Part Sixteen, and the beginning of the final act of The Wings Take Shape!
Last time on Wings, Captain Renee Mollen, having survived betrayal at the hands of her new recruits by melding with the Totem spirit Swiftstrike (along with Marie), worked to convince her Winged Riders to take on other Totem spirits that Sadie had gathered to her.
After much discussion, she succeeded in granting all but three of the Totems to her soldiers Regina Hughes, Aldwin Tanner, Patricia Nightingale, Giselle Wander, and to the would-be-murderers Danver Cummins and Hilde Allworth.
She then hatched a plan with their newfound abilities against the foreign enemy at their capital city, Rothfort.
The Wings Take Shape
Part Sixteen – Prep
by Rick Cook Jr.
They couldn’t storm Rothfort, of course. The foreign soldiers would take them down eventually, nine plus Sadie and a few able soldiers.
Jon knew it, Stalker knew it, but they came to the knowledge differently.
They crept through the Bloody Wood, each of the new Totem-Bonded still adjusting to having voices inside their heads. Nightingale refused to stay in human form, kept taking to the sky to glide as her Totem wished to do. Jon was glad for her.
Sadie left her children in the care of the townspeople and Private Lark. For all Lark was a bastard he seemed to take the defense of children seriously enough. Perhaps he’d be useful yet.
Stalker said, The man smells of cowardice.
Jon replied, Maybe, but the look in his eyes was stern enough.
She settled back, a gentle purr. After a time she continued, I should have said thank you.
You didn’t need to.
I did. I’ve been a prisoner a long time, and I treated you poorly, grandson. You could have banished me and been done with it.
I don’t think I could have.
Then you are stronger than me, Stalker confessed. Jon blushed and turned his attentions elsewhere. It wouldn’t be long and they’d be at the capital. Under cover of dark, the enemy would have no idea what was happening.
Sadie formed from smoke and oil next to him, surprising him.
“Don’t do that, Sadie,” he hissed.
“Apologies, Jon. I just wanted to check on you. We haven’t had a chance to catch up yet.”
“I think you know what’s up with me.”
She shrugged. “I heard Stalker killed a kid.” Stalker growled in his head but subsided. She was sorry for it even if she didn’t want to be called out on it.
“It was a confused time.”
She patted his back. “It’s not your fault.”
“Didn’t say it was.” Stalker said, We share in that responsibility, grandson.
He ignored her. “She keeps calling me grandson.”
“Curious,” Sadie said, lips quirking up in a smile.
“I called the cadshee ‘grandfather’ before I ended him.” She chuckled ruefully. ” I suppose I should have called him father.”
“You call him what he deserves, dead.”
Her lips pursed. “Even though he is gone, his power lives on. My sons have it, too.”
“So long as they don’t go around kidnapping girls and murdering innocent people, I think they’ll be okay,” Jon said.
She said nothing, and it set his hairs on end. “Aunt Sadie?”
“Do you think we have a chance?”
“With the full wrath of the spirits of the forest I think we could conquer the entire kingdom.”
That sent shivers down his spine. “I’ll settle for saving it.”
“We all will,” Sadie assured him and moved on, but now he wasn’t so sure.
That woman is dangerous, Stalker said.
I know it. But she’s on our side.
She growled and he was surprised to note his throat echoing it a little. The symbiotic relationship was hard to hold. He let his mind drift into the background and Stalker assumed control of his human body.
She approached Farsight Poul and tugged on his sleeve to gain his attention. “I would know why you declined Talonglide’s offer.”
He shrugged her off. “You’re not my superior, Jon, I don’t have to answer you.”
“I am not Jon.” Poul stiffened. “I am Stalker, and Talonglide is hurt by your refusal.” She didn’t know this for certain about Talonglide, but she would have been if Jon tried to reject her.
“I said it before. I’m sure she’s a nice enough lady, but you and yours did me no favors by giving our family this curse.”
She sniffed and was upset that she couldn’t smell his emotion in Jon’s body, but he looked agitated and upset.
“Why do you view it as curse? You see what none other can ever see. You are more than human.”
He grunted. “I’m a freak. I was hunted. I’m a slave to Roth Arden as surely as you were shackled all those years.”
She shut up for a moment, her anger at having her imprisonment brought up palpable.
Poul sighed and his shoulders eased as he gazed around the forest. “I’m not saying it’s the same, but you did this to me. Your jailer is dead, so I hear, but mine is all around me. Even if we free the capital, all of Roth Arden, I’m still in chains tied to this military, tied to my vision.”
Jon said, He has a point.
I know he does, Stalker growled. To Poul she said, “We were once as gods. You will find us in no hurry to return to that fate, stunted as we are already.”
“I need to concentrate if I’m going to see anything in this darkness,” Poul said, and she understood the conversation was over.
She let him be, thinking on his words. Jon, she said, what is your intention once this is over?
Serve the Wings. This fight won’t end tonight.
She thought he was probably right. If what she’d learned from him was any indication, some of these foreign soldiers were servants of the old religion. How long had it been for that? Before Roth Arden, before the Totems came to dwell in the Red Forest, away from humans.
Before they’d been driven out of the lands of man.
The smell in the woods changed. They were near the capital. Nightingale came down, reporting that the walls were manned, but lightly. Instead of covering herself she switched back to Talonglide and settled on Renee’s shoulder, awaiting orders.
Renee called them all in and Stalker let Jon come forward once more.
“We don’t have much approaching a plan here, but it breaks down like this,” she began. Marie held a torch out to her and they sketched out the city and its fortifications.
It was simple, really. Which meant a lot could go wrong. Tanner as Scalesoar would knock down the gates and sweep the walls clear of archers, giving the rest of them a means of entrance. Sadie would find the Winged Riders and free them if possible while Scalesoar kept the city occupied with flame and wing. Tanner looked far too ready for his part.
“Captain,” Regina interrupted at that point, “I’d like to stick with Tanner. We may need human communication and Belljetter won’t be much use on the ground.” Jon was sure that wasn’t the only reason, but he wasn’t about to say it. Renee nodded.
“If you think you can hold on to a dragon’s back, be my guest. The rest of us are going in as Totems backed up by Privates Bail, Yoris, Farsight Poul, and the recruits. Hilde and Danver are with us.”
Danver cleared his throat, clearly nervous. “The—the turtle—tortoise, sorry. Shield-Trudger says she can keep up with the rest of you.”
“Having someone to take some arrows would be good,” Renee said, nodding. Jon couldn’t believe Hilde and Danver were free, and granted Totems besides, but stranger things had happened the last few days.
Hilde dropped to a knee in front of Renee. “We won’t let you down this time, Captain.”
“See that you don’t. Now get off the ground, I’m not a queen.”
She stared around at the assembled group, and to Jon it appeared she was marking their faces one last time. Before she died, or they all died. Her eyes met his and they locked gazes.
We’re not dying tonight, Jon said to Stalker.
I don’t plan on it, grandson. I’ve only just gained my freedom.
He grinned at Stalker and Renee grinned back at him, which made him blush. Definitely not dying tonight, he said.
Renee cleared her throat one last time and started stripping. The other Bonded who would be changing, including Jon, proceeded to do the same. It was embarrassing and he hid his nudity even though he’d done it dozens of times in front of his Skinchanger cousins, but it was different now. Renee was here. The others didn’t seem to mind.
Sadie said, “If you don’t mind a little ritual, the Skinchangers have a ceremony.”
Renee nodded, the only other person in the group to hide herself. “Go ahead, Sadie.”
Sadie looked at those assembled, then nodded at Jon.
Jon said, “Who is Witness?”
Sadie said, “I Witness.” She nudged Regina, Bail, Yoris and they all said it too.
“What form do you take?”
They answered in unison, the disparate names of the Totems. Stalker in Jon’s head said, My true form.
“I Witness,” Sadie said again, letting the others echo her. “When will you return?”
Jon answered for them all. “When dawn crests the trees, we will return.”
Sadie nodded. “Shed your selves for your other selves.”
The Change overtook them all. Some changed for the first time, others had been practicing. Jon’s skin melded into the fur and lithe muscle of Stalker, washing over him like a dip in a hot spring. It still surprised him how the pain was gone.
Stalker flexed her claws in the undergrowth while the other Totems stretched or bounded in excitement. Foxbane darted around, jackrabbiting here and there in his glee. The twins as Swiftstrike nuzzled each other, and one delicately picked up Finkscuttle the mouse in his jaws and settled the mouse on his back. Shield-Trudger shuttled forward like a discus the size of a boulder, her throat making some kind of sound that Stalker knew was laughter, excitement. Foxbane leapt on her shell and held on to the spines near the front with her little front paws, like he’d done it a thousand times before. Stalker knew he had. Talonglide landed on the other Swiftstrike, perched on his neck. That one was Renee.
Most impressive of course was Scalesoar, jaw snapping and wings flapping. Tanner must be losing his mind inside there, Jon thought, and Stalker laughed.
It is good to have you back, brothers and sisters, she thought. Let us show the world we have returned.
Regina disappeared in a fold of wing and before anyone knew what was happening the dragon roared, reverberating the woods all around them before taking flight. Regina cried out in surprise from his back as they lifted into the night sky, disappearing above the treetops.
Sadie disappeared in a puff of smoke and oil, drifting away into the forest to infiltrate the city.
Bail and Yoris stood dejectedly staring at the assemblage. Bail laughed and clapped Yoris on the back.
“Gather up their belongings, Leon. I’m not missing this for the world.” Leon Yoris seemed glad to let them handle it and nodded. Stalker rubbed against Yoris’s leg to mark him and he almost doubled over with fear at her approach.
The other recruits, directed by Private Chaplain Bail, followed the Totems through the dark woods, carrying the humans’ clothing.
To the gates, and to their deaths, most likely. Stalker and Jon knew better, though. They could do this. They could free the city.
They had the power of gods on their side.
There’s some action coming next week!