It was two weeks of training for Manon and her Thirteen. Two weeks of waking up before the sun to fly each canyon run, to master it as one unit. Two weeks of scratches and sprained limbs, of near deaths from falls or the wyverns squabbling or just stupid miscalculation.
But slowly, they developed instincts—not just as a fighting unit, but as individual riders and mounts. Manon didn’t like the thought of the mounts eating the foul-tasting meat raised within the mountain, so twice a day they hunted the mountain goats, swooping to pluck them off the mountainsides. It wasn’t long before the witches started eating the goats themselves, building hasty fires in the mountain passes to cook their breakfast and evening meals. Manon didn’t want any of them—mounts or riders—taking another bite of the food given to them by the king’s men, or tasting the men themselves. If it smelled and tasted strange, odds were something was wrong with it.
She didn’t know if it was the fresh meat or the extra lessons, but the Thirteen were starting to outpace every coven. To the point where Manon ordered the Thirteen to hold back whenever the Yellowlegs gathered to watch their lessons.
Abraxos was still a problem. She hadn’t dared take the Crossing with him, as his wings, while slightly stronger, weren’t better by much—at least not enough to brave the sheer plunge through the narrow pass. Manon had been chewing it over every night when the Thirteen gathered in her room to compare notes about flying, their iron nails glinting as they used their hands to demonstrate the ways they’d taught their wyverns to bank, to take off, to do some fancy maneuver.
For all the excitement, they were exhausted. Even the lofty-headed Bluebloods had their tempers on tight leashes, and Manon had been called in a dozen times now to break apart brawls.
Manon used her downtime to see Abraxos—to check on his iron claws and teeth, to take him out for extra rides when everyone else had passed out in their cots. He needed as much training as he could get, and she liked the quiet and stillness of the night, with the silvered mountain peaks and the river of stars above, even if it made waking up the next day difficult.
So after braving the wrath of her grandmother, Manon won two days off for the Blackbeaks, convincing her that if they didn’t rest, there would be outright war in the middle of the mess hall and the king wouldn’t have an aerial cavalry left to ride his wyverns into battle.
They got two days to sleep and eat and see to whatever needs only the men across the mountain could provide. That was something a good number of the Thirteen were doing, as she’d seen Vesta, Lin, Asterin, and the demon twins stalking across the bridge.
No sleeping for Manon today or tomorrow. No eating. Or bedding men.
No, she was taking Abraxos out into the Ruhnns.
He was already saddled, and Manon ensured Wind-Cleaver was tightly strapped to her back as she mounted him. The saddlebags were an unexpected weight behind her, and she made a note to start training the Thirteen and the rest of the covens with them. If they were to be an army, then they’d carry their supplies, as most soldiers did. And training with weights would make them faster when it came time to fly without them.
“You sure I can’t convince you not to go?” the overseer said as she paused at the back gates. “You know the stories as well as I do—this won’t come without a cost.”
“His wings are weak, and so far everything else we’ve tried to reinforce them has failed,” she said. “It might be the only material that could patch up his wings and withstand the winds. As I don’t see any markets nearby, I suppose I’ll have to go directly to the source.”
The overseer frowned at the gray sky beyond. “Bad day for flying—storm’s coming.”
“It’s the only day I have.” Even as she said it, she wished that she could take the Thirteen into the skies when the storm hit—to train them in that, too.
“Be careful, and think through any bargain they offer you.”
“If I wanted your advice, I’d ask for it, mortal,” she said, but he was right.
Still, Manon led Abraxos out through the gates and to their usual takeoff spot. They had a long way to fly today and tomorrow—all the way to the edge of the Ruhnn Mountains.
To find spidersilk. And the legendary Stygian spiders, large as horses and deadlier than poison, who wove it.
The storm hit right as Manon and Abraxos circled the westernmost outcropping of the Ruhnns. Through the icy rain lashing her face and soaking right through her layers of clothes, she could see that the mist hung low over the mountains, veiling much of the ash-gray, jagged labyrinth below.
With the rising winds and lightning thrashing around them, Manon grounded Abraxos on the only open bit of land she could spot. She’d wait until the storm had passed, and then they would take to the skies and scan the area until they found the spiders. Or at least clues about their whereabouts—mostly in the form of bones, she expected.
But the storm continued, and though she and Abraxos pressed themselves into the side of a little cliff, it did nothing to shield them. She would have preferred snow over this freezing rain, which came with so much wind that she couldn’t light a fire.
Night fell swiftly thanks to the storm, and Manon had to put her iron teeth away to keep them from chattering right through her lip. Her hood was useless, soaked and dripping in her eyes, and even Abraxos had curled into as tight a ball as he could against the storm.
Stupid, horrible idea. She pulled a goat leg from a saddle bag and tossed it to Abraxos, who uncurled himself long enough to chomp it down, and then went right back to shielding himself against the storm. She cursed herself for a fool as she choked down her own meal of soggy bread and a freezing apple, then gnawed on a bit of cheese.
It was worth it. To secure victory for the Thirteen, to be Wing Leader, one night in a storm was nothing. She’d been through worse, trapped in snowy mountain passes with fewer layers of clothes, no way out, and no food. She’d survived storms some witches didn’t awaken from the next morning. But she still would have preferred snow.
Manon studied the labyrinth of rock around them. She could feel eyes out there—observing. Yet nothing came closer, nothing dared. So after a while, she curled on her side, just like Abraxos, her head and chest angled toward the cliff face, and tucked her arms across herself, holding tight.
Mercifully, it stopped raining in the night, or at least the angle of the wind shifted to stop pounding on them. She slept better after that, but she still shook from cold—though it felt slightly warmer. Those small hints of warmth and dryness were probably what kept her from shaking to death or getting ill, she realized as she dozed off, awakening at the gray light of dawn.
When she opened her eyes, she was in shadow—shadow, but dry and warm, thanks to the massive wing shielding her from the elements and the heat of Abraxos’s breath filling the space like a little furnace. He was still snoozing—a deep, heavy sleep.
She had to brush ice crystals off his outstretched wing before he came awake.
The storm had cleared and the skies were an untamed blue—clear enough that they only needed to circle the western outcropping of the Ruhnns once before Manon spotted what she’d been looking for. Not just bones, but trees shrouded in dusty gray webs like mourning widows.
It wasn’t spidersilk, she saw as Abraxos swooped low, gliding over the trees. These were only ordinary webs.
If you could call an entire mountain wood shrouded in webs ordinary. Abraxos growled every so often at something below—shadows or whispers she couldn’t see. But she did notice the crawling on the branches, spiders of every shape and size, as if they had all been summoned here to live under the protection of their massive brethren.
It took them half the morning to find the ashen mountain caves hovering above the veiled wood, where bare bones littered the ground. She circled a few times, then set Abraxos down on an outcropping of stone at one of the cave mouths, the cliff face behind them a sheer plunge to a dried-out ravine below.
Abraxos paced like a mountain cat, tail lashing this way and that as he watched the cave.
She pointed to the edge of the cliff. “Enough. Sit down and stop moving. You know why we’re here. So don’t ruin it.”
He huffed but plopped down, shooting grayish dust into the air. He draped his long tail along the length of the cliff ’s edge, a physical barrier between Manon and the plunge. Manon stared him down for a moment before an otherworldly, feminine laugh flittered from the cave mouth. “Now that beast is one we have not seen for an age.”
Manon kept her face blank. The light was bright enough to reveal several ancient, merciless eyes looming within the cave mouth—and three massive shadows lurking behind. The voice said, closer now, pincers clicking like an accompanying drum, “And it has been an age since we dealt with the Ironteeth.”
Manon didn’t dare touch Wind-Cleaver as she said, “The world is changing, sister.”
“Sister,” the spider mused. “I suppose we are sisters, you and I. Two faces of the same dark coin, from the same dark maker. Sisters in spirit, if not in flesh.”
Then she emerged into the murky light, the mist sweeping past her like a pilgrimage of phantom souls. She was black and gray, and the sheer mass of her was enough to make Manon’s mouth go dry. Despite the size, she was elegantly built, her legs long and smooth, her body streamlined and gleaming. Glorious.
Abraxos let out a soft growl, but Manon held out a hand to silence him.
“I see now,” Manon said softly, “why my Blueblood sisters still worship you.”
“Do they, now?” The spider remained motionless, but the three behind her crept closer, silent and observing with their many dark eyes. “We can hardly recall the last time the Blueblood priestesses brought their sacrifices to our foothills. We do miss them.”
Manon smiled tightly. “I can think of a few I’d like to send your way.”
A soft, wicked laugh. “A Blackbeak, no doubt.” Those eight massive eyes took her in, swallowed her whole. “Your hair reminds me of our silk.”
“I suppose I should be flattered.”
“Tell me your name, Blackbeak.”
“My name does not matter,” Manon said. “I’ve come to bargain.”
“What would a Blackbeak witch want with our precious silk?”
She turned to reveal the vigilant Abraxos, his focus pinned on the massive spider, tense from the tip of his nose to his iron-spiked tail. “His wings need reinforcement. I heard the legends and wondered if your silk might help.”
“We have bartered our silk to merchants and thieves and kings, to be spun into dresses and veils and sails. But never for wings.”
“I’ll need ten yards of it—woven bolts, if you have them.”
The spider seemed to still further. “Men have sacrificed their lives for a yard.”
“Name your price.”
“Ten yards . . .” She turned to the three waiting behind her—offspring or minions or guards, Manon didn’t know. “Bring out the bolt. I shall inspect it before I name my price.”
Good. This was going well. Silence fell as the three scuttled into the cave, and Manon tried not to kick any of the tiny spiders crawling across her boots. Or look for the eyes she felt watching from the nearby caves across the ravine.
“Tell me, Blackbeak,” the spider said, “how did you come across your mount?”
“He was a gift from the King of Adarlan. We are to be a part of his host, and when we are done serving him, we will take them home—to the Wastes. To reclaim our kingdom.”
“Ah. And is the curse broken?”
“Not yet. But when we find the Crochan who can undo it . . .” She would enjoy that bloodletting.
“Such a delightfully nasty curse. You won the land, only for the cunning Crochans to curse it beyond use. Have you seen the Wastes these days?”
“No,” Manon said. “I have not yet been to our home.”
“A merchant came by a few years ago—he told me there was a mortal High King who had set himself up there. But I heard a whisper on the wind recently that said he’d been deposed by a young woman with wine-red hair who now calls herself their High Queen.”
Manon bristled. High Queen of the Wastes indeed. She would be the first Manon would kill when she returned to reclaim the land, when she finally saw it with her own eyes, breathed in its smells and beheld its untamable beauty.
“A strange place, the Wastes,” the spider continued. “The merchant himself was from there—a former shape-shifter. Lost his gifts, just like all of you truly mortal things. He was stuck in a man’s body, thankfully, but he did not realize that when he sold me twenty years of his life, some of his gifts passed to me. I can’t use them, of course, but I wonder . . . I do wonder what it would be like. To see the world through your pretty eyes. To touch a human man.”
The hair on Manon’s neck rose. “Here we are,” the spider said as the three approached, a bolt of silk flowing between them like a river of light and color. Manon’s breath caught. “Isn’t it magnificent? Some of the finest weaving I’ve ever done.”
“Glorious,” Manon admitted. “Your price?”
The spider stared at her for a long time. “What price could I ask of a long-lived witch? Twenty years off your lifespan is nothing to you, even with magic aging you like an ordinary woman. And your dreams . . . what dark, horrible dreams they must be, Blackbeak. I do not think I should like to eat them—not those dreams.” The spider came closer. “But what of your face? What if I took your beauty?”
“I do not think I’d walk away if you took my face.”
The spider laughed. “Oh, I don’t mean your literal face. But the color of your skin, the hue of your burnt gold eyes. The way your hair catches the light, like moonlight on snow. Those things I could take. That beauty could win you a king. Perhaps if magic returns, I’ll use it for my woman’s body. Perhaps I’ll win a king of my very own.”
Manon didn’t particularly care about her beauty, weapon though it was. But she wasn’t about to say that, or to offer it without bargaining. “I’d like to inspect the silk first.”
“Cut a swatch,” the spider ordered the three, who gently set down the yards of silk while one sliced off a perfect square. Men had killed for smaller amounts—and here they were, cutting it as if it were ordinary wool. Manon tried not to think about the size of the pincer that extended it to her. She stalked to the cliff edge, stepping over Abraxos’s tail as she held the silk to the light.
Darkness embrace her, it sparkled. She tugged it. Flexible, but strong as steel. Impossibly light. But—
“There’s an imperfection here . . . Can I expect the rest of it to be similarly marred?” The spider hissed and the ground thudded as she neared. Abraxos stopped her with a warning growl that set the other three coming up behind her—guards, then. But Manon held up the swatch to the light. “Look,” Manon said, pointing to a vein of color running through it.
“That’s no imperfection,” the spider snapped. Abraxos’s tail curled around Manon, a shield between her and the spiders, bringing her closer to the wall of his body.
Manon held it higher, angling it toward the sun. “Look in the better light. You think I’m going to give away my beauty for second-rate weaving?”
“Second rate!” the spider seethed. Abraxos’s tail curled tighter.
“No—it appears I’m mistaken.” Manon lowered her arms, smiling. “It seems I’m not in the bargaining mood today.”
The spiders, now standing along the cliff ’s edge, didn’t even have time to move as Abraxos’s tail unwound like a whip and slammed into them.
They went flying into the ravine, shrieking. Manon didn’t waste a second as she stuffed the remaining yards of silk into the empty saddlebags. She mounted Abraxos and they leapt into the air, the cliff the perfect takeoff spot, just as she’d planned.
The perfect trap for those foolish, ancient monsters.