The Down and Out sat on the edge of a pier that jutted out over the Boundless Pit, a pier that was closely guarded by a half-dozen tuung. The ship, if you could call it that, was flat on top, with a wide deck that was covered by a thick tarpaulin and a small, closed cabin where the pilot sat with some of the necessary equipment. The bottom of it was curved and made of glass, which was broken up by rigid structural elements that divided it into triangles. It made me think of a d20, though it wasn’t a regular polyhedron, instead skewing into more of an oval shape. Amaryllis commented that it looked like a chandelier, but to me it didn’t seem pretty enough.
The price we’d paid was exorbitant, though we hadn’t ended up jumping ahead on the list. Instead, the owners had gotten special dispensation to run a second trip of the day. Normally the owners ran the ship down and then back up so that they’d get the light of high noon shining down into the Boundless Pit when they were at the nadir of the journey, but there was some wiggle room to do another run every once in a while, at the cost of a little bit of stored goodwill with the tuung. The owner greeted us warmly though, either happy at the windfall we’d given them or naturally cheery people. When we’d asked around, he and his wife had been called an “odd couple” a few times, and once I saw them, I realized what everyone had been glossing around; he was a human and she was a feathered Animalia.
We were planning to steal their ship, at least temporarily.
“I know the collars are an imposition,” said Taft with a genial smile once we were aboard. He was bald and thin, with great tufts of hair on the side of his head, and a nose almost as wide as Grak’s on a face that wasn’t nearly so meaty. He wore a cloak and a wide-brimmed hat, which was wet with the mist coming off of the Boul. The river was emptying itself not more than a hundred yards away from us, and the sound of it meant that everyone had to speak up to be heard. “We see the Boundless Pit at the pleasure of the tuung, and much of what there is to see is their society. You’re visiting one of the last few forbidden places on Aerb, think of it like that. For all that the collars are frightening, they’ve only been used twice in the history of these trips, both times with solid cause.”
“What kind of cause?” asked Fenn, radiating innocence and briefly reaching her fingers up to touch where the tattoo encircled her neck. Removing it would be trivial for both of us, as would repairing the damage if it was triggered before then, assuming we could do it before passing out.
“It’s somewhat gruesome,” said Taft with a shake of his head. “It would suffice to say that the Boundless Pit, for all its beauty, has attracted a fair number of people more interested in profit over the years, many of them with ill intent. The collars are an over-reaction to that.” He waved his hand. “Not worth worrying about. You’re here for the only tour of the Pit that money can buy, not to hear scary stories about things going wrong.”
“I’m here for both, actually,” said Fenn. She was keeping her eyes wide. “I was hoping that you could tell us about the tuung, while we’re on our way down? It’s going to take some time to reach our destination, right?”
“How much have you read?” asked Taft, with one bushy eyebrow raised. “Well, much of what you’ve read is probably nonsense of one sort or another, but as a baseline?”
Amaryllis cleared her throat. “I’ve read Blackstone’s Creatures of the Unending, the relevant chapter in Kyan’s R-selected, A History , almost everything ever written about Penndraig’s excursion into the Boundless Pit, and a rather poor translation of Emini’s Soun Mienou, which I think comes closest to the actual truth.”
“We also had a few conversations with tuung aboard the train on the way over from Cranberry Bay,” said Fenn with a smile.
“Well,” said Taft, smiling at the two of them, and not the least bit fazed. “I daresay you probably know more than me, at least on paper. But I’ve worked with the tuung for practically my whole adult life, and I’ve been watching them since I was little -- quite some time ago -- when it was my father and mother steering this ship. So maybe I can fill in some of the gaps?”
We’d done enough homework that most of what he said wasn’t new to us. He started from the top, rather than the bottom, which I found a little bit irritating. The proper way of understanding the tuung was to understand their reproductive biology: females that could choose the gender of their children, mass egg-laying, and sexually dormant males that could be driven into heat were all the building blocks of their society. Those rules governed everything that followed, while the Boundless Pit itself, infinitely deep, widening as you went down, darkening too, was the context on which those rules were applied.
Taft started from the top though, all the clear and visible stuff that might, admittedly, be more useful to know on a day-to-day basis, like matriarchal politics, the major imports (the cheapest possible food, mostly from Barren Jewel) and exports (entads, mined minerals, unique flora and fauna of the Pit), the governing laws of the tuung, and a small amount of history, especially as it related to interactions between the tuung and the three imperial eras.
(We said “the tuung” for simplicity, but there were actually two other places that they called home as well. There weren’t many places that were all that hospitable for the tuung, given how much moisture they needed on a very regular basis. It was entirely possible for them to live in inhospitable places, but that would mean lugging around a mister tank and having special sleeping arrangements, which was a malus on expansion into places that weren’t perpetually wet. In D&D terms, those other loosely-allied groups of tuung would have been sub-races, in the same way that there were five distinct migrations of elves from Celestar, each with their own differences.)
“Just a moment,” said Taft, as he cut short his description of the tuung air force. “I’m going to go speak with my wife to see what the hold up is.”
He left us on the deck as he ducked in through an archway to the small cabin where the ship’s controls were. I had been trying to surreptitiously sneak a peek ever since we’d gotten on board, but all I’d really been able to make out was Taft’s wife, a feathered Animalia of some kind, maybe a raven. Her long black beak stuck out from under a blue hood, and while she had wings on her back, folded behind her in a chair that allowed room for them, she also had arms and legs as well, both terminating in featherless, scaly black skin and black claws. She had introduced herself very briefly as Rattle-Clack, then turned back to the ship’s controls without sparing us another glance.
“Not feeling too great about this plan,” Fenn said to me under her breath.
“Yeah,” I said. I stepped closer to the railing and looked down in the Boundless Pit, which was largely obscured by spray from the river. Deeper down, the Pit was obscured by shadow. The Down and Out had floodlights, but they’d be of limited use once we were to the point where the Pit was filled with river-rain and mist, since most of what they’d be lighting up was the water in the air. Grak thought that he’d be able to spot Kuum Doona if we got within a mile of it, given his newfound magic-vision, and I was really hoping that he was right, especially since we’d be working under a time constraint, after which the tuung would know that something was up. “Nice people.”
“Nice people,” Fenn murmured. “Nice little mom and pop operation here, kind of reminds me of my favorite inn back in Anglecynn, the Cock & Bull.”
Amaryllis stepped up close to us and rested her hand on Fenn’s elbow. “Excited?” she asked, with just a token amount of ‘don’t fucking talk about our plan to steal this thing’ to her smile.
“Oh, certainly,” said Fenn as Taft approached from the cabin.
“Shouldn’t be much longer,” said Taft. “We’re still waiting on final approval.”
“I thought we had final approval?” asked Amaryllis.
“We had provisional approval,” said Taft. “Enough that we could get you checked over and aboard and start getting everything spun up. The protocols that we’ve worked out with the tuung is that we get a final sign-off by radio before we actually depart, and that’s what we’re waiting on. Normally it doesn’t take this long, but this is a special trip, and it appears the timing isn’t all that good. There’s some kind of hullabaloo going on right now, but they’re not saying exactly what. I keep my ear out for chatter, but they’re a secretive people, and most of the tuung that live and work in Headwater aren’t in the know.” He gave us an apologetic shrug. “Where was I?”
“You were detailing the tuung air force,” said Grak.
“Ah, right,” said Taft. “Gossamer wings, we think part of some entad that they came by a few dozen years ago, though the specifics are naturally shrouded in mystery. We’ll probably see a few of them in full flight, the matriarchs like to show off a bit, and that’s half of our arrangement with them.”
“Meaning that we won’t get to see any of the underbelly?” I asked.
“Underbelly?” asked Taft with a laugh. “We’re not going to visit with them, just taking a tour of some of the prettier features of the Pit and the cities on the wall, anything that they really wanted to hide, it wouldn’t be a problem for them. That’s not to say that there aren’t failures, from time to time, places where a colony was founded and then something went wrong in carving out or hanging structures, as one example, and that’s the sort of thing that I’m not planning to show you.”
I knew enough to know that he was whitewashing things. We probably wouldn’t be seeing the results of matriarchal warfare, nor would we probably bear witness to any of the burial ceremonies of the tuung, where they extracted the soul from the body and then dumped it into the Pit.
“I’m sorry, but why is an entad thought to be the source of the wings?” asked Amaryllis.
“Numbers show linear growth,” Grak answered, before Taft could. “It is consistent with a periodic-granting-of-ability rule. It is one of the things I spoke about with my friend Magor.”
“I’d rather not take part in any speculation,” said Taft with a smile. “Headwater is always abuzz with that sort of talk, and I do keep my ears open, but --”
“Ready!” came a call from the cabin.
“-- but we should be bringing that part of the conversation to a close anyway,” he finished, stepping toward the middle of the ship. Benches curved to form an oval beneath the tarpaulin, with enough room to seat ten. A small ladder by the cabin led to the lower deck, which was where you’d want to sit if you wanted to look out the windows below. “We’re running light, as this is a special trip just for you, and we won’t have the best light to see the Pit with, but we’ve been doing this for ages --”
“Ages!” came a shout from the cabin.
“-- and we should be able to give you a satisfactory tour.” He smiled at each of us in turn, and then, on cue, the ship began descending. Taft let that feeling of untethered floating sink in for a bit, then launched into what was identifiably a spiel, probably one that he’d given every day for most of his working life.
It was interesting enough, but I forced myself to zone out so that I could think about what came next. We were going to have to subdue both of them before taking the ship, which I wasn’t looking forward to. Physically it would be easy, even without our gear (most of which was packed away in the glove, which was in turn folded up and stuffed in Fenn’s underwear), but the inevitable explanation of ‘it’s not personal’ didn’t feel good when I was practicing it in my head.
That aside, I didn’t like the rest of the plan very much either. It seemed dependent on too much best-case planning, where we were counting on either our ability to improvise a solution to problems that might crop up, or simply on nothing going too terribly wrong. We’d done as much homework as we could do in the time we had available, but at a certain point there were diminishing returns. Amaryllis had argued that spending a day in Headwater trying to find an expert on Kuum Doona, or someone who could smuggle us in a less attention-drawing way, was unlikely enough to bear fruit that it wasn’t worth the risk. We’d chartered the tour first, then spent a few hours searching around, but a few hours searching in an unfamiliar city where we had no contacts didn’t amount to much.
(The saving grace of the plan to steal the Down and Out was that it was better than the alternatives, which we’d discussed in some depth. The most promising of them was looping Esuen in on the teleportation key and then trying to see whether her worldline was such that she would be able to put us within a few days' climb of Kuum Doona, which had seemed like a stretch. Other options, like quickly-built, makeshift aircraft or abuse of the Immobility Plate while skydiving, had been vetoed on feasibility grounds.)
We kept to the western side of the Pit as we made our descent, giving the waterfall a wide berth, but there was only so much that you could avoid it, and eventually the spray from the waterfall spread out to the whole Pit, even as the Pit grew wider. The sky was a hole above us, which gradually became obscured by the mist in the air, until eventually we were in a twilight. The Down and Out didn’t move fast, no more than a few miles an hour, so the changes were subtle, and Taft had plenty to say about everything that we passed. His wife, Rattle-Clack, was piloting a meandering course that slowed down whenever there was something of interest, and while I had some natural appreciation for what I mentally pegged as “worldbuilding stuff”, I also kept thinking that it was basically an unskippable cutscene.
We did end up seeing the flying tuung, in a regimented flock of more than a hundred, each of them with short insectile wings that brought to mind a dragonfly. The wings were too short and thin to have possibly held up the tuung, but each was only lightly armored, and without any heavy packs, nor with obvious weapons on them, which was a relief. When Taft finally turned the floodlights on, they appeared as if from nowhere to swoop in front of them, which I was almost certain was the local equivalent of propaganda, done for every group of visitors. I really hoped that we didn’t have to fight them, especially given their total air superiority, but if Kuum Doona was to be a long-term acquisition, there probably wasn’t much avoiding it, not unless it was possible to use whatever form of locomotion it had to descend into the Boundless Pit beyond the range of the tuung, which from what I’d read meant about a hundred miles.
The tuung were the main attraction, but the Boundless Pit had other wonders to pique my interest, enormous animals crawling on the rock walls (mildly annoyed by the floodlights, swishing their tails at us), bioluminescent fungi that spanned a large, splotchy mile of the Pit walls (with settlements and farmers in among it), and the occasional abandoned settlement made by someone else’s hand, imprints of occupation attempts, some of them now taken over by the tuung, others left abandoned when the original owners had called it quits. The Boundless Pit was a Mystery, one of many on Aerb, and various people had been drawn in over the centuries, wanting to tease at the edges of reality. I wasn’t much in the mood for Mysteries at that particular moment; I wanted things simple and straightforward.
“And here we reach the end of our journey,” said Taft, hours after we’d set off but still far too quickly for my tastes. The Down and Out had moved away from the walls, and the floodlights illuminated only the water in the air. “We’re more than seven miles down now, and at this point, the walls are about four times as far away as when we started out. I’ve never been past the twenty mile mark myself, but the tuung have assured me that the Boundless Pit lives up to its name, and every resource the Third Empire has thrown at it seems to agree. Since this is a late run, and it’s probably near sunset on the surface,” he pointed up, to where there was a hazy circle of light that could be seen if I leaned past the tarp, “I’m going to take a minute to turn off all the lights, so you can see what it’s like here in the dark.”
He went over to the panel on the side of the cabin, which connected to the floodlights. I was guessing that and a few other systems had been bolted on after the forge frenzy that had created the ship, mostly because they didn’t quite match the aesthetic. With a few flicked switches, the floodlights turned off, plunging us into darkness.
“This is how most of the tuung live,” said Taft into the darkness. “At night, this part of the Pit is close to being pitch black, and in the day, it doesn’t get too much brighter. Most of the deep tuung don’t have power, not like we do on the surface, which means that they work in a place that’s not got much more than subtle grades of black. Some live and work in caves, but others are forced by necessity to climb out along the walls, whether to farm or forage.” He cleared his throat. “Now, think about what it would be like to fall, the blackness that would envelop you, as what little light there was got further and further away. The time it would take you to fall down here from Headwater? Forty-eight seconds. Now, imagine that you were one of the tuung who saw your brethren fall, or simply sat there waiting in your communal home for them to return, only for it to never happen. That’s what it was like for the tuung for thousands of years. When they talk about how it’s better to live in the hells than to fade away into nothing, I think that’s --”
His voice cut off, leaving the ship utterly silent.
“That’s a knife at your throat,” said Amaryllis. “Now, I want you to turn the lights back on, very slowly and very carefully, so we can have a talk. We don’t want to hurt you, but we will if we have to.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Taft with a sigh, but the lights went back on a moment later, illuminating the scene.
Fenn stood toward the back of the ship, glove back on her hand and bow fully drawn. Amaryllis was behind Taft, with a dagger at his throat, just as she’d said, as calm as I’d ever seen her. Taft’s wife was turned back toward us, her feathers ruffled and mouth halfway open, and although she was turned toward Taft, she had seen the bow and arrow pointed at her. For myself, I had a rifle that had been thrust into my hands in the dark, but I was pointing it down at the ship with my finger off the trigger, largely because of ingrained lessons on gun safety.
“Sam, tattoos now, please,” she said with a nod toward me. Mine I had already moved, down from my neck to around the tip of my pinky finger, and I got up and collected the other three in short order. When I was in the middle of removing Fenn’s, I heard Amaryllis again. “Don’t you dare touch that radio.”
“I have to,” said Rattle-Clack. “They require periodic check-ins.”
“I haven’t heard any,” said Amaryllis.
“I moved up the pitch to beyond human hearing,” said Rattle-Clack. “It’s a courtesy to our guests, so they don’t have to hear the chatter.”
“Step out of the cabin, please,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t believe that you keep so tight a schedule that a few minutes are going to make the difference.”
Rattle-Clack closed her mouth and got up from her stool, then moved out from inside the cabin with her arms raised, though much more lazily than Taft.
“To be honest, I’m waiting on my wife’s I-told-you-so,” said Taft.
“I told you so,” said Rattle-Clack, deadpan.
“Ah, there it is,” said Taft, smiling her way. “That’s a real relief.”
“When are the check-ins?” asked Amaryllis, not removing her knife. “What information is communicated?”
“Every mile,” said Rattle-Clack. “All I tell them is our depth and what part of the tour we’re on.”
“And if you don’t check-in?” asked Amaryllis.
“I don’t know,” answered Rattle-Clack. She tilted her head to the side and blinked with the nictitating membrane. “I think they would come after us.”
“I’ve always assumed that we were being shadowed by a squadron, just far enough away that they can stay out of the light,” said Taft. “Their wings would allow for it. Let me go and we can return to the surface, no repercussions on your end.”
“Opinions?” asked Amaryllis in my direction.
“There are potential traps in allowing a check-in, some of them spur of the moment, which we might be able to catch, others built in, which we couldn’t. I don’t want to share too many of my bright ideas, and you probably already have me beat there,” I said. I was fairly certain that Rattle-Clack wasn’t just listening in at a higher pitch, she had been communicating at a higher one too, which opened up all sorts of possibilities for her, depending on how her radio had been configured and what the tuung on the other end were expecting. “We’re two miles from where we need to be. I’m not sure exactly what this craft is capable of, but --”
“Three miles an hour, in good weather,” said Rattle-Clack.
“Hekni,” said Amaryllis in Grak’s direction (his false name literally meant ‘name’ in Groglir), “Get started on figuring out how to pilot this thing and how fast it can go, we’re going to get started on trying to find Kuum Doona.” He moved without a word, slipping past the Animalia, who gave him a wide berth; as a warder he was our de facto expert on magic items, mostly because he could see them better.
“Oh, so you’re all insane,” said Taft. “Well that makes a bit more sense.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” said Fenn. Her smile was forced; I could tell she didn’t like being in this position, aiming at innocent people, any more than I did. Her bow was still drawn and pointed at Rattle-Clack, the magic of her scars allowing her to hold the bow taut almost indefinitely without wavering.
“We’ll be shot out of the air before you can get close to it,” said Rattle-Clack.
“Any help you could give us would be appreciated,” said Amaryllis. The comment was underscored by the knife she still had at Taft’s throat.
“Approach from above,” said Taft.
“Don’t you dare help them,” said Rattle-Clack, finally dropping her raised arms and folding them across her chest.
“I’m looking out for my ship,” said Taft, smiling at his wife. He couldn’t turn his head, but his eyes tracked back to me. “Most of the successful attempts on Kuum Doona have been overhead, because then you only need to avoid the lightning strikes, not the cannonfire. Granted, ‘success’ means being able to set foot on it, where you’re likely to face whatever got the various teams that have been sent there, but at least my ship has a better chance of being safe.”
“Can you take this seriously?” asked Rattle-Clack.
The ship began to move again, this time under Grak’s direction, wobbling slightly as he tested the controls, then straightening out and dropping down. I could only judge by the movement of the air around us, most of which was blocked by the tarp, but it seemed like they had been telling the truth; the Down and Out was just glacially slow (which made sense, given that a faster craft might have been used for something other than a sedate tour, but was still a problem for us).
“I think we should have her check-in,” I said. “On balance, it seems like the better option.”
Amaryllis finally stepped out from behind Taft as a rope began encircling him of its own volition. Ropey wasn’t terribly strong, but he could tighten his own knots well enough that they could hold me, let alone a tour operator. “Make the check-in then,” said Amaryllis with a nod toward Rattle-Clack. The dagger in her hand warped and changed into a thin sword, and it was only then that I realized she’d been using the Anyblade.
“Fun,” said Taft, testing his restraints. “I guess we’ll see whether I’m right about the squadron shadowing us.”
“You’re not,” called Grak from the cabin. “I would have seen their magic.”
“Ah,” said Taft, wincing slightly.
Amaryllis went into the cabin with Grak for a moment, mostly to check over and adjust the radio. There was some chatter between the two of them about that; we wanted to be able to hear what Rattle-Clack said, but she was capable of speaking at a higher frequency than we could hear, and changing the settings on the microphone could alter the message in a way that might give us away even if she was acting in good faith.
Rattle-Clack went over to Taft, and the two of them held a sotto voce conversation. I could hear well enough to catch the gist of it; she was berating him for his greed, theatrics, and self-sabotage, not plotting an escape attempt. I went over to stand by Fenn, with my rifle still pointed at the deck of the ship rather than at the couple.
“I’m feeling a bit anxious,” said Fenn. “Didn’t quite like the look of those tuung flying around. The remind me of one too many bad experiences in the Risen Lands.”
“They do?” I asked.
“Birds,” nodded Fenn. “There’s a containing wall around the whole place, but you can’t keep birds out, and with all the crops gone to seed, there’s plenty for them to eat. Then they die, and you get whole flocks of undead.”
“That’s a sight that I’m glad I missed,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Fenn. “Well, if we’re unlucky, we’re going to get to see all the problems with fighting things in the sky up close and personal.” She frowned. “I’m good with a bow, really fucking good, but there are limits. Not that keen on sending soldiers down to the hells either.”
“But you will?” I asked.
“Sure,” nodded Fenn. “Might need some wine and cuddles after though. Helps that they’re ugly as sin. Shouldn’t help, maybe, but it does.”
Once Amaryllis had given the radio a once-over, Rattle-Clack was ushered over to it in order to make the check-in. The only response was a terse, “Roger, out,” which she said was about par for the course in how the tuung responded to any radio communication. With that accomplished, she joined back with her husband, and Ropey bound the two of them together, at which point Fenn finally let go of her draw.
After that, it was time to suit up. All of our equipment had been stored inside the glove, and Fenn spilled armor out onto the deck, which drew complaints from Taft, who still didn’t seem terribly concerned about being hijacked, even though for all he knew, we were a heavily armed and highly skilled mercenary squad. Amaryllis put on her immobility plate, and I put on the absorption armor, plus my standard complement of bandoliers, which I was starting to think less of, given how well soul magic and bone magic worked together to make bones and fairies redundant.
(I had argued that we should just bring Val along in the glove with a few hours worth of air tanks, but Amaryllis had objected on practical grounds, namely that we were unlikely to find ourselves in a situation where Val was exactly what we needed, and that it wasn’t without its own risks, and that it would placate the handmaid, and that it was better to have someone stay behind to keep the return location for a teleport clear. Valencia had objected on largely personal grounds; she wanted some independence and time alone, even if it was just going to be spent reading the rest of the Harry Potter books in a hotel room and maybe ordering room service.)
We’d been flying for forty minutes when there was an irregularity with one of the check-ins. Instead of a final response of “Roger, out,” it was “Roger, wait.” On hearing that, Rattle-Clack had tilted her head to the side and looked at the microphone.
“Problem?” asked Amaryllis.
“Irregular,” said Rattle-Clack.
“We’re at the right depth,” said Grak. “I will start circling the edge of the Pit.”
“Say again, over,” came the crackling voice from the radio.
“This is the Down and Out, we are on our way back up, at the five mile check-in, over,” said Rattle-Clack. Taft aside, we were all standing near or in the cabin, waiting.
There was silence from the radio for a fairly long time, long enough that I started to wonder whether something had happened to the equipment, but I got the answer to what was going on when I felt a sharp pain in my pinky finger, which instantly started bleeding where the Fool’s Choker had severed the flesh. I was wearing all four of them on that finger, and they went off one by one, cutting into the flesh down to the bone. I touched a bone in my bandolier and burned it to heal myself. Amaryllis was watching me with wide eyes.
“That would have been an international incident,” said Amaryllis. “What the fuck are they thinking?”
“They were probably waiting for us to come up,” said Rattle-Clack with a shrug. “They knew that I was lying, and hopefully they’ll believe I was lying under duress.”
“If we survive long enough for that to matter!” called Taft from where he was roped up.
“Roger, repeat status, over,” came the voice from the radio.
Rattle-Clack turned from the radio and looked at Amaryllis. “What do you want me to say?”
“We’re going to radio silence,” said Amaryllis. She let out a breath. “Hekni, can you pilot this craft in darkness?”
“Yes,” replied Grak. “The light isn’t doing anything for me.” I was close enough to look over at the controls, which somewhat incredibly consisted of only six different levers, each stuck at various positions, with two of them locked in place by pieces of metal that were, like the radio, obviously not part of the original design. Pitch, yaw, roll, with pitch and roll locked down, then three levers for movement along x, y, and z? However it worked, I was glad that we weren’t relying on one of our hostages to fly.
“I’ll kill the lights,” I said.
We moved in darkness, trusting in Grak’s magic-vision to get us where we needed to be. Based on our past discussions about the monocle, he would be able to see everything that had latent, passive, or active magic in it, which meant that it applied to about 95% of all things, including almost all magic items and most living creatures (save for non-anima).
(We’d tried to grab night vision goggles out of the backpack, but it had said no; the cut-off for technology seemed to be some point before World War II, even if the backpack was content to give us both Earth-modern instructions and most sufficiently simple Earth-modern parts. Amaryllis thought that she could have gotten something working if she’d had a week, which she didn’t have.)
“I think I see it,” said Grak, after a tense forty-five minutes of flying in darkness. He must have moved a lever, because the ship came to a halt in mid-air, rocking us slightly to the side. “It’s in a crevice. Approach from overhead would be impossible.”
“I’d like to leave,” said Rattle-Clack, speaking up from the darkness. “I can fly under my own power, well enough to glide down to one of the tuung cities. I’ll take my time, so that you’re either dead or inside by the time I get there.”
“And your husband?” asked Amaryllis. Something about the darkness made her voice seem smaller.
“He’s been on this ship with no escape plan for his entire life,” replied Rattle-Clack.
“It’s true,” said Taft. “A fact I’ve been reminded of every day since I got married.” He still seemed cheerful enough about matters, in spite of everything. I didn’t think that we were facing down our death here, but he certainly seemed to, and he was somehow putting a positive spin on it. I was starting to re-evaluate what people had meant when they’d called him odd.
“We have parachutes,” said Fenn. “We can dump you off the side too, maybe with a flashlight.”
“A captain goes down with his ship,” said Taft with a small laugh.
“Sam, light?” asked Amaryllis.
“Sure,” I replied. I drew the heat from my blood in steps, making the flame first come from my fingertip, then down my finger, until finally it wreathed my hand and gave us enough light to see by, each step allowing my eyes to adjust. Taft and Rattle-Clack were illuminated, tied up together; it was hard to read any expression on her face, but Taft seemed somewhere between contented and resigned.
“I’m willing to let you fly away,” said Amaryllis, holding the Anyblade in front of her as a full sword. “I don’t particularly want your blood on our hands.”
Once Amaryllis had commanded Ropey to let her out of her bonds, Rattle-Clack gave Taft a quick peck on the cheek. “I hope to see you again, husband.”
“You too, wife,” replied Taft with a nod. “Maybe if I die, I can tell you what’s at the bottom of the pit when I’m in the hells.”
She stepped to the edge of the ship, then jumped out over the edge with her arms to her side and her wings spread; we could hear her flapping over the muted sound of the perpetual waterfall for only a little bit, until there was nothing.
“I’d prefer to be untied,” said Taft, once she was away. “I’d hate for you all to die and leave me here at the mercy of cannonfire and the ship without a pilot.”
“We’re not going to die,” said Amaryllis.
“We probably won’t die,” said Fenn.
“All the same,” said Taft. “I’d like to meet my fate head-on, rather than tied up and helpless. I’ll be good, captain’s promise, and if I’m not, feel free to toss me overboard.”
“Okay,” I said, before Amaryllis could answer. As I said the word, Ropey began unwinding from him, slipping him free of his bonds, then it wriggled across the deck of the ship like a snake and wrapped itself around my waist, in its familiar place; that added utility was probably the best argument for untying Taft.
“I have a map,” said Grak, coming out from the cabin, where he’d been sitting with Fenn. He held forth a sheet of paper, which was slightly damp from the ever-present mist. On it he’d made a diagram of the building, drawn with a series of very straight lines, as though he’d been copying from a low-poly model of the building, or perhaps just hadn’t ever learned how to draw a curve. It showed a large section of rock-face that was cracked down the middle, and there, right at the top, a building was nestled, built more tall than wide, and seemingly perfectly fitted to the location it had been placed in. I wasn’t sure exactly how much Grak was capable of seeing from a mile away, but there were a few details on the building that I assumed were a reflection of what he had seen, rather than simple embellishments. There was a door at the base of the building, opening to nowhere, a bevy of arrow-slit windows, and some small circles that were meant to be -- something. The “skin” of the fortress seemed to be made of scales, which were detailed in a seperate picture off to one side.
“What are these?” I asked, pointing to the circles. “Cannons?”
“I don’t know,” said Grak. “There are many different forms of magic, many of them overlapping each other. I’ve been cycling through the views. It is hard to tell from a distance, but there are sixteen wards.”
He didn’t say out loud that these were wards that Amaryllis was keyed to, but that was what we were hoping. In an ideal world, we’d spend the next twenty minutes crossing the last mile to the fortress, and whatever dim intelligence was powering its defenses would somehow recognize Amaryllis and allow her in without any problems. If that didn’t happen, we’d have to take the harder approach of evading its offensive and defensive capabilities and then getting Grak somewhere that would allow him to either breach the wards or circumvent them well enough to get us partially in to the point where we could try something else.
“Incoming,” said Grak. He was looking up and off into the distance. I let the light from my fire of my blood drop; I was starting to get a slight chill anyway.
“Tuung? How many?” asked Fenn.
“More than a hundred,” said Grak. “I see a warder’s monocle on one, they’ll find us even without the light.”
“Fuck,” I said. “Do we make a run for the fortress, or try to fight them off?”
“We have two minutes,” said Grak, his voice even. He went into the cabin and threw one of the levers forward, which sent the ship rocking again. When that was done, he came back out. “We’re on a collision course. Someone will need to stop the craft if something happens to me.”
“Well, fuck,” I said. Amaryllis threw the floodlights on, and I was momentarily blinded by them -- but better to be blinded while waiting for the enemy to arrive, rather than in the middle of combat.
“There,” said Grak, pointing up at a region of the sky.
“Using artillery now,” said Fenn, as an arrow appeared in her hand and she drew back her bow. For all her talk of reticence earlier, she wasn’t hesitating now. Maybe it was easier because they’d tried to kill us with the collars. “There?” she asked.
“A touch lower,” said Grak.
Fenn fired the arrow, which became a cloud of arrows as it left our view. She let the bow go limp in her hand as she looked at Grak expectantly.
A flurry of names, defeated! went by across my vision, startling me; it had been a fair amount of time since I’d seen one, and the HUD had faded into the background of my existence. Each of the tuung had been given a name, rather than being left as nameless soldiers, and I was too busy to spare time trying to tease apart why that decision had been made.
“Less than a hundred now,” he said, letting out a breath. “You were high.”
“You have an impressive array of magic,” said Taft.
“Shut up,” said Fenn. She took a breath, raised the bow again, and let off another arrow, this time without looking to Grak for guidance. There was something eerie about the multiplying sound of the arrows in flight, and the way they seemed to vanish. It was like firing a shotgun in the dark, hoping that with sufficient firepower you might hit something. I couldn’t help imagining how terrifying it would be to be faced with a storm of arrows while flying blindly through the air. The tuung could see in the dark far better than I could, but still, it wasn’t like you could dodge that many arrows, even if you could see them.
“They’re scattering,” said Grak, “But they’re still coming towards us.”
“I’m saving the other two shots until they get close enough to see,” said Fenn. She looked pale and nauseous.
I raised my rifle to my shoulder, waiting, while Amaryllis picked up her own rifle, which Fenn had deposited by the door. It was a void rifle of her own design, one that she must have upgraded considerably since our time in the Risen Lands, since there were so few of the same parts that I wasn’t sure whether it could even be considered the same gun. The effective range of void weaponry was low, compared to a rifle or arrow, but there were quite a few things it was capable of punching through, and if they had a warder with them, then I was pretty sure that they’d have at least one surprise waiting for us as well.
Fenn started firing before I could see anything, not the artillery shots, but two or three arrows at once, done with a swiftness and casual grace that nothing on Earth could ever have matched, and helped by the fact that arrows could appear in her waiting fingers at the speed of thought. Her eyes were better than mine; she was firing with purpose, but to me the things she was shooting at were only vague shapes at the edge of the light. I saw one of the tuung well enough to make out the dragonfly-wings on his back, and saw him jerk backward and then start tumbling down.
“They’re dropping below the ship,” said Grak. “They’re going to come from beneath.”
“On it,” said Amaryllis. She went to the hatch that led down into the observation area, and I followed after as the repeated twang of Fenn’s bow filled the air. When I got down there, Amaryllis was already breaking out glass with the butt of the void rifle, either to get a better view, or because it would interfere with the void rifle’s range too much. I followed her lead with my own rifle and tried not to think about the wanton destruction we were causing. The seats down there were terrifying, suspended over glass for a spine-tingling sense of danger during the descent.
I took my first shot as I saw one of the tuung come up from below the ship, which was when I realized that I hadn’t grabbed hearing protection; it was loud enough to be physically painful. My shot hit him in the breastplate, which briefly arrested his upward motion. I fired again, and hit him somewhere in the head or shoulders, then watched as he fell away, wings no longer flapping.
Hian Tsal defeated!
More followed. The sound of my rifle became a staccato, interrupted only briefly when no suitable target presented itself. My pulse was racing as I killed one, then two, the sweep of the rifle across the blackness of the pit automatic, with better form than I’d ever had back on Earth, calm and military even though a part of my mind was recoiling at how detached and methodical the killing was. I tried not to pay attention to the notifications telling me their names.
After six rounds, I had to reload the rifle, which gave me time to listen to the thunk of Amaryllis firing off the void rifle beside me. As I was sliding the magazine into place, one of the half-spear swords came flying up towards me. It was only through dumb luck or a bad throw that it embedded itself in the wall beside me rather than hitting me. I raised the rifle and fired at the tuung that had thrown it, catching him in the chest and sending him spinning down into the void.
Ini Nga defeated!
There were too many of them. Even if I could have hit one with every shot, which I couldn’t, they would close the distance too quickly. The void rifle, with its periodic fire, was limited to once every four seconds, which was far too slow when facing down so many of them. I fired again, a glancing blow off breastplate near the tuung’s shoulder, and my second shot on him missed, largely because he’d changed direction in response to the fire. The third hit entered by the nose, and he was close enough that the floodlights illuminated the spray of blood. There were other targets, a full two dozen of them visible now, but if we stayed and fought they were going to be on us, and even burning through my bones I didn’t think that I was good enough to survive the encounter, even if I could take a lot of them out with me.
I turned to Amaryllis to tell her that we were fighting a losing battle, and was just in time to catch sight of an explosion from above us that funneled liquid fire down into the room we were in. It was bright blue, cryofire, a flame that burned cold instead of hot, something that I’d thought up while sitting in Mr. Sorbo’s math class, translated in Aerb to a spell known by the pustule mages. I scrambled back away from it, not wanting to get frozen, and shouted to Amaryllis for her to do the same. Some of the liquid cryoflame dripped down past the glass that made up the lower floor, falling into the void below us. It was of a limited duration, but said some horrible things about how it was going upstairs.
I raised my rifle and began firing again, at tuung soldiers who were now close enough that I could see the whites of their eyes, more than a dozen of them in my field of view. They had their spirit blades at hand, and at a shouted command, “Fai!” they were throwing their blades at me, too much makeshift artillery for me to handle.
I burned bones to heal as soon as the blades had disappeared, before I was even fully conscious of where I’d been injured. One had driven through my throat, spilling blood, and another had clipped the side of my head, hard enough that my vision was swimming. It wasn’t until my rifle slipped from my fingers that I realized I’d been hit there too, cutting through some kind of connective tissue there and making me lose my grip, not to mention soaking the rifle with blood. It fell down out of the broken-out windows and tumbling into the void as well, leaving me with only my throwing dagger.
Before they could launch another volley, I moved, pushing my way through the cryoflame even as I was still in the process of healing myself. I saw one of the spirit swords hit me in the side and get absorbed by my armor, with the rest crashing around me. I wasn’t actually sure that I could survive something that went into my brain, if it disrupted my ability to heal myself that severely. I didn’t really have much time to examine that thought as it went through my head though, because the cold of the cryoflame hit me, freezing wherever it touched, like a hand stuck out into frigid, windy, winter air. I could feel my muscles seizing up, even as I pushed out with the warmth of my blood, trying to counteract the chill of the places where the flames had passed through.
I was halfway up the ladder when the rungs beneath my feet shattered, and when I slipped down and put my weight on the upper rungs in full, they broke too, frozen to the point where they’d lost their durability. I burned through all the bones of my foot, which I’d mentally designated as emergency reserve, as I tried to solve the problem with sufficient SPD. It was the most I had ever pulled before, and the world immediately seemed to go into slow motion. I saw and reached for one of the girders that had held the triangles of glass in place, and managed to grab onto it just before I would have fallen past the point of no return. Shards of frozen glass bit into my hand and my shoulder was nearly pulled from its socket, and I gave an inarticulate scream of pain before pushing through it and reaching up with my other hand to secure my grip.
Before I could, a host of spirit blades came flying through the air at me. A few were simply absorbed by the armor, but it had enough white patches to it that I was bound to be hit by at least one. The armor blocked the hit, but I twisted from the force of the impact, which cut my hand more from the glass, and broke my grip.
I only fell ten feet before I came to a stomach-churning stop that squeezed my waist hard enough that I nearly puked. Ten feet of rope connected me to the ship, leaving me as a sitting duck for the tuung throwing their spirit blades. I pulled my dagger from its sheath, then slipped on the leather band that had the sapphire in it, pressing it against the skin of my palm.
I parried away one of the incoming spirit blades, and took more hits to the armor, one of which it didn’t absorb. I was sent spinning and swinging on the rope, making me harder to hit, but making it almost impossible for me to hit a damned thing, not to mention making a second parry nearly impossible.
I closed my fist around the gem and channeled the abstract concept of light through it the next time I saw the tuung as I spun around. Forty-two projectiles shot out, their angles away from me randomized into a fat-angled cone. I didn’t see where they went, but I didn’t need to; the gem magic intuited the targets, through some process that was still a mystery, beyond Do What I Mean.
Ngai Tiou defeated!
Hene Tsa defeated! .
Nguno Tsa defeated!
I watched the mental exhaustion meter tick down to 67/90, and started counting the seconds until I could use it again. I threw the dagger at the nearest tuung I could see, whipping it as hard as I could to try to cross the distance, then used my free hand to grab the rope and attempt to arrest my swaying, spinning motion, but I had made little progress with that by the time my dagger was on its way back.
I took a hit to my foot, where I was still wearing sneakers, and felt the blade slide between my toes. I parried one blade, then a second in short order, burning more speed to do so and nearly reaching the end of the bones that I could use safely. I kept glancing up at the rope, at Ropey, though I didn’t actually have the attention to spare for it, worried that one of the tuung would eventually get lucky and slice through it, leaving me to fall into the endless abyss.
I survived seven more seconds and let loose with another blast of the sapphire’s magic. There were more names in the notifications this time, as the same amount of projectiles fired out toward a smaller number of assailants. I was spinning around slowly enough that I was able to see them hit, blue motes with slender trails curving through the air to find their targets. The tuung had spread out to avoid rifle fire, which was perfectly working against them now, because the shotgun spread of blue could find someone to hit no matter where it was pointed.
A part of Ropey uncoiled from around me, and I reacted in alarm until I realized what he was doing; he made loops for my feet and fashioned a harness, then, with a lurch, dropped me half a foot into a better position to make the climb. I still had to climb using almost purely upper body strength, but once I was past a certain point, the rope reconfigured itself so that I could make my way up more easily. I freed up my hand for long enough to fire another blast of projectiles behind me, not so much as looking at the results, trusting in the magic to do its own work. It was a large gem, and I could feel the drain from using it already, the way that my thoughts weren’t coming as fast, compromising both my judgement and a wide range of my abilities.
“Get up top!” Amaryllis screamed to me as I finally clambered up onto the metal struts, fingers finding fresh glass to cut themselves on. She’d been firing away with the void rifle, showing no particular concern about the white markings of the cryoflame not six inches away from her. There were a few marks on her armor, as well as on the wood and cushions around her, but the immobility plate was proper plate armor, and the spirit blades simply weren’t strong enough to get through. I felt a wave of relief at realizing that she was fine, and probably would be fine unless they physically dragged her off the ship, then went up through where the ladder had been, testing each handhold carefully before putting any weight on it.
I reached the upper level of the ship, barely able to move my fingers, where pandemonium was reigning. Fenn was backed up against the side of the cabin, bow drawn, as one of the tuung approached her with his sword drawn. Grak was fighting off three tuung that had landed on the ship with his axe, moving between them with quick, sure motions, striking at armor and then dodging a sword. He was spattered in blood; and I realized only belatedly that he was fighting one-handed; his left arm ended in a bloody and smeared stump.
I threw my dagger at the tuung next to Fenn, and immediately realized the problem when it was brought to a perfect stop at the back of his head before falling to the ground. If that wasn’t the work of some entad, then he was a still mage, athenaeum trained. Just as I came to that conclusion, Fenn let loose her arrow -- it brought the tuung up short for just a moment, long enough for her to materialize a void pistol in her hand and fire it at him. He fell to the ground, and without missing a beat, Fenn tossed the pistol to me. I caught it just as the notification popped up, and spun toward where Grak was fighting, firing it as soon as it was ready again, as bad an idea as shooting in a melee was.
Muni Tan defeated!
An arrow caught another one in the head, and Grak caught the third under the chin with his axe, cutting partway into his head. As soon as the body hit the floor, Grak spun around, looking for others, and threw his axe off the side of the ship to hit a tuung that had just crested up over the side. The axe returned to Grak's hand a moment later, and he looked off into the open air for a moment, searching for targets.
And suddenly, just like that, there was silence, leaving only a ringing in my ears.
“They’re in retreat,” said Grak, speaking loudly, and still barely audible. He let out a shaky breath and clenched the handle of his axe so hard that his knuckles turned white.
I made to go over to the hatchway to check on Amaryllis, but when I turned to look at it, she was already coming up and being given a hand by Fenn. I burned another bone, focusing on my ears, and after a few seconds could hear properly again, the persistent ringing suddenly quiet and sounds suddenly snapping back into focus. I turned my attention to Grak and administered healing to him; I had no idea what I was supposed to do about the missing hand, except that the wholesale regrowing of bone was beyond my current abilities.
“Pustule mage killed. Still mage killed. Warder still alive and tracking us,” said Grak. “Twenty left, all told.”
“What?” asked Amaryllis, speaking too loud. I went over to her and laid a hand on her shoulder and burned a bone to help her hearing, then dove into my soul to restock while I had the chance; I had burned through two-thirds of the bones I could safely poach from. The conversation was too distant for me to make out from within my soul, but I had little doubt that repairing the bones was the best use of my time. When I came out, the conversation had moved on.
“No, either we broke them or they’re waiting for reinforcements,” said Amaryllis. “Maybe both.”
“We’re within range of the mansion,” said Taft as he emerged from the cabin. His hands were shaking and his pupils were dilated, but he was still smiling, albeit a little too wide.
“How in the godsfuck are you still alive?” asked Fenn.
“I went into the cabin,” said Taft. He looked between the four of us. “This feels like the end, doesn’t it?”
“Just shut your fucking mouth or I’ll kill you myself you weirdo birdfucker,” said Fenn. She had her fists clenched tight, her bow, for the moment, stored back within the glove. I could see the muscles on her neck strained tight.
“Fenn,” said Grak. She opened her mouth to say something in response, then closed it when she looked down at the stump where he was missing a hand.
“What does it mean that we’re in range?” asked Amaryllis. Her voice had gone flat, devoid of all emotion.
A flash of lightning arced out through the sky, briefly blinding me, and the thunderclap that followed behind it deafened me (right after I’d just restored my hearing).
“Warning shot!” yelled Taft, grinning wide. That cemented the idea that something was deeply wrong with him, either the way he responded to stress, or a peculiar streak of fatalism.
He was proven wrong a moment later when a piece of the cabin exploded, sending sharp bits of wood toward us. If I hadn’t been forewarned of cannonfire, I might not have been able to distinguish it as that. The sound from it rolled in just a bit later.
Grak pulled his diagram from within the recesses of his armor, and held it forward to Fenn. It was stained with blood. “We’re not going to make it. You’re going to have to take the shot.” It took me a moment to follow his train of thought; he was thinking that we would do something similar to what we’d done to escape the prison, piling ourselves into the glove, which would then be launched via a time-delayed arrow from the sand bow.
“Wards?” asked Amaryllis.
“Velocity wards will slow it down,” he said.
Fenn turned toward the direction the ship was heading, scowling ahead at the darkness. “I can see it, but just barely. Not a shot I’d want to stake all our lives on, if there’s a ward at the end to fuck things up.”
“Hit the wall above,” said Amaryllis. “I can drop down without much risk, if I have --”
Another bolt of lightning came from the fortress, this one striking the craft. It was there in a flash, so quick that there was no chance of avoiding it, if it were coming for you. The strike hit the cabin, setting things on fire in there and blasting apart the chair, while at the same time melting through the metal of some of the controls.
Fenn made the sand bow appear in her hand, then held out her hand to us. “Masks once you’re in,” she said, speaking loudly in the wake of the lightning strike. “Mary’s on point.”
It was a matter of seconds to get the prepared breathing masks out of the glove, and once the strap was over my shoulder, I took one finger of Fenn’s glove to get the ten-second countdown started which would allow me to get into the glove. I was feeling fried from the repeated use of gem magic, like I’d gone through a three hour test and wanted nothing more than to sit on the couch and watch some kind of TV that didn’t require any mental investment on my part. I almost missed the fact that Taft was standing off to one side, not offered a mask and not requesting one, simply looking out off the side of the ship, down into the Boundless Pit.
There was a part of me that wanted to press the issue, to pull my hand away and demand that we save him, even if he didn’t seem like he really wanted to be saved, even if he was content to die as the ship was destroyed, but it had taken me too long to notice, and then I was inside the black void of the glove, a place so familiar that it was becoming like home.