DAWN ROSE ON Cumulo’s back as he flew westward, ever westward. All his life he had been a vain, proud, cocky bird. He’d known it, known what people thought of him, but he hadn’t cared. Because he was big and he was beautiful. He was Wingborn, he was special and he didn’t care who knew.
That was then. That was before. Before Nimbys and Hurricane, Aquila and the fall. Before the dragons and the journeys. Before Sanctuary and Nimbys again. Before becoming a Rider and fighting kaz-naghkt. Before returning to Aquila and fighting once more.
Before the tower fell and Mhysra was taken.
Before his Wingborn was gone.
Now Cumulo was restless and dirty, wild-eyed and half-feral. He didn’t care. His Wingborn was gone, Maegla blast it all, and he’d spent two full moon cycles on the wing without any sign of his quarry. World’s End. That’s where the kaz-naghkt came from. Everyone knew that. They came from the knife-edged, black stone, sky-high mountains that all wise folk avoided. No matter how crowded the rest of the Overworld became, no one dared set foot in those mountains – and not only because the kaz-naghkt came from there.
The World’s End mountains were cursed. There was no living in their constant shadow. So high, so steep, so vicious. The worst of the world’s weather came from there. The worst of the world’s ills. It was a dark, inhospitable place that stretched for thousands of miles, from the very north, right down through the Storm Wash itself.
Cumulo had never paid them much attention. He’d seen them, of course, after the fall of Aquila, when he and the other survivors fled to the Greater West. In between rainstorms and fog clouds, he’d glimpsed the far off dark wall that forever menaced the western horizon. But he’d ignored them. They hadn’t been important then. Surviving had. Getting his Wingborn to safety. Finding her voice again.
She had found her voice, wrenching it back from the monster that stole it. Now the monster had stolen her instead. And Cumulo had no idea how to find her, except to fly west into the cursed mountains.
Movement caught his eye below and he folded his wings without thought. With the sun barely over the horizon, all below lay in twilight shadows. Perfect for him to hunt through. Leading with his talons, he slammed into the ground, his prey making the briefest of protests. He clenched, the creature fell still. A scrawny little goat kid that would be barely more than a couple of mouthfuls, still, he’d learnt not to be picky.
Cumulo bent to feed. All his life he’d been pampered, beloved and spoiled. Even during that first flight from Aquila, as desperate as it had felt at the time, he’d been protected. There had been so many other miryhls on that flight with him, not least of all Hurricane and Atyrn, who had helped teach him all he needed to know about hunting and looking after his human and the rest of their flurry. He’d thought himself so grand then, chasing down doelyns and deer. He’d even complained about the fare on occasion, since it rarely lived up to the richness of his preferred bullwing meat, but it had been mostly in good fun.
Nowadays he existed on bony goats and rabbits, and even carrion when he could get some. It turned out that flocks of doelyns and deer were much harder to hunt solo, and the energy chasing them across meadows and down ravines was often more than he could afford to spare. So he took what he could get, whenever he could get it, and he never complained anymore.
He never would again, not after that first initial flight from Aquila, when he’d been enraged to find his Wingborn missing and no one going after her. Headstrong, foolish, careless and so immature. Cumulo shook his head at the bird he’d been such a short time ago.
He was still headstrong and possibly quite foolish, but he tried not to be quite as careless anymore and he’d certainly grown up. How could he not after those first days, fighting to fly west into the teeth of a gale that had forced him back and north, pushing him away from where he so desperately wanted to be – and saving his life in the process? The journey from Aquila to the Greater West took over a month by skyship, and that was in good weather with a favourable wind. He was one miryhl alone with only his wings to carry him. He grew tired, no matter how fiercely his anger burned, and that was when he learned how grave his mistake had been.
There was nowhere to land. The Cloud Sea had stretched out below him, white and uninterrupted in all directions. Nowhere to land, nowhere to rest – and nothing to eat. Three days out from Aquila, with his strength failing fast, Cumulo screamed at the sky and prepared to die.
Full of despair, knowing he would never see his Wingborn again, doubting anyone else would risk everything to save her, he’d surrendered to the gale and let it sweep him away.
For some reason, the gods must have decided to be kind. Cumulo had never had much time for the human gods, except Maegla who had created his kind in the first place, but he’d whispered thankful prayers to all the names he could remember when out of the evening gloom, something solid appeared below. It took precious time and energy to drop out of the wind and fight his way back to the tiny scrap of land, but the moment he landed on the wizened but solidly strong tree, it had felt like paradise. Trembling, exhausted and starving, Cumulo had huddled on that tree and fallen into instant sleep.
Morning brought bright sunshine and a strong wind. He’d woken to find his tree awash in the Cloud Sea, the topmost branches barely above the white tips as the mist rose with the tide. Barely able to face the prospect of taking to his aching wings again, Cumulo had realised it would soon be too cold for him to make the choice as the clouds lapped at his talons, so he’d hissed and whined and flapped back into the sky again. When the wind took him, he didn’t fight.
And so he had come to the Heighlen. Five days after leaving Aquila, the Cloud Sea rolled back as it met the land. Finding a spot out of the restless wind, he’d landed again and slept and slept until his wings no longer ached and his snarling stomach drove him to hunt. Which had been another harsh lesson in the realities of life.
The journey that followed was one that had changed him – for the better he hoped – though he also fervently hoped to never go through anything like it again. Now two moons after leaving Aquila with no plan, no provisions and no idea of what he was letting himself in for, Cumulo finished off his goat and flapped to the top of the crag to clean his talons and preen in the warmth of the rising sun.
He was lighter than he’d ever been in his life, but stronger too. Hunger was a constant ache in his belly and he used it to drive himself on. It wasn’t just food he was craving. He wanted, needed, to see his Wingborn again. He’d never spent so long without Mhysra before. They’d been apart for days here and there, and a quarter moon or so back at Aquila before the siege, but even then, he’d always known where she was. Always known she was safe.
Now he had no idea.
Yullik ses-Khennik had taken his Wingborn and disappeared across the Cloud Sea, and Cumulo didn’t even know whether or not she was injured. Probably. No one else had come through the fall of the tower unscathed and Mhysra had been in the very middle of that mess.
Gods, he hoped she was all right. She still lived. He knew that. He felt it, felt her, right in the centre of his chest, nestled close to his heart. At least, that’s what he told himself. Because she was his Wingborn and there had to be a deeper connection, surely. He’d always openly sneered at the legends and silly stories about Wingborn, but had secretly believed them all. Because that was what made them special, that closeness, that bond. Otherwise what was the point? Why bother being Wingborn at all if he didn’t know whether she lived or died?
She lived, he reminded himself firmly, scraping his talons in the crumbly dirt to sharpen them. She lived. And she would keep living until he found her, because she knew he was coming. She would be waiting for him.
Best not keep her waiting too much longer then.
Running his beak across the last primary in his right wing, he spread his feathers and let the sun warm his back, waiting for a warm wind to brush his face before he lifted into the updraft and soared above the ridge. The wild forests of Scudia spread below like a dark green sea, but Cumulo wasn’t interested in them. Looking ahead, he focused across the miles and miles of canopy to where the jagged edges of Scudia surrendered to the clouds once more. Arrowing himself in that direction, Cumulo lifted higher to where the air was always cold. Then he saw them.
The World’s End mountains. An inescapable black wall that rose dagger-sharp from the frothing sea, clawing the dome of the sky to release white clouds that drifted away from their peaks like smoke. Misty rainstorms dragged across his vision, blocking his view, but Cumulo flapped his wings and didn’t care. He knew where he was going, and the mountains weren’t about to disappear. He flew on into the rain, over the forests, heading westward, ever westward, hunger gnawing at his gut. He was hungry, so very hungry, but not only for food and his Wingborn.
He wanted revenge, and Yullik ses-Khennik would give it to him.
Blinking his third eyelid against the rain, Cumulo rode the updrafts and restless winds, making plans as he flew into the heart of yet another storm. Once he would have complained and whined about getting wet, prompting his Wingborn into teasing him. Now he welcomed the soothing coolness on his hardened muscles and wondered if this was Maegla’s blessing brought to life. He hoped so. He hoped the goddess was watching. Cumulo wanted Her to watch, to care, to help. Because soon he would reach those distant mountains and he would need all the help he could get.
Passing through the sharp shower, he shook his head and blinked his third eyelid again, fixing his gaze on the distant darkness once more.
“Hold on, Mhysra,” he said, beating his wings as the forests fell into a ravine beneath him. “I’m coming, chickling. I’m on my way.”
~ Next Chapter ~