The warm air caressed his face. Talon stretched out his wings and glided through the breeze with little effort. His long blonde hair waved 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 blonde 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.
Both husband and wife flapped their wings as they soared toward the bright blue sky, weaving in between the white clouds. Darik had never been this high. His chubby arms and fat little fingers reached out for the fluffy coolness, but he had yet to realize the clouds were not solid.
Talon watched his firstborn enjoy his first flight out but was terrified to drop him. Would he take flight or fall like a rock?
“This is high enough,” Raven cautioned.
Talon laughed to mask his own fear and said, “All right.” He 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.
His son rolled off his hand and fell.
“Darik!” both parents yelled and sleeked their wings back, diving after their boy.
The onrushing air filled Darik’s outstretched wings. Holding his wings steady, he teetered to the left. Then to the right. Then glided straight. Reaching him, Talon and Raven flanked their son.
She clapped her hands. “Oh my gosh! Darik. You’re doing so well!”
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 a book of ace fliers and be remembered forever.
Darik retracted his tiny 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 said, smiling.
“Oh no,” Raven said. “He’s going to be a warrior isn’t he?”
“He is a Warfire.”
Extending his wings, Talon skimmed the tips of the trees. He tilted his wings back to slow down and surfed up on a warm column of air, hovering in place. Darik must have been tired because he veered around and flew into his mother’s arms. Raven rained kisses over his chubby cheeks, and he laughed. She joined Talon in the thermal and passed their son to him. He buried his nose into Darik’s baby blonde curls. Darik smelled so clean and felt so warm. 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. But way down through the thick branches and plumes of leaves, the forest floor lay hidden deep in 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 scrunched his tiny nose. Talon couldn’t help but melt in those deep brown eyes.
“Because I’m your father,” he answered for Darik.
Raven laughed and shook her head. 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 pointed ear to her neckline then down to her collar bone...
Darik started to whine and pointed at a butterfly flittering about a leaf. He loved butterflies. Shrieking 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 claws. 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 couldn’t spot his son.
Darik squealed far below.
“There he is!” Raven pointed.
“I see him. Go and 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 plunging toward the forest floor. Terror burned through his chest.
Normally Talon 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 nipped through his black silk clothing and pinched the bare webbing of his wings that expelled precious body heat. Sounds of the forest masked Darik’s position, but Talon focused beyond them, using his pointed ears to grab any foreign noise. Finally reaching the forest floor, he couldn’t pick up his son’s scent. Talon shivered, frantically searching.
His heart leapt when he heard a cry.
He shot toward his son’s voice when something above crashed through the branches. Talon looked up to see two broadswords trapped high above, but he spotted his son a few trees away and left them. Darik looked tired from the long descent and sat, despite being taught not to. All over the forest floor, patches of wormgrass glowed like the white moon, and their long tentacles threatened to pull him into their acidic stomachs buried underground.
Talon beat his wings as fast as he could against the sludgy air. An awful quiet fell. Something hunted them because all of the animals had darted off. Darik screamed when a sticky tentacle coiled around his wrist.
Trees began to creak, bearing additional weight. A prowler. Its screech ripped through the forest floor as if something shrieked while inhaling through its mouth, tearing at Talon’s ears. Off to the far right, the prowler’s long, massive body swung through the trees straight for Darik, like a rushing river.
Talon roared to draw the prowler away from his son. It didn’t work.
The prowler lowered its pointed snout and pressed both long antennae against its serpentine neck. Its massive jaws opened, revealing sharp random teeth that gleamed in the darkness, able to swallow Darik whole.
Talon charged and beat his wings, gaining on the giant monster.
Its translucent black skin melded with the dark forest. Orifices along its fat body spat out chunky sinuous tentacles like a spider’s web, grasping tree trunks, swinging the prowler through the forest.
Talon grabbed its forked stinger and pulled himself up onto the long tail that was checkered with rounded square scales. The prowler whipped its tail.
Digging his claws into the scales for grip, Talon swore, “Crow!”
The tail rammed Talon against a tree, crimping his right wing, but he held on.
Darik cried for his father, clawed the ground with his free hand, slowing his descent toward the wormgrass’ stomach.
Before the prowler could whip its tail again, the desperate father clamored onto its back and ran. Stopping at the base of the long neck, Talon lifted his foot, pointed his toes and rear hallux, and stomped, piercing the thick skin with his sharp claws. Again, the prowler was undeterred. So he reached down, grabbed its thick antenna, and bit hard, sinking his fangs. The prowler screeched and veered off.
Talon pushed off the predator, glided down next to Darik, wincing at the sting of his wing. Talon wrenched the wormgrass’ tentacle off and picked up his son by his yearning arms. Darik flapped his wings, blowing Talon’s hair back, glad to be back with his father.
At this point around forty prowlers weaved in and out between the surrounding trees, 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, tender curls of hair waved frantically, and for the moment, Darik rubbed his eyes, distracted.
“There’s only enough for one of you. So who’s it going to be?” Talon shook his crimped wing, which didn’t relieve the pain. Leaning back, he hooked both halluces claws on the bark and worked his way up the trunk.
Prowlers fought each other to see who would get 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’s small wings. 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. Pain stabbed his back. Passing the main group, he flew toward a beam of sunlight. Prowlers hated the sun but pursued.
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 closer. 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.
The prowlers knew where he was heading and blocked his way.
The warrior swung around, 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.
Latched to the side of the tree, Talon knew they’d swing back in a hurry before he could fly up to the canopy. Even the flight up to the thinner trunks where the weight of the prowlers couldn’t be sustained was far. The sunbeam was their only hope.
A screeching growl rumbled below! A prowler shot up toward Talon. Tightening his hold on Darik, he 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 with its tail, knocking the wind out of him.
On the ground again, he felt the blunt pain on his back turn to prickly needles. His arms were empty. Where was Darik? His blue silk shirt floated to the ground.
His son cried.
“Darik?” Spotting him within a wing’s reach, Talon leaped to his feet. A small prowler blocked his way. He feinted to the left, but the prowler lunged for him instead. Talon swiped upward 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 blonde 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 dove and stopped her. She roared at him. “I’m going to get my baby!”
Talon held her back 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. Talon’s fingers ran over the hang where tiny claw marks had roughened the wooden bar. Tears welled. His soul flooded with despair. The space felt empty. 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 that burst 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.
Talon stuffed the shirt in his vest. “No.”
She began to walk over to him.
“I need to be alone,” he said, hiding behind his wing, shuffling his feet over the pool of tears.
“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, turning away.
“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.