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The Wizard Hunters
Book One of The Fall of Ile-Rien


The Wizard Hunters cover Hardback: HarperCollins Eos, May 2003.
Cover by Donato Giancola.
Paperback: May 2004 from HarperCollins Eos.


Ile-Rien is in peril. A mysterious army known only as the Gardier has surrounded the country, attacking in ominous black airships. Hope is not lost though, for a magical sphere created by Ile-Rien's greatest sorcerer may hold the key to defeating the faceless enemy. But the sphere is unpredictable and has already claimed several lives. When a magical spell goes disastrously awry, young Tremaine Valiarde and a brave band are transported to another world. A world of rough magics, evil mages, honorable warriors -- and a secret Gardier base.


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ebook: Barnes & Noble eBook, Amazon Kindle US, Kobo, Kindle Canada, Chapters Indigo, Kindle Germany, Kindle France, Kindle Spain, Kindle Italy

Foreign Editions:
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Polish: Trade Paperback
German: Trade Paperback

Audiobook: Tantor Audio, narrated by Talmadge Ragan

eBook and audiobook available on iTunes




Vienne, Ile-Rien

It was nine o'clock at night and Tremaine was trying to find a way to kill herself that would bring in a verdict of natural causes in court, when someone banged on the door.

"Oh, damn." A couple of books on poisons slid out of her lap as she struggled out of the overstuffed armchair. She managed to hold on to the second volume of Medical Jurisprudence, closing it over her fingers to mark her place. The search for the elusive untraceable poison was not going well; there were too many ways sorcerer-physicians could uncover such things and she didn't want it to look as if she had been murdered. Intracranial hemorrhage seemed a good possibility, if a little difficult to arrange on one's own. But I'm a Valiarde, I should be able to figure this out, she thought sourly. Dragging the blanket around her, she picked her way through the piles of books to the door. The library at Coldcourt was ideal for this, being large, eclectic and packed with every book, treatise, and monograph on murder and mayhem available to the civilized world.

The entry hall was dark except for one single electric bulb burning in the converted gas fixture above the sweep of the stairs. The light fell on yellowed plaster walls and rich old wood and a blue and gold patterned carpet on polished stone tile. Coldcourt was aptly named and Tremaine's bare feet were half- frozen by the time she made it to the front door. She had let the housekeeper have the night off and now she regretted it, but she had had no idea it would take this long to arrange things. At this rate she wouldn't be dead until next week.

The unwanted person was still banging. "Who is it?" she shouted, wondering if he could hear her. Coldcourt was a country house and its walls were thick natural stone to withstand the Vienne winter. The door was several inches thick, old oak lined with not entirely decorative embossed lead plates, proof against bullets and other less solid assaults. The windows above the door were heavy leaded glass, the blackout curtains fixed tightly around them. All buildings had the blackout curtains, stipulated by the Civilian Defense Board, but the other protections were peculiarly Coldcourt's. The house was part of an old neighborhood of large estates just outside Vienne's old city wall and sprawled in asymmetrical crenelated and embellished glory across its poorly kept grounds.

A muffled voice replied, "It's Gerard!"

"Oh, god." Tremaine leaned her forehead tiredly against the chill wood surface. As executor of her father's estate, Gerard had been her guardian until she was twenty-one but she had seen him only infrequently these past few years. Her first thought was of her supervisor in the Siege Aid group. She had joined the Aid Society because they worked in the bombed-out areas of the city searching for survivors or bringing supplies to the fire brigades and the War Department's rescue teams. It was hard, desperate work and many of them, even experienced men like constables or fire brigade members or former soldiers, were killed by unexploded bombs or collapsing buildings. A small woman who had never been very good at games in school shouldn't have been able to last a week. Her life should have ended with no more fanfare than a line in the casualty columns of the newspapers. Anything else would surely lead to a magistrate's investigation which might uncover unpleasant facts about her family's immediate past; that was the last thing she needed. But Tremaine had been in the Aid Society for six months.

She probably still couldn't hit a lawn tennis ball properly, but she could climb, scramble over, under, and through rubble like a squirrel, dodge flying debris, and when a ghoul had leapt out at her from a half-collapsed cellar the instinct to beat it to pieces with a lead pipe had triumphed over the will to die.

But after six months of near-death-but-never-quite experiences, her Supervisor had told her she was due a month's leave before she could enlist for another term. Tremaine had protested with a patriotic fervor that her old friends in the theater would have admired, those that were still alive anyway. But she had given in when she had seen the look in the woman's eye. The Supervisor was the Duchess of Duncanny, used to managing estates on a grand scale, and she had been trained as a hospital nurse early in the war. She was too perceptive by far and Tremaine had looked into those old eyes and thought, she knows. She knows why I'm here. It was time to leave this and find some other way.

She must have contacted Gerard. "Shit. Shit, shit, shit." Wincing, Tremaine turned the heavy key and drew the bolts.

Gerard slipped in, by habit pushing the heavy door shut quickly so a betraying light wouldn't escape. Coldcourt was in the outskirts of Vienne, an unlikely target area, and Tremaine hadn't heard any bomb warnings on the wireless earlier.

He was a tall man, in his early forties, with dark hair just lightly touched with gray. His tie was askew and his tweed jacket stained with dark patches. His spectacles caught the light as he stared down at her in consternation. "Tremaine, I'm sorry to burst in on you like this but something terrible has happened."

They broke the wards, she thought, staring at him blankly. The palace is destroyed. A bubble of hysterical laughter grew in her chest. It was over. There would be no messy inquests or embarrassing articles in the papers to avoid. The Gardier had won and she could bash her own head in with a rock and no one would think twice about it. "The palace was bombed."

"No." Gerard gave her an odd look. "Oh, no, not that terrible." He took a sharp breath, gathering his thoughts. "I've just come from the Project. The last test sphere was destroyed."

"Oh." Tremaine wet her lips, trying to catch up. He meant the Viller Institute's Defense project outside the city. She gathered the blanket around her and fumbled the book into a more comfortable grip, trailing Gerard further into the hall. "Do you need me to write a bank draft?" she asked vaguely. There were people in the city who did that and handled the other business affairs of the Institute, but perhaps those offices had been hit or evacuated. "I thought the government requisitioned anything you needed now."

Gerard stopped to face her impatiently. "Tremaine, listen to me--" He blinked as he took in her appearance. "Is that your nightdress?"

"It's a smock. An artist's smock." Most of Tremaine's clothes were worn out and she hadn't had time or inclination to stand in the lines at the stores for months. "I-- Never mind. Now...what's happened?"

"The sphere we were using for the experiment was destroyed," Gerard explained. "The Riardin prototype of the Viller sphere, the last one we had."

That time she understood him. "Was destroyed?" Angry, Tremaine dumped Medical Jurisprudence down on the marble console table. "What the hell do you mean 'was destroyed?' By who?"

"By Riardin." His face grim, Gerard adjusted his spectacles. "It killed him and self-destructed."

Tremaine let out her breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Moron," she muttered. It didn't surprise her. It was hardly the first time this project had killed someone.

"He was over-zealous," Gerard admitted, "but he was the best we had. I'm now the highest ranking sorcerer on the Project." He took a deep breath, as if he was still trying to take stock of that himself.

Tremaine looked up at him, frowning. Lodun had been sealed off by wards, under heavy siege by the Gardier and impenetrable for the past two years. Sorcerers who could be spared from the border and coastal defenses were in short supply. Gerard was a competent sorcerer, but he wasn't up to the flamboyant Riardin's level. One of the benefits of suicide was not having to watch while what was left of her friends went before her. "Gerard...."

"The other spheres were specifically keyed to Riardin. He built them, he worked with them. There's no time to build another for me." His expression was grave. "I need the Damal prototype."

"Oh." Arisilde Damal had been the greatest sorcerer in the history of Ile-Rien. Tremaine had called him Uncle Ari. She stared at Gerard for a moment, nonplussed, then realized he was asking for her permission. "Well, yes. Of course."

Gerard started for the stairs, halting in confusion when Tremaine veered back toward the library, still dragging her blanket. He demanded, "You don't keep it in the vaults upstairs?"

"It gets lonely. It's cold and dark up there. That's probably what made the two early spheres die, you know." There had been three original spheres constructed by Edouard Viller, Tremaine's grandfather, kept in the secret storerooms in Coldcourt's attics. Two had quietly died in their years of inactivity and the last had been destroyed by Arisilde Damal himself in the course of a powerful spell. When Tremaine's father Nicholas Valiarde had endowed the Viller Institute to continue Edouard Viller's work, Arisilde had worked with the natural philosophers employed by it to recreate Viller's design.

Tremaine led the way into the library. The books had overflowed the floor-to-ceiling shelves long ago and invaded the parlor next door and several rooms on the second floor, but the main part of the collection was still housed here. Though the room needed dusting it was still the coziest room in the house, with colorful antique Parscian carpets and overstuffed armchairs. She went to the glass-fronted cabinet against the far wall and opened a drawer to search for the key.

"Sorry to burst in on you like this. I know you're on leave from the Aid Society." Gerard glanced at the meager fire in the grate and the pile of books surrounding her armchair. "Are you writing something again?"

"Uh huh." Tremaine gave up on the key buried amid the welter of pencil stubs, scraps of paper, and several decades' accumulation of unidentifiable odds and ends, and with a hard jerk popped the lock on the cabinet doors. The sphere rested on a shelf, crowded in with old yellowed notebooks and folios. It was a small, croquet ball-sized device formed of copper-colored metal strips, filled with tiny wheels and gears. She lifted it off the shelf, her fingers going a little numb with the mild shock of the power shivering through the metal. She breathed on it and the sphere warmed to her touch.

She gathered it against her chest as she shut the cabinet door. "No magical locks? No secret devices?" Gerard said a little sadly as he stepped up behind her. "The Valiardes have come down in the world."

"No, really?" Gerard had been a trusted friend of her father, so he was entitled to the observation, but Tremaine still felt more than a twinge. "Just stab me in the gut while you're at it, why don't you?" she muttered.

"Sorry." He actually sounded sorry as he accepted the sphere from her. He added wistfully, "I was rather fond of the secret magical locks."

"So was I." Tremaine looked into the sphere, watching the blue and gold lights chase each other along the metal pathways. Alchemy and natural philosophy were powerfully mated in the design; she hadn't a clue how it did what it did. This particular sphere had never been part of the Institute's studies. Uncle Ari had given it to her when she was a little girl, the day her pet cat had died of old age. He had said it would be cruel to prolong the cat's life but that this could be her friend too. It won't catch mice but it can purr, he had told her. Uncle Ari hadn't always been playing with a full deck of cards, but he had been very sweet. He had been the first sorcerer to begin the Viller Institute's great project and one of the first to die of it. She said, "Give it a minute to warm up."

Gerard watched her gravely. "I handled this one when Arisilde first charged it, but that was years ago. Is it easy to work with?"

She shrugged. "I never had any trouble with it. But then I never used it for spells. Not real ones." You didn't have to be a sorcerer to make the sphere work, but you did need to have some magical talent. Tremaine's great-grandmother had been a powerful witch and all her mother's family had had talent to one extent or another, though her mother had been an actress rather than a sorceress. As a child, Tremaine had had enough magic to make the sphere find lost toys and produce small illusions and colored light shows, but even that ability had faded with lack of practice. She supposed she would never see the device again. "Any progress?" she asked, not expecting an optimistic answer. "Besides Riardin blowing himself up. Not that that was progress but--"

Gerard knew her too well to take offense. "I think we're close. The experiment Riardin was conducting-- He was trying the spell from an entirely new tangent." He shook his head, pulling his spectacles off to rub his eyes. "We're very close to deciphering Arisilde's architecture."

"So you'll know exactly what killed Uncle Ari and my father." Tremaine turned the sphere, watching the sparks travel deeper into its depths. It was active tonight, more so than she had ever seen it before. Perhaps because she hadn't had it out since last year. Last year? Maybe it's been longer than that.

"They wanted to save us from this, Tremaine," Gerard said quietly. He gestured at the blackout curtains tightly covering the library's narrow windows. "From this war."

"I know." Nicholas Valiarde and Arisilde Damal had been the first to discover the early traces of the Gardier, that faceless enemy that appeared out of nowhere, that attacked without reason with power that destroyed conventional weapons and magic alike. That had been before the devastating attack on the city of Lodun, before the small country of Adera had been overrun and forced to serve as a Gardier staging area for attacks on Ile-Rien.

Tremaine didn't blame Nicholas and Arisilde for what had happened afterward. It had been an accident, a series of miscalculations on the part of two men who had been treading a fine line between life and death all their lives. With a sigh, Tremaine held the sphere out to Gerard. "Uncle Ari never wanted to make weapons."

He took the sphere from her carefully. "It may sound overdramatic but this could be the salvation of--" He stared into the sphere with consternation. "It's gone dead."

"No." Frowning, she took it back. She shook it a little, making Gerard wince, but then he was used to the more delicate and temperamental instruments constructed by Riardin and the others who were trying to duplicate Arisilde's work. "It's fine." She held it out, showing him the lights moving deep within the device.

Gerard took the sphere again and Tremaine leaned over it, frowning as the life faded out of it. She shook her head in annoyance, taking it back from him. "It worked for you before, didn't it?"

She shook it again and he hurriedly stopped her. He said, "Perhaps.... I haven't worked with it in more than ten years." He blinked, struck by the enormity of the possible disaster. "If that's the case.... We have no working spheres to continue the experiment."

"You mean it's forgotten you?" Brows drawn together, Tremaine held it out to him again. "Try to use it while I'm holding it. Something simple."

Gerard rested his fingers lightly on the sphere, frowning in concentration. For a moment Tremaine thought nothing would happen. Then a swirl of illusory light drifted across the fine old carpet near the hearth, sparkling like fayre dust, making both the fire in the grate and the electric bulb in the lamp dim and shiver.

Gerard let out his breath and released the sphere. The light vanished. "It still knows me but it apparently wants contact with you also." He looked at her seriously. "Tremaine, I hate to ask you this, but...it's vital for the continuation of the experiment. We're so close to success--"

Tremaine looked around at the library, gesturing vaguely. She couldn't afford to get involved in anything right now. "I'm sort of in the middle of something--"

"--I know it's dangerous, but if you could--"

Dangerous. Tremaine stared at him. That's perfect. She nodded. "Give me a few minutes to get dressed."



Chapter Two



Isle of Storms, off the Southern Coast of the Syrnai

"We'll see you at the moonrise," Ilias said and thought, I hope.

In the water below, Halian was balanced carefully on the bench of the dinghy, bobbing in the ripples that washed against the rocky wall of the sea cave. He was an older man, weathered by sun and sea, and right now worry made him show his years. "Are you two sure you know what you're doing?" he asked, handing up the coil of rope.

Ilias chuckled, reaching down out of the crevice for it. "I'm never sure we know what we're doing." The jagged hole of the cave entrance lay only twenty paces or so beyond the bow of Halian's little boat, allowing in wan morning light and the dense fog that lay like a wool blanket over the blue-gray water. The rock arched high enough to allow entrance to their ship the Swift, but the bottom was dangerous with submerged wrecks.

Longer ago than Ilias or anybody else alive could remember, the back of the cave had been a harbor, part of an old empty city that wove through the caves, much of it underwater. But now the stone docks and breakwaters were obstructed with the wooden skeletons of wrecked ships, all jammed together in one rotting mass. The stink of decay hung in the cool dank air, concentrated in the fog that some wizard from ages ago had caused to form around the island. The sudden gales and bad currents that frequently trapped ships and drew them in to their deaths gave it the name the Isle of Storms.

Halian didn't appreciate the attempt to lighten the mood. "You know how I feel," he said seriously, sitting down again in the boat as it rocked gently in the low waves.

"It'll be all right," Ilias told him, exasperated. When Halian had brought this up to Giliead last night, it had caused one of those long polite arguments between them where both parties are actually on the same side and there is no hope of resolution. Ilias had no idea how it had worked itself out, since he had gotten fed up and gone to sit out on the wall of the goatpen with the herdsmen.

From the crevice above Ilias' head, Giliead's voice demanded, "What did he say?"

Ilias stretched back to hand the rope up to him through the narrow passage. "He said we're suicidal idiots."

"Tell him thanks for his support," Giliead said, but the words didn't have any sting to them. "And love to mother."

Ilias leaned out again to relay this but Halian rolled his eyes and said, "I heard him, I heard him." He took up the oars as Ilias freed the mooring line. His expression turning rueful, he added, "Just take care."

Ilias smiled. Halian had faith in them; he was just tired of funeral pyres. "We will."

Without looking back, Halian took two quick strokes toward the cave entrance, the little boat already starting to vanish into the fog. Ilias braced his feet on the slick rock and pushed himself up through the opening into the cramped passage above, finding handholds in the mossy chinks in the stones. Giliead was waiting there, sitting on his heels and digging through the supplies in their pack. The crevice stretched up into the rocky mass over their heads, disappearing into shadow when the dim gray light from the opening below gave out. "Ready?" Giliead asked, shaking his braids back and awkwardly maneuvering the pack's strap over his head and shoulder. He was nearly a head taller than Ilias and the confined space was almost too small for him.

"No," Ilias told him brightly. The crevice was not only too small for Giliead, it was too small for the distance weapons they would have preferred to bring; bows and hunting spears would never fit through here. They both had their swords strapped to their backs, but drawing them in the confined space was impossible.

Giliead's warm smile flickered, then straight-faced he nodded firmly. "Me neither."

"Then let's go."

The climb went faster than Ilias remembered, maybe because this time he knew it would end. Searching for a way out of the caverns last year, they had discovered this passage by accident, not knowing if it led to a way out or a dead end somewhere deep in the mountain's heart. It was pitch dark and the stone was slick with foul water that dripped continuously from above. After a time the sound of the waves washing against the cave walls below faded and the only noise was their breathing, the scrape of their boots against stone, and an occasional muttered curse due to a bumped head or abraded skin. It was hot too and nearly airless, and Ilias felt sweat plastering his shirt to his chest and back. Bad as it was, it was still easier going up than it had been last year going down.

Giliead called a halt at what they judged was halfway up and Ilias wedged himself onto a shelf of rock invisible in the dark, bracing his feet against the opposite side of the crevice. He shoved the sticky hair off his forehead. His queue was coming undone and he took a moment to tighten it and pull the rest of his hair back. After some struggling, he managed to unsling the waterskin and take a drink. He handed it up to where Giliead was shifting around, still trying to fold his larger body into a comfortable position, and slapped it against the other man's leg to let him know it was there. When Giliead handed it back down, Ilias asked, "What did you and Halian finally decide last night?"

"That I'm bull-headed and he's worse." There was rueful amusement in his voice. Since Halian had married Giliead's mother five years ago, becoming his stepfather and the male head of the household, things between him and Giliead had occasionally been tense. There wouldn't have been a problem if Giliead had still had his own household with his sister Irisa, but living under what was now Halian's roof had caused some friction.

"Bull-headed? I would have picked the other end." Ilias was only a ward of the family, Giliead's brother by courtesy rather than blood, and therefore able to remain stubbornly neutral. He had come to Gil's house of Andrien as a child; his own house had been a poor one with far too many children to support, especially boys. He and Gil didn't look much like blood brothers either, since Ilias' ancestors had come from further inland, where people were smaller with lighter hair and skin, and Gil's people came from the bigger, darker strain that had been planted here on the coast since before the first boat was built.

Giliead snorted. Ilias could hear him shifting around uncomfortably again. Finally Giliead added, "He understands that I just want to be sure."

Ilias finished the unspoken thought hanging over both their heads. "That Ixion's not back." It was the first time either one of them had said it aloud, though Ilias knew they had both been thinking it since earlier this season when the rumors had started. Stories of smoke from the island again, of the bodies of curselings like those Ixion had bred washing up on isolated beaches. It wasn't just talk, either; in the past few months fishing boats went missing far more often than they should, with no survivors and no signs of wreckage in any of the places where small boats usually came to grief. Then a trading fleet of six ships from Argot had failed to arrive and two small coastal villages of gleaners had been found deserted, the huts burned and the boats broken into kindling. Nicanor, lawgiver of Cineth, and his wife Visolela had asked Giliead to return to the island to see if another wizard had taken Ixion's place here.

"He can't be back," Giliead pointed out reasonably. "I cut his head off. Nobody comes back from that."

Ilias remembered that part, in a hazy way. Lying across Giliead's lap in the sinking gig, the water in the bottom red with blood, he had a clear picture of Ixion's head under the rowing bench. They had never talked about that, either. "Dyani told me you threw it to the pigs."

"The pigs we eat?" Giliead sounded dubious.

Ilias didn't take the bait and after a moment his friend said quietly, "Three days after we got back I took it to the cave and the god told me to bury it at the place where the coast road met the road to Estri. That's when you started to get better."

"Oh." Ilias scratched the curse mark on his cheek. He remembered Giliead being gone then and everyone refusing to tell him why. Even after all this time, the memory of Ixion's malice and power gave him a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach. That the man could be dead and in at least two pieces and still be trying to hate him to death.

As soon as Ilias' fever had abated enough for him to get up, he had walked to Cineth to turn himself in and get the curse mark, the silver finger-width brand given to anyone who had been cursed by a wizard. Giliead had caught up with him halfway there and tried to stop him but Ilias had refused to listen. He hadn't meant to make himself a walking symbol of their failure but maybe it had turned out that way; it still seemed like something he had had to do, though Ilias couldn't say why even to himself.

He shook his head, trying to drive off the uncomfortable thoughts. At least the cursemark had stopped Visolela from trying to convince the family to sell him off into marriage somewhere inland. "Crossroads, huh," he said thoughtfully, keeping his tone light. "I guess the god figured the bastard's shade would get confused and wander around in circles."

"Shades can't cross running water anyway."

Ilias heard Giliead's boots grate on the stone as he shifted, ready to start the climb again. Giliead hadn't meant for Ilias to come with him. He had, in fact, invented a story about a dull trip along the coast to Ancyra, which would have been more convincing if Giliead wasn't such a lousy liar. Cornered and forced to admit the truth, Giliead had still maintained adamantly that Ilias shouldn't come with him. Ilias had spent the last few days countering arguments, calling bluffs, topping dire threats with even more dire threats, ignoring pleas, and foiling a last ditch attempt at physical restraint by battering the bolt off the stillroom door. Everybody else had refused to take sides, fearing retribution once Giliead wasn't around to protect them. Halian and Karima, Giliead's mother, hadn't interfered either, both knowing that the only thing more dangerous than going to the Isle of Storms was going to the Isle of Storms alone.

That Giliead would go, with help or without it, had been certain; it wasn't just that he had taken the duty of Chosen Vessel personally ever since he had first discovered what being one meant. Rainor, who had been Giliead's father before he had been named a Vessel, had died as the result of a curse. It had been the first real curse that Giliead had ever faced and probably the first time he had started to blame himself for things he had no control over.

Ilias took another drink from the waterskin, slung the strap back over his head and shoulder and pushed himself up to follow. "That's rivers and streams that shades can't cross, not seas."

"Seas don't run?" Giliead countered.

He had a point. Ilias thought for a moment, feeling for the next handhold. "They're salty." But as he leaned against the warm rock, he felt a vibration. He hesitated, pressing the side of his face against the stone. Somewhere, deep inside the mountain, something was thrumming. Like a giant heart beating fast in panic.

"What would salt have to do with--"

His throat suddenly dry, Ilias whispered tensely, "Gil, listen."

Giliead stopped. Ilias could sense him listening silently to the telltale vibrations in the stone. After a moment he answered softly, "I feel it." He let his breath out in resignation. "I hate being right."

"I hate you being right too," Ilias told him briskly, bracing his feet and feeling for the next handhold. At least they didn't have to wonder about it anymore; knowing for certain was a relief. Though it sure cut all the joy out of the debate over the seaworthiness of shades. "And Halian thought he wouldn't have anything to worry about the rest of the year except the drainage problem in the hay fields."

"Well, that's a pretty serious drainage problem," Giliead said, deadpan, as he resumed the climb. After a moment, he added, "It's not him. It's another wizard that came to take his place."

"I know." Ixion alive had been bad enough. Ixion, dead, headless and really, really annoyed was unimaginably worse.

After another long stretch of darkness and groping for hand and footholds and occasional slips on the slimy rock, Ilias realized he could make out Giliead's outline above him. Nearly there, he thought. Too bad this was the easy part.

The gradual increase in light let their eyes adjust from impenetrable darkness to the dim grayness of the upper cave, just visible through the cracks above. Giliead found an opening large enough for them to wriggle through and paused, listening intently, then cautiously edged upward to peer out. There was room for only one of them at a time and Ilias waited below, braced awkwardly, nerves tight with tension. Giliead's heritage as the god's Chosen Vessel made him proof against curses, but not Ixion's curselings. If something had heard them climbing up through the cave wall, if it was waiting up there like a civet at a mouse hole, all he would be able to do was pull Giliead's body back down after it bit his head off.

Giliead motioned that it was clear and climbed up through the crack. Breathing a little easier, Ilias followed, pulling himself out onto a ledge in the large cavern. The dim light came from above, through shafts and cracks that led up to the surface of the mountain. Conical columns of rock hung from the cave roof like icicles, hundreds of them, the light-colored ones glittering with myriad crystal reflections.

It courted terrible luck to say "so far so good" so Ilias just knelt, dumping the coil of rope off his shoulder and unclasping the climbing hook from his belt. Giliead paced along the edge, looking for the best spot to go down. The cave was about four or five ship-lengths across, the far side hard to see in the dim light. They knew it was just like this one, sloping down into the abyss, pocked by cracks and crevices, ledges and sheer faces of rock. They had no idea how deep the cavern was and personally Ilias didn't care to find out. The dank cold air drifted up out of it like a breeze from the netherworld, raising gooseflesh on his sweat-slickened skin. They would use the rope to go down the cliff to the inner passages' entrance, about forty paces down this side.

Ilias took a deep breath as he tied the climbing hook off. Except for the rush of wind through the shafts higher up, it was silent. Last time they had been able to hear the pounding of Ixion's engines all through this part of the caves. "At least it's quiet," he said, keeping his voice low. He glanced up when Giliead didn't answer. His friend was sitting on his heels near the edge, head cocked to listen, his brows drawn together in consternation. "What?" Ilias asked softly.

Giliead glanced back urgently. "You hear that?"

"The wind?" Except it was growing steadily louder. And it didn't howl and moan like it should through the narrow rocky openings. It was more like...a roar.

Giliead came to his feet suddenly, staring toward the north side of the cavern, where it wound deeper into the mountain and the darkness was absolute. Something was moving there, something very, very big. Ilias' breath caught. "Not the wind."

It was already too late to get back down into the crevice. Giliead flung himself against the wall as Ilias rolled back to crouch against it. They both froze. The roar that sounded like rushing wind grew louder until it hammered off the stone walls and inside Ilias' head. Heart pounding, he pressed hard against the rock.

It came out of the darkness with a steady, inexorable motion, an unbelievably huge oblong shape, black as night. It was narrow at the front, but the middle swelled to take up almost half the cavern. It had to be walking on the cave floor, however far below that was, but its gait was smooth and impossibly even. Ilias couldn't see anything that looked like an eye or worse yet, a mouth, but it wasn't featureless; he could see pockmarks and the long ridges of ribs running horizontally through its body.

Giliead's thigh brushed against Ilias' shoulder and he looked up, startled, to see his friend easing away from the wall. Ilias reached up to grab his belt. "Gil," he whispered through gritted teeth.

"I want a closer look," Giliead mouthed the words, though surely the thing couldn't hear their voices over its own hollow roar.

"Are you crazy?" Ilias mouthed back and took a tighter grip on his belt.

Giliead pressed his lips together in exasperation but didn't force the issue.

It was already moving past, the bulk of its middle part narrowing again at the back. It had a ridge along its back and a cluster of long jagged fins where the tail should be. As its mass slowly vanished into the darkness at the other end of the cavern, Ilias let go of Giliead and they both eased to the edge to watch the slowly disappearing bulk. His voice hushed, Ilias said, "That's...that's...."

Giliead drew a sharp breath. "Bad."

"Bad," Ilias agreed. He leaned out, trying to see the creature's legs. It was too dark in the bottom of the cavern to make them out. "You think it was here last time? Maybe in those tunnels we couldn't get to from this side?" Like all wizards, Ixion had used his magic to make things. Live things. Distorted awful things, that were always hungry. With Ixion dead there was no way off the island for most of his curselings and the waterpeople tended to kill the ones that could swim.

Giliead frowned. "Maybe. I thought cutting off the water to the vats would take care of anything he had down there." He swore under his breath. "I wonder what else I missed."

"It wasn't your fault," Ilias said, though he knew Giliead wouldn't believe him. "Besides, most of them should have eaten each other by now. Maybe it came from somewhere else." The idea that it wasn't dangerous wasn't worth suggesting.

Giliead watched the last glimpse of the thing disappear in the cavern's shadow, his mouth twisted ruefully. "We're going to have to do something about this."

"All right." Ilias nodded. "How?" he asked, just to hear what Giliead would say.

"We'll think of something." Giliead turned back, picking up the fallen climbing hook and setting it in a solid chink of rock. Ilias leaned on it to keep it anchored and Giliead tested it cautiously with his weight, then swung over the side and started down. "We killed that leviathan, didn't we? It was...almost as big."

Watching him climb down the sloping wall into the dark abyss, Ilias whispered after him, "That was mostly an accident and you know it." It was crazy, but this new thing made Ilias think of a flying whale. It had moved like a whale too, sliding smoothly through the air. Except it was far bigger than any whale he had seen around the outer islands or washed up dead on the beach. The leviathan that had gotten confused in the spray and unintentionally murdered itself on the spar of the Dare, and not done the ship a lot of good either, hadn't been half so big.

Ilias waited until Giliead reached the shaft about forty paces below, then went over the edge after him. It was a quick, scrambling climb, requiring you to place your feet carefully to keep from sending loose fragments of rock skittering down the wall. He reached the wide square-cut mouth of the shaft where Giliead was anchoring the bottom end of the rope and dropped to the floor. "What does something that big eat? People?"

"It could eat everybody in Cineth and it wouldn't be enough to fill a belly that size," Giliead argued, leaning out of the opening to yank at the hook until it came loose.

Ilias collected the rope. There hadn't been any word of large numbers of sheep or cattle going missing, so the thing hadn't left the island. Yet. "It's got to be eating something." Even if the thing didn't eat people now, after living in this place something would probably teach it.

Ilias slung the rope over his shoulder and they started down the shaft. It had been hollowed out of the cavern wall, perhaps as an air passage to the chambers of the old city, and sloped steeply down. There was just room for them to walk abreast and the ceiling was only an inch or so above the top of Giliead's head.

The light was gray and dim by the time they reached the first cross passage and they both paused, listening. "Something's different," Ilias said softly.

Giliead stood poised in the join, brows drawn together thoughtfully, one hand on the wall of the shaft. "The air's coming from the wrong direction."

The breeze came from up the cross passage instead of down, not from the lower caves where Ixion had done his work. Ilias had gotten almost used to the taint of corruption in the air, but now he could smell hot metal and an overlay of something bitter and acrid. "Smell that?"

Giliead nodded. "This part of the passage was closed off before. I thought it might go to the other caves, the ones closer to the surface, but it was blocked." He took a step down the cross passage into that damp cool breeze. It was pitch dark down there, past the point where the dim light from the shaft opening failed. "It's not blocked now."

"Huh." Ilias stared into the darkness, thinking it over. Giliead was talking about the time when he had been alone down here. Ilias' memory was hazy on everything that had happened after Ixion had caught him and Giliead had never spoken of the details. "If that thumping isn't coming from Ixion's furnaces--"

"Maybe this isn't as bad as we think," Giliead said with a hopeful grin, unslinging his pack to dig out one of the pitch-coated torches they had prepared earlier.

Whatever was down here, Ilias could do without the return visit to Ixion's workroom. "Maybe. It sure couldn't be worse."

They got the torch lit with flint and tinder and started down the passage, wary of sudden pitfalls or traps in this unknown territory. Soon the shaft lost its square shape and began to look more like a natural tunnel, the walls growing rougher and narrowing to where they had to turn sideways to slip through. It slanted down, first gradually, then dramatically, and they had to scramble down nearly vertical slopes.

When the passage widened out again it was abrupt and they suddenly found themselves in a larger chamber. Ilias fell back a pace, drawing his sword to cover Giliead's back as his friend lifted the torch to check the knobs of rock overhead. Things often hid in the ceilings of the big chambers in the lower caves, waiting to drop on whatever passed below.

As they made their way cautiously forward, Ilias' foot knocked against something that rolled away. He spared a quick glance down and reported tersely, "Bones." His eyes widened as the flicker of light revealed more of the chamber floor. It was covered with bones. "Uh, lots of bones."

Giliead turned around, trying to look in every direction at once. There were two other tunnels intersecting here and it was a good spot for a trap. "What kind?"

Ilias glanced around, studying the remains with a practiced eye. The odor of decay that hung in the air all through the caves made it impossible to judge how recent the death was. He nudged a skull out of a pile with the toe of his boot. It looked human, except for the elongated jaw and the fangs. The bones didn't appear that old, but the scavengers in the lower caves would strip any carcass they found within hours and many of the long bones were broken or chewed. "Howler," he said, "Nothing looks fresh, though." He frowned at a skull, then leaned down to pick it up. It had a neat hole drilled through it, just above the right eye. "What does that look like to you?" he asked Giliead, holding it out.

Giliead spared it a glance, brows quirking. "Like something bored into its head and ate out the insides?"

"That's what I thought." Mouth twisted in disgust, he tossed the skull back into the pile. "Which way?"

"The air is coming from this one." Giliead picked the tunnel on the far left. "What's that smell?" he muttered.

"I still can't place it. Bitter, isn't it?" Ilias paused to sheathe his sword and while Giliead kept watch, he used his knife to scratch a trail mark on the floor. The trail marks were a language all their own, the individual lines telling which direction the maker had come from, which direction he went, what his name was and what he was looking for. Ilias wrote the mark to say they were looking for trouble, which he thought summed the situation up nicely.

Not that Halian or anybody else will be coming through here to appreciate it, I hope, he thought, getting to his feet and following Giliead into the next tunnel. Giliead had made Halian swear on his grandmother's ashes not to come after them if they didn't come back. Ilias hoped that Halian held to it, even if it meant their bodies were lost and their souls trapped here forever.

The acrid odor in the air became thicker as the tunnel floor slanted even further down. "So say you're Ixion--" Ilias began.

"I'd rather not, thanks, I have enough problems of my own." Giliead lifted the torch to chase away the shadows overhead.

"--and you're sitting around one day in your dark, dank cave, watching the howlers and the grend hump and kill each other, and you think, 'hello, I'll make something that jumps on people's heads and bores through their skulls and eats out the insides.' Why does that happen?"

"Because he's a wizard and that's what wizards do," Giliead said patiently. "What else--" He stopped abruptly.

Ilias froze, a hand going to his sword. He heard it too, a muted click of claws against stone. He drew the weapon, shifting to stand back to back with Giliead, his eyes on the rock above their heads. There would be tunnels up there, the openings hidden in folds and shadows. "Back or forward?" he whispered. The passage was too narrow to fight in.

"Back--" Giliead began. Then from the direction of the bone chamber, two lean man-sized shapes appeared at the edge of the torchlight, the flame reflected in mad, hungry eyes. "Forward!" they finished in unison.

Ilias let Giliead worry about what was ahead and kept his eyes on the passage behind them as they moved on. The firelight threw leaping red-tinged shadows on the howlers' slick mottled green hides, which he knew were disconcertingly like human skin to the touch. The creatures had the elongated heads and long spidery hands of harmless rock lizards, but their jaws were heavy with vicious fangs and their claws were like razors.

These howlers warily kept their distance, as if they had been hunted before. That's all we need, for these things to get smart, Ilias thought in exasperation. He shouted, darting forward. The one in the lead took the bait, springing at him, hands reaching. Ilias ducked under the sweep of its claws, thrusting his sword upward and skewering it in the belly.

It recoiled with a screech, lurching into the wall and clawing at the rock. He dodged back as it struck the ground; the others fell on it as prey, maddened by the scent of blood.

Warily watching the dark shapes tear at the frantic creature, Ilias heard Giliead curse and risked a look over his shoulder. The tunnel came to an abrupt end not far ahead. "Damn," he breathed, turning back. The wounded howler writhed as the others fell on it in a snarling heap.

"Down here," Giliead said sharply, sweeping the torch along the ground in a haze of sparks. At the base of the boulders blocking the passage were openings in the rock. He leaned down, thrusting the torch into the largest, then jumped.

Ilias scrambled down after him, sliding, then leaping down to level ground. Giliead had found a large, low-ceilinged tunnel, wide enough for them to make a stand. Giliead cast the torch behind them and drew his sword as the first of the howlers leapt down to the chamber floor.

Driven wild by the fresh blood, the howlers lost all ability to coordinate their attack and came at them in a confused rush. Ilias took the first one with a straight thrust into the chest. As he pulled his sword free, it went down, still clawing for him. He blocked a blow as another ran at him, half severing its arm, then spinning close to slice its head off. Ducking under the next creature's wild swing, he took its leg off at the knee and risked a look around as it fell.

Giliead freed his sword from a creature's chest with a hard shove from his boot. He shifted to close the distance between them as Ilias eyed the howlers warily.

Seven of the creatures sprawled limp and bleeding on the ground as the others withdrew to the far side of the chamber, hissing and growling. Ilias frowned, watching as they stooped and weaved, their heads bobbing in what looked like a strange dance. "What the..." Giliead muttered. Ilias shrugged, baffled as one by one the howlers crept back up the rocks into the upper tunnel.

Ilias pivoted, trying to see the rest of the chamber as Giliead grabbed up the torch again. "Are they trying to get above us?" he demanded. Howlers never gave up prey.

"They didn't even take the dead ones, that's--" Giliead cocked his head, lifting the torch higher. "You hear that?"

After a moment, Ilias nodded. It was faint, but he could hear a humming, like disturbed bees.

"We've found it," Giliead said softly, absolute conviction in his voice. He stepped forward and thrust the torch against the wall, grinding it out.

As his eyes adjusted, Ilias could make out the shape of a tunnel in the far wall, gently limned with a pearly white light. He heard Giliead move toward it. Right, Ilias thought, taking a deep breath. This is what we came for. He would have rather fought howlers. He followed Giliead's quiet footsteps.

The tunnel wound around, slanting downward, and the humming grew steadily louder. Ilias thought he could hear a faint metallic banging as well. The strange white light grew brighter until the last turn revealed it spilling from a jagged gap in the low ceiling. Ilias stared at it in dismay. That light, without the flicker and color of real flame, was something only wizards made.

Giliead stepped around it, moving forward. Ilias followed more cautiously. The ability the god had given Giliead to sense the presence of curses had kept them alive on more than one occasion and he was trusting to it now.

Ilias stopped at the edge of the pool of light, craning his neck to look up. Far overhead he could see reflections on white crystalline stone clinging to an arching cavern roof like so many frozen water droplets. This had to be some other part of the central cavern. A shadow passed over the opening and Ilias ducked back hastily. From somewhere above two voices spoke a rapid spate of words in an unfamiliar tongue with a strange harsh sound to it. Cineth had trade from everywhere but Ilias didn't think he had ever heard speech like that before. He edged away from the spot of light as Giliead motioned urgently for him to hurry.

Ahead there was another narrow opening in the side of the tunnel and Giliead climbed the rock to look through. He froze, the set of his shoulders telling Ilias he had seen something shocking. Ilias twitched, impatient to know the worst. Finally Giliead moved aside and Ilias swung up to push in beside him. What he saw made his eyes widen. A hysterical scream seemed the only appropriate response, but he settled for swearing softly under his breath. It was much, much worse than he had ever imagined.

The opening looked out on a large cavern, the floor only about twenty paces below this level. It was filled with people, dozens of them. They swarmed around a huge structure of bare metal ribs supported on a high scaffold. From the shape outlined by the metal bars it might be a giant ship, maybe a barge, except that the lines were subtly wrong and it was just stupid to build a ship out of metal. The worse part was that they were using curses to construct it; several men, if they were men, had some kind of small torch that emitted a fire so brilliant it was like a captured star. They were playing the torches over the metal, as if melting it into place.

Ilias shot a worried look at Giliead. His friend's grim expression was just visible in the reflected light. Yeah, we're in trouble, he thought. So many wizards.

But not like Ixion. He had looked and dressed just like a normal man and had even managed to fool everyone into thinking he was one for a time. The people below were anything but normal. Their clothes were drably colored, all dull browns, and they wore half masks of some kind of dark colored glass over their eyes. Their hair, if they had any, was gathered up under baggy brown caps. Ilias was sweating in the warm damp air but the men below were covered up as if they expected to have to plow through a snowy mountain pass. Their sleeves came down to reach their gloved hands, the collars went up nearly to their chins, leaving only the pale skin around the mouth, nose, and throat exposed.

And their wizard lights were different from the ones Ixion had used. His had been small silent misty wisps of illumination that floated on the cave breezes; these were giant things a good two paces across, set in metal holders driven into the rock or on high metal stands. Looking at them was like trying to stare into the sun and they made a low hum, the source of the strange noise. Then as Ilias watched, a group of howlers came out of another tunnel dragging a bundle of metal poles, watched over by a pair of wizards. The white light gleamed off their slick mottled skin and mad eyes. They had tamed the howlers then, just as Ixion had.

Then one suddenly dropped its burden, crouching and snarling. A wizard stood nearby, unrolling a coil of black rope; he shouted a warning and pointed at the creature. The noise and sudden movement attracted it; with snake-like quickness it darted at him.

Just as it leapt on him another wizard pulled something dark out of the sheathe at his belt, pointing it at the howler. Ilias flinched back at a sudden sharp report. That's a new one, he thought, glancing at Giliead, who was wincing at the echo that reverberated through the cavern. His ears still ringing, Ilias looked back in time to see the howler reel and fall, its legs kicking spasmodically. The other howlers didn't go after it, but huddled in a group, hissing in alarm. Ilias wet his lips. At least now we know what taught the howlers to be wary of people.

Some wizards were herding the others back to work, as if it was a normal occurrence. One gestured for two of the others to haul the howler's victim away. He was limp, though the creature had barely touched him and there was no blood trail on the stone; they dragged him by his arms with his head hanging back to bounce on the ground, as if they knew he was dead or didn't care. Or that curse, weapon, whatever it was killed him too.

He looked up at Giliead. Ilias had seen wizards kill before, but curses always took time to work. If they didn't, he and Gil would be dead several times over. He nudged the bigger man's arm with an elbow and mouthed, "What was that thing?"

Giliead shook his head, equally baffled. He leaned down to say in a nearly voiceless whisper, "Some of them aren't wizards. Some are slaves, see?"

After a moment of study Ilias nodded. The ones who were doing the herding all wore leather belts with the odd-shaped sheaths attached, often with other pouches and metal implements. The ones being herded didn't have such accoutrements. They were also the ones doing all the actual labor, using the cursed tools, carrying pipes and poles and heavy cables. The others pointed and gave orders and watched, or scribbled things on small square boards they seemed to use as miniature portable writing desks. They also moved more confidently, shoulders stiff, jaws squared. Not so many wizards as it had looked at first, then. Still too many, Ilias thought.

A touch on his shoulder made Ilias jump and he realized he had been staring in horrified fascination for some time. His legs were stiff from crouching so long. He scrambled down the rock after Giliead and they retreated back up the tunnel, to just before the chamber where the howlers had fought them and fled. They sat back against the rock under an overhang, squeezing in shoulder to shoulder, more for comfort than any need for concealment. "Well?" Ilias said, keeping his voice low.

Giliead took a deep breath, then said softly, "I didn't know there were that many wizards. Anywhere." Ilias felt him shrug. "I didn't know they could work together like that."

Ilias swallowed in a dry throat. This wasn't one lone wizard, come to take Ixion's place and make use of his leavings, to prey on the shipping and the towns and villages along the coast as he had. A wizard like that could be killed if you were clever and careful. They had done it enough times before. This was an army of wizards. The scars on his back ached with the thought of it. "It's war."

Giliead nodded and rubbed his forehead. He was badly disturbed and trying to hide it. "We've got to get word back to Nicanor and Visolela. Not that we have much to tell them." Nicanor could send messengers to the other city-states and all the holdings throughout the provinces. Giliead shook his head in frustration. "We've got to find out when they're going to attack."

"We've got three days to scout around." The Swift would be picking them up at the next moonrise on the opposite end of the island. "And we've got the advantage now since they don't know we're here." He sensed Giliead looking down at him and added, "We hope."



Chapter Three


Vienne, Ile-Rien

After Tremaine had dressed and they had experienced the usual difficulty with the starter handle of Gerard's old sedan, they set out for the Institute. It was faster to skirt the edge of the city and as Gerard drove Tremaine leaned back in the cracked leather seat and watched the dark streets go by. This quarter still looked relatively normal, if murky and oddly quiet. There had been no blackout sirens tonight but only a few street lamps were lit and they saw no one except for the civil defense and the army patrols.

As they drove a short distance up the end of Saints Procession Boulevard there were more cars, more people and even a few cafes open. The old casino, converted to a military canteen, was a spot of light and gaiety in a block of fashionable shops that had been closed for months as the owners and customers fled the city. Other than that this end of the Boulevard looked strangely undisturbed by the war, the old stone façades undamaged, as if they had been removed from the scene and preserved in a glass case. The few passers-by walked under the potted trees in groups or couples and there was music and laughter from the canteen and the scents of coffee and chocolate in the cold damp air. But in the distance, over the roofs of the lower structures and the mists that hung above the street lamps, she could see the ruin of the Grand Opera. Her eyes would never grow accustomed to the gaps in what should be a perfect dome; it was like seeing an old friend with an arm missing. Of course, she had seen that too.

The Institute's project lay outside Vienne, a long drive through dark, twisty country lanes, past old estates, farms, vineyards, and a couple of small villages. Patchy clouds occasionally obscured the moon and stars and a rainy wind tore at the treetops. The air had the heavy wild scent of the country, laced with smoke. It would be a wonderful thing if the Institute was successful, but Tremaine wasn't an optimist by nature or nurture.

Her first hint that her family life would not be a normal one had come when she was seven. Her mother Madeline had died and her father had disappeared for a year. She had lived with Uncle Arisilde then and he had assured her that her father was still alive no matter what the newspapers might say. She had realized later that Nicholas had gone after her mother's murderers and that her peripatetic existence with Arisilde, wandering the byways of Vienne, tramping through fields and forests, with occasional visits to Lodun where they stayed in the strangest places and met the oddest people, had kept her alive. That quirky and self effacing Uncle Arisilde was a powerful sorcerer and that he was hiding her from her father's enemies, some of whom were powerful sorcerers themselves. One day Arisilde had taken her back to Coldcourt and they found her father there, and that was that.

She had never found out what had happened to those enemies. Nicholas Valiarde had never set foot on a stage but he had been a born actor, taking on different roles and personas the way other men changed their coats. He had done work for the Queen at times, but Tremaine had grown to understand that his public persona of gentleman adventurer was just that, a persona. He wasn't one of those noble rogues with a heart of gold who were portrayed in novels and plays, though he could maintain that act when it suited him. The reality was that he had been and to a large extent still was a lord of the criminal underworld, dangerous, implacable and ruthless.

After a time of staring hypnotized at the night landscape, it occurred to Tremaine that Gerard must be exhausted from making this drive once already tonight and she offered to take the wheel.

"I didn't know you could drive," he said, gratefully pulling over to the side of the narrow country road. "Did you learn in the Aid Society?"

"I drove supply trucks for a while," Tremaine told him, blundering into the spiky hedgerow while climbing out of the passenger side door. Staging an accident with her truck would have been a possibility, but everyone had been so disparaging of her ability to learn to drive it in the first place, she hadn't been willing to give them the satisfaction. She disentangled her cap from the thorns and stumbled around the front of the car.

Gerard climbed into the passenger seat. "This past six months for you must have been--"

"It's the same for everyone." Tremaine pulled the door shut with a grimace. She sounded like a bad melodrama. Don't mind me, even though my leg's blown off, I'll stagger back to the front line. She fumbled with gears and got the car pointed back to the road.

"With the skills your father taught you, I thought you might go into the Prefecture or the Intelligence service. Though I was glad you didn't." Settling back in the seat, Gerard added ruefully, "They aren't making any headway from what I've heard and the attrition rate is even higher than the Aid Society."

Tremaine had never considered that as a serious possibility. It wouldn't have worked, anyway. She hadn't wanted her death to ruin some vital operation or get anyone else hurt or killed. That was the last thing she needed. "I was never as good at that sort of thing as you all."

Gerard snorted. "You weren't there to see my spectacular failures. I was lucky Nicholas was there to save my-- Well, that's all over with now." He must have sensed she wanted to change the subject. "What are you writing?" he asked.

"Ah...." Natural honesty did not run in the family so Tremaine wasn't sure how she came to be saddled with it, at least when it came to speaking with Gerard. She guided the car past a couple of slow-moving farm carts. It was safer to bring supplies into the city after dark. Branches caught on the windscreen and the bonnet as Tremaine edged the car close to the ditch, and one of the drovers lifted his hat in thanks, barely visible in the light from his kerosene lamp. It gave her time to think. "I was playing around with...doing another play." She winced again, glad it was too dark for Gerard to see her face.

"Another adventure?"

His voice still sounded unconcerned but Tremaine knew in her gut he had read the titles of the books piled around her chair in the library. Gerard hadn't been one of Nicholas Valiarde's chosen few for nothing. "Maybe," she said offhandedly. Tremaine's plays and serials had all been romantic adventure fare, with lost cities, undiscovered fayre islands, and other fantastic elements. Not exactly something one read Medical Jurisprudence for. "Something different, you know."

Fortunately Gerard was tired and he soon began to drift off. Tremaine had been out here several times when the Institute first acquired the land and only had to backtrack once. The car was stopped twice by Civil Defense patrols, cautioning her to use the headlamps sparingly, and once by the regular army as she neared the old estate which housed the project grounds. Bringing the car to a halt, Tremaine fished for Gerard's authorization papers in the litter in his dispatch bag, glad for the electric torch the soldier shown into the car. She handed him her identity card and Gerard's papers. He checked them over briefly with the torch, then shined the light for a moment on Gerard, who snored. "Looks in order, madam. Hold up a moment while I get the corporal."

"All right," Tremaine replied dispiritedly, thinking Miss, it's miss. I'm twenty-six, I only look forty. Her mousey brown hair didn't look any better for the bad bob she had gotten not long ago. If she had just continued to cut it herself with the kitchen shears it would have at least looked neat. She was pale from the winter too but so was everyone else. She probably didn't look like a Gardier spy, at least. There were warnings in the papers constantly that there were Gardier spies in the cities, there to get information on defense plans and troop movements on the Aderassi border, and to kill sorcerers.

The soldier carried their papers over to the truck parked off under the trees and she heard the voice of the corporal as he checked their documents again. "They've hit the coast too, Chaire again. It's likely they'll take another run at Vienne before midnight."

"No, not again." The soldier sounded as resigned and weary as Tremaine felt.

"Yes, just came in on the wireless."

The bombings on the seaport of Chaire had only started a few months ago. The two things that had most puzzled the Institute's researchers since the war began was where the Gardier had come from and how they were concealing their bases. Airships now also came from the captured territory of Adera, but at first they had always come from over the Western Ocean. They still made their attacks on the Western Coast that way, but as far as their allies in Capidara could tell, the dirigibles were not passing over their territory at any point. Speculation in the newspapers had covered everything from a secret undiscovered island, an underwater city, and a hitherto unnoticed continent that submerged at will. If the Gardier came from further away, from some hidden city, then that still left the fact that they appeared to be supplying and launching many of their airships from the middle of the open sea. After three years of fighting Ile-Rien still knew little about them, not even what they called themselves; the name "Gardier" had been given to them by the newspapers and was a Rienish corruption of an Aderassi slang word for "enemy."

Ile-Rien had been invaded before. During the Bisran Wars troops had crossed the borders and pushed inward as far as Lodun, overrunning towns and villages, burning witches and priests. She had read the history, seen the ancient great houses pockmarked by cannonballs. But nothing prepared you for this.

Many of the standards of the Ile-Rien sorcerer's arsenal, like the charm that ignited gunpowder spontaneously, were useless against the Gardier. Only illusions or defensive wards seemed to succeed against the airships and attempts to work magic often drew their attention. And one of the Gardier's most devastating spells caused engines, gun mechanisms and electrical equipment to spontaneously explode. Now travelling the shipping lanes to and from allied nations was suicidal and the few surviving factories were hard-pressed to provide new munitions.

The soldier returned and handed over the papers. "Thank you, madam. Careful now. It's a good night for a bombing."

It might have been the soldier's warning or Tremaine's inherited paranoia, but as the road left the woods and hedgerows behind for an open down, she switched the headlamps off. The sloping field ahead, bleached of any color by the moonlight, led down to another shadowy curtain of trees, the dark sky chased with clouds stretching above it. Tremaine's foot slammed onto the brake before her brain processed what her eyes had just recorded; outlined against a stray cloud was a long cylindrical shape, the jagged ridge down its back tapering into knifelike tail fins. Gerard jolted awake. "What is it?"

"Airship, dammit." Tremaine craned her neck to look out the windscreen. It was low, perhaps only a hundred feet above them. She wished she hadn't stopped so abruptly; surely a sudden motion was more likely to attract attention than a slow one. She was very glad Gerard's car had a silver-gray body and a dingy gray bonnet; it should blend in with the gassy field.

Please no firebombs, Tremaine thought, watching the airship draw closer. After so much time in the Aid Society she should be used to air raids, to the noise and the smoke and the smell of death, but maybe that was something no one got used to. The damn thing was passing directly over them, as if drawn to the surely near invisible shape of the car by her fear. It was too dark for a shadow to fall over them but Tremaine gritted her teeth, feeling it anyway. She started as something clanked on the floorboard. "What the hell?" she whispered. The clanking turned into rhythmic clicks.

"It's the sphere." Gerard sounded quietly aghast. He fumbled for it in the dark.

The Gardier could detect spells and the sphere, old and fading, was held together with nothing but magic. "Kick it," she urged him.

"I'd rather not."

Tremaine's stomach twisted with tension. She had seen too many people get blown up to want to die that way. And certainly not with Gerard in the car, and not with the sphere needed by the Institute. Come on, she told it silently, stop clicking at the airship. You're going to get us all killed. And no, I'm not being ironic.

There was one last reluctant click and the sphere shuddered into silence. Gerard breathed, "That was close."

Tremaine twisted around on the seat, looking out the back to see the airship passing over the crown of the hill behind them. It must have moved out of the sphere's range. She took a deep breath in relief, then realized the airship was going in the wrong direction. She frowned, glancing at Gerard. "It's not going to Vienne?"

"Bel Garde." His voice was grim as he twisted to look back. "It's just over that rise, on the other side of the woods."

It was a suburb of Vienne, one of the most beautiful. Remembering the last time she had been out there, Tremaine pictured old houses with wild green summer gardens centered around the ruins of an ancient and picturesque stone keep. "There's nothing there," she protested.

She couldn't read his expression in the dark, but she saw him shake his head. "An arms depot."

"Stupid place for an arms depot." The first blast echoed over the hills, jarring her teeth. The flash lit up the sky for an instant. "Ex-arms depot," Tremaine muttered, turning around and putting the car back into gear. "How did they know it was there?"

She heard his tired sigh. "Their Intelligence sources are excellent."

Wonderful, she thought sourly. The newspapers were always saying there were spies everywhere but she could have lived without knowing it was true.

Tremaine didn't see the turn for the Institute's drive until the last instant and skewed the car into it, almost landing them in the ditch.

"Sorry." She winced, noticing Gerard was still gripping the dash.

"That's quite all right." He took a deep breath. "Once you get past the bridge, just turn into the woods to the left. We keep the vehicles under the trees to keep from drawing any airships down on the place."

Peering into the dark, Tremaine managed to find an open spot and deposit the car in it without incident. She collected the sphere from the floorboards and trailed after Gerard, following the beam of his electric torch over the uneven ground. She stumbled over the remains of an old brick path and a stone flowerbed border, more confirmation that they were on the grounds of the old estate that housed the Institute. They passed out of another copse of trees and emerged to see the outline of a ruined great house against the moonlit velvet background of the sky. It was a forest of towers and sharply-pitched rooflines and half collapsed walls etched against the night.

The past few hours had been surreal enough already; now Tremaine found her attention roaming, trying to turn this into a scene for a play or a magazine serial. Foolish. The theaters had been closed for months and only a few of the magazines were still in operation. Not that people didn't still want stories. In the Aid Society, as they had huddled around the kerosene stove in the shelters during their rest breaks, there was always some new volunteer who discovered her identity and begged her to tell him the ending of her last serial in Boulevard. The final three numbers of it had never been printed when publication was suspended for the war.

They were now walking on a dirt path through winter-dry grass, drawing closer to another large dark shape outlined against the sky, this one with the curving roof of what had been a large stables. Abruptly the sphere in Tremaine's hands trembled and heat flashed through the metal, intense enough for her to feel it through her gloves. She swore, juggling the thing awkwardly.

"What is it?" Gerard demanded, pausing.

"Did we just pass through some wards?" Tremaine managed to get the sphere tucked under her arm, where the thickness of her tweed jacket protected her from the sorcerously hot metal.

"Yes." He stepped closer, directing the light down on the sphere. "It reacted again?" he asked, his voice tight with excitement.

"I think it ate one of them."

A loud crash from the direction of the dark building made Tremaine nearly drop the sphere. A door spilled light and shouting people. Gerard whirled, yelling, "It's all right! We've got the Damal sphere and it reacted to the wards."

The men gathering around, some of them in military uniforms and armed with rifles, now rapidly backed away. Tremaine looked around at the respectful breathing room she, Gerard and the sphere now had, bewildered. What the hell is the matter with them? she wondered. The sphere's metal cooled rapidly in the night air and she shifted it into a more comfortable hold. She followed Gerard through the quietly murmuring crowd toward the door.

She stepped into a long building, high-ceilinged and bare, lit by strings of electric bulbs hanging from the rafters overhead. She could hear the distant roar of a generator and realized the wards must have blocked sound from escaping as well as guarding against magical attack. The floor was hay-strewn packed dirt and the air was full of dust. There were doorways leading into other workrooms and tables along the walls where men and women worked busily in groups.

For some reason Tremaine hadn't thought there would be this many people here. She was glad she had put on what passed for her best outfit: a dark tweed jacket and skirt. Unfortunately the stout walking boots didn't exactly go with it. But then the "dowdy old maid" look never goes out of style, she thought in resignation.

A tall slim young man with short straw-blond hair hurried up to them, demanding, "Did you get it?"

Unperturbed, Gerard touched her elbow to bring her forward. "Tremaine Valiarde, this is my colleague, Breidan Niles."

"An Arisilde Damal sphere," Niles said, ignoring Tremaine in favor of the device she was holding. He touched the metal reverently. "The other prototypes were before my time."

"Yes, thank you for reminding me of that." Gerard sighed and took the sphere from Tremaine. "The sphere will let me manipulate it, but it's still keyed to Tremaine."

Niles stared at her, as if seeing her for the first time. With his well-tailored suit, narrow features and his hair slicked back, he looked exactly like the kind of man who should be decorating a cafe society party or a court reception, but if he was here he was either a sorcerer or a philosopher or both. Light brows drawn together in consternation, he turned back to Gerard. "Have you considered the possible consequences?"

Gerard lifted a brow ironically. "I assure you, I've thought of nothing else for the past few hours."

"Is she aware--"

"She's just spent six months in the Aid Society," Gerard informed him dryly, "I assure you she is perfectly aware."

Yes, I'm a bloody heroine, Tremaine thought, stepping past them. It made her wonder how many of history's favorite heroes were just incompetent suicides.

About midway down the length of the building was a wooden platform with a railing and she strolled toward it, Gerard and Niles still arguing behind her. She stepped up on it and leaned on the railing. Below was an open area of packed dirt, dug several feet down below the level of the floor. The cold air rising up from it touched her cheeks. Resting on the bare earth was a round narrow band of dull-colored metal, enclosing an open space perhaps ten feet wide. There was nothing inside the band but more dirt, disturbed by footprints and the marks of what looked like a garden rake. Tremaine caught the slaughterhouse scent of blood and suspected they hadn't cleaned up quite well enough after Riardin's accident. This would be where it happened, then. This was Arisilde Damal's last Great Spell.

There were alchemical symbols roughly scratched or etched onto the metal band that she couldn't read. Around the outside, pieces of paper, scribbled over with notes and sections of sorcerous adjurations, were tacked down with various makeshift paperweights -- small stones, pencils, cups and saucers, walnuts, a woman's shoe. Representing three years of work by teams of sorcerers and philosophers and sorcerer-philosophers of the Viller Institute, desperately trying to recreate Uncle Ari's work.

Nicholas Valiarde had caught the first hints of the Gardier's presence in Adera, nearly four years before they had appeared so devastatingly in the sky over Lodun. Nicholas had never committed anything to paper, never wrote letters or took notes that involved his work, even when it was legal, so the details of how he had discovered them were largely unknown. His only close confidant in his self-appointed mission had been Arisilde Damal. Damal had been a force to be reckoned with when he was a young man half-dead and drugged to the gills on opium; then he had been older, sober and mostly sane. If you were going to pit yourself against an organization of mysterious and deadly sorcerers, he was the man to have at your back. It had been then that Arisilde began to work on this spell ring.

Tremaine rubbed her eyes. Since conventional spells had little effect on the Gardier, whatever Arisilde had been building here, it had to be something special. It had certainly killed him and Nicholas during its first test seven years ago, vaporizing them utterly, without leaving any unpleasant remains for the bystanders to deal with. This evidently had not been the case with Riardin.

Nicholas and Arisilde had died still thinking they were dealing with a criminal organization of sorcerers and not the first scouts of an invading army. Now three years after the first strike that isolated Lodun under its wards, Adera had fallen and Bisra and Parscia had come under heavy attack.

"When can we get this over with?" Tremaine asked, turning back to Gerard and Niles. Seeing their expressions, she corrected herself hastily, "I mean, when can we, ah, start the test." She gestured vaguely back at the ring.

Niles glanced at Gerard and said guardedly, "We can be ready in an hour."

* * *

It was more like three hours. Gerard and Niles weren't quite as in charge of all aspects of the experiment as they would have liked to be. There was a long argument with Colonel Averi the army liaison, who had the extremely valid point that all sorcerers were desperately needed for the defense of the population and the support of the troops on the Aderassi Front, and if this spell was going to use them up like matches, then maybe it wasn't such a good idea. But the beleaguered Crown had given a carte blanche to the Institute three years ago at the start of the war, and revoking that would mean a long drive into the city, talking a way past the security provided by the Prefecture at the Defense Department, a visit to the palace, talking a way past the Queen's Guard, and a discussion with the Queen. Everyone seemed to know Gerard and Niles were going to win, but the Colonel felt compelled to make the argument anyway.

Tremaine drank black terribly bitter coffee to stay awake and sat near the side room that housed the wireless, where a group had gathered to listen to the reports of the Gardier's bombing of Chaire, Bel Garde and the eastern side of Vienne. There were more rumors of the royal family's evacuation to Parscia, more reports of the number of people leaving the capital.

Tremaine wandered away from the group around the wireless, tired of listening to it. Niles was the only one who seemed excited about the sphere. The Institute smelled of failure and dying hopes.

Nearby at one of the work tables there was a young woman, examining what looked like a small chunk of crystal. Her bobbed hair was dark red and she was dressed even more drably than Tremaine in a dull colored skirt and jacket and clunky shoes. Tremaine wandered close, looking at the crystal. The girl glanced up, startled, and dropped it.

"I'm sorry!" Tremaine dove to recover the object just as the girl pushed her chair back and bent forward. They bonked heads.

Tremaine sat back with a wry smile. "I think I'll just get out of your way."

Rubbing her forehead and smiling back, the girl picked up the crystal and dropped it on the desk. "It's all right. If we did break it, it would at least tell me something."

Tremaine picked up the blue-veined crystal, holding it to the light. "What is it?"

"It's a piece of one of the crystals they found in the wreckage of that Gardier airship that went down a few months ago." The girl pushed her loose strands of hair back with a weary sigh. "Everyone thought it would be the big break-through to finding out how they resist our magic, but nobody can tell how they're used or what they do. I guess when it shattered in the crash any spells it had just vanished without a trace. They've gotten so desperate they've even let me take a look at it." Her rueful expression turned self-conscious and she added, "I'm training to be a sorceress. I'm Florian."

"Tremaine Valiarde." It was just a shard of crystal. It could even have been a chunk of glass, as far as she could tell. You'd think the Gardier would have something complicated, like the spheres. "I didn't even know any airships had ever been captured. But I haven't been paying much attention to the news lately."

"There wasn't much left of it. There was a big storm over the mountains in Adera and its protective spells must have failed; it was torn apart. An intelligence patrol found it and they grabbed everything that looked important." Florian picked up the notebook that lay nearby and scratched out a couple of words. "The mechanical bits were pretty ordinary. The crystal shards are the only unusual thing." Depressed, she added, "We don't even know if they're dangerous."

"Dangerous?" Tremaine repeated thoughtfully. She brought the crystal to her eye and peered through it at the lightbulb overhead.

"It hasn't done anything to me," Florian admitted, sounding disappointed.

"Tremaine?"

She turned, startled at the familiar voice, and found herself staring at up Ander Destan. "Ander, what are you doing here?" she demanded, getting to her feet hastily.

"I work here." He grinned at her. He was a tall handsome man, only a few years older than Tremaine, with dark hair and laughing eyes. "You sound shocked."

Tremaine had sounded aghast. Ander had been a fixture in the cafe society of artists, actors and writers that Tremaine had inhabited before the war, though his family had been a little too beau monde to approve of his pastime. In Ander's social set, associating with the people of cafes, salons and theaters was slumming; for Tremaine it had been a part of her career and for her father part of his protective coloration. Though she and Ander had been almost close at one point, that seemed a lifetime ago now. It was nice to know he was still alive and well, but he knew a little too much about her past for comfort.

Years ago before her father had disappeared, Tremaine had been kidnapped and held in a private institution for the mad. She had been there for nearly a week, until she had stabbed an attendant in the neck with a hypodermic needle and escaped by jumping out a window. She had recovered from her ordeal at Coldcourt, only to discover that the story that she had been voluntarily committed was making the rounds of society. The Prefecture could do nothing, since the institution had the forged documents to prove their version of the story and she had nothing but her word. Her father had been out of the country at the time; when he had returned he had heard her adventures without a great deal of visible sympathy. But this time Tremaine was old enough to recognize the newspaper reports for what they were; to know that it was no coincidence when the institution burned down and several key members of the staff were found floating in the river, minus vital body parts. A surviving employee was found to be guilty of arson and murder and subsequently hung for it. Arisilde had made a "tsk tsk" noise and said that Nicholas had always liked things neat and tidy.

She had never told any of her friends the truth and Ander had, of course, always treated the matter with a civilized delicacy. Tremaine would have preferred it if he had flat out asked her if she was insane. She managed to say, "I thought you were in the army." Ander was dressed as a civilian, in a tan pullover sweater and a leather jacket.

"Well, I am. I'm in the Intelligence Corps, attached to the Institute to keep an eye on the sorcerers. Like Tiamarc here." Smiling, he turned to the man who had stepped up beside him. "Tiamarc, this is Tremaine Valiarde, the playwright."

"Oh, really?" Tiamarc smiled. He was sandy-haired and handsome under his spectacles, though he didn't have Ander's air of Ducal Court Street polish. "Anything recent?"

"Nothing you would have heard of," Ander told him with a grin, before Tremaine could gather her wits enough to answer. "The old-fashioned, blood and thunder stuff for those old ex-music hall theaters."

"Yep, that's me," Tremaine managed, feeling as though Ander had just identified her as a leper. She cursed herself for being oversensitive. Ander had sat in many of those old ex-music hall theaters watching her blood and thunder stuff, so he didn't mean anything by it.

Tiamarc's polite expression didn't alter but Tremaine could tell he had lost interest. Florian, on the other hand, tugged on Tremaine's sleeve and whispered excitedly, "Really? Which ones?"

Before Tremaine could answer, Niles strode up from the other end of the building, bellowing, "Tremaine, we're ready!"

"Nice meeting you," Tremaine told Florian, absently setting the crystal back on the desk. "Got to go do this thing."

"Thing?" Ander asked, lifting his brows.

"The experiment."

* * *

Holding the sphere, Tremaine stood with Gerard in the metal circle. Niles moved around the circumference, making a few last checks of the notes tacked down around the outside, and everyone else was crowded up to the railing. Tremaine saw Florian had managed to fight her way to a spot in the front and was watching with her brow creased in concern. Ander stood nearby with a deeply worried expression. Tremaine felt horribly awkward and self-conscious under all those combined gazes, especially Ander's. She couldn't tell if he was worried that she would die or that she would do something stupid, or a combination of both. She just wished they could get on with it.

Finally Niles nodded to Gerard and climbed back up to the wooden platform. "Ready?" Gerard asked Tremaine, watching her gravely. Sweat was beading on his brow and he looked more nervous than she felt.

You could stop it, a traitor voice whispered in her head. Just say no. Maybe it was the Voice of Reason, but that had never had much power over her. Tremaine shrugged. "Let's go."

Gerard took a deep breath, then touched the sphere.

Her stomach lurched and a rush of cool air struck her, passing through her without impact, as if her body was made of gauze. There was nothing under her feet and her hair streamed up and she just had time to realize that this bizarre sensation was vertigo from falling when she hit something.

The first lungful of saltwater clarified the situation completely. Tremaine surfaced, thrashing and gasping for air. It was day, bright blue sky laced with white clouds arched above and this was the ocean. Choppy blue water lay in every direction. In the distance was a rocky cliff-lined coast. Closer there was an island that seemed to be nothing but several peaks of graduated heights, all wreathed in dense mist. "Gerard!" Tremaine yelled and went under again. She fought her way back up and remembered to tread water. Shrugging out of her jacket helped. She took a deep breath, went under, and wrestled off one boot; that helped too. She surfaced, her throat burning from inhaled saltwater. "Gerard!" she shouted again.

"Here!"

She saw him swimming toward her and thrashed awkwardly to him. "What the hell happened?"

"I...I don't know." He had lost his spectacles and his dark hair was plastered to his head. "Do you have the sphere?"

The sphere...Oh, god. Tremaine looked around as if it would be floating nearby. "I must have let go of it!"

"All right. It's all right." He sounded as if he was reassuring himself as well as her. "Give me your hand, we can call it."

Tremaine nodded and reached for him, lacing their fingers together as Gerard whispered the words of the brief charm. They bobbed in the water, Tremaine turning her face away as the low waves crashed into her. "Did it work?"

"I'm not--" The sphere surfaced a few feet away with a splash. "Thank god!" Gerard let go of Tremaine and grabbed for it before it could go under again.

Watching him, Tremaine asked, "There's an island that way, should we swim?" It seemed the thing to do, though she had never swam that far in her life.

Gerard twisted to look. "Island? It could be a promontory."

"Whatever. Shouldn't we start--"

He shook his head. "No, now that we have the sphere, we need to give the spell a chance to reverse. I timed it precisely--"

"Precisely? Gerard, what happened? This was supposed to be a weapon, not a transportation-- Thing!" Tremaine demanded, keeping her head above water with difficulty. "Hold on." She went under again to get rid of the other boot.

As she surfaced, Gerard asked anxiously, "Are you all right?"

"Boots," she explained succinctly. "What happened to the spell?"

"Ah, yes. Well, something...something unexpected has happened."

"You think?"

"Yes, sarcasm always helps a situation like--" His face went deathly still. "Tremaine, look."

Her head whipped around, following his gaze. "The Gardier."

The airship hadn't been there a moment ago. It hung low, heading away from them, the black mass of it silhouetted sharply against the blue sky. The ridge and fins made jagged outlines and the long square cabin hung low underneath the swollen belly of the hull. "Where did it come from?" Tremaine said and realized she had whispered. It wasn't likely to spot two heads bobbing in the waves, as high as it was and pointed away from them, but she had instinctively tried to sink as low as she could in the water and still keep breathing. The thing moved slowly but something made her think of a wasp, heavy with venom and searching for prey.

"It just appeared. I saw it," Gerard said slowly, staring after it. "There was a flash of light and it popped into existence.... Just like we did."

"Like we did?"

Gerard was muttering, "Gardier attacking the coast always come out of the west and return that way. If that's west-- Wait!" He floundered, splashing her, frantically digging something out of a pants pocket. He produced a compass, shook it to get the water out, and examined it avidly. "That is west!"

"The spell sent us to Chaire? Except that isn't Chaire." Tremaine frowned at the island, the distant rocky coastline. The country around the port city of Chaire was flat. She frowned. Then Tremaine's startled brain put two and two together. "The spell sent us to where the Gardier come from."

"Wait, look!" Gerard pointed.

Tremaine squinted against the sun. There was a dark blot moving out of the mist around the island's peak. "It's another airship--"

Tremaine hit the ground with a jarring thump, drenched by gallons of seawater. The downpour ended abruptly and she looked around, dazed. They were back in the Institute's building, in the center of the spell circle. Gerard was sprawled a few feet away, dripping wet, still holding the sphere. They stared at each other, stunned.

There was a whoop of joy from somewhere above and Breidan Niles vaulted the railing, slipped in the mud caused by the deluge of seawater, and landed beside them with a splat. "What happened?" he demanded. "Where--"

Gerard dropped the sphere, grabbing the other man's shoulders to shake him. "It's a translocation spell!"

"I gathered that, but where--"

From the railing, Tiamarc burst out, "That's impossible!" Both Gerard and Tremaine stared up at him blankly. Tiamarc added, "But isn't it?"

"Where did you go?" Niles demanded.

Tremaine saw the saltwater had soaked the notes tamped down around the outside of the circle and that the ink was running. She gasped and grabbed Gerard's shoulder. "Oh, no! The spell-- The water--"

Shaking his head, Gerard told her, "Those are only the working notes. We have several typescript copies of everything."

"Oh." Tremaine sat back, shoving her dripping hair out of her eyes. "Never mind."

"Where did you go?" Niles demanded again.

Tremaine's dazed brain was still trying to catch up. She shook Gerard's sleeve again. "Arisilde did a translocation spell before. He told me about it--"

Gerard nodded, his face intent. "I remember his description of that. I thought he used an old fayre ring--"

"And a sphere. The spell destroyed the sphere but--"

"They could still be alive." Gerard met her eyes. "Nicholas and Arisilde."

Tremaine opened her mouth but no words came.

"WHERE DID YOU GO?" Niles shouted, shaking Gerard.

"I don't know." Gerard let go of him, sitting back and shaking his head in amazement. "Niles, it was broad daylight."

Niles rubbed his brow, trying to comprehend it. "My god."

"We saw two Gardier airships, one coming from an island, one going toward it," Gerard told him. "It could have been returning from Chaire. One of their bases, Niles." He shook his head, smiling in wonder. "It wasn't a weapon. Arisilde Damal was creating a translocation spell to take us to a Gardier base."

Arisilde never wanted to make weapons, Tremaine thought, remembering her own words.




Chapter Four


Isle of Storms



"I still think it's alive," Ilias said thoughtfully. He was stretched out on a shelf of rock, head propped on his arms, watching the scene below. This was another branch of the great cavern that wound through the mountain and their vantage point was a small tunnel opening about fifty paces up the wall. Below was a ledge, part natural and part augmented by wooden platforms, lit by wizard lights. One of the flying whales was anchored to the edge, enormous and silent, floating like a tethered thunderhead in the damp air. About thirty paces or so below the makeshift dock and mostly lost in shadow, a dark river cut through the cavern floor. "I think it's breathing."

Lying next to him, Giliead lifted his brows skeptically. "I think that's your imagination." From this angle they could see the flying whale didn't have any legs, that the edged tail fins seemed to be how it moved itself through the air. The purpose of it was easier to discern now too: There were places in its body that the wizards rode in. They got aboard it with a gangplank that stretched from the cliff to an opening in the squarish belly that hung along the lower part of it.

For some time several wizards had been going in and out and now the slaves were carrying aboard wooden boxes and metal containers from stacks on the platforms. Giliead shook his head, studying the creature with a frown. "They put this thing together somehow."

"They fed it," Ilias argued, scratching his head vigorously. They had rolled in mud to kill any scent that might attract the attention of the captive howlers and it itched like mad, especially in hair. "From those vats." The large metal vats, each as big around as a decent-sized hut, stood against the cavern wall not far below their ledge.

After two days of carefully creeping through the tunnels and passages to spy on the wizards' mostly incomprehensible activities, they still didn't know much about them. They had found the place where the wizards had cut through into the tunnels of the lower city, perhaps to reach the old harbor cave, but they hadn't been able to get a look at the smaller passages on the west side of the main cavern. It was the place where the wizards seemed to have their living quarters and it had to yield more clues than these large work areas. It was also where the slave quarters must be, so there had been no hope yet of releasing any of them.

As far as they could tell there were at least fifty wizards and more than sixty slaves here, scattered all through this section of the caverns. It was hard to estimate their numbers when it was so difficult to tell the wizards apart, but right now there were five working on the platforms below, two supervising the slaves and the other three going in and out of the flying whale. There was at least one other whale, the one they had seen swimming in the air through the big cavern, and they had found two other large caves with platforms like this.

All those wizards working together, Ilias thought again, still overwhelmed. He and Giliead had been killing them for fifteen years now and they had never come across wizards cooperating before, not real ones. They always hated each other even more than they hated normal people. He would have been sick with the thought of it if there hadn't been so many other things to be horrified about.

He told Giliead, "And Ixion put things together too. Never that big, but still." It was the vats that made Ilias doubt. They were too much like the ones that Ixion had used to make his curselings, though they hadn't been able to see what was in these yet.

"I know, but this is...different." Giliead let out his breath in frustration. "We're not going to have much to tell Halian and Nicanor."

"There's an army of wizards ready to overrun the coast with giant flying whale monsters. I think that's all the telling they can handle."

Giliead lifted a brow at him. "You know what I mean. We should know where they come from, why they're here." He shook his head a little, frowning. "Or at least where they're going to attack first."

Ilias scratched the stubble on his chin, dislodging a few flakes of dried mud. They had overheard plenty of conversations, not that any of it had been intelligible. If the wizards were calling Cineth or Pirae or any of the other coastal cities by their names they hadn't heard it. "If we could just get closer--" He started at a sudden crash from below, wincing as he saw what it was. "Oh, not again." A few years ago he and Giliead had killed a wizard near Ancyra who had cursed people to dance themselves to death, a fairly horrible way to go; at least these wizards took their victims quickly, though that didn't make it any easier to watch.

The crash had been one of the slaves dropping a crate. Now he backed away from the furious wizard advancing on him.

Then the slave stumbled back into the metal stand supporting a curse light. It swayed over and both wizard overseers shouted in alarm. The slave made a wild grab for it but the heavy light tipped. As the white part smashed against the stone, the curse escaped in an abrupt burst of sparks. A little fire leapt to life on a bundle of tarps piled near the crates.

The platform suddenly boiled with confusion. The slaves retreated in terror while the two wizards pressed forward, ripping off their jackets to beat at the small fire. The other three wizards ran out of the flying whale, shouting at each other, frantic, panicked. The howlers screamed, probably because everyone else was.

Completely baffled, Ilias stared at Giliead. "They're afraid of fire?"

"I'll say." Giliead watched in amazement. "I almost took a burning arrow in the chest once and it didn't scare me that much."

Ilias shook his head. It was such a small fire. "How do they cook?"

"Very carefully?"

The little fire died under the wizards' frantic efforts. Abruptly all the lights on the platform went out, the buzzing hum they emitted dying away. In the dimness figures still milled in confusion but at least the yelling stopped. Tiny lights sprung to life, held in the hands of the wizards.

Without the buzzing, their speaking voices were audible. As others herded the slaves and howlers away, three of them held a brief agitated conversation, playing the lights over the heavy metal cylinders stacked waiting on the far side of the platform. Then they followed the others, leaving the cave in darkness.

Except for the glow of light from the open door in the flying whale's belly.

Giliead sat up, nudging Ilias excitedly. "This is our chance."

Ilias let his breath out in resignation as he pushed himself up off the rock. "Yeah, I was afraid you'd say that."

***



While Giliead cached their pack and waterskin in the bottom of the vertical shaft, Ilias crept out to scout the cavern floor. The shadows were deep and there was cover along the rocky bank of the narrow river, mostly old rockfalls and some boulders that might have been recently dislodged by the wizards' construction efforts. The whale hung over the cavern, impossibly huge for something so quiet; its presence made the back of Ilias' neck prickle. They would have to cross under its shadow to get to the platform, like coneys trying to sneak past a hawk; that would be a terrible time to find out it really was alive.

Giliead joined him and they made their way along the bank of the river, staying low. The channel was deep and narrow and the quick-flowing water stunk of grend filth. It must come from near Ixion's old chambers and probably led back into the old city.

Ilias tried to stay as close to the ground as possible as they crept under the whale's bulk; seeing Giliead unconsciously duck as he looked up at the thing's belly made him feel less irrational. It was too dark to see anything up there anyway.

The wooden supports of the dock platform were easy to climb, offering plenty of handholds. Ilias reached the top first, peeking cautiously over the edge. The chill light from the flying whale's door illuminated the platform, revealing the stacks of boxes, the metal cylinders, the spidery outlines of the stands supporting the quiescent lights. It gave the shadows a sharp outline, as if they were all knife-edged. The smell of burning still hung in the air though there was an odd unfamiliar taint to it. The wood creaked as Giliead climbed out onto the platform and Ilias scrambled up after him, staying in a crouch, listening intently. They exchanged a wary look but nothing moved in the shadows.

Giliead went toward the crates nearby and Ilias crept forward cautiously to the shadowy vats and canisters on the far side. The vats stood back against the rock wall, looming in the dark. He touched one cautiously; the metal surface was chill. Reluctantly he pressed his ear to the side, but he couldn't hear anything stirring within. Ixion's vats had bubbled and churned constantly, so maybe these weren't the same after all. He felt around it, looking for a way to see what was inside. All he could find was a small wheel near the bottom, above a pipe. The wheel refused to turn and though he examined it as best he could, he couldn't tell how it was locked.

They searched the rest of the space, Ilias taking one side and Giliead the other, picking cautiously through the stacked boxes, pipes, and other strange objects. Then a hiss from the other side of the platform called Ilias over. Giliead was crouching by the broken lamp. He held up something so Ilias could see it in the light that came from the flying whale. It was the charred end of a black rope with odd colored bits poking out. In a low whisper, Giliead explained, "These are connected to all the lights. I think when this one broke it started the fire."

"Huh." Ilias took it and sniffed it cautiously. It did smell of burning. He handed it back. "What's in the crates?"

Giliead shook his head. "Couldn't get any open without breaking them. I don't want them to know we were here. Not yet."

That only left one thing to search. They both looked at the open door into the flying whale's belly. Ilias swallowed in a dry throat. "Well...."

Giliead took a sharp breath. "Yeah."

Ilias tried not to step on the black ropes as they crossed the platform but it was hard to miss them in the dark. One of them squished unpleasantly underfoot and he winced, but it didn't burst into flame or break.

They reached the edge of the gangplank together. All they could see through the doorway was a dull-colored metal wall. Ilias hesitated, wiping sweaty palms off on his pants, and found himself hoping fervently again that the creature wasn't alive. Walking voluntarily into its belly seemed less suicidal that way. He looked at Giliead, whose expression said he wasn't feeling so sure of himself either, which made Ilias feel even worse. He nudged him with an elbow and said in an almost voiceless whisper, "Are we sure this is a good idea?"

Giliead shrugged and shook his head, which Ilias interpreted as "no, but we're doing it anyway." He took a tentative step onto the plank and Ilias checked the set of his sword and followed.

Giliead stopped in the doorway, head cocked to listen. For such a large creature -- or thing -- the flying whale was oddly silent. He leaned back and whispered, "No guard curses." Ilias nodded and eased through the door after him. These wizards didn't seem to use such things to protect their territory; the only ones Giliead had found while they had been here were old, left by Ixion or his predecessors.

Inside was a long, low-ceilinged chamber, half filled with the containers they had watched the slaves load, lit by a few small white bubbles of curse-light attached to the ribbed metal ceiling. The floor was covered with a thin soft stuff like cork that dampened any sound their boots might have made.

Well, it's a cargo hold, Ilias thought, but after watching the slaves load it he supposed they could have known that without actually coming in. He moved down a row of crates as Giliead took the other side. The crates were stacked above his head, secured with ropes and nets to hooks in the floor. Ilias tried not to brush against anything even though Giliead had said there were no guard curses to injure intruders or alert the wizards to their presence. The strangeness of the place, the odd scents, the cold light, made his shoulders tight with tension and his nerves twitchy. There wasn't anything here but the crates and he circled back around.

Giliead had found a metal door in the wall to the far right. He listened at it a moment, then gave it a cautious push. It creaked loudly, making Ilias' stomach do a nervous flip-flop, but it revealed only a dimly-lit corridor, with more doors off each side.

Giliead took a deep breath and consulted Ilias with a look. Ilias shrugged. They had come this far, they might as well go all the way.

The corridor was narrow and low enough that Giliead had to duck under the light bubbles. The wizards, who mostly seemed to be between the two of them in height, would have barely enough clearance themselves.

One of the doors stood partly open, revealing a darkened chamber, and Ilias leaned into it for a look. The dim light from the corridor fell on a narrow room lined with big shelves fixed to the wall with metal brackets. From the gray blankets and cushions he realized they were beds. Cold and lonely beds, thinly padded, narrow, and meant only for one person each. "This is how they sleep?" he whispered, glancing back at Giliead. "No wonder they're all so irritable."

Giliead looked too, made a thoughtful noise, and continued cautiously up the corridor. Ilias followed, pausing to look in the other open doors. It was all the same. The lack of personal possessions or clothes might be explained by the thing still being uninhabited, but there were hardly any colors at all except gray and brown. No painting on the walls, no color in the rough weavings they slept on or the padding on the floor.

It was another way these wizards were unlike Ixion. He had liked comfort; wealth hadn't interested him since he could get anything he wanted with his power, but he had covered his chambers with fine linens and silks, beautifully woven carpets and painted tiles. It made Ilias wonder what these wizards used their power for, what all this labor was in aid of.

At the end of the corridor was another dim chamber lined with metal vats, with pipes leading up into the ceiling. A heavy odor hung in the air, detectable even over the foul stink of the mud on their clothes and skin. Ilias couldn't identify it, except that it was heavy and dark and clogged his nose and throat.

"Let's try up here."

"What?" Ilias glanced around to see Giliead had found a ladder, set back between two of the vats. He stepped closer, seeing it led up the wall through a hole in the ceiling and into an empty space that glowed with a diffuse orange light. It looked exactly how he imagined a giant beast's belly would appear from the inside. "Try what up there?" he asked dubiously.

"Come on." Giliead started up the ladder and Ilias followed reluctantly.

Giliead climbed up onto the floor above, the metal creaking faintly. Ilias poked his head through the opening warily, but the sight was disappointing. It was only a long straight narrow passage built of flat metal bars, with walls of some kind of slick brown fabric. It seemed to run the whole long length of the creature.

Sitting on his heels, Giliead studied the corridor thoughtfully. "Still think it's alive?"

Ilias climbed up to sit on the narrow metal catwalk. He touched the wall tentatively but jerked his hand back with a grimace. "It feels like skin. Dead skin."

Giliead leaned close to the wall, running a hand over it thoughtfully, with the air of someone who did this every day. "Huh."

"Well?" Ilias demanded.

"It could be skin," he conceded, getting to his feet. "Come on, let's see what's up here."

After a short time of searching it became apparent that these narrow metal catwalks and skin walls made up most of the bulk of the creature. Ladders at intervals led up to more catwalks and more brown walls, fading into murky dimness in the stretches where the curse lamps weren't lit.

Giliead's hopes were raised when he climbed cautiously up to one of the dark stretches, only to find yet another identical catwalk and another ladder. Coming back down to the lighted area, he said with a grimace of frustration, "This isn't telling us anything, is it?"

Ilias agreed, leaning around Giliead to see up through the opening. "At least down below there were things to look at."

"We'll go down again. If there's something to tell us where they came from, it'll be there."

A faint sound from back down the catwalk made them both turn.

A man's head and shoulders suddenly popped up from the opening below the last ladder, no more than twenty paces away. He was dressed in the brown clothing of the wizards though his cap had been pushed back and the eye coverings were hanging down around his neck. He had dark hair, clipped close to his head, and his skin was moon-pale as if he had spent all his life underground. Ilias ducked instinctively and Giliead fell back a step toward the ladder behind them. But the wizard had already pulled himself up and turned to step onto the catwalk. He froze, staring right at them.

Ilias couldn't read the man's expression in the dim light, but he could imagine it. For a long heartbeat nobody moved, then Giliead said matter-of-factly, "Shit."

The wizard gasped and fumbled at the sheath at his belt. Ilias saw the hilt of one the curse weapons and knew they were dead. He pulled his knife, drawing back for a desperate throw, when Giliead snatched it out of his hand. He looked up in shock to see Giliead grab the curse-light bubble above his head, yanking it down so the black rope was visible. He put the knife against it in obvious threat. That can't work, Ilias thought, whipping back around to face the wizard.

The man had frozen, one hand still on the weapon, his expression horrified.

Ilias threw a wary look up at Giliead. "It worked," he whispered.

Giliead took a sharp breath, acknowledging the danger. "Get down the ladder," he said softly.

Ilias slid past him, careful not to jostle his arm. He said, "Do it. If you turn your back on him--"

"I know."

Ilias reached the ladder, catching hold of a rung and setting one foot on it. "Ready," he said. The wizard shifted nervously, his hand still on the weapon's hilt.

Giliead sliced the cord. The curse popped loudly and the light winked out. White sparks showered down as Giliead yelled and dropped the knife. Ilias heard the wizard shout in horror and feet pounded on the walk but he was already swinging down the ladder, dropping to land lightly on the padded floor. He saw a large room, with tables and benches and walls lined with metal cabinets. Two doors, one directly in front of him and one behind. Just as Giliead landed behind him the door on the far side of the chamber swung open and there stood three wizards.

They weren't wearing the eye coverings or caps so it was easy to see their expressions of complete astonishment. Ilias registered that they weren't identical after all; one was taller than the others, another more squarely built, and the third had beard stubble showing starkly against the whiteness of his skin.

Giliead swore under his breath and grabbed for another light bubble. Ilias dove for the other door, their only clear exit. He could still hear the wizard on the catwalk above the thin metal ceiling, yelling like a mad man. He was afraid to see what the other three were doing. He hit the door with his shoulder, feeling the wood crack. The room went dark as it burst open, sending him staggering into another narrow corridor. He looked back desperately but Giliead was already shoving through the door behind him.

They ran, banging open the doors, looking for anything like a way out and finding only tiny unlit chambers filled with shadowy incomprehensible objects. Then Ilias shoved a door open to see a small room with a wide square window looking out into the darkness of the cavern. "Gil, here!"

Footsteps thudded down the metal floor behind them as they tumbled through the door. Giliead tripped over Ilias in the confined space and they both hit the floor in a heap. Ilias struggled to his knees, yanking the door closed and fumbling at the unfamiliar bolt, just managing to slide it home.

He fell back as the wizards pounded on it from the other side. It looked stronger than the other doors but they didn't have much time. Giliead was already struggling to stand, heading toward the window. Ilias lurched to his feet, looking around for something else to block the door.

The walls were lined with cabinets but when Ilias tried to pull them down across the door he discovered nothing was movable. He turned to Giliead, who had stopped at the window that was set at an angle in the far wall. He was swearing in frustration.

"What is it?" Ilias stepped up beside him, reaching for the metal bar that was just outside. He flinched when his hand banged into an invisible barrier. He fell back a step, thinking it was some protective curse, then realized the openings were covered with clear glass. "Oh, great."

"We need something heavy." Giliead turned around, trying to pull down one of the shelves. It refused to give, too firmly attached to the wall.

Ilias turned, looking around again, and saw a rough gray rock with crystal shards growing out of it, mounted in a metal stand atop one of the cabinets. It looked heavy. He reached for it but Giliead turned suddenly and knocked his arm away.

Ilias stepped back, knowing that look. "It's cursed?"

Giliead stared at it, eyes narrowed. "Yes, there's something... I'm not sure what."

That was all Ilias needed to hear. "Great, we picked a room with a cursed rock." Ilias moved back to the window, drawing his sword. He struck the glass with the hilt. Tiny cracks appeared but it didn't shatter. Two more blows had the same effect.

While Ilias battered at the unbreakable glass, Giliead turned away to drag open one of the narrow doors in a cabinet, revealing metal drawers. He gave one a hard yank and it came loose, spilling papers covered with brightly-colored markings onto the floor.

Giliead awkwardly lifted the drawer above the angled window and Ilias hurriedly sheathed his sword to steady it. "Together," Giliead said as they lifted the clumsy battering ram. "Now!" They smashed the metal down, shattering the glass barrier.

The floor jerked under them suddenly, throwing them both backward. Ilias' fall was cushioned by landing on Giliead but the metal drawer clipped him in the temple. Dazed and seeing black patches hovering in his vision, he struggled to push himself up. "Did we do that?" he gasped, his uppermost thought that the beast was alive after all and reacting to the injury.

Giliead lifted him off as he sat up. "No, no, we couldn't have." The battering at the door had stopped with the abrupt movement of the whale, but now it resumed with renewed fervor. As Ilias climbed to his feet and wrestled the drawer up again, Giliead stared down at the papers on the floor, then grabbed one off the pile. "Ilias, these are maps! This is what we've been looking for."

"Take some and come on!" Ilias hefted the drawer and Giliead steadied it from above. One blow took out the rest of the glass panel. Ilias ducked as Giliead slung the drawer back against the door. He grabbed the metal rails, lifting himself up onto the ledge, then realized Giliead wasn't behind him anymore. "Gil!" He looked back over his shoulder. "Come on, now!"

"Right behind you. Hold it." Ilias wriggled involuntarily as Giliead shoved a couple of folded maps under his belt into the back of his pants. "Go!"

Ilias swung out of the opening, hung for a moment from the metal bar, looking for a good flat landing spot. The lights were shining brightly from the platforms now and shouts from that direction told him their exit would be witnessed. He aimed for the river bank, then dropped.

He landed hard, letting his upper body go limp and rolling to absorb the shock, feeling the sharp edges of the loose scree jab into his ribs and back. Winded, he sprawled to a stop just as Giliead hit the ground heavily behind him.

Dazed, Ilias lifted his head to see the cavern illuminated with a strange red-orange light. Incredibly, the glow emanated from the center of the flying whale. Barely conscious of the wild cries of alarm from the platform, he watched flame suddenly blossom under the creature's skin, its metal bones visible now through the illuminated hide. Giliead dragged him to his feet, staring up at the thing, muttering, "Oh no."

They're afraid of fire, Ilias thought in horror. Now they knew why. "We did that," he gasped.

Giliead gave him a push. "Run."

They ran down along the rock-strewn river bank. Ilias looked back just as a fireball erupted from the creature's back and it tipped sideways, sliding ponderously down onto its dock. Fire burst outward from it, enveloping the platforms, climbing the cavern walls. He turned back, pounding toward the shelter of the rocks as burning metal rained down like fiery hail.

Giliead reached the boulders at the edge of the river and Ilias was right behind him when something struck him in the back. It knocked him to the ground and he slid in the rough gravel, scraping his arms. Raw pain radiated from his shoulder and he rolled, clawing at it, desperately trying to wrench out the hot metal fragment. Giliead leaned over him then, slapping his hand away. He pulled the fragment out himself and hauled Ilias to his feet. Then Giliead froze, staring back at the base of the platform.

Feeling blood trickling down his back, Ilias followed his gaze. A man staggered on the cavern floor below the burning platform. In the blaze of orange light Ilias saw his clothes and surely the flesh beneath were charred from the fire; he must have jumped from the top or fallen from the whale almost in time to avoid the blast. Wizard or not, Ilias had a stomach-churning moment of guilt and pity; then the man raised his hand and a light glinted star-like in his palm.

Something came out of that star and faster than thought streamed toward them, a shadowed distortion in the air, expanding to shove smoke and flaming metal aside. Giliead shouted, shoving Ilias back even as the curse struck him.

Ilias launched himself over the rocks but the wave hit, slamming him down into the stone. He knew he was rolling down the steep muddy slope, then nothing.




Chapter Five


Port Rel, Western Coast of Ile-Rien


The giant gray wall of the ship's hull seemed to stretch out and up forever, the white of the upper decks and the gray-painted stacks lost far above the spotlights' glare. The light was a little muted, the outlines of the ship a little blurred, and Tremaine found herself squinting. The distortion was more than could be accounted for by the heavy mist in the cold night air.

There was a ward of concealment laid over the huge bulk of the ship, a very slight one to escape the Gardier's ability to detect the presence of sorcery. From above it distorted the ship's form to an empty square of water at an open dock, and concealed the presence of the spotlights and dampened the sounds of welding and labor.

"Beautiful, isn't she?" Captain Feraim said, studying the gray bulk looming above them fondly. "Had just a few voyages before the war, never sailed since. They brought her in to add ballast because she was so bottom-heavy from her engines."

Tremaine nodded. "I remember reading about her, before the war." The Queen Ravenna had launched only a few months before the first Gardier bombings. She had been built to be the star of the Vernaire Solar Line, to carry passengers in speed and comfort between the ports of Ile-Rien, Parscia, and across the ocean to Capidara. Now that the Gardier patrolled the sea lanes by air, no one travelled to Capidara. If Tremaine had thought about it, she would have supposed the Queen Ravenna to have been trapped in another country's port or destroyed along with so much of the navy and the other commercial shipping, and the three smaller Vernaire passenger liners. It was hard to believe she had rested quietly in hiding here in the port city of Rel for three years.

It was hard to believe that only a few years ago there had been time and money to build such things, and that people had taken pleasure trips on them without fear.

"Yes," Gerard said, folding his arms as he studied the great ship. "I heard she was to be refitted as a troop carrier, but there was never anywhere to send troops. Until now."

"She's still the fanciest lady on the sea. They didn't have the labor to finish the refit." Captain Feraim turned and started back down the dock with a sigh. "About time she had a chance to show her stuff. In the open ocean she's faster than an airship, faster than anything we've seen the Gardier use. Before all this happened, she was designated a last chance evacuation transport." He glanced back at them with a slightly twisted smile. "Meaning they were going to send her out but didn't expect her to make it past the blockade."

Tremaine and Gerard followed Feraim, Tremaine pulling up the collar of her pea coat against the damp cold. Activity around the giant gray hull was hushed but hurried as repairs were made and supplies carried aboard for the upcoming voyage. Tremaine shook her head, bemused. It was hard to believe it was really happening.

It had been a whirlwind week. Secret meetings, Gerard and Niles and others rushing back and forth between the palace and the Institute, shifting the location of the experiment to the Port of Rel.

One of the first points they had discovered was that the sphere did not have to be inside the circle to initiate the translocation spell. As long as the sphere was within a certain distance, it could begin the spell. They could also trigger the reverse adjuration separately, as long as they were within a few hundred yards of the spot the circle occupied, whether it was here or there. Wherever there was.

Tremaine, Gerard, Tiamarc and a few others had been through three times in a small tug dubbed the Pilot Boat, allowing various sorcerers to experiment with drawing buoys through and sending them back, testing how long the doorway would stay open. They hadn't seen the Gardier's airships again, but then there hadn't been a bombing along the coast for three days.

Tomorrow they would take the Pilot Boat through one last time, the final preparation for the expedition that would carry the first of the teams of soldiers and sorcerers who would scout the Gardier island in preparation for the attack. For the past few months the frequent bombings along the coast had kept ships from reaching the open ocean and prevented Capidara from sending in supplies and munitions. This was only one small base but if they could destroy it, there would be a hole in the Gardier blockade. And this would be the first time Ile-Rien had managed to capture anything belonging to the Gardier except for that one mangled airship; there was no telling what they would find there.

Feraim gave them a casual salute and headed off down the dock toward the old warehouses that served as the naval headquarters. "You should get some sleep," Gerard told Tremaine as they started away in the opposite direction. "It's going to be a long day tomorrow."

"I will. You aren't going back to the boathouse tonight, are you?" Further down the boardwalk where a sandy beach hugged the curve of the cove, there was an old resort hotel, closed since the war. The Viller Institute had taken it over as a headquarters, since the assembly rooms had more than enough space for their work. In the daylight it was a picture of decayed gaiety, with fading white paint, broken red tile on the roof, and several stories of large balconies and open verandas. At night it was just large, gloomy and dark. Tremaine didn't mind the gloominess; she was used to Coldcourt after all, though the ghosts there were all part of the family.

"No, I'm just going to stop by and talk with Niles before I turn in." Gerard sighed as they started up the first flight of stairs that climbed the terraced ground up to the hotel's veranda. There was just enough moonlight to see the steps; gaslit lampposts with ornamental ironwork that looked as delicate as spun sugar should have lit the way, but they were kept turned off to avoid Gardier attention. The beach below lay white and still except for the steady creep of the surf and the occasional abandoned bathing machine. Off to the right was an amusement pier, closed and abandoned like most of the town, the dark windows of the restaurants and theaters throwing back no reflections. There were no lighted windows visible anywhere, though there were workmen, sailors, naval officers, and most of the staff of the Viller Institute in these buildings. Even the sound of the sea was muted. The place was overlaid with sorceries, small ones, charms of concealment and darkness and silence. Wards to warn, and confuse and disguise. No great spells, nothing active to attract the Gardier's notice.

Tremaine gripped the railing to keep from stumbling on the uneven boards, though a couple of men had been through hammering the loose planks down. "I suppose they're nearly done with the design of the new spheres."

Gerard nodded. "Thank God." Once Arisilde's sphere had demonstrated the proper way to activate the spell, they had been able to pinpoint the defects in the others that the Institute had constructed. One of Niles' tasks was to build his own sphere to take the place of Arisilde's. "Once that's done you can go home."

"Right, home." Tremaine let her breath out slowly, wondering how much she could safely say. So far the sphere had stubbornly refused to let Gerard use it alone, so Tremaine's place in the project had been assured. So far. "I rather like it here."

"Here?" Gerard glanced at her in mock-horror as they climbed the last steps to the dilapidated veranda. It was distinguished by long clay basins and tubs empty of plants, with a forbiddingly boarded-over solar and a general air of forlorn desolation.

"Well, not here." The hotel's gas lines had been turned off so none of the radiators worked and the rooms were cold and damp and smelled odd. The kitchen's modern refrigerated iceboxes installed before the war had also failed drastically and they were depending on infrequent ice deliveries from the military outpost in Rel. She added cautiously, "But I'd like to stay with the project."

"I'm sure we can find something for you to do," Gerard said, sounding a little surprised as he opened one of the double doors. Blackout curtains hung just inside so it was like stepping into a pit. "I thought you'd want to get back to your play."

"Oh, that." She gave Gerard a sharp look but couldn't tell if he was probing for information or not. She followed him as he fought his way through the curtains and into the marble-floored foyer. The two bulbs left in the lobby's elaborate chandelier shed light on fine but dusty wood, faded blue plush couches and armchairs, and unpolished brasswork. Reddish marble columns soared upward into shadows that hid the figured arches of the ceiling. Tremaine scratched her head. "I...decided to put that off. I can always go back to it."

Despite the gloominess of the lobby, the inside of the hotel exhibited more signs of life. Tremaine could hear voices and the distant buzz of a wireless from the direction of the lounges and ballrooms where the Institute had established their main work areas. Drifting above one of the reservation desks was a tiny wisp of blue sorcerous spell-light, dimming even as she noticed the glow, forgotten by the sorcerer who had summoned it. Below it someone had drawn alchemical and mathematical symbols in the dust on the granite counter.

Gerard paused to study her gravely. "I was optimistic at first too but you know...the chances of discovering what happened to Nicholas and Arisilde--"

"I know. That's not it." Tremaine shook her head, looking away. She knew the few Institute members who realized who her father was had the idea that she was breathlessly expecting to encounter he and Arisilde at every trip through the doorway, but Tremaine wasn't that naive. She knew the chance that either was alive was still small.

She was saved from further explanation when Tiamarc stepped out of one of the cross-corridors, deep in conversation with Breidan Niles. While Tiamarc wore a disreputable looking sweater and flannels, Niles' impeccably cut suit made him look as if he had just stepped out of an exclusive tailor's shop on Saints Procession Boulevard. Tremaine had no idea how he managed it; she knew he had spent the whole day crouched on the floor of the dusty ballroom pouring over spell diagrams and reams of notes. Niles spotted them and waved imperatively. "Gerard, listen to this."

Tiamarc turned to Gerard, smiling. His fair hair was tousled and there were shadows under his eyes from weariness. Despite that, his voice was full of energy and excitement as he said, "Great news! The test I performed last trip was conclusive, all the others agree. The destination site is not a fayre realm."

"How is that great news? Now we don't have a clue where it is," Tremaine said. The astronomy work Tiamarc had completed on the pilot boat's first trip had eliminated the possibility that the destination was somewhere in the opposite hemisphere. The stars were completely unfamiliar. Gerard and the others believed that the airships' recent passage to and from Chaire had caused the spell to tune in to that destination site, like a wireless operator tuning in to a distant signal. They had also discovered that physically moving the spell circle would move the target point in the other world. Moving from the estate outside Vienne to Rel had shifted the target point substantially closer to the island when they arrived in the other world.

Frowning, Gerard took off his spectacles and cleaned them absent-mindedly. "That eliminates a number of the potential spells we could do. The fayre realms are far more susceptible to wide-scale sorceries than the mortal plane."

Niles nodded. "I know, but it does seem to prove the multiple dimension theories of Vortal and Igbenz."

"You can't use my sphere anymore," Tremaine said, just to see what would happen.

Everyone stopped to stare at her for a moment then went back to their conversation. "I don't think it's a proof of those theories, just because we know it's not a fayre realm," Tiamarc objected, shaking his head. "It could be another etheric realm within our world-structure, just not one associated with fayre."

Niles frowned. "Oh, really, I don't think so. Vortal and Igbenz' theory fits so many of the spell's projected parameters--"

Tiamarc noticed the orphaned wisp of spell-light and extinguished it with a sharp gesture. "I've got to go up to my room and get that copy of Negretti's Etheric Principles. I'll be back in a moment."

"We'll meet you in the ballroom," Niles called after him as Tiamarc started up the wide sweep of the stairs. He turned back to Gerard. "If it is another world, and not another etheric level within our world, it's even more of a mystery where Arisilde Damal acquired the spell's basic structure."

Gerard nodded. "Yes, and I wish we knew how the Gardier airships manage the portals -- in the one that was brought down there was no evidence of the ring or of any device like the spheres, just the broken pieces of crystal from above the steering console."

"Yes." Niles frowned. "But I would say the spell has to be of Gardier origin. The operative characters don't resemble anything we've ever seen before, at least not without access to the Lodun Libraries."

"My father probably stole it from the Gardier," Tremaine said absently, studying a broken fingernail.

"What?" Niles stared at her.

"Ah." Tremaine suddenly realized she had spoken aloud. She hadn't thought they were listening to her. As usual, people never listened to you when you wanted them to, only when you didn't. "Well...." she began, hoping something would come to her. Nothing did. "Well...." she tried again.

Niles turned to Gerard, who adjusted his glasses self consciously and said, "Well...."

Tremaine held her breath, afraid he would get stuck there too, then he continued, "...Tremaine's father was the first person to discover the Gardier's activities."

"Really?" Niles frowned, glancing back at her as if expecting to see some sort of evidence of this on her countenance that he had previously overlooked. "I thought Nicholas Valiarde was an art importer who funded Arisilde Damal's work in the Viller Institute."

"He was," Tremaine agreed readily. "He did." The public version of events was that Nicholas had been just a gentleman adventurer who had made the mistake of helping Arisilde test his last great spell. Nicholas had always meant to keep the Valiarde name clean but after years of living a variety of double lives, too many people knew too many pieces of the truth. And after her mother's death he had become careless.

Gerard's brows quirked and he cleared his throat. "He occasionally did work for the government." He took Niles' arm and turned him back toward the hallway.

"Work for the government involving art?" Niles asked, with another baffled glance back at Tremaine.

"Uh...." Tremaine nodded.

"I'll see you in the morning," Gerard said over his shoulder, as he hauled Niles along.

"Good night," Tremaine called, and he gave her a backhanded wave as he disappeared down the hall. She started up the grand staircase with a shake of her head. Once they finished constructing the new spheres, her part would be over, unless she could think up some other job to do here. Unfortunately the Institute needed sorcerers or scholars of etheric theory, or people trained in mechanics, philosophy, or astronomy. Tremaine had an average education in writing and letters. I can't even make decent coffee. Being a member of the family that had bankrolled the Institute's nonmilitary endeavors and who owned the patent on the Viller-Damal Sphere, she could probably hang about anyway, but that would surely get awkward.

It had put a real crimp in her plan to kill herself, that was certain. There had been a profound relief and a wonderful freedom in giving up, in resolving not to strive anymore for goals she couldn't define even to herself. Now she seemed to be weighed down with hopes again. Not the least of which was that Nicholas and Arisilde might really be alive, lost in that other world somewhere.

Tremaine paused on the stairs, thinking about it. She wasn't sure she really believed there was a chance at all, if she wasn't just seizing on it as a convenient excuse in case someone tried to send her home before she wanted to go. Maybe I can learn to make coffee, she thought ruefully, continuing up the stairs.

Muttering "I hate my life" under her breath, she reached the third floor and tramped down the dusty carpet toward her room.

Only one of the glass lily light fixtures still had a bulb and it was at the end of the dim hallway. She stopped in front of the door, digging in her pocket for the latchkey. As she touched the door, she felt it give slightly. Tremaine frowned, running her hand lightly down the smooth wood to the lock. It had taken her at least five minutes of struggle last night to get the damn thing open; she knew it fit tightly. Then her fingers found the scoring on the metal that the shadows in the hallway concealed. The lock had been clumsily forced.

Half chilled, half intrigued, Tremaine stepped slowly back. Oh, I don't need this right now. Getting murdered had never been near the top of her list as a viable suicide option. How embarrassing, if this was another old enemy from her family's checkered past, come to enact revenge on Nicholas Valiarde's daughter. And incidentally disrupting the Institute's vital work and causing Tremaine the humiliation of difficult explanations to people who already thought her a little odd. It had happened to her before. She wasn't anxious for it to happen again.

There were people who were supposed to take care of this sort of thing for her. Tremaine knew Gerard wasn't her only guardian. He had been given the legal responsibility but she knew there were others who had been assigned to watch over her and she suspected Gerard knew who they were, though he had never said. Doubtless they had lost track of her between the confusion in the city and her abrupt removal from Coldcourt. She had a telephone exchange she could call to summon their assistance, but it was a little late for that. She swore under her breath. There were ways for her to take care of this herself and dispose of the body without anyone being the wiser, and she wished she had listened better to her early lessons so she knew what they were. Dammit.

She debated screaming and decided against it. It would be better to trap the intruder inside the room. She edged away, moving silently back to the nearest door. That should be Tiamarc's room. Still keeping a wary eye on her own door, she reached out to knock.

It swung open at her touch. Oh no, was Tremaine's first thought as she looked down the short hall into the darkened room. She saw a figure sprawled on the floor. Then this just happened. She fell back a step.

Her door swung open suddenly and a man stepped out. He was tall, compactly-built, dressed in dark clothes and a long coat, his hair cropped short and oddly wearing a pair of driving goggles. He started toward her without hesitation, reaching out a gloved hand to grab her.

Yelling for help, Tremaine bolted back up the corridor, feeling the dusty carpet catch maddeningly at her clunky boots. Like a chase in a nightmare, she could hear him only a few steps behind her.

She threw a look back just as a door opened and Florian stepped out, wearing a flower print bathrobe. The man careened into her, spending them both sprawling on the floor. One of her father's rules had always been "never fail to take advantage of a fallen enemy" and almost before this shot through her thoughts, Tremaine skidded to a halt. The man brutally shoved Florian away, the girl yelping and curling up into protective ball. Tremaine looked around wildly, then grabbed up one of the spindly legged side tables, upsetting the vase atop it and sending up a flurry of dust and dried flower petals. She smashed it down on the man's head just as he climbed to his feet.

Instead of going down, he shook his head, dislodging the splintered fragments, and reached for her again. Tremaine stumbled back, appalled. The wood was light but the table had had a thin marble top, which she had felt connect with a satisfying thud. The man should have a cracked skull at least. Florian uncurled and kicked at his legs, her expression white and desperate in the dim light. He swatted at her, giving Tremaine a chance to grab up the fallen vase. As he turned back toward her she swung it by the neck, the heavy stoneware body catching him square in the chin.

His head jerked back and his return swing caught her in the cheek, slamming her sideways into the wall. She slid down the wainscotting, hearing Florian's yelp of dismay.

The sound of the shot was like thunder in the close corridor.

Tremaine sat up, her head aching from the blow and the noise, feeling the pounding of running feet in the floorboards. Finally, she thought. She looked up blearily as Florian crawled toward her, giving the man who lay flat on his back a wide berth. "Are you all right?" the other girl gasped.

Tremaine nodded, pressing a hand to the knot of pain in her cheek. "Yes, sort of," she admitted. She blinked and saw Gerard and Niles were leaning over the intruder with Ander trying to look over their shoulders. He was holding a pistol. Two of the soldiers assigned to guard the Institute personnel along with Colonel Averi pelted up the corridor to join them. Tremaine asked Florian, "Did he hurt you?"

"No, if you don't count the terror." Florian lifted Tremaine's hair aside and winced. "Oh, that's a big bruise."

"It'll add distinction to my appearance," Tremaine managed.

Florian helped her stand and Ander turned to them, asking worriedly, "Are you all right?"

"Oh, fine." Tremaine pushed her hair back, trying to see past him to the man on the floor. There was an ugly red hole in his chest where the bullet had struck. "Who is he?"

Ander shook his head, looking back at the corpse. "No idea. I was coming up when I heard the commotion. I called for Gerard and Niles, but I was the only one who was armed." He turned to Tremaine and smiled with relief. "I'm glad you two aren't hurt."

Still trembling a little, Florian was self-consciously pulling her robe closed over her flannelette nightgown and tying the belt. "It happened so fast."

Niles had stepped into Tiamarc's room with one of the soldiers. Now he returned, grim-faced. "Tiamarc's dead. His throat was cut."

Florian made a faint noise and Tremaine felt her stomach roil. She hadn't known Tiamarc well, but she was glad she hadn't seen his body more closely. She said, "He -- that man -- was in my room. He must have found Tiamarc first." She followed that thought to its logical conclusion and felt worse. "I suppose he was just...moving down the hall, one room at a time."

"That's...." Florian hugged herself, uncomfortable. "Let's not suppose that."

"You walked in on him?" Averi demanded, staring at her. He was an older man than most of the other military personnel assigned to the Institute, with a perpetually grim expression, thinning dark hair and cold blue eyes. The Institute usually tended to get raw recruits or men who had been wounded and sent behind the lines to recover; Averi seemed to be an exception and Tremaine wasn't sure why.

Tremaine shook her head. "I saw someone had forced the lock on my door and I was going to go for help. He must have heard me."

Colonel Averi went to examine her door, crouching to look at the lock. He frowned, glancing at her. "How did you know it was forced?"

"I felt the scratches on the lock," she told him. When he continued to stare in disbelief she added honestly, "I'm a very suspicious person," not knowing how else to explain it.

"She is," Ander agreed. At Tremaine's expression he winced and added, "Sorry."

Gerard stood up from his examination of the intruder, his mouth set in a thin line. "This man is a Gardier."

Colonel Averi turned a shade of red that indicated either shock or extreme rage and turned away, taking one of the soldiers by the arm and giving orders in a harsh undertone, sending the man running off down the corridor.

Tremaine stepped forward, inserting an elbow into Ander's side to edge him out of the way so she could see. The man sprawled on the ground looked ordinary enough, pale from the winter and maybe a little ill. His cropped hair was short, but not so short as to be out of fashion in a city where most of the men were in the army. "How can you tell?" she asked, warily fascinated.

"He's resistant to spells," Niles answered her, his eyes still intent on the dead man. "He has no counter talismans or anti etheric agents on him but he got past the wards against intruders."

"I hit him with that tabletop and the vase, and it barely slowed him down," Tremaine said as Florian nodded confirmation. "Is he a sorcerer?"

"Gardier don't send their sorcerers into battle," Gerard told her. "At least from what we can tell. He's probably had protective spells cast on him."

"The ones we faced on the Aderassi border sure did." Ander reached to pick up the goggles the man had worn, which had fallen next to the body. "These are aether-glasses of some sort, aren't they?"

Tremaine frowned. The bulky crystal lenses were a modern substitute for gascoign powder, a substance that sorcerers placed in their eyes in order to see the etheric traces left by wards or active spells.

Florian looked up at the others, her brow furrowed. "But if he was here, he has to know about the project?"

"I'm certain he did." Gerard pulled off his spectacles and rubbed his brow. "Poor Tiamarc wasn't a powerful sorcerer; he would hardly have been a target for Gardier assassination with Niles and I here. There was no reason to kill him except to delay the project. The question is whether this man had a chance to notify his superiors." He shook his head, looking worriedly at Niles. "Dammit, it could already be too late. We should make the last survey trip immediately."

Ander frowned. "Can't we skip it, send the advance scouting team in now?"

"We have to make this last trip or the advance scouting team will be the advance suicide team," Gerard countered briskly. "We haven't been taking these survey trips simply to gather information. They're essential to stabilizing and widening the etheric world-gate, not to mention opening it in different locations once the Gardier discover it. The spell parameter that prevents transfer into solid objects only protects us so far."

"Oh, I like that," Tremaine said before she could stop herself.

"What?" Ander stared at her incredulously.

"'Etheric world-gate,' it just sounded....never mind."

Colonel Averi gave her an annoyed look. "We're not in one of your plays, Miss Valiarde. Focus or you're just a liability. This is a deadly serious business."

Tremaine's brows drew together. "I know it's serious," she said mildly. "I've got the bruise to prove it."

"You're not taking it seriously," the man persisted.

Tremaine met his gaze, her eyes cold, her self-consciousness dissolving abruptly. She smiled. "Sure I am."

"The Gardier killed her father, Colonel," Ander said suddenly, startling her by how offended he sounded. He gazed sternly at the older man. "Of course she takes it seriously."

Averi stared at him, then turned to Tremaine stiffly. "I apologize."

Tremaine shook her head, wishing Ander hadn't brought it up. His defense had knocked the fight right out of her. "It's all right."

Niles was digging in his pockets, pulling out a pen and a notebook stuffed with loose paper. "Ander, Colonel, Tremaine, be quiet." He turned to Gerard and said urgently, "You'll need a secondary sorcerer, someone who's familiar with the spell."

"I'd rather have you here in case something goes wrong."

"I can do it, I can go," Florian spoke up suddenly. As everyone turned to her she looked a little overcome by her own temerity, but she forged on, "I've been reading all the documentation and studying the structure. I'm sure I could trigger the reverse adjuration if I had to."

"You'll have to do," Niles said, though Gerard looked like he wanted to protest. "Just stay long enough to make sure the larger gate parameters are stable."

"Right." Gerard nodded. He took a sharp breath. "Let's go."

***



A half hour later Tremaine and Florian sat huddled on crates in the cavernous boathouse, watching the Institute personnel ready the Pilot Boat for its last voyage. It was a small steam tug with a crew of two, Captain Feraim and his mate Stanis. It didn't take up much room at the dock, which had been meant for the large pleasure boats that took holiday travellers on excursions up and down the coast.

On the big flat platform above the boat's slip another version of the spell circle had been laid out on carefully painted removable wooden panels. She could hear a few people moving around up there, though they were too far back from the railing for her to see them. She heard Averi's voice, and then Niles'.

Tremaine sighed, folding her arms. She had dressed in tweed knickers and an overjacket over a lighter middy blouse, the outfit she usually wore on board the boat and her only one that was vaguely suitable for it. Florian wore a long jacket and sweater over a pair of bloomers. It was cold now but it would be significantly warmer once they crossed into the other world, though the sea breezes could sometimes be brisk. It was the last time she would see it, she realized. The fine china blue sky, the darker color of the sea, the mysterious peaks of the island and the cliffs in the distance. She touched her aching jaw thoughtfully.

"It was nice of Ander to stick up for you to Averi," Florian commented.

Tremaine nodded, still distracted. "Sure."

"Except it didn't seem like you needed anybody to stick up for you."

"What?" That got Tremaine's attention. Her mouth twisted ruefully. "Maybe not."

"So were you two together? You and Ander," Florian asked, looking over at her.

Tremaine sighed, shoving her hands deep in her pockets and leaning back against the wall. "No. People thought we were. Sometimes I thought we were." Ander had always behaved as if she was an utterly normal, completely conventional girl. At times, when her father was coming home disguised as a dustman every night or was off plotting the downfall of some small foreign principality, this had been welcome; it had helped her pretend she was normal. Later, when she had craved an actual acknowledgement of who she really was, it had just been smothering. "I never felt like...he really knew me."

Florian was nodding. "I can see that. He doesn't listen to you when you talk." Her brow furrowed as she tried to explain what she meant. "Or really he listens, but he never seems to hear what you say. No, that's not what I mean. It's...he says what he thinks people expect him to say. Maybe that comes from being in the Intelligence Service. He can't tell what you expect him to say so it never quite comes out right."

Tremaine stared at her, not sure whether the revelation was unwelcome because it wasn't true or because it was.

Florian misread her silence and looked embarrassed. "Sorry. I should just not--"

Maybe it was unwelcome because it was a little too similar to Tremaine's own situation for comfort. "No, it's all right--"

Colonel Averi and Niles came down the stairs from the upper level, with Lieutenant Dommen, Averi's second in command, trailing them.

With a harried expression, Niles sorted through an armload of folios, saying, "We've risked everything to make the portal large enough to bring their troopship through. It would be kind of them to supply enough troops to make it worth it."

Averi's permanently angry expression was firmly in place. "We were lucky to get the troops we have. Not everyone at Vienne Command believes this is anything but a waste of rapidly failing resources." Tremaine couldn't tell if he was angry because he agreed it was a waste or because he didn't. She also hadn't heard Niles swear before so the imprecation the sorcerer muttered in editorial comment as he dug through his armload of papers was a little shocking.

Lieutenant Dommen shook his head with a frustrated frown. He was younger than Averi, tall, dark-haired, very much the dashing officer type. Like Ander and Niles, his family was beau monde and he looked it in his carefully tailored uniform. "I'll make some calls. I know a few people who have influence in the Ministry. If they're still in town--"

Averi paused and again Tremaine couldn't tell if he appreciated the suggestion or not. Then he nodded sharply. "Yes, try that."

"We're ready," Ander called from the deck. "Come aboard."

Tremaine got to her feet, distractedly looking around, though she didn't usually bring anything with her.

Stanis, an awkward young man with the dark hair and olive skin of Adera, tossed a coil of rope aside to step to the gangplank and help them aboard. Tremaine smiled and Florian thanked him. >From the amount of attention paid, Tremaine thought that Stanis would have badly liked to ask Florian to coffee or dinner or anything else, but none of them had any free time.

They stepped through the hatch into the main cabin where Ander was doing a hurried check of the supply lockers. The cabin was small and crowded, holding a chart cabinet, the wireless, a galley table bolted to the floor and the shelves of reference texts that Gerard and Tiamarc and the others had used to make their observations. Stanis hurried down the steps into the engine compartment.

As Florian went to take a seat on the padded bench against the far wall, Tremaine turned to see Ander reloading his pistol. Her hands clenched in her coat pockets and she felt a nerve in her face jump.

He saw her expression and looked puzzled. "Afraid of firearms?"

"Yes." She hated to give further weight to the image Ander now had of her as some kind of twitchy featherhead, but she had been avoiding guns lately. Explaining that she was afraid if she touched one she might give way to an overwhelming impulse to blow her own brains out would hardly go over well either. She knew Feraim had one too but he kept his out of sight in his coat pocket.

Ander shrugged slightly, tactfully dropping the subject for all the wrong reasons. "It's all right," he said kindly. "I just want to have something on hand if we run into trouble."

Gerard, stepping into the cabin behind them, frowned and said, "If by 'run into trouble' you mean the Gardier, we'll be dead before you could use that thing."

The Gardier's most devastating spell was the one that could detect and destroy mechanical equipment at a distance. If the little tug came within range of a Gardier airship, it would be sunk before they could activate the return spell. Not to mention the whole plan of scouting and attacking the base would be circling the drain at that point, Tremaine thought sourly. If they see us there, they'll know we've discovered their secret.

"The Gardier might not be the only thing we have to worry about." Ander smiled engagingly. "I like to be prepared."

"How nice for you," Gerard said shortly. Tremaine managed to control her expression but she noted Florian had to turn and peer earnestly out the porthole at the empty dock. He continued, "Come on, Tremaine, we need to get underway."

Tremaine obediently followed him through the short passage into the steering cabin. It was as unimpressive as the rest of the little boat, though the wheel and the brass were polished and looked to be in good repair. The glassed port showed them the dark wooden walls of the boathouse and the last of the navy crew leaving through the door out onto the dock. As Gerard shut the hatch he muttered, "If anyone is going to be fumbling around with a pistol, I'd prefer it to be you rather than that overconfident young man."

Tremaine smiled. "He is a Captain in the intelligence service, you know."

"I'm afraid that making his acquaintance years ago when he was only an upper class layabout may have colored my opinion." Taking the sphere out of its protective leather case and sitting it carefully on the bench, he glanced at her sharply. "Why on earth did you tell him you were afraid of firearms? I know Nicholas taught you to shoot."

She looked away, thinking about Ander. If his past affected even Gerard's view of him, she wondered how much it weighed with men like Averi. And did Ander realize that? And did she give a damn? She shook the thought off, realizing she hadn't answered Gerard. "I just didn't want to carry one. Like you said, if the Gardier see us, it's not going to do any good."

Captain Feraim stepped into the cabin from the hatch that opened out onto the deck. "We're ready." He eyed the sphere a trifle suspiciously. Feraim had been with the project long enough to hear how the experiments with the previous spheres had ended and being near this one always worried him.

Tremaine picked up the sphere, feeling it warm at her touch. This one won't hurt anybody, she thought. Well, not anybody she knew. She wondered what it would do to a Gardier.

Gerard consulted his pocket watch. "All right. Tremaine?"

As Feraim used the speaking tube to warn Stanis in the engine room, Tremaine held the sphere out to Gerard. She watched his face as he concentrated, touching some mental connection to the spell circle carefully duplicated on the wooden panels in the boathouse. She knew when he took a sharp breath that the transition would be in the next instant.

She would never get used to the fact that they could travel so far while standing still.

Tremaine let go of the sphere and grabbed the table as a sickening lurch of vertigo hit her stomach. An instant later the boat met the water with a tremendous splash. They got the altitude wrong again, she thought in annoyance, squeezing her eyes shut and taking deep breaths to keep her last meal down.

Gerard caught the sphere, then cursed suddenly. Tremaine looked up. Her own curse died unspoken as she saw the wall of gray water outside the port.

The wave towering over them broke over the bow and Tremaine ducked back instinctively as the sea crashed into the port. She straightened up warily, watching the foam retreat across the deck. The boat was cresting a wave now and they were looking into an angry purple-gray sky, the clouds low and heavy.

"Storm," Feraim commented succinctly, as he fought the drag on the wheel. "All the luck."

Tremaine swayed into the rail as the boat dipped into the next trough and rose on another wave. The peaks of the island, even more thickly wreathed in mist than usual, lay some way off their bow. Tremaine had no idea how far, not being enough of a sailor to gauge distances over water. The edge of the storm lay just past the island and she could see where the clouds dissolved into blue and the sun glittered off the water. "Gerard, look--" she pointed.

"I see it," Gerard muttered. "We're on the very edge of the storm. That's oddly coincidental."

Feraim cursed at a squawk from the speaking tube. He grabbed it, listened a moment, then threw it down. "Stanis needs help in the engine room. We're taking on water."

Tremaine looked at Gerard, seeing the worry on his face. It was that drop, she realized. They must have come through the doorway at exactly the wrong moment, just above the trough of a wave, and the fall had been much harder because of it.

"I'll go below," Gerard said, tucking the sphere under his arm and swaying as he started towards the door to the aft cabin. "I can do a binding spell on the hull, that should help."

Tremaine started after him, lurched as the deck moved underfoot, and caught herself awkwardly on the railing. "Do you want me to come along?"

"No, stay up here."

He staggered as he opened the cabin door and Tremaine caught a glimpse of Florian's worried face. Gerard closed the door behind him and she turned back to the frightening view out the port.

The boat troughed and crested again, their vision blocked by another spray of water and foam. Suddenly something else appeared on the water. Tremaine stared. What the hell.... She gasped, pointing.

There was another boat out there, cresting the next wave. It had sails, purple ones, and she could see figures frantically trying to furl them. It had no smokestack and even in the gray light she could see red, green, and gold painted designs on the wooden hull.

"Stanis, what's going on down there?" Feraim was shouting into the speaking tube. "This storm's not natural," he growled.

The other boat vanished in the trough, leaving Tremaine pointing at empty sky and water. She tried again, "I saw a--"

Then something else filled the port, dropping out of the storm wreaked sky like death. It was a Gardier airship, black against the gray clouds, less than a hundred yards away.

Tremaine gripped the railing, thinking sourly, just as things were getting interesting. It hung there, a fragile fabrication of duralumin, linen and membranes, protected by a sorcery that left it untouched by the wind that made the heavy wood and metal of the compact pilot boat creak with strain. Feraim was shouting, hauling hard on the wheel, and that was the last thing Tremaine remembered.



end chapter 5







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