"Vexen. Looks like you get to test your new theory." Xaldin held up the assignment card between his fore- and middle-fingers, then flicked it toward Vexen. It wasn't coincidence that a draft blew it right to its target, in front of him on the table.
"Which theory would that be?" Vexen asked without looking up. Whatever it was he was doing oozed threads of black substance that slithered out of the crucible and wafted like smoke across the table.
"Take a look." Xaldin watched Vexen read the card. He'd read it already—cryptic as always, but then, he'd never liked too much direction. It was better to believe that Xemnas trusted his discretion. Land of Snow. Candidate for conversion of major power figure. Vexen can test his new theory.
A slow smile spread across Vexen's features. "Ah. Yes. That theory."
It was cold—oh, it was cold, and his affinity with the wind only gave him limited resistance to cold—but that was all right because the wind blew in glorious gusts over the snowfield. The air was always too still, in the castle, and even when he stood on the roof and summoned a storm it wasn't the quite same as a wild wind that came from a real weather system. It whistled in the empty places inside him and made his blood sing. He held very still, the cold notwithstanding.
Vexen looked equally pleased, in his own quiet way, and of course he was completely unaffected by the cold. His eyes had gone vague and glittering, like ice over dark water. He was the one to finally break the silence, raising his voice to be heard over the howl of the wind. "Have you noticed? We have been changed, although into what I cannot say."
"As long as I don't have a tail, I think I'll be fine."
Vexen gave his tight-lipped smile.
The first creatures they encountered were a pair of squirrels in their pale-grey winter coats; too large and shaped slightly wrong to be normal squirrels. Most tellingly, one hissed to the other, "Let's go! Now!" They tried to flee down their burrow, but an impatient flick of Vexen's hand sealed the entrance with ice, and Xaldin penned them in a cage of spears.
Vexen paced up to the close-placed circle of spears and bent his head to give the two squirrels a measuring look. Xaldin could see them quivering. Vexen said, "We do not have any particular desire to kill you."
Xaldin knew a cue when he heard one. "But we also wouldn't lose any sleep over it," he said, and smiled the slow crawling smile that went so far toward breaking resistance.
"So I will ask what we need to know, and you will answer as fully and truly as you can," Vexen said, "or you will die. Believe it."
They didn't kill the squirrels, but, later, they did kill the badger.
"I will tell you nothing," the badger snarled as ice crawled up over his paws, pinning him in place. "Kill me if it pleases you, but I will tell nothing to the witch's kin."
"Kin?" Vexen paused, and the ice stopped its gradual climb up the badger's limbs.
"You thought you could fool me? I am no giddy squirrel, I am of the brock. I can smell the magic on you, you lilim, you djinn's-brood. You both stink of it, and you—" his muzzle swung toward Vexen "—could be her brother, you are so alike. I would as soon hand the witch my heart as tell you anything."
"Then you will die," Xaldin said gravely. He could see the faint curl of a smile on Vexen's face.
"Then let me die." The badger's eyes were wild. "I always knew I would die by ice. For Narnia and—"
It was not the ice that finished him, but a spear, descending.
They made their way north, to where the forest gave way to broken meadows and then to snowy hills.
"It is quite the irony that he told us more by telling us he would tell us nothing than the squirrels told us when they bared the full extent of their knowledge," Vexen said. He shoved a long hank of hair back from his face.
"Little good it did him," Xaldin said. Even after so long, he still found himself reflexively checking to see if he felt anything, but . . . no. No pleasure, no regret, no horror, nothing. The badger was dead; the mission went on.
Vexen made a low, annoyed sound and dragged his hair out of his face a second time, hooking it behind his ears. It wouldn't stay; the wind was too strong.
"That's why I don't wear my hair loose," Xaldin said. "Gets everywhere in the wind."
"I suppose I should follow your example?" Vexen sounded amused.
Xaldin pictured that, and surprised himself with a bark of laughter. "I think that would be worth seeing."
Vexen snorted. "I doubt it. I think it requires a certain . . . something."
"Hah. My impeccable style?" And it was odd, to be speaking so easily with Vexen, with whom he had always been civil at best. But the increase in their numbers had created unexpected alliances. Perhaps Vexen was seeing that it would be unwise to hold himself too far aloof.
"I was thinking more along the lines of 'a certain lack of shame,' myself." Vexen's tone was dry, but amused. He had resigned himself to holding his hair back from his face with one hand. "You could still the wind, or at least lessen its intensity."
"I could. And you could melt a path for us to make the climb less difficult." He slanted a glance at Vexen.
"I take your point."
The wolf was brave, Xaldin would give him that.
"Speak your name now," he snarled, "or you will need to learn to speak through a torn-out throat."
"I don't appreciate threats." Xaldin kept his tone mild. Was it a bluffing creature, or would it simply—?
His respect for the wolf went up a notch when the creature launched itself at him without preamble or warning. He didn't care for idle threats or for bluffing. Of course, the most respectful response to a challenge like that was to meet it in kind. He couldn't repress a smile as he called up six whirling spears and a strong twist of wind.
The wolf had no chance. Trapped in the column of wind, blinded by flying snow, he could not even reach Xaldin. Xaldin gestured curtly, and one of the spear-hilts smacked the wolf on the side, hard enough to bruise and perhaps even to break a rib. The edge of another spear slashed down over its muzzle. It snarled in impotent rage and pain.
"Don't kill him," Vexen said suddenly. "I think he would be an appropriate test subject."
Xaldin nodded, and cracked the wolf on the side of the head with the butt of a spear. He let the windstorm die down. Vexen picked up the wolf with surprising lack of effort—well, he was capable of fighting, even if he did prefer research to exertion—and slung it over his shoulder.
Xaldin directed the wind at the great front door, allowing it to whistle into the cracks and blow it open.
The woman on the throne was very tall; she wore a crown of glittering ice, and her eyes were ice. "You," she said, and there was unspeakable venom in her tone. "You should have felt my wards on the borders of this land, cousin, and known I claimed it for myself."
"I entered this country by no ordinary means," Xaldin replied. "But I do not come to challenge you. I come with an offer." It always began with a lure, before the trap snapped shut. A bit of bait to hold the target still, and then the long slow needling of spears until they broke. He was confident in his methods. So was Xemnas. Which was why he was sent to tempt and shatter the strongest hearts.
"I have no need of your offers or your aid. I have what I want; this country is mine. Now go, and I will let you leave in peace." She brought her chin up sharply, her eyes cold, her mouth pursing. "If you doubt, know that I let the Lady of the Green Kirtle reign in the caves beneath the Northern Marches. She is queen there, as I am queen here. Go be lords of your own land, and leave me mine, or there will be blood spilt between us."
There will be blood spilt in good time, but not mine. He made his voice fluid and silky, a whispering breeze. "Are you so secure in your throne, lady, that you could use neither assistance nor advice? If the wolf at the door was any example, I do not think much of the aid you have now." That was unfair to the wolf; had Xaldin been anything but what he was, he would now be in some cell, if in fact his throat was intact. But it would be a sore point for the witch-queen at this particular moment, with an uninvited guest before her throne.
Sure enough, she bared her teeth at that. "How did you pass Maugrim?" she demanded. "He has not been bested yet, not even by the Green Lady, and she was one of us also."
Xaldin summoned the spears without a motion or even the flick of an eyelash. The six fanned out—backed by a sudden icy gust of wind—three to either side of him, at shoulder-height with their sharpened heads pointing downward; not a direct threat or challenge, but a veiled warning. The witch-queen drew her head back slowly on her neck, like a serpent about to strike. Her wand was in her hand.
Xaldin thought about all the statues in the courtyard, but he was very nearly certain she was bluffing. She was frightened, not by him so much as by something he had reminded her of, and he'd whistle through that crack and blow open the door.
Finally, she lowered her wand. "Then let us discuss what you have to offer," she said, and he didn't smile, but it was a close thing.
She did not want to let him go, but the silent promise of the spears quivered in the wind that should not have blown within the castle and yet did anyway; and besides, she wanted his help. Prophecies and curses were often very useful to Organization XIII.
Vexen was starkly outlined against one of the white hills, or at least his cloak was. He was looking thoughtfully off into the distance, even as Xaldin approached, and took his time bringing his gaze around. "Well?" he asked.
"We'll have her." Xaldin said. "It will take a few more visits, but we will have her."
"Good," Vexen said. "As I suspected, there are ties—subtle, but strong—that bind her heart to the heart of Maugrim. If—when—her heart falls, it will drag Maugrim with it, and the wolves in his command with him. A few such chain reactions, and this castle will become the locus of a dark collapse, much like a black hole. The castle is fascinating," he added with a little sigh. "I would like more time to study what she has done with the ice. Her power runs along different lines than mine, but I think, with some study, I may be able to incorporate some of her techniques."
Xaldin grunted, distracted by movement perhaps a hundred yards away. Some shape . . . a person; no, two people . . . skirted one of the hills in the distance. A man with goat legs, like some of the Olympians. And a woman. A child. A girl.
Perhaps the witch-queen's fears were not so unjustified after all. Good fortune indeed; this would serve to frighten her straight into his trap.
He could see the girls' wind-burned face, her dark curls, the way she skidded on the slick snow, laughing. She was about the age Even's daughter had been, before . . . before.
He glanced at Vexen; not foolish enough to say anything, because talk of his Other's family unsettled him. He was rarely roused to wrath, especially by the other five, but some subjects lurked like a hidden crevasse in a glacier, and you could drop straight down it into frozen darkness if you weren't careful.
Vexen was watching the girl now, too, his expression flat.
If Fean were alive now, she'd be fourteen or fifteen, probably. She almost certainly wasn't alive; she'd been too close to the center of the collapse when Hollow Bastion had fallen.
Vexen's eyes were blank and opaque as glacier ice when he turned back to Xaldin. "Let's go."