Aurora’s fingers flexed, drawing the bow again, her other three fingers uncurling, letting fall a smoking, cracked and blistered stone. Her wings gave a twitch, her tail flicking the opposite direction as she corrected her aim. Another gleaming lance of condensed fire coiled into being, but this one was less intense than the last one she’d loosed, thinner, finer. Her golden eyes scanned the peaks above, and then the jumble of stones and bodies along the trail.
Slowly, she relaxed her draw, the arrow of flame sputtering and dissolving into a puff of green-tinged smoke.
Her wings gave one more beat, and then she leapt lightly to the trail behind us. Her feet slid out from under her as she landed, sending her to her hands and knees.
I watched her wings shiver and heave as she drew in deep, shuddering breaths.
Silva’s icy command froze me in my tracks.
“Do not approach her. Do not touch her.”
The siren stepped past me, hunkering down less than an arm’s length from… whatever it was that Aurora had become.
“You are hurt,” the shrike wheezed.
Silva dabbed at her arm, staring at the blood slicking her fingers, blue eyes puzzled.
“It has never been red before,” she said.
“If you do not back away, it will turn black,” Aurora said.
“But it only does that for— Oh… “
Aurora extended her arm, and Silva rose, bumping into me as she backed away.
“I do not think I will last long enough to reach the snows,” Aurora said, staring over my shoulder, at the snow-shrouded peaks higher above us.
“Snows?” Ana asked.
“Look at the ground beneath her hands,” Gilliam said, pointing with one of his swords.
The stone was blackened, cracked and smoking where she’d touched it.
There was plenty of moisture in the air, in the heavy clouds overhead. I could coax snows, or at least rain from them, but it would take hours.
Silva reached into the pouch at her waist, bringing forth a clamor of silver and gold coins, and a clatter of gems. She reached in again, poking about until she came out with one of the emeralds Pyrklist had given her. She held it up in front of her, her eyes brightening as she focused on the stone.
It began to gleam, deep within, the greenish light touched with traces of gold. Veins began to gleam in the depths of the stone.
Aurora’s eyes widened, and she unwittingly crawled a bit closer, reaching towards the stone.
“Where did you get—“
A deluge of water from overhead choked off her question.
It pretty much drove the questions from my mind as well, as the sudden rain shower hammered down on us.
It did not help, the rain being very nearly freezing.
* * * * *
Once she had recovered from the shock of the cold downpour, Aurora had leapt for her sister— amidst a plume of foul-smelling steam— slapping the stones from Silva’s hands.
I caught Silva as she stumbled back from the blow, saw the blue light fading from her eyes as they sagged shut and she went limp.
Aurora snatched up the stones, freezing the halfling in place with a brilliant golden-eyed glare as he made to reach for the gems as well.
“Shelter,” she rasped, the word made clumsily with a forked, golden tongue and still-pointed teeth. Pyrklist gave a wide-eyed nod, hurrying us along the trail.
Whether the wings and tail had dissolved amidst the water, or gone up in the plumes of steam that poured off the shrike, by the time we’d hiked a quarter mile, Aurora was back to her normal appearance, albeit pale and bedraggled. Her cloak and gown hung in tatters, but she refused to stop, and would not let any of us near her to shelter beneath our own cloaks. The red and white stones at her wrists turned the rain around her into a red-gold nimbus, as if lit by tiny, twin sunsets.
The clouds and mountaintops towering over us hid he true, approaching sunset. It merely grew darker, and as the light faded, the cold crept closer and closer.
Before the light edged completely out of the shallow canyon through which we traveled, Pyrklist gave a crow of triumph, jumping up and down in the gloom ahead, gesturing towards a dark spot in the rocks that proved to be a cave opening rather than shadow.
* * * * *
Gilliam sneezed, sloshing the steaming contents of the clay cup over his knee.
“Now my breeches will stink of this,” he complained.
“Drink it,” Ana said. “That goes for all of you.” She grimaced as she took a sip from her own cup.
It smelled nearly as bad as the concoction Silva had to drink before we’d set out. Fortunately, after the first few sips, my tongue tingled so much that I didn’t notice the flavor all that much if I held my nose.
Gilliam gave the cleric a dark look, and extended it past her to me. “You had a hand in this as well,” he said.
My part had been coaxing a flame from the pitiful pile of kindling and and few branches from the scrub we’d been able to scrounge from the trail as Pyrklist guided us to shelter from the steadily growing winds.
“You would prefer to sleep in wet leathers? Freeze once the night sets in?” Sera asked. “I did not have to tie off the weaves keeping the fire alight. They can easily be unknotted.”
“I don’t think he is entirely serious,” Varis said to the girl, setting a hand over hers as she raised them to manipulate her weaving.
“This brew was known in my home village,” the weaver said. “Those who refused it always developed the cough soon after. Some of them did not recover from it. Those who drank of this always recovered.” She took a deep sip from her cup, grimacing and shivering. Through the bracelet, I felt the trickle of displeasure beneath the glow of her sense of pride at being able to stomach the stuff.
“It is not so bad,” Demarra said, giving her cup a swirl. “Perhaps a bit more mint, though.”
Pyrklist alone drank without complaint, usually every time Aurora asked of him where he’d found the blue and green stones we’d thought were sapphires and emeralds.
The twins both refused the cups that Ana had offered them, but the cleric did not complain when she saw the pale glimmering of the white dragonstones at wrist and neck.