“You don’t get seasick, do you?”
His attention remained on the leather harness rather than on me, yet I heard a rather interesting lilt in his tone, as if he were remembering some past bloke who couldn’t hold his breakfast.
“It’s a similar feeling, a rocking, swaying with the muscles of her neck bunching between your legs. A different sort of barren landscape underneath.”
I swallowed against an instinctual bile rising to the back of my throat and neglected to answer for I’d never stood foot aboard anything large enough to sail the seas. “Have you ever been on an ocean?”
My curiosity was merely an attempt to distract myself from the wyvern clawing at the ground and sniffing at the dusty air, her focus pulled toward the erg filling the world to the east. Ruins of a distant time jutted from beneath the sandy layers nearby. Crenellations lingering long after the city had been claimed by the encroaching dunes.
The man snorted and patted his vest before tugging free a pair of hide-covered binoculars. “No, but wind-surfing the dunes sparks a similar feeling I’ve been told when you’re on the down side, a dropping in your gut, and I’d dune-surfed a few times in my youth.”
“Who told you they were similar?” I asked.
I had my doubts, as I’d dune-surfed as well and didn’t think it could possibly be comparable to being wyvernback. Not at all. On the sand, I had control of that board. Up there? I’d be at the beast’s mercy. And there was a whole lot farther to fall if I lost my balance.
“And old flame,” he muttered in answer as he scanned the horizon, then he passed the binoculars to me. “We go south, over the sinkholes, stop at the Ribcage for her to rest and then head on to Hollow Heights near dusk.”
“Longer still if we don’t get going.” He patted his girl’s neck, gloved fingers scratching at beige-scaled hide. The man himself, face leathery, short beard unkempt, clothes worn, yet clean, seemed content to merely stand there though. He’d been paid half already. I reasoned, if I backed out now, it’d been an easy payday for him even without earning the other half.
And backing out seemed more and more attractive the longer I stood there hesitating. Couldn’t seem to move myself closer to that wyvern, my heart beating a rapid rhythm and my mind tricking me into thinking I was in danger. Sweat broke out on my neck. My legs screamed for me to run.
“Her name is Preen. Likes compliments and jewelry. To a girl’s heart.”
When I didn’t move, his eyebrow quirked and a resigned smile that held a hint of irritated empathy flickered across his face. “She’s a nableclaw. Small, swift and friendly to boot. You’ll be in safe hands.”
My chest squeezed, the air so dry I felt as if could feel my lips cracking. “Give me a moment.”
The words came out sharper than I’d intended, but I didn’t correct myself as I spun abruptly and strode away, needing to be out of reach of the wyvern, my fear an animal in its own right, clawing up my spine, ripping through my skin, pouring from my pores like burning magma.
Along the edge of the rocky mound, I paused and leaned, staring longingly to the northwest where the plateau around Springhaven stretched. The small city—home—couldn’t be seen, not from this height, not from this distance, but I knew it to be there, hidden beneath the plateau.
The man’s boots scuffed the rock behind me. “You’re not a dune crawler or a wyvernback. What’s in the Wastes for you to do this?”
What indeed. More like a who. A man I wasn’t even sure would be happy to see me.
I knew I could convince myself of the uselessness of this trip easily enough. I also knew I’d forever ask myself what if…
What if I hadn’t let this fear stop me from going to him? Hadn’t let it be the end of us.
“You want to call it off? Preen and I can find other work for the day.”
“No.” I turned. “No, I’m ready.” Whether I was or not.
I strode right up to that wyvern, her back rippling when she heard me approach. I paused when her head swung around, those wide, blue eyes staring at me straight on in a predator’s gaze.
“That’s it!” The man’s encouragement helped, surprisingly. “It’ll be over before you know it. And you’ll be the better for it.”
He launched himself into the harness with all the spryness of a man twenty years younger and then reached down a hand to help me up behind him.
The wyvern’s hide ran hot and rough. Tiny nodules dug into my skin as I shifted my weight to swing my leg over. My boot slipped as I settled, scrubbing across the beast’s flank, which prompted her to snort and flex, rocking her backward enough the harness tilted.
I grabbed the man in a death grip, holding my body so stiffly that it physically hurt when Preen regained her original position. The rider seemed to have no such adverse effects, for he kept his seat with ease, his back rippling as if he’d stolen wyvern attributes during his extended time with her.
“All right.” He unclasped my clammy hands and placed a leather strip in one. “Here’s the main strap. Tie it about your back and pass it through the metal hoop. I’ll loop it through up here too. Don’t want you falling off at a thousand meters now.” Then he chuckled.
I did not return the mirth, but I did as he asked with numb fingers and a shaky breath. He double-checked the job I’d done and hummed to himself, all calm and collected, moving with an assurance that only came from repetition and experience. Then he settled himself with a satisfied noise and reached over the harness to scratch Preen’s neck.
The straps didn’t feel tight enough. Despite the fact that they crossed over each of my thighs individually and kept me trapped close enough against the man’s back I could practically taste the layers of dried sweat rising off his jacket. I felt loose. Like the straps hadn’t been cinched down properly. Like the thick cuts of leather could not impress against my skin deep enough.
Panic swarmed my thoughts and made it difficult to breathe. Was it the feeling of the wyvern’s muscles suddenly tensing beneath my thighs? Or the sweat-strong leather in my nose? Maybe it was simply the way the sky opened up, a road of blue I’d never wanted to traverse.
I’d told him so, before he’d left. My words leaving an echo in my ears that now roared.
I scrambled for the buckle stretched taut near my left thigh. “No, I’m not do—”
The wyvern launched herself off the rock, the man hunching forward over her neck, dragging my upper torso with him as the back strap kept us tightly together. We dipped, all my weight pressing against the man as my stomach gave way and our earlier words about seasickness slammed against my skull like a warning.
A rush of wind caught my hair and dried my eyes. Sand railed against our boots and swept about, grains crunching between my clenched teeth before I had the mind to close my mouth.
I became aware—slowly—of the rider’s stomach vibrating against my hands as he belly-laughed, his deep voice thrown into the wind where it was flung back over us. He was…enjoying this drop, this climb, this blaze of tingling nerves as Preen tilted first one way then another as she caught the heated updraft scouring the dunes.
The splatter of sand lessened with every flap of her wings as we rose higher and higher. I could feel the air growing more unrestrained, a presence that tore the sweat from my brow and snapped at the saddle like an elemental angry at our invasion into its expansive lair.
“Would you look at that!” shouted the man. “A perfect take-off!”
I did not, in any way, look. My eyes remained squeezed tight, about as tight as I kept my arms about the rider’s midriff.
When Preen steadied out, my stomach twisted and pulled and my heart lurched into my throat, but it was a momentary fall as she settled into a smooth forward motion, ghosting on the updrafts and using her own powerful wings where there was no lifting wind to bolster us. I was finally able to catch my breath. To sneak a peek at the dizzying expanse below us, at shades of wilted flowers that stretched on forever.
A headache started at the base of my skull from the tension I held in every muscle, so I forced myself to relax. Bit by bit, concentrating on my breathing, I loosened myself, trusting to the straps that ate into my skin hard enough I thought my legs might go numb.
“Hold on! We’re banking!” I felt the leather of his jacket go taut as the rider lifted his right arm.
Then Preen tipped on her wing. We shifted, falling against the strap. Our legs did not move though, locked in place as they were, fast against Preen’s flank. Then she steadied once more, sailing southeast over the rocky edge of the desert, the dunes becoming ever larger as the land grew less and less familiar.
The rider kept up a running commentary, likely as not in an attempt to put me at ease. His voice, booming and deep, had been trained such by these flights, I was sure, for while he yelled, combating the wind, it was a comforting sound rather than an antagonistic one.
“That there is the Coal Trenches! Black as they look from up here, you get close, you’ll see they’re all scales and hide fossilized over thousands of centuries. They’ve been here far longer than us and will likely still be around when we’ve finally gone to ground.”
I risked a glance, dunes of epic proportions rising like mountains filling my view. That couldn’t be what he was referring to, so gingerly I twisted my neck to look in the opposite direction, nose brushing against his jacket.
The Trenches held a blackness to them as he’d said, deep grooves within the land, darkened further by fading morning shadows. The dunes piled sand high against the outer edge of the territory, snake-like ribbons of gold sneaking across the outer edge of the scaled crags and crevices.
“They go on, west and north and south, broke open wherever the sand has worn a path.” He waved a gloved hand in such a comfortable manner I found myself relaxing as well. “You don’t want to be anywhere near there during breeding season though. Nothing like a shadowcaster in heat in terms of dangerous. They’ll claim these wastes as far as they can fly and breed with half the males they find. Nothing like the noise of wyverns fucking to keep you up at night hoping they don’t get any closer.”
I mumbled a response that I knew he could not hear. I was about to squeeze my eyes closed on the black textured mars when movement, something other than the flow of the sand, caught my eye. Separating from the base of one of the fossilized strips, a wyvern clawed its way up the craggy trench and launched itself into the air. It sped southward, on a trajectory almost parallel to our own.
Had it been just the one, I might have shrugged it off. I’d seen wyverns of Preen’s size and bulk before soaring above the Waste’s endless ergs and the sight had since lost its luster.
However, a moment later, a stream flowed from the trench, seemingly giving chase to the first. They floated on wings of volcanic ash and carved ebony, on wind-wrapped dunes and red-streaked rays of sunlight. A desert rainbow, they were, an arch of beauty come only when the rains were scarce.
I found myself craning to see more of them as they played closer to the Trench’s surface. They dipped in the wide, blackened talon marks, diving out of sight under rock formations, through holes and channels I could scarcely tell were there. Then they’d rise again, a flow, a river of teeth and claws and gorgeous power.
Was this what he’d meant when he’d talked about seeing the creator, feeling touched by the raw power of the Wastes?
I could see it now. Could see what he’d meant before he’d left. Could remember the echo of the awe and wonder and even love that had snuck into his voice when he’d spoken of his home.
I’d been so terrified that I hadn’t seen it then, too focused on my own fears that I couldn’t concentrate on his needs. And he’d stayed so long in Springhaven. For me. He’d stayed so long, each day hoping I’d beat this fear and at least be willing to compromise.
Gudrail Station is green. Not as lush as Springhaven, but it’s a place we could settle. You’d never have to touch a wyvern if you don’t want to. There’d been so much hope in his voice that I’d summarily dismissed with a snort.
Gudrail Station is a trading post, not a home.
And then another day. We’d been eating out. It’d been evening, the thunder of the falls muted and the heat curling my hair. What about the Lockeback Spine? Beneath the Talons. It gets more than its fair share of rain, more than the entire Wastes put together. And yet I knew wyverns clawed up those barren slopes and were bred within those caged mountain holes.
That’s clear on the other side of the desert. We’d never see friends nor family.
There’d been days he’d joke about a border hut. Others where he waxed on about the bubbling double oasis that straddled the Suntouched Mines. And every suggestion, whether subtle or direct, I’d found excuses why they could not work. Or worse, I’d ignore his thoughts on the matter entirely.
He’d ceased trying after a while. And I’d been foolish enough to think things might finally stabilize exactly how I wanted. My own selfishness had cost me him. I’d barely gotten a goodbye. Just a sad moment where he told me he couldn’t live like that anymore, that he had needs even I couldn’t meet.
I stared at those playing, exuberant wyverns until Preen banked and made it impossible to watch. We started more east, the Trenches meandering off beneath us, slivers of sunlight reflecting against their craggy walls.
“Those look like dunes, don’t they!” The rider nodded to our left.
From this height the dunes had a pattern, a hilly, rolling pattern that seemed normal enough, if on the smaller side. “Aren’t they?” I shouted back.
He cringed and indicated that his ear was right in front of my mouth, but he did it with another rumble of his belly that told me he found me humorous more than annoying. “Nope!”
But he didn’t elucidate, leaving me to wonder what the sand covered in those mounds. Ruins, perhaps? Or the skeletons of great wyverns of the past? Maybe there existed sinking sand in the valleys between? But he hadn’t said valleys. He’d specified the dunes themselves, like they were something more.
I kept my eyes on those dunes, straining to see some slight difference that might clue me in. And right before Preen’s wing blocked my view of them, I saw one of those mounds shudder and twist, the sand blowing free from a tiny sliver where a grainy, gold snout appeared.
“That’s right! You know your wyverns.” The man twisted his neck to glance back at me in an appraising manner. “Beasts might not be able to do much more than glide, but they’re massive omnivores. You wouldn’t want to be walking through their territory, that’s for damn sure.”
There’d been countless ramblings I’d been forced to sit through. I’d had a sense of bitter irritation then. Now, I’d take hours of wyvern talk to have him back. Hours of listening to that excitement, to see the sparkle in his eyes and feel the passion light the room. To hear him speak appraisingly of a flock of feathertips, to feel the terror when he spoke of the time he’d faced a shadowcaster, to watch as he doodled nableclaw markings.
The sun moved high, trekking across the sky, forcing us to hide our faces to avoid the direct rays. And still Preen flew on, her voice, when she rumbled a gruff cough or whistled a low tone, became more and more familiar. Her rider seemed to understand her, calling out responses such as “I see it!” or “Not today” and once “You’ve got to be kidding me?”
Their one-sided conversations made her feel more real. Gave me a sense of this creature’s individualism, though the dread that had curled tighter than a snake’s lithe body within me at the start of this ride scarcely diminished.
“See there!” The rider shouted hours later.
My hood folded in on both sides, keeping my cheeks from taking the brunt of the sun, but also blocking far more than just my peripheral vision. “What?”
“The formation there.”
I caught the tail-end of his nod toward our front and obediently began to lean to the side to see around him, then caught myself as my heart sped up at the thought of stretching too far.
“Sure,” I answered, though I hadn’t actually seen a thing.
“That’s the Ribcage! Been standing since the Wastes were first mapped. It’s intense. Never been swallowed by the sand, not like cities of old when the water channels down below shift. Goes down to where the earth gets hard and rises higher than the bulk of the Talons. If it’d been longer, we’d have called it mountains in its own right. A backbone, maybe. From a wyvern that carried a giant.” Then he laughed out loud, like he were repeating a joke told over drinks at his favorite hole in Hollow Heights.
I admitted, but only silently to myself, that the first glimpse of the Ribcage was nothing too impressive. Seemed a smudge. A tall smudge, but just a glint, like sand had risen from the dunes and curved toward the clouds.
Yet, as we sailed at those heights, I slowly began to understand the rider’s claims. For the Ribcage was nothing short of impressive when details began to emerge along the horizon. The last trickles of the Coal Trenches had been left behind and rising toward the Ribcage, the ergs grew into massive temples of rolling grains where here and there poked out spiny rock that seemed tiny, yet likely housed a sleeping wyvern.
And the Ribcage itself rose above us, slender curves of bleached fossil cutting through the air like dry blades searching for the blood they’d once swallowed. Wyverns clawed up from their bases and flew between those arched formations, small specs that were dwarfed by the power of that landmark.
“They don’t block the way like the Talons!” shouted the rider, gesturing upward toward the rising, bone-like swells. “Plenty of space between to hide.”
I saw his meaning as Preen glided lower, for the Ribcage stayed true to its namesake. Between the large and jagged upper formations, the land was riddled with smaller versions that had been broken and cracked through the centuries, like shorn-off ribs that yet clung to land. The inside of the Ribcage seemed to have been carved out, an empty cavity where organs could have once pumped inside a living creature.
Preen began her dive before I’d a chance to register the rider’s warning. Then we were falling, her wings folded, wind throwing my hood off my head as I gasped in surprise and once more squeezed my eyes tightly closed against the sudden drop of my stomach.
The rider was again laughing. Whooping like a boy who’d found his one true love, the only thing that could bring out the purest of happiness in him.
I forcibly turned my thoughts toward Hollow Heights where he had gone. Wondering, whether I might see that level of happiness in him. See the pure joy in a man who’d brought so much joy to my life.
Then Preen rose up abruptly, startling my thoughts as she lifted her wings, throwing a tornado of air about my face before she dropped. The landing jarred me, teeth clacking together and my chin smacking against the man’s leather jacket. My lower half felt numb, a tingling around my waist as the rider shifted in his seat as he undid our straps.
He swung himself off, leg over Preen’s neck, with only a slight stiffness. Whereas I took my time, massaging the places where the straps had eaten into my skin and catching myself on the saddle as I dismounted.
On firm rock, I staggered to a stop, the rider’s hand gripping my upper arm.
“Easy now. It’s still a decent ways up.”
We’d landed upon one of those shorn-off ribs, the top curved and cracked and uneven enough I had to lean to compensate. The drop was dizzying, an expanse of rocky terrain interrupted by gaping maws.
Yet this close, the ribs did not have that bone-smooth quality I’d imagined when the Ribcage had been nothing but a smudge. The surfaces were pock-marked and scored from a million wyvern claws, the ribs bump-ridden and mottled despite their bleached appearance. The inside, that misshapen cavity within the Ribcage, had it worse, for there less sand scoured the surfaces of the formations.
The rider stretched beside me and motioned for me to join him, which I did, though less enthusiastically. “You’re doing all right for your first time. Had worse customers. People who’ve thrown up on my jacket or screamed in my ears, these blood-curdling screams too.” He shuddered in an exaggerated fashion and put a finger in his ear with a sharp jerk as if hearing echoes of those screams. “We’ll just give Preen a rest before we head on. Next stage won’t be as long. But it’ll be evening, so piss over the side while we’re here, would you, and take a nap if need be.”
We ate first, him regaling me with more stories of the Wastes, though his stories seemed embellished so I could not take him entirely seriously.
All the while I nodded as if paying him my full attention, but my mind wandered, my heart unable to fully appreciate the beauty around us.
“You think you’ll need a flight back?” he asked, the question pulling me from my reverie.
“I—” I hoped not. I hoped that once there, I’d never have to leave again, never face a flight of this magnitude. Not unless I really wanted to visit Springhaven. “Maybe,” I hedged.
“It’s a girl, isn’t it.”
“Knew it. Knew that look when you first came up to me. Women, they make us do wild things, put here to test us. She worth it then?”
“He is,” I murmured.
The rider was silent for a moment, slowing his chewing as if mulling over my admission. “Huh. He’s a rider, isn’t he?”
“He had been,” I admitted with a glance up from the last of my dry sandwich.
The man didn’t need any more. His face turned to real empathy then and his gaze pulled toward Preen where she lay basking in the sun, stealing much of the space we’d landed on. “Ah. Fled to Springhaven, did he? A lot of them do that when they lose their partner. Put themselves in a place that has nothing familiar. But…they’re always called back.”
I couldn’t respond, my throat closed up enough I couldn’t continue to eat either, so I began to pack away the rest of my lunch. My heart hurt too much at the emotion echoed in the rider’s voice.
“I’ve known plenty a man—and women too—who dealt with that sort of pain. All the sky at your disposal, like you rule the Wastes while you’re up there. And then—”
He snapped his fingers, though his gloves made the sound turn from a snap into this mourning thrush of cracked leather. A dismal sound that matched his heart.
We remained silent for a time after that. I held one knee loosely and kept my hood up, hiding my face as I stared out over the Ribcage’s incredibly active belly. Wyverns of all shapes and sizes crawled about the rock or lazed in the sun. A few fought over carcasses of sand tunnelers and a string of small feathertips whistled a harmonious song high above our heads.
“What was her name?”
His voice had a low, almost reverent take to it and I instinctively knew exactly who he referred to, a creature so beloved it had caused my love to arrive in Springhaven alone and exhausted, face gaunt from stress.
Only once had I heard him whisper her name. He’d been asleep, dreaming of a past within the Wastes. Had woken with a jerk and lain stiffly in my arms the rest of the night.
“Mettle. Her name had been Mettle.”
The rider grunted. “Not one I’m familiar with. He talk about her a lot then?”
“No.” Rarely at all, at least by name. But now that I thought back, all that awe and wonder and love in his voice…I guessed it was for her. All that time.
We lingered on that leaning bone until Preen swept her tail around and stretched languidly before eyeing us both. Then I had the task of climbing back into her harness and once again strapping myself in for that last leg of this trip. My fingers felt numb this go around, my terror having altered for now I could well imagine him shutting his door in my face, refusing to accept my apologies. All this…for nothing.
The world grew ever smaller, the rocks turning to grains of sand and creatures mere specks that tricked my eyes into thinking they moved far slower than reality. If felt as if time crept… Though that could have been the sparse air.
The sun grew darker, a deep reddish orange as it caught the Wastes and reflected them back. The heat from the day remained on my neck in salt-streaks and itchy hair. My water grew slim and a tiredness from the travel descended on me as surely as the evening’s respite did around us.
The rider became less garrulous, less likely to point out landmarks or masses in the desert. He kept himself hunched over Preen’s neck protectively, as if shielding her from the same fate Mettle had found. Maybe he was even wondering whether he would escape to Springhaven if the situation sprung up in his life.
Hollow Heights came into view the same way the Ribcage had: a smudge on the horizon, this time turning into a mountainous spit of unbroken rock. It grew, opening my mind to what sort of childhood memories he must have had. This dry heated wind, the first breath to coast across his skin. That scarred rock, the first walls from which he’d wished to break free. The endless sands, hiding fossilized secrets for him to discover.
Was that any different than my own childhood back in Springhaven? The first touch against my skin the moist air that roiled out from the crashing of the falls. The vine-smothered cliffs and billowing trees, the bars to a limited youth. The plateau beyond, a never-ending expanse where overgrowth covered tunnels for me to explore.
Tall flutes, straight and narrow, strove to splice the sky, turn it into a cracked mirror. The first deep notes shivered and died and soared and danced with the wind, a rolling thunder kilometers off. Lighter, higher-pitched notes joined the wind’s song as we approached the Heights and began the climb.
Turbines poked from the raw outer edge of the limited range. Dots of watch posts and ribbony lines of pathways and bridges connected each pocket of swirling machines, but all seemed small and insignificant, tiny blemishes upon the otherwise ragged curves of the peaks. Even the wyverns, as large as I knew them to be up close, crawled like sand fleas across the mountains and flew like leaves upon streams of air.
“From below, you can’t see a thing,” called the rider as Preen climbed ever higher, her wings straining. “It’s all blocked from view because of the denseness of the peaks.”
I knew as much. That was, after all, what Hollow Heights was known for across the country. A city tucked away, protected by the impossibility of access from all but those who flew. The whole reason I had never wanted to come here, wyvernback a thing that still made my heart hammer, even as Preen finally breached that last jagged peak and flattened out.
Below sprawled a world of color that surprised me with its vibrancy. A hidden world within the Wastes. Despite the effect the outer range had on the city, locking it away from the world, it didn’t seem like the prison I’d always thought it to be. I tasted freedom in the arid air and saw joy in the mosaic streets.
Wyverns thrived upon the craggy rock walls and lounged upon the arches that buttressed terraces of succulents, yuccas and cacti. Stone steps erupted from cloth-covered passages, flowers sewn into those shivering fabrics and sand caught in the cracked handrails.
“Coming down, heading for that far platform!” shouted the rider.
I tightened my grip as Preen dropped, banked, then dropped again before she back-winged violently in order to land on a flat, narrow oval that seemed to hang precariously off a lower wall within the upper level of the city. I closed my eyes against that last abrupt jerk that made my head ache painfully. And then it was over, the evening shadows casting purple splotches against Preen’s wings as she stretched and whistled across the platform to a few other nableclaws and their riders.
As the straps fell away and my ears adjusted to the sudden lack of roaring wind, I sat in surprise as the noise of Hollow Heights descended on me. No wonder he’d been so comforted when he’d slept in my flat close to the thunder of the falls despite never having lived in Springhaven. For he’d grown up here, the thumping of the wind turbines ever-present, deep bass in my ears, while that same breeze whistled across the natural rock flutes, creating a lullaby that cradled the city closer than a mother did her child.
“Off you go.”
I moved methodically, without truly thinking about my motions, for my mind remained on him. Upon this place he called home, where all his childhood memories had been born. I was the interloper here, my garb too modest, my hair too long and my instinctual cringe away from every wyvern who clambered past cause for raised brows and rolled eyes.
I accepted my bag silently, pretending my quietness stemmed from a resolute attitude rather than a terrified one. The rider must have read something in my expression though, either that or he’d had previous experience with the likes of love and loss.
“If it doesn’t work out,” he started, drawing my attention. “If you find this whole thing’s been nothing but one of those lessons we’re not sure we want to learn, I know a few places you can bed down for the night.”
He meant well, I know, but his words turned my worries into wyverns clawing up my back, beasts too large to shake off, talons too sharp to ignore. I nodded numbly and fetched a rolled piece of paper from my breast pocket where I’d guarded it fiercely against the wind.
“You know where you’re going now?” he asked as he patted Preen’s flank.
He didn’t watch as she snorted, took a running leap off the platform and rose to a flattened tip of a pinnacle that encircled the landing platform. I did though, watched as her powerful body swooped around, once more coming in to land, but this time sideways as she clawed out playfully at another wyvern where they tussled together in a familiar game.
“I think so.”
“Good.” He hefted Preen’s harness to his shoulder, straps dangling front and back, metal clinking together. “If you need help, don’t get it at the shops. They’ll charge you for information and give it to you wrong just so one of their kids can nab some extra coin when they find you lost. Ask someone at the flight zones, or better yet, check in at a military tower. They’re the ones with the barbed tail sigil, orange and grey-green.”
“Thank you,” I said, and meant it. I passed over the last of the coin I owed without being asked. “And…thank Preen too.”
A crooked smile broke across the man’s face despite the weight he balanced on his shoulder. “That’s the sort of spirit that will win your man back. Good luck! High winds and quiet sands for you!”
And then I was left to my own devices with an address that led me into the belly of an unknown city.
The steps leading off the landing platform were rife with activity, the evening’s bustle mostly people arriving back into the city, but here and there I saw a few men and women heading out, speaking of nightly energy watches at the turbine fields or guard posts along the border where untamed beasts roamed, seeking easy meals.
This world of his did not open up like Springhaven did. Back home, the waterfalls created an expanse that was strictly uninhabitable, wide spaces that yet came with a depth of view.
Hollow Heights had a different feel, claustrophobic, yet dancing with dappled, busy designs. I found myself staring more often than not. Fabric awnings with a mix of floral and geometric designs blotted out the sky, hiding the stars I knew so well with a beautiful array that yet still felt more like prisons walls than the rock to my either side.
Through a skinny market street I smelled the spice of sizzling meat, though I never could catch sight of where it originated, not with the swell of people flowing about me. On the corner, where the street gained a decline, imported wine hung in green bottles, strung up by twisted wires bent in shapes of wyvern wings or cacti clumps. Below stood a man expertly shaping wire-crafted animals for awe-struck children. And me.
I avoided the venders, as the rider had instructed, and stopped a lady who lingered on that corner, seeming in wait. She guided me in the right direction, across many sets of uneven steps, under a flowing wash of dyed fabric and through the mosaic streets I’d seen from far above.
His street had been marked with cacti spines spelling out the name in blocky lettering embedded into the rock. The numbers of each house had been completed the same, though here and there only the faded patch remained where spines had fallen into dust.
I stopped outside his house, a squat building with a flattened roof that served as one part of many of an upper street. He had no overhang, nor décor outside his door. He had nothing, not even a wyvern-wing hanging off his handle that would indicate his being a rider.
For the first time, I wondered whether he’d given me the correct address. He’d had such a defeated expression, a disbelief that I might ever use that scrap of paper. He’d all but shrugged it off, a last-ditch effort before he left, sliding that address across the table before he’d walked away. He’d gone so slowly, as if waiting for me to call to him.
Maybe he hadn’t come here after all. Or maybe he’d moved and not bothered to send word, for why would he? When he never believed there’d be reason to.
I clutched that scrap of paper, wrinkling it within my fist. Then I strode forward and knocked upon that nondescript wooden door, feeling my arm go numb with the effort. The footsteps inside seemed louder than the bass of the distant turbines, louder than the whistling of the flutes singing far above my head. The scratch of the wooden bar echoed in my head and the squeak of the twisted hinge caused my heart to shudder.
Yet it was his face that caused my vision to tunnel.
“Hi,” I started. And there I paused, for anything I might say after could easily spoil the moment, if I hadn’t done so already.
He stood with a blank expression, chin covered in scruff, grooves curving under his eyes. His hair had been recently cut back, barely there. His clothes still clung to wrinkles and off his leather belt hung a familiar knife made from a wyvern’s talon.
“How…” His blank expression turned to morbid curiosity as he glanced back and forth and peeked around me as if he thought I might be hiding some secret. “How did you get here?”
That hadn’t been a question I’d anticipated. I’d thought I’d get a hard one like “What are you doing here?” or “Why did you come?” So I chuckled, my vision leveling out at the rough sound of his voice.
“Wyvernback. Last I heard that’s the only way in and out of Hollow Heights.”
He pulled back slightly with a suspicious air. “You’re terrified of wyverns.”
I shouldn’t have added the “but” for now came the expectation for more. And he waited for me to finish that sentence, curiosity still ruling his features, which I presumed was a very good thing, for it could have been anger there, or resignation at our ending.
“But I was more terrified of losing you.”
I swallowed. Had that been too corny? Too much like a line from a storybook. Yet it’d been the truth, from a heart that still felt sore from the day’s ever-present fear.
For another moment, he remained stiff, then his posture relaxed and he allowed the door to swing without constraint. “You followed me across the Wastes? I don’t think I’ve ever been chased before.”
Bolder now, I smiled tentatively. “I’ve never left Springhaven before, but I guess there’s a first for everything.”
He reached out and gripped my arm. Not like a lover would, but like a blind man, assuring himself that he spoke to a flesh and blood person and not an apparition called forth from the sands. Then his grip altered and he was dragging me close, body naturally welcoming me into an embrace, calloused fingers gripping the skin at my scalp. He chuckled, a sound I’d been only hearing in my fevered dreams that now sang an echo of the loneliness I’d suffered.
“You here to stay?”
For the first time in a long time, a calmness folded over my shoulders. The constant fear, that nagging terror, shuddered out of existence, leaving me replete with only a contentment in my soul and him in my arms. I figured they could have been one and the same at this point.
“Until I find something that scares me more than being wyvernback to make me leave.”
* * *
I did way more world-building for this story than I probably should have, especially given I didn’t even name the characters. In fact, I feel as if this story is definitely more about world-building than it is about those characters. They’re just along for the ride I guess.