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Season 3

Episode 31

“Eat it,” Manon said, holding out the raw leg of mutton to Abraxos. The day was bright, but the wind off the snowy peaks of the Fangs still carried a brutal chill. They’d been going outside the mountain for little spurts to stretch his legs, using the back door that opened onto a narrow road leading into the mountains. She’d guided him by the giant chain—­as if it would do anything to stop him from taking off—­up a sharp incline, and then onto the meadow atop a plateau.

“Eat it,” she said, shaking the freezing meat at Abraxos, who was now lying on his belly in the meadow, huffing at the first grasses and flowers to poke through the melting ice. “It’s your reward,” she said through her teeth. “You earned it.”

Abraxos sniffed at a cluster of purple flowers, then flicked his eyes to her. No meat, he seemed to say.

“It’s good for you,” she said, and he went right back to sniffing the violets or what­ever they ­were. If a plant ­wasn’t good for poisoning or healing or keeping her alive if she ­were starving, she’d never bothered to learn its name—­especially not wildflowers.

She tossed the leg right in front of his massive mouth and tucked her hands into the folds of her red cloak. He snuffed at it, his new iron teeth glinting in the radiant light, then stretched out one massive, claw-­tipped wing and—

Shoved it aside.

Manon rubbed her eyes. “Is it not fresh enough?”

He moved to sniff some white-­and-­yellow flowers.

A nightmare. This was a nightmare. “You ­can’t really like flowers.”

Again those dark eyes shifted to her. Blinked once. I most certainly do, he seemed to say.

She splayed her arms. “You never even smelled a flower until yesterday. What’s wrong with the meat now?” He needed to eat tons and tons of meat to put on the muscle he was lacking.

When he went back to sniffing the flowers rather delicately—­the insufferable, useless worm—­she stalked to the leg of mutton and hauled it up. “If you won’t eat it,” she snarled at him, hoisting it up with both hands to her mouth and popping her iron teeth down, “then I will.”

Abraxos watched her with those bemused dark eyes as she bit into the icy, raw meat. And spat it everywhere.

“What in the Mother’s dark shadow—” She sniffed at the meat. It ­wasn’t rancid, but like the men ­here, it tasted off. The sheep ­were raised inside the mountain, so maybe it was something in the water. As soon as she got back, she’d give the Thirteen the order not to touch the men—­not until she knew what in hell was making them taste and smell that way.

Regardless, Abraxos had to eat, because he had to get strong—­so she could be Wing Leader, so she could see the look on Iskra’s face when she ripped her apart at the War Games. And if this was the only way to get the worm to eat . . .

“Fine,” she said, chucking the leg away. “You want fresh meat?” She scanned the mountains towering around them, eyeing the gray stones. “Then ­we’re going to have to hunt.”

“You smell like shit and blood.” Her grandmother didn’t turn from her desk, and Manon didn’t flinch at the insult. She was covered in both, actually.

It was thanks to Abraxos, the flower-­loving worm, who had just watched while she scaled one of the nearby cliffs and brought down a braying mountain goat for him. “Brought down” was a more elegant phrase than what had actually happened: she half froze to death as she waited for some goats to pass on their treacherous climb, and then, when she’d finally ambushed one, she’d not only rolled in its dung as she’d grappled with it but it had also dumped a fresh load on her, right before it went tumbling out of her arms and broke its skull on the rocks below.

It had nearly taken her with it, but she’d managed to grab on to a dead root. Abraxos was still lying on his belly, sniffing the wildflowers, when she returned with the dead goat in her arms, its blood now iced on her cloak and tunic.

He’d devoured the goat in two bites, then gone back to enjoying the wildflowers. At least he’d eaten. Getting him back to the Northern Fang, however, was a trial in itself. He hadn’t hurt her, hadn’t fled, but he’d pulled on the chains, shaking his head again and again as they neared the cavernous back door where the sounds of the wyverns and men reached them. But he’d gone in—­though he’d snapped and growled at the handlers who rushed out to retrieve him. For some reason, she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about his reluctance—­the way he’d looked at her with a mute plea. She didn’t pity him, because she pitied nothing, but she ­couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“You summoned me,” said Manon, head high. “I did not want to keep you waiting.”

“You are keeping me waiting, Manon.” The witch turned, eyes full of death and promises of endless pain. “It has been weeks now, and you are not airborne with your Thirteen. The Yellowlegs have been flying as a host for three days. Three days, Manon. And you’re coddling your beast.”

Manon didn’t show one flicker of feeling. Apologizing would make it worse, as would excuses. “Give me orders, and they will be done.”

“I want you airborne by tomorrow eve­ning. Don’t bother coming back if you aren’t.”

“I hate you,” Manon panted through her iron teeth as she and Abraxos finished their grueling trek to the top of the mountain peak. It had taken half a day to get ­here—­and if this didn’t work, it would take until eve­ning to get back to the Omega. To pack her belongings.

Abraxos was curled up like a cat on the narrow stretch of flat rock atop the mountain. “Willful, lazy worm.” He didn’t even blink at her.

Take the eastern side, the overseer had said as he’d helped her saddle up and set out from the back door of the Northern Fang before dawn. They used this peak to train the hatchling wyverns—­and reluctant fliers. The eastern side, Manon saw as she peered over the lip she’d just climbed, was a smooth incline after a twenty-­foot drop. Abraxos could take a running start off the edge, try to glide, and if he fell . . . Well, it would only be twenty feet and then wind-­smooth rock to slide down for a ways. Slim possibility for death.

No, death lay on the western side. Frowning at Abraxos, who was licking his new iron claws, Manon crossed the plateau and, despite herself, winced at the blistering wind that shot up.

To the west was an endless plunge through nothing until the spiked, unforgiving rocks below. It would take a crew of men to scrape off her remains. Eastern side it was.

She checked her tight braid and flicked her clear inner lid into place. “Let’s go.”

Abraxos lifted his massive head as if to say, We just got ­here.

She pointed to the eastern edge. “Flying. Now.”

He huffed, curling his back to her, the leather saddle gleaming. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she snapped, stalking around to get in his face. She pointed to the edge again. “We’re flying, you rutting coward.”

He tucked his head toward his belly, his tail wrapping around him. He was pretending he ­couldn’t hear her.

She knew it might cost her life, but she gripped his nostrils—­hard enough to make his eyes fly open. “Your wings are functional. The humans said they ­were. So you can fly, and you are going to fly, because I say so. I’ve been fetching your useless carcass mountain goats by the herd, and if you humiliate me, I’ll use your hide for a new leather coat.” She rustled her torn and stained crimson cloak. “This is ruined, thanks to your goats.”

He shifted his head away, and she let go—­because it was either let go or be tossed into the air. He set down his head and closed his eyes.

This was punishment, somehow. For what, she didn’t know. Perhaps her own stupidity in picking a bait beast for a mount.

She hissed to herself, eyeing the saddle on his back. Even with a running jump she ­couldn’t make it. But she needed to be in that saddle and airborne, or ­else . . . Or ­else the Thirteen would be broken apart by her grandmother.

Abraxos continued to lie in the sun, vain and indulgent as a cat. “Warrior heart indeed.”

She eyed the eastern edge, the saddle, the dangling reins. He’d bucked and thrashed the first time they’d shoved the bit into his mouth, but he’d gotten used to it now—­at least, enough so that he’d tried to take off the head of only one handler today.

The sun was still rising high, but soon it would start its descent, and then she’d be completely and perfectly ruined. Like hell she would be.

“You had this coming” was all the warning she gave him before she took a running leap, landing on his haunch and then scrambling, so fast he had barely lifted his head by the time she scuttled across his scaly back and into the saddle.

He jerked upright, stiff as a board as she shoved her booted feet into the stirrups and gripped the reins. “We’re flying—now.” She dug her heels into his sides.

Perhaps the spurs hurt or surprised him, because Abraxos bucked—­bucked and roared. She yanked on the reins as hard as she could. “Enough,” she barked, hauling with one arm to guide him over the eastern edge. “Enough, Abraxos.”

He was still thrashing, and she clenched her thighs as hard as she could to stay in the saddle, leaning into each movement. When the bucking didn’t dislodge her, he lifted his wings, as if he would fling her off. “Don’t you dare,” she growled, but he was still twisting and bellowing.

“Stop it.” Her brain rattled in her skull and her teeth clacked together so hard she had to retract her fangs so they didn’t punch right through her skin.

But Abraxos kept bucking, wild and frantic. Not toward the eastern edge, but away—­toward the lip of the western plunge.

“Abraxos, stop.” He was going to go right over. And then they’d splatter on the stones.

He was so panicked, so enraged that her voice was no more than a crackling leaf on the wind. The western drop loomed to her right, then her left, flashing beneath the leathery, mottled wings as they flapped and snapped. Under Abraxos’s massive talons, stones hissed and crumbled as he neared the edge.

“Abraxos—” But then his leg slid off the cliff, and Manon’s world tilted down—­down, down, as he lost his grip and they plummeted into open air.

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