Two dark forms glide across the open field. Long legs eat the distance toward their destination, and long hair shines under the glow of moonlight like silver and gold. Both father and son wear only loincloths, but the cool spring air doesn’t seem to affect either man. They both stand taller than seven feet, with broad shoulders and lean muscles.
In the distance, the shadowy outline of a monstrous structure looms. Turrets and walls shoot up from a cliff in a ramble of disordered stone. The only entrance lies to the east, yet the men approach from the west. Three hundred feet above the base of the cliff is a window, but there are no handholds or ladders to make the climb.
From the top branches of a nearby tree, a female watches the two men. Her legs swing back and forth, dangling from the limb she sits on. She holds her wings still, and keeps her hand over her mouth, hiding, and waiting.
As the men draw near their goal, the younger man sucks his breath through his teeth. Straining his neck, he looks up at the five larger-than-life carvings which adorn the cliff: a wolf with hackles raised and fangs bared, an owl with extended wings and sharp talons, a panda covered in links of armor, a tiger with swirls as eyes and a Kraken with flames spouting from its mouth. Years of wind and rain show their abuse on the artwork. All that remains is the faint outline of the animals that protect the fortress.
“Don’t be enamored by the beauty in this place, Ash. Only murderers, thieves and secrets reside here now,” the silver-haired man says.
“Yes, Father.” Ash nods. “Does she know we are here?”
“We can’t know that until we get to her.” Ash’s father looks at the placement of the low moon on the horizon. “We’re running out of night. Do you want to wait until tomorrow?”
“No, Father.” Ash’s head droops and he scuffs his foot in the dirt, scattering pebbles into the wall.
“Do not tease the boy, Rowan,” the winged female says from her hiding place.
The men snap to attention and crouch low with their arms extended. Turning their gazes upward, recognition dawns and tense creases smooth away. They sigh in unison.
“You know what this means to him.” She waves her arms out in a hug of air. “To all of us.”
Rowan rolls his shoulders and pushes a silver strand of hair behind his ear. “Stop doing that to us. I thought I told you to stay in the trees?”
The female arches one etched eyebrow. “I am in the trees.”
Rowan folds his arms across his chest and squints in her direction. “I meant the trees in the valley, and you know it.”
“Oh, all right, but I could have been useful.” She stands on the branch, kicks off and flies away.
Rowan smiles and reaches a hand above his head, placing it on the stone of the cliff. Tiny vines sprout from his fingertips and take root in the wall. His feet do the same as he plants one and then the other on the surface before him. He pulls up the wall, hand over hand. Each time he removes a limb, the root shrivels and disappears as if it were never there. Ash follows in the same manner, a body length behind.
They reach the window and catapult over the ledge, landing on a stone floor worn shiny from years of use. A dozen torches bring dim light to the cavernous room. Stacks of thick paper laced together with string litter the corners. Baskets hold scrolls tied with cloth. Two shelves stuffed with hundreds of books reach from ceiling to floor on either side of the window.
Jagged hand-hewn field stones frame the hearth taking up most of the wall to the right. A fire smolders inside. Ash coughs to clear the smoky air from his chest. To the left, clear of clutter, sits a desk scarred by the passage of time, nicks of its woody flesh gouged away by misuse.
“Check the passageway while I search the desk.” Rowan pushes his hair behind his ear again and rummages through a drawer.
Ash cracks open the heavy oak door to gaze down the torch-lit passage. Two heavily armed men stand a few yards away with their backs turned and their mouths making enough noise to wake the dead. Ash closes the door without a squeak. He raises two fingers and makes a slashing motion with the other hand.
Rowan clutches a scroll in his hand, and motions for Ash to join him. He unrolls it and spreads it on the desk, holding down the curling edges. Both lean forward and examine the yellowed parchment. Faded ink crisscrosses a lattice of rooms.
“The castle is much larger than we thought.” Rowan whispers.
“Yes, six levels below and four above ground. At least we have somewhere to start.” Ash runs his fingers over the map. “The bottom three floors hold the dungeons.”