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Twelfth Year of the Council of Adra-Isruk, Waxing Moon of Shattering Skies
One thousand, five hundred, forty three years before the Dawngate opened

Naram took his daughter’s hand and pulled her towards the far end of the bridge. “Come on,” he urged, uneven and strained.

“But lookit,” she said, craning her neck to see behind them. “Aren’t they going to get hit by the lightning? How do they stay up like that? Are they not metal? They look like metal. And there’s so many of them..!”

The birraga-riders burst across the city, arcing away in small groups, hooting barbaric war cries. A flight of three passed overhead, leering down at the man, the girl, and the construct. Ajaru waved breathlessly, bouncing on the balls of her feet, and got a spectacularly crude gesture in return. She scrunched up her nose. “Is that how they say hi in Henj?”

“Uh, no,” Naram said. “And… don’t ever do that in front of your teachers.”

“Why?”

Faris scanned the sky, counting the fliers. “They are far too few to control the city.”

Naram look at Faris uncomprehendingly.

Compare: Map of city to first wave trajectories.Conclusion: Council Grand Hall.

Conclusion: The Gesh Bridge.

Conclusion: Barracks of the Immortal Guard.

“Centers of leadership. Garrisons. Paths into the city,” Faris said aloud.

Ajaru stood on tiptoes, peering over the rails, silver eyes shining with delightful new possibilities. Her father shook his head at Faris. “Center of-? I don’t understand.”

Compare: Map of city to second wave trajectories.Conclusion: The Crèche of Numun.

Conclusion: The Crèche of Kulil.

Conclusion: The Crèche of Hamask.

“There are-” He hesitated, studied the dilated eyes and flaring nostrils of the young father. “There is an additional target,” he said at last.

Fat drops of rain speckled darkness across the bridge. A wall of water swept across the view, shushing the sounds of screaming and the clash of metal.

The sound of wind through trees passed overhead. Bent shadows, traced in turquoise, ghosted though the haze towards Ajaru’s blocks. The girl sighed, a shiver rippling down her spine. She held her free hand aloft to cup the falling water.

“Love, we have to keep moving,” Naram said, peering into the haze ahead and behind them. A bubbling shriek echoed from the distance. The hollow boom of toppling stone.

“I know, father,” she said. “But my fingers don’t itch now. Not at all.” She swayed, lifting her face to the rain. “I’m cool again.” Sodden evergreen hair hung dark and heavy down her back, the glowing Luminence-pearls woven into her braids muted by the downpour.

“Do you need me to carry you, Miss?” Faris asked. The thin cloak she’d draped him with was already soaked through, clinging to stone and brass.

“No,” she said dreamily. “I just want the rain to touch me now.” She tried to wiggle her hand free of her father’s, but he slid his grip back, encircling her small wrist instead. She held the hand up, fingers stretched to meet the falling water.

“Open your eyes, love,” he said, pulling her along behind him.

“I’m all right, father. The bridge is flat.”

“Don’t trip.”

“I won’t.”

“Please let me lead, Mani Naram,” Faris said, sliding past. There were constructs that had some ability to see through weather like this. They were of more recent vintage. Behind them, orange and crimson flickered through the shadowed windows of the crèche tower. Faintly came the sound of ringing hammers and the clank-tinkle of shattering crystals.

As they reached the next tower, a rush of moving air rose over the hiss of falling water. A shadow circled overhead, weaving side to side. “Faris,” Naram said tightly.

“Remain calm,” he replied.

“There’s nothing to hide behind.” He was hunched over, shoulders to the rain and the whirling shadow, following Faris briskly around the outer balconies.

“I am monitoring. Please continue.”

“Ow,” Ajaru complained. “You’re pulling too hard, father.” Then she blinked and peered around into the haze, rubbing water away from her eyes. “Where’s Father-Dipani?”

“He was – he’s still at work, love.” His voice was strained. “At the site across the river.”

A buffet of wind pressed them down. The lurking shadow sped away into the sheets of rain. “Oh!” Ajaru said. “Was that one of the flying things?” She tugged her father’s hand. “Father, could we see one? Please?”

Narum peered out into the vagueness. “Will he come back?”

“I do not know. Your home is this way?” Faris asked. The next bridge stretched away into grey nothingness, only a faint pulse of aqua luminance Shaping marking the location of the neighboring tower.

“I don’t know,” Naram said, pushing flattened hair back from his forehead. “I – I’m all turned around. I can’t see.”

Faris looked back at the flickering light behind them. “We will attempt it.”

They were halfway across when the sound of a hurricane bore down from behind.

“What-?” was all Naram got out before the birraga slammed to the surface of the bridge.

A warrior leapt from the back of it.

Faris was in motion.

A wincing shriek of metal, grinding across stone.

The man tumbled and rolled, armor clattering and ringing, cackling with exhilaration.

Measure: Distance.

The birraga wobbled to a halt, tracery fading, poking through the slats of the safety rail.

Measure: Speed.

He was on his feet, a wild grin and blur, an oily smear in the rain.

Conclusion: Too far.

Narum’s face crunched around the Henjman’s fist.

Ajaru made a faint squeak. Eyes wide, mouth moving soundlessly, quivering hands piled up at her chest.

Narum fell across the bridge deck, blood spraying, limbs nerveless, managing no more than a high whine.

She whimpered, panting with open-mouthed panic. “What’s, what’s, what’s-?”

The Henjman made a grunt of articulate disgust and buried his fist in Ajaru’s forest-colored hair, twisting her braids around. “Jar-spawn,” he spat, yanking, loosing a squeal of agony and terror.

“Why did you hurt him? What did I do?” she sobbed, teeth chattering. “I didn’t mean it!”

“Abomination,” the Henjman said, as if assessing a cut of beef. “Unblessed. Soul-less.” He bent her, forcing her to her knees, one hand on the hilt of his weapon. “A mercy to put it down.” She wailed and screwed her eyes closed.

A single luminous Shaping-pearl fell free of her damp tresses, bounced and scampered across the bridge, and fell into the empty, storm-lashed air.

“She is a child,” Faris said. “And she is under my protection.”

The warrior glared contemptuously. “Stone man. You’re as much a finger in the eye of the Spirits as this thing.” He was leaning forward, hand twisting and tightening around the hilt of his sheathed weapon.

“Ward in jeopardy,” Faris said softly. “Anamnesis loop disengaged.”

The Henjman’s hand moved. The blade appeared, glittering coldly in the storm-light.

Recall: demonstrated reaction speed of foeMeasure: distance to target

Measure: current wind speed

Estimate: Friction of bridge surface

He threw himself into the wind.

The Henjman’s blade breathed free of the scabbard.

Measure: distance to target

He projected light, more intense than any sun.

So intense the rain hissed into steam, so intense it could draw blood.

WIND GUST: Correct three degrees right

The Henjman wrenched Ajaru’s head back, exposing her gulping throat.

His blade slid through the air. The borrowed cloak snapped in the wind.

FAILSAFE: Adjust stroke six degrees away from ward.

Ajaru flinched as hot liquid sprayed across her.

The viciously serrated southern blade clattered away.

The Henjman gaped at the stump of his arm for the halfbreath it took Faris’ return stroke to sever the head from his shoulders.

He gathered Ajaru into his arms, spun-

-and flashed away.

“Issue resolved,” Faris intoned, setting her lightly on the ground.

Reinitialize loop.When the blue light of morning crept across the room, he was still awake. Erishti’s dark hair spilled across the pillow, tangled and matted from her exertion of the previous day.

She curled around the small life that grown within her. Kirina had woken several times in the night, yawbling creakily against Erishti’s breasts, tiny hands waving in blind search for food. Half asleep, Erishti had fumbled awake to latch her, hands moving to ancient instincts. She blinked muzzily as the Kirina fed, and nestled, and sighed herself back to stillness.

“You were right,” he whispered in the dark. “This wasn’t the same as cracking a jar.”

“Mm always right,” she mumbled faintly. ”Come to bed.”

Loop stable.

Wet meat thudded to the bridge behind them.

“Spirits, oh Spirits,” Naram wept, heavy limbs fumbling, weaving up to his hands and knees. Blood ran from a gash in his lip, from a nose gone off-center. Crimson plipped and plonked into the puddles of rain, exploding into fractal blooms. “Are you all right, love? Are you hurt?”

Ajaru stood trembling in the downpour. She put a hand to her face, smeared the blood from her cheek, and stared at her crimson fingers. “W-what did Faris do?” Naram said nothing, but pulled her into his arms. “Father?” she said, voice high and unsteady. “What did he do?”

“He saved you from the bad man, love. That’s all.” He pressed her face into chest and rocked her back and forth, over and over. “He kept you safe.”

She shuddered and curled against her father’s chest.

Faris kept watch.

The rain slackened. The great hush quieted. Far to the west, the last gleam of the bloody sun winked between the overcast and the shoulder of the Katunik Mountains.

In the near distance, a flight of Bird-Men appeared from the thinning haze, circling the towers. One of them peeled away, dove, and flashed across a bridge. A figure toppled, limbs flailing uselessly, the shriek echoing from the streets below.

The diving Bird-Man straightened his wildly slewing birraga with a curse. Coarse laughter floated down from his companions.

“Mani Naram,” he said, “we need to move inside the next tower.”

“Is it-?” Naram cleared his throat swiped the blood from his mouth on a sleeve. “Is it safe to move?”

The Bird-Man rejoined his flight. The five rose, circled, the turquoise tracery of their birraga bright against the dark belly of the clouds. “It is not. But remaining is even less safe.”

“Ajaru is – I don’t think she can walk.”

“Then you must carry her.” The flight was arcing through the alabaster towers, swaying and dipping over the bridges. Hunting. “Please, sir.” He paused, and added, “I do not recommend letting her look behind me.”

Naram struggled to his feet, the blood-soaked girl clinging to his waist. “I want to see Father-Dipani,” she said.

“I do too.” He gathered her up and lifted with a grunt, staggering. By the faint light of the Luminance etchings in the safety rails, they moved across the bridge.

A ululating battle cry floated on the wind. The birraga arced towards them. “I recommend haste.”

Narum hustled as best he could in rain-heavy robes. “Can’t. Move. Faster,” he panted.

Faris observed the approaching birraga. The Bird-Men had their blades out, clinging one-handed to their mounts. They bared their teeth and bellowed, eyes bulging, stamping the metal surface of their wings and setting them to rock and sway. The blood face, the warriors of the south called it, intended to strike fear into foes.

Estimate: 87% chance of defeating five in ground combat.Estimate: 98% chance of collateral damage to ward.

“What do we do?” Naram whispered, cradling Ajaru’s head. “We can’t outrun them.”

“Protect,” Faris said, quietly. “All other priorities rescinded. Final Protocol invoked.”

A rising whine of power issued from his spine. Light flared and spun. Ajaru’s robe snapped in a hot wind.

“What are you-?” the man gasped.

“Please mind your heads.”

Naram turned his back, clutching his daughter to his chest.

Target: Multiple overhead foes.Adjust: Cluster shot.

“Loose.”

Shaped-charges of energy burst away, arcing around, a constellation of icy young stars reaching up to dispel the coming darkness.

Two of the Henj-men had the presence of mind to slew away. It did no good. The flares swerved, impacted, burst into rippling clouds of azure fire. The birraga crumpled, snapped, blasted away into blackened sprays of debris. Some of the warriors shrieked as the flames touched them. The others died in an instant of heat and shock.

“We are safe,” he concluded, scanning the skies. The hem of Ajaru’s cloak smoked where the stars had touched it.

“Why?” The girl was staring at him in the dark, blood-smeared cheeks wet with tears. “What did I do? Is it my fault? Did I make them – did you kill for me?”

He knelt before her. Her father’s shaking hands lay on her shoulders, rubbing, pointlessly trying to comfort by touch. “You did nothing,” Faris told her. “Do you understand? You did nothing to them.”

“But you killed them,” she sobbed, pulling away from his stone hands, burying her face in her father’s robe. “They’re all dead.”

“I had to. They would have-”

One silver eye, red-rimmed, peered out at him. “Everything they could have built,” she quavered. “It’s all gone. Forever. You wrecked it all.”

He knelt before her, head bowed. “I am very sorry, Miss Ajaru,” he said. “I only did what I was built for.”

The underside of the clouds flickered with bloody light as the towers of Balakhan burned and fell.

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