Roaring and growling as it sprayed forth from the cliff, the avalanche tumbled onwards, some falling upon the downed Hanians, most of it missing and landing beyond them, wedging them in against the base of the cliff.
Some of their belongings were not so lucky, with Canere’s pack having been struck by a large chunk of ice that had fallen from the lip above, landing barely away from where he had lain. Crushed as it was, food and blankets and the like were probably retrievable, but some of his more valuable spellcasting item were almost certainly gone.
By the time they had dug themselves out from the snow, the light was failing, and while almost all of the items buried in the avalanche had been retrieved, a cold wind had picked up, whipping through the long valley of the mountains and scouring the slopes, the temperature plummeting with the fading light of day. It was clear that shelter was a necessity, for otherwise it would be dangerously cold. And one of the items to be broken was the rods that held the tent aloft.
Scouring the land surrounding the cliff, Ira led the search for a place that could hide them from the cold. Only after the sun had dipped below the horizon, and the cutting wind become into a scything knife, did she find an appropriate abode: a dark mouth buried against the face of rock, low and with an overhanging stone.
The deep cleft ran back into the mountain, turning as it did, narrow and dim, and the three squeezed into it, grumbling all the while.
“So now we don’t have a tent?” Yaden scowled as he peered at the opening of the cavern, almost hidden by the dim night.
“Actually, the tent cloth is fine. It’s the rods that hold it aloft that are broken. I’m not much of a hand with crafting things, but I’d suspect between us we can make replacement fitments with the daylight.” Much as it would have been helpful, Canere’s magical capabilities did not extend much into the realm of creating or fixing items.
“I can probably manage the matter, although the carven branches will be heavier than the light rods that came before.” Ira was eyeing the dagger that was strapped to her form. Not an ideal knife for whittling, but it would serve.
Yaden snorted. “In other words, just a delay. Which this blasted valley seems full of. How many days are we going to have to spend trudging back and forth across this? Our food isn’t going to last forever.”
At that, the arcanist’s face fell. “I wasn’t thinking of that, or else I’d have felled the winter beast. We could have frozen its meat and used it as food.”
“On second thought, maybe starvation is a better option. You’re suggesting we eat something like that? Uncertain magical beast meat?”
“There aren’t too many entirely natural creatures that can survive the cold and the lack of food this far north. There’s certainly some, but we’re on the very edge of their territory, I would suspect.”
“So random magical beast meat will sustain us. That’s lovely. I always wanted to explore new avenues in cuisine that involved possible poisons.”
“That’s okay Yaden, I’ll be more than happy to eat your share.” Ira grinned at the roustabout. “Too much meat might add muscles on your frame, anyway. You’d lose your waifish looks.”
A little glowing bee that buzzed around Ira’s head and kept settling on the tip of her nose was the answer she got. Annoyingly, any attempt to swat the creature did little more than send it skittering about again, until Canere and Yaden were both chuckling loudly at her antics.
Although when it dove down her shirt and began trying to tickle her there, the glare that she shoot Yaden was enough to make him end the spell.
Moods restored, the three of them hunkered down for the night.
The three friends glanced at once another with bemused expressions, ones that changed as the shock of combat wore off from grim focus to delayed surprise, and thence to laughter.
“Really, Canere? You fired sparks at its butt?” Ira, by now, was laughing, her whole body shaking, even as she cleaned the sword using a handful of snow.
“I just wanted the beast to never think about coming back. Figured he could do with a little reminder.”
“The problem is, we now have to live with the smell of burnt fur. It’s putrid!” Yaden held his nose in mock disgust.
“Better that than the sound of that creature having a little nibble on your flesh.” Ira shook her head. “More seriously, you weren’t sure whether to come to my aid or not, were you?”
At Yaden’s acknowledgement, Ira nodded. “Thought so. As long as you’re more than about three feet away from me, you’re not going to interfere much with the sword strokes, although timing our attacks so they complement one another will take practice. And that light in the creature’s eyes was a nice little touch – kept it from being able to see my follow up strike.”
He shrugged. “I’ve got a few other bits and pieces of magic scattered around, but that’s about the best I can manage at short notice.”
Canere clapped him on the shoulder. “You and I can figure out how they can be used, while Ira goes and gets the rest of the wood for the fire. Sounds, right, doesn’t it, Ira?”
A glare was the only response that the arcanist got.
After another two days of struggling through the overly tight limbs and non-existent paths of the pine forest, the explorers decided that perhaps the best bet was to plot their course along the lowest slopes of the mountains that surrounded them, reasoning that although the pitch might be problematic, it would be less so than the heavy brush through which they already struggled.
Having accepted the logic as reasonable, the three then spent the next day fighting through that brush at a diagonal angle, until at last they broke free and could once more see the sun and sky above them, rather than the shadowed world of the pines. It was a relief, knowing that there was no longer anywhere near the impediment that there was before.
That night, they sheltered against the edge of the forest, the trees providing a reasonable windbreak against the howling winds that cut down the valley above their heads, rustling the tops of the pines and occasionally scattering drifts of snow down upon them.
Morning came, and brought with it a fierce sun and winds that made last night’s storm seem overly peaceful. So cold was the gusting air that the Hanians were forced to wrap their faces in thick layers of cloth, leaving but a tiny slit for their eyes to peer through. It cut their vision down to almost naught, seeing nothing more than a small patch directly in front of the, but it saved their flesh from the ravages of the northern climate.
Midday came, finding the heroes upon a wide and shallow rise, the lowest slopes of a white mountain, covered in the snow that cloaked the northern range. Above them, as they paused for a drink from the water bottles that lived tucked beneath their warm outerwear, came the distant sound of a crack, followed moments later by the distant sound of rumbling and roaring.
Ira glanced up the slope to their left, then cursed. As Yaden and Canere stared at her in confusion, she pointed to the distant cloud upon the mountain, one that grew closer with every passing moment. As realization dawned on the others, Ira set off sprinting, Canere and Yaden following within moments.
Ahead of them was a wound in the mountain, a cliff of black rock that jutted from the engulfing snow. Its sheer face and slightly inward curving face offered their best chance of protection from the onrushing snow.
It was towards this obstacle that they sprinted, with the mass of the snow tumbling down towards them now blotting out the peak from whence it came. The first shards of the snow were beginning to show as they dove into the protection of the overhang, hoping against hope that the snow did not bury them there.
The next morning hardly felt like he’d had any sleep at all, though, and the exhaustion stayed with Yaden all through that day, as they ascended the last of the green saddles. As they reached the crest and received their first views of the other side, a series of low whistles and muttered curses drifted from their mouths.
Before them, the landscape flattened and opened wide, the peaks now scattered further apart, and a vast plain taking its place between them. But rather than the scrub that they had traversed before coming to this point, the ground was now splotched with snow, and a carpet of low pines covered much of the land, filling the terrain from the expanse before them almost to the horizon.
And it was on the horizon that the view grew even more desolate, for there, emerging from the wooded terrain, was a massive glacier, its white bulk reflecting light even at this great distance. It was to that glacier that Canere had surmised they must go, for supposedly it marked the rough destination of the skycity for which they searched.
“What do you think lives in that?” Ira looked over at Canere as she gestured over the fast expanse before them.
“I wish I knew. The books speak of creatures who cannot tolerate any warmth, who live only in the coldest and most barren of the northern climes, and it appears we are going to meet them soon.”
“You’re saying there’s monsters in those woods. And possible elemental beings too.” Yaden’s expression was unhappy, to say the least.
“Ice creatures, certainly. And the predators who feast on them. These northern wastes were poorly travelled even in the height of Hania’s glory, and with reason. They do not lend themselves to any productive use, except for the harvesting of those creatures, and perhaps some timber.”
“Either way, you think we need to get all the way to that glacier. Which means we might as well get started. At least down there, there’s going to be wood for a good fire or two.” Ira shouldered her heavy pack once more, and trotted off down the saddle, the others reluctantly following.
The first of those winter predators welcomed the visiting Hanians at twilight of the next day. Having spent the day fighting through the tightly packed branches of the pines, the three explorers were tired, and, having found a small clearing, decided to set up camp at the base of the knoll that occupied the opening amidst the trees.
As they spread out in search of wood, a roar sounded from the peak of the knoll, and atop it stood a massive furry thing, teeth drawn back in a feral grin.
Cursing the creature, Ira ripped her blade from its scabbard and charged it down. Whatever the dangers, she had always been taught to meet them with the full fury and anger that she could summon when in a fight. That burst of strength and headlong resistance could often overwhelm opponents before they knew what the true balance of the fight was.
As she closed with the creature, she swung hard, digging her sword into its gut, headless of any return strike. Rather than respond as she expected, the monster howled in pain, eyes flaring as it slid out of her range, the elegant dodge of her sweeping counter denoting intelligence behind the feral casing. Mouth opening wide, it bucked up high on its hind legs, breathing in deeply, the very air screeching as it disappeared into the cavernous chest. Thumping back down to the ground, the beast transferred all of that energy to its chest, explosively expelling the chill air in a wave of frozen ice and grasping tendrils of cold, bathing Ira in a deep and chill swarm, momentarily blinding her with the frozen tongue of air.
Reacting only a little less swiftly than Ira, Canere skirted to the side, moving so that Ira would not be affected by his impending magic. Satisfied that she was safe, the arcanist gestured, ending with the tossing back his of head. From his mouth came a great flame, bathing his foe in a roasting tongue of fire.
Yaden, for his part, flicked one of his little dancing spheres of light at the beast, hoping it would distract the creature. He then approached rather more cautiously, uncertain if his assistance would help Ira with the combat, or hinder her sweeping strokes.
The blast of cold was something Ira hadn’t quite expected, but it was something she was prepared to deal with. Ducking down, she let the cold mix with the heat of the fire from Canere, shedding some of the ice from her cloak. Grateful for the warmth, she waded in again, closing the distance to the creature and slashing it across the shoulder, leaving a ragged wound.
The icy monster howled in pain, shying away from Ira and then bursting up the slope, moving at a lightning pace to scramble away from a hunt gone wrong. Its paws tossed snow into the air as it speeds across the land, spray churning with each stride.
Seeing the creature now in full flight, Canere stretched his hands out towards the beast, letting fly a series of shooting sparks toward the beast’s retreating back, making it yip and pour on ever more speed.
And with that, the beast was gone, disappearing over the knoll and presumably never to return.
“Behave, children.” Ira shot an amused glare at them both. “You’re right, though. It’s been more drudgery and less excitement than I’d expected. Not that I particularly want to be fending off hordes of ravening monsters each night, but we’re journeying through a land that was once owned by the greatest of arcanists and is now returned to the wild. Shouldn’t there be something of that around here? Some ill-advised summoning spell or magical predators that have made their new home here?”
Pondering the question, Canere responded. “I think… most of those died when the skycities fell. Either from the fall itself, because they were on the skycity, or from the impact, because having a mountaintop crash into a valley from the sky above is going to eradicate most of the life on the ground. Plus, we were always the enchanting types. The Biyani are probably ones who had to deal with hordes of monsters rushing about. But they never really understood magic.”
Yaden stifled a laugh. There were a few civilizations under the old Arhosan Empire that had risen to their positions using magic, and of those, Biyan had almost certainly been the greatest rivals to the Hanians. Not in proximity, for neither was located particularly close to one another, but in proclivities and talents, most certainly. Tinges of that rivalry had come through in Canere’s statement, dismissing their long term foes in terms that any Hanian could understand.
“Aside from that prejudice you snuck in at the end there, I’d say you’re most likely correct. Hanians did always love their enchanted trinkets. Their continued existence has done wonders to ease the ongoing lives of our people.”
At the looks he got from both Ira and Canere, Yaden blushed slightly. “I did pay attention in school. And I’ve got eyes that work, as well.”
“Yes, they always slide attentively over the nearest girl.”
“Just without the courage to go talk to her.” Canere finished Ira’s thought.
Stung by their remarks, Yaden disappeared from his spot by the fire, slipping away to stand outside, looking into the star filled sky, partially hidden behind the arching mountains that lived to the north. He was never quite sure where his reputation had come from. Certainly, he’d earned parts of it, but it had ballooned into something beyond anything he’d done. Perhaps that was because in the dreary day to day life of Yn Dref, people needed something to gossip about, stories that would make them laugh and smile. And he’d become the object of those stories. Certainly, he’d had tales repeated back to him about his exploits that were patently untrue. Like the one about him stepping off the edge of Yn Dref and floating to the ground.
Not actually a particularly difficult task, that, provided one knew the right spell and could cast it a time or two. It was just that Yaden didn’t particularly possess much in the way of magical talent at all, aside from a few minor tricks he could pull. Which, while not a rarity amongst the Hanians, was at least unusual enough to be noted when both of his parents had been magically inclined.
As a result, he’d always had to be exceptional in others areas of life. Which was why his swordplay was good enough that only the best of the guards could defeat him, and even then they were only just managing it. If he was allowed to use the little flashes of light and other illusions that he could manage during one of those training bouts, he had little doubt he could overcome them.
From there, his maudlin thoughts turned inwards, twisting and twining about themselves until they resulted in nothing so much as a tangled web, one in which he was stuck.
Now sitting on a large stone, eyes focused on nothing out there in the world around him, Yaden didn’t hear the approach of Canere, who settled himself to the ground next to his friend.
“Yaden?” This time the question was followed with a little nudge, one that disturbed the flamboyant youth enough that he snapped out of the cycle of thoughts which he’d been stuck in.
“Canere? What is it?”
“Time for your watch to end, and for you to get some sleep. You’ve been thinking too hard tonight. Try not to do that, it’s not good for you.”
At that, a little of Yaden’s normal spirit came back. “This coming from the man who spends his entire life buried into books and doing nothing but thinking.”
“Do as I say, not as I do.” Canere accompanied the statement with a touch of a smirk, knowing how it sounded.
All the same, Yaden chuckled, touching his friend on the shoulder before heading inside to find his blankets next to the fire.
This is the next part of the story that began with The Last City.
The days that followed that first step through the portal were tiring, but not especially noteworthy. Ira led the small group as it trudged up the wild but sparse terrain of a hidden valley, and then up the saddle between mountains and into another. Around them, the landscape was much as it had been when they set out, although without the giant shadow of Yn Dref floating overhead. There were tall peaks, edged about by lower hills and sheathed in a coat of purple and green, as heather and bracken were all that really grew in the higher alpine. Down on the valley floor, there were copses of trees and small running streams, some forming pools or even lakes, but little else.
Of animals there were some, although most were birds wheeling high overhead, safely out of range of any hunter’s arrow. Of those who dwelt on the ground there was little sight, for they were both small and timid, flitting away into the brush at the sound of an approaching footstep. But at night, the howls of wolves and the shriek of other, less pleasant, creatures could be heard. It was enough to keep one of the three awake at all times, despite the ever present fire, and for Canere to wish he had learned how to lay magical wards about his encampment. But in the safe streets of Yn Dref, what need had he ever had of such a thing?
Most prominent of all was the collapsed structures that lay hither and yon about the valleys through which they passed. Most were comprised of little more than fallen stone and timber and looked to be farmsteads, pastures, and other structures of the sort one would find today in the villages beneath Yn Dref. No doubt they had served the same purpose, feeding whichever Hanian skycity had floated overhead. But with no more cities to serve, the people had drifted away, or been killed once the magical protections of their betters had departed. Either way, it was a dreary thing to pass through the lost villages of Hania.
Not that that stopped them from using the structures as places to rest at night, for the protection offered by stone walls, even collapsed ones, far outstripped that of a few tree boles and a lit fire. And it served better to both disguise their fire, should such a thing prove necessary, and to retain the heat that its flames gave off.
Presently, the three explorers were safely tucked into the old greatroom of a farmhouse, four valleys and two weeks to the north of where they had set out. Around them, the land had been to change into the utter emptiness of the northern tundra, still full of mountains but with plant and animal life growing scarcer by the day.
“I must admit, of all the things I thought would be dangerous on this trip, boredom wasn’t the one I had in mind.” Yaden tossed a stone at the fire, making the wood crackle and snap. “You’re my best friends, and yet if I have to see nothing but your faces for the next week, I’ll fly into a murderous rage.”
Canere chuckled, accepting the jest for what it was. “Perhaps we should have brought a mirror, so you could see the one person you loved.”
The next stone bounced off the packed earth flooring by the mage’s chest.
It had taken two weeks of wheedling, purchasing, and research, but at last the three friends were standing around the portal, each of them heavily laden with supplies and other materials.
Canere, for his part, had spent those two weeks discovering everything he could about Keleborn’s Arcanum and Adweyed. Which, in the end, wasn’t much. Aside from being able to confirm that the skycity had generally been one of the most northerly. And yet one of the warmest – apparently the mages who had originally carved Adweyed from living rock had magically sealed the climate, or otherwise heated it, so that life upon the floating citadel was more akin to the balmy tropics of the far south than the more normal whipping winds of Hania.
His more gallant and dashing friend had spent some of the time helping him, some of the time practicing his swordsmanship with Ira… and the rest of it attempting to woo the few other girls around their age in Yn Dref. Yaden knew where his priorities lay, although he had turned up to the day of leave remarkably well organized for someone who had supposedly spent the night before chasing around after a particular blonde.
As for Ira, well, she had done exactly what she said she would, convincing Vendol to lend her the supplies necessary for such a trip. They were less than she personally would have brought, but, had she had unlimited time and resources to prepare, there might still be something missing that she considered a nice addition. And, for all that both Vendol and the arcanists had been convinced by Canere’s impassioned arguments and logical conclusions, Yn Dref simply did not have much in the way of resources to spare.
But it had enough, and now a faint hope that one day, things might be better than they were before.
Of course, said faint hope rested on Canere and Yaden, who were jostling one another like little boys as Ira watched.
“I’m going to laugh when you can’t handle the step to the ground! You’ve never been able to resist, so what makes you think you can now?”
Canere glared at his friend. “Go first then, and stand your ground at the bottom.”
“And let you unburden yourself at me? Not a chance. These leathers are fine enough without your assistance.”
The young arcanist shook his head, then gave Yaden a shove towards the portal. Which led to a mock shoving match, the two of them somehow managing to strip away all the dignity of the moment.
Finally, Ira had had enough. “Canere, Yaden. We need to go if we want to get in a good day’s hike.” For it was the pre-dawn hour, that moment when the light glimmered behind the mountains, but the sun had not yet risen to spill golden warmth across the land.
It was remarkable how quickly the two men settled down, sombre expressions affixing themselves where only seconds before there had been smiles and glee. And with the seriousness came a nervous glimmer in each of their eyes. For the first time, they were to leave Yn Dref, leave the comfortable squalor of the crumbling city and step out into the great wide world. The thoughts of what that might entail rested ill at ease in their stomachs.
Acknowledging their seriousness but not their nerves, Ira threw a perfect salute to the guards of the portal. It was time the explorers were gone.
Looking only straight ahead, the tall and muscular guardian of Yn Dref strode through the portal.
It was late the following day, after dealing with the various reports, minor injuries, and other detritus of being a “commander”, that Ira was able to track down Yaden and Canere. Who were engaged, as often, in an argument.
“Look, I need you to come help me with the research. You’re the only other person who’s been willing to help.”
Yaden snorted. “That’s because everyone else has seen you do this kind of crazy thing for years and has figured out that helping you is a waste of their time. So no, I think you need to get one of the archivists to give you a hand. Or to work on it yourself. Me, I have better things to do than be stuck in a library.”
Quirking an eyebrow, Canere gazed at Yaden. “And what, pray tell, are those? Chasing women you can’t catch? Drinking yourself under the table on cheap whiskey? Gambling away what little money you can make for even smaller trinkets? Do tell me, I’ve always wondered what the famous roustabout of Yn Dref actually did in his free time.”
Met with a truly thunderous glare, Canere let his needling die off. There was always the chance of pushing Yaden too far, although his temper had been mostly in abeyance since childhood.
“Does it matter? It’s something I enjoy. If nothing else, I should at least be allowed to live my life so that it’s worth living, not always at the beck and call of everyone else in this damn skycity.”
It was at this point that Ira decided enough was enough. “Are you two arguing about Canere’s plan from yesterday? Why?”
After shooting daggers at one another, Canere and Yaden both stepped forward to explain. Which led to the two of them stumbling over one another’s words, and more angry looks.
Finally, after they had settled down for a moment, Yaden continued. “Canere thinks he’s found a reference that might prove to be helpful. But he needs to spend more time digging through the archives in order to expand on it. And he wants me to go along with him. I’ve already wasted one whole night and day on this fruitless quest, and we’ve chased vapours on the wind the whole time.”
At which, Canere began spluttering. “It was not vapours! It was a rigorous process of narrowing down the list of items that could conceivably have something of use. There has to be a reason why the arcanists of today aren’t as strong as those of yesteryear, and I am determined to find some source for it. Now I think I have. There’s a series of references to both a particular training manual, entitled Keleborn’s Arcanum, as well as an item, perhaps an artefact, that was used to initiate children into the ranks of the arcanists. I’ve never heard of either of those things before this research, and so there has to be something there. Clearly, we’ve lost part of what our ancestor Hanians did to train mages!”
Ira held up her hand, causing the rant to run out of steam. “Okay, fine. You appear to have found something. But according to Yaden, it’s not here. So… now what?”
A certain look came into Canere’s eyes, and he turned so he faced out from the skycity, looking off the edge and towards the rippling mountain peaks to the north. The breezes of the flying world ruffled his hair for a moment before he looked back to Ira and opened his mouth to speak.
“Oh no. No no no. I can see exactly where you’re going with this, and I’m not following you.”
Yaden appeared blank for a moment. “Wait… Canere, you want us to go out there? You think we need to go treasure hunting in another skycity. A fallen skycity. Why?”
“Because Keleborn’s Arcanum makes reference to a skycity called Adweyed. Repeatedly. It’s even mentioned that that’s where Keleborn, whoever he was, lived. It stands to reason that not only would Adweyed have copies of his works, but also the initiation artefacts that were once used.”
Pausing him there, Ira spoke. “You say that… but why don’t we have them here in Yn Dref?”
“I don’t know, and I can’t know until I finish my research in the archives, but wherever they are, they’re not used anymore. A quick study of the entrance records of the arcanist school here shows no such item being mentioned, at least for the last hundred years or so.” Canere turned to Yaden. “What I’m offering you is the chance to go on a grand adventure, one that could save Hania. After all your gazing over the edge of the world, are you really going to turn that down?”
“The thing about gazing over the edge of the world is that gazing is all it is. You’re asking me to leap off the edge of the world. And to read another host of dusty old tomes before I get to the exciting parts.”
“Well, yes. Even so, it would be a remarkable find. And would help you turn from someone who does magic at a brief sleight of hand to a true user of the gift.”
“Given all the work you have to do once that’s true? I might pass. But it’s intriguing. Let me think on it.”
Both of them then looked to Ira, who had been watching the interplay between Canere and Yaden with some amusement. “Let me guess, you want someone who knows which end of a weapon goes into the other man.”
“Excuse me, Ira, but I’m just as good with a blade as you are!” Yaden had drawn himself up to his entirely average height. Which still wasn’t enough to look down his nose at her. On the other hand, he was right. Yaden was almost certainly the only talented swordsman not in the Yn Dref guard.
“Okay, I’ll give you that. But you still need me, all the more so because I can requisition supplies and the like. Because I bet neither of you have any idea how to spend a night roughing it, let alone in that wasteland.”
The looks she got in response were rather sheepish. It was quite probable that neither of them had ever slept anywhere aside from Yn Dref, or perhaps a night or two down in one of the farm villages below.
“Right, so you need my expertise and supplies just as much as we’d need Canere’s intelligence to get through this. Given I know you two idiots are going to try and set off with or without me, mostly because Canere has a giant bee up his bonnet, I’ll come along. But only, and I do mean only, after we spend a great deal of time planning on how to make the journey as safe as it can be. Because otherwise, all three of us are going to end up as a morning snack to some great beast.”
The expressions of thanks that followed were effusive and heartfelt. Although they dried up quickly when she suggested that Yaden could best spend his time helping Canere in the archives. But with ill grace he acquiesced, and each went to contribute what they could to the final stages of planning and research.
By the time Ira finished taking her trainees around the village, the sun had begun to set. It was a fair amount of trepidation that she followed one of the stock keepers out towards the farthest of the pastures, for despite her brave words to her squad earlier, she had barely been off of the skycity herself, and knew only what woodcraft she had been taught.
What she did know, however, was that most animals hunted by scent, especially those who came in the night.
“Alright you lot, I want people spaced fifteen paces apart around the edge of this pasture. And once you’re there, cover yourself in some of the animal leavings. It’ll disguise you from the wolves. Or make them think you’re cattle.”
The response she got was as expected. Which meant a collection of stunned faces and shaking heads.
“Are you sure we have to do that?” One of the young lads asked.
“Quite sure. Otherwise the wolves won’t bother coming and we’ll have done all this for nothing. One thing I will say, though. Try and get it mostly on the armour, instead of cloth. Armour cleans off more easily.”
Armed with such a helpful piece of advice, the recruits fanned out into the field, all of them tossing glances back at their apparently slightly insane commander.
The gazes didn’t stop being incredulous when Ira finally unlimbered the monstrous contraption that hung across her back, and settled it onto a small stool that she had borrowed from the shepherd who normally kept watch over these fields.
Thus positioned, the machine was revealed as a heavily strengthened and massive crossbow. One that looked more than capable of putting a bolt through a stone wall, never mind flesh. And one that was so cumbersome it could barely be used.
Admittedly, both of those things were actually true. The arbalest had the power to punch through damn near any target, usually killing them on the first shot. On the other hand, it was a bitch to aim, needed a rest, and reloading it took a heavy duty crank and a lot of time. As a weapon, it was impractical at best. But it had the advantage of firing almost perfectly level, unlike more normal ranged weaponry, and even a glancing blow was usually more than enough to finish whatever was being shot at.
Underneath all that, Ira just thought using it was fun, of course.
What wasn’t fun was the waiting. As the sun dipped below the horizon and the chill of night began to seep into bones that weren’t moving, her mood grew short, and she snapped at those trainees that shifted about or called out to one another. Learning to hold a post was a crucial component of being a guard, but damn if it wasn’t a boring one.
And one that became more boring as the moon rose, a thin glimmer in the sky, partially blocked by the clouds. Perhaps the wolves weren’t going to come tonight, no matter their hunger. It should have been the right evening, since the pack apparently hunted every third day, but despite leaving a few choice cattle in the field, now currently mostly dozing placidly amongst the recruits, there had been no movement spotted from the verge of the forest.
The quiet of the night was split by a sound like a saw being drawn across stone. Which, after it repeated itself a few moments later, Ira identified as snoring. “Some bloody lout is getting a foot in his arse in a moment.”
Just as squad leader began to rise from her post behind the arbalest, her eyes, by now thoroughly accustomed to the gloom of night, caught a glimpse of movement amidst the trees, followed by the shine of light from two golden eyes.
“Of course the wolves arrive just as that fool starts snoring. Of course.”
The wolves padded forward, out of the trees, their forms grey shadows in the moonlight. Uncertain of whether her trainees had seen the oncoming creatures, but not wanting to startle them until they were within range of the spears and swords of the guards, Ira instead kicked the steer that had fallen asleep a pace from her.
The steer snorted, loudly, an edge of panic in its call, and then levered itself to its four hooves, clearly trying to figure out what had struck and woken it. The shattering bellow that followed moments later as the animal caught the scent of a predator did exactly what Ira hoped it would – spurred the wolves on to charge.
And charge they did, loping one after the other through the long grasses outside the fencing of the pasture, angling out into a long line that was clearly meant to encircle and trap the now panicked steer.
Unfortunately, it appeared her soldiers were equally panicked, either unable to see the creatures, or waking from a sleep they should never have entered, or just overcome by nervous energy. Thankfully, their shouting and fumbling did nothing to discourage the onrushing predators, although by the sounds of the matter, if her trainees met their opposite number at this precise moment, the Hanian half was going to come off the worst for wear.
So Ira sighted along the iron markings across the top of her creation, leading the first of the wolves by only half a pace, such was the speed of a bolt from the arbalest. Once certain of her shot, she pulled on the triggering lever, cursing as the recoil slammed the butt of the weapon into her shoulder.
But the shot had been good and true, and the wolf struck by it bowled over backwards in a spray of blood and fur, able to emit only a brief whimper as it tumbled through the air.
So sudden was the death that the other wolves didn’t notice, and continued their charge, the leaders beginning to leap over the fence and into the pasture with the cattle. Now, things quickly began to devolve into a fractured melee, as the trainees screamed, shouted, and hacked away at shapes moving in the night, some of them having nothing to do with the wolves, while the cattle bellowed in the background, and wolves slipped around and through the thin human line in search of more substantial prey.
Which turned out to be the steer whose startled awakening had been the beginning of the whole mess. Harassed by a predator nipping at its ankles, it spun first left and right, and then, bitten again hard on the buttocks, charged forward, hoping that speed could free it from the entanglements.
Before it could gather too much momentum, however, a large shape rose in front of it, causing the animal to spin away, panic filling its voice. But the large shape resolved itself into one of the trainees, able to catch the one of the trailing wolves with a sharp jab from a spear. It wasn’t a killing blow, but the stab caused the struck limb to collapse under it, sending the predator to the ground, where it was soon finished off.
All this time, Ira was attempting to shout orders, but in the noise and confusion, her voice could do little more than add to the matter, and so she waded in, leaving the arbalest where it lay and hoping it would survive the night undamaged. Now with her sword in hand, she tried to pick her moments carefully, swinging only at things that came within reach and she was sure were members of the pack.
Moments later, there came the consistent sound of yelping, and the sinuous shapes of the wolves could be seen breaking away, sprinting into the long grass and brush that verged the forest. They left behind two of their number, although from the glistening of the grass, perhaps another few had been wounded. Likely, the Hanians would never know, since the wolves would presumably move on to other prey for the time being.
Canere, having exhausted even his masterful powers of focus, had left the archives around the time of the morning meal, and then collapsed into bed until the chimes sounded for the first bell after noon. He then spent the next hour in bed, reading the notes that he had created.
Which led to much muttering about the quality of his handwriting. It was, in a word, shocking.
“If only I could use magic for something so basic. But I just can’t…”
As the next bell reminded him. Sighing to himself, Canere made his way to the remaining headquarters of the arcanists of Yn Dref, a rather forlorn building that sagged around the edges. Once, it had no doubt looked majestic, but with the colour faded and the architecture in dire need of repairs, there was little of that former grandeur left.
A nod from the apprentice sitting in the entrance way let Canere in, and a few turns later, he was heading down into the depths of the skycity, towards the mystical centre, the artefact that kept everything afloat.
The chamber in which the artefact rested was vast, hewn from the rock of this former mountaintop by the energies of his long ago forefathers. The artefact itself manifested visually as a sphere of unblemished crystal, rotating at a slow pace. Somehow, it was supposedly tied to the movements of the heavens, but no Hanian of recent days had ever been able to explain how or why.
Around the edges of the sphere were smaller lumps of unformed crystal, each sitting atop a little plinth. It was to one of those plinths that the young mage was supposed to go, for they allowed arcanists to channel their energy into the artefact, burning their personal force in return for keeping the skycity afloat.
Surprisingly, the chamber wasn’t empty, as it usually was at this time of day. Instead, another mage was standing over one of the plinths, face drawn in concentration as sweat beaded on her brow. As Canere was all too well aware, dumping the vast majority of one’s daily energy at a single go was a taxing affair, and so some amongst the Hanian arcanists preferred to visit multiple times a day, and so spare themselves the effort.
Canere, on the other hand, preferred to deal with it in one go. And knowing the strain it took, waited quietly at the entrance to the chamber until his compatriot shuddered, rising on unsteady legs from where she had sat before the plinth.
“Morning, Canere. Or rather, afternoon. I heard you were off on one of your jaunts through the archives again last night.”
There was nothing Canere could do but laugh. Raiztae always knew what was going on in Yn Dref. Always. She was known amongst the other mages as the queen of all gossip, and was rumoured to spend some of her magical energy eavesdropping on every petty conversation. Although Canere, like most people, just assumed that wasn’t true.
“The font of all knowledge, as always. Who told you this time?”
“That young lad who runs messages from the archives to the guild and back. Blonde hair, scrawny.”
“Doesn’t that describe half the children around here?”
“Birthmark under his left eye.”
“Oh, that one. I hope you gave him a trinket for his efforts.”
“I was able to sneak him a little something. You know me, I help where I can.”
Which was true, and the other reason no one ever really disliked Raiztae – she always had a kind word and a small token for the least fortunate in the skycity.
Canere gestured to acknowledge the comment. “So what’s the juiciest titbit you’ve got today? Aside from animals harassing the pastures. Ira beat you to that one.”
A frown swept across Raiztae’s features momentarily. “Blast, that was what I had. Hmm. There’s supposedly an affair or two going on with the senior mages, but that’s been wandering around for months now. Other than that it’s the doom and gloom about the coming weather that you’ve no doubt heard yourself.”
“Oh yes, the big storm that will rain thunder and hail down upon Yn Dref. We get those every year. Why should this be any different?”
She shrugged. “Because it gives people something to talk about. Look forward to in a way. Not much else of that, around here. You know I’d love to be able to research, but I’m not allowed to.”
With all the energy of the arcanists being needed to keep the skycity in the air, they had precious little effort to expend in other areas. Some of which might have helped resolve the current situation.
“You’re suggesting that Yn Dref is an anchor on our people.” Canere had heard this mentioned before, but mostly obliquely.
He was met with a sigh. “We use all our talents keeping a rotting hulk flying. Why not move the rest of the people to the ground and let the skycity fall into an empty valley? That way, we could at least use our talents to help the rest of Hania more directly. Today, the best I can do is give away the spare bits and pieces I don’t need. Maybe then I could actually make a difference.”
Canere could understand the sentiment. “That’s why I spend so much time in the archives. There has to be something in there that can help, but I’ve not found it yet. Maybe I never will. But I think I’ve hit on a new idea.”
“You always do have one of those.” Raiztae chuckled. “But if you don’t mind, I need to rest after feeding the demon.”
The young mage swept a shallow bow to Raiztae as she departed, then went to do his part for keeping the skycity afloat.
Ira met up with her trainees at the portal, one of the last functioning pieces of high magic in Yn Dref. A vast ring bolted to the ground in the central square of the skycity, through it could be seen the huts and shelters of the village below them, and the people going about their day. But between her group and the portal stood both a fence and other guards, alert and skittish.
While the gateway might be a vast artefact, it still drew magical energy from the surroundings. Magic that would otherwise be used to help keep the skycity afloat. Thus it was that anyone seeking to travel from Yn Dref to the ground below needed to get approved for the travel, although there was enough leeway in the process that only those truly unnecessary trips tended to be withheld.
A quick command set her squad of eight into two ragged lines, their armour pitted with age, and their weapons likewise. Given that the worst they should find today was a band of wolves, that would not pose much of a problem.
“I know some of you haven’t spent much time on the ground, but it isn’t much different from here in Yn Dref. And all the people we’ll see are Hanians, so you’re among friends. First things first – I know it’ll be different, but never stare. That’s as rude as can be. Secondly, we’re going into the outlands, on the very edge of the settlement and maybe beyond. You won’t know how to deal with terrain like that, unless you were born down there, so make sure to follow what I say exactly, and to keep others in sight at all times. Now, any questions before we go down?”
The blacksmith’s lad raised his hand, which drew an acknowledgement from Ira.
“What is that… thing you’re carrying?”
A genuine chuckle escaped before Ira remembered she was supposed to be stern.
“It’s a crossbow, of sorts, I’ve been building and designing myself.”
“But it’s over six feet long!”
“If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see me use it when we go down. Now form up!”
Obediently, the trainees shifted formation as Ira trotted forward to the guards, who gestured her through with a quick wave. Her students jogged through behind her.
“This is going to be a little disorienting, so when you step through, try not to vomit on anyone.” Which Ira had done, and at great amusement to the rest of the squad, since she’d covered her squad leader right after stepping through the portal. Not one of her finest moments as a member of the Yn Dref guards.
Standing tall, she strode through the portal at a fast trot, taking clear to be several steps clear before the first of the trainees was dumped out onto the ground below. And then collapsed to one knee, gasping for breath, as the aftereffects of the trip caught her. The best description of it she’d ever heard was that it felt like being kicked in the balls while all the air was sucked from her lungs. Now, she didn’t know exactly what that was like, but given how many of the male soldiers had agreed with it, it must be pretty close to true.
It was certainly unpleasant, and within moments there were trainees scattered about, retching or nearly so as they felt the impact of the transition. Only one of the women stayed standing, although the grimace on her face said that it was more an act of willpower than anything else.
After several long breaths steadied her, Ira rose to her feet and looked over the motley and somewhat vomit spattered group. “On your feet, the one thing I’m sure of is the creatures we’ve come to visit aren’t going to hang around and wait for you to recover. And make sure to clean one another off, you all smell enough already.”
Once the squad had composed themselves properly, Ira led them off at a trot. Might as well take them on a tour of the village before nightfall, when the real work would begin.