“What are the summers in Portsworth like?” a child once asked me while I was abroad in the city Nohr, a metropolis half the size of Portsworth. The air was temperate, but the throngs were screaming, laughing, creating their usual garbled cacophony of indiscernible sounds. Curiously enough, the child and I had found ourselves paired after she had lost her mother in a crowd that was anticipating the hanging of a bandit. I don’t normally care for such things, but for a criminal as notorious as Red Scar, I couldn’t help myself. I also wanted to know if his last words would be an attempt spit on the hangman or a genuine attempt to reach the crowd through words.
“They are unbelievable. You'd think the world didn’t have so many people, least of ways all at the same place. There’s performers and travelers putting on shows in every street, and celebrations that happen for less than any reason besides the fact that the air is warm and the ale is cheap. And for every three of those people there is one ship docked in the harbor, brimming with goods from other places. The crowds are roaring with tradesmen screaming about this and that being the best this or that, with all of them promising things that aren’t really true, mind you. But people buy into it, all the same. Frog leg?” I offered from the small basket I’d picked up on the way to the hanging.
The girl snatched the leg from me and bit into it, smearing the oils on her dirtied cheeks as she did so vigorously. “Thank you! But why would they do that?”
At her height, I was the one looking up at her. She was sitting on a stack of crates beside a tailor’s shop after I had hoisted her up there to get a view of the crowd in case she could see her mother. But now, she seemed to have forgotten she was lost at all, more curious about the hanging, about the stranger who’d helped her. We nibbled on the fried limbs while I thought it over.
“I guess lies are cheap. They drive a good bargain.”
“Why’re all them folks there?” She tucked a few locks of jet-black hair behind her large ears and looked down at me.
I shrugged and said, “You know … prosperity, riches,” as I rubbed my fingers together with a disgusted expression. She tilted her head in confusion at my word choice. “Money. Coin.”
She nodded with an “Oh,” while the hangman prepared the noose and a priestess escorted the prisoner to the scaffold. Someone with a book who was standing near to us yawned, checked to make sure the page they had stopped reading on was properly earmarked.
“Everyone wonders about the summers in Portsworth,” I thought aloud. “Ever wanted to visit?”
She nodded, her eyes leaving the scaffold to look at me.
“Maybe go for the summer festivities, but don’t leave immediately,” I advised, “not before autumn or winter. All the tourists leave by autumn, so it’s quiet, peaceful, and you can see so much more that isn't there in the summer.”
“Well, all the leaves in nearby forest turn red, for one. So when the leaves fall, the rivers catch them. For a few months, all the rivers around that forest are flooded with those leaves, carrying away thousands of them to the sea. And if the snows come as well, all you see is red and white, white and red.” Encouraged by her undivided attention, even as a display of death offered itself just a glance away, I continued. “But if you’re lucky enough, if you wait long enough, you can catch the snow sprites as they leave their homes to play in it.”
“Never seen one of them, huh?”
“Just in stories.”
“Oh, they breed like flies in Addoran. They’re a strange cross between squirrels and mice, with odd, furry wings, and undeniably cute. But when the snow is thickest, that’s when they come out.”
“I want one!” the child blurted.
“Well you should get one!” I replied, unsure of what else to say. I was so lost in my own thoughts, I had hardly noticed the Red Scar spitting on the crowd as the noose tightened around his neck. He was guided to the trapdoor by the priestess while the hangman readied his hand on the lever. Concerning last words, he could have done better.
“That’s the problem with beautiful things,” I told the child, “they’re always hidden in the unexpected, the cold, the dark … the places you’d never go to look for them.”
The hangman slammed a lever down, the trapdoor sprung and a pair of feet jolted into the empty space, just far enough so that they began to shake violently, then shudder, then sway in stillness as the crowd’s shouts rose to a crescendo.
“The winter does sound beautiful,” the child replied after the noise had died down.
“It really is.”
Standing just before the barrier surrounding Sarkana’s sanctuary, I watched the snowfall as it spread out, dusting the curved and towering branches in the Sea of Blood, shedding their foliage upon the now peppered ground. Just behind me, an eternal spring breathed dormant from Sarkana’s enchantments. But, just within my finger’s reach, my favorite season, although harsher, more brutal and honest, beckoned in its rawness.
“Are you really doing this?” Sarkana asked me, but the question seemed rhetorical if not entirely to express her lingering disbelief. She had armored herself in boiled leather over her usual garments. Her vambraces, cuirass, and spaulders had been crafted and woven with protective sigils, though she admitted she was unsure if they retained their power after being unused for so long.
“Are we doing this, rather,” I corrected. “And yes, we are. You said we were going to be the wolves, after all.”
“So I did,” she echoed back. Sarkana was wearing the seer’s eye while she held Frederick beside us on a leash that would do quite little if the creature decided to abandon his loyalty. “I am not taking those words back, mind you. Just … hesitant.”
“Hesitant … hmm. I would imagine that’s not something you feel very often.”
Her massive eyeglass-encrusted helmet swiveled in my direction. “No, not usually,” she admitted.
“How many are there now?” I asked.
“Let’s have a look.” Sarkana reached up and turned one of the lenses over her eyes. For a few moments, she stood silent while Felix investigated Frederick’s saddle to see if it was an adequate seat for his tiny, black frame. “Thirteen riders far behind Fahim, who’s sitting in a horse-drawn cart. They’ve made it look like he is leaving the city with his belongings.”
“How elaborate. What about archers, assassins, anyone sneaking along the sides of the road?”
“Not that I can see.”
“Are you certain?”
“If they were careful enough to remain hidden from a finch, I would say we were damned anyways.” As she willed the bird to flutter through the trees, Sarkana became more tense, her fingers hardened to twigs, and her breaths quickened.
“Are you all right?”
“This isn’t exactly the definition of easy, you know. Control is one thing, but governing a being from this distance with this device … it’s …”
“I’m sorry—just one last thing. What about Fahim’s expression?”
“Tense. Nervous. Looks like he’s ready to wet his seat.”
“I can’t really blame him for that.”
Sarkana turned every lens on the seers eye until they were all black, then took the contraption off before placing it in a satchel attached the Frederick’s saddle. Looking over her body, I realized she seemed rather lightly equipped. “You’re not bringing any weapons to fight with?” I asked.
She nudged Felix off the saddle until he cawed and returned to my shoulder. “I already have thirteen of them,” she shot back. “Are you ready?”
“I—erh. Thirteen? You mean to say …?”
“You’ll see, one way or another.”
Sarkana nudged Frederick to push through the barrier, pulling her cloak and hood over her face while the snow began to brush against her skin. I glanced behind me at the branch-woven gates guarding her home, never realizing just how tightly clenched the sanctuary seemed, like a fortress meant to keep the world out.
Beneath the dense cover of the forest canopies, the snow hardly touched us. Faerie lights encased in iron lanterns decorated the sides of the path, each of them attracting moths, their wings brightened to white, cavorting rings.
“The rooks in your story,” I began slowly, softer than my feet were treading on the ground. “They were your parents, weren’t they?”
“Just as Lisence wasn’t a fox, was she?”
“No, not at all.”
“How much easier it would have been, if they really were household pets,” Sarkana remarked with a dark laugh. “Who was the fox, then?”
Realizing my hands were a little nervous at the thought of fighting, I took out one of my daggers and began turning it over in my palm, flipping it this way and that, watching the curve of the steel as it slid through the air. “A little more than a friend, you could say. One of those rare people you could always speak your mind to, regardless of the things you’d normally keep from anybody else.”
“She might as well have been your sister, I reckon,” Sarkana said with a thoughtful look.
“Perhaps more than that.”
“Ah, I see. You grew up without siblings, I take it?”
“A brother, actually. Just one.”
“Ahuh … and where is he?”
“I wish I could tell you. Did you ever have any partners?”
“Oh, nobody worth remembering. Let’s move a bit quicker, shall we? Dusk is just behind our heels, and there is still much to be done after this.” Sarkana leaned forward on Frederick, pushing the gargoyle bat to jog awkwardly on its stubby legs. Its sharp tongue lolled out while its eyes flicked over the passing scenery. Heavy steam blew out in wet snorts while it struggled to cover distance without using its wings. Slightly annoyed by her unwillingness to pursue the conversation, I kept up beside them at a jog. It was nothing short of expected, to find my mind wandering to the past while morbidity inched closer to us. I suppose I couldn’t blame her for wanting to stay focused.
Beyond the rich density of moss and bark blackened by the lack of light, spots of sky presented themselves between the tangles of branches and thick leaves. From outside, the sky seemed a foreboding grey, thick and overspilling with frost, but within this darkened space, even that color was comforting.
Felix took off from my shoulder to play at a pile of leaves built up on the side of the large path, using his beak to push them aside. As Sarkana and I continued, the crow found the half-frozen carcass of a shrew. Pleasantly, he took it in his beak before returning to me, all but forcing me to feed it to him by hand.
“Good crow,” I cooed as it gobbled an intestine.
“That’s far enough,” Sarkana said suddenly as she dismounted. “You’ll have to go the rest of the way alone while I find a place out of sight. Any closer and we risk them seeing me.” She took out the seer’s eye from the satchel and tucked it beneath her arm.
I looked down the path as it bent sharply to the right. The trunks still covered the horizon like a curtain, but I knew that just beyond the bend, the path would become a straight arrow towards the crossroads. My feet tingled as I imagined Fahim waiting there. Just like Sarkana, the riders would be hiding behind the nearest cover, waiting to ambush.
As I considered the odds of the encounter, I wondered just how much I was needed for that ‘task’, and if she was really prepared to risk herself to secure my hand in helping her. I grew nervous at the thought, not with the possibility of dying, but what I might be facing should I survive. She followed me this far, hadn’t she?
“Casimir?” She touched my arm encouragingly and pulled me away from my thoughts. It was another surprising tone of warmth escaping the callousness of her demeanor. “It’s going to be all right.”
“And if not?”
She shrugged. “Dying isn’t so bad. At least, not if you have me around.” Her canines flashed at me as she smiled. I was curious about death, but reanimation, on the other hand, made me feel dubious at best. I wasn’t altogether excited about learning what it’s like to be resurrected from the Nether from firsthand experience.
A groan escaped me as I pressed my palms against my eyes. “I should never have sent him my ring.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” she sighed. “It was a little foolish, I’ll admit. But all of us do things we come to regret later. The regret isn’t the important part, it’s what you do with it that makes any difference at all. Why lament over the cards you were dealt when you could spend that time figuring a way to use them? Let’s focus on getting Fahim to safety, not the fact that you got him here.”
“You’re right …” I shook my head. “Thank you for reminding me.”
“Don’t fret about it. Here, have this.” Sarkana unbelted one of her vambraces and traded it with one of my own. The fitting was much tighter, but the belts managed to wrap around my right arm using their last holes. “You’ll need it more than I will.”
“But I rarely cast magick. How do I use it?”
“A Qalmorian who doesn’t use magick? What a damned shame.” She gave me a look of disapproval that wasn’t anything short of sincere. “Ah well. Can you think of something that makes you feel safe? A person, a time, a feeling? A place where nothing can harm you, a place where you belong. A specific memory, perhaps.”
A little hesitantly, I nodded. “I think so.”
“You can find the thought as you reach the crossroads. When you think you have it, pair it with the word ‘buklar’.” She scrunched up her face as she said it, blocking out her own memory so as to not trigger the enchantment. The sigil on the vambrace fizzled white essence that fell and dissipated before it touched the floor. “Once you’ve activated it, use it like you would a shield. It won’t do much for inflicting damage, but works wonders against arrows.”
I nodded again. “Thank you.”
“Now get going, I didn’t come out here to freeze. I’ll be right behind you.”
“In a way,” I muttered after I’d turned my back on her, the words eaten up by the snow-thickened air.
Around the corner’s bend, I found myself looking at Fahim’s silhouette, small from this distance as he was hunched over himself, his cloak held above his head to shield against the snow. I raised my hand to wave at him and received the same gesture. From what I could see, his followers had hidden themselves well. I continued forward, expecting an arrow, a crossbow bolt, a dagger to strike me each time I took a step. But even though I was dazed by the fact that I was still alive, I eventually stood just in front of Fahim, who looked down at me with the most conflicted expression I had ever seen.
The horse attached to his cart snorted in the silence. His belongings, or what was made to look like his belongings, were covered by a heavy tarp that flapped against the wind. A strong gust caught the underside of the tarp and lifted it up, just enough so that I could see the bundles of hay piled on top of one another.
“You idiot …” Fahim cursed as he got down from his seat and approached me. “You never should have—”
“I know, I know. I won’t ask you to forgive me. But everything is well, I promise. There’s no need to worry, well, not too much,” I corrected with a shaky chuckle.
From behind him, I saw the riders, now unhorsed, sifting through the trees on either side of the path, far enough for me to talk to Fahim without feeling the urge to reach for my daggers. The sounds of snapping twigs, displaced branches, and heavy footsteps were masked by the sound of heavy wind.
The calm, thoughtful color of Fahim’s ivory eyes were now a bloodshot storm of white, searching frantically through mine. “No, you’re not an idiot for that,” he muttered, “you’re an idiot for coming. This was all my fault, not yours. I should never have pushed you, knowing full well you’d actually do it. I should have taken it into my own hands. I was a coward. A damned, fucking coward.” He ran a hand through his hair, shaking more than the leaves yet to be shed around us.
“But it was my mistake. The ingredients …”
“The repercussions fall upon my shoulders all the same,” he said with an almost fatherly acceptance as his lips formed a sad smile. “Whatever happens, don’t blame yourself. Leave me behind, if you have to.”
“That’s not true .... nothing is black and white. We share this burden, that’s why I came, why I couldn’t leave you behind,” I insisted. “And why are you speaking like you’re already in your grave? We don’t need to speak of blame, not here. There will be time later. For now, we need to be alert, we only need to wait for our moment.”
“It’s no use. The dice have been rolled, Casimir.”
“But there are still some in our favor. I have somebody with me. Somebody who will help.” I craned to look behind him, only to realize I’d lost track of the stalkers in the trees. Their movements had ceased, or blurred, by the quickening of the snow now frenzied to a flurry. “This is not a final stand,” I told him, and yet my fingers already began to feather around the hilts at my side in a desperate search for control.
“Wait … who is helping you?” his eyes grew large, alarmed. “Is it someone from these parts? A practitioner? Somebody I’d know?”
“There’s no time for that, not now.”
“Tell me!” Fahim nearly shouted. “Quickly Casimir, before—”
“There won’t be a ‘before’. You’re not dying here! We only need to wait.” But the words weren’t as confident as I had imagined them, not as the dread crawled up in my stomach. I searched the skies for Frederick, our diversion, but found only the suffocating swirl of grey and white lashing the air around us. I searched the trees for steel armor, drawn weapons, but found everything camouflaged by snow.
As if he felt no choice but to cease quarreling with fate, Fahim closed his eyes and took a deep breath. My thoughts erupted and swirled in the storm’s din as I searched for the silhouettes of the pursuers in the blizzard. The truth came as a chill in my veins: I had far less control than I had imagined, that all of it was placed mostly, if not solely, on Sarkana’s intervention. As far as I knew in that moment, Fahim’s followers were not only creeping closer, they could had already surrounded us.
“The cold will numb the pain, at least,” Fahim remarked. “Now tell me who’s with you.”
“Gods damnit, this isn’t the time for last words. We can discuss this later.”
“You may be determined to escape death at every corner, but some of us know when our hours have struck their last. I won’t be surprised when it comes.”
“Go ahead, speak your eulogy. You’ll be embarrassed when we’re safe and far away from this mess.” I continued scouring the brush for the pursuers, still without success.
The alchemist chuckled and pushed a handful of vials into the pouch attached to my belt. “But before I forget, since you seemed content enough to take them without asking, I thought I’d give you some myself. There’s a healing elixir or two in there as well.”
He buckled up the pouch and patted it while I grimaced at his surrender. “I’ll have to make up for that sometime.”
“Don’t bother. What’s a performance without a bit of flare?" Too distracted by the impending attack, when I didn't respond, he continued another thought. "You know, I had always wished I was born some kind of an elf. I admired the way you greeted other Qalmorians. It seemed so … warm.”
“I’ll teach it to you afterwards, then. Please ready yourself. We need to—”
“Will you show me how your kind says farewell?”
For the first time since I’d seen him, I fixated all my focus on Fahim. The warmth in his expression despite the circumstances, the way he was impervious to the snow as it blanketed us, how he seemed desperate to solace himself with my presence, despite it being what brought him here in the first place. And I remembered, then, my first moments of entering the Foxfeather Castle. He was the one that William had called for to tend to my malnourishment, the wounds on my body, even the night terrors I suffered from. He was the one who listened when all I had were stories I had told myself. And though I might not have made sense at all to him, he made sense to me with his thoughtful replies, his smirk when he struck a mutual chord of dark humor. Like anybody else, Fahim had little trust for the world, but just like anybody else, he had a few things he trusted beyond measure. He trusted the things he cared for, what he spent hours crafting, the people he nurtured with his elixirs.
He trusted me.
“If you would be so kind?” he implored again. “If it’s not too much to ask. You said all we had to do was wait, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and … of course not,” I replied, surprised to find my voice huskier than it usually was. I cleared my throat. “It’s the same way that we greet each other.” I reached out and put my hand over his heart. “Mala’desh manorei, Fahim Mecidias.” Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the gigantic wings of Frederick cut through the thick bed of clouds above us. Hope melted the chill in my veins.
Fahim grinned and placed his hand over my own heart. “Mala’desh manorei, Casimi—” thwipt. Caught open, his mouth uttered a grunt. He staggered, briefly, then regained himself, the expression on his face remained unchanged besides the terror he tried to hide from me. Helplessly, I just stared back, the warmth of his blood already cooling on my face. His hand suddenly gripped me much tighter, latched on as his legs buckled from the pain that ignited in his chest.
Instinctively, I recoiled my hand back, only to find it was stuck to him, precisely where the arrowhead had found his heart and pierced through to the back of my palm. He was right; the cold had numbed the pain. The shock was what made it spread down my body in a furious surge.
When Fahim glanced down at the mortal wound that held us together, he just laughed. Another arrow fell and caught on his calf. This time, he wasn’t so quiet about his response.
I cursed and dragged him to the cover of the cart as the rest of the hail came down upon us, each of them flitting to the ground. With my free hand, I held his head up as I knelt beside him. Panic and acceptance quarreled for control over his last moments, but guilt and self-loathing fought for mine. “Breathe, just breathe,” I whispered.
He tried to, but began choking instead.
A silent sentinel, Frederick plummeted from the skies, his eyes milky white from Sarkana’s control. His claws found one one of the archers and dragged him up through the air until he was high enough to toss down again. A long, trailing scream echoed until branches and bones were heard cracking on his landing. Orders were shouted to divide attention between us and the beast.
Fahim’s body shook violently beneath my hand. He uttered my name while incoherent mumbles came from my own lips. Another man screamed after he was flung into the air, high enough that I could see his body flailing like a tossed doll. In haste at the opportunity, death joined the storm’ cavorting waltz, her presence filling the trembling body beneath my hands while droplets from my eyes dotted his chest.
Another volley, two archers short of last time, descended around us.
When I turned back to Fahim, I saw his consciousness flutter behind his eyes while his hand continued to dig for a grip on my chest. “Sarkana! Sarkana! He’s dying!” I screamed towards the forest besides us, uncertain if she would hear it at all, if she could do anything at all. If even Fahim would want her to …
“S-sarkana?” Fahim muttered, an unexpected recognition sparked him back to coherence. “D-d-on’t t-trust—” His eyes rolled to white, the weight of his head became limp in my hand, and his last utterance was cut short by a stuttered inhalation, a final intake of the sharp, snow-ridden winds tearing apart the air, a last lunge of breath that fizzled to silence.
I couldn't curse nor hardly breathe, just stare dumbfounded at my mistake. With my other hand, I snapped the arrow shaft beneath my palm and tore its splintered end out. A cold fury rushed through the wound and up my arm. I tried to grip the hilt of my dagger with my right hand, but the arrow had rent the tendons, rendering my fingers useless, shaking and bloody nubs.
Fahim’s final words shook me, bringing more questions than clarity, but at least for the time being, I still had to rely on Sarkana. I thanked the ambidextrous benefits from Zakora’s training and drew my longer dagger with my left hand, abandoning the much shorter trink.
Still covered from the cart, I watched as Frederick took up another man, hurled him to the clouds, and then retreated back in a descent towards the road I had arrived from.
A branch snapped to my right. I whipped my head around to see the sharpened point of a readied arrow glinting a steel smirk between scarlet leaves.
Autumn rain patters against the smudged windows of my childhood home. From my bed, I sit with my hands wrapped in Lisence’s as we watch the droplets conjoin and trail down grey streaks before the lightning erupts their contours with silver. She tells me how the thunder is delayed from the spark of light because the two are chasing each other in the storms, playing a game of tag, one that the lightning always wins.
“Buklar!” I shouted and held my arm aloft. Silver lightning and a thunderous roar exploded from the sigil, shaking my arm as the arrow got caught in the conjuration, turning to ash as it met the barrier. Without a second thought, I leapt to my feet and sprinted through the brush. Thorn and branch alike pricked my face as I tore through. I grasped the first thing my bloodied hand could get its numbed fingers wrapped around. Finding a hold of some steel armor, I saw that familiar, vulnerable sliver of neck and sent the blade to its destination.
Red spattered my vision, a spray of panicked killing upon frosted cheeks before I could even look at the face of the man who’d only stumbled backwards when he witnessed the sigil’s conjuration.
“Perfect,” I heard someone utter.
I looked up to see Sarkana over me and the body with a delighted smile, an expression I’d only seen the first time she looked me up and down. Her hood drawn, she slid back her sleeves and one, two, three times, with intermittent strokes she traded touches against the scars on her arms. Just as Shamus had done with a practiced flare, the expertly conjoined spells were cast almost simultaneously.
“Murth,” she intoned, and a black snake slithered from the wound in the archer’s neck while the convoluted ‘M’ marking leaked a matching hue. It slunk out of her skin, greeted the death coil, and sucked it back into the symbol.
Somehow, I managed to turn my head from the sight, to see another slew of arrows seeking us. “Buklar!” I returned, disintegrating the murderous flock of fletching and steel.
“Dek,” she intoned. The stored, blackened energy slipped out of the marking and slithered into all the others, until it seemed every scar upon her body was exuding it. Like a seamstress, she wove death through the stitches of her skin, until the color transmuted to that bright violet that surrounded her home, the hue of past lives bent to animation once more.
“Rezen,” she intoned, the Qalmorian word for ‘resurrect’, as the energy rushed out of her hands and bit into the archer’s body. Just as the corpse rose to its feet and dropped its bow, her eyes shifted color to the luminous violet that now breathed from her and the undead’s skin. As if she had heard a joke, Sarkana chuckled to herself and she sent the undead sprinting towards the archers firing at us. The armored body caught the arrows, staggering from the impact but running all the same, now wielding the sword that had been sheathed at his hip.
“You better follow them,” Sarkana hummed to me with a raised eyebrow. “We will need reinforcements.”
“This is … we can run. We should run, Sarkana. Fahim is already dead!” The realization struck me, the fault of my decision, the tumbling of chance now falling unfavorably black. Fahim’s body was gathering frost, dead for perhaps nothing, nothing besides the consolation of safety in the midst of chaos. I cursed myself, in disbelief at the carnage unfolding from my hands.
“What does that change? Nobody can know about this. Can you imagine what the Foxfeathers will send if they get word of what happened here? You’ve already taunted your doom by coming here, Casimir, you might as well divert it.”
Not far from us, somebody screamed an unholy string of curses, accompanied by, “Necromancy!” and “Run!” The arrows had ceased. The terror of meeting the same fate was enough to send their group into a retreat.
“There is no other way,” Sarkana nearly growled. “Chase them before they get away.” There was an alternative, there were many of them. But as I imagined them, all I saw was Sarkana’a sanctuary overrun with soldiers, all I saw was my neck slung in a noose.
“Kuilmore dek,” I cursed and forced myself to my feet to a sprint toward the nine remaining riders, weaving my feet between fallen trunks and high snow. Their backs were turned as they tossed glances back at a corpse, a jester, and a necromancer.
Snow kicked up from their boots as they ran, blood punctuated the places where they stumbled or fell, and thereafter, silent bodies rose to join the pursuit, their previous cries for mercy swallowed by the wailing winds, their limbs then willed by another.
Slaughter is a hollow depiction without the inspiration of the hands behind its creation. War is illustrated with ardent ferocity, valiant efforts and undying loyalties, raised banners, heroic shouts, vows and blood shed in the name of nationalities … the only variety that seems worthy of exemption when it comes to massacre. But the dusk of January 6th at the Reaver’s Crossroads was a different kind of illustration. It was of pallid hues, twitching skin, falling scarlet leaves, violet conjurations, the scream of silver and steel catching and Felix’s black wings fluttering. Caws, spluttered gasps and stifled regrets, haggard breaths and blood curdled curses; it was numb fingers fumbling for grips, a lucky, stray arrow and inescapable ends written by unwilling hands.
As I stood before the final rider, I felt little. There was only a subtle, detached appreciation for the mayhem being quieted by the snow, the cessation of all sounds being corralled into the storm’s ebb. Behind me, Fahim’s corpse still asked for the ending I had imagined: a quick, cunning trade where Sarkana distracted them while we fled. I had not expected the archers to fire on him without being provoked. I hadn’t expected him to die with foreboding words stuttering through blue lips. I hadn’t expected to feel the same transcendence of my escape, the unsought thrill of surviving opposition … even if it made me the slaughterer. Guilt was a growing shadow stalking behind me, but one I could not address, not when my life was the only offering for its dissipation. Was I lost?
I stared down at the last, breathing soldier as he whimpered incoherently, staring at the arrow shaft sticking out from my left eye, a wound I had earned while chasing his allies down. The force of it had been halted just enough from the foliage to not pierce deeper than the socket. All the same, it rendered me a much more menacing sight than I anticipated as I knelt down, regarding his fear with half of my vision obscured.
His face was the only one I could see long enough to remember; pale green eyes, a smooth, youthful face beneath blonde hair. Beneath me, the thirteenth rider lay anticipating his end.
But behind me, nine more stood awaiting Sarkana's commands with undead expressions, their eyes steadily draining of color. I felt for the feather ring and twisted its cold surface around my thumb. The blizzard was taking a deep inhalation, a frozen stillness that cast a gentle sway of benign flakes over us. A peace we did not deserve.
“Twelve …” I murmured to no one in particular. “No, thirteen.” I stood up and walked away from the remaining rider, the wounds of the undead gaping at me as I pushed through the reanimated crowd standing around us. My dagger felt heavier than usual. It dotted the stained, smeared path that led to the final body in the Reaver’s Crossroads score. It was a melody I had not wished to write but had undeniably created. Still, I could not bring myself to play the final note.
Sarkana looked at me with a curious expression, beyond alarm at the arrow I had survived. Her body trembled from the energy she’d spent. But for all her warmth in her sanctuary, there was no sorrow in her eyes as the dead surrounded us, only a playful grin on her face.
“You decide,” I told her before I continued walking away.
I meant what I said, about beauty found in the unexpected. The winters in Addoran truly are unforgettable. Who knew that blood spilt on snow turned the same color as the fallen leaves? I hadn’t known, not until I observed it spread out beneath me. I was a tiny silhouette in the center of the crossroads, surrounded by colossal trunks stretching their arms like crystalized castles, a limp shadow in disbelief with silence roaring in his ears.
Tears and blood slipped and fell alike as tears. I wondered why the arrow had not just pushed that much deeper.