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Staever jumped up the instant the bird flew clear. Two pairs of claws pulled him back.
“What are you doing?” Eventhe hissed. “If you break our cover, you will only show it more food.”
“I don’t plan to stay here and watch.” Staever wrenched himself from her grip. “There are a hundred lobsters up there.”
“Hey, I know I’m the man of action and all,” Arcite cut in, “but Ev’s right. We can’t barge out there waving our claws.”
The clan lobsters ran from the bird that circled in the sky over them, beating its great wings to stay aloft. The demon didn’t dive. It was herding the lobsters together.
He turned to his friends. “I have an idea. It’s difficult and pretty stupid.”
“I don’t have an idea,” Arcite said. “Puts you a leg up.”
Staever looked again at the plateau. “We’ll all run up the bridge at once. That thing might go for us instead.”
“Then we get eaten,” Eventhe said. “Good plan.”
“If it works,” Arcite pointed out. “We’re aspiring to get eaten.”
“Will you let me finish?” Staever prepared to move. “Arcite, I need some red clay pellets.”
Arcite grimaced. “It’s a delicate process.”
“I trust you,” Staever said. Arcite opened his mouth to reply and gave up. “Once the demon comes near us, pelt it.”
“They won’t hurt it.”
“Just to knock it around. Make them small. We’ll need all the ammo we can get.”
Eventhe asked, “What will we do at the tower?”
“Get that clan where the bird can’t follow us,” Staever replied. “Let’s go!”
The three ran as fast as their legs would go, nearing the base of the southeast bridge. Arcite furiously shaved slivers off the chunk of clay in his satchel, rolling them into balls and sticking them along his back. They reached the stone slope right as the air demon dove past the left side of the bridge and circled to face them. One of its eyes was the size of his whole body, and its wings, with plumage the dirty grey color of the mountains, were long enough to wrap around a lighthouse. It was more building than bird.
It rose, far closer, flapping its wings. Silhouetted against the sun, it wheeled to face them.
“Get ready!” Staever called. Arcite speared a pellet on his claw. As Staever scrambled upwards, fatigue dragging his legs, the bird disappeared behind him. “Ev, distance on the demon!”
“Two hundred paces!” Eventhe called back. They weren’t halfway up the bridge. Throw true, Arcite…
Arcite skidded to a halt and looked the air demon straight in the eye. “One hundred–“ Eventhe began, and Arcite hurled the bomb.
By the time the pellet left his claw, the bird was close enough for Staever to feel hot breeze from its wingbeats. The bomb landed on its neck, followed by more explosions, four or five at a time striking wings and sticking to feathers.
A screech split Staever’s antenna. He opened his eyes to see the bird list sideways, beat its wings in vain, and tumble below the underside of the bridge. A few paces upward and it would have smashed the supports to pieces.
“Keep moving,” he croaked. Arcite tossed one more shot as the bird passed beneath. The pellet sailed short and plummeted toward the canyon below.
“I said to save your ammo,” Staever chided. Arcite grinned like a child. They kept running.
Another squawking cry tore his head open, closer and more painful than the last.
“Do not move!” Eventhe called.
“What?” Something in her voice made him stop. On his right, a grey-feathed inched up above the edge of the bridge.
“The air demon has hooked its talons into the support structure of the bridge,” Eventhe said. Arcite hopped next to her, agitated as she was calm, playing out the urgency of her words. “It can reach you with its beak.”
“Arcite, can you hit it from there?”
Arcite shook his head. “Not going near that thing.”
Staever could have strangled him. “I’m going to make a run for it!”
“No! Stay where–”
He dove and scampered. The bird smashed its beak where he’d been seconds ago. The bridge groaned at the blow. He shielded himself with his claws as the beak rose again.
Eventhe sped past him, dragging Arcite. The bird tried to look in two directions at once. Staever ran.
The demon disentangled one talon, but Eventhe was ready for it. When its feathered body sprawled over the bridge, beak snapping at its prey, she swung her claws at its eye.
It screamed once, then twice, as though it had to draw breath. Blood, a hideous shade of red, leaked from its eye. Its wings beat feebly.
At long last, its grip on the bridge loosened, and it fell backwards into the chasm. Staever, Arcite, and Eventhe didn’t stop until they hit solid ground.
Arcite began to laugh. “Ev, did you punch that thing?”
“I did what I trained for,” she replied. Suddenly she was looking at Arcite. Staever, though stunned at what they’d driven off, pictured Emaria looking at him that way. Impossible.
“Staever!” somebody shouted. With a surge of excitement, he saw the clan gathered against the pile of dirt at the shrine’s foundation, turning to each other in puzzlement. Only Xander, in front, showed no emotion. An old man emerged out of the shrine’s shadow, pushing through the crowd.
“Graphus,” Staever muttered.
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