They dived, Xandr and Thelana flailing and nearly falling from the bird’s sides. Ahead of them, the sky turned gray, heavy, and wet. A deep rumble rolled underfoot, popped and cracked in their ears—it was deafening. Hair Thelana did not know she possessed grew long and straight out from her body and then everything turned white. She was blind. Pellets of water were pounding her, beading across her bosom, rolling over her every limb. As her eyes refocused, she could make out the jagged blazing tendrils cutting through the haze. A second pair of wings sounded behind them. Its screech was still terrifying, despite the thunderclap that dulled her ears. Looking over her shoulder, the gray void was thick but empty. Her hairs pricked up again and she slammed her eyes shut against the light. A second bolt split the sky. She could see it through her eyelids, and when she looked again, the long purple form of the vulture hawk loomed above, vanishing and reemerging with every flash. Suddenly the caw was at the ib’s tail. Its vulture-like head was bigger than Thelana could have imagined, its beak snapping wildly at anything within reach. When it screeched, the sound came in waves so powerful she thought she could see them, shaking her so violently the noise remained like a poison in her ears.
“Can you hit it?” said a voice, the syllables blown by wind and rain, by the thunder and that awful screeching. “Can you hit it?” Xandr shouted again, “With your arrows?”
“I never miss,” she replied, snapping her sword apart. The presence of arrows, concealed within the blade’s shaft, surprised her as she remembered the battle atop Sargonus’ head, when she was left to fend off merquid with nothing but her sword. Had Ouranos been so thorough in regaining their arms? Had he expected a struggle? With no time to think, she slipped a strange-looking arrow between her fingers, avian in design, as Flick Flack banked in a sharp angle and the caw spun from view. Avia wrestled with the reins, but the bird was terrified beyond her control.
Distance, direction, and wind—every factor amounted to total chaos. The ib buffeted with frantic strokes, making her aim impossibly unsteady, but her target was huge. The arrow escaped into a cloud. Again the ib banked, and Xandr and Thelana were thrown sideways, struggling to maintain balance.
“It disappeared,” Thelana remarked, re-nocking her bow.
“Do you think it’s gone?” Xandr asked.
In answer, the caw’s great beak broke from the clouds, stealing feathers from the giant pigeon, snapping at Thelana’s foot. Now Avia lost all control, and predator and prey fell into a spiraling dive. The surface of Aenya emerged clumsily, rolling overhead. Everything turned sideways, upside down, and right again. Thelana let out another shot to no avail and it came closer, too close, the gold edge of her blade ricocheting off its beak as if hacking at a chunk of iron. At any moment, that beak would clamp down and their mount would be devoured, and then they’d be fodder for the caw. There was no recourse but to do something bold, desperate. Cold dread turned to fire in her veins, when she threw herself headlong at the caw, bridging the gap between the two birds, the mountains like crumpled bedding underfoot. All her weight was in her hands as she came down, her steel breaking through the shell, sinking to the hilt into the monster’s beak.
“Thelana!” Xandr cried. “Where is she?”
Wounded, the caw sailed backwards. Thelana’s feet slipped from its rounded beak, but she was still hanging on, clutching the hilt of her embedded sword.
“I’ll get her!” Ouranos said, twirling back around.
But the caw was already upon them. Its talons cut like a scythe across the bird man’s back and he fell away with a shriek. The second talon hooked through its prey and Thelana tumbled down against the ib. Xandr caught her by the ankle, but the violence between the tangled birds loosed even his powerful grip. Everything was spinning. There was no way to make sense of direction and Avia, their only guide, was nowhere to be seen. Thelana managed to bend into a C-shape before flopping earthbound, her braid a four-foot jumble of movement below her.
Hold me. Xandr.
Without a sound, Thelana slid away from him and into the ether.
What happens next? Will Thelana survive her fall? Find out in Ages of Aenya!