A pale sun rose from behind the cragged peaks to the east, a mask of gray clouds veiling its warmth. A hawk circling above the emerald spires let out a lonely cry, and Nosstam stirred from his sleep.
The man groaned and rubbed his forehead, squeezing his eyes shut tight. He instinctively reached for the moonshine he kept beside his stained mattress and drank deeply. He grimaced; it tasted worse than it smelled, but it clouded his thoughts enough to allow him to face the day.
Noss pulled the wolf and bear skins off his naked flesh and stood. He stretched, his fists brushing the ceiling of the log cabin he’d shaped with his own two hands.He hadn’t built it big enough for his mighty frame, but it was cozy, so he didn’t mind.
Stepping over scattered wooden dishes, piles of clothes, and half-melted candles, Noss made his way over toward the fireplace. Warm embers glowed with heat, but the fire had long since extinguished. He crouched, churned the ashes with a poker, and threw in a new log. With a few strikes from his tinderbox, a fresh fire roared, filling the cabin with warmth.
Nosstam rubbed his stiff hands and peered outside. Nearly a foot of fresh snow had fallen overnight, blanketing the trees and rocky landscape in white brilliance, muffling the world. He never got tired of the silence, the sound of nothing.
The cabin creaked and groaned as the wind pushed against the walls. It wasn’t the most structurally sound edifice, but Nosstam reasoned it wasn’t bad for someone who’d never built anything with wood before. Now metal; that was something Noss knew well—or, he had known well, when he was a blacksmith making armor and weapons for warriors and vagabonds alike. It had been more than ten years since he’d last felt the heat of a forge, pounded a red-hot piece of iron with his hammer. It felt like a lifetime ago.
He shook the memories from his mind and peered into the washing basin warming next to the fire. It doubled as a mirror, allowing Noss to see how much he’d aged. His youthful face had long since begun to show the telltale signs of middle age, especially in the wrinkles around his dark blue eyes. He brushed his mighty beard, as black as the midnight sky, forming it into a point just below his chin. He realized then he hadn’t a clue who he kept it groomed for, though it did a good enough job hiding the thick scar that ran from the right corner of his mouth to his ear.
Noss rubbed his shaved head and felt stubble prickling his fingers, even through their thick calluses. He found his hatchet buried in a log meant for the fire and wedged it free. Carefully, he shaved his hair down to the skin, another meticulous task he hadn’t a clue why he continued. Perhaps trying to maintain his appearance over the past decade was a way of convincing himself he hadn’t completely transformed into the monster he feared he’d become.
After dressing in furs and a thick scarf and hat, Noss devoured a helping of salted meat he’d hunted a week ago. His strength renewed, he made sure his hands were clean of any grease or debris before gathering from the corner his one treasured possession: his guitar.
The instrument looked as pure and beautiful as the day Noss got it. Its rich maple body gleamed in the morning light, and its dark rosewood neck looked soft and pleasing to the eye. Noss held the guitar and examined it for any scratches or damage. Like always, he found none. He plucked a couple strings and savored the sound, then stepped outside onto the porch.
The view from the front of Noss’s home never failed to take his breath away. From his perch in the Ogwenshaw Mountains, he could see clearly into the valley below, leagues away, the shadows of clouds rolling across the green pastures. Surrounded by trees, boulders, plenty of game, and a fresh spring, he had everything he needed to live peacefully—everything expect peace of mind.
He sat down in a rickety chair he’d crafted that cried out in protest of his massive weight. Noss paid it no mind and started tuning his guitar. He’d done it enough times to tune it by ear—not that he had a choice anymore. He was just glad that, by some miracle, he hadn’t broken a string yet. He strummed a few chords to make sure all was in order, and then he began to sing.
Noss’s voice was the mountains and everything they held, from their ancient peaks and hidden caves to their resilient flora yearning for life. His fingers plucked complicated riffs as his voice carried his solemn song ahead. He kept his eyes closed as he sang. When he finished, he let the final note ring out, sighed, and opened his eyes.
And then the first voice he’d heard in ten years spoke to him.
“Drop your weapon.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Noss could make out the shape of a person next to him, on the other side of the porch. He didn’t turn his head to look, but he saw the shimmer of metal—a weapon–pointed at him. Noss sniffed and played a quiet melody on his guitar, doing his best to ignore the intruder.
“I said, ‘Drop your weapon,’” the voice—a girl’s, he realized—repeated. She stepped closer, her footsteps as silent as the snow swirling overhead.
Noss kept playing, his melody getting faster.
“Are you deaf?” the girl mocked, moving even closer. “Drop—” She gasped as Noss turned faster than his size implied he could move. The first thing he saw was an arrow pointed at his chest; his right hand caught the shaft, and with a flick of his thumb, it snapped. His long arm reached farther, grabbed the girl by her neck, and tossed her overhead, behind him, into the snow where she rolled.
Noss took a moment to gently lean his guitar against the cabin as she tumbled. The girl regained her balance and reached for an arrow from her quiver, but Nosstam was already in front of her. She yelped in surprise as he picked her up by her quiver and shook her loose. Arrows scattered, and she fell to the ground with a grunt.
The girl rolled backward as Noss reached for her again, and he recoiled as a flash of silver narrowly missed his fingers. She backed away and planted her feet, holding the knife in front of her with one hand and her bow in the other. She blew a strand of hair out of her eyes and waited.
Noss finally had a chance to get a good look at his opponent. Her size and vigor gave Noss the sense she was somewhere in her mid-teens, but her hair implied otherwise. As white as snow, it cascaded down her shoulders and back, ending somewhere in the middle of her spine. Despite being the color of an elder’s, it retained the sheen and healthy glow of a young woman’s. On the left side of her head, in front of her ears, two ropes of neatly knotted hair hung, adorned with raven feathers.
Her skin was remarkably pale. Noss wasn’t particularly tan, but his flesh looked brown compared to hers. The girl’s eyes were just as neutral; soft and gray, they stared at Noss with contempt. She wore form-fitting clothes built for the cold. Under her heavy boots and over her pants she wore wooly socks that reached her thighs, and the tattered white cloak she bore doubled as a scarf.
“Ashian,” Noss confirmed aloud.
Surprise glimmered in the girl’s eyes for just a moment. “You know of my people.”
The girl swallowed. Her heavy breathing had gradually become more controlled. “Why didn’t you stop?”
“Hm?” Noss grunted.
She pointed with the dagger. “Your…weapon.”
“Not a weapon.”
“What is it?”
“A guitar,” she repeated. “What’s that?”
Noss made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a growl. “Leave.”
The girl seemed to relax just a bit, but she kept the knife up. She hesitated a moment before saying, “I’m lost. I need—”
“Leave,” Noss repeated, just as calmly as before. He didn’t need to speak loudly to cut the girl off.
“If you could just—”
The girl sighed through her nose. Defeated, she bent to pick up one of her scattered arrows.
“Leave them,” Noss demanded. He didn’t trust her to not attack him unprovoked again. “The bow, too.”
“I need them!” she said. “How am I supposed to hunt without—”
“Leave,” Noss said once more, this time a bit more sternly. It seemed to faze the girl; she carefully set her bow down in the snow and began walking away, her eyes not leaving Noss’s until she passed the cabin. She turned and started jogging, eventually rounding a group of trees and disappearing.
Noss watched the spot where she’d vanished for a several moments before stooping to collect the arrows. Holding one up to the light, he examined the head. It was made of no metal he’d ever seen before, as black and shiny as ink. He gently moved his thumb across the arrow’s edge and winced; even with the lightest of pressure, it had cut him. Sharper than razors, they were.
The girl had left her quiver, too. Noss collected it and her arrows—carefully—and left them all on the porch. He reached for his guitar and paused.
An Ashian. He’d never seen one before, but he’d heard the tales. Her tribes resided at least a few leagues away, in the Ashlands below Embercrown, the active volcano in the middle of the Ogwenshaws. What was one their kind—a teenage girl, no less—doing so far from home by herself?
He saw her footprints in the snow and followed them. The ones leading to his cabin came from the south, and the ones going away pointed to the north. Wherever the girl was going, it wasn’t home. He frowned and returned to the silent comfort of his home.
Night came quickly, descending upon the jagged peaks and casting the frozen landscape into shadow. The season of Reap was ending, which meant Frost would be here soon. Two full moons rose in the east. Eo, the larger, cream-colored orb eclipsed a fraction of his sister, the pale-blue Io. Noss watched them in quiet admiration as he leaned against his home, absentmindedly strumming his guitar. With a final pluck, he sighed and went inside.
The fire had warmed the cabin to a cozy temperature. He stripped off his scarf and hat and rotated the spit, on which a chunk of elk meat roasted. He’d killed the beast the previous morning. It and melted snow was all he needed to get by—along with his moonshine, of course.
He dropped into a chair and rested his elbows on his knees, his hands hanging limply between them. As he leaned over, the chain necklace he kept tucked beneath his tunic slipped free and dangled before his face, the silver ring at the end of it shining in the firelight. Noss clutched it with one hand, and the other went to his scar. He traced it from lip to earlobe and furrowed his brow as he twirled the ring between his meaty fingers. His decision made, Noss shot out of his chair.
He scarfed down the tender meat and packed quickly, storing in a musty leather pack only the essentials: clothes, tinderbox, dishes and utensils, food, his hatchet. He threw the pack over his shoulder along with the girl’s quiver and, of course, his guitar. He threw on his hat, scarf, and gloves, for good measure. In his left hand he held her bow, and in his right he carried an oil lantern. Without a second thought, he extinguished the cabin’s fire and stepped out into the cold mountain air.
The girl had a full day’s travel on him, but she couldn’t have left an easier trail to follow. Unfamiliar with the land, the girl had double-backed on herself more than once. Fortunately, Noss caught her mistakes before making them himself.
The footprints wandered and weaved through the thick pines of the mountain, slowly but ever ascending its enormous face. Snow drifts and other animal prints occasionally covered the trail, but Noss had lived for ten years by hunting mountain game; finding the girl would be no problem.
Noss took occasional breaks to catch his breath. More than once he considered playing his guitar, but his frozen digits would be no use fingering chords. Instead he breathed into his hands and rubbed them near the warmth of the oil lantern before moving on.
The pale gray of dawn signaled the impending rise of the sun. Noss rubbed his eyes and stumbled forward, his body and mind yearning for a few hours of sleep. He grabbed a nearby tree to steady himself and stared at the girl’s footprints, left hours ago. He wondered how much farther ahead she was. She was certainly younger and spryer than Noss was; perhaps he’d never catch up. One thing was for sure: He wasn’t going to catch her without first regaining his strength. He considered napping in the snow when a scream pierced the air.
His vigor renewed, Noss half-ran, half-marched through the deep piles of snow toward the noise. A roar followed the yell. Noss’s eyes widened and his heart thumped in his chest; his time in the wild told him the cry came from a very distressed bear.
He ran faster.
Another scream pinpointed the girl’s location: a cave atop a shallow ridge, an orange glow emanating from inside. Noss grunted and pushed onward. The snow was so thick it felt like he was swimming. Finally reaching the top, he jogged inside and stopped.
A fully grown bear stood between Noss and the girl, who crouched in the corner with her knife as her only defense. Her tear-soaked eyes spotted Noss at the cave’s mouth, and she cried, “Help me!” The bear roared again and reared.
Nosstam already had an arrow nocked. It had been years since he’d used a bow, but his form and muscle memory didn’t fail him. Aiming for the bear’s back, he drew the string and released.
With a sharp thwang, the arrow burst through the bear’s shoulder, almost completely passing through its body before stopping. The bear roared in rage and misery and turned to face its more dangerous opponent.
“Shoot it again!” the girl cried from the cave’s corner, as if Noss had to be told.
The bear moved toward Noss, and he stepped backward, reaching for another arrow. He nocked it and fired, this time more hastily. It caught the bear in the thigh. The animal bellowed and gained speed. Noss grimaced and fired again, even quicker this time. The arrow clattered against the cave ceiling, missing the bear by a full foot.
“Damn it,” Noss said to himself. He moved backward still, almost running now, the bear nearly upon him. Without thinking, he reached for the hatchet on his hip and threw it as he tripped and fell onto his back. He rolled to avoid the beast as it fell to the rocky earth, the handy tool lodged in its skull.
Noss ran his hand down his face and shook his head. With a grunt, he heaved himself up and tugged at the hatchet until it ripped free with a sickening, wet sound. He shook off the excess blood and bits of brain matter before hooking it back into his belt. The girl sobbed.
“You alright?” he called to the huddled mass on the other side of the cave. By the dim light of the cave’s nearly extinguished fire, her hair seemed to glow.
“I’m fine,” she sobbed. Her face remained pressed into the knees she’d hugged to her chest.
Noss stepped over the bear and pulled the two arrows from its carcass, taking extra precaution to not touch the heads. He placed them in the quiver and pulled it off his back and over his head, laying it against the cave wall. “Have you eaten?”
“No,” she said. “Well, kind of.”
She lifted her head and nodded toward the fire. Noss saw the charred carcass of a squirrel on a makeshift spit, a chunk of meat missing from its belly. “I messed it up.”
Noss pulled the guitar off his back, then his knapsack. He dug through it, found some dried meat, and tossed it at the girl. She flinched as it hit the wall, then picked it up and ate cautiously.
“I’ll get some snow.” He trod outside and scooped up a pile in a wooden bowl. When he returned, the girl sat before the dying fire, still hugging herself. Noss sat across from her and held out the bowl. The girl reached in, pulled out a handful of snow, and ate it.
“I’m Kolena,” she said after a moment.
“Nosstam,” Noss said. “Or Noss. Take your pick.” He found another piece of meat in his pack and helped himself. He leaned back against the cave wall and chewed. “Whacha doin’ out here?”
“I wasn’t supposed to come this far,” Kolena said, looking away. “Like I told you, I got lost.”
“No, I mean, what are you doing outside your homeland?”
“You’re not familiar with Ashian custom?” Kolena asked, glancing at him from under her white brows.
Noss shook his head.
Kolena tucked her hair behind her left ear, taking one of her dreads with it. “On their fifteenth birthday, each Ashian has to pass through the Ogwenshaw Mountains and climb Embercrown—you know, the volcano.”
“At the top, a task awaits each traveler. After completing it, the Ashian returns home an adult, with the right to marry and own land and fight—everything.”
Noss shoveled a scoop of snow into his mouth. “What’s the task?”
Kolena shrugged. “I suppose I’ll figure it out when I get there. They gave me this, though.” She dropped her legs and shifted her hips to show an ornate goblet clung to her belt.
“How do your tribes know if you’ve completed the task?”
“Look at my eyes.” Kolena leaned over the fire so Noss could get a good view. They were as he remembered them: light gray, like rain clouds on an early Frost day. “Every Ashian child’s eyes are the same exact color, but the adults’ are dark as night.” She leaned back. “That’s how I’ll know my task is done.”
Ashians were a strange folk. That much was certain. What kind of person sent their daughters, their sons, their sisters and brothers to the top of a volcano just to test their ability to make adult decisions? Had Noss not shown up, Kolena would be in the stomach of a bear. Of course, that was only because he had stolen her weapon in the first place. Regardless, Noss didn’t see the logic in the ritual. He’d never been one for traditions, especially ones likely to kill their participants.
Kolena sat back and finished her food. “I’m sorry for sneaking up on you. I saw your… What’d you call it?”
“Right. I thought it was a weapon and panicked.”
A strange folk indeed. “It’s an instrument.”
“We don’t have instruments in the Ashlands,” Kolena explained. “Our voices are our only instruments.”
Noss frowned. Living in a land covered in the ash of Embercrown sounded bad enough; living without musical instruments was unbearable to think of.
“Will you play me something?”
“I don’t perform.”
Kolena opened her mouth to retort, but she stopped without saying a word.
“Get some rest. Sun will be up soon.”
Kolena gave him a confused look. Realization struck a moment later. “I must make the journey alone.”
“You will,” Noss assured her. “Except I’m going with you.”
As time moved on, the days got shorter, and the snow got deeper. Their progress slowed to a crawl. Noss considered doubling back and finding a new route, but Kolena’s eagerness to press on convinced him to do the same. Only the occasional sight of Embercrown drawing ever nearer from beyond the mountains gave Noss any proof of their progress.
They slept wherever they found themselves come dusk, and Noss hunted when and what he could. Some nights they dozed soundly in the warmth of a thicket of shrubs or rocky alcove with bellies full of meat. Other evenings, Noss lent a fur to Kolena as they huddled against a tree and braced against the bitter cold, a poorly cooked bird the only food between them both.
On the dawn of the fourth morning, Noss gazed at the sky with disdain. Gray clouds spiraled above with grim malice. It was then Noss realized he’d gotten more than he bargained for. “This ritual of yours have a time limit?” he asked Kolena, who was just then rousing from her slumber.
“The longest it took someone was a fortnight,” she said as she rubbed her eyes. “That was decades before my time.”
Noss adjusted the guitar on his shoulder. Embercrown stood a few leagues away still. They might reach it by nightfall, but they still had to ascend the mighty volcano, complete some mysterious task, and descend it again before Kolena could begin the journey home. “Might just beat that record.”
Kolena sighed. “My father will love that, I’m sure.”
“Who cares what your father thinks? Just get back alive. That’s all anyone will care about.”
“You might just be surprised by how many of my tribesmen care what my father thinks, him being the chieftain and all,” Kolena shot back. She stood and brushed the snow from her cloak and hair.
“Chieftess in training, huh?” Noss said dryly, not the least bit fazed by the girl’s announcement.
“No,” Kolena replied, crossing her arms. She lowered her voice and looked away. “That right belongs to my wonderful younger brother, of course.” She did nothing to hide the sarcasm. “Do you have any siblings?”
Nosstam scratched his beard and cleared his throat. “Not exactly sure.”
“How can you not be sure? You either have brothers and sisters or you don’t.”
“Not that simple.”
“Of course it is.” Kolena gave him a confused look.
“Not important. Let’s get some breakfast.”
“Fine.” Kolena crouched, picked up her bow and quiver, and held them out. Since he’d joined her, Noss had been taking care of all the hunting. “Try to get something with some real meat on it, huh?”
“Hold onto it. You’ll be using it today.”
“What? You saw what I did to that squirrel when you found me in that cave.” She had a point. Her arrow had obliterated the poor creature, destroying most of the edible meat. She’d burnt the rest when trying to cook it.
“Which means you need practice. We don’t eat until you shoot something down. Let’s go.”
They continued east, toward the silhouette of the volcano eclipsed against the rising sun. A light snow fell, and flakes swirled about the duo’s bodies as they shuffled through a season’s worth of ice and frost. Noss missed the cozy comfort of his cabin, the warmth of his fireplace, the softness of his bed, but more than anything, he longed for music again. He hadn’t so much as plucked a single note from his guitar despite Kolena’s incessant begging. Noss wondered why he’d brought the thing at all; the cold and snow certainly wasn’t good for the wood or metal furnishings.
“Why don’t you have your bow out?” Noss asked over his shoulder.
“Because we don’t see anything,” Kolena replied in a patronizing tone.
“Once you do see something, it’ll be gone by the time you draw your weapon.”
She gave a soft groan and complied.
“Another thing: Don’t shoot the first thing you see. Hunting requires patience; wait to find the prey you want, and then wait for a clean shot.”
“Yes, fine,” Kolena said.
Noss frowned, but from his lead position, Kolena didn’t see. He thumbed his scar and continued through the thick snow, leaving a path for the girl.
They trudged on for an hour before they spotted worthy game. Noss halted when he saw what he thought were branches move. Kolena bumped into his back and opened her mouth, but Noss clamped a hand over it before she could protest and pointed beyond the trees. Fifty yards out stood a young elk, its frost-covered antlers glistening in the sun.
“I can’t hit that,” Kolena whispered in disbelief of the distance.
“You can,” Noss assured her. “Crouch down.”
Kolena obeyed, dropping to one knee. Noss squatted beside her.
“Nock an arrow.”
She pulled one from her quiver and touched it to the string of her bow. Noss noticed then the craftsmanship of her weapon. The bow, carved from ebony, was tall and thick, meant for long, powerful shots. It was simple in design, but the bowyer who’d crafted it had clearly cut no corners; property maintained, the weapon could easily last 100 years. Perhaps it already had. The arrows were no different. The black arrowheads reflected like glass, and the other end of the shafts were adorned with three raven feathers to match the ones in Kolena’s hair.
“What now?” Kolena whispered harshly.
Noss snapped to attention. “Left arm straight,” he instructed, moving it. “Close your left eye, and aim above the beast.”
“How far above?”
“Few feet oughta do it. Hit the heart, just behind the front leg.”
“I’ve never shot something so far away,” Kolena said, her voice full of doubt.
“Don’t think. Breathe in, draw with three fingers, release. Your eye will tell the arrow where to go.”
Kolena exhaled slowly. Once she emptied her lungs, she stuck her tongue out in concentration, sucked in through her nostrils, drew, and loosed. With a thwang her arrow soared over the undisturbed blankets of snow, flew between branches, and passed the elk by fifty feet at least, disappearing into the white behind.
“Shit,” the two said together.
The beast, sensing a disturbance, lifted his head, twitched an ear, and vanished behind the pines.
“Quick,” Kolena said, drawing an arrow and holding the bow toward Noss. “Before it gets away.”
“We don’t eat until you take a beast down,” Noss reminded her, and he almost felt bad, the look of horror she gave him.
They continued east toward Embercrown, its magnificent face growing larger with each step. Its peak melted into the gray clouds, but above that, Noss could see the dark, distinctive smoke pouring from its molten mouth.
Noss’s put a hand over his mighty stomach as it growled. “What kind of chieftess doesn’t know how to hunt?”
“I told you, I’m not a chieftess.”
“Will be if anything happens to your brother.”
“Wrong again. He’ll be married soon, and children will come after.” Noss sensed a sense of longing, even regret, in her voice. “Can you please kill something for us to eat?”
“Best way to learn is out of necessity,” Noss explained. “How I survived.”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s a middle-aged man doing living alone in the mountains, anyway? Don’t you have a family?”
“I did,” Noss answered patiently. “Once.”
“Don’t wanna talk about it.”
“It can’t be that bad. Just tell me—”
“That’s enough,” Noss snapped, turning toward the girl.
She recoiled and furrowed her brow. “Okay, okay,” she said, holding up her hands.
It was afternoon before they found another target. Another elk—smaller than the first—trod slowly through a clearing at the bottom of a small incline. At a distance of only twenty-five yards, it was a remarkably easy shot.
“Same as before,” Noss instructed. “Elbow up, and make sure you pull the string across your chest to your armpit.”
“I got it,” Kolena said. She exhaled, sucked in sharply, drew, fired. This time her shot missed by a close enough margin to send the elk bolting in terror. She sighed in disappointment and stood.
“With that kind of aim, it’s a miracle you killed that squirrel,” Noss muttered.
Kolena mumbled something.
“I said it was clinging to a tree ten feet away. A blind man could’ve shot it.”
Noss smiled, but hid it before Kolena noticed. “Don’t fret. Aim’s improving. Might eat by breakfast tomorrow, at this rate.”
Kolena scoffed and shifted the quiver on her shoulder. “You’ll break before me, big man.”
“Doubtful,” Noss argued, and he shook his giant stomach with both hands. “Plenty to keep me warm and energized. You’ll shrivel into nothing without some food in ya.”
“Might as well get your arrow,” Noss suggested. “You’re running low.”
“It’s no use,” Kolena said, turning east and moving away from the shot.
Noss gave a fleeting glance at the shaft protruding from the ground and followed. “How so?”
“These arrowheads are made from emberglass,” Kolena explained, holding an arrow up. “They’re incredibly sharp—sharp as they come, really—but they’re as fragile as a dead twig. Even a simple tap can crack one. Shooting them—even into the snow—can shatter the heads.”
“What about the ones I took from the bear I shot?” Noss asked, remembering the arrows he’d taken from the animal seemed unharmed.
“They were cleans shots. Missed the bones,” Kolena explained. “They chipped, but they made it. Used them on the elk, actually, so I’m sure they’re nothing but fragments now.”
Noss nodded. “Emberglass comes from Embercrown, I imagine.”
“Mhm. Hey!” Kolena turned to face Noss, her expression full of optimism. “Do you think that’s what my task is? To collect more emberglass for my tribe?”
Noss scratched his beard. “Somehow I think a ritualistic journey that turns Ashians’ eyes from gray to black requires a bit more than collecting some precious mineral.”
Kolena looked disappointed. She turned and continued leading Noss east. “What could it be then?”
“You’d know more than I.” Noss crouched below a low-hanging branch. He noticed Kolena hadn’t even needed to duck her head. “Anyone return from this journey without completing their task?”
“Nuh-uh. You come back with black eyes, or you don’t return at all.”
“How often does an Ashian fail to return?”
Kolena shrugged a shoulder. “It’s rare, but it happens. The family mourns, and life moves on.”
That didn’t exactly put Noss’s mind at ease. Was it the task or the journey that killed those who never saw the Ashlands again? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
The sun began to dip as the duo reached the foot of Embercrown. Noss had to crane his neck back to see where the peak vanished into the mists above. It would take at least a few days of ceaseless climbing to reach the summit. He considered leaving her here, his task of guiding her to the volcano completed, but then he remembered she still couldn’t hunt. Leaving her out here was as good as sentencing her to death, so he couldn’t abandon her now.
“We’ll camp here,” Noss announced as they approached a small clearing. The pine trees surrounding the glade had branches thick enough to shelter the area from the weather. A small fire would melt away the excess snow and keep them both dry and warm—something Noss hadn’t been since he left his cabin.
As Noss crouched with a grunt to drop off his supplies, Kolena staggered into the clearing and collapsed in the shallow snow. Noss didn’t care what kind of show she put on; he refused to hunt for her. She’d thank him in the long run.
“I’ll gather firewood,” Nosstam said after leaning his guitar and nearly empty knapsack against a tree. Kolena didn’t rouse. He prodded her with his foot, and she remained still. “I’ll be back,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.
If he hadn’t known he’d spent the last five days wandering the mountains, Noss could have mistaken the woods that surrounded him for those around his cabin. Since he’d left home, the landscape around him and the girl had remained more or less the same, Embercrown being the only point of reference to their progress. He realized then how difficult it might be to find the cabin on the journey home. He was familiar with certain parts of the land surrounding the cabin, but after wandering leagues away, finding his home again could be an issue.
There wasn’t time to worry about that now. He had more pressing matters to attend to, like filling his grumbling stomach with precious nourishment. He spotted a squirrel in the tree branches above and instinctively reached for his hatchet. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to kill it with an expertly aimed throw. He pulled the axe from his belt but then thought better of it. If Kolena could suffer for Noss’s stubbornness, so could he.
Instead, he sunk his blade into a nearby branch, as dry and brittle as ancient bones. He took down a few more for good measure and, with arms full of firewood, headed back to camp.
As he rounded a curve in the hills, he found the glade abandoned. Fresh prints led away from the camp, the arrows and bow gone, too. Noss silently wished Kolena luck on her hunt—for both their sakes.
Dusk turned the overcast sky from gray to orange to an even darker gray. Without a light to guide her, Noss figured Kolena was on her way back. With a steady fire warming his chilled bones, he pulled out his guitar to pass the time. He hadn’t played a note in five days. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone that long without playing. Probably never. He leaned back against a tree and crossed his ankles before strumming a few chords and breaking into a solemn song about his sister.
Gods, how he missed her. It had been ten years since he’d see Taerin’s shining face. She must’ve been about Kolena’s age when Noss left. He wondered for the thousandth time what she looked like now. He wondered if she was married, had any kids, or had moved away. He wondered if she was even still alive. Noss liked to think she thought of him too, or perhaps she thought him dead and hadn’t dwelled on him in years. Maybe that was better.
He finished with an angry chord and let it ring until it died away before reaching for his scar. As he traced it with his finger, he felt a dampness on his cheek and realized he’d been weeping. A branch snapped no more than ten feet behind him. Frustrated at Kolena’s invasion of his privacy, he wiped the tear away and stood. “Damn you, girl,” he growled.
Nothing stirred in the shadows.
Noss sighed. “I’m not mad,” he lied. “Just tell me you brought some food.”
Another branch cracked, this time to his right, farther away but louder.
A pair of glowing, green eyes opened and stared at Noss from the darkness. He reached for his hatchet as realization struck, but the creature was already upon him. The int’s scream rang like a chorus of shattering wood as she pounced from the shadows, slashing at Noss with sharp, wooden claws.
Noss fell on his back as the beast tackled him. He dropped his axe to hold her razor-sharp talons at bay, their points only inches from his face. He grimaced; the hollow wooden monster was much heavier and stronger than her brittle appearance let on.
He found friction with his left foot and planted it. With his right, he pushed the int off. Noss grabbed his hatchet and stood, panting, the fire at his heels. As the creature struggled to stand, Nosstam got a good look it. He’d heard the legends, but he never suspected they were true, yet here one stood, unmistakable. The int must have been seven feet tall—a bit on the small side, based on the tales Noss had heard. Comprised of branches, sticks, twigs, and leaves, the empty, wooden creature resembled that of a shapely woman. Her greens eyes blazed with fury as she charged again.
Noss faked right and dodged left, sinking his axe into the int’s brittle back as she passed. She hollowed in pain, but that was the extent of inconvenience the attack brought her. The creature dropped to a knee and dug her sharp claws into the frozen earth. Noss’s eye flashed with curiosity, and then he heard a creaking behind him. A giant pine collapsed, its roots destroyed, missing him by only inches as he rolled out of the way.
The creature held more power than he could have imagined.
The int sprinted at him again, claws outstretched. Noss hopped over the fallen tree, and the beast slashed at air. Noss took the opportunity to grab her by the wrists and drag her over the trunk. With nothing but an insatiable fury and a drive to find Kolena powering him, Noss pulled the flailing int toward the fire. Her screams of protest crescendoed into those of pain and misery as Noss held the int’s face to the flames. Her strength doubled, but Noss leaned his full weight on the creature, burning himself in the process. He screamed in rage and held the int’s head in the blaze, pushing her face into the ash. He watched her wooden form char until her eyes glowed green no more.
Noss wasted no time nursing his wounds or catching his breath. He held one of the monster’s engulfed arms by the wrist and slammed his boot into her elbow, breaking it off into a makeshift torch. It would have to do. He stepped on the int’s back, pulled free his hatchet—unburned, thank the gods—slung his guitar over his back, and followed the girl’s footprints.
He realized as he jogged that it had begun to snow, and heavily, too. Kolena’s trail could be gone within an hour. He quickened his pace.
The forest looked ominous by the pale light of the flame. Shadows danced as the wind bent the trees, and the thick flakes fell faster, further obstructing Noss’s view. He wondered how far she’d wandered, but it didn’t really matter; the fact that she hadn’t returned by sundown meant something was holding her up. Noss silently hoped it wasn’t more ints.
He stopped cold. He swore he’d heard a voice. Was it the wind? Nosstam pivoted in the snow and held the torch higher.
A scream—human, a girl’s, carried by the wind—caused the hair on Noss’s back to stand on end. He abandoned the trail of footprints and ran north as fast as his meaty legs could take him, panting heavily. Wherever Kolena was, she was alone and afraid, with no light but the moons to guide her. If ints had engaged her, it would take a miracle for her to survive.
Noss spotted a collection of glowing green orbs, small in the distance. Six, at least. His stomach dropped. But then, by the light of twin moons, he saw a small figure dart away from them. Kolena’s distinctive white hair fluttered in the wind as she ran.
The group of ints started after her but stopped as Noss let out a piercing whistle and waved the flaming arm overhead. “Over here, ya wooden bitches!” he taunted. He was sure the monsters couldn’t comprehend human speech, but it felt good to yell it all the same.
Only one int took the bait. Noss rushed to meet it head on as the other two disappeared farther into the forest, hot on Kolena’s heels. He’d have to work quickly. Noss led with his axe, drawing the creature in. In her eyes, he could see her apprehension of the flames, he fear of their destructive power, but she attacked regardless, swinging wildly with her creaking limbs. Noss clumsily deflected her strokes, waiting for an opportunity. The int lunged, and Noss slapped it across the face with his torch. She didn’t catch flame, but the attack stunned her. She stumbled backward and leaned against a tree.
Noss didn’t waste the opportunity. He broke into a run and, with all his might, threw his hatchet. It spun end over end before the blade sunk into the creature’s head. The int howled in pain—a sound that made Noss’s skin crawl—but he didn’t give it a moment to recover. Still running, he put his shoulder up and bashed the beast against the trunk. She cried out again and collapsed, half her body splintered. Noss freed his axe and set the miserable creature alight, her screams blending into the storm as he left her to burn.
It took only moments to find Kolena winding through the trees in an apparent attempt to shake her pursuers. It was a lost cause, in Noss’s mind; the ints’ glowing eyes likely gave them supernatural vision. Noss started jogging to cut her off when he saw Kolena throw her bow over her shoulder and leap to a low-hanging branch. She scrambled up several feet.
Noss saw one of the ints immediately drop to her knee. He came to a halt, cupped his hands over his mouth, and cried, “Get down!”
Kolena’s head snapped to face him. “Noss?” she yelled back in disbelief. She must not have noticed him in her distress.
“Get outta there!” Noss shouted again as the tree Kolena clung to began to tip, its roots ripping from the rocky mountain soil.
Noss started running again when he realized it was too late for her to climb down. Kolena screamed in terror and clutched the pine’s trunk. At twenty feet up, she had nowhere to go, and the tree would certainly crush her.
“Jump!” Nosstam said without thinking. He’d already sheathed his hatchet and abandoned the torch, his arms held out.
Kolena didn’t hesitate. She fell gracefully from the tree, her body limp. She slammed into Noss’s arms with great force, but his grip held true. The sudden weight threw him off balance, and they fell together, Noss rotating them both so he took the force of the fall. Roots and rocks scraped his back and head as they slid to a halt. The tree toppled to the ground mere feet away, blanketing them both in a layer of snow, dirt, and wood.
Kolena rolled off Noss’s chest and tugged at his clothes. “Let’s go!”
Groggy and stunned, Noss rolled over and stood. Bright lights clouded his vision. He shook his head and staggered after the girl.
“How do we stop them?” Kolena asked over her shoulder as they ran together. Already the ints were behind them both and catching up quick. “My arrows are useless.”
“Fire,” Noss managed to spit out between heaving breaths. His lungs burned.
“Can we outrun them?”
Noss didn’t know the answer to that, but somehow he doubted ints ever fatigued. He knew then what he had to do. He slowed down. “Keep going.”
Kolena spun around. “What? No. We’ll go together.” She grabbed his hand and gave it a tug.
Noss shook his head and leaned against a tree. “Can’t run much longer anyway, and your arrows are useless. I’ll hold ‘em off.”
“Noss, please,” Kolena pleaded, pulling at his arm again.
Nosstam looked at her and nodded. “Go,” he demanded.
Kolena’s eyes brimmed with tears. She whispered something under her breath, something about Noss being a stubborn bastard, gave his hand a fleeting squeeze, and disappeared into the storm.
With his hatchet held high, Noss turned and waited for his opponents. He saw the pair’s green eyes first, beyond the flurries of snow. Noss charged.
He was more worn out than he’d thought. Bringing the axe down and then across, he missed both ints as they effortlessly dodged away. He felt a sharp pain as one of the monsters raked his shoulder blade with her sharp claws. He spun on the spot with his axe out, but the creature had already moved away.
Another blinding pain shot through the other side of his back. He twisted again and missed once more. The ints circled around Noss in tandem, forcing him to keep his back to at least one of them. Apparently they weren’t completely mindless.
Before the one to his rear could slice at his back again, Noss yelled and sprinted at the int before him, arms out. With nowhere to go, the int fell to the snowy earth, Noss atop her. He raised his axe, but just before he brought it down, he felt the int behind him grab his wrist and retch the weapon from his hands. He head rang as the creature delivered a blow to his temple, and Noss fell over, stunned.
As Noss lay bleeding in the cold, he couldn’t help but notice how beautiful Embercrown looked by the light of the moons, veiled by a wall of endlessly falling snow, its ominous appearance magnificent and mysterious. He smiled, momentarily forgetting the ints entering his field of view, their talons held high, ready to slash and stab. He closed his eyes; this wasn’t a bad day to die—not in this place, for the life of an innocent girl.
A deafening screech snapped Noss back into reality. His eyes shot open to see one of the ints aflame, screaming in misery as she ran, too disorientated by the pain to realize dropping into the snow would extinguish her. The other creature turned to face her opponent and ran straight for Kolena.
Noss saw a ball of fire pass overhead. Groggy from his wounds, he forced himself to his feet and grimaced. In the distance, he made out the unmistakable form of Kolena. In her right hand, between her fingers, she held several flaming arrows. The int continued its straight-on assault. Kolena nocked another arrow as the beast moved ever closer.
“C’mon,” Noss whispered to himself, quietly cheering her on.
The arrow soared across the snowy clearing and nicked the int in the shoulder. She cried out and staggered, but the flaming arrow spun through the air and landed in the snow, where it extinguished with a fizzle. Noss didn’t waste another moment. He ran toward Kolena as she yelped in panic and nocked another arrow. That’s as far as she got before the int leapt and thrust sunk her claws into the girl’s stomach.
“No!” Noss bellowed, his fury renewing his vigor. He ran faster. Kolena sunk to the ground, her eyes wide with shock. The int turned and, with a sickening sound, pulled her talons from Kolena’s flesh. The girl sucked in her breath and let out a gurgle before collapsing face first into the snow.
Noss reached her before her arrows could fall from her hands and extinguish in the snow. Before the int could defend herself, he grabbed one, spun around, and stabbed the beast in the chest with it. It slid in effortlessly, and the beast screamed in agony as tongues of fire consumed her. Noss didn’t give her even a moment to defend herself. He sunk his axe again and again into her bark, hacking away pieces of wood, until she fell to the earth and screamed no more.
Nosstam sheathed his weapon and fell to his knees beside Kolena. To his astonishment, she raised her hand toward his face. He took it in his own.
“The…campfire,” she said, and Noss understood where she’d found fire to light her arrows.
“Shhh,” he whispered. The off-white cloth around her stomach had turned a sinister red. Noss swallowed a lump in his throat and pulled her shirt up to her rib cage.
The wound was deep. Each beat of Kolena’s heart sent more blood bubbling to the surface, trickling over her pale stomach to drip into the snow. Noss applied pressure with both of his massive hands, and Kolena shuddered, her eyes closed tight.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, doubting the words as soon as they left his lips. Kolena, already slipping into unconsciousness, didn’t respond.
He did the best he could dressing and bandaging the wound with scraps of Kolena’s tattered shirt and his own furs. After an hour, the bleeding had stopped. Noss saw red everywhere: his hands, the snow, Kolena’s clothes and flesh. He used snow to wash what he could, slung her quiver and bow over his shoulder, gently picked her up, and made for the direction he thought the camp was in.
It didn’t take Noss long to spot the orange glow of his fire in the distance. He found the camp as he’d left it, only covered in a fresh layer of snow. He set the girl and her equipment down and pulled off one of his furs. He wrapped the girl in it and leaned her against a tree close to the fire.
She needed food now. He took her bow and quiver again and turned to leave.
“Elk,” he heard a voice behind him whisper. He looked over his shoulder. Kolena’s eyes were barely open, but she looked directly at Noss. “That…way.” She nodded her head to the southwest.
“I’ll get them,” Noss assured her, holding up the bow, but she had already dipped below again.
Noss left in the direction she’d pointed. He made it less than a hundred yards before he saw it: There, amongst the green of the pines, a blanket of snow growing upon it, the carcass of a freshly killed elk lay, the shaft of an arrow protruding from its neck.
Noss ate his fill by the fire as the blizzard worsened. He chewed thoughtfully, savoring each bite of the tough venison. He was thankful for the moonshine that dulled the pain from the deep cuts the ints had left on his back. He took a swig and looked for a trace of light among the clouds, but it was impossible to tell when dawn would arrive with the flurries of snow.
He cooked as much meat as he could and packed his bag with what he didn’t eat. Kolena would need something to fill her stomach after she woke up, which Noss hoped was soon. At the rate they were going, they’d die before reaching the summit of Embercrown.
The girl slept soundly, nestled in the warmth of the furs Noss had draped over her. Pushing her over onto her back, Noss pulled back the furs and lifted her shirt. Her bare flesh felt soft, smooth, dry, just like the ash her people were named for. He pulled back the bandage and winced; he’d painstakingly stitched the wound with one of Kolena’s arrowheads and dressed it with cloth from his shirt, and the bleeding had stopped, but the wound was nonetheless ugly. The ints had stabbed deep and true.
Noss covered Kolena, rose, and kicked snow over the fire. He threw the bow, quiver, and pack over his back, where they bumped against the guitar that still hung there. Noss shuddered to think of the condition the instrument was in. With a grunt, he scooped Kolena up in his powerful arms, holding her like an infant, then made for the volcano.
Noss hummed to keep his mind off the precarious situation he found himself in. He and a little girl, a stranger, were days from civilization, and their journey felt like it was far from over. He wondered how he’d ended up here, far from home, on what felt like the brink of disaster. He pushed the thoughts from his mind before he lost the will to carry on.
The sun had risen by the time he reached the foot of Embercrown, though it was hard to tell through the curtain of dark gray clouds above. The wind howled through the cracks and crevices of the scarred mountain, and Noss had to lift his hand to shield his eyes from the flecks of snow and ice that pelted his face.
“Kolena,” he whispered to the girl. She slept soundly in his arms, nothing more than a babe swaddled in dirty furs. He shook her gently and tried again. “Kolena.”
The girl’s eyes fluttered, and she moaned. Startled, Noss crouched and gently set Kolena down against a rock. Her eyes opened, and she leaned her head back. She looked confused. “Noss?” she said toward the sky.
“Here,” he said, scooping up some fresh snow. Noss held the girl’s head and fed her.
Noss gave her more, then sat next to her.
“What happened?” she asked groggily. She winced and put her hand to her wound. “It hurts.”
“An int got you good,” Noss said.
“You mean those tree things?” Kolena asked.
“What are they? Where do they come from?” Kolena gritted her teeth and shifted her position to a more comfortable one.
“People say alchemists created them from the forests as tools of war long ago. When the creatures saw what man had done to nature for to sate their bloodlust, the ints went mad, killed their masters. They remain deep in the forests of the world to defend them to this day.”
“That’s…crazy,” Kolena whispered.
“I wouldn’t’ve believed it either, had I not seen it for myself.”
They sat there against the rock a moment, listening to the trees swaying in the wind. Kolena broke the silence.
“I want to see it.”
“My wound.” She sat up straight and started pulling back the furs.
Noss laid a hand across her. “I wouldn’t recommend that.”
Kolena put her hand on his and pushed it away. She removed the furs, pulled up her shirt, and gasped. “Shit,” she whispered at the sight of the bloody bandages. Carefully, she pulled the crimson rags away and winced. The skin around the wound was even paler than usual, if that were possible. Her fingers gingerly traced the handiwork of Noss’s stitching. “Am I going to live?”
“Yes,” Noss said, hoping the last of his moonshine had sterilized the wound.
Kolena let out a single laugh. “Should make for an attractive scar.” She recovered her wound and pulled the furs back over her shivering body. “Hey. We’ll match,” she said, looking at the scar cutting through Noss’s beard from mouth to ear. “How’d you get that anyway?”
Noss sighed. “Long story.”
“Tell me,” Kolena said.
“Need to keep moving.”
“We’re not going anywhere. There’s no way I’m letting you carry me up a mountain.”
Noss pulled the bow, quiver, and guitar from off his back. The latter he held on to, almost afraid to see what it looked like. When he finally gathered the courage to glance at it, his stomach caught in his throat. A piece of wood the size of Kolena’s fist had broken away from the sound hole. A string had snapped. The neck was cracked in three places. The entire guitar was scratched.
“Noss, I’m so sorry,” Kolena whispered, noticing his distress.
Noss felt tears brimming in his eyes. He swallowed the lump in his throat and strummed a chord. The instrument sounded terrible. He tuned it as best he could, speaking almost thoughtlessly as he did, if for no other reason than to get his mind off the condition of his treasured possession.
“You remind me of my sister,” Noss began, staring at the wall of white descending in the forest around Embercrown. “Was about your age ten years ago, when I fled the city. Was courting a boy at the time, a soldier. Never had a good feeling about it, and I told her so.”
Noss paused and bit his lip, strumming his broken guitar a bit harder now. “Didn’t take it well, my sister, but she came around and broke it off. His company was relocating, and she couldn’t follow anyhow, so she ended it. Little bastard didn’t like that much.”
Kolena leaned forward, her wide eyes begging Nosstam to continue.
“Grubby shit raped her,” Noss spat, warm tears running down his cheeks to freeze in his beard. His guitar crescendoed. “Putrid fucker violated her, stole her innocence, killed the spirit of the only thing that mattered to me!”
The last words he yelled, and two strings of his guitar snapped in his furious playing. He looked down at the instrument. His tears splashed the rosewood neck, mixing with the snow. It was then he noticed Kolena curled up beside him, her head resting on his arm. “Did the only thing I could: Cut the boy groin to throat and let him live long enough to watch me do it all. Fled that very night, not even giving my sister a goodbye. Soldiers found me as I camped in the woods. Arrow caught me in the cheek.” He traced his scar with his fingers. “Kept running until I lost ‘em. Been alone ever since.”
Kolena didn’t respond. She pulled her knees to her chest and leaned harder into Noss’s arm. He rested the guitar on his lap. “You okay?”
“What about your sister?” Kolena asked. “Wouldn’t the soldiers go after her, knowing her brother killed their friend?”
“That thought haunts me every day of my life,” Noss replied. “Just hope they had enough decency to spare a traumatized child and her parents.” He rubbed his eyes. “Maybe they did kill her. Maybe it’d’ve been a service. Taerin never was the same after that. Quiet. Fragile. Not herself.”
Kolena sat up. “I wish I knew love that strong.”
“Hm?” Noss turned his head to look at her.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever loved anybody.”
“Course you have,” Noss said. “You have a family.”
“My brother has all my parents’ affection, and none is left for me. He’ll be chieftain after my father passes, and I’ll still be the scorned child.”
“My parents resent me. Alarik’s their perfect son, and I’m the unwanted daughter.”
Noss chuckled softly, tried to hide it, failed, and laughed aloud. It felt good after such painful memories.
“What’s funny?” Kolena shot at him, her brow furrowed in confusion and anger.
“Think everyone goes through the same thing when they’re your age—girls especially.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“All kids feel unwanted and unloved at some point,” Noss answer. “Don’t make it true.”
“You don’t know anything about me!” Kolena cried, standing up. “Or my parents, how they pamper and protect my precious brother but beat me when I act out of line, withhold food for days when I speak out of turn.”
“I’ve never had an easy life. My parents have always treated me like shit. The other children, they see it, and they avoid me. I’m worthless to everyone!”
“You might have lost someone you love, a family who cared for you, but I’d rather lose something worth keeping than never have it at all!”
“Kolena!” Noss shouted to silence her. “Your wound.” He pointed.
Kolena looked down at her stomach. She lifted her shirt. The wound had reopened, staining the bandages a dark red. She grunted in frustration. “I’m fine,” she said, pulling the shirt back down.
“Need to check the stitching,” Noss said.
“I said I’m fine.” Kolena took a step forward and staggered. She leaned against the black stone of the mountain to steady herself and continued on.
Noss grabbed the bow, arrows, and guitar and stood before slinging them over his back. He walked ahead of Kolena, whose labored breaths he heard over even the howling wind, and stopped. He crossed his arms. “You can barely walk.”
“I’ve gotta make it to the top,” Kolena said, still struggling forward.
“You’re in no condition to hike up a mountain.”
“I’m not turning back!” she shouted. “I’m not letting them banish me from my tribe. I’ll show them all I’m worth something.”
Noss crouched to look her in the eye as she approached. Even in the cold, her forehead was laced with sweat. “Going to kill yourself if you continue.”
Kolena looked as though she were on the verge of tears and tore her eyes from Noss’s. “After all this, you expect me to go back?”
“Course not.” Noss removed the bow and quiver from his shoulders and placed them gently over Kolena’s. She winced at the extra weight.
“I’m okay,” she said before Noss could pull them off.
Noss removed his guitar and glanced at it. The instrument wasn’t heavy, but it wasn’t light, either. Bulky, too. Kolena had enough to worry about, and it was broken beyond repair anyway. He rubbed the wooden body one last time, savoring its once smooth, comforting finish, and leaned it against the wall beside Kolena. With that, he turned around and held out his arms. “Climb on.”
“Noss,” Kolena whispered. “We can’t leave it.”
“Can too. Just a thing.”
“But it means so much to you.”
“What it means to me matters more than the thing itself. Let’s go.” He patted his thigh. “Before we freeze to death.”
Kolena hesitated, and Noss heard her shift her weight and gear before he felt her foot dig into his hip as she climbed onto his massive back. She was lighter than she looked; he hardly felt her at all.
“Are you sure you can do this?” Kolena asked as she wrapped her thin arms around his neck.
“Just rest,” Noss said. “When you open your eyes again, we’ll be at the top.”
“Yeah, right,” Kolena replied, and she laid her head against the furs on Noss’s shoulder, tickling his neck with her snow-white hair.
The danger was behind them, but the hard part was just beginning, Noss knew. He nodded to himself and began to walk up the rocky path, ascending the face of Embercrown.
The journey was long and slow. Kolena snored softly in Noss’s ear as he continued up the path, which thankfully wasn’t a sheer vertical climb. Though rocky, uneven, and steep, Noss thanked the gods it was possible to ascend with a child clung to his back.
After a few hours, as the snow continued to flood the path and blind his eyes, Noss’s empty stomach rumbled. The journey was taking more out of him than he’d expected. “Kolena?”
The girl moaned softly. Noss heard her suck in a puddle of saliva, and he was suddenly aware of a wet spot on his neck. “What is it?” She slurred her sluggish words.
“Time for a break.” Noss stopped and crouched, and Kolena climbed down. She immediately began pulling off the gear strapped to her back. Noss almost didn’t notice it at first.
“I couldn’t let you leave it behind,” Kolena said before Noss could object. She pulled his broken guitar off her back and leaned it carefully against the mountain wall before sitting beside it.
“Dead weight,” Noss said. “Leave it behind.”
“Does that mean you relinquish your ownership of it?” the girl teased.
Noss furrowed his brow in confusion. “It’s junk.”
“In that case, it’s mine now, and I want to keep it. So it comes with us.”
“Suit yourself,” Noss said, too tired to argue. He squatted beside Kolena and fished out some leftover meat from his pack. He handed half to the girl.
“Not staying long.”
Kolena ripped a chunk of venison off with her teeth and chewed thoughtfully, legs outstretched, staring at her feet. She absentmindedly tapped her toes together. “How much longer until we reach the top, do you think?”
“Hopefully nightfall,” Noss said, taking a wild guess based on his estimation of the volcano’s height and how far they’d traveled so far. They didn’t have enough food to survive days on the mountain, and finding game would become more difficult the higher they climbed.
They ate in silence for a few moments before Kolena gasped.
“Hm?” Noss grunted.
“Look!” Kolena stood and pointed straight ahead, out over the forest they’d emerged from early that morning. The blizzard had coated the world in white. “It’s the Ashlands!”
His interest piqued, Noss pulled himself to his feet. The entire world was a blank canvas, but he followed Kolena’s extended finger and saw, leagues away, nearly vanishing into the fog, the light gray of Kolena’s homeland. At this distance, it was almost impossible to distinguish from the snowy landscape.
“Still don’t get why your people choose to live in a wasteland,” Noss grumbled.
“Kloreth provides for us,” Kolena said. Noss glanced at her, and she had the faintest of smiles upon her lips and she stared at the Ashlands with her gray, glossy eyes.
It had been a long time since Noss had heard any of the gods’ names uttered before, but the memories of learning about them as a boy suddenly came rushing back to his mind. “Didn’t think the goddess of fire and war was much of a provider,” Noss said. Kolena continued looking ahead, apparently in a trance. When she made no response, Noss continued. “What are the Ashlands like?”
“Dead,” Kolena replied. “Nothing grows. The trees are black and bare. The only color we see is the red of fire when night comes.”
And Noss thought living alone in a cabin was bad. “Sounds miserable.”
“It’s beautiful,” Kolena said, her faint smile widening. “It’s serene and quiet and peaceful, and our tribes want for nothing. The ash that covers our land reminds us of what we really are.”
Noss didn’t understand, but he knew he never would, so he didn’t push the subject further. He finished off his meat and wiped his hands on his fur. “Should keep moving. You can finish yours on the road.”
“I think I can walk now,” Kolena said, finally pulling her eyes from her home. She lifted her shirt and brushed her bandages with her fingertips.
“You’re not ready. Besides, need your strength for the walk down.”
She didn’t argue. “Fine. Let me gather our things.” Noss watched her walk back to their pile of gear, but she suddenly stopped and looked to her left, past Noss, farther up the path. Noss followed her gaze. All he saw was more rock and snow. Without a word, Kolena began walking toward a pine tree at the end of the incline, before the path doubled back to climb farther up the mountain.
Noss didn’t bother trying to stop her. It’s not as though she would leave her weapon and newly acquired guitar behind, after all. Instead, he watched from a respectable distance as the girl knelt before the tree’s mighty trunk and bowed her head.
It had been a long time, but Noss immediately recognized the signs of prayer. He turned away, somehow feeling like he was intruding on something sacred and private, even from fifty feet away. He heard Kolena approach minutes later. He turned and saw somber eyes and a defeated expression. “You alright?”
Kolena merely gathered the pack, her bow, the quiver, and the guitar before climbing aboard Noss’s back and uttering, “Let’s go.”
Despite his curiosity, Noss thought better than to ask questions. Regardless, they were answered moments later as he passed the tree. Noss swallowed a lump in his throat but said nothing as the duo passed the perfectly preserved body of a boy no older than Kolena leaning against the pine, his long hair a shock of white, his eyes closed and his expression content despite the mounds of snow burying him to his neck.
The twin moons shone overhead by the time they reached the summit. Noss’s legs quivered in agony, and he shuddered to think what the journey back would be like, but he had made it. He fell to his knees with a heavy grunt, allowing Kolena to crawl off, before falling onto the stony lip of volcano. Staring up, Noss saw the snow still swirling above, but the flakes melted long before reaching him. He accepted the warmth Embercrown provided graciously.
“It’s beautiful,” he heard Kolena whispered. He turned onto his side to face her back. She stood on the edge of the volcano, her body silhouetted against the glowing orange from within Embercrown’s depths. Mustering the rest of his strength, he stood and joined her at the edge. Several dozen feet below, the molten rock deep within the volcano churned and bubbled. He’d never seen anything so simultaneously gorgeous and terrifying.
“Maybe we should step back,” he suggested. Kolena didn’t seem to hear him, and he didn’t bother repeating it. “What now?”
“I don’t know,” Kolena replied, her sight transfixed on the lava below.
“What do you mean? What about your task?”
“I don’t know what it is.”
“What do you mean? We’re here. We’ve made it. Shouldn’t you know what needs to happen next?”
Kolena didn’t answer.
“What about the goblet?” Noss asked, remembering the cup hanging from her belt.
“I don’t know what to do with it.”
Noss sighed. They could be up here forever. He absentmindedly kicked a nearby stone over the edge where it fell farther and farther until it hit the bubbling magma and sunk below.
That’s when the earth began to rumble.
Kolena gasped, stepped back, grabbed Noss’s hand with both of hers. “What is that?” she cried, trying to maintain her balance as the loose rocks around her quivered with the force of the trembling mountain.
Noss gritted his teeth. As pain shot through the muscles of his legs, the strain of staying on two feet was almost too much to bear. He pulled Kolena farther back to a safe distance just as a powerful screech halted the quaking stone.
He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Noss’s eyes widened and mouth fell open in disbelief as a winged creature as long as a fully grown pine tree emerged from the mouth of Embercrown. Lava rolled off scales black as night and hard as stone. The beast hovered there, its powerful onyx wings flooring Kolena and Noss both with each mighty flap. It took several moments for the creature to notice the intruders. Its orange eyes blazed with fury, and its neck grew from black to red as it inhaled, and Noss forced himself to move. He grabbed Kolena and leapt behind a boulder as the air itself seemed to boil under the assault of the beast’s fiery breath.
“A fucking dragon?” Noss said between pants. “A fucking dragon?” he said again, this time directly to Kolena.
“I-I-I don’t…” She stared at nothing, her expression that of disbelief and regret.
“Tribe sends fifteen-year-old kids to kill fucking dragons?” Noss didn’t wait for an answer. He cautiously peaked around the boulder. The black beast had landed, circling the hole of the volcano in search of its prey. “Leaving. Now.”
“No!” Kolena said, grabbing his arm in desperation. “I’ve gotta finish my task!”
“Your ‘task’ is bringing down a beast fifty times your size when all you’ve got is five fucking arrows.” Noss grabbed Kolena’s quiver as he said it, lifting the girl with it. She fell free, and Noss tossed it aside in anger. The arrows scattered across the stone.
“I have to!” Kolena cried, running to grab the arrows. Noss caught her around the collar and yanked her back just as the ground before her exploded with another blast from the dragon. After the fire receded, she tried to run forward. Noss held tight. “If I don’t, I can’t return to my tribe!” she cried.
Noss heard the desperation in her voice, but he didn’t relent. He heard the rush of wind from the dragon’s wings and looked up. As it soared overhead, he caught a glimpse of its underside. Unlike the hard scales covering the rest of the creature, its belly was a soft mass of flesh covered in hundreds upon hundreds of scars.
“Don’t have to kill it,” he realized aloud.
“What?” Kolena asked. She finally stopped tugging against Noss’s arm.
“Belly is nothing but scars,” he said, understanding as he spoke. “This is the same dragon all your people have faced. Only have to injure it.” He looked over his shoulder and spotted a single arrow the beast hadn’t obliterated with its fire breath. Kolena followed his gaze and understood. She looked at him. “I’ll distract it,” Noss decided.
“No,” Kolena said with a hard shake of her head. “This is my duty, not yours.”
Noss felt like laughing. Duty hadn’t stopped Kolena from letting Noss carry her up a mountain, from killing a bear and a few ints to protect her. Instead, he said, “Go out there now, and you’ll be a charred corpse before you can see the fire coming. Wait for my signal.”
Kolena hesitated, sighed, and finally nodded. Noss stood up and whistled. “Hey, you mangy bastard!” he cried.
The beast heard the taunt and twisted in the air, flying toward him. Noss took the opportunity to run to the left, away from Kolena. He leapt behind a boulder just as the ground behind him erupted in a blaze. He continued to mock the beast, pulling it farther from where Kolena hid. He glanced back as he ran, and he caught sight of the girl leaving her place behind the boulder to fetch her arrow. Noss’s stomach dropped as he realized she couldn’t miss her one shot if they hoped to make it out alive. He cursed himself for throwing her quiver.
He watched from behind a rock as the girl ran, rolled, and grabbed the arrow. She had it nocked before she even finished her tumble.
“Come on, come on,” Noss whispered to himself as the beast twirled in the air to charge at him once more.
Kolena seemed to hear his silent prayer. She loosed. Noss could almost see the arrow bending as it launched from the bowstring, traveling straight up, its onyx head gleaming by the light of the molten rock boiling below. Noss lost sight of the arrow as it disappeared into the smoke. He spotted the gaping maw of the beast glowing red as its form burst through the dark haze and winced, ready to accept his fate, when the creature let out a terrible roar. It staggered in the air and pumped its wings in desperation before crashing into the mountain and skidding along the edge of the volcano, stopping only feet from Noss’s hiding spot.
Noss almost laughed in disbelief. He ran his hands over his bald head and smiled. “She did it,” he said to himself. “You did it!” he yelled so she could hear.
Kolena hardly looked at him. She stood from her kneeling position and slung her bow over her shoulder and approached the fallen beast. Noss looked at the dragon and saw its eyelid twitch.
“Wait,” he said, holding up a hand. “Still moving.”
“Of course it is,” Kolena said calmly, still moving toward the creature. She stopped in front its face, where its chin rested on the hard stone. “If I had killed it, none after me would be able to complete their task.”
Noss understood: Injuring the beast was the task of the Ashland tribes, the pinnacle of the journey each teenager had to complete for their rite of adulthood. So why hadn’t Kolena’s eyes changed color as she’d said they would? Noss was about to ask when the dragon’s eyes flickered open.
“Kolena!” Noss whispered in a hoarse voice from where he stood a safe distance away. “Step. Away.”
“Not until my task is complete,” Kolena said. She reached for the ebony goblet dangling from her belt and ripped it free.
Noss gathered the courage to step closer. The beast seemed calm enough, not moving except to breathe. As Kolena held the cup so the dragon could see, it rolled onto its side, exposing its fresh wound, right in the middle of its scarred belly. Kolena grabbed the arrow, still intact, and pulled it free. The dragon moaned and flinched, then lay still as blood as black and sticky as ink poured from the injury. Kolena filled the goblet to the brim with the liquid, and without a word, she threw back her head and swallowed it all with three mighty gulps.
Kolena cried out and staggered backward, clutched her head, and fell to her knees. Noss watched in horror as tendrils of black flowed throughout her body, just below the surface of the skin. She dropped her head to the ground, her hair veiling her face. The dark, swirling lines dissipated, and Kolena rose a woman. She turned to face Noss and looked at him with eyes as dark and glossy as emberglass. He sensed an immediate change in her.
“It’s done,” Noss said, half statement, half question.
“No.” Kolena approached the dragon’s head and, stepping on its neck to keep it in place, nocked her last arrow and shot the beast through its glowing eye. The light inside the beast extinguished as life left its tortured body.
“Kolena,” Noss breathed.
“I’ve no place among barbarians,” she said as she stared down at the ancient creature, finally free of its misery. When she looked back at Noss, he noticed her eyes were wet with tears.
He nodded. “Let’s go home.”