(The War Games came.)
All the Ironteeth Clans were granted time to rest the day before, but none took it, instead squeezing in last-minute drills or going over plans and strategies.
Officials and councilors from Adarlan had been arriving for days, come to monitor the Games from the top of the Northern Fang. They would report back to the King of Adarlan about what the witches and their mounts were like—and who the victor was.
Weeks ago, after Abraxos had made the Crossing, Manon had returned to the Omega to grins and applause. Her grandmother was nowhere to be seen, but that was expected. Manon had not accomplished anything; she had merely done what was expected of her.
She saw and heard nothing of the Crochan prisoner in the belly of the Omega, and no one else seemed to know anything about her. She was half tempted to ask her grandmother, but the Matron didn’t summon her, and Manon wasn’t in the mood to be beaten again.
These days her own temper was fraying as the Clans closed in tight, kept to their own halls, and hardly spoke to each other. Whatever unity they’d shown on the night of Abraxos’s crossing was long gone by the time the War Games arrived, replaced by centuries’ worth of competition and blood feuding.
The Games were to take place in, around, and between the two peaks, including the nearest canyon, visible from the Northern Fang. Each of the three Clans would have its own nest atop a nearby mountain peak—a literal nest of twigs and branches. In the center of each lay a glass egg.
The eggs were to be their source of victory and downfall. Each Clan was to capture the eggs of the two enemy teams, but also leave behind a host to protect their own egg. The winning Clan would be the one who gained possession of the two other eggs by stealing them from the nests, where they could not be touched by their guardians, or from whatever enemy forces carried them. If an egg shattered, it meant automatic disqualification for whoever carried it.
Manon donned her light armor and flying leathers. She wore metal on her shoulders, wrists, and thighs—any place that could be hit by an arrow or sliced at by wyverns or enemy blades. She was used to the weight and limited movement, and so was Abraxos, thanks to the training she’d forced the Blackbeaks to endure these past few weeks.
Though they were under strict orders not to maim or kill, they were allowed to carry two weapons each, so Manon took Wind-Cleaver and her best dagger. The Shadows, Asterin, Lin, and the demon-twins would wield the bows. They were capable of making kill shots from their wyverns now—had taken run after run at targets in the canyons and made bulls-eyes each time. Asterin had swaggered into the mess hall that morning, well aware that she was lethal as all hell.
Each Clan wore braided strips of dyed leather across their brows—black, blue, yellow—their wyverns painted with similar streaks on their tails, necks, and sides. When all the covens were airborne, they gathered in the skies, presenting the entirety of the host to the little mortal men in the mountains below. The Thirteen rode at the head of the Blackbeak covens, keeping perfect rank.
“Fools, for not knowing what they’ve unleashed,” Asterin murmured, the words carried to Manon on the wind. “Stupid, mortal fools.”
Manon hissed her agreement.
They flew in formation: Manon at the head, Asterin and Vesta flanking behind, then three rows of three: Imogen framed by the green-eyed demons, Ghislaine flanked by Kaya and Thea, the two Shadows and Lin, then Sorrel solo in the back. A battering ram, balanced and flawless, capable of punching through enemy lines.
If Manon didn’t bring them down, then the vicious swords of Asterin and Vesta got them. If that didn’t stop them, the six in the middle were a guaranteed death trap. Most wouldn’t even make it to the Shadows and Lin, who would be fixing their keen eyes on their surroundings. Or to Sorrel, guarding their rear.
They would take out the enemy forces one by one, with hands and feet and elbows where weapons would ordinarily do the job. The objective was to retrieve the eggs, not kill the others, she reminded herself and the Thirteen again. And again.
The Games began with the ringing of a mighty bell somewhere in the Omega. The skies erupted with wings and claws and shrieks a heartbeat later.
They went after the Blueblood egg first, because Manon knew the Yellowlegs would go for the Blackbeak nest, which they did immediately. Manon signaled to her witches and one third of her force doubled back, falling behind home lines, putting up a solid wall of teeth and wings for the Yellowlegs to break against.
The Bluebloods, who had probably done the least planning in favor of all their various rituals and prayers, sent their forces to the Blackbeaks as well, to see if extra wings could break that iron-clad wall. Another mistake.
Within ten minutes, Manon and the Thirteen surrounded the Blueblood nest—and the home guard yielded their treasure.
There were whoops and hoots—not from the Thirteen, who were stone-faced, eyes glittering, but from the other Blackbeaks, the back third of whom peeled off, circled around, and joined Manon and her returning force to smash the Bluebloods and Yellowlegs between them.
The witches and their wyverns dove high and low, but this was as much for show as it was to win, and Manon did not yield them one inch as they pushed from the front and behind, an aerial vise that had wyverns nearly bucking off their riders in panic.
This—this was what she had been built for. Even battles she’d waged on a broom hadn’t been this fast, brilliant, and deadly. And once they faced their enemies, once they added in an arsenal of weapons . . . Manon was grinning as she placed the Blueblood egg in the Blackbeak nest on the flat mountaintop.
Moments later, Manon and Abraxos were gliding over the fray, the Thirteen coming up from behind to regroup. Asterin, the only one who’d kept close the entire time, was grinning like mad—and as her cousin and her wyvern swept past the Northern Fang and its gathered observers, the golden-haired witch sprang up from her saddle and took a running leap right off the wing.
The Yellowlegs witch on the wyvern below didn’t see Asterin until she’d landed on her, a hand on her throat where a dagger would have been. Even Manon gasped in delight as the Yellowlegs witch lifted her hands in surrender.
Asterin let go, lifting her arms to be gathered up into the claws of her own wyvern. After a toss and a harrowing fall, Asterin returned to her own saddle, swooping until she was again beside Manon and Abraxos. He swung toward Asterin’s blue wyvern, swiping with his wing—a playful, almost flirtatious gesture that made the female mount shriek in delight.
Manon raised her brows at her Second. “You’ve been practicing, it seems,” she called.
Asterin grinned. “I didn’t claw my way to Second by sitting on my ass.”
Then Asterin was swooping low again, but still within formation, a wing-beat away. Abraxos roared, and the Thirteen fell into formation around Manon, four covens flanking them behind. They just had to capture the Yellowlegs egg and bring it back to the Blackbeak nest, and it would be done.
They dodged and soared over fighting covens, and when they reached the Yellowlegs line, the Thirteen pulled up—and back, sending the other four covens behind them shooting in like an arrow, punching a line through the barrier that the Thirteen then swept through.
Closest to the Northern Fang, the Yellowlegs nest was circled by not three but four covens, a good chunk of the host to keep behind the lines. They rose up from the nest—not individual units, but as one—and Manon smiled to herself.
They raced for them, and the Yellowlegs held, held . . .
Manon whistled. She and Sorrel went up and down respectively, and her coven split in three, exactly as they’d practiced. Like the limbs of one creature, they struck the Yellowlegs lines—lines where every coven had mixed, now next to strangers and wyverns with whom they had never ridden closely before. The confusion got worse as the Thirteen scattered them and pushed them about. Orders were shouted, names were screamed, but the chaos was complete.
They were closing in on the nest when four Blueblood covens swept in out of nowhere, led by Petrah herself on her mount, Keelie. She was nearly free-falling for the nest, which had been left wide open while the Blackbeaks and the Yellowlegs fought. She’d been waiting for this, like a fox in its hole.
She swept in, and Manon dove after her, swearing viciously. A flash of yellow and a shriek of fury, and Manon and Abraxos were back-flapping, veering away as Iskra flashed past the nest—and slammed right into Petrah.
The two heirs and their wyverns locked talons and went sprawling, crashing through the air, clawing and biting. Shouts rose from the mountain and from the airborne witches.
Manon panted, righting her spinning head as Abraxos leveled out above the nest, swooping back in to seal their victory. She was about to nudge him to dive when Petrah screamed. Not in fury, but pain.
Agonizing, soul-shredding pain, the likes of which Manon had never heard, as Iskra’s wyvern clamped its jaws on Keelie’s neck.
Iskra let out a howl of triumph, and her bull shook Keelie—Petrah clinging to the saddle.
Now. Now was the time to grab the egg. She nudged Abraxos. “Go,” she hissed, leaning in, bracing for the dive.
Abraxos did not move, but hovered, watching Keelie fight to no avail, wings barely flapping as Petrah screamed again. Begging—begging Iskra to stop.
“Now, Abraxos!” She kicked him with her spurs. He again refused to dive.
Then Iskra barked a command to her wyvern . . . and the beast let go of Keelie.
There was a second scream then, from the mountain. From the Blueblood Matron, screaming for her daughter as she plummeted down to the rocks below. The other Bluebloods whirled, but they were too far away, their wyverns too slow to stop that fatal plunge.
But Abraxos was not.
And Manon didn’t know if she gave the command or thought it, but that scream, that mother’s scream she’d never heard before, made her lean in. Abraxos dove, a shooting star with his glistening wings.
They dove and dove, for the broken wyvern and the still-living witch upon it.
Keelie was still breathing, Manon realized as they neared, the wind tearing at her face and clothes. Keelie was still breathing, and fighting like hell to keep steady. Not to survive. Keelie knew she would be dead any moment. She was fighting for the witch on her back.
Petrah had passed out, twisted in her saddle, from the plunge or the loss of air. She dangled precariously, even as Keelie fought with her last heartbeats to keep the fall smooth and slow. The wyvern’s wings buckled and she yelped in pain.
Abraxos hurtled in, wings spread as he made one pass and then a second, the canyon appearing too fast below. By the time he finished the second glide, almost close enough to touch that bloodstained leathery hide, Manon understood.
He couldn’t stop Keelie—she was too heavy and he too small. Yet they could save Petrah. He’d seen Asterin make that jump, too. She had to get the unconscious witch out of the saddle.
Abraxos roared at Keelie, and Manon could have sworn that he was speaking some alien language, bellowing some command, as Keelie made one final stand for her rider and leveled out flat. A landing platform.
My Keelie, Petrah had said. Had smiled as she said it.
Manon told herself it was for an alliance. Told herself it was for show.
But all she could see was the unconditional love in that dying wyvern’s eyes as she unbuckled her harness, stood from the saddle, and leapt off Abraxos.