The storm swept in quickly, and broke with punishing force.
Flying through it, Oriny felt the rain hit her exposed skin like needles, the air so cold that it was partially frozen. It weighted her clothes and plastered the folds against her limbs. It took more effort to fly against the rain and the wind, and she could no longer see the ground below her to get her bearings. She was dependent on the spark of sending that guided her like a beacon.
**Tell me again how you love the weather of this world,** came Aerlen’s sardonic observation, and Oriny chuckled to herself.
It was a point of contention between them. He did enjoy the vast expanse of green, growing things, pliant to his plantshaper’s touch. But he complained incessantly about the hardships of the weather — too hot, too cold, too wet, too sunny and parched — so different from the consistency of the crystal ship in which they had lived for so long. Oriny loved the weather for just that reason, that it was different from the pleasant sameness of the Palace.
But she admitted it was harder to welcome the storm, when the shelter of the Palace was denied to them.
This was the fourth year of bloody conflict with the Diggers, since the crash of the crystal ship had stranded them on this world of two moons. No matter all the magic at their disposal — and it did not flow as strongly or come as easily as it had when they flew in the ship — Oriny often wondered if they would ever be a match for the Diggers’ ingenuity, when it came to defense and weapons both. It had taken too long for some of her fellow High Ones to take the threat seriously; and then, after the first wave of shocking deaths, had come the retreat. Some gave up, fleeing the violence and despair, heading further inland in search of a safer home. Those who stayed within sight of the landing-place, and within feeling range of the Palace’s aura, were fewer and fewer as the turns of the seasons went on. And sometimes Oriny wondered how long it would be before they, too, bowed to the inevitable, and fled from the Diggers’ determination to hunt them all down and set their spirits free of these bodies they wore.
**I hope you brought those extra cloaks,** came Befri’s cheerful mind-touch. In response, Oriny let the two plantshapers feel the heft of the pack she wore. She could feel from the strength of the sending link that she was nearly upon them.
The thorn-wall that the plantshapers had grown and nurtured was thick, and long. It formed concentric circles around the valley the High Ones had chosen as their refuge. Indeed, in the center of that valley, their refuge was a palace of wood and vines. Plantshapers and rockshapers alike kept watch, extending their senses into their chosen elements, which would give them warning of any attempt by the Diggers to break through. Given the Diggers’ affinity for earth and stone, however, all of the High Ones felt safer surrounded by defenses of living wood.
The latest breach in the outermost ring of the thorn-wall had been quickly detected by Aerlen. The Diggers did test the wall from time to time, but thus far they had been able to do only superficial damage. Aerlen and Befri had set off to the site of the breach, to focus their magic on repairing it, while Oriny took to the sky to keep watch for danger. Now, the storm complicated everything.
When the wind picked up and the dark clouds blew in from the sea to the west, there was nothing the plantshapers could do but to shape themselves a makeshift shelter while they continued their work. The weather made Oriny’s look-out useless, so she swiftly flew to the nearest cache of supplies, and retrieved the close-woven, waterproof Preserver-silk cloaks that would help make her friends less miserable out in the elements.
**How close are you to being done?** she asked, knowing that Aerlen would not like the question, but needing to know.
**We only just got here,** he grumbled, as expected, while Befri answered more helpfully.
**It’s as if something large smashed through, breaking limbs and trunks,** she explained, showing a picture of the damage alongside her impression through her plantshaping senses. **We are starting from the inside and working outward, and I’m afraid it will take some time. I would dearly like to —**
**What was that?** Aerlen interrupted her, his alarm a sharp pang echoed in Oriny’s own guts. Through him she received a sense of a rushing sound and cracking branches.
**The wind?** offered Befri. **We may have to —**
The female plantshaper’s next thought dissolved into a shriek of fear and pain, so suddenly that Oriny faltered for a moment in her flight. She was aware of a howl of anguish that she could not have heard, but must have felt from Aerlen through his mind-touch. Then Befri’s spark ceased to be, her spirit untethered and gone in an instant, towards the shining crystal impression of the Palace far away, beyond Oriny’s ability to follow.
**Aerlen? AERLEN!** she cried desperately, but since his wordless, shocked sending, she had heard nothing from him, and he did not respond. She redoubled her effort and increased her speed, arrowing towards the spot where she still felt his mind-spark shining and guiding her.
Descending, Oriny nearly collided with the reason for the sudden chaos, as she skimmed over a line of bulky figures, nearly indistinguishable from rocks in the driving rain. Diggers! Somehow inside the outermost ring of the thorn-wall, more of them than she could count. Some of them clustered around an angular structure that she knew had not been there before. Reflexively, she angled her flight, abruptly changing course first this way, and then the other, as the murmur of falling rain was interrupted by the hiss of the Diggers’ arrow-bolts. She evaded them and flew on.
Oriny arrived in the break in the thorn-wall to a sight that made her heart break. The breach was as Befri had pictured it, a narrow avenue of broken trunks and splintered limbs — and now, to the side, the body that Befri’s spirit had worn lay entangled in the wreckage. Some of the branches, Oriny saw, had pierced her many times. The glider looked away from the body quickly.
What caught her eye next was the pale, glistening cocoon that was forming around Aerlen.
“Chatterhop! What happened?” she cried, rushing to the side of the cocoon in time to see Aerlen’s still, blood-spattered face disappear beneath the gauze of the Preserver’s webbing.
The bright blue Preserver finished its job before answering, and Oriny had a moment — just a moment — to be grateful for Aerlen’s habit of taking one of the flutter-winged beings with him when he went out on patrols of the thorn-wall. “Big rock go smashy-smash all through!” Chatterhop gesticulated wildly. “Tree-tops fall on pretty fire-hair high-thing and silver-silk high-thing! Poor poor fire-hair high-thing is all spark-gone, is no use make wrap-stuff, but silver-silk high-thing only got bumpy-head, so Chatterhop wrap up all safe and snug!”
Oriny listened with half an ear, leaning on the cocoon. But it was no use, Aerlen was completely wrapped — and perhaps that was for the best. She wished she could have seen for herself how badly hurt he was, since in her brief glimpse it had looked as if his “bumpy head” had involved an awful lot of blood staining that long, silver hair and pale face. But the Preserver would not have wrapped him if he had, like Befri, been “spark-gone”, so she had to hope for the best.
There wasn’t time to question it, at any rate. The Diggers were too close behind her. Quickly, she took off her pack and shook out one of the cloaks she had brought, wrapping it around the cocoon.
“Why does skytouch fly-high-thing try make more wrap-stuff?” the Preserver demanded. “Chatterhop already do!”
“Because it will be easier for me to carry this way,” she told the small being, wrapping her arms around the surprisingly slight bundle and grasping onto the cloak’s folds. “Come, sit between me and the cocoon, it will be faster to fly that way.” As the Preserver inserted itself into the cloak, grasping on with its tiny claws, Oriny rose into the air with her burden. She mourned for a moment that she had to leave Befri’s body where it lay… but truly, once the spirit was departed, the shell left behind was of no worth — certainly, no worth when compared to Aerlen’s life. So without a further thought, Oriny fled.
But she had hardly flown any distance before she heard the whoosh of iron arrow-bolts in the air around her, and felt the sting as one flashed across her side. She realized with dismay that the Diggers were now between her and the refuge of the High Ones. If she flew over them, she risked their arrows hitting her, or the cocoon she carried. Worse, she had no idea what new weapons they had created, that had been able to splinter the thorn-wall; if she did not know how they were armed, it would be harder to evade their attacks. And in this weather, she would not be able to see if there were other bands of them below her, if she tried to go around them. Making the decision in an instant, she reversed course, and flew away from them as quickly as she could, heading west and out over the sea.
Below her, the surface of the sea sped by, steel grey and roiled with whitecaps in the fierce winds that she flew against. She cared nothing for its roughness, skimming by above it, but took comfort in its emptiness. In all these years, neither she nor the other High Ones had seen the Diggers attempting travel on the water; they were not creatures of the sea. So over the ocean, she was safe from attack, even if she could not keep watch below her.
There was only one choice that offered complete safety now, in fact, and that was the bulk of the twin-mountained island that loomed before her, appearing out of the mists of the storm.
On impulse she headed for the southern peak. It was a quick flight for her, though she could feel her energy waning, due to the burden she carried. The important thing was that it would take far longer for any non-flying threat to reach the island… if the Diggers could reach it at all. But, to be safe, she angled her flight for the upper reaches of the mountain’s slope, skimming close enough to the rocks to find what she was looking for.
She and her fellow gliders had visited these islands in the past. Some had argued that the High Ones should have made their refuge there — but those who could not fly had objected to that idea. Still, Oriny remembered that the island’s peaks were riddled with caves, and it was one of those she sought now. Soon enough she spotted a dark, angular hole, and pulled up in her flight.
Landing and laying the cocoon on the ledge, she surveyed her find. It was not very deep, but the cave’s floor was mostly level, and it was deep enough for her purpose. She pulled the cocoon away from the opening, and set it against the cave’s back wall.
There. That was as safe as she could make it. It was out of the elements and hidden from view. There was only one safety measure left to put in place.
“Chatterhop,” she said to the Preserver, which had come to sit on top of the cocoon, looking at her expectantly. “You must listen to me.”
“Chatterhop listens!” the bug said enthusiastically. “What does pretty fly-high-thing want Chatterhop do?”
Oriny knew how flighty Preservers could be — but they would follow orders, if given clearly enough. “Chatterhop, I need you to stay and guard this cocoon. Do you hear me? You must stay with the cocoon, and guard it, until I return, or one of the other High Ones returns to retrieve it, or until we can bring a healer here for Aerlen. Do you understand?”
“Yes! Yes!” The Preserver bounced up and down. “Chatterhop do! Stay and guard silver-silk high-thing all snug-safe in wrap-stuff, until high-things come!”
“That’s right. Keep the cocoon safe.” There was little, she thought, likely to threaten it here — but you never knew. Though she had picked a cave high up on the mountain, there still might be animals here that could disturb the cocoon, try to gnaw it open. She couldn’t take that chance. She did not mean to be gone long, but it might be a day or more before she could return, with help, either to take the cocoon to a safe refuge on the mainland, or to bring a healer here.
Better to be cautious. And the Preservers were naturally protective of the cocoons they created. She knew that Chatterhop would keep Aerlen safe.
Oriny hesitated. She was tired, and she could take time here to rest… But no. Here, she was out of sending range of her fellow High Ones, and they needed to know that the Diggers had somehow breached one of the thorn-wall rings, even if it was only the outer one. They needed to know what had happened to Befri, and to Aerlen as well.
So she steeled herself to go out for one more flight. Without the need to carry the cocoon, it would be easier, at least.
Briefly, she extended a finger, which Chatterhop grasped. “I will return,” she promised, “or one of us will. Until then, guard Aerlen well.”
“I know you will.” Oriny smiled.
Taking off, the glider thought that the rain and wind were less strong than they had been. That was a blessing, but it still felt harder to fall into the easy rhythm of flight than it should have been. Though the storm was weaker, she had trouble seeing in the dim light, and more than once as she crossed the expanse of water that separated the island from the mainland, she felt her concentration slipping and had to pull herself back to her task.
’I will be there soon,’ she thought, though her sight was filled with nothing but the grey sky and the grey, white-capped sea. She started to wonder if she could afford a short rest once she was over land again…
Changing the posture of her flight, she extended her left arm ahead of her, and felt a sharp pull in her side. She remembered the iron arrow-bolt, and slowed her flight, touching her hand to the rip in her gown. The hand, when she brought it close to her face, was slick and wet and dark with blood in the grey light of the storm.
The shock of the sight and the sharp copper smell of it caused her concentration to falter, and she fell several eights of feet before catching herself again. She stopped her fall, but not gently, and the sudden movement tore at the wound further, wrenching a cry of pain from her that was snatched away by the wind. She hadn’t realized how low her flight had become until she felt the spray blown from the top of a wave, and then the next wave-crest hit her legs.
Oriny lost control of her flight completely, and hit the water fully moments later.
Some part of her mind knew she had to concentrate, and use her magic to pull her out of danger — but concentration was impossible. The salt water filled her mouth and nose and eyes, and she flailed her arms, fighting to rise above it to take a breath. Her sodden clothes became a tangled weight, pulling her down. The wound in her side was agony now, and her leaden thoughts could not push her past it. She was so tired, so very tired, it felt as if all her strength had left her…
The glider dropped deep into the trough of the next wave, and slipped under the swell. She did not resurface.
(Ed. Note: Thank you to Chris for helping with Chatterhop's dialogue. Thanks also to everyone who helped brainstorm the plot, including Melanie for ideas about Oriny's demise!)