The very act of fighting shoulder to shoulder as we have night after night, day after day, binds us together with bonds not even the fear of death could extinguish. We’re brothers now, for good or ill. Brothers.
— YPSE, TO LEON
Above an ancient temple, three White Cranes stretched out, ivory-colored plumage streaming back in the twilight as they whirled in long loops, wings beating a steady rhythm whenever they turned. Morgan led the way, giant crane and blue-clad rider all too visible in the fading light. Nóel’s bird followed closely behind Morgan’s own, in a tight line, matching its sorcery created brethren flap for flap.
Leon flew last in line, with the heat of Pen’s body passing through the saddle and into his thighs. Morgan and Nóel never glanced back at him, reserving their full attention for what was taking place below them. Gray-skinned warriors milled outside and inside the ruined temple, seen through the gaps in between trees and the rents in the roof. Outside the stone edifice, the Dökk parted for Ypse, a small white-haired boy, that approached them fearlessly.
Every few seconds Leon scanned the sky while he clung to Pen’s reins. The Northern Reaches was filled with far worse monstrosities than the Gray Skins arrayed below him, and some of them could fly. But for now the sky was empty, only the orange light of the setting sun met his gaze. He felt no relief. . . . Some creatures could conceal themselves from even the most careful eye, Ypse had said. And circling as they were, they made tempting targets.
He whistled, drawing Morgan’s and Nóel’s scrutiny, then pointed at the ground. Morgan’s scarred face turned white and the infectious smile that usually hung from Nóel’s lips was absent. Before either one of them had the chance to object, Leon sent Pen plunging downward. The air roared around him, and his heart pounded in his chest. He clung tighter to the saddle and reins with taut muscles, fervently hoping he was not making a terrible mistake.
Even as the earth rose to meet him, a part of Leon wanted to go faster, despite his worry, despite the wind stinging his eyes. He pulled Pen up from the dive, much sooner than he would have liked, and Pen flapped his wings, drifting above the tops of trees. Vagrant leaves whirled and danced as he set his mount down beside another White Crane. Lin. Lin turned to glare at them, her yellow eyes glowing in the twilight.
Leon hopped of Pen’s back and charged forward, deaf to the panicked voices that rose behind. Absentmindedly, he touched the snake bite at the back of his neck; though long healed, it throbbed in an odd counter to the furious beat of his own heart, hot one instant and cold the next. At night, it turned feverish and prodded at him with a nagging itch no amount of scratching would relieve. Not to mention the dreams. . . . He ducked under an unusually low branch and forced his mind away from that topic. He had already worn himself thin with concern over what had happened that night—the night the earth had churned beneath him, the night he had been visited by the emissaries of the Dark One—and what was still happening every time he closed his eyes to sleep. Was any of it real, that was the question that plagued him above all others.
“Leon!” a whispered shout came from behind.
Leon ran on. Now that his fear had been given an outlet, he did not know if he could stop; the frightened animal inside had been let loose. He sped through the sparse forest like a ghost, just keeping ahead of Morgan and Nóel, who clamored behind him. Leon wanted to go faster—needed to! He could sense Morgan’s hand strained to catch at the back of his blue coat, heard the panting of the older boy’s exasperated breath, deeper than Nóel’s own, drawing nearer. He zigged, and he zagged, desperately trying to maintain his lead, then he broke through the last cluster of trees.
Morgan lunged, slamming into Leon’s back, and they rolled on the ground, fighting for supremacy. Leon refused to surrender! Back in Hjörtur, Morgan had always gotten the better in their scraps, and he would be damned before he allowed him to win now. Morgan might be bigger and stronger, but Leon had his own tricks. He bit down the older boys arm and felt a slick sense of satisfaction when Morgan howled. The elbow that smashed into his solar plexus a second later knocked the flash of achievement right out of his head as he gasped and sputtered.
“STOP!” Nóel screamed.
Lying on his back, Leon looked up at Morgan through watery eyes. The older boy trembled on top of him, peering to the side. Leon followed Morgan’s gaze, then went still. He lay in front of the broken and weathered temple, surrounded by spear-wielding Dökk. Two of their number towered over all the rest, three meters tall with round bellies and massive forearms, both armed with a large club.
Leon’s eyes drifted to the animal skin loincloth each Gray Skin wore as the stories of their brutality ran through his skull. Better to die than to fall into the hands of monsters such as this, he thought. They were words he had once overheard, but they fit this moment. He had escaped one such horror and he would die before . . . before. . . . He closed his hands into fists.
Suddenly, the wall of gray flesh parted and Ypse approached them, trailed by a female Dökk with long, flowing, black hair and eight spider-like appendages jutting from her back. A bone spear dangling from her hand and her large eyes were wellsprings of endless darkness.
Ypse sighed. “Mrethren Örk, allow me to introduce you to Nóel, Morgan, and Leon. They are not to be harmed in any way, do you understand? Consider them the newest members of your Kvik.” He fondled the scarlet jewel in his hand, absentmindedly.
“Yes, Great Master,” she cooed, almost drooling over herself in her eagerness to please.
“So it worked?” Morgan asked. He climbed off of Leon, and Leon grunted in relief.
Ypse tilted his head to the side in consideration; Leon still found it strange to watch a child seemingly younger than himself so perfectly mimic the mannerisms of an adult. “It appears so, or perhaps it would be better to say it has for now.” He wiped away a string of blood that dripped from his nose. “I’m not as strong as I used to be. I won’t be able to keep this going for much longer without the aid of some tools.”
“Oh, joy,” Morgan muttered under his breath, as insolent as ever.
“Fetch the birds,” Ypse told Morgan. “Leon, with me. If we mean to spend the night in here, we need to get everything situated.”
Leon stood, knuckling the tender spot on his stomach. “You heard him, get going.” He kicked Morgan in the shin.
Letting out a loud yelp, Morgan darted back and began swinging at Leon, his aim impeded by the way he kept hopping on one leg. Nóel watched with a broad grin, his golden-brown curls shaking as his body threatened to break into laughter.
“Children,” Ypse admonished, and the Gray Skins shifted, lips lifting to reveal fused teeth. The chilliness of his tone was belied by the high-pitch nature of his voice; he sounded like a small mouse as was often the case with very young boys.
Nóel tugged on Morgan’s coat sleeve. “Let’s go before it gets too dark.” He eyed the Dökk that surrounded them; in most cases, they only came up to the creatures’ thighs, and Ypse was smaller still.
Somewhat reluctantly Morgan allowed himself to be guided away. Ypse motioned to a handful of Dökk, and they chased after the duo, their long limbs catching up with them in an instant.
“Leon,” Ypse called in a soft voice, his face pale as his snow-colored hair.
Leon rushed over to the Sorcerer and steadied him with a hand. “Are you all right?” A stab of fear pricked at him. If something happened to Ypse, he and his friends were as good as dead. No, worse. Much worse than death waited for them now.
Ypse blinked unseeing, his yellow eyes moist with pain.
“Great Master,” Örk began before Ypse forestalled her with a raised hand. She closed her mouth, but her gray face was etched with concern. It almost appeared as if she might burst into tears, which added a strange note of sympathy to her alien countenance.
“Inside,” he told Leon. “Help me inside.”
Leon lifted the Sorcerer into his arms, something he had been forced to do a lot over the last few days, and carried him forward. Ypse weighed almost nothing, pressed against Leon’s chest. For a second, he wondered if this was what it was like to have a younger brother. He had always wanted a sibling, or family of any kind. His mother had died during childbirth, and he had always envied the warmth of familial bonds that had been absent from his life.
The Gray Skins clamored to get out of his way. The ancient temple loomed up before him, its dark interior relieved by pools of vibrant orange and red sunlight that fell through the cracks in the timeworn stone. He shifted Ypse in his grasp and entered the building through the large opening, with Örk at his side. The floor was littered with hundreds of different animal bones, some green with moss and dotted with bright clumps of fungus like the nearby walls.
Leon’s eyes jumped to the corpse of the white-furred creature, with the body of a lion and head of a dragon, that lay on a ground a little further into the temple. It was surrounded by fifty-three Dökk that were much shorter than the rest of their brethren, with bump-like antennae. Each one of the smaller Dökk carried a giant transparent egg on its back. He carefully navigated the treacherous terrain, keeping away from the indistinct massive forms of the two Vatn Björns that sat at his periphery.
Now and again the monument rang with sounds of a fierce battle, sounds that came from the chambers below, distorted by their transit through twisting corridors. Loud dog-like barks faded, or cut off abruptly, transformed into pain filled howls. Leon set Ypse down on an overturned statue of a headless woman.
“Don’t worry,” Ypse advised. Both of his eyes were closed, and his forehead was creased in concentration. “Your friends aren’t in danger, not from the Dökk. I’m making sure of that.”
“You look. . . .” Leon began, then trailed off.
“Trust me, I know. It’s taking everything I have to repress their natural inclinations to rape and murder us.” He shook his head as sweat rolled down his young face. “It’s madness! What would possess the Sorcerer-Kings to make them this way?”
Leon sat down beside the Sorcerer and took in his surroundings. The temple held all the musky odors of a wild animal den, thick with the scent of decomposing flesh and unwashed fur. Mrethren Örk knelt across from them, towering over them even on her knees; she watched Ypse with a single-mindedness that boarded on obsession. It unnerved Leon.
He turned from her unblinking stare. “What does it feel like?”
“It’s like. . . .” Ypse opened his eyes. “Have you ever tried to juggle?”
“Once or twice. I was never—”
“Imagine,” Ypse interrupted, “juggling a hundred hiltless blades, each sharper than a razor and thinner than a human hair. If I slip for even a second. . . . Well, it’s best we don’t dell too much on that.”
Leon did his best not to shudder but did not quite succeed. All said, he thought he was handling his new circumstance well. By all rights, he should be cowering in a corner, or running away in tears, but he had done neither. Leon felt alive in a way he had never experienced while protected by Hjörtur’s lofty walls. Despite the constant danger, he was . . . happy. Each new moment was filled with significance because it might just be his last.
A solitary bird cry drew his attention to the entrance, where Morgan and Nóel were shepherding four White Cranes into the temple. He stood and smiled, waving them over. Not even Morgan’s scowl could shake his sudden good cheer. His friends were the reason for his lack of terror, he realized. With them here, everything seemed all right even if it was not.
“Nice place,” Morgan said, leading the birds toward the statue. “It smells like a dogs ass and looks like the inside of one, too. The perfect location to build your armies for your plan to retake all that your ancestors lost in the last Age. That is what we’re doing here, isn’t it Sorcerer?”
Leon froze and watched Ypse from the corner of his eyes. From experience, he knew most adults had little patience for Morgan’s barbed tongue.
“Morgan!” Nóel yelled, his face pinked with embarrassment. “You promised you would behave. You promised!”
“I changed my mind.” Morgan shrugged and brought the White Cranes to a halt in front of Ypse. “We’ve been tiptoeing around this topic for days. What’s the point? This way is better. Simpler.”
“You will watch your tongue with me, boy,” Ypse told him, getting up. “Or I will put Mrethren Örk in charge of you and will see if she can’t straighten you out.” Örk rose from her crouch with the butt of her spear resting on the ground.
Nóel jerked back, and the birds cried out in panic, but Morgan stood tall, defiant. “I’m not afraid of you.” Though Morgan’s hands trembled, Leon believed it.
The Gray Skins scattered around the chamber, all took a step towards Morgan, their ugly faces twisted into snarls.
“Is this how you treat us?” Morgan went on, uncowered. “With threats? You’re alive because of us! You’re free because of us! We deserve to know the rest of your plan.”
Leon placed at hand on Ypse’s small shoulder and sensed the Sorcerer’s body tense. “His right. You’re the only one who ever treated us like we mattered, you can’t go treating us like children now.”
“You are children!” Ypse spat, but his heart was not in it.
“Either we’re in this together, or we’re not,” Leon replied, taking confidence in Morgan and Nóel’s nod of agreement. “Either you trust us, or you don’t.”
The tension drained from Ypse, and he sighed. “Perhaps you’re right. No. You are.” He was staring into the scarlet jewel that had never once lift his grasp. “I owe you an explanation,” he said absently, “but not right now. Tonight.” He wiped another string of blood from his nose. “If I don’t finish this task, it won’t matter because we will all be dead.”
“Tonight then,” Morgan conceded.