Silversand stood at the cliffs’ edge and gazed out over the flats. Under the dark sky, they were somehow even redder than she remembered. Not that she remembered them very well. She began to walk west along the clifftop. Boulder fields carpeted long stretches of it, so she amused herself by hopping patterns across them. The first field she crossed entirely in zigzags. On the next, she strove to make as straight a line as possible. It was almost impossible.
She was so absorbed in magnificent leaps that it took the screech of a Drakon to alert her to the nearby flight. Silversand dove between two boulders, remembered snakes and dove back out again. She hunkered down on the stones. Drakons. Winter had been calling forest Drakons when she had left the Mountainair camp two days ago. But that was definitely one of Winter’s messengers out on the flats now, a skinny thing with long wings and a painted underside. It was talking to a Rock Flat flight.
Silversand shivered in the light wind. Her South Forest knowledge was coming back to her, bit by bit. That was a Drakon lord, a commander of at least a double flight. More Drakons lived on the Rock Flats and Rocklands than in all the South Forest combined, and most of them had lords. She remembered flights of twenty, even thirty Drakons from her kithood days. Was Winter trying to recruit all of them? The idea seemed absurd.
Sethral stayed camouflaged in a tree canopy, her heart pounding as a Rock Flat Drakon lord drifted down into the Mountainairs’ clearing. Two forest lords were already there, their dulled shells and stout wings dwarfed by the newcomer’s long, sweeping wingspan. Their flights chattered nervously in the trees.
Winter was smiling like a Saggitayria winglet with a worm. This was the sixth such gathering this morning. She was acquainting forest and flatland Drakons with each other in a systematic manner: a process, Sethral was certain, that could never end well.
Sethral knew it was probably time to get out of here. She was dangerously close to the camp and it would only take one observant Drakon to end this game. Yet somehow she couldn’t leave. She had a pristine view of the goings-on, and the knowledge of Drakons to make sense of them. Was she feeling a sense of duty? As if, by spying here, she was somehow contributing to the fight against Winter? Or was she still feeling guilty for having wished an attack onto the Coppertail herd?
Sethral shifted her weight on the branch. A breeze covered the rustling, but a Drakon glanced her way. Its gaze lingered just a little too long. She had to get out of here. What would the black fuzz do in her position? She had seen his shadow here just a moment ago.
Then she realized she already knew.
Six meetings, twenty-three lords. Whipper watched this meeting break up, its Drakons exchanging curt wing-dips before dispersing to the forest, or to the high winds towards the flats. Winter’s treasure pile had shrunk by half.
He would not leave until he had a firm handle on what Winter was doing with all these Drakons. Whipper nibbled tree moss in an attempt to keep his stomach quiet. The tiny plants were green and sour, but they were something.
Eight meetings later, it still hadn’t started to rain. Whipper had exhausted the moss on his branch, but he wasn’t hungry anymore. A screech from the clearing made him leap. He ran to the branch end, half expecting to find forest and flats Drakons tearing each other to shreds. The scene was more chilling by far. A Rockland lord and a South Forest lord were bowing to each other over the remains of the treasure pile. As Whipper watched, the forest lord lifted his head and screeched again. The Rockland lord added his voice. They screeched and bowed together, finding a rhythm and building on it. Drakons began to mass overhead. They were waiting for something.
The Drakons were waiting for their leaders.
Sethral could not tear her eyes away. There must have been at least a hundred Drakons in the sky now, only a fraction of the number Winter had reached today. The air reverberated with wingbeats, and wind rattled the forest leaves. It was time to leave. Sethral leaped out of her tree. Trunks flashed past at frightening speeds as she wove through the underforest, below the canopy but above the ground. If she was seen now, at least she was flying.
A thought flashed through her mind. The black fuzz. He was still back there; he would have to be. He couldn’t fly.
Sethral pulled up in a tree. Her heart was beating as fast as Drakon wings. The sounds of so many Drakons had shaken her, and she was only just starting to feel it. She couldn’t go back there. She’d be spotted and dismembered before she could spread a wing. In the distance, she could hear the two lords’ battle song reaching its climax. All at once their voices shot for the sky. The huge flight screamed. Like a wave, the Rockland and Rock Flat Drakons left for the high winds.
The forest Drakons began to whirl. Already there were over a hundred of them alone, and the superflight was still growing. They would dive after this. Dive into the forest and begin flushing out everything that moved. When Drakons declared their loyalty, they sought out the loyalty of everything around them. Before she could think again, Sethral was whizzing back towards the clearing. That black creature was ahead, and she was not going to stop until she had gotten him out of this.
Whipper backed against a treetrunk, fighting panic. He looked desperately for a place to hide. He was trapped, and two hundred forest Drakons were a storm in the sky.
A deep thrumming reached him a heartbeat before strong claws ripped him from the branches. Whipper screamed. In a flash he was flying, fur flat in the wind as the forest whipped by. The speed was blinding, and he couldn’t catch a smell. His captor was as strong as a Fisher. Whipper shut his eyes and tried to focus on their wingbeats. Something about them was familiar. Then, all in a rush, the creature landed.
Sethral gasped as the black fuzz turned to smoke in her claws. She dove down the tree. The sound of Drakon wings was thunder rolling towards her from the south. She propelled her body towards a sinkhole ahead and felt relief as the ground vanished beneath her. She splashed into water and mud and rolled under an overhang. There were dead things in the pit, drowned mice and a squirrel. Soft, putrid muck coated her body. She rubbed it into her fur. Drakons were sight hunters.
Drakons soared by overhead. Please don’t check the sinkhole. Please don’t check.
She wondered where the black fuzz had gone. She supposed she should have explained herself before snaring him out of the tree like that, but she hadn’t really had a choice. She hoped he was safe.
Jay was almost back at Rockhall when the Drakon-scents hit him on the wind. He tore himself away from the cliffs and crept out onto the flats. The sight over the forest was a cold shock. A black arrowhead the size of the Rocklands was poised on the high winds. Jay knew it must be moving quickly, but in its sheer size it seemed to crawl. Drakons. This explained why the Rock Flat skies had been so empty today. The Drakons must have joined Winter, eager to pledge their loyalty to a tyrant whose rise would promise prey and safety.
The superflight would reach the Rock Flats before the sun had advanced another paw-length. Jay sprinted for the Rocklands. He ran up the first spire he came to and fished in the air. There was no sign of the twins. The arrowhead kept inching across the sky. When the Inner Rocklands loomed ahead, Jay flew up a slope, dodged several crevices and topped another spire. Still no trace. Where would the twins go if they had seen what was bearing down on them, but did not know what it meant?
Taz shivered in the shadow of a cave entrance. Raventower was a ring of high spires riddled with caves, and perhaps the only place in the Inner Rocklands where Drakons never ventured. Fletch guessed it had once been a Royal outpost, back before the Royals had disappeared. The black mass of Drakons had advanced another paw-length. Its distance made it eerily soundless.
Taz stiffened sharply. There were pawstep vibrations coming towards the hollow. Light and flowing, they abandoned the ground often as they flew over the rocks. Very few creatures could run like that here. Taz ran behind Fletch for cover, decided that that wasn’t enough and skittered to the back of the cave. Fletch held his ground nervously.
There was a flash of blue pelt as Jay landed in the hollow. He located their cave immediately and trotted towards it. ‘You are not safe here,’ he flicked.
“Why not?” said Fletch.
“We’ve always been safe here!” called Taz.
‘This time is different. If the Rock Flat lords have made an alliance, they could take over the Rocklands. I know a better place to hide.’
Taz crept up behind his brother. “Where is it?”
‘In the cliffs.’ Jay glanced back at the Drakon superflight and turned to leave. ‘I am going whether you come or not!’
The twins scrambled after him.
“We’re coming,” said Fletch.
The twins fought to keep up as Jay led them back to the flats. The Northlander’s direction changes came without warning, and he often switched speeds. He reached the flats and went straight to the cliffs. When he stopped half a sun’s paw-length later, the twins nearly ran into his backside. They were standing below a stretch of vertical, unmarked wall. Jay did a Drakon check, then jumped. He got all four paws on a ledge that barely fit them. One, two, three ledges up, he gave a final leap and vanished into the wall.
Taz squeaked. Fletch bounded after Jay and got to the second ledge, tail swishing for balance. Taz could see the third ledge another tail-length up. Past it, the wall was strangely fuzzy. He tried to spot some clue as to how his brother was supposed to land, but the fuzzy section remained defiantly opaque. Fletch jumped, then yelped as he passed through the cliff and vanished.
Suddenly alone, Taz panicked. Two ledges flew by. The next moment, he was flinging himself at a ledge-less patch of red stone. It brushed by like air. It was air. Nothing stopped his body as he plowed though a window into the cliff, missed his footing and fell onto Fletch, who was lying stunned on the floor. Taz lay on top of him, suddenly stunned too.
They were in a cave. A very large cave. He couldn’t find words to describe it.
Jay was watching him critically. Taz felt a sting in his paw and looked down to find he was bleeding. Fletch of course noticed immediately, and flattened him to inspect the wound. When the sand was licked away, it revealed a gash rather deeper than a simple graze.
Fletch frowned. “Did a rock get you?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t even feel it.”
“No kidding. This looks like something Glassrocks would do.”
There was a fearsome screech outside. The sky had turned a ghastly shade that leached all colour from the Rock Flats. In the next heartbeat, a scream like a tree being torn in two rent the sky, and a pale, catlike creature dropped through the skylight with a startled yowl.
Jay vanished. Taz and Fletch leaped up, not sure what to bolt from first. The cat backpedaled until she hit the cave wall, then made herself into a perfect ball. Lit from behind, the clouds were casting an unearthly glow. The scream came again.
Only once in his life had Fletch ever heard a Basilix’s defense scream. Two heartbeats of it seemed to loose a world of pain, fear and fury into the air—a sound said to drive creatures mad if they heard it long enough. But nothing in Shelha alive today hunted the Basilix or their co-species, the Draygons.
Another hunting cry, a real one this time, overrode the first. It was the shrike of a Drakon, high and clear, then pitching down to a scratch, like claws on slate. All at once, the sky was full of Drakon shrieks. Fletch wrenched back instinctively as the first Drakon cruised overhead. It picked a spot over the Rocklands and began to circle. A second joined it, then a third. Drakons streamed over the cliffs, off the high winds. The colour of the sky deepened. Fletch felt Taz press against his side. It was like the weather itself was responding to the superflight. Drakons were already a cloud in the sky, and the real numbers weren’t even here yet.
The full superflight arrived like a curtain drawn across the sky. They blotted out the clouds. They converged on the dance and thickened it into a vortex like the clouds from which a tornado would snake. In a heartbeat, every Drakon from the Rocklands to the South Peaks was concentrated over an area scarcely larger than this cave.
The pattern broke. Drakons sheered away as something dropped into their midst, and Fletch heard the cat’s gasp overlay his own. A flight escorted a Basilix through the sky towards the central knot of the superflight. The creature had only two wings to a Drakon’s four. It kicked and lashed out with sickle-like claws, but its limbs were too short to reach the flight. They shredded its feathers, making it stumble. Harsh, chattering Drakon words rang out. The Basilix screamed in reply.
The Drakons must have asked something and not gotten the answer they desired. The flight closed like a trap. Fletch was certain the Basilix was done for, until a newer, higher scream split the air. It was so close to the Drakons that they scattered like ants. A second and third Basilix dropped from the sky, followed by another creature.
Legends of Draygons had been a part of Shelhaen lore for as long as any could remember, but few were ever lucky enough to see one alive. They were the largest creatures to roam the world … or in this case, the skies.
Treetrunk-thick, snakelike bodies coiled from the clouds. Drakons were tossed like leaves in the wind from wings that roared louder than thunder, so large they seemed to beat in slow motion. One Draygon plucked the Basilix from the superflight’s center, while another circled to keep the Drakons at bay. Two new Basilix hovered beneath their co-species’ wings. They looked like songbirds next to a Saggitayria. One opened its mouth and loosed another scream.
Drakon lords battered their stunned creatures into action again. Canopy-sized Draygon wings cleaved the air. The Draygons accelerated upwards, plunging into the clouds with at least fifty Drakons in hot pursuit. Now the remaining Drakons began to swirl. Like some great winged whirlpool, they condensed into a black ball. Then they dove. The ball dropped at sickening speeds. When it reached the level of the clifftop, it exploded like ripples on a rock-hit pond. Drakons streaked outwards, flying low with wings skimming the wind and claws bared. Winter’s flight was hunting.
Fletch watched the first Drakon dive for the ground. Some small Rockland creature squealed—the first victim of the hunt. Anything smart enough to speak would be asked to join the Drakons’ forces. Everything else would be food.
Night fell, restless with high-pitched wind. The clouds had been blown apart without ever dropping their rain, and a near-full moon shone between the ragged patches. Sethral bolted awake as a splash sprayed her with water. She lay deathly still. Was it a Drakon? Their eyesight was keen enough to hunt at night. Yet a Drakon would stink like Drakon, and she could smell only the dead things in the water. She let long heartbeats elapse in the quiet. Her own heart was racing too fast to count by.
No Drakon appeared. Slowly unrolling, Sethral risked a peek at the sky. Nothing moved. Paw by mud-numbed paw, she crept up to whatever had splashed. A rock lay in the pool, inert. Sethral could not stop the smile that cracked her face. The fuzz. Up the splashed wall ran a scent trail.
Whipper glanced behind him, then slipped through the skylight and dropped into the cave-hall. The main hall was empty. By the scents, there were more creatures here than he had dared hope. The Northlander was back, and he had brought the twins that the herd knew, too. Even the pale-furred creature from the Lowlands was here. She had followed the Mountainairs back to the South Forest, like he had. He wondered how she had found the cave.
A swoosh of wings sent Whipper up the wall into the shadows. The Saggitayria that had rescued him landed on the window ledge. She had a good look around, then stepped cautiously to the floor. A systematic search proved the main hall empty. She sat down in a corner and began to groom her wings.
The Drakons would hunt for a quarter moon at least. Crossovers like this were common in Lowland stories, and they always played out the same way. They were all stuck here. Whipper retreated to the nest in his alcove and fluffed himself up with delight. Time to see who all his fellow renegades were.