Book 2 Chapter 1

“I sure hope he knows where he’s going,” SoYa muttered, half to himself, half to the plume of white that tracked his breath in the cold air.

It felt like the temperature had plummeted at least ten degrees with the last five steps the Apprentice took. Tall stone loomed far above his head, walls slick with the illusion of perpetual melting. It looked like someone took a white-hot sword, gutted the belly of the mountainside from end to end, and now they were walking through the middle of this slice.

Footing was slick. It was all he and Father could do to ease Thorne down the slipping incline. The rhawn’s hooves clattered as they toiled, the sound amplified as it resounded back from the walls. The further down they went, the more the ground seemed to tilt, as if in attempt to funnel their party into the gaping maw of the Cleft below.

“Relax.” Father assured him. His own breath seemed to be more artistic somehow, fancy loops of white emerging from the hollow of the elder man’s collar. “There’s not many people who can tread this Passage, but Kudako’s one of them.”

The sky had forgotten its color. The deep blues of the mild summer midday grew pale to the point of being clear. The plant life had long forsaken this area of stone, leaving the crown of the ravine unadorned. SoYa’s mind could feel the pressure closing in, like he was sinking underwater without breath.

They were walking directly into the heart of it.

AsaHi gave a quiet yelp as she lost her footing, sliding down the incline past the struggling rhawn. SoYa’s first instinct was to release the reins and reach for her. But Kudako was there faster than the Apprentice’s eyes could follow, his big hand catching the back of her cloak, and holding her fast. The girl stared back over her shoulder, breath coming in panicked whirls. Her scared green eyes reflected strangely under the colorless sky.

“Careful,” was all the Dragon told her.

Kudako seemed unaffected by the changes of the landscape, his feet picking the path down the incline as if he had been there many times before. His ears stood perked, whole body a fluid stream of motion. His breath did not make patterns in the cold air.

Previously, the Dragon had dutifully led them along the lip of the Cleft for a number of days before finally announcing they were nearing the Passage. Earlier that morning, they began securing all of their belongings under his supervision, Father stressing over and over the need to follow Kudako’s instructions to perfection.

SoYa thought it was against all common sense to put layers of heavy clothes on in the middle of warm weather. It was the nicest, clearest day they’d seen so far that summer. Still, the others followed the Dragon’s instructions, even AsaHi, who shot Kudako’s back with a volley of skeptical looks as she wrapped a large red cloak over the top of her thick over-tunic.

It hadn’t taken the group long to realize the wisdom of the Dragon’s commands. They all felt the unnatural chill seeping into their skin as Kudako led them to the Passage. The Breath of the Dead, Father called it.

The bottom of the incline was merciful. Rather than dumping them headlong, it flattened out into a small shelf of stone. Like the sky, the stone here lost its color, becoming a nauseous transparent hue. SoYa could feel his stomach clenching as his frozen fingers clutched the reins of the rhawn’s halter.

“Easy, Thorne. Easy there, we’ll have you on the other side before you know it.” Father was already fitting blinders over the creature’s slender head. His voice was coaxing, even to SoYa’s ears.

AsaHi crouched alarmingly close to the edge of the shelf, peering down into the mouth of the chasm below. She was a tiny speck of white and red against the vast backdrop of churning fog that rose from the Cleft and obscured the view of the other side.

If there is another side.

SoYa swallowed.

“This is the Passage?” The girl glanced boldly down into the nothingness below. Her tone was level as she stated the obvious kink in the logic. “There’s no bridge. How are we going to get across?”

“I will make the way,” Kudako informed her.

“Where do all the clouds come from?” AsaHi looked back at the three men, her slender hand detailing the wall of sickly fog that stood between them and their destination.

Clouds? Only AsaHi could give them such a harmless name.

“The Breath,” Father said for the second time. Thankfully, this time, he left off the “dead” part.

“What is it?” the girl inquired, scooting back from the edge with a wary stare.

“It keeps things out of here. So nothing wanders across,” Kudako said simply, adjusting the strap of his pack without looking at her.

“Oh…” AsaHi didn’t look content with the insufficient answer.

“Truth is, we don’t really know what it is.” Father stepped in to cover for the Dragon’s lack of conversation. “This is the only point that the Breath occurs in the Cleft. It’s also the only point where we can cross to the other side. So I doubt that it’s a coincidence.”

Is anything coincidence when you’re dealing with the force of Lord Zemi?

SoYa had other questions on his mind. “So what does it do to ‘keep things out of here’?”

He almost imitated Kudako’s gruff demeanor with the repetition of the phrase. But he thought better of it and let the question lie in his own clear tone.

“Very cold. Can be toxic. Induces mind illusions.” The Dragon’s gold eyes fell heavily upon the Apprentice. His voice bit off each word with distaste.

For the first time, SoYa sensed that Kudako was the least enthusiastic of their group about making the cross into the Outterlands. He couldn’t help but wonder why.

“Toxic? Illusions?” AsaHi’s voice sounded worried.

“Only if you breathe it too long.” Father reassured her. “And we don’t plan on hanging around out here any longer than we have to.”

“Illusions come no matter what.” Kudako interrupted the gentle flow of the winged man’s words. His hand flicked out, dropping a strip of cloth at SoYa’s feet. Then one to AsaHi. “They come to anything that isn’t one of Lord Zemi’s kind. They are meant to induce fear and to cause the intruder to turn back.”

SoYa reached down and saw that the cloth was a blindfold. Something inside him welled, a feeling of insult.

Mind illusions? I should be able to fight those off, right?

“Blindfold?” AsaHi echoed his surprise.

Wouldn’t that prove to Father that I’m not weak? That I’m just as strong as TsuYa?

His thoughts made him bold enough to blurt, “I can handle this.”

“SoYa.” Father’s tone was stern. It plainly stated all in one word that the Apprentice could not handle it, and that he would put the blindfold on, as instructed.

“Father, I can!” SoYa protested, trying to bend the steel of his father with watery words. “What’s the point in all the training you’ve put me through, otherwise?”

“SoYa,” Father said again. This time he followed it up. “There’ll be plenty of time to test your strength in the future. Now is not one of them.”

He’s still treating me like a child!

Kudako peered between father and son, a statue of silence.

Even after I’ve worked so hard in training. He won’t even acknowledge that I can hold my own yet!

SoYa could feel the heat of his flushed cheeks and the desire to push the argument further. But the soft weight of AsaHi’s gaze on him brought the Apprentice back to his senses. He watched as the girl silently unfolded her own cloth and strung it across her eyes, as an example to him. Even in obedience, the strength of her will didn’t seem to diminish.

The Apprentice’s shoulders drooped. “Yes, sir.”

Father’s expression was concerned despite the grudging obedience in the words. It looked as if he wanted to say something, but no words reached between them.

SoYa grit his teeth, turning his attention back to his rhawn.

“I’ll take care of Thorne’s crossing,” Father stated, with that uncanny way he had in sensing the unspoken. “You just hold on to the strap and don’t let go.”

Kudako knotted a slender bend of rope through the loop at his belt, wrapping the other end gently around one of AsaHi’s wrists. His voice was low as he knelt in front of her, checking to see if the girl’s blindfold was on properly. “Stay near me. I will lead you through.”

AsaHi dipped her head towards his voice, in the way that a blinded person nods.

No more words to waste. No more actions spared. Kudako turned and led the way towards the shelf’s edge. A hazy reflection of blue and gold walked under his feet, the red of AsaHi’s cloak trailing behind.

“Father… what is he do–” SoYa protested, feeling a sudden uneasy jolt in the pit of his stomach.

“SoYa, put your blindfold on.”

The Apprentice didn’t. His green eyes were fixed on the shapes making their way towards the looming maw of the Cleft. He felt his mouth parched dry with fear. Every inch of his being wanted to race forward and pull AsaHi away from the drop. Only faith in his Father’s trust held him where he stood.

Kudako’s stride met the brink. The next one took him beyond where vaporous air churned. Nothingness.

And the nothingness ceased to be.

Utter shock swept through his body at the spectacle that painted out before them. Where there had only been air, Kudako’s boot made a print upon something solid. A soft, golden light seemed to spread from his form. It washed down around him, and around AsaHi, illuminating a trail that was not visible before.

SoYa couldn’t tell if it was a Passage created by magical means, rising to the whims of the Dragon Servant. Or if it was simply part of the stone, a transparent bridge across the void, not perceptible until in the right light. The Apprentice watched, still choked with the lingering after-effects of fear, listening to the soft patters of AsaHi’s footsteps growing more distant.

“Put your blindfold on,” Father repeated, urging Thorne forward. “We’ve got to cross now. Have to stay close to Kudako.”

Too stunned to argue, SoYa pulled the cloth over his face, obscuring his vision. The world became all sound and touch. He felt the heated bulk of the rhawn jolt forward, led carefully by the determination of Father’s hand.


At first, the Apprentice’s feet moved gingerly forward. The thought of being led across the yawning divide left his imagination running in frightened circles. Trusting his father as he did, his heart still beat in rapid patterns against his chest, reminding him constantly of the fate that lay far below.

“Relax, now.” His father’s voice was calm. SoYa couldn’t tell who the winged man was addressing. “Just a short walk and it’ll be behind us.”

Through the crack between his cheek and the blindfold, he could see a slit of golden light. His step faltered, knowing he was now on the impossible bridge. He was led forward, grasping for the solid safety of Thorne’s side.


The Apprentice held on to his father’s words, gathering his courage.

One foot. Next foot.

Step by step. The bridge was holding steady. They were moving forward. So far, they were safe.

“We’re nearing the Breath.” Kudako’s voice came from the other side of the darkness. A potent warning. “Stay together, we need to get through this as quickly as we can.”

“SoYa?” AsaHi’s voice sounded concerned, as if she needed to know that he was still out there.

“I’m okay,” he told her.

“Keep walking,” was Kudako’s reply.

Thorne clomped forward, the motion strangely heavy. The air grew suddenly bitter, even colder than it was on the incline. The strip of light under the hem of SoYa’s blindfold dimmed, and then faded completely. Instantly he missed it, not recognizing what little comfort it brought until it was gone.


Mindspeak. It came sudden, almost naturally. He didn’t want to alarm AsaHi with the fear that would squelch from his spoken words.

-Keep moving, SoYa…-

The answer was distant. Distorted.

Now there was only darkness seeping up from beneath the blindfold. SoYa could feel the motion of things drifting, brushing up against his arms and his legs. In his mind, he could sense it, the shadows of things walking next to him. His fingers were growing numb in the freeze. His mind began to blur, the pressure of dead air ripping at his lungs. He became unable to tell the lurch of Thorne from the passage of the shades.

A sudden snapping sound. The halter strap, having grown brittle in the cold, broke under the pressure of his hand. SoYa found himself set free to drift in the specter’s sea.

~Father!~ his mind shrieked as he stumbled forward blindly, reaching with both hands. Nothing but frozen air. ~Father, wait! I can’t find you!~

A distant moaning rushed into his ears. It sounded diluted, full of sorrow, twisting around him in the cold, stagnant air.

“AsaHi?” SoYa’s voice was hoarse. His feet shuffled in the direction of the sound before pulling to a stop.

I can’t see a thing! I could go right over the edge and not even know it!


His breath ripped from his lungs. The Apprentice remembered what Kudako said about the fog being toxic.

I can’t stay here!

He shuffled forward a few more steps, lost to the darkness of the blindfold.

I can’t make it across if I can’t see!

“Father!” he shouted again, a frantic cry. The feeling of displaced motion swirled around him, as if the dead things were laughing at the futility of it all.

Hissing into the palms of his frozen hands to warm them, his fingers began to fumble. It was hard to separate the broken strap still twined around his hand from the cloth of the blindfold. Eventually, the Apprentice managed to wrench a finger under the flap and pull.

Vision unfolded around him as the cloth fell away. A churning mass of black cloud rose in vast pillars, blocking the view in every direction. He could see the bridge at his feet, still glowing very faintly from the passage of the others.


He saw no sign of the things that his mind sensed, as if peeling back the blindfold had vanquished the shapes. A thrill of victory rushed through him as he made his way forward on his own, blindfold dangling in one frozen hand.

I can do this!

The darkness began to part, slipping away as SoYa advanced, just as normal fog would. Determination rose within his chest, his footfalls becoming more certain on the translucent bridge. He’d find the rest of the party by his own means.

I told him I could handle it…


A shape began to take form in the shifting fog ahead of him. He heard the call of his name and saw the outline of wings. Instantly SoYa strode forward, knowing that he was missed and that Father had turned back to look for him.

“I’m here! I’m okay!” the Apprentice shouted in return, a wave of relief rushing over him despite the triumph of his independence.

“I told you I didn’t need to use the blindfo–”

The wings were the first thing SoYa saw, unfolding like a living extension of the dark fog. These were not the gentle white of his father’s wings, they were blacker than the Breath that now reared up, billowing and crashing over the bridge in midnight waves.

SoYa choked, eyes widening as he fought to gain his composure. His vision blurred, the shadows shifting as the Apprentice’s mind scrabbled to focus. The rest of his body grew numb while the cold began to build around him.


The face. Pale grey with a sickly, unliving hue. Slitted eyes glittered, the only light a reflection upon the dark green orbs. A clawed-shaped mark was scrawled upon the side of its face. The hair was matted and black, like the wings–

Marked don’t have wings!

– the darkness broken by a thin shock of white hair, a bunched lock that hung down over one eye.

“SooooYaaa…” The voice, all too familiar. The grey face twisted into a dead grin with a manner of awareness that the other Marked did not possess.

It didn’t advance any further. It didn’t need to. Mesmerized, image fit upon image, overlapping in SoYa’s mind.

“No,” a hoarse whisper came from between frozen lips. As he suddenly recognized the face, sickness welled up within the Apprentice’s stomach. He fought the revulsion that threatened to wrench him to his knees.

It’s not true!

The manner. The smirk. The voice, even distorted as it was.

This is just an illusion!

Blue robes. DuLlafn posed arrogantlyin one hand.

This is just an illusion!

His brother. Taken… altered… one of the Marked!

Or… is it?

Within the moment of doubt, something within his mind gave. The vision grew, became overpowering. The Apprentice reeled, losing himself.

“TSUYA!!!!” a cry of horror ripped from SoYa’s throat.

Blindfold fluttering useless in one hand, he dropped to his knees and collapsed. The darkness rushed over him in a putrid swell from below.