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Skies Unbroken
Episode Fifteen: Huntress

Chapter Five

I’ve always hoped to make a discovery such as this, and I’m not alone in that regard. It’s one of the primary reasons that drives the bold and stout-hearted into the fringes of our seemingly unbounded world. Sure, these creatures have been the subject of folklore and tavern tales for the skybound for centuries. Yes, yes, ‘authentic’ feathers, quills like razor-fine metal, and fragmentary bones, deceptively lightweight and strong, float around the less reputable markets across the skies. But we’ve never had a solid confirmation. The same goes for other cryptic creatures. Your mist-wraiths, your seraphs, your Leviathans and the mythical like. Now, at least, I have the scar to remember it by, if not the beast itself.

Thanks to the storm, I have time enough to recover and plan for another bout with the beast.

Verica was reasonably certain she wasn’t going to die of an infected wound. The actual cut was but a long, shallow scratch. The accompanying hard, pummeling blow and associated bruise was far more impressive at this point. That wing strike was fascinating, and she ran it through her mind’s eye again and again as she sat, bare to the waist, a line of replacement bandages soaked in her limited antiseptic wrapped around her shoulder.

Writing with the injured arm was unlikely to be helpful. Then again, neither was the next steps she had in mind. She couldn’t confine herself in the cave for too long. If the griffin was similar to most stranger creatures of the skies small arms fire, baring a lucky shot to a vital, would be shrugged off and healed in short order. It had no trouble retreating to its lair with the grazer carcass in tow, after all.

Outside the cave, the skies remained low over the isle’s rim like a slate lid. Lightning flickered in the depths in hues of blue and orange, and each hour the temperature rose a touch more. Yesterday’s rain was but a brief relapse, and the storm was once more settling into a lull. Verica set aside the notebook and rested elbows on raised knees, wincing at the tugs of pain from her shoulder.

It knows I’m nearby. I must assume that.

A new plan for the griffin was sorely needed and she was coming up empty. Seeking out its lair, which she surmised was on the far end of these bluffs, wasn’t feasible. The crags contained far too many places for an ambush from above or from around a blind corner. The creature’s right wing was a healing stub, but she had to assume it was agile enough to climb the short cliffs and ravines. While she had no evidence of the creature possessing regenerative abilities, the myths and rumors that so defined the species always spoke of that function. If so, then it must be hunting daily to power its healing processes.

Assuming the grazers cooperated, would a repeat of their previous encounter work? Was it that level of clever to see through it? It sniffed her out in the brush, after all.

Verica eyed her coat, which took the brunt of the griffin’s attack and was now in desperate need of a deep cleaning and mending. There were exactly two tailors in the Northwest Frontier she trusted with that job. Despite the heavy scent of herbs and alcohol from the bandages, she could smell the coat from here, a mix of blood and sweat and who-knows-what else.

A solution came to mind. She could use that smell. With that, the rest of the revised plan snapped into place.

***

Memories checkered sleep, as was common these last few days.

The Low Raelins were a marvel, just as this island was. Untouched by human hands, a vast nature preserve in deep, isolated skies. Low was a correct moniker, as the islands were low in the skies, hot and dense with a curious mix of jungle species, some so ancient they no longer existed on the core continents. After the initial surveys and collection, their team put the island closest to parts of the Kural southern chains.

There was an explanation, one put forth by Ocara Raelin herself, the Kural explorer and researcher who first posited the islands’ existence. Something had moved the islands at some point in their history, and not in terms of typical isle-drift. The core of the southern Kural Leviathan traditions spoke of a titanic serpent coiling about a fallen, debauched city on an island and dragging it into the Down Below for their collective sins.

What if the World Serpent pulled the island out west instead of down?

It certainly explained the ruins they found on the innermost island on day four. And the human remains dated long before people were capable of crossing a fraction that distance. And the unnatural, jumbled-up arrangement of the islands themselves. Those finds alone were an astonishing discovery. The expedition was already in ‘legendary’ territory.

Then the storm hit and everything went straight to hell. 

Verica awoke to a dim morning painted gray and blue by a cloak of mist. She shivered as she cast off her sleeping bag and rolled her shoulder, testing the wound. The updrafts must have tapered off overnight, returning Island Seven to its default, if not natural, state. The storm might be breaking up without the flow of energy from below. Today would serve as well as any other for a hunt. Might as well give it her all.

She opened her storage crate and dressed in her cleanest remaining clothes. Then she dug out two of the most important items from the deepest, driest part of the crate. The first was one of Nem’s custom tracking beacons, switched off to preserve its battery when the storm was at its worst and there clearly would be no attempt at rescue. Verica hefted the weighty box with its three-sided pyramidal antenna and switched the beacon on. A red light in a recessed eye started blinking every five seconds.

The second item was a packet of instant coffee, her last one. Verica filled a metal cup from her water cask and carefully mixed in the powder. Cold and awful, but better than nothing, which is what she now had aside from a few tea packets, saved for a special occasion and when she had the motivation to properly boil some water.

Carrying beacon and coffee outside the cave, Verica placed the first on a cradle of rock, pointing the antenna a few different directions before deciding it probably didn’t matter. Then she sipped her terrible coffee and examined the sky. The same seal of clouds hung over the island, though the formations were the sort that never drew notice otherwise. Her rational mind screamed for her to just sit and wait for the Wink and Smile. Icomb would believe her if she said there was a griffin here. They could hit the beast with the advantage of a full crew and flight.

But her rational mind was backed into a corner, a hungry and exhausted consultant at best. Her darker self, the one keeping her alive while taking too many risks, wanted to do this alone. She couldn’t draw more people into her obsessions. Not this time.

The storm, a freak tempest out of nowhere. The expedition’s main ship was pulled right off the island and smashed to pieces. They signaled for extraction via one of the support ships, both of which were grounded, damaged. They should have been fine while awaiting rescue. A shame the unearthed ruins exposed half of them to some maddening sickness. A shame the entire jungle rose up to attack them, birds and beasts out of nightmare, driven by unknowable rage. A shame Verica was forced to personally kill six afflicted members of the expedition while defending their camp against beast and man-turned-beast.

Doing this alone was unbelievably foolish. And it was Verica’s intent. She returned to the cave and pulled out one of her dwindling field ration packs.

In total, twenty-six members of the Low Raelins expedition died on the isles. Two more succumbed to their injuries and illnesses before they could fly back to Reaches. Two others were mentally ruined, confined to this day to sanitariums, their care paid for by the sponsoring family. The scion of said family survived, if without use of his legs.

Obligatory breakfast complete, Verica mechanically checked her rifle, clicks and clacks echoing through her cave. This was her demon to slay. A living expression of her own shame, burning low for so long, now stoked hot and furious.

Then there was Dr. Verica Chantil. The one whose research and promotion spawned the entire venture. The only one to make it through relatively untouched, whole in body and mind. A quiet sacrifice of her career and reputation in solidarity was the best they could do as punishment.

Fair. She deserved exile.

Call it madness or penance or partial redemption. There was too much blood on her hands from her obsessions already. She would complete this hunt alone.

***

A rifle shot once again broke the island’s morning calm. The fat grazer birds, it should be noted, did not learn that quickly. To their credit this was a different arena than before, one of the other vent clearings, further north than the first. Possibly a distinct herd of grazers.

Verica hurried through the set-up. She left her coat in her first position within the trees, laid out in a similar position as before, though the blind was hastily done. Drag the carcass nearer to the vent on the far side of her planned actual perch. Quick cut. Terrible but understandable smell. With the grazer’s entrails staining stone below and air above, she hurried away from the tree line and toward the bluffs.

A narrow natural switchback led up to a flat-topped bluff, a fine overlook of the vent clearing and associated boundary between stone and soil. It even came complete with a short covering boulder for her to crouch behind. At her back, the pointed and tangled crags rambled toward the lake to the west. Ravines and gullies lay in shadowed depths between the short peaks and plateaus, the gentler keening of vents and fissures singing out from unseen places.

Verica set her rifle and settled in to watch the clearing below, jaw clenched against the cooling winds. Her knees quickly started to complain about the stone below as she waited behind her gnarled barrier of stone. Not quite as pleasant as a warm, shaded woodland.

This time around she didn’t have to wait long, though as before the blackbirds rapidly found the carcass and started up their cacophonous revelry.

Stones clattered in the gully below and behind her. Verica rounded in time to see the griffin nimbly clambering up the slope, eyes fixed on her. It fully extended its intact wing, black and blue feathers quivering as cried out in challenge, the sound half a roar, half an eagle’s screech, and entirely uncanny and unnerving.

Of course you’d look here first.

Verica turned in place and lined up a shot from a kneeling position. She had enough room for one shot. She let muscle memory guide her, fears and hungers and ill memories falling back to a pinpoint in her head.

The griffin bounded toward her.

Crack. Stone exploded at the griffin’s, causing the beast to falter and leapt away in alarm. It resumed its charged.

Verica vaulted over her would-be cover, wincing at the hard landing on the narrow switchback trail below. Barely keeping her balance, she skid down the slope, leaping down the winding bands when possible, and was on the flats in short order.

Risking a glace back, she saw the griffin at the edge of the bluff, body stooped low either trying to conceal itself or simply in a natural prowl. Verica stopped, turned in place, knelt and lined up a second shot. Her hands and the days of stress and terrible diet betrayed her focus. Crack. The second shot missed, striking wide to the right.

The woods. Now.

Plan B then. She turned and ran toward the cover of the woodland, now seeming so far away. Her wound had split open without her noticing, probably on the scrabble. Blood trickled down her shoulder and spread in a sticking patch of clothes against skin. She shouldered her rifle against the stain, wincing against the stinging touch.

Rocks crunched behind her. A shadow descended behind as the griffin leapt from the bluff and overtook her. In that moment, she felt like a mouse awaiting the killing blow. She also drew her pistol and spun, hoping for a wild kill as it crashed into her. The lethal impact didn’t arrive and Verica managed to duck as the griffin overshot her, gliding past in an awkward course. It did, however, land directly between her and the woods. It scrabbled in place, talons tearing furrows in the soil, wing madly slicing out against the grass.

A stay of execution, but her retreat was cut off.

Verica leveled the pistol and fired, now calmer in the face of mythical death. Blooms of bright red splashed against the ground and the griffin twisted from two hits. Roaring in rage, it faced her, wing spread gloriously. Verica’s breath caught as she stared into the creature’s fixed gaze. Wounded multiple times and missing a wing, it was nonetheless an incredible sight of freakish hybrid physiology, harmonized into elusive, swift death.

The spell broke in a moment and Verica backpedaled toward the vent, her only option. She tried to steady her aim. Two more shots went wide. If she could strike the head or heart or…

The griffin charged, swift and silent and inevitable. The very image of death on an uncharted island with nothing but a serial number for a name.

One final idea.

Verica stopped at the edge of the vent and waited through two strides, eyes fixed on the griffin in challenge. Talons crunched against stone, the monster’s feline legs leaping into a pounce. At the right moment Verica jumped back and fell into the vent hole. Near darkness surrounded her, air rushing by, though a touch slower on account of the weakened updrafts. A shadow filled the air above and the griffin, whether on account of momentum or rage, followed through its pounce and tumbled down right behind her.

Down they went, the beast flailing about with its claws and wing, sending out bursts of broken stone and cries of rage that split the air. The griffin forgot about her completely, though a pair of incidental blows smashed Verica toward the wall. She caught herself, shoving against the stone and rebounding with minimal scrapping, though she lost her grip on the pistol.

Feeling oddly calm and accepting, Verica fought through her dozen pains and twisted the activation knob on her lifering. The device flared to life, a charge surging through the loop within her belt, her skin tingling from the proximity. Then she nearly had the breath knocked out of her as she decelerated out of her fall, as if a firm harness was now tied about her hips.

She came to a stop in the middle of the updraft shaft and watched the griffin tumble down below her. Down it fell, the one intact wing flailing and failing to give the creature enough lift to arrest the descent. No such luck. The griffin’s screeching cries reverberated up the shaft, turning from rage to panic. Its claws lashed out at the walls but never found enough purchase. In a few heartbeats it dwindled to an enigmatic shape against the distant cloud floor, then winked away in a crosswind below the island, a myth disappearing into the vast uncaring skies.

Certain mysteries must have an innate self of self-preservation.

A wash of dust from the creature’s futile struggles pattered against her face, acting like a splash of cold water and waking her from detached observation. With all the grace of being nearly folded over at the waist, Verica waggled over toward the shaft’s walls and found a reassuring grip on the stone, a palm-sized knob worn smooth from the winds. Looking up at the climb above, she let out a sigh constricted by the lifering’s vice-like binding. She flicked away a trail of blood from her hand and then cautiously, ever-so-careful, she drew her utility knife into a deathgrip.

Parallels. Then to Now. Adrift and alone, awaiting rescue that might not come.

Clink. The knife found a seam and she pulled herself upward. Then another handhold.

Ideas and obsessions. Well-reasoned? Yes. Ultimately disasters? Yes.

Clink. Another. Her arms quivered from the compounded strains and stress built up over her unplanned days on this island.

I suppose all beings have their niche. This is mine.

Clink. Her breath came in ragged gasps. Blood slowly spread across her back. The knife found another seam. Another.

I survive.

Verica pulled herself over the edge of the vent. She tossed the knife ahead and half-slid half crawled away from the drop. Rolling onto her back, she fumbled with her lifering, the early deactivation process three steps of tiny contact points and recessed switches. Its grip vanished and she slumped down, finally able to catch her breath.

Staring up at the sky, she saw a tenuous window of clear blue. It disappeared in a blink, but it was all she needed to see. The storm was over.

(Next Week!: Epilogue + bridge interlude to Episode Sixteen)
 


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