Talon stretched out his large wings and glided through the breeze with little effort. The warm air caressed his face and brushed his long, dark brown hair against his black silk vest. Along his arm, he cradled Darik, palming his son’s tiny chest, careful not to scratch his boy with his own claws. Darik’s baby curls bounced with each flap of Talon’s wings.
Raven flew next to him, keeping a stern eye on their son. She was rightly named. Long wavy hair, dark as deep night, flicked the small of her back. A long sleeve red silk shirt and ankle length pants hugged the curves of her body, like fields of red snapdragons covering gentle rolling hills, while her wings framed her like a beautiful painting. Small silver trinkets clinked from the shiny bracelets that wrapped her wrist and ankle. She often used her shimmering hazel eyes to persuade Talon to do anything she wanted.
Weaving through the white clouds, both husband and wife soared toward the bright blue sky. Darik’s chubby arms and fat little fingers reached out for the fluffy coolness, his eyes round with curiosity. He had never been this high before.
Talon watched his firstborn enjoy his first flight out but was terrified to drop him, questioning whether his boy would take flight or fall like a rock?
“This is high enough,” Raven cautioned.
Talon laughed to mask his own fear and stretched his arm forward, holding Darik perilously over the earth, which looked like a giant mural. This height was required because if Darik didn’t take flight, Talon could dive and rescue him.
Wriggling his tiny wings, his son rolled off his hand and fell.
Surprised, both parents yelled, “Darik!”
They sleeked their wings back and dove after him.
The onrushing air filled Darik’s outstretched wings. Holding his wings taut, he teetered to the left. Then to the right. Then glided forward, unsteadily.
After reaching him, Talon and Raven flanked their son.
She clapped her hands. “You’re doing so well, Darik! I’m so proud of you.”
Talon was shocked. It was rare for hartons to fly on their first flight out. So rare that Darik’s name would be recorded in the book of Ace Fliers and be remembered forever.
Darik retracted his wings and plunged toward Hania Forest. His parents folded their wings tight against their backs and followed him. Talon felt the exhilarating pull of the free fall against his insides. His son stretched his wings and flattened his trajectory again, screaming with excitement. Talon and Raven stared at each other.
“Can you believe our boy?” Talon asked.
“Oh no,” Raven said. “He’s going to be a warrior isn’t he?”
“He is my son.” He smiled.
Talon skimmed the tips of the trees and tilted his wings back to slow down and surfed up on a warm column of air, hovering in place. Darik veered around, over adjusting his wings back and forth, and careened into his mother’s arms. Raven rained kisses over his chubby cheeks as he giggled. She joined Talon in the thermal and passed their son to him. He buried his nose into Darik’s warm neck and breathed in his clean scent. He was going to grow up to be an amazing man, a warrior, a leader.
The proud parents decided to go home to get ready for that night’s dinner gathering. Talon banked down and circled his aerie—a cylindrical, wooden dwelling attached to the trunk of a giant tree in the forest canopy, a safe place. A long way down through the thick branches and plumes of leaves, the forest floor lay hidden deep in the darkness, concealing dangers that would frighten the most skilled hunters.
Beaming at his son, Talon cooed, “Why are you such a strong little boy?”
Darik gazed up at his father and wiggled his little nose.
Talon couldn’t help but melt in those deep brown eyes. “Because I’m your father,” he answered for Darik.
Raven shook her head. “You’re assuming you’re his real father.”
He whispered in Darik’s pointed ear, “When you grow up watch out for women like your mother. It’s too late for me.” He kissed his son’s temple.
“Yes, it is.” The breeze played with her hair, revealing the nape of her neck. It had been a while since they had sex. All the focus had been on Darik since his birth this past summer. Staring at her, Talon traced a line from her neckline to her collar bone.
Darik started to whine and pointed at a butterfly flittering around a leaf. There was something about butterflies that he loved. Screeching with excitement, he broke from Talon’s hold and chased it. The butterfly evaded Darik’s clumsy attempt to catch it, but he clipped its tissue-like wings with his budding claw. And the butterfly fell. Darik dove after it.
Raven looked around. “Darik?” She screamed, “Darik! Come back!”
Both parents yanked their wings in and speared down the canopy.
Scanning the area, Talon was surprised he couldn’t spot his son.
Darik squealed far below.
“There he is!” Raven pointed.
“I see him. Go throw my swords.”
“No! I’m going after him.”
“I promise to bring him back safe. But I need my swords.”
She gritted her fangs, popped her wings open, and swooped back up toward their aerie.
Flattening his arms against his rigid body, Talon plunged through the forest understory. Air boomed in his ears. He used his keen sight to magnify his view like a hawk and saw Darik falling toward the forest floor. Terror burned through Talon’s chest.
Normally he had to be careful about terminal recovery because if he dove too fast, he wouldn’t be able to maneuver around branches or stop from hitting the ground. At this moment he didn’t care.
The thickening foliage engulfed his boy, who vanished in the gloom.
“Darik! Come back!” Talon roared. His wings flung open and shaved the surging air as he cut around branches. Daylight dimmed fast as he descended deeper. His eyes hadn’t caught up to the darkness yet, so his hearing and awareness heightened.
The air smelled earthier, temperature plummeted, and the cold pinched the bare webbing of his wings. Shivering, Talon strained to listen beyond the forest noise masking Darik’s position. Finally reaching the forest floor, he couldn’t pick up his son’s scent, so he searched frantically.
His heart leapt and shot toward his son’s voice.
Something crashed above. Two broadswords were trapped in the understory branches. Darik was only a few trees away, and the faster Talon could retrieve him and fly back up into the safety of the canopy the better. So he left them. Darik looked tired from the long descent and sat, which was dangerous. All over the forest floor, large rosettes of wormgrass glowed like the white moon, and their long sticky tentacles would pull their small prey into their stomachs.
Talon beat his wings as fast as he could against the sludgy air. An awful quiet fell. All of the animals had darted off. Prowlers. He couldn’t see them, yet, but they were close.
A tentacle coiled around Darik’s wrist and dragged him toward the center of the plant. Clawing the ground with his free hand, he screamed.
Talon veered around a large trunk and dove toward his son. Stomping on the tentacle, he wrenched the wormgrass from Darik’s wrist. Talon picked him up and held him tight, relieved to have his boy in his arms again. Raven would be elated. Assuming they could make it out of here alive.
The surrounding trees creaked, bearing insurmountable weight. Screeching blared through the understory, reverberating the stillness, signaling death for any animal that was close enough to hear it. Large and serpentine, prowlers were the dominant predators of this underworld. Orifices along its fat body spat out chunky, sinuous tentacles, grasping tree trunks, swinging it through the forest, like monkeys. The long tail whipped with the force of a crushing boulder. The long, scaly neck supported an eyeless head, a sharp snout, and two long antennae. Sharp random teeth that gleamed in the darkness filled its massive jaws, able to eat Talon in one single chomp. He found himself enveloped by forty prowlers, weaving in and out between the tree trunks, tightening their circle around their prey.
The lone warrior backed up against a tree trunk. His son whimpered. Talon smiled at him and kissed his reddened wrist. Darik kept eyeing the creatures, pressing himself against his father’s chest. Talon drew his son’s attention by blowing at him, strands of hair waved frantically, and for the moment, Darik rubbed his eyes, distracted.
Leaning back, Talon hooked both hallux claws on the bark and worked his way up the trunk. “There’s only enough for one of you. So who’s it going to be?” His wings tilted up, ready to tear into the air.
Prowlers fought each other for the small meal. One of them tried to whip the other with its tail, another snapped its jaws at a larger prowler, and the commotion grew, the distraction Talon needed.
“Hold on tight,” he said, securing his arms around Darik. The frightened boy wrapped his claws around his father’s chest. Having sneaked up the tree enough, Talon leaped into the air and dove, gaining momentum, and sped under the commotion. He beat his wings hard, passing the main group, and flew toward a beam of sunlight. Prowlers were vulnerable to the sun, but the chase was on.
Screeching, they were catching up to him. Talon focused everything he had on reaching the light. The sound of prowler tentacles latching onto trees grew louder. A tail whipped in front of Talon. He ducked under it, banked left and right, saving his wings from huge snapping mouths that echoed deep into the forest.
Just a few more moments to the light.
A few prowlers latched their tentacles onto a trunk and swung around, blocking his way.
The warrior swept a wide arc around them, dug for more strength, and sprinted toward a large tree. The predators closed in fast. He cut around the broad trunk and exploded upward. Prowlers swerved around the trunk and disappeared into the forest.
Hitched to the side of the tree, Talon breathed heavily. They’d swing back around before he could fly up to the thinner trunks where the weight of the prowlers couldn’t be sustained. The sunbeam was their only hope.
A screeching growl rumbled below! A prowler shot up at him. Tightening his hold on Darik, Talon jumped and looped away from the massive jaws, then dove to gain speed. Darik began to whimper. The beam of sunlight drew close.
Another prowler whipped Talon’s back, knocking the wind out of him.
On the ground, he felt the blunt pain turn to prickly needles. His arms were empty. Where was Darik? His blue silk shirt floated to the ground.
His son cried.
Spotting him within a wing’s reach, Talon leaped to his feet. A small prowler lunged for him. He swiped and knocked its head to the side; his hand burned with pain. He might have broken it.
Darik flew to his father. Another prowler swung in, scooped his baby boy into its jaws and snapped them shut. Little wings protruded out of the clamped teeth, fluttering.
Talon found himself screaming in the blankness of his mind. All of the prowlers circled him. Closing his eyes, Talon stood there. His wings limp, arms hung by his sides. His breath was slow and calm against his imminent death.
But, like a fading nightmare, the darkness dwindled away, prompting his eyes to open.
Beams of sunlight hit the forest floor. Above, warriors opened a path through the branches in the canopy, and the sunbeams struck the prowlers, wrinkling their black skin, forcing them to dissolve back into the dark looming forest.
Talon picked up the ragged silk shirt. He’d had Darik in his arms. Had him. The warmth of his son was still on his hands, arms and chest, the last he would ever feel, forever. Talon took one last look at the spot then turned away. Hanging his head, he flew up, and his hair cascaded down his face.
Above the opening in the canopy, Raven hovered. Panic took hold of her face when she saw that Talon’s arms were empty. She flew around him.
“Darik! Darik, come to mother!” Raven said. Talon stopped her. She roared at him. “I’m going to get my baby!”
Talon blocked her way and said, “He’s gone.”
“No, he was just with me,” she said, trying to throw herself into the forest, crying. “Stop grabbing me!” She shoved him away.
“I saw him get—” Talon broke off.
She turned her attention to her husband. And fainted.
. . .
Their aerie felt lifeless. Talon walked over to the nook where Darik used to hang to sleep. His fingers ran over the hang where tiny claw marks had roughened the wooden bar. Tears welled. His soul flooded with despair. Unable to remember the days when Darik wasn’t in their lives, Talon couldn’t believe just a moment ago his son was home playing.
He brought Darik’s silk shirt to his nose. Flashes of Darik’s bubbly cheeks, dark brown eyes and giggles haunted his mind. A surge of pain and shock rang through his body. His hands covered his eyes, but they could not stop the tears bursting through his fingers. Anguish enveloped his body like a thin layer of fire burning under his skin. A lump of agony grew in his gut, pulling Talon into a deep hole he could not hope to escape. Tears streamed down his arms, dripping off below. He was about to drop to his knees.
“Is there anything I can do, my Warlord?” a solemn voice said. Rumee, an advisor to Raven’s village, had climbed through the oval door in the floor, uninvited.
He shuffled his feet over the dots of tears. “No.”
She began to walk over to him.
“I need to be alone,” he said, hiding behind his wing.
“Of course. Anything I can do let me know.” She bowed and left.
Outside the window, the lone moon overpowered the surrounding stars. Talon listened to the soft breeze blowing across the canopy; the leaves rustled. Summer was ending.
Descending through the oval door, he landed on the second floor where Raven lay on a bed of leaves. She slept on her stomach and twitched every now and then. Talon could still feel Darik’s grip on him, his tiny breath on his chest, and the look of fear in his eyes. It was unbearable. He did his best to stop feeling, but it was impossible. Did he even want to? Maybe if Talon had held him tighter. Or if he hadn’t been so...
Raven raised her head and curled her legs under her and didn’t bother to raise her wings. Her shoulders sagged and cheeks hung as if an invisible weight clung on. She stared at Talon for a long while before looking at her wooden hang attached to the ceiling.
“You fainted,” he said, averting his eyes from her.
“Oh.” Through the small window, the smell of food cooking entered their sleeping chamber. “I can’t eat.”
Talon sat in front of her and draped his cold, numb wings over the floor. He caressed her hands in her lap and buried his face in them. “I’m sorry.”
“I did everything I could. But there were just—I was just…”
She looked down on him. He couldn’t face her. She slowly pulled her hands away from his.