The fourth book in the Well of Echoes series
PART OF THE S OUTHERN HEMISPHERE OF SANTHENAR
THE DRY SEA
I would like to thank my editors, Kay Ronai and Nan McNab, for their hard work and patience over the five years it’s taken to write this series. Thanks also to my agent, Selwa Anthony, for her support, and to Janet Raunjak and Laura Harris at Penguin Books, and to Tim Holman at Orbit Books. And, not least, to everyone at Penguin Books and Orbit Books who has worked so hard to make this series such a success.
Little Ullii, the mildest and meekest person in the world, tested the blade of the pilfered dagger concealed in her coat. She was going to revenge herself on the man who had been her first friend and only lover, and the father of her dead baby. She was hunting Nish, and when she found him she planned to cut out his heart, for that was just what he’d done to her.
‘Seeker? To me!’
Ullii started and looked around guiltily. She loathed Chief Scrutator Ghorr almost as much as she hated Nish, but she feared Ghorr as only the truly helpless could. He was a brute, a monster, and she was in his thrall. She scurried to his side to betray the rest of her friends.
The Council of Scrutators had attacked the ancient fortress of Fiz Gorgo before dawn with overwhelming force and complete surprise, taking most of their victims in their beds. With Ullii to pinpoint them, mancers as powerful as Yggur and as subtle as Malien had been captured within minutes, along with dozens of lesser victims. Now only a few remained, but among them were the two that Ghorr wanted most desperately.
His victory was almost complete and Ghorr was going to finish the rebellion here and now. The trials would be swift, the executions swifter. By the end of the day no one, from the least scullery maid at Fiz Gorgo to Lord Yggur himself, would be left alive. And every detail of the trial and the bloody executions was to be recorded devotedly by the war artists, recorders and tale-tellers. The whole world had to know that there was no escape for traitors, not even those hiding in distant territories under enemy occupation. Every citizen of Santhenar, down to the smallest child, must hear the tale of the rebels’ brutal end, and take the lesson.
But Ullii plotted a different fate for Nish; Nish who had slain Myllii, the beloved twin brother for whom she’d searched since she was four. He had claimed it was an accident but Ullii knew better. She had to take retribution with her own hands. Without it, neither Myllii nor her son Yllii could ever find peace in their graves. She was going to carve out Nish’s treacherous heart and feed it to the carrion birds that were already circling above the walls of Fiz Gorgo in expectation of the feast.
Ullii crept down the corridor beside the chief scrutator. Her eyes were masked against the torches of his troops, for Ullii was so sensitive that bright light burned her eyes. Fortunately she did not need to see. Her mental lattice, her unique and, to others, incomprehensible way of viewing the world, told her where she was even in darkness.
Her ears were covered to keep out the clangour of battle and bloodshed, the roars of the soldiers, the screams of their victims, the thud of weapons against armour, flesh and bone. Ullii could not see Nish in her lattice because, lacking any talent for the Secret Art, he did not appear there. But her most sensitive sense was not veiled in any way. She was tracking Nish by his scent. Nowhere he could go, nothing he could do could prevent her from finding him among the myriad of other smells and stenches that threaded the frigid air of Fiz Gorgo.
Fortunately Ghorr was not aware of that talent and, in the afterglow of a victory more complete than he had ever dared hope for, he seemed to have forgotten about Nish. He was not in the same league as the great mancers Gilhaelith, Malien and Yggur. Nish was insignificant compared to the unexpected discovery of Tiaan and the priceless flying construct, not to mention the powerful and enigmatic amplimet, a crystal that drew power from the field without human intervention. Ghorr’s personal guard had already secured all of them and the chief scrutator could not help gloating over it.
He heaved her back by the arm. ‘Stay behind, Seeker. Don’t endanger yourself. We’ve yet to find the arch-fiend, Xervish Flydd, and he could slay you with a single glance.’
Ullii knew that wasn’t true, and moreover Flydd had treated her far more kindly than the chief scrutator ever did. However, she stopped at once; Ghorr took pleasure in inflicting pain, particularly on the weak and powerless.
‘Well?’ he said, pulling off her earmuffs to roar in her ear, though she could hear him clearly through them, and he knew it. ‘Where is the renegade, Seeker?’
Before she could answer, a soldier came running. ‘Two people have barricaded themselves in a chamber down to your left, Chief Scrutator, surr. Mancer Squilp says the place has a strong tang of the Art.’
‘Is it Xervish Flydd, Ullii?’ said Ghorr, crushing the bones in her gracile arm.
She closed her eyes behind the mask, the better to visualise her lattice. The noise hurt and the violence frightened her, making it difficult to concentrate. The lattice was faint again today. It had been fading for weeks now, and that filled her with dread. What if she lost it completely? Ullii had created her lattice as a lost and lonely little girl and, in the desperate years since, it had been the only thing keeping her sane. Her solitary achievement had given her pride in herself. It was now the only crutch she had left.
‘Hurry up!’ hissed Scrutator Fusshte, thrusting his pockmarked reptilian face at her behind Ghorr’s back.
Ullii recoiled. Fusshte was a creeping monstrosity whose nearness brought her out in goosepimples.
Ghorr urged him out of the way. ‘She can’t be forced, Scrutator,’ he said acidly. ‘Won’t you ever learn?’
Fusshte backed off, but Ullii saw his malevolence as a corrosive knot in her lattice. Even Ghorr was preferable to the slithering horror that was Scrutator Fusshte.
‘Well, Seeker?’ said Ghorr.
‘It’s Xervish,’ she conceded. Ullii had once regarded Flydd as a friend and knew she was betraying him to his doom, but she wasn’t strong enough to resist. Even if she had been, Ghorr would happily break her to find his enemy. ‘And Crafter Irisis.’
‘Splendid,’ said Ghorr. ’What are they doing, Ullii? Surely they know that locking themselves in is useless?’
‘Breaking the floor,’ said Ullii with lowered head.
‘Reinforce the mancers just outside the door,’ snapped Ghorr to a messenger, who hurried away. ‘Captain,’ he turned to a hulking officer, each of whose intricately tooled military boots could have accommodated Ullii’s head and neck, ‘lead us to the room below Flydd’s. Bring two squads. Fusshte, take a third squad down the far stairs and cut off the other exit.’
Ghorr allowed his troops to take the lead, then caught Ullii’s arm and hauled her down the stone staircase. As they crossed a landing, a muffled roar shook the building.
‘Quick, Captain!’ said Ghorr. ‘Flydd’s broken through. Take him and Irisis alive and there’ll be a bonus for you.’
The soldiers hurtled down the steps, swords raised. Ghorr kept well back. The chief scrutator guarded his life like a miser his hoard.
They reached the bottom step, rounded the corner and there, in the flickering light of the soldiers’ torches, stood the fugitives. Irisis had stopped dead when she saw the soldiers, then raised her sword. Flydd glanced over his shoulder at the cluster of dancing torches and his skinny shoulders sagged. Scrutator Fusshte and his heavily armed troops blocked the only way out.
Ullii lifted her mask for a moment. Xervish Flydd, a small man of some sixty years, looked more scarred and emaciated than ever. Though it was bitterly cold, he wore just a bedsheet, hastily knotted about his hips. Beautiful Irisis Stirm was dressed in brown woollen pantaloons and a loose shirt which could not conceal her luxurious figure. Her yellow hair was unbound. They were both covered in grey dust.
Ullii pulled the mask down, as if to hide from her former friends, but Flydd had already seen her. He shook his head, a moment of desolation, and Ullii knew she had done a terrible wrong. But what else could I do? she thought plaintively, slipping into the shadow behind Ghorr before Irisis could see her.
‘Xervish Flydd,’ said Ghorr in a treacly voice. ‘Irisis Stirm. I’m so pleased to see you both again.’
Irisis shifted her weight, holding the sword two-handed, but Flydd drew her back. ‘There’s no point, Irisis. Put it down.’
After a long hesitation, she let the sword fall. The soldiers took hold of the pair and swiftly bound their hands.
‘These are the last,’ said Fusshte. ‘Let’s get the trials underway, Chief Scrutator. The executioners grow impatient.’
‘The executioners wait upon my pleasure,’ Ghorr said icily. ‘Take the prisoners out to the yard, Captain.’
Ullii pressed back into a niche in the wall, hiding from herself. Flydd had let her down, certainly, but he’d been kind to her too, and always looked after her. And she’d betrayed him to a monster.
Taking off the mask, she rubbed her eyes, trying to work out where it had all gone wrong. As Flydd was dragged past, his eyes met hers for a second. He knew Ullii had betrayed them; he was looking right into her heart and, worst of all, he understood.
The guard jerked on the rope; Flydd stumbled away. Ullii crouched down in her niche, shivering violently. Cold rarely bothered her but now she felt like a statue carved of ice. She was just as bad as Ghorr.
Irisis was dragged past. Hastily pulling down the mask, Ullii turned her face to the wall until the crafter had gone by. Irisis would neither understand nor forgive.
The troops led their prisoners upstairs, gloating and calculating their shares of the reward, and getting in vicious blows when Ghorr wasn’t looking. Ullii remained where she was. Ghorr took little notice of her at the best of times and, now that he had his enemies at his mercy, would not give her a moment’s thought. It was easy to conceal herself in the darkness, for no one was more skilled at hiding than she.
She slipped into a room that had already been checked while Fiz Gorgo was searched one more time. Finally, the soldiers tramped out into the yard. The scrutators had gone. Ullii tracked the knots they made in the eye of her lattice. They went out through the broken front doors of Fiz Gorgo and up onto the outer wall, from whence they were hauled up in rope chairs to the comfort of the hovering air-dreadnoughts, doubtless to indulge themselves in an orgy of congratulations. The prisoners and their guards were left to shiver in the ice-crusted yard until the preparations for the trial were complete.
Fiz Gorgo was silent now. Ullii put her head out the door. The darkness was comforting and she felt the lattice strengthen a little, but she had lost her purpose. Seeing Flydd that way had thrown her. Then a familiar tang raised bumps on her arms. Nish!
She tasted the air, nose up like a mouse. To Ullii, Nish was his smell, and she could have identified him anywhere. She’d picked him out from sixty thousand soldiers and slaves when he’d been sentenced to haul bogged clankers out of the sodden battlefield at Snizort last summer.
There was a trace of his spoor down here, though the scent was old. On the ground floor it had been stronger. Ullii took off the mask and earmuffs. Her sensitive eyes could see well enough in the dark, not that she needed to. She eased up the farther stair, the one Fusshte had come down. The stench of him drowned out all other smells: stagnant water in the flooded labyrinth below, mould growing on the walls, the faint odour of woodworm and rotting timber, and even the unwashed, sweaty reek of the soldiers. Fusshte had a sour, festering stink that made her nostrils pucker and her toes curl.
It was brighter on the ground floor. A gloomy daylight seeped in through the broken front doors, though it cast little light around the corner to this narrow hall. The breeze was blowing away from the doors and she could not tell if Nish was out there. Dare she look? Easing to the shattered remnants of the great doors, Ullii covered her eyes with her fingers and peered out.
She didn’t see Nish. The prisoners were kept apart, save for Flydd and Irisis, and each was surrounded by burly guards. All the men of Ghorr’s guard were tall and Nish, a small man, would not be visible behind them.
Ullii went back and forth, testing the air for every tendril of odour, and, around the corner, picked up an old scent. She could even tell that Nish had been weary when he’d come this way. He’d plodded down the corridor before stopping for a moment. Why? Ullii smelt Irisis’s fresh, creamy tang and her fists clenched involuntarily. Nish and Irisis had been lovers once, before Ullii had met him. She sniffed the air. He’d gone into her room!
She tracked him to the bed and he’d been in it. He’d lain with Irisis just hours ago. How dare he? Ullii didn’t operate on logic – as far as she was concerned, Nish had been hers ever since they’d made love in the balloon in the treetops near Tirthrax, at the end of last winter. He’d made her pregnant there, and even though he’d killed her brother since then, she would share him with no one.
It firmed her faltering resolve. She tracked Nish to his little room. The bed was cold but a fresher scent led around the corner, into the main hall and up in the direction of the front door. There she lost it.
Ullii crept along the hall on her toes, keeping to the left-hand wall, ready to dart away should someone approach. She could hear the guards talking in the yard, gravel crunching under their boots and an occasional mutter or plea from the bound prisoners, always answered with a jeer or slap.
She headed for the stairs to one of the tower balconies she’d seen from Ghorr’s air-dreadnoughts, so she could look down into the yard. A few steps up, she detected Nish’s spoor once more, and it was fresher. He’d gone this way in the last few hours.
Unfortunately he’d come down again; she smelt him on the other side of the staircase as well. Nonetheless, she continued up to a landing on the second floor, where she went down on her belly and crawled to the edge. The scent was stronger here. He’d spent some time with the tall mancer she now knew to be Yggur.
Ullii looked down into the mist-wreathed yard and made out Yggur easily, as well as the even taller mancer with the frothy hair whose attempt to escape had enabled her to find Fiz Gorgo in the first place. They were bound hand and foot, and tightly gagged to prevent them speaking any spell or word of power. Flydd and Irisis stood together, not gagged but surrounded by a double halo of guards. The old Aachim mancer, Malien, was by the wall, also bound and gagged, and watched by a pair of Council mancers. The other rings of guards enclosed people she could not identify, but Nish was not among them.
So how had he, alone of all the clever people here, managed to escape? Not knowing the answer, Ullii crawled back to the steps and allowed her senses to guide her.
A faint odour led up, though only to chaos that was also her doing. Using her lattice, Ullii had pinpointed the locations of several uncanny devices designed to protect Fiz Gorgo. The top of this horned tower had housed one of them, but it and the other devices had been blasted by amplified sunbeams from the air-dreadnoughts at the beginning of the dawn attack, melting the very stone and destroying everything inside. Nish could hardly be up there now, though she could detect no track coming down.
Nonetheless, the lingering scent trail went up, so Ullii followed. By the next turn of the stair the stone had grown perceptibly warm and she smelled the peculiar dry odour of overheated rock. On the turn after that the steps were sprinkled with ash, charcoal and gritty granules of slag.
It was hard to move silently here for the grit squeaked underfoot, a high-pitched abrasive sound that irritated her sensitive ears. She trod as softly as she could but by the next turn of the stairs the ash and grit were ankle-deep. At the landing after that the stairs were blocked by a crusted flow of melted stone, black on the outside but deeply cracked and glowing within. The crust, resembling dirty glass and slag, was embedded with pieces of charcoal and half-burnt wood. A sagging pewter mug protruded from one edge.
The flow was so hot that it dried out her eyes. Ullii could not find any way through the smoke and heat haze so she went down to the main hall, crisscrossing the building like a mouse hunting for food. None of Nish’s scent traces led out of Fiz Gorgo. The most recent was the one that had gone up the steps to the destroyed tower. Perhaps he’d gone up twice and only come down once.
Climbing an adjacent tower, one that hadn’t been attacked, she peered through an embrasure. The mist was growing thicker and turning to light rain that drifted on the breeze. It was miserably cold and dank but Ullii preferred cold to heat.
From here she had a good view of the ruined tower. She’d led Ghorr’s forces to it, had pinpointed exactly where the defensive devices were, and where to aim their incandescent, rock-melting beams of crystal-boosted sunlight. The horned tower was now bent like a banana, a couple of floors below the top. The beam had burned in through an embrasure, liquefying everything inside that chamber. The thick outside wall had bent like toffee then set again, though the stone was sadly cracked and fretted. Pieces of stone fell as she watched, and the wall steamed gently in the rain.
If Nish had been in that chamber, he could not have survived. Even had he been in the rooms above, the heat must have burned him alive. Not a pleasant death, nor what she’d intended for him. Before Ullii cut out his heart, she’d wanted him to know why.
After leaving Irisis in the early hours of the morning, Nish had gone back to his cold bed, but had not managed to get to sleep. He couldn’t stop thinking about the morrow. They were due to leave in Malien’s thapter to attack the Council of Scrutators’ secret bastion, Nennifer, and attempt to overthrow them, for the Council was never going to win the war. Indeed, it no longer seemed that it wanted to, for the war kept the scrutators in power. But Nennifer was defended by a thousand crack troops, hundreds of mancers and all manner of uncanny devices, so how could a handful of people, even including Flydd, Yggur and Malien, hope to breach it? It seemed, at the least, suicidal. And why were he and Irisis suddenly being kept in the dark? It hurt, after all they’d done over the past months.
Despairing of ever getting to sleep, Nish dressed in his discarded clothes, which had already taken on the frigid dankness of the room. Pulling on icy boots, he laced them up and stamped his feet, trying vainly to maintain the warmth he’d had from the bed. At the noise, someone muttered angrily from the next room.
Nish shrugged into his coat, pulled a floppy hat down over his neck and ears, and went to the door. With his hand on the latch he thought about going back for his sword, but Fiz Gorgo was the safest place on Santhenar. He left it leaning against the wall.
He had planned to go out the front doors and pace around the outer wall, but as he cracked the door open, such an icy wind coiled in that Nish closed it and headed for the tower instead. This time he did not stop at Yggur’s balcony, but felt his way up the snake-coiled stone stair to the very top. It was pitch black outside – he could see nothing through the embrasures.
On the fourth- and fifth-floor landings, open doors led to black rooms. Nish didn’t look inside; he hadn’t brought a lantern. The rooms on the sixth and seventh floors were locked and, he suspected, sealed with the Art. They held some kind of defensive artefact – Nish had once overheard Yggur telling Flydd about it. He trudged up to the eighth level, a lookout tower that had not been manned during Nish’s time in Fiz Gorgo. Not even the lyrinx, who owned the rest of Meldorin, came near Fiz Gorgo.
At the top he peered out the western embrasure towards the town of Old Hripton, several leagues away around the bay, but the icy breeze made his eyes water and he couldn’t see any lights. Pulling his coat around him, he sat on the stone bench that ran around the circumference of the room. As soon as he sat down, Nish felt drowsy, so he folded up the hood of his coat for a pillow, lay on his back and closed his eyes.
Despair chased the drowsiness away. The world lay in ruins. The Council had failed, the war was in its last desperate stage and the enemy was going to win it. Whole nations had been wiped out, vast regions depopulated as if a great plague had crept across them. Few people had any hope now. They were just going through the motions of fighting and dying. From the lowest peasant to the rulers themselves, hopelessness was all-pervading.
The scrutators attacked despair as they attacked every other crime – with violence – but violence no longer had any effect. A people without hope were glad to die. Human civilisation was going to fall and even its precious Histories would disappear as though they had never been. Nish felt like weeping but his eyes were gritty dry.
And so, Flydd’s mad plan to attack Nennifer. If the corrupt Council could just be overthrown, men and women of stout heart might still be able to hold back the horde and set the world to rights. If anyone could do it, it would be Flydd, who had made the protection of humanity his life’s work. But Nish knew it was folly; no attack could succeed against such defences. They were all going to die, yet somehow it seemed worth it to go out in such a noble, reckless endeavour. Humanity was going to disappear anyway, and falling in battle against the scrutators was better than being eaten by the lyrinx. There wasn’t a person on Santhenar who did not shudder at that thought. It didn’t seem right that all humanity’s greatness should be extinguished in such a lowly, savage way.
Nish was drifting in and out of sleep when he heard a curious squelchy plock, like a hammer being whacked into wet dough some distance away. He thought about getting up to see, but weariness overcame him. Surely it was just a frog jumping onto the stone floor.
Plock, plock. His subconscious must have continued to puzzle away at the sounds, for Nish woke with a jerk. It wasn’t a frog – it was the sound made by a crossbow bolt embedding itself into a human body.
He shot up, heart pounding, and stumbled to the nearest embrasure. It was growing light outside, the sun’s first rays illuminating a layer of mist that blanketed everything below the treetops. Nish looked out and the blood froze in his veins.
There were air-floaters everywhere – no, air-dreadnoughts – gigantic vessels each supported by five airbags, and three or four times the length of Flydd’s air-floater. The sides of each vessel were lined with soldiers and at the prows fluttered the silver pennant of the Council of Scrutators. Nish counted nine air-dreadnoughts, then six more from the other side of the chamber. No, seven – a sixteenth hung high above, on watch. Fiz Gorgo was surrounded.
Nish opened his mouth to roar out a warning, but snapped it closed. They’d already shot the sentries and would do the same to him. Besides, no one in Fiz Gorgo would hear him from here. As he ran for the stairs, eye-searing beams lanced out from cartwheel-sized mirrors on the air-dreadnoughts, converging on the secret chambers of the tower below him.
The floor swelled beneath his feet, grew burning hot and the world exploded in his face. The last thing he saw was a nebulous, shield-like bubble rise through the stone like some phantom created by a master of the Art. A corner of it enveloped him just as his head thudded into the wall.
Nish roused to the odours of burning cloth and smouldering leather. He lifted his head but it hurt. He was lying on what had been the floor of the lookout, but was now a jumble of cracked and broken slabs collapsed onto the domed ceiling of the secret chamber below. An edge of rough stone dug into his ribs. Nish slid off it onto a flat slab, which proved to be uncomfortably warm. He rolled onto a cooler one and looked straight through the wall. A triangle of stone had fallen out leaving a hole he could have put his head through. He moved and the walls appeared to shift before his eyes. No, the top section of the tower was tilted and was surely going to collapse.
The slab under him was growing hotter. Nish rolled off onto the next without checking it first, and pain seared through his back and buttocks. He pulled himself to his feet and picked his way across the rubble, his boot soles smoking. The floor in the centre was burning hot. The blast had made an inferno of Yggur’s secret chambers and the floor could collapse through the dome at any moment. He could feel the stone quivering.
He sprang across to the nearest embrasure, where the floor seemed a little more solid, and began beating at the smoking cuffs of his trousers. A section of cloth the size of a saucer fell out and the skin underneath began to blister. He pressed it against the damp stone, then did the same with his boots until the fumes disappeared.
His calf was really stinging now. Scrambling from slab to slab around the perimeter of the chamber to what looked like a marginally safer position, Nish discovered that seepage had frozen on the inner lip of one embrasure to form grey ice. He broke off a piece and held it to the blistered flesh until the burning eased, though as soon as he took the ice away the pain came back, worse than before.
There was nothing he could do about it. Edging to an embrasure that looked over the yard, Nish peered out, careful to make no sudden movement that would betray him. The sky was full of descending ropes, each bearing a squad of armoured troopers clinging to hand- and foot-loops. Several ropes had already touched down on the outer wall and troopers were running along it, taking charge of the defences and picking off Yggur’s guards as they ran from their barracks.
Another squad, already in the yard, was preparing to storm the front doors. Across the far side of the yard a group of twenty or more soldiers, dressed in the distinctive uniforms of Chief Scrutator Ghorr’s personal guard, were breaking into the shed in which the thapter was stored. How could they have known it was inside?
It was the Council! Fiz Gorgo had been betrayed. Nish slid out of sight as an officer glanced up at the smoking tower. Had he been seen? He couldn’t tell. He heard the thunder of boots as a host of troopers surged through the broken front doors.
They’ll get a shock inside, he thought. Yggur, Flydd and Malien would together be the match of a small army. He looked down again and saw a group of warrior mancers follow the advance guard, staves at the ready, and after them squad after squad of heavily armed men. No, there was little hope; the scrutators were too well prepared.
Smoke began to seep up through cracks in the dome. Tossing away the fragment of ice, Nish snapped off another and pressed it to his burning calf. The stone he was standing on was growing hotter and he couldn’t see any way out. The stair was completely blocked by hot rubble. He couldn’t possibly climb down the wet stone on the outside of the tower. His only means of escape was by jumping out one of the embrasures, though below him the drop was eight floors to the paved yard – certain death. In the other directions, the fall was five floors onto the sloping roofs of Fiz Gorgo, which were tiled with thick slabs of lichen-covered rock. He’d either crash straight through, tearing himself to shreds on the broken slabs, or, more likely, break all his leg bones as he landed.
The yard offered a quick death; the roof, lingering agony. If he stayed here, he’d be either cooked or smoked to death. The stone groaned and the tower lurched, as if a lower layer had become plastic. Falling into the inferno was his other doom. Nish hopped from foot to foot. The soles of his boots were smoking again. There was nowhere to go. Or was there?
The horned roof above him was framed with metal rods that had to be cooler than what he was standing on, and if the tower collapsed, there was a faint chance that the roof might hold together. If the tower stayed up, he might, just possibly, survive up there until the inferno went out. It didn’t seem likely but he had no alternative.
Nish eased a smouldering beam out of the rubble, with much burning of fingers and the soles of his feet, and propped it against the wall. He dragged himself up it, caught hold of an iron rod and pulled himself up onto the roof framing.
It was worse than uncomfortable, for the rods cut into his flesh wherever he perched, but it was safer than where he’d been. Before long a curving crack appeared in the top of the dome. The chamber below had turned the orange-red of molten rock. If the conflagration inside was hot enough to melt stone, his end could not be long in coming.
And why delay it, he thought bitterly, since everyone I care about is going to die. Nish had no illusions about his friends’ fate once they fell into the hands of the scrutators. There were no prisons on Santhenar. Minor miscreants were punished by servitude in the front lines, for men, or the breeding factories for women, or by other forms of slavery appropriate to the needs of the unending war. All other criminals were executed as an example to all, the only variation being in the ironically appropriate manner of their deaths.
Tears pricked his eyes when he thought about Irisis, his dearest friend, being tormented by the scrutators. No – he had to cling to hope, no matter how slender. Surely Yggur and Malien, two of the truly great figures from the Histories, were still at large? Yggur was a mancer of overwhelming power and cunning, a legend who had struggled against Rulke himself, back in the time of the Mirror, and even before that. Yggur was more than twelve hundred years old; had seen everything and survived everything. How could the scrutators beat him?
And yet … the Council had known where Yggur’s secret defences lay, and had destroyed them from afar without being detected. What if Yggur had been targeted the same way, as he slept? If he was dead, all hope was lost.
The tower gave another of those plastic shudders that made his stomach lurch. Nish clutched the rod with both hands. Waves of colour like inverted rainbows shimmered in the air and, suddenly, he saw right through the stone dome, as he had that ghastly night last summer after his father, Jal-Nish, had forced Nish’s hands into those uncanny quicksilver tears distilled from the destroyed node at Snizort.
He was looking into a seething hell – a cauldron of molten stone seemingly suspended in mid-air where the floor of the lower chamber had once been. What could be holding it up? The roiling globe drifted toward the side wall, only to be repelled back towards the centre. It rotated one way and then the other, emitting little bursts of glowing plasma that licked the soot-coated walls clean wherever they touched.
Nish could only imagine that the ferocity of the blast had been contained by some unknown aspect of Yggur’s secret defences. He prayed that it stayed contained, for the radiating fury looked potent enough to consume the walls of the tower.
The fiery globe swelled, contracted, swelled again and burst open, sending an incandescent jet straight up. Burning through the top of the stone dome, it sucked back then blew an orange spurt of molten rock-glass up through the hole. It arched high across the room, solidifying into a glass lance that split down its length as it cooled, forming a pair of curving blades as sharp as a giant’s scimitars.
The strange-sight that had allowed Nish to see the globe vanished so suddenly that he cried out. An attack of vertigo had him clinging desperately to the rods, his sweating hands slipping on the warm metal.
There came another molten squirt, splitting to form another pair of glass scimitars, and then another and another until the chamber was webbed with them. Nish hung suspended above a hundred razor-sharp blades. It had to be a residue of Yggur’s Art – such perfect, deadly blades could not have formed by accident – but it had trapped him as effectively as any weapon of the enemy’s. If he tried to get down, he’d be sliced like a slab of buffalo on a butcher’s block.
Heat billowed up through the hole, streaming directly over him. His eyelids began to rasp when he blinked. After ten or fifteen minutes Nish could feel his skin drying and cracking in the heat. He was desperate for something to drink.
From his refuge he could see part of the yard. A bound and gagged prisoner was led out to its centre, surrounded by soldiers. The prisoner was an elderly woman, one of Yggur’s kitchen servants. Other servants followed, each with an escort of the scrutators’ finest, then several of Yggur’s guard. After them came Malien, heavily bound, Gilhaelith and, to Nish’s despair, a stumbling, bloody Yggur.
Each new prisoner was a further blow to his hopes. Nish counted them down, and when Flydd and Irisis were dragged into the yard, he gave a groan of despair. The scrutators had them all, from the least to the greatest. He was the only one still free. Ghorr had out-thought them. All the time that Yggur and Flydd had been planning their secret assault on Nennifer, Ghorr had been readying his own vastly superior forces. By the time Tiaan and Malien had reached Fiz Gorgo in the thapter, five days ago, Ghorr’s fleet of dreadnoughts had already been on its way. The irony was bitter.
Down in the courtyard the prisoners were still, all but one. Irisis was struggling, ignoring the cuffs and kicks of the guards. She would do so to the end. Irisis was a rebel and could never be anything else, and Nish loved her for it. The realisation shocked him. He did love her and that made it so much worse.
Nish had expected the search of Fiz Gorgo to take some time, but shortly the scrutators emerged, along with the remainder of the soldiers, and were lifted up to the air-dreadnoughts in suspended baskets. The prisoners and their guards remained in the yard, shivering and stamping their feet.
The inferno below him had begun to cool, but the broken beams on the floor were smouldering, coating him with soot and catching at his lungs. Nish shifted on the rods, trying to find a way down without cutting himself to shreds. He could see none. He might have broken one or two glass blades with his boots, but the ones below were out of reach and dropping onto them was out of the question.
He climbed up under the roof, trying to see if any of the rods could be unfastened. They were fixed solidly, but while he was there Nish happened to glance up through a cracked roof slab and saw that the scrutators’ mechanicians were building a vast ropework construction, like a horizontal spiderweb, above Fiz Gorgo.
They had begun by anchoring the air-dreadnoughts to the outer walls with vertical cables as thick as a big man’s biceps. Now, working a good fifty spans above the ground, suspended ropers were hauling across horizontal ropes, stretching them drum-taut and lashing them into a network.
The instant the great rolls of canvas were lowered, Nish understood what they were doing. They were building a suspended amphitheatre, and it could only be to try the prisoners here. Ghorr wasn’t going to give such a collection of great mancers the least opportunity for escape, but he’d not miss the chance to consolidate his power either. The Council of Scrutators loved its spectacles, and the tale of such a trial would spread like wildfire throughout the known world, to bolster its dread reputation.
Nish tried to calculate how long the construction was going to take. Though the ropers worked with such dexterity that they must have practised the operation many times, it would take hours more to adapt their general design to the specific configuration of Fiz Gorgo. He didn’t know what time it was, for a thick overcast had rolled in from the west and not a glimmer of sun came through it. Nish thought it must have been around ten in the morning. The scrutators would want to complete their grisly business well before dark, which was around five at this time of year, so he didn’t have long at all.
Didn’t have long for what? He was trapped in a half-molten tower likely to collapse at any moment, being cured like a ham in a smokehouse, and his arms could barely hold him up. Half dead from dehydration, he had been reduced to licking the sooty condensation off the underside of the roof slabs. He was unarmed, opposed by hundreds of the toughest fighters in the world and dozens of mancers aching to impress their masters. Furthermore, the scrutators, collectively, represented the most powerful force ever assembled on Santhenar. The very idea of trying to rescue his friends was absurd.
But it would not go away.
The western side of the horned tower had stopped steaming. Ullii hoped it had cooled enough to climb, for there was no other way of getting to the top. Unfortunately it was also the side that faced the yard.
She went up the stair as far as she could go, eyeing the hot rubble in case a way past it had opened up. She could now discern a gap below the under-spiral of the stair, but everything radiated such heat that she could not get near it. Here and there, ribbons of molten metal, shiny as quicksilver where their coatings of grit had cracked, congealed in puddles on the treads.
It had to be the outside. Ullii squeezed through an embrasure that did not face the yard and found herself just above one of the roofs of Fiz Gorgo. She lowered herself to a roofing slab, adjusted her mask so it allowed in just a slit of light, and looked up.
The tower had been built of rough stone and the joins offered many hand-and foot-holds. Ullii was naturally dextrous, so the climb would not have been beyond her, had the tower been dry. Besides, her lattice revealed its secret strengths and flaws in a way that no one else could see. She looked up, closed her eyes and its network of cracks, crevices and stress-points opened up to her.
She pulled herself as far as the next floor, the fifth, but above that the stone was too hot to hold on to. Ullii edged sideways around the tower, one eye on the yard. If anyone looked up she would be seen, for her pale clothing and skin would stand out against the dark stone.
Fortunately the rain had become heavier, and colder, and the soldiers in the yard had their hoods down. Curling her toes around a projection no thicker than her finger, Ullii eased around the curve of the tower until she was directly above the yard. If she fell, she would die.
Above her, at the lower point of the bend, the wall was networked with horizontal cracks. If she could cross above them the worst would be over. She went up, stretched sideways to reach a convenient crack shaped like a lyrinx’s smile, and up again, sliding the fingers of her left hand deep into a crevice. She jerked them out and thrust them into her mouth – the inside was hot. She turned her head from side to side, eyes closed, sensing the heat on her cheek. There, to her left and above, where the rock was cracked like a mosaic, it felt cooler. It didn’t look very stable, though.
Ullii edged left as far as she could go, made sure her footing was sound and reached up. The first piece of the mosaic grated under her fingers and she had to hastily press it back before it dropped on her face. She fingered another, which also moved. The whole area was loose. She would have to go further and hope she could find a way around it.
It proved to be hard, slow work, for Ullii had never regained the wiry strength she’d had before she lost the baby. She edged along a tiny crack, just wide enough to get the tips of her toes inside. A span to her left and a span up she saw an easy path, though she wasn’t sure she could get to it. She felt very tired.
Suddenly her head spun and the lattice vanished. Ullii let out a cry of anguish, lost her grip with her left hand and nearly fell. She clung on with her toes and her right hand, scratching at the rock with her left and breaking her fingernails.
Ullii recovered quickly, though her heart was thundering and her calf muscles screaming. Her toes slipped. She worked them back into the crack but couldn’t find a comfortable position. Her left foot had begun to cramp and panic was eating away her confidence. The lattice was her life, her being, and compensation for all her other frailties. It made her unique and allowed her to survive in this cruel and hostile world. What if it didn’t come back?
She’d lost it before, briefly, after times of extreme stress, but never when her life had depended on it. At such moments it was normally at its strongest. Since Nish had killed Myllii, and Ullii had lost her baby, the lattice had slowly weakened. She lived in dread that it would disappear completely.
Concentrating on her breathing, Ullii let go with one hand and massaged her calf until the cramp was gone. The panic faded but the lattice did not come back. She would have to do without it.
Opening her eyes, she worked out a path upwards and closed them again. Her supersensitive fingers and toes would tell her all she needed to know. Vision would just be a distraction.
After much trial and error she found a way around the cracked area and up onto the bend in the tower, here clotted with glassy dribbles of melted rock that had oozed through cracks in the walls and congealed on the outside. Some knobs were too hot to hold, and others would not have borne her weight, but she found a pair rooted deep in the wall that were as solid as a staircase, allowing her to rest for a while.
Ullii wasn’t thinking about retribution now, for the climb had taken too much out of her. She no longer knew why she was climbing, only that Nish had come up and not gone down again. She didn’t see how he could have lived but she wouldn’t believe he was dead until she saw his body.
The other urge that kept her going was the need to hide from Chief Scrutator Ghorr. Ullii did not know how she was going to survive on her own, but she was never going back to Nennifer.
She was clinging on with her toes and the fingers of one hand, while she wiped the trickling moisture off her forehead, when she heard a glassy crack from inside the open watch-house at the top of the tower. It was followed by a muffled groan or curse.
It could have been the tormented rocks contracting as they cooled, but Ullii did not think so. It had sounded human, and very familiar. She sniffed but could smell only hot rock. If Nish was up there, the breeze was blowing his scent away. She scrabbled up to the seventh level. Her fingers were aching and she’d broken most of her toenails. Ullii needed to rest but drove herself on; she had to know. The wall and the embrasure above her were steaming, and a trickle of smoke issued from a deep fissure to one side of it.
Ullii peered over the lip of the embrasure and was confronted by a network of hundreds of spears and blades of rock glass, arching up like scimitars from a hole in the centre of the floor. The room was full of them. A hole in the jumbled floor was blocked by congealed glass, still cracking as it cooled.
Now she smelt Nish, though it was a strange, baked odour, the arid smell of desiccated skin. Ullii felt for the knife in her pack but did not pull it out. It was enough to know it was there. A trail of smoke drifted across her face, burning the membranes in her nose. She breathed through her mouth, her eyes watering as she scanned the floor. There was no sign of him. She looked up through the network of glassy blades and there he was, his arms and legs wrapped desperately around the iron rods that supported the roof. He looked as if he could barely hang on.
Instinctively she bared her teeth, but the gesture faded as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. He was coated, no, crusted with smoke and soot. His hair and skin were black and the individual hairs of his beard stood out like bristles. Skin was flaking off his nose and lips, the whites of his eyes were like chips of marble on black velvet, and he was shaking so hard that his teeth clattered.
Nish licked cracked lips and Ullii saw blood on his tongue. She pulled herself up onto the sill of the embrasure, staring at him, overcome. Rage warred with a most desperate longing for him to put his strong arms around her and make everything all right.
Nish saw her and let go with one hand, reaching out. ‘Help me, Ullii.’
His agony showed in the crevices around his mouth, the shuddering of his arms, the staring eyes, but that was nothing to her own pain. He’d lost nothing; she had nothing left. He’d torn it all away.
‘Water,’ he croaked, tongue rasping over his lips. ‘Please.’
The begging made her think less of him. Nish had always been strong. Now he was weaker than her and she felt nothing but contempt. ‘Come down.’
‘The blades will cut me to ribbons.’
She hoped so. Ullii wanted to see his blood run free. ‘Jump!’
Nish considered all possible ways down, biting his sooty lip. ‘I can’t.’
Ullii had always resisted using her initiative. In the long years when the only thing she’d wanted had been her brother back, it had been easier to drift. Now the desire for retribution was so strong that it seared her.
She moved around to the next embrasure, out of sight from below. Taking her boots out of her pack, Ullii put them on then climbed onto the sill and hurled her pack up into the middle of the chamber. The fragile glass sang as it smashed and, with a tinkling roar, the central part of the network fell to the floor. She wove between the remaining spears, glass crunching under her soles, and eased her head over the sill on the yard side. Several guards had looked up at the sound, but only briefly. Pieces were falling off the tower all the time.
Nish was staring down at the gap. The pack had carved an elongated scar through the glass spears, though it wasn’t much wider than a human body.
‘Can you throw the pack again?’ he said.
It lay under a network of quivering spears, so precariously perched that a breath could have dislodged them. She shook her head.
Nish pulled himself along the supporting rods, choosing the spot carefully. He couldn’t drop – he had to throw himself through at just the right angle and, even had he been fit and strong, that would not have been easy. His hands were shaking. He rubbed his palms down his trousers, coating them with greasy soot. He tried to rub it off again but only smeared it everywhere. Nish gripped a rod, lowered himself until he was hanging full stretch, and began to sway back and forth.
Ullii could see the fear on his face but it no longer gave her any pleasure. Nothing gave her pleasure any more. She pulled out the knife, just to be ready.
‘What are you doing?’ he said, hanging motionless.
‘You killed Myllii.’
‘Myllii?’ he whispered dazedly.
Surely he hadn’t forgotten? He truly was a monster. ‘I’m going to kill you for that, Nish.’
He closed his eyes, which turned his face into an ebony mask, then opened them with a flash of white. ‘I’m sorry. It was an accident. He just reared back –’
‘It’s too late to say you’re sorry now,’ she whispered, overcome by memories still vivid and clear.
‘Ullii,’ he begged. ‘Please.’
‘Too late. Too late.’ She turned away, the blade hanging down. Ullii couldn’t look at him. Why was he saying it now? Why not back then, when it had mattered?
‘What about our baby?’ croaked Nish. Sooty flakes of skin broke from his lips and drifted upwards in the rising air. ‘Would you kill our little baby’s father?’
‘There is no baby!’ she said in a thin scream. ‘Yllii is dead and that’s your fault too!’
Nish’s hand slipped and he flailed about wildly before getting another grip. ‘Yllii?’ he rasped.
‘Your son!’ It was an accusation – how could you not know his name? And an attack – it’s your fault.
‘My son?’ That threw him. His lower lip trembled. ‘Dead? How?’
How could he not know? Having lived Yllii’s death every possible way over the past four and a half months, she found Nish’s ignorance incomprehensible. It didn’t occur to her that he had no way of knowing these things. ‘You killed him!’ Ullii shrieked, half-mad with rage and grief.
Nish clung desperately to his perch. ‘You ran away, Ullii, and I couldn’t find you. I don’t know what happened from that day to this. But whatever happened to our son, I wasn’t there.’
‘You weren’t there,’ she whispered. ‘You were never there when I needed you, Nish. You didn’t care.’
‘I wept tears of blood for what I’d done to Myllii but I couldn’t undo it. Please, Ullii. What happened to our son?’
She swept the blade through the air. ‘Come down.’
‘Put the knife away first.’
She gave a half-hearted slash, screwed her eyes up, then laid the knife on the floor among the shattered glass, within easy reach. Nish would come down. He had to know what had happened to his son and it gave her the upper hand. At least he cares about Yllii, she thought, even if he hates me.
‘Come down, Nish.’
She studied him from under her eyelids. He seemed to be weighing her intentions. Now he began to swing his legs, trying to line himself up with the gap. Ullii could have done it with her eyes closed but he lacked her natural dexterity, and that pleased her selfish little soul. It wasn’t often that she felt superior.
Nish sucked in a breath, swung, and threw himself at the gap.
Before he let go, Ullii knew he’d miss. He’d swung out a little too far, a fraction too hard. His legs went through the gap but his body wasn’t lined up properly and he was heading straight for a pair of razor-sharp blades.
Nish jerked backwards and twisted sideways at the last instant, and his torso passed through safely. He whipped his head back, the blade shaved a clump of hair off the left side, nicking his ear, then he was through, all but his flailing left arm. It went side-on into a blade, cutting a deep gouge in his forearm before the glass broke. Blood spurted up as he slammed into a sloping slab of stone that was mercifully free of glass.
He didn’t move for a second or two. Blood pumped straight up from his forearm, coating one of the blades above him before dripping all over his face. Moving painfully, he got a thumb to the artery and the flow stopped. He looked up at her, the blood still dripping on his face, and across at the knife. She did too.
Ullii still planned to kill him. She took up the knife but Nish didn’t move. Blood welled out under his thumb and he pressed harder. She hated him for all that had happened to her since she’d been taken to the manufactory a year ago. Because of him she was alone in the world. She had no brother, no son, no friends, and now the lattice, her last resort and only comfort, had gone away. She didn’t know how to get it back.
‘I didn’t know Myllii was your brother,’ Nish said quietly, his voice barely audible over the singing of the blades in the wind. ‘I thought he was attacking you. Or holding you so the soldiers could carry you off to the air-floater.’
He looked ghastly, with his face and arm drenched in blood, and the rest of him covered in soot and flaking skin. She wavered.
Nish went on. ‘I told Myllii to stop but he reared backwards and the knife went straight into him. I’m so very sorry.’
Ullii closed her eyes. She was back at the campsite, holding Myllii and feeling his shock as the knife slid into his back. Tears welled out through her eyelids like drops of blood from a wound. Had Nish said that? She couldn’t remember – she’d been too overcome with joy at finding her twin after so many years of searching.
Nish could be lying. He’d used her before and he was, after all, the son of his father, Jal-Nish, the worst man Ullii had ever come across. She’d been a good judge of people once, but Ullii couldn’t tell about Nish any more.
‘What happened to Yllii?’ he said softly.
You killed him too, she wanted to scream while stabbing Nish to the heart. Ghorr had told her so, many times, and so had Scrutator T’Lisp, the wicked old woman who had trapped Ullii with Myllii’s binding bracelet. They’d told her that Nish was evil incarnate and had to be destroyed. Ullii had believed them at the time, and for a long time after, but looking back on her months in Nennifer she began to doubt. Chief Scrutator Ghorr was a monster whose handiwork she’d seen many times in Nennifer, and on the long journey here. He’d ruined Fiz Gorgo, killed dozens of innocent people and planned to torture the rest of them to death. And she had helped him, and betrayed every one of her former friends, so what did that make her?
‘Tell me everything, Ullii,’ he said softly. ‘From the moment Myllii first appeared in the clearing, until now. I have to know.’
She began haltingly, fingering the bracelet that still clung to her wrist, immovable. Just reliving that night of Myllii’s death was torment, and the time after was worse. She could still feel Yllii’s sharp fingernails scrabbling at her insides.
‘She did it,’ Nish said when Ullii had finished that part of the tale. She turned her face up to him blankly, lost in another time, another place.
‘Scrutator T’Lisp killed our baby,’ he went on. He reached out to her, thumb still pressed against his arm, but she pulled away. ‘I did you wrong, Ullii, and I’m sorry, but I’m not the real villain. Ghorr ordered Yllii’s death so you would be free to track down Xervish Flydd for him. No one else could have found him.’
‘No,’ she said softly. ‘No one could but me.’
‘T’Lisp worked her Art so that you’d take Myllii’s bracelet, and the instant you put it on you came under her control. But then you let slip that you were pregnant, and T’Lisp knew that while you carried our baby you’d be no use to her. She directed her scrutator magic against Yllii, through the bracelet. She lied to you and she killed Yllii. And now Ghorr –’ Nish broke off, as if he’d thought better of it.
Ullii sank down among the shards of green glass, not noticing as they dug into her calves. She didn’t want to believe Nish. If what he said was true, in serving Ghorr she’d been using Yllii’s death for an even greater evil.
She thought it through ponderously, for her mind was sluggish and reluctant to face the truth. It had been easier to blame Nish; to think that the agony of Myllii’s death and the grief at his loss had caused the death of her baby. But how could that be? She clutched at her belly, and the knife which she still held in her left hand, pricked her; the memories that T’Lisp had wiped from her mind came cascading back.
Yllii had been all right until the following night, when she’d touched the bracelet – still immovably fixed to her wrist by scrutator magic – and seen that vision of Ghorr and T’Lisp again.
‘Myllii,’ she gasped, clasping the bracelet in panic, but again came that flash of the scrutators.
Come to us, little seeker, mouthed Ghorr. We’ve work for you.
‘Leave me alone,’ she said aloud. ‘My little baby needs me.’
Baby? Ghorr said to the others. She can’t have a baby – it’ll ruin her precious talent.
She must have dreamed that, for the next instant they were gone as completely as if she’d only imagined it; then gone completely, her memories of the moment wiped clean.
Myllii wasn’t there either, but that awful screaming rang in her ears again. She reached out to the baby’s knot, for the screaming seemed to be coming from there. An agonising pain, far worse than the baby’s kicks, sheared through her belly. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, trying to protect the baby, but the pain grew until it was like barbed hooks tearing through her.
Ullii made a supreme effort to reach beyond the pain but the barbs ripped through her flesh and she felt a great convulsion inside her, a bursting agony, as if the baby’s sharp fingernails were tearing desperately at the walls of her womb. Something burst inside her, then water gushed out between her legs, carrying the baby with it.
‘No!’ Ullii screamed, falling to her knees and clawing at the ground, but it was too late.
The baby, a little boy no longer than her hand, lay in a puddle, kicking feebly. She picked him up, staring at him in wonder. He was pink and healthy, and so beautiful that she felt a flush of love, but as she nursed him in her hands, the cord stopped pulsing and her stomach contracted again and again to expel the afterbirth. Ullii lifted the baby to her breast.
‘Yllii. Your name is Yllii,’ she said, as if that could protect him.
She desperately wanted him to live, for it was the only happy link left between her and Nish, the only good memory of their time together, and she loved him so.
Yllii gave one feeble suck, a little sigh, but his head fell away from the nipple and blood from his mouth trickled down her breast. Ullii tried to blow the breath back into the infant but the pink colour faded steadily from his face. The baby breathed no more.
Ullii looked up at Nish, not bothering to brush the tears away. ‘T’Lisp did kill our baby,’ she said at last, her voice as brittle as the glass underfoot. ‘She did it to please Ghorr, using this bracelet.’ She rose, letting the knife fall. Ullii did not look at Nish. Her fingers tore at the bracelet on her wrist, but it didn’t move. She took a deep, shuddering breath. ‘And all this while I’ve been serving and helping them. I brought them here so they could kill the only people who have ever been good to me.’
‘You couldn’t have known.’ Nish’s eyes were fixed on the bracelet.
‘I knew what they were doing,’ Ullii said, wrenching at it until it cut into the skin. She didn’t care. It burned her now; it made her Ghorr’s creature. Ullii would cut off her hand if there was no other way to be rid of it. ’And I knew I was doing wrong, serving them. I was afraid of Ghorr; that’s why I did it.’
‘Is that all?’ said Nish, who knew of old how obsessional Ullii could be.
‘I wanted retribution for Myllii and Yllii. No!’ she said savagely, ‘I called it retribution but it was just revenge. I wanted you to suffer. And Flydd too, because he didn’t save Myllii.’
‘What about Irisis?’
‘I didn’t want to harm her,’ said Ullii uncomfortably.
‘But you have, Ullii. You’ve condemned her to die like everyone else. And Tiaan too, who never did anything to you. Not to mention Malien and Yggur, whom you’ve never met, and Inouye, the pilot of the air-floater. She’s such a quiet little woman, not much older than you, Ullii. And she’s so afraid.’
‘Why?’ said Ullii.
‘Inouye is terrified that her man and her little children will be punished because she obeyed Fyn-Mah and helped to save Flydd’s life and mine. She’s afraid that wicked Scrutator Ghorr would even torture her innocent children.’
‘He wouldn’t …’ Ullii said, uncertainly. ‘How old are her children?’
‘Sann, the boy, is nearly four. Inouye’s daughter, Mya, would be two and a half, I suppose.’
‘So young,’ she whispered. ‘Have you met them?’
‘No, but Inouye often mentioned their names. No mother ever loved her children more,’ he said deliberately.
‘I loved Yllii more than anyone else could ever love their baby!’ she wailed, jerking the bracelet up and down her wrist until it scraped off the skin in crumpled strips.
‘I know you did,’ he said, very quietly. ‘But would you let Ghorr kill Inouye … if you could save her?’
‘I don’t know her,’ Ullii said sullenly.
‘Would you allow Scrutator T’Lisp, who murdered our baby, to torment innocent little Sann and Mya?’
Ullii shuddered and pulled the mask over her face, then scuttled between the glassy blades into the darkest cranny of the chamber.
She put her hands over her ears. She had to block him out. She knew what Nish wanted of her, but it was too hard. It was much safer to drift, to hide.
He kept calling. She couldn’t block him out completely, and of course Nish knew that. Eventually she took her hands away from her ears.
‘Yes?’ she said quietly.
‘I need your help, Ullii.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘The gash in my arm is still bleeding. If you can’t fix it I’m going to die.’
‘Good!’ she said mulishly, though Ullii had a shrinking feeling inside. Already she’d taken a little comfort from his presence. She didn’t feel quite so alone. ‘I can’t do anything about it.’
‘Of course you can. You always carry a needle and thread in your pack, to sew up your spider-silk underclothes.’
‘Can’t reach it,’ she muttered.
‘See that long spear of glass, there? Reach under and hook it through the strap of the pack and drag it out.’
‘It’ll cut me.’
‘Wrap your shirt around your hand or something. Don’t you have any initiative?’
It was the wrong thing to say. Ullii simply closed her eyes and scrunched herself up in the corner.
She blocked him out.
He was quiet for a while, and then he said, ‘If I die, you’ll be all alone up here.’
‘I can climb out.’
‘Down to Ghorr and the scrutators?’
She scrunched herself up into a tighter ball. ‘You can’t help me, Nish.’
‘I wasn’t planning to. Ullii, I’ve been a fool. I treated you badly, and hurt you terribly. I’ve done stupid things and I’m sorry for them …’
‘Yes?’ she said when he did not go on. She liked hearing him talk like that.
‘I have to do something good to make up for it …’
She didn’t reply at once. Ullii was no fool – he was trying to lead her somewhere and she didn’t want to follow. But neither did she want to be alone again.
‘You’ve done wrong too, Ullii. You betrayed your friends. You’ve condemned Flydd and Irisis, and everyone else in Fiz Gorgo.’
‘It wasn’t my fault. Ghorr made me do it.’
‘No, Ullii. You chose to help Ghorr.’
‘He forced me.’
‘You didn’t have to find this place. You could have told him that you couldn’t see anyone in your lattice.’
‘He was too strong. He was going to hurt me!’
‘You could have resisted.’
‘He threatened me with Scrutator Fusshte. He’s the most evil scrutator of all, Nish.’
‘You could have resisted even Fusshte,’ Nish said inexorably. ‘You could have pretended that you’d lost the lattice. They wouldn’t have known any different.’
‘It was as if Fusshte was looking at me though my clothes; even through my skin.’
‘I’m sure that was horrible, but you betrayed your friends and now they’re all going to be put to death in the most awful way. Once the scrutators have killed them, the last hope of the world will be gone. We’ll lose the war and the lyrinx will eat us all, even you, Ullii. And it’ll all be your fault.’
‘No,’ she said in an almost inaudible squeak. ‘No, no, no!’
‘Yes,’ Nish said.
Ullii couldn’t make herself any smaller or any more insignificant. She couldn’t close down her senses to keep him at bay and she couldn’t escape. She had no choice but to take in what he was saying, though she knew he was manipulating her.
She had betrayed her friends and, for the first time, Ullii had to face up to it. She’d known it all along, but had put it out of mind – even those awful sounds as the guards on the wall had been slain without warning.
And how many people were yet to die? Dozens stood in the yard, waiting in the freezing cold for their doom. She looked out the embrasure. The vast rope-and-canvas platform would soon be finished. Two prisoners were being hauled up in a rope net, their arms and legs dangling out through the mesh.
She heard a faint, mournful wail – a young woman’s cry of soul-rending anguish. It wasn’t Irisis, for she would never have given way like that. Was it little Inouye? Was she wailing because she would never see her babies again, or because she knew that even they would suffer for the crime she’d been accused of?
Nish stood up, still holding his thumb over the gash, and looked over her shoulder. ‘It’s nearly midday. The trials will begin as soon as the last prisoners are lifted up to the amphitheatre, and Ghorr will want it well over before dark. He won’t dare stay here after the sun goes down. Air-dreadnoughts are too vulnerable to flying lyrinx.’
His nearness made her uncomfortable, though the scent of him had always calmed her. Ullii tried to rouse her previous fury by thinking about all the things Nish had done to her, but at the look in his eyes, so familiar, so guilty, so vulnerable, she could not. Violence was simply not in her nature. What would be the point, anyway? Myllii and Yllii couldn’t be brought back and the sooner she joined them the better. ‘What do you want from me, Nish?’
‘I want you to help me. We’ve got to try and save them.’
‘They have hundreds of guards,’ she said dully. ‘And dozens of mancers watching over them. I can’t do anything and neither can you.’
‘We have to try.’
‘I’m too scared.’
‘I’m scared too. But look – we’ve both done wrong, Ullii, and this is the only way we can make up for it. We have to atone for what we’ve done.’
The operation on his forearm was more painful than it should have been, because Ullii couldn’t bear to look at the gash and insisted on sewing him up with her eyes closed. Each time the bloody needle, trailing its red threads, came at him he flinched and Ullii jumped, then forced it through his skin and flesh as if to cause the maximum of discomfort. Nish gritted his teeth and restrained himself from crying out, though it wasn’t possible to remain silent when she roughly pulled the sides of the gash together and tied the threads.
‘Thank you,’ he said once it had been done and bound with the tail of a spare shirt from her pack. ‘Now we’d better find a way out of here.’
Nish knew it was hopeless. Ullii was too timid; if he’d had his choice of all the co-conspirators in the world, he couldn’t have found someone with less initiative.
He looked out the window and blanched. How had she climbed the tower without ropes or irons? It was beyond him and that wasn’t cowardice. Nish simply didn’t have the skills to climb down that sheer face. If he tried, he’d certainly fall to his death.
The rubble blocking the stair was still too hot to approach. The rods that supported and tensioned the roof were immovable; he’d tried them earlier.
‘Ullii, you’ll have to climb down and find some rope. I can’t get out any other way.’
‘Rope?’ she said, as if she’d never heard of such a thing. ‘I don’t know where there’s any rope.’
He thought for a moment. ‘Do you know where the front door of Fiz Gorgo is?’
‘Yes. I went through it with Ghorr.’
‘If you can climb down –’
‘Of course I can climb down,’ she said, tossing her head.
‘Then go out into the yard. It’s empty now, but be careful. Ghorr might have guards posted. Around to the left, near the wall, there’s a little stone shed that Inouye uses – she’s the air-floater pilot. The innocent one whose little children are going to be murdered,’ he said deliberately. ‘The door won’t be locked, and you’ll find coils of rope in there. Can you bring one back? And make sure it’s long enough …’ He gauged the distance down to the roof. ‘You’ll need about eight or nine spans. Do you know how much a span is?’
She gave him one of her famous looks and climbed out the embrasure on the side away from the yard. Nish watched her go down, amazed at how easy she made it look, and even more amazed that such a timid person could do it at all. But then, Ullii could be surprisingly competent when she had no choice in the matter.
He glanced up. The amphitheatre looked almost complete now. The ropers, who earlier had been swarming like sailors in the rigging of a merchant vessel, were gone apart from a few above a tower on the other side of Fiz Gorgo, who were tensioning lines with a complicated array of pulleys. He couldn’t see what was going on above the deck.
Nish looked further up, to the nearest of the air-dreadnoughts, but immediately jerked his head below the sill of the embrasure. For a moment he’d thought the grey robed mancer had been staring straight at him. He took another peep. The brass spyglass was not pointed his way at all, but at the horned tower to his left. It had also been struck by that initial blast, but whatever the strange energies or magics inside, they had not been completely liberated. The tower was sagging more than this one and glowing redly three floors below the roof. Bladder-like extrusions of molten material were being forced out of the slit embrasures. One burst, filling the air with shards of brown glass which set instantly, glittering in a momentary ray of sunlight, before tinkling to the paving stones of the yard.
The tower slowly tilted as if the stone were made of toffee. One of the horns fell off and plunged through the roof, smashing its thick slabs to fragments. For a few seconds it looked as though the tower would go the same way but it subsided suddenly, twisting like a length of barley sugar, and landed in the yard with a crash that shook the whole of Fiz Gorgo. Residual magics fumed and flickered, then went out.
Nish’s tower shuddered and leaned a little further from the vertical. Ants swarmed in the pit of his stomach, but the tower stabilised. Cries came from the amphitheatre and a wave churned across the canvas, snapping several of the guy ropes. A roper, caught by a lashing end, fell backwards from his perch, plunging head down and arms spread, to his death. Nish lost sight of the man as he passed behind the roof on the other side of the building.
His tower gave another, smaller shudder and rock spalled off the walls. It couldn’t last long. Nish scanned the air-dreadnought, keeping his head below the embrasure. The mancer was watching the drama on the amphitheatre. Nish prayed that he hadn’t seen Ullii climbing down, or she’d have walked into a trap. He couldn’t see her in the yard.
Nish’s thoughts went to his friends. The trials would soon be getting underway and they wouldn’t take over-long. Long enough for the theatre and the lavish spectacle, and long enough for the artists, recorders and tale-tellers to get each victim’s story down, but not long enough for anyone to receive a fair trial. The scrutators did not believe in fair trials.
Come on, Ullii. What’s keeping you? Ghorr might have tried Irisis first, for she’d once discovered a secret that threatened every mancer, and the chief scrutator didn’t want it to get out. If the punishment was carried out after each trial they might be readying her now. Before she was tortured and slain, Irisis would be stripped naked and exposed to the icy wind and the leers of the witnesses. The artists and tale-tellers would be ordered to capture every detail of her magnificent body before the punishment, and afterwards. In this prudish world the human form was rarely depicted unclothed, but where criminals were concerned nothing was left to the prurient imagination. If such a beauty could be brought low, it could happen to anyone, and few people would fail to take the lesson.
And then, the flaying knives … Nish ground his fists into his eyes but couldn’t keep the hideous images at bay. How could they do that to anyone, much less to Irisis?
There was still no sign of Ullii. He paced back and forth in the narrow space between the glass spears. It was as confining as any dungeon cell, though at least the floor was cooling down.
Nish stepped onto a chunk of stone, which ground underfoot. He picked it up and, without thinking, hurled it into the network of glass blades, bringing down a good half of them. It made a colossal racket but he felt better for it. It was good to smash something, and it gave him more space to move in.
The drizzle began to turn to cold rain which would make Ullii’s climb even slower. But it might speed up the trial; the scrutators liked their comforts.
Across he went, and back, having to tread carefully on the tilted slabs, then around the glass-clotted hole in the centre that was still too hot to approach. Nish kept going until, suddenly, his knees gave out. He’d been too anxious to eat dinner last night, and there had been nothing since. He was ravenous, and so very tired. He found a relatively cool perch by the cracked embrasure and squatted down with his back against the wall. Resting his cheek on his arms, he tried to think of a way out.
Nish was continuing to run outlandish schemes through his mind, like a schoolboy daydreaming about being a hero, when a shrill cry rang out. He got up and twisted his head out the embrasure. He saw nothing but the sixteen air-dreadnoughts hanging in the air above the canvas amphitheatre.
He looked down. No sign of Ullii either. She must have been taken, in which case his hopes were gone. He was trapped until the tower eventually collapsed and took him with it.
There was no point waiting tamely for his death. Weaving across to the other side, he climbed into the narrow embrasure and crouched there, looking down. Was there a chance, if he jumped? He didn’t think so. The roof had only a gentle slope below him and, though the slabs were thick, they were also old. Even from here he could see that they were cracked and pieces had flaked off. He wouldn’t slide – the slab would crumble under the impact and he’d go right through.
Nish crouched, then stood up straight. He chose his point, bent his knees and prepared to spring. He straightened up again.
‘What are you doing, Nish?’
He turned hastily, slipped and had to clutch at the edge. Nish’s knees were shaking as he stepped down. He felt a fool. Ullii had a coil of rope looped over her shoulder.
‘What took you so long?’ Nish snapped. He couldn’t help it, but he regretted the outburst at once.
In the olden days Ullii would have curled up and gone into one of her states, and he would have got nothing out of her for hours. Something had changed. She simply said, ‘The shed was locked. I had to search Fiz Gorgo.’
‘I’m sorry. I thought they’d caught you.’
‘Ghorr will never touch me again,’ she said with such intensity that Nish shivered. It was hard to believe that she was the same person as the cringing Ullii he remembered.
‘What do we do now?’ he said.
‘I don’t know.’
Nish hadn’t expected a positive response; he had only spoken aloud because it gave him the illusion of not being so desperately alone.
‘Is there anything you can do?’
She stared at him blankly.
‘With your talent, Ullii?’
‘No,’ she said.
Nish couldn’t, wouldn’t give up his friends. He had to believe there was a way out. ‘Ullii,’ he said carefully. He moved closer, but not so close that she would feel he was using her, though of course he planned to. ‘Do you remember how you got Irisis out of Nennifer?’
She leaned away, almost touching one of the remaining glass blades. ‘How did you know that?’
‘Xervish Flydd told me. And I’ve talked to Irisis about it, too.’
‘What of it?’ she said mulishly.
‘I just thought you might be able to use that talent again …’
‘Lost my lattice.’
‘When did that happen?’
Ullii turned away, looking down at the floor.
‘If you don’t tell me, Ullii, how can I help you?’
‘No one can help me.’
She said it with a remote edge of despair that tore at his heart. It was almost as if it didn’t matter any more. He couldn’t imagine what was going on in her mind.
‘Then please, please help me, Ullii. No one else can. Do you want all the good people up there to die at the hands of Ghorr?’
‘No one can save them.’
‘And Scrutator T’Lisp, who murdered Yllii?’
‘Our son,’ she said dreamily. ‘Our son, Nish. How could anyone do such a wicked thing?’
He couldn’t think of anything to say, but he put his good arm around her and held her close. It didn’t help him but it might help her.
Ullii shuddered, a wrenching spasm that shook her from head to foot, then turned his way, staring at Nish with wide, colourless eyes, shiny with tears. The light was hurting her but she would not put on her mask.
‘And she’ll murder other little babies if you don’t stop her,’ he said brutally.
Nish was acting on a hunch that Ullii hadn’t lost the lattice permanently. In the past her talent had come and gone, but it had always been available when she’d really needed it. Could he draw it out of her now? Or if not, could he get her into a situation where she had to use it to survive?
Nish was aware that he was manipulating her again, but there was little he wouldn’t do to save his friends. Time was running out and he’d worry about the consequences later.
The tower shook and pieces of heat-scarred rock crumbled off the walls. ‘Try your talent again, Ullii. Can you see anything in your lattice now?’
She strained, rather obviously. ‘No.’ The word was just a breath. ‘Can’t see past it.’
She looked down at the floor. ‘Blocking me.’
Nish scratched his head. ‘Do you mean there’s something down there below us that’s stopping you seeing the lattice?’
‘Don’t know where it is. Could be anywhere.’
He sighed. ‘Perhaps you’d better give me the rope.’
After much trouble – for he had to swing back and forth along the rough stone of the tower and was worried that it would rasp through the rope – Nish caught the edge of an embrasure below the bend in the tower. The stone was warm to the touch. He pulled himself onto the ledge and peered in. He could see the ash-littered stairs and, if he craned his neck up to the left, the point where they were blocked with a glassy slag of melted rock.
They climbed in. Ullii cut off the remainder of the rope and coiled it over her shoulder.
‘We have to get up onto the outer wall without anyone seeing us,’ he said. ‘Though I don’t see how –’
Ullii pushed past him and trotted down to the ground floor, where she crept through the empty halls of Fiz Gorgo.
‘Are you sure you know where you’re going?’ he said after they’d been wandering for a good ten minutes, apparently aimlessly.
Ullii didn’t deign to answer. Nish followed, more despairing with every step. Irisis’s time could already have run out. Now they were going up again, along a dark and narrow stair that Nish hadn’t known existed. Yggur hadn’t encouraged exploration of Fiz Gorgo. After several turns they entered an open chamber topped with a cupola made of copper crusted with verdigris. Ullii peered out and up. Nish joined her.
They were not far from the outer wall of Fiz Gorgo, a section bordered by swamp forest. Some ten spans to his right, one of the huge rope cables, thicker than Nish’s upper arm, anchored the amphitheatre to the wall. Forty or fifty spans to his left was another, and so they went all the way around the fortress. The cables ran vertically up to the floor of the amphitheatre, a good thirty spans above his head here, then continued to the circle of air-dreadnoughts even further above that.
‘Can you see anyone?’ he said.
Ullii shook her head. Nish stood edgewise at the opening and searched the walls. He couldn’t see a solitary guard, though that wasn’t surprising. Ghorr believed Fiz Gorgo to be empty, and the air-dreadnought guards would see anyone coming from Old Hripton a league before they could get here. There were no lyrinx in this part of Meldorin and, given their fear of water, no risk of an attack on foot through twenty leagues of swamp forest. The only risk was from the air, and the sixteenth air-dreadnought had been placed on high to keep watch.
‘I meant with your talent,’ said Nish. ‘Has it come back at all?’
She didn’t answer. Whatever Ullii was thinking, she didn’t want to share it with him. She hugged her little triumphs to herself, while problems simply made her close down. She was the most frustrating human being on the planet.
He moved away a couple of steps then glanced at her, covertly. The haggard, haunted look was gone. She did have the lattice back, he was sure of it. She just wasn’t going to tell him until it suited her.
‘What can you see, Ullii?’ he said ever so softly, trying to be no more than a whisper in her ear. It took all the self-control he had. He wanted to scream at her – my friends are being tortured up there. Your friends, too. Do something!
Again she pretended to strain, screwing up her eyes, clenching her jaw until the sinews of her neck stood out, knotting her little fists.
He wanted to slap her. Was she mocking him? But it was fruitless to go down that path, and it reminded Nish that he was as much to blame for her state of mind as anyone.
‘Tell me what’s wrong,’ Nish said, taking her in his arms.
‘No,’ she said, her voice muffled. She went rigid but made no attempt to pull away.
‘Where did the lattice come from, Ullii? It really is the most marvellous thing …’
‘I made it!’ she snapped. ‘It’s mine.’ Then, plaintively, ‘No one else can understand.’
‘Of course they can’t. There isn’t anyone like you in the world, Ullii. You’re unique.’ He wasn’t just cajoling or flattering her. She was unique.
She rubbed her cheek against his chest, not in any suggestive way, but as if it comforted her. In times past she wouldn’t have been able to bear the coarse cloth against her skin. Was she losing her sensitivity as well?
‘When did you make the lattice?’ he murmured to the top of her head.
‘When I was five. To look for Myllii.’
‘And now that he’s gone, you don’t need it any longer.’ Nish could have kicked himself as soon as the words left his mouth, but it was too late to take them back.
‘I don’t need it,’ she said wonderingly, then with resolve: ‘I don’t need the lattice any more. I know where Myllii and Yllii are.’ She pulled away and sat down, her back against the stone wall, staring into some inner space as if Nish didn’t matter either.
Nish knew she meant it. He’d been clinging to the hope that Ullii could somehow perform a miracle, as she’d done to break Irisis out of Nennifer, but it wasn’t going to happen.
He couldn’t take on hundreds of alert soldiers, all those watching mancers and the scrutators themselves, except by dying with his friends in a symbolic act of defiance. And that would only make the scrutators’ victory complete. If they didn’t get him, it would be one tiny flaw in their control of the world, he rationalised. He would devote his life to finishing the job Flydd had started – bringing the Council down.
But it wasn’t any comfort, and the thought of his friends’ approaching torment brought to mind those dying soldiers at Gumby Marth, begging Nish to put them out of their misery. He hadn’t been able to; he simply hadn’t had the courage, if you could call it that, to put a knife to their throats and end their suffering. Just so had his father begged for death after he’d been maimed by the lyrinx, and Nish had failed him too. He couldn’t bear to let his father go, monster though Jal-Nish had become – and look at the misery that failure had produced.
Nish couldn’t save his friends, but he might be able to give them a quick and merciful death, and spoil the scrutators’ victory. Would that be good for the morale of the common people, or a fatal blow in the endless war against the lyrinx? There was no way to tell. He could only try to make the best decision, and leave the world to fate.
Either way, it was something else he’d have to atone for, but it wouldn’t be another reckless folly. Recklessness had been burned out of him. He would coolly plan the deaths of his friends and weep for them afterwards. He would find the courage this time. But how was he to do it, and how much time did he have? He had to know what was going on in the amphitheatre.
Leaving Ullii to her inner contemplation, Nish fastened her rope to the opening, climbed down to the roof and scuttled across to the outer wall. Clots of mist drifted in the air but he could still be seen if an alert guard chanced to look down. Or if they realised he was missing.
Sooner or later, someone must discover that Nish was not among the prisoners, and Ghorr would send a squad into Fiz Gorgo to hunt for him. Nish knew he was, relatively speaking, a minor criminal. Nonetheless, his execution would serve as another lesson to all – not even the son of a scrutator was immune from the justice of the Council.
Nish raised his head. There was no one in sight. Voices echoed down from the amphitheatre, though he couldn’t tell what was being said. Slight depressions in the taut canvas marked points where groups of people were standing to witness the trials. Unfortunately, he couldn’t establish the positions of individuals.
Nish crept to the nearest vertical cable, reached up as far as he could and heaved. He managed to pull himself up a couple of body lengths before his fingers slipped and he slid down again, burning his hands. The cable was thick, taut and smooth, and damp as well; he couldn’t grip it tightly enough to hold his weight. He’d never climb it this way.
He went down the inner stairs of the wall to the yard, thence to one of the equipment sheds for an axe. The edge hadn’t been sharpened for a while but he couldn’t hone it on the wheel without making a racket. It would have to do.
Up on the wall again Nish judged his mark, drew the axe back over his shoulder and swung it with all his strength. The blade bounced off – the cable was as taut as stretched wire. Besides, he realised belatedly, chopping one cable wouldn’t make any difference, since the amphitheatre was held up by fifteen of them, each solidly braced with cross-stays.
If he could collapse one side of the amphitheatre, his friends would fall to a merciful death, though that would require the simultaneous failure of at least three adjacent vertical cables. Once that happened the highly tensioned ropes would spring back, tearing the canvas deck apart or forming a slope too steep to stand on. Quick-thinking people near the edges might survive if they caught hold of the remaining ropes, but all those in the centre would fall to the ground or the roofs of the fortress. Not a pleasant way to die, and it wouldn’t just be the prisoners, either. Hundreds of soldiers and witnesses might be killed as well.
Nish couldn’t dwell on that or he’d never be able to do it. This was war, and there were always casualties. It was the only way to save his friends from their barbaric fate, and at least it would be quick. Neither could he worry about the scrutators being wiped out, leaving the world leaderless at this critical stage of the war. Ghorr left nothing to chance; he’d always have a way out.
How to put his plan into effect? He couldn’t do it from the wall – the instant he hacked through the first cable, the soldiers would shoot him down. In any case, cutting the cables down here wouldn’t collapse this side of the amphitheatre. Since the cables ran up from the deck to the air-dreadnoughts, they would float up, lifting this side of the deck.
It had to be done just below the deck. If he could climb up, soak three or four cables and their accompanying cross-stays with oil, then set fire to them simultaneously, it could work. If the blazes were big enough, the cables might burn through before the guards could put out the fires.
If, if, if. The plan was outlandish and couldn’t succeed. It also left unanswered one vital question – how was he to get away afterwards? Nish gave no further thought to that either. After such a crime, it seemed fitting that he’d given himself no way out.
There was a great roar from above and the amphitheatre deck shook as though hundreds of people were stamping their feet. Were the trials over? Were they torturing Flydd already – or flaying Irisis alive?
Nish forced himself to stay calm, to ignore what was happening up there. All that mattered was what he did down here, and only cool thinking could deliver his friends now.
He ran down to Yggur’s great coolrooms and larders, where the provisions for Fiz Gorgo were kept. In the second pantry, he discovered what he was looking for: a set of meat hooks hanging from a rail. He selected two that looked suitable, then hacked a slab off a ham and tore at it like a savage while he headed for his room. There he strapped a knife to his belt, his crossbow to his back and filled a deep pocket with quarrels. A flint and steel went in as well.
Tearing a bedsheet into strips he thrust them into another pocket, a pair of leather straps in after, then went down to the lower storerooms where the barrels of whale oil and naphtha were stacked. Though Yggur was capable of making glowing globes powered by the Art, the lamps in Fiz Gorgo generally burned oil. Nish filled a silver wine flagon with distilled naphtha which had probably come all the way from the tar pits of Snizort. After stoppering it carefully, he slipped it into a basket made of woven leather and threw it over his shoulder. Lastly he rummaged in the tool room until he found a clamp shaped like a thumbscrew for a giant. Nish spun the screw out and gauged the space. It was just large enough to fit over one of the vertical cables. He tied it to his belt with a length of cord.
Feeling like a wandering tinker with his load, Nish returned to the wall, laid out his meat hooks and straps and considered how best to bind them on.
‘What are you doing, Nish?’
Nish jumped. He’d thought Ullii was still up in the cupola, but her voice came from right behind him. He explained.
Ullii’s eyes, which were still unmasked, grew large. She put her hand over her mouth. ‘You’ll be killed.’
‘I expect so,’ he said more calmly than he felt. ‘But all my friends, save you, are up there. Even if it costs me my life, I won’t let Ghorr torture them to death.’
She looked up at the amphitheatre and the colourless hair stirred on her head, as if she could see right through the deck to what the scrutators were doing there. Nish imagined that she could feel the anguish of the prisoners – Ullii had always been sensitive to that kind of thing.
‘I’ll help you,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ he said, astounded by the offer, so uncharacteristic of her. ‘Though I don’t see how you can.’
‘I can climb the cable without hooks.’
Since Ullii never exaggerated, he believed her. ‘Could you give me a hand with these?’
She strapped the hooks to his wrists more securely than he could have done himself. He took a deep breath and turned to the cable.
Reaching up as high as he could, Nish dug the hook on his right wrist into the strands of the cable. He had to force it in. He put all his weight on the hook and it held. He pulled himself up, which made his gashed arms throb, and stabbed the other hook at the cable, half an arm’s length higher. It skated off the taut fibres. He tried again, carefully judging the angle, and this time the hook dug in. Already his muscles were aching and he’d only gone half a span. Twenty-nine and a half to go.
He would never do it. Just hanging by the arms was exhausting and willpower was not going to be enough. He simply didn’t have the strength to climb all that way. Yet, how could he not go on?
With his free hand Nish fumbled at the clamp, tried to get it over the cable, and dropped it. He hauled it up again, wound the screw out as far as it would go and forced it over. One-handed, he tightened the screw and climbed onto the shank, relieving the strain on his wrist at last. Sweat was dripping into his eyes.
Ullii came up the other side of the cable until she was level with him, moving easily. Her eyes met his.
‘I can’t do it,’ he said, fighting back tears of frustration. ‘I simply can’t do it, Ullii.’
Ullii was holding the cable between her thighs and feet, and pulling herself up with her hands. She didn’t seem to be under any strain. She was so slight that he could carry her with one arm, but Ullii was remarkably dextrous.
’I said I’d help you, Nish.’
He couldn’t have climbed halfway without her but, with Ullii’s help to embed his hooks into the ropes while he rested on the clamp, and then to slide the clamp up and hold it while he screwed it tight, Nish managed to inch his way up the cable, span by span. Even then, when they had but five spans to go and twenty-five extended below them, Nish didn’t think he would ever make it. He made the mistake of looking down, whereupon his head spun and his stomach heaved. He wasn’t particularly afraid of heights but this was different. He lost his grip and hung by the grace of the right hook while he vomited all down the cable.
Ullii kept her eyes politely averted until his aching belly was empty, then wiped his face on one of his strips of rag and dropped it, fluttering in the damp breeze, into the yard.
‘It’s not far now,’ she said in an overly encouraging voice, like a teacher to a lagging child.
Nish didn’t have the strength to reply. Besides, this close to the deck, they might be overheard. He wasn’t encouraged. There must come a point where, no matter how strong the will, his muscles would simply not be able to respond. He was almost at that point now. Each time he hauled himself up another arm’s length, he had to rest, and the bandage on his left arm was red and soaked.
They went up another laborious span, followed by another. Ullii clung above him, pulling his left hook up as far as it would go and working it into the strands of the cable. Once it was well in, he tried to heave himself up. His muscles refused to move.
‘I’m sorry, Ullii,’ he said. ‘I’m done.’
She looked exhausted too. Her pale face had a grey tinge and her colourless eyes were rimmed with red and yellow. ‘I –’
The shout came straight through the canvas: a man’s voice, nasal, whiny, and not comfortable with the authority he’d been delegated. ‘Quiet, if you please. The executions will now begin.’
Nish’s heart hammered at his ribs. Who would it be? Please, let it be anyone but Irisis or Flydd.
A brief pause before the man continued, ‘We will take them in order of the trial. The first will be Pilot Inouye.’
Nish caught his breath, then let it out in a rush. To his shame he almost smiled with relief. He caught Ullii’s eye, and she looked shocked. She’d identified with the little pilot, of course. How could she not, after Nish’s tragic tale?
‘Come!’ Ullii hissed through her teeth. ‘Quickly.’ Going hand over hand up the cable, more like a monkey than a human being, she hung on with one hand and began to pull at Nish’s arm.
With the last of his strength, his screaming muscles managed to move him up another half-span, more or less.
Someone began shouting up above, a creepy, sibilant voice that had to be the vile Scrutator Fusshte. Nish couldn’t make out what he’d said but shortly he heard the whiny voice again, calling, ‘No, bring her back, lads’.
After a pause he went on, barely audible over the sighing of the wind through the cables, ‘The scrutators bid me execute the greatest criminal and traitor first, in case the enemy should attack. Ex-Scrutator Xervish Flydd,’ he said in tones that were almost respectful, ‘if you would be so kind as to step into the flensing trough.’
‘I’m just in time,’ Nish said to himself. ‘I will get there. I must.’ He hauled himself up another half-span and hung on, panting so loudly that he couldn’t believe the people above wouldn’t hear him.
Ullii fixed his hooks, went down and slid the clamp up the cable. Nish rested on it, trying to still his breathing so he could hear what was going on. Someone was talking in a deep rumble, though Nish couldn’t make out what he was saying.
There came a muffled wail, cut off abruptly as if by a hand clapped over a mouth, or a fist thrust into it. The prisoners were cracking up and he still had to climb two spans – the equivalent of four paces on the ground.
And then Irisis spoke and the sound of her voice, defiant to the last, brought tears to his eyes. ‘Take heart, Xervish. It’ll be over more quickly than you think.’
Flydd laughed, though there was no humour in it. ‘Somehow, that’s not nearly as comforting as when I said it to you.’
‘Begin, Master Flenser!’ Chief Scrutator Ghorr roared like an actor on a stage. ‘I’ll double your fee if you can take this scoundrel’s skin off in one piece – I’ve a special use for it.’
This galvanised Nish’s trembling muscles and he went up half a span, then three-quarters before grinding to a halt. Another man spoke, inaudibly. Perhaps he was talking to himself as he prepared to peel the skin off the living flesh.
Nish kept moving. Only one span to go. His muscles felt as though they were melting and oozing down his arms. He laid his head against the cable, despair washing over him. He was going to be too late to save Flydd.
‘Hold just a moment!’ cried Scrutator Fusshte. ‘There’s something wrong.’
Nish only caught part of what the other man, the whiny one, said. ‘I’ve done everything … in the rituals.’
Nish’s skin crawled, and every hair on his body stood up. He knew what Fusshte was going to say.
Fusshte snarled, ‘I’m not talking to you!’ Nish heard his feet pound across the canvas. ‘One of the greatest villains of all is missing. Where the devil is the arch-traitor, Artificer Cryl-Nish Hlar?’
Above them there was shouting, yelling and the sound of running feet. Ghorr said in low and deadly tones, ‘You bloody fool, Fusshte, why didn’t you check? You begged to be put in charge of the minors.’
‘It’s not my fault. I told Voine to go through the list…’
‘Don’t give me excuses!’ Ghorr hissed. ‘What’s the good of my creating this great spectacle if your incompetence is going to ruin it? Morale is a fragile plant, scrutator. Get your men down there and find him instantly. I won’t have a single blot on this victorious day. Not a smear. Fail and you’ll join the prisoners, scrutator or no!’
Ullii’s mouth opened and she almost lost her grip. Nish reached out to steady her. She wiped her face and climbed higher. Looping her arm around the cable, she dragged up his left hook, slammed it into the strands, and then moved the right.
Above them, orders were roared. Feet pounded across the canvas. ‘What do we do?’ Nish whispered. His mind had gone blank.
‘Up!’ she mouthed. ‘Under!’
He reached up with his weak left arm and forced its hook into the rope. He twisted out the other hook and tried to go again but the left hook pulled out. Nish slipped, clutched at the cable but his sweaty hands couldn’t get a grip. Ullii shinned down to him, grabbed his swinging arm and expertly slid the hook in between the strands of the cable. After doing the same with the other hand she went down and tightened the clamp.
Nish clung there, shaking. ‘I thought I was gone,’ he whispered. ‘I thought everything was lost.’
She touched her cheek to his, repaying him in kind, and it made all the difference. She pointed up underneath the canvas and began to climb to the knots where the horizontal stay ropes were fastened to the vertical cable. He followed carefully, the near-death experience bringing him a little strength. He slid his clamp around a stay rope that ran towards the centre of the deck and tightened it so it could slide along but not pull off. Nish went wearily, hook over hook, along the stay until he was five or six spans in from the edge and not so readily visible in the gloom.
‘You’d better tie on, Ullii, just in case.’
Ullii fashioned a rope harness around her chest, tied it to the stay rope and hung from it while Nish caught his breath.
Shortly, some thirty or forty spans to their left, a series of rope baskets were lowered over the edge, each containing about a dozen soldiers. The baskets were lowered swiftly to the yard. Nish counted them. Nine – more than a hundred soldiers, just for him, and any one of them could take him. It was enough to make him smile and, thinking about what Fusshte had said, he gave a wry chuckle. So they considered him a great villain. He’d better not disappoint them.
‘Don’t move,’ Nish mouthed. ‘If they look this way …’
Ullii scowled. She didn’t need to be told. It was dark under the canvas, but not so dark that an alert eye couldn’t pick them out. And the scrutators’ guards were very alert.
They waited until the grounded baskets had emptied and most of the soldiers had disappeared inside Fiz Gorgo. The remainder spread out through the yard and began to search the sheds and barracks.
‘Now,’ Nish whispered. ‘We don’t have much time.’
He reached back and lifted the flagon of naphtha over his shoulder. With it banging against his chest, he hooked his way towards the edge of the deck, where the horizontal ropes were tied to the cable in a series of complicated knots the size of melons, and carefully poured a measured dose of the clear, pungent liquid over the knots. The fumes made his eyes water. The liquid was quickly absorbed into the fibres, wetting the cable below for a span and wicking up for half that distance.
‘We have to do this to the next three cable knots.’ Nish pointed to each of them so she’d not be in any doubt. ‘Then I’ll set fire to them with flaming crossbow bolts.’ He drew a handful of rags from his pocket, poked them in through the mouth of the flagon until they were soaked, squeezed the excess naphtha back into the flagon then put the rags back in his pocket. ‘As soon as that’s done we go down the ropes as fast as we can, if we get the chance.’
‘What if we don’t?’
‘We die with everyone else.’ He expected Ullii to shrivel, for she’d always had the keenest sense of self-preservation, but she didn’t react.
‘I’m ready to die,’ she said. ‘Give me the flagon.’
Nish saw the sense in that. He couldn’t swing from rope to rope without her help, while she didn’t need his.
‘If there’s any left, reach up and pour it onto the rope that runs around the outside of the deck.’
Ullii nodded, stoppered the flagon, put it over her shoulder and then she was off, swinging hand over hand along the rope, her safety rope dangling below her, unfastened. Nish could hardly bear to watch. One slip, one oily piece of rope or even a place where she couldn’t reach far enough up under the tight canvas to get a grip, and she would fall to her death. He moved along his stay rope towards the centre of the deck, so he’d have a good angle for each shot.
Not far away, Ghorr roared, ‘Continue with the executions. Master Flenser, get the hide off the old villain without delay. If the lot aren’t finished within two hours you’ll be joining them.’
Nish heard a rebellious mutter among the master torturers. Evidently it wasn’t done to threaten their kind. Trying vainly to put Flydd’s torment out of mind, Nish lifted the crossbow off his back and tied it around his waist, in case he needed it in a hurry.
He wrapped a naphtha-soaked rag around one of his bolts, tying it on tightly with threads stripped from the side but leaving a tail of cloth to stream out behind. When satisfied that it would fly true, he slipped it into his pocket and did the same to another handful of bolts. He’d need three to light the three distant knots after he’d set the first one afire, plus a few extras in case he missed or dropped one.
A scream rang out above him – a cry of sheerest anguish – that made Nish’s hair stand up. To wring any kind of reaction out of Flydd he must have been in agony – the man had practically invented stoicism.
Ullii, who had already soaked the second knot and was halfway to the third, went still, rotating on her wrists until she was staring at Nish. He waved her on. Until she’d done the fourth knot and turned back, there wasn’t a thing he could do.
Before she’d got there, Flydd’s screams had become continuous. Nish fitted a bolt into the crossbow, only to discover that he’d lost the flint and steel. It must have fallen out of his pocket when he’d slipped earlier, and without it he had no way to set the naphtha-soaked rag alight.
He felt an urge to throw himself down into the yard for his stupidity. Why hadn’t be secured it more carefully? Ullii waved, telling him that he could fire any time. He beckoned her back.
Was there anything he could make a spark with? The amphitheatre was just rope and canvas with an occasional brass fitting – no help there. His pockets contained nothing except dirty lint. The stock of the crossbow was wood and the fittings brass, though the bow itself was steel. Nish wrapped a spare length of soaked rag around the bow then struck across it with the tip of his knife. It made an audible click but didn’t result in a spark.
He tried again and again, torn between the need for a spark, now desperate judging by the hideous shrieks coming from above, and the need to avoid detection.
Ullii was halfway back now, flying hand over hand along the rope. She stopped to signal him. He held out his hands. She grimaced – or was it a sneer of contempt? Not securing the flint and steel was an inexcusable blunder.
He kept striking, hoping the sound would be muffled by Flydd’s screams, but they stopped suddenly and someone called from the centre of the amphitheatre. ‘What was that?’
Nish froze. The shrieks resumed only to break off in mid-cry, as if Flydd had been struck down.
Ullii had stopped, hanging from one hand, but now she resumed, swinging towards him faster than before. He held his breath. One slip and she was gone.
‘It’s him!’ cried Ghorr. ‘It’s that bloody little bastard Cryl-Nish Hlar. He’s down there somewhere. Find him and bring him to me, alive!’
There was a stampede across the canvas. Nish struck furiously at the metal, but could not produce a spark. An uproar broke out, a horde of people roaring out his name, laughing, cheering and clapping. The prisoners were cheering him on and Nish felt such a surge of encouragement that for a moment he knew he could save them.
Reality crashed down on him as Ghorr roared, ‘Shut them up. The snivelling little coward can’t do anything.’
‘What if he has the seeker with him?’ came Fusshte’s slithering voice.
Ullii had passed the last knot but now stopped in mid-swing. No man terrified her more than Fusshte did. Nish held out his arms to her and she came on, more slowly, her mouth working.
‘Where is the seeker?’ said Ghorr.
‘I haven’t seen her since we took Flydd.’
‘And you didn’t think to check?’ Ghorr’s voice became shrill.
‘She was in your custody, Chief Scrutator,’ Fusshte snarled. ‘She’s your little pet. She must be with him.’
‘Of course she is, but we know how to deal with Ullii,’ Ghorr said. ‘Where’s Scrutator T’Lisp?’
‘Up on her air-dreadnought.’
‘Get her down here right away.’
Nish abandoned his spark-making as hopeless and began sawing at a cross-stay, not that it would make any difference.
No difference at all. His blunt knife made barely any impression on the tough fibres. It would take minutes to cut through, and minutes he didn’t have. As soon as one of the soldiers thought to look underneath the deck, they’d be seen. Sharpshooters could pick them off with crossbows from the ground or through holes cut in the deck, or the mancers destroy them in any number of hideous ways.
Ullii was still about ten spans away when the canvas creaked above Nish, as if someone was creeping across it. He readied the crossbow, knowing that it could make no difference if he shot one soldier, or even ten.
‘There’s a funny smell over here,’ yelled a soldier from near one of the knots Ullii had soaked. ‘Like lamp spirit.’
Nish couldn’t breathe. A hand appeared over the edge, clutching at the melon-sized knot. It was a long time before the other hand appeared beside it. Perhaps the soldier was afraid of heights.
The soldier’s head appeared, bald patch first, looking the other way. Nish readied the bow then froze, hoping vainly that he might not be seen in the gloom, or that the soldier might be careless.
The head turned towards Nish, upside down and red-faced. He did not appear to see him. Nish breathed out, but unfortunately Ullii moved.
Nish fired, but not in time to prevent the soldier’s triumphant cry.
‘He’s down here, surr, underneath the deck. And the seek –’
The bolt struck him in the throat, the soldier lost his grip and fell, head-first, as dead as a stone, the naphtha-soaked tail fluttering at his throat like a necktie. But the alarm had already been raised.
An exultant Ghorr shouted, ‘Captain, call your men back. T’Lisp?’
There came a mutter that Nish could not decipher, just as Ullii reached him. Then came the scratchy, old woman’s voice that sent Ullii crawling into his arms. Nish hooked his way further from the edge and began to reload the crossbow.
‘What is your will, Chief Scrutator?’ the old woman said breathlessly.
‘The seeker is underneath the canvas and I want her, unharmed. Use the bracelet and compel her to you, Scrutator T’Lisp. If you can bring the artificer as well, all the better.’
‘At once, Chief Scrutator.’
‘What are we going to do?’ whispered Nish.
Ullii scrunched herself tighter in his arms, whimpering.
‘Come on, we’ve got to get further from the edge.’
They crept in. Nish clamped on securely, eased himself out of Ullii’s grip and tied her trailing safety line to the stay rope. He had just gone back to striking sparks when Ullii’s eyes rolled up.
‘No,’ she said in a choked whisper. ‘I won’t.’
‘It’s T’Lisp, Ullii, and she murdered our son. Don’t give in to her.’
He took her hand but it just lay limply in his. Ullii didn’t seem to be there at all. Then all at once her grip grew tight and she jerked him towards her, her eyes now focussed and feral.
‘You’ve got to fight her, Ullii.’
She went for Nish as if it was he who was trying to possess her, clawing, scratching and biting. He fought her off, then slapped her across the cheek.
She put up one hand, staring at him. ‘Nish, I’m sorry …’ Her eyes crossed and she went for him again.
He pushed her away, harder this time. Ullii lost her grip and fell until she reached the limit of her safety line. The harness pulled tight around her chest and the shock broke her free of T’Lisp’s compulsion. She hung on the line, slowly revolving, staring into space.
Nish retreated along the rope as quickly as he dared, realised that his hooks were also steel, and swiped at the nearest with his knife, across and back. Not a spark.
A soldier was lowered over the side of the amphitheatre on a line, thirty or forty spans away to his left, followed by a second, a few spans nearer. Nish rotated on his hooks. More soldiers appeared to the right.
Nish struck furiously at the steel. His plan had failed – should he take the easy way out and let go? Suicide wasn’t in his nature, but allowing himself to be caught was also suicide, the only difference being in the excruciations Ghorr would put him through first.
Still trying to make a spark, he didn’t notice the change that had come over Ullii, the sudden calm and resolve. He didn’t see her edging towards him until she was almost within arm’s reach. Her face was a mask that showed nothing at all, though her eyes were fixed on him and her free hand clenched and unclenched. She reached up and unfastened her safety rope.
‘Ullii,’ he hissed, holding the knife out crossways as a barrier. ‘What are you doing?’
Her fingers flexed but she did not reply.
‘Ullii, Scrutator T’Lisp is controlling you. She’s telling you to come after me, isn’t she? Is that what you really want to do?’
She hung there for a moment, one-handed, like an acrobat.
‘T’Lisp is evil, Ullii,’ he went on quickly. ‘As evil as Ghorr or Scrutator Fusshte. You’ve got to resist her.’
‘I can’t,’ Ullii gasped. ‘She’s too strong.’
‘Try with your very heart.’
‘I can’t do it, Nish.’
‘She killed Yllii! Try for our son’s sake, as you’ve never tried before. Look for your lattice and use it against her, or the whole world is dead.’
‘She said that before,’ Ullii whispered. ‘She told me I had to help her or you would destroy everything.’
‘I may be a fool, Ullii, and I may have done some stupid things in my time, but I don’t hold the fate of the world in my hands. The scrutators do.’
‘I … don’t know.’ She had to force it out.
‘Who do you believe, Ullii? Think of all you know about me, the good and the bad. And then think about the scrutators, and decide whom you can trust.’
Ullii really did try, and the struggle was reflected on her face, then she broke and launched herself through the air at him. Her arms went around his chest and her hands locked in the middle of his back, binding his arms to his sides. She bared her sharp little teeth and went for his throat.
‘No, Ullii,’ he cried, ducking his head out of the way. The impact had sent him swinging wildly and Nish was afraid his hooks would pull out. He couldn’t get his hands up to fix them, and if he managed to break free of Ullii she would fall.
She went for his throat again.
‘Ullii, it’s Scrutator T’Lisp controlling you. You’ve got to stop her.’ Out of the corner of his eye Nish could see the soldiers fastening their climbing ropes to the horizontal stay cables, preparing to come after them.
‘Ullii,’ he said, forcing himself to be as measured as possible. ‘Would Myllii want you to do this?’
It was the wrong thing to say. ‘You killed him,’ she screamed, trying to bite his nose. Nish jerked his head sideways and her teeth fastened onto his cheek and sank in through the skin. The pain made him lose control.
‘And you’re killing me, for the scrutators who killed our son! Can’t you get that through your thick skull, you stupid little bitch! You’re killing me.’
Ullii reacted as if she’d been struck across the face. She threw her head back and her eyes focussed on Nish’s bleeding cheek.
He’d broken through, if just for a second. ‘Please, Ullii, if there’s anything left in the lattice, use it. ’
Ullii strained, squeezing him so hard that his ribs creaked. A red mist passed before his eyes, Nish came over all faint and her face began to fade, replaced by the oddest vision.
A black, barbed knot, like a spinning ball covered in hooks, was whirling towards him. Other knots near and far were out of focus. He had to be seeing Ullii’s lattice. So it wasn’t lost after all.
‘If I lose it,’ Ullii said plaintively, ‘I’ll have nothing left.’
It took an effort to reply, for he couldn’t draw breath. ‘You’re not going to lose it.’
‘It’s been fading for weeks. It’s nearly gone. To use it will take everything I have left.’
Nish managed to raise his head and open his eyes. ‘If you give me up to them, how would you explain that to little Yllii?’
Tears welled in her eyes, as pink as if they’d flowed across caked blood. ‘You don’t know what you’re asking.’
‘When Ghorr takes us, he’ll torture me to death and give you to Fusshte to play with.’
She drew a deep breath and in his vision the spinning knot slowed then stopped. Glowing filaments extended out in all directions, while the centre went from black to orange to blue-white.
Nish’s brain felt as though it had revolved in his head. ‘Ullii?’ he gasped.
The soldiers jerked on their ropes, one man spinning like a spider dangling from a web, another freezing into a rigid spread-eagle. A third lost his grip and fell.
The clamour from above ceased abruptly. Nish felt a swelling pressure and caught a whiff of charred hair. People cried out in horror or disgust; he could hear them running. Someone retched, right above his head. Then, boom-splat, and something heavy thudded onto the deck.
The canvas began to char in the shape of a head and neck. As Nish stared at the blackening fabric, it pinholed and clear fluid began to drip through, followed by a loop of yellow slime that grew ever longer. Droplets of watery blood ran down the dangling thread.
Plop. An eyeball slid through the slowly enlarging hole, dangling from its optic nerve. A red-raw tongue slithered through another hole as the charring spread across the canvas.
Then, to Nish’s disgust and horror, a smoking face, bare of skin, flopped down on its skinless, wattled neck. The canvas parted to reveal the other eye, staring at them, still alive. It was Scrutator T’Lisp, all that was left of her.
Ullii cried out in horror and tried to throw herself out of the way. Nish crushed her to him with his free arm as the blue-lipped mouth opened, the yellow, angled teeth parted in a smile that was mostly rictus. For a moment Nish thought T’Lisp was going to scream a death spell at him, but a revolting sucking gurgle cut off what she had been going to say. Her jaws were forced open, she heaved once, twice, three times, then her intestines oozed out of her mouth, popping and squelching as they came.
Nish’s stomach heaved, though all he brought up was a thin green trickle of bitter bile that burned his throat and mouth. He spat the residue carefully to one side of a now limp Ullii and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
By the time he’d finished, the other eyeball had popped out, but the charred canvas gave way under the ruined creature’s torso and, thankfully, it fell through.
Framed by the hole, not two spans away, was the horrified face of Chief Scrutator Ghorr, spattered with the indescribable remnants of his former colleague. Red-brown fumes wisped from the sable collar of his coat and, to his left, Scrutator Fusshte was doubled over, choking. Behind him a pair of soldiers reeled in circles as if drunk. Whatever Ullii had done, it hadn’t just affected T’Lisp.
‘There – are,’ slurred Ghorr, sluggishly raising his arm at them.
Acting purely on instinct, Nish swung the crossbow up and fired through the smoking hole. The bolt struck Ghorr in the left shoulder, driving him backwards out of sight.
‘Ullii,’ Nish gasped. ‘Get a grip. You’ve given us our chance!’
With eyes screwed shut, she reached up for the rope. Nish fumbled a rag-wrapped bolt out of his pocket, slipped it into the groove of the crossbow and wound furiously. He touched the tails of the rag to the smouldering canvas and the rag flared. Taking careful aim at the nearest of the naphtha-soaked knots, he fired.
The bolt went true, embedding itself in the knot, and blue flame flickered there. Nish fired three more flaming bolts; each hit their target. Fire licked up and down the vertical cables and ran around the circumferential ropes between them. It was done.
The people on the amphitheatre began shouting, screaming and stampeding away from the fire, whose flames were already nibbling at the edges of the canvas. The cables were thick and it would take a good while for fire to weaken their tightly woven cores, though the canvas would burn through in a minute. Flame ran up one cable like a wick, causing cries of panic from the scrutators, rightly terrified of an explosion of floater-gas that would threaten all their craft. Two of the soldiers hanging over the side fell, ropes blazing. The others swiftly pulled back out of sight.
‘Put it out!’ someone screamed.
Across at the nearest knot, cloaks were flapped as the soldiers tried to smother the flames, though after each thump the fire sprang out again.
Someone shouted, ‘Water, quickly!’
Nish didn’t dare stick his head up through the hole, but he put his ear to the canvas and their voices came clearly to him.
‘You can’t put out naphtha with water, fool,’ came Ghorr’s halting voice. Though in much pain, he was still in control. ‘Cut up sheets of canvas … roll it round the ropes … smother it. Guards – carry me to my lifting chair. What’s it doing way up there? Lower it at once. Healer? Where’s my healer, dammit?’
‘Are we to abandon the executions, then?’ said Fusshte. He spoke thickly, as if his tongue had swollen to fill his mouth.
‘Of course not,’ Ghorr snapped, regaining control of himself. ‘The spectacle must go on. The Council has to show that it’s in control. We can’t be driven away by a renegade traitor and a squeaking mouse.’
‘If a spark rises up to one of the airbags and sets off the floater gas –’
‘It won’t if you take control of the fires. Get on with it! Get a squad of soldiers to each fire and check the rest of the cables. And shut that rabble up.’ The prisoners were shouting, cheering and urging Nish on. ‘Where’s my captain?’
‘He’s trying to put out the cable fires.’
‘Take charge here and calm the witnesses. Order must be restored at once.’
Fusshte ran and gave the commands, then came back. ‘And if we can’t put out the fires?’
‘Have the baskets lowered halfway, just in case,’ said Ghorr. ‘Separate out the most important witnesses to go in the first lift. Where’s my healer? My shoulder …’
‘He’s coming down now. What about the others?’ said Fusshte. ‘It’ll look bad if you sneak off and abandon them.’
‘How dare you speak that way!’ cried Ghorr. There was a heavy thump, as if he’d slumped to the canvas, and a gasp of pain. ‘If the cables burn through, the rest of the witnesses will be sacrificed. They’ll be doing their duty. I’ll allow no risk to the air-dreadnoughts.’
‘What about the prisoners?’
‘Let them fall to their doom, all but Xervish Flydd. Without him they’re nothing, and I’ll see the rest of his blood run before the day is out. Bring Irisis Stirm too.’
‘And Cryl-Nish Hlar?’
Nish reached over and lifted the naphtha flagon off Ullii’s back. It gurgled satisfyingly. He whipped out the stopper, folded over a twist of soaked rag and screwed it in so that it was tight.
‘Take him alive, if you can,’ Ghorr said. ‘And if you can’t, I want him dead with a thousand crossbow bolts in him. I’ll not be made a laughing stock by that treacherous little cur.’
‘It’s a bit late for that,’ said Fusshte softly.
‘What did you say?’ Ghorr hissed.
‘You wanted all the credit for this victory for yourself,’ said Fusshte in a low and deadly voice. ‘So you must take the blame for the scrutators’ humiliation and failure.’
‘There is no failure,’ snarled Ghorr. ‘We’ve got all we came for, and more.’
‘But you’ve lost more, and that’s what’s going to be remembered. The amphitheatre can’t last ten minutes.’
‘I’ve strengthened the cables with our Secret Art.’
‘Against fire? When it falls, the whole world will know that the chief scrutator has had his nose pulled by a renegade traitor and a squeaking mouse. And won’t they laugh.’
‘Anyone who so much as smiles will be executed on the spot.’
‘Which will only prove that you’ve lost it. You’re finished, Ghorr.’
‘Then why aren’t you doing anything about it?’
‘I’m waiting for you to abdicate.’
‘Be damned! Lower my chair, fools,’ Ghorr roared.
‘Leave it where it is,’ Fusshte ordered.
Nish was astounded. Revolt among the scrutators was unheard of. How could he make use of it?
‘Yesterday you might have destroyed me with a snap of your fingers,’ Fusshte went on. ‘After today you won’t have the authority. The chief scrutator survives only so long as he proves worthy of the office, Ghorr, and you’ve failed in front of your fellows. Without my support you’ll suffer the same fate as Ex-Scrutator Flydd. Scrutators leave office only one way, as you should know. You made the rule, after all.’
‘Where’s my chair?’ said Ghorr. ‘Why isn’t it coming?’
‘I signalled the operator to pull it back up. The chief scrutator can’t flee like a rat from a burning hold. It wouldn’t be good for the dignity of the Council.’
‘Damn you, Fusshte,’ Ghorr ground out. ‘I’ll see you flayed alive for this.’
‘I doubt it,’ Fusshte chuckled. ‘Look! They’ve obeyed my orders, not yours. You’re finished, Ghorr.’
‘We’ll see about that.’
‘Oh, indeed we will, Chief Scrutator.’ Fusshte raised his voice. ‘Soldiers, Cryl-Nish Hlar still lurks below. Take him if you can, but if you can’t capture him before the amphitheatre collapses, kill him.’
Five soldiers were lowered over the far sides of the amphitheatre, well away from the flames. They fixed their harnesses to the horizontal ropes and began to inch their way across.
Nish slipped the crossbow onto his back and tied the prepared flagon to his belt. A fierce glee spurred him on. Whatever happened now, he and Ullii had given the Council a slap in the face and his friends a chance to die with dignity. Now what? Fall to his death, or see if he could do a bit more? Fight on, and if the soldiers looked like taking him, he’d jump.
‘Ullii!’ he whispered. ‘We can’t stay here.’
She didn’t move and her eyes had rolled into her head. She’d hardly budged since she’d killed T’Lisp. Had the horror of what she’d done driven Ullii mad? He shook her gently by the shoulder. She didn’t react. He shook her harder.
She slowly turned his way and her eyes rolled down. ‘It’s too late, Nish. The lattice is gone this time.’
‘You can worry about that later,’ he said. If you’re telling the truth. She’d said that before so he doubted her. ‘Come on. Up through the hole.’
To his surprise she acted at once, swinging herself up onto the smouldering deck and crouching there. ‘Keep a sharp lookout,’ he said.
‘There’s no one looking.’ Ullii reached down to him.
‘What are they doing?’
She turned her head each way, like a cat. ‘Running around like ants.’
Nish adjusted his hooks and managed to stretch a leg up onto the deck. Ullii caught his arm, the injured one, and pulled him through. ‘Down!’
He lay on his belly beside her, expecting to see soldiers advancing on them from all directions, but no one was looking towards the small hole burned by T’Lisp’s body. He saw only chaos. The vast amphitheatre deck, some hundred and fifty spans across, was wreathed in smoke and drifting mist that concealed swathes of the surface. Fumes trailed up from the canvas in a dozen places. People, or bodies, lay here and there, some twitching and thrashing, others still. Nish assumed that Ullii’s lattice-working had brought them down.
Squads of soldiers had gathered around two of the burning cables and were trying to smother the flames by wrapping lengths of canvas about them. It didn’t seem to be working. At the other two fires the deck had burned through, leaving nowhere safe to stand. Several soldiers were perched precariously on the ropes, beating at the cables, while the others milled around and an overseer shouted orders from a safe distance.
The rest of the witnesses, numbering some hundreds, had crowded onto a crescent at the far edge of the amphitheatre, as far as they could get from the fires. Squads of anxious-looking soldiers roamed back and forth, trying to keep them in order. The prisoners remained in the centre, in a pen walled with barbed ropes. A squad of Ghorr’s personal guard had their crossbows trained on them.
Nish had wondered why the soldiers hadn’t attacked in greater strength. Now he realised that there weren’t enough. Fusshte had sent more than a hundred down to Fiz Gorgo to hunt for him, and just as many must have been lifted up to the air-dreadnoughts after the trials finished. He could see fewer than a hundred on the deck, most of whom were occupied in trying to control the fires, the prisoners or the terrified witnesses.
One of the fires flared up, someone screamed and soon there was wholesale panic among the witnesses. A small group broke off from the mob and ran. The rest stampeded after them, making waves across the canvas. A group of soldiers tried to restrain them but were trampled. The squad behind them began firing into the crowd, which wheeled and stampeded the other way. Fusshte ran out in front of the stampede, holding up his arms. The leaders stopped dead, only to be trampled by those behind, before the mob finally came to a gasping, groaning halt.
The panic spread to the robed mancers, and then to the other scrutators, who were fruitlessly trying to reach their chairs, which had been left hanging from their air-dreadnoughts as a ready means of escape. Unfortunately the once taut deck had sagged under the weight of hundreds of people, the chairs were now beyond reach, and no one on the air-dreadnoughts seemed to be doing anything about it. Thirty spans off, Ghorr was standing on tiptoe with his back to Nish and Ullii, staring up at his chair, which had been lifted even further and now hung a good ten spans above his upstretched arm. The other arm dangled limply, drenched in blood.
‘Lower it!’ he screeched, turning round and round.
‘He’s afraid,’ Ullii said wonderingly. And then she laughed. ‘The chief scrutator is afraid he’s going to die.’
‘I never thought I’d see the day,’ said Nish, who was beginning to think there might be the faintest chance to rescue the prisoners.
Their side of the deck, which was pitted with holes and smoking patches of canvas, was empty apart from the soldiers desperately trying to smother the cable fires. Belching black smoke kept driving them away and at once the fires sprang out anew. Officers ordered them back but the soldiers were becoming more reluctant every second.
The prisoners were crowded together in their pen, some shouting, some jeering, others watchfully silent. Their fate was all too clear once the cables burned through. Nish counted their guards – eleven. Far too many for him to deal with. His greatest fear was that the soldiers would be ordered to slay the prisoners before the amphitheatre was abandoned.
On the far edge, opposite the fires, a large ropework basket was being lowered to the deck. A group of witnesses rushed it and began fighting to get inside. A meagre, snake-like scrutator, probably Fusshte though it was difficult to be sure through the wreathing mist, roared at them to stay back. No one took any notice. Beyond it a lowered net had been commandeered by a group of robed mancers, who might have been able to control the crowd had they not been so intent on saving their own skins.
The mancers’ net rose jerkily into the air, pulling those inside into a compressed jumble of bodies with arms, legs and heads protruding through the meshes. At least Nish no longer had to worry about them. A scrutator was lifted, in a series of jerks, up into the smoky mist in her suspended chair. Nish didn’t recognise her.
The utter confusion gave Nish an idea. He didn’t think he could reproduce Fusshte’s sibilant tones, but he could probably do a passable imitation of Ghorr’s deeper voice and it might make a difference.
Crouching down so that he couldn’t be seen clearly, Nish put his hands around his mouth and roared. ‘Guard! To me. To me!’
The men guarding the prisoners’ pen spun around, searching for their master. Ghorr had his good arm in the air and was still shouting for his chair, though from a distance it might well have seemed that he was crying for them to come and restore order.
‘To me, damn you,’ Nish yelled.
The guards conferred. Eight of them formed into lines, four by two, and marched in the direction of the chief scrutator. Off to Nish’s left, blue flames flared then ran up a cable for several spans. A horizontal stay rope gave with a ping; canvas snapped like a sail in a high wind. A woman shrieked, high and shrill.
Someone sang out, ‘It’s going!’
The beaters at the burning cable abandoned their posts and fled to the safe side of the deck. One man ran across a hole burned in the canvas and disappeared.
There was pandemonium among the witnesses. One of their guards dropped his weapons, ran to the nearest cable, kicked off his boots and went up it like a sailor up a mast. Others moved to join him.
‘Stop!’ shouted Ghorr.
The soldier kept climbing towards the air-dreadnought.
‘Captain,’ raged Ghorr, ‘take him down.’
The mist was thickening all the time and Nish couldn’t see who Ghorr was giving orders to, though he could see the soldier, who was still climbing desperately. The man looked down in terror, tried to pull himself out of the way of the bolt then threw up his arms and fell. Streaming mist cut off the scene, though Nish could well imagine what was going on. Ghorr was still shrilling orders but Nish could no longer make them out.
‘Now!’ Nish said urgently. ‘Ullii, could you –?’ He looked around. Ullii had vanished.
He cursed her under his breath, in a rueful sort of a way, though he should have been used to it by now. Fitting a bolt to his crossbow, Nish flitted from mist patch to mist patch, towards the prisoners’ pen.
Three guards remained, still covering the prisoners with their crossbows. They looked nervous and it wouldn’t take much for them to go on the rampage. How could he overcome them, all alone? He still had the naphtha flagon over his shoulder but didn’t dare use it. Like as not, such a blaze would kill everyone.
A soldier came running through the murk, calling out to the guards. He gasped out an order then turned back. The first guard nodded and returned to the pen, hefting his crossbow as if to shoot.
Nish aimed at the centre of the soldier’s back and fired. The soldier grunted and fell. The others whirled, raising their weapons. Nish lay still, carefully fitting a bolt to his bow but not daring to wind back the cranks, for the sound would give him away instantly.
They were looking in his direction and must know roughly where the shot had come from. The leading soldier saw him, aimed and fired in one smooth, well-trained movement.
Nish threw himself to one side and the bolt carved a painful streak down the outside of his thigh. He came to his knees, frantically winding his cranks as the second soldier brought up his weapon. Nish squeezed the lock but the bolt, which hadn’t been seated properly, shot out sideways and landed on the deck beyond his reach.
Nish looked up despairingly. The prisoners pressed up against the barbed ropes, staring at him. He could sense them willing him on but there was nothing he could do.
‘It’s the artificer,’ said the first soldier. ‘Take his weapon, Ragge. Chief Scrutator Ghorr will pay a fortune for him alive.’
‘But not necessarily whole,’ grinned Ragge.
‘Ghorr didn’t say anything about whole.’
Ragge drew his knife, a long, curving blade that would have been ideal for gutting a buffalo. ‘He won’t mind if I take a little trophy. It’ll go for a pretty price in the markets when we get back.’
Nish slid one hand into his pocket for another bolt.
‘Move your hand again and my friend here will take it off at the wrist,’ said Ragge. ‘He’s the best shot in the Guard.’
Nish palmed the bolt but kept his hand where it was. The soldier could shoot him before he got it out of his pocket. Ragge’s eyes were red-veined, his mouth twisted in a sick kind of malice. Such were the people that Ghorr gathered around him. No man could serve such a monster without having his own hefty dose of evil.
‘Get up,’ said Ragge.
Nish came to his knees and tried to rise.
‘Stay just like that,’ grinned the guard.
‘You like them on their knees, don’t you,’ said the other. ‘Come on – this place could collapse any minute.’
‘It’ll be a while yet. Its strength comes from the cross-stays, not the canvas.’ Ragge came towards Nish, the knife held low. He would strike upwards to maim, and it would be a difficult blow to evade.
Then, from the corner of his eye, Nish saw the most astonishing sight – a tall figure flying over the fence of the prisoners’ pen as if fired from a catapult. Yellow hair streaming out behind her, Irisis came down, hands still bound, and kicked with both feet at the guard with the crossbow.
The blow would have been perfect except that she hadn’t been thrown quite far enough. She didn’t strike the soldier in the back of the neck, as she’d intended, but between the shoulders.
The impact drove him to the deck, where he landed so hard that the crossbow went skidding across the canvas. Unfortunately it didn’t go off.
‘Look out!’ Nish cried, rolling out of the way of the knife.
Irisis landed awkwardly, bounced on her feet and went for the fallen crossbow. Ragge had spun around at the melee. He ran towards his comrade, then turned to Irisis when it became evident she would reach the crossbow first, though it was moot whether she could use it effectively with bound hands.
Nish slipped his bolt into the slot and back-pedalled, winding his cranks. Ragge spun on one foot, looking from him to Irisis. Nish’s crank was half wound, enough to fire though not to do much damage.
Irisis reached the fallen crossbow and snatched at it, but could not pick it up cleanly. She was just raising it when the other guard threw himself at her and tore it out of her hands.
Irisis went down hard. The guard stood up and aimed the crossbow at her face. Nish froze. His weapon was fully wound now but he couldn’t decide what to do. If he shot at Ragge, the other man would surely kill Irisis. But if he fired at Irisis’s attacker and didn’t kill him instantly he and Irisis would both die, for Ragge would gut him before he could reload.
Nish swung the bow from Ragge to Irisis’s attacker.
The man deliberately gave his crank another wind. ‘Put it down,’ he grated, ‘or I’ll shoot her in the face.’
Disfigurement was the thing Irisis feared most. She’d always been vain about her looks. Ragge wore a loutish grin and Nish knew he had no choice. He’d sooner lose his own life than see Irisis suffer so.
He fired without warning, not for her attacker but for the man’s crossbow. It was not an impossible shot for an accomplished archer, as he was, but it was a difficult one, the soldier being a good ten spans away. If he missed, or the soldier managed to fire first, at least Nish wouldn’t have long to regret his folly and Irisis’s ruin.
The bolt struck the soldier’s right hand, then the lock of the crossbow, knocking the bow sideways. The soldier shrieked, jerked it back towards Irisis’s face and squeezed the lock.
At least he tried to, but nothing happened. He looked down stupidly to discover that the bolt had taken off his fingers. That was all Nish had time for. Ragge, taking in the situation at a glance, lunged at Nish with the knife. Nish hurled the useless crossbow at the soldier’s head but he ducked out of the way.
Nish went backwards, fumbling for his small, blunt knife. Ragge laughed when he drew it and slashed the air in front of Nish’s face. Nish went the other way, straight into a left hook that lifted his feet off the canvas. As he hit the deck, Nish realised that he hadn’t even seen it coming.
He landed on his back and the knife went flying. Nish’s head was ringing. He looked up dazedly as Ragge put a large foot squarely in the middle of his chest and reached lower down with the knife.
‘Trophy time, traitor.’
Without further word, or even a change in expression, he fell forward on his face, the huge knife puncturing the canvas beside Nish’s arm. The thick legs knocked the wind out of him.
Nish rolled over and dragged himself out. The bolt had struck Ragge in the back of the neck, severing the spine and killing him instantly. Irisis was on her feet ten spans away, holding the other crossbow in her bound hands. The soldier who’d attacked her was backing away, staring at the bloody stubs of his fingers. She brandished the bow at him and he stumbled off into the mist.
Irisis came across, holding out her hands, and he cut her bonds with the big knife. She set down the crossbow, and Nish saw that the lock lever was bent to the left. It was a wonder she’d been able to fire it at all. Irisis embraced him.
‘You look grotesque. What on earth have you been up to?’
Nish rubbed his sweaty, sooty, flaking cheeks. ‘It’d take too long to tell.’
‘That was a brave thing you did, Nish.’
‘It might have failed. I could easily have missed and then you –’
A shadow crossed her beautiful face. ‘But you didn’t. You trusted your judgment and your skill and they didn’t let you down. Come on, your cables can’t have much left in them. Whose mad idea was it to set fire to them?’
‘Mine. I …’ He hesitated, not knowing how she would react. ‘I thought it better to kill the lot of you than leave you to Ghorr’s brutal mercies.’
‘Quite right. I would have done the same for you.’
‘How did you get out?’ he said as they hurried across to the pen.
‘I stood on Yggur’s clasped hands and he catapulted me over the wall, as if he had the strength of ten men.’
‘Really?’ said Nish. The bound and mostly gagged prisoners were trying to crawl out of the pen. He hacked through the barbed ropes.
Inouye, the little pilot, was on her knees on the deck. He tore off the gag, cut her hands free and she fell on her face. He left her there, for there wasn’t time to look after her.
‘Where’s Flydd?’ Nish was terrified that he’d find him a bloody, flayed corpse, and he wouldn’t be able to deal with it. He couldn’t see him anywhere.
‘He’s over at the flensing trough.’ Irisis jerked her thumb into the throng. ‘But first we take care of the able-bodied.’
She was right. The strongest and the most powerful must be freed first. And the most powerful were Yggur, Malien and the strange mathemancer, Gilhaelith. Nish couldn’t see Malien and didn’t know what to make of tall, woolly-headed Gilhaelith. He found Yggur on the other side of the pen, struggling furiously with his bonds, and surrounded by a halo of uncanny mist that made him difficult to pick out in the hazy gloom. The gag had been pulled down to reveal a corner of his mouth, and that had been enough for him to use his Art.
Nish came up behind and caught his bound wrists, intending to free him. Yggur whirled and Nish gasped ‘Friend!’ as the knee went for his throat, a blow that could well have killed him.
Yggur pulled the blow, which merely thumped Nish hard in the shoulder. Nish ducked behind him and hacked through the wrist ropes, taking off a good bit of skin in the process. Yggur didn’t flinch. Nish slid the knife under the gag, cutting the cloth.
Yggur staggered. He’d been beaten, evidently, and was not at his best, but he flashed Nish a savage grin. ‘Let’s get to them. Free Fyn-Mah and Flydd, if he’s still alive, then the others. But not Gilhaelith. He’s more trouble than he’s worth.’
‘But surely any help is better than none?’ Nish glanced at the tall mancer, whose look of black rage boded ill once Gilhaelith was free.
‘If it hadn’t been for him we wouldn’t be here now,’ Yggur said.
Nish didn’t understand, but there was no time to ask what Yggur meant. ‘What about Malien and Tiaan?’
‘Ghorr has already sent them up to the air-dreadnoughts.’ Yggur was shaking his hands to restore the circulation. Now he raised his fists high, as if calling power to himself, then snapped them down. Mist condensed in a series of crescent-shaped clouds around the pen and Yggur spun it into a smoky brown doughnut around them.
‘There’s not much time,’ said Nish, cutting the bonds of the prisoners one by one. They had formed a line in front of him, and another before Irisis. Yggur’s retainers were nothing if not disciplined. ‘The cables must burn through any time now and, once they go, this side of the amphitheatre will collapse.’
‘I don’t think it’ll collapse from the loss of four cables,’ said Yggur. ‘It should just sag. But once the scrutators have saved their necks, and those retainers they can’t do without, they’ll cut the deck free from above, no matter how many of their loyal servants remain on it.’
Once all the prisoners other than Gilhaelith had been released, which took only a minute or two, Nish handed his crossbow and bolts to one of Yggur’s surviving soldiers and went looking for Irisis.
‘Where’s Flydd?’ he said to Yggur as their paths crossed.
‘He was at the flensing trough.’ Yggur grimaced as he pointed into the mist.
‘I’ll go after him. Have you got a plan?’
‘Fight for our bloody lives!’
‘With two crossbows and a couple of knives?’
‘It’s a whole lot better than we had five minutes ago.’
Yggur began to form the smoky mist into spectres and walking corpses bearing the faces of the witnesses, which he sent drifting across the deck. Someone screamed in horror or despair, others joined in and shortly the witnesses stampeded again.
Putting his hands up to his mouth, Yggur made a series of barking sounds that reverberated across the amphitheatre and back. After a short silence there came, from the slough that surrounded Fiz Gorgo on three sides, the hair-raising cry of a lyrinx. At least, it sounded like a lyrinx. The mist broke, only to re-form more tightly. The soldiers called to one another in voices tinged with fear. The air-dreadnoughts might not fear the lyrinx when high in the sky on a clear day, but they were perilously vulnerable tethered here in poor visibility.
Other lyrinx cries came from all around and suddenly there was uproar. Nish heard the snapping twang of dozens of crossbows as the soldiers fired madly into the mist-shrouded swamps, thinking that the enemy were attacking. Nish wasn’t entirely sure that they weren’t. The scrutators and mancers, no doubt clinging to their escape chairs, were screaming to be lifted to safety.
‘They’re calling the enemy against us,’ came Ghorr’s outraged voice. ‘Kill them! Kill them all. A thousand gold tells for the heads of each of the chief villains, including Crafter Irisis and Artificer Cryl-Nish. A hundred tells for each of the others, dead or alive.’
Nish squinted into the mist. Oh for a crossbow and a glimpse of his enemy. He would have sent a bolt through the chief scrutator with no more thought than stepping on a cockroach.
Dead or alive. He stopped, one foot in the air, then cast a look over his shoulder. A thousand tells was a colossal fortune, more than an officer could earn in ten lifetimes. And all anyone had to do to earn it was kill him.
‘There must be a hundred soldiers out there,’ he said to Yggur.
‘I dare say,’ said Yggur, ‘though most are keeping order among the witnesses or protecting their masters while they scramble to safety. Go across to the edge of the mist, Nish, and – wait!’
Nothing happened for a tense moment; then a soldier, in the uniform of Ghorr’s personal guard, put head and right shoulder through the mist, sighted on the nearest person, Yggur’s elderly cook, and fired. The bolt took her in the ribs beside the heart and she dropped without a sound. The soldier ducked back into the mist before anyone could return fire.
Yggur let out a roar of fury and, thrusting out his fist, he spun in an arc, flailing shards of ice into the mist.
Nish heard a grunt of pain and the thump of a body hitting the canvas. Yggur ran into the mist and came back, dragging the offending soldier by the throat. In a colossal feat of rage, Yggur lifted the man high with one hand.
‘Is this the quality of the chief scrutator’s guard, that you only dare make war on unarmed old women? No wonder the Council is losing the war.’
‘Condemned – criminal,’ gasped the soldier. ‘Price – on head – hundred tells.’
‘You won’t be collecting it, my friend.’ Yggur spun the soldier in the air, caught him as he turned upside down and drove him, head-first, straight through the canvas deck to the hips, where he wedged, caught by his belt, his thick legs kicking.
Avoiding the thrashing boots, Yggur stripped the soldier of knife, sword and bolt bag, and tossed them to two of his men. He kicked the fallen crossbow to another.
Two more soldiers hurtled out of the mist, but at that moment, with an enormous twang, one of the vertical cables snapped. The amphitheatre shook as if it had been hit by an earthquake and a hip-high wave passed across the canvas, tossing everyone off their feet. Before the soldiers could get up, the prisoners had swarmed over them. Red pooled on the canvas.
A smaller wave reflected back from the other side. Nish glanced up at the tethered air-dreadnoughts, which were just outlines in the mist. The one whose cable had snapped shot upwards and disappeared. Ghorr roared imprecations at the sky. Nish could not make out the words but Ghorr’s tone conveyed his alarm. The air-dreadnoughts had been moored so close together that uncontrolled flight was a danger to them all.
‘Any minute now they’ll rush us,’ said Yggur. ‘Nish, take your knife and cut out the canvas on three sides of a long rectangle, like this, but leave a strip at each corner.’ He made a shape in the air. ‘Round there and there.’ He gestured to his left. ‘Flangers, take one of the swords and do the same to the right, around to there. And remember where you’ve cut. Don’t fall through on the way back.’
‘What about behind us?’ said Flangers.
‘We’ll keep watch. Though, with the fires over there, I doubt they’ll attack that way.’
‘I’m sure they want us to think that,’ Flangers muttered.
Nish cut the canvas where Yggur had indicated, so the deck looked more or less whole. The cuts looked obvious to him, but might well trap a soldier charging through the mist, intent on gold and glory.
In the meantime, Yggur set out his other guards on either side of the holes, with barbed lengths of rope stretched on the deck between them. He had dispersed the remaining prisoners behind the pen and wherever else they could find any cover. And then they waited.
‘What if we were to try and climb down one of the cables?’ said Nish, acutely aware that time was running out.
‘We’d fall,’ said Yggur. ‘Climbing down ropes is harder than it looks.’
Nish unfastened the naphtha flask and handed it to Yggur. ‘You may be able to do something with this.’ He had no patience for waiting. Judging by those earlier screams, Flydd could be dying now, or dead.
Nish slid into the swirling mist, keeping low and moving slowly. He wondered where Ullii had got to. Well, she could take care of herself. A pity he hadn’t got a better glimpse of the amphitheatre before Yggur brought the mist down – Nish wasn’t sure he was going the right way. A big man-shape loomed up to one side and Nish flattened himself to the deck. It was another of Ghorr’s guard, sword held out in front of him. The soldier didn’t look Nish’s way and disappeared again.
A sudden whiff of smoke caught in the back of his throat. Surely the remaining cables, tough and tightly woven though they were, must go soon. He moved on, looking around fearfully, only to crash his knee into an elongated object like a metal bathtub with a wide platform around the edges – the flensing trough. The mist was now so thick that he couldn’t see all of the trough at once, though he could see blood spattered on the bottom and stains running down to the plughole.
Behind him there were roars and the clash of sword on sword. The soldiers had attacked. Should he run back? No point – he was unarmed. If Yggur couldn’t stave off the attack, there was nothing Nish could do.
He heard a cry, trailing off. Someone had broken through one of the canvas flaps. Nish rubbed his throbbing kneecap as he edged around the bathtub.
He scanned the deck. He could hear fighting not far away, but couldn’t see a soul. He turned the other way and his eye fell on someone huddled under the flensing trough, wrapped in a bloodstained cloth. The face was so wracked that for a moment Nish didn’t recognise it. And when he did, Nish wished he hadn’t.
‘Xervish!’ he whispered.
The dark eyes turned slowly to him, though there was no recognition in them. ‘I am unmanned,’ he said and closed his eyes again.
Nish put his hands under Flydd’s arms and hauled him out. Flydd couldn’t stand up so Nish hefted the scrutator in his arms. He didn’t weigh much at all. He headed back to where he thought the punishment pen must be, but hadn’t gone far before he was thrown off his feet by another deck-shaking twang. The second cable had gone. If the fire was steadily eating its way around the edges of the canvas, it couldn’t be long before the whole structure collapsed.
The deck wasn’t nearly as taut as before; Nish now found himself walking down a perceptible slope. He carried Flydd back towards the pen, but as he loomed up out of the wreathing smoke, someone leapt for him.
‘Xervish?’ It was the small figure of Perquisitor Fyn-Mah, who looked almost as haggard as Flydd. ‘Is he all right?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Nish. ‘Would you look after him?’
Fyn-Mah took Flydd from Nish’s arms. There were tears in her eyes. ‘No man should have to suffer so, no matter what the crime. What has happened to our humanity?’
‘The scrutators devoured it to keep themselves in power,’ said Nish, and walked away before he wept with her.
Nish crept back through the brown miasma, moving carefully. He encountered several bodies – two soldiers and one of the prisoners – and then the barbed rope. ‘Don’t shoot,’ he yelled, keeping well down. ‘It’s me, Nish.’
Irisis was out in front of a small band of prisoners, swinging a length of barbed rope. Several more prisoners were armed but there were no attackers to be seen.
‘We’ve got to find a way down, and quick,’ said Nish, running towards them.
‘What if we made canvas slings and used them to slide down a cable?’ said Irisis.
‘Too dangerous,’ said Yggur.
Another cable went with a whip crack; a sinuous heave of the canvas threw bodies in the air and everyone off their feet. He felt as if the deck had smacked him under the chin. Screams from the far side of the amphitheatre trailed away to nothing.
‘They shouldn’t have been so close to the edge,’ said Yggur, shaking his head as the deck stilled; then it sagged beneath them to form a broad valley a couple of spans deep at the bottom. There were shouts of ‘Look out!’ from above, followed by the sound of breaking timbers. Two air-dreadnoughts had collided.
‘What if we cut a couple more cables?’ said Nish. ‘The deck might sag enough for us to slide down it onto the roof.’
‘It’d throw us off.’
‘We could cut holes through the canvas and tie onto the stay ropes. When the deck drops low enough we slide to safety.’
‘If we tie on, we’ll be helpless when they attack.’
‘If the deck’s that steep they won’t be able to come after us,’ Nish retorted. ‘Anyway, they’ll be too busy trying to save themselves.’
‘It doesn’t pay to underestimate the scrutators!’ snapped Yggur. ‘Nonetheless, it’s the best plan we have. Nish, take one of the soldiers’ swords and hack the cable away over to your right, past the last burning one. Flangers, do the same on the other side. If the deck still stays up, sever the one after that, but be quick about it. If the air-dreadnoughts cut us loose first, we’re dead.’
‘Surely they won’t do that while they still have hundreds of soldiers and servants down here.’
‘And still you underestimate Ghorr,’ growled Yggur. ‘Once the Council have been winched to safety, they’ll happily abandon everyone else before they risk their own lives. Tie on securely – and watch for backlash when the cables go.’
‘I’ll give you a hand,’ said Irisis, turning to walk with Nish. She slipped her left hand into his, swinging the barbed rope in her right.
They crept through the uncanny mist, which was thicker than ever near the deck, though it did not extend far up. Nish caught occasional glimpses of the air-dreadnoughts through it. The soldiers and crew were hanging over the sides, calling down, and men stood at windlasses to wind the scrutators and important witnesses up, though no one had yet been raised more than a few spans. ‘They seem to be having trouble with the winches,’ said Nish. ‘Is that also Yggur’s doing?’
‘I expect so. He’s an extraordinary man, Nish.’
‘It makes all the difference having you with me,’ Nish said. ‘I don’t feel frightened any more.’
‘Nor should you, with me looking after you.’ She grinned.
‘I didn’t mean it that way.’
‘Anyway, you’ve got nothing to worry about, Nish. I know you’re going to survive the war.’
‘We’re both going to survive it, Irisis, and live to a grand old age, and be greatly honoured.’
‘I may well be honoured but I won’t be around to see it.’
Irisis was prone to making gloomy statements like that. She had a strong belief in her own mortality, and since Nish didn’t know what to say, he just squeezed her hand.
They were close to the edge now. ‘Careful here,’ she went on. ‘If that last cable burns through you’ll be over the side before you can pick your nose.’
‘I don’t pick –’ he began.
She gave a snort of laughter. ‘Oh, Nish, you’re so predictable.’
‘Did you predict I’d climb the ropes and set fire to the amphitheatre, just to save your wicked and worthless life?’ he said, nettled.
‘I knew you’d do something. I just didn’t see how it could work.’
‘It hasn’t yet,’ he reminded her.
‘It’s infinitely better than it was twenty minutes ago. I’ll happily die with you beside me.’
‘You might have put that better.’
Nish felt with his boot for one of the stay cables, cut a strip out of the canvas and used it to tie on. Irisis did the same.
‘Better hurry,’ she said, glancing up. ‘Once that lot reach the air-dreadnoughts they’ll cut us loose and go.’
He followed her gaze. Three nets and a basket jammed with people were being hauled up, jerk by jerk. Many other ropes dangled down through the mist. It was well into the afternoon now; surely no more than two hours to sunset. Ghorr must be getting worried.
Though there was just the gentlest of breezes here, higher up the wind was whistling through the rigging of the air-dreadnoughts, shaking them from side to side. Every jerk pulled on the cables, which groaned as they stretched and contracted. Somewhere, not far off, a man was moaning, the same shivery sound over and over.
Nish caught a sudden whiff of blood. ‘Let’s get on with it.’ He put his sword to the cable and began to saw back and forth.
The blade was sharp, but the tough fibres parted reluctantly. ‘It’s as if some other force is holding them against me,’ said Nish.
‘What twaddle,’ Irisis said good-naturedly. ‘You’re just making excuses. Give me a go.’
She took the blade and drew it back and forth a couple of times. One or two strands severed but the rest held. ‘Maybe you’re right; the air does have the tang of scrutator magic. Perhaps they’ve cast a glamour to strengthen the cables.’ She handed the sword back. ‘Go harder.’
He hacked away. A strand parted with a ping, curling out of the weave and running up the cable for half a span.
‘Pull me up, damn you!’ Ghorr’s cry came echoing down in a sudden silence.
‘His struggle with Fusshte goes on,’ said Nish. ‘Without it, I wouldn’t have had a chance.’
‘I suspect Yggur had a hand in that too,’ said Irisis.
‘What do you mean?’
‘He couldn’t do anything, bound and gagged as he was. But once we realised you were free I managed to rub the gag down from the corner of Yggur’s mouth with my shoulder, when the guards weren’t looking. He used his Art to strengthen the mist and create illusions that heightened Ghorr and Fusshte’s distrust of each other. It wasn’t much but it made a difference.’
Nish paused to wipe the sweat out of his eyes, and as he did, something moved in the mist to his left, further around the circumference of the deck.
‘What was that?’ he said out of the corner of his mouth.
Irisis glanced casually to her right, fingering the coil of barbed rope, her only weapon. ‘I can’t see anything. Keep going. You’ve hardly made an impression at all.’
‘I’m doing my best,’ he grunted.
‘Put the sword down and step away from the cable.’
The voice, which was vaguely familiar, came out of the mist. Nish was trying to work out who it could be when a very short man appeared, a handsome dwarf with a leonine mane of dark hair. His short cloak dragged on the deck and he walked with the lurching gait of a drunken sailor, for his left leg was supported by metal calipers. The dwarf’s hand was held out before him, the fist partly concealing a small brass object.
‘Scrutator Klarm,’ said Nish, giving a last hack before allowing the sword to fall to his side.
‘I have a knoblaggie in my hand,’ said Klarm. ‘I’d prefer not to waste it, but I will if you force me to. You’d never cut it anyway. Come with me, please. You too, Irisis Stirm,’ he said as she backed into the mist. ‘If you run, I’ll make Nish suffer for it.’
‘Run anyway,’ said Nish, casting a frantic glance at her. Irisis stayed put, as he’d known she would.
‘You know what they’ll do to us, Scrutator Klarm,’ said Nish. The dwarf scrutator was reputed to be a fair man.
‘The law is the law and you are traitors,’ said Klarm, ‘tried and convicted under the code of the scrutators. We can’t afford to be merciful, no matter how much we might wish it. And I do – you’re a brave man, Nish; a legend in the making. As for you, Irisis Stirm –’ he bowed in her direction and Klarm had such presence that it didn’t seem a ridiculous gesture ‘– I acknowledge both your courage and your loyalty. And I’ve always admired Xervish, but division at such a time must be fatal.’
‘Flydd cleaved to his oath even after the Council had cast him out and condemned him to slavery,’ said Nish. ‘Do you know what finally caused him to rebel?’
‘There’s no time – very well, be quick.’
‘It happened at Snizort, after my colossal stupidity put Tiaan into the hands of Vithis the Aachim. Ghorr demanded that my father prove his worthiness to be a scrutator by passing sentence on me for my folly. Or, as Ghorr saw it, my treachery. And father did. Jal-Nish condemned me to a brutal, shameful death, not to mention the knowledge that I would be expunged from our family Histories. Scrutator Ghorr was so pleased that he made my father a full scrutator on the spot.’
Nish met the dwarf’s eyes and went on. ‘When Flydd heard what he had done – and I remember his very words, for I’ve never seen him so shocked and disillusioned – Flydd said, For the chief of scrutators to encourage such a deed, to demand it as proof of worth to become scrutator, shows that the Council is corrupt to the core. At that very moment, Flydd repudiated his oath and swore that Ghorr had to be brought down, and the Council with him. And that he, Xervish Flydd, would devote the rest of his life to doing so. It was a moment I will never forget.’
It shook Klarm too. Nish saw it in his face. ‘Surely you knew that, surr?’ he went on.
‘I wasn’t there,’ said Klarm. ‘I knew only what I was told. I’m not a member of the Council, and the Council does not publicise its doings.’
‘But you do believe me?’
Klarm let out an age-weary sigh. ‘I can read men, Cryl-Nish. I know truth when I hear it. Nonetheless, this is the only council we have and the world can’t survive without it. Put down your blade, untether yourselves and come with me.’
Nish could no longer see the knoblaggie concealed in Klarm’s hand, and didn’t want to find out what it could do to them. Klarm might well be an honest man but he was as hard as any of the scrutators, and they didn’t bluff.
‘Pull me up now! You’ll pay for this, you fools.’ Ghorr’s voice was perfectly clear this time.
They all looked up but Yggur’s mist had come in again and Nish could only see the cables disappearing into brown.
‘That’s Ghorr!’ said Irisis. ‘I’ll never forget that voice if I live to be a hundred. It echoes in my nightmares.’
‘What congress have you had with the chief scrutator?’ said Klarm.
‘Not the kind you’re thinking of,’ she snapped. ‘He beat me black and bloody in Nennifer, a dozen times at least.’
‘Ghorr beat you?’ Klarm said incredulously.
‘He was too clever to let it show, but after each visit I couldn’t stand up for a day, or sit down. He inflicted all manner of excruciations on me and enjoyed every moment of them.’
Klarm frowned. ‘I –’
The mist parted up above as if Yggur had blown it away and Nish saw the remaining air-dreadnoughts straining at their cables like party balloons in a gale. They were swinging back and forth in the wind, their multiple airbags bouncing against each other and the rigging in mortal danger of tangling. Their motions jerked the cables and rippled the deck, and sent the ropes of the hanging chairs and baskets swinging in wild arcs.
‘There’s Ghorr,’ said Irisis. ‘They’re finally pulling him up.’ The chief scrutator was swaying in the air halfway between his air-dreadnought and the deck.
‘I wonder what the matter is?’ said Nish. ‘They started hauling him up ages ago.’
‘Get on with it, you fools!’ screamed Ghorr, his face purple with rage.
‘The windlass has jammed,’ said Irisis, who had exceptionally keen eyes. ‘Or broken. Looks as if they’re trying to move his rope to a hand winch.’
‘Surely they’d have to lower him first,’ said Nish, whose artificer training had taught him that much. He tried to see across to where Flangers was cutting the other cable but mist still clung to the deck.
‘You’d think so,’ said Klarm. The rope dropped sharply, whereupon Ghorr screamed at the operators. ‘But … he’s afraid!’
‘Afraid?’ Nish glanced down at the dwarf scrutator. There was a strange light in his eye. Revelation? Could they sway Klarm in so little time?
‘The chief scrutator has failed in front of the witnesses he was trying to impress.’ Klarm shook his head in disgust. ‘This whole spectacle – the attack on Fiz Gorgo, this marvellous amphitheatre, the trial and punishment – was designed for one purpose. To impress the artists, recorders, tale-tellers and witnesses with Ghorr’s power, reach and implacable resolve to extinguish all opposition. But he overreached himself and the failure only reveals his folly.’
‘The air-dreadnoughts had to be close together to hold up the amphitheatre,’ said Nish.
‘Which shows what a vainglorious notion it was. The Council advised him against the scheme,’ Klarm said quietly. ‘I suggested a less extravagant trial, but Ghorr had spent too long planning this spectacle and would not be dissuaded.’
‘Why didn’t he take us back to Nennifer or Lybing, for public trial?’
‘I cannot say. I –’ Klarm broke off as something else occurred to him. ‘Can Ghorr have been afraid of Flydd?’
‘Perhaps he was,’ said Irisis.
‘And now he’s failed in front of his own witnesses,’ Nish added. ‘And he knows the penalty for failing the Council.’
‘Not to mention losing his carefully constructed place in the Histories,’ said Irisis.
‘There’s nothing he can do about that,’ said Klarm.
‘Unless …’ Nish looked Klarm in the eye and knew that he’d reached the same conclusion. ‘Unless Ghorr should be the only one of the Council to return.’
‘He wouldn’t go that far,’ Klarm said unconvincingly. ‘Ghorr is a man who knows his duty.’
‘All the witnesses would have to die as well,’ said Nish.
‘Just the artists and recorders,’ said Irisis. ‘His own people from Nennifer won’t dare talk.’
High above, Ghorr’s rope had been looped over the side of the air-dreadnought while the artificers unwound it from the partly dismantled windlass. They fed the slack onto a hand windlass, which spun under the load, tearing the handles out of the attendants’ grasp. Ghorr dropped a couple of spans before being brought up with a tooth-snapping jerk. He squealed in fright, then roared at his officers to take personal charge. A pair of burly captains hurled the attendants out of the way, took hold of the winch and began to wind furiously. Ghorr rose into the windy zone, where a gust sent him swinging through a long arc. He yelled at his officers, who wound harder, but he swung the other way into the path of three witnesses who were being lifted in a rope basket from the other end of the air-dreadnought.
‘Get out of the way!’ he shouted, but they could do nothing to avoid him. Ghorr smashed into the basket, his chair began to spin, came back the other way, and the basket and chair whirled around and around each other as their ropes spun together.
The chief scrutator tried to rotate his rope chair the other way but it wouldn’t go. The amphitheatre gave a convulsive heave that snapped the cables as taut as wires and pulled Ghorr’s air-dreadnought down by a good span and a half. Nish, Irisis and Klarm were thrown to the canvas.
‘It’s going,’ Ghorr cried. ‘Pull me up, then cut the cable.’
Nish picked himself up. Ghorr’s captains were trying to heave the twisted ropes apart but they wouldn’t budge.
‘Cut them loose!’ said Ghorr.
A shiver went through everyone on the air-dreadnought, as well as the witnesses crowded on the amphitheatre. The officer in charge of Ghorr’s air-dreadnought drew himself up. ‘Those are the recorders, Chief Scrutator,’ he called frostily.
‘And doing their duty to the end,’ Irisis said softly. ‘Look, the blonde one is writing her record even now.’
Ghorr’s reply could not be heard, though his stance said it all. There would be a penalty for that defiance. He threw his cloak off, followed by the securing rope harness, and climbed onto the sides of his rope chair, which swayed dangerously back and forth.
‘What’s he doing?’ said Nish.
‘He’s trying to untangle it himself,’ said Scrutator Klarm. ‘It can’t be done one-handed. He’ll fall.’
Ghorr stood up, hooking his injured arm around the rope with a gasp of pain, and reached up.
‘He’ll never get enough leverage,’ said Klarm. ‘Not on a moving chair.’
The wind was whistling through the rigging of the air-dreadnoughts, whose sides were crowded with staring people. The witnesses on the amphitheatre deck were equally silent and still.
The twisted ropes, with their human cargo, began to swing like a pendulum. It had grown very cold. Ghorr reached up, again and again, and his hand went back and forth. He wasn’t trying to free the ropes – he was sawing at the rope holding up the recorder’s basket.
The recorders realised it at the same moment but none of the women screamed or pleaded. They stood up, holding their scrolls with simple dignity, and kept writing.
‘There’s an image that will live in the Histories after we’re gone,’ said Irisis soberly.
Their end wasn’t long in coming. The ends sprang out of their rope, which began to untwist under the weight, before pulling free.
‘If they hit the deck they may still survive,’ said Irisis hopefully.
Nobody contradicted her, though Nish knew that such a fall, a good thirty spans, must kill them. The basket fell, the three women still standing and recording all the way down. It plunged through the mist, hit hard near the edge of the amphitheatre, the women crumpled into a mess; then basket, rope and contents went over the side.
‘Up!’ said Ghorr in a hollow voice, sliding back into his chair and fastening the ropes about him.
The crew of his air-dreadnought did not move.
‘Up, damn you, or you’ll all taste a scrutator’s quisitory.’
They remained as silent and still as the figures on a painted jug. The crew must have been as shocked as those on the deck.
‘He crossed the line,’ said Irisis. ‘He’s finished.’
‘Not if he reaches his craft before the other scrutators do theirs.’
Klarm turned a strained face to them. ‘I’ve served Ghorr for many years, and he would not go against the best interests of the Council. It’s all that’s kept us alive, the past dark decade.’ He didn’t sound as though he believed it any longer.
‘His actions give the lie to that argument,’ said Nish.
‘The chief scrutator knows much that we do not. He always has the interests of the world at heart. He must have had a reason. He must…’ Klarm closed his eyes as if in pain.
The mist on the amphitheatre was almost gone now, revealing five suspended baskets and another eight nets bursting with people, crammed together like fish in a trawl net. All hung in mid-air while the shocked winch-hands waited to see what was going to happen.
Nish noticed a hanging chair moving slowly, almost furtively, up behind one of the nets.
‘Is that Scrutator Fusshte?’ Nish squinted at the meagre, dark-clad figure in the chair.
‘It is.’ Irisis shuddered. ‘Hello?’
Ghorr was jerked down, then up. He stood up in his chair, cloak trailing in the strengthening wind, and began shouting up to his air-dreadnought. He pointed at Fusshte.
‘What’s he saying?’ said Nish.
‘I can’t make it out,’ Irisis replied.
‘He’s called Fusshte a traitor,’ said Klarm. Then, as if he could not believe what he was hearing, ‘Ghorr has ordered his men to shoot him.’ He knuckled his eyes with his big hands and stared up at the drama, disbelievingly. ‘Oh, oh, oh!’
‘Ghorr knows what will happen to him if Fusshte takes over,’ said Irisis. ‘And surely Fusshte must take over, now.’
‘It doesn’t do to predict the will or the ways of the Council,’ Klarm rasped.
Fusshte signalled to his people to stop lifting. He stood up in his hanging chair and bared his meagre chest, offering himself as a target to any soldier who dared shoot down a member of the Council. Looking up to the soldiers in his air-dreadnought, Fusshte held out his arms, as though addressing them in the speech of his life.
‘He looks so calm; so measured,’ said Irisis. ‘The loathsome little worm.’
‘But not a coward,’ said Klarm. ‘The prize is within his reach and he’s risen above himself to grasp it. Any one of Ghorr’s loyal guard might well shoot him down, and Fusshte knows it. Yet he dares to defy his chief. He risks all to gain all.’
‘To be chief scrutator when Ghorr falls,’ said Nish.
‘Aye. Fusshte has always wanted that. He’s served as a loyal deputy for a decade, and even now he won’t cut down his chief, or repudiate him. He simply offers the contrast to the Council and the witnesses, and allows them to make their own choice. Sometimes a champion will fail at the highest hurdle while the underdog rises to it. Fusshte, it seems, is such a man.’
‘Yet a worm nonetheless,’ said Irisis, ‘and no more worthy of the honour than Ghorr, for all Fusshte’s courage. What’s going to happen now?’
No one fired. Ghorr’s men began hauling him up, furiously. Fusshte closed his shirt and sat down while his attendants did the same, as if it were a race and whichever of them reached their craft first would win the Council as well as the day. Nets fell from the air-dreadnoughts and the remaining soldiers and witnesses fought to get into them.
‘You’d better get to your work, if you have a plan to save yourselves,’ said Klarm. ‘The instant those nets lift off, they’ll cut the cables from above.’
Nish slashed his blade across the cable, again and again. A few more strands gave but that was all. The fibres were so resistant they must have been ensorcelled.
‘And risk taking half the baskets with them?’ said Irisis.
‘If the amphitheatre collapses while the air-dreadnoughts are still cabled to it, there’ll be a conflagration not seen since the enemy burnt the naphtha stores of Runcimad,’ said Klarm.
‘You’d better run, Scrutator Klarm,’ said Irisis. ‘If you’re going …’
Klarm turned to her, his handsome face troubled. ‘You cannot imagine how hard it was for one like me to rise to scrutator. When you’re only the height of a child, your peers cannot take you seriously. I strove harder than anyone to become scrutator, and now I wonder why. Flydd was right. The Council is corrupt; I can serve it no longer.’
‘What will you do?’ panted Nish, hacking furiously but fruitlessly.
‘I don’t know. Give me that.’
Nish handed him the sword at once. Despite his words, Klarm did have a natural authority that was hard to resist.
‘The cables were strengthened with scrutator magic at the beginning,’ said Klarm. ‘That’s why they resisted the fire for so long. Check your straps.’
They did so. He drew the blade back over his shoulder, sighted on Nish’s meagre gash and swung the blade with all his strength, muttering words under his breath as he did.
The blade went a third of the way into the cable. He wrenched it out and swung it again. It passed the halfway point this time, the cut strands unravelling and spiralling up the cable for at least a span, and with a groan the remaining strands stretched and snapped.
The cable lashed up; the deck whipped away from beneath their feet. Nish was thrown down, crashing hard into Irisis. Klarm went up in the air and Nish thought he was going to go over the side, for the scrutator wasn’t tethered.
Klarm fell near the edge. Nish caught him by the hand and the dwarf’s grip crushed his fingers. The deck snapped back, the precipice beneath them reverting to a gentle slope.
‘One more cable should do it,’ said Klarm. ‘Run! They’re getting ready to cut us free.’
The slack on the baskets and nets was slowly being taken up, for the weight of people in them was immense, but the air-dreadnoughts weren’t planning to wait for them to be lifted all the way. Already burly men stood by the cable capstans, each with a great two-bladed axe over his shoulder, just waiting for the word.
Most of the mancers, officers of the guard, and the most important artisans and artificers had been saved. Many more were now being lifted to their craft. Almost two hundred witnesses remained on the deck, however, and for them there was no way of escape. The nets and baskets would not be lowered again. The air-dreadnoughts had to be cut free before the amphitheatre collapsed, and those remaining would be sacrificed to save the rest.
Flame licked spans up another cable – Yggur must have used the last of the naphtha on it. Half a dozen witnesses attempted to climb the life ropes, but all fell to their deaths as the ropes were plucked like gigantic strings, or were cut loose by those on the air-dreadnoughts. A gaggle of witnesses, knowing they were going to die, ran back and forth, screaming or wailing. The remainder simply stood where they were, staring up, out or down.
‘Kill the prisoners!’ Ghorr yelled as he was lifted into his air-dreadnought, but the last soldiers on the deck, knowing they had been abandoned, were concerned only for their own survival.
Nish and Irisis raced to the next cable, Klarm close behind. They fastened their safety ropes. Klarm buried the blade deep into the cable.
‘Again,’ cried Irisis. ‘They’re cutting.’
Klarm laid a hand on the cable, spoke words of scrutator magic to unbind the spell and gave the cable three mighty blows. It was now under such tension that the blade made little impression. He hacked again then tossed the blade to Nish.
‘Have a go. I’m spent.’
Someone was shouting at them. It sounded like Yggur but Nish, chopping furiously, had neither the time nor breath to work out what he was saying.
Hack, hack, hack. ‘It’s nearly through!’ Nish said.
‘If this works,’ said Irisis, ‘the deck will fold in that way.’ She pointed. ‘We won’t have much time.’
Nish hacked again. The cable seemed as tough as ever.
‘Come on, come on!’ said Irisis.
Nish gave up his chopping, which didn’t seem to be doing much good, and sawed the blade back and forth, the fibres pinging apart as he worked.
‘It’s going,’ said Irisis. ‘Get ready!’
Nish gave a final hack and the cable tore apart. The deck pulled inwards, Irisis yelled, ‘Jump!’ but the deck went from under Nish, who found himself flying over the edge on the end of his safety line.
He was hurtling through the air on the wrong side of the deck. Up above, the soldiers were chopping furiously, coordinating their strokes so as to sever each of the cables at the same time. Nish jerked to a stop in mid-air, then tried to pull himself up the swinging strip of canvas, but it was hard to hold on. He would never get there before they cut loose the amphitheatre.
Klarm came over the side, hanging onto the rim of the canvas with one immensely strong hand. Reaching down with the other he gathered in Nish’s safety line, jerked it up, up, up until Nish was within reach, then dragged him over the edge.
‘Go!’ he grunted as he slashed Nish’s tether.
Nish threw himself into the U-shaped canvas valley that now ran down towards the slab-covered roofs of Fiz Gorgo. He couldn’t tell if Klarm had followed, though Nish did see the soldiers hack through the last supporting cables, one, two, three, four, five, and then six. Only two to go.
And as he gathered speed and the cables fell towards him, Nish saw something else. A tarpaulin covering a net hanging below the keel of Ghorr’s air-dreadnought had slipped, exposing a curve of dark metal. It was the thapter.
Ghorr had it and Tiaan, as well as Malien and, presumably, the amplimet.
He’d won after all.
The lucky ones who had made it to the hanging chairs, baskets and nets were being drawn up towards the air-dreadnoughts, swinging back and forth, crashing into one another and, where they could, fending each other off to avoid their ropes tangling. They were not always successful. A pair of nets became hopelessly tangled and, despite the screams of the occupants, the smaller was cut loose. It had to be, for the nets were attached to different air-dreadnoughts and threatened them both. Incredibly, the small net did not pull free but hung upside down from the larger net as the air-dreadnought rose to safety.
Terror made the occupants of the chairs and baskets irrational. A brief duel flared between a mancer and a lesser scrutator, sending bolts of fire across the sky and ending with the mancer blackening in his chair. The scrutator, alive but lacking clothes or hair, was jerked up to safety.
Irisis jumped the instant the cable went, expecting Nish to do the same. She fell into the canvas valley and felt it deepening under her. Across the valley the other prisoners were also jumping. Yggur was standing by Gilhaelith, as if uncertain what to do about him, then with a swift movement he slashed the mathemancer’s bonds. Gilhaelith jumped. Irisis wondered why Yggur had such a set against the geomancer. For a moment it had looked as though Yggur would leave Gilhaelith to his fate.
Her feet caught in a fold in the canvas and Irisis went tumbling head over heels down the deepening valley, now sliding on her chest, now her left side, friction burning through her clothes. She felt the skin go from her hip and tried to throw herself the other way. She was moving too fast. The deck seemed to be falling as quickly as she was, and she was going to hit the roof hard.
The canvas stopped with a jerk that tore a great rent along one side. Irisis kept sliding, on her back now, and she could smell her hair smouldering. She lifted her head and pressed her heels against the fabric to break her fall.
Now her backside was burning but there wasn’t far to go. The canvas valley had looped down to within a couple of spans of the roof, forming a dip at the bottom. She shot down it, slowed rapidly at the dip then toppled over the edge onto the sloping roof slabs, landing hard enough to wind herself. She slid into one of the roof gullies, rolled over and came to her knees.
Something flashed towards her. Reacting instinctively, Irisis threw herself to one side as the flensing trough hurtled past and smashed through the roof. She didn’t have time to think about her narrow escape; the valley above her was full of falling, sliding and toppling people, though she couldn’t see Nish among them. Someone small came flying down ahead of the rest, rolling and cartwheeling and emitting a thin, moaning cry. It was Inouye.
Hitting the dip faster than Irisis had, the little pilot shot into the air and came flying out. Irisis dived, caught Inouye and fell with her, wrenching her shoulder as they landed in the gully. Before she could get up, a clot of witnesses came sliding down, locked together, and hurtled over the dip.
Irisis scrambled up to them on hands and knees, heaving them out of the way before they were crushed by the next bundle of humanity. Most seemed to have suffered no more than bruising or minor broken bones, though one unfortunate lad had landed on his head with a dozen others on top of him and died instantly of a broken neck. Irisis let his body slide away down the slope. There wasn’t time to think about it, for the next group of people were already on her. Where was Nish?
‘I need help,’ she gasped, dragging men and women out of the tangle and flinging them left and right. It was exhausting work, and several times she was knocked off her feet as people rushed down more quickly than she could clear them out of the way. All the other debris came down as well, including dead bodies, abandoned weapons, torturing tools and lengths of barbed rope.
Flangers shot off the end, landed on his feet and immediately set to. A pair of Yggur’s guards arrived and did the same, though not even four of them could deal with the deluge of human jetsam that now filled the lower section of the canvas valley.
Irisis rolled under the end of the slide as about thirty people tumbled down together, landing so hard that their combined impact cracked the roofing slabs. There would be broken backs and necks among that lot.
She still couldn’t see Nish but didn’t have time to worry about him – people were pouring down faster than they could be moved out of the way. The dead and injured formed a fleshy mat which at least broke the falls of the later arrivals, though the groans as they took the impacts were bloodcurdling.
‘Help us!’ she shouted at the able-bodied witnesses, who stood in dazed, silent clots around the end of the slide. One or two came forward; the rest remained where they were, too shocked to move.
Two more of Yggur’s guard landed, followed by a body, the elderly cook who’d been shot early in the fracas. Flangers heaved it to one side without ceremony. Then came Yggur’s seneschal, his under-chef and maid-of-all-work. The seneschal had broken both legs but the others started dragging the injured out of the way with disciplined efficiency.
Yggur slid down on his backside, though he managed to stand up just before the end, sprang right over the fallen and landed on his feet. One of the last to jump, he’d come down in a grey streak, passing some of the other prisoners on the way.
‘You’ve done well,’ he said, surveying the scene in a single glance before taking his turn with the injured.
The amphitheatre didn’t completely collapse, for the air-dreadnought crews had not been able to cut the last two cables. Part of the deck was now draped over the roofs and towers of Fiz Gorgo, while the rest stood up at an angle as the two remaining craft were pushed away on the wind. The canvas was jerking and snapping under the strain.
They worked for several minutes without speaking, until the bulk of the sliders had been moved to safety further down the roof. When they were only coming down in ones and twos, Yggur drew Flangers and Irisis aside.
‘Arm yourselves. We’re not out of danger yet. The air-dreadnoughts haven’t gone far, and the hundred-odd soldiers who were sent down to look for Nish are still here somewhere. They may not stay loyal once they realise that the scrutators are going to abandon them. But then again, they may.’
They armed themselves with swords and crossbows that had collected in the roof gully.
‘I don’t see anyone out in the yard,’ said Irisis. ‘They may not realise that we’ve survived.’
‘Someone will signal them. Look out!’
It was Fyn-Mah, cutting a curving path down the slide, still holding a bloody Flydd as tightly as before. Irisis and Yggur stood together and caught the pair as they came over the edge.
‘How is he?’ Irisis said.
Flydd’s eyes were closed, his fleshless lips blue and he sagged in Fyn-Mah’s arms. He looked as if he’d been dead for a day.
‘He may survive,’ Fyn-Mah said, ‘if he can regain the will to live.’
Yggur jerked his head and Fyn-Mah carried Flydd down to the bottom of the roof gully, refusing all offers of help.
‘Where’s Nish?’ said Irisis, looking up anxiously. ‘That seems to be everyone.’
‘I thought he was with you.’
‘I jumped first. I haven’t see him since.’
Yggur frowned. ‘I don’t see anyone coming – ah, there he is.’
Nish came skidding down, shot off the end of the dip and Yggur plucked him neatly out of the air. The seat of Nish’s pants was smoking and he’d lost skin off his left arm, but he was beaming.
‘We did it!’ he cried, though his euphoria faded when he saw the pile of dead, and dozens more with broken bones.
‘A lot of those were dead before they came down,’ said Irisis. ‘We didn’t lose many from the collapse.’
Nish stood up, beating out his backside as he looked back up the slide. One last figure came rolling down the now gentle slope as the amphitheatre collapsed, draping itself over the towers. The burly little man hit the dip, bounced high, tumbled in the air like an acrobat and landed on his feet.
Yggur lunged at him but Nish cried hastily, ‘He’s a friend! Klarm – Scrutator Klarm – cut the cables and saved my life.’
‘Did he now?’ Yggur said dubiously. He scrutinised the dwarf, then nodded. ‘You’re with us, then?’
Klarm bowed low. ‘After seeing Ghorr’s craven display, how could I do otherwise?’
Yggur thrust out his hand and Klarm took it. ‘I’m glad to have you.’ Yggur called his soldiers and household to him. ‘The struggle is far from over. The scrutators have more than a hundred soldiers below, not to mention the soldiers and witnesses here, and we can’t count on them aiding us. We must watch our backs and be prepared for anything.’ He called out in a commanding voice. ‘Come this way, everyone. We can get in through the roof down here.’ Yggur lowered his voice. ‘Though after that we must prepare to do battle – what is it, Nish?’
‘See that?’ A canvas-shrouded net was slowly being winched up to Ghorr’s air-dreadnought. ‘It’s the thapter.’
‘Are you sure?’ said Yggur.
‘Yes. The tarps slipped just before I came down. And they’ve got Tiaan, too.’
‘And Malien,’ said Yggur. ‘So we have no choice. We must go after the thapter. The air-floater is still sound, is it not?’
‘It was, the last I saw of it,’ said Irisis. ‘But if they get the chance I’m sure they’ll destroy it.’
‘Then we’d better get to it first. Fyn-Mah, you’re in charge here.’ He deputed a number of his household staff to assist her. ‘Nish, Irisis, Flangers and Klarm, come with me. Vance, Mayl, Bowyer and Menny,’ he said to his surviving soldiers, ‘you too. As soon as we’re inside, go to the armoury and get your light armour, crossbows and weapons for close-in fighting, then meet me at the west door. Inouye, I need you too.’
‘Has anyone seen Ullii?’ said Nish.
‘She didn’t come down the slide,’ said Irisis. ‘I’d say Ghorr has taken her back.’
They broke in through the roof and ran all the way down the steps. Yggur’s troops headed for the armoury. Everyone else followed Yggur into his workshop where, after some deliberation, he took a glassy spiral and a rock-crystal orb out of locked cases and thrust them into pockets in his cloak. They met the soldiers by a side door that led into the yard.
‘We’ll run into Ghorr’s troops before too long,’ said Yggur. ‘Leave the initial confrontation to me – we can’t afford to be tied down in a battle against such odds. We can’t survive it.’
‘What’s your plan?’ said Flangers.
‘Any resistance to be met by obliterating force, after which we offer the rest a chance to make an honourable surrender.’
‘And if they don’t?’
‘Ask me then.’
As they went around the corner they encountered a pair of Ghorr’s guard. Yggur kept walking, and shortly he was confronted by eighty or more soldiers.
Yggur put up his hand and looked the leaders in the eye. ‘You have all seen what we saw,’ he said, not loudly but in a carrying voice. ‘Chief Scrutator Ghorr, a craven cur if ever I saw one, criminally slew three innocent recorders – women of childbearing age – and has run like the dog he is. After this day he will no longer be scrutator. Ghorr will be replaced by Scrutator Fusshte, who cannot compel the loyalty of his fellow scrutators. By the end of the week the members of this Council, who abandoned two hundred witnesses to their deaths, and will soon abandon you, will be at war with each other.
‘And so I ask you: do you cleave to your oath to these contemptibles, or will you put down your weapons, make an honourable surrender, then follow me? Surrender or death: those are your choices. Choose swiftly. I’m in no mood for delay.’
The soldiers looked uncertain. One of their captains spoke to another, they nodded then cried, ‘Attack: we outnumber them ten to one.’
They raised their swords and surged forward. Yggur didn’t hesitate: he drew the glassy spiral from his pocket and tossed it to the ground at the feet of the two captains. It burst like a miniature sun and the incandescence swelled to envelop them both, before shrinking just as quickly. The light winked out and the captains were not men any more.
Yggur allowed the soldiers to stare at the smouldering remains for a good minute, then said, ‘Well?’
They laid down their arms. ‘Raise your right hands and take my oath,’ said Yggur and, to a man, they did.
Yggur ordered them to go up to the roof, assist the injured, then recover the bodies.
He waited until they had passed through the doors before letting out his breath in a groan. ‘Ugh!’ he said. Yggur staggered for a few steps but kept on, limping. He scowled, as if it wasn’t the pain that troubled him so much as being affected by it.
‘What’s the matter with him?’ Nish said quietly to Irisis.
‘Aftersickness. Using power comes at a cost and he’s drawn an awful lot from himself today.’ She ran to catch up to Yggur. ‘Can we count on them, surr, or will they attack us once our backs are turned?’
‘Should the scrutators flee, I expect they’ll serve faithfully enough. But if the fleet comes to ground after us, as it may, I dare say they’ll turn again.’
They reached the air-floater, which was tethered in a corner of the yard, without further incident. It had not been touched.
‘It’s a wonder Ghorr didn’t order it destroyed,’ said Nish.
‘He probably planned to take it with him.’
After checking that they weren’t visible from above, they climbed into the air-floater. Yggur, now limping badly, had to be helped over the side. He leaned against the ropes for a moment before heading into the cabin. At the door he turned. ‘If you would come with me, Scrutator Klarm? To your positions, everyone. Inouye, stand by your controller but don’t draw power until I give the word.’
Nish scanned the sky. The air-dreadnoughts were all over the place. Four maintained their station, high above. Two, one of them being Ghorr’s, were still trying to cut their cables. Three others had been driven downwind over the swamp forest. Another three had become hopelessly tangled and were drifting sideways with the wind, spiralling around each other. The remainder were out of sight.
Klarm followed Yggur inside and the canvas door slapped closed. After a series of rumbles, a rather tenuous mist formed in the yard, enveloping the air-floater.
The door opened. Yggur was panting. ‘That’s the best I can do. Inouye, rise up over the wall, then head south for Ghorr’s craft. Take it slowly or you may pull out of my concealment.’
‘I can’t see Ghorr’s machine,’ she said.
‘The lookouts will tell you which way to go.’
Flangers went to the bow, while Nish and Irisis hung over the rail on either side, staring into the mist.
‘I can’t say I like this plan,’ Nish said quietly.
‘What plan?’ said Irisis.
They rose slowly. Nish couldn’t see anything but mist, swirling and coiling at the lower levels, streaming across the deck as they rose into the stronger winds at altitude. A little way above the towers, the mist parted below them and he looked back to where the amphitheatre had been.
It had completely collapsed, apart from a triangle of canvas sticking up, like the fin of a shark, where it had draped over one of the towers. Two cables ran into the sky at an angle of thirty degrees, taut as wires. They were still attached to the two air-dreadnoughts, which had been driven out over the forest.
‘Run in the direction of that cable,’ said Yggur, pointing to the nearer. ‘But stay at this height.’
‘How come they didn’t cut those cables?’ said Nish.
‘I used the Art on them,’ said Yggur with a grim smile. ‘No blade can cut them, no fire burn them for as long as the spell holds. To untether themselves they’ll have to take apart the winch drums. It took quite a bit out of me, but it was worth it.’
The taut cable angled up into streaming mist. Yggur had a minute-glass in one hand and was watching the sands run as he estimated how far they’d gone. ‘We should be past Ghorr’s craft now,’ he said to Inouye. ‘Go up and turn to face the other way.’
She did so and he extended his arm, chanting under his breath. The mist spun into a narrow, dark funnel in front of him, like water swirling down a plughole. The funnel extended horizontally, stretching, thinning and wavering back and forth as if searching for something.
Yggur strained, and through the opening Nish caught a glimpse of a section of rigging, then part of an airbag.
‘Too high,’ grumbled Yggur, who seemed to be having trouble holding his arm up. He directed the funnel, whose opening wasn’t much bigger than Nish’s head, down and across and back, then tracked up the port side of the vessel. ‘Is it the right one?’
‘It’s Ghorr’s,’ said Nish. ‘I just saw the top of the thapter hanging below it.’
The funnel was directed up and towards the stern, and there Ghorr stood, issuing orders. A pair of soldiers were hacking fruitlessly at the cable holding his air-dreadnought to the collapsed amphitheatre. The craft was shaking in the wind.
A gust caught the air-floater, heeling it over. Inouye spun the rotor up to full power and slipped the craft expertly up into the lee of the airbags of Ghorr’s much bigger machine. The mist funnel closed over.
‘I can’t hold the concealment much longer,’ said Yggur, clinging to the door. ‘Nish, see if you can see what they’re doing.’
Nish got down on his belly on the deck and put his head over the side. Another wavering tube opened up through the mist below him, though his view was so restricted that it took a while to work out what he was looking at.
‘Ghorr has just whacked the mirror operator over the head. He’s shouting!’
‘He’s been doing a lot of that lately,’ said Irisis, hanging onto his legs as the air-floater lurched one way and then the other.
‘He’s dragged the big crystal-powered mirror around. That must be what they blasted the defences with at dawn.’
‘I dare say,’ said Yggur. ‘Has anyone seen us?’
‘They’re not looking this way,’ said Irisis.
‘He’s pointed the mirror at the cable winch,’ said Nish.
‘It won’t do him any good unless he gets some sun on it,’ said Irisis.
‘If I can make mist, he can break it. He’s getting ready to flee,’ said Yggur. ‘Inouye, take us down.’
‘What’s the plan?’ said Irisis.
‘We board the air-dreadnought from the bow and take it while they’re distracted down at the stern. Flangers, what’s the matter?’
‘He’s got at least ten soldiers against our five,’ said Flangers. ‘Plus a mancer or two. Not to mention the other air-dreadnoughts.’
‘Then we’ll just have to fight all the harder,’ said Yggur. ‘The other machines won’t trouble us. They won’t dare come close enough to board, in case the airbags tangle.’
‘They’re close enough to fire their javelards.’
Yggur waved his hand and the mist obscured everything. ‘Take us down, Inouye. Once Ghorr blasts that cable he’ll be off and this little craft won’t catch him. If we lose the thapter we’ve lost our only chance.’
‘Drop us down to the bow, Inouye,’ said Yggur. ‘Can you do that in the mist, or should I –?’
‘I can do it,’ she said.
‘Klarm and I will attack from behind,’ Yggur went on, ‘and then we rush them. Soldiers, follow me. Flangers, stay back with your crossbow and keep watch. Irisis, get into the cabin and free Malien and Tiaan. Once we’ve secured the air-dreadnought, escort them down into the thapter. Nish, go down the ropes, cut through the canvas and open the hatch of the thapter. Don’t fall off.’
‘Very funny,’ said Nish, who was beginning to sweat. The odds were too great, the plan foolhardy in the extreme. It relied too much on Yggur, who was already exhausted, while Klarm, despite what he’d done earlier, was an unknown quantity. When confronted by Ghorr, might Klarm decide that his oath to the scrutators still bound him? A turncoat might turn again.
‘What if Malien and Tiaan aren’t here?’ said Irisis. ‘We won’t have anyone to fly the thapter.’
‘I’m sure Ghorr would have kept them close by.’
The air-floater dropped so suddenly that Nish’s stomach was left behind. He clutched the rail with one hand and eased his short sword in its sheath. His palms were damp. All that had been saved with such agony could be lost even more quickly. How could Inouye tell where to go anyway? He couldn’t see a thing.
She brought her craft out of the mist and up against the bow with the barest bump. Yggur clambered through the rope rails, limping more than before. Klarm put his hand on one of the stanchions and leapt the ropes, landing lightly on the deck.
‘Let me go first,’ whispered Klarm. ‘He may wonder how I got here, but he won’t think of me as an enemy. It’ll get me a span or two closer. Stay back, around the curve of the deck out of sight. When you hear me use my Art, rush them down the other side.’
Yggur frowned, as if he too had his doubts, then nodded. ‘Go.’
Klarm headed down the port side, moving sure-footedly on the lurching deck despite his caliper. Yggur remained where he was, gnawing at his lower lip, before waving an arm at his soldiers. They followed him, hugging the curved canvas wall of the main cabin.
Irisis caught Nish’s eye and mouthed, ‘Good luck!’
He nodded stiffly. She put her head around the corner to look down the starboard deck. ‘It’s clear, Flangers.’ Weapons at the ready, they went forward into the mist, which had begun to thin just when they didn’t want it to.
Nish turned to his own task. The thapter hung in its nets some five or six spans below the central keel of the air-dreadnought. He could just make it out. It was a long way to go down a rope, though not far enough below the keel for the air-floater to approach it directly. He fingered the coil of rope over his shoulder. He’d already lashed it into a harness at his waist, so it was just a matter of tying it to the side rail and going down.
Once he had done that, Nish checked his knots carefully, slipped through and hung on with hands and feet while he judged his approach. It wasn’t going to be easy; the thapter wasn’t directly below him, but in under the vessel by several spans. He’d have to lower himself a bit further than that, then swing in, catch hold of the net ropes and go down them.
Suddenly the mist parted, the sun shone through and a torrent of white light was followed by the ear-piercing screech of metal being torn. Ghorr must have blasted the winch apart. The deck was thrust upwards so hard that Nish lost his grip and fell. High above, he could hear the airbags thrashing as the big craft was torn free from the cable. The ragged cable end, attached to the torn remnants of the winch drum, lashed past below him.
Reaching the limit of the rope, Nish was brought up with a jerk that made him bite his tongue. The harness pulled so tight that it felt like a noose cutting him in half, and he could only draw in half a breath.
The freed air-dreadnought began to drift over the walls of Fiz Gorgo towards the swamp forest. Nish was trying to loosen his harness when a thudding boom made him look up. Someone was blown over the side, trailing blood and smoke. It was one of Yggur’s soldiers, the stocky man called Bowyer. Wide eyes met Nish’s momentarily as he fell.
Swords clashed on the deck; there were grunts and cries of pain. Nish put it out of mind and began to swing his legs. He’d need quite an arc to reach the top of the thapter from here.
He swung back and forth, slowly building up momentum, until the air-dreadnought lurched sideways, sending him headlong towards the top of the thapter, which was exposed where the tarpaulins had been folded back to allow entry. He threw out a hand and managed to catch hold of the hatch handle but was moving too fast to hang on. He kept going, now spinning on the end of the rope, swung around the other side and collided with a black, crunchy object suspended from another rope.
The ropes tangled and began to orbit around each other. Nish and the black object spun in together and he came face to face with a charred corpse, fumes still rising from its empty eye-sockets. With a strangled gasp, Nish tried to push it out of the way. Ribs cracked and the mouth fell open, revealing startlingly white teeth surrounded by charcoaled lips.
Close to panic, Nish fought down his terror. It was just a dead man in a hanging chair, the mancer who’d lost that airborne duel earlier. All he had to do was spin the body the other way, the ropes would untangle and he’d swing back towards the thapter.
Nish was about to do so when something made him glance up. Ghorr was standing at the rail, watching him.
Nish should have gone for the thapter but his presence of mind had deserted him. He hung there, staring at his enemy.
Ghorr drew a knife and with a single slash cut through Nish’s rope.
Irisis waited until Klarm had passed round the curve of the cabin, then slid along the starboard wall, pressing hard against it. Flangers followed, his crossbow at the ready. Reaching the forward door, a lath frame covered in canvas on leather hinges, she pulled gently on the latch. The door opened inwards and she slipped into a gloomy, cramped room about four spans by three. It was the crew’s cabin, their gear and sleeping hammocks neatly stowed, canvas trestles strapped against the walls. There was no one inside.
‘Must be the next one,’ she said, easing out again.
The next room turned out to be the galley and larder; the one after that, the officers’ quarters. ‘There isn’t an upper floor, is there?’ she said over her shoulder to Flangers.
‘I wouldn’t think so.’
She edged round the curve. Ahead, some ten spans away, just visible through the rapidly thinning mist, stood a group of uniformed soldiers in the colours of Ghorr’s personal guard. They had their backs to her, watching something being done at the stern.
‘Then it’ll have to be this door. It’s the last.’
She pulled on the latch but it did not move. ‘It’s held fast, though I can’t see a lock.’
‘Must be Ghorr’s quarters,’ said Flangers. ‘Cut the hinges.’
She slit the bottom hinge with her knife and pulled the door out enough to slip through. Flangers followed.
‘Guard the –’ she began, but Flangers had already taken up position.
This chamber was as large as the first, though darker, and only served two or three people. Broad hammocks were still slung in position. The floor was covered in silk carpets, and the walls in tapestries and hangings. She turned her head this way and that, trying to pierce the darkness, and suddenly the faintest pattern of the field appeared in her inner eye.
Her eyes pricked with tears. Her artisan’s pliance, which enabled her to see the field, had been taken from Irisis soon after she’d been captured. She hadn’t seen the field since, and for her to visualise it at all now, her pliance had to be almost to hand.
Irisis closed her eyes momentarily, the better to see.
Something rustled in the darkness. ‘Tiaan?’ she whispered, opening her eyes.
As her eyes adjusted, Irisis made out a bowed figure tied to a strap attached to the wall. It wasn’t Tiaan but a much older woman with grey in her hair.
‘Malien!’ Irisis ran to her, cut the gag off and freed her wrists and ankles. ‘How are you?’
‘Parched. It’s been a long day,’ Malien said in a dry croak. She shook her numb hands. White marks were scored into her wrists.
Irisis lifted a wine skin from a hook, jerked out the stopper and passed it across. Malien couldn’t hold the wine skin, so Irisis supported it while the older woman took a couple of hefty swigs. ‘That’ll do. We’re going to need our wits –’
A blast followed by the shriek of tearing metal jerked the floor so hard that Malien’s knees buckled. Irisis was thrown against the lath-and-canvas wall. The flimsy structure of the air-dreadnought creaked and groaned. The craft jerked twice more, not so hard this time.
‘Yggur laid a spell of durability on the mooring cable,’ said Irisis, hanging onto a swaying tapestry. ‘Ghorr must have blasted the winch apart.’
‘And your plan?’ said Malien, on her knees and unable to rise.
What am I going to do with her, Irisis thought. ‘Nish is opening the hatch of the thapter, which is hanging below us. Yggur and Klarm – he’s on our side now, at least I hope he is – were going to take on Ghorr and his mancer.’
‘Just Nish?’ said Malien. ‘Does he realise there are guards inside?’
A deadly chill spread through Irisis’s innards. ‘This attack was planned in some haste.’
‘I can well imagine,’ said Malien dryly. ‘We’d better get after him.’
‘My artisan’s pliance is here somewhere. I sensed it as I came in.’
Malien turned her head back and forth, three times, then pointed. ‘Try that cupboard.’
It was locked so Irisis levered the lacquered wood apart with her blade. A number of objects fell out, gems and jewellery. She felt among them and as soon as her fingers touched her pliance the field condensed around her. Again that prickling of tears in her eyes – an artisan who’d lost her pliance could go mad with longing for it. Irisis wasn’t emotional, as artisans went, but as she put the chain over her head she felt the tension smooth away.
Swords clashed; men grunted and groaned outside the door on the far side of the room. A bloody blade speared through the canvas wall and was withdrawn again. A man screamed in agony.
Malien cast a glance that way, before turning back to Irisis. ‘I assume you plan to escape in the thapter?’
‘That’s right.’ Irisis had her own sword out and her head cocked, listening to the swordplay and footwork outside. ‘Is something the matter?’
‘Ghorr has my controller crystal. I can’t operate the thapter without it.’
Irisis cursed under her breath. ‘Any idea where he might keep it?’
Malien closed her eyes and put her hands over them. This time she didn’t turn her head. After some seconds she said, ‘Is there a metal box under that cupboard?’
Irisis tilted it and looked beneath. The brass box was locked and chained to the floor, though it was just an ordinary lock and she was expert at picking them. She had it open in a moment and held out the blue-green crystal. ‘This it?’
Malien nodded and tried to stand up but her legs still wouldn’t support her. She grabbed for the cupboard, her wrist gave and she collapsed again.
‘Do you know where Tiaan is?’ said Irisis. ‘Or the amplimet?’
‘They were taken to one of the other air-dreadnoughts. I don’t know which one.’
Outside, the sounds of battle grew louder. Something burst with a loud pop and, momentarily, a brilliant green light illuminated the weave of the canvas. Objects fizzed in all directions, leaving fuming trails that Irisis could see in her mind’s eye. The canvas walls flapped in and out like the skin of a drum. Someone cried out; it sounded alarmingly like Yggur. If he had fallen …
The port door burst open and a pair of soldiers pushed in. Irisis struck at the first, whose eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the gloom. Her sword point crunched into his wrist bones, the weapon fell from his useless hand and he stumbled backwards. Tearing down one of the silk carpets one-handed, Irisis tossed it over the head of the second soldier.
As it obscured his vision she leapt for the starboard door, but before she got there it was forced open. Flangers kicked the door shut but a long sword came through it, touching the fabric of his trousers. With one hand he wrenched the door sideways, trapping the sword for a moment, while with the other he thrust through the gap.
The point of the long sword flipped up, as if its owner had dropped it. Flangers wrenched the door off its remaining hinge, hurled it at the soldier outside and sprang at him, sword flailing.
The first soldier stumbled and was shouldered out of the way by a giant of a man carrying a long sword in one hand and a curved scimitar in the other. He feinted at Flangers with the scimitar, then pinked him in the shoulder with the point of the sword, though Flangers had leapt backwards so quickly that the blow did little damage. He turned towards the far door but more soldiers appeared behind the first. They were trapped.
Irisis tried to come to Flangers’s aid but there wasn’t room to get past him. Leather squeaked and she looked over her shoulder. Another soldier was pushing through the far door. He flexed his arms and came at them. Now soldiers advanced from both sides, slowly driving them into a corner. There was nowhere to go. Irisis glanced at Malien, who was still flexing her numb hands, but she shook her head as if to say, ‘I can’t do anything yet’.
Irisis moved in beside Flangers and prepared to die. ‘I had a feeling it was going to end this way,’ she murmured.
‘I’m sorry, Irisis – you deserve better. But for myself, I’ll be glad to go.’
Flangers had never got over the time when, fleeing from Snizort in the stolen air-floater, Fyn-Mah had ordered him to attack Klarm’s machine. Its gasbag had exploded, killing everyone except Klarm, and maiming him. Flangers still regarded that as a treasonous act for which, honourable soldier that he was, he could only atone with his life.
‘Hold!’ The order came over-loud, as if the man who gave it was no longer sure of his authority. The voice was hoarse, cracked but still recognisable – Ghorr.
He pushed through the doorway and the soldiers gave way. Ghorr’s costly garments were torn and spotted with burn marks, his left arm hung limply and his shoulder and side were stained with brown blood. His hair was greasy, face soot-stained, eyes red, and his formerly dark complexion had gone the green colour of bile. Clots of yellow material in his beard could have come from mouth or nose.
‘Cut their hamstrings so they can’t move,’ said Ghorr. ‘Then bind them and bring them to the bow. This is going to end right now.’
‘Well, well, well,’ came a throaty, amused voice from the doorway. ‘What have we here?’
Ghorr turned. It was Scrutator Klarm, limping so ostentatiously that he had to lift his calipered leg with both hands. He looked up at the chief scrutator, who stood more than twice his height, grinning broadly. ‘How did you catch these wretches? I saw them escape the collapse.’
Irisis looked from Ghorr to Klarm. Had he been pretending all along, so as to bring them here and ingratiate himself with the chief scrutator? If not, and he was still on their side, his acting was worthy of the Master Chroniclers’ Medal.
‘They’d have to be mighty clever to escape my vengeance,’ said Ghorr. ‘Where did you spring from? I thought you were dead.’
‘No man climbs ropes as well as I do,’ Klarm lied in turn. ‘I trust you’re going to dispatch them right away?’
‘The instant all the air-dreadnoughts are free, I’ll order my shooting squad onto the front deck. Once they’ve taken a dozen bolts each, I’ll personally sever their heads from their bodies and toss them into the bogs of Orist like the vermin they are. Take care of these two, would you, Klarm? I must attend to Yggur.’
‘It’ll be a pleasure,’ Klarm said with a savage grin, but Ghorr was already on the way out.
The troops advanced on Irisis and Flangers. Irisis was readying herself to attack the leading soldier, the giant, when Klarm spoke.
‘What are you doing, fellow?’ said Klarm.
‘Chief Scrutator ordered us to hamstring them, Scrutator Klarm, surr,’ replied the giant, reaching for Irisis. ‘So they can’t escape.’
‘Not in here, you damn fool,’ said Klarm. ‘The blood will ruin the carpets. I’ll take care of them. They can’t escape.’ Sounds of fighting came from outside and above. ‘Go! The chief scrutator needs you.’
They went at a run, though not without a backward glance. Irisis eyed Klarm warily. Was he for them or against them? ‘What’s going on?’
‘The battle went against us,’ said Klarm. ‘Ghorr had three mancers and they proved too strong for Yggur –’
‘I thought you were supposed to be helping him?’
‘A change of plan,’ Klarm said blandly. ‘He kept me back, just in case, and it was lucky he did. My skills wouldn’t have shifted the balance.’
‘Is Yggur –’
‘His men only took out five of the guard before they were cut down. He felled two of the mancers and injured the third, but Ghorr forced him up into the rigging.’
‘Is he all right?’ said Irisis.
‘I don’t think so. It took a lot out of him.’
‘Well?’ she said.
‘Are you for us or against us?’
Klarm looked disconcerted. ‘I’ve given my oath.’
‘Precisely,’ she said savagely. ‘Which oath do you hold to – the one to Ghorr or the one to us?’
‘If I’d been against you, you’d be hamstrung by now. Come on.’
Irisis gave Malien her arm. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘My age, doubled and redoubled,’ said Malien, pulling herself up, ‘but the circulation is coming back. What’s the plan?’
‘I’ll see what I can do for Yggur,’ said Klarm. ‘You’d better go down to the thapter. Flangers, guard the rail while they do.’
Ghorr slashed the rope and turned away. Nish fell hard until he was brought up, swinging wildly, by the other end of his rope, which was still twisted around the dead mancer’s. He rotated below the charred feet of the corpse as the windings began to unravel.
Nish whirled around, swinging his legs to increase momentum, and shot past the side of the thapter, not close enough to grab hold of anything. He went around again, one eye on the nets, the other on his rope, which had only a couple of windings to go before it pulled free. There was no chance of making the top of the thapter. All he could do was try for the side of the nearest net.
As he swung by, Nish threw his arms out as far as he could reach. Three fingers of his right hand slid between the meshes and the lower curve of the thapter. He closed his fingers on the net, knowing he wasn’t strong enough to hold his swinging weight with such a meagre grip. He flailed with his weak left arm just as his rope pulled free, but missed.
The jerk almost tore his shoulder out of its socket and Nish felt a stretching, burning pain there. The net began to rip through his fingers. He flailed again, got his left hand and arm through the meshes, and locked his wrist around the net. It eased the strain, just enough, though fresh blood began to seep through the stained bandage.
Taking a better grip, he pulled himself through a mesh, resting between it and the tarp while he kneaded his throbbing shoulder. He untied the dangling rope and climbed up the net underneath the tarpaulins, which had come loose and were flapping in the wind of the air-dreadnought’s passage.
At the top, the tarpaulins had shifted again, partly covering the hatch, and he had to feel for it, then hack through the canvas. He looked up to see if he’d been observed, but saw no one at the rails.
Nish lifted the hatch carefully and, seeing nothing to trouble him, crawled inside. He was just going down the ladder when he was seized from below.
‘That’s one,’ said a rough voice, binding him and whipping a dirty gag over his mouth. ‘Now for the others.’
Irisis put her head around the remains of the door, where a hot tarry odour reminded her unpleasantly of Snizort. Something was burning off the bow, yellow flames and flashes lighting up the remnants of smoky mist. The deck was empty. She flattened herself against the outside wall and motioned to Flangers and Malien to follow.
Stealthy creaks came from above the cabins – people creeping across the roof framing, hunting Yggur. She couldn’t do anything for him. Their first priority was to recapture the thapter, no matter who or what had to be sacrificed to get it. Irisis hadn’t been able to see that before, but it was clear to her now.
She tiptoed to the rail and saw a world in chaos. A long way behind, smoke trailed up from the canvas-draped towers of Fiz Gorgo. To her left the ghostly outlines of three air-dreadnoughts, locked together by their airbag cables, spiralled slowly around each other. As she watched, the cabin of the lowest craft rolled onto its side, spilling people over the rails. A few clung desperately to the ropes but a sudden lurch of the doomed craft shook them free.
She dismissed everything from her mind but what she had to do. The thapter hung below the keel of Ghorr’s air-dreadnought in its slings of nets, and the canvas no longer covered the hatch, which suggested that Nish had made it inside.
‘Are you ready, Malien?’
Malien lurched along the rail, her knees wobbling. ‘I can’t get down by myself.’
‘I’ll do what I can. But once we’re inside, how do we disable the guards?’
‘I don’t know,’ Malien said limply.
Irisis had never seen her so listless. ‘Do you know how many there were?’
‘Two, maybe three.’
‘Can you fly the thapter?’
‘In the direst extremity, I can draw on a deeper strength for a minute or two.’
‘You might have to, to take care of the soldiers.’
‘If I do, I’ll collapse before I can fly the thapter.’
Irisis hadn’t realised Malien was in such bad shape. ‘Can you climb down the rope?’
‘Not in ten lifetimes,’ Malien said.
Irisis thought for a moment, then rigged up a line to the nearest stanchion, ran a couple of turns around it and tied the other end carefully around Malien’s waist. ‘This is the best I can do. Can you manage?’
Malien had gone white. ‘You’d better be quick.’
Irisis helped her over the side, holding the rope taut. Malien leaned out, her feet on one of the ribs of the keel. ‘Ready?’
Malien nodded stiffly.
Taking a firm grip on the rope, Irisis checked that the thapter was below them. It was swinging gently in its nets. ‘All right. Step off.’
Malien pushed off with both feet and the rope jerked as her weight came on it and slipped around the stanchion. She was heavier than she looked. Bracing herself, Irisis allowed the rope to run and Malien dropped sharply. One arm shot into the air but she regained control and it fell to her side. Irisis couldn’t see her face – Malien was looking down.
A scuffle broke out behind Irisis. She glanced over her shoulder. Flangers, his back to the rail, was fighting two of Ghorr’s guards. The line jerked again and Irisis turned away. She had to rely on Flangers to hold them off long enough to get Malien down. And herself.
A brilliant flash lit up the rigging, followed by a hollow, echoing boom – an air-dreadnought exploding not far away. The airbags wobbled back and forth and the vessel followed more sluggishly, its cables creaking and groaning. The heavy thapter barely moved and, consequently, appeared to stand out from the vessel at right-angles before swinging back.
Malien went whirling around on her rope. Another explosion sent the airbags dancing the other way. The ropes thrummed, pulling so tight that Irisis felt sure the craft was going to tear apart. Malien’s head came up and her mouth was wide open – she thought she was going to fall.
Irisis gauged the swing of the vessel relative to the thapter, paying out Malien’s rope as fast as she dared. Malien was going to pass over the top of the thapter before swinging far out the other way. The vessel began to move again. There were only seconds to act.
Irisis recalculated the trajectories and, just before Malien’s swing passed over the hatch, let go the rope. For one ghastly moment she thought she’d got it wrong and dropped Malien to her death. The thapter moved precisely as she’d thought it would and Malien landed hard on the top of the thapter, next to the hatch.
Her knees collapsed but Malien caught the handle of the hatch with one hand while she looped a bight of her line around it with the other. She raised her hand to Irisis, lifted the hatch and slipped through.
A youth fell past, his mouth open in a silent scream, so close that Irisis could see the spots on his chin. One second he was there; the next, gone to oblivion. She looked up instinctively. A length of smouldering rope came by, spinning end over end. It had just missed the gasbag above her. Should another burning fragment land on a gasbag, exploding floater-gas would blow the craft apart.
Pieces of wood rained down, shreds of canvas and other unidentifiable debris that had once been a majestic air-dreadnought. It began to snow, though the flakes were black as soot. A little whirlwind spun through the air, split into two, rejoined and disappeared.
Shadows moved up in the rigging; beams flashed and flickered. Yggur must still be alive, though how long could he last under such an attack? He’d been exhausted before they began it. Flangers had disappeared. He’d probably been killed and heaved over the side while her back had been turned.
The thapter’s hatch had fallen closed so she couldn’t tell what was going on inside. Better get down to Malien’s aid. Irisis had one foot over the rail when the outline of another air-dreadnought appeared, straight ahead. It was hanging in the air in their path, buffeted by the breeze but not moving. Why not? Its dangling cable appeared to have tangled in one of the forest trees and the crew were struggling to cut it free.
Ghorr’s air-dreadnought was drifting straight towards it. Why didn’t the pilot turn or climb? If she didn’t act soon they were going to collide. Irisis ran down to the stern, where she discovered the pilot’s chair empty. A woman in a pilot’s uniform lay unconscious against the wall – she must have been knocked down in the fighting.
Irisis raced through her options. If she didn’t go to Yggur’s aid he was probably going to die, though if Malien was in trouble Yggur would expect Irisis to help her first. But at the rate the air-dreadnought was drifting, it would crash into the other craft before she could reach the thapter.
There was no help for it. She’d have to try and take the controller, though Irisis wasn’t sure she even knew how it worked.
Before he’d realised what was happening, Nish had been grabbed and held fast. A second guard took his weapons, bound his hands, and pushed him down through the lower hatch of the thapter. He bounced off the metal ladder and landed hard on his backside on the floor below.
Stifling a groan, Nish looked up. The lower hatch remained open, suggesting that they expected to be dropping other people through it. Ghorr must have assumed that Yggur would try to recover the thapter. Perhaps he’d hung around Fiz Gorgo to lure the escaped prisoners back.
He rolled over, looking around. The egg-shaped interior was empty and the guards would have removed anything that could be used as a weapon. However, they didn’t know the machine the way Nish did. During his time in the service of Minis the Aachim, and since then with Yggur, Nish had spent many weeks learning about the workings of constructs and thapters, honing his artificer’s skills on them. He could have taken this machine apart blindfolded, so surely he could create some opportunity to escape.
Nish levered himself to his feet, which was awkward with his hands bound. He eased out one of the drawers, careful not to make a noise. It was empty. The thapter rolled like a ship in huge seas. He hung onto the handle until the motion eased, then opened one drawer after another. All had been emptied. The cupboards and other storage spaces were likewise bare. The guards had been thorough.
Sitting down with his back to the wall, Nish tried to think of any concealed compartments that the guards might not have discovered. None came to mind. The thapter rolled so far to the right that he was dropped onto the side wall. He braced himself as it went back the other way. Above, the soldiers were swearing, uneasy. Well they might be, in such an uncanny and alien craft so precariously suspended in mid-air.
Thump. It sounded like someone landing on the top of the thapter. Irisis? He crawled across to the ladder and looked up as Malien slid through the hatch, one hand raised as if to cast some kind of charm against the occupants. She did not get the chance, for one of the guards whipped a bag over her head before she could speak. They bound and gagged her too, but laid her on the floor out of the way, partly closed the upper hatch and waited.
When Irisis came they would take her just as easily. Ghorr would have his public executions after all and, with the thapter, the victory might be enough for him to keep the chief scrutatorship. Yggur’s half-baked plan had turned a kind of victory into ruinous defeat.
Not if I can help it. Nish grasped at a desperate idea. Edging into the far corner of the egg-shaped space, he crouched down and twisted the concealed, recessed knob above the thapter’s driving mechanism. Its hatch sighed open. Nish couldn’t make the mechanism work to drive the thapter, of course. No one could but specially trained Aachim, and Tiaan, wherever she was.
And no one but Malien or Tiaan could make the thapter fly, for Malien had modified this one in a way that employed her own unique talent for the Secret Art, and she’d taught that to no one but Tiaan.
But he did know enough to carry out the series of tests that Aachim artificers employed when maintaining and repairing constructs, and perhaps one of those might be used to good effect. Nish considered the tests in turn. One caused the ceramic thyrimode to rotate in an orbital fashion, producing eerie squeaks and squeals that might alarm the guards and bring them down to investigate. No; it wouldn’t be enough. He had to shock and terrify them.
Another test heated the muncial gyrolapp, a series of thick-walled glass tubes connected in a spiral like a string of stubby sausages, until its metal case glowed red hot. What if he smeared grease all over the case, then ran the test? The grease would produce a lot of smoke and a horrible smell, and the guards might flee, thinking the thapter was on fire. It wasn’t much of a plan, and yet, the soldiers didn’t sound at ease. It might create an opportunity, though he would have to be ready to act the moment one occurred.
He wriggled to the opening and reached in with his bound hands. He closed his eyes, the better to sense his way in through the maze of tubes, coils, globes, wires and crystals mounted above the reciprocating mechanisms. Had he been sitting in the dark with it in front of him, Nish could have identified any part by feel. Here it proved difficult to get his arms into the tightly packed space, and when he tried his gashed arm hurt abominably.
Nish went back to the centre and peered up the ladder. The soldiers were watching the upper hatch. Returning to the opening, he identified the case of the muncial gyrolapp, which was at the very furthest point he could reach. Scooping grease from a receptacle just inside the hatch, he smeared it all over the case, then set the gyrolapp to heat. Nish wiped his hands on the floor and, just as he was about to close the cover, noticed a prise-bar in its bracket on the wall of the compartment.
Snapping it out of its mounting, he slid it under his coat. On a whim, Nish set the ceramic thyrimode to rotate as well. The eerie noises couldn’t hurt. He quickly closed the hatch, though he didn’t fasten it, and rolled to the other side of the cabin.
The thyrimode gave a gentle whirr then began to run, almost silently at first. The thapter wallowed like a round-bottomed tub in a heavy swell, whereupon the mechanism emitted a brief, mournful squeak. Nish came to his knees, staring in the direction the sound had come from, waiting for a response from upstairs.
‘What was that?’ said one of the soldiers.
‘Just the prisoner whining,’ said the other. ‘He’ll do better than that when the master disemboweller gets his hooks into him.’ He snorted with laughter.
The thyrimode emitted another squeak, longer and more shrill.
‘Didn’t sound like a man,’ said the first. ‘Go and have a look.’
The squeaks rose and fell, died away and began again until they swelled into an eerie, continuous moan. The soldier came running down the ladder, took in Nish on the far side of the room, his mouth open and eyes wide, and turned towards the source of the sound. It took him some time to find the hatch.
‘Larg? Come down here. The Aachim bitch must have made it go.’
‘Not allowed to leave my post,’ said the other. ‘You know that, Aln. The prisoner might have done it.’
‘Him?’ Aln’s voice was a sneer. ‘Remember what Ghorr said? Only Aachim can operate the cursed thing. And Tiaan the artisan.’
‘See what the matter is,’ said Larg, ‘and get a move on. There could be others coming.’
Aln fiddled with the latch, trying to discover how it worked. The moaning from the thyrimode grew louder, as if it were grinding itself to pieces. He glanced over his shoulder at Nish, who hadn’t moved.
‘I can smell something burning,’ Aln called.
Larg did not answer. Aln lifted the hatch of the mechanism, releasing thick clouds of brown, acrid smoke. The shrilling grew so loud that it made Nish’s ears ache.
‘Larg, Larg, we’re afire!’ Aln was on his knees, staring into the hole, but made no attempt to lower the hatch. He had no idea what to do.
Larg came thumping down the ladder and ran across the chamber. He took one look into the cavity, which was still belching fumes, then banged the hatch down.
‘What are we supposed to do now?’ said Aln. ‘If it’s destroyed, Ghorr will blame us. We’re dead men, Larg.’
Larg paled. He stared around the chamber, his larynx working. ‘We’ll have to put it out. See if you can find some water –’
The room was thick with smoke. Nish slowly rose to his feet, trying to appear frightened. Neither of the soldiers took any notice.
‘Water’s no good,’ said Aln. ‘We’ll need to smother it with sand or something.’ He began to pull out the drawers, feverishly.
‘Sand will ruin the mechanism,’ said Larg, heading towards the ladder. ‘See if you can find a rug or a blanket.’
Aln stared at the fuming hatch despairingly, then followed, evidently unwilling to remain below on his own. Nish tensed. This might be the only chance he got. When Aln came by, Nish rotated on the ball of one foot, swinging the heavy prise-bar hard and low with his bound hands.
It struck the soldier on the kneecap with a nauseating crack, he went down and Nish fell on him from behind, driving his knees into the fellow’s back. As Aln hit the floor, Nish managed to fumble the knife from his belt.
He went backwards, trying to manipulate the blade with his bound hands so as to cut his bonds. It was an awkward operation, almost impossible.
‘Larg!’ cried Aln. ‘Help.’
Nish slipped the knife through his fingers until he could touch his wrist ropes with the tip of the blade, though he couldn’t exert much force. He pushed the tip across his ropes, pulled it back then pushed it again.
Larg appeared, feet first. He drew his own blade and began to come down, one step at a time. Nish pushed again and again. The ropes did not give. He forced harder and the point of the blade dug into his wrist, drawing blood.
‘Drop it!’ said Larg, reaching the bottom of the ladder.
Nish pushed too hard and the knife slipped from his fingers and skidded across the floor. He looked up at the soldier in desperation. He didn’t bother to go after the blade – Larg could cut his throat before he reached it and, with bound hands, he couldn’t possibly attack an able-bodied soldier armed with a knife.
Larg smiled evilly, sprang onto the floor and kept going down. What was the matter with him? A thread of blood began to ooze from the side of the soldier’s neck, where a tiny knife had been embedded to the hilt.
Nish went to the ladder. Malien stood at the top, the gag around her throat, swaying.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘How did you do that?’
‘I used the control levers to tear off the gag, then employed my Art to loosen my bonds. Take his knife and come up.’
Nish did so. She freed his wrists and he carefully fastened the lower hatch. Cracking the upper hatch, he peered out through the gap.
‘I can’t see anyone on the air-dreadnought.’
‘That’s bad. They must all be dead.’
‘Or round the other side,’ she added hastily.
He opened the hatch a fraction more. ‘No, I can see Irisis, at the controller. It looks as though she’s trying to pilot the air-dreadnought. Trying to turn it.’
‘Find out why,’ said Malien, polishing a blue-green striated crystal on her sleeve and inserting it into its socket. ‘She was supposed to follow me.’ Gripping the controller levers with both hands, she strained until her face went red. Nothing happened.
Nish climbed up through the hatch and let out a yelp. ‘Malien, we’re heading directly for another air-dreadnought. Its rope is tangled in the trees.’
‘The thapter doesn’t want to go,’ she said calmly.
‘Do you think it could be because I put the mechanism into test mode?’ said Nish.
‘You did what?’
He explained. ‘It was all I could think of to distract the soldiers.’
‘Run down and stop it, quick as you can!’
He hurtled down the ladder and leapt the body at the bottom, not even thinking about the second soldier.
Nish lifted the cover, reached in through the fumes and shut off the thyrimode and the gyrolapp. The shrilling groans stopped at once. He was rubbing his stinging eyes when Aln fell on him, beating him about the head and shoulders with his fists.
Had the soldier been armed, Nish would have died. He went down but managed to roll out of the way. The soldier lurched after him on his battered knee, his face contorted in agony. Nish couldn’t feel sorry for him – Aln had been happy to joke about Nish’s fate. He kicked out, caught the soldier in the side of the knee and he collapsed next to the dead man, crying in pain. Nish scrambled to his feet.
‘It’s done, Malien!’
‘I heard. Come up, quickly!’
He pulled himself up the ladder and fastened the hatch again. The mechanism groaned then roared to life.
‘Put your head out of the hatch,’ Malien snapped, taking a firm grip on the levers. ‘Get ready to cut the ropes holding us in the nets. But not till I say so.’
Larg’s keen blade in hand, Nish cracked the hatch open and looked forward. The other air-dreadnought loomed up, directly ahead.
‘We’re getting very close,’ he cried.
‘I know. Ready?’
He caught hold of one of the main ropes. ‘Yes. Go, quickly!’
Malien jerked the levers. The thapter didn’t move. She began muttering to herself.
‘What’s the matter?’ Nish said, watching the air-dreadnought come ever closer. He could hardly bear to look.
‘Ghorr must have locked the controls. Now, how would he have done that?’
‘They use scrutator magic, a special form of the Art …’ he began.
Malien knew that, of course. She had closed her eyes and was passing her hands across the controls, moving them in circular sweeping motions. Shaking her head, she began checking the glass plates, on which patterns moved in coloured lines and swirls.
Cocking her head to one side, she said ‘Ah!’ Her long Aachim fingers danced on the glass, then she jerked out an agate knob, banged in several others with a sweep of her hand and spun an insignificant thumb wheel below the binnacle.
‘We’re going to hit!’ Nish cried. ‘Do I cut?’
She didn’t answer. Malien was too engrossed. Her other hand caressed the knob that made the thapter fly but she still didn’t move it.
The two air-dreadnoughts merged with stately inevitability. The leading airbags touched, flattened against each other and slid past with silky hisses. The port and starboard airbags of Ghorr’s craft struck their counterparts full on, pushed by, and their support cables tangled. The cables thrummed as they snapped taut, stopping the airbags within a few spans. The suspended vessel of Ghorr’s air-dreadnought kept moving, curving in an arc towards the side of the other machine.
‘Malien, can’t you do anything?’
People on the other craft were screaming and running from the point of impact, though the pilot stood at her controls, her face frozen into a mask of horror. Her precious air-dreadnought, the mainstay of her existence, was going to be destroyed.
Malien’s eyes remained closed though her fingers were still dancing. Now her eyes snapped open. ‘I have it,’ she said softly. ‘Cut the ropes.’
She pulled up on the flight knob and the thapter jerked. Nish had just put his knife to the first rope when the bow of Ghorr’s air-dreadnought drove right through the side of the other vessel amidships, snapping its keel and breaking it in two. One of the rope slings broke above his head and before he could cut the other the thapter rolled in the remaining net until it was tilted on its side.
It began to slide down.
After a desperate couple of minutes during which the two air-dreadnoughts came ever closer, Irisis was forced to abandon the controller, which was too different from the kind she’d spent her life crafting. She had no doubt that, given time, she could make it work, but time had run out.
With only twenty or thirty seconds to impact, she ran along the port deck, looking down at the thapter. It still hung in the nets but she was relieved to hear the sound of its flight mechanism, and to see Nish reaching out of the top hatch. He had a knife in his hand and looked set to cut the ropes. They’d done it.
He had his back to her. Irisis didn’t call out, not wanting to distract him in those last vital seconds. She took a firm hold of the ropes and held her breath – why didn’t they go? What was the matter? She braced herself for the impact, which was not as bad as she’d expected – at least, not to Ghorr’s craft. The other vessel was smashed in two, hurling its crew everywhere.
Irisis hung onto the side ropes while Ghorr’s craft came to a shuddering halt, the airbags lashing about wildly. She expected them to tear open, or even one to explode in a cataclysm that would spread to all the airbags and send the flaming wreckage into the swamp forest. It didn’t happen. The airbags held and so did the ropes. The cable of the wrecked vessel, still tangled in one of the swamp forest trees, anchored them in place.
The thapter was gone, though Irisis didn’t remember hearing the song of its mechanism. Had Malien got it moving in time, or had it fallen into the mist-wreathed swamp? Irisis couldn’t tell.
Malien and Nish were beyond her helping, one way or the other, which reduced her options to one. She headed back the way she had come, looking up for Flangers, Klarm or Yggur. It occurred to her that they might all be dead and she’d be more usefully employed saving her own life. Irisis didn’t give that any further consideration, for it wasn’t in her nature, though she didn’t see what she could do where the mighty had failed.
She circumnavigated the outer deck without seeing a soul, apart from a few battered survivors clinging desperately to the dangling wreckage of the other air-dreadnought. One, a woman Irisis could not see, called out piteously, ‘Help me.’
Irisis turned away. She was still seeing an occasional flash from above, which meant that either Yggur or Klarm must have survived. She clutched at her pliance, a momentary comfort, then tucked it back inside her shirt. Best if no one knew she’d recovered it.
‘Help me, please help me.’
She climbed onto the roof of the cabin, tied a length of rope to the rigging and swung across the gap onto the stern section of the other air-dreadnought, which now hung vertically from a single airbag.
The pilot, a little woman who rather resembled Ullii in her pale hair and blanched skin, had her arms and legs wrapped around the steering arm of the vessel and was crooning softly to herself. She didn’t look up as Irisis landed catlike just above her. The cry must have come from further down.
Irisis fastened her line to the rail so she could get back to Ghorr’s vessel, and went down the vertical side, using the meshed rails like a rope ladder. The woman who had cried out was lying on what had been the rear wall of one of the cabins, and she had two broken legs. She was middle-aged, thin, with lank dark hair and a cast in her left eye.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Irisis, making her as comfortable as she could. ‘The best thing is for you to stay here until it’s all over.’
‘Don’t leave me,’ the woman screamed, throwing her arms around Irisis’s neck in a crushing grip.
‘I can’t get you to the other craft by myself. You’ll be safe here.’ As safe as anyone else, she added silently.
The woman began to wail. Irisis disengaged herself as gently as she could and went out the now horizontal door, closing it behind her. The cries followed her all the way back up the rail. Coming across had been the wrong thing to do. She should have kept on with her own work.
The pilot was now standing up on the stern, wild-eyed. She’d removed her precious controller from the steering arm and hung it around her neck.
‘It’ll be over soon,’ Irisis said, trying to sound reassuring as she unfastened her rope from the rail.
‘It’s over,’ said the pilot, and stepped out into space.
Irisis was so shocked that she had to hang on to the rail for a moment. She looked down and wished she hadn’t.
Get on with it, she told herself. Yggur and Klarm may need your help. Ignoring the cries from the wreckage, she swung back onto the roof of Ghorr’s cabin.
Down the other end a series of ladders and knotted ropes led up to the four main airbags, which were distributed at the points of a diamond, and to the smaller central airbag high above them. They were held in place by a vast network of ropes, and it was no wonder the craft needed a crew as big as a sailing ship. The airbags and ropes became blurry outlines halfway up – Yggur must have carried his mist up with him. Irisis touched her pliance and could see power being drained from the field up there. Yggur and Ghorr were still at it.
She unfastened her line and looped it around her waist, then rested her foot on the forward cabin roof while she caught her breath. The roof, which was about fourteen spans by four, was stacked with rolls of canvas and airbag silk, barrels of tar, coils of rope, and boxes, chests and barrels of supplies, all tightly roped down. The supplies were covered in tarpaulins but spaces between them made ideal hiding places for guards who could shoot her in the back as she climbed.
Don’t be paranoid, she told herself. The guards are dead or up attacking Yggur. But where were the crew? It was like a ghost ship. No doubt some hadn’t been lifted from the amphitheatre, and others had been killed in the fighting, but she couldn’t see a soul. Irisis eased into the first alley, probing ahead of her with the tip of the weapon, lifting the tarpaulins and feeling between the crates and barrels.
She didn’t discover anyone, but as she went aft Irisis realised that what she’d thought was another crate was in fact a square cage. She could see the bars through the stretched canvas. She tapped on the canvas and heard a faint, mewling cry, a very familiar sound.
‘Ullii?’ she said, carefully cutting across and down, then peeling the canvas away.
The little seeker lay on the floor of the cage, though not scrunched up into a ball, as was her wont when distressed. She lay stretched out with her hands gripping the bars in front of her and her toes clenched onto the bars on the far side of the cage. Her colourless hair was a wild tangle, her eyes red and staring.
Crouching down, Irisis reached through the bars. Ullii did not like to be touched, as a rule, but she didn’t react when Irisis’s hand met her bare shoulder.
‘Ullii, what has Ghorr done to you?’
Ullii made no reply.
‘Why didn’t you free yourself?’ said Irisis. ‘The way you freed me that time in Nennifer.’
Ullii turned those tragic eyes on her. ‘Lattice gone.’
‘It’ll come back,’ Irisis said lightly. ‘Now, let’s get you out of here.’
‘Gone forever,’ said Ullii. ‘Nothing left. Want to die.’
‘Nonsense,’ Irisis said briskly. She couldn’t deal with that after the pilot’s shocking suicide. She smashed the lock off with the butt of her sword and wrenched the door open. ‘Come on.’
Ullii followed lethargically, evincing no curiosity, though Irisis was used to that. She turned to the rope ladder that led up into the rigging. An occasional flash still came from the nebulosity above, though weaker than before.
She climbed up into the mist, which thickened until she could only see a few of the rungs of the ladder above her, and just the top of Ullii’s head below. There was something up here, more than mist and smoke. She touched her pliance. Power was being drawn in dozens of places, though Irisis could not tell what it was being used for.
She began to sense a structure to the mist. It was like a series of scalloped platforms connected by stairs and ladders, though that could hardly be a part of the air-dreadnought. It was a creation of the Art, but Irisis couldn’t tell whether it was Yggur’s strange Art or Ghorr’s scrutator magic.
As they reached the level of the four main airbags, the air-bags appeared transparently in the distance, as if this place were only partly of the real world. Rigging ran between them, holding them in place, though here it appeared like strands drawn out of cloud or webs spangled with dewdrops. Tenuous paths led down and up, into nebulous cloud chambers. Between them, staircases ran to airy pavilions, arches and gates that had no part in an air-dreadnought’s rigging.
The flashes, now blue and red, came from higher up. Irisis put one foot out towards the first of the staircases.
Ullii snatched at her arm. ‘Not there!’
Irisis stepped back onto firmness then probed ahead with her sword. It went straight through what had appeared to be solid matter. The staircase was a deceit. Were any of the stairs and pavilions real, or was it a snare as cunningly designed as a spider’s web?
‘How did you know?’ she said, shaken.
Ullii let go of her arm. ‘I can still see,’ she said with that all too familiar hint of scorn that made Irisis smile. Ullii wasn’t as deep in despair as she made out.
‘Perhaps you’d better lead the way.’
Ullii went up, across and up again, stepping sure-footedly, always seeing the true paths among the traps and deceits Yggur and Ghorr had set for each other, which Irisis could not detect even with her fingers wrapped tightly around her pliance and the field streaming through her inner eye.
Up here she encountered deck upon deck, terrace upon terrace, pavilion upon pavilion, all linked like a misty maze, but one step off the unseeable path and they would fall fifty spans into the swamp forest.
‘Dwarf!’ said Ullii as they rounded a mist bank surrounded by a shimmering rainbow in shades of green and yellow.
A span or two off the path, trapped in a cell shaped somewhat like a pumpkin, the little man clutched at the bars. Klarm looked at Irisis, she at him.
‘Should I set you free or leave you here where you’re safe?’ said Irisis.
‘If you don’t free me the right way, the cell will simply dissolve into bottomless air,’ said Klarm.
‘And if I leave you here?’
‘If Ghorr is defeated, or victorious and so chooses, the cell will simply dissolve into bottomless air.’
‘Then I’m not taking much of a risk. But just in case, tie on to this.’ She passed one end of her line through the bars, tied the other around her hips, took Klarm’s hand and braced herself.
‘Ullii?’ said Irisis, acting on a hunch.
Ullii cursed Irisis under her breath, but put her hand to the lock and the cage melted into empty air, giving the lie to her earlier words about losing her lattice. Irisis, with some effort, swung Klarm up onto a solid footing.
‘Where’s Yggur?’ she said.
‘He was up there, earlier,’ said Klarm, pointing between the topmost airbag and the starboard one, where a gauzy path branched into three. The middle path passed through a triumphal arch, though nothing could be seen beyond it but blue-black emptiness. The right path terminated at what appeared to be a stone garden seat, while the left one wound off into mist. ‘But this labyrinth changes all the time. I don’t know where he is now. Ghorr may have him already.’
‘How did it get here?’ Irisis said as they mounted a stair like airy crystal.
‘Ghorr hunted Yggur up here and Yggur created this place as he went – it was the only defence he had the strength for. Even here, at the seat of Yggur’s power, it was the one shelter he could make without the aid of crystals or artefacts.’
‘But it didn’t work.’
‘It saved his life but he can’t escape it. Ghorr is the father of scrutator magic and he’s got a whole air-dreadnought full of crystals and devices to store and channel his power. Every deception Yggur creates, Ghorr sees through it. And now Ghorr is starting to take control of the labyrinth, and turn its traps and deceptions back on its maker.’ A dull red flash carved slices off the sky above them. ‘See how weak he is. In a few minutes it’ll be over.’
Ullii led them to another cell, this one a cube of glassy nothingness not unlike the steps they were standing on. A bloodstained Flangers, with minor wounds in a dozen places, had been imprisoned inside it, spread-eagled. Ullii freed him as she had Klarm and he hobbled after them.
They mounted a bifurcating ramp to a higher level, a sheer white plane on which rolled two enormous spheres. The nearer one was three or four spans across and made of smoky glass with a metallic lustre. A smaller sphere moved inside the larger, though Irisis could not see what it contained. The distant sphere was even bigger, completely transparent, and contained innumerable smaller spheres, all rolling about inside the larger one.
‘That’s Yggur,’ said Ullii.
A feeble red flash lit up one of the small spheres and they saw a tiny figure inside, staggering from one rolling, tumbling sphere to another like a rat trapped in a maze. The red light silhouetted the occupant of the nearer sphere and it was unmistakably Ghorr.
White light jagged out from Ghorr’s hand, illuminating Yggur’s outer sphere and licking around the outside until it found a way in. One of the inner spheres glowed green, went dark and disappeared. Shortly Irisis heard a faint tinkle, like glass smashing. Looking more closely, she saw that a number of the small spheres had already imploded, leaving just transparencies as tenuous as soap bubbles.
‘If Ghorr catches Yggur inside one …’ said Irisis.
‘With a thousand shards of glass driven through his body, it’ll be the end of him,’ said Klarm.
‘He’s doomed anyway, surely?’
‘As long as there were lots of spheres he could outguess Ghorr. Once there are only a few, sooner or later Ghorr will pick his destination at the same time as Yggur jumps.’
‘It’s not Yggur’s way to be trapped like that. He’ll come out first and attack head-on.’
‘He’s too weak. Ghorr would annihilate him.’
‘Then we’ve got to stop Ghorr.’
‘What if I were to attack his sphere from behind?’ said Flangers. ‘I could take Irisis’s sword.’
‘The sphere was created with the Art,’ said Klarm. ‘You couldn’t break it with a sword, and as soon as you tried he’d roll right over you.’
‘It might give Yggur the chance he needs,’ said Flangers.
‘And you might be throwing away your life for nothing,’ said Irisis. ‘No, Flangers – sword against sword but the Art against the Art. What can we do, Klarm?’
‘Ghorr still holds the keys to the chief scrutator’s chest and, despite his earlier setbacks, he’s still the strongest of all the Council. If he can overpower Yggur, or take him alive, the other scrutators will support him. They worship power – it’s the very meaning of the Council’s existence. Although Ghorr stands revealed as a coward and a vicious thug, if he has the power he holds the Council in his hand.’
Ghorr’s sphere rolled the other way, emitting a double flash that burst two of the glassy bubbles inside Yggur’s sphere. It spun crazily and wheeled off, wobbling across the floor, the figure inside staggering like a drunk.
His options were shrinking to nothing, and Irisis couldn’t let that happen. ‘Ghorr has to be overcome. He must fall.’
‘He stripped me of my scrutator magic before he put me in that cell,’ said Klarm. ‘I can’t stop him and I don’t think anyone can.’
They were above the mist here. Irisis looked back at the survivors of the air-dreadnought fleet, which had gathered over Fiz Gorgo and were turning towards them. ‘What about Fusshte?’ His craft was heading in their direction and she could see him at the bow.
‘By the time he arrives, Yggur will be dead.’
Irisis felt an overwhelming urge to attack blindly, in the hope that something would happen that she could use to her advantage. She was at her best when she acted instinctively. ‘Then it’s up to me.’
She ran towards the middle of the white plane. ‘Ghorr!’ she cried, waving her arms. ‘Chief Scrutator Ghorr.’
A triple flash imploded three globes. ‘Ghorr!’ Irisis waved her sword over her head, but as soon as his sphere turned in her direction she tossed the weapon onto the floor and put her hands in the air.
‘Ghorr!’ she screamed. ‘I’ll tell you my secret. I’ll tell you everything.’
He sent another flash towards his opponent, who reeled off, then spun in her direction. The sphere came right up close, looming four times her height above her. It carved circles around her, though Ghorr never took his eyes off his wounded opponent.
‘You’ll tell me how you, a mere artisan with no talent for the Secret Art, killed Jal-Nish’s mancer on the aqueduct at the manufactory?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘And how you really escaped from your locked cell in Nennifer.’
Good. He didn’t believe that Ullii had done it.
‘Yes, yes,’ she said. ‘That too. I’ll tell you everything if you’ll just spare Yggur.’
‘Why do you care? Is he your lover too?’
Yggur was not, but Irisis lowered her eyes and said nothing. Let him think what he liked. All she knew was that, with Flydd so brutalised, perhaps beyond recovery, Yggur was their last hope.
‘Disgusting!’ he said, for that was not his vice. ‘Well, spill it.’
She looked over her shoulder. ‘Do you want them to know too?’
Ghorr spun the sphere, directing a spear of light at Yggur’s bubble, then another and another. All three hit their target. Yggur was still moving from one of the remaining globes to another, but very slowly.
The front of Ghorr’s sphere shimmered to transparency. ‘Step through.’
Irisis had been hoping to entice him out but, clearly, with Yggur still at large, that was a vain hope. She stepped reluctantly towards the transparency.
She felt no resistance, though the instant she was through, the wall began to harden behind her. Irisis panicked and tried to throw herself out again, but it was too late. She put her hands against the wall of the inner sphere. It was just as impenetrable. She was trapped and Ghorr was safe.
Irisis beat on the glass. He simply sneered and turned away. ‘Did you really think I’d be taken in that easily? I’ll crush him like the roach he is. I’m not going to give him any chances.’
‘What about my secrets?’ she said plaintively.
‘I’ll have all the time in the world to devote to you, Crafter Irisis, once I’m back in Nennifer at the head of the Council and you’re hanging upside down on my dungeon wall.’
Nish hung on desperately as the thapter rolled. The note of the mechanism rose a little, then fell again. The machine slipped through the nets before stopping with a jerk that threw him halfway out of the angled hatch.
‘What’s the matter?’ he yelled.
Malien took a while to answer. ‘Ghorr has a lock put on it that I’m having trouble breaking. I can get the thapter to lift, though not enough to make it fly.’
‘Better work fast. We’re slipping through the nets.’
‘I can feel it!’ she snapped over her shoulder. ‘I’m doing all I can, Nish. If that doesn’t work, then falling to our deaths is our fate.’
‘I don’t believe in fate,’ he muttered.
She gave him one of those looks that implied he was speaking above his station. Even Malien, the gentlest and most broadminded Aachim he’d ever met, was not entirely free of the legendary Aachim arrogance.
The thapter slipped further, the mechanism roared and the machine lifted against the meshes before falling back.
‘Still locked?’ said Nish.
Malien didn’t look up. ‘No, but I’m having trouble drawing power.’
‘Ghorr must be using it,’ he said.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I see it now, and he’s using colossal amounts of power.’ She stood up straight and gently lifted the flight lever; the thapter rose and, with a delicate wriggle and a shake, slipped free of the meshes.
It immediately dropped sharply and she struggled to hold it as she clutched the flight controller with both hands. The mechanism roared and faded. She directed the thapter towards a mud island in the swamp, landing with a thump that splattered mud and reeds everywhere.
‘Are you all right?’ said Nish.
She leaned against the side for a moment, then slid down to the floor. ‘I’m weaker than I thought. Should be able to do this in my sleep.’
Nish stared up at the air-dreadnought. The mist had dissipated everywhere except among the tangled airbags, where it was thicker than ever. A flash made it glow milkily. Something was going on up there.
Malien sat with her head on her knees. Nish tried to curb his impatience as her breathing slowly returned to normal. Ghorr was close to victory, Nish knew it.
‘Malien, we’ve got to help Yggur.’
‘What can I do, Nish?’ she said softly. ‘I can’t force strength where there is none.’
‘Ghorr has Yggur trapped. And Irisis. He’s got them all.’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘I don’t know, but I am sure.’
‘Where are they? I can’t tell.’
‘Up!’ Nish said urgently. ‘They’re up among the airbags. You’ll have to –’ He broke off, expecting another flash of arrogance.
Malien got up, lifted the thapter and turned towards Fiz Gorgo, shaking her head. The mechanism faltered; the thapter dipped and her fingers worked furiously to bring it back up again. She put the nose down, travelling slowly between the trees. ‘I can’t take him on. I can barely keep this thing in the air.’
‘I know,’ she said gently. ‘I’m sorry, Nish, but I simply can’t do anything about it. We have to retreat while we can, and hope to take him on later. There’s a right time for every battle and this isn’t it.’ She turned the thapter away.
‘There won’t be a later,’ he said bitterly. ‘They’ll be dead!’
‘Just give me an hour … or two.’
‘We don’t have that long. Ghorr won’t dare linger once it starts to get dark. He’ll kill them straight away, or take them with him to torture them to death at his leisure.’
The thapter dipped again. Malien swerved in through the branches of a swamp forest giant. Nish ducked instinctively.
‘I must rest, Nish. Just give me an hour.’
‘What if you were to let me try?’
‘Try what?’ she said forbiddingly.
‘Just take me up there. I’ve got to do something, Malien.’
‘He’ll crucify you, Nish, then flay you alive. If you could have heard the things Ghorr said about you earlier, you wouldn’t go within a thousand leagues of him. He blames you for everything that has gone wrong today, and rightly so.’
‘I know, and I’m terrified of him, but I still have to go. He hates Irisis even more than he loathes me, Malien, and if he keeps her alive it would only be to wring such torments out of her that the very ethyr will echo with her agony. I have to go to her aid, no matter what the cost. I can do nothing else.’
She took one hand off the controller to grip his shoulder. ‘You’re a true stalwart Nish. I was quite wrong about you when we first met, back in Tirthrax.’
‘I was such a callow, selfish fool then that I can’t bear to remember it.’
‘I’ll drop you up top but after that it’s up to you. I won’t risk the thapter.’
‘If he wins, he’ll be back for it in the night.’
‘And we’ve precious little strength to resist him. But we all must do what we can.’
By the time the thapter hovered just above the white deck, Malien was close to collapse. Nish stepped out onto the surface, whose foundations seemed tenuous in the extreme. Should it fail, or the Art that supported it be withdrawn, none of them would have to worry about the future.
The surviving air-dreadnoughts now began to draw in around Ghorr’s, cutting off any escape, though they made no effort to intervene. They would see the conflict through to the end, and only then would they strike. Or bow to the victor.
Klarm duck-walked Nish’s way, Flangers limping beside him, carrying Irisis’s sword but so worn out that he could barely hold the tip up. Ullii came two steps behind, peering around at Nish as if expecting him to be angry with her. He didn’t have the energy.
‘Where’s Irisis?’ said Nish.
‘Ghorr has her.’ Klarm indicated the closer sphere, presently rolling towards another whose seething inner globes were mostly shattered-glass grey, though a few were transparent. ‘Yggur is in that one, but he’s failing rapidly and I’m powerless to help him.’
Behind them the thapter lifted, almost soundlessly, sideslipped into the mist lower down, and was gone. Ghorr’s great globe rolled around them, rotating slowly, though the inner globe remained in the same orientation no matter what the motion of the outer. Irisis was trapped between the two. The globe stopped, leaving her spread-eagled upside down, staring despairingly at Nish. She waved her hands as if to push him away.
The globe stopped while Ghorr inspected the new arrival, then whirled away to orbit Yggur’s limping, failing sphere. White light forked out, once, twice, and two more inner globes exploded. Ghorr raised his good arm and a treacly brown fan of light touched Yggur’s outer sphere, which dissolved from the base like sugar in the rain. The last surviving globe, with Yggur still inside, fell to the milky floor where it stuck fast in the gooey remnants of the sphere.
Nish ran towards it, pulling out his sword as if he could break the sphere and free Yggur from his magical confinement. As he came close Yggur sagged against the wall, then stood up straight and forced out his arm, sending a final blast at his nemesis.
Had it been a ruse to lure the chief scrutator close? Nish allowed himself to hope so. Surely Yggur had been playing with Ghorr, just waiting for this moment, and was now going to destroy him.
Red lightning forked out from Yggur’s fingers but a counter-blast turned the surface of his globe into a mirror, outside and in, that reflected the blast back on him. Nish didn’t see what happened inside, though he could imagine the effect on human flesh of so much power expending itself in such a tiny space. The mirrored sphere turned black, then white and silver again, only to burst around its equator, emitting a circumferential blast of steam.
It fell in two halves, which spun like tops across the floor. The empty half went whizzing by Nish. The other spiralled directly towards Ghorr’s sphere, stopping just a few spans away.
Ghorr stepped through his inner sphere, then the outer, though the opening closed behind him at once, leaving Irisis trapped inside. He walked up to the slowly rotating hemisphere, which was still steaming.
Nish ran, though he knew it was all over. Even had Yggur survived that terrible back-blast he would be helpless against Ghorr, who seemed to be growing stronger as the battle went on. He would reassert control over the Council, attack Fiz Gorgo a second time and regain the thapter as well as all the prisoners. Victory was within his grasp.
Nish skidded to a stop beside the hemisphere. Yggur lay inside, his long frame clenched into a ball, his hair a frizzy mass of black. His clothes had been turned to char while his exposed skin was coated with soot. He lay unmoving.
Ghorr prodded Yggur with the platinum-shod tip of his staff. Yggur did not move. Ghorr jabbed it hard into his ribs. Nothing.
‘A pity,’ Ghorr said dispassionately. ‘A great man and a great mancer – probably the greatest of all, before me. I could have learned much from him. But, like many a great mancer down the aeons, hubris was his downfall. He fought me all the way but neglected to protect himself against his own power.’
He turned to Nish. ‘My guards let me down last night, in failing to ensure that you were taken. They will pay for it.’ He raised his hand.
Nish’s sword grew too hot to hold. He dropped it and it fell straight through the white floor. Nish rubbed his burning palm.
‘But not nearly as much as you, Cryl-Nish. Oh, how you’re going to suffer.’
Irisis had watched despairingly as Yggur’s defences were broken, globe by globe, but she plunged to the depths of the abyss when Nish suddenly appeared on the edge of the platform. Why had she been so reckless? How could she have imagined she could overcome Ghorr? She’d assumed, because he’d previously fled like a craven cur, that he was a broken man. A cur he undoubtedly was, but he was still the strongest and best-equipped mancer on Santhenar.
Yggur was beaten, broken and probably dead. The burning sword fell from Nish’s fingers and disappeared through the floor. Ghorr had everything except the thapter and soon he would have that as well. Oh Nish, why didn’t you stay away? She couldn’t bear to think of Ghorr torturing him. She’d sooner take the pain on herself.
She felt all hot and congested; her face was bloated from hanging upside down. Irisis pushed against the wall and found that she could move a little. She heaved and thrust until she got herself right way up, but could go no further.
Irisis couldn’t hear what Ghorr was saying, though she’d spent enough time in his hands to imagine it. He would be treating Nish to a picturesque description of the excruciations to come. Ghorr would torture Nish on the spot to discover the whereabouts of Malien, the thapter, and his last remaining enemy, Xervish Flydd.
And Nish couldn’t hold out, for he felt pain keenly. Then, as Ghorr gestured over his shoulder in her direction, Irisis realised that Nish’s torture would only be the first act. He’d soon switch to torturing her in front of Nish, and Nish would snap. He’d tell Ghorr everything rather than be the cause of a friend’s agony.
There had to be a way out. If Ullii had been stronger-minded, she might have saved them, but even at the best of times Ullii could only perform her wonders to save herself. She’d rescued Irisis back in Nennifer purely because Ullii had felt so threatened. Unfortunately, Ullii wasn’t directly threatened now.
And then a possibility popped into her head. What if she, Irisis, were to attack Ghorr the way she’d killed Jal-Nish’s mancer on the aqueduct a year ago?
Under the most desperate duress, Irisis had constructed a concealed packet of pure force and manipulated it to the place from which Jal-Nish’s mancer had been drawing power from the field. The power had been too much for the mancer to bear. It had blown her to pieces and Ghorr had been so threatened by what Irisis had stumbled upon, all unwittingly, that he’d tortured her in fruitless attempts to uncover the secret. Fortunately Ullii had spirited her away from Nennifer first.
Yet Jal-Nish’s mancer, strong though she had been, could be no more than a novice compared to Ghorr. Moreover, Ghorr could have gleaned enough from Irisis’s tormented ramblings to fashion a protection for himself. If he had, attacking him this way was tantamount to suicide. But she had to try.
Taking her pliance from around her neck, Irisis clasped her hands around it, careful not to let Ghorr see that she’d recovered it. Hands in front of her as if begging, or praying, she sought for the field. It was all around her, and very strong here, swirling in threads and streaks of red and blue, plunging into fringed sinkholes, and arching out again. The sinkholes were the draw points that supported this whole phantom architecture in the sky.
Nish cried out. Irisis couldn’t hear it through the wall of the sphere, though she saw his face contorting in agony. The field vanished and she couldn’t find it again. She closed her eyes. She couldn’t look upon his torment and do what she had to do. Wrenching the field back into her inner eye, Irisis scanned it for the place from which Ghorr was drawing power.
Ah, he was clever. Yggur had created this phantom labyrinth, but Ghorr maintained it by drawing from five or six parts of the field at once. That would make it difficult to do what she had done before – perhaps impossible. Moreover, he did not draw power through a simple object like a crystal or pliance, as all mancers she knew did. Ghorr used a myriad of such devices linked together on a belt studded with crystals and linked by threads of wire. It spread the load throughout his body and protected him from overloading – though, in truth, he was such a powerful mancer that it might not be possible to overload him.
Defeating him was as far beyond her as reaching to the moon. Irisis unclenched her fists, opened her eyes and Nish doubled up in such agony that she could feel it. How could that be?
Nish fell forward and Irisis saw Ullii contorted behind him. Nish’s pain was hurting her and she was broadcasting it throughout her lattice. So Ullii hadn’t completely lost it.
It gave Irisis heart. Reaching into the field, she began to weave its tiny threads into a lozenge shape, representing one of the crystals on Ghorr’s belt. Following the patterns of the power he was drawing, she linked the lozenge to another, then another, continuing until she had made a crude representation of the nine crystals on his belt. Irisis then shuttled back and forth, weaving linkages between the lozenges and checking to make sure that they were as close as possible to the linkages of his belt. It was just like making her jewellery, really, and she’d been doing that since she was little.
A multicoloured fan flashed into her mind, then vanished. Though Irisis hadn’t seen it before, she knew what it was – it was the way Ullii saw her lattice. Ullii’s despairing broadcast must be sending it to her. The fan was clustered with knots, near and far, representing the surviving scrutators and mancers on the air-dreadnoughts, as well as Malien, Gilhaelith, Flydd and any other person who could use the Art. Other shapes denoted every crystal and artefact within leagues of Fiz Gorgo.
But the lattice was dominated by one gigantic knot, a globe clad with poisoned flails. It was the way Ullii saw Ghorr.
Another silent scream from Nish, though this time Irisis managed to divert it so as to protect her ethereal weaving. When it was as precise a representation as she could manage, she passed a spindle through each of the lozenge-crystals and spun the field around it until it was tightly concentrated there. Lastly, she wove a concealment around each lozenge. Unless Ghorr was scanning the field constantly, he wouldn’t realise what she had done.
Now! she thought, as Nish arched up again. Irisis moved the ethyric belt so that the positions of its lozenges of pure force matched the places Ghorr was drawing power from, via the crystals on his belt. She withdrew from the field carefully, lest he become suspicious.
She opened her eyes to see Nish doubled over again and Ghorr raising his arms to strike. But Ghorr did not strike. He froze and her heart began to hammer. Ghorr looked around uneasily. Irisis did not meet his eye, afraid that he would be able to read what she had been up to.
A movement in the distance caught her eye. Scrutator Fusshte stood at the bow of his air-dreadnought, a spyglass to his eye, waiting like a jackal for his chief to fall. Or like a sycophant, should Ghorr succeed, to pledge allegiance anew. Either way, success or failure, Fusshte would emerge the stronger.
She looked back to Ghorr, who squeezed one fist. Nish cried out, arching his back and forming his fingers into hooks. Come on, Ghorr, she thought. Take the power, now.
Ghorr did so, then suddenly doubled over, gasping and clutching at his chest. Flecks of red sprayed across the white floor. He retched, coughing something red out onto the floor that looked for all the world like a piece of lung.
Yes! You stinking swine, take that. Irisis rose to her feet, brandishing one fist. You’re not as clever as you think.
He snapped upright and she realised that it had been a ruse to identify who was secretly attacking him. Whirling on one foot, Ghorr flung out his arm, his thick middle finger pointing at her throat.
The outer sphere split like the segments of an orange, frigid air buffeted her, then the inner sphere crashed into her back, knocking Irisis off her feet. Before she could move it rolled up her spread legs, over her buttocks and settled in the hollow of her back, where its base seemed to flow and mould itself to her contours. It was so heavy that she could not budge it, and her chest was pressed against the floor so tightly that she could hardly draw breath.
The base of the sphere flowed up her back, spread around both sides of her neck and began to draw tight. She threw out her arms before it trapped them too, and forced her fingers up in front of her throat, trying to hold back the invisible straps that were close to joining into a noose.
Ghorr had known what she was doing all along, yet felt so confident that he’d allowed her to continue. Perhaps he’d been hoping to discover her deadly secret. And now he had it.
The straps joined to form a belt, an analogue of the one she’d woven and powered by the same spindles of force. He had a keen sense of irony. The belt pulled tight, cutting off her breath in mid-gasp, and Irisis was not strong enough to hold it back. Her fingers were trapped, the knuckles digging into her throat and crushing her windpipe. In two or three minutes she would be unconscious, and two minutes after that, dead.
A choking minute went by. Ullii’s fan-shaped lattice appeared and suddenly, instantly, Irisis knew what she had to do. She focussed on that flail-covered sphere, the seeker’s unique rendering of Ghorr, and remade it.
She turned the flails to drooping, overripe bananas, the black sphere into a rotting pumpkin covered in blowflies, with fat white grubs crawling out of oozing holes in the skin. It was all she could think of to do. Not enough, surely, though Ullii’s sense of humour was rustic in the extreme.
The belt snapped tighter and she felt the bones of her neck shift. She wondered if she’d die of a broken neck before she suffocated. Time slowed right down and the last thing Irisis saw, before all went opaque, was Ullii suddenly convulse with laughter.
For an unknown time, seconds or hours, the field swirled in stately patterns more beautiful than any she’d ever seen. Dying wasn’t so bad after all.
The patterns vanished, the pressure eased and cold air rushed down her throat, and then the world went insane. Her eyes flicked open, though what she saw could not be happening. The ticking rotors of the surrounding air-dreadnoughts emitted tortured groans as they spun up beyond their maxima. There were cries as the great craft lurched in all directions, colliding and tangling with each other. Two exploded in a colossal fireball that seared her exposed cheek.
The phantom labyrinth sagged underfoot before going hard as crystal, flinging Nish and Klarm in the air. The deformed sphere on Irisis’s back crumbled like week-old bread. Pieces of the floor broke away and once again black snowflakes drifted down, while red wisps of acrid vapour, like the fumings from an alchymist’s cauldron, condensed in mid-air.
Ullii’s lattice fan was stretched like a rubber sheet, as if she’d taken it in her hands and pulled it. The knots on it were drawn out to black streaks, all but one. Ullii let go of the lattice and Ghorr’s rotting sphere went flubbing up above the fan as if she’d fired it from a catapult. It came down again and splatted against the lattice, which snapped back and wrapped itself tightly around Ghorr’s knot, squeezing it into a tighter and tighter ball until, finally, with a burst of light, both knot and lattice vanished.
Ghorr shrieked as he fell halfway through the floor. His clothes exploded into rags, revealing a wattled, sack-like belly bulging between a pair of tightly laced corsets, fat-marbled upper arms, the left one stained with old blood, and wobbling fish-belly thighs. The illusions he’d maintained for decades evaporated. His lips shrank, displaying yellow, corroded teeth and retreating gums, and jowls saggy enough to contain a handful of marbles each. The mane of hair vanished apart from a few dingy straps dangling over his ears.
The tightness around her throat was gone. Irisis sucked in a breath, rubbing her bruised throat as she tried to work out what Ullii had done. She’d destroyed Ghorr’s knot, an analogue of his mancer’s self, and her lattice in the process. She’d damaged Ghorr, stripped him of much of his mancer’s power, but had she destroyed it utterly? Surely not, or this phantom world would have vanished and they would all have fallen into the forest. So something still remained. What would he do with it?
She got up and limped across to join her friends.
‘You haven’t finished me yet,’ said Ghorr. ‘But I can finish you.’
‘Your power is broken, Ghorr,’ said Klarm, making no secret of his derision. ‘You’ll never get it back.’
‘There’s more than one kind of power,’ Ghorr choked, trying to pull the rags over his sagging, repulsive frame.
‘You needn’t bother,’ said Irisis. ‘It’d take a sail to cover that up.’
Ghorr shot her a venomous glance, took three steps to the collapsed remains of his sphere and from inside lifted an unusual multiple crossbow. Irisis hadn’t seen one like it for ages. A massive device that only a strong man could use, it fired five bolts at once. Jal-Nish had designed the bow as a lyrinx killer long ago, though it had proved too unwieldy in the battlefield. Before anyone could move, he had its five bolts trained on them.
‘Come out, Yggur,’ he said.
Nails scratched on glass, then a blackened hand flopped over the nearer side of the hemisphere. A frizzy head and ebony face rose up above the side, frost-grey eyes brilliant against the soot.
‘Out!’ Ghorr jerked the crossbow at him.
Yggur climbed out and staggered across to the others, charred pieces of clothing flaking off him like the black snow of a few minutes ago. He could barely stand, but at least he was alive.
‘Five with one blow,’ Ghorr said. ‘It’ll have to do. Any last words, my friends? A simple acknowledgment of my mastery will do.’
Klarm began to speak but Ullii, who was standing beside Nish and Irisis, said quietly, ‘Do you love me, Nish?’
After a long pause he replied, ‘Ah, Ullii, I’m sorry. I thought I did, once and … I’ll always care for you. But no, I don’t love you. I can’t.’
‘Thank you,’ she said quietly. Turning to Nish, she took his hand in her little hands.
‘What for?’ he said numbly.
‘You’ve set me free. My lattice is truly gone this time and it will never come back. There’s nothing to keep me now.’
‘I don’t understand.’
She let go of his hand. Klarm was still speaking.
‘Enough!’ snapped Ghorr. ‘You never did know when to stop, Klarm. That’s why you were never admitted to the Council.’
‘For which I’m mightily glad, as it’s turned out,’ said Klarm.
Ullii took a small step forward. She looked little and frail, her skin was practically transparent, but her back was straight and her head held high.
‘What pathetic last words,’ said Ghorr to Klarm. ‘Anyone else have anything to say?’ He took no notice of Ullii. Ghorr had always held her in contempt. Run away, little mouse, he’d sneered in Nennifer. ‘Cryl-Nish?’
Ullii kept moving, and all at once Irisis did understand. ‘No!’ She reached out for the seeker.
Ghorr swung the crossbow at Irisis, struggling to keep it steady, and Ullii sprang.
He fired just as she reached him, knocking the crossbow to one side. Four of its bolts tore through the snowy floor but the fifth struck Ullii in the chest, felling her instantly.
Ghorr let the useless bow fall. As Flangers and Irisis threw themselves at him, he tore one of the crystals from his belt, formed a circular section of the floor into a slide, leapt into it and disappeared.
Nish fell to his knees and lifted Ullii’s head into his lap. There was a neat hole in the centre of her chest, hardly bleeding at all. ‘Why did you do that?’ he wept. He kissed her on the forehead and then on the mouth. ‘Dear Ullii, you didn’t –’
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Yggur stood there, looking down sombrely.
‘I didn’t want to be here any longer. I’m going to Myllii and Yllii,’ she said with a joyous smile. Ullii squeezed Nish’s hand, closed her eyes and died.
‘Come on,’ said Klarm. ‘As soon as Ghorr gets to the bottom he’ll dissolve this place, and then we’re done. I’ve got a little power back but not enough to maintain all this.’
Nish picked up Ullii’s body, cradling it in his arms. There was no point to it, for she was gone, but Irisis would have done the same. Ullii had, despite all her frailties, been one of them for a long time now. The spirit might be gone but the mortal flesh demanded a dignified completion.
‘We’ll never get down in time,’ said Flangers. ‘He must be nearly there now.’
‘Look!’ cried Irisis, pointing to a rope ladder that ran up to the high central balloon. ‘That’s real.’
They ran, and Irisis could feel the floor becoming more insubstantial with every step. Pieces fell out, leaving ragged holes that she had to dart around, or try to leap, and hope that what lay beyond was solid. She reached the ladder just ahead of Klarm, whose dwarfish scuttle could be surprisingly fast, considering the caliper.
‘Up!’ he snapped. ‘Give them room.’
Irisis went up a span. Klarm remained where he was. Flangers laboured across, his feet sinking into the floor and clouds of its failing material pulling up every time he lifted his feet. Yggur lurched a few steps behind. Patches of red skin were exposed where his charred clothing had flaked away.
The phantom world shook; chunks of floor fell away on all sides. Flangers came up the ladder. Klarm helped Yggur to the rope. ‘Go down!’
Yggur began to do so, mechanically and painfully.
Nish was still several spans away, making slow progress, but would not lay Ullii’s body down. In the circumstances, Irisis began to think he was being excessively noble. ‘Come on!’ she snapped.
Klarm stepped onto the floor, thrust out an arm and jerked him to the rope ladder. Nish clung to it with one hand.
‘She’s gone, Nish,’ Irisis said. ‘She doesn’t care.’
‘But I do,’ said Nish. ‘She loved me and I couldn’t repay her by loving her in return.’
‘Love doesn’t work that way,’ she said waspishly. ‘I should know.’
He went on as though she hadn’t spoken. ‘And, despite everything I did to her, she gave her life for me.’
‘Ullii was glad to go,’ said Klarm. ‘There was no longer anything to keep her here. We need not weep for her, Nish – only for ourselves.’
‘I intend to bury her with my own hands, and then to honour her,’ said Nish. ‘I let her down – that’s why she’s gone.’
Irisis gritted her teeth but said nothing.
The ladder shook and slowly began to move through the mist.
‘Well spoken, lad,’ said Klarm, ‘but first we must get out of here. We’re still on Ghorr’s air-dreadnought, do you realise, and judging by its motion the pilot has come to.’
‘Ghorr will start shooting at us soon,’ Irisis muttered.
‘He won’t want to, for fear of hitting the airbags,’ said Klarm.
‘What’s left of his crew will come out of hiding, and he can recruit others from the survivors of the other craft,’ said Irisis. ‘If he hasn’t already cut it free.’
‘Is there any way we can signal Malien?’
‘She’s probably too weak to come for us,’ said Nish, unable to conceal his resentment at her earlier abandonment, as he persisted in seeing it. ‘She couldn’t help before. She could barely fly the thapter when she left me here.’
‘She may have recovered by now. I’ll do what I can.’ Klarm scuttled up the rope ladder as far as he could climb, and a green light flashed and flickered there. As he was making his way down again, a crossbow bolt whistled through the rigging, not far away.
‘Already they attack,’ said Flangers. ‘And we’re weaponless. We must go higher.’
‘What’s the point?’ said Nish, hefting Ullii’s body on his arm. ‘We can’t defend ourselves.’
Irisis moved up. Flangers climbed around Nish and followed. Even Yggur, beaten though he seemed, ascended half a dozen rungs. ‘Are you coming, Nish?’
Nish clung to the rope with one hand. His shirt was smeared with Ullii’s blood. ‘I can’t climb and carry her too.’
‘Pass her to me,’ said Flangers.
‘She’s my burden,’ Nish replied, looking down at her face. Ullii was at peace. ‘I’ll take my chances.’
Another bolt whipped through the rigging, clipping a rope in half and sending the severed ends dancing. The air-dreadnought lurched suddenly and jerked upwards. Irisis looked down. Someone had cut free the broken bow section of the other air-dreadnought, though its airbags were still tangled in the rigging of Ghorr’s machine, giving it extra lift at the expense of control. Two men were now sawing at the ropes from which the stern section was suspended.
‘No!’ she yelled, remembering the woman in the cabin with the two broken legs. You’ll be safe here, Irisis had told her.
The last ropes were severed and the stern section, still hanging vertically, fell towards the swamp. Irisis tried to console herself. Perhaps Ghorr had taken the injured off first, unlikely as that seemed. The stern section struck a tree, tearing off branches and smashing to pieces. Objects that looked like people fell out. Ghorr’s craft gave another lurch and lifted out of the mist into the light of the setting sun.
‘The bastard has managed it,’ said Nish. ‘After all he’s done, Ghorr is going to get away.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Klarm. ‘Here come the jackals.’
Irisis looked the way he was pointing. The surviving air-dreadnoughts, led by Fusshte’s brown-nosed craft, were heading in an arrowhead formation directly for them.
‘Faster, pilot!’ Ghorr cried in a cracked voice.
The sound of the rotors became more shrill, though the air-dreadnought went no faster. The drag from the tangled airbags meant that he could never outrun his pursuers.
‘Cut those airbags free,’ he shouted at his crew. ‘Then bring down the prisoners.’
Three men began to run up the rigging. The first airbag was released, then two more. The air-dreadnought leapt forward. One man headed for the fourth airbag, while the second and third angled across to where Nish and the others clung to the rope ladder.
Irisis was preparing to fight them bare-handed when, with a swoop and a whoosh, the thapter rose out of the swamp forest, wove expertly through the rigging and hovered next to the ladder. Two strong-armed guards lifted Nish, Ullii’s body and all, in through the hatch. They took Yggur next, the others followed and the thapter darted away. Nish went below. Yggur did too, aided by the guards.
Irisis stayed up top with Klarm and Flangers. ‘Perfect timing, Malien.’
‘It was sheer good luck,’ said Malien, ‘and it’s about time we had some of it. I came as soon as I could summon the strength. Twenty minutes ago I couldn’t even stand up.’
‘You arrived in time and that’s all that matters.’
‘It’s been an endless day; a day of continual reversals. But now I think we’re going to see the end of it.’
‘I hope so,’ said Klarm. ‘Though I wouldn’t put it past Ghorr to have one last ace up his sleeve.’
‘He no longer has a sleeve,’ said Flangers prosaically.
Malien circled out of range of the scrutators’ javelards, keeping a wary eye out for signs of activity at the crystal-powered mirrors, though so far there had been none. With spyglasses they watched the drama unfold. Ghorr’s air-dreadnought had risen slightly above the fleet, fleeing as quickly as its rattling rotors could take it, but Fusshte’s was steadily overhauling it.
‘He’s failed in front of all the scrutators,’ said Irisis. ‘Surely not even Ghorr can overcome such a reversal.’
‘Let’s just watch and see.’
Scrutator Fusshte’s crew manoeuvred his craft up beside Ghorr’s. His soldiers were arranged along the side, their crossbows and javelards pointing at the other vessel.
‘Would they shoot him down?’ said Flangers. ‘A chief scrutator?’
No one answered. Fusshte was seen to shout orders to Ghorr’s craft. Ghorr’s depleted crew were also spread along the sides, holding their weapons, though they did not point them in the direction of Fusshte’s air-dreadnought.
Ghorr’s craft jerked forward, making one last desperate attempt to get away. Smoke rose from the rotor mechanisms. Fusshte’s air-dreadnought matched his pace. More orders were shouted and, as far as Irisis could tell, ignored.
Fusshte called his captains to a brief conference, after which they hastened back to their troops. Fusshte’s pilot manoeuvred the vessel a fraction closer, and the men at the javelards pointed their weapons upwards and fired. Floater gas rushed out of one of Ghorr’s airbags, it collapsed, and the craft dropped sharply.
Ghorr’s operators worked the floater-gas generators but the vessel continued to lose altitude. Other air-dreadnoughts moved in to the sides and one shadowed him from below.
‘That’s it. It’s got to be the end,’ said Irisis.
Malien moved the thapter a little closer, the better to see.
Ghorr raised his arm and directed a fiery blast at his tormentor, but it fizzled out long before it reached him. Fusshte was laughing as he moved in for the kill.
‘He’s finished,’ said Irisis. ‘He’s lost his power.’
‘Ghorr’s a hyena,’ Klarm replied. ‘He could be trying to lure his enemy into range.’
Fusshte didn’t deign to reply to the attack, but his javelard operators shot out another of Ghorr’s airbags. Fusshte’s craft moved closer.
‘Is he planning to board Ghorr’s vessel in mid-air?’ said Flangers.
‘I don’t think that’s possible,’ said Malien. ‘I can’t tell what he’s up to.’
Ghorr, his hideousness now enveloped in a black cape, climbed onto the ladder above the rotors, as if to get a better shot at his enemy.
Yggur came up from below, wincing with every step. He’d cleaned himself up, washed the soot off and was wrapped in a blanket. His skin was swollen and blistered, both eyebrows had been singed off and the frizzy hair at his right temple was already beginning to crumble.
‘Ah, the endgame,’ Yggur said thickly, as if even his tongue was blistered.
‘What’s Ghorr holding?’ said Malien sharply.
‘Looks like his scrutator-magic belt,’ said Irisis. ‘Surely he can’t be planning to –’ She’d once seen an operator call power directly into his crystal, and the result had not been pretty. She couldn’t imagine the cataclysm if a master mancer did it with all his crystals at once.
‘I’d better move out of range, just in case,’ said Malien, and the thapter veered off sharply.
Fusshte must have recognised the danger, too, for his vessel also turned away, though slowly. Such huge craft were not capable of rapid manoeuvring. The other craft followed his lead. The one below Ghorr’s vessel went hard to port but Ghorr’s pilot matched the movement, dropping towards it.
‘Is Ghorr deliberately trying to crash into it?’ said Irisis.
No one answered. Fusshte shouted an order and one of his javelard operators fired a warning shot above Ghorr’s head.
At first it appeared as though Ghorr had tried to duck out of the way, but slipped and fell. Irisis clenched her fists as he plunged towards the swamp, thinking it was over. However, as soon as he was clear of his own craft, Ghorr flung out his cape, which formed a scalloped curve like a great batwing. He swooped one way, then the other, curved around in a circle and landed gently on top of the port airbag of the air-dreadnought below his own.
‘He’s got the luck of a thousand men,’ said Klarm. ‘I couldn’t have done that if I’d practised it all my life.’
‘What’s he planning?’ said Malien.
‘To climb down the rigging and seize control of the air-dreadnought before the other scrutators can manoeuvre back into range.’
‘And he’ll do it,’ said Flangers. ‘He’s going to get away after all.’
Ghorr was struggling across the top, having difficulty moving across the spongy surface in the wind, though he was steadily making his way towards the rope rigging that ran down the side.
‘I’ll be blowed,’ said Klarm. ‘The man’s unstoppable. I think he might do it after all.’
Irisis thought so too, for the other vessels, having turned away with the wind, were having trouble forcing their way back against it. They wouldn’t get within firing distance in time. Her heart was hammering in her chest, her fists tight with rage at the thought of him getting away. Fall, you swine, fall.
Ghorr was just reaching for the ropes, while the paralysed crew watched from below, when a gust of wind caught his wing and lifted him into the air. He wrenched at the wing, which collapsed, and landed so hard that one of his boots tore through the fabric of the airbag. His leg went in, all the way to the hip. Ghorr thrashed madly, trying to extricate himself, but only succeeded in tearing a larger hole.
He raised his arms as if trying to use his Art to stop his fall, but disappeared inside.
‘He’ll hold his breath while he tears a hole through the bottom,’ Irisis said. ‘He’s indestructible. He’ll come out, slide down the rigging and be off –’
She was cut off by a gigantic explosion of floater gas that sent tongues of flame fifty spans into the sky. It was followed within seconds by other explosions as the remaining airbags went off. What was left of the air-dreadnought plunged into the swamp, making an enormous muddy splash.
No one spoke. The remaining air-dreadnoughts circled the spot twice, but as Malien moved in their direction they turned away and headed for the eastern horizon at high speed.
Irisis let out her breath and unclenched her fists. Her nails had dug white crescents in her palms.
‘Well,’ said Malien after a considered pause, ‘I very much believe that it’s over. We won’t be seeing them in Fiz Gorgo again.’ She turned the thapter down towards the crash scene, in case there were any survivors.
They found none, but as they were lifting off again, Klarm said, ‘What’s that?’
‘What?’ said Flangers.
‘That horrible red rag hanging in that tree.’ As they came alongside the bloody, gruesome object, Klarm began to laugh. ‘Trust Ghorr to go out in his own unique way. This is truly an end for the Histories, though not one he’d want to be remembered for.’
It looked like some kind of elongated membrane, waxy on the outside but red within, with strands of hair on one end and a grey thicket in the middle. Irisis recoiled. ‘It’s his skin,’ she said, disgusted. ‘The explosion blew Ghorr right out of his skin.’
‘An entirely appropriate ending,’ said Klarm, ‘considering the number of victims he ordered to be flayed alive. I’m sure Flydd will appreciate it even more than I do.’ He frowned at that thought, rubbed his chin and cast a glance down at the swamp. ‘I wonder if Ghorr could be down there now, his heart still beating?’
‘Not even Ghorr could have survived the fall, even if he did live through the explosion and the skinning,’ said Malien. ‘A great mancer can do a lot with the Art, but he can’t protect himself from a fall of fifty spans.’
‘We’d better make sure,’ said Klarm. ‘If he landed in a thick bed of reeds it might have saved him, and he could then use his Art to fashion some kind of substitute for his skin.’
‘I don’t see how,’ said Malien. ‘Oh, very well. I’d like to make sure of him too.’
After some searching they found the body, which had landed on the upraised branch of a fallen tree and burst open. There was no doubt that it had once been the chief scrutator, and none that he was now dead. They left the corpse where it lay for the scavengers to feed on, and headed back to do what they could at Fiz Gorgo.
‘Swing by the skin again, Malien,’ said Klarm. ‘I’ll have it tanned and stuffed and keep it in the corner of my workroom. And in the difficult days to come, whenever someone tells me that things were better in the time of the scrutators, I’ll bring Ghorr’s skin out to illustrate the tale I plan to write, of his life and death, and his evil regime.’
‘Don’t be disgusting,’ said Irisis. She had never hated anyone, not even Jal-Nish, the way she’d hated Ghorr, but she could not countenance that.
‘It’s not worthy of you, Klarm,’ said Malien. ‘Let’s get back and see to the living.’
‘If you plan to overthrow the Council, and prevent them from ever rising again,’ Klarm said carefully, ‘first you must destroy them in the eyes of the people. Ridicule is the best way to do that, and there’s no better symbol than this.’
‘Oh very well,’ said Malien, and brought the thapter close while the gruesome object was retrieved. ‘Can we go now?’
‘Yes, thank you,’ said Klarm, still chuckling as he rolled the skin up carefully and packed it away.
Malien turned the thapter back to Fiz Gorgo.
‘Does anyone know what happened to Tiaan?’ Irisis wondered.
‘She was taken up at the same time as I was,’ said Malien. ‘But to a different craft.’
‘Do you know which one?’
‘I hope it was Fusshte’s,’ said Irisis.
‘The Council came here with sixteen air-dreadnoughts and they’ve left with seven. The others exploded or crashed and I doubt if anyone would have survived.’
‘Where’s Gilhaelith?’ Yggur asked his captain in charge the moment they trudged through the broken doors of Fiz Gorgo.
Everyone looked at everyone else. No one had seen him since they’d come down the slide, hours ago.
‘Search Fiz Gorgo,’ Yggur said grimly. ‘He must be found and safely secured.’
‘But surely …’ Malien began.
‘Ghorr didn’t find this place by accident,’ said Yggur. ‘I had a protection around the entirety of Fiz Gorgo and I don’t see how the Council could have seen through it, even using Ullii’s talents. Gilhaelith definitely had a hand in it. I’ve just been to his cell and found the proof.’ He displayed a handful of rock-salt crystals. ‘They’ve got the print of the Art all over them. Gilhaelith made a working, down in his cell, which allowed Ullii to look through my protection.’
‘That doesn’t mean he deliberately betrayed us,’ said Nish.
Yggur gave him a cold glare from beneath frizzled, soot-stained brows. ‘But it does reinforce my initial opinion of the man, that he’s unreliable, untrustworthy and completely lacking in judgment. Find him!’
They hastened to do his bidding, all except Irisis, who fell in beside Yggur as they went down the corridor.
‘He’s gone, hasn’t he?’
‘I’m afraid he has,’ Yggur said grimly. ‘And he’s going to cause us no end of trouble unless we find him quickly.’
He organised his remaining soldiers into search parties and sent messages to the nearby towns and villages, to hold Gilhaelith at all costs. They did not find him, though his trail was not difficult to discover. He’d taken advantage of the chaos when everyone had come down the slide to slip away into Fiz Gorgo. There he’d gathered weapons, a sackful of provisions and as much gold as he could carry. Avoiding the guards, he had slipped out through the gates into the mist and headed up the track for Old Hripton. He’d chartered a boat, making no secret of his destination. Then he’d set sail around the northern end of the island of Meldorin, thence heading down the Sea of Thurkad.
Yggur put his head in his hands when his messengers came back with the news. ‘I can only assume that he is heading back to Alcifer.’
‘To do what?’ said Nish.
‘Betray us to the lyrinx?’
‘Well, it’s out of our hands. What happens now? There was a plan …’
‘To attack Nennifer and overthrow the scrutators?’ said Yggur.
‘Yes,’ said Nish. ‘Has Gilhaelith betrayed that as well?’
‘Ghorr gave no sign that he knew, and it would have been included in the charges against us had Ghorr known of it. But …’
‘The longer we delay, the more likely it is that the Council will learn of it,’ said Irisis.
‘Flydd was the key to the attack,’ said Yggur. ‘It’s going to take time for him to recover … if, indeed, he does.’
‘Do you mean …’ Irisis began.
‘Oh, I’m sure he’ll live, but the damage goes deeper than that. I hardly dare mount the attack without him, though I’m equally reluctant to wait until he recovers.’
‘Either way it’s going to be a bigger gamble than the one we’ve just been through, and less likely to succeed,’ said Irisis. ‘But let’s worry about that tomorrow. I’m going to cook a victory dinner.’
‘Better to call it a survival dinner,’ said Yggur. ‘I’m not yet sure that we’ve had a victory.’
‘Coming, Nish?’ said Irisis, taking him by the arm.
‘I’m not really in the mood just now,’ he said. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk.’
She stared at him for a moment, then suddenly she understood and gave him a quick hug. ‘All right then. I’ll see you later.’
Nish watched her go, not sure whether to pray for Flydd’s quick recovery or to hope that his convalescence would be a lengthy one. Then he went outside to walk along the track that ran around the edge of the swamp forest. He had to think through the loss of Ullii, not to mention the son he’d never known, and never would. And then, find a suitable place to lay Ullii to rest. A quiet, pretty spot, as far from grim Fiz Gorgo as he could carry her.
Gilhaelith shaded his eyes from the setting sun as he tried to make out the port, which had served Alcifer long ago, among the dense forest covering the shore. Could that blocky shape down to the left be it? He adjusted the sail of the dinghy, and then the tiller a fraction. Surely it had to be.
His escape from Fiz Gorgo had been uneventful, as had his trip up the west coast of Meldorin, east through the passage between Meldorin and Qwale and south again halfway down the Sea of Thurkad. It had taken longer than it would have done to walk from Fiz Gorgo across the width of Meldorin, but at least it had been safe. The lyrinx rarely attacked ships on the open sea, while anyone foolish enough to pass through the swamps of Orist into enemy lands would have been killed and eaten on sight. Gilhaelith had taken to the dinghy just that morning, for the ship’s captain had refused to go within a league of the fabled, haunted city, much less the lyrinx’s underground labyrinth of Oellyll, delved into the living rock beneath Alcifer and home to at least seventy thousand of the enemy.
Besides, Gilhaelith could not have walked across Meldorin to save his life. He hadn’t regained the strength he’d taken for granted in the hundred years and more he’d dwelt at beautiful Nyriandiol, and perhaps never would. Every stone of that great edifice had been chosen for its geomantic properties. Each had been shaped and placed so as to enhance the natural magic of the mountaintop, and to support him in his life’s endeavour – to understand the nature of the world and the forces that made it so. Without Nyriandiol, Gilhaelith was not a shadow of the master geomancer he’d been while he dwelt there.
He still yearned to complete his life’s endeavour, though Gilhaelith now doubted that he ever would. While trapped in sticky tar deep in the black pit of Snizort last summer, as the node had been about to explode, he’d done the only thing he could to save himself. He’d created a phantom, mathemantical crystal in his mind and used it to draw the power he’d needed to escape. He’d managed to drag himself to safety but in doing so the crystal had burst asunder, spearing its fragments through his brain and damaging part of it. The injury had further reduced his capacity for geomancy. What once had been effortless he now did only with the most prodigious labour, while some things he could not do at all.
But that had not been the worst of the damage. The phantom crystal fragments remained and whenever he drew power, even for the most trivial purpose, they burned more of his brain. Gilhaelith was faced with the worst of all choices. He could hope to prolong his life by never drawing power again, though without practising his Art, his life would be meaningless. Or he could attempt, by geomantic means, to locate and unmake every fragment of the phantom crystal. There lay his only hope of restoring himself to the greatness he’d once had, or at least to what shadow of it he could regain.
In that endeavour he’d spent his previous months at Alcifer refashioning his geomantic globe. He’d made it into the most perfect representation of Santhenar he could create, its lands, seas, mountains, rivers and icecaps, even down to the nodes themselves. It would give him the focus he needed to repair himself, though the work had done him more damage, of course. He’d completed it little more than a month ago, an unparalleled, agonising labour and, in the circumstances, a phenomenal work of genius. But then Matriarch Gyrull had sent him outside to take measurements of the field for her.
In reality she’d used him as an unwitting decoy to try to capture Tiaan and the thapter, and had almost succeeded. Instead, Tiaan had captured Gilhaelith and taken him to Fiz Gorgo. Without the geomantic globe, his agony had been complete and his death, or descent into irreparable brain damage, certain.
Unable to face that prospect, Gilhaelith had single-mindedly set out to get back to Alcifer, unwittingly betraying Fiz Gorgo to Ghorr in the process. He didn’t want to think about that.
He adjusted the sail again, taking advantage of an easterly wind-shift to speed towards the scrub-covered oblong that was undoubtedly the end of one of the breakwaters of the port. What would happen now? Even if he recovered his geomantic globe, using it to find and unmake those crystal fragments risked destroying his mind completely. He could scarcely bear the thought of his greatness reduced to a mindless, drooling vegetable – lyrinx fodder. Assuming that the lyrinx would allow him access to the globe at all. Matriarch Gyrull had been spying on him all the time he’d worked on the globe and had probably seized it in his absence. If she didn’t need him any more, he’d be sent to the slaughtering pens.
The thought checked him for a moment, for Gilhaelith had a horror of being eaten. It wasn’t right that a man so great as he could come to such an undignified end. Dare he go on, confronting such a fate? He took the numbers, to see what kind of omens there were for this choice. The once effortless calculations were now a great strain but the omens proved to be neither good nor bad. It was up to him to tilt fate one way or the other. He would go on. He would risk all to get back what he had lost, no matter what the consequences.
Gilhaelith brought the dinghy in to the eroded stone jetty and tied the painter to a gnarled root that had forced the stones apart. After heaving his canvas holdall up onto the barnacle-covered stone, he pulled himself after it, and froze.
Four lyrinx stood there, back against the shrubbery so that they had been out of sight from below. He recognised three of them: a young wingless male called Ryll; Liett, a young female with outer skin that was quite unarmoured and colourless, so that he could see the purple blood flowing beneath it; and Matriarch Gyrull, big and old with pouched eyes, battle-scarred armour and segments missing from her crest. And, further back, almost concealed by the shadows, the biggest lyrinx Gilhaelith had ever seen – a vast coal-black male with a golden crest. He was one and a half times Gilhaelith’s own majestic height, and probably five or six times his bulk. His folded wings drooped as though he was tired, though the lyrinx held himself erect and his golden eyes seemed to miss nothing.
‘I hoped you would come back,’ Gyrull said, reaching out and encircling Gilhaelith’s bony wrist with her clawed fingers. ‘Come with me, Tetrarch.’
When Gilhaelith had been safely penned in a stone chamber of the underground city, and a pair of zygnadrs, or sentinels, set to watch him, the four lyrinx repaired to an empty dining hall. There the coal-black male selected the lower half of a dead human male from a meat tray and tore it into two haunches, one of which he politely offered to the matriarch.
Gyrull shook her head. ‘I’m not hungry. I have much to think about. Go ahead, Anabyng. You must be hungry after your long flight.’
‘I confess I am,’ he replied. ‘I didn’t settle once in the last two days, so anxious was I to get home.’
Liett took the haunch and bit a chunk from the thigh muscle with her sharp grey teeth. Ryll reached into the tray for a lower leg joint. He hadn’t eaten human flesh for a good while, since there were few humans left in Meldorin. He absently twisted the foot off and tossed it back into the tray, then went across to the table with the others. He was about to tear into the tasty calf meat when Gyrull spoke.
‘I don’t like it, Anabyng. Why has the tetrarch come back?’
The black male chewed and swallowed before answering. Golden speckles broke out on his chest, in appreciation of the quality of the meat. ‘For the geomantic globe. It means more to him than his life, and he is a dead man without it.’
‘Were it up to me,’ said Liett, ‘he would be a dead man now, though I wouldn’t care to dine on his tainted flesh.’ Gilhaelith favoured the most exotic of diets: salted slugs, pickled wood-roaches and other kinds of vermin that not even the lowest of the lyrinx would have eaten but to save their lives.
‘We need him,’ said Ryll, putting down the leg joint untasted.
‘How is the flisnadr going?’ asked Anabyng, referring to the power patterner that Ryll and Liett had been trying to create for many months. ‘Have you made much progress since I left?’
Ryll took up his joint again, stared at the red flesh for a moment, then all at once let it fall on the table. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, human flesh, which he had enjoyed all his life, had lost its appeal. ‘There hasn’t been any progress, Great Anabyng. We’re bedevilled by the same problem that we’ve had from the beginning: linking the individual patterners, with their humans inside, to grow the flisnadr. And we still haven’t worked out how to use Gilhaelith’s geomantic globe to solve this problem.’
‘Then you’d better torture it out of him.’ Anabyng stripped the rest of the meat off the upper thigh, then bit off the protruding bone and crunched it noisily. ‘We’ve got to have it by the beginning of spring.’
‘What’s the matter, Anabyng?’ said Liett, devouring her haunch with gusto. ‘Why so soon?’
Anabyng’s head jerked up and his eyes glowed, though he did not speak.
Matriarch Gyrull struck the table with her fist. ‘Be so good as to use Anabyng’s proper title, daughter. He is our greatest hero of the battlefield, and the greatest in the Art, too. He earned his honour the hard way.’
Liett dipped her head in a perfunctory manner. ‘But I’m the daughter of the matriarch!’ she said sulkily.
‘Then it’s incumbent upon you to observe the proprieties, more than anyone.’
Liett’s eyes flashed. ‘You said we had to recreate ourselves to suit the new world once the war is won. That’s what I’m doing.’
‘Have you learned nothing?’ cried Gyrull. ‘You expect me to choose you as matriarch after me, yet you display few of the necessary qualities. Your lack of respect diminishes you, daughter.’
‘Name one person more suited to the honour than me,’ Liett said with an imperious tilt of the head.
‘Even Ryll is more suited to the honour than you,’ Gyrull replied deliberately, ‘and he is male.’
Anabyng spread his great maw wide, making a choking noise that Ryll could only interpret as a laugh. Ryll wasn’t laughing. To even compare him to a candidate for matriarch was mortifying. ‘Matriarch, you mock me,’ he said, hanging his head. His skin colours flashed red and purple and he felt an unusual burning sensation in his cheeks.
‘And insult me,’ cried Liett, giving him a savage look, as if he had deliberately undermined her.
‘By millennia-long custom we are led by a matriarch,’ said Anabyng, ‘and none of us would seek to change that.’
‘Nor I,’ said Gyrull. ‘I merely point out that, in the half-year since we returned from the fall of Snizort, the wingless one has set an example in the mastery of his Art, in strategic thinking about the war and the future, and in unassuming leadership. When he speaks, the common folk set down their tools and listen. You’d be well advised to follow Ryll’s example, daughter.’
Liett, incredulous, flashed out her beautiful wings and bared her teeth at Ryll, for all that she had long sought permission to mate with him, and he with her. Theirs was a volatile relationship.
‘Assuming you do wish to be a candidate for matriarch,’ said Gyrull. ‘On that display, I doubt it. Leave us, Liett.’
‘What?’ said Liett, belatedly folding her wings.
‘Leave us!’ Gyrull snapped. ‘I wish to speak about matters of importance with those mature enough to offer worthwhile opinions.’
Liett began to flounce away. She caught Ryll’s eye and he gave a little shake of the head. She snapped her teeth at him, a last display, then slunk out, head bowed.
‘I truly don’t know what I’m going to do with her,’ sighed Gyrull.
‘Send her to the battlefront,’ said Anabyng. ‘If she survives, it may make a leader of her yet. She does have a great talent, though it’s wilfully misdirected.’
‘I need her here,’ said Ryll hastily. Though he knew it made good sense, he couldn’t bear the thought of losing Liett. ‘To send her to battle, unarmoured as she is, would be to condemn her to death.’
‘Perhaps your feelings for her overpower your good sense,’ observed the black lyrinx.
‘No, Ryll is right,’ said Gyrull. ‘We do need Liett to complete the flisnadr; she has special abilities. Enough of that. What news from your scouting, Anabyng? Why do we need the device by the end of winter? I thought we had months more.’
‘The humans are too clever and cunning,’ said Anabyng. He crunched the rest of the thigh bone and slurped up the marrow. ‘I’m worried that they’ll come up with some fiendish new strategy over the winter.’
‘We have them on the run,’ said Gyrull. ‘We’ve defeated them time and again, and by spring we’ll have another ten thousand to set against them. I’m not afraid –’
‘There have been developments. The whole Council of Scrutators attacked Lord Yggur at Fiz Gorgo a few weeks ago but the chief scrutator was killed, along with many others. Only seven of their sixteen air-dreadnoughts escaped.’
‘I heard,’ said Gyrull. ‘But that’s something to celebrate, surely?’
‘Fusshte has taken over,’ said Anabyng, ‘and he’ll pursue us more relentlessly than Ghorr ever did.’
‘But he’s no leader,’ Gyrull said, dismissing the threat. ‘And leadership is what they need most desperately.’
‘I think …’ began Ryll tentatively. ‘Er, Great Anabyng …’ He squared his shoulders and tried to meet the male’s eyes boldly, though Ryll was only too conscious of his physical deficiency, his lack of wings. ‘This power in Fiz Gorgo, that can defeat the entire Council and all their soldiers and mancers, must be a threat to us. We’ve got to find out who they are and what their plans are. If a great leader should emerge from the present chaos we could have a hard time of it, since we’ve failed with the flisnadr. Gilhaelith –’
‘Indeed.’ Anabyng’s eyes met Gyrull’s. ‘I believe that’s the kind of strategic thinking you were talking about, Matriarch. We must extract everything Gilhaelith knows about Fiz Gorgo, without damaging him too much, then put him to work.’
‘Quite,’ said Gyrull. ‘What of the other humankinds?’
‘Lord Vithis has gathered all his Aachim around him. They’ve built camps near the Foshorn, by the south-western edge of the Dry Sea, planted gardens and harvested enough fish from the Sea of Thurkad to see them through the winter. Now they’re building vast stone structures at the Foshorn.’
‘Are they preparing for war against us?’ said Ryll.
‘There’s little sign of it,’ said Anabyng, ‘though I can’t say what they are up to. And if driven to it –’
‘Since they’ve broken with the old humans, at all costs we must avoid provoking them,’ said Gyrull. ‘Or the Stassor Aachim. Or the exiled ones, for that matter. What was their name?’
‘Clan Elienor,’ said Ryll. ‘Though without their constructs, and reduced to beggary on the shores of the Sea of Thurkad, Elienor can’t threaten us.’
‘If we attack them, Vithis might come to their aid despite sending them into exile. We must do nothing to provoke any of the Aachim, for we cannot fight them and the old humans. But it’s the old humans that worry me. They adapt too quickly, and they’re deadly inventive. We’d better step up the attacks on their manufactories.’
‘Indeed. And now I must rest for an hour or two,’ said Anabyng. ‘It was a wearying flight and I’m spent. After that, we’ll see what the tetrarch can tell us.’ He bowed to the matriarch, nodded to Ryll and went out.
‘You haven’t eaten your meal,’ Gyrull said to Ryll, glancing at the joint on the table.
He walked across and tossed it back in the tray. ‘I no longer enjoy the taste of human flesh, Matriarch. I’d like to talk to you about that … if you have the time. I’ve begun to feel that it’s wrong.’
‘Wrong?’ she said without emphasis.
He had no idea what she was thinking. ‘To eat the flesh of another sentient species, one that is, despite outward appearances, not so very different from ourselves, it just seems … I feel that it reduces us to the level of beasts. And we’re not beasts!’ he cried. Then he went on, more tentatively, ‘Are we, Matriarch?’
‘No, Ryll,’ she said softly. ‘We were artists once, and philosophers, with a noble culture that stretched back a thousand years. In those days our identity did not depend on warriors’ arts. We were once great, and we lost it all. No,’ she said reflectingly, ‘our ancestors abandoned the past so that we could survive in the void. We had no choice.’
‘This war stopped being about survival long ago,’ said Ryll. ‘It’s become existence, and it’s not enough. I want our culture back, Matriarch. I feel hollow inside, as if I’ve lost my soul. And I’m not the only one.’
‘Many of us have begun to feel that way,’ she said. ‘And we matriarchs are doing what we can to shape our people for the future, ill-fitted as we are for the task.’
‘Don’t say that, Matriarch,’ said Ryll. ‘You are the best of us; our guiding force.’
‘We were, in the void, and even in the early days here. But the world is changing too quickly, Ryll, and we’re too fixed in the old ways. We can’t guide you much longer. We must make way for a new generation, and I’m afraid …’
‘You, Matriarch?’ he said uncomprehendingly.
‘The war may soon be over but the peace will be even more dangerous for us, for our warrior caste is not fitted for it. Many of our people can conceive of nothing but war and don’t want to give up its glories, even for peace.’
‘We must find a way to change their minds,’ said Ryll.
‘They know nothing but war and if we take it away without giving them something else, they’ll be broken; people without a purpose. It’ll tear us apart. We matriarchs of the six cities have had much mindspeech on the topic this past year. We’re starting to try to shape the thinking of the progressives, like you …’
‘What about the warriors?’
‘The warriors too, as best we can,’ she said, ‘though with limited success. But they are disciplined and obedient to our edicts – in the void, anything else meant extinction. If all else fails, we will have to issue a Matriarchal Edict. It’s not been done since we made the decision to come out of the void, but I think they’ll obey. I think they’ll lay down their arms, but what happens after that I cannot say.’
‘We must replace our warrior culture with a sounder one, fitted for peace.’
‘With what we had before? How can we, Ryll?’
‘We can’t return to the past, Matriarch. All we can do is discover what we once were, and use the best of that heritage to shape our future here on Santhenar, after the war.’
Gyrull was smiling, and now she put an arm across his shoulders. ‘Your forethought constantly surprises me, Ryll. Come, let’s take a walk and you can tell me more.’
‘How is he?’ said Nish from the doorway.
Four healers were gathered around the shrouded figure of Xervish Flydd, blocking Nish’s view, and he was reluctant to go closer for fear of the horrors he might see, to say nothing of the righteous wrath of the healers. Cryl-Nish Hlar, artificer, who had faced down the mighty, who had defied the greatest figures on Santhenar including the late and unlamented Ghorr, was afraid of these diminutive healers. He had no place here and no right, and he knew it.
The chief healer turned, regarding him with hard black eyes that saw all men as brutes. Her dark hair was pulled back so tightly that her brow and cheeks were shiny taut. Evee was younger than he, and only chin-high to Nish, who was a small man, but she had such presence that he stepped backwards.
‘I’m sorry. I – I was worried, you see. He – he’s an old friend and …’
‘Had you any part in this?’ she said, snapping back the sheet.
Nish didn’t look but still the red registered. Flydd was a ruddy brown colour between the lower belly, where the flaying had begun, and mid-thigh.
‘I – I wasn’t there,’ he stammered. ‘I couldn’t sleep, you see, and I went for a walk. I was in the tower when the air-dreadnoughts descended on us …’ Nish realised that he was babbling.
‘Boys’ games,’ she said scornfully, drawing herself up to her insignificant height. Evee, who was little, plain, stringy and completely covered in freckles, dominated him in every respect. ‘Men destroy and women are left to put it all together again.’
It isn’t like that, he wanted to shout, our whole world is at stake here, but there was no point in saying it; his pride didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except that Xervish Flydd should survive and be made whole again so that he could lead them against Nennifer. No one else would do.
‘I’m sure you’ll do everything you can for him,’ he said quietly, and went outside.
On their return, Yggur had assembled the soldiers, artisans and crew left behind when the scrutators had fled. There were nearly three hundred of them: about a hundred and fifty soldiers and almost as many artificers, artisans, prentices, deck hands, junior cooks and other workers both skilled and unskilled. He had offered each a choice: to enter his service at Fiz Gorgo, or money and free passage aboard the next trading vessels going to Lauralin. Most had opted to return to their homelands and families, though some fifty soldiers and forty workers had accepted his offer of service. Yggur questioned each of them, rejecting several, who were also given passage east, then took the oaths of the remainder. They, plus carpenters and masons hired from Old Hripton, were immediately put to work repairing Fiz Gorgo and strengthening its defences.
Nish had a more important obligation to attend to. It had taken him a day to find a place to bury Ullii, on a little rise covered in trees overlooking the bay, and another day to dig a deep enough grave through the heavy clayey soil. It was painful work with his gashed arm but he wouldn’t allow anyone to help. He had to set Ullii to rest by himself. He’d spent most of the third day gathering stones for a cairn and hauling them to the gravesite, for there were none nearby, then sitting by the mound afterwards in silent contemplation of what they’d had and all they had lost.
At the end of that day, Yggur called the company together after dinner. Malien was talking as Nish entered, late. Instead of eating he’d walked to Old Hripton and back to clear his head for the urgent work to come. It hadn’t worked – he couldn’t concentrate – he just kept reliving that desperate day in the tower and up on the amphitheatre, and the way it had ended.
Ullii was dead and he couldn’t come to terms with it. He kept seeing her as she’d been the first time they’d met, crouched in the corner of that dark room in the manufactory, rocking on her bare feet. And all the times afterwards: hiding in her basket in the balloon as they’d set off to try and track Tiaan down; climbing the slopes of Mount Tirthrax; making love in the balloon after they’d fought off the nylatl. Escaping Snizort with Flydd, many months later, when she’d been so angry with him about the baby and Nish hadn’t even known she was pregnant. And then the ultimate horror: Myllii with his arms around Ullii as if trying to carry her away, and Nish trying to stop him, and the knife sliding into Myllii’s back. The moment that had changed both their lives and surely had led inevitably to her death.
He’d talked to Irisis about that, and Malien. Ullii had been glad to go, they’d said. There had been nothing left for her in this world, and she’d wanted to atone for betraying them to Ghorr. Nish knew that as well as they did, but it didn’t help. He missed Ullii, with all her frailties and all her strengths, more than he could ever have imagined. Even though they’d had no future together, there had never been anyone like her. She’d been the mother of his dead son and, now she was gone, he had nothing left of Yllii either. Every time he thought about them, tears welled up under his eyelids. If he’d only done things differently they would both be alive.
Yggur cleared his throat and Nish realised that he’d stopped in the doorway, lost in his thoughts. Malien was beckoning him – he was late.
‘We have to decide today, now,’ she said in a low voice, once Nish was seated and the door sealed, ‘whether to go through with the attack on Nennifer. If we are to go, it must be now or not at all. Gilhaelith knew of our plan, and while I don’t think he would betray it deliberately, we can’t rely on it remaining a secret.’ She inclined her head towards Klarm.
The dwarf scrutator was sitting on the edge of the table with his legs dangling, toying with an enormous goblet of Yggur’s finest purple wine, for which he had a capacity entirely out of keeping with his small stature. He took a hearty swig, rubbed a trickle of wine off his chin, leaving a mark like a purple bruise, and nodded. ‘Aye. Now or never.’
‘What news of Flydd?’ said Yggur, scowling at the dwarf. Hospitality demanded that he offer wine with meals but, being a man of modest and constrained appetites himself, Klarm’s indulgence and sheer gusto aroused his ire. ‘It was his plan and I don’t see how we can succeed without him.’
‘The healers have wielded their Arts as only they can,’ said Klarm, setting down his goblet with a sigh of contentment. He took pleasure in provoking stern, conservative Yggur and in another frame of mind Nish would have been amused by it. ‘The damage to his body will heal after a fashion …’ Klarm trailed off, as reluctant as everyone else to talk about the true nature of Flydd’s injuries. The matter was too private and personal – as if, by talking about what had been done to his body, they were taking the flaying blades to his soul.
‘But the scars carved into his psyche may not?’ said Malien.
‘He won’t be the man he once was,’ said Klarm, not meeting her eye.
What did he mean by that? Nish thought. That Flydd would no longer be a man at all? Just what had the torturers done to him? No one would say.
Yggur rose and paced the length of the room, limping badly today. The blisters on his face and arms had disappeared but he was covered with dead, flaking skin. He rubbed at an arm and flakes rose on a current of warm air from the fire. ‘Can we do it without him?’
‘I’m not sure we can,’ said Malien. ‘The plan relied on Flydd’s knowledge of Nennifer, gained from working there for many years.’
‘I dwelt there for a good while,’ said Klarm, ‘and had charge of its security. I know Nennifer as well as any man, so if his plan relied on a flaw in the defences –’
‘We don’t know if it did or not,’ said Yggur. ‘We planned to talk about that on the way, to ensure that there was no chance of the secret being revealed. But Flydd was sure he could get us in.’
‘Fusshte will soon be as strong as Ghorr was,’ said Irisis, ‘and he’s even more cunning and treacherous, but he can’t win the war either. We have no choice, Yggur. The Council must be brought down without delay. If Flydd’s incapable, we’ll have to work out a plan with Klarm.’
‘I can’t say I’d be confident of the outcome without Flydd,’ said Yggur, ‘but I agree we have to try.’
‘When?’ said Klarm.
‘Our equipment and supplies haven’t been touched,’ said Malien. ‘It will only take hours to load them into the thapter and make ready for departure. We could go tomorrow afternoon if you wanted to.’
‘Let’s give Flydd a few days,’ said Yggur. ‘I’ll talk to the healers again. If fortune is on our side, he’ll be on the road to recovery by then.’
‘Fortune is a chancy beast,’ said Klarm. ‘I can’t say I’ve seen many of her smiles this past year.’
In the event, Flydd had emerged from the healers’ coma the day after the meeting and insisted on coming. He stated that he would be ready to go in two days’ time, curtly overrode the healers when they’d protested, and had not spoken a word since. He’d turned away all visitors, even Yggur. There was much speculation about his state of mind and health, though not even Irisis, normally so adept at ferreting out secrets, could glean anything from the healers.
‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this trip,’ Nish said to Irisis the night before they were due to depart. They were checking the supplies yet again. ‘How can he be in any state to go?’
‘He’s a tough old coot,’ said Irisis, who had been unusually quiet lately.
She’d hardly spoken to him since he’d come back from burying Ullii, though Nish often caught her giving him cool, assessing glances. She was much more reserved than previously and he couldn’t fathom why. He’d expected that, after all he’d done to save her and everyone else, she would have been more grateful, and he felt a little hurt.
‘From what I saw on the first day –’ Nish began.
‘I’d rather not talk about it, if you don’t mind,’ snapped Irisis. ‘If Flydd doesn’t want us to know, we should respect his wishes and mind our own business.’ She went out, keeping her back to him the whole time.
Nish stared after her, uncomprehending. Surely, on such a desperate mission, Flydd’s health, mental and physical, was their business?
The chief healer, Evee, insisted on accompanying Flydd and no one could dissuade her, which meant that the thapter no longer had room enough to carry everyone. On a long journey it could accommodate fourteen in considerable discomfort but with Flangers and six soldiers, and Klarm and Evee, they were now sixteen. And Evee’s supplies took up a lot of space.
The problem was solved by leaving Fyn-Mah behind to take charge of Fiz Gorgo, and by throwing together a dirigible sled to carry their gear and supplies. It was a small, semi-rigid air-floater with a cabin on the underside, which they planned to tow behind the thapter. It would greatly reduce the thapter’s manoeuvrability as well as slowing it, and was bound to make it cumbersome to take off and land, but they could see no other solution. And because it used the controller from Inouye’s air-floater, she would have no trouble coping.
And all the preparations had to be done in the utmost secrecy. Yggur had taken the precaution of caging up his skeets and sending them on a sea voyage, to be sure that no one could send a message to Nennifer after they’d gone. The name had never been mentioned in front of the soldiers and servants; in fact, the attack itself had never been discussed. As far as everyone in Fiz Gorgo knew, they were simply going on a long trip. Nonetheless, it was impossible to be too careful.
A week after Ghorr’s attack on Fiz Gorgo, on a windy, miserable autumn morning with sleet spitting at them from the west, all was ready. They assembled in the yard, waiting for Xervish Flydd.
They stood there for more than an hour, stamping their feet in a vain attempt to keep them warm, and blowing into their gloves. Finally even Yggur, who had been a model of patience ever since Flydd’s injury had been revealed, was driven to say, ‘Where the devil is the fellow?’
Shortly Flydd appeared, supporting himself on the shoulders of Evee and Fyn-Mah, and walking in a wretched grimacing shuffle. His skin was completely bloodless and with each halting step every muscle in his face shivered as he tried to prevent himself from crying out in agony.
Nish couldn’t bear to see the scrutator, who had once seemed to carry the whole of Santhenar on his scrawny shoulders, reduced to such emotional penury. ‘Surr!’ he cried, and ran across the yard to offer his arm.
As he approached, the scrutator wrenched back some control over himself and with a supreme effort shook off the pain, or at least drew it into himself. He stood up straight as Nish, realising belatedly what a blunder he’d made, stumbled to a halt in front of him. But he and Flydd had been through much together; they’d been comrades in the desperate times after the fall of Snizort, and surely Flydd would understand. Nish tried to make the best of it.
‘Surr,’ he said quietly. ‘May I assist you into the thapter?’
Flydd looked right through him. ‘Did I ask for help, Artificer?’ he ground out. Shaking off Evee’s arm, and then Fyn-Mah’s, he lurched unaided across the black paving stones in an appalling travesty of a careless stride. Every movement of every muscle showed the pain he was enduring, though his face was like stone.
Fyn-Mah cried, ‘Xervish –’ but broke off and put her hands over her face.
Evee let out an almost inaudible cry and ran after him, but he slashed at her with one hand and she fell back, biting her knuckles. She directed a furious glance at Nish. ‘Are you the biggest fool that ever was?’
Nish was beginning to think he was. Flydd had now reached the thapter but he didn’t stop there; he forced himself up the rungs of the ladder. The pride of the man was awesome, though Nish had to avert his eyes as Flydd struggled all the way up. It took him three attempts to get his leg over the side into the hatch, and heaving the second leg in wrenched a cry of anguish out of him, swiftly cut off. Nish thought he saw blood running down Flydd’s ankle, then he disappeared inside as if he’d fallen through the lower hatch.
After a brief hesitation Evee ran after him. The others followed, except for Fyn-Mah. Normally so cool and reserved, she was grinding her knuckles into her eyes. She turned away and walked back inside Fiz Gorgo, closing the door like a silent accusation.
‘That went well,’ observed Irisis as Nish came up to the side of the thapter.
Nish wanted to weep. ‘I was trying to help him.’
She relented and put her arm around his shoulders. ‘You know what a proud man he is, Nish. And you saw what Ghorr did to him. How do you think Flydd must feel, knowing that his friends are talking about his deepest torment and shame?’
‘If it were me, I’d want the support of my friends.’
‘Not if you’d been a scrutator. It’s a solitary profession and you have to hide your feelings. And especially your weaknesses.’
He said no more. They took their places in the thapter. Pilot Inouye stood at the controller of her dirigible, cast off the ballast and the little craft rose gently in the air. Yggur hadn’t wanted anyone inside in case something went wrong, but Inouye was happier that way and it eased the cramped conditions a trifle.
Nish stood with Irisis and Malien in the upper compartment of the thapter, looking out as they lifted off into the scudding cloud. Yggur was on the shooter’s platform at the rear, legs spread, cloak flapping behind him, appearing to relish the icy wind in his face.
Nish didn’t relish anything about the coming journey, though at least the war had gone quiet and there shouldn’t be too many disasters before the spring. The lyrinx didn’t fight in winter unless they had to.
He had enough to worry about. Evee had said that Flydd had been repaired, whatever that meant, though clearly he was far from recovered, and must be more hindrance than help on such a dangerous mission.
Nish had also begun to fret about Gilhaelith, the only outsider who knew of the planned attack. Since he’d made a fortune trading with the enemy, Gilhaelith was unlikely to have qualms about betraying them to the Council and, given the way Yggur had treated him from the moment they’d met, Nish wasn’t sure he’d blame him. Nish had doubts about the dwarf as well. Klarm had broken his oath to the Council, so why wouldn’t he break it again? The reward for betraying them would be unimaginable.
‘I overheard the healers talking about Flydd last night,’ Irisis said an hour or two later.
They were now sitting on the top of the thapter with their legs dangling down into the upper compartment. Irisis was swinging her long legs, quite at home there. Nish held on grimly, afraid that a sudden lurch could send them over the side. The thapter was dipping in and out of layers of cloud like wet, clinging fluff, and it was unusually bumpy.
‘Oh?’ Nish said sharply. He let go with one hand to wipe the cold condensation off his brow, then slapped his hand down again as the machine jolted in an updraught.
‘They don’t know what to make of him. He won’t talk. He won’t even look at them. They’re … they’re afraid for his sanity.’
‘Marvellous!’ said Nish. ‘And Flydd didn’t tell Yggur the details of the attack. It’s all in his head … Or was.’
‘He had hours of discussions with Malien and Yggur just before Ghorr attacked Fiz Gorgo,’ Irisis said.
‘But they only went through generalities, never the plan in detail. They agreed not to until we were on the way, just to be safe.’
‘Well, I just thought you should know.’
‘I’m glad you told me,’ said Nish. ‘It drives all the other worries right out of my head.’
‘So what’s Nennifer like, anyway?’ Nish asked Irisis.
It was late on their third day of travel and the thapter had just settled, as it must each night, onto the most isolated and desolate peak they could find. Only Malien could pilot the craft and she was still so weak that each day’s flying required long hours of recuperation.
She had taken all possible precautions to avoid being seen, flying in cloud wherever possible, and keeping clear of towns and densely inhabited areas, though there was always a chance that someone had spotted them. And if they had been seen, the Council’s unparalleled network of spies and informers would soon hear of it. Even now a skeet or a courier air-floater could be racing towards Nennifer with the news that the thapter had been seen in the sky over the Peaks of Borg.
‘You can’t imagine it,’ Irisis replied, climbing down the side of the thapter onto moss-covered rock. The night’s camp was halfway up an isolated ridge in the middle of the Ramparts of Tacnah, a series of rearing slopes of tilted greywacke, layered against the western edge of the Great Mountains like a leaning stack of cards. The high parts of the Ramparts caught moist breezes from the west and were, consequently, wet and cloud-covered for most of the year. A fine place for hiding, though dank, mosquito-ridden and inhospitable. ‘Nennifer is as hostile a place as anywhere on Santhenar, except the middle of the Dry Sea. It never rains there.’
Flangers and the other soldiers were already fanning out up and down the slope, making sure that there was no habitation nearby, though none had been seen before they settled. Nish watched them go, then moved into a cleft where a boulder bigger than the thapter had split in two. It was marginally sheltered from the wind. ‘Never rains? How can that be?’
A frog croaked from the dark recesses beneath the boulder. Another answered it from not far away. Irisis looked down and smiled.
‘Nennifer lies hidden in an angle between the Great Mountains and the range running down the east coast of Lauralin.’ She squatted down and drew on the mossy rock with a fingertip. ‘There are higher mountains all around and they catch all the moisture. I can’t think why the Council made their home there, save that it’s so isolated that no land attack could possibly succeed. Even in mid-summer there can be frosts, but at this time of year it’s hellish cold.’
‘Where do they get their food from?’
‘It used to be brought in, at fabulous expense, on great supply caravans that could only move for eight months of the year, though most now comes in on air-floaters. And their indentured peasants grow what crops they may in the valley bottoms, where there’s soil and water – turnips and other charming delicacies. Do you want to share a tent tonight?’
‘It’s a bit cold for camping, isn’t it?’
‘Better the cold than being cooped up in the thapter for another night. What with all the snoring, the whispering and Flydd’s nightmares, I’ve hardly slept a wink since we left. I like to sleep alone.’
‘If I was in your tent you wouldn’t be alone,’ said Nish.
‘You don’t count. If you dared to snore I’d thump you in the ear.’
He smiled. It seemed they were friends again. ‘With an invitation like that, how could I refuse?’
Two days later they were flying between the peaks of the northern Great Mountains. Not even the thapter could rise high enough to pass over them, and the air would have been too thin to breathe anyway. The barren valleys below were filled with concealing cloud. Though they were now close to Nennifer, Malien felt confident that they would not be seen. Most of the game animals had long since been killed for the scrutators’ tables, so she didn’t expect to encounter even a solitary hunter.
Flydd still hadn’t said a word, but at every stop he went further and further, driving himself relentlessly, though his characteristic crab-like scuttle had been replaced by a stiff-legged, twisting dance, the oddest walk Nish had ever seen. He supposed the healing skin, replaced by the healers’ Art, had pulled taut and was troubling him.
Malien called down the hatch to Yggur and Klarm, who came up. ‘We’re within four or five leagues. Dare we go closer?’
‘I think not,’ said Klarm after a brief glance at the forbidding mountainside passing by. ‘Set down wherever you can find a safe place.’
Malien curved around in a circle, signalling her intentions back to a fur-shrouded Inouye, before heading for a relatively bare, relatively flat patch on the rock-littered slope. The thapter settled, gravel grating underneath. Ten spans back the dirigible came to ground silently.
Irisis opened the upper hatch and gasped at the frigid blast that swept in. Nish pulled his fur-lined coat more tightly around him, the earmuffs down over his ears, and climbed out. As soon as his boot touched the ground he felt a pang of unease, but dismissed it. How could he feel otherwise, so close to Nennifer?
He had never been anywhere like this place. The surface was utterly barren, just shattered rock and grey gravel and grit as far as his eye could see. He saw no living thing: no birds in the sky, no animals on the horizon, no plants anywhere. There weren’t even lichens on the rocks.
‘What a wasteland!’ Nish said to Irisis, who had walked away a few steps and was nudging stones over with the toe of her boot. There was nothing underneath them either.
‘The perfect place for the arid souls of the scrutators,’ she said.
‘Shh!’ Nish gave her a meaningful glance.
Klarm stood behind her, his bowed legs braced against the wind. He’d had the calipers removed before they left Fiz Gorgo, though he still put his foot to the ground gingerly. ‘Take no mind of me,’ he said. ‘I always hated Nennifer and was never more glad than to see the back of it. And –’
‘What?’ said Nish.
‘To me, the choice of location was not suggestive of unparalleled strength and supreme majesty, as the Council would have it. It indicated a deep-seated insecurity and I always wondered …’
Again he trailed off, as if he scarcely dared to speak what he was thinking – a survival strategy, surely. Ghorr had not encouraged people to speak their minds, and that included the host of lesser scrutators who weren’t members of the Council.
‘What did you wonder?’ said Yggur, coming up beside the dwarf and turning his back to the wind.
‘What the Council is most afraid of,’ said Klarm. ‘It isn’t the lyrinx, for all that we’re losing the war. And certainly not their own people, thoroughly cowed after a century of the scrutators’ iron rule.’
Nish and Irisis exchanged glances but neither said anything. It wasn’t their place.
The wind gusted up, howling around the thapter and lifting the tethered dirigible a span into the air. They ran and held it down with their weight, and the effort of running those few steps left them breathless.
‘We can talk about that later,’ said Yggur. ‘Get the dirigible tied down before it blows away.’
‘There’s nothing to tie it to,’ said Nish. ‘You can’t drive a stake into this grit.’
‘Then it’ll have to be anchored to rock. Is something the matter, Malien?’
She had her hands over her eyes and was walking back and forth, taking tiny, sliding steps that rasped across the surface. Her head was bowed. She continued for another ten steps, rotated slowly on the ball of her right foot and came rasping back.
‘Malien?’ Yggur said sharply.
‘I’m not sure about this place.’
‘No, Nennifer itself. I’m sensing a strain on the node.’
‘You’ll have to explain,’ said Yggur. ’Your Art and mine are totally different, remember?
‘I learned to be sensitive to such things,’ said Malien, speaking breathlessly, ‘while guarding the Well of Echoes in Tirthrax against the amplimet.’
‘Is the amplimet doing something to the node?’
‘No … At least I don’t think so. I feel that the amplimet has been contained, yet the node is under strain … like a ball of rubber squeezed between the heels of one’s hands.’
‘Irisis,’ said Yggur, ‘would you take your pliance and tell me what the field is like here?’
She withdrew it from between her breasts and squeezed it in her right hand. ‘It’s incredibly strong,’ said Irisis. ‘I can almost see it. With my eyes, I mean. I’ve never experienced such intensity.’
‘We’re close to one of the greatest nodes in the world,’ said Klarm. ‘Another reason why the Council chose to build Nennifer here.’
Nish was still feeling uneasy. He closed his eyes and a shimmering silver loop drifted across his inner vision. He tried to focus on it but it eluded him and disappeared.
‘The fields have been drawn right down,’ said Irisis. ‘They weren’t like this when I was here before. It’s as if the node is being sucked dry …’ She gave a spasmodic jerk. ‘Aah!’
Nish saw, or felt, a bright flash of blue; his eyes sprang open.
‘What is it?’ said Yggur.
‘It flared up,’ said Irisis shakily. ‘So strongly that I couldn’t keep it out. But now it’s died again.’
‘Can it be the node?’ said Yggur. ‘Is it bound to explode?’
‘No – it doesn’t feel like the time we went into Snizort.’
‘It’s not the node,’ said Flydd, lurching up behind them. He was staring over the edge of the mountain. ‘It’s nothing like that time …’
Everyone stared at him. ‘You spoke!’ said Irisis, her eyes lighting up. ‘Xervish … surr, you’re better!’
‘Am I, Crafter?’ He turned his eyes to her and they were as bleak as chips of stone. ‘I’m glad you think so.’
She quailed, and that did not happen often. ‘I – I –’
He turned away as if she wasn’t there and Nish saw the hurt, quickly veiled, in her eyes.
‘Then what’s going on?’ said Nish, memories of that dark time in Snizort rising up to choke him. ‘Why would the scrutators be using so much power?’
‘I think …’ Flydd seemed to be straining hard to see the unseeable. He bared his teeth. ‘They’re probing the amplimet, I’d say, hoping to master it and gain undreamed-of power. And there may also be a power struggle between the scrutators. Not a battle, but certainly intrigues and undermining of each other.’
‘But the chief scrutator –’
‘Ghorr was a thug and a bully –’ said Flydd. He broke off, rigid with rage, and had to force himself to calm down. ‘But he was also a natural leader, and he knew how to use the authority of the chief scrutator. So, despite his failures, he was unchallenged until the end. Fusshte has neither charisma nor natural authority. He repulses people and can only maintain power through terror.’
‘He’s capable of it,’ said Klarm, with an involuntary and uncharacteristic shudder.
‘The Council won’t vote Fusshte as their chief, for he doesn’t have the strength to dominate them. He may have seized the position after Ghorr’s death but, safely back in Nennifer, every scrutator will question his legitimacy. And after the fiasco at Fiz Gorgo, every ruler on Santhenar must be querying the fitness of the scrutators to rule the world.’
‘Will they rise up to overthrow the Council?’
‘Not yet,’ said Flydd. His eyes met Nish’s for a moment, though without any sign of warmth or fellow-feeling. ‘For a hundred years the scrutators have cut down every mancer, army officer, governor and provincial leader who showed signs of personal ambition. Subservience to their rule has been a prerequisite for survival and no one in Nennifer would have the initiative to mount a coup. But if the struggle isn’t resolved quickly, rebellion becomes a certainty, and that would be worse than having Fusshte as chief scrutator. Once authority is lost at the centre, the outskirts will swiftly fall.’
After the dirigible had been fastened to steel pegs driven into rock, Yggur sent two soldiers to look over the other sides of the ridge and report back. They soon returned, reporting that nothing could be seen but the same dismal vista in all directions. He set out sentries, relatively close to the thapter for their safety in case a blizzard swept in, and everyone else went below for dinner, after which they sat down to plan the attack.
‘Nennifer has but two entrances, front and rear, and each will be strongly guarded,’ said Flydd, who was sitting on the bench with a folded fur coat under his backside, though he still winced every time he shifted his weight. ‘They had a thousand troops here previously, of which Ghorr took four hundred to Fiz Gorgo. We think about a hundred returned, so they must still have seven hundred.’
Irisis studied him surreptitiously. Despite Evee’s claims, Flydd was just a grim husk of his former self. Every time she tried to speak to him the barriers went up, which hurt after all they’d been through together. But it wasn’t just her – he kept everyone at bay. Flydd was a driven man and the only thing keeping him going was his lust to smash the Council and grind them into the frozen gravel.
‘Every entrance and exit is watched,’ Klarm added. ‘Even the sullage tunnels that discharge over the precipice into the Desolation Sink, since Irisis and Ullii’s escape that way last year.’
‘What are they really afraid of?’ said Irisis.
Flydd’s eyes met hers and she knew he was remembering his drunken revelation about the Numinator, long ago at the manufactory. For a moment he seemed almost like his old self, but the shell closed over.
‘Nennifer’s only weak point is the roof,’ he said. ‘We’ll –’
‘It’s been strengthened since air-floaters were invented,’ said Klarm. ‘And further reinforced since the first thapter appeared.’
‘Then what are we doing here?’ said Yggur. ‘Flydd, all along you claimed that you had a way in. If that’s been closed off …’
‘We’re going in,’ Flydd said savagely, ‘if I have to tear the roof off with my bare hands.’
He looked around him like a jackal and for a moment his eyes flashed red. No one met his gaze. He was a man possessed by a demon.
After a minute or two his fists unclenched and he went on more calmly, ‘There’s a weakness in the roof defences. It occurred to me after we escaped last spring.’
‘What weakness is that?’ said Klarm sharply.
‘The sentinel covering the west fourth, fifth and sixth garrets was incorrectly built into the roof cavity. Its sensing crystals look sideways, not up, leaving a gap large enough to allow the thapter to land on the roof. It would have to be piloted with exquisite precision, of course, but –’
‘The gap isn’t there any more,’ said Klarm. ‘After your escape, Ghorr had the mancer responsible for the watch flayed alive and abandoned in the centre of the Desolation Sink to die. Afterwards I personally checked the roof sentinels, replaced the one you refer to and doubled their number, just to be sure. To be very sure,’ he added, rubbing one horny hand up the other arm. ‘I’m partial to my skin the way it is – in place …’ He trailed off, realising what he’d said.
Flydd’s stare was like shards chipped off the front of a glacier.
‘I beg your pardon, Xervish,’ said Klarm, but Flydd did not reply.
‘So we don’t have a way in,’ said Nish bitterly. ‘We’ve come all this way for nothing –’
No one said anything. Everyone was pointedly avoiding Flydd’s eye. Irisis studied him from the corner of hers. His seamed and puckered face became even more mask-like, though Irisis thought she could see through the cracks. Rage was the one thing keeping him going, and he’d just lost the only chance of dealing with his enemies. He was so overcome that he hadn’t even heard Nish.
‘So we can’t break in and we can’t sneak in,’ said Yggur. ‘I suppose it’s too much to ask that either of you know of a secret entrance or exit for the Council’s convenience?’
‘If there is, none but the Council knows of it,’ said Klarm. ‘But I doubt it very much. There’s no way in or out but the front and rear doors.’
‘What about a gate?’ said Irisis. ‘A portal such as those used in olden times to travel instantly across the world.’
‘All portals failed after the Forbidding was broken,’ said Yggur. ‘And no one knows how to create them anew, or even if it’s possible.’
‘Except the one Tiaan made in Tirthrax to bring the Aachim here. Malien knows how it worked,’ said Nish.
‘That doesn’t mean I could make one, even in Tirthrax,’ said Malien. And here it would be quite impossible.’
‘Yggur, you made a gate during the time of the Mirror,’ Nish persisted. ‘I’ve read about it in the Histories …’
‘Once the Forbidding failed two centuries ago, that way failed with it,’ said Yggur dismissively. ‘I know no other.’
‘Then we’re beaten before we begin,’ said Nish.
No one spoke. The wind shrilled around the hatch of the thapter. Flydd’s head was sunk in despair.
‘What a miserable place,’ said Irisis, shivering. ‘I’m not looking forward to my turn on sentry duty.’
‘I’d better make sure they’ve changed the watch,’ said Yggur, rising painfully and going up the ladder. ‘A man could freeze to death outside without realising it.’
‘He’s looking very weary,’ said Nish after Yggur had gone.
‘I feel the burden too,’ said Klarm.
Malien was sitting on the floor, cross-legged, peeling a warty green fruit the size of an orange. Inside, blood-red pyramidal segments were packed together in pairs, one up and one down, separated by yellow pith. She seemed far away as she arranged the segments neatly on an enamelled plate.
Shortly Yggur returned, clapping his gloves together. He took off outer and inner pairs and began to rub his hands over his face. ‘Malien,’ he said at last. ‘You’ve been quiet lately. What have you got to say?’
‘What makes you think I’ve anything to say?’ she said, selecting the smallest of the segments and popping it in her mouth.
‘I know you of old, remember. You have a plan in mind, don’t you?’
‘I wouldn’t call it a plan.’ She chose another segment.
‘An idea, then.’
‘A possibility occurred to me earlier but I dismissed it out of hand. It was too perilous to consider further.’
‘I don’t see how we can be in more danger than we’re already in,’ said Nish.
‘Do you not, Artificer?’ Malien looked at him, into him and through him with those ageless green eyes that had seen everything. ‘But of course, you’re barely out of childhood. You could not understand.’
Nish flushed and turned away. Irisis smiled inwardly. He never knew when to shut up. She noticed Yggur watching Malien with tense expectation.
‘More perilous than losing the war?’ he said at last.
‘I don’t know!’ she said forcefully, losing her calm for a moment. ‘That’s the problem.’
‘Then let’s hear your idea. Between all of us, we should be able to see the good and the bad in it.’
‘We don’t know what we’re doing, and we can’t know. I – no, it’s too perilous. Better we give up and go home, rather than attempt it.’
‘And leave the world to the scrutators?’ cried Nish.
Yggur waved him to silence. ‘What’s your idea, Malien?’
She arranged the remaining segments in a star shape, then moved the points in until they formed a circle, an unbroken barrier with a single segment in the middle. ‘Very well. There’s no way in from outside. But what about from inside?’
‘I don’t follow you,’ said Irisis.
Malien looked as though she regretted having it prised out of her. She glanced up the ladder as if to make sure that no one could overhear her, then lowered her voice. ‘I had in mind to try and wake Tiaan’s amplimet.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Irisis. ‘No crystal can be used until it’s been activated, which we artisans call waking, so surely the amplimet has to be awake already.’
‘We Aachim use the word in a different way,’ said Malien. She let out a heavy sigh and her years fell upon her. ‘Since the moment Tiaan revealed the amplimet to me in Tirthrax I’ve been afraid of it, and I’m not the only one. Vithis was against its use from the beginning, and had not his people stood in peril of extinction he would never have allowed it.’
‘Then why did you let Tiaan keep it?’
‘What would I have done with it? I could not have remained in Tirthrax once the amplimet began to communicate with the node, nor taken it to any other place with a powerful node. Tiaan had used it safely for half a year and I judged it was better off in her hands.’
‘Until someone took it from her,’ said Nish.
‘I cannot see the future,’ said Malien frostily, ‘and I’m not so arrogant as to think I know better than everyone else.’
But you do think that, Irisis thought. It’s one of the defining characteristics of the Aachim, even you.
‘Besides,’ Malien went on, ‘back then I was just serving out my days, bidding a prolonged farewell to Santhenar and all I’d loved in it, before going to the Well. If not for Tiaan I would have left this world by now.’
‘A path I’ve also thought about taking,’ said Yggur. ‘Lives can be too long. What’s the point, when you’ve seen everything and done everything?’ he ruminated. ‘What changed your mind, Malien?’
‘By the time Tiaan returned to Tirthrax I’d seen just what a dangerous path the world was on. I had to act for the good of my own kind, and all humankind. That’s why I took Tiaan to Stassor, and why I subsequently disobeyed the edict of my people and carried her to safety.
‘But on our way west, I stopped to give succour to Clan Elienor, my distant kin, exiled for allowing Tiaan to escape from their custody. I sat down with the leaders of Elienor and they told me what they knew about amplimets.’ Her voice dropped. ‘And then I knew fear, as I’ve not known it since the time of the Mirror.’
‘What did they tell you?’ said Irisis in a whisper. It would have felt wrong to speak in a normal voice.
‘This isn’t the first amplimet to have been found. There was another, in the distant past of our own world, and it nearly brought my people undone.’
‘Really? What happened?’ said Yggur.
‘I don’t know, exactly. It was long before Clan Elienor’s time. Even their elders haven’t been able to uncover the details, though they discovered that the sacred Histories of Aachan were changed to hide the truth. There are bitter enmities behind the rivalries of the clans,’ Malien said. ‘Very bitter and longstanding ones. It’s no wonder Vithis’s plan to seize half of Santhenar has come to naught – the clans can’t even agree on the conquest of another world.’
‘Was it the crystal that was perilous,’ said Yggur, ‘or the bickering over it?’
‘Both, I think,’ said Malien. ‘But certainly the amplimet woke and began to draw power for itself, and no one could control it.’
‘Well, that was thousands of years ago,’ said Yggur. ‘The Art has moved on a long way since then. Maybe we should consider waking Tiaan’s amplimet, if it’s the only way we can get into Nennifer.’
‘We’ve always known that it needed a strong hand,’ said Flydd, a glint in his eye. ‘We’ve plenty of strong hands here, so let’s get on with it.’
‘Let’s not be hasty,’ said Yggur mildly. ‘I’d want to know what we’re letting ourselves in for, first. Explain what you mean about waking it, Malien.’
‘When Tiaan first saw the crystal,’ said Malien, ‘she said that it was awake, meaning that it was drawing power by itself. Not much power, only enough to make it glow, but some. Who knows how long it had been doing that? A thousand years? A million? And perhaps at some stage in that aeon, or later when Tiaan began to use it, it developed a kind of crystalline awareness. At Tirthrax it began to communicate with the node. I don’t know why, but it wouldn’t allow Tiaan to take it away in the thapter and later, when she tried to defy it near Nyriandiol, it caused the thapter to crash. It also communicated with the node at Snizort, though it hasn’t acted up since Tiaan fled. I dare say Vithis drove it back to its previous suspended state …’
‘From which you plan to rouse it,’ said Irisis, trying to understand. ‘What will happen if you succeed?’
‘I hope it will reach out to the node that sustains Nennifer,’ said Malien. ‘’
‘How is that going to help us?’
‘I think I can see what you’ve got in mind,’ said Klarm. ‘At the best of times, Nennifer uses most of the field. Now they’re using almost all of it; that’s why the node is under such strain –’
‘Once the amplimet reaches out to the node,’ said Flydd, ‘their devices will start to fail. They won’t know what’s going on and we’ll attack in the confusion.’
‘What if Fusshte realises it’s the amplimet?’ said Yggur. ‘He must have interrogated Tiaan by now.’
‘He won’t know what’s happened,’ said Flydd.
‘Wait on!’ Yggur was frowning. ‘What happens after the amplimet is roused?’
‘How do you mean?’ said Klarm.
‘Why does it communicate with the node? What’s it trying to do and how can it be stopped once we’re inside? How is it put to sleep again?’
‘That’s why I was reluctant to mention the idea in the first place,’ said Malien. ‘No one knows why it communicates with nodes, but it can be stopped by taking it out of range – twenty or thirty leagues in this case – or by putting it inside a sealed platinum box, which the field can’t penetrate.’
‘Have we such a box?’ said Yggur.
‘No, but we have the materials to make one,’ said Flydd. ‘It wouldn’t take long.’
‘And how do we wake it?’
‘I think I can do that,’ said Malien. Flydd’s eyes bored into her but she did not elaborate. Evidently she did not plan to share that secret.
‘What if they already keep it in a platinum box and we can’t wake it?’ said Yggur.
‘Then we’re beaten and will have to think of another plan,’ said Flydd. ‘But remember who we’re dealing with, Yggur. The Council is greedy and they’ve always seen sheer power as the way to win the war. Having finally got their hands on this wondrous amplimet, they’ll be working night and day to find out how they can use it.’
‘When it comes to the Art, their mastery of devices has made them arrogant. They’re the most powerful group of mancers ever assembled for a common purpose, and they have hundreds of skilled mancers to do the dirty work and take the risks. So,’ Flydd said, ‘when the amplimet does wake, they’ll have no reason to assume that the interference has come from outside.’
‘How is waking it going to advantage us?’ said Yggur. ‘We can’t know what the amplimet will do, so how can we know where to attack Nennifer?’
‘We’ll have to be ready to take advantage of whatever opportunity comes our way,’ said Flydd.
‘That’s not good enough,’ said Yggur. ‘Even if the amplimet were to disable every sentinel and device in Nennifer, there will still be seven hundred guards to deal with. We can’t fight our way in.’
‘We’ve got to have a clear and specific plan.’ Klarm scratched his belly. ‘Would it be possible to direct the amplimet, so it creates an opportunity we can use?’
‘I’m reluctant to do that,’ said Malien.
‘It … I’m afraid it might try to take control of me.’
There was a long silence. Xervish Flydd finally broke it. ‘Is there something you aren’t telling us?’
Malien looked anywhere but at him. It was the first time Irisis had seen her at a disadvantage.
‘Malien?’ said Yggur.
‘The one found on Aachan got out of control,’ she said with evident reluctance. ‘Whole clans were wiped out in a great cataclysm, though whether it was caused by the amplimet, or the clans fighting over it, no one will say.’
‘But you’re afraid it was the amplimet?’
‘I’m very afraid. That a crystal – an inanimate lump of rock – should communicate with a node is an abomination. This one has already woken once, so what does it want?’
‘A serious question,’ said Flydd, ‘though not one we can answer. We must rely on our own judgment, and I say we use the amplimet. What’s our alternative? Only to run away and hide until the Council’s incompetence finally brings our world to an end.’
‘How can an inanimate piece of crystal want anything?’ said Nish. ‘It’s absurd.’
‘How can it communicate with a node?’ said Malien. ‘I agree, the notion is preposterous. Nonetheless, the amplimet has done so, and that surely isn’t the end of it. It’s deadly and it can turn on you in an instant, as Ghaenis, son of Tirior, found to his cost.’
‘I’m going to destroy the Council and I’m prepared to take my chances on the amplimet,’ said Flydd. ‘If it takes control of me my troubles will be over. But I sense there’s more, Malien.’
The thapter creaked as the wind, which was increasing as nightfall approached, battered at its left flank.
‘There’s more,’ she said.
‘So if we follow Flydd’s plan,’ said Yggur, ‘we not only have to overcome the scrutators and all their forces; we’ve got to find the amplimet and shut it up in your platinum box with the utmost dispatch.’
‘Yes,’ Malien said faintly. ‘Why don’t we continue after dinner? I’m more fatigued than I thought.’
Flydd put on his coat and gloves, lurched up the ladder and went out into the dark.
After dinner Irisis had restless legs from being cooped up too long, so she went outside, pacing across the gritty ground. The night was overcast though not completely dark, and shortly the outline of one of the guards loomed up. ‘Flangers?’ she said softly.
‘Yes. What brings you out here?’
‘A need to stretch my legs. And too much company.’
‘I know what you mean,’ he said. ‘In truth, I’d sooner spend the whole night on watch than crammed into the bowels of the thapter.’
‘Quite. Which way did Flydd go?’
He pointed to the left. Irisis went right. She’d had enough of the scrutator for the moment. She climbed the slope for a few hundred paces but soon felt short of breath and sat down on a rock shaped like a toadstool. The thapter was out of sight, the world reduced to a few dark outlines.
She felt sure that this attack would fail. Logic told her that they’d have little chance even with the best plan in the world. But this shambles – it couldn’t be called anything else – was laughable. They’d be killed or captured, and falling into the hands of the scrutators again filled her with dread.
She heard the footsteps long before she saw the shadow, and Irisis could tell by the sounds that it was Flydd, dragging himself up the slope. He took every opportunity to walk, forcing himself through the pain to recover his strength and mobility. She debated whether to say anything or not, but he was coming so close that she could hardly ignore him.
‘Scrutator,’ she said.
Flydd stopped a few paces away and she could just see his head move as he sought her out. ‘Ah,’ he said and came towards her.
She stood up. ‘You seem better, surr.’
‘Do I?’ he said bitterly.
‘Don’t start that with me,’ she snapped. ‘I’m fed up with it.’ Irisis wasn’t unfeeling by any means, but they desperately needed the old Flydd back.
‘I beg your pardon?’ he said coldly.
‘You know what I mean. We all know you’ve suffered. You don’t have to rub it in our faces every moment of the day.’
‘You don’t know anything about it, Crafter.’
‘That’s because you won’t talk about it.’
‘Do I have to expose my deepest torment to the world so people can sneer behind my back and use my shame against me?’
‘We’re not your enemies, Flydd. They’re inside Nennifer.’
‘Well, I can’t talk about it.’
‘Then I will,’ she said. ‘They castrated you, didn’t they?’
He stopped suddenly. ‘Is that what they’re saying?’
‘They’re not saying anything. But I am.’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They’ve unmanned me. I’m just a hollow shell.’
‘You look the same to me,’ she said. ‘A little more battered and scarred, a lot more angry, but still Flydd. Still the same man I used to admire.’
‘But not one you’d have for a lover, eh?’
Irisis sighed. She’d been hoping not to have this discussion. ‘That was over long ago and you know it, Xervish, so stop using it against me. More to the point, stop using it to whip yourself.’
‘I can’t,’ he said. ‘And nor would you, if the heart of your womanhood had been cut from you.’
‘Look, surr,’ she said. ‘We can’t understand what you’re going through, but you’ve got to get over it. We can’t do without you.’
‘So what I’m feeling inside doesn’t matter?’
She ignored that. ‘We’re all here because of you. It’s been your plan, and your object, ever since Snizort. Without you at your best, the attack can’t succeed. We’ll fall into the hands of the scrutators and what they’ll do to us next time …’
‘I see,’ he said coldly. ‘Walk on, Irisis.’
‘Surr?’ she said.
‘I’m going!’ she snapped. ‘And when you’re done with feeling sorry for yourself, be done with the whining as well.’ And then she ran to escape his outrage.
Flydd returned an hour later. His face was pinched from the cold but he said nothing to Irisis, just sat down and took a sparing portion of bread, cheese, sausage and pickled vegetables.
‘If we’re going to do this, let’s put the plan together,’ said Yggur. ‘There’s still an army to be overcome, in the unlikely event that the Council and all their mancers are distracted by the amplimet. How do we get past that army?’
Malien didn’t answer.
‘What if we were to allow the amplimet to take control?’ said Irisis.
‘I presume you mean get out of control?’ said Yggur.
‘How do we know that it will?’
Everyone looked at Malien.
‘It must,’ said Irisis, ‘otherwise Malien wouldn’t have suggested it. She knows more than she’s letting on …’
‘Malien?’ said Yggur
Malien gave Irisis a cold stare. ‘Yes, that’s what I had in mind – the amplimet trying to take control of the node.’
‘Why didn’t you say so?’ snapped Yggur.
‘I’m constrained by my oath not to speak about our secrets,’ said Malien. ‘Already I’m treading a finer path than I care to.’
‘Considering that your people exiled you and sentenced you to clan-vengeance, you seem overly fastidious. How do you know the amplimet will do what we require?’
Again Malien hesitated before answering. ‘I don’t know what it will do if it’s unleashed. Amplimets are capricious.’
‘What if we were to threaten it?’ said Nish.
Irisis was amazed at Nish’s audacity. How could he, with neither talent for the Art nor any sensitive abilities, presume to tell the mighty their business?
‘That’s a good idea, Nish,’ Flydd said thoughtfully. ‘A very good idea. Provoke it and make it lash out. It’ll either go for the node, or attack what it perceives as the threat. The scrutators won’t know what hit them, and in the chaos we go in.’
‘I don’t like it,’ said Yggur. ‘We’ve no idea what we’re doing.’
‘It could do anything,’ said Malien. ‘And what if we can’t get to the amplimet, to put it in the platinum box?’
‘Our troubles will soon be over,’ said Flydd. ‘Unfortunately, it’s our only option so let’s vote on it right now. Do we provoke the amplimet and risk the consequences, or run home and let the Council drag the world to ruin?’
He went around the table one by one and wrung reluctant agreement out of them. ‘We’re all in save one. What say you, Malien?’
‘We do it,’ she said after a long hesitation, ‘and if it goes terribly wrong, I pray none of us live long enough to realise the enormity of our folly.’
As soon as the platinum box was finished they gathered their gear, shrugged on their heavy packs and climbed down the ice-crusted ladder into the darkness. They dared not take the thapter closer; the Nennifer field was under such strain that any drain of power from outside the fortress must arouse suspicion. It would take most of the night to get close enough to wake the amplimet. And even if they succeeded, they had to attack on foot, and in the blackest of nights, when not even the sentries on the watch-towers could see beyond their noses. That meant before midnight tomorrow night, when the moon rose.
Nish heard a series of clicks: Malien locking the thapter. They couldn’t spare any guards for it, not that a couple of guards could defend it anyway if a patrol came upon them. Nish shivered. Leaving the thapter so far away seemed like burning their boats behind them. He took a couple of noisy, crunching steps. It was impossible to move quietly on the loose gravel.
‘Hold on,’ said Irisis, taking him by the arm. ‘Flydd wants to say something.’
‘Why didn’t he say it inside?’ Nish grumbled, for his breath was already freezing on his moustache.
The dullest of glows appeared, lighting up the faces of the group. She pulled him into the circle, facing the wind. Nish’s eyes began to water and the tears to freeze.
‘Fusshte knows we have the thapter,’ Flydd reminded them. ‘He probably isn’t expecting an airborne attack but he’ll certainly be prepared for one. The only thing he can’t be expecting is an attack on foot.’
‘Because only the biggest fools on Santhenar would think of it,’ said Yggur sourly. ‘If we are to go for this folly, let’s get moving.’
‘Once we approach, we must be exquisitely careful,’ said Flydd. ‘The guards are always watching. Always waiting.’
Nish gathered his cloak around him, feeling out of his depth. There had been a long debate as to the safest method of waking the amplimet, or threatening it, most of which had been so arcane as to be incomprehensible. He wished he’d slept instead. His head throbbed from the stale air in the thapter and he had a leaden feeling behind his temples.
‘Flydd must be out of his mind,’ he muttered to Irisis. ‘Lust for revenge has blinded him to reality.’
She didn’t reply.
‘Malien is afraid,’ he went on. ‘Even Yggur is against it. I –’
‘We voted,’ she said in a dead voice. ‘We’re going in.’
‘But I –’
‘Shut up, Nish!’ Irisis hissed in his ear. ‘We’ve got a long march ahead and you’re not helping.’
‘And a horrible end when we get there.’
She must have picked up his despair, for Irisis turned and put her hands on his cheeks, looking into his eyes. ‘Oh, come on, Nish,’ she said more kindly. ‘You’ve been working towards this day since you escaped from Snizort.’
‘Doesn’t mean I’m not terrified,’ he muttered.
‘We all are. Anyway, I’m supposed to be the doom merchant. Don’t push me into the caring role – you know I’m not comfortable with it.’ Giving the lie to her words, she linked her arm through his and they set off.
It was a long and miserable trudge across the slopes of the mountain, as cold as anything he’d experienced, though nothing happened to distinguish one gritty, sliding step from another. Because of the altitude, walking was hard work and he was soon so short of breath that talking at the same time wasn’t worth the effort.
Near the tail end of that exhausting night they ran into a steep ridge of quartz that puckered the mountainside vertically like a badly healed sword slash. Klarm had noted it from afar, from the thapter. They felt their way up it in the dark, eventually finding a fissure large enough for the fifteen of them to hide in. Nennifer lay below and to the east, little more than a league away. They could go no further until Malien had done her work on the amplimet.
They put up a pair of tents, set out the guards and crawled in for whatever rest they could steal before the attack.
Malien cleared her end of the tent by the simple expedient of creating a golden bubble from her fingertips and allowing it to expand until it enveloped her completely. Whatever else it touched was pushed out of the way.
‘What’s she doing?’ whispered an awed Inouye.
Malien was dimly visible inside, sitting cross-legged with her eyes closed and her long fingers extended along her thighs. The shimmering luminescence of the globe cast moving lights and shadows across her face and body. She looked ageless, cunning, fey.
‘She has her own unique form of the Art,’ Yggur said quietly. ‘As do I. Hers doesn’t rely on the field, so she can scry without the scrutators detecting her.’
‘At least, we hope so,’ said Irisis.
Yggur glared at her, then went on. ‘We can, of course, draw on the field at need.’
‘How long is it going to take?’ said Nish.
‘However long it takes,’ snapped Flydd from his sleeping pouch. ‘Now keep your trap shut. I need my sleep.’
Flydd must be in constant pain, Nish thought charitably. He’d always been irascible, but now he was angry all the time. Nish wriggled around against the side of the tent, trying to find a comfortable position. Irisis elbowed him in the ribs. He sighed.
The golden bubble popped. ‘I’ve located the amplimet,’ said Malien.
‘What, already?’ The words burst out of Nish.
Everyone turned to stare at him. He flushed. ‘I thought it would take hours,’ he mumbled. ‘Thought there’d be time for sleep.’
No one said anything, which was worse than if they had.
‘It’s not sealed away,’ Malien said. ‘And, judging by the peculiar orientation of the field, the scrutators are working on it now. They must have barriers up to prevent the amplimet taking more than a trickle of power.’
‘Then they know the danger it represents?’ asked Yggur.
‘We have to assume that they’ve discovered everything Tiaan knows about it,’ said Flydd.
‘Tiaan has a way of revealing only what she wants to,’ said Malien. ‘But I agree – it’s safer to assume that.’
‘Then you’d better get to work,’ said Flydd.
Malien took several deep breaths, knitting and unknitting her fingers, but didn’t move.
‘You can wake it?’ said Flydd roughly.
She nodded stiffly. ‘I just don’t think I should.’
‘We’ve been through all that. Just get on with it!’
Nish had never heard anyone speak to Malien that way before. Her lip curled as she looked at the meagre old man. ‘In the circumstances, I will forgive that. Ah, but you know so little of what you’re asking.’
She regenerated her bubble, though this time it took on an opalescent translucency that reduced her to a hunched shape inside.
‘You can have your precious sleep now, Artificer,’ said Flydd.
Nish lay down and dozed off at once, only to be woken by a mutter from the other side of the tent. As he began to sit up, Irisis gripped his arm, warningly.
‘It worries me that the field is so strained,’ said Yggur. ‘One misjudgment –’
‘Let’s not speculate about that,’ Flydd said. ‘Get some sleep. You too, Klarm. You’ll need it before this is over.’
‘As will you,’ said Klarm. ‘We’re relying on you, Flydd.’
‘I don’t need much sleep these days. Master Flenser pruned me of all that was superfluous. Perhaps he did me a favour.’ He laughed harshly.
Yggur made no reply.
Nish closed his eyes and tried to get back to sleep, though now an image kept recurring – the red ruin which Flydd’s healer had revealed so fleetingly, and with such rage at man’s inhumanity to his own.
A long time later Yggur put his head out of the tent, looking up at the dark sky. A high overcast blotted out the stars and moon. ‘It’s coming dawn.’ He rubbed his stubbled cheeks. ‘Aah, it’s cold out.’
Flydd was sitting with his hands on his knees, exactly as he had been hours earlier, watching Malien.
‘Doesn’t look as though she’s having any success,’ said Yggur.
‘It’s taking too long,’ said Flydd, ‘and there’s nothing we can do to help her. This is Malien’s great task and if she can’t do it, no one can.’
Before dawn the sentries were drawn back inside the ends of the fissure. Everyone else spent the day cooped in the tents. This close to Nennifer they dared not go outside, for the risk of being seen was too great.
In mid-morning, Malien dissolved the bubble and crawled across to the food bag, where she made a scant meal of mouldy bread and hard cheese, and another of the knobbly fruits. She had trouble eating it; her hands and arms shook unceasingly. Washing the morsel down with gulps of water that spilled down her front and froze instantly, she flopped onto her sleeping pouch and fell into sleep.
Yggur and Flydd exchanged glances. Yggur jerked his head at the tent flap and went out. Flydd followed. They could be heard conversing in the fissure, though Nish didn’t catch a word.
‘What do you think they’re talking about?’ he said quietly to Irisis.
She rolled over, irritably pulling the sleeping pouch up around her ears. Nish turned onto his back, staring at the roof of the tent. Ice crystals were growing down from the ridgepole. He shivered and drew his fingers down the canvas wall. They left trails in the growing frost.
‘This is too big for any of us.’
Klarm’s voice, though soft, came from just behind Nish’s ear. He jumped. ‘What do you mean … er, Scrutator?’ Nish still wasn’t sure how to address the dwarf. In truth, despite Klarm having saved his life, Nish still felt uncomfortable with him. He rotated so he could see Klarm’s face.
‘Malien has just realised that what she’s trying to do isn’t possible. It’s too much for any mancer, or all of us together. Go to sleep,’ Klarm said abruptly. ‘It’s what you wanted.’ He got up and went out. The tent flap, stiff with ice, crackled as it fell back into place.
Nish, feeling vaguely uneasy, said softly, ‘Irisis?’
She didn’t reply. Irisis was asleep; Malien too, judging by the gentle snores issuing from the other end of the tent. There was no one to share his fears with. Inouye and Evee had been sent to the other, larger tent, occupied by Flangers and the soldiers.
He went across the litter of gear and sleeping pouches on knees and elbows. A buzz of conversation came from outside. Nish eased his head through the flap. Klarm sat hunched in his cloak just before the bend in the fissure, head tilted to one side as if listening.
Flydd and Yggur must be just around the corner – Nish could see the edge of Yggur’s long cloak draped over the rock. Unfortunately Nish still couldn’t hear. And what was Klarm up to? Had everything just been a plot to lure them here? Did he plan to betray them as the price of admission to the Council?
Long fingers wrapped around Nish’s ankle. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Malien said, soft and low.
He whirled, cracking his ear on the tent pole. A stalactite of ice fell on his head and shattered. Nish sat down, picking ice out of his hair. ‘Klarm’s up to something.’
She let go. ‘Do you think of Yggur and Flydd as fools?’
There was ice in his ear as well. He tried to get the fragment out but it melted, sending an icy trickle down to sear his eardrum. ‘Of course not.’
‘Then leave the worrying to them.’
‘What if the Council’s quest succeeds, and they learn to control the amplimet?’
‘They’ll have enough power to annihilate us.’
‘And if they fail and the amplimet gets … whatever it’s looking for?’
She looked him in the eye and for an instant Nish saw beyond the stern, almost ageless face. What was she thinking? Did she pity him?
‘Worse,’ she said almost inaudibly, and turned away.
Two frustrating days dragged by, and Malien spent most of that time isolated in the bubble, working at her incomprehensible task of locking onto the amplimet and forcing it to wake. When not doing that she lay in her pouch, panting or tossing in a restless sleep.
The conferences in the fissure became longer and more harried, Yggur more remote and imperious, Flydd more insanely driven. He would not be talked out of the attack, though after all this time no one saw any chance of it succeeding. To get away from them, Klarm had taken to climbing up the rocks in the dark. At least, that was what he’d said he was doing, though Nish wasn’t sure any more. He didn’t have any good reason to suspect the dwarf scrutator, but with so much time to fill in he’d come to doubt everything. And every hour the probability of chance discovery grew greater, as did the risk that the scrutators would master the amplimet first. Or the amplimet master them.
As the third night fell Malien was still going, but when she broke for a brief rest Yggur had to lift her into her sleeping pouch. Her skin had begun to wrinkle like a dried olive, and her shrunken eyes had a dull opacity as if she were developing cataracts.
‘Why is she so worn out?’ said Nish to Irisis, after Flydd and Yggur had just slipped out again.
‘Because she daren’t take power from the field. Malien is using an older Art but she has to draw it from herself, and she’s at her limit.’
‘I can’t do it,’ Malien said an hour later, pushing away the mug of honeyed tea Irisis was holding out for her. ‘Aftersickness is wearing me down and there’s no time to recover from it.’
‘Get some more sleep,’ said Yggur. ‘Flydd and I have been discussing another way.’
‘One that doesn’t require me?’ she said, lying down and closing her eyes.
‘We’ll still need you but we’ll be taking some of the load.’
They went out to discuss their plan. Klarm wasn’t there either. He’d gone climbing up the quartz ridge at dusk and still wasn’t back. He could have walked all the way to Nennifer by now, Nish thought.
‘Now I’m really worried,’ he said to Irisis.
She was sitting in the corner, sleeping pouch up around her waist, weaving a couple of dozen silver and gold wires into a complicated braid, part of a piece of jewellery she’d been working on for days. Being a jeweller had been her life’s ambition, stifled when she was a little girl by a mother who had invested the Stirm family’s future in her clever daughter. Irisis still planned to become a jeweller, ‘after the war is over.’
‘You started worrying the day you were born, Nish. Have a nap or something.’
‘I’ve had about forty naps since we’ve been stuck here. I couldn’t sleep to save my life.’
‘Then be quiet. I’m trying to work.’
‘Your fingers do the work by themselves,’ he observed. ‘You don’t need to think about it.’
‘That doesn’t mean I don’t work better without interruptions.’
‘I’m really worried.’
Irisis cast a glance over her shoulder at Malien, who was twitching in her sleep, and set her work aside with, charitably, just the gentlest of sighs.
‘I think Klarm’s leading us into a trap.’
‘But he’s not leading us; Flydd and Yggur are.’
‘They call upon his knowledge of Nennifer all the time.’
‘I’m sure Flydd and Yggur are keeping an eye on him.’
‘They’re too distracted.’ Nish, realising that he was panting, took a deep breath. It didn’t help; he could feel panic rising and it was worse than he’d felt in other tight situations, because he was so helpless to do anything. ‘It’s out of control, Irisis, and there’s nothing you or I can do to stop it.’
‘In which case there’s no point worrying.’
She was almost supernaturally calm these days, or fatalistic. ‘That’s not like you,’ he said accusingly, as if she were letting the side down. ‘You hate waiting for things to happen, and you hate –’
‘Well, I’m sorry if I’m acting out of character!’ Irisis turned her back, pointedly taking up her braid again.
‘Sorry,’ Nish said automatically. ‘I – I’m out of my depth. This idea about waking the amplimet … it’s bound to go wrong.’
‘It’s the only plan we have, Nish.’
The flap was thrust open, scattering ice across the floor. Yggur came in, bent low, followed by Flydd and Klarm.
‘Time to go,’ said Yggur, going to his knees to shake Malien’s shoulder.
She sat up, bleary-eyed. ‘Already?’
‘I’m afraid so. We’ve got about half a league to go. We go over the ridge and down into the little valley where they grow their crops. We’ll get a bit of cover there. When we’re in place, we’ll work together. It’ll be easier down there, closer to the amplimet. If you seek it as before, I’ll lend you my shoulder when you need it.’ He hesitated. ‘That’s the idea, anyhow.’
‘Great,’ Nish muttered when they had gone out. ‘Now when it goes wrong we’ll lose them all.’
‘It’s no use,’ said Yggur a couple of hours after midnight, wiping hard granules of blown snow off his brow. He’d been working with Malien for ages, without success. ‘It’s hopeless.’
‘Let’s give it one last try,’ said Flydd.
‘The moon’s up. We’ll have to leave it until tonight.’
‘We must go on,’ said Flydd.
‘We’ve got to have darkness.’
‘Another day and neither you nor Malien will have the strength. And I’m not turning my back on the Council again.’
This time they were just above the valley floor, which was networked in dark and light greys by its dry irrigation ditches and the tufted remnants of the harvested autumn crop. They huddled in the long moon-shadow behind a cluster of hip-high boulders, while the wind shrieked all around them. To their left, a frozen stream in the bottom of the valley disappeared over the precipice into the abyss of the Desolation Sink.
‘Aftersickness is killing me,’ croaked Malien.
‘One more time,’ Flydd said grimly.
Malien grew the golden bubble around her and became a blurred outline. Yggur stood facing her, his hands at his sides. He whistled under his breath and a series of golden threads extended from the sphere towards his face.
Malien shifted her weight, Yggur threw up his arms as if off-balance, and for a moment the rock Nish crouched behind faded to translucency. His vision blurred then returned to normal, but his anxiety only intensified. He let out his breath in a loud hiss.
Flydd jabbed him in the ribs. ‘What’s the matter with you tonight?’
‘The amplimet is waiting for us,’ Nish burst out, ‘and it’s angry.’
Malien stood up on tiptoe, shuddering with the strain. Yggur turned his head as far as the filaments would allow. He seemed to be holding his breath.
‘It’s just a mineral,’ said Flydd. ‘It can’t feel anything. You’re projecting your own fears onto it.’
Malien seemed to be beckoning to Nish, as if saying, ‘Go on.’
‘It’s real,’ said Nish.
Everyone stared at him. ‘What do you mean?’ Flydd rasped.
Nish had no idea how he knew it, until the words formed and he spoke them aloud. ‘I can sense something … just as I did that night above Gumby Marth, after Father cast his alchymical spell on me and I saw the lyrinx stone-formed into the pinnacles. It’s a … a brittle rage, a crackling fury like a box of crystals being ground underfoot. The amplimet is tormented, and it hates the scrutators for shackling and probing it, and for blocking it from the field it so desperately needs. They’ve fenced it in with ice and now they’re forcing it …’
‘To what end?’ said Flydd.
‘I can’t tell.’ Nish slumped to the ground and it was all gone. He was just his normal prosaic self, with not a trace of the Art in him.
‘Ice,’ Yggur muttered, the golden threads twanging as his jaw moved. He swayed on his feet and nearly fell.
‘Heat quickly destroys any kind of hedron,’ said Irisis. ‘Cold never can, but it can slow it to a murmur. Why didn’t I think of that? That’s how they’ve made it safe to use.’
Flydd gave a mirthless snort. ‘And to think we’ve spent days trying to wake it without killing ourselves. To unshackle it, all we have to do is warm it up. It’ll lash out at the scrutators and then we go in.’
‘It may lash out at us,’ said Malien, slumping to the ground. ‘You can never tell what an amplimet will do.’
‘We don’t have any other option,’ said Flydd. ‘We must go on, no matter what the risk.’
‘You’re insane,’ she said in a wisp of a voice.
‘We – go – on!’ he ground out.
Another still silence.
‘If Malien can find it again I might be able to warm it up,’ said Yggur finally. ‘Though I’d have to be closer. I’ve not got much strength left.’
‘How close?’ said Malien, lying on her back on the frozen ground with her arms flopped by her sides.
Yggur joined her, breathing heavily. ‘Ideally, against the outside wall of Nennifer.’
‘The sentinels would pick you up before you got within a hundred spans,’ said Klarm.
‘How close can we get?’ said Flydd.
‘Five hundred spans is the closest I’d dare,’ replied Klarm, ‘and even that’s …’
‘Not good enough,’ said Yggur. ‘I can’t do it from so far away.’
‘Then we risk everything and go on,’ said Flydd in tones that would not be denied.
‘No closer,’ Malien begged as they crawled up the edge of the shallow valley towards the flat-topped promontory, out of which the foundations of Nennifer had been carved. Here there had been enough moisture to freeze the gravelly soil into an iron-hard aggregate, brutal on their hands and knees. ‘Please.’
‘I can’t do it from here,’ said Yggur as he’d said half a dozen times already. He could barely hold himself on all fours now. Aftersickness was crushing him and Malien was little better.
‘Hold him up, Nish,’ said Flydd, working some kind of illusion with the fingers of one hand. It made no difference as far as Nish could see but, after a whispered consultation, Malien and Yggur agreed to keep going.
They continued crawling up the side of the valley, thence onto a fluted ridge of sharp rock. The sky had clouded over but now the moon came out momentarily and Irisis, beside Nish, caught her breath. The sudden brightness lit up the paved parade ground and mooring field which extended from the vertical slash of the thousand-span-high precipice that fell into the sunken lands of the Desolation Sink, all the way, as flat as a table, to the front wall of Nennifer. Two air-dreadnoughts were moored in the central part of the parade ground, one not far from this end, the other midway.
Nennifer’s monumental bulk reared up before them, the biggest building in the world and one of the most brutal in its sheer functional ugliness. It made no concession to beauty, harmony, proportion or setting: in a world devoted to war, nothing mattered but the power of those who told the world how to fight and die. Behind Nennifer, mountains black and bare rose up to pierce the glowing sky.
They were no more than five hundred spans from the front of the building. From here they would be exposed every step of the way, and within range of the great javelards and catapults mounted on the walls. If the sentries saw them, they would be shot without warning.
‘Where’s the amplimet, Malien?’ said Flydd.
‘Somewhere in the middle of the building,’ she replied. ‘I can’t tell more from here. The third floor, or perhaps the fourth. No closer, please.’ She choked.
‘What’s the matter?’ said Nish.
‘Something is very wrong. We must turn back.’
‘We have to go on,’ grated Flydd.
‘No further. I’m begging you.’ Malien’s face was stark in the moonlight. ‘Take another step and the mission will fail.’
‘If we turn back, we’ve already failed. Neither of you have the strength for another attempt.’
Yggur raised his head, which was nodding like a puppet’s. ‘What’s that?’ he whispered, looking at a small stone structure a couple of hundred spans ahead and to their left, not far from the edge of the precipice.
‘It’s a shed where they keep the mooring cables for the air-dreadnoughts,’ said Klarm.
‘Will anyone be there now?’
‘No reason why there should be.’
‘We’ll do it in the lee of the shed,’ said Flydd, ‘if we can’t get inside.’
They went on their bellies across the ice-glazed paving stones, and every wriggle of the way Nish expected to feel the pulverising impact of a javelard. He could make out guards moving on the upper walls. Surely Flydd’s meagre illusion couldn’t conceal them from such an unceasing watch?
The shed was built of flat slabs of gneiss laid in courses like long thin bricks, the mortar deeply raked so that the joints were half a fist deep and wide. The door proved to be locked so they took shelter against the end wall, whose shadow provided partial screening while allowing them to see the front of Nennifer.
‘Keep still,’ whispered Flydd. ‘I’ll have to release the illusion now, and the guards never fail in their alertness at Nennifer.’
‘They fail at times,’ amended Klarm, ‘but then they die horribly, as an example to their fellows. And rightly so.’
Nish gave him a shocked glance.
‘A guard’s duty is to guard,’ Klarm elaborated, ‘and all may rest on it.’
They put their backs to the rough stones while Yggur and Malien did their best to overcome their aftersickness, then made ready for the final attempt.
The night grew wilder. The wind, howling around the angles of the shed, rasped at exposed skin with abrasive particles of ice. The last of the cloud blew away and the moon appeared, brilliant in the thin mountain air. Then, as they watched, a pair of rings grew around it, the spectral colours little more than shades of grey.
‘Two rings around the moon,’ said Klarm. ‘Not a good omen.’
‘It’s better than a moonbow,’ grunted Flydd.
‘Not much, and we may see one as it rises.’
‘Let’s get on with it,’ said Yggur. ‘Malien?’ The moonlight gave her face a bluish cast.
‘Are you all right?’ said Nish.
‘Just thinking,’ Malien said, ‘of all the ways it could go wrong.’
As soon as she and Yggur began, the crystal’s inanimate fury hit Nish like a blow to the stomach. For a minute he struggled to draw breath and, when it passed, his belly throbbed. They had no idea what they were dealing with.
Yggur and Malien were sitting side by side, she sagging in her bubble, he propped against the wall with his face enveloped in pale filaments. The bubble was dull this time, else it would have been visible in the shadows.
‘Ready?’ Yggur’s jaw moved oddly, as if the threads were working it like a puppet.
Malien’s affirmation was just a distant echo.
‘The amplimet is hungry for power,’ said Flydd. ‘All you have to do is melt the ice wards surrounding it.’
‘If we alert Fusshte’s mancers,’ said Malien, ‘they’ll shut it in a shielded box and we won’t be able to reach it.’
‘Then flood it with power directly. That’ll warm it up. But whatever you’re going to do, do it now. The guards patrol this area and they could come by at any time.’
Nish heard Malien’s inrushing breath, the bubble darkened and she let out a pained grunt.
‘Withdraw!’ gasped Yggur, but there was no reply. The bubble had gone black and nothing could be seen inside.
‘Come back, Malien, wherever you are,’ Yggur choked. He tried to get up and fell forward, right into the moonlight.
Everyone went still, knowing that the guards on the wall must have seen the movement. All at once Irisis leapt up, grabbed Yggur’s legs and began to drag him back.
A klaxon sounded from one of the corner guard towers. It was answered by half a dozen others, then a javelard spear screamed off the paving stone where Yggur’s head had been a moment before. Nish grabbed a leg and heaved, heedless that Yggur’s face was being dragged across the ground.
Another spear dug a span-long groove in the stone before Nish and Irisis got the big man around the corner.
‘And now we’re dead,’ Nish said.
‘Like hell!’ Irisis said savagely. ‘Run, while we still can. Maybe we can attack from the rear of Nennifer.’
‘We can’t carry Yggur and Malien,’ said Flydd.
‘Then leave them behind!’ she snapped. ‘I thought you were a ruthless scrutator, not a puling defeatist without any balls.’
Nish froze, holding his breath. Flydd gave a strangled gasp of outrage, but then a hail of heavy spears slammed into the far wall, flinging shattered rock everywhere.
‘Come on!’ she hissed. ‘The soldiers will be on their way.’
‘It’s too late –’
Malien’s sphere expanded then shrank again as if she was breathing it in and out. Its surface roiled, solidified like the shell of a nut then turned transparent again. They could now see her inside, working desperately with her hands as if trying to contain something too hot or bright to touch.
A catapult ball tore half the roof off the shed, showering them with broken tiles and splinters of wood. One of the soldiers, hit on the head, slumped sideways without a sound.
‘Another couple of those and there’ll be nothing to hide behind,’ said Flangers, flicking fragments of tile out of his crossbow. ‘They can pick us off without risking a man.’
‘The scrutators don’t care about risking a thousand men,’ said Klarm. ‘Now that the shock has worn off, they’ll want us alive.’
Malien doubled over, holding her midriff, but forced herself upright and extended her fists in front of her. The shell burst into fragments that fizzed to nothingness in the air. She brought her fists together with a spray of light and stood swaying on her feet for a moment before sliding into a crumpled heap.
‘The amplimet was waiting,’ she said faintly. ‘I couldn’t contain it.’
In the distance something went crack, like a long, brittle crystal being snapped in two.
‘What happened?’ asked Flydd.
‘I don’t know.’ Malien could barely speak. ‘There was no resistance at all. As soon as I pushed, the wards gave way like rotten ice … as if they’d been eaten away from inside.’
‘The amplimet must have already woken,’ said Klarm. ‘It had set a trap for the scrutators but got us instead. Now there’s an irony for you.’
‘So we just wait for Fusshte to take us?’ said Irisis.
No one said anything. The barrage had stopped; now the klaxons were cut off in mid-cry. The guards were equally silent. Not a sound came from the length and breadth of Nennifer.
Nish could feel the tension building. His skin prickled and his diaphragm began to thud back and forth like a beaten drum. He swallowed and his ears popped, but the pressure on his eardrums was still there. He did it again and again. It made no difference.
The moonlight faded like a slowly lidded eye. When it shone out again the double rings were brighter than before.
‘Why haven’t the guards come after us?’ he said.
‘They’re afraid to move,’ said Irisis.
Nish’s diaphragm was beating so hard he could barely draw breath. Afraid?
‘What was that?’ hissed Flangers.
The wind had died down too, and they heard a curious noise.
‘It sounds like rushing water,’ said Irisis, looking towards the precipice only a dozen spans away.
‘Any water on the ground would be frozen iron-hard at this time of year,’ said Nish.
She wriggled across to the edge, keeping within the shed’s shadow, but came straight back.
‘It’s rushing out of a fissure in the cliff and freezing as it falls.’
‘Funny we didn’t hear it before,’ said Nish. The ground gave the faintest tremor. ‘Did you feel that?’
‘Earth tremblers are common here,’ said Klarm.
Again they heard that brittle crunching, though this time it was like a clanker’s metal feet grinding across a field of crystals and crumbling them to shards. There came a drawn-out, subterranean rumbling and the ground shook hard enough to toss Irisis off her feet.
‘We’re not finished yet,’ said Flydd, standing up and lurching back and forth with a maniacal glint in his eye.
‘What have we done?’ gasped Malien. ‘Yggur …?’ She looked around wildly.
‘He’s unconscious,’ said Flydd dismissively. ‘Overcome by aftersickness. He’ll be no further use tonight.’
‘The amplimet’s broken free,’ said Malien, climbing to her feet and bracing her back against the shed as the vibrations grew stronger. ‘We’ve got to stop it before it gets out of control.’
‘How can we, Malien?’ Turning away, Flydd gave a series of low-voiced orders to the troops and they readied for action.
‘You don’t understand. It’s … It’s …’
‘What?’ At the expression on her face he spun around and caught her by the lapels of her coat. ‘What is it?’
‘I … think it’s come to the second stage of awakening,’ she said, then her eyes rolled back in her head.
Flydd cursed and let her fall. ‘Two down.’
Nish was shocked by his callousness, even in this desperate situation. The Flydd he’d once known so well had been replaced by a ruthless stranger.
‘Second stage of awakening?’ said Klarm. ‘What’s she talking about, Flydd?’
‘I don’t think I want to know.’
There came a tearing screech, like metal being torn apart, followed by a low shudder that shook more fragments of roof slate onto their heads and shoulders. They moved down to the corner where the structure was still sound, and Nish peered across the mooring ground. The shuddering grew stronger; then, with a deafening roar, a boiling shaft of light the width of a room burst up through the roof of Nennifer. Coloured particles whirled around and up until the column faded against the bright moon. And then the whole world moved.
‘What the hell was that?’ said Flydd, picking himself up. The ground beneath their feet was still quivering.
‘I don’t know,’ said Klarm. The whites of his eyes were showing. ‘But I suggest we run for our lives.’
‘We’ll be seen,’ said Flydd.
The rings around the brilliant moon had given way to a gigantic moonbow. The ground shook again and parts of the moonbow disappeared as if washed away. The parade ground wrenched sideways, hurling them against the wall. Nish’s hand went straight through a crack, to his bemusement. He wrenched it out just before the crack snapped closed, losing the skin along his right thumb. The soldier who’d been hit on the head got up, shakily.
‘Move!’ roared Flangers, hurling Nish out of the way. He picked up Malien and ran with her as the shed collapsed behind them.
Nish lay where he’d been thrown, unable to believe what he was seeing. A series of ground waves spiralled out from Nennifer, heaving solid paving stones in the air and shaking the tethered air-dreadnoughts like balloons in a storm. The first wave threw him up and backwards, and it was like being hit by a moving clanker. He’d just landed on his shoulder when the second wave tossed him head over heels. Falling head-down, he saw the ground coming up and threw out his arms to break his fall, but it dropped away again.
‘Run!’ Flydd heaved Nish to his feet. Irisis had taken Malien from Flangers, who was struggling to lift Yggur.
‘Which way?’ Nish gasped.
‘Towards Nennifer, you bloody fool. This is our chance.’
But they’ll see us! Nish thought. He watched them go, thinking they’d lost their minds, until another shock knocked him down and the outer edge of the parade ground began to tilt beneath his feet. And then he ran until his heart was bursting. Ahead, a knife-edged crack appeared, curving out from the centre of Nennifer. The inner side rose and the outer fell, leaving a cliff a third of a span high. Irisis pushed Malien up it, then went over in one great bound, her bright hair flying in the moonlight. Flydd scrambled over, followed by several of the soldiers. Nish made a last effort and smelt a whiff of brimstone as he sprang.
The crack opened visibly beneath him and clouds of misty dust boiled out. The groaning in the depths was like the prisoners in the dungeons of Nennifer suffering their daily torments.
He landed on the high side, skidding on his knees, out of breath. Surely he was the last? No, one of Yggur’s soldiers was labouring up the slope carrying another, who looked to have broken his leg.
He was almost to the cliff when the outer section of the parade ground dropped sharply. The man with the broken leg screamed. His partner, straining with all his might, lifted the injured soldier above his head and tossed him up onto solid ground. Reaction sent him sliding the other way, down the steadily increasing slope of the falling slab.
The soldier put his head down and even made a little ground before the slope grew so steep that he could gain no traction on it. He clung on with hands and knees, looking up at them in despair as the whole great slab of parade ground, fifty spans wide and about two hundred long, ground off, carrying him over the cliff into the vast abyss of the Desolation Sink.
‘What have we done?’ said Nish, lying on the ground with his hands over his face.
Flydd jerked him to his feet. ‘I don’t know, but we’re going to make the best of it.’
The whole of Nennifer was shaking and, it seemed, the mountains behind them. More slabs of parade ground fell into the Desolation Sink and springs burst out of the ground, freezing instantly to brittle fountains. The tethers snapped on the nearer of the air-dreadnoughts, which lifted sluggishly on its flabby airbags.
Spiralling lines of force appeared in Nish’s inner eye, radiating out from the point whence that column of light had originated. His head whirled and he felt a sudden attack of nausea, like lying down when very drunk. Weird visions fleeted through his mind – the vast bulk of Nennifer as transparent as a glass maze; magnified views of one part of it, then another. Distant cries carried to him as if the people were standing close by. Then the enormous building was cut into curving slices and slowly forced apart by a boiling white nothingness.
It had to be an hallucination, but how come he could still think clearly? Klarm let out a cry of disbelief. Nish blinked, turned towards the dwarf scrutator and the vision was gone.
Klarm raised his right arm, pointing with one finger. With wrenching shrieks, like blades piercing his eardrums, Nennifer was sliced into dozens of segments along the spiralling planes he’d seen earlier. For a moment the segments stood in place, slightly offset from each other, their edges as sharp and sheer as razor cuts. It wasn’t right; it could not be real; but there they stood.
Then in an instant the planes or dimensions shifted, but Nish couldn’t take that in – his mind refused to believe his eyes. He doubled over, trying to retch out the head-spinning nausea.
Irisis wiped his face with his coat sleeve. ‘Are you all right?’
He had to lean on her for a moment. Nennifer still stood but the segments had been rearranged, as if they had been withdrawn into another dimension, shuffled like a deck of cards then put back in place. Curve lay perfectly against curve but Nennifer was no longer rectangular. It now resembled a spoked wheel and some of the segments – the layers of the original building – were exposed like slices through a cake.
The air shimmered and the front of the building warped as though a distorting lens had passed along it. Dust devils whirled up. Sections here and there, now unsupported, crumbled to rubble, while the rest of the edifice stood as solidly as if it had been built that way. In the brilliant moonlight, people could be seen at the windows, up on the battlements and in sections that had been sliced open.
The subterranean noises became a grinding roar that blocked out every other sound. Nish smelt the earthy pungency of ground-up rock. Clouds of dust billowed out, obscuring parts of the building, and by the time it began to clear they were all coated.
‘Did the amplimet do all that?’ whispered Flydd, his self-possession gone.
‘The Council didn’t throw Nennifer down,’ Klarm replied shakily.
The ground shook again, hurling men and women from the battlements. One of the surviving front doors was flung wide and people – servants, soldiers, mancers in capes and gowns – boiled out of it, fleeing for their lives. Others climbed out of every hole and crack, threading the front of Nennifer with figures like ants from a stirred-up nest. A few jumped from upper floors, though they did not get up again.
The cracked remnants of the parade ground gave a last, self-satisfied shudder and all was still once more. In the distance, someone was shouting orders but the fleeing people took no notice.
‘Look out,’ said Nish, brushing dust from his nose. His eyebrows were thick with it. ‘They’re coming our way.’
‘Just act terrified and aimless,’ said Irisis, blinking dust out of her long eyelashes.
A battered group of people stumbled by, not giving them a second glance, and disappeared. Others followed.
‘Do we have to go in?’ said Nish. ‘Surely this means the end of the Council.’
‘I should have listened, Malien,’ Flydd sounded as if he had a throat full of gravel. ‘It’s woken. What’s the amplimet going to do now?’
Malien, lying on the ground with her eyes closed, did not reply.
Irisis reached out and caught hold of Nish’s fingers. ‘I’m scared,’ she said quietly. ‘I don’t want to go in there.’
Coming from the bravest person he knew, that was chilling. He slid his cold hand into hers. ‘Neither do I.’
Klarm waddled across to Flydd. ‘I don’t see what we can do, Xervish. It’ll be like a maze inside.’
‘One where every path leads to a blank wall,’ said Flydd. He thought for a moment. ‘We must go in. We’ve got to make sure of the Council – you can bet they’ve survived – and attempt to secure the amplimet. And find Tiaan.’
‘If she’s alive!’ growled Klarm.
‘You’d better hope she is,’ whispered Malien. ‘She may be the only one who can restrain the amplimet now.’
‘We’ll never find it in that chaos,’ said Klarm. ‘Or her.’
‘I will lead you,’ said a vaguely familiar voice from the crumbled rock along the edge of the cloven parade ground.
Klarm whirled, groping for his short blade.
‘Hold!’ cried Flydd. ‘Hold, damn it.’
Klarm slowly lowered his arm.
‘Come forth,’ said Flydd. ‘Slowly.’
A man emerged, empty hands out in front of him. His back was to the moon and Nish could make out no more than an outline. He was of middle height and slim.
‘Surr,’ said the man.
Suddenly Nish knew him. ‘Eiryn Muss!’
‘Or someone taking his shape,’ said Irisis.
‘No, it’s Muss all right,’ said Flydd. ‘Where the hell have you been all this time, Prober Muss? I sent you to do a job months ago and you didn’t report back.’
‘You sent me to find news of the flying construct, surr,’ said Muss. ‘And I followed the webs of lies and rumour to Lybing where, unfortunately, I came to the notice of Scrutator Fusshte. He knew I served you, of course. And my worth.’
Flydd grunted, which could have meant anything.
‘Fusshte offered me a choice,’ Muss went on. ‘To serve him, or die the death prescribed for the trusted servant of a traitor. What could I do, surr? Dead I would be no use to you. I chose to serve Fusshte, for that was the only way to discharge my oath and duty to you. And, after all, much of the scrutators’ intelligence flows through him.’
‘He’s a master of lies and deceit,’ said Klarm. ‘As are you, Prober Muss. Any man sworn to Fusshte is no good to us.’
‘Surr,’ said Muss. ‘I –’
‘Eiryn Muss served me faithfully for a very long time,’ said Flydd, though in a neutral voice.
Klarm just looked at him. Flydd met his stare. Finally Klarm said, very dubiously, ‘And in all that time he gave you no cause to doubt him?’
‘Not in the least degree,’ said Flydd.
What was Flydd playing at? In Nish’s travels with him after fleeing Snizort, Flydd had more than once wondered at Muss’s personal agenda.
‘Explain yourself, Muss, if you can,’ said Flydd. ‘And be quick about it. Time presses upon us.’
‘I’ll save you more time than you’ll lose by questioning me, surr. Fusshte brought me here to assist him and, in time, made me his Master of the Watch. I learned much about flying constructs, surr, and other matters of interest to you.’
‘You conveyed not a jot of it to me,’ snapped Flydd.
‘Fusshte did not allow me access to the message skeets,’ said Muss.
‘How could he stop a man of your talents?’
‘He put a specific ward around their pens, proof against whatever guise I might put on. I did everything I could to find a way –’
‘Fine words,’ said Klarm, ‘but they mean nothing.’
‘Neither could I leave Nennifer by air-floater or mountain camel caravan,’ said Muss. ‘All escapes were warded against me, and I’m not hardy enough to cross the mountain paths alone.’
‘Few are,’ said Flydd. ‘This seems enough –’
‘Without proof of loyalty his words are empty,’ said Klarm. ‘I spent months here after my leg was smashed, and this man seemed all too close to Fusshte then. He even admits that he’s Fusshte’s sworn servant.’
‘What say you, Eiryn Muss?’ said Flydd. ‘Can you offer any proof to convince my doubting companions?’
‘Only this,’ said Muss. ‘I detected your coming yet did not give you away.’
‘Prove it,’ said Klarm.
‘You did not come straight here in the thapter,’ said Muss. ‘You flew by in the cloud before turning to approach from the west. Your thapter towed another craft, a balloon of some sort, and landed some four or five leagues beyond the mountain to the north.’
Klarm rocked back on his heels. ‘Really? When was this, Prober Muss?’
‘Four days ago,’ Muss said without hesitation. ‘Late in the afternoon.’
‘And how did you detect our coming, Prober?’
‘My profession has its secrets, surr,’ said Muss with dignity, ‘and I’ll no more reveal them than you would yours. I will say only that, in addition to my own talents and devices, as Master of the Watch I monitor all the sentinels in Nennifer.’
‘Who else knows of our coming?’ rapped Klarm. ‘The entire Council, or just Fusshte?’
‘I told no one. Indeed, I kept the knowledge from them.’
‘Which makes you a treasonous oath-breaker,’ cried Klarm, vindicated. ‘And no doubt a liar as well.’
‘My oath to Scrutator Flydd remained valid,’ Muss said simply. ‘Subsequent oaths were made under duress and therefore had no force.’
‘Flydd had been cast out by the Council,’ said Klarm, ‘which unbinds all oaths.’
‘My oath was to the man as well as the scrutator,’ said Muss. ‘I deemed that it held.’
Klarm did not relent. ‘Flydd was condemned and made a non-citizen. By law, no oath to a non-citizen can remain valid.’
‘It remained binding to me. I can say no more.’
‘I cannot trust –’
‘Enough, Klarm!’ snarled Flydd. ‘It is, as you point out, a matter of trust. I choose to trust my man and there’s an end to it.’
Klarm inclined his head and stepped backwards. ‘As you will,’ he said, though his eyes did not leave the face of the prober.
‘Well, Muss,’ said Flydd. ‘I expect you know why we’re here. What can you do for us?’
‘If you would give me a moment, surr.’ Muss turned away, consulting an instrument he kept concealed under his cloak. Coloured gleams briefly illuminated the fabric.
‘Hey!’ cried Klarm, grabbing his arm. ‘What are you doing?’
‘My eidoscope is linked to the sentinels,’ said Muss, pulling away. ‘It enables me to see truly, even in this chaos, though the sentinels are failing now.’
‘What do you see, Muss?’ said Flydd.
‘The scrutators have survived the collapse and guard the amplimet still. You won’t easily get to either.’
‘But it is possible?’ said Flydd. ‘You can lead us to it?’
‘I believe so,’ said Muss. ‘Though even for me, the dislocation of Nennifer will not be easy to track through.’
‘What about Artisan Tiaan? Does she live?’
‘Unless she died in the dislocation. I expect I can find her.’
‘Tell me about the amplimet. What is its state?’
‘Ah!’ said Muss pregnantly. ‘Not being a mancer, surr, I cannot say.’
‘What do you know, Muss?’
‘The Council has been probing the crystal, very carefully, ever since they brought it back from Fiz Gorgo. And I understand, surr, though I’ve not been able to confirm it with my own eyes, that they’ve contained it to prevent it drawing more than a trickle of power.’
‘With ice wards,’ said Flydd. ‘But they’ve been melted; that’s how it got free.’
‘Ice was just the inner ward,’ said Muss. ‘There were outer wards as well.’
‘What were they?’ said Klarm eagerly.
‘I know no more than that,’ Muss said. ‘And beyond the wards was a circle of adepts, just in case …’
‘In case?’ said Flydd.
‘I was unable to discern the contingency they were guarding against.’
‘And you call yourself a spy,’ said Klarm.
‘The Council guards its secrets jealously,’ said Muss. ‘Though I dare say it bears upon what you’ve done to destroy Nennifer, for all that you had no idea what you were doing.’
‘Thank you, Muss,’ snapped Flydd. ‘Such speculations exceed your mandate. Lead us within, if you please.’
‘Hold just a moment,’ said Klarm. ‘I think this fellow knows more than he’s telling us. Prober Muss, pray enlarge upon your previous statement. What do you know about our doings?’
Muss glanced at Flydd but found no relief there.
‘Well?’ said Klarm. ‘What does a humble prober know about the Art?’
‘Nothing, surr,’ said Muss, his normally impassive face showing the faintest sign of discomfort.
‘Come now, Eiryn Muss,’ said Flydd. ‘Don’t treat us like fools. You’re far more than a humble prober, aren’t you?’
‘I don’t know what you mean, surr.’
‘Of course you do. One of the reasons you’re such a brilliant spy is that you have a hidden talent, in the true sense of the word. You’re a mancer too, Eiryn Muss, but of a very rare kind.’
‘I –’ Muss shook his head. ‘No, surr …’
‘You’re a morphmancer, Muss – you can take on the shape and appearance of any human, or any creature, roughly your own size. You can go anywhere, and disguise yourself as anyone, and no one will ever know it’s you.’
Muss, who had regained his self-control, scarcely reacted this time. All Nish caught was a slight tightening of the fists, a momentary flexure of the brows.
‘I can take on certain shapes and appearances, surr,’ Muss said, ‘but my essential nature remains unchanged. Therefore any ward or sentinel set against me will keep me at bay no matter how I change my shape. I tried to enter the chamber where the amplimet is held, but the sentinels would not allow it. Therefore I know not, of my own eyes, what went on in there.’
‘You just said your eidoscope was linked to the sentinels,’ said Klarm.
‘Only to read them. I can’t change their settings.’
‘What does your eidoscope tell you about what we did?’ said Flydd.
‘I believe,’ Muss said carefully, ‘though I do not know, that you managed to bypass the wards and the rings of mancers surrounding the amplimet. You melted the ice wards –’
‘That was our intention, but the ice wards had already been eaten away from within,’ said Flydd. ‘The amplimet must have done that, so it must have already woken, secretly.’
‘You forced power into the amplimet,’ said Muss, ‘allowing it to take control of the field for an instant. It lashed out, killing the ring of adepts and causing the dislocation of Nennifer, before the Council brought up another ring of ward-mancers to reinforce the wards that now contain it again.’
‘Are you sure they’ve contained it?’ said Malien, trying to sit up but failing. She lay down, cradling her head in her hands. ‘It’s under their control?’
‘For the moment,’ said Muss. ‘Though it may not remain so. Once they tire, or if Fusshte decides that there’s no more to lose …’
‘Are the Council united in this?’ said Klarm shrewdly. ‘One would have thought that Fusshte …’
‘They weren’t,’ said Muss. ‘Had you chosen subterfuge over action I would have led you inside. You might have taken advantage of their intriguing to seize control. That’s not possible now – they’re united by their fear of the amplimet. Your rash stroke has made your task far more difficult.’
‘You forget yourself, Prober!’ snapped Flydd.
‘You taught me to speak plainly,’ said Muss.
‘There’s a difference between plain speaking and insolence. Does the Council know we’re here?’
‘They must do,’ said Klarm. ‘The guards fired on us.’
‘The guards fired on a shadowy movement,’ said Muss. ‘I explained it as a mountain goat wandering onto the parade ground.’
Flydd regarded him dubiously. ‘Really?’
‘False alarms aren’t uncommon. The guards are taught to shoot on sight, then go and see what they’ve shot.’
Flydd nodded. ‘So even in this supposedly impregnable fastness the Council feels insecure. How interesting. Can you get us inside without alerting the guards?’
The spy consulted his concealed instrument. ‘The sentinels have failed now and we can get in anywhere, if we’re quick. Once the guards recover from the dislocation they’ll renew their watch on the perimeter.’
‘Very well. Lead us in, Prober, without delay.’
‘Where do you wish to be taken, surr?’ said Muss.
‘To the chamber where the amplimet is held,’ said Malien from the ground. ‘Before anything, we must put it –’
‘Can you help us?’ said Flydd. ‘Are you fit, Malien?’
‘Alas,’ she said, ‘I can’t even stand.’
‘And Yggur is still unconscious,’ said Flydd. ‘Aftersickness won’t release him today, so we can’t take on the amplimet yet.’
‘The Council are close by the warding chamber,’ said Muss.
‘And they’ll be in disarray, so we’ll try to overpower them. Only then can we attempt to deal with the crystal.’
‘Once you bring them down,’ said Malien quietly, ‘their hold on the amplimet will fail and you may not be able to control it.’
‘I can see no other way,’ said Flydd. ‘We can’t delay any longer. Where can we safely leave our disabled, Prober?’
‘There, surr,’ said Muss, indicating a corner section of wall jutting out from the front of the building. ‘It’s solid and sheltered from the wind; as safe as anywhere.’
Which isn’t saying much, Nish thought. They left Malien and Yggur inside, along with the soldier with the broken leg, plus food, drink and cloaks to cover them, and Evee to do what she could for their hurts.
‘Splendid,’ said Flydd, visibly gathering his resolve. ‘Take us within, Muss.’
The stream of fleeing people had dropped to a trickle, now following an ant trail of refugees that led around to the rear of Nennifer, where there would be shelter from the biting wind.
‘This way will be quicker,’ said Muss. ‘Try not to attract attention.’
‘What about a disguise?’ said Flydd.
‘Your own mother wouldn’t recognise you under all that dust, surr.’
Muss led them across the tilted, shattered stones of the parade ground, keeping to the low side of an upthrust bank of rubbly rock that curved towards the former entrance of the fortress. In the drifting dust and smoke it was hard to follow him. Though Muss was undisguised, he tended to blend into his surroundings.
‘He’s almost as weird as the rest of the place,’ Irisis said quietly to Nish. ‘I don’t trust him, despite his fine words.’
Nish didn’t have the energy to worry about anything else. ‘He knew we were here. He could have betrayed us any time in the past few days, had he wanted to.’
‘He’s up to something,’ she muttered.
Muss, ten or fifteen paces ahead, stopped and looked directly at her, before heading off again.
Irisis shivered. ‘And he’s fey.’
Nish put an arm around her but the sudden movement made his head spin again. He gagged and pulled away.
‘Are you all right?’ Irisis said sharply.
‘This place makes me dizzy.’
‘I feel it too.’ She touched her pliance with a fingertip. ‘Whatever the amplimet did to the dimensions, they haven’t quite gone back to normal.’
Where the rubble bank branched into two, Muss stopped for everyone to catch up. ‘Best if we go in here.’
The curving slice of building in front of them was shaped like a fingernail paring cut in half. The short straight end still had its outer wall, but the exposed side, which protruded several spans further than the neighbouring slice, revealed a section through all the above-ground floors of Nennifer. The lower floors were intact and contained their original contents, but the upper two levels were in disarray, their floors and ceilings partly crumbled.
Muss sprang lightly up onto the lowest floor, which stood two-thirds of a span above the ground, and disappeared.
‘What –?’ said Klarm.
The spy reappeared, his image wavering as if seen through the surface of a rippled pond. Nish felt an almost overwhelming urge to throw up.
Irisis steadied him until the nausea faded. ‘Perhaps if you close your eyes?’
‘Fat lot of use I’ll be then, when we’re attacked.’
‘You won’t be any use if you’re hurling your breakfast up all over yourself.’
‘We didn’t have any breakfast!’ he said miserably.
‘You’ll be fine then. Hold my hand while we go through.’
Klarm looked back, frowned, then flipped himself up onto the floor. This time Nish couldn’t control his stomach. Once he’d finished, Irisis took his hand and led him to the edge. ‘Close your eyes,’ she hissed as Flangers swung himself up.
Nish did so. ‘Ready?’ Without waiting for him to answer, Irisis took him under the arms and heaved him up, grunting with the effort.
His stomach tied itself in knots as he passed through a chilly, wetly-clinging barrier, but the nausea faded as he landed on the floor inside. He stood up, steadfastly looking the other way as Irisis came through.
The room appeared to have been the sleeping chamber of a senior mancer, or possibly a scrutator, for it was lavishly appointed with rugs, tapestries and furniture made of inlaid ebony and other rare timbers. An ivory wand lay in the middle of the rug, broken in half.
‘Which way?’ said Flydd, moving in behind Muss and taking him by the upper arm.
Muss went still. ‘I don’t like to be touched, surr,’ he said stiffly.
Flydd didn’t let go, and the pair stood frozen for a full minute before Muss gave a slight dip of the head and Flydd stepped back.
‘I still have to find the way,’ said Muss, looking around. He glanced down at the eidoscope in the folds of his cloak, then opened a door and slid through it. They waited. His head appeared around the door. ‘This way.’
Irisis muttered something rude. Flydd directed a fierce scowl at her. ‘If you are to lead, you must also learn when to trust.’
‘I’d trust Muss more if he had a personality,’ she retorted. ‘I’ve known him for years, yet I have no idea what he thinks or feels, about anything. He’s a machine.’
‘One who’s served me faithfully and well, and never let me down, which is all that matters. Now be quiet. This place could still be full of enemies.’
‘They’ve all run away save the scrutators and their pet mancers.’
‘Really?’ said Flydd, thrusting at her his seamed and puckered face, all bone and gristle. ‘A good seven thousand people dwelt in Nennifer and there could be many still inside.’
She pulled away, scarcely abashed, but drew her sword. Oddly, Flydd had lost the bitter fury of the past days. The duress seemed to have driven him back to his normal irascible self, which she was used to dealing with. Nish moved closer to her. The dust made everyone else look grubby but it only heightened her beauty.
He’d expected to be fighting his way in, but the monumental corridor proved empty apart from blocks of stone, scatterings of plaster and overturned pieces of furniture. One or two wall globes still glowed further on, and moonlight streaming in through fissures provided irregular slashes of illumination. The walls and ceiling were webbed with cracks, while pieces of plaster were falling all the time.
‘One more shock and the rest of this will come down,’ Flydd said with unsettling good humour.
It was the first time Nish had seen a smile on the scrutator’s face since the rescue at Fiz Gorgo. ‘You look awfully cheerful about it.’ It was incomprehensible in such a situation.
‘I’ve been looking forward to this day since Snizort. I feel almost restored.’ A momentary spasm distorted his features, but he overcame it.
‘Do you think there are going to be aftershocks?’
‘Bound to be,’ said Flydd. ‘Muss?’
Muss had stopped in a corner of the wall, again scrying under his cloak. ‘That way.’ He pointed to the right, across a mess of rubble and timber that marked the junction with the next building slice.
The rubble contained three partly crushed bodies; none had died pleasantly. ‘It doesn’t look too safe to me,’ said Nish, averting his eyes. ‘There could be a crevasse below that, or anything.’
‘Or nothing,’ Muss said cryptically.
‘What if we crossed up there,’ said Irisis, pointing to the next floor. ‘See the beam that’s fallen across?’
They went out and along to a stair that led to the next floor, then walked the beam in single file, a miniature nightmare to add to the rest of Nish’s horrors. It was precariously balanced on shifting chunks of stone and every movement made it wobble.
They passed diagonally across part of a prentice artisan’s training room, or so Irisis judged from the boxes and displays of crystals and other artefacts, each with its crudely lettered instruction cards. The front right and rear left corners of the room had been shorn off, replaced by a masonry wall on the one hand and a triangular section of room containing only a pair of butcher’s blocks on the other. The second block, illuminated by a puddle of moonlight, held a partly carved ham and a neatly severed hand and arm, still holding the carving knife. The arm had hardly bled at all, though the fingertips were as white as the ivory wand Nish had seen earlier.
At the door, Muss checked his instrument. This time Irisis, who had been watching for it, caught a quick glimpse of brass rods and mottled lenses. Muss pointed to the right, down a narrow hall.
They were just gathering behind him when Klarm said, ‘We’re being watched.’
‘What do you mean?’ Flydd asked in a low voice.
‘I don’t know, precisely, but I can feel it.’
‘It?’ whispered Flydd.
‘I believe so.’ Klarm cast a quick glance across the displays of crystals on the far side of the room.
Irisis followed his gaze. The reflection off one particular crystal, a deep green tourmaline, gave it a predatory look. ‘I think we should get out of here right away.’
No one argued. On the other side of the door, Flydd said, ‘I can feel the amplimet now. It may be contained but it’s not controlled. It’s extending a web of filaments throughout Nennifer. And it’ll use any crystal or device capable of drawing power. We’d better hurry.’
They hastened along the hall, but had just turned the corner when they heard a distant screaming that sounded as if it came from dozens of throats. Muss stopped so suddenly that they ran into him. He sniffed the air. ‘Phantoms and spectres from the dungeons. Nothing to worry about.’
Irisis shivered and moved closer to Nish. ‘I saw more than enough of them in Ghorr’s cells. Such torments the scrutators’ prisoners have suffered here.’
He took her arm. And we’ll be joining them before long.
‘The amplimet’s blocking us,’ said Flydd as they stumbled down another dark, shattered hall only to be confronted by yet another dead end.
‘How can it?’ Klarm replied. ‘We’re just following him.’ He directed another suspicious glare at Muss’s back.
‘Perhaps it’s blocking his eidoscope,’ said Irisis. She still hadn’t seen the device clearly, for Muss only used it in the shadows.
Eiryn Muss turned to face them. ‘Not even an amplimet can influence my eidoscope. Its Art is designed to see true, no matter what.’
‘How can you possibly know what an amplimet is capable of, and you a mere prober?’ Klarm said coldly.
The derogatory emphasis made Nish flinch.
‘I chose to remain a prober because that was how I could best serve my scrutator,’ said Muss without emotion. ‘Had I wished otherwise, I could have attained the highest position any spy can aspire to.’
‘More words,’ said Klarm.
‘But in this case, true words,’ Flydd interjected. ‘Muss could have been a master spy a decade ago. I recommended him many times.’
‘Does your eidoscope see the webs and meshes the amplimet has drawn throughout this place to spy on us?’ said Klarm. ‘How else could you know that it’s not controlling what you see?’
‘It’s not,’ Muss said stolidly.
‘Lead on, Muss,’ said Flydd.
‘It’s not far now, surr,’ said the prober.
‘Let’s plan our attack,’ said Flydd. ‘How many soldiers are guarding the warding chamber?’
‘None, surr. No one would dare enter that place without authority, and the entrance is closed with scrutator magic.’
‘Ah, but can we break it?’
‘Between you and me, I think so,’ said Klarm.
‘Fusshte will have his guard on call,’ said Flydd.
‘Many died in the dislocation,’ said Muss, ‘and others have been ordered to their posts, but certainly some will be nearby.’
‘Can you get us past them, Muss?’
‘I believe so, but you’ll have to be ready to fight.’
They went on, though after about ten minutes Muss stopped and stood to one side with his arm pointing down the corridor. ‘Go down there.’ He gave a series of directions. ‘Then follow your nose as far as it takes you, and go straight up.’
‘Muss?’ said Flydd.
‘You’re close, surr. You’ll smell the place before you go much further.’
‘Lead on, Prober,’ said Flydd.
‘I can’t go on,’ said Muss with a distracted look.
‘Why not?’ Klarm said.
‘I only spy. I don’t go into dangerous places.’
‘The hell you don’t –’ cried Klarm.
In a second, Muss morphed from his normal self into a shaggy, ape-like creature. As Klarm leapt at him, Muss skin-changed to the appearance of the wall behind him and vanished.
‘Grab him!’ Klarm yelled, but Muss was gone. Klarm stood there with clenched fists, breathing heavily.
‘You shouldn’t have pushed him,’ said Flydd.
‘He’s run, Xervish, which proves that my doubts were well founded. He brought us here for a purpose and the more I think about it, the more it worries me. What if he’s told Fusshte we’re here?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Flydd. ‘I believe what Muss said.’
‘And what he left unsaid?’ said Irisis. ‘He hasn’t brought us here to serve you. He wants something and he can’t get it from the scrutators.’
‘That’s what I’m worried about,’ said Flydd.
Flydd hurried them across a series of dark rooms that had been chopped in half, stumbling over bodies on the floor. They did not stop to look at them. They climbed down into the next segment of the building, a dining hall that had been turned upside down and fitted neatly back into place, though what had been the ceiling was now strewn with upside-down trestles, benches, trenchers and cutlery. Oddly, the globes on the walls were still working. The place smelled of boiled turnip, the vegetable Nish hated most. It had been a staple back in the manufactory.
Something squelched underfoot. He had trodden in a bowl of yellow gruel, as sticky as glue. He kicked it aside and it skidded across the floor to shatter against a bench.
‘Quiet!’ hissed Flydd, appearing to look every way at once. ‘What was that?’
‘I didn’t hear anything unusual,’ said Klarm in a low voice.
To Nish’s mind, every sound was unusual and some were uncanny. The groan of timbers deformed under weights they were never intended to bear; the sporadic crash and crumble of plaster or masonry; the trickling rivulets of dust and grit; the alternate soughing, whining and whistling of the wind across the severed edges of stone and tile; the cascades of water from twisted pipes and the surging ooze and plop of waste from shattered drains. And then there were the wails and groans of those trapped in the wreckage and the shrieking of the spectres forced from their dungeon homes. The cries seemed to come from every direction.
They went on, Nish’s boot sticking to the floor with every step, through the far door into a frigid stone canyon. The roof was gone, as well as the floors above, while the walls to either side stretched up, bare and unclimbable, for a good twelve spans. The opposite wall was crusted with frozen runs of brown muck that had a sewer stink. Moonbeams angled along it, touching silver gleams here and there.
‘Help!’ came a distant cry. ‘Please … help me. Oh please, please.’ It sounded like a child.
Flangers turned that way, searching the darkness.
‘No, Sergeant,’ said Flydd, laying a hand on his arm. ‘If we stop to render aid to one, all may fail.’
‘But it’s a kid, surr,’ Flangers said in a choked voice.
‘I know,’ Flydd said gently, ‘but we must go on.’ He looked left, then right. Then left again. ‘Bloody Muss! I don’t know which way.’
‘Left,’ Klarm said without hesitation.
No one asked how he knew. At the far end they clambered up a pile of rubble two storeys tall, over a precariously founded stone arch and onto a bridge formed by a crumbling stretch of lath and plaster ceiling that had fallen from somewhere above. It spanned a chasm at least three storeys deep. Something flickered redly in the depths, though there was no smoke.
‘I don’t think that’s going to support our weight,’ said the biggest and heaviest of the soldiers. ‘Better look for another way.’
‘We haven’t time,’ said Flydd. ‘It looks solid enough. A couple of beams are holding it. Just tread carefully.’
‘That’s all right for you,’ Irisis grumbled. ‘You don’t weigh more than a cupful of fleas.’
‘I’d better go first then, in case you fall and carry the lot with you,’ said Flydd callously. He stepped out onto the bridge, which was mottled white and black in the moonlight, the black patches barely distinguishable from the holes.
Klarm followed, stepping confidently. Nish went after him, trying to place his feet precisely where the dwarf’s had gone, though it was awkward owing to the greater length of his stride. Four steps out from the edge, his right foot went through a patch of plaster. Nish tried to scramble back but was too far off-balance. He fell forwards, his left knee punched a hole through more plaster and he fell. He threw his arms out and managed to hook the left over the supporting beam.
‘Help!’ he roared, but the others were well back and Flydd five or six steps ahead.
Nish was flailing desperately, the weight inexorably straightening his arm, when Klarm sprang, landed with his stumpy legs straddling the two beams and caught Nish by the collar. Legs spread-eagled like a gymnast, Klarm strained until his eyes stood out of his head.
Nish knew the little man couldn’t do it. The beams slipped, Klarm wobbled back and forth and threw out his free arm to balance himself.
Flydd took a step towards them. More plaster crumbled.
‘Don’t move!’ cried Klarm.
Flydd froze. Klarm bellowed like a buffalo. His face and neck had gone purple and there was a bead of saliva on his lower lip. His arm trembled; then, with agonising slowness, he lifted Nish’s dead weight a fraction.
‘Reach up with your right foot, lad,’ he said after he’d raised Nish a couple of hand-spans. ‘You’ll have to take the strain. I’m not tall enough to lift you all the way, and if the beams slip again we’re both gone.’
Nish felt for the beam, stretching sideways and up, but his calf muscles knotted. He couldn’t allow them to cramp. He eased back, stretched again and his foot touched the side of the beam.
‘You’ll have to get your foot on top,’ said Klarm, the sinews in his neck standing out like cords. ‘Push sideways and you’ll force the beam away – and I’m already doing the splits.’
Up, up Nish reached. The beam slipped again and he saw the agonised expression on Klarm’s face as he was forced to stretch even further. Nish hooked his heel over the top of the beam, took a little of the strain and, almost miraculously, the beam came back towards him. He levered, Klarm lifted and with a heave and a shudder Nish was on the beam, clinging to it with his legs dangling down either side.
He was drenched in sweat, his heart hammering, and his knees had turned to rubber. Nish looked back at the silent group. No miracle at all. Irisis and Flangers had linked arms around the beams, taken the strain and pulled them together.
‘Thank you,’ he said quietly.
Klarm extended a hand and lifted Nish to his feet. Nish wobbled after him, this time stepping exactly where the little man had and, ten or twelve steps later, reached the other side. He turned to watch the rest of the party.
‘What’s that funny smell?’ said Irisis when she was halfway across. She stopped to sniff the air, no more troubled by the crossing than if she’d been walking down a path.
‘I can’t smell anything,’ grunted Flangers as he edged his way after her, looking green.
‘It’s a sweet, gassy odour.’ Irisis took another breath. ‘Not unpleasant.’
‘Round here, nice smells can mask … other things,’ said Klarm, kneading the muscles of his calves. ‘I’d not breathe too deeply if I were you.’
‘Muss did say to follow our noses,’ said Irisis.
‘And you know what I think about his advice.’ He sniffed the air. ‘It’s coming from that direction.’
They went along a narrow service hall, relatively free of debris, then up a steep, straight staircase that ran on for three floors. In several places the steps were covered in rubble or broken plaster, and further up by a large, intricately carved soapstone cabinet that had fallen on a stout, muscular woman with closely cropped grey hair. Blood trickled down the steps from the back of her head.
‘She’s dead,’ said Flydd after a cursory examination. ‘Was she carrying it to a place of safety?’
‘Stealing it in the confusion, more likely,’ said Klarm, ‘else she’d have had someone to help her.’
‘It’s hard to see how she could have hoped to profit from it. She could hardly carry it through the mountains.’
‘People don’t always act rationally in a disaster.’
‘I’ll bet the scrutators did,’ said Flydd, moving around the dead woman and up. ‘They’ll have a refuge somewhere in here.’
‘I doubt if any hiding place could be proof against what’s happened here,’ said Klarm. ‘The force that sliced Nennifer up and rearranged it came from outside our three dimensions.’
‘Where are all the people?’ said Nish.
‘Probably sucked through a dimensional wormhole into the void,’ speculated Irisis gloomily. ‘Like we’re going to be before too long.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Flydd. ‘They would have fled through the rear doors and windows. If they’ve any sense they’ll be in the air-dreadnought yard around the back. Even if the walls collapse, it’s sheltered from the wind and they can make fires there.’
‘Getting back to the amplimet,’ said Klarm, ‘how are we supposed to master it without Yggur or Malien?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Flydd.
‘Seems as though we came all this way without a proper plan and we still don’t have one.’
‘There’s no point to having a plan, since we don’t know what we’re going to find.’
Klarm looked unconvinced. The statement did nothing for Nish’s confidence either. ‘It’s awfully quiet,’ he said. The creaking had stopped, the cries for help faded long ago. There was no sound but the distant wind.
They kept climbing, only to be confronted by an appalling stench on the fourth floor.
‘Slowly now,’ said Flydd.
The air was hot up here. Klarm pressed open an iron door with a fingertip, and reeled back. If the smell had been bad lower down, it was revolting here, and the walls were covered with a greasy film of soot.
‘It smells like burnt meat, or leather. Or hair.’
‘Perhaps all three,’ said Flydd, crumpling a corner of his cloak in his fist and breathing through it.
Nish pulled his sleeve down and held it over his nose, which didn’t help much since the cloth stank of vomit. He glanced at Irisis, who looked green.
‘What do you think has happened?’ he whispered.
‘Be quiet,’ hissed Flydd.
Irisis allowed him to move ahead, then said out of the corner of her mouth, ‘The scrutators aren’t roasting us a welcome dinner.’
Nish couldn’t even smile. They went through a second iron door, which was ajar due to the warping of its frame. The third door had been sealed with scrutator magic which it took Flydd and Klarm a considerable effort to break. The gap between door and floor was coated with soot.
A fourth door confronted them, this one partly open. It was made of chased bronze, soot-stained in places, elsewhere banded with swirling patterns of colour from being overheated.
The smell was even more nauseating. Flydd reached out to the bronze door but drew back before his fingers touched the surface. ‘It’s still hot!’
He tried to force it with his boot but the hinges were stuck. Flangers levered it open with the hilt of his sword and carefully put his head through. He beckoned behind him with one hand.
They passed through into a large, open space and stopped as one. There was just enough light to show that the chamber was shaped like a hemisphere. The charred reek was overpowering. Klarm made a muffled noise in his throat. Nish wanted to be sick, though fortunately he had nothing left to bring up. Behind him he could hear someone spewing liquidly.
His eyes began to pick out details. An oval central dais, about five spans long, was partly shielded by head-high blades of faceted rose quartz, preventing Nish from seeing what lay within, though he assumed it was the amplimet. Water had trickled down the sides where the inner ice wards had melted, and there were puddles on the floor. A metal column, the size of a substantial tree trunk, ran from one end of the dais up through the ceiling. So Muss hadn’t sent them to the scrutators’ lair after all. Surrounding the rose-quartz walls stood what Nish had thought were nine statues carved out of ebony, or obsidian, though their surfaces were rough and dull. It was only when Flydd put up his hand and light streamed forth that Nish realised his mistake.
The statues were the remains of nine men and women, the scrutators’ chief mancers, he presumed.
‘Just as Eiryn Muss said.’ Flydd gave Klarm a significant glance.
They had been turned to charcoal where they had stood, anthracised in place as they strove to work some mighty magic on the amplimet. No, not charcoal. It looked like black, honeycombed flesh, as if the living bodies had turned to char where they stood and escaping gases had foamed it up before it solidified. The statues were perfect replicas of the humans they had once been, save for the empty eye-sockets and various glistenings and dribbles, like wax that had run down the sides of a candle. Imagining the horrors they’d been through before they died, Nish’s skin crawled.
‘They must have been probing the amplimet,’ said Klarm. ‘And it didn’t like it. It’s a warning to us all.’
Something skittered along the curved far wall. Irisis couldn’t see what it was. She moved further out into the room, though shadows lay all around and she still felt exposed. The scrutators could be anywhere.
‘A warning to the Council, too,’ said Flydd. ‘Fusshte must be paralysed with terror.’
‘He’ll get over it,’ Klarm said dryly. ‘He’s the ultimate opportunist. Well, do we go for the crystal or the Council?’
Irisis looked the other way, only then seeing, in the semidarkness around the circumference of the room, another ring of mancers, each standing with left arm outstretched and hand up, as if holding the whole world at bay. There were fifteen of them, and the right hand of each clutched a device that vaguely resembled her pliance, though presumably much more powerful. The mancers stood as still as the carbonised statues, apart from the faint tremble of an outstretched arm here, a pulse throbbing in a throat there; and apart from the wide, staring eyes, which revealed such terror in their hard and rigid souls as Irisis had never before witnessed. The mancers knew what their fate would be once the concentration of any one of them faltered, as sooner or later it must.
‘If we go for the amplimet we may be caught in the cone of control these ward-mancers have over it,’ said Flydd. ‘Yet, if we attack the Council, their hold could fail and the amplimet break free.’ He considered for a moment, gazing at one of the ward-mancers though not seeing her. ‘The Council would be less risky, I think.’
‘How so?’ said Klarm.
‘Given the fate of the inner ring, would you put your shoulder to the same wheel? Or would you stand back and let your mancers take the strain?’
‘I’d stand with my people,’ said Klarm. ‘How could any man do otherwise? Better it cost me life than honour.’
‘Quite,’ said Flydd, ‘though Fusshte would see it differently. Better the limb be amputated than the whole body die. Nothing is more important than the Council, so the Council must survive even at the cost of everything and everyone surrounding it. Can we attack Fusshte without risking their hold on the crystal?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Klarm.
They moved through the ring of ward-mancers, Irisis passing by a dumpy, white-haired woman whose eyes did not even register her. The ward-mancers’ vision was turned elsewhere.
‘How can we find Fusshte in all this chaos?’ said Flydd. ‘Curse you, Eiryn Muss.’
‘I’m sensing something above us,’ said Irisis, crushing her pliance in her fist, the better to see.
‘Are they drawing on the field?’ said Flydd.
‘The reverse …’ Irisis tried to make sense of what she was seeing, which wasn’t easy. The patterns were weirdly truncated, as if the dimensional dislocation that had sliced up Nennifer had done the same to the fields. ‘There must be hundreds of little devices still working here – globes and so forth. I can see where they’re drawing on the field all over the place.’
‘Then what’s the problem?’ said Klarm roughly.
She screwed her eyes closed, furrowing her brow. ‘That’s just it. It all looks normal except, directly above this room –’ she nodded upwards, ‘– it’s completely blank. It’s as if the field doesn’t extend through that space. And that’s impossible.’
‘The Council has shielded its bolthole,’ rapped Klarm. ‘They’re afraid to come out. Come on.’
Flydd didn’t move. ‘If they’re afraid to use power, so should we be.’
‘So we rush them and overwhelm them with physical force,’ said Klarm. ‘It’s the one thing they won’t be expecting.’
‘Let’s hope Muss was right about the guards,’ said Flydd, eyeing their little group.
He went back through the four metal doors and looked around. ‘Straight up, Muss said. Ah!’
He headed for a set of coiling metal stairs that looked as though they’d been jammed diagonally down through the roof. As he stepped onto the first tread the stairs shook as if the only thing holding them was the shattered hole through the ceiling. A span below that, the outside curve and rail had been shorn away leaving the treads dangling precariously.
Klarm followed, then the four surviving soldiers and Flangers, Nish and Inouye, who carried a short sword as though it were a walking stick. She’d be no use in a battle. At the first coil of the stairs Nish looked down at Irisis, who had stopped on the bottom step. ‘Is something the matter?’
She shook her head but couldn’t clear away the after-images of the field. ‘I … think so. Everything’s so strange here; I can’t get my bearings. And …’
‘What is it?’
‘I can’t help feeling that we’ve missed something.’
‘I feel the same,’ said Nish. He looked up. The others had passed the damaged part of the stair and were disappearing through the ceiling.
Above the ceiling the stair continued, more wobbly than before, eventually terminating just below a broken hole in the slate-clad roof. They scrambled up and through onto the roof. Not far away, the remains of an open-sided, glass-roofed passage led into a broad dome that stood some twenty spans above the roof on pillars of basalt. The dome, although tilted at a slight angle, was intact, but the roof surrounding it had been sliced and reassembled in many places.
‘Careful now,’ said Flydd as they headed for the passage and the entrance to the dome. ‘There could be guards inside.’
The wind howled around the dome, though not loudly enough to block out the cries of the injured in the rear yard. A bonfire blazed in the far corner and throngs of bewildered, bedraggled people stood around it, staring at the flames.
With a crash and a shudder, a section of Nennifer to their west collapsed. The mass of people surged away towards the far wall of the yard.
‘Poor devils,’ said Flydd. ‘Without food or water they can’t last long, and they know it.’
‘They’re brutes, all of them,’ said Irisis, recalling her previous treatment here.
‘Aye,’ said Klarm. ‘Corrupted by cruel masters, but human beings nonetheless.’
Seeing no guards, they pressed on, acutely aware that the amplimet could overcome the ward-mancers at any moment. At the entrance to the dome, Flydd and Klarm laid their bare hands on the door, sensing the magic that closed it. Flydd asked Klarm a question which Irisis didn’t catch. Klarm shook his head. Irisis crept closer. Flydd moved his hands across the door, taking one position after another. He looked down at Klarm, who gave another shake of the head.
Flydd swore, stepped back and bumped into Irisis. ‘Would you get out of the way?’ he snapped.
She gave him room. ‘Will it warn them if we break the magic?’ he said to the dwarf.
‘Very probably,’ said Klarm.
They put their heads together, low down, and Irisis couldn’t see what they were doing, but shortly the door came open. No klaxon went off, though that didn’t mean there was no alarm. Flydd beckoned and they went through. ‘I’ll seal it to any but us,’ he said. ‘It won’t keep scrutators or mancers out but the guards won’t be able to get through.’
He did so, looking haggard as he turned from the door. Aftersickness was wearing him down and there was so far to go, the worst yet to be faced.
The space inside the dome consisted of a single open chamber, some fifty spans across, dimly lit by globes suspended from the ceiling on long chains. The central area was divided up by a maze of long tables, workbenches and cabinets, while the outer ring of the chamber was completely empty. Irisis wondered why. The walls contained tapestries and paintings glorifying the Council, and there were statues and busts of scrutators everywhere. Irisis saw many busts of Ghorr, carved in marble, obsidian and even granite. She wanted to knock them off their pedestals.
From the look of the devices laid out on the benches, the chamber was the Council’s private workroom. In the centre a spherical turret was mounted on a metal stalk five or six spans high. Clusters of conduited bell-pulls ran out from one side of the turret, as well as flared pipes that Irisis assumed to be speaking tubes. Through the wide windows, standing at sloping tables, she saw five scrutators.
Fusshte, identifiable at a distance by his meagre, misshapen frame, had his back to them and stood by himself. The other four scrutators made a tight group on the other side of the turret. Irisis recognised Scrutator Halie, a small dark woman who’d once been a kind of ally of Flydd’s, and Scrutators Barbish, Ying and Eober.
‘The four surviving scrutators have been forced to side with him,’ said Flydd, ‘and they don’t like it. Now, if we can just –’
Too late. They’d been seen. The group of scrutators leapt for their consoles. Fusshte stood frozen for a moment, staring in disbelief as Flydd waved jauntily at him, then disappeared from view.
They dived behind the benches. ‘Did you see the swine?’ crowed Flydd. ‘He had no idea we were within a hundred leagues of Nennifer.’
‘He’ll soon realise that we were behind the amplimet’s liberation,’ said Klarm. ‘That’ll terrify him.’
‘Until he works out that we don’t know what we’re doing,’ retorted Flydd. ‘Come on – we’ve got to attack while he’s still off-balance. Soldiers – split into two pairs. Narm and Byrn, go around to the right; Yuddl and Qertois, take the left flank. Weave through the benches to attack the turret from the sides with crossbow fire. I’ll hit it from our left front. Flangers, come with me. Klarm, take the right front approach. Inouye, go with him as a messenger.’
‘What about us?’ said Nish and Irisis at the same time.
‘Stay here. Irisis, keep an eye on the field and watch for the unexpected. Nish, guard her back.’
‘I’ve just had a horrible thought,’ said Nish after a minute’s inactivity.
‘So have I.’
‘What is it?’
‘You go first. We’re probably thinking the same thing anyway.’
‘Fusshte has another option Flydd didn’t think of: to divert the amplimet’s attention to us. While it’s attacking us, Fusshte’s ward-mancers might be able to permanently contain it. And then he can use all the power he wants.’
A long interval of silence was punctuated by the creaking of the foundations, a distant collapse, and then the thunder of thousands of terrorised people in the yard stampeding again.
‘Let’s hope he doesn’t think of that,’ said Irisis, holding her pliance against her temple. ‘Though of course he will.’
Nish waited, but when she didn’t go on he said, ‘Was that what you were thinking?’
‘Unfortunately not. The scrutators won’t dare direct power from the field against us. If they did, the amplimet could ride it back and overwhelm them. But they can still use devices that store power, and there are plenty here. Nennifer reeks of the Art.’
‘So Flydd and Klarm could be walking into a trap.’
‘They’re bound to be.’
Something whirred across the room, high up, and a chilly eddy touched the back of Nish’s neck. ‘What was that?’ he whispered.
‘I don’t know.’ She moved closer to him. ‘Can you see what’s going on?’
Nish eased his head above the bench and caught a fleeting scuttle from the left of the turret, though he couldn’t identify it. ‘I haven’t got a clue.’
The whirr sounded again, and closer. A serrated flash of light was followed by a mechanical shrilling that set his teeth on edge. Someone far off cried out.
‘That sounded like Klarm!’ Irisis’s eyes were closed and her pliance was enclosed in her hands, which were extended in front of her as if in prayer. He’d never seen her look so uncertain.
Another flash, a thud, a scream, and then a grinding sound like metal teeth cutting through bone.
‘Get back!’ Flydd roared. ‘Baaack!’
‘No!’ one of the soldiers roared. ‘Behind you –’
Swords clashed on metal, then something shot straight up from beside the turret. The light caught it as it revolved in the air – a small object, toothed like a cogwheel. A glassy sphere with a brown circle on one side, resembling a mechanical eyeball, arced after it. It seemed to look down on them, a yellow light blinked back the other way, and the sphere disappeared behind the cabinets.
The speaking tubes gave forth a deep, throbbing blast that shook dust down on Irisis’s hair. It went on and on, and only at the end did Nish realise that there were words in it.
‘Guards! Guards! To the scrutators’ dome at all speed.’
‘What are we supposed to do now?’ said Nish, risking another glance over the bench.
Pfft! A crossbow bolt scored a groove across the timber, embedding dozens of splinters into his right cheek. He ducked down and began to pick them out.
‘I don’t know. The scrutators have outwitted us.’
‘Should we go to Flydd’s aid?’
‘Better to die in battle than fall into Fusshte’s hands. Let’s do it. A last stand together, Nish.’
She was about to stand up when Nish heard a low clattering sound in the alley of benches and cabinets to their left. He jerked her down. Three bolts screamed through the space where she’d been about to lift her head.
Clatter, rasp-clatter came from around the corner.
‘What’s that?’ He cocked his head.
It came darting this way and that, a device like a metal ball with rubber tyres running around it in three directions, and a pair of whirling scythes the length of knife blades sprouting from either side. It bumped against a cabinet and the blades chopped straight through the wood. It then spun around twice, thumped against the outside wall, turned and headed straight for Nish.
‘How the hell are we supposed to fight that?’ said Irisis.
‘I don’t know, but I sure hope there aren’t more of them.’
‘Keep your head down!’ Irisis hissed.
Nish ducked but this time no one fired. They didn’t need to; this whirring menace would cut them off at the ankles.
Nish stepped forward like a batsman facing a bowler and swiped at the spinning ball with his sword. It darted the other way, bounced off the wall and came at him, blades whirring.
He stumbled backwards, was stopped by the bench and lashed out. Again the ball shot sideways; his sword tip just missed the scything blades. Before he was ready for another swing it spun towards his right foot, turning at the last moment. A blade chopped through the side of his boot into his foot.
Nish yelped and leapt high. The ball rolled back then raced at him again. He bounced on one foot, hacking at his attacker, left, right then left again. His second blow dug into one of the circular tyres, sending the ball whirling like a top, but the tyres spun the other way, bringing it to a smoking stop, and it went at him again.
Nish tripped over a fallen chair and landed flat on his back. The ball, its blades clacking, darted up between his legs. He couldn’t get his sword to it in time.
Whoomph. Irisis’s heavy cloak smothered the deadly blades. Nish propelled himself out of the way, sliding on his back. Lifting a granite bust of Ghorr off its pedestal, she turned it upside down and dropped it on the still quivering bundle, which smashed satisfyingly. The nose broke off the bust.
Irisis eased her cloak away and the blades fell to the floor. The ball lay on its side, crushed, an ooze of green grease coming from inside. She turned a bench over in front of them and another behind, walling off the lane, then put the slashed cloak on.
‘Thanks.’ Nish poked a finger through the gash in his boot. The injury didn’t seem too serious. He got up.
Another of those eyeball objects arced across the room. A series of flashes – red and green, followed by an eye-searingly brilliant white – came from one side of the turret. Others burst from its rear.
‘At least they’re still alive,’ said Irisis. ‘Well, some of them.’
‘But for how much longer? And when the guards get here …’
‘I don’t hear anyone running,’ said Irisis. ‘Perhaps they can’t find a way through the dislocation.’
‘I wouldn’t bet my life on it.’
The bright lights faded, returning the chamber to its previous gloom. Along to Nish’s left something scraped against timber. ‘Did you hear that?’ he whispered. ‘They’re coming.’
‘I’ve been expecting it.’ She gave him her hand. ‘Ready?’
He clasped it, gulped and nodded stiffly. Drawing his sword, he swung it through the air a few times. A bolt whistled over his head and smacked into the wall, releasing a little cloud of plaster dust that drifted around the circumference of the chamber.
There came a rustle from the direction of the scrape; an odd, tentative sound. ‘That didn’t sound very scary,’ said Nish. ‘Shall we go at them?’
I’ll bet it can, Nish thought. ‘All right.’ He stepped over the bench, ducked low as he passed a gap, then crept forward, sword out. What was waiting for them? Soldiers in ambush? More of those scything balls? Or any of a myriad of uncanny devices of war the artificers of Nennifer had created in the past decade, some under the supervision of Xervish Flydd himself?
The suspended globes faded to a dull yellow; the gloom thickened. The scratching came from just ahead. A lump throbbed in the pit of Nish’s stomach and the sword slipped in his sweating fingers.
Courage! he told himself. Die like a man, if you must die. He took a step, hesitated, then another. It was just around the corner. Nish glanced over his shoulder at Irisis. She was crouched low, her sword flicking from side to side like a viper’s tongue.
The speaking tubes rumbled again. ‘Guards!’ came Fusshte’s voice. ‘To me, to me.’
Nish went another step. Something rustled in the darkness and he went up on his toes and sprang.
‘Stop!’ Irisis hissed.
A small pale face and huge dark eyes looked up at him and he stayed his stroke at the last instant. It was Pilot Inouye, crawling along the floor, a trail of blood coming from her left leg.
Nish sheathed the sword and dropped to his knees beside her. ‘What’s happened?’ he said.
‘Guards came from – behind. Two of Yggur’s men – dead. Flydd and Klarm – pinned down. Can’t get free.’
‘And they sent you for help?’ said Nish, drawing up the leg of her pants. Inouye’s slender calf had been cruelly gashed, probably by another of those scything balls. ‘They want us to come to their aid?’ He already knew it was hopeless.
‘No,’ she gasped. ‘You can’t do anything …’
Nish tore off the hem of his undershirt. It was none too clean but he had to stop the bleeding. He began to bind the wound. Inouye winced, and tears sprang to her eyes, but she made no sound.
‘What does Flydd want us to do?’ said Irisis.
Inouye was growing paler by the second. ‘Flydd can’t use power … nor scrutators against him. But … soldiers coming. Flydd says, find Tiaan and bring her … bring her … Must not let her …’ Her head flopped sideways to the floor. ‘Malien …’ Her eyes closed. She was breathing shallowly and her lips had no colour at all.
‘What’s she trying to say?’ said Nish.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Irisis.
‘Why does Flydd want Tiaan?’
‘No one else can hope to control the amplimet,’ Irisis conjectured. ‘If Tiaan can, it’ll break the stalemate and Flydd can attack.’
‘Doesn’t sound like much of a plan,’ said Nish. ‘Where the bloody hell is Tiaan anyway?’
‘Muss …’ whispered Inouye, opening her eyes momentarily.
‘We’ll have to find the sneaky little bastard first,’ spat Irisis. She jerked her head at Nish and moved away. He followed. ‘What are we supposed to do?’ Irisis went on. ‘We can’t carry Inouye and she can’t walk.’
‘She’s lost a lot of blood,’ said Nish, not understanding what she was getting at.
‘We’ll have to leave her here, Nish.’
He shook his head. ‘I can’t.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘We’ve turned our backs on too many people already. I keep hearing their cries for help, just as I did at the battle of Gumby Marth. I had to leave them to die and I swore I’d never do that again.’
‘This means survival, Nish, for all of us, and all our hopes.’
‘But Inouye is one of us. She’s done all that’s been demanded of her and we’ve given her nothing in return.’
‘Do you think I don’t know that?’ she said between her teeth. ‘You’ve got to steel yourself, Nish. This is just like any other battle. It’s cruel, but the injured have to be left behind. If we stop to help them we’ll all die, in vain.’
Her words roused memories he wasn’t strong enough to face. Nish had left Gumby Marth a hero, though that had been diminished by the hundreds of soldiers he’d had to abandon because they’d been too badly injured to walk. He could still see the agony on their faces, but what he most remembered was their bewilderment – that their sacrifices had been repaid so cruelly.
‘Nish?’ she shook him.
‘What if it were me?’
She looked away. ‘It isn’t.’
‘All right!’ he said furiously. ‘But we can’t just leave her lying on the floor.’
Irisis hesitated, then nodded. ‘I’ll find a hide for her.’
Nish turned back. Inouye opened those tragic eyes and reached up to him with one hand. ‘Don’t leave me,’ she said in a cracked voice.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, picking her up.
‘Don’t let me die,’ she whimpered. ‘My children –’
‘You’re not going to die, Inouye.’
‘In here, Nish.’ Irisis was pointing to the top shelf of an open cabinet. ‘It’s the best we can do.’
Nish carried Inouye across. ‘Don’t leave me,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t leave me, don’t leave me.’ She was shuddering with terror.
He tried to ignore it, sliding her onto the shelf and pushing her to the back. She reached out to him but Nish ducked out of the way. He couldn’t meet her eyes. ‘We’ll be back soon.’ They probably wouldn’t be back at all.
Inouye began to wail in a low scratchy tone.
‘Bloody little fool!’ hissed Irisis. ‘Do you want to attract them to you? Lie still and shut up and you may yet survive.’
Inouye kept on wailing until Irisis whacked her. The noise stopped immediately.
‘Come on,’ Irisis muttered, red in the face.
They hurried towards the entrance, keeping low. ‘Did you have to hit her so hard?’ said Nish. ‘The poor little …’
‘You can shut up as well, Cryl-Nish Hlar, unless you want the other hand,’ Irisis said savagely.
It heartened him to discover that she wasn’t as unfeeling as she made out. They slipped out through the mage-locked door, which plucked at them like a thousand rubber fishhooks. Irisis stopped on the landing, one hand to her ear.
‘Can you hear anything?’
‘Only people groaning in the yard, poor devils,’ said Nish.
‘No, the reinforcements are on their way. Let’s get out of their path.’
They moved off the stairs into a narrow space, a sliver of green-tiled floor between two moss-covered outer walls. ‘How are we supposed to find Muss?’ said Nish.
‘I imagine he’ll find us. I didn’t believe his story for an instant. He left Flydd months ago because he was no longer useful. Then, when Flydd turned up here and the scrutators’ downfall looked likely, Muss changed sides again. He does it as easily as he changes his shape. He led us in because he wanted something that he couldn’t get himself. The amplimet, presumably.’
‘Why would he want it?’ said Nish. ‘He’s not –’
‘For decades he concealed that he was a powerful adept,’ she said in a low voice. ‘What else is he? No one knows. Muss will be close by, waiting to see who gets the upper hand and working out how he can use them to his advantage.’ She lowered her voice. ‘He’ll tell us where to find Tiaan. The stalemate won’t suit him any more than it does us. But the instant he tells us, we grab him.’
Grabbing a morphmancer didn’t seem like a very good idea to Nish. ‘What then?’
‘We bind his hands and stop his mouth so he can’t morph into another shape, and take him with us. I want the wretch where I can see him for the rest of our time here.’
‘He could be rather a handful.’
‘Then club him over the head! Whoever isn’t with us is against us, Nish.’
They were nearing the warding chamber when Nish heard the sound of massed footsteps, below and to their left. ‘That must be Fusshte’s reinforcements.’
Irisis pulled him into a rubble-choked cavern where two walls had fallen against each other to form a space shaped like a tent. While they waited, Nish couldn’t help wondering how solid the structure was.
A squad came tramping along the gritty corridor, ten men led by a stocky captain, followed a minute later by a second squad and then a third. The captain stopped, looking around in puzzlement at the dislocated walls and the stair which patently had crashed through the roof. ‘Which way?’
No one seemed to know. They turned back down the corridor, stopped again and the captain called, ‘Master Muss?’
He came towards them, reluctantly, and after a brief exchange pointed back the way they had come. The soldiers tramped off and Muss came on, stopping directly outside Nish and Irisis’s hiding place. ‘Well?’ he said.
‘It’s a stalemate,’ said Irisis. ‘Flydd and Klarm are pinned down. They can’t get to the scrutators’ turret and the scrutators can’t reach them. They’re afraid to use power.’
Muss stared into her eyes as if he suspected her of holding something back. ‘Then Fusshte will take them sooner or later.’
‘And that doesn’t suit you, Muss?’ said Irisis.
‘We’ve got to find Tiaan,’ Nish burst out. ‘She may be able to control the amplimet.’
‘Tiaan …’ Muss stared into the dusty distance. ‘I don’t think – she’s not been treated well. Unless she trusts you, you may not get anything out of her.’ His eyes seemed to look into Nish’s head.
Nish coloured. ‘Well, she’s all we have left.’
Taking the eidoscope out from under his cloak, Muss turned away. Nish peered around him. The morphmancer pushed in one spangled lens and rotated it, pulled out another, spun a third and peered through the end. He scratched his ear, performed more rotations with his eye and cheek to the end lens, then said, ‘Follow me.’
After some minutes of trekking quite as dangerous as the trip in, and rather more crowded with wailing spectres, they reached the solid wooden door of what, from the dank smell, had been a basement dungeon cell. It now lay two floors above ground level.
‘Tiaan’s cell,’ said Eiryn Muss.
Nish tried the door but it didn’t budge.
‘It’s held fast by scrutator magic,’ said Muss. ‘You’ll have to break the door to get inside.’
‘It’s solid ironwood,’ said Irisis. ‘It’d take half an hour to get through it with an axe. And we don’t have an axe.’ She stared at him expectantly.
After a long hesitation, Muss used his eidoscope again, this time not seeming to care that they saw it. Nish didn’t think that was a good sign. Muss frowned, shape-shifted a couple of times, returned to his normal form, then reached out and seemed to put his arm right through the stone beside the door. He did something on the other side and the door came open.
They pushed in. Tiaan lay on a straw-filled palliasse, staring at the ceiling. She was filthy, her clothes even filthier, and her black hair formed a tangled mass. Her arms and legs were shaking. Nish approached her tentatively, for Tiaan mistrusted him, and with good reason. And she felt the same way about Irisis.
‘Tiaan?’ he said softly.
She turned her eyes toward him, without recognition, then looked back at the ceiling. A louse the length of Nish’s fingernail crawled up her neck into her hair. She didn’t appear to notice.
She turned, and this time her eyes widened. She lurched to her feet, batted feebly at a point to the right of Nish, gave a gasp of horror and tried to climb the wall behind her.
Nish caught her as she fell back on the palliasse. ‘It’s like she’s seeing ghosts.’
‘Perhaps she thinks we are ghosts.’
‘What do we do with her?’ said Nish.
‘I have no idea. And to add to our troubles, bloody Muss has disappeared again.’
They carried Tiaan back through the spectre-infested chaos, taking turns. She did not resist. Indeed, Tiaan hardly knew they were there.
‘What’s the matter with her?’
Nish had stopped for a breather on a floor made of smashed slabs of pink gneiss that crunched and crackled underfoot. In the distance, a segment of Nennifer crumbled with a roar that shook the walls. Glass objects, warped like figures in a torture chamber, fell off a shelf. Collapses were happening all the time now.
‘She’s been in the depraved hands of Fusshte,’ said Irisis, frowning at the three corridors that led on. ‘It would drive anyone out of their mind.’
‘He’s slimy and squalid, but he’s not a fool. Tiaan can do things no one else has ever been able to, and he wouldn’t break her and lose that talent.’
‘I’ll take her now.’ Nish hefted Tiaan off his shoulder onto Irisis’s. Irisis grimaced. ‘She stinks.’
‘And that’s not all.’ Raking his fingers though his short hair, Nish plucked off a fat louse which he flicked away with his thumb. He scratched under his arm. ‘I think she’s given me fleas as well.’
‘Poor Nish. How you must be suffering.’ She looked around. ‘Surely we’re getting close to the warding chamber?’
‘I think so. It’s not easy to remember the way.’
They continued on, struggling between head-high piles of rubble, or over them. Confronted by a particularly large heap, with beams sticking out of it like the spines of a sea urchin, Nish said, ‘This wasn’t here when we came through.’
She picked her way around to the left, Tiaan flopping on her shoulder. ‘There’s not much holding Nennifer up. Once any slice fails, the ones on either side of it are doomed to follow. The whole lot could come down without warning.’
He stayed where he was, unsure if they were going in the right direction. ‘You don’t have to be so damned cheerful about it.’
‘The joys of fatalism, Nish. When you have no expectations, every extra moment of life is a blessing and a wonder.’ She gave him a beatific smile over her shoulder.
‘I think it’s this way,’ she said, moving around the other side of the rubble pile.
Nish climbed up onto the heap and peered over into the gloom. Their path was blocked by tilted slabs of floor and ceiling which had collapsed on one another like a deck of cards. ‘No, we’ll have to go back to that junction where we went right, and take the middle way. Do you need a hand?’
Irisis hefted Tiaan higher onto her shoulder and turned back. At the junction she checked the other corridors. ‘I don’t think it was either of these. Bloody Muss! What’s he up to?’
Nish was too weary to answer. He put his hand on the wall and a small section collapsed, revealing a cavity than ran in to the limit of sight. He hopped backwards in case the rest came down, but the wall didn’t move. Once the dust had settled he sniffed the air coming from the hole. ‘I can smell that stink again. The warding chamber must be this way.’
‘Surprised you can smell anything over Tiaan,’ Irisis grumbled, coming up to the cavity. ‘Can you take her?’
Nish hauled Tiaan through, heaved her onto his shoulder and set off, following his nose.
Tiaan let out a low moan and began to thrash. Nish, who was negotiating a pile of rubble higher than his head, landed hard on one knee on a broken piece of stone and cried out. Tiaan jerked herself out of his arms. Crouching on all fours, she gave him a strange sideways glance and scuttled up the pile.
‘No you don’t!’ Irisis threw herself after Tiaan and caught her by the ankle.
Tiaan let out a thin squeal and kicked furiously. Irisis clamped her other hand around the smaller woman’s calf, holding her until Nish twisted one arm behind her back, whereupon Tiaan ceased to struggle and her eyes fluttered closed.
‘What’s the matter with her?’ he panted.
Irisis shrugged. ‘Do you think we should tie her up?’
He shook his head. ‘We need her to cooperate when we get there and … you know how she feels about us.’
‘We’d better keep moving. We’ve taken too long already …’
Time may well have run out, Nish thought. A small war could have been fought at the other end of Nennifer and they wouldn’t have been aware of it.
They struggled on. Tiaan wasn’t a big woman but the strain of carrying her was telling. Nish ached in every muscle.
‘We must be nearly there,’ said Irisis as they stopped briefly, ‘though I don’t recognise this place.’ The burnt-flesh smell was sickening.
‘I think we’re approaching the warding chamber from the other side.’ What were they supposed to do once they got there?
‘So the scrutators’ workroom and turret must be above us. Now what?’ said Irisis as if she’d read his thought. ‘Did Flydd want us to take Tiaan to him, or to the warding chamber?’
‘The chamber, surely? We’ve no way of getting to him.’
‘Inouye was trying to tell us something,’ Irisis recalled. ‘But she couldn’t get it out. Should I go up and ask her?’
‘She’s probably unconscious,’ said Nish, guilt rising up to overwhelm him. What had Inouye ever done to harm anyone?
They were pressing on towards the final door into the amplimet chamber when Tiaan’s eyes sprang open. She quivered in Nish’s arms then said clearly, ‘Put me down.’
Nish did so gladly. Tiaan wavered on her feet, steadied herself and looked around, as alert as she had previously been apathetic. She glanced at Irisis, then Nish, without seeming to recognise either of them. Tiaan faced the door, cocking her head as if listening, then smiled.
What’s going on? Nish mouthed to Irisis. She signed that she didn’t have a clue. He pointed to the door. Irisis puffed out her cheeks, looked back the other way, then ruefully scratched herself.
A stub of wall collapsed behind them, sending a cloud of dust billowing in their direction. Someone called out in the indeterminate distance. Tiaan started.
‘That sounded like Flydd,’ said Irisis.
‘I don’t think we’d hear him from here.’
They listened but the cry was not repeated. A crystalline crackle came from inside the chamber and Nish suddenly knew that they’d made the wrong choice.
‘It’s waiting for us!’ he hissed. ‘We’ve got to go up to –’
The crackle sounded again, peremptory this time. Tiaan stopped quivering; a joyous smile spread across her dirty face and she bolted for the last door.
Irisis threw herself forward and got two fingers into Tiaan’s collar. Tiaan swung around, clenched her two hands into a mallet and clubbed Irisis across the side of the head. Tiaan tore free and darted through the door into the warding chamber.
Nish cursed and raced after her. ‘That’s what Inouye was trying to tell us. To keep Tiaan away from the warding chamber.’
He crashed through the door. Tiaan was nowhere to be seen.
‘All the signs were there,’ said Irisis, ‘and we missed them. Fusshte hadn’t mistreated Tiaan, he’d only neglected her. Tiaan was suffering withdrawal from the amplimet and the first thing she’d do would be to go for it.’
The room was noticeably warmer than before, and the reek of burnt flesh and hair even more overpowering, if that was possible.
‘I don’t see her,’ said Nish, taking a couple of steps.
Irisis dragged him back. ‘Remember what happened to the inner ring of mancers.’
‘But if we don’t stop her –’
‘Tiaan may be suffering withdrawal, but she’s seen other people die through the amplimet. She’ll make sure it recognises her before she goes too close.’
‘There’s no saying it will allow her near. What are we supposed to do?’
‘I – I’ve got no idea, Nish. I can’t make sense out of anything.’
Irisis had always been a leader and her indecision dismayed him. ‘I’ll stay here and see if I can catch her. Run up to the dome chamber and shout a warning to Flydd.’
She smiled at that. ‘Don’t be silly, Nish. There’s nothing you can do here, but I may be able to. Go up. Run as though all our lives depend on it. And … be careful. You’ve got the most dangerous job.’
Nish ran, though it was not until he’d passed through the last door and was halfway up the shuddering metal stairs that he realised she’d decei