It would have been a slaughter. It should have been a slaughter. By rights it would have taken a few minutes to put everyone to the blade and take the airship. And it would have been had the flustered Merchant who Tebryn had already christened ‘Weasel’ in his head hadn’t brought along his rangy bodyguard. Even so, the odds might still have been in the favour of massacre if the chainmail wearing warrior hadn’t kept his sword. To be fair, it also helped that the guards appeared to be exceptionally bad shots. Of three bolts fired only one hit its mark, striking Weasel’s wife in the thigh. One of the others disappeared into a pile of cushions on an empty chair, and the third stuck itself into the wooden panelling a good four feet above Tebryn’s head.
The burly warrior had already ripped a table from it’s bolts on the floor and tipped it over to provide some cover, and amongst the babble of screams he distinctly heard a cry of ‘Stop them!’ from Weasel, and the rangy man was vaulting a couch to hit the nearest guard in the stomach with both feet. The guard staggered backwards, but before he could regain his footing the acrobatic man had landed and spun with deadly precision, a short-sword leaving a red gash across the man’s neck.
Fighting his immediate instinct to crouch low, Tebryn saw that Sylvia had already hit the floor, and he dived and rolled into the cover provided by the upturned table.
“They have crossbows,” the burly warrior growled.
“Take time to reload though, aye?” Tebryn said.
The man glanced at him and nodded curtly. Then he lunged around the table and made a beeline for the man with the corporal’s stripes. Peeking over the top of the table, Tebryn saw that the short-sword wielding fighter had knocked one of the guards to the ground and was heading for a third. Cursing his inability to stay out of a fight, he stepped up onto the table, riding the top as it crashed down, four feet in the air and let its momentum carry him forward. His knee landed squarely in the man’s crotch, and Tebryn was grateful the guards appeared only to be wearing breastplates, gauntlets and helmets, rather than armoured codpieces. Then his left hand tilted the man’s head back and a blow from the right crushed the man’s windpipe. Given the wounds where blades had slipped into the unprotected flesh of the man’s left armpit, Tebryn knew it was only a matter of time until the man died. It would have been merciful to end his suffering.
Unfortunately for him, merciful was something Tebryn wasn’t.
Tebryn rolled to the side as a bolt threatened to take off his hat and rolled to his feet, grabbing the crossbow from the dead guard’s hands and smashing him in the face with the butt of the weapon. Unfortunately, this man was quick to go for his sword, and it was all Tebryn could do to dodge and duck out of the way. At one point he was rolling on the floor to avoid a downward blow and then the longsword was stuck in the wood of the floor and a heavy boot kicked in the guard’s head. There was the crunch of bone and then it was over bar the spasms. Tebryn looked up into the solemn face of the armoured warrior.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” the man grunted. “You’re a scrapper for a circus man.”
“Well you know,” Tebryn said accepting a hand up. “Sometimes a crowd don’t like me talents.”
“What was that about?” the tall rangy man asked, walking up as he cleaned his blades.
“Island power struggle, I think,” Tebryn said. “I think they want the airship.”
Suddenly the floor tilted, nearly throwing them off their feet.
“We’re tilting,” the armoured man said.
“Seems like,” Tebryn agreed. “Hey weren’t we above the cloud layer earlier?” he asked as he stared out the porthole into a white mist.
“You sure they don’t just want to crash the ship?” the lithe man asked.
“Go and find out!” Weasel was suddenly there, pushing his way between the two taller warriors, looking almost absurd as he stood nearly a foot below their height. “Honestly what am I paying you for Keith?”
“Sir, please, you should see to your wife. You need to keep pressure on her wound.”
“We need to take the bolt out!”
“No, sir. If it’s hit an artery that bolt could be the only thing keeping her alive. Come, let’s see if there’s a doctor here.”
As Keith led Weasel back into the crowd, the armoured man held out his leather gloved hand. “Conan.”
“Tebryn,” Tebryn replied. “But you already knew that.”
“I should get my shield-and helmet,” Conan said. “They’re still in my quarters.”
“Well that should be easy,” Tebryn said. “That just means heading back through those doors…”
They both stared at the far doors that led into the entry foyer, where a few of the passengers were clustered, trying the handle without any success.
“There’ll be a key,” Tebryn said. “Why don’t you get those people back into the room and quiet, and I’ll find the key.”
The key was, as he suspected, on the corporal, whose head was currently lying several feet from his body and blood was still oozing into the carpet. Along with the key, Tebryn also found a few crowns, which he pocketed before making his way to the now cleared doorway.
Peeking out he blanched and shut the door quickly.
“What’s out there?” Conan asked, from just behind him.
“One of the guards,” Tebryn said. “He’s been…disembowelled by something with really big claws.”
“So we go together?” Keith suggested. “I have to do something anyway or hear about it for longer than I care to.”
“Sure,” Tebryn said. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The thing that the tales never told you about dead bodies was the smell. Of course, there isn’t really one on a fresh, clean kill, but if a corpse is gutted, and the intestines perforated… Tebryn hadn’t seen a dead body in quite some time but it wasn’t something you forgot. It snuck up his nostrils, stuck in his throat and tickled his gag reflex, but somehow he and his new companions managed to avoid adding to the mess. As Conan went into a passenger room to retrieve the rest of his arms and armour, Tebryn ducked into his dressing room to grab his backpack, which he quickly repacked with his makeup and travelling coat. Realistically the coat shouldn’t have fitted, nor should his top hat, but travelling light with a bag that held more than it should had been one of the first things he’d learnt how to do. That said, the top hat collapsed and the coat was usually being worn, so he didn’t have to do it all the time, but this was something of an emergency. As he stepped back into the corridor, he nearly ran into Keith.
“There’s someone in that room there,” Keith said, pointing at the plain wooden doors that led into the a crew area. “I just saw them look out.”
Conan looked at the two of them, nodded, and walked up to the doors, pushing them open to reveal a state of the art kitchen, with polished steel counters that were so new they were only slightly scratched, although the air was still hot from the residual heat from the stoves and ovens. Over at the far end a walk in pantry was open and Tebryn could just make out three people, one of whom walked out, gesturing to the other two.
“It’s all right,” he said. “They have weapons.” The man was dressed in dark clothing, and his black cape was a dull, dusty, utilitarian black rather than the stylish velvet that was favoured by foppish nobles hoping to look dashing. “That sounded better in my head.”
Tebryn relaxed as a chef and a waitress came out of the pantry. “You’re not guards,” he said.
“What gave us away, the lack of uniforms?” the first man asked, pushing his long blond hair away from his face.
“Did you see the monster?” the waitress asked, her lip quivering.
“Monster?” Tebryn asked.
“We heard something scream,” the blond man said. “It didn’t sound human.”
Conan, Keith and Tebryn shared a three way glance. “Whatever attacked that guard outside…” Tebryn started.
“I was thinking a bear,” Keith said softly. “Only I couldn’t find any trace of one. No fur, no claw marks in the walls or floor.”
“A bear?” the waitress squeaked.
“No, Lorelai,” the chef said. “That’s what the man just said.”
“Then what is it?”
Keith shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Oh my god.”
“Changing the subject, where are you going with all your weapons?” the blond man asked.
Conan looked at the others. “We…hadn’t planned that.”
“We should go to the bridge,” Tebryn said. “Whatever’s changed the course of the airship will probably be there.”
“Do you know how to get there?”
Tebryn shook his head. “I’m betting it’s on the main ship but I don’t know how to get there.”
“I do,” Lorelai said suddenly. “There’s a catwalk from the Crystal Ballroom. I used it to take tea to the Captain… oh god, the Captain.”
“You should get to the lounge area,” Tebryn said kindly. “The rest of the staff and passengers are there.”
The waitress nodded and the chef removed a broom from the handles of the double doors and they pushed through into the lounge.
“You should go too,” Tebryn suggested to the blond man.
“I think I’ll come with you if that’s all right,” he said.
“Can you fight?” Keith asked.
The man pushed his cloak back to reveal both a short sword and a longsword, one on each hip. “Yes. I’m Kane.”
“Tebryn, but I’m starting to think I should have a name starting with C or K,” Tebryn said. “Come on, we can get to the Crystal ballroom through there I think,” he said, pointing at a third set of doors.
The ballroom, where dinner had been served, was empty, and…sterile. It was as through dinner had never happened, the long tables were stripped bare of their porcelain plates, silverware and crystal goblets. The crisp white of napkins and tablecloths had been secreted away and the chairs were nowhere to be seen. Tebryn thought they’d probably been stored in some travel safe room, stacked up high and roped off to prevent them toppling should the ship tilt, much like it was at the moment.
Not for the first time, he admired the design of the room, with as much of the walls on both sides made of faceted glass which currently allowed a wonderful view of the fluffy gray interior of the cloud bank they were currently descending through. It also provided a view out over a metal gantry which led from their passenger gondola to the main ship. The gantry ran out over the top of one of the many steel struts that connected the two vessels, and Tebryn was fairly certain the arrangement would be mirrored on the other side of the ship.
“You can see the wind,” Kane said as they stared out the glass door at the exposed metal pathway. Even with railings it looked like a daunting crossing, where one could conceivably fall from a great height with no chance of survival.
“I think there’s someone at the far end,” Tebryn said, squinting at the for door. Unlike the one at this end, the door on the main ship was wooden, with a small porthole at roughly head height, and Tebryn was certain he’d caught the glimpse of a face.
“Me first,” Conan said, gripping his shield tightly and opening the door.
The warrior stepped out onto the catwalk, and Tebryn could see him brace his body against the buffeting of the wind. He was walking along, gripping his shield with one hand and holding onto the railing with the other. When he was about halfway across he looked back at them and gestured the universal sign for ‘where the bloody hell are you?’ and Keith shrugged and started over the windy expanse. Before he’d got very far though, the far door opened and some guards came out. Poking his head to one side to see around the larger frames of the men on the catwalk, and he could see the guards gesturing to each other and it looked like they were shouting, but whatever they were saying was lost over the roar of the wind. Then the guards all ran back inside the main ship, slamming the door shut behind them.
“I think they just locked the door,” Kane said.
Moments later, Conan reached the far side, tried the handle, and pounded on it. Then he turned and shrugged.
“Guess we’re going the other way,” Tebryn said.
“There’s another way?” Kane asked.
“I know there’s a second walkway at the stern of the ship. It’s probably on the far side of the lounge area.”
When Conan and Keith returned back to the Crystal Ballroom, the men quickly agreed to try the other gantry. When they unlocked the door to the lounge and stepped inside they were greeted with a makeshift barricade and three sets of nervous eyes staring at them down the length of captured crossbows. The two young men and middle aged woman holding them visibly relaxed when they entered. The screaming had clearly died down, and a one of the passengers was apparently a doctor, and was treating the wounded off to one side. Over by the kitchen doors, the bodies of the guards were lying covered by one of the expensive silk tapestries that had been wrenched off the walls.
A grey haired man with a bowler hat and a fierce looking moustache came up to them and stared at them out from under bristled brows. “Found out what’s wrong yet?”
“We’re crashing,” Tebryn said bluntly. “We’re going to have to get to the main ship and find out what’s going down on the bridge.”
The man nodded. “All right. If you want to go investigate things, so be it. We’ll be bunkering down here though and staying safe.”
Weasel had joined them by now and was puffing himself up with what Tebryn personally considered to be hot air. “You should find out what’s happening and stop it!” he snapped. “What am I paying you for anyway, Keith?”
The Khushistani didn’t reply, simply inclined his head and headed off to the far side of the room, the others following swiftly behind him. They found themselves in the corridor that the passengers had used to enter the airship. They found luggage strapped neatly into cargo storage rooms, and eventually followed the corridor around to a blocked door. It was plainer than the others, and had a staff only sign on it, and when Conan pushed on it, it gave slightly, but stuck on something piled up behind it. Clearly someone had built a barricade behind it.
A sharp shove opened the door enough for them all to slip through, and they found themselves in a much more mechanical area of the ship. The walls were of beaten metal and much of the floor was as well. Off to the left, where the corridor opened out into an irregularly shaped room, a machine rattled and whirred. It was a good eight feet in height and dense and Tebryn took it to be one of the engines of the ship. On the wall opposite them was a number of coveralls and hard hats, presumably worn by the crew.
Grinning, Tebryn, swept off his top hat and collapsed it, before pulling a slightly oversized pair of coveralls on and donning the hardhat. The others looked at him quizzically, but he shrugged and strode forward towards a doorway on the left of the engine block, Kane hot on his heels. He was hoping that crew wouldn’t be so quickly attacked, but two narrowly dodged crossbow bolts suggested otherwise.
Ducking back behind into the shadow of the engine, he let magic seep into his soul. It wasn’t difficult really, and he’d always wondered that others couldn’t do it. It wasn’t even something he had to think about really. It was just something he could do at will. He felt a familiar tingle and warmth at his extremities as he felt power filling him, and not for the first time he thought back to the meditative exercises one of his lecturers had used during their literature classes.
“Let your body fill with positive energy,” she’d said. “Picture it filling you like a warm golden glow, and breathe out any negativity…”
It had been a little bit strange and slightly crazy, but it helped him feel freer and more creative and it was, strangely, more or less how he felt about magic. He was dimly aware of Kane sneaking around the other side of the engine, and of a muffled cry of ‘Help!’ followed by the sound of a fist hitting flesh. Hard.
He felt the subtle currents of air spiral around his body as Keith rushed past, sprinting around some large crates, shortswords drawn. Tebryn’s magical shield worked on the principles of deflection, buffeting and cushioning more than anything else, but it was still very effective at keeping him from harm. Rushing after Keith he saw the swarthy man slice the man from shoulder to opposite hip, striking with enough force to cut through chainmail. The guard stood there for a moment, stunned, and then Keith pushed him over with a prod to the forehead. The second and final guard was currently duelling with Kane, but the black cloaked man was moving with the skill of a dancer, two swords flashing in a pattern that was both mesmerising and efficient. The guard had managed to get his sword out of its scabbard, but it was knocked out of his hands and a boot to the back of the knee sent him sprawling onto the floor, where he ended up with the tip of Kane’s longsword at his throat.
Taking the scene in before him, Tebryn slowed to a walk and strolled up to the guard on the floor, even as Conan went over to see to the third man who was lying in the corner, apparently after having been knocked out by the guards.
“Hello,” Tebryn said to the guard. “What’s your name?”
“I’m not telling you anything, dog!” the guard spat.
“Really? That’s a shame. “We’d just have to kill you then, you know.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
Tebryn jerked his head towards Kane. “Really, take a good look at him. Black cloak, two concealed swords…we’d dare.”
“They’re mercenaries,” a new voice said, and Tebryn looked over to see the third man, who was wearing a pair of coveralls not dissimilar to the ones that Tebryn had borrowed. “They’re hijacking the airship but something’s gone wrong. We heard something scream. It didn’t sound human.”
“Oh, it must have been whatever ate the guard back there,” Tebryn said breezily.
“Ate?” the guard on the floor asked nervously.
“Oh aye, he was torn open and everything in his stomach cavity eaten. Guts, soft organs. It was rather messy, giant claw marks, big pool of blood. I hate to say it but it looked quite painful…”
Turning his head the guard started throwing up, a fairly dangerous proposition when there’s a sword tip at your throat.
“What’s your name?” Tebryn asked the man in overalls.
“I’m Dieter, one of the engineers. These men kept me alive to see to the engines and ensure we don’t crash.”
“But we’re descending,” Tebryn pointed out.
“Yes I know. You’d have to check out the bridge to see why. It doesn’t seem to have been part of their plan.”
“You know, maybe we shouldn’t kill the merc,” Tebryn said thoughtfully. “If he won’t talk we could just leave him out for whatever it is that’s going around eating his fellows.”
“No please, I’ll tell you everything I know,” the man said quickly.
“Okay,” Tebryn said cheerfully. “Now wouldn’t it all have been so much easier if you’d just said that from the start?”
It turned out that the guard didn’t know much at all. He and the others were bribed with a lot of money to take the ship and take it to Minzantos. The part where they were crashing into the ocean wasn’t part of the plan. “Commander Sadler took a team to the bridge to investigate himself,” the guard said. “That’s all I know, I promise.”
“You’d better hurry,” Dieter said, pulling out some rope and starting to tie the hapless mercenary to a nearby pipe. It ran from the floor to the ceiling and Tebryn noticed the man was trying to keep out of contact with it, and his skin went red where it touched. Dieter seemed to be taking a fiendish delight in tying the knots tightly. “I’ll have to stay and keep the engine going. When you get to the other side, there’ll be an access corridor. It leads all around the three main areas of the ship. At the prow is the bridge, in the middle is the crew quarters and the engine room’s at the stern of the vessel. You can get onto the bridge from either the port or starboard side of the ship.”
The four men left him tying the guard up to the hot pipe, occasionally pausing to punch the other man in the stomach when his struggles made it hard for Dieter to work. Their trip across the stern catwalk was windy, but otherwise uneventful, and the opened the door to an empty corridor. Looking to their left, towards the prow of the ship they saw only utilitarian wooden panelling and flooring, and large, unadorned lights affixed to the ceilings.
“Where is everyone?” Tebryn asked.
“Don’t know,” Kane said. “Did you notice we’ve flown below the clouds?”
Tebryn glanced out a nearby window and could just see the tiny, indistinct shapes of ocean waves below, the water swelling in the grey of the sea. “Yes, but I was trying not to think about it. Come on, let’s get to the bridge.”
“We should try to lure some of the guards out,” Kane suggested. “Even up the fight a little. If we can get them out the far door, our speedy friend can nip in behind and lock them out.”
“Doesn’t that mean we’ll just have to fight them later?” Tebryn asked.
“Later without their friends beating up on us, yes,” Kane said. “We’ll also have to lock the door on this side of the ship too.”
Tebryn nodded slowly. “I think I can get them out. You stand by the portside door. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Care to elaborate?” Kane asked.
Tebryn shook his head. “Not really. Let’s just say I have more than one set of tricks, and leave things at that, all right?”
They made their way quietly—or at least, mostly quietly—to the bridge, and while the others waited at the portside door, Tebryn padded up to the prow, where the corridor turned sharply around to the other side of the ship. There, just as Dieter had said, was the starboard door. Closing his eyes, he let magic flow through his soul and outside the door there was the sudden sound of a scuffle and footprints fading away down the corridor towards the stern of the ship.
It took a moment, but then the door opened and Tebryn ducked back around the corner. There was the sound of a door shutting, the jangle of chainmail and then actual footsteps followed after the illusory ones. Peeking back around the corner, Tebryn saw the retreating back of one guardsman.
Cursing under his breath, Tebryn signalled the others, who charged through the door, Keith darting down the stairs into the bridge and then up the stairs on the far side to bolt the door on the far side. Tebryn darted in after the others piled through the door, shutting and latching it behind him.
The scene below was not what he expected.
The captain was dead. Most definitely dead. He was still gripping the steering wheel, strangely styled to look exactly like the wheel of a sailing ship, and his hands were still clenched around two of the wheel’s handles. The captain’s eyes were wide and stared straight ahead, and it seemed as though the body was locked in rigor mortis. Had Tebryn been inclined towards melodrama, he’d have suggested the Captain had died of fright. Of course, Tebryn was a magician, and dying of fright really didn’t seem like an impossibility. The rest of the ship’s crew were dead as well, slumped around the room with big gashes taken out of them and the surrounding woodwork. There were also two armed guards and a man in slightly more impressive gear who Tebryn took to be Commander Sadler.
“So you’re the group responsible for killing my guards,” he said. He had close cropped brown hair, and had both a longsword and a short-sword belted to his hip. His chainmail was well kept and the white and green surcoat over the top of it was neat and pressed. “What sorceries did you release? No matter, we will…”
Conan rushed him, striking outward his his shield. Commander Sadler neatly sidestepped, and gave Conan a well placed kick as he passed that sent the warrior stumbling into a wall, where he fell to the ground with a clatter.
“That was rude,” Commander Sadler said, drawing his long sword.
“Get used to it,” Keith said, descending the stairs, both of his swords drawn.
Commander Sadler’s eyes narrowed and he raised his blade. Kane and Tebryn shared a glance and then rushed forward. Kane reached the bridge first, and struck out at one of the guardsmen, Tebryn moving to flank the man, even as the ring of steel on steel told of a battle of parries and dodges being played out behind them. Kane’s blades found their mark, but only barely so, and Tebryn knew his skill didn’t lie in combat. However, it did lie in trickery and deceit. Grabbing his deck of cards he riffled the pack and flicked the card pieces into the guard’s face. The man’s attack faltered, and Kane was easily able to dispatch the man, although a cry from behind them indicated that Commander Sadler’s blades had also found Keith’s flesh. Risking a quick look back, he saw Keith bleeding from a nick in his left arm, but the Khusistani warrior battled on.
Although out of cards Tebryn found the second guard easier to distract—a simple snap of a fan right beneath the man’s nose was sufficient to make him blink and he went down. The lad couldn’t have been more than sixteen, but Tebryn had no time to wonder about the soldier’s age, as another cry from behind them indicated Keith had taken another blow. Commander Sadler was fast, his sword a blur, and it was all Keith could do to keep away from his blade. Even concentrating on Keith, Sadler was easily able to avoid Tebryn and Kane’s attacks, twisting out of the way at the last second, just as it seemed certain that the blow would connect.
“I can see you coming a mile off,” Commander Sadler said, with an easy grin. “How’s are you finding this experience, Slaver?” he asked Keith. “See, I’m going to get through your guard eventually, and then I’ll finish off your rather useless friends and your bumbling excuse for an armoured guard.”
Tebryn shared a glance with Kane. “Don’t panic,” Tebryn said. “I’ve got one more trick left.”
“Only one?” Sadler said. “That’s not going to—”
Tebryn and Kane disappeared from view.
The thing about invisibility that most people forget when they think about it, is that you’re unable to see yourself. Hand eye coordination? What hand eye coordination? Moving while invisible requires you to be able to feel where your body is in relation to itself. Attacking requires you to know where your weapon is in relation to your hand and your enemy. On the bright side, your enemies never see it coming.
Saddler certainly didn’t.
Kane’s blades didn’t flash. They weren’t visible to flash. They simply opened up wounds in Sadler’s neck. The man fell to the floor, and Kane and Tebryn reappeared as Tebryn let the magic fade.
“You did that?” Keith asked, blinking.
Tebryn nodded. “I don’t like to, not often, but I figured if I didn’t we’d crash into the ocean and drown.”
They looked back out the windows of the bridge. The wavetops were clearer now, and larger.
A groan from the prow made them look down, where Conan was clambering to his feet. “Did we win?” he asked.
“Yes and no,” Kane said from the wheel. The assassin, or at least, the man Tebryn thought was an assassin, had elbowed the captain’s corpse aside, and although he could steer the ship, the gadget that was helpfully labelled ‘aeleron’ and even more helpfully labelled ‘Pitch Control’ in smaller font was stuck. “We need to get to the engine room.
The first shock came when they opened the door and didn’t find the fourth guard outside—at least, not in one piece. The second came when they reached the engine room doors—great metal bound wooden doors that had some sort of occult runes scratched into them. From beneath the door, a reddish glow could be seen, and Tebryn thought he could hear the sound of chanting.
Glancing at each other the men pushed the big doors open and stared at the sight that greeted them. Immediately ahead of them was the aeleron, or at least, what Tebryn assumed was the aeleron, the bit that Dieter said made the airship go up and down. It reminded Tebryn of a big centreboard in the bottom of a sailing ship. Just slightly more complex…and held down by two giant metal bars that stretched from one side of the engine room to the other. Even with the four of them, it was going to take them ages to shift it, and would probably require a forge. Unfortunately they didn’t have a forge. They also didn’t have a way of dealing with the tall, lanky and dishevelled man who stood in the middle of a glowing pentagram on the far side of the metal bars. He was dressed in tattered olive green overalls and a rumpled blue silk shirt that had probably cost someone a lot of money. Probably not him. His hair hung in long, lank clumps down past his wrinkled face and blackened teeth. His hands were…well his hands were normal, it was his fingers that were overly long, with nails like…well he didn’t have nails so much as claws. Giant claws that looked like they could disembowel a man. Actually they probably had given the dried blood and flecks of other people’s skin. And possibly guts given the smell. Or maybe that was the overalls.
Cautiously ducking under the beams they approached the man, who was chanting in a language Tebryn didn’t know—and a quick glance at his companions faces indicated they didn’t understand it either.
“It won’t be long now,” the man said with a manic grin, then he giggled, the manic laugh of someone who was either insane, or just wanted to sound insane. He pointed at them and the world went bla-