Halia dove into the clouds. She breathed deep and tasted sweetness. Clouds gave her everything she needed: breath for her lungs, strength for her body, lift to keep her airborne. Before she exhaled, she set a little of that lift aside and pushed it into her air bladder. Then she spread her arms and legs, letting her wings—the supple sheets of skin stretching from her wrists to her ankles—fill with a gust. She arched her back, and her momentum propelled her upward. By the time that momentum ceased, she no longer needed it; the lift in her bladder was keeping her afloat.
She looked out over a cloudscape. The late-day sun cast orange beams over humps and lumps that stretched to every horizon. Their western faces gleamed white while their eastern faces hid in hues of purple.
Skysea. The world.
Up from the clouds below, more of Halia’s kind emerged, beating their white wings, folding and unfolding as they rose on the lift in their bladders. They gathered in a spiral formation, a swirl of Cloudborn: Halia’s volery, eighteen strong. She glided towards them, and as she approached she sensed their wings’ interplay with the air, part tingle and part tickle, invisible forces that pushed and pulled, guiding each Cloudborn into a pattern that moved as one.
Halia banked wide and passed them on the right side.
“Halia,” they called, “Halia Stormskin.”
‘Stormskin,’ her nickname because of her dark complexion. Cloudborn were fair skinned, white like the clouds’ western faces. But not Halia. Halia was born dark, that eastern hue, dark like a thunderhead, blue-grey in some lights, mauve in others. She was otherwise well formed: broad wings with strong arms to guide them; lush, sable hair; dark, oval eyes with the longest lashes in the volery. But Cloudborn were supposed to be fair skinned, so Halia’s complexion set her apart, and not in a good way. It made her the outcast, forced her to the tail end of her volery, behind even the younglings.
“Hali! Hali!” the younglings called.
Halia counted them as she passed. Foremost came Suli, eldest but not yet an adult (though he wished he were). Then came Ixi and Pixi, the golden-haired twins, followed by Yoni, Yima, and Xo. And lastly, the seventh, little redheaded Mimi calling to Halia in her high, sweet voice:
“Hali, Hali,” she said, “watch me.”
Mimi performed a tight spiral, then a dive and a loop.
“Hali, did you see?”
“I did see,” Halia said. “Remarkable.”
Mimi beamed and hummed with satisfaction. Halia beamed too and took her place at the volery’s tail. The end of the line wasn’t all bad. Here, she was closest to the little ones and could watch over them. It took a volery to raise a youngling, and Halia was glad to do her part—more than her part, really, and she was more than glad to do it. Younglings didn’t call her Stormskin; that would come later, with adulthood. As younglings, they loved her, and she loved them. One day she would have a youngling of her own.
One day, a voice echoed inside her.
The volery swirled like a sideways whirlwind, westward over an endless expanse of clouds. The winds had begun to shift, coming about from the southeast. In a few weeks, they would blow northwest heavy and steady, day and night. The mating season was nearly over, but Halia had yet to mate. She had never mated, though she had matured two seasons ago. Her stormy skin kept the males away.
One day, the voice promised.
Sometimes this voice was the only thing that kept Halia going. She supposed the voice was her conscience, but it often felt bigger than that, broader than that, separate from that, and from her. Persistent, insistent, unrealistic at times, but always encouraging, always on Halia’s side. Life was a series of crosswinds, but the voice was her prevailing tailwind, guiding her forward.
The sun dawdled in the west. The volery broke their spiral formation and drifted on the currents, kept afloat by the lift in their air bladders. It didn’t look like today would be the one day Halia kept promising herself; it was beginning to feel like that day would never come.
Then, an hour before sunset, movement caught the volery’s collective eye: white specks coming out of the south. Another volery, this one in V-formation. A big one, too, twenty-five or thirty strong.
Halia’s volery veered right to intercept. She felt their change in direction before she saw it, felt it through the tingle and the tickle in her wings. And she felt other things besides movement: eagerness, exhilaration, optimism. Others in the volery were excited to mate, too. Even the younglings felt these things, though they didn’t fully understand them and were slower to respond; their senses had yet to develop.
“Keep up now,” Halia told them.
They giggled and gave chase. The dance had begun.
When the two voleries met, they ramped upwards together in a Cloudborn plume and wove their formations together into a single spiral. The salutation. Each individual eyed the other, sensed the other, the younglings included—how else would they learn? They were getting to know each other. Some shared smiles or winks. Some touched hands or feet.
But not with Halia. No matter how she twirled or smiled or winked, she sensed only reluctance. At best, the males gave her a polite nod. Most squirmed uncomfortably. All of them turned away. They didn’t want to dance with Halia Stormskin.
At the top of the ascent, the salutation peeled apart, back into separate voleries which dove in two grand loops to meet again down below. Then came another ascent, another salutation, and another retreat. Three times they would dance so that everyone could meet everyone. And everyone was rejecting Halia. They didn’t see her fine form; they didn’t see how well she flew; they saw only Stormskin. And that hurt. Not the rejection so much—Halia was used to the name-calling, to the general effect her skin had on fellow Cloudborn, to being at the tail end of a volery—but the subsequence hurt: no mate for Halia meant no youngling for Halia.
She felt like giving up. It was hopeless. Another dance, another rejection, another failure. Maybe next year. Besides, someone would have to look after the younglings when the dance was over.
Near the top of the third and final ascent, Halia was performing one last twirl, one last halfhearted flourish, when someone bumped into her from behind. She turned and found herself face-to-face with a male. He appeared as surprised as she was—an accidental collision? He eyed Halia up and down, and naturally the first thing he noticed was her complexion. Reflexively, Halia clenched her abdomen to smooth her form, to distract him with one of her finer features. Meanwhile, she inspected him in return. He was a bit scrawny: narrow at the hips and shoulders, and his ribs shone through his skin. But that skin was fair, a proper Cloudborn hue. And when he smiled at Halia, she barely noticed his crooked teeth. No one had ever smiled at Halia before, not like this.
The male reached out his hand as apology for his clumsiness. Rather than taking it, Halia moved in close and let it touch her stomach—aggressive, but Halia Stormskin had to be aggressive, didn’t she? The skin-on-skin contact sent a tingle through her stronger than any shift in the wind ever had. Her face warmed, and her partner’s did too; she saw his fair skin redden. He had a shy awkwardness about him, and Halia got the feeling that he hadn’t done this before either. She didn’t care. All that mattered was his interest.
Halia let his hand trail across her navel, and lower. An intimation. An invitation. Then they looped away from each other. The salutation had ended.
Mates began to pair off. Some even tripled off, which sometimes happened when voleries’ numbers were unevenly matched or when a female was particularly desirable. The pairs and triplets darted in wild, random directions. The younglings flew off as well, giggling at play. First they had danced, now came the chase.
Halia’s partner dove fast, and Halia dove with him. They turned to one another mid-descent, wind and wing communicating invisible urges. Halia sensed his nervousness and hesitation, like he might break away at any moment, too embarrassed to go on. “Sometimes you’re chased,” she had been taught, “and sometimes you do the chasing.” Halia was willing to chase; she’d just had the best dance of her life and wasn’t about to let it end there.
They entered the clouds. Halia snatched her partner’s wrist and pressed her body against his. She sucked in breath and tasted sweetness again. The deeper they dove, the sweeter the clouds became, and richer in nutrients, so sweet and rich that flavor and energy became euphoria. Halia more than tingled; it felt like lightning was charging in her veins. Her partner felt it too, because his inhibitions disappeared. He embraced her, and their bodies intertwined.
Deeper and deeper they went, but they could only go so far. For as the air became richer, so too did it become heavier—literally heavy with nutrients—while the gaseous lift that kept the Cloudborn afloat thinned. Dive too deep and the balance of richness and lift would irrevocably tip, and a Cloudborn would never pull out of her dive; she would sink down into darkness, into clouds beneath clouds beneath clouds, down to where the dead went, and never return.
When Halia and her mate finally untangled, she needed air, clean and cool. She spread her wings and flew in an upward scoop. The pale haze above her waxed lighter and lighter till she broke through into sunlight and open sky. Off to the east, she saw a few of her volery congregating, their chases done. So soon? she wondered. How long had she been under? Turning south, Halia saw dark clouds. Lightning flashed in their folds. A storm mustering. But it was a long ways off yet.
Once more, the voice said. There’s time.
Her mate had the same idea. He rushed her, and together they plunged back under cover. Halia was still young; she’d only been fertile for two seasons. But that was a long time to wait, longer than most Cloudborn, long enough that she’d begun to fear that mating and younglings might never happen for her. Now, those fears melted. Halia Stormskin, the outsider, wasn’t such an outsider after all. Today was her day. She would become a mother. She took it all in, the clouds’ euphoria and her own, embracing her mate and releasing him, tangling and untangling. The anticipation between each break was almost as good as the reunion.
A dark mass streaked between them, and Halia collided with something large and heavy, something travelling at an awesome speed. The impact stunned her, rattled her brain, and she would have blacked out if not for the scream—not her scream, it came in a voice she’d never heard before but recognized nonetheless: her dance partner, her mate. That scream chilled her, sobered her, forced her senses to align, and she dove to get as far away from it as she could. She soared in a long crescent. The clouds whooshed past in white blurs. The wind roared in her ears. Fears flashed in her mind, and when she burst from the cloud cover she saw those fears materialized: a Scabra.
A fifty-foot serpent slithered up from the mist. The latter half of its body narrowed to a thin tail. Light- and dark-grey scales shimmered as it wriggled. Ears like tiny, ribbed fins protruded from its diamond-shaped head, which was crowned with two slender horns. Its eyes were golden discs slit by narrow black pupils. In its massive jaws, Halia’s mate lay crushed, arms and legs dangling. The monster’s teeth had pierced him through the chest and pelvis, punctured his lungs and heart and air bladder. Halia hovered in terror, unable to look away. Only moments earlier she’d been, they’d been…she shuddered and pushed those thoughts aside. He was dead now, and Halia couldn’t have helped him anyway. He was dead, and the Scabra would devour him.
Only, the Scabra didn’t. It wiggled its jaws and bounced her mate to the back corner of its mouth. Then its head turned toward Halia. Its finlike ears bristled and its narrow pupils widened. It cried out, part hiss, part caw. Then Halia noticed how the serpent’s underbelly bulged all the way back to where its tail began to taper. There were baby Scabra in there, ravenous unborn monsters, and they were telling their mother to feed while the feeding was good. Halia’s scrawny mate wouldn’t be enough; they wanted Halia too.
She squeezed the lift from her bladder and let herself drop. The clouds below were dark and thick; the southern storm was coming in fast. Halia banked right and doubled back. The Scabra’s shadow passed overhead, but Halia’s wings sensed its change in direction. It was following. It was close. She arced backwards and heard its jaws snap on the empty air beneath her feet. She heard her mate’s bones crunch and heard the beast shriek in frustration.
Halia had wanted a chase today, but not like this.
She doubled back again, cut left. Dive. Cut. Spiral. She would tie the monster in a knot. Cut. Spiral. Double back. But the Scabra was fast, strong, and driven by the insatiable, unborn hunger in its belly. Halia’s stormy skin hid her from sight in these clouds, but it couldn’t hide her scent. And she was tiring. Her cuts were dulling. Her spirals were becoming sloppy.
Fighting fatigue, she overcompensated and banked too sharply. The Scabra’s chomp missed her, but as she turned its tail whipped her across the midsection, knocking the wind from her lungs and the lift from her bladder. She sailed in a wild arc. Farewell to breath; inhaling did nothing. Her skin stung with a cool wetness: a hundred little nicks and scrapes from the serpent’s scales. Her swirling mind fought to remain conscious, but her body wouldn’t listen. She was plunging, down and down, into darkness.
Lightning flashed. The storm was closing in, a dangerous phenomenon for Cloudborn and Scabra alike. For a moment, Halia dared to hope the serpent would abandon her rather than risk the storm’s fury. But then she heard it hiss behind her and gurgle with glee. She imagined its jaws widening in a satisfied smile. The thing was so ravenous, not even the storm could keep it from its prey. Meanwhile, Halia continued to plunge, thoughts semi-disconnected from body, aware of her danger but unable to do anything about it. Her momentum was the only thing keeping her out of the Scabra’s mouth.
The lightning flashed and flashed again. Strangely, no thunder followed, nor had the wind surged. What sort of storm was this? And those flashes, something was odd about them too; they weren’t blue or white but yellow. An eerie sort of yellow, like no lightning or sun could ever shine. Eerie and somehow…
Suddenly, it came to her. She knew this yellow. She knew it and feared it, even more than she feared the Scabra. Her body jolted awake, sparked by instinct, and she jammed her limbs outward. The skin of her wings stretched, catching every bit of wind they could. Her arms shook under the pressure. The Scabra’s breath wafted up from behind, sour with slime, but Halia’s eyes were affixed on what lay ahead.
Then she saw it, the source of the light, as if it were burning the mists away: three dozen pink tentacles stretching across her field of vision. Each was as thick as the bloated Scabra’s body. Between them, thinner tentacles floated like strands of hair. Among them, yellow lightning sparked and danced, travelling along the tentacles in bright spheres like miniature suns, or spanning the gaps between as jagged bolts.
This was no storm. This was Nydaron.
Halia arched her back so hard it almost snapped. Her flightpath curved, curved, and she came within three feet of the nearest tentacle. Her hair stood on end, charged by Nydaron’s light. That light fizzled and hummed; it made her wings tingle but not in a good way. She flew along the length of the tentacle, all but skimming its surface before banking away.
The Scabra wasn’t so lucky. It saw Nydaron too, feared it as much as a cold-blooded snake could fear anything, and it tried to turn away. But its mass and the bloated mass of unborn in its belly worked against it. It could not slow or turn in time. It slammed into the tentacles with a screech. That screech lasted only a moment, just a short chirp, but Halia heard absolute terror in it. And pain. Instantly, the lightning concentrated on the Scabra, stabbing it with a dozen bolts, rushing along its scales and down its throat. The serpent tensed from tongue to tail. Hum and fizzle became crack and sizzle, and smoke began to rise from the Scabra’s jaws. Its golden eyes blackened then popped in their sockets.
The shocks continued until Nydaron was satisfied that the Scabra was dead. Then the lightning abandoned the carcass to resume its random travel and flash. The serpent went limp and settled into the hair-like tentacles’ embrace. Halia’s mate tumbled from its slack jaw into an embrace of his own. Then, slowly, the two of them were pulled away, into the mist and out of sight. Somewhere beyond, perhaps over the horizon, Nydaron’s head awaited: a gelatinous cap of translucent flesh the size of a thundercloud; a thoughtless, brainless pocket that knew only hunger.
Nydaron, scourge of Skysea, hunter of the sacred Leviathans. The winds had changed; Nydaron was heading north on their currents, ahead of the migrations. The mating season was over.
Halia turned away in disgust. Her lip trembled; her whole body trembled. Scabra were common in Skysea, Nydaron less so, but to encounter them both today when things had been going so well? She supposed she ought to count herself lucky. She’d managed to escape the two biggest threats a Cloudborn could face. But she didn’t feel lucky. She felt sick and guilty, and the trembling continued.
She rose out of the clouds and saw her volery regrouping, a flock of specks hovering in the distance. The sun had set, but below them the light of Nydaron glowed like one last sunbeam lost in the mist. It couldn’t reach the volery up here, and it would not pursue them. Nydaron didn’t hunt like that; it was a patient, drifting menace. Even so, the volery appeared agitated. They weren’t just hovering, they were flitting about in a frantic cluster.
Halia hurried toward them. As she approached, she heard them calling: “Mimi! Mimi!” Now Halia was frantic too. She swooped around the volery and counted the younglings. Suli. Ixi and Pixi. Yoni, Yima, and Xo. She counted a second time, then a third. Six younglings, not seven.
Mimi’s mother, Butea, swooped near. She was the fairest in the volery, never had trouble finding a mate—found two per dance more often than not. But fear for her daughter had transformed her: her eyes were puffy, her cheeks sunken; her lush red curls stuck out in all directions; her fair, fair skin looked deathly pallid.
“Where is Mimi!” she demanded of Halia.
Halia didn’t have an answer. Watching the younglings wasn’t her responsibility alone, and she had the same right to mate as any Cloudborn, but her volery had come to rely on her vigilance, maybe even took it for granted. Whether that was fair or unfair, guilt still gnawed at Halia. If she and her mate hadn’t indulged themselves for so long, she would have been back here sooner. Their indulgence had not only cost him his life, now it had lost a youngling—everyone’s favorite youngling, if there was such a thing; certainly the youngest and smallest and most innocent in the volery.
Then, from below, came a thin, high scream.
The volery responded in unison: “Mimi!”
Without hesitation, Halia dove for the clouds, Butea just behind her. Some of the volery urged caution; others begged them not to go—to approach Nydaron was madness. But Mimi’s screams could not be ignored.
In the mists, Halia’s hair stood on end again. Nydaron’s hum resonated in her chest. Every crackle and pop made her heart jump. Behind her, she heard Butea’s breath fluttering, almost whimpering. This was a mother’s worst nightmare. Above and ahead, a thick tentacle came into view, fleshy pink, then another one below. A few thinner, wilder strands drifted between, wispy and translucent. Mimi screamed again, and Halia looked deep into the tangle to see the youngling hovering in place, trapped in a maze of Nydaron.
“Mimi!” Butea cried.
Instinctively, Mimi moved forward. “Mama!”
“Mimi, no!” Halia shouted. “Don’t move.”
Mimi stopped and stuck out her bottom lip. “Hali,” she mewled, “Hali, I’m scared.”
A lump instantly rose in Halia’s throat. “You’re all right. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Halia turned to Butea. Butea was frozen stiff except for her eyes, which darted back and forth between Nydaron’s tentacles and her trapped daughter.
“Butea,” Halia said. “Butea.”
Butea’s eyes locked onto Halia’s, and Halia saw how deep the terror really went. Butea had come this far, farther than most, driven by motherly instinct. Now that instinct was at odds with simple survival. Each strand of Nydaron meant instant death. A shift in the wind, an overeager glide, a single twitch and zap, the end. Butea the mother wouldn’t turn back, wouldn’t abandon her daughter to Nydaron, but Butea the mortal Cloudborn couldn’t go forward. She was simply too afraid.
Help her, the voice inside Halia said. You have to help her.
“Mimi, stay there,” Halia called, eyes still locked with Butea’s. “I’m coming to get you.”
She worked some lift in and out of her air bladder, flexing it, readying it. Her wings would help propel her, but moving this slowly and carefully would be mostly bladder-work. She’d never attempted such precision before, never had a need. She took a deep breath; she would need that precision now.
She lingered a moment more, waiting for some kind of response from Butea—a nod, an ‘okay’, anything. But Butea couldn’t manage it. Halia was on her own. She nodded to Butea, flapped her arms once, and glided in.
Dozens of tentacles drifted in a tangle. The blood in Halia’s veins buzzed.
“Mimi,” she called, “don’t let it touch you, you hear?”
“Hali, I’m scared.”
“I know, little one. I’m coming.”
The wind gusted and pushed Halia upward. She spat out a burst of lift and twisted. Luckily, the nearest tentacles were fine and limp, and they drifted upward too, giving her space to spin away. But the maze had just changed, complicating her path forward. This was madness! If she made it all the way to Mimi, would there even be a way back out?
“You’re doing fine,” she said, as much to Mimi as to herself.
Up and around. Another gust. Pause as a tentacle floated past. She almost had a rhythm going; as the air currents shifted, both Cloudborn and tentacle shifted with them.
Until they didn’t. Suddenly, the tentacles began to move—not with the wind but of their own accord. Rightward, northward, all of them as one. Nydaron was retracting. Somewhere, miles over the horizon, it must have snared something big—another Scabra maybe, or a Leviathan, its favorite prey—and its appendages were drawing the kill towards Nydaron’s head, that hungry, gelatinous pocket.
A tentacle whipped past. Halia backflipped and dodged another. Nydaron was so large, its size made it seem sluggish, but retracting miles of appendages required phenomenal strength, and strength begat speed. Halia had to hurry. She ducked, she dipped. She was barely keeping herself alive. If not for Mimi’s petite size, the little one would be dead already.
A gap opened. A few straggling tentacles streamed past, then nothing but clear space. Mimi had a chance.
“Mimi,” Halia said, “come to me.”
Mimi tarried, floating in a huddled ball. The poor youngling was petrified, like her mother, and rightly so; she was trapped in the worst place a Cloudborn could find herself.
“You can do it,” Halia said. “Hurry now.”
Mimi spread her arms, stretched her legs.
“That’s it,” Halia said. “Be brave, little one.”
Mimi flapped towards her once. Her tiny body glided closer.
She’ll be a great flyer one day, Halia thought, a great dancer. “Remarkable. So brave.”
Mimi’s arms were spread wide. One more flap, one more glide, and she’d be in Halia’s arms. Then a gust rose from below, a strong one. Halia had to exhale hard to counter it. Mimi’s wings caught it, and she brought her arms to her sides to compensate—great instincts—but she was too light, too inexperienced. The draft lifted her upward. She was only six feet away, smiling at Halia—such a pretty smile, like her mother’s—when a rogue tentacle lashed across the youngling’s face. Yellow lightning flashed. A hot hiss before a pop. And Halia screamed.