The crew of La Danse Calinda burst into action. All over the ship, weapons and armor were hurriedly distributed. The ballistas cranked into position as heavy bundles of the long spears, faintly glowing with their embedded enchantments, were hauled up from the hold.
The airship climbed higher amongst the mountain peaks. The navigators, helmsmen, and hands at the lines, good sailors all — Or flyers, rather? What would be the word for sailors of the air?, Jeneyeru wondered. Whatever, they must have been exhausted after so many days fighting Mr. Farseer’s storm to keep the Calinda aloft. It was only going to get worse for them.
Captain Lafitte’s wizard, Tayliana Winddancer, cast her spells to concentrate the power of the storm. Her style was different from that preferred by the Selkie folk, but the effect was just as good. The boiling clouds turned thick and gray. Lightning flashed continuously in vast sheets and branching arcs, the thunder merging into one unending howl in concert with the wind and the shriek of the lashing rain.
“It seems a blessing after all that Mr. Farseer took that idol, does it not?” said Peino.
“That it does, now,” Ruili agreed. “I wonder if the Masters are strong enough to stand against the fury of a god.”
They had both come up to join Jeneyeru in watching for the towers of the stronghold from the exposed and battered bow. Peino had assisted Lafitte in organizing landing parties and had earmarked six fighters who stood by, ready to support the infiltration team. Ruili, meanwhile, had commandeered gear for all of them — light body armor, a selection of swords and daggers, and a few crossbow pistols.
“Here’s a vest for you, Jeney,” he said, “and one for Mistress O’Tulvar, too.”
“Thank you kindly.” Jeneyeru slipped off his coat and strapped the stiff, laminated vest around his torso while Ruili offered to assist Lotye. He had changed into black garb for the occasion. The long silk coat, waistcoat and britches were embroidered in their linings with arcane spells designed to increase his aura channeling capacity. The vest would have no effect on his magic, just as the wizard’s suit would have no effect on a crossbow bolt. Soaked to the skin as he was, as they all were, the vest clamped tightly onto his body. He settled the wet, heavy coat back over the armor, and felt for the proper arrangement of his drenched lace cravat. Ruili laughed.
“Rain or no rain, brother,” Jeneyeru said, “war or no war, there’s no excuse for dishevelment.”
That got a laugh even out of Peino. Jeneyeru smiled at his brothers and at Lotye O’Tulvar who hovered nearby, almost certainly stiff and nervous.
“Are we ready?” he said.
Peino and Ruili nodded. Armored just as he was, they had outfitted themselves in traveling leathers. Peino’s favorite rapier and dagger rode on his hips, and additional daggers were tucked into his boots. Ruili’s Atasen sword was strapped across his back, and on his thighs he wore a pair of crossbow pistols. They both touched their coats. In their inner pockets they carried the small Boxes of Nothing in which were hidden the cards of the Blood Arcana they had collected in the past weeks. “Mistress O’Tulvar, give your box to Ruili, if you please,” Jeneyeru had said of the box Lotye had carried for him all this time. “We, after all, are the only ones on our side who have played with them before.” The third box, of course, rested in Jeneyeru’s pocket. He took a dagger from the gear Ruili had brought and slipped it into his boot.
“Right then,” he said. “If someone would be so kind as to signal Captain Lafitte. It is time to begin.”
He stepped forward. All around, above and below, the mountains flashed with blue-white lightning, casting black shadows against the clouds. Lightning was a difficult energy to harness, but light was the Shadow Magus’s forte. He held aloft the Staff of Ghosts and began the chant in the magical language, Atultaec.
In a few moments, the staff’s smokey crystal head began to emit a dark glow. The aura energy crackled through his tissues. He felt every muscle and bone, even the broken lines of his healing knife wound, lined with the power. It flowed into his hands and through them into the staff, where he held it with his will until the lightning flashed and the shadow of the Calinda appeared on a wall of cloud.
With instant reflexes, Jeneyeru pointed the staff at the shadow, shouting, “Craosa acru!”
A snap, an ear-splitting bang, and a second airship appeared in the sky. It was slightly darker and less substantial than the Calinda, but within a few seconds, it had settled into a near perfect likeness of the ship.
“Oh, well done,” said Ruili as he and Peino lightly applauded.
But Jeneyeru had already built more energy and shot another spell bolt at another shadow. “Craosa acru!” Pop! Another Calinda.
And another, and another. Within minutes, fifteen La Danse Calindas filled the stormy skies above the Usaneri mountains, each one almost indistinguishable from the others and the real one, even down to the crew movement, shouting, and possibly even the ballista shots, though the spears of shadow forms would not have much impact. Still, it made for a decent-looking flotilla.
Jeneyeru sighed, satisfied, and grounded the remaining energy to avoid burning out. “Not bad, if I do say so myself,” he said. “The rest is up to our dear Captain Lafitte.”
“And not a moment too soon,” said Peino, peering into the darkness ahead. “I thought I heard a lookout’s shout, and sure enough, there are the towers of the stronghold.”
At last, the headquarters of the Guild of Wizards and Magi came into view. Its tall, delicate watchtowers rose high above the castle perched on the very top of a precipitous cliff. As the armada of airships approached, the towers began to fluoresce with the glow of electricity in the air. The storm fell upon the castle like a rapacious wolf. Lightning struck the highest tower.
“There will be ballistas on those high points,” Jeneyeru said.
“Captain Lafitte!” Peino shouted. “Hit them with all your might. Give them no chance. Take out those towers and get us in there.”
Faintly, bells could be heard ringing from the castle.
— — —
“Arwwn’s hounds, what’s that?” the tower guard cried as the flying armada appeared out of the unexpected storm.
He had been sitting alone up there for hours, cursing the fate that had put him into this mutiny against the Guild Masters and thus forced him and four other men to stand lonely guard over a complex that could have used ten or more watchers. The sudden burst of wind and icy rain and thunder and lightning had driven him to shutter the windows of the watchtower and hunker down within his cloak. So he was taken by surprise when he peeked out to see what the weather was doing and saw by the flashing light what he at first took to be a flight of dragons but soon realized was a far madder sight.
Frantic, he rang the alarm bell. When the other guards, responding to the sound, took up the peals, he dropped the bell rope and ran like a mad bat down the endless spiraling stairs. He threw himself at the courtyard door, but stopped to fumble through his pocket for the charm he and his cohorts had been issued, a gold coin wrapped in the gut of a rat. He spat on it and raced through the door.
At first he thought the charm had failed and he had fallen into one of the boss’s traps, but in fact, the boss was truly standing before him.
“What’s going on?” the tall, gray-bearded man growled.
“Ships!” the guard yelled. “Ships in the sky! We’re under attack! A hundred at least!”
“What are you talking about? We’re in the mountains.”
“As Pwyll is my witness, ships,” the guard insisted. “They must be elementals. Wizards are attacking us.”
The gray man, his gaunt face shrouded under the hood of a long gray cloak, growled again. A hundred wizards in elemental ships? He had sensed one coming. A strong one, yes, but could he have been blind to more? This accursed storm that carried the spirit energy of the god of winds had been playing havoc with his divinations. Who would be so rash as to fly through these dragon-infested peaks, anyway?
He spun around to the heavily armed bandits and dark wizards who had come with him from the main hall.
“Man the ballistas. Let us make a greeting these fools will not have long to enjoy.”
No sooner did he speak than the courtyard was rocked by an explosion above. Shards of masonry fell with the rain as the first salvo struck the first tower and the airships descended for battle.