The Singer was all there was.
The Singer, and the Song, and the Wind that carried it. And she was nothing but an instrument vibrating with their praise.
Feathers unfurled to the notes of the rainbows that danced in the sky after thunderstorms, each shaft shedding light in every color and whispering to the soft skin underneath of a cool evening breeze rolling down off the mountains.
Bones that had been out of joint clicked into place and muscles that had been getting shorter and more compact clenched on thick, sturdy limbs, plowing diamond claws through dead ashes to the living soil still underneath and filling the air with the scent of rich farmland as mighty paws kneaded the land.
Tufted ears flicked high, gathering in the soughing of a great forest ahead, the rustling of crop-heavy plains behind, the lap and slurp of a wide river just to the north, the rushing of another running crossways underground, the thunder of hooves of countless herds, and the tromp of a hundred thousand boots running along a path of fire.
Eyes of pure molten gold opened and saw a single hawk wheeling high in a sky burning with the promise that the Sun would return tomorrow, and that soon the growing darkness would end.
That darkness whispered to her that she wouldn’t survive to see that sunrise.
Orilei laughed, and her laughter burbled across the surface of the song blazing from her lungs as the ripples of light on the surface of a stream.
She didn’t need the Sun to rise. It was burning inside her.
Murderous heat exploded around her, burned the ground again, but her feathers sang with her own fire and spun it into light, and the light turned the heat back. She stood in a sheath of cool until the white of death faded again, and looked into the terrified yellow eyes of one who saw nothing but an end, her sight clouded by the blackness that rode her like its steed.
Orilei spoke with a voice that was both a melody and a harmony, her words not a pause in the song, but a rest that transitioned to a hum that hung in the air and beat through the ground.
“Hope-rend Selkran, daughter of Ashbringer, surrender the field and call off your aides. The Ancient of Days would not see you die today, if you will choose another way.”
Captain Selkran snarled in reply, but her anger couldn’t hide the dissonant shiver of fear that ran through her as Orilei spoke her full name. She barked a command and the two Garagrans on either side charged.
Orilei knew a sorrow not her own, and shared it as she slammed a paw into the chest of one Garagran and watched the song in her claws slide them through armor that had never yielded to anything before. She swept in with the other, grabbed the Garagran’s throat between the claws of thumb and fingers, and shredded it.
The other Garagran was on her back a moment later.
She threw him off with a blow from one feathered wing, spun and slammed into him with a shoulder, grabbed the back of his neck in her lion mouth as he fell and failed to roll away, and drove her teeth through until they severed his spine.
She rose from the corpse, blood sliding off the glow that had guarded her from fire, and met Captain Selkran’s gaze.
The captain fled.
Orilei watched her black wings shrink into the sky for a long moment, then turned her gaze to the city. Her city. Filled with screams and wounds and fire and death.
That would not do.
She felt for power. Would it still work like it had before?
Electricity surged through bones and tissues, twisting space until the gravity of Eddenloe forgot it was supposed to hold her down. Then further, until the planet itself cast her away.
Blazing eagle wings snapped open, primaries at full extension, and thundered down.
Orilei shot into the sky, her whole being singing with joy as the ground she had been trapped on for so long fell away once again. Faster and faster she rose, crying out the melody of her exultation as she did, wings hurling the ground further and further away until she was climbing so fast the air screamed through her feathers.
At twice the height of the mountains she stopped pushing the world away and turned over, banking off the air above her and getting a good look at the city below. Black wings circled over the smoking skyscrapers, blasts of white fire lashing out at whatever remained of the defenders. Further from the center of the city marched a vast column of soldiers, like a river of red and steel pouring along the streets toward a hill on the western side. Flitting here and there, so few she thought her heart would break at what must have come already, were the bright wings of Tixeries still fighting the Garagrans. And numbering even fewer were the amber armored engineers loading and firing the eight still-intact ballistas.
She remembered the words of Mekhol from his book. “Plan your route before you dive.” She picked out the first target, high over the break in the wall where the Imperial army was still rushing in. From there she drew a line to another set of black wings, closer to the city. And then another. Two close together. A trio circling the top of a building defended by two of the ballistas. One flying fast for the camps with something in its claws. Something green.
And beyond it…
Five at the dam. Burning the dam.
Hmmm. That would be the end point. She could not let that continue.
She sang to the Singer, and knew the blessing of the Wind. The Song within wept at the task, but love and duty demanded she descend and repulse the invasion.
Orilei ran the route in her mind again, then trumpeted a challenge, trimmed her wings, and pulled on the world with everything she had.
It sprang up to meet her, faster and faster and faster. Then faster still, until the screaming air bunched up in front of her in a thick, protesting wave that told her it would hold her speed where it was.
The Singer disagreed. With a flash of light from her feet, the barrier shattered.
Orilei descended so fast the scream of the air as she cut it in half could no longer catch up to her ears. Tiny twitches of her feathers shot her to the left or the right, and if time hadn’t slowed until it moved like syrup she was certain she would have plowed into the ground before she knew what was happening. As she reached her first target time almost solidified, and she wove under one of the Garagran’s wings, snapped out a paw, and traced her claws along its side, parting scales, severing arteries and veins, and critically cutting the tendons of one wing, as if trailing a finger in a stream.
She did not look back as she passed it, did not need to see as the wind of her passage broke the weakened limb and sent its owner hurtling toward the ground. Instead she spread her wings bare handspans and pushed against the world again, bending her impossible dive into an impossible strafe just above the trees. The second target passed in a long slow breath, and it too fell, this time with a slashed throat.
The tears came, streaming from her eyes. She did not want them to die.
But she knew she could not stop.
Not even as she tore the third Garagran apart from its breast to the tip of its tail. Not even as she bounced between the next two, slicing both wings of the first, kicking off of its belly and rolling midair, then clipping the throat and femoral artery of the second.
She was Allejan Garagran, the Damndest of the Damned, Redeemed, and her body was made to oppose, made to defend, against the horrors of what had been her kind.
And Salshira needed to be defended. Whether they hated her or not.
Who was she to withhold what she had to give?
She closed on the trio circling the building. Sound returned with a rush as she spread her wings further and slowed. A wobble in the wings of one Garagran told her she had been seen.
They scattered on paths that would let them bring their fire to bear.
She twitched her course left and caught the furthest to that side, ripping her claws along its side as she passed, then throwing her wings wide when she was clear. The air slammed into her like a wall, tearing at her feathers and for a moment trying to rip her wings off. Then it became a road again and swept her around in a wide arc.
She arced back and closed on the two remaining, while the first tried to circle to the ground without hitting any buildings.
White fire flashed.
Orilei twisted her hind feathers, the wide fan on her rump and the smaller one on the tip of her tail, and threaded her way between.
One of the Garagrans banked hard and closed, jaws wide.
Orilei looked right into his yellow eyes, opened her mouth, and sang.
This was not the song of joy from before, or the song of victory, but the song of humbled mountains. The song of a Garagran’s bones. It shrieked from her throat, too high-pitched for anyone but her to hear as anything but a dangerous hum.
The Garagran’s eyes went wide. He twisted midair.
Then contorted in agony.
She swept around again. On her third approach to the besieged tower the first Garagran was on the ground and running away with a limp, the second was plummeting to the pavement, lifeless, and the third was set on a direct collision course.
His fire flashed out.
She spiraled out of the way and around the flame, just outside the heat, taking a blow from his claws on her right shoulder as she passed. The glow that guarded her had held. She came back in a wide arc again.
His turn had been tighter, bat-wings and slower speed making for better agility close in. He slammed into her side and grabbed onto one wing and a foreleg.
Locked together they couldn’t fly and tumbled toward the ground. Orilei struggled against his grip, dodging his attempts to bite her neck. Still gripped by a wing and an arm, she twisted her lower body around and kicked with both legs, tearing open his belly.
He screamed and let go.
It was his end. A moment later Orilei shot toward the sky again and the third Garagran of the trio hit the ground, blood spilling out of his slashed throat and across the black paving stone.
One more, and then to the dam.
Orilei looked for the fleeing Garagran as she gained altitude, the one with something in its claws.
Had she missed it?
What was that?
Green… green… Tixerie wings. Swirled with black and specked with orange-gold.
She knew those wings.
Orilei gathered herself and slammed forward, her huge wings allowing her to close quickly.
A glance in her direction from the Garagran told her she had already been seen. His claws tensed. Tala would not survive if she closed in the open.
Orilei peeled off and dove for the streets below. As soon as she hit the pavement her feet blazed again.
She folded her wings and ran, buildings flashing past as she left burning footprints on the stone.
The Garagran had been… twenty streets away when she had to break off.
She blew past twenty blocks and took a hard left, dragging herself around with claws sunk into the paving.
There again. Far ahead and above her, winging out of the city as fast as he could and scanning every direction but down.
She let her musclebound lion body go for all it was worth, winning in thirty tikkits the right to every speeding citation the Sunfire Falls City Guard had in their possession. She owned the street until she was going so fast the next thrust of her hind legs threatened to launch her off of it.
At that point she grabbed the world, pulled herself down onto it, and ran faster.
When she came even with the Garagran she looked up. A figure struggling in its claws kicked twice as she watched, then looked down and stopped.
Violet eyes went wide.
Orilei smiled back.
Between one instant and the next she brought her back legs up until hindpaws touched forepaws, reversed her pull to a full push…
And exploded into the air, the perfection of every cat that had ever leapt after a bird that should have been too high to reach. With a twist midair she impacted with all four feet, claws sinking in deep.
The Garagran screamed.
Tala cried out.
Mighty black fingers started to convulse around a delicate body.
Orilei crushed one black wrist in her jaws and severed the tendons on the inside of the other with her left foreclaws. With a wrench and a pull Tala fell onto her chest. Orilei let go, grabbed her rescue, and plummeted to the ground, reversing her fall and slowing to a gentle drift as soon as she was clear of retaliation.
The Garagran did not follow.
Once she was down safely Orilei set Tala upright on the pavement.
“The dam!” Tala cried. “Get to the dam!”
Orilei nodded and sprang into the air again.
As she rose the sky darkened.
Had the sun gone down already? Last she had seen it had still been a handspan above the mountains. She glanced around and saw low clouds gathering over the city from every direction into a single monumental blackness. Skitters of lightning crawled across the bottom of the cell, and its gloomy depths roiled with power.
She let the Song within rise and fill her being until it made the colors on her feathers begin to dance again.
She would not be afraid.
Orilei shot straight toward the darkness, then turned over a moment before she reached the bottom. From that height she looked across the river, where the cliffs were split by a manmade wall holding back a whole lake’s worth of death. Whitecaps surged atop the surface of the lake, giving the feeling that the water was straining to break through.
The wall did not look like it could resist much longer. As five white torches bit into it and lit it up in the growing gloom, Orilei saw cracks starting to crawl toward the top. It would not hold much longer.
Perhaps not even if she intervened now.
How to take them all? Her voice would not do. Not that close to something so fragile.
How many could she take with her claws on her first pass?
Only one way to find out.
I am yours, Aihay. Let your Song be sung.
Straight down she plunged, gathering momentum. Wind buffeted her as she dove, trying to force her off course, but she found a still point in the Song and held to it, conducting herself along the path it laid out with every feather at her command. At the last possible moment she flung her wings open and turned the dive into another strafe bare strads above the foaming surface of the river.
The five Garagrans were ready for her.
Four stepped back and prepared to intercept her while the fifth and largest continued on the dam. The smallest of the four was larger than Captain Selkran had been.
Would her claws make it through scales that thick?
And could she take them all at the same time, once she lost her speed?
And if she didn’t succeed…
It was not hers to decide what would happen. Only to fight with all that the Singer would give.
She picked a spot between the two Garagrans on the right, then feinted toward the one on the furthest left.
They were wise to her. They didn’t move.
The tiny cry came from high on the cliffs above, in a bold man’s voice that Ember remembered from an office weighted with more responsibility than could ever be comfortable. A moment later, a flight of arrows stabbed down through the winds and into the four Garagrans, igniting into white pinpricks on contact.
The four great beasts snarled, spun, and lost their formation.
Orilei felt a thrill of joy run through her at the aid. In the same moment she switched her aim to the middle, and clotheslined the center pair with her wings. The three of them went down in a tangle. She drove her teeth into the throat of the one on the left and made sure she never got up from that tangle.
The other one scrabbled at her side, but his claws couldn’t find purchase on her glow. Orilei released her bite on the corpse and rolled over to strike out.
The big male changed tactics, slamming down on her with his whole weight and then some, seeking to pin instead of slash.
Jaws sought her throat, hit the glow, and stopped.
Orilei heard a growl, and the Garagran bit harder. His teeth started to push through.
She kicked and clawed, but her back claws couldn’t cut deep enough to make it all the way through the scales she could reach and the Garagran fended off the strikes of her foreclaws with his forearms.
Another moment and those teeth were going to reach her feathers, driving through to soft skin and the softer flesh beneath.
More arrows rained down. She heard the boom of wings sweeping them aside, the roaring flare of those that hit, and the pained bark of the Garagran holding her.
One moment of distraction. That was all they bought her.
And all she needed.
Orilei curled into a ball, bringing her hind legs all the way up to where she could slam them into the pits of the Garagran’s forearms. With his forearms held back for a brief instant she reached up with her foreclaws and slashed his eyes.
He roared, and bit harder. A necklace of pain lit up around her throat.
She gasped. Then drove her clawed fingers into the sockets.
The jaws closed deeper.
She let her electricity go, arcing light surging along her arms and between her claws, circumventing all of the Garagran’s protections to go someplace it didn’t belong.
The gruesome struggle ended moments later. Orilei rose to all fours, neck dripping blood, and the Garagran collapsed to the ground, eye sockets smoking and body twitching without any intelligent guidance.
She shook the blood off her claws and lashed her tail.
The other two Garagrans circled around her.
“Run away, and I won’t follow,” she said.
They charged her as one.
Orilei’s feet blazed as she wove between the sweeps of their claws and thrusts of their tails. The one in front came high for head and she dove low, at the same time kicking out with both hind legs, taking the one coming from the rear in the face and leaving red lines across his nose.
An over-shoulder sweep with her right arm caught the front Garagran across the throat.
She dove under that one’s body, out between the back legs, reversed, and charged up the collapsing back to leap atop the one stumbling away with his own blood on his face. From a perch on his back she pummeled him with slaps of her paws that slashed his horns until they broke, tore scales off his head, and split the air with sounds like boulders smacking into concrete.
Light washed out everything. A sound like a thousand bolts of lightning shook the air.
Orilei looked up from the Garagran who had gone limp under her assault.
Had the dam broken?
Impossible brilliance drew her eyes, and she saw something worse.
The last Garagran, the one who had continued attacking the dam, was standing with wings spread wide and eyes on her as a continuous bolt of lightning poured down into him from the black cloud above.
“Enough,” he boomed, and charged.
Orilei tried to dodge. But space bent as she moved, and she felt herself pulled toward the approaching monster.
He slammed into her and the air blew out of her lungs. For that moment she forgot the Song and anything else.
In the next she was flying through the air without any help from her wings.
She impacted with something. Granite facing crumbled and fell around her as she slid down the face of a building and hit the ground. She looked up just in time to roll out of the way of a claw sweep that ripped through several steel girders. She backed up, skipped to the side as the lightning-powered Garagran charged past…
Not far enough. He shoulder-checked her across the street and through another wall. More masonry fell on her as he charged in after her, tearing through floors and dividers to get to her. She crawled out of the way before he could pin her.
He slashed out and caught her in the side. Electricity crackled against her glow, then exploded through, into her guts and then out into the ground below.
She screamed and forced herself to leap through a plate-glass window and its surrounding frame, tumbling out into the street again.
He broke out after her, scattering stone and plaster and dust. As soon as he was out, more lightning poured down out of the sky with a horrible, drawn out crackle that shattered what few windows remained in the area.
He leaped at her.
She rolled on her back, caught him in the chest with both legs, and hurled him away. In the same moment she used her own electricity to push, canceling his attempt to stay close.
He came down on all fours, spreading wings and digging in with claws to come to a stop.
He stared at her. Not hot. Not angry. Just cold calculation.
The lightning came down again, even stronger than before, in a continuous, crackling roar that drowned out all other sound. He began to glow with it, and then Orilei saw the light around him…
Was that possible?
Like a bubble… a bend in the world itself, surrounding him and growing more pronounced by the moment, as the lightning continued to pour down.
Yahsaw… guide me…
Orilei looked beyond the Garagran. Nothing but streets. She had her back to the dam.
She drew in breath, ignoring the pain in her side as her lungs filled, settled the sun still burning inside into her voice, and sang.
The song of broken mountains struck across the street between her and the Garagran, exploding black pavement into the air as it went.
He winced and narrowed his eyes. A moment later he replied. Not with threats. Not with screams of hatred.
Just hot, unrelenting, death.
The fire swept around her, blanking out everything else with white. Orilei felt its heat even through her glow. Felt the basalt street melting and exploding under her as the flame consumed everything.
This was not the heat from a Garagran! She might as well be plunged into the core of a star!
Her legs wanted to run. Everything wanted to run.
Orilei let the song of joy and the song of victory join the song of humbled mountains.
The song of the Kingdom to Come.
She was not alone in the fire. She would never be alone.
She set her feet in the pooling lava and sang with everything she had, and when that wasn’t enough she asked for more, and believed that it would be given.
Somewhere nearby a skyscraper collapsed with an earthshaking rumble into the hole of its lower levels as its foundations turned to dust. Glass for ten blocks ahead of Orilei and three blocks on either side cracked and shattered in sympathy to the impossible symphony that chorused from her mouth and went on and on, rising and growing in complexity in a ceaseless crescendo.
The fire replied, surging hotter and hotter, fueled by the electrical fury of the storm above, a storm that raged in an army of rebel voices against the song below. It drove in, eating through the glow that opposed it, until it licked just above the rainbows rippling across the feathers underneath.
I have already been through the fire, and I believe.
Take everything, Yahsaw. It is yours.
Came until Orilei was certain that at some point she herself must have dissolved into the song and become nothing but a whisper of dust dancing in a symphony so beautiful her soul had been undone by the hearing of it. Came until all that she knew was fire and music and the presence of a pair of hands that would hold her forever. And still she sang. Sang until the song reached a resounding coda.
Ahead of her, something cracked.
Then shattered in a thousand places.
The fire and lightning ended, leaving only a cloud of dust from the fallen building.
Her song over, Orilei fell silent, and watched the cloud settle. For a moment awe seized her that she still was, but that quickly calmed into patient stillness.
Slowly a dark form appeared, four legs, two wings and a tail, attached to a body contorted in impossible agony.
Orilei wept at the sight of the broken Garagran. Gold markings barely visible on the scales of his head between his horns declared him a high-general. Other markings along his jaw said he was a father of three.
Orilei turned her eyes away from his ruin and looked to the sky.
The clouds were breaking up, glowing gold on their edges and letting in the dark purple sky and red-gold light of late sunset. Beneath the scattering darkness, Garagrans still flew, but she saw that all of them were headed out of the city as fast as they could go.
Far off, toward the broken wall that had guarded the city, trumpets called in military codes. Salshiran military codes. The army from Jone’s Shield had come and was engaging the Imperial Ground forces. And winning. Imperial trumpets began sounding the retreat and didn’t stop.
Nearby the river roared and slurped louder than ever. Orilei studied it, then turned to the dam where it still stood. Water boiled up from the underwater channels at its base, draining the reservoir above and raising the level of the river until it just sloshed over the edges of its concrete channel. People at the top of the dam waved their arms at her and cheered.
Orilei waved back, then glanced at the broken general again. Perked her ears and listened to the men warring and dying far off.
“Oh Yahsaw, have mercy. On all of them.”
She looked out over the city, still filled with so much smoke and burning. Three quarters of it looked intact, but if the fires still going had their way that could easily be down to half or less by morning.
Was there anything she could do about that, or was her body only good for killing?
Mercy, Yahsaw, mercy…
Another song unfolded inside her, glistening in the midst of the burning sun like a cup filled with cool water.
“I can put the fires out,” she whispered.
Could it be true?
She trotted… limped… to a building that had a fire just beginning to crawl up the side. Gathered her breath once again, let the song unfold in her heart and mind, and then…
Breathed out the song of forgiveness, deep and bold and bass, shaking and soothing at the same time. The fire stopped burning. Just stopped. The embers struggled to keep going, but she continued the song until they cooled, until they died, until they were no more.
Then she spread her wings and went to find another fire to cool.
She found the King working from a temporary command center next to the triage tents covering the clifftop outside the Palace hospital, well after the sun had set and the lights in the city had come back. Bethania, her husband, and the remaining generals were all with him. All were still armored and had bows hooked to harnesses on their backs.
“Ember?” the king asked as soon as she landed, his face taking on a hesitant smile that was hard to interpret in the weak electric lighting.
Bethania approached without any questions and rested a hand on her foreleg, her face beaming.
Orilei nodded to the king.
“Trin rescued me. She… she died on the way back.”
His face fell. Everyone’s face fell.
A small, strong hand squeezed her leg and Orilei met Bethania’s eyes. Tight around the edges with pain, but her mouth still smiled beneath them.
Home. Orilei let out a deep breath at that and let go of some tension that had been gathering in her shoulders.
She looked at the King and he nodded.
“Your room is still yours. Ean wouldn’t let anyone touch it. And you’ll have a place here as long as you want from now on, no matter what. Not that I think any of the council members will be complaining after this.”
Orilei suspected some of them would still find reason to yell at her. But she would bear that whenever it came. Angry councilors were a small thing.
She glanced out at the broken city below, most of it not on fire now, and a good half of it still intact enough to glitter with restored lighting.
So much broken…
She looked back to the King.
“Ean was going into surgery when I left the Jone’s Shield army camp to come here. The surgeon promised to tell me as soon as he finished. Have you had any word?”
The King’s eyes went wide with alarm. He looked through the messages on his desk.
“We started getting updates from the camp as soon as the Garagrans left.” He kept flipping through papers, his motions taking on a hint of desperation. “There’s nothing here.” He grabbed a blank sheet of paper, wrote something on it, and handed it to a young woman in a flicker-tower uniform standing nearby.
“Have that sent to the Jone’s Shield camp immediately. I want their reply before anything else.”
The woman stared at it for a moment, as if trying to focus through the deep circles surrounding her eyes, then nodded and ran off.
Ember watched the King adjust his papers in the long, anxious silence that followed.
Please, Yahsaw. Please. Oh please grant that he’s alright.
She began to work the stone with her claws, cutting deep gouges in the hard rock of the cliff top. One of the generals stared at the marks and began to edge away.
“Here,” Bethania said, holding open a sleeved military cloak.
Orilei looked at the marks she had left in the stone and nodded. A moment later she was human again, wrapped in scratchy green wool and seated in a chair next to the King’s desk. He continued to sort through the papers there, but she could tell he wasn’t reading them.
She reached out and took his hand, squeezed gently.
He looked at her, then smiled for a brief moment.
They waited like that until someone saw the messenger woman running back.
Orilei watched, but the woman gave no sign of the message she carried.
What if he was… What would she do?
She would continue.
But even so…
The woman reached them, stopped on the other side of the desk, and tried to catch her breath.
“What does it say?!” the King said.
The woman looked up, blanched, then unfolded the paper in her hands.
Her face fell as she scanned the contents.
She glanced up, her bloodshot eyes wide.
“It says… It says Prince Ean is…”