— ASBJÖRN MAKI, FAMOUS LAST WORDS
Asbjörn’s breath rasped in his chest as he limped down a columned walkway just outside Hjörtur’s inner wall, using his sheathed longsword as a walking stick. He scrambled past wooden buildings two-stories tall, muttering to himself with each new gust of air. The sun drifted above him, bathing the ancient fortress with delicate light beams that did little to combat the chill of the mountain air. His gray eyes wanted to slide close, but the icy wind and the ache in his ribs kept his tiredness at bay. With all that had happened the night before, sleep had evaded him.
Rumors of what Asbjörn had almost done had spread like ash on the breeze, tainting many with its reach. The evidence was present in the faces of the liveried servants that scurried around the buildings, watching him past with wary eyes. He ignored them or tried to, but the looks brought his shame bubbling up again.
You lost control, Asbjörn berated himself for the hundredth time that day. He could no longer continue as he was, it was not safe, not for him. Not for anyone. It’s time for you to die. Not yet! First, I have to uncover what happened to Erik. I owe him that much. I owe him so much more. My son. My. . . .
Asbjörn blinked away tears and came to a stop. He gazed unseeingly at the golden surcoated Punishers arrayed on the sunlit flagstones of the stable-yard. The soldiers slammed their fist against their chests, and the sound pulled him back to the matter at hand. He nodded, pretending not to notice the fear in their eyes as he strode past them on the way to the large stable they guarded. The wind gusted higher, full with the rancid odor of the stable muck.
From inside the building, he could hear Ypse whispered voice, “You’re afraid, but the thing you must understand is adults don’t respect when a child says, ‘Don’t touch me.’ ” Asbjörn slowed then stopped at the sliding doors, listening to the conversation. “The only thing that gives them pause is when a child says, ‘If you touch me I will kill you.’ I know from personal experience.”
“I just want it to stop,” returned the voice of a young boy.
“This is the only way. You must put your trust in me. I will—”
“My lord,” asked a soldier from behind Asbjörn. “Is everything okay?” Asbjörn spun and gave the man a look that made his face turn pale with fright.
Asbjörn grimaced, turning away from the Punisher’s countenance, the sight of which churned his stomach. Am I that terrifying? He pushed the thought to the side and entered the stable.
Face expressionless, Ypse shifted to regard him, dressed in a better-fitting coat than he usually wore, bright red and embellished. Next to the Sorcerer, stood Leon, a child who could be no older than ten. Despite his young age, Asbjörn remembered, he was the one who had piloted the White Crane when they had searched for Erik’s missing hunting party. And like then, Leon wore his Air Scout uniform, a light blue coat with red embroidery on the cuffs, lapels, and black boots and breeches.
“Asbjörn, what brings you here?” Ypse asked with a smile. A smile that seemed forced.
“A private matter.” Asbjörn looked to the side as he spoke, his attention drifting to the stable’s other occupants. Five White Cranes, the size of horses, watched him from within their stalls, yellow eyes glaring. Their plumage was the color of untouched snow, their faces brick red, and their long legs a light pinkish hue. Unnatural monstrosities!
Ypse nodded and said, “That will be all, Leon.”
Leon absentmindedly fingered the crane-shaped pin pinned on his chest, his eyes unfocused. The sight of him made Asbjörn heart twang with a pang of sympathy. The world took advantage of the weak and the powerless, and none suffered more than the young.
“Leon,” Ypse called again, jolting the boy out of his inward wandering. Leon gave a half smile in apology, then rushed for the door.
Asbjörn grabbed the boy’s arm, pulling him to a stop. Leon froze like a deer caught in the glare of a wagon’s torchlight. The Mainlander opened his mouth, sensing the boy’s pulse quicken through the tips of his fingers. He abruptly realized he did not know what to say; the words on the tip of his tongue seemed false and trite.
“My lord?” Leon whispered, voice trembling, eyes widening. He appeared about ready to gnaw off his arm to get free.
“It gets better,” Asbjörn muttered, the words sounding even stupider as he said them. It gets better? No, it doesn’t. We are all monsters, and this is the Pit. From here your life will only get worse. Die now and save yourself!
“My lord. . . .” Leon spat out in panic, ripping his arm free, bolting out the building. The doors slammed shut behind him, vibrating with something of the note of a wooden barrel smashing against stone.
Asbjörn sighed, turning to face Ypse. “Will the boy be all right?”
“Is that the reason you’ve come,” Ypse grinned. His upturned lips seemed a provocation.
“No,” Asbjörn replied.
“Then forget about the boy,” Ypse said. “I already have this matter well in hand.” He strode over to a nearby stall and ran his hand along a White Crane’s long beak. “Why have you come?”
Asbjörn hobbled over to Ypse, leaning heavily on his longsword. His ribs throbbed with agony, but he refused to pant in the Sorcerer’s presence. “I’ve come because of Erik,” he hissed, behind clenched teeth.
“I’ve been interviewing people all morning, trying to make sense out of what happened last night.” Asbjörn shook his head and sighed. “Yet, the deeper I dig, the more bizarre the story becomes. I need your help in finding clarity.”
“Did you know birds have hollow bones?” Ypse asked, meeting Asbjörn’s blank stare with a curious frown. “Their hearts are also disproportionately large compared to their body size.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” Asbjörn said, trying but failing to keep the irritation out of his voice.
Ypse dropped his gaze. “Nothing. I find bird anatomy interesting. I suppose it comes with the territory.” He returned to petting the White Crane, seeming to find joy in the simple act. “You fear them, don’t you? I see it in your eyes.”
“I fear . . . nothing,” Asbjörn grunted, standing straighter.
“I stand in awe of you,” Ypse laughed. “I’m always gripped by terror. It follows me around like a shadow during the day, and at night it climbs into my cell and smothers me. I pray one day to be like you, Asbjörn, a man without fear.”
Asbjörn fought the against snarl that tried to twist his face. He’s making fun of me. Are you sure? Yes! “Are you done or are you finished?” he said, the softness of his voice belied by the tightness of his grip on the hilt of his longsword.
“What did you discover through your interviews?” Ypse questioned.
“Odd things. Strange, puzzling things. The soldiers who found Erik yesterday morning in the Shrine of the Eternal Father swear that he was naked when they first entered, and then moments later when Viscount Baldur arrived on the scene he was clothed. None of the soldiers heard him getting dress, plus there wasn’t enough time to before Baldur walked into the room. If that were it, I wouldn’t think much of it, but. . . .”
“But,” Ypse added.
“But later when the Prince fought Númi his eyes turned golden, or so the witnesses claim. Then it happened again on the outer wall.”
Asbjörn’s expression soured. “His eyes changed color, aren’t you listening?” He did not think he needed to explain the significance of a Cultivator’s eyes changing color. Any child would understand its importance.
“I am,” the Sorcerer replied. “Please continue.”
“Then there is the episode of him running up the outer wall.” Asbjörn paused, rubbing at his forehead, sensing the approach of a migraine. “None of the Cultivators on top of the wall felt any fluctuations from the Abyss. Not to mention that he was dead. He didn’t—”
“Tell me what you saw last night,” Ypse demanded, cutting Asbjörn off. “Rumors are going around.”
“It’s not what I witnessed that matters,” Asbjörn answered. “It is what others say they saw. Three different soldiers claim they bore witness to a gold and black scaled dragon climbing out of Erik’s chest. How’s that even possible?”
“Do you believe them?”
“I saw the dragon so that part I know is true,” Asbjörn said after a moment. He wanted to deny it but did not see the point.
Ypse tugged at his own patchy red and black beard and moved away from the stall. He paced back and forth, murmuring to himself in a small voice. “Yes . . . maybe,” he muttered a little louder.
“What is it?”
“I have a theory. The Prince Erik we know and love died in the forest two days ago. The thing that was placed in the shrine of the Eternal Father was a pretender.” Ypse waved away Asbjörn’s question before he even had time to open his mouth. “Let me finish. I believe Prince Erik was replaced by the same monster that killed him and his hunting party. The same creature you saw last night. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Asbjörn stumbled back, jolting the stall behind him. “No,” he whispered. He did not know what he had expected Ypse to say, but it was not this. Not this! That an abomination could have been masquerading as his—as Erik filled him with revulsion. “How is that even possible? I’ve never read of such a beast.”
From the corner of his eye, Asbjörn saw a white blur lunge toward him. With desperate haste he jumped back, spinning around, moving by instinct. His hands twitched, freeing his longsword from its thin, wooden sheath. The Tár Guðs blade rose . . .
“No!” Ypse shrieked, but it was already too late.
. . . and fell with one seamless movement, slashing through the long, neck of a White Crane. Blood exploded into the air like hot water from a geyser, splattering Asbjörn, staining his robe. Ypse charged past him, throwing himself into the stall. The Sorcerer clutched the headless bird in his arms, weeping as its body thrashed with the last vestiges of life.
“I’m sorry. . . . Did it have a name?” Asbjörn inquired, skin prickling with a tinge of regret. For a second, his own emotions confused him; he had been attacked, he had every right to defend himself. Yet his justifications did not relieve the sense of guilt.
Ypse looked up, tears spilling from in his yellow eyes. “Just go! And leave me in peace.”
Orange last light blinded Asbjörn as he trudged into an opulent courtyard. When he could see again, he took in his surroundings in surprise. Men and women stood in rows facing an empty wooden platform, their voices pitched low, and their faces mostly blank. Liveried servants moved among them, offering sweetmeats and nuts. The gathering was the opposite of what he would call festive; a somber mood hung in the air.
Asbjörn could hardly believe it had already been hours since he left the stable-yard, it seemed like only a moment ago. A moment since he had wandered the fortress to help clear his mind. He still wore his scarlet-stained garment, though, he had taken the time to clean his face and hands; he hated the way dyed blood itched his skin. His breath came in shallow gasps, yet he felt nothing in his ribs, except numbness, just dull numbness in his sides, in his heart.
Jenny, a beak-nosed woman who was one of Viscount Baldur’s two wives, approached him from out of the crowd. She greeted him warmly, and they exchanged a few pleasantries until she noted the blood stains on his robe and then excused herself in a hurry.
At that instant, Baron Sophus entered the courtyard with Viscount Baldur at his heels, and every eye turned towards them. Sophus walked up onto the raised platform and knelt down on a mat, peering beyond the muted assembly, gazing at the setting sun. He allowed his loose, white robe to fall from his shoulders and gather around his middle, exposing his bare chest. The Viscount positioned himself behind Sophus and drew his longsword.
The crowd had fallen silent some time before, and Asbjörn could now hear the wind batter against the Baron’s clothing. He had seen this ritual performed a time or two, but it still mystified him. The Vindurian nobility made a spectacle of their deaths and monument of their final words.
Sophus picked up a shortsword that had been placed in front of his mat and without hesitation plunged it into his own abdomen, making a slow cut to the left. “Grass has but one spring,” he grunted, blue eyes locked on the dying sun. “Men have but one life.” He made another cut, this time to the right. Fresh gore spilled from his open wounds, but somehow he smiled.
Suddenly Baldur’s blade sliced through Sophus’s thick neck. Asbjörn’s stomach twisted into knots as he watched Sophus’s head float up into the air. Time seemed to slow, and he noticed that the Baron was still smiling.