All the Wandering Light – Heather Fawcett

I WAS LOST. The wind lashed my face with snow lifted from the mountainside. Drawing breath was difficult, seeing my way near impossible. I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other, to replace my hood when the gusts blew it back, though I noticed little difference in warmth. I noticed little of anything. Even the wind’s claws against my face, carrying ice so sharp my fingers came away spotted with red, had faded from my awareness. Another step. Another. Behind me, Azar-at was silent. At times, the wind and blown snow seemed to dissolve the fire demon’s tenuous, wolflike form, and all I could see were eyes the color of fired coals gleaming through the swirl of white. Even when I didn’t look, though, I knew it was there. Azar-at’s presence was a weight that dragged behind me like a heavy cloak. Biter croaked in my ear. Lusha’s raven familiar was nestled in the crook of my neck, the weather making flight impossible. Clouds swirled around us, spilling snowflakes the size of coins.

Despair washed over me. When I had left Raksha’s summit, the wind had been rising, and I was too exhausted to make it down the rock wall I had scaled before. It had seemed possible to descend the precipitous slopes to the east, then traverse back to the plateau where I had left Tem, Lusha, and Mara two days ago. Possible. Now that I was actually descending, I was discovering how little resemblance “possible” bore to “advisable.” Narrowing my eyes against the howling wind, I drove my ax into the mountain again, focusing on what mattered most: Lusha and Tem. Their names, repeated in my mind, were the fire that kept me going, though every muscle screamed at me to stop, to give in to the hungry pull of the earth below. Were my sister and my best friend all right? I pictured Tem, pale and haggard. He had been badly injured in the avalanche that almost swept him and Mara off the mountain. Lusha could barely walk after breaking her ankle on the Ngadi face, a treacherous wall of ice.

Neither of them would last long in this environment. If I didn’t make it back — I shook myself. I couldn’t dwell on ifs. I had to focus on finding Lusha and Tem, and after that, figuring out how to save Azmiri from the witches’ inevitable attack on the Empire. As the closest settlement to the witches’ lands, Azmiri was vulnerable. But what could I do? I hadn’t been able to stop River from lifting the binding spell at the summit of Raksha, and restoring the witches’ powers—how was I going to protect my village from an army of creatures who could take any form they chose, and control the darkness itself? I couldn’t begin to answer that, but it didn’t matter. First, I would get us off the mountain. Then I would come up with a plan. “It’s all right,” I said. My throat was raw from the cold, and I barely recognized my own voice.

“We just have to keep going.” I wasn’t sure if was talking to Biter or myself. The raven croaked again, a low sound like the purr of a cat. He was exhausted too—there was no shelter on this side of the mountain, no ledges to rest upon. Twilight was falling. I had been descending since morning. Occasionally, the wind dropped and the snow cleared, revealing a glimpse of the vastness before me. Each time, I choked back a sob. It wasn’t because I was thousands of feet in the sky, clinging to a slope so steep that one wrong step would send me tumbling into the clouds. It was because the view never changed.

I could have been standing where I was an hour ago. How was I going to find my way back to the others? Which brought me, again, to Azar-at. I glanced over my shoulder, locating the glowing eyes in a heartbeat. I knew the fire demon was still there. I looked because part of me hoped it wasn’t. When I had made my contract with Azar-at, I had been desperate. My body was bruised and battered from the ascent to the summit, and the thin air made it difficult to think straight. Azar-at’s power seemed like the only way I could get myself off Raksha, let alone help anyone else. Yet I had discovered that, impossibly, I had scraps of strength left. I hadn’t used the fire demon’s magic yet—or paid its inevitable price.

Biter let out a cry. He launched himself into the air, leaving behind a small patch of warmth on my neck. “Biter!” I tried to grab at his tail feathers. The raven flew a few yards down the mountain, settling into a hollow I could barely see. After an interminable time, I reached the narrow shelter. It was only a few feet high, curved like a halved egg. It looked as if a chunk of the mountain had loosened and fallen away—recently, if the thin layer of snow was any indication. I was too exhausted to consider the danger—I tucked myself into that tiny pocket of space within the vastness of snow and sky, and something inside me wilted. I removed my pack and dropped my head onto my knees. Azar-at crouched above me, the strange furnace of its body singeing the snow.

It dripped down the rock, freezing in icicles like jagged teeth. Why do you struggle, Kamzin? its voice murmured in my thoughts. Friends need you. They wait for you, worrying. You should not let friends worry. “I’ll find them.” Not for the first time, I wished I could shield my mind from the creature’s sinuous voice. Fast is the wind over the mountain, Azar-at said. Faster still could you reach friends if you use your magic. “It isn’t my magic,” I snapped.

“It’s yours. I will borrow it when I have no other choice—and only then. Don’t you remember what I said?” I remember. “Then don’t ask me again.” I couldn’t use Azar-at’s magic without giving the fire demon part of my soul. That was the only currency it would accept. We are friends now, Azar-at said. I will do anything you want. I suppressed a shudder. Biter nipped at the flap on my pack, and I shooed him away.

I carefully tucked the pack into a crevice in the rock where the snow wouldn’t settle on it. I knew that the small creature inside could no longer feel the cold, but I couldn’t bear the thought of Ragtooth’s body being swallowed by the snow, becoming a frozen feature of the mountainside. Loyal to the end, my familiar had challenged Azar-at on the summit, and Azar-at—who had then been bound to River—had broken him. I felt fury at River rear up again, followed by grief that ached in my bones. No tears came. I had none left. I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep until I opened my eyes and found that the night was still. I blinked, uncomprehending, shaking off the snow that covered me. The blue-black sky hung before me like a vast, unraveled scroll. Countless stars flickered, forming constellations both familiar and strange.

And across them streaked something I had never seen before. Thousands of shooting stars. So close to where I sat, in that pocket of sky, that I felt I could touch them, and so bright my eyes watered. “Azar-at,” I whispered, equal parts fearful and awed, “what is this?” The fire demon—crouched above me in the shadows—shook itself. Little drops of melted snow speckled my chuba. It is River, Azar-at said. Terrified, I shrank back as if the stars would burn me. They streaked across the sky in fiery bursts, tinged with red and yellow and blue. It was as if the night was tearing itself apart. I half expected the sky to give a shudder and fall to the earth in shards, revealing some strange otherworld hidden behind it.

“River?” During that long day, I had beaten back all thoughts of him, my fury subsumed by the simple need to survive. He had lied to me, betrayed me, and left me. He was not the person he had pretended to be—the emperor’s favorite, his trusted advisor. Or, rather—even worse—he was those things, and he was also a witch who had been working against the Empire from the very beginning. He had stood at the summit of Raksha, in the witches’ abandoned city, and unleashed their powers. Even the sound of his name seemed to settle in my chest like a small, cold weight. “What do you mean?” They tell stories, Azar-at said. River made an end. An end and a beginning. “Stories,” I murmured.

The stars told stories, certainly, for those—like Lusha, or Yonden— skilled enough to read them. What had my sister once said about star showers like this? That they were rare, so rare the last one had faded from living memory. And that they marked significant events. Turning points in the course of history. I watched the sky. In spite of myself, I was awed. River had done this—altered the fabric of the world. But he hadn’t acted alone. I bit my lip so hard I tasted blood. I had helped him, guided him to Raksha.

And everything that happened as a result would be my fault. If I couldn’t warn Azmiri of what was coming, if I couldn’t get back to the village before the witches attacked— “Biter,” I said, wincing as I shifted position, “we may not have another chance like this.” The raven, who had returned to the crook between my neck and shoulder, croaked sleepily. He shook his wind-ruffled feathers and took flight, winking past the burning trails of the stars. But though the gusts had lessened, they never completely abandoned this exposed crag. After being beaten back against the mountainside twice, Biter flapped back to the shelter, landing inelegantly with wings askew. “That’s all right,” I said, even as dread unspooled within me. “We’ll take it slow. At least we can see now.” I forced myself to my feet.

The pain in my ankle had dulled, but I knew it was just because everything was dulled, and that this was a dangerous thing. I leaned against the snow-caked mountain for a moment, then I drew on my pack and began descending again. The burning sky provided enough illumination to make out the shape of the mountainside. I stabbed my ax into the ice, using it as an anchor as I craned to look in all directions. This couldn’t be right. I had been bearing west all day, and by now, I should be close to the rocky plain where River and I had evaded the ghosts. And yet I could see only snowy slopes, impossibly sheer. I would have to turn back and find another route down. I punched at the snow. How could this have happened? My sense of direction was normally unerring.

As I contemplated my worsening prospects, Biter called out a warning, sharp in my ear. I turned. To my right, the terrain rose to form a treacherous cornice, wreathed in mist. My breath caught in my throat. A figure perched on the cornice, silhouetted against the blaze of shooting stars. He was tall and slender, clad in an expensively woven chuba tugged by the wind. His hood was up, and I couldn’t see his face. It didn’t matter. I would have known that chuba anywhere. “River?” I croaked.

The figure’s head tilted. Even his stance was River’s—one foot propped carelessly against the lip of the snow as if nothing but solid ground was beyond it; elbows bent over hands thrust into pockets. Graceful and nonchalant, and equally unknowable, a shadow in the night. How could he be here? When I had last seen him, he had been descending the mountain faster than any human could move. Fury rose again, dwarfing the surge of hope that had risen, unbidden, at the sight of him. After all that River had done, he would dare return here? And for what purpose—to gloat? I crept toward him, raising my second ax. But before I could get any farther, he took a single step forward and plunged into the abyss. “River!” I cried. A moment of mad scrambling brought me to the cornice. The ice groaned ominously beneath my weight.

To my astonishment, there were no footprints in the snow. And there was no sign of River. The mountain fell away in a sheer drop of perhaps a hundred feet, and at the bottom was— I gasped. The exposed rock of the mountainside curved down to a shallow plateau, and a mound of rock where a cave had collapsed. The very cave where River had trapped the dead explorer Mingma and the other ghosts, what felt like weeks ago. I hadn’t been traveling in the wrong direction after all. I just hadn’t gone far enough. I sank onto the snow, weakened by relief. To think that I had almost turned around, when I was only a few hours from Lusha and Tem! Biter, catching my excitement, flapped in a circle around my head. The wind tossed him against my pack, which gave a shudder.

And then another shudder. My heart leaped into my throat. I wrenched the pack from my shoulders, fumbling with the flap with half-frozen hands. I reached inside, my fingers grasping at soft—and surprisingly warm—fur. There came a quiet whine. I eased Ragtooth out of the pack and tucked him inside my chuba. My vision dissolved as tears streamed down my face. “I thought you were gone.” One of the tears caught on his whisker and hung there like dew. “I’m sorry.

” The fox stirred. One eye was sealed shut from the swelling and dried blood. His back was bent at an odd angle, his limbs stiff and cold. I held a finger in front of his face, and he gave it a weary lick. I cradled him to my chest. Ragtooth made a sound deep in his throat and burrowed his head into my chuba. I knew that I should say something, but the words didn’t come. Ragtooth had been at my side since before I could remember, his uncanny presence a constant in my life, through my mother’s death and my father’s absences. His green eyes gleaming in the dark had comforted me as a child afraid of monsters. And after all our time together, this would be how it ended—in this cold and barren place, far from home.

Silent as falling snow, Azar-at settled beside me. No help for death, it said. No use for tears. Tears will not bring back friends. “He’s hurt.” It was stupid to deny what was happening. But still there was a part of me that refused to accept it. “He isn’t—” I stopped. Slowly, I turned to face Azar-at. “Can you heal him?” I? I do not interfere in human business.

But you could, Kamzin. I stared. The creature gazed back at me, its eyes as unfathomable as the stars, or the darkness between them. I turned back to Ragtooth. His chest rose and fell, rattling with each breath. But still he managed the faintest of growls. “Don’t start,” I snapped, dashing my tears away. “I don’t care if you think it’s a good idea. It’s my decision.” Losing Ragtooth had felt like a wound that would never heal clean.

If there was even the smallest chance that I could save him, I would take it, no matter the cost. I turned back to Azar-at. “All right.” The creature almost seemed surprised. Almost—it was eternally hard to read its emotions, if it even possessed them. Are you prepared? Nausea rose in my throat. “Never mind that. Are you sure this is possible?” Yes. “Then do it. Quickly.

” I leaned back, bracing myself for pain worse than I had ever felt. I pictured Ragtooth opening his eyes, alive, healthy. But the fire demon merely sat there, motionless. The seconds slid past. “Well?” I said. “Is there—?” Ragtooth let out a ferocious growl. He leaped to the ground, and suddenly there was no trace of injury anywhere on his body—even his fur seemed healthier, gleaming faintly in the starlight. He growled again, his gaze fixed on Azar-at. My cry of delight was cut short by a force that knocked me onto my back. To call it pain would be a mistake, for this was something beyond pain, a searing heat that bloomed in my chest and radiated through every inch of me.

And with that agony was a strange sense of something being torn from me so quickly I couldn’t place what it was, leaving behind a haunted feeling, as if I had awoken from a nightmare that evaded memory. Then it was gone, and my weariness returned tenfold. Shakily, I sat up. I didn’t feel any different —at least, I didn’t think I did. Was this what River had experienced each time he used Azar-at to cast a spell? How could he have borne it so many times? Ragtooth nipped me. With a shaky laugh, I wrapped him in my arms and buried my face in his soft fur. He struggled, but only halfheartedly. Azar-at watched us. The fire demon’s gaze burned, but its expression was the same—frozen in a wolf’s grin, tongue lolling. “Ragtooth, no,” I cried as the fox writhed out of my grip and scuttled close to Azar-at, growling and snapping.

I knew all too well what had happened the last time he challenged the fire demon. No need to fear, Kamzin, Azar-at said. I would not hurt friends. I shook my head. I didn’t have time to make sense of Azar-at’s loyalties, which seemed to shift as easily as the smoke off a campfire. I gathered Ragtooth back into my arms, risking a kiss on his furry snout. A star soared past the mountain, so close I heard the air crackle, with a smaller one trailing in its wake. Lusha. Tem. The stars seemed to blaze even brighter, echoing my determination.

I would find them, and then—somehow—I would find a way to stop what I had helped River unleash. I settled Ragtooth around my shoulders and lowered myself over the edge.


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