Copyright © Emmi Lawrence
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without permission from the author.
Short Story (Approx. 7400)
History documented his landing. Not in so many words, but as a footnote referencing the fiery meteor that streaked across the sky and crashed among the pitted craters toward the northeast of the settlement.
Later stories told of a demon dwelling in the canyon who could burn your flesh right off your body with a single touch. Mothers used the demon of the canyon fable for decades to scare their children into obedience. By the time I was born, the canyon had been renamed, even on our maps.
In my youth, I preferred to be respected and trusted by my elders so no one ever called me a wild child or a rebel. Oh, I had my few forays into the craters, climbed up to drink from the spiral spring and had to run my heart out to escape from the king bull who ruled the dusty fields and rutted all the cows. But those expeditions had been practically expected by my parents and I barely received a glare from my father for getting home late. Never had I strayed into even the slanting edge of the canyon where many others gathered for late-night parties, their daring more out of idiocy rather than courage.
And yet, for all that, I’d never been afraid. It’s hard to fear something you don’t believe exists.
Solar power ran the settlement. The sun kept our buildings comfortable and our food cool. It provided light during the dark hours and kicked our machinery on during the day. We relied on the sun. We didn’t worship it, but we held respect for its ability to keep us alive in this barren, rocky landscape we called home.
I never thought anything more or anything less of the sun despite half my tools requiring its existence. Not until the day I was sent to scout the edge of the Demon’s Canyon for a missing herd. The sun sat low, closing in on the risers to the west, when I stumbled upon the brightest sight I’d ever seen.
Perched upon an outcropping only a few paces from the canyon’s edge was a strangely shaped fluid-like fire. A miniature sun that seared my eyes. So bright I blinked back tears just to keep my gaze fastened on the spot.
The fire moved purposefully. First one sliver settling upon the ground. Then another. It rose up partway, shifting so that it’s parts mimicked human limbs. It stayed there, one hand-like piece of itself touching the rock it’d been recently sitting upon. A demon of Hell might have described the creature had it not moved so…warily.
My binoculars slammed against my chest as I stepped backward. My eyes itched and my mouth dropped open. I heaved a huge breath, then turned and ran.
When it didn’t give chase, I staggered to a stop, my heart beating from shock as I gripped one of the jutting rock piles to keep myself steady. Since I couldn’t go back to the settlement without looking a fool, I gave myself a shake and retraced my steps, this time settling my goggles across my eyes.
I expected the creature to be gone when I arrived, nothing but an image seared into my mind. Instead, it had collapsed back in on itself upon its perch, its burning body seeming to be angled so that it could watch the last traces of the sun retreat behind the risers. It seemed so…forlorn. Nothing like the demon of the stories.
It jerked when I cleared my throat and then rolled over itself in its rush to reach the edge of the canyon.
Yes, that was what I said. I called for the creature who could sear my flesh from my skin to stop before it left me alone. When I said I was not a wild child, that didn’t mean I never had my moments of complete disregard for sanity.
And despite the absurdity of what I had done, it wasn’t the strangest occurrence of the evening. No, that distinction belonged to the response from the demon.
For it actually stopped.
Not for long, mind, because a few moments later it went rolling off the edge of the canyon leaving a scorched path in its wake. But for those few moments, it seemed to stare back at me, its fire flickering and the deep pits on its face seeming more like eyes with every passing second.
I strode to the edge of the canyon and watched its progress, impressed with the way it traversed the sheer cliff. Slowly, it faded into the smallest flicker of light, then finally disappeared.
In a bit of a daze, I found the herd and guided them closer to the settlement with a bull-call horn. Then I traversed the maze of the mismatched, inter-locking buildings that made up our settlement to the safety of my own room. I didn’t tell anyone what I had seen that night. Or any of the nights thereafter.
In the late afternoons, just as the sun was drawing close to touching the risers, I took to walking along the Demon’s Canyon. I stopped actively searching after the first few days and simply took in the scenery. Occasionally, I would note a black scorch mark that told me the demon of the canyon had ventured beyond its territory. Randomly, I would see a flicker of light on the opposite side of the gaping chasm. I waved once and felt a jolt of excitement thrum through me when I thought I saw an answering flash.
Some afternoons I would stay longer, letting the evening fall across the land as I sat on the rock I’d first seen the fiery creature on. The rock itself had a smooth feel to it, the color gray and black streaked as if well-used. I didn’t do it often because I had jobs to do back home, but on certain quieter days, I would linger to watch what I could of the escaping color of the sunset.
And that was where he found me one evening almost half a circulation of the sun later.
He didn’t crackle or pop like a real fire. He didn’t hiss or roar. But I did hear a distinct sizzle as if a dried rounded blade of grass caught and burned under his hot tread.
That evening he didn’t move closer; he might not have even known I was there before he crested the edge. We sat in silence watching as the streaks of light faded into violet-shaded darkness. When I moved to relieve some soreness in my leg, I heard him scramble into the canyon.
I smiled to myself. I guess the demon of the canyon was a jumpy fellow.
At the settlement, I rushed through my jobs and neglected my family. People began to call me loving, yet somewhat insensitive, names. I threw my share of teasing back and told them outright I was making friends with the demon so they should beware. They didn’t believe me.
Frankly, I didn’t believe me. I thought I was being reckless for the first time in my life. Adulthood and responsibility finally weighing me down with their boredom.
But there was nothing reckless about sitting and watching the sunset with someone who didn’t mean you any harm, now was there?
The first time he crept forward, he came far enough I could see his burning body out of the corner of my eye and feel the gentle heat wafting off his body. I watched him rather than the sun. So I saw something akin to sadness in his stance and longing in the way he stared unerringly at the last rays.
“It gets darker in the canyon faster, doesn’t it?” I asked softly, not expecting a response.
He didn’t move, not even a glance in my direction. “It’s not the darkness that bothers me.” His voice held a raspy, sizzling quality to it, with a hollow echo latching on to the last sound of each word.
I stared at him, my surprise unfettered upon my face. “You talk.”
Now the fire twisted and those two pits I assumed were eyes faced me instead of the westward horizon. “I’ve been here for a long time. I listen. I watch. I learn.”
He didn’t answer but to shudder, then run and leap over the edge. I scrambled after him, stopping where the rock crumbled under my feet. He moved quickly, fiery limbs making short work of the canyon wall once more, leaving me alone, bereft of the heat his body had been giving off. The wind whistled through the canyon and whispered across the nape of my neck, reminding me forcibly how cold the night could become.
“You don’t have to run away!” I called. My voice echoed down the canyon, becoming distorted.
He didn’t even pause.
Four days later, he joined me as I strode along the dusty path along the top of the canyon. I had to control the urge to jump when he suddenly popped up and began to do an imitation of walking beside me.
“Hello,” I said, swallowing my startlement.
We didn’t speak for a while after that. I studied him through my goggles, noting how his body flickered when the wind blew, dulling for moments at a time before flaring back up. When we finally reached the stone I’d first found him on, he rushed past me, so close I felt the brush of blazing heat against the hair on my arm. He sprawled out across the rock before turning toward me. I swore he oozed smug satisfaction.
“Is that what this is about?” I asked. “The rock?”
He lifted a part of himself—I wasn’t sure which part—and made a circling motion.
“Fine. I’ll take the ground.”
I found a spot close enough that had I stretched I could have reached out and touched him. He shifted further away from me, half his body rolling off to graze the ground.
“Do you have a name?” I asked.
“I do, but…” His head twisted and something in those dark pits he had for eyes burned brighter. “It’s not made of the sounds you use.”
“What’s it made out of then?”
“Heat.” His body flared and I indeed felt a burn in the breeze as it swept over me.
“Not something I could repeat,” I said.
“No.” He didn’t look away though, as if studying me.
“Mine’s Jari Pravean. Is there something I could call you then?”
“You call me Demon.”
I laughed, but quietly, under my breath. “That’s not a name.”
“Then what is it?”
My laughter ceased. The hollow ring in his voice made him sound so harsh so I couldn’t tell whether he’d meant to come off angry. “A title. For a dangerous creature.”
“I see.” He stayed silent for another moment, then added, “It fits.”
“How do you think? You’ve been nothing but a story. You’ve never hurt anyone.”
“In your short time perhaps.” His body fell in on itself, making him seem smaller and his fire less bright, though no less hot. “When I first landed, I tried to make contact, but…”
When he lapsed into silence, I tried to come up with something to reengage him, but words failed me. So we stayed like that, mostly side by side, and stared as the risers became darker and darker. His heat became more welcome as the temperature dropped. Tantalizingly seductive. So much so I almost forgot to head home before I was caught in the chill.
I left early that night. And the night after that.
We began to have dates, though I doubted he would call them that. Every third night, when my responsibilities were met early, I would join him at that rock. Most days we didn’t say anything. Others…
“I have to call you something.”
“Demon is fine.”
“I told you it fits.”
“It’s still awful. How about Blaze? Or Bright or Ignite? I could call you Iggy.”
He looked at me, those deep pits of his eyes suddenly burning blue in a way I didn’t understand. “They’re cute, but very unoriginal.”
“You need original then? I’ll come up with something.”
“How long have you been alive?”
“What constitutes alive?”
“You know, your heart beating, your lungs breathing, your mind capable of thought.”
He cocked his head. It reformed into a different position, the fire licking down his neck until his form became even more human. That’d been happening. His entire being picking up more and more human characteristics.
“Aware, you mean?”
“Over six thousand storms.”
“What’s a storm?”
A bright red and black spot formed on his lower half. It moved upwards, crossing over what I’d come to think of as his torso and fizzled out when it reached his face.
I didn’t get another answer.
I paused before settling on the ground. “A friend wanted to talk. Needed some advice.”
I sat. “The romantic kind.”
“Romance. Is that not another name for copulation for your people?”
“Something like that.” I examined him, noting that the strengthening chill of the year kept his fire weaker than it’d been that first time I’d seen him.
“He needed help learning? He is young?”
“I’ve seen many of your kind engage in copulation. I watched them. It was strange.”
“The fact that you watched is strange.” When he didn’t respond, I asked, “How does your kind…copulate? I’m assuming you have a kind, that you’re not the only one.”
“I’m not.” His upper half shivered, then he shook his head like a human’s in negation, the action jerky. Almost as if he’d been practicing the motion. “It is a welcome of warmth, an exchange of the hottest of our material from one to another. Our core temperature may dip to dangerous levels if we remain open for too long, however, so the process is generally done rarely.” He looked at me. “Your people don’t seem to have problems when you open up.”
“Uh, no. I mean, there are diseases, of course, but we have protections against them and most have either been stifled from our cultures or we’ve found ways of combating them.”
His body shivered again, this time more violently. Then, after a slight hesitation, he nodded, the motion just as jerky as the shake of his head. “There had been people working on a way for us to keep our core temperature high even with the opening. I’m sure they’ve found a way to extend copulation by now.”
After another long moment, he added quietly, “They must have, because every year there are more lights.”
* * *
The coldest season only lasted about forty days. Forty days of herds stuffed in barns and heaters on full-blast to keep them from freezing. Some of Darwin’s proof stayed outside, perfectly happy in their climate, but it would be centuries before they were the norm and not the anomaly.
To accommodate the heaters, we had to give up light, hot water, entertainment and communication. The medical wing became a dark and unused place except in cases of extreme emergencies.
For forty days I wondered what he did during these awfully long and busy nights. I couldn’t go out and see though. We had the clothes for it, but not the resources to pander to such waste were a flash freeze to blow through and leave me unable to walk.
With the melt, the herds bellowed as they took to their dusty pastures filled with genetically altered grasses. The rest of us stretched out the kinks in our bodies and enjoyed the kiss of the sun’s rays on our faces, thankful it’d kept us alive for another long circulation. The frost hawks had stripped away at the solar panels though, making the next twenty days a whirlwind of repairs to get our world back to normal.
By the time I was able to have an evening to myself, I’d figured out a name.
“Chuadsolas.” His eyes blazed bronze, a beautiful color, as I continued, “It’s a mash up of the words Chudo a da solarius, which meant child of the sun in one of the early languages of my ancestors. This is what you are, right? A species from the sun?”
The bronze flared brighter and the shiver that flowed through his upper half wasn’t quite as strong as it had once been. He nodded slowly. “We are…I wish I could use your words.” The pits of his eyes faded from bronze to almost black as he turned to stare at the sun. “I long for the burn of home. For the…”
His body rippled and flared, flames licking out and the heat wafting off of him strengthening until I felt too warm under my jacket. I suspected that he had just told me something, if I could only read it in the flickers of his body.
“What did you do during the cold snap?”
“What the mountain bears do—hibernate.”
“You can do that?”
For the first time, I felt as if I could truly read his expression. His eyes glowed bronze again and his fire curled in on itself both backward and forward. Confusion. “Isn’t that what your people do?”
“We lock ourselves inside until we can survive outside, yes, but we’re all awake and aware.”
“Crowded, loud and smelly.”
“Crowded and loud, yes, but what do you mean by the last? I’ve never been able to grasp that concept.”
And thus started a two hour dissertation on what it meant to smell.
“Ah, I always supposed the nose was a leftover trait from a time when you could pocket air and thus needed two air intakes.”
I didn’t have a response to that.
* * *
As the days wore on, we sat closer and closer. Some evenings I would arrive first and take the rock. Most times, he would be there long before I could escape from my duties. The lick of his heat warmed my insides down to my toes, letting me shed my jacket while I sat with him. His body became even more human. Fingers appearing on his hands. Flames licking across lips that moved in mimicry of my own.
The pits of his eyes became less deep. More expressive. I could almost sense his mind working as he copied my behavior, echoing the sentiments I expressed with a potential for maybe one day actually understanding.
* * *
Then came the day I accidently sat too close. The heat spiked, producing sweat across my lip before I could even register how fast Chuadsolas roiled away, his body becoming as much of a misshapen lump as the first time I’d seen him before he pulled himself together a few paces away.
“What?” I asked.
“You could die.”
“I trust you,” I said simply, giving him a shrug. I watched as he attempted to mimic the action before he shivered and refocused on me.
“I’ve killed your people before.”
“So you’ve said.”
“I didn’t say.”
“So I presumed.”
“I could kill you.” He hadn’t raised his voice. In fact, I had a suspicion that he couldn’t raise his voice. But, the rasp had deepened and the heightened echoes on his sounds made him more difficult to understand.
“But you won’t,” I insisted. Reckless had never been in my character and I wasn’t about to start inviting that sort of behavior now. I liked living. But I also liked Chuadsolas. Probably far too much for my own good.
“But I could.”
“On accident, maybe.”
“Accident? Your kind think those exist. I saw people fall into the canyon before…on accident.” He might not have learned how to sneer like a human, but he was doing a damn good job of it for a sun child. His fire pulsing white and his lips burning over each other in red-black waves.
“There are no such things as accidents, not by your people’s definition.”
“Something that occurs without having purpose. That is impossible. Everything has purpose. I had a purpose when I touched your ancestors.”
“But that purpose wasn’t to harm them.”
I was guessing, but my gut told me it was true. Insisted that it had to be true, even with a tiny reasonable voice in my mind telling me I barely knew anything about this creature. He could in fact still be that demon our stories claimed he was. I didn’t know what he believed. I didn’t know how he thought. I made guesses and hoped I was right because he made me warm inside in a way no one else had ever done. And that had little to do with the fires of his birthplace.
“No,” he said. “But I still touched them. Purposefully. Because I wanted to. And it killed them.” As he spoke, his flames withered and his eyes became cracks of white instead of their normal red-black, a look I’d never seen on him before. The cracks widened, extending past his eyes and slicing through his normally fluid body like jagged, ugly scars.
“I don’t think you understand what I meant.” I found myself sliding off the rock, my hand outstretched in entreaty.
He must have thought I intended on touching him, because his body curled in on itself, his deep pitted eyes disappearing for a brief second before reappearing as he leapt for the canyon’s edge in a way he hadn’t done for ages.
“Wait! Solas, wait!” I ran after him, though, really, what could I have done? I could not have grabbed him without lighting my clothes on fire. Could not follow him without falling to my death.
So I just slammed to my knees and balanced there at the edge. “Solas, it’s okay! I don’t blame you for it! That’s what we mean by accident, that it wasn’t done with malicious intent! That’s what I meant when I said I trust you!”
I might as well have been shouting at the wind for what good it did me. The canyon threw my words in my face as a jumbled mess of syllables that meant nothing. Which, possible could be how Solas had heard them. As meaningless to someone who wasn’t from here and never would be welcomed.
* * *
He avoided me after that. I couldn’t call it anything else. I went to our rock and waited for him. Sometimes I thought I felt his heat, only to waken in the cold of the oncoming night to find myself shivering, my dreams nothing but misbegotten hope that didn’t have a place in reality.
Days went by. Most of them longer than they’d ever been before. I helped care for the herds in the long, dusty hours. Climbed the spiral spring to assist in building a new plumbing system to fetch the water. I even sat on the committee and voted for outposts to be built when we received letters from the other settlements of a wild bull growing its herd from their stock.
I helped build the first one and manned it during the last of the warm days. The circulation came to a close on the cold snap once more and we had to leave it standing empty because its panels hadn’t been set yet.
Those forty days—forty-three to be exact because we miscalculated and brought the herds in early—were the worst of my life. I envisioned Solas out there, the cold shrinking him into nothing as he fought to protect his core. Stupid, really, to be worried when he’d survived for more circulations than I’d been alive. Far more.
And yet, I couldn’t help it. My insides churned during the worst of the frost thinking of how white he’d become the last time I’d seen him. My worry probably stemming from the idea that I’d never see him again rather than any actual belief that he would freeze.
When the warmth retook the land and the herds were finally free, we found evidence of the wild bull’s passage. I volunteered to help in the hunt and for a long stretch of time I never set foot near the canyon. I would watch as the sun dipped down to the risers before helping to set up our portable panels and close up the tents.
One cold, long night we heard the call of the bull and the pounding hooves of his herd in the distance and prayed they didn’t come close enough to trample our solar panels. It was that sleepless night that made the settlement switch priorities, pulling people wherever we could spare them to build the rest of the outposts. I threw myself into the work, pushing my body to its limit so that my mind would be too tired to dream of Solas.
It sometimes worked.
Three more were finished by the end of the circulation. Solar panels mounted, weapons in place and a rudimentary flare system created to keep the outposts in contact with one another. I volunteered to man one during the next cold snap, thinking to escape from the stench and crowd of the main settlement.
We were given our postings by seniority. I got the one closest to Demon’s Canyon. Not because of its proximity, but because it’d been the last created and the one still missing a number of amenities and I was still young enough to be unable to request a different posting.
Two others were assigned to the same outpost. A man and a woman. A couple.
My excitement ebbed in the face of what would certainly be an extensive amount of solitude.
* * *
Days were longer now than they ever were before. And yet, I felt as if every circulation of the sun passed so quickly I must have blinked it by. Too long since I’d seen Solas. Too long since I’d felt his heat ghost over my neck on the breeze as we stared into the west together.
I missed the raspiness of his voice and the bizarreness of his questions. I missed the flaring of his body as his heat signatures altered and twisted in subtle messages I couldn’t read and yet could still appreciate. I missed my friend.
Since I had no herds to gather before the cold snap set in, I found myself walking the edge of the canyon once more. A druggie, looking for a fix. Rejected, looking for another twist in that knife.
I found scorch marks in odd-shaped patterns extending away from the canyon. I followed them to where he turned back around. Touched them, but they were always cold. As dead as the landscape around me.
The evening we were to shut our doors for good, I thought I saw him clinging to a ledge on the other side of the canyon. I shouted to him, calling him the name I had picked for him that he probably hated. If it had been him, he certainly didn’t acknowledge me.
The heaters in the outpost ended up not being large enough. We had to block off half the building just to keep our blood flowing, shoving furniture and blankets within the cracks of doors to keep in the warmth.
The close quarters meant I could hear the couple fucking…copulating. Keeping me up at night, envisioning how Solas would never be capable of opening himself to another. Not with his people so far away.
And that’s when I realized what had been truly bothering me all this time. For if I was lonely, surrounded by friends and family, how alone must Solas feel? Out there, in the dark of the canyon, in the cold of our planet. His own home, his real home, too far to reach. His own people likely long ago given up on him.
It made me ache to think about it.
The cold snap drew on so slowly I began to miss the overcrowded settlement. I took on projects within the outpost simply to have something to fill my hours. I shot at the frost hawks when they soared out of the sky, keeping them from tearing up the panels too badly.
Partway through the cold snap, I was replacing one that a hawk had clawed, more out of boredom than necessity, when I heard the deep call of the bull. I looked up and out over the land to the north and west, straining my eyes to see the specks that would indicate the wild herd on the move. My goggles were too grimy, only cleaned with my shirt in order to spare our water.
I climbed down and got the others before taking up a position on the northern edge with one of the larger guns. Sans goggles, I could see the slight shift in the horizon where the wild herd gathered.
“He’s taking all the ones capable of living through the cold snaps,” I murmured. My heart sank with the knowledge that there would be little we could do. Little we could save.
The herd approached, but over the course of days. Little by little, we caught sight of them gaining ground as they mashed up the frozen plants within their flat teeth. Hour by hour we waited and watched, taking turns at the guns that would likely be too far away to do any damage.
When the herd gathered close enough, I took the first shot, hoping to scare them into turning around. Found the wild bull through my binoculars and aimed at its horned head. I was off about four meters to the left. Hit a cow through the flank instead, sparking a rage in the beasts surrounding her.
The next shots we took were messy. The gun vibrated under my hand with every shot. And with every echoing blast that shook the outpost, the wild bull raced closer. It screamed and stomped, every bit as scary as our own domesticated one and every bit as wild as the world we lived upon.
The others yelled at me to shoot it, as if I wasn’t doing my best to stall the raging beast. Yet, I didn’t feel the fear they felt. Didn’t feel the pressing need to stall its forward motion. Because, really, what could it do against the thick stone of the outpost?
Quite a lot, I discovered.
The bull called his herd into action, sending them straight for our small building. They converged and crashed against us, making the floor vibrate and the ceiling shake. The cold poured in through the gun slits and chilled my hands right through my gloves, making it even harder to aim at the huffing monster barreling through his cows at us.
In those moments, sitting at a squat second story window, feeling the cold snap seeping into my bones, I moved the gun lethargically. Its mechanics became more and more difficult to maneuver as the shaking yanked the bolts straight out of the ground on one side, causing the gun to dip dangerously to the right. I grunted as I caught it, straining against its weight. Then it fell with a crash, useless to our cause.
The others had pulled out hand guns, but the pitiful things seemed to be shooting mere stones at the thick hides of the herd.
Then the bull crashed against the outpost, its entire body heaving. The floor shuddered violently, pitching us all to our knees. The roof cracked and the heavy gun I’d abandoned yanked against its remaining bolts.
The huge horns of the bull flashed by the window as it ran back to get some distance.
“It’s coming back,” someone gasped, but I couldn’t tell who over the noise of the herd.
I had just enough time to arm myself with one of our thick skinning knives when the bull smashed against the outpost a second time. I remained on my feet this time, but lurched as I headed for the door.
“How can it be so strong?” shouted the man.
Easy, I thought. It had to be in this environment. No wonder the other settlements had thought to dispatch letters of warning. This wild bull could trample us all. Maybe even destroy our home. He would likely die before he was finished, but he would still leave desolation in his wake. And if he attacked the settlement in the middle of the cold snap, ripped apart the solar panels and crushed our heaters… He wouldn’t have to be alive to kill us all.
I scooped up a bull-call horn from the shelf downstairs and ducked as the stacked crates we’d been organizing crashed to the ground. The extra panels spilled out, some of them shattering, one of them slicing straight through my pants to scratch my leg. A flesh wound, nothing of consequence, but the hole in my clothes would bring in the frost that much faster.
Gunshots rang out from the second story. Pop-pops that sounded almost comical in the face of our destruction. A glory last-stand attempt by a couple who would rather be kissing, but who loved their families too much for that.
I grabbed the larger flare gun and tossed it up the stairs. “Shoot this one.”
“Not the smaller one?” shouted back the woman, her voice almost drowned out as the bull smashed against the outpost again, his raging bellow piercing my eardrums.
“No! It’s too late for help. We need to just warn them off!”
I thought I heard her acquiesce, but I didn’t stay at the bottom of the steps to ascertain. Instead, I staggered across the room, narrowly avoiding getting smashed by one of the double bunks as it pitched sideways. The vibrations weren’t just the wild bull now. I could hear some of the braver cows joining his mauling of the outpost, taking advantage of its weakness, of its hurried design.
Grabbing the smaller flares and pulling my hood up, I then took a steadying breath and pulled open the door. A blast of freezing air burst against me, sucking the warmth from my face. I shot one of the flares straight into the herd, sending the smaller cows scattering away. They were easier to deter and would probably become docile creatures once the bull was gone and they had run themselves out of energy.
Scrambling up the steps—the outpost had been built partially into the ground so that half the lower level would have the added insulation—I readied a second flare blindly while I strained to see if the wild bull had come around. A rage-filled bellow, followed by another crash against the outpost told me he was still on the other side, spending his fury at the couple still shooting into the herd.
So I shot another flare through the cows trampling between the outpost and the canyon, clearing a path for me to run through. The herd wasn’t as violent away from the outpost. Not as riled up by the bull’s crazed thrashing. And when I glanced back, I could tell that the herd wasn’t nearly as large as the ones I had commonly been responsible for guiding all my life.
Reaching the canyon, I blew the bull-call horn, giving it three short bursts and another long one. The cows closest to me reacted almost instantly, trotting along the canyon’s edge. I dodged out of their way, coming perilously close to the side. I called again, letting the horn ring out louder just as the larger flare shot into the sky from the outpost. It exploded in a burst of fire that quickly fizzled in the gray sky.
Except for the cows closest to the wild bull, the herd turned to obey me. The beasts followed each other in a line, pushing and nudging one another, but seeming more content to obediently be called to order than join the wild bull in his rampaging. They were likely all stolen then. Used to being around humans and our horns.
As the cows trotted southward, the cold seeped through my clothes. Froze the leaking blood on my leg. Burned my lungs. My hands shook as I lifted the horn to my mouth once more. The call came out stuttering. A weakness to exploit.
The wild bull, already furious, came around the outpost. He stomped the ground and let out a bellow that easily surpassed the one I had given with the horn. The herd broke, milling in confusion, becoming a congestion lacking in sense.
I hesitated, mostly out of fear, then blew another long blast through the horn. A blast not intending to enforce submission in the herd, but to rile up their leader so he would charge the competing bull.
Like a well-trained calf, the wild bull kicked up dirt as he rushed at me. The distance stretched between the outpost and the canyon. The bull’s legs moving practically in slow-motion as the cold made my brain as sluggish as my limbs. The cows parted before him. The ground shook with his passage, the vibrations rolling up my legs.
I had time to dodge. To lunge. To race into the confines of the herd. I had plenty of time to ready a flare gun and shoot it. To unsheathe the blade I had brought.
But I did none of those things. Because none of those things would have stopped the bull’s charge. Probably wouldn’t even slow it.
Instead, I stepped backward until my heels felt the edge of the canyon. The rock crumbled under my right foot, sending another, stronger, piercing arrow of terror through my heart. The cold gave me the lethargy to be brave.
Mostly brave, for I shut my eyes. Squeezed them tight and let out a ragged gasp in anticipation of the both of us falling into the depths of the canyon. A quick thought, practically a prayer, begged the bull to kill me with its charge so I wouldn’t have to live for endless seconds while the air whistled by my ears and the ground welcomed me into its rocky arms.
But the blow, or the fall, didn’t come, replaced with an agonized bellow, a dreadful thud and a warm flush that blew away the worst of the cold snap from my flesh. Rocks skittered across the ground and peppered my legs. Cows bleated out their concern.
I opened my eyes as Solas danced away from the thrashing beast. He simmered, gray and black, occasionally glowing orange like an ember struggling to retain its burn. The wild bull lay beyond, its flesh stripping off in long, ugly patches and its insides sizzling, the smoke puffing away in the cold wind blowing across its body.
I fell to my knees, the cold cutting through my double layers despite the wet-proof material, feeling shaky with relief as the sluggish adrenaline tried to come to terms with its superfluousness. My breathing came hard, cutting through my lungs like little daggers of ice. I pried off my goggles and let them fall to my neck, the chill drying my eyes.
“Are you okay, Jari?”
Solas knelt in front of me, his body so human and yet…so not. His limbs were proportioned correctly. His hands boasted five individual digits. His smoldering face had the lines and grooves of familiar expression though his eyes were still those deep ashy pits, the jagged white lines I remembered from the day he’d left me edging what amounted for his pupils.
I sucked in a breath, trembling still.
“Jari?” He leaned closer, the concern blatant in his tone, in his expression, in the way he held himself. As if he’d picked up far more human traits than I’d ever known.
“I’m fine,” I said on an exhale. “I’m…fine. Solas, you shouldn’t be out here, if there’s a flash freeze and things get worse—”
“I saw the fire. I thought it was one of my own.”
A terrible sadness twisted in my heart. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered. My teeth chattered, making the words almost unintelligible.
Solas smiled, the expression strange upon his dark face. “No need to be. I’m glad I came.”
“But the cold—” I couldn’t finish. My throat closed up and my joints felt frozen. I tried to stand, but my limbs felt too heavy to move. My shivering became worse as the cold faded away, leaving a dangerous numbness behind.
“Go,” I managed. I shook my head and tried to motion for him to leave so that he wouldn’t freeze worse than I would. But he didn’t go. Didn’t even glance behind me.
Instead, he lifted a hand and let it hover over my face. I forgot to breathe. My shivering suddenly dropping off as I waited in anticipation of his next move. That hand came closer, hovering with could have indecision or trepidation. Then he pointed a finger and slowly, so slowly, pressed it against my cold cheek.
He was hot against my flesh. A welcoming warmth that brought back the pain of the cold as that heat reached my nose. I turned my face into his palm regardless, relishing the touch of him against me. A touch I had thought impossible.
“I want…” whispered Solas. “There’s so much I want.”
“Why’d you leave?” I asked as his warmth flowed down my neck and eased the pain in my lungs.
He flinched and almost stole his hand back, but I grabbed him and held him to me, shifting closer so that our faces practically touched. Solas met my eyes, his body flickering with inner dimensions I could barely begin to understand.
Quietly, he said, “Because I wanted to touch you. And it wouldn’t have been an accident. And it would have killed you.”
“You wanted to touch me?”
“I did not trust myself.” He leaned closer. “I do not trust myself now either.” His voice barely audible.
Then his lips pressed against mine.
He kissed with a fluidness that both scared and excited me. His mouth a moving entity, almost flowing through my own, coating my tongue with smoothness and fire. He sparked a reaction that traveled through my torso, pumped through my veins, making me alive in a way I’d never been before.
The numbness in my limbs faded, replaced with a roar that seared me inside and out. My mind spun and my vision speckled as if I’d been staring for too long at the sun.
That kiss, so longed for, so wanted despite the belief it could never occur, it became everything. We knelt there on the freezing ground. Kissed until the warmth began to fade from our bodies. Solas grayed, his body becoming misshapen as he drooped. I shivered at the sudden influx of cold and wrapped him in my embrace.
“We need to get inside,” I said. “You’re crazy for being out here.”
He lifted his head and ran his flattened face against mine. “Worth it,” he said, but his hollow voice seemed to have come from somewhere far away, as if he was having difficulty projecting the sound.
I struggled with him, hefting him to what amounted to his feet. Together, we staggered through the milling cows toward the outpost. Solas leaned upon me more and more. The temperature dropped rapidly, signaling a flash freeze approaching. My nose turned numb once more and my blood sluggish.
We almost fell down the steps, saved only because we tipped backward instead of forward. I fumbled with the door, my fingers thick in my gloves and hard to curl. As the door swung open, I pushed Solas’s morose body through. He collapsed upon the ground, slinking into a dull blob. I twisted, staying on my feet just long enough to shut and latch the door behind me. Then I fell beside him, shivering, my knees pulled up to my chest in a reflection of Solas’s own chill.
As we warmed, Solas regained his shape, his facial features coming back first so that he stared at me with those deep pitted eyes as if I held answers to all his questions. I whispered his name and reached out toward him, grazing his skin. The glove smoldered, filling the air with the scent of burning fabric.
He shifted away from me. Put himself against stone that would not alight on fire at his touch as his color gradually returned. I slipped my hand free from the glove and stretched toward him, letting my fingers stop a few inches from his own so I could feel his warmth.
His limb twitched, a flicker in his burning body, but he didn’t pull away. After a moment, he seemed to sigh in contentment, the fire licking across him leisurely as he settled himself in a more comfortable position.
Then he smiled at me. With lips I had kissed. An expression upon his face that I thought I’d never see again.
His happiness, my happiness.