– – –
Up from the first cage flew a shadow, a barely discernable form that seemed to merge with the night sky. Brax followed it for as long as he could, and then it vanished against the blackness above.
“Ready the crossbows!” he ordered again, echoing the flagmen from above. “We need more torches!” He grabbed an orderly. “Bring more torches! I want these ramparts glowing!” The orderly nodded and was off.
Brax searched the sky above, eyes darting wildly.
Hands grabbed him. He spun around with a start.
It was Benigan. Boran was trailing just a little behind. Gorn approached from the opposite side.
“What was that?” Benigan asked, pointing into the dark sky.
Brax shook his head. “I haven’t the faintest—”
“They are the Dylaithlok,”3 Gorn spoke up.
“And they would be?” Boran questioned, catching his breath.
“Ad named them himself,” Gorn said. “Eagles, all from Tontha and Ligeon. But captured by Morgui and subjected to long torture, somehow growing much larger because of it.”
“So they did not choose their fate?” Brax asked.
“O, I suppose they gave in at some point,” Gorn replied distantly. “After the beatings and manipulations, I know few that would not succumb to bitter rage and endless fury.”
“Like it was placed upon them,” Benigan suggested.
“You could say.” Gorn searched the sky and spoke more quickly. “Though I would think of it more as it was placed within them. Morgui poured evil into them. Once majestic brothers of the air, they have been wrongfully enslaved, their souls all but destroyed, hollow…lost.”
Suddenly a terrifying screech, the likes of which none of them had ever heard, ripped through the air. Those that heard it covered their ears and bent their heads. The sound permeated the air so strongly, it actually had a sense of weight to it. Brax yelled something at Boran and Benigan, but all they saw was a moving mouth. No sound.
The screech abated.
All the men stirred, each looking around in bewilderment.
“Get great-crossbows to the towers!” Brax ordered once more, this time clearly heard by all. Benigan and Boran were off a moment later, planning how to hoist the massive weapons to the turret tops.
“I’m with you, King of Tontha,” Gorn reassured him.
“C’symia, my friend.” Brax addressed the warriors on the ramparts. “Archers, ready your bows and empty your quivers on whatever comes from the night sky.” A rustle of wood and leather stirred immediately. “It will be fast upon you from any direction. And above all, watch your brother lest he be—”
But even those words were better demonstrated than spoken. Another screech tore through the night air, and then a horrible black creature materialized above them. Talons yearning, wings outstretched, a massive bird flew just above the men’s heads and raced along the wall.
Without warning, its talons dropped and closed around a swordsman, hoisting him effortlessly off the wall and then disappearing into the darkness once more, the poor soul wailing as he vanished out of sight.
Not a single arrow had been loosed.
Brax was indignant.
“Easy, my King,” Gorn admonished him. “They will not fail again. Sometimes a man cannot react in measure until he understands what his enemy is capable of.”
Brax remembered these words, nearly beaten into him while on Kirstell. How long ago was that now? He couldn’t even remember anymore. He simply nodded, assuring himself, “They will not fail again.”
Just as the men stood, eyes searching the skies, another deafening scream erupted from above. “There!” one man pointed.
The archers were quicker this time. Brax heard the distinct sound of a hundred bowstrings being drawn, arrows sliding along their counterparts. He turned and looked up, finally getting a good look at the approaching monster.
Spilling out of the blackness above was a sickly, dark creature with yellow eyes, each one bloodshot and furious. Its gnarled beak was cracked and faded but seemed to bear strange tooth-like fangs, mouth agape. Its body was fully feathered, just like a bird’s, save that it was considerably larger and that it appeared deeply scarred—wounded almost—surely beaten. Many of the feathers grew in perverted angles from patches of scar tissue, old and leathery. Brax even caught the fire glow of torchlight gleaming off what he only could reckon were open sores.
“Now!” a commanding archer ordered.
From far away it looked like a cloud of black rain surging upward from the ramparts, illuminated briefly by firelight, and then disappearing into the night sky.
Brax watched as the deadly arrows found their mark, drilling into the crazed creature like the pitter-patter of hail on bare earth. A spray of fluid followed in the bird’s wake, but the Dylaithlok did not stop.
A few men began to scream and cover their heads as they realized the monster was set on them. The bird stayed its course, talons flaring, but it had grown weak from the assault. Instead of pulling up from its dangerously steep angle of attack, the monster slammed hard into the ramparts, more than a few men instantly crushed under its weight.
The wounded creature tumbled forward and then flopped violently, claws tearing, wings beating. Its venomous beak clamped around a man’s torso and tossed him about wildly. He screamed for help, but soon met his end, head beaten into the stone crenellations.
The fury did not last long, however. Another heartbeat and ten men were on it with swords and a battle-ax to the head. The putrid body shuddered, jerked a few moments longer, and then went limp. Everyone stared in disbelief.
Another screech went up from somewhere above. Brax turned again to count the cages. “Only four more,” he reassured himself.
“At least four more,” Gorn corrected.
Brax eyed him.
“There are five cages,” Gorn continued, “with at least one each. Didn’t you watch to see if more came out?”
Brax looked closer. Sure enough, each cage was definitely capable of holding more than one, judging from the Dylaithlok’s actual size.
“But I did not say there are more than five,” Gorn said again, “just that it was possible. You must always—”
“Consider the possibilities, I know. I know.” Brax huffed and shook his head. “We’ll kill them all, five or five tens. And you,” he pointed at Gorn, “next time you battle in my region, leave the counting to me.”
Gorn grinned, dropped his shield, and picked up a second sword. “The counting is all yours.”
Brax turned and looked to the two closest towers, noticing that they each were already hoisting one of the massive crossbows up the side. His brothers had made quick work of arranging the weaponry and were soon well prepared for the next assault.
A screech signaled another attack.
“On your guard, men!” Brax ordered.
The archers drew their bowstrings and crouched again. More screeching bellowed from the blackness. Eyes searched the sky aimlessly, looking for any shifting shadow. All was still, with no sign of the monstrous bird. A third screech went out, drawn on and on as if it would never end. But this time it wasn’t a bird that assailed them. On three different parts along the wall, while the men’s attention had been drawn skyward, siege ladders and been silently mounted, and Dairne-Reih leapt onto the ramparts.
“Swords!” Brax hollered. But the Dairneags were swift, chewing up and down the line with relentless spite. Their clawed hands and horned extremities slashed, pummeling when they could not skewer, hammering when they failed to gouge.
“Take them out!” the King yelled, feeling helpless as ever.
The wall defenders met the attacking Dairne-Reih with great force, at least stopping their lateral advance. But no one could get to the siege ladders to knock them off the wall. More Dairneags spilled over the sides, now leaping off the ramparts and down into the city below.
The Dylaithloks had also timed their silent attack just right, this time devoid of a warning screech. While the men were busy fending off the new wave of Dairne-Reih, four birds swept in at the same time. Most of the victims never even knew what hit them, either tossed headlong over the wall, or hoisted skyward in the bone-breaking clutches of overgrown talons or razor-sharp beaks.
“Gorn,” Brax said earnestly, “I’ll take the wall, you follow those,” pointing to the Dairneags that had escaped into the city.
“I will not have another Adriel!” Brax erupted. His eyes were ablaze. “This is my city and I—”
“I understand,” Gorn said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “As it is ordered, so it is done.” He turned and summoned ten men, and then raced down the nearest stairwell.
Brax looked to the towers and noticed Benigan atop one, readying one of the massive crossbows, and Boran in the other doing the same. “They will be ready,” he reassured himself. “They must be ready.”
And with that he hoisted his mighty Vinfae and pushed through his men. When he finally neared the fray, the going became tougher, more confined. The din of battle just ahead was violent and loud.
“To me!” he yelled to those closest. “We make for the ladders!”
Just over the heads of those in front of him, he could see the mighty Dairne-Reih lunging and sweeping with massive arms. The crush was strong, and Brax fought just to keep himself from being pinned against the wall. Still he moved forward, inching along as more men followed behind him.
He could hear the grunts of those up ahead, taking the brunt of the attack, parrying with sword and shield, and the inevitable cry of a man meeting his end. A warrior was suddenly flung up and over the wall into the masses below.
Brax’s gaze narrowed.
He was very close now. Only three more men lay between him and his enemy as he stealthily moved along the wall. He pressed on and was soon in the front. The nearest monster had not even seen him.
Brax slipped behind the beast, to encounter another just ahead. But his deadly Vinfae went straight to work. Summoning up a deep roar clothed in the Tongues of the Dibor, Brax let out a violent phrase and then swung his sword in a wide arc around him.
Both the Dairneags in front and behind tensed in agony, the blade severing deep into the back of one and the chest of the other. As they fell, Brax continued the momentum of the swing and then lunged forward, driving his blade into a third just beyond.
“Forward!” Brax bellowed, his clothing laden with the blood of his enemies. He pressed forward with a host of energized warriors behind him.
From up above the four Dylaithloks dove dangerously fast, plunging toward the ramparts, mouths and talons agape. A few archers managed to let off their missiles, but few found their mark. The birds were simply too fast. Brax paused as he watched all four Dylaithlok in succession rip men off the wall just ahead of his position. Their beaks snapped for limbs, their claws managing two men at a time. And as fast as they had come, they were gone, soaring back up into the heights, having claimed their spoils.
Brax growled and bared his teeth.
Do not lose focus, he told himself. Focus!
He surged ahead. His fourth victim was a muscular demon, a ring of horns around each wrist and neck, all protruding outward. The beast swung once, and then twice. Brax ducked and then used the momentum of the third attack to drive the monster’s own arm into its side, the horns snagging its ribcage. It shrieked and tried to pull its arm away, only causing more damage to the wound. The demon spun, desperately trying to dislodge its hand. But Brax drove his Vinfae downward, deep into the monster’s flank.
Now two men had taken up position to his right and left, and together, three abreast, the charge surged forward. Their next foes betrayed their sense of fear and soon met their own fate at the point of the sword.
The onrushing Dairne-Reih had slowed and thought better of their attack. Brax and his men pushed them past the first ladder, dispatched any near the top of the structure, and shoved it away from the wall. Before long, Brax had cut down enough Dairne-Reih to where he could see his men battling on the other flank.
He swung high and low, feinting to draw a clumsy thrust from a demon, and then took advantage of the opening to execute the beast. Before long, he clasped forearms with the warriors further down the wall, and together they surged forward, eager to meet the remaining two ladders.
• • •
High above, Boran had readied his crossbow, the men working quickly at his orders. The massive wooden weapon had been hoisted from far below and pulled over the side, fixed to the turret using clamps, the hewn bow beam bolted onto the main body. The men furiously winched the beam’s tips together to affix the braided cord, and then slowly released the winch just as Luik had cautioned them: if it was not done properly, the bow could cut a man in two.
Finally, the bow cord was ratcheted back into place and one of the thick dyra-tipped bolts was set into its cradle. The dwarves had given Luik a chest of the prized metal when he had first returned from Ot to Mt. Dakka. Not only was there enough dyra to make a number of bolts for the crossbows, he had ordered the rest to be used for arrows for the most skilled archers, including Anorra.
Boran bent over and looked along the bolt, aiming into the night sky by pivoting the heavy platform ever so slightly. He stood up and then looked far across the open air to his brother in the opposite tower. Benigan met his gaze and raised his hand. He, too, was ready.
And the Dylaithlok did not disappoint. As if summoned by the brothers’ own wishes, a series of violent screeches came from the sky. The four had returned.
“There!” one of Boran’s men pointed quickly.
Boran saw it: a grim winged shadow emerging just over the center of the city, racing toward the wall…
…it was closer to him than to Benigan.
It was his shot.
He bent low and aimed the bolt. If he missed, it meant striking the city below. And if it was ill-timed, it meant hurtling the dead bird into the men on the wall, assuming of course, that he killed it.
“Steady,” he coached himself. “Stea—dy.”
He watched as the demon bird sailed swiftly over the rooftops. It was coming in low.
“We’re too high,” one of the other men stated.
But Boran ignored him. He continued to sight in along the shaft and lead his target just a few degrees ahead.
Squeeze, don’t pull, he reminded himself. And then—
The crossbow lurched forward, and the bolt was away. Boran popped his head up, and the others looked on. The bolt raced through the air, aimed dead on. The Dylaithlok flew onward, unsuspecting.
With a jarring blow, the bolt ripped directly through the massive bird’s neck. Flight arrested, the demonized predator tumbled in midair and careened for the wall.
Boran held his breath; the heap of feathered flesh slammed into the base of the wall just below the ramparts, and slumped harmlessly to the city street below.
The men around him let up a whoop of victory and slapped him on the back. He was grateful for their encouragement but knew the hunt was far from over. All the cheering ceased when more screeching came.
Boran and the others looked up, but too late to do anything. A Dylaithlok had closed on their position and perched precariously on the crossbow. It lowered its head and let out a deafening screech. Spittle and bits of human flesh littered the men. The warriors clasped their hands over their ears and fell to their knees.
One brave soul, a swordsman from Bensotha, drew his weapon and charged the foul creature. The Dylaithlok ceased its hideous whine and tracked the man as he flanked it. With the speed of a serpent, the creature lunged and caught the man’s arm. The next image was a blur, the bird shaking the warrior and then wresting the man of his appendage, the better part of his body flung over the side. The Dylaithlok chomped on the limb twice and then swallowed it whole.
But that was the last thing it ever did.
Boran looked up just as a plume of blood burst into the air, a massive bolt protruding from the bird’s chest. The beast teetered on its perch and then pitched over backward, plummeting to the ground far below.
Boran stood up slowly and then peered across to the opposite tower. Benigan stood waving his arm and, as far as Boran could tell, bearing a wide grin.
“You crazy fool,” Boran said with a chuckle. The feat had saved their lives, but was one of the most foolish, yet most intrepid deeds imaginable. Boran wondered if he would have been capable of the same. “You crazy fool,” he repeated.
3 Dylaithlok (die-LAYTH-lock): noun; First Dionian; name given to taken birds of the air; most commonly raptors.
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