Mirages in the Snow
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The icy chill of winter is not often denied, or at least not forever. Some cultures personify this absence of heat as a man, something more human than the glacial force of nature. Old Man Winter, Boreas, Jack Frost: all figures created to represent the season of winter, and the freezing chill that comes with it. In other words, vain attempts to put a face to the utterly unfeeling force of nature that is the ever-gnawing cold.

If cold was a man, however, that man would be walking on the slopes of the arched backbone of the world; the mountains which loomed over the valley of Tuskini. This being of cold would be walking next to another man, this one very tangible. Atlas had found himself upon the slopes once more, the biting chill an ever-present danger.

Atlas had been here before, or so he felt. He had never set foot on these particular slopes, or even this mountain range, but the way in which the wind blew around him and the way the chill burned in his hands, he felt as though he had suffered the same way before. He kept his eyes ahead- any misstep and he could lose his life, after all. Even so, the found it hard to concentrate on the trail ahead. Occasionally, he would see rocks that were not there, or even footprints, faintly visible in the snow, leading nowhere.

Atlas was, by this point, no stranger to the games that the chilled wasteland played on his senses, and decided to attribute these odd occurrences to the environment in which he found himself. As the temperature dropped, Atlas' motions became more sluggish, and his mind began to race. Even he was not truly accustomed to the freezing cold wind which buffeted these mountaintops, and all of him was suffering the effects.

And yet, he continued to walk. He walked as if he had no other option, as in his mind, he did not. There was nothing to him except the trail ahead. One step, and then the next. The wind became too harsh to look into, and Atlas reluctantly diverted his eyes to the ground. He knew this was a horribly bad idea, but he could no longer continue to hold his head high. It was a relief to him to take his focus from the howling winds above, no longer blowing ice shards into his eyes.

This relief was quite short-lived. As Atlas focused on the snow below his feet, he began to see footprints. These footprints were quite surprising to an experienced mountaineer like himself. It was rare to find another climber on the hills, especially during this time of year, and doubly so during this weather. It would be suicidal for someone to be out in this weather without at least a little bit of giant's blood in their veins, especially someone so little. The footprints, Atlas realized, looked almost childlike.

He was shaken out of his near-stupor by the impact of shattering ice against a nearby stone. Icefalls are not a uncommon occurrence high enough on mountains, especially ones with winds as high as these, but something about the way this ice shattered unnerved Atlas. He ducked, just in time to avoid another chunk of ice shattering against a nearby rock, spalling across the surrounding snow. He was sure of it this time: someone, or something, was looking to have him killed.

Atlas was not new to this kind of situation. The highest mountains hold the hardiest of creatures, and many do not take kindly to an uninvited guest to their mountain homes. As the surrounding blizzard began to pick up intensity, Atlas could barely make out the sound of creaking above the whipping winds. He wondered for a moment about what creature may be concealed within the cloak of ice and snow being whipped about by the winds, but soon realized he had best focus on staying alive.

He dashed for the nearest stone spire, as it offered cover from most angles. It was regrettable that he had not identified the direction the thrown ice was coming from, but at least this offered coverage from most of the outside world. If only it had been that simple. As Atlas attempted to catch his breath, he was knocked to the snowdrift by the force of a body dropping from the cliffs above. He rolled just in time to avoid a bony fist pulverizing the ice and snow right where his head had once been.

Dazed, disoriented, and terrified, Atlas attempted to scramble to his feet, only to be swiped back to the earth by his assailant. While he attempted to right himself, he glimpsed his attacker clearly for the first time. Though it appeared to be a man dressed in a heavy winter cloak at first glance, a closer look revealed a complete absence of flesh anywhere on the creature's body. Below the cloak, ribs and a pelvis were plainly visible, and the visage of the foul thing was naught but a bony smile.

Once again face down in the snow, Atlas gathered his thoughts and made a quick attack against his opponent- a straight kick backwards, directly into the skeleton's kneecap. It stumbled for a moment, giving Atlas just enough time to scramble back to his feet. Now he was on even footing with the creature. Granted, he was already cut across his face and likely had broken a rib from the initial attack, but he had gathered his fortitude enough to steel himself for the pain which was sure to be inbound.

The skeleton threw another blow- a downward chop, aiming for the mountaineer's neck. It moved with unnerving speed, likely empowered by some sort of ancient magick, and with a grace unnatural to a being composed only of bone. Atlas ducked just out of the way of the devastating attack, and retaliated with a right hook. Bone collided with knuckle in a sickly crunch, and both combatants recoiled. The skeleton loosed a quick jab straight into Atlas' arms as he raised them to protect his head. Pain flared in his forearms. They weren't broken yet, but surely they were close. However, the block had stunned the skeleton enough to cause it to leave its chest wide open. A powerful front kick, aided by Atlas' crampons, crashed into the solar plexus of the cloaked assailant. As it fell to one knee in a vain attempt to brace itself, Atlas reached out with one arm and wrapped his gloved hand around the creature's spine. He hoisted the foul being into the air with his arm, and all at once the whipping wind fell silent. In fact, Atlas could hear or see nothing, only the glowing fire and roiling gas that surrounded him, blooming from the neck of his enemy as if some exotic orange flower.

Atlas knew enough about magic to cause an explosion. After all, that's one of the first things any wizard worth their curiosity tries to learn. When studying in forgotten tomes, though, Atlas had learned new methods of channel these conflagrations, and shape himself a pocket of relative safety within them. It had come in handy more times than he could count, and it was just as useful here. When the flames dispersed, all that Atlas was left holding was a collection of charred bone, no longer imbued with the life it had once been given.

Not seeing fit to stay here any longer, Atlas dug a shallow pit in the snow, said a few short prayers, deposited the blackened remains, began to continue walking down the path. The footsteps from earlier failed to evade him, and continued to lead further up the trail. While he continued to walk, the deposition of snow from the storm above seemed to not fill in the footprints, as it would with his own. It seemed, to him, that the mysterious figure was always just out of view. The two hikers continued, just shy of the vision of the other, until the storm broke below Atlas and he saw the world spread out below him.

However, Atlas did not care for the views. He ran ahead to follow the trail, eager to find who had been just ahead of him the whole time. When he crested the final hill, overlooking the rest of the mountain range, he spotted someone resting from behind a rock. Rounding the corner to investigate, Atlas saw laid against the stone a corpse, or at least what appeared to be one, before it spoke. The icy body of an older boy, maybe teenage years, turned to him and beckoned for him to sit in a surprisingly quiet and soft voice.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

The boy gestured to the landscape painted in the light beneath them. And it was beautiful, strikingly so. Even Atlas marveled at it for a moment, before the icy grip of unease took him back into its grasp.

"I think it was over there," the boy said, pointing towards the north-east horizon, "wouldn't you agree?" A horrible ripping sound accompanied the boy lifting his arm.

Atlas stood stunned for a moment, contemplating what the figure could be referring to.

"What do you mean? I can hardly see what you're pointing at, and equally confused as to what you're referring to. Who are you?"

"You know very well what I mean, and very well who I am. Look at me."

As Atlas' eyes moved across the figure's frost-burned face, the features, not noteworthy at first, began to coalesce into a face. A memory. It had been years since he had seen this face before, but it was one he was unlikely to forget.

"You can't be-"

"But I am. You as well as anyone must know the life we live is not so simple as to be permanent. After all, isn't attempting to breach the impermanence of death kind of your thing? I'd say your writing must have been a big part of it. Surprisingly well received, especially for a hack like you."

The boy laughed, but his frozen lungs only produced a hacking cough.

"Don't turn away from me. You know just as well as I do this is your fault. Just remember, the next time you set out to save another poor sap, this isn't going to go any differently. I'll be seeing you soon."

As Atlas turned back around to face the boy once more, he had vanished. No trace of his existence remained, for even the footprints had been swept away. With a naught but a look back, Atlas began his trek once more.

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