Note: The world of Dawngate can, at times, be a dark place. "Unravelled" details the background of a Shaper who has seen such darkness. The following story contains mature language and content. Please read at your own discretion.
Janviar 14, 1532
Eleven years before the Dawngate opened
They crunched through the drifts, winding between trees stripped of bark by hungry elk. Above the quiet roar of the winter air, cracks of shifting ice and thumps of falling snow echoed through the woods. The branches of the pines, muffled and numb from a thick coating of snow, glittered where red-gold fingers of light filtered through the branches.
Just ahead of the three children, a weight of snow dropped free, leaving a curl of gold-tinted glitter hanging in the cold, still air. The boy sniffled, wiped his nose on his mitten, and clung to his sister's sleeve. "Is it much further, Raina?" He was small for his age, lifting his knees high to clear the deep snow. His coat was wool, dyed a deep red. His favorite color, as he never stopped telling anyone.
"Not much farther, Zalgus," Raina said, patting him on the head. Her words trickled out in clouds.
He pushed his glasses up his nose. They immediately slid down again. "My nose hairs are froze," he muttered. "And my toes sting."
"That's good," she interrupted the siblings. "That means you don’t have the frost-bites. If they stop stinging, let us know." She could feel Raina glare at her.
"She's right," Raina told him. "If your feet hurt, that means they're all right." To her, more quietly, Raina said, "We should have gone back earlier." The sunset light burned gold highlights into her copper hair. She pulled her heavy bear fur cloak closer around herself. She liked to brag that her mother had slain the bear herself. It was more likely her mother had ordered the Mistress of the Guard kill it for her.
She tucked a violet-black strand behind her ear and shrugged at the other girl. "We're fine. An hour or two, if the weather holds. Stop worrying."
"Zalgus is complaining," Raina complained.
"He always complains."
"Well, that's true," Raina allowed. "But that's 'cause he's still little."
"I am not!" Zalgus pouted.
"I showed you the falls," she said impatiently, not slacking her pace, always placing one rag-stuffed boot ahead of the next. "I told you both that it was a long way up the mountain."
Raina frowned. It was her habitual expression. "It was pretty, but... I didn't think we'd be getting back this late." It had been Raina's idea to start after lunch, as soon as she'd heard of the great waterfall that iced over into a castle of white pillars in the deep of winter.
"You know as well as I that the light dies early this time of year."
"Why do you always say it that way?" Zalgus' reedy voice piped.
"You don't just say 'sunset' like ev'rybody else. You always say 'the light dies'. Light doesn't die, it's just there. Except when it's not. People die. An' animals."
"Zalgus, don't be... tedious," Raina said, testing a new word. She glanced at her and mouthed, "Did I use it right?"
She shrugged. To Zalgus, she said, "Everything dies. Even the days. And some are taken younger than others," she added, significantly.
"Thass not funny," Zalgus sniffled, and wiped his runny nose on the back of his mitten again.
A distant howl sounded from behind them, further up the slopes.
The three children paused, turned. "You didn’t say there were wolves out here," Raina said, nervously.
She rolled her eyes. "Don't be foolish. There are wolves everywhere. Especially in winter, when the elk are thin. Don't you two ever leave your mother's castle?"
"I go out riding every day!" Raina flared. "In the summer. Because I have lessons."
"Is it much farther?" Zalgus quavered, pulling closer to his sister.
The wind shifted, driving her fine black hair across her eyes. Auroral wisps of powder snaked and swirled away from them across the evening-blue mounds of snow. She studied the patterns dispassionately, turned her numbing ears side to side to feel the source, and decided the wind carried their scent towards the howling. She tucked her hair back behind her ear and said, "Move." She increased her pace, crunching heavily through the rime of ice atop the drifts.
"What? Hey!" Raina was outraged. "Who said you could be in charge?"
"You did," she replied, "when you didn't take charge yourself."
"Come on Zalgus," Raina said, grabbing his hand. "We have to walk a little faster, all right?"
"But the snow's all deep," he complained, stomping gamely into the drifts, throwing up curtains of snow with every giant step. "You got taller legs."
Another unearthly wail floated through the trees, a single voice that seemed to come from all directions. "Here," Raina put her hands under his shoulders and lifted Zalgus up ahead of her. "Walk in her footsteps, it will be easier." She gave him a little push, glanced behind them, and hurried after. "Keep moving, little brother," she whispered.
"We're in trouble?" he said.
"What? Why do you say that?" Raina pasted a smile on her face.
"When you call me little brother, it means we're in trouble."
"You are entirely too bright for your age," Raina said crossly.
"Yeah, I know."
"Keep moving," she told the siblings, grimly pressing forward against the wind, snow sticking in her sable hair.
The sun fell, then the temperature. The ghostly wail stayed with them, sometimes behind, sometimes to either side, sometimes answered by other voices echoing out from the grey haze of the woods. She ignored the hunting-cries and plowed on, relentless, barely feeling the razor wind that slashed past her cheeks or the snow falling into the tops of her boots. Behind her, Zalgus tired, even following in her footsteps. Raina knelt to let him climb on her back. She struggled on, her arms locked behind his knees, his arms around her neck, his face buried in the sweet-smelling copper of her hair.
They continued, climbing over fallen logs and cracked rocks. The purple sky blackened. The handful of clear-burning stars swarmed into a multitude. "Are you sure we're still going the right direction?" Raina puffed, after a time.
She glanced up through the snow-coated branches. The moon hadn't yet risen over the white peaks on the far side of the valley. To the north – she assumed – rippling green curtains of Spirit-light hissed faintly down from the sky. "Mostly," she allowed.
"What does that mean?"
"It means until moonrise, I'm... guessing." She fluffed her own dark hair, sending the accumulated snow spiraling off in the wind between the trees.
"What?" Raina panted, wiping the sweat off her brow. "Don't you know – I don't know, how to navigate by the stars or something?"
"No. I never needed to know before tonight." She locked her jaw before more could slip out.
Raina halted. "This is our fault? That's what you’re saying?"
"It doesn't matter," she muttered. "Keep moving."
"No. Look at me."
She huffed impatiently and turned. Raina's lake-blue eyes glittered in starlight reflected off the snow. Her strange, flame-colored hair was stringy and curled with sweat, heavy with ice. On her back, Zalgus muttered and nestled in fitful sleep. She'd borne his weight for nearly an hour now, uncomplaining, tireless. Idly, randomly, the thought came that that in ten years, pretty Raina could be the bear-slayer her mother claimed to be. Silent, emerald hate jetted through her.
"Is this my fault?" Raina asked her, quietly.
She looked off into the woods, and was chilled to see a pair of yellow eyes pass in the distant dark. "It's as much mine," she said.
"I should have told you we wouldn't get back by sunset. I should have told you to wait until tomorrow."
Raina shook her head and trudged two weary steps closer. Zalgus' snores puffed out over her shoulder. "Why didn't you? I would have listened... Zalgus wouldn't have, but who cares?"
She crossed her arms and looked at anything but Raina. "I didn't want to disappoint you." The copper-haired girl shook her head, baffled, uncomprehending. Raina was always surrounded by smiling crowds. "Have you ever wondered," she asked the snow, black hair dangling over her eyes, "what the night would be like if there were just one star in it?"
Raina's face scrunched up. "...what?"
From the trees close at hand came a long, loud, mournful cry. It was taken up by a pair of voices opposite. As she watched, the baleful yellow eyes reappeared from behind one of the black trees.
"We're in trouble, Raina," she said.
"Zalgus. Zalgus!" Raina hissed. "Wake up, little brother." He murmured sleepy somethings into the back of her neck.
She straightened her aching shoulders and studied the ground. "There, Raina. The rock with the overhang. We can get underneath."
"How will we get back out?" Raina asked, plunging through the snow beside her.
"Worry about it later."
She dropped behind Raina, pushed her ahead. The howls grew closer. Any moment, snarling, slavering jaws would saw into the back of her knee.
Her back was hot with a hungry gaze. Any moment, his claws would fall on her back, shove her screaming face into the pillows of snow. Panting, eager breath on her shoulders, in her ears. She shuddered, retched, swallowed back dirty water. Her stomach burned.
They were there.
"You all right?" Raina panted, pushing Zalgus into the furthest corner.
"Fine," she said shortly, fingers flexing. She glared out at three sets of yellow eyes, three sets of long white teeth. They paced sideways, growling, grinning. Her breath came in raggedy gasps, feeding the flicker inside.
"Raina?" Zalgus said, high and frightened.
"Stay behind me, Zal," his sister said. "How far are we from town?"
"Still a mile, I think." Her lips pulled back from her teeth. "Find me a rock back there. Something I can hold in one hand. Preferably with a point."
Raina sounded sick. "No. You can't be--"
The spark blazed up. "Get me a damned rock, Raina!" she snarled. Her head began to pound. The wolves' ears went back, their heads went down. The pitch of their growling changed, became a constant undertone. Their circling halted, all three focused on her. They began to surround her, trying to cut her away from the siblings crouched beneath the rock. Step, step. The flame blossomed, unfurling in hot red colors. Feeding her limbs by consuming her weakness.
"Raina?" Zalgus whimpered.
The hollow clunk of stone on stone, the skitter of gravel. "Here. Here."
She held her right hand out behind her, palm up, not taking her eyes of the wolves. A cold weight dropped in. Raina's trembling fingers lingered on her hand for a moment. "Please be careful," she said. "Please." Her touch withdrew.
She hefted the rock, held it up before her, rotated the point away from the palm.
"Stay away from them," she said, flicking ice-caked hair, black like a raven's feathers, out of her eyes. "I'm the one you want." She glided toward the closest, the largest, glared into his tawny eyes. He was a giant; five feet of muscle and fangs. "Don't I smell delicious?" she rasped, running her empty, sweaty palm down the curve of her hip. "Don't I look so..." she drew in a jagged mouthful of frozen air. "Don't I look sweet? Come on," she stoked the flames, willing them to blaze higher. "Come take me. I can tell you want to. You disgusting little f**ker."
"Raina," Zalgus whispered, nearly in tears, "I have to pee."
The Alpha lunged at her throat, snarling. She swung the rock, grazed his shoulder as he dodged.
A grey blur from the right, a cannon shot in her shoulder, and she spun into the snow.
The glitter of starlight on teeth. Hot breath.
She slammed the rock into the side of the smaller wolf's head. Its wet, final yelp met the rising moon.
Rolling, scrambling for purchase in the snow and mud. Jaws from the left, ripping into her forearm.
She screamed in agony and rage, planted her feet, got the leverage, and yanked with all her strength. The furnace in her chest sent out roaring waves, burning away the pain. Fangs sank deeper into her arm, paws left the ground.
The blaring, thundering flame in her chest propelled the wolf up, arcing over and into the sheltering stone. A sickening crack when its back hit.
The jaws went limp. It fell to the ground with a comical deflating sound of disbelief.
She slammed her boot into its gut, teeth bared. Whirled.
The Alpha was in midair, a blurred ghost in the bone-light of the moon.
The bloody rock barely met his jaw.
He hit her like a side of beef. They tumbled.
Whining deadweight. Blood washing into her eyes. She moaned, heart beating frantically, the sustaining flame guttering under a wash of limb-shaking panic. Too heavy. No air. Smothering darkness. Hot liquid sliding down her throat, gagging her. A night-terror shriek coiled in her tongue.
He rolled off her, staggering, limping, shaking his head. She spat out the wolf’s blood, retched and panted into the snow as she pawed for the rock.
Her left eye didn't seem to be working. Everything to that side was a red smear. Turning this way and that, she spotted him. He tottered a few steps before his legs collapsed under him. His whines were garbled, confused.
She staggered over, muttered, "f**k you," and brought the point of the rock down on the back of his head with all the force she could muster.
She stared down at the splatter on the snow with her one working eye, adjusting the weight of the rock in her hands. Her lips pulled back, showed her fangs. And she slammed the rock into the ruin of his skull again and again and again.
There were words in the air, somewhere. Familiar voices.
"What?" she said, remotely. Her throat felt savaged. Had she been yelling? Maybe it was from the wolf blood pouring down her throat.
Trembling hands on hers. Raina's tear-stained face. In the distance, Zalgus' wail.
"Oh," she said. The sticky rock tumbled loose from her stained fingers. Raina's lips were moving, but the sound was distorted, the words a mystery. "You're all right? You're both all right?"
The other girl nodded, sucking in her lower lip as fresh tears spilled over. Raina pressed her forehead against hers, folded her arms around her bloody shoulders, and gently rocked her until the shaking passed.