“We’ve gone too far.”
Athan planted his feet on the cold, wet ground. The falling snow swirled and thickened in the forest, obscuring the path home. Every gnarly branch resembled the next, casting eerie, shifting shadows as the wind rustled the pine needles.
His older brother Sebb picked another gormberry and popped it into his mouth. Athan raised an eyebrow at the half-empty pail on the ground. I could be done by now if I had come alone, he thought. His brother might be a year older, but Athan was the more responsible one. Their mother was aware of that, yet she still insisted on Sebb accompanying him into the woods. Some babysitter he is.
Athan shot him a disapproving stare, which he shrugged off. “Everything closer to Genwater was picked already,” Sebb said, smacking as he chewed. “We’ll come back empty-handed if we don’t keep going.”
Athan frowned and crossed his arms. “We’ll come back empty-handed if you keep eating everything we find.”
“But this is when they taste the best,” Sebb said with an exaggerated groan, glaring down his long nose. Athan stood firm, winning their brief staring contest. Sebb yanked his pail to his chest and stomped forward, picking another handful of berries. This time, he tossed them into the pail.
Athan reached for a berry and paused, admiring it for a moment. Gormberries were blue as sapphires and almost as valuable during the winter months in Heigarth. He might chide Sebb for eating them, but his hollow stomach groaned with each juicy berry he picked.
A gust whistled through the trees, and he snatched his pail before it tumbled over. He rubbed the wool sleeves of his cloak and shivered, then pulled his hat down to cover his ears. For the thousandth time, he wished that Drudges didn’t have to shave their heads. His bare hands were frozen and stiff, but it was too difficult to pick berries with the mittens his mother had made him.
He’d lived in Heigarth his entire life—twelve years, to be exact—but he still hated the cold.
Sebb pushed through the snow, moving deeper into the forest. Athan followed him through the sea of white and gray, struggling to keep up with his brother’s lanky legs. Somehow Sebb had already grown two heads taller than him over the summer. I’m always a step behind him.
“Where do you think the dragon is now?” Sebb asked. His hand, full of berries, paused halfway to his mouth. He rolled his eyes at Athan’s furrowed brow but tossed the berries into his pail.
“I heard it’s in the mountains somewhere. Mother’s worried it’s going to come here next,” Athan said. Mother worries about everything. Ever since their father died last year, his mother hadn’t stopped worrying. Technically, their master fed them and kept a roof over their heads. It was just enough to stay alive. Their father had hunted for the extra food two growing boys needed. Sebb should have taken on that responsibility when Father died, but … Sebb was Sebb.
Athan looked up at the white sky, brushing away his bitter thoughts. He tried to imagine a real fire-breathing dragon passing over them. The idea was both thrilling and terrifying.
Sebb followed his gaze. “I heard,” he said, lowering his voice and moving closer, “that it can breathe lava.” He nodded, his eyebrows almost reaching his scalp. “It came bursting out of Mount Scorzan and poured lava and ash down on everyone.”
Now it was Athan’s turn to roll his eyes. “The dragon breathed fire, not lava.”
“You weren’t there. Skardin’s dragon breathes lightning, after all.” Sebb rolled a berry between his fingers instead of picking more.
Athan shivered, this time not from the cold. Skardin and his dragon had visited Heigarth once in the boy’s lifetime—and once was enough.
He could still see the massive purple form of the storm dragon casting dark shadows over the land. From the dragon’s back, Skardin’s triumphant gaze had studied the rebellious people of Heigarth like a champion surveying his prize.
And then, there was the lightning.
With a deafening roar, the storm dragon had released an electrifying outburst, cracking across the sky. The hair on his arms had stood on end, the charge in the air making it difficult to inhale. People had scattered in the chaos that followed, their screams echoing long after Skardin had left.
No, once was enough.
“You know what this means, right?” Sebb led them deeper into the forest.
Athan rubbed his hands together and breathed on them, shaking away the image of the storm dragon. “No …” He knew the look in his brother’s eyes. “What does it mean?”
Sebb wiggled his eyebrows, and his normally gray eyes changed to an icy blue, then back to gray in a flash. “It means a frost dragon could hatch next.” His eyes turned fully blue, and flurries of snow danced between his fingers.
Athan scanned the surrounding forest. “Are you crazy?” He swatted Sebb’s freezing hands. “What if someone sees you?”
Sebb’s eyes returned to their dull gray, and the ice disappeared. “No one’s out there. Relax. I practice here all the time.”
“Practice?” Athan’s voice cracked. “What are you practicing for? Your Light hasn’t fully manifested, and Lord Brenmarth will throw you in the dungeons if he finds out you’re a Seeker. You’ll never be able to use it.”
And why should he use it? A whisper of envy passed through his mind, but he brushed it aside. He wasn’t jealous. Sebb’s powers were pointless, especially at their age. The Light was going to get him into trouble—or killed.
“You never know what could happen,” Sebb said, flashing a wide grin. “Maybe I’m the next Guardian. The Frostsight.” He spoke the last word with a dramatic flourish of his hand, blowing a soft, icy breeze into Athan’s face.
“If you’re the Frostsight,” Athan said, wrinkling his nose, “then I guess we’ve been doomed by the Great Dragon after all.”
Sebb glared, and his magical blue eyes cast an eerie glow beneath his heavy eyebrows. He held out his hands, launching another flurry of ice.
Athan stumbled backward and tripped over a rock hidden in the snow. He fell to the hard, frozen ground. Sebb doubled over in laughter while his brother struggled back to his feet.
Athan growled and grabbed a handful of ice. He formed a hard snowball in his hands. “I bet I can throw more snow at you than you can—”
Sebb’s eyes were gray again, but something in them made his words fall short. He stared blankly, mouth agape.
Athan didn’t want to turn around. Nevertheless, as if being pulled by a string, his body slowly twisted to face … a tree.
He whipped around and threw his snowball at Sebb, whose laughter had turned into howls. “You should have seen your face,” he stammered, brushing off the ice. “It was too perfect! You would think we were in the—”
“Dreadwood!” Athan shouted, and he crawled backward until he hit the tree behind him.
They had gone too far. The trees grew closer together here, their trunks and branches more black than gray. The sun’s rays struggled to penetrate the dark canopy of leaves above them. How had he missed it?
He was never certain if the stories his parents had told him as a kid were true. On the one hand, everyone knew the Dreadwood was full of terrifying monsters, and they should have turned back at the first sign of black trees. On the other hand, he had wondered if the stories were meant to keep kids like him from exploring too far from home.
He was wrong.
He lifted a shaking finger and pointed behind Sebb, mouth hanging open in silence. It dawned on him how hushed the entire forest had become. No creaking branches, no squirrels rustling the underbrush, no breeze whistling through the leaves …
Despite the lack of wind, dark shadows drifted in the air around Sebb, tendrils forming themselves into some sort of shape. More shadows swirled around his feet, mixing with the others until it began to solidify.
“Oh, come on.” Sebb folded his arms across his chest. “It was a joke. You won’t get me with the same one.” Athan shook his head, and his brother dropped his arms. “Let’s just—”
The shadow crept across Sebb’s shoulder and drifted in front of his face. His eyes widened, and he spun around.
Athan couldn’t see whatever was behind Sebb, and he wasn’t staying to find out.
“Run!” Athan yelled and scrambled to his feet. He sprinted through the forest, pushing branches out of his face and jumping over rocks and fallen tree trunks.
It was only when he reached Genwater that he realized Sebb wasn’t behind him.