Chapter 1:

Forest of Grass

Fryn cocked her hat back on her bun, as she flitted eagerly past President Hans for the edge of the clearing. The King still raged in his throne, alternately bemoaning his loss of the Harvest Crown, and then fuming incoherently at the outrage, the ignominy of it. It took a bit more than his usual self-control to refrain from laughing at his outbursts, but Leif was also distracted by the excitement of the chase, as he followed Fryn's sleek shadow over the heads of the open-mouthed, appalled guests. Even as they darted into the forest of grass, he admired the gold sheen and the brown maple leaves that glinted on her woven-dyed hat, wondering if she even knew what trail she was following.

"Fryn... Where are we going?" He asked, tightening his sword belt, and shifting his tan scarf to cover his mouth against the wind.

She didn't turn around, but her wings twitched and pulsed with a purplish spark of irritation. "What, can't you feel it?"

"No, I can't," he replied, brushing a low blade of grass out of the way.

"Our thief left a bit of a trail in the air, it must bear her element, because I can still sense the lingering traces of her enhanced flight," Fryn explained, ducking under a bent seed stalk, and then sweeping around a particularly thick bunch.

Leif missed the sharp turn, and hit the wall of grass face-first, and rebounded back, spitting and cursing, and rubbing his nose, until he caught his flight and hovered in the air as Fryn flew further and further ahead. He felt he was being laughed at, and immediately he flushed, and darted forward following Fryn's lingering scent, from the perfume she'd worn for the Harvest Festival; something like a blend of rose and pine, that couldn't be mistaken in the Forest of Grass.

Fryn had apparently, flown quickly out of sight, because as he rounded the bends and turns, weaving through the bunches of grass that grew in thickness and height the further he flew, he felt she only grew further away. Chasing her scent, and a small tickle at the nape of his neck, his instinct, he smiled as his suspicions were confirmed; he was getting closer. Sure enough, he darted into a clearing, and ran straight into her from behind, and they both rolled and tumbled to the ground, landing in a tangled heap of legs, and wings, and arms.

She groaned and stretched her neck as she pushed off of his chest and sat on the dirt beside him. The clearing stood before a cliff edge that towered over them, as if there wasn't enough sunlight to encourage even the clover or weeds to grow; but it still didn't look constructed. If anything, it looked more like the resting place of a hare, or large animal, with the way the sides of the grasses were bent or chafed, worn by the passage of something or someone, with some frequency. Leif sat up and scratched his head, shaking his wings of the dust that covered them. Fryn had been fortunate enough to land on top of him before, so she was relatively unsoiled, which was a pleasure she didn't seem to recognize at that moment.

"Are you that unbalanced that you had to fly right into me?" She demanded, rising to her feet, and patting off the dust that clung to her blazer and trousers, particularly her knees.

"Well, you're the one just sitting there, hovering for no reason," he protested, glancing down at the black sword that'd slid partially out of its silver scabbard by his leg. He slammed it home, and stood beside her, "What were you doing there anyway?"

She turned away as a hint of red flashed out to her wingtips and ears. "I... Lost the trail."

Leif crossed his arms with a triumphant 'hmph' and pointed up gloatingly. "If you lose a scent, then either they are hiding here, or above, or below; elementary tracking really."

She turned her head slowly, with a smile painted on her face; but her characteristic dimples did not show themselves, as she said, "fascinating, really, how good of a hunter you are."

He swallowed, and allowed gracefully, "Well, I am sorry about earlier..."

She waited for him to uncross his arms before shaking her head, dimples showing honestly on her cheeks. "You're not wrong about which way to go, I just lost my head for a moment. I highly doubt they'd be beneath us, so let's see what's above the canopy."

Putting aside the matter of the so-called "canopy," Leif followed as she swept up into the air with an ice-chilled wingburst and rose to the level of the clifftop. There wasn't a whole lot to see, just the endless swaying tops of the grass as the sun began to set, turning the entire Forest of Grass golden under its orange gaze. They shifted and rolled like a burnt orange sea, and Leif threw out his arms to the side, yelling indistinctly to the east.

"Ah, that feels good," he said, lowering them again as he landed on the moss-covered stone on the clifftop. "You know, this is hardly a cliff," he said, looking around, "more of a giant boulder really."

Fryn frowned as she settled a few paces ahead of him, glancing back with a sigh, "It doesn't really matter that much to me what it is, so long as we catch that crown first."

He nodded pleasantly, "Certainly, the thought of President Hans lording it over us with the crown on his head wouldn't paint a pretty picture."

She tilted her head back and smelled the air, which made him chuckle, as if she took the bit about 'losing a scent' literally. She scuffed her boots on the moss in frustration. "The only thing I can smell here is just more grass." Her wings flicked back and forth, twitching in her mixture of absorption and distraction.

He laughed, and followed up behind her, stopping beside her shoulder so her wings would accidentally brush against his if she continued their movements, and tilted his head back to smell the air. The winds shifted just a bit, and he caught something else, just a hint, from straight ahead; a mixture of wheat, and dry fur. He flicked his wings against hers, causing her to start, with a flash of red that was immediately, and consciously, drained from her face. "I think I found something," he declared, pointing at just a slight angle from the north.

Her lips quirked as she put on a smile, "very good Leif," she allowed, and dove into the air, flying low over the ripened bunches of seeds, barley, and wheat, and various kinds of grass.

He followed as best he could, what with the unbalanced weight at his side, wondering how Fryn was able to fly so easily with a knife on one side, and nothing on the other. Still, one way or another, she managed just fine; he would just have to get used to that sword.

"Why do you think he gave it to me?" He asked her, getting a look and a raised eyebrow in return. "The sword, I mean, I fight with my fists, why did the Prince give me the sword?"

She shook her head, and focused on following the faint magical scent on the wind. "You give that fae too much credit, do you think he really knew that you fought with your fists? Maybe he thought it was because you didn't have a decent blade. You are the one who defeated Havrshyk, so it stands to reason that you'd be the one to claim his weapon." She pointed down toward a slight clearing in the grass, bounded by impossibly positioned stones matching the one they'd stood on earlier, which shrouded the glade in an impenetrable shadow as the sun sank beneath the level of the grass, and the stars peeked out overhead.

The Lancer and the Serpent fought almost directly above them, one bright star marking the eye of the serpent, as the dim ones trailed out its body, and the dull figure of the Lancer thrust a rod of stars into its belly, with several bright points hinting at his wings flung out behind. Leif shivered. This time last year he'd faced his own, the same omen overhead. He had only barely been allowed to leave for Frorin, with the length of time it had taken to recover the strength in his arms from the muscle-shearing injuries.

In the last light of the sun, he pulled out his map from the pocket of his jacket, and scanned the general area. The Harvest Festival had been on the outskirts of Gaersheim's northernmost city, the first city to experience the harvest, as it moved down to the rainforests on the coast. He squinted in the dim light, reading the letters, Fassen was marked in bold, with roads leading west toward Eirenau and the river, branching off to Gaerlin, Sendra, and Artell, before finally reaching off in the direction of Frorin.

"There's no small towns around Fassen," he announced, reaching out to stop her before she could descend. But she'd already sped off toward the dark mass below. He sighed, and folded the map carefully, shoving it into his pocket, as he glided down on the descending air currents, rather than on his own power.

She hit the ground hard, almost invisible as his eyes adjusted to the dark, and rolled into the deeper shade of what looked like a pebble-stone house with a thatched roof. He settled on the mossy floor of the clearing and walked over to the wall where she hid, and crouched in front of her.

"Well, what have we found?" He asked, leaning uncomfortably close, almost to the point of tipping over.

She pushed him back with one hand and held a finger over her mouth with the other. "Shush! They are nearby."

"I figured that out myself," he stretched and looked around, there were three more buildings in his line of sight. Two looked like houses, with meticulously spaced windows and decorative eaves, and one stretched wide across fifty percent more space, with its double sliding doors, was obviously a barn. "My point is, why is there a farming town that's not on the map?"

Fryn pursed her lips and rose onto her toes to peer through the woven-grass shutters of the window beside her and didn't reply. "Just a little more and I could see inside..." She complained. She stood back and placed her hands on her hips. "There's nothing for it, no lights inside, let's check the others," she added in a whisper.

She led the way around the corner, and then darted across the distance to the next house; careful even of casting a shadow in the dark. As Fryn edged along the wall, sneaking looks through the cracks in the shutters, Leif followed nonchalantly, walking behind her, watching as her wings ticked out the rhythm of some northern tune.

"This is hardly an urgent mark," he said, "at least, compared to what we just went through; why don't we just go back to the inn, and open the first bottle of wine that you ordered?"

"I thought you were the one all excited about this, you said 'it's a race' I remember," she replied, crossing her arms. "What changed your mind?"

He yawned.

"You seemed fine with the long hours when we were chasing Mythrim," she said, smirking at him.

Leif nodded. "I was, because our lives depended on it, but it's getting late, and I think it'd be best to plan ahead, and scout more before we go diving in. I don't think any of the other hunters made it this far, they must have turned back."

She frowned, and sat down in a crouch. "I don't see why veteran Hunters would stop their search just because the sun set; as far as I know they don't have owls here."

He swallowed, and glanced around. "I've heard they tend to bite you in two, or sometimes just swallow you whole."

"Yes... That's been known to happen." She stood and moved over to the next house, and sighed when she saw no sign of light, and not even a glimmer from the dark shapes farther in the clearing. "We have no way of knowing where they'd be hiding."

The only other building nearby was the barn, storage shed, or whatever it was called. It had no windows, so they had to squeeze through a slim opening between the two doors, which would only open "so far" because there was some kind of lock or bar in place. Fryn went in first, and he followed after, only able to get in because she pulled him through by the collar.

"Why would it be locked from the inside?" He asked.

Fryn tripped over something on the ground, and froze, as a stray bit of starlight glinted off the dipped-gold weave of the harvest crown. She covered her mouth and then looked up, pointing to a shadow on the bundled grass rafters overhead.

Leif covered his mouth, pointing as well, nodding with a question sealed behind his hand.

She shrugged, and he nodded, so she waved between them with her hand. He raised his free hand, holding up one finger, pointing at himself with his wings twitching in the universal question, and so she flicked hers back and held them back in universal negative. She wanted to do it.

Leif picked up the crown, and Fryn drew her blade, and a tremor went through the ground. Halfway in the air, she quailed and sunk to the packed clay ground, crouching as she hugged her knees to her chest, wings drooping behind her back.

The ground shivered beneath their feet once more, followed by a softer creaking in the rafters. Leif and Fryn watched, startled as a third figure landed between them, her four wings swept back, one hand on the crown, ready to leap into the air, with the other signaling silence with a finger placed over her mouth.

Nothing moved, no one stirred, no one breathed. They waited, as soft thuds reverberated through the clay and a light sniffing sounded on the air. Minutes passed, minutes which aggravated, with every minute, the burning in his legs, as he too was readied to spring into the air. Finally, after a full thirty seconds of unadulterated silence, all three of them sprang into motion. The thief leapt up, kicking off the rafters, to make a dash for, or rather through, the door. Leif pounced into her path, with one hand still holding onto the crown, and Fryn threw her knife, locking the door bar to the wall of the storage shed.

The thief bounced off the door, unable to force her way through, and fell on top of Leif, who fumbled around the awkward weight of his sword to grab her hands, as she batted at him with her abnormally sharp wings.

The door shivered as a great body threw itself against its frame, loosing a cloud of dust from the ceiling, and sending everyone back onto the ground, motionless.

"I thought it was gone..." Leif whispered.

"Shh!" Retorted the thief on top of him.

Fryn didn't add her response in the usual verbal form, but she did seem annoyed, even without saying anything.

"What is it?" Leif asked in an even lower voice.

The thief groaned, and placed the crown on her barely visible head, and pushing herself off of him, leaned against the door, bracing it against a second attempt. "That is a weasel."

Fryn shivered, and took a step further from the door.

"Well, why don't we just kill it?" He asked.

"In the middle of the night?" The thief asked, in a rough, husky whisper, full of incredulity.

"I did defeat a sand viper," Leif preambled, "what's a weasel to that?"

"Worse," the thief said, shaking her head. "Much worse."

Another shudder ran through the door, parts of the Frorin pine boards cracking under the pressure.

"But together it won't be so bad, I'll hold its attention, you two back me up," he pressed, "I for one don't want to be stuck here all night. There's an entire crate of wine from the Harvest Festival waiting for me at my hotel."

Fryn groaned, rousing from her silence. "Only you could... We could just wait for it to leave."

The thief sighed, her features still invisible in the low light, though her determination still shone through clear. "On one condition."

"What's that?" Leif asked, raising one eyebrow, even if no one else could see it, hoping they could hear the irony in his voice.

Fryn and the thief shared a look, which neither of them could see, and the thief continued. "You don't turn me in for the crown." She took off the crown and spun it around on her hand.

"Tch," Leif clicked his tongue, "Fryn, what do you think?"

"We don't have much of a choice do we?"

"We could take it on ourselves." He shook his head.

The thief shook hers. "No you can't. Even for the best Hunters, defeating a weasel is out of the question... And if you try to hold me here, I will raise my voice, and watch it break in."

"Then we can always chase you once it leaves," Leif said.

Fryn's wings twitched, visible thanks only to the slight pulse of gray light that shot out to her wingtips. "We chased you too far into the night; we're not about to let you get away. Give us the crown and we'll agree to let you go."

The thief shook her head. "No, I can't."

"Just give it to us, and you can go," Leif pressed.

Fryn added, stepping closer to the thief, so that they blocked her path on either side, "there's no need to hold onto it."

"No!" The thief yelled, and then covered her mouth in horror, as the weasel outside crashed against the side of the barn, and a large crack formed in the center of the door-bar. Fryn's knife loosened its hold on the wall, and fell to the ground. In an instant, even before the hilt of her blade had touched the hard clay, a shadow formed in the space of the opening doors.

The shadow loomed, blocking out the slight amount of light cast by the stars, erasing the end of the Serpent, and the Lancer's iconic weapon. The stars were replaced by two red eyes that glowed dully in the narrow pointed face of the beast, as it stared into the warehouse, searching for them. Leif found, he'd been holding his breath, as he let it out slowly without a sound. His fingers itched, alive with the initial reaction, the first tingling of his Sparks, the few tiny hairs on the back of his hands standing up.

One hand drew up a crackling line, a tendril of light from the ground, as the other tightened its grip of the hilt of the black sword at his waist. His eyes never left those of the weasel that blocked his escape, who stared back, equally still and waiting.

The thief edged back, further into the warehouse, just a step, and dove to the side as the weasel's head snaked forward, jaws closing on air. Leif ducked under the attack, and slammed his charged fist under its chin with a powerful twist from his legs and hips, throwing its head back against the rafters as he drew the sword in a shadowy crimson arc across its chest, leaving a sizzling frozen gash from one side of brown coat, through the soft white fur on its chest, to the other shoulder.

It lurched back, tail swept to the side, as it retreated to the doorway once more. Fryn found her blade, and held position to the left of the door, still unnoticed by the beast—still trembling before it. The thief stood somewhere behind him, fully hidden in the dark, and Leif wondered for a moment if he'd managed to scare it off. He hadn't. It lowered its head, fur standing on end, black tip of its tail puffed out, as it emitted a long low growl.

Leif looked to Fryn, only with his eyes, as he felt something from his first taste of blood. It seemed almost as if he saw the outline of some far off coast from the barren sands of the sea, with storm clouds rising to the east. Fryn did not meet his gaze, she crouched, wavering between her urgent desire to attack, and what seemed an arguably appropriate degree of fear.

I suppose I am the only one with any experience against our more natural enemies... He mused, grinning back at the bared fangs of the weasel in the door.

The weasel lurched forward again, only this time, it drew its head back as Leif's fist and blade cut through empty air, and its six-clawed arm raked across his guard. The sword flew out of his grip, turning end over end, as Leif flew back spinning in the opposite direction, it sunk deep into the center beam of the warehouse, and Leif crashed wings-first into a neatly stacked array of barrels filled with grain. Leif's lower wings bent at an odd angle, and a long tear wound from from the tip of his upper right wing to the hardened joint at his shoulder, wheat berries spilled from the barrels he'd disturbed, and covered him to his chin.

As he tried to shake off the worst of his disorientation, and rise painfully from where he'd crashed, he heard the weasel thrashing around the door, cutting through sections of wall with its claws, with sharp gusts of wind that tossed loose debris around the barn. He heard Fryn's voice as she accentuated forceful strikes from her diaphragm, or grunt as she took another blow, sending scattering slivers of ice in every direction.

Climbing free of the wheat, he saw Fryn facing off against the beast, her skin pale and bloodless, frozen blue and hard; the weasel covered in a new array of ice encrusted cuts and slashes, shorter than the one across the chest, but more painful and inhibiting because of their strategic placement: below the eye, under its chin, its claws, its arms, and even the end of its tail.

Leif struggled to stand, and watched grimly as Fryn was thrown back against one of the supporting pillars, cracks forming on her face, and down her hands. It was impossible to tell just how damaged or broken she was, but he could see she was running out of time. As soon as she broke, she'd be defeated, just like he'd dealt with Havrshyk. He held his hands in tight fists by his sides, drawing from his own reserves, from the potential of the ground, and tried to reach toward the far off storms of the autumn sky, and then, as the hair stood tingling on his head, he drew the full charge into himself, and pointed its path toward the gash he'd cut on the weasel's chest.

The surge of sparks leapt from his finger tip, and arced in a blinding flash of purple electric fire, burning through the thin ice, the soft fur, and the bones in its chest, leaving a glowing orange hole and the acrid stench of burned flesh. Leif fell to his knees gasping, trying to guide what remained of his sparks to keep his heart beating, as the edges of his torn wing disintegrated, trailing away in a wisp of thin smoke.

As his peripheral vision went black, he saw Fryn's chin sag to her chest, and a flash of gold, as the thief they chased made a break for the open door; flying past the dazed weasel. Only, she didn't leave, she carried a black shape in her hand, and buried its tip in the throat of the beast. Leif's heart beat, as if pushing its contents up a several story pipe, straining as a surge of fresh blood washed the blackness from his eyes. His pupils widened, and he felt the pain fading from his limbs, bathed in the warmth of the weasel's heart; cuts closing, bruises fading, and the torn section of his wing fusing together. He saw once more, as if by some mirage, that far off shore overlaid on the image of the barn, and Fryn's weary face, and the thief who gingerly stepped around the fallen beast, and flew off into the night.

Whether because her injuries had been less severe, or she'd been more accustomed to healing herself with the blood, Fryn stood first, and leaned over him with a worried expression that he could only see because she bent over him, her face only an inch or so away. Her lips moved, but it didn't occur to him that she was speaking, until halfway through her sentence.

"...have to force it where you need it most..." She was saying.

He nodded and drew what he could from the weasel's veins through the link of his sword, fully saturated, unable to hold any more. It flowed where it willed, running through the myriad veins, as if eagerly exploring its new home, and only after a full cycle, was he able to grasp it, and guide it to the cracks in his shoulder blade and collar bone. The blood used to heal the wounds was consumed by the action, and he continued to 'drink' or drain the weasel until the sword was full.

Fryn took his hand and helped him to his feet, and glanced over at the sword that stuck out from the ice-encrusted jugular of the weasel's neck, and shook her head. "Well, at least she was kind enough to save our lives."

Leif smiled, though it was too dark for her to see, and walked stiffly to the sword. He leveraged out the sword with a quick tug and a boot braced against its jaw, and nearly fell over as the sword came free. It weighed darker and heavier in his hand, and in the late harvest humidity a light fog formed around its frozen blade. He slid it into his sheath and sighed. "We should probably bring something for a souvenir, or rather proof that we killed it."

Fryn crossed her arms and tapped her fingers in a syncopated rhythm on her elbow, frowning in the dim light of the Serpent, Lancer, and the Lich, now more clearly visible outside the ruined door and walls of the warehouse. "We didn't do it alone."

"Well she doesn't deserve any credit," Leif replied, glancing up at the large red star that formed the eye of the Lich's constellation.

"Why don't we take a fang or claw?" Fryn suggested, her translucent blue-lined wings fluttering for a second as she flit over to the body and examined one of the large brown paws.

"A claw for each of us then," Leif said, walking over since his wings were still slowly repairing, seeming to draw all of his sparks for the endeavor. Fryn set about the grisly business with her knife, and retrieved two ice-covered claws the length of her upper wings, and stuck one through her belt, passing the other to him. He couldn't help himself, he had to have a tooth, so he delayed Fryn a little longer than she'd have preferred as he messed about the weasel's mouth, and finally returned with one of its perfectly white, and insanely sharp canines. "You never know, maybe there's an open bounty on these things," he explained, and then tested the beat of his wings. Fryn hovered in the air, and he flew up, wavering and wobbling as his lower wings made up for the weakness and slightly misshapenness of his upper right wing. They flew off, Leif longing for the linen sheets and cottonwood down comforter at his room in the inn outside Fassen.