"Skoll are coming!" the sentinel shouted.
Twilight turned from Vidar, Spike and the coffee-pot towards the vaja keeping watch at the ice bridge that stretched across the chasm.
"Skoll are coming!" she shouted again. The reindeer rose and formed a semi-circle facing the bridge.
"Careful!" said Twilight and stepped closer to the bridge, passing the nervous reindeer warriors. "We're going to negotiate to get Vigg back, not attack them!"
The snow got into her eyes and she squinted as she, equally nervous, watched the slope beyond the bridge. The heaven beyond it was a very dark gray void, with no stars or moon visible. You could barely make out the roiling clouds, unless that was an illusion because you felt that something should be there. The oil-fueled coffee-fire and the star-stones held by some of the reindeer cast faint and weak lights over the proceedings. Now and then Twilight would turn her attention to the ground and probe the snow telekinetically, very carefully, trying to detect any tunneling.
Twilight grew more and more wary, and jumped a little when Spike tugged at one of her saddlebags. In one paw he held a starstone set in a birchbark cone, a small hooded lantern.
"Go back, Spike!" she said. "It might not be safe."
"I don't care," said Spike sullenly. "I want to be with you."
Twilight felt something in his voice and turned to look at him in the flickering stone-light. She realized the little dragon was a wreck. His eyes looked like he was about to cry, and that the only thing that stopped him from doing it was that he was so tired.
"Spike… I mean, it's okay," she said and nuzzled him. "Stay here with me if you want. We'll get Vigg back."
Spike nuzzled her back and sighed very very deeply.
"I wish we were home," he said quietly.
"Me too," said Twilight and turned towards the slope to squint again. "Me too."
After a long wait Twilight could see silhouettes over the ridge. One. Two. Four and five. Six, soon becoming a dozen. Big, loping silhouettes switching between quadrupedal and bipedal walking as the snow allowed. Big ones… and small ones.
"Are they… foals?" Spike whispered. "Cubs, I mean?"
"Yes," said Twilight, "and they are moving above ground. This is not an attack. They are making themselves vulnerable."
The snow-drifting wind pulled at Twilight's ears and mane, and the pack of Skoll came into view, faces and not silhouettes. White, pale yellow or pale grey, they all looked worried and hesitant, to the extent that Twilight could read canine faces at all. The cubs walked under protest or were carried, and Twilight was suddenly reminded of Spike. And the adults…
All the adults were old. Old and scarred, some with limps and missing eyes, ears or tails. Male and female alike had not just lived long, but survived long. Some of them carried simple icicle spears, axes or clubs, but they were slung and not ready to draw. One of them, a large yellow female, walked up to Twilight and stood there silently, carefully studying the unicorn. Her face was a strange mixture between worried, afraid and, of all things, awe-struck.
"Well met!" said Twilight in her newly-acquired Skoll. "I'm Twilight Sparkle, and this is Spike. I hoped we could, uh, talk…"
The old Skoll fell to her hind knees and spread her front paws. Then she first leaned back and raised them to the sky, then lowered her muzzle to the ground and pressed it into the snow. Then she repeated herself, and the other Skoll copied her movements and started a howling chant.
"Twilight…" said Spike, who didn't understand their words. "Are they… worshiping you?"
Twilight, who did understand their words, suddenly realized how her environment suit must make her look.
"Oh, hay!" she snarled. "Not this! It doesn't work for Daring Do and it shouldn't work for me!"
"Queen of the Night! Princess of Air and Darkness! Ruler of the Night Court! Receiver of howls, mother of adders! Beyond good and evil, the volva of night! The sickle and disc and veil! Ever beautiful! Ever vengeful! Ever victorious! She who Is! Nattmara! Nattmara! Nattmara!" the pack chanted.
"Wait!" Twilight Sparkle shouted. "Stop! You're mistaken!" She manifested her magic as a halo of purple fire above her head.
The Skoll stopped and looked up at her. They looked surprised. One pup sneezed, his nose full of snow.
"I'm not Nattmara!" she said. "There is no need to bow!"
"Of course not," said the old female Skoll. "Nattmara is a great night-spirit, and you're just a unicorn. She's much bigger and more powerful than you, and wouldn't need to travel with a herd of reindeer."
"Oh," said Twilight, to her shame slightly disappointed. "But what was that about just now then?"
"You are her prophetess, aren't you?" said the old Skoll anxiously. The other canines seemed to wait.
"Well… " said Twilight, "...I'm just her hoofmaiden."
"Close enough!" said the Skoll happily. Her packmates wagged their tails and grinned - or maybe they were showing their teeth. "Then, maybe we are saved as the prophecy says!"
"I'll do what I can to... save you, but you must return the prisoner you took from my… herd," she said.
"That wasn't us - not us here - but we will," said the Skoll. "But you must hurry, for your pup is in danger as we speak."
"Danger? From what?" said Twilight.
"The same thing that threatens us - the Jökelgast and his giant!" said the Skoll.
"Jökelgast?" said Twilight "You can't… I mean, do you mean Wiglek?!"
"I wouldn't speak that name aloud, but yes," said the Skoll.
"Wiglek the Wicked?" she said.
"Yes, oh Nattmara's handmaiden," said the Skoll and fiddled with her paws, looking around her with worry.
"How did… the glacier rolled over!" Twilight shouted in Equestrian.
"What?" said Spike.
"The Skoll says Wiglek has risen from his grave, and that first seems ludicrous," Twilight said rapidly. "But when Discord was freed, Karhu-Akka rolled over in her sleep. That must have freed Wiglek from the ice! That's why he hasn't ruled from an icy throne for a thousand years or whatever it was you said, he became free just recently! That's also why Saga feels the tug of his soul from a strange direction - the whole landscape has changed! Dangit, I should have known!"
"You think he is behind all this?" said Spike.
"It sounds likely!" said Twilight.
She turned back to the Skoll.
"Sorry about that!" she said. "Please explain further…"
Spike and the reindeer listen impatiently as the old canine rattled off a long row of barking and whining complaints. The other Skolls listened as well, but looked relieved as they obviously understood the conversation. The pups became a bit restless. One toddled up to Spike and sniffed him. The dragon pulled back nervously as he felt the heat of his own furnace stream away into the little ice-warg's nostrils.
"Stay back, Fido," he mumbled and tried to shoo away the pup. He had no success until it sneezed heavily from the sniffing, which made it retreat behind one of the old Skoll, yelping.
Probably dangerous draining too much heat at once when you're just a kid, he mused. My luck…
Some of the wounded Skoll ( The hostages, Spike thought) dared talking to their relatives, but they didn't move. They had been lying on crude beds dug in the snow, but now they rose up as much as they could. The reindeer keeping an eye on them grew skittish.
Finally, Twilight nodded and turned to the others.
"We have to hurry," she said. "This old… lady, whose name is Jarnsaxa, says Wiglek has methodically destroyed the burrows and holy sites of the Skoll pack here, until he has scared their warriors into doing his bidding. When he learned that we were traveling here, he ordered them to capture one reindeer and bring it to him."
"Why?" said Vidar.
"He said it was for a 'sacrifice' to Nightmare Moon," said Twilight. "That's why we have to hurry. They know where Wiglek is, and with our - with my presence they dare go there."
"Sacrifice?!" Spike shouted. "Why are we standing here?!" He ran to the ackja and started tugging at his pack.
"Why would Skoll need to be scared into attacking reindeer?" said Vidar. "They do that all the time!"
"Ah," said Twilight, "the sacrifice. That's the whole point. Luna told the temple staff in Sarvvik, and indirectly thus me, that not even when she was turned into Nightmare Moon would she condone cervine sacrifice. Seems that while some of your ancestors forgot, the Skoll never have. It's an immense taboo act, and the older Skoll won't have anything to do with it. Wiglek… has the young Skoll more afraid of him than of their gods."
"This is where the tracks end," said Tuva. "This has to be the place…"
The three seekers looked at the makeshift altar. Kvalhissir bent down and sniffed it, then sniffed the air. Tuva lifted her gaze and looked beyond, at the huge chasm and the sheet ice wall behind it. Saga was breathing heavily, out-of-air, and just stared up at the altar.
"A-at least nodeer was killed here," she said and sniffed. "Not recently…"
"There is no smell of blood," said Kvalhissir.
"What did he say?" said Tuva.
"He can't smell any blood either," said Saga.
"There is a small fire nearby," he continued, "but a blot-fire should be smokier."
"Why don't you know Poatsi!" Tuva groaned.
"He says there is a fire around here, but it's not one you… not one you burn sacrifices in," she translated.
"Trolls have keen noses," said Tuva. "With that pipe, you'd think he'd… Anyway, do you See what I See? The tracks on the other side, someone climbing up that wall? They're gigantic! Like the tracks we saw before!"
Suddenly Saga stood up straight and bellowed in a panicky way. Kvalhissir answered her calmly, then stretched further and sniffed the air.
"What… what is it now?" Tuva said. "What are you talking about!"
"I was asking… asking if he smelled water!" said Saga. "Because if he was talking sacrifice, I wondered… if their was a Moonwell anywhere here!"
"Moonwell?" said Tuva. "What's that?"
"It's an old Hrimfaxi thing… I supposed it's a heresy, really… for sacrificing reindeer," Saga fidgeted.
"Sacrifice?" Tuva said "I'm not following you."
"There's a mokkurkalfe somewhere around here;" said Saga, "like I told you about. That's a Hrimfaxi secret! And Wiglek founded the Hrimfaxi cult to please Luna, so I wanted to know if there was any water, and…" She started to hyperventilate and collapsed on the ground.
"Calm down!" said Kvalhissir with a kind, surprisingly high voice… in Poatsi.
"What - you - what…?" Tuva stammered. Saga broke off her fast breathing and just stared.
"Yes, I can speak it," said Kvalhissir.
"Since when?" said Saga.
"I had a talk with Twilight Sparkle," said Kvalhissir and stuck out his tongue. "Has been a while."
"And you didn't tell us?!" said Tuva
"Yeah, why not?" said Saga. He does sound kinda like Mistress Twilight… she thought.
"I'm a 'troll'," he said. "We keep secrets to survive. Saga, I can smell no open water, but I might be missing something. Yes, it has a certain
kind of smell, but the wind might fool me. I can smell the faint smoke of a small, hot fire, and would probably miss it if it wasn't near. Whoever took Vigg must be at that fire. I suggest we take off to get him before he gets hurt. I still have some breath left to leap through the air. Get on my back."
"What about… whatever it was called that left those tracks?" said Tuva, while Saga clambered on the moose.
"You're more free to use your weapon than I am," said Kvalhissir as he leaped out into the chasm. "It's your call whether to use it and when!"
"It can't be you!" the living corpse shrieked as he rocked back and forth. "It can't be you! My other eye sees you! Sees you now… my both eyes see you and See you, in twin places… Sampo, my little Sampo…"
Technically speaking, Vigg didn't dare move, but he had cramps and rolled over, getting a little bit further away from the raving undead as well as the fire. He moved into the heap of old cracked weapons and shields and skis and sleighs.
At the sound Wiglek stopped rocking and shrieking and turned towards him with surprising quickness, his face cramped in sudden anger.
"What?!" he shouted, his face bursting with balefire.
"Sorry sorry, I'm just moving so I can lie still please I didn't mean anything sorry sorry sorry…" Vigg babbled, horrified.
"Don't say 'sorry sorry sorry'!" Wiglek shouted and slammed his metal hoof replacement into the ice. His non-eyes glared at Wiglek. Then he shrank back.
"Oh my antlers… what am I doing… I'm sorry! I'm so so sorry…"
He gave a up a strange, sobbing wail. Vigg started breathing again and realized that Wiglek was crying without eyes or tears and that strange breath-less way of making sounds.
"I sent for… I sent those wretches… those wretches come… and bring back this for Svipp… Svipp brings you here, poor mutt..." Wiglek said, wiping his muzzle uselessly with his hoof.
"It's Her, isn't it… always Her! She ruined me, wrecked me, for a laugh! Mocking me… always mocking me…"
He stood up and shook his hoof towards the ice roof, looking far beyond it.
"Curse you!" he shouted. "Freeze your guts and kill your spawn! Why did you do this to me?! Curse me with unlife! Promise us the world and use us like thralls and cast us aside as trash, and when your plans fail, everything falls down with you! And when freed from your prison, do you come for us?! Do you spare us a thought!? All us who served you?!"
He turned towards Vigg.
"The name they gave me is wrong," he said. "I should not be the Wicked, but the Weak. It is the weak who are punished, not the wicked. The strong are not. Fate slides off them like water off a goose. They earn forgiveness and respite. The weak, no matter their actions, do not."
He turned his gaze towards the ceiling again and his face contorted with anger and despair.
"You kinbetrayer!" he shouted. "Kin-slayer! Curse you to Niffelhel and beyond! Even I, I whom deer call 'wicked', would never have touched my kin, my brother, the only comfort an outcast can have. I gave everything for him, everything for my son as well. But you? Oh, your soft words and self-righteous anger, to be the only Queen of the Sky...and yet, and yet… release… and forgiveness and respite, while your old servants rot in tombs and Tartarus and age-green ice…"
He was wrecked with dry sobs again.
Vigg licked his lips.
"You know about… Hrimfaxi and Skinfaxi?" he said.
The lich lifted his head and turned towards Vigg again.
"What is your Sight, you who cannot be my son?" he said.
"What?" said Vigg, enough confused that his fear abated somewhat.
"What is your Sight, the special things your See?" said Wiglek. "Or have reindeer changed, grown weaker?"
"Oh," said Vigg. "Well…"
"Only if you tell me yours, Mister Wiglek," he said. "Because…"
Vigg tried to remember his father's words.
"Because your Sight is a precious thing, both a Strength and a Weakness," he said.
"I will, " said Wiglek, "that is why I am asking you."
"I can see… the nature of the soul," Vigg said.
Wiglek raised what was once an eyebrow.
"I can see the good and evil in deer," he said.
"And what do you see in me?" said Wiglek.
"I'm trying to learn to use it to spot lies," he said.
"Answer. My. Question."
"It… scares me to look at you, sir," he said. "It is… strange. Not like the normal… I mean, I have them myself. I suppose it is the Nightmare in you. It…"
He waved his hooves looking for the word.
"Festers," Wiglek said. "And it is nothing new to me."
"What… do you See, then, Mister Wiglek?" said Vigg hesitantly.
"I see the Sky," said Wiglek. "Even trapped in the ice, I saw the heavens moving and changing. Aware of every minute. Seeing Ursas and Leos frolic as I lay supine and suffocating. Seeing destinies unfold. Seeing the Stars aiding in Her escape."
"Stars controlled by Skinfaxi," said Vigg.
"Exactly," said Wiglek. "So, it is common knowledge? That She brought Her sister back despite what She had done?"
"No, I don't think so," said Vigg. "It's… just that I know."
They sat in silence, the youth and the ancient.
"The fire… you need it, and it needs more wood," said Wiglek absentmindedly.
Vigg put another broken ski and a spear into it.
"Who's Svipp?" said Vigg.
"What?" said Wiglek, another flush of anger.
"Sorry," said Vigg, "sorry sir, you mentioned 'Svipp'. Who's that?"
"My mokkurkalfe," said Wiglek. "When I was... I had gathered most of me, he was the first magic I wrought. For safety."
Vigg stared at the lich.
"You named that thing 'Svipp'?" he said.
"And?" Wiglek snarled.
"Sorry, sorry, but that's… more like a name for a dog," Vigg said and shied back a little.
"Don't you remember?" said Wiglek with irritation.
"No, sorry, you haven't mentioned it before, at least not as I remember…" Vigg said hastily.
Wiglek stared at him, dumbfounded.
"But our dog was named Svipp," he mumbled. "Why don't you… Oh."
He turned to Vigg.
"Not your dog," he said monotonically. "Our dog. Because you are not…"
"Not… not… both eyes see you!" he whined and started to rock again.
Vigg felt his skin crawl and looked away. He shut his eyes and thought hard and he swallowed. Then he leaned closer to Wiglek and gingerly laid a hoof on his back. The lich shuddered but didn't move away.
"So, so…" he said, his voice unsteady. "Why… why don't you tell me about Svipp. The first one. The dog. Tell me about when you got Svipp the first time."
Wiglek looked at him.
"I mean, the first time you meet a dog, you see what dog it is, even if you don't See it, right?" he rambled. "Tell me about when… tell me about when we got Svipp."
Wiglek looked into the fire. Slowly he grabbed one of the old spears and stirred it.
"Voitto Signysson's dog had whelped, and he owed me one," he said as he stirred. "I knew we could have one of the pups. I remember how they were rolling around, fighting each other… and Svipp wouldn't stop fighting, even if he lost all the time…"