Why Aihay? Why?
It couldn’t end like this.
Not here. Not in the capitol. Not after all they’d done to prepare.
Kaim snapped wings and tail to full and banked hard to the right, shooting between a pair of glass-faced office buildings built tight on the same block. Air currents close to the buildings threatened to slam him into the windows on one side, but he adjusted the trim on his feathers and rode the wind through.
A crash signalled his pursuer hadn’t been able to follow as easily. He glanced back and saw the Garagran clinging to the side of the building he had avoided, broken glass falling in a sparkling shower as it clawed its way around and lunged after him again. The buildings were too close for it to use its wings, but that didn’t stop it from running weightlessly along the building face, breaking windows as it went.
Kaim flew faster, banking right as he exited the alley and swooping out along a wide avenue.
He looked and listened, searching for anyone left who could help him. Overhead the rockets had stopped raining down, but one of the last volleys had taken out the great war horn and now the distant crackle of muskets and the boom of marching drums spoke of Imperial forces advancing through the forests. Most of the resistance seemed to have been destroyed.
It couldn’t be. Was everyone dead?
Aihay, these are your people!
A triplet of thundercracks sounded. Then another, more distant.
So there were still a few ballistas out there. He just had to find one.
He looked for a rooftop emplacement that was still intact, or one of the trucks that had been out earlier, but didn’t see any. A column of smoke rising from the middle of the street blocked his way and he swept through, ignoring the acrid bite in his nose and eyes.
He had to find a way to reverse the situation. Someone to help.
Or something to fight with.
The deep beat of wings from behind sounded doom closing on him again.
He had one fire arrow left. He could use that, but if he missed, he was down to his sword.
He grabbed the arrow, then banked left down another alley, hoping to get the Garagran on the side of a building again so it would pause for one moment.
He shot out of the alley and looked behind.
The Garagran came around the other side of the building, from his left, banking hard on a collision course.
It had anticipated him.
Kaim pulled his wings close, twisted to the left in midair, and dove hard and fast between its foreclaws.
The wind whistled over the earholes on his helmet and he felt a whisper-soft touch along his side as he passed between the claws. As soon as he was through the thin kren plate covering his right shoulder parted, along with the silver chainmail underneath.
He was certain he felt blood running down under the sleeve.
No time to check.
He pulled up hard, turning his dive into a fast streak two strads above the black rock of the street. Behind him the wings thundered as the Garagran flipped around far too fast for something its size.
Kaim searched for another turn.
White agony split the air to his right and below, just kissing the wing on that side with the outer sheath of its heat and striking the stone of the street full on. Basalt popped and shattered, launching burning shards of stone. Kaim rolled left to avoid the heat and the shards.
It was already too late. Shinalilt feathers didn’t burn as easily as bird feathers, but his primaries on that wing were still crisped. He lost the last few strads of height, backwinged, hit with his legs, and turned a bad fall into a forward roll.
Dove to the left.
Pushed up from that and ran again.
Not yet! I’m not giving up!
Pain exploded in his back. The polished white marble wall of the building ahead of him rushed up and slammed into his face. He slipped down, stunned.
He wouldn’t let that day happen again.
He wouldn’t let the Garagrans have their way. Not again.
He rolled over until his back was against the wall.
Unsnapped his bow.
Reached for the arrow.
Gone. He had dropped it when he fell.
The Garagran filled his vision. Fangs, claws, and wings that blocked out the sun. A sinuous tail that whipped from side to side, scoring the paving stone with its tip as it did.
Nowhere to go.
Nothing to fight with but…
He drew his sword.
The Garagran smiled. It’s nostrils flared as it drew in a deep, slow, breath.
It wasn’t going to close to kill him. It wasn’t that stupid.
The overpressure slammed Kaim back against the wall and dropped him to the ground, stunned again. Glass rained down around him but he couldn’t hear the shards hit the pavement. Nothing but ringing. The Garagran stumbled to the side, away from the white cloud that had appeared against its right side.
It recovered a moment later and swung its head to look for its attacker.
Kaim rolled face down, crunching broken glass under his armor, wrapped his arms over his ears and hunched his wings up over his head, and pressed as flat as he could get.
Another shockwave ripped through him.
Two at once.
Then he felt the softer impact of something large falling to the ground.
He waited until he was certain the silence would continue.
When he looked the Garagran was down on its side, unmoving, and the air was filled with rust and white smoke. A ballista truck was pulled up next to the dead monster, its main weapon manned by a Tixerie with Liltan ears sticking out from under her helmet.
He recognized those green wings with their branching black swirl pattern.
Tala met his eyes and waved him toward the truck, shouting something.
He still couldn’t hear.
He got up and ran for the truck, amazed that he could. He only realized after he clambered over the side that he had grabbed his bow without thinking. He checked it over, looking for damage, but nothing looked broken.
Someone punched him in the shoulder and he looked up. A wide Shaldan man held out a bundle of fire arrows and pointed to one corner of the truck bed, up by the cabin.
They must have been shouting at him.
He shoved the arrows in his quiver and wedged himself against the truck cab. The vehicle swung around, accelerated through a short fishtail, and launched down the street away from the dead Garagran. Flame-scarred buildings flashed past as it picked up speed. Kaim clung tight to the sidewall of the bed as the truck drifted through a tight corner leaving tire-smoke in the air behind it.
Looking overhead Kaim saw more black wings snapping across the sky, but none moving in a direction they could follow.
Then a group of five, flying in a wedge formation.
That had to be important.
He yelled for attention until he felt a hand on his shoulder.
He pointed at the Garagrans.
Other voices, whispers under the ringing, joined the vibration of his own shout. The first hints of sound returning. The truck swung through another turn, following the Garagrans with a purpose. After two more turns they made it to one of the open parts of the city and caught sight of the wedge again.
The Garagrans were headed toward the dam.
What could they want there?
The five banked in a circle and settled toward the stone bank on one side of the river flowing out of the dam’s base.
“Sweet Kai!” Tala’s voice filtered through the ringing. “They’re going to flood the city!”
Could they do that? And what about their troops?
There was a rise the Empire’s troops could go to on the way into the city. If they gathered there, that would draw out Salshira’s defenders into the field. Then if a flood came…
The Salshirans would be swept away in one moment, while the Empire forces remained safe and dry.
“If the dam breaks the caves will flood,” Tala said, a little louder this time. “They’ll kill all the civilians!”
All the civilians and all the troops. Clean Sunfire Falls out in one instant. With the Capitol utterly destroyed, the rest of Salshira would fall without a struggle.
We’re not finished yet. We can stop this.
Tala slapped the roof of the truck cab and stuck her head in through the rear window. A moment later the truck shot toward the dam even faster than before.
They made it to the dam just as the Garagrans let loose their first blast of fire. Five white shafts struck the same point four stories up, where the black concrete of the dam merged with the black stone at the top of the original waterfall. The dam had been in full production mode for the past two months, so there was no ornamental overflow from the top to protect it. Stone steamed under the direct fire of the five Garagrans, then exploded with loud cracks like the ballistas firing. Kaim saw several big chunks arc over the sappers
Kai. They were really going to do it. Burn the dam until it broke.
Could one ballista truck stop them? Each of the monsters at the dam stood a good two stories at the shoulder. Larger than any Garagran Kaim had seen so far.
The one in the center was even larger.
Aihay, where are you? Why aren’t you here?
No choice but to fight. If the dam broke, there would be nothing left.
Tala rapped on the window and the driver pulled to a stop on a low rise across the river from Garagrans, at least five felds away.
Tala grabbed Kaim’s arm and turned him to meet her gaze.
“Watch the skies!” she yelled.
He nodded and nocked an arrow on his bow, then searched the air above for any interest from their enemies. The sun was getting low in the West and the clouds nearest the horizon were darkening. Would they make it to the night?
Would it matter if they did?
The ballista cracked, rocking the whole truck. Heartbeats passed.
Far away, at the base of the dam, there was an explosion and a roar of pain.
Tala went to rapid fire.
Whirr, thunk, shimmy.
Whirr, thunk, shimmy.
Whirr, thunk, shimmy.
As Kaim kept his eye on the heavens he barely saw her adjusting the aim of the ballista from side to side, tracking distant objects. There were more explosions, more roars. Tala yelled for a reload.
A high ululating roar rose to the sky, followed by a series of sharp barks.
Movement. Two black shapes turned high in the sky and swept toward them.
The men reloaded the ballista, then shouldered the box launchers that Kaim had seen a few times before.
He drew his bow and aimed at the lead Garagran of the pair. Tala ignored it and kept shooting at the Garagrans by the dam.
Please Kai. Please give these monsters into our hands. Please don’t let us fail!
As the monsters closed he remembered a form like theirs, but infinitely larger, hunched over a screaming woman in the street, tearing. Tearing his aunt apart.
He sighted on the Garagran’s nose and loosed just as it opened its mouth to breathe fire.
It snapped it’s mouth shut, rolled out of the way, corrected with a flip of its wings…
And coughed a bolt of fire straight at the truck.
The tires squealed and the truck moved just enough to dodge the flame.
Kaim nocked, drew, and loosed again.
The two men launched their rockets in rusty streaks.
The Garagran dodged the arrow, both thunderbolts, and swept over the truck in a wash that shook them so hard everyone but Tala stumbled and fell down in the bed.
A moment later the second Garagran slammed into the pavement and slid into the truck with a crash. Giant claws crunched into the sides and huge arms heaved. The truck resisted for a moment, something inside it refusing to be tilted. The Garagran roared and heaved into the truck with its whole weight.
Kaim felt the truck bed buck under his feet and tilt up sharply. An instant later the grinding shriek of something large and mechanical eating itself sundered the air. In an instant the truck bed shot up and the whole vehicle flipped.
Kaim pushed hard with his legs, diving out of the bed as it tipped. As the pavement came up to meet him he tucked and rolled.
Came up, spun, nocked and drew and loosed again.
This time his arrow found its target. The Garagran let go of the truck and snarled as white fire splashed across its cheek. It backed away, shaking its head to get the fire off.
He hit it twice more and it snapped its wings out and flew away.
Kaim ran back to the truck. The Shaldan man had gotten stuck between the sidewall and the pavement, but he pushed the truck up off himself as Kaim got there. Kaim grabbed him under the arms and dragged him the rest of the way out.
The other man, the Bortin, was already lying nearby, facedown. Kaim heard a groan from him.
The door of the cab popped open and a young Kentinshir woman rolled out, skin pitch black where her armor didn’t cover it.
Where was Tala?
He scanned the surroundings and spotted her two truck lengths away. She had to have been thrown when it went over.
Wings thundered overhead. The first Garagran swept in and landed next to Tala. Its roar made Kaim stumble and drove him back against the truck body.
“Get away from her!”
He nocked and drew and launched an arrow into its chest.
Shot more. Arrow after arrow.
Only a few hit. The Garagran wove and dodged absurdly fast for its size. Its tail shot in, spearing for Kaim’s chest.
He dodged and the tail holed the truck body, right through the kren armor plating it.
The ululating cry came again, followed by another series of barks.
The Garagran glanced toward the dam, glared at Kaim, then saw the crumpled Tixerie stirring at its feet. A smile flickered across its reptilian face as it took in her wings.
Kaim shot arrows at it as fast as he could.
The Garagran knocked them out of the air with a sweep of one wing, grabbed Tala, and launched into the sky with a downdraft that threw Kaim off his feet.
It was out of range before he even realized his quiver was empty again.
Kaim collapsed to his knees.
Can’t I protect anyone?
The Garagran dwindled, heading toward the distant Imperial camps. Kaim looked to the dam. The five Garagrans were still breathing fire. There was now a noticeable divot in the black concrete of the dam.
He turned around. The Shaldan and the other man had managed to get the truck on its side again, but the ballista was destroyed. Kaim looked, but there didn’t appear to be any box launchers left.
He looked back to the dam.
Five felds… could he even get across the river before the dam fell?
Everyone was going to…
Why, Aihay? Why are you doing this to us?
His gut twisted, his lungs aching with the effort not to scream.
And then he did.
He watched more chunks fall out of the dam as the Garagrans let loose with another blast of fire. Overhead the clouds glowed at the edges with the red-gold fire of approaching sunset. Great shafts of sunlight spread from between them, dancing in the smoke rising from the city.
They were all going to die in a flood under a perfect sky, and Aihay was no…
WHO ARE YOU?
The voice cut through him, seeming to come from inside and all around at once, unspoken but clearer than his own scream. He knew it, and the question it asked pinned him to the ground, demanding an answer.
And he knew the answer.
“I am only a man, not Kai.”
But why? Why had Aihay…
WHERE IS YOUR SISTER?
Who… and then he knew.
And in knowing, he understood the magnitude of his crime. His and everyone else’s.
The whole city was going to die, and that was as it should be.
Kaim began to weep.
WHO AM I?
‘You are Kai,” he whispered through his tears.
WHO AM I?
Kaim looked up.
“I… I don’t understand.”
WHO AM I?
Kaim looked to the sky. The burning dam. The smoking city. The people crouched together next to him looking at him like he was mad.
A sound like a thousand trumpets split the heavens. Louder than the roars of the Garagrans. Louder than the explosions. Louder even than the war horn had been. Rising, intertwining, a hundred notes shifting and singing, some so deep his bones sang with them and some so high the broken glass in the streets danced to their touch.
The sound drew his eyes to the east, where the Empire had broken through the walls.
And where his eyes told him the Sun was already rising.