His breath came in ragged gasps. The barbed black-feathered arrow had only pierced his blue-skinned shoulder, but as more blood dribbled off to freeze in mid-fall, Nyro knew that he would not complete his journey.
He ignored the orders of his chieftain, Juya White-eyes, which directed him to avoid the Boundary. But ever since he was first able to weave the Nora into the icy wings that gave him flight, he loved soaring above the very edge of the world and looking down, through all the clouds and storms that wafted over the hot lands. He made a habit of making this little journey once a month, as a personal ritual. Some of the elders said that the Jakei once lived there, in the snowless country, before the Gods awoke and punished the land, turning it into the chilly expanse Nyro flew over. All this history wasn't important to him, though: he was too enthralled with soaring amongst the freezing air.
As he winged his way along the Boundary, he saw a collection of black specks that stood out against the blue-white purity of the snow-covered cliffs. Curious, he dove closer. The spots grew larger in his vision, becoming shapes, gaining greater definition as he drew closer. A strange fear gripped his heart, though he had no idea what he would soon see clearly.
Gathered along the cliffs' edge were beings that walked as men, only as Nyro got a closer look he saw that they merely shambled along like dolls in the hands of children. Some were little more than the walking bones of men, mailed and girt with steel, while others were taller, larger, sometimes smaller. Apart from these, Nyro noticed several men wearing long black robes. A fell light surrounded these robed ones, and Nyro could sense the Nora being shaped by them. A flash of this light, and a handful more soldiers appeared out of nothingness.
Nyro felt his blood freeze in his veins. These creatures could channel the Nora this far from a shrine, without any other medium? And were summoning more of their kind, but from where? So many questions bombarded his mind that he barely remembered to spread his wings out and sweep past the gathering force. The heads of the robed men turned to him as he flew by, and immediately he heard voices shouting in a curt, bitter tongue. He beat the frostwings as fast as he could, gaining height, hoping to catch the updraft from the cliff-face to get away. He noticed arrows flying past him, barely off the mark, and prayed the gods would give him speed.
Chieftain Juya's warning burned in his ears now: "Beware the Boundary, Nyro. The foul winds of the snowless lands can bear only evil into our home."
At the same time, he knew that these beings had found a way to the top of the Boundary. They were a threat and would eventually become a concern to his people. Nyro knew he had to bring news of this to the capital in J'keinha. Was this a first step to invasion? He threw all the sudden panicked theories out of his mind as quick as they came -- he must tell the Chieftain, the Queen, anyone and everyone he could of what he'd seen.
But what would be his proof? Flying too high sometimes made a young frostwing slightly mad -- many came to the Chieftain with tales of monsters and giants that turned out to be nothing -- for him to be believed, he must show something that belonged to these beings.
He searched his memory as determination calmed him: one of those robed ones bore a staff that must have been important -- it glowed with the strange Nora-light that heralded the soldiers appearing from nothing. If he could grab that staff, no one would doubt his story -- and his people might be able to prepare for whatever these beings were planning.
He circled in the air and searched along the Boundary for his target. It seemed like the number of shamblers had grown since he'd last looked -- quickly, they were becoming more dangerous. It was now or never.
Nyro folded his wings, felt the world pull at him, and dove through the air once more, hoping he would be fast enough that they could not react to him in time. Everything became sharper in his black eyes as he careened past wisps of cloud between him and the robed men on the clifftop -- they were moving faster now, scrambling about. Nyro's eyes searched and found the man with the long black staff, and he smiled in spite of the fear that held him still -- the man stood with the staff over his head, rallying his soldiers around him, but for Nyro, it was as though he was offering it up to the incoming frostwing.
More arrows flit past Nyro as he dove, and he used every maneuver he knew to nudge his body out of their way. One or two struck his icy wings, but other than knocking some ice free of the Nora that bound them, it did nothing to slow his descent. One arrow flew barely over his head, impossibly close -- but he put the terror away, never taking his eyes away from his goal.
Nyro snapped his wings open at the last moment, slowing down ever so slightly at the bottom of his dive so he could snatch his objective and then gain the sky again. Something struck his shoulder and hurt -- he winced, but didn't take his eyes off his target, growing quickly in his vision. The robed man began to shout in his strange tongue as light began to coalesce around the head of the staff, but that stopped when Nyro grabbed the staff, wrapping all eight fingers around the haft and tearing it from the man's grasp.
He shot past the man, his wings beat again as he built his momentum back up. As he flew close to the ground, just out of reach of the shambling soldiers, he saw the empty sockets of their skulls looking up at him, jawbones opened in deathly wails that chilled him deeper than the fiercest icestorm. Mailed hands and naked bones all stretched out to grab him as he flew, with some of the shamblers using each other as stepping stones to leap at him as he rushed past. Somehow he broke free of the crowd and flapped his wings, gaining speed and height once more as arrows flicked past him. A warmth became evident to him then, as the elation of his success passed -- the burning pain he felt was from a black arrow that was buried deep in his left shoulder, and the warmth was his own blood draining out.
Nyro's vision blurred. He dared not try to pull out the arrow, but blood still flowed freely from the tear in his shoulder. He was barely able to keep ahold of the staff with his right hand, since his left lost all of its strength. The black device was made of a strange metal, instead of the wood Nyro at first imagined -- it was far heavier than he expected, and as if the wound and the distance weren't enough to exhaust him, the staff was dragging him down as well.
The winds were silent as he soared, struggling to find anything to glide upon so that he could rest a little in his flight. But there was nothing, and the flat expanse of the tundra spread out before him, devoid of features or safe havens.
He could not tell how far he'd flown, or how much further was left until he reached J'keinha. There were no settlements on this side of their capital, so unless he reached it he would fall to the ground and be buried by the next snow. The fear that spread icy claws across his heart was different now than the panic of seeing the invaders -- it was his own land that would defeat him. His own land and his own foolishness in ignoring the Chieftain's order.
Darkness crept into his vision -- his strength was gone now. He flapped his frostwings one last time, intent on holding them steady and hopefully dull the impact of his landing, but then they buckled despite his will. The ground rushed to meet him, and he had no words to give to the world before he left it...
A screech pierced his ears as a strong arm caught him in mid-fall, bearing him back up. His feet and knees met the resistance of great soft feathers, covered in rime.
"A littlewing in hard times, eh? Too high, too far, too fast... too proud, I think..." The voice was familiar as it shouted to him over the wind of the great white owl's speed: M'lanek the Lance, a wingmaster and Chieftain Juya's greatest rival.
"Chieftain..." Nyro whispered, and his eyes opened enough to look at the wingmaster's for a moment. In that instant, it seemed M'lanek noticed the arrow in Nyro's shoulder, and her jocular expression faded.
"To White-eyes, then. What manner of trouble have you found for us, littlewing?"
Darkness took him then.
When Nyro's eyes opened, he was warm once again, wrapped in furs, with the roof of the Frostwings' Aerie over him.
"You disobeyed my order, Nyro."
He turned to face the Chieftain, who stood with arms crossed over her chest and a stern expression on her face. The white eyes for which she was named bored into him as he shrank before her gaze. "Forgive me, Chieftain Juya," he said, "I should not have gone to the Boundary but..."
"We shall deal with that another time," she interrupted, silencing him with her look, "for what is of greater importance is that you are safe. Or as safe as we all can be."
Nyro was at first uncertain at Juya's meaning, but had not time to question her in return. She straightened from where she leaned against the wall, placing her hands before her body, palm-up in the traditional salute, and bowed towards the entrance to the Aerie's sickroom. Nyro followed her gaze, albeit slowly.
Flanked by a towering Lonx warrior he did not recognize was J'orea, the Ice Queen. In one hand she held her dragon-headed scepter, and in the other was the black metal staff he took from the robed man at the Boundary. Her eyes went from the staff to Nyro, and she took a step forward towards to his bed.
"Tell me what you have seen."