"Jacques. Jacques, wake up."
A voice. Irritatingly familiar. Piercing his sleep. Made him want to open his eyes. But he knew that then he would see light, and he didn't like the light as much as the dark.
"Jacques, wake up! The sunrise looks amazing from up here!"
"Tragopan, leave him alone. He's an Undead – he's supposed to sleep during the day."
A different voice. He still knew it well, but he was thankful that it had told off the other one. Sleep was good for his often-tired muscles. Not that he really had any muscles – to tell the truth his body was really composed of nothing but bones, teeth and a pair of sunken lights that might be called eyes.
"It still looks cool," the first voice muttered.
He could hear the gentle swish of wings through crisp mountain air as Tragopan lifted himself into the air, probably to get a better look at the sunrise. That was the way with non-Undeads; they all loved watching the sun as it gently tapped the horizon and bled its colors onto the sky.
But not him. He was an Undead. He preferred to watch the moonrise.
Even so, being in a team full of birds wouldn't give him much freedom to do that. Birds always woke early and slept early. It disrupted his sleeping patterns.
The second voice cut into his thoughts again.
"Although, Pan will doubtlessly want to train more when he gets back. You should try getting up now so you don't get lightheaded once his feet touch the ground again."
That was a good suggestion. And he didn't like good suggestions. They made him feel stupid, even though he knew that he couldn't have as much of a brain as just a tangle of nerves. Maybe. He had never had anyone look inside him before. Perhaps that was a good thing. The inside of an Undead was probably more disturbing than that of a non-Undead.
"Jacques… can you hear me?"
Oh. He had gotten too lost in his thoughts to remember that it would be better for him to shake the sleep off of his brain right now. All right then.
He let his eyes flutter open. The two crimson orbs glowed bright inside his warped skull of a head, and his vision brought to him the familiar landscape of the icy mountain on which he had fallen asleep. A bit off to his right stood a tall, fight-seasoned chicken with a dangerous-looking sword grasped in his scaly arms. The source of the second voice was this chicken, and he went by the name of Malgris. Jacques didn't know how he had gotten the name, but it fit his bloodthirsty attitude which arose the second his weapon hacked into the toughened body of a magmalice.
"I can hear you," Jacques mumbled, his jaw still stiff from slumber. He didn't really want to talk right now – not when he was still drowsy and his oversized saber-fangs got in the way of his mandible.
Jacques started to rise to his legs – all eight of them. It was definitely more difficult than standing on two legs, although it gave him a speed advantage in a fight. The pair in the back always came first, as it gave him something on which to put his weight if he slipped. Digging his claws into the fresh snow, he placed his other six feet firmly onto the ground, the bones making up his legs bonking against each other as he did so. It wasn't necessary for him, but he shook himself off anyway; doubtless a bit of snow had gotten on him overnight. He couldn't feel it that well, but he didn't want to look silly to his teammates.
Malgris blinked, plunging the tip of his sword into the ice. He didn't want to hold it, although doing so wouldn't be much of a problem if he had two. He could keep it in his hands for days on end if his life depended on it.
"I'm up now," Jacques declared, slightly louder than his last statement had been. The light shined in his eyes, and it made him want to sleep again, but if he was going to stay with these three he would have to get used to it. It was only his second morning on the job.
"Pan should be coming back soon enough," Malgris guessed, turning his head towards the sharp drop-off a few meters away. For Jacques, these few meters were only a small number of steps; he would have to be careful to avoid plunging over the edge and breaking every bone in his body. The sheer cliff fell down to a thick layer of morning clouds, with a small number from overnight still hovering above Jacques's head. Mountains were interesting that way.
"Where's Mabashi?" Jacques inquired, turning his eyes back to Malgris.
"Out flying again," the cockateer replied, almost absently. "He likes to have time to himself to think. He's just that way."
Jacques nodded, shaking off his legs a little. He could see the silhouette of Tragopan against the pinkish sky, and it was getting bigger. Apparently he had gotten enough burning his eyes in the fresh sun. As long as he wasn't flying directly at it, he should have been all right.
In around a minute Tragopan touched back down on the icy surface, using his own obsidian sword for balance. He wasn't as tall as Malgris, but he was still an imposing presence. He had a relatively human shape, but his head was like that of an eagle's, with a pair of slender, curving horns protruding from above his large eyes. His arms were long and thin, but still plenty capable. Like Malgris, he was reminiscent of a bird, but instead of feathers he had rough blue skin, and a pair of powerful bat's wings grew from his back. He always liked to go about wearing a purplish tunic, and briefly Jacques wondered if it was part of his skin as well.
"I suppose you want another morning fight," Malgris guessed, already picking up his weapon.
"Perhaps," Tragopan responded vaguely, holding up his own sword. "But after that, I was thinking you could teach me more about that Multislash technique?"
"I can teach you how to begin, but you'll have to perfect it on your own," Malgris told him. "Each Bird Brain is different."
"I know that." Without warning, Pan gave a flap of his wings and shot forward, aiming his sword straight for Malgris's middle. At the last second, Malgris parried with expert reactions, slipping to the side. Pan spread his wings to keep his balance, and in that moment of hesitation Malgris knocked him aside.
Pan barely caught himself on the ice, but didn't launch back at his sparring partner. Perhaps they had practiced so many times together that they didn't need to say when to stop.
"You still need to practice your speed," Malgris admonished, lowering his weapon. "Multislash doesn't work if you can't strike all of your enemies in a short amount of time."
"Speed," Pan echoed teasingly. "Sometimes I'm even faster than you."
Malgris looked as if he might reply, but he was interrupted by the sound of feathers through air. Jacques flinched – he had been quite immersed in watching the two avians spar – as a slash of crimson shot through his vision, and in a cloud of diamond dust a fire-colored gryphon with a fluffy white mane smashed onto the surface of the crag. If Jacques didn't know better, he would think that the mountain would fall apart if the gryphon made a showier entrance.
Malgris and Pan had also cringed visibly. Apologetically, the bipedal gryphon straightened himself, brushing off his rusty brown fur and running a clawed hand through his scarlet head feathers. His wings drooped a little, and even the tiny third eye in his forehead seemed to close a bit.
"That was a rougher landing than I expected," the gryphon said slowly, his eyes on Malgris.
"Done flying, Mabashi?" the cockateer inquired, sheathing his sword on his left hip.
Jacques's feet were itching from the frost that had descended upon them. He shook a couple pairs off as Mabashi replied, "Yes. Just needed some air in my wings." His three eyes went to the sky. "It's harder to fly up here."
"Thin air," Tragopan agreed curtly, nodding his head.
"Have we accomplished what we need to do here?" Jacques asked, addressing Malgris.
The cockateer glanced around as if looking for something. "I believe so. Unless we have a dragon to chase, we can take our training to Unshore."
Mabashi lowered himself onto his knees, his wings sagging a little. He hadn't noticed how fatigued he had gotten in the mountain air – how long had it been since his paws had touched the ground, anyway?
Malgris noticed this, and before the gryphon had a chance to say anything, he added, "We can recuperate at the Albatross on the way there, though. I imagine none of us are used to sleeping on top of a mountain."
Tragopan nodded briskly; Mabashi did so more slowly. Jacques only shook off his feet. He couldn't move unless the others went first – he didn't want to accidentally send a teammate flying over the precipice with an accidental kick.
"In that case," Pan began, "let's fly. I'll scout ahead to make sure the ground is stable; the rest of you can walk."
With an agreement reached, the team began to descend the mountain back down to its craggy floor. But they were not aware that, at least for now, only Malgris would reach the point of fighting around the world. If only monster families weren't so restricting…