We are, as Fat Ned would say, “Fucked-fucked-fucked!”
— MORGAN, TO LEON
Unclenching his hand from Ypse’s shoulder, Leon patted his own thigh with his palm but did not allow himself to relax. Ypse was still staring into the flickering jewel, his yellow eyes vacant. The Sorcerer’s obsession with the gem unnerved Leon; Ypse never parted with it, not even for a moment. The eerie crimson light that flashed within it cast everything it touched in a sinister tint.
“Now that’s taken cared of,” Ypse said, “I suggest you two start a fire and set up the wardstones. Hopefully, what comes next won’t take too long, for all our sakes.”
“The wardstones?” Morgan frowned at the towering Gray Skins. The tension that had drained from him visibly returned. “I thought you had them under your control?”
“A precaution only,” Ypse replied. “My attention will be divided. Better for you if you’re safely secured behind the stones when I begin.” He pushed past Morgan, his small frame only coming up to the older boys waist. “Leon with me.”
Leon sent Morgan and Nóel a nervous smile, then hurried after the Sorcerer. Ypse took his hand, and he helped guide the Sorcerer across the stone floor made treacherous by the countless animal bones. Mrethren Örk followed behind them with a pair of Dökk by her side.
“Örk,” Ypse called.
She quickened her pace until she was even with them. “I’m here, Great Master.” There was a primitive drawl in the way the words rolled off her tongue, making them sound harsh to the ear.
“You lead the way and have them bring the Chimera’s corpse along, I will need the bio mass. In fact, I will need all the cadavers.”
Mrethren Örk bowed in understanding and gestured at the two burly Gray Skins bringing up the rear. The Gray Skins rushed over to the carcass of the white-furred monster and dragged it behind them, each grabbing hold of a leg.
All around Leon the Dökk were bustling about, loading the large eggs into a darkened corner of the temple. Similar activity took place at the entrance as Dökk fortified it with rumble and wooden spikes. Before long, he descended large weathered stone steps, with the flesh-toned Vatn Björns leading the way down. The walls groaned and cracked, forced to accommodate the creatures’ massive eight-legged bodies, but Örk shielded him and Ypse from the worst of the dust and dirt that surged with their passing.
“Why did you lie to Morgan?” Leon asked, doing his best to get a handle on his fear. If not for the pulsing light cast from Ypse’s jewel, the underground corridor they traveled through would have been pitch black. Though, the scarlet radiance that bathed the hallway was not much better than darkness. It all made Leon’s heart race, but talking helped relieve the sense of peril, if barely. “You told him the wardstones were only a precaution, but they’re not, are they?”
Ypse looked up at him. “Did you want me to frighten your friends more than they are already? I left them the illusion of safety, that is all. They are both aware that they’re in danger, but this way they can pretend the risk is minimal. Not everyone is as brave as you are, Leon.”
“I’m not brave. . . .” Leon raked fingers through his hair in consternation. “I’m scared all the time. I mean all the time. If you only understood how terrified I am right now, you wouldn’t say that.”
“Yet here you are,” Ypse smiled, “traveling into the bellows of an ancient temple with me. You could have said no, but you didn’t. That’s what it means to be brave, Leon, doing what you know you must when every part of your body is screaming at you to run away.”
Leon said nothing, his thoughts turning inwards as they passed ruined chambers overrun with debris and dirt. Dökk exited each room they passed, dragging the corpse of a Chimera, joining the growing procession trailing his small party. All sounds of battle had long ceased, replaced by the rhythmic stomping of feet and the raucous nature of the Vatn Björns’s lumbering gait.
“Ask it,” Ypse said.
Leon blinked, surprised. “Ask what?”
“The question you’ve been pondering for the longest while?” They descended the second set of stairs into the huge open basement, permeated with the foul odor of things long decomposed.
“I. . . .” Leon hesitated, touching the snake bite on the back of his own neck. “How did you know?” He sighed, slightly exasperated at so easily being read. “I can’t stop going over that day on Viscount Baldur’s balcony. Did you mean those things you said to the princess? Did you love her?” He was not certain in the red light, but he thought color flamed in Ypse’s pale face. For this once, perhaps the Sorcerer was the one flustered.
“Hanna?” Ypse asked, frowning.
Leon nodded, turning a deaf ear to the Gray Skins who entered the chamber in twos. Each pair dragged a corpse behind them and deposited it at the center of the room then left.
“Sometimes it is necessary to embellish facts a little to throw your enemies off balance.” If Ypse was embarrassed, he did not reveal it in his voice. “It was a useful fiction, only that. Someone like her—someone like me.” He shifted away from Leon’s searching gaze.
“So none of it was true?”
“What brought this topic on?” Ypse said.
It was Leon’s turned to shift uncomfortably. “There was this girl—I mean there is this girl.”
The Sorcerer flashed him a broad smile and stifled a soft chuckle. “No more ominous words have ever been spoken, my friend.”
It could not hurt to tell Ypse about her. If anyone could help keep his dreams free from her nightly visits, it would be Ypse. Especially if the Sorcerer thought his night terrors might negatively affect his own plans. It could not hurt—if he could trust Ypse. If he could not, then he had bigger problems than nightmares. A stark realization, but not as stark as the knowledge the only thing keeping him from the other end of a spear was Ypse.
“It’s not like that!” Leon went on. “She visits me in my dreams and—”
Ypse squeezed Leon’s hand. “I understand. I was never in love with Hanna, not in that way. She was too young, she was little more than a child when I first met her. A traumatized child.” He studied the growing mound of corpses, his eyes distant. “I supposed you can say she reminded me of myself. Though she walked around uncollared, she was just as much a slave as I. Watching Prince Erik—”
The snapping of bone drew their attention to Örk, who clutched a broken spear in her hand. “Erik,” she snarled.
Leon shivered. “You know Prince Erik? How?”
The Mrethren did not speak. For a long moment, she stared at him until he feared she was ready to plunge her spear into his chest. He took a nervous step back.
“Answer him,” Ypse commanded.
For a second Leon thought Örk would cry as her body quivered and her lips trembled. When she spoke, her voice was anguished, her face a mix of fury and too much hatred to ever be fully revealed. She told the story of the Prince’s assault on her home in painful detail, painting a vivid picture in Leon’s mind.
“You’re sure his eyes were no longer red?” Ypse questioned.
“I’m sure, Great Master,” she replied.
Ypse bowed his head in thought, but his gaze swept across the growing pile of corpses. A fresh string of blood dripped from his nose, and he wiped it away with the back of his free hand.
“Did you plan this?” Leon asked Ypse.
The Sorcerer shook his head and laughed. “No. How would I have orchestrated all this? I was always supposed to fail in my attempt to take over Hjörtur. That was my plan. It was the only way to make sure they sent no one after me, I couldn’t just run away. Prince Erik’s return was a surprise, but in the Game of Faces, you have to know how to improvise. That’s what separates the great players from the—”
An itch between Leon’s shoulder blades made him spin toward the entrance and Ypse fell silent, turning with him. A Gray Skin with a red armband was lunging at Leon with a spear. He froze, and the spear stopped and inch from his chest, ready to plunge in. The Chosen snarled and trembled as if fighting an invisible battle.
“Leon, get back,” Ypse grunted, “I don’t know how long I—”
Heart pounding, Leon stumbled backward and dropped onto his rear. The Chosen roared and flashed forward once again, his gleaming weapon lowering to impale Leon. At the last possible moment, Örk’s turned the spear with her own, and the underground chamber rang with the fury of clashing bone spears. Leon rolled away, desperately trying to put distance between himself and the gray skinned combatants. Stones and jagged bones jabbed into his flesh.
“Heel, Chosen!” Örk barked. One of her spider-like appendages shot toward her opponent’s face.
“You’ve been corrupted, Mrethren Örk.” The Chosen jerked back and whirled his spear around, one handed. “I smell the stench of one of the Great Masters on you.” He extended his free hand, palm first. The chamber shook with the sound of thunder and Örk was sent tumbling through the air.
Leon’s ears rang. The Vatn Björns charged the Chosen from opposite directions, a cloud of dust rising as they ran. He could see their eight-legged bodies moving, but he heard nothing. The armband wearing Dökk threw his spear at Ypse, then got crushed beneath the Vatn Björns’ massive bodies.
“Ypse!” Leon leaped to his feet, his ears still ringing. If something happened to Ypse, they were beyond screwed. The Sorcerer was the only person who stood between them and damnation. Eternal Father, please let him be okay.
Leon raced to Ypse, ducking around stationary Gray Skins and jumping over rumble. He dropped to his knee, coughing from the dust in the air. Ypse blinked up at him as both of his hands tried to stop the red tide rising around the spear point lodged in his stomach. Next to him, the scarlet gem flashed with a greater intensity than Leon had ever witnessed, yet growing fainter by the second.
“No,” Leon whispered. Tension knotted the muscles in his bruised limbs, coiled in his intestines like black tendrils. His vision swam. Don’t die. Please, don’t!
Ypse jerked his eyes in the direction of the gem. “Place it on . . . the corpses. Hurry.” His voice was thin and feeble, as though spoken through the throat of a choking baby.
Leon pulled himself back from the clutches of mind-numbing terror and noticed how silent the chamber had become. It was quiet enough to hear a droplet of water land on the weathered stone floor. Hands trembling, he looked around the room. Örk lurched to her feet with help from a broken spear, but she was the only one moving. All the other Dökk stared at Ypse with varying degrees of fury.
The Sorcerer’s weak voice snapped Leon out of his daze. Awkwardly climbing to his feet, he reached down and grabbed the pulsing jewel. His fingers convulsed, and the jewel clattered back onto the floor. Immediately, he picked it up again, this time prepared for the static shock that coursed through his hand. He ran forward, the sound of shuffling feet behind him giving him wings.
Leon screamed. He held the sun in his grasp. The sun. Unless he released the gem, his skin would turn into ash and his delicate bones into magma. He hurled the gem and crumbled to his knees, squeezing his wrist with his good hand. His fingers were red and inflamed as if he had stuck them into a fire. Pain shot up his arm, pain like searing iron lances.
The crimson jewel landed atop the mound of Chimera corpses and glowed brighter, illuminating every nook and corner with twisting light. Fur and animal flesh hissed like fried bacon. An instant later, the chamber plunged into darkness when the jewel sank down into the piles of meat.
Leon lurched back on his butt. Slowly, the carcass liquefied before his eyes, transformed into a thick, boiling stew, surrounded by a creeping blood mist. At the heart of it all sat the source of Ypse’s power, pulsing, throbbing.
The sound of moving feet made Leon glance back. Örk strode forward with Ypse in her arms and came to a stop beside him. The spear was no longer lodged in the Sorcerer’s stomach, but now, even more, blood was gushing forth from his wound.
“Are you going to be okay.” Leon stood, wincing from the torment in his hand. The pain seemed to get worse by the second. It was hard to focus on anything else, but he pushed through it. Ypse has to live, that’s all that matters.
Örk lowered Ypse until he was eye level with Leon, and the Sorcerer groaned. His yellow eyes were dim and tear-filled. “Leon,” he said, “you’re in charge now.” His weak voice was hard to hear over the pounding of Leon’s heart. “Örk will obey you, I made sure of that.”
“Where are you going?” Leon squeezed his own wrist to stop himself from screaming that question. “Are you. . . .” He swallowed and tried again. “Are you dying?”
Ypse’s eyes closed and his breathing slowed. “I need to heal my wounds . . . not sure how long it will take. I’m s-so weak.”
Without noticing, the boiling stew had transformed into a swelling pale meat-like substance, veiny and flecked with green and yellow mucus as if it had come from inside of a living organism. And at the heart of it sat the scarlet jewel, on top of a misshapen flesh pillar, flicking like ten thousand fireflies. Eerie. Beautiful.
“Y-You can’t leave us like this,” Leon stammered. The repugnant, fishy scent of the twitching flesh made him gag as bile rose from his stomach. He fought the urge to puke and won.
“You must collect more bodies,” Ypse went on with his eyes still closed. “Many more. As many as you can manage, but be wary of the Dökk. Örk will obey, but the others. . . .”
Örk lowered Ypse onto the pulsing flesh that covered the floor. A cocoon of the meat-like substance rose to envelop the Sorcerer, oozing up his arms and legs.
“What about the others?” Leon shouted. “Ypse!”
It was too late, Ypse was completely enclosed, from his head to his toes, and Leon was alone with the Gray Skins. Örk watched him with her large, dark eyes.