Even though she was cold, the moment she was outside easy hearing range of the survivors Naida felt a lot better. She could cry for everyone without setting off anyone else, she could grieve by herself without having Yal make a sniffy comment about how it was impossible for her to be upset because… because, because… always another nasty reason to make Naida a bad person.
And even if other people kept stopping her, it was taking longer and longer for anyone to intervene. Like water dripping Yal’s words were wearing away people’s good opinion of her. It was because she was so relentless.
She went slowly, carefully, feeling for her footing. Just because this path was easier didn’t make it easy. Pumice had fallen here as well and she had cuts all over her feet. There was scrub growth, even up this high and she was glad to see it. The goats were as hungry as the people, and the snow was knocking the last of the ash out of the air.
“Phew!” Asteri appeared beside her. “I thought you’d never get away from that gong-scraper.”
Naida jumped, startled, before sitting down and gathering Asteri onto her lap. “I wish you’d quit doing that. It’s not seemly for my blood partner to act like that.”
He nuzzled her cheek. “Oh, I’m never seemly. And I’m not your blood partner. Your Ushera is coming, but she’s been delayed by this disaster.”
“You’re not? Who is? Ushera? She’s a she? Where is she?”
“I don’t know it all, I just had a friend who sees these things tell me. I don’t remember a lot in this form. I’m still just a kid.”
Naida just shook her head, overwhelmed. “Maybe when I get my Great One they’ll speak more straight out.”
“Not likely.” He squirmed out of her arms. “Isn’t your bum getting cold?”
“Well, then get up and wave to the nice survivors and keep moving. They’ll be able to see you all the way up to those boulders there.”
She had to laugh. He was just so silly and so irreverent. She waved back at everyone below and they waved back. She couldn’t see Uri on the other path since his diverted up along the steep wall of the pass.
“Nice survivors,” she panted. “Yalenda is busy turning the last of them against me.”
“You’d be happier away from them, you know.”
Naida stopped to catch her breath, winded more by the idea than the thin air. “Away from them? Where would I go? What would I do?”
Asteri bounced over a rough patch and looked back at her. “I don’t know. Perhaps like what you’ve prayed for? Your mother? Your father? How about finding out who hated you enough to abjure a Roc to carry you away and leave you with the Afaries?”
“But…” she could only stare at him. “I’d like all of that. Yes. You think I could do it?”
“Good! You’re technically a woman now, according to the humans who raised you. I have a couple of friends around here and they’ll help you get away from that lot.”
“What? Friends of yours?” She began to run after him, stubbed her toe hard enough that even her hardened feet couldn’t take it and stopped, bouncing and yelping with pain. “Ow! Ow! Asteri, quit being so… so… “
He popped up on the smaller of the boulders, and baaed at her. “Infuriatiing?”
“Well, climb up and you’ll be able to see if the pass is clear of predators and they’ll still be able to see you.”
“Just wait till I get my hands on you again, you goat, you!”
“Come on up.”
Naida scrambled up the rock, carefully. Asteri was being so loud she didn’t think it was a good idea. “Asteri, be quiet! We’re supposed to be checking to see if there are lions…” As her eyes cleared the top of the boulder she clamped her mouth shut and froze.
The pass where it turned out of sight was littered with bones. She could tell it was bones because the snow had been scoured half-clean by the wind. Brown bits hung from gnawed ivory. The snow was thin before what looked like the den of a monster with the stones marked as if gnawed or scratched up by enormous claws. Flaps of rawhide lay coiled in chewed knots or strands hung up on the walls. Those are the biggest horns I’ve ever seen… the biggest cow skull… was that an aurochs? And… scales… dragon scales?
There was a steady, ticking thrum she could hear echoing almost as loud as her heartbeating in her ears with sudden terror. She didn’t think she had enough energy left to be that terrified after the volcano started, but sweat sprang up cold all over her skin.
She eased back away from the top of the boulder and swallowed, staring up at Asteri, who stood unconcerned on top.
“Asteri,” she whispered, choking, through a dry, dry throat.
“It’s all right,” he said cheerily. “You’re really safe. Of course there had to be all this drama. Like I said."
“A friend?” Naida didn’t stop but eased her feet back down to the ground, slowly, slowly, then backed away from the boulder.
The setting sun cast grey, streaky light across the pass and even as Asteri said ‘shush’ there was an uncanny moan across the mountains. From the den…
Naida froze and clung to the rock next to her with fingers turned white with her grip. She shut her eyes and even tried to make her breathing lighter. The moan rose higher and higher till it was a shriek that cut through Naida’s head and every part of her screamed at her to drop down to the more level ground and run.
Then there was silence. You said I was safe. She wanted to whisper to Asteri to get down, wind whipping tufts of his hair every which way, but kept her mouth shut. That was how sphinxes hunted. Like kraken. Scream to make you move. Asteri turned his head slowly as he checked to make sure she wasn’t going to break and scream or run.
Then, over the silence and the sound of the wind came a delicate sound. A croon that almost instantly made Naida sleepy. It soared into a wordless song that shone as if the setting sun were illuminating it somehow.
The sphinx tried another roar but the lullaby somehow harmonized it and instead of a terrifying howl it tumbled down into a disgruntled, sleepy sort of sound, as if the predator couldn’t decide whether to purr or snore.
Naida yawned and fought to keep her eyes open. “Here she comes,” Asteri whispered, barely louder than the wind in the pass. The sphinx came charging out her den, skidding to a stop on top of the boulder in a rush of snow and feathers. It was so beautiful that she stopped and stared, even as it snapped its glorious wings wide open.
Distantly she could hear someone below scream, a tiny sound like a buzzing fly in the wind. The sphinx smiled down at her, fangs long as her fingers, even in a human face. Its lion body was sleek and shining as though it was poured of molten brass, or gold itself, the face almost a human woman, though with lioness fangs and whiskers, muzzle just long enough to cover those teeth.
She flapped gold-tipped white wings gleaming in the setting sun and the claws scratching the rock were bright, bright red. The face swung down toward her.
“ASTERI!” She screamed and ran, heedless of rocks, zig zagging like a frightened mouse. There was a thunder of wings and as the shadow swooped down on her she dropped into a tight ball on the stony pass floor, trying to make herself too small to be snatched.
A rush of fur and feathers and she was scooped up, eyes shut tight, smelling… clean, warm fur and the scent of books and leather the massive paws velvetted, holding her tight to the breast of the sphinx. She tried to scream again but her mouth was full of fur, and she had no breath left.