High above the city of Blackcloud, in the snowy peaks of Frostdale, a new Phoenixborn was stirring. So far, he had made direct move against Brennan, but the young king of Blackcloud was taking no chances. A stealthy strike, before the Pheonixborn of the Frostdale grew too secure in his power. Brennan led a team of the Blackcloud ninjas, the elite warriors who were personally loyal to the royal family. As they journeyed higher into the mountains, the air grew thin and cold, with a harsh wind that sliced into Brennan's bones.
Brennan hated being cold.
One of the scouts appeared in the pass in front of them, invisible even to Brennan's sharp eyes. It was not magic, merely a finely honed skill that they ninjas had been groomed from childhood to perfect. Brennan was used to their sudden appearances and disappearances. The ninjas had been watching over him ever since his birth, and it gave him comfort to know they were near, even when he could not see them.
"The Phoenixborn has a camp just ahead," the scout reported. "He has built a fire and made himself quite comfortable. Several Frost Fang warriors are hiding nearby, positioned for an ambush."
"Then we will ambush them first," Brennan ordered. "You take care of the Frost Fangs. Leave the Phoenixborn to me."
The scout nodded. "Do we strike to kill?"
"No," Brennan said. "It will be more effective if they live to carry the tale of their Phoenixborn's defeat back to the mountains."
"Understood." The ninjas melted into the wilderness. Brennan felt more than saw them leave. He continued down the pass on his own.
True to the scout's report, the other Phoenixborn was not hard to find. Brennan smelled the smoke from his fire, and automatically hugged the shadows, slippping silently through the trees.
The Phoenixborn of the Frostdales was a red-bearded giant of a man. He sprawled on a pile of bearskins, drinking from a flask and humming a cheery tune. Once in a while he would sing a verse with lyrics that made Brennan blush.
Taking a deep breath, Brennan stepped into the circle of firelight.
The other Phoenixborn flashed him a bright smile, and raised his flask in a toast. "Greetings, stranger,"he said in a jovial baritone. "Care to join me? Warm yourself by my fire." He winked.
Brennan cleared his throat. "Phoenixborn," he said, annoyed at how nasal and shrill his voice sounded by comparison.
"Ah, call me Rin," the red-haired man said. "We don't stand much on ceremony, like you city folks, Prince Brennie."
Brennan's face reddened. "I am Brennan Blackcloud, king of the city of Blackcloud…"
"Yeah, yeah." Rin waved a dismissive hand. "You and your army of secret ninjas that are trying to chase down the Frost Fangs. Seems kind of silly to be king of a city, I always thought. Shouldn't you be a mayor?"
Brennan clenched his fists. "I challenge you as a Phoenixborn," he hissed. "Now will you fight, or are you all talk?"
Rin laughed. He stood up, tossing aside the flask. "If you insist," he said. "Though personally I there are things we could do together that are a lot more fun. Do you want to make the first move or shall I?" He cracked his knuckles.
Brennan did not waste any more time on words. He stepped forward, calling on his power, the fire in his blood that burned anyone it touched, flinging it toward Rin. A second later, the ground opened up underneath him and he tumbled down into a frozen cave. The last thing he remembered was Rin's echoing, joyful laughter.
Brennan came to with a groan. Every part of his body felt bruised, and stiff with cold. Forcing himself to move, he decided nothing was broken and began the painful climb out of the icy cave he had fallen in. It was not particularly deep or sheer, and he managed without too much difficulty.
Rin, infuriatingly, sat exactly where Brennan had left him, watching Brennan's struggle with a fascinated expression. Brennan heaved himself over theh ledge and fell in an undignified heap in the snow, gasping for breath.
"You're tougher than you look, Brennie," Rin said.
Brennan did not dignify that with a response. His hands were scraped raw, bleeding sluggishly. There was power in blood. When he shed blood, the wraiths would answer his call.
He smiled as Rin's sharp intake of breath at the sight of the wraith. "Kill him," Brennan ordered. He looked up to see the wraith glide forward, reaching a skeletal hand toward Rin.
It was intercepted by a wall of ice. No, not a wall - it was vaguely man-shaped, and moved under its own power. An ice golem, then. The wraith let out an eerie shriek and attacked the golem.
Rin raised his arms, glowing an icy blue with his power. Spikes of ice grew from the golem's head, piercing the wraith. And of course Rin was grinning. "Now who's my fancy looking murder machine?" he cooed.
The wraith struggled, sending shards of ice flying, but it crumpled under the golem's brutal onslaught. The conjuration turned on Brennan, but weak as it was, it took hardly a thought to shatter it for good.
"Is that all you've got?" Brennan snarled. He had tested himself against another Phoenixborn only once before, and that had gone very badly, but this was different. This time, he was stronger.
"Is it?" Rin said thoughtfully. "Hm. Let me think. I know I had something else. What was it again? Aha!" He snapped his fingers and grins. "I know!"
The pile of furs that Rin had been lying on began to move, raising a snout filled with sharp teeth, and blinking sleepy black eyes.
"I've got giant ice bears!" Rin laughed. "It feels so good to say that!"
The bear sniffed, then lunged at Brennan. Brennan had just enough time to fling up a shield of power around himself. He had only bought himself a little time - he felt his magic crumbling under the bear's onslaught.
As the bear broke through the shield, Brennan reached deep within himself and enveloped the bear in his power. The bear blinked slowly, confused, as it began to dwindle. It snapped halfheartedly at Brennan, but its teeth were barely sharp enough to catch the cloth of his sleeve.
"And just like that, your efforts are for naught," Brennan hissed. Nothing stood between him and the other Phoenixborn now.
"Aww," Rin said. He moved in close. Brennan prepared himself for another attack, but instead Rin scooped the bear cub into his arms, tickling it under the chin. "Who's a cute little cub? Is it you? Hmm? Yes it is. Yes it is!" To Brennan, he asked "Will this wear off, or do I just have to wait for him to grow up in real time?"
Brennan raised his hands to drain the life from his enemy, but then looked down at himself in horror. An icy coating covered his hands and was spreading up his arms. He tried to run, but his feet were gripped by the same magical frost.
Rin wagged a finger at him. "Ah ah ah," he said. "You're not getting away that easy."
Brennan ceased his struggles, facing Rin with as much fearless dignity as he could muster. "Go ahead an kill me," he spat. "The entire Blackcloud clan will avenge my death. My ninjas will not rest until you and all your kin are slain."
"I've no intention of letting that happen," Rin said. "No, I'm just interested in having a good time. A flask of mead, maybe a pretty boy - that's all I ask for in life." He winked at Brennan who felt suddenly both very hot and very cold. "I can't do that if I keep having to fight off your ninjas. And I'm certainly not interested in taking over your gloomy city. What would I do with it? Sit on the rooftops and brood?"
"So you're saying," Brennan said slowly. "You just want me to go back to my city and leave you alone?"
"Oh, you can visit from time to time," Rin said. "I could always use another pretty face in my life."
Brennan blushed. He told himself it was from anger. "If I let you live, you'll continue to grow in power, until you think you're strong enough to take on the other Phoenixborns. To get to the rest of the continent, you have to go through my city."
"True," Rin allowed. "But it goes the other way too. Blackcloud is the only way into the Frostdales. You'll provide a nice buffer between me and anyone else who wants to take out an upstart Phoenixborn with roguish good looks."
Brennan thought about it. That made sense. He did not trust the man, but he had not survived as king of Blackcloud without learning to make allies of those he mistrusted. "A truce, then," he said.
Rin grinned broadly. "A truce," he agreed.
"I'll be keeping an eye on you," Brennan warned.
"I'm looking forward to it."
Strangely, Brennan found he was as well.