The sky cracked as a ballista bolt screamed past.
Ember flip-turned midair and dropped into a fast, spiraling dive, increasing her gravity to change direction quicker. From far away she heard the twang of the launching ballista, arriving far too late to warn about the bolt that was already long gone.
Their aim was getting better.
A chorus of lighter twangs reached her.
She snap-rolled to the left and a flight of arrows passed on her right side.
Mid-roll she heard another chorus. She passed right through the middle of a second storm and felt the shafts impact along her chest. Several of them stuck to her.
She dove even faster, wings tight. A few brief tikkits before she plowed into the ground she reversed her gravity all the way, threw her wings wide with the sound of thunder, and swept into a fast glide less than ten heights above the open fields.
Ember scanned all around and spotted a group of cavalry archers, easy to see out in the open despite their green and brown camouflage. With a twitch of her wings and tail fins she was headed toward them in a curving path that would bring her in on their flank.
They saw her too, and whirled their horses to run directly at her, forcing her to bleed off speed so she wouldn’t overshoot. Then they wheeled and headed perpendicular to her curve, throwing off her attack run further. At the same time they loosed another flight of arrows.
She dodged with another roll, dropped into a banking turn in which one wingtip barely touched the ground, and came back in behind them, riding the pressure wave a mere two heights above the tall winter field grass and accelerating with careful sweeps of her wings that brushed the green tips.
The horses ran faster and the entire group zig-zagged as one unit.
Ember stayed right on them, pushed power to her fire cells, and let the gasses flow, readying a full power blast.
One green-armored rider looked back and saw her gaining. He shouted a command.
The entire group twisted in their seats and loosed another flight right into her face. At the same time the group split into two and galloped in opposite directions.
Ember yanked her wings in and rolled barely in time to dodge the flight, feeling one arrow skip off her face and another catch and stick on a wing. She came out of the roll with her legs pulled in close and the ground less than a height away. She let herself drop, still charging her fire…
Pushed on the ground at an angle with the full strength of her flight power…
Kicked off the ground with all four legs…
And one mighty backstroke of her wings…
And overtook the riders.
A twitch and bank brought her on a fast course right over both groups.
She loosed her breath.
White hot sunfire split the air.
Well over their heads.
Ember swept past them and away, hearing several loud cries of disappointment from behind. She glanced back and saw the two groups merging back into one and heading for the rally point, bows already hooked back onto their saddles.
She looked forward again, gained a little height and looked for the nearest ballista.
A trumpet blew. The melody for “retreat”.
The exercise was over.
Ember flicked her tail and turned toward the rally point herself. Off on the top of the hill where the commanders waited she saw Trin, arms crossed and narrowed eyes fixed on the incoming riders. Next to her was General KirKellan, looking equally unamused at the “dead” cavalry archers approaching him.
Ember passed over them, glad she wasn’t the one that was going to get yelled at, and spiraled down to a landing next to her changing booth. A team of workers immediately swarmed her, pulling the adhesive headed arrows off of her scales and passing them off to a scorekeeper who entered the archer number on each one on a piece of paper for later tallying. When the last arrow came off the workers switched to cloths soaked in olive oil and began wiping off the goo left behind on her scales.
She lay down in the sun on one side and let them work, moving only when they had to get to the other.
Tala Tavarin walked up while Ember was getting her oil polish, twitching one ear and flipping her wings as she looked through a series of notes attached to a clipboard. The Tixerie-winged Lilta stopped by the scorekeeper and got the initial numbers off his paper and then approached Ember’s head.
Ember looked up at her with one eye and noted again the apparent lack of any emotion on the little woman’s diamond-shaped face.
“I saw no ballista hits,” Tala said. “Did you take any?”
Ember turned her neck to look at Tala with both eyes and lifted her head just enough to speak clearly.
“No. Not one. That last one was very close, though.”
“Why didn’t you get hit? Did you spot the ballistae through the new thermal blinds?”
“No. I just stayed far away from all the places I thought they might be hiding. The only ones I saw were the two I took out.”
Tala hummed and made several notes on her clipboard.
“How are your electricity levels?”
“I’m almost completely out of power…”
Tala looked up from her clipboard and stared at Ember with her icy blue eyes.
“I mean electricity,” Ember corrected. “I don’t know how Mehkol was able to fly like that for so long. His maneuvers are brilliant, but they burn through my reserves in no time.”
“Mehkol was Alleji. They’re built differently. Can you give me an exact figure for your remaining electricity?”
Ember grimaced and felt her power levels again, trying to put them into the units the engineers and scientists had taught her after measuring her full storage capacity in their labs. The calculation was aggravating, but it had given her a much better sense of how much energy she had stored at any given moment.
Tala nodded and noted that down, then turned around and left to check in with the returning cavalry. Ember watched her go, wondering again if the woman was ever going to stop hating her.
Probably not. It was a common affliction.
As soon as Tala was engaged with the soldiers, Ember heard a low whistle next to her.
“That is an angry woman,” Miri said. “I think she likes you even less today.”
Ember turned her head and saw the auburn haired Tixerie standing less than an armlength away, Brago cradled in her arms. She excelled at sneaking and was always trying to get close to Ember without Ember knowing.
Ember glared at her.
“Please don’t sound so amused,” Ember said. “I keep worrying she’s going to slip something dangerous into one of the test weapons.”
Ember huffed. The woman took nothing seriously.
“You have seen what her warheads do to drax armor, yes? And you aren’t at all concerned for me?”
“Not a bit.”
Ember settled her head back on the ground with a resounding thud, then sighed.
“Of course. Well then. Now that I know you’re apathetic about the conspiracy to end me, how about you remind me what I’m doing next today so I can hurry toward my doom?”
Miri snorked, transferred Brago to her shoulders, and pulled out a folded piece of paper with a list on it. She compared it to a silver cased pocket watch she pulled out of a pouch on her waist, and smiled.
“Looks like you’re done early. So, the next two marks are all yours.”
Ember smiled as well. Between training with Bethania in the mornings, working with the military in the afternoons, helping out the smarties at any time she wasn’t doing the first two, and studying an endless supply of books in the evenings, she felt like she never had any time to herself anymore.
A whole two marks felt like absurd riches.
But where would she spend it?
The day was sunny. The air was cool but not cold. One place in particular seemed ideal.
Ember glanced at Miri and saw the woman watching her with a spreading grin on her face.
“Don’t say…!” Ember started.
“Waterfall.” Miri blurted.
Ember snarled at her, but her heart wasn’t in it. It seemed anyone who was around her long enough quickly figured out how to read her.
Perhaps she just had predictable tastes.
“I’m right. I know it.”
Ember nodded and pulled herself up to standing.
“No need to change for a swim,” Ember said. “Let’s get going.”
Ember clucked to Brago and the kirtak flew off Miri’s shoulders and landed on Ember’s head.
Miri smiled and spread her orange and black butterfly wings, then fluttered up into the air like she weighed nothing more than a piece of dandelion fluff. Ember let her get a good lead, then spread her own wings, canceled her gravity halfway, and followed.