PERSPECTIVES OF THE SCORVYRN by Rab Foster
My eyes open. I find myself looking across a surface that resembles a lake of mud. But I’ve never seen mud as grey and glistening as this.
Dozens of things protrude from it. Tree branches, some shaggy with leaves, others bare and poking up like fingers. A two wheeled buggy, its rear end submerged while the shafts once strapped to a horse stick into the air. A lidless wooden box with latticed sides that, with a shock, I recognise as a baby’s crib. Smaller items, including a dented helmet, a broadsword whose business end has snapped off and thin, white things I suspect are bones.
Other white objects jut out of the mysterious grey mud, too broad and flat to be pieces of anything’s skeleton.
I’m partly embedded in the mud myself. I hear sucking noises as I sit up and prise myself free. When I raise an arm, slimy threads dangle from it. Then another of my senses becomes operative, my sense of smell, and the stench that assails me is hideous. What am I sitting in? Decaying matter? Excrement? Or not an excretion, but a secretion?
The stench becomes too much and I vomit across the scum in front of me. By now I’ve stopped thinking of it as mud.
In fact, that revulsion begins to restore my powers of reasoning. I look down at what’s spilled out of my mouth. Once, I understand, that’d been food I’d eaten. The amount of it suggests I’d eaten heartily too. But what, when and where had I eaten? Surely I’d dined in surroundings different from this hellish place. Had I dined with somebody else? Who—?
Who? That word is especially significant. For it occurs to me that I don’t remember who I am.
I struggle onto my feet and wade towards the nearest of those flat, white objects. If I can I work out what this evil location is, perhaps my memory can trace a chain of events back from it. Perhaps I can recall how I arrived here and then solve the puzzle of my identity. I uproot the thing from the slime and lift it. It’s smooth, curves slightly and has jagged edges, which suggests it’s a fragment of a larger object. A large white thing that some time ago broke…
As the piece of huge eggshell drops from my hands, I raise my eyes from the surface of the mire and discover that it isn’t wholly flat. At its edges, it slopes upwards and forms a ridge. I turn and see how the line of the ridge continues in a circle around me, enclosing me. I’m in the middle of a giant bowl. A giant bowl shaped nest.
Yes, this discovery sparks things in my memory. Events start to return to me. Though none of the recollections give me a shred of hope about my situation now.
For much of the afternoon I remain in the fringes of the forest, moving among the final trees but not leaving their cover. During that time I view the Vedraks’ castle from as many angles as possible. It has ramparts that stand in places and have fallen in others, so that their outline climbs and sinks like the spine of a crooked dragon. Corner towers and flanking towers rise out of those broken walls, their collapsed roofs and worn away battlements giving them the look of limbs blunted by a surgeon’s amputations. But the tallest tower seems intact. In fact, it seems to have been added to. I stare at the unruly jumble on top of it, both inside its battlements and protruding over them, and identify it as a giant nest.
At last I have a sufficient idea of the castle’s layout. Then I take several long breaths, listening to my chest suck in the air and expel it again. I imagine that air working its way through my lungs, replenishing me, boosting me. I think about nothing else. This is my technique when I’m about to do something of consequence, usually something that involves fighting and killing, but I sense unwelcome emotions like fear or uncertainty clouding my head. This is my way of extinguishing those emotions, so that they don’t interfere with the task ahead.
For the first time ever, I do this to banish the emotion of grief.
Finally, I feel calm, ready, resolute. I leave the trees and step onto the footbridge that crosses the deep, dry trough where once there was a moat. I negotiate the many holes that yawn in the bridge’s floor and pass through the entrance gate into the ruins. I go by a guardhouse, whose walls are bushy with ivy, and traverse the bailey, once gravelled but now covered in weeds that tangle around my boots.
Yet as I move towards that undamaged tower with its messy crown, my composure slips. Without warning, a thought cuts through me like a blade. Then grief cuts through me too, less like a blade than like an axe.
The thought is: that’s where it took my brother last night.
Our meeting with Harnbaal is the first memory that comes back to me. Harnbaal was someone whose infamy had spread across the kingdoms and reached even the southern frontier where my brother and I made our living as mercenaries, freebooters and smugglers.
My brother… My older brother… But for now his name eludes me.
Harnbaal lived in a precarious looking residence. Its L shaped foundations seemed too long and narrow for the two wings built on top of them, rising a half dozen storeys and ending in steep, high roofs that bristled with spindly chimneystacks. A square tower with a door in its base stood in the corner where the wings met. My brother and I approached the building in the fading light, guided our horses through a gap in the stone dyke that penned off the ground in front of it and tethered the horses to a post outside the tower. Then we struck a knocker against its door. Although I can’t yet remember my brother’s name, that doorknocker is clear in my memory. Its iron was moulded in the shape of a big, glowering hawk’s head, with the tip of its beak the point that impacted against the timber.
A few minutes later a woman with coils of red hair unbolted and dragged back the door. She held a candelabrum with twisting stems and stalactites of hardened wax, and five candle flames fluttered in front of her. Her face had a harsh, haughty look in the candlelight, a haughtiness suggested too by the thin, sleeveless gown she was wearing, which seemed to signal her disdain for the evening’s coldness.
She offered no greeting. Silently, she beckoned us in and led us up a staircase that hugged the inside of the tower’s walls. At each corner where the staircase twisted from one wall to the next, there was a stand with a silver dish fixed on top. In each dish sat an egg about the size of a human head, its shell patterned with flecks and smudges of colour.
We emerged into a long chamber that’d surely been used as a kitchen once because its walls had a dozen alcoves filled with shelves and hooks. Now, instead of pots and flagons, loaves and cakes, plucked fowl and smoked fish, tubs of vegetables and baskets of fruit, it housed objects associated with sorcery. We saw potion bottles, measuring beakers, glass tubes, scales, tongs, pestles and mortars, heavy books whose bindings were an epidermal shade of pink, charts of star constellations, bones and skulls with strange symbols inscribed on them, embalmed hands that’d been neatly removed from their wrists, foetal like things in jars, small human effigies made of clay and wax. At the far end of this chamber was an arched window where a telescope sat balanced on the point of a tripod. A figure stood by the tripod, face against the telescope’s eyepiece.
My brother said in a rumbling voice, “You expected us this evening, Harnbaal? We sent a message ahead of us, saying we were coming.”
The woman turned from the telescope and approached us. She moved slowly and precisely on her long, thin legs, which were encased in black leggings and knee high, black leather boots. Her face was small and furtive, with faint, fine wrinkles crowding around its features. Above the face, however, her brow, then her scalp were smooth and bare. Indeed, save for a lone, black dyed pigtail hanging down the back of her black frockcoat, her head was hairless.
Exact in her movements like a bird. Bald like an egg. Those things remind me of another feature of the chamber. Against the walls between the alcoves stood glass cases containing eggs of various sizes and colours, though none had the dimensions or patterns of those mounted on the staircase.
Harnbaal looked my brother up and down, taking in his massive shoulders, his bulging arms, his sword blade with its long, tapering gleam. “Yes, Fleyk,” she said softly, “I received your message.”
That was his name… Fleyk.
The sorceress continued, “When my informants spoke of you, Fleyk, they claimed you were a giant. I see their descriptions weren’t much exaggerated. They said you’d slain a hundred men during your exploits on the southern frontier. Is that true?”
She spoke and watched him in a slightly lascivious way, which made Fleyk uncomfortable. I judged her to be in her fifties. Fleyk was unused to the attentions of a woman so elderly. “Not a hundred, Harnbaal,” he managed to reply. “But possibly not many short of it.”
Then she turned and scrutinised me. “And could this gentleman be… Emeryk? To tell the truth, I’d expected someone bigger and stronger—”
That’s it, Emeryk! My name!
“My brother may not look like a fighter,” retorted Fleyk, “but that’s no reason to doubt him. He has talents that I lack, talents that’ve often saved my skin. For one thing, he has brains.”
She cackled, “Well, an impressive team I’ve summoned to my house! A fighter and a thinker! So, my young thinker, what do you think? Why have I brought you here tonight? What task do I have in store for you?”
I gestured towards the nearest of the glass cases. “I think you want us to find an egg, Harnbaal. You clearly collect them with a passion. I don’t recognise all the specimens here or on the staircase, but I see ones belonging to the weben, the veng hon, the simorg and the tayango, making yours a collection from far and wide that probably cost a fortune to amass. Though people of your, um, calling are known to be intrigued by such things.”
The sorceress nodded. “Obviously. The egg is nature’s most potent example of magic. Life emerging from what’d been lifeless.”
I continued: “So now you wish to hire us to locate another egg. And because you’ve chosen Fleyk for the task, I wouldn’t expect the mother of this egg to be a simple crow or gull. It’s a larger and fiercer creature, I’d say.”
“Excellent! And where, young Emeryk, might you expect to find this egg?”
I walked towards the window, where the telescope pointed out into the darkening evening. “Wherever I’ve been in the kingdoms, I haven’t heard of an egg laying creature that would test my brother’s skill with the sword. So it must live outside the kingdoms. And it’s interesting how you’ve positioned this telescope. It’s not at an angle for viewing the stars.” I looked into the eyepiece and saw the image that Harnbaal had been studying a few minutes earlier. The lenses were directed towards the northern horizon, where some mountains created a line of jagged silhouettes. From the west the sunset threw a red light across their pointed summits, so that they resembled a row of bloody daggers.
“I don’t know much about this northernmost kingdom,” I said as I returned from the telescope, “but I’ve heard rumours concerning the mountain range that stands on its outer border. I’m told the mountains are uninhabited. That surprises me because you’d expect some people to dwell there, eking out a living by cutting timber and hunting. So what keeps them away from those mountains? The fear of wolves and bears? Or could it be a fear of something else, something that flaps down from above?”
To my surprise, the red haired woman with the candelabrum spoke. She’d been such a discreet, silent presence I’d forgotten she was there. “The peasants living near the mountains claim that their slopes are stalked by something called the Scorvyrn. They say it’s a monstrous, winged creature that’s made a nest in the ruins of a castle there.”
Harnbaal added, “Since I set up home in this region years ago, I’ve researched the matter. I’ve heard so many reports of attacks and sightings that, yes, I believe an unknown creature is at large in those mountains.”
Already I was sceptical. “You say there’s just one Scorvyrn. What makes you think it produces eggs?”
“Well,” said Harnbaal, “some maternal instinct compelled it to build a nest. And nature gives us plenty of examples of animals, types of lizards, frogs and salamanders, that can give birth without fertilisation by a mate.”
“But if that’s the case, what happens to the offspring after they’ve hatched? Why isn’t this territory overrun with the creatures now?”
“I don’t know, Emeryk. Perhaps when its food stocks run low, the Scorvyrn eats its young. Being maternal doesn’t necessarily mean it feels motherly love.”
“Your accounts of this creature come from the peasants. Do they say anything else about it?”
Harnbaal smiled grimly. “The castle where the Scorvyrn supposedly has its nest once belonged to the rulers of a mountain clan called the Vedraks. In their day, the Vedraks had an unsavoury reputation. They were rumoured to be enthusiastic practitioners of the dark arts—”
She said this without irony. Very few items in the room around us didn’t have some application for the dark arts.
“—and when the stories started about a fearsome creature nesting in the Vedraks’ former home, people soon connected it with the Vedraks themselves. They reasoned that the Vedraks had summoned it into our world from hell, during one of their rituals.”
“You want us to find a nest,” growled Fleyk, “and remove an egg belonging to a creature so feared it’s made people shun a mountain range. That’s also reputed to be a demon.” He shook his head. “No man can question my courage, Harnbaal, but I don’t know what my chances would be fighting against an escapee from hell.”
“Of course,” said Harnbaal, “what I’m telling you are tales. The ignorant ravings of peasants. But listen, Fleyk. Though I’m convinced the Scorvyrn exists, I maintain it’s a natural creature. A strong, fierce creature, to be sure, but strong and fierce in the manner of a lion, a tiger, a bear. In the end, it’s driven by animal instincts and appetites. And as men, you have the intelligence to outwit it.”
I sensed something was still being held back. “Is there anything more the peasants say?”
“They claim it can change its shape,” said the red haired woman.
“The Scorvyrn,” explained Harnbaal, “feeds on flesh, sometimes human flesh. When it carries its victims back to the nest and devours them, the peasants believe it absorbs their spirit and strength… Their whole life force.”
“And their form,” said the red haired woman. “With each victim, it acquires the ability to take on the appearance of that victim. An ability it uses to lure subsequent victims to their deaths.”
Harnbaal spoke reassuringly. “But that belief can be rationalised. As well as being associated with the dark arts, the Vedraks were warlike and observed a notorious custom after winning a battle. They’d feast on the corpses of their slain enemies. Their belief was that by eating their foes’ flesh they’d also consume their life force and become stronger themselves. It’s obvious that over the years the cannibalism of the Vedraks and the predations of the Scorvyrn have become confused. The legends about the Vedraks absorbing the souls of their victims have been transferred to the Scorvyrn that lives now in their castle.”
None of this made Fleyk happier. “I’m trained to fight against men. But you expect me to face a creature you hardly know anything about? A creature that if I’m lucky will simply descend on me like a lion with wings? A creature that if I’m unlucky originates in hell and can change its shape to look human?”
“I understand, Fleyk,” purred the sorceress. “I’m setting you an arduous task. I can only assure you that the payment for delivery of one of the Scorvyrn’s eggs will be substantial.” She smiled at us. “There’s a vault in the east wing of this building where I store certain items of value. Let’s go there and negotiate what you’ll get for the completion of this assignment, shall we?”
It turned out that there were more riches in Harnbaal’s vault than we’d ever dreamt of. And at the sight of that vault’s contents, our misgivings about the project vanished. Winged monsters? Shape shifting demons? How could such things deter us when Harnbaal was offering us such wealth?
But now… I’d gladly give those riches to anyone who could pluck me out of this foul nest and transport me far away from it.
Standing below the tower, among the weeds, I feel something on my face. I raise my hand and my fingers touch wet skin. I’ve seen other people cry, often when they’re on their knees before me and pleading for mercy, but it’s been so long since I cried myself that I’d forgotten the experience of it.
However, while I weep, my grief gradually changes to frustration and then to rage. To think… We’d actually begun to scoff at Harnbaal for believing that the thing existed!
Though we’d journeyed in these mountains for days, following muddy tracks through the expanses of fir and pine that covered the landscape to its highest peaks, we’d seen and heard nothing. The sky contained only drifting clouds and the occasional circling speck of a raptor. The wind carried only far off wolf howls. The derelict cottages that appeared occasionally by the sides of the tracks had caved in roofs and toppled walls but that damage seemed the result of the passing of time. There were no signs of sudden demolition, nothing to suggest that something huge had swooped down and smashed them.
By last night, our thoughts had turned to the sorceress who’d sent us on this mission. We sat on opposite sides of the campfire, eating supper, talking across the flames about what we’d seen in her vault.
“I’m even beginning to wonder,” said my brother, “if she’s a true practitioner of the dark arts. Maybe it’s just a reputation she cultivates to keep her neighbours at a frightened distance. So that nobody discovers what she’s got stored in her house.”
I recalled those pieces of exquisite jewellery, works of beautifully fashioned silver, heirlooms encrusted with precious stones, crates overflowing with gold coins. “Why does she stash that treasure? Why not sell it and spend the proceeds and get some pleasure from it? Keeping it locked up seems so pointless.”
“Some people are misers, Fleyk. Obsessed with hoarding wealth rather than spending it.”
“And what about this mad business with eggs?”
“Rare eggs are valuable too. They’re another treasure she’s hoarding.”
I sighed. “They seemed the only two people in the building. We should’ve slain the degenerate bitches on the spot.” I called them ‘degenerate’ because it was obvious Harnbaal and her companion enjoyed an unnatural, carnal relationship. “Then we could’ve claimed everything in that vault for ourselves and avoided this foolish trek into the wilderness.”
“They seemed alone. However, for someone who possesses such wealth, Harnbaal was very relaxed about her security. And her mansion’s huge. She could have an army hidden there. But yes, I think it’s time we turned back and started making plans for how to relieve the sorceress of her riches…”
Our conversation was disturbed by a troubled whinnying from the horses, tethered to a tree at the edge of the circle of firelight. I got up and walked over to them. Bandits were my concern now, since with no proper inhabitants but plenty of abandoned dwellings these mountains were probably a refuge for vagabonds from the south. I reached the horses and said soothing words to them whilst easing free the sword at my waist. I peered into the darkness beyond them, trying to discern figures—
Suddenly, I heard something in the night sky above, a flapping sound. We’d become so dismissive of Harnbaal’s story that for a moment, a fatal moment, I didn’t realise what was happening.
Then I did. I spun round and roared, “Emeryk, get away from the fire!”
But while he scrambled to his feet, the flames were already swirling under downward gusts of wind. An instant later, something dark and massive fell across them. I glimpsed long leathery arcs of wings and talons the size of scythe blades, and heard a squall of hellish noise, partly Emeryk screaming and partly the beast shrieking in triumph as it claimed its prey. Simultaneously the fire seemed to explode. Sparks and pieces of burning wood flew out in all directions, and I twisted around so that none of those burning fragments struck my face. By the time I’d turned back, the black monstrous thing had gone.
And so had my brother.
I stared dumfounded at the ring of scattered, burning debris from the campfire. Lying amid the debris I saw Emeryk’s cloak, flames starting to eat at its edges, and the knife he usually carried beneath his tunic, which he’d had time to draw but not to use. Those two things were the only evidence that a minute earlier he’d been sitting there, talking to me.
But now I’ve found its abode. From the trees I saw no movement at the top of the tower, which means it’s departed on another hunting trip. While it’s searching for new victims, I have to find a way of climbing to that nest. And when it returns…
I don’t expect to win the ensuing fight. I glimpsed enough of it last night to have an idea of its formidable size. But I can surely inflict enough pain on it to make it regret what it did to Emeryk.
Perhaps too the nest contains eggs, ones that won’t ever turn up in Harnbaal’s collection. The sorceress speculated that it might eat its own offspring, but I’m going to assume that within its monstrousness there’s some spark of parental affection. By the time the Scorvyrn comes back today, its eggs will be fragments of shell, pools of slime and mounds of butchered flesh. That’s another price it’ll pay for murdering my brother.
The amnesia has left me. I remember everything now, up to the moment when the Scorvyrn seized me.
Refusing to surrender to despair, I crawl from the centre of the mire to the slope at its edge and up that to the ridge at the top. From the ridge I find myself viewing a panorama of mountains, cloaked in coniferous forest. I lower my head. Occupying the ground directly below are the remnants of a once formidable castle. There’s a dried up moat spanned by a crumbling footbridge. Within the circle of the moat, much of the castle exists only as piles of rubble and broken stumps of towers.
I realise I’m looking down from the summit of what is both the castle’s highest tower and its only one to remain fully intact. The Scorvyrn chose this for its nest and packed mud, debris and probably its own dung between the battlements crowning the tower. The ring of blocks and indentations that form those battlements lie under the slope I’ve climbed, while before me I see that the nest’s putrescence has oozed over the blocks and through the gaps to hang in mid-air in thick, dried strands.
Behind me, somewhere underneath the nest, I suppose there’s an opening to a staircase that runs down the tower’s interior. But I’d have to dig up the nest’s miry floor to locate the opening. Of course, the simplest way to escape would be to advance a little further and drop from the ridge to the ground. But the nest’s at a dizzying height. I’d have no chance of surviving the fall.
Jumping. Suicide. An option I might consider later.
I turn around, study the wreckage strewn nest again and note how some of it is concealed from view. I’ve assumed that I’m alone at the moment, but am I? Could there be a living thing here that I’ve yet to encounter? So much detritus has been dumped in parts of the nest that something could be hiding among it.
Another question. Why am I not dead? Why did that monstrosity not kill me when it snatched me from the earth last night? Why has it delivered me here alive?
I realise that although I’ve found pieces of eggshell, I haven’t seen a whole egg. That means there was at least one egg here but whatever was inside it is now out. Yes, it’s becoming obvious that the Scorvyrn took me with no interest in eating me itself. I was intended as sustenance for the offspring that, somewhere, occupies this nest with me.
I find a doorway at the bottom of the tower and enter. Inside, a staircase goes spiralling up the circular wall. Window slits in that wall allow beams of light to infiltrate the tower, crisscrossing the empty black shaft that rises between the coiling staircase.
I ascend, dusty beams flashing across me as I pass the window slits. At the top I emerge onto a platform where a second, narrower and steeper flight of steps climbs through an opening to the battlements. Now that opening is blocked. A mass has oozed down through it and lies over the steps, congealed and hardened, like a solidified stream of mud. I poke at it with my sword, disturbed by how it glistens, sickened by how it stinks. With time, I could reach the nest above by digging upwards through this blockage. But I don’t have time.
The only other way to get there is to squeeze through the highest of the window slits, which is level with this platform, and climb the outside of the wall.
I dump my pack on the floor, remove my boots and force myself sideways through the aperture. With my chest sucked in, I manage to scrape between its sides and emerge at the external wall. I find myself perched on a lip of stone where I have a head spinning view across the ruins and forest swathed mountains. Then I turn and look up. Cracks run horizontally and vertically between the massive blocks that make up the wall. I can climb with my fingers and toes hooked into those. But if my strength fails, or if any of the cracks I’m clinging to crumble, I’ll plunge and perish. And with my corpse lying broken and hidden among the weeds that cover the castle’s flagstones, the creature will return and never know I was here.
I take more long breaths until I’ve rid myself of that thought. Then, ignoring the pain as the edges of the cracks tear slivers of flesh from my fingers and toes, I heave myself clear of the window and slowly scale the wall above me. I reach the line of jutting corbels that supports the battlements, where I have to reach outwards, find the ends of the corbels and wrestle myself up around them. At this point, I encounter the tendrils of dried filth and slime that hang from the nest, poking through the embrasures and over the merlons in the tower’s fortifications. I struggle amid them with nothing but the void of air beneath me.
But my hatred for the Scorvyrn gives me energy. Like a tenacious lizard, I continue to scrabble upwards.
I make it to the ridge that covers the top of the battlements and drag myself over into the nest’s putrid interior. It slopes to a circular floor and forms a basin, parts of which are cluttered with things the Scorvyrn has scavenged, such as branches, bones, even a small cart and a child’s crib. I lie gasping for a time. When I’ve recovered my breath, I struggle to my feet and remove my sword from its sheath, the bloody ends of my fingers stinging as they touch the sword hilt. I descend into the nest and start hoisting items out of the muck to check what’s underneath.
Meanwhile, I realise the air’s becoming hazy and reddish as the sun drops towards the peaks of the western mountains. This impels me to search more quickly. And then I notice something else, which gives my search further impetus. In the distance, is that the flap of wings I hear?
I drag up a great branch that’s still heavy with leaves and find the body of a small man beneath it. Scarlet rivulets creep away from him, unable to soak through the gel like surface of the ooze he’s lying in. Much of the flesh has been ripped off him, making him unrecognisable, but the freshness of the injuries tell me he died recently.
Then, as I resign myself to the fact that I’ve discovered my brother’s corpse, I hear a new sound, different from that of the flapping wings. It’s a voice behind me. I turn with my sword raised, both hands gripping the hilt, both arms ready to swing the blade with full force.
I don’t expect this sight.
Smeared with filth, a small, young man stumbles towards me. His face is both contorted with fear and glowing with hope. “Fleyk, you’ve come, you didn’t abandon me!” he splutters. “But it’s coming too! Don’t you hear its wings? You have to fight it. You have to destroy it!”
Surely the mutilated corpse lying at my feet is that of my brother. Yet I’m looking at my living brother too. What’s happening? Am I hallucinating? Did I lose my sanity during that desperate scramble up the tower wall? These questions assail me and I can’t answer them, and the mystery so transfixes me that I hardly hear the wings any longer.
I’d started searching the nest but the trauma of the past night and day had weakened me. Soon, exhausted, I collapsed into the mire and lost consciousness again. When I woke, the light was fading and I could hear something moving nearby. I kept still and listened, believing the Scorvyrn had returned or its offspring had emerged. Then I decided that the sounds were more like the movements of a human and I dared to raise my head and look.
Only yards from me stood my brother Fleyk. He’d wrestled a huge branch up from the fabric of the nest and now his face seemed pained as he contemplated something below him. But at the same moment I realised we were in danger. I heard wings. The Scorvyrn was coming back.
Couldn’t he hear? What was he looking at that made him oblivious to it?
Now I struggle up and shout to him. He drops the branch, raises his sword and turns towards me. His face shows recognition when he sees me, but there’s bafflement in it too and the sword remains poised over his head. I stumble towards him, arms outstretched. I want to embrace him and show him that I’m living flesh and blood, not ethereal, not a ghost. Also, I need to warn him. He has to defend us against the Scorvyrn, which is about to land in the nest again.
Yet as I reach him, I hear, addressing me, a voice that doesn’t belong to my brother. Nonetheless, it speaks with the authority of a senior family member.
And I suddenly understand what the food was that I’d vomited up earlier.
It’s him! Surely it’s Emeryk! The corpse must be that of another unfortunate whom the Scorvyrn seized recently. It devoured him but left Emeryk to feed on later. As he staggers into my arms, however, I remember I have something else to deal with. Moments ago I heard wings beating but now the beating has stopped.
I look towards where the wings had made their noise and find myself contemplating the woman with the red hair and sleeveless gown who’d ushered us into Harnbaal’s residence a week ago. How insanely out of place she looks, standing amid the nest’s squalor!
She laughs at my astonishment and says, “You came here yourself, Fleyk. That’s most obliging of you. I expected I’d have to carry you here as I did your brother.”
“You…?” I stutter. “But… Harnbaal! This is her devilry!”
“Harnbaal? Well, she’s the first human to show me some interest and respect since the Vedraks originally summoned me into this world. Also, when my offspring are sufficiently mature and independent, she kindly conducts the rituals that allow them passage back to the realm I came from. This world of yours is a wonderfully safe environment in which to raise my young, Fleyk, but its food supply is limited and it can support only one of my kind. Especially now that the mountains are empty of people and there’s a limit to how far I can fly carrying a human adult.
“Indeed, that’s another way Harnbaal helps me. She provides food. She recruits strong, nourishing specimens and sends them here, offering them riches in return for one of my eggs.”
I scream, “You devious, shape shifting bitch—!”
Through the thickening light I see the woman become a shadow that expands monstrously. Long wings arch out from its sides, spikes sprout up from its head, the head itself swells grotesquely. Yet the woman’s voice remains. “Yes, Fleyk, that’s a talent of my kind. We eat, consume, acquire. Body, soul, memories become ours. Then we have the power to adopt the appearance of our prey. I’ve enjoyed the form of this one since the day I devoured her. I’ve enjoyed wearing her whenever I’ve had to move among your species surreptitiously and not as a predator.
“By the way, Fleyk...
“You’ll observe that already my child has mastered this talent admirably.”
I remember that I’m still clutching my brother. I turn my head towards him and discover that he’s no longer present. Where his face had been, there’s a screen of teeth. Maybe a hundred teeth altogether, arranged in two rows, those rows interlocked, each tooth as thin and sharp as a dagger blade.
And before my mind can grasp the sight of those teeth, the two rows suddenly spring apart and spring forward.
Don’t be confused, child. Don’t be afraid. Concentrate on the meat and feed. When you’ve consumed this second one and absorbed his life force, it won’t be so traumatic. The first one is the most difficult, because inside you there’s only one spirit and one set of memories, and you can identify with those too closely. You forget what you really are. You lose sight of your own being and start to believe you are that first one.
But when you have two inside you, you’ll have it in perspective. You’ll appreciate that they’re energies, abilities, forms you can draw on if the situation demands, but not your real self. They’re appendages to your essence, but your true essence is something else.
So feed. First the thinker and now the fighter! Knowledge and strength! And before I left her mansion Harnbaal mentioned that she’d been in contact with three more mercenaries on that southern frontier. So soon we’ll be welcoming another expedition into our mountains.
Searching for eggs, but arriving a little too late in the season.