I’d committed to walking the line between human and Other. If I felt like wings were somehow more of an appeal to my human side, despite all conflicting evidence, was that a bad sign?
I wasn’t an artist. I wanted to be, but my memories of trying were ones of frustration. Of false starts and disappointment and of putting two elements together and getting something other than what I’d wanted. Alexis had turned flaws into features, and was adept at working with the mistakes of others, doing her thing with the tattoos. Tiff, going by what I’d seen, worked in a sketchier style. Ty, well, he made a lot of mistakes to start with, but in all the time that I’d worked on…
I couldn’t remember what I’d actually done.
Which said a lot. As I thought on it, I wasn’t sure I’d ever been able to remember exactly what projects I’d attempted and failed. There was only my crude exercise in drawing the circles around the demon Ur. Fragments here and there.
That, in turn, led me to the understanding that the art wasn’t mine. I paused for a moment, hands freezing midway through my work. A quiet horror, almost a sense of betrayal, but far from specific, hard to place, in terms of blame.
Had Rose experienced moments like this? She’d known what we were for some time now. Had she dwelt on it? Those elements that were missing?
That dawning realization that some of the most intense, heartbreaking moments of frustration were because the other person had something we needed?
Friends. The idea hit me.
For Rose, quite possibly, it was friends. When she had failed to form bonds to the others, the same natural camaraderie, did she think of me?
I’d been given the desire to create, but left without the ability. Rose had that ability. I had little doubt. Too useful to a potential practitioner.
The other things were things I could understand. But this? This felt like a slap in the face. The cold stir of anger inside me prompted me to resume the work. That felt more Other than human.
Or maybe it just felt more like the me I didn’t want to become.
The branches reached out and seized that which was offered, as if I were patching up a part of me that simply needed to be healed. Wings that I’d been missing for a long time. They made the wings twisted, gnarled.
Very quickly, I realized that it was lopsided. I had only one arm, and the branches didn’t all match. The wing on my left seized the stump, replacing the arm. I panicked momentarily, trying to undo the process, but time I spent on trying to pry branches back and put the basic constructions in place for an arm gave the rest of the wings more time to develop on their own. The branches rearranged, drew the broken extra rib from my chest to give structure and shore up areas I’d yet to find a branch for.
If I’d been an artist like Tiff or Ty or Alexis or Joel or Joseph, maybe I could have worked with it. Tending to a garden that grew nearly as fast as I could cut, or position. I could have worked with mistakes, developed them.
I could have made it elegant, made it fit right.
I’d studied birds at one point. Birds had evolved from land creatures, and the first thing one had to do when understanding wings was to recognize them as fundamentally similar to arms.
The upper arm, the humerus of my wing, extending out from the gnarled spot on my back, it was thin. Lacking support. The elbow joint too small, weak. The biggest problem, considering it was what the entire fucking wing depended on. I tried to add more to it, a larger branch along the humerus, the broken end at the elbow, where I needed the joint more fleshed out. Where, hopefully, the splinters might form the necessary elements of the joint.
Twists of wood reached out, fingers like roots or roots like fingers, and gripped the larger branch, found weak points, and splintered it. Took it to pieces. Carried the pieces down, like so many wriggling worms, one catching the splinters of wood as another let them fall. Building the longer fingers I hadn’t wanted to build. A bat’s wings, not a bird’s.
The horror I experienced was a kind I was getting a hell of a lot more familiar with, since realizing I was only a vestige, a fraction of a person. I wasn’t, it seemed, in control of my own body.
Fuck that, I thought.
I grabbed at one bit of wood and I wrested it free from the little fingers of wood that were grasping at it, fitting it into another position. Too little.
I used the Hyena, and I cut away at one of the fingers of wood, transplanting it up at the upper arm and elbow, where things were too thin to support anything.
Fingers began clawing at it. The same thing as before. Digging into the joints that had formed, breaking it down, trying to break up the larger pieces to create splinters.
I raked at the little roots and hooks of wood with the Hyena, shaving them off the arm.
My entire body, all at once, writhed. Every branch bending, contracting, shifting position, scraping against bone.
I dropped to my one good knee. The makeshift peg-leg scraped against sidewalk, but failed to find traction. The strength went out of my hand, and the Hyena, staying for a moment due to the spikes that stuck through my hand, dropped to the sidewalk.
I grunted, experiencing something that quite probably would have been pain, if I still had proper nerves.
I was breathing heavily, though I didn’t need to breathe in the first place. My eyes were open, staring at the ground, littered with smaller bits of branches I’d broken off and planned to use after. I didn’t dare look to see what was happening.
Fuck it. Fuck you, I thought. Don’t you dare take this away from me.
Let me fly, damn it. Don’t taunt me with broken wings.
To show me a vision where I had wings, to lead me to the point of tearing myself apart, replacing an arm, gouging at my humanity, then take it all away?
Even here, the Abyss had a hold on me. Even here, it could effectively destroy me. If it wanted to hit me where it hurt, to churn on as an endless machine of entropy, this was the way to do it.
“Show me you’re about change, not annihilation,” I muttered. “Let me change. Help me change.”
I felt the back of my neck crawl.
The crawling reached around to the corners of my jaw, then up to my temple, and across my cheeks.
I reached up to touch it.
Splinters, small fingers, hooks. Scraping at my fingertips, gouging.
Slowly reaching for my eyes, reaching for my remaining flesh.
Tiny, like the legs of spiders, pincers, fish hooks, they stabbed and set themselves into the flesh that remained, around my mouth, near my eyes, at my forehead.
Then they stopped. Waited.
Asking. Offering. A deal with the devil, metaphorically speaking.
Give up your face if you truly want wings.
Give up your eyes.
I could hear the dragon screech, not all that far away.
This crisis I faced was removed from a very large, very real crisis that threatened people and Others I cared a great deal about.
Do it, and you can fly. Fly, and you might be able to do something to save them.
A question and an offer that did nothing to resolve the debate about whether the Abyss wanted ruin or change. Or if there was even a difference between the two things.
Except I wasn’t there. The Abyss might have had a hold on me, but I was still free. I was a messenger, and I brought that ruin and change by nature.
“No,” I said. “No. You’re going to give me the damn wings, and you’re going to leave my damn face alone. You’re going to do it, because I’m going to give you my word. I’ll help the Abyss in a way that counts. I’ll give you your damn meal, and it’ll be better than what you’d get by taking a piece out of me.”
I could hear the giant intone another monosyllabic word, from two or so city blocks away. He didn’t shout, but he might as well have, given how far the sound carried. The dragon screeched in response. I heard the eruption of flame.
The wooden bits that had their hooks in my flesh released their hold.
Again, the wood shifted and reorganized. Wood at the underdeveloped humerus was moved elsewhere, thinning out the long upper ‘arm’ of the wing. The weak elbow joint got weaker.
I had the wings, but no feathers, no flesh to stretch between the fingers.
Still on my knees, eyes still on the scattered twigs and bits of wood, I reached for the Hyena.
I unbound the chain and barbed wire, and wound it around my waist and hips instead, a too-wide belt. When that was done, I cut at the remains of my sweatshirt’s sleeve, where it was hampering the growth of the larger of the two wings.
No… the wings weren’t different in size. There was a massive wingspan, the individual bones long, with the individual branches almost braided together, winding together like old roots.
The problem was the humerus, the elbow. Too thin, too weak. It threatened to snap from the weight of the wing alone, and I still lacked anything to tie the wing together.
“Come on,” I said. “Come on, come on.”
The wood at the elbow peeled. Knots grew, then fell out.
I sheathed the Hyena and reached out, trying to examine it, but the humerus was too long. I had to stretch my arm out to the full length.
My thumb found one knothole, my index finger found another.
The knot that formed the wing joint at my back shifted, moving closer to the shoulder. The humerus fit snug against my own arm, with only the sweatshirt in the way.
Reluctantly, I removed my hand and cut at that sleeve as well.
The branches at my back clawed the remainder of the sweatshirt to pieces. Scraps.
The scraps, in turn, were carried off, dragged to their individual stations. Stretched. The membrane of the wings. As the individual branches settled into position, they reinforced the wings. Almost forming musculature.
I sheathed the Hyena yet again, and grabbed at the elbow joint to help hold up the wing before the added weight could break it. Fingers into the knotholes.
Wood creaked, snapped, and strained as I raised the full wing. Longer than I was tall. The fabric had holes in it, and thin branches crawled through it like worms, veins, or vines, to spread out and shore it up.
I flapped, experimentally.
It wasn’t enough to lift me up.
Bat wings, not bird wings.
I couldn’t take off. Couldn’t fly. The twigs I’d been staring at on the ground were gathering at my feet. Giving more substance to my peg leg, so it was more of an actual leg.
I could almost imagine the Abyss mocking me, making the twigs give me the foot I needed as I ran, my wings extended behind me, fingers close together, to reduce drag.
I was still light. Almost lighter, given how the individual components of my body had rearranged. I hadn’t added that much material to myself. It was very possible the wings were fragile.
My body continued changing, rearranging, even as I ran. Finding a better configuration, strengthening my new foot.
If I’d accepted the seal of Solomon, where would I stand now? Would this be possible? Would I have needed to go this far, or would I have proven more durable?
I could see the scene. The giant was in the middle of it all, standing in flames, while the dragon perched on a building just behind it, looking down.
Flames all over the street had frozen in place. Snow had been stirred by the dragon’s flight and giant’s movement, given permission to fall, until it froze again, and there was a slight haze at the street, from the smoke and snow that had settled further down.
Every movement stirred time back into action. It made smaller actions more obvious, in a roundabout way. Everyone left a trail for others to follow.
I could see where others hid. Ground level, inside buildings and shops.
It wasn’t anything that would help. Not like this. We’d run out of time.
The moment of truth. Borrowing a technique from the dragon. I ran, leaping onto the trunk of a car that had been knocked further into the street, then set foot on the roof of the car.
I leaped, wings extended, and flapped, bringing the wings down hard.
The fire was stirred into life. Hot air reached me, rising beneath the wings.
I didn’t erupt into flame, which was fantastic.
I didn’t plummet into the fire, either.
The problem was with building momentum. My wings carried me forward, but they didn’t carry me higher. I had to flap again to bring the fire to life, to stir the air into action once again beneath my wings.
If anything, I was losing height, inch by inch. Failing to rise, even with the momentary benefits of each wave of hot air.
I tested my ability to turn, fractional movements of my arms. Being able to stay very still was a benefit.
Testing my ability to fly, or to glide, while literally above a trail of fire was perhaps not my smartest move, but I didn’t have any fast routes to high places. Elevators wouldn’t work with time stopped.
I heard the sound of crumbling masonry. Looking to the source of the sound, I saw that the dragon had noticed me, and now clutched the wall, looking down, tensing muscles.
The act of looking very nearly made me tilt off course, off onto pavement that was spread with snow, ice, and little dots of flame where flaming spittle had touched it. I righted myself, flapped, struggled.
I was still losing altitude, perilously close to actually touching the flames, I looked ahead. Traced the paths the flame painted.
More fire was better. It meant more heat, more air rising.
If I could fly over it, rather than straight into it.
The most fire, as it happened, was beneath and around the giant’s feet.
It posed a problem of sorts. Go for it, and risk being crushed even if I had to throw myself to one side to avoid the flames, or give up on this attempted flight?
I went for it. My wings moved, wood creaked and threatened to snap altogether, and it got worse as the warmth of the fires I was stoking into life made my body dry out.
The dragon leaped down, wings spread.
The giant lowered his chin to look down at me, ice cracking and falling from where it had frozen in clumps at his beard.
In the time it took to fall the two and a half stories to the fire, I almost managed to reach his foot.
The fire blazed. Already active, without need for a beat of wings to animate it, the hot air waiting.
The dragon hit ground, close, and the impact stirred air. Air, in turn, caught my wing, and knocked me off course. Away from the heat and upward draft.
Acting on instinct, I changed course, aiming for the fire at the giant’s heel, so the leg would be between me and the giant. In the doing, I very nearly sailed headlong into fire.
A change in the angle of wings, flapping-
Altitude. Ten feet, twelve, fifteen.
I stalled. I wasn’t an expert in flying. There was only instinct, luck, and a scarce bit of know-how. The angle was wrong, the hot air sliced past my wings instead of catching them, and I paused, riding the residual current. All at once, I dropped, straight for the flames.
I stuck out one leg, dragging my foot against the giant’s leg, spread my wings once again, and tried to catch the fire.
Still sailing down toward it, albeit at an angle, now.
Another shift of angle. Wings spread until the joints almost hurt.
I caught the hot air once more, just as I threatened to run out of fire, sailing past the giant and toward a dim, cold section of street.
I turned, instead, one wing dipping low, a perilous one foot away from dancing tongues of flame.
Small grace that the wingtip there was bone, not wood.
I turned, I stopped descending, angled each wing, and rose in a lazy spiral, around the giant’s leg.
I was graced with a glimpse of the bristling dragon, mouth wide, teeth on display, fire leaking at the corners of its mouth.
I was forced to close my wings as I passed between the giant’s thighs, back brushing the bottommost section of his sewn-hide kilt, and flapped more to try and hold on to my altitude after.
The dragon watched. Aware, tensing to lunge.
The giant turned, and I was at the same height as his hand, where it rested just beside his thigh.
Unable to rise. Dragon waiting to leap at me and snap me out of the air if I dropped.
Something told me I wouldn’t be able to simply dodge it by changing course.
I could only hold position, waiting and watching.
The giant’s hand came around. A little bigger up close than I might have anticipated, cupped and ready to simply catch me.
I flapped again, pushing myself back, away.
And a little bird rose up, spiraling up around and past me as I’d spiraled up and past the giant’s legs. Giving me a push.
The hand passed beneath me.
I flapped, Evan flew around me.
I rose, scaling higher, past the giant’s elbow, shoulder, and then past his head.
One large, dark eye peered at me, following me as I ascended.
“Hahahahaha,” Evan cheered. “Yes!”
The giant, below us, dropped to one knee. The movement down into the fire sent more air up. I rose further.
“Awesome awesome awesome!” Evan cried out.
My eyes were on the pair below.
The giant picked up the dragon. Large as the giant was, he still needed to get both arms beneath the dragon to raise it up, cradling it.
It snapped at him, and he batted at its head with the fingers of one hand in rebuke, two fingers sealing the dragon’s mouth shut.
Evan’s movements, flying around me, passing beneath me, gave me a push here and there to stay aloft.
Can’t fly without help, I thought.
The thought of help made me think of the others. I could see their hiding spaces. The areas the dragon had attacked. The broken shop windows, the shattered doorways.
A lot of damage done, individual elements adding up to make it that much more likely that people would ‘what the fuck’ out of Jacob’s Bell, the moment they woke up.
Giving reality less traction. A bit of a story, and the place would disappear into a sinkhole, or something. The news might not cover it, and Jacob’s Bell would be lost. The records of it existing simply finding their way into dusty corners and wastebins.
But that wasn’t my focus, exactly. My focus was on the dragon, and the sheer power it wielded.
I needed to stop it.
A sparrow and a wooden man with wings fighting a duo that had no doubt been together for a very long time.
“Yes, yes, yes! Hahahaha! Love the wings! Best call you’ve ever made!”
“Ho!” The giant proclaimed.
Firmly gripping the dragon, he hefted the Other. Legs straightening, arms going overhead, the giant hurled the reptilian beast skyward.
I closed the fingers of my wings, but didn’t draw them close to my body. I pulled my fingers free of the elbow, and did what I could to hold the wings in position. I drew the Hyena as I dropped, straight for the dragon, the giant, and the flames.
“Worst call!” Evan shouted, from his position far above me. “This is worst call!”
It was a fall, or a dive, or both, or neither.
Straight for our opposition.
For a dragon the size of a one-car garage.
It bared its teeth. Ignited spittle filled the air behind it.
Head arched back, not to spit, but as part of a greater movement.
Wings spreading, to guide it, to slow it’s ascent and its fall both. Foreclaws raised.
Between the claws at my five and seven o’clock, and the fanged mouth at my twelve, I didn’t have much room to escape.
I ignored the instincts that told me to go for the spread wings that spread out to fill the rest of the ‘clock’ between twelve and five, and twelve and six. Too easy.
I unfurled my wings, grabbing at the weaker humerus with the hand that still held the Hyena, letting the spikes on the handle snag at the wood and give me traction, helping to anchor the hand in place.
With the help of the wings, I changed direction. Heading for the five o’clock position, on this vast span of death and scale and destruction that had unfolded beneath me. For the claw.
When I’d nearly reached the claw, I shifted direction. Re-angled my wings, hauling the right one to one side, a sharp turn.
My leg got caught. The tip of one claw touching me at the knee. Tearing right through, forcing another swift change in direction, one I hadn’t planned so much.
Tumbling head over heels, trying to get my wing in position, I passed the dragon.
I’d hoped to veer for the wing membrane, to slice it and leave the dragon immobile.
Now there was only the giant and fire below me.
I saw all of the typical weak points writ large. Eye, throat, the bulging vein along one arm, that might have been an artery. Most parts protected by skin that might have been as thick as my forearm was long. Thicker than the Hyena was, at any rate.
Touch a giant and people will come after you, I thought.
I focused on orienting myself, on stopping myself from falling, getting to the point where I was gliding again.
I didn’t have time to sheath the Hyena.
I dropped it, and seized the wing again. Fingers became part of the elbow joint once more, and my arm reinforced the wing.
The Hyena dropped, sailing down.
It landed point-first at the point where the giant’s hairline, at the very top of his forehead, sinking as deep as the now nonexistent hilt.
Now able to use both wings to the fullest, I controlled my descent, slowed it.
Removing my hand and folding my wings in one singular motion, I seized the handle of the Hyena. Even my weight wasn’t enough to drag the blade through the great Other’s forehead.
It remained where it was, and I remained where I was, one hand on the blade, intact foot braced on the forehead, wings folded and head hanging.
To either side of me, the giant’s arms slowly rose.
Not in response to me. Cupping his hands.
“What in the what are you doing!?” Evan shouted.
I looked up at him, just now arresting the dive he’d made to follow me.
“Help,” I said.
It took me two tugs, but I pulled the Hyena free.
“With!?” Evan said.
I worried that my instincts were wrong, or that they were right, but the need for a second tug had cost me time. That I wouldn’t be able to manage even if I did everything right.
Then I saw the others. Running westwards.
With that, I knew that it couldn’t be too bad.
Even if I failed, they’d manage.
The Hyena came free of the giant’s forehead, slick with blood.
All in one motion. Sheathing the Hyena, seizing the wing. My legs pushed off and away from the giant. My body twisting so my wings could go out to either side, flapping while level with the ground.
Evan caught me, gave me more height, to make up for the lack of momentum.
With the height, I could swoop.
“Oh,” Evan said. “Oh bananas!”
The dragon descended, just in front of us.
Landing in the giant’s cupped hands. Foreclaws extended to grip the giant’s forearms.
It was heavy. Even with the difference in size, and the giant’s monumental strength, it wasn’t easy for the giant to hold the beast’s weight.
Arms dropped with the weight, as the giant adjusted. The impact stirred the air, and I veered to one side.
A sharper swoop. Timed so the dragon was only just landing, still adjusting.
Flame boiled in its mouth. The mouth, in turn, yawned open.
I dove straight for the thing, aiming for the point just over its shoulder.
Teeth snapped shut, a few feet from me, missing thanks to the awkward position, the bob of the giant’s hands.
Flecks of dragon’s fire showered the air.
I flew through the flames, over the dragon’s shoulder, and folded my wings.
It wasn’t the Hyena, though I didn’t deny that the blade might have played a part, sheathed in the coil of goblin chain around my waist. But the chain had barbed wire, there were sharper elements to it, and I had momentum. I scraped along the length of the softest, most vulnerable area on the dragon that I’d been able to make out, the membrane of the wing.
I spread my wings, catching myself, and I flew, away and toward the others, as the dragon reared back, one wing shaking violently, balance lost.
The giant caught it. Held it, drawing it closer.
I thought he might have rebuked it for snapping once more, as Evan and I flew away.
Neither giant nor dragon followed.
Winning wasn’t in the cards, in this particular fight. But a one-for-one, injury-for-injury, wasn’t so bad.
“Oh man,” I could hear Evan, as he kept me aloft. “Oh man, it’s going to be so hard to keep you alive, now!”
I shut my eyes, feeling the cold air rush past me, even through me, through the holes in my body. The grit in my hair broke off and flicked against my wings, and extra bits of wood that had taken too much abuse were now breaking away.
I could feel the strain in my shoulder and elbow.
I couldn’t fly forever. I could barely fly at all without Evan’s help.
I eyed the group below, and I knew I’d have to land. Patch myself together.
But, even if it was assisted, even if it wasn’t perfect, I allowed myself to fly just a little longer. If nothing else, it would help with navigating the mess of trees that lay before us.
Off to the witch’s hut, I thought.
Trying not to think about what she might have set up to protect herself, when things were as bad as they were in Jacob’s Bell.