Snowflakes traversed the broken shafts of moonlight, fat and lazy, unhurried to join their brethren on the forest floor. The air moved not a breath that night. The pine trees uttered no whispers.
A lone pair of boots broke the pristine surface of the snow at a slow but determined pace. The creaking, tutting sounds were loud against the silence. Plumes of hot breath spiralled behind the mage, now bundled up against the frigid night. A sword was slung across his back, poking between shoulders already heavy with snow.
He halted abruptly, head twitching as he caught a sound. He paused to roll up fur-lined sleeves, and the moonlight glimmered on polished metal: gauntlets and vambraces made of interwoven scales, crimson and gold.
Something threaded between the pines before him, silent as shadow. Not a breath escaped the mage’s mouth. Even the snowflakes could be heard settling.
A timber wolf poked its snout from behind a black tree trunk, its eyes turned polished silver by the moon. It stared at the man with all the focus of a beast with an empty stomach Sharp ribs poked from beneath its worn pelt. The wolf’s lips curled back to show its teeth. Its low growl rumbled across the snow.
Unperturbed, the mage took a step towards the wolf. The beast matched him, snarling, but the mage held out a hand to the wolf, flat-palmed, as if telling it to halt. The wolf bowed its head. Its arched, poised shoulders fell into a cower. The growl withered to a whine. Looking sorry for itself, it trotted through the snow towards the man’s outstretched hand and began to lick the cold metal of the gauntlets. Clouds of breath billowed between its fangs.
‘Hello, friend,’ the mage whispered. While he ruffled the wolf’s angular ears, he felt the animal tense beneath him. He looked up in time to see a crossbow bolt strike the wolf, sending it cartwheeling across the snow with a pained yelp.
‘Bugger it!’ came a muffled cry from the forest’s shadow.
Any sensible soul would have scrambled for cover, but the mage stayed put. He clenched his fists, making the metal of his gauntlets sing.
A second bolt raced from the dark. This shot was on target, aimed directly for the mage’s head. Before its barbed point could pierce his skull, it burst into splinters against an unseen wall.
‘For the Arka’s glory!’
A roaring ball of flame escaped the trees and painted the monochrome night a bright orange. The mage held his hand out, fingers crooked like eagle claws, and the fireball exploded in mid-air. The fiery remnants of the spell surged around his shield. Snow cascaded from the trembling trees. The resin in the pine-branches sparked in the heat.
As the fire died and the smell of smouldering wood wafted, he saw them in the faint glow: half a dozen figures, striding towards him with blades raised, fire and lightning spitting in their hands. No bandits, these. They wore full plate: gold and green marked with a smith’s hammer. And marauders didn’t use magick for fear of the noose.
Arka. And a full hunting party of mages, at that.
Even as their war cries rose, the mage stayed exactly where he was, content to watch his enemies approach. He even raised his arms as if welcoming them, a smile beneath the shadow of his hood.
The man waited until they were mere strides away before he pounced. With a bell-toll of metal crashing against metal, he slammed his vambraces together. Tendrils of crimson lightning surged from his straining fingers. The thick Arka armour counted for naught. The spell bored holes in Krauslung steel and reduced the meat beneath to cinders. Half of them crumpled to the snow at his feet, dead before they tasted the cold on their faces. The remainder that were still upright – but too stupid to stop – ploughed straight into the mage’s sword and flaming fist. When only the injured were crawling through the snow, he went between them serving quick deaths with steel in their necks.
The mage paused amongst the corpses, watching the snow, listening to the crackle of the smouldering branches around him. Gradually, before his eyes, he saw the snowflakes begin to darken and fade to ash. The frigid air began to lose its knife’s edge, growing warm. The flames shrank to embers before the shadow seeping between the trees.
The mage sighed. With a crack of his knuckles he threw out his spell. A curved wall of light appeared before him, and he hunkered down behind it in the nick of time.
A stream of crimson fire exploded from the pines. The mage’s boots scraped through the snow even as the shield spell took the brunt of the force. Flames streaming inches from him, he grit his teeth and pushed back. Thunder split the air as the mage flexed his fingers, expanding his shield with concussive blasts until it was a spinning wheel as wide as a gateway. He took a step through the slush, and it was matched by a hulking daemon.
Its eyes were craters of forge fire. The flames poured from jaws lined with needle fangs. Each of its monstrous fists were wrapped around a pine to brace itself. Wings of smoke and darkness and ash towered over the lone mage, like the fingers of a fist curling inwards. Standing tall, shield held firmly, fire flowing in all directions. He endured while he waited for the daemon to run out of breath.
At last, the monster reached the limit of his foul lungs. The stream of flame sputtered out. The mage lowered his shield spell, sparing a moment to watch the daemon inhale through its furnace of a maw. Its fiery eyes narrowed. Sickle claws were raised. An unholy screech began to swell in the daemon’s throat, now glowing white-hot. The mage simply crossed his arms and hoped his smile could be seen written on his face in the light of the blazing pines.
A dragon fell upon the daemon with all the speed and mercy of a plummeting anvil. The blur of sapphire crushed the foul beast into the loam in an explosion of snow and charcoal. The mage held up a single hand to shield himself.
When the dust and smoke cleared, the dragon was perched on the daemon’s back. Her blue scales were smeared with its orange ichor, and yet they still glittered in the light of the flames. Curved talons, each as long as a farmer’s sickle, had impaled the daemon’s skull and neck. At least what was left of them. The daemon’s wings of smoke had withered away, and the glowing cracks in its skin were fading fast.
‘Kinsprite. Late, as usual,’ chided the mage.
The dragon shook her head, rattling her long spines. ‘I would call that perfect timing, Modren.’ She bared her fangs in a fearsome smile, and he chuckled. He sat upon a tree trunk that had so far escaped the spreading flames. The dark, frozen forest had come alive with fire, and still the snow fell, uncaring.
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