“And herrrrre we are, my little lollipops!” Rowe spun to face them and flared his wings dramatically, sketching a bow. “I present to you: the rear entrance of the Grim Visage!”
Tanenbaum and Reich inched warily toward him, craning their necks to peer around at the vista he indicated.
“All the way down there,” the priestess said resignedly.
“Well, you can’t deny it’s a hell of a view!” Rowe said merrily. His ebullient good cheer hadn’t diminished since they’d summoned him, which was beginning to make Tanenbaum nervous. Vanislaads were great ones for not letting on what they were really thinking, so odds were it was all an act, but still. A child of Vanislaas in this good a mood boded ill for…well, everyone.
The Visage itself was still shrouded in his Fog of War, obscuring a band of space around the great central structure which covered its entrances and windows. It was easy enough to tell where the back door had to be, though; of the network of narrow stone bridges and tiny islands which arched unsupported over the seemingly infinite drop below, only one led straight to the rear of the Visage itself.
“That’s gonna be a rough descent,” stated Cross, the House Dalkhaan guard captain accompanying them. Rowe made way for him as he came to the front of the group, kneeling to frown down at the path ahead. The incubus had led them through a series of tunnels and wall ledges to a vantage above the level of the Visage, which afforded them a very convenient—and terrifying—view. “Rough approach, rather. Lot of exposed space to travel, zero cover, awfully easy to fall off… No way in hell I’d try to lead men in an attack on that if the people inside weren’t behind that…cloud thing.” He glanced up at Tanenbaum. “You doing okay with that? Is it gonna hold up?”
“That’s not hard,” the warlock replied, “don’t worry. Infernal spells don’t run out of power the way arcane ones do, so long as the caster can concentrate. This one I only need to touch up every few minutes, not channel it constantly, which is optimally efficient. It will hold until I’m shot, or fall asleep, or something along those lines.”
“This grows more cheerful by the moment,” Reich muttered, glancing back at the troops. Immediately, she did a double-take. “Hey! Where are all the men?”
Tanenbaum and Rowe turned to follow her stare, finding most of their contingent of guards absent. Only three remained, hanging back by the entrance where the tunnel through which they’d come opened out onto this ledge.
“Sent ’em back,” Captain Cross replied, not looking up from his grim survey of the scene below. “They’re ordered to return to the main bridge and hold that position in case the students try to sortie.”
“Do you honestly expect that crew, unsupervised, to hold up against an attack?” Reich demanded scathingly.
“No,” Cross said, his tone even, “I expect them to immediately desert and fuck off back up the stairs, those that don’t manage to fall in the chasm. I’ll deal with any survivors later, assuming I’m one too. The issue is the mission. We’re to try to apprehend rebellious college students, on narrow bridges over a drop straight to Hell—this would be a nightmare even if half those students weren’t magic and the other half nobles. Those galoots were nothing but a hindrance. Let’s face it, at the first sign of trouble, one would panic and start shooting, and then the rest would join in, and it’d be an absolute disaster. Best we could hope for at that point is to be among the dead and not have to face the aftermath.” He finally raised his eyes from studying the path to glance back at the three remaining troopers. “These I trust to follow orders and keep their heads.”
Tanenbaum, Reich, and Rowe all stared at the soldiers, who stood just barely out of earshot of their low conversation, murmuring among themselves. Well, two of them were, the pair of gray-haired men who were clearly older than Cross—who himself was obviously past the customary age of retirement. The third and tallest was at least of fighting age, but not in fighting shape. Though big, his head was noticeably too small for his body, with tiny, close-set eyes and a jaw which hung perpetually open. At the moment, he was staring into space and picking his nose.
“These,” Tanenbaum said flatly. “These are the cream of the crop.”
Rowe cackled and slapped him on the back. “Well, it’s like they say! You go to war with the army you’ve got, not the army you want.”
“Of that crop? Yes.” Cross turned back to the view, ignoring the incubus. “Steiner and Jafar may be long in the tooth, but they’re soldiers—I mean actual soldiers, who’ve served the Duchess as long as I have. Back in our day, there was actual training, and the House guard didn’t take just anybody. And Big Jim is… Well, he’s exactly what he looks like, but he’s good at following orders, and nothing makes him panic. Big, strong, and calm is what’s best for this mission, mark my words.”
“Consider them marked,” Reich said with a sigh. “Well, since we’re here, does anybody have any ideas how we are actually going to apprehend these students? There are over sixty of them. Even if they choose to come along quietly, and they won’t, it’s a logistical nightmare. And disregarding the material threat the students represent, those professors are among the most dangerous people in the Empire.”
“Ezzaniel won’t be terribly dangerous unless he gets close,” Tanenbaum murmured, rubbing his bearded chin with a thumb. “Yornhaldt and Harklund are highly skilled casters, the most immediate threat. Plus Rafe and Morvana. Never underestimate a versatile alchemist. I fear you are correct, Ms. Reich. I had hoped our…patron would have rejoined us by now. He’s the only one who has any idea what the plan is, here.”
“I wonder,” she said quietly, “if that’s not giving him rather too much credit. Has it occurred to you, gentlemen, that since we’ve been brought here with specific forces in a specific situation which can’t really do anything except deploy offensive power against these civilians… Perhaps that is precisely what he intends?”
“Hn,” Cross grunted. “You reckon so? Commit high treason or open fire on a bunch of kids. That’s a thinker. Can’t say I envy you two. Me, I’m old, I know I’ve served well, an’ I’d just as soon not linger to see House Dalkhaan wither away like I know it’s going to. If it comes time for an unwise act of conscience, I’d rather be able to give a good account for myself to Vidius than even my Emperor. For a couple of young career—hey!” He had turned his head again to look at them, but now straightened up, raising his staff, and stared around the ledge. “Where the hell is that demon?”
Reich whirled, glancing about rapidly, and then whispered something very unladylike. The three soldiers were still lounging in the tunnel a few yards away, but there was no sign of Rowe anywhere.
“Oh, he’s quite gone,” Tanenbaum said fatalistically. “The summonstone bound him to lead us to the back entrance of the Grim Visage. That done, he had no bindings and is a free incubus.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be a warlock?” Reich exclaimed. “Couldn’t you have done anything?”
“Yes, in fact.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “I could monitor his infernal presence while it was within range of my own aura, which I did, all the way up the tunnel after he decided to slither off. By this point he’s out of range, and I deemed it best to let him go. Captain Cross has the right of it.” He nodded to the captain. “At this point, it’s a question of who we do and do not want involved in this unfolding debacle, and an incubus is in the second category. Holding one of those creatures against their will is, itself, a fiendishly challenging prospect, and not a task I wish to undertake whilst trying to untangle the knot before us. He was bound to either try to escape or attack us, and since he chose the first option, I say let him go. Hopefully he will choose to make himself Tellwyrn’s problem and not ours.”
“Hopefully!” Reich covered her face in her hands. “We’re going to die down here, aren’t we?”
“I flatly refuse to do so,” Tanenbaum said firmly. “As to what we are going to do… Of that, I am less certain. But I don’t think the Hand is coming back any time soon, and the University people will already be probing at the Fog, assuming he was correct and they plan to escape through the rear. Whatever we’re going to do, we need to figure it out and be about it. Immediately.”
“What is it?” she demanded as he suddenly banked left, veering to the west. At that altitude and speed the wind was enough to silence any voice, but of course they both had acute senses further augmented by arcane means; she didn’t need to raise her tone. “Do you see the zeppelin?”
“I see a zeppelin,” Zanzayed replied. His voice, high-pitched for the draconic depth and power it held in this form, required little help from her magic to be audible even with the air streaming past. “It’s the first we’ve encountered since we passed Madouris, so I dearly hope this is our quarry.” The dragon twisted his head up to grin at her sidelong. “Not that I don’t enjoy palling around with you like the old days, Arachne, but after a few millennia of practice sailing over the countryside loses much of its romance.”
“We never palled around,” she snapped, lifting a hand to hold her spectacles by their frame. “You annoyed me and I kicked your ass, repeatedly, with minor variations. Lower your head so I can see, you clod.”
He barked a noise which she had long since learned to recognize as a chuckle, though it tended to make other mortals faint—which was most of the reason he ever did it in mixed company.
It had taken years of practice and fiddling around to discover the spectacles’ various properties, and she still couldn’t be sure she had them all down, but the binocular effect had been one of the first powers she had unlocked. It was particularly potent for her as these had been designed with human vision in mind; at their fullest magnification she could see the rings of Carrie when it was at the right place in the sky. The glasses’ magic interfaced neatly with the consciousness of the wearer, fortunately, enabling her to zoom in on a moving target even while riding another.
The zeppelin ahead flew the Imperial flag, a silver gryphon on a black field. It was running no signal flags, however. The thrusters were going at full speed—all the thrusters, both the elemental wind tunnels and mechanical propellers. That was significant; no zeppelin pilot would burn through power crystals like that except in an emergency, and right now most of the fleet was doing exactly that over on the west coast to ferry typhoon relief. The only important things happening around the inner frontier, so far as she knew, were at her University. On its current heading the airship wasn’t heading for Last Rock, at least not directly. The course was right, though, if the pilot aimed to swing wide to the west and avoid Calderaas on the way to the Golden Sea.
“Well?” Zanzayed asked impatiently. “You’d best be very sure that’s the right ship, Arachne. This is dicey enough business as it is, even with Vex’s go-ahead; there’ll be no end of hell to pay if I’m involved in attacking a Tiraan aircraft on legitimate Imperial business.”
“Why, Zanza, you are getting downright cautious in your old age.”
“You would be too if you were sharing a manor house with Puff. He can lecture for days on end! That is not an exaggeration.”
“I know, I tried to steal a sword from him, once. Hush a moment, let me scry.”
Thorough scrying required specialized equipment, of the sort that couldn’t feasibly be set up on a dragon’s back in flight. What she could manage with her own skills and her spectacles would be cursory at best, but not for nothing was she Arachne Tellwyrn.
“It’s them,” she said two minutes later, a smile of predatory satisfaction creeping across her face.
“You’re sure?” Zanzayed lifted his head again to give her a sidelong look, once more ruining her line of sight. “What method did you use?”
“Simple: remote viewing and lip-reading. Not hard at all at this range.”
He had started to lower his head again, but now jerked it back up to twist around fully and stare at her—incidentally causing him to begin drifting off-course to the north. “You can read lips?”
“Zanzayed, I am three thousand years old. I can read lips, speak five dead languages, juggle, raise prize-winning pumpkins, weave a tapestry, and my mint chocolate souffle has been known to induce spontaneous orgasms. You pick things up left and right, just by living! That is, unless you devotedly do nothing with your life but chase skirts and devour hors d’oeurve.”
“Mint chocolate souffle, eh? Now that’s a combination—”
“Watch where you’re flying!”
The airship was now close enough to be visible to the naked eye—hers and Zanzayed’s, anyway, not a human’s. They were not within range to be spotted unless the occupants happened to have a spyglass trained on their six o’clock. Not impossible, considering they were fleeing the Imperial capital in a stolen military vessel.
Zanzayed lowered his head and straightened out his course, then began pumping his wings. He smoothly increased in both speed and altitude, gaining on the zeppelin and rising quickly above its crew’s field of view. Some models had observations posts on top, but this was an older troop transport, and would be blind to anything approaching from above its gas envelope.
Below them, knobby hills interspersed with patchy forests and flattish stretches marked the no-man’s land where the mountains of Viridill, rolling hills of Calderaas, woodlands of the Green Belt and prairies around the Great Plains melted into each other. It wasn’t good farmland and had been largely ignored except by shepherds, even the elves retreating south over the last millennium as humanity carved roads and then Rail lines through this territory. This, actually, was the perfect place to intercept their target. It could have been problematic, bringing it down over inhabited country.
“What’s the plan, then?” the dragon boomed, leveling off a good fifty yards above the ship and continuing to close in. “Remember, I’m just the transportation, here. Rebels or no, a representative of the Conclave can’t be torching Imperial interests.”
“I have it well in hand, thank you. Bring me right above the airship.”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” He gave her another amused look with one sapphire eye. “Say, the frames of those things are mostly wood, right? Have to be, metal is way too heavy. I wonder if you could polymorph the whole shebang, like you did to that ship in the Isles that one time? That was empty; I’ve always wondered what would happen if you ‘morphed something with a bunch of people inside.”
“That was a high elven caravel, numbskull; you know those things are functionally living beings. Just because it’s mostly organic doesn’t mean you can polymorph it. You just concentrate on flying and let me do the tricky part. I need to dispatch these interlopers and get back to my campus, not indulge your horsing around!”
He snorted a laugh, producing an actual puff of fire and smoke which quickly dissipated in the wind. They were right above the zeppelin by that point, and actually beginning to overtake it as Zanzayed did not lessen his speed. “I remember when you used to be fun, Arachne.”
“I was amnesiac that day,” she said, and hurled herself off his back.
Tellwyrn neatly straightened herself out, tucking her arms against her sides and shooting right at the zeppelin head-first. After a life as long and full of adventure as hers, one tended to pick up the knack of plummeting from the sky, what with one thing and another. Elven agility helped, but elven weight did not; the wind buffeted her about like a kite. This was just one of the reasons she heavily preferred trousers to skirts.
Still, she had judged her jump to perfection, requiring only minimal course adjustments, and none needing magic. The zeppelin’s huge silvery bulk grew as she shot straight down toward its starboard edge, about a quarter of its length back from the nose.
She spun herself around to fall feet-first and yanked one of her gold-hilted sabers out of the pocket dimension in which she kept it, swiftly reversing her grip and then raising it overhead in both hands.
The blade pierced the fortified silk with satisfying ease. Tellwyrn’s momentum carried her down and dragged the sword through the outer envelope, leaving a long tear in her wake. She applied an efficient little charm to keep it in her grip (and keep it from yanking her arms off) when it snagged as it struck one of the long inner balloons of gas.
That slowed her rapidly, though; even her downward velocity wasn’t enough keep her going, given her meager weight. The last thing she needed was to end up pinned to the side of this thing while it spewed gas and gradually drifted lower. Not with Zanzayed there, he’d never let her live it down. Tellwyrn lowered one hand from the sword to gesticulate downward, applying an invisible tether to the world itself to tug her toward the ground. She released it almost immediately, the boost of speed having done its work.
A bit too well; she had to privately admit to misjudging that spell by a hair. Well, it wasn’t as if she executed this maneuver often. If there ever came a second try, she’d undoubtedly nail it perfectly. But at the moment, the pull wrenched her harder than she’d meant, and she lost her grip on the sword and went tumbling away from the side of the zeppelin.
It was enough, though. The tear was made, and it didn’t have to be a large one.
Tellwyrn went tumbling through space, allowing herself to be spun by momentum and the wind, gathering magic in her fist to execute a compound spell: a simple fireball enhanced with a few augmentations to make it fly straight and true for a much longer distance than they normally did.
She was already well below the level of the zeppelin when she had it ready and her spin brought her around to face upward and at it. Tellwyrn extended a finger in a contemptuous gesture, and fired the prepared streak of flame unerringly into the rent she’d just gouged.
In the next second her tumble had shifted it out of her field of view again, but she could hear the flames catch. And by that point she had more pressing concerns.
Tellwyrn straightened out her fall, spreading her arms and legs to level herself out, facing the onrushing earth. Of course, Zanzayed could easily swoop in and catch her, but she knew him too well to expect that. He’d be far too amused watching her extricate herself from this situation.
A straightforward featherweight spell wouldn’t do any good, given the momentum she’d built up. Instead, she formed an arcane shield around herself, then layered additional spells onto the blue sphere. Lines formed across its surface, and then the spaces between them flattened out, leaving her encased in a faceted shape with numerous hexagonal faces. She poured energy into them, and the facets began blazing to life, directing pure kinetic force.
This was tricky; she’d just made this up on the fly—literally. Well, she had at least half a minute to practice.
Tellwyrn got the hang of it quite quickly, beaming force from multiple facets in a balanced pattern to first stabilize and control her descent, and then project more powerful beams straight downward against her velocity. It was just like walking a tightrope, really, a trivial feat for any elf. In fact, it was her own main column of energy that posed the real challenge, not the actual fall; balancing atop a pillar of force while gradually lessening it as she descended was an order of magnitude more complex than balancing atop a lamp post blindfolded, drunk, and with a monkey scampering around her shoulders.
Now, that had been a hell of a solstice party.
By the time she came within five yards of the ground she was drifting practically like a leaf, and had diminished the main thrust surface down to nothing, only exerting force through the facets keeping her bubble upright. This really was a horribly inefficient spell; rarely had she bled off so much raw power so quickly. It sure was fun, though.
Finally, she dropped the bubble entirely and fell the rest of the way.
Going down at an angle, she hit the ground in a slide, rolled to her feet, and began casually brushing mud off her clothes.
Behind her, the zeppelin, now entirely consumed with by flame, crashed to the earth. Lucky the whole area was visibly soggy from recent rain; that thing was still likely to cause a few fires.
Zanzayed came down almost on top of her, at which she didn’t bat an eye. As expected, he transformed at the last possible moment and applied a much simpler levitation spell than she had used, floating the rest of the way down in a dramatic pose that emphasized the fluttering of his preposterously ornate robes.
The dragon opened his mouth to speak, but Tellwyrn forestalled him with an upraised hand. Then she stepped to the side, and held out her arm.
Her sword shot out of the sky like a missile, its handle slapping neatly into her palm. She had, obviously, applied a charm to prevent the pulverizing damage that should have caused, but it still hit with enough momentum to spin her completely around. She pivoted neatly on the ball of her foot, twirling the saber and then sheathing it in its extradimensional scabbard.
“I knew the dwarf who first designed those things, you know,” she stated primly. “We were drinking buddies. Once the early ones went into production, I told them to fill the damn things with helium. But nooo, nobody listens to the millennia-old archmage. Helium is expensive. Helium requires arduous mining, or complex transmutation, but you can park a college student on a riverbank with an alchemy set and have ’em distill hydrogen right out of the water for pennies an hour. And look what happens! I’ll bet even this doesn’t convince them to start using the non-flammable gas.”
“No bet,” he said dryly. “And speaking of unnecessary volatility, just off the top of my blue head I can think of eight simple spells you could have cast to obliterate that thing without so much as standing up. Do you just make a point of plunging to your doom every so often because it amuses you to watch doom panic when it sees you coming?”
“I remember when you used to be fun, Zanza,” she said, grinning.
“No, you don’t,” he retorted petulantly. “Well, that’s that taken care of, anyway. Why do our dates always end with something on fire?”
“I guess we’re not too old to go dancing after all,” Tellwyrn replied. “Thanks for the lift, Zanza. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bit more treason to commit today.”
“Nothing in moderation with you, as always.”
She smirked, winked, and vanished, the tiny pop of displacement fully drowned out by the ongoing destruction of the zeppelin nearby.
Zanzayed shook his head and turned to study the inferno, and the rapidly-disintegrating structure of the airship within it. Then he snorted loudly and shook his head.
“Well! At least the day wasn’t wasted. Now I can properly rub Razzavinax’s nose in it. The temerity, calling my marshmallow conjuration charm indulgent and pointless. Once again, Zanzayed laughs last!”