IceBreaker

From: Andrew Joelson (joelsona@cpdmfg.cig.mot.com)
Date: Thu 24 Apr 1997 - 16:01:58 EEST


                The Last IceBreaker, Part X

"Ready, Drel?"
"Any time, my friend. But isn't it too soon? What if we perform
 the rituals, and the Host of Winter doesn't turn up for days? We will
 die first."
"Don't worry about it. We are going to plunge back into the Hero-
 Plane. Otherwise, any victories we win over the Host won't sap Winter's
 force. Time means little in that place; when we finish the final
 challenge and turn about, they will be there."
      Harlios bent down and picked up the leather sack of ritual salt.
 With his other hand, he picked up four of the ritual dueling markers. He
 scanned the horizon. "As long as they don't come too soon," he thought.
      He began a chant of Duke Ram and Warrior, preparing the sacred Duel-
 ing Grounds. He left foot began to burn again, the same acidic pain. He
 limped slightly, but otherwise ignored it. He had had two years to prac-
 tice his ignoring.
      Drel joined him softly, singing a counterpoint. Occasionally they
 traded off parts, asking questions, and answering. Harlios poured salt,
 and planted the stakes, one by one. He marked out a rough rectangle,
 ten feet by fifteen. Enough room to maneuver, not enough to run and circle.
 Soon the dueling grounds were complete. As Harlios finished, he varied
 the ritual slightly. He called on the powers of the Black Rock, too. He
 called for certain terms of engagement, well within the normal bounds of a
 Yanafal Tar'nils duel. "Let them fight me on _my_ terms," he thought.
 "As binding on me as on them. But I have sculpted the terrain a little,
 and that is to my advantage. They have numbers, after all."
      He walked back over to the blanket; his foot stopped burning the
 moment he left the Dueling Grounds. He sat down and started pulling off
 his left boot.
"What _are_ you doing?" inquired Drel. "You know that it isn't a
 physical wound."
"I know, but I thought it might look different, what with my sight
 being shifted half onto the God-Plane." He bent his leg and turned his
 foot. It was an sickly yellow color, from one end to the other. Just as
 if he had stepped into a foetid puddle.
"No different," thought Harlios, as he drew back to let Drel look.
 "What were you expecting?" "I don't know, but suddenly I was curious."
 He pulled the boot back on. He stood up, and grasped the sword, the last
 ritual stake, and the candle.

      Harlios moved to the center of the sacred Arena, his foot burning
 again as he passed the boundary. He knelt and held the sword far up it's
 scabbard, as if it were pole. He placed the candle a foot in front of him,
 and held the last ritual marker in his left hand. A brief exertion of
 will, and the candle began to burn. The flame was an eerie sight to his
 shifted vision, made up of many different shades of red; no yellows,
 oranges or blues....
      He looked down at the ritual marker, a wooden stake seven inches long.
 Another one of his innovations. Yanafali dueling markers were normally
 ash, carved with the runes of Life and Death and Honor. The runes were
 carved deeply, then filled in with silver gilding. Then the stakes would
 be sealed in heavy coats of clear varnish. Not his stakes.... His were
 ash, but uncarved. Instead, they were wrapped around with small, thin
 scrolls. He and his comrades had limned spells and runes upon the scrolls.
 Each had written one, using his own blood. The scrolls had been wrapped
 about the stakes, then lacquered into place. A dark lacquer had been used;
 smoothed, sanded, then applied again, in many coats. It was impossible to
 see or feel the scroll when holding the stake. But Harlios could feel it's
 aura. He had been saving this little surprise for some time, but few ven-
 tured to challenge a Traveller, or accept such a challenge when offered.
      Harlios summoned his fire elemental. It burst into flame, and he
 immeadiately began compressing it's form. Soon it was a small ball of
 preternaturally bright fire hovering about the candle's wick, (that was
 the candle's purpose). It burned honest red and yellow before his eyes.
      He thrust the his left hand forward; the top of the dueling stake
 went into the salamander. He chanted slow, dreadfull words, with Drel
 echoing in his mind. The elemental passed up the stake like fire up a
 rope. Hwarin's stake! He felt her aura as the marker was consumed.
      Pain filled his body, as the salamander passed into it. His frame
 was burning from within.
"No!" he cried. "You shall not feed on flesh or blood! Down ye
 pain! Down into the sole of my left foot, where burning sensations
 belong!"
      Drel moaned on, slow as a dirge. Harlios rejoined the chant, and
 the pain receded. It flowed out of his arms, down his breast, into his
 left leg. Down and down, until his left foot burned again, this time as
 of fire.
      Harlios panted with pain, dropping his sword. He pulled off his
 iron helm and dabbed at his eyes. Tears ran down his face, like little
 traitors. His cheeks felt scorched...
      He grasped his sword again, and slowly stood. His foot burned of
 acid _and_ of fire.
"How long can you endure this, Harlios?"
"It is twice as bad as I am used to, but no matter. There is no
 damage to flesh or bone or tendon, nor ever was. I limp because I feel
 pain, and try to favor my leg. Walking, running, or propped up on a
 pillow like a gouty old man; the pain never varies. I will master this."
      He clenched his jaw and stamped his foot. Twice, thrice, harder!
 No jolt of pain echoed up and down his leg; the pain remained constant.
 He started to walk about the Dueling Grounds. First he hobbled, but his
 gait grew steady. He had thought of leaving the Sacred Arena, while he
 grew used to the burning of fire. But he discarded the idea. "I have to
 do this sooner or later," he thought. "And besides, I have my pride; I
 will not weaken now."
"And who will see your manliness?" chuckled Drel. "_I_ am not so
 easily impressed."
"Ha ha ha," laughed Harlios. "Wasted hubris, is it? Well, let it
 go. I have done harder things. Strange, though. I am so near the final
 ending, but I feel neither dread nor hesiitation. Something in me yearns
 forward. 'Let it be done!' it seems to cry. Is this Fate? Is this the
 voice of She Who Waits?"

      Harlios held his sword before him, carried slantwise in it's sheath.
 He began the final ritual challenge. Drel sang with him, as ever. He
 called his enemies to come and do honorable combat. He named his patron,
 Yanafal, as his witness. Drel called on Rashtingall to witness also.
 Their voices seemed to boom and carry to all four horizons. The world
 around them shifted, as they passed bodily onto the HeroPlane. But for
 Harlios it was a relief. Here, his vision seemed very much as it ever
 was.
      They called on Kalikos, though that name seemed not to carry far.
 They called on the Seven Mothers, and other friendly gods. At last they
 called on the Winter King, to come and fight; or else to skulk back north
 in shame.
      The ringing of their voices died away, and Harlios turned. Drawn up
 on the plain seemed an endless army, the Host of Winter. Uzhim and Hollri
 seemed to make up the bulk of the force, but there were many nameless
 things.....
      Near the edge of the Dueling Grounds stood the only apparent man.
 Tall and gaunt, his shoulders were stooped and his arms and breast were
 criss-crossed by countless scars. His hair and beard glittered. But his
 back was straight as the Daughter's Road, and there was a hard, bitter
 look in his eyes, like boreal ice. He had the look of a man long held
 prisoner, who had at last tasted freedom. One who had tasted of blood,
 and wanted more.
"Hend Valindsson, I salute you."

******
Andrew

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