Stand at the edge of the penumbra and biting cold is the first thing to hit. It's a wind like no other. No soft zephyr or spring warmth to sooth the soul, but a blast of bone-deep raging death that penetrates every cell to leave icicles in its wake. Creatures of the shadow ring grew long, multiple-layered coats, much prized among the elite, thick and soft, in numerous hues because at the centre you couldn't see those brilliant shades. Knowing this didn't make the prospect of heading in there any more appealing than it had when they discussed the idea a week ago. Rabarn curled his lip in disgust, and cast a look overhead at the looming shape of the sphere above him. It hung like a curse, which it was; he had no doubt of that.
A shard of cold air found its way through the layers of fur, and he shivered, swinging away from it and back towards the bright light of the tent. Trudging across the rocky ground, he focussed on the noises around him. Somewhere, out there in the deep night, a s'phan hunted. He could sense it, just on the periphery of every nerve, a tickle at the back of his ever-alert lizard brain. As soon as he reached the small circle of light that represented safety, he pulled apart the flap and crouched, moving down the short tunnel to the main living area. Pushing through the opening, he crawled on his hands and knees into the tent, and headed to the fire pit. Warmth, and the appetising scent of stew assailed him.
“Cold, is it?”
Rabarn paused in the removal of the layers that protected him from the worst the night brought, and eyed the speaker. Golden cat-eyes stared back, amusement in their depths. “Balmy,” he said, and the other snorted. “Perfect.”
“Did you manage to piss, or did your cock freeze off?”
“Managed fine, thanks.” Rabarn ignored the hoot of laughter, and accepted the full bowl and knife being offered. Digging into the food, he speared a chunk of meat and nibbled on it cautiously. Rich flavours burst on his tongue, and he made an inarticulate noise of pleasure. “S'good,” he managed, brandishing the knife and flicking golden drops of gravy in the direction of the chef who snarled when a few hit him on the face.
“I do have some skills,” he said, and picked up his own bowl. He set to with gusto, the meat quivering like jelly, crimson as a poppy. Blood dripped from his spoon, and a long tongue lapped it up.
“Wouldn't dare say otherwise, Malak,” Rabarn observed, and studiously ignored the way he tore at the flesh. “You bite.”
“Never my friends.” The words were a little slurred, wrapped as they were around a chunk of tissue before it disappeared in a gulp. “Though I might make an exception for you.”
“Is that supposed to turn me on?”
They both guffawed at this, and Malak went on with his meal, seemingly unaware of the intense scrutiny Rabarn gave him. Tall, muscular, the Alkash was half naked, long legs crossed as he bent over his food, a sweep of golden hair hanging across his shoulder, although it bore the signs it would turn the darker bronze of most adults in later years. Clan tattoos glistened, stark against copper toned skin, and curled over half of his chest. Rabarn knew those tattoos, recognised and remembered every scratch of them, indelible, the proof of kinship nearly as deep as the lineage that bound them, because they were his own.
Settled and belly full, Rabarn belched softly when he set the bowl to the side and stretched his legs out towards the heater. Outside, the wind whistled, the fabric of the tent thrumming slightly as it raced over its surface. In here, they were both arm and dry, safe from the things that crept out at night, encouraged by the passing of the day. Rested and comfortable, his thoughts began to spin ever outwards, gathering speed.
The quest fell into place without a hitch or hindrance, his mind reaching beyond the confines of the tent with an ease he rarely achieved when in the cities or at home with his family. Only here, where it was quiet and wild, could he really reach the power that bubbled like lava deep in his being. For a long while he seemed to hang there, and the he felt Malak join him, at his side, the swift wind on which he flew. Together they surged on through the darkness towards the centre of the shadow lands, the umbra, and soared towards the Glimmer. It hung there, faint as star shine, a soft lavender glow with white fire at its centre, enticing, mysterious.
At first he sensed nothing. Only the soft sough of the wind outside, the deeper breaths of Malak, his own, concentrating on the way oxygen filled his lungs, rushed through his bloodstream. And then... Stars. Fizzing stars that bounced and jumped, leaping in silver abandon, each one a glow against the deeper purple, to glow and then fade to nothing. So many. How could they find the right one? 'You will know', their teacher had told them. 'You will know', Malak's grandsire had said, his tall spare frame silhouetted against the brighter lights of the open doorway, his attention already fixed on other matters.
They had set out not long after that, leaving family behind, even Guinvar, despite her loud, and unexpected, protest. He regretted that. Malak did too, and he was more sure of that than anything else. Malak would have preferred to have her there with them. He considered himself the only one able to keep her safe. Which was ludicrous, of course. Guinvar was better off with almost everyone else apart from them, and besides, he didn't really approve of the way Malak looked at his baby sister. Like she was food.
The stars grew in intensity, and Malak growled, the sound soft. You see it?
They circled round it with as much care as they could, both unwilling to take the next step. It grew in intensity until the gleam became the very centre of his universe. Tentative, he reached out, thought as fine as the silk thread spun by the weewods, a glistening strand of nothingness. Every atom strained towards that meeting point, hung breathless, empty, and it exploded, shrivelled every nerve, and sent a bolt of lightening to rush though his nervous system. Instinct took over, and they fled back the way they'd come, crashing rudely back to awareness, frazzled, singed, their surroundings once again merely cloth over a webbed frame.
Rabarn clutched his head. “I thought you were there to protect us?” A groan of pain answered him, and he uncreased his eyes long enough to squint at his friend. “Malak?”
Sprawled out on the heap of furs, the Alkash's skin had turned ashen, a fine tracery of blue veins clear under his skin. Ignoring his own pain, Rabarn moved jerkily over to where he lay, and reached for his hands, placing them on the side of his head. He didn't do this lightly. But he'd taken the test, they all did now.
“Do it,” he hissed, pressing the limp palms against his flesh. “Just do it. You know I need you.” Malak stayed limp as weed ripped out of the ground, his breath coming in shallow gasps. Leaning over him, Rabarn whispered, “If not for me, you bastard, then for Guinvar.” Under his own palms, the hands tightened, claws set against his skin, and the drawing began. “Heard that, didn't you?” Rabarn snarled, and clenched his teeth against the pain.
Sweat dripped down his forehead, sliding from the point of his nose and splashed against Malak's chest. Head bowed, he focussed on the rise and fall of Malak's ribs, his returning colour, which mottled his hide like the first flush of spring through a new leave, and strained to keep the scream from leaving his lungs. Every muscle quivered, protested against its treatment, and his head and heart felt as if they would explode. Just... A. Few.
Malak's body arched from the furs, and his hands fell away from Rabarn's skull, his own teeth bared. They shone white and sharp, a carnivore's weapons, and Rabarn slumped against his body, shuddering with the after effect of allowing so much energy to leave his body in one go. Too soon... too soon after the Glimmer. Cold to the marrow, he didn't resist when the Alkash lifted him, moved him like a child's toy, closer to the warmth of the fire. He couldn't even help him wrap the furs around his quaking frame, or move a hand to take the hot drink that appeared. Instead Malak lifted him again, set him against his side and fed him it sip by slow sip, until he could keep his eyes open no longer.
“Oh no you don't.”
Before he could drift into that blissful state, Malak shook him awake. Rabarn pushed at him feebly. “Leave -”
A strong hand took his in its powerful grip, and fierce lion eyes gazed at him. “You saved my life, now let me return the favour, damn you, Rab Nextor.”
Rabarn managed a weak chuckle. “Fuck you too.”
“Not yet, and not today,” Malak returned, his tones grim, and hoisted Rabarn into a sitting position, propping him against their equipment boxes while he moved around the tent to retrieve more fur. “There will be plenty of time for that later.”Rabarn began to drift again, a jumble of bright visions clouding his mind. “Just... need to... sleep -”
“Later, I said.”
Malak shook him again, and this time the drink was cold, sweet and tart at the same time. Felek juice. The acidity of something else bit on the back of his tongue, and Rabarn coughed with disgust. “Poison...”
“Yeah, that's right,” Malak mimicked his own tones and delivery, “like I'd try to murder my only means of survival in this hellhole.”
“Something Guinver gave me,” Malak said, and made him swallow more of the concoction. “It will help with the pain.”
“Guinvar.” Malak shifted under the stare Rabarn favoured him with, a faint colour stealing under his skin. He shrugged, swift, eloquent, his hair sliding between his shoulder blades. “What of it? We are friends too, you know.”