Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
Ambrose sat before the dragon’s carcass, his hands clasped before him. The pool of frozen and congealed blood was only a hair’s distance from the toe of his boot. The silver head of the beast lay twisted at a strange angle, its throat open to the world where Kai had slashed his sword. A glimmer of its white spine could be seen in the sea of red.
The sun was beginning to rise, coloring the dark sky in pink and gold. If Ambrose turned, he would be able to see the full beauty of it over the tips of the snowy mountains. Instead, he remained watching the dead beast as though it would begin to breathe again.
He did not mourn the creature, and the disgust he felt by the carcass had faded after the long moments he spent examining it. It was not the first carcass he had seen within the Kiertsk mountains. Only a day after being split from the others at the cliff, he and Rieka had stumbled upon a group of bandits who had no doubt been after the sword just as they were. Their bodies were frozen, skin blue and sunken against their bones.
Rieka had told him to keep moving, and he had. He had kept moving, seeing those corpses in every shadow for days after.
Ambrose’s eyes trailed to other stains of blood on the white snow. This blood took the shape of feet. Ren’s feet.
He told himself it did not matter. That there was no use in thinking about it. Sure, he had helped develop the plan that had almost gotten them killed, but they were still alive. They had the sword.
Kai’s earlier words resounded within his body and mind. They had won, yet he felt no sense of triumph.
He resolved to feel progress instead. Sure, this victory was a precarious one, but they had more trials ahead. Better to focus on them than the mistakes of the past.
The snow was beginning to soak into his trousers, but Ambrose ignored the cold. Much like death and blood, he had grown accustomed to the sharp, numbing pain Styrka induced. He had yet to decide whether the development was positive or negative.
There was much he was still lost on. He had left Arlan in the hopes of finally discovering his purpose and instating his true worth. Instead, he was as confused as when he had left. What good were his actions for those accompanying him? He saw the benefit in the prophecy for Arlan. He saw how it could finally strengthen their weakening land. The question became whether the cost was worth the reward.
A crunch of snow jolted him from his thoughts, and Ambrose turned to find Rieka limping towards him, her hand braced on her wounded side. Her thin, long nose scrunched with pain and exasperation. She stopped at his side and peered down at him, her brows raised.
Tossing her braid over her shoulder, she turned to the dead beast. “Quite the scenic view,” she commented, grunting as she lowered herself to the ground beside Ambrose.
He did not respond, examining her pale face instead. He did not bother asking how she was. He had attempted doing so when they were hiking through the mountains, cold and hungry. She had just about cut off his head with her axe.
She pulled something from beneath the collar of her coat and began turning it between her fingers. It looked like one of the scales from the beast, but Ambrose could not tell.
“Do you wish you had killed it?” he asked.
A grin tugged at her lips. “With a burning passion.”
She had told him of her failed warrior’s initiation two years prior. Ambrose was not sure what had spurred her to reveal it, but he had yet to form a complete response to her words even days after they had been spoken. Fortunately, she did not seem to have any need for words of comfort or assurance.
“Why are you out here staring at it anyway?” she asked, kicking out a foot to scatter the blood-stained snow at his feet.
Ambrose gnawed on his inner cheek. He plucked through his words like one shuffled through papers before saying, “Perspective.”
“Right. Perspective.” Rieka paused, then turned to look at him. “What the fuck does that even mean?”
“Forget I said it,” Ambrose said with a slight shake of his head.
She watched him with furrowed brows before shrugging. “Okay. Stare at the dead dragon, then.”
After several beats of silence, Rieka blurted, “Why are we just staring at this thing? It almost killed me. I should be tearing off its limbs and tossing them off the mountain.”
“What use is that?” Ambrose asked genuinely. “It is already dead.”
“Stars, I don’t know. At least it’s better than just sitting here staring at it.”
“The dragon lost,” Ambrose reminded her.
She huffed out a breath. “No thanks to me.”
“Or to me, I suppose.”
“You were pretty useless,” she agreed, glancing at him. “You could barely lift the sword. You’re a prince. I thought you were supposed to learn all that fighting technique shit.”
“I learned it, I am just horrible at it and never practiced.”
“That was a mistake,” she said, pursing her lips.
Ambrose did not respond, exhaling sharply, the breath puffing before him. He had made a lot of mistakes. In his past and his present. Failing to become a good fighter was among that list.
In all honesty, he had not failed in doing so because he did not see the benefit of it. Nor did he choose to not practice because he had a lack of motivation. He did so because there was the chance that he would try to succeed only to be overshadowed by everyone else once again. At least in his books and mind, he did not have to worry about everyone seeing him fail.
The logic was abysmal, of that he was aware. He chose to fail completely rather than attempt to succeed. It was the actions of a pitiful fool. He supposed that was what he was.
“You’re not out here for perspective,” Rieka said, lifting what he was now sure was a scale and pointing it at him accusingly.
Ambrose turned to her, brows furrowed.
“You’re out here to wallow,” she announced, a brow arched in triumph, as though she had succeeded in delving into his mind and plucking out the answers. “Well?” she prompted. “That’s stupid as shit. What do you even have to wallow over?”
Her injury, for starters. Kai’s nightmares. Ren’s feet. The whole gods-damned ordeal.
“Just get off your sorry ass. You’re wasting your time out here,” Rieka said, slipping the silver scale back under her collar.
Rieka started to push herself to her feet, grunting from the pain. Ambrose stood and held out a hand for her. She glared at it, then at him before brushing his hand aside.
“I’m not a fucking invalid,” she barked, wincing and hissing as she finally got to her feet. She panted through gritted teeth, her hand pressing into her side.
They walked back to the cave in silence, Ambrose gnawing on his inner cheek once more. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth and he pressed his tongue against the torn skin.
Inside the cave, the others were already beginning the prep to leave. Zain and Kai were saddling the horses, Amani and Shadya were repacking their bags, and Ren was slumped on the floor, watching the others work. He had managed to get most of the goat’s blood from his skin, but a few patches were stained on his cheeks, gore buried beneath his nails.
“Aren’t you going to help, you sack of shit?” Rieka barked at Ren, stopping to kick his ribs.
Ren hissed and grabbed his side. “I’m a wounded man, Rieka. I need to heal.”
“I’ll make you a wounded man,” she muttered, stepping over his legs to help Kai and Zain.
Ambrose moved to stomp out their fire, which was merely a pile of embers. He glanced at Ren from the corner of his eye, assessing. Ren’s fingers fidgeted with a coin Ambrose did not know how he acquired, flipping it over his knuckles. After it flipped into his palm, he lifted his hand, the coin gone. As if by magic, he flicked the fingers of his other hand and the coin shot out onto his knuckles once more, beginning the process anew.
Ren watched his hands idly as though he was not wholly aware of the tricks he was doing. A dark curl flopped before his eyes, and he did not bother brushing it back. It looked soft, delicately brushing against his dark lashes and the smooth, brown skin of his forehead. Ambrose pondered what he was thinking. Was his mind still in the intricate labyrinth just beneath the mountain? Was he seeing the dragon’s teeth just beside his body as he dangled from the rope harness?
The minute Ambrose had met Ren, he had only held worry for how the thief would manage to disrupt their journey. After a careful assessment of each of his companions, Ambrose had decided Ren was the most troublesome. Rieka was wild, but she was a soldier. If he managed to gain her respect, she would follow orders. Ren, on the other hand, behaved in self-interest, regardless of any orders or plans. No amount of respect or trust would change that.
While his assessment remained the same, Ambrose was also beginning to realize that Ren was likely their most prized asset. He had the skill-set and the greed to achieve just what needed to be achieved. He had entered the den of a dragon with no knowledge of the layout and had managed to escape with the sword in hand despite warriors failing for years before him.
“Are we going to leave anytime soon, or what?” Rieka said, watching the others with her hands on her hips. Ambrose jolted from his thoughts and turned to her. The horses were already prepped.
“Fuck yes,” Ren said, his voice rushing out in a breath. “I’ve been waiting to leave Styrka the minute we entered.”
Rieka rolled her eyes and pulled atop her horse, her head almost touching the ceiling of the cave.
“Anyone going to help me up?” Ren asked. “Wounded feet here!”
Amani stopped beside him and slid an arm around his shoulders. She glanced up at Ambrose. “Prince Ambrose?” she prompted.
He blinked before stepping forward to help. On the count of three, they both lifted Ren until he was balanced precariously on his feet, applying as little pressure on them as possible. Ren still stank of rot, but he seemed to no longer care, too focused on the pain in his cloth bundled feet.
“I suppose I’m not riding with Kai this time,” Ren said, glancing Kai’s way with a grin.
“Ride with the prince,” Rieka ordered. “You two are both the skinniest.” She said the words like an insult.
Ren nudged Ambrose with his shoulder, grinning crookedly up at him. “You and me,” he said, his eyes crinkled in the corners.
Ambrose gulped, turning to his horse. Despite his best efforts, his skin warmed.
(continued in next part without break)