Where are you, Flair?
Where are you?
The monsters have finally come for us.
She sprinted through the forest, moonlit branches bruising her paws and mud spattering her flank. Trees whipped past in a blur.
Other weir-panthers ran alongside her, breathing fast and shallow as they fled across the moist autumn loam. The scent of rotting leaves and crushed roots filled her panting breaths.
Papa was there, too, somewhere in the darkness. And Iven. But not Flair—
Char didn’t know where Flair was.
Something gray streaked past the corner of her vision.
No! She whipped around, fangs bared and jaws snapping empty air.
He was behind her!
Taloned fingers grabbed her shanks and dug into her sleek black fur, sharp nails pricking her skin. Terror lanced through her—and fury, so much fury. She growled and twisted and snarled, but his claws wound around her flank in a merciless fist and yanked her into the air. She yelped, snapping her teeth at muscular gray arms. His hard hand whipped through moonlight and clamped over her jaws, forcing them shut.
A portal flared overhead like a mirror, crackling white light circling an opening to an endless tunnel.
No! If he took her, she’d never return.
Her captor’s muscles coiled and tensed as she writhed and struggled. Papa! Iven—
He leapt with her straight into the eye of the portal.
Char, where are you?
I can’t feel you—can’t hear you anymore!
Sobs, wrenching, terrified.
The intense light of the portal squeezed shut Char’s eyes, so bright that it bled crimson through her eyelids. Her captor’s muscles coiled under her cheek—a heartbeat of wild blood—then sparks and magic sheared through her. Her muscles went limp, dumping her against his chest, then she landed hard on her side on cracked ground.
The shock rendered her panther form powerless and wheezing, pawing, her muted howl whittled down to a helpless whine.
Her captor’s knees hit the ground on either side of her haunches and restrained her back legs; his talons pinned her shoulders.
Char thrashed and gnashed her jaws, but her grabbing claws caught in hollow fissures webbing the terrain. Her yellow panther gaze rolled toward the creature straddling her beneath violet-gray clouds storming above, a sky stabbed by spears of lightning.
Shadow-hungry, the grayish tone of his skin so disparately unhuman while his body was shaped like a man’s. Long ropes of black hair trailed over his smooth, bare chest nearly to his waist. Vivid blue eyes glowing like licks of sapphire flame watched her. A faint breeze of electricity crackled over her skin from the storm above the barren landscape.
This wasn’t the shadow-hungry she knew. Those had mindless eyes and seeking green veins that snaked from their skin and could delve into a man, squirm through him, and poke out parts of his brain, destroying him while leaving him horrifyingly, vacantly alive. Those shadow-hungry left people and weirs strewn in their wake like so many glass dolls staring upward at an unseen sky.
This one had intelligence in his eyes, and eagerness pulled his dark lips back from pointed teeth.
He flattened his claw over her heaving ribcage, his gray fingers sinking into her gleaming black pelt. His talons became pinpricks in her ribs. Then liquid pain poured from him into her hide, icy and sharp and filling her veins like foreign blood all the way into her heart. There it pooled—and burst outward through her body in a thousand droplets.
Agony wrenched her organs and reformed them, bones seized up and stretched out unprepared. The forced transformation smashed her organs first, then bloated them out until dizziness spun the violet sky and unified it with the gray enemy above her into vivid swirls. She shut her eyes and sagged under him… and melted back into her human form: a naked young woman with tangled brown curls cushioning her head, tendrils sweat-plastered to her temples. The electric air sizzled over her bare skin, no fur to rise under it.
The shadow-hungry bent over her, his shadow engulfing her pale, naked limbs.
Papa came home, Char. He came home limping, without you, claw marks on his ribs and a frayed shirt hanging from his shoulders. He lurched into the firelight of our little cottage, and blood flowed between his fingers. It dripped on the floor, and you’ve never seen that most terrible, beautiful shade of scarlet until you have seen it drop from your own father.
But he didn’t even look at it. While Ma settled down to business cleaning the wounds and making a poultice, asking in her no-nonsense tone where you were, Pa looked at me.
Where was I?
Iven and Pa were with you, but where was I when they took you, my sister?
That’s what they ask—Pa, Ma, and come tomorrow, the entire village will ask, too, except for the one I was with, if he is still even here. As for what I ask myself, that is: was it worth it?
I was with the traveler. Doing what I always do and hoping that he’d take me with him.
But what does it matter now, when you’re…
Char, where are you?
Char stirred in her sleep, woken by her sister’s restless thoughts. Milky green light sifted through her eyelashes, the soft breath of others around her a susurrus in her ear. She was aware of warmth, and walls, and recalled lightning-illuminated talons on her thighs, her back, touching her only to lift her. He had anchored her in place on broad shoulders and had carried her across a dark, fissured desert, a storm-wind around them. Her curls in her eyes.
Flair, can you hear me? I can hear you. Can you find me here?
Underground, locked up where power charged the air like the moment before lightning struck.
Papa, she begged, Iven.
But they could not touch her now.
Flair, can you hear me?
But Flair did not answer.