Trapped in her icy coffin, Uriel tumbled slowly down through the whispering white. The cold numbed her, dragged her toward sleep, but the image of Kira lingered every time Uriel closed her eyes -- Kira on her knees, choking, grasping for the antidote as the cephalon whipped it away.
Uriel tried to flex her hand in the solid ice, tried so hard she cried tears that froze in her eyes. At last she heard the ice crack as her fingers formed an arcane sign. Decay seeped from Uriel's skin into the ice, which rotted to sludge until she could move.
Trapped deep under the snow, Uriel did not know up from down. Powder tumbled into her mouth whenever she gasped. It was like Kira had said, she was drowning in snow.
Uriel pushed her fist up over her head, rotting away a tiny breathing pocket and watching the foul slush pool impossibly over her head. I'm wrong-side-up, she realized. She created a second pocket, smiling grimly when its water sloshed down on her brow. She began carving a tunnel up through the snow, until she heard the gurgling tones of the cephalon overhead.
"It was the Faceless Man who helped the hated Defiant build their city over a place of Abyssal power," it said. "And it is he who knows the secret rituals that suppress the mighty elementals of Water that haunt its halls."
Shiyesa Wohab spoke now, smug confidence having devoured her earlier meekness. "What will you do, ancient one, now that I've told you his true name?"
Uriel strained to hear them as they spoke. She ventured a hand above the white and groped blindly, near their feet, for some sign of Kira.
"He will die screaming for the Mad Dragon's forgiveness," the cephalon said, as if finally deciding. "And when his warding spells trickle to an end and the elementals rise, Meridian shall be swept away."
At last Uriel's hand closed over a familiar smooth ankle. No heat rose from the fallen Kira's flesh. It felt stiff and empty. Uriel stifled a sob just as Wohab said, "And what is to be my reward?"
"Since you asked," Uriel muttered, and grabbed the Cleric's legs, dragging her waist-deep into the snow. Then she gave a skyward leap to impress her Bahmi ancestors. Powder flew everywhere and Uriel landed twenty yards away, graceful as a swan.
"Poor Uriel," said Wohab. She wore laquered black chainmail and carried a maul of cobalt stone, which she now set down to struggle free of the snow. "Your partner is already dead."
Indeed, Uriel could not hide her horror at seeing the flesh vanish from Kira's corpse. Soon, there was nothing left of it but dust in the snow. "Poor traitor," said Uriel. "My partner is Ascended."
Kira was already running as she resurrected behind Uriel. She leapt at Wohab and vanished, reappearing a moment later, her daggers missing the traitor's throat by a hair's breadth when Wohab brought her maul up to parry.
As Eth traitor and Kelari clashed, dagger and hammer, the cephalon gave a wet, loathsome roar and launched himself into the air, tentacles quivering as blades of ice rose from the snow, forming a labyrinth of frozen mirrors. One of the shards nearly came up under Uriel's foot, and dodging, the Mage almost blundered headlong into the cephalon's grasping tentacles.
Stumbling, Uriel fired off two quick Void Bolts, only to watch them fizzle against a shimmering bubble of ice that appeared around the Cephalon. With her back to an icy wall, she watched as its flabby lips curled in mockery of a smile. Its fingers came together in a profane sign, and shards of filthy ice flew through Uriel's heart -- or where her heart would have been if she hadn't rotted the ice wall behind her with a well-timed spell and fallen backwards through the hole.
The Cephalon began to over climb the walls after her, heedless that the jagged tops of the labyrinth slashed at its tentacles. He came down just in time to see Uriel round the corner, plates of Dark Armor forming around her. Uriel could feel the arcane charge boil in her blood, though she doubted that even her most powerful spells would crack the monster's shield.
She did not stop running as Wohab's maul broke down a wall in her wake, ice crystals flying like a storm of daggers. Wohab cocked an ear at the telltale fwisssh of a planar step, and heard Kira reappear -- not behind the next wall of ice, where Wohab had predicted, but right beside Wohab, one knife's point darting for the Cleric's ear.
But Wohab's armor -- every link embossed with capering deep ones -- granted strength and speed enough to knock the dagger aside and send Kira reeling from a glancing blow to the arm.
"Ascended," said Wohab. "Of course. Now I can kill you as many times as I like. And so can my friend." She nodded back at the cephalon rounding the corner, casting about for Uriel with his buggy eyes.
Wohab smiled in triumph as Kira made her final, doomed charge. She raised her hammer, aiming its spiked head for the Kelari's temple. While she swung through the air, Kira stepped between the planes. Wohab heard the cephalon gurgle in pain, and whirled to see Kira astride its back. The twin daggers rose and fell like the arms of a starving mantis, sending up gouts of fishy blood.
Wohab channeled healing forces through her weapon, but some unseen noose tightened around her throat. The next moment, a black comet hurtled toward her.
Sheathed in ebon magic, Uriel Chuluun leapt over the ice and staggered Wohab with three bolts of blackest midnight. "Wither!" Uriel cried on landing, and the Eth woman's retreat become a hobble, her limbs brittle sticks. "Defile." Shiyesa Wohab's caramel skin sank into the hollows of her bones, and her almond eyes shriveled in their sockets. Uriel turned to help Kira.
Kira struggled with the cephalon. It slumped forward, blood pooling in gobs on the snow. Kira had teleported into its protective bubble, where its tentacles were its only defense. Even in their flagging fury, they gripped Kira's joints, threatening to tear her apart.
"Neddra's Strength," whispered Uriel, feeling her muscles firm and harden. The magic flowed through her connection with Kira, who brought her blades down through the Cephalon's pointed hat and into its skull.
It collapsed like a scaly balloon, groping at the snow. Kira rolled away and stopped at Uriel's feet, steadying herself with a hand around the Bahmi's ankle. Uriel looked down and smiled at her, there in the melting maze.
"So Wohab faked her own abduction, then summoned an invasion and took to the mountains to give the Abyssal my name," mused the Faceless Man, towering his desk. His rarely-used chair moldered behind him, gathering dust. "A shame. Such a promising contact."
"Yes, sir," said Uriel, producing the ruined cover of The Luxury of Trust. "Except ... why would you give your personal copy of such a book to a lowly contact? Unless you were grooming a successor?"
The Faceless Man's mask regarded her without expression, though his head tilted. "The book is not so dear, Uriel. I'm sure you deduced that I took out another copy from the Icewatch."
"And made them cover it up?" said Uriel. "She would have to be worth the trouble. I'll bet Asha would love to know that you've yet to teach anyone else to control our water elemental infestation."
"Makes me quite indispensible, does it not?" said the Faceless Man. "How lucky that I can trust my agents not to go telling such a secret."
Uriel's smile widened when Rahn Chuluun poked his head through the door, smiling in craggy good humor. "Spymaster. Does Agent Chuluun have time for a walk with her father?"
At the slightest nod from the masked head, Uriel gave Kira's hand a squeeze and ran barefoot to the door. "Father, you can't simply barge in here like that!"
Rahn laughed as the door closed. "I'm old. I'm certain I'll forget all about it."
"It seems you were right about Uriel. I had hoped --" the Faceless Man began, then caught something Kira threw, a little streak of gold.
"I found it on the ruined thing Uriel made of Wohab," said Kira as the Faceless Man opened the locket at the end of the golden chain. One huge finger traced over the portrait, over the four tiny faces framed against the snows of Iron Pine: a smiling Eth couple and their pretty young daughter with almond eyes and caramel skin. A giant of a Mathosian stood beside the father, his hand swallowing the little girl's shoulder in a gentle squeeze. No matter how long one stared at his face, none of the features registered in the mind. "How did she know your name, sir?"
"She knew the name of her father's friend. A man who is gone," said the Faceless Man. "Who thought all sentiment had gone as well."
"I had thought the same about myself," said Kira, and vanished through the planes.