Chapter no 29

Empire of Storms

Manon Blackbeak awoke to the sighing of leaves, the distant call of wary birds, and the reek of loam and ancient wood.

She groaned as she opened her eyes, squinting at the dappled sunlight through heavy canopy cover.

She knew these trees. Oakwald.

She was still strapped in the saddle, Abraxos sprawled beneath her, neck craned so he could monitor her breaths. His dark eyes widened with panic as she moaned, trying to sit up. She’d fallen flat onto her back, had undoubtedly lain here for some time, judging by the blue blood coating Abraxos’s sides.

Manon lifted her head to peer at her stomach and bit back a cry as muscles pulled.

Wet warmth trickled from her abdomen. The wounds had barely set, then, if they were tearing so easily.

Her head pounded like a thousand forges. And her mouth was so dry she could barely shift her tongue.

First order of business: get out of this saddle. Then try to assess herself.

Then water.

A stream babbled nearby, close enough that she wondered if Abraxos had chosen this spot for it.

He huffed, shifting in worry, and she hissed as her stomach tore more. “Stop,” she rasped. “I’m … fine.”

She wasn’t fine, not even close. But she wasn’t dead.

And that was a start.

The other bullshit—her grandmother, the Thirteen, the Crochan claim

… She’d deal with it once she didn’t have one foot in the Darkness.

Manon lay there for long minutes, breathing against the pain. Clean the wound; staunch the bleeding.

She had nothing on her but her leathers—but her shirt … She didn’t have the strength to boil the linen first.

She’d just have to pray that the immortality gracing her blood would drive off any infection.

The Crochan blood in her—

Manon sat up in a sudden jerk, not giving herself time to balk, biting down on her scream so hard her lip bled, a coppery tang filling her mouth.

But she was up. Blood dribbled from beneath her flying leathers, but she focused on unstrapping the harness, one buckle at a time.

She was not dead.

The Mother still had some use for her.

Free of the harness, Manon stared at the drop off Abraxos onto the mossy ground.

Darkness save her, this was going to hurt.

Just shifting her body to pivot her leg over one side made her clench her teeth against the sobbing. If her grandmother’s nails had been poisoned, she’d be dead.

But they had been left jagged—jagged instead of honed, and full of rust.

A large head nudged at her knee, and she found Abraxos there, neck stretched—his head just below her feet, the offer in his eyes.

Not trusting consciousness to keep its grip much longer, Manon slid onto his wide, broad head, breathing through the ripples of fiery pain. His breath warmed her chilled skin as he gently lowered her onto the grassy clearing.

She lay on her back, letting Abraxos nose her, a faint whine breaking from him.

“Fine …,” she breathed. “I’m…”



Manon awoke at twilight.

Abraxos was curled around her, his wing angled to form a makeshift covering.

At least she was warm. But her thirst…

Manon groaned, and the wing instantly snapped back, revealing a leathery head and concerned eyes. “You … mother hen,” she gasped out, sliding her arms beneath her and pushing up.

Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods—

But she was in a sitting position. Water. That stream…

Abraxos was too big to reach it through the trees—but she needed water. Soon. How many days had it been? How much blood had she lost?

“Help,” she breathed.

Powerful jaws closed around the collar of her tunic, hoisting her up with such gentleness Manon’s chest tightened. She swayed, bracing a hand on his leathery side, but stayed upright.

Water—then she could sleep more.

“Wait here,” she said, stumbling to the nearest tree, a hand on her belly, Wind-Cleaver a weight on her back. She debated leaving the sword behind, but any extra movement, even unbuckling the belt from across her chest, was unthinkable.

Tree to tree, she staggered, nails digging into each trunk to keep herself upright, her ragged breathing filling the silent forest.

She was alive; she was alive…

The stream was barely more than a trickle through some mossy boulders. But it was clear and fast and the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

Manon surveyed the water. If she knelt, could she get back up? She’d sleep here if she had to. Once she drank.

Carefully, muscles trembling, she knelt at the bank. She swallowed her cry as she bowed over the stream, as more blood slid out. She drank the first few handfuls without stop—then slowed, her stomach aching inside and out now.

A twig snapped, and Manon was on her feet, instinct overriding pain so fast the agony hit her a breath later. But she scanned the trees, the rocks and canopy and little hills.

A cool female voice said from across the stream, “It seems you have fallen far from your aerie, Blackbeak.”

Manon couldn’t place who it belonged to, what witch she’d met…

From behind the shadows of a tree, a stunning young woman emerged.

Her body was supple yet lithe—her unbound auburn hair draping to partially cover her nakedness. Not a stitch of clothing covered that cream-colored skin. Not a scar or mark marred flesh as pure as snow. The woman’s silken hair moved with her as she stepped closer.

But the woman was no witch. And her blue eyes… Run. Run.

Eyes of glacier blue gleamed even in the shadowed wood. And a full red mouth made for the bedroom parted in a too-white smile as she took in Manon, the blood, the injury. Abraxos roared in warning, shaking the ground, the trees, the leaves.

“Who are you,” Manon said, her voice raw.

The young woman cocked her head—a robin studying a writhing worm. “The Dark King calls me his Bloodhound.”

Manon made every breath count as she rallied her strength. “Never heard of you,” Manon rasped.

Something too dark to be blood slithered under the cream-colored skin of the woman’s abdomen, then vanished. She traced a small, beautiful hand over where it had squirmed across the curve of her taut belly. “You would not have heard of me. Until your treachery, I was kept beneath those other mountains. But when he honed the power within my own blood…” Those blue eyes pierced Manon, and it was madness that glittered there. “He could do much with you, Blackbeak. So much. He sent me to bring his crowned rider to his side once more…”

Manon backed away a step—just one.

“There is nowhere to flee. Not with your belly barely inside you.” She tossed her auburn hair over a shoulder. “Oh, what fun we’ll have now that I’ve found you, Blackbeak. All of us.”

Manon braced herself, drawing Wind-Cleaver as the woman’s form glowed like a black sun, then rippled, the edges expanding, morphing, until

The woman had been an illusion. A glamour. The creature that stood before her had been birthed in darkness, so white she doubted it had ever felt the kiss of the sun until now. And the mind that had invented it … The imagination of someone born in another world—one where nightmares prowled the dark, cold earth.

The body and face were vaguely human. But—Bloodhound. Yes, that was fitting. The nostrils were enormous, the eyes so large and lidless she wondered if Erawan himself had spread her eyelids apart, and her mouth … The teeth were black stumps, the tongue thick and red—for tasting the air. And spreading from that white body—the method of Manon’s transportation: wings.

“You see,” the Bloodhound purred. “You see what he can give you? I can now taste the wind; smell its very marrow. Just as I smelled you across the land.”

Manon kept an arm cradled over her belly as the other trembled, lifting Wind-Cleaver.

The Bloodhound laughed, low and soft. “I shall enjoy this, I think,” she said—and pounced.

Alive—she was alive, and she would stay that way.

Manon jumped back, sliding between two trees, so close that the creature hit them, a wall of wood in her way. Those calf eyes narrowed in rage, and her white hands—tipped with earth-digging claws—sank into the wood as she backtracked—

Only to be stuck.

Maybe the Mother was watching over her.

The Bloodhound had lodged herself between the two trees, half in, half out, thanks to those wings, wood squeezing—

Manon ran. Pain ripped at her with each step, and she sobbed through her teeth as she sprinted between the trees. A snap and crash of wood and leaves from behind.

Manon pushed herself, a hand shoved against her wound, gripping Wind-Cleaver tight enough it shook. But there was Abraxos, eyes wild, wings already flapping, preparing for flight.

Go,” she rasped, flinging herself at him as wood crunched behind her.

Abraxos launched for her as she leaped for him—not onto him, but into his claws, into the mighty talons that wrapped her under her breasts, her stomach tearing a bit more as he hefted her up, up, up, through wood and leaf and nest.

The air snapped beneath her boots, and Manon, eyes streaming, peered down to see the Bloodhound’s claws reaching wildly. But too late.

A shriek of rage on her lips, the Bloodhound backed a few steps to the edge of the clearing, preparing to get a running leap into the air, as Abraxos’s wings beat like hell—

They cleared the canopy, his wings shattering branches, raining them onto the Bloodhound.

The wind tore at Manon as Abraxos sailed with her, higher and higher, heading east, toward the plains—east and south…

The thing wouldn’t be detained long. Abraxos realized it, too. Had planned for it.

A flicker of white broke through the canopy below them.

Abraxos lunged, a swift, lethal dive, his roar of rage making Manon’s head buzz.

The Bloodhound didn’t have time to bank as Abraxos’s mighty tail slammed into her, poison-coated steel barbs hitting home.

Black festering blood sprayed; ivory membranous wings sundered.

Then they were sweeping back up and the Bloodhound was tumbling down through the canopy—dying or injured, Manon didn’t care.

I will find you,” the Bloodhound screeched from the forest floor. It was miles before the screamed words faded.

Manon and Abraxos paused only long enough for her to crawl onto his back and strap herself in. No signs of other wyverns in the skies, no hint of the Bloodhound pursuing them. Perhaps that poison would keep her down for a while—if not permanently.

“To the coast,” Manon said over the wind as the sky bled crimson into a final blackness. “Somewhere safe.”

Blood trickled from between her fingers—faster, stronger than before— only a moment before the Darkness claimed her again.

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