First time reading? Find out more on the Wingborn Series page or start World’s End here.
~ Previous Chapter ~
Oh what tangled webs we weave…
YULLIK PULLED BACK, holding his breath, holding in his tears, forcing down the pain. What was it about this girl that allowed her to so easily slip beneath his defences and pry into memories best left alone? How was she able to bring out these memories, ones he’d kept fiercely locked away and hidden ever since he’d lost his Wingborn?
Wingborn. Ah, yes, of course. She was searching for her Wingborn, and all she could find was his.
“Fitting,” he muttered, studying the vial freshly filled with dark red blood. Very fitting. If he went looking for his Wingborn, all he would find was hers.
Sighing, he pressed against the hole in her arm, sending a spark of gold to seal the wound, even if there was little he could do about the bruise. He couldn’t replace the blood that he’d taken, he couldn’t convince the bruise to go down. Well, he could, but it seemed like a lot of effort to waste on a girl who was already covered in cuts and bruises. One more would hardly stand out.
“Sleep,” he commanded the young kaz-naghkt that stirred around the room, drawn to wakefulness by the scent of blood. They were growing well, he noticed. Not as fast as the ones in the nursery, deep in the heart of the mountain, who fed constantly – even on each other if other food wasn’t available – but strongly and well. He had little doubt that these five would prove to be amongst the best of his kaz-naghkt, of the sort rarely seen since the early days, when his creatures truly had been man-dragons.
He wrinkled his nose and rose from the bed, taking his precious vial out of the room, not wanting to dwell on those messy first experiments. The ones that had taught the Rift Riders to fear these mountains. The ones that had driven them to ban women in the Riders. Yullik hadn’t always taken female Riders, and rarely after that first batch, but the stories the few survivors he’d allowed to escape told were enough to scare them all rigid.
“For you, Mama,” he muttered, kissing the blood vial in his hand, even though he knew his mother would be horrified by what he’d done, what he’d become. He wasn’t the type of boy she’d wanted to raise, this life wasn’t the kind she’d wanted him to live. But more than anything she’d wanted him to survive, and he had, the only way he knew how. The way the Riders had taught him.
And he’d repaid them back tenfold in kind.
Smiling, he slipped the blood into his pocket and headed for the nearest stairway. His workroom called, but before he reached it, he had a couple of unwanted guests to track down first.
* * *
CUMULO HUDDLED IN the same cave, eyes half closed, listening and wondering if the speakers beyond the gap in the wall were as stupid as they sounded. Did they not realise he was a miryhl eagle, blessed with hearing as acute and accurate as his wild cousins? Perhaps they didn’t know he was there. Perhaps they wanted him to hear them. Perhaps they were simply fools.
Cumulo was feeling a little foolish himself, hunched up in a scrape of a cave, even though the snow had stopped and his stomach was telling him it was time to hunt. But ever since he’d struck his bargain, he’d been reluctant to leave, not wanting to miss the return of the hooded stranger, ready to begin their bargain and finally see Mhysra.
Until now it had been a waste of time, whiled away by alternately dozing and going over the conversation, trying to tell what kind of fool’s bargain he’d struck. Then came the voices.
“He’s up to something,” a complete stranger said, in a voice low and grumbling.
“Isn’t he always?” Cumulo perked up, recognising his stranger and the man’s obvious amusement.
The other – female, if Cumulo was judging his human voices correctly – made a sound of annoyance. “True, but usually it’s our kind of fun.”
“All fun is our kind of fun, sister. Especially when it isn’t much fun for anyone else involved.”
The woman fell quiet for a long moment and Cumulo began to believe they’d left. “I don’t like his use of blood. It… changes things.”
The man chuckled. “You’re not growing attached, are you, dearest? Taking up meals, changing sheets, baking bread. It’s all very domesticated and friendly, and utterly unlike you.”
The woman muttered something too soft for Cumulo to hear, making the man laugh.
“You do like her. How extraordinary. Perhaps we’ve been hanging around our new friends too long. Soon you’ll be living amongst them and fighting on their side like our dear cousin.”
“Ha! Never. I’m not that far gone and never shall be. I said I admired the girl, not that I’d help save her. I just don’t trust our bloodthirsty host.”
“Fitting.” The man was always amused, ruffling Cumulo’s feathers in a most unpleasant manner. “I don’t believe he trusts us either.”
“But the blood, brother…”
“Is really none of our concern. Except that it keeps the game alive and interesting.”
“I do prefer things to be interesting,” the woman agreed slowly. “So many more opportunities that way.”
They fell quiet again and Cumulo contemplated leaving to hunt, when the woman spoke again. “But what of you and your new friend? What are your plans for him?”
Cumulo inclined his head closer to the opening.
The man chuckled softly. “I hardly know, sister, but it seemed foolish not to pull him into the game. You know how I hate loose ends.”
“One never knows who might tie them up first,” the woman agreed.
“At least this way we can knot him into a snare of our own choosing.”
They fell quiet again and Cumulo had to hold himself very, very still against the need to slash out with his talons and screech in defiance. He wasn’t anyone’s loose end and the only knot he would tie would be the one around both their necks if they thought to use him for anything other than freeing his Wingborn.
“Be careful, brother. You know whose power lies within each miryhl. It would be unwise to offend Her at present.”
“True. It’s always unwise to offend Her, but that’s never stopped us in the past.”
The woman laughed. “True, but it would be a shame to spoil the game just when it’s starting to get good again.”
“Ah, sister,” the man sighed, their voices begin to fade as they walked away, “you know me. I’m not one to spoil a game, especially when it’s just getting good.”
“See that you don’t.”
“I won’t. My word on it.”
“For what that’s worth.” The pair of them laughed smug and confident, and the last of their next words vanished swiftly beyond even Cumulo’s ability to hear.
Alone again, he cracked his beak and raked his talons angrily against his perch. “Fool,” he berated himself, and leapt out into the dim afternoon light. Fool to think he’d found an ally at last. Fool to believe he was any closer to saving his Wingborn. Fool to think anything good could come out of this cursed place. Tilting into an updraft, he allowed the gusty wind to carry him high until he circled above the forest in search of food. But he refused to give into despair.
Just because the stranger and his sister planned to use Cumulo for their own selfish ends, didn’t mean he couldn’t use them back. He was almost convinced that the girl the woman had spoken about was his Mhysra, which meant they knew where she was. They could lead him to her. They could help. All Cumulo had to do was find a way to make sure they did, using them before they could use him.
It was his turn to laugh, high above the forests, close to the peak of the mountain, where the air was like ice and the dark clouds pressed down on him. “Play the game,” he reminded himself. “Be interesting.” Spotting movement down below, he tucked his wings for a stoop and knew he could do that, be that. He’d be anything if it brought his Wingborn back.
Silent and determined, he caught the goat entirely by surprise and crushed it with his feet before it could even think of escaping. “Hold on, Chickling,” he said, flapping up to a ledge with his prize to keep it away from other predators. “I’m coming.”
~ Next Chapter ~
Thanks for reading!