And here it is, the final part of The Wings Take Shape!
Last time on Wings, Sadie led the imprisoned Wings headed by Claire Claymonte to the city gates in order to escape. A presence Sadie had sensed took control of her body and she forced the others to flee without her, but not before gifting Claire and Jeffrey with the Totem spirits of Ursatrundle and Shadow-Dancer.
Meanwhile, Renee Mollen and her Totem-Bonded fled through the city with their families and other refugees intent on getting out of the city and away from the foreign military. They came upon Sadie just as the force that had taken control of her absorbed her completely and stole the powers of the cadshee, vomiting up what was left of Sadie before disappearing in a puff of smoke and peal of wicked laughter.
They escaped the city, but they didn’t make it unharmed. And now they must decide on their futures.
The Wings Take Shape
Part Nineteen – Soldier On, Mad Wings
by Rick Cook Jr.
They fled Rothfort, some in their new forms and others barely holding onto the forms left to them. Renee didn’t know exactly what had happened at the city gates, but the result was clear enough.
The fight was long from over and whoever that man had been, they were not prepared to deal with him.
They met up with Private Dawson and the rest of the Winged Riders and Kingsguard, heading for shelter once again in the Bloody Wood near the old moonshine distillery. Captain Claymonte and Private Paige were still unconscious, but Renee could sense the Totems within them. Not who they were, but that they were present. That left one, missing and roaming the world. And Sadie. Once they were in the woods and safe from prying eyes, their pace slowed and Renee approached Jon.
He carried Sadie, a loose jumble of boneless limbs, and though the cords of his neck stood out from the strain of carrying her, he never complained and almost growled when the others offered to help carry her.
When he spotted Renee coming near, he waved her off. “I told you, Captain, I can carry her.”
“I’m not here to take that burden, Jon,” she whispered. “I need to know what happened.”
Swiftstrike said, None of you are ready to know.
Jon shook his head. “If I knew, I’d tell you. Someone stole her abilities, that’s about all I can gather.”
That’s a bunch of shit, Renee shot back at Swiftstrike.
Nevertheless, Captain, it is true. You are too new to the heritage for us to just feed you from the mouth. There is a greater problem, though. The man we saw at the gate was not a man.
What was he? she asked.
There was a moment of hesitation inside her mind, as if Swiftstrike was formulating a story instead of the truth. He said, If the cadshee could be said to be our child, then that creature is like an uncle.
“An uncle?” she mused aloud. Marie caught up to her sister and wrapped an arm around Renee.
“You getting the same story from the wolf?” she asked.
“Apparently. Is everyone getting it?” The other Totem-Bonded nodded. “I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do from here, but one thing’s for sure. Our army still isn’t big enough to take back the city, and the countryside is no doubt hostile as can be.”
Private Dawson came close and cleared his throat. “Pardon, Captain.”
Marie chuckled. “Still so weird hearing that from people what used to be our bosses.”
“What is it, Dawson?” Renee asked.
Dawson looked uncomfortable around everyone, but he said, “Sadie told me to go to Stalbridge. I don’t know what for, but she said it right before she did the thing to Captain and Paige.”
Totem-Bonded. Her old Captain and the man who was like a big brother to the twins. They would certainly be strong companions when they woke. Claire would make a strong leader. It surprised Renee how much the weight of the world lifted from her shoulders at the thought.
Sadie was incoherent and appeared not even to register the conversation happening around her. Renee sighed.
“We’ll figure that out once we settle for the night. Has anyone seen Tanner yet?”
Regina spoke up from the back, “He’s looking for a place to land, I think. Scalesoar isn’t exactly good at forest landings.”
They kept going until they reached the shack, then settled the soldiers and the refugees. Renee wanted more than anything to go to her family, but there was just no time. Swiftstrike said, There is always time to see to kin.
Maybe, Renee mused. Not this moment, though. We have things to decide.
She waited until Claire and Jeffrey woke, and for Sadie to come a little out of her trance. Then she called her Winged Riders, the Totem-Bonded, Sadie, and Claire’s Winged Riders to a council.
Once gathered in the tight confines of the moonshine shack, Renee looked around the firelit room at those assembled. It was an interesting lot.
Claire Claymonte and her Winged Riders: Regina Hughes, Jeffrey Paige, Ian Dawson, a couple others.
Renee’s surviving Winged Riders: Marie Mollen, Jon Sawyer, Terrance Poul, Giselle Wander, Chaplain Bail, Patricia Nightingale. Yoris had met up with them once they fled the city. Private Lark had stayed behind in the redwood root cave.
The leaders of Renee’s civilian army: Danver Cummins Jr and Hilde Allworth. Traitors twice over but Totem-Bonded. What was Renee to make of them?
And then there was Sadie. The inheritor of the cadshee’s power, only to have it stripped away. She couldn’t even Skinchange anymore because they were all freed from the cursed bond the cadshee had inflicted on her ancestors so many years ago.
While waiting for Claire to get her bearings and come to terms with Ursatrundle, and Jeffrey with Shadow-Dancer, Renee stood at the front of those assembled. She was once again wearing rags since they’d lost their clothing in that last manic charge trying to save Sadie, but she hardly noticed the lack of proper clothing.
“Sergeant Hughes,” she began, “do we have a count yet?”
Regina said, “Captain, if we can get supplies—weapons and clothing and food and the like—we’ll have a standing military presence of ninety-three.”
Jeffrey Paige cleared his throat. “They weren’t exactly trying to keep us healthy in there, Captain.”
“Noted, Private,” Renee said. “We have a couple of problems, and I want to get into them all as soon as we can, but the first is that we’re scattered to the three corners of the damned empire right now. We have people and family outside of Panagin’s Toll. We’re all here. And something’s going on in Stalbridge that Sadie won’t clue us in on.”
Jon stood up from next to the disheveled woman. “She’s gone through the ringer and you want to question her?”
“It’s not a matter of what we want, Private,” Claire said, standing for the first time since waking. She wobbled a little on her feet, as if she wasn’t used to her own weight. “It’s what we need, and the only source we have that isn’t being a stubborn lummox—yes I’m talking about you, Trundletot or whatever your name is—the only one not jealously guarding secrets is Sadie, and she’s in some kind of coma.”
“It’s shock,” Terrance Poul said. “You know what that is, surely, Captain?” He even had the audacity to smile at her as he said it.
Renee snapped, “Enough, Farsight Poul.” He settled into sullen silence, but Claire looked ready to chasten him further.
So Renee cut them both off from continuing. “The way I see it, until the Totems decide to be a little freer with their intel than they currently are—“ Swiftstrike growled in her mind. “—we really only have two choices. Head to Panagin’s Toll and regroup, get Sadie’s children and whoever else will join the cause. Or we go to Stalbridge and see what’s what.”
Sadie mumbled something, her sandy skin mottled black. Jeffrey went to her now, taking her hands in his. She recoiled from him at first, but he held tight until her shoulders relaxed and she sobbed gently into his chest. He whispered things to her, things it was embarrassing to listen to, but slowly, ever so slowly, Sadie came out of it. The others held their respectful silences.
While they waited, Swiftstrike said, What happened to her is unfortunate.
That’s a funny way to put it, Renee shot back.
Your anger is misdirected, little Captain.
Being called that struck Renee harder than she would have expected from this creature, who was barely more than an acquaintance, despite sharing her mind and body.
He recognized that and she felt the chagrin, confused it for Marie’s emotions for a moment, but Marie was paying her no attention, eyes fixed on Private Wander, who was quietly cleaning her nails with a dagger.
That was mean to say, Swiftstrike said. You are a fine captain.
You were right the first time, she thought, not wanting to communicate it to him, but it didn’t matter. Their minds were open books to each other, and she felt him disagreeing.
Ursatrundle and Captain Claymonte will be more than capable of taking charge, Renee said, and again she felt hesitation from Swiftstrike, followed by mirth.
What? she prodded.
Trundletot, he said. He will not like that name, but I rather enjoy it. Ursatrundle isn’t suited to lead. He makes bold, brash decisions and trusts his overwhelming presence to see them to completion.
Claire isn’t much different, Renee admitted. I don’t want to hear this. I can’t lead an army.
You can, and you may find out you have to.
She swallowed and shoved his mind away, though it was just a token gesture as they shared the space equally and he would not give if he didn’t want to.
Jeffrey stood and Sadie stood with him. The way Sadie’s skin was splotched gave her the appearance of a mottled horse breed, leopard-spotted. It was hard not to stare as though at someone afflicted.
“Are you ready to talk?” Renee asked.
Sadie inspected her skin, eyes red from crying. Renee fought back her own tears, blinking them away. Sadie nodded after a moment and patted Jeffrey’s hands.
She started, “I gather the Totems haven’t really told you anything yet? I thought not. If there was one thing I learned in my time with them, they like to hold their secrets.”
She sniffed the air. “Even my senses are dull. This is what it must be like to be normal.” She let out a pathetic little sob but gathered herself again. Some of the old fire Renee recognized came flooding back into her.
“I know how I must look to you all. Diseased, or broken. I feel both and yet I suppose I am neither. It will take some getting used to.”
She took a few feeble steps and gained momentum, pacing back and forth in front of those assembled. Renee snatched a glance at the crowd; everyone was awestruck or nervous. As well they should be.
Sadie turned to the group again. “The man that did this to me is not a man.”
“So we’ve been told,” Claire said.
“Then have you also been told that he is no Totem?”
Renee had suspected that very thing, and was surprised to learn it was not. She said amidst the whispers, “Swiftstrike said he was as an uncle.”
Sadie nodded. “So they said to me, but not in the way that I am an aunt to Jon.” She spared him a smile and he looked down, hiding his own. Renee stood and sat next to him, lacing her fingers through his. She was terrified of what he would do, thought her stomach would drop out of her body, but he squeezed her hand and scooted in closer to her as they listened. Renee fought back the urge to shout in triumph, to kiss him on the spot.
The rules weren’t as important during wartime. That’s what she kept telling herself.
Swiftstrike sighed within her. Stalker and I will come to terms.
Sadie continued despite the brief interruption. “He is as much a god to the Totems as the Totems are gods to us. He brought life to this world.”
“The Creator?” Claire blurted. Several others made signs or whispered to the Hundred. Some of the Totem-Bonded remained silent, but their eyes were wide, disbelieving. Renee didn’t know what to make of that.
She said, “Setting that aside, because frankly my mind doesn’t want to wrap itself around that insanity, how do we beat someone that stripped Sadie of the cadshee’s powers?”
Sadie looked away, in the location of Panagin’s Toll. “We do not. My children, on the other hand…”
Jeffrey balked. “They’re just kids, Sadie. We can’t put them in that kind of danger.”
“You haven’t had the dreams I’ve had,” Sadie said, so quiet that only those closest to her picked it up.
“What dreams?” Claire asked. When Sadie didn’t answer, Claire asked again, louder, so that everyone in the meeting quieted down.
Sadie looked pained. Renee understood holding in a secret. She got to her feet, dragging Jon with her, and sent determination through the Twinner bond to Marie. Marie got up as well after shaking her reverie away.
“Captain, if I may?” Renee asked. Claire looked ready to argue, but she relented after Renee gave her a stern glare. Which put all kinds of butterflies dancing in Renee’s stomach.
She held out her free hand to the mottled-skin Sadie. After a moment’s hesitation, Sadie took it, and Renee did her best not to flinch back from the touch of that skin on her.
“I know that trust has never been easy for you. You spent your entire life hiding what you were because the empire would force you to serve.” She glanced at Farsight Poul, who smugly stared back, nodding slightly. “It’s a kind of freedom, having secrets.”
Marie stepped in. “I don’t hold a secret, but I know when it’s important to let one out. And this is the time, or we ain’t going nowhere ‘til it is. Best to make a clean cut and we can worry about whether you’ll bleed out later.”
Jon cleared his throat. “The kids, Aunt Sadie. They’re not normal.”
“I know they’re not. Anyone with eyes can see that.”
“But that doesn’t make them bad. Whatever you’re dreaming, it isn’t real. It isn’t prophecy.”
“You don’t know that.”
Jon sighed. “Maybe I don’t. Maybe it is a vision of things to come. But why would all this be happening if Jeffrey Junior and Wren were just going to burn it all down later.”
“I don’t know!” Sadie shouted, covering her eyes with her free hand. “I don’t know anything anymore. He took it all. Everything I learned, everything I knew from the cadshee’s abilities. It’s all gone. All I have are my own memories now. My own nightmares.”
Renee pulled Sadie into a hug, and Jon joined them. After a moment so did Marie. Renee whispered, “You’re among family. You’re among friends. We have to know.”
And she told them. Visions of smoke and oil sweeping over the land, her children corrupted by the will of the cadshee dormant in their bodies. They were evil, chaotic and whimsical, destroying just to see things destroyed. Creating abominations just because they could. And when they were bored, they made entertainment of humanity. She always woke in a cold sweat, convinced ever more that they were going to one day become the villains she saw in her dreams.
“I should have ended them,” she whispered after she was done.
“You what?” Claire asked.
“It would have been easier. I wasn’t supposed to have children. I couldn’t before this all happened. I defied nature itself, and now he’s twisting them to his own cruel desires.”
“You can’t know that,” Jon said. “The kids worry me, but they’ve got you. They’ve got Uncle Jeffrey.”
“That’s Private Uncle Jeffrey,” Private Jeffrey said, trying to add levity to a serious situation.
“And they have the rest of us,” Renee insisted. “They’re not alone to be manipulated. We won’t let it happen to them.”
Sadie wiped a tear away, staring at the gathered men and women. At some point Corporal Tanner had joined them, wrapped in a horse blanket. He and Regina were cozy together.
“I wondered when the two of you would figure it out,” Sadie said, and they blushed furiously at suddenly being the centers of attention.
“All right, all right. None of that,” Tanner said, but he and Regina didn’t let each other go. “There’s more important things than who’s hooking up with whom.”
Claire cleared her throat now. “We’re all tired. We’re all hungry. None of us will be safe for a long time to come. Captain Mollen, I think we should break for the night and you can decide on a course in the morning.”
Renee didn’t miss that. Deference. You decide. No.
Yes, Swiftstrike said. Like it or not, Captain, you’re leading this charge.
Mad charge to our deaths, she thought.
A mad charge for the Mad Wings.
And for the first time since it all started, a fire of commitment and bravery flared inside her. She could do this. She had to do this.
For her soldiers and her friends. For the Totems. For the empire.
“I agree,” she said finally. “We’ll break for the night, get some rest, and then head out in the morning. You all did great tonight. Every one of you is a hero whether you know it yet or not.”
“There’s just one more thing to do, then,” Claire said. She reached for a pouch that was not there, and Regina sprang to her feet. As the sole ranking officer who hadn’t lost her kit in a Changing or imprisonment, she still had her pouch.
“Thank you, Sergeant.” She dug into the pouch and came up with a Captain’s lapel along with three stars and a symbol of the Hundred. “As the senior ranking officer, it falls to me, Wing Captain Claire Claymonte, to appoint the rank of Field Marshal Wing General to Wing Captain Renee Mollen. May she lead us to great victory!”
The pins entered the tattered remnants of her clothing while she stood in mute shock. This was a farce. She was the head of the military for all of Roth Arden.
And she had no idea what to do with that.
Epilogue – Wings
She felt it ripple through the Red Forest. Unmistakably foreign and yet so familiar.
He was back. Through all the long years, through all the Totems’ experiments and squabbling, through all the humans’ interference and worship, even through the cadshee’s reign and subsequent demise, she had been waiting for him.
Deep in the heart of the Red Forest, so deep that no human eyes had set upon it except those that she wished, a white form stood on long legs that met the ground in silver-shod hooves.
She knew what was happening in the realm of man. The forest whispered its secrets to her. She even knew of the Skinchanging woman and the soldiers doing what she had never been able to do: defeat the cadshee. She knew the powers had transferred, and she was listening, watching, waiting. Waiting for the time when the cadshee showed itself once more, waiting for the humans to fail so she had to step in.
And yet that had not come to pass. The cadshee was no more, at least in the form she knew it, but a much older foe had returned instead. Not a degenerate abomination, but the source of all that was good and all that was evil in this world.
Something new was transpiring in her woods; new and old at the same time. Old names whispered themselves to her in the dark of the forest, by the light of the moon. Old friends free to play once again.
The creature unfolded brilliant white wings and took to the sky, flying for the dawn. Flying to the fools who summoned the Creator back to this world.
And that’s it for this volume of the Shapes series! I hope you enjoyed getting to know Renee, Marie, and Jon a little better; getting to revisit old favorites Claire, Sadie, Jeffrey, and Regina; while also meeting all the new faces in Farsight Poul, Giselle Wander, Chaplain Bail, Leon Yoris, Patricia Nightingale, and all the rest.
The story for these people is far from over, and in the coming weeks you can expect to see some short stories following some of these side characters as the whole motley crew spreads their wings to find more allies, gather intel and resources, and undertake other missions for Wing General Renee Mollen.
Then, probably starting around the 4th quarter this year, I will begin posting the next exciting volume in the Shapes series, tentatively titled Shadows Under Wing.
The tease for Shadows:
In the wake of a surprise attack on their home country, Wing General Renee Mollen and her Winged Riders must scramble to build an army to fight off the foreign aggressors. At the same time they must contend with their newfound abilities as Totem-Bonded, able to Change their shape and live with gods of the forest inside their heads. There are forces at work in the country of Roth Arden, some not seen for hundreds or even thousands of years. A powerful man claiming the mantle of the Creator and wielding the abilities of the cadshee, set on amassing all the power in the world; a mysterious creature that may be friend or foe to the Totems coming out of the Red Forest to seek them out; dissidence and betrayal in the ranks of the Mad Wings army; the appearance of another Wing Captain far more capable than Renee or Claire could hope to be, who may be seizing control for the wrong reasons?
All this and more in the next exciting chapter in the ongoing Shapeshifters Saga!