A rocket whooshed in, stabbing into the roof for an instant before exploding in a spray of shrapnel.
Kaim threw himself down along with the rest, waited a moment to make sure nothing else was on fire and about to go off, then got up and helped the engineers check their ballistas. The kren fabric tents they had set up over them had caught most of the flak, but one engineer was down with a shard of iron stuck in the gap between his backplate and armored skirt. Kaim pulled him out straight and held his head so he could breathe while a medic carefully drew the shard out, poured gray-white powder into the gushing wound that remained, and pressed a thick gauze pad over it until the bleeding stopped.
Immilene walked over to check on the man. Kaim looked up and saw the circles under her eyes. He probably had circles of his own.
“They’re getting more accurate,” he said.
“First day it was no hits. A week ago it was one. Today it’s been five so far. Someone’s talking their rocket teams onto target.”
The medic told Kaim he could let the man go and he did, standing up and doing a brief check of the feathers on his wings and tail, then scanning the skies.
Nothing. Not even a bird.
The smoke drew his eyes down onto the city. The burned out pillars of living hahrax towers smoked all throughout it. Had the Garagrans gotten all of them?
Some of them could be restored. Hahraxes were hard to kill with fire and the hard outer wood of many of them would have survived the internal fire, but all the contents were gone. Possessions, keepsakes… people’s lives.
There were also a number of piles of rubble that had once been towers of brick, stone, and steel. Once a fire got going in those they did even worse than the hahraxes.
A week. Had it really been only a week?”
No. Ten days.
It had all blurred together.
When would it end?
“How do you think they’re doing it?”
Kaim continued staring at the city. He didn’t realize Immilene had said anything until she asked again.
“Oh. Sorry. Umm…”
She didn’t expect an answer. Couldn’t.
“Does command know that’s what’s happening?” he asked.
“Nobody’s seen anything yet. It has to be a spotter. Unless it’s tanirin.” She paused. “Everyone thinks it’s tanirin. I think it’s tanirin.”
Kaim nodded and looked at the sky again. A week of nights filled with nightmares would make anyone think that. The eyes… always the eyes…
“They don’t have flicker-scopes… no signal paddles either, we’d see those. No birds. We’d see those too.”
No clouds today. Nothing but deep blue sky and the mid-afternoon sun low in the northeast. And one of the planets bright near the dark horizon. Rock. It was Rock.
“Relay,” he said.
“Simple relay. They send up a Garagran with a spotter. The spotter watches the artillery groups fire. The launches are always staggered, so the spotter could watch where they come from and where they go. Then write it down with the corrections and give it to the teams when they come back down.”
Immilene grunted in disgust.
“Ugh. You’re right. So stupid simple.”
The short woman turned around and walked to the flicker scope set up on one corner of the building. After a moment of aligning the mirrors she flashed out a message to command, then waited for the reply.
“Someone suspected the same thing, but they’ve still seen nothing. No way to spot a Garagran up there.”
Kaim looked up again and thought. His brain felt like fog, though, so he wasn’t hopeful for a solution.
Immilene looked up with him, bouncing on her feet a little.
Even tired the woman still had too much energy. Kaim almost laughed at the tiny insight.
Immilene grunted again and smiled.
“You think they’re using a naked Prikenskrin for a spotter?”
“Cause unless they are, the spotter can’t change color like the Garagran can. If we get high enough, we should be able to see him against the ground or the horizon.”
Kaim looked at her, then back up. The thought ground through.
“I’ll tell command,” she said. “We’re going up.”
Immilene flashed the message and waited for a reply. When she stepped back from the scope she smiled.
“We aren’t the only ones. Command’s going to send ten teams up.” She scanned the other fliers on the roof, most of them hunkered down behind wide kren cover-tents similar to the ones over the ballistas. “Fasriale!”
A Tixerie woman with braided-brown hair and red wings stepped out from under one of the tents.
“You and Tavarin are going Garagran hunting with me. Bring your bow and explosives.”
The woman ducked back under the tent and came out buckling the satchel charge back into place behind her waist, with her bow already hooked to the fabric rigging across her chest and her kren helmet covering her hair.
Immilene launched first, fluttering up into the sky on her iridescent blue wings, followed by Del Fasriale. Kaim waited until they were a ways up, then made himself lighter, spread his brown feathered wings and powered up after them.
They climbed to standard scouting height, about three felds above ground, or about two felds above the tops of most of the trees and towers. Then they kept going, up and up until they were at least a ten-feld above the base of the city and the buildings below were starting to look like miniatures.
Immilene signalled for a full scan and the three of them banked around in a circle, looking for anything other than Tixieries and Shinalilt’s in the sky.
Kaim spotted a few flashes of color from the wings of the other teams, but nothing else. He wondered for a moment if perhaps the Empire’s spotter was a Shinalilt or a Tixerie, but they had been looking for those along with Garagrans when on the ground, and nothing could hide in the sky like a Garagran.
After a moment Immilene started up again, and kept going until things on the ground looked more like dots on a map. She stopped again at what Kaim guessed was two-and-a-half ten-felds and signalled them into a banking circle once more. The air was noticeably thinner that high, and harder to stay aloft in. If there was a Garagran hovering at that height, it was exceptionally good for its kind at flying.
Kaim glanced down at the city and the tiny pillars of smoke rising from it, like a spiderweb of streets on a map marred by black smudges, then out over the forest at the Imperial camp.
The artillery sections were clear, sharp formations in neat rows amidst the messier sprawl of the infantry groups. He could imagine the spotter looking down while holding a map with labels for each major team. He lifted his binoculars and scanned the camps, watching as one of the teams fired off another flight of rockets at the city with a flare and trails of smoke.
He put the binoculars down and scanned the horizon, the skies above and the skies below, everywhere. Nothing…
Del Fasriale cried out and pointed, going into a hover as she did.
Kaim tried to follow her finger, hovering as close as he could to get her line of sight.
He saw it too, a tiny speck just above the horizon, moving in a slow circle halfway between the city and the camp maybe five felds below them and two ten-felds out.
How had she spotted that? The woman had to have incredible eyes.
He locked on with his binoculars and made out that it was some kind of human in a pale saddle attached to a smudgy piece of sky that resolved into a Garagran as Kaim watched.
He looked at Immilene to make sure she had it as well and then waited for orders. She flashed a message down to Command first and then signalled to Kaim and Del Fasriale that they were going after the spotter. Other teams would follow as soon as Command managed to signal them.
Kaim nodded and felt through the arrows on his hip quiver, selecting out three fire arrows to hold in his draw hand for his first volley. Some holes in its wings would give the Garagran a much harder time competing in the sky.
As they glided closer to the Garagran, keeping their height advantage, it kept circling, until they were less than a ten-feld away.
At that point it spotted them and banked hard into a dive toward the ground. It also abandoned camouflage and turned pure black.
Kaim folded his wing tips, flared his tail, and stooped, shooting down after it. As he fell he switched his power, not only becoming his normal weight but feeling the pull of the ground even more, until the wind screamed over the ear-holes of his helmet.
He closed on the Garagran.
Halfway to the ground it snapped its wings open, swooping into a fast, flat glide.
Kaim flared his wings to make his dive shallower, and continued to gain.
A feld out the Garagran rolled into a dive again and turned back on its path. A tiny portion of Kaim’s awareness noted a small screaming figure detach from the Garagran at the extreme of its roll and plummet toward the ground.
The majority of his awareness watched the Garagran whip under him with more agility than anything that large should have.
Kaim banked tight to follow, then banked again, narrowly avoiding the bolt of white fire that split the air where he had been and the giant black form that surged up behind it. He spun into a backward fall, wing and tail wide to slow him and keep his path stable.
He snapped the bow off his chest harness.
Sighted on the Garagran through the peep sight.
Nock, draw, loose.
Nock, draw, loose.
Nock, draw, loose.
Fast as breathing.
Three arrows smacked into one of its wings. White fire ignited and stuck. The Garagran shrieked and snap-rolled, trying to shake the agony off.
Kaim didn’t know how they had made the fire arrows, but whatever the engineers used, it made fire that stayed on what it hit.
The Garagran went into an out of control, spinning fall for several breaths. Until adrenaline overcame pain.
Then it came back around for him.
Kaim watched the jaws open, growing larger surprisingly fast.
Too fast to escape.
He tried anyway.
Snap to the side. Dive. Back around and spiral.
Fire broke the air much too close for comfort.
Wings out and up.
Climb, reverse over, drop and dive again.
Fire again. Singed a little this time.
He reversed again and caught sight of the great maw aimed right at him, filling with white fire.
Immilene struck the Garagran in the back and latched on.
Electricity arced over both of them, surprisingly ineffective. Kaim saw Immilene grimace in the moment the Garagran passed him with the two Tixeries on its back.
Then she was out of sight and he was banking to follow again.
He fell in behind the Garagran, staying close on its tail as it wove, rolled and spun trying to shake the Tixeries off.
They held on, gripping the saddle harness that was still attached. Kaim saw Fasriale slap her charge on the Garagran’s back, set the timer and let go, red wings launching her away in an instant as she spread them and they caught the air.
Immilene tried to do the same, but the Garagran somehow did a forward roll midair just as she went to place the charge.
She fell free, a tiny person tumbling in midair with a package in her hands, wings closed tight at her back.
She spread them in a flare of blue to get control…
Just as the Garagran’s jaws closed over her.
Kaim spread his wings and tail full, slowing, nocked and drew and loosed in an instant.
Hit the Garagran with fire over its nose.
Too too late.
He nocked another arrow. Maybe…
The Garagran’s head exploded. Or tried to.
Kaim only knew that the air went white in a great bubble around it.
The rest he missed as the shockwave almost took him out of the air.
And was glad he missed when the second shockwave came a few tikkits after the first.
He tumbled, the ground alternating with the sky.
Remembered to make himself light. All the way.
That slowed things.
Catch the air and stop spinning.
He pulled up and came to a hover. Looked around. Saw that he was right above the walls of the city, maybe five felds up.
He looked for Fasriale and quickly spotted her fluttering red wings circling down to meet him.
Then he looked for the Garagran. Not a sign of it or Immilene.
Except for one solitary blue butterfly wing flashing and flipping as it spiraled toward the ground.
He looked away from that the instant he glimpsed it, but it was too late. He knew there would be blue wings the next time he had a nightmare about Garagrans. Probably later that night.
Fasriale came to a hover next to him.
“She’s gone,” she said.
Kaim noddded, then looked out at the enemy camps.
Had they seen their spotter go…
He almost stopped flying. The flares rippled through the artillery camps outside the walls almost like lightning crawling across clouds. And like lightning, blazing destruction shot up to connect heaven and earth.
A great, smoking, screaming tidal wave of blazing destruction.
Where did they get so many rockets?
He watched as the black wave rose up, up, up, peaked over his head, and then went on behind him, arcing to fall on the city he had come from, each rocket in it with its own carefully chosen destination.
He closed his eyes as the thought of all the teams on the building tops filled his mind.
“Aihay, have mercy on us.”
Somewhere from behind him he heard a horn sound, high and long and deep and impossibly loud.
The battle horn, telling any who might hear that the true assault had begun.