“What did you do, Nox?” Starr asked, staring into the fire. The embers crackled and hissed. Nox didn’t seem to hear her—his eyes also transfixed upon the dancing flames. He took a deep breath, poked the fire with a branch from the beach, and sighed.
“I’m afraid this story may require more than one bottle of Isaru wine.” He tried to smile. His mouth wouldn’t move. Starr nodded, pulling her gaze away from the flames. She drew back the blanket from her lap and revealed not one—but two—bottles leaning against her thigh. The dark amber glass winked back at Nox in the twilight.
“I see you’ve come prepared.” Nox reached out and accepted one of the bottles, drawing his knife to work out the cork.
“I’m a resourceful woman. And I always have time for a long story.”
Nox grunted as he pulled the cork free and tossed it into the fire. He waited for it to catch fire, then drank directly from the bottle. Starr arched a slender brow but did not interrupt him. Instead, she took his knife and opened her own bottle. Nox did smile, then, after a long drink.
“I’m not really sure where to begin,” he said, letting the taste of Isaru wine linger on his tongue. The honey-sweet wine had never failed him before. He would find the beginning, and he would find the end. The bottle would help him with the parts in the middle. The ocean waves crashed against the beach in the distance. Far above them in the village of Tor’vic—the sound of drums and pipe music drifted down like a lullaby. The heat from the fire warmed his face; the wine warmed his stomach. The breeze against the sand tried to cool him down—but his memory was from a place and time much, much colder.
A chill sunk deep beneath his skin. He didn’t want to remember.
But remembering might mean saving lives. Any life.
He took another sip and let himself fall into the bitter, distant past.
“You’ll never become Captain if you can’t hold your wine,” Sarya said with a laugh, pouring from a water-skin. Nox’s gloved hands shook as he tried to hold the cup still. He was frozen to the bone. Ice lined the inner rim of his cup.
“What’s wine got to do with becoming a Captain?” He asked. The wine was still warm from the water skin—a habit he’d never gotten used to. Why the woman drank her wine warm—although, he supposed, it did help keep his stomach warm. He couldn’t feel much below his knees anymore. The ache in his thigh was gone, too. She was right about that, at least.
They trudged through knee-deep snow. Nox remembered now, how thankful he had been for the Beast that marched ahead of them, flattening some of the path. He had seen at least a dozen Beasts by that point in his training, summoned from Transcendence and held in place by magiked collars. Beasts of every shape and size—but Torryn’s was different. Angry. All the time. Something like an over-sized wolf with bright, white eyes—and feathers where there was normally fur.
The clawed footsteps were sporadic, left to right, as if always trying to run away. A trail of sluggish blood dripped down the Beast’s neck into the snow, marking their path. A long, ribbon-thin line stretched miles behind them, frozen to the ground. By now, wolves or other creatures would have picked up the scent.
“To make it to Captain, you’ll see—and do—a lot of unpleasant things. You’ll want to forget them.” Sarya said with a small smile and took a swig from the water-skin before re-attaching it to her belt. Her boots crunched against the snow as she passed him. The Beast’s head turned to study her with one bright eye as she approached.
“Captain Sarya has seen and done a lot of unpleasant things in the line of duty. Most of them were blood mages uglier than you.” Torryn laughed, turning in his saddle to study Nox. The Guardian’s mouth broke into a toothy grin hidden by his thick beard.
“Uglier than me?” Nox looked offended. His hand went to his chest above his heart. “I’m shocked. I thought Captain Sarya had better taste.”
“I don’t choose who my trainees are—I just make the best of it.” Sarya said. Torryn’s Beast stopped suddenly, clawed feet digging into the snow and ice. Torryn held up a gloved hand, signaling for them to stop. Nox took an extra step—his boots crunched in the ice like a hammer resounding from an anvil. Sarya would remember, and he would lose marks for that mistake. Torryn’s eyes scanned the distance. His free hand drifted along his saddle, reaching for the long sword he kept there. Nox couldn’t see anything through the falling snow. He’d be happy if he never ended up on some frigid mountaintop ever again. Whatever demon they had followed up this treacherous path, surely it would have frozen to death by now. He didn’t understand how any of this was going to make him a Captain like Sarya someday—
A screaming howl erupted in front of them, so loud it made Nox’s ears ache. Torryn’s Beast spooked and jumped sideways—straight into Sarya. The Captain was knocked sideways into the snow. Nox couldn’t help the laugh that escaped his lips. Torryn drew his long sword from the sheath and the sound of metal rang across the empty, frozen morning. The laughter died in Nox’s throat. He heard the sound of crunching footsteps, moving slowly towards them, one careful step at a time. Something was advancing down the path. A shadow began to appear against the falling snow. Then, the strangest sound Nox had ever heard—hissing, like the low hiss of a teapot over a fire. The sound of boiling water. Ahead, steam curled into the air beneath dangerously clawed footsteps. The surrounding snow and ice melted with each demonic step.
“Nox, help your Captain up. Slowly.” Torryn spoke beneath his breath without taking his eyes off the trail. Nox nodded and moved to the left side of the Beast. Sarya had stopped struggling in the snow when she heard the awful scream. She knew the sound of a demon when it called to her. She held out her hand and accepted Nox’s help. Together they rose and faced the trail.
Blood began to drip faster down the Beast's neck. It’s nostrils flared, eyes darted from side to side in the delicate light. The shadow became darker and darker as it approached, ice and snow turning to boiling puddles in it’s wake. A small stream of water began to run downhill. It mixed with the Beast’s blood and continued to run in watery-pink rivulets behind them. The smell was sickening and Nox regretted drinking so much. His stomach seized. Sarya reached with one hand to begin to untie the laces of her bracers. The leather straps were stiff from the cold. She untied one and handed it silently to Nox instead of dropping it in the snow. He tucked it inside his belt. Torryn shifted in his saddle, spurs guiding his Beast to take a step backward, putting the three of them side-by-side on the trail.
“Nox, no matter what happens—” Sarya’s voice was cut off by another scream, and suddenly the demon was upon them. The hissing sound filled Nox’s ears, snow and blood sprayed across his face in a warm slurry. The demon was there, long, clawed arms outstretched, black claws slashed through Sarya’s throat in an instant. Blood gurgled and sprayed from her throat as she fell to one knee. Nox’s eyes went wide. The demon’s dark, glittering eyes looked up—staring directly at him. The morning was silent except for the sound of Sarya’s life spilling out onto the snow. Nox’s heart began to pound in his chest. The demon was right in front of him. Sarya lay on the ground, bleeding out. Torryn—what was Torryn doing? Why wasn’t he doing something? Nox couldn’t move. His legs were frozen in place from fear as much a cold. The hissing, boiling presence of the demon thawed his legs just enough and fear did the rest. He scrambled backwards and fell into the snow with a curse.
Torryn swung with his long sword, metal whistling through the crisp air, steel screaming for blood. The demon heard the scream, too, and jumped to the side. It slashed out with another claw, this time raking alongside the Beast and catching Torryn’s leg. Flesh and leather ripped open like wet paper. Torryn cried out and only years of discipline kept him from dropping his sword from the shock. Muscle and bare bone were split open. Blood soaked his Beast’s feathers. Torryn spurred his Beast into action; a blur of claws and feathers as the Beast attacked the demon, rearing up as Torryn’s hands gripped the reins, spurs digging in desperately.
The Beast clawed at the demon, wolf-like mouth snapping with deadly teeth. The demon slithered across the snow like a snake; soundlessly, not of this world. It left only a trail of melted snow.
Sarya blinked slowly. She stared at the blood that sputtered and ran down her chest. She was kneeling in a pool of her own blood. She felt light-headed already. She could survive this; she only had to Transcend to save her physical body. She just had to concentrate. She closed her eyes—
“Sarya!” Nox yelled, his arms outstretched to protect himself from the demon. Torryn was off his Beast now, striking at the demon with his sword. Blood ran down his left arm and his left eye was closed with blood spattered across his face. Sarya’s hand came up to grip her throat, to stem some of the bleeding. She felt so warm, so incredibly warm, she just wanted to curl up in a bed next to Nox and sleep—but he was yelling for her, and the demon wouldn’t let them sleep any time soon. Her bracer was untied. She shifted her weight, turning towards the two men, towards the demon and Beast, as they each fought for survival. She clawed at the fabric of her shirt, fingernails digging like an animal until she ripped the fabric and exposed her rough, scarred wrist.
She could save them—but it would mean focusing on the magic, not taking the time to Transcend and save herself. There was no time. Fire erupted around her throat, sealing the wound enough to let her focus; it was unguided, undisciplined magic, crazed at the thought of death. It hugged her throat, burned skin and flesh alike—she worked past the pain and pushed the fire outwards, focused on the demon. Rippling, dancing red and orange flames jumped from her throat, shoulders, chest—wherever her blood touched her skin or the ground, it turned into fire. And it all flew towards the demon—and Nox.