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A Memory of Fire

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While the Captain is speaking with the Whithern and Iremi riddlers, who are preparing for their yearly contest, the Snow Child approaches the castle. It is fascinated by the structure, which is almost reminiscent of the Void’s Approach, but more delicate and fragile. All that beauty seems to have no purpose, here in the far cold north away from anyone.

There isn’t much to examine. There’s the dock encampment, where the riddlers and others wait; there’s the great stairs; there’s the landing, with no entrance to the castle; there’s the refractive icy spirals of the castle itself. At the far end of the landing, there’s a strangely arresting smooth, featureless plane of glassy ice. The Snow Child stares into the ice for what seems like a few seconds. When it looks up, it’s standing in the center of a maze of icy corridors.

Its reflection blends into the shimmering reflected rainbows, almost becomes one with them. It loses track of itself in the light momentarily. This must be the inside of Frostfound.

Here, the walls are a piercing blue. There is a sound like the wind howling, and then there is nothing but blue. The Snow Child has heard that humans have an inborn knowledge of the sky - “genetic memory,” the Brisk Campaigner says. All the crew members have spoken of that vivid, perfect blue, sometimes so bright it hardly seemed natural, even the ones who have never seen the true sky.

The Snow Child doesn’t remember the sky. All it’s ever seen when it looked up was the high dark roof and tiny points of light. Perhaps when it was truly human it did, but not now. This is terrifyingly empty and exposed, as though the blue is the only thing keeping away something far, far worse.

THIS WAS THE SKY, a voice says from nowhere. The voice sounds like the world caving in or the sky falling or death, like nothing the Snow Child has ever heard. Nothing truly dies down here, so the Snow Child has never seen true death. Even those who go to the tomb-colonies don’t sound this dead. Nothing does in the Neath.

The Snow Child takes another step forward. The barrier seems like it’s about to break. On the other side are the stars, hungry, waiting in the High Wilderness until they can reclaim the Neath for their own. The Snow Child doesn’t know what the High Wilderness is; the phrase simply popped into its mind. The fear recedes a bit, and the blue clears.

Now the Snow Child is back in the same rainbow infinitude. It can feel the fear surging through it, stronger than before. It has to work just a bit harder to find itself in the reflections.

The walls shift to brilliant violet, like the rare corals it can sometimes see deep under the zee. Massive animalistic shapes hang in the distance, huge beyond comprehension - larger than Frostfound itself, so large that Frostfound would be nearly invisible against them. THERE WERE CASUALTIES, the voice says. There is no emotion there, no regret or sorrow. Just hard cold words.

The Snow Child has seen monsters - the lacre that forms its body remembers the Mountain of Light and her daughter Mount Nomad, and the blood that gives it life remembers the sorrow-spiders of the Nocturne. But these beings are greater and more powerful even than those.

The Snow Child steps towards the colossi. The fear washes over it, almost tangible, and recedes like crashing waves, not ebbing entirely, but arriving at an equilibrium. The brilliant purple and the great beasts in the distance vanish together, and the Snow Child finds itself standing in the corridors of Frostfound.

It doesn’t even think to look for itself in the rainbow mirror walls again. There isn't time. There is only a heartbeat before the next transition, to bright red. Just a moment, and then it’s suddenly standing in an ocean of blood made of light. It can feel the spark of pain inherent in all bloodshed, not willingly sacrificed but taken by force.

THIS IS ONLY A MEMORY. THE CRIME IS FORGOTTEN. ITS SHADOW REMAINS, the voice of Frostfound says.

There is no shadow visible here - the Snow Child does not cast its own, surrounded by light from all sides like this - but there is a pervasive sense of darkness. Something of value was lost here.

The Snow Child knows blood. It was born from human blood and lacre combining. This is old blood, old enough to nearly predate the Neath, and very strange, going beyond inhuman to become unliving. Whatever shed this blood - whatever lost the valuable thing, whatever the victim of the crime was - is so far from human that they can barely both be called “beings”.

All living things are connected in the Chain, it knows suddenly, but someone learned how to break the Chain with the Red Science. Perhaps this is what’s left of the science. Perhaps this is what’s left of the chain. The scars of the breaking of the Chain are all around the Snow Child, crimson and thick like blood, reaching into its soul. Terror flares inside it, and then the red is gone and it’s back in the rainbow maze. Now it can’t see itself in the walls at all.

Now the walls shift to emerald-green like the deep zee or the high distant ice, and shapeless. The green of secrets and hiding. No one really knows what lies under the zee, or behind the ice.

SOMETHING SOUGHT, SOMETHING LOST, Frostfound says. Its voice still contains no emotion. The words are enough.

Someone came to Frostfound a very long time ago to leave a secret, the Snow Child knows suddenly. Many someones have come here since to find that secret. This secret is what the Whithern and Iremi are waiting outside to discover. It is vast and terrible as the world outside, in its own way.

The Snow Child feels a cold wind tug at it, wanting to pull it into the depths of the green. It relaxes and lets its mind fly with the wind, away from conceptions of reality and familiar thoughts. There is nothing left to cling to. The familiar feeling of a surge of fear burns through it, and then dies down again.

The green fades away to reveal the end of the corridor. Ahead is the long thin bridge that connects the two towers of Frostfound. Outside is very, very bright, but there is no other way forward.

The Snow Child steps onto the bridge, and the light strikes it.

The light tears away everything it touches. It is every color at once and none at all - it is the color of blood and secrets and death and memories. It burns like the Snow Child imagines the sun burns, from the sailors’ stories of Aestival. The Snow Child cannot melt, but it feels its mind beginning to wither under the blinding light.

This seems to be the undiluted essence of the light inside Frostfound, the light that burns away the self. This is where the light that makes the Snow Child invisible against the corridors comes from. The light sears away everything down to the very core of the child’s being, the last fragment of heartmetal and human blood and bone. All that’s left is Winter, the child that once was. Then, finally, the light fades away. The bridge is crossed. This new room is bright, but not so bright.

KNOW YOURSELF, Frostfound says. There is a shadow behind the light, mimicking the Snow Child’s every move. The Snow Child pushes towards the shadow reflection. What it thought was a wall vanishes before it, and it stumbles to a halt as the fog clears away.

It’s looking at itself, back when it was made of flesh and blood. The Snow Child meets its own eyes and remembers its life - everything it should have done and didn’t, everything it didn’t do and should have. How it never said goodbye to Mother. How it died. The fear is almost distant now, but it surges again.

The world goes dark.

Soft breathing.

Long ago, when Frostfound was built, something left its name here. The Snow Child can’t tell what that being was, exactly, nor what its name is, but it is written here in dark, heatless, yet burning fire that is also strange inhuman blood, like the red chamber. The fire-blood of the distant traveller calls to the lacre and blood that give the Snow Child form, melting their shape into its core.

THIS WILL BE YOURS, Frostfound says in that voice like the sky falling, TRAVELLER RETURNING, and everything is fire. The Snow Child remembers true starlight and winter air and a forest above, and finally, blurrily, a voyage east.

The Snow Child knows itself now, and its purpose. It has to go East, to find the first Traveller. The heartmetal ingot will keep it from melting, and the human blood will keep it alive, and the fragments of its self that remain are little enough for the journey. It will find the Traveller, and all will be well.

It does not remember, afterwards, how it got out of the lifeless, void-dark core of Frostfound. It remembers only finding itself standing in front of a smooth, featureless plane of glassy ice, surrounded by the crew.

Most of the crew members seem a bit afraid of it now - more than they were before. The Tireless Mechanic is the only officer who never asks the Snow Child what it saw in Frostfound, but he seems unsurprised when the Captain announces that they’re going to Irem to drop off the Snow Child. For the rest of the voyage, the Carnelian Exile smiles in that odd way she does everything whenever she sees it. The Brisk Campaigner fusses over it a bit - even if it is a magically resurrected snow child, she says, it’s still a child. The Nacreous Outcast avoids it as much as possible, which is made easier by the fact that the Snow Child doesn’t need to eat. The Wretched Mog, which was never a fan of children or snow and even less a fan of their combination, is now nearly outright violent towards it.

When the time comes, though, the crew all come together to see it off. They bring it supplies and weapons, and it is grateful.

“I will row,” it whispers. “I will take myself where the light beneath glass shines green and gold, past the beach where an exile recalls the warmth of suns he left behind. I will find the frozen forest and climb trees tall enough to touch the moon. I will remember you, Captain.”

The moment breaks. The Snow Child steps into the boat and begins to row East. Before long, Irem is gone.

West of Irem, Frostfound waits still for its traveller to return.