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And that was in the time before our time, when Tail-avar, the god of wisdom, travelled with Storro, Speaker of Legends, and Touch the Moon, god of tribes, to steal power from the magic fang of the Frost Giant. With a rope crafted from moonlight Tail-avar lassoed seven serpents of the sea. They drew his canoe across the Great Water in less than a day. When Touch the Moon saw the beast they had come to find, he fell to the floor of the canoe, and cried out to the Spirit of Heaven to grant them courage. For the Frost Giant was greater than mountains, its white back tearing the sky. The breath from its mouth flowed for many leagues as a cold mist across the water. Its claws were as long as the ribs of a whale, its teeth as sharp as betrayal.
from the Morning Song of the Anajo
Alone on an icy hillside, the wind blowing cold across the glaciers, Talaban recalled the first time he had heard the prophecy.
The Great Bear will descend from the skies and with his paw lash at the ocean. He will devour all the works of Man. Then he will sleep for 10,000 years, and the breath of his sleep will be death.
The words had been spoken by a Vagar mystic; a ragged man in clothes of filthy fur, sitting on the lower steps of the Great Temple. Thinking the man a beggar the young blue-haired Avatar officer had given him a small silver coin. The mystic looked at it, turning it over and over in his grimy hand. His face was smeared with dirt and sweat, and upon his neck was an inflamed boil. Had he been anywhere else in the city the Watch would have arrested him, for no Outland beggars were allowed in the streets of Parapolis. But the Temple was the acknowledged center for the world's religions, and all were free to gather here. Vagars, tribesmen, nomads, all journeyed to Parapolis. It was as much a political decision by the Avatars as a spiritual one. For the barbarians returned to their homes and convinced their followers of the futility of revolt. Parapolis, with its gleaming towers of gold, and its powerful magic, was a symbol of invincible might.
Talaban watched the fur-clad beggar examining the coin. The boil on his neck seemed ready to burst, and the pain must have been great. Talaban offered to heal it for him. The man shook his head, the movement causing him to wince against the agony of the inflammation. "I need no healing, Avatar. The boil is a part of me, and it will leave me when it is ready." The mystic gazed down at the silver coin in his hand, then glanced up at the tall blue-haired soldier. "Your gift to me shows a generous spirit, Avatar," he said. "Look around you, and tell me what you see."
Talaban gazed at the colossal buildings at the center of the capital. The Great Temple was a magnificent edifice, roofed with gold sheeting and adorned with hundreds of beautifully wrought statues of marble depicting scenes from a thousand years of Avatar history. The gilded Monument, a towering column of gold 200 feet high, stood beside it. Everywhere he looked Talaban saw the glory that was the Avatar capital: awe-inspiring buildings, great arches, paved walkways. And beyond them, breathtakingly serene, dwarfing all the incredible works of Avatar architecture, loomed the brooding presence of the White Pyramid. Three million blocks of stone, many of them weighing more than 200 tons, had been used to create this artificial mountain. And then the whole edifice had been faced with white marble. For a moment Talaban was lost in the wonder of it all. Then he remembered the question the ragged man had asked him. "I see what you see," he said. "The greatest city ever built."
The mystic chuckled. "You do not see what I see. You see what is. I see what will be." He pointed to the glittering Monument, rising like a spear towards the skies. It was a work of wonder, and golden spikes radiated from the crown set upon it. The gold of the crown alone weighed almost a ton. "The crown will fall when the whale's body crashes against it," he said.
"I have never seen a flying whale," said Talaban, amiably.
"Nor will you," agreed the mystic. Then he spoke of the Great Bear and its sleep of death.
Talaban was growing bored now. He smiled at the man and turned away. The mystic's voice followed him.
"The bear will be white. Gloriously white. Just like the pyramid. And you will be one of the few Avatars who will gaze upon it and live. And when you do your hair will no longer be dyed blue. It will be dark. For you will have learned humility, Avatar."
An icy wind whispered across the snow-covered hills. Talaban's mind returned to the present. Pushing his fingers through his night-dark hair, he lifted his fur-lined hood into place, and stared out over the glaciers.
There was a time when he had hated the ice. Hated it with every fiber of his being. Yet now he gazed upon the cold and brittle beauty of the glaciers without rage. It surprised him that he could even appreciate the sunlight creating pale colors upon the ghost white of the glacier flanks, the faint blue of the reflected sky, the gleam of gold as the sun set.
So much was hidden beneath it, lost forever. His childhood friends, his family, thousands of works of literature and philosophy, all buried now. Along with his hopes and dreams. Yet despite what it had taken from him, the ice had proved too powerful for his hatred; too huge and too cold for his fury.
And now, as his dark eyes scanned the white mountains, his heart felt a curious sense of kinship with the ice, for his own feelings were now buried deep, as deep perhaps as Parapolis, which lay frozen beneath the belly of the Great Ice Bear.
The tall warrior transferred his gaze to the small group of men working at the foot of the ice mountains. From his vantage point on the hillside he could see them planting the golden probes, and setting up small pyramids created from silver poles. Golden wires were being attached to the pyramids, linking them together. Talaban could see the short, stocky figure of Questor Ro moving among the Vagars, issuing orders, barking out commands. At this distance he could not hear him, but he could tell by the impatient gestures that Questor Ro was putting the fear of death into his team. And the fear was very real. Questor Ro was one of the few Avatars who still, routinely, sentenced his slaves to be flogged for minor infractions. The little man was powerful within the Council, and it was by his influence that this expedition had been realized.
Would he be so powerful when they returned, Talaban wondered?
He had long since cast aside his optimism and considered the venture futile, but his orders were specific: bring Questor Ro and his Vagar team to the ice, protect them, oversee the operation, and return within three months.
It was the seventh team to attempt Communion in four years. Talaban had commanded three of the expeditions. All had ended in failure and he had no expectation of greater success on this trip. The prevailing opinion was that Communion was no longer possible. Questor Ro had argued against this, calling his colleagues "pathetically defeatist." His enemies, and there were many, had part sponsored the current expedition. Their aim was obvious to see Questor Ro humbled. This did not seem to perturb the little man.
Turning from the ice Talaban scanned the barren plain seeking signs of movement. Nomads still lived in the mountains to the east. They were a savage and fierce people. With only twenty soldiers under his command Talaban did not relish the thought of battle in this cold lonely place.
These icy lands, once so wondrously fertile, were full of peril now. The nomads were only one of many dangers. On the last expedition a pride of saber-tooths had attacked a working party, killing three Vagars and dragging off a fourth. Talaban had killed the beast as it mauled the Vagar. The victim had bled to death within moments, the artery in his groin torn open. Then there were the krals. Not since the first expedition had they been seen, but fear of them remained strong, and the descriptions of their ferocity had grown in the telling. Talaban had never seen a kral, but witnesses told him of their speed and savagery. They were covered in white fur, like a snow bear, but their faces were almost human, though incredibly bestial. Three accounts described them as more than seven feet tall, with long upper arms. When they charged they dropped to all fours, and killed with talons and sharp teeth.
The last of the perils, but by no means the least, lay in the herds of tuskers, who roamed the forests to the east. Their shaggy hides protected them from the severity of the cold, and their tusks, some measuring more than ten feet, made them dangerous adversaries. Even saber-tooths generally avoided the mammoths--unless they could isolate a stray.
The vast plain appeared empty. Talaban gestured to his sergeant, Methras, positioned on a hillside some 600 paces to the east. The man spread out his arms in a flat line, signalling nothing to report.
A movement out to sea caught Talaban's eye. At first he thought it was a ship, but then he saw the great back of a blue whale lift and dip, before the sea swallowed it once more. The mystic's words came back to him again. And now he knew that, as the tidal wave engulfed Parapolis, a whale had crashed against the Monument's crown, ripping it away. He wondered if the little mystic had survived.
Down in the bay, sails furled, Serpent Seven was at anchor. Even here in this gentle bay the huge black ship looked unseaworthy, her decks too high, her draft too low. Talaban sighed. Drawing his black woolen cloak around him he strode down the hillside. Three Vagars, waiting for the ship's boat, were crouched in the shelter of several boulders. They were wearing coats of white fur, and boots of sheepskin. Even so their lips were blue with cold. Talaban knelt among them. "Once there were vineyards here," he said, "and away to the north was a lake where the Avatar Prime had a palace. I swam in that lake as a child, and my shoulders were burned red by the sun."
"The lake is ice now, lord," said one of the Vagars, blowing into his hands. "Everything is ice now." His voice was toneless and he did not look up at Talaban.
"Two more days, and then we will sail back to the city," Talaban told them.
His words did nothing to lift their spirits and he moved away from them down to the water's edge. Chunks of ice were floating along the shoreline. Raising his arm he signalled the ship. Instantly the silver longboat was lowered to the surface.
Swiftly, without oar or sail, it glided through the water and Talaban could see the hunched, hooded figure of Touchstone seated at the tiller. Talaban shivered once more. The cold was seeping into his bones now. The three Vagars hurried down to the water's edge as the boat neared, then waited until Talaban had stepped aboard before scrambling over the side.
"Them's cold rabbits," said Touchstone, grinning, gesturing towards the shivering Vagars. Talaban smiled. Touchstone pushed back his fur-lined hood, shaking free his black braids. "Nomads are close," he said, tapping his nose. "I smell them."
The three Vagars tensed, and Talaban saw the fear in their eyes. At least they've forgotten how cold they are, he thought.
"How close?" he asked Touchstone.
"Half a day. Twenty riders maybe. Hunting tuskers they are. They be close to here tomorrow. By dusk maybe."
"And you can smell all this?" put in one of the Vagars.
"A good nose I have," said Touchstone with a wink, stroking his long curved nose. He grinned at the man. "You see. Tomorrow. Come dusk."
Talaban raised his arm to signal the ship, and immediately the silver longboat began to glide backward out into the bay. Touchstone pulled the tiller arm and the craft swung towards the waiting ship. Talaban's gaze focused on the black vessel, with its high prow, and long, raking lines. The newly added masts were an abomination, but sadly necessary in these days of fading power. Fifty years ago there were seventy or more warships, sailing the oceans, mapping new lands, keeping the peace of the Avatar Prime. Now there was one, Serpent Seven, its power chest almost empty, its beauty scarred by the clumsy wooden masts hammered into its deck. Where once it had cleaved through the sea like a giant dolphin, now it labored like a sick whale, needing to keep close to the shoreline, wary of every wave that threatened to capsize it.
The silver boat drew alongside the huge vessel. Ropes were lowered. Touchstone tied two of them to the prow and stern. Talaban climbed the ladder to the central deck, responded to the salutes of three black-clad Vagar sailors, then strode on towards his cabin.
Once inside he doffed his cloak, unbuckled his sword belt and stood before the brazier of burning coal beneath the stern windows. Holding his hands to the heat he shivered with pleasure. Though he could tolerate it better than most men Talaban hated the cold. The quarter window was open, allowing fresh air into the cabin, and helping alleviate the stink of coal. Talaban gazed longingly at the crystal globes set into the wall. Once these had supplied either heat or light--indeed both if required--for the captain's cabin, but there was so little power left in the chest that Talaban did not dare activate them. Moving to his desk of polished oak he sat down, enjoying the luxury of the deep, padded chair.
Closing his eyes he thought again of the palace of the Avatar Prime, the burning sun, and the scent of nearby vineyards. Talaban had been happy there for a while, content to work on the maps he had so carefully charted the year before. It was the year that Questor Anu had been stripped of his rank. Talaban had been sent to question him, to decide if he posed a threat to the State. The inquisition had taken place in Anu's home on the outskirts of the city. Anu, like all Avatars, eternally youthful, had welcomed him warmly, and they had sat in his garden in the company of a slack-jawed half-wit, who drooled and stared vacantly into space. The half-wit was an Avatar but, because of his condition, was not allowed blue hair or any other badge of rank. Talaban found his presence off-putting. It was made more disturbing by the contrast with Anu. He was a slender man of medium height, his features regular, his expression friendly. Yet there was about him an almost tangible radiance, a sense of unworldliness that was both compelling and unsettling. It was the kind of feeling Talaban experienced when climbing a mountain and looking out over the landscape of the world, a sense of awe and deep humility.