Despite lying under a thick pile of soggy clothes, Illius shivered in the cold. He kept recalling in excruciating detail all those horrible nights he had spent freezing in his cage as the rain attacked him from above. But then, as his teeth had chattered in the cold, Eric had picked him up, and… he was warm. Illius stuffed the idea somewhere down in his mind—he’d been cold before, and it wouldn’t kill him now. They were next to the fire… or… rune fire? Just a rune? Illius didn’t know how, but somehow, he fell into an exhausted sleep. He woke up startled sometime in the night.
Hireth’s head inclined his direction. “Are you awake, Eric?”
“Illius,” he identified himself as he struggled out from under the piles of clothing and found Eric’s arm wrapped tightly around him.
Hireth smiled slightly. “He’s always been such a cuddler.”
Illius just looked at her—how would she even know that?
She went on. “He’s always scared of losing me after his mom died. I got sick right after he came to live with me. Nothing terrible—just a nasty flu that left me in bed for a few days. He was so worried. Brought me food and water and stayed with me that whole time. I woke up one morning with his arms all wrapped around me.”
Illius didn’t know what to say to that. He thought a change of topic would be best. “Your magic,” he breached gingerly, “it doesn’t do what you want it to?”
She took a deep breath. “It’s not that simple. When it’s doing what it’s meant to, it works perfectly. It’s when I try to twist it or run it through runes that it… has unexpected results.”
“What’s it meant to do?”
Her eyes met his, low and puffy. “Destroy.”
He turned his face away and rubbed his arms. Even with the rune, it was still cold, and he missed Eric’s warmth.
“I was made to be a weapon,” she said, almost to herself. “They wanted a weapon, and then they wondered why the blade cut them too.”
“Sorry,” Illius whispered.
“This isn’t your fault,” she told him.
He took in the blood on her hand. Some of it had dried. This would have never happened without him.
She yawned. “Are you going to be up a bit, you think?”
He didn’t see how he could go back to sleep, so he nodded.
“I’m going to try to get some sleep.” She slowly scooted up the tree, using it as a brace to get to her feet. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep the rune going.” She laid down next to Eric and pulled some of the clothing over herself. “Mmm, warmth,” she sighed as she snuggled closer to Eric. Illius looked away. Maybe that was where Eric got his complete lack of shame, although Illius couldn’t deny that it appealed to him. He was just more of a coward, and Hireth… Well, he couldn’t very well call her a coward.
He turned his gaze to the fire. It was surreal, sitting on the frozen ground, wrapped in some clothes that… Hireth had pulled from corpses. He didn’t want to think about that. All those people—dead because of him. All because of a cursed therian. All that fighting, and nothing had changed. He was still him. He still had horns. Despite everything that had happened, he’d managed to keep his hat on his head, and no matter what, he would keep those ugly things covered for the rest of his life. His mother had insisted he stay in Ravenmist. She had tried to convince him not to go, but he had left anyway. Maybe he should have listened—but he knew, somewhere deep down, that it was the right choice. She didn’t need to get wrapped up in his life. Everyone close to him got hurt. Even Hireth, who clearly knew her way around magic. Eric… It had only been a few hours since Eric had shoved him against the wall in Hireth’s lab and told him he didn’t want to lose anyone else. Maybe Illius could leave? Just walk off into the woods. They’d probably try to follow him though, and he didn’t want to trouble Hireth even further. He had already uprooted their lives. They’d all ended up lost in the snow because of him. He sighed. His mother would say it wasn’t his fault. Eric would say it wasn’t his fault. He knew better, though. Hireth and Eric wouldn’t be here if not for him.
For a while, he watched the magic fluctuate in the rune. Magic. Hireth’s soulforce had manifested into wings and kept that arrow from hitting Eric. Even if it was destruction incarnate… she worked with it. She could control the temperamental anti-magic. She could keep them warm. All his magic could do was burn and destroy. Ever churning, ever bubbling—he could never relax while it strained against him. Probably some other “gift” bestowed upon therians. Was he truly cursed? He didn’t believe in the Allfather, but maybe the Patrians had been right about that.
His thoughts turned dark as he reflected on the last few weeks and everything that had happened. Every calamity he had caused. His eyes grew heavier and heavier until he could no longer keep them open.