Dannus Howle was colder than he had ever been in his life.
There was a bitter, bone biting cold in these lands, the kind that snuck up on men as they slept and took them in their sleep. In the civilized reaches of the world the cold could be kept at bay with a warm hearth and a pair of fur lined boots. But this land was not among the civilized reaches of the world. It was the crown of the world, a great, icy continent where the nights were as cold as they were black and snowstorms ambushed many an unwary traveling company to leave them for dead. The frozen wastes, some called it, and the frigid continent. It was Northland, the crown of the world.
The realization struck Dannus Howle, however, that this was far colder than Northland ever was. For a man who had seen demons step out of the shadows of the night and was now, wounded and weak, trudging blindly through knee high snow, this realization was terrifying.
It had set in at the camp. The travelers and he had found shelter among a collection of boulders and cleared a space for a small fire. They had been an interesting collection. Two had been grizzled ice miners from Frozenfall, north of the snowline, and had told stories about the dwarven ruins out of which the miners worked. The ice mining at Frozenfall and the Snowfang Mountains was as dangerous as civilian labor got. One of the miners had shown off the gap between his ring and index fingers. The middle finger had been amputated past the knuckle, and the stump was as grim a sight as Dannus Howle had ever seen. His partner had been quieter, and though he did not present it to the group it had been difficult to miss noticing the absence of his left ear.
Three of the others had been men-at-arms the travelers had met on the road during their journey. They had been in the service of the Count of Tothlerin, an elven lord known for his expansive trading exploits. The three had brought news of a new port the Count had constructed on the shores of Frostwater Bay. White Robin Harbor, they had called it, and according to them the port was full of the Count’s trading vessels, each one waiting to be filled with the riches the north would yield. Dannus Howle knew of the riches the north could yield, but had let the trader who came with them speak of the matter while he had slipped a hand in his pocket. His flesh had warmed as his fingers slid across the facets of the egg sized gem.
“I’ve heard tell of diamonds, big as your fist, deep in the Snowfang mines. Clearest diamonds you ever did see, with a glitter like fire in ‘em. I’ll bet a silver penny or three the Count’s got an eye for those. And the gold, too. The roots of the Snowfangs are all veins of gold and diamond,” he had said, the wonder of an expert storyteller in his voice. His audience had not been as receptive as he would have liked, and they had been somewhat intoxicated. Good mead was difficult to come by in the north, but the trader had been particularly generous with his alcohol. It put warmth in your bones and kept out the cold. Dannus Howle had known it had only been dulling his senses, but that was better than feeling it. All the same, he had suddenly felt it.
“My pony’s balls they are,” the drunkest of the three men-at-arms had replied, “why’d you be carryin’ rabbit skins from town t’ town if you could be haulin’ diamonds?”
“Does anyone feel that?” Dannus had asked suddenly, the words jumping from his lips as his nervousness had shown itself. He had been quiet all the night, and his sudden parting with his silence had taken the group by some surprise. He had looked to each of them in turn. “Does anyone feel that? The cold?” They had felt it, he saw. They were all suddenly and very much aware of it. He had placed his hands closer to the flame but the heat of the fire had seemed to have dulled, though the flames had burned as high and clearly as they had the entire night. The smoke, which had been of the thin wispy sort typical of a small, clean fire, had then been a dark grey, nearly black. Something foul had crossed his nose just then, the sort of smell that accompanies a burning corpse.
“What in the black hell?” the one-eared miner had growled, reaching for his pickaxe instinctively. Dannus had been about to ask, but in the moment the world had seemed to explode around him.
The gem in his pocket had burned, not just in his hand but in his mind as well. The night had suddenly become a swirl of black shapes, otherworldly shrieks, and the piercing screams of the dying. He had briefly glimpsed a hooded, robed, and utterly faceless figure opening the trader’s stomach with a blade as black as coal. His entrails had freed themselves from his body like a swarm of wet snakes, and his screams had only failed as he passed out, ashen faced and soon to die. A spray of something hot and wet had caught Dannus in the face then, and he was suddenly blinded. He had crawled as fast as he could, the ringing of steel and incoherent cries in his ears. Finding half a second to wipe the blood from his eyes, he'd seen a way out of the clustered boulders and moved towards it.
Suddenly and without warning, he had felt a cold and icy bite in the back, just to the left of his spine, and had collapsed with a scream on his lips.