(book two of the Ramblers Series)
Free First Chapter.
N.S. Grimm is happy to provide a Free Sample of Rage: book two of the Ramblers Series. Ramblers is a lesbian reimagining of the popular Snow Wars Series. She hopes you will enjoy the world of Ramblers.
For more information and news, please visit WWW.NSGRIMM.COM and sign up for the NSGRIMM Newsletter to stay informed of all the latest developments, give-away and updates.
Rage (Book two of the Ramblers series)
Iana ran as fast as she could through the deep snow. She was gasping for breath as she sprinted but didn’t dare pull her scarf down to aid her breathing. For one, she didn’t want to burn her lungs with the cold air. She also couldn’t risk drawing attention to herself by releasing steam into the frigid climate; it might give away her position. She spared a glance up to scan the skies for any sign of the horrific killer. She knew it wasn’t gone for good; it was still hunting her. She had been careless crossing that last snow bowl. With the mountain ridges surrounding on all sides, she should have skirted around the outside to stay close to the rocky ledge. She’d chosen her path carefully around the mountain up to this point, guessing at the terrain, not knowing these ranges. Venus only knew if she was going in the right direction to reach home. What she would give for a good map about now.
Time was against her, so she’d risked cutting straight through the bowl instead of skirting around. It was a stupid mistake for a Rambler to make. Her Mentors would be disappointed she’d disregarded her Rambler training so completely.
“Really stupid, Iana,” she told herself out loud. “Why are you worrying about what the ‘Mentors’ would think of you anyway? Two of your precious Mentors, Danielle and Heliconia, have betrayed you and are probably right now tracking these snows to stop you.”
The only mentor she could ever really trust was Jacob, but he’d died several years ago.
The snow started falling more heavily now and she paused for a moment to tuck the fur lining of her hood inside. The Angegal hunting her tracked through movement more than smell or sense. The fluttering of the fur on her hood could attract its attention. The more she looked like snow, the safer she would be. Arms and legs kept close to the body, and nothing flying loose in the wind. Holding up in a cave would be the best choice right now, but she had to get home to the Hive before dark. No one survived alone in the snow after nightfall, at least not for very long. This litany of snow survival was engrained in all Hive children from a small age. Iana’s Rambler training covered night survival exercises, but all Ramblers hoped they never needed to use them, to tempt the snows into taking them.
She had to make it to the Hive before sunset and she had no idea just how far away it was still. So much about her life had exploded in the last few days. She needed to warn her sister, Aster, and her little niece—to know they were safe—and she needed to avenge the murder of her fellow Ramblers. Aster and Lily were all she had left in the world and she’d do anything to protect them. The thought of her family filled her with renewed energy and she amplified her pace through the snows.
The increased snowfall would not only hide her movements from the Angegal. It would also help hide her tracks from the human enemies following close behind. She knew at least one of the Mentors from Newhom would be tracking her, if not both. She picked up her pace, scanning the snow before her for any hidden dangers below the surface.
The only thing worse than being on the run from two Mentors is being hunted by an Angegal while you’re on the run from two Mentors. “Jacob, how did things get so out of control so fast? Why aren’t you here when I need you?” she accused the wind. Jacob had died years ago, but she still couldn’t let him go. There were times when she felt him close. As if she could hear his voice or smell his scent down the hallway. In a world where you should never hold onto your past, Iana found it impossible to let hers go.
A large shadow suddenly blocked out the sun. A deadly huge shape passed over the snow just ahead of her. Iana flung herself down into the slush, face buried, just in time. A huge blast of wind blew over in large battering passes. Snow and ice kicked up into the air and beat her in a maelstrom. Her thick scarf was the only thing allowing her to breathe with her face planted in the snow and the storm raging around her, but she didn’t breathe. She held her breath in fear instead. The Angegal must have been only a short distance above her, hovering, beating its wings at the ground snow and looking for her. It knew she was there. It was trying to flush her out by scaring her into running. It was working: Iana was terrified. Angegals were talked about in Rambler training, but mostly in theory. It was rare for anyone to survive an attack. Making eyewitnesses scarce. Your only hope was to keep your head down and pray the Angegal moved on to other prey. Every cell in her body wanted to run for cover, run anywhere, run away. She could hear the voice inside her head screaming at her. One voice screaming to stay down and still. Another voice screaming in her head to run. Iana squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath. She knew that as soon as she moved it could track her and attack. She held perfectly still and didn’t look up. Her arms and legs tucked close underneath her. The only thing showing was the smooth backside of her white outer coat.
She silently chanted to stay calm. Look like the snow and don’t move… look like the snow and don’t move…look like the…. It was almost impossible not to look up, but she knew if she did, the bird would see the structure of her face, the movement in her eyes—and strike. She lay silently chanting, facedown in the freezing snow, terrified, blind and waiting to die.
Danielle stood at the top of the dome and looked at the trail in the snow. She’d finally found Iana’s tracks and they were leading toward the Hive.
“So she didn’t leave through the South door last night after all,” Peter exclaimed next to her. Danielle gave Peter a dirty look. She blamed Peter for Iana’s death defying departure the night before and made sure he felt her anger all night, while they searched for the little Rambler on the South side of Newhom. This morning they discovered Iana had misled them and left around dawn from the opposite direction. Danielle was impressed, but she wasn’t about to let Peter and Heliconia know it. She was in a worse mood now than she’d been in all the night before.
“Your little mouse is true to her nickname, Danielle. She scurried straight up the bathhouse chimney to exit here. Then she made tracks into the rock pass. Smart,” Mentor Heliconia said with a hint of pride in her voice. She was smiling as she approached Danielle and Peter on the crest.
“Yes, smart. To have us worried and have us looking for her all night, thinking she’d taken off half-witted into the snow to get herself killed. The whole time she was hiding safe inside, under our noses.”
Danielle was not smiling about the situation. She was furious by what had happened. She’d risked a lot to keep Iana alive, and now the woman was running right back into the murdering nest of snow-vipers who wanted to kill her. How was Danielle supposed to keep her safe if she kept running away?
“She must have had a good Mentor to teach her all these tricks.” Heliconia teased Danielle with a jab of her elbow. Her long braids were out and blowing in the wind behind her.
Mentor Heliconia was considered a beautiful woman, mostly because she was powerful. Her body was carved for fighting and she had a brain and skillset to match anything the snows threw her way. She was as strong as any man and twice as fast. Heliconia was a Mentor to her core, just like Danielle. She had trained many a Rambler apprentice over the years. She was sexy, independent, capable and overall just damn impressive. Danielle was not the only one in the Hives to think so. Nor was she the only woman or man to take her occasionally as a lover and go caving. They had known each other many years and valued each other’s advice.
“Remind me not to teach my apprentices so well next time,” Danielle returned with a clipped half smile.
Standing just a few steps behind the pair, Peter spoke, his tone bitter and flat. “Iana didn’t need a Mentor to teach her how to hide and make fools of people. Evidently she’s been doing that all by herself for a very long time.”
Danielle could feel her fists balling up inside her gloves. She was just about out of patience with the young man. “If we believe what you say happened last night,” she reminded Peter.
“What do you mean, if you believe what I said? It’s not what I said. It’s what Iana said, and you do believe it or you wouldn’t have taken her story to the Table’s council meeting last night to warn them during their negotiations with the Predator delegation.”
Danielle turned to face him suddenly. The Mentor was an impressive woman in both height and girth. She was a Rambler Mentor and even at her age she could still outrun the younger Ramblers in the field. She knew how to kill and how to fight. She was not someone you wanted to make angry and she was definitely angry with Peter right now.
“Well maybe that was a mistake. All we have is your word about why Iana ran. Maybe it has nothing to do with the Predators. Maybe she’s really running from you and something you did.”
Peter moved around Heliconia to address Danielle directly. Danielle could sense the fear streaming off the young man, but he faced the Mentor’s rage anyway. A small piece of Danielle was impressed with him despite herself.
Peter’s scarf was pulled down and his face was in full view as he spat back at the Mentor, “What did I do? I’m not the one who dragged her here to Newhom against her will and forgot to explain we were in negotiations with our people’s archenemies. That was you.”
Danielle took two menacing steps towards Peter. Both could sense Heliconia shift next to them, but Danielle knew the other Mentor wouldn’t interfere. Heliconia was the kind of person who preferred to let people settle their own problems for themselves. Danielle’s eyes were so dark they were almost black, which made her look even more dangerous.
“All I know is that she was fine, until I left her with you for a few hours. So what did you do to her?”
“I didn’t do anything to Iana.”
“I know exactly what you wanted to do with her—that is the only thing young men like you want to do. I know what you think with.”
“Hey! Stop this!” Heliconia yelled at them. They both turned to look at Heliconia. They had temporarily forgotten her presence during the argument.
“We’ve lost an hour of sunlight looking for her tracks on the South side. She has a head start now. We need to reach her before she reaches the Hive. We don’t have time for this bickering,” she reminded them both. Peter dropped his head, but his arms crossed stubbornly over his chest. Danielle turned her back on Peter and pulled her attention to Iana’s retreating footprints.
“Heliconia is right. There is new snow falling out there on the ridge. It’ll be here in an hour.”
Danielle gestured with her arm at the horizon beyond. “It’ll start covering her tracks as soon as it hits. We need to catch her before that happens.”
Heliconia pulled her braids back under her hood and tied her scarf over her Rambler’s outer clothing.
Danielle gave orders. “You two go back inside. I’ll start tracking out here from this position. Tell Abel to meet me down at the narrow pass, just before we enter into the rocky ridge.”
“No way! I’m going after Iana, too,” Peter stated passionately.
“No, you are not,” Danielle told him with a slight snicker to her voice. Danielle answered Peter without the courtesy of turning around or even looking in the young man’s direction.
“You have no authority to order me to do anything. We aren’t at the Hive anymore; we are all equals here in Newhom. I have known Iana since we were children. I have cared about her before you even knew who she was. She’s in trouble and I’m going!”
Danielle made no response to Peter’s outburst, which was a very bad sign in the Mentor.
Heliconia looked to Peter and then at the defiant line of Danielle’s back. She rolled her eyes at both of them. “Peter we need you to run the message to Abel. If we fail to stop Iana in the snow now and she reaches the Hive, Abel is the only one who will be able to maneuver inside unnoticed to find her. It could save Iana’s life to have him there.”
Peter looked at her for a moment, clearly thinking through his choices. But when Danielle silently took off down the snowy bank tracking Iana’s steps, Peter abandoned reason to follow with his heart instead.
“No, I’m going too. She can’t stop me,” Peter told Heliconia stubbornly.
“She cannot. But you are not trained to survive on the snows. Danielle is surely not in a mood to help you. It will not take long for you to die alone out there. Your death will serve no purpose, nor will it help Iana. But no—technically I cannot stop you.” Without looking back at him, she took off down the hill after Danielle. Peter didn’t follow.
“Shit!” He screamed into the air with frustration. Then turned and walked back to the entrance to go get Abel.
It only took a moment for Heliconia to catch up to Danielle. She was a fast runner, even in deep snow. One of the fastest among the Ramblers and a master at hand-to-hand combat. All Ramblers trained with her during their last year of apprenticeship, just before they took their Bar challenge to become Ramblers. She’d trained Iana during her apprenticeship. She’d taken a special interest in Iana during that time. Maybe because Iana seemed special to Danielle and because Danielle was special to Heliconia. Regardless of the reasons, Heliconia had an affection towards the young Rambler. She didn’t want harm to come to her.
“I thought I told you to go with Peter,” Danielle shouted at her when she got close enough to hear. Danielle’s voice was rough with emotion and she was not in a temper for compromise.
“I assumed you’d misspoken, as you’d know better than to try to tell me what the hell to do.”
The tone in her voice was more than ample warning for Danielle to keep her mouth shut on the topic. Danielle shook her head and turned back to the trail. Heliconia could tell she was in no mood for company, but also knew it was impossible to discourage the Mentor once she’d set her mind to something.
“How did she know the right direction to go?” Heliconia asked Danielle.
Danielle looked around and shook her head. “I have no idea. Possibly it was just dumb luck. She adjusted her path there, do you see?” She pointed to the far left. Heliconia didn’t need to look at Iana’s tracks to confirm. She was far less interested in what the snows were telling her than what Danielle’s face was telling her. She’d noticed the change in the Mentor when she’d first returned to Newhom with Iana in tow. Something had shifted between Iana and Danielle, something Heliconia couldn’t completely put her finger on. Danielle was different towards Iana in some small way now. She was different with Heliconia also, and Heliconia didn’t like that one bit. She liked Danielle the way she was, the way she had always been. They’d been caving-partners together off and on for several years now. Heliconia found their relationship comfortable. It was there when she wanted it and it was gone when she didn’t. She wasn’t in the mood for more changes than were already taking place these days. She had every intention of keeping things between herself and Danielle exactly as they had always been.
“There’s a field of quicksnow and sinkholes to the left. Do you think Iana read it and that’s why she adjusted?” she asked, trying to get Heliconia to respond. Heliconia snorted through her scarf and looked down the snowy path to the footprints beyond.
“Maybe. If she hadn’t she’d be dead now. I’ve never seen anyone who can read the snows the way that girl can. Anyone else trying this path blind, without knowing the route and the dangers, wouldn’t have made it to midday.”
“Yes, that is one of her strengths.”
“I’ll bet you she makes it all the way to the Hive unless we stop her,” Heliconia said, tempting Danielle. She loved betting and gambling by nature and never passed up an opportunity to do either if she could help it. But Danielle seemed to be all business today and not in the mood for lighthearted fun. They passed over a rocky patch of groundcover and rested at the top to survey the terrain before continuing. There were some animal tracks to the west, but they were too old to give any indication of what lay ahead.
“It’s dangerous to enter that snow bowl in a clear sky,” Heliconia cautioned.
“The snowfall will be with us by then. It’ll help with the Angegals.”
Heliconia gave Danielle a cryptic look, not taking comfort in her words. They pulled snowshoes out of their packs and strapped them onto their boots. They could tell by the depth of her tracks that Iana didn’t have snowshoes with her. It would give them an advantage of speed over her. Maybe they would be able to catch her before she got herself killed. The Mentors made good speed over the snowy paths. They both knew the routes well enough in this area to traverse them with little conversation or instruction. Finally they cleared the rocky ridge and paused to wait for Abel. Danielle continued to pace and curse under her breath while they waited. , and Heliconia watched her intently.
“Your mind is not clear when it comes to this Rambler.” Heliconia gave good council to Danielle. She was not so sure the Mentor wanted to hear it, but that had never stopped her before.
“I have given up a lot to keep her safe so far. I would not see that go for nothing.”
Heliconia huffed into the air, annoyed with his answer. Whenever Danielle did not want to discuss a situation she would simply ignore the question and circumvent the conversation. Danielle sat down and looked over at her while she took off her snowshoes. Then Danielle adjusted her shoes as well.
“You’re displeased with my answer?” she asked with a hint of amusement in her voice. She was busy adjusting her snowshoes, so Heliconia couldn’t see her face.
“That was not an answer to my question and you know it. I am beginning to worry about you, however. Your mind needs to be clear if you are going into the Hive after her. The Council will kill you also. It’s not just the young Rambler’s life that hangs in this balance.”
“Then I better catch Iana before she gets to the Hive. Then neither of us will be in danger,” she reassured Heliconia with a smile.
Danielle’s humor changed into frustration. “She was perfectly fine before I left her with Peter. She’d asked for sanctuary in Newhom and the Table had accepted her. She was safe. She was calm. A few hours later, after being in the company of that boy, everything we’ve worked so hard for is suddenly on the verge of coming apart.” Danielle angrily tossed a rock she’d dug out of her snowshoe across the ground. It struck off a boulder and fell deep under the snowfall. Lost under the snowy white surface.
“We were all at the same gathering together that night. You couldn’t have prevented what has happened. You only left her alone for a few moments.”
“A mistake I will not be making again,” she told Heliconia with the iron cold strength of certainty in her voice. Heliconia definitely did not like what she was hearing. She didn’t like it one bit.
As soon as the wind stopped puffing, Iana was filled with the overwhelming desire to jump up and instinctively run. But she didn’t. She held herself still in the snow just a few moments longer than necessary. She could hear Jacob’s calm voice in her head reminding her:
Always wait one moment longer than you want to. Take two additional breaths before you make your move, just to be sure. When it came to animals on the snows, that advice was sound. It had saved her life more than once over the years. Iana held her muscles in check, though her legs were screaming at her with the desire to run. She took two additional breaths through her scarf and listened. She could hear the wind and feel the snow blowing above her, but she didn’t feel the battering of the Angegal’s wings overhead.
She was just about to move when a blast rippled over her outer coat and she heard the sound of rocks cascading off the ledge above her. The huge bird took off into the air. Iana muffled her cry of surprise into the snowdrift. The Angegal had been sitting on the rock ledge above, waiting for her. If she’d moved even a moment sooner, it would have pounced on her instantly. The close call rattled her. A part of her mind screamed not to move, to stay buried in the snow forever, or at least until the horrible creature was far gone. But Iana knew the Angegal was only airborne and it would never give up until its belly was full.
She tightened her grip on the long blade in her hand. It wasn’t her Rambler’s blade, the one gifted to her when she passed her Bar and became a Rambler two years earlier. It was a blade she’d taken off a drunken man at the party the night before. The blade was not a work of art, but it was a weapon, nevertheless, and a comfort to have with her on the snows. She took one deep breath, then jumped up to her feet and ran. The snowfall was deep and her boots easily punched through. She cursed as she labored to pull each leg up and out with speed. She needed snowshoes with the drifts this deep, but it would mean death to stop and try to make some now.
Suddenly, an eerie scream filled the sky. Iana’s heart stopped. It was the Angegal; she knew it instantly. Although she had never heard its call before, that sound was unmistakable. Iana tried to double her speed. She ran, groped or crawled over the snows, anything to gain speed. She was no longer worried about leaving a trail for the Mentors to find. She only worried about living. Her eyes desperately scanned the rocky mountainside for anything that might provide shelter. She felt the tears of frustration building behind her eyes as she found nothing. If she didn’t get into a cave and build a smoke fire to repel the flesh-eating bird, she was dead. But there was nothing. She couldn’t see a single crevice deep enough to work. Her lungs screamed for more air as she ran, but she couldn’t seem to breathe enough no matter how hard she tried. The more she ran, the more her lungs felt like they would explode. The Angegal called into the blowing sleet again and Iana echoed its scream with her own frustrated voice. She would not die here. She refused!
Danielle and Heliconia were waiting for Abel. Danielle was impatient to keep moving and was up pacing back and forth again. Heliconia watched silently as the Mentor wasted her energy with the walking. Danielle knew better than to self-indulge like this, but she couldn’t stop herself.
“Your boots will be thin before you’ve even started,” Heliconia told her, the sound of disapproval heavy in the Mentor’s voice. Danielle instantly stopped and looked at her. Then she sank into a squat to conserve strength. Danielle’s brow furrowed between her eyes. She did not know what was wrong with her today.
“I will be all right. You do not need to worry about me out on the snows. I will be myself,” she told Heliconia.
“I am worried. You are behaving like a first-year apprentice.”
“I am not.”
“No, but almost as bad. Your mind is not clear. I think I should come with you to the Hive.”
But before Danielle could answer, a strung-out voice from behind punctuated the air.
“Everyone at the Hive has thought you dead for the last six months, Heliconia. It will be hard enough to hide Danielle from council guards. At least the common folk don’t think she’s dead. You better stay here. If they catch sight of you, the dead walking the halls of the Hive again would certainly draw a lot of attention.”
Abel stood behind them in full outer gear. He tossed a pack to Danielle, who tossed it over her shoulders before taking the man’s arm in greeting. Abel was a skilled tracker and hunter. His skillset in the snows far surpassed the average Hive trappers who hunted close to home. Abel was as good as any Rambler in the snows, but most importantly, Danielle trusted the man to have her back. They had been on many missions together and a mutual trust existed between them.
“The snow front is coming in fast and time is not our friend. Let’s get going,” Danielle said. She and Heliconia spoke their parting words and the rescue party took off across the snows to track Danielle’s lost mouse.
Iana’s legs were burning—she ignored them. Her lungs were screaming for more air—she paid no attention. Her mind wanted to panic, but she refused to let it. The Angegal didn’t have her in its razor sharp jaws yet, so there was still a chance. She ran through the knee-deep snow, the wet layers dragging on her legs and feet, making it almost impossible to gain any momentum across the arctic tundra. Then suddenly, her eyes spotted safety: a crevice in the mountainside. A potential cave she could shelter in from the huge bird stalking her. If she could only make it there in time. She still had to cross a short distance and navigate over a clump of fallen boulders to reach it. But hope filled her chest and fueled her with renewed energy.
The snow began to swirl around her as air currents gathered force from behind. The Angegal was heading down toward her. She knew from training that it would try to pluck her from the snows and pull her up into the air before snapping her neck and feasting on her flesh. She’d seen the remains of a Rambler caught by an Angegal once. It was a sight that was branded into her brain ever since. There wasn’t much left to identify the Rambler but bones and a few scraps of clothing. Iana didn’t want to die that way.
She reached the boulder clump that blocked her way. The only thing helping Iana at this point was the heavy snowfall, blocking visual sight of the Angegal. She’d opened her outer coat and spread it out tight and flat like a sail behind her, held out by her arms. She hoped this would make a larger flat surface to conceal her running legs underneath. The more she could blend into the snow, the safer she would be. The freezing air instantly sucked all warmth from her, but she didn’t notice. She was burning hot from running and fear. She reached the boulders and began to look for a fast and safe way around. It would take too long to climb over, not to mention making her more visible to the massive Angegal ready to pluck her from the air any second. She needed to go around or under for safety.
The rocks were icy and covered with snow, making handholds difficult if she was to climb. She had only a moment to decide which course to take. Just then, a screaming sound filled her ears and snow came bashing hard against her. The Angegal was here! She clung to the rock as panic ran wild through her mind. She was too scared to think what to do, which way to go. Then she did the one thing she knew she should not do. The absolutely wrong thing to do. She looked up.
The Angegal was far above her, but the moment Iana locked eyes on the monstrous creature, she knew it had her. Its large eyes focused on her instantly. Iana’s facial features were easy for the bird to distinguish against the snow. Tucking its head down into a dive, heading straight for her, it released a scream of victory. Iana had only seen a rough drawing of what an Angegal looked like, so few survived to describe it in detail. She expected it to have wings, be large and have a long mouth full of teeth. She was not prepared for what she saw, however. The beast did have wings, but they were ragged and horrible to look at. Its mouth was made of bone and the teeth were yellowed, broken in places, and stained by blood. Filth clung to the animal everywhere: its claws, teeth and body were plastered with stringy sticky decay that was unshakable even in the high winds and snows the bird flew through. The worst part of the creature was its eyes. There was conscious thought behind those eyes. Not like a Raven dog or other snow animals that ran the snows on more instinct than intellect. With the Angegal, Iana could see undeniable intelligence. The very idea chilled her to the bone. She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t move or speak. She wished to Venus that she had never looked up. Not only was her fate sealed in that one careless movement, but now the last thing she would see in this world would be the nightmarish sight of the Angegal’s face.
Iana threw herself down and to the side, rolling under a boulder as far as she could for cover. She heard a heavy impact against the rocks above her head, and she knew it was the Angegal’s large talons striking the boulder where her head had been just a moment ago. Snow was flying everywhere, tossed up by the beast as it tried to hover above her and reach for her again. She cursed herself for every stupid mistake she had made that had led her to this moment. She prayed to the goddess Venus for safety, even though she didn’t believe in the gods anymore. She would have prayed to twenty empty gods if she thought it would help, but there wasn’t time. She’d found some shallow shelter under one boulder, but it was not deep enough for safety and there was nowhere for her to run now. She needed to get to the cave on the other side of this rock clump. The gruesome bony beak struck the snow just inches away from her arm and she screamed. It was impossible for her to see the creature with all the snow swirling, but obviously the bird could still see her. She began to dig in the snow, to burrow as fast as she could further under the rocks. She managed to wedge herself into an open crack between two massive stones.
Finally, for once, my small frame is actually an advantage in a fight. She remembered the many stinging lessons from Mentor Danielle about her petite disadvantage. She tried to smile at the thought of Danielle being wrong about something. It was preferable to die with that feeling, than the ugly vision of the Angegal’s face in her head as it swooped down to eat her.
The thought of Danielle made her stomach turn. How could she have been so stupid? Danielle had said she wanted to save Iana, to protect her from harm. She’d helped Iana escape the Hive and held her when she cried over the Ramblers massacred a few days before. The Mentor had taken over Iana’s Rambler training after Jacob had died. She’d hated Danielle for replacing Jacob. They had fought with each other constantly, but she’d trusted her Mentor. Now two years later, she learned that Mentor Danielle was part of this new society at Newhom and responsible for both the Rambler’s destruction and this deadly alliance with the Predators.
Heat rose to her cheeks as she remembered Danielle’s lips kissing her. She now thought that kiss in the bath chamber was just to distract her. Did the Mentor really think her so simpleminded that a single kiss would blind her to what was going on? Did Danielle think herself so irresistible and charming that Iana would turn her back on her family and befriend a malignant group like the Predators? Hot salty tears of anger burned down Iana’s face, instantly whipped away by the ice and snow blasting her in waves.
A large talon scraped against the stone by her head and she sunk further down, but the second talon struck home. It snagged on her snow boot, cutting into her shin as it clipped on the laces of the boot. She screamed in pain and tried to jerk her leg away. Before she knew it, she was dragged out from under the rocks. She kicked and kicked at the talon in sheer panic. Then she reached down with her crude knife and cut the laces of her boot, releasing her from the birds grip. The angry scream of the Angegal was deafening so close. Iana scrambled as far as possible back under her rocky ledge and continued to dig. She pulled all clothing as tight as she could, to not allow the bird another grip on any material. She had a plan now to dig to the other side. If she could dig enough snow and dirt away from underneath these two rocks, she could fit through and escape. She just needed a few more seconds. How she would make it to the cave she didn’t know yet. Just one problem at a time. At this point all her mind could focus on was getting away from that beast as fast as possible. Her arms were burning with exhaustion from the digging, but she didn’t care. Her feet, her hands, every body part she had was used to dig. She was wet from the snow and freezing and losing the feeling in her limbs.
She had just broken through, when her time ran out. The grizzly beak of the bird stabbed down over and over again, scaring Iana and causing an avalanche of snow to fall from the rocks above. Iana instantly pulled her limbs in close, trying to make herself into a small ball, something harder for the Angegal to get ahold of. But on its third attempt, its decayed tooth took hold just next to her face. Iana screamed. The tooth grabbed onto her scarf wrapped around her outer coat and face. As soon as the beast registered it had hold of something it pulled up sharply. The force of the bird’s movement all but strangled Iana as it ripped her head up straight into the boulder above her. Her head smashed into the rock, just as her hands reached up to protect her face. The impact of the stone caused her to drop her blade, but she was still safely wedged under the stone. She was dazed and slightly unconscious for a moment while the bird continued its attack. The Angegal was furious and shook its head back and forth in an attempt to dislodge its prey from the stones. The movement loosened the scarf and Iana’s ragdoll posture allowed her to slip out and down, the scarf unraveling in a fancy spiral design over her head as the force of the Angegal pulled it up into the sky.
Iana lay under the rocks for a moment, dizzy and numb with cold. She turned and saw the hole she’d dug to the other side. She desperately threw her arms over her head, diving through the small hole in the snow, hoping the weight of her body could break through to the other side before the monster grabbed her again.
It worked: the force of her roll punched through and she found herself on the opposite side of the boulders. Unfortunately, there was a steep drop on the opposite side and Iana rolled down the rocky snow-covered surface a few feet before coming to solid ground. She could hear the Angegal’s mouth scraping as it thrust after her on the far side, still trying to reach her. She’d left a shallow streak of blood in the snow as she fell, probably from banging her head on the rock, or the cut on her leg. Her hood was down now and snow plastered the side of her face. She had trouble focusing her eyes and her head was throbbing. She also had trouble seeing in the now heavy snowfall. She pushed to her knees and spun around toward the safety of the cave. She had no choice; she needed to run. She had to make the cave.
But before she could get to her knees, she felt a ripping pain in her right arm as she was jerked up and forward. Iana screamed with the pain. The Angegal was already upon her. Its large talon had her arm and was trying to pull her from the ground. She knew as soon as it took her up into the air she was dead.
The bird was hopping on one foot, the other grasping Iana. Its massive wings were beating at the air and snow, trying to take off. Iana pulled against the bird in sheer panic. She felt the talon pull loose of her flesh and hot blood begin to run down her arm. She wasn’t free, however; the beast still had a secure grip through the material of her coat. She would have cut the coat away, like she had her boot, but her knife was lost and she had nothing to cut with. Iana was bounced off the ground and propelled forward again and again as the bird tried to take flight with her. She braced her legs and pulled as hard as she could against the Angegal, but the strength of the animal far surpassed her own. Iana kept her eyes glued to the cave in the side of the mountain ridge. The promise of safety from the Angegal was so close; she just needed to reach that cave. The bird’s mouth whipped around and came stabbing at her. She threw herself to the side, trying to roll away from its teeth. The talon still gripped her coat and sent her twisting. The sleeve of her coat screwed tightly against her arm. She would have screamed with the added pain but she didn’t have breath left to cry out.
Suddenly, she was airborne for a few seconds. Her mind raced with panic as her feet came off the ground, dangling in the air before hitting the snow again. The beast couldn’t take off with her full weight added in the now heavy snowfall. It was trying to drag and hop with her several feet to reach a safe eating spot. She was slammed on her side into a boulder and felt her ribs take most of the blow as she bounced back off the rock and was airborne once again. Her feet were dragging in the snow behind her. Her eyes were still stubbornly focused on the cave. It felt like her arm was being ripped off her body. She thought she could actually hear the sound of it ripping free in her ears.
Then she was falling. Falling free of the Angegal and the hitting the ground. Snow clogged her nose and mouth and her head pounded with her pulse. She rolled onto her back, free from the monster, and looked up. The sleeve of her coat was still hanging from the massive bird’s talon. With her weight suddenly gone, the Angegal had shot straight up into the sky. It was disoriented and confused for a moment. Trying to figure out what had happened to its lunch.
Iana had one chance, and she had only a moment before the bird would recover and be back on top of her. She ran for the cave.
Danielle and Abel were making good time. The night before had brought knee-deep snowdrifts and the snowshoes were helpful. The snowfall began to pick up as they tracked Iana, quickly covering her trail. Danielle had memorized what she’d seen of Iana’s trail from above, so even if they lost the path, they still had a basic direction to follow. Abel was a hunter and a skilled tracker. Danielle wasn’t worried about following the young Rambler. They knew she was headed for the Hive. But Iana didn’t know the terrain or have a map, so there was a good chance she could get lost on the way. Not staying on a designated trail raised the risk of making a mistake and there were no trails on this side of Newhom. Making mistakes on the snows usually meant getting someone killed.
As they tried to catch up to the Rambler, Danielle racked her mind about what to say to Iana that could convince her to peacefully return with them. She hadn’t been able to convince Iana to come with her to Newhom the first time, what made her think the small mouse would trust her enough to come now? For one of the first times in her life, Danielle wasn’t sure of her abilities in a situation. Iana had fought her tooth and nail the entire last year of her Rambler training; she had no hope the Rambler would be any different now.
Suddenly they heard a scream in the sky above. Abel and the Mentor instantly dropped down against the rocks for cover.
“Shit, that’s an Angegal,” Abel said, alarm ringing in his voice. The deadly birds nested on the bluff overlooking the snow bowl. The only chance a person had against them was to avoid the massive creatures from the beginning. Once they spotted prey they were relentless, and they hunted from above, making it hard to shake them. In the snows there weren’t many places to hide. A dark shadow passed over their location. Both Master and Hunter held perfectly still with their heads down to the snow. Having an Angegal in the air was very dangerous. Normally Danielle and Abel would return back to Newhom until the skies were clear. But Danielle couldn’t turn back, she had to reach Iana and keep her from reporting to the Hive’s Council. Abel looked up to get an idea of the bird’s direction and intent.
“Be careful, for Venus sake!” Danielle scolded him.
“It didn’t see us.” They heard an eerie sound come from the flying beast and Abel clarified. “We can keep moving. It’s already got prey in sight.”
Danielle nodded, looking up herself finally. The Angegal was circling just to the south of the snow bowl, at the edge of its territory. It was circling directly over the trail Iana had left in the snow. Danielle looked at Abel, remembering the man’s last words. Fear for Iana hit her stomach, as she pushed away from the rocky ledge and doubled her pace toward Iana’s trail.
Her arm was bleeding and exposed to the cold and snow, but Iana couldn’t stop to tend it. There was nothing in her mind but raw panic for survival. All she could see was the small cave opening. All she wanted was to hide inside. She hit the opening and prayed that the indent would be deep enough to protect her. She crammed her body inside, searching the walls blindly with her hands. It was not enough to just get into a cave; she now had to start a fire to smoke the gory creature away and she had nothing to make a fire with.
The creature’s massive mouth came plunging in after her, trying to reach her and pull her out again. She heard its bony beak scrape against the jagged rocks of the cave walls behind her. The only thing that saved her was the tight opening of the cave mouth. The cave didn’t allow the bird room to open its mouth wide enough to bite. It could only ram and poke into the space. Just as deadly, but at least you’d be smashed to death and not eaten. She heard the scraping of talons at the cave entrance. It was trying to break the rocks away to get at her better. Iana didn’t look back at the mouth until she hit the end of the cave. It wasn’t deep enough—the cave wasn’t deep enough. The bird’s mouth could still reach her even at the back. It could crush her into the wall until she was dead, if nothing else. She wasn’t safe.
She turned around the looked back out at the Angegal. The claws disappeared from the opening suddenly. For a brief moment Iana saw nothing but the snow falling peacefully outside the small bright circle of the cave’s mouth. It was serene and silent for the barest of moments. She took a deep breath, held it, and thought, Now I’m going to die.
Noise, violence and debris came smashing toward her without warning. The Angegal’s teeth- filled beak came straight at her with lighting speed. Iana screamed; she couldn’t help it. Her body instinctively moved to the side, trying to crawl into the any space to escape the bird’s gory yellow fangs. The beast’s mouth struck the end of the cave wall instead of Iana, but just barely. There was a small indent in the side of the cave, not enough to give her permanent safety, but something for her to cling to. As it dragged its nose out, one of its teeth snagged against Iana’s last boot and she was almost dragged back out of the cave. She quickly kicked the boot off as she clung to a rock, desperately fighting against the animal’s pull. Outside the cave, the animal screamed with frustration and Iana crammed herself into the small indention as far as she could. She dug at the walls till the rock scraped into her skin. She mushed every limb she had into the smallest possible space. Again and again the Angegal slammed its beak into the cave trying to get at her. The moment its beak hit the back wall it would shake its head from side to side, rubbing against her, trying to catch something in its stained and oozing teeth. Suddenly, the beast paused for a moment before retracting its mouth from the small cave. It exhaled forcible into the space and withdrew violently. The vile stench coming from the grisly mouth was more than Iana could handle and she pivoted to retch into the opening. She was barely done pitching the contents of her stomach before the Angegal’s beak was in the tunnel again. Iana instantly pivoted back against the wall, trying to keep out of its reach. The bird paused again. It sniffed strongly once, catching a tangent scent, a black oily tongue snaked out between the rotting teeth to lick up Iana’s fresh vomit. Iana’s stomach pitched again at the sight, but luckily there was nothing left to puke. Her body convulsed with dry heaves as she clung to the wall.
Danielle and Abel pulled up short at the sound of the Angegal’s scream of frustration. They weren’t close enough to see what was happening, but from the amount of snow and noise being kicked up into the sky further down the trail it seemed pretty clear a desperate battle was taking place. Abel had silently followed Danielle as she ran in the direction of Iana’s tracks, but with the sight of the fight happening ahead he’d reached his limit.
“We are not running straight into the line of battle with an Angegal,” he said. He’d never known Danielle to be so reckless, but there was something about her today that seemed different and he wasn’t so sure about the Mentor.
“No. But it’s got her and we have to stop it somehow.”
“This will be over before we even get close. Look at that debris field being kicked up.”
Abel tried to reason with Danielle, but Danielle wasn’t listening to him. She was already busy dumping out her travel pack into the snow. She pulled out a pan and several other objects. Then pulled her Rambler knife and began banging on each object wildly with the blade. A horrible sound of metal striking metal echoed over the snow-covered rocks. She was trying to make as much noise as possible into the sky. She added to the racket by yelling into the air and calling wildly.
Abel was uncompromising. “What the nine hells are you doing that for? Stop with the noise, Danielle. What are you trying to do, get us killed?”
“I’m trying to distract the Angegal off her.”
“By bringing it down upon us?”
Danielle ignored the obvious question and continued her pounding. Abel took two large steps and rammed his body into Danielle’s, knocking her off balance and into the snow.
“What the shit are you doing?” Danielle screamed at him as she struggled to stand again.
“Exactly what I’m thinking. I’m not going to die for that stupid girl.”
Danielle crossed and grabbed him by the coat collar, pulling him close to her face. “That is exactly what we are going to do. Both of us will give our lives to keep her alive. She is the key to all this. Everything that has been planned and hoped for all pivots around that one Rambler out there. We cannot let her die.”
Abel looked hard at Danielle. He didn’t like it when they were on opposing sides, but this was a side he couldn’t stand on.
Time passed slowly as Iana clung to the cave’s inner surface. Her cheek was pressed against the rough cold stones, her eyes squeezed shut, and she held her breath. Over and over again the bird came after her with its mouth and claws. It would not give up on its prey. Her mind was empty, blank, and her hands shook against the stone where they clung. Her lips were turning blue with the cold, but Iana couldn’t feel them. She clung to the rock, taking short shallow breaths in fear. She knew she wasn’t safe in the cave—it was only a matter of time. She was so tired her entire body hurt.
She wanted to get back to her sister at the Hive and warn her about Newhom, about Danielle, about the Predators, about all of it. No one knew there was a renegade group living out here on the snows. She wanted to warn everyone in the Hive. To tell the Hive Council where the renegade camp was and how dangerous they were. She wanted to be sure her sister and little niece were safe. She had wanted so many things. But she’d failed, and now no one would ever know what happened to her. She would just disappear on the snows. Aster wouldn’t even know her sister was dead. Iana’s eyes slowly dropped closed, fluttering the concussive rhythm of the Angegal’s beak that seemed to rock her to sleep. A soft buzzing began to fill her ears.
Then she heard a distant sound, almost like a ghost whispering in a nightmare. The Angegal pulled its mouth out of the cave and paused to listen. The echoing sounds of a Raven dog pack came vibrating through the snowy landscape.
Great, Ravens. Now I have Ravens and Angegals ready to eat me. What’s next? A giant ice beaver maybe? Iana’s eyes lost their focus and her fingers began to lose their grip. A soft half smile crossed her lips, which cracked from the cold and began to bleed. The Angegal slowly inched its head back into the cave half way. It sniffed deeply a few times, obviously thinking about what to do next. The answering howl of the Raven pack floated over the snows; they were close. The Angegal angrily smashed its boney beak against the walls of the cave a few more times, dislodging dirt and loose stone to rattle around inside. Iana tried to shelter her head from flying debris. Then the Angegal ripped its head from the cave; it kicked at the opening with its talon before taking off into the sky in an angry blast of snow.
Snow blew all through the cave at the force of its takeoff. Iana waited a long time for it to return. Even when she heard the Angegal’s renewed hunting call, signaling it had changed prey, she couldn’t move. It didn’t seem possible that it had left, that she was alive. Finally she inched away from the wall towards the mouth of the cave. Crawling on her hands and knees, she approached the light shining just beyond the opening. At the lip, she held perfectly still listening for the slightest sound, prepared to jump back in an instant if needed. There was nothing—no movement of snow, no screams and thrashing, no razor sharp talons coming at her. The cold of the rock walls sunk into her bones and her breath sent small puffs of white into the air as she sat there waiting. The stale smell of dirt, blood, vomit, and grime entered her nose. She wanted to move, but she heard the cautionary words echo over and over in her head: Wait one moment longer than you want to. Wait one moment longer than you want to.
She held herself in check and counted the white puffs of her breath in the frigid air to keep her mind awake. When she finally peeked out the cave entrance and up into the sky above, she could see the shadow of the Angegal. It was tracking new prey, pivoting away from her position. The Raven dog pack was close by; the Angegal must have switched its hunt to the easier-to-reach pack. A wave of relief rushed over Iana as she fell back into the cave, dizzy. She wanted solid rock against her back. She cradled her injured arm close to her body, laid her head down on her knees and in the dark of the small snow cave, cried large sobbing gasps that racked her body.
The two stood in the snow facing off. Danielle was desperate to end their hand-to-hand struggle so she could continue distracting the Angegal away from Iana. She had to at least try to save the Rambler from the winged beast. She couldn’t sit by and watch Iana die from afar. Abel was not about to let her bring the Angegal down upon them both, no matter how much Danielle valued the girl’s life.
“My orders were to bring her sister back, nothing about your little Rambler,” Abel stated flatly to Danielle.
“By whose orders?”
“Peony’s orders. Look, I’m glad to have the air clear about this. Having conflicting objectives on a mission is the surest way to get us both killed.”
“Then I’ll just have to do it by myself,” Danielle insisted, as she threw Abel aside into the snowbank and ran for her bag again. But before Danielle could reach her bag, the cathartic sound of the Raven packs’ howls filled the air. Both stopped and stood still, listening till its conclusion.
“It’s a full pack and they are close,” Abel said.
They watched the sudden departure of the Angegal high into the air, taking cover under the rocky ledge again, and averted their heads, just to be safe. Eventually, they turned their faces up to the sky to watch in stunned silence as the carnivorous bird took off, screaming with a renewed hunting call. It changed course to follow after the Ravens’ nearby calls. Clinging to the rock wall, they each slowly recovered from the excitement of the last few minutes.
“Huh?” Abel exclaimed. “Who would have thought a Raven would turn out to be your little mouse’s best friend?”
Breathing hard, Danielle sat heavily down on the snowy ground and tossed her knife into the ice. She gave a small prayer of thanks to Venus and whipped her face with her glove. Then she began tightening up her outer clothing, packing her bag again, and preparing to move out.
“We have to find her fast. She might be hurt.”
“Might be? You take on an Angegal, you are going to be hurt; there’s no ‘might be’ about it.”
“It didn’t get her, or it wouldn’t have taken off after the Ravens. That means she reached some sort of safety.”
Abel picked up his pack and took off ahead of Danielle. Danielle knew that Abel was never one for frivolous conversation. His path was to the Hive after Iana’s sister, Aster. If they could pick Iana up along the way, Danielle knew Abel would humor her. They had been together on missions for a long time now. Danielle knew Abel would do what he could, but possibly, no more than that.
Keep Reading! Follow the link below to Amazon or Nook to keep reading.