My legs screamed at me in protest as I silently willed them to go faster. I slid against the dark mud and scrambled to my feet and held out a hand to avoid crashing into a tree and panted until I was dizzy and kept running. I was losing them, and fuck all if I was going to lose them now. So I told my legs to shut the hell up, and I ran.
The silhouettes of trees dodged around me as I veered recklessly, falling and righting myself. I was drenched in mud and would have been nearly frozen if I hadn’t been moving so fast.
“Follow the birds,” he’d said. “They will lead you to her.” Fuck you, old man, you follow the goddamn birds.
I shot through the trees and careened on a patch of frozen mud and crashed to the ground and I knew I couldn’t get back up. My legs were done, my lungs were done, my head was done, and I was suddenly fine with lying on this cold ground and dying. I lifted my eyes and watched my quarry flap away into the distance, tried not to break into a thousand pieces at the thought of never seeing her again, when, in the distance, they began circling and landing on a shadow that rose like the finger of a rotten corpse out of the ground. I squinted against the pale light of the setting sun and then, through my hacking breaths, managed to gasp.
The Tower. They found it.
I had to move. And I had to move fast. If he knew I was coming he’d migrate the damn thing again, whisk it off to Scandinavia or Antarctica or the Marianas Trench for all I knew, and I’d never have any hope of finding it.
I threatened my dying legs into submission with talk of leaving them behind to rot and they managed to stand and walk and run and sprint away once more toward the looming cylinder of death growing out of the horizon. It only took twelve minutes to make the distance but by the time I got there I had spent everything I had to spend and more. I was in debt to my body and it was refusing more loans until I paid it back.
The tower was tall and crumbling and the wood door heavy and bolted with iron and I fell to my knees in front of it and with every desperate breath I could muster raised my arm and knocked on the door and then collapsed, immobile, to the ground.
Several minutes passed and I banged again, stronger, louder, until I finally heard footsteps and a thunk and a scraping and the front door swung inward, groaning on its ancient, unused hinges. I managed to raise my eyes and he stood before me, pale as snow, bright red hair hanging to his shoulders, blue robe covering everything but his ugly, stupid face. I could barely move or breathe but somehow managed to spit on his foot.
“Give her back,” I whispered.
“Oh!” he declared, his face wide with mocking sarcasm. “I see. Well, now that you’ve thoroughly threatened me I obviously have no choice.”
“Give her back, you bastard.” I was stronger this time.
He bent down and stared at me, watching for a moment. “No,” he said finally. “I’m having fun.”
I screamed and reached out and grabbed a chunk of his hair and yanked. He cried out and pulled back but I held tight and he grabbed the knife from his belt and held it to my eye and I let go and he stood up and kicked me in the stomach.
“I told you to control your little bitch,” he spat, and kicked me again. “I told you to control her and look what happened you fucking psycho.”
“It wasn’t her fault!” I had my breath back now and could feel the strength returning to my legs. I stayed still, and quiet, and weak. “She’s just a baby, Dad, you can’t blame her!”
“Oh, I don’t blame her,” he said. “I blame you.”
“Come on, you gotta let her go. You can’t do this. You just fucking can’t.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did you want me to not hurt something precious to you you sick fuck?”
“Dad, it was an accident!”
“Bull. Fucking. Shit.” He kicked again but this time it hit my face and I sprawled and landed in the cold mud and it took a moment for me to remember how to breathe.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, looming over me as I spat blood. “You tell her to go back in time and not burn your mother alive, and I’ll her go.”
I still lay facedown, watching the blood drip from my mouth and nose and freeze on the icy ground. I spotted something near my hand and I inched my arm closer and let my fingers curl around it.
“Torturing her isn’t going to bring Mom back,” I said. “She was just hungry. You can’t blame people for accidents.”
“Oh, but I do,” he said, and I could hear him turning to go back inside and lock the door on me forever. “I already said. I blame you.”
Tears stung my cheeks but I had no choice. I couldn’t leave her here, not in this place, not in his damn Tower. I screamed and leapt to my feet and my father turned. The look of fear and shock and betrayal was as frozen on his face as the ice was frozen on the narrow, pointed rock I plunged into his neck. His blood was warm but I shut my eyes and let him fall and let him die.
I wiped my eyes and bent down and pulled the ring of metal out of his pocket and put it in mine. I stepped over his body into the tower’s entrance. Down. He would have kept her…down. A massive wooden staircase wound around the inside wall of the tower and I stepped onto it, grabbing a torch from the wall to light my way as I descended into darkness.
“Pax?” I called, gently at first, and when I heard no answer I began to panic. “Pax?” I was calling louder now, then screaming, “Pax? Pax! Where are you?”
I went lower and lower, deeper and deeper into the bowels of his chamber, passing mutilated bodies that hung from the walls and had long since stopped crying out in pain, broken faces and broken paws and broken tails and broken wings and it was disgusting. Finally, after I had gone so far I must be at least a quarter of a mile below the earth, I saw a faint glow coming from a room that had been carved out like a cave. I sprinted the last few flights of stairs, my legs still shaking and in desperate need of rest, and made it to her little hidden chamber. I cursed under my breath when I saw the cuts on her face and torso and she lifted her head and purred at me and blew a little smoke ring when she saw my face.
“Okay, girl, it’s alright, we’re gonna get you out of here, just hold on a sec, okay?”
She was too weak to stand so I took the torch and examined every inch of her. She was lying on her belly but I could tell she’d lost at least a hundred pounds, from starvation or grief it was hard to know. Her head still sat just below my knees as it rested on her paw. She was missing two teeth but that would be okay, she had plenty. The scales on her face had dulled to a dingy grey, but a good meal would restore them. Her eyes kept opening and shutting, she was so tired. Her wings were ripped and bleeding, scales from her tail had been torn off and burned. She winced when I touched a spot. A thick chain bolted her to the wall and I pulled the key out of my pocket. It fit and clunked open and she purred again but could still barely stand. I patted her head and tried not to cry. She would be okay, I knew she would. I could fix this. I could fix her.
“It’s alright, Paxy,” I said, and put my face close to hers. “It’s just me and you now. You’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna be okay.”