It’s Tuesday and you know by now that means it’s time for another entry in the serial novella The Wings Take Shape!
Previously on Wings, Captain Renee Mollen and her Winged Riders sought the village of Panagin’s Toll, Sadie the Skinchanger’s home. They found Sadie in a redwood den outside of town, much like the cadshee before her.
Jon, struggling against the Skinchanger form of Stalker and her ability to wrest control of her mind and body, tried to Change back to a human once he tracked down Renee and her Wings. Stalker had been cordial leading up to the moment he attempted to become human again, and she discovered that Sadie was a creature of smoke and oil. She roared and took control of him once more, fleeing into the forest intent on ending the creature of shadow and smoke once and for all. She called it the deceiver, a thief.
The Wings Take Shape
Part Eleven – Abomination
by Rick Cook Jr
The entire village huddled beneath the redwood’s roots. Sadie’s den was much homier than the cadshee’s from several years back, but it was still under the earth and the people were scared.
Marie didn’t like it. She hated it, in fact. Renee conferred with Sadie somewhere out of sight while Marie and Regina took care of the soldiers and civilians. They rested peacefully for the first time in days. Wounds were cleaned and bandages changed. Stories told. The Winged Riders, having been at the capital when it was falling, had much to tell the citizenry of Panagin’s Toll.
Jeffrey Junior and Theodore played with other children, and Marie watched them carefully, for any signs of their Smokeshifting. Sadie must have warned them in no uncertain terms to avoid it around people, for she never saw them change.
Private Lark was nearby, resting, as were Regina and Giselle. Anyone with injuries enough to need the rest. Private Wander was just coming to from whatever Sadie had done to her.
There were no blue-glowing mushrooms here, either. Instead oil lamps burned low near any entrance that could suck the smoke away. Still it stank of oil and smoke.
Marie settled onto her saddle blanket to avoid ruining her clothes and called to Regina.
“What do you think they’re talking about?”
Regina shrugged. “If I know our Captain, she’s gathering intel. Anything at all will help. Sadie isn’t exactly family, but she’s a strong ally. Jeffrey will be glad to know she’s safe. They’re all safe.”
“I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing now,” Marie complained.
Private Lark scoffed. “I think we’re doing it, Sergeant.”
“Running and hiding? That won’t keep us forever and Captain wouldn’t hear of it,” Marie shot back. She glared at Lark but the man didn’t budge. His grimace was hard-set and Marie knew that face. It said ‘Just try and punish me. I’m already crippled. What more can you do?’.
“I know I didn’t drink nothing,” Private Wander said, rubbing her temples as she sat up, “and I sure as hell wouldn’t have cozied up next to this one if I had.” She jostled Private Lark and he leered. “So what the hell happened and where in Eningale’s Shadow are we?” The Hidden of the Hundred, Eningale. Appropriate in their time of hiding.
Marie told her briefly what had happened and Giselle shook her head, clearing it of whatever Sadie had done to her. She stood up, stretching her legs and cracking her back. Marie enjoyed the show, but averted her eyes when Giselle glanced her way; she hadn’t been fast enough, though, and Private Wander’s grin before she looked elsewhere brought a flush to her cheeks. Good thing it was so dark in this hole.
“I suppose I’m not supposed to go give her what-for?” Giselle asked.
Regina chuckled. “You could try it if you didn’t care about your limbs.”
Private Wander stared at her fingers for a moment. “I do fancy having my arms. They’re where I keep my fingers, and those are useful for a lot of things.” She glanced Marie’s way again and Marie stubbornly refused to look directly at her.
“I think we all just need to get some rest,” Regina said. “We’ve got Nightingale and Bail on watch with the horses, and we’re deep enough that no one’s going to come looking, anyway. We’re safe here.”
“Says the woman without a knot on the back of her head,” Giselle said, but she let it go. “A good night’s sleep would be nice, though.”
Marie stood up. “Here, Private. I’m gonna poke around, might as well rest your rump.”
Giselle let out a little half-smile and nodded. “Thank you, Sergeant.” Their fingers brushed briefly as they passed, and the electric thrill dancing up Marie’s arm and into her chest sent a shiver down her spine.
Regina glanced up at her. “Do you need some company, Sergeant?”
“No, you keep off your rump, too. Buncha spoiled brats, whining at a little boo-boo.”
The Winged Riders around to hear it all chuckled, save for Lark, who was in what must have been considerable pain to be as unpleasant as he was currently being.
She found the recruits, and though she half-expected them to be planning some sort of escape, the reality was quite different.
Danver Junior and one of the women—Marie thought her name was Hilde—were engaged in a recruitment pitch with a dozen able men and women of Panagin’s Toll. Neither saw her come into the chamber, so she idled against a wall, listening to their speech.
“—Would you rather be in this pit, hiding like a naked mole-rat, or out in the sun, fighting for your country?” Danver Junior was saying. He had sourced a change of clothing from the Panagin’s Toll folk and looked quite dapper, like he usually did, as he spoke.
Hilde stepped in. “We made a mistake, let our fear drive us to make poor decisions. We got people killed.”
Danver Junior hastened to talk over her, “All tragic, to be sure. What could we do when they threatened our families?” He pounded the butt of his spear into the dirt. “Nothing! That’s what.”
Hilde said, “But we were saved from that. Captain Mollen might be young, but she’s fierce and determined. They alone escaped from the capital, and they’re going to take it back.”
“But they can’t do it without your help. Without OUR help,” Danver Junior said. “I know it’s a big ask, but look at your options. Captain Mollen WILL succeed. She has never failed a task once she sets her mind on it. We can take back the capital; we can be the vanguard for the resistance.”
Renee never failing was entirely untrue, but perhaps to an outsider like Danver, it might seem truer than anything at the point of a blade. What was Danver playing at? To go from a traitor to Renee’s most staunch advocate, it was unnatural. She made a point of keeping an eye on him even more so now.
She left his recruitment chamber to find several animals penned up in a deeper cavern. Several pigs, a goat, and a very anxious-looking cow. Sadie was prepared for the long haul in this place, but not for a hundred people. Not to stock an army of refugees.
Beyond this were half-formed tunnels. Sadie must have spent a considerable amount of her free time here, carving out these boltholes and making a safe place to hide away if necessary.
Marie followed the weak but still there twinsense, and found Renee and Sadie up closer to the tunnel entrance. They were not arguing, specifically, but Renee was angry.
“Look,” Renee was saying, “I know you’re worried about Jeffrey, and Jon. I need you to quit acting like their lives mean nothing to you. The woman I met years ago, the one who turned into a fucking dragon to protect a bunch of strangers, is the woman I need now. We have nothing without you.”
Sadie shook her head. “We’re not alone anymore.” Marie stepped forward, arms crossed in front of her.
“She knows,” Marie said. “She’d have shut up her gob if she didn’t want me peeking in.”
Renee exhaled heavily, frustration and relief coming through the bond. “Maybe you can talk to her. I’m going up to my horse. This place gives me the creeps. No offense, Sadie.”
“None taken. You were captive in a place like this once. It would undoubtedly hold some unfortunate memories. And I am sorry, Renee. Captain.”
She waved her hand as she walked away. Marie had fully been expecting Renee and Sadie to be coming up with some brilliant plan of attack, but instead they were arguing over whether to do anything at all.
Sadie and Marie stared at each other. Sadie was taller, more beautiful. Capable of killing Marie without a second thought. Marie was stubborn, more than Renee could ever hope to be. She held Sadie’s gaze.
“I’m afraid of you, you know,” Marie admitted.
“I know it. Even Jeffrey’s afraid of me and he shared my bed.”
“You might not be the cadshee, or whatever he really was, but there’s pieces of him in you. We all saw you take ’em in that day.”
“Do you have a point, Sergeant?” Sadie asked, ice in her tone.
“My point is that I like you, and we need your help, but we’ll go on without it come what may. We’ll probably die without it.” Marie shrugged. “But we’ll go on all the same.”
“Why?” Sadie asked. “Why would you risk your lives for a country that hates you, imprisons you?”
“We ain’t prisoners, Sadie. Dunno where you got that idea.”
“You’re only free to wander where the empire allows. Most don’t even have that. You’re a Twinner, to boot. You didn’t have a choice to join the military.”
“Sure we did,” Marie said, anger rising. “But it wouldn’t matter even if we didn’t. Renee wanted to join, and it let me see the world and learn how to cuss and fight. My folks never let me do either when we were little.”
Sadie smiled at that, but her face changed, a smoky apparition as her features grew more feral. She darted a gaze up the tunnel to the exit. “It doesn’t matter what I want just now,” she said, turning and striding up the incline. “Stalker’s here and she means to finish a job hundreds of years in the waiting.”
“I told you Jon is gone. This is Stalker, and she’s brought friends. You should get the horses and your Wings inside. What’s coming next will not be pleasant.”
And she shifted to smoke and oil, wafting up the tunnel and outside in mere moments, leaving Marie in the dark hole.
She had to find Renee. The way it sounded, Sadie was going to kill Jon. And that couldn’t happen. She wouldn’t let it happen; not for her sister’s sake.
She darted up the tunnel, following Sadie, calling out an alarm.
Next week things are heating up!