Tuesday is here again, my friends! I hope the week passed for you as fast as it did for me, but perhaps not if you were impatiently awaiting the next part of this story, eh?
In Part Three, Wing Captain Renee Mollen conferred with Sergeant Regina Hughes in the Red Forest while learning what she could of the events inside the capital city. The place has been overrun, and Renee’s old Captain, Claire Claymonte, is presumed dead along with the rest of the Winged Riders and Kingsguard remaining in the city.
Sergeant Hughes is now on a mission to round up every Kingsguard and able-bodied adult around the empire and return in force to retake the capital. Captain Mollen agrees to escort her on her mission and help lead the assault, though the thought of acting as a general terrifies her.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Marie Mollen led three of her Winged Riders down the road, hoping to distract the soldiers and keep them off Sergeant Hughes. They successfully trick the enemy soldiers into chasing them, and dispatch them before they can escape back to the capital. A wolf the size of a horse comes leaping out of the Red Forest to stop an escaping enemy soldier, then disappears back into the woods. Marie suspects it was Jonathan, Changed into the wolf she and Renee know him to be capable of becoming.
Before they rejoin Captain Renee Mollen, they discover evidence of the enemy soldiers possibly serving the Totemic Gods, one of which is a cougar.
On to Part Four!
The Wings Take Shape
Part Four – Madness
by Rick Cook Jr.
Jonathan stalked the bloody wood as Swiftstrike, his throat raw and his stomach empty after what he had done to that soldier. He had deserved it, surely. He was the enemy.
And yet the taste of his blood was sticky in Jonathan’s mouth, coating his muzzle, and he dry-heaved against the forest floor yet again. He had never killed a man before. And it had been so easy.
So very easy.
He was almost back. Just a little farther. But suddenly he felt woozy, dropping to the loamy earth.
The Change came over him. Pain, tearing, thrashing his body apart, the fur falling away in clumps of broken flesh. And the sweet pleasure of new flesh, of skin no longer covered in itchy fur. The loss of heightened senses as he became a man once more. The taste of blood dulling until he couldn’t even remember its coppery flavor.
He huddled in the undergrowth, naked and howling until the pain was gone.
He stood up after a time, knowing the woods were a bad place to smell of blood if you weren’t an apex predator. And he was one no longer. He had to move. Had to find his things. Clean up his face – no, it wasn’t the same face, not quite. The blood was gone, but the feeling was still there. It felt tacky and he shoved down the urge to vomit once again.
He needed water. He needed a stiff drink.
The forest was quiet around him, still and scared. How far from his clothing?
He found it after wandering vaguely in the direction he remembered running, letting his time as Swiftstrike guide him back along his path. Being the wolf had never been wild like this. He’d lost control. Given in to the hunt, the chase.
He realized he was rubbing at his face where the phantom memory of blood still persisted and pulled his hand away. He had a waterskin with his belongings and he doused his face before he dressed. Scrubbed vigorously, couldn’t get it clean. He tried harder until his face was raw, chafing, and still he didn’t feel clean.
He pulled his soldier’s kit back on, did his best to calm down and stop feeling at his face, then went back to the moonshine distillery, slipping in among the Wings on watch, none of whom questioned where he’d been. They were too absorbed in watching the Red Forest for danger, for signs of approaching enemies, to care about one of their own.
Their paranoia was his companion.
Inside the rundown shack, shafts of light speared the darkness, fighting their way through the canopy and the ramshackle roof to cut those within to ribbons of light and shadow. Renee was in council with Sergeant Hughes and Farsight Poul, and she waved him back when he entered the building.
They finished their conversation and Renee stepped outside, letting her elbow brush against him as she went. He followed her out, to where they couldn’t be overheard at the edge of the clearing, and she let her Captain’s bearing fall away just a little, with slumped shoulders and a sigh.
“You look sick,” she said.
He hesitated, fighting the gorge rising, before managing, “I killed one of them. As Swiftstrike.”
“So you caught up.”
“And had to fight.”
“We all have to fight, Jon. Did any of them get away?” He wanted to shake her and throw her against a tree, pound into her that he had just killed a man and could use some sympathy.
Instead he shook his head. “I – I stopped the one that was fleeing. Marie and the others did for the rest.”
“I felt pain. Is she – “
“She’s fine. A few cuts and scrapes.”
Renee sighed, fists clenching and unclenching. Jon would have bet his first Wings’ pay she wanted to hug him if anyone was dumb enough to take the bet. “Thank you, Jon. Thank you for watching out for her.”
“It’s Marie. No one looks out for her better than you.”
She smiled at that and then straightened as one of the Privates approached. “Sergeant Mollen would probably disagree with you, Private. You’re dismissed.”
“Yes, Captain,” he said, taking his leave as Private Nightingale brushed past him, wiping her eyes as she went. She wasn’t the only one looking lost or forlorn, either. Private Onrey’s face was buried in a small journal, furiously scribbling with charcoal and getting it all over her face as she kept wiping away the tears. The men fared no better, even the ones with combat experience. Private Tanner and Sergeant Hughes argued in the distillery, Farsight Poul sat in silent contemplation, might have been praying if Jon could have understood the words.
Jonathan stopped beside Private Lark, a short man gone to bald. “I don’t suppose you found any moonshine hiding under the floorboards.”
Lark smirked. “I don’t think anyone’s thought to check.” He eyed Jon up and down. “You’re Sawyer, right? One of the fresh recruits.”
Jon nodded and held his hand out, but Lark didn’t shake. He only nodded and stared ahead, watching the forest. “I don’t trust the woods.”
“It’s our friend right now.”
“Only a fool turns his back on a predator when a larger one appears.” He tapped his sword hilt on his belt. “Me, I’m ready to run it through. I’m not feeding the forest today, or ever.”
Jon nodded, not wanting to get into an argument with the man. He patrolled around until he heard the trickle of water deeper in the bloody wood. He found the stream, bubbling over rocks and hardly more than a rivulet. It was just enough; he set to scrubbing at his face again until his cheeks were pink and his lips raw, and still he couldn’t get the feel of blood to go away.
He’d fed on animals as Swiftstrike, as Talonglide. It had seemed natural. So why was this so different? So affecting. What did it mean that the murder was so easy, but that he felt sick over it? Was he a monster, no better than the cadshee?
He hadn’t long to consider it before Marie came rushing into the clearing, toting a couple extra horses and a foreign soldier slung over one saddle. There was a flurry of motion and everyone gathered around to get a good look at the warriors and their kill.
Jon stayed back, not wanting to see anyone that looked even remotely like the man he’d killed.
Private Wander was telling a tale when he arrived, “And just when we thought the bastard was gonna get away, a damned wolf, big as my horse – well, maybe not MY horse – came out the bloody wood and did for him. Tore his throat out and disemboweled him, left him for the carrion birds.”
“Damndest thing I ever saw,” Private Bail confirmed, and Marie’s eyes settled on Jon’s while everyone’s attention was on the Privates. She gave him the slightest nod and dismounted her horse, directing Bail and Yoris to offload the corpse while she reported to Renee.
Jon knew the sisters just well enough to see all manner of information pass between them without speaking a single word. Such was a Twinner bond. He swallowed heavily and stepped forward to the corpse to get a good look. There was no reason he should be seen to be squeamish. None but Renee and Marie knew what he’d done. To everyone else he was just a fresh recruit.
The man had bled out through a chest wound, a spear from the look. His features were not so different from people Jon had met in the capital, but more than that, the man looked not entirely unlike many people from his old village. Which didn’t make any sense at all given that they were on the southern reaches, beyond even the Red Forest, and these were soldiers from the north tribes.
Amid speculation that he didn’t look any different from regular folk, Renee cleared her throat and silenced her squad. She stood with Regina behind her on one side and Marie on the other. Regina and Marie were injured but holding up well. Renee stood at attention until everyone quieted and turned to regard her.
“I need you all to listen up and hear me. We were on a mission, our first mission as a squad. Find a hidden Special. That mission is dead. The capital is overrun, the Winged Riders and the Kingsguard slaughtered or in chains. It’s hard to accept, but it is what it is. Whoever this man was, he has thousands more like him.
“Sergeant Regina Hughes was tasked with escape. We are escorting her to as many Kingsguard garrisons around the countryside as we can, until we muster a force big enough to take back the capital. And then we retake the capital. Does anyone have a problem with that?”
Silence settled over everyone as the gravity of their situation sank in. Jon felt like he could throw up yet again. Finally someone said, “It’s madness. We’ll be dead the moment we show back up at the gates!”
Renee sighed. “Is it? I’ve seen madness. I’ve looked into the eyes of a craven, desperate thing, intent on saving itself. I’m sure you’ve heard the tales by now, the fight against the cadshee.”
Private Bail snorted. “We’ve heard ‘em all right. Buncha nonsense, isn’t it.”
Private Tanner said, “Captain and both Sergeants were there, as was I. We all got our blades wet that day, and it was barely enough.”
Marie stepped forward when all those who hadn’t been there that day at the cultist church looked unconvinced. “You lot spend all your time whispering about monsters in the dark, fearing to go into the bloody wood on pissall and rumor. Well, we were there, and we saw what a man will do when he’s at his last gasp. We are that last gasp, and if it takes a little madness to save our home, then I’m ready to run up the river.”
Jon smiled. It was crazy, so crazy, but what else could they do? He stepped forward. “I’m with you, Captain. I’ll ride into the storm.”
“Hundred hells, I’m in, too!” Private Wander said. “The Mad Wings ain’t flying without Giselle Wander.”
“Mad Wings?” Renee repeated, tasting the nickname. “Let’s do it, then. Mount up, Wings! We ride for Cutter’s Water.”
Cutter’s Water was a pile of ash, bodies strung from trees, lashed to the burned-out husks of homes. The stench of burning met them long before the smoke in the sky, and Farsight Poul wouldn’t even tell them what he was seeing. He just opened his eyes on it once and then closed them, mumbling his prayers.
There was no garrison here. No Kingsguard except for those that would have patrolled out from the capital. They watched its burning corpse for a time, and rode on. Scout Irons and Farsight Poul were set to watch their routes, and Renee silently shook her head at Jon when he suggested he go up as Talonglide.
Were Sadie and the boys okay? They lived in a village on the outskirts of the capital. His home when he wasn’t training to be a Winged Rider. If they set upon Sadie, she could handle them, he felt sure, but then she’d be outed. And he would follow if they lived through all this. He ached to break away and head for home, but he had a duty to fulfill. If Cutter’s Water was any indication, they might not find a Kingsguard to rally. They passed through more villages, glorified stops on the trading routes, every one burned.
Some villagers had lived, but had few words to spare that the Wings didn’t already know. Foreigners attacking, burning and pillaging as they went, no Wings, no Kingsguard in sight to help. Who could help them now?
He couldn’t answer their questions. None were able-bodied and so Renee made the decision to leave them be. They had to fend for themselves.
It was hard to leave them behind, but leave them they did.
After the fourth such village, Marie let herself fall back so that she rode next to him, and held his reins to slow them both up until they were separated from the squad enough to speak in private.
“Tell me you saw it,” Marie asked.
Marie fumbled in her jacket and held out two tiny lapel pins, in the shape of cats. “This came from the body you drug back?”
Her head shook. “The one you did for.”
He swallowed the knot in his throat. “I didn’t mean to – I mean it shouldn’t have happened that way.”
“You saved our bacon, Jon. Don’t you forget that. He was gonna bring down more of ‘em and you kept that from happening. We have a chance ‘cause you didn’t hesitate.”
“Maybe.” He held one of the lapel pins up to the failing light of day. “Is it a tiger?”
“I thought it might be cougars.”
He fumbled the pin and nearly dropped it in the dust of the road, but held on long enough to hand it back to Marie. “Cougars. Like the Totemic. Now you really are mad.”
“It would make sense, wouldn’t it?” She pocketed the pins once more. “I showed ‘em to Renee and Regina, but they’re both dubious.”
“Because the Totems have been outlawed for a century.”
“These ain’t exactly our citizens.”
That was a fair point, and his brow furrowed in response.
“If it’s the Totemic, for true, we need to bring it to Sadie.”
She scoffed. “I don’t even know what it means.” She stared ahead at the back of Private Wander as she rode, telling again the story of the wolf to Private Lark, who listened with incredulity.
He shrugged. “Neither do I. But the Totems and the Hundred don’t play nicely, and if these north tribes serve the Totemic, we need to gather more information about them.”
She laughed, then, and Jon stared at her until she explained, “The cadshee. He made your people. He probably knew everything there was to know.”
“And now he’s gone.”
“Not all of him.”
“Sadie’s not the cadshee,” Jon said, a little more aggressively than he meant to.
She held up a hand to ward off his anger. “I’m only saying she took something of him when he up and croaked. When we muster our mighty army, maybe we take a side trip to see her.”
“I didn’t get to properly thank you, Jon.”
“You’re like family,” Jon said. “No thanks necessary.”
“I know it. And I hate admitting when I need the help, but you came through for us. So thanks, and all that.”
He shook her outstretched hand and she clapped him on the back. “Cheer up, Private!” she called loud enough for everyone to hear it, “We’ll have the capital cleaned of all those droppings before you can recite the Hundred verses.”
“We could wage a dozen wars before we finish the verses!” Private Tanner called back to her, and the mood lightened in the squad.
At least, right up until they made it to the first Kingsguard garrison and found it stacked high with gold-gleaming armor, bodies inside sticky and gored with their own blood.
Jon slumped in the saddle. How had the enemy managed this clean an invasion?
Next week we’re back inside Marie’s head as the Winged Riders scramble for any advantage they can find!