Warning: Contains Violent Imagery. Not Suitable for all viewers. Unusual Circumstances. Chapter 1 The world is a harsh place, full of mystery and danger as the land floats across the sky. The historians tell tales of other worlds where the land is not suspended in the air, but rather the sky is wholly above the ground, and never below save for on tall places. There is no danger of falling forever in these places and they say a body can walk round the whole of the world without need to take wing even once. Fantasy, I say, for Helvanta is my home and from here all must fly. My name is Q’twixa, a Khalfast who is unlike others of my race. They are a cold and distant sort... no, that is wrong. They simply SEEM cold and distant, but really I’m just assigning things that I have come to learn do not apply to the rest of my people. I am alone in this world... alone and surrounded by countless others who are not of my race. You see, the Khalfast don’t feel. They don’t get happy or sad or angry or anxious or any of the other things that every other thinking mind feels. When they are hungry, they eat, when they are tired, they sleep, and when they have none of the base drives of necessity, they work. They are a boring people... boring to me because I am not the same. You see, I have feelings. I don’t recall how it all started. I was very, very young. It became apparent almost as soon as I was able to talk and move about unsupervised. I would go and play... Khalfast do not play. A normal Khalfast stays with their parents and mimics them. If not them, they mimic someone else who’s task appeals to them. I went and sought out entertainment. I would make games and play with imaginary friends. As soon as they could, my parents researched the oddity of my behavior, discovering that it was a rare occurrence that a child would be born strange, like I am. So, bored and alone among my own people and questioning their motives, I set out to find things to occupy my time. My parents prepared and equipped me, knowing that this was a natural sort of thing for me to do. I remember that as I left, I felt a new thing. I didn’t know till much later that what I felt was sadness. I was sad that I would never see my parents again, sad that I was made to leave, sad that my parents would never know or understand that I loved them, and sad because I knew that if I returned they would feel no happiness for me. The sadness passed as I found other people. I fell in with a roaming band of performers only a week away from my homeland. A Terrighu, two Dolbethans, and a troupe of Kan, all made their way from island to island, putting on shows of aerial acrobatics, legerdemain, and delightful misdirections that thrilled and amazed crowds. Of course they had no knowledge that this particular island was peopled with the most boring and un-humorous folk that could exist. I was lucky, I know now, because I had never even SEEN a flying mount before I crossed paths with them. I was also lucky that they took note of my awe and excitement, something seriously out of place for a Khalfast. They brought me on as a groom and promised me a world of wonder and excitement. *** “Seven minutes everyone!” Diffde shouted shrilly, his skinny bluish hands clapping excitedly, “Seven minutes! Everyone finish your preparations and get ready for the show! The show waits for no one!” “You are overreacting again.” Hoto sighed loudly with a roll of his eyes. The preening Dolbeth added the finishing touches of his makeup with a feather pouf. Diffde, his companion and director of the show, groaned and bopped Hoto on the shoulder with his palimpsest in his huff. “You never take thing seriously unless I overreact.” Diffde said impatiently. “We’re ready over here!” said Q’twixa as she slipped on her wild hat. “All our fliers are chomping at the bit to get out there.” “Not before me!” came a loud and boisterous voice from behind the curtain. With a flourish of fluttering satin, the entrance to the dressing hall parted before the large Terrighu. Standing a head taller than most Terrighu Q’twixa had ever seen, Brendal cut an imposing figure. His long coat was a flashing green, shimmering with light that had no readily recognizable source and sparkling with some quirk of the fabric that Q’twixa had never understood. A tall, rich crimson hat stood atop his head between his short, round ears. The rest of his clothes were stark white, kept cleaner than anything else in the circus, and that picked up even the barest hint of light. Beyond this, he wore huge boots of shining black leather, decorated with huge brass buckles. “Stand aside for the ringmaster!” Brendal said as he made his way to the stage entrance. “You’ve still got five minutes,” Diffde said grumpily. If Q’twixa had learned anything from her four years with this bunch, it was that Diffde hated things going off-schedule... and Diffde hated not being in direct control. “Bah! Five minutes!” Brendal grumbled dismissively, “Hoto? D’you care for five minutes more time?” “He’s just being Diffde again... you know we should just start calling it that. Just replace ‘difficult’ with ‘Diffde’.” “Just...” Diffde started angrily, blushing purple in his cheeks, “just double check you’re ready! No surprises! Just be ready so you can make us all some money. Four minutes!” In the midst of much eye-rolling, the group set back to work. Diffde, they knew, had a flawless sense of timing and would not broach any syncopation in their acts. Diffde’s job was, of course, to ensure a wonderful show that move as fluidly and gracefully as a skycat. He had a skill with stagecraft, making things happen that seemed almost unnatural. Q’twixa had yet to work out even a single one of his tricks, but she was certain there must be some sort of logic behind it. Taking a minute at the three minute mark, Q’twixa looked herself over in the full-length mirror Hoto had been using. She regarded the proportions of her body, proportions that looked odd only to other races of course, and paid attention to how her costume fit over them. She was dressed in a tight-fitting bodysuit that was bedecked in foofy colored balls, bells, frills, and sparkly cut stones. Her face was painted, exaggerating her already exaggerated facial features beyond what any other race could achieve with their face. Balls on her toes, a ruff on her neck, and a tall and colorful hat ... it all made her look ridiculous, but that was the point. Her job was to provide a distraction, not only for the audience, but for any mount that decided to buck it’s rider and cause trouble. Should this happen, she would be one among other similarly dressed Kan who would caper around the stage, drawing the ire of the creature and jumping out of the way just in time to avoid being disemboweled or carried off. Ever boisterous and loud, Brendal gave a roaring laugh, building his own enthusiasm to infectious levels before the queue was given. He tore from the prep-room and dashed out into the blinding lights of the wide stage shouting at the top of his considerable lungs. “Folk fair and fabulous, young and old, we are proud to present to you The Brothers Blue Amazing Aerial Circus!” Explosions of light and sound went off around the great loud Terrighu as he gestured around the stage, seeming to the crowd as an unnatural occurrence, but all perfectly timed and choreographed by Diffde who remained hidden from view. And with that, the circus began. *** High over the land of Parbarten soared the Bastions of Peace. These were outposts, constructed of uncertain materials and equally uncertain practice, which remained aloft wholly without support or tending. It was here that a crew of warriors sat awaiting the day when the peace would be broken and they would be needed. Festooned with weapons, from small, accurate crossbows to tree-trunk throwing ballistae, the bastions were formidable against any who would invade. Manipulation of certain lodestones, some of which harbored energies stranger than magnetism, could cause a bastion to raise or lower or even shift its position over the land, lending themselves to strategies more cunning than would be served by a tall wall. Karraideus squinted her eyes against the darkness, resolving pinpoints of light miles below as the people of her city went about their business. The distant popping of explosions and the occasional roar of applause reached her serrated ears even here as she scanned the night of danger. It had been years... decades even... since the last invasion. She couldn’t even recall it happening as it was before she had left her father’s side. Still, a profound sense of martial duty had been drilled into her by the matrons and sergeants of her youth, reminding her of the lessons of a lapse of vigilance. Still, her Haspoh blood cried out in her boredom, demanding she either seek out a challenge or at least find a more pleasurable distraction. “Is the watch clear?” said a gruff voice behind her. Snapping to attention, Karraideus turned about, wings held tightly against her back and shoulders. There stood Arbebaal, an elder and much higher ranked Haspoh woman. Her bare skin shone red in the dim lantern lights hung within the bastion, shining brightly in lines as the light picked up the silvery scars that sung a litany of past battles. Tiny horns wove through her silken jet-black hair, each straight and swept backward in a most alluring fashion. Her hands ended in well-manicured claws that could tear open the skin of most any enemy and her eyes were of ruby red on the purest white. Karraideus could only hope she would look so imposing when such age had reached her. “All is clear my commander,” Karraideus said sharply, bowing her horned head and sweeping her arm in salute, “A traveling carnival is causing what sounds there are to hear. Otherwise there is naught but the night out there.” “Be ever vigilant,” the commander said sternly, her voice sharpening at the implication of yet another idle night, “The Tuchamoo fly by night, and yet more dangers come under cover of darkness. As the guardians of our land we must remain on watch.” Karraideus nodded stiffly, knowing it was not her place to speak unless she was asked a question. She hoped only that the commander was not in a lecturing mood. Of course, it was near the end of her shift and the bastion commanders often liked to save their lectures for then to prolong the standing of their subordinates. This, they believed, made for sentinels that would not look forward to the end of her shifts and thus become lax. “How grows your harem?” the commander said conversationally, taking Karraideus completely by surprise. Normally such topics were only for social gatherings, not for on-duty. Was this a test? Was she really serious? “Higher?” she said to the aged officer. Typically answering a question with another question would have her berated as an unknowing fool and punished for questioning a superior, but at this point, she decided to risk it. After all, the question was far too casual. “Please Karra.” Arbebaal chided, “Your shift ended an hour ago. I’m simply asking a question to a fellow woman.” Karraideus’ eyes darted to the hourglass hung from the hook at the entrance to the watchwalk next to the lantern. Through some exotic method of construction, it would measure time based solely on verbal command. Unlike other hourglasses that needed to be turned to be useful, the sand would remain in the topmost chamber until it fell into the second. Only when the second chamber was filled would the sand pour further into a third container below that could keep track of how much time had passed AFTER the designated mark. And now this remarkable device told her eyes that an hour had indeed passed her by without her knowledge. “I heard not the hourly chimes!” she said aghast that such a thing could have happened, “Where then is my relief? Should she not have been here an hour ago?” “She will be along shortly. Damnyugon had matters to attend with her fourth favorite... her day has come quite early this time it seems. I thought to relieve you myself, but I beheld your vigilance after the bell and thought better to observe you. I wanted to see if you would take up the responsibility or if you would falter and take to guessing after your relief. I am pleased to see you standing stalwart for even an hour. Though now I wonder how much of that was by distraction of another sort.” “I... the carnival only started a short while ago. Beyond this, I was keeping keen my eyes on the sky.” “Of this I have no doubt,” Arbebaal chuckled, “I simply refer to the mind behind those eyes. Dreaming of battle? Or is it more dreaming of the soft and fair ones?” “My...” Karraideus started, but then drooped at having to reveal her shameful choice, “I am without harem commander.” “None at all?” Arbebaal wondered aloud, surprised by the revelation, “Are you barren then? Have you no desires?” Karraideus wanted nothing more at that moment than to recoil in shame. To be unable to mother the next generation of strong warriors was to be the object of pity in Haspoh society. A female was expected to fight battles, gain strength, and provide for their males and their children. If not to empower the Haspoh future, then what good was a person beyond a mere meat-shield? “I have not found...” Karraideus started. How could she tell her superior that the reason she did not want to gather a harem was that she dreamed of one day finding a male to love and not simply own? How could she say aloud that she was willing to buck Haspoh tradition and their racial destiny for the notion of sensation and feeling to guide her family? “I have not found worthy males yet.” She half-lied, “I seek certain qualities...” “Do you think to insult the males of your superiors?” Arbebaal said sharply, “Could you not easily barter for those males that appeal to you? If nothing else arrange a rental for a season or two! If you devote your life only to duty then surely you will find no joy!” Karraideus stood and took the sting of shame as it came on in this newest of waves. She desperately wanted to turn away now, upset that though she could face down women half-again her size and remain firm, the sting of words would send her craven heart fleeing. “If nothing else, you need the experience!” the commander continued, “Your life will just seem bleaker and more meaningless the longer you put this off. Males know a tenderness that we females cannot fathom without them. You need to find yourself at least one man with whom you can relieve your desires. Trust me, any man will do.” Any man would not do, Karraideus thought, and she would settle for no less than her dream. With him she would need no other and they would be happy for the rest of their lives. He would be ever happy to see her return from a hunt or from duty, gladdened not by her offerings, but simply by her presence. He would be a beauty amongst men, as pleasing to her eyes as he would be to her soul. Her firmness and power would complement his softness and cleverness. He would cook her fine meals and make for her wondrous things and in return she would bring home great bounties of food and material for him to enjoy. Their children would be likewise as beautiful. Her daughters would be strong and skillful and her sons would be intelligent and innovative. Those matrons with their harems would look down upon them, but it would not matter and their children would show them all what a perfect match had made. “Go to your berth,” Arbebaal finished, “Think upon what I say. If you are not barren, then I bid you, find a male upon your next leave. There are ever dozens to choose from and they will make fine things for you.” Knowing it was useless... and nearly treasonous... to argue, Karraideus saluted once again, collected her wicked, shining blade and bulky crossbow and made her way inside. *** Kampu’s wings buzzed a staccato rhythm that faltered every so often. He was tired. He was dying. Still, as wonderful as it would be for him to lie down and die, his biological goal achieved, he had one final job to do. Males among the Holbies didn’t live terribly long after maturity, most usually not making it through the intense session of matings before their energy gave up. Kampu was special. The females had mated him vigorously, but somehow he survived the marathon session. Now he felt the weight of mortality... the weight of his great burdens... his final flight. Still, he was special. *** The crowd cheered as the firework display finished and Hoto took to the stage. As a Dolbethan, he was naturally skinny and fair, but his costume and makeup made him look thrice as delicate. The nature of such a disguise was to make his move seem much more graceful. Combined with his in-born talents and years of practice, Hoto was one of the finest air-dancers for hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles. He always began his routine on the ground, his magenta bodyglove catching the glare of the stagelight, making it dance with him. A rolling, leaping floor routine became a juggling act as he took various objects from audience members recruited for just such a purpose. Balls, batons, trinkets and baubles spun through the air as he tossed them about, catching each deftly and sending it back high again. Hoto had a talent for keeping things aloft... a talent that had seen his homeland’s military try to recruit him into an aerial artillery unit in his youth... and as his collection of objects grew many found themselves wondering just how he was able to keep them from falling uncontrollably. Ever the showman, Hoto wouldn’t allow himself to stop there. He now incorporated acrobatic feats into his juggling. Every flip, every twist, every cartwheel and somersault evoked roars of awe and applause from the crowd as he began juggling his own body in time to the objects. Sometimes he would juggle while he rolled and other times he would alternate between throws and kicks, but never did he miss a single object. Finally, he finished, tossing each trinket unerringly into a basket held by the clownishly dressed Khalfast that suddenly appeared beside him. So enraptured was the audience that they were, every one, surprised that they had missed an exaggerated figure in equally colorful and exaggerated costume. Q’twixa capered and laughed aloud as she redistributed the trinkets among the crowd, but even if she hadn’t, they were all too engrossed in Hoto’s next routine. Colored ribbons on sticks unraveled, the silken ribbons fluttering and corkscrewing as Hoto leapt and spun through the air. It was captivating to be sure, but nothing yet matched the gasps as when he jumped into the air and stayed there. His ribbons still fluttered, twirling behind him like Quintethus airscrews, but he was now several times his own height in the air. Try though they might, no one could spot the wires or lifts that were certainly keeping him aloft, but as he tumbled and soared few could keep their concentration on rationalizing the trick. With one last flourish, Hoto back-flipped and settled himself, hovering, in a standing position. The ribbons shot from his hands, trailing their silken ribbons in spirals away from him as he descended back to the very center of the circus-ring. Raucous applause and shrill whistling cheers erupted from the stadium, silenced temporarily by a final burst of light and color as his feet touched the ground, shaking the stage and bleachers with the concussion. A final bow and he left the stage, showered with flower petals that had been passed around the audience. A hush fell over the crowd as Hoto departed. They waited for Brendal to come back and announce the next act. *** Master Dorvu sat happily upon his throne. Though night was upon him and his crew, the area around him was bathed in light. The Quintethus were a very crafty people. Their Makers could build things that boggled the minds of even the most learned scholars, like the great flying platform upon which they all now rode. Their Takers could find riches in the most unlikely places, their Hoarders were experts at storage, their Movers couldn’t be matched for transportation, scouting, or riding, and their Talkers... well, they normally wove it all together. That was why they were called the Quintethus Order when mentioned together, and one alone was called a Tethus. Of course Dorvu had other plans for this particular ‘order’. An order of his own, he would often muse, as he had taken the place of their Talker and convinced them in his own special way to work for him. And now, years after such a wondrous acquisition, he rode upon a barge that could take to the air as easily as the water. It had twelve decks, this barge, and was large enough to house his entire menagerie of followers. His own private army, as he often called them. All of them had been convinced in much the same way as the Tethus who had constructed this marvel of mysterious means, but in the end he reckoned that his methods didn’t matter. Still, with such a large group, Tethus and Holbies being among the most numerous... and ravenous... of them, he needed some way to feed them. From his youth he knew that when the nations of Helvanta ran short of resources, they went to war. His home island had been long used up since he found that the Bzzzt’k’tk would not acquiesce to his wishes... no matter what methods he used to persuade them... and that meant only one alternative. He had to take his army to war. Shipboard rookeries and perches, the rival of many of the smaller Kan nations, had provided his many mounts with proper roosts. The Kan he had convinced to serve him had taken to their task with an eagerness that he had expected. Every Kan felt in their hearts a need to care for the large flying beasts of the skies of Helvanta and the burning desire to soar through those skies upon their backs. The Tethus Movers would fly his mounts equally well when battle came. They and a few other riders from different races would ride as cavalry as the droning beat of Holbies aerial infantry flew beside them. The Holbies, with their intense gang-mentality, had been a tiresome acquisition. Typically nothing more than thugs and bandits, the convincing that was required to bring these xenophobic insects under his sway had been exhausting... almost to the point where Dorvu had lost control of many of his other compelled servants. Still, once he had understood the foe he faced... well, he now had a whole swarm of Holbies who truly believed him to be their gang-leader. “Are the males on target?” Dorvu asked his Holbies lieutenant. “They should be to the bastions any minute.” Haktasi reported in her silk smooth voice. “We should see the flashes momentarily.” “And you’re certain this will work?” he demanded, his voice edged with concern at this newest tactic. He doubted highly that he would see any of the explosions, having hidden his barge so well. “I have been through a dozen matings Master,” Hektasi replied evenly, “You can always tell which males will last. These will make it. Besides, the explosives your Makers have prepared were flawlessly tested.” Dorvu chuckled grimly at that. He had personally witnessed the force of the strange blasting powders and odd, glowing ‘timerods’ that set them off. Carried by uneaten Holbies males, which were going to die soon anyway, these would be their first assault in their latest conquest. Here, Parbarten the natives called it, was a land that lied fertile and rich within a sky of plentiful rains and mild weather. The Bzzzt’k’tk who tended the lands were numerous and Parbarten crops were famous for their bounty and flavors. The only thing preventing full-scale colonization efforts was the relatively small size and the demand of the Bzzzt’k’tk that the land be left under their specific domain. Pesky creatures that they were, they only allowed other races to colonize those lands they deemed unfit. Worse still, a large contingent of Haspoh had bartered military presence for a sustaining share of their bountiful crop. But these new explosives would level this field in their favor... and level too the bastions that protected it. Dorvu cared naught if the Bzzzt’k’tk survived. He wanted their stores and their resources. He wanted Parbarten to become the newest base to ‘convince’ folk to join his cause. And all he needed do was wait for the flashes of light and the rumble of thunder in the distance that would tell him of the bastions’ fall. *** The crowd gasped and cheered in awe at the wheeling display taking place over their heads. The Kan performers were riding their giant hawks and falcons in breathtaking displays of aerial mastery and cunning. Tonight they were reenacting the battle of One Arrow, a fight which legend would have it told that fifteen sky archers defeated a contingent of enemy air forces with a single arrow when their ammunition ran dry. Their final arrow was passed back and forth among the archers while others of their astoundingly brave troupe would sweep in and retrieve the arrow when it made its mark in enemy flesh. What that amounted to in the reenactment was fifteen of the Kan dressed in ancient militaristic costume fighting off their mates who were disguised as Dolbethans, Tethus, and Terrighu. The arrow they used had been specially wrought to be extremely visible, flaring with light as it was fired from bow to bow and illuminating the rider who caught it. All the while, Diffde’s display of pyrotechnics added an asynchronous rhythm to the show and the lighting technicians moved tiny silhouette cutouts in front of the spotlights, giving the illusion of a great battle in the sky while the Kan spiraled about. Ooh’s and Aah’s sounded through the crowd as each enemy fell, a Kan diving after it to retrieve the arrow and fire it back to his companions. For her part, Q’twixa could only watch from the shadows and hope nothing went wrong. In her hand was a cunning device, a long rod of yeban wood with pentito crystals studding it and silver filigree lacing its sides, that when she would point it at a falling ‘enemy’ and speak a strange word, the disguised Kan would float harmlessly down to the circus ring below. She hadn’t any idea how the thing worked, save that it did indeed work, but she was elated in how the device made for a more realistic display. Nets, after all, would have taken away the sense of danger. Thanks to the lighting, she could always speak the word as soon as the performer was out of the glaring illumination, thereby rendering them hidden from the distracted eyes of the audience. Around her, and around the ring, the other clowns waited for the vicious, and now rider-less, birds of prey to notice them. They too carried the fall-slowing devices and served as a back-up should Q’twixa miss in her aim. The clowns were all distracting, dressed in a manner that caught the senses of not only the audience, but also the birds. They would swoop in, out of sight of the audience, and make an attack run at the dexterous and colorful figures. The clowns would dance out of the way at the last second, lassoing them or otherwise catching them so that the Kan handlers on the ground could calm them and make them ready for their next run. Everything was going just perfectly. The crowd was loving every minute of it. And then the explosion happened. *** Karraideus had almost been asleep when the concussion shook her from her berth. The entire bastion had shuddered violently when the sound hit, a roar of expanding air, carrying intense heat washed over it and warmed everything inside for a brief moment. Instantly alert, her hearts racing with surges of adrenaline and other invigorating substances, Karraideus reached for her weapons. Along with the other females in the bastions berth-room she raced out to the balconies to see what had happened. Their sharp eyes pierced the gloom, looking to where the report had come. All that remained was smoke and fluttering shrapnel where Bastion Five had once flown. One hundred valiant warriors, all reduced to flaming kindling in an instant. “Battlestations! We are under attack!” came the shouts of officers from around their bastion, “Everyone make ready for flight!” Several warrior-women launched themselves from the balcony, while others raced back inside to crew the giant ballistae. Karraideus ran for her station, where Commander Arbebaal had relieved her from. Her powerful claws left gouges in the wooden deck as she pushed herself with all her strength to bring herself ready, to get to her commander’s side as she launched out for battle. *** Kampu had reached his destination at long last. The Haspoh on board this floating fortress were all taking to the skies and looking around them for the cause of the other bastion’s destruction. He chuckled to himself at the thought that their destruction was already at hand. Looking would do them no good at all. His vision was going grey. He didn’t have more than a minute, he supposed, before his life would simply leave him. Still, he had done well. He was special. He would die serving his gang and their new master. He had made children and now he would give his last minute to make sure his children would all flourish. The satchels of blasting powders were very heavy. They hadn’t been so heavy before. It was not that they were heavy, but that he was weak. All he had to do was put the glowrod in the powder... just that, and he could finally rest. He hadn’t made it all the way inside, but he was sure anywhere would do. Here was as good a spot as any. Exhausted, he slumped to the deck. His life was departing with every passing second. Just put the rod in the powder. *** Karraideus was hurled to the floor as Bastion Six erupted in a riot of noise and motion. So violent was the shaking that she couldn’t focus on anything, not her surroundings and not the passage of time. It could have been seconds or days that she was lying there, surrounded by rubble and shattered wood. As soon as her head cleared, she made to stand, wincing as scores of small wounds made themselves known. Grimacing, she yanked shard after shard of wood from her body, both thankful and furious at the less-than-fatal attack. The larger, movement hindering pieces removed, she made her way uncertainly toward her previous destination. Then there came a sound, a terrible screeching reminiscent of tortured metal and grinding rock. A lurching sense of vertigo and a gut-churning feeling of weightlessness assaulted her as she felt the bastion begin to fall. It was not a fast process, the mysterious processes from which the flying fortress was made fought against the pull of its eternal enemy gravity. But now gravity was winning the fight, overcoming the long-standing stalemate. Karraideus knew she had to escape, and quickly. Running for the window, Karraideus felt a new horrid lurch as the bastion’s lift destabilized on one side. It wouldn’t fall straight down. Instead it was toppling, rotating as the upward thrust that kept it aloft became stronger on one side. Strong toe-claws bit into the wood and stone of the floor as Karraideus grappled for purchase. Shattered wood and broken stone slid down the once-level floor toward the window she had been seeking. Up was now toward the center of the bastion, but down would have her plummeting to the ground with a hundred-ton floating tower of wood, stone, and gods alone knew what else, falling above her. If she could drop out the window, she could fall fast enough to catch flight. Perhaps she could steer clear of the whole mess. Finally the angle was right. She wedged her weapon free, noticing only then that she had used it as a further anchor in the wall that was once the floor. Releasing her foot-grip she dove out the window which now faced the lights of the settlement still thousands of feet below. Once the tower was no longer lifting at all, a few seconds from now she reckoned, the tower would drop at full speed on top of the houses, tents, and people below. Their savior-structures would now spell their doom. Out into the rushing night air she fell, quick as a dart, toward the town. The scream of the strained materials of the bastion resonated all around. Counting off her descent against what she hoped was the rate of fall for a multi-ton chunk of debris, she made ready to flare her wings. The time came, all or nothing, and her wings flew wide. A Haspoh female’s wings were tough as inch-thick leather and covered with stiff black feathers that cushioned them further. Unfortunately, such was the violence of the forces near the explosion... near Karraideus... that even her armored wings had been pierced. As they opened, so too did the wounds as air rushed through. Even despite her intense, lifelong training against pain, she simply couldn’t keep aloft with perforated wings. Even so, the pain taxed her mind as her sundered wings tore even more as they struggled to catch enough air to shift her position. As her vision began to white-out, she sensed the massive form of the bastion falling beside her, faster than she was falling. It had continued to tumble, pushed aside by the same forces that kept it in the air. She imagined she could even see the blast-crater in the sidewall. Satisfied that the huge edifice of stone likely wouldn’t crush as much below as she had thought, she let one last thought enter her mind before her wings finally gave out. How she wished she had found someone before she died.