The Test – Bella Forrest

Alex reached up cautiously to touch the soft feathers on the side of the Thunderbird’s face. She cooed, pressing her head into his hand. “How am I supposed to ride you?” he asked her, picturing his ancestor Leander on the back of his warbird, Tempest. Thunderbirds could definitely be ridden, he knew that much, but there was no saddle, no manual, no obvious way of hopping aboard and hanging on. The last thing he wanted was to go plummeting to his death from a lofty height; he already had enough dangers ahead of and behind him. Caius hadn’t seemed to be in a good state when Alex had made his escape, but the warden was crafty, and it was possible that the old man, or the specters that had surrounded him, would be following close behind. The Thunderbird chirruped, as if in response, distracting him from dark thoughts of ghoulish beings. “Sorry, girl, I don’t speak bird,” he muttered, scratching the spot between her eyes. It seemed to please her, as her sleek feathers bristled. A vivid thought flashed into the forefront of his mind, like a picture playing on a screen. It didn’t seem to belong to his own train of thought. Alex turned, feeling as if he were being watched. In the shadow of a nearby overhang, he saw a glint of something. The shape wasn’t easy to make out, with the wind whipping around him, stinging his eyes, but it was enough to make him suspicious. More thoughts followed, bombarding his mind like artillery fire.

Each flash, each pop, forced another vision that didn’t feel like his own into his head. They were suggestions, almost, of how he might go about climbing onboard the Thunderbird. Some seemed simple, no more difficult than getting on a horse, but when he tried to just hop on, he slipped backwards, almost toppling off the edge of the mountainside. The throb of his injured ankle had dimmed to a slight ache, making his attempts less painful than he’d expected, but her regal feathers were extremely slippery, and he wasn’t sure how or where he was supposed to sit. She didn’t seem to know either, though she helped him as best she could, nudging him this way and that. A more complex idea flooded his mind, involving an elaborate feat of gymnastics; he had to wrap his arms around her neck and let her tip him backwards onto her back, the wrong way around. It felt like a joke, but he didn’t have many other options. Alex interlocked his arms around her neck, and she tipped him over with her head. Instead of a graceful landing, he ended up sliding straight off, hitting the ground face-first. From the shadows of the overhang, he thought he heard someone cackling, but it might’ve just been the wind.

Dusting himself off and checking for any broken bones or further injuries, Alex decided that complex approaches weren’t going to work. He lay his palm flat again, and the Thunderbird eyed him curiously. There was something in the cooperative gesture that intrigued him, and he wondered if that could be the key to getting on her back. She seemed to brighten when he let her press her beak to the center of his hand. It was like permission, almost, as she rested lower on her haunches, her back sloping to make it easier for him to get on. “I guess I should have asked if it was okay first,” he apologized, maintaining contact with the feathers of her neck as he walked around the side of her. It was a clumsy mount, his legs getting stuck between the folds of her wings, the bird chirping her irritation as he grasped and grappled to try to stay on. He could feel himself sliding backwards again, but didn’t want to hold on too tightly to her feathers in case he hurt her. However, he wasn’t sure how successful simply clinging to her neck for dear life would be—it didn’t seem particularly efficient, or particularly heroic. He tried and tried again, slipping backwards each time.

He tried to grip tighter with his legs, but to no avail. He tried to hold her neck, but he couldn’t see anything with his face buried in her feathers—if he did that, he’d be flying blind. It was no good, and with each failed attempt, he could feel his frustrations growing. The bird beneath him seemed agitated too. Finally, just as he was about to slide backwards for the hundredth time, Alex grasped at two bunches of feathers, gripping them tightly in a vain attempt to stop himself falling to the ground. She shrieked, bucking wildly, throwing him off. He felt a wave of dread as he lost his grip on her feathers, his body soaring backwards through the air. He hit the rocky ledge, his hands scrabbling for something to hold onto, but the ice made it too slippery and suddenly there was no more rock to grab for, only open, endless air as he plummeted down the sheer drop of the mountainside. The air rushed around him, and he flailed violently, trying to get enough of his faculties together to conjure his way out of this mess and use his travel techniques—but the panic made it nearly impossible for him to focus his mind. The sharp rocks rising up to meet him flooded his thoughts with nothing but terror.

He was falling too fast. Squeezing his eyes shut, he braced himself for the impact. A second later, he crashed into something solid. Although winded, he wasn’t in nearly as much pain as he had expected. There was a softness to the thing beneath him, and the steady beat of movement. He tentatively opened his eyes, feeling the ripple of muscle below as the Thunderbird’s vast wings flapped powerfully; they were even more glorious opened out, carrying beast and passenger through the air with ease. Clutching the Thunderbird’s neck with a vise-like grip, Alex felt the cold rush of a glacial wind on his skin as she rose upward again, almost parallel to the sheer rock face. Her speed was as terrifying as it was exhilarating, and Alex could barely catch his breath as she raced toward the sky, though she stopped just short of the first band of clouds that trailed around the summit, her streamlined body circling in the air as she made to return him to the icy ledge of the mountain. As they flew back toward solid ground, Alex noticed two patches of feathers that were a different color than the rest—a deep, vivid scarlet, hidden in the spots where her neck met her wings. Reaching for the strange patches, Alex felt two bony knobs sticking up from beneath the feathers, which were coarser than her silky feathers, and realized he could grip these protrusions without hurting her.

They were like handles almost, with which he could keep himself steady, and he found that she would turn slightly if he put pressure on one in a certain direction, though most of the navigating was definitely up to the Thunderbird herself. With a loud squawk, she returned him to the rocky outcrop of the mountain, glancing at him sharply with her bright eyes as he hopped off. “I won’t try that way again,” he joked, and though he felt a little foolish, and more than a little relieved not to be human mush, he knew he had made progress. Alex stroked the smooth feathers at the side of the Thunderbird’s face. “Thank you for saving me,” he said softly. She chirruped, and the sound made him smile. His near annihilation made him wonder about how his ancestors had learned to fly on the backs of these magnificent beasts. Were there flight schools or something? he mused, contemplating how many other Spellbreakers might have almost plummeted to their deaths in the pursuit of learning to fly. After taking a moment to bring his pulse back down and forcing away the flashbacks of jagged rocks, Alex turned toward the Thunderbird, eager to try again before he lost his nerve entirely. This time, he managed to climb up onto her back without incident, tucking his legs neatly behind the folds of her wings, feeling like a jockey waiting at the starting line of a derby.

It was an awkward position to sit in, and he knew his legs were going to ache afterwards, but he didn’t mind if it meant he could fly on the back of the beautiful Thunderbird. “I suppose I should give you a name,” he said, leaning closer to her. She trilled, turning to look at him, her neck twisting like an owl’s. There was an intellect behind her eyes that had Alex convinced she could understand every word of what he said. “You think so too?” She trilled again, louder this time. Alex smiled. “Okay, what shall we call you?” he pondered. “How about Sugarplum?” She gave him a deeply unimpressed look, her head tilted to one side. “Okay, not Sugarplum. How about Dasher?” he said, gaining another apathetic expression from the giant warbird.

“Hm.” Alex’s mind turned toward the stories of her ancestors. Glancing at her gleaming silver feathers and hearing the crack of lightning overhead, a thought came to him, fitting of both her heritage and her appearance. “How do you like Silver Storm?” he asked. She chirped, cocking her head. “I’ll call you Storm for short,” Alex added. Storm rested the tip of her beak on Alex’s forehead for the briefest moment. He grinned, taking it as a sign of her approval. “Okay then, Storm, let’s see what you can do.” Turning back around, she stepped toward the edge of the mountainside once more, perching precariously on the lip of it.

Alex could see the drop below, and his heart began to pound, though he forced his eyes to look dead ahead. As he took a deep breath, the Thunderbird’s whole body lurched forward beneath him. For a moment, it felt as if he was falling again, but her wings caught a ferocious air current that sent them surging upward. The wind was ice cold and stung his cheeks, but he hardly noticed it as Storm settled into flight, soaring toward the thunderstorm above. Once he was sure they weren’t about to dive to their deaths, he began to relax and enjoy the ride. Storm shot up through swollen, black clouds that left his clothes drenched and his face soaked, her agile form wheeling around thunderbolts, ducking and diving around the lashes of electricity that whipped toward them. Though time was of the essence, Alex couldn’t help but feel a thrill of excitement as he chased storm clouds and danced with the rain. Through a parting in the dense cloud cover, he could make out the top of the mountain, and was surprised to see what looked like a shrine, glimmering at the very pinnacle. It was shaped like a Thunderbird, and forged from what appeared to be solid gold. Alex wondered if it was supposed to be a likeness of Tempest, the mountain’s namesake, reminding him of the broken town that lay in its shadow.

Was this Leander’s birthplace? he wondered, looking toward the ruins that seemed so small from above. Storm seemed offended by Alex’s distracted attention, her eyes glinting as she dove suddenly, racing down the side of the mountain, showing him the full force of her agility as she tucked into a loop-the-loop. Alex clung on for dear life as the bird continued her gleeful display, twisting through barrel-rolls and corkscrews, until Alex felt sick with adrenaline. Through one ill-timed loop-the-loop, Alex lost his grip on her bony handles and fell for a brief moment, only to be caught again with smooth precision. Storm chirped delightedly, even though the move had left Alex feeling decidedly nauseous. “Please… no more tricks,” he pleaded. Storm trilled, her eyes glittering intelligently as she looked back at him. He felt as if she were mocking him, and it made him grin. Surely, they were about to embark on a great companionship. The thought made him pine suddenly for his friends.

While he was busy learning how to fly and having fun, he still had no idea whether they were safe or not. There was a reason he had learned to fly in the first place—to join Lintz, Ellabell, and Aamir at Falleaf House. Alex maneuvered Storm back toward the mountain, trying out his amateur navigational skills. She followed the instruction easily, responding to the light squeeze of one leg, or the gentle pull of her shoulder-holds. It was simpler than he had expected, and he felt a rush of pride as she followed his lead, flying steadily back toward the ledge. Landing, however, was a different matter entirely. He urged her downward, toward the rocky outcrop. She flapped wildly, trying to control her own movements while Alex squeezed her shoulders to steer her elsewhere. A loud squawk stilled his hands—he allowed her to do her own thing, and she dropped down onto the ice and snow. Alex awkwardly dismounted, sliding down onto the rock.

“Sorry, I’m still learning,” he said, stroking Storm’s feathers. She ruffled them in disgruntlement, but her eyes told him that he was forgiven. His mind turned back toward his friends, and how he was going to find them. He pulled the beetle beacon from his pocket. A faint ripple of magic still coursed through it, but Alex didn’t know what good it would do him. A vision pulsed into his mind, showing him how to feed his anti-magic into the mechanisms and smother the faint swell of golden magic within, in order to track its owner. Alex shivered. The train of thought was too precise and too coincidental to be from anyone but Elias. The realization made him suddenly anxious again, about what had actually happened when he had tried to read Elias’s mind. He had thought Elias had vanished for good, but apparently the shadow-man wasn’t quite done pestering him just yet.

The pain of the act had all but gone, but Alex could still feel a strange warmth in the depths of his chest, and he knew it had something to do with his shadowy acquaintance. “I know you’re there!” Alex called, directing his words toward the rocky overhang. “Elias! You can come out now. I know it’s you!” But Elias didn’t come. It didn’t placate Alex, however. If it truly was Elias out there, the shadow-man would appear when he was good and ready, and not a minute before. The present moment clearly didn’t suit Elias, as much as Alex wished to get their reunion over and done with. He didn’t know how he felt about the idea of Elias still being around, especially after everything he had done, to his father, to Ellabell—all the deceit. It was impossible for Alex to shake the anger that still coursed through him, but he could sense Elias was near, and knew, with a sinking feeling, that he may not have a choice when it came to Elias’s continued presence in his life. Now, he was convinced that something deeply unwanted had happened between himself and Elias back at Kingstone, and he could only guess at the repercussions.

Wherever that creature went, Alex’s misery followed, and any help the shadow-man gave would surely come at a price. A C H A P T E R 2 s much as he hated the source of the information, Alex decided to follow the vision he’d seen in his mind. Holding the beetle tightly in his hand, he ran his anti-magic through the mechanisms, feeding the black and silver strands through the cogs and over the magic already within, coating the gold with the contrasting gleam of his powers. The two streams of energy merged, brightening for a moment before fading to a dull glisten. Nothing happened. Alex frowned, knowing he had followed the vision exactly as he had seen it. Frustrated, he shook the beacon, as if it might miraculously make the thing work, but still nothing happened within the metal carapace. “I thought you were supposed to be helpful!” he shouted toward the shady overhang. He waited a few moments more, and even fed a few more strands of anti-magic into the mechanism, willing the device to flash or beep or do something at least, but still nothing happened. With a growl, Alex threw the small oval of metal away, watching it arc through the air before it tumbled away into a snowdrift.

Annoyed at being back to square one, Alex sat down on the edge of the rocky outcrop and gazed out toward the horizon, willing it to grant him some form of inspiration. He wondered if he could simply get on Storm’s back and fly aimlessly, hoping to end up in the direction of Falleaf, but he had no idea where the fourth haven was, or if it could even be reached from this realm. It seemed hopeless, and with the potential threat of specters following in his wake, he wasn’t comfortable staying put. There had to be something he could do—a way to reach the others without the beacon. Storm pecked at the back of his head. He pushed her beak away, but she was insistent, ruffling his hair and tapping lightly on his skull. “Stop it!” he said, trying to duck away from her latest attack, but she would not stop. She nudged the side of his face like an overexcited puppy. Alex shot her an annoyed look. With a high-pitched chirrup, she clamped her beak onto the back of his shirt and dragged him away from the edge of the mountain with surprising strength, yanking him toward the snowdrift.

He cried out in surprise, trying to get her off him, but she simply would not let go. As he neared a pile of snow, he realized why. A dim light flashed against the ice shelf just in front of the snowdrift, blinking a steady rhythm. He dove toward the freezing snow and scrabbled to dig the beetle out. As he clutched it in his hands, the beetle gave a low whine, the snow having dulled its shriek. Alex didn’t care about the sound—it was the light he sought, the northernmost bulb showing the way to Lintz and the others. Excitement pulsed through his veins as he turned back toward Storm, who was eyeing the beetle curiously, perhaps wondering if it was a tasty treat. She tried to peck it from his hand, but he quickly moved it away. “You wouldn’t like the taste,” Alex teased. He held his palm flat, waiting for her to touch her beak to the center.

“We need to go north,” he told her, still not certain how much she could understand. It seemed she had a vague idea, however, as he clambered onto her back and held on tight. Before he had even managed to get settled, she was charging toward the lip of the mountain, taking to the air in one smooth movement, her wings spreading wide. He didn’t know how long it would take to get to Falleaf House, or if it was even possible, but the Thunderbird’s apparent understanding put him at ease. As they flew, Alex took in the landscape around him. There were endless forests, peppered with the shattered remains of ancient towns, and sparkling rivers that wound through the deep green canopies, off to some unknown ocean. To the east, strange shapes emerged on the horizon. Alex thought they might be a distant mountain range, but as the scene grew clearer, he could see structures that looked distinctly manmade shining from within the dull gray rock. Golden spires as tall as any skyscraper rose from vast, palatial buildings that shone against the glare of the sun, the elegant dwellings poking up from gaps in between the peaks of the mountain range. Alex wondered if it was somehow the real world, glimpsed through the fabric of the magical realm, or if it was something else, something private and reserved for the crème de la crème of mage society.

It certainly looked regal enough. There was nothing ordinary about the buildings; they were almost otherworldly, with a gauzy haze covering them, like a mirage in the desert. It looked to be a barrier of some sort, protecting whoever lived inside. Part of him wanted to take a closer look, but he knew that his current schedule would not permit such a luxury—they had to get to Falleaf House as quickly as possible; there was no time for detours, however tempting. “How are we going to get to Falleaf House?” Alex asked Storm, feeling slightly silly for speaking to an animal who couldn’t talk back. The Thunderbird, however, continued to surprise him. After a moment or two, she began to speed up, beating her wings faster and faster until she was rocketing through the sky at an alarming rate. It didn’t seem possible that a bird could fly so fast, and where once Alex had felt exhilaration, he now began to feel the adrenaline-pulse of fear. It was too fast. He was barely holding on.

With a loud snap like the crack of a whip, Storm broke the sound barrier. She flew faster still, not showing any signs of slowing down. Alex clung to her neck and gripped her sides with his legs, unable to keep his eyes open against the rush of air blasting in his face. The scene around him stretched and blurred, and he could feel his whole body being pulled in different directions. The wind whipped against his face, but nothing looked normal; there were no clear images, nothing he could recognize as real. It had all become warped and weird, everything bent out of shape and alien to the eye. Then, with a satisfying whoosh, everything shrank back to normal again, snapping into place. They had emerged in a different realm. Alex realized that his Thunderbird possessed powers he had never expected. It seemed Storm had the ability to travel between realms, bypassing portals entirely.

Maybe this was why the Spellbreakers had been such formidable warriors, with their ability to appear from the sky like some otherworldly avenging angels, soaring down on the backs of ferocious winged beasts. He imagined it must have been quite the sight from the battlefield. Storm had slowed to an ordinary pace, and though Alex’s heart was pounding and he was struggling to wrap his head around what he had just experienced, he couldn’t help but think about what other uses there might be for such a talent as Storm’s. Could she punch through the border between the normal, outside world and the magical realms, or would that be too much for her? He wasn’t even sure she could exist in the real world, being what she was, and yet he couldn’t erase the thought from his mind. First things first, he told himself, returning to the task at hand. The beacon was still flashing north, but it was blinking more rapidly now, the dampened shrieks coming louder. An idea came to him, as he fed his anti-magic into the device, forcing the mechanism to silence the sound, not wanting it to draw any attention, leaving only the comfort of the light. Wherever Lintz and his friends were, Alex was close now. Ahead of him lay the perimeter of a large, dense forest. It was a familiar scene, vividly remembered from the portal to Falleaf House he had watched Lintz build, but Alex had no idea whether they were near the same spot where that portal had opened.

It all looked so similar, the bronzed leaves falling to the ground beneath the warm haze of afternoon sun. Thinking back to what Caius had told him, about how to find Hadrian, Alex looked across the canopy of the forest, searching for the glint of something golden in the distance. As hard as it was, Alex knew he had to try to trust in the sliver of goodness Caius had possessed, when he had spoken of Falleaf, though, after what had happened between himself and Caius, he wasn’t exactly sure he’d see anything—perhaps, Caius had been lying about the way to reach Hadrian.

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