Continuing Tales

For the First Time in Never

A Frozen Story
by JE Glass

Part 20 of 24

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"What do you think we're going to find when we enter?" Fritz asked, glancing at Adrek out of the corner of his eye. The king furrowed his brow and craned his neck as he gazed up at the impossibly tall spires of Elsa's ice palace. Fritz seemed less impressed, his nonchalance almost forced, but that was normal. Rarely did the champion find anything impressive, or if he did he'd never admit it aloud. Adrek, on the other hand, had been left speechless since glimpsing the palace as they crested the first rise. He'd heard rumors of the queen of Arendelle's powers and what she'd created in the mountains surrounding her kingdom, but imagination alone couldn't prepare him for the dazzling beauty of it. It was truly a remarkable feet of engineering and architectural knowledge which far exceeded the grandeur of some of the most famous structures. Notre Dame, Saint Peter's Basilica, the Dome of the Rock…they were all extraordinary buildings, and all of them paled in comparison to the massive castle crafted entirely out of ice and clinging to the side of a mountain. If its placement wasn't amazing enough, the sheer size of it was.

"I imagine we'll find the queen," he answered, still staring and marveling, a smile touching his lips as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds. Whenever sunlight touched the ice the castle would shift colors like a diamond, blues and pinks rippling across the glass smooth surface like trapped fire.

"And Revel? If he's hiding here and she's protecting him, what will we do then? What will you do?"

Adrek pulled his gaze away from the castle and leveled it on Fritz. A spark leapt between them, an entire conversation spanning mere seconds touching each man, and when it ended there was no happiness in the king of Asham's eyes or in the hard set of his mouth. "We'll find him and we'll drag him back to Asham."

"He'll put up a fight," Fritz commented as they carefully made their way across the arching ice bridge spanning the yawning chasm beneath them. A rumble from the plateau behind them caused the champion to turn and stare at the snow golem who was tracking them as they neared the palace. He didn't know whether to be intimidated or be in awe of the creature. It boggled his mind that the queen of Arendelle would have the power to create life that didn't involve being stuck with a cock. Marshmallow glowered at the men, fangs of ice starting push through his snowy body as he became more agitated. Fritz bared his own set of fangs, snarling at the creature and was amused when it snarled back.

"I believe that's where you come in," Adrek commented over his shoulder, hands gripping the slick bannister. "You always were quite persuasive with your hands when the situation called for it."

Fritz grinned and followed his king up to the massive double doors. Adrek pounded his fist against the ice three times and was shocked when the slabs opened almost upon their own accord and ushered the men in. Hand held out to forestall his king, Fritz stepped over the threshold first, senses open and searching for a trap. The doors boomed shut behind them, causing the two to jump and spin, but nothing more happened, the ornate great hall falling into reverent silence.

"How many floors do you think this place has?" Fritz asked, his voice echoing through the hall as he turned slowly, staring up through the nearly translucent floors.

"My guess is probably three," Adrek said, turning alongside Fritz. "I have to admit, this is a stunning palace."

"If you say so."

"You never were one for art," Adrek commented with a sideways smile.

"Just don't see the point in it. But remember, I'm an uncultured swine according to your courtly hangers-on."

Adrek chuckled and stepped further into the great hall, eyes tracking the stairs and where they lead. "There are rooms right off that double set of stairs and one above. If they're here, my guess would be they'd want to be at the top so they can see if anyone comes through the mountain pass." Looking down, he searched the floor for footprints and wasn't surprised not to find any. The snow that would have been tracked had either melted or been swept away.

"Always the able tracker," Fritz observed with a smile.

"One of the only things my father gave me…the chance to learn to hunt," Adrek responded dryly. The smile slipped from the champion's face and was replaced with a softness rarely seen by anyone aside from Adrek. He didn't have to say anything, didn't even have to move. Just the look Fritz gave his king was enough to tell him that it was almost over, that the marathon that had overtaken their lives was nearly complete.

"After you," Adrek said quietly, motioning for Fritz to precede him up the stairs. They managed to make it up the second flight and had just entered the third floor ballroom when both men pulled up short at the sight of the queen standing in the center of the room wreathed in the glow of a spectacular red dawn. She didn't look at all surprised to see them, her features tight in the customary regal posturing, eyes bright, almost glowing, and tracking them like a hawk.

"Gentlemen, what brings you to my mountain?" It wasn't a friendly question or greeting, more of a demand, and the gravity of it hung thick in the air.

"Majesty," Adrek said with a slight incline of his head, eyes locked on the queen. He didn't waste time with formality. "I don't believe I need to inform you what we've come here for."

"You don't seem to have a problem with overstepping boundaries, King Adrek," Elsa said coolly. "This could be perceived as a matter of trespassing. My ice palace is my second home, and you are not welcome here."

"Harboring a fugitive wanted for high treason is an act of war, Queen Elsa, or have you forgotten our conversations? I know you are hiding Revel here, and I also know that you and he are lovers."

Well that was direct and to the point, Elsa thought. Luckily, she was an expert at hiding her inner most thought, essentially an expert liar, so Adrek's revelation about knowing her and Revel were together was carefully smothered behind her regal mask. It didn't stop her from feeling shock, but it kept the Adrek in the dark about how accurate he was. Her balancing act hinged on maintaining and keeping an upper hand and not allowing Adrek to see any chinks in her armor.

"Be careful where you tread, Adrek," Elsa warned, frost accumulating in her palm and crusting her fingernails. "Wars can be started over insults such as the one you just gave. I do not need to explain my personal matters with you or anyone, and I will not stand here and be weighed and measured by a king who has no jurisdiction in my kingdom."

"If you have nothing to hide," Adrek frowned, his temper rising just as fast as Elsa's was cooling, "then allow us to search your palace. If we don't find Revel we'll leave and search elsewhere."

"You will leave my kingdom and never return, sir. That is what you'll do."

"I have a right to know where my brother is!"

"You have no rights in Arendelle!" Elsa shouted and ice swirled around her, tiny peaks rising off the floor. "I have put up with your accusations and insults, I have done everything in my power to make this unfortunate situation better, but I cannot produce the man you are searching for because I do not know where he is. Revel escaped my prison with help from a guard who is being detained as we speak, but where he might be is only known to him. I'm as much in the dark as you are."

Yes, she was a very, very capable liar. Not even a pulse flutter as she wove her lie.

"Then why did you leave your castle and ride up here?" Adrek countered, stepping further into the room.

"I often make trips up here to clear my head and get away from the rigors of ruling for a few hours."

"Leaving your sister in charge," Adrek surmised gruffly and slid a look that wasn't lost on the queen over to Fritz.

"Who I leave in charge of my kingdom is not your concern."

Resolve tightening his muscles, Adrek exhaled slowly, preparing himself for the final moments of his fifteen year chase. "I know you are lying to me, Queen Elsa. I know you are protecting Revel for misguided reasons. Perhaps labeling you two as lovers was too rash a decision, but you are at least friends with him, but I assure you that whatever lie he's fed you, whatever excuse he's given about his past crimes, he is a dangerous man who needs to be brought to justice. Whether he finds that justice here or in Asham is entirely up to you. I know he's here, and if you turn me away, if you force me to return to Asham without him, I will return to Arendelle with my army and tear down your kingdom looking for him. Fifteen years is long enough to run."

"You would kill innocent people and destroy my kingdom looking for one man that may already be miles away from here by now? Is that what you're telling me?"

"Enough with the bullshit, we know he's here," Fritz growled. Elsa flicked her eyes over at him and the champion felt a chill overtake over the room that had nothing to do with it being made entirely out of ice.

"Do you now, Master Fritz? And who saw him come here under cover of darkness? You? I wasn't aware you had the ability to see in the dark. Clearly I underestimated your skills."

"We saw a rider leave the castle and head into the mountains shortly before the alarm bells began to sound. That is not coincidence."

"What you saw was Baron Kristoff riding his reindeer Sven. He may be married to my sister, but Kristoff still oversees the ice harvest that continues year round in Arendelle," Elsa supplied, perfect eyebrow cocked.

"Convenient he would leave at such a time of turmoil."

"As I stated before, I do not need to explain the happenings in my kingdom to you. My guards and I suspect Revel escaped on foot and headed into the western mountains. We have tracking hounds out as we speak, but that's as much as we can do. Unless either of you has the power to magically summon him, which if you do, I would suggest using it now."

Adrek's face was steadily coloring, the burn in his cheeks almost hot enough to feel. "I do not appreciate being spoken to like an invalid, Majesty."

"And I do not like being followed to my ice palace, cornered and questioned, by visiting royals who continuously overstep their boundaries! It would seem you and I are both in situations of discomfort, but you can change that by leaving and returning to your ship."

"I will not leave until I have Revel in my custody," Adrek rumbled.

"I can make you leave, Adrek, if that is what you wish," Elsa warned and lifted her hand to show him her gauntlet of will-ice.

Silence overtook the chamber as Elsa and Adrek stared at one another, challenging fire sparking between them. She knew Adrek would not back down, but she also knew there was no way he'd find Revel in her palace. On her way down, Elsa had sealed the fourth floor off. If he found the stairs it would appear they ascend to nowhere or into a piece of her castle she hadn't yet crafted, but the king of Asham would not get the chance to start looking. Not while she stood between him and Revel.

"I will not be threatened, Queen Elsa. My champion and I will be making a sweep of this marvelous castle of yours, and you will not molest us in any way. My personal guards' know of my visit here. If I do not return by evening they will set sail and return with my fleet. Arendelle will be plunged into a war it cannot hope to win because a stubborn queen would not listen to reason. Now, if you'll excuse me."

Adrek turned to leave, touching Fritz on the shoulder and pointing off in a vague direction for him to start searching, when Elsa pulled him up short and stopped him dead in his tracks. Now was the time to play her hand.

"You won't be waging war with me, Adrek. I know about the disinheritance letter. I know about you and Fritz."

Suddenly, the silence that befell the chamber was of a dangerous flavor, the kind that precedes a storm. It hung like a living thing above them all, each breath in and out filling the room with a noxious miasma of trepidation and anger. Both men stood frozen, Adrek with his back to the queen and Fritz fully facing her, body so tight he looked like a cord about to snap, white knuckles at his side. When Adrek spoke again his voice was a strained whisper.

"And what do you think you know?"

"You two are lovers," Elsa said simply, the news no longer holding the shock it had when she first read the letter. "Your father found you two in your study participating in…a form of carnal desire and disinherited you, so you had him killed in order to keep your secret hidden. But it wasn't that easy, was it? Gregor had written up the disinheritance, a hard copy that couldn't be refuted once presented to the council. Somehow, while on his way there, he was murdered. By either you or Fritz, I suspect. Tell me," she asked, stepping closer to them, ice echoing her footfalls as a reminder of who they were in the presence of, "have I hit the mark?"

"Yes," Adrek hissed after another stretch of fragile silence, "we are—"

"What are you doing?" Fritz demanded, rounding on the man ousted as his lover, pure shock on his face.

"She knows, Fritz!" Adrek shouted, his back still turned. "Denying it won't change the facts that someone else knows. She's read the letter."

"She could be lying, and you're playing right into it!"

"You know father was explicit in his description of what he'd caught us doing in my study," Adrek whispered. "She knows."

"Where was he hiding it?" the champion demanded in a snarl, turning back to the queen.

"In his hearth," Elsa shrugged. "I'm not surprised you weren't able to find it when you ransacked his room after his arrest."

"Revel always had a flair for drama," Adrek chuckled mirthlessly. "He used to hide things all over the castle when he was younger."

"Before you pinned your father's murder on him and forced him to run, you mean. Tell me, what was it like stabbing the man who raised you to death six times before slitting his throat?" Elsa asked with a slight tilt of her head.

The king of Asham spun towards her, the spikes on his boots that gave him traction on the floor scraping the mirror-like surface. He was pale, and it had nothing to do with his anger. His eyes slid over to Fritz and suddenly Elsa knew who'd actually been the one responsible for the murder. "Do no stand there and act like you know about anything that happened that night! You weren't there! I loved my father. He was everything to me and more. I looked up to him and practically worshiped the ground he walked on, but even at a young age I knew I was different. It was nothing I could share with him, oh no, Gregor wanted tough sons more in touch with their place in the line of succession than their feelings, so I bottled up these questions and urges. I concealed them from the world and pretended that everything was alright."

Elsa felt the floor beneath her shift and stifled a gasp. Never had she expected those words to come from Adrek's mouth. To be faced with a man so much like her but also so different was both terrifying and astounding.

Is this what I could have turned into? she thought watching Adrek's face morph from emotion to emotion, clearly grappling with the weight of the secret tearing its way to the surface. Is this the creature I could have become?

Elsa knew all it would have taken for her to have become like Adrek was a push in the opposite direction, for her to fall into the darkness rather than the light. Would she have killed to keep her secret safe? The sickening truth was, yes. Had push come to shove and her fear was able to permeate every aspect of her being, the Arendelle queen could have committed murder in order to make certain no one knew about her powers. It was her sister's constant presence and unwavering love that tethered Elsa, precarious as it was, to the light and kept her from becoming a villain. But it wouldn't have taken much to sway her, not in the beginning. And not for the first time she silently thanked Anna for always being there.

Oh Adrek, she thought watching him, your brother is so much like Anna. He would have accepted you when your father didn't.

"I know what it feels like to hold a secret that has the power to destroy a kingdom," Elsa said quietly, looking off to the side in remembrance of her years in isolation and the pain it had caused her family and kingdom. "For thirteen years I hid from my kingdom because of my powers, hid from my family. I've been where you're standing right now; I've felt the fear. You know what I'm talking about. It claws at you in the night doesn't it? You can't sleep sometimes because you're awakened by that sick feeling that everyone around you knows and that you're different. It's like you wear that secret printed on your skin and you're terrified of people getting close because it means they could find out."

"You may think us similar," Adrek hissed, clearly unmoved by her words, "but we are the farthest thing from one another. Do not presume to play on my humanity. My father lied to me from birth. All those sweet promises of eternal parental love and acceptance meant nothing because the first thing he did upon discovering my secret was to disinherit me and strike me from the books as his son. What kind of man does that?"

"Surely it was just shock he was experiencing," Elsa tried to reason.

"It wasn't shock that drove him, it was maliciousness," Adrek said bitterly. "Do you know what that's like? Do you know how hard I fought to be the man my father wanted me to be? I did everything he asked and more! I never once complained or asked for anything in return. What right did I have, anyway? I was the first born with everything at my fingertips. But when he caught us together that night, he threatened to banish Fritz." Adrek looked over at his lover with raw pain in his eyes. "I pleaded with him to let me have this one thing. This one thing, and do you know what he did, what he told me? He told me that if I wanted to suck someone's cock it should be his own because I'd forever be the palace bitch in his eyes. He told me that Asham wouldn't ever allow a queen to sit on the throne, so he had no choice but to disinherit me and give my rightful title to Revel. To my slack-ass little brother who wanted to become a guard more than he wanted to be a prince!"

"So you planned his murder instead," Elsa observed flatly.

"What else was I supposed to do?!" he bellowed, unable to stop the stream of words vomiting from his mouth. "I'd just lost everything! All my years of tutoring, all the connections I'd made, all the possibilities at my fingertips, stripped away in one evening! I had so many plans for Asham, dreams my father couldn't even imagine, but they weren't good enough. I wasn't good enough, all because I fell in love with another man? Where's the fairness in that? It's not like I could control where my heart lead me!"

"You could have waited until your father died and returned. Revel would have given your title back to you," Elsa pressed.

It was Fritz who laughed cynically. "Revel would have fucked the kingdom over more than Gregor had. He didn't know the first thing about running a kingdom, and half the time didn't know what the hell he was doing anyway. All his time was spent learning to fight like a guard and ducking his tutors. Adrek was the one who knew the inner workings of the kingdom, who knew where it needed care and taxing and where it didn't, and he was the only one who deserved to sit on the throne."

"So which one of you is the murderer? Which one of you played god?"

The king of Asham's face twisted in anger. "You do not have the right—"

"I did," Fritz interrupted with a thin smile. "Adrek wasn't the only one poised to lose everything if disinherited. Gregor adopted me at a young age after I was banished from my own home. I had nowhere to go and nothing to my name. Adrek came to me after Gregor showed him the disinheritance letter. I knew he was going to the council, so I intercepted him. We fought, Gregor lost. End of story."

"It most certainly isn't the end," Elsa accused. "You then framed an innocent fifteen year old prince for a murder he didn't commit so your secret could remain hidden. A murder you still intend to pin on him and execute him for. Revel is innocent in all of this."

"He's hardly innocent," Adrek fumed.

"Really?" Elsa argued, anger cooling her blood. "For fifteen years he's lived apart from Asham and no damage to your kingdom or reputation has occurred. He could have come forward with that letter, it was sealed with your father's personal seal after all so its legitimacy couldn't be questioned, but he chose instead to run from you and stay hidden. For fifteen years he's stayed away and not meddled in your affairs, but you've continued to hunt him, baying for the blood on an innocent man in order to cover for your crime."

"He's a liability," Fritz spat.

"He's your scapegoat! But he's also a resident of my kingdom." Taking a breath, because angry words only bred more angry words, Elsa calmed herself and tried a different tactic. She didn't want to force Adrek's hand in his decision. He would resent her for life if she forced him to leave Arendelle through means of blackmail, but she would force him if he gave her no other alternative.

"I'm sorry for the pain your father put you through, but that's no excuse to murder an innocent man, to murder your blood brother. He's your brother, Adrek, or have you forgotten? Has fear so completely blinded you to that fact? Revel is your kin. Surely that means something."

"I buried my brother years ago," Adrek whispered, and Elsa thought she saw tears in his eyes. "I never wanted to hurt him, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, fate is unkind, even to brothers. I loved him, but sacrifices have to be made. My father was killing our kingdom. Asham has become a jewel because of my reign and will only grow after my death. That is my legacy, and I will kill to protect it."

"And what of Symon? Will you kill him too because he could later become a liability?"

"Symon will inherit Asham. I know I will never have children," Adrek chuckled dryly, a small smile playing on his lips, "it's impossible, but Symon will take control once I'm gone."

"But none of this has to play out like you have it in your head," Elsa pushed with a fiery conviction. "You don't have to do this anymore, Adrek. You can let the past go and live for the future. I don't care what you are or who you choose to love. It's not my place to judge, and I swear on my life that your secret is safe with me. You can just walk out of here and no one would be the wiser. Let me take care of Revel. You and Fritz go back to Asham, and this whole matter can be put behind us."

For a moment, the king of Asham stood statuesque in the hall of ice, his head bowed with thought. Though she didn't dare move, Elsa mentally reached for him, trying to will Adrek to realize she wasn't a threat to his way of life, that her knowing changed nothing. Revel would never reveal his brother's secret, and neither would she.

Let him live how he wants. I'm not God. I have no room to judge.

After an impossibly long stretch of silence, Adrek looked up at her. "You would swear on your life?" he asked as if the notion was a curiosity to him.

"Yes," Elsa breathed, not daring to hope but feeling the emotion swelling in her chest. But then Adrek smiled thinly and all she saw was sympathetic pity.

"The price of your life means nothing to me, Queen Elsa. You are a liability now, nothing more."

Elsa felt the world tilt and clenched her jaw until her teeth ached. "So you and I have reached an impasse."

"It would appear so," he confirmed, folding his arms across his chest.

"I will not let Revel leave with you," Elsa scowled.

"Then congratulations, you have doomed Arendelle to war."

"Let us not forget who holds the cards here," the queen warned, ice crackling around her. She didn't want to do this, didn't want to play this hand, but he'd given her no choice. "According to your father's letter, you are an impostor to the Asham throne, and therefore hold no true monarchic power, but I'm willing to let you walk out of here as you are. I'm willing to give you Asham and your lover and your legacy. You can have it all. My only condition is that you leave Revel here with me. If you do not, if you continue to meddle in Arendelle's affairs, if you raise a finger to anyone in my kingdom, your council and every Prussian monarch will know of your disinheritance. This is not a threat, it's a promise, and I keep my promises."

The fire in Adrek's eyes was almost a tangible thing. Elsa watched his face brighten in anger. "You would blackmail me?" he seethed.

"Yes, I would," she hissed back.

Another moment suspended in silence stretched before them, monarch staring down monarch. Elsa believed she had the upper hand. She had the letter and the knowledge of Fritz and Adrek's relationship. It was enough to bring any sane ruler to his knees, but apparently the king of Asham wasn't as level headed as she'd thought. That or he greatly underestimated her power. Whatever the reason, it was Adrek who drew it to a close. Turning to Fritz, who was just as livid as his king, he growled, "Make it look like a lover's quarrel. Leave no loose ends." And then he was gone, descending the stairs to the lower second and first floor in search of Revel. That was the only blessing Elsa could salvage from the house of cards that had just crumbled before her. Adrek didn't know there was a fourth floor.

"You really should have just handed him over to us and skipped the blackmail part," Fritz chuckled as he stepped into the center of the room with the cocky swagger of a man who knew exactly what he was going to do and reveled in it.

"You would have killed him," Elsa heard herself remark matter-of-factly, her mind scrambling to catch up with current events and how they were unfolding. Had Adrek really just given his champion the command to assassinate her? The thought was laughable. They were sealed in an ice palace at the top of a mountain with a woman who had enough power to plunge her entire kingdom into an eternal winter. A woman who was, if Saja was to be believed, a descendent of the goddess of winter herself.

"Yes, we would have, but you would have been safe. Now…well," Fritz clicked his tongue disappointingly and shook his head. "Such a waste of a ruler."

"You have to be joking," Elsa frowned. "You're going toe to toe with me?"

"Well aren't you a cocky bitch."

"I buried Arendelle under nearly thirty feet of snow and built this entire palace in a three day span. I've stopped two assassination attempts already, so what the hell do you think you're going to be able to do to me, Fritz?"

"Way I heard it," the champion sniffed, "you hardly held off those Weselton brothers when they stormed this place three years ago."

"They got lucky and caught me off guard."

"And the man who put a dagger under your ribs? Was he lucky too?"

"I have since prepared myself, and the second man who attempted to take my life never got within a foot of me."

"Shitty training and planning on his part then," he countered with a wide smile.

Smoldering anger worked into Elsa's chest, and she glared at the Asham champion with a simmering kind of hatred felt towards someone who was being unnecessarily cruel. "You would do well not to underestimate me, Fritz. I am no one to be trifled with."

"Lady," he sighed, unsheathing twin cutlasses from the sheath across his back, "I'm not going to trifle with you. I'm going to do what my king and lover commanded and kill you. The choice in how you die is entirely up to you. You can go quickly with little pain or we can take this dance nice and slow."

Elsa saw how he handled his weapons, the sure, easy way he hefted them as if they were a natural part of his body, and knew Fritz was well trained in the art of combat. His stance was easy and loose. He held his swords point down, shoulders squared, one foot back ready to lunge into an attack as quickly as he could parry one. There had always been a lethality to him Elsa had noticed upon their first meeting at the Summit, but now, face-to-face with him in her ice castle, she realized how much of that deadly talent Fritz had kept under wraps. If only she knew this was the tip of the iceberg.

"So what'll it be?" he asked with a lopsided smile.

The queen usually prided herself on her inability to be goaded. It was a hallmark of a strong ruler and one aspect of her personality and will she greatly appreciated. But standing here face-to-face with the sheer audacity of Fritz's boastings, Elsa found herself being pushing into showing this cocky little ass exactly what she was capable of. She may not be as skilled as Fritz or Revel, may have only been physically training for a little over half a year, but the queen of Arendelle was never without protection, and the Asham champion was about to learn that lesson. She wouldn't kill him. Oh no, that could have been done with just a twitch of her fingers, but Elsa had no stomach for killing unlike Fritz did. No, she would humble him. Holding her left arm out in front of her, she made a fist, knuckles facing down, and pulled her magic into one cohesive object that grew, layer upon layer upon layer, until a bastard sword rested in her grip. It wasn't anything ornate, deadly in its simplicity, but it got her point across to Fritz. Well, mostly.

The champion stared at the weapon for a moment before breaking out into a hearty laugh that almost doubled him over. "Well, that's certainly different. An ice sword, why didn't I think of that! Clearly I am no match for your skills. Here, here," Fritz said lowering one cutlass and actually putting behind his back in a teasing manner. He raised the other and adopted an exaggerated fencer's stance, right cutlass raised ready to parry an "attack". "Please do me the honors of first—"

He would have blanched had he seen the attack happening. As it was, Fritz heard and felt it, one right after the other. Elsa had closed the distance remarkably fast, her feet finding traction where others only slid. Her sword, made all the harder because it was reinforced with her will, cleaved through Fritz's cutlass with a metallic ring as if it were made from nothing more than parchment. A fraction of a second later the edge of her ice blade caught him in the chest just above the collarbone, splitting the skin as easily as it had split his blade. Elsa returned to a ready stance after flicking a few wayward beads of blood from her blade, her face set in a focused mask.

"I…" Fritz stared down at his now useless blade in stunned disbelief before fiery pain bloomed in his chest. "Jesus," he swore and touched a hand to the weeping wound, fingers coming away bloody. His amazement showed in every line on his face and was oh so satisfying for the queen to watch.

So you thought this was going to be easy, Elsa smiled inwardly, confidence adding steel to her spine. Apparently, Fritz hadn't expected her to fight him or at the very least wound him. There was a flicker of something dark in his eyes as his brows came together in an expression of confusion and mild outrage. But then it was gone and the champion remarkably laughed.

"Well, I'll be damned, that was the single most astounding and idiotic thing you could have done."

"Please, enlighten me," Elsa said with an arched eyebrow as she watched him closely.

"I should have expected something special from your ice. That was my mistake. But yours? Yours was missing all the vital parts."

And suddenly there was the attack: fast and deadly and almost unseen. Fritz exploded into action, diving towards Elsa with a wide sweep of his only useful cutlass that would have driven the blade deep into her neck and chest like an axe through a melon. There wasn't any battle cry on his lips, no smug grin as he came at her, just a focused determination that made the queen go momentarily cold. This was a man who knew his game and knew how to kill. Unlike Hans, Fritz bypassed senseless banter and rushed her like a charging bull. He would have succeeded in his attack had Elsa not been ready and exploded into action right along with him.

Distance would be her best defense. She had no urge to kill Fritz, knowing if she took his life it would give Adrek a reason to bypass her blackmail and declare war while making her no better than the champion. She still clung to the hope that, if she subdued Fritz, Adrek would count his losses and leave her kingdom. That was her new plan, anyway. Elsa would humble the Asham champion by using her own abilities to trap him. Distantly, she wondered if she should call Marshmallow. The golem may have been slow, but two against one were better odds. It would take him a bit to reach the chamber, time Elsa wasn't sure she had, but at least he'd be here.

No, this is my fight, she thought stubbornly.

So the queen of Arendelle clashed in combat with the champion of Asham, thunder preceding lightning, magic against steel. The sword she'd conjured had been for show, a physical demonstration that she wasn't a woman to be taken lightly and that she knew her way around a weapon. What happened next was the true reveal of her power. Fritz was half way to her when the first blunted stalagmite hit him in the ribs and flung him sideways like a pesky gnat. He tumbled and rolled across the frictionless floor but managed to spring to his feet in that remarkable way a seasoned fighter could, digging his spiked boots into the ice in order to stop himself. He was a good distance away now, right where Elsa wanted him.

Stamping her foot down and summoning her magic into her palms, the queen fired her first projectile with a crackling hiss of power. The missile whistled over Fritz's shoulder and thudded into the wall behind him. The second one nearly clipped his right shoulder. Stunned once again, the champion glanced behind him at the deadly projectiles imbedded in the mirror smooth wall, enabling Elsa to spring her trap. With just a small flick of her wrist, she called for her ice to encase his boots and lock him down. As always, it obeyed and the champion jerked in surprise when he heard and felt the cold start to creep over his feet. Fritz smashed one foot free and jerked the other away just in time, but the queen was anticipating that and pressed her advantage, firing off two more projectiles in order to keep him in a relatively confined corner of the hall.

"Clever girl," he called, his voice echoing in the chamber as he stumbled around, footing unsure as the ice under him became uneven and spiny.

"I have my moments," Elsa smiled thinly, readying herself for the final push which would pin Fritz to the wall much like she'd done with the Weselton brother.

"As do I," he said with a frown and did the single most insane thing Elsa had ever seen. He broke the ice sealing his feet one last time and charged as fast as he could towards her.

Startled by his remarkable speed, because this was still ice and Fritz shouldn't have that kind of footing, Elsa took a step back and attempted to lock onto him, but he was moving too fast for the translucent teeth to catch. He managed to get within two yards of the queen before she raised an ice shield and blocked his strike, parrying with one of her own. The projectile skipped across Fritz's shoulder, slicing through his leather vest and shirt and laying open his skin. She didn't wait for him to counter her attack, continuing in her attempt at locking his feet down and pinning him. But Fritz was impressively fast and pressed his assault, pushing Elsa into the center of the chamber and keeping her on her guard.

"Didn't Adrek tell you?" he grunted as she blocked a blow and slid backwards. Apparently, he'd seen her shock and loved it. "Arendelle isn't the only kingdom that teaches its guards and military men how to fight on ice."

It was getting more and more difficult to anticipate his moves, the Asham champion practically dancing past her and showing no sign of fatigue. And to make matters worse, he was strategically getting closer, cutlass blade flashing like lightning in the brightness of the hall. Elsa felt the tip of his blade brush her right shoulder and winced.

Okay, a little too close for comfort.

"Ah, so the Snow Queen does bleed red after all," Fritz laughed, watching a small patch of crimson soak into Elsa's shirt sleeve.

"My blood's just as red as yours," Elsa said, fighting to remain concentrated.

"I'll make note of that when I paint the floor with it."

"Strong talk coming from the man I've made bleed twice already," she replied with a cocky smile like this was just a game and not a dance of life and death. Fritz seemed to sober at her remark and straightened, hazel eyes flashing. "I'm sorry that's such an aggravating turn of events. I thought trained dogs were supposed to be more vicious. My mistake."

His next lunge was faster than the last, anger giving the champion an added boost of energy, but it also made him a bit more sloppy. Elsa easily danced away like Revel had shown her with the sandbags, Fritz missing her by a good two feet.

"Come now," she goaded, trying to put him off his game by using his anger against him. "That last one should have connected. You can still change your mind and walk out of here."

"I'd shut the fuck up, if I were you," he growled, face starting to turn red.

"Queen's don't take orders from barking dogs," Elsa countered, canting her head. It was a dangerous game, but she reminded herself that this was her home and he was on her territory. Nothing could touch her so long as she kept focused and kept moving. Eventually her ice would catch up to him and then the dance would be over. But egging Fritz on was the worst tactic she could have used, and the queen slowly began to realize her mistake.

The champion came at her in a relentless barrage, blows either missing entirely or bounding off her shield. He was angry now, the once smooth, determined set of his face marred by lines of hot frustration. Clearly, he'd believed bringing down Arendelle's queen would have been an easy move, but he'd tangled with the Snow Queen. Her resilience and skill with her magic was proving a greater obstacle than previously thought, and that angered him. To be brought low by one person, by a woman, was galling and infuriating. So Fritz checked himself and steeled his assault, sharpening his attacks and focusing on planting his cutlass into some vital organ and twisting.

Elsa retreated from the attacks, her previous pride deflating like a punctured water skin. She didn't realize the sword had rematerialized into her hands until she caught a particularly savage swing that would have laid open her face. The impact was jarring and made the joints in her arm ache. Her blade cracked down the side with the force of the impact only to instantly mend as she forced her will into the weapon, strengthening it.

Sink lower, Elsa told herself frantically, parrying another set of stinging attacks, sore muscles moving to a strange, alien rhythm. Sink into your magic. Trap him. Stop him.

So lower she dove, weaving her magic into every fiber of her being, every molecule, like she was slipping into armor. The ice in the room changing from blue to orange to yellow as the queen's eyes began to glow a familiar static white. The cutlass came for her again in an upward push that would have pierced her abdomen and slid into her lungs. Elsa tracked the deadly piece of steel with her eyes, but at the last second, Fritz changed trajectory. Stepping forward onto his right foot, he spun in a tight circle and brought his blade up and over in another cleaving arc. Elsa saw the blade descending towards her unprotected head, and time ground to a remarkable slowness. Her body tensed, frost spreading under her, as her muscles instinctively clicked into place. She raised her round shield, blocking the blow, steel ringing against ice as the cutlass bit deep. With a swift twist of her hips, Elsa pushed Fritz's sword arm away with an outward swing, opening the champion to an attack and splaying her fingers wide. Fritz had half a second to brace for impact before the blast hit him square in the chest. The concussion was loud, frost racing up Elsa's fingers and hand with the aftershock. The Asham champion flew backwards, head over heels, skittering across the floor in a useless flop of arms and legs.

Breathing out an arctic breath that only stoked the power glowing in her eyes, Elsa stood to her full height and basked in the electric glory of her power singing through her veins. She'd never been this deep in her magic before, never had a cause to, and the effects were addictive. There was power here, limitless by her understanding and so impressively cold. She looked at the chamber through new eyes, her ice rolling through a spectrum of colors. This wasn't like the last time she'd dueled in this room. This time the queen was prepared, her resolve as solid as iron. Gone was the scared little girl desperate to keep others away from her. In her place stood the Snow Queen, mistress of the high castle.

Inhaling, Elsa felt the hum of magic all around her like an orchestra, the icy chamber calling back to her in different pitches and notes. She could feel every inch, sense every fractal the deeper she plunged into her power and gloried in it. Stalagmites rose from the floor like jagged teeth with just a thought, the chamber shaking as Elsa called for her ice to swallow the champion.

Let him know the true meaning of cold, a savage part of herself cried. It should have shocked her how fast she was sinking into darkness, but Fritz was the enemy threatening her and her family. Just like the Weselton brothers, Elsa would pass sentence in order to protect the ones she loved. Her eyes shifted momentarily towards the ceiling and the possibilities hanging there. She could have brought down the entire fourth floor and be done with this fight, sealing Fritz in a tomb of ice and leaving him there for Adrek to find. It was a good plan.

Revel's on the fourth floor, the more rational part of herself countered. If you bring it down you'll kill him in the process.

Frowning, because she knew it to be true, Elsa focused on the chamber around her and the dozens of ideas that sprang to mind. It would only take a thought to summon them to life, but how was she going to stop Fritz without causing him any harm? How was she going to balance the two?

Focus, Elsa, a familiar voice echoed from far away, the brand on her shoulder tingling. You can't win a fight without causing pain. If you are to subdue him, you must first beat him.

Saja's words struck a chord with the queen. The Frost Born was right. In order to subdue Fritz she'd have to beat him, but that certainly didn't mean she had to play fair. There was no honor in battle, only the simple, cruel fact that one person would live and the other would die. Elsa had no intention of killing the Asham champion, but that didn't mean she couldn't hurt him…that she wouldn't hurt him.

Fingers of ice reached for him as he struggled to his feet, blood oozing from a cut above his eye and split lip. He spat out a pink wad of phlegm, whipping his mouth with this back of his hand. "So, the icy bitch does have some tricks up her sleeve," Fritz sneered, jumping away from the fangs of ice reaching for him, cutlass gripped white knuckle in his right hand.

"That and more," Elsa replied but kept the smile from her voice and face. "I'll say it again, Fritz. Leave and none of this has to happen."

Fritz barked with cynical laughter. "Pretty little words and promises mean nothing, especially the promise of a woman."

"You don't have to do this," she warned one final time. "You don't have to listen to Adrek; this doesn't have to be a test of devotion. I know you love him, so go be with him and just walk out of here together. I'll forget you two were ever here."

"A test of devotion?" Fritz gaped with open amusement. "Adrek is mine regardless of what I do, and he gave me an order, one that I am loath to disobey because it would leave loose ends. So no, I want this for my peace of mind," Fritz sniffed and charged again. The floor buckled and rolled under him like cresting waves, but Fritz came at her regardless, inhuman in the way he could dive past obstacles or brutishly smash through them.

Let him come, the queen thought, her mind and will almost fully immersed in her power, heart thundering behind her ribs. Let him get close again.

All she had to do was show him a small opening and let him in. Fritz took the bait and came within striking distance but had no time to stop or backpedal when he realized the trap. Elsa threw her shield aside and swung her sword over her head, only it wasn't a sword any longer but a whip made from chinks of interlocking ice. With a snap of her wrist the whip's tail raced towards him and wound around his neck. Bracing her feet and digging deep, Elsa jerked hard on her end, pulling Fritz towards her. His shocked expression melted away under the impact of her ice reinforced elbow which connected with side of his face with an audible crack. Droplets of blood spattered the mirror-like floor, and the champion began to fall. Still braced, the queen twisted and spun, dragging Fritz behind her with the momentum of her spin and let him go at the last second, flinging him across the floor like a ragdoll. He slid into a waiting stalagmite with an ugly thud and went still.

Breathe, she told herself when she realized her lungs were starting to burn. Keep breathing and keep calm.

The chamber fell into fragile silence, queen and champion still for the first time in minutes. For half a heartbeat Elsa stood in stunned shock. Fritz had yet to rise, his body crumpled a little less than thirty feet from her. Whip and shield dissolving, she walked slowly around the farthest edge of the chamber, cautious to approach should he spring back to life. She heard him groan and readied herself, but Fritz merely rolled onto his stomach, arms and legs trembling. It looked as if he were having trouble stabilizing his equilibrium, a small amount of blood trickling out of his right ear.

"Do you yield?" Elsa demanded, keeping her distance, hands raised to parry any attack.

Fritz raised his head and searched for his sword, found it a ways away, and swore, punching the ice under him and leaving behind a bloody smear. "Guess I don't have a choice do I?"

"So I ask again, do you yield?"

Groaning with the effort, the Asham champion pulled himself to his feet and leaned heavily against the twisted jut of ice behind him, hands on his knees. She could tell by the tightening in his shoulders and stormy color of his face that Fritz was seething. It was unclear whether or not he was more upset by the fact that he'd been bested by a woman or forced to submit by a queen. Whatever the cause, the champion was angry. After a long stretch of silence, Fritz lowered his head and sighed.

"I'm surprised by you, Queen Elsa. You don't fight fair. I had thought you'd keep to some moral code or something."

"Neither do you," she observed flatly.

"You're right. I don't."

She should have seen it coming. It was a textbook feint. Fritz lashed out with a well-aimed jerk and sent the small boot knife hidden in his palm whizzing towards her. Elsa caught the wink of metal and reflexively raised and lowered her shield. The tiny projectile bounced off with a faint ring and clattered uselessly at her feet. It was almost a comical move…almost. More annoyed than incensed Fritz had tried to sneak in one final attack, as if it made all the difference in countering his defeat, Elsa brought her power to just under her skin. Stamping her foot down, she was prepared to lose another blast from her palm, buzzing ice and frost swirling in her abdomen and racing to her extremities, when she felt the impact of a tiny silk bundle connect with the corner of her right eye. The delicate bulb ripped the second it hit, spraying an acrid black powder across her eyes.

At first nothing happened. Elsa stumbled back, tasting a strange mixture of spices on her lips when her tongue darted across them. Spice and something gritty she couldn't quite name. Then she made the mistake of inhaling and choked, fine powder sticking to her esophagus and coating her lungs. What hit next was the like the boom after a lightning strike, the explosion after the fuse burnt its way into the powder keg. Pain in an unimaginable spectrum grabbed her by the face and wouldn't let go. Her eyes snapped shut involuntarily as the toxic mix of pepper powder invaded the soft tissue of her eyes like hot pokers.

She didn't know she'd fallen until her knees and hands hit the ground. She attempted to scream but was choking at the same time. The world fell away in a blinding wash of white and red as the agony that had stolen her vision raged white hot and only amplified in scalding degree with each passing second. The queen clawed at her face trying to rid it of the powder but only managed to spread it around, intensifying the burn. Instinctively, Elsa reached for her magic, reached for the soothing balm of ice and cold, and was met instead by a wall of sound like hundreds of lightning strikes all happening at once. She tried to breathe, tried to think, but couldn't string her thoughts together into anything more cohesive than the instinctive shriek of pain! run! make it stop!

The queen felt as if she were shattering into a hundred thousand pieces under the brunt of the volcanic torment threatening to melt her face and choke her to death. Perhaps she was more fragile than previously thought because deep within the catacombs of her being, in the chamber housing the undulating ball of arctic power, something cracked under the extreme pressure of unexpected pain. It was an audible separation like hearing a knuckle crack or a bone break. Elsa knew what it was, and the terror she felt almost eclipsed her blinding…almost. It was the same as when Revel had broken her ice arrow all those months ago. That single, strained moment when she realized with a thrill of fear that she was breaking along with her ice, only this time it was reversed and on a massive scale. Elsa was now the arrow, her connection with her power the shaft snapping under the strain, cracking and fracturing and about to explode.

Fritz had done the unimaginable, and it was only through dumb luck that he'd succeeded. It wasn't a matter of skill or timing; he didn't know any magical incantation or herb that could rob a Frost Born of her power. The champion had simply thrown his packet as a last resort, and the effect it had was better than he could have hoped for. Curled into a ball with her forehead pressed against the icy floor, Elsa tried to force her eyes open and only served to spread the noxious powder further, releasing another wave of agonizing torture that tore a wordless scream from her throat and further splintered her already unstable magic. And once it started breaking, once she felt the fractures start to spread beyond her wavering control, the eruption was cataclysmic both internally and externally. Suddenly, the stress was too much and she lost her grip, and that was the beginning of the end.

The castle buckled, mirroring the buckling taking place inside her. High up on the fourth floor, spires began to fall. The floor under Revel's feet caving inward with a thunderous boom at the same moment the second and third floor imploded from the center, snapping upward like someone had punched it from underneath. Revel scrambled for footing as he slid towards the depression in the floor, fingers catching the edge of Elsa's ice bed at the last moment. Chunks of ceiling began to fall free, sky visible beyond, smashing around him with quaking thuds. He pulled himself free of the hole and caught a glimpse of the ice wall that had once been a door. There was a gap almost large enough for him to squeeze through where there had once only been a solid wall. Mind racing in a fevered panic, because he'd heard Elsa's screams and had beaten himself bloody in an attempt to reach her, Revel raced for the crack and began pushing his way out as the castle continued to decay around him.

On the lower third floor ballroom, Fritz lost his balance and stumbled away. He pressed himself against the outer wall of the chamber, watching wide eyed as the castle began to crumble. Elsa remained in the center of the room, twisted snarls of strange grayish blue ice trying to form around her but disintegrating before they had a chance to fully form. Roaring filled the room as the ice palace began to sag and fall, the queen's consciousness and will no longer holding it together. Her magic was beyond her reach, the chasm of pain too much to traverse, thus her creations began to unravel.

Outside in the elements, in the howling winds and blowing snow, standing guard as he was told to, a startled golem twisted around towards the castle, his spines rising involuntarily off his back. His creator was screaming in agony and he could feel the echo reverberate inside him like a bell. The shockwave grew louder and more intense until it vibrated every fractal of his being. Staggering, footing suddenly unstable, Marshmallow grabbed the sides of his head and released a tremendous roar as his connection with his creator severed like a lifeline being cut. His cry echoed for miles, startling birds from their nests and scattering herds of deer. It carried and carried even after Marshmallow no longer stood sentinel. The only indication that anything had ever stood between the mountain pass and the ice castle was the small triangular tiara that stuck out of the snow like a forgotten toy.

A little ways down the mountain, the shockwave continued unseen but not unfelt. The creatures of the wild sensed the disturbance and fled. Flocks of birds, like writhing black clouds, took off into the sky. Herds of deer bolted from their forest haven, startling hunters and country folk alike in their haste to distance themselves from the silent scream. Even the wind seemed to become agitated, gusts of cold mountain air reaching the shores of Arendelle miles away and sending a shiver down the spines of its citizens. Some looked at one another with questioning glances while others looked towards North Mountain and silently wondered if something was wrong. The rolling shockwave of unbalanced power even startled horses in their stables, some rearing and screaming while others nickered unhappily and laid their ears flat against their head. Stable Master Florren grappled with a spooked mare, unsure of what had set her off.

Back in the mountains, the royal party drew to an abrupt and loud stop when Anna's fjord pony suddenly reared, threatening to flip the sled and throw its passengers. Kristoff pulled hard on the reins, muscles straining, attempting to calm the big animal and bring it to heel. Behind him, the horses Sigmund and his men were ridding did the same, rearing and staggering as if startled.

"What's going on?" Sigmund shouted from behind the sled as he attempted to wrestle his ride back under control.

"I don't know! I don't speak horse!" Kristoff shouted back and breathed an audible sigh when the pony finally settled back onto all four legs and didn't rise again. She nickered uneasily, her flanks quivering and her eyes wide enough he could see the whites.

"That was weird…and a little terrifying," Anna said from the back of the sled, hands gripping the back of Kristoff's seat. She couldn't help but recall the memory of when she was younger and had been thrown from her pony. She'd broken her arm and cracked her head pretty good against the ground. It had taken a full day for her to regain consciousness, and the princess had been leery of the big creatures until her later teen years when the fear finally subsided. Now, however, she was reminded of their unpredictable power and shifted uneasily.

"I know…wait…do you hear that?" the mountain man said, letting the reins go slack in his hand and turned slightly. Anna gave him a funny look.

"I don't hear anything," she replied, cocking an eyebrow.

"It sounded like—"

Suddenly, a herd of deer twenty strong bolted from the tree line in a flash of gold and white and swarmed past them. Anna jumped and ducked as the frightened animals raced past, some bumping the sled and tumbling to the ground in a flail of thrashing legs and grunts. Those fallen few scrambled to their feet and kept running, and in the blink of an eye the herd was gone, their hooves pounding the fresh snow like tiny little drums receding the farther they ran into the forest. Then it was silent, and the silence spoke volumes. The party was at the final thresholds of trees before they dropped away in the wake of rising dark stone. There were supposed to be natural sounds that accompanied being submerged in nature, but they heard none of it. No birds, no squirrels, no nothing. Not even the wind blew anymore, which was remarkable.

"I don't…that was really weird," Anna breathed, her eyes on the place where the deer had disappeared. She twisted around to look in the opposite direction, hoping to find something that could explain their mad dash. Deer didn't just run in herds like that. Oftentimes, when a predator was present, they would scatter. She'd seen it happen plenty of times while accompanying Kristoff on hunting excursions. He'd make a sound and the deer would scatter, but never in a herd or a cluster unless it was females and their young. Anna searched the trees behind her but saw no sign of a bear or the occasional pack of wolves or anything. There was nothing there and no reason for the disturbance…well, none she could feel anyway. It wasn't something humans could sense any longer, but one small creature felt the disconnection and sat up with a startled jerk.

Olaf turned in the direction of the ice castle, his face suddenly stricken. He and Sven had been heading down to the troll territory when they'd run across Kristoff and Anna. The princess had spotted them first, flagging them down.

"Hey guys!" the little snowman had beamed waddling over, customary goofy grin on his face. "What are you doing up here…and what's with all the guards? Hi guards I don't really know!" he shouted, waving at Sigmund and his men.

"Olaf," Anna said gently taking his little stick arms in her hands, "did you see two riders go past you heading towards North Mountain? Think hard."

Olaf scoffed happily and playfully rolled his eyes. "Of course I did, but they didn't stop to say hello. Why? Do you know them?"

Anna and Kristoff shared a look that wasn't lost on the snowman. His jovial expression slipped a little. "What's going on? Is something wrong?"

"We think those two men might be trying to hurt Revel," Kristoff explained.

Olaf's hands shot up to his mouth and he gasped. "But, I thought everything was going to be okay."

"So did we," Anna whispered, hand pressed against her chest in hopes of chasing away the cold dread nesting there. The little snowman looked upset, pacing back and forth, which caused Sven to become agitated and grunt at Kristoff.

"I don't know either, buddy," he said, answering the reindeer as if he'd spoken. "But we need to get up there before something happens."

"I don't know if Elsa knows other people are coming to the ice castle, but big brother is there," Olaf suddenly brightened as he climbed into the back of the sled. Anna joined him, desperate for some company. She just needed to hold something of Elsa's close. Plus, Olaf was like a little brother to her.

"You think he can take on Adrek and Fritz?" the princess asked, forcing a smile and trying to stay positive.

"Of course he can! Marshmallow is the best guard there is!" Olaf winced and glanced over at the guards behind him. Sigmund didn't look amused. "Well, he's at least the best mountain guard! You guys do a great job all on your own."

Olaf's optimism had been a temporary balm to the situation, but that changed the moment he felt the disconnection. The little snowman looked confused at first, squinting and blinking in the direction of the ice palace that was less than ten minutes away from them. He had cut off midsentence in his retelling of his ride to the castle with Revel and their exchange with Marshmallow when the horses had reared and the deer ran by, and his silence was just another layer added to the slowly building tension.

"Olaf, what's wrong?" Anna asked, seeing his confused expression and feeling her blood run cold. She sat up straighter and shifted around so that she could see him fully.

"I…I don't know. Something doesn't feel right," he replied, flexing his little stick hands and looking down at his snowy body. It was strange. He'd felt like a shiver had gone through him, but that was impossible because he couldn't feel cold. Right? Well, he certainly felt something. Anna's hand was resting on his foot and it felt so warm and…wet. Why wet? And why wasn't he feeling the cool breeze from his flurry? Usually he could count the snowflakes that drifted down from his personal cloud above—

"Oh no," he whispered and looked up, eyes growing large. Anna followed his line of sight and gasped, hand over her mouth. Olaf's personal flurry was gone. But that was impossible! Elsa had made that flurry for him, and in three years it had never faltered…ever.

"Anna, I think something's happened to Elsa," he gasped, suddenly aware of what was wrong, and his fear captured all their attention. "I can't…I can't feel her any—"

And then he was gone, disintegrated into nothing but powder in the blink of an eye. Anna let out shrieking No! at the same moment Kristoff jumped from his seat and landed in the back of the sled, his vision narrowing into a very fine point. His pregnant wife sat holding nothing but a carrot and frosted black chunks of coal, her eyes so wide and face so pale she looked on the verge of fainting.

"Kristoff he…he just…Olaf he just…Oh my god— oh, oh my god," her breath hitched in her throat and tears fell from her eyes. Anna looked up at him, the remnants of the little snowman cradled in her shaking arms, words escaping her. She didn't even shift when Sven approached the cart and searched it expectantly but looked up confused when his friend was nowhere to be seen. The bull reindeer glanced at Kristoff, almost as if to say I know he was here a second ago…where is he now?

"He said he couldn't feel my sister—" if Anna could have gone a shade more pale she'd have looked like ghost. Her heart was slamming so hard against her ribs it felt like a battering ram. "Kristoff, my sister!"

"No," he snapped and took Anna's face in his hands, forcing her to look at him and capping her panic. She was shaking like a leaf in the wind, her chest rising and falling rapidly as she began hyperventilating. "Anna, look at me…look at me! We don't know for sure anything's happened."

"How can you say—"

"Because I know Elsa as well as you do," he interrupted, determined to be the pillar his wife needed to cling to even if he himself felt like at any moment he was going to crumble to dust just like Olaf had.

Oh god, don't think about that right now. Anna, focus on Anna.

"Elsa's strong, Anna. She always has been. Something's wrong, that much is true, but Revel isn't going to let anything happen to her. You know it, I know it, even Sven knows it. It's going to be alright, but you have calm down or you'll go into labor. Please, calm down for me."

It was unfair to use their unborn children as a reason for the princess not to freak out because really all she wanted to do was scream and run fill tilt to her sister's castle. But her husband was right, and she attempted to calm herself with shaky breaths.

"Baron Kristoff, has something happened?" Sigmund asked, pulling his still jittery mount alongside the sled. He saw the terror on Anna's face and recognized what she was cradling but couldn't put two and two together.

"Olaf just…he… just disintegrated."

The big guard had no inkling of the magic the queen possessed or what the little snowman's disappearance or apparent disintegration meant, but he could judge from stricken look on Kristoff's face that something wasn't right. "What does that mean, sir?"

"It means my sister is either dead or dying," Anna hiccupped. "Her magic was what created Olaf. Only her magic could…" she couldn't bring herself to say "kill him" because she couldn't bring herself to accept the fact that Elsa could be gone.

"Then we must not waste time," Sigmund snapped.

"We're almost there," Kristoff replied and snapped the reins as hard as he could, dread settling over his shoulder like a boulder. If Olaf's sudden disappearance wasn't evidence enough that something horrible had happened at the ice palace, the strange static prickling coming from his troll gem was. He didn't know why it was suddenly so warm against his skin, but he suspected the queen was involved. They'd know soon enough what had happened, but he truly feared what they'd find once they reached the ice castle.

As promised, ten minutes later they crested the final rise and slipped through the mountain pass that opened onto the plateau directly in front of the castle, but none of them were prepared for what they found and what the implications could mean. The left face of the palace sagged like melting candle wax, the foundation crumbling at an alarming rate. Red fractures snaked along the castle's surface like slash wounds, yawning further and further open as the structure buckled and continued to slip. They could hear the deafening roar of cracking and falling ice as it broke free of the palace and bounced down into the chasm, shaking the ground as it went. Just as the group prepared to stop, one of the tallest spires broke free and came tumbling down with a thunderous crash, smashing against the castle and taking massive chunks with it as it fell. The horses reared and shied away again, moving back from the gap between rock faces with snorting displeasure.

"Elsa!" Anna screamed and climbed out of the back of the sled before it even came to a standstill with as much grace as her swollen stomach would allow. She would have raced up the cracking ice bridge, dodging falling debris as she went, had Kristoff not grabbed her and wrapped his long arms around her shoulders in order to keep her still.

"Anna, no! The castle's coming down. You can't go in there!"

"My sister's in trouble! I have to go to her!" Anna struggled and managed to wiggle free. For a pregnant woman, she was still surprisingly limber and strong to boot. This time, her husband grabber her wrist, his large hands easily encircling it, and physically pulled her back. "Let me go, Kristoff!"

"No! I'm not letting you go in there!"

"Let me go!"

"I'll tie you to the sled if I have too!" Kristoff took her by the shoulders and turned her away from the castle, forcing her once again to look at him. "Anna, stop — stop! What good are you to your sister if you get hurt or fall through the ice? I can't lose you. You or the babies! Please, let Sigmund and me go in and get her. You stay out here."

"I won't! I have to go to her, Kristoff! I have to make sure she's ok!"

"Anna, please, if you love me at all, you'll stay out here and let us go in." He hated himself for playing that card, but felt he had no other choice. Anna would push caution aside and run to her sister's side even if it meant getting hurt in the process. Kristoff couldn't stomach the idea of his wife or their unborn children being put in harm's way, but he certainly wasn't going to let Sigmund go in alone. He'd been in the ice palace before where the guards had not. He knew where Elsa might be and hoped to all the spirits in the sky and ground, to all the gods above and below, he wasn't too late.

"I hate you!" she screamed at him and pushed Kristoff hard in the chest, tears streaming down her face as panic consumed her. Suddenly she couldn't breathe, couldn't stop the desperate sobs that broke free from her chest. Her sister was dead or dying and once again she was forced to remain behind because she was weak…because she was a liability.

"I know you do, I know, but I have to keep you safe," he soothed, pulling her close even though she fought him. "You're my world, Anna. My moon and stars. I can't lose you."

"Kristoff please," Anna sobbed, her struggling turning into a desperate, clutching hug. "Please bring her back. Her and Revel…please."

The mountain man lifted his wife's red and tear soaked face towards his and brought their lips together. He held her for a breathless moment, pouring all the strength and love he had for her into that one kiss. When they broke apart, Anna was still crying, but she seemed to have calmed a bit.

"I swear I'll bring her back. No matter what it takes."

Anna could only nod as her husband motioned for the guards to follow him as he grabbed his hunting bow and quiver from the back of the sled.

"Baron Kristoff, allow one of my men to remain here with the princess for her protection. These are still the mountains after all, and we do not know if the king of Asham is near," Sigmund said hurrying to his side, a coil of rope slung across his chest and a small hand axe clutched in his hand.

Kristoff nodded his consent, knowing Anna would protest if she answered first. Glancing over his shoulder one last time, he gave his wife his best reassuring smile before unhooking his climbing axe and starting forward. The small party made it over the bridge with no issues despite it being choked with hair thin fractures. It appeared the massive double doors were still intact, so Kristoff set about wedging his axe into the near invisible crack and prying them open. Sigmund helped where he could. On their third attempt the castle shuddered violently and one door broke free with a tremendous pop. Kristoff threw out his arm to hold Sigmund back and grip something stable as the alcove they were huddled inside shook. The door slab hit the bridge at an angle and slid into the black chasm under them, winking in the fading light as it did.

"Kristoff!" he heard his wife shout.

"We're alright! Just stay there!" she shouted back and carefully turned back to the crumbling castle.

Eventually, the castle stabilized after a moment, the cracking and grinding fading away as the ice settled. The whole episode had taken perhaps two minutes from start to finish, but the devastation was immense. Half the castle sagged, gravity slowly taking its toll and pulling the structure down the face of the mountain. It was unclear how long the ice palace would stand, but Fritz pushed that from his mind as he straightened and caught his balance. Glancing towards the stairs, he wondered with a gnawing fear if the second and first floor was still intact. He surmised that if the castle hadn't yet crumbled there was still a foundation somewhere, and he just had to hope that Adrek was alright. Under his feet, the third floor seemed to be leveling out like a chest finally exhaling. The queen remained in the center, her heavy breathing accompanying the pained groans of her icy home that eerily mirrored her own agonized whimpers.

"I have to hand it to you," the champion said with a faint whistle, "that was pretty impressive."

"What did…w-what did you do?" Elsa choked, teeth gritted. It was the only way to keep herself from shaking.

"Blinding bulbs of my own design. Who know concentrated pepper powder would have that effect. Well, I say peppers like that's the only thing in that blessed little bulb. There's also powdered volcanic glass. Makes breathing near impossible once it starts shredding your lungs into pulp." Laughing, he slowly made his way towards the prone queen, eager to test the waters. His previous anger was gone, cocky swagger returning. Snatching victory out of the jaws of humiliating defeat couldn't have that effect

"I told you I don't fight fair," Fritz smiled, or so she thought he smiled. Elsa could hear a sick kind of glee in his voice. She could also hear his footfalls drawing near but that was it, the rest of her concentration split between the pain in her eyes and the blackness of the room. Suddenly, Fritz reached down and dug his fingers into her hair, hauling her to her feet with a savage yank. Unable to do anything more than follow, Elsa scrambled to stand, hands searching and finding his wrist but lacking the strength to pull free or dislodge him.

"I'm sorry, does it hurt?" he asked with mock concern. "Are you having trouble breathing?" The champion flexed his wrist up and down making her nod in agreement and wrenching a few pained winces as he did. "Yes? Well by all means, let me help you."

The fist that sank into her abdomen drove the breath from the queen and doubled her over. The knee that came next and connected with her chin snapped her mouth shut with a painful click and threw her backwards where she landed with an ugly thud. Elsa didn't think the pain could get worse until hot tears welled behind her tightly shut eyes, agitating the pepper powder and making it run down her face in grayish red streaks.

"I do apologize, that was ungentlemanly of me," Fritz grunted as he lashed out with his boot, catching Elsa in the ribs, unable to keep the grin from his face. Still trying to recapture her breath, she wheezed and rolled onto her stomach. "Then again," he continued, circling her, "I do owe you blood for blood, and you're certainly not bleeding enough."

Elsa realized with a sick twist that Fritz was enjoying this. She could hear it in his voice, in the happy flair he added to his words as if he were a child telling someone about a fun trip. She'd been wrong. He wasn't at all like Hans, he was worse. There was a level to Hans's cruelty, a limit he'd never venture beyond, but Fritz was different. He enjoyed hurting people which meant his little game wouldn't end quickly. Adrek had told him to make it look like a lovers quarrel, but Elsa suspected Fritz had already taken things too far but wasn't going to stop. Not when he was starting to have fun.

She felt his hand close around the back of her neck, fingers savagely tight, and pulled her again to her feet. "I'd like to play a game with you. Are you fond of games? I certainly am."

"Go to hell," she seethed. Her head snapped to the side with the force of his backhand, and Elsa thought she saw stars despite the fact that her eyes were still squeezed shut. She staggered and would have fallen had Fritz not swung around behind her, pulling her close.

"I've already been, and the devil sent me back. I would like you to know something before we begin," Fritz rasped into her ear, breath hot on the back of her neck. "Adrek had no intention of setting Revel up to take the fall. I set the trap that he blindly walked into. Gregor's murder was a crime of passion. I didn't know how many times I stabbed him after I slit his throat, but Revel? The little shit was going to be my first attempt at casual butchering. I wanted to see how much pain I could cause him before the life left his eyes. You don't know power until you've snuffed out a life.

"So I wonder…how much pain can you handle? They say pain is weakness, so I want to see how weak I can make you, because I think you've forgotten what it feels like to be human," he sneered, the hand around her throat that held her flush against his torso tightening like a vice. She tried to twist free of him, tried desperately to reach for her magic, but it was a fractured mess inside her, fragments like grains of glowing sand skittering away from her whenever she reached. When she felt steel against her side, Elsa froze and tried her hardest not to flinch.

"Yes, that's right," he cooed. "Under it all, you're just a human with a unique ability who's used to the finer things in life. But I have to confess, living within a castle makes you soft. It makes you vulnerable because who would ever touch a royal? Well, I love showing the aristocracy just how human they can really be."

Slowly, Fritz pressed his cutlass against Elsa's left side, the inner curve resting against his inner arm for leverage, and began to pull it across her skin. The razor sharp blade bit deep and the queen screamed, agony overtaking her. Inch by bloody inch he moved, deliberately taking his time and reveling in the effect. It felt like an eternity before he pulled the cutlass away, blood pouring from the wound and soaking through Elsa's shirt and tights. She shivered in his arms, her breath hardly controllable and her magic well and truly out of her reach now. To add insult to injury, because he really was enjoying this more than he should be, the Asham champion delivered a savage fist to the wound and Elsa buckled, legs turning to jelly under her as her consciousness began to fade in and out. Fritz let her fall and stepped away, switching his cutlass to his right hand and shaking her blood from the left.

Please! Elsa screamed into the void, to whoever was listening. Saja! Snaer! Please help—

Thunder, heat, and always more pain swallowed her as Fritz's heavy boot caught her in the stomach and flipped her onto her back. Had she had anything in her system, she would have vomited. As it was, Elsa only gagged, back arching off the ground, and ground her teeth in the effort of silencing another scream.

"Feeling weak yet? Feeling faint? I do have to admit, you're lasting a lot longer than Lastasha did. Granted, you had the ability of your ice and you actually had the balls to fight back, but still. At least you're not groveling for your life…yet."

Lastasha…Elsa knew the name and felt the tilt of the earth. Her first conversation with Revel on the parapets...they'd spoken about the death of Queen Lastasha of Evendelle. She'd been murdered by a duke's warband…by a—

"Y-you?" was all she could grate out as she attempted to roll into her knees, right hand holding the gash in her side and left used for support.

"Ah, so you know about Lastasha," Fritz laughed. He sounded a little ways away, his voice coming from different directions as he circled her like a shark catching the scent of blood. "I'm sure I'd see shock in your eyes could you open them. Tell me, did you know my stepsister well?" Elsa remained silent, too thunderstruck to answer. "I didn't think so. She began as simply a Baron's daughter and only ever had dealings in Prussia. My cunt stepmother, the Baroness Drescher, made sure of that. She married my stepsister off to Esteven after his first wife died of influenza, and wasn't she just so proud watching her daughter catch the eye of the king and swoon into the arms of a man who would take care of the both of them. And she could have if Lastasha wasn't such a conniving bitch."

"You…k-killed—her?" Elsa hoped that if she could keep him talking she'd get enough of a break between his assaults to reach her magic and her only hope for survival. It was there, she could sense it; she just couldn't draw it to the surface through the veil of pain.

"I put a crossbow quarrel in her stomach and in her chest. Stomach first so she could know that the little brat growing inside her died first. Oh, that was a sweet touch. She screamed and cried and begged. It was everything I'd ever hoped for and more."

"Why…?" Elsa gasped, unable to believe the level of nonchalance Fritz seemed to have while retelling the story. He'd shot a pregnant woman?

"Why?" Fritz inquired, a gleeful curiosity in his voice. "Because the bitch thought she could blackmail my lover. Evendelle's had Asham by the balls for years. Lastasha found out about Adrek and I around the time Gregor did. It was her mother, Isabella, who broke the news to the king that his son was having a relationship with another man…with me. It just killed Gregor to know that Adrek and I were together. Imagine, the boy he'd taken in after his father died and his bitch stepmother had kicked out of his rightful home, had the audacity to climb into another man's bed."

"She knew…for that many years?" the queen managed, her breath steadily evening out. She was on her knees now, hands pressed firmly against the cool floor. As gruesome as it was, Elsa was beginning to grow accustomed to the searing pain in her side and eyes. She knew she was bleeding badly, but for the moment her body was calming after the first of Fritz's assaults, the chasm between her and her magic lessening. Beyond the burn of her wounds, she could feel the slick, cool ice under her. Cool…it was strange feeling the sensation of temperature when she was so used to feeling constantly cold. But it wasn't just temperature the sensitive pads of her fingers were picking up. There was something there, some distant spark she couldn't quite grasp. For the moment it was out of her reach, but Elsa was determined to discover what the pinprick of color floating in the black sea of her blindness was.

"She knew for years. I told Adrek we should have shut her up like we shut up Gregor, or at the very least hire an assassin. I warned him she'd never let him live it down so long as I was in his life, but he was convinced Lastasha could be kept quiet by giving her what she wanted. He didn't know the depths of her greed…the depth of a woman's greed."

Elsa heard the way Fritz inflexed the word woman and felt a chill work through her as realization dawned. Suddenly, it wasn't about following his king's orders or protecting what was his. That was only half the issue and the superficial excuse Fritz used. The other half, the driving half, was Fritz's own boiling hatred for something as simple as a different sex.

"You hate all of us, don't you?" she asked quietly.

"Why shouldn't I?" he countered lightly, stopping in front of her. "Nothing ever good comes from a woman. The world was built on the back of men. You lot just have the uninviting task of squeezing a squalling brat out from between your legs."

"Seems you're lacking in the knowledge of proper parenting," Elsa couldn't stop herself from muttering. No blow came like she'd expected, but there was a crackle in the air.

"The only mother I had hacked my balls off when I was eight. She forced me to wear women's clothing while my father was out of the house and serve her and her daughter like I was a servant. She humiliated me at every turn, emasculated me in front of friends and those of the higher aristocracy. She even went as far as hiring a whore to fuck me and sat back and cackled when the bitch realized I was missing half my potency."

"But we're not all the same. Blaming an entire gender on the actions of one twisted person isn't right. There is good and bad in the world that can come from both sexes. One is not above the other in fault or blame."

"Oh believe me, I know. I'm sure your lover has a different view of his father, but the fact still remains that Gregor was just as much of a cunt as Isabella. When Adrek needed him most, he turned his back and disowned him. Imagine, being ostracized by the man who raised you because you think and feel differently."

"Yes, imagine killing someone because they thought differently," Elsa grunted, still fighting off the effects of the powder.

"Playing to my humanity isn't going to save you, Majesty. Everything I did was to protect Adrek. He means everything to me, and I'll do whatever it takes to make certain his rule and his kingdom remain safe. I'm sure you understand and that you know a thing or two about sacrifice."

"Yes, I do." Elsa fought to sit back on her legs, hunched with pain but sitting up at least. "I know what sacrifice means. I've done it all my life, and I know you've both made sacrifices, but you also enjoy causing pain and making others suffer so that you can have the life you want. I'm sorry for the pain you and Adrek have been put through but—"

She'd been sitting on her knees facing him but flew backwards senselessly when the heel of Fritz's boot struck her directly in the center of her chest. This time, when Elsa felt something tearing within her, it had nothing to do with her magic. She knew there was no point in gasping for breath, but her body did it anyway and she was starting to feel the effects of the pulverized volcanic glass in the powder. Her lungs were on fire.

"Did I say I wanted your fucking pity or sage advice? I'm not telling you any of this for sympathy. It's just giving me a chance to watch you bleed some more."

Elsa rolled onto her right side and coughed, blood spattering across the floor. She didn't realize she was chuckling until the echo returned to her. There was so much exquisite pain raging within her body that it brought the queen to the edge of madness. Her bloody lips curled at the edges into a broad smile as the audacity of the situation finally reached her fractured mind. There really wasn't any mirth to be found aside from sad the fact that she was being beaten to death by a fully grown man throwing a tantrum.

Imagine, my rule coming to an end because one man had a vendetta against all women, and I just happened to be on the wrong side of the argument.

It wasn't a surprise when Fritz landed another booted blow to her torso. Curled on her side, Elsa took the punishment, blooms of color sparking behind her eyes with each savage connection. She physically felt a few ribs snap but didn't have the energy to even attempt to block the blow let alone cry out. It was just another layer of pain piled atop the hundreds that already existed. When Fritz reached down and pulled her up by her arm, she half expected him to bury his cutlass into her stomach and be done with it.

"You're right, though. I really do enjoy what I do. It's a perk of the job and one Adrek is more than happy to grant me. He doesn't have the stomach for such…physicality. All the better, I guess. I don't have to hold back."

Despite her slender build, Elsa was a solid woman, so it was remarkable that Fritz was able to throw her so hard. She slid across the uneven surface of her slowly disintegrating castle, rolling and tumbling and feeling the gash in her side stretch and twist as she did. When at last she came to stop it was abruptly against a spine of ice which dug into her shoulder seconds before she heard and felt the pop. Not surprisingly, the ache set in instantly, but it was almost fully eclipsed by the growing agony that was the rest of her body. Elsa didn't know what was damaged until she tried to push herself up and discovered that only her right arm seemed to be responding. Across the chamber, she heard the ring of steel on ice as Fritz retrieved his cutlass.

I can't do this, she thought, slipping back against the cold floor, beyond the point of her physical limits of pain and exhaustion. I'm so sorry, Revel. I should have listened to you. I'm not…I wasn't strong enough.

Tears stung her eyes, mixing with the pepper powder. She didn't even know if he was still alive or not. Judging from the slow decay of her castle, it was possible Adrek had never made it to the fourth floor, but that also meant that Revel might not be able to get out once the castle did finally fall. So was that going to be their fate? Entombed in the remnants of her ice palace? What would happen to Anna if Fritz and Adrek escaped? Would they kill her to keep her silent or blame the destruction on the queen?

"I'm so sorry, Anna," Elsa whispered and felt her tears roll down her face. "I'm sorry for everything."

Get up and fight back!

Elsa jerked in surprise and looked up despite not being able to see anything. "Saja?"

Fight back, Frost Born!

"How…how are you talking to me? My magic's gone." She wasn't sure if she were actually hearing her ancestor or not. She'd not felt the familiar flare of heat on her brand whenever the first Frost Born reached out to her. Then again, her entire left side was going steadily numb.

You're magic hasn't gone anywhere; it's just blocked. I told you pain is weakness, but it's not a means to an end. I was trying to tell you that you must push through it. If you want to see your lover and sister again, get up!

"I can't see him to fight back!"

When one sense is taken we learn to use another, or have you already forgotten that I lost both my arms?

"At least you could still see!"

Sight comes in many forms, Elsa, as does magic. Focus. Concentrate. Push past it.

"Talking to yourself now?" Fritz chuckled, taking his time. "Have you finally lost your sense, Queen El—"

The champion pulled up short and spun around, anticipating an attack. He'd seen the reflection of a woman in the cracked, mirror-like wall, but there was no one there. Turning slowly, his senses open and searching for another presence, Fritz looked back over at the prone Arendelle monarch and blinked in confusion. The woman was still there, staring at him with eyes that pierced him to his very core. She looked just like the queen save for her strange leather and fur attire and long, white hair. When he blinked the image was gone, but the unsettling feeling of being watched, weighed and measured crept into the space between his shoulder blades.

Suddenly, the castle shuddered violently around them as its precarious grip on the mountain face slipped a fraction more. Something high above shifted and broke free with a tremendous pop. A second later, the floor under Elsa bucked as a massive slab of ice the size of a small row boat crashed into the third floor, throwing jagged shards of ice in every direction. Elsa felt a few shards snap across her face and rolled quickly onto her stomach, unsure whether or not anything more was going to fall. That's when she felt the shift.

Right hand pressed firmly against the floor, Elsa saw that strange pinprick of golden light wink into existence in the blackness of her blindness. It was unimaginably small, like a firefly twinkling at a distance, but there was a familiar hum that accompanied the light. More pieces of the ceiling slipped free and crashed to the ground with thunderous booms, but the queen lay frozen where she'd fallen. Each time something hit the ground the ball vibrated and changed color. Heart soaring into her throat, Elsa mentally latched onto the tiny speck of light and focused all her concentration onto it. The world fell away, the pain of her broken body, the destruction of her castle, the exhaustion pulling at her consciousness: everything became a distant gray blur in the wake of something extraordinary. Another large piece of ice dislodged, but she hardly heard it crash mere feet from her because the second it touched the floor was the second Elsa pulled that humming ball of light to her and the chamber erupted into a spectacular blast of color.

Blue, pink, red, yellow, orange, green, indigo, every color imaginable swirled behind her still tightly closed eyes, splashing against one another like waves crashing against a rock wall. It was dizzying at first and almost too much to bear. Startled, she yelped and scrambled back, but realized with a thrill of amazement that her movement created more waves of color. No, not waves…ripples. The entire chamber was alive with hundreds of thousands of ripples as pieces of ice continued to fall like thunderous rain. And for the first time since her blinding, Elsa could see through the ripples, as they raced over every inch of fallen ice and down through every crack, the details of the chamber. She saw the buckled and splintered floor, the cracked walls, the falling ceiling, but most importantly and the thing that made her almost cry with ecstatic relief was the black silhouette of Fritz.

But the ripple vision only lasted a few more seconds until the last chunk of ceiling fell. Then the chamber returned to blackness and the queen felt her heart plummet through her stomach. To be gifted with sight only for it to be stripped away seemed like the ultimate cruelty. Elsa almost sobbed, working right hand pressed firmly against the uneven ice behind her. She stared into the unmoving, acrid blackness like a hunter leaning into the wind in order to catch the movement of prey, barely trusting herself to breathe. Movement…that was all it took. Fritz, who'd been hanging back as the ceiling gave way, finally thought it safe to approach, and his footfalls created more blessed ripples of multicolored light that lit up a small portion of the chamber in his wake and painted him in a vague, fuzzy outline. The more he walked the more ripples he created, and the more Elsa could see.

How is this possible, she thought, watching the bands of light move across the floor, illuminating snippets of the room as they went.

Sight does not always involve your eyes. This is your ice, Elsa. It is a part of you. It can be your eyes when you have none, Saja replied. Now fight back.

Teeth gritted, Elsa reached for her magic again and was met with the same wall of cataclysmic thunder. Instinctively, she shrank away from the roar and the pain it lanced through her head. It was too much all at once, but she had to push through it.

Sound is just sound. It can't hurt me, she told herself and reached again.

Again thunder, but this time Elsa steeled herself and pressed through the veil, reaching over the yawning chasm to where her fragmented magic lay scattered like grains of sand across a marble floor. Noise still assaulted her as she reached, threatening to throw her back into uselessness, but a queen bows to no one, not even her own discomfort at times. Elsa knew she couldn't gather all her magic back into herself, that would take time which she didn't have, but even a small sliver was something. It could be worked with and molded. It could be used as a weapon. The first spark of cold that winked to life in her palm was like plunging her hand under a layer of lake ice after it had been set aflame. The relief was tangible, and Elsa felt more tears streak down her face, taking the acrid powder with it. The second spark was an inkling of rightness, and the third was balance. She didn't have much, but it might be enough. It had to be enough.

"So," Fritz said with a smile in his voice, "are we ready to finish this?" he grinned as he watched her struggle to stand, blood droplets blooming on the floor under her as the gash in her side continued to bleed.

Elsa gnashed her bloody teeth and heaved herself into a standing position. The ice crackling against her palm gave her strength, her resolve hardening into an iron will. She would not let Fritz leave this chamber. No matter the cost, no matter the pain or sacrifice, she would be the last woman, the last human, he ever assaulted again.

"I can see I have more work to do. I'd thought you were finished, ice princess."

"Fritz, I'm the fucking Snow Queen."

The projectile sizzled from her outstretched right hand and barely nicked the skin of his neck in its passing. Startled, the champion jerked to the side, waking another wave of ripples that allowed the queen to track him. The second shard caught him in the left hip, burying into his skin like a crossbow bolt. Fritz grunted and looked down in stunned shock before ducking another shard.

Readjust to the right, Elsa told herself, following his hazy silhouette.

It was hard to judge distance by the ripples. Everything was black until something moved, and she wasn't used to her seismic sight and either overcompensated or undercompensated depending on where she thought he was. The champion moved around the room, unnerved that the woman he thought he'd blinded was suddenly able to follow his movements, head cocked to one side as if listening. It wasn't until he ducked around a large jut of ice and held still that she stopped firing at him. Struggling to catch his breath and unable to move as fast with the ice shard lodged deep in his hip, Fritz leaned around the jut and watched the queen. She was steadily making a slow circuit of the room, keeping to the wall and periodically bumping it with her elbow. He didn't know if that was significant or not, but the chill creeping into his spine as he watched her was unsettling. Despite the fact that her head was down and her eyes were still tightly shut, she seemed to sense what was around her and stepped over obstacles with relative ease.

"Goddamn winter witch and her fucking powers," he hissed, back pressed against the ice behind him. Shaking hands attempted to pry the shard free, but it felt like it hit the bone and was lodged there. Falling back, the champion attempted to get his bearings. He didn't know how Elsa was doing it, didn't care. All he knew was that she had to die no matter the cost, but how was he going to get close? An idea slowly came to light as he looked around the room at all the fallen pieces of ceiling. Hefting a sizable chunk of ice, Fritz checked where the queen was again before throwing it in the opposite direction of where he stood. As expected, Elsa snapped around towards sound and movement, but didn't fire off a shot like he thought she would. Trying again, he threw another piece in a random direction, but instead of following it, the jut he was hiding behind suddenly exploded, sending him tumbling across the floor.

There wasn't time to swear or even process what to do next. Ice erupted around him, sharp and deadly. He felt the needles piece his skin and kicked off, jumping over whatever was in his way as he ran from the wave of spines drawing ever nearer. No time to form tactics or a clever plan; the champion turned towards the queen and ran as hard as he could. Elsa felt him coming, heavy footfalls waking multicolored ripples that shone in the hazy gray that had become her chamber. The longer she focused on the ripples the clearer her ice castle came into focus, layers of darkness stripped away as the fractals sang to their mistress. When two more projectiles failed to hit their target, Fritz was moving at an almost reckless speed towards her, Elsa called for the floor to rise up. The champion snarled and dodged where he could, but he couldn't keep his footing for long and tumbled when a wickedly sharp flute of ice punctured his left calf.

Desperate to keep the ice from closing in around him, Fritz thrashed to his feet, but it was too late. One foot was almost entirely locked down and the other wasn't far behind. Searching for something to smash the ice with, he'd lost his cutlass again, the champion picked up a decent sized chunk of fallen ceiling and went to break his bonds when another idea came to mind and he changed trajectory. With a forceful snap he sent the chunk hurtling towards the queen who was so preoccupied with making sure he didn't move she wasn't able to stop the ice from connecting with her torso. The shock of the impact and the bloom of pain it created momentarily broke her concentration, giving Fritz the opening he needed to end the duel. Rushing her, he caught Elsa in the temple with a savage fist that almost buckled her had the champion not wrapped his arms around her slender waist, trapping her hands at her side.

"I have to say," he panted, breath hot against her face, "I wasn't expecting that last burst. It was impressive. See?" he said shifting his grip, "You've managed to impress me, which is remarkable."

Reeling from the blow to her head, Elsa felt her forehead come to rest against Fritz's chest, the room fading to black as the ripples subsided and the champion's bulk blocked her vision. Had anyone walked into the chamber it would have looked as if the two were sharing an intimate embrace, and the thought sickened her. Not because she was being touched by such a vile human, but because to someone else it would appear the queen was weak, having to be held up by another. When fresh pain lanced through her side, Elsa jerked and stifled a scream. Fritz was slowly increasing the pressure of his squeeze, digging the knuckles of his hands into the small of her back and pushing the air from her lungs.

"I'll be sure to tell your sister you fought valiantly before I kill her." Elsa must have had a stricken look on her face because Fritz laughed. "What? You thought she'd escape from this whole mess unscathed? Oh no, you've single handedly sentenced your pretty little sister to death. Her husband too, if he struggles. I told you, you should have handed Revel over in the first place. But no, you put the love you have for your lover over the needs of your subjects. How utterly un-queenly of you."

Elsa felt something wickedly sharp press into the small of her back just above here Fritz's hands were and gritted her teeth. It was too narrow to be his cutlass so it must be a fang of ice. The champion shifted forward a step and the point broke her skin, wrenching a small whimper from her. Groping in the darkness, Elsa mentally reached for the ice, but Fritz must have felt her shift because his forehead smashed into the bridge of her nose and the queen went senseless under a blinding flash of white. Distantly, she wondered if he'd broken something.

"Did you know that it doesn't take much to impale someone? Just the right amount of leverage and a push is all you need. It'll take you a few minutes to die, but at least you've chosen a magnificent tomb. Maybe they'll even bring Anna up here." Leaning in, because this really was the most fun the champion had had in years, he whispered, "Unlike you, your sister won't put up a fight, and who knows, maybe I'll even let her experience the potency of a real man. Hmm? Fuck her bloody then slit her throat. A fitting end to the last Arendelle royal."

Elsa didn't realize the wad of bloody phlegm had left her lips. Spitting was such a crass gesture, but it seemed the appropriate thing to do in the wake of a threat like that. She didn't have enough room to summon a proper spike to kill Fritz like her body was screaming for her to do; the lance would most certainly spear her as well, but apparently that wasn't necessary. The queen felt the champion jerk back and grunt in surprise, his grip loosening, and that's when she saw it. Within the veil of darkness, Elsa saw, once again, a tiny speck of light; only this one wasn't so far away. It was right in front of her, mere inches, imbedded in Fritz's neck like a thorn. Instinct drove her now, overriding the pain and fogginess, and she muttered one simple word…


And her ice obeyed.

Fritz gagged and fully released her as he staggered back. With no energy to keep herself standing, Elsa slid to the floor with a wordless cry as the spine behind her laid open her back from hip to shoulder in a ragged, uneven line. Shaking, her body going into shock, she raised her head, unsure what she was seeing but unable to turn away. Through the ripples of her seismic sight, she watched the champion struggle to draw breath as her ice invaded his body. He went down to his knees, clawing at his throat until he gouged bloody furrows in his skin. The ice continued to spread. He slipped to the floor, bucking and thrashing. The ice continued to spread. His body began to twist and bend, arching off the ground, and still the ice continued to spread. Elsa watched in stunned horror as a bloom of watery, pinkish blue color winked to life in his shadowy silhouette. His esophagus faded into focus, quickly followed by his lungs and lower intestines. Ice raced through his veins, uncountable and spindly like the roots of a tree under his skin, freezing his blood. Next came his bones, each joint and marrow pocket appearing. The ripples of his frantic thrashing illuminated the small portion of floor around him, and Elsa could clearly see Fritz's twisted expression and bulging eyes. Back arced off the floor, his mouth locked open in a permanent attempt to draw breath. Eventually, Fritz's thrashing stilled to just small tremors and then faint jerking before they subsided entirely. Slowly, slowly, the darkness of his silhouette warmed like a sunrise as Elsa's ice consumed him from the inside out, cementing him to the floor. The last organ to go still was his heart. She watched it slow as her ice encased it, fingers of blue and pink turning it to marble. Then all was quiet for the first time in what felt like an eternity.

Elsa stared down at the corpse, mouth hanging open. She could see him clearly now, his features softening but still twisted even in death. Reaching out, because half of her believed this couldn't possibly be real, she touched his hands and snatched it back with a startled cry when his fingers twitched. Suddenly, she remembered what Saja had done to Gunnar and put her only functioning hand over her mouth.

No…it's not the same. This isn't the same. I didn't…

But it was and she had. When she spread her fingers, hesitantly calling to her ice, the champion's corpse responded and raised its arm in a jerky, stop-motion movement. Elsa released her grip and shrank back, horrified at the thing she'd just created, at the life she'd just taken. Yes, it had been in self-defense, but it was still a life gone, snuffed out by her hands. The first life she'd taken…ever. Breath coming in ragged gulps, she attempted to stand, to get away from her deed, and managed it on her second try. The gash on her back prevented her from fully straightening, torn fabric clinging to the bloody wound, but she got her feet under her and lean against the wall, taking a moment to stabilize herself. Elsa didn't know how badly she was injured, couldn't even count her pains anymore, but at least she was standing and her vision was slowly starting to clear. Most of the pepper power had been flushed away by her tears.

I'm alive, she breathed. Beaten and bloody, but still alive.

Hard to believe, but she'd made it through another assassination attempt, and Elsa would have celebrated with a relieved sigh had she not felt and seen through her seismic sight someone entering the chamber. Hope wanted it to be Revel, but reality was far more cruel.

"No," she heard the king of Asham whisper as he pulled up short. From where he was standing he could clearly see his dead lover frozen to the floor, eyes open and staring at nothing. "Oh god, Fritz, no!"

For the First Time in Never

A Frozen Story
by JE Glass

Part 20 of 24

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