...also known as "Don't bug me about getting the details right!" (Among other things, the light source(s). I keep forgetting who's carrying a light source. Fix in the revision.)
So our protagonists have run away, but it was all pretty useless because the evil Queen and the crazy alchemist have caught up to them again. This is the last thing I wrote. I'm going to take a break and get back to writing after I put the turkey in the oven.
It was darker outside than I remembered. How long had we been underground?
Caith sat on the ledge running along the entrance. She turned as she heard us emerge. She said, her tone subdued, "At least we will not have to wait for them. Look!" She pointed her chin upwards.
It wasn't dusk. It wasn't a cloud. It was a gargantuan flying rock that blocked out the sun.
The Ark. Its shadow crept down the cliff and sprawled across the rocky banks of the river and over the water. It hung lower in the sky than I had ever seen it before, only clearing the top of the cliff by twenty or thirty feet.
"They didn't need the horses," I whispered, stunned at the sight. "They took the entire Ark and flew after us. I feel almost honored..."
Caith laughed softly, bitterly.
As we watched, it floated silently over us, until the bulk of it hung over the river, while the edge was lined up with the cliff, though still some ways above.
"They know exactly where we are!" hissed Takesh. "Inside! Nothing's changed, just moved up the schedule. Come on!"
He led the way back into the cave. I had to scramble to keep up. I could hear Caith lagging behind us. We passed the trapped section and ducked behind a cluster of rocks on the other side.
"Now what?" I whispered. "Just wait for them to walk into it? We'll need to keep their attention on us."
"I brought this," said Caith grimly. She swung her backpack around and pulled out several pieces of wood and metal which she expertly assembled to form a crossbow. She hooked on the string and wound it tight, grunting at the effort. She set it down, pushing the back end of the stock into her ribs and the front down with her foot, drawing a lever to cock the bow. "One of Sviar's contraptions. Just a toy, but it is deadly enough at short range."
"I didn't know you knew how to use a crossbow," I said. This one was roughly twice the size of the enchanted weapon that Merel the assassin had dropped that fateful night.
"Every child of my village learned as much," said Caith. She loaded a bolt and rested the bow along the top of the rock, sighting down the stock into the trapped chamber. "To keep the sea-raiders at bay."
"Ah," I said. It occurred to me that I had never asked her about her life before she came to the Ark. It was no more her home than it was mine. Well, where ever we came from, we were both likely to die here, on this world. Whether it would happen sooner or later depended on whether we were able to take down Wensel and the Queen. I remembered Merel's spell-tipped bolts. "These two are more than mere sea-raiders. That one bolt won't do much, and you won't have time to reload, anyway."
Caith sighed. "I know this. But I will infuse as much fire as the shaft can bear. I may not have my lady's gifts of power, but I have learned as I can."
Was that a dig at me? "What are you saying? That I haven't? Fine, maybe I should have paid more attention to his crazy alchemist lessons in wizardry, but 'should have' won't help us now."
Unless, that is, I looked into the mirror shard, the one I could still glimpse in the corner of my mind's eye. If I embraced infinite possibility and leaped off the cliff of mortal life.
"I meant no such thing," protested Caith.
"Sure you didn't," I muttered.
"Peace," said Takesh. "This is no time to squabble."
I took a deep breath and shook the thoughts away. "You're right."
"That's because House Hummel uses more direct methods of teaching. They don't wait for the student to be paying attention." Takesh drew the knife from his belt. At least, I had always assumed it was his knife. Now I saw that it wasn't a knife at all, but a blunt-tipped black cylinder, tapered at the ends, with a handle on one end. Takesh spun it theatrically in his hand, then held it up and sighted along the cylinder. A weapon, then? "For instance, they taught me how to use a bio-disruptor pistol. Nasty things. It's meant for emergencies, but I'm beginning to think that's what we have here."
"Yes," I agreed blankly. "Er, what's a 'bio-disruptor pistol'? Does it shoot alchemical fire or something like that?"
"Something worse," said Takesh. "It fires a pellet containing a globule of nanobots designed to rip apart cellular structures and certain organic molecules. The pellet penetrates the skin, after which the casing dissolves and the nanobots are released. They are only active for about thirty seconds. That's more than sufficient in most cases. They can be keyed to specific DNA signatures, but this one isn't currently programmed for it, beyond the default user-coding."
"I'll take your word for it," I said. I could kick myself for not bringing any weapons of my own. All I had was my bare hands and teeth and my belt knife. Useless. Then an idea occurred to me. "Takesh. The lifeforce generators you took from the horses back on the Ark. Can I have one?"
"The what? Oh, the power cells. Right." He found one and handed it to me. He frowned dubiously. "I suppose you can rig it to explode? Be careful. You'll damage 1417, and it won't be able to implement the deep-freeze protocols."
"I should be able to control it better than that," I said. At least, I hoped so. I could almost hear Sviar going through the instructions in the back of my mind. A bit of work on the lifeforce generator with my knife, a needle from my mini sewing kit (I only broke three of them in the process), and silver thread, and I no longer felt so useless. That should wipe the smug look from Caith's face. I glanced secretly at her. Actually, she looked more worried than anything else. Oh well. "It should spit out a stream of fire, along the line of this needle so I can aim it."
"I hope it works," said Takesh.
"Here, I'll test it..." I pointed it behind us.
"No time," whispered Caith. "Listen. I hear voices."
Voices and footsteps. The grating crackle of rocks kicked loose and ground underfoot.
The three of us settled back behind what cover we could. Waiting.
The voices drew closer, the sound bouncing around the corner to us.
"What are you playing at, girl?" Wensel. I heard something scrape against rock, then, "You know it's won't be pretty if we have to drag out by your tails like a pack of cowering dogs."
"Caith!" called the Queen. "Why have you joined these rebellious knaves? I thought better of you. If they've coerced you, I'll have their livers for paste!"
I nearly answered aloud, but bit back the words just in time. I wondered if the others had felt it, this compulsion to stand up and surrender. I held onto my psychic shields. No need to listen for them mentally when we knew perfectly well where they were. Coming closer, coming towards us: that's where.
Now a dim blur of light was visible on the tunnel wall, just beyond our trap. I held my breath and tried not to think too loudly. The light grew wider, resolved into two separate beams.
"Are you here? I can smell your rotting bones, child. Come out before the Queen loses her patience completely," urged Wensel. I heard his stick tapping along the tunnel, and underneath that the uneven scuffle of his footsteps. And then he was visible, a dark silhouette behind the bright glare of the light shining from his right eye. His eye! Mother preserve us, he really had gone and done it. Apotheosis in a lab.