A blast of Stormbreaker’s lightning crackled overhead, giving Aron a surge of courage as mist struck him in the face. The unnatural gray fog of the Deadfall immediately obscured his vision, and it smelled of old graves and bones left to mildew in caves. Aron decided to breathe through his mouth, at least until he grew accustomed to the odor. His eyes watered in the wet air, but he kept his gaze on the gray folds of Galvin’s tunic.
Whispering met his ears, not human, not intelligible, and somewhere nearby, a rock cat howled. Something moaned, setting Aron’s teeth on edge.
Then something screamed. Up ahead. Not far away at all.
A sly, grinding sound came from behind Aron, like creatures sidling and slithering across the same rocky ground he had just crunched beneath his boots.
“I’m an assassin’s apprentice,” he said to himself to drive down the rolling gallop of his heart. He closed one hand on the hilt of his short sword and the other on the metal grip of a dagger.
From in front of him, Galvin Herder grunted, and Aron saw the mist swirl as the older boy drew his long sword and held it at the ready.
“I’m an assassin’s apprentice!” Aron yelled, taking strength from the words as he drew his own blades.
He could only hope the creatures ﬂying, crawling, creeping, and charging to meet them would know him for what he was, and fear him as much as he feared them.
Aron Weylyn kept his ﬁsts tight on the hilts of his blades and Galvin Herder’s faint image in view even though the older boy was using his height and longer stride to move quickly through the fog.
This journey across the worst eight miles in Eyrie was supposed to settle the dispute between Aron and Galvin, but Aron was convinced it was hopeless. The reality of impending death crackled through his muscles and bones, chilling him. Each step he took felt heavier and slower than the last. The day should have been bright, but no light fought its way through the dense mists.
“I won’t save you,” Galvin called from ahead of Aron. “If I live and you don’t, so much the better for Stone.”
Aron cursed the fog obscuring his view. Galvin seemed to ﬂoat forward, then disappear into the unrelenting gray.
The silver dagger Stormbreaker had given Aron weighed in Aron’s palm, and he wished he could throw it with accuracy—in the direction where Galvin had vanished. As his training masters had taught him, he checked ahead and beside him in both directions for threats, once behind, then moved forward to catch up to the older boy.
The path to the Ruined Keep revealed itself in pieces, mostly dirt and rock and bleached branches scattered like bones reaching into the mists. Aron noticed each unusual pattern of sticks and memorized it, in case he needed markers for his return journey.
Rocks crunched behind him.
His heart lurched as he whirled around, dagger and short sword raised.
A large black snake launched toward his legs, mouth open for the strike.
Aron shouted and sliced down with his short sword. The blade tore across the snake’s too-broad head, leaving a bloody rent in its slick scales. The creature hissed and jerked away from the blow—and started to change.
“Mocker!” Aron yelled to warn Galvin, in case the monster got past him.
He tried to breathe and coughed at the wet-grave stench of the air. His eyes teared, but he slashed at the scaly abomination before it could assume its humanlike form. This time, he caught the creature directly across its now-childish face. Fat cheeks and lips ruptured as the thing hissed and bawled and tried to spit at him. Wings crackled outward from its shoulders as blood and liquid trickled from its damaged mouth.
Aron swallowed before he could retch and raised his sword again.
The mocker moved faster.
Claws sharper than straight razors ripped toward Aron’s belly. He leaped backward and dropped to his backside just in time to avoid a stream of blood-ﬂecked spittle. The poisonous liquid spattered on the ground near his foot, sizzling holes into the rocks and dirt.
Aron rolled away from the stinking discharge and scrambled to his feet, dagger and short sword extended. A quick glance around told him that Galvin was nowhere near.
The mocker let out a screech that made Aron’s breath stick in his throat. It looked like a deformed infant, human from waist up, snake from waist down, ﬂapping oily, thick wings against the encroaching fog. It was tall, almost as tall as Aron, but with a snake’s thin, twisty build.
Aron’s vision narrowed as hours upon hours of sparring and battle training took hold of his habits. He ﬂexed his knees and checked his balance, circling the mocker-snake as it turned in the air to keep pace with him. His pulse surged each time his feet struck the barren ground.
The mocker-snake gave a cry that was mingled hiss and screech.
The sound raked Aron’s nerves, but he didn’t react. The reality of his situation left him, along with the fog, the cries of other creatures in the distance, and most of his fear. His dagger and short sword took on a different weight, comforting instead of challenging, and he moved them ﬂuidly, keeping the metal as a shield between himself and the monster.
Scales rattled as the mocker-snake spun to keep Aron in front of it. It pulled back its malformed lips and spit again, but Aron turned like a dancer, letting the poison scar the ground again. If only he could throw his dagger well—this battle would be ended!
The mocker-snake arced toward him, human mouth wide to show rows of dripping fangs.
Aron pivoted on his lead foot and brought his short sword down hard as he raised his dagger. He felt the jolt of contact up to his elbows, but didn’t drop his blades. For a bleak, horrible second, the mocker’s childlike head kept ﬂying toward him. Aron’s heart stuttered and his concentration broke.
He jerked sideways, and the mocker-snake’s head crashed into the rocks at his feet.
The snake’s partly human body landed a sword’s length away, spilling dark red blood onto the path. It had an unnatural acrid stench, making Aron’s eyes water all the more.
He stood for a few moments, breathing in and out so hard his chest ached in the center. The taste in his mouth soured like the dead mocker’s venom, and he couldn’t stop staring at the pieces of the creature’s corpse.
Death and killing.
These were things he had to embrace. He had slaughtered hogs, dispatched manes, plotted the deaths of Lord Brailing and his Guard, even watched Stormbreaker give a boy Mercy, but—
But real death, real killing of a thing with a human baby’s face—
Aron’s hands shook until the tips of dagger and short sword danced across swirling bits of fog. The sight of the gory blades made his insides lurch. A coldness overtook him as he resisted surrender to grief and a bitter wave of gut-sickness, like the coldness he felt when he’d realized his family was murdered because of him. Like the coldness of the air itself, deep and without limit.
“Concentrate,” he whispered to himself, sounding like a Stone training master, and gradually his awareness returned to his full control. Immediately, he knew more scavengers were lurking in the low hanging clouds shrouding the path to the Ruined Keep. They growled softly as they tracked the scent of his fresh kill.
It was move now, or meet the bloodthirsty worst of Eyrie’s Deadfall, Outlands, and Barrens.
Aron’s teeth chattered as he wiped his blades on the leg of his gray pants, but by the time he set off toward the Ruined Keep, he had mastered his chill. His gray cheville felt icy and heavy against his ankle as he made progress, ﬁrst in minutes, then in stretches of minutes, then hours.
How far was the Keep—another hour ahead? Maybe two?
There was still no sign or hint of Galvin. Aron’s muscles ached, but the chilled weight of his cheville continued to comfort him as he covered more and more of the foggy, rocky path. At least when something killed him, the cheville would keep his soul safely bound to his body until it could be dispatched. He wouldn’t become a carnivorous mane, sliding through the darkness searching for prey.
As if summoned by his thoughts, the unmistakable moans of the hungry and restless dead drifted toward him from the south, from the patch of Deadfall that touched the point of Triune.
Aron’s skin tightened against his bones. He walked faster, then began to jog.
Some distance later, when the moans grew louder, he ran, slicing at the fog as if he could part it with his weapons. He would rather be fodder for mockers or natural predators than a meal for manes.
From ahead in the fog, Galvin shouted.
The bellowing growls of rock cats drowned the older boy’s yelling.
Aron hesitated for only the briefest second, then shoved aside the ﬂash of anger at the older boy for being cruel, for leaving him behind. No decent person would leave another to be eaten by wild animals, and Stormbreaker was counting on Aron to do what was right, to acquit himself without the use of his legacy.
Aron plowed through the mists, blind now, seeing nothing but white fog and drops of water. His heart slammed in time with his motions, and the mufﬂed crack of a sword striking stones rattled his mind. He burst onto a clear, open patch of ground, and before he could orient himself to the parting of the fog, a rock cat barreled toward him.
The cat pounced.
Aron swept his short sword upward and caught the cat in its throat. Its claws sliced into his shoulders and arms as it fell dead, and Aron cried out from the ﬁery bursts of pain. Hot blood trickled onto his chilled skin as he made out Galvin still ahead of him, swinging his sword at three more attacking cats.
The nearest beast had its back to Aron. He ignored the throbbing ache in his wounded arms and leaped forward like Tek might have done in battle. Once more, he brought his short sword down in a jabbing swipe. The blade sank into the rock cat’s back between its shoulders, driving the animal against the rocky path. It rolled in its death throes, ripping the hilt of the sword from Aron’s grasp.
“Cayn’s teeth!” He lunged for the sword, but one of the cats swiped his ankle with knifelike claws.
Fresh agony staggered Aron. He couldn’t get a grip on the sword hilt and swung wildly at the cat with his dagger. The beast howled as the small blade sliced across its nose, but it gave no ground.
Aron’s blood thundered in his ears as the rock cat’s muscles bunched to attack. He fumbled to free his sword from the dead cat, failed, then readied himself to throw his dagger. He swore again, knowing the last thing he would see would be his blade missing its target.
Galvin lopped off the cat’s head before it could spring. More blood ﬁlled Aron’s vision, spattering on his tunic and face like dozens of hot, sobering slaps. He managed to rip his blade free and raise it. No target. The rock cats were all dead. But the manes—
All the blood was drawing them like a coppery beacon. Their unearthly moans grew so loud Aron couldn’t manage a complete thought—and from above came a spine-slashing shriek Aron had never heard before.
Galvin’s expression, which had been a mixture of surprise and relief, shifted to horror and dread. He jerked his gaze skyward and froze with both ﬁsts still on his blood-coated long sword.
“Great Roc,” he said, still looking up. “It’s hunting. It’s hunting us.”
Aron felt nothing but burning in his arms and ankles, and an equal burning that seemed to come from the center of his mind. Great Roc. One of the giant white predator birds from the Barrens. How could he and Galvin defend themselves against a bird double the size of a bull talon, and the onrushing manes, and whatever else might be in the mists?
He didn’t know whether to keep his gaze on the fog and wait to ﬁght the blood-seeking manes, or watch the shrouded sky like Galvin, waiting for death to drop on them from above.
The whumping pump of huge wings sent the mists into a swirling frenzy. Pebbles rattled on the path and struck Aron in his shins and knees.
At the same moment, the mane of a robed man came staggering through the nearby curtain of fog.
Aron snarled at the thing, then glanced upward at the swirling clouds again.
Something huge and heavy was dropping toward them like a weight in a well. Aron could sense its enormous presence even though he couldn’t see it. Yet.
Then claws three times larger than a talon’s tore through the thin ceiling of mist.
Aron and Galvin dodged at the same moment, going in different directions.
Giant dagger-nails clicked shut on dirt and rocks, and the thwarted bird let out a will-stealing cry. The
sound reverberated through Aron’s bones. His skin and shoulders burned, and his blood froze even as it oozed from the cuts around his neck.
The mane moaned as it lurched forward, dragging one foot. Its eyes burned like black ﬁre. Already, it was reaching for Aron with one unnaturally pale hand, reaching for his warmth and life.
Aron shifted his attack stance to favor the silver dagger, doing what he could to ignore the throb of his wounds. He barely got his arms and weapons into defense position.
The mane never slowed its shambling approach.
Aron tried not to think at all as he rammed his silver blade deep, deep into the onrushing mane’s belly. He sealed his mind against the rush of wet, clinging cold that claimed his wrist, ﬁngers, and forearm. Like plunging his blade into a vat of chilled cooking oil.
The creature’s features contorted as it shrieked.
Aron jerked his blade back, but the mane’s essence fell away to nothing. Its freed soul burst outward, then upward, taking the shape of a tall, winged man as it ﬂed this world for the next.
Aron shook his blade arm, as if to clear the greasy sensation.
More manes stumbled, lumbered, and dragged themselves into the space now free of mist. Aron counted two, then four, then ﬁve and too many to keep counting.
Galvin shouted again and again, bashing the Roc’s legs each time the bird attempted to pluck him from the path.
Aron’s panic burst through him like the mane’s spirit leaving its long-dead body. He saw the area free of fog too sharply, his awareness wrapping around each movement and detail. His arm moved as if it didn’t belong to him, plunging his dagger into mane after mane. He turned in circles, cutting ﬁrst one, then the next, and from somewhere in the still-shrouded regions of the path, more rock cats gave wailing, starved cries. Feral, unfamiliar howls joined the lethal chorus, coating Aron’s thoughts and nerves in yet more ice. The pain tearing at his shoulders grew distant, as did the mind-hammering sounds of the attack.
He had time to think that Stormbreaker might approve of Galvin and Aron dying together in such a battle. Then the Roc’s snatching claws caught him on the side of his head, knocking his senses loose like so many broken teeth.
Aron pitched forward at the feet of a dozen or more manes, both blades sailing out of his hands and clattering against the rocky path. Dirt ﬁlled his mouth and nose and eyes, and he saw only rocks and mist and a pair of shining black leather boots striding through the manes as if the dead spirits didn’t even exist.
“A complex and original fantasy…” –Kirkus Reviews
“Excellent piece of high fantasy… None of the characters are cardboard cutouts of fantasy archetypes; they are richly drawn, compelling, and unique…” ―VOYA
“This novel is best suited to voracious fantasy readers eager to devour another story of an unlikely hero caught up in an epic adventure.” –School Library Journal