Storm Aeye

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.VII.

“We were wondering how long it’d take you to wake up.” Kate had barely opened her eyes and part of her wished she was still out cold. Her whole body ached, and that was nothing compared to the way her mind, and more forcefully, her heart ached. And that was even with the chain still about her wrists, dulling everything.

It was night, the dark gloom of the storm having deepened to an impenetrable darkness in the time she had been unconscious, though there was faded band to the east that signaled dawn might not be too far away. There was only a small fire a short way from her, but the circle of light it threw and the minimal warmth it provided barely made it to her. Around her, she could hear the thrumming of the rain on the remaining structure of the building, and the insistent gushing sound of small rivers and floods pouring from places where the rain had pooled and collected and was overflowing around them. The very air was damp, clinging to the skin that wasn’t covered by the thin but warm blanket they had covered her with again. A small part of her wondered, for a fleeting instant, if this was what it felt like to be inside a waterfall. Indeed, as a few distant lightning strikes illuminated the night beyond the mouth of their artificial cave, she could see the water sheeting over the entrance, thick and glass-like from the downpour.

It was in the light from the flashes of lightning that she noticed Declan sitting a few feet from her, leaning back against a huge column, its paint and plaster decaying away so that she could see glimpses of dull metal beneath. He was watching her, his long legs stretched out in front of him, his hands fiddling with the little knife from the empty armband on his left forearm.

Suddenly self-conscious, Kate jerked up, turning away from him as her hands fluttered around her, straightening her shirt, scrubbing at her face as she suddenly became very aware that her eyes were swollen and her skin sticky from tears before tugging the tie from her once neat ponytail and lamely combing through her hair with her fingers; anything to avoid the way he was looking at her.

He was still looking at her like she was a puzzle, though as she had turned, she could feel him looking away, and when she hazarded a quick glance back at him, he was looking down at the knife in his hands.

“How’s your back,” came Orwin’s voice, just barely audible over the cascading roar of the rain. Kate jerked again; these two were really not helping with her nerves. Like with Declan, it was only with the flashes of lightning that she was able to pick him out in the darkness. He was standing watch just inside the wall of water that poured over the entrance of their shelter, tucked in among the exposed superstructure just out of the rain. He hadn’t even turned to look at her.

“It’s—” It was then, as she paused to take stock of how she felt physically, that she realized the lingering pain in her back was substantially less than it had been in a long while. “What did you do?” Another dim flash outside revealed a faintly satisfied smile on his face. It was Declan who answered, though, looking up to her again. This time she didn’t turn away.

“Our Ma works in the Releasing Chambers, so she knows all about how to ease the pains that come before. She taught Orwin and me a few of the massages.” A shiver ran through Kate as he spoke, one that had nothing to do with the damp chill in the air. Absently, she pulled the thin blanket closer around herself, tucking her knees up to her chest. The nagging anxiety in the back of her mind that the scarlet-winged Captain’s words in Sweetgrass had generated reasserted itself. It took a few tries for Kate to speak, as she had trouble swallowing around the lump forming in her throat.

“Does Releasing mean what I think it means?” Her voice was so quiet and tentative that Declan frowned when she spoke, straining a little to hear her over the rain. Off beyond them, Orwin didn’t even seem to notice that she’d said anything at all. The sympathetic look she’d seen on Declan’s face before she’s blacked out emerged again. Slowly he nodded. Kate could feel the blood leaving her face at the thought.

It was a conclusion she hadn’t at all wanted to form. It was something she had been trying desperately not to think about, just as she’d been trying not to think on the fate of her Mom and Logan. The Alaian Captain said she was of one of winged races, but she didn’t have wings. At first she’d tried clinging to that thought as evidence to herself that she wasn’t what they claimed she was; that hope had lasted barely more than a few heartbeats. But as the events of the last couple days had played out, she’d barely given her lack of wings a second thought, distracted by other things as she was, until Orwin had made his comment about what she was and how they’d know the day before. Again, she hadn’t given herself permission to think on it further. Now, though...

That the birthmark on her back seemed so important, and given the pains her body was forcing her to endure, it hadn’t taken a lot to piece what was going to happen together.

She did have wings. They just hadn’t appeared yet.

“When?” was all she managed to choke out in reply. Declan hesitated, glancing over to his brother as if for support, but it seemed Orwin still hadn’t heard her speak.

“It’s hard to say,” he finally said, his voice calm and slow, “our wings usually don’t start to really develop until our bodies mostly done growing; we are of course, born with wings, though they stay dormant within our bodies. After all, it takes a lot of energy out of the body for the wings to complete their growth, and they need a healthy, grown body to support them.” That she didn’t doubt, surreptitiously eyeing Declan’s wings where they rested, relaxed, folded in behind him. She remembered absently that his wingspan had to be at least 10 feet from tip to tip; the Captain’s wingspan had possibly been greater than that. She could barely fathom that she had a pair of her own residing, dormant, just beneath her skin. “We all go through periods of relative normalness punctuated by bouts of severe growing pains that can leave you all but insensible; though I’m sure you know that bit already. As I imagine you’ve guessed, the markings on your back are from your wings. Once our bodies are ready to support them, the skin will begin to darken as the wings grow to the point where they can no longer fit within the constraints of our bodies.

“Your wings, as of yet, don’t seem quite ready, despite the level of pain you seem to be having, though it may not be all that long until they are.” The nagging anxiety in the back of her mind swelled until a paralyzing fear gripped her. As though to drive home the reality of what he’d just explained, the dull throbbing in her back flared for an instant. She pulled the blanket tighter still, burying her nose into the smooth softness of it.

“Despite the pain?” Control over her voice was slowly returning to her, but it didn’t stop the anxious way it faltered. He’d sat forward a little as he’d spoken, his legs folding so that he could rest his forearms on them, loosely mirroring her own posture. Now, though, he couldn’t quite look at her, his eyes flicking around her, looking first at her shoulder, then the hem of the blanket, then off into the darkness beside her head. In the erratic flashes of light thrown across his face, she could see the distressed wariness that had overtaken the sympathy in his expression. For a moment she could have sworn she could see the memories of his own Releasing reflected in his eyes. It did little to sooth the ragged fears ricocheting around inside her thoughts.

“I was prepared for my Releasing since I was an infant; we all are. But you...” He broke off, running a hand over his short, dark hair as he tried to formulate how to continue.

“You’ve been completely alienated from the culture you were born to,” Orwin added gravely. She hadn’t realized he’d been paying attention. “You haven’t been preparing for it the way we do. So your pains are already far worse than they should be given how far along your wings are.”

“So it’s going to get worse,” she concluded bleakly. She hadn’t even realized she had started trembling until her teeth nearly began chattering as she spoke. The sympathy had returned to Declan’s face, and he reached out to touch her arm, trying to offer a little comfort. She nearly shrugged his hand away, but she couldn’t deny that his small attempt did help. For some strange reason, she didn’t quite feel so alone with the warm pressure of his fingertips against her arm. After a moment, the trembling began to fade.

“Don’t worry too much. Like I said, our Ma works in the Releasing Chambers. She’ll look after you,” he added quietly, a faint but certain grin coming to his lips. Off by the rain-drenched entrance, Orwin let out a heavy sigh.

“Declan...” he said, his voice thick with warning. Declan pointedly ignored him. Kate peered hesitantly over to the older Alaian. There was something going on, something between the brothers.

“What,” she turned back to Declan, her voice pitched low enough that she hoped his brother wouldn’t hear, “what is it?” She caught his gaze, but he ducked his eyes almost immediately. The anxiety in her chest fluttered.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said just as quietly, though it wasn’t quiet enough to hide the false brightness in his tone. Now, instead of trembling, it felt like every muscle in her body was beginning to wrench taut. She looked anxiously into his face, searching for something, anything, to explain what he was hiding from her.

“Declan?” He froze when she said his name, his eyes coming slowly up to meet hers. She swallowed thickly when she saw the dread there. She had only known him for the space of a few days, and only spoken to him sparingly, but she could easily read what that expression meant.

“What happens—what will happen—if I am an Aeye, what—” her voice kept breaking, his apprehension inspiring her own anxiety to surge up into her throat. His expressive face took on a cast of plaintive dismay, as though begging her not to ask.

It was answer enough.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled weakly, sounding utterly miserable. Fighting to keep the trembling from overtaking her again, Kate turned away from him, huddling close to the dying fire with the blanket pulled in close around her as though it could shield her from the ugly truth that the young Alaian warrior next to her couldn’t bring himself to say out loud. If not knowing the fate of her Mom and Logan felt like a monumental weight hanging over her head, then this felt like a blade hovering near her throat. She shuddered, her skin prickling.

Out beyond the gaping mouth of their refuge, the rain was beginning to ease, and in the distance, the clouds were beginning to thin under the onslaught of the imminent dawn. As the air around them began to brighten in the cool glow, Orwin emerged from the hollow he’d been waiting in to perch on the cliff-like edge of the building, surveying and considering as he looked out at the sky.

“It shouldn’t be too much longer before the rain stops altogether,” he said after a few moments, “we should be able to leave soon.” Kate only huddled deeper into the blanket, staring blankly into the embers of the meager fire. Behind her, Declan rose reluctantly to his feet, his wings rustling as he stretched. She could also hear the faint footsteps that signaled Orwin approaching her and his brother.

“Get the harnesses prepared,” he instructed, his voice low, “I’ll see to the net. If we push hard, we should be able to make it to the—” but he didn’t finish, his head cocking to the side a split second before he spun around. He wasn’t fast enough, though, and a dark blur hurtled into him, catching the hickory-winged Alaian around the waist and propelling him back and over into the cavernous shaft that occupied the core of the building. Too alarmed to even make a sound, Kate instinctively tried to leap to her feet, only to have her legs twist out from beneath her as the blanket tangled around her ankles in her haste to turn around.

Faster than a heartbeat, Declan had his short sword in his hand and was dropping into a defensive crouch. But like his brother, he wasn’t quite fast enough.

In a flurry of flapping wings, an Aeye plunged into the cave after her companion, her feet connecting heavily with Declan’s chest. But given the split second warning that his brother’s attack had given him, he was able to let his body go loose, minimizing the impact even if only marginally. The grunt that was forced out of him was still pained enough that Kate couldn’t help but flinch in sympathy. He didn’t seem to let it affect him, though, and managed to roll back to his feet as he crashed into the floor, his body’s impact drawing long wet smudges through the dust as he slid through puddles left by the torrential rain. Then, his wings flaring for balance, he faced his surprise opponent with a hard, determined look, his sword flashing in his hand as he swung it around.

Kate barely noticed. As he was righting himself, her eyes had swung around to the newcomer, causing her to freeze with astonishment. Even without the scar that bisected her fierce expression, Kate would have recognized the Shadow-wing from the woods in a heartbeat. For a split second, the Aeye woman met her eyes, the flicker of relief Kate saw there adding another layer to the bewilderment quickly overwhelming her surprise. She was the only one to freeze, though.

With a yell, Declan launched himself forward. The Aeye warrior was ready for him. With a resounding clash, his short sword met with hers, though the force of Declan’s attack was enough to cause the Shadow-wing to take a quick step back. She met every swing of his with one of her own, deftly shifting out of the way when he got to close and pressing every opportunity she got. But even to Kate’s untrained eye, he was in no way out-matched.

She had never seen anything like it before. They way they moved seemed like a dance. The two blades glowed like molten silver, they sliced so quickly through the air, catching the dawning sunlight with brilliant flashes. It captivated her to the point where her fear was nearly forgotten as she watched them circling each other, wings and arms and legs all committed to the intricate choreography playing out in front of her.

But then the match shifted, and with a fluid feint and dip, the Aeye twisted herself inside his reach, catching his sword-arm by the wrist with her free hand and catching her foot behind his knee to pull his legs out from under him. His sword clattered across the dusty floor toward her. Kate didn’t even think, lunging forward to snatch it up.

In one last desperate counter–attack, Declan had his little blade in his hand and tried to whip it out into the soft flesh of the Aeye woman’s belly. She was too quick, though, and twisted it from his hand before her fingers latched on to his throat.

“No!” Kate didn’t even realize she had cried out until the word was out of her mouth and echoing in her own ears. Kate couldn’t help it, though, and she certainly wasn’t interested in taking it back. Both Declan and the Aeye woman jerked around to gape at her. They stood, frozen, with Declan half-sprawled on the grimy floor—one hand raised in a small effort to shield himself, the other gripping at her wrist where it was on his neck—and the Aeye above him holding her short sword drawn back, ready to strike, to plunge it forward into her adversary’s chest. Kate couldn’t take her eyes from Declan’s face, his eyes wide with lingering surprise from the sudden attack, shock at the abrupt end of his fight and a trace of fear that he couldn’t quite hide.

“Don’t kill him,” she finally managed to add. The incredulous look the Aeye woman gave her was disconcerting, but Kate held her ground, meeting her dark gaze head-on, the short sword heavy in her white-knuckled grip. The idea of watching the Shadow-wing kill this Alaian boy in front of her made her stomach roil. She knew it probably shouldn’t, given everything that the Alaians had done to her in the last couple days—kidnapping her, preparing to kill her should she be one of their enemy, not to mention the likely fate of her Mom and Logan—but it did. Perhaps it was that she saw him as a strangely mirrored version of herself, or simply because he’d been kind to her when she’d been expecting nothing but enmity. That the idea of her life being forfeit should she prove to be an Aeye bothered him as much as it did certainly didn’t dissuade her from thinking that he wasn’t her enemy, but a friend of sorts. Or perhaps it was because he seemed like little more than a boy in that moment, and she now intimately knew the fear that came from being at an another’s mercy. She didn’t know, and she certainly couldn’t say. But she couldn’t watch him die.

The Aeye woman pursed her lips, looking from Kate, down to Declan and back again.

“He’s Alaian, Kate; our enemy. He would kill you if he was ordered.” Kate jerked at the sound of her name on the woman’s lips.

“H-how...” she stammered, but she quickly shook it off; there would be time to ask about that later, “Maybe. I suppose, but I don’t think he would; he might. But you can’t hurt him just for being an Alaian.” The Shadow-wing’s lips pressed thinner still, the scar distorting stiffly where it crossed her brow, and she again looked down to the Alaian boy at her mercy. There was no hiding the disdain and mistrust from her eyes.

In a blur, her arm swung around, drawing a yelp of alarm from Kate as the Aeye warrior hit Declan hard across the face, the heel of her sword cracking into his temple. He slumped back, looking dazed for an instant before his face went slack, his lids half slipping shut. It took a moment for the realization that he was still alive to break through Kate’s sudden panic. But even then her heart wouldn’t stop racing.

It was then that a hand closed firmly around her arm, pulling her to her feet. With a startled shriek, she jerked, nearly succeeding in wrenching herself free and managing to elbow whoever held her hard in the gut, earning an indignant grunt. Then the Aeye woman was in front of her, meeting Kate’s rattled gaze with a firm, measuring one as she seized the girl’s wrists.

Then it felt like the world crashed in on her, flooding against her senses like a tidal wave ready to sweep her away and drown her. As the Shadow-wing loosened the pewter-like chain from Kate’s wrists, the dull feeling was stripped away, allowing everything to surge back in on her. Suddenly the sun was blazing in her eyes and the damp musty air threatened to clog her airways. Colours, limited though they were in the gloomy ruin of their shelter, were vibrant again, almost enough so that Kate’s head throbbed. With a gasp, her legs nearly went out from under her as every ache that the chain had dimmed flared up and every feeling of fear and anguish and grief that the chain’s magic had deadened crushed painfully in on her, her vision wavering and blackening as everything she’d been shielded from by the chain threatened to overwhelm her.

Deep in her chest, underneath the weight that her fears and anxieties had caused, a heavy, reverberating pressure had begun eddying. As her panic at being grabbed swiftly shifted to panic at the way the world was crushing in on her, the pressure coiled tighter.

“Kate!” Then there were hands cradling her face, and a pair of dark, concerned eyes boring into hers. Completely bewildered given the sensory overload, she didn’t immediately recognize that it was the Aeye woman; all she knew was that someone else was grabbing her. With a breathless cry, the dense ball of pressure let loose, rippling out from the centre of her chest like a blast of wind.

And then everything went dark.

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