Blood is Thicker
The storm clouds gathered on the horizon with supernatural speed, and lightning crackled across the valley, filling the air with the metallic tang of magic.
"Ah, my brothers," said Murmux, his face tight.
"Will this be a problem?" asked Candle, and he looked at her, his face unreadable. "What will you do?"
He cocked his head to one side, brown eyes glittering and a wicked grin spread across his face. He cracked his knuckles, and a spark of lightning rippled down his forearms, dancing across his fingers.
"I'm going to do my best to rip the bastards into little pieces," he said, with relish. "And I shall enjoy every moment of it."
"What should we do?" asked Abenathi's uncle. The escaped prisoners were watching the rumbling storm clouds with their mouths open and their feet shifting uneasily.
"Head west," said Candle. "Go quickly! I will hold them off."
"We will hold them off," said Murmux.
They went, casting anxious glances over their shoulders. Zephi hesitated, her eyes cloudy with worry.
"Go," said Candle.
"I'll help her," said Murmux. Zephi narrowed her eyes at him.
"She doesn't need your help."
"Come on, child," said Narimab, holding out her hand. Zephi bit her lip and then took it. They ran after the others who were disappearing down the slopes in a disorganised stream. Candle and Murmux stood on the ridge, facing the gathering storm.
"Any tips?" Candle asked through gritted teeth. The rising wind swept her hair out in a stream behind her. The flock of lightning birds were growing larger with every wing beat. Candle counted six or seven of them. Veins of electricity rippled up and down Murmux's torso and sparks crackled at the end of his hair. His tattoos wriggled across his skin. He grinned into the wind.
"Incinerate them all," he said, "as quickly as possible."
There was a vicious crack of thunder. A jagged bolt of lightning seared passage between heaven and earth, striking Murmux square on the head. Candle leapt back, and the shockwave nearly knocked her off her feet, the crash echoed back against the curve of the mountains. Everything rippled and the scent of scorched earth and metal filled the air. Murmux was momentarily illuminated in bright white light. When her vision cleared, he stood in his feathers, as she had first seen him - a giant bird with a wicked beak and wide and majestic wings, half the size of her own. High cheekbones had been replaced by smooth brown down. His shock of hair had become a crest of sleek, aerodynamic feathers and the ground beneath his feet was charred and smoking. He stretched out his wings in challenge, his head raised towards the approaching fight. White light crackled along their length.
Don't hold back, he said.
With a blood-curdling shriek, he jumped and rode a wild gust towards the clouds. Candle was one step behind him, her blood pumping as she transformed. She took to the air in his wake, thrusting her way skywards with each powerful beat of her wings. The strong winds carried her up and up, and she soon overtook Murmux. They were both climbing for height, spiralling around one another as the clouds streamed around them. Soon they were level with the highest peak of the Night Enchantments.
The wind roared, and Candle felt a thrill in her veins. She was where she was meant to be - under the open sky and flying free — no more creeping around in the dark, no more fighting in the confines of underground tombs. Here, she was in her element. Although, come to think of it, so were the lightning bird brothers.
Fear and excitement warred in her veins. She glanced at the heaped black clouds that were drawing nearer every moment, the shifters now plainly visible. She flexed her talons. Candle was in no mood to play hide and seek, and she had plenty of pent up rage to spare.
Lead them away from the humans, said Murmux, the words echoing her mind. They will follow us if we flee.
She let out a hiss of frustration, but his words made sense. Far below, scurrying like ants over the ground she could make out the figures of the fleeing humans. Zephi's red hair stood out against the dark green of the valley floor. All of them looked ridiculously small and fragile.
So be it, said Candle, and struck out for the north. This direction would take them inland, away from the sea and away from her beloved mountains, but more importantly, away from the escaping prisoners. They cut over and across the mountains, and until the Night Enchantments receded into dark, squat ridges. Dark beneath the alien sky, they were soon flying over unfamiliar plains. Candle's wings ate up the distance but they were flying at a right angle to their pursuers and the shifters were gaining.
As Murmux had predicted, his brothers had veered after them. Thunder rumbled across the horizon, and the air sizzled. The Night was momentarily illuminated in flashes of blinding white.
Watch out, cried Murmux, and they both swerved wildly as a fork of lightning shredded the air between them. His brothers were close enough now that Candle could hear them howling over the rush of the wind. Candle wheeled sharply to face them, the taste of metal sharp in her mouth. The air hummed with tension. Murmux was gathering in his own storm, his bird face intent and focused.
Candle pulled in energy, spooling the magic into her veins, preparing herself to fight. She kept on gathering until her body thrummed and throbbed with power. Her wings vibrated gently with the effort of containment, as she swept around in a wide circle and then she was upon them, diving at the six lighting birds. They scattered like sparrows before a buzzard as she raked them with her fire.
Murmux joined the fray with a crack of thunder. Sheet lightning coursed across the sky in incandescent blooms. One of the brothers plummeted earthwards, frantically trying to beat the flames from his feathers. Murmux screamed his delight.
Traitor, snarled one of the birds. Candle recognised Ronove's voice in her mind. Wicked filth.
So good to see you, brother mine, drawled Murmux, lightning rippling along the length of his bill. Do you miss me already?
What in the Dawn do you think you are doing?
What does it look like?
It looks like you have lost your mind.
They dove for each other with outstretched talons and went down in a snarling ball of feathers and claws. Candle had no time to see how Murmux faired, for the remaining four shifters came for her from multiple directions.
No matter how she turned, one of them was always behind her. She flew in an erratic course across the skies, dodging and snapping, pulling in energy as she went. Another bolt of lightning lit up the sky and she rolled sideways to avoid it. Black spots filling her vision. A near miss. She fought with fire and claw, too angry to think of strategy. The air sizzled and she dropped at an angle. She was not fast enough. She blacked out as the bolt hit her.
A hundred feet lower she regained consciousness with ringing ears. Two of the brothers latched onto her side, clawing and ripping at her scales as they plummeted earthwards. Weak, she felt weak. It took an effort to move her wings. Blood ran across her back in rivulets, mingling with the rain that had burst from the clouds in heavy black drops.
The rush of air revived her and Candle roared in fury and pain. Her cry echoed off the distant mountains in concert with the rumbling thunder. Her strength came flooding back and with a great beat of her wings she thrust upwards, managing to dislodge the birds. She turned and gathered in a massive breath. Air and magic mingled in her lungs in a heady mixture.
Loosing a thunderous plume of blue flame, she swept the raging inferno across the flight path of the lightning birds. Two of them were incinerated instantly. Their ashes spread across the sky and then they were gone as the wind ripped what was left of them into tatters.
The two remaining shifters recoiled in fear as Candle turned on them, her great slit dragon eyes blue and cold. Lightning crackled between them as they hesitated. She drew in breath and their nerve broke. Cawing and muttering they turned and fled south, towards Ford Dhall.
A bit away in the sky, Murmux had Ronove by the throat and was shaking him with gleeful vengeance. Lighting and thunder warred around them as Ronove raked his side with his claws trying to break free.
I've waited a long time to do this, said Murmux, his eyes gleaming and his bill clamped firmly around his brother's neck. Ronove landed a brutal kick and managed to twist away.
Candle could feel the intensity as they glared at each other, panting and bloody. Murmux feinted towards his brother. Ronove swore and ducked away. His left wing was in ruins. His eyes hovered between the pair of them and he turned with a hiss of frustration, beating a ragged, uneven route back to the safety of the Keep.
We should finish them off, said Murmux, thoughtfully, spitting a feather out of the corner of his mouth.
Candle was about to reply when her sharp eyes spotted movement to the west. Between the billowing gusts of cloud and the driving rain, distant figures were just visible scurrying over the ground below. Tiny against the ground, the escaped prisoners were running, tripping and falling, fleeing in every direction, as if something was chasing them. Her blood ran cold. Something was chasing them.
A lightning bird she had not spotted had slipped ahead to harry them. As she sped towards the group, the young mother and Narimab tripped and fell, spilling toddlers onto the green. They cowered, trying to protect the children with their bodies as the shifter attacked. Zephi leapt forward, standing over them and brandishing a stick. She yelled something that Candle could not hear and got in one solid hit before the great bird raked her with his claws.
Candle's blood turned to ice, and she flew as hard as she could, willing herself to get there before tragedy. Frost crept into her heart at the thought that she might be too late, that she had left Zephi unprotected. As if in slow motion she watched, helpless, as the lightning bird wheeled about to make another attack, claws outstretched. Zephi threw up thin white arms that were already crisscrossed with lines of red, trying desperately to protect her face. Candle screamed, helplessly, for she was still too far away to reach him with her flames. She was too far away to save Zephi.
But someone else was there.
A great black dragon, as dark as night itself, dropped out of the dark mass of the clouds in a mass of scale and muscle. It snapped the shifter's neck with one powerful flick and tossed the body aside like a rag doll.
Flame curled around its mouth and nostrils, red and hot, and its eyes were a deep, burnished gold. For one heart-stopping moment, Candle thought it was Jotham, thought that Jotham had come through the gate to find her. Her heart leapt, but as the dragon looked up, she realised that it was someone else, someone who just happened to look a lot like Jotham. The likeness was uncanny.
You looked like you could use some help, the strange dragon said, watching her approach with those familiar golden eyes. His masculine voice was gruff and low pitched, nothing like Jotham's smooth tones. On closer inspection, she noticed other, subtle differences – the shape of his head, the slant of his ridge scales.
Thank you, said Candle, landing on the field and turning towards the humans and Zephi. She huffed at one of the children, nudging them with her snout, checking for injury. The tiny boy giggled, and Candle pulled away, pleased to find they were unharmed. Dirty, but unharmed.
Are you alright? She asked Zephi. The small girl was bleeding from a dozen cuts but they seemed shallow. Her hair was all muddy from her fall. Candle snuffled at her anxiously for the girl reeked of blood and mud.
"I'm fine," said Zephi, licking at one of the cuts on her arm. Candle's gaze shifted to Narimab and Huruben and the rest of the humans who all inclined their heads.
Murmux landed next to her with a thump. He looked a little worse for wear. His feathers were ruffled and matted with blood, and there were some bare patches on his skin where plumage had been torn loose. But a large, avian grin was plastered on his face as he surveyed the broken corpse of this fallen brother. He cocked his head at the unknown dragon, still grinning.
Uh oh, he said.
Candle turned her attention to the dragon, who was watching her closely.
My name is Asher, he said. Are you heading for the Rock for the midwinter celebrations? Allow me to escort you.