The world glittered.
The sky had lost its sun, but the stars still twinkled. Their thin, pale light shone on a world of ice. Old, petrified past-forests, leafless and stone-stiff, stood amidst a valley where cold misty winds blew. Massive rocks bathed in frost stood silently over the scene, monoliths watching over the stillness.
Magic lived here, and little else.
A woman crunched her way through the frost, a girl in tow. She held a lantern, in which a golden rock glowed. The stone’s light touched the frost, and for a moment, the frost was gone. The lit patch of road she traveled on appeared as it did in life, a dusty trail up through the mountains.
She looked back, for a moment. Behind her, in the distant dark, was a red-orange gleam of light. The town of Scorched Rock.
She remembered what she did there.
Our house was starting to freeze.
It was worst in the room that used to be my room. My old bed was rimed with ice, the little desk totally covered in frost, the door stuck to the doorframe, the doorknob so cold it burned skin. I didn’t sleep in there. Not anymore. It wasn’t as though I’d lost much to the cold anyway. I had never spent much time in there.
It was nearly as bad in the room my father still insisted on using as his study. Sitting down, carefully handwriting obituaries with hands shaking from the cold, breath stumbling in misty bursts out into the air, glasses fogging enough that he’d have to stop to shakily wipe them every five minutes like clockwork. He still wouldn’t hear any thoughts of stopping, though. He insisted on using that study, even when he had to go out and thaw the ink in his inkwell every so often.
It made it hard to do the washing. The clothesline had been right on the edge of our little yard, that space where the only the very last whispers of the great forge’s heat reached, beyond which was nothing but the stars twinkling in the sky and endless stretches of glittering crystallized ice.
Sometimes, after hanging the washing up to dry on the new clothesline I’d strung across the yard’s warmer edge, I would lean against the fence and watch the stillness. Mile after mile of ice, from the nameless peaks in the east to the grasping sparkling fingers of the forest to the south to the rolling hills in the west that seemed so smooth that I could only imagine how fast you could go sliding down them.
Sometimes, instead, I would watch the ice’s glacial encroachment into our yard. A whole blade of grass, slowly being coated with a stiff bluish tinge over the course of an hour or two. I could imagine what it was doing to our house, the way the cold would slowly seep into the walls and the floor and the ceiling, until eventually the whole place would be frozen over and my father and I would have to move inwards like all the other families had done a long time ago. Closer to the forge, which had been suffering a sort of slow decay for years now. There had been homes even further out than this, when I was only taking my first steps. Now those homes had grown brittle and cracked and shattered long ago, and ours was simply the next in line.
Today, I was headed into town. Among other things, Father wanted me to pick him up a new blanket, since he’d forgotten his old one in the study and stepped on it, shattering it. My little shopping bag flip-flopped on my arm as I made my way to the Forgeside Market. The houses huddled together for warmth around it, and as I walked they grew more and more tightly clustered, and taller and taller. Close to the Forgeside Market they teetered at five stories tall and ten families deep, and this close to the forge the heat seeped into my bones and made me forget for a moment how alone we were in here.
And then I was only feet away from the great forge itself. I watched in silence. It stretched higher into the sky than any other building in town, and great gaping maws in the sigil-encrusted iron revealed the ever-burning flame that kept our town warm. On the bottom floor, the forgekeepers buzzed in and out of iron doors, covered in dust and grime and little burns.
As I watched, the flame flickered. It wasn’t even reaching the uppermost vents. I shivered, and turned to the crowd at the marketplace. I had things to buy. I was just a teenager, a kid. I didn’t know anything about the forge, or about how long it would last, or anything. I would just buy a blanket, some apples, some bread, pick up a water jug, and head back home. Simple, like everything.
I twisted a simple charm around my purchases, something small to help me carry them. Lightening the load. Sometimes I wished I knew the advanced charms. The inner fire charms that let the harvesters journey a short ways out into the cold to bring back ice-chunks to quench the town with. The springtime charms that the tower-farmers used to keep their plants blooming fast enough to feed everyone. The power-charms that kept the streetlights on. So much to learn, and I’d only ever had the chance to learn the basics.
I went home. I put away the groceries. I took down the washing. I started on dinner. I went outside to take a moment to myself to breathe.
That’s when I saw it. The golden light, far, far away over the ice. It bobbed slowly up over the hill, a beacon in the darkness.
For a long time, I just stared as it made steady progress towards the town. Behind me, I could hear people beginning to come out onto the street, staring, disbelieving. Had a star fallen? Were there others out there? Was it a ravenous beast of the wilderness? It was the first time anything like this had been seen in a very long time.
I heard someone fumble into a charm to let their sight travel, heard him gasp. “It’s a woman,” he said. “A woman with a lantern, coming this way. She’s walking in a circle of unfrozen ground. How is this even possible?”
Chatter began to spread. I just stared. It was better than watching my house get swallowed slowly by the cold. It was something hopeful. Something new. Something that made my heart spark and sputter and pump warmth through my body. Someone who knew things nobody in Scorched Rock could know.
My dad came out, still shivering, hugging himself. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“A traveler,” I said, reverence and awe creeping into my voice. I pointed at the little golden light in the distance. “There’s a traveler coming.”
My dad nodded. “I’ll fetch the forgemaster,” he said. He left. I was alone with the crowd once more, to watch the traveler approach.