Wings of Tavea
Author:Devri Walls

Wings of Tavea - By Devri Walls

CHAPTER ONE

The Other Side


THE PASS THROUGH THE mountain peaks of Meros took longer than Kiora had expected. Thick boulders lined the sides, often sticking precariously from the mountain, threatening to tumble down on them. The proof of their threat lay evident as they maneuvered around broken boulders and listened to the constant crunch of shattered rock under the horse’s hoofs. As they went through, Kiora had felt pinned in and vulnerable. She was grateful when the pass opened to the final rocky expanse that melted into trees in the near distance.

Kiora tried to relax with the pass behind her. She was a bundle of nerves, shifting back and forth in her saddle and fidgeting with the reins as the horses plodded forward. Drustan, on the other hand, looked as if it were all he could do to not jump up and down on the back of his horse like a school boy. A grin had been plastered on his face since they had left Meros, and now his eyes eagerly raked over the landscape before him.

This had been Drustan’s home, a home he hadn’t seen since the gate was shut. Watching him, Kiora realized that Drustan looked as she should feel: liberated! The land that had held her hostage was now behind her. But the weight of being the Solus pressed down with a crushing reality, making Kiora feel anything but free.

The horses picked their way through the rocks and sparse grass that dotted the mountainous landscape.

Emane’s voice came from behind. “Whoa.” He whistled.

Turning her head, Kiora saw what caught Emane’s attention. Behind them stood a strange sight—an epic illusion. They saw miles and miles of lifeless sand, the mountains of Meros camouflaged as giant dunes. It was a barren wasteland, a deathtrap. Only a fool would venture in. But now, as the magic was fading, the grey mountains of home poked through slits in the fabric of the illusion. Two rocky mountain outcroppings stood mysteriously in the sky, nothing but blue between them and the sandy dunes below.

“That explains a lot,” Drustan said, pointing to the desert. “No one would have gone near enough to Meros to find us. Brilliant,” he admitted grudgingly.

Fear stabbed at Kiora and she shifted in her saddle. “Yes, but the illusion is fading. Don’t you think it will cause interest? What if the villagers are found?”

“Don’t worry,” Drustan said, turning his eyes back to the trees. “Eleana will deal with it. We have only just come through the pass, you have to give her—” He was interrupted by a thread Kiora remembered from a few days before.

Kiora threw up a bubble, providing invisibility, hiding the threads of both them and their horses.

“What?” Emane asked. His eyes darted around as he twisted in the saddle, trying to identify whatever threat Kiora was hiding them from.

“Aktoowa.” Kiora groaned.

“A what?”

“The magic-eating bird that lives here,” Kiora reminded him.

“Oh, right,” Emane said as he pulled his horse up next to hers.

The Aktoowa had been the first thing Kiora had seen in this world as they stood on the mountaintop. Now, it lumbered out of the tree line in front of them on two enormous bird legs. Its head rooted the air, trying to find their scent. Kiora couldn’t look away from the wicked, sharp beak glinting in the sun.

“Drustan?” Emane asked warily. “Why does it have a dragon’s tail?”

It wasn’t a dragon tail exactly, but long and green and very reptile-like.

“Why do you have ears, Emane?” Drustan replied. “It just does.”

Emane muttered something under his breath about “useless,” but Kiora’s eyes were already traveling back up the Aktoowa’s body. The green scales were met at the top of its tail by red feathers, switching back to scales around his stomach, and then feathers again around his head.

“I should have known the creature wouldn’t go far,” Drustan said, peering out from the bubble Kiora had put up. “Kiora smelled too good for it to leave the area completely.”

“Well that’s a compliment if I ever heard one,” Emane drawled sarcastically. His horse snorted its discontent as Kiora’s pawed at the ground.

One excited hop forward and the Aktoowa spread its wings, flying towards them with a screech.

“I thought you said bubbles were a good defense against the Aktoowa,” Kiora nearly shouted, leaning back as the bird closed the distance. She had come too far to end up as dinner.

“It is,” Drustan said. “But it’s going to assume we are still here somewhere.” He spoke calmly, but his eyes were fixed on the Aktoowa. “It may be impatient, but it’s not stupid.”

Not stupid. That was a dreadful shame.

Emane pulled a bow from his saddle, preparing to nock an arrow.

“No,” Drustan said. “We don’t want to leave evidence that we were here. Especially while we are waiting for Eleana to fix the illusion.”

Luckily the massive bird veered to the left, its wingtips passing just over the top of Kiora’s bubble and landing to the side of them. Kiora released a breath she had not known she was holding.

“It’s so big,” Kiora observed as the Aktoowa rumbled past them, sniffing this way and that. It was at least fifteen feet tall, and the claws of its three-toed feet sunk deep into the earth as it walked.

“Come on,” Drustan said, turning his horse. “We should probably get moving. It would be wise to put as much distance between it—” he jerked his head towards the predator, “and us as possible. The Aktoowa will have no trouble tracking you if you lose the ability to bubble within its range.”

Emane stared at the creature with disgust, putting his bow away. “If I never see another one of those things again it will be too soon!”

“You will see worse,” Drustan assured him. “Come.” He spurred his horse, forcing Emane and Kiora to follow or risk someone falling out of the bubble.

Emane shouted at Drustan over the pounding hoofs. “Thank you for the comforting words.”

Drustan’s long dark hair was flying over his shoulders. Kiora noticed that at some point he had shifted his ears; they were now long and pointy. It was the first Kiora had ever seen him, or any other Shifter, make that particular alteration.

“My pleasure, Your Highness,” Drustan yelled back, grinning widely. He threw his arms out to the side like a child pretending to fly. Tilting his head up he shouted, “It smells like home! I didn’t think I would ever see it again!”

Kiora couldn’t help laughing. She hadn’t seen Drustan in this good of mood since the enchantment had been lifted off the valley. Since then, he had walked with a spring in his step, acting like a much younger version of himself.

The horses thundered across the new landscape. It was somewhat familiar, and yet completely foreign at the same time. Miles of pine forests stretched out before them, carpeted with the same vegetation that grew in Meros. But new, unfamiliar threads crisscrossed the terrain, both magical and non. There were so many. She had no idea which ones were safe.

Kiora and Emane rode with their hoods up as Eleana had instructed; Drustan did not. She assumed it had something to do with those new pointy ears.

The horses had slowed to a walk and Kiora could feel an emptiness opening inside her as the magic drained. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold this bubble.”

Reining in his horse, Drustan looked around. “All right. Search for threads before you drop it.”

Kiora reached out to feel as many threads as she could. There was no sign of the Aktoowa, which was good. Beyond that, it felt like the first time she had trained on threads—strange and confusing. “There are so many.”

“Yes, fortunately most are harmless animals by the feel of them,” Drustan said.

Kiora scowled, scanning the forest. “I can feel that, but are the rest of the animals the size of the Aktoowa? How am I supposed to know which of them wants to eat me?”

“That’s what I am here for,” Drustan said, turning to look at her. Kiora huffed in irritation as she let the bubble drop. “Don’t worry, you will learn in time.” He pulled his horse around and started forward again.

“Hold on,” Emane objected, as his horse came alongside Kiora’s. “I thought you could determine whether something was good or evil by its thread. Now we have to wait until it tries to eat us to be sure?”

“The threads are accurate for creatures that have enough brains to choose good from evil,” Drustan answered over his shoulder. “Animals with low intellect cannot choose.” He shrugged. “And they eat what they eat. Kiora will soon learn which threads constitute a threat and which do not.” Drustan looked over his shoulder in time to see Emane roll his eyes. “Or,” Drustan drawled, “we could always set you out for bait and see what happens.”

Emane opened his mouth with what Kiora was sure would be a snappy retort. To prevent the downhill slide that was Drustan and Emane’s banter, she moved her horse between them. “All right,” she said brightly. “Let’s go then.”

As the sun began to drop lower in the sky, they exited the tree line and came to a large, overgrown meadow. Kiora guessed that in the spring it was filled with brilliant wildflowers. But they were approaching fall now, and nothing remained but tall brown grass waving in the breeze.

Pulling his horse up short Drustan announced, “We will stay within the forest for the night and cross the meadow tomorrow. The Morow region is that way.” Drustan pointed. “Hopefully we run into whoever Lomay sent to find us between here and there.” Dismounting, he grabbed the reins and led the animal back into the relative shelter of the trees.

“Are we going to make camp and just hope that some monstrous creature doesn’t wander in?” Emane said, also dismounting.

Kiora shuddered, dropping off her horse. The thought of waking up to the pointy beak of the Aktoowa was not a pleasant one. Nor would it help her get some rest. She certainly couldn’t hold a bubble all night. Grabbing the reins of her horse she followed Emane and Drustan.

“We will deal with it,” Drustan answered without turning around.

Emane rolled his eyes as he tied his horse to a tree. “As usual, Drustan, you are always so clear with your answers.”

“And as usual, you lack patience,” Drustan said with a smirk, undoing the buckle on the saddle.

Although she couldn’t deny the banter was terribly entertaining, mostly because it unhinged Emane to the point of hilarity, Kiora chided them anyway. “All right, you two, we are going to be together for a long time.”

“It is all in good fun, My Lady,” Drustan said, pulling his bedding off his horse. “And should I be at fault that he is easily provoked?”

Emane dropped his head into his horse’s neck, breathing deeply, while Kiora pulled down her saddle, trying desperately not to laugh and failing. “No.” She giggled. “It’s not your fault.”

“Wonderful, Kiora. Thank you,” Emane said, unable to hide the half grin he was wearing.

Getting camp together was straight forward enough, except they were still in the open. Drustan settled down on his bedroll and asked Kiora to retrieve the book Eleana had sent with her.

She left the Book of Arian in the saddlebag, instead pulling out an old nondescript book. “What’s in this one?” Kiora asked, turning the book over in her hands.

“Incantations to use the old magic,” Drustan said, his eyes roaming over the cover. “Of all the books on old magic, I am a little surprised she sent that one with you. After the wars began Epona wouldn’t let it out of her sight.”

Kiora looked at the book warily, running her finger over the worn brown leather. “Epona said old magic is dangerous.”

“All magic is dangerous,” Drustan said, sitting back. “But it’s all determined by the user, now isn’t it? Old magic is used here, both for good and evil.”

“Is it more powerful than nature magic?” Emane asked.

Drustan’s head swiveled towards Emane.

“Don’t look so surprised. Aleric told me about it. I pay attention.” Emane cleared his throat. “Occasionally.”

“To answer your question,” Drustan said, “nature is the source of all magic. Old magic enhances it, allowing one to reach beyond. May I?” He held out his hand to Kiora. Taking the book he flipped through it, quickly finding what he was looking for. “Here,” he said, handing it back. “This should help protect us so we all can sleep.”

Kiora scanned the page. Although it appeared to be in her language, she could only recognize about half the words. The other words were magical terms and phrases she had never heard before. She pieced together the words she could decipher and the illustrations. “A magical barrier. Like the Hollow?”

“On a smaller scale, but yes.” Tapping the page, Drustan added, “This should be easier than what Eleana did. When she locked the old magic, she had to work within the confines of nature magic.”

Kiora walked around the perimeter of the camp while murmuring the incantation, a glittering wave of light following behind her. The wave was constructing a wall as she went, protecting them from the outside world. Smiling, Kiora finished the spell. At the last word the glittering wall flared red, crackling and popping, before melting down into nothing. Kiora jumped back. “What was that?”

Drustan chuckled. “The last word is not heeon. It’s hayon.”

Kiora huffed, checking the incantation before beginning again. She made her way around the camp, the light following behind her as before. Once the light encased them, she finalized the last word properly. The barrier flashed and was gone.

Kiora’s shoulders slumped. “What did I do wrong this time?”

“Nothing, it worked perfectly,” Drustan said, fluffing his pillow. “It vanishes so no one can see it, just like the Hollow.”

“But if they walked right through it . . .” Emane said slowly.

“Yes, they would find us. But the odds of that are slim.” Drustan waved Emane off. “Don’t go wandering out of it and we should be fine.”

“Oh, slim,” Emane replied shortly, spreading out his bedroll. “The odds are slim we will be eaten by an Aktoowa, slim we will be discovered.” Grabbing Kiora’s bedroll, he spread it next to his. “You always make me feel at ease, Drustan.”

Drustan placed his arms behind his head. “I could lie to you if you prefer.”

Shaking her head, Kiora kindled a fire on the ground between the three of them. The magical flame did not require wood, nor did it ignite the dead needles that carpeted the forest floor. She plopped on her bedroll and stretched her hands toward the fire, shivering.

Emane slid next to her, putting his arms around her. “You look cold.”

“I am. Does it seem colder to you? Colder than home?”

Drustan stretched out, rolling onto his side to face them. “It’s colder on this side of the mountain. I noticed it when we came through the pass into Meros the first time.” He smiled. “It snows here.”

“It snows at home,” Emane pointed out.

“Not like here. Meros gets just a taste. Here there are times when the snow banks will be taller than you.” He inclined his head towards Emane.

Emane rubbed his hand up and down Kiora’s arm, trying to warm her. “That sounds lovely,” he drawled, rolling his eyes.

Kiora scowled, trying to lock her magic down. Emane’s touch was making her stomach flip and magic leap inside her, wriggling like it was dying to get out. She hated hurting him, and the last time it slipped she’d shocked him. She didn’t want it to happen again.

Emane looked to Drustan. “Why did you leave?” he asked. “If you were so happy here?”

Drustan sighed deeply, a shadow passing across his face. “I was young and stupid.” He shook his head. “There were rumors flying of Witows and I was dying to see one.”

“A what?” Emane asked.

“A Witow, a non-magical creature. They are rare over here. So rare, in fact, that many of us believed them to be no more than a legend.”

“So, I am a—Witow.” Emane rolled the word over in his mouth like it was something unpleasant.

Drustan sat up on his elbow, his eyes bright. “Yes, but you are not just a Witow, you are a human.” He leaned forward in excitement as if willing them to understand the draw. “A Witow was rare enough, but humans were truly the things of myths and legends. A entire species made almost entirely of Witows!” Drustan shook his head. “The thought was ridiculous, but the rumors said a valley existed with a human camp.” Relaxing, he continued, “Most just laughed, but some of us were young enough—” Drustan’s lips pressed into a thin line before adding, “and stupid enough to go looking anyway. There is a reason you don’t go traipsing into unknown magical territory—you don’t know what wars are going on under the surface. But the idea of finding a human camp was of particular interest to a Shifter.”

He cleared his throat when Kiora’s eyebrows rose in an unspoken question. “I can’t shift into anything I haven’t seen,” Drustan explained. “I can piece things together easy enough.” He shrugged. “But perfectly imitate a species almost no one has seen? Impossible.”

“So you came to Meros to see if the rumors were true?” Kiora asked.

Drustan nodded. “A group of us Shifters came, all young and restless. At first it was just an excuse to set out on our own and get away from home. But the closer we got, the more we realized the valley was attracting an unprecedented amount of attention.”

“I don’t understand why a group of people with no magical ability would be so interesting to you all,” Emane grumped, putting his palms on the ground behind him and leaning back.

“It was unheard of. I suspect some were hoping that if they could learn how you were born without magic, they could learn how to strip it from their enemies. Now that would be a formidable weapon . . .”

“Wait a minute,” Emane interrupted, holding up his hand. “You mean they wanted to experiment on Witows just like you wanted to experiment on me?”

Drustan groaned, flopping flat on his back. “Are you going to hold that against me forever?”

“I might,” Emane said thoughtfully, leaning back again. “You could have killed me.”

Drustan eyed him. “I suppose ‘experiment’ would be an adequate description,” he admitted. Placing his hand back behind his head and staring up at the canopy, Drustan continued. “We were so excited when we got to Meros. We spent weeks practicing the human form, moving amongst them to see if they would notice. The fact that they couldn’t feel threads flabbergasted us.” He paused for a minute. “We were so engrossed in our new subjects we didn’t realize what was happening until the gate had already been sealed.”

“Did you ever try to get home?” Emane asked.

“Of course. We tried everything we could think of but the magic was tight. We even tried the border by the sea. We swam under, trying to make it out to the ocean. It was no use; the magical barrier went straight to the seabed. We waited and waited, hoping the gate would be opened. But after a few thousand years you lose hope.”

“How could you side with Dralazar after that?” Emane asked, resting his arm on his knee.

Drustan smiled grimly. “Don’t forget, Dralazar and Eleana both closed the gate. We hated them equally for a time. That is why we switched sides so often—it depended on who we were most angry with at the moment.” He stopped again, his jaw working. “Except for last time,” he said tightly.

“What changed?” Kiora asked.

“Dralazar showed his true colors. The things I saw him do—” Drustan’s voice broke, and Kiora saw a pain in his eyes that spoke to something he wasn’t saying before he turned his head away. “I swore I would never fight with him again,” Drustan finished, his voice wavering.

“What did he do?” Kiora asked, wanting to further understand Dralazar, but not really wanting to hear the answer.

Drustan slowly looked back at Kiora, his eyes haunted and empty. Clearing his throat, he returned his attention to the canopy. “You remember Orrin?”

“Of course.” How could she forget. He had lost his mate protecting Kiora from Dralazar.

“His mother was in charge of working with the Fallen Ones to find the Hollow during the last battle. The Guardians were clever—they set up an enclosure that mimicked the Hollow and then hid elsewhere. Orrin’s mother brought Dralazar to what they believed was the home of the Guardians for the final attack. When they found it empty Dralazar was furious. Had I been there, I . . .” Drustan gritted his teeth before rolling away, turning his back to them. “Dralazar pinned her to a tree, binding her arms and legs with magic. She tried to shift, but the Fallen Ones attacked on Dralazar’s orders. They sliced and burned until she had lost too much blood to shift. Then they left her there to die.”

Kiora’s heart ached for Orrin and his mother. But Drustan’s inability to look her in the eye scared her. Much worse had happened, she was sure. He just didn’t want to tell her.

“Dralazar wasn’t like that before, in the other wars?” Emane asked.

“He was more careful in the other wars. Or maybe I was just blinded by hate.”

Kiora stared at the fire, chewing on her bottom lip.

After composing himself, Drustan rolled back to face Kiora and Emane. “What is bothering you?” Drustan finally asked after staring at Kiora for some time.

She started. “Hmmm? Oh, nothing.”

“It would be wise to just tell me.” Drustan pointed out. “The other option is going to leave a hole in your lip.”

Kiora smiled. “Am I that transparent?”

“Yes,” Emane and Drustan answered together.

“Nice to see you two agree on something.” She laughed. “I was just confused, that’s all.”

“About?” Drustan urged.

Kiora rubbed her hands together over the fire. “I understand things happened with Dralazar, things that made you change your mind about him, but what about Eleana?” She glanced up at Drustan before looking back to her flickering distraction.

There was silence for a while, with the exception of the crackling fire, which Drustan was now also intently staring at. “Suffice it to say,” he began cautiously, “that I finally understood her pain.” Standing abruptly he added, “I am going to take a look around.” Without further explanation he strode out of the barrier and into the forest.

Kiora watched him go, her mind wandering. Epona said the Ancient One, Lomay, was on this side waiting for them. What if they didn’t find him? What if Lomay couldn’t find them? What was she supposed to do? Being the Solus wasn’t much use when she had no idea who to save.