It had been five hundred years since all three Clans had assembled. There had been over twenty thousand of them at one point. Now only three thousand remained, and that was a generous estimate. All that was left of a once-mighty kingdom.
Still, the halls of the Omega were a dangerous place to be. Already she’d had to pull apart Asterin and a Yellowlegs bitch who hadn’t yet learned that Blackbeak sentinels—especially members of the Thirteen—didn’t take lightly to being called soft-hearted.
There had been blue blood splattered on their faces, and though Manon was more than pleased to see that Asterin, beautiful, brash Asterin, had done most of the damage, she’d still had to punish her Second.
Three unblocked blows. One to the gut, so Asterin could feel her own powerlessness; one to the ribs, so she’d consider her actions every time she drew breath; and one to the face, so her broken nose would remind her that the punishment could have been far worse.
Asterin had taken them all without scream or complaint or plea, just as any of the Thirteen would have done.
And this morning, her Second, nose swollen and bruised at the bridge, had given Manon a fierce grin over their miserable breakfast of boiled oats. Had it been another witch, Manon would have dragged her by the neck to the front of the room and made her regret the insolence, but Asterin . . .
Even though Asterin was her cousin, she wasn’t a friend. Manon didn’t have friends. None of the witches, especially the Thirteen, had friends. But Asterin had guarded her back for a century, and the grin was a sign that she wouldn’t put a dagger in Manon’s spine the next time they were knee-deep in battle.
No, Asterin was just insane enough to wear the broken nose like a badge of honor, and would love her crooked nose for the rest of her not-so-immortal life.
The Yellowlegs heir, a haughty bull of a witch named Iskra, had merely given her offending sentinel a warning to keep her mouth shut and sent her down to the infirmary in the belly of the mountain. Fool.
All the coven leaders were under orders to keep their sentinels in line—to suppress the fighting between Clans. Or else the three Matrons would come down on them like a hammer. Without punishment, without Iskra making an example of her, the offending witch would keep at it until she got strung up by her toes by the new High Witch of the Yellowlegs Clan.
They’d held a sham of a memorial service last night for Baba Yellowlegs in the cavernous mess hall—lighting any old candles in lieu of the traditional black ones, wearing whatever hoods they could find, and going through the Sacred Words to the Three-Faced Goddess as though they were reading a recipe.
Manon had never met Baba Yellowlegs, and didn’t particularly care that she’d died. She was more interested in who had killed her, and why. They all were, and it was those questions that were exchanged between the expected words of loss and mourning. Asterin and Vesta had done the talking, as they usually did, chatting up the other witches while Manon listened from nearby. No one knew anything, though. Even her two Shadows, concealed in the dark pockets of the mess hall as they’d been trained to do, had overheard nothing.
It was the not knowing that made her shoulders tight as Manon stalked up the sloped hallway to where the Matrons and all the Coven leaders were to assemble, Blackbeak and Yellowlegs witches stepping aside to let her pass. She resented not knowing anything that might be useful, that might give the Thirteen or the Blackbeaks an advantage. Of course, the Bluebloods were nowhere to be seen. The reclusive witches had arrived first and claimed the uppermost rooms in the Omega, saying they needed the mountain breeze to complete their rituals every day.
Religious fanatics with their noses in the wind, was what Mother Blackbeak had always called them. But it had been their insane devotion to the Three-Faced Goddess and their vision of the Witch Kingdom under Ironteeth rule that had mustered the Clans five centuries ago—even if it had been the Blackbeak sentinels who’d won the battles for them.
Manon treated her body as she would any other weapon: she kept it clean and honed and ready at any time to defend and destroy. But even her training couldn’t keep her from being out of breath when she reached the atrium by the black bridge that connected the Omega to the Northern Fang. She hated the expanse of stone without even touching it. It smelled wrong.
It smelled like those two prisoners she’d seen with the duke. In fact, this whole place reeked like that. The scent wasn’t natural; it didn’t belong in this world.
About fifty witches—the highest-ranking coven leaders in each Clan—were gathered at the giant hole in the side of the mountain. Manon spotted her grandmother immediately, standing at the bridge entrance with what had to be the Blueblood and Yellowlegs Matrons.
The new Yellowlegs Matron was supposedly some half sister of Baba, and she certainly looked the part: huddled in brown robes, saffron ankles peeking out, white hair braided back to reveal a wrinkled, brutal face mottled with age. By rule, all Yellowlegs wore their iron teeth and nails on permanent display, and the new High Witch’s were shining in the dull morning light.
Unsurprisingly, the Blueblood Matron was tall and willowy, more priestess than warrior. She wore the traditional deep blue robes, and a band of iron stars circled her brow. As Manon approached the crowd, she could see that the stars were barbed. Not surprising, either.
Legend had it that all witches had been gifted by the Three-Faced Goddess with iron teeth and nails to keep them anchored to this world when magic threatened to pull them away. The iron crown, supposedly, was proof that the magic in the Blueblood line ran so strong that their leader needed more—needed iron and pain—to keep her tethered in this realm.
Nonsense. Especially when magic had been gone these past ten years. But Manon had heard rumors of the rituals the Bluebloods did in their forests and caves, rituals in which pain was the gateway to magic, to opening their senses. Oracles, mystics, zealots.
Manon stalked through the ranks of the assembled Blackbeak coven leaders. They were the most numerous—twenty coven leaders, over which Manon ruled with her Thirteen. Each leader touched two fingers to her brow in deference. She ignored them and took up a spot at the front of the crowd, where her grandmother gave her an acknowledging glance.
An honor, for any High Witch to acknowledge an individual. Manon bowed her head, pressing two fingers to her brow. Obedience, discipline, and brutality were the most beloved words in the Blackbeak Clan. All else was to be extinguished without second thought.
She still had her chin high, hands behind her back, when she spotted the other two heirs watching her.
The Blueblood heir, Petrah, stood closest to the High Witches, her group in the center of the crowd. Manon stiffened but held her gaze.
Her freckled skin was as pale as Manon’s, and her braided hair was as golden as Asterin’s—a deep, brassy color that caught the gray light. She was beautiful, like so many of them, but grave. Above her blue eyes, a worn leather band rested on her brow in lieu of the iron-star crown. There was no way of telling how old she was, but she couldn’t be much older than Manon if she looked this way after magic had vanished. There was no aggression, but no smile, either. Smiles were rare amongst witches—unless you were on the hunt or on a killing field.
The Yellowlegs heir, though . . . Iskra was grinning at Manon, bristling with a challenge that Manon found herself aching to meet. Iskra hadn’t forgotten the brawl between their sentinels in the hallway yesterday. If anything, from the look in Iskra’s brown eyes, it seemed that the brawl had been an invitation. Manon found herself debating how much trouble she’d get into for shredding the throat of the Yellowlegs heir. It would put an end to any fights between their sentinels.
It would also put an end to her life, if the attack were unprovoked. Witch justice was swift. Dominance battles could end in loss of life, but the claim had to be made up front. Without a formal provocation from Iskra, Manon’s hands were tied.
“Now that we’re assembled,” the Blueblood Matron—Cresseida—said, drawing Manon’s attention, “shall we show you what we’ve been brought here to do?”
Mother Blackbeak waved a hand to the bridge, black robes billowing in the icy wind. “We walk into the sky, witches.”
The crossing of the black bridge was more harrowing than Manon wanted to admit. First, there was the miserable stone, which throbbed beneath her feet, giving off that reek that no one else seemed to notice. Then there was the screeching wind, which battered them this way and that, trying to shove them over the carved railing.
They couldn’t even see the floor of the Gap. Mist shrouded everything below the bridge—a mist that hadn’t vanished in the day they’d been here, or the days they’d hiked up the Gap. It was, she supposed, some trick of the king’s. Contemplating it led only to more questions, none of which she bothered to voice, or really care about all that much.
By the time they reached the cavernous atrium of the Northern Fang, Manon’s ears were frozen and her face was raw. She’d flown at high altitudes, in all kinds of weather, but not for a long while. Not without a fresh belly of meat in her, keeping her warm.
She wiped her runny nose on the shoulder of her red cloak. She’d seen the other coven leaders eyeing the crimson material—as they always did, with yearning and scorn and envy. Iskra had gazed at it the longest, sneering. It would be nice—really damn nice—to peel off the Yellowlegs heir’s face one day.
They reached the gaping mouth into the upper reaches of the Northern Fang. Here the stone was scarred and gouged, splattered with the Triple Goddess knew what. From the tang of it, it was blood. Human blood.
Five men—all looking hewn from the same scarred stone themselves—met the three Matrons with grim nods. Manon fell into step behind her grandmother, one eye on the men, the other on their surroundings. The other two heirs did the same. At least they agreed on that.
As heirs, their foremost duty was to protect their High Witches, even if it meant sacrificing themselves. Manon glanced at the Yellowlegs Matron, who held herself just as proudly as the two Ancients as they walked into the shadows of the mountain. But Manon didn’t take her hand off her blade, Wind-Cleaver, for a heartbeat.
The screams and wing beats and clank of metal were far louder here.
“This is where we breed and train ’em until they can make the Crossing to the Omega,” one of the men was saying, gesturing to the many cave mouths they passed as they strode through the cavernous hall. “Hatcheries are in the belly of the mountain, a level above the forges for the armory—to keep the eggs warm, you see. Dens are a level above that. We keep ’em separated by gender and type. The bulls we hold in their own pens unless we want to breed ’em. They kill anyone in their cages. Learned that the hard way.” The men chuckled, but the witches did not. He went on about the different types—the bulls were the best, but a female could be just as fierce and twice as smart. The smaller ones were good for stealth, and had been bred to be totally black against the night sky, or a pale blue to blend into daylight patrols. The average wyvern’s colors they didn’t care about so much, since they wanted their enemies to drop dead from terror, the man claimed.
They descended steps carved into the stone itself, and if the reek of blood and waste didn’t overwhelm every sense, then the din of the wyverns—a roaring and screeching and booming of wings and flesh on rock—nearly drowned out the man’s words. But Manon stayed focused on her grandmother’s position, on the positions of the others around her. And she knew that Asterin, one step behind her, was doing the same for her.