Ebodar gasped. “You didn’t go out there alone, did you, verl?”
He had a name, though none had used it since his mark appeared shortly after he was born. He remembered it, though he’d only heard it said in a whisper his mother had shared in his ear when she’d see him struggling. It had been too many years since she passed, and it was hard not to resent the way even that had been taken from him. Sudal wouldn’t forget the name she’d given him although all those important gave up their identities to the clan. Sudal’s father, as the leader of their clan, was addressed only as Lord.
“But you haven’t had the ceremony yet. Your wings aren’t mature enough for true flight.” Ebodar’s wings were smaller than Sudal’s, and his sails were still translucent. Just a few days ago, Sudal’s wings were just as pale. But now….
Sudal stepped into the light and flexed the muscles in his back to flare his wings, showing off the bright red sails between the black spines. “They are now.” He’d woken earlier, the tingles as they solidified sending shivers up and down his back. His fangs had dropped, but he wouldn’t mention that, not even to Ebodar.
There were some things a verl just didn’t talk about. He’d never have a chance to use them anyway.
Ever since he’d woken, Sudal had been drawn to the cliffs. He knew he wasn’t supposed to go out there, much less alone. Standing at the precipice, he’d leapt like a foolhardy youth, as if a catch net was held by waiting guards to ensure he didn’t die as he got his first taste of the god’s breath that supported them in the sky. His wings had caught the wind, and he’d sailed away from the black stone ledges, aloft for the very first time.
The ceremony for a verl to take his first flight was a public ordeal he’d been determined to avoid, even if it went against all tradition. He’d dreamed of the moment he’d gain the freedom of the skies for decades, and he would not do so under the watchful eyes of the clan—even if no one else knew. If he failed, if death was his fate, he would face it alone.
His first flight was all too short, but his wings were newly hardened. The wind slammed against the cliffs and blasted upward, creating huge drafts Sudal had to fight on his way back in order to land, but land he did. He hadn’t fallen, and no one knew what he’d done until Ebodar caught him sneaking into the back halls. He was fortunate his best friend was the guard on the stairs that led to his family’s wing instead of one of his father’s men.
“I can’t believe you risked your status to sneak out. Do you always have to push boundaries?”
“That’s easy for you to say. You wanted to be a guard your whole life, but it wasn’t your destiny. You had a choice.”
“You have a choice too.”
Sudal snorted. Ebodar had been his closest friend, but not even he understood. How could he explain that the so-called honor of his position felt like nothing more than a yoke around his neck, chaining him to a duty… to his supposed destiny?
“Your hair is a mess, and you’re bleeding.” Ebodar shook his head. “You better hope your father doesn’t find out.”
“I’m not going to tell him, and you’re not either, right?” Sudal held his breath.
Ebodar raised an eyebrow. “You know me better than that, but you need to clean up before someone besides me catches you.”
“Thanks, Ebodar.” Sudal skirted the guard and hurried up the rest of the stairs. He peeked into the corridor, but it appeared empty. He strolled casually—if quickly—down to his room. He let out a deep sigh of relief once his door was firmly shut behind him. Hopefully none of the servants saw him.
His father expected Sudal to take his training seriously, and he did for the most part. But so many of the rules of their clan were outdated and stifling in the modern era. Humans knew about paranormals, and had since before Sudal was born, yet he was kept away from them for his own purity.
He was forbidden to leave the safety of the cliffs, even with the other youths who’d been allowed to descend to the valley floor after they reached maturity. His destiny as a verl was vital to the clan; no one else could enter the Temple of the Winds, so the security around him was for his own good.
Or so his father said. Sudal was nearly fifty, and he’d lost patience with the isolation long ago. He wanted to experience things, to spread his wings. Now his wings had matured, which usually meant an adult was full-fledged in the clan and free to declare their chosen path. Most people, like Ebodar, knew what they wanted and trained in their fields beforehand, but until they had their ceremony, they had the freedom to try many things and change their mind.
They could be intimate with others, touch and be touched, until their fangs hardened and mates locked together, injecting the fluids through the deep bite only a true partner could receive.
All Sudal knew were temple studies. A mate was not his to have; his body must remain pure and his mind focused. He could recite records dating back to the time they used scrolls, his studies as well as his only form of entertainment, but human technology was far more interesting. Tradition deemed it had no place in the clan halls, but one time he’d seen a guard using one of their communication devices. He’d spied on him from afar, captivated by the bright colors and the moving pictures on the screen.
It’d taken two years to gather enough blackmail to hold over the guard in order to get his own. It was Sudal’s most precious possession, and he had it carefully hidden, only daring to use it when he knew he was completely alone.
Sudal was tempted to check it for messages, but the moon was rising. With his wings mature, he would be expected to appear before the clan and announce his status change. Hurrying into his bathing chamber, he pulled the stopper up on the tub and let it fill. He shrugged out of his dark clothes, leaving them in a crumpled mess on the floor.
The fragrant waters were soothing, easing the ache in his unused muscles. He washed his hair, wringing out his pale tresses and then bundling them on top of his head and out of the way while he dried off and dressed.
“Where the hell did they put them?” His white robes were ceremonial, encrusted with sky gems and embroidered with clouds done in midnight blue. They were gaudy and made him stand out since no one other than a verl could wear white, and he was the only verl in their clan for generations.
Of course, it took him nearly fifteen minutes to realize the staff had put them away in his closet instead of leaving them crumpled in the chest at the foot of his bed where he’d hidden them. They were perfectly pressed and hung on the rod, just waiting for this moment. The servants were always unseen, but knowing they were always rifling through the things in his room upset him. Hiding his phone had taken ingenious plotting.
Pushing it from his mind, Sudal focused on getting dressed. He was running out of time. He had nothing against the plain white pants; they were at least comfortable even if they were so tight they clung to him like a second skin.
He sighed as he eased the panels of the tunic around his wings, then crossed the sides over his front, creating a deep vee that exposed most of his chest, including his birthmark. He used a belt to close the slits in the back and hold the front shut. The tunic weighed a ton with all the jewels around the edges, the twinkling stones highlighting the shining skin on his chest. It was like wearing a big sign that said, “Look at me! I’m different!”
Sudal hated it.
Everyone stopped and stared when he walked down the halls, then broke into whispers as soon as he passed them. Sudal ignored them, holding his wings tight to his back. He didn’t stop until he was in front of the double doors leading to the clan’s ceremonial chamber.
Two guards opened the doors, and Sudal stepped inside.
Clearly someone had alerted his father to Sudal’s metamorphosis. He was standing behind the moon well, the shutters thrown back from the floor to ceiling windows and flooding the chamber with the night’s silvery light. The floor was filling up as more and more clan members flooded the main floor and the upper galleries.
“Verl of Prasuza clan, come forward!” His father’s voice rang through the room, and it fell silent, not even a rustle of fabric or the cry or whimper of a child to break the solemn rite.
Knowing he’d already experienced his first flight solo gave him the patience to endure the ceremony that had been drilled into him since before his memories began. Sudal took a step forward and extended his arms and his newly-hardened wings. In contrast to the pure white of his formal garments, his sails were dark red in the moonlight and the shiny black ribs gleamed.
Already sore from his secret flight, Sudal’s muscles protested as he worked to keep his wings open, the outer edges sweeping past his fingertips, but he would not hurry. He might resent his role as a verl, but he would not shame his father or himself by any public deficit in his expected duties.
His rebellion was internalized, and all the more bitter for being unvoiced.
Once Sudal reached the well he stopped and bowed low. The moon’s reflection shone inside the great stone bowl, and the wind from the open windows ruffled the surface. Sudal dipped the tips of his ribs, painting the hooked claws with the holy fluid blessed by the light of their protectors. He curled his wings until the droplets fell onto the exposed mark on his chest. The mark shone with reflected light, a mirror of the moon glowing just below his collarbones. “I come before the assembled clan newly changed, prepared to take my place among the ranks of the hallowed verls who have come before me.”
He turned and faced the throng, locking his gaze on the chamber doors. From behind him, his father addressed the assembled clan.
“This verl has come to be counted. What say you?”
It was a foregone conclusion, but he held his breath until their throats swelled with a single shout that echoed off the high ceiling. “Worthy.”
He slowly sank into a low bow, held the pose for the count of three, and then rose.
“The ceremony will take place tomorrow upon the peak of the full moon.”
Sudal rose as the clan let loose, cheering. It had been so long since a verl had been born; an advocate to the Temple of the Winds could bring untold good fortune to the clan. They were excited because his flight would be the first step in gaining entrance to the hallowed halls and the ears of their gods. He was buffeted about, hearty congratulations as the solemn ceremony ended in a celebration anticipated since his birth.
When the dawn was heralded by a streak of midnight blue on the horizon, just the faintest relief of the pitch black of night, Sudal tried to sneak away from the throng still toasting him. That’s when he learned he had two new shadows.
“Lord,” Sudal hissed, getting his attention. His father nodded and clapped the shoulder of the counselor he was speaking with before he turned and acknowledged Sudal.
“Yes, verl?” The cold tone meant his father wanted to remind him they were in public, and Sudal had a position to uphold in a manner that would not shame him. Or else.
Sudal turned his head, glancing at the guard to his left. “I have shadows now?”
“Does not the moon cast a shadow?”
“One to the earth and one to the heavens.”
Lowering his voice to ensure no one could hear him, Sudal asked, “Is this really necessary?” What did his dad think he was going to do? Sneak away like a coward and ruin the ceremony? Did he know him so little?
“Yes,” he said simply. “Rest well this day, verl.”
Sudal clenched his teeth, wincing as his newly hardened fangs shifted in their channels. “You too, Lord.” He turned on his heel and stalked away, ignoring the men following him. Or, at least, trying to ignore them. It was more than the servants who hovered just out of sight, this was constant open watchers who stood within inches, invading his space, invading his room—even his bathing chamber.
The shutters on the windows rattled as they closed, shutting out the sun and trapping him inside. Sudal wanted to enjoy what could very well be the last night in his room, but he couldn’t under the watchful gaze of the guards. His secrets had to remain hidden.
Preparations for the ceremony that would begin when the moon hit its peak in the night sky were underway before twilight really fell. Sudal was exhausted; he hadn’t slept well, feeling the invading gazes on him even in his dreams. The gods would just have to put up with an emissary with dark shadows under his eyes.
He was bathed and dressed in new silk garments his father had delivered, his feet encased in snow white leather slippers. His hair hung loose to his shoulders. Eating was out; Sudal’s stomach was clenched tight and not even the glass of wine a servant brought him helped ease his nerves.
Training was over. Sudal was an adult; it was his destiny to ascend to the Temple and serve the gods. The guards opened the doors to his chambers when it was time to go, but Sudal paused and took one last look around the rooms that had been his for fifty years. His gaze stopped on the place he’d hidden his phone, his one link to the human world that fascinated him so much.
Dreaming was for children. Duty was for adults. Sudal took a deep breath, straightened his spine and smoothed his tunic.
He would make his father proud today.
Instead of heading to the meeting chamber, Sudal was led out to the cliffs, one guard in front of him and one behind. As processions went, it was unimpressive. The hall out of the grand residence built directly into the cliffs was empty, but his guards had their hands on their weapons the whole time, heads swiveling as they approached each intersection.
“What exactly are you looking for?” Sudal asked, since there was no one to hear him speak out of turn.
“Anything,” the guard in front said.
“Everything.” The guard behind him answered as well. Sudal frowned. They weren’t acting like they were there to make sure he didn’t make a run for it, not unless they thought he had bribed some poor souls into helping him escape, though they would be punished with exile.
He would never ask anyone to do that for him; to be cut off from the clan was to lose their connection to all that made them who they are. Isolation was terrifying. He knew it so well, having anticipated the separation and loneliness to come for decades since he’d first been told what would happen to him when he came of age.
Now that the time had come, a fatalistic acceptance washed over Sudal. His footsteps echoed heavily, and each step closer to the cliffs took greater and greater effort.
Outside, ringing the widest ledge on the cliffs, the clan was waiting for him. Everything he did was for them. From the smallest child to the oldest men and women leaning on their families so they could see this historic moment. To see if he’d fly or fall.
Sudal already knew he could fly. The shiny black ribs in his wings were strong, the sails thick with blood. He was ready, and nerves were a thing of the past.
Or so he thought.
Once he reached the edge and stopped, his guards moving to flank him so he could face his father directly, Sudal’s heart began to pound. His father’s eyes shone. Sadness he was leaving? Pride that his son was performing his duties as a verl honorably? Pleasure that good fortune was his clan’s boon in exchange for Sudal’s sacrifice?
“Fly high, verl,” his father intoned.
Sudal bowed and then rose. Turning, his father held out his hands for a heavy white gold chain with their clan’s emblem on a wide crescent, the hammered gold embedded with more sky stones. He stepped close and joined the ends behind Sudal’s neck, settling the metal crescent just below his mark. Its weight was like the final piece, pushing down all that made Sudal an individual instead of a verl.
His father stepped aside, joining the ranks of the clan. Sudal bowed one final time to the assembly of his people, then turned to face the vastness of the sky. He blinked as tears filled his eyes, surely just from the wind whipping up the cliffs, teasing at his wings, daring him to fly. His new life was high above, in the heavens, and it would take strong wings to get him there.
A verl’s first flight was the proof of his worthiness to the gods. A strong verl who would serve with honor would ascend with approval to enter their realm; a weak verl would fall, unworthy in the eyes of the gods.
He was not weak; his secret flight had proven that. Sudal had to shake off the doubts that weighted him down and focus on the distant clouds. He spread his wings slowly, the sensitive sails exposed to the hint of ice on the breeze. It cooled the sweat on his brow, dried his tears, and blew away his heavy thoughts.
Sudal leapt for the horizon, not looking down, sure his sails would catch the wind and send him higher and higher until he was lost from sight forever. He flapped his wings once, hard, and rose above the crowd. The wind buffeted him wildly, and he fell below the level of the cliff, only barely missing the stony outcrop. The crowd gasped, and some shouted in disbelief, but Sudal steadied himself with a monumental effort, stretching the ribs out to their farthest reach, and he soared away from the cliff.
He pushed for the heavens, the line of clouds so high that ordinary beings could not survive beyond them, drawn to the moon’s majesty as it shone down in benediction. Though he should not, he risked a single look back at the clan, their upturned faces not more than pale ovals smaller than his fingertips.
A single cramp heralded a spike of pain that drove upward from his stomach.
Crying out, Sudal clutched his chest. His muscles seized, his wings stopped beating, and he fell.
The wind whipped at him as he gained momentum. It tore through his wings, shredding the sails, and his fall became inevitable. Not one of the clan flew out to help him as he passed what had been his home for so many years and hurtled toward the earth far below.
TBC...? What do you think?