A Miryhl’s Journey
FRUSTRATION DIDN’T EVEN begin to cover Cumulo’s feelings as he tried and struggled to reach World’s End. Leaving from Scudia had been a mistake, but the weather swiftly set him right, blowing him northward back to Etheria. Even after almost two months alone, it seemed he still had plenty to learn about the winds and ways of the Greater West. Mostly that World’s End was considered off-limits and cursed for more than one reason.
For such an enormous range of mountains, looming on the horizon like a wall, it was frustratingly difficult to get to. The almost-constant westerly wind formed a barrier every bit as impressive as the mountains themselves.
But Cumulo was determined, so he didn’t let a little weather hold him back. He travelled to the isolated edges of Etheria, following the advice of the local eagles, and dared to set out across the empty Cloud Sea once more. Unlike Scudia, which ended in a sheer cliff, Etheria dripped in tiny islands, some only one tree wide, fading out until there really was nothing between him and World’s End. Except clouds, days and days of clouds.
The borders of Scudia were closest to the mountains, but the islands off Etheria gave Cumulo a little extra distance. Then it was up to him.
Determination was one thing, but sheer stubbornness was what won him through. Starting off as high as he dared, he spread his winds and set his body to endure the frigid air streaming over the mountains to wash across the Greater West. The higher he went, the less persistent the airflow, but it was cold up there and he found it hard to breathe. Yet his aching heart drove him on, day after day, sleeping on the wing, pushing past exhaustion. There were no islands out here, no skyships to land on. There was only him, the empty air and the restless sea below.
He sank, slowly, inexorably, day by day, his body growing weaker, his mind turning foggy as his height lessened. The wind pushed against him, waking him up enough to flap his wings and drive himself back up again. Then he glided. He didn’t know how long it took. He lost all track of day and night as storms swept out of the mountains and shrouded him in rain and shadow.
He found an outcrop. A tiny shadow on the surface of the sea. It was a terrible place to land, embedded in the frozen wash as it was, but he had no choice. Setting down, he hunched his wings and endured. Clouds drifted silently around him, the wind whipped the surface into foam and frost settled on his feathers. But Cumulo’s purpose kept him warm.
Mhysra, Mhysra, Mhysra, his heart beat, and after barely a bell of rest he took off again, worried that if he stayed there any longer he would never have the strength to leave.
It hurt, climbing away from the bitter clouds, back up to where the sun shone strongly. The ache settled in his bones, but Cumulo welcomed it. He was alive, he was moving, he was on his way.
In the midst of another rainstorm, exhaustion swept over him and he drifted lower than he realised, jolting awake as his sagging feet brushed the icy tips of the sea. Startled, he flapped and squawked – and crashed into a tree.
It was the first sign of life he’d had in days and Cumulo clung to the wiry branches, wings hunched, head hanging as rain streamed off his feathers. The bark bit into his toes, the branch creaking in protest as he tightened his grip against the gusty wind. The wood didn’t break, though, nor did it throw him back into the Cloud Sea. It held him, offering him shelter and surcease where he’d feared to meet only death.
The storm strengthened, bringing thunder and a scattering of hail, but Cumulo didn’t mind. He stood and trembled, breathing in the scent of ozone and shutting his eyes against the lightning. After a time, the worst of the roaring eased and he tucked his head beneath his wing, too tired to stay awake any longer.
He awoke to a changed world. Where once all had been white and empty above, around and below him, darkness had arrived. The mountains. He’d reached the mountains.
World’s End reared up before him, a natural fortress of stone, with knife-sharp battlements scratching at the sky. He’d made it.
“About time too,” he croaked. Squeezing his branch one last time for luck, he opened his wings and flapped into the shadow.
* * *
REACHING WORLD’S END was one thing, but finding his quarry, Cumulo soon discovered, was quite another. For a range that seemed so solid from a distance, the reality of the mountains was a mazy, confusing, shadowy mess of sharp ravines, plunging gorges, vast canyons and a gleaming black stone that made it very hard to tell one mountainside from another.
Forests clung to some edges, thick and wild and uninviting. Cumulo tried to keep out of them as much as he could, even though hunger gnawed at his wings, sapping his strength. The wildlife was strange. The wolves he caught distant glimpses of were huge and dark, long-legged and ragged, while the hunting cats he occasionally saw were small, bulky and vicious. Black goats with golden eyes ran up sheer canyons walls, sneering at his attempts to scare them to their deaths, confident that their precarious perches were too close to disaster for him to reach.
And they were right, much to his continuing frustration. He had better luck with the delicate grey deer that clung to the forest edges, tiptoeing out at dawn and dusk to nibble at scrubby meadows. Each one was less than half the size of the snickering goats, but he swiftly developed a taste for their strangely strong meat.
Water poured, frothed and roared in abundance, punching holes in solid rock walls to tumble thousands of feet into sheer gorges where no light reached the bottom. He flew over canyons full of shadows, illuminated only by silver river ribbons winding far below. Torrents gushed out of glaciers that in turn ground and groaned their unstoppable way down from the highest peaks and plateaus.
It was utterly unlike anywhere Cumulo had been in the Overworld, but he had no interest in its stark beauty or unique wonders. He wanted his Wingborn and knew she was here somewhere. She had to be.
Everything changed on the ninth day after he’d arrived in the mountains. It took a while for him to notice, but gradually Cumulo realised something had changed below. It wasn’t the first time he’d glided from gloomy, uninviting forest to barren slopes – World’s End seemed to have a multitude of both. Yet, even at its most stark and seemingly inhospitable, there was life in these mountains. Scrubby grasses and tenacious flowers clung in impossible crevices, the wretched goats sprang giddily over death-defying drops, blackbirds with white rings around their necks sang loud and clear, and even flocks of swifts screamed and scythed through the skies around him. He’d seen butterflies feeding in the high meadows, hummed along to the buzz of bees and chuckled at the tumbling antics of young ravens learning to fly. But not here.
This place was empty, desolate. Dead.
Curious, Cumulo drifted cautiously into one broad canyon and settled on a wide ledge. The streambed below was empty, nothing but dust and boulders, cracked and splintered beneath the large summer sun. The twisted shapes of thorn trees shivered in the whistling wind, but their lack of leaves and shattered branches showed that they were only husks.
Flexing his claws in the crumbling dirt of his ledge, Cumulo tilted his head one way and the other, examining the landscape. The lack of water explained the dearth of life, but the drought made little sense. Everywhere else he’d been had practically overflowed with rivers, streams, brooks and springs. They bubbled up out of whole rock or tumbled down from the glaciers on high, polishing the black rock until it gleamed like glass.
Cumulo looked up at the peaks that overlooked this place. They seemed as high, pointy and threatening as all the others he’d passed, with clear signs of another glacier wedged in between the tallest pair.
So where was the water? Where was the life? What had happened here?
Crackling his beak, Cumulo lifted off again, determined to find out.
* * *
YULLIK SAT SILENTLY in the centre of his fortress, meditating in the heart of his power, and smiled as something crossed the borders of his land.
Eyes closed, he breathed in deep, feeling the magic prickle against his skin, and laughed.
* * *
IT TOOK CUMULO another two days, but he finally worked out the mystery of the barren lands: kaz-naghkt. It made sense, really. With kaz-naghkt being always hungry, of course they would have stripped the surroundings of any place they called home for any length of time. It was what they were. It was what they did.
Cumulo didn’t care about any of that, except that it led him to a fortress carved out of black stone, tucked into a gorge through which all the stolen waters of this land poured.
Of course, there was a chance that more than one foolish idiot had chosen to live in this place. Perhaps it was the remnants of an ancient civilisation, long forgotten. So he watched and waited for proof.
And saw kaz-naghkt.
Cumulo fluffed up his feathers and narrowed his eyes with triumph. “Found you.”
Now all he had to do was find a way inside and break his Wingborn out.
“Shouldn’t be too hard,” he told himself confidently, and took off in search of openings and weaknesses.
It wouldn’t be long now, not too long at all, and then they could both go home.
“Almost there, Chickling. I’m almost there.”
~ Next Chapter ~