“Picking anything up yet?”
“Nothing human. Coupla cats.”
“How do you know they’re cats?”
“How do you know they’re cats? If it looks like a cat and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. These guys think like cats.”
“And different from dogs, yeah?”
“Just like the difference between red and blue. Besides, they’re both normally like, uh, I dunno, a soft glow ... until something lights ’em up. But it takes different things to do it. Cats light up when they see some kind of small critter they can chase, but dogs only do it for people. In f.... Oh, wait! What’s that now?”
“It’s a garl,” Langan said, with a resigned sigh as he pulled his blaster from its holster and checked the charge.
“Here? But… HQ said they only haunt the snow regions!” Shaya pulled her goggles up, peering around the alley corner to try to catch a glimpse of the garl with her naked eyes. She’d never seen one outside of the damned interminable training vids, and she was not prepared for the sight. They were listed as hot-blooded reptiles, but its feathers were scintillating, throwing rainbows from even the weak morning light. “So, are the rumors true, then? Them crazy things do hunt the airna?”
Langan grunted an affirmative as he called in the report. Shaya listened to the reply with a derisive curl of her lips. “They want it to do our job for us. Feckin’ lazy—”
“Hey, you haven’t tangled with an airna. If they want—“
His reply was cut short as the shadows erupted with claws and fangs. Shaya scrambled back, sliding on the muck and detritus she’d noticed only as background noise. She scrambled back to her feet as Langan screamed in defiant pain. Despite the blood, despite holding his guts with his off hand, he lifted his blaster to point at the airna, trying to find its eyes. He wasn’t fast enough, and his hand with the blaster in it went flying, spraying Shaya’s face with blood. She flinched, wiped it away, leaving a smear on her cheek like war paint.
Langan shouted a curse, then followed it with her name, the final sound a half-scream. This finally Shaya from her shock, and her training kicked in. She lifted her blaster, pointing it at the monster, made of shadows and all things that cut, and depressed the button.
A weak stream of light erupted, enough to drive the airna back, but not enough to tear it apart.
Langan swore at her as he scuffed his heels in an attempt to move back. “Are you feckin’ kidding me,” he panted, long pauses between words telling Shaya more than she wanted to know about his pain levels. “You didn’t charge it. Useless feckin’ grunts, that’s the first rule—“
She dropped the blaster and grabbed his shoulders, trying to pull him out of the alley, into the light, into safety. “Shut up,” she muttered, her cheeks glowing red. She could see the shadows shifting now, could see the garl moving, and could taste terror at the back of her throat. She hadn’t understood, not really, not until she’d seen it.
“Backup blaster,” he panted, as she flinched away from a claw poking out at her from a shadow behind a crate.
“I tole you, HQ doesn’t authorize them anymore.”
Langan muttered some imprecation from a dead age, and she slapped the compression skin around his stump a little less gently than she should. He hissed, his dark skin turning a sickly shade of grey.
She looked away, into the eyes of the airna, and fell. Its eyes swirled, scintillating like its feathers, and it spread wide wings as it turned its head side to side, studying her. She felt it in her head, trying to bridge some gap between them full of color and sound she could not hear or see.
It hopped between them and the wall, eying the darkness, and the darkness hissed, just like a cat. The airna chirped, a strangely musical sound, and then it struck. Shaya startled at how fast it moved, and then hunched her shoulders against the sounds of the garn’s apparent agony. High pitched warbles punctuated hissing snarls and screams, and she shuddered. She held fast to the compression skin, though, despite the urge to cover her ears against the monstrous sounds.
She spotted Langan’s face, looking past her at the battle, and could not help but turn and look.
The airna held light, and its cupped its wings and drove shards of light into the shadows, into the garn. The garn slithered, trying to hide in pockets, in holes, in the bits of darkness that humans had built around their dwellings and marketplaces. It struck out with slashes against the light from pockets of darkness, trying to score a blow, trying to defend itself. It shivered from everywhere. Even the tiniest shadow, cast by a brick on the mortar that held it in place, could hold pieces of garn.
As the airna drove the light into the wall, the garn disintegrated, screaming, lashing out with its claws, with teeth. But they bounced off the airna, gaining no purchase. Shaya crossed herself even though she hadn’t been to church since she was 12, watching the airna bleach the bricks with light.
She had to look away as the airna increased the brightness, until it was a white mist against her eyelids, false heat and warmth. Within moments, it was over.
She opened her eyes again, this time to red brick, white mortar, and an airna studying her. Langan grabbed her arm weakly as she started to stand up. “What’re you doing? You can’t—“
“I think I can,” she replied, shaking free. “I’ll be back.”
She approached the airna carefully, slowly. It continued to flick its head back and forth, staring down its short, curved beak at her. Every movement it made, its feathers shimmered, shifting from blue to silver to red to gold… Shaya couldn’t even name some of the shades.
She reached out a hand, and heard “ahh,” in her head, and suddenly she knew.
“Its name is Garakh,” she said in wonder.