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To Granny, for inspiring me to rove the great wide and knowing the sea like you were Sea-Tribe.

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First published in Great Britain 2017

by Egmont UK Limited

The Yellow Building, 1 Nicholas Road, London W11 4AN

Text copyright © Sarah Driver, 2017

Illustrations copyright © Joe McLaren, 2017

Additional interior illustrations by Janene Spencer

First e-book edition 2017

ISBN 978 1 4052 8468 4

Ebook ISBN 978 1 7803 1764 9

www.egmont.co.uk

A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Contents

Cover

Title Page

Dedication and Copyright

Hackles

Trianukka

Skybrary

PART 1: The Great Wide

1: Sea Urchins

2: Bragful Boastings

3: The Dread

4: Witch-work

5: The Mountain

6: Hackles Rising

7: The Dredging

8: Sawbones

9: The Star Door

10: Abomination

11: The Runesmith and a Borrowed Longbow

12: Hidden, Secret

13: Swift Feathers

14: Stench Songs

15: Trespass

PART 2: Hidden Places

16: Bedraggled

17: Yapok’s Iceberg

18: Tea and Books and Butterballs

19: Owl-weather

20: Crow and the Dream-dancer

21: Debauchery

22: The Wild Tastes like Old Blood

23: Dead Runes

24: Black Rain

25: Quiet Warriors

26: No Hearth-welcome

27: One Tribe’s Poison

28: Monstrosity

PART 3: Unity

29: Spirit Battles

30: Da

31: Naming Ceremony

Acknowledgements

Back series promotional page

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I stand on the deck of the Huntress, blinking snowflakes from my eyelashes. In the palm of my hand rests a green jewel. When I peer inside it, my own grey eyes stare back, jolting ripples of shock through my chest in time with the oarsman’s drum.

The jewel turns cold, wet and blubbery. Then it grows a spotted skin, like a whale shark. Gills wheeze open in its surface, oozing foam.

I know, sure as the Sea-Tribe blood in my veins, that I’m holding the Storm-Opal of the sea.

And I know I have to protect it, with every stitch of me, but the burden presses on my shoulders, heavier than the beat of the drum.

The jewel splutters and a speck of saltwater prickles my lips. It needs the sea.

We need the sea.

I raise my arm to throw the Opal overboard, its gills struggling against me, but freeze when an urgent voice coils through the roots of my mind, like fog.

Keep this hidden, Little-Bones. I cannot return, there is grave danger. Seek the scattered Storm-Opals of Sea, Sky and Land, before an enemy finds them and uses them to wield dark power. Take them to the golden crown before all Trianukka turns to ice, trapping the whales beneath a frozen sea. Remember the old song? The song will make a map. Keep your brother close by your side, and know you’re never alone. I will find you when I can. Da.

A ragged breathing makes my skin shiver, as though spiders are tiptoeing along my spine. As I turn my head towards the noise, my ship begins to shift – until her deck is slick with blood and her flanks are studded with huge, fire-spitting guns.

A face blurs into focus. The eyes dark and full of rage, the brows heavy and black, the thin lips pulled into a sneer.

The face belongs to the murderous-false captain; the man in a red cloak and boots with brass buckles, the navigator who stole our ship. The one who took Grandma away.

Stag.

Even in the dream-world my muscles squirm to run from him.

A stooped man in a cloak of purple lightning appears by Stag’s side. Stag whispers in his ear. Then the two of them raise their arms slowly to point at the Opal in my hand.

I close my fingers around the jewel and tuck it close to my heart. My bones feel scalded. I wish their greed-filled eyes never touched the Opal.

There’s a flurry of movement and when I look up Stag’s pointing a gun out towards the plank. My eyes follow his to a bundle of rags huddled there.

Grandma.

Before I can move, or shout, or anything, fire explodes from the gun and the grey world is streaked with splashes of red. The sky blinks, and the edges of the dream wobble like air above a flame, and then my hand’s empty. And the loss makes me stagger. The Opal spins away and suddenly it’s in Grandma’s eye socket. But she’s falling, crashing into the sea, wrenching out my heart as hers drowns.

Mouse!

The pull to her is oar-strong but when I strain to reach her, hands hold me back.

I’m hollow. Cold and numb. I’m too small. My voice is trapped under layers of ice. I’m frighted. I can’t get to Grandma. She’s gone.

The hands loosen and I’m sprawling on the deck. I run, painful slow, then pitch fast off the plank, diving through the sea, stretching my fingers into the blackness. She should be here. Where is she? Grandma!

For the first time ever, the sea is a dead place where naught lives. A crust of ice shuts out the light from above.

Do you remember, when the sea, lay, still, in wait for me? drifts a voice.

Don’t you remember?

I thrash, reaching for the surface. The dream pinches my brain. I struggle in the grip of the dream-sea, fighting the water, clawing until my muscles scream . . . then finally rising up, up, up, through ice that thickens with every thump of my heart.

My spirit thuds into my body and I jolt awake, gasping, neck stiff and sore.

I’m slumped over a creature’s back, and my legs are hanging in thin air. As I scrabble to clutch onto something solid, my fingertips scrape a scaly hide – and the memory of where I am seeps through me.

The young terrodyl streaks through a sky fat with snow. Fastestfastestfastest, gabbles his beast-chatter. Fastest beast of all! I dig my knees into his bristles to keep from falling off. My little brother Sparrow’s arms are wrapped round my waist and his head’s pressed against my back. Hunched behind him is Crow, the ship-wrecker boy who I still ent heart-certain we can trust, though he helped me rescue Sparrow from Castle Whalesbane.

I remember flying all day; over a sea, a forest and a smog-shrouded city. Then I must’ve dozed off. Now the sun’s barrelling for the horizon again.

Dream fragments are still thudding around my head like trapped moonsprites. The Sea-Opal! I quickly pat down my pockets, whistling in relief when I feel the bump of the gem through the cloth. But my dream-dance has left me drained and hollow. I remember for the thousandth time that Grandma’s dead, and it’s the same sharp, sick pang, followed up with guilt that I ent told my brother yet – and I don’t know how.

Finally, the rat awakes!’ calls Crow. ‘Any clue where we are?’ He snorts loudly and then spits into the air.

I twist round to reply, and wince as the bandage on my face pulls at the wound that slashes down my right cheekbone to the corner of my mouth. ‘I don’t know,’ I shout, as a fresh wave of pain sears through me. ‘Happens the world’s a flaming bigger place than even a Sea-Tribe girl could’ve guessed!’

‘Ain’t it just,’ Crow bellows.

The terrodyl thrashes his head from side to side. Where go where go now? he rasps.

I tell the beast what I’ve been telling him since we took flight. All I know is we have to fly as far and fast as we can from Castle Whalesbane. My tongue wraps itself around the raw, earthy words, tasting the wildness of my beast-chatter.

Castle my nest home. Not bad place!

I suck in a deep breath. Stag was controlling your nest-mates and sending them after us. And the mystiks there wanted to hurt my brother!

Where go? chatters the terrodyl. The fearsome-foul stink of his breath hits me right in the face.

I bite back a wave of impatience. Hang on. I need to think. I chew my cheek, trying to rid my brain of the last dream-tangles. The beast is right to ask – we need to head for somewhere, cos we can’t just fly forever. But we can’t go back to my ship either, cos it’s just as dangerous as the castle.

Seek the scattered Storm-Opals of Sea, Sky and Land . . . remember the old song?

Da’s message floats into my mind again. When my brother sang the old song, his notes stirred the message into a magyk map that showed me the three Storm-Opals. Now one is safe in my pocket, and I wish I could check the map again, but now it’s in Stag’s grimesome clutches. I just have to hope he won’t unlock the magic of the Opals himself. All I know is there’s an Opal waiting somewhere in the realm of Sky . . . could we reach it, somehow?

‘I need to pee,’ snuffles Sparrow, breaking into my thoughts.

Gods, what I wouldn’t give to stretch my legs!’ grumbles Crow.

‘Pipe down, would you?’ I shout. ‘I’m trying to think.’

‘Should we make a plan?’ calls Crow. ‘You don’t have to do all the thinking by yourself, you know. Are you telling this thing where to fly?’

I hunker closer to the terrodyl’s skin, against the wind. Should I tell Crow about the Opals?

Before I can gift him a reply he tuts and I feel angry spikes throbbing from him. ‘You still don’t trust me, do you?’

This boy’s even more impatient than me. ‘Course, I just—’

‘Whatever!’ he snaps. ‘Just keep us away from your ship, for the time being.’ Then he yawns. ‘Anyway, now you’re awake I’d say it’s my turn to catch a few winks.’ He falls silent, and soon enough his breathing’s sleepy-soft.

We zoom further and faster through the sky. Ice-cold snot is stuck to my lips, and I keep ’em moving so they don’t freeze shut. ‘My name’s Mouse,’ I mutter. ‘I’m thirteen Hunter’s Moons old.’ My teeth chatter. ‘The Huntress is our ship. The home of our Tribe. And we’ll claim her back from Stag.’

My sea-hawk, Thaw-Wielder, snoozes between my belly and one of the terrodyl’s spines; a warm bundle of sleek feathers. She’s grown again, but she ent realised she’s got to be more gentle when she lands on me – I’m still sore from the last time her huge claws thudded into my shoulder. I rub her head, feeling the delicate bones of her skull beneath her feathers. Then I pull my hand back as a shock stabs into my fingers – the Opal in my breeches pocket has made Thaw puff up into a ball, crackling with heat and smelling like the sky before a storm.

I scan the horizon. On the shore, stretched from east to west, a beach of black sand wears a skin of ice, and beyond glints a dark sea hissing and pluming into jets of water that are fighting not to freeze solid.

I hum under my breath. You must remember what waits there, you’ll find it at the point high in the air.

Then I stop, cos the song brings my dream-dance crashing back over me like a wave. Thaw stirs and stretches out a brown and white wing, uncovering her eyes and watching me curiously. Remember how that line of the old song once gifted us the idea of searching at Whale-Jaw Rock, Thaw? I say when I can breathe again. It’s east of here, and marked by a great plume of water, that looks like a whale breathing through its spout.

Sea-breather, she babbles, eyes glinting.

I nudge the terrodyl’s right side with my heel. We should bear east! I call.

My gut lurches into my mouth as the creature twists in the air to change direction. He chuckles. Long-flying since asked crawler where go. It answers almost at end of world!

I grin at the beast’s cheekiness, and turn back to Thaw. Reckon we’d better find the place soon, I tell her. Cos the world’s ready to crunch up our bones and spit us out if I don’t get all three Opals to the golden crown.

She blinks slowly at me, a shiver rippling through her feathers. Remember home, she warbles softly. Remember name. Tell Thaw feather-truth, bone-truth. The fierceness in her eyes gifts me the heart-strength to dredge my truth from the depths of my bones.

My name is Mouse. I’m thirteen Hunter’s Moons old, I mutter between chattering teeth. Sometimes my Tribe call me Little-Bones. I love to howl and dive for pearls and shoot arrows from my longbow. There’s fire-crackle in my heart, Grandma always said. There’s fire-crackle in the hearts of all my Tribe. It’s a fight that blazes inside.

Thaw gurgles a quick battle-squawk and puffs up her feathers.

My home’s been thieved, and now I’m out in the wild. My Tribe are in danger. I need my fire-crackle more than ever. Cos the fight’s only just begun.

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We fly east, the sea curving from our left and spilling into the distance ahead. The wind buffets the terrodyl and tries to claw off our skins. I’m watching for the Huntress without even meaning to, cos my heart pangs whenever I glimpse movement below.

I picture my friend, chief oarsman Bear, battling furious waves and shivering at his post. Forced to be one of Stag’s oar-slaves, chained and half starved. I have to make things right and claim our ship back – there ent a beat to lose. Can you keep watch for the geyser – the sea-breather? I ask Thaw, as we fly over a landscape of cracked brown earth, abandoned dwellings and ripped out trees that lie on the ground, roots grasping for the sky. My belly twists like I’ve swallowed a nail – seems like the world is brimming with chaos.

Thaw-Wielder flicks open one bright yellow eye. Thaw watches! She hops out of my lap onto the terrodyl’s head and fans out her striped wings, shaking the frost from them. Then she huddles down, head twitching to right and left as she watches for the flicker of the geyser.

Heart-thanks, Thaw, I tell her. Then I cough, cos my beast-chatter always comes from the very back of my throat, and I’m proper parched to boot. Long icicles hang from the terrodyl’s wings. Wonder if I could snap one off for drinking water?

I stretch out my arm, eyeing an icicle, but then a fizzing finger of lightning stabs from the sky into the black sand below, exploding black arrows up into the air. The terrodyl hisses and swerves away from where the lightning struck. Then a sparkle catches my eye, and when I glance again we’ve crossed the shoreline and a glittering forest has opened up below us.

A forest of shapes.

Scores of towering blue icebergs shoot upwards from the sea. Glowing balls of blue zip between the bergs. I squint down at them and then my chest riots. ‘Berg owls!’ The feathery bundles thud into caves they’ve burrowed in the ice. ‘We’re flying over the great Iceberg Forest of the Wildersea!’

When I turn to grin at the others, a slip of moonlight skitters out of Sparrow’s tunic pocket and streaks silver footprints up his neck, over his ear and onto my shoulder. Where where what-huh-what black-hair chatters? Thunderbolt chimes eagerly. The moonsprite swings from my earlobe with a tingle-cold grip.

I chuckle. Icebergs. You can’t miss ’em. It means we’re flying over the border of the Wildersea! Now all we need to do is follow the icebergs east towards the Bay of Thunder, and I’ll know how to find Whale-Jaw Rock from there.

She gifts me a short chirrup of approval before zipping back to Sparrow. Not so long ago me and the sprite couldn’t stomach the sight of each other, so I’m heart-glad she still wants to be friends.

‘What d’ya reckon, Sparrow? Ent these bergs something?’ Then I remember he can’t see much, cos of the creeping white film on his eyeballs, and I chew my tongue.

‘I’m thirsty.’ That’s all he says, and proper quiet.

‘Don’t worry, we’re on the right path, so we won’t be flying much longer. And I’ve got an idea,’ I call to him, eyeing the icicles on the terrodyl’s wings.

‘Can I have a story, too?’ he whimpers. ‘My nightmares are more stronger. They keep giving me the brain-aches.’

I squeeze his hand. ‘S’alright, they’ll soon stop now we’ve got you away from that place.’

‘But I feel like something bad’s gonna happen.’ He bangs his head against my back. ‘I dreamt a golden lightning bolt shot us down.’

‘We’ve left the bad stuff behind, too-soon,’ I tell him softly, panicking inside about what to do if he has more shaking fits. ‘How about that story?’ I clear my throat. Stories grow twisted over time, especially if you tell them without story pictures etched in bone to guide you. But I remember one so well that I can taste the words, ready to spill out. The story everyone knows, but I never knew the heart-truth of when I used to tell it before. Now the truth of it rattles through my marrow.

‘One hundred moons and suns ago, long after the first oarsman beat his drum, the last King of Trianukka had an ancient golden crown and three powerful Storm-Opals.’ As I tell the story, I feel Sparrow relax against me the tiniest bit. I clutch the terrodyl’s spine tightly as it navigates the Iceberg Forest. ‘The Opals were to be set in the crown, to heal the trouble between all the Tribes of Sea, Sky and Land and let them live in peace together. The first Opal held a foam of sea, the second a fragment of sky, and the third a fracture of land. But before the gems could be set in the King’s crown, it got gobbled up by a great whale. The Opals had to be kept safe, so the crinkled old molluscs—’

‘You mean mystiks!’ murmurs Sparrow.

‘Aye, same difference. The mystiks of the Bony Isle guarded them, deep within the walls of Castle Whalesbane, where the King dwelt. The King blamed the Sea-Tribe captain, Rattlebones, for hiding the crown in the whale’s belly, and that brought a hundred years of war, and gifted all the power to the land.’

That’s where the story always ends but now I’ve got more to tell. ‘Sparrow, we can hammer in our own iron rivets, can’t we? How about this?’ I sniff away the sticky ice inside my nose. ‘Somehow, after moons and moons, the three Opals were thieved from the castle and scattered, setting grave danger loose on the world. Sneaking ice tiptoed ahead of the winter, and the seas threatened to freeze and trap the whales. Trianukka was at risk of ripping apart altogether. But heart-luck was waiting to save the day, in the form of a girl. One Hunter’s Moon, this girl – who was the best at longbow shooting, amongst other things—’

‘No bragful boastings!’ yelps Sparrow.

‘– aye, she’d packed most skills under her belt as it happens. Well, she found a note telling her to find the scattered Opals and to take them to the golden crown before the world turned to ice. And – get this – the girl found the Sea-Opal, right under her nose.’

Crow splutters. ‘I think boasting might be putting it mildly, mate.’

My heart clangs, whooshing blood into my cheeks – I’d reckoned him still asleep, and I ent certain if I want him to know all that stuff yet. Grandma always did say my big mouth would be the end of me. ‘Shut it, you.’

‘Interesting how you make everything about you, ain’t it? And you do realise the whole thing’s just a kids’ bedtime story?’ He sniffs loudly.

‘You’re wrong, I reckon!’ pipes Sparrow.

Crow scoffs.

I tug my cloak tighter around me and will Sparrow not to utter another word. If the wrecker boy thinks it’s just a story, I’ll let him think that, for now.

But Sparrow thumps my arm weakly. ‘When you gonna tell the bit of the story that’s about me?’ he croaks.

Mememe, croaks Thaw-Wielder, feathers trembling with wanting to be part of the story, too.

Then one of the icebergs looms through the sea-mist and the terrodyl dodges, then pulls higher into the sky. Some of the bergs are so tall their heads are lodged in the clouds.

‘Hold tight!’ I scream. I grab Sparrow’s hands and pull his arms tighter around my waist. When the terrodyl’s finished climbing his wings settle again into a steady, whooshing beat. The air’s thinner up here and my lungs suck at it greedily.

We keep flying east, taking it in turns to nap, until another thin, wintry dawn cracks the sky from black to grey to white.

I stare down at the last iceberg, on the very edge of the forest. Then it’s behind us and there’s just a blend of grey-white sea and sky, before clouds seal us in. My belly gurgles loudly. Me and Crow ent munched a morsel or glugged a drop since we sailed to the Bony Isle to save Sparrow – and the gods only know when he last filled his boots. Then a low rumbling spreads through the terrodyl.

Hungerhungerhungerrrrr, empty belly, he chatters mournfully.

Maybe we could land, and Thaw and the terrodyl could catch some fish for us all? Fear-Beast, Thaw-Wielder, land to catch food? I ask. Thaw hoots her approval.

First time Crawler not utter soft-shell babblings. The creature’s spines ripple happily as he starts to drop lower in the sky. Through a cut in the clouds I glimpse a flash of dark, rocky earth.

‘I can’t be doing with those weird noises that bubble outta your throat when you talk to the thing,’ Crow calls. ‘What did you say to it?’

I roll my eyes. ‘He’s a he,’ I shout back. ‘Least I think he is. He ent a thing, anyway. He’s gonna catch some fish to eat.’

‘Why’s it going to bother doing that, when it can just crunch us up and spit out our bones?’ he yells.

I twist to look at him, laughing. ‘Calm your fright-blubber, this one’s just a bab.’

Crow glares at me with contempt so thick it’s like he’s slapped it on with a tarring brush.

Sparrow’s hands feel cold and sweaty. Keeping hold of them tightly in one of mine, I lean right, along the terrodyl’s hairy wing. I reach out slowly, towards the icicles hanging underneath it, until I can touch one of them with a fingertip.

‘What d’you think you’re up to?’ bellows Crow.

Ignoring him, I lean out a smidge further, wrap my first two fingers around the ice . . . then fright tingles in my chest as Sparrow’s hand starts slipping from my grasp.

Sparrow!’ I lurch back into my seat, making the terrodyl sway and flap for balance, and grab Sparrow’s arms with both hands. ‘Nonononono! Don’t you dare fall!’ His filmy eyes roll back as he passes out and slumps over the left side of the creature’s back.

I swing the other way off my perch, too fast, grabbing hold of the spine in front of me just before I topple into thin air. Blood rushes to my head as I hang almost upside down.

‘You’ll get our bones smashed to splinters!’ Crow yells.

Shut your face and grab Sparrow!’

He gives me a stare like death, but he stretches to grab my brother.

‘Don’t let him slip out of his cloak!’

‘I know!’

Sparrow’s arm drops from my waist. I grab his hand, but he slithers further to one side, eyes sunken and blackening. ‘No!

Thunderbolt squeals, plucking strands of his hair in her fists.

We’re all leaning heavily over the terrodyl’s left side. Sparrow’s hand turns hot in mine, and a smell of burning weaves into my nose.

‘Pull him back into the middle!’ shouts Crow.

‘What do you think I’m trying to do?’ I hiss through gritted teeth, fighting not to let go of my brother as painful shocks zap into my palm. I squeeze my knees hard against the terrodyl and clench my belly to stay on its back. Purple lightning flickers at the ends of Sparrow’s fingers. Last time I saw it, he was having a shaking fit. Hell’s teeth – please don’t let him have one now!

The beast panics, flapping in circles. Crackle-bolts throw off throw off get to nest-home!

Steady, steady, brave beast! I yell.

The lightning stabs into my wrist and I curse, moving my grip from Sparrow’s hand to his arm.

It’s the one he’s been cradling since we rescued him. There’s a loosening, and a gruesome crack-thunk as the arm flees its socket. Sparrow slides heavily off the terrodyl’s back and I grab for his other hand but miss. My blood thrums in my ears as I fight to keep hold of his arm. I hate the world for letting this happen when I’d almost got my brother safe. I swore to Ma that I’d always protect him, and I ent about to break my promise now.

The terrodyl flails wildly, plunging lower in the sky. I haul at Sparrow as hard as I can. Crow wedges a hand into his armpit and slowly starts lifting him up.

Sparrow’s almost back in the middle. The terrodyl rights itself, grumbling. It’s gonna be all right. It’s gonna be fine.

I’ve just let out a pinch of breath when a golden beam slices through the air, thumping into one of the beast’s huge wings. The wing crumples with a sickening crunch.

Then we’re plummeting; one screaming tumble-blur of arms, wings, teeth and legs.

The beast is falling.

Falling.

The world drops away.

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Purple lightning splurts from Sparrow’s fingers into the sky, shocking him awake. I reach for him but the force of the wind thieves my strength. I can’t get us back onto the terrodyl, and the broken wing flaps loose as a sail.

My belly pulls free, lands in my throat. Nails tear at my wrist. Thaw-Wielder shrieks, digging her talons into my hair. Her chatter is torn by the falling and I can’t catch her words.

The terrodyl’s scream rips the world apart. He scrabbles at the air with claws like daggers.

It was a spear. My brain rings dully with knowing. We’ve been shot down. And now we’re falling into death like none of what’s happened even matters.

Everything turns oddly slow-but-fast, like the world’s rushing forwards and backwards in a sickly tangle and we’re strung up in the middle of it. A heavy silver mist settles, and a storm of spooked birds cranks through it towards us.

Bloodseekerssharptoothhuntershuntersfleefleequick! gabble the birds. Shouldbenestingnestingnesting!

I try to move but it’s like I’m stuck in a nightmare and my muscles don’t work.

Crow stretches his fingertips through the air and brushes my cheek. His mouth shapes words, but the wind punches my ears too hard for me to hear.

Mother, screams the terrodyl’s beast-chatter. Brothers. Nest-home. Wing hurtful, don’t let me go, get me home!

With the word home, all the sound in the world fades, in one heartbeat, like an explosion of nothing.

Are we dead?

The silver mist darkens into a pulsing shadow. A foggy tendril snakes away through the sky. Then the world speeds up again in a stuttering rush and our terrodyl crashes through the cloud. We plunge after it. A scream surges up my throat and the wind peels my eyelids back and I pedal my legs in the air and

SLAM.

I smash into a mess of sticky webbing that flings me up into the air with a sharp, wrenching jolt. I somersault

once,

twice,

then finally land sprawled on my front inside the mist-shadow. I scrabble to my knees as Sparrow and Crow plunge, shrieking, from the sky. I grab my brother and hold him still while the sticky mist hurls Crow up again before he tucks into a ball and rolls to a stop. The shadow seals shut over our heads, blinking out the sky.

Shock-waves judder through my body as I stare at a dark, throbbing world of cold and damp, its edges tightening around us. We’re caught in some kind of springy net. I touch the wall, then jerk back my hand. It’s like the whole thing is made of hard, sticky clumps of wet, spinning pearls.

My blood leaps. It’s woven from raindrops.

The walls close in until we’re hanging in the sky, tangled together in the bottom of the net, the raindrops pressed against our faces. Crow curses, flailing and jabbing me with elbows sharp as knives.

What – how is – it’s raindrops!’ I gasp.

‘Some vicious magyk, don’t touch it—’ babbles Crow over my words.

‘How can I not touch it, kelp-brain?’

We tumble around like seastones, and I keep Sparrow close, my feet almost slipping through gaps in the bottom of the net.

The Opal falls from my pocket and a spear of panic stabs my gut until Thaw snatches it in her beak and drops it in my hand. She folds herself into my cloak.

Ugghhhh, foulness, she warbles, feathers quivering.

Horror clutches at my chest. Whose path have we stumbled into now?

Far below comes a thud and a splintering crack. I peer through the spinning raindrops to see our terrodyl sprawled across a rock, his beast-chatter filled with hurts. A trickle of inky blood fizzles from his crumpled wing and gnaws holes in the snow. Guilt stings me like a ray, cos the beast’s just a bab and I lured him from his home to help us escape.

Sparrow weeps, curled in a trembling ball, his moonsprite trilling inside his pocket. My gut clenches. If I hadn’t let go of one of his hands, he wouldn’t have slipped and maybe we would’ve been too quick for that spear. It’s my fault something bad happened – again. I thought I could grab one of them icicles, thought I knew best, but I didn’t.

Suddenly the net starts moving. Crow stares at me. ‘What is this thing? What’s going on?’ he whispers.

I shake my head. ‘I don’t know.’ I shut one eye and peer through a tiny gap between the drops of water. The net is dragging towards a brown smudge that’s growing bigger and bigger. I squint. My belly squirms. It ent one smudge – it’s a gathering. A flock. ‘Sparrow,’ I whisper. ‘Crow.’ I try to swallow but my throat catches. ‘Look!’

Crow puts his eye to the wall. ‘What are they?’ he asks, voice half choked.

‘How would I know?’ I grip the net in my fists and the raindrops wriggle against my palms. ‘How about we stop gabbing and get ready to fight?’

But my fire-crackle dims to embers as the smudges slice the sky, closer, closer, filling the world, until we can see what we’re facing – a flock of giant, shaggy beasts. Between each one’s wings sits a proud-faced warrior. They wield golden bows, blades and spears. I tear my gaze away and stare down at Sparrow’s tangled yellow hair, a howl of fright and heart-sadness brewing in my chest.

‘They look like huge winged foxes,’ says Crow, squinting and then twisting to look at me.

I force myself to look again. They’re more like . . . bats, but with the orangey fur and long muzzles of foxes. ‘Whatever they are they’re proper frightful.’

The creaky slick-click of their skins and bones mixes with the beat of their wings against the wind, like a war-drum.

Huntsaltbloodfish? Dragcatchriptaste! HuntHuntHunt – BITE – tongueraspslithertear!

Their beast-chatter is ravenous. Their teeth snap against the metal bits in their mouths, and lanterns swing from poles fixed to their heads.

The warrior at the front clutches a spear in one hand, and in the other a staff with a tendril of the raindrop net wrapped around it. All the warriors’ faces are draped in gleaming mail – as the net drags us closer, I realise their armour’s forged from raindrops, too.

‘But . . . the Sky-Tribes are dead!’ I stutter.

‘They look dead to you?’ murmurs Crow. He clenches and unclenches his fists.

When we’re within spitting distance of the warriors, the net stops moving and sags in the air, making us stumble. The staff clutched by the leader keeps us skyborne – but what if she lets go? My fingers fumble for the amber amulet hanging around my neck; the one that Bear gifted me for protection.

Scores of accusing eyes pierce the raindrop mail. My voice feels trapped, deep inside. I pull my face away from the wall and stare at my hands – they’re shaking. I curse, biting my nail, and press my eye to the gap again.

The leader stands with her feet planted strongly on her bat’s bare back. She points her staff at the net and jerks it and we’re whipped into a dizzying circle that makes us snatch for each other’s hands. When the net is still again, the top of it has unravelled to join the silver tendril wrapped around the staff.

Ten riders crowd the open net, staring down at us. Their bats’ wings slice the night, stirring a breeze of greasy flesh and dung.

‘The birds were fleeing from you,’ I breathe. A flicker of fright shudders up and down my spine.

The leader’s blue eyes narrow. She peels back her raindrop headdress. It melts into a loose cowl around her neck, revealing a white-haired girl of about fifteen moons, with a mean, neat face and a gold ring through her nose like she’s a bull. Black eye-paint slashes down from her brows to her jaw. She lifts her pointed chin. ‘We are much feared.’ Her thick, knotted accent is brushed through with disgust.

I struggle to my feet in the net and stand as arrow-straight as I can. Thaw pokes her head out of my cloak, ice-crusted feathers bristling with fury, but before she can bolt I clutch the cloak tighter, muffling her chattered protests. Ent no way I want this lot laying their mitts on my sea-hawk.

A second rider folds back their raindrop armour, swiftly becoming a girl with dark red hair, a big chin and widely spaced brown eyes. ‘These creatures stink of seaweed and fish guts,’ she says, wrinkling her forehead. ‘My draggle was the first to sniff them on the wind.’ She leans down to stroke the thing’s ear and it clicks an oily purr. Her words are laced with triumph and there ent a thing I wouldn’t give for the chance to knock her sideways into thin air.

‘Well scented, Pangolin,’ says the white-haired girl, squinting at me like I’m a speck of grot. ‘The Protector of the Mountain will reward you.’

The girl gifts her a snaggle-toothed grin. ‘Thanks, Lunda.’

‘Who are you?’ Crow glares at them through matted locks of hair.

The rider called Lunda twirls her spear, knuckle-rings flashing. She stares, a tight smile curling her lips but never touching her eyes. ‘I ask questions. What are you doing here? Were you sent to perform witch-work?’ The other riders flinch and write symbols on their chests with their fingers.

Me and Crow swap looks. Witch-work?

She sighs, then barks a sudden command. ‘Take them to Hackles. The Protector will sentence them for their crimes, whether they speak or not.’ Her draggle’s wings carve the air as it swirls away from us.

‘What crimes?’ I yell. ‘And what’s Ha—’

Crow reaches up and tugs my cloak.

I stumble, glance down at him and my brother, and fear stabs through me. ‘Sparrow!’ He’s lying limp as a gutted fish.

Crow rubs Sparrow’s arm. ‘Wake up, little mate!’

Sparrow’s breath is ragged and when I shake him and call his name he won’t wake. A chewed-up cry worms through my lips before I even know it’s brewing.

‘You have to help us!’ I shout. I keep my hands on Sparrow’s shoulders, squeezing the tender part like Grandma showed me, to make pain and wake him up. But naught happens. I look up towards the flock of riders and they’re blurring cos my tears are falling fast.

When I look back down Sparrow’s lips are tinged blue and that’s when I notice the way his arm lies, the angle of his elbow all crooked. Beads of sweat stand out all over him and his forehead burns under my touch. His arm must’ve had what Grandma called a ‘skinny break’. That loosening I felt was the arm breaking good and proper.

‘Riders!’ I call. ‘You get over here and help me. My brother won’t wake up!’ The salt of my tears prickles on my tongue.

I lift my chin and howl, like I’m warning my Tribe of danger.

And somewhere, in the distance, a creature howls back.

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The howl leaves a gloopy silence in its wake.

Startlement stretches my eyes wide. That howl pulled at my chest like it knew me.

Lunda halts her draggle and twitches her head this way and that, alert and ashen-faced. ‘They’re coming,’ she mutters.

‘Who?’ asks Crow, jaw flickering as he grinds his teeth.

Riders fidget, a crackle of fear passing between them. Lamplight glances off the rings in their noses, making them look like a tangle of stars. Their whispers crowd the air, until the wind fizzes with one word.

Wilderwitches!

Then the howl comes again. Closer. It cracks the sky like a throatful of death and rings eerily off the distant icebergs. I hunch low, digging my nails into my palms, breath tattered. This must be witch-work.

‘They’re pack hunting again!’ shouts Pangolin.

‘Shushhh!’ orders Lunda.

Pack hunting? I turn to Crow. ‘Have you heard of Wilderwitches? Are they sky-hunters?’

But Crow’s answer is knocked from his mouth when a rider thwacks him in the back with the butt of their spear. He opens his cloak, presses his face inside and lets out a muffled stream of growls and curses. Then he sits with his hood pulled up, glowering face shielded by folds of cloth.

Lunda steps along her draggle’s back as easy as I would in the rigging. ‘Which direction are they coming from?’ she hisses.

Pangolin glances around. I watch her face; all the tiny workings of her muscles, the tenseness.

Then I spit. ‘Help me, right now, or I’ll summon that thing closer!’ I say it with all the bluster I’ve got, cos I ent the foggiest whether I can summon it or whether I’d want to, but if this Tribe think I can, maybe they’ll help my brother.

‘You will not summon anything!’ Lunda thunders. ‘You are the Protector’s prisoner!’

‘Ha! You try and stop me.’ I check Sparrow again – his breath comes weak and flutter-quick, but it’s there.

Then I stand. My howl’s brewed hot and stormy so when I send it up it’s the fiercest I’ve ever howled, and proper loud.

The horde of riders flinch in their saddles, and Lunda guides her draggle towards the net, raising her knuckle-ringed fist.

Crow moves to shield me but he stumbles, nearly stepping on my brother, so I shove him out of the way and he curses at me, eyes like fire-arrows.

Before I can gift him a sorry, the strange witch-howl comes a third time, closer still. It rattles through my marrow and cloaks the threats Lunda hurls at me. A deep hush follows it, like falling snow. Lunda freezes, her fist still raised.

In the silence I duck low again and put my face close to Sparrow’s mouth, feeling a tiny hot flutter of breath touch my cheek.

‘Lunda, we need to hide,’ says Pangolin, two spots of heat blooming in her round cheeks. ‘We cannot outpace them.’

‘No.’ Lunda smiles, white hair wispy-wild. ‘We will smash them for daring to threaten us – we were made for this fight.’

Riders whisper and write symbols on their chests with their fingertips again. Pangolin’s breath gushes out like she’s winded. ‘But there aren’t enough of us. We’ll be dragged to our deaths!’

DeathdeathdeathdeathDEATH! screeches one of the draggles, and fright bolts through the flock. They jostle, the riders grapple with the reins and Lunda’s thrown face down on her draggle’s back. She scrabbles to grip the staff holding our net, almost dropping it. Before I can stop myself, I’m staring down at the snow, stained black with terrodyl blood.

Lunda jerks to her knees, spitting out a mouthful of orange fur. ‘You idiot!’ she gasps at Pangolin, purple-faced. ‘You’ve spooked them!’ She uncoils a black whip from her waist and starts furiously lashing her beast to try and control it. The others do the same, but still the creatures buck and writhe in the sky. The net judders and Crow groans, clutching his belly.

Finally Lunda gets her draggle turned around. ‘Pangolin has forced us into a cowards’ escape, despite the fact that this is our rightful sky-territory!’ she calls. ‘We must get the sea-creepers to Hackles before the Wilderwitches swoop. Douse the lamps and follow the stars!’

Pangolin’s draggle wobbles for a beat, and she fights with the reins until it steadies. Then she pulls her raindrop cowl over her tear-stained face and vanishes from sight.

The riders smother their lights. A velvet darkness snuffles close.

Are the Wilderwitches a Sky-Tribe, too? What kind of Tribe hunts and howls like wolves? My mind soars, fast as a hawk. Until now I’d reckoned there were no Sky-Tribes at all.

The riders flit after their leader. The wind bites my hands and face as we’re pulled through the air, the opening in the top of the net sealing again as the tendril unravels from the staff.

A damp mist begins to rise. It presses against the net. ‘They’re coming closer!’ yells a voice.

My ears fill with the sharp cracking of whips. I squint through the raindrop net and watch the mist thicken. It bristles like fur, then separates into ghostly shapes that streak through the air, uttering yips and howls. I croak Crow’s name but my voice is drowned by the yells of the riders.

‘Hurry!’ one cries. ‘The sky-wolves are almost upon us!’

We’re flying fast, too fast for me to try to help my brother, and the mist is a stew-thick fog that the riders try to brush from their eyes. ‘Faster!’ shouts Lunda. ‘Don’t swallow even a wisp of this witch-fog!’

When the howl comes again it’s splintered into a hundred fragments that throb all around us and set my teeth rattling. I clamp my eyes shut.

When I look again, the fog has furred and toothed and clawed itself into an army of wolves, some with white or grey fur, others black or red. I wrap my arms around myself and think of bolting along the Huntress’s deck, her salt- and snow-dusted boards crunching under my boots, sunlight dancing in Da’s hair. I will us home with every stitch of blood and bone, but naught happens.

‘There’s summat fearful wrong about these wolves,’ mutters Crow.

I raise my ice-stiffened brows. ‘They’re prowling through the flaming sky, for one thing.’

‘It’s more than that,’ he snaps. ‘Their faces are more human than animal.’ He stares at the wolves as they race closer and closer. ‘Can you hear their – what do you call it?’ He flails for the words.

I squint at him impatiently. ‘Beast-chatter?’

‘Aye. That’s the one.’

I listen again, hard, but there’s a silence. I shake my head.

‘That’s what I thought,’ he whispers. ‘They’re shape-changers, not wolves.’

I stare at Crow as his words wash a memory over me – when he was Stag’s spy, hiding aboard our ship in bird form. If I listened for his beast-chatter there was just emptiness, cos he weren’t really a beast at all.

We lock eyes in the gloom and I quickly look away, watching the sky-wolves for as many beats as I dare while Crow’s gaze burns my skin.

The fog’s closed over us like a shroud, poking up our noses and worming into our lungs. Far below, slices of land and sea chink through it, then vanish again. Our path curves to the right, towards a wall of blackness. Storm clouds? My gut twists, but soon we’re close enough to see that it’s not cloud at all.

We’re headed for a bulk of pure, solid mountain.

A mountain range that makes me know that others I’ve seen were just hills. This mountain is a place so huge, of so much old power, that I’ve never felt so small in all my life.

The wolves howl, one by one, ’til their voices join into a long, throaty wail. They lope through the sky, snouts carved open into eager snarls. Their eyes are a mix of blues and greens and greys. Human, like Crow said.

Suddenly one lunges from the mist to the right and snatches a draggle and its rider clean out of the sky. The rider plummets towards the valley below with a strangled scream, and the sky-wolf shakes the draggle by the wing, like a rag doll. The rest of the flock shrieks and swerves, and I’m dimly aware that I’m screaming with them. Crow reaches for my hand. His cheeks are blotched red with fright.

Just as another sky-wolf springs, a bone-splitting BOOM throttles the sky and echoes off the mountain, almost shaking my spirit loose.

‘Riders, low! Hackles is spewing!’ yells Lunda. The draggles swoop suddenly and our net falls through the air for a beat.

Then huge ice-boulders slam overhead. They smash the front ranks of the sky-wolves to pieces of mist, leaving only the splintered ghosts of their howls.