“Sir.” Patrolman Juma landed his Coba on the cliff face beside Captain Beryx. “This section has been searched.”
Captain Beryx shifted his weight to look at Juma. “And?”
“Nothing, sir. Some gazelles here and there, but no sign of the Maaoteo.”
The Captain took a deep breath and exhaled as he looked up at the sky. Another three hours and it will be sundown and it’s a long flight back to the Cloud City where it’s watering crops in central Arh’et. He unfolded his map and crossed off another section. One left before they reach the Forbidden Bridge and then they can call the southern coast of Arh’et searched. He studied the map for a moment, then glanced over at the four Coba dragonflies hovering nearby.
“Do you think they can handle a quick fly-by on this last section before heading back? It’s a short one. Then Captain Cirio’s patrol can start on the east coast tomorrow. We’ll be going to Wind Drifter Island.”
“It’s your call, Captain,” Juma said, lifting the reins to stop his Coba from climbing the rocks in pursuit of a cliff rat.
Captain Beryx looked up at the sky one last time, then waved the other Sky Riders closer. “We’ll ladder-fly along this last section. Each man inspect the cliffs at his elevation. At the Forbidden Bridge we’ll cut across the mountains and head for home. Shouldn’t take much more than an hour to check this last bit, if we hustle.” He nudged his Coba who popped off the cliff and hovered beside the others. “Double-time!” He waved his men forward.
The Cobas spread out in a vertical line, one just above the other as they flew along the cliffs of Arh’et in search of the missing Maaoteo. They followed the jagged coastline, working their way west.
Captain Beryx reached out to stroke his tired Coba, feeling the tiny hairs that covered her purple back. She chirped quietly in response, tipping her head to one side to look back at him with one large eye.
They’d been flying along the coast in sections for days and fighting the air currents along the cliffs was taking its toll on the Cobas who were accustomed to flying at higher altitudes as they patrolled around the Cloud City. “Last shift, Tia. Then you’ll have some time off.”
Juma descended from above on his blue Coba. “Fly through or around, sir?” he shouted, pointing ahead at a huge fogbank clinging to the cliffs.
“Through,” Captain Beryx shouted back. “We have to check all the cliffs!”
“Yessir!” Juma’s Coba rose back to its position in the vertical patrol.
“Half-speed!” The Captain shouted, as they approached the fog. “Maintain your altitude!”
Minutes after entering the fogbank, the Captain’s clothes were soggy from the haze that felt like a drizzling rain pelting against his face. He squinted, trying to see the cliffs through the dreary mist. The whirring of Coba wings above and below gave him some comfort, driving away the sense of isolation the swirling fog pressed upon him.
Reaching into his pocket he tugged out a damp handkerchief and mopped the moisture from his eyelids. It was a futile gesture he realized, as he squeezed the water from the cloth and stuffed it back in his pocket.
His Coba’s wings slowed, burdened by the water clinging to the delicate tissue, and she began to falter. “Just a little bit farther,” he said, stroking the dragonfly’s back.
He peered ahead, straining to see. For a moment, the mist seemed to dissipate, swirling in a ghost breeze. He thought he saw some kind of structure clinging to the cliffs just as he heard a high-pitched squeak. Then, a strange whooshing sound came out of nowhere all around him.
“What the—?” he blurted, as a dark shape came out of the haze. “Abort!” he screamed, as the biggest bat he’d ever seen came through the mist with its mouth wide open to expose jagged teeth. It wrapped its massive wings around the Coba and bit down on its head with a blood-curdling crunch.
Captain Beryx recoiled from the sound and instinctively retreated backwards across Tia’s back. He fumbled through her broken wings, which had folded under the pressure of the bat’s wings, as he scooted away from the fanged jaws that snapped after him.
The screams of his men echoed in the fog around him like disembodied voices as bat and dragonfly fell through the air together toward the sea. Wide-eyed, he looked up just in time to see a painted man on the bat’s back thrust a long spear toward his chest. He grabbed the shaft of the spear with both hands and looked up at the warrior with wide eyes. “Maaoteo,” he whispered, blood gurgling out of his mouth as the warrior retracted the spear and the Ba’at released the Coba.
The Ba’at spread its wings just in time to avoid plunging into the water with Captain Beryx and his Coba, the splashing spray dousing the warrior and his mount as they flew along the surface and disappeared into the mist.