The hood over my head was suffocating. It rested too tight against my skin, and every breath whistled across my face, doing absolutely nothing for the agonizing heat of midday. My hands were bound as well, and each step was an awkward affair, tied to Vali as I was.
Each bump sent a shudder of pain down my legs. We were mismatched, and each long step of Vali’s legs were met by two of mine. Behind me, Henry rested.
“I’m sorry,” He muttered into my back, watching me move. I swallowed.
We were led off of the beach and very quickly moved to the prisoner’s quarters, a great mottle of cells carved into the fortress encampment. We were kept in the same cell, tied and bound so we couldn’t do anything about it, and then and only then did they tear the hood off of me and leave me.
“They’re finding the proper equipment,” Vali said, shaking her head. “It won’t be long. Make your peace.”
The cells weren’t quiet, and they weren’t dark. The noon sun trickled in through cracks, painting portions of the floor with brilliant light (my eyes didn’t much care for that, so I didn’t linger on them) and other portions of it with smoky shadows. There was a bed in the corner, half defaced and destroyed.
Vali did stretches in the corner, as much as she could with her wings (and thus her arms) tied back in with ropes, showing off stretches of feathers. She wore no shirt, and her stomach was toned muscle. I avoided her chest out of some vague idea of propriety, and more likely because she still had talons on her feet that could disembowel me in a heart beat.
More striking was the state of her eyes. She had two on the left side of her head, and one sat, milky, a scar carved across it, on her right. She had the cloudy grey wings of a dove.
The second eye emerged out of a scar carved into the cleft of her eyebrow, and it was violently red, just like the one below it, a striking contrast to the milky white of the eye on her right. This wasn’t a natural state of affairs this was-
“Try not to stare,” Vali suggested. “I have killed for far less, in these loops.”
I swallowed and looked away from her.
“You’ve clearly met Sirens before,” she groused. “I have to wonder what exactly a human is doing in the living seas-”
“Lost,” a voice called out from the cell next to us. “He’s lost.”
It took a moment to place the voice.
“Thyn!?” I hissed, pressing myself against the bars.
“In the flesh,” He said. I couldn’t see him, but he sounded pained. “Regrettably.”
“Thyn, we’re here!”
“I know,” Thyn said, his voice low and sharp. “This is the exact sort of hare brained scheme I knew would happen the second I got caught.”
Murmurs from the other cells, voices that hadn’t taken on the salt grit of most of the sailors. “Yes, these are the ones I said would help.” He laughed, a bit of a wheeze from the darkness.
I rolled my eyes. “We’re going to save you.”
“I know.” He paused. “After all, I still have to bite off the Captain’s fucking head for-”
The cells went quiet as the doors opened. Everyone went still. Not a soul moved apart from Vali, who stubbornly did her stretches in the oppressive heat of the noon sun.
“You two,” The swordsman said, pointing at me. He was someone special to the Colonel. Behind him, Jacob trailed, his red hair easy to pick him out of the other crowd of men. “Are you going to come easily, or are you going to struggle?”
“Commander…” Jacob started.
The Swordsman’s head whipped around and glared at him until the complaint vanished, and then returned to linger on the two of us. “It’s time for your performance.”
I swallowed. Sweat dripped down my chin and danced across the exposed hem of my old shirt. This was not a place I wanted to be.
He opened up the cell door, and since we were still bound, they ignored me in favor of immobilizing Vali first. She shot me a sour glance, her eyes settling on the chain of the necklace around my throat.
I got the message.
They wrangled the hood over her head, and then, before she could move her legs, they had the ropes on them as well, and then the entire affair dragged her out of the cell. The swordsman sat at the door, watching me.
I could hear Thyn in the next cell over, shifting slightly to watch us.
“Are you going to come easily?” the Commander asked. I looked him over. There were stones in his eyes. They’d clearly beaten out any of his morals-
That wasn’t correct. I was a prisoner of war. I was a resource to be used.
And they were going to use me.
I nodded at him, and he grabbed me by the rope bonds and tugged my arms out behind me until I couldn’t do much more than feel tears bead at the corner of my eyes, and then the hood settled back on, and I marched away.
At least I knew where Thyn was. In the exact opposite direction I was planning on running. At this point, I needed to- It was hard to-
I might die here. I might really die here, and be trapped in this stupid island for the rest of my life. I needed to face facts and get somewhere safe, and then I could think about saving the others. They didn’t need a martyr, they needed a rescue.
I swallowed, and tried to keep marching pace with the Commander. It was hard with an uneven path, and even harder when I had to rely on my ears.
“My apologies, Kin,” The Commander rumbled behind me. Like it mattered that I was human. Like it made me more of a person than anyone else. He wasn’t going to apologize to Vali, now was he?
A knot formed in my throat, because I remembered exactly what Vali had said. One in two chance they just executed us on the spot. What had they decided on? Execution or bait for a trap?
What did I want my last labor to be?
I’d… helped the Captain. Blindly. I’d ended up here, after all. In hell. I’d… I hadn’t amounted to much.
Sweat rolled down my skin, which was suddenly and abruptly cold and clammy, and all I could hear was the throbbing of my heart, beating against my skin. At least I had company at the end.
We went up and up. Every time I almost stumbled, the Commander caught me and hoisted me up until my wrists were rubbed raw and I thought they might start bleeding. Every time I hesitated, the grip on my wrists tightened, mashing the bones together.
I didn’t know how much time had passed. I lost track almost immediately, between the beating rays of the sun and the marching pace we’d kept.
But what broke the time were the grunts of pain before me. First, they were quiet, like someone hammering in the rods of a tent, and then they were sharp.
Then came the blows. Each whack of the hammer brought a sharp wheeze, a noise choked off like a tortured cow. Each beat of the head brought another cry.
And then, we were at the top of whatever hell we were in, and the Commander tore the bag off of my head. Vali stood in front of me, her face dispassionate, blood dripping down her right wing. She was stretched out across a massive wooden cross, wide enough to settle her full wing span across, and nails sat embedded in the skin of her right wing. Her eyes settled on me. There was no fear there. The soldier drove in another nail to her right wing. Her features flexed, and that same pained wheeze came free. They hadn’t yet moved to her left.
This had happened before. They would move to her left, and she would sit out here as a beacon of warning.
She had been here before, and she knew what would happen next without intervention, and her eyes lingered on me as a ticket to her salvation. I swallowed.
“You’re lucky today,” The Commander said. “You’re bait.”
I was silent as he whirled me around, looking down into my eyes.
“I don’t know if you’re slave or traitor, a ghost or a warning. You wear the Colonel’s face as a mockery- but I can fix this.” he said. “If you answer my questions, I’m sure I can negotiate something.” He leaned forward, staring at me, searching my eyes for some petty feedback. He didn’t find it. He brought his fist back and slammed it into my gut. I stumbled back, bile pushed out of my throat, and vomited on the floor.
“I am merciful,” The Commander hissed, leaning over top of me. “And I’d advise you to understand that. What matter of creature are you to wear her face?”
In that frenzied moment I took note of where we were. We were on a plateau, the air was clear for miles around. In the distance, the administration fortress sat, bloomed with dozens of torches. Somewhere behind us, hidden by the forest, the human fortress sat in cool cold juxtaposition and-
The Commander’s boot slammed into my chest.
“Cry out, damn you,” he swore. “I know you’re not mute. Do you think I like doing this? This is your life you’re dealing with!”
I didn’t have any answers that were worth giving. What could I say that wouldn’t be insane? He let his boot off of my chest and I tried to pull myself back up, and stumbled back instead until I stopped.
My head cracked into a wooden post carved into the mountain and then I tasted blood and saw stars. My tongue split open into a drool of blood.
“Do it,” Vali suggested, her voice dark and clouded with pain.
I twisted my head to the side and dry heaved, blood dripping past my lips, and then the Commander whirled back, catching my wrists by the rope, and then he forced my arms back behind me.
Then lifted, putting pressure on them. My shoulder blades ached, almost sharp enough to dive out of my skin, and tears beaded across my eyes, trickled down my face. “Th-this is luck?”
“Your masters stole The Eye of the Worm from us,” The Commander bit out. “There is no law limiting what we’ll do to get it back. There is nothing holding us accountable. If we don’t get it back…” He trailed off. “You’re lucky that I’m not killing you right now, because the Colonel thinks you’re worth more alive than dead. I might disagree.”
“Where’s your…” I trailed off. “Where’s your humanity!”
“Humanity?” He laughed, dropping my hands. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then his boot slammed into my back, driving me into the ground.
My brain flew two fold. Anything to stop the pain, but anything to live.
If I gave in, how would I escape? If I started screaming, would I ever stop?
I had one shot. One chance to change the loop.
Or I’d be part of it.
“Look around you! Humanity is on these teeming shores, desperate to save this god forsaken world from avaricious birds. Do you know what you can do with that damn eye? Do you have any idea how important it is? When it finishes charging— we’ve covered this island in blood, it won’t be long, I assure you, and you’re stuck here pretending that we’re the bad guys?”
I remained silent. I tasted dirt, and blood, and bile, mixed together into a cocktail that felt more like death, and then, feeling his boot shift, and his hands around my side, I dug my chin down and flipped up the necklace
He whirled me around, his eyes wide and manic. “Do you really think that?” His hands wrapped around my throat, abandoning my arms, and he lifted. Black rimmed the edges of my vision, and I gurgled.
It all slammed into place, just like that. A great moment of opportunity, like the heavens themselves had opened up.
I figured that was part of the concussion, the blood trickling down the side of my head, more than anything else, but it didn’t stop that emotion from swelling up.
And the necklace, exposed along my neckline, beamed with the emotion, and let out a massive flash right into the swordsman’s eyes. I was protected by the meat of my chin, but it was bright enough that I could see it through my skin.
He recoiled, dropping me to the floor, briefly blind, and then the guards around us drew their swords. But I was already moving. They were quick, but they-
Not quick enough to stop me from slamming my foot into the Commander’s stomach, sending him falling back. Not quick enough to stop-
“Finally,” Vali said, and with a mighty screen like an eagle, she tore her right wing off of the scaffold. Her arm came down like a weapon of virtue and the talons slashed across the soldier’s throat, seconds before he started on her left wing.
Blood sprayed along the ground, and then her taloned hand flashed down and slit through the ropes binding her feet together, and then finally, her tied off left. With eyes like fire and a face that rang of determination and a sheer will that had been hardened by months of fantasizing about freedom, she tore the cross out of the ground, breaking the wood with a quick twist of her now freed left, and then she used it like a war hammer, sweeping three of the guards across the side of the cliff.
The Commander threw himself back up to his feet, hands still clenched over his eyes, and I backpedaled, darting back to Vali’s side. The smell of blood was all encompassing.
“Commander,” Jacob hissed, and the cross flashed out, diving into the ground of guards.
“Back off,” The commander spat, tearing his hands off of his eyes. They were burned from the flash, but he drew his sword and stood in front of the guards. “Beast, you have wronged the wrong man.”
“Murderer, you’ve ruined my feathers,” Vali spat, clutching her cross. “And that offence is far greater than the petty lives of bullies and vagabonds.”
“There’s nowhere to go,” The Commander said. “You can’t fly, and my back is to the sole path down.”
Vali hesitated, if only for a brief second, and then, in the distance, another eagle’s cry bellowed forth. And then another, and then another. The Commander’s eyes, singed, tears running out of them, widened, and then he dove for cover. His men weren’t half as lucky. Thick arrows, as long as a man’s arm, popped up out of their armored chests like a scatter shot of poppy blossoms, and they fell, grasping their chests.
Jacob, protected as he’d been at the foot of the mountain, grabbed the Commander from behind. “Back off. Let the birds have their kin.”
The Commander hissed like a particularly large and angry rat, and then dove back down the path before the next volley of arrows could fall.
Vali breathed out a sigh of relief. “There. There, I made it. By the worm, I made it. My story doesn’t end here.”
She toppled forward onto her knees, and I darted to her side as quick as I could. I was limping, and I could barely breath, but I was there. “Vali, your wing-”
“I know about my damned wing,” Vali hissed, but showed it to me anyway. The feathers were torn askew, and then skin of the actual wing was broken in a half dozen places. Her talons were chipped and torn from the slam she’d done to free herself. Adrenaline coursed through her naked form, making her shudder and squirm and twitch from the high.
I didn’t know what to do. I barely knew what to do for my own injuries, let alone hers. “You’re not-”
“No,” Vali said. “I’m not dying. Not yet.” She rolled over on her back and stared up at the heavens, tilting her right wing away from the dirt.
Sirens were descending.