(Photo by Radina Valova @RadinaValova, #photostorychallenge host)
The weight of the winter sky pressed against our skin and settled into our bones as we trudged through the forest, shoes completely buried in ankle-deep snow. Marching at a steady pace, I inhaled to catch my breath, searing my lungs with that cold fire that felt like taking a deep drag from a menthol cigarette.
I was beginning to regret bringing the dragon along. The poor, cold-blooded bastard was wearing at least four thick winter coats yet still couldn’t stop shivering like he was going to shit ice cubes.
However, if I was meeting a shady faerie who claimed to know a backdoor entrance into Otherworld, I’d rather do it with a dragon on the verge of hypothermia at my back than none at all. By the time I reached the snow-frosted glade, I had almost convinced myself that this was still a good idea and not just me subconsciously challenging myself to top the last stupid decision I had made.
I waited for Zephyr to catch up, assuming that he hadn’t decided death was preferable to the cold and dug himself a shallow grave in the snow to speed up the process. It was snowing in that lazy way that made the soundless flux of white disorienting, surrounding me in the hypnotic surrealism of a snow globe, but I could just barely make out someone at the edge of the glade. I chanced three cautious steps forward and squinted at the figure across the way moments before the entire world capsized around me.
It was Alana.
Just standing there like she wasn’t the double-edged prayer I had clutched in bleeding, broken hands for ten years because I was too weak to let her go.
Like she wasn’t my beginning and end and every breath in between.
She beckoned me with those amber-gold eyes that haunted my memories, reached across infinity, held out a hand, and spoke my name.
Mindlessly, I took a step forward.
Then drifts of snow erupted on either side of me in a blinding, chalk-white flurry as I broke out in a stumbling sprint across the glade. I only made it halfway, something heavy slamming into my back and tackling me onto the powdery ground. The wind had been knocked out of me but I didn’t need air to move my legs, so I scrambled to my feet. There was a growl of acid-laced curse words behind me right before Zeph’s arms wrapped around my waist and I was pulled to the ground once again.
“That’s not her, you idiot!”
I struggled to break his grip for an embarrassing length of time until it finally hit me that I was not only wrestling a dragon but I was a human trying to win at wrestling a dragon. Infernal magic was boiling in my veins, throbbing in my fingertips. He was standing between me and Alana and I would rip Hell up from the ground with my bare hands and condemn every living thing in existence to burn for eternity if that’s what it took for us to be together again.
“That’s not her,” he repeated, wisps of black smoke seeping from between the collars of his coats. “She’s dead, Kaden. You killed her, remember? That’s not her.”
He was lying. Even if I was blind and deaf, I’d always know Alana. But I twisted around in the snow to look back at her, to fill my sight with her before I had to kill this man I once called a friend.
She hadn’t moved from her spot across the glade. The smile pulled taunt across her face widened with a disturbing ripple of flesh, exposing two rows of tightly spaced, needle-sharp teeth.
“It’s not her,” I whispered, more breath than words as I fought to escape the crushing gravity of my soul collapsing into itself.
Zephyr released me and sat up, shrugging off one of his coats while he glared at the thing that wasn’t Alana.
“Faeries, man. Some of those tricky bastards can use their glamour to look like real people. If she didn’t reek like Otherworld trash, I might have been fooled too.”
He canted his head sharply to the right at the same time I heard the snapping of a branch somewhere along the tree line.
Zeph lifted his face into the air, nostrils flared and eyes flickering back and forth.
“Well fuck me up shit creek with a damn canoe. We’ve been set up. As usual. And fyi, we’re surrounded by frost goblins.”
Taking the full force of reality’s stinging backslap with both a mental and physical flinch, I rose to my feet and chucked my soggy coat off to the side.
“The goblins are all yours. I’m going to have a little chat with that faerie and teach her to respect the dead.”
Zeph’s pupils were reptilian slits as they assessed my expression, searching for any sign of the hemorrhaging wound that was killing me one piece of my soul at a time.
“Give her hell and a half,” he grinned with bared teeth, the last of his coats igniting into flames that matched the glint of death and destruction in his eyes.
“You dare underestimate a necromancer? I think I can do better than that,” I assured him, the air crackling and hissing angrily as the black fury blistering my palms begged for destructive release. I locked eyes with the faerie bitch wearing the face of the woman I loved, the woman I had killed out of love, and the woman whose soul I had given up mine for.
“I’m not going to give her hell. I’m going to drag her there myself.”