Chapter #01

Could fire be cold?

Ember wondered as she stared down at the snow-covered village in the valley below, tiny wooden houses glowing through the cracks and windows, smoke drifting up from their stone chimneys against the falling powder. From time to time a shadow would pass in front of one of the lights as people moved within, or a human form would linger at a window and gaze outside.

She wondered what went on in those houses, tried to imagine spending nights in such tight little spaces with five or ten others.

From the sound of the laughter she often heard, it could be very good.

She exhaled deeply, her hot breath melting a hole in the drift in front of her. She was fire, filled with it, empowered by it, according to legend practically made of it, but here, looking at those warm little houses from the outside, she somehow felt chilly.

Why was that?

She filled her lungs all the way then sighed again, carving the first hole even deeper, and gathered herself together. White platelike scales rippled black and red for a moment, armor shifting silently as she stretched a thousand muscles, and electricity sparked and glowed along her spine and sides.

Enough waiting. She was here to eat, not people-watch, and every moment she lingered increased the chance that some farmer's dog would catch wind of her.

Ember rehearsed her route one more time, mentally walking in along the road and behind the houses to the cattle pen, avoiding the places she had heard dogs barking from and any lit windows. She felt the leap over the wall in her legs, selected one from the three fattest cattle she had spotted, and then took off. All in her head.

Now to do it for real.

She flexed her wings out halfway to loosen them, then refolded them against her sides tighter than before to keep them out of the way. Flexed all her fingers, toes and her tail. Shot her claws out and then retracted them.

Time. Do it.

Ember slunk down the hill, burning power to make herself lighter than anything her size had a right to be. She would have preferred to save it, as there wasn't much sun this deep in winter and no sun meant no recharging, but power wasn't food, and she needed food. Less weight meant lighter steps and shallower prints, both of which lessened the chance that she would be discovered, during or after.

Not that anyone in the village could do much to stop her-it would take an alleji to do that-but even she had to sleep sometime, and more than one garagran had woken to a blade sliding into their brain.

She would rather not alert the villagers to the fact that she had moved into the hills nearby if she could avoid it.

She reached the edge of the village without any problems and started slinking along the backs of the houses, an impressive feat when her shoulders were level with second-story floors.

A back door opened and she froze as light cut across her path.

Someone pitched a pail of waste water out into the snow and shut the door again.

Ember strangled the urge to sigh in relief and resumed her crawl.

She reached the cattle pen, with only one more short pause when a dog growled softly from inside a house, and considered if using the latch on the wide cattle gate would be better than going over the high fence. She would have liked to just fly over, but the noise from that would have sent every cow running in a mad panic before she even touched down.

After a moment of weighing the clack and squeak of the latch versus the loud and obvious destruction of the barrier if she put too much weight on it, she went with the latch to save power. She was going to fly away with a cow in a moment, and that would be costly enough on its own.

A few long, very hot breaths made sure the big brass latch was thawed-brass was odd, it was expensive and only showed up on ships and in big cities in her experience-and then she pressed some snow against the hot metal to make sure the mechanism was wet all over.

It worked. The latch lifted without a sound.

The gate was another matter. It started to squeak as she eased it open.

Ember repeated the treatment on the hinges and got the whole gate opened wide enough to squeeze through without any big noises.

The gate closed behind her with a small click and she was in.

A sea of sleeping cattle waited for her, all lying together on a low rise in the middle of the pen. A single steer stood in the middle of the group, keeping watch for the others, but Ember was downwind and the animal hadn't noticed her yet.

She crouched close against the inside of the fence and her back and sides darkened to gray-brown to match the wood while her feet remained the white of the snow covering the frozen ground. She crept low along the wall, keeping both eyes on the watcher and making sure to stay downwind as she circled the herd for a better approach.

After a long, quiet circumnavigation she reached a good angle.

Ember got even lower, let her color gray to match the snowfall as she left the wall, and slunk toward the sleeping herd.

Twice the watcher looked around slowly, long ears flipping about to search for danger. Ember froze both times and he missed her.

Then she was standing over a sleeping cow, one of the fat ones, and the smell of it in her nose made her smile.

She lowered her head, preparing to grab the cow by the throat with her jaws and silence any possibility of a warning call.

On the other side of the cow a young boy sat up and looked around.

Spotted her.

His eyes went wide.

For several fast heartbeats they stared at each other. Ember was certain he was trying to convince himself he wasn't just having a nightmare. She, however, knew that she was about to have a very real, very bad night.

He opened his mouth to scream.

"Scream and I kill you," she hissed in Tokal, the regional trade tongue.

His eyes went wider. The cow stirred.

Kill the boy, kill the cow, grab both and leave, she thought.

Ember looked at his face, saw the growing terror there. The urge to swallow him whole and be done with it grew inside her.

She quashed it, cursing mentally, and only went for the cow.

The boy screamed. The cow woke.

Ember grabbed the cow around the throat before it could get up, adjusted her grip once to get her fangs positioned over its spine, and bit down, killing the animal instantly.

Around her the whole herd was heaving and rising and scrambling to get away. The thunder of hooves, the screams of the boy and the lowing of the cows quickly blended into a terrible cacophony that would certainly bring the whole town down on her.

Ember released the dead cow and moved to get a grip with her front claws.

Whack! Something hit her on the head.

She looked up and saw the boy standing nearby with a shepherd's staff in his hands. He had hit her.

She glared at him and bared her fangs.

He ran away, still screaming for help. Ember heard responding cries from the people in the town.

There were definitely going to be consequences for this.

She grabbed the cow, spread her vast wings, poured on power until she was almost floating and drove into the sky.