Chapter 30 – Howl

It was Arsha who moved first, dashing out onto the narrow bridge, barely a few yards from Rachael’s heels. Justin tried to follow her, but as he reached the bridge it was already falling away. As the surface collapsed beneath Arsha’s feet she threw herself forward, barely landing on the edge of the platform. The gateway rippled with a blaze of burning light as Rachael passed into the shimmering haze and disappeared. Arsha rolled to her feet and threw herself towards the gateway without any hesitation, as it began to shrink in on itself. Justin felt a howl of rage explode from inside of him as Arsha’s outstretched fingertips connected with the haze, and then she too vanished. From across the chasm he could only watch the empty space in the air where the gateway had been.

He was only dimly aware of what was happening around him. He turned to watch as Rakesh sprang to his feet, catching Micah across the jaw with a solid blow that dropped the man to his knees. He saw the professor turn to level his pistol, even as one of Manindra’s guards took aim at him. The man’s finger had barely touched the trigger when a bolt of lightning arced out from Ilona’s hand. The guard staggered back, even as his companion smashed the butt of a rifle hard into the woman’s guts.

It all seemed so distant. So empty. He couldn’t understand it, how they could be so focused on their own pathetic squabbles in the midst of all this. The anger began to rise in him. He could feel the blood pounding in his ears. He could feel the wolf in the back of his mind, snarling, howling to be let loose. He felt it strain against the binding, like chains wrapped tight around him.

Then he remembered. High halls, a roof of woven branches. A mask of leaves, hiding a beautiful face. A delicate touch, one finger caressing his cheek. The smell of her, like the freshness after the rain. The change. The way that it had first come over him, how he breathed in as a man and breathed out as a creature. How he had first seen the world through different eyes. How he had known, truly known every cadence of the wolf’s cry. How the scent, the deep, true scent of everything had opened up for him. But most of all he remembered the overpowering hunger. The urge to hunt and kill. The savage power of it, the way the smell of blood made the stomach growl with expectation. He felt the bindings strain ever tighter, but in that moment there was only the howling of the wolf as the memory overcame him. It tore through the binding, snarling and howling. He changed without a thought. The distance to the first of the guards vanished in the blink of an eye. Then there was only the smell of fear, the sound of a scream and the taste of blood splashing across his tongue as his teeth sank into the flesh and cartilage of the man’s throat. Too soon, too quickly the man’s body fell limp. The second guard bringing his weapon to bear, at his master’s insistent urgings. Too late, too slow… Too human. The thunder, the acrid smell of burning, the ripple in the air as the bullet passed over him and then the soft meat of the man’s thigh, parting so easily around his fangs. The clatter of a fallen weapon and another scream of pain. It was all so easy.

A flash of light as the lightning passed inches from his face. The change came quickly, his thoughts flowing so effortlessly from the wolf to the hawk. Small, swift, sharp. The air rippling around his wings. The lightning streaking past, too slow, too slow. Then the woman’s face before him, the perfect moment when her eyes widened with fear. Her eyes, so pretty, so sweet. He let talons flick out, scoring soft skin. Saw her reel back as he beat the air. One eye was a river of blood.

The smell of it brought the wolf out once more. He felt the cold iron of the floor beneath his feet. The man in the red coat darting forwards with bright steel in his hands. The ringing sound as the blade cut the air, passing through the space where he had been barely an instant before. Springing to one side, darting, circling. From the corner of his eye he caught the shape of the gun as the professor brought it to bare. Another side-step, fast and low. The thunder rang out but he was too swift, and the man in red made an easy shield to put between himself and the professor’s gun.

Steel flashed as he darted forwards, jaws snapping at empty air as the man in red stepped back in a sliding motion. He felt the cold sensation of the blade as it bit into his flank, pain flowering along the length of the wound. Not deep, a scratch, too little to slow him down. Another side-step, darting in to snap at the man’s heel. Again the blade flashed, but this time he was expecting it. The slightest twist of the neck to close his jaw around the hand that gripped the blade. The man’s cry of pain, overtaken by the ringing of the steel as it bounced across the iron floor and span off into the emptiness at the centre of the chamber.

Once more the thunder rang out. He felt the bullet pass, close enough to tear a ripple of fur in its wake. In an instant he turned towards the sound. The professor. He could smell the man, a smell that made his stomach churn in anger, in hatred. The man had one eye closed, sighting down the barrel of his gun. Too slow. Hind legs coiled and sprang, the air flowing so easily around him. Jaws wide, longing to taste the man’s flesh.

He felt the moment when it all changed. Felt the hate peel back, unveiling the senses it had clouded, to reveal the professor’s faithful companion hurling his body into the way. With one hand Micah threw the professor back, as his other arm darted into the space where the hated man’s tender throat should have been. Jaws closed around cloth and skin, teeth sank into the flesh beneath and a cry of pain rang through his ears. Muscles tightened as he sank his teeth deeper. If he couldn’t have the professor he would take this instead, would make the man suffer for stealing his prey. He could smell the adrenaline rushing off the man in waves, hear the cries of pain as he twisted his head back and forth, rending the flesh caught in his jaws.

When the thunder rang out once more, it seemed as if the whole world rang like a bell. For a moment everything seemed to stop. Then the fire exploded through him, the searing bursts of pain as each shot tore into his body. He tried to run, tried to change, tried will some movement into his own limbs, but his body did seem to be under his control. It was as if all his strings had been cut. The floor was hard and cold as it came up to meet him. He slid, rolled, and for the briefest of moments he was aware of the edge of the chasm. Then, spinning, tumbling down. The gentle lightness of freefall embraced him, as the world began to fade into blackness.

Half glimpsed through one eye, Ilona saw the wolf crumple as the first shots struck true. Even as the body hit the ground, Rishi did not stop firing until the impact of the last shot had sent the bloodied grey form tumbling over the edge of the chasm.

Rishi lowered the revolver, a cloud of gun smoke slowly parting around him as he moved towards the edge of the chasm, every muscle tense with caution.

She could feel the coldness of the metal beneath her cheek. She felt the ground shudder, as a tremor ran through the building. One side of her face burned as if it had been set alight. She reached up with fumbling fingers to wipe the blood from her eyes, but as her fingertips brushed her face she felt the loose edge of the skin and the surging fire seemed to explode across her body.

Dimly, she heard Micah’s voice. His strong hands were lifting her upright. She caught a glimpse of his face. There was something comforting about his look of distraught confusion.

“Come on now, let me see,” he said gently, though his voice shook too much for his affected calmness. Carefully he pried her hands away from the side of her face and studied the damage.

She could feel her breath returning. Her heart no longer seemed as if it was trying to rip itself out of her chest. As she waited for Micah to examine her, another tremor ran through the building. She could hear the sound of cracking glass.

Micah’s shoulders slumped as a sigh of relief escaped him.

“You’re OK. The eye’s intact. Oh Fates, but there’s so much blood.”

“It’s alright,” she said, though her breathing was heavy. “Head wounds… Always bleed a lot.”

Micah nodded as he shrugged of his coat and snapped off the buttons of his shirt. The cloth tangled around his shoulders as he struggled to pull it loose, and he yanked harder until it tore. She wondered if she should buy him another. Bundling up the fabric, he pressed it to the wound. She let out a gasp of pain as the fire exploded into life once more. It was only a moment, however. She forced herself to draw slow, even breaths. She took the pain and locked it away inside. Hands shaking, she took hold of the cloth and forced it against the gash.

“Thank you,” she said, still breathless. Then she noticed his arm, teeth marks scored deeply into the flesh. There was blood, but it seemed as if he hadn’t noticed any pain at all. Like a curious child, Micah reached out to poke at the wound. Immediately his face crumpled, and she saw him bite his lip.

“It’s OK,” he said after a moment, though his breathing was strained. “I mean, it’s not too deep. I can still use the arm. Nothing Milima can’t bandage up.”

“You’re sure?” she said, her expression doubtful.

“I’ll be fine,” Micah said, with a grimace.

“OK. See what you can do for him,” she said, nodding at one of the fallen guards. It was obvious from the briefest glance that there was nothing to be done for the other. The sea of blood around his fallen body told it all. Already it was beginning to drip over the edge, into the empty expanse in the centre of the tower. “And hurry,” she added. “I think something is wrong with this place.”

The guard’s leg was bleeding badly. She watched as Micah did his best to put pressure on the wound, stripping off the man’s tunic to use as a tourniquet. It was enough for now, but Ilona could see that he would need a surgeon, and soon. The man’s face was pale, his breathing shallow and hurried. Micah caught his eye, clearly trying to keep his expression reassuring.

“What’s your name?” Micah said, somehow forcing his usual cheerfulness to show through.

“Wrel,” the man gasped. Though his voice was weak, his accent was no less distinctive.

“You’re a Kalvari?” Micah asked. Wrel just nodded weakly.

“Beautiful place. My father took me there once. Come on, let’s get you on your feet. It was a business trip. We were settling some sort of legal dispute in Varashen… Or was it Rannar?”

As Micah talked calmly, keeping the man distracted, Ilona forced herself to her feet and looked around. Rishi was standing by the edge of the chasm, looking down at where Justin had fallen. Rakesh was kneeling over his father, checking the wound on Manindra’s leg.

Then Rishi turned and gestured at Rakesh with the still smoking revolver.

“Get him up. You’re leaving. Micah, help the other one. He can go with them.”

“Professor, I don’t know if we should move him yet. Maybe we can sort out a stretcher, or…”

“Get him up,” Rishi growled sharply, cutting Micah off. The younger man scowled, but let it be. Rakesh said nothing. His eyes surveyed them all, cold and sharp, but he wasn’t about to argue. Instead he turned to his father again.

“Father? Can you stand?”

With a grunt, the elder Bhandari rose halfway to his feet before pushing his son aside. For a moment it seemed as if the old man would fall, but he regained his balance and stood tall.

“I’ll tear down the sky before I hand him what’s mine.” Manindra snarled, glaring at Rishi. The professor didn’t even bother to meet the old man’s gaze.

“Rakesh,” Rishi said, levelly, “I’m giving you a chance. Take your father home.”

Rakesh didn’t say a word. He just nodded and began walking, forcing Manindra to move with him. The old man didn’t seem to have the strength left to struggle. Manindra’s eyes burned with hate, but he didn’t say another word.

Ilona stepped closer, laying a hand on the professor’s shoulder. She heard a rumbling from far below, and the floor shook beneath them. She was sure the tremors were getting stronger. She heard a sound above them, like thick ice cracking.

“Rishi, we should be going as well.”

He shook his head.

“Rishi, you can’t stay. This place is falling apart,” she said, sternly.

He looked around, and her eyes met his properly for the first time since the fighting. There was something wild and desperate that had awakened inside of him. Something terrifying.

“Can’t I?” he snapped. For a moment she thought of the sound of the wolf’s jaws closing. “My daughter is in there. I’m not leaving until I get her free.”

“Rishi, we can’t.”

“Yes we can. I’ll find a way,” he snarled, stalking towards the pit. “Go on. Get everyone clear.”

“Rishi, please.”

Even as the words left her mouth she knew how they sounded. Cold. Disdainful. She had never known how to beg, even when she needed to.

He ignored her, walking towards the pit and the lectern. One hand traced the hard metal around the indentation where the Seed had lain. He barely seemed to notice as the tower shuddered once more. He ignored her even as she approached, standing at his shoulder. Finally she laid a gentle hand on his arm. Another rumbling sound filled the chamber.

“Rishi,” she whispered in the silence that followed.

He turned, fury flashing in his eyes, an outraged “What?” forming on his lips.

There was a loud crack as her gauntleted fist struck him across the jaw. Rishi swayed for a second, and then his whole body simply went limp. Moving quickly, Ilona caught him as he fell, struggling under his weight. She pulled the professor’s arm across her shoulders and held him about the waist.

“Fates, ‘Lona, are you crazy?” Micah yelled at her.

“No,” she said. “But he might be. You know we can’t stop this. We don’t even know where to start.”

Micah didn’t seem to know what to say to that. He looked at the platform, at the empty air where the gateway had been. As they both watched, another tremor ran through the building. Sadly, he shook his head.

“Be safe. Both of you,” he muttered, wretchedly.

“Fates willing,” Ilona said. “Come on.”

To his credit, Micah didn’t waste time. He hauled the injured guard to his feet and made for the exit at good speed.

At the archway she turned and looked back one last time at the empty air over the platform. Once again she heard the rumbling from below.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to the empty air, as she turned and walked away.

Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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