The man, if he could be called a man, peered through the icy branches and down to the valley far below. This valley was so very different from his own austere realm. This valley was so very full of life, of greens and browns, and of animals and insects. He didn’t know what possessed him to look there, but he was immensely glad he did. The sight laid before him almost thawed his icy heart. Almost.
Down far below, beyond his icy reach was a woman, if you could call her a woman. Although her appearance suggested she was human, he knew she was not. He knew she was like him. But where he was the personification of cold, she was the personification of warmth. He could see that in the way she looked. She was tall and slim, her skin olive and suntanned, a healthy glow radiating from it. Her eyes were warm and brown. Her hair was long and as black as coals, but the sunlight shining down upon it gave it hints of red and orange and yellow, giving it the illusion of fire as she spun around and around. And spinning she was, for she was dancing. Her red dress whirled around her and her bare feet were stained with the red-brown earth she danced upon. She was passionate and obviously did not care who happened upon her, who saw her dancing. She was carefree and happy. In essence, she was all the things he was not and that drew him.
He watched her for a time, his patience infinitely long. He was not a man to act on a whim, but he suddenly found himself wishing he was. He wanted to go to her, to talk to her, to ask her what her name was. He wanted to know why she was so happy and carefree. And most of all, he wanted to know what her name was. So, he took a few tentative steps forward. But with each step he took, the air grew warmer and his frown grew more pronounced. He was the living personification of cold and she of warmth. They could never be near one another. Not when he needed the cold to live and she radiated warmth. He had a sinking feeling that the opposite would be true for her, that she needed the warmth he leached away. He was not one for cursing, but if he was, he surely would have been by now.
He turned and sulked away, back to his icy lair, but that wasn’t the last he saw of her. For some reason far beyond him, he could not keep away from her nor could he stop thinking about her. He didn’t understand why, but he had to see her again and again and again.
For this reason, he often ventured to the farthest reaches of his realm, hoping for a glimpse of her. It wasn’t often that he saw her, for why would she journey so far from the warmth? But sometimes, sometimes he got lucky and there she would be, dancing and laughing. And occasionally, she would sing in her joy, her voice rich and warm and gleeful. To him, it was the most beautiful sound in the world. But as much as he loved the sight of her, he never stayed long.
The woman had long ago realized that the man watched her dance. She was thrilled that someone could see her, for the humans couldn’t. Never once did it cross her mind as to why that might be. It became a game to find him, hidden among the whites and blues of the ice. She watched him from the corners of her eyes as he watched her, his face impassive. She thought maybe he might be shy, for why else wouldn’t he have not approached her? And she found that thought endearing. But she also grew frustrated. She so very often ventured out to the Barrier which she could not cross, the Barrier where warmth and cold switched their dominance. She ventured there to see the man, hoping that he would come approach her. Had he been on the other side of the Barrier, she would have approached him, but she could not. Never once did she think that the Barrier was as much a deterrent to him as it was to her. Never once did she think that he might not be able to cross it.
It did not take long until her frustration grew to immense proportions. And so, she danced once more, but this time her dance was different. This time, she spun in a preset pattern, her feet hotter than the rest of her body. This time, her dance was short, her feet stomping into the ground in anger and frustration. This time, she did not sing or dance. She did not feel the joy in life she normally felt. This time, she felt angry and she wanted all the world to know it. When she was done with her dance, she stomped off, away from the Barrier. The only thing to suggest she had been there was a word, scorched into the earth itself. And that word was SOUTH.
When the man stumbled across it, he froze. This could only have been the woman’s name. It did not suit her. It was not nearly passionate enough to fit her personality. In fact, it was rather bland and dull. But then, he supposed his name did not fit him either. He wanted to tell her what it was, his name, but she had disappeared, back to her realm of warmth and sun.
He waited for her, lurking around the Barrier, hoping for her to show up, but she did not. In fact, it was several years before her anger had faded and she had forgotten why she was so angry.
But time passed, her anger cooled, and once more, she found herself by the Barrier, dancing freely. Then, the ground beneath her feet cooled and froze and she jumped, screaming, in shock. She did not like the cold or the ice. They burned, they stung, and they hurt. But then she saw what the ice had made, a word. And that word was NORTH. She frowned and looked up. And there on the ridgeline was the man who was not a man. This time, he was not hiding. This time, he was standing. She drank in the sight of him, he who was not like her and not like any human she had ever encountered. He was taller than she was and muscular. But it was a lean musculature he possessed, not a bulky one. He was pale, deathly so, and his hair was white. The only color he seemed to possess was his eyes, for they were an electric blue. She saw them, their intensity, and she shivered, though not from the cold. He stared at her for the longest time, then crouched on the ground. On it he laid his hand and icy tendrils snaked from it. The ice traveled all the way to her, but before they reached her, they added two more words to the ground before her. The ice now read I AM NORTH. The man, North, watched her, waiting for her reaction, his own face expressing no emotions whatsoever. South laughed and smiled, so sure that she was right, so sure that the man who was not a man was simply shy. She smiled at him and he seemed to relax a minute amount. She gestured for him to come here, to come to her, and he frowned. She did not like that. She did not like the frown. More words of ice appeared at her feet. I CANNOT. Now it was her turn to frown. Stamping her feet on the ground, words of flames asked, WHY?
THE BARRIER, the words of ice said and all her anger flew away.
YOU CANNOT CROSS IT EITHER? I THOUGHT IT WAS JUST ME.
North shook his head ‘no’, then pointed to the melting ice. She shrieked when she saw them melt. She wanted to keep them. She wanted them to stay. Her words stayed, when she burnt them into the earth. Why did his go? She tried to make them stay, but her efforts only made them fade and melt faster. She shrieked again, this time in anger.
SUCH IS THE NATURE OF ICE. IT WILL MELT IF THERE IS ANY WARMTH, North sent, trying to placate her. But it did not work as a new thought occurred to her.
WILL YOU MELT? She wrote in words of fire. He hesitated, then nodded.
SOMETHING OF THAT ILK, he said. She frowned, tears beginning to run down her face and she ran off, running to where he could not follow. He wrote more words on the ground with his ice, but she never saw them, never saw the COME BACK.
He lingered near the Barrier for days. He lingered far longer than his words made from ice. But still, she did not come back. And so, he sadly turned and left. He had responsibilities he had been neglecting for far too long. And he knew that what he felt for the woman was fanciful at best. They could never be, they could never have the relationships that most humans sought. He knew all this, so why then could he not get her out of his mind? Why could he not purge her dance from his thoughts? Her laugh from his ears? It was both frustrating and exciting. But he needed her out of his thoughts. She was angry and rightly so. She was afraid. She was fire. They could never stand close together, much less hold a normal conversation. They would never work out. But still, he wanted so badly to try.
Years passed once more and his memories of South faded in intensity. But his longing grew. But he never did see her. She never came back to the Barrier’s border. She never danced or sang. Would she dance in the heart of her realm, where humans dwelled? He wondered at that. He had no humans in his realm and honestly did not know. What he did know was that she held a grudge. Or a long and passionate memory. The years soon faded into centuries and time kept passing, sometimes slowly and sometimes not. He yearned to see South once more and grew impatient, a rare thing. Like a glacier inching forward, so he moved through life. Impatience was something new to him and something he feared. It was an irrational fear, but then, most fears are.
This time, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He found a rock, flat like paper, and traveled with it to the warmest reaches of his icy realm. Upon his rock, he traced letters in water, instantly freezing them. He left it for a while, long enough for the ice to melt and the stone to crack. This process he repeated over and over again until the letters were etched into the rock itself. When the words were deep enough to be easily read, he carried his rock to the Barrier and threw it as far as he could, augmenting the force of his throw with his ice and wind. North did not know how far the rock was flung, but he fervently hoped that South found it. And more than that, he hoped she would find a way to reply.
Once more, centuries gave way to millennia and there was no sight of South. He contemplated repeating his attempts at communication. But then, then a bird came. It was unusual to see a bird for his realm was inhospitable to most creatures. But this was no ordinary bird, he saw. This bird was one that migrated and was used to both climes. This bird could handle colder weather, but only for short periods of time. The bird, unlike humans, could see him and when it did, it veered in its path and flew down to him. He held out his arm and the bird landed on it. Tied to the bird’s leg was a thin roll of parchment. Curious, he untied it and as the bird took off, he unrolled it. The words written on the parchment were faded and hastily scrawled. Or maybe the handwriting was just abhorrently awful to begin with. Either way, it took him a while to decipher the message.
It isn’t fair! Why can we not cross the Barrier? Why can humans not see us? Why must we do what we do? Why can we not meet in person? Why will you melt? What is melting anyways? How did you carve the letters on the stone? Can you teach me that? Well, no, I suppose you can’t. Not unless you can teach me through your words. Can you?
The message ended there, as if the sender had lost interest halfway through. North smiled. This message could have only come from one person for he knew of no others like him except for her. He supposed there could be others, but he had never come across them and they would have no reason to send him a letter, if they existed.
He set about composing a reply, wishing the process would be less arduous and time consuming. But at last the letter was ready and he once more flung it. This time, the reply was faster in coming though it was equally as messy. From then on, they would communicate via letters. They only managed one every few seasons, but it helped to pass the time. And every so often, they would meet at the Barrier. He would watch her dance and then they would converse with their words of ice and flame.
With each letter and each rendezvous, North felt more feelings for South. He didn’t understand these feelings. He had asked South once via a letter and her reply was that she didn’t know. If North had to guess, and he was not one prone to guessing, he would have said these feelings were what the humans called love. Fortunately, no one asked him. And as such, he did not have to guess.
With each letter and each rendezvous, South’s desire to meet North in person grew until she felt she would burst. She knew why they couldn’t but she wanted to find a way around that. She raged and raged. Then she got smart. Humans could never see her, but she could interact with their world, their possessions. She began to search out mages and magick users. When she found one, she would pilfer their notes and their research, hoping to stumble upon anything regarding the Barrier. It took her a century, but she finally found what she was looking for. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.
The Barrier grows weak at the beginning of each new season.
Eleven simple words. But those eleven words brought her hope. She had thought the Barrier was an impenetrable force, but if it grew weak, then perhaps it could be breached. She impatiently waited for the turn of the seasons, but it had just occurred and she was forced to wait a while.
When it came, she made her way to the Barrier. The force it exerted was less than usual, weaker, and her spirit soared. Placing her hand against it, she tried to push through but found she could not. Perhaps the Barrier was not quite weak enough yet. She tried again every few minutes. It took some time, but eventually her hand slipped through. She shrieked in joy and surprise, then again in pain. The cold air on the other side hurt her, but she had come prepared. She bodily pushed her way through the Barrier and wrapped a cloak around her. Even so, the cold seeped through and burned her. She resolved to find North quickly. With thoughts of him in her mind, she walked through his icy realm, calling his name repeatedly. But he never replied, never found her.
North stumbled upon her prone form some time later and rushed over to her. He did not believe his eyes, but just as he was never one for impatient actions, he was never one for hallucinations. The vision in front of him must be true. Besides, had this been a hallucination, he would have never pictured her so sickly. He froze. She wasn’t supposed to be in his realm. She couldn’t survive in it. He ran to her, calling her name in his panic. He needed to know that she was alright. He needed to know that she still breathed, that she still lived.
He reached her quickly and turned her over. She was cold to the touch, even to him, and her skin was pale, her lips tinged blue. She was cold, he realized. If she had any chance of surviving, she needed to become warmer. That thought in mind, he gently cradled her into his arms and took her to his home, a modest cave in the mountains. He bundled her in furs and tried his hand at making a fire. He had seen dozens of humans make them but it was harder than it looked. Even so, after half a hundred times, he got a small fire going. But the heat from it was too much for him. After scooting South as close to the fire as he dared, he retreated to a cooler part of his home, keeping her in his sights.
Sometime later, she stirred and sat up. She looked around in alarm, not knowing where she was.
“You should not have come here,” North said, his voice quiet but arresting. South’s gaze turned to him and she grinned.
“I came to see you! Didja know the Barrier gets weak? You can actually walk through it!” she said.
“How will you get back?”
“Oh, I didn’t think about that.”
“You should have. This was a foolish venture.”
“I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to see you up close. I wanted-”
“You think I don’t want the same thing?”
“Um, maybe? Flames! Our first real conversation and you’re yelling at me!”
“I am not yelling.”
“You’re supposed to be sweeping me off my feet and showering me with kisses, like the humans do!” she said, looking away from him in embarrassment. North could see the tears welling up in her eyes and guilt washed through him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I do not wish for you to cry. But you simply did not think this out. When does the Barrier weaken? We need to bring you back home before you freeze.”
“Each season’s turn.”
“What? It can’t have! We were supposed to have hours! Days! We were supposed to have time to talk! I don’t wanna go home yet!”
“South, you can’t go home. If the Barrier is only weak when the seasons change, then the Barrier isn’t weak any more. The season has already changed. You’re stuck here,” North said. South stared at him for the longest time, emotions flickering on her face.
“Flames!” she yelled loudly. North watched her impassively but he repeated her sentiment, albeit much more dispassionately. When South’s fury ceased, she turned to him and asked, “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” he said with a frown.
He tried his best to keep South alive, but all his efforts were for naught. She grew still and her breathing ceased three days later. Her internal flame faded and was extinguished as he held her, rocked her crying form, and told her he cared for her.
“I love you, North,” she had rasped out, her last words before her eyes closed and she fell into Death’s waiting embrace. North held her tight and rocked.
For the first time, North succumbed to his emotions and cried.
For the first time, North unleashed his powers.
The humans in every nook and cranny of each of the realms felt his grief, for they endured a millennia long ice age. Eventually, the pain faded to a bearable level and the ice age ended, but the world never grew as warm as it had once been.
And then, one day by the Barrier, he saw the impossible. He saw South, dancing slowly and singing softly. But there was something different about her. She was more subdued and less passionate. She lacked that internal fire that had first drawn him to her. And most of all, she looked sad.
She saw him watching and stopped her dance. She gave him a sad smile. He held up a hand in return. Then she turned and walked away crying. Never again did they speak. Never again did she cross the Barrier or even walk close to it. Never again did they exchange messages. Only occasionally, when they felt they could bear it no longer, only then would they catch glimpses of each other, always leaving before the other could notice. They would always love one another, but they now knew what everyone else innately did.
Fire and ice are never meant to meet.