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Winterlight


by d_morton

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Author’s Note: To Azalea, for introducing me to the word “Winterlight”, and inspiring this story.

     * * *

The tiny bell chimed above the door of the shop, almost drowned amidst the vicious cry of the blizzard raging outside. At the back of the shop, the white Bruce looked up and shuddered at the sight, despite the chill never being able to reach him. Gratefully he watched the door close again as his customer entered, sealing out the evils of the age.

     Like all who had come before him, the frozen customer suddenly stopped on the threshold as the baking heat washed over him. Though the Neopian Ice Age still held strong outside of the little shop on the outskirts of the Neopia Central marketplace, within its borders it was as if the Lost Desert had been discovered anew. On every surface the magical lights blazed with their dazzling displays, surrounded by the warming glow of hundreds of candles to display the merchandise. Hanging suspended in cages from the ceiling were dozens of Baby Fireballs, sleeping peacefully as they exuded their sleepy warmth. Already the customer felt like joining them in their nap.

     Such was the nature of Augustus T. Reinard, proprietor, and his deep hatred of the Ice Age that continued to hold Neopia in its grip. Though his shop had a steady business, the Bruce spent fortunes on keeping himself warm through day and night; it was a popular joke to say he burned all his profits away, quite literally.

     A sharp rap upon the counter brought the customer back to his senses. ‘Something I can help you with, sir?’ came the curt tones of Augustus T. Reinard’s voice, cutting through the heat with a bitter chill as forceful as the blizzard assaulting the street. Stepping out from behind the counter he was revealed in his thick winter overcoat and scarf bound about his neck, in spite of the stifling heat of his shop. ‘We have just had delivery of the very latest magical lanterns, direct from Faerieland, with magics blessed by Lady Ollauri herself.’

     ‘No, thank you, Mr Reinard,’ the red Grarrl customer replied with a polite nod to the shopkeeper. ‘My wife has merely sent me to get some more candles as our parlour is growing very dark of an evening these days, and she insists on yours.’

     ‘Your wife has fine taste, sir,’ Reinard declared, shuffling back behind his counter and producing a bundle of assorted candles. ‘I work tirelessly to ensure my products are of the highest standard, and these come from the far reaches of Shenkuu, which as you know is exceedingly difficult to access in these troubled times. The Emperor’s candle-makers are second-to-none, and I will not allow my customers any less than the Emperor of Shenkuu.’

     ‘You mean to say it has nothing to do with the Emperor’s candle-makers being the only ones who have learnt to make a candle that gives off more heat than light?’ the Grarrl jested, earning himself a disapproving look from the shopkeeper. ‘Mr Reinard, you have to admit this place is like an oven. I am thinking of saving myself the expense and bringing my dinner round to have it cook in here!’

     ‘I happen to feel the cold quite severely,’ Reinard responded icily.

     No more was said on the matter, and graciously the customer paid for his goods and left, unable to see the scathing look the Bruce shot at his back.

     The comments were becoming more commonplace these days, and were finally starting to get to him. He had always known his wife thought him mad, but she tolerated his eccentricities and rarely reminded him of how everybody else had learnt to adapt. He was the only one who had never managed it, despite being born into the Ice Age like all the rest.

     He liked to think it just meant he knew the end was coming, and was already prepared for the Spring.

     The day drew long, and with it the last desperate hopes of the sun faded beyond the snow-laden horizon. The shoppers gradually dispersed from the frozen street outside illuminated window, and Reinard saw the business depart for another day. Reluctantly he extinguished the many glowing lights and playful fires, and throwing a second thicker overcoat on, took up his hat and stepped into the blizzard.

     Quickly he set off down the street, treading the familiar path to his home he had walked day after day for many years, carefully selected to give him the fastest route while still avoiding the bite of the blizzard. People hailed him as he passed – though impossible to identify in his oversized coats, only one pet looked so ridiculous at this time of night, making him impossible to miss – but he just waved a flipper dismissively and pressed on, desperate to be free from the chill.

     ‘Augustus, really?’ a voice suddenly cried, stopping him in his tracks. Aware of the winter closing its grip tighter about him, he turned to face the green Ixi regarding him with a jestful smile. ‘It is not even that chill this evening. Do you not think two overcoats is a bit extreme?’

     ‘It may not be that chill to you, Elena, but you know full well I am not as well adjusted to it as you,’ Reinard replied, trying to keep his voice level.

     Elena Reinard just rolled her eyes at her foolish husband. ‘Well, you had best start learning, Augustus, as I would rather not return to find the house has burned down. Mother has been taken ill so I will be attending her for a couple of days, meaning I will not be there to turn off your heaters when you leave for work. You will just have to deal with a cold house when you get home, like everyone else.’

     ‘As you say,’ Reinard replied stonily, watching her go with contempt. Whenever she went away for a couple of days, she never could resist passing some remark before leaving, giving him time to get over it before returning. He resisted the urge to rise to her, just as she tolerated him the rest of the time, and pressed on his way home.

     As his wife had warned, the house was haunted by the draughts of winter as he stepped over the threshold. Hastily he made his way to the great fireplace and set it burning before scurrying around the room lighting candles and lanterns until the room was aglow with the gentle luminescence of dancing flames. Still shuddering against the chill, Reinard collapsed into his large armchair before the fire and sank deep into waiting embrace.

     How long he sat silently huddled in the chair, surrounded by the ever-insufficient warmth of his many fires and heaters, he did not know. The cold had drained his appetite, and after the darkness had set in stronger outside he decided to retreat to bed. Still draped in one of his heavy overcoats, Reinard made his way into bed and fell into an uneasy, cold slumber.

     * * *

     A shrill note pierced the stillness of the house, rousing Reinard from his unsettled sleep. From habit he shuddered with the cold and pulled his duvet up further. Rolling over he tried to catch the elusive creature that was sleep once again, but now all he could hear was the draught sweeping through his house.

     Wakening more with each moment, he suddenly felt a twinge of pain in his belly, and remembered he had skipped dinner. He grumbled and climbed from bed, still dressed in his thick overcoat, and shuffled toward the kitchen. At the door he paused for a moment to take his hat from its stand. It had been a costly addition to his attire, for though it appeared nothing more than a typical black fedora, popular a decade ago in Neopia Central, he had gone to great expense to have the lining enchanted by a fire faerie, so always it flowed with great warmth. Although the popular trend had long passed, he still wore his for its practicality above all else.

     He was glad of his decision when he stepped into the kitchen and found only a bitter chill to greet him. He quickly decided he was not so hungry after all and instead returned to the fireside he had not extinguished the night before. Gratefully he sank back into the chair and waited for sleep to find him again among the perfumed flames.

     The draught echoed about him again and once more roused him from slumber. Before his horrified eyes the fire burning happily in the grate fell silent, the dying embers consumed in the ashes below. He hurried to his feet and fumbled for the matches, but the chill winter breeze swept about the room and made him recoil. The lights went out in perfect synchrony, leaving him alone in the gathering darkness, with only the winter for company.

     A glow against the window drew his attention, the promise of salvation an impossible allure. Pulling his coat tighter he peered through the curtains, expecting to find a street-light still burning above him, but found only the snow waiting.

     He blinked stupidly. Nothing changed.

     He gave his head a vigorous shake, trying to dislodge the illusion of a sleep-addled mind. Nothing changed.

     The snow was bathed in a soft yellow light.

     To Augustus T. Reinard, light meant one of two things: fire or faerie. Either way, it meant warmth.

     Acutely aware of the stupidity of his actions, Reinard pulled on his second overcoat and stepped out into the night. The blizzard had finally grown weary of its performance, and left just its legacy strewn across every surface of the city, indiscriminate of wealth and beauty. The poorer outskirts were just as thick as the grand manors, their ugly gargoyles as coated as the elegant rose-bushes, and all were now shimmering with pale light, beckoning on the weary and frozen traveller.

     Reinard looked for Kreludor far above, but the cloud bank held it at bay and gave none of its glow. He cast his eyes after the streetlights, but they were as grim and silent as his own fireplace. In desperation he fell to his knees and scrabbled at the snow, but found only the cobbled street below.

     There was no source for the light.

     Suddenly the draught washed over him again, its shrill cry ringing in his ears. It swept about the eerily illuminated snow before him, lifting the beautiful flakes of light into the air and swirling them toward the overcast sky. Gently they cascaded around Reinard, left dumbstruck in their midst.

     Again the draught washed over him, but this time it was different. Through the delicate snowfall the cry was transformed into a sweet melody, reaching through to his heart and making it quiver with the rhythm. It spoke to him of the beauty of the blizzard, the splendour of the snowfall, and the majesty of the winter that was all about him. It called him on across the softly glowing path of snow, on toward the wonder of the season.

     Reinard felt the wonder of what he saw falling apart the longer he listened. No words were carried in the melody, but he knew the singer was wrong. He told himself it was the only reason he was now striding confidently through the thick snow, unaware of the chill that clawed at his heavy boots and thick socks. He had to tell them they were wrong, and he was right.

     The winter was a curse, and it was bad enough having to live through the thing without someone keeping him awake at night singing about how wonderful it was.

     Guided by the infuriatingly sweet melody, Reinard followed deeper into Neopia Central. Everywhere he looked the city was bathed in the radiance of the eerie light, flowing freely from the crunchy snow underfoot. He found it overpowering his senses until he could smell the freshness of newly fallen snow, and taste its crisp chill in his mouth.

     Involuntarily he shuddered again, as even his insides were feeling the impossible winter chill.

     The park lay ahead of him, the bare branches of hardy trees suffocated by the blizzard. Reinard longed to see them in blossom, as the legends had oft spoken, and the sight of them so choked by the winter he detested so much made him sick to his stomach. He found himself beginning to wish he had just gone home again and buried his head under the pillow where the sound of the draught could not reach him. But he had come too far now, and it would have been poor form to come all this way without telling the singer to let him sleep in peace.

     Finally the melody fell quiet, and left an unnerving silence in its wake. Underfoot the snow still shone with the light, and as he looked up to the trees Reinard became increasingly aware of how the trees did not. The snow on their withered branches lay dark and ominous behind, cutting off his escape.

     Fearfully he ran forward through the silence, broken only by the sound of his heavy footfalls tarnishing the perfect dusting of snow. He kept his eyes forward, not daring to look back at the foreboding trees behind, but found only more looming out of the darkness ahead. Underfoot the snow was fading back to its natural white, darkened by the shadows of night.

     The Bruce slipped to a halt and looked around in desperation. The winter had snared him at last. It hated him with the same venom he hated it, and now it was through playing games with him. He shuddered again, but this time the cold was not responsible.

     His eyes snapped onto a fading flicker of light to his left. Throughout his life, light was the only thing he had ever been certain of, spending his life surrounded by candles and lanterns. It was something he could believe in when the darkness closed, and now he needed that comfort more than ever. It did not matter if it was leading him toward a small grove of bare trees, only that it was leading him away from the terrifying shadows that lurked behind.

     The light faded into nothing.

     Ancient trees looked down at Reinard from all sides, their faceless trunks watching him with unseen eyes, waiting for him to act. No snow covered their slender forms, but the bark of each was coated with a frost that turned them pale and ghostly; the spirits of trees destroyed by the winter.

     Suddenly the shrill note of the winter melody washed over him again. All around the snow glowed once more, stinging his unsuspecting eyes. On all sides the frosted trees shone with the same pale luminescence, all pointing him onward into the heart of the grove.

     With the shadows lost once more, Reinard found his vigour restored, and his temper flowing freely once again. Steeling himself, he marched through the hauntingly beautiful light and into the heart of the grove that beckoned him onward. The melody rang clear in his ears, and he knew he was at its source. He was finally within reaching distance to put a stop to the infuriating racket. It was almost time to get some sleep again.

     Stepping into the clearing at the grove’s centre he froze. The melody fell silent.

     A water faerie stood in the middle of the clearing, staring at him with her deep blue eyes that made him feel uncomfortable. She was younger than any faerie he had seen before during his excursions to Faerieland, radiating a youthful exuberance that had carried her sweet voice far across the sleeping city, singing its tales of snow and frost. Unlike others of her kind, she was happy among the wintery trees, her warm blue cloak draped loosely over her shoulders while her snow-white hair hung loose and played in the breeze.

     Reinard found himself very conscious of how uptight he appeared in his thick overcoats and enchanted hat. Not willing to disappoint his appearance, when he spoke his voice was cold and curt, and full of the disdain he felt for the winter.

     ‘So you are the one who is keeping me awake with your incessant singing?’

     The young faerie recoiled slightly from his scolding tone, but quickly rallied and danced closer to the irate Bruce, leaving no footprints in her wake.

     ‘Is this all your doing?’ he added sharply, indicating the still glowing snow all around. ‘How is a man meant to sleep when you make everything light up like this?’

     ‘By closing his eyes?’ the faerie answered simply, stepping back from Reinard again. ‘But I do not understand why you would want to close your eyes on a night like this! Can you not feel the spirit of the winter all around us? Blessing us with the beauty of the season, and the song of the snowfall?’

     ‘All I can see is your magic, and all I can hear is your singing!’ Reinard snapped irritably.

     ‘But then how you could have come here?’ the water faerie replied innocently. ‘For I have cast no magic, and I have sung no song.’

     Reinard shot her a look of disbelief.

     ‘Look, I am not here to cause you any trouble,’ he said, ‘I just want to be able to sleep in peace tonight, and whatever you have been doing here has been keeping me up. Can you not just do it at a more hospitable hour? Why not sing and dance during the day when everyone else can see you? I am sure the rest of Neopia Central would love to see the snow light up like this.’

     ‘You see the Winterlight?’ she breathed, her hands shooting in front of her mouth. Her shining eyes were alive with awe at the mere thought of such a thing, but Reinard just returned a quizzical look.

     ‘You see the snow shine with the light of the winter itself?’ she asked. ‘The moment when the winter chooses to share its beauty and majesty with Neopia: The Winterlight.’

     Reinard tried to hide his disbelief from the sensitive water faerie, but failed magnificently. ‘Look, I have not got the faintest idea what you are talking about, girl,’ he said slowly. ‘The only thing the winter is sharing with me right now is frostbite. I spend my life trying to shut out this accursed chill, and still it keeps on haunting me. If this “Winterlight” thing has anything to do with that, then I am going to go home and sit by the fire until it goes away.’

     He turned to leave, but the water faerie was suddenly in front of him again, skipping playfully across the snow.

     ‘You do not understand, do you? It is the Winterlight that brought you here, and the song of the snowfall that keeps you awake tonight. The wonder of the season is trying to reach you, but you are shunning it. You must embrace it!’

     ‘You are the one who does not understand, girl!’ Reinard snapped.

     ‘If you will not see it for yourself, then I shall show it to you!’ the faerie declared.

     Reaching down, she scooped a handful of snow and held it before her, glowing mysteriously with the Winterlight. She cradled it gently and whispered softly to it, filling each flake with a sparkle that seemed to shine brighter than any other. She cast it into the air onto the draught, wrapping around the petrified Reinard. A whirlwind of snowflakes funnelled around him, their golden shine captivating his every thought, the rhythm of their motion guiding every beat of his heart, captivated by its beauty.

     The song of the snowfall rang in his ears again, but no longer did he resent the sound that woke him. It now filled his soul with joy to hear, until he could hear his own voice following the words, crying into the night.

     The sound of his own voice broke the spell, and reminded him of his hatred of the winter. He saw the faerie before him, her hands gently guiding the snowfall all around, her voice laughing with the wail of the wind.

     ‘Stop this at once!’ he cried, brandishing a flipper at her. Suddenly he screamed, and the rest of the magic collapsed around him. Frantically he looked from one white flipper to the other, but they were no longer the white he remembered: they were the white of the snow. ‘What have you done to me!’ he shrieked.

     ‘I have allowed you to embrace your true self!’ the faerie cried, hurrying to him and taking his snowy flippers in her hands. ‘Please, try and stay calm for a moment! You have to relax! Please, just listen to me for a moment! Stop fighting it!’

     He felt his heart stop racing. His body was stifled in the heat, suffocating under the heavy overcoats. Carefully she helped him out of them, until he could see his entire body coated in the same snow as his flippers. Yet he was not cold. For the first time in his life, he was comfortable. Slowly he reached up and removed the expensive fedora with its enchanted lining. He cast it aside into the trees, and watched it vanish into the darkness. He needed it no longer.

     ‘What... what have you done to me?’ he asked slowly.

     ‘I have shown you your true self,’ she replied with a smile. ‘You could hear the call of the winter, and see its guiding light, because it needed you to. You were the one who could never adjust to the winter, because the winter was not ready for you yet. Now, it finally is. The winter is ready to share its beauty and its majesty with the world. It has created you, a pet made of snow itself.’

     Reinard shivered, but quickly stopped as he realised it was more habit than necessity. He could feel the cold all around, but somehow it did not affect him now. He was a part of it all, an essential piece of the winter. A piece of the cold and the snow, of the blizzard and the draught. In all his time of fighting it, he had never once thought of embracing the winter that had haunted him all his life.

     ‘But what now?’ he whispered to the world.

     The faerie just giggled playfully and danced around him. ‘Can you not see it?’ she cried into the dark night. ‘Can you not feel the spirit of the winter inside of you? It is waiting for you. All that is wonderful about the winter, brought to life in one pet. Augustus T. Reinard, the Bruce who always hated the snow...’

     He looked down as his snow-covered form, trying to understand her words, but his mind remained blank. Expectantly he looked up, but the faerie had vanished, leaving just the empty grove behind, surrounded by its silent white sentinels. Under his gaze the frost-laden trees shone anew, more beautiful than ever with their haunting, ethereal glow. Far beyond the dark trees that had seemed so ominous before now glistened with snow, illuminating the dark horizon with a dazzling display of luminescence.

     Realisation dawned at last, on the first snow Neopet to step upon Neopia.

     What once he fought so hard to ignore, he now had the power to share with the world. The majesty of the winter, laid bare for all to see. The song of the snowfall all around longed to be heard. The unworldly essence of the winter waiting to be seen in a world that despised the eternal chill of the age.

     It was all within him now, waiting to be shared.

     The Winterlight.

The End

 
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