"Lou, where do you think we go when we die?"
Lou shuffled his knees a bit tighter to his chest, resting his head on them and huffing out a thin stream of vapour through cracked lips.
"I just want to talk about it."
"We will not die," Lou snarled.
Mel went silent.
It had been two days since the crash. Mel, huddled in a corner of the cave, was fiddling with the two separated halves of their snapped broom. Occasionally they'd hold the pieces together, wrap their hand around the break, and focus. Nothing but a stray spark spat out, at first, and then nothing at all. Mel watched the silvery ember flicker to the floor and fizzle out against the rock.
Lou paced back and forth, rubbing his shoulders and watching them through a twirl of black hair. His normally-unkempt bun was now falling apart and draping his shoulders in bedraggled wisps, making him look a little more like a wild animal with every passing hour. As if sensing they were being watched, Mel glanced up, meeting Lou's piercing yellow eyes with their own set of dull grey.
"Can you fix it?" Lou asked, unreadable as ever.
"I don't know. Probably not." This was the truth, and the only answer worth giving. Lou didn't appreciate sugar coatings. "I'm going to keep trying."
There were things Lou didn't grasp about magic. He'd never bothered to learn how it worked - after a brief stint of sitting with Mel in their classes, Lou had declared magic a waste of his time - not something I should know - and had not returned to the academy during class hours. The teachers were relieved; people like Lou were considered bad luck. Mel was less enthused.
"Is it... hot?"
He fumbled for the right word. His teeth caught on the edges of his vocabulary sometimes, when he struggled to make himself understood to people who didn't speak his language. Mel had thought Lou was a wild one, once upon a time, but then they'd been fetching something from the old mountain ruins and suddenly Lou fell back and shouted excitedly about an engraving on the wall. He could read Mac Tíre, Mel realised then. He wasn't wild. He was a Remnant.
Mel had tried to keep this piece of information quiet. The headmaster always found out.
"No," they replied, lifting a hand and wiggling their fingers. "It's cold. The same as me."
Lou's nose wrinkled disapprovingly. He changed tack. "Why does it not work?" He gestured to the broom, his hard nails glinting. Those nails had been a sign the headmaster had picked up on. Mel regretted not thinking to clip them, though they doubted it would have worked. "To fix the brush."
"It comes from me," Mel explained, as simply as possible. "I'm cold. And hungry."
"Is that why we fell?"
Mel hesitated. "...I don't know," they admitted. "I don't know why we fell."
Lou went quiet for a moment. He wandered to the cave mouth, staring out at the white landscape below them, and glanced over his shoulder at Mel.
Mel watched him in silence as he adjusted the thin material of his baggy, borrowed sweater and disappeared out into the snow.
Lou returned some hours later with a rabbit, its once-pristine white fur patched on one side with matted blood. His fingers were blue, his nose bright red, and his skin pale. He dropped the catch at Mel's feet.
"I can't eat this," Mel ventured, and this earned them a flashing yellow-eyed glare.
"Eat," he snapped. "Make magic. We fly out."
"I need to cook it."
"There is no fire. No forest. Out there is empty."
They'd seen the valley from the air, and a little beyond. There were no trees here. In spring, this would be grassland, and any small bushes were buried under the snow. Mel wondered, for a moment - and then their eyes drifted to the curled-stiff shapes of Lou's hands, and they clipped the thought. He couldn't dig through that. Even finding and catching a rabbit was a miracle.
"Eat," Lou urged, and his face was softer this time. "I want to leave."
"Help me?" Mel ventured, tentative.
"When I die," Lou mumbled, his face muffled into the front of Mel's dark green robe, "a rabbit will eat me."
It took a moment for Mel to stop thinking about the red stains Lou was leaving on their clothes, and another moment to register what he meant. Both of them were curled up in the corner of the cave, tangled in a huddle of limbs and fabric, trying to ward off the chill breeze from the blizzard outside. Lou had shoved his frozen hands unceremoniously up the back of Mel's undershirt, and despite an initial flinch, Mel did not complain. They were the hands that had hunted the rabbit. Mel could afford him some body heat.
"I will be grass. Rabbit food."
"I meant your soul," Mel prompted. "The spirit. Do you think people like us will be able to stay? I want to guide people."
"The spirit," Lou muttered, testing the feel of the word on his tongue, around his bloodied teeth. "A ghost?"
He'd tried to teach Mel to eat like him before, and it had never taken. Not something I need to know, Mel had said. Today, they'd had to try again. It was eat or die, and perhaps Mel would have to do it again before the journey was over. They shared the rabbit, and Lou taught Mel to eat quickly. The wild had no time for taste. Which was just as well.
At the cave entrance, the gale roared. Snow billowed in, but not quite far enough to reach them in their corner. It was trying, though, as if it had a mind of its own. As if it were trying to kill them. They held each other tighter.
"I want to guide people," Mel said, breaking the moment in two. "But I think..." They trailed off, took a deep breath of the frosted air, and raised their hands slightly so that they could see them over Lou's shoulder. Dried red still coated their fingers. "I think I'm going to lose my way. Bad people always lose their way."
"No. I know where we are."
It was hard to explain philosophy to Lou. Mel wondered if this was because of the language barrier. Perhaps Remnants understood better than the academy mages. Maybe they'd never know.
Lou huffed a warm breath through the fabric, and Mel felt it spread warm against their midriff.
"We will die and become food for rabbits," came a low murmur. "You will not be a ghost. You are not a bad person."
When they were warm, and when the rabbit had eased in Mel's belly, and when the gale blowing into the cave had lowered into a whisper, Mel took the broom in their hands and folded one palm over the break.
The light came back, stronger than a spark this time, and the ethereal hiss of walnut wood rearranging itself burned under their hand.
Lou watched, his eyes catching the glimmer of the mage's work and not shying away this time. Mel didn't mind being watched.
"Is it hot?"
"No," Mel said again. "It's cold. Like me."
Lou waited for Mel's spell to finish, for Mel to lift their hand away, and then reached out curiously to touch the broom. His nails grazed lightly across the whorled fix-job in the middle, and then his fingertips padded gently at it. "Fixed," he acknowledged. "We can fly?"
Mel nodded. "I think so."
The two straddled the broom with trepidation at the mouth of the cave. Lou huddled close with his arms tightly wrapped around Mel, his fear of the open sky long since conquered but never quite gone. Mel gripped the broomstick with white knuckles and focused hard.
Taking off was the hard part. Gravity always felt like it pulled a little harder before a broom was off the ground. It was best done fast, but that was a luxury not afforded to a two-person lift. Safety had to come first, so Mel took it slow and easy, letting the energy thrum through them and into the broom, checking their balance, trying to keep steady as Lou squeezed harder around their midriff.
Their feet left the floor one at a time. The back of the broom was tilted down - this was an academy broom, stolen from someone else's post at the last minute. It was built for one, and carrying Lou was a push. But they'd make it.
Lou buried his face between Mel's shoulder blades.
"We're up," Mel spoke softly over his shoulder. "Hold on."
They rose slowly, lazily, up and out of the cave and into the air above the mountainside. The cold wind bit at their cheeks, but flight was rarely glamorous. Mel watched over the side of the broom as their feet drifted higher over the expanse of white. Glitter dusted the edges of the snow banks far beneath as the watery sun caught the edges of the valley.
Like a canvas, they thought. They wished Lou would look.
A grim wind stirred behind the broom. They had been travelling for a little while, just enough for the sun to sink far to the west, and now that the disc of it was just touching the mountain peaks in the horizon, a chill permeated the air. But this wind - the breeze that was fingering at the bristles of the old stolen broom - was wrong, somehow. This was a wind that carried omens.
Mel felt Lou tighten his grip again.
"You feel it, too, don't you?"
"We crashed in the dark." Lou lifted his head from their shoulders to growl in their ear. "In the storm. With the wind." Mel had a feeling his eyes were still closed.
"I know," Mel called back, over the rising whine of the whirling air. The wind caught their hair, whipping the blond strands forwards. Mel shook their head free of the tangle. "Something's not right...!"
The wind caught the back of the broom and pushed, causing the whole thing to rock forwards. Lou's chin dug into Mel's shoulder, and his eyes sprang open.
"Taibhse!" His nails dug in harder than his chin as Mel fought to keep the broom steady. "Ta- ghost, Mel!"
The broom juddered, dipped. Mel's knuckles stung, braced against the sharp wind, and their shoulders tugged the front end up as they tried to balance their body, and Lou's, against the sudden gale. Somewhere out in the waning light, the sunset snagged the edges of something Mel couldn't quite see.
"Lou! See for me!"
Lou tensed around Mel, and then lifted his chin; his teeth sunk into their shoulder a moment later, the sudden shock shooting a sharp pain and clarity with it, and all of a sudden he was tugging with them and tilting his weight so that the two of them launched sideways and under. The roll made Mel sick to their stomach, but above them, something freezing and angry screamed past.
Mel threw their weight sideways and finished the roll, taking them both upright. Lou's teeth stayed stuck fast in their shoulder.
They say a Remnant can see when you're going to die.
Others say a Remnant can see those that are already dead.
No one claims the two are exclusive.
A ripple in the air, and a cold flood of horror running up the spine. Mel knew how to identify spirits. The professors said not to be afraid. But here they were, a mage and a Remnant soaring high enough that a fall would break their bodies to pieces, and there was a spirit chasing them, and Mel was afraid. No one trained magicians to prepare for a wraith storm.
"Don't go down!" Lou snarled, lips peeling back around the sharp teeth still jabbed through Mel's clothes and skin. Mel's moon-yellow hair was caught under his tongue. "Fly!"
Mel did not look down. If Lou saw something beneath them, something he didn't want to sink into, then Mel was willing to believe him. This spirit was one of many - and it wasn't guiding them, not like the curriculum taught. To interfere with them from this height, this harshly - it wanted them dead. Lou bit down hard again, tugged left, and together they wrenched the front of the broom to one side to narrowly avoid another pass of whatever it was that was hounding them.
Mel's resolve wavered.
Lou, teeth worrying at Mel's shoulder, had had enough. His jaws loosened and let go. His hands twitched uneasily at Mel's stomach, crept sideways, and then tensed at their sides with his claws curled and ready, the points poking through Mel's robes and against their skin. Mel felt him lift his face, yellow eyes peering over their shoulder and burning with conviction.
The magic rang out like the peal of a bell. Somewhere in their panic, Mel heard the boom of displaced air, and the flurry of snow hit their right side like a wave. The broom tumbled, and its occupants with it; Lou didn't let go of his grip on Mel, and Mel held tight to the broomstick like a lifeline. The sky flashed.