The taste of salt on the air ignited a voracious hunger in Lession’s gut when he leaned over the parapet of the lighthouse tower. A wind was rising, a strong, fierce wind that chilled the air and made his heart bang hard and fast against his chest. Was it a Gray storm? He took a long deep breath until his ribcage cracked. Yes. Must be a Gray. Only the wind current from a Gray was strong enough to whip salt from the waves and carry it up this high.
Far below, the waters of the Empty Sea heaved and swelled with all the colors of darkness like the storm was building in its belly and not off in the eastern sky. Six months since the last Gray. Six months. Too long eating fish and crabs without a scent of red meat. His belly was sour and tight from the taste of the sea.
“Is the wind right, My Lord?”
Lession turned to watch Hurkerna climb up through the trapdoor in the center of the floor.
“Will you fly, My Lord?” she asked. “Will you... feed?”
Lession’s chest tightened. It was hard to look at her some days. The black leather of her skin was stretched tight around every bone, sinew, and thread of muscle. When they’d imprisoned her here, her breasts had been full and proud. Now they sagged like blooms in autumn. Even the ridges of armored skin around her head were loose and ropey these days, for want of a proper feed.
As if to answer her itself, the wind blasted across the parapet, whistling through the skulls that dangled on ropes from the stone basin that capped the tower. Before the lighthouse had been abandoned, the basin had held fire to warn seafarers of the rocks. Now he used it to store the bones of his catch.
He caressed one of the skulls. He remembered this one, a child he’d taken a year ago, a lost leaf adrift on the gray wind. She’d begged for her life. But her salty tears did little except turn his hunger insatiable. Like most that didn’t fight, she had died quickly, painlessly. She didn’t deserve to hurt. Too beautiful. Too fresh.
He patted another skull. Hurkerna had hung these decorations here, and he was proud of her for it. She’d sat for days over each one, cleaning them, polishing them with sandstone and rubbing them with fish oil until they glistened in the sunlight like beads of coral.
“I’m so hungry, My Lord,” Hurkerna said. “The taste of fish is vile in my mouth.”
“The wind ripens. And it is not fish I scent on its breath.”
He arched his back with pleasure when her talons wrapped around his chest and dug into his skin. She would have made a good mate, perhaps a mother of at least three, if they hadn’t castrated him before his exile. He flinched at the memory. The mental pain, the knowledge that his line would end with him, was still a hot open sore in his mind that was impossible to heal.
But if the castration had been terrible, it had been nothing but a bite compared to the wing-cutting.
Halgon knew what he’d been doing before they marooned him here. The Chief himself had taken his wings, hacked them off with a white-hot whale knife before slicing them to pieces and tossing them onto the bonfire he’d used to heat the blade.
“You’ll kill no more of us, demon.” Halgon had said as Lession’s wings had crackled and spat on the flames not ten feet on front of his eyes. “But we’ll show you mercy. We’ll show you we are not the simple food stock you think we are. You’ll live out your days on the tower. May fish grow to your liking and repentance blossom in your heart.”
Then, as the smell of burning meat filled Lession’s lungs, Halgon’s men had sealed his wounds with molten tar to ensure that nothing else would sprout from his back. The thousands gathered in the square outside the Temple of Circles had laughed that day, and that laughter still rang harsh in his ears. He looked south across the sea. In the distance the spires of the City of Roses stood proud against the backdrop of the White Peaks.
None were laughing there now. Oh no. They’d be testing the wind, too, securing their carts and boats in storm frames before herding their animals underground into the storm shelters.
A bead of saliva leaked out from between his lips and trickled down his chin. Not all would make it to the shelters. There were always a few: the drunk, the stupid, the courageous, or the lost, who braved a storm. Not many, but always enough.
“I wish I could come with you,” Hurkerna said. “I wish I could....”
Lession turned and ran a talon down the side of her face. “You have no need to fly again, my love. I will return with such delights as to make the smile blossom on your face again. I will search for a child.”
“A child?” Hurkerna’s eyes flared crimson. “A child? It’s been such a while since I’ve tasted tender flesh.”
Lession licked her forehead. When they’d first brought her here he’d looked at her with spite, a curse to mock his impotence. Yet, despite his initial desire to kill her, he’d grown fond of her. The sight of the lumpy ridges of scar tissue that ran from her shoulders down to her buttocks was a fuel to keep the fires of revenge blazing hot in his heart.
Yes. She would have made a good mate, in another life, in another place. She was strong and intelligent, and it was she who’d opened up his scars and teased the remains of his wing muscles back out into the open.
Halgon had done his work silently and without malice that terrible day. But he’d been too hasty, too excited. His blade had simply seared these vital inner muscles instead of severing them. They would never lift him, but they did enable him to guide the wings Hurkerna had spent two years fashioning from driftwood, rags, and other flotsam washed up along the shore.
“Take me with you, Lession,” Hurkerna said. “I long to see the land again, soar above the great forests and mountains and be free if only for a short while. Please, My Lord. Just for tonight.”
Lession’s heart sank. He stroked the side of her face again. “I sense the storm is weak. I may have perhaps little more than a few hours on the wind. Perhaps next time.”
Hurkerna sighed. The fire in her eyes faded to a dull ember. “Yes. Next time.”
Lession turned away. The lie was always the same, and she’d never once questioned it. Off in the east the first rain clouds had dropped, masking the horizon in a gray, shifting curtain. He turned south again.
“Tonight, Halgon,” he hissed onto the wind, and muttered a curse that the wind would carry his words across the water and spread them like fire across the City of Roses. “I’ll cut another flower from your perfect garden and watch it wilt and die on my rocky plate.” He pointed towards the trapdoor. “Now, Hurkerna. Fetch my wings. The wind is rising fast and soon I must be off.”
Once he was strapped into the leather harness attached to the wings, Lession rested against the parapet while Hurkerna threaded the seal sinews through his muscles before connecting them to the wings. The pain was as bad every time. But it was good, worthwhile pain; pain that always sank away once he was in flight.
When she was done he climbed onto the parapet and waited, watching the waves crash in great snowy plumes on the rocks far below. Wind tugged at the wings, tempting him to fly. He resisted its call. The breath of The Gray wasn’t full yet. No. Before he could take flight the skulls had to scream with it!
“A flower, My Lord,” Hurkerna cried, her voice weak above the crash of waves. “Bring a flower to brighten up my heart.”
Lession opened his mouth and sucked in a great breath as the first drops of rain spattered against his face. All around him the skulls jerked and strained against their ropes like they were somehow alive and desperate to join him. Jagged streaks of lightening tore the sky apart. Thunder rocked the parapet. The pitch of the wind rose into one long, terrible scream.
He flexed his muscles and jumped. He automatically stiffened as the Gray embraced him, buffeting him about like a wild beast trying to throw a rider.
He steadied once the initial shock of artificial flight had passed. He quickly found one of the stronger lower currents and followed it landward. When he reached Deepta Island about a mile off shore he wheeled right, rode an upper draft over the Hadlock Hills, and approached the City of Roses from the west, gliding dangerously low over the outlying slum area of Pawter in case any of the sentry towers atop the walls were still manned.
He didn’t linger over Pawter. The stink of open sewers was vile, and there were little pickings here. The bones of withered chickens were better dressed with flesh than the inhabitants of Pawter. Besides, a different danger rose from this place. Many of the wooden shacks were already flattened. Strips of board and loose planks were slicing through the air like swords.
After passing over the western gate, he entered the city proper and rose higher, content for a while to just examine it, observe any changes made that might pose a danger. They’d laid traps before, primitive wooden cages and nets he’d taken great pleasure in destroying.
Little had changed. The stone and marble houses that lined the avenues of the northern quarter were as clean and hatefully pure as ever. The Markets Fields were deserted. He avoided the military district of Sanglone. Too many eyes. Too many brave hearts that might seek a reputation at his expense. He also kept clear of the Temple of Circles. Like a blot on the landscape, its three towers rose up from the heart of the city as if to mock him. That’s where they’d snared him, taken him down with a hail net barely six months after he’d left the Nothing Lands to seek food.
His back muscles twitched at the memory. The movement caused his left wing to dip and sent him into a brief spiral. He regained control quickly and headed for the docks. A few loose dogs ran about in mindless panic as he soared above them. He’d taken dog before, and the taste sat foul in his mind. He’d take none today. Even if he had to risk all and fight his way into a shelter, he’d bring Hurkerna a worthwhile feed.
His first catch was a drunk, a silver-haired sailor who was staggering through one of the back streets close to the Havel Dock. He snatched him on the first dive.
“Relax, my friend,” Lession hissed into the stunned man’s ears and caressed his head with his free hand. “It’s all a dream. None of this is real.”
The man barely struggled. When Lession bit a chunk from his shoulder, he went limp. The initial thrill of tasting meat soon evaporated. The flesh was old, sour, steeped with alcohol. He couldn’t take this back to Hurkerna. No. Goat would taste far better.
After storing the man on the roof of a warehouse, he began making broad sweeps over the maze of alleys, squares, warehouses, and tenements that lined the harbor side. Sometimes slaves would attempt to flee under the cover of a Gray. Other times he’d found children here, wandering alone, lost in the panic of a storm evacuation. He’d taken the girl somewhere around here.
But where exactly?
He rode a current upwards until the dock area became a map. He circled for a while, using the landmarks to stir up the memory of that wonderful catch. Had she been over by the fish markets? No. Too open. She’d been away from the markets, trying to shelter in....
Down below, a figure stirred close to the wood yards. A small figure.
His chest swelled with hunger. The wood yards. Of course. That’s where he’d found her. She’d been trying to wriggle underneath one of the iron frames used to stack the timbers.
But who was down there now, another child? Or had the sailor’s alcohol-laced blood addled his mind and turned a memory into reality?
He made a pass over the timber yards.
It was a child, a boy, perhaps ten or twelve years old, whose bare limbs looked so wonderfully white and meaty. Perfect. If he took the boy to Hurkerna immediately he might, with luck, get a second catch before the winds dropped. And if he didn’t, we’ll, maybe the sailor’s blood might freshen once the old drunk had sobered up.
Lession wheeled left and made a second pass over the wood yard, the heady scent of a thousand pine trees on the wind flushing the sailor’s stink from his nostrils. The boy had seen him. He was sprinting towards a warehouse building at the back of the yard. The windows of the building were broken. The entrance door was banging in the wind. Lession cursed. If the boy went in there he’d have to land, take him on foot.
But what if it was a trap? What if....
An image of Hurkerna, her lips shiny and beautiful with blood, appeared in his mind. For the first time in months she was smiling. He circled a third time, dipping low to examine the yard. Apart from the mounds of timber and the dozen or so wagons secured in their storm frames, the place was empty. Halgon would never dare try anything here. It was too open. They’d do it in a holy place, a temple or meeting hall, somewhere they’d feel safe and confident.
He cursed again when the boy scampered into the warehouse.
Pangs of hunger clawed at his gut. He circled the building and swooped to examine the loading bay at the rear. Though it was barely six feet high, the updraft here was just right, a perfect place to take flight from. He glided around to the front, dropped to the ground, and stood perfectly still for several seconds while his body regained its natural balance.
He approached the door. Shrouded in shadow, a corridor led off into the bowels of the building. His chest swelled. This was good. Dark, narrow places were always good. No room for traps or any more than a handful of soldiers.
He went after the boy.
“I’ve come to help you,” he hissed, walking on the balls of his feet so his claws didn’t clatter or scrape off the floor. “You must go to a shelter. I’ll take you there.”
A childish sob passed down the corridor.
“Your mother sent me, boy. We are both in danger. We must leave soon before this roof collapses.”
Like part of the storm had followed him in here, a wave of dried leaves rustled past his feet. He paused when the corridor split at an intersection.
“Please, child. Time is short. You must not....”
Another sob. This time off to his left.
He didn’t budge. He couldn’t risk panicking the boy. Not now. Not when he was so close. “Come here, boy. Quickly now.”
“I can’t. I... I’m afraid. The storm will take me.”
Saliva flooded Lession’s mouth at the sweet innocence of that voice. Such a glorious prize for Hurkerna. Such a thing to make her laugh again.
He followed the corridor left until it emptied out into a storeroom. Apart from a stack of timber at one end of the room and a marble statue sitting in an alcove beside the sliding door to the loading bay, the warehouse was empty. Wind tore at the roof like a thousand curious hands, making the beams groan and tremble. Streams of dust fell like tiny waterfalls. The dust got into his nose and tickled his throat. The boy was kneeling at the statue. It looked like the God Aronus, the water god. He crept towards the boy, ever so slowly now. “All is well. I’ve come to help.”
The boy buried his head into the statue’s feet. He was mumbling something, perhaps a useless prayer. “We must leave this place.” Lession paused. “The roof is weak. The Gray will soon whip it off and suck us both up into its gut.”
“I know who you are.” The boy turned his head, his raven hair falling over his face to conceal his eyes.
“I am not what you think. I am a friend to many.”
“I cannot go with you.”
Lession swallowed the saliva in case it spilled from his mouth and scared the boy further. So the boy knew who he was. Well then, there was little point playing any more games. All he needed to do was distract him for a few more moments. “Listen to the wind. Do you not long to fly upon it? I can bring you there, carry you above the clouds and show you sights that only gods can see.” Lession edged closer “Do you not long to see it?”
The boy released his grip on the statue.
“Come with me. We’ll soar over the Nothing Lands. You’ll get knowledge that will make you rich one day.”
“But....” The boy glanced towards the far door. “My mother, my family. I cannot leave them.”
“You’ll not be gone long. All I yearn for is some company, a companion to share the wonders of flight with. Your family will think you taken by the storm. Imagine their joy when you return with such stories as to swell their hearts.”
“They’ll think me a demon worshipper. They’ll burn me on a pyre.”
A fresh burst of saliva flooded Lession’s mouth. The smell of the boy’s fear was waning, replaced by a healthy curiosity. “They’ll treat you as a hero. Tell them you fought me and won.” He pulled the double bladed dagger from his waist scabbard and held it towards the boy. “Take this. It’s made from a metal no mine in these lands could produce. They’ll know what it is. “
He tossed the dagger onto the floor. The clang of metal off stone echoed briefly around the room before the wind drowned it out. The boy’s head jerked back, briefly revealing his eyes. Gray eyes, set into his face like stones.
Lession’s heart jumped. Those eyes. He’d seen them before. But where? “What’s your name?”
The boy’s mouth dropped open. When he rose to his feet and stepped towards the weapon, Lession matched him step for step.
“Tell me your name, boy. Let me know who I shall carry to see miracles.”
The boy was close now, close enough to smell onions and bread off his breath. The smell was like a trigger. Lession leaped and closed the gap in a millisecond. He tore at the boy’s shoulders. His claws slipped away. The boy was wearing something beneath his jerkin. Armour!
Caught off balance, Lession made a vicious swing for the boy’s head. The boy was quicker. His hand shot out as he twisted sideway. He plunged a needle into Lession’s thigh. A bolt of fire blasted up Lession’s leg. Scrabbling madly at the dart he toppled sideways to the floor. His leg muscles flexed and tightened. Paralysis raced up through his body, a hungry, animal thing that froze every muscle and sinew it touched.
“What... what have you done? What have you...?” Lession’s roar faded to a whimper as his chest tightened.
“I am Jakar. Son of Halgon.” The boy stepped closer and looked down without a hint of triumph in his eyes. “And I am punishing you for your sins.”
Lession sucked in a slow, heavy breath. The eyes! Yes. Now he remembered. They were Halgon’s eyes. “Halgon’s son?”
“And one day his successor.” The boy’s voice deepened, the squeak of childhood changing effortlessly into the voice of a youthful warrior. “Many skulls hang upon your prison walls, Lession. When The Gray is done we will reclaim them and lay them to a proper peace.”
A pounding ache rose up behind Lession’s forehead. Tricked! By a child! He eyed the dagger, desperately trying to will his arm out to reach it. “You... you planned all this?”
“The Council decided your fate.” The boy produced another needle from a pouch at his waist. “The first sting was a poison. The second sting is their gift.”
Lession closed his eyes when the needle jabbed into his arm. A throbbing ache began, sending weak pulses of energy out along his veins, enabling him to roll over and haul himself up to his feet. He rounded on the boy and tried to ball his fists. But his fingers were too heavy, too stiff. “You’re... you’re... releasing me?”
“Return to your prison. Let it become your tomb. The antidote will give you half an hour at most before your body hardens to stone.”
To stone! The words almost dragged Lession back to the floor. Hydrameade! Impossible! They couldn’t have gotten hydrameade. “How did....”
“It took three years and much coin to find it.”
Lession coughed and spattered the floor with yellow mucus. “Why not slay me? Where are the soldiers? Where is Halgon?”
“None will laugh at you this time. My father takes no delight at this. Soldiers are not needed. You can waste your energy trying to fight me. Or you can use it to return to your tower.” The boy tossed a third needle towards Lession. “Your partner must share your fate. When we come for the bones we will boil her slowly if we find her alive.”
Briefly, Lession imagined himself finding the energy to fling himself forward and use the needle on the boy. Then an image of Hurkerna passed through his mind. She was smiling, watching for his return. He stuffed the needle into his empty scabbard. “You show me mercy.”
“We are human. We are merciful.”
Lession staggered towards the doorway leading to the loading bay, on legs that felt like they’d been filled with molten lead. He unlocked the door and stumbled outside. A gust of wind caught him, forcing him to steady himself against the doorframe. The boy followed, stony-faced, those terrible eyes as cold and unmoving as his fathers.
“The tower is yours, Lession. We’ll name it after you to mark your passing.”
Lession paused. My passing! So they didn’t know the hydrameade wasn’t fatal, didn’t know that the truth was even worse and the poison would only petrify him indefinitely. He gave the boy a brief, sad smile before spreading his wings and stepping off the loading bay. The current took him quickly, violently, buffeting him about as it whipped him upwards into the calm heart of the storm. Within seconds the yards disappeared below and the City of Roses was hidden beneath a swirling rain cloud. The current held him there for a while, effortlessly, like a feather on the wind.
What now? Could he return to the tower? Could he use the hydrameade on Hurkerna, condemn her to a sleep that might last a thousand years or ten times that? Should he not kill her instead and end the misery permanently?
Or would it not be better to drop through the waves and spend eternity at the bottom of the sea, until barnacles covered him and he became a fireside tale.
The very notion sent a new burst of energy flooding through his muscles. No! Hurkerna was waiting. He couldn’t leave her alone, couldn’t leave her to face the fate Jakar promised. She would die, not by human hands, but by his.
She needed peace.
And when others took flight from the Nothing Lands some day, others who might carry with them the remedy to hydrameade, he’d have his revenge on the City of Roses.
He screamed a long, warlike scream. And it was as if the Gray understood him. The current shifted, released him, and guided his wings until he was gliding out across the sea. Hurkerna was on the parapet when he broke through the clouds. As his arms turned to heavy weights he angled sharply, sailed over her head, and slammed onto the tower with such force it shattered his wings to pieces.
“My Lord!” Hurkerna cried as she dragged him from the wreckage. “What has happened? Are you all right? Are you....”
He dragged himself up and clung onto the parapet for support as the leaden heaviness sank deeper into his limbs.
“My Lord, you are hurt?”
He grabbed her and held her tight. “I am sorry. So very, very sorry. Our day is done here, Hurkerna.”
He grasped her tighter, pinning her arms by her sides. “You will suffer here no more.” He nibbled open the larger vein that ran down the back of her neck and nuzzled against her cheek while her life blood drained out and pooled around their feet.
“My Lord, you weaken me.”
“It is not hunger that drives me, Hurkerna. It is love.” Lession eased his grip and stared at her. Love. The word echoed off inside his head like a plea for mercy, not from Hurkerna, but from some deep part of himself. Of course he loved her, loved her too much to carry this through.
She shouldn’t die. She couldn’t die. Even if it meant condemning her to a terrible sleep, a future without her would be a future dark and grim. His hands cramped as he sealed up the vein and pulled the needle from his scabbard. Her jaw dropped when he raised it in his hand.
“My Lord, what... is that?”
“Hydra.... No! Please, My Lord. Not that. I cannot....”
Lession grabbed her shoulders and spun her around when she tried to shove him away. “It is our future, Hurkerna. Our future. Look west. Look towards the Nothing Lands, for it is from there our salvation will rise some day.”
He slipped the needle into her arm. As her muscles stiffened, he used his last reserves of energy to mould her into a comfortable position, both hands resting on the parapet, her head tilted so she was looking out over the Empty Sea.
“This poison cannot kill us as they think, my love,” he whispered into her ear. “It can only bind us. Time to rest now. Time to sleep.”
Like a keening lament, the Gray storm howled its fury and turned the waves of the Empty Sea white as he took a position beside her and fixed his eyes on the western horizon. He took one last, long breath, raised his arms, and pushed his chest out. He held this position as his heartbeat slowed and the white sea faded to gray and then sank away into blackness.