Boreus: The Star in the Sky (The Stream)wave of whispers ranges across the hall.
"So did you see it?"
"My cousin in Synara said it was bright as the sun there!"
"I heard it might be a bad omen?"
Similar conversations are happening all over the Keep, magi and students and staff and guests all discussing the bright meteor that streaked across the northern sky yesterday. Did it burn up or hit the ground, will there be an expedition to find it, was it some supernatural sign? You've taken part in several such conversations, but right now you're more interested in checking the Stream. After all, an expedition will take time to plan, if there is one, so you'll have ample chance to join in. But if you're really, really lucky, there might be a late arkai egg to be found right now.
As you draw closer to the Stream, the conversation tones are less excited and more confused. A lot of people are just staring at the water, and when you dodge around the small crowd you see why: the stream is flooded with xand bear eggs. It's not an unknown phenomemon - eggs new to the stream typically appear en mass at first, and you could set a clock by the regular appearance of platypus eggs. But xand bears are not new, and their appearance this way is baffling.
"Hey, look at this." A younger student holds up an egg drawn fresh from the stream, and people crowd around to see. Rather than fight through for a glimpse, you try catching an egg yourself; if whatever's odd about that egg is also why the xand bears are flooding, the rest of them might also be strange. You find dark streaks on the egg, almost like scorch marks, and the shell has striations that might be hairline cracks. Other students catch some as well, and it doesn't take long to realize that all the eggs show the same evidence of something wrong.
You notice something else unusual. "There's a lot of globefish in the water too." While there's always a few of them among the water plants or in pockets of still water, the placid fish usually avoid the swifter currents. But now what looks like the whole school of them are darting about, sunlight flashing from their golden fins. One quick thinking water magi draws a sphere of water out of the Stream with a globefish inside, and the intact bubble shows a snow-streaked landscape partially obscured by smoke. As with the eggs, more people draw the fish out, and their bodies show similar scenes.
"I think we need to report this to someone."
Since Master Belmos runs the Nursery, he's the obvious choice to bring the eggs to. He's clearly disturbed by the condition of the egg you bring, and when you explain what's happening he orders his helpers to prepare nest boxes, extra down. "This doesn't bode well. I think the globefish will have to keep their mystery a little longer though; these eggs need immediate attention. Bring me as many as you can catch, and let others know to do the same. If we're quick and careful, I think we can save them."
Master Belmos gives you a stern look as you return to the Nursery empty-handed.
"Quickly now, we need to save as many Xand Bears as we can, so go get some from the Stream. We suspect that there may not be many days before the Xand Bears are gone."
Master Belmos carefully inspects your latest contribution, then places it gently in a nest lined with osath feathers. A phoenix, one of several perched around the hatchery to heat it, inspects the new addition curiously before tucking it closer to the ones already in the nest.
"So far, so good. The eggs seem to be doing well; the cubs that have hatched so far are all healthy. If we can find where they came from, we might even be able to return many of them to the wild when they're older."
"Go now and rescue all you can. We suspect that there may not be many days before the Xand Bears are gone."
Boreus: Fishing for Images (The Keep)With care of the xand bear eggs well in hand, the senior magis are now turning their attention to the source of the trouble. There's very little doubt now; the xand bears probably come from wherever the meteorite hit ground, and that's probably the image the globefish are showing. That the recovered eggs survived at all is probably due to the rejuvenating properties of the globefish water, but there are major concerns that the environmental damage might threaten the wild xand bear population.
The problem is that no one's ever found where xand bears come from. Following the meteorite's path is a way to find it, but the potential search area would be immense. Fortunately, with so many globefish showing the same images, there might be a faster way to find the right place. Master Belmos instructs everyone to bring an adult aurean globefish to the main hall for inspection.
The main hall has been taken over by... well, whatever it is Archmage Thane has in mind. The biggest table from the dining hall has been moved here, and some kind of aparatus is being put together with tubes and clear bowls. You're looking forward to seeing how this location spell works, but if you want to participate you need an adult aurean globefish.
You bring your aurean globefish to the main hall and Master Belmos directs you to one side, that has an empty bowl for you to place your fish in.
Boreus: The Image in the Globe (The Keep)You place your globefish in a bowl in front of Master Belmos, one of several set at the edge of a large table. Tubes connect the bowls to a large one carved from a single clear crystal contributed to the effort by Archmage Thane. The crystal bowl is set on a tripod in the center of the table, with a small shard from the same gem swinging by a thread underneath; on the table below it is a map. As you watch, motes of light drift from the bowl with your fish, along the tube to the center bowl, slide down the thread to the crystal shard, and drip onto the map below. There's not many of them, but combined with the glowing marks from other fish before, they are starting to outline a distinct path. "Is that where the xand bears are?"
Master Belmos nods. "I don't know how the globefish travelled that way. To the best of my knowledge there's no waterway following that path. But with so many of them focused on the same place, there's no doubt. That's how they came, and that - " he taps the end of the lit path furthest from the Keep, "- is where they started."
The path ends far to the north. Far, far to the north, beyond Arkene, beyond even the nesting pool of the aurora whales, in the barren, icy land called Boreus. Very little is known about the north lands; while ambitious adventurous types occasionally raise expeditions to explore it, those which have come back report nothing but snow and wind and a lone tall mountain. Sailors have had a bit more luck in the summer, but only enough that the general coastline is known; the glacial waters are treacherous, and places which might be considered safe landings shift from year to year.
"Can we even get there?"
Master Belmos doesn't answer right away, but his grim expression says he has as much doubt as you do. "I don't know if the greater risk is attempting the trip, or leaving the xand bears to fend for themselves. Traveling with icists, perhaps; the cold is no risk to them and they won't require additional food. And we have a destination, so we won't be wandering blind-"
"Archmage Thane, come see this." Next to you, Lady Alua is watching the latest globefish with alarm. At first glance the scene in its bubble looks to you like all the others - white snow and dark smoke. Then you realize the dark forms in the image aren't smoke at all. They're people, body shapes almost completely obscured by heavy clothes. Not quite able to believe what you see, you watch the motes of light mark the magic path; surely this image is from Arkene, or perhaps near Synara? But no, each drop falls from the swinging crystal to the unknown heart of Boreus.
Another teacher on the other side of the table calls out, and it quickly becomes clear that he too has an image with people in it. Hasty examinations reveal more than a dozen of the fish show people in varying numbers, even some smaller figures that may be children. Impossible as it seems, there are people living in Boreus.
How has the meteorite affected them?
Archmage Thane wastes no time. "It seems our task is more urgent than we knew. Master Belmos, select a team and go ahead to Synara to obtain cold-weather travel supplies: clothes, food, gear, and medicine. Buy out the city if you can, I am quite certain it will not be wasted."
"And get lots of seeds!" Everyone turns at the interruption, and somehow you are not surprised to see Talyn. The traveling magi, always an attention-seeker, grins at the confused looks coming his way. "If the xand bears come from there, they've got to be able to handle the cold, right? So we bring a bunch of them with us, and a bunch of seeds, and they can grow food for us along the way."
It's actually a clever idea, and while the bears are likely to eat much of what they grow themselves, a relatively small amount of seeds can supply a lot of food. "Seeds then," Thane agrees, "anything edible. For the rest of you, this will likely be the most dangerous expedition we have ever undertaken. This time of year the far north is dark, harsh, and bitterly cold. There is a very real danger that some -or all - of us will not return. If this threat leaves you undaunted, gather what supplies and creatures you have for the trip. I recommend a variety of companions; icists and white elk should both fare well and speed our way. Anaugi fire-magic will help keep us warm and light our path. Koi fish, as I suspect the people we seek will have need of their healing power. And of course, xand bears to supply us all. I strongly suggest everyone provide multiples of each creature, so none are taxed too heavily." For a moment your surprised he didn't suggest ice gryphons, then you realize food might be scarce for the great predators. All the creatures the Archmage suggested (except icists) are herbivores, and can be fed on what the xand bears grow.
"Let me be very clear: if you do not have or cannot obtain sufficient gear and creatures for this trip, you will not come. This is dangerous enough, and I will not see any of you die because your sense of adventure exceeds your sense of self-preservation." Thane's gaze lingers on Talyn at this, but the young man just grins in response. "Bring your companions to the courtyard so I may determine their fitness for the trip. Four icists, two bell white elks, two chain white elks, two anaugi, and six xand bears. All adults, and that should be sufficient."
The courtyard is packed, animals everywhere and people either inspecting them or trying to keep them under control. You notice a lot of magi leading their creatures away with expressions of dejection and frustration; also that the more rambunctious a companion is the more likely it will be rejected.
That makes sense. As dangerous as this trip will be, no one wants a team of elk that will balk at a harness or an icist that will wander off. You make note to bring not just your healthiest creatures, but your most cooperative ones. Now all you need to do is gather your strong and healthy adult creatures; four icists, two bell white elks, two chain white elks, two anaugi, and six xand bears.
Archmage Thane, along with several of the Nursery helpers, give each creature you provide a thorough inspection; you actually have to trade out one he doesn't think is up to the task. The rest, and the substitution, are finallly given a clean bill of health. "I'll check them again in Synara, as well as your gear."
"I thought that was why Master Belmos went ahead of us," you point out. "To get the supplies and gear."
"It is," Thane agrees, "but I doubt Synara can supply the entire expedition on short notice. And much of what we purchase may be needed for the people in Boreus, not to mention the return trip. And even if Synara should have all we need and more, there are limits to what we can afford.
That was something you hadn't considered. Everyone jokes about the mountains of gold Master Belmos must make in the Nursery sales, but of course a lot of that probably goes to the care of the Nursery creatures. Do you have the right gear for this kind of trip?
Well, you have made occational trips to Arkene, though most of those were made in summer. Still, it's a start, and now that your companions have been approved for the trip, there's no reason not to head to Synara and get what you need. You thank the Archmage for his time, and head back to your rooms to pack. Time to clear out the piggy bank and head to Synara City!
Boreus: Gearing Up (Synara City)Master Belmos's limits, it turns out, are pretty extensive. He hasn't quite bought out the city, but you suspect that's mostly because he's been concentrating on supplies and heavy gear like sleds. Of course there are other magi kitting out as well, which has left your choices between the inexpensive stuff that won't handle the trip, and the expensive stuff that's fancy as well as durable. Having no intention of freezing on this trip, you go with the expensive stuff.
With all the activity, word spread quickly through the city about the expedition. Several volunteers have also come forward: trappers, miners, and ice magis familiar with Arkene. They've helped refine the supply lists, and are intrigued at the idea of growing food on the way. The people have been generous with donations and reduced prices, and the gear you have set your eyes upon will only cost you 5000 gold.
Master Belmos may not have bought out the city, but he seems to have bought out the most economic of the gear that can probably handle the trip. Or other magi who got here before you did. If you want to have the right equipment for this trip, it's going to cost you 5000 gold.
Between the experienced volunteers and the Keep's senior magis, the selection of who goes is brutally efficient. Those who opted for cheap gear are quickly rejected, as are those who show any sign of being in less than perfect health, and even anyone overheard complaining repeatedly about the cold - there is, after all, far worse to come. In the end less than a third of the people from the Keep are selected for the trip, and you're very glad to be one of them. Many of those who didn't make the cut offer to let their companions go with the expedition anyway, creating a massive herd which conventional wisdom says would be the worst way to travel into a harsh, barren environment.
"If Talyn's idea with the xand bears doesn't work," you murmur, "this is going to be a disaster."
"Oh, it'll work." You hadn't been aware Talyn was close by; honestly you hadn't known he'd been accepted into the expedition. But here is, wearing top-of-the-line coat, boots, and gloves. "We've run some small tests already, and they've got no problem growing the plants right through the snow. With the icists to break trail, and the elk to pull the sleds, we'll make great time. This is going to be epic!"
"So you're coming too?" Which is a silly question, and you know it, but it seems better than 'How did you qualify for this trip?'
"Of course! I was actually going to try exploring Boreus next summer, but this is even better."
How a rescue mission which could kill the people going is 'even better' you don't know, and in your bafflement at his behavior you blurt out, "But how'd you afford this stuff?"
A moment of surprised silence, and then Talyn laughs. "Are you kidding? Do you know how many artifacts I've found the past few years? The rare plants and crystals, the remnants of ancient cultures? Collectors go nuts over stuff like that! And I've got connections. Oops, looks like we're moving out. Good luck!" He heads off to take charge of an elk team, and you turn your attention to your own companions. But you can't help thinking of all the predicaments Talyn's been in over the years, all the trouble he's brought to the Keep. And yet somehow he always comes out ahead. It figures he'd find a way to profit from all his misadventures. You can't really begrudge him the good fortune, though. For all the headaches he's brought, his discoveries have also enriched the lives of everyone at the Keep.
Something to consider another time. For now, on to Boreus!
Boreus: The Origin (Boreus)It's been... you don't know how long it's been, actually. You're fairly sure it's been at least a week since the sun disappeared below the horizon for the last time. You were doing okay keeping track based on how often you made camp, but then a snowstorm kept the whole expedition pinned for who knows how long and destroyed any sense of time.
Worse, it wasn't until after the storm passed that anyone realized several teams at the back of the caravan were missing. No one knows what happened. You hope they just realized they were falling too far behind and went back, but all you know for sure is that the icists didn't find any bodies in the snow. That'd be more comforting if someone hadn't pointed out a haietlik could have found the bodies in the storm.
In the early days of the expedition, many people found the conditions harsher than they expected - for some, harsher than they could bear, and they went back. A few people also fell ill, and were immediately sent home with a few healthy and experienced volunteers to ensure they made it. All told, you estimate the expedition has lost maybe a fifth of those who set out from Synara. The folks who joined the expedition in the northern city say for a trip like this in the middle of winter, that is unbelievably good fortune.
That good fortune is due almost entirely to the xand bears. You never would have expected the placid creatures to handle the cold so well, but for the most part they seem as comfortable as they might in a summer garden. Nor do they seem particularly stressed by growing fresh crops every stop. You are heartily sick of potatoes, squash, beans, kale, and spinach (most of the fruit goes to the anaugi), but if this mission fails, it will not be for lack of food.
Other than the food though, this trip has been unbelievably tough. Illness, injuries, and exposure take their toll on people and creatures, though you are well past the point where anyone can be safely sent home. There have been other, smaller storms before and after the big one. Something - no one knows what - spooked several elk into running, and not all of them returned; like the missing people, you hope they found their own way home. But worst of all has been the impact zone.
You're not sure when the changes first started, but at some point people started noticing the area was unusually wind scoured, with long stretches of slick ice under loose, recent snow. Beyond a series of ridges came the first proof you must be getting close, a blasted and burned tumble of broken timber which must have been either an orchard or small woodland. While there was no sign of humans there, a bit further on you came to what seemed to be burned fields, with collapsed buildings in the midst - a farmhouse and perhaps a barn or storehouse. There were no bodies, but there was evidence the place had been searched recently. Surely there wasn't much further to go.
The expedition had made camp twice since then. Another farm had been found in that time. More disturbing, you'd come upon mounds of fresh-turned earth, covered in small white flowers of a type you'd never seen growing stubbornly through the snow. Half a day's march beyond that, you find the heart of the disaster in a long, devastated valley.
And the people.
Even though this was why you'd come, the sight of other living humans after so long in the frozen wastes is stunning. The group seems to be scavenging the area, though you're not sure what might remain useful within the impact zone. It seems they were expecting someone, because when they notice your group several people call out and wave. But as more of the expedition come over the last ridge, the welcome turns to confusion, then alarm. You realize that your party actually outnumbers the other group significantly, and that's just in humans.
Archmage Thane gives word for people to hold their positions, then proceeds into the valley alone. He's met by several of the native people, and though you can't hear what they say, they gradually show more curiosity than caution. More draw close to the discussion, then some move past it towards the waiting magi. A couple jog up and out the far side of the valley, probably carrying word of your arrival to the rest of their people. At least, you hope so.
It's not long before many, many more people come back over the far ridge, and by that time the scavenging crew has already started working among you, sorting what is needed immediately and what can wait. The koi and medical supplies are especially welcome, and while the food you brought is not what they are familiar with, they accept it happily. But more than anything else, they are joyous to see the xand bears.
There's long hours of work then, enough that you don't really notice much about the village when you're done before falling asleep. Only after a long rest and a warm meal do you realize it's actually a sizeable town, and in much better shape than you would expect for being so close to the impact. Buildings are mostly steep-roofed wood, and though many of the taller ones are badly damaged, only those closest to the impact have fallen. On closer inspection, it seems some of them were actually pulled down afterwards, when they were judged too damaged to be repaired.
"It was the weather-spells." You turn quickly to see one of the local magis behind you. "I'm Maili," she says, and bows her head politely when you introduce yourself. "We've been laying them for generations," she explains as she leads you to the rise between the town and the crater. "Here, see? The rock's broken now, but you can still see the pattern. Originally they were just meant to take the brunt of the snowstorms, but after all this time, with all the magi reinforcing the spells every year, it got pretty powerful. Lucky for us."
Examining the cracked stones along the rise, you find ornate symbols worn deep. The specific script isn't familiar to you, but the overall flow from one to the next suggests their purpose - redirecting strong natural forces, siphoning some of their energy and feeding that power back into the spell. "And you've been doing this for generations?"
Maili nods. "There's a formal ritual every year, plus maintenance and reinforcement whenever there's a big storm. The spell'd gotten so powerful that even the worst storms only caused moderate snow in the town square. It all shattered with the meteor, but it saved us. Most of us."
You think of the farms you passed, and the mounds blanketed with flowers. "I'm sorry. If there's anything more we can do, we'll gladly help."
"I know." Her smile is brief, and sad, but sincere. "Thank you. For the short-term, with the help you've already brought, we should be okay." Together you start back into the town; plenty of work remains to be done. "I think Kenne - he's our head magistrate - I think he's hoping you might be willing to share your xand bears with us for a few years."
In all the rush to get here, the urgency to reach the people, you'd almost forgotten it was the xand bear eggs that started all this. Now it occurs to you that while you've seen figurines and carvings and even a couple statues of xand bears, you've seen very few of the actual creatures besides those from the Keep. "They come from around here, don't they?"
Now Maili looks distressed, and you're sorry you asked so bluntly. But before you can apologize, she explains, "They came with us, when our forebearers first landed here. Their gift of growing all manner of plants is the only reason we survived. It's the main reason we still survive. The valley where the meteor hit was their nesting ground."
"Oh. Oh, I'm so sorry."
Maili just nods. "Most of our people survived, but the bears... well, our sister village has promised to send some, but ours was the bigger pack. Now we've only a handful of adolescents and special pets left. All the rest, and all the next generation, are lost."
You think about the Nursery back home, swarming with newly hatched xand bear cubs when you left. "Maybe not all." When Maili looks at you in confusion, you explain, "Back where we come from, there's a magic Stream..."
It's been a long time, and a lot of good work, but finally you're going home. Some of the expedition left a while ago, along with a few magis from the village. Their weather-protection spells are some of the most powerful and most efficient you've ever heard of. With their help, the journey south was much safer and faster than the original trek north. As was their second trip north, this time bringing the rescued xand bear hatchlings and a number of adults from the Nursery to help raise the cubs and supply the village. The celebration when they arrived was better than every solstice and birthday and new year's party you've ever seen combined.
You've also made some fast friends here, and hope to return some time. Maybe in summer, when there'll be more light than the glowing bluegreen sheets that sometimes curl across the sky. A handful of the village magis are coming to the Keep, to study the magic forms taught there and teach their own. Maili is not one of them, but she's promised to come for a season once the hatchlings are grown and the xand pack is secure.
As you bring your gear and creatures to where the expedition is gathering, you hear Maili call for you to wait. When she catches up, she offers you a box of polished wood, with inlays of different shades to make a xand bear on the lid. "As a thank you. They're very rare, and they can channel magic to strengthen spells. If anyone can appreciate them as much as we do, it would be you and the people of your Keep."
Curious, you carefully lift the lid. Nestled within the thick lining are snow-white eggs; they must be close to hatching because several soft, sleek tails have pushed out through small cracks. Surprised and touched, you close the the box to protect the precious contents. "Oh... oh wow. Maili, thank you. I promise, I'll take good care of them."
"I know. And I look forward to seeing you again, and them." Then there's no more time, as Thane calls for everyone to start moving. You trade hasty goodbyes with your new friend, and fall in with the rest of the party going home.