaotically around the deck, fetching this or that, I decided to stay out of the way, leaning against a wooden frame so as to blend in with my surroundings as much as possible. I no doubt looked a mess to most of the passengers. I hadn’t cut my hair in nearly a year, and I had done little to care for it, so it was a tangled and matted mess that fell over my eyes. I watched the young men and women as they eagerly prepared for an adventure that would likely end with their death. I wished that I was still naïve enough to think that this was just another adventure, not a list of ways to die.
“Flamecaller, oye, where’d you get off to?” I heard a voice asking from the storage area.
“I’m up here,” I answered.
I turned to see a Musfurin man pop his head up from below. His name was KhaIid Menon, a stout little man that lacked height and made up for it in sheer muscle. I wouldn’t have wanted to get into a brawl with Khalid, that much was certain.
“You still haven’t cleaned up,” Khalid stated, though he tried to make it sound more like question than an observation. “I figured you’d have changed into your regalia by now.”
“There’s plenty of time for that,” I said casually. “Where’s the Commander?”
“Somewhere around here,” he answered. “Listen, Flamecaller, I wanted to talk to you about what you said to me the other night. You and I had too much to drink, you know, and I think… I’m not sure—”
I grunted. Drinking was not something that I did. I avoided it, not for any real reason other that I found no enjoyment in it. I enjoyed the camaraderie of a bustling inn, the same as anyone else, but the brew was rarely part of my life… except one night… about a week before we arrived.
Khalid had listened to me drunkenly explain my entire reason for coming to the Frozen Realm. I don’t know how much of it he understood, or if he cared, but he clearly understood the danger I was putting myself in once we set foot off our ship.
“I’m not really in the mood to discuss this further,” I said, attempting to steer him away from the topic altogether. “I’m sure I wasn’t thinking straight, and I’d be happy if you would not share the information I gave you with anyone else.”
“Sure,” Khalid said. “The thing is… you talked about a lot of Udirian stuff, and those magic users aren’t to be trifled with. I mean, they’ve got people everywhere up here, and trying to get into whatever library it was you mentioned could be really dangerous.”
“It could,” I agreed. “Surely, knowing that, you understand I would never attempt it. Khalid, all you heard that night was the drunken ramblings of a man who who had wild ideas about how to fix old mistakes.”
The man didn’t look convinced, and I wasn’t sure how to go about convincing him, but thankfully the Commander of the vessel arrived. He looked grumpy, tired, and ready to disembark, so Khalid quickly retreated. The Commander wasn’t a fan of Musfurins, and his mood toward them soured Khalid to no end. He had taken up to hiding from the Commander whenever he could, just to avoid another snarky comment.
“Looking over the manifest,” the Commander said, his voice official. “Flamecaller Sionis Sepher? Is that your name, son?”
“The one and the same,” I replied.
“Perfect,” the Commander said. “I wish you looked a little better kept… but I suppose we take anyone and everyone these days. The glory of the Lederan Army is lost on the next generation.”
The Commander then spun around and blew an incredibly loud whistle that made all of the workers and crew stop in place and look over at him. I realized too late that the military propaganda machine was about to kick in.
“Soldiers of the Alliance,” the Commander announced. “Today, we reach the Frozen Realm.”
Cheers went up around me. I waited for it to quiet down again.
“For many,” the Commander continued. “The goal of coming here has been long sought. Still, for others, the fear of losing what they love has driven them here. I do not pretend to know the true danger that lies ahead, but I assure you that I understand why we are all taking the monumental task of facing it, together.”
It was almost too easy. A chorus of praise and applause broke out and the crew was practically jumping from the ship.
“Today, we’re joined by a powerful Flamecaller of Stonehaven,” the Commander added. “His name is Sionis Sepher, and he’s faced the dangers of the Yunai before. He fought against them in the world above, and served on the campaign in the Remnants. As you step foot on dry land today, heroes, do not fear. Standing beside you are the storied veterans of wars past. Remember that we will overcome the enemy again, and Azirin will safe!”
I waved for my adoring fans, and when the Commander had his fill, he shouted for the gangplank to be lowered so that we could officially disembark. The sorry souls were practically lining up for their first military assignment. I said nothing, waiting for the Commander to go, but he turned back to look at me for a few seconds instead.
“Why are you here, Sepher?”
“You bowed out after the Remnants campaign. I read your dossier before you ever got aboard my ship. Your records show you had no interest in coming here to fight the Winter Queen. So, I ask again, why are you here in the Frozen Realm?”
I stiffened at the question. “My business is my own, Commander.”
“You souldn’t keep secrets from your superiors,” the Commander replied.
“If you want to take me back home you can,” I said. “I’m sure the officers in Stonehaven would be interested to know you sent an able-bodied magic user home because he wouldn’t tell you his weekend plans.”
“Look, I’m not trying to start a rivalry,” the Commander said, gesturing with slightly raised hands in mock surrender. “I just want to know you’re here for the right reasons. If you’re looking for a noble death, you can find it somewhere else. Up here, if you die… you don’t stay dead long.”
I understood what he meant. He was worried about my mental health. I couldn’t blame him, of course, I looked a right mess and had been living alone in a manor for some time now. Still, my resolve was as strong as ever. I wasn’t here to die. I was here to prevent death.
“That won’t be a problem,” I assured him. “I plan to leave this realm alive and well.”
The Commander looked intently at me, then nodded a bit. “Alright, so you’re not planning to solve your woes on the end of our enemy’s blade. Fair enough. So, then what are you here for?”
I realized I was going to have to have a reason for being here. Khalid had found out in a drunken ramble, and the Commander was smart enough to see I wasn’t being honest. I had to have a story to tell that would appease any curious parties. I needed something easy… something believable.
“I want to be here when it happens,” I said, meeting the Commander’s eyes.
“When what happens?”
“We’re going to kill Princess Ailyn. She will fall soon,” I said. “Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. I lost a lot of friends to her. I lost Udiria. I lost Lady Sonea. I’ll never forgive her, and I want to be there the day she falls. I want to stand over her defeated army and know that I helped.”
This answer seemed to appease the Commander. He smiled at me and then offered up one more firm nod. “You’re a good man, Sepher. Everyone from Stonehaven know the deeds of the Sepher family over the years, from the southern realms all the way to Vers. Keep that head on your shoulders as long as you can.”
I smiled slightly. “I’ll certainly try.”
I was off the ship and making my way through the bustling crowds of the keep within the hour. I had lost track of Khalid somewhere in the chaos, and I realized that I would probably never see the man again. We had been on the boat here for weeks, so it felt strange to know someone you had just spent so much time with was little more than a ghost of a memory.
Thinking about ghosts brought Marjan back to my mind.
I was reminded of my true goal.
My real plans in had nothing to do with Ailyn, or even the Yunai. Instead, I had my eyes set on the magical city of Udiria. More importantly, I needed access to the magical library of forbidden arts. It was under lock and key, available to only the most prestigious magic users, but I had a lead on that one too. An old friend had come to the Frozen Realm to aid the efforts, and I knew she was somewhere near here, in a tower she had constructed for studying the land and its magical traits.
My first step was to find Lady Evanor.