The half-dozen chicken eggs cradled in her ridiculously long,
clawlike fingers threatened to slip. Alissa drew them close to her body,
knowing she wouldn’t be able to catch them before they hit the ground, even
from this height. She flicked a glance down. Below, the tallest outcrops
of the mountains slipped soundlessly under her, gray in the morning light.
The fog was beginning to rise with the sun, making a patchwork with low
areas peeking out from under flat-topped white clouds and high crags sharp
in the clear air.
Damp and clinging, the breeze tugged at her as she flew, and
Alissa felt her secondary, nictitating eyelid shut against the wind. It was
spring, and she was restless. This was the best she had felt all
week—headed west, with the rising sun sending the shadow from her batlike
wings to scare the occasional deer or goat into panicked dashes.
This morning, before the stars had vanished, she had flown
across the mountains to her mother’s abandoned farm in the foothills with
the excuse of gathering eggs from the chickens that remained there. In
truth, she was seeing if the snow was gone and all the passes were open.
They were, thrilling her to no end. Now perhaps, she could convince Useless
to let her leave and find her mother.
In all his scheming wisdom, her teacher, Useless—or Talo-Toecan
as everyone else properly called him—had decided that having been raised in
the foothills, Alissa would adhere to foothills’ traditions concerning
marriage. Her mother needed to show favor to one of her suitors before she
could wed. But her mother had returned to her desert homeland, leaving only
a tear-marked note on the abandoned stove.
Alissa knew Useless didn’t care one whit about foothills
traditions. He was just using the situation to keep Strell and Lodesh at
arm’s length from her, hoping she would lose interest and turn her
attentions to a match more suitable to her new Master standing. His
scheming only made Alissa all the more determined to marry one of them. The
question remained, though, as to which one.
Slow with only the thin updrafts the morning could support, she
glided toward the Hold. The energy of the rising air currents stained the
perfect sky with upwelling shades of a darker blue, visible through her raku
eyes. To her right, a stark rock face threw off a steady stream of violet,
swirling heat. Alissa’s stomach clenched as she found herself angling
“Do you want to try rising on it?” came a thought that
was hers, but not. It was Beast, and Alissa grimaced.
“No,” Alissa answered shortly in her mind, peeved Beast
would even ask. “You do it.”
“You need to learn to fly,” her alter consciousness said.
“And you need to learn to hoe your own row of beets.”
Beast smugly withdrew her control over their level glide.
Finding herself responsible for their motion, Alissa panicked. Immediately
they stalled. They hung motionless for a heartbeat. Wings flailing, they
With a snort of laughter, Beast resumed command to catch their
fall in an elegant swoop.
Alissa’s tail brushed against the top of a dew-wet hemlock.
“Burn it to ash!” she shouted in their shared thoughts, clutching the
eggs close as her racing heart slowed. “Don’t do that!”
Beast twisted her thoughts to give the impression of a smirk in
their shared mind.
Glancing down, Alissa shuddered, knowing from experience how
hard the ground was when one barreled into it at this speed. “I’ve been
stuck at the Hold all winter,” she thought, sending a trace of rueful
emotion to Beast. “Now that the passes are open, I want to find my
“You want to go,” Beast said suddenly.
“I like to
fly. The sky is clear. Let’s go.”
Alissa nervously shifted the eggs. She hadn’t known her very
real—and often annoying—alter consciousness felt the same.
“I can’t,” Alissa said. “After the fiasco in the plains last summer, Useless said I
have to find her thought signature first. My range isn’t that good yet.”
“It’s an excuse,” Beast said shortly.
“I don’t think
even he could pick one person out from thousands. Not half a continent
Alissa bobbed her great head, and Beast easily adjusted for the
shift in momentum. “Even so, I can’t just fly away.” Alissa’s mood
turned soft and content. “Strell and Lodesh can’t keep up.”
“Oh.” Beast’s thoughts were tinged with disgust and a
grudging confusion. “I understand love. It grounds you when you want to
“No, Beast,” Alissa insisted.
“You don’t understand
at all.” She sighed, hearing the exhalation come out in a primitive,
guttural sound. Despite the nights spent trying to explain, Beast didn’t
seem to have the capability to comprehend what Alissa felt for Strell and
Lodesh. It wasn’t as if she could ask Useless for help, either. Only two
people knew that Alissa had broken the Hold’s oldest law and kept the
bestial consciousness that evolves when a Master learns how to shift forms.
If Useless ever found out, he would rectify the situation with a savage
vengeance that would destroy Beast and probably leave Alissa bruised and
battered—and less for the lack of her alter consciousness.
A sudden tightening at the back of her sinuous neck where it met
her shoulders sent a wash of tension through her, driving her idle thoughts
away. Something wasn’t right.
“We’re being followed,” Beast said in unconcern.
“Connen-Neute has been behind us since we left the ground. You’re just now
Vexed, Alissa snaked her neck around and saw a golden form, twin
to her own, a valley behind. Connen-Neute knew of Beast, accepted Beast,
and was admittedly a little afraid of Beast. But as a fellow student
Master, Connen-Neute was her only peer. Seeing him, Alissa spurred Beast
into a faster pace. She had no problem sharing the sky with Connen-Neute,
but his skulking made it obvious that Useless had sent him to shadow her.
“Bone and Ash,”
she muttered into her thoughts. “Doesn’t Useless trust me?” Then her annoyance hesitated, shifting to a
rising anticipation. “Beast,” she asked. “Can we lose him?”
Beast made a short puff of scorn.
“Do updrafts rise?”
Still she waited. Beast moved by instinct; all decisions were deferred to
Anticipation sent a shiver to set her wing tips to tremble.
Alissa modulated her thoughts so Connen-Neute, a valley behind, could hear
her. “Tag,” she sent loudly, tingeing it with expectation to let him
know she wasn’t angry. “You’re it.”
Alissa gasped as Beast took over with a frightening intensity,
dropping them into a steep dive. A thrill of alarm struck through Alissa,
mirrored by the faint excitement she felt from Connen-Neute. In three
breaths, they had raced over a valley that had once taken her two days to
traverse on foot. Skimming over a lake, she looked back to see Connen-Neute
in hot pursuit. A slow thrum in her mind told Alissa that Beast was
enjoying the chase far too much. Alissa’s feral side angled them high as if
to climb, and when Connen-Neute matched their path, Beast dove to the side
into a mature forest of beech and elm.
“Beast, no!” Alissa cried, remembering the shame of
tearing her wing, but Beast found an opening into the clear under story. An
ancient beech loomed before them. Alissa cried out, her hind foot bending
forward to push off it. The barrel-sized tree snapped. She ricocheted over
a patch of wild blackberries sweet with flower. Birds flew and branches
Lungs heaving, Alissa looked back at the destruction.
Connen-Neute was stuck in the briars. Scratches made red lines on his
wings. His golden eyes focused intently on her as he struggled to get
free. “Go up!” she demanded of Beast. “The trees are too close.
But Beast ignored her. Alissa felt her lips pull back from her
long canines as Beast’s excitement grew. No one had ever brought her down
but Useless. Wings half closed, Beast jumped them through an opening and
out over a fast mountain river. Her wings sprang open. Beast flew them
downstream, taking advantage of the open space to gather speed.
Risking a quick look behind, Alissa saw Connen-Neute hop
awkwardly to the river’s edge. His feet pushed off from the rocky ground,
wedging a boulder the size of a horse into the soft bank. She had a gap but
not much of one. His eyes widened with excitement.
Alissa looked forward, her enjoyment suddenly faltering. The
river had grown wild. Spray made her belly chill and her long tail cold.
The rumble of water had grown loud. They were flying downstream to a
The banks closed in and the flight space grew tight.
Beast?” Alissa quavered, seeing a dead end before them. They might have
been able to fly out over the waterfall and into space but for the
surrounding growth of forest that made the river a dead-end tunnel only
water could escape. Branches and vines made an impregnable wall on every
side. Over them, the trees arched and intertwined. The water frothed and
railed against the boulders and trunks jammed against the drop-off. And
Beast showed no sign of stopping.
“Beast, we can’t get through that!” Alissa warned. She
glanced up, imagining the pain of breaking through the thick ceiling of
branches. Her wings beat in time with her heart.
“Then we will go under,” Beast thrummed, exalting in the
“Beast!” Alissa cried.
“You don’t know what’s under
“Water, wind, they all move the same,” Beast said.
“He’ll go around. We’ll gain the span of a hundred wing beats.”
Alissa’s confidence in Beast’s abilities faltered.
changed my mind. He can follow us.” Alissa hesitated. “Beast?”
Fear gripped her. “Oh, no-o-o-o!” she shrieked as Beast took a
gasping breath and dove them under the water to follow it over the cliff.
A rush of bubbles carried the rumble of the river. The thunder
of water beating the bottom of the cliff pounded through her. It was the
roar of the earth’s pulse. Her second eyelid closed to make everything
green, black, and gray. Pebbles abraded her skin. Unseen forces buffeted
her as boulders appeared and vanished behind her. Beast swam through the
currents as if they were air. The water flung them down, and Alissa’s eyes
widened. Her stomach dropped. They had fallen over the edge! They would
she screamed into her mind, frightened by
Beast’s savage desire to fly. Her haunches bunched. As they fell, Beast
pushed off from the wall of the cliff behind them.
Green light flashed to gold as Beast shoved them out of the
waterfall and into space. Heavy with water, they dropped. Her wings sprang
open, and they rose on the cold, violent updraft from the upwelling mist.
Alissa shrieked aloud, hearing her triumph come out as a savage roar.
“You did it!” she cried.
“Burn you to ash, Alissa!”
came Connen-Neute’s thoughts
from above and behind them. Alissa snaked her neck back to see him
clambering awkwardly through the branches. “Beast is going to kill you
someday!” he shouted at her.
“See you at home!” Alissa called back, finding herself
doing a barrel roll.
Beast shook them, and they flew through a rainbow.
still have your breakfast,” Beast thought smugly.
Eye ridge rising, Alissa glanced at the cluster of eggs still
secure in her grip. They still had the eggs. Alissa puffed out her air in
disbelief, letting Beast take whatever updraft she wanted on the way home.
Gradually her pulse slowed as the excitement from their flight eased.
Alissa didn’t think she would ever learn to fly. To let go and trust the
wind was asking too much. Perhaps as much as asking a beast to understand