This was a a fool’s gambit, she thinks, and then she shakes her head to clear the demons. Places one hand above the other, pulls herself up over rock and ice, scarlet stains spreading from palms where gauntlets have torn. Every ten feet she looks below her and thinks about letting go, wonders if the wind would carry her away. To a different mountain. To a different life.
And then she places one hand above the other and pulls herself higher. The wind rises and her cloak snaps. Extinct, the Warlock said, but she is no fool.
It is waiting for her, somewhere high above her still. She knows it, can feel the certainty deep within the pit of her stomach, hot and wild and insistent. She felt it when the Warlock taunted her, she saw the pride and disdain upon his face and grinned to hear his dare, spoken with words that she would swear were not his own. But that is not why she came - oh, no. She came because she needed a way.
Hours pass. She has not spoken to her Ghost since she began the climb, as though it feels the same awe and certainty that she does and neither of them are willing to break their reverie.
One hand above the other, and her body rising higher. For a reckless moment, she closes her eyes and hangs from a jagged spar of rock or ice and before her eyes the memory replays; dust and ash and screams that she cannot forget despite all that she has seen, despite all that she has killed, despite the petty vengeance she has claimed.
Below her, infinity calls.
She could have changed it all, but she was not strong enough and now she is alone. She does not know if what she seeks is power, is solace, is forgiveness.
Hours bleed into days, for in this place time streams by in frozen, ivory whorls, and light seems to come from everywhere; clouds and mist reflect the silver-gold brilliance that birthed her and she has grown so tired she has forgotten how to think. Still she climbs, climbs until at last she realizes she can climb no further, and she collapses atop the unassuming summit of her torment, blinking into the radiance.
She stands, leaves bloody palm-prints in the snow. Her legs shake. She stares out over the drop; hears its whispers worming their way through tech and fabric, and resists the urge to run to it.
Behind her, snow crunches and something scrapes on rock.
Her turn is slow, halting. She will never admit it, but in this moment she feels a fear more pure than any she has felt before; not the gut-punch of dread or the nausea that comes before combat, but a high keening in her bones and a roaring in her ears that outmatches even the wind that still howls up the lonely frozen peak.
From one corner of her eye she sees it move. A single talon drags across the ice, and she knows that its vastness will fill her dreams. She closes her eyes and faces it, breathes a single, frozen breath, and opens them again.
She cannot judge the size of the thing that stands before her, that ripples in the luminescence. It is as endless as the sea and as minuscule as a pearl; as horrible and real as the hands that carried her here, to this place of solitude and beauty and perfect terror.
You are brave, huntress, it says; and its voice is the howl of wind and groan of rock and laughter of birds and the beating heart of all things. Brave, and strong.
I never was, she says, because she cannot keep herself from answering despite her fear. I am weak and always will be, and I will die and be forgotten the same as those I failed to save.
What do the dead matter? We stand upon the tip of the blade that you have forged from your own unending deaths, upon the Now that is you and is all that you have done. You alone can lift the knife. You alone can cut the shape of things to come.
She turns her head and glances down, to where the restless mist and cloud curl and uncurl again.
The grin widens. Rows of teeth gleam back at her, each one a promise, each one shining with razor-sharp potential. They came with the Traveler - she knows in a single instant of absolute clarity that they are not of the Traveler. She flinches at its wrongness, at the un-being of this creature; shivers as tendrils of ice slither down her neck. She does not know whether to run or fight.
Give me your dreams, oh huntress mine, and I will teach you how to eat the world.
The drop looms behind her, presses against the base of her spine, whispers its silken taunts. But before her there is only the grin.
Her Ghost screams at her, the first noise it has made since she began her ascent; a warning she can neither hear nor understand, because before her is only battle, is only wretched survival, is only horrifying necessity. It will kill her if she does not end it. Some things were never meant to be, and this - this creature of light and bone and sorrow - it must be erased. Unwritten. Made extinct.
The only way ahead is through. The only path to survival is victory.
And it grins, it grins, and in its grin she sees her own face; her fangs dripping blood, her talons clutching the maggot-white of fat and bone, and then her knives are in it and she cannot stop herself, and around her all she hears is laughter, laughter, laughter; and she does not know if it is hers.
She cannot stop until there is nothing left to kill, until her knife and patch-worked cloak are spattered in things she cannot name, until she realizes that she is crying.
The wind grants her silence. Beneath her, the snow shivers. Her eyes are closed. Frozen streaks crisscross her face. She raises her prize and blood coats lips once blue with cold, and as her teeth close in hot flesh something brilliant and sharp wails through her.
The work is messy, bloody - if blood is what it is. The bones she casts away, hides them where no one else will ever find them; convinces herself it is proof that the thing was never here. Unless - unless someday she should choose to find them again. To comfort herself. To show that she had the strength. It is good that she was the one to find it - others may not have had the force of will. She saves a single scale as proof, as totem, as trophy, wipes rimy tears from her face with a crimson hand.
The climb down takes her half as long or less, and she wonders why she struggled so much to ascend the mountain. It is not so large after all. By the time she reaches the ground she feels herself again; feels all her welcome, nail-cleaning confidence come back in a warm embrace, as though it had never left. As though she has stepped back into her own body. She is content.
Except for a vague feeling of unease. Except for the nagging sense that her victory was not hers alone. Except for the tickle in the back of her head, gentle as a lover’s caress, sharp as the knives strapped across her belt, that whispers:
There is always more to kill.