It has been so long since Black Midnight had to run. He had forgotten the fire that infests your thighs from long minutes standing in the stirrups. He had forgotten the stiffness that infects your back and shoulders. Mostly, though, he had forgotten the red heat that creeps up your neck and cheeks from the shame of it.
For the first time in centuries, Black Midnight is running. He has grown soft on the token resistance of fat villagers and weeping mothers. He’s spent more time with charts and census tablets than at the pell, and now he is paying the price.
Some things, at least, he has not forgotten: a troll rises up before him, and his right arm lashes out; he has barely registered the troll’s existence and it’s already clutching the red gash that leaks its entrails from its stomach.
How had it gone so wrong? Not two days ago he stood on a windy hilltop with his brother and sister, and their task seemed nearly finished for another hundred years. Now they are both dead, and Black Midnight is running.
There are soldiers among the trees, with crossbows. He lets their bolts clatter off the impossible angles of his armor, and he cuts a line through them as he rides past: a thick streak of red paint that begins at the forehead of the first—a clean-shaven, wide-eyed boy with freckles—and continues through the hawk-nosed veteran’s throat; cleaves the stocky soldier’s ill-fitting scale; and onward before exiting the sergeant’s chest with a flourish.
Elvanna has betrayed her mother, that much he knows. He knows that strange energies pulse through the land’s shimmering ley lines, and one of those pulses leads into the Hoarwood. He knows that his brother and sister are dead, that his mistress cannot respond to his calls, and that the assembled might of the nation of Irrisen is arrayed against him. He does not know why, and that troubles him most of all.
He snatches a sprite from the sky with his free hand, squeezes until he feels twigs breaking beneath his fingers, and hurls the remains against a tree.
Baba Yaga must have known, he realizes. That’s the reason for the strange objects she gave him when last they spoke. “I have to see… an old acquaintance,” she’d told him with, he felt, uncharacteristic gravity. “I have several stops to make along the way. Take these with you and keep them safe for my return.”
A blast of icy breath washes across his back, but his charger has already stoved the winter wolf’s head in with a well-placed hoof. Another wolf circles, though. He veers toward it, baiting it. As predictably as the sun rises, it leaps; he catches it on the point of his blade and gently guides its corpse to thump into the snow behind his horse.
Oh, grandmother, he thinks, your incessant wordplay will end you someday. Not ‘for when I return,’ but ‘for my return.’ A difference of no consequence for anyone who hadn’t spent uncountable centuries getting to know the old witch, but he feels foolish that he missed it before. She knew she wouldn’t return from her trip. She knew that she wasn’t supposed to. And she knew that her loyal riders would have to follow her.
Did she know that Bright Morning and Red Sun would fall? Surely she trusted Black Midnight most of the three, but did she know she was relying solely on him? Did she know that he might fail?
His horse stumbles in the snow as he for the first time ponders that possibility: he might fail. Baba Yaga would remain trapped in whatever prison—undoubtedly devised by that spoiled brat Elvanna. And all her works in this world and a hundred others would be undone. Midnight knew he could not allow such a thing to be.
A sudden burst of icy knives tears at his skin, sneaking between the black plates of his armor. The witches are coming, he knows. His horse vaults a cowering gaggle of boy soldiers and lands amongst more trolls. He wheels about, laying waste to his left and right. The encounter costs him only seconds, but he is increasingly aware that his supply of those is short.
Up ahead of him in the woods, there’s a strange and unnatural light. The sick pulsing of the ley line around him leads directly toward it. He is close. Whatever it is he approaches, he is close. A fog springs up from the ground around him, and he knows the witches have arrived.
The first face emerges from the fog: craggy and wind-weathered, with an unnatural light in her eyes. He slashes across the eyes and they go out, leaving her shrieking in pain behind him. The horse twists and lurches beneath him as oily black tentacles emerge from the ground; the steed stumbles but does not fall.
There! Flying through the fog, perceptible as the vaguest of disturbances in the mist. He veers toward it, deflects a claw that lashes suddenly toward him, and snaps his wrist around: the witch crashes awkwardly to the ground, split through her midsection. The soldiers are closing around him now, but he pays them little heed. He carves his way through them with the barest of attention, watching as the mists coalesce around him.
He finds himself in a small clearing, swept clear by the howling winds that rush into a blue-black rent in the air. It’s a portal. And all of Irrisen’s winter pours through it.
The press of soldiers begins to impede—but not stall—his progress. It’s the echoing cackles that worry him, though. Another old crone emerges, and for the briefest of moments their eyes lock; he feels his joints begin to stiffen with age, and a weight on his chest. He stabs three times and she melts away. Another troll looms before him and is as quickly dispatched. There are fifteen feet of untenanted ground between him and the portal. He charges.
Like the others, she emerges as if from the mist: a smooth face of cold, impossible beauty wrapped in a swirl of cloth and arcane symbols. The air around her is thick: as he draws close it seems as if space itself collapses into an ice-black lance. He watches it form, as if it took centuries; sees her direct it toward him; sees it begin its thrust through the thick air. All of this he watches as if he had all the time in the world, although it occurs in the space between two hoofbeats. He cannot avoid the lance, and he knows it. So he does the only thing left to him to do: he rides into it, drawing as much momentum as he can manage. His horse, ever of one mind with him, leaps into the impact.
Long ago, in another life and with a different name, Black Midnight faced a storm giant in single combat. The giant wielded a massive hammer, inscribed with the history of a thousand generations in a dead language. Black Midnight was young then, and brash; he paid insufficient attention to his guard, and the giant caught him full in the chest. The blow sent him over the fortress wall to crash into the mountain face outside. The lance, when it strikes him, reminds him of that ancient battle.
His ears ring, his head begins to float, and the feeling leaves his legs. His joints, already stiff and aching, begin to seize. His eyes unfocus, and suddenly he cannot remember who he’s fighting or why.
Clarity returns when he feels his horse’s hoofs strike bare earth. His head is still fuzzy, his purpose unclear, but he knows one thing: this icy bitch has killed him, and he will make sure she follows him into the Abyss.
He releases the rein and wraps his left palm around the pommel of his sword. The momentum of his horse’s leap is reaching its nadir; it is coiled like a snake, and soon it will leap forward to strike. The witch’s eyes go wide.
As the charger springs into another leap, Black Midnight focuses all of his will, his blood, his years, into the tip of his blade. It whistles as it slices the air, and he never even feels it impact the witch’s neck. He only sees her body slump to the ground, and her wide eyes tumbling back into the mist, as his horse lunges past.
And suddenly he’s surrounded by impossible cold and unimaginable wind, a darkness so profound it gives even him pause. There is no ground, and no sky. He tumbles…
When the charger’s hooves again touch the ground, its legs buckle beneath it. As Black Midnight falls, he sees a four strange faces above him.