On the Winter Solstice, the wind whispered. It roared and blew across the world, and reached even the Heavens above. With it, the great cold of winter flooded across that higher plane, and the gods staggered. Slowly, they felt the golden dust of their divinity drift away from them. They heard the message of that wind clearly…
This Winter will never end so that the Earth will.
Many of the minor gods quickly fell ill and perished within years. The greatest of human civilizations fell into decline and collapsed. With the passing of half a century, only a few of the greater gods remained, and only two major human civilizations persisted: Arashi, an island nation in the East, and the once-great Kingdom of Volhynia in the West. Little hospitable land remained, and neither the gods nor the two civilizations could seek help from elsewhere. With unwavering optimism for the future of humanity, the gods collected together a portion of their diminishing divine power to form a bridge of ice between Arashi and Volhynia. In response, humanity sent two of their greatest swordsmen to investigate: Izagui Reinato from Arashi, and Aeso Mstislav from Volhynia.
“Return safe and bring back whatever spoils of conquest you may happen upon,” the Emperor told Reinato. “May the fires of Kagutsuchi burn within you, always.”
Reinato adjusted her scabbard and bowed deeply towards the Emperor. Of course though, she knew that Kagutsuchi, Arashi’s god of fire, was already dead like the many gods that perished before him. Indeed, it was Kagutsuchi’s sacrifice that made Arashi’s current existence possible. Had he not loved Arashi deeply, their nation would’ve been one of the first to fall before the Eternal Winter.
The thoughts fell upon Reinato harshly, and she clenched her teeth as well as the grip around her sword. Hiketsueki had been forged from Kagutsuchi’s corpse, and the remnants of his divinity formed within the blade. His smoldering heat lived on through Reinato’s sword, through Hiketsueki, for that was all that was left of him.
“Thank you very much,” she said in response. She kept her head down, feeling each snowflake fall on her with the weight of steel. Finally, the Emperor left, returning to his procession. She lifted her head as she felt a hand fall on her shoulder.
“Don’t die,” the man said. He stared at the Emperor’s back, then back to Reinato’s bright eyes, still filled with the optimism of youth. “Don’t die, Rei.”
She nodded, opening her mouth to speak, but found no words. He dropped his hand from her shoulder and walked away.
“I won’t,” Rei heard herself murmur. Then, louder, “I won’t die, Taki! I’ll travel to the other side of the world and find warmth and riches that history has never imagined! I’m nineteen years-old as of today, and I’ll be the one to undo a century of strife!” Taki had disappeared, faded into the snow. His footfalls grew fainter and fainter until it seemed to come from the Heavens instead. “I’ll undo it all…”
Behind her, the bridge of ice crackled amidst the howling of the storm that raged beyond it. Rei turned to it, the sleeves of her blood red silk dress fluttering beneath her thick wool coat. She was surprisingly scantily dressed given the weather, with her calves, hands, and neck completely exposed to the cold. When questioned about it, she claimed that the fire of Kagutsuchi kept her warm. Most simply accepted that she was insane and that she was making a mockery of the strife that humanity faced, a mockery of the Eternal Winter.
They’d forgotten that Rei was the head of the Kenjūsatsu Clan, and that it was her who had freed Arashi from the chains of the Roku Shogunate. They’d forgotten that the once great gods of Arashi had acknowledged her and allowed her to forge Hiketsueki into a divine blade.
She convinced herself that they’d all forgotten her great deeds, for why else would they scorn her so? Why else?
On the other side of the world, Aeso Mstislav shattered his last bottle of ale against the stone floors.
“More!” he demanded, slurring his words. There was no one left to quietly inform him that there was no more alcohol left. Aeso slumped in his throne, feeling the coldness of the pale stone pierce through him. The throne room was dark and empty, save for the sad and drunk ninth prince that mumbled to himself, “Aarhus is the northmost city. You can’t blame me. No one can blame me.”
He broke out into a laughter of drunken stupor.
It had been a week since Aarhus fell to starvation, being now the first of the Last Nine Cities of Volhynia to fall, far earlier than it was predicted to. It had been three days since his father, Tsar Mstislav, had informed him that he’d been chosen to investigate the bridge of ice that had formed on their coast. Aeso declared that he would only do so once the stores of Aarhus had run clean out of ale, and now that time had passed.
Aeso felt the pounding at his door, the responsibility that beckoned him forth. He ignored it with a dull feeling in his head, and with each passing moment it grew louder, stronger. Finally, the doors smashed open against the hostile tempest, sweeping through the grand stone hallways of Aeso’s castle until it reached him. The gust blew back his long blond locks of hair back, revealing his young and handsome features. The cold chilled him down to the bone.
“Fine!” he roared back. “I’ll do it! Damn!”
Aeso’s voice raced back across the skies, and the gods nodded with sad smiles. Aeso Mstislav, the greatest of the nine demi-gods of Volhynia, the one granted with the greatest divinity, and with the greatest responsibility of protecting Aarhus. His failure changed nothing; the gods would send him to the bridge, granting him a chance for redemption. He was the strongest, there was no doubt, and there was no time left in the world to doubt.
Izagui Reinato and Aeso Mstislav both took their first steps onto the ice bridge at the same time. Opposite sides of the world connected in this one breath, and the bridge crackled with excitement.
Rei and Aeso marvelled at the bridge along their journey, remarking to themselves of the wonderful craftsmanship of the guardrails, of the curves and corners. It was both beautiful and spectral. An azure glow ran through every crystal of ice, emanating a pure divinity that could only come from the gods.