Fal felt as though his chest was cracking open like the skull of the runner from his meal that morning, which he so easily crushed in his jaws. His chest hurt, red hot pain radiating outward from the center, burning lightning into his shoulders, up into his throat and all the way down to his gut. His throat was parched. He badly needed water to drink, or blood. At the thought of blood, sudden, flooding nausea threatened to overwhelm him. He lost his balance and veered off, his wings tipping sideways in the air.
He felt tipsy like a morning flier drunk on old berries. It was all he could do to stay in the air, even as his wings flapped desperately. He couldn’t find his center. The balance so natural to him in flight was gone. His tail turned frantic circles in a futile effort to regain the equilibrium lost to him.
His nostrils were filled with the spicy, floral scent of her, mixed with the coppery tang of the smaller Guardian's blood. It was an enticing combination. She was so beautiful, so delicate. Even in his rage he had seen that. Nausea flooded over him at the thought, and he lurched off in the wrong direction, feeling as though he might at any moment empty the contents of his stomach.
An enormous tree loomed up before him and he just barely negotiated his way around the shaggy, grey trunk by tilting his wings wildly and careening off in another direction entirely. He had to backtrack then, circling around to head back toward his cave.
His cave was all he wanted now, dark, comforting and safe. Whatever was happening to him he could deal with there, if only he could get back. He flapped his wings, lost his balance and crashed hard into the ground. His neck crumpled underneath, as his body rolled over onto his back and he lay there, stunned.
Slewing himself over onto his stomach, he promptly retched up his recent meal in an undignified series of undulating neck movements and stomach heavings. Then he pushed himself up onto his legs and began the laborious process of shuffling his way back to his cave, even as another wave of crippling pain shot through his chest.
Tim ran, tears streaming down his cheeks. All he could see was that small, exquisite Guardian, ripped and bleeding. Sobs tore from his throat, wheezing through his chest. Still he ran. His body guiding him, knowing the way, his heart and mind still on the mountainside grieving over the dying Guardian. It was all his fault. He never should have hired the Hunter. He should have warned that Guardian to stay far away. He never should have let it come near the Fallen. And what about the Fallen? He had seen the way Fal flew away, haphazardly, dangerously unbalanced, making for his cave. Was Fal injured? He might not be able to do anything for that small Guardian… at this thought, Tim sobbed harder, but he could and would help Fal. His legs moved faster, leaping over stones, roots and branches in his way, carrying him back around the base of Guardian Mountain, toward Fal’s cave.
He careened around the side of the cave, one hand catching hold of the rough stone edge, and all but fell into the opening. The cave was dark and silent. Regaining his balance, he took several steps in, allowing his eyes to adjust. There was no looming, deeper shadow within. No sound of rocks grating beneath huge claws. No bellows-like breath. Fal was not there. Where could he be?
Tim went back outside and stood looking frantically in one direction then another. He heard a crashing from the woods off to his right, as of a great creature moving unsteadily through the trees. Fal! Tim followed the sounds of cracking branches and pushed his way through a patch of scrub growth. There he found Fal. The great Guardian labored, one step at a time, breasting through the undergrowth. His tail dragged the ground, wings dangled unevenly off the sides of his back, his head hung down, jaws agape and tongue lolling. His breath moving in and out in gasping heaves.
“Fal!” Tim rushed to his side, “are you alright?”
Golden eyes rolled upward at Tim, then Fal took in a shuddering breath and collapsed against him, bearing both of them to the ground.
“Fal! Get up Fal!”
Fal felt something pushing at him, something else being pulled from underneath him. He opened his eyes. Tim was beside him, no, mostly under him.
Unwilling to squash the boy just yet, Fal dragged himself into a sitting position. He was aware that his wings and tail sprawled inelegantly and he didn’t care. It was enough that he was upright.
“Fal, are you hurt?” Tim touched his side, running gentle hands over his back, wings and legs, looking for signs of injury. The tender hands felt good. Fal leaned into them. Not because he needed such attentions, but because the boy needed to feel useful.
“Why did you do it Fal?” The words whimpered out of the boy as if unwilling, and unwilling Fal’s mind was pulled back to the scene on the mountainside.
The question, Fal thought, was not why I did it, but why did I stop? Nausea threatened to consume him and he felt retching waves move up his neck. Dizziness caused his balance to waver, and he spread his forelegs wide to stabilize himself.
Such thoughts were better left alone.
Fal cast an eye over the boy. He saw a bedraggled and gangly younger, part-man, part-boy, all human. Dirt streaked his face in tracks down his cheeks beneath red-rimmed eyes. Curly, black hair stuck out in clumps, stuck here and there with twigs and bits of leaves. His tunic was rumpled and hung askew on his thin frame.
Fal felt his chest expand as if something inside filled a space suddenly grown too small. It hurt, the pressure building. On a gasping intake of breath, he realized he felt something for this boy, his boy. Unwilling to pursue that or any thought further, Fal turned his head away, lunged to his feet, and made his way to the beckoning womb of his cave, Tim trailing behind.
In case you missed a post, or if you've just tuned in to Lisle's story,
here are links to previously posted chapters to save you scrolling all the way through.
Introduction Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5
Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13
Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20
Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28
Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36
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