When the World Falls to Darkness

A kingdom at war, a web of truth and lies, a vicious game of friendship and betrayal, and a world that will kill you, whatever path you take.
When the World Falls to Darkness, nobody is safe.
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Beautiful cover by River_Summers.

(I also promise much more frequent updates starting July, when exams are over. :D)

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23. Takahiro

Winter swept through the valley, the tips of his wings skimming the treetops as he carried Takahiro above the forest. The early morning sun brushed across his alabaster feathers, illuminating them with a gentle aura of gold. A soft breeze greeted him with caressing fingers of air; the mountains formed a shield, protecting him from the nightmares he had left behind in Elveros.

He could afford to escape for a day, and where better to go? The valley was beautiful.

"Land on the peak!" Takahiro called out to him from the saddle, and Winter sailed upwards, savouring every second of his resplendent freedom. The sky's embrace would always be warm to him.

He circled around the mountain's peak twice before descending to land, and the moment his talons touched the ground beneath, something of his freedom slipped away.

Winter lowered himself to the ground, and Takahiro swung himself on the saddle, landing lightly on his feet and grinning at Winter. 

"You've got the rest of the day to fly about!" the elven prince reminded him. "Might as well figure out our attack plan in case they turn up early!"

Winter supposed he had a point, and, still warm from Takahiro's words, he straightened himself and allowed his humanoid form to take control.

Slowly, the feathers melted into skin and thin clothing, and the feathers of his tail retreated back. He could feel his bones compacting, and the familiarly dull throb of pain rippled across his body. His form was shifting: beak into lips; talons into feet; wings into arms.

As the final feathers fused with flesh, Winter's eyes flicked to Takahiro's for a fleeting second. They rested gently on him, with the gleam of admiration and friendship rather than mastership.

"You know, you look kind of amazing when you transform," Takahiro remarked, and a smile found its way to Winter's lips. His face reddened slightly, but before he could reply, Takahiro was already sitting down, slumped against one of the rocks that jutted from the mountain's peak. "Planning time!" he declared, gesturing to the space next to him. Winter smiled as he joined him, trying - and failing - to suppress a shudder. Even he wasn't immune to the cold - not in this form.

"You look cold," Takahiro observed. "Want my cloak?"

He looked cold himself, and Winter shook his head. "I appreciate the gesture, but... I'm fine. Thank you, though."

Takahiro shrugged. "Tell me if you want it, okay?"

Winter nodded. Only if he got really cold - then he might consider it. Until then, he was just going to have to suffer at the mercy of the mountain winds. His own clothing, the standard issue Guardian attire for Elveros's royal Guardians, did nothing to defend him. Only the warmth of Takahiro's arm pressed against his own was any help against the freezing talons of the wind across his flesh.

"They'll probably come in from that end of the valley and head for the gap between the lowest mountains," Takahiro mused, nodding towards the places he spoke of. "They're only angels, so they won't be able to fly in winds that're too strong, unless they have an air mage with them. We could ambush them when they enter the valley, I guess."

Winter nodded. "How many are there?"

"It's only a raiding party, so there aren't that many. Eighteen angels, according to the spy, and three fire dragons."

For a moment, Winter could hardly reply. "Three? Three fire dragons?" If the fear had managed to creep into his words, Takahiro didn't notice it.

"Yeah," the prince grinned. "They must've heard about the unbeatable ice phoenix and sent in fire dragons to counter you. Should be fun, right?"

"Did you know about the fire dragons before you dismissed the guards your father sent to protect you?"

"Yeah! Why?"

Winter drew a shaky breath of cold air. "You're an idiot." He regretted the disrespect instantly, but the elf seemed not to notice, instead shooting him an affectionate look. "How long'd it take you to figure that one out?"

And then, for the first time, he seemed to notice the fear dancing in Winter's eyes, and his features softened. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Winter managed, but his mind was racing. Fire dragons. Even one would be a challenge enough - but three?

"You don't have to pretend things are okay just to stop me worrying, Winter." If only things were that simple. If only everything could revolve around those words - but they couldn't. They never had, and never would. Winter had followed them once, and he had learnt from his mistakes. Not again. Not when Takahiro was getting along with his father for the first time in years.

"I apologise," he said quickly. "I just wasn't expecting such opponents."

"You look really scared," Takahiro said. His voice brimmed with concern, and Winter melted a little into its softness. "I shouldn't have sent the guards away, should I? We can go back and get them now?" he offered, but there was reluctance beneath the concern, because even though he tried to hide it, Takahiro hadn't spent years of his life masking everything he felt to protect another. He couldn't lie like Winter could.

"No, I'm sure everything will be fine. We'll simply need a good plan," he smiled weakly. Takahiro studied his face for a moment, but finally let it slide.

"Yeah. But if you don't want to fight, we can go back. Okay?"

Winter nodded. Smiled. "Of course."

Takahiro set a firm hand on his shoulder, and the warmth of his skin sept through the thin layer of clothing and into Winter's arm. "We'll be fine. Promise. Now, you want to get this plan started?"

 

 

"Ready?" Winter could see the shadows in the distance, and shifted nervously. Takahiro smoothed the feathers on his neck for reassurance, and Winter tried to steel his nerves. Without success.

The first of the dragons, leader of the formation, sliced through the air above their heads, followed by the closely packed group of angels, who were flanked by the remaining two dragons. A knife of terror tore through his veins, but it was already too late to turn back. He couldn't let Takahiro down - not now.

He opened his wings, and launched into the sky.

With only precious seconds before they noticed him and reacted, Winter beat his wings, willing icy frost to settle on the wings of the dragons. In the single moment before they could regain the advantage, Winter beat his wings once more, and the frost spiked outwards into sharp shards of ice, digging into the dragons' wings and weighing them down.

He swept instantly towards the angels, and within a few seconds, they too found frost on their wings, and suddenly they were plummeting, wings helplessly heavy.

"Down!" Takahiro yelled, and Winter dove after them, an icy flame building in his chest. "Fire!"

He opened his beak and projected the freezing fire towards the angels. Five, caught instantly, screaming as the cold overwhelmed them and sucked away their lives. They hit the ground already dead.

"Behind!"

Winter turned in time to see the largest of the flame dragons hurtling towards him, and by then it was already too late for evasion. They collided, a furious mass of red scales and white feathers, and instantly there was pain lancing through his left flank as the dragon's claws tore at his skin. Agony, blood, fury. Winter screeched in pain, and lashed out with his talons, clawing at the creature's scaly hide. For a moment, the dragon's strength was overwhelming and he was being pushed backwards, but then a mass of writhing vines erupted from the ground beneath and curled around the monster's tail, throwing it off-balance.

It was all Winter needed. He surged forwards, tearing at the unprotected flesh on the dragon's throat, and the beast dropped to the ground, trying weakly to flame. He dove again at its throat, and dealt the final blow. The dragon dropped to the floor, limp and weak and dying.

Angels.

Angels had reduced the dragon to this, just as the elves had reduced him to nothing but a slave, nothing but a weapon to use against their enemies. Takahiro's nature magic had saved him from that, but in that fleeting second, Winter could only wish that the dragon could have had somebody like the prince to save him from oblivion.

And then he was dragged back to the fight by the frenzied screams of the other dragons and the surviving angels, and he took off once more, narrowly evading a stream of fire. Claws, tearing at his wings. Fire, blackening his feathers. Then Takahiro's vines relieved him of one of the dragons, and he attacked the other with flames of ice. The two of them locked talons and a bloody war of beak and fangs ensued. Slashing and tearing and snapping and jerking - a pause would be his death; a mistake could be Takahiro's.

"Weak spot - lower jaw!" Takahiro's voice cut through the screeching, and Winter lunged for the dragon's lower jaw, his beak flashing with a final fatality as it punctured through the chink in the scales.

He didn't even see the dragon hit the ground before Takahiro's familiar weight was torn from the saddle.

Winter spun around, catching a glimpse of a surviving angel with Takahiro clutched as a hostage to their chest. Something terrifying ripped through his body like a burning flame, unbearable, agonising, insufferable. He launched himself upwards, and for a split second he was going to reach Takahiro, and the next he was being torn from the sky by the final dragon.

Before the creature had time to so much as flame, Winter had torn at its wings, frozen flames cracking its scales as his talons sliced at its chest.

With a final scream, the creature fell, and Winter boosted himself further into the sky.

He had to save Takahiro, had to bring him back, had to return the one person who mattered, the only person who had ever looked at him as a friend, as an equal, as an existing conscience.

"Stop!"

Terror ripped at his heart with merciless claws as he realised: the angel had a blade to Takahiro's throat. Everything stopped moving.

Winter froze.

No.

"Move, and I'll slit his throat. You go back down there, you turn back into your humanoid form, and you drive a blade through your own throat. You know what happens if your master dies. The link will kill you slowly, painfully. And I'll be there to watch you suffer."

And in that second, he didn't care. He didn't care if he suffered, if he died slowly or painfully or with his own blade in his throat. But he cared if they hurt Takahiro, because he mattered more than life. More than anything. The elf prince caught his eye, grinned, unsheathed a blade and drove it through the angel's shoulder. And then he was falling.

Panic flooded through every fibre of his body as he dived after Takahiro, wings folded inwards, heart hammering ruthlessly against his chest.

He spun mid-air and somehow, his talons wrapped around Takahiro's body, but before he could alter the course they were barrelling into the ground, and every bone in his body was suddenly burning from the impact.

"Winter!" Takahiro scrambled from the safety of his talons to collapse beside his head, throwing his arms desperately around his neck and screaming his name into his feathers. Weakly, he raised a wing to tuck it over the elf's trembling form in an attempt at reassurance, and slowly, slowly, started the transformation back. His bones burned with fire, and by the time he'd returned to his humanoid form, darkness was sinking in.

"Winter!" Takahiro repeated, but by then, everything was black.

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