It was a perfectly good night for a cup of tea. Chilly, certainly, but clear—as crisp a night as frigid Mount Targon ever got, really. Soraka was expecting a visitor. The snow in the stone kettle had already begun to melt over the hearth at the center of her little yurt; as it grew warmer, the room was suffused with the smell of dried tea leaves and sparse mountain herbs.
She crossed the room, passing the shelf she’d built herself along the back wall. Like the rest of her home, it was ever-so-slightly crooked. As far as mortal skills went, carpentry was not her strong suit. But she had built it because she loved the keepsakes on the shelf: a willow-wreath from Omikayalan, a tiny golden acorn from a dear friend in Bandle City, and oldest of all, surely older than anything mortal, was a stone dog from the old days of Nashramae. She owed that city another visit. She hadn’t been back in centuries, and she had a fondness for its people.
But she was shaken from her reverie as the commotion started outside. Shouting. Barking. Precisely on time.
In the darkness a pack of wolves surrounded a huddled lump in the snow. She strode out into the night, drawing her shoulders back, her head high. The moon was out and appeared slightly too large, as it often seemed to on Targon. Her home, nestled partway up the peak, was framed to the east by craggy flats, and to the west by a sheer drop into the mist far below. A constant frigid wind battered everything westward. It wasn’t uncommon for wild creatures to be battered on their way across the flats, too… but it was rare that they found prey.
The wolves turned to snarl at her, half-illuminated in the yellow light from the yurt’s windows. Meanwhile, the lump rolled over. It was a girl. Frightened eyes stared back at Soraka, a wooden spear clutched between two shaking hands. Only one thing brought people to this remote cliffside on the approach to the Holy Mount. But they were never this young.
The wolves lunged for Soraka in unison, and she heard the stars cry out in her defense. Sparks trickled from her fingertips as she rained golden fire down on the pack. The slam of impacts sent most of the wolves skittering back with primal fear, but one of them was left behind, its hindquarters crushed beneath the weight of the dying embers. It moaned and rasped, struggling. She saw the remainder of the pack disappearing over the icy barrens, abandoning their fellow to his fate.
Soraka shook her head and instantly knelt in the singed snow, her hands already outstretched. She couldn’t bear to feel the poor thing’s pain. It tugged at her. As she laid her hands along its bloodied back haunches, it snarled, digging its teeth into her arm. Ouch. Mortality had its drawbacks.
“Stop!” the girl cried. “It… It’ll kill you!”
Soraka felt her face melting into a smile. “I’m not afraid of wolves,” she replied, as light spread down her arms and into the wolf’s mangled body. “Besides,” she added, “Targon belongs to him as much as to me.”
The creature’s flesh began to knit back together, the crushed bones becoming whole once more, like clay taking proper shape in an artisan’s hands. But the magic burned as it left her. She closed her eyes and lost herself in the pain for a moment.
When she opened them, the wolf had retreated. Only the girl remained. Her eyes flicked upwards, tracing the line of Soraka’s horn, and Soraka already knew what she was thinking.
“Are you… one of those things?”
“One of what?”
“Demons. I’ve heard…”
Soraka laughed. But before she could respond, the girl sagged weakly, the spear tip dropping. It was only then, her mind clearing, that Soraka finally felt the enormity of the girl’s own pain. Her arms were black all the way to the elbows. Her fingers were frozen to the spear, the flesh swollen red above that. Frostbite like this… she’d be dead soon.
When she laid her hands upon the girl’s arms, the girl flinched, and Soraka was worried. Humans were curious creatures when it came to healing. Their minds were intricate. It had to be a mutual agreement—they had to want to heal. Sometimes she’d get the tendrils of her magic deep into a wound and find that the mind pushed her right back out again.
But not here. The girl was too tired, all vestiges of her energy spent getting her this far up the mountain. Soraka flooded the dead flesh with all the power she could give, pushing through the pain. Coils of emerald light wound their way up the girl’s arms. The spear dropped to the ground. As Soraka worked, she watched the skin fade through black, red and purple to its proper dusky color. There. That should do it.
“Do I seem like a demon to you?” Soraka asked. Her gold eyes glimmered in the darkness.
The girl was silent. After a moment, Soraka pressed her. “You’re making the summit climb. Why?”
But the girl just looked away, ashamed, rubbing her newly-restored arms. “My family,” she blurted, shaking her head. “We… We Rakkor—we’re warriors. And my mother, she’s the strongest of all. You don’t know what it’s like to be the only one who can’t fight. To be…” she bit her lip, struggling to find the word. “Weak.”
Soraka swept a hand out towards the dirt path the girl had followed, the one which led all the way to Targon’s base. “You came this far, and still you think yourself weak?”
“I won’t be soon,” the girl replied, her hands balling into fists now. “Not when I reach the summit. I’ll walk off the final peak and right into the sky, just like the old stories. And then—then they’ll be forced to accept that I’m strong. No one made of the stars could ever be brought low.”
“If only that were true,” Soraka said, flashing a too-sharp grin.
She scarcely caught the girl’s face breaking out into stunned amazement as she turned, walking to the edge of the path. Above them the stars spread out against the inky sky, brighter than they were anywhere else in the world. They sang songs only she could hear. This was home to her. It hadn’t always been. But it was the home she’d made.
“Come,” Soraka beckoned. And she raised her hand, trailing her fingers across the heavens. As she did, she knit the clouds and mist into shapes which wound their way against the moon and became faces the girl would no doubt have recognized from stories.. Her counterpart, . And not unlike the girl’s own.
“All of these mortals ascended to the peak. But they had chosen that path with all their soul.” She turned to the girl and spoke slowly, taking no delight in her words. “You have not truly chosen the mountain. And Targon will not choose you. You would walk to your death. Don’t do this.”
The girl turned away. She was silent a long time.
“Where, then?” she said at last, her voice rough. “I can’t go home. I can’t go back to them. Where else would I go?”
Soraka smiled. “The world is vast. Your paths are many. I can help, if you let me.”
The images in the moon had faded.
Soraka motioned to the cheerful yellow yurt nestled among the rocks nearby. “But first, better come on inside and get warm. No sense in starting back until dawn comes. Besides, I’ve got a kettle on. Perfectly good night for a cup of tea.”