The evening drive to the Masterson's was heralded by grizzly rain. Connie held her hands against the car heater, listening to the continuous screech of the wipers. It was a drive she had grown used to, though it didn't make it anymore pleasant. After the fiasco with the weather giants, Shirley had been left without a companion, and she was not shy to voice her feelings over the matter. Connie just hoped she'd be out partying, since it was a Friday. She didn't want to endure another tirade about who was responsible for her current companion-less status.
She reclined in her seat, watching the sheets of water cascade over the windscreen. She'd been coming to visit Skylark every day since the incident on the beach, but seeing him confined to that mouldy stable broke her heart. The pegasus was getting better—he'd found the strength to stand up last time—but he constantly longed for Col. Whenever she connected with Skylark's thoughts, the memory of his loss played out once more, and that rent them both with pain.
Connie closed her eyes. She was really missing Col. True, she'd not seen much of him outside of school because of his Olympic training, but she still knew he'd been there, always happy to see her. Like that day he'd cheered her up on the moor when the Leviathan stalked her. And she'd been looking forward to spending some time with him during the holidays.
But this hurt as much as losing her bonds to the mythical creatures. And to top it off, she was powerless. Everything had played out before her, and yet her sword, her shield, her arrows—nothing had been able to protect Col. Stormbolt had slithered in and stolen her prince, as Kullervo had put it, and that made her blood boil. She was a Universal; how dare some deformed pegasus snatch away the person she held closer than anyone!
The person she loved…
"Anybody home?" Evelyn said, tapping her on the shoulder. Connie blinked. "I said give me a ring when you're finished."
"Huh? Oh, right." Connie removed her dazed look and peeled off her seatbelt. The cold droplets washed away her troubled feelings as she stepped out of the car and jogged to the Masterson's front door. She rang the doorbell, stamping her feet to keep the chill at bay.
The lights on Evelyn's Citroen flashed as she reversed back onto the road, leaving Connie in damp darkness. She clenched her fists in her pockets. Come on, what was taking so long?
At last the hall lights flickered on, and Shirley's blonde head poked out.
"Oh, it's you." Her lip curled in a half-sneer. "Well, you know the way to the barn. Or do you want to be escorted, Miss Universal?"
Connie was tempted to rise to the challenge, but thought better of it. Even without their mutual disdain, rumours were already abound as to what had set Col off, most of which featured her. And the Universal had a pretty good idea as to who had started the gossip. She didn't need to throw more fuel on the fire.
With a curt nod Connie entered and changed into her wellington boots. Shirley trundled off, mobile phone in hand and punching out a text message. Connie ignored her, grabbing the electric lantern and setting off through the back door to the barn where Skylark was residing.
The smell of wet hay and horseness flooded her nostrils as she opened the pinewood door. The grey pegasus was sitting amongst the bales, wings folded against his back and head lying between his forehooves. It was almost cute. His ears flickered as Connie set the lantern down and sat against his flank.
"How are you feeling today?" she asked, rubbing his side. Skylark gave a soft snort.
"I am better now you are here," he said. Connie sank into her mental realm, and found the pegasus resting on her island. He nuzzled her shoulder, and his sky-blue aura flared into life. "I find my thoughts consume me when I am alone, and the pain worsens."
"Oh, Skylark." Connie lay against his neck. She could feel the painful strands that gnawed at the pegasus' aura, though he was doing his best to hide it from her. "You're my companion now. You have to share these things with me. Tell me about it."
Skylark gave a heavy breath.
"I can still sense him," he said. "But where once our connection brought me joy, now it is a burning agony. It saps my strength, until each day when you return and replenish it."
Connie's eyes widened.
"I had no idea it was this bad," she said. Then again, this was the first time Skylark had been able to keep a conversation going. For her previous visits she had simply laid by his side, sustaining his companion bond that continued to fade during her absences. "Isn't it lessening, though? You're managing to stop more of your strength from leaking out."
"Perhaps a little, but my illness is more than just that," Skylark went on. "For you know our companion links are like mirrors. What one of us feels, the other too must endure. So it is the same for Col. He is hurting more than I can say. Yet that…"
Skylark made a grunting sound, and Connie felt his thoughts turn venomous.
"…he is blocking Col from his senses. Col feels the pain, but does not understand that it comes from our bond. And in his pain he is driven further away from me, and closer to that demon. So our connection weakens yet more."
The pegasus closed his eyes. Intense sadness washed over Connie, and she entwined her fingers in his mane.
"I think I understand now," she said. This wasn't at all like the clinical cleanness with which the Leviathan had snapped her bonds. Skylark and Col's problem was not one of their bond breaking, but of it being usurped, forced to give way to another unnatural connection.
As she stood on her mental island, her cheek resting on Skylark's neck, an idea began to form.
"Skylark," she said, "I think there's a way I can reach Col."
"Oh?" Skylark gazed at her with hopeful eyes.
"Well, I'm still not exactly sure what Stormbolt's done to you both, but if you're still connected to Col, then Stormbolt hasn't managed to get deep enough to throw you out. Which means that if I trace your bond back to Col, I can talk to him. If I can make a helm and shield him from Stormbolt's influence…"
Skylark whickered in approval, and he fanned out his wings.
"Universal, that is brilliant! What do you want me to do?"
Connie bit her lip.
"It's going to put a lot of strain on you," she said. "Are you sure you feel up to it?"
"I will do whatever it takes to return my companion to me. There is little point delaying. My strength will only wane again."
Connie smiled. Truly, there was nothing like the love shared between companions. She needed to give Skylark hope again.
"Okay, you just have to focus on Col," she said. "It's going to hurt, I'm afraid, but I'll be as quick as I can."
Skylark bowed his head. Connie stepped back onto her island, and watched as the pegasus's aura began to change shape. It drifted free of his projection, and lengthened into a shimmering silver path that led out of her ocean and into the sky. Dark clouds surrounded it on either side; a storm fighting to rip the walkway apart. She wasn't going to have much time.
Sucking in a breath, Connie's mental projection clenched her fists and she set off along the road. As she left her ocean behind, a tight pressure descended from all angles. Connie gritted her teeth, trying to keep up her pace, but the suffocating grip around her chest grew stronger. She staggered along, as the velvet skies became replaced by a choking fog. Connie held a hand to her throat, barely able to breathe.
"Col's consciousness will not welcome intruders," chimed Kullervo's voice. "You had better make this visit a brief one, Universal."
Connie almost fell over. Why did Kullervo have to show up when he was least wanted?
"What the hell are you doing here?!" she hissed. "Have you forgotten Col can hear you too? You'll make him notice us!"
"It would certainly save you the trouble of looking for him," Kullervo said. "But, seeing as you don't appreciate my help, I shall leave you to it."
Kullervo's presence faded. Connie growled. Curse that temper of hers—she'd just turned down the easiest way to find Col. And time was of the essence, for the moment Stormbolt sensed her presence she'd be thrown back to the Masterson's barn. She needed to get moving.
She waded through the black shroud, a hand on her chest. Skylark's bond pulsed close beside her heart, though it was much weaker than earlier. If she pushed too hard, the link would be swallowed up and Skylark would be in big trouble. But no matter which way she turned, the maze of mist stretched on. Every path looked the same and she had no idea whether she was getting closer or further to Col. The pressure continued to build, and it was getting hard to see straight.
Gasping, Connie stopped. She had no choice. If she went on like this, Col's consciousness would crush her into nothingness. Closing her eyes, she fashioned a helm. The weapon formed into her hand, and she strapped it on. At once the heaviness disappeared, and she let out a sigh. However, this also presented a problem. To find Col she'd have to go further in, and if she took the helm off to give to him, she'd never find her way out again. She wouldn't be able to save Col this way.
Still, she needed to see him. Maybe there was something else she could do in the meantime. Sighing, she ventured deeper into the fog. Gradually, a dark shape started to materialise. She was coming to the source of the mist.
The figure turned, and Connie gasped. Col's mental projection was staring at her with hollow eyes.
"Who are you?" he uttered. His face was gaunt. "Are you one of Stormbolt's friends?"
"You don't remember me?" Connie came closer. Col looked so much younger here, not quite a child, but on the fringes of adolescence. "Col, it's me, Connie. I've come to take you home."
"But I'm happy here," Col said, his eyes brightening. "Stormbolt says he can give me whatever I want. He won't let the others hurt me. He's going to make me the best."
"You don't have anything to prove," Connie said, gripping his arm. "You've got Skylark. No-one has a companion bond like you two."
"I don't want that weakling!" Col's voice grew stronger, and he threw off her hand. "He's never done anything for me. My skills shouldn't have to stoop to his pathetic level. Stormbolt understands. He says I'm going to be the Pegasus Prince. I'm sick of being treated like dirt just because the pegasi have more companions than other creatures. No, I'm going to lead the pegasi to their rightful place as rulers over you all, and especially you, Universal companion!"
"Col, listen to what you're saying!" Connie protested. "You want to fight against us just to prove who's better? I can't believe you'd be so petty! Our job is to keep our companions safe…"
"Speak for yourself!" Col hissed. He stretched out his arm, and a black sword appeared; the same one that had been stuck behind the Devil's Tooth. "I live only for Stormbolt and his conquest! Now get out!"
He thrust the sword at Connie, who managed to skirt back and avoid the blade. She flexed her hand, drawing on Skylark's aura to form a sword of her own, when she heard him whinny in panic. Something yanked her back, and the fog, the darkness and Col slipped from view.
Connie gasped and opened her eyes. Her forehead was slick with sweat, and her breaths came in shallow pants. It was still raining outside; she could hear the patter of drops on the barn roof. Skylark's warm breath ruffled her hair.
"Skylark!" Connie shook the pegasus, but he didn't respond. Alarmed, she pressed herself to his side, and was relieved to hear the strong beats of his heart. He was alright—he'd only fainted. Perhaps that was just as well. She didn't want to have to repeat Col's cold words. He was deeply under Stormbolt's sway. And since the black pegasus's presence was far more chaotic than Kullervo's, there was no way she would be able to get close enough to give Col a helm without going mad herself. This wasn't going to work in bringing him back.
"I won't give up," Connie whispered, listening to Skylark's calm breathing. "I promise you Skylark, I'm going to make your bond with Col stronger than ever. I won't let Stormbolt have his way."
Skylark's eyelids flickered, but he remained asleep.
Col stood on the tallest ridge of the moor, resting a hand against the black sword he'd claimed from the Devil's Tooth. It sat in its sheath, girded to his hip, and he liked the feel of the cold metal against his palm. Beside him Stormbolt cast his gaze through the mist, his blood-red eyes glowing with anticipation and pride.
"The wild pegasi have heard your call, my Prince," he said. He stretched a wing, casting a long shadow over the grass. "Even now they flock to us in ever greater numbers. Soon we will have enough force to begin our plans."
"Yes," Col answered, watching a pair of blurry outlines soar above them. In the gaps in the fog, he could make out hoof and wing; more recruits for his army of pegasi.
"Already most of the local herds have sworn loyalty to us," Stormbolt continued. "As word spreads, we will gather strength enough to take on that pathetic Society." He bowed his head, and began to paw the ground. "And that foolish Universal will pay for her crimes toward us."
Col's expression faltered. He loosened his grip on the sword.
"Crimes?" His tone was uncertain. "I don't…"
"Remember how she humiliated you!" Stormbolt interrupted, snorting angrily.
Col winced as a memory was forced upon him; he and Rat breaking into the refinery where Connie was held captive by Kullervo. They had risked themselves against the chimera and Kullervo's other agents to get to her, vowing to bring her back from the creature's clutches. Instead both he and Rat had been captured too, and in the end it was Connie's sacrifice that had saved them. Even when faced with such extreme odds, she had not only saved herself, but also the friends who had come to rescue her.
"You saw with your own eyes," Stormbolt hissed. "What use has a Universal for a companion to pegasi when she herself can bond to our kind? When she has powers that amount to far more than even her friends can achieve?"
He stomped his hoof.
"Her arrogance needs to be checked. She believes herself the leader of the Society. Such a blind fool. Does she really believe that all creatures are created equal? When we, the magnificent pegasi, are beaten to the earth, despite our numbers being the greatest? Forced to cow our wings because we might reveal ourselves to the humans? To give up the skies which rightfully belong to us for their stupid machines?"
Col's face hardened again.
"She's going to learn her place," he said, freeing his sword from its sheath and pointing it across the moor. "I'm going to prove to her who should be the real leader of the Society, and which creature should rule above all others."
"Then show me your resolve," Stormbolt said. He flicked the dew off his wings and trotted forwards. "I sense a gathering at that farm where the Society hides its shameful name. And I can smell the Universal there, as well."
Col's lips broke into a grin.
"Then let's have some fun with her."