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Douglas Niles

The Golden Orb

1

The Alchemist

There was a place on the world of Krynn, a remote land lying far to the south of the great centers of civilizations, isolated by ice and ocean from realms of elves and dwarves, beyond the ken of Istaran priests and Solamnic Knights. That place was called the Icereach, and it was home to bears and seals, glaciers and walrus- men, landscapes of flat tundra and craggy summits.

The cold and rugged land was also host to populations of ogres and men, the former in their ancient kingdom of Suderhold, the latter in scattered strongholds of the Arktos and Highlander tribes.

By many standards the Icereach was a poor land, producing but a small amount of food and supporting a limited population-limited, at least, when contrasted to the teeming multitudes inhabiting the fertile pastures of the Abanasinian plains or thriving on the rich fisheries of the Newsea. While fields greened for the harvest and grapevines grew heavy with fruit on the continent of Ansalon, the denizens of the Icereach counted themselves lucky to find scattered berries in the river valleys, or to take a crop of wheat or barley from a rocky hillside field. The hardiest plants grew quickly during a short season of very long days.

The Icereach was surrounded by water and ice, defined by a radical pattern of changing seasons, extremes of weather unknown upon the rest of Krynn. The place was further marked by a great barrier of cliff, the Ice-wall, looming a mile above the flat tundra in some places, in others scoring a great rift through the frost-scarred mountains. The wall was the barrier between the land of vitality and the farthest southern reaches of Krynn, where mountains were the only denizens, rock and ice the rugged heights’ sole occupants. In the coldest season, while the blanket of snow spread across all parts of the land and water alike, the ceaseless blackness of the night sky offered contrast to the blanket whiteness of the landscape.

When spring came to the Icereach, the sun poked into view gradually, at first for only an hour or two at a time but each day rising higher, casting more light across the snow-draped landscape. Gradually the snowfields melted, streams cascading into life until, finally, the wintry cloak became a patchwork cover revealing the barren stone and frost-browned grasses covering the ground. Snowmelt came to the north-facing slopes initially-they were the first to feel the kiss of the returning sun-but soon it spread across the flat tundra, liquefying the ice-capped seas.

Summer was the time when the land truly came to life, blessed by a sun that remained constant, never dropping below the horizon for a span of three full months. Flowers burst into blossom under this day without end, while animals ranging from bears and deer to plump grouse and sleek seals fed and mated and thrived under the blessing of perpetual warmth and daylight. Fish spawned in sparkling streams, and great whales basked in the sun-drenched seas. Humans and ogres, too, busied themselves in their multitude of tasks. Men spent their time hunting and foraging, mining for gold and iron and coal, or planting crops and catching fish. The ogres did some of these things as well, but mostly they made war on humans so that they could steal the products of man’s diligent labors.

As it did for the rest of the world, autumn brought a time of darkening to the Icereach, a sobering transition that sent animals seeking shelter and men making preparations for the upcoming winter. Crops were harvested, meat salted and smoked, lodges and boats secured against the inevitable and imminent storm. The span of daylight grew short until the sun barely poked above the northern horizon for a few hours, before and after the noon of each day. With every progressive sunset the interval of darkness became longer and the coming winter loomed closer.

When winter burst upon the Icereach, the fury of the Sturmfrost was unleashed. In so many ways this mighty storm, unknown to the rest of Krynn, defined the harsh extremes of this polar land. Throughout the year the tempest gathered pressure but contained its fury behind the barrier of the Icewall. During the waning days of fall, seething and churning with cyclonic force, the storm’s strength swelled, icy winds chipping away at the stone and frost that formed the bedrock of its wintry world. Finally, when the Sturmfrost could no longer be contained, the blizzard erupted on the land, snarling over the Icewall like ten thousand hungry bears, roaring across the domains of ogres and men alike. Seas froze under the impact of the frigid blast, and any greenery left upon the land immediately succumbed to the killing chill.

Fish dove deep in their seas to languish in the light-less depths. Animals cowered in dens, slumbering through the months of darkness, surviving on the fat their bodies had stored during the season of plenty. If they had not accumulated a sufficient reserve of this fat, they died.

Even ogres and especially humans quailed against the onslaught of the Sturmfrost. Everywhere mankind retired to shelters, be they the great citadels of the Highlanders or the snug lodges of the Arktos. The lucky ones dwelt within the high walls of Brackenrock, the great fortress held by the Bayguard tribe. Vast wells of subterranean steam vented through the halls of Brackenrock, allowing those fortunate denizens to exist in comfort and warmth unknown to the rest of the Icereach’s humans.

The ogres had their own capital, the great mountain city of Winterheim. Like Brackenrock it was heated by the world’s natural steam, making a cavernous subterranean shelter of benign, even luxurious, comfort for thousands of ogres and their even more numerous human slaves. Winterheim was a great mountain, mightiest summit of Icereach, and much of the massif was hollowed into living space for the ogres who had dwelt there for more than four thousand years.

Beyond Winterheim and Brackenrock, the sentient denizens of the Icereach lived a hardier life, battling the elements even within their shelters: fires that needed constant replenishment of fuel, windows and doors that required never-ending attention, lest encroaching wind and snow claw their way inward. The Sturmfrost attacked not like a blizzard or any other violence born of nature. Instead, it was like a savage and malevolent being. Chunks of ice, some of them bigger than large houses, flew through the blinding gale, blasting with meteoric force any obstacles in their path. Stinging needles of ice flayed the flesh from anyone foolish enough to be caught in the open. The surface of the sea froze with the first minutes of the onslaught, trapping unwary boats in the water. Later, more gradually, the winter would crush the hulls under the inexorable pressure of the expanding, remorseless ice pack.

The Sturmfrost was accustomed to rage in full fury for a month or six weeks every winter, a period of utter, sunless night. Very gradually, the force of the epic blizzard would fade. Winds still came howling up from the south, and snow swept the landscape in storms that remained frequent, but these were broken by increasing periods of preternatural calm. During frigid intervals the skies cleared. Though the temperature remained well below freezing, one who bundled against the cold could safely view a dazzling array of stars. A number of weeks, perhaps even a couple of months of winter, passed before the sun again appeared, but the waning of the storm was inevitable and each year gave hope to the people. Those who had survived the Sturmfrost truly believed they could survive anything.

Even when the violence of the storm had passed, of course, there were many who never dared to emerge into the long, cold night. They remained within lodges and dens, citadels or city, until the winter was truly past and spring began to brighten the Icereach. In the vast landscape of the Icereach there were many remote outposts of men and ogres alike, places buried in deep snow and ice.

One of these remote locales was an island, an ogre territory rising in the midst of a sea, more than two hundred miles to the west of Winterheim. In temperate weather this place was surrounded by waters of deep blue, home to whales and walruses, albeit prone to sudden squalls and driving rainstorms. Now, at the tail end of the cold season, this outpost was merely a place of high, mountainous terrain in the midst of a frosty, drift-covered landscape. Named for the serpents who had dwelt here in centuries long past, during the days of the dragons, this island was called Dracoheim. It was claimed by the monarchs of the ogres as part of the Kingdom of Suderhold.

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