Exactly what it says in the title.
Lynwood Ellsworth awakened in a stone bedchamber lit eternally by an enchanted torch. Lynwood was not of the Magi, but he understood the languages used in most incantations purely from his studies of linguistics as a youth. He was gaining a limited understanding of the processes of magic from life in these caverns, but he was more inclined to do things the more straightforward way, like most of the Fire element. Life in the Radovern, as was the name of the northern extremities of the Northern Kingdoms, was dangerous at best. Lynwood gave up on being one of the hardened survivors that defined this icy hell long ago, but eventually came to strengthen himself over the three years he had been here. Soon, Lynwood would leave for the Sun-worshipping kingdom in the South, where he would need to adapt to a new set of dangers. Lynwood set his journal on the nightstand, its sun-cracked leather contrasting the mahogany. Beside it lay his book, “Barilau: The Last Warlord of the Southern Empire”.
The remainder of Lynwood’s library was on his bookshelf, including the horror known as “Peacetime Applications of Ancient Sorcery”, quite possibly the worst idea ever. The poor quality of the basis of the book itself could have been remedied if it were not for the fact that the author was apparently suffering from some kind of severe mental disorder. The only original thought in the entire piece was a chapter on the monstrosities of the world’s squirrel population, suggesting that the author was not at all a magician or one with any basic understanding of magic itself. In the back was written a suicide note, assuredly of one driven to give up on life after reading it.
Lynwood stood up and walked over to the Ironwood bookcase. The Ironwood tree that all of the bookcase came from was a rare one situated on a flat area, as opposed to the knife-like rock of the cavern bottom where the rest were. A bookcase like that would cost the same as a prize horse, just because of how hard it is to reach most of the trees. He left the room, walking out into a cavern the size of a city. The whole of the town was made around the edge, in subcaverns and notches cut into the walls. That was easier than breaking the diamond-hard stalagmites at the bottom of the cave. Before he had lived anywhere worse than the money-pampered villa he came from, he would have tried to build a bridge, or a zipline, or some strange useless conviniences that would make this place somewhere as soft as the Southern Coast. He decided that a zipline might not be a bad idea, if not for the danger of falling and being cut to ribbons on the rock below, and the fact that in an invasion, the best idea would be to cut the ropes.
He walked into the market, bought a loaf of salted bread, and went to the Court meeting.
In the many tribes of the Radovern, the government is a parliament called the “Grand Court”, commonly called the Court. The Court is made up of the artisans of the tribe, be they magicians, warriors, or in the unique case of Lynwood Ellsworth, scientists. The court uses a kind of weighted voting system, with the artisans of the affected disciplines getting more votes than those not affected by the outcome of the vote. The vote is led by the Grand Shaman, the most skilled medicine man in the tribe. The shaman is always older, due to being in tune with nature more, and subsequently wiser.
“Court has been called to vote on the subject of adding a guild for the mining elite of the Great Cavern,” the Grand Shaman said.
“Thank you for bringing salted bread, Lynwood,” Ondrej said. Ondrej was the best warrior in the tribe, and also probably the most polite man anyone could be. His wife was the luckiest woman in the North, everyone said.
“You’re welcome, Ondrej.”
“Well for one, I hate the idea,” Logan Dugald, the Farmer artisan, said. “Last thing we need is another thing for those miners to brag about.”
“Logan, sometimes you need to stop acting like they have nothing to brag about. The miners built the city. They do their part, and more,” the Shaman said.
“So does everyone in the Cavern,” Ondrej said.
“Yes, thank you, Ondrej,” Lynwood said.
“There are more miners than anyone else. They should have two guilds, one for the best, and one for the runners-up,” Vladan said. Vladan was the undeniable king of the miners, a man who could make a magnificent statue out of a cave wall with no difficulty. He preferred to remove rock out of the cave walls the normal way, however, and to create luxurious rooms and suites from what was once just a wall.
“Now, it is time for a vote, so pipe down,” the Shaman said. The various artisans of the Great Cavern each wrote their vote down on a piece of parchment and put in in the middle of the table, and then an assistant grabbed the votes.
“Your decision will go into effect tomorrow. Good evening,” the Shaman said. Lynwood walked out, betting that the majority would vote yes, like he did. He returned home and studied a taxidermied carcass of a Basilisk, one of the most evil creatures known to man. He noticed that the head was not actually of a chicken, like they were thought to be, but of a lizard, and shaped in the rounded avian way, and also had a crest. The head was rather normal, actually, and Lynwood thought: Interesting, the way legends work, eh? He studied the armor-like scales of the basilisk, which would make a great armor, and noticed something not covered in any books on the basilisk: The claws all had a tiny hole in the tip that probably carried poison. It was well-known that the basilisk was poisonous, but it was previously thought that the bite inflicted the poison. Lynwood carried the Basilisk to the artisan hunter, Mikulas.
“Have you looked at this Basilisk?” Lynwood asked.
“No, what is it?” Mikulas asked. He turned to look at the Basilisk in Lynwood’s arms.
“Its claws have holes in them, like a snake’s fang.”
“That is where its poison comes from? I always was more wary of the bite.”
“The bite could still be poison, but I could tell for sure if I could see a live one. By the way, where did you find one? They are rare, and never come this far north,” Lynwood asked.
“They farm them in the South. They can’t be let to see each other, or they’ll die of fright.”
“Like they do when the see their reflection...”
“Exactly. I have a mirror here, just for that.” Mikulas pulled out a shield the size of his forearm, covered in mirrored glass. Lynwood smiled.
“Alright then, good-bye.” Lynwood walked out, and went to put the Basilisk back in his room. The ground shook. Citizens fell to the ground all around Lynwood, who assumed an earthquake was going on. Lynwood gathered as many people as he could, and put them in their homes, which probably wouldn't cave in like he feared the main cavern would. He ran out, and the roof had collapsed. Rock shattered against the bottom, and he knew he had to get home. He ran to his room, and grabbed the leather rucksack from the hook. He grabbed his gear, cold-weather clothes, the books that he liked, and the basilisk, and he ran back to the place he had led the citizens, climbing over rocks that had fallen into the road. He led the survivors to the stairway to the outside, following them up. He saw Mikulas leading another group, as well as Ondrej leading out the Shaman. Lynwood stepped out into the icy waste of the Radovan.
Ice lay as far as anyone could see, broken only by the rocky mountains where the caves are. Not counting the one that just fell down, Lynwood saw three, one to the north, and two to the south.
“We should head south, then east. That’ll lead us to the mountains,” Lynwood said. He didn’t like the sound of it, even as he said it.
“The Orc Mountains,” Ondrej said. The weight of the decision hit everyone. Those mountains would be a trial for everyone, not least of all Lynwood.
“Follow me. We’ll only be able to live and keep moving if we get everything done on one direction. Ondrej, can you hunt?” Lynwood asked.
“Look for tracks of anything headed south. You too, Mikulas. Dark patches of snow are Man-snatcher Vines. If you come across some, sweep your foot across it as fast as you can, and it’ll follow you back. The leaves are edible, and we’ll need greens until we get to the mountains.” Mikulas and Ondrej left.
Man-snatcher vines are vines that live in any place with no other plants, like the frozen North. They get their nutrients not from soil, but by killing animals and seeping the nutrients from their corpses. The leaves are more nutritious than most other plants because of this.
“How long will it take us?” a woman asked.
“At the most, a few weeks. It depends on how much ground we cover. Everyone, we need to start moving. We need a contact spell to talk to our hunters,” Lynwood said.
“I have a spell,” the magic artisan, Vladislav, said.
“Use it. Tell them we are starting to move south.”
“Okay,” Vladislav said. The group started walking, with Lynwood leading by the point of a compass. The wind started to pick up, and some of the weaker started having trouble walking.
“Stay downwind of the rest of the group. They’ll break the wind for you,” Lynwood said. The group pressed on until they reached the first mountain to the South. The mountain looked like the same thing that happened to theirs had collapsed this one too, as it was hollow, but surrounded by the rock on three sides. The mountain broke the wind, so the group made camp there. Vladislav sent up a flare, and soon after, the hunters returned with three kills each, and Mikulas had a large bundle of the Man-snatcher Vines. A fairly good meal was made, given the ingredients. One by one, they fell asleep.
Lynwood woke up. The air was clearer than it had been the day before, so he climbed up onto the side of the caved-in mountain and looked to the south-west. The edge of the Orc Mountains was just visible, and Lynwood figured they’d be able to reach it before sundown, on a clear day like this. The storm had moved on during the night.
“Everybody, wake up. We have a lot of ground to cover.” Some woke up instantly, like a switch. Others needed for another to shake them awake. Ondrej ran once around the mountain in his underpants, and then put on a set of light armor.
“We’ll be going to dangerous country. I need to be ready and able for a scrap all the time,” he said. Once everyone was awake, Lynwood led the group towards the patch of mountains he had seen. If they didn’t make it to the mountains by nightfall, half of them would freeze to death.
The hunters split off again, and when the sun was highest in the sky, they came back with some of the life in the place.
In the North, there are no plants, and there is no water other than snow. The only food is other life, and the only nutrients that a plant could live on are in a corpse. The Man-snatcher vines make their own soil by catching animals, all of which survive by eating each other. Everything is a predator, and the best adapted of these is the Burrowing Snow Lizard. The lizard is not cold-blooded, unlike most reptiles, and it traps its own heat in burrows in the snow. It has incredibly powerful hind legs, and when anything approaches its burrow, it turns towards it, waits for it to approach, and launches itself at its throat. It has been seen killing far larger creatures than itself, its strong, finger-sized fangs piercing the arteries of nearly anything. In fact, the only other thing capable of killing it, it seems is the Man-snatcher vine, having no throat, and never going above ground, except for its leaves to get energy.
Mikulas was the one to report the loss. He told Lynwood that a flying lizard had slit the throat of a hunter named Stanislav, and buried the corpse. Ondrej had been away, tracking something bigger, and Stanislav saw the mound where the burrow had been. He went closer, and a lizard jumped out and bit him in the throat. Stanislav was the first to die since the cave collapsed. Lynwood told everyone to keep going. Sometimes, you have to wait to mourn.
The air was crisp, the horizon a line between the blue of the sky, and the blue of the hardened snow. The only thing breaking it was the dark peaks of the rock mountains they were passing by, and the snowy, grey tree line of the Orc Mountains to the southwest. A few birds passed overhead, but there were never more than two visible at a time. Lynwood passed the time by finding out the species of bird that it was, and whether or not it was a good thing for it, being out there. The peaks crept closer, getting larger, and soon the group was passing in between the rocky mountains. The ground was still just snow, and even though the sun was getting low, Lynwood decided to press on. The mountains were getting taller, not just because they were closer but because they were actually taller here. The world was made of mountains, and there wasn’t a place on it where you couldn’t see them, but these were some of the tallest of all. The Orc Mountains had killed countless people, and even though Lynwood had passed through them on the way to the Radovern, he had been with an armed trade wagon then. The group was vulnerable.
Lynwood caught glimpse of the ground, something that it seemed he hadn’t seen for years. Everyone sighed with relief, mistaking the ground for safety. They joked, and smiled, and as soon as they touched dirt, they sat down. All of them sat except for Lynwood and Ondrej. Even Mikulas was unaware of the dangers that had become real as soon as they stepped onto the ground.