With careful, deliberate motions, Doil placed the cloth bookmark across his page, gently close the book he had been reading, and placed it on the table beside the chair. He looked up at Kiluron, who was leaning against the cold, cloth-stuff glass window, and had been until a moment ago staring out of it with clenched fists. Now, he was regarding Doil with an expectation of an answer.
“What do you want me to say?” Doil asked. “I think that Prime Wezzix laid everything out rather clearly, and he certainly made his decision obvious. I can’t give you any neat little loophole in the wording to exploit this time.”
Kiluron smacked his fist against the stone wall, and winced, shaking out his hand. “Just say something! Tell me I’m not crazy for thinking that this is a stupid, selfish decision that completely undermines the entire point of my role as Sub-Prime.”
“’You’re not crazy for thinking that this is a stupid, selfish decision that completely undermines the entire point of your role as Sub-Prime,’” Doil recited.
Kiluron gave him a look that could have melted the ice rapidly accumulating outside as the storm raged on. “Not funny.”
Doil gestured out the window at the raging storm, barely visible where Kiluron had pushed some of the cloth insulation away. “You really want to be out in that? As Prime Wezzix said, it just doesn’t seem worth the risk.”
“Of course I don’t want to be out in that storm!” Kiluron stomped away from the window, only to stomp back again a moment later. “But that’s completely beside the point. It is my duty as Sub-Prime to accompany the soldiers on the winter supply runs to the outposts. Outpost Lu is right on the border with the Unclaimed Territories, and completely isolated from all of the major routes. It’s probably the most vulnerable outpost we have, and you’re telling me it’s not important for me to ensure those supplies get there on time?”
Doil sighed. “You know the supplies will get there if it’s at all possible. The soldiers will see to that. Your job was more a matter of morale and presence.”
“Which seems all the more important now that there’s an epic snowstorm raging across the country,” Kiluron snapped. “You think the soldiers manning the outposts are ever going to take me seriously, knowing that I decided to stay safe and warm in my castle while they were freezing half to death?”
“If they’re intelligent, they’ll recognize that it would be a foolish and unnecessary risk for the Sub-Prime to personally accompany a supply run in the middle of one of the most intense blizzards in memory,” Doil replied.
Kiluron shook his head. “You just don’t get it. That’s not how soldiers think.”
Doil held up his hands. “Even if that’s true, Prime Wezzix was clear, and his word is final. There’s no point in continuing to agonize over this.” He picked up his book. “If I may, my lord?”
“Bah. Fine, go.” Kiluron turned back towards the window. “Not like I’ll be needing you if I’m not going anywhere.”
Returning to his own chambers, Doil shivered in the corridors, which despite the servants’ best efforts were thoroughly chilled from the fierce cold and wind outside. It was a relief to climb into his bed, especially since he remembered to place the warming irons beneath the sheets while he was changing into his nightclothes. Although the wind howling outside was loud and somewhat torturous, there was a repetitive, trance-like quality to it, and there was something uniquely comforting about knowing that it was being kept safely away from him by large blocks of stone. He fell quickly asleep.
It seemed he had barely slept when a hand covered his mouth, awakening him. Doil thrashed and tried to cry out, fumbling in the dark for something to use as a weapon, but a face leaned very close to his, barely visible in the darkness.
“Doil, you idiot, stop struggling. It’s me,” Kiluron hissed.
Only slowly did Doil relax, and it wasn’t until he relaxed that Kiluron removed his hand. Warily, Doil sat up in bed, keeping the blankets wrapped around him to ward off the chill, and regarded Kiluron. “What are you doing here? It’s the middle of the night!”
“Get dressed and packed. We’re leaving,” Kiluron explained. He was already dressed in layers of clothes and fur, with a sword strapped on over all of it. There were so many layers that he looked to have gained several hands of girth and height. His face was barely visible beneath layers of hoods and cloth coverings.
“Where? What? What’s going on?” Doil mumbled, trying to blink the sleep away from his eyes.
“Stop talking so loud!” Kiluron whispered loudly. “The supply caravan wasn’t able to make much progress yesterday, in all the snow. We can easily catch up to it by morning, just the two of us, if we leave soon.”
Doil held up his hands pleadingly. “Please, my lord, you’re not making any sense. You’re trying to go after the supply caravan? You were expressly ordered…”
“Blood to the Prime and his orders!” Kiluron exclaimed, semi-quietly. “This is the right thing to do, so I’m going to do it. And that’s that. Now, are you going to come with me, or not?”
With a sigh, Doil swung his legs out of bed, and resisting the urge to immediately yank them back beneath the blankets again. “Alright, fine. I’m coming. Not going to let you go wandering off through the dark in a blizzard by yourself, certainly.”
Kiluron smacked him hard on the shoulder. “Good man.”
Shaking his head, Doil hurried about the room, tearing off his night clothes and digging out his warmest garments. Kiluron had brought a full soldier’s winter kit for him, which was only a few sizes too large, so Doil pulled that on over his own clothes. By the time he had all of his layers on, Kiluron had been tapping his foot impatiently for some time, and Doil felt like he could barely move within all of his thick clothing.
“Ready?” Kiluron asked, looking Doil over and giving him another smack on the shoulder. This time, Doil could barely even feel it.
“No,” Doil replied. “But I’m clothed and geared up, and there seems to be no talking you out of this. So let’s go get lost in a blizzard and freeze to death.”
Kiluron grinned. “That’s the spirit. Let’s go.”
Stepping outside the castle was like being hit in the face by a palm, if that palm was the size of a mountain and the temperature of a glacier. And it just kept on hitting, a constant pressure carrying with it tiny needles of ice that seemed fit to shred the coverings they had brought for themselves, and managed to find every crevasse, crease, and seam in their clothing to make them colder and wetter inside than they were outside. Doil kept expecting Kiluron to admit that this was a terrible idea, turn around, and head back, but he never did. The whole night had something of a dreamlike quality from which Doil could eventually wake up, but that never happened, either. Outside the city walls, the snow was piled up in drifts like enormous waves, and there was no way to go around many of them. They alternated between pushing through snow past their hips, and walking on eerily cleared, frozen ground that crunched beneath their boots.
“Should’ve brought skis,” Kiluron muttered.
“What?” Doil yelled, struggling to be heard over the howling wind.
“Should’ve brought skis!” Kiluron repeated.
Doil struggled to catch up to Kiluron’s longer, more aggressive pace again. “I don’t even know how to ski!”
“Neither do I, but it can’t be that hard,” Kiluron replied. “I’ve seen other people do it once or twice.”
Doil shuddered. “I think I’ve fallen on my face in the snow enough, as it is.” Every time that happened, even more snow found its way past his face mask and down his collar, leaving him little icy presents that occasionally worked their way loose and ran down his bare skin in a unique form of torture. His breathing created enough condensation that little pellets of ice formed on his face mask, which he could only dislodge by plucking at them with his stiffened fingers, but if he didn’t they stuck to his face and soon began to burn, as if they were coals instead of pieces of ice. “Have I mentioned that I think this was a really, really bad idea?”
Pausing to allow Doil a moment to catch his breath, Kiluron might have grinned beneath his mask, but it was impossible to tell. “This is exciting! Invigorating.”
“Invigorating,” Doil repeated. “You’re not convincing me. Are we even going the right direction?”
Kiluron looked up at the sky, but there were no stars to see through the thick clouds and the swirling snow. He quickly looked away again, for the swirling patterns of snow continuing far up into the atmosphere were dizzying. “I think so. We’ve been going in a straight line north from Merolate, haven’t we? That should take us towards Outpost Lu.”
“Isn’t there some way to check?” Doil asked. “Blizzards are infamous for wreaking havoc with directional senses and leading people to walk in circles or get lost twenty feet from their barns.”
“You read too many books. Here. I brought one of those compasses that they’ve been training the scouts to use. It should tell us if we’re heading in the right direction.” Kiluron fumbled in his pockets. Then he fumbled in his other pockets. Then he yanked his gloves off, ignoring the wind that turned them numb in moments, and fumbled in more pockets. “Um.”
“What?” Doil asked. “You can’t find your compass?”
Kiluron winced as he clumsily tugged his gloves back over his hands. “Um. No. No, I can’t. We may have a bit of a problem.” He looked around, stomping about in the snow, and pointed. “But I’m pretty sure we were heading that way before we stopped.” He hesitated, and looked around again. “Or was it that way?”
Doil pointed in another direction. “I thought it was that way…” They looked at each other. “We’re lost?”
Kiluron shook his head emphatically. “No. No, we are most certainly not lost. Being lost is a state of mind, and that’s not our state of mind. If you don’t think we’re lost, then we’re not lost. We’re just wandering around in the middle of a blizzard in the middle of the night without knowing where we are. We’re only lost if we think we’re lost. We’re not lost. Stop thinking we’re lost!”
Doil sucked in a deep breath, and regretted it as extra cold air flooded his lungs, and ice crystals tried to shred the back of his throat. “My lord, calm down. Please calm down. Panicking is only going to make this situation worse.”
“I’m not panicking!” Kiluron yelled. The effect was dulled by the way his voice vanished into the storm’s scream. “Do I seem like I’m panicking? Am I acting panicked? Definitely not. I’m not panicking! Doil, stop making me panic!”
“I think I’m just going to sit down for a moment,” Doil said, heading to a relatively clear patch of ground. “Let me know when you decide what we’re going to do?”
“Oh no you don’t.” Kiluron hurried to his side and hauled Doil to his feet again. “No sitting down. We have to stand up, and keep moving. Otherwise we’ll freeze to death for sure in this storm.”
“But if we’re lost, where are we supposed to move to?” Doil demanded. “I’m sorry, if we are ‘wandering around without knowing where we are’ or whatever it is you said.”
Kiluron took a deep breath. Nervous sweat had prickled from his armpits and now traced frozen paths down his sides beneath his clothes, chilling his skin and crackling and pulling oddly when he moved. “North of Merolate, just a morning’s ride, is the forest. If we find that, we’ll know we’re going in roughly the right direction, and at the very least we’ll have a little more shelter from this storm. So I say we head for the forest.” He looked at Doil. “Does that make sense? Is it a good plan? Please tell me it’s a good plan, because I really don’t have any other ideas right now.”
“It seems as good a plan as any,” Doil admitted reluctantly, “and better than anything I’m coming up with. Easier to find a giant forest in the dark, than a moderately sized city. And we’re probably closer to the forest than we are to Merolate, anyway.”
Kiluron pointed. “I think that way might be north.”
Taking a deep breath, Doil looked the way he was pointing. “Honestly, I have no idea. So that way seems like a good bet to me. Do we have anyway to mark where we are now, so that we’ll know if we’re going in circles or something?”
“I’m afraid not,” Kiluron said. “But we should tie ourselves together before we go any further so that we can’t become separated. Somehow, it seems like it’s actually getting worse out here, not better.”
Once they were tied together, they set off in the direction Kiluron had indicated, or at least the direction he thought he had indicated, with Kiluron leading and Doil following. Doil found himself frequently holding to the rope as a sort of lifeline, something to help ground him in reality as the world around him became a uniform grey. It was impossible to judge the ground on which he was stepping, since shadows were completely imperceptible, so he stumbled along at the other end of the rope as Kiluron stumbled along at its head; Doil was mostly glad that he did not have to be the one forging a new path ahead into the unrelenting blankness that was their new reality. They existed within a bubble perhaps an arm’s span across, and that was all that existed for them; the rest of the world seemed to have simply faded away. Once, Doil stopped being able to feel Kiluron tugging on the other end of the rope, and he panicked for a moment thinking that Kiluron had somehow come loose and that they were now separated in this oblivion.
They spoke little, concentrating on saving their energy for walking and their heat to keep themselves upright. The snow came down so thickly that their tracks were erased by the time Doil turned around to look at them, though admittedly his mind and actions were slowed by the cold that was settling deeper and deeper into every bit of his body. He could no longer feel his fingers, though visual inspection convinced him that his hands were in fact still, and perhaps permanently, clenched around the rope that connected him to Kiluron. His ears were long since past feeling, as were his lips and nose. Even had he wanted to speak into the echoing chamber of their private purgatory, he doubted he could have convinced his lips and throat to form the necessary sounds.
“Ow!” The noise was a distant exclamation, filtering to Doil’s mind through a haze. He became aware that their surroundings had become a slightly lighter grey, and that there was some small relief in their uniformity; vague forms were just barely visible at the edges of his vision. The rope to which he clung went slack, and but his feet kept shuffling him forward until he smacked into something soft, which repeated “ow!” Doil mumbled an apology as he sought to pry his hands from their statuesque grip on the rope.
“I ram into da twee,” Kiluron said, gesturing at the offending flora as if it had personally and deliberately placed itself in his path so as to inconvenience him in that very moment.
At this, Doil heaved a frightened, semi-hysterical laugh. “But dat’s shood, ishn’t ith? We wore looching fer twees.” His words came out cold-slurred, too, and he laughed again, but quickly stopped, the cold air burning his lungs.
“I half no idee whad yurr alkinng ahboosh,” Kiluron complained. He stopped, stretching his lips across his teeth and massaging them by opening and closing his mouth like a fish. When he had finished, he tried again. “I shink we half foond sha foresh.”
“Whash noo?” Doil mumbled. The ground looked very inviting, and he decided to sit down to rest for a moment while he awaited Kiluron’s answer, but Kiluron hauled him almost immediately back to his feet.
“Keep mooving!” Kiluron ordered, and half hauled Doil deeper into the trees, occasionally running into one, stumbling, and continuing around.
It was not readily apparent, but after a stretch of stumbling that felt almost as long as the last interminable period of walking had felt, even Doil began to notice that the wind had abated slightly, leaving him feeling at least slightly warmer where he could still feel at all. Here, it was still snowing steadily, but there wasn’t even anything particularly remarkable about the snowfall, compared to the historic storm through which they had already come.
“Cun we peash shop?” Doil moaned, dragging on the rope. At last, Kiluron slowed his pace in the leeward shadow of a fallen tree, where the ground was almost bare of snow, surrounded by high drifts and tangled limbs.
It took all of Kiluron’s remaining energy and willpower to keep from collapsing beside Doil in the little, snow-free patch beneath the fallen tree, but he set about piling the snow up to seal them in, using his sword to hack and move branches or break through ice-crusted formations as needed. Twice he dropped the blade from his numb fingers when it bounced off of branches completely sheathed in ice. Only when he had full sealed them into a tiny snow cave barely large enough for them did he allow himself to settle to the ground, and though he thought briefly of checking on Doil, he was asleep long before he could act on the thought.
In terms of being awoken, via cold, dripping water is one of the more unpleasant ways, and Doil thrashed weakly for a moment to get away from the water dripping out of an impenetrable darkness before surrendering to his newly awakened state. Upon further inspection, he realized that the darkness was not as impenetrable as he had first thought; there was wan, blue-tinged sunlight creeping vaguely through thinner patches of the hastily created snow-cave Kiluron had made the night before, and by that illumination he was able to discern both his cramped surroundings and Kiluron sleeping curled into a ball beside him. Somehow, he had slept through Doil’s thrashing.
Self-inspection revealed that everything hurt. The numbness in his extremities had been replaced by a horrible burning feeling that made him long for the numbness, and the numbness in his mind had been replaced by a splitting headache. Every time he blinked, there was glaring, bright light waiting behind his eyelids. His breathing was shallow and fast, and he clawed at the snowy barriers surrounding him, his fingers bouncing uselessly against the ice dome, a product of the melting and refreezing of the snow resulting from sleeping body heat.
There was the panic of not knowing where they were or what they were going to do or how they were going to get back; that panic was familiar to Doil by now, and he was doing an adequate job of ignoring it. The panic he was now feeling was the panic of imminent suffocation; no matter how he breathed, he could not seem to get enough air. He didn’t know if this was claustrophobia, or some form of panic attack, or if there really wasn’t enough air in the snow-cave, but he needed to get out, had to get out into the open air, no matter how cold and unpleasant it might be. Kiluron’s continued slumber had taken on a more ominous cast, his face seeming pale and grey when Doil bent down to force his burning fingers around Kiluron’s sword hilt. His first thrust skittered across the ice ineffectually, but the second crunched, and Doil, having put all his weight behind the sword, tumbled through the snow wall and out into the cold, late morning air.
The difference between the inside and outside temperature was striking, going in an instant from that of a balmy, chilly, spring day, to the absolute frigid depths of winter, and there was no going back; the bubble of warmth in their snow cave had evaporated as soon as Doil had burst free of its borders. The change had proven finally enough to awaken Kiluron, whom Doil turned and saw sitting up, rubbing his head, and glaring in Doil’s direction.
“Sorry.” Doil crossed his arms. “I couldn’t breathe in there.”
Slowly, Kiluron’s glare faded to a look of concern. “Oh. Oh no. I didn’t…did I? I couldn’t have…” He stopped, and looked at Doil. “Blood, Doil, I’m sorry. I forgot to make an air hole…I’m a total idiot, aren’t I. This was a bad idea all along.”
“Stop. Please stop.” Doil grabbed Kiluron’s arms. “I’m already completely freaking out; I need you to know what to do. Alright? I won’t even say that I told you so, not right now.”
“Not until we’re back at the castle, hm?” Kiluron managed a faint smile, and gripped Doil’s arms back. He sucked in a deep breath of cold air, hissed it out again in pain, and opened his eyes again. “Never thought I’d like forward to hearing you say that.”
Doil managed something approaching a smile, or at least his lips twitched in that direction. “Better?”
“No, but I think I’m done panicking, for the moment,” Kiluron replied. He looked around. “We’re not lost. Remember, we’re not lost. We’re just somewhere in the wilderness and don’t know exactly where we are.”
“You’re not convincing me,” Doil observed. “If that was supposed to be reassuring…”
“I’m not trying to convince you. I’m trying to convince myself,” Kiluron retorted.
“Oh.” Doil nodded in understanding. “Is it working?”
Kiluron shot a glance at him. “Doil? Be quiet.”
“Yes, my lord,” Doil replied.
Although the snow had mostly stopped, and from the brightness it seemed the sun should have been visible, there was a grey-white layer of clouds blanketing the sky in all directions, a dingy reflection of the brilliant crystal comforter laid out upon the ground. It was completely silent, as if the snow had smothered all other life and all other noise. For a long time, Doil watched Kiluron as the latter tromped around the clearing, occasionally stopping or muttering to himself. Finally, he returned to Doil’s side.
“They’ll be out looking for us, you think?” he asked.
Doil scratched his head. “By this afternoon, I would think. First they’ll have to realize that we’re gone and not just somewhere else in the castle or the city.”
“Makes sense,” Kiluron agreed. “Alright. I have a plan.”
Doil waited. “Yes?” he prompted.
Kiluron crossed his arms. “Look. I don’t know which direction it is back to the city. I know it’s generally south, but I can’t figure out which way that is right now. Not without the sun, and not without a compass. So we’re going to stay here today and tonight. We’ll rebuild the shelter, with an air hole this time, and we’ll build a huge fire and gather lots of fuel for the night. That way, we should keep any animals away, and attract the attention of any people who might be looking for us. If no one has found us by morning, we’ll have a sunset and a sunrise to help us find our bearings. I’ll mark which way is west and which way is east each time, and we can travel based on that. As long as the wind doesn’t come back, we should be able to base our path on our tracks. And who knows? Maybe the sun will be back tomorrow.”
“Well, I don’t have a better idea,” Doil admitted. “I’m going to pretend that you didn’t just imply that there are wild animals out here that it would be best if we don’t encounter. And also the possibility that the people who find out fire may not be the people who are looking for us. At least you’re not still bent on finding the caravan and joining up with them.”
“How many times do you want me to say that I admit this wasn’t my most brilliant idea?” Kiluron huffed.
“I think that was actually the closest you’ve come to genuinely admitting it to me,” Doil observed. “And until I have spent enough time in front of a raging fire in a hearth behind the castle walls, I don’t think there is a sufficient number.”
Kiluron sighed, and Doil sighed in return. “Sorry. Still panicking, remember?”
“Right…” Kiluron dug his sword out of the ground, and brushed the snow off of it. “Come on. Let’s gather a lot of firewood.”
Throughout that whole day, they gathered firewood. The forest was eerily silent, and not once in that whole day did they encounter another living soul. There was silence that night, too, broken slightly by the mild crackling of their fire, which provided a relieving sense of life, but even its noise was swallowed up by the cold and the darkness. Both Kiluron and Doil drifted in and out of sleep, occasionally waking enough to add more wood to the fire.
They were both startled awake in the middle of the night by the sound of an explosion shattering the still glass of darkness. Kiluron grabbed for his sword, and both of them looked around, hearts pounding, searching for the source of the sound, but they found nothing. The forest was quiet again for long enough that each had settled back down before the fire and was starting to nod off into sleep again when a second explosion burst over them, this one seeming a little further away. A third was soon to follow, closer than the first had been.
“Thunder?” Kiluron asked, looking around. “I’ve never heard of anything like this.”
Doil shook his head. “I think it might be the trees exploding. I’ve read that it can happen when it gets cold enough – something about the sap expanding when it freezes. But I didn’t imagine it would sound quite so…ominous. I always thought the descriptions of it as explosions were exaggerated.”
“Definitely not exaggerated,” Kiluron agreed. “I really hope you’re right, and that’s all it is.”
“What else would it be?” Doil asked.
Kiluron cast him a dark look. “I’d rather not think about it.”
Neither of them slept much after that.
Morning dawned still cloudy and fiercely cold over the exhausted pair, but they could see the direction from which the sky began to lighten, and Kiluron marked it opposite from where he had marked the direction from whence the darkness had spread the evening before. Drawing a line between the marks, he considered it for a moment, and then looked over to Doil.
“That way,” he said, pointing south. Heeding his own advice, he set off through the snow. Doil followed behind him.
Though they spoke little, too tired for banter, the going at least was easier than it had been on their wild stumble away from the city. It was difficult to maintain a straight path through the forest, but they left early enough in the morning that they had a clear sense of the dawn’s direction for long enough to leave its shelter and reach the open plain. There, the wind was fierce, and the drifts were in places taller than they were, cresting like the waves sent forth by a hurricane for as far as either of them could see, which in the midst of them was not very far. When Merolate grew visible from the tops of the drifts, Doil sagged with relief, and Kiluron redoubled his pace, almost dragging Doil along with him, though it seemed to take forever before they finally reached the city gates. When they were close enough to have found the main road, a patrol of guardsmen came out to meet them, escorting them all the way to the castle.
Hot baths were drawn for them, and warm clothes provided, with fires already blazing away in their chambers. Doil soaked in his bath for as long as the water remained warm; it was a rare luxury. Belting a thick robe around himself, he settled himself in his chair by the hearth, rubbed his hands, which finally weren’t stiff and numb or burning, and picked up his book, gently opening it to where he had left off. He had read less than a page when he heard a knock on the door.
“Come in,” he called, rising to his feet. Kiluron practically barged through the door before he had finished answering. “My lord.”
Kiluron closed the door and stood awkwardly near the entrance. “I was, ah, on my way to see Prime Wezzix, thought I’d drop by.”
Setting his book down, Doil nodded. “By ‘see,’ I assume that you mean ‘be berated by.’”
“Something like that,” Kiluron admitted. He shifted uncomfortably. “So I should probably stop stalling.”
“Probably,” Doil agreed. But Kiluron still hesitated by the door. “Was there something else?”
“What? Something else? Why would you think there would be something else? Does there need to be something else?” Kiluron crossed his arms defensively.
Doil sighed. “No, of course not. Maybe you just wanted to hear me say I told you so again.”
“Maybe.” Kiluron put his hand on the door, then turned back again. “Actually, I wanted to say thank you. For coming with me. Even though you knew it was a horrible idea, you came with me anyway. I don’t know if I would have made it back without you.”
Doil regarded Kiluron for a long moment; there was little trace of his usual casual attitude. “That’s what friends do.”
Kiluron nodded, and pushed open the door. “Well, whatever. Thank you.” Then he was closing the door behind him before Doil could think of anything better to say.
The end of Blood Magic S1:E6: A Prime’s Place. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode will go live on July 31st, 2020.
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