Skies of Helvanta: Unusual Circumstances - Chapter 1

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Iskari, Jun 29, 2012.

  1. 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.
  2. Chapter 2

    It sounded like rain. Like heavy, loud rain.

    Up to the point when the shafts of wood ripped through the canopy of the circus tent, tearing huge rents in the vast fabric. In the time it took to scream, debris was already falling among the crowd and the performers. Shock and confusion rippled through folk as they saw Kan and their mounts suddenly fall into uncontrolled dives, pierced by wooden spars and bludgeoned by rocks. Panic erupted as every being around moved toward the exit, animalisticly seeking escape.

    Q’twixa’s large eyes were wide in shock, her face betraying the great, wide smile painted upon it. Her instinct, mirrored in those few remaining clowns around her who had not fled or been killed, was to use the device to bring the falling performers safely to the ground. Mid-save, she watched as the sky of the tent was rent asunder, ripped wide to reveal the real sky beyond. A sky that held an object of purest terror. One of the great sky bastions was toppling through the air, raining debris from a great ugly wound in its side. The debris was falling faster solely because it lacked the benefit of whatever it was that kept the mighty towers aloft.

    But now it fell toward them, twisting in the sky like a drunken insect, a dramatically drawn out display of death throes that spilled pain amongst the mortals below.

    Transfixed by such a sight, Q’twixa forgot the world around her. Her large ears could no longer hear the screams, she no longer saw the falling shrapnel or the broken bodies. She felt terror, a thing that, had she been a normal Khalfast would surely have been impossible. A normal Khalfast would have seen the danger and followed the most likely path to safety. But Q’twixa was beyond wishing for normalcy. She saw in that spinning bastion her unrealized future. The fame, the luxuries, the friends and adventures that would surely never be hers as soon as the floating building crushed her and all she ever cared about into paste... these would never come to be.

    But one thing she did notice. Falling away from the tower was a red figure, wrapped in wings like tattered sheets and trailing coal-black hair. She fell like a falcon in a dive, but this fall was uncontrolled. Q’twixa, with her caricature-huge eyes could pick out from the distance that this figure was not aware. In a surge of sympathy and desire that someone’s dreams have hope, she let her instincts and training take over.

    The concussion was massive as the bastion finally failed and plummeted full-speed into the ground. Stone and wood debris, as well as many other forms of material both exotic and biological, fanned out from the force of the crush, destroying sections of the outskirts of town and ripping down the circus tent. Q’twixa had no time to prepare or react as she was thrown into chaotic, painful darkness.

    And then there was silence.

    In the silence, one figure floated gently onto a sea of debris.


    “It is done,” Haktasi said plainly, her antennae whipping about in the air.

    A few moments later, just long enough for Dorvu to consider asking after her certainty, the concussive echoes of the explosives reached his ears. With his sky-barge still out of visual range, he still wondered how the Holbies were able to tell of the success so quickly.

    “Helm!” Drovu shouted, “Take us down and prepare to loose the cavalry upon them! Flagsmen! Signal the others to make their way in!”

    “I shall prepare our warriors,” said Haktasi in anticipation of her master’s requirement.

    “Parbarten will be mine in very short order,” roared Dorvu, his great mirth at the destruction leaping through his voice, “Even now they are probably in disarray and confusion. No one will be ready to stop us!”


    It was like a dream.

    Falling, beyond control. The wind, tangible and whistling, but not fast enough.

    The fall was slow, too slow, but uncontrollable. Nothing was obvious save for the sensation of the drop.

    Then the ground pressed up around Karraideus as she settled gently upon the rubble-strewn ground like a babe being laid in a crib. It was the sudden, uneven pressure as gravity reasserted itself that finally woke her. Dazed and aching, she looked about in confusion. It was still the dead of night and the landscape around her was clogged with dust. Still, her keen vision picked out the scene around her as she righted herself with a groan. She was laying upon scattered wreckage; torn canvas in bright colors, spars of shattered timber, rocks ranging from grit to torso-sized chunks of masonry...

    ...and bodies.

    Groans and cries reached her awakening ears as she realized that many of the twisted, shattered forms around her were still alive. Alive, but not for long, and obviously beyond help. In her time Karraideus had seen the aftermath of several battles, heard the dying and seen the sundered dead, but this was something different. These were not warriors who lay here. These were unfortunate victims. These were innocent farmers, craftsworkers, thrillseekers... children. There were the young of at least five races here mixed in with the others.

    The thought of someone wantonly ending the lives of so many innocent folk filled her with a righteous rage. She could feel the killing light within her as the world around grew brighter. Her vision, an ancient battle adaption of her people, was but one symptom of the growing anger within that transformed her into a weapon, an avenger, a horrifying sight for an enemy to behold. Her muscles bulged as lifeblood pumped rapidly through her, causing her horns, spikes, and sharp blade-like flanges to stand at full prominence. Pain became a trivial thing as her mouth salivated toxic fluids and her eyes moved rapidly about, seeking targets. Still, though she looked like a horrific beast, her mind was keen. She would not become a mindless terror, killing at random, but rather a tactically minded warrior tempered in the fires of hate and zeal.

    No enemies existed in this blasted ruin, only the wounded, dead, and dying. Several picked their way up out of the rubble, obvious despite the darkness to her hunter’s eyes. In her mind she knew she was alone now. She needed comrades. She needed an army. Whoever she could find that could be of use was vital in the absence of things to kill. Though she wished for her warblade, she knew she was deadly enough unarmed.

    Here, a group of Kan who could recover were helped to their feet, though their eyes betrayed their terror at the sight of her, there a gaggle of Tethus Movers who had somehow erected a shelter just in time. Yet more arose as Brrrt’k’tk righted themselves and crawled from beneath the rubble, their toughened skins ensuring that many had not been severely damaged. Racing about, Karraideus set to organizing the shaken survivors, using her imposing demeanor and trained discipline to whip them into aiding their fallen neighbors. Many grabbed broken spars and throw-able rocks with which to arm themselves, but what use they would be was yet to be seen.

    Taking a moment to cast her gaze further out, Karraideus saw the terrible remains of the crashed Bastion only a few minutes run from the ruins of the circus tent. Looking upward, she struggled against the distance, imagining how she had survived such a fall. She fancied that she could pick out flying figures. Tiny dots in the darkened air, they had to be the remaining survivors of her cadre she reckoned. Good, she thought, someone was still around to make a fight of it. When they found her alive on the ground, they would see that she had acted likewise to thwart any enemy that would dare set foot upon Parbarten.

    So distracted was she at gaining her bearings, she almost didn’t see the figure lying on the ground. Of course, as she moved to avoid stepping on the prostrate form, she wondered how in the world she had missed it.

    A clown, brightly painted in clashing colors and wearing the ruined remains of a wildly projecting costume. In her hand, a snapped wooden stick of exquisite construction. Her hand... it was huge! This clown was very oddly proportioned, and not simply due to costume and make-up. It was a Khalfast! And as it moved and groaned, Karraideus realized it was still alive!

    She had seen the destruction that the Khalfast could wreak upon other sky-lands. In battle they were ruthless opponents, caring nothing for their safety and fighting without fear, remorse or care. They were soulless folk who cared nothing for their losses or those of others. Had they been responsible for this?!

    No, such a notion was ridiculous. This one was dressed as a clown! Khalfast were invariably dressed in plain, undyed, utilitarian clothes. The very idea that one was so outlandishly dressed... and in a circus... was ludicrous! To add to the confusion, as this one stirred, Karraideus could swear that she heard this one begin to sob.


    It was a ragtag group that flew alongside Arbebaal. The survivors of her platoon numbered only seven... over forty had been lost in the attack... and beside them were a handful of Tethus Movers who had been lucky enough to be on patrol when the bastions had been destroyed and two Dolbethans who flew under their own incomprehensible power. With these she was tasked with repelling the invasion that was undoubtedly at hand.

    Arbebaal wished she had a spyglass handy. Though her people’s ‘battle form’ gave her eyesight that rivaled the great tundra falcons of the highest skylands, sight that sought targets and allies from leagues away, she could not see the other bastion positions clearly. Normally, she would have at least been able to see the towers themselves, but since they were no longer present...

    “We’re on our own,” she said to Bathreddon and Jintz, her new lieutenant and the Tethus squadron leader, “We are all that will be able to lessen the brunt of this attack upon the innocents below. Make ready for a harsh battle and know that we will likely not survive.”

    It was a dire pronouncement, but a certain one. The shock in the eyes of the Tethus reminded her that, while dying was considered an inevitable consequence of being a Haspoh woman, the less battle-apt folk still regarded it as demoralizing. Still. She was the one in command. The lineage of rank put her squarely in the right for attempting this. They would do their duty and fight. They would also do their duty and die.

    “I want your cavalry ready Jintz.” She said firmly, her tone broaching no argument, “With so few infantry and only two artillerymen, we will need all the tactical flexibility we have. Your greater mobility means that you must keep our fighting women clear that they may assault the invading forces. Meanwhile, I will form a spearhead attack towards...”

    “Incoming!” the cry interrupted Arbebaal’s orders, “Forward, left, forward, up twenty! Two contacts, big ones! Range uncertain! Emerging from a cloud bank!”

    All eyes fixed upon the great expanse of clouds. From it came the prows of two massive structures whose size rivaled that of the bastions. Each prow was dozens of feet tall, armored with layers of steel, stone, and fizzing energies. They came together at the keel, forming a wedge that would smash apart lesser objects like a woodcutters axe. From the prow stood numerous ports from which weapons and aerial fighters could be launched.

    “Warships,” Arbebaal growled, “they attack with overwhelming force.”

    She glanced back at her force, knowing for certain that they could not hope to win. Even if they made it to a ship alive they would be hard pressed to deal any real damage, regardless of the presence of her artillerymen and their special talents for destruction. Doubtless they would be swarmed to the ground by the opposing forces before they even got within range of the ship’s weapons.

    “We attack!” she yelled suddenly, fueled with the boldness that came from battle-rage, “Everyone who is able, make for the ships. We have a chance to strike for the head of this force! We fight for maximum damage. If you cannot harm the ship itself, aid those who can.”

    She let the words sink in, feeling the nervousness in the air from the Tethus and Dolbethans. From her soldiers, she instead felt their fiery determination. They were true warriors, ready to make the enemy sorry they ever broke free of the cloud cover. She couldn’t have been more proud. It was just a shame that no one would commemorate their sacrifice.

    “As one! CHARGE!” she roared, pointing her blade toward the nearer warship. With the beat of wings and the hum of lifting energy they made their way to their doom.


    Haktasi sensed the band of resistance long before she saw them. The currents blew their scent in range of her antennae. Doubtless every Holbies in her gang sensed it as well. Pheromones wafted from her abdominal glands, scents designed to invigorate and focus her warriors. With her great round compound eyes, there was no need to look back at them, she could see as well behind her as in front. In fact, where many species that lived on Helvanta had only two eyes and needed both to gauge depth properly, her eyes could see depth in every direction.

    In each of their six hands was gripped a weapon; a pair of curving combat blades, a wickedly barbed warpick, a long and delicate lance, and a pair of pistols each. With these they could counter any sort of armor and cause grievous damage to unprotected flesh. Their innate coordination with these hands let them weave deadly patterns of destruction that few could defend against, all this and with the Dolbethan spontaneously reloading pistols that the master had secured for them, they could lay down a withering hail of fire even as they closed with the enemy.

    Behind the leading Holbies force flew a contingent of Kan and Tethus cavalry as well as a host of dirigible gunboats and a knot of Dolbethan artillerists. This was a conquering force, the means by which Master Dorvu would own Parbarten. Each here would fight to the death to further their master’s goals, though few imagined it would actually come to that.

    The enemy was approaching, Haktasi could see them now. A tiny force considering what they were up against, yet they closed at full speed. Seeing that this would be a nearly pointless skirmish, Haktasi limbered her war-pick and fished out a long violet crystal obelisk from a pouch in her battle-webbing. Flicking it thrice with her mandibles, she activated the communication crystal.

    “Eight Haspoh females, Fifteen Tethus mounted on war-hawks, two flying Dolbethans. They charge. At this rate they will join our force in roughly one and a half minutes. Orders master?”

    “Engage at range. Bring any survivors to me. Do not risk lives to leave survivors, however,” said the voice of Dorvu from the crystal’s vibrating surface, “It would be interesting to ‘convince’ a Haspoh.”

    The crystal went still, deactivating as Dorvu finished speaking. Haktasi would not question such things, of course, as this one was her gang-leader. Everything she had known since she was a larva told her that the gang-leader would always lead the gang toward prosperity. Certainly this was an odd one, but a gang-leader he was none-the-less. She didn’t even consider how Dorvu had become such or how she had stopped leading the group so long ago. Thoughts, some confusing and contradictory, vanished in the wind as the enemy force entered firing range.

    “Capture any left alive!” she shouted, maneuvering a pair of her wings in such a way that they amplified her clicking voice, “Take no risks! Fire at will!”

    A sound of thunder and the flash of explosion was all the warning Arbebaal had before the killing began. Scant meters from their quarry, just inside crossbow range, the enemy fired upon them. Invisible lines of death whipped through the air fractions of a second after the blasts, ripping streamers of blood from her ranks. By some miracle she had been spared, though five of her warriors and several more cavalry were not so lucky. Some riders were pitched forward, their weight throwing their mounts off balance that they would surely toss the dead-weight from their backs, others struggled to control dead mounts as they plummeted to the ground thousands of meters below. Her warriors had simply dropped, going limp as they fell. Still, the rest did not falter.

    Kunju and Bahar, the Dolbethan artillerists, were spared the brunt of the opening volley, shielded by the bodies of the doomed Tethus cavalrymen. This was war and they were hard to such losses. Over the two dozen campaigns they had fought for Parbarten, both knew the score when it came to battle. They could deal the greatest damage and thus they were guarded with the lives of their brave fellows. Special gestures and strange materials, words without meaning that meant everything to the battle... these were the tools of the Dolbethan artillerists. If not for these talents they might well have been flying into battle on the back of a war-hawk, a scaley Amphiaerius, or even one of the mighty Helvantan dragons. But talent they had and now, together, they wove their words and gestures into a litany of fury that would let these foul attackers know just who they had attacked.

    Both sides flinched as a huge form, bright as the sun, erupted from the Parbarten line, streaking in an all engulfing line toward the mass of Holbies droning before them. Wings of brilliance flared wide as the Light of Roc made to engulf the enemy in brilliant, blinding white fire.

    And then it was gone.

    Kunju cried out in disbelief and frustration. Bahar simply floated, mouth open, unable to believe that their mighty working had dissipated so easily. At the risk of blinding their own force, they had loosed the most powerful attack in their arsenal... and had failed utterly. Their disbelief was short-lived, unfortunately, as only seconds later a blast of lightning reached from the enemy line and burned them from the sky. The attack was so swift and so precise that they were rendered into ashen pillar in the time it took to blink.

    Arbebaal recovered her wits as another volley ripped into her beleaguered defenders. An unlucky shot blasted into the humerus of her lieutenant’s wing, shattering the bone into useless pulp despite her armored feathers and skin. Unable to fly she spiraled toward the ground, screaming her rage and hatred with her dying breaths. But then, unbelievably, one of the Kan fliers on the opposing line broke formation to dive after her! Arbebaal had no time to watch as she, along with the last remaining Haspoh and a pair of terrified looking Tethus, closed with the enemy.


    The sounds of the battle above reached Karraideus, though from such a distance it was merely a crackling of sound. Looking toward it she saw the warships. The shape of their outlines made it clear as to which direction they were heading. A huge flash of light lit the surrounding ruins brighter than the day, but was quickly extinguished and followed an instant later by twin flashes of lightning. Instinctually she counted off the four and a half seconds before the crash of thunder was heard. Not two-thousand meters out... she had only minutes to prepare!

    “Come, there is no time,” she growled the sobbing Khalfast, “We must get everyone to safety.”

    Had this been a Haspoh-dominant place, she would have never had to make such considerations. Every Haspoh, male or female, knew their place in such a scene. Every woman worthy of the gender would defend to the death their homes while the males would assist them fervently, if not fighting themselves then tending the wounded or recovering supplies for the battle. The only ones that could not fight were the infants, and they were the fuel that drove the Haspoh to become a truly deadly force. But alas, even the Haspoh settlement was quite some way inland. Likely they wouldn’t even be rallied until it was too late.

    The Khalfast picked herself up obediently and followed afterward. Despite the seriousness of their situation and the urgency of the impending invasion, Karraideus could not help but steal glance after glance at the odd clown creature that followed her. The ridiculousness of such a situation was unimaginably distracting given the backdrop of impending doom.

    Making her way back to the center of the fallen tent, laced as it was with debris from the demolished bastion, Karraideus called together the few able enough to rally and recover wounded.

    “The invasion is imminent!” shouted Karraideus, pointing at the fast-closing warships, “We can only hope to save as many lives as possible. Every able body must work to help those who cannot leave on their own. We can expect no mercy from such a force!”

    Fear. All Karraideus could see in the eyes of those gathered was fear. It was a palpable thing that turned the air thick around all present, slowing them for the slaughter. The only ones not visibly gripped with this terror were the Brrrt’k’tk, though reading the feelings from their blob-like forms was an exercise in futility. The Brrrt’k’tk would not fight, but also would they not surrender nor be forced into servitude. They were simply ‘that way’ about things. If they could not live their life, they wouldn’t live at all. It was at once bravery worthy of the Haspoh and stupidity unworthy of any race. It would be better, Karraideus thought, if they at least made a fight of it. Instead the Brrrt’k’tk busied themselves in aiding the wounded as best they could, oblivious and uncaring of the danger that flew in.

    Suddenly the Khalfast bolted, running for a pile of debris away from the central group. Frantically she clawed at the rent fabrics of the tent and threw aside rocks, weeping loudly in shrill calls. In moments she had uncovered a figure, a Dolbeth, whom Karraideus had mistaken for just another part of tent. Somehow this Khalfast had been able to distinguish the maroon-clad figure’s leg from the rest of the riotously colored fabrics better than anyone present!

    A Brrrt’k’tk shuffled over toward her and after a moment Karraideus jogged to join them. Red blood leaked from the Dolbeth’s face, which was itself a mass of deep fuchsia bruising, telling them that this one was at least alive. By the sight of his chest and the shallow, labored breathing, it was amazing that he had survived. One arm was trapped under a chunk of debris larger than the man’s torso, the other lay bent, but not broken beside him, covered in rubble.

    “Hoto!” cried the Khalfast, “Hoto! Oh please be alright!”

    The Brrrt’k’tk gently pushed the Khalfast aside, shifting its tendrils to aid the fallen man. Karraideus wore a look of dispassion that hid her feelings. Something about the exaggerated features of the sad clown had moved her more than she cared admit. In her heart she could imagine the sorrow. I if ever she found her one true love... and anything tragic happened... this would be what she felt. She was unsure what to do. Haspoh did not cry.

    The Khalfast saw something else, something that distracted her from pushing the Brrrt’k’tk away from her fallen lover. She began digging at the rubble again, uncovering yet another figure who held the hand of the first Dolbeth. As she uncovered the latest victim, Karraideus saw that it was another Dolbeth, but this one was undeniably dead, his smashed face frozen in a stare of pain.

    “DIFFDE!!” screamed the Khalfast, as she dropped to her knees and cradled the corpse, “No! No not you!”

    Karraideus turned away from the harrowing scene. Her heart could bear it no longer. To lose a harem was a true horror as deep as any a Haspoh woman could know. Her ears burned with the Khalfast’s voice, so laden with emotion that she herself felt it. But now her sorrow did the only thing it had left to do. Her sorrow turned to anger.

    “One minute!” she roared, “Everyone who can run, must run!”


    Dorvu hadn’t stopped smiling for many minutes. The sides of his face burned with the exertion, but it didn’t matter. His toothy grin was the perfect mask for his feelings and he would allow himself no other. His troops had landed, his warships hung above the land, and resistance was minimal where it was met at all. This pitiful and fruitful land would be his in hours!

    And to sweeten the flavor of his victory, his faithful Holbies had brought him presents. New subjects that would be his after only a brief chat.


    They ran.

    Everyone who had able legs ran for their lives as the drone of Holbies descended upon the wreckage of the town. Warriors dropped from the sky brandishing weapons of fearsome quality. Only upon those who took up arms against them were cut down with brutally efficient strokes. Most they ignored, however, intent of searching out loot amongst the ruin. Those who did not resist and were too slow to evade the insectile thugs were rounded up as flights of Kan and Tethus soared in formation over their heads. Many cowered, many cried, but all felt the futility of their situation. Their defenders were gone, their homes destroyed, and now they were prisoners of the chittering invaders.

    How the Khalfast was able to pull Karraideus into cover she couldn’t begin to fathom. Though this clown was half a meter shorter than she was, none-the-less the powerful, disproportionate, and ridiculously garbed hand was able to move her. The Brrrt’k’tk hid with them, carrying the unconscious form of Hoto between its tendrils. With her large hands and exaggerated features the Khalfast put a finger to her lips to shush them. Karraideus had to fight to control a laugh that seemed unnaturally at odds in this time and place.

    “Tell me your name,” Karraideus rasped in what the Haspoh females managed for whispering.

    “Q’twixa,” breathed the Khalfast, “does that really matter now?”

    “A woman strong enough to pull me around is worthy of a name,” Karraideus hissed, the respect in her voice lost in the attempted quiet statement.

    “I know a way out,” Q’twixa admitted, “and if you can keep us quiet, I can get us there.”

    How amazing this creature is, thought Karraideus, from one moment mourning her lost mates to a fierce determination to see them survive. Despite her obvious military superiority, the Haspoh could not help but feel a sort of respect for this misplaced creature. Certainly if the Khalfast could be as such, perhaps they were a better race than she had credited them.

    “I will make a distraction,” Q’twixa whispered, “and when I do, you need to make for the edge of town. We have our wekja there, it’s big but it only needs to be piloted by two people. If you can get anyone else to follow you, do it. There is... enough space for an entire circus.”

    Karraideus had to take a moment for her thoughts to settle as the Khalfast finished speaking. Whatever it was about her, it seemed that whatever emotions she used in her voice were felt by those who listened. This time it went from determined to certainty to sorrow all in the span of a short speech.

    “I’m ready,” Karraideus confirmed in a growl, “I will see us alive to the wekja, this I swear with my life.”

    “I too am prepared. Though I can only carry this one,” buzzed the Brrrt’k’tk in its fricative voice, “I will be as swift as possible.”

    “Alright then,” Q’twixa shouted absurdly loud, “Here I go!”

    With grace and power beyond expectation, Q’twixa handsprung off the concealing chunk of masonry, into full view of the mass of Holbies. They reacted instantly, running toward the oddly proportioned figure intent on her capture. She whooped and hollered in an astoundingly loud voice and cartwheeled away from each group that hoped to grab her. They came at her from all angles; some even diving from the sky, but the agile clown was simply too fast for them. Sometimes she would grab up chunks of rock, shards of wood, or handfuls of dirt, flinging them at her pursuers. These distractions could not hurt the Holbies, but certainly whipped them into a frenzy the equal of hitting an insect nest with a stick.

    Karraideus could only watch for the first minute as the experienced circus clown herded the invaders into a mob. Each was determined to nab the troublesome Khalfast, but none able. When any came within reach, they found themselves yet another catapult for the agile woman. Vaulting off one, then another, and another still, Q’twixa had managed to ride the assaulting insects into the air, using their flying bodies like steps. Another leap and she was behind the whole of the mob, running away as they fell over themselves to catch her.

    “RUN!” she shouted desperately as her lanky legs pumped against the ground.

    Gathering her wits, Karraideus let loose a howl of action, dashing forward to make good her escape. Ahead was a picket of Holbies who guarded a small handful of captives. Seeing the charging Haspoh they readied their weapons and held against the charge. It was five to one.

    They should have had more.

    With a roar of battlelust, Karraideus shoulder-slammed the first Holbies, who had foolishly stepped forward away from its comrades. Her spiked pierced its thorax as she accepted a pair of grazing hits from its blades. Her plan of action had been made since before she had charged and she read the responses of these filthy thugs as one would read a tavern sign. The arm holding a war-pick swung in, hoping to impale her side. A strong-muscled hand caught it at the wrist and a twist of her body saw her elbow-blade slicing clean through, mid-forearm. Now she had a weapon!

    Twin thuds reverberated against the impaled Holbies at her shoulder, the blades of two of the comrades as they swiped at her. With a surge, she pushed the pierced bug off her and into its friends, turning and ducking the attack of the other flanking Holbies. Her war-pick came up sharply, its reach extended by the severed arm she still held. The barbed tip crunched easily into the chest of one, tearing a ragged hole in the inflexible chitin there.

    She rolled backward, sending out a cry of agony as she felt the wounds upon her wings as they were pressed into the ground. The remaining Holbies surged forward, ignoring their doomed comrades. They shouted out for reinforcement, but even as they did, Karraideus launched herself, feet-first into their midst. Her claws connected with the chest of the leftmost Holbies, bearing it to the ground and crushing its muscular trunk with her weight. Her right arm slashed out, knocking all three of the left feet from the one beside her, sending it crashing to the ground.

    Then the mob came. The prisoners saw her fury and were bolstered by it. They took up the weapons of the fallen Holbies even as Karraideus was recovering from her leap. The hapless bugs were still turning and recovering when the armed band of former hostages killed them with their own weapons.

    “With me!” Karraideus shouted and ran on.

    The rallied people cheered and waved their weapons, running after their savior and the laden Brrrt’k’tk that followed her.

    Fortunately, Q’twixa had been distracting enough for the swarm not to notice their escape.


    Out and away, at the edge of town, Nicto peered through a spyglass at the commotion that had been going on for nearly two hours. The wakja was ready to shove off and, not for the first time, the Kan seriously wondered if anyone from the circus would even make it back for him to do so. He had also considered many-a-time to simply abandon them all and set out on his own. Unfortunately, he was alone. Without at least one of his mates he simply couldn’t steer the cantankerous contraption that bore the circus from skyland to skyland.

    But now something was drawing near. A crowd of people! They ran with all their might, led by a huge red figure and a purple, blue, and orange blob! He could hardly believe such a stampede could exist!

    Nervously he ran a hand through his stiff, gritty hair. After a moments consideration he set down his spyglass and took to readying his escape. Whatever happened, he wanted nothing to do with a charging mob of people!

    Barely had he untied the last mooring knot when a figure leapt onto the landing deck. He glanced around nervously, expecting to see hostile faces, but was instantly relieved by the unmistakable figure that stood there panting.

    “Q’twixa! By all that’s holy and not, what is going on?!”

    “We’re making... an escape,” she said breathlessly, “they’re... they’re all coming too.”

    Now gifted with a fair-sized group of people, Nicto could easily shove-off and pilot the craft away from the carnage. Thanks to the clever camouflage-tarpaulin covering the irregular frame of the barn-sized wakja, none would be able to notice their departure. Any that did see the huge floating warehouse leave would think that it was simply another land-burg dropping away from the edge of a skyland, floating as some did to another destination instead of plummeting into the deep sky below.
  3. Chapter 3

    Upon an ornately carved hardwood table, draped in a rich crimson tablecloth that brushed the floor, sat a ring of bone. As wide as a dinner plate and highly scrimshawed and decorated, the ring appeared to be hollowed from the femur of a Helvantan dragon. Even more remarkable that the bone was the sphere of pure, clear quartz that rested upon it. The size of a ripe khoba melon, the crystalline orb was a true marvel. The motif of eyes, stars, clouds, and mountains dominated the elaborate scrimshaw of the ring, signs and ancient symbols for vision, inspiration, dreams, and wisdom. Around this sphere, within its holder, sat arranged six skulls, each worked into a candle and carved with scenes of knowledge.

    Dolbeth, Kan, Tethus, Terrighu, Haspoh, and Tuchamoo: all were present upon the massive tabletop. Each candle that arose from the skulls was a different color, matched to the unique traits of each of the races. The candles were scented, each scent likewise representative of the race it stood upon and roused thoughts of artistry, compassion, order, passion, duty, and selfishness. Over the table, one skull yet lingered, hung from the ceiling of the massively tall room by a thin cord of braided wire. This was a skull from one of the fabled Yzzlit, a savage and degenerate people who possessed the heads of animals. This one had possessed, in life, the head of a fish, but one not found on Helvanta. It had a long jaw full of serrated teeth. Once, an associate of Ghaparodiniphus had called it a ‘pike’, but in his mind this only referenced an ancient word for a very long spear.

    The Gaftis sighed as he mused on his old associate and lit the brown candle upon the Yzzlit skull. He inhaled deeply of the pungent scent of base instincts and unwashed bodies, contemplating upon how they mingled with the other scents from the other candles. Unlike the rest of the skulls, the Yzzlit’s had been taken by force and remained unadorned. The creature had tried to attack his six meter tall form, unafraid of a creature thrice its size and thrice again its potency. Against such a giant creature it brandished only a stick with a knapped flint wedge lashed to the split top to form a crude axe.

    Despite its primitive appearance, the Yzzlit’s weapon might still have caused harm. It was driven by the bulging muscles and unthinking fury of the savage and would have wounded Ghaparodiniphus in a manner similar to a child with a knife in a tantrum might wound its parent. Unfortunately for the beast, not all parents were gifted in the ways of moving force. Ghaparodiniphus had only to clap his many-fingered hands and chant the unintelligible words of Forward Momentum and waved of rippling movement washed forward from his feet, tripping the unthinking Yzzlit. Knowing that these savages never gave up and would never relent, Ghaparodiniphus did what he knew he must. He seized the primitive axe and beheaded the squirming creature.

    The skull remained unadorned since then. To do so, he knew, would rob it of its base nature. It would be putting a suit upon mudcattle... only serving to ruin the suit and giving no use at all to the creature that wore it. Still, it was a potent addition to his knowledge-base and had aided him greatly through the years in his sphere-readings. Often the visions within the sphere were difficult to interpret, as the images he saw were never in a particular context. The skulls around it... the knowledge base... aided him in this. Through the symbolism of knowledge and wisdom, the images became clearer, more understandable, than they would through his mind alone. The cultured-folk skulls always shifted the images toward some special reasoning, always something familiar to a society or a thinking person, but when the visions in the sphere were turbulent or nonsensical, often it was the Yzzlit skull that provided the most clarity.

    Tonight was a special night for this. The stars were in alignment; ripe for portents of the future. Their light would be filtered in through a complex series of mirrors arranged all about his great hut, their celestial essences channeled and magnified to become a beam to illuminate the sphere and bring forth the visions of things that would yet occur. Much would depend on the mind of Ghaparodiniphus, since not only would he have to interpret the signs, but so too would he have to direct the beam of heavenly light to stay fixed in the center of the crystal. Twelve of the twenty-four of his great flexible fingers rested upon the sphere, the size of his hands and the relative smallness of the sphere not permitting the addition of more, as he gazed into the oddly reflected sheen upon the crystal’s surface.

    Pinpoints of the candlelight danced upon the curved and flawless surface of the sphere, but soon their light was replaced as the reflections of the stars entered the room and converged upon their common destination. Before the visions even began, Ghaparodiniphus sensed trouble in his future. Glancing at each of the grinning skulls in turn, he searched for the source of this unexpected sense of foresight. But as was their nature, the skulls weren’t talking

    “I suppose I’ll just have to ask the freckin’ ball then won’t I,” Ghaparodiniphus groaned rhetorically, “Good lot o’ help yer bein’ this night.”


    Going was harsh upon the wekja. Yes they had escaped with their lives, but some were now questioning the wisdom of setting out so hastily. The first day was filled with hope and worry as every person aboard had lost almost everything they had. Not one among them was spared the loss of friends or family and all felt the pangs of leaving their homes behind with no chance of return.

    The situation grew dim as Nicto informed a pensive and tragedy-stricken gaggle of the saved that there weren’t any supplies aboard. No food, little water, and very little else. The wekja was large enough to house a circus, but the circus had been fully deployed at Parbarten with the expectation to resupply there. Having come the long way from Jourbesland, the closest skyland upwind to Parbarten, their supplies had already been taxed before deployment. The aviaries were likewise empty, the great Kan birds having all been taken to perform the Battle of One Arrow. Of course, had any of the birds survived, they would likely have all the Kan against using even one of their treasured mounts for something as simple as a meal.

    In very short order, Karraideus took command. Claiming herself the ranking military member, and the one who made possible the escape of a good lot in the first place, she immediately set about ordering every able body around, assigning them tasks to keep them from thinking too hard about the dire straits they were in. Knowing that they could not stand before her individually without weapons, even the grumpiest of passengers set to work.

    Seeing that everyone had something to do for the time, Karraideus went to the low deck where the very few wounded were being kept. Fortunately, the Brrrt’k’tk had some minor knowledge of bipedal medicine and had seen to the wounds as best as it could. The one casualty of concern, as all the other wounded had been able to run here, was the Dolbethan whom Q’twixa had named ‘Hoto’.

    Karraideus had known combat her entire life, having been trained since she could stand in the arts of soldiery and death. Because of this, she had seen a great many injuries. Many of her instructors were crippled in some way, which was why they had been retired in the first place. To a warrior, it was the only honorable course left when one was unable to fight. She was unsure how Dolbethan battle-honor worked, but she could see plainly that the Dolbethan would have to retire.

    Q’twixa was away in a corner, sobbing quietly for her comatose mate. The Brrrt’k’tk had done a commendable job in tying the tourniquet and bandaging the remains of Hoto’s arm with the limited supplies at hand. It commented to Karraideus that the wound needed some more tending lest it become infected. The Haspoh nodded in efficient acknowledgement, but then pushed past the wiggling creature to stand behind the weeping Khalfast.

    “Take solace. You have yet one mate alive. With care, he will come to his senses soon and be grateful that he yet lives.”

    Q’twixa turned to face Karraideus, her makeup streaked with the great tears welling from her huge eyes. As the staunch militant woman beheld the pitiable sight of the sad clown she felt her heart melt and her soul fill with sadness. She staggered back, assaulted by the unfamiliar feelings wrought upon her by the Khalfast’s face. It was like her mate was the one lying crippled in a dirty hold and not some anonymous form. A spark of compassion ignited within her, turning her harsh demeanor to pudding-softness for just an instant.

    The feelings vanished as soon as Q’twixa was able to regain her composure, though she seemed not to notice her effect upon the warrior woman. Dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief she cleared her throat and made ready to rejoin the world around her. An instant later, despite her streaked make-up, she seemed as ready for action as when she had distracted the Holbies.

    “He wasn’t my ‘mate’, so you know,” Q’twixa said calmly, “But he was dear to me. He and Diffde found me when I left my people. Were it not for them I might have died in the wilds. It was just a chance encounter while they stopped for supplies and employment.”

    Her face threatened sadness once again causing Karraideus to feel, very counter-instinctually, the urge to comfort Q’twixa. But once again that impressive resolve returned that exaggerated face to one of calm seriousness.

    “Now...” Q’twixa began again slowly, “When Hoto wakes, he will likely be... extremely disturbed. I want to be with him then to help soften the blows of losing his partner, circus, and arm all in one go. But I can tell by your presence that you need me. I also know that you need my knowledge of this wekja.”

    “It is true...” Karraideus admitted, “but do you presume to know my thoughts?”

    “Not to offend, but I’ve spent the last few years learning to read people and carnivorous birds alike. I know how to make judgements. You’re Haspoh, and that tells me that you are likely to either find a commander or become one. I see the eagerness in your eyes and know you have bad news... I also know that you know that I am familiar with this vessel and that I should know we’re sailing with no direction and no food. A desperate time I’d think.”

    “Very observant,” Karraideus admitted, her eyes darting between the Khalfast’s ears and eyes, “And I would guess that you can indeed be of help.”

    “At least you are right about that.” Q’twixa admitted energetically, leaping up from her seat, “Come now, the sooner I help, the sooner I can be back by his side.”

    Karraideus shook her head. How any person could go from utter sadness to energetic determination in so short a time was nothing short of a mystery. Still, with the bounding Khalfast clown leading the way, she had precious little time to consider it. Truly this creature was remarkable, unique. As she left the makeshift sickbay, she could only help but wonder what this woman would be like if ever she got truly angry.


    Dawn broke across the horizon of Parbarten, sending streaks of light across the surface. Long shadows played about on the ground in their last attempt at fun before the noon forced them to hide. On any other day, the people of Parbarten would leave their homes to greet the sun and set to work while the shadows played. But today, none emerged. The animals awoke as they ever had, browsing or hunting or simply drifting about in the warmth of day. Rhopands and greets and roosters called as they sighted the bright sphere of day, but no one responded to their calls.

    Homes were empty, doors broken in, and all the folk looked upon the daybreak from the confines of prisons. The Tethus among Dorvu’s army had wrought cunning walls of twisted metal that could be transported and built astonishingly quickly wherever they were needed. Between the Makers and the Hoarders, those Tethus had contained the whole of Parbarten’s city-full in mere hours, finishing just before dawn. Above these chained-wire walls were wrapped coils of wire that was finished with barbs and blades, making escape a very unpleasant prospect for those hopeful climbers.

    With the wire walls and the barbed coils, thousands of people could be contained by mere hundreds of Holbies. They stalked the perimeter with tireless energy hoping that some hapless fool might attempt to scale the very graspable metal of the see-through walls. They taunted the folk, pretending look away (an impossible task for their eyes) or antagonizing the captive folk with promises of release or taunts of futility. All this was done with the hope that the horrid insects might gain some sort of sport. Overhead a flight of Kan wheeled on patrol and the odd Holbies buzzed about, dropping things into the prison cages for a laugh.

    High above this scene, Master Dorvu sat upon his throne, laughing boisterously to himself as he took an early breakfast. The bounty of Parbarten was his, and in only one night! All his lieutenants and chiefs had reported their successes to him, with only a few having had any trouble. Though he had not yet heard from Haktasi, he was certain that her success would be equally as gladdening. A huge breast of roast fowl disappeared into Dorvu’s wide smile as he contemplated how he would enjoy his newly gotten prize.

    The flutter of rapid wings heralded his second-in-command’s presence. She never had failed to arrive behind him... somehow he guessed that direction made no difference to the giant eyes of the bug-folk. Of course, he’d never let her know that she could just sneak up on him. His ears were sharp enough that her buzzing wings would never be missed.

    “Report Haktasi.” Dorvu said through a mouthful of chewed meat.

    “I have the lessers combing the provinces for survivors. Our Dolbethan and Tethus fliers and artillerymen are scouting the Brrrt’k’tk settlements and putting down resistance as it comes. The destruction of the Bastions has crippled the Haspoh presence here and I have dispatched Kan archers to deal with those that remain.”

    “Bring me their males,” interrupted Dorvu, “I’ve never had their kind before. I know they make such wonderful things. Though don’t risk the gang or the Kan on capturing females. They’re not worth the losses.”

    “As you wish. I will relay the message quickly. Though you should know, we recovered a Haspoh female. She has yet to awaken.”

    “Really?!” Dorvu exclaimed, his eyes glittering with excitement, “Where is she?! I desire to convince her of my goals. She will be the first of many, I predict.”

    “She is in our sickbay in shackles, Master,” Haktasi said plainly, “I have sent a flight of Holbies to track an escape from Parbarten. It seems one of our round-up troupes was ambushed and slain before...”

    Dorvu made no reaction to the latest news, he was too full of anticipation at a new conquest, a new fulfillment of his secret passion for dominance, that he completely ignored the dire report of his commander. Before Haktasi could finish speaking, he had vanished below-decks. Certain that her gang-leader would deal with the problem later, Haktasi took flight once again to relay the message about the Haspoh males.


    Brendal woke with a start, surrounded by strangers and squinting at the sun. He was covered in bandages, most makeshift and torn from the clothes of the strangers. Dark splotches of his blood darkened many places, matting his fur down in many places. Grunts and growls of pain escaped his throat as he was helped into a sitting position. A pair of compassionate Kan stepped forward, faces he recognized, bearing small bowls of dirty water to soothe their wounded friend. Without much thought, he gulped down the dusty fluid, thankful to have anything at all.

    Without a word the Kan left him, going off to be of help where they could. Brendal wanted to stop them and question them, but glancing around told him that the answer would not be very reassuring. Instead he set himself to remembering what had happened the night before. He remembered performing, remembered calling out to the crowd and rousing cheers, and then...

    Pain lanced through his muscles as he forced his tight joints to bend. If nothing else, he knew he must get to his feet. He felt as if there was nowhere that did not hurt from some wound or other. Gazing at the crowds of people, he began to worry after what had befallen in that time when the show had ended. All manner of Tethus, Kan, Dolbethans, and Brrrt’k’tk milled about in shock and confusion while many more lay injured upon the ground. Looking up he saw the avian forms of Kan mounts wheeling overhead.

    For a while Brendal ambled along trying to find familiar faces. Every Dolbeth he saw could have been Hoto or Diffde, and every Kan could have been one of the crew... but as he went along the sickening thought that the crew had been decimated crept into his mind. He knew that at least two Kan had made it, but of the rest of his companions there was no sign. After a time, he even got up the courage to ask about Q’twixa... she had been as a daughter to him... but none had seen anyone even near her description before. Indeed, few had ever seen a Khalfast at all in their lives.

    Fighting the sinking feeling that he might never see his companions again, Brendal set his mind to defiance. Escape quickly became the only thing on his mind as he paced around the walls of twisted wire. He saw that the Holbies guarding the prison had their backs turned and at once thought that he might simply assault the wall itself. Certainly he was taller, heavier, and more broad than any person on either side of the wall, excepting possibly the elder Brrrt'k'tk. With such mass fueled by his outrage at being imprisoned and hurt, Brendal entertained the notion that he might knock down the flimsy wall, tackle or crush a guard or two, and lead a revolt that the other prisoners might escape.

    But Holbies could see all around themselves and Brendal knew they would not be caught unaware even with their backs turned. Furthermore they had stakes the wall deep into the ground at intervals with tall, sturdy poles. Even were he to knock down a section and avoid the blade-wire atop it, the Holbies would be sure to have seen him coming. Since they were armed and he was left only with his bare hands, he quickly decided that such an escape was impossible.

    His only option, as he saw it, was to inspire the other prisoners. Even such a swarm of Holbies and other races, surely they could not easily contain a riot, especially with only a single day to construct their camps. Brendal had a knack for public speaking. As a Terrighu, he was driven by deep and burning passions within; his passion being to inspire and entertain above all others. He was certain that the power of his voice and his gift for words and psychology would drive the others quickly into an organized revolt.

    For many minutes he walked the perimeter of the camp, gathering in his mind the elements of a speech that would see him rise to lead a mob of common folk, yearning to be free. He would break the back of these invaders and help the Parbartenites take back their skyland! They would rebuild, stronger than before, and resume their lives of peace and plenty. He would be offered a place with them in thanks for his efforts, but he would decline. He had a circus to rebuild after all! In his mind’s eye he could see the faces of the other survivors of his troupe, all explaining their absence and aiding him in his counter-strike.

    “That one. Take him.” buzzed an insectile voice.

    Looking up swiftly, Brendal found himself surrounded by flying Holbies and Kan, all of them poised to drop nets upon him! Snapped from his daydreaming, he made to bolt anywhere he could to evade capture. Try though he might, the net was too large and a moment later his considerable bulk was dragged to the ground by weighted rope. Helplessly he flailed around, unable to counter the thick cords and heavy burdens all around him. He could only watch, face in the dirt, as the Holbies descended.

    “Do we end him here?” one of the Kan yelled. Brendal heard the creak of his drawn bowstring as he prepared the shot that would snuff out his life.

    “Not for us to decide,” replied the lead Holbies, “Put him out.”

    With a sharp crack on the head Brendal knew no more.


    “They have food,” said Tabanik conspiratorially, “They're holding out on us. Do you not see how none of them suffer?”

    Three days had passed since the escape from Parbarten. Three days without food. Three days of water rations, sipped sparingly from the bottom of tin cups meant to hold fifty times the volume. But through it all, while the stomachs of the Dolbethans, Brrrt'k'tk, Terrighu, and Tethus grumbled loudly, not a single Kan showed the discomfort of starvation. They all knew that their leaders, the Khalfast and the Haspoh, suffered alongside them though they would not allow themselves to show it.

    “Where could they have stashed it,” grumbled Porbor, “We all escaped together remember? How could they possibly have food?”

    “It should be obvious, especially to a Terrighu, that they have something to sustain them!” Tabanik hissed, “If your great fat stomach hasn't clued you in to that, your mind must be denser than I thought.”

    “Don't start with me Dolbeth,” growled Porbor, “You're the one who is acting stupid. Why would the Kan be keeping food from us? We're all in this together. No amount of Dolbethan paranoia is going to convince me otherwise.”

    “Kan are a close knit folk,” added Bu, a Tethus Hoarder who had no end of experience when it came to concealing things, “There are a thousand places to hid things upon this craft. The Kan aboard might easily be secreting emergency supplies, counting on their race being the only one to survive.”

    “And I suppose, where you in the same position, you might do as you accuse them, ey?” Porbor countered.

    “The Quintethus Order is also tight-knit,” admitted Bu, “But unless instructed by a superior Talker, I would not withhold vital supplies from allies. And even if so ordered, the Talker would surely have a plan for the survival of all.”

    The large bear-like Porbor shook her shaggy head slowly, faced with both the harshness of reality and the foreign mindset of the Tethus, she felt at odds with her feelings. Within her, she knew that all the races were inherently good, excepting perhaps the Holbies and Tuchamoo. But even then she believed firmly that even those wicked races would do right should they only be given the chance and the inspiration. Though she was only a lowly farmer's daughter, her soul burned with the firey passions of her race, all of them telling her to do good in the world. To be faced with logic and evidence that allies and fellow refugees were acting so petty pained her greatly.

    “So... so what do we do?” she asked grimly, “and if they do, how do we ensure a fair share?”

    “I say we rally the rest of us,” interjected Tabanik, “we keep things as calm as possible. Then, while the Kan are secreted away, as they so often seem to be, we burst in on them and demand they share with us their supplies.”

    “We can't afford a fight in open skies,” Porbor pleaded, “and if that Haspoh catches wind of what we're doing...”

    “Haspoh suffer from starvation like any person,” Bu cut in, “Moreso because they burn so much energy to keep them at peak. I expect our ersatz captain will be just as relieved to have something to eat as all of us will.”

    “But we will be peaceful?” Porbor pressed.

    “Completely peaceful,” Tabanik insisted, “and if it turns out that they haven't any food...”

    “... highly unlikely,” interrupted Bu.

    “... then I will personally apologize and spend the rest of the journey as their personal servant.”

    Feeling the pressure of her peers, neighbors both back on Parbarten, Porbor considered her options. If she refused to aid them, then surely they would try their coup behind her back. But if she went with them, she could at least ensure that their promises of peace would be upheld.

    “I'll help you.” she said at last.


    Though it was many days away, Ghaparodiniphus could clearly see the wekja on the winds. He accomplished this feat, not with his eyes of flesh, but with the feelings upon the wind. An ancient trick of the Gaftis, he had learned that if he allowed the currents of air to brush upon him and concentrated on one small portion, he could detect objects that were yet hundreds of miles away. Though it rarely served a practical purpose, Ghaparodiniphus had come to understand that even the seemingly most trivial tricks of his race might have their place on the threads of destiny that wove through a life.

    Subtle pushes a pulls had created for him a current through which he drew the wekja near. Manipulating the winds of Helvanta was ever tricky, as the wild power of the open-skied world had provided the very ai with such impetus that sometimes it seemed to have a mind and will of its own. Still, a canny Gaftis in the prime of his talented years, might yet make some small influence. The current would have to be coaxed and teased often, but if he were clever enough it would bring him that ship.

    Part of him still worried. The ship had appeared in his sphere-readings and yet it had been surrounded in a nimbus of woe and trouble. Inwardly, part of Ghaparodiniphus wondered if this was truly the best course of action. He had seen, upon examination of the myriad futures, that he would play an integral part in their destinies. Trouble would follow, yes, but he felt that, should he not intercede, should he avoid the trouble, the futures of many would be wreathed in sorrow and suffering. Though he was not much for the affairs of the world beyond his skyland, he still knew that those things which brought suffering to the other races were typically also bad for his fellow Gaftis.

    The sphere had told him much of the coming vessel. Of course, in sphere-reading terms “much” didn’t have to be substantial. Compared with what one could gather with their base senses, the sphere’s information was infinitely more revealing, but practically it still took a considerable amount of guesswork and reference to make any sense of it at all. But those things he had seen were clear enough. Fear and desperation drove these folk. Their destination had been left to the wind... a dangerous prospect indeed among the wild skies of Helvanta... and they had left without preparation, fleeing something truly terrible to brave the open expanses between skylands.

    It didn’t take a genius to realize that Parbarten, the obvious port they had departed, was likely not a viable place to be any longer, and that a lingering sense of trouble yet radiated from there told Ghaparodiniphus that he should gird himself with information as well as his other means of protection. But for now he would watch and wait, all the while plucking the currents of the wild winds and drawing the wekja nearer.


    Dorvu chuckled as he took a huge bite of khoba melon, the thick, sweet juice running down his hairy chin. The memory brought him back to the first time he had tasted khoba as a child. He had stolen it from a merchant who had visited from some distant land with a load of fresh fruits. Among the starving skyland of Woubiityd, folk had been willing to pay whole sacks of useless coin for mere bites of the tricky salesman’s produce. Dorvu remembered the sneers of the armed guards protecting the merchant... huge, burly Terrighu with fat, dull-grey blades that looked taller than he had been.

    It was the first time Dorvu had ever ‘convinced’ anyone. It was said by some that gifts among his people were impossible. That none like him would ever fly like the Dolbeth or build without getting their hands dirty like some Tethus Makers. Though such gifts were rare even amongst those people, one amongst thousands typically, they still had a prominent place in their society. But Dorvu had no one to help improve on his unique techniques. Indeed at the time he had simply thought he was actually that charismatic.

    He had stolen the melon, but considering that after talking with the merchant and the guards, begging them to let him by and not to harm him that they suddenly capitulated... Where others pleaded for a handful of berries for a bagful of coin, Drovu walked away with a melon as wide as his then-youthful shoulders! Of course later, when he had grown and found his ambition he became aware of why the greedy bastards should have let a skin-and-bones starved waif carry off such a prize... ...and how little he truly cared.

    It might have ended for him back then, in those tender years, had his parents not warned him against gorging himself while starved. Bit by bit he ate that first melon, savoring every bite and resisting the urge to eat it whole. Though the days passed and mold slowly took its hold, he was grateful even then for the sustenance. He had kept it hidden away lest the others on his home descend upon him and take it for themselves. But, almost foolishly, he had gone back home and walked about town, glowing with the satisfaction of a full belly. Amid the dullness of hunger, that glow picked him out and the folk began their gossip and rumors.

    His people were now practically penniless, still hungry, and worst of all were without a merchant. Laughing boisterously and counting his sacks of money, the merchant had loaded up his empty baskets and flown away. The folk of Woubiityd had only served to stave off the inevitable. A new desperation took them as their bellies re-emptied, leaving them as growling as ever. Soon enough, the secret of Dorvu’s mystery meal and rumors thereof faded into a renewed sense of malaise and depression.

    So long had passed since the wondrous melon had long been finished off; mold, bugs, and all, that folk had taken to digging up the dirt of their fields and mixing it with water and whatever they could to fill their stomachs. Roofs were open to the air as their thatch was crushed to mix with the thin mud. Every clod of earth was picked over for worms, bugs, grassroots, and every other conceivable source of nutrition. It was here, at the worst times, that Dorvu had his greatest revelation. He promised himself and any deity that would listen that, should he survive, he would never let his people starve again if he could help it.

    Parents and siblings perished of starvation, not just for the young Dorvu, but for all the skyland. Some even considered turning to that darkest of acts, cannibalism, but in the end not one of the dead remained meaty enough to bother. Day and night, skeletal-thin folk lingered about waiting for their lives to fade away.

    It was then that another merchant landed in the town square, loaded with food and goods to sell. Dorvu had been among the handful of folk strong enough to forage, and it was these that came to meet the stranger to beg him for mercy and charity. In his mind’s eye Dorvu could still remember the merchant in vivid detail, as if he stood just in front of him even as he remembered. He had been a great fat Tethus Hoarder with so much skin showing between his scales that Dorvu reckoned he might set one of his fingers between two scales and not touch either. He had a wide, avaricious grin that followed his features no matter what he said. Rich robes of silks and wools and threads of gold and spun crystal draped his enormous frame and each of his chubby fingers bore at least one ring of precious metal, many studded with glittering stones. His eyes were wily and quick, of a shining green like the emeralds in his jewelry. Even his claw-like fingernails were ornamented; capped in silver and painted in bright colors.

    Dorvu hated him immediately.

    Guards, as before but now with a mix of other Tethus and a Dolbeth or two, filed out and opened his portable shop. It had been the first time Dorvu had seen a Tethus flying machine, and his first impression was only of a barge of greed. Food poured out from the modular sections, brought forth by the guards to tempt the poor starving folk to give up the last of their possessions, those few treasures and heirlooms that they clung to out of hope for the future... in exchange for the promise of perhaps a fortnight more of wretched existence.

    They all hated the merchant.

    But it was Dorvu who spoke first, even before the fat Tethus could begin his bawling and hawking of wares. He spoke plainly and imploringly, his voice a coarse whisper from weeks of nothing to eat but mud and the failing of his lungs. A story of his people’s plight poured forth and entangled the merchant and his lackeys. Before they knew what had gone wrong they were captivated by the young boy’s words. Soon, Dorvu knew, they would do just as he asked... just as he had already made his whole starving village do in practice.

    Unable to resist the words and will of young Master Dorvu, the merchant and guards offered no resistance at all when the skeletal hoard descended on their stores and carried away every last grain and scrap they could lay their hands on. Grains and fruits, pots and clothes, carved buttons and sewing needles, the money that the merchant had brought... but not one khoba melon amongst it... all of it found its way into the hands of the people. All the while, the captivated interlopers could only watch as their every possession was taken. Weapons and armor were handed over at the very mention from Dorvu’s lips. The fat Tethus now stood, naked as the day he had hatched, in the town square at the behest of his young master.

    Still more died in the days that followed. Dorvu tried to lead them and help them recover slowly, but he found that his persuasive influences could only work so far, and on so many people at a time. A few gorged themselves to death, but still more died for no other reason than their bodies had suffered too much. Grief came slowly to Dorvu, having had so much of his feelings eaten away within him as his body gnawed on itself. But at last, those people who would recover did regain their strength. Though still weak, their newfound plenty lent them all a vigor that they had not felt for months. Directed by their new young leader, all the famine-wracked folk of Woubiityd loaded what they had onto the merchant’s vessel and left their barren land behind. The fat Tethus and his guards were left standing naked in the square as Drovu took one last look at his desolate home. Not caring to look further, he turned away and released his hold on the wretches below.

    He would never let his people starve again if he could help it.

    And now, as he bit deeply into a melon the size of his head, Dorvu felt that he was finally on track to keeping his promise.

    “What is it Haktasi?” he mumbled loudly through a mouthful of sticky fruit.

    “I simply thought I would remind you of the escaped folk below.” His lieutenant replied calmly.

    “Do what you must,” he said through his hastily chewed mouthful, “I care for nothing but my lunch just now.”