“You’re lying.” Iris glared at the cliffs looming over her, eyes tracing the dull crimson veins spread across the rock face like glass fractures. Her neck twinged from the strain of searching, some of the veins climbing so far up they seemed to warp out over the beach. Nowhere in the web of yawning cavern mouths did she find traces of the telltale burnt orange feathers.
“I am not. I heard Callum talking about it last night.” Dante’s adamant defense bounced against the rocks, rolling along the coast in a vibrating echo before shattering against the lavender foam of a breaking wave. Sending one last pebble skittering across the ivory sand with the toe of his boot, the boy strolled toward an opening at the cliff’s base. “This was the place he was talking about.”
“And you believed him?”
“My brother doesn’t bluff.”
“So you think he's hiding one...a roc?” Iris didn’t see the point of quelling her hopeful tone anymore. Dante’s lips twitched up into a lopsided grin, revealing a glimmer of bone-white teeth.
“Well, it wouldn't hurt to check...” He trailed off, silence strung between them like a bow string. Spinning around in a spray of sand and grit, Dante took off into the shadows, ebony hair bleeding into the shadows. The tension between them vanished as her restraint broke, and Iris took off after him, letting the caverns swallow her whole.
Her breath caught in her throat as she felt her way around the first turn with outstretched palms and the echo of Dante’s breathing. She’d heard of the network of tunnels burrowing deep into the Bleeding Rocks. Before the warning signs and crooked strands of barbed wire appeared, they were a place for heated dares and the less tasteful dealings of Peltra’s inhabitants. Now, they floated through half empty taverns and shipyards in dying whispers that never seemed to fully reach Iris’s ears. Despite the horror stories, nobody mentioned how beautiful they were. From the outside, the Bleeding Rocks’s name was evident in the tangle of lines supposedly painted by one of the old giants, a great, dying beast who, in its final moments, set the story of its people into stone with its own blood. On the inside, the tunnels were alive. Pulsing scarlet trails dipped and intertwined along the tunnel walls, creating intricate designs that cast a rose tint across the scarred stone. Iris reached out, pressing her fingers against a giant’s masterpiece until she could feel the faint thrum of her heartbeat in her temples.
“Hurry up!” The tunnel’s pulse fluttered with the impact of Dante’s command. Iris flinched, yanking her hand back and swallowing the subtle prod of nausea in her throat. The longer she stared at the wavering veins, the harder her heartbeat drummed a tattoo into her skull.
“I’m coming,” she hissed. The sharp slap of Dante’s boots on stone faded away, and Iris took off after them. The floor began to slope upward, gradual turns bending into hard corners that sent Iris careening into a wall more than once. “Dante, where-“ “Iris, slow down!” Dante’s fingers snagged the back of her jacket just as one foot shot out over the edge. Iris yelped, wincing at the bile crawling up her throat as her eyes locked on the gaping void stretched out before her. Neither of them moved, frozen against the rock wall with the endless amethyst ocean clawing at the strip of beach far below. “If we stay here any longer, I’m going to throw up.”
“Please, don’t. Scoot to your right and see if there’s another opening.” Dante slid out from behind her, and she yelped, picturing anything but the possibility of her own blood painting the Rocks.
“Alright, move this way.” Iris ground her teeth and shuffled in the direction Dante disappeared. Wind tugged at her hair, pulling it across her face until all she could see was a spider web of blonde gossamer. “You can stop hyperventilating now; I’m right behind you…” Iris whipped around, arms pinwheeling for balance.
“I wasn’t scared!”
“I didn’t say you were.” Dante flashed another toothy grin, taking a step back so they weren’t nose to nose. Iris huffed and peered over his shoulder. Her jaw dropped. The cave they stood in reached back into the cliff so far, she couldn’t see the end. Spires of black and red stone protruded from the massive walls and arching ceiling, carrying the same slight pulse as the tunnel veins.
“How did we get up here? We didn’t walk very far, and I definitely didn’t see this from the beach,” she murmured. Her question tumbled across the rocks in a jolting echo before fading back into the shadows. Dante shrugged, scuffing his boot out across the floor in a wide arc.
“Since when has anything in Peltra obeyed nature’s laws, Iris? The Bleeding Rocks are no exception. Callum wouldn’t hide a roc here if it was normal.”
“I suppose so,” Iris hummed. “However, I don’t see a roc, Dante…” The other boy’s smile grew impossibly wider.
“You don’t hear it?” Iris pressed her lips into a tight line, letting her mind mute the ocean’s distant roar. The heavy rustle was nearly imperceptible; something was moving in the cavern’s shadows. “I don’t know about you, but that sounds an awful lot like feathers to me. Turn around.” Iris turned, hand flying up to cover her mouth. An enormous bronze feather lay against the opposite wall, draped in shadows and a fine coating of grime. The shaft curled up like the spine of a sleeping beast with thick ginger barbs protruding from each side, each one surpassing herself and Dante in height.
“Do you think it’s friendly?” she whispered, imagining the giant bird’s wings spread across the back walls, feathers shuddering in time to the Bleeding Rock’s pulse. Dante bumped her shoulder with his own, giddy with excitement rather than fear.
“There’s only one way to find out.”