I can show you the way, but only you can save yourself.
— YPSE, TO LEON
The fading sunlight did nothing to hide the beauty of Viscount Baldur’s private gardens. This high up the Rin Mountains, little should grow, but somehow the gardeners had kept the grounds thick with a wide assortment of flowers, almost knee-deep in places. A handful of stunted oaks provided the well-maintained lawns with enough shade for even the hottest of days. The cool breeze blowing through green leaves and flowers, added just the right amount of depth to the sounds of the string instrument filling the gardens as if nature herself had joined in on the recital.
Hanna plucked at her gilded zither with a sense of loss. Erik, where are you? You promised you would come back to me. Her eyes closed and a single tear tracked its way down her pale cheek. You promised! As dignified as any Emperor, she sat on a carved-and-gilded chair surrounded by a handful of listeners and her personal attendants, Rikka, and Óla. All clothed in varying shades of black, except for Hanna herself who wore a dress of the lightest blue with a smacking of lace at her neck.
The zither seemed to echo with the fluttering wings of butterflies, seducing minds with a melody that conveyed the deepest of heartaches. Each note was its own love ballad, gentle as a sighing sea breeze one moment, then violent as the howling winds of a tempest the next. There were no words. Yet, all the same, the song told a tale of an ill-fated romance between the sun and the moon, which ended with the latter in fragments.
Lost in her song, Hanna thought it lasted only minutes, but when her hands stilled, and she opened her eyes, she was surprised to see the sun had long since sank below the walls. Ignoring the fevered clapping that marked the end of her performance, she glanced up at the balcony that overlooked gardens. A young boy in a blue coat peered down at her with tears in his eyes. Beside him, Viscount Baldur stood casually sipping on a bowl of wine.
“That was simply beautiful,” exclaimed Jenný, Baldur’s first wife, dramatically dabbing a handkerchief at her dry eyes. “Truly it was,” added Lexi, Jenný’s twin sister, and Baldur’s second wife.
Hanna smiled, secretly resenting the ease with which it came to her lips. She felt like doing anything but, yet the Game of Faces allowed no respites. Her blue eyes glowed in an imitation of delight so perfect it was indistinguishable from the real thing. “You flatter me. Both of you.” Her smile widened by the slightest of margins. “But thank you none the less.”
“Stop that! You’re altogether far too modest,” Jenný retorted. “If only I had half your talent.” She shook her head and dabbed at her eye once again.
“Does the song have a name?” Lexi asked, picking up right where her sister left off. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it before.”
“You wouldn’t have. I wrote it myself; it’s called The Sun, and The Moon,” Hanna replied, almost absentmindedly. For a moment her eyes flickered to the liveried servants that drifted through the darkening gardens lighting the lamps that hung from wooden posts every few meters. Where is she?
Jenný released a shuddering gasp, her eyes betraying the first hint of genuine emotion. They flashed with envy before turning cold. “Not only do you play, but you also compose as well?”
Hanna dropped her gaze and willed her cheeks to turn crimson. It was a trick that had taken her countless years to master. She used the memory of Erik hungrily staring at her exposed womanhood to get the red spots to bloom. That was the key to the Game of Faces, the ability to use past recollections to move your body’s unconscious responses down the desired course. It took grit and patience but was well worth the effort, she mused.
A commotion at the entrance drew everyone’s eye and saved Hanna from the bother of having to respond verbally to Jenný’s comment. A smiling Súla led Ypse deeper into the gardens and nodded when Hanna looked at her. Ypse strutted behind Súla with a king’s swagger, yellow eyes glowing with a mocking glint, trailed by four heavily armored Punishers. The ugliness of his high-collared, green coat only served to accentuate his arrogance. Only a madman or an egotistical fool would have the courage to go outside so attired.
Hanna stood, surrendering her zither to Rikka who rushed to take the instrument. “Can you please excuse me?” she asked Baldur’s wives. The women nodded and left, giving Ypse and his entourage a wide berth as they went.
“Princess,” Ypse hailed Hanna, giving her such a deep bow that it boarded on being flippant. He seemed to take great joy in the amount of gasps that arose from his greeting.
The smile on Hanna’s lips almost twisted into a scowl, but she caught herself in time. Princess of Nothing, the intended insult rolled through her head like thunder. Hanna allowed herself to stumble back as if struck while sending the Sorcerer a wounded look. “Ógilt is long gone, sir, as you know. Princess, I am not.” She set her lips to trembling. “Is this how you greet a grieving widow?”
“Are you,” Ypse asked rising from his bow, “grieving that is?” He pointed at her dress. “Blue is an odd color for one in mourning.” The looks on the faces of the nearby listeners wavered between agreement and disgust at the Sorcerer’s uncouth behavior. “But I suppose no one could blame you. After all, your husband was the son of the man who butchered your family.”
What game is he playing? Hanna did not know what she had expected from their arranged meeting, yet it was not this. Ypse had always harbored an insolent tongue, that she knew, but nothing this brazen. It was as if he wanted her to lash out. Something is very wrong. Her mind went into overdrive. Someone put him up to it. It took all of her self-control not to glance up at the Viscount on the balcony.
Hanna blinked away tears. “I donned the dark shawl not so long ago, then my husband returned to me when all claimed he was dead. What am I to think when others say the same thing so soon after that proven falsehood? Last time there was a body and this time there isn’t even that. I remain hopeful he will surprise all and return alive for the second time.”
“Uh-huh. . . .” Ypse laughed. “Not so much a grieving widow then?” He sat down across from Hanna without so much as a ‘by your leave.’
“So it’s true?”
Ypse poured himself a bowl of wine, without looking up from the table. “Is this the part where I’m supposed to ask what’s true? Then you demurely spring forth with some cutting little witticism you’ve been saving for just such a special occasion?” He slurped back a drink. “You’re not half so clever as you think, my dear.”
A white faced Punisher sprung forward to strike Ypse with an armored had, but Hanna stopped the man with a look. “I did not invite you here to spar with you,” she said.
“No, you invited me here to this little gathering,”—he made the last part sound a slur.—“because you believe I have information you want. If it were not for that, you would have never invited me here. The thought wouldn’t even cross your mind.” He lurched forward on his seat, spilling wine over his hand and table. “You’ve become the very thing you hated. The very thing you feared you’d become. I remember the sweet-hearted yet revenge seeking young girl you used to be and my soul weeps.”
“Sir Tandri, if the Sorcerer says another unkind word to the third Prince’s widow, please remove his tongue.” The Viscount’s words boomed through the gardens in such a way it only could have done with the help of an Esoteric Technique.
The air shimmered beneath an oak tree and then coalesced. A grim-faced Lightbender appeared half shrouded in the crawling shadows of tree branches. “As you command, my Lord,” he said to Baldur, then bowed hand to heart.
The Lightbender’s appearance and response sent a dangerous chill rippling through the gardens, but Ypse seemed oblivious. His gaze did not flicker away from Hanna’s face, not even for a moment. “You know, I even thought I loved you once,” the Sorcerer whispered in such a way that Hanna doubted that there was anyone that did not hear him.
Hanna tilted her head and peered at Ypse as though he had suddenly grown horns. His statement put a different bent on everything that had come before, but she did not know if she trusted it. Looking back, the veiled looks he had sent her back in the Capital could be mistaken for desire or maybe even love. Yet Ypse had never given her any other indications if in fact what he said was the truth. Usually, men who wanted to bed a woman gave off a nervous energy that was easy to pick up on, but she had never gotten that sense from the Sorcerer.
“But who knew you were just another little slut willing to spread your legs at the first sign of upward mobility!” The glint of heartache pulsed in Ypse’s yellow eyes. “Whores, all of you!”
From the utterance of the word ‘slut,’ Sir Tandri was already moving, long legs flashing as he dashed towards Ypse, flinging away the Punisher that got in his way. Reaching the Sorcerer, the Lightbender kicked out the back legs of the chair the man sat upon. Arms and legs flailing, Ypse tottered backward, slamming against the ground so hard that he grunted. Bits of wood and foliage rained down around him.
It had all happened so fast that Hanna had not had time to take more than a single step back. She took a sharp breath as conflicting emotions stymied her thought process. On the one hand watching Ypse writhe in pain sent a thrilling sense of pleasure shooting up her spine. But at the same time, it seemed wrong no matter how disrespectful he had been.
Sir Tandri pressed his knee down on Ypse’s chest and held the man still with a hand wrapped around his throat. “Now show me your tongue or do you want me to dig for it?” the knight asked waving a savage looking knife in his free hand.
“Mercy,” Hanna beseeched the Viscount.
Before Baldur could respond, the sound of Hjörtur’s clanging bells stole his attention. He paused with his hand on the railing of the balcony, gazing towards the outer walls as if he could decode its distant mystery from here. The boy in the blue coat served the Viscount a new bowl of wine, and he drank it absentmindedly.
“Thank you, Leon,” Baldur said then returned his focus below. “Release him, Sir Tandri, it seems we have more pressing concerns.” He pointed at the Punishers. “And you lot, take that piece of filth back to his cell. I will deal with him later.”
Sir Tandri sucked air through his teeth and released Ypse. “We will pick this back up later, sweetheart,” he said almost lovingly.
Baldur surrendered his empty bowl to Leon and stepped into the air. Almost immediately he tilted, falling, but somehow he caught himself. A second later whatever trick he was using to walk on air failed, and he plummeted from the sky.
Surprised, Hanna’s voice joined a dozen others in a gasp as the Viscount struck the earth. Blooded and foaming at the mouth, Baldur lurched onto his side and rose an accusatory finger at Leon. Touching the crane pinned onto his chest, the boy peered down at the Viscount with a self-satisfied smirk. The smile only grew wider as Baldur’s eyes rolled back in his head.
“Poison!” Jenný shrieked, running towards her husband with her sister nipping at her heels. They threw themselves at Baldur, frantically trying to resuscitate him.
In the midst of the turmoil, Hanna noticed Ypse still on his back with both eyes closed, seemingly unaware of what was transpiring around him. What is he doing? She asked herself with a sinking feel opening up in the pit of her stomach. He’s up to something? Could this be all his doing?
“Murderer!” Lexi shouted, pointing up at the balcony. Leon staggered back, grin turning to despair. “Apprehend him! Murderer! Murderer! You will pay for this!”
Leon turned and fled as Sir Tandri and a handful of once invisible Lightbenders dashed towards him. The top-knotted soldiers leaped twice as high as should be possible, grabbing onto the railing and then pulling themselves onto the balcony. At that moment the earth beneath Hanna’s feet rolled, and shouts and screams rose anew. Someone struck her from behind, and she fell to the ground with the oppressive weight of a man pressing down on her.
With the earth heaving and twisting under her, Hanna scratched and clawed at the arm snaking around her neck. The helplessness of so easily being overpowered filled her, choking her on waves of stomach-churning fear. A blade pressed into the soft flesh of her neck, forcing her still her panicked attacks.
“Relax, the real fun is just beginning,” Ypse’s voice whispered into her ear.
From the center of the gardens, soil and rock spewed into the air and a flesh toned monster the size of an elephant crawled out of the hole. With a barrel-shaped body segmented in three and four pairs of stubby legs, it was like nothing Hanna had ever seen before. Each one of the creature’s jointless limbs ended with four claws on its feet.
The abomination had no eyes or nostrils, not that Hanna could see. At the center of its large head sat an extendable circular mouth, filled with vicious looking teeth. It fell to its eight legs and charged, moving in a way reminiscent of a bear’s lumbering gait. The ground shook at every step as it smashed into trees, uprooting them from the earth.
“Beautiful aren’t they?” Ypse asked. “My forebears called them Vatn Björn.” The shrieks of fleeing servants and women filled the gardens, all looking to escape by any means necessary.
They? Hanna’s mind latched onto that one word. She swallowed nervously. ‘They’ implied that there were more than one of these monstrosities. Her chest knotted with the realization that everything that had just happened was part of Ypse’s plan. With Baldur incapacitated or dead, Hjörtur had lost one of its biggest assets. The Citadel might fall!
“They’re notable for being one of the most resilient monsters ever created,” Ypse continued with a note of awe and pride. “They can survive conditions that would prove fatal to almost any other life forms. For example, they can do without water or food for over forty years. They’re truly a marvel.” He laughed, a short, satisfied sound.” Fate smiled on me the day I discovered an ancient book written by their creator. It’s odd the way unrelated things have a way of coming together in a spectacular fashion. Almost enough to make one believe in the existence of gods.”
As the Vatn Björn reached the spot where Hanna and Ypse lay, another Vatn Björn emerged from the hole. The first Vatn Björn moved above them, making sure not to crush them beneath its massive body and slammed into the Punisher rushing to attack Ypse. The armored men were sent flying like so much scrap metal. Howling, groaning, the soldiers crashed into the ground with the sound of breaking bones. Claws cutting through plate armor like cheese, the monster attacked another wave of soldiers while Lexi and Jenný’s dragged Baldur’s body away.
“Come, my dear.” Ypse yanked Hanna up by her hair and pulled her towards the hole. “We have places to be.” Hanna grunted, stumbling behind the Sorcerer, watching the second Vatn Björn join the first.
“Sorcerer, this is all your doing!” Sir Tandri shouted from atop the balcony, surrounded by four of his top-knotted brothers-in-arms. An instant later they leaped to the ground, joining the failing counter assault. Some even turned invisible, but it did not appear to help, the monsters seemed able to locate them despite their light bending trickery.
Ypse glanced back at the Lightbender. “Smart, isn’t he?”
Legs coming together, Hanna tripped and fell in a jumble next to the hole in the earth while secretly sneaking her hand up her dress and removing the blade strapped to her thigh. Unaware of the danger, Ypse yanked Hanna back to her feet with a click of his tongue.
“You will not get away with this!” Hanna shouted, concealing the knife at her side. Fear flashed through her, sending her limbs to trembling. I only have one chance. I can’t fail!
Ypse smiled at her then returned his gaze to the battle. “I don’t suppose I will—”
Screaming, he jerked back as Hanna plunged her knife into his yellow eye. For an instant a feeling of joy hummed into her bones at her success, then he retaliated, knocking her backward, kicking her in the chest. Eyes going wide, Hanna fell back into the tunnel, gasping from the air that had been smacked out of her lungs. The back of her head struck a rock and darkness consumed her vision.