Even after years of effort, most of the shale plains were still dead.
A slight smirk on her face, Rachel sauntered across the grey ground, shale sharp enough to cut bare feet crunching under her boots. She ignored the sound of it as much as she did the periodic grey bush, or the endlessly deep blue skies that stretched overhead toward the distant mountains. Instead she focused on the line of horses and riders on the road leading south from the Valley she’d been born in, all of them over a mile away and small. There were a lot of them. It was a large delegation, though of course it always was when the queen rode. Rachel made a very unladylike sound. They also moved too slowly when the queen rode.
A heavy footstep sounded, a massive form lumbering up behind the slim girl, and though he looked as though he was nothing less than a monster, with thick fur and heavy limbs, his body lethal and corded with muscle, Rachel leaned back against him, pressing her back against his warm fur while she reached up, her fingers scratching the thick skin of his heavy neck. He rumbled in contentment and a long, pink tongue kissed her arm.
Rachel smiled and turned towards him, burying her face in the long, blue fur of the creature, who was in the shape of something that was a mix of a cat and a bear and so large that her cheek pressed against his shoulder and his head towered over her. It didn’t matter what shape he took; she’d always know him because he’d been with her for as long as she’d been alive.
“That’s my Claw,” she cooed and heard his deep, rumbling purr. She scratched under his chin, working both her hands into the deep fur of the ruff beneath his broad, flat head, and moved them up to the small, upright ears. Pulling his big head down, she pressed her cheek against his.
Claw was her battle sylph, a shape-shifting spirit brought from another world and bound to her on her tenth birthday. For three years she’d been able to feel his emotions, and she felt his nervous happiness now at being out here with her, away from the protection of the rest of the hive. For her entire life before he was given to her, Rachel had been drilled on the importance of being gentle with Claw, of never forgetting the horrors he’d gone through before her birth, but she knew what he liked and as she reached up higher to massage his ears, his head bowing nearly to the ground to let her. Rachel leaned against him while she rubbed his ears, invoking more of that great purr.
“You want to run with me, don’t you?” she cooed, feeling his almost sleepy submission. She could just order him, but a co-conspirator was so much more fun than a servant.
Yes, he sent, his voice a whisper in her mind. Claw only spoke to her.
“You want to run with me all the way to the forest,” she continued, her hands still scratching. He started to tense and she hugged him with her entire body. “so you can pick apples from the trees for me. Don’t you, Claw?”
He hesitated, not wanting to disobey the order to stay near the convoy, but that order hadn’t come from the Queen, who he couldn’t disobey, but instead the lead battler, who theoretically he could. He didn’t like to, but Rachel had been convincing her battler to do things he didn’t want to since before he’d been bound to her.
“Imagine those trees, Claw,” she whispered. “All green with bright red apples. You know how much I love apples.”
He groaned and she knew she had him. Rachel grinned and pushed herself away from Claw, her long black hair swinging to the small of her back as she ran around to his side. Claw lifted a foreleg and she used it and a double-handful of clasped fur to pull herself up onto his back. His back was broad, well padded with bright blue fur, and she spread her legs to straddle him, grasping his fur again with both hands. A thrill of exhilaration filled her. Claw felt her emotions with his empathy and tossed his massive head up, snorting.
Rachel leaned over to his ear. “Run,” she whispered.
Claw ran, his talons digging into the ground and pushing him forward as he raced across the dismal ground, broken shale kicking up with every footstep. For all his size, he was incredibly fast and Rachel laughed in delight as her hair streamed behind her. Claw charged across the ground, muscles bunching underneath Rachel’s legs as he picked up speed, galloping parallel to the convoy on the road. They were still distant, but they’d been traveling for several days now and at the speed he was going, Claw would reach the border and the forests she longed to see in an hour. Rachel could hardly wait, even as she loved the feel of the wind in her face and the strength underneath her.
The Queen suggests that we rejoin the convoy, Claw told her, a bit uncertainly.
Rachel smirked. Her mother would never give Claw an order. She gave them rarely enough as it was, but to Claw? She considered him too fragile to command. To Rachel, Solie just didn’t know how to be a proper commander.
“Don’t you dare!” Rachel laughed, leaning over him, her face close enough to his fur to smell the battler. He always smelled faintly reminiscent of tall grasses and clean winds. “She can make me be all stuffy later. For now we’re having fun!” She slapped his neck, urging him to greater efforts, and with a sigh he redoubled his efforts. They flew across the sands, Rachel drinking down the adrenaline of it as surely as Claw fed off her energy to fuel his run.
Her mother wouldn’t order Claw, but over at the convoy Rachel disdained to ride with, someone broke free from them, heading on a trajectory that would intersect with her own.
“Faster!” Rachel shouted. Claw could outrun just about anything. Battler strength increased with age and he was older than more than half of the Valley’s flight.
Claw made a herculean effort, but it wasn’t a battle sylph running to catch them. Instead, a beautiful blonde woman rode a mare at an angle to cut them off, the white horse galloping across the shale towards them as though it wasn’t dangerous for an animal’s feet.
The moment Rachel grew close enough to recognize the woman, she knew the race was lost. Still, she pulled her lips back from her teeth in a snarl, refusing to give up. “Fly!” she shouted at her battler.
Obedient, Claw changed shape. In his natural form, he was a black cloud filled with lightning, with ball lightning for eyes and jagged lightning teeth. He could carry passengers inside of his mantle, but Rachel disdained riding that way. She couldn’t see anything and Claw knew her preferences.
His form flowed underneath her, fur shifting and becoming hard and scaly. The handfuls of fur she gripped turned into curved spikes jutting out of his shoulder blades, easy to grip, while massive wings erupted outwards, spreading to show thin sails of skin. His bulky head pushed outwards, his neck growing long and supple, and his entire body grew sleek and thin. Rachel pulled her knees up, her shins resting now along the length of his massive, reptilian wings.
Claw leaped into the air, his wings down sweeping and throwing him up as he did. Used to it, Rachel whooped as she felt the air pressing her down against his spine. Inspired by storybooks, the massive dragon flew into the air, his entire body still coloured a gorgeous, iridescent blue.
Below them, the ground grew tiny at a furious rate. The white horse reared, forelegs pawing at the air while the woman on her back looked upward, her hand shadowing her eyes, her hair blowing all around her. Rachel just laughed and waved as they flew past, still gaining altitude. She didn’t bother to shout anything. Anything she said would have just been lost in the roar of the wind and the heavy beating of Claw’s wings.
She’s coming, Claw told her, his mental voice clear in her mind.
Rachel looked back, one hand braced on Claw’s spine, the other gripping the spike he’d grown for her. She saw the woman and horse standing on the ground behind them, the more distant convoy still trudging along even farther back, and then the horse was changing. Annoyed, Rachel watched her turn into a pearlescent white dragonfly, her wings sparkling in the sun like the sun shining off a thousand sparkling droplets of a waterfall. She went straight up into the air, her master sitting just behind her head, and came after them.
I’ll never outrun her, Claw said.
“Well, try!” Rachel snapped, furious.
Claw did, his wings beating rapidly as he flew for the forests, his head stretched out before him and his long tail streaming behind, his legs held along his body. He put all the strength he had into it, but there was no outrunning Autumn. Battlers were quick, but Autumn was a healer sylph, halfway to metamorphosing into a queen before she crossed the gate, and she was fast. No one could outrun her when she put her mind to it.
Still, she had her master on her back, and Gabralina had to be at least as old as Rachel’s mother. Rachel started grinning. “Shake her loose!” she called to her battler, even as she leaned her body down against his, gripping the sides of his spine with her legs as tightly as she could while she hung onto the spikes. A moment later, the spikes changed to tentacles that wrapped around her forearms.
Claw barrel rolled and dove. The height he’d gained he shed in seconds and pulled up, rocketing along just above the grey surface of the plains before angling his wings into a sudden, warmer pocket of air and shooting back up into the air in a different direction.
Rachel laughed ecstatically, dimly aware that if Claw hadn’t secured her, she’d likely have been thrown off his back. It didn’t matter. The wind was roaring in her ears, deafening her until she couldn’t hear her own laughter, and her stomach was flip-flopping as she was pushed against him, then away as he turned abruptly, banking, then against him again as he leveled out. She didn’t understand physics, but she did understand adrenaline, and she loved this.
“Faster!” she shouted, almost forgetting about the healer and the woman chasing them.
I’m not sure I can go faster, Claw said, his voice mournful as he beat his wings furiously, climbing upwards at such an angle that Rachel hung along his back, his tentacles the only thing keeping her from falling along the length of his body and off. Rachel ignored his tone. She could feel his emotions and under all the nervousness and uncertainty, he was having fun. As long as she could keep him from thinking about after, when her mother inevitably gave one of her lectures, he might actually realize he was enjoying himself.
Claw climbed, until the air started to turn cold as winter around her and the ground was so far below them that even the convoy was next to invisible, everyone small as ants. Autumn followed them, her wings a blur as she climbed after them, gaining. Claw was barely moving at all, it seemed, going almost straight up but so slowly where the dragonfly could just hover and rise, following them.
“I said go faster,” Rachel hissed. His tentacles around her forearms were starting to ache and she couldn’t get any purchase with her feet.
I am, he protested, and then he turned over and dove.
Rachel gasped, her scream torn from her by the same wind that filled her eyes with tears she had to blink away just so that she could see. This was speed! Claw had his wings and legs tucked close to his body as he dove, the air roaring all around them. Rachel couldn’t hang on. Only Claw’s tentacles wrapped around her arms kept her from coming off him and even with them the rest of her body came off of his, and she felt weightless as she hung there, both of them plummeting towards the ground that was rising towards them so fast.
They blew past Autumn, racing past the healer and her master so fast that Rachel was barely able to acknowledge them before they were gone. She didn’t care anyway. This was exhilarating, better than she could have imagined, and she knew already she wanted Claw to do this with her again, so many times again.
I like this, Claw admitted shyly. It’s fun.
The ground was rocketing up towards them, the details of the rock and sand coming into focus with amazing speed. Rachel sucked in her breath, hard though it was to breathe at this speed, and then Claw angled his wings, the sail coming away from his body just enough, and they pulled up, their flight leveling out no more than fifty feet above the ground, and suddenly they were shooting along above it, still at that incredible speed, and Rachel was howling with excitement and laughter, her body still parallel to Claw’s, stretched out from their speed in her own flight.
The acrobatics Claw had taken had changed the direction they were flying in. Rachel barely had time to realize they weren’t heading in the direction of the forest anymore but towards the convoy with her mother in it before they were on it. She saw horses rearing and neighing in terror on the ground, their riders fighting to control them, while the black clouds of battle sylphs flew over them, roaring and getting out of her and Claw’s way as fast as they could. They nearly clipped one, and Rachel felt her own battler’s embarrassed misery at that. She only laughed.
“Head to the forests!” she shouted, though she wasn’t sure he could hear her past the roaring of the winds. They’d slowed a bit, but they were still moving with incredible speed. They’d be in there before her mother got her horse under control enough to even think about yelling at her.
Just when Rachel was sure of her victory, Autumn blew past them. She’d swapped her dragonfly form for a giant hawk, her wings long and pulled back, and she went by them so fast that the air itself exploded in a massive booming crash that even the greatest storm would have envied.