Hanna was confused, and a little bit grateful, when the man pulled her to the ground and she finally noticed the fatigue burning through her back. They stood for only a moment, Hanna self-conscious as he gazed steadfast at her as she shook and then folded her wings and adjusted to the earth beneath her again. She could no longer see her home on the horizon, and now, on the ground, nothing but the silhouettes of trees against the periwinkle sky. Then, they were off, at a pace nearly as punishing as when they flew.
“Why?” Hanna panted, frustration quickly replacing fear and spurring her through the trek. He didn’t even react, fingers still a vice around her surely bruised wrist and body still determinedly forward. At least he’d taken the wretched string off, the skin of her forearm was red and raw. “Gabriel,” she called, trying again. The name felt curious in her mouth, both familiar and strange, reminding her of the time Tehra had fooled her into biting an apple that he had hollowed out and filled with dirt. The bite had initially been the familiar taste and texture of apple skin, but then the familiar smell of soil had seemed odd right before it had spilled into her mouth. It had taken days before she stopped unconsciously rolling her tongue along her teeth, trying to forget the incident. The thought of her brother, and soon the rest of those she’d been taken from, threatened to extinguish her ability to keep up, and she felt her feet begin to catch on roots and rocks as her knees weakened.
“We are going to our home, child,” Gabriel said, exasperation tinging his tone. Hanna nearly stopped short in her incredulity, jerking her head to fight the calm that his honey voice incited in her mind.
“Is my confusion a bother? Shall I apologize for refusing to embrace this ‘home’ as you drag me from mine?” she bit out. She saw his sigh in his shoulders, and he slowed his pace. It took all of Hanna’s effort not to let her relief show.
“You are not what you think you are,” he said, tilting his head slightly so that she caught his profile. “Your home is not your home, and I take you not to harm you, but to help you.”
“That clarifies nothing,” Hanna pointed out, but now intrigued. He stopped fully then, and spun to face her so fast she nearly tripped and fell into him. To not let that happen, her wings unfurled slightly against her back to help steady her.
“Look at me,” he commanded. Out of spite, Hanna looked away into the forest. They’d landed in a particularly dense area, and continued to walk on no apparent path. Hanna had never even gone near the borders of Atayhara, and compared to the dangers that lurked in shadows far too close for comfort, he suddenly seemed less threatening. “I told you not to have fear, child. There is nothing you need fear from me, nor our destination.”
She grudgingly looked at him out of the corner of her eye, her chin remaining high. He sighed, seeming to accept it.
“You know that I am not of your kind, nor am I of the Kelaani or humans. I promise you, Hanna, I play no tricks, there is no deception in this. This is what I am, as you see now. You know what I look like, and you know what I make you feel,” his voice was smooth and deliberate, though his expression was earnest. Against her control, her eyes drifted to the pure white wings tucked into his shoulders, glowing faintly through the fabric over them, and then to his sharp, angular face. She had known it when he first appeared, and that knowledge, impossible as it seemed, had not wavered: he was not of Atayhara. He was nothing she’d ever seen or heard of, short from fairytales.
“And what is that?” she threw as much steel into her voice as she could.
“I am Seraphim,” he smiled slightly, as if pleased by her complacence. It was shock that shoved Hanna to directly look at him and hold her body still as a statue.
“Those don’t exist,” she said slowly, not believing her own words. He looked sad now.
“We do, but we must remain discreet,” he said. “Child, you are very proof of our existence. If I do not exist, how do you?” he smiled slightly again, this time with humor.
Hanna was silent, her face betraying her utter confusion. He sighed.
“Hanna, look at me, and now remember your own appearance. Are your wings not whiter than all others of your home, even your family? Is your very self not purer than theirs? I was sent to you by others’ insistence, but the moment I saw you, I knew. You must know, in your soul, that the place you have lived is not your true home.”
Hanna forced her lungs to continue, despite the ice quickly covering them. There was no glint in his eyes, nothing betraying deception or insanity. But there had to be. She willed herself to see through this, perhaps he was a new demon, cleverly disguised through their own twisted magic. Or perhaps he was Atayharan, who had abandoned their civilization of honesty and strength and whose mind was lost to darkness. She tried to pull out his grip, but it did not waver, and fear shot sickeningly through her.
“You are a liar,” she declared, drawing herself up. She was a daughter of Natara and Kayin, princess and future leader of the Atayhara territory. And she would not be intimidated by lies. He shook his head, his gaze never leaving hers. This time, the lovely eyes did not threaten to hypnotize her.
“Your mother is Natara, but your father is not Kayin,” he explained, his voice steady. Indignation shot through Hanna, replacing fear, straightening her spine, and ruffling the feathers against her skin. “I am taking you to see your true father. Natara swore to tell no one, not even Kayin or your council. She feared disbelief, or–as did we–that you would be harmed.”
“That is impossible,” Hanna’s voice was a whisper. Gabriel continued to study her, his eyes imploring her to understand.
“Child, surely Natara did not raise you to be a fool,” he chided, the familiar tone causing Hanna to want to scowl. “You resemble me more than your king, and your true father even more so.” A faint smile touched his features. “You have his exact eyes, in fact, in color and the very shape. And, of course, his colors. You know this to be true.”
Hanna narrowed her eyes, refusing to answer anymore. Something in Gabriel, however, extinguished. “So be it. If you truly wish to return, without glimpsing the truth, and spend the rest of your days in ignorance, then go.” He let go of her wrist, and it took Hanna a long moment of looking down at the bare, though red, skin before it registered in her mind. When she looked up again, he had taken several steps away from her, his own hands clasped behind his back. He inclined his head at the trees, and Hanna spun, her wings already open and pulling her body upwards. She cleared the trees in a few beats, darting towards the direction they’d come from without looking back.
The horizon changed little, however, and she was vaguely air of air bending behind her, but dared not look back. He did not seem intent on catching her, she knew that he easily could have by now. Instead, he remained a constant presence as she focused on the blurs before her. She would return home, and he would either follow her all the way, and upon arrival her guards would be faster and stronger and apprehend her kidnapper. It would not matter that he had done her little harm, because she was a princess and no one was allowed to touch her. It didn’t occur to her to notice that each time his skin had met hers, deliberately and for hours as he pulled her along, not an ounce of energy had passed between them. Daniyl and Selah would be at the helm of the guards, easily coordinating the imprisonment and investigation. Her parents and siblings would greet her upon arrival, relieved and overjoyed that she had managed to return. Celme and Avi would beg her to tell them all about her time away, even if it had barely been two days. And she would have nothing but plain, dense forest to tell them, but perhaps she would embellish it just for their eyes to widen. She felt her face split into a smile at the thought. Ketura would be ever so concerned, her wish to comfort and ensure that Hanna was alright barely containing the anger that lit her eyes. Tehra would smirk, and make some joke about her drama, or that she’d finally been outside and hadn’t bothered to bring him a souvenir.
It must have been hours, because the sky was scarlet when a new, familiar form finally began to appear. She stopped, unsure of why, but she hovered there. Her home was still far, whereas Gabriel was now right at her shoulder. But Hanna couldn’t bring herself to spring away, to propel forwards. She looked at him, and he nodded silently.
Asa had long since stopped feeling the sting of unshed tears each time his knees hit the cold, slightly wet stone at the bottom of the pit. He curled his legs against his chest, settling his back against the wall in some semblance of a comfortable position, and looked up. As always, the feral face of Atala snarled down at him through rusted, steel bars across the top. The man resembled the snake he formed more than the typical Kelaani, Asa still expected a forked tongue instead of a human one when he hissed down at him.
“Sleep tight, freak,” were his consistent parting words before Asa was left in the darkness, the blood red sky above interrupted by black bars. Asa shifted, trying his best to situate the small clump of thick, long feathers against his back.
He was a captive in his own village, allowed to be with his mother in her home by day, but at night, when the others could no longer watch him, he was to be locked away. They had kept quiet for as long as they could, but every Kelaani shifted and discovered their form by their second century of life. And despite his mother being an innocent cat-shifter, Asa’s form had been a raven. The symbol of death for Kelaani, and despite their reputation amongst the other two arrogant clans, even demons followed superstitions. Kelaani Shifters were deeply connected to their other forms, each animal held its own myths and powers, and granted gifts and traits to their human hosts. It was one way the Kelaani society was divided, but together at the same time.
Jarah, king of Kelaan, was a vampire, a creature who preferred the scarlet night to the pale day, with red pupils and all the strength and power of a shifter, but lacking the form that proved he had a soul. It was no matter, because Kelaan was the land of the rejects–too great for the humans, too dark for the Atayharans–and it was this myriad, Jarah said, that made them special. That made them strong. Zilla fortified this ideology, their queen a beautiful black panther who stood equal to him. Over 3,000 years old, and neither seemed even the slightest bit weary with age.
As always, Asa was cold and sore after his first hour, and sleep would evade him until his stiff, bruised limbs managed to trap it. So, to pass the time and because his mind was as cruel as his clan, Asa thought. He thought of his mother, just as imprisoned in her home because once she had tried to visit him and toss down some food and a blanket, and they had both paid the price. Asa had been the one, through his begging, to convince her not to keep trying, not to do anything at all. It wasn’t so bad when the sky was brighter, he lay in his bed, ate freshly cooked food, bathed, and helped his mother around the house. Every morning surprised him, when his mother greeted him openly and kindly, because even she had told Asa the same tales with which all Kelaani children ran to bed. Until he had become one, that is.
The raven was death, and if it ever found a human body to host it, then that shifter held the power to bring about death himself. Asa had never seen anyone die, not even his father, but he was sure he could feel it inside him. The evil that saturated the bird’s inky feathers, that sent the demons into fear.
A harsh clang and shrill scraping noise jerked Asa from his sleepy musings, and he grit his teeth as the noise pierced his eardrums. He looked up, darting to his feet. They never dared come see him after locking him up, and definitely did not touch the fragile bars. But the shape looming, blocking out the colored sky, was smaller than Atala, and it did not snarl or sneer like the snake did. Asa squinted, feeling the feathers in his skin stand on end as his spine broke out in shivers. He blinked hard, just to be sure that he really was watching his small, sweet mother pull the wretched bars up from his hole. Their age had only made them heavier, even Atala grunted when he lifted them, and for one irrational moment Asa wondered if his mother’s arms would break with the effort.
But then she was gazing down at him, and he up at her, their views uninterrupted. She reached a pale arm down as far as she could.
“Asa,” she whispered urgently. “Come on, quickly.”
Without a second thought he stood and reached her hand, pulling himself out with minimal help from her tired form. Once on level ground, he gripped her shoulders as her hands cradled his face, her eyes wide and trying not to look at his face too long.
“Mother?” Asa asked, his voice as quiet as hers.
“Come, we have no time,” her voice was like the scraping of the bars, shrill and fragile in attempt to stay quiet. Asa followed, his toes brushing her heels as he walked as close to her as possible, watching her shoulders and back shake. They did not speak again until they were several paces from the outermost hut that made up their clan’s area. She turned, her back to the forest, and took his face in her hands again, his fingers tangling in his hair.
“You must go,” her words tumbled quickly. “I have a bag for you, to start. You must leave here, and never return. I’ll not watch my son be tortured any longer, i cannot watch my heart break every night.” Her eyes were glassy with unshed tears, and Asa’s vision blurred with his own.
“I can’t leave you,” he argued, terrified for her. His people would condemn her to the same treatment, she would be considered a traitor for unleashing the harbinger of death. He opened his mouth to tell her as much, but she shushed him, using the sharp, motherly tone that successful quieted him.
“I cannot have my only son hurt and used,” she stopped suddenly and glanced over his shoulder, eyes widening. Asa turned to look, seeing the flicker of a flame slowly dance towards them. Someone was awake, and coming. She pulled his eyes back to her and spoke quickly, the words nearly tangling.
“Got through the woods, take as many twists as you can to make chasing you difficult. But aim away from the mountains, Atayharans will treat you no better. Find somewhere, anywhere, and make a life. Do not try to contact me or return here, it will safer for us both.”
Now there were shouts, and his mother grabbed Asa’s arm and entered the woods, walking quickly but trying to avoid making extra noise that would give them away. But the voices were close, and loud, and Asa knew they had moments. “I love you, my son, my Asa,” she said, cupping his face once more and pulling a strained, but genuine smile. Asa’s lungs constricted, and he was certain he could feel his heart splinter.
“Now run.” She shoved him hard away from her, and then shrieked. Drawing their attention.
Asa ran. He didn’t tell himself to, didn’t even want to, but he obeyed her. He heard mixed shouts, yells, and hisses as Kelaani in both forms caught sight of them. He was sure he heard his mother, her cries and snarls individual daggers into his body, but still he kept running. He didn’t know how long he ran, or how far, or even in what direction, but his body kept moving. For his mother. He glanced around, but was met with dense blackness. It could have arguably been a thing of magic that he didn’t fall; he could see nothing, not through the darkness and the tears clouding his vision. His mother was all he’d ever had, and the village, cruel as its inhabitants were, was the only place he’d ever known. He had never even gone with his mother the few times she had left the area. And now he was venturing into nothing. Completely alone.
Still, he didn’t stop running.