Lyne pulled his cloak around him and hunched forward, trying to keep his hands from the iron barrel of his rifle, which refused to hold any heat. His shirt and pants were at least warm enough to keep the chill off of his wire-thin body, and the mop of loose, curly hair was thick enough to hold in what heat he managed to acquire.
"Liven up, son," said the driver next to him. He dug his elbow into Lyne's side, and about knocked the young man over. "You look like you're keeping a graveyard watch."
The young man set his jaw, and tried to keep his teeth from chattering. "I'm cold," Lyne said.
"Then eat more." The driver gave a belly laugh, holding the reins of the cart in one hand as he slapped the other against his belly. The man had an ample girth to him, though as tall as he was, his bulk of fat and muscle was imposing rather than stubby. He smirked, the lines around his mouth creasing. "There's enough money in these mountains that you should be making plenty to eat with."
"Most of it goes to the landlord. Living in Negav isn't cheap."
"Living out here isn't either," the driver said. His eyes scanned up the sheer walls of ash-colored stone that defined the pass. Lyne looked with him: the ledges further up the walls were empty of anything but the occasional patch of scrub, and the skies were cloudless and blue. "If you catch my drift, of course," the other man continued.
There was no need to remind him, Lyne thought. The dangers outside Negav's walls were common knowledge. Felarya was a dangerous world, and those unprepared to defend themselves from an imminent threat at all times did not survive long outside of the Magiocracy's protections. Even if it seemed that they were alone in the pass, the odds were someone or something was watching them. "I'd almost rather take my chances out here. Maybe I wouldn't be hungry."
"You might not be," said the driver. He chuckled, and returned his eyes to the road ahead of them. "But you might be lunch."
Lyne sighed, but held his tongue. The thick hand of the driver tussled his wind-tangled black hair, then gave a firm grip on his shoulder. "I only kid you, son. You're a sharp one; I wouldn't have hired you otherwise. Now sit up, and keep your eyes peeled." The driver's hand pulled away, and took a firm hold of the reins. The horses were slowing, their heads turning from one side to another, as though the beasts towing them and their cartload of precious, mined ascarlin were mindful of the threat lurking in the back of their two passengers' minds. "We're in prime harpy territory, now."
The thought of the winged menaces gave Lyne a chill distinct from that caused by the cold. Every strong wind, every noise, every silhouetted shape above them, was a potential harpy. He remembered his first encounter with one: the angry rattle of the cart's wheels as they raced down the pass still rang in his ears, as did the mocking laughter of the predator bearing down on them. The gusts from her beating wings blasted cold air down on them, growing stronger as the monster chased them down the narrow path.
He and Raq, the driver who rode with him today as well, were lucky to escape. The cart itself, the horses, and the two guards standing over the tarp-covered payload of ascarlin were less so. The two of them watched helpless as the cart was carried away in the harpy's talons, one guard falling to his death in the gorge below. The other guard shot fruitlessly at his captor, the gunfire echoing in the pass until well after the predator had flown out of sight. The fallen guard was the lucky one, Raq had told him later, once they'd emerged from the crack in the stone cliff they'd taken refuge in. As were they; the treasure and meal were enough that she'd not bothered to drag them out from their hiding spot through her magic or the slithering muscle of her tongue.
Lyne steadied his breath, stilled his heart; there must be no sound, no noise at all, he told himself. His head must be completely clear, as there would only be seconds after the tell-tale sound of a harpy's dive for them to seek shelter.
There was nothing but his heart beat, loud like a campfire drum.
Then, the air was split in two by a loud, piercing cry.
Lyne rose to his feet, grabbing Raq's shoulder to steady himself. "Go!" he shouted, pointing his rifle skyward. The driver gave not a moment's hesitation; the reins snapped, the horses whinnying as they launched forward into a high-speed gallop.
Lyne sighted down the barrel, searching the sky for the shape of their hunter. There was nothing, nothing at first, the glint of the afternoon sun blinding him for a moment as it gleamed off of the top of the gun.
It was once his sight cleared that he saw her: she was still high in air, but dropping fast, brown wings outstretched and swept back to speed her descent. Lyne wasted no time admiring her, steadying his weapon before firing up at his target.
The harpy screeched, the sound crisp as the cool air around them, part of a feather or two flying away from one wing. The massive limbs flapped hard for a moment to steady their owner. The downdraft from her flight plowed into the cart, shaking it. Lyne's legs buckled, boots sliding over the floor of the driver's bench until he retook his footing. "She's closing in," he shouted, unloading the spent shells from his weapon.
"We're riding as hard as we can," Raq said over the steady, rapid beat of hoves on stone. "Hold her off a bit longer!"
He jammed two fresh shots into the barrel and raised it up, only to gasp at how low the harpy managed to drop in so short a time. He could see her clear as day now; a halo of fire-orange hair blew back around her head, while something golden gleamed around her neck. Her chest was bound back with leather armor, though the rest of her was bare.
Gold eyes narrowed at Lyne, a corner of the harpy's mouth curling up towards her cheek. "C'mon," she said, calling down from above. Her voice, condescending as her laughter mixed with words, made the hair at the back of his neck stand on end. "Point that stick at me and shoot, you miserable bug. Try it!"
If you insist, Lyne thought, and planted one foot against the front of the cart before firing again into the harpy's wings. Pieces of brown feather flew away from her wing again, blowing away in her wake. The harpy snarled, taking a moment again to steady herself as he raced to empty his gun for another volley.
"I've got one with a bit of brains, today!" The harpy's laugh rang against the walls of the pass, and seemed to surround them as easily as the rock did. "Let's see you shoot at this!"
With one powerful beat of her wings, a wall of air slammed down into their cart, lifting it from the ground enough that the impact of landing cracked a wheel free from the back axle. The horses called out, stumbling as the cart dragged them backward, until they ground to a halt. The impact knocked Lyne from his feet; he grunted, his back hitting the front wall of the carriage. He sat stunned for a moment, while Raq braced his hands against the same wall to keep from being flung forward onto the horses.
"Where is she," Raq shouted, looking over at Lyne. There was an edge of panic in his words. This was a dangerous spot to be in; they both knew as much. There was no time to waste getting the harpy back in their sights. "Where did she go?"
"I'm looking for her! She must have climbed--"
Another sharp cry split the air, and a second wall of wind blew down upon them, dumping the two of them on the cart as it rolled onto its side, their steeds' harnesses splitting apart as they twisted. There was heat to it; the sudden warmth startling Lyne, his skin so used to the pervasive cold. "She...!"
There was not a moment to collect themselves; the surge of wind was followed by fire and heat, the burning curtain rolling over them as easily as the wind had. Lyne threw his weapon and hip bag of shot away from himself, fearing the powder would catch in the blast of heat, while his sight went red and white from the instant of blinding light.
Lyne dropped to the ground, curled on himself with his back to the sky, waiting for the wall of fire to subside before raising his head. The cart, the horses, and Raq came back into focus, though his eyes watered in the heat, blurring his vision. His partner ran towards him, stumbling on one leg as the other dragged a step behind him. "Can you get up?" Raq called, voice frantic, the man coughing as he tried to speak. "Lyne!"
"I can," Lyne said, voice rasping. "I think."
Another blast of air dropped down from above, crushing both men against the ground. Above, the harpy's laughter rang out, the beat of her wings through the air growing louder as she descended. Lyne looked over his shoulder, struggling to get his hands under him, to get off of his belly.
"Had enough, you measly worms?"
Talons clicked against the stone ground, the air falling still as the harpy landed behind them. She towered up over the pass, legs as thick as tree thunks, supporting a torso as big as a house. "Burnt up, and beaten down. Pathetic." She leaned down, her shadow stretching out over the two of them. The downward curl of her lips made her disdain perfectly clear as her face hovered above them.
"Lyne," Raq gasped, keeping his back to the giant and his voice low. "Get up, and make a break for the horses. Run for it; don't worry about--"
Raq bellowed in pain as one of the harpy's claws dropped down on him, her talons wrapping around him like a cage as it dragged him over the hard ground. "Did I say," the woman shouted, hips shifting her weight onto the claw that held the carriage driver in its grip, "either of you louses could spit up words? Did I?"
Lyne remained frozen in place. Part of him wanted to run; Raq was buying him a chance to escape. It felt cruel, though, to leave the man he'd worked beside for years to die in this monster's clutches. Sudden death might be a common work hazard in the wilds of Felarya, but abandoning one's fellow man to such a fate was by no means humane. He looked back to the rifle that lay discarded across the singed stone and scrub. If she held her attention on Raq for just a moment longer, he could reach it. He could fire on her, startle her, enough to release his partner and give them both a chance at escape.
Then her other claw dropped onto him and pressed him down against the rock.
"You think I don't see you? Think I had my eyes pecked out?" The harpy's legs spanned the gap from the side to side, though they hardly had to stretch far to do so. "Idiots. Your toys aren't worth a damn to either of you, now. You're the prey of Queen Nylea. You should feel flattered--" She grunted, pressing down harder on them, pain exploding through Lyne's chest as his ribs were pressed into the stone. Raq's own cries rang off of the walls of the pass; it took Lyne pressing his mouth to the ground to keep from joining him, "--to be held in the grip of a creature as magnificent as I."
Lyne pressed his arms down into the stone, and tried to push back. Anything, he thought, to keep his chest from shattering and tearing his insides to shreds. "I think," he spat out, raising his voice through the sounds of her and Raq's pain, "I'd rather die."
"Oh, rest assured," Nylea said. Her legs lifted, only a matter of a few inches, but just enough for her talons to close completely under the both of them. Her wings beat air against the ground, which slowly began to fall away from them as the giant raised herself skyward. "One of you bugs is going to die, today. Which will it be? Which one, which one?" She rolled the question around, as though pondering what outfit she wanted to wear, or what token to buy from a street vendor.
Her talons squeezed slowly around Lyne, the thick, hard digits of her claws pressing in on his skin before relaxing again. She did the same to Raq, the driver simply staring upward at their captor in horror. Once they were well above the pass, the harpy smiled, squeezing her grip tight around Lyne.
"I've made my choice," she said, looking down at Lyne. "Fatter worms are tastier, I find. Say 'goodbye' to your partner, you little weed."
Lyne's face went pale. He looked back over his shoulder at Nylea's face, far above them. "No!"
The harpy didn't bother with a response. Instead, she swung Raq forward, releasing him into the open air once she'd thrown him ahead of her. The elder man screamed as he was launched into free fall, tumbling through the open air towards the pass, hundreds of feet below them. Nylea leaned forward into a drive, chasing him downward as she held her grip tight to Lyne.
He watched helplessly, his old friend turning end over end, his captor's laughter ringing through the clear sky as she closed the gap between them. At the last second, with Nylea and her quarry only feet apart, she flipped over onto her back, drawing up the claw holding Lyne to afford him one last look at his friend.
Her mouth opened wide, head darting upward to meet Raq halfway; in an instant, her mouth snapped shut behind the screaming driver. Cheeks swelled from the morsel now trapped behind her lips, the occasional beat of a fist visible where it pressed out against her skin.
"Hmph," Nylea muttered around her prey, through closed lips. "Feisty."
She tipped her head back, and let her throat do what gravity wouldn't. Her throat swelled as Lyne watched, seeming to struggle to take in the man thrashing against its pull. Nylea seemed unbothered, though; Raq's attempt to escape being swallowed only seemed to amuse her. With only a little more effort than a human gulping down an over-sized bite of meat, though, Nylea forced her snack down. The lump in her throat disappeared into the depths of her chest, sealing her prey's fate. She licked her lips in satisfaction, smacking them together with a contented sigh.
"That just proves it," she said, looking back to Lyne, the young man's head poking out from between her talons. "The fatter ones really are better tasting. You ought to take after him, if you ever want to appeal to anyone."
Lyne grit his teeth together, and in that instant, a stupid idea flashed through his mind. He was a dead man anyway; no Felaryian predator would simply let their catch go out of pity. If he was going to be bird food, he might as well go down with a fight. Without a second's more hesitation, he opened his mouth, and bit down on the tough, plated flesh of the harpy's claw.
Nylea shouted, her talons stretching out, losing their grip on Lyne. The open sky surrounded him, and gravity began take him back from the harpy's possession. "Idiot hatchling!" Nylea snapped, and thrust her leg out, grabbing him tight again in her hold before Lyne could fall beyond her reach. "You're really that eager to die?"
Lyne gasped for breath; the moment of free fall had sucked much of the breath from his lungs. The impact of Nylea's claw catching him took care of the rest. "I'd rather choose how," he said, struggling against the claws digging into his sides and back to fill his lungs, "than be at your mercy."
"Oh, you're a feisty little bug. Bit like your friend right now." She smirked, the sound of her stomach groaning from her fresh meal timed perfectly. "He's not going anywhere though, and neither are you."
"Just do it already," Lyne said. "Just get this over with."
"You think I'm about to let some worm give me orders? Tough chance. Any time you scrub-crawlers beg me to off you is all the more reason not to do it." The world flipped back around, Lyne's stomach turning with it, as Nylea reoriented herself to fly slowly up the face of the mountain. "You're coming back with me. It's been such a long time since I've had a new toy to play with..."
Lyne swallowed the lump in his throat. Whatever playtime Nylea had in store, he told himself, was bound to be more horrible than anything he wanted to imagine.
To Be Continued...