Bright light and blistering cold poured into the stable as Zoromon slid the door open. His young horse flinched, jerking the rope in his hands. Zoromon gave him a reassuring pat and brought him outside. Snow flurried through the air, dusting the horse’s dense black coat with a fine white sheen.
“Come, Sakhal,” he said. “Let’s go to the river.”
Sakhal’s ears pricked up. His breath turned to wisps of condensation in the frigid evening air. As they walked the hard-beaten path down to the river, someone else jogged up beside Zoromon. “I told you I was coming back soon,” he said. “What are you doing out here so late?”
“Just taking Sakhal out for a little fresh air before nightfall,” said Zoromon. “I appreciate your concern, Azvalath, but it’s not even dark yet. Shouldn’t be for a while longer.”
“Suppose you’re right,” said Azvalath. “Maybe I’m worrying too much.”
“No doubt.” Zoromon nudged him with his elbow. “Come along.”
The rest of the walk went by in relative quiet. Sakhal’s thick black mane whipped back in the biting wind. Azvalath pulled his hood up. He looked like he had something important to say, but remained silent and fidgeted with his necklace instead. It was the long, pointed tooth of a lightningfisher, strung on a braided cord, and Zoromon had never seen him take it off.
When they arrived at the water’s edge, Sakhal broke a hole in the ice with his hoof and dipped his muzzle in for a drink. Zoromon looped the lead around Sakhal’s neck and sat down on a rock. Azvalath sat down next to him. For a moment, they stared out at the icy river and at the dense conifer forest on the opposite bank. The dark green branches sagged beneath the weight of snow and icicles. A few courageous birds still sang in the distance. Zoromon smiled a little. “I always think we could spend a thousand years here.”
Azvalath took Zoromon’s hand. “I can’t believe it’s already been a thousand years since you found me that night. Since the world was warm. Do you remember how it was?”
“Yes,” said Zoromon, “but to think we might be the only ones who do remember…”
“We’re not,” said Azvalath. “There are others like us. Sakhal, for instance. He’ll live as long as we have if nothing happens to him.”
Zoromon glanced at his horse. Sakhal was only four years old and still had the timid innocence of a foal, despite being a stallion. The thought of him living into his hundreds or thousands was baffling.
“Anyway,” said Azvalath, “Machli wanted me to tell you again that she’s grateful for you taking care of her horse this morning. Says she’d have done it herself if only…” He stopped and squinted at the water’s edge. “Do you see that?”
“See what?” Zoromon asked. He leaned in closer to see what Azvalath was looking at. Right beside Sakhal was a fox. Its pelt was silvery gray and seemed to shimmer in the light. Zoromon got up and took Sakhal’s lead. The horse looked down, straight at the silver fox, but seemed to see nothing there. Zoromon looked back at Azvalath. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
Azvalath came over and put a hand on Zoromon’s shoulder. “I’m not entirely sure what we’re seeing, but we should probably head back.”
“I want to know what that fox really is,” said Zoromon.
Azvalath shook his head. “When you see something and can’t explain it, the best thing to do is to leave it be. Especially when it’s about to get dark.”
Zoromon sneered. “The mighty Azvalath, scared of the dark?”
“For the last time, I’m not scared of the dark,” Azvalath insisted. “I’m scared of what it hides. Darkness means Ferash Therall on the hunt. Any reasonable soul would be frightened by that.”
Zoromon rolled his eyes. He had heard this same lecture many times over, because Azvalath never seemed to understand the concept of teasing. His partner was wise about many things, but quips were not among them. Without bothering to argue, he started back toward the stable with Sakhal. The horse snorted and tossed his head up in the blistering wind. Zoromon stroked his neck to settle him down.
When they arrived back at the stable, Zoromon brushed the snow off Sakhal and put him in his stall. As he closed the door, the horse nudged him gently. Zoromon scratched him behind the ears. “Sleep well, beautiful boy. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Zoromon stepped away from his horse and headed for the door, only to realize that Azvalath was not with him. He shook his head. Had Azvalath even come back with him? If not, then where was he?
He stepped outside and shut the door behind him. The sky had darkened to a bleak blue-gray hue. The snow had stopped falling, but a cold white blanket still covered the ground. Zoromon stared up at the clouds and wondered what to do. He knew the dangers of going out after dark, but what if Azvalath didn’t make it back in time?
He scolded himself. Of course Azvalath would make it back in time. He always did. Even if he didn’t, going out to look for him would be suicide. The Ferash Therall would find them in the dark, and then it would all be over, assuming they were fortunate enough to die instead of becoming Ferash Therall themselves.
Zoromon tried to remember everything he knew about them. Like him, Azvalath, and Sakhal, they had a little god’s blood in them, giving them unnatural lifespans. However, they had sold themselves to serve that god – the Iron God, as Azvalath called him – in exchange for his protection. Zoromon could not fathom what they would need protection from. Were they not the deadliest beings in the world?
Just as he was about to go back inside to take shelter for the night, the silver fox from the river ran past him. Zoromon turned his head. The fox stopped and looked up at him, its ears pricked. Zoromon looked at the ground. There was not a single paw print. “What are you?” he asked.
As he expected, the fox did not answer, but Zoromon had his own ideas. Perhaps it was some kind of ghost after all. He looked back at the animal and noticed something that startled him. Dangling from the fox’s jaws was Azvalath’s necklace.
“Why do you have that?” Zoromon asked. “That’s not yours.”
The fox turned and ran in the direction of the river and woods. Zoromon ran after it. The fox took him all the way down to the riverbank, then across the frozen ford. Zoromon followed gingerly, trying his best not to slip or break the ice. When he made it to the other side without doing either, he felt a surge of relief.
That relief rapidly gave way to panic when saw not only how dark it was, but that the fox was nowhere to be seen. Each tree and shadow seemed to become a lurking predator, and each quivering branch filled Zoromon with visceral dread. Only the wind, he told himself. The dark woods seemed to swallow even the sound of his panting.
Zoromon turned in a slow circle and scanned the shadows. He opened his mouth to call for Azvalath, but instead heard a thought in his head…a thought that was not his own.
There you are.
Zoromon clutched his temples. A harsh ringing filled his ears. “Azvalath!” he cried. His companion did not appear. All that appeared were two pairs of luminous, cold red eyes in the dark. Zoromon shielded his eyes until they adjusted, then looked up to see a cloaked woman standing in front of him. The largest raven he had ever seen perched on her gloved fist. Both of them glared at him, casting him in a soft, blood-red glow. He knew immediately what they were.
Zoromon picked a branch up off the ground and held it up defensively. The woman raised her other hand, which was bare and glowed bright orange, as if it were on fire. The raven spread its wings, and as it took flight, Azvalath’s voice pierced the silence. “Zoromon? Zoromon!”
Azvalath came running and threw himself between the Ferash Therall and Zoromon. He caught the woman’s smoldering fist and screamed in agony. The stench of seared flesh made Zoromon gag. He rushed to help his companion, but Azvalath shoved him away. Zoromon fell against a tree. The raven struck Azvalath from behind, ripping through his cloak with the blades attached to its feet and scoring ragged red wounds across his back.
Again, Zoromon bolted in to help, but he halted when the silver fox darted past, still carrying Azvalath’s necklace in its jaws. A wolf as white as the snow charged beside it and threw its huge body against the Ferash Therall woman, knocking her sideways. The raven swooped in like a bird of prey and attacked the wolf in turn.
Azvalath grabbed Zoromon. “Let’s go. Now!”
Zoromon stared at the wolf battling the Ferash Therall. “But…”
“We can’t help,” said Azvalath. “We have to run.”
They fled from the dark woods, back across the frozen ford, and back toward the village. When Azvalath began to tire from pain, Zoromon urged him along. “We can’t give up now,” he said. “The horse stable is closest. We can spend the night there.”
When they made it to the stable, Azvalath collapsed on the floor. His face was pale, and his eyes glistened with barely-suppressed tears. As Zoromon closed the door, he noticed something that made him question reality. Azvalath’s necklace dangled from the door handle.