Even during the Thaw, my father liked to say that if you could count your worries on one hand, your life was still worth it. I applied his mantra that night, huddled in a tarpaulin lean-to during the scariest guide-journey of my life, and counted up my worries:
One campfire, using the last of my fuel, sputtering in the winds whistling through the gaps in my tarps. One spit, heavy with the stuffed stomach of an aurochs, sagging slightly but hissing with promise. One client, a wizard judging by his garb and his rune-scarred fingertips, who had paid in Soldevi coins, in advance. One destination, Ronom Glacier, a continental trudge to the north and west.
My worries fit on four fingers, I thought, but some of them probably should have counted as more than one.
The Soldevi coins, for example, were little warnings hanging from my beltring. The topic of Soldev could still extinguish polite conversation in alehouses; no one wanted to talk about the swallowed city. Soldev was once a mechanized wonder, the triumph of the famed machinist-wizards—but was now just a rubble-choked hole. Soldev had become thought of as a cursed place, a place not to speak of except in murmurs, lest Phyrexian jaws follow the words to the speaker.
I pierced the aurochs stomach with a fork, releasing a cloud of sour steam from the bubbling sweetmeats inside.
Of course, I had guided enough risky clients across Terisiare to recognize the danger glowing from this anonymous Soldevi survivor. He had said he was no adventurer—“just a scholar”—and my palms must have believed him, because they greeted his coins outstretched.
My client carried little gear with him now, other than his overdone cold-weather clothing. Voluminous robes obscured his frame and a fur hat, tied under his frost-flecked beard, shaded his face. And still, he shivered at midday. There was also the matter of the undiscussed bundle he wore swaddled in canvas on his back. I told myself I was not paid to ask questions.
We had trekked for days, following the trails I knew that obeyed the heading of his compass, a mystic device imprinted with our destination. I tried not to think about the distance to Ronom Glacier or the uncheerful rate at which we chipped away at it. The wastes seemed wider than our resolve.
* * *
It was days later, as we sat under an outcropping on the trail, walled in on two sides by snow, that my client opened up.
“The distance made them seem tiny,” he said. “But they were like whales breaching. They swallowed whole sections of the city with—orifices—designed for that purpose. After a moment I could hear the crashing, after the air carried the sounds to me. It was faint, but I heard the voices of individual people dying to the machines.”
“But where were Soldev’s defenses? Why didn’t they sound the alarm?” I knew that Soldev was famous for its automated culture—why weren’t the war beasts repelled before they could enter the city?
The old Soldevi shook his head. “They had no chance. It was over in moments. And now a madman, Heidar of Rimewind, wants to build an army of these constructs. He wants to use scrolls from the vaults of Lim-Dûl to awaken Phyrexian killing machines from the ice of Ronom Glacier, and stop the Thaw. I’ve warned King Darien—now I must go to stop Heidar.”
I knew now why we trekked to the Glacier. Just a scholar, he had said.
“You’re Dagsson. Arcum Dagsson. Aren’t you?”
My client didn’t look up.
The famed master machinist, Arcum Dagsson, on his way to Ronom Glacier. This was no mission of investigation, to perform wizardly analysis of an enemy’s weapon. It was a mission of revenge, a mission of guilt, a torn man’s attempt to cause pain to a chosen enemy rather than to feel it in his soul.
My mind leapt to the bundle he carried with him. It was there, resting next to him as he spoke. My eyes tried to peel back the canvas, but whatever it was stayed securely wrapped until the day we met the Glacier.
* * *
Ronom Glacier’s size was incomprehensible. It loomed, a cliff face composed of pearly ice, studded in broken boulders and shot through with vertical fissures where ice shelves had at one time sheared from its surface. Centuries of wind had scoured grooves across the glacier wall like icy wood grain; it gave me the initial impression that it was climbable, which led to a self-directed chuckle when I came to my senses. An otherworldly, deep-throated crackle, the sound of the glacier’s slow advance, reverberated throughout the canyon. The entire structure shone like a frozen tidal wave in the sun. My companion and I stopped for a moment, turning our heads this way and that, making dumb attempts to grasp the largest single object on Terisiare.
Dagsson spoke first. “Bigger than I thought.”
I prepared to mimic his bravado and understatement, but no words came. Eventually I just nodded and said, “Let’s keep moving. The compass says we need to head in the direction of that rise.”
As we rounded the peak, the snow changed. It felt strange under my snowshoes before I saw how trampled it was, a unique sensation after weeks of not seeing a soul. My nostrils flared at the trace of a raw smell on the wind, again strange after all the crystalline whiteness. The tracks were messy gouges, halfway between claw marks and wheel tracks, that had chewed the snow and exposed the black earth beneath. They led down the slope into the valley before us, across a frozen lake, and into a cavern in the glacier wall, carving a wide swath. The cavern in the glacier was hand-hewn: tools and abandoned tents formed a halo around its mouth.
The tracks’ orientation was wrong. I realized that they didn’t lead toward the glacier, but away from it.
“They’re already gone,” I said stupidly. Yet the compass insisted that our goal still lay ahead.
Dagsson said nothing. He started down into the valley.
The thin scent on the air hinted at rot. What could have caused enough carnage to make me smell it across the valley? I followed my fare down the slope, trying not to step in the gouges left by the machines.
The ice cavern echoed the crunching sounds of our approach, and zephyrs flowing past the mouth created an eerie wind instrument. As we crossed under the archway of ice, carved by what must have been the spells of Rimewind, I felt my worries multiply past the counting of my digits. The air was muggy with decay, a moisture I shall never care to feel in my lungs again. We lit oil lanterns and followed the tracks inside.
Dagsson’s hand shook as he raised his lantern ahead of him.
The chamber was defined by stair-step cubes, an enormous, irregular hollow where the glacier had been dissected by sorcery along invisible grid lines. Lamplight reflected off the thousands of surfaces of angular ice, illuminating the scene before us. Dozens of pits perforated the ice floor, each ringed with ceremonial offerings of unidentifiable gore. The pit edges were rough, broken outward from beneath—the empty wombs of Phyrexian monsters. Dragging tracks led from each pit back toward the entrance. A pall of foulness, from animals either recently butchered or somehow partly preserved from the ice, hung in the air. Nothing stirred.
My father would have made a comment at this point—something about quitting while you’re ahead, or while you still have your head—whose message was: get out.
I consulted the compass. “It says there’s still one here.”
Dagsson nodded, and muttered something under his breath I couldn’t hear. Before I knew it, he was half-visible in the far gloom, making his way deeper into the cavern.
I spent a long minute scanning my memories of my father for an aphorism that would justify abandoning my client in a hole in Ronom Glacier.
Then I heard Dagsson gasp.
* * *
I ran to the sound. There was Arcum Dagsson, kneeling astride the spine of a huddled giant made from ice and iron and shiny black carapace, agape as he gazed down into a recess in its back.
The Phyrexian construct, crouched half-submerged in the ice floor, was the size of an allosaurus. Its sheen caught my lamplight and highlighted the pipework that surged and twisted in its structure. Its head, a giant, crocodilian hinge lined with carving knives, rested ajar between its buried front paws. Eyes were absent, but flared holes, like viper pits, studded its muzzle. Sacrificial offerings surrounded the Phyrexian in similar style to the other craters throughout the cavern, apparently meant to coax them to revive, but this one had not moved. Chains made of iron rings the size of my fist crisscrossed its body, anchored in the ice floor.
And there Dagsson perched, having climbed onto the thing’s back and unbolted a panel in its rib, gazing inside. A bluish glow radiated from the Phyrexian’s core, casting Dagsson’s face in frozen horror.
I read the open page of his expression. His master machinist’s mind, confident in its ability to comprehend the construct, withered in the face of the howling illogic of the Phyrexian’s inner workings. I saw his eyes dart around the cavity, his mind struggling to cling to some kind of coherent logic but finding only smooth, blank lunacy. He wanted to find an answer there, some solution to his guilt among the animated metal innards, or at least a reason for Soldev’s destruction. He found none of these—just a noxious mass. He had begun sobbing quietly.
“Dagsson, come down from there,” I offered. “This thing is dead. Let’s get back to Kjeldor—they’ll be happy to hear that you’ve found the source.”
Quit while you still have your head, said my father’s voice wryly in my mind.
Dagsson’s bleary eyes didn’t focus on me, but he did register my voice. Just when I almost thought I’d gotten through to him, he seemed to remember the bundle at his side, and began to unwrap the canvas.
“I mean it,” I told him, hearing a scolding tone in my voice. “You’re not thinking right. Let’s move out of here—if the other machines have already gone, then we need to hurry if we’re going to beat them back to the southeastern lands.”
Dagsson revealed a torturous device of wheels and dials, a sinister clock. A weird smile spread out over Dagsson’s face—it looked like the kind of mechanical magic with which his mind felt at home. He waved three fingers over it, and it came to life, its dials clicking a slow rhythm. He lowered the thing gingerly into the Phyrexian’s back, and fastened the panel shut. The clicking dials were still audible, steadily speeding up in tempo.
The beast stirred. Its shoulders rose. The old machinist stumbled, eyes wide, but caught himself on a chain. The chains snapped taut and something cracked deep in the ice, but held.
My muscles thawed and I rushed to the side of the Phyrexian, then stepped back as it shifted its weight toward me. The immense head turned a lazy arc, carving shavings from the floor. The chains strained.
“Dagsson! What did you do?”
Dagsson looked astonished. “It shouldn’t have revived it… just a bit of mana to activate the bomb…”
The bomb! “Never mind. Listen to me carefully: get down now.”
“It must have been this cavern… something about the cold mana of the Glacier… can’t believe it….”
Dagsson, it was clear, was out of his head. I must have been partly out of mine, as well, because as the Phyrexian beast hunkered down to gather its strength, I leapt onto it and scrambled as best I could to get to my client. My hands slipped on icy metal, but my feet found purchase on the friction of a scaly outcropping. I tried not to recoil as I grabbed something fleshy in one spot and something chitinous in another—I focused on climbing up its flank and reaching Dagsson.
The beast swung its head around to regard me, opening its immense hinge of a jaw. It lunged to swallow me whole, but the chains yanked back at it. I glanced down its maw as it snapped shut, and what I saw gave me a sense of swirling vertigo: its black esophagus was a tunnel miles deep, extending far longer on the inside than it should have been by the geometry of its body. I nearly fell from dizziness, but the monster struggled against its chains, and the lurch hurled me up onto its back.
Dagsson was still immobile, a pained expression on his face, when I reached him. I fell against him to keep steady, and gripped his shoulders. He looked at me helplessly, trying to form words. I had to get the old Soldevi man out of this cavern, or we were going to die.
I pulled on his shoulders to try to direct him, so we could attempt to scale down, but then I realized why Dagsson hadn’t moved. His leg was pinned under one of the chains by the strength of the beast below us, and by the ugly angle of his knee, the leg was broken. He gestured at me urgently with a scroll in his hand.
I scanned around for something to cut the chains, or—I admit I thought of it—to cut bone. Of course there was nothing. I had abandoned my gear in my desperate leap to reach Dagsson, and he only had that unfurled scroll.
The Phyrexian heaved, pulling the chains tight and producing a sound of ice cracking far below. Dagsson grimaced.
“I’ve got a hunting knife in my pack,” I started. “I’ll go get it and we’ll—”
Then Dagsson grabbed my throat.
He shook the scroll in his hand. This was one of the scrolls of Lim-Dûl—what did he want? He released me and jabbed at a particular passage.
“I can’t read them. They’re nonsense to me.” Pronounceable syllables of nonsense.
The master machinist was mute from pain, but his eyes insisted.
“Yes, okay, I’ll read them, I’ll read them,” I said.
As he held the scroll before my face with one hand, he took my wrist with the other, and I read the words aloud. I felt an electric tensing in my arm that spread throughout my body, like a bath of stinging nettles suspended in ice water. I droned the words, hearing my voice deepen—and as I finished them, I felt my heart squeeze once, and I heard a series of retorts from the ice floor below. The tingling sensation flooded from me.
We weren’t whisked to safety, as I’d hoped. The gigantic chains slid away off the slope of the Phyrexian’s back, and Dagsson gasped, clutching his released limb. I realized what had happened: with the help of Arcum Dagsson, I had just uttered the spell to free the Phyrexian killing machine from its bonds.
Suddenly I stumbled, and the icicle-draped ceiling dropped closer. The creature was standing up.
This was the plan?
There was a jerk of momentum, and the freed Phyrexian began striding for the cave entrance. Dagsson and I clutched outcroppings on its body to hang on. Did we free it to rejoin Heidar’s army? Icicles whizzed by above me, and I wondered whether we would die from being thrown to the ground or impaled on the ceiling. I had the itchy feeling I was forgetting one option.
I heard a rapid clicking sound from inside the creature. I remembered, now, that we were riding a bomb.
Oh, for the love of….
Think. Think. What would father do now? What would King Darien do? What did I expect to buy with these Soldevi coins? I mean, could I even get a good rate for them in Kjeldor? How could I, with all the moneychangers’ tariffs?
Dagsson lay awkwardly, clenching his knee with one hand and the creature’s back with the other. I reached over and grabbed the sleeve of his robe, and started crawling toward the Phyrexian’s tail end. He groaned as I dragged him, but we made progress across the lurching landscape. The Phyrexian bounded on.
As we crested its hipbone—a mistake—the construct’s jarring footfall lifted us into the air. Icicles snapped momentarily against my skull. We slammed back down onto it again and I couldn’t regain my grip on anything but Dagsson. We bounced sideways off its back.
Hold on hold on grab hold of something hold something please grab something
In quick succession, I grabbed onto something and felt the sensation of my arms being nearly ripped from their sockets. I glanced down at Dagsson swinging from my grip on his robe, the cavern floor rushing by below his feet, and up at the spike I had grabbed that protruded from the Phyrexian’s side. We dangled just in front of its back leg.
Dagsson slumped inside his robe. The creature’s leg came at us, its foot planted, and the leg began to straighten and move away again. No time to consider—I prayed and let go of my client. He dropped away, but I couldn’t follow his trajectory. Muffled thump somewhere below. The Phyrexian continued its stride with that leg, and Dagsson was gone from my sight. Squashed underfoot, or safe on the ground, I couldn’t tell.
I took hold of the spike and swiveled to look ahead. The tunnel was narrowing—the Phyrexian was about to breach the mouth of the cave. It was too narrow; in a moment I’d be smashed against the wall. I let go too late, and I slammed against some combination of the Phyrexian’s knee and the jagged ice wall.
A ticking sound receded from me into darkness.
When I heard Arcum Dagsson’s croak, unmeasured minutes later, I mistook it for my father’s voice. “Cover your ears,” he said, kneeling over me in the archway of the cave.
My eardrums wish I had obeyed, but to this day I’m glad I heard the full force of the explosion that ripped apart the killing machine. The Phyrexian had marched across the valley and up over the rise, and a ring of nearby hills lost their layer of snow from the blast. A stain of ash spread against the sky. As we tended each others’ injuries, gray flakes floated down from the heavens.
Heidar’s Rimewind army still marched across Terisiare, and thousands perished—no heroic tale can reverse that. That stain will not soon fade from our land. But you can still find testaments to those who struggled against Rimewind, if you look well. Hire a northern guide and travel the thawed glacial flats of the northwest, for example, and you may happen upon a lake in the bowl of a crater. Check the soil there. You may find shrapnel from one machine that never made it past the shadow of Ronom, and a scattered collection of Soldevi coins.