I’d faced my fair share of hardships growing up. Before my stepfather was around, my family was dirt poor. I was lucky if my mother brought home a loaf of stale bread. Even through the hell Lawerence put me through, I never missed it. The further we ascended up the Frostpeaks, the more I started to miss it. Never had I experienced such a harsh cold that cuts straight to the bone. I let out an exasperated sigh as Bull trudged along in front of me, leaving a deep path of footprints in the snow that I could step in.
“You okay back there?” He scoffed as he glanced behind his shoulder, squinting through the veil of blowing snow. I was still taken aback by how quickly the storm had brewed, and impressed with Bull’s mettle. It obviously wasn’t his first time ascending the mountain.
“Yeah! Just… Not used to so much…snow.”
Bull grunted, but I could see his shifting eyes. He was just as suspicious as I was; it was true that the Frostpeaks were always snow-covered and cold, but for such an intense storm to stew up from nowhere…
“Why’d we have to go through the mountains in the first place? Couldn’t we have just gone around or something?”
“You know the answer to that as well as I do, boy.” The giant’s reply was shrill, adjusting the heavy backpack on his shoulders. It still hadn’t completely sunken in that we were on the run. “We need to find shelter soon, otherwise we’ll freeze out here.”
I had more questions, but I wasn’t in the mood to push. Bull wasn’t acting strange, and I was afraid that if I kept probing he’d snap. He was under a lot of stress after all, transporting a teenage boy and a lizard over a deathtrap of a mountain. Ash wriggled in the warmth of my coat, sleeping soundly.
Bull still hadn’t explained what was really going on, but I knew that woman in the crow feather dress was after Ash for some reason… and the black knight… The thought of him sent shivers down my spine, the memory of his ominous presence something I’d rather forget.
“Come on, this way-” Bull pointed off the trail, towards what looked like an impassable path shrouded ih evergreens. “There should be a cave just beyond those trees.”
“How are we supposed to get through there? The trees are too close together to pass by…”
“Quit that! You haven’t even tried yet, how do you know you can’t make it through?”
“I…” I could have spent hours trying to explain my thought process, but Bull was stubborn and I was tired. After everything that had happened with Beatrice, I couldn’t help but feel like a failure. My steadfast will was wavering, beaten down by our loss at the Fortress. The plan had been destined to fail since the start, and if I’d just listened to Harold…
“Fyn!” Bull called, already standing near the treeline. “Are you coming or what?”
“Sorry!” I said as I trudged through the giant’s tracks.
He turned back to the grove, forcing his massive body through an opening meant for a beaver.
“See?” He shouted, half expecting a snide grin but receiving a glare instead. “Now hurry up!”
I stood there for a moment, watching as he slowly progressed, deep in contemplation.
“You know what? No.”
“What did you just say to me?”
“I said no!” My fists were clenched as I raised my voice, Bull’s blatant surprise paralyzing him momentarily. “No, I’m going back to Traug. I have to save her. And Gavin, too.”
“Save them from what? They’re safe in a castle!” Bull’s sunny disposition was quickly fading.
“You don’t understand. The Marble Keep was her prison all along…I can’t run away again, Bull. I can’t just leave her there, with that woman and her father…”
As I spoke, Bull’s gaze was pleading. At least he was taking me seriously.
“Fyn, just hold on! Even if you went back, you couldn’t make it out of there by yourself. I’ll be surprised if Gavin will ever walk again…”
“How do you know? I haven’t even tried saving them yet!” I could feel the tears beginning to well in my eyes. “I can’t… I can’t leave her again…”
It was like a moment of revelation sprang across Bull’s face as I started to tear up. He stopped trying to push through the trees, letting out a sigh.
“You know… She’ll understand.”
“How do you know?”
“Because…” Bull grinned, looking at his forearm. “If you care about the princess enough to put the fate of the world in jeopardy…you must have become close. Close enough that she knows you wouldn’t abandon her by choice.” I could feel my cheeks turning red as he spoke.
“I-it’s not like that!” I shouted, looking away. Bull couldn’t help but let out a jovial laugh.
“Boy, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Now, look at me. I’m about to make you a deal.”
“What is it?”
Bull held out his hand, sticking up his index finger. “Once we get Ash back to Kadriel,I’ll go back to Traug with you.”
“Are you serious?” My voice wavered as I dabbed my eyes with my coat.
“Yeah, of course! But first, it’s vital we get that little across the border, okay?”
“Okay…” I sighed, trying to release the tension I was holding on to. “Okay…” As I finally managed to get a grip on my anxiety, it was already too late by the time I heard the snow crunching behind me.
“Well, well, well. I figured that this oaf might have something to do with your escape.” The stranger sounded like a young man, his sharp features and boyish smile reflecting that. His white trench coat flapped in the wind behind him, the baggy hood blowing off of his head to reveal a mop of disheveled white hair.
“Fyn, get out of here! Now!” Bull’s voice was commanding and urgent, his eyes widened in fear. Even during the escape from the fortress, the giant’s determination hadn’t wavered. Yet this stranger, he invoked the fear of god in him.
“Now, not so fast! We haven’t even had a chance to introduce ourselves…” The stranger’s grin grew impossibly wide, leaving an eerie feeling in my chest. “I am Gelu. I think you have something that belongs to my master…”
“Be careful…” Ash’s voice echoed in my mind, the creature trying to bury itself deeper in my coat.
“Quit wasting time, boy! Go!” Bull was yelling, but my feet felt like they were frozen to the ground, unwilling to move.
“Terran, quit rushing the boy. You’re being quite rude.” The way Gelu’s voice dropped sent my heart into my stomach. There was so much malice in his voice as he danced around us, circling like we were prey. His movement was erratic and strange, like every step he took was unnatural. He stuck out his hand, revealing a vial full of red liquid like the black cloaked woman had used earlier.
“Do you see this boy? Do you know what it is?” He crushed the vial in his hand, something glowing within his grasp as he took in a deep breath. “It’s human blood.”
Black and red electricity began dancing around his fist as something began to take shape in front of him. As his strange power increased, his pointed ears began to grow, as well as a set of goat-like horns sprouting from his forehead.
“Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon.” Once his spell had finished casting, in front of him was a sword made of black and red crystal, surrounded by the same electricity as before. Floating in front of him, he took the weapon by it’s hilt, pointing it towards me. “Stand still so I don’t miss, okay?”
I could feel the warmth of Ash’s power as he began pulsing.
“Finally!” Bull called from behind, his own ears beginning to grow as well. “I’ve been waiting for that little lizard to start pumping out some Empyr… It’s about time!”
Bull’s arms were covered in strange tattoos, circling from his mid bicep all the way down to his fist. As he spoke, they began to pulsate a radiating brown energy, Gelu’s eyes widening as he did so.
“How can you be siphoning a hatchling’s empyr? That shouldn’t be possible!” Gelu lunged towards me, but Bull was faster. In a matter of seconds, his arms had become encompassed in a collection of small boulders and rock, sliding in front of me to deflect Gelu’s sword at the last second.
“When you’re as old as I am, you learn a few tricks. Now Fyn, get the hell out of here! I can hold him off for a little while, at least…”
“What… are you?” The situation seemed surreal. Magic didn’t exist; it was something of myth and fairy tale. How could this be happening? But this wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed this power…
“You really like to ask questions at the worst times, dontcha?” Bull shook his head, deflecting another one of Gelu’s attacks. “Listen well! Head north until you find the village called Harth. Search for a man named Ignis. He’s a friend-”
“But… What about you?” Bull caught the sword in his rocky grasp as Gelu swung again, pulling it free from his hands and throwing it into the trees. His ‘boulder gauntlets’ were beginning to fall apart, but he was committed.
“No more questions! Go!” He grabbed me by the waistband of my pants, throwing me towards the path. I called out to him, but it was like the storm had completely enveloped both of them the second I left their vicinity.
Over the course of my life, I’ve spent a lot of time on my own; whether that be ploughing fields, or hiding from my stepfather in the woods, I learned to appreciate my own company. Even with that experience behind me, nothing could have prepared me for the deafening silence of that mountainside. The kind that makes you feel like somebody’s always watching from a nearby bush.
Standing in the middle of that blizzard, the rumble of an avalanche sounding behind us forced me to shift gears quite quickly. I was immediately panicked; farmers didn’t have to deal with that sort of thing! Holding Ash tightly against my chest, I froze in place, the ground underneath my feet beginning to shake with every passing second. A dreadful feeling of inadequacy clenched at my insides; the fear that no matter what I did, I couldn’t fight the inevitable force of nature that was hurtling towards me.
Ash’s words brought warmth to my soul, the fiery sensation in my lower back spreading throughout my entire body. No matter how many times I felt that power stir, it brought the same sense of fear that I had the first time.
A wave of white blasted through the veil of snow, time slowing so much that I could see the foreboding wall inching towards me. A wall of lighting materialized in front of me, redirecting the powerful push with a certain degree of difficulty. My feet dug into the snow and dirt, pushing back against the electric wall that stood between me and my death.