After a brief week’s hiatus, Part Eighteen is here!
Last time on Wings, Captain Renee Mollen and her Winged Riders assaulted the city of Rothfort, held by a foreign enemy. Their goal: free the city if possible. It became abundantly clear that they could not martial the strength to overthrow an entire army of foreign soldiers, so they regrouped and settled on freeing who they could and fleeing to regroup, starting with Renee and Marie’s family.
Wing Captain Claire Claymonte, having been taken hostage in the initial siege, was freed by Sadie, the Smokeshift, along with all the other soldiers held captive within the city, including Sadie’s husband Jeffrey Paige. She believed the plan was to take back their capital.
The Wings Take Shape
Part Eighteen – Coming to Terms
by Rick Cook Jr.
Sadie appeared in a puff of oily smoke, coalescing into her human form complete with clothing. Claire and the rest of the Winged Riders had not exactly waited patiently. They had secured weapons and armor where they could and were working towards the stables when Sadie found them.
She sighed and beckoned them forward. “It’s a fool thinks a Winged Rider lets others go into danger alone.”
Claire grinned. “Against our natures. What’s going on outside?”
“Dragons, wolves, and soldiers on the run. Your protégé has secured what family could be found and they’re making their way back out of the city.”
Claire grabbed Sadie’s arm, which shifted away to smoke as soon as her fingers met flesh. She clenched a fist instead to hide the action.
She asked, “What do you mean out?”
“Half the city is too well-guarded, the other half is in ruins from a dragon. We have no fight to win here, Captain.”
Claire’s fist clenched tighter. “You could win this entire country singlehandedly if you chose to.”
“Perhaps.” She peeked out an arrowslit, seeing into the darkness in a way that Claire could not. “Or perhaps not. Look there.”
Claire followed her pointing finger and saw it: weapons glowing blue in the darkness. She hid her gasp.
Sadie said, “Someone’s been spreading secrets.”
Claire thought of her own attempts to find the blue glowing mushrooms. They had long since been cleared away from the cadshee’s den when Claire thought to look for them and none more like it had been found. But these foreign soldiers certainly knew about them.
“So what?” Claire deflected. “You could still destroy them all if you wanted.”
“I do want to, but that is not the point,” Sadie shot back. Jeffrey came up beside his wife and locked fingers with her.
“Sadie,” Jeffrey said, “You know I’m thrilled to have you back, but Captain’s right. We need to take back our country.”
Sadie kissed her husband’s cheek, and to Claire she had the look of a dragon protective of her hoard. “I’m not alone right now. There’s no time to discuss this. If we try to take back the city, every one of us will lose. Something is off here. I do not know what, but the cadshee’s power within me is in full panic. I’ve never felt this terrified before.”
That was worrisome enough that Claire let it go. If it could scare the most powerful woman in the world, it was something to be feared. Whatever it was.
Claire said, “Then get us safely out of the city and I’ll coordinate from there.” She hated to retreat, but without the might of a Smokeshift or a well-rested army at her back, chances were grim.
“Where can we go?” Jeffrey asked.
“There’s a place,” Sadie assured him. She halted in her stride towards the door and her head cocked to the side, as if listening to something only she could hear. Her lips quirked in a smile as she looked at Jeffrey and Claire.
She said, “I had the same thought, friends.” She waited a moment and nodded. “Are you sure?”
Claire started, “What are—”
“If you’re sure about this, Shadow-Dancer.” She nodded again and waved the soldiers on. Claire felt so confused and exhausted that she wasn’t even sure what was happening.
They reached the door that would lead outside, past bodies of foreign soldiers that were likewise relieved of their armor and gear. Sadie’s gaze met Claire’s and she whispered, “Are you ready?”
Claire nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“Follow in my wake and don’t stop for anything.” She caressed Jeffrey’s face once and he swallowed visibly at her touch, but he also nodded and held his blade at the ready. They’d all miss their weapons and their horses, but it was better to be free and poor than shackled and poor.
Sadie threw wide the door, shifting to smoke and oil as she fled forward into the squadron of foreign soldiers, swiping them to the side and tearing them apart with ease, deftly avoiding their blue-coated blades. The city bathed in the orange of flame. All was chaos and screaming. A dragon flew overhead—another Skinchanger?
She held her blade at the ready and they proceeded forward, letting Sadie do most of the work and just cleaning up the soldiers waiting to be carcasses as they ran. It was nonsense. With such a power on their side, how could they lose? And yet Sadie was worried.
Not a single death on their side as they marched for the gates, down burning streets and streets silent as the grave, streets choked with soldiers and streets clogged with peasants in a panicked flight. They neared the edge of the city, the gate that they had blown apart to give Regina Hughes a moment to escape, and found it wide open. Bodies of foreign soldiers strewn about.
Sadie formed up in front of the gates, urging the Winged Riders onward to the relative safety of the Red Forest beyond. Claire and Jeffrey and the rest of her Winged Riders waited at the gate for all the peasants and straggling soldiers to make it through. When the last of them had departed, Claire noticed Sadie wasn’t moving. She was standing stockstill, staring at the streets of the city beyond Claire and her diminished retinue.
“Sadie?” Jeffrey asked, shaking his wife, but she didn’t respond. Claire looked to the streets and her eyes picked out movement in the shadow and flame.
Someone was coming. Not a squadron or a battalion, not fleeing peasants, not the Winged Riders surely. Someone with a sure, solid gait. A confident stride.
“Who is it?” Claire asked.
Sadie’s jaw was tight, but she managed to utter, “I don’t know, but I can’t move.”
“You what?” Jeffrey asked, turning to her.
“Whoever it is, he’s holding me to this spot. My body won’t respond.”
“I don’t understand,” Claire said. She truly didn’t. There was no power like that, none that she had ever heard of. No Enhanced could control someone else like that.
“We can carry you,” Jeffrey said, reaching out to her to hoist her on his back, but the moment he tried her hand formed into a raking claw and shoved him back, tearing deep slashes down the front of his chest. If he hadn’t been wearing the foreign soldier’s jacket it would have killed him.
“I’m not doing this!” Sadie hissed. “You have to go. You have to flee.”
She struggled to turn her head to the other Winged Riders, Private Dawson and the scant few left. “I’m going to do something to your captain and Jeffrey. Take them to safety. Take them to Stalbridge.”
Claire said, “The Hundred take me if you’re about to do something stupid, woman.” Stalbridge. What did Sadie know of Stalbridge, of Maggie?
But before she or Jeffrey could protest further, Sadie exhaled, and with it came dense fog. Not entirely unlike the smoke and oil of her usual form, but these had purpose. Direction. One flew away into the night sky. Another impacted Jeffrey, soaking into his nose and mouth at his gasp. And the third tendril left Sadie’s body and flew into Claire’s face, choking her so that she could not help but breathe it in.
And just before she lost consciousness, she heard a deep, masculine voice rumble within her head:
All will be well, Claire Claymonte. You have the power of Ursatrundle at your beck and call.
Jon followed the lead of Renee and Marie as they fled the city. Once they had secured the families, even stumbling blindly into Private Lark’s wife and children, they moved at a snail’s pace through the streets and alleys. The soldiers were distracted and paying no mind to them as other sources of fighting and flames erupted throughout the city. All were quickly quelled.
Something felt off to Jon and Stalker, and by the way the other Totem-Bonded hunched their shoulders and glanced about like mice caught by the owl, they all felt it too.
Somebody knew they were in the city.
Who? Jon asked.
I do not know, grandson, Stalker replied. Her voice within his head had lost its confidence, its purring timbre. She was worried, too.
A small contingent of foreign soldiers arrived and had to be fought off. During the skirmish, Jon caught sight of something glinting at one of the soldier’s necks. After the soldiers were cut down, Jon tarried behind just enough to get some privacy.
What do you seek? Stalker asked, curious.
We found cougar lapel pins on a soldier when we first fled the city, Jon explained. At the time we weren’t sure what they were for, except that it had to do with the Totems—with you.
He bent down and wiped the blood off the lapel pins at the woman’s collar. Wolves.
He pocketed them and joined the others. When Marie glanced his way with questioning eyes he waved a hand to say they would deal with it later.
Overhead, Tanner and Regina still harried the city. Once they spotted everyone leaving, they knew to back off and guide their retreat. Renee and her Mad Wings came to the broken gate, but the oppressive feeling within Jon doubled, and then tripled, until it bore down on his soul so hard it was a struggle to remain breathing.
Renee and the others halted in their tracks, some hundred yards from the gate, and they hid behind a building.
“What is it?” Renee asked.
“Talonglide and I will find out,” Nightingale said, stripping her clothing and forming into the hawk. The gate was within sight, but details were hard to make out from this distance. Talonglide took to the sky, flying high.
Jon knelt next to Renee and Marie while the other Winged Riders, Totem-Bonded, and civilians huddled around, scared and nervous at this delay.
“Does Stalker know what it is?” Renee asked.
Jon shook his head. “I take it Swiftstrike doesn’t know.”
Marie clenched her gut. “Makin’ me feel all churny inside. I hate it.”
Stalker said, You should be prepared to Change. We may have to flee quickly.
I’m not leaving Renee’s family behind, Jon shot back.
If it comes down to it, you may have to.
He ignored her. Nothing would make him leave behind someone Renee loved. Nothing. He reached for her hand and squeezed it, and she smiled in return, eyes worried and smile false.
“This didn’t go exactly the way we thought it would,” Jon said.
“It was crazy to think it would work,” Renee agreed. She stood and shook off the feeling, peering around the corner of the building. “Someone’s down there. Just can’t tell who.”
Scalesoar roared from behind them, swooping low and dipping beneath the buildings. The foreign soldiers had long since abandoned firing at him and now just waited for him to come close enough for the ballistae on the walls to have a chance at hitting. But here the walls were barren, broken on the ramparts from repeated dragon attacks.
Scalesoar twisted at the last moment before he would have crashed into them all, using claws and tail to dig into the stone around him and pivot before darting off down a street and flapping up into the sky again. Regina flopped to the cobblestones during his brief pause, rolling to a halt in front of Renee and the others.
“That’s a trick I’d like to try someday,” Marie said. Jon and Giselle Wander helped Regina to her feet and she shook her head, holding her stomach.
“That’s gonna take some getting used to,” Regina said, trying to tame her red hair now that the wind wasn’t ripping through it.
“Report, Sergeant,” Renee said, and Regina gave her report. Sadie had freed Claire and a large retinue of Winged Riders and Kingsguard, and it seemed they had fled the city, but Sadie was still at the gate. And whatever was the source of their shared worry and misery was also at the gate.
“I didn’t like the feel I got when we drew close. Tanner’s observing from up there, but he’s not getting any nearer. The Totems are worried, aren’t they?”
“It’s just one man up there with Sadie?” Marie asked. “I don’t care if it’s the Warrior come back, we can deal with one man.”
“We’ll need Vanda’s protection if the Totems have anything to say about it,” Renee said. Jon agreed with her. Whatever was happening at the gate, it was bad. They couldn’t just rush in without more information.
Sadie, what are you doing? Jon wondered.
He peeked around the corner with Renee, spotted two figures in the gloom but couldn’t tell who was Sadie and who was the unknown man.
But suddenly the night glowed blue, and the man drew a long blade, pointing it at Sadie.
Sadie dropped to her knees at the foot of this man and shifted to smoke and oil, surrounding the man.
She was attacking him? Who was he?
Talonglide swept back in and changed to Private Nightingale, gasping and naked on the cobbles. “He’s taken control of her,” she managed. “She’s being absorbed.”
And that was all it took. Jon bolted around the corner against Renee’s orders, Changing to Stalker, his clothing ripping to shreds as his body formed into the cougar. Stalker took control, joined in his singular purpose to protect a loved one despite the growing fear of this man.
I do not know what we can do, Jon, she warned.
Doesn’t matter! Get her, stop him. The others are coming.
Stalker glanced behind herself as she loped forward, and the other Totems were Changing and following. Whatever this man was capable of, whatever fear he put into them, it paled in comparison to the fury of seeing his aunt in danger. He had never been able to protect anyone, not really. It was always the Totems. It was always something else. Well, now he shared his body with a Totem, with Stalker, and together they could do this. Together they could do anything.
Swiftstrike in his twin forms, Talonglide, Shield-Trudger, and all the rest. They followed Stalker’s lead. It had been a thousand years or more since any of them followed her lead. She had given up the mantle of leader to another.
And suddenly she understood.
She dug her claws into the street and came up short, still fifty yards or more away. Jon urged her forward even as the other Totems halted behind her, questioning.
Do you trust me, Jon? she asked.
Sadie’s in trouble, what are you doing? he shouted back at her.
I need you to trust me when I say that we cannot help her. She is beyond all of us now.
I don’t understand. She’s right there! But she wasn’t right there. Stalker and Jon watched as the man, face hidden under a hood, absorbed the rest of Sadie’s smoke and oil form. He laughed. It was the hollow cry of a loon, sending shivers down Stalker’s back.
He’s killing her! Jon said, and Stalker replied, It’s a fate worse than death.
But something went wrong. The man’s laugh cut off and he doubled over, vomiting smoke and oil which pooled on the ground in front of him. So paralyzed by this was Stalker that Jon seized control of her body and she let him. Jon surged forward toward the man as he was standing back up, snarling with all the strength of a Totem, startling the man.
For a brief moment, seconds before Stalker would have collided with him and torn him to shreds, Jon caught the man’s eyes within the hood. The cadshee’s eyes. The eyes of his aunt. The eyes of a feral beast freed at last.
And the man grinned before dissolving to smoke and oil, seeping away into the cobblestones and disappearing, the laugh like a loon’s cry echoing in Stalker’s ears.
The pool of oil the man had vomited out suddenly shrieked with pain and loss.
Stalker let herself Change back to Jon, and he knelt down to gather his Aunt Sadie into his arms. She was alive. She was hurt, panicked and afraid, but she was herself again.
She clutched at Jon as the other Totems came to their side, trailed by the Winged Riders and their families.
“He took it from me, Jon,” she whispered after a few moments, when she could catch her breath and stop from sobbing long enough to form words.
“What?” But he knew. Deep down they all knew.
“The power of the cadshee. He stripped it away and now I’m nothing.”
Jon held her tight, the only pillar of strength he’d ever had in his life, and watched it crumble away before his eyes. Whatever else they accomplished this night, one thing was sure: they had lost this battle.
Ooooh, losing the biggest advantage you had, that’s not good. Next week is the final Chapter in The Wings Take Shape – the season finale if you will – and I’ll tell you all about what’s happening with the story after that.