It was fully dark when I made my way back to camp; the dusk had come and gone swiftly, tainting the sky a brazen dusty rose for less than a quarter of the trip back. The black silhouettes of the trees lined my vision, the gentle glow of the night sky breaking up the canopy now and again. Woodland critters scuttled about and cawed in the shadows. A cool wind whipped at my hair, blowing strands into my face, tickling my nose. I twisted my neck upward, silver irises penetrating the dense obscurity easily; I counted the emerging stars, pinpointing the Northern most one and angling myself to face her.
The trip home was going to be a long one, and the dangers of traveling alone had tripled since my last excursion. I did not fear the rogue travelers or marauders; the truth was that I was more dangerous than they could be, even armed to the teeth with magic and weaponry; but was it worth the trouble? I doubted it. The trip would still await me come morning, and I would benefit from a rest. I had a quiet hope that the mist would come while I gathered some wood for a small fire and built a circle of rocks. My people had grown wary of the early morning fog within recent weeks – too many of our young had gone missing inside of the cloudy haze. I felt a nearly painful ache to have my questions answered; I wished the mist would find me so I might find the answers I sought.
But the mist never reappeared. Many fogs had come and gone during my hunt, but none like the one that had begun haunting my village. The Authorities had set up a perimeter of Guardians around the outskirts, hoping to frighten away whatever the mist carried with it – knowing it did not steal adults, knowing it feared us. Only, they hadn’t guessed that the mist did not need to travel like the rest of us. They hadn’t realized it could drop down into the center of the village, or behind a cottage, or in the barns. They hadn’t realized it did not need to travel along the earthen paths to reach a destination. I’d tracked it for as long as I could; hours turned into days spent on the road, racing after it, nothing but the sound of my own constant steps thundering in my ears; but the mist was unreal, it had no need to remain close to the ground, and soon, it dispersed into the air without a trace – but I raced on, determined to run until I’d found it again. I was chasing only the distant echo of a magic greater than any known to my kind, and though that should have shot a bolt of fear into me, it did not.
It simply ignited a rage unlike any I’d experienced before. What kind of monster preyed on young? And not just our young, either – though the thought had occurred to me that perhaps the menace had intentions of dissecting and analyzing the abilities of my species – but from what I could glean as I passed through the great city of Cileka, the young were vanishing from every species. Incentive as it was to know our own children were being taken, it was an entirely new level of outrage that sprang to life upon this discovery.
I stewed in my anger as I warmed myself by the fire and nibbled at my last remaining chunk of bread. Before dark, I’d skinned a rabbit and put it on a spit, which roasted over the flames as I brooded. There was a hunger in me that no meal could quench, and I knew that come morning I would only be returning empty handed. Guilt hung as a soaked cloak inside of my ribs, choking off my heart.
The scent of cooked rabbit wafted to my nose and my stomach rumbled. I could not help but wonder if the young would be fed tonight, and if they were warm against the chilling wind. I lifted the spit from over the fire and pushed the rabbit onto a cloth set upon a flat stone, and sighed. Kneeling, I prayed to Rala, asking only that she light the way to the missing young, and that she fill their small bellies and quell the storms of fear in their hearts. I ate in bitter silence, feeling ashamed that I could eat when I did not know the children could.
When I was finished, I settled in to a meditative position and closed my eyes. There was no time for rest; I needed to prepare myself for the long journey home to receive my orders. Darkness encased me and soon the sounds of the forest faded into nothing. The warmth of the fire and the bite of the wind evanesced. I heard only the steady drumming of my own pulse, the surge of blood through my veins, the rush of air in my lungs. I envisioned wings – wide and thick, with soft white feathers as long as my arms. I imagined stretching them out, feeling the muscles tight against my spine.
I opened my eyes only when the ache of new appendages overwhelmed my concentration. I stomped out the fire and set my gaze to the stars, lowering myself into a tense crouch.
I leapt and the wind swept beneath my wings as I took flight.