Another chapter is here for your viewing pleasure! Part Seven of The Wings Take Shape is coming at you.
Last week, Captain Renee Mollen and her squad were taken captive by foreign soldiers at the trading town Danver’s Table. Amidst questioning, Renee distracted their guards long enough for her twin sister, Sergeant Marie Mollen, and her adopted Sergeant Regina Hughes to free themselves and mount a rescue of the rest of their Winged Riders.
They free the Wings and take control of Danver’s Table, and in the ensuing discussions, Renee presses all the able-bodied men, women, and teenagers into service under her Winged Riders. If they want to be protected, they can help protect.
They have decided to flee for the home of Sadie Sawyer Paige, Jon’s aunt and wife to Jeffrey Paige, a Winged Rider in Captain Claire Claymonte’s employ. Sadie is a Skinchanger of a different ilk, having absorbed the powers of the cadshee, shifting into any form at will. If she still lives and they can find her, Sadie may prove a capable ally in the coming conflict.
The Wings Take Shape
Part Seven – Shadow of the Cadshee
by Rick Cook Jr.
They fled south and west, taking every backwater trail the twins could muster, trying to avoid the main arteries of the empire’s roads. Twice in their desperate, exhausted flight they had run the horses ragged fleeing foreign patrols and taken sanctuary in the bloody wood. And both times they had slept little or not at all.
Marie certainly hadn’t caught more than an hour’s rest. Between Renee’s worry infecting her and Private Wander trying to cozy up to her despite their desperate circumstances, and a needling feel that eyes watched them in the Red Forest, sleep was an old friend gone a long time.
It was her imagination or it wasn’t for that last worry. Maybe it was Jon? Renee patrolled the border of their encampment, calling to him when she thought no one could hear. Wherever the fool had gone, he wasn’t coming back right now. And even as she thought of Renee she realized something else.
Their twinner bond was weakening. They said it happened eventually, but she was hoping it was going to stick around well into their adulthood, not abandon them on the very cusp of it.
She stood, stretching tired muscles and climbed over Giselle Wander’s snoring form. On the ground, her cloak the only blanket, and she slept like she was in a plush bed on military leave. Would that Marie could feel that way. She bent down to the woman and plucked a twig from her hair, smoothing it lightly. She didn’t want to wake Giselle, just make her more comfortable. Private Wander snorted once and slept on.
Farsight Poul was between Marie and Renee, looking out of the encampment. It was pitch dark in the woods this deep, but she wasn’t completely familiar with a Farsight’s abilities.
He started at being called and rubbed at his eyes. “Apologies, Sergeant. I was in a deep trance. Only way we can see in the dark.”
“Trance? You mean sawing logs.”
“Trance,” he repeated. “Isn’t it so, Sergeant?” he asked Regina, leaning on a tree. The woman looked just as tired as anybody, but her wound made it hard to sit or lie down, so she leaned on things when others slept.
“’Farsights see more in the dark than any prowler’,” Regina quoted. “Have you seen anything but scurrying monsters?”
“No monsters to speak of,” Poul answered, stretching his limbs. “The bloody wood is quieter than usual.”
“We’re a larger group than usual,” Marie said, nodding at the people all around. A dozen capable men and women, some teenagers the age of poor Scout Irons. Pressed into service in a time of war. They couldn’t be trusted, but what choice was there?
“Maybe large enough to scare away even the demons of the wood,” she finished.
“They are out there,” Farsight Poul said. “At least, something is out there. Clever, too. It seems to know we’re here and is avoiding my sight by sticking to the underbrush. No small feat in this forest.”
Regina sighed, eyes falling on Marie. “Maybe whatever it is doesn’t want to hurt us so much as it is curious.”
Renee appeared beside Regina. “The only things curious in the bloody wood are us, and none of us are cats.”
“A word, Captain?” Marie asked, straightening.
“Of course, Sergeant. Come with me. Sergeant Hughes, look over our guests while we’re gone.”
Regina saluted and stood at attention over Danver Jr. and the reluctant recruits while Marie followed her sister to the edge of their encampment.
“No luck with Jon,” Renee said, rubbing her eyes and stifling a yawn.
“I figured. Everyone can hear you calling out for him, you know.”
“At this point I don’t care. You saw what he did to Scout Irons. That wasn’t Jon, or at least he lost control.”
“Do you think he’s okay out there?”
“Probably better than we are. Are we being foolish to go to Sadie without him?”
“There you go again, questioning her.”
“I’m not questioning her. She saved our lives, but she’s different now. Even Jon knows it.”
“She’s still not the cadshee,” Marie said.
“Maybe. I don’t know. We don’t have much else to go on, though. If we can find her, she’ll join the fight, of that I have no doubt.”
Marie nudged her. “You’ve felt it, haven’t you?”
“Don’t you ‘what’ me.” A trickle of frustration came through the bond, and Renee nodded.
“It’s going, isn’t it?”
“Just when we thought we were gaining an edge.”
“Dad says it goes when the twins become their own people,” Renee said, reaching out a hand to Marie. She took it and squeezed, and for a moment the bond was perfect, the way it was when they were children and could scarcely tell each other’s emotions apart.
“You’ve been boring for years, so he’s obviously wrong about that.” Renee grinned and threw her arms around her sister. Marie hugged her back, tight, so tight she felt the pain through the bond and Renee returned it with the same fervor.
“Can’t believe you’re the last hope the empire has,” Marie said, tousling Renee’s pinned hair, imitation of Claire Claymonte.
“I can’t believe anyone’s following me.” She straightened her hair as her eyes narrowed. “Did you hear that?”
Marie had heard nothing out of the ordinary. Renee pulled her back towards the center of camp, eyes searching the darkness.
“Farsight, report,” she said as they came within whispering distance.
“There’s a creature in the darkness,” Poul said. “Been watching the two of you for a while now.”
“Is it coming closer?”
“It is now.”
“Wake everyone,” Renee said, but already Marie and Sergeant Hughes were stepping lightly, brushing against soldiers and recruits alike, jostling them awake.
“Get ready,” Renee said, holding her blade before her.
“It’s coming. It’s… it’s a feline.”
Feline. Cougar? Could it be Jon?
“Do not attack except to defend yourself,” Renee said. She turned back to the darkness. “Jon, is it you?”
A cougar came into the firelight, and not one the size of Jon in the form he had taken. “It’s not him,” Marie said. “Get ready.”
And then more cougars appeared all around. The bloody wood had finally grown bold.
“Captain?” Renee asked. “Do you see him?”
“They’re all too small.”
“Should we fight?” one of the townspeople asked, terror in his voice. If they fled into the bloody wood, they would be lost to it, Marie knew. They couldn’t spare the time or manpower chasing down runaways.
“Only if they attack first,” Renee repeated. “Only then.”
The leader of their pack stalked closer, eyes on Marie and Renee at the front of the human pack. Then he snarled and the rest did the same, readying their pounces. This was it, Marie knew. Killed by bloody cougars in the bloody damn bloody wood!
But a monstrous roar shook the trees and Marie’s bones. The cougars’ ears laid back on their heads as if chastened and they darted away after a few seconds’ hesitation.
And into the clearing came the larger cougar.
“Jon,” Renee said, running to him. The Winged Riders and the recruits goggled or gasped in equal measure.
Jon, if it was really him, snarled as Renee came close. His back rose and he hissed. The Change came over him, howling pain and shedding fur. Everyone watched his bones snapping and forming back up, losing their midnight black coat of fur. His snout dissolved into the familiar face of Jon.
But he was still howling in pain, crying for help. And the Change wouldn’t complete. He shifted back and forth, half cougar, half man, until he was once again the large cougar in full. He snarled a final time and turned away, darting into the underbrush.
“What just happened?” Private Nightingale asked breathlessly, hand gripping her spear so tight her knuckles throbbed with whiteness.
“We just saw the death of a friend,” Marie said. “The forest has taken him.”
Was that true? She’d never heard a story about being unable to Change back. Was he truly gone to the animalistic nature inside him?
“We’ve been here too long,” Renee said, sheathing her blade and going to her horse. “We have an ally to find, and she will want to know about Jon.”
They gathered their belongings and mounted up, riding on in the darkened wood, spirits low even as the sun was rising.