Dawn lights up the lowest clouds first, and as the peach glow rolled over the soft hills sheltering the lowermost dwellings, Wren crept out of her family’s home.
The sky was still a sleepy mauve, just beginning to be coaxed awake by the first gentle fingers of the sun. The light barely touched the higher clouds, their soft undersides still blanketed in pre-dawn blue. Above, high-flying cranes and swans honked and called, heralding the arrival of morning, but Wren hardly heard them.
Her parents would be just waking up, yawning and massaging their eyes, exhausted as if sleep hadn’t touched them. Her two sisters would be blinking in the dawn sun, barely awake as they ate their morning meal and readied themselves for another day of work.
Beside Wren, Faen looked barely awake himself, harrumphing softly. Cold air fogged up around his indigo muzzle, and his dark eyes blinked sleepily.
The pale-coloured unicorn had been accompanying her since his wings had come in and grown strong enough to carry him through the sky. He’d been impatient to fly, he said when he’d first come with her. Watching Wren and her sisters loop and whirl and play as children had been torture for the foal, and even now he seemed to be making up for lost time, flying every chance he had.
Unicorns developed differently to Erelim, Wren knew. Erelim were born with wings – insubstantial, soft things that were invisible until you called them forth to fly.
They were feathered and light like the wings of the swans circling above, and Wren could not remember there ever being a time where she couldn’t fly.
Unlike Faen, who was born looking much like a strange, white-and-purple cross between a pony and a deer. No feathered wings, no spiralling horn. Those didn’t appear until he earned them, like all unicorns.
Wren had never earned her wings, and she was grateful to have not needed to. She doubted she was capable of the good or caring deeds that unicorns had to perform to prove their purity and earn their magic and wings.
Now, Faen no longer cantered at the edge of the cloud bank, whinnying in distress as Wren and her sisters flew out of reach. Now, he launched himself into the sky alongside them, and chased them. And when he caught up, he nipped, snapping gently at their heels and shoulders – soft enough to avoid hurt, but plenty hard enough to sting. A soft reprimand for all those times he was left behind, Wren supposed.
“We don’t usually leave this early,” Faen complained. His voice was a soft whinny, husky around the edges but never rough or harsh.
He was right – usually they rose with her family, eating with them and leaving in the opposite direction as Wren’s family trudged off to the pearl farm. This was the first time Wren had shaken Faen awake in the dark before dawn, the pair slipping out on empty stomachs.
“We aren’t usually hunting a bull gryphon,” Wren answered. Her bow and quiver were slung across her back, between her wings, and her hands clenched and loosened periodically as if they missed the feeling of the bow’s grip.
The bow was too tall for her – a gift from a friend who’d passed it to her when she’d purchased a newer bow. And since Wren would never afford a bow of her own, she’d treasured the gift. Lola could easily have pawned off the worn weapon to help pay for her own new bow, but she’d given it to Wren instead.
Faen snorted, and nipped at the end of Wren’s strawberry-red braid. It hung over her shoulder and down her chest, the end dangling at her hip, the tips worn and chewed from Faen’s occasional nibbles. “What about male gryphons are different to the females?”
“The males are bigger, fatter, and grumpier,” Wren answered. “And lazy. While the females leave early to hunt, the males sleep in the nest. They don’t rouse themselves until midday. And since they’re harder to subdue once awake, it’s best to ambush them while they’re still sleepy.”
“Sounds a bit unkind,” Faen said. “Sneaking up on sleeping animals isn’t honourable.”
“No, but male gryphons fetch a greater reward,” Wren said. “And I’d rather not try to take down an awake, hunting male. The females aren’t too much trouble, since they’re smaller and slower. But males are damn near impossible to take down once they get moving.”
“Still mean,” Faen insisted. Still, he trotted alongside Wren, and launched himself off the cloud bank with her once they reached the edge of the city’s edge.
The sky here was ruled not by the gryphons, or even the unicorns, but by the Erelim’s huge cloud-cities. Up here, clouds were entities of their own, solid enough to support the weight of the thousands of Erelim who lived on them in houses, apartments, mansions, palaces, and other structures – the grandest of which were built out of dawn-coloured marble and pale gold, glittering in the high sun.
Arching bridges that seemed to fly out into the sky connected each of the clouds, and even the three great cities themselves. Tall structures called whisper-towers allowed for signals and communications, but were equally features of beauty and wonder in their spiralling marble glory. The roads along the clouds were smooth as to reflect the skies above, and hardy verdant grasses grew alongside them and over the hills, dotted with wildflowers and trees with leaves that changed colour in shifting patterns.
Erelim were the rulers of the sky – feather-winged people with powerful magic that allowed them to thrive up where even the birds struggled to breathe. They in turn were ruled by the Ereon – the noble Erelim families and royalty who lived in the marble palaces at the centre of the city. Wren had only ever seen them in glimpses, and for all their finery, she’d wondered if they’d deserved a separate name for themselves. They looked little unlike her, with aquiline features, long, colourful hair, pointed ears, and bright markings along their limbs and faces.
Wren’s own markings were red, like her hair – stripes along her arms and framing her face, bright against her tawny skin.
She’d gotten her hair from her father, and her darker skin from her mother, a teal-haired, ebony-skinned woman who herself had come from a noble family, giving up her wealth to be with Wren’s father – a street performer who awed passersby with dancing, singing, music and magic.
And now they were workers on a pearl farm, performing back-breaking labour every day to harvest pearls for the Ereon to decorate themselves with while living up in their marble domain, surrounded by luxury and comfort. Wren scowled.
She was quickly broken out of her brooding by a sharp whinny from Faen. Wren looked up to see a dark figure waving across a small cloud.
Wren smiled, coasting over the cloud with Faen to meet the gargoyle.
Her name was Lola, and like all gargoyles, she was a solid-built creature hewn of stone, skin hard and polished, and somehow held aloft with a pair of stone wings, feathers carved into the rock in a manner that echoed birds, or Erelim.
Unlike many gargoyles, though, Lola’s obsidian-dark skin flashed with bright rainbow colours, like an oil slick had been trapped and frozen beneath the surface. She was made of spectrolite – a rare form of labradorite, with the same iridescent flashes but in a greater spectrum and intensity of colours.
Most gargoyles were of common stones, like granite, slate, and marble. Very rarely, some were born with gemstone skin – diamond, ruby, opal.
Lola came from a family of feldspar gemstone gargoyles – labradorite, moonstone, even sunstone. All beautiful, but not considered in the league of the precious stone gargoyles.
Except for Lola. Unlike her labradorite sisters, she was selected to be brought up to the cloud cities as a servant to the Ereon alongside diamond and opal gargoyles. She had been considered beautiful enough to stand alongside them and be seen in the marble corridors of the palaces. Gleaming centrepieces, little more than decorative trinkets with the handy quality of being able to be told what to do.
Lola had hated it. And had left at the first chance she seized, to serve nobody but herself.
Wren reached Lola on the other side of the cloud, and Faen nipped at her clawed hand by way of greeting.
Lola smiled at Wren with sharp teeth, opalescent eyes sparkling in the morning sun. “Nervous?” she asked.
This was going to be Wren’s first time hunting a male gryphon. Usually, they stuck to the easier-to-catch females, who were fierce and vicious but slower and with less body armour. All it took to fell a female was a well-aimed arrow, which Wren was getting good at shooting.
Males, though, had more extensive body armour and faster flight. To fell one, you needed to get up close to pierce the soft parts between the scale plates, and they were not easy to get close to once they were in flight.
“I’m fine,” Wren said, ignoring the twinge of excitement deep in her belly. “Have you found a nest?”
Lola, the more experienced hunter, usually staked out nests and hiding spots early in the morning. She was a formidable tracker, something Wren had yet to learn to be.
“There’s one a few miles north-east, near the city,” Lola said. “A big brute. His mate’s already left the nest, but I bet you he’ll still be there when we reach it.”
Lola motioned for Wren to follow, and flew northwards towards the marble towers in the distance, light catching on the individual stone feathers of her wings with each beat. At the farthest primary feathers, the stone was translucent enough for the morning sun to shine through.
“So you finally think I’m ready to tackle a male?” Wren asked as they flew.
Lola laughed. “Nobody’s ever ready to tackle a male gryphon,” she said. “I sure wasn’t when I first tried. But you need bigger challenges. You’re too good at shooting down females now, and I feel bad for the poor ladies.”
Wren had met Lola many years before, when she was ten years old. She’d been flying home from the pearl farm, exhausted and miserable – she’d been the first of her sisters old enough to work, and so had joined the seeding party on the farm with gusto, excited to bring in extra income for the struggling family.
But the work had been backbreaking for a little girl, and for even less pay than her adult parents. To make up for it she was allowed home early in the afternoons, and travelled home alone each day to chase after her young sisters.
On one trip home, though, she ran right into the path of a careening gryphon, bellowing and charging right at her.
She’d frozen in place, terrified, remembering every warning to stay away from gryphon territories – they were fierce and loved the taste of little girls, her mother had said. She’d been sure she’d be eaten.
And then an arrowhead had burst from the creature’s chest, and the gryphon let out a desperate cry and collapsed to the cloud below. As it fell, Wren saw the gargoyle who’d shot it from behind, who smiled and reached out a hand to her.
“You alright, love?” she’d asked. She was a few years older, which back then had made her seem almost an adult. Wren had nodded and followed Lola down to the felled gryphon, and watched in fascination as Lola gutted and cleaned her kill, and then followed her to a nearby butcher’s to watch Lola sell the carcass.
Wren had never seen so many gold coins in her life before that day. The butcher bought all the gryphon’s parts – its meat, feathers, golden-furred hide, horns, talons, teeth, and scaled armour. She stared open-mouthed as the butcher handed the coins to Lola, and Lola stored them in a small purse tied to her belt.
Lola raised her eyebrows at the awestruck child. “It’s my money,” she said sternly. “For my kill. Not for you, sorry.”
“You got all that from killing that gryphon?” young Wren had asked in amazement. “My parents don’t earn that in a month.”
Lola’s eyes had softened. “Hunting’s good money,” was all she said.
“Can you teach me to hunt?” Wren asked.
In retrospect, it was pretty amazing that Lola had agreed to teach her. Most hunters might have dismissed her, not wishing for a clumsy child following at their heels, scaring off prey or needing to be saved from danger.
And yet Lola had agreed, and made Wren agree to meet her at the butcher’s each day. She taught Wren to use bows and arrows, then how to gut, clean and skin kills. For a while, that was all Wren did – gut, clean and skin Lola’s kills, then carry it to the butcher’s for her. And she’d hated it. She should have known Lola would give her the unsavoury jobs she didn’t like doing.
Eventually, though, Lola began allowing her to take shots at cranes and swans, and then even bigger animals like perytons, flying big cats, hippogryphs, and gryphons.
Perytons weren’t so hard to fell, despite their size. They were stag-like creatures with the plumage and wings of swans. They were difficult to track as they were very shy, but without armour or claws or teeth, they were easy to kill once found.
Big cats like cheetahs, servals and lynxes were more aggressive; they were quick on feathered, falcon-like wings, and had sharp teeth and claws. But their bodies weren’t armoured, and their hides were prized as decorative rugs, and their captive young grew into impressive domesticated pets.
Hippogryphs were also fairly easy to hunt, having horse-like hindquarters and eagle frontquarters. While large and equipped with a sharp beak and talons, they were fairly docile and easy to fell if shot from a distance.
Gryphons, though, had lion-like bodies with golden fur and gold plate armour. Their talons were long and deadly, and their eagle heads had sharp beaks lined with pointed teeth, which made them very dangerous up close.
For all this, Lola would toss Wren a few coins for each kill – barely a fraction of the overall reward. But even that was worth two days of work at the pearl farm, and so Wren had uncomplainingly accepted every small payment. And whenever Wren successfully shot down her own kills, Lola always gave her a little over half of the coins. “Your kill, your reward,” she said. Whatever she kept was for the time spent tracking the prey and instructing Wren on killing it, she explained. The rest belonged to Wren.
When her parents had found out where she’d been sneaking away to each day, they’d been furious. Hunting was a dangerous sport, they’d scolded her. But then Wren had revealed her stash of coins from helping Lola, and they’d fallen silent.
They’d been stunned again when Lola finally met them, after Wren’s mother demanded to know what hunter had led Wren astray. They’d expected tough, rough and unpleasant. They hadn’t expected the pretty young gargoyle who strode into their small hut, lifted her chin high, and promised that Wren had the potential to be a greatly successful hunter.
Wren’s parents had invited her for tea, and the teenager was sat down at their weathered little kitchen table with a chipped mug full of hot tea clinking between her hands. Her sisters and Faen were mesmerised by the fierce-eyed girl with dark skin that flashed rainbows every time she moved, and Wren’s parents took a quick liking to her polite manner.
From that point Wren was allowed to go with Lola as often as she pleased.
And now, Wren was nearly twenty, which meant that she’d been hunting and learning with Lola for nearly ten years. And finally – finally! – she was going to have a try at hunting a male gryphon, the most difficult creature in the skies to hunt. Well, other than a phoenix.
Lola led the trio to a small bank of clouds that lay a mile or so east of the city, beyond the buildings and roads and bridges. Here, the clouds were overgrown with small forests of hardy little conifers, poplars and aspens.
Gryphon nests were too large and heavy for these trees, but Wren spotted a small pocket of twisted, knotted pine trees with thick trunks and wide-spreading branches. They were wild and sprawling compared to the neatly vertical spruces nearby.
These types of pines were sturdy and tall, and their thick branches were perfect for the huge eyries built by gryphons.
Lola looked over at Wren. “You remember where to find gryphon nests, right?” she asked.
Wren pointed to the pines, and Lola smiled. “Good, you’re learning. Yeah, the nest is in there.”
The pair flew up to the pines, closely trailed by Faen. They fell quiet now, careful to angle their wings to keep the sound of wind through feathers to a minimum.
Tucked in between a pair of forked branches, a sprawling mess of sticks and debris formed a rough hollow hemisphere nestled against the trunk of one of the gnarled pines. It was huge – Wren, Faen and Lola could have all lain down inside it and still had room for Wren’s sisters.
The only thing inside the nest, though, was a huge hulking creature that took up a little over half of the space inside. Wren’s mouth went dry.
The feathered head of a golden eagle melted into a long, dark lion’s mane. Golden-pelted hindquarters tucked up alongside feathered front claws, and a long tufted tail tucked around the creatures’ mismatched legs. Folded over its body like a blanket was a pair of huge, golden feathered wings.
“Alright,” Lola said in a faint whisper. “What we need to do is to gently coax it to stretch out a bit. We can’t get in through the back – we have to get to the armoured underparts.”
Gryphons were very difficult to kill from behind – not impossible, as Lola proved, but piercing through its mane, thick hide, and wing feathers was very tough. Wren didn’t want to find out how much tougher male gryphon’s backs were than females’.
The gryphon’s underparts were armoured with golden scales, but gaps between the scales meant that if you were very careful and aimed your arrow or blade at just the right angle, you could slip between the scales and pierce easily through the soft belly underneath.
This was how they were going to kill the gryphon.
Or attempt to, anyway.
Lola inched around the edge of the nest, reaching down to the gryphon with a short spear she usually kept strapped to her back. She gently tickled the gryphon’s head feathers, coaxing a sleepy growl from the creature. It reached up one of its front claws to bat away at her spear, leaving a small part of its chest exposed.
It wasn’t much, but Wren knew that Lola wasn’t willing to harass it too much, in case it woke. She sucked in a deep breath, willing her hands to stay steady as she drew and notched an arrow in her old bow.
The bowstring creaked loudly as she drew it. Lola’s eyes flew wide, and Wren stopped breathing.
The gryphon opened one single, golden eye.
Wren let out a small squeak.
The gryphon roared.
“Fly!” Lola bellowed, and Wren stumbled backwards into a tree branch as the huge golden creature lunged at her, swinging a great taloned claw at her. She dimly took note of a stinging lash across her leg, and flapped her wings, propelling herself above the trees.
The gryphon followed, wings straining in heavy, powerful beats. It let out a furious cry and gave chase, and as Wren careened backwards, she felt very much like the same little girl that had stood stunned in front of a similar gryphon the day she’d met Lola.
The gryphon lashed out again, barely missing Wren’s ankle. She dodged out of the way, ducking downwards, forcing it to shift into a dive.
“The underparts!” Wren heard Lola roaring. “Shoot now, Wren!”
The gryphon let out a cry of pain, and Wren caught a glimpse of black stone wings behind the gryphon’s shoulder – Lola had struck the creature with her spear. As it snarled and began to turn to attack Lola, Wren’s fingers found their place on her bow again.
She tightened the string, heart pounding in her ears as she held her breath.
On the downbeat of her wings, she loosed the arrow.
It zipped past her cheek, whistled through the air, and in a moment that hardly seemed real, Wren watched the arrow embed itself between two scales, sinking deep into the soft flesh beneath.
The gryphon roared, and faltered, forgetting Lola. Its wings missed a beat.
It let out another cry, and then it was sinking, stumbling, dropping out of the sky like a stone.
It crashed through the trees, and landed on the cloud beneath. Wren finally sucked in a breath when she heard its body hit the undergrowth.
Lola hovered in front of her, panting hard. “Good shot,” she said breathlessly. “Though I think it’s time we got you a new bow.”
They flew down to the forest undergrowth to inspect the gryphon.
It wasn’t quite dead yet, breathing hard and struggling feebly. Blood spattered across its beak with each weakening breath, and it shot Wren a dark, baleful look before the life faded out of its eyes at last.
This was the part Wren always hated. The final moments. The stab of guilt whenever she remembered she’d just slaughtered a beautiful, fine creature. Not needlessly, she reminded herself. The butcher always let her have the meat for a coin or two, and her sisters had grown healthier and thrived since she started bringing home meat from her kills. The remaining coin bought more food and wood to burn for the cold high-altitude nights, and it brought Wren a strange sense of peace to see her family more comfortable, less desperate.
She took a deep breath as the gryphon stilled.
“Congratulations,” Lola said. “Your first bull gryphon. He’ll bring in a pretty reward for those talons, and well done on not damaging the scales. Though we nearly lost him there, didn’t we?”
“We did,” Wren said, frowning. “We woke it up. Or I did, rather. And it nearly killed us.”
“Nearly killed you,” Faen chided. He’d kept well out of the way during the fight, but now he trotted to Wren’s side, dipping his head to touch his horn to the long, deep gashes across her legs. She glanced down at them now, starting to feel the sharp pain lancing down her legs as the adrenaline wore off.
Faen’s horn began to glow in the dimness of the pine forest, and as it lit up, Wren’s wounds faded. She sighed with relief as the pain dissipated, and scratched between Faen’s ears, where he liked.
“Thank you,” she said. “It damn near pulled me out of the sky.”
“It did,” Faen snorted. “You need to be more careful. I don’t have infinite reserves of magic.”
“I know,” Wren smiled, smirking.
One of the reasons Faen had been so intent on leaving with Wren for her hunts was because, before his wings came in, she’d come home at the end of every day with new gashes and wounds from various mishaps.
Sometimes she’d just flown into a tree branch. Other times, a hunt had gone awry and she’d nearly ended up the prey.
Her family hated the wounds, her father cleaning and bandaging each one with a lecture on safety and being careful. Her mother would fret and feed her hot tea and soup on top of her dinner, hoping the extra food would help her heal faster.
Faen’s horn had just grown in then, and he’d barely known how to use it and the magic power that came with unicorn horns, so he was helpless each time Wren came in with a new hurt.
But when Wren’s younger sister stumbled in one day with a serious gash across her belly – an accident from wandering into a noble family’s peryton ranch that ended in a bull stag charging at her – the family had been distraught. Wren was the one supposed to come home with injuries, not her sister Ava – and certainly not life-threatening ones like this wound that all but split her in two.
In that moment of desperation and need, some sort of instinct clicked into place for Faen, and he used his horn to heal Ava’s wound, saving her from a painful death of either bleeding out on the kitchen floor, or from suffering a deadly infection.
In unicorns, good deeds and acts of service was what allowed unicorns to grow their horns and wings. And this singular act – using up nearly all his power reserves to heal Ava – was enough to earn Faen his wings. It had taken him months to restore his power reserves again, but he was uncomplaining. Ava certainly made sure to forage extra sweet nuts and sugary treats for him from then on.
With his newfound power of healing and brand new wings, Faen had been insistent on following Wren to her hunts – and healing each hurt, so she never had to come home with injuries again.
Being equine also made Faen useful in other ways. He scowled and stamped back and forth as Lola and Wren skinned and cut up the carcass. “That’s going to be so heavy to carry,” he complained.
“It sure will be,” Lola said cheerfully. “I’m so glad I don’t have to carry kills around by myself anymore.”
Wren snorted – once upon a time, it had been her carrying Lola’s kills. She was pretty sure Faen and his broad, strong back would be fine.
The pair wrapped the carcass and roped it onto Faen’s back, and when Lola was sure it was secure, they set off back to the city to sell off the parts.
A fairly routine hunt, but Wren’s blood thrummed. She was one step closer to being ready to hunt the ultimate prey, the one that would bring her family out of poverty for once and for all.
Wren was going to hunt a phoenix.
Phoenixes were incredibly rare, thought to be extinct. They hadn’t been seen in the wild in decades, and the last of the captive songbirds died out long ago. Any attempts to breed them in captivity had failed, so either they’d gone into hiding or died out.
They were prized for their iridescent rainbow plumage, made up of razor sharp feathers that they could fire like arrows for defense. As well as being beautiful, the feathers were sharper than most blades, making dazzling weapons.
Their talons and beaks were a pink-gold material, valuable for jewelry and decoration, and their meat was also prized. Their eggs were made of a pale opalescent material used in jewelry, and when hatched in captivity their chicks grew into docile, friendly pet birds with a beautiful song.
As well as using their feathers for defense, their claws and talons were viciously sharp, and they had another talent – setting themselves on fire.
Their fire was a unique one that didn’t stop burning – hunters who came into contact with the flames suffered burns that kept burning as if the flame was never removed. They often died or suffer severe scarring.
All this made them extremely valuable, and extremely dangerous. The hunter who successfully felled one could sell their prize for a fortune and elevate themselves to nobility, if they managed to survive.
Wren didn’t believe the rumours that the phoenixes had died out. She knew they had to be out there. And when she found one, she would secure her family’s future and bring them out of poverty.
She’d felled a bull gryphon, now. The next step was a phoenix. All she had to do was find one.
“Huge flock of bats in the distance,” Lola called as they flew by another pocket of trees, the city walls coming into view. “Careful, their vision’s not great – if they fly into us we’ll be in strife. Safer to fly around them. No idea why they’d travel in the day, though.”
Wren squinted. “Lola, they’re rather big for bats.”
Lola frowned, and then froze.
“Wren, hide!” she yelled. “Both of you, scatter!”
“Demons,” Faen whinnied, rearing backwards. Wren’s blood stopped.
The flapping, shiny black wings in the distance didn’t belong to overlarge bats. Bats the size of foals certainly existed, but that wasn’t what the horde in the distance was made up of.
Faen let out an anxious neigh, and something collided hard into Wren’s side. She registered being shoved back into the trees, hard against a rough trunk, and an unfamiliar hand with clawed nails clamping over her lower face.
“Don’t scream or make any sound,” a low, deep voice growled. “Don’t move.”
Wren breathed in hard through her nose, fighting rising panic.
She’d never met any Lilim before; they were the cave-dwelling equivalent of Erelim, who looked similar in every way but for their satiny black bat-like wings, bright eyes with slit pupils, and dark, militant clothing.
They rarely interacted with Erelim, and Wren had grown up with a distinct mistrust of the almost mythical kingdom.
There’d never been any outright war between the two peoples, but plenty of scuffles and power grabs. Wren remembered hearing about a Lilim attack on Erelim traders as a child, carefully avoiding killing or capturing the traders, but pillaging and stealing all the valuables they’d been carrying.
It had always been a careful dance of power plays and sown mistrust, and Wren had always been warned never to go near Lilim.
Now she had one trapping her against a tree and warning her not to move.
She could see black, wavy hair glinting with gold rings and pearls in her peripheral vision, pointed ears the colour of dark wood.
This wasn’t just any Lilim, she realised. Not always, but usually, dark skin indicated nobility. Her own ebony-skinned mother had come from a noble family, though she was impoverished now.
The jewelry confirmed it, though. No guard or soldier would be dressed so finely.
Wren could hear the thudding of hundreds rapid wingbeats, and a shadow passed, visible through the trees. The horde was heading for the city, she realised, moving very quickly.
She shifted. The Lilim hissed, holding onto her tighter. “Don’t move! If they catch you, you’ll be in danger.”
Something flipped inside of Wren’s head, and she managed to turn her head enough to stare at the Lilim in disbelief.
Golden eyes with catlike slip pupils stared back. He was definitely a noble, with fine features and long hair pulled back, and his face was tensed into a worried frown.
His clothes were simple and black with no embroidery, but the tightness of the weave and fine stitching spoke of expensive make. Intricate black tattoos wound around bright gold markings across his skin.
Why was he trying to protect her?
“What are they doing?” she managed to spit from behind his hand.
“None of your business,” he snapped.
“Is it war?”
“Of course not,” he said. “Nothing for you to worry about. They won’t hurt anyone.”
“So why are you protecting me?”
He paused. “You’re a lone Erelim on the outskirts of the city,” he said warily. “Unsafe, exposed. Not all of those soldiers are… good people. I didn’t want anything to happen to you.”
Wren shuddered. “I wasn’t alone, I – my friends! What about them?”
“They’re fine,” the Lilim snorted. “They’re not going to pick on a unicorn or gargoyle. They’re not so neutral to Erelim, though.”
He looked around, appearing to be listening out, then his grip loosened. He took his hand away from Wren’s mouth, letting her go.
“Sorry,” he said. “I just didn’t want anything to happen.”
“Why are you here?” she asked. “You’re not a soldier.”
The Lilim’s lip twisted. “It’s not for you to know,” he said curtly.
Wren’s blood flashed hot. “What gives you the judgement of that?” she snapped. “If your people are attacking mine, or putting us in danger -”
“Nobody’s in danger!” the Lilim said, holding his hands palm-up. “Nobody’s hurting anyone. It’s… a show of force, if you need to know.”
Wren blinked. “Why?” she asked.
The Lilim shrugged. “Power play, power games,” he said, and Wren heard a soft note of exhaustion in his voice. “You know how it goes. We flaunt our military might, you respond by cutting off our trade routes. We flaunt our power to show that we can. Intimidate one another.”
He glanced through the trees. “They’re going to fly through the city and scare your folk,” he said. “That’s all. No stealing, no harm. Just looking big and frightening. Knock your nobles down a peg, maybe even get them to soil their nice clothes.”
Wren couldn’t suppress a giggle at that. The Lilim smiled.
“Wren!” Lola’s voice rang through the trees. She was echoed by a panicked whinny.
“I’d better let you go,” the Lilim said. “It should be safe for you, now. Just get home quickly, get safe.”
Wren looked back at him. “Why did you do that for me?” she asked. “There’s no reason for you to care at all what happens to me.”
He shrugged. “I just didn’t want to let something happen, that’s all,” he said. “It… I don’t know, it made sense to me. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”
It didn’t make sense to Wren. If he was part of the horde, then he’d had a purpose. Why would he abandon it to safeguard a single, politically useless Erelim? She wasn’t even a noble.
Lola’s voice called through the trees again, louder now, and Wren knew she didn’t have time to interrogate the Lilim.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Martin,” the Lilim said without hesitation. “And yours?”
“Wren,” she said. “Thank you, I think.”
He smiled, flashing sharp white teeth. “You’re welcome. Just stay safe.”
Lola called again, and Wren flew away, leaving the Lilim. She found Lola a few yards away, face screwed up in a frantic expression of worry. Lola’s eyes widened when she saw her, and she virtually pounced on Wren, pulling her into a hug.
“Where were you?!” she demanded upon pulling away. “What did he do to you?!”
“Nothing!” Wren insisted. “He didn’t hurt me. He said he was worried the horde might, though.”
“We saw the horde,” Faen said, his ears pressed all the way back. “Hundreds of them, all armoured and armed – Wren, what’s happening?”
“He said it was a show of force,” Wren said. “A power play. Just to scare the Ereon, I think.”
“Well it bloody scared us,” Lola growled. “We’d better get you home. You’re sure he didn’t hurt you?”
As they raced back to Wren’s family’s home to make sure that the Lilim horde truly had no intention of attacking, Wren forgot about Martin. She forgot to wonder why he was there, or why the Lilim would waste time and resources on a random flight through the city for no more than just show.
They arrived back at the house to find Wren’s family home from the pearl farm.
“They sent us home after the horde flew over,” Ava explained, pulling them into the house. She was a pretty creature with mahogany skin and mauve hair pulled into a loose bun, her eyes pale lavender.
The youngest sister, Lark, was Ava’s opposite – quiet with intense orange eyes, tan skin, and dark teal hair, almost black. Her eyes followed Wren watchfully as they entered the house, though she didn’t move from the kitchen table.
“We’ve been given the rest of the day off in case an attack happens,” Wren’s father explained. His name was Jay, and he was standing by the window, lavender eyes watching out carefully for the horde. He’d been handsome once, but now had dark circles under his eyes and a scruffy red beard. He was the palest in the family.
“We’re not getting paid for it, though,” Wren’s mother, Robin, said softly. She was sitting at the table by Lark, hands clasped tightly.
“There won’t be an attack,” Wren said. “We ran into one of the Lilim nobles, and -”
“You what?” Jay cried. “Wren, how?!”
“By accident,” Lola said. “He didn’t hurt us.”
“He said the horde is just performing a show of power,” Wren explained. “They don’t plan on hurting anyone. Just scaring the Ereon.”
“Hopefully that’s all it is,” Robin said, folding a hand over Lark’s. “We’re still out of a day’s wages, though.”
“Actually, not really,” Lola said cheerfully. She gestured to Faen, who still had the gryphon carcass strapped to his back. “Your Wren landed a fine bull gryphon today – he’ll fetch a pretty coin, I’m sure of it. It should make up for your day’s wages, if not more.”
Lark’s eyes lit up. “How did you fell it?”
“Arrow between the belly’s scales,” Wren said. “You could have done it, I reckon.”
Lark beamed. She’d taken a keen interest in hunting as she’d grown older, though Wren’s parents insisted they could only handle one daughter putting herself in mortal peril every day, so she still worked at the pearl farm. She took every chance to pester Wren to teach her archery, though, and she proved a talented and fearsomely accurate archer.
Wren hoped she’d be able to take Lark with her when she ultimately began the hunt for the phoenix. Her and Lola alone could just barely hope to take one down, but with Lark, she felt they stood a formidable chance.
The family waited anxiously until word reached the house that the horde had passed – flying over the Ereon’s palaces, and then leaving the city without causing any harm, as Martin promised.
Lola, Faen and Wren sold off their gryphon for more coin than Wren had ever seen, making up for the day’s lost wages several times over.
Delighted by the amount they’d earned and her pride in having felled a male gryphon, Wren forgot all about Martin, and even the Lilim horde.
Until word reached the house again, neighbours calling over fences to share the news.
Something had been stolen from the Ereon.
The Queen’s palace had been robbed of something described as unimaginably valuable, and the reward for retrieving it made Wren almost forget about hunting phoenixes. The object was not named, just described as a possession of the Queen’s.
It was then that she remembered Martin; his lack of armour, strange presence in the horde as a non-military noble among soldiers.
She still didn’t understand why he’d protected her. But she understood why he’d been there now.
Martin was a thief.