Could cold become fire?
Ember wondered as she stared down at the snow-covered village in the valley below, tiny wooden houses glowing through the cracks and windows, hot smoke drifting up from their cold stone chimneys against the falling powder. From time to time a shadow would pass in front of one of the lights as people moved within, or a human form would linger at a window and gaze outside.
She knew what went on in those houses, remembered spending nights in such tight little spaces with five or ten others.
From the sound of her laughter, it had been very good.
She exhaled deeply, but the drift in front of her ignored her breath. Of course it did. Ice did not melt ice. The Scales had lied, and looking at those cozy little houses from the outside, she knew she was frozen inside.
“Get the cow and leave, Ember.”
Ember looked left, and up… and up…
Mother. Looming over her like a great shadow, burning yellow eyes gazing into her.
“You’re dead,” Ember said.
Her mother smiled, her white, pointed, teeth glowing against her darkness.
“Of course I am. I trusted. The Scales are the way to life, and I strayed.”
“Rot,” Ember said.
“Tsk tsk tsk tsk. Such a baby. Still angry about Antan. Brathan warned me it wouldn’t make you stronger. He was right.”
She sighed, and chill air, ripe with the smell of dirt and rotting corpse, washed over Ember and filled her nostrils.
“Well, you have what you wanted, now.”
“I didn’t want this,” Ember said.
“Of course you did, you cowardly little thief. I should have sold you to the Duke to be a toy and been rid of you.”
A door opened in one of the houses.
A girl stood in the snow on the hill where Ember’s mother had been. Pale. Bortin. Skinny. Young. No. Almost an adult. Necklength brown hair with a white stripe over the right temple. Wearing tan cargo trousers and a simple black shirt emblazoned with a rampant white horse that had a single gold horn and a mane of vivid rainbow.
In her right hand was an arming sword. Short, cruciform, with a notch in the pommel, and blazing like the sun.
“I know you,” Ember said.
“I’m pretty famous,” the girl replied.
The girl groaned.
“Of course. I told Shay not to write about me.”
The girl looked Ember up and down.
“Are you coming inside, Orilai?”
“That’s not my name.”
The girl cocked her head to one side and smiled.
“It could be.”
Ember stared at her.
“I’m going back inside,” the girl said. “It’s freezing out here.”
She turned and trudged through the snow, down the hill to the house.
When she reached the door the girl stopped.
Ember heard laughter. She looked inside and saw…
Trin. Eating and drinking with the Tixeries. Of course. And next to her…
Bethania. And Mirzah. Making tea.
Nanli playing under Bethania’s chair with Drax and Brago.
The innkeeper from Salshira banging away at a payano at the back.
Antan, eating dinner with his wife and the King.
Antan. I’m so sorry.
He looked up and saw her. Waved her in.
Around him were more.
So many more.
Ean. Fiddling with a phonograph and trying to get it to work.
Such an idiot.
“Go inside,” the girl said.
“I won’t fit.”
The girl glanced at the door, then back at her.
“Leave the corpse behind.”
“I can’t. I…am the corpse.”
“Well then. I guess we’ll just have to change that.”
She hefted the sword, which burned brighter.
Ember cringed back.
“Do you want inside?”
Ember looked at the door. The frame looked like one continuous piece of pearl.
She looked through the door at the people within. They were all laughing, and Antan and his wife were now dancing to the music.
“Then this is the only answer,” the girl said, pointing the sword at Ember’s heart. “Don’t worry. You’ll survive. I should know.”
The girl gave her a lopsided smile and tapped her own chest with her free hand.
“HERE YOU ARE!!!!”
* * * * * * *
Ember sat up in bed, surrounded by gray darkness.
Next to her the alarm clock ticked away.
She scanned her room.
Brago curled up on the bed next to her.
Paintings and pictures all straight on the wall.
Bathroom door closed.
Hahx set neatly arranged on its table.
Wardrobe closed, too.
Highback chair pushed in at the vanity.
Nothing that shouldn’t be there. Everything in order.
She looked out the open blinds of the picture windows.
The sky was hazed, dark except for a sliver of the Bright Moon and two of the planets which barely showed.
Everything in order.
She turned her attention to the bed, where she had thrown the comforter back partway when she sat up. She pulled it back and smoothed it out, then grabbed one of the pillows that had also wandered and fluffed it to set back at the head of the bed. Brago grumbled in his sleep and rolled over on his other side. She tickled his side and then lay back down.
Something drew her attention back to the windows. The sky outside was pitch dark now.
No clouds, no moon, nothing…
A great jaundiced eye opened in front of her, searched the room, then saw her.
It locked gazes with her. She tried to look away but couldn’t.
Hundreds of smaller eyes opened around it and stared at her as well.
They pressed against the glass.
She tried to scream.
Her mouth wouldn’t open. She couldn’t draw breath.
The glass shattered.
No. She was asleep. This wasn’t…
She felt the weight of sleep pressing on her, reality sensed in the weave of the comforter under her fingers, the pillow soft under her head, the air around and above.
Something was standing over her.
Dark. Shadowy. Looking at her with bloodshot yellow eyes.
Reaching toward her.
There were more.
The room was full of them! Tall, winged, shadows.
Some like men, some like Garagrans.
Some crawling up onto the bed.
She had to move.
Why couldn’t she move?!
She had to wake up…
* * * * * * *
Ember shot up in bed and looked around the dark room, eyes wide and heart hammering.
The windows were still there. Still solid. And she was alone.
Nothing. Nothing anywhere.
Just the ticking clock and emptiness.
What was that?
Brago stirred on the bed next to her and kirped.
She scanned the room a second time and then looked at him.
The ticking filled the silence.
Brago looked back at her, yawned and scratched himself.
Just a dream. Another dream.
Ember reached out and scratched Brago’s neck, then his chin. He kirred in response, stretching up to receive the full force of her attention.
Relax Ember. Just a dream.
Brago stopped, went still.
Flipped his ears about, searching.
His ears locked on the windows.
He jumped to his feet and began to growl. In that same instant Ember thought she saw a shadow flicker across the bed.
Brago’s eyes went wide and his ears went back. He began to whine and back away from Ember, but he wasn’t looking at her.
Her hair stood on end.
She turned around, toward the windows.
A shadow, standing next to the bed, disappeared.
A sound came from one of the windows by the vanity.
“Immilene!” she screamed and rolled off the bed, grabbing Ean’s sword from where it hung in its scabbard on the bedpost and yanking the cord on her bedside lamp, banishing the darkness around her.
The window burst open and two black-cloaked figures leapt in.
At the same moment the door slammed open and Immilene ran in, slapping the main light switch.
The ceiling lights chased the shadows out of every corner.
The two figures stood for a moment, as if blinded. Their faces were still hidden under their hoods, but she saw black scales on their hands.
“Prikenskrins! They’re armored everywhere!”
Immilene glanced at Ember, then back to the figures. She already had her sword and dagger out, but dropped them and unslung her bow instead.
Ember rose from a crouch, sword at the ready in single-hand guard.
“Oh no. This won’t do,” a voice whispered her ear.
A hand clamped on her shoulder and the strength drained out of her.
She fell to the floor.
A moment later all the lights went out.