There was a certain kind of morbid beauty to the snowflakes lighting delicately onto the dark liquid creeping into her inverted field of vision.
Her blood. Its blood. All mixed in an inky pool beneath her body now slumped uselessly in the snow bank she had—ironically enough—chosen as a strategic point of cover while on the hunt for lesser game.
She had not seen the dark-kin coming. For all the grueling training she had endured through her short lifetime and all the battlefield experience she had garnered as the Commander-in-Training to world’s largest standing military, she was no match for a single wildspawn born from the blood and ashes of Chaos.
She would laugh if her lungs had air.
For the first time in all her nineteen years of life, Taliarain Relvir, who had toppled nations and rescued kings, who had courted death-defying odds and survived the Ordeal of the Fey, knew she would die.
A flurry of motion at the edge of her fading vision reminded her that her aggressor was still alive, though adequately damaged—a fact she could at least be proud of when facing Death's dream—but nonetheless ready to finalize its fatal pact with her piteously expired form.
Oh well.. she thought, closing her eyes. At least it was not a dishonorable death...
* * *
In the dream, she was alone in the vast Blackwoods of Edenea and, though she knew Edengarde to be hundreds of leagues beyond the gnarled black canopy, it did not seem at all amiss to see the delicate crystalline spires of Castle Kilberharl bracket the darkened sky. Not just the sky. Her surroundings too, were unnaturally dim, as if the entire world was suspended in everlasting twilight, with shadows—stretched too long—always itching just at the border of her vision.
But it was the snow that gave it away.
Elaborately filigreed and over-large flakes of it floated gracefully through the air. Yet for some reason, she was garbed in little more than an impractically low-cut dress. Doubly impractical, for it was so long that the hem of the silk brushed the tops of her bare-feet and dragged heavily on ground behind her when she walked. Talia realized that she could walk, though she could not hear the muted crush of snow beneath her feet nor feel the gelid kiss of snowflakes on her skin.
She wrapped her bare arms about herself and shivered despite the absence of cold.
Is this Death's dream of me..?
As if in response, a dark silhouette darted past her periphery. Somehow, without warning, she knew in her heart it was the dark-kin returned to finish its grizzly task, and with neither weapon nor cover to defend herself, Talia realized that she couldn't even flinch away as its talons found her flesh...
Only this time, there was no pain.
Instead, an earsplitting scream pierced the air followed by a muffled thump as the beast crashed to the ground before her. Talia opened her eyes and regarded the corpse at her feet.
I'm still.. Alive...?
She watched incredulously as the shadows beneath the body extended into inky tendrils and enveloped the dark-kin's crumpled form. When it was done, the umber shrunk back and sunk into the earth, leaving a soft mound of virgin snow in its place.
Without looking, once again, Talia sensed she was not alone.
Lifting up the long, ridiculous train of her dress, she stepped carefully over the space where the beast had fallen and walked slowly towards the new presence. In the void between where she had come from and the world-that-lay-beyond now stood a massive black Wolf.
She was not afraid.
Instead, she swept into a deep bow, not daring to move again until she felt him move close enough that his warm breath tickled the back of her neck. Straightening regally, she leveled with the Wolf's serene and overwhelmingly perceptive gaze. Violet dusk met brilliant green and, after a moment of that seemed to stand still for an era, the Wolf lowered his great head and licked her shoulder.
She had passed.
The sensation was beyond what her mortal vocabulary could describe, but the feeling was what she supposed it would be like to swallow a falling star—ecstatic, miraculous, and heartbreakingly joyous. Without thinking, she reached out both hands to steady herself against him and found the fur of the Wolf to be at once plush and rough. It took every modicum of her self-control to pull away.
Fortunately, the old god didn't seem to mind—or notice—which, she wasn't sure, for next he spoke, and his voiceless words were such a deep, rich rumble in her soul that she found it hard to think of anything else.
Not yet, my warrior queen. You still have much to do for the Children of Men...
It was not a question.
Now come to me and I will carry you home...
So saying, the Wolf lowered his head even further and impossibly gently—and impossibly quick—his great mouth closed about her left hip and tossed her effortlessly onto his back.
Hold tight, Daughter of my Dream.. and remember, the gods are always watching...
With that, and a jolt, Talia gasped as her first conscious breath of air in three moons hit her lungs.