The Crystal Shard 21. The Icy Tomb

The Crystal Shard 21. The Icy Tomb

At the base of the great glacier, hidden off in a small dell where one of the ice spurs wound through broken rifts and boulders, was a place the barbarians called Evermelt. A hot spring fed a small pool, the warmed waters waging a relentless battle against ice floes and freezing temperatures. Tribesmen stranded inland by early snows, who could not find their way to the sea with the reindeer herd, often sought refuge at Evermelt, for even in the coldest months of winter, unfrozen, sustaining water could be found here. And the warming vapors of the pool made the temperatures of the immediate area bearable, if not comfortable.

Yet the warmth and drinking water were only a part of Evermelt’s worth. Beneath the opaque surface of the misty water lay a hoard of gems and jewels, gold and silver, that rivaled the treasure of any king in this entire region of the world. Every barbarian had heard of the legend of the white dragon, but most considered it to be just a fanciful tale recounted by self-important old men for the amusement of children. For the dragon hadn’t emerged from its hidden lair in many, many years.

Wulfgar knew better, though. In his youth his father had accidentally stumbled upon the entrance to the secret cave. When Beornegar later learned the legend of the dragon, he understood the potential value of his discovery and had spent years collecting all of the information he could find concerning dragons, especially white dragons, and Ingeloakastimizilian in particular.

Beornegar had been killed in a battle between tribes before he could make his attempt at the treasure, but living in a land where death was a common visitor, he had foreseen that grim possibility and had imparted his knowledge to his son. The secret did not die with him.

* * *

Wulfgar felled a deer with a throw of Aegis-fang and carried the beast the last few miles to Evermelt. He had been to this place twice before, but when he came upon it now, as always, its strange beauty stole his breath. The air above the pool was veiled in steam, and chunks of floating ice drifted through the misty waters like meandering ghost ships. The huge boulders surrounding the area were especially colorful, with varying hues of red and orange, and they were encapsulated in a thin layer of ice that caught the fire of the sun and reflected brilliant bursts of sparkling colors in startling contrast to the dull gray of the misted glacier ice. This was a silent place, sheltered from the mournful cry of the wind by walls of ice and rock, free of any distractions.

After his father was killed, Wulfgar had vowed, in tribute to the man, to make this journey and fulfil his father’s dream. Now he approached the pool reverently, and though other matters pressed in on him, he paused for reflection. Warriors of every tribe on the tundra had come to Evermelt with the same hopes as he. None had ever returned.

The young barbarian resolved to change that. He firmed his proud jaw and set to work skinning the deer. The first barrier that he had to overcome was the pool itself. Beneath its surface the waters were deceptively warm and comfortable, but anyone who emerged from the pool into the air would be frozen dead in minutes.

Wulfgar peeled away the hide of the animal and began scraping away the underlying layer of fat. He melted this over a small fire until it attained the consistency of thick paint, then smeared it over every inch of his body. Taking a deep breath to steady himself and focus his thoughts on the task at hand, he took hold of Aegis-fang and waded into Evermelt.

Under the deadening veil of mist, the waters appeared serene, but as soon as he moved away from the edges of the pool, Wulfgar could feel the strong, swirling currents of the hot stream. Using a jutting rock overhang as a guidepost, he approximated the exact center of the pool. Once there, he took a final breath and, confident of his father’s instructions, opened himself to the currents and let himself sink into the water. He descended for a moment, then was suddenly swept away by the main flow of the stream toward the north end of the pool. Even beneath the mist the water was cloudy, forcing Wulfgar to trust blindly that he would break free of the water before his breath ran out.

He was within a few feet of the ice wall at the pool’s edge before he could see the danger. He braced himself for the collision, but the current suddenly swirled, sending him deeper. The dimness darkened to blackness as he entered a hidden opening under the ice, barely wide enough for him to slip through, though the unceasing flow of the stream gave him no choice.

His lungs cried for air. He bit down on his lip to keep his mouth from bursting open and robbing him of the last wisps of precious oxygen.

Then he broke into a wider tunnel where the water flattened out and dropped below the level of his head. He hungrily gasped in air, but he was still sliding along helplessly in the rushing water.

One danger was past.

The slide twisted and turned, and the roar of a waterfall clearly sounded up ahead. Wulfgar tried to slow his ride, but couldn’t find a handhold or any kind of a brace, for the floor and walls were of ice smoothed under centuries of the flowing stream. The barbarian tossed wildly, Aegis-fang flying from his hands as he futilely tried to drive them into the solid ice. Then he came into a wide and deep cavern and saw the drop before him.

A few feet beyond the crest of the fall were several huge icicles that stretched from the domed ceiling down below Wulfgar’s line of sight. He saw his only chance. When he approached the lip of the drop, he sprang outward, wrapping his arms around an icicle. He dropped quickly as it tapered, but saw that it widened again as it neared the floor, as though a second icicle had grown up from the floor to meet this one.

Safe for a moment, he gazed around the strange cavern in awe. The waterfall captured his imagination. Steam rose from the chasm, adding a surrealistic flavor to the spectacle. The stream poured over the drop, most of it continuing on its way through a small chasm, barely a crack in the floor thirty feet below at the base of the fall. The droplets that cleared the chasm, though, solidified as they separated from the main flow of the stream and bounced away in all directions as they hit the cavern’s ice floor. Not yet completely hardened, the cubes stuck fast where they landed, and all about the base of the waterfall were strangely sculpted piles of broken ice.

Aegis-fang flew over the drop, easily clearing the small chasm to smash into one such sculpture, scattering shards of ice. Though his arms were numbed from the icicle slide, Wulfgar quickly rushed over to the hammer, already freezing fast where it had landed, and heaved it free of the ice’s hardening grip.

Under the glassy floor where the hammer had cracked away the top layers; the barbarian noticed a dark shadow. He examined it more closely, then backed away from the grizzly sight. Perfectly preserved, one of his predecessors had apparently gone over the long drop, dying in the deepening ice where he had landed. How many others, Wulfgar wondered, had met this same fate?

He didn’t have time to contemplate it further. One of his other concerns had been dispelled, for much of the cavern’s roof was only a few feet below the daylit surface and the sun found its way in through those parts that were purely ice. Even the smallest glow coming from the ceiling was reflected a thousand times on the glassy floors and walls, and the whole cavern virtually exploded in sparkling bursts of light.

Wulfgar felt the cold acutely, but the melted blubber had protected him sufficiently. He would survive the first dangers of this adventure.

But the spectre of the dragon loomed somewhere up ahead.

Several twisting tunnels led off of the main chamber, carved by the stream in long-past days when its waters ran high. Only one of these was large enough for a dragon, though. Wulfgar contemplated searching out the others first, to see if he might possibly find a less obvious way into the lair. But the glare and distortions of light and the countless icicles hanging from the ceiling like a predator’s teeth dizzied him, and he knew that if he got lost or wasted too much time, the night would fall over him, stealing his light and dropping the temperature below even his considerable tolerance.

So he banged Aegis-fang on the floor to clear away any remaining ice that clung to it and started straight ahead down the tunnel he believed would lead him to the lair of Ingeloakastimizilian.

* * *

The dragon slept soundly beside its treasure in the largest chamber of the ice caves, confident after many years of solitude that it would not be disturbed. Ingeloakastimizilian, more commonly known as Icingdeath, had made the same mistake that many of its kin, with their lairs in similar caves of ice, had made. The flowing stream that offered entrance to and escape from the caves had diminished over the years, leaving the dragon trapped in a crystalline tomb.

Icingdeath had enjoyed its years of hunting deer and humans. In the short time the beast had been active, it had earned quite a respectable reputation for havoc and terror. Yet dragons, especially white ones who are rarely active in their cold environments, can live many centuries without meat. Their selfish love of their treasure can sustain them indefinitely, and Icingdeath’s hoard, though small compared to the vast mounds of gold collected by the huge reds and blues that lived in more populated areas, was the largest of any of the tundra-dwelling dragons.

If the dragon had truly desired freedom, it could probably have broken through the cavern’s ice ceiling. But Icingdeath considered the risk too great, and so it slept, counting its coins and gems in dreams that dragons considered quite pleasant.

The slumbering worm didn’t fully realize, though, just how careless it had become. In its unbroken snooze, Icingdeath hadn’t moved in decades. A cold blanket of ice had crept over the long form, gradually thickening until the only clear spot was a hole in front of the great nostrils, where the rhythmic blasts of exhaled snores had kept the frost away.

And so Wulfgar, cautiously stalking the source of the resounding snores, came upon the beast.

Viewing Icingdeath’s splendor, enhanced by the crystalline ice blanket, Wulfgar looked upon the dragon with profound awe. Piles of gems and gold lay all about the cavern under similar blankets, but Wulfgar could not pull his eyes away. Never had he viewed such magnificence, such strength.

Confident that the beast was helplessly pinned, he dropped the hammer’s head down by his side. “Greetings, Ingeloakastimizilian,” he called, respectfully using the beast’s full name.

The pale blue orbs snapped open, their seething flames immediately apparent even under their icy veil. Wulfgar stopped short at their piercing glare.

After the initial shock, he regained his confidence. “Fear not, mighty worm,” he said boldly. “I am a warrior of honor and shall not kill you under these unfair circumstances.” He smiled wryly. “My lust shall be appeased by simply taking your treasure!”

But the barbarian had made a critical mistake.

A more experienced fighter, even a knight of honor, would have looked beyond his chivalrous code, accepted his good fortune as a blessing, and slain the worm as it slept. Few adventurers, even whole parties of adventurers, had ever given an evil dragon of any color an even break and lived to boast of it.

Even Icingdeath, in the initial shock of its predicament, had thought itself helpless when it had first awakened to face the barbarian. The great muscles, atrophied from inactivity, could not resist the weight and grip of the ice prison. But when Wulfgar mentioned the treasure, a new surge of energy blew away the dragon’s lethargy.

Icingdeath found strength in anger, and with an explosion of power beyond anything the barbarian had ever imagined, the dragon snapped its cordlike muscles, sending great chunks of ice flying away. The entire cavern complex trembled violently, and Wulfgar, standing on the slippery floor, was thrown down on his back. He rolled aside at the very last moment to dodge the spearlike tip of a falling icicle dislodged by the tremor.

Wulfgar regained his feet quickly, but when he turned, he found himself facing a horned white head, leveled to meet his eyes. The dragon’s great wings flexed outward, shaking off the last remnants of its blanket, and the blue eyes bore into Wulfgar.

The barbarian desperately looked around for an escape. He pondered throwing Aegis-fang, but knew that he couldn’t possibly kill the monster with a single strike. And, inevitably, the killing breath would come.

Icingdeath considered its foe for a moment. If it breathed, it would have to settle for frozen flesh. It was a dragon, after all, a terrible worm, and it believed, probably rightly so, that no single human could ever defeat it. This huge man, however, and particularly the magical hammer, for the dragon could sense its might, disturbed the worm. Caution had kept Icingdeath alive through many centuries. It would not close to melee with this man.

The cold air gathered in its lungs.

Wulfgar heard the intake of air and reflexively dove to the side. He couldn’t fully escape the blast that followed, a frosting cone of unspeakable cold, but his agility, combined with the deer blubber, kept him alive. He landed behind a block of ice, his legs actually burned by the cold and his lungs aching. He needed a moment to recover, but he saw the white head lifting slowly into the air, taking away the angle of the meager barrier.

The barbarian could not survive a second breath.

Suddenly, a globe of darkness engulfed the dragon’s head and a black-shafted arrow, and then another, whirred by the barbarian and thudded unseen behind the blackness.

“Attack boy! Now!” cried Drizzt Do’Urden from the entrance to the chamber. The disciplined barbarian instinctively obeyed his teacher. Grimacing through the pain, he moved around the ice block and closed in on the thrashing worm.

Icingdeath swung its great head to and fro, trying to shake free of the dark elf’s spell. Hate consumed the beast as yet another stinging arrow found its mark. The dragon’s only desire was to kill. Even blinded, its senses were superior; it marked out the drow’s direction easily and breathed again.

But Drizzt was well-versed in dragon lore. He had gauged his distance from Icingdeath perfectly, and the strength of the deadly frost fell short.

The barbarian charged in on the distracted dragon’s side and slammed Aegis-fang with all of his great might against the white scales. The dragon winced in agony. The scales held under the blow, but the dragon had never felt such strength from a human and didn’t care to test its hide against a second strike. It turned to release a third blast of breath on the exposed barbarian.

But another arrow cracked home.

Wulfgar saw a great gob of dragon blood splatter on the floor beside him, and he watched the globe of darkness lurch away. The dragon roared in anger. Aegis-fang struck again, and a third time. One of the scales cracked and flaked away, and the sight of exposed flesh renewed Wulfgar’s hopes of victory.

Icingdeath had lived through many battles, though, and was far from finished. The dragon knew how vulnerable it was to the powerful hammer and kept its concentration focused enough to retaliate. The long tail circled over the scaly back and cracked into Wulfgar just as the barbarian had begun another swing. Instead of the satisfaction of feeling Aegis-fang crushing through dragon flesh, Wulfgar found himself slammed against a frozen mound of gold coins twenty feet away.

The cavern spun all about him, his watering eyes heightening the starred reflections of light and his consciousness slipping away. But he saw Drizzt, scimitars drawn, advancing boldly toward Icingdeath. He saw the dragon poised to breath again. He saw, with crystalline clarity, the immense icicle hanging from the ceiling above the dragon.

Drizzt walked forward. He had no strategy against such a formidable foe; he hoped that he would spot some weakness before the dragon killed him. He thought that Wulfgar was out of the battle, and probably dead, after the mighty slash of the tail, and was surprised when he saw sudden movement off to the side.

Icingdeath sensed the barbarian’s move as well and sent its long tail to squelch any further threat to its flank.

But Wulfgar had already played his hand. With the last burst of strength he could muster, he snapped up from the mound and launched Aegis-fang high into the air.

The dragon’s tail struck home and Wulfgar didn’t know if his desperate attempt was successful. He thought that he saw a lighter spot appear on the ceiling before he was thrown into blackness.

Drizzt bore witness to their victory. Mesmerized, the drow watched the silent descent of the huge icicle.

Icingdeath, blinded to the danger by the globe of darkness and thinking that the hammer had flown wildly, waved its wings. The clawed forelegs had just begun to lift up when the ice spear smashed into the dragon’s back, driving it back to the floor.

With the ball of darkness planted on its head, Drizzt couldn’t see the dragon’s dying expression.

But he heard the killing “crack” as the whiplike neck, launched by the sudden reversal of momentum, rolled upward and snapped.