The Cloud Roads
Book One of The Books of the Raksura
Night Shade Books, March 2011
Cover art by Matthew Stewart (winner of the Chesley Award for Best Illustration - Paperback for 2012)
Design by Rebecca Silvers.
2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Series
Moon has spent his life hiding what he is--a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again discovered and cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself...someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community.
What this stranger doesn't tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power...that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony's survival...and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell.
Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save himself...and his newfound kin.
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Moon had been thrown out of a lot of groundling settlements and camps, but he hadn't expected it from the Cordans.
The day started out normal enough. Moon had been hunting alone as usual, following the vargit, the big flightless birds common to this river valley. He had killed one for himself, then taken a nap on a sun-warmed rock and slept a little too long. By the time he found a second vargit for the camp, killed it, dressed it, and hauled it back, the sky was darkening. The gate in the rickety fence of woven sticks was closed, and he shook it, shifting the heavy dead bird on his shoulder. "Open up, it's me."
The gate and the entire fence were mostly a formality. The camp was built on a field leading down to the wide bed of the river, and the fence didn't even go all the way around. The jungle lay just outside it, climbing up the hills toward the steep cliffs and gorges to the east. The dense leaves of the tall trees, wreathed with vines and hung with heavy moss, formed a spreading canopy that kept the ground beneath in perpetual twilight. Anything could come out of there at the camp, and the weak fence wouldn't stop it. The Cordans knew that, but Moon still felt it gave a false sense of security that made everyone careless, especially the children. But the fence had sentimental value, reminding the Cordans of the walled towns in their old land in Kiaspur, before it had been taken by the Fell. Plans to take it down and use it for firewood always came to nothing.
After more shaking, something moved just inside the gate, and Hac's dull voice said, "Me who?" Then Hac laughed, a low noise that ended in a gurgling cough.
Moon looked away, letting out an exasperated breath. The fence wasn't made any more effective by letting the most mentally deficient member of the group guard it, but there weren't a lot of jobs Hac could do.
Sunset beyond the distant mountains cast the lush, forested hills with orange and yellow light. It also framed a sky-island, floating sedately high in the air over the far end of the valley. It had been drifting into the area for some days, traveling with the vagaries of the wind. Heavy vegetation overflowed the island's surface and hung down the sides. Moon could just make out the shapes of ruined towers and walls nearly covered by encroaching greenery. A flock of birds with long white bodies, each big enough to seize a grazing herdbeast in its talons, flew past it, and Moon felt a surge of pure envy. Tonight, he promised himself. It's been long enough.
But for now he had to get into the damn camp. He tried to make his voice flat and not betray his irritation. Showing Hac you were annoyed just made him worse. "The meat's spoiling, Hac."
Hac laughed again, coughed again, and finally unlatched the gate.
Moon hauled the bird inside. Hac crouched on the ground beside the fence, watching him with malicious glee. Hac looked like a typical Cordan: short and stocky, with pale gray-green skin and dull green hair. Most Cordans had patches of small glittering scales on their faces or arms, legacy of an alliance with a sea realm sometime in the history of their dead empire. On some of the others, especially the young, the effect was like glittering skin-jewelry. On Hac, it just looked slimy.
Hac, who held a similar opinion of Moon, said, "Hello, ugly."
A few other outsiders lived with the Cordans, but Moon tended to stand out. A good head taller than most of them, he was lean and rawboned where they were heavyset. He had dark bronze skin that never burned no matter how bright the sun, dark hair. The only thing green about him was his eyes.
"Keep up the good work, Hac," Moon said, and resisted the urge to kick Hac in the head as he carried the carcass past.
Tents were scattered across the compound, conical structures made of woven cable-rushes, dried and pressed and faintly sweet-smelling. They stretched down to the greenroot plantings at the edge of the broad river bed. At the moment, most of the inhabitants were gathered around the common area in the camp's center, portioning out the meat the hunters had brought back. People down at the river washed and filled big clay water jars. A few women worked at the cooking fires outside the tents. As Moon walked up the packed dirt path toward the central area, an excited band of children greeted him, hurrying along beside him and staring curiously at the vargit. Their enthusiastic welcome went a long way to make up for Hac.
The elders and other hunters all sat around on straw mats in front of the elders' tent, and some of the women and older kids were busy cutting and wrapping the kills brought back earlier. Moon dropped the vargit carcass on the muddy straw mat with the others, and set aside the bow and quiver of arrows he hadn't used. He had gotten very good at dressing his game in such a way that it was impossible to tell exactly how it had been killed. Dargan the headman leaned forward to look at it and nodded approval. "You had a good day after all, then. When you were late, we worried."
"I had to track them down the valley. It just took a little longer than I thought." Moon sat on his heels at the edge of the mat, stifling a yawn. He was still full from his first kill, which had been a much bigger vargit. Most of his time had gone to finding a more medium-sized one that he could carry back without help. But the novelty of coming home to people who worried that something might have happened to him had never paled.
Ildras, the chief hunter, gave him a friendly nod. "We never saw you, and thought perhaps you'd gone toward the west."
Moon made a mental note to make certain he crossed paths with Ildras' group tomorrow, and to make certain it happened more frequently from now on. He was comfortable here, and it was making him a little careless. He knew from long experience that elaborate lies were a bad idea, so he just said, "I didn't see anybody either."
Dargan waved for one of the boys to come over to cut up Moon's kill. Dargan and the other male elders kept track of all the provisions, portioning them out to the rest of the camp. It made sense, but the way they did it had always bothered Moon. He thought the others might resent it sometimes, but it was hard to tell since nobody talked about it.
Then Ildras nudged Dargan and said, "Tell him the news."
"Oh, the news." Dargan's expression turned briefly sardonic. He told Moon, "The Fell have come to the valley."
Moon stared. But Ildras's expression was wry, and the others looked, variously, amused, bored, and annoyed. Two of the boys skinning a herdbeast carcass collapsed into muffled giggling and were shushed by one of the women. Moon decided this was one of those times when he just didn't understand the Cordans' sense of humor. He discarded the first few responses that occurred to him and went with, "Why do you say that?"
Dargan nodded toward another elder. "Tacras saw it."
Tacras, whose eyes were too wide in a way that made him look a little crazy, nodded. "One of the harbingers, a big one."
Moon bit his lip to control his expression and tried to look thoughtful. Obviously the group had decided to humor Tacras. The creatures the Cordans knew as harbingers were actually called major kethel, the largest of all Fell. If one had been near the camp, Moon would have scented it. It would be in the air, in the river water. The things gave off an unbelievable stench. But he couldn't exactly tell the Cordans that. Also, if Tacras had been close enough to see a major kethel, it would have eaten him. "Where?"
Tacras pointed off to the west. "From the cliff on the edge of the forest, where it looks down into the gorge."
"Did it speak to you?" Vardin asked in wide-eyed mockery.
"Vardin," Dargan said in reproof, but it was a little too late.
Tacras glared. "You disrespect your elder!" He shoved to his feet. "Be fools then. I know what I saw."
He stamped away, off between the tents, and everybody sighed. Ildras reached over and gave Vardin a shove on the shoulder, apparently as punishment. Moon kept his mouth shut and did not wince in annoyance. They had all been making fun of the old man anyway. Vardin had just brought it out in the open. If Dargan hadn't wanted that to happen, he shouldn't have made his own derision so clear.
"He's crazy," Kavath said, sounding sour and worried as he watched Tacras walk away. He was another outsider, though he had been here much longer than Moon. He had shiny pale blue skin, a long narrow face, and a crest of gray feathers down the middle of his skull. "He's going to cause a panic."
The Cordans all just shrugged, looking unlikely to panic. Dargan added, "Everyone knows he's a little touched. They won't listen. But do not contradict him. It's disrespectful to his age." With the air of being done with the whole subject, he turned to Moon and said, "Now tell us if you saw any bando-hoppers down in that end of the valley. I think it must be the season for them soon."
When Moon had first found the Cordans and been accepted into their group, Dargan had presented him with a tent, and with Selis and Ilane. Moon had been very much looking forward to the tent; in fact, it was the whole reason he had wanted to join the Cordans in the first place. He had been traveling alone a long time at that point, and the idea of sleeping warm and dry, without having to worry about something coming along and eating him, had been too attractive to pass up. The reality was every bit as good as he had hoped. Selis and Ilane, however, had taken some getting used to.
It was twilight by the time he reached his tent, shadows gathering. He met Selis coming out with the waterskin.
"You took long enough," she snapped, and snatched the packet of meat away.
"Tell that to Dargan," Moon snapped back. She knew damn well that he had to wait for the elders to divide up the kill, but he had given up trying to reason with her about three days after being accepted into the Cordan camp. He took the waterskin away from her and went to fill it at the troughs.
When the Cordans had fled their last town, many of their young men had been killed covering their escape. It had left them with a surplus of young women. The Cordans believed the women needed men to provide for them; Moon had no idea why. He knew that Selis in particular was perfectly capable of chasing down any number of grasseaters and beating them to death with a club, so he didn't see why she couldn't hunt for herself. But it was the way the Cordans lived, and he wasn't going to argue. And he liked Ilane.
By the time he got back, Selis had the meat laid out on a flat stone and was cutting it up into portions. Ilane sat on a mat beside the fire.
Ilane was beautiful, though the other Cordans didn't think so, and their lack of regard had made her quiet and timid. She was too tall, too slender, with a pearlescent quality to her pale green skin. Moon had tried to tell her that in most of the places he had lived, she would be considered lovely, that it was just a matter of perception. But he wasn't certain he had ever been able to make her understand. Selis looked more typically Cordan, stocky and strong, with iridescent patches on her cheeks and forehead. He wasn't sure why she had been stuck with him, but suspected her personality had a lot to do with it.
Moon stowed his weapons in the tent and dropped down onto the mat next to Ilane. She was peeling a greenroot, the big, melon-like staple that the Cordans ate with everything, fried, mashed, or raw. After the kill earlier in the day, Moon wasn't hungry and wouldn't be for the next day or so. But not eating in front of other people was one of the first mistakes he had ever made, and he didn't intend to make it again. It had gotten him chased out of the nice silk-weaving town of Var-tilth, and the memory still stung.
"Moon." Ilane's voice was always quiet, but this time it held a note of painful hesitancy. "Do you think the Fell are here?"
Tacras' story had, of course, spread all over camp. Moon knew he should say what Dargan had said, but looking at Ilane, her pale green skin ashy-gray with fear, he just couldn't. "No. I've been hunting in the open all up and down the valley and I haven't seen anything. Neither have the others."
As she wrapped the meat up in bandan leaves to put into the coals, Selis said, "So Tacras lies because he wants to frighten us to death for his amusement."
Moon pretended to consider it. "Probably not. Not everybody's like you."
She gave him a sour grimace. Forced into actually asking a question, she said, "Then what?"
Ilane was having trouble getting the knife through the tough greenroot skin. Moon took it and sawed the hard ends off. He squinted at Selis. "Do you know how many things there are that fly besides Fell?"
Selis' jaw set. She did know, but she didn't want to admit it. All the Cordans knew that further up in the hills, there were birds, flighted and not, that were nearly as large as the small Fell, and nearly as dangerous.
"So Tacras was wrong?" Ilane said, her perfect brow creased in a frown.
Moon finished stripping the greenroot's outer husk and started to slice it. "He saw it with the sun in his eyes, and made a mistake."
"We should all be so lucky," Selis said, but Moon knew enough Selis-speak to hear it as a grudging admission that he was probably right.
He hoped he was right. Investigating it gave him yet another reason to go out tonight.
"You're cutting the greenroot wrong," Selis snapped.
Moon waited until late into the night, lying on his back and staring at the shadows on the tent's curved supports, listening to the camp go gradually quiet around him. The air was close and damp, and it seemed to take a long time for everyone to settle down. It would never go silent; there were too many people. But it had been a while since he had heard a voice nearby, or the low wail of a fretful baby.
Moon slid away from Ilane. She stirred, making a sleepy sound of inquiry. He whispered, "It's too warm. I'm going to take a walk, maybe sleep outside."
She hummed under her breath and rolled over. Moon eased to his feet, found his shirt, and made a wide circle around Selis' pallet as he slipped outside.
He and Ilane had been sleeping together since the second month Moon had been here. She had made the first overtures to him before that, apparently, but Moon hadn't understood what she wanted. Ilane hadn't understood what she had interpreted as his refusal, either, and had been very unhappy. Moon had had no idea what was going on and had seriously considered a strategic retreat--right out of the camp--until one night Selis had thrown her hands in the air in frustration and explained to him what Ilane wanted.
Ilane was sweet-tempered, but her lack of understanding was sometimes frustrating. Several days ago, she had said she wanted to have a baby, and Moon had had to tell her he didn't think it was possible. That had been a hard conversation. She had just stared tragically at him, her eyes huge, as if this was something he was deliberately withholding. "We're too different," he told her, feeling helpless. "I'm not a Cordan." He thought that if there had been any chance of it, it would have happened already.
Ilane blinked and her silver brows drew together. "You want Selis instead."
Selis, sitting across the fire and mending the ripped sleeve of a shirt, shook her head in weary resignation. "Just give up," she told Moon.
Moon threw her a grim look and persisted, telling Ilane, "No, no, I don't think . . .I can't give you a baby. It just won't happen." He added hopefully, "You could have babies with somebody else and bring them to live with us." Now that he thought about it, it wasn't a bad idea. He knew he could bring in enough food for a larger group, even with the elders taking their share.
Ilane had just continued to stare. Selis had muttered to Moon, "You are so stupid."
He stepped outside. The air was cool compared to the close interior of the tent, with just enough movement to lift the damp a little. The full moon was bright, almost bright enough to see the groundling woman that supposedly lived in it. The sky was crowded with stars; it was hard not to just leap into the air.
Moon stood beside the tent for a moment, pretending to stretch. Across the width of the camp, two sentries stood at the gate with torches, but the cooking fires were out or banked. He carried Ilane's scent on his skin, and the whole camp smelled of Cordan, so it was tricky to sense anyone nearby. But he wasn't going to get a better chance.
His bare feet were silent on the packed ground between the tents. He didn't see anyone else, but he could hear deep breathing, the occasional sleepy mutter as he passed. He stopped at the latrine ditches, pissed into one, then wandered off, tying the drawstring on his pants again.
He went toward the far end of the camp, where the fence ran down toward edge of the river channel. Made of bundles of saplings roped together, the fence wasn't very secure at the best of times but here, where it cut across the slope of the bank, there were gaps under the bottom. Moon dropped to the ground and wiggled under one.
Once through the fence, he loped across the field and reached the fringe of the jungle. There, in the deep shadow, he shifted.
Moon didn't know what he was, just that he could do this. His body got taller, his shoulders broader. He was stronger but much lighter, as if his bones weren't made of the same stuff anymore. His skin hardened, darkened, grew an armor of little scales, overlapping almost like solid feathers. In this shadow it made him nearly invisible; in bright sunlight the scales would be black with an under sheen of bronze. He grew retractable claws on his hands and feet and a long flexible tail, good for hanging upside down off tree branches. He also had a mane of flexible frills and spines around his head, running down to his lower back; in a fight they could be flared out into rigid spikes to protect his head and back.
Now he unfolded his wings and leapt into the air, hard flaps carrying him higher and higher until he caught the wind.
It was cooler up here, the wind hard and strong. He did a long sweep of the valley first, just in case Tacras was right, but didn't see or catch scent of anything unusual. Past the jungle, the broad grassy river plain was empty except for the giant lumpy forms of the big armored grasseaters that the Cordans called kras. He flew up into the hills, passing over narrow gorges and dozens of small waterfalls. The wind was rougher here, and he controlled his wing curvature with delicate movements, playing the air along his joints and scales.
There was no sign of Fell, no strange groundling tribes, nothing the Cordans needed to worry about.
Moon turned back toward the sky-island where it floated in isolation over the plain. He pushed himself higher until he was well above it.
He circled over the island. Its shape was irregular, with jagged edges. It had been hard to tell how large it was from the ground; from above he could see it was barely four hundred paces across, smaller than the Cordans' camp. It was covered with vegetation, trees with narrow trunks winding up into spirals, heavy falls of vines and white, night-blooming flowers. But he could still make out the round shape of a tower, and a building that was a series of stacked squares of vine-covered stone. There were broken sections of walls, choked pools and fountains.
He spotted a balcony jutting out of curtains of foliage and dropped down toward it. He landed lightly on the railing; his claws gripped the pocked stone. Folding his wings, he stepped down onto the cracked tiles, parting the vines to find the door. It was oblong and narrow, and he shifted back to groundling form to step through.
Fragments of moonlight fell through the cracks and the heavy shrouds of vegetation. The room smelled strongly of earth and must. Moon sneezed, then picked his way carefully forward.
He still wore his clothes; it was a little magic, to make the shift and take any loose fabric attached to his body with him, but it had taken practice to be able to do it. His mother had taught him, the way she had taught him to fly. He had never gotten the trick of shifting with boots on. His feet had a heavy layer of extra skin on the sole, thick as scar tissue, so he usually went barefoot.
When he was a boy, after being hounded out of yet another settlement, Moon had tried to make his groundling form look more like theirs, hoping it would make him fit in better. His mother had never mentioned that ability, but he thought it was worth a try. He might as well have tried to turn himself into a rock or a tree, and after a time he had concluded that the magic just didn't work that way. There was this him, and the scaly winged version, and that was it.
He made his way to the door, startling a little flock of flighted lizards, all brilliant greens and blues. They fluttered away, hissing harmlessly, and he stepped into the next room. The ceiling was several levels above him, and the room had tall doorways and windows that looked into an atrium shaped like a six-pointed star. Shafts of moonlight pierced the darkness, illuminating a mosaic tile floor strewn with debris and a shallow pool filled with bright blue flowers. Doorways led off into more shadowed spaces.
He made his way from one room to another, the tile gritty under his feet. He poked at broken fragments of pottery and glass, pushed vines away from faded wall murals. It was hard to tell in this bad light, but the people in the murals seemed to be tall and willowy, with long flowing hair and little bundles of tentacles where their mouths should be. There was something to do with a sea realm, but he couldn't tell if it was a battle, an alliance, or just a myth.
Moon had been very young when his mother and siblings had been killed, and she had never told him where they had come from. For a long time he had searched sky-islands looking for some trace of his own people. The islands flew; it stood to reason that the inhabitants might be shifters who could fly. But he had never found anything, and now he just explored because it gave him something to do.
When Moon had first joined the Cordans, he hadn't thought of staying this long. He had lived with other people he had liked -- most recently the Jandin, who had lived in cliff caves above a waterfall, and the Hassi, with their wooden city high in the air atop a thick mat of link-trees -- but something always happened. The Fell came or someone got suspicious of him and he had to move on. He had never lived with anyone long enough to truly trust them, to tell them what he was. But living alone, even with the freedom to shift whenever he felt like it or needed to, wore on him. It seemed pointless and, worst of all, it was lonely. Lost in thought, he said, "You're never satisfied," not realizing he had spoken aloud until the words dropped into the stillness.
In the next room, he found a filigreed metal cabinet built into the wall stuffed with books. Digging down through a layer of moldy, disintegrating lumps of paper and leather, he found some still intact. These were folded into neat packets and made of thin, stiff sheets of either very supple metal or thin reptile hide. Moon carried a pile back out to the atrium, sat on the gritty tile in a patch of moonlight near the flower-filled fountain, and tried to read.
The text was similar to Altanic, which was a common language in the Three Worlds, though this version was different enough that Moon couldn't get much sense out of it. But there were drawings with delicate colors, pictures of the people with the tentacle faces. They rode strange horned beasts like bando-hoppers and flew in carriages built on the backs of giant birds.
It was so absorbing, he didn't realize he was being watched until he happened to glance up.
He must have heard something, smelled something, or just sensed another living presence. He looked up the open shaft of the atrium, noticing broad balconies, easy pathways to other interior rooms if he shifted and used his claws to climb to them. Then he found a shadow on one of the balconies, a shadow in the wrong place.
At first he tried to see it as a statue, it was so still. Then moonlight caught the gleam of scales on sinuous limbs, claws gripping the stone railing, the curve of a wing ending in a pointed tip.
Moon's breath caught and his blood froze. He thought, You idiot. Then he flung himself through the nearest doorway.
He scrambled back through the debris, then crouched, listening. He heard the creature move, a rasp of scales as it uncoiled, clink of claws on stone. He thought it was too big to come further in, that it would go up, and out. Moon bolted back through the inner rooms.
He couldn't afford to be trapped in here; he had one chance to get past that thing and he had to take it now. He skidded around the corner, his bare feet slipping on mossy tile, and scrabbled up a pile of broken stone to a vine-draped window. He jumped through, already shifting.
He felt movement in the air before he saw the claws reaching for him. Moon jerked away with a sharp twist that wrenched his back. He swiped at the dark shape suddenly right on top of him. He swung wildly, catching it a glancing blow across the face, feeling his claws catch on tough scales. It pulled back, big wings knocking tiles and fragments of greenery off the sides of the ruin.
Moon tumbled in midair toward the cracked pavement below, caught himself on a ledge around a half-destroyed tower, and clung to the stone. He looked back just as the creature flapped upward in a spray of rock chips and dead leaves. Oh, it's big, Moon thought, his heart pounding. Not big enough to eat him in one bite, maybe. But it was three times his size if not more. Moon's wingspan was close to twenty paces, fully extended; this creature's span was more than forty. So two bites, maybe three. And it wasn't an animal. It had known it was looking at a shifter. It had expected him to fly out of an upper window, not walk or climb out.
As the creature flapped powerful wings, positioning itself to dive at him, Moon shoved off from the tower, sending himself out and down, over the edge of the sky-island. He angled his wings, diving in close past the jagged rock and the waterfalls of heavy greenery. He landed on a spur of rock and clung like a lizard. Digging his claws in, he climbed down and under, folding and tucking his wings and tail in, making himself as small as possible.
He kept his breath slow and shallow, hoping he didn't have to cling here too long. His claws were meant for fastening onto wooden branches, not rock, and this was already starting to hurt. He couldn't hear the creature, but he wasn't surprised when a great dark shape dove past. It circled below the island, one slow circuit to try to spot Moon. He hoped it was looking down toward the jungle.
It made another circuit, then headed upward to pass back over the top of the island.
Here goes, Moon thought. He aimed himself for the deep part of the river, flexed his claws, and let go.
Tilting his wings for the least wind resistance, he fell like a rock. The air rushed past him and he counted heartbeats, gauging how long it would take the creature to make a slow sweep over the sky-island. Then he rolled over to look up, just in time to see the dark shape appear at the western end of the island.
It saw him instantly. It didn't howl with rage, it just dove for him.
Uh oh. Moon twisted back around, arrowing straight down. The rapidly approaching ground was a green blur, broken by the dark expanse of the river.
At the last instant, he cupped his wings and slowed just enough before he slammed into the river. He plunged deep into the cold water, down until he scraped the bottom. Folding his wings in tightly, he kicked to stay below the surface, the rushing current carrying him along.
Moon wasn't as fast in the water as he was in the air, but he was faster in this form than as a groundling. Swimming close to the sandy bottom, Moon stayed under until his lungs were about to burst, then headed for the bank and the thick stands of reeds. The reeds were topped with large, wheel-shaped fronds that made a good screen from above. Moon let his face break the surface, just enough to get a breath. The fronds made a good screen from below, too, but after a few moments, Moon saw the creature make a lazy circle high above the river. He had been hoping it would slam into the bank and snap its neck, but no such luck. But he knew the water would keep it from following his scent. It probably knew that, too. He filled his lungs, sunk down again, and kicked off.
He surfaced twice more, and the second time, he couldn't spot the creature. Still careful, he stayed under, following the river all the way back to camp. Once there, he shifted back to groundling underwater, then swam toward the shore, until it was shallow enough that he could walk up the sloping bank.
He sat down on the sparse grass above the water, his clothes dripping, letting his breath out in a long sigh. His back and shoulder were sore, pain carried over from nearly twisting himself in half to avoid the creature's first grab. He still hadn't gotten a good look at it. This is going to be a problem. And he and all the Cordans owed Tacras an apology.
But that thing wasn't Fell -- he knew that from its lack of scent. It might live on the island, drifting with it, and just hadn't needed to hunt yet. Or it might just be passing through, and had used the island as a place to shelter and sleep. He thought it must have been sleeping when he had reached the ruins, or he would have heard it moving around. Idiot, you could have been dinner. If it had snatched him in his groundling form, it could have snapped him in half before he had a chance to shift.
If it attacked the camp, what it was or why it had come here wouldn't matter much; it could still kill most of the Cordans before they had a chance to take cover in the jungle. Moon was going to have to warn them.
Except he couldn't exactly run into the center of the camp yelling an alarm. If he said he had seen it tonight, while sitting out by the river . . . No, he could hear that the camp wasn't as quiet as it had been when he left. It was a warm night, and there must be others sitting or sleeping outside, who would say they hadn't seen anything. He would look as unreliable as Tacras and no one would listen to him. He would have to wait until tomorrow.
When he went hunting, he would walk down the valley toward the sky-island. That would give him a chance to scout the island by air again, to see if the creature was still there, if it would come out in the daylight. Cautiously scout, he reminded himself. He didn't want to get eaten before he could warn the Cordans. But when he told them he had seen the same creature as Tacras at that end of the valley, they would have to take it seriously.
Moon pushed wearily to his feet and wrung out the front of his shirt. As he started back up the long slope of the bank, he considered the other problem: what the Cordans were going to do once they were warned.
Moon didn't have any answers for that one. The creature would either drive them out of the valley or it wouldn't. He knew he couldn't take it in an open fight. But if he could think of a way to trap it . . . He had killed a few of the smaller major kethel that way, but they weren't exactly the most clever fighters; he had the feeling this thing . . .was different.
Moon took the long way back through the camp, which let him pass the fewest number of tents. Still thinking about traps and tactics, he came in sight of his tent and halted abruptly. The banked fire had been stirred up, and the coals were glowing. In its light he could see a figure sitting in front of the doorway. A heartbeat later he recognized Ilane, and relaxed.
He walked up to the tent, dropping down to sit next to her on the straw mat. "Sorry I woke you. I went down to the river." That part was obvious; he was still dripping.
She shook her head. "I couldn't sleep." It was too dark to read her expression, but she sounded the same as she always did. She wore a light shift, and used a fold of her skirt to lift a small kettle off the fire. "I'm making a tisane. Do you want some?"
He didn't; the Cordans supposedly used herbs to make it but it just tasted like water reed to him. But it was habit to accept any food offered to him, just to look normal. And Ilane hardly ever cooked; he felt he owed it to Selis to encourage it when she did.
She poured the steaming water into a red-glazed ceramic pot that belonged to Selis and handed Moon a cup.
Selis poked her head out of the tent, her hair tumbled around her face. "What are you--" She saw Moon and swore, then added belatedly, "Oh, it's you."
"Do you want a cup of tisane?" Ilane asked, unperturbed.
"No, I want to sleep," Selis said pointedly, and vanished back into the tent.
The tisane tasted more reedy than usual, but Moon sat and drank it with Ilane. He listened to her detail the love affairs of nearly everybody else in camp while he nodded at the right moments and mostly thought about what he was going to say to Dargan tomorrow. Though he was a little surprised to hear that Kavath was sleeping with Selis' cousin Denira.
He didn't remember falling asleep.
Moon didn't so much wake up as drift slowly toward consciousness. It seemed like a dream, one of those in which he thought he was awake, trying to move his sluggish still-sleeping body, until he finally succeeded in making some jerky motion and startling himself conscious. Except he didn't succeed.
He finally woke enough to realize he lay on his stomach, face half-buried in a thick, felted blanket that smelled like the herbs Selis used to wash everything. His throat was dry and his body ached in ways it never had before, little arcs of pain running up his spine and out through the nerves in his arms and legs. In panicked reflex he tried to shift, realizing his mistake an instant later. If he was ill now, he would be ill in his other form. And he could see daylight on the tent wall; someone might be just outside.
But nothing happened. He was still in groundling form.
Nothing. I can't-- He tried again. Still nothing. His heart started to pound in panic. He was sick, or it was a magical trap, some lingering taint from whatever had killed the inhabitants of the sky-island.
He heard voices just outside -- Selis, Dargan, some of the others, not Ilane. With an effort that made his head spin, he shoved himself up on his elbows. More pain stabbed down his spine, taking his breath away. He tried to speak, coughed, and managed to croak, "Ilane?"
Footsteps, then someone grabbed his shoulder and shoved him over. Dargan leaned over him, then recoiled, his face appalled, disgusted.
"What--" Moon gasped, confused. He knew he hadn't shifted. Half a dozen hunters pushed into the tent, Garin, Kavath, Ildras. Someone grabbed his wrists and dragged him outside onto the packed dirt of the path. Morning light stung his eyes. People surrounded him, staring in condemnation and horror.
I'm sick and they're going to kill me, Moon thought, baffled. It didn't make any sense, but he felt the answer looming over him like a club. He managed to push himself up into a sitting position. They scrambled away from him. Oh. Oh, no. It couldn't be what it seemed like. They know. They have to know.
Dargan stepped into view again. His face was hard but he wouldn't meet Moon's eyes. Dargan said, "The girl saw you. You're a Fell, a demon."
Except a club would have been quick -- one brief instant of stunned agony, then nothing. "I'm not." Moon choked on a breath and had to stop and pant for air. Ilane had done this. "I don't know what I am." Desperate, he tried to shift again, and felt nothing.
"The poison only works on Fell." Dargan stepped back, signaling to someone.
Poison. Ilane had seen him shift, then gone back and readied the poison, and waited calmly for him to return.
He heard running footsteps and suddenly Selis landed on her knees beside him. Her voice low and desperate, she said, "She followed you, saw you change. She probably thought you were going to another woman, the stupid little bitch." The others shouted at her to come away.
With everything else, Moon barely felt this shock. "You knew."
"I followed you the first time you left at night, months ago. But you never hurt anyone and you were good to us." Selis' face twisted in grief and anger. "She ruined everything. I just wanted my own home."
Moon felt something wrench inside him. "Me too."
Kavath darted forward, grabbed Selis' arm, and dragged her to her feet. Selis twisted in his grip and punched him in the face. Moon had just enough time to be bitterly glad for it. Then the others jumped him, slamming him to the ground.
One arm was dragged up over his head, the other pinned under someone's knee. Moon bucked and twisted, too weak to dislodge them. Someone grabbed his hair, yanked his head back, and covered his nose, cutting off his air. He bit the first hand that tried to pry at his mouth, but pressure on his jaw hinge forced it open. One of them punched him in the stomach at the right moment and his involuntary gasp drew the liquid in. Most of it went into his lungs, but they released him, shoving to their feet.
Moon rolled over, coughing and choking, trying to spit the stuff out. Then darkness fell over him like a blanket.
Moon drifted in and out. He felt himself being carried and heard a babble of confused voices, fading in the distance. The sunlight was blinding and he could only see shapes outlined against it. He heard wind moving through trees, the hum of insects, squawks from treelings, birdcalls. His throat was scratchy and painfully dry. Swallowing hurt, and there was a metallic tang in his mouth, the aftertaste of the poison. It tasted a little like Fell blood.
Whoever carried him dumped him abruptly; stony ground and dry grass came up and slapped him in the back of the head. The jolt knocked him closer to consciousness. They were in a big clearing, a rocky field surrounded by the tall, thin plume trees of the upper slopes of the valley. He rolled over to try to sit up; somebody stepped on his back, shoving him down again.
Enough of this. Rage gave him strength and he shot out an arm, grabbed an ankle, and yanked. A heavy form hit the ground with a thump and a grunt, and the weight was off him. Moon tried to shove to his feet but only made it to his hands and knees before the world swayed erratically. He slumped to the ground, barely managing to hold himself half upright. Desperately, he tried to shift. Again, nothing happened.
A kick caught him in the stomach. He fell sideways and curled around the pain, gasping.
Someone grabbed his right arm and dragged him around, then clamped something metal and painful around his wrist. Moon opened his bleary eyes to see it was a manacle and a chain. He hadn't even known that the Cordans had chains. They hadn't even had enough big water kettles to go around, and they had wasted metal on chains?
Moon lay on his back in the dirt, his shirt shoved up under his armpits, pebbles digging painfully into his skin. By the sun, it was mid-morning, maybe a little later. He felt a hard jerk on the manacle, turned his head to see Garin and Vergan pounding a big metal stake into the ground. Moon took an uneven raspy breath and forced the words out: "I never did anything to you."
Vergan faltered, but Garin shook his head and kept pounding. After a moment, Vergan started again.
Finally Vergan stepped back and Garin tugged one more time on the chain, making certain it was secure. They backed away, then hurried across the clearing. Moon saw them join more Cordans waiting under the trees, then the whole group retreated out of sight.
Still alive, Moon reminded himself, but at the moment it was hard to muster enthusiasm for it. He shoved himself up, rolling over -- and froze, staring at the back of his hand.
There was a ghost pattern of scales, his scales, on his hands, his arms. He sat up and looked down the open neck of his shirt. It was everywhere, a faint, dark outline just under the upper layer of his skin, obscured by the dusting of dark hair on his chest, his forearms. He rubbed at his hands, his arms, but couldn't feel anything. Oh, that's . . .bizarre. This had to be an effect of the poison. Suddenly uncomfortable in his own skin, he twitched uneasily, running hands over his face, through his hair, but everything else seemed normal.
At least now he knew why they had been so certain. They weren't just taking Ilane's word for it.
Ilane. He couldn't afford to think about her right now. Later. He pried at the manacle on his wrist and tugged at the chain, looking for weak spots.
The sun beat down on his head, heat radiating up from the ground. The tall plume trees and underbrush around the clearing shielded him from any cool breeze, making it hot enough to torture a real groundling. Testing each link for weakness, Moon kept one uneasy eye on the green shadows under the trees. The Cordans were still out there somewhere, watching.
The chain wasn't well made, but it didn't yield, even when he braced his foot against the stake and leaned his whole weight on it. He gave that up and started digging around the stake itself. The dirt was hard and packed with broken rock, and it was slow going. And he had to worry that the Cordans might decide he was too close to escape and come out to knock him in the head. Instinctively he kept trying to shift, snarling impatiently at himself when nothing happened. This poison had to wear off sometime.
If it isn't permanent. The thought had been hovering but articulating it was worse. It formed a cold, tight lump in his throat, threatening to choke him. He couldn't live only as a groundling. It wasn't what he was. He was some weird combination of both. To lose one form or the other would cripple him as surely as losing his legs.
He hadn't even known a poison like this existed. The Cordans had been driven out of their old territory in Kiaspur by the Fell, and the elders had told stories of battles against them, but nobody had ever mentioned this poison, or the fact that they had brought it with them into exile. But even if you'd known, you wouldn't have thought it would do this to you, he reminded himself grimly. He knew he wasn't a Fell.
He wouldn't have thought that Ilane would do this to him.
His fingers were already sore and bleeding, and the hollow in the hard ground around the stake wasn't very deep. Moon dug up a couple of fist-sized rocks and set them aside, but those were the only weapons he had. He stood, putting his full weight on the chain again, working it back and forth. Abruptly he realized the birdsong had gone quiet. He jerked his head up and scanned the trees, pivoting slowly.
On the far side of the clearing something rustled in the undergrowth, movement deep in the shadows. Moon hissed in dismay. And this is when it gets worse. He dropped to the ground again and dug frantically, gritting his teeth. There wasn't much else he could do. He had two rocks and he was still chained to this stake. This wasn't going to be good.
A giant vargit walked out of the jungle. It wasn't like the smaller ones down in the river valley that the Cordans hunted for food. It was a good twelve paces high at least, its beak long and sharp, its bright, greedy eyes fixed on Moon. Dark green feathers shaded to brown on its belly, and its wings were stunted, shaped almost like hooks, but it could stretch them out to snatch at prey.
Moon eased up into a crouch and picked up his first rock. He knew he could take a giant vargit -- from the air, in his other form. Like this, unarmed, chained to the stake, all he could do was make sure the vargit had to work for its meal.
It cocked its head, sensing resistance, stalking toward him. Moon waited until it was barely ten paces away, then flung his first rock.
The rock bounced off its head, and the vargit jerked back with a shrill cry. But he hadn't managed to crack its tough skull or, if he had, it just didn't care. It crouched, its neck weaving, wings stretching as it readied itself for a lunge.
Then something big and dark struck the ground. A rush of air threw the vargit sideways and knocked Moon flat on his back.
He looked up, and up, at the creature from the sky-island.
It looked bigger from this angle, more than three times his size, but it was hard to focus on. He got an impression of sinuous movement from a long tail, spines or tentacles bristling around its head, a long narrow body standing upright, with a broad chest to support the giant wings. Then it moved, fast.
One big-clawed hand reached past Moon, caught the chain, and snapped it in half. Run, Moon thought in shock, scrambling to his feet to bolt away.
A blow to his back slammed him to the ground, a weight held him there. He struggled, twisting around; the creature had one clawed hand pinning him to the dirt. The other hand wrapped around the stunned vargit's torso, gripping it securely.
From the trees, Dargan shouted, and half a dozen arrows struck the creature's scales. It lifted the struggling vargit and tossed it toward the jungle. Moon couldn't see where it landed but the startled screams of the Cordans and the broken crashing of underbrush were a good indication. Moon had a moment to wonder if the creature was going to throw him, too, and if he could survive it as well as the vargit evidently had. Then the hand pinning him adjusted its grip, wrapping firmly around his waist. Moon wrenched at its claws in desperation, knowing it was going to snap him in half.
Then it snatched him up off the ground and dragged him up against its chest. He felt the big muscles in its body gather, then it leapt into the air.
Moon yelled in pure, frightened reflex, muffled against the creature's scales. Air rushed past him, cold and harsh; when he twisted his head, he could only get a view of the joins where the creature's wings met its body. He knew they were high in the air, and it was terrifying. He had never flown except under his own power, and he had to fight down nausea.
They flew a long time, at least long enough to leave the valley, though it was hard for Moon to judge. The air was freezing. He tried to concentrate on breathing, not what was going to happen when the creature landed. Its scales were thick but overlapped smoothly, not unlike Moon's other form. It was hard to tell how tough they were. Moon growled silently and wished for his claws.
He was shivering and nearly numb from the cold when the creature slowed, and he recognized from its change in angle that it was cupping its wings, getting ready to land. It adjusted its grip on him, and Moon twisted his head, squinting against the wind. He caught a glimpse of a square stone tower with sloping sides, perched on the edge of a river gorge. Then they dipped down toward it.
The creature landed on the tower's broad, flat roof, and released Moon onto dirty stone flags. His shaky legs gave way and he sat down hard. It loomed over him, dark and sinuous and still hard to focus on, even this close. Moon dug his heels into the paving, scrambled away from it, and hissed in defiant reflex. It had brought him up here to tear him apart, but he wasn't going down easy.
His vision flickered, as if the dark form was suddenly made of mist and smoke. Then it was gone and a man stood in its place, a tall, lean man with gray hair and strong features, his face lined and weathered. He was dressed in gray.
Moon stared, breathing hard. Then he lunged for the man's throat. The burst of renewed fury only got him to his feet; the man stepped back out of reach and Moon collapsed to his hands and knees.
Between one heartbeat and the next, the man shifted. The great dark form crouched, spreading its wings. Moon flinched back, but it jumped into the air. Wincing against the sudden windstorm of dirt, he saw it soar out and down, vanishing over the side of the battlement.
Another shifter. Moon swore and sat back, rubbing sweat and dirt out of his eyes. The manacle was still on his wrist, the chain dangling. I can't believe this.
He looked around. The tower was a ruin, cold wind tearing across it. The stone was cracked and dirt filled the chinks, weeds sprouted everywhere. He didn't see any way down, no doorway into the structure below.
The battlement had rounded crenellations, blocking his view. He stumbled awkwardly to his feet; lingering weakness from the poison made him dizzy. Weaving from side to side, he made it to the battlement, aiming for a spot where one of the crenellations had broken and fallen away. Digging sore fingers into the crumbling rock, he dragged himself up enough to see. The tower stood on the edge of a gorge, surrounded by rock-clinging trees and vegetation, mountains rising all around. Then he looked down.
A long way down. The tower was hundreds of paces high, and though the sides were slanted, they were still far too steep to climb. If Moon had had his claws and wasn't half dead, he could have done it. Of course, if he had his claws, he would have his wings and this wouldn't be a problem. He tried to shift again, just in case the poison had miraculously worn off in the last few moments.
Moon's lips curled into a snarl. He looked back, leaning into the wall to support himself. The shifter stood behind him. His voice a dry croak, Moon said, "You think that's funny."
The shifter just held out a small waterskin made of some bright blue hide. It took Moon a moment to realize the shifter expected him to drink from it. He shook his head. "That's how I got into this."
The shifter lifted gray brows, then shrugged. He tilted the skin back and took a drink. "It's just water."
Piss in your water, Moon started to say, then realized the words weren't coming out in Altanic or Kedaic, or in any of the other common groundling languages. They were both speaking a language Moon knew in his bones, but hadn't heard since he was a boy. It was too strange, another shock on top of everything else. He just said, "What do you want?"
The shifter watched him, his expression opaque. His eyes were blue, but the right one was clouded and its pupil didn't focus. "Just trying to help," he said. The even tone of his voice gave nothing away.
Moon grimaced, unimpressed. "You tried to kill me on the sky-island."
"I tried to catch you," the shifter corrected pointedly. "I just wanted a closer look." His gaze flicked over Moon, assessing. He's old, Moon thought, not sure what it was about the man that gave it away. Far older than his groundling form looked. Everything about him was faded to gray, skin, hair, clothes. He wore a loose shirt with the sleeves rolled up, pants of some tougher material, a heavy leather belt with a pouch and knife sheath. The man said, "I'm Stone, of the Indigo Cloud Court."
Moon pushed away from the battlement, still weaving on his feet. He had never heard of the place, if it was a place. "Are you going to kill me, or just leave me up here?"
"I thought neither." Stone stepped away, turning to cross back over the roof. A heavy leather pack lay on the dirty paving, and a pile of broken branches and chunks of log. Stone must have had the pack stashed somewhere lower in the tower, and that casually spectacular shift and dive had been to retrieve it and the wood. "What did they give you?"
"They said it was a poison that only works on Fell." Moon followed him warily. He had met other shifters before. He had run into a group in Cient that could shift into big lupine predators; they had tried to eat him, too. He had never found or heard of any shifters who could fly. Except the Fell. But Stone wasn't Fell. You didn't think he was a shifter, either, he reminded himself. "I'm not a Fell."
Stone's brows quirked. "I noticed." He sat on his heels, breaking up the wood to lay a fire. He was barefoot, like Moon. "Poison for Fell? I've never heard of that before."
Moon eased himself down to sit a few paces away, wincing at the tug of pain in his back and shoulder. The battlement provided a little protection from the cold wind, but the thin fabric of his sweat-soaked clothes, fine for the warmer valley, was worse than inadequate here. If Stone didn't kill him before the poison wore off -- if the poison wore off . . . Brows knit, Moon looked down at his arms, still showing the ghost-pattern of scales just under the bronze tint of his skin. Oh, I get it now, he thought sourly. Just trying to help. Right.
"Why did they stake you out?" Stone broke up twigs for tinder. "Catch you stealing their cattle?"
Moon thought over possible replies, trying not to huddle in on himself against the wind. He could sit here and say nothing, but talking might distract Stone. He tried to answer, and had to clear his throat. "I was living with them. They found out what I was."
Stone flicked a look at him and held out the waterskin again. The slosh of the water inside made Moon's dry throat burn. He gave in and, without taking his eyes off Stone, took a long drink, then coughed and wiped his mouth. The lukewarm water soothed his throat a little. He tied the bone cap back on and set it aside.
Stone tried to light the fire. He shielded the tinder with larger pieces of wood, striking sparks off a set of flints, just like anyone else. Moon tried to reconcile this picture with the creature that had tossed the giant vargit into the Cordans. Frustrated curiosity getting the better of caution, he asked, "What are you?"
Stone glanced at him from under skeptical brows. "Did you get hit on the head?" Moon didn't respond, and after a moment Stone's expression turned thoughtful. He said, "I'm a Raksura. So are you."
"I'm -- " Moon started, then realized he had no way to finish that sentence. He had never known where he came from or what his people were called. And he speaks the language your mother taught you. Moon didn't want to believe it. But if it was a ploy, it was a patently bizarre one. He's trying to make me think he didn't bring me up here to kill me, or... He had no idea. Moon settled for saying skeptically, "Then why are you so much bigger than me?"
"I'm old." Stone frowned at him, as if Moon was the one who sounded crazy. "What court are you from? Where's your colony?"
Moon debated a moment, weighing the tactic of implying that there were others who would come to his aid versus the possibility of being tortured to reveal their location. No, it wasn't worth it. He admitted, "It was just my mother, and my brothers and sister. Dead, a long time ago."
Stone winced, and turned his attention back to the fire. Once the tinder and the smaller twigs had caught, he sat back, carefully feeding in broken branches. "This happened somewhere further east? Around the curve of the gulf of Abascene?"
It had to be a guess. It was just a very good guess. "Further than that."
"There were a few courts that went that far east. I thought they all failed and went back into the reaches, but maybe not." Stone poked at the tinder thoughtfully. "This woman you call your mother. She was the reigning queen?"
Moon eyed him. "No," he said, slowly, not trying to conceal his opinion that this was a crazy question. "We lived in a tree."
Stone just looked annoyed. "What did she look like?"
Does he think he knew her? Moon thought, incredulous. At least trying to see where this was going helped take his mind off the cold and his impending death. "Like me." He remembered he was a groundling at the moment with a scale pattern under his skin, and clarified, "When she shifted, she was like my other . . . me. With wings. And she was dark brown, with red under her scales."
Stone shook his head, leaning over to untie the pack's laces and rummage in it. "She wasn't your mother."
Moon pressed his lips together to hold back his first knee-jerk response, then looked away. It was stupid to get into a pointless argument with someone who was planning to kill you.
Stone pulled out a small cooking pot, battered but embossed with figures in a lighter metal around the rim. "Flighted females with those colors are warriors, and they can't breed. Only queens and Arbora females are fertile." Moon's face must have reflected extreme doubt, because Stone added with a trace of exasperation, "Don't look at me. We're Raksura. That's how it works."
Moon stared at the fire, trying to keep his expression noncommittal. He couldn't tell if Stone really did believe that Moon was a Raksura, or if he was just trying to get his confidence. The first option made his skin creep. The second . . . at least made sense. He wants you to sit here, thinking nothing's going to happen, until the poison wears off.
Stone filled the pot from the waterskin and put it at the edge of the fire to warm. "This warrior, she didn't say where you came from?"
Stone's gaze sharpened. "She didn't tell you anything?"
Moon folded his arms and looked away. Talking had been a bad idea.
"She probably stole you."
Moon set his jaw. It's not enough that he's going to eat you; he's got to insult your dead mother.
With more heat, Stone added, "She didn't even tell you how to reproduce, that's -- "
That stung him to a reply. "I was a child. Reproducing wasn't exactly a concern."
Stone watched him a moment, then turned to rummage in his pack again. "Oh, that young." He pulled out a leather-wrapped packet. "There were four others? Younger than you?"
Moon eyed him narrowly, not sure how Stone knew that. "Yes."
Stone heard his unspoken question. "It was a guess. There's usually five in a clutch. They had wings?"
"No." Through the first long turns alone, finding places to shelter, hunting for food, trying not to become prey for something else, all Moon could think about was how much better it would have been if the others were still with him. The isolation had driven him to seek out groundling settlements -- disastrously, at first. He had gotten better at that. He had thought he had gotten better at it. The events of the last day or so would suggest otherwise. He let out his breath in resignation. "Just me."
Stone nodded. He opened the leather packet, took out a dark cake of pressed tea, and scraped off a portion into the steaming water. "Raksura without wings are called Arbora. The females are fertile, and they can give birth to both Arbora and warriors." He shook his head, admitting, "I don't know how that works. A mentor explained it to me once but that was turns ago and it's complicated. But Arbora are divided up into soldiers, hunters, and teachers. They take care of the colony, raise the children, find food, guard the ground." He shrugged. "Run the place. They're also mentors, but you have to be born with a special talent to be a mentor." He glanced up, meeting Moon's eyes. "We're Aeriat. We protect the colony."
Moon couldn't stop a bitter snort. "Stop saying 'we.'"
Stone ignored that. He dug a cup out of the pack and said, "You want some of this?"
Moon stared in disbelief. He shook his head incredulously. "How stupid do you think I am?"
"What?" Stone waved the cup in exasperation. "It's tea. You watched me make it."
Moon had thought he could play this game, but he just couldn't stand it. He pushed away from Stone, stumbled to his feet. "You know, I'd rather you just kill me than talk me to death."
Stone grimaced in frustration. "If I wanted to kill you--"
"You're just waiting until the poison wears off. If you eat me while it's still in me, you won't be able to shift either."
Stone slammed the pack down, stood, and shifted.
Moon dodged back, but Stone leapt into the air, caught the wind, banked, and dove away. Moon lost sight of him and pivoted, trying to watch the sky and all sides of the tower at once.
He waited, but Stone didn't reappear.
Warily, tension making his nerves jump, Moon searched the roof again, looking for another way down. He found what might have originally been a trap door, but the shaft was filled in with rocks and mortar, as if intentionally blocked from below. As if the original inhabitants had tried to wall themselves in. He wondered if any of them had survived, or if the tower was a giant tomb.
Finally, shoulders hunched against the cold, he went back to the fire. He fed in more wood, building it up again. Then he looked through Stone's pack.
It contained no weapons except for a small, dull fruit-peeling knife. There was another cup with the same design as the kettle, a couple of empty waterskins, and leather packets all of which contained food. And they weren't even staples, just dried limes, nuts, two more pressed tea cakes, and some broken pieces of sugar cane. Opening a last packet of dark leather, expecting it to be more food, Moon found a heavy bracelet of red gold. Holding it up to the light, he could see designs etched on it, a fluid image like interlinked snakes.
Moon shook his head, baffled at the collection. He wrapped the bracelet up again and tucked it back in with the rest. Whatever Stone was, he didn't have to pretend to be a groundling; he had few useful supplies for traveling or camping on the ground. And he must be strong enough to stay in his other form for a long time. Is that what he wanted you to see? Stone must have known that Moon would go through the pack or he wouldn't have left it here. So he's not lying about coming from some kind of shifter enclave. He had never heard of one, but the Three Worlds was a big place. Though Moon traveled faster and further than a groundling could have, he had only seen a tiny part of it.
Moon sat back and rubbed at the manacle where it chafed his wrist. The wind gusted, scattering sparks from the fire. It was only late afternoon, but it was getting colder. Even if he managed to get away from Stone, he could only fly so far in one day, only stay in his other form so long. His oiled skin coat and hood were back at his tent in the Cordans' camp, with everything else he owned, like the good steel hunting and skinning knives he had traded for at the Carthas forge. Not counting the things he had gotten from the Cordans, there were his flints, his waterskins, blankets, and the bow and quiver he kept for show, to explain his success at hunting. Some of it he didn't need when he wasn't living as a groundling. But he would have to make his way through these mountains with nothing.
The whoosh of air warned him; Moon looked up to see Stone high in the air, drawing nearer to the tower. Moon just had time to stand and back away from the fire. Stone swooped in and dropped a carcass on the paving, a creature nearly as big as a kras, with thick oily skin and flippers instead of hooves.
Stone landed lightly on his feet, then shifted back to groundling. He waved toward the dead creature, still exasperated. "That's what I'm planning to eat. You? From what I can see, you're mostly skin and bones."
He had a point there, but Moon demanded, "Then what do you want from me?"
Stone paced toward the fire, frowning down at it. The impatience was gone from his voice when he said, "I want you to come with me, back to my court."
That . . . wasn't what Moon was expecting. It took him a moment to realize he had heard Stone right. "What for?"
His gaze still on the fire, Stone said, "I've been looking for warriors to join us. Our last generation... didn't produce enough. I've been at a colony to the east, the Star Aster Court. But I couldn't talk any of them into coming back with me." He glanced up, his face a little wry. "You've got somewhere else you want to go?"
Moon woke slowly, his body sluggish and his brain reluctant to face whatever was going to happen next. He couldn't hear Ilane or Selis' deep breathing, or the camp waking up around him. He was curled on his side, head pillowed on his arm, stiff and aching from lying on dirt-encrusted paving, but it was pleasantly warm. He rubbed his face and squinted up at the tent stretching over him -- He went still, suddenly wide awake. Not a tent. It was a wing. Stone's wing. That's right. Yesterday your friends tried to murder you. The manacle was still around his wrist, the skin under it rubbed raw.
Moon rolled onto his back and stared up at Stone's wing. With the morning light glowing through it, the dark, scaly membrane shone with a faint red tint. He hadn't seen anybody else's wings since his mother had been killed. This close he could see scars, old healed-over rents where the scales had been torn. The front edge of the wing still looked razor-sharp, but the skin folded over the joints was hard and gnarled where Moon's was still smooth. Hopefully still smooth, if he could shift.
They had spent the night on top of the tower, not talking very much. Moon still had no idea how to reply to Stone's offer, if Stone was even serious about it. Stone had stated that he was tired of arguing and they would talk about it in the morning when he hoped Moon would be less crazy. After some sleep, Moon was willing to admit that he had been a little hysterical, but it had been a hard day.
But it's over. I hope. Moon bit his lip and looked at his hands. The faint outline of scales wasn't visible, at least in this light. He pressed a thumb to the skin of his forearm, forcing the blood away, but still couldn't see anything. All right. That's good. He knew why he was reluctant. If he tried and nothing happened... Putting it off wasn't helping. He took a deep breath, and tried to shift.
He felt the change gather in his chest. There might have been a hesitation or it might have been his fear. Then he felt his bones lighten and his scales scrape against the paving, the weight of his folded wings, his tail. He curled up on himself for a moment, relief washing over him in a heady wave.
From the deep, steady breathing, Stone was still asleep, or doing a good imitation of it. Moon crawled to the edge of the big wing, then wriggled out from under it.
Once free, he stood and stretched, shaking out his spines and frills. The morning light was bright on the snow-capped mountains, the air chill and crisp. Nothing had disturbed the roof of the tower while they slept except a few brave carrion birds picking at the remnants of the riverbeast carcass.
The manacle was still on Moon's wrist. He hooked his claws under the lock, wincing as the metal ground into his scales. He exerted careful pressure until the lock snapped and fell away.
Moon crossed the pavement and leapt to the battlement, digging his claws into the crumbling stone. He looked down at the dizzyingly steep drop to the rock below. Then he unfolded his wings and dove.
He flew up and down the gorge, stretching his wings, fighting the gusty wind and feeling the sun heat his scales. The exercise made him hungry.
He rode the air currents down to the river, which rushed over tumbled rocks in its shallow stretches, then turned calm where the channel was wide and deep. Moon plunged into water that would have been shockingly cold in his groundling form, and swam along the bottom. He found a slow-moving school of fish, each nearly three paces long with thick, heavy bodies and trailing iridescent fins. He snatched one and shot up into the air again.
There hadn't been much point in seriously considering Stone's offer when he hadn't known whether the poison had ruined him permanently or not. Now... Moon found himself thinking about it. Long ago he had given up looking for his own people, assuming if there were any others, they were lost somewhere in the vastness of the Three Worlds, not to be found except by wild accident. Now the wild accident had actually happened.
But going with Stone meant trusting him. Moon would be putting himself in the middle of a large group of shifters, and while he might be a Raksura, he knew nothing about what they were like. If they turned out to be as murderous and violent as the Fell, he could find himself trapped and fighting for his life.
Another option was to look for another groundling settlement to join, which meant starting over again, with all new pitfalls and hazards. What he wanted most at the moment was to fly off alone to hunt and explore, with no other people to make him constantly wary. He was sick of growing to like and trust groundlings like the Cordans, and knowing it all meant nothing if they found out what he was.
But he was sick of being alone, too. He had done this all before, resolving to live alone only to become desperate for company, any company, after a few changes of the month.
He was on his fifth fish when he surfaced and saw he wasn't alone. Stone, in groundling form, sat on a big flat rock by the bank. He leaned back, propped on his arms, face tipped up to the sun. Deliberate and unhurried, Moon slapped his fish against a rock to kill it, finished eating, then went back in the water to wash the guts off his scales. He surfaced again in the shallows, below where Stone sat, and used the sandy bottom to clean his claws.
Still sunning himself, Stone said, "You're not supposed to do that, you know. Raksura don't."
"Raksura don't bathe?" Moon said dryly, deliberately misunderstanding. He shook water out of his wings, spraying the bank. "That's going to be a problem."
Stone sat up to give him an ironic look. "Yes, we bathe. We don't fish. Not like that."
Moon climbed up onto the rock and sat to the side so he could keep his wings unfolded and let them dry. The sun was warm but the wind was still cold, and if he switched back to groundling form now, the water still on his scales would soak his clothes. "Why don't you fish?"
"I don't know. Probably never had a good place for it." Stone squinted at him. "So. I've got one other court to visit before I head home. Are you coming with me?"
Moon looked across the river. Small swimming lizards stretched out on the rocks across the bank, waiting for them to leave so they could go after the remains of Moon's fish. "If you were looking for Raksura, why did you come to the valley?"
Stone didn't seem disconcerted by the question. "It was on my way back. I stopped to rest, caught a scent of something that turned out to be you. It was faint because you were in groundling form." He shrugged. "Thought I'd stay on a few days to look around, see if there was a small colony there that I hadn't heard about."
Moon hadn't been able to scent Stone. But that might just mean that Stone's senses, like his shifted form, were stronger and more powerful. And it was beyond strange, talking to someone while Moon was in his other form; he had forgotten how different his own voice sounded, deeper and more raspy. He liked not having to hide.
He let his breath out, frustrated. Agreeing to go with Stone wasn't a commitment to stay in his colony. If Moon let this chance go by, he knew he would regret it. He said, "I'll come with you."
Moon couldn't tell if Stone was relieved. Stone just nodded, and said, "Good."
end of chapter 2
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