The descent was difficult. Hunter refused to go anywhere near the edge of the mountain in order to cross the cables, his skin turning from grey to green as his fear set in, until Mystery threatened to throw him over the side instead. Although Hunter was still too weak to produce the usual flames that flickered across his fingertips when he was angry, Lexi was almost certain she saw the chafed skin on his wrist glow slightly.
Pavarni stepped onto the wire, gently guiding Hunter to follow. He stepped close to the edge of the rock and made the mistake of looking down. This high up, mist obscured the ground. Hunter balked and Mystery grasped his shoulder, stabilising him instantly. The vampyre also refused to let him step away from the edge.
"Stop looking down," Lexi commanded. It took a moment, but Hunter eventually did as she told him and he slowly stopped shaking. With Lexi's encouragement and Mystery's impatience, Hunter eventually stepped onto the cable. He wrapped his arms around the upper wire and took tiny steps, staring resolutely up at the pale sky. Lexi followed, keeping her eyes on Hunter. Pavarni walked on ahead, balancing on the cable, while Mystery did the same behind. Returning took twice as long as arriving, but Lexi did not care. With Hunter to worry about, she was barely aware of the height.
On the other side, Hunter scrambled off the cable and gripped the rock wall, twenty feet away from the edge. Pavarni untied the rope from her wrist and peered down the mountainside. Mystery collected up the bits of rope and returned them to his pack. Lexi stood in the middle of the group, cold and exhausted and eager to climb into a featherbed. Behind her, Mystery approached Hunter.
"I believe I can see ants down there," he taunted, pretending to peer down at the ground far below them. "My eyesight surprises me still, even after these hundred years. Wait, those aren't ants. I believe those are humans."
Hunter closed his eyes, his jaw tense, and his wrist glowed. Lexi was half tempted to push Mystery over the side and see if he survived. However, she knew they would need his help if they were to reach the ground alive. Instead she wrapped her hand around Hunter's fingers by way of comfort.
"When you climbed this mountain, did you give any thought to how you would get down again?" Pavarni asked Mystery coldly.
"I can get down this mountain easily," he answered breezily. "An advantage of iron flesh means that I can slide down the rock without obtaining a single laceration. I promised to help Alexia get into the mines. I said nothing about getting her home."
Pavarni scoffed softly. "Thinking of only yourself. Nothing changes."
Mystery did not react. He acted as though she had not spoken. "I can carry Alexia down without issue. If you want to carry Fire-fingers on your back, be my guest."
Pavarni was not listening. Her eyes had glazed over the way they sometimes did when she was focused on her sixth sense. Slowly, her head turned towards the mountain on the other side of the cable and her expression darkened. "Shayra." Mystery glanced up and Lexi followed her gaze and immediately moved to cover Hunter, drawing her sword.
Across the pass, three humans had climbed out of the shaft. Each of them carried a recurve bow, and, thanks to the slight decline of the cable, they were able to slide down straight towards them before Mystery was able to break through the wires.
"Why did we not think of this?" Mystery asked, crouched at the other end of the cable. "We could be halfway towards the ground by now."
"We have one recurve bow between four of us," Pavarni pointed out irritably. "If you think I would let the three of you cling to my legs-"
"What are you doing?" Hunter asked softly.
"I won't let them take you back," Lexi answered determinedly.
Pavarni nocked an arrow and drew her bow. Mystery was unarmed, possibly intending to push them straight over the edge of the mountain. The three men landed in front of them, the one in the middle immediately drawing a knife made of blackened wood. Mystery eyed it warily, snarled in frustration and drew back slightly. With Mystery on the defensive, Lexi's heart began to pound. Pavarni seemed reluctant to shoot.
"Two shape shifters, a vampyre and a huntress," said the man with the wooden knife, speaking silkily. "We had planned to kill all three of you and take back what you stole, but perhaps we will keep the pale one. Her defiance with his skill will certainly make a lovely combination in a child."
Lexi was glad it was too cold for her blush to show. She held her sword with both hands, determined to keep them away from Hunter. Behind her, he gently placed his hands on her shoulders.
"Forgive me," he murmured so only she could hear. She assumed he was apologising for being unable to protect himself. She felt the tip of his nose touch the nape of her neck and heard his inhale, vaguely wondering what he was doing.
The leader of the group handed the knife to the man on his right, who stalked towards Mystery. The other approached Pavarni, who shot her arrow. The human dodged the shot and, due to her fear of being touched, Pavarni scurried backwards and bashed him aside with the bow. He landed inches from the edge, and did not get back up. With the threat dealt with, Pavarni glanced towards Lexi and frowned slightly.
To the left, Mystery was cornered. His sword was at his hip, but he could not reach it without the human slitting his throat. The leader drew a double-edged sword and advanced on Lexi and Hunter. Lexi gripped her weapon tighter and looked to Pavarni for help. The psychic held her bow loosely in one hand, unloaded, the other palm pointed towards them. Her eyes were focused on the snow at her feet, a crease of concentration between her brows.
What is she doing? Lexi thought, panicked.
"I don't want to kill you," the leader purred as he approached. "I would much rather have you join the others in our little project. Your children could bring about a new world on Arkridge."
Lexi prepared to defend herself. She could not lose this fight, like she had lost so many others.
"Move aside, Lexi," Hunter commanded softly, his voice somewhat strange. "You don't have to protect me now."
To her own surprise, she felt angry at his words. "I did not travel this far and risk my life to hand you back over to the humans now!" she snapped at him. The leader advanced and Hunter's grip on her shoulder tightened.
"Move behind me, Alexia." His voice lowered to somewhere between a growl and a hiss. She twisted to look up at him, confused. His eyes blazed orange again, his wrist smouldering, and tiny flames seemed to dance in the air in front of his face with his every breath. The sight was so startling that Lexi did as he said and stepped back. Hunter stepped up to meet the leader, completely unarmed.
"I'm glad you have seen sense, shifter," the human smiled.
"My sight has never been clearer." Hunter spread his arms wide and an outward ring of red fire burst from his chest. Mystery ducked in time to avoid it, but the man holding the wooden dagger was forced backwards by the sheer heat. His foot lost the rock and his arms flailed. Mystery grinned as he stumbled over the side of the mountain with a shriek. The leader had the sense to keep his position, but his clothes caught fire. He hurriedly patted out the flames, but the time that took allowed Mystery to kick the wooden dagger over the side of the mountain along with its owner and grasp the leader by the collar of his jacket.
"I would gladly rip out his throat," Mystery announced. "What would the rest of you like to do with him?"
Pavarni looked dizzy. She leant against the rock, with one hand on her forehead. Hunter's eyes had faded back to amber and he swayed slightly on his feet. Lexi glanced between the pair of them and made the connection. She was giving him energy for the fire.
The human fought pointlessly against Mystery's hold. It was Pavarni who spoke first. "Throw him over the side."
Lexi shot the psychic a sideways glance. As much as she hated killing, she understood that they should die. Pavarni stepped over to the unmoving human and pushed him off the mountain with the sole of her boot. He never made a sound, and Lexi did not hear him hit the ground. Mystery grinned and forced the leader over to the edge of the ledge, ignoring his desperate protests.
"No! Please, don't-!"
"Perhaps you should have learnt about the true wrath of Neäkan before you started targeting them," Mystery murmured softly, holding the human over the side, his feet desperately trying to keep balance on the rock. "It won't be long before your entire guild is eliminated." With that, Mystery simply released his grip. The human's screams faded into silence as he fell.
Mystery sanded his hands together. "Time to go, I think."
Lexi touched Hunter's arm. "You can take energy the way Pavarni can."
Hunter shook his head. "No. I have to be in direct contact with the person I'm taking from, and it only affects my fire. I could take every ounce of energy from you and it would still not make me feel stronger."
"A shame. I would give you everything you need."
He smiled down at her. "I know."
It took them until well past nightfall to descend the mountain. Mystery insisted on carrying Lexi on his back whilst he directed Hunter down the correct path. While his legs were still weak, Hunter's arms were able to support him on the way down, mostly because he would not look down, and soon enough he was unable to because of the darkness. Pavarni slid down the rock ahead of them, scouting. It must have been close to dawn when Lexi's feet finally touched the ground.
Pavarni stood guard outside the little cave while Mystery set up a fire and sorted the blankets into beds. While Lexi and Hunter ate through the last of the food, Mystery ducked outside. Lexi listened to him urging Pavarni inside to sleep. It took some convincing, but she eventually submitted and joined them in the cave.
When he had eaten his fill, Hunter stared into the flames, focused. Nothing unusual seemed to happen to the flames until Lexi slipped her hand into his, and the flames doubled in height.
"Don't push yourself," Pavarni advised as she reorganised her blankets. "You have been through an ordeal."
Hunter let the flames fall back to their original size. He lay back on the blankets with one arm folded behind his head, staring up at the rock above them. Lexi stayed sitting up as Pavarni also lay down and turned her back on them. She was about to get up to make up her own bed when Hunter pulled her down beside him. Her covered them with a blanket and wrapped his arms around her, keeping her close to his chest. "You keep me warm," he murmured in explanation.
He only seemed to be able to control his fire when he had her energy, and she supposed he was cold.
Lexi blinked the bleariness out of her eyes when she woke. The fire had died out during the night and only embers continued to smoulder in the pit. Sunlight streamed through the entrance, and it took her a moment to realise that she was alone in the cave. She sat bolt upright and looked around. Both Pavarni and Hunter were gone. Clambering to her feet, she darted outside and almost ran straight into Mystery.
"I was about to wake you," he said with a grin. "It's almost midday and the psychic thinks we ought to start for the village." He looked at her and reached up. She flinched back. "You're a mess. Stay still." He took a firm hold of her arm while he straightened the tresses of her hair. She was still only because fighting him was pointless.
His dark, mischievous grin crept onto his face and he pushed her back into the cave, out of sight.
"What-?" Mystery pinned her shoulders to the cave wall with one arm and muffled her question with the other hand.
"My job is done," he murmured softly. "I helped you get up the mountain, rescue your friend, and get back down again. I protected you the entire time, and not once has harm come to you." Unsure what he wanted, Lexi would have thanked him if she could have spoken. Mystery continued, "I think I deserve something in thanks." He leant closer. "Kiss me again, just once more." Lexi frowned and shook her head resolutely. Mystery's grin broadened. "I could force it out of you, but that would be no enjoyment in that. But if I bite you…"
He must have seen the fear in her eyes. If he drank from her again, she knew she would not be in control of her actions. She could not risk Hunter seeing that kind of behaviour. She started struggling, which only seemed to excite Mystery further. He bared his fangs and inclined towards her neck.
A hand gripped his bare forearm, distracting him. Hunter glowered at Mystery, his eyes and wrist burning. "Get off her," he demanded through gritted teeth. Mystery eyed Hunter through a sideways glance, his mouth parted, his fangs still on show.
"You're in my way, boy," Mystery answered in a low, gravelly tone. "You think you can tear me away from anything I want?"
Hunter's chin lifted a fraction. He looked suddenly healthier, some colour back in his skin. Lexi watched him tighten his grip on Mystery's arm as he fixed his eyes on the vampyre's. Mystery jerked away with a pained hiss and struck out at Hunter, who was knocked almost to the floor, releasing Lexi in the process. A thick, red welt appeared on Mystery's arm where Hunter had touched him.
Fire and wood are the only elements that can harm him.
Mystery snarled angrily and made to lunge at Hunter, who splayed his hands to show the flickering orange flames dancing between his fingers. Mystery kicked the remaining embers from the fire towards Hunter before stalking outside. Hunter's flames vanished and he calmly brushed the embers off his clothes, unaffected by the heat.
"Did he hurt you?" he asked, approaching Lexi. She had not moved from the wall.
"No." She shook her head.
Hunter raised his brows in disbelief and gently lifted her chin up, able to get a proper look at her face. It was nice to feel the warmth she remembered returning to him. "What did he want from you?"
She did not want to tell him. Instead, she changed the subject. "You appear better than before."
One corner of Hunter's mouth quirked up in a grin. "Shape shifters are designed to heal quickly. I'm sure your energy helped a great deal as well."
"You think so?" she asked, reaching up to trace the line of the bruise on his face. As she did, he noticed the laceration on her arm from the weapons' room. He took hold of her wrist and looked down at it. The wound had scabbed over now, but Hunter seemed no less concerned.
"When did this happen?" he asked gently. His eyes flashed dangerously. "The vampyre-?"
"No." She was quick to answer. "This happened just before I found you. It was an accident."
He leant close, his eyes narrow, as though trying to seek out the truth from her eyes. She held his gaze and he stepped back after a moment. "I'm satisfied. But I hope you see now why we don't trust vampyres. Of any kind."
Hunter began gathering up the rest of the blankets. Lexi watched a moment before making her way outside. Mystery was nowhere in sight and Pavarni was waiting impatiently. "I understand that your friend has a power that weakens Shayra. It seems he does not like feeling weak."
"Perhaps he needs reminding that he has weaknesses more often," Lexi suggested.
Pavarni smiled slightly. "He will come with us as far as the bridge on our way south. After that, I am unsure what he will do."
"What will you do?" Lexi asked.
"I have every intention to escort you back to Rosavale. After that, I will head back to Horeagh Castle with Czes." Hunter emerged from the cave with the pack and picked up his bow. Pavarni noticed his arrival and lowered her voice, slipping into Findasian. "He will be too weak to ride a long distance."
Lexi answered in the same tongue. "What do you propose he does instead?"
Pavarni thought carefully about her answer. "I may be able to request that Czes carries him a fair way. She will require no riding aid."
"You can be the one to suggest this to him," Lexi answered quietly. "I fear his pride has been wounded enough already."
Hunter approached. "Where did the vampyre go?" he asked.
"Shayra stormed away to lick his wounds," Pavarni answered. "If we make haste, we may be able to catch him up."
"Then let's not."
Pavarni glanced sideways at Hunter before shouldering the pack striding onward in the direction of the pass. Hunter shouldered his quiver and bow and followed Pavarni with Lexi at his side. Now that his health had been restored to the extent that he could control his own temperature, Hunter had no need of a cloak.
Halfway through the pass, the Dun Caebran and the adjacent mountain on either side of her, Lexi stopped and stared upward. She had no hope of spotting the cables from this distance against the white sky, but still she searched for them. Hunter noticed her hesitation and came back to her.
"What is it?" Hunter asked, following her gaze.
"It doesn't yet seem real," she answered softly, still staring upwards. "I have spent weeks searching for you, thinking about you, but now you're here and I'm no longer in a hurry it feels… I'm not sure, like a dream."
"Believe me when I say that I understand," Hunter answered. "I haven't seen daylight in so long, I haven't felt my fire, and I haven't seen you. To have them altogether doesn't feel like it can be real. But perhaps this will help." Lexi looked down from the sky to meet his eyes. He took her chin in his gentle grasp and kissed her.
Hunter's kiss was nothing like Mystery's. His lips were soft and warm and made her heart skip a beat. The contact was brief, but it was enough to dispel the cold and for her face to flush pink. Hunter grinned.
"Now I know I'm not dreaming."