Sara Douglass
Starman: Book Three of the Axis Trilogy

The Icarii birdwoman at RuffleCrest’s wing felt rather than heard the Gryphon behind them. She wheeled to her left and dived with a wordless cry, and as the Gryphon pack struck the Icarii Wing, the birdmen and women broke formation, desperately trying to evade the Gryphon and, increasingly, engaged in useless battles for their own lives.

One after another they felt the Gryphon on their backs, felt the great legs wrap about their bodies, felt talons and razorsharp beaks rip into flesh.

RuffleCrest felt the sudden rush of air and hot breath as a Gryphon fell through the air towards him, and he desperately twisted and dived, hoping that he would prove more agile than the creature behind him. He groped for an arrow from the quiver on his back, but just as his hand closed about the shaft of an arrow he was seized in the death grip of the Gryphon.

He screamed, but he could do nothing more. One arm was twisted and trapped beneath the body of the Gryphon as it clutched to his back – agony flared as the unnatural forces twisting his arm finally snapped both bone and tendon. His other hand grasped uselessly at one of the great paws that were wrapped about his chest and belly. His wings fluttered uselessly; the only thing that kept him in the air now were the powerful wings of the Gryphon.

To one side RuffleCrest could see another Gryphon clutching a birdwoman in a death grip. Even in the split second that his eyes remained on the woman the Gryphon’s talons sheared through flesh and bone, and before his eyes the woman literally burst apart in a shower of blood and body parts.

The last thing he saw before he closed his eyes in horror was the carcass of his comrade falling through the sky.

The Gryphon tightened its grip, and RuffleCrest realised that at any heartbeat its talons would begin to tear him apart.

And indeed they did begin to tear, but they did not inflict fatal wounds. A whimper of pain escaped RuffleCrest as he felt the Gryphon’s talons slice into the muscles of his chest and belly, but they did not penetrate to a killing depth. After raking him with its talons for several minutes, slowly, extending its enjoyment, the Gryphon unbelievably released him, and RuffleCrest fell almost a hundred paces through the air before he recovered enough to spread his wings and push himself as hard as he could for the south.

Five of the hellish creatures chased him and toyed with him for several leagues, RuffleCrest sobbing with fear, certain that at any moment one would strike and finish him.

But they didn’t. Eventually they left him alone, and when RuffleCrest finally looked back it was to see that the sky behind him was empty of both Gryphon and Icarii.

He was the only one of his Wing who had survived.

Hugging his crippled arm to his chest, RuffleCrest slowly limped south. The flight would take him several days, and he would be almost dead from exhaustion and the spreading poison from his infected wounds when he finally reached safety.

In his more lucid moments, he wondered why he had been left alive.

Almost immediately after the Icarii had fled, the IceWorms staged an attack. Rearing their monstrous heads, they crashed through the upper windows of the buildings that they ringed, heaving obscenely to disgorge their cargoes of Skraelings directly into the buildings’ upper levels.

At the same time the Skraeling units outside attacked the ground floors through doors and windows. And, as the IceWorms, empty, their task done, withdrew from the streets and joined their companions to the west, hundreds of Gryphon exploded through windows.

The attacks by the IceWorms, Skraelings and Gryphon occurred so close together that to Jorge it sounded like one continuous roar. He heard the windows in the upper levels of the market hall explode first, then, an instant later, the screams of both wraiths and men as the ground-floor windows shattered. Gripping his sword in hands so cold they were virtually numb, feeling the icy air sear his lungs as he took a deep breath, Jorge stepped forward to meet the first Skraeling who leapt his way.

May his Star Gods help him, Jorge thought as he kept the bony-armoured Skraelings at bay with well-placed strokes of his sword, desperately seeking an opening for a killing thrust. Even Axis will be hard pressed to defeat such as these.

And, even more worrying than their new appearance, where had they learned their new-found discipline? Today’s attack on Jervois Landing had been well planned and well coordinated as no Skraeling attack had been previously. What had they learned? Jorge wondered as his breath came in short gasps and his arms began to tremble with weariness. And who have they learned it from?

Out of the corners of his eyes Jorge could see his men dying about him. Gryphon were creeping down the stairs, launching themselves on terrified victims and tearing them apart in heartbeats.

I do not want to die! Jorge’s mind cried, but he knew that his death was inevitable. Would the Skraeling eat him after it had killed him? Strangely, Jorge found that thought even more horribly repellent than the idea of death itself. An honourable warrior deserved an honourable burial.

“You are right, Jorge,” said a voice, and a hand appeared on the Skraeling’s shoulder.

Jorge stared in disbelief at the man who stood before him. How … how did he stand so safe and relaxed among this cursed horde?

Timozel smiled at Jorge, then casually glanced about the room to watch the Skraelings and Gryphon butcher those few men remaining alive. Finally he turned his eyes back to the man before him.

“Honourable men deserve honourable deaths,” Timozel said, slightly stressing the first “honourable”. “But you and yours hardly fight for an honourable cause. Do you not fight with the Forbidden, cursed and evil creatures that they are? And do you not fight for Axis, spawn of the Forbidden?”

“And who do you fight for, Timozel?”

Again Timozel smiled, and Jorge could see the cold cruelty in the man’s eyes. “I serve the saviour, Jorge. Gorgrael. I will see that he triumphs. I will free Achar from the horror that grips it.”

Jorge’s hands, nerveless with terror at Timozel’s words, let his sword clatter to the floor. “Have you gone mad, Timozel?” he whispered.

“Not at all, Earl Jorge,” Timozel said, leaning down and retrieving the man’s sword. “I have come entirely to my senses.”

Then, teeth gleaming, he ran Jorge through the belly with his own sword, gave it a vicious twist, and left him to collapse and die on the floor.

As Timozel turned away, Jorge rolled onto his side, knowing from the breath-taking pain knifing through his body that he was dying. He wrapped his hands about the blade and made a half-hearted attempt to pull it out.

But the pain was too great, and Jorge lay still, watching with greying vision as Timozel communed with his nightmare commander.

“Axis,” Jorge whispered with his last breath, and this time it was a prayer. Avenge me!

At the last, Jorge had found his god.

It is done, Master.

Good, Timozel. Was it fun?

Did you not watch, Master?

Ah, yes, I watched and I revelled. But, did you find it fun?

Timozel smiled. Yes, yes and yes again. I think I will bathe in blood tonight.

And now you will move south?

Yes. Now I will lay the trap for Axis.

Good, good boy. Pretty boy. You serve me well.

10 RuffleCrest Speaks (#ulink_b734d5dc-6cd4-533f-b866-d929ad67b8d2)

Two days later a Flight of three Wing scouting high over the Western Ranges almost forty leagues above Carlon, saw a black spot drifting slowly over the mountain peaks far below them. The Wing-Leaders, wary that attack from Gorgrael was considered likely any day now, ordered their commands to approach slowly and carefully. They did not want to be lured into a trap.

But as they spiralled down and their far-seeing eyes focused on the spot, their commander, the recently promoted Crest-Leader SpikeFeather TrueSong, gave a wordless cry and beat his wings powerfully to reach his stricken comrade so far below.

SpikeFeather, having survived a Gryphon attack previously, recognised the sight and smell of Gryphon wounds well before the others in his Flight.

They caught RuffleCrest only minutes before he would have fallen, exhausted, from the sky, and they carried him in turns back to Carlon. There they took him directly to their StarMan, startling him as he sat at supper with the Enchantress in the Jade Chamber. Then they stood back, unspeaking, waiting for the StarMan to weave his enchantments on their dying comrade.

Only because RuffleCrest was dying was Axis able to aid him. He gathered the birdman, his torso streaked with crimson and green lines of infection, as he had once gathered SpikeFeather, and he sang for him the Song of Recreation.

Then, as RuffleCrest blinked, surprised, back to life, Axis directed that he be carried to a chamber where he could rest the night. He would speak with him in the morning.

Axis, as Azhure, did not need to speak with RuffleCrest to know what news he carried.

Axis had personally appointed RuffleCrest JoyFlight to lead the single Wing at Jervois Landing.