He swam in a white sea. Everything was distant: the exploding wood, the burning. The sounds of screams and falling echoed through his mind.
He saw her face, and heard her voice. She faded in from the white void, pale and perfect, golden hair and sapphire eyes.
His eyes fluttered open. Frozen light spilled across his vision like ivory blood. The sun was glazed behind a veil of icewinter clouds. He heard the distant ring of metal, as if it came from underwater. Everything was cold. Snow and slush gathered up around his neck and face. The sky was the color of bones.
Dane’s eyes blinked the snow away. His fingers dug into ground crusted over with ice. Sharp pain rang up his spine and along the sides of his face. Blood welled from his split lip. He tried to move, but his muscles were frozen. He smelled fuel and smoke. The frozen wind scraped against his face.
A shadow appeared over him against the backdrop of the pale storm. The wedge of darkness grew larger and released a blood-hurdling howl.
The axe-blade came into vision. Dane’s heart froze. He threw his body forward as the steel rang against the snow-covered stone at his back.
His hands came around a loose rock on the ground. Dane threw it into the Gorgoloth’s knee. The black-skinned brute growled in pain. Its pale mane of hair was stained with soot and blood, and its lips curled back in a snarl as it threw itself at him with its black-bladed axe.
Dane found his sidearm, but knew he wouldn’t have time to use it. He reached for his knife and threw himself into the Gorgoloth’s body before it could bring the axe down. The creature had a foot of height on him, but Dane used his weight to push his opponent off balance, and he sent them both toppling to the ground. Claws raked his leather armor and threw him back.
The Gorgoloth rose as Dane fell to the ground. He had room to aim his pistol. Gunshots tore through the cold still air, and when he was done firing the Gorgoloth lay dead, its pale blood seeping onto paler ground.
The Warden slowly pulled himself to his feet. Dirt and snow had crusted to his skin. His torn armor oozed blood from his chest and leg. He felt dizzy.
He looked around.
The airship had gone down. He didn’t remember the crash, didn’t recall much of anything after the pilot had sounded out the general alarm. Hammerhead was a long-range vessel designed to transport prisoners from the fringe human settlements like Dagger and Goth all of the way back to Black Scar. They’d had a payload of sixty new convicts for the red diamond mines, a motley assortment of petty criminals and Islander slaves that Warden Lorne had acquired from an old acquaintance of hers.
What the hell brought us down?
The wreckage was scattered all over the side of the cobalt mountain. Hard-packed snow and hoarfrost covered the rough and jagged stone, and dangerously tall peaks poked through the shifting blue-black clouds. The air was so cold it stung. The wind pushed against him like knives.
Smoking debris lay everywhere. He saw pieces of the mast and the turbines. Smoke billowed from what was left of the deck. Bits of rope, metal and bodies trailed the wreckage. Greasy remains had sprayed across the snow and stone.
Dane steadied himself. His entire body shook with cold and fear. His teeth ached down to their sockets, and his ears and fingers throbbed from the chill. He had to find a cloak or a coat to throw over his armor before he froze to death. The slate winter sky spewed bits of acid snow and chunks of black hail, but the air felt as dry as the inside of a tomb. His throat was raw.
The hill was sharply sloped – whether he looked down, where the trail of wreckage wound its way to the twisted valley below, or up, so he could gauge the height of the dagger-like peaks, he found himself disoriented, like he was still trapped on the deck of the moving ship.
It was Giving Day. He’d known already he wouldn’t make it back to Black Scar in time to be with Cassia. He’d been the unlucky one this year – usually she got stuck with prisoner transport duties around the holiday, and Dane pulled guard duty back at the prison. But Cassia always made it back in time, and she’d made him promise her he would do that this year, even though they both knew that was silly, that there was no way he could promise something like that. Too many things could happen – there could have been a problem with the transactions at the coastal towns, or they could run into trouble on the way back.
Like crashing on a mountain.
He loved her. He’d never wanted to join the Wardens in the first place, but there wasn’t much other work for an ex-soldier who’d been dishonorably discharged for stealing. It was a stupid mistake that had cost him his future. The Revengers hadn’t cared about any of that, and even though he felt like scum for joining up with an organization known for torturing and exploiting their prisoners for slave labor, none of that had mattered after he’d met Cassia. She loved him, even with all of his stupid decisions, even with all of his mistakes. She took him as he was, and he knew he’d never find anyone else like her, anywhere. When he looked in her eyes, everything else in the world melted away.
And now he’d never see her again.
Dane felt despair creep over him. He saw nothing but bodies. Aside from the Gorgoloth who’d attacked him there was nothing else living on that mountain.
It occurred to him he didn’t even know where they were. There shouldn’t have been any mountains on their route back from Dagger, just plains and rivers. The cold told him they were in the Reach.
He sank to his knees. He was dizzy and exhausted. He didn’t remember coming down the side of the mountain, but he was knee deep in wreckage now, his hands blistered from where he’d tried to clear away debris to get to the others, but every face he came across was ice-cold and dead, every body torn to pieces by broken slivers of iron, wood and rock. He was alone. That cold realization raced like ice water through his veins.
He collapsed to the ground, his back against what was left of the bulkhead. Blood froze to the side of his face. He held up his hand, and realized he couldn’t feel it.
No, baby. I’m sorry. I won’t.
He realized it was the first Giving Day he’d ever spent alone.
He heard metal close by. Something shifted through the wreckage. Gutteral voices in the wind. He saw dark silhouettes, hulking shapes with axes and hammers.
The Gorgoloth. He knew they never traveled solo, but in war bands.
He wasn’t alone after all.
Steven Montano is the author of the Blood Skies series. Learn more about his particular brand of insanity at bloodskies.com