Intro to a New Job
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August and Ghost set up a new stryx tribute program and test its effectiveness on Moff and Quicksilver
Chapter 1, Daius
“So, we’re really doing this,” Ghost said, watching as August adjusted Quicksilver’s saddle.
“We need the money,” August replied simply. He tugged on the thick leather strap and the silver hawk hissed irritably. It was early, or at least, it looked early. The sky was more gray than anything else, but the first golden rays of dawn were beginning to peak over the distant mountains.
There was something so… relieving about being able to see those pale glittering peaks. They were real. Finally.
“August,” Ghost said, snapping him out of his reverie. “Focus.”
“Right.” August jumped up between Quicksilver’s shoulders. The saddle beneath his hands was sturdy and worn. The straps held steady as he settled.
“Who am I with?” Ghost asked, peering up at the ketter. “Arbor’s still a puppy, right? You want Wilde to be with Cinder, Orion’s already, uh, tributed, and I don’t even want to try to figure out Next’s deal.”
“Moff is still around,” August told him. “They still don’t have their tributes.”
“I thought they were going to run with their daemon? Are they even still here?”
“Time is a construct. A construct that is flexible at best here.” August shifted, readjusting his grip on the hawk’s long feathers when Quicksilver ruffled his feathers impatiently. “Okay, let’s go already,” August decided. “He wants to get this over with.”
“Where even is Moff?” Ghost asked. He stuck his hands into the pockets of his vest and followed as August encouraged Quicksilver to head forward up the road. The three were standing at the bottom of Home’s hill.
“They can meet us at the cliff,” August suggested. “I’m not sure where they are right now, but we gotta get there to start this thing anyway.”
“Fine by me.” Despite his words, Ghost did not look thrilled to be there.
“We’re just trying this,” August sighed. “If you don’t want to be part of things, you don’t –”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ghost interrupted. “We can figure that stuff out later. For now, let’s just get to the cliffs.”
Quicksilver seemed to agree. He tossed his head, twisting to glare at August. Were they going to get going sometime that day or not?
“Fine, fine,” August said and then looked back down at Ghost. “You want up here with me?”
“I’ll fly on my own, I think,” Ghost said. He took a few steps back and held out his arms like wings. “Just trying it out before we make decisions.”
Probably a good idea.
With nothing else to fret about, August urged Quicksilver into a run.
The hawk didn’t need much encouragement. He raced up the slope, wings half unfolded before he even reached the top. When the hill turned steep, he only picked up speed, claws sinking into the earth and kicking up clumps of dry grass.
Then he was leaping into the air. His wings beat down, propelling him and August skyward. The two gained altitude rapidly, heading for the silvery clouds high above.
August kept close to the hawk’s neck, small body pressed hard into the saddle. His eyes burned from the wind and it was hard to see, but once Quicksilver evened out, he looked back to see where Ghost had gone.
He was following close behind, flying on his own wings as he’d said. He looked very much like an owl, but it was hard to decide. They’d have to talk more about that later.
In the meantime, ketter, hawk, and kwell headed for the pale mountains that broke up the horizon.
As they flew, the sun continued to rise. Golden light spilled into the valley and touched the treetops bright green. The lake glittered, its surface dappled with faint ripples and shadows. There was a river somewhere, but August wasn’t sure where. The forest was both familiar and alien to him.
As August had said, Moff was waiting at the cliff for them. Their raptor, Name Tag, was standing beside them. She was calm and quiet while the feathered lycan looked anxious, shifting from foot to foot as Quicksilver and Ghost touched down.
“Sorry for the delay,” August announced as soon as Quicksilvers wings were folded.
Moff bobbed their head and peered down at Ghost. He was no longer an owl, standing instead as a kwell again. This way, he was about 5 feet tall, or barely as high as Moff’s knee.
“Jesus, you’re tall,” Ghost muttered. Sunlight glinted off his glasses, making it hard to read his expression.
“If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to,” August reminded him. “Tag is perfectly capable of running with him. You can just ride with me and Quicksilver if you want.”
“No,” Ghost said and gestured for Moff to lean down. “I said I’d try it at least once, so I’m going to do it. You can get Arden and Orion to help you next time.” He reached up as high as he could and grabbed fistfuls of Moff’s thick fur so he could haul himself up.
Tag shoved her nose beneath his legs, helping him up before he could fall and break a leg.
“Thanks,” Ghost said dryly. He shifted, trying to find a comfortable way to sit at the base of Moff’s wings. The lycan was too big for him to sit normally but kneeling wasn’t comfortable and was hard to balance. He could stand, but between Moff’s wings and the air currents, he’d most likely be thrown before either could even get off the cliff.
“We could take a break to figure out a saddle?” August suggested and beneath him, Quicksilver ground his beak in protest.
“No, I got this,” Ghost said. He eventually settled, crouching with his hands braced against Moff’s neck. “Worst thing that could happen is I fall off, right? I can catch myself.”
No, that really wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to him, but August decided not to tempt fate and voice such concerns.
Name tag clicked her teeth and peered up at Moff. August guessed the two were speaking telepathically, but he wasn’t sure what was being said.
After a moment, Moff nodded and straightened up. Then, without waiting for August and quicksilver, they left the cliff with a single powerful leap.
Ghost yelped in alarm as he was nearly thrown from the lycan’s back. He gripped Moff’s fur and pressed so close to their neck that he was nearly hidden entirely.
“Guess I’m glad they got over their nerves,” August muttered.
Name tag looked up at him and chirped before looking pointedly back to her person.
“Right. Guess we should get going too, huh?”
Quicksilver didn’t wait for the signal, jumping off the cliff and diving straight down after Moff and Ghost. The wind tore all sound away and made August’s eyes burn as the cliffside became a blur beneath Quicksilver’s shadow and the forest floor drew closer.
Moff braked first, unfurling their wings without warning and nearly crashing into Quicksilver when they passed him. The hawk was quick to follow, screeching his displeasure at nearly being bowled over by the larger dragon. Being far faster, he caught up quickly and then pulled ahead of the lycan as the two raced across the valley.
August kept close to Quicksilver as he and Moff flew. By then, the sun was almost up fully, the sky painted shades of blue and pink. However, that high up, the air was almost impossibly cold. August couldn’t help but think he would never fly this high on his own even if he could. Being the size he was, he was pretty sure his wings would freeze.
Over with Moff, Ghost was almost completely hidden by the lycan’s thick fur. From what August could tell, the kwell was still holding on for dear life, body rigid as he tried to maintain balance.
August appreciated him trying, but he was pretty sure Ghost wasn’t going to ride stryx with him ever again. And August had thought maybe it would be easier if Ghost went with Moff instead of a stranger’s stryx. Apparently, he didn’t factor in the fact that Moff was huge.
Maybe August could convince Ghost to fly with him and Kii sometime.
Quicksilver folded his wings again and dropped like a stone, leading Moff closer to the ground. Beneath them, the forest stretched on into the distance to eventually be broken up by the massive field that made up the heart of Home.
A shadow fell across the two when Quicksilver reopened his wings, and August looked up to see the sun blocked out by Moff’s massive wingspan. The lycan didn’t follow Quicksilver so close to the ground and remained above them, keeping pace as the hawk skimmed the treetops with his claws.
Moff was as gentle as they came and August held enough power in the Core that it wouldn’t even matter if they tried anything, but he still couldn’t get rid of the prey feeling of being hunted by something so much larger than himself. He felt like a mouse in the shadow of an owl.
He also felt Ghost’s amusement at the situation.
August urged Quicksilver out from under the larger dragon. Though obviously not sharing his concern, the hawk obliged and the sun beat down on their shoulders once more as he ascended, cutting right in front of Moff’s nose when he rose to rejoin them.
“How long does this go on?” Ghost called.
August had a response ready but then it died on his tongue. “Uh, as long as we want?” He shouted back. There were some technicalities, but he was pretty sure that jumping off a cliff and then racing across a large expanse of sky met enough of the criteria for a proper tribute to Daius.
Ghost didn’t say anything else, but August could read his feelings easily enough. He decided to call this tribute ‘finished’ before Ghost called it himself and left.
Quicksilver didn’t protest when August navigated him back to the heart of Home. It wasn’t far, the distance made shorter by the fact that August had no idea exactly where they were before. Might as well be just outside the edge of Home’s field. Close enough.
The hawk circled above the massive tree and then touched down in the fenced field beside the barn. He landed on one of the dragon-sized perches, wings spread to keep balance.
“Good job,” August praised, patting the hawk’s long feathers.
Quicksilver grunted and turned his head to preen the feathers on his chest.
August took the chance to hop down from the dragon’s back. He was small enough that landing on and then balancing on the perch wasn’t too terribly hard, but looking down, he realized he was a fair way up. Great.
A massive shadow passed over them as Moff tried to find a place to land. They were too big for the perches and August was pretty sure their coordination wasn’t good enough to successfully land on one anyway. Eventually, they landed heavily in the tall grass just a few yards away.
Moff raised their head, twisting around to try and look at the kwell that was gingerly peeling himself away from the thick fluff between their shoulders. When he finally succeeded, he tumbled more than jumped from the lycan’s back.
August winced. He jumped down from the perch before Ghost could catch him gawking at the tangled mess of limbs and tail the kwell had landed as. August’s wings still weren’t ready for flight, but they allowed him to glide well enough. He landed a few feet away from ghost just as the kwell managed to right himself.
“You good?” August asked tentatively.
“Great,” Ghost groaned. He didn’t bother standing, staying where he was on the ground. He leaned back on his hands and looked to where Moff had started enthusiastically rolling around in the grass. “I’m not flying with them next time.”
“That’s fine,” August told him. Mildly disappointing, but far from surprising. “I want Arden and Orion to get settled here a bit first, but I think I can get Mantis to –”
“I didn’t say I was gonna sit out the next tribute,” Ghost interrupted. He lazily tilted his head so he could peer up at August. The lenses of his glasses were dark but August could see the glint of green beneath. “I’m just not flying with Moff again.”
August glanced to where Quicksilver had paused in his preening. He was watching the two riders with mild curiosity. While a bit gruff and impatient at first, he wasn’t exactly aggressive or hard to ride. He seemed to just want to finish his assigned mission, which was to get his tributes. He probably didn’t care too much whether he flew with August or Ghost.
“You can go with Quicksilver,” August suggested. “And I can fly with Moff.”
“You’re like, two feet tall,” Ghost pointed out.
“Three and a half,” August corrected.
“Yeah, whatever. My point is that I nearly got blown off their back and you’re even smaller than I am.”
“I’m a Master. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Ghost shrugged. “I won’t argue with you.”
August was pretty sure he was just looking forward to seeing August get smothered by Moff’s thick fur.
Speaking of which, the lycan raised their head, pausing in their roll around the grassy field. They turned gold eyes to Ghost and then August, head tilted questioningly.
From above, Quicksilver left his perch to join the others on the ground. He circled the two riders once and then tapped his foot while pointedly looking at the sky.
“Okay, okay,” August said. They slowly got to their feet and looked down at him when Ghost didn’t do the same. “Ready for the next tribute?”
The kwell sighed and reluctantly stood. “As I’ll ever be.”
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