The Storm Exploration Guild is one of the largest and most powerful guilds in Dunari. Its job is to detect any Spirit Storm activity and take the appropriate actions if the slightest wisp of trouble emerges from the unknown lands. It does this through a vast network of scouts, early warning stations, weather monitoring creatures, remote machines and lots of other stuff that is mostly top secret.
It also detects countless other airborne and seaborne things too.
This morning Stein Cat announced over breakfast that the Guild had issued notice of a Grey Sorel flyover at 10:34 tonight.
‘The birds will arrive just after dusk,’ he said, licking his lips. ‘Hasn’t been a flyover for four years. They only come this way when the air’s warmer.’
Thinking he was licking his lips in anticipation of catching some birds, I said, ‘Good thing it’ll be dark then, so we won’t have to watch you killing any.’
Stein Cat’s eyes widened. ‘Kill them. Why?’
‘Because,’ Aisling jabbed her porridge spoon at him. ‘That’s what cats do.’
‘Never killed a bird in any of my lives. Besides, Grey Sorels are big as houses. They’d kill me.’
‘Well then,’ I said, jabbing my porridge spoon at him, ‘Why are you so excited?’
‘As you know, absolutely no unauthorised flights are allowed over the Inner City. The Sorels are no exception. They always try to fly across the Inner City, and the City Guard always launch screecher balloon spells to re-route the birds. And . . .’ Stein Cat’s mouth curved into a huge grin. ‘The Sorels crap themselves. We have to go see it. It’s beautiful.’
Suddenly my porridge looked uninviting.
‘Crap themselves?’ Aisling asked. ‘Surely we should stay indoors instead of going out to watch them. We’ll get crapped on.’
Stein Cat cackled. ‘If you knew anything about anything you’d know that Grey Sorels spend the winter eating northern shrimpens. The shrimpens are luminescent. That makes the Sorels’ poo luminescent too.’
When Ganhook arrived for breakfast, he told us that some unexpected business had arisen, and he’d be gone for the day. He didn’t mention the Sorels. He did, however, say we were free to do as we wished in the evening if we cleaned the upper keep, and scrubbed the kitchen floor so well he could see his reflection in it.
Stein Cat had offered to bring us to a good viewing spot to watch the Sorels, a place close enough to see everything, but far enough away to stay clean. He’d also told us to expect trouble because the poo, and any loose feathers, was valuable. People would fight over it.
It was hard to think of anything else throughout the day. Even Shinytop got excited, said that in his younger pickpocket days he loved the Grey Sorel show because when everyone was looking up, he was looking down—into their pockets.
Ganhook returned shortly after seven. He still didn’t mention the Sorels. And I found this unsettling. It felt as if, by keeping silent, he was actually telling us something. It bothered Aisling too. Yet, instead of discussing it, we decided to ignore it in case we heard something we didn’t like.
With Stein Cat leading the way, we trooped out of the compound and headed through the city before climbing a hill that overlooked the Gravelands Plain and Bone Prison Bay. A large crowd had already gathered. And when I looked back over the city I saw crowds perched on rooftops and bone tops and towers.
The sun sank away, making the high points of the city resemble little islands packed with people.
Hawkers arrived, peddling food and beer and umbrellas. Religious nuts arrived, peddling their doom theories of why the sorels were coming this way. Beggars arrived; and begged.
I’m sure the pickpockets had arrived, too, but, on Shinytop’s advice, we’d left our money at home and put mousetraps in our pockets.
At about 10, lights all around us winked out until the city dissolved into a blur of shadows. The crowd fell silent. I grabbed Aisling’s hand, and felt her pulse quickening. I could almost hear the creak of countless necks craning. Even Stein Cat was up on his hind legs, staring upwards. There wasn’t a star out, and the glow of the moon was barely visible behind a cloud bank off in the distance.
Then, from off to the west, I heard the whoosh of approaching wings. The sound grew and filled my ears. Yet, somehow, not being able to see the birds made them all the more mysterious. Their great wings made the air move, and the whistles they used to communicate and keep the flock in order sounded fascinatingly complex.
They were almost above us when some wailing thing shot skywards from the city centre. A second spell flew upwards, zigzagging through the air, and screeching like an endless firework. The beautiful Grey Sorel whistling became a cacophony of squawks and cries of panic and flapping wings.
A little blue glow shimmered high off to our left. Falling, it cut through the night sky, stretching into a long blade of fire as it dropped. Landing on a rooftop, it blossomed into a carnation of blue globes that splattered over the nearby rooftops.
More poo fell. Streams of it, gobs of it, sheets of it, splashing onto rooftops, rolling down tiles, spilling into the streets, the glow outlining parts of the city in a blue haze, and making it look like countless incendiary bombs were falling.
And high above, where the glow hit the clouds, I saw a roiling mass of wings, beaks and legs. Even in their panic, the birds stayed high, and it was difficult to get a proper look.
Amid the screech of the spells and the screech of the birds and the cries from the crowd as they fought over feathers, my head started to spin. Suddenly it all felt wrong.
‘Cool,” Aisling said, the tremor in her voice betraying her sadness.
Yes, it was cool. But it was also cruel, and I wondered why the City Guard hadn’t come up with a more humane way of dealing with the birds. Re-routing them before they reached the city could have been a possibility.
We left soon after that. When we got home we found Ganhook in the kitchen, cradling a glass of his brandy in both hands.
‘Enjoy the show?’ he asked.
‘It was very . . .” Aisling began, but was unable to finish.
‘Rough,’ I said.
Ganhook sipped his drink. ‘Life here is rough. People need distractions. Wait until the next Tall Fires and you’ll see more decent entertainment.’
‘Tall Fires?” Aisling asked.
‘When they test the anti-storm fire defences.’
I was too exhausted to quiz him more about it. I dragged myself off to bed, but lay for a long time thinking about the Grey Sorels, hoping they’d regrouped and were continuing their migration in peace.
The only thing that made me smile was when Aisling came in and told me one of her mousetraps was gone.
I think I’ll rest easier now.